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.
Inevitably, researching yesterday’s post got me nostalgic about the many good times at various theatres in London. From time to time I particularly recall my good fortune in getting to see Patrick Stewart perform three different Shakespearean roles on West End stages in 2007. This was a time when Stewart had moved back to the UK and was specifically focusing on reconnecting with his theatrical roots at the RSC and with other regional arts organizations. It was also, arguably, a time when he wanted to put distance between himself and his Star Trek/X-Men/general Hollywood pursuits. I don’t think he feels as strongly in the present era, judging by his current status as a resident of Brooklyn and marriage to an American film producer. His social media and pop culture notoriety have reached a new height in recent years thanks to his many pairings with friend Ian McKellen.
In February of 2007, I was very excited to see Stewart onstage for the first time. I eagerly wrote about it in my LiveJournal the next day.
Last night I had a front row seat to see Patrick Stewart and Harriet Walter perform the title roles in the RSC production of Antony & Cleopatra. It was the BEST show I have seen since returning to London, and you can see more info about it here. The energy of the show was incredible, carried by the two leads but ably supported by the rest of the cast. They also all seemed to be having fun with their roles (impressive, as they’ve been performing them off and on for almost a year) and with a keen understanding of what the story meant in a larger context. Those feelings were also accomplished through intriguing usage of set and light design, with Cleopatra’s “lair” being high above and then center stage, the usage of lights to create a unique map on the rear wall which seemed to change shape every so often, and creative music on the sides of the stage, including Buddhist-esque usage of gongs and cymbals near the end of the play, to denote the Egyptian slant. Seeing everyone in the play remain so committed and energetic, as exemplified by a warm glance that Stewart gave to Walter just before they took their center-stage curtain call, extremely impressed me.
A few weeks after I saw Antony and Cleopatra, Stewart moved right on to rehearsing The Tempest, with him starring as Prospero, for a London run. He gave an interview to The Stage theatre magazine (excerpted here) that seemed to imply he wanted to distance himself from his Star Trek fame. I don’t think he is in that same creative place today.
I caught The Tempest with a friend near the end of its run. For some reason I did NOT write about that experience in my LiveJournal. I recall it came at the middle of a particularly tiring week for me, which probably contributed to my lack of interest in writing about it. Stewart was on his own dramatically in that production, not paired with a marquee name and bringing an expectedly high level of gravitas to the role of Prospero. I do recall much emphasis on the isolation of the character and the plot, with windswept drapes across the stage and foreboding sound design throughout both acts of the play.
Nine months later, I was back in London for an “encore” visit to tie up some loose ends from my stint living there and enjoy another abbreviated round of area theatregoing. I was pleased that the plays would include Macbeth featuring Stewart in the title role, and bought a ticket two weeks ahead of time to ensure that I would be able to see the hot – ticket production. I again summarized it on LiveJournal.
Macbeth was a good, strong and edgy production, although perhaps not as spectacular as the critics were claiming it was. Interesting conceptual work (setting it in a Russian hospital, the witches became nurses, the horror film elements of the story were played up) but I had a hard time sustaining my attention at times, either because of an uneven supporting cast (aside from Patrick Stewart’s magestical performance) or knowing the story very well.
Bonus: the following night brought the first time I saw my favorite British actress Diana Rigg onstage. So naturally that experience received more attention in the blog post.
All About My Mother was excellent, anchored by tremendous ensemble-centring performances from Lesley Manville and Diana Rigg, who, as many of you know, remains my favorite British actress. Rigg in particular held her scenes very strongly with a combination of humor and vulnerability, and I loved how she struck completely different dramatic angles for each part of the story. In the earlier scenes, she’s just a strong-egoed actress, but as her character begins to be revealed, she took on deeper resonance with the mothering themes of the storyline and showed vulnerability. Additionally, the direction of the play was inventive, incorporating frequent use of promenade staging, inventive reverse angle curtain calls as part of the story, and a strikingly spare wide-stage perspective towards the end of the play.
November 19 has been a somewhat bittersweet anniversary for the last several years, as this day of the year (in 2007 – now 7 years ago) was the last time I was off the North American continent. This is significant primarily because the preceding 8 years saw a wide range of international travel adventures for me… but nothing since 2007. I’m happy the extended hiatus will be ending next March, and, obviously, to be continuing with domestic travel in the present era.
Nonetheless, the anniversary made me recall blog writing before and after that 2007 international flight, and so I turned to LiveJournal to look at the entries again, and re-post them here. It’s worth noting that my theatregoing on that visit included War Horse, which went on to be an international smash, acclaimed film, and is still playing today in London.
November 19, 2007 – “Country Coda Prior to The Journey Home”
It’s a misty morning here in the suburbs of Surrey. The view from my family friends’ house — of thatched brown roofs, tiny streets, and wide swaths of greenery — is suitably “English” to be visually comforting and a relaxed coda for this trip. I’ll be making the journey over to Heathrow via train and bus in time for a 7pm flight that’s due to return to MA at around 10pm EST.
The last few days in London continued to be jam-packed, between seeing two more plays (War Horse, a family drama, and The Country Wife, a raucous Restoration comedy), going around to other parts of the city I hadn’t visited before, including Speaker’s Corner and the area around Spitafields’ Market, and spending time with friends. It concluded with some souvenir shopping yesterday morning and while it was slightly disconcerting how easy it was to $pend (as is often the case in London…) I’m confident I made good purchases of mostly books. I was struck by a wave of sentimental nostalgia, since I’m not sure when the next time I’ll be back here in England will be. However, as was the case when moving out of London in April, it’s double-sided by the reality here of high costs of living, high taxes, vast difference in standards of living and an increasingly tight-knit government…but overall, it’s intriguing to ponder, and I did devote some research to possible theatre grad schools back here, just to consider.
I’m grateful to have been able to take the time for this trip and, as always, to have made the most of the endless artistic experiences here.
November 20, 2007 – “Home in Massachusetts and Staying for Awhile”
I got back to the States around 10pm last night and had a remarkably easy travel/flight process – the speediest airport check-in I’ve ever had (at Heathrow Airport of all places), a cordial customs greeting, somewhat tasty airplane food, and decent films to watch. Even an hour’s delay in taking off from Heathrow didn’t make the flight late getting to Boston.
Am experiencing the usual slightly surreal feelings of being home again, especially where I was walking around rural England yesterday and am in rural Beverly today. I’m sure the adjustment process will ease over the course of this week…
Early on in my fall 2004 London studies, I got to know the West End’s equivalent of the TKTS booth in New York City. The British version is located in Leicester Square, the heart of central London, and, at the time, advertised its daily deals using a mix of paper and digital advertising. (I would assume they are all digital by this point in time.)
One day I “went round” as they say in London and saw that there was a 10 pound ticket deal for a show that night. I hadn’t yet equated that the price of the ticket was a fair judgement in quality, and so I purchased the ticket for Murderous Instincts: The Salsa Musical. Over the course of the day I became aware — maybe I saw a feature article or two — that the musical had been in “development hell” and wasn’t expected to be well – received. I think I had a few misgivings about going to the performance, but ultimately decided to attend. After all, it was at the Savoy, a storied location in London, and had to have some redeeming qualities, right?
What a train wreck! The musical closed not long after that night, and I was slightly embarrassed to have bothered to attend. Despite the artistic troubles, or perhaps because of them, they had a large advertising budget, and I remember it took some time for their posters to disappear from the several Tube stations I’d seen them in.
For some reason, now 10 years later, I can still clearly recall a handful of moments and brief musical snippets from the show. Was it so bad it was good? An oddly fascinating experience to see such a messy show in the West End? Apparently the star, Nichola McAuliffe, referenced the experience in a later book. One review expressed the broad negative sentiment.
I’m sure these lasting memories of Murderous Instincts are some version of “can you believe that! I can’t either, but I can still tell you about it.” I wish that I hadn’t bothered to see that particular musical, but it was a great learning exercise about the quality of productions and an early clue about the relationship of production, marketing and PR.
Since this has been a stellar year for keeping up investment in this blog, and taking it to steadier heights, I’ve decided to attempt to maintain a writing series for the remainder of 2014. Going off of some current popular social media trends, I will be presenting a weekly Theatrical Throwback Thursday and Film Flashback Friday, which also tie in to the two ongoing themes of this blog.
First up for the theatre section: a look back at my time studying at British American Drama Academy in London, England, which began ten years ago yesterday.
It’s wholly accurate to say this experience solidified my partnership with the theatre. Never before had I been in such an immersive and appreciative theatrical environment, with countless productions going on across the city of London and a constant awareness of how the craft could impact us built right in to the curriculum. Fiona Shaw dropped by for a masterclass, Daniel Evans came two weeks later, our teachers casually spoke of Derek Jacobi, Judi Dench and other acclaimed thespians. I had a weekly tutorial session with a character actress who’d had a well – known guest appearance on my favorite episode of a certain cult 1960’s television show, but I never got up the courage to ask her what being on the set was like.
We had regularly scheduled trips to see the latest theatrical offerings that season in London, with some being immediately memorable and some not so much. I was thrilled by surprise changes in the schedule, such as a trip to the Cheltenham Festival of Literature near Oxford that brought about a brief meeting with Neil LaBute, whose The Shape of Things I was preparing to direct the next semester back at Hampshire College, along with a quick meeting with acclaimed actress Joanna Lumley. All of this was jammed in to the first eight weeks of the program, when the focus was on conservatory – style classes during the day and the nights and weekends devoted to additional theatergoing and getting to know various attractions in Greater London… and quite a bit of going out on the town. All of us crammed in to an apartment building in fashionable St. John’s Wood, just two blocks from the local Tube station and in the midst of the city’s premier American expat neighborhood.
And then we took a weeklong break, just as the Election 2004 madness was nearing its climax back home, and the Red Sox had won the World Series for the first time in 86 years. I chose to go far, far away from London (and am very glad I did) but ought to have considered a more spontaneous group adventure, such as joining several guys in the program who went to the south of Italy. “The continent” continued to be our playground as we enjoyed what came to be seen as the heyday of cheap flights from the UK, just before climate change became a buzzword and various costs of living started a steadier and sharper increase that continues to this day – as I currently see in considering a trip back to the UK for spring break 2015.
We reconvened back at school ready to spend the remaining six weeks of the program focused on intensive production, where all of us had roles spread out over three full length shows scheduled to be performed over three consecutive nights at an off-West End/Fringe venue on the other side of the Thames River. One group of performers tackled Singer, another explored The Visit, and the third group, including me, examined Roberto Zucco, channeling intensity and French – American anxiety in a story of a disaffected protagonist and the individuals he encounters.
One day during the production process, The Facebook became available to students enrolled at Hampshire College and with a HAMPSHIRE.EDU address, and so I signed up for an account at the urging of my London classmates, with no knowledge of the cultural institution (and national obsession?!) the site would one day become.
For some reason those rehearsal – based days are less clear in my memory than the class experiences, although I warmly recall the excitement of rising to the crescendo of the performance, and not being shy of giving it our all since it was just one night only. And then everyone had to pack up and head out the next day, leading to a random experience for me of traveling on the London Underground with a bathrobe over my jacket, since there was nowhere else to put it in my luggage.
I stuck around Europe through the Christmas holiday in 2004, eventually returning to the US on the 28th of December after an unusual “Eurotrip” with Contiki tours where I was the only American in the group of 30 or so young people, and the trip was half sights I had seen before (Paris, Rome) mixed in with some new territory (Amsterdam and Munich) while traveling by bus throughout the journey. It’s an understatement to say it was a very wistful flight home to Massachusetts.
What’s interesting to me now, ten years later, is what the BADA experience led to, or, alternatively, what I might not have done if I had not been accepted to BADA and/or chose not to attend, I most likely…
– would not appreciate or be as immersed in the theatre world as I am in the present day.
– would never have moved to Marin County or (maybe) anywhere in the Bay Area.
– would never have moved back to London in the first half of 2007 for a second, more independent stint of theatre life.
– would not have explored Europe to the extent that I have.
– would not have seen as much of the UK.
– would not have met a dizzying array of well – known actors, including, but not limited to: Diana Rigg, Judi Dench and Eileen Atkins (I really ought to have written them down at some point.)
– would not have discovered Humble Boy, a play by Charlotte Jones that kicked off my Div III experience at Hampshire the following fall.
– would not have geekily and happily explored filming locations used in The Avengers and other 1960’s television shows.
– might not have embraced the Facebook world as an early adapter.
– might look at theatre from more of a distance, without an understanding of the immersion and cultural relevance of the art.
In this case it is abundantly clear that the choices we make and the opportunities we get have long shadows and lasting effects, and I continue to be grateful for my time at BADA.
Again cut and pasted from live journal. I’d like to combine these recent two archival entries into a “then and now” post to be made here on this blog.
One of the best things about this particular week was that each day was theatre centered,
On Monday night, I caught one of the final performances of Therese Raquin, a mesmerizing thriller that was the best directed show I’ve seen since returning to London. Last year I was similarly impressed by Pillars of the Community done by the same director. The show was preceded by an intriguing Q&A session with the two main female stars, and it was fascinating to see them “out of character” and then completely inhibiting their roles just 45 minutes later.
Tuesday night I finally made it down to the Battersea Arts Centre, a boiling pot of contemporary theatre work. Every Tuesday night they have an “after-hours masterclass”, which is essentially a short lecture about a different topic of theatre-dom. This week it was playwriting, taught by Julian Fox, and I was pleased to get back in the groove of creative writing, crafting a stream of consciousness piece and then editing it down to something more concise. It will also likely be an effective precursor for a “play in a day” writing workshop which I’ll attend all day tomorrow at the Soho Theatre. On the way home I ran into a friend from Hampshire on the tube (the number of coincidences needed to make that work was extraordinary) and we exchanged contact info to hang out sometime soon.
Earlier on Tuesday night, I got a 24-hours notice email about a special question and answer session that would happen the following evening at the Old Vic Theatre. It sounded like a perfect way to get more professional advice about theatre company work, so I emailed back that I wanted to attend. Wednesday mid-day brought a reply that the event was “regretfully fully booked”. On hearing that news, I felt both annoyed that they had given such short notice, and also ambitious and daring – I really wanted to hear what those people had to say. So I decided to go anyway.
Getting into the event was much easier than expected; I simply walked up to the stage door of the theatre, signed in, and then went upstairs to a top floor rehearsal room, and joined the crowd already there to hear the panel. Their advice was fascinating and informative – some of it familiar, others consisting of pr/marketing/publicity angles I had not considered.
Thursday night brought a trip down to the Shunt Theatre, located underneath London Bridge railway station, to see my former professor Mick Barnfather’s show that he directed, called Bitches Ball. I’d seen an earlier version of the play when I was here in December, 2005, which had been focused on the physical comedy and overly grotesque elements of the storyline. Mick had let me know that this version was quite different, and I was impressed how he (and the actors, presumably) had changed the focus of the play completely. They went from deriding the main character, Mary, to humanizing her and making her story captivate the audience as she had various misadventures along her career track to being an actress. I thought that some deliberate parallels were drawn to current “actresses” who are in fact more famous for only being in the gossip pages. The performances were typically high-energy and as they’d just finished a UK tour, I sensed a contentness of being back in London.
The SPACE for the show was INCREDIBLE. I walked into a dimly lit long corridor that had the appearance and atmosphere of a subliminal cathedral, with very little lighting and lots of stone and some brick in the walls. I could see a light at the end of the tunnel (literally) which turned out to be the performance space, a large room converted into the equivalent of an indoor ampitheatre. One rounded the corner to reach the bar area, also carved into the walls with ease, and flanked by numerous tables lit by candles, as there was very minimal natural lighting in the entire club. It felt like a film set inhabited by extras there to enjoy the atmosphere (instead of just to be seen) and I have full intentions of going back there for a drink and show again sometime.
Tonight it’s back to the Donmar Warehouse for a production of Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman with Ian McDirmid (better known as Star Wars’ Emperor Palaptine) taking the lead role.
Tomorrow I’ll return to the Soho Theatre for a special “write a play in a day” workshop, which should be exciting and a fun opportunity to meet some like-minded peers.
On Sunday afternoon, am planning to see the final performance of Rock’n’Roll by Tom Stoppard. I hope it will be better than the last play of his I saw, which was the aptly named Travesties in SF.