A Satisfying and Overdue Return to London Theatregoing

Barbican SignI’m writing this from my old stomping grounds of London, England, and very happy to be back here for the first time in just over seven years.

Although this is a short trip, theatregoing is naturally still a focus, and so I made sure to include at least a few plays on my itinerary. First up this afternoon was Antigone at the Barbican Centre, in a new translation by Anne Carson. Coincidentally I worked on another Sophocles translation by Carson with The Penny Seats last summer.

It was such a pleasure to be back amongst the appreciative UK theatre crowd, who treats theatre like Americans treat the movies (as a frequent and enjoyable pasttime) and are respectful about the process of putting on the show without being overly gregarious; standing ovations are rare!

As for this production, I feel like it did not fully realize its potential, although there were certainly some strong moments. And perhaps the performance will improve as time goes on, where the cast is proceeding on an extensive tour after the London engagement, traveling to multiple countries over the next six months.

Binoche anchors the story with an expected gravitas. However, I was intrigued and pleased by her choice to play the character much softer than many of her film roles. I feel that she often projects a natural confidence or comfort onscreen in many of her performances, whereas in this role, there was a humbleness and meek quality I picked up on that seemed like a completely new component of her work. As Antigone, she’s not quite as visible in the story as one might think, leaving a large chunk of the story to the work of the ensemble cast.

That was where my challenges with the show came in. Not so much with the ensemble performers, who all worked strongly with each other, although I can’t single them out because I don’t know their other work. The performers worked off a modest but spacious set and a generous lighting design. A key component of the lighting was a large center stage moon that changed as the play went on from smaller to larger. But once it expanded to its full size, it was right in my line of sight from my seat, and kept taking my attention away from the actors, like if a television was on at the same time you’re trying to talk with someone in a casual setting.

Similarly, the production couldn’t seem to decide how much modern touches it wanted to include. A large screen was occasionally used to accentuate the narrative, and led to some dramatic moments, but also felt jarring in its inclusion, like the narrative wanted to add a grander touch and move away from the focus on the words.

To conclude, it’s commendable that the Barbican hosted a production like this and clearly continues its objective to bring a wide global range of theatre to discerning audiences in London. I’m thrilled to have made the effort to see this show and to get a chance to update my experiences with one of London’s most unique artistic venues.

Barbican Flyers


Personal Blog: You Just Don’t Know – A Sharp Focus on the Big Picture

I was intending to make a post referencing The Penny Seats successful opening night last night and my pleasure in being part of the production and initial opening festivities last night. The show enjoyed a sold out crowd and was spotlighted in a new review from Encore Michigan, the state’s premiere source for theatre news and goings – on.

But, as sometimes happens after a festive occasion, I got a curveball in my email as I set off back to Detroit last night, with news that an acquaintance has contracted the Ebola virus.
So that has been on my mind today, as the reality of a serious world health situation hits home and gains a personal face.

Movies, Theatre

Familiarity breeds appreciation

Yesterday brought two currently rare examples of seeing people I know perform onstage – and in film. Initially thought it was the first time that had happened in over two years, but I now recall there have been a handful of occurrences since leaving the Bay Area (where that situation was much more frequent.)

In the afternoon I cheered on friends from The Penny Seats for their annual “Five Bowls of Oatmeal” performance given in collaboration with local non-profit 826michigan, which is itself, coincidentally, an offshoot of a San Francisco-based organization. This event was the culmination of several weeks of writing workshops with 826 volunteers and local middle school aged students, collaborating with the students to write short plays that (VERY IMPORTANT) had to have oatmeal incorporated into them. And the students succeeded! Many writers were in the audience yesterday to see their work and be (humorously and thoughtfully) interviewed in between some of the plays.

Of course for me there was an extra appeal in the performance: seeing my friends take on new and often outlandish roles, like a loaf of bread, a winter storm, a few babies, children who are budding actors, police officers and various types of food (just to name a few…) with everyone clearly having a great time loosening up and honoring the student’s written word. I can’t forget to mention the creative cartoon-style props and thoughtful attention to sound design that were an integral part of the complete performance.

In the evening I again ventured to the State Theater (quickly becoming my most frequently visited local cinema) to see the acclaimed film 12 Years A Slave, featuring college friend Lupita Nyong’o in a key supporting role. I’m not exaggerating when I mention that Lupita has received considerable press attention for her work in this film, with corresponding Oscar buzz. A quick Google search yielded many recent examples including 3 from the past 10 days (!) which I will link to here:

The New York Times highlights Lupita’s fashion sense
The LA Times checks in with Lupita as the Oscar season begins
and most honorably…
The Springfield Republican interviews several of our Hampshire professors about their experiences working with Lupita.

The Republican’s opening comment that “But for those who knew her when she was a student at Hampshire College, the applause is nothing but expected” resonated with me for obvious reasons, as I was always impressed with Lupita’s dedication to her/our college pursuits that I observed, and am happy to observe support for her continuing to come from our alumni community.

Where both of the observations in this post stem from college theatre connections, it makes me feel very grateful for my time at Hampshire College. Relatedly, there’s a good chance I would not be here in Ann Arbor right now if I hadn’t gone to Hampshire… but that’s for an alternate reality science fiction-style post.

The film – 12 Years A Slave? Easily one of the most intense, visceral and harrowing films I’ve ever seen in the movie theatre. I’m sure those feelings were connected to knowing that the story is based on a real event, combined with a sad knowledge of slavery’s reality and heavy footprint in history. It’s a film that generates quiet contemplation (there are no words, really) although I am sure it will be a recurring presence in the film awards season ahead.

An esteemed cast gave power to the characters, with Chiwitel Ejofor in the devastating lead role (and seeming to make a comeback of sorts after being less visible on screen for the past several years), easily rising to the front of Best Actor conversations, while several well-known actors offered supporting portrayals of varying importance to the story.

I had some quibbles with a few technical aspects of the film, but can’t deny that director Steve McQueen brought a powerful tone, emotional resonance and consistency to the story.

“12 Years” is definitely not an easy film to absorb, but one that is clearly a must-see, if you are up for it.


Hold, please!

And so my current production, Little Me, enters tech week. Some people don’t care for this part of the production process, but for me it has always been a favorite. I enjoy – and am inspired by – the feeling of pulling different strands together and creating a finished product. That sensation is especially apt in a show like this, where actors, musicians, designers, technical operators, stage/crew managers and directors all work together on the same goal.

It fits right in line with my three Cs of theatre work: creativity, community and collaboration.

It will also be notable to work in our performance venue, the West Park Band Shell in Ann Arbor. The stage is just outside the main downtown area and has a sense of history to when regional development might have been more modest and less car dependent. And it’s outdoors which brings its own unique splendor.

Tech does have its challenges and can certainly be stop and go at times. But as we go through the work of the next few days I will be thinking of the big picture and the prize of opening the show to a live paying audience – just four days from now.


Corbin knows what Ann Arbor needs to know

Once again this post finds me in the friendly outpost of Ann Arbor, Michigan. I’ve made a short yet enjoyable return to this area, primarily to support my friends The Penny Seats in their current and second-ever stage production, What Corbin Knew by Jeffrey Hatcher. Leap Day brought the second performance and consecutive sell out for the company. They have ingeniously enhanced the second stage “Mosh Pit” of larger local company Performance Network for this show. In fact, I see that the whole turn of events epitomizes my own cornerstone three Cs of theatre work: Community, Creativity & Collaboration.

Working on a script like this demonstrates a skillful broadening of horizons for The Penny Seats. The buoyancy and open-air theatrics of last summer have been exchanged for a tight playing space and awareness of unstated nuances. In several cases, what was not explained (or rather what was imagined) had more impact than plot dialogue and wordplay.

The show tells the tale of Roger Corbin, a successful yet somewhat mysterious contractor. He maintains a swanky skybox in a stadium venue, choosing to use the location to introduce two couples who did not previously know each other. Corbin has no way of knowing how the couples will find each other. The plot begins, and immediately thickens, when he’s the last one there to their introductory party… I could say a little bit more about the plot, but on the other hand, I like surprises.

The five actors worked strongly together, and while they seemed to be still balancing out the pacing of a few scenes/parts of dialogue, I’m confident those elements will tie together by the time the show resumes next week. Actors Melynee Saunders Warren and Russ Schwartz delivered particularly nuanced, vivid interpretations of the seemingly more urbane couple whose reality is a little different than that. Roy Sexton and Rebecca Hardin countered as a couple who seems to lead a perfect suburban existence, but has personal challenges to address. Matt Cameron explored the duality of Corbin, serving as the eyeglasses for the audience, but sometimes throwing those off to suggest Corbin’s individuality. Director Jacqui Robbins clearly led with a specificity and creative approach.

Structurally, the show appears to be a comedy at first glance, but Robbins and the cast succeed in holding a slightly uneasy, uncertain tone for the first act that left me knowing something was going to happen. And yet, I still got enveloped in the farcical comedy, so that when the tone shifted, it came as a genuine surprise.

Design elements made the production into a cohesive whole, most notably in a series of creatively colored outfits for the women, and a crucial photograph. The set itself didn’t need to be large scale, relying on imagination through sound design and use of entrances & exits.

I’m delighted to support and encourage a company like the Penny Seats and hope they continue to find success.