Tag Archives: theatre

A Holiday Spectacle

by Marc Williams

The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade processes through Times Square.

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. I remember waking up on Thanksgiving with the smell of sage wafting through the house as my mother began a long day of cooking and baking. Of course my morning was spent in front of the television watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. And now that I have children of my own, Thanksgiving has come full circle: I’m the one doing the cooking and my son, now four years old, is the one enjoying the parade.

The Macy’s parade has been around since 1924, when Macy’s department store on 34th Street decided to hold a parade as a marketing ploy. Macy’s employees dressed in costumes—clowns, cowboys, and the like—and walked with Central Park Zoo animals on a six-mile route through Manhattan. The parade was a success for Macy’s, became an annual event, and is now the most popular holiday parade in America. The Rose Parade in Pasadena, California and Mardi Gras krewes in New Orleans are also major parades, and communities all over the country stage parades in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, Independence Day, fall harvests, and other occasions. Parades big and small are commonplace, yet many viewers probably don’t realize that modern parades owe a debt both to theatre and to the church.

During the early Middle Ages, the Catholic Church in Europe began dramatizing events from the Bible in an attempt to share the liturgy with a growing population that was largely illiterate. Church interiors were utilized in these liturgical dramas, with the central nave area of the basilica used for spectators and the columns along either side of the nave were used to separate different “stages,” or “mansions,” as they were called. The audience would walk from one mansion to the next, one mansion featuring the Garden of Eden, the next featuring Noah’s Ark, and so on. Interestingly, this staging technique—in which the spectator moves in and out of different acting areas—is still used today. It’s the same staging technique encountered in a “haunted house” attraction, and is also used by theme parks. Disney’s famous It’s a Small World After All and Pirates of the Caribbean rides use the same concept, although the audience is seated in a boat that moves through the attraction.

Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride.

In the 13th century, Pope Innocent III forbade the clergy from participating in these liturgical plays. The performances were enormously popular but the Pope believed the scripture was becoming obscured by scenery, costumes, special effects, and scripts that were becoming increasingly colloquial.

The plays, known as “mysteries,” then moved outside the church. In some cases, the plays were held immediately outside the church—right on the church steps. Large stone basilicas with impressive steps and entryways could make for impressive theatrical backdrops. In some towns, performances moved to a town square. The image below from the Valenciennes Passion shows a town square that has several “mansions” built into its existing architecture for the performance of a 25-day long play depicting the life and death of Jesus Christ. The city’s own gates appear to be used as the gates to Jerusalem, with a setting constructed for the temple, another for the sea, and so on.

Setting for the Valenciennes Passion, 1547.

In other towns, the spectators were spread out, with groups seated on risers in different areas of the town. For these mystery plays, the sets, costumes, and actors moved from one audience to the next on pageant wagons. These impressive devices could “dock” with an existing stage platform, providing a custom backdrop for the performance. Also, the wagon would also carry all the props and costumes needed to tell the story. These pageant wagons are the forerunners of our modern parade floats; the audience sits or stands as the small staging area moves to them. The performance occurs, then the float moves along the designated route.

An English pageant wagon.

Spectacle was of tremendous importance during the mystery plays. Because the church was no longer the organizing force for the performances, the plays were presented by other groups in the community. In England, for instance, the responsibility was given to the local craft guilds. Typically, each guild was responsible for one story: finding the actors, building the scenery and costumes, and paying their share of the overall expenses for the event. The guilds were typically assigned a story related to their expertise: the shipwrights would present Noah, the goldsmiths would present the three kings, since they could supply gold crowns, the blacksmiths might be in charge of nailing Christ to the cross, and so on. The guilds took tremendous pride in their contributions and their efforts were dazzling: some wagons featured trap doors for surprising entrances and exits, others featured elaborate scenic detail that was stunningly lifelike, while some featured flying effects and other stage magic.

Indeed the same is true today at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. New balloons and floats are added each year, and these new efforts are consistently focused on providing a new spectacle that has never been seen in a parade before. In this year’s parade, for example, Cirque du Soleil provided a new float that is the biggest in parade history, complete with acrobats and contortionists—it was like a little self-contained circus.

Cirque du Soleil’s “Dreamseeker” float in the 2013 Macy’s Parade.

In my BLS course Eye Appeal: Spectacle on Stage and in Life, we discuss modern-day spectacles like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and historical spectacles like the mystery plays. We consider why we are so consistently impressed by the “wow factor” that spectacles offer, and wonder what draws each of us individually toward these spectacles. For me, the Macy’s Parade takes me back to my childhood home, watching television in my pajamas with the smell of sage in the air. What memories do you associate with the Macy’s Parade? Or do you have another favorite holiday spectacle?

Making Magic on Broadway

By Marc Williams

The Tony Awards are Broadway theatre’s version of an Oscar, recognizing the highest levels of achievement in commercial theatre. This year’s nominees include a revival of Pippin, a musical that premiered on Broadway in 1972 and hasn’t been seen on Broadway since that original production.

Pippin poster

Pippin was conceived by composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz, who is best known Godspell and, more recently, the Broadway mega-hit Wicked. Schwartz began working on Pippin as an undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon University and after achieving a seemingly overnight success with Godspell in 1971, the 23-year old Schwartz and his collaborator, Roger O. Hirson, were able to find a producer willing to put Pippin on Broadway.

Like Schwartz’ earlier hit Godspell, Pippin had great popular appeal. The scores to these musicals contain pop/rock songs that became crossover hits on top-40 radio. The original Off-Broadway cast recording of Godspell’sDay By Day” climbed to the #13 position on the Billboard Top Singles chart, while songs from Pippin were recorded by the Jackson 5, Michael Jackson (solo), the Supremes, and Petula Clark and Dusty Springfield. On stage, Pippin was a bona fide Broadway hit, running over 1900 performances–one of the longest runs in Broadway history. An interesting side note to Pippin’s successful run was its very effective marketing campaign; Pippin was the first Broadway musical to use clips from the production on a television advertisement. The famous “Manson Trio” dance number was featured in this minute-long television commercial that is credited for generating much of the musical’s early ticket sales (pardon the water mark):

Ben Vereen as the Leading Player in Bob Fosse’s 1972 production of Pippin.

While Pippin enjoyed popular success, the script and score were not embraced by the influential New York critics. In his New York Times review, Clive Barnes called Pippin a “trite and uninteresting story with aspirations to a seriousness it never for one moment fulfills.” He similarly wrote of Schwartz’s score, “It is a commonplace set to rock music, and I must say I found most of music somewhat characterless.” However, Barnes praised the production as a whole, noting its inventive staging and choreography, the work of the stage designers, and the triumphant performance by Ben Vereen as the Leading Player.

Bob Fosse.

Barnes and other critics took notice of Bob Fosse’s work in particular, which deemphasized the script’s naïve and passive title character and focused on the dark, dangerous agenda of the musical’s ringmaster, Vereen’s Leading Player.

Stephen Schwartz.

Rather than Schwartz’ story of a young man’s search for fulfillment, Fosse viewed Pippin’s plot as the story of a young man being seduced into self-destruction. In an effort to support the theme of seduction, the production visually evoked burlesque and carnival performance, highlighting themes of sexual exploration and discovery. The 24-year old Schwartz, whose musical influences were more James Taylor and less Jimi Hendrix, perhaps had not imagined his musical with such a seedy underbelly and as a result, the rehearsals for Pippin were famously contentious, with Fosse, Schwartz, and Hirson battling for control of the production’s tone. Eventually, Fosse banned Schwartz and Hirson from attending rehearsals!

Some criticism of Schwartz and Hirson’s work is warranted. The story is fragmented and the central action unclear. The musical’s original ending is among the most jarring and dissatisfying endings one is likely to find in a musical. Structurally, Pippin is incomplete and any production of Pippin seems to require additional directorial focus in order to hold the entire script and score together into a cohesive evening of theatre. Fosse seemingly knew this, and his work earned him a Tony Award in 1973 for Best Director of a Musical; Fosse also won a Tony Award for his iconic Pippin choreography.

Diane Paulus

Forty years after Fosse’s original production, a new production opened on Broadway April 25, 2013. Directed by Diane Paulus, the new production has been called a “natural extension” of Fosse’s, a Pippin for a 21st century audience. If Fosse’s production was suggestive, Paulus’ production seems to opt for excess. Fosse’s dancing ensemble, for instance, was conceived as a group of traveling burlesque clowns. Paulus’ vision for these traveling players is less burlesque, more Cirque du Soleil. In fact, Paulus’ production employs a troupe of Canadian acrobats that creates a sense of grand spectacle throughout the show. If Fosse’s production is a story of seduction, Paulus’ production seems a story of astonishment. Here is a glimpse of Paulus’ new production:

Much has changed on Broadway since Fosse’s Pippin opened in 1972. The 1980’s was an era of musical spectacles, lavish musicals like Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, and Miss Saigon that boasted some of the most eye-popping visual effects ever seen on stage. More recent musicals like Wicked and

Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark on Broadway.

Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark have continued that tradition into the 21st century. In my BLS course, Eye Appeal: Spectacle on Stage and in Life, we discuss musical spectacles and how 21st century audiences have come to expect a certain degree of “eye appeal” at a Broadway musical. With many of these musical spectacles, the stage designs are frankly more impressive than the scripts the designs are attempting to support. Some of these productions could be called “style without substance,” in spite of their commercial success. In the case of Paulus’ Pippin, it seems the director is using the fad of musical spectacles not to distract from the script’s flaws but rather to enhance the script’s central action and deliver a story about amazement to an audience that demands to be amazed. Given the positive reviews and ten Tony Award nominations Paulus’ production received, one wonders if Pippin is poised to be a Broadway hit yet again.

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An interesting “Making of…” feature published on the New York Times’ website, demonstrating how Paulus and her collaborators conceptualized Pippin’s famous opening number, “Magic to Do.”

Pride and Prejudice

by Ann Millett-Gallant

From Wednesday, Sept 26 – Sunday, Sept 30, Durham hosted the 28th semi-annual Pride Weekend.  This festival, which began in 1981 and is the largest LGBT event in North Carolina, included a number of colorful performances, including music, dance, karaoke, DJs, and comedy (especially a headliner by Joan Rivers), parties and get-togethers, lunches and dinners, meetings over coffee, walk and runs, church services, vendors, and a lavish and lively parade.  According to their website, the mission of these events is:

  • to promote unity and visibility among lesbians, gay men, bisexual and transgendered people
  • to promote a positive image through programs and public activities that foster an awareness of our past struggles
  • to be recognized as an important and talented sector of our diverse state.
  • to support and encourage HIV/AIDS education, breast cancer awareness and basic health education

Although I am in complete support of these missions and always love a good party, I have only attended the parade twice with a friend of mine who is a lesbian.  I was thrilled when my new friend, Jay O’Berski, invited me to be a part of the float hosted this year by his Durham-based theater company, The Little Green Pig.  We all wore t-shirts in support of Pussy Riot, a Russian, Feminist Punk collective who stage activist Guerilla performances all over Moscow and who were recently incarnated (for more information, see this interview).

This is a photo of me in my Pussy Riot t-shirt in the café of the Durham Whole Foods before the parade.  Unfortunately, pouring rain prevented me from marching, or “scooting” in the parade, so I modeled my shirt where other marchers were gathered.  Although the parade was inaccessible to me this year, the spirit of the event inspired me.

The Pussy Riot acts relate to Unit 6 of my course BLS 348: Representing Women, “Performance as Resistance,” and most specifically, the activist work of the Guerilla Girls.

The Guerilla Girls are a performance team whose work includes live actions as well as posters and printed projects to critique the masculine biases of art history. The assigned reading for this class, the Introduction and Conclusion to The Guerrilla Girls’ Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art, presents a selection of their written projects, many of which engage irony, satire, and witty sense of humor. The Guerilla Girls call for change and invite others to partake in their protests.

In 1989, the Guerilla Girls challenged the Metropolitan Museum on their lack of representation of female artists. Almost 85% of the Mets’ nudes were female, compared with the only 5% of their collection of work by female artists.  This ad above appeared on New York City buses.

Representing Women also includes an assigned reading on homosexual artists:  Harmony Hammond, “Lesbian Artists,” in Amelia Jones, ed. The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader, 2nd edition (London, New York: Routledge, 2010), p. 128-129.

After the parade and conducting research for this blog, I became aware that one lesson might not be enough.  The Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies program emphasizes diversity and the breadth and wealth of differing human experiences.

Jay Parr raised similar points in his blog post of 9/27/11.  In “The Significance of a Simple Ring,” he discussed his discomfort at seeing a non-married, homosexual man wearing a ring.  Parr analyzed his negative reaction, given his full support of and numerous friendships with the LGBT community.   In the specific context of UNCG, Parr stated: “The irony is that the training seminar I was attending was so that I could become a certified Safe Zone ally, so that I could advertise to the university that, hey, if you’re an LGBTQ member of our community and you need someone to talk with about that, I’m here for you.”

Parr then focused on the significance of the ring as a symbol of one’s commitment to their spouse, as well as of the legal and social status of marriage.  He advocated that all couples should have the right to the ring and all the significance and rights surrounding it.

Parr’s post predated passage of the marriage amendment to the state constitution in May 2012, which solidified the ban of same sex marriage in North Carolina “Defense of Marriage.”  I felt disappointed and defeated by this law, but maybe, at least, it will motivate those who are against such legislation to speak out.  Not long after this act, President Obama “came out” with his support of same sex marriage, bringing the discussion to nation attention.

Opponents of same sex marriage say it’s an affront to traditional marriage.  Yet, my husband and I, although we are heterosexual, do not have a traditional marriage: we lived together for 3 years before becoming engaged, I proposed to him, and we have no plans, nor desire to have children.  Further, I was born without fingers, so I literally can’t wear a ring.  Nonetheless, we were allowed to get married, and the minister I found online was, I’m pretty sure, a lesbian.  She was ordained, but would not have legally been able to marry a loving partner herself.  In my opinion, bans on same sex marriage are an affront to Civil Rights.  Interracial marriage was legalized in all states not until 1967, and 45 years later we are debating similar issues.  I hope that events like the Pride Parade and public support of same sex marriage will lead toward positive change.

I feel hopeful this Fall, as new television shows such as The New Normal and Couples have strong and openly homosexual characters, adding to the presence of happy, same sex couples on television, in examples such as Modern Family (winner of the most 2012 Emmy awards), Glee, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, and Grey’s Anatomy, as well as popular shows that ended in the past few years, like Ugly Betty and Brothers and Sisters.  While I hesitate to wish reality would mirror television in general, this is evidence that perhaps American culture is beginning to have more exposure to and familiarity with so-called “Alternative” lifestyles.

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Editor’s note: Ann Millett-Gallant will be giving a book talk about her book, The Disabled Body in Contemporary Art, on Tuesday, November 13, at 3:00 PM, in the Multicultural Resource Center, on the ground floor the Elliott University Center.

And the Oscar Goes To…

By Marc Williams

This Sunday, the Hollywood glitterati will turn out for its annual jubilee, the Academy Awards. While I’ve never been a fan of award shows (see my post from last summer regarding the Tony Awards), I certainly view an Oscar as the highest recognition in the entertainment industry. While lots of quality work is unrecognized by the Academy each year, I still regard an Oscar nomination as some validation of quality work.

In the decade or so after I finished high school,  I took that validation quite seriously. I made a point of seeing all of the Oscar-nominated films before the awards ceremony. I would definitely see all the Best Picture nominees but I tried to see the documentaries and foreign films too.Indeed I saw many terrific films I wouldn’t have otherwise seen. In 1998, everybody saw Titanic (the Best Picture winner, among many other wins) but I hadn’t seen L.A. Confidential until after it received nine Oscar nominations. In 2004, it was a Best Director Oscar nomination for Fernando Meirelles that prompted me to view City of God–which I now count among my favorite films of all time.

When I first started trying to see all the Oscar-nominated films, my motivation was largely snobbish. I felt I earned a certain cultural cache from seeing all of the “great” films of the year, especially the obscure films my friends hadn’t heard of. Admittedly, there were many times I forced myself to sit through movies in which I wasn’t remotely interested. In earning my status as a highly cultured individual, I figured I had to pay the price of boredom. I suffered through The Red Violin, The Gangs of New York, and many other Oscar nominated films, hating every minute of them.

Naturally, circumstances change. I can’t fit self-imposed boredom into my schedule anymore. Nowadays I find it exceedingly difficult to go to the movies at all. My wife and I try to watch films at home but that can be challenging with a two-year old asleep down the hall. Not surprisingly, we’ve fallen behind on all the movies we want to see–we’ve learned from experience that Netflix only allows users to put 500 movies in the DVD queue. I doubt we’ll ever catch up. The result of our changing circumstances is a need to prioritize our film viewing and spend time only with stories we find truly fascinating–the Netflix queue is getting pared down to the essentials and we make very careful choices when we are able to make a rare trip to the movie theatre.

Of the eight films nominated for Best Picture this year, I’ve seen half. In recent years, I’ve seen far fewer.

In 2009, I had only seen two of the eight nominated films at the time of the ceremony. This year, I’ve seen Hugo, The Artist, The Descendants, and Midnight in Paris. I doubt I will ever see Moneyball or Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close because I’m just not interested. And this, for me, is how the Oscars reflect my changing views on achieving “cultured” status. I’m not willing to endure disinterest in exchange for this status.

I’m convinced, however, that I’m not the only person who has consumed boring art for snobbish reasons. In fact, I believe many of us go to the theatre, museums, or obscure films with boredom as an objective: “If I can withstand this boredom for two hours, I’ve paid my cultural debt to society.” I agree the arts are vital to communities, to self-awareness, and communication but if the work isn’t engaging, interesting, or in some way entertaining, how valuable can it be?

I’ve seen this phenomenon at work in some of my BLS courses. My Eye Appeal students, for instance, are required to attend a live performance in their community. My hope is that the assignment will be fun–and for most of my students, this assignment is the highlight of the course. But sometimes, students attend events in which they clearly aren’t interested. Perhaps they are trying to impress me with their sophistication, attending a ballet or opera that they secretly despise, hoping to manufacture some cultural credibility?

Have you ever suffered boredom for the sake of feeling cultured?

Act 2: Jabberbox Puppet Theater!

By Deborah Seabrooke

I started teaching at UNCG in my late twenties.  I’ve been here a long time. I’ve always been a part-time teacher and that has given me a lot of freedom to pursue other things.  I love teaching, but on the side have kept a studio in my house for all my art projects—painting, quilting, book-making, fiction writing.  Until two years ago, that was the extent of it, but then I began thinking that I needed to try something new.  A friend of mine who runs Greensboro’s only independent bookstore, Glenwood Coffee and Books, was hearing me out one day as I blathered on about getting older, but feeling like there was still a lot left to do.  I’d loved acting way back in high school, but had had no experience on stage since then.  My friend, Alan Brilliant, told me about an adult puppet theater that he’d attended in the Village in New York back in the 50s, done in a living room with a hand- made stage and puppets.  The puppeteers were two aspiring actors who needed an outlet, and started to invite their friends to their salon-style shows.  The puppets acted out Noel Coward comedies, the concept took off, and soon people had to jump on the tickets as soon as they could or they would be out of luck.  Adult puppet theater?   I began to mull this over.

Gingher and Seabrooke (right) take bows at Mack and Mack in downtown Greensboro.

Long story short, a new puppet theater for adults, the Jabberbox Puppet Theater, is already launched in Greensboro, with myself and my dear old friend Marianne Gingher.  We met back in the early 70s in the MFA program in creative Writing right here at UNCG.  Marianne is now a tenured professor in the Creative Writing program at UNC, and is plenty busy, but when I mentioned doing an adult puppet theater, she hesitated about two seconds before wanting to come on board.  We write the plays ourselves and make all the puppets.   Every year, we give 20% of our proceeds to a village school in Lumpampa, Zambia where we had traveled together and where the seed sprouted for the plot of our first play, “African Queens.” A neighbor of mine made our portable stage.  Did I say that we give you wine and home-made dessert with the ticket price?

We’ll enter our third season in May, 2012.  In 2010, “African Queens” ran for 15 performances in May and June, and all of them sold out.  Our second play, “Little Town, Big Stars,” ran for 17 performances in 2011 and they sold out, too. While our specialty is doing the shows in our living rooms, we are now expanding. In October 2011, during 17 Days, the United Arts Council’s downtown arts festival, we performed at Mack and Mack on Elm St to bigger audiences.  We have a new gig this coming June 2012 at The Garage in Winston-Salem.  In addition, we’ll travel, as we’ve done from the beginning, to living rooms and garages of friends in Chapel Hill and Wilmington.  We now even have an old van with a bumper sticker: “Puppets in Trunk.”

Jabberbox puppeteers in action during a performance in Seabrooke's livingroom.

I’m also happy to say that our grown children have helped us. Marianne’s son guided us around Zambia while he was in the Peace Corps there, introducing us to some memorable characters. Our other kids helped us by making a beautiful website, providing original music, being savvy critics, and traveling from afar to attend our shows and cheer us on.  Charlie Headington, my husband and a UNCG teacher, emcees our shows sporting a green polka-dot tie.

Before I end, I’m going to put in a plug for home-grown art—there is so much to do and see right here in Greensboro, on campus, or just a little bit off-campus. You need to support your friends, fellow teachers, and fellow students as we make our entrepreneurial and spirited way in this world of sour economic news.  Take a walk on the wild side.  Buy local. Put a few bucks down on something different.  When the show’s over, stroll the sidewalk home, contemplate the stars and think about what you’d like to do next.

Standing on Ceremony

By Marc Williams

In the theatre, opening night is a special occasion.  Months, sometimes years, of work are finally complete and an audience is welcomed into the space to not only witness but also participate in the performance.  As a stage director, my work is officially complete on opening night—and this is true for many of the collaborators involved in a production as well.  In fact, for a lot of theatre folk, opening night is about the only time they “dress up” to go to the theatre. It is a night of celebration.

On November 7, I attended a very special opening night.  Standing on Ceremony, which opened that night at the Minetta Lane Theatre in New York City, is a collection of eight short plays by some of the country’s finest playwrights.  What’s unusual about this world-premiere event is that Standing on Ceremony simultaneously premiered in more than fifty other theatres at the exact same moment.  I wasn’t in New York for opening night—I was right here in Greensboro on the campus of Guilford College.

The Tectonic Theater Project, led by Moises Kaufman, co-produced this event, for which eight writers each contributed a play on the issue of same-sex marriage.  As the New York cast was preparing these plays for the official opening night performance, other theatre companies around the country—and even a few international companies—were provided scripts so they too could present Standing on Ceremony in their community on opening night.  All of these performances began and ended at the same time, so audiences across the country and world were discovering these new plays at the same time.

In New York, a portion of the production’s proceeds will benefit Freedom to Marry and other organizations dedicated to marriage equality.  The other theatres across the country followed suit, taking donations from audiences to benefit local organizations dedicated to marriage equality in their community. Representatives from EqualityNC, for example, attended the Guilford College performance, using the event to recruit volunteers, distribute literature about North Carolina’s upcoming same-sex marriage ban amendment vote, and ask voters to pledge to attend the primary in May 2012, when the amendment will be on the ballot.

When it at its best, theatre can serve as a lens, allowing that particular audience to examine itself not only as individuals but also as a community.  Naturally, each audience and each community is unique, which means that every production of every play is received in unique way.  This is the reason I tell my BLS classes that a production of a play is a simultaneous expression of two societies: that of the author and that of the audience.  While the author’s society is fixed in history, the audience’s society is always changing—from place to place or year to year.

The performance of Standing on Ceremony I attended was a great example of how this phenomenon works.  New York is one of six places in the United States that permits gay marriage, while North Carolina is one of forty-four places in the United States that forbids same-sex marriage—and the upcoming constitutional amendment vote could make the existing laws even more restrictive. The audiences in New York and North Carolina, therefore, have different experiences with the issue of same-sex marriage and would certainly have differing emotional and intellectual responses to the performance.

Standing on Ceremony has a distinctly pro-same-sex marriage theme—I’d venture to guess that nearly everyone who attended the play was in agreement with its political agenda.  As I sat in the theatre watching the plays and contemplating the issue, I thought about audiences in Iowa and New York, and other states where same-sex marriage is legal, and wondered how they were responding to the plays. Surely there were legally married same-sex couples in attendance!  Were they proud?  Hopeful?  But I also thought of audiences in Virginia, Kentucky, Michigan, and all across the South—where amendments banning same-sex marriage have already been approved.  What would be their reaction to a play about an issue that was already decided in their state by a constitutional ban?  And naturally, my thoughts turned back to North Carolina.  On November 7, 2011, the audience seemed hopeful.  How might we respond to a production of Standing on Ceremony twelve months from now? Still hopeful?

The Threepenny Opera

By Marc Williams

The Threepenny Opera at UNCG

UNCG Theatre began performances of The Threepenny Opera Wednesday evening.  While it is best known for the song “Mack the Knife,” The Threepenny Opera is a tremendously important piece of 20th century dramatic literature and is certainly among my favorite plays.

While the play does indeed feature lots of music, it isn’t an opera in the traditional sense–it isn’t “sung through,” so most of the text is spoken.  This balance of spoken dialogue and song may seem akin to musical theatre–but The Threepenny Opera doesn’t really fall into that category either.  In most works of musical theatre, singing emerges from intense dramatic situations; a character may need a song to express an idea that words alone cannot capture.  In The Threepenny Opera, songs sometimes relate to the dramatic situation but just as often, the songs are only tangentially related to what is happening between the characters.  And in some cases, the song is a complete interruption of the action.

The creators of this piece, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, were artist-activists and viewed every piece of theatre as a political statement.  To them, a work of art either supports the status quo or challenges the status quo.  To encourage their audience to think objectively and politically about the situations in their plays, they worked to prevent the audience from developing an emotional connection with the play’s characters.  This attempt became known as the “alienation effect,” and resulted in a style of performance that keeps the audience at an arm’s length from the play’s action. To achieve the alienation effect, characters might directly address the audience, reminding them they are only watching a play.  Design elements might be merely suggested rather than rendered in a realistic, lifelike manner.  Performers might deliver lines sarcastically or without realistic expressiveness, ensuring that audience members won’t empathize with the character.  And in the case of The Threepenny Opera, like many other Brecht plays, songs are used to interrupt or comment upon the action.

In my Big Plays, Big Ideas class in the BLS program, we read another Brecht play, The Life of Galileo, and discuss the ways in which Brecht alienates the audience to ensure they observe the sociopolitical circumstances that inform the characters’ behavior.  In studying other works of dramatic literature from a variety of historical periods, we find that the alienation effect was not invented by Brecht and Weill at all.

Projections and suggested scenery demonstrate the alienation effect in The Glass Menagerie.

Theatre artists in Ancient Greece employed such alienating effects in their work, and many artists in the decades since Brecht have incorporated alienating effects into their work as well.  Even Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, often considered a work of 20th century realism, is in fact inspired by Brecht and contains a variety of alienating devices.

Have you encountered the alienation effect in the theatre, or on television or in a movie?

Bobby Darin sings “Mack the Knife.”

Alan Cumming and Cyndi Lauper starred in a 2006 revival of The Threepenny Opera.  This performance is from the Tony Awards broadcast.

Video Games: Live!

By Marc Williams

RSC's production of "The Winter's Tale," photo from the RSC.

This summer’s Lincoln Center Festival in New York hosts one of the most highly-anticipated theatrical events in recent memory: a six-week residency by the Royal Shakespeare Company that began on July 6.  The RSC is located in Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s home town, and is widely considered the world’s top producer of classical theatre.  For this New York residency, not only has the RSC brought five of its exquisite productions to the Lincoln Center Festival but it has also reconstructed its Stratford performance space right inside the Park Avenue Armory.  For American theatre enthusiasts, the residency is a dream-come-true: a chance to see five RSC productions without purchasing five airline tickets.

While the RSC has generated appropriate buzz over the past few weeks, another Shakespearean experiment has stolen some headlines.  Sleep No More, a loose adaptation of Macbeth, is produced in a 1930′s Manhattan hotel on 27th Street.  The production embraces mansion-platea staging, a technique we study in my Eye Appeal class in the BLS program at UNCG.  Mansion-platea staging involves small performance areas (“mansions”) that represent a particular location in the story, with several mansions lined up in a row or circle, each representing a different location.  The actors and audience move together from one mansion to the next as the story progresses. This isn’t how most of us encounter theatre today, so Sleep No More may seem highly unusual.  However, walking through a haunted house or even sitting on Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride replicates mansion-platea staging faithfully.

Sleep No More‘s producing organization, PUNCHDRUNK, has inserted an unusual twist on mansion-platea staging: audience choice.  This production not only immerses the audience into the playing space with the actors but also gives the audience freedom to wander about the six-story building however they like.  They can follow characters from one room to the next for a linear narrative experience, or move randomly around the building for a more fractured experience.  No matter how they choose, the audience cannot possibly witness the entire production at once since there are events happening simultaneously in different areas of the building.

One of the rooms from "Sleep No More," photo from the NY Times.

I’ve not seen the production but have read much about it.  I was surprised when I read Wired.com’s Jason Schreier’s review of this production.

[Sleep No More is] a nonlinear narrative in which the order of events — and consequently, the plot — is determined by what you see.

The primary problem with this method of storytelling is that you’re not really part of it.

Sleep No More has two rules: Keep your mask on and don’t talk to anybody. Outside those restrictions, you can do whatever and go wherever you want. At one point you might wind up in a dimly lit graveyard, alone and terrified. Then you’re in a ballroom, where garishly dressed gentlemen and ladies are dancing to an infectious beat. Next you’re in a pantry, opening jars of candy and trying to decide whether eating them will kill you. Problem is, nothing you do really matters.

A screen shot from "L.A. Noire," by Rockstar Games.

The title of his review (“Interactive Play Sleep No More Feels Like a Game, But More Confusing”) suggests the experience is intended to be interactive but that  isn’t true.  He goes on to compare the production to several popular video games like L.A. Noire and Fallout: New Vegas, arguing that the games are superior experiences primarily because the game player isn’t “just an observer.”  This perspective probably seems reasonable to Schreier, who is primarily a video game critic.  My question for Schreier is: are audiences accustomed to having an effect on the outcome of a theatrical performance?

In a way, all theatre is interactive in that actor and audience inhabit the same space; the audience’s reactions and attitudes psychologically affect the actors and this effect subtly (and sometimes boldly) influences the performance.  But audiences aren’t typically expected to participate in the action, which is what Schreier seems to expect: a kind of theatrical “Choose Your Own Adventure.”

In contrast to Schreier’s dissatisfaction, several major theatre critics have responded positively to Sleep No More and audiences have been attracted to the production’s novelty.  However, many theatre practitioners have long wondered how video games and other electronic media might affect the next generation of theatregoers.  Will the theatre adapt to its changing audience? Will there be an audience at all?  Schreier’s review makes me wonder if the if the next generation of theatergoers is already clamoring for theatrical evolution.  And while PUNCHDRUNK and other organizations are experimenting with theatrical form, one has to wonder how (or if) a theatrical institution like the Royal Shakespeare Company will adapt when the time comes.  How will other artistic forms evolve with the video game generation?

It’s Not Just for Who Anymore?

By Marc Williams

A funny thing happened on the way to my DVR.  I watched the 2011 Tony Awards and enjoyed it.

Here’s a little back story:  my background is in theatre as both an actor and director.  When I was studying theatre as an undergraduate and for a few years after that, I always watched the Tony Awards live and always enjoyed them.  However, the Tony Awards has been holding on by a thread to its relationship with CBS due to historically low ratings.

In order to boost ratings, the American Theatre Wing has spent the past decade trying to validate the Tonys as a major celebrity event.  The Tonys looked to Hollywood, borrowing their celebrities for Broadway’s big night. Whichever Hollywood star happened to be on Broadway that season was begged to attend and present awards at the Tonys.  In 2004, for example, Sean Combs, Renee Zellweger, Nicole Kidman, and Scarlett Johansson presented awards—and their presence was endlessly emphasized by the broadcast.  Theatre icons like Helen Mirren and Joel Grey were virtually ignored.  This, to me, was not a celebration of Broadway but rather a desperate attempt to make Broadway seem relevant to a broad audience.  I understand the desperation.  In my BLS classes, we discuss the role of theatre in a variety of historical eras, including our own.  While students connect intellectually and emotionally to the plays we study, many students have trouble conceptualizing the texts as live performances; and that’s no surprise, really, because many students have never been to the theatre.

The Tony broadcasts of the past decade have literally begged the television audience to visit Broadway, using the glamor of Hollywood to sell its appeal.  These efforts have always seemed disingenuous to me.  Why can’t Broadway showcase its own stars?  If the work is solid and well-executed in the broadcast, surely audiences will want to see it in person. On these grounds, I’ve refused to watch the live broadcasts for the past few years.  I recorded them on my DVR and watched a few days or weeks later, skipping through all the stuff that I knew would annoy me. A few days ago, I watched the 2011 ceremony, which had aired live on June 12.

Host Neil Patrick Harris delivered an opening number that smacked the Tonys back into reality, both acknowledging and poking fun at the theatre’s niche audience.

The opening number even acknowledged that Al Pacino is “too famous” to participate in the song’s gag.  And I can’t imagine previous broadcasts would have mentioned Joe Mantello’s presence in the opening number–it was a joke only theatre fans could love. It was clear that the 2011 ceremony would be different from the recent broadcasts that had so annoyed me—and indeed it was different.  I watched every second of the broadcast, as it celebrated Broadway and avoided phony attempts to legitimize theatre’s place in popular culture.  I even found myself laughing hysterically at what appears to be Broadway’s biggest hit in years, The Book of Mormon (a new musical written by South Park co-creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone).

I immediately went to my computer to try to score a pair of tickets and plan a trip to New York.  I thought to myself, “yes! This is exactly what a Tony broadcast ought to make us do.”  The Tonys didn’t beg me to come to Broadway; they showed me something that I actually want to see.  I don’t know if next year’s Tony Awards will be as genuine as the 2011 ceremony but I am hopeful.

A side note:  I didn’t score tickets to The Book of Mormon.  The show is nearly sold out for the next six months.