Blog Archives

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.

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Appropriate Behavior and Familiar Faces

For the second year in a row, I had an experience of watching someone I knew “way back when” act in her feature film debut that is attracting significant industry attention and critical praise. This year it is Desiree Akhavan, last year it was Lupita Nyong’o. Both connections stemmed from my undergraduate years at Hampshire College.

Improv ClassAkhavan and I were two of ten students enrolled in a highly memorable (IMO) semester long study of improvisation (pictured at right) at Smith, which maintains its official status as a women’s college but welcomes students from the other four colleges in the region (Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst) to take courses that might augment their studies at their home school.

In this particular class, taught by now professor-emeritus John Hellweg, the setting and the content were equally rewarding and challenging. We met once a week in the college’s boathouse, which doubles as a classroom, and went well beyond the familiar scope of improvising (comedy) into exercises that had considerably more meaning and depth. Elements of mysticism, storytelling, masks and inventive chose your own adventure were all part of the journey. We also expanded the role of the classroom, frequently leaving the boathouse for site-specific exercises such as seen in the photo above, near the college’s campus center. The class inspired me to incorporate elements of improvisation into my directing and character – building work, and I haven’t forgotten about that process today, even though my theatre work tends to be more in the front office than the rehearsal room.

It doesn’t feel easy to put into words what the experience is like to watch someone you knew earlier in their life on a big screen, though I am sure others have had similar feelings. Somewhere between awe, surprise, amusement, pride, acclaim, a little envy, some memory, and ultimately an appreciation. Those feelings all came to my mind as I enjoyed Appropriate Behavior, Akhavan’s feature film debut in a writer/director/lead actor trifecta. The film continues to play at Cinema Detroit this week and I’m pleased that my neighborhood cinema is one of a handful of theatres nationally showing the film.

Akhavan stars as Shirin, a 20-something Brooklyn resident struggling with personal identity issues after breaking up with Maxine (Rebecca Henderson), an at times forceful partner whom she “met cute” at a New Year’s party at some point in the recent past. Shirin aspires for a career in the film business, but after taking on a promising lead from a friend of a friend, she finds herself serving as a teacher to an afterschool program of very young (five year old) aspiring filmmakers. The events, along with her ongoing debate on if and whether to come out to her immediate family, add to a continuing sense of questioning for Shirin. But, with an assertive and bold temperament, she doesn’t sit around and mope, and part of the fun of the narrative becomes going along with Shirin to see what she does next, and how Akhavan’s own fresh writing deftly navigates gender, cultural and social stereotypes and expectations while putting a new spin on them against a contemporary New York City backdrop.

The film’s low-budget backdrop is apparent in some technical aspects of the story, such as lighting and sound, but doesn’t detract from the narrative. I might have appreciated some more clarity in the time shifting aspects of the narrative, but am not sure how that would’ve been best conveyed. As it stood in the finished film, it was sometimes difficult to tell where the action was in the linear timeline, and so it became like a mental jigsaw puzzle to put the different scenes together. Not a problem for me, just could have been smoother. Akhavan showed a committed hand in the direction of the film, eliciting assured and sharp performances from the whole ensemble along with herself. She demonstrates no hesitation in showing herself/the character in a potentially unflattering light, and ultimately, that added to Shirin’s endearing appeal and relatability, and is surely connected to why multiple press outlets have picked up on the film and her current contributions to pop culture.

And so how could I be anything other than impressed to see someone I knew way back when receive acclaim, interest and curiosity for her long-form debut? Here’s hoping that Akhavan has more stories up her sleeves and continues writing and producing in her assured, distinctive voice.

Theatregoing Quartet

Today is #LoveTheatre day over on Twitter. So it’s a perfect time to recount my quartet of theatregoing experiences so far this week, and reiterate my satisfaction that the rest of the week will be spent working shows here at The Hilberry Theatre.

The majority of the show viewing has been right here on campus in midtown Detroit, and it’s a great treat to have so many options right here at my fingertips.

A Song for Coretta, which recently concluded its run at the Studio Theatre, offered a contemporary and fresh voice to the local theatre community. The play tracks the stories of five women who assemble at Ebenezer Church in Atlanta, drawn there by a large communal desire to pay their respects to the recently deceased Coretta Scott King. The play explores the variety of stories that each women possess and an eventual commonality they can all face.

Director Billicia Hines made her Wayne State theatre debut with this production, and she brought a sensitive precision to the staging of each sequence in the play, making a one-act piece have many more dimensions than one might expect at first glance. The capable and committed ensemble of women knew how to express their characters, most vividly seen in a climactic sequence expressing the stories of two of the women who had been hesitant to speak prior to that point.

A second Wayne State show, Peter Pan, concludes its run with three more performances this weekend at the Bonstelle Theatre. It was a pleasure to watch this show alongside an extremely energetic young audience. The script is a new adaptation by author Janet Allard, with a particular focus on the Peter – Wendy relationship and the timeless goal of “never growing up.”

Nearly all of Wayne State’s undergraduate theatre ensemble is given a chance to shine in this production, both in central and supporting roles. Actress Maggie Beson brings impish charm to the stage as Peter, paired with Luke Rose’s dual roguish ways as Captain Hook and Mr. Darling. The set design skillfully morphs from nursery to water to forest over the span of an hour and twenty minutes. And several actors literally reach new heights through the magic of flying wire technology, moving up, down and around through the air.

A third Wayne State show, All In The Timing, will be opening on Friday night; I attended an early dress rehearsal. One look at Max Amitin’s schoolhouse funhouse set lets the viewer know they are in for a wild and fun ride, filled with David Ives’ trademark wit and humor. (you’ll just have to come see the show to find out more about it.)

Finally, our northern neighbor The Ringwald Theatre has debuted a fresh and notable contemporary work. The company is currently offering the Michigan premiere of Stupid Fucking Bird by Aaron Posner, billed appropriately as a contemporary riff on The Seagull. This play was the best thing I have seen at the Ringwald, with a notable and provocative focus on character, atmosphere and wordplay.

A tight ensemble, led by Jonathan Davidson as Con, proceeds to riff on Seagull in contemporary tones, and with occasional knowing asides to the audience. The playwright’s three act structure is also honored, which helped lend an intriguingly epic feel to the evening, with two intermissions and bitter cold and snow outside the storefront doors. Several moments in the play, particularly those that focus on Mash, played by Vanessa Sawson, incorporate winsome music and story through song. However, the story comes back around to dramatic heights, primarily thanks to Kelly Komlen as Emma, who lends imperious height to her maternal role. I hope the word gets out about this production and that it is seen as a major coup for the Ringwald!

The Bonstelle Theatre Kicks Off Its Season With Shakespeare’s ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL

Another Opening Night coming up this evening here at Wayne State.

The WSU Bonstelle and Studio Theatres at Wayne State

William Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well opens the Bonstelle Theatre’s 02 Sydney as Helena2014-15 Season in Midtown, Detroit. Playing October 10th through 19th, 2014, Shakespeare’s classic comedy follows the schemes of a young woman as she strives to win the love of a nobleman.  Tickets for All’s Well That Ends Well range from $10-$20 and are available by calling (313) 577-2960, online at Bonstelle.com, or at the Hilberry Theatre box office at 4743 Cass Avenue on the corner of Hancock Street.

One of Shakespeare’s lesser known comedies, All’s Well That Ends Well is believed to have been written between 1604 and 1605, shortly after King James I took the English throne.  Helena, the low born ward of the Countess of Rousillon, sets her sights on the Countess’ son, Bertram, but he is indifferent to her.  In an attempt to rid himself of her, Bertram agrees to marry Helena only…

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Boeing Boeing Boeing Boeing Boeing Boeing Boing

Detroit’s Hilberry Theatre, where I’m currently spending quite a bit of time, will complete its season opening run of Boeing Boeing this weekend. Their stage won’t be dark for very long as Romeo and Juliet waits in the wings to open three weeks from now.

So before Boeing flies away to another destination, I wanted to offer a few words of appreciation towards this particular production. I also forgot that I wrote a similarly reflective post after the second time I saw the show.

Of the now four times I’ve seen this show presented – in London, Walnut Creek, Wilmington and now here – this was the most humane version I’ve seen. None of the other productions gave me a sense of what the characters might be like offstage or what their wider story is like. None of the other productions suggested the complications of the air hostesses’ lives as they navigated their complex timetables and globe trotting jobs.

Granted, it’s unclear how much my knowing the actors and actresses might be playing into my impressions here, and how much the audience is intended to identify with each character — that latter detail is always a role of the dice — but the attention to character detail seems particularly notable in this Hilberry production. Not to forget that this version also changes the gender of a major character, with satisfying and memorable results.

So I’m sure that the show will ride off into the sunset on the jet stream of appreciation, and here’s hoping it has a cruising final quartet of performances up to Saturday evening.