Category Archives: Theater News, NYC
After attending the last performance of the superb Temple of the Souls at the New York Musical Festival, I had the opportunity to conduct an email interview with its director/producer/writer Lorca Peress who discussed how she and her team evolved the Broadway quality, award-winning production which was honored in its competitive acceptance at the New York Music Festival. (see my review of the production by clicking here)
I am most curious to know how this wonderful production evolved. I know that is answering so many questions with one. This would cover.
How did you, Anita and Anika work the collaboration for the book?
Anita Velez-Mitchell was born in Vieques, Puerto Rico in 1916. Anita is Anika’s and my grandmother. Anita and I began working on the opera libretto of Temple of the Souls in 2009 through my theatre company MultiStages’ Script Development Series. We presented a reading of the script (no music existed) and received a standing ovation from the audience of over 100 people. In the audience, were 25 members of one of the Taino tribes in New York City. Anita had been working with the Taino Cacique chief on cultural authenticity, and he and his tribe members jumped to their feet at the end of the reading. During the Q & A that I moderated with guests Anita and the Cacique, one of the audience members said, “We are all descendants of Guario and Amada.” They applauded and I knew then that we had something special, novel, and important.
Anita asked a composer to write music to the opera libretto of Temple of the Souls (it took him one year to write 2 arias), and he said it was too big a task for him to complete given her advanced age. In 2010 Anita suggested we contact Anika and Dean to be the composers. Anika had written music for several MultiStages productions, but Dean had never been involved in or composed for musical theatre. I flew out to meet with them in Los Angeles, and pitched/performed the script, discussing what type of song might exist here, who sings it, etc. They wrote the Temple finale first. They sent it to Anita and me by email. We listened to the song and burst into tears. We knew this was it!
We decided a musical would be better than an opera, and Anika began working with Anita on the lyrics (much done via phone as Anika and Dean live in LA). Anika eventually joined on the development of the book, and she and Dean wrote several of the songs/lyrics independently as well.
Who had the original idea for the story and how was it developed?
On Anita’s last trip home to the Island, she visited the caves and El Yunque Rain Forest. She told me she felt the cries of the Taino souls and heard their tears dripping from the stalactites. She felt their spirits surrounding her and wrote a poem called “Totem Taino,” which she then turned into an opera libretto (described above). Anita had always been fascinated by the history of the Taino people, but for me, a Puerto Rican born in NYC, I was not as aware of the culture as I wish I had been.
Once I read Anita’s story, I went on a research mission. After reading books and finding information online, I flew to Puerto Rico to meet with Anita’s friend, Dr. Ricardo Alegria in San Juan. Dr. Alegria is an anthropologist and archaeologist, Wikipedia calls him the “father of modern Puerto Rican archaeology.” I was honored to interview/question him in his home surrounded by relics, art, and the history of our people. I was also given a private tour of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture which he founded, and learned even more. My trip to the El Yunque Rain Forest was eye-opening. I saw where the Tainos had taken refuge in the mountains, and where thousands took their lives by jumping off the mountain cliffs. Back in New York, I visited the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian which also has a good Taino collection (though not as extensive as the one at the Institute in Puerto Rico) and Museo deo Barrio, which I had been to numerous times.
One of the most fascinating things I have learned about the culture is the great debate over how many Tainos existed, and how many were killed, died of disease, or took their lives. We have seen records as large as hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands killed. The Sixteenth Century census was limited because so many people hid in El Yunque and were never counted. Suffice it to say, the Spaniards decimated the majority of Tainos. Those who live as Tainos today are mostly genetically mixed. But, how one personally identifies and lives is what keeps traditions and culture alive. And today there are thousands of Puerto Rican and Dominican natives in NYC and on the islands who live their lives as Taino.
As multicultural director, it is important that we understand the responsibility of stepping into another culture and world. I feel blessed and honored to bring elements of the Taino history to life in our musical, which has received great support and praise from the Taino community in NYC. Anita and I each received a Taino Award, and were honored at a Taino Areyto at the Museo del Barrio.
Some background on development:
TWO SHOWCASES AND AWARDS – 2011-14
AEA Showcase in December 2011 at the West End Theater, NYC, produced by MultiStages, directed by Lorca Peress. Talk backs with: Taíno tribe member Jorge Estaban, lecturer and co-curatory of The Museum of the American Indian Smithsonian Institution; and Cacike Cibanakan (NY Taíno Tribal chief) and members perform a music/dance demonstration. We were honored at an Areyto (a Taíno ceremony) at the Museo del Barrio.
- MultiStages receives Manhattan Community Arts Fund Grant from LMCC/DCA.
- 4 HOLA Awards (Hispanic Organization of Latin Actors): 2012 Gilberto Zaldivar Outstanding Production Award, Outstanding Choreography and Lighting, Special Recognition for Music for the production.
- Anita Velez-Mitchell and choreographer Milteri Tucker receive the Taíno Areyto Drama Award.
AEA Showcase in September 2014 at Theatre for the New City, NYC, produced by MultiStages, directed by Lorca Peress. Talk Back and Taíno musical demonstration with Roman Guaraguaorix (Redhawk) Perez, Cacique Chief of the Maisiti Yukayeke Taíno, a tribe of the Taíno Nation in the Bronx, NY.
- MultiStages receives Manhattan Community Arts Fund Grant from LMCC/DCA.
- Six Innovative Theatre Award Nominations: Outstanding Production (MultiStages and Co.), Outstanding Original Music (Dean Landon and Anika Paris), Outstanding Original Script (Anita Velez-Mitchell, Lorca Peress, Anika Paris), Outstanding Innovative Design (masks, Marla Speer), Outstanding Costume Design (Marla Speer), Best Lead Actress (Debra Cardona).
- Lorca Peress receives a Taíno Areyto Drama Award at the NYC Bronx Museum of Art in recognition of her work in support of the Taíno culture and its legacy.
- Anita Velez-Mitchell receives the proclamation from the Governor of Puerto Rico at the memorial concert in her honor, with songs from Temple of the Souls.
2016 – DIVERSITY IN THE ARTS CONCERT
We are invited to perform selections from Temple of the Souls with narration, at the Diversity in the Arts event at Hunter, NYC.
2017 – NEXT LINK PROJECT OF NYMF 2017
We are chosen as a Next Link Project for NYMF (New York Musical Festival). Only 10 Next Link Project musicals were chosen from over 200 submissions. An interesting marketing phenomenon to note, 80% of the ticketing audience for Temple of the Souls is of Latino heritage. We are highlighted on several Taino Facebook pages, and have a broad audience of followers over the years.
When the songs were created, were they added after the book was first created? Or was it a holistic process?
The majority of song lyrics came from the book. We continued updating the script, and new songs and lyrics were added.
How many years were you working on this together? separately?
Anita died in 2015. Lorca and Anika began reworking the book in 2016. Anika and Dean joined the project in 2010, Lorca and Anita began collaborating in 2009, Anita completed the first draft of the libretto in 2007.
Had you always planned to bring it to NYMF?
After the two showcases I produced and directed in 2011 and 2014 through MultiStages, we wanted another opportunity to present the piece and introduce it to theatre producers. I applied to NYMF and we were accepted as a Next Link Project (only 10 were chosen as Next Link Projects from over 200 submissions, which included a dramaturg and a $5000 grant toward the NYMF production).
What was the casting process like?
We attended a NYMF open casting in May, and cast one ensemble actor. We hired Michael Cassara, who had cast the 2014 production. We kept the two leads Noellia Hernandez as Amada and Andres Quintero as Guario, and two ensemble members, Theresa Burns and Miguel A. Sierra from the 2014 production. Lorraine Velez (Nana) was introduced to me through a mutual colleague and we were thrilled when she accepted the role of Nana. We opened the auditions for the remaining roles, and built a terrific cast.
Did you have to cut songs or other scenes to bring it in under the NYMF time limit?
We cut some songs, added in a few, created a stronger underscore and incidental music, and made it one act. We had the orchestrations that Dean created transformed into musical parts for a four-piece live orchestra.
Did Dean Landon and Anika Paris come onto the project early on? How are you familiar with their work? (I thought the music was smashing).
Discussed above. They are brilliant platinum and gold song writers and we are thrilled with their music.
What is the most rewarding part of the process? The final product or the journey?
For me personally the greatest reward has been to collaborate with my family. We have all had professional careers independent of each other, so collaborating on this piece has been so personal to us. Losing Anita has been very difficult. We love her dearly, but feel she is with us as we continue sharing her story and making music and art to share with all. At the sitz probe session (first opportunity for the cast to sing with the band), I pulled up Anita’s photo on my I-pad, and had her on the table during the session. In the play, we talk about souls and ancestors, and thoroughly believe she is still a part of this musical and our world.
Where do you plan to go from here?
We are setting up meetings with producers and experts who have gone through the process of moving a musical forward to brainstorm and find the next best direction for the show. There are many possibilities for this musical and we look forward to continuing its development. We are interested in international tours and want to translate the musical into Spanish.
How did you fund the production?
We raised funds through private donations from over 100 generous people and received grant support. We held a fundraising event in May where cast members sang a medley of songs, and we presented an example of the dancing Enrique was choreographing. The guests wrote checks and gave us their blessing. This NYMF production has been the most expensive I have undertaken as a producer to date. There is much more to raise going forward and we’re building a team.
To learn more about Lorca Peress, click HERE.
Whatever Soulpepper Theatre Company seems to adapt by way of masterpieces, their productions are like spun gold. They lift the soul with transcendent performances and remind us of what is beyond the material world, sounding the clarion call that there is “more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of” in any philosophy. Such is true of their shimmering production Of Human Bondage (see my review on this site and on Blogcritics) as it is true of Artistic Director Albert Schultz’s adaptation of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, with Mike Ross as adaptor, composer, arranger and music director. Soulpepper’s award-winning Spoon River is currently running at Pershing Square Signature Center until 29 of July.
Spoon River begins with the remembrance of Bertie Hume who has recently died. Before the audience is seated, they are taken on a journey back in historic time to the town of Spoon River. The audience moves, from the light of the hallway of the Signature Center into a growing darkness where they are invited into the place where Bertie lies waked. Unbeknownst to the audience they are beginning their symbolic transformation from mere audience members to mourners. In a corner of the parlor where Bertie is laid out in an open casket with flowers, a shadowy family member welcomes them and thanks them for attending. This is immersive theater and we are in a state of wonder and anticipation knowing that what comes next will be surreal and illuminating.
Proceeding down the hallway filled with sepia-toned pictures of members of the Spoon River community who have passed and whom we will meet later in the production, the audience gradually takes on the role of “living” passersby who come to pay their respects to the dead and learn a lesson or two about life in death and death in life. They are led through the graveyard on the hill where Bertie Hume is to be laid to rest joining those from Spoon River who have gone before her. The tombstones’ lettering, brightly luminescent from the full moon, is carved with the names of those who will later “have their say” about their narrow identities in the material plane, from the perspective of their expansive existence beyond the grave.
This is a momentous night; the harvest moon shines brightly; something unique will happen that audience members will partake of. The veil (represented by a thin grey-black scrim behind which the Soulpepper cast stands until their cue to step out) that separates the quick from the dead, the realms of spirit from the material world, rises. The spirits materialize. Those who have gone on (the Soulpepper cast portraying the Spoon River deceased) watch with interest the audience, the pall bearers who bring out Bertie’s casket and place it on the ground, and Mr. Pollard who briefly speaks his piece about sweet Bertie being taken by death in the bloom of her life. Bertie, like his Edmund, also deceased, “fed on life.”
Mr. Pollard is unaware of the spiritual plane filled with once living Spoon River citizens who, behind him, stare out at us in silent wakefulness. As we gaze in wonder, we realize that we are privileged to see into the things beyond the apprehension of our five senses on this special night. As happens to most individuals who live as material beings, we receive momentary glimpses into transcendent realms (a theme of this production) in the hope of learning and evolving. The audience and Mr. Pollard are given a glimpse. For the audience/passersby, this fabulous revelation lasts for 90 minutes with no intermission.
Mr. Pollard mentions that, if it is true and sometimes one can hear beyond the veil a choir singing and carrying on, Bertie will be joining them, for her voice was so lovely, the “angels were jealous.” For now she is on the hill “sleepin.” From beyond the veil the Spoon River spiritual choir loudly whisper “sleepin” which stops Pollard “dead” in his tracks at the vibration from the other world. What was that he heard? Was that a momentary aural flicker from the other side, an utterance from those in another plane of consciousness that he cannot see? It is then we begin to consider the theme of sleeping and wakefulness and their interchangeability as metaphors of life and death, and as it turns out much more as the play progresses.
Like Pollard, the audience (after the ninety minutes that we are transported by the Soulpepper company spirits), must contend with the material plane which distracts us by its toil, strife, physical pain and emotional heartache, all of which bring us “down to earth,” (another vital theme). Such earthiness is revealed by the Spoon River deceased as they refer to their secret lives and passions they experienced in Spoon River, and they tell us their personal stories that are heart-breaking, abrupt, shocking, funny, thrilling and mesmerizing. They relate their stories and lives as a clarion call and encouragement for us to feed on life while we can.
It is in that extraordinary moment when the Soulpepper cast whispers “sleepin” that the themes of awareness/unawareness, life in death in life processes, sleep referring to soul oblivion, wakefulness referring to soul awareness/life soar. It is then our eyes are opened to what this play will be about. To the cast, “sleepin” is a description of the consciousness of those who are “living” on the material plane because they are blind to the furor of life’s beauty and opportunities. It is also an unction for us to question our own sleeping consciousness. Edgar Lee Masters and this adaptation by director Albert Schultz enlighten us to the concept that we must awaken our soul/consciousness to a greater appreciation of who we are and who others are in this “thing” we call life but only see “through a glass darkly.”
Kudos to Albert Schultz the director and adaptor, Mike Ross and the phenomenal cast, all of whom make this beginning of Spoon River one of the most memorable and transformative theatrical moments I have experienced in live theater. Indeed, from start to glorious finish, this production is truly what the best of live theater is about.
As we settle in with the spirit-community of Spoon River’s deceased citizens, we recognize that they are mentoring us through important themes of life, death, human existence and other worldliness by relating their personal stories which are Edgar Lee Masters’ poems about the people who lived in the small Illinois community. What were these individuals really like? Does anyone know anyone else on the material plane of existence which sometimes can blind us into a sham of duplicity and false fronting? Does anyone know others’ true happinesses, torments, secrets, regrets, lies, crimes? Do people know themselves? The lawyer, the mayor, the housewives, the farmers, the rich, the destitute, the teenagers, the lovers, the lost, each of Master’s townspeople tell us and in each tale there is a lesson for us to learn.
Indeed, to be self-blind is perhaps the worst form of blindness and we are made to understand that even in death when various folks in the Spoon River community step forward and share who they were, they are not necessarily forthcoming and it must be their deceased friends and neighbors and spouses who let us in on their multiple realities. We are privy to the fulcrum of secrets that composed the core of many of these individuals’ lives; many of the silent mysteries they kept in life are filled with irony, pathos and humor.
The Spoon River souls (each Soulpepper cast member is prodigiously, musically multi-talented) relate stories in a celebration of music (gospel, blues, country, pop and more) songs and accompaniment (banjos, ukeleles, piano, mandolin, cello, violins, guitars, brass, casket drumming, harmonica, and more). The songs are in various measures soulful, vibrant, achingly beautiful, frightening, uplifting and stirring; the dances are variously joyful, foot stomping and rousing. The lighting, staging, costuming and props which backdrop each of the songs/stories are economic, beautiful, appropriate, innovative and inspirational; they enhance the overall atmospheric effect to create riveting and dramatic storytelling.
We watch and participate in the soul enlivening commemoration as the departed tell us about themselves in all their glorious, glowing and dastardly humanity. By the end of the production we understand why they are partying in the other realm. They have been whiling away the time, as they wait for the new member of their otherworldly community to awaken from her sleep of life’s oblivion to a new consciousness in “death.” When Bertie Hume finally arises from her “sleep state” and is renewed, the song she sings is a breathtaking and heart-rending appreciation of the beauty of her life that is now gone. She, too, didn’t love her life to the fullest. She too, was “sleepin” when she should have been soul-awake and “livin.”
If Bertie Hume realizes she didn’t love life as she could have, and she was one to feed on life, then what chance have we to live life to the fullest? What chance may we have to overturn the corporeal for incorporeal values, to fill our lives and awaken our souls with joy, peace and the fruitfulness of having a life well lived with no regrets?
This question is answered by Edgar Lee Masters’ injunction “It takes life to love life,” spoken by the exuberant Fiddler Jones who has joined his fellow spirits with little in the way of material objects, but is happy with 1000 memories and no regrets. And it is answered by the audience members at the joyous, life-affirming conclusion of Spoon River as the Soulpepper company with vibrant song, dance and accompaniment sing out “Is your soul alive? Then let it feed.”
This incredible production holds many beautiful truths. They begin and end in artistic genius; with the unified elements of brilliant music composition and arrangements by Ross, the sterling voices of the talented, superb Soulpepper actors, the musicianship of cast members, the enlightened adaptation by Schultz of Edgar Lee Masters’ concepts and work. The genius flows over, in, around and through Ken MacKenzie (Set & Lighting Designer), Erika Connor (Costume Designer), Andrea Castillo-Smith (Sound Coordinator), and all who worked on Spoon River. In this illuminating and uplifting production that all of us can relate to, Schultz, Ross and the Soulpepper company present a banquet. We feed heartily on their enthusiasm and loving generosity. We may even enjoy in our memories and consciousness, a raft of leftovers for future banquets upon which our alive souls may feed.
If your soul is alive and especially if you need renewal and want to feed off the sheer joy of Spoon River, run to see this production before it closes on 29 July. You will be glad you did. Tickets may be purchased at the Box Office at the Pershing Square Signature Center (42nd Street). To purchase from their website, CLICK HERE.
Woody Sez: The Life & Music of Woody Guthrie, devised by David M. Lutken with Nick Corley, Darcie Deaville, Helen Jean Russell and Andy Teirstein is an entertaining and poignant evening of music and story-telling. The production directed by Nick Corley with music direction by David M. Lutken, orchestrations and vocal arrangements by David M. Lutken, Darcie Deaville, Helen Jean Russell and Andy Teirstein, presents the life and work of the monumental musician and singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie, whose work resonates for all Americans especially so when citizens feel they are powerless in the face of injustice.
With his ballads, political, traditional folk and country-blues songs and stories, Woody Guthrie chronicled the lives of Americans in the first half of the 20th century. He traveled across the country living with the little people with whom he identified and became a call sign. He recognized that the “salt of the earth” were the backbone of the nation squeezed by the banking industry and Wall Street. He sang of their economic tribulations and deprivation, their struggles through the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl era which led to the California migration and the abuses of migrant farm workers by farm conglomerates such as they were at that juncture in our history.
Above all, he uplifted and encouraged that, “This land is your land, this land is my land…” With these words many were able to gather their forces, unionize and create movements to strengthen and consolidate their efforts in the struggle for economic equity.
Guthrie was the “Dust Bowl Troubadour” and advocate, whose songs excoriated the wealthy and their puppet politicians of both parties as the root of the farmers and little peoples’ hardships and evils. Though he flirted with communism and socialism and even wrote the column “Woody Sez” for the Communist paper People’s World (which appropriately is the title of this production) his music was his primary vehicle to uplift and exhort. He never joined any party and preferred to roam freely, always an observer and chronicler more than a participant who supported any one political cause. His cause was that of all of humanity. This production of Woody Sez highlights the finest and most endearing turning points in his life, always revealing the complexity of his nature in its most humorous, glorious and flawed states.
Act I starts with the Company’s singing “This Train is Bound for Glory.” It is an appropriate memorial of the journey of Guthrie’s glory that the actors/singers/musicians (stirring performances by Megan Loomis, David M. Lutken, Helen Jean Russell, Andy Teirstein) lead us through to understand the beauty and humanity of Guthrie. In a relaxed, down-to-earth performance style, Lutken assumes the persona of Guthrie first by introducing himself as one who venerates Guthrie. He becomes Woody through episodic narration as he relates the key points of Guthrie’s life and the songs that reveal major themes and issues Guthrie experiences.
The production structure is essentially a flashback of his life. It is framed by Guthrie’s time in New York City in 1940 with Guthrie’s stint on a radio show at Rockefeller Center which a friend helped secure for him. The first scene includes the ensemble. They portray various roles throughout the production: Megan Loomis, Andy Teirstein, Helen Jean Russell. Guthrie (Lutken) sings one of his political songs on the radio which ridicules the wealthy. We are introduced to Guthrie’s freedom-loving personality. He is incapable of compromising his values, his dreams, his autonomy to tow the conservative line and accept censorship of his politics and criticism of Wall Street bankers and old J.D., the scion of Rockefeller Center. When Guthrie is fired, we are transported to the past to envision how Guthrie became that revolutionary individual.
Guthrie/Lutken discusses that he was born in Okemah, Oklahoma. We are introduced to his mother and siblings in song, the ensemble filling in the roles. We learn of the family’s troubles and the tragedies they faced with his mother’s evolving illness. The narration is simple yet heart-breaking and is also chilling. The ensemble and Lutken backdrop the prose with the dynamic of themed songs that are powerful and touching.
Guthrie’s journey continues through their impoverishment and his resilience attempting to “sing for money” during the boom town years when oil was discovered in Okemah. But their family situation worsens with death and more tragedy and eventually Guthrie strikes out on his own as a teenager discovering who he is and what he is made of. He travels to Texas to see his relatives and Dad. He sings in a makeshift band with his uncle and makes some money and even gets married.
But the April Dust Storm of 1935 overwhelms, and all is lost in a country that has been consumed by dust and sand. Everyone’s bank accounts are fallow as the bankers come for the land to pay off the farmers’ debts. Once again Guthrie travels, hopping a freight to California where he sees thousands of Americans traveling across the country. Their hopes and dreams of survival must be found at the precipice of the country’s Pacific Ocean border in California, the new Eden. After that, there is nowhere else to go.
By the end of Act I, Guthrie’s young eyes have been opened, and his political discernment solidified. Life and success are about money which the working man can never obtain without credit and which gamblers seem to be luxuriating in despite their craven, wanton existence of selfishness. It is an ever-recurring theme throughout the production, threaded through various songs.
In Act II Guthrie has gained notoriety as a voice of the people. By this point he has accepted his identity that this is where he belongs as their advocate and more importantly, a mirror to validate their experiences as human beings who must never lose their power in hope. This time of American farmer migrants is represented in such songs as “I Ain’t Got No Home” “The Ballad of Tom Joad” (sung throughout the production), “Vigilante Man,” and “Union Maid” the last two based on true stories which reveal the oppression of the working class against the businessmen owners and the violent abuse they sustain when they attempt to assert their rights as human beings to obtain a living wage through organizing unions.
It is in this act that Guthrie’s legacy takes flight. He sings with Pete Seeger’s group The Almanacs and uses his voice and guitar to fight Hitler during WWII with a sign on his guitar, “This machine fights fascists.” The emphasis is on fighting fascism at home and abroad to support peace with songs which ring loudly and clearly against American and foreign war lords who would sacrifice their countrymen to make money. He records various songs and though he copywrites his music, he encourages others to sing his songs, even without paying him. This has led to controversial copywrite wars up to the last decade and represents a rapacity that Guthrie would abhor. As the production winds down to the conclusion, we discover how Guthrie’s music and recordings triumph despite his being rendered silent by the same illness that engulfed his mother. The production reminds us of this iconic man and helps us appreciate the wealth of historic moments captured for all time by his songs.
With a minimalistic set and adaptive, flexible staging, the ensemble brings together their sterling musical skills on every string instrument that rings out Guthrie’s country, folk, blues from violin to banjo, from guitar to harmonica and more. The performers’ voices soar with the haunting melodies and joyful rhythms of 20th century Americana that have been taken up by everyone from Bob Dylan to Billy Bragg.
The production reveals why tributes are continually held to honor Woody Guthrie’s music and life. His work is imminently universal and timeless. He is a beacon for future generations as long as economic injustice blankets any area of the planet. Indeed, as this production of Woody Sez thematically indicates, “the chickens have surely come home to roost.” A researcher in 2016 discovered in the archives of the Woody Guthrie Center in Oklahoma that Guthrie criticized Fred Trump, father of President Donald Trump, revealing his disgust with the father as a landlord. In song lyrics, Guthrie accuses Fred Trump of stirring up racial hate “in the bloodpot of human hearts.”
Guthrie’s words will continue to reverberate in our hearts and minds. The injunctions in his songs are a welcome anodyne to get us through the next day or over a rough patch to eventually take the stand necessary in our own lives and for our culture and nation.
This fine production of Woody Sez: The Life & Music of Woody Guthrie (one intermission) runs at the Irish Repertory Theatre (132 West 22nd) until 23 July. You may purchase tickets HERE.
The League of Professional Theatre Women’s Pat Addiss and Sophia Romma again have successfully collaborated with Betty Corwin, who produces the New York Public Library’s Oral History Interviews, to present an enlightening, joyous evening with one of Broadway’s hottest playwrights, Paula Vogel. In conversation with Linda Winer, long-standing theater critic of Newsday, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright discussed her life, her work and the journey of her play Indecent from conceptualization through development, regional theater production and Off Broadway right up to its current run at Broadway’s Cort Theatre. The immutably themed Indecent has been nominated for a Tony Award in the category of Best Play. It is not only a must-see, it is a must-see two or three times over for its metaphors, themes and sheer genius.
Paula Vogel, a renowned professor of playwriting (Brown-two decades, currently Eugene O’Neill Professor of Playwriting (adjunct) at Yale School of Drama, Playwright-in-residence at Yale Rep) generously shares her time and dynamism with global communities. She conducts playwriting “boot camps,” and playwriting intensives with various organizations, theater companies and writers around the world. What is smashing is that Vogel not only is a charming, vibrant raconteur, she is an ebullient, electricity-filled advocate of the artist within all of us.
In her philosophy and approach toward theater, we are all story tellers, we are all playwright,s and we must cultivate the citizen artist within to insure that the theater arts are accessible and relevant to all cultures and populations, not just the “haves.” What she discussed about the current state of theater arts past and present was profound and prescient in response to why it took her so long to get to Broadway. Vogel reminded the audience that in the 1980s there were about 50 innovative, theme-rich plays on Broadway exemplified by The Elephant Man and M Butterfly. Such plays dealt with difficult issues that brought audiences together in a profound communal experience. Currently in 2017 there are a handful of productions that effect this. Commercialism has enveloped Broadway.
Hence, Vogel expressed a motivating joy that perhaps we should all entertain. We should roll up our sleeves to fight the good fight against philistine commercialism and consumerism and Byzantine gender and racial bias. Such dampening restrictions and discriminations parade behind the notion that film and theater are essentially liberal mediums. Vogel introduced the thought that they are the opposite. To her way of thinking there is a profligate conservatism akin to that of corporate America that hampers theater innovation and prevents provocative theater production to readily make it to Broadway.
However, she did affirm that the next generation of playwrights, whether older or younger, are seeing an explosion of work featured Off Broadway and Off Off Broadway which is where a lot of the innovation and experimentation has found a home. That aspect of the theater is thriving and in the upcoming years we can expect an elegance of defining work that will have an illuminating impact on Broadway.
A believer of reverse capitalism, that supply increases demand, Vogel’s ideas and effervescence are contagious. She “spreads the word” and brings the community of theater wherever she visits, from Austin, Texas to Sewanee, Shanghai Theatre Academy in China, from Minneapolis to the neighborhood near the Vineyard Theatre in New York City. And together she and her audience of all ages across the communities (from 15-90), of seasoned writers and playwrights and neophytes alike, experiment, grow and enjoy writing and reading plays during her intensives.
Her current playwriting boot camps (they used to take a week to do) to make live theater a communal experiment much like its original creative form as a social, cathartic experience resonate today. They make complete sense especially at a time when artistic shallowness manifested in some entertainment forms has achieved a noxious superfluidity that really needs to die a death (my thoughts).
Some of the highlights of Paula Vogel’s discussion with Linda Winer, who was a wonderful interviewer, revolved around how she conducts her “bootcamps,” culminating in bakeoffs to spur on a fountain of creativity. In response to how her Pulitzer Prize-winning play Learning How to Drive was produced Off Broadway but never made the transfer to Broadway, she repeated an incisive comment from the past, “How often do the girls get to play with the big expensive toys?”
Now that Vogel’s Indecent and colleague Lynn Nottage’s play Sweat also transferred to Broadway from the Public Theater, Vogel laughingly acknowledged that for both of them, the expensive toys are “a lot of fun.” Vogel stated that when one acclimates to the house size, whether the play is in a 60 seat theater or a 200 seat theater, the effort and the intensity of the work process is the same. Vogel joked, “The only difference is I’m not sleeping on a sofa bed.” Indeed, with Indecent, Vogel has graduated to a mattress and a bed, “more expensive toys.”
Vogel discussed the evolution of Indecent which was fascinating. In her twenties she had read The God of Vengeance, by Sholem Asch, the play upon which Indecent revolves. She was mesmerized by the transcendent love scene between the pious Jewish father’s daughter and one of the prostitutes who works for him in the brothel below their apartment. When the world renowned Yiddish play was translated into English and brought to Broadway in 1923, the cast, director and producer were arrested for obscenity, even though some of the love scenes were cut. The play received a greater following and lasted 133 performances, but there was a trial after the play closed. The Court of Appeals overturned the convictions of the director and producer in 1925.
Twenty years after Vogel read Asch’s play, she learned that Rebecca Taichman was attempting to direct the obscenity trial for her thesis. Vogel learned of her work and pronounced her a genius. Vogel was inspired when she received a call from Taichman to collaborate on a play about the events surrounding the trial of Asch’s play. During their conversation Vogel had a lightening-like vision seeing a scene from the play which she stated “always happens” (it happened with Learning How to Drive) when she knows she can write a particular play. Having read up on Yiddish Theater, she told Taichman, “I think this is a play way beyond an obscenity trial.” Taichman was thrilled at her enthusiasm. Vogel admitted that this was around nine years and 40 drafts ago.
They workshopped at Sundance Theatre Lab (2013) and after many drafts and other workshops they put it on at Yale Repertory for the first time with the music, choreography and staging. Vogel joked the “flop sweat” was prodigious. Taichman’s and Vogel’s shirts were sticking to their backs. Since then it has moved on and was performed at La Jolla Playhouse in Fall 2015 and in May 2016 was produced at the Vineyard Theatre in New York City.
There is such enthusiasm for the production since Yale (2015) that the ensemble, the musicians, the stage manager and the assistants have remained together. As Vogel says, “We’ve all moved together as one.” This never happens with a production that transfers to Broadway. If it does, it is extremely rare. Vogel laughingly joked they have become a family. When two children were born during the evolution of Indecent, Vogel commented she has become like a godmother to both.
What a memorable evening! Vogel is about fun, about community about connections, about living and creating whatever comes next. That spontaneity and flexibility is like jumping off into the darkness, knowing you will land on soft ground at sunrise. The moment you think about the jump, you stop yourself. Vogel is not about stopping. She’s there already and beckoning us to join her. Why not?
If you have yet to see Hamilton, an American Musical on Broadway and have been avoiding it because of the “hype” or the ticket prices, rethink the “hype” about the “hype.” I cannot recommend the production enough. I have not reviewed it because I cannot put into words its greatness and ineffability. I have seen it seven times, including the time I and a friend saw it being workshopped at Vassar a few years before it arrived on 2015 at the Public Theater. The summer performance workshop at Vassar College, before Lin Manuel Miranda wrote “The Room Where It Happened,” (in Aaron Burr’s bedroom at the Eliza Jumel Mansion), was fantastic. I introduced myself to Ron Chernow who was there, and told him to get ready. He was going to be selling a lot of books. He wrote Hamilton upon which much of Miranda’s production is based.
Is Hamilton deserving of its “hype” (2016 Pultizer Prize for Drama, 11 Tony Awards, 8 Drama Desk Awards, 2016 Grammy Award)? Should Lin Manuel Miranda have won the MacArthur ‘Genius’ Grant? Is it portentous that President Donald Trump tweeted that he heard it was a “highly overrated show?” Suffice to say, the jokes about prices are humorous, the hyperbole is clever. If it is keeping you away, you are missing a superb production that cannot be compared to anything on Broadway before or since its inception. Hamilton is about the best and worst of what makes our country an amazing experiment of which we are all a part, whether citizens or not, whether legal immigrants or not.
To offer the opportunity of seeing Hamilton for New York City teenagers, many of whom may have never been to a Broadway performance because Broadway is so egregiously pricey, there has been an ongoing initiative to offer a Hamilton experience for city teenagers. Hamilton has formed a partnership with The Rockefeller Foundation, The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and the NYC Department of Education to bring various schools and their teachers to a matinee of Hamilton. Before seeing the performance, students from high schools around the city present their creative work (songs, vignettes, poems), related to the time of Alexander Hamilton in America’s history. After their presentations, they enjoy a Q and A with cast members who they see after lunch performing in Hamilton.
I attended on Wednesday, 24 May and was pleasantly surprised by the efforts of the students, some of whom had never performed before a live audience before of around 1300 students. Nineteen schools with teachers and students attended. Students from 14 schools presented their projects. I had the opportunity to briefly speak with five students who performed.
Madison Banks from Bronx Collegiate Academy wrote the “Hamilton Song” and performed it with with power, showing she was comfortable before the live audience. She belongs to a global traveling choir and performs anywhere there are open mics in NYC. She’s performed poetry and also sang at venues in Greenwich Village, the Apollo Theater, the Harlem School of the Arts and the Nuyorican Cafe. Madison is interested in evolving and pursuing her creative talents and would love to be an entrepreneur exercising her acting, singing, writing skills. When I asked her about colleges, she mentioned Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, and Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her teacher Nicole Schindel shepherded her through the application process and attended with her enjoying Hamilton Day.
Three young ladies I spoke to from University Neighborhood High School performed a feminist poem about the Schuyler sisters: “Schuyler Sisters’ Poem.” When I spoke to Tyler Johnson, Hawa Sall and Benita Campos, they assured me that they wanted to draw attention to the importance of women during the American Revolution and the fact that they are rendered invisible, though they made their husband’s exploits possible and greatly contributed to their successes. The “Schuyler Sisters’ Poem” raised loud vocal appreciation and applause from both young men and young women in the audience when they repeated the line, “There is more to us than what we do in bed.” Tyler, Hawa and Benita are in the Baruch College program preparing to excel in law and medicine after they graduate high school. Like other students in the audience, they are completing their junior year. I heard Columbia University and Fordham University as two of their choices for colleges they would like to attend. The young ladies were accompanied by their teacher Kelly Haff who helped them with the project.
From Martin Van Buren High School, Treniece Johnson wrote and performed the “Freedom Fight Song.” Though I was told she was nervous, her performance went smoothly and students joined in speaking/singing the refrain about fighting for freedom. Her song confronted a crucial problem which we still face today as our democracy comes increasingly under pressure from foreign adversaries threatening our election processes. Additionally, we must maintain our free speech, free press rights, the lifeblood of freedom as they are coming under increasing attacks by those who would muzzle unfavorable opinions and mischaracterize facts as fake.
Treniece Johnson’s song reminded us that one must continue to fight for freedom. Though the constitution guarantees freedoms, there are those who would curtail citizens’ rights in order to consolidate and increase their own power base. It takes our active participation in the struggle to prevent usurpers from wielding extraordinary power that constitutionally they do not have. We must “fight for freedom” in the courts, in the press and in our protests to redress overweening governmental grievances.
After the thirty students performed, the MC and host Donald Webber, Jr. (he portrays Philip Schyler, James Reynolds and the Doctor), conducted the Q and A during which members of the cast answered questions. The following cast members were present: J. Quinton Johnson (portrays Hercules Mulligan/James Madison), Sasha Hollinger (ensemble), Gregory Treco (standby for Aaron Burr, George Washington and Lafayette/Jefferson), and Lauren Boyd (ensemble). Some excellent advice from cast members included the exhortation, “Be prepared in everything you do in order to be ready to receive what is available.”
By that point students were ready to receive the performance of Hamilton after lunch. And I was thrilled to introduce myself to Luis A. Miranda, Jr., Lin Manuel Miranda’s dad who is an icon in his own right. He graciously paused a moment in his busy day for a selfie with me. For the 40,000 students and teachers who are having the incredible opportunity of seeing Hamilton on Broadway, a special thanks and appreciation must go to Hamilton, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, The Rockefeller Foundation and the NYC Department of Education. For all of us there on 24 May, 2017 it was an experience of a lifetime.
As a postscript, if you never get to see Hamilton on Broadway, Lin Manuel Miranda is working to put Hamilton on film. Like Treniece Johnson’s “Freedom Fight Song” the film will be a reaffirmation of the ideals of our nation, ideals which we are constantly striving to realize, though, at times there are setbacks. If we are not there yet, the voices of American citizens will continue to “Rise Up” to be heard loudly and clearly that, “…these truths are self-evident; that all men and women are created equal. That they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” (The Declaration of Independence.)
“If it be now, ‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all.” (Hamlet, Act V, Scene 2)