Tea and Sympathy: How far have we grown?

Originally published in FaceBook Notes

January 28, 2014 at 12:18pm

I must admit, I typically only spend time reading plays that I think I can submit for performance locally. I read the character list and stop when I find a black character (I believe I have cast the only black person locally, Rent 2015 makes 2). I stop when I see a need for for numerous actors (casting and scheduling six actors is often more than enough of nightmare). I read the set description, and stop when it calls for multiple realistic settings. I especially stop when the tally of words on the “no-no list” exceeds what I perceive as the censors’ line in the sand. I’m not proud, just practical.

Being home bound by the cold, I pulled out my 50 Best Plays of the American Theatre (selected by Clive Barnes, 1969, Crown Publishers, NY). Inside I found a play with a single interior set design, a cast of 11 (on my high side), with no characters of color, and dialogue which may not even contain the word “damn.” Yet I’m still left wondering if this poignant drama might get more than a reading at a coffee shop around here.

Tea and Sympathy by Robert Anderson was first produced on Broadway in 1953. The play deals with malicious suspicion, culturally sanctioned harassment, and the persistent, pervasive and dubious definition of masculinity that still drives people to commit the first two crimes on this list. Its progression of events, and implied social impact on the life’s of its characters may seem more firmly rooted in the time period of the play in an era that makes a great show of tolerance. The crimes of the heart and mind, however, still linger. As a school social worker I am routinely employed in healing the damage.

Obstacles other than subject matter: Finding a young man locally who looks the part of the 17 1/2 year old protagonist and is also brave enough to take on the role may prove difficult. NOTE: It’s not certain if ANYONE in the play identifies as homosexual! It also calls for 4-5 more prep school boy-actors which might be harder to find around here than at a girls’ boarding school. There is also one implied romantic encounter between a 23 year old woman and the protagonist. Of course we’ve seen adults hop in an out of myriad romantic encounters in an endless steam of bedroom farces. We’ve laughed it up when the stereotypical upstairs neighbor “poof” waltzes into the fray. Oh how we roared when two male actors wrestled into a position of implied sodomy! This play however might reveal how little we’ve really grown in 60 years.

http://www.samuelfrench.com/p/1038/tea-and-sympathy

Why Not? August Osage County by Tracy Letts: an analysis for production

Originally Published January 25, 2014 in Facebook Notes:

Please note that I review the plays that I read in light of their artistic merit, but also the probability that they might be successfully mounted in the market where I direct: North Central Illinois community theatre:

August: Osage County by Tracy Letts has brilliant dialogue. With each utterance, myriads of telling character subtleties are unfolded. The tempo, juxtaposition and choices offered in every human transaction are an actor’s and director’s dream. That being said, this tragicomedy (and what family reunion isn’t?) that peels away generations of dysfunction may never see the light of day in a local community theatre production. EVERY vulgar utterance is essential to the discourse unveiling the bitter truths and comic pathos of the play. To cut one word would be dishonorable to the playwright (who has been inspired by his own story) and grand theft to the actors who seek to create truth. Locally, finding the large complement of sixty-somethings and forty-somethings to honorably fill the 13 member ensemble cast would take the chance that most every A-game talent we have in a 60 mile radius would be simultaneously available.

The following has been edited and added 1/27/15: With that, I hesitate to conceive that any local theatre might successfully build and house the 3-story set with as much realistic detail as the play demands.

After further review of my own comments, why NOT? If the surrounding theatres were to bind together as a collective might we not (warnings posted) work together to bring this gem to the stage? With posted caveats, could we not present this piece with our combined talents and run it one weekend per month in ALL participating locations? What a coup THAT would be!
http://www.dramatists.com/cgi-bin/db/single.asp?key=3969

The Last Night of Ballyhoo by Alfred Uhry: an analysis for production

Originally published on Facebook Notes: July 19, 2014 at 3:01pm

Afred Uhry is best known for his wildly successful Driving Miss Daisy. This comedy (1997 Tony Award for Best Play ) is also set amidst the Jewish upper middle class of Atlanta, GA. The “Ballyhoo” of which they speak is something of a Jewish debutante ball where the German Jews make sure their daughters are in the running for joining the right families. Not only is Ballyhoo imminent but also the opening of the film “Gone with the Wind” and Christmas. The Frietag /Levy family has spent several generations becoming Atlanta gentility, perhaps at the expense of their cultural identity. There is no greater sign of this cultural fracture than the large lighted Christmas tree in the foyer. The central question of the play is, “What is more important who you are or who you appear to be?” The cultural identity themes will resonate with the descendants of Mexicans and Eastern Europeans of the Illinois Valley. Oh… And YES it is very funny. There are serious themes which are mostly dealt with in a very light manner.

Casting should be simple. All actors are Caucasian. The script calls for four actors in their 20s and three people in their mid-to-late 40s. Dialects are gentle Atlanta and Brooklyn Jewish. There is a 20-year-old male with bright red hair (Peachy Weil). This trait is essential and scripted as it is a feature that makes the character obviously “other.”

The creative team will have to up their ante for this show. There are three “sets.” A short scene set taking place in an anteroom of a country club, can be performed in front of the curtain with no props. There are two scenes in a sleeping compartment of the train which would have to be simply done. It would be difficult to hide this set piece during the main action taking place in an upper-middle-class Atlanta home. The time is December 1939 and costumes include business clothes, day clothes, two obviously handmade sweaters, and fancy dress formals. Peachy will probably need to color his hair or get a really, really good wig. A 1939 men’s hairstyle should be relatively short.

http://www.dramatists.com/cgi-bin/db/single.asp?key=2480

Unnecessary Farce by Paul Slade Smith

This farce is VERY funny. I usually cringe (or run) when I am handed a farce to read that I don’t recognize. Community theatres are awash in poorly written farces where all characters are exactly the same people when they slammed the first bedroom door as when they slammed the last. They often have low royalty fees, and have only been produced at other community theatres, not in discerning professional houses.  UF boasts (on its own site) that is is a “winner of 9 regional theatre awards.”

Due to my prejudices, I avoided reading this farce for weeks. I must admit there is no character growth here either. But, I didn’t care. By the time I had finished reading it, I had almost entirely cast the show in my head. If I could get half these people on board, it would be very entertaining to go to rehearsal. All roles should easily be filled by your theatre’s existing actor pool.

I was turned off by the extensive notes from the playwright on how the show should be played. Notes on his style and intention of punctuation are acceptable, but more and more precise notes on how to play the show were condescending. Leave Acting 101 to directors and teachers. If you haven’t made the play obvious in your dialogue, you haven’t your job. Liner notes don’t make a great album. Read the play first. If you need help directing or acting a moment, think about glancing at them.

Oh…The author is a shameless self-promoter: http://www.unnecessaryfarce.com/.

Casting: Most rolls may be filled by actors of any ethnicity. One male role must be Caucasian (a Scottish hitman).

4 males, 3 females

Most roles late 20’s to early 50’s, 2 roles: 50s to 70s

Running time: 110 – 120 minutes

Props/Scenery: 1 set: interior of 2 furnished adjoining modern basic motel rooms: 7 doors (it’s a bedroom farce) and common hallway, 4 realistic guns (1 must be a water gun), video camera on tripod, video recorder and small monitor, large platter of donuts (several practical, 1 cruller), large plaid duffel bag, bagpipes (they don’t need to be practical), several plaid ties, 2 pair handcuffs, ficus tree, modern hotel phones (long cords, attached to tables), hangers, a vase or lamp that can seem to be safely shattered by the force of a gunshot (nightly), without injuring actors.

Costumes: Full Highlander costume (hat, sporran, kilt/tartan, peasant shirt, belt w/holster, kilt socks, etc.), female police officer uniform (hat, shoes, etc.), regular duty holster and belt with common accessories, 3 shoulder holsters, 2 pair of handcuffs (practical), 2 nice suits (men’s), 2 sport coat/slacks (men’s), women’s business suit, form fitting slip, sleeveless blouse, appropriate attire for casually dressed mature female, 2 sets of male under garments including boxers.

Challenges:

  • Casting a classically built male who can perform a credible Scottish accent
  • It would be a benefit to safety and realism to hire a real fight choreographer
  • Language/Situations: shit: 2, “cut your balls off,” many “oh my God,” several sexual innuendos, grunting and tussling mistakenly suggesting sexual intercourse, suggested (not actual) homosexual coupling
  • Renting realistic firearms/holsters

Scripts and rights: http://www.playscripts.com/play/1490

Polish Joke by David Ives

Polish Joke is an outrageous, funny and touching look at how we are often weighed down with a learned but imaginary case of self-loathing. Embracing ourselves fully, and not taking ourselves so seriously, is the cure to making a life worth living. The Illinois Valley has many citizens of Polish (and other Eastern European) descent who, if they saw past some of the language, would highly identify with the show’s themes and cultural references. Anyone who feels both bound and cursed by their cultural heritage should be entertained and moved by this play.

When you read this play, think, “Is it funny? Is it true?” Please avoid thinking, “Will the Polish-American Social Club pull its funding for the theatre?” It will be easier for potential audience members than for scrutinizing readers to see beyond a priest using the f-bomb about nuns, or a doctor testing if a woman wearing the Polish flag gives the lead character an erection.  There is an instance where the lead character discovers that he has lost his vocation. His sense of loss is beautifully written, and the discovery is punctuated by expletives. The language comes from his anger and sadness, not the opportunity to elicit laughter. The playwright’s craft is far more sophisticated in Joke than Don Juan; the payoff, more nuanced.

So little scenery makes for cheap production costs and helps the actors and director focus more on story-telling. This play is risky, but worth a shot for the brave.

Challenges:

Language:

  • “Fuck”: Up to 12 times throughout:
    • The word is isolated to 3 out of 13 scenes
    • A priest describes a nun’s practical joke, “They’ll fuck us all, the nuns.”
    • “feckin’” is used a few times in an Irish-themed scene.
  • “Tits”: Used once to ask which color is the top on the nurse’s teddy.
  • “Masturbating” : Used to report the commission of same
  • In an Irish brogue: “As stout and as hard as the paynis on a championship racehorse at studtime.”/ ”Aye. Aye. A stout hard paynis, begosh.”

Scenery: The trap-door for the miner mentioned above

Accents:

  • Old world Polish, 2 male, 2 female
  • Stereotypical Irish: 2 female, 1 male
  • Much use of Polish (phonetically spelled in text, but must be practiced and perfect)

Running time: 2 hours, plus one 15-minute intermission (http://www.curtainup.com/polishjoke.html)

Fee: $80 per performance

http://www.dramatists.com/cgi-bin/db/single.asp?key=3214

Available for lending from UIC Library, Chicago, IL

polish joke cover

Don Juan in Chicago by David Ives

Pros: Don Juan is a quick and fabulously farce with a beautiful ending twist. Unlike many lesser farces, the major characters grow, change and learn. One set = cheaper production costs!

Challenges:

Language:

  • “Fuck”: Up to 10 times throughout
  • “Fellatio”: Used to report the commission of same
  • Several references to sex (the play is about Don Juan!)

Action: Stereotypical “sex noises” are heard onstage while the act is masked by a curtained bed

Verse: Much of the play is in tight rhyming verse. This will take much practice to make perfect.

Casting: 5 males, 3 females, 20-50

Major characters:

Don Juan: male, late 20’s-early 30’s

Leporello: male, late 30’s-late 40’s

Mephistopheles: male, 20-70

Elvira: female, late 20’s-early 30’s

Props/Scenery: One set: a vaguely medieval room which could be in a castle in 1599 or an apartment building in 2015 (with different furniture).

Difficult props:

  • Medieval sorcery props: hourglass, flasks, bubbling cauldron, standing candleholders, etc.
  • Prop dagger /knife with retractable blade for stabbing
  • Mephistopheles needs magic tricks (poof-appear, poof-a contract)

Costumes:

1599:

  • Rich Medieval costumes for 2 males, 1 female
  • Mephistopheles: Medieval representation of the devil (also Act 2)

2015: modern costumes for 7 actors, devil same as above

Available for lending from Augustana College, Tredway Library, Rock Island , IL

http://variety.com/1995/legit/reviews/don-juan-in-chicago-1200440947/

http://www.nytheatre.com/Review/richard-hinojosa-2005-3-4-don-juan-in-chicago

DJCHI

Who am I… 613##!

If you’ve read my previous posts via Facebook Notes or are familiar with the region in which I direct, you will understand the proclivities of the mentioned producing bodies, and my own preferences and prejudices. Thus is the lens through which I review and/or analyze my readings.

If you have not been previously informed please read on:

I am a white, non-Hispanic, middle-class, practicing Roman Catholic, 48 year old husband and father of two daughters. I was born in Long Island, NY and raised in Central/South Florida (East coast, pop. 30,000). I graduated from Catholic grade school and high school. I received a BFA in Theatre from a large private university. I interned at a noted regional theatre and pursued a theatrical career in Florida, New York and Illinois for 5 years before my marriage in 1993. After several attempts to find out what I want to be when I grow up, I earned my MSW from a large public university in the Mid West while being an at-home father for my daughter and providing daycare for 2 other children. I am currently a school social worker in rural North Central Illinois.  In that past 21 years, I have been blessed to work with some well-established community theatres, some fledgling organizations, my own improv company (now retired), and a professional summer stock company in residence within walking distance of my doorstep. I have lived in Miami, Manhattan, Chicago, and a rural town of 800. I now live in semi-rural North Central Illinois city (pop. 7500) that friends say reminds them of Pleasantville (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0120789/).

This blog will analyze plays in reference to their possible production in my local theatrical venues. The institution where I most often direct/perform is a well-established community theatre with an excellent  facility and strong subscriber base. This institution most often produces safer productions which you could list from theatrical history without my assistance and a smattering of fad farces. They have been brave enough to mount Death of a Salesman, ‘Night Mother, Amadeus and Proof (1995) in the last 20 years. This past summer, they had a special non-subscription weekend run (what is locally called “a fifth show”) of Rent (19 years after the original production). Bravery exists, but has waned with the recent economy, a conservative, older subscriber base and a board who must answer to both the patrons and the recurring needs of leaking roofs and drafty windows. What is acceptable, even expected, on Broadway stages and regional theatres in the last 20 years has fast outdistanced the acceptability equations of our community in both content and multiculturalism. Our African-American and recent immigrant Latino populations are growing but have not yet equitably folded into the larger culture. Our theatres have no regular black actors and only a few Latinos.

With all this in mind, my goal is to find and produce theatre with which my community can identify and by which it can be inspired. Moreover, if I’m going to leave the house for 3 hours a day, 3-4 days per week for 8 weeks, and drive 30 minutes each way, sometimes in winter, and get up at 4am to workout before I go to work 50 minutes from home…it better be worth my (and my family’s) time.

I am ALWAYS looking for suggestions of plays to read. I like to direct play’s that are not stupid . I like cerebral. I’ll take witty. I’ll take well-crafted farce. I’ve got to get it produced here Pleasantville. That often means that nobody dies that anybody cares about. The language can’t go as far as the F bomb. I refuse to censor scripts. I prefer casts of 10 and under. I prefer plays set ANYWHERE else but The Northeast. I prefer American playwrights. I prefer a time period of 1920 to the present. HERE WE GO!

new theatre for remote venues