Tuesday, October 23, 2012


Let me begin by saying this is easily one of the most beautiful pieces of theater that I've seen in a long time. Director, John Tiffany, and his cast and crew have created a phenomenal piece of story telling and deserve every inch, ounce and centimeter of the Tony's they won. From start to finish, it was absolutely wonderful, joyous and heart-aching. Each and every element - the upstage mirror that let's the actors retreat from the scene while still being accessible to the audience, the simple but specific furnishings, the adding and subtracting of minor costume pieces to show a shift in time or place - contributed to needs of the story. It's the kind of Broadway experience that makes me excited and proud to work in this industry...and very sad that I don't seriously play half a dozen instruments. I was familiar with the movie version of this story and was thrilled to find that this retelling of it was even more engaging than the original.

Elements I particularly loved:

Playing. The show opens with a fantastic jam session performed by the actors/musicians. The audience is invited to purchase drinks from the bar onstage (which is also the set). This is brilliant on multiple levels. First and foremost, it establishes a fun and energetic atmosphere both for the audience and for the performer which is a win/win situation. There's nothing worse than a lethargic audience or a bland performance. Additionally, it is a superb way to establish the world of the play and let the audience feel like insiders.

Listening. No one listens to music the way musicians listen to music. There is a focus and intensity which they can direct into listening that puts most of us to shame. One person intently listening to someone or something can catch and capture the attention of an entire Broadway house. It's a great point of reference for how active listening should be done and an excellent reminder how compelling and elegant just standing in place and directing all your attention towards something can be. And this show in particular uses listening, both to music and to each other, with gorgeous ferocity.

Transition, Transition, Transition. If I had my druthers, transitional blackouts would be highly frowned upon. I know they're a necessity for many shows, but often it kind of feels like a cop out. The beauty (and challenge) of theater is that it's happening live, right before our eyes. That means, on some level, we don't really expect the time and place to magically shift all by themselves. So, rather than pretend that invisible stagehands (dressed in black so you won't see them in the dark) make things disappear and reappear, why not use the transition as an opportunity to further your story in a non-verbal capacity? These are my favorite kinds of transitions and this show does a beautiful job of making the most of them. Here, moving the furniture serves as a break from the verbal, left-brain side of the story and a switch to the musical, physical and right-brian side of the story to lovely effect. (Billy Elliot, when it was on Broadway, also used their transitions to great effect.)

An On-Stage Audience. I think true creativity is coming up with an interesting (and functional) solution to your constraints. The scenario for the scene in which the song "Gold" is first sung, is that Girl has signed Guy up to sing in an open mic night, which requires the ensemble of actors to serve as audience members. Up until this point the music for each song has been either generated solely by the actors within the scene or with cast members adding to the orchestration from their seats around the edge of the stage. In this moment, the cast members sit facing upstage (as an audience to Guy's performance) and play their instruments from this arrangement with their backs to the audience. It's a solution that is at once both obvious and innovative. Super smart all around.

Barrier By Language. Another great example of operating within your constraints, is the use of projected subtitles in this show. Girl speaks both Czech and English - Czech to her family and roommates and English to Guy and the other townspeople. Early on in the show we see the English translation of her conversations with her mother and roommates projected on the set. Later this conceit enables one of the shows most gut-wrenching moments.

By A Nose. We love (and hate, and get annoyed with, and generally experience things) specifically. Each relationship has it's own lexicon of phrases and gestures and it's that specificity that really makes a relationship ring true. While all of the relationships in this show are richly specific, one of the moments that really melted my heart was between Girl and her daughter. During Act II, Girl's daughter pops up from behind the bar and hugs her, they then proceed to rub noses before Girl pulls her in for a hug. I have no idea if this was a director inspired moment or an actor inspired moment and, in all honesty, I don't really care. What I care, is that it reads as a gesture that is beautifully unique (and true) to their relationship.

* Special thanks to Ed and Linda Paradine for treating me to this production.

Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Post them below. The more the merrier!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Into The Woods

This post stems from The Public's most recent production (remounted from a previous production at Regents Park) of Into The Woods. I've seen one other production of the show. And unlike some of the other theater lovers of my generation, I have not listened to the soundtrack ad nauseum. All of which is to say that I consider myself only casually familiar with the show.

Overall, I think one of the challenges with this show is getting it to congeal. This is a show with millions of characters and almost as many plot lines. As such, hard to get all those characters to be in the same world and all those plots to relate to each other. I find the theme of parent/child relationships to be a huge component of this show. By not double casting any of the parents or children, and therefore having each child's respective ghost parent be present on stage toward the end (if I remember correctly, during No One Is Alone) this production did a great job of highlighting that. The other major theme for me (at least in how I'm currently thinking about the show) is one of violence and when/how/if it's usage is justified.

Specifically, my thoughts on this production are as follows...

- A Little Boy for a Narrator. One of the notable distinctions of this production was the use of a little boy to be the story's narrator. I really enjoyed this. It was a conceptual twist that really served the story well. I think anytime you can make a shift like that and have it completely integrate and inform the story, it becomes really exciting for people who are aware of previous versions. (Without detracting from the story, for anyone who might be seeing it for the first time.)

- Sexy Little Red. In this production, the choice was made to have Little Red and the Wolf's encounter be a sexual one. For me, in the specific context of this production, this interaction was a bit too graphic to fit within the conceit of being part of a little boy's imagination. While I recognize that there are sexual innuendos scattered throughout the text of this show, I think they need to not be the focus. I think they need to stay implicit because making them explicit gives them, for my taste, too much importance. I wonder if instead, that Little Red and the Wolf's relationship is one that could revolve around violence.

- And About That Wolf. In a world where Giants are actually giants and witches are actually witches with spells and powers and whatnot, I think the Wolf should be a wolf. In this production the Wolf was merely a man in pursuit of Little Red. It didn't bother me initially, but increasingly I think that there should be an effort to render him as a wolf. Though the story may be allegorical, the world, in actuality, is magical.

- Giants in the Sky. I LOVE when theater is theatrical. I love when you can invite an audience to use their imagination to complete then picture. The use of puppetry elements to create the Giant in this production was absolutely magical.

- Witchery. I think it's crucial that we as an audience feel something for the Witch. Of all the parents we see in this story, she is the one who has done everything the way she should with regard to raising her child - and it still blows up in her face. And she owns up to that. That should be heart wrenching. And I think if you allow for that depth of pain, then you earn the bitterness for her final number.

- Getting the Glass Slippers. Cinderella's storyline goes something like this: I want it, I get it, it's not really what I wanted at all. But the thing is, if you've fought really hard to get what you want, you're supposed to want it once you get it. That means two things with regard to this piece. The first is that there's a greater pay off to be had if Cinders works really hard to get what she wants. This probably means that contacting her dead mother could be a much bigger deal. It's one thing to pray to your dead mother. It's a whole other thing for your dead mother to respond and be able to help you in some way. I'll grant that the world of the play is a magical one, but a miracle should still be miraculous. The second thing is that she needs to try really hard to like what she gets once she gets it.

- Mr. and Mrs Baker. If there is a central plot line for Into The Woods, it belongs to the Baker and His Wife. As such, we need to care about them. For me, that means I need to believe in their relationship at the start of the play. If a relationship is fundamentally broken, it deserves to dissolve - there's no sense fighting if there's really nothing worth saving. If a relationship is fundamentally solid but is struggling to figure out a problem, that's when I'm rooting for them to make to the other side. This is admittedly difficult to establish since they are arguing when we first meet them. However, some of the research that's out there (if you haven't already, check out Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink) would seem to indicate that it's not that people in healthy relationships don't fight, it's just that they fight ways that don't destroy their relationship. So I think the key might be making a real effort to try to have them both be arguing for the relationship instead of against each other. It's a subtle distinction, but I think that's where the answer is.

- Her Fault. The Baker's Wife gets into something of an ethical quagmire when she cheats on her husband with the Prince. Potentially, it's her blind idolatry for his royal highness coupled with the stumbling blocks she and her husband are experiencing in their own relationship that get her into the situation. But it's how she gets out of that determines whether the audience will hate her. It's worth noting that at this point in the show her husband has gone out of his way to give her the one thing she desires, and therefore our loyalties are likely to be with him. Additionally, the Prince has just told her their interaction was nothing but a one time fling. And then she has to decide what she's going to do next in a direct address to the audience. I think choosing to return to her husband (not defaulting back to) is important. The lyric "just remembering you had an 'and' when you're back to 'or' makes the 'or' mean more than it did before" needs to be true. It's the "ah ha" moment that song has been building to. What she has with her husband has to be more precious than it ever has been previously as a direct result of her indiscretion with the Prince. There's not a lot of space in the song for that discovery, but I think that's the one thing that can redeem her to the audience.

- His Fault. This thought actually came from reading an interview with Dennis O'Hare about his experience playing the Baker. O'Hare mentions that the hardest thing for him to understand about the Baker was how quickly the Baker gives up his son. And he's right. It's definitely a point worth shifting through. Every parent tries to do what they believe is best for their child. Sometimes when a parent believes that they are unfit to raise (or unworthy of) their child, the best choice they can think of becomes abdicating their role as parent to someone else. It's presumably a choice that is riddled with guilt and shame. But it should be a choice. And it should be a choice that the audience gets to see.

Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Post them below. The more the merrier!

Monday, October 8, 2012

Well, Hello.

Hi. I'm Cotton. I'm an actress living, working, auditioning and generally fighting the good fight here in New York. I suspect that one day I'll be a director, since that seems to be the filter that I view just about everything through. The thought of directing right now is totally overwhelming. However, one day I think it will be inevitable.

To that end, I'm starting this blog. The intention will be to make somewhat universal observations about what works (or doesn't) with regard to storytelling in the theatrical medium and specific observations about what seem to be the crucial components of certain "classic" works (i.e. - works that would be likely to see a second life on the regional theater circuit or revival on Broadway). What are the things that are things that make a story pop? What are the things that allow the audience to really buy-in to the ending? What are the things that are really tricky to execute in a satisfying way?

The aim is to generate a catalog of key sights and things to think about for future directing ventures. And also to generate some dialogue on how to most effectively and cohesively communicate stories. In an ideal world, no one ever gets offended by anything that's posted on this blog. But "ever" is a long time, so that seems like a tall order. As such, I apologize in advance if something that I say here rubs you the wrong way.

With all that in mind, here we go!

Thoughts? Questions? Comments? Post them below. The more the merrier!