Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Last Five Years

This post stems from the most recent revival produced by Second Stage of Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years. (What can I say? Sometimes, life gets a little backed up.) Given the rather cult-like following that this album has, it's striking that the last time this show was produced in New York was in 2002. Which is to say that Norbert and Sherie Rene are the definitive voices of this show for my generation.

This was the first time I had ever see a staged version of this show. I was delighted by the personalized choices that both Adam Kantor and Betsy Wolfe made through out the show. They did an outstanding job with the material. What also interested me with this production was the fact that it was directed by Jason Robert Brown himself. Given that this piece is known to be fairly autobiographical in nature, having the writer/composer direct it presumably gives you the opportunity to see the work the way the writer intended it.

- Working It.

Overall, I was struck by how hard both of the actors were working to act with their imaginary scene partners. This show uses three types of address:
- Jamie and Cathy sing to each other (The only number we see this in is "The Next Ten Minutes")
- Jamie and Cathy sing to themselves/the audience (Much like an aside or a direct address where the character is trying to process what's happening in their life and kind of using the audience as a sounding board. We see this in "Still Hurting" and "Moving Too Fast")
- Jamie and Cathy sing to imaginary versions of each other (Jamie sings to imaginary Cathy, Cathy sings to imaginary Jamie. We see this in "The Schmuel Song" and "I Can Do Better Than That").
Conceptually, there's a lot to like with regard to this format. "The Next Ten Minutes" becomes incredibly powerful and poignant by being the only real interaction the characters have. On top of that, I think the point of this musical is to show the separate versions of how this relationship crumbled. And in the interest of telling that story, I think it's helpful to have the rest of the songs be one-sided. However, I think what we lose in the moments where they're singing to imaginary versions of each other outweighs what we gain. I think really great actors are great because they are present and responding to what their scene partner gives them in the moment. And while there's a certain amount of technique that can be called on when one has to act with an imaginary partner, it's just richer when there's another body. Additionally, I think we, as audience, miss out on too much of their relationship. I think we would feel more for them if we could see what their relationship really was at it's best and at it's worst. I would be interested in trying to stage this in such a way that the actors were on stage and present for all of the scenes where it's implied that they are. I'm not sure if that's logistically possible. In the event that it's not, I would even be curious about what would happen if a "chorus" (another man and woman who didn't speak but stood-in for imaginary Cathy and Jamie) were added. I realize this could get weird fast, but I feel like those images of how Cathy and Jamie interact are so important.

- Good Guys and Bad Guys.
I don't find Cathy a very likeable character and I think that's largely to do with the structure of the piece. When I say "likeable", I don't mean "nice". I mean a character that we want to watch for a couple of hours. Someone who has some kind of redeemable quality. We meet Cathy when she's "Still Hurting". (Comparatively, we meet Jamie when he's just fallen head-over-heels in love.) In this configuration, I think it's really important to give Cathy something to fight for in that first song in order to keep that number from turning into a pity party, which is valid but perhaps not so useful. I think it's important for the audience to be able to like her at the top of the show, especially since they can't root for her. While I think most audience members, if not all, will know (or figure out) where the show is going (ie - that there's not a happy ending for these two people), the audience can root for Jamie in a way that I don't think they can't do for Cathy. By meeting Jamie at the beginning of his journey we can hope for a positive outcome for him (even when we know that's not what we're going to get) by virtue of the fact that we're moving forward in time. With Cathy, because we start at the end of her journey, it's significantly harder to root for her. We know how her story ends. There's nothing to root for. I think the best we can do is make her as likeable as we can. I think it's important that at any given point these are two good people who happen to not be good for each other. I'm curious what the effect would be if the show were played backward, starting with Cathy falling in love and Jamie having an affair. (Although, I admit that there's something very satisfying dramatically satisfying about the reveal that Jamie is having an affair after he's been such a likeable character up to that point.) I also wonder what the effect would be if the story was played chronologically, with both Jamie and Cathy both beginning with falling in love and ending with the end of the relationship. It's possible that playing it chronologically saps all the life out of the piece, since the opposing time progressions do create some interest, but I would definitely love to try a run like that in rehearsal.

- Overhead.
This production made use of video projections as part of the scenic back drop. I feel like projections are generally something that we in the theater are still trying to figure out how to incorporate in a successful and effective manner. With this production, sometimes I thought these projections helped and sometimes I thought they didn't. Going back to my initial quip about wanting to see more of their relationship, I wonder if projections could be used to goose that up a bit. Perhaps they could be used kind of like home movies.

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

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Inspiration #2: Sam Mendes

This bit of inspiration comes to us by way of Vanity Fair Magazine. The original article can be found here. Or you can read the full text below. Enjoy!
Sam Mendes"At its spring gala, the Roundabout Theatre Company honored Sam Mendes, prolific director of theater—his King Lear and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory are both currently playing in London—and films, including Skyfall and American Beauty.
The event, at the Hammerstein Ballroom in Manhattan, included speeches and performances from Helen Mirren, Jeremy Irons, Liam Neeson, and Alan Cumming, who did a number from Cabaret, which Mendes is bringing to Broadway this season. Some Mendes collaborators weighed in via video, including one clip in which Judi Dench and Daniel Craig joined in singing “Cabaret.”
After reviewing his career highlights, in depth, the British Academy Award winner said, “One of the things I love about Americans is you do massive ego trips incredibly well. Blimey. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many photographs of myself. I didn’t even know they existed.” Mendes also noted that while tributes are wonderful, they are backward looking, and then decided to share what he’s learned along the way. “If there are any directors out there in the audience, or anyone who’s interested in directing, I’ve written 25 steps towards becoming a happier director. These are them:
  1. Always choose good collaborators. It seems so obvious, but the best collaborators are the ones who disagree with you. It means they’re passionate, they have opinions, and they’ll only ever say yes if they mean it.
  2. Try to learn how to make the familiar strange, and the strange familiar. Direct Shakespeare like it’s a new play, and treat every new play as if it’s Shakespeare.
  3. If you have the chance, please work with Dame Judi Dench.
  4. Learn to say, “I don’t know the answer.” It could be the beginning of a very good day’s rehearsal.
  5. Go to the ancient amphitheater at Epidaurus, in Greece. It makes you realize what you are a part of, and it will change the way you look at the world. If you’re an artist, you will feel central, and you will never feel peripheral again.
  6. Avoid, please, all metaphors of plays or films as “pinnacles” or “peaks”; treat with absolute scorn the word “definitive”; and if anyone uses the word “masterpiece,” they don’t know what they’re doing. The pursuit of perfection is a mug’s game.
  7. If you are doing a play or a film, you have to have a secret way in if you are directing it. Sometimes it’s big things. American Beauty, for me, was about my adolescence. Road to Perdition was about my childhood. Skyfall was about middle-age and mortality. Sometimes it’s small things. Maybe it’s just a simple idea. What if we do the whole thing in the nightclub, for example. But it’s not enough just to admire a script, you have to have a way in that is yours, and yours alone.
  8. Confidence is essential, but ego is not.
  9. Theater is the writer’s medium and the actor’s medium; the director comes a distant third. If you want a proper ego trip, direct movies.
  10. Buy a good set of blinkers. Do not read reviews. It’s enough to know whether they’re good or they’re bad. When I started, artists vastly outnumbered commentators, and now, there are a thousand published public opinions for every work of art. However strong you are, confidence is essential to what you do, and confidence is a fragile thing. Protect it. As T.S. Eliot says, teach us to care, and not to care.
  11. Run a theater. A play is temporary, a building is permanent. So try to create something that stays behind and will be used and loved by others.
  12. You are never too old to learn something new, as I was reminded when I learned to ski with my 10-year-old son. He, of course, did it in about 10 minutes, and I spent four days slaloming up and down, looking like a complete tit. But, don’t be scared of feeling like a complete tit. It’s an essential part of the learning process.
  13. There is no right and wrong, there is only interesting, and less interesting.
  14. Paintings, novels, poetry, music are all superior art forms. But theater and film can steal from all of them.
  15. There are no such things as “previews” on Broadway.
  16. Peter Brook said, “The journey is the destination.” Do not think of product, or, god forbid, audience response. Think only of discovery and process. One of my favorite quotes from Hamlet—Polonius: “By indirections find the directions out.”
  17. Learn when to shut up. I’m still working on this one.
  18. When you have a cast of 20, this means you have 20 other imaginations in the room with you. Use them.
  19. Please remember the Oscars are a TV show.
  20. Get on with it. Robert Frost said, “Tell everything a little faster.” He wasn’t wrong.
  21. The second production of a musical is always better than the first.
  22. Learn to accept the blame for everything. If the script was poor, you didn’t work hard enough with the writer. If the actors failed, you failed them. If the sets, the lighting, the poster, the costumes are wrong, you gave them the thumbs-up. So build up your shoulders, they need to be broad.
  23. On screen, your hero can blow away 500 bad guys, but if he smokes one fucking cigarette, you’re in deep shit.
  24. Always have an alternative career planned out. Mine is a cricket commentator. You will never do this career, but it might help you get to sleep at night.
  25. Never, ever, ever forget how lucky you are to do something that you love."