Wednesday, July 23, 2014

How history plays

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All the Way puts a Broadway spin on OSF's 'American Revolutions'

It wasn't part of his plan to direct on Broadway, but after six seasons as Artistic Director of the oldest and one of the largest regional theaters in America, Bill Rauch was the acclaimed director of a Tony Award®-winning hit.

Robert Schenkkan, Bill Rauch, Bryan Cranston
Unlike many regional Artistic Directors who reach the Rialto, Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Rauch didn't take administrative leave to freelance in New York. He wasn't riding an ill-fitting vehicle out of subscription-subsidized, non-profit security and into heady commercial waters. The play, Robert Schenkkan's All The Way, had solid artistic pedigree. It was one of the first six scripts to emerge from "American Revolutions," an ambitious, audacious, decade-long commissioning program launched shortly after Rauch took the OSF reins in 2008.

Before that, Rauch had been the Artistic Director of the Cornerstone Theatre Company, which he co-founded in Los Angeles with Alison Carey and Amy Brenneman in 1986. He and Carey, who joined him in Ashland as Program Director for American Revolutions, would oversee awarding 37 play commissions. That number, the same as plays in the Shakespeare canon, signaled their desire to make a significant and lasting contribution to theater.

"Part of what we wanted to do with the canon of American Revolutions plays," Rauch said by phone a few weeks before the Tony Awards, "was to tell stories on a big canvas, and contribute not just to the professional body of plays that are produced, but to the amateur canon – the plays that high schools and colleges will be doing years down the line."

The commissions, to veteran and emerging writers, came with a minimum of guidelines and a large helping of respect.

"We believe in you: We believe in your voice," was Rauch's simple message. "If you're interested in the idea of moments of change in United States history, you figure out what you'd like to write about."

As of our conversation in May, 21 of the 37 commissions had been handed out and six had been produced or were scheduled. See full list on OSF site.

In addition to All The Way, the most familiar in Southern California is Culture Clash's American Night: The Ballad of Juan José, which premiered in 2010, was then staged at American Repertory Theater, and arrived here in a co-production by La Jolla Playhouse [where Theatertimes reviewed it] and the Kirk Douglas Theatre beginning in February 2012.

Others include Ghost Light by Jonathan Moscone and Tony Taccone in 2011; Frank Galatti's adaptation of an E.L. Doctorow's The March, produced by Steppenwolf in 2012; Party People by UNIVERSES – Steven Sapp, Mildred Ruiz Sapp and William Ruiz, a.k.a. Ninja, also in 2012; and The Liquid Plain by Naomi Wallace last year. This season's The Great Society, by Schenkkan, is a sequel to All The Way, but not commissioned through "American Revolutions."

Susannah Schulman, Reed Birney,
Bryan Cranston, Betsy Aidem at ART
"It was commissioned by Seattle Rep," explained Rauch, who again directs. "We want to keep spreading the wealth, but it was heavily developed by OSF. So we certainly consider it part of American Revolutions, but it doesn't count as one of the 37. It's like 37B. We're premiering it here in Ashland [INFO] and then Seattle Rep will produce both plays – All the Way and The Great Society – for the first time ever in rep this November and December, with mostly the OSF cast supplemented by some of Seattle's great actors.

Anytime a production makes the leap to Broadway, casting changes occur and in the case of All The Way, the opportunity arose for Bryan Cranston to join the cast as LBJ. Though his credentials have been eclipsed by two high-visibility televisions series – "Malcolm in the Middle" and "Breaking Bad" – Cranston is an exceptional stage actor.

"Bryan is a hardworking actor who respects the stage," confirmed All The Way cast member Susannah Schulman, who joined the show in Cambridge. "He's an awesome guy: laid back, generous, and nice as can be. The best you would want in a celebrity."

I was convinced back in 2006, when the Geffen staged Sam Shepard's God of Hell [review], out of which Cranston's demented character rose with consistent clarity otherwise lacking throughout the production. With "Breaking Bad" the most discussed show in years, Cranston's appeal is impossible to separate from the play's box office success. Still, as insiders who saw both Cranston and originator Jack Willis are quick to point out, the play is an achievement on its own merits.

"I like All The Way," Manhattan Theatre Club's Jerry Patch told me. "I saw it in Ashland, then in Boston, and then in NYC, and chatted with Bill about it each time. It breaks some new ground, and it works. Cranston is wonderful, and Jack Willis at Ashland was equally fine – so it's a good part. What I like about it most is that it opens a door for the kind of history plays about kings Shakespeare wrote that can be pulled from American history. Other than Lincoln, we haven’t done much of that in plays of size and with social/moral/historical implications."

For Rauch, he sees it as an institutional success, flowing back to the commissioning, the company, the community, and the legacy of which he is currently principle custodian.

"It's really helpful," he told me. "Absolutely. And I certainly don't think every play we do at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival belongs on Broadway, or that that's the ultimate aspiration for anything we do, but it's one exciting way to share a play with the larger world. And the fact that it's a 20-actor history play, straight play, not a musical, that has found success on Broadway, is exciting.

"One of our hopes – dreams – was that the pieces we were developing and premiering would go on and have a longer life elsewhere. To have a play be successful on Broadway increases the likelihood that it will be done a lot more."

Read the updated interview in "Theatertimes Intermissions: 15 Minutes with Bill Rauch."

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Turning the hood around

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Six new plays mark anniversary of verdict in George Zimmerman trial

On the anniversary of the jury verdict that found George Zimmerman not guilty in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, New York's Public Theater and L.A.'s Center Theatre Group presented a program of short plays entitled Facing Our Truth.

Hoping "to incite serious discussion in our collective communities around these urgent issues," New York-based New Black Fest had commissioned six playwrights to write 10-minute plays "on the topic of Trayvon Martin, race and/or privilege."

Students at 'Facing Our Truth' | Ryan Miller
Center Theatre Group held its staging at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. CTG's Education Department got involved with a Saturday, July 12 matinee for students. Some of them were brought back for a post-show discussion on the impact of the crime, trial, and play that followed the public matinee on Sunday, July 13, the one-year anniversary of the acquittal. The Public Theater, with separate cast, directors, and features, held its program that evening in New York.

Facing Our Truth was promoted to the press as a reading, but except for one or two occasions where an actor carried a few pages which likely held last-minute rewrites, directors Shirley Jo Finney and Michael Matthews had their ten actors solidly off book. By calling it a reading, the theater activated the universal policy that protects plays-in-development from premature criticism – or praise – by theater critics applying full-production standards. While it does defang the reviewers it may discourage attendance by some who, like a couple of longtime theatergoers, subscribers, and supporters I recently met, never attend what they assumed to be substandard fare.

It is not only possible but important, however, to cover, without a thumb up or down on the merits of the scripts, an event that ended with the audience on its feet for a well-deserved ovation.

The three plays in the first half were Winter Miller's Colored, in which passengers on a New York subway are drawn into a discussion about income disparity; Dominique Morisseau's Night Vision, in which we meet a husband and wife before he slips into a sweatshirt and out for something she needs at the store; and Dressing by Mona Mansour and Tala Manassah, about a mother and son disagreeing over the messages his clothes send.

After the break, it was No More Monsters Here by Marcus Gardley, a high-concept satire on racial identity; The Ballad of George Zimmerman by Dan O'Brien and composer Quetzal Flores, which incorporated transcript and testimony to look at the original confrontation, killing, and court verdict; and Some Other Kid by A. Rey Pamatmat, which imagines a teenager heading out to buy some candy and drinks for two friends he just helped get together.

The hooded sweatshirt – or hoodie – that Martin wore the night he was killed had been part of why Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch coordinator for a gated community, challenged the 17-year-old that night. For Zimmerman, that hood had removed Martin's individuality and identity as completely as if it had covered his face. It was a unifying symbol for the program of plays, as it had been for the thousands who demonstrated following the murder and verdict. Another common element in several plays was to let the audience get to know a character, with his rich individuality and identity, and then send him out to become faceless in the eyes of authorities.

In reading fashion, Finney and Matthews brought actors to center stage while the others watched from upstage platforms of varying heights. Richard Peterson's lights and Adam Phalen's sound design helped create locations for the actors' movement. Lamps from the recent production of Kimber Lee's different words for the same thing set, were recalled to add their illuminating symbolism from the sides of the stage.

The excellent ensemble of veteran actors was made up of Lorenz Arnell, Demetrius Grosse, Deidre Henry, Aaron Jennings, Ameenah Kaplan, Erick Lopez, Linda Park, Deborah Puette, Tessa Thompson, Kevin Yungman. While Henry, Park, Puette, and Thompson have all earned praise in past Theatertimes' reviews, these readings provided welcome introductions to the others among whom Grosse and Kaplan were especially impressive.

Whitney Oppenheimer designed the costumes and cast member Kaplan choreographed movement and added percussion on the Ballad of George Zimmerman.

Thanks to Keith Josef Adkins, director of The New Black Fest for instigating this fine program, to The Public and CTG for endowing it with their resources, and to the onstage artists who once more proved the "reading" is the best kept secret in theater. You can hear Adkins speak discuss the project on a Soundcloud podcast

And, if you're getting excited about play readings, read this post about one earlier this year.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Down for the Count

Directions to Eugene O'Neill's Monte Cristo home and childhood.

Between June 28 and July 12, some aspiring theater critics gathered in Waterford, Connecticut for the annual National Critics Institute, a ‘boot camp’ for working writers interested in reviewing theater. The two-week program sits in the middle of the O’Neill’s six-week musical and play development festival at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, a cluster of century-old structures that house theaters, offices, meeting rooms, residences and a bubbling watering hole named Blue Gene's.

It's located a short drive from Monte Cristo, Eugene O'Neill's boyhood home. Six years ago, I was part of the nine-member Class of 2008, which marked the NCI’s 40th Anniversary. We ranged in age from 23 to 55 and in point-of-origin from Vermont to California.

I had come the farthest, by either measure.

It is no exaggeration to say that within 24 hours of arriving on campus, we had penetrated deep into the heart of American drama.

Our first morning, July 8, was to be spent getting the stage director’s perspective on theater productions from J Ranelli, a previous Interim Executive Director at the O’Neill. His classroom would be Monte Cristo Cottage, Eugene O’Neill’s boyhood summer home and the setting for Ah, Wilderness, his only comedy, and Long Day’s Journey Into Night, a searing autobiographical exposé.

The two-story New London cottage, a few miles east of Waterford, has the same wide porch that young O’Neill looked from a century ago. The hedge he would have seen (the one Edmund and his father trim in Journey) still grows at the bottom of the raked front yard. Beyond it, across narrow Pequot Avenue, are more old homes and Connecticut’s Thames River. The O’Neills sold the house in the 1920s. Two subsequent owners made no substantial renovations in 50 years and, in 1971, it was declared an Historic Landmark. Three years later it was purchased by the O’Neill Theater Center and used for meetings and a library for scholars and artists to read O’Neill documents in the rooms where he once read. In 2005 it was opened to the public for tours and study.

Ranelli was alone in the house when we arrived and greeted us like its proud custodian. He led us to a small, paneled sitting room where windows on three sides blazed with morning light. We gathered folding chairs around a center table and opened our copies of Long Day’s Journey to O’Neill’s instructions for how the set should look. The stage directions were extremely detailed, which seemed odd for a play that his will would stipulate could never be performed, only read, and not until 25 years after his death.

As it turned out, only three years after his death in 1953, his widow, Carlotta O’Neill, who had received the play as an anniversary present, sanctioned its production in Sweden, New Haven, and New York. The impact was extraordinary. José Quintero’s Broadway staging earned O’Neill a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1957 and set off a string of revivals that re-established him as a founding father of American dramatic literature.

O’Neill’s father, James, had purchased the home when he was a superstar of the American stage in the latter 1800s. In the 1870s, his acting was so respected that Edwin Booth, considered the greatest American actor of that century, alternated lead roles with him in a production of Othello. According to O’Neill: Life with Monte Cristo by Arthur and Barbara Gelb, that was “a ritual only followed, as a rule, when two stars of equal fame occupied the same stage together.”

By the time Eugene was a boy, however, James’ fear of poverty, love of popularity, or both had reduced his repertoire to a single, money-raking role: The Count of Monte Cristo. For years, he accompanied his father on his tours across the country, watching the same show, night after night from the wings.

Eventually, normal teenage resentment for a parent grew into a maturing writer’s resentment of a great talent squandered on hollow mass entertainment. It sent the son into diametric opposition, writing plays that explored what people really experienced. If in the process they exposed his father's folly, so much the better.

ln a very real way the birth of true American drama at the dawn of the 20th Century was happening in this one family. O’Neill’s writing, which would provide our nation’s first authentic stage literature, would be as much in response to his father as to the art he represented. Two generations of one family would literally straddle the divide over a dinner table, arguing or fuming in silence in a room that became the crucible of American drama.

And on this sunny morning in summer 2008, we nine critics in training were in that room, around that table.

As we read Journey’s stage directions aloud, a sentence each in turn, Ranelli occasionally had us stop and look around the room. It was an exact match, down to the book titles.

Ranelli wanted us to hear a section of the text and picked the group’s oldest male to read the part of James Tyrone, the character based on James O’Neill, and a DC-area freelance writer with acting experience to read Mary Tyrone, based on his mother. We worked through the opening pages several times, stopping repeatedly as Ranelli led the group on a search for more nuance to work in our performance.

Zev Valancy and Scott McCarrey, two writers in their 20s with plenty of fresh stage experience (McCarrey had recently performed Shakespeare in England), had been assigned the parts of the Tyrone sons. Ranelli had them make their entrance from the actual adjacent room that O’Neill had in mind. They arrived in a cloud of laughter that caused their father, assuming they were laughing at him, to react to with anger. They bounded in, once more filling the old house with youthful energy.

I read James’s lines, hiding my resentment for the wife and sons I was sure were conspiring against me, and as the words came out of my mouth I felt the old sitting room stirring around us. Ranelli had re-animated the spirits of this pivotal theater family in the very site of American drama’s ‘big bang.'

And, for just a moment, I wasn't a neophyte critic reading from the American theater’s Book of Genesis. I was home with my family on New London’s Pequot Avenue, both father and star of stage. And they were going to show me respect.

An earlier version of this article appeared in a 2010 Theatertimes newsletter.

Photos: Top, Today the room appears just as it did more than a century ago; bottom, the NCI Class of '08, with program directors. Left to right in back, Sarah Roquemore, Scott McCarrey, Charlotte Sommers, Helene Goldfarb, Dan Sullivan, Cristofer Gross, Lauren Yarger, and Lori Ann Laster, and front row, Zev Valancy, Pasha Yamotahari, and Carrie Chapter.