Category Archives: censorship

The Beard of Avon by Amy Freed, an analysis for production

Part of the series, “…by Nancy”

TPT Commentary: This work succeeds in demonstrating an artist at the height of a playwright’s skills. The Beard of Avon tells a story, presents several messages, and challenge actors, audiences and creative teams. This all occurs while everyone has fun, forgetting that we might have suffered a little preaching along the way. Furthermore, Ms. Freed succeeds in giving her audiences a work that that is by “A” playwright, regardless of gender. I am sure that I will read several more such works as I continue my hopefully endless journey into playwrights who happen to be women. This work, however, succeeds admirably in presenting that with the restriction from the theatre and continuing to the hopefully expanding yet still reduced prominence of women we have been deprived of an important voice. That voice is unique to the chief cook, bottle washer, child-rearer, van driver, motivation coach, craftsperson, executive and artist that is the modern woman. Ms. Freed succeeds in giving us both truly complicated male characters that are central to the work and period, and thankfully two women, Queen Elizabeth and Anne Hathaway who represent the “glass ceiling” from opposing perspectives. Anne is both brilliant, passionate, beautiful, and talented…and trapped and illiterate. Elizabeth literally rules the world …but can’t get a play staged under her own name. If you’ve got the money, the creative team and cast, and an audience and board of directors who accept actors saying shit and prick several times in 2 hours, we have a winner. 

Recommendation: Strong, but only for College and Professional productions: Speedy and effortless scene changes suggesting multiple locations, well-choreographed physical comedy, constant use of verse and the necessary mastery of same, and a dozen or more of Elizabethan costumes. 

Summary: A fast-moving bawdy comedy wherein the playwright “William Shakespeare” is made manifest from a patchwork of fortunate accidents, aristocratic wit, restrictive cultural mores, and one man’s innate gift to polish, refine, focus and ornament the “almost perfect” work of a mélange of strange bedfellows.  

Themes: Talent is innate regardless of education or circumstances. Social culture creates restrictions that prohibit expression and self-realization. Theatre is a collaborative art. Which is most important to art, intellectual property, renown, or public access? 

Cast: Minimum: 7/8m, 2f with significant doubling; Maximum 11+ (speaking roles and ensemble); 2 excellent roles for women 

Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes https://www.goodmantheatre.org/season/0203/The-Beard-of-Avon/ 

Royalties (professional): by written request

Sets: Single set capable of morphing quickly and seamlessly into several English Renaissance locations: barn, backstage, simple home, theatre, lavish bed chamber, tavern, etc. 

Costumes: (12-20) Elizabethan Renaissance, from commoners to royalty (Queen, Earl), several built for quick changes, “stage costumes” from the era including a 3 for a man as a beautiful young woman 

PropsHighly Important: period pieces that quickly indicate a change in locale as stated above 

Provenance:  

Playwright: https://www.playwrightshorizons.org/shows/players/amy-freed/ 

Nominated for the 1999 Pulitzer Prize, Drama 

Joseph Kesselring Prize 

Charles MacArthur Award 

Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award (several times) 

South Coast Repertory 2009 Steinberg Commission 

Arena Stage, American Voices New Play Institute 

Play: Outstanding New Play, 2002 Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle 

Purchase

Reviews: 

New York 2003:

https://www.nytimes.com/2003/11/19/theater/theater-review-cutting-shakespeare-down-to-size-at-his-own-game.html 

http://variety.com/2001/legit/reviews/thttps://culturevulture.net/theater/the-beard-of-avon-amy-freed/he-beard-of-avon-1200468899/ 

https://www.upi.com/Review-Avon-has-fun-with-Shakespeare/89891074299261/ 

Austin, 2006

San Francisco, 2002

DC, 2005

Chicago, 2002

Seattle, 2001

Drinking: Possible and appropriate in several scenes (artistic discretion) 

Smoking: None noted (artistic discretion) 

Sex: Implication that characters have recently been in and are routinely involved in heterosexual and homosexual coital relations, implication of and comedic representation of extramarital coital relations (artistic discretion), implication of prostitution, bawdy talk (that’s not a sausage it’s my…), short song/limerick with the punchline “I took my liberty and she said nothing,” implied sadomasochism for comic effect, “Do it again. She likes it! (in the middle of a man hitting a woman in fight choreography),” other implications from classic literature and mythology if one might be informed enough to interpret them as intended 

Language: “It’s my prick, thou wilt kiss it,” shithead, “popping whatnots” (breasts),  “shit beat out of you,” frequent use of “prick,” “stupid-ass, shit-heel, retarded tinker,” “the beautiful and effeminate Third Earl of Southampton” (several times), “sodomies and buggeries, and rapes and divers pederastic flings,” “raping, murdering, polygamous father,” more “shit,” “bulges there under your Moorish cloak,” “whorehouse,” “pussy,” asses are everywhere (referring to buttocks and persons),” “hell,” “sluttish fashion,” “slut,” “hot bitch,” “whore,” “whoreson” 

Violence: Comic fight choreography where a man hits a woman several times 

Other possibly controversial subject matter: Possible theater marquees with suggestive titles (artistic discretion)  

Rating: If this were a movie, it would be rated PG. Some subject matter, however may only be appropriate for those 14 years of age and older. 

Format inspired by the sadly suspended operations of the Arkansas Repertory Theatre (then enhanced by TPT)  

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Color-Blind?

I have been open about my personal and regional demographics. I’m an “old white guy” living in dark red dot in a blue state. I can’t see crops or livestock from my windows, but both are less than a half-mile from my front door.  I routinely have deer, and even a fox or two in my yard. Yet even though I’ve lived in Miami, Manhattan and Chicago, in my life right now, I am more surprised on any given day while on my way to work to see a person of color than a wild turkey. My county is 94.6% White, non-Hispanic,  9% Latino, less than 1% Black and 1% Asian. Our town is magically more colorful in the summer when 20 or so theater professionals join us for a theatre festival. All but ONE of my current friends who are Black are those very same theatre professionals. The sum of my “friends,” Facebook plus reality, that are people of color (including Latinos, who have been in our area since the railroads were built) reflects the community in which I live. Racial statistics are almost identical for the county in which our areas most successful community theatre resides. There, the Black population increases to almost 3%. I  just don’t live in a racially diverse community.

I recently attended a production of Mary Stuart at Chicago Shakespeare TheaterThe title role was expertly performed by a talented actress of Asian descent. At least 2 Black actors joined a cast of 13. 10 White actors to 2 Blacks and one Asian. Chicago’s Cook County has 8 times the population concentration of Blacks overall ( 24%) and 2.5 times more Latinos (25%), It must be shamefully be noted that in a city so full of trained actors there were several Canadians in the cast, and a credit for “New York Casting.” Shakespeare shows have a longer-standing practice of non-traditional casting (gender, race, etc.). Plays set in fantasy locales need not care about about the gender or skin color of a fairy or an island-dwelling  monster. Polonius’ monologue to his son Laertes may just as well be spoken by a loving mother named “Polonia” sending her son off to school. Only in Othello does skin color become a casting essential.

As I continue my quest for “relevant theatre for remote venues,” I desperately want to have our local theatres reflect the complexity of the wider world. When I was one of the producer/directors of a regional comedy improv company, I credit that it was my influence that kept us from being a complete sausage party. Don’t canonize me yet; we had 3 women to 7 men in our 3-year run.  When we opened, we even had a Black performer on the team. He was also in my cast of Mister Roberts. Within our run we added an another actor of Mexican descent (one of our producer/directors was also Mexican). I routinely have an assistant director who is a woman.  Please don’t knit a pussy hat for me just yet. This is mostly because I have only met 2 humans who could stand my improvisational (re: spastic?) direction style. Even my redheaded blue-eyed wife will never do it again.

Local theaters usually have no shortage of women chasing available roles, but non-white casting may be a Sisyphean effort. When a local theater did Rent in in 2014, Collins, Mimi, and Angel were white. There are no racial specifications for the characters, but if any show flips a finger at racially-specific casting, it would be Rent. OK, Mimi’s last name is Marquez! One would hope that any non-specific racial casting would be filled with persons of color. Please note, the local production of To Kill a Mockingbird almost didn’t happen because Black actors simply didn’t attend the auditions. I fear that the director was nearly reduced to walking down the street with a script in one hand, and running up to unsuspecting people with the greeting, “Hey, you’re Black, would you mind reading this?”

The local professional summer stock closed last year’s season with a slightly genderbent and culturally-colorful Seussical, a nearly entirely gender-flipped Comedy of Errors, a cross-dressing dancer in Sweet Charity, and a beautiful production about two women finding love in Stop/Kiss.  Alas, the feminist genius behind that vision moved on and away after artistic differences. Add to this the perspective that it is a professional theatre, and so is cast from colleges, conferences, and cattle calls from across the country. This year’s fare is more commercial, but still challenging. Non-traditional casting, if implemented, will have to be very intentional.

I return to my own quest. We have a growing sector of non-white populations in rural America. They are part of our story. Women keep theatre alive out here. They are not only our patrons, but our teachers, actors, directors, board members, administrators, costume chiefs and tailors, stage managers, conductors and pit musicians, prop masters, set painters, and housekeeping staff. With all this participation, it is harder to sell ticket to a show where women, and actors of color are the heros.  As I have said before, even if we want to, we have not yet, in the category of non-whites, been able to fill the costumes. Women have, in several facets of your naughty and enlightened understandings, been able to fill out their costumes…and admirably.

How do I continue my quest for equanimity? First, I read lots and lots of plays written by women. As I may have opened Pandora’s box, I predict that I’ll be doing this almost exclusively for several years. Next, I will continue to fill my production teams with women. This fosters new directors and enlightens my creativity.  I am also raising two very theatre savvy and issue-conscious women (one’s bedroom wall).  In the world of non-white casting, I am open to non-white casting in roles where it is not distracting. I’m sorry, if one of the brothers in Seven Brides… is Southeast Asian, it stands out rather emphatically and begs some saucy questions. I did have a very enthusiastic Asian male attend my auditions for Proof (2005). I could not cast him because alas there is no role in Proof for a 5 foot tall 16-year-old male. I’m sorry that I never saw him again. Hell, I have wanted to do Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner for years, so badly, that I work it into a conversation with any poised Black man or woman who crosses the county line and is unlucky enough to be with me in a grocery store cashier line:. “Have you ever done any theater?” Yes, it’s creepy. Of course this conversation still begs the question, “Why don’t YOU, Mr. Pleasantville Thespian step aside?” Right now, the current method of getting a show on the region’s non-professional stages is a submission from a director. Only recently, have play selection committees been proactive about seasonal offerings (and have members under 50). I will not apologize for my gender, or my ethnicity.

I cannot do it alone. I’m still one of those old white guys. I was told by a play selection committee how brave its theatre was for doing Cabaret and Chorus Line. I shot back that their audience members had been their 20s when the original productions had hit Broadway. Blacks, Asians, Latinos, and First Nation peoples please come into the theaters, read for parts and volunteer for production roles. Women, you are leaders. Form your own teams, read your sister’s plays, and submit your own concepts. And…For God’s Sake..do not make me ever have to see another production of The Marvelous Swim Club of Church Basement Nuns. I’m waiting.

F…k!

I just read that another local company is mounting a production of David Auburn’s Proof. I wish them amazing success. While many surrounding theatres have been staging retreads of R&H princess stories, “direct to community theatre” derivative farces, and 1950s dramas on life support, this brave theatre has launched Hairspray, Legally Blonde the Musical, and Bonnie and Clyde. With any luck, Proof may yet help them overcome an addiction to Ken Ludwig.

Back in 2005, because I so powerfully longed to bring Proof to my local audience, I made Faustian bargain: The board agreed to greenlight the show, but only if I agreed to replace or remove the offending language. At the time and still now, in this latitude and longitude, “offending language” meant the word “fuck.” “Bullshit” made the cut. Over a month or more, this writer who had never written more than a 15-minute scene barely passable for the 5th season of “Raising Hope” and some naughty songs I would sing to myself while riding my bike in junior high school, set out to rewrite a PULITZER PRIZE WINNING PLAY. I thought myself quite shrewd as I decided which “fucks” to delete and which to replace. Needless to say, I’m sure that I never matched the beautiful alliteration and precise emotional expression of Claire suffering a horrendous hangover and therefore vitriolically profaning “those fucking physicists.”

The show was beautiful. I was graced to assemble the most talented and appropriate cast that anyone might wish for in a rural Mid-western crossroads. The set that I had roughly drawn on a scrap of paper was fully realized as the rear patio of a two-story turn of the century home with weathered siding, a neglected potting table, a cleverly disguised rear projection screen, and a suggested interior and surrounding neighborhood that disintegrated into chalk drawings. I found a composer who offered his prerecorded violin score specifically written for the show at an entirely reasonable price. Most importantly, I found an audience, who were so invested that they immediately and quite audibly gasped when the Act One blackout fell EVERY NIGHT. For our efforts, I received the greatest and saddest compliment of my directing career, “This show shouldn’t be here.”

Shall I be the first to let the cat out of the bag? Here goes: Guess what Samuel French, Dramatists Play Service, Tams-Witmark, and Music Theatre International? My literary transgression has been perpetrated time and time again by theatre companies trying to shoe-horn good theatre with regionally uncomfortable content into the realm of acceptable for their audiences. My f-bomb shell-game is child’s play compared to the rewriting, song switches, and gender and racial recasting, done to make shows possible for production in the conservative, Caucasian, and x-chromosome dominant demographic of most community (and high school) theatres. I’m guessing that most of us are doing it without the blessing of expressed written permission. If you say, “No,” we’ve got a season to reconstruct, a budget to re-write, and marketing to re-think. Some of us march ahead holding noses and wearing waders. Others jump in to the sullied waters head first. After all, which theatrical licensing agency is going to pay to send an auditor to see a $2000 production of Pippin in Funkley, Minnesota?

Without new work, what can we produce? There is always the cadre of aforementioned retreads and low quality, second-rate, royalty free fare. It is with some sadness, but an understanding of necessity, that one local theatre dropped its 20 year restriction of shows previously produced. “New work” is a relative term. Often a show less than 40 years old has ethnicities we cannot responsibly cast, moral challenges for which we fear backlash, and a dearth of the familiarity that sells tickets.

Let’s face it. The people who write the checks that keep the roof over our heads and ticket prices under $100 dollars truly fear that if the blasphemy of “fuck” occurs within the confines of this sacred house of feathers and glitter, the Lord himself may well move up the scheduled date of Armageddon. A word that falls easily from the lips of many 11 year-old boys and has been gymnastically adapted to five of the nine parts of speech has a visceral impact on the faces and bodies of the bedrock demographic of our subscriber base. I don’t blame them. It is good that language has its rules and place. When I bang my thumb with a hammer, I need a word that expresses my dismay with more zeal than “applesauce!” or “durn!” With my religious beliefs however, I am personally more uncomfortable with exclaiming “Jesus Christ” for comic effect. Personally, I’m shocked that our patrons seem to care less about defaming deities than they do about that naughty F-word, even when an actor might exclaim that they don’t give one. Don’t get me wrong, my 16-year old daughter deserves a detention and my stern reprimand when she uses it in the hallways of our local high school. Every American (even playwrights and librettists) should strive to develop a vocabulary that increasingly includes the incredibly descriptive but rarely used words of our beautifully rich English language, and decreasingly make use of yet another mutation of “the fuck,” “fucking,” and “fuck me.”

Playwrights don’t write the words that people should speak. Modern playwrights write dialogue, with hopefully more elegant metaphor and coincidence, in the broken and profane reflection of how we do speak, and rightfully so. Shakespeare said it more eloquently than I ever could:

“.. the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the
first and now, was and is, to hold, as ’twere, the
mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature,
scorn her own image, and the very age and body of
the time his form and pressure.” (Hamlet, III, ii)

How can theater artists continue to speak to a modern audience, if we do not speak their language? True, we still do Shakespeare, but as any trained actor knows, even in King Lear, there’s always a dick joke. All art that continues to rely on patrons walks a delicate balance between the sacred and the profane. We attract with beauty and entertain by titillation. Language, even profane or vulgar, plays both parts.

Such is the balancing act. I truly think that I’ve recently heard someone being called a “dick” on network television. I remember when to say that something “sucked” didn’t mean it “sucked eggs” and deserved a trip to the principal’s office and a call home. What would happen if “fuck” became another word everyone accepts? It would no longer be funny when the little old man uttered it in the latest comedy.   It wouldn’t quite express the angst of the embittered teen in a cinematic tour de force. It would just be a passable utterance ignored like the so many “damns” and “hells” in a day at the office or on the line at the grocery store. But maybe, just maybe, I could hear Claire actually say “fucking physicists” out loud, in the dark, with 100 other people in folding chairs on a Saturday afternoon in Funkley, Minnesota.