A crossover between tribute concert and musical theater, A Night with Janis Joplin at the Ordway is a unique, mesmerizing performance. Using the concert format as a source to tell Joplin’s story, this show uses conversations to the audience between songs (some of my favorite parts of concerts) and Joplin’s music and music of those who influenced her to convey her presence as an artist. Mary Bridget Davies makes a stunning Janis and blows the audience away with her vocals. Hitting the robust growl perfectly, her voice is a perfect impression of Joplin’s skill and timbre.
Also taking stage are various actresses playing the parts of Joplin’s influencers – Bessie Smith and Odetta (Cicily Daniels), Etta James (Tawny Dolley), Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone (Q. Smith), and a woman known as Blues Singer (Jennifer Leigh Warren). In what feels like a dream concert inside Janis’ mind, she interacts with the women who made music one of the most important parts of her life and taught her about the blues. The concert itself is an exploration of what the blues is and what it means to Janis.
Adding incredible solos and support to this work is the band, who not only personify the era by their dress and physicality, but also switch between genres to express the mood of the blues and personality of Joplin’s influencers. The band, directed by Mark Berman, acts as much as they perform the music and provide more than just accompaniment. The lighting design of the show is also brilliant, creating the mood of the 60s in a concert environment along with projections behind the stage to add to Joplin’s story.
Though the show is more concert than musical theater story, there were moments I wish the piece had stayed in longer – Joplin’s grappling with a world that kills blues artists (in this instance, Bessie Smith, who I had just happened to read about before seeing the show and learned she died after a car accident because the hospital she was taken to refused to treat her due to her race), Joplin’s wanting to be like Zelda Fitzgerald but to not end up with her fate, her struggles with how being with a man has never been as good as the feeling she gets being front of an audience, and her conflict between wanting to be in a relationship but not wanting to put her musical ambition and her life on the road aside for it. The show poignantly touches on all of these, but I would have loved more thoughts from Janis on them, to hold to those conflicts a little longer. However, much of the music does that work as well, and we do experience those moments throughout her powerful, bluesy songs.
Though Joplin’s death is hinted at, it never is mentioned in the show. Instead, it focus on her life and her legacy and gives a possible answer, as the Ordway’s website asks, “what might have been” had Joplin lived beyond age 27. It works with how we remember people and how we tell their story and, instead of making it about Janis’ death, it makes it about her life. I’ve never seen a show get standing ovations throughout the show, but this one got them several times. It’s a lot of fun and a great tribute to an incredible artist.
A Night with Janis Joplin is written and directed by Randy Johnson. It is playing now through April 3rd at the Ordway Center of Performing Arts in St. Paul. Ticket information and prices can be found on the Ordway’s website.
This is the second in a series of posts I’ll be writing on the topic of theater criticism. In this selection, I’ll be looking at Oscar Wilde’s ideas of criticism and how it can become an art form of its own.
If you happened to see The Critic/The Real Inspector Hound at the Guthrie this March, you know how easily theater criticism can go awry and make it only too easy to poke fun at it. But put this behind for a moment and instead regard the critic differently – for instance, from the view of Oscar Wilde.
I am unabashedly an Oscar Wilde fan. One of my favorite works of his (aside from the brilliance that is The Importance of Being Earnest) is The Critic as an Artist, an essay written as a dialogue between two men. In it, Gilbert and Earnest discuss whether or not artists should pay any mind to critics and what the whole point of judging art is. Earnest argues that art was best when there were no critics, while Gilbert says there have always been critics, explaining how ancient Greece was a society of critics that recognized “the most perfect art is that which most fully mirrors man in all his infinite variety.” Criticism from one’s self and others, in Gilbert’s view, allows for artists to find new ways to create and recreate while critics “record one’s own soul” by sharing their own impressions. Art becomes part of one’s personal experiences and can be enjoyed beyond what makes it technically great or meet’s someone else’s expectations.
Gilbert continues to describe the art of criticism, stating that “the actor is the critic of drama,” taking a writer’s work, studying and analyzing it and making it their own in their performance. Works of art are living things and, by interacting with them, we change them and allow ourselves opportunities to grow and complicate ourselves. For Gilbert, art is universal, not just for specialists. In fact, Gilbert argues that great artists cannot really judge their work or the work of others because of their vision. It is better then to be an outside observer who is passionate but not a part of the creation process. There’s a lot of truth to this and some fallacies – I personally think artists make great critics, though there are instances where they can get hung up on certain aspects because of the work they do. Likewise, misunderstandings from outside observers can occur because they don’t know the depth and work put into an artist process. However, in Gilbert’s world where art is universal, it seems there would be better communication about the creative process and the amount of effort put into artist endeavor would not be overlooked.
Then again, Oscar Wilde isn’t concerned about effort and work levels maintained by artists the way my Marxist (i.e.: class)-tuned brain is (which thanks to my undergraduate degree, it’s a frequency I’m always tuned to). Oscar Wilde was quite the dandy and a hedonist. He focused greatly on aestheticism and the beauty of things over the socio-political importance. Much of his ideas of criticism are contemplating the aesthetic qualities of art. However, his arguments work to support the importance of the ephemeral, so to speak, and the socio-political and deeper humanitarian qualities that make art great, whether he likes it or not. Wilde’s ideas still hold up, even for Marxist theory (“Art is for everyone!” especially). I rather hope that he’d appreciate me taking his ideas and creating new concepts with them, rather than being upset for re-appropriating his ideas to philosophies he had nothing to do with.
Of course the real question about Wilde is does he care so much about aesthetics because people think it’s frivolous and therefore unintelligent and unimportant and is arguing otherwise, or does he really only care about that because he’s a dandy? Or both, because people can be contradictory? I vote for both. Regardless, his writing allows us as artists and critics to reevaluate how we see and interact with the art that is so much a part of our lives. It speaks to the communication between artist and audiences that I strive for and breaks down the pinnacle we place both artists (in terms of perfection) and critics (in terms of being the ultimate source of opinion in art). Plus this piece is full of some of Wilde’s best quotes:
“Any idea that is not dangerous is not worthy of being called an idea at all.”
“What people call insincerity is simply a method by which we can multiply our personalities.”
“Yes, I am a dreamer. For a dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.”
So if you’re looking for a quick, clever read, I highly recommend this. It celebrates art, the creators of it, and the observers of it in the best of ways and allows for a lot of thought, discussion, disagreement, and growth.
“The Normal Heart” is a show that weighs heavily on the audience after seeing it. Staged by New Epic Theater in the North Loop’s Lab Theater, it is written by Larry Kramer and originally premiered Off-Broadway in 1985. In this production, the warehouse space of the Lab creates an unsettling atmosphere, with rough brick walls and eerie preshow music played low enough that it can go unnoticed, but once heard cannot be ignored.
Given that much of this show is about being heard and not being ignored, it’s the perfect way to set the scene. The story revolves around Ned Weeks (Michael Wieser) and his work to gain attention on the AIDS outbreak in New York City. It’s the early ’80s and no one knows how the virus is being transmitted. Ned, motivated by advice from Dr. Emma Brookner (Michelle O’Neill) and sick of seeing his friends dying, decides to start a crisis organization to draw attention and support for those in the gay community suffering from the disease. He clashes against his brother Ben (Zach Curtis) who, as a lawyer, will not help his organization and has never seen Ned as an equal. Ned also faces dissension from those in the gay community and in his crisis organization. Bruce (Torsten Johnson), Tommy (Antonio Duke), and Mickey (Adam Qualls) go head to head with what they see as his fear-mongering and telling people how to live their lives. Mickey and Bruce especially dislike Ned’s urging for people to come out, as they hold jobs where being openly gay would make life harder for them – especially Mickey, who faces growing tension with his boss in the city health department, Hiram Keebler (Grant Sorenson). On top of this, Ned is emotionally dealing with the first serious relationship he has had with New York Times writer Felix Turner (Jucoby Johnson). As a person who had been accused of unlearning how to love, Ned struggles with his feelings and the ways in which AIDS becomes a more and more personal issue, continuing to love even while around him he is surrounded by more and more death.
Powerfully capturing the beginning of the AIDS outbreak in a theatrical piece long before Rent or Angels in America would be written, The Normal Heart packs a hell of a punch. It’s one of those shows where you can hear the entire audience crying by the end (and I was certainly one of them) and where the vivid imagery of words disturbs and destroys as much as it enlightens and creates. The use of movement and lighting in this staging – especially with the clever incorporation of fluorescent lights – is wonderful. A musical soundtrack of Queen is interwoven throughout the piece (which I’m curious if this called for in the script or a choice made by this production), at times seeming a bit over the top but more often driving home emotional peaks and themes in the scenes they follow. The use of cigarette smoke and food onstage also adds scent as backdrop to the production, using another sensory element with a unique impact.
This show is riveting and packs in a lot of deep conflict and pertinent issues. Revolving around the horrors of an unknown disease, issues of leadership – especially in grassroots organizations, fighting for proper healthcare, debates about sexuality, and divisions inside the gay community, The Normal Heart covers a lot of ground. The arguments that Bruce, Mickey, and Ned have around the topic of promiscuous sex is powerful. Ned, following the advice of Dr. Brookner (who likens casual sex to junk food), argues that AIDS is likely sexually transmitted and urges for his friends to stop having sex. Mickey and Bruce, however, see this in a much different way – to them, Ned is making sex dirty and wrong again, an issue that the gay community has fought against for years – and continue to fight. Some aspects of the gay culture shown here do feel dated – the statement “I don’t believe in lesbians” and the discussion of transvestites shows the limitations of gay culture in the early ’80s but also nods towards how they are continually overlooked in the issues of today. Other moments are clearly relevant to today. In one of the most powerful scenes, Tommy asks during a eulogy, “Why are they letting us die?” Given Antonio Duke is the actor delivering this line, this becomes not just about sexuality but about race and refusing to see the problems that are so obviously in front of us.
In the program, director Joseph Stodola describes how this show, along with the theater’s other production performed by the same cast, Corioloanus (which I’ll be seeing next week), deal with political issues of those fighting from the margins.”There are no heroes or villains in this kind of theater,” Stodola says. “There are emotions, flaws, complexities, ideologies. There are no easy answers or happy endings.” This is exactly what The Normal Heart achieves – complex issues, powerful characters that are neither good nor bad, and many questions left unanswered. As the lobby display reminds us outside the theater: there is still no cure for AIDS.
The Normal Heart is written by Larry Kramer and directed by Joseph Stodola. It is playing now through April 16th at the Lab Theater in Minneapolis. Show information and ticket prices can be found on New Epic Theater’s website.
This is the first in a series of posts I’ll be writing on the topic of theater criticism. In this selection, I’ll be looking at how we think about the shows we watch and how our use of labels cam be harmful.
On March 19th, I attend Taylor Mac’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Music: The 20th Century Abridged. It was an incredible performance art concert that was incredibly thought-provoking and has kept me thinking long after I left the theater.
At the beginning of the show, Mac described the performance as a “shared experience, but not a homogeneous one.” We may be watching the same show, but we aren’t all seeing it the same way. As audience members, we were encouraged to embrace whatever we felt and that there was no one correct way to react to the show. In a culture that focuses on feeling just one thing or be only one thing or another, Mac explained, it’s important to embrace “both earnestness and cynicism.”
It’s refreshing to be allowed to accept what you are experiencing, especially the range, the nuances, and the contradictions of reactions, regardless of whether it’s what the rest of the audience is feeling or what the artist wants to see. As a critic and an artist myself, it’s often difficult to figure out how to deal with such responses. All too often, “professional” criticism and conversations about shows become focused on the right or the wrong way to see a show or whether it’s good or bad. I’m far less interested in these things. I’m a highly emotional person and I’m more interested in what a performance makes me feel, what it causes me to think about, what it’s saying about the world around me and what resonates with me.
However, those reactions can’t always be put into the categories we’re used to – art that’s good or bad, art that is happy or sad, art that is simple or complex. Mac, who resists normative categorizations, especially in terms of gender and uses judy as a pronoun, is the perfect voice to support the resistance of lumping art off in the same way. It’s unlikely that we’ll ever like all parts of a show and wrong to pretend we do. It feels wrong to use words that hold a moral stance – such as good or bad – to describe performances and it seems too final to think that our opinions on shows won’t change overtime or with further thought. There are many shows I disliked at the moment and grew to like overtime and shows I enjoyed until thinking of further contexts and realized their flaws. Final judgement in reviewing a show is a difficult notion but one that is expected and one that I am drawn to resist. As we shouldn’t segment people into static categories that never change (I’m thinking in terms of labels or personality classifications here), we likewise shouldn’t segment the art they make either.
Mac stated during the performance that judy focuses on humanity rather than perfection. I aim to do that my own creative work and reviewing. For when we put perfection aside, we can begin to think about why we create art, why we watch it, and why it’s important to us. And when we ask those questions, we deepen our understanding not only of art, but of ourselves.
With it being Women’s History Month, there’s no time like the present for History Theatre’s production of Watermelon Hill. A story based off of the book Shadow Mothers by Linda Back McKay, the script by Lily Barber Cole focuses on three young women at the Catholic Infant Home in St Paul in 1965. The women are not here entirely by choice – they have been persuaded, either by their families or their circumstances – to disappear from the lives they know until they conceive the children they are carrying out of wedlock. All three women share a dorm and have the same due dates, causing them to bond together even though they don’t know each others real names and are forbidden to talk about their lives outside of the home. Through various conversations, flashbacks, dreams, and monologues, their stories unfold nonetheless and a striking, painful image of three young women judged by their circumstances of being unwed mothers unfolds. Leah (Aeysha Kinnunen) has come here at the persuasion of her mother, who doesn’t want her daughter’s college career to be “ruined” by a baby conceived by Leah’s boyfriend. Sharon (Adelin Phelps) has fled a dominating parent and is worried about being behind in high school when she returns, pining after a boyfriend who has never tried to get in touch with her. Joan (Emily Gunyo Halaas) hides the circumstances of how she came to be pregnant and uses a biting sense of humor and her Jewish upbringing to combat against the repressive atmosphere of the home.
Despite the heaviness of the story, the show is full of humor. As the three girls bond together over White Castles, Leah’s radio, religious confusion, and shared experiences, they create their own support group as they struggle through pregnancies with children they know they will be forced to give up. They fight to control what happens to their children, lying about the fathers so that their babies have a better chance of being put in good homes and struggle to maintain relationships they have left behind or will be forced to give up – such as their own bonds between one another.
Poignant and touching, this play deals with issues of religion, feminism and control over the bodies of women, sexual education, and adoption. As the church’s negative view of unwed mothers weighs down upon Leah, Sharon, and Joan, problems with the adoption system and its view of women in general become revealed. The amazing talent in the cast, along with great support from Janet Hayes Trow and Sean Dillion (who play various characters throughout the play), creates a strong story of loss, friendship, and support. The wonderful minimalist set with clever nuances plays to the starkness of the situation but allows the characters to warm to one another. The use of lighting and sound design is wonderfully woven into the flashbacks and dream sequences, especially in one terrifying moment in which Joan recalls the circumstances of her pregnancy.
Admittedly, this show is not easy to watch at times. The frustration of how broken the system of adoption is and the treatment of young pregnant women is difficult to bear. A particular scene in the second act is especially triggering, especially for those who have experienced sexual violence. The relevance of this show, however, cannot be understated. One young patron in the audience commented on her way out that it reminded her of the line from Mean Girls: “If you have sex, you will get pregnant and die.” Combined with recent arguments about abortion, birth control, and lack of proper sex ed in schools, the themes in Watermelon Hill are incredibly relevant to the lives of modern women and, in some ways, I wish the show went further to address these issues, as it is a revival of a past production. Perhaps its purpose, though, is to focus its lens on a particular scope of the 1960s and continue a conversation that has been going on for decades. It is left to the audience to do something with the frustrations they might be feeling or the questions they might have and take action themselves.
Watermelon Hill is written by Lily Barber Cole and directed by Anya Kremenetsky. It is playing now through April 10th at the History Theatre in St. Paul. Ticket prices and information can be found on the History Theatre’s website.
This morning, a section of my Facebook feed was filled with people discussing the general auditions at the Guthrie. They had recently been announced and, not long after the sign-up form went live this morning, all available slots were full. A very good friend of mine missed the chance to sign up while another landed a spot due to taking the day of work to be on Minnesota Playlist and have access to the form as soon as it was available. For the many people who didn’t even land a spot, all I could do was scroll through their disappointed responses and feel… well, angry.
Being entirely second party to this – I don’t audition for my work and, while I’m a Guthrie employee, I work on an entirely different level – I still found this frustrating. It shouldn’t be like trying to get Adele tickets to get an audition slot. Now, it’s likely that extra slots will be added or a wait list may be created (as those who can’t make the audition may free up their time slot). But the issue is beyond this one scenario and one theater in the Twin Cities – it’s a problem that seems to be popping up again and again.
Everyone should have the chance to be seen and heard at the audition level. Yet it seems more and more frequently that that’s harder to come by. There is a lot of talent in the Twin Cities and I like to compliment how intimate the community feels for the number of people involved. But I grow concerned when the opportunities don’t match the spectrum that’s out there. There will always be more people auditioning than possible parts – that’s a fact of theater. When there’s not even enough space to audition, not even a chance to get out there at all, that becomes a different kind of problem. It’s being stuck in tough situation of not having immediate access to audition information, it’s not having the experience or connections to be “in the know,” it’s not having the space on an online form for your name. Auditioning is supposed to be a level playing field, but does it always? It seems a lot more difficult for those who are new to the field or have more independent theater work rather than having worked with several large organizations or worked consistently at certain theaters to break out of whatever bracket they’re stuck in.
As the theater community continues on its current growth spurt, it of course gets more difficult to be seen. With the Fringe Festival being larger than ever, it’s a becoming a different kind of festival, with fewer small venues and fewer opportunities for new theater groups to showcase their work. And with more discussions of Broadway becoming focused more on commercial theater rather than creating new works – something even Stephen Sondheim is concerned about – it’s becoming a general issue throughout American theater in how to bring visibility to actors, playwrights, and shows alike that are new and different.
From my own vantage of trying to create a space for myself and to fill a void I see but others may not, these frustrations related to auditioning are familiar. But I’m used to it – dramaturgs don’t audition. I don’t have the same path to finding work. So it seems doubly troubling that many actors are being kept out of the audition room by limited sign-up space that has nothing to do with whether they’re good enough for the part or available for the audition. Is it simply not enough time? Are there not enough hours a day to see all the people who want to audition in order to make requirements for casting? Are there not enough people at theaters throughout the cities to watch everyone and make decisions? Or is there a certain kind of favoritism in how information is spread, allowing certain actors advantages because of the experiences over those who have different experiences, a fault not of the actors but how the community operates?
Realistically, not everyone can be guaranteed an audition spot – this I know. Theater can be harsh at times, unkind and uncaring because it is a competitive field. But everyone should be given a chance to audition – and right now it doesn’t seem that they are. As we focus more on embracing diversity on theater, it’s important to pay attention to issues like this in order to open the doors to everyone and give everyone their fair chance. While at some level I may have utopian vision of a completely diverse and open theater that is accessible to everyone, overhearing and seeing issues such as these is striking. It’s easy to grow complacent and accept how things are in a community that is thriving, but, given as it’s Minnesota Arts Advocacy Day, I feel compelled to focus on the ways we can grow and better our arts community. I may not be satisfied with the way things are at the moment, but I know that I am surrounded by people who create their own opportunities and continually strive for new experiences. I hope that this continues and fuels the creativity in the Twin Cities, available auditions spots or no.
When I said I wanted to write about audience development, a co-worker replied, “What do you mean when you say that?” As an emerging dramaturg, I’ve come to understand it as providing additional resources and opportunities for theater audiences, from play guides to post-show discussions to behind the scenes workshops and/or panel discussions with experts about the content of a show.
I’m deeply invested in using audience development as a way to facilitate social change, through opening up theater to broader audiences and supporting shows that ask thought-provoking questions. The Wallace Foundation describes in terms of expanding the audience base in terms of age and ethnicity. By allowing new audiences to see shows, fears about the death of theater can be negated and it supports the principle values the Wallace Foundation puts in place: namely, that art is crucial “as individuals…to experience beauty and insight, to help us make sense of our lives, and to envision not what is but what could be. As communities…to forge social bonds, strengthen our economies, and deepen our understanding of each other.” Audiences come to shows with their own perspectives, wanting to be entertained but also to see how the characters onstage can relate to their own experiences, and to also learn something about themselves and the world around them. This is easy when audiences see something they can relate to or enjoy. But how do we get audiences to connect to shows that portray experiences different from their own or are difficult to enjoy?
Athol Fugard’s My Children! My Africa! lies outside the experiences of the usual American audience. The history of apartheid South Africa is dense and complex on its own and may be hard for audiences to get a grasp on even through Fugard’s powerful play. As a dramaturg for the production at Park Square, I provided photographs and quotes related to the themes of the show to inspire the cast and turned this a lobby display. Audiences could look at these collages before and after the show and draw connections between what they were seeing onstage and what these outside sources stated on the issues. On opening night, many audience members stopped by to look at them. I chatted with one couple in particular who shared with me their experiences of visiting Africa. By the end of the show run, the marketing staff told me that the display had been popular throughout the performances and stirred conversation.
The Amish Project in the Guthrie’s Dowling Studio is a show that deals with an issue well-known to audiences but is not easy to deal with. Part of the Singular Voices/Plural Perspective Series, the post-show discussions after each performance allowed audiences to respond and work through what they had seen with the creator, Jessica Dickey. During one such discussion, an audience member told Dickey how it evoked the Civil Rights Movement for him. Moved by this compliment, Dickey thanked him and told him how much it touched her that he saw that correlation.
These sorts of interactions not only allow audiences to talk about the show to creators themselves but also can influence how artists see their own work. By creating dialogue and two-way communication, collaboration between artists and audience members can help “forge social bonds…and deepen our understanding of communities” that are a powerful part of what art can do.
The trouble with audience development is that it often gets lumped into the market and financial part of theater, where it starts to sound an awful lot like people trying to sell something. I work in a box office, and I know all too well how ticket sales make or break a fiscal year, but audience development in my experience has always extended beyond something that is quantitative and into something more qualitative. When audience development isn’t given a clear definition, the goals can easily become focused on entirely different goals and begin to care more about filling seats rather than working more constructively. It begins to revolve around the idea that there is only one kind of theater that counts and works to include audience development focused on social change – especially in terms of reaching out to diversity – only twice a year.
There is also a lack of clarity at to who should be creating these opportunities. Does it fall to audience services departments, if such a department exists in theaters? Should people on the creative team take initiative if others haven’t? In a perfect world, a balance would be found between productions and the theaters they are presented in to create a position that focus on these tasks. But as of now it falls to independent self-starters who create these opportunities for themselves.
I recently saw Theatre Latte Da’s Lullaby at the Ritz Theater and was moved beyond words. Never before had a show personally affected me quite the way this one did. Flabbergasted, I continued to think about it for the next few weeks until, bottled up with my response, I emailed the theater to tell them how grateful I was for producing the show. Perhaps through remembering what it feels like to be an audience member ourselves, we can better define audience development, work towards better serving both patrons and productions, and building stronger relationships with our community.
For the last couple of weeks, I haven’t be seeing any shows as I’m working on one myself. I’m dramaturging for Park Square’s Nina Simone: Four Women, which as been a phenomenal experience so far and a show I’m very excited about. I thought I’d take the opportunity to talk about the rehearsal process a little bit and describe what my part of this looks like, for those who aren’t personally in this aspect of theater or those who might be curious what a dramaturg does.
Day 1 (5pm -10pm)
The actors, director, playwright, music director, costume designer, set designer, stage manager, and I all meet in the rehearsal room. Introductions are made and the most updated copy of the script is handed out (as this is a new work, we didn’t receive this until the first day – usually scripts are sent out at least a couple of weeks in advance). The artistic director and director of education at the theater come down to welcome us and inform the actors about certain aspects of this show, such as student matinees. I have a made an informational packet about Nina Simone’s life and the Civil Rights Movement, which has already been sent out to the actors to help them prepare. The set designer gives us an overview of what the space will look like, using a model to clarify any questions the actors and director have. The costume designer shows us sketches of what the attire is planned to look like for each character. We do a read-through of the script and I read stage directions. We discuss the script, suggest changes, and break for the day. Having met on a Monday – usually a day off due to equity regulations, our stage manager notes that we will have the following Sunday and Monday off.
Days 2-5 (roughly 11am-4pm)
Our rehearsals are during the day, as our stage manager has a show going on in the evenings at another theater. I work my day job several of these rehearsal days and arrive late. On day two, another read-through has taken place and some changes have been made. Day three, we receive and updated script and I read stage directions again for the new read-through. By day four, the actors are on their feet and begin blocking (or learning where they will stand and move throughout the space as the show progresses). A simple set with furniture is brought in and props begin to appear as they are found/requested. I begin to bring in photos to post on a board to inspire the actors, focusing on women involved in the Civil Rights Movement and 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL. Our music director begins to arrange songs and work on what musical interludes should appear and what they should sound like throughout the show. Our costume designer takes measurements and brings in accessories such as hand bags for the actors to use. Additional changes are made to the script and questions are asked to clarify interactions between the characters. In my evenings after rehearsal, I continue to do research, either looking up information I am asked to find during rehearsal or adding to the photos in the rehearsal room. I beginning planning a lobby display I hope to showcase, getting in contact with the marketing director at the theater to see what my options are. In between all of this, I manage to grab eat dinner (either brought from home or from Afro Deli), catch A Chorus Line at the Ordway, and also catch a cold.
Days 6-9 (3:30-9:30pm on days 6 and 7, 4pm-9pm on days 7-8)
After a two-day break, we’re back to blocking and pacing, getting a feel for how the show will unfold, what the major arcs are and what needs to be emphasized. I continue to research (having mostly recovered from my cold) and am now putting together a timeline of the events of 1963 to have displayed in the lobby. As far as the script goes, all major changes are done, minus a few word tweaks. Our music director is given specific time in the rehearsals to practice songs, assign harmonies, and work through a capella pieces and improv components. Our costume designer takes additional measurements and continues bringing in wardrobe pieces – especially shoes – to see if they will work for our cast. I’m bouncing back and forth between my day job and rehearsals and miss part of rehearsal on day 7 in order to see a performance at my theater for work. Rehearsal is cancelled on day 8 due to a cast member’s absence for a family obligation and I have the evening off to do some writing, finish the timeline, and do some errands.
Days 10 and 11 (12pm-8:30pm on day 10, 12pm – 6:30pm on day 11)
Our two longest days in rehearsal are in front of us and give us the opportunity to really dig into material. Songs are run and rerun, particular scenes are focused on to see what isn’t working, to bring out important emotional components, and to focus on what is giving the actors trouble. We begin to work a song that includes choreography and sound elements performed by the actors, getting help from another artists in the community to help work this scene. I’m given the task of researching accents, something that usually would be given to a dialect coach, but as there isn’t one for the production (and the Birmingham accent isn’t as difficult to learn as a South African accent, for instance) I’m happy to help. I scour internet resources and Youtube videos, trying to put together a guide for vowel and specific word pronunciation. Watching Spike Lee’s Four Little Girls documentary after rehearsal on day 10 becomes my most useful source of pinpointing the accent while also expanding my knowledge of the historical root of the show.
Day 12 (3:30pm-9:30pm)
After a day off, we review what we worked – focusing on accents, remembering new blocking, and tracking props. At the top of rehearsal, the actors are fitted for microphones and new underscoring ideas are tried for the musical elements of the show. We run certain portions and focus specifically on a difficult song.
Day 13 (4pm-10pm)
Our first day onstage. I’ve received the materials I need for my lobby display and I post it while the actors warm up and practice music while on mics. This rehearsal focuses on memorizing lines, exploring the space, and working on blocking to aid sight lines in the space. I wander about the theater, sitting in various locations where the view isn’t as good to see how the show looks from these spots.
From here on out Days 14-17 are tech days. This is when lighting and sound elements are worked into the show along with the actor’s lines and movements. Costumes are worn and refitted and certain make-up and wig elements are tested. This process is very slow going at first, going from cue to cue to make sure that each sound element and lighting effect properly sets the mood and tone. It feels a little bit like stop-motion, tweaking each moment to get it right. I stick around to help with sight lines in the theater as well as to stay on book and take line notes for the actors as they continue to memorize and practice their lines. These days are long and exhausting but it’s incredible to see all the pieces fall into place during this process.
That’s the process! Interested to know more or have a specific question? Feel free to ask. If you want a more specific look at dramaturgy, please check out my guest post on my friend Kendra’s blog – and check out the rest of her amazing blog while you’re at it!
And come see Nina Simone: Four Women at Park Square Theatre in St Paul. The show starts previews on March 8th, opens March 11th, and runs through the 26th. Ticket information and prices can be found on Park Square’s website.
A Chorus Line has had a certain allure to me since my grandmother complained about seeing a local production of it in her hometown. She hated it, deploring the foul language and sexual subject matter. Naturally I assumed it was right up my alley.
I was thrilled to see that the Ordway would be including it in their season this year and I’ve been looking forward it for quite some time. This show does something I haven’t seen onstage before – creating a love story focused on those who are usually overlooked in a performance, those who are not cast as leads but in the chorus. Through the stories of these performers, A Chorus Line weaves a stunning, touching tale of what people do for their work and their love of art, specifically dance.
Set in the midst of an audition to find four male and four female dancers, twenty-four hopeful dances dancers – cut down to seventeen at the top of the show – share their stories of finding dance as they are called upon by the director, Zach (Tom Berklund). Focusing on what called people to dance, whether it’s escaping a poor family life and yearning to have beautiful (“At the Ballet”) or because their family danced and they enjoyed it (“I Can Do That”), the characters are literally fleshed out through their physicality and movement.
There are moments of utter frankness in language and body that are apparently still shocking to some people (including the very uncomfortable couple sitting next to me that left early). But this show is so much more than its language or portrayal of sexuality, though that is central to the story lines of several of the characters. It is, however, focused on the body and the physical aspects of performance as well as the mental aspects. It’s easy to forget how much theater physically demands of its performers and this show reminds of it at every moment. It especially highlights the more superficial aspects and how they hurt their performers through typecasting and focusing on what a dancer looks like. In “Dance: Ten, Looks: Three” Val (Maria Briggs) humorously and bitingly explains how she couldn’t get cast in any show until she had plastic surgery. Her flaunting of her new body and her attempts to convince how easy it is to obtain – “just go out in buy it” stand in stark contrast to the stories of those who use dance to feel better about their bodies, especially Paul (Omar Garibay) who’s story of using dance to come to terms with his sexuality is touching and powerful.
In the end, the story of Cassie (Molly Tynes), a lead dancer who went to Hollywood only to find she couldn’t get any work and has returned to audition for chorus, is one of the most powerful. Questioned by Zach how she could possibly return to the chorus, Cassie responds that she would be proud and honored to be in the chorus. Zach is confused and asks “Don’t you want to be special?” To which Cassie retorts that each and every person in the chorus is special. They all have their own story and their own style and, while they come together and dance the same, they all have their own unique character. By the end of the audition, with each character struggling to figure out what they will do when they can no longer dance, they in some ways decided it doesn’t matter – what does matter is that they had this opportunity to do “what they did for love,” for the love of dance, and that they don’t regret it.
There are aspects of the show that feel a bit dated and some of the characters sound a bit cliched, but by the end, an array of complexity and the uniqueness that Cassie cherishes is realized. In some ways, this show is now a period piece, providing a look at what it was like working Broadway in the 1970s. In other ways – the anxiety around auditioning, the desperate need to get work, the worries of what Broadway theater are becoming – are timely.
The Ordway’s staging is clever and somewhat immersive, stationing Zach at an audition table in the front of the mezzanine section of the theater (the upper level of the main orchestra area). As he goes back and forth between the stage and the table, it’s almost as if the audience isn’t there and an actual audition is taking place. Taken into this staging is a way of showing love to other unsung voices in theater who are overlooked just as much as the chorus. The lighting in this show is incredible and the costuming manages to capture each character’s personality while still keeping inside the bounds of dance audition gear. The orchestrations are gorgeous and the pit, led by Raymond Berg, sound phenomenal. And while there isn’t much of a set, the set pieces of mirrors that are used add a wonderful compliment and glamour to the performance. And of course there’s choreography – something that even I am guilty of overlooking in performances. This show makes you pay attention to choreography as it’s all about it – the dance, how the body moves, and how people can be characterized by movement.
What’s best about this show is that you don’t have to be a member of the theater community to love and understand what it’s about. It it especially easy for artists to relate to but even those who took dance in their childhood, have ever interviewed for their dream job, struggled to understand their bodies in their teenage years, or had issues with a teacher in a field they loved will appreciated this show. And if you did take dance in your youth, it’ll make you wish you’d never stopped.
A Chorus Line is playing now through February 28 at the Ordway Theater. Ticket information and the show schedule can be found on the Ordway’s website.
It’s Black History Month and what better way to celebrate with some great theater? Here’s three shows not to miss in the Twin Cities Area:
Ruby!: The Story of Ruby Bridges at Steppingstone Theater – With a charming cast of local actors (including Charla Maria Bailey, Misti Koop, Nic Delcambre, and Joseph Miller) and young actors from Twin Cities schools (featuring Rylee F Armstrong and Danyelle Robinson as Ruby), Ruby! tells the often forgotten tale of Ruby Bridges, the first African American student to attend an all-white elementary school in the South. Her story of courage and fortitude, told through song and dance, is moving and aimed towards children, providing a great way to introduce them to the history of the Civil Rights Movement.
Bright Half Life at Pillsbury House Theater – Looking for some modern history? While it isn’t exactly a Black History play, Bright Half Life deals with the ups and downs of Vicky (Jasmine Hughes) and Erica (Sarah Agnew) in a mixed-race relationship that extends decades. Jumping back and forth between the past, present, and future, this play explores the challenges of love and portrays the relationship with poignancy and grace. Perfect for Valentine’s Day, this show is heart-warming and beautiful.
George Bonga at History Theater – In a new work premiere, this show follows the story of George Bonga (James Williams), a voyageur and pathfinder in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota, who was given the task of tracking down an Ojibwe man (Jake Waid) accused of murdering a white man. This intense show delivers a a deep conversation about race and the complexity of labels, especially in 19th century Minnesota. It’s a fascinating look at a little known bit of Minnesota history.
Ruby! is written by Christina Ham and directed by Anya Kremenetsky, with music by Gary Rue. It runs now through February 28. Ticket and show information can be found on Steppingstone’s website.
Bright Half Life is written by Tanya Barfield and directed by Ellen Fenster. It runs now through February 21. Ticket and show information can be found on Pillsbury House Theater’s website.
George Bonga is written by Carlyle Brown and directed by Marion McClinton. It runs now through February 28. Ticket and show information can be found on History Theatre’s website.