Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Ladies, All The Ladies.

This post is a response to the production of Henry IV, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, which was recently at St Ann's Warehouse. Since this was my first time seeing a performance of Henry IV (and this production took the liberty of combining parts 1 and 2) I didn't feel like it made sense to make this post about those texts. But I am interested in looking at one of the most notable things about this production - its all female cast. One of the things that I aspire to do as a director is to advocate for more and better roles for women. Shakespearean plays can be particularly uninspiring from this vantage point. Often, you'll have 3 women's roles to 15 men's roles, and the size of those roles is significantly smaller in scope. And while Shakespearean plays are something of an open invitation for various conceptual ideas, it's rare to see an all female production at this level. So, without further ado...

No apologies.

The single most striking element of this production was to see women in roles where there was no apologizing, no softness. In roles where they were initiating action, rather than just responding to what life threw at them. It was thrilling. An actress friend of mine had the opportunity to play Peer Gynt when she was in college. She summarized the difference of experience by saying that female roles are about being female, where male roles are about being human. Which sounds bold, but is actually very true especially with regard to females characters who are under the age of 40. Stories where there is a female protagonist are the minority. When they are the protagonist, their character arch typically revolves around love - falling in love, surviving love gone wrong, etc. And when they manage to avoid the love trap, they tend to be about responding to what's happened to them - a parent has died, they've been diagnosed with cancer, a rebel droid won't leave them alone. Female characters who pursue their own agenda are often portrayed as villains or deranged or both. I don't find that to be an accurate representation of my life or the lives of the women I know. But when you hear all these stories and none of them reflect the reality you experience, you start to think it doesn't really exist. So, it was refreshing on a really profound level to see these women have free reign to be fully human.

I forgot.

There were moments during this production where I forgot I was watching women, moments where I saw them as men. I find this fascinating, especially given that there was no attempt made by the production to disguise them as men. Because of the conceit of this production, that the story was taking place inside a women's prison, all of the women playing male characters were dresses in grey sweats and t-shirts. But no effort was made to pass them off as men. Breasts were not taped down. If they had longer hair, it was simply pulled back in a pony tail. In an interview with Playbill, Lloyd mentioned that she had really encouraged the cast to use space the way men use space (ie. to take up more of it) and that shift felt very palpable. I love when you can do the heavy lifting of your story in an organic way rather than through special effects. If we want to impress people, special effects are great. But if we want people to be able to relate to us, it's better to use our own facility.

The least interesting...

I found the two female characters of this production (Lady Percy and Mistress Quickly) to be the least interesting. I'm not entirely sure why that was. Certainly, they are among the smaller roles and are not intricately involved in the plot. But I wonder if having an all female cast contributed, in part, to that dynamic. In a production with traditional casting, these roles could display more masculine characteristics - Percy can be blunt in telling people exactly what she thinks, Quickly can crass and bawdy - without ever being in danger of confusing the issue of whether they are playing men or women. I don't think these roles were intentionally pulled back, but they just didn't standout. It's worth thinking about how you distinguish your female roles from your male roles (and what function they serve) when your entire cast is female.

Still different.

I read an article recently that talked about the word "equal". Its point was that we've begun using "equal" as a synonym for the word "same" and that we should strive to avoid that. Equal refers to a fixed quantity. Thus, men and women are not equal. They can have equal rights. They can be paid equal salaries. They can have equal intelligences. But they are not the same items. And when you replace one with the other, while many things will remain the same, there will be a shift in some things. One of the things my husband remarked on with regard to this production was that he missed the genuine affection and comradery between Hal and Falstaff that he had seen in more traditional productions. Which makes sense. The bulk of the interaction between these two revolves around Hal publicly humiliating Falstaff, a dynamic which is all in good fun among a group of guy friends. But among women, that dynamic doesn't exist. Among women, that behavior is malicious and signals a major breach in the relationship. And since the women where not disguising themselves as men, this change of dynamic altered their relationship and significantly reduced the impact of Hal severing all ties with Falstaff in the final moments of the production.

Questions? Comments? Concerns? Post them below. The more, the merrier.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Grey It Up

I love me a grey character. What I mean by that is I love a character who really makes you weigh how you feel about them. The hero who isn't the nicest person or doesn't always do the noble thing. The villain who stirs our pity with a relate-able motive. Some people might call these characters complicated. But the word complicated implies something difficult to understand. I think of these characters as human. They are doing what they feel they have to do. For my tastes, the hero would be as flawed as the villain and the villain would be as right in his argument as the hero. Because then you have a match between two worthy opponents, a match either side could potentially win. Every now and again, you get lucky enough to meet characters who are written like this on the page. These are scripts that I consider to be virtually actor-proof. You could cast almost anyone and as long as they commit to saying the lines, the story will still be compelling. But more often than not you have to do what you can to try to blur the edges.

Obviously one of the places where you can work to balance out a character is in the casting. Casting against type can be a great way to amp up the humanity of your characters. The caveat here is that you don't want to cast some who is completely wrong for the part. But there's often a wider range of actors who could do the role successfully than we consider. Do a quick analysis - what one thing must the character have in order for the story to be believable and what one thing is glaringly absent from the character as it's written? Does the character really have to be a certain race? A certain gender? A certain age? Especially when you're working on new work, these "givens" can be much more flexible (and thereby become more interesting) if we allow them to. I think the point where an actor/character intersection becomes the most interesting is when you can find someone who understands (and can deliver) on the one thing you need, but who lives in the world of the one thing that the character is lacking.

Another point where characters can be greyed up is in their interpretation. If we're working on a script that we can't change, we don't have the option of adjusting the arguments to be more balanced. But we can shape the behaviors and influence the motivations in and around the text of the script. We don't react to events, we react to what we believe about events. Which is to say, it's not the act, but the context of the act that shapes how we feel about it. As an act, we can agree that killing someone is generally perceived as wrong. But if we believe that someone was killed by accident or in self-defense, how we feel about the killer can shift considerably. As an act, promoting someone might be seen as a nice thing to do. But if one person is promoted in order to smite someone else, suddenly the promotion isn't as generous an act as it was before. Even if we don't agree with why someone has done something, knowing why they're doing what they're doing goes a long way toward making them feel more human.

First and foremost, we want our characters to be honest and we want the story to make sense. But that's really the bare minimum. Once that requirement has met, we want to be interested. And when we look around, real life is chock-full of interesting. Things are rarely, if ever, purely black and white. Who is a hero and who is a villain is a constantly shifting landscape. To some degree, we are always a bit of both. Even the "right" answer to any problem leaves a trail of pros and cons in its wake. We own it to ourselves to reflect that in our work.

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

Saturday, October 31, 2015

5 Seconds of Caring.

When I was a kid, my mother had this phrase - "Five seconds of caring!" - which was constantly being deployed around our house. What it referred to was the fact that it only took "five seconds" to put away the shoes that were left by the door or wipe down the counter where we'd left crumbs from our sandwich. The moral of the story being that it only took a moment to give a damn.

I'm in rehearsal for a show at the moment. It's a big project with lots of moving pieces and our director isn't able to be in the room with us at all times. For one run in particular, we were left in the hands of our stage manager. I'm involved in a large fight sequence with wooden staffs that are about 5 feet long and just over an inch thick. During the fight, my opponent accidentally landed a strong blow to my fingers. Her staff should have hit my staff, but somehow, my fingers got in the way. There was no blood but it was a severe enough hit for us to have to stop and regroup. I know someone asked it I was ok (I think it was my opponent), to which I replied, "We'll find out". We finished the fight and the remainder of the scene that followed it. Following that, I was released from rehearsal. Since my character is killed in the fight, and our director was not in the room, there wouldn't be notes and there was no reason for me to stay.

I left rehearsal feeling less than thrilled, to put it mildly. I expected that our stage manager would check in with me to make sure everything was fine, but there was only, "Great. Cotton, you're released. Moving on to the next scene." Granted, I'm an adult and no bones were broken and no blood was spilled. But I was hit in a rehearsal with enough force to leave purple bruises on my fingers. The fight choreographer did follow me out into the hall to make sure I was ok and ask if I thought we needed to rework anything to make it safer, which I sincerely appreciated. But the person in charge did not take five seconds to investigate the extent of the injury that happened in their rehearsal.

I don't mean to imply that our stage manager wasn't sufficiently doing her job. I honestly think it was just a moment where she made the assumption that everything was fine. But the keystone of people feeling cared for is that tiny bit of extra concern. And when things are really starting to get hectic, it's easy for that to get pushed aside. Not caring is the default of caring, much like chaos is the fault of order.

When you are the one who's actually in charge, when you are the one left in charge, when you somehow get stuck being the face of an organization, it's your job to care. Set the tone. Set the expectation. How you lead will greatly impact those in your charge. Patients sue doctors not because they have actually received inferior medical care, but because they feel they have been slighted. Military personnel when asked why they risked life and limb to save a fellow soldier in battle often respond, "they would have done the same for me".  If we want a team of people to give us their everything, they have to know we really care about them. Not just when it's easy or convenient, but at every turn. Give the five seconds.

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

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Play The Cards You Have

I'm a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell, and specifically his book David and Goliath. David and Goliath is a case study about playing the cards you're dealt to the best advantage possible. It explores the possibility that the thing everyone else views as your weakness may in fact be the root of your competitive edge. I love this concept on many levels, but I think it's a great thing to remember in the realm of directing.

There will always be limitations and things you don't have - not enough time, not enough money, no say over who gets cast in certain roles. Very rarely will we ever have carte blanche. And I think that's a great thing. Embracing our limitations can really help us get clear on what is most important in our story and get creative with how we accomplish that. Dream your dreams about who you would cast or what kind of crazy effects and costumes you would have in your ideal world. Then take a step back and look at the essence of that ideal. Get creative with how you can manifest that essence. Talk to you team in terms of those essences.

If your ideal set would be a magnificent castle, what is the importance of that castle? Is it to convey the cold, stark environment of being surrounded by stone? If so, can you convey that in a stripped down space and a desolate color choice? Or maybe a looming throne made of cinder blocks? Or maybe even harsh florescent lighting? Is it to convey the grandeur of being a royal? Could that be conveyed through some choice costuming and one really luxurious element, like an enormous stained glass window?

If your ideal leading lady is sexy, what are the ways the woman who's in that role is sexy? And how can that integrate with the character? On some people, it's their intelligence that makes them sexy. On others, it's their sense of humor. On still other people, it's their drive. Comedians talk about how the material that one comedian can kill with can fall completely flat with someone else. Both comedians are funny, but they're only funny in their own style of humor.

If your show calls for a big dance number and you don't have a single dancer in your cast, choreograph to the level that your cast can do. There are dance moves that look easy which are actually very hard and dance moves that look hard that are actually pretty easy. The best ones will always be the ones your dances can do. And a lot can be done to make arm movements and moving within certain patterns look impressive. If George Balanchine can choreograph for elephants, surely something can be done for those that happen to have two left feet.

Look at what you have at your disposal and work from there. As artists, we're always looking to see how we can tell our stories in new and compelling ways.We're always asking what unique interpretation we can bring to the mix. What you can't do (or what you don't have) is a great way to force yourself to think of other solutions. The core of creativity is being able to generate an array of strategies and perspectives. Any time we become fixated on solving the question in only one way, we're selling ourselves short. Knowing what is essential in order for the pieces of your story to click, and being able to talk to your team in those terms will help everyone have a clear picture of the end goal is and help you get there in a way that's unique to your production.

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

Monday, August 31, 2015


This post is inspired by The Public Theater's most recent production of Cymbeline, directed by Daniel Sullivan. Previously, I had had the pleasure of seeing Fiasco Theater production of this work. These viewings make up the sum total of my background with this play.

As I understand it, this production harkened back to a previous production Mr. Sullivan and set designer Riccardo Hernandez had worked on together in 1999 at the Old Globe. It features a found space aesthetic, with locations being suggested by key pieces of furniture and seats which are visible to the audience for the actors to sit in when they are "off stage". The cast is small with most everyone doubling or tripling roles. This is a style of performance that I find to be a lot of fun as an audience member. I feel like it allows me to engage with the imaginative aspect of the storytelling and not be distracted by other design elements. It feels more like we (actors and audience alike) are all playing make believe together. You can see all the gears of the machine as it's working. (As opposed to the more typical style of theater where everything is hidden and you only see the pieces you're shown.) I wish this production had embraced this style more fully. The costumes, for example, could have been more suggested than actualized, such that that actors could add or subtract pieces on stage in order to become their different characters. Rather than having to be hidden away in a changing booth for a complete costume change. The "off stage" seats for the actors were visible, but definitely in the shadows. I would have loved for them to be plainly on display. In the prologue type scene right at the top of the play, they make use of the audience by having them speak selected lines. I wish they had found a way to work this in at some other point in the play. But, stylistic quibbles aside, these are my thoughts as they relate to the storyline...

Imogen Descending.

I think it's safe to say that the first scene, where Posthumus is being banished, marks the beginning of a series of events for Imogen where everything in her life gets progressively worse (until the last scene when everything is righted). As such, it's crucial for the moments where it seems like things might be improving to be as joyful as possible. I think it's also important to pace each subsequent tragedy so that the distress level is able to continue to rise with each new turn. And within that, to explore the full spectrum of emotions we feel when we're in distress, in order to keep her story from becoming one-note.

The Stupidity of Cloten.

There is lots of fun to be had in the stupidity of Cloten, and I think Hamish Linklater milked each and every opportunity. But I think Cloten's stupidity also has to contribute to his danger. It's important to believe that he would be capable of making good on his threats to rape Imogen on Posthumus' dead body, given the opportunity. It's important to believe that he is a legitimate threat to Belarius and his boys if he were left alive. Otherwise, the beading just seems cruel (and not an expression of noble, princely instincts. His danger (which builds) is that he's stupid and he's increasingly frustrated by the fact that everyone knows he's stupid. I think he needs to have a degree of physical brutishness to him, so that what he lacks in skill and intelligence he makes up for in rage and brute strength. He's a terrible fighter with regard to having any actual ability when he gets mad and goes ballistic, damage will be done.

The Villainous Iachimo.

One of the things that I thought worked exquisitely in this production was Raul Esparza's performance of Iachimo. It's easy (and boring) for Shakespeare's villains to fall into being evil for the sake of being evil. However, if you can convey some sort of reason for why they're doing what they're doing (which Shakespeare often leaves unanswered) it becomes mesmerizing. In this production, Iachimo became that guy whose gaping insecurity makes it so that he always has to win, always have to have the last word, can never let an offense go - regardless of the cost to himself or others. This driving insecurity made everything else about him make sense.

The Villainous Queen.

Likewise, the Queen, being another villain, needs her motive. In the production that I saw by Fiasco Theater, if felt very clear that the Queen was on a mission to get Cloten on the throne (so that she could rule the country by dictating his every move). Her distain for both Cymbeline and Imogen as obstacles on this path were palpable. In this production, that wasn't as strong and, as result, her deathbed confession seemed to come a bit out of left field. I knew that she was evil, but I didn't get a clear sense of why and exactly who she was for or against.

Pisanio with the Potion.

I assume that Pisanio, being a smart and observant servant within the court, knows that the Queen is not to be trusted. As such, it begs the question why he believes that the potion he gets from her is capable of bringing people back from the verge of death. I think the way to package this is for her command that he make Imogen give up on the idea of being with Posthumus (and her threat that he should also disavow Posthumus if he knows what's good for him) to be as menacing as possible. So that when she give him the potion immediately following that, it feels like a bribe or an act of making him complicit with her plans. Her speech to him needs to be like he's just been chosen by the most violent of street gangs and he better deliver or else. That way the potion becomes a gift worthy of the stakes and it's a shocking enough scenario that Pisanio never really stops to think about why she might have given him such a valuable thing.

The Bodies.

Aside from the fact that Shakespeare needs the bodies to be uncovered in order for his scene to continue to play out the way that it does, it's ridiculously strange that Belarius and his boys leave the Fidele/Imogen and Cloten corpses uncovered. I don't know if there's anything that can really be done about, based on how the text is. I wonder if there's a way to imply that the Belarius crew had to leave suddenly because of the approach of Caius Lucius and his men.

The Battle.

The battle scenes are quick and rather chaotic, especially given that Posthumus switches from fighting for Rome to fighting for Britain in the middle of it...and then ends up being jailed by the Brits. So, whatever can be done to make all of that clearer should be done. I feel like costuming that quickly and clearly distinguishes the Romans from the Brits is a good start. I also wonder if there's a way to see Posthumus be caught with with some part of the Roman uniform on him. Like if the Romans where red capes and the corner of a red cape is seen sticking out of Posthumus's bag? That seems a bit trite, but I was completely confused about how Posthumus ended up in Cymbeline's jail. So perhaps something like that is worth it for the sake of clarity. Also, perhaps it makes sense to just cut that scene in jail? I think it's enough if we know that he's been captured by the Brits.

That Final Scene.

That final scene is a doozie with plot points wrapping up right, left and center. The thing that I really wanted from this last scene was better stage pictures. I don't mean to imply that the pictures Mr. Sullivan and his cast created were not good ones. What I do mean, is that with all of the disparate plot lines coming together so quickly, it's difficult to maintain visually what everyone's relationship is to everyone else. I don't have a solution for this, but I would definitely want to spend some time on it in rehearsal.

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

Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Tempest

This post is inspired by the recent production of The Tempest, produced by The New York Shakespeare Festival and directed by Michael Greif. My previous experience with The Tempest include seeing other full productions once or twice before and playing Miranda in a production which I am hard pressed to remember. Like any Shakespearean play, it has its warts and its gems.

My specific thoughts on it are as follows:

- Sorting Out The Storm

The play opens on a boat that's in the middle of being shipwrecked by a storm. Understandably, it's a fairly chaotic moment. And it involves a large group of people. Since the dialogue isn't loaded down with a whole lot of exposition, I would want to use this scene to distinguish the relationships between the 4 main groups of people who come from the boat. They are:

  • The Sailors: The Captain and Crew of the boat. They want the king and all his entourage to out of the way and stay safely below deck.
  • The Good Guys: Alonso (the King), Ferdinand (the Prince) and Gonzalo (the Courtier). These guys are kind of just hanging out trying to not die in the storm. Ferdinand does not technically appear in scene (he has no lines), but given that we don't otherwise see him with him father until the end of the play, this is the one point where we could visually establish their relationship.
  • The Bad Guys: Antonio (the Duke) and Sebastian (the King's Brother). These guys are hotheads. They're quick to berate the crew and think they are the ones who should be calling all the shots.
  • The Fools: Stephano and Trinculo. These clowns don't have any lines in the first scene, but I think it would be good to see them, so that we can establish visually that they were on the boat. Plus their first scene doesn't come up until fairly late in the play. (In my ideal world, I would also have these two do a quick interstitial cross, after we've established that the men from the boat are wandering around the island but before their first scene, just to establish that they are also alive and wandering the island.) These guys largely live to get drunk and secure the best station in life that they can with the least amount of energy.

If we can establish these groups either through stage pictures or by costuming (or both), that lays a great foundation for what's coming up.

- Miranda/Prospero Relationship

There's something wonderfully teenage about the relationship Miranda has with her father. This relationship strikes me as one of the most contemporary feeling parent/child relationships in Shakespeare. Many of the others seem to have a formal distance between parent and child, but this one seems much closer. There is a sense of banter. It feels like Miranda has been raised to consider her father as an equal and he, for his part, largely enjoys being able to converse with her now that she is becoming an adult (although, he is sometimes annoyed with her precociousness). In their first scene, it's important for Prospero to drive the scene. If he doesn't keep speaking (or if what he's saying isn't significant enough to Miranda) she should (given the context of the scene) interrupt him - initially in an effort to save the ship she thinks is sinking and then to find out more about this astonishing secret past that he reveals. (I think it's also helpful if in his telling of this backstory, if Prospero can highlight with team we're supposed to root for - Milan or Naples. Because to me, those cities are interchangeable as I'm sitting there listening to the play. But they are most definitely NOT interchangeable to Prospero (or any of the people who were on the boat), and that's information worth knowing.)

- That Scene with Prospero, Miranda and Caliban

Why, for the love of God, does Prospero bring Miranda with him when he goes to see Caliban, the beast-man who tried to rape her?!? This production at one point even had Prospero pushing Miranda toward Caliban - a choice which I still cannot fathom. She doesn't have any lines while Caliban is present. It almost seems like she's there in the scene with Caliban just to have her on stage when Ferdinand enters a few moments later. Regardless, I think we have to see Prospero protecting her from Caliban. Otherwise, Prospero wins the award for worst dad ever. Also, it doesn't seem out of the ordinary for Prospero and Miranda to go see Caliban together. It seems like this is how things typically unfold. I suppose if Caliban is being made to fetch their wood and build their fire, he would be going to their dwelling, at some point, to do so. And in that case, it's better for Miranda to be away from there and safely with her father. But I don't think that reasoning is implicit in the text and I'm not sure if there's a way to trigger it non-verbally. Maybe if there's a way to see him doing the labor at their dwelling? (This production had a prison like cell that Caliban emerged from, which made sense to me. It seems to me that one would keep Caliban around (rather than kill him) only if his value outweighs his danger. Only if he's able to do major physical labor that you are unable to do. However, that creates the need to be able to restrain him from being able to harm Miranda or restrain Miranda from wandering the island by herself so that she doesn't encounter him alone. Prospero doing a bit of both seems likely.) I don't know. It always strikes me as really weird scene. 

- Prospero

It's easy for Prospero to seem like an ass. He put the country in his brother's control while he was off studying magic. Then he doesn't like that by the time he gets back all the supporting officials have become loyal to his brother. Perhaps taking a magic hiatus is not a crime worthy of exile, but it's also not the best way to handle your divine responsibilities. He continues to renege on his promise to release Ariel, despite Ariel doing everything he says. In order for me to root for Prospero to be restored to his throne, I would like to see some kind of recognition of his failings, like "this was partly my fault for studying magic instead of ruling my country." "Ariel, I know I said you could go, but I still need you so I'm going to have to keep you locked up for a bit longer." I know these aren't in the text, but I think they could be implied in the delivery. He also enslaves Caliban. He "enslaves" Ferdinand (who is presumably treated better than Caliban, but is charged with doing exactly the same labor). In light of these not so noble actions, I think it's important to look for ways in which he can be likeable because ultimately we want to root for him to regain his throne. We want to believe that he's a competent ruler. (I also think it's worth noting that Prospero need not be aged to the point of having white hair. By the timeline laid out Miranda is supposed to be 15. Even if we age her up to her 20s, Prospero could easily be only in his 40s. Indeed, Sam Waterston played this same role at The Public years ago. I mention this because I tend see the part played by men who appear to be in their 60s)

- Caliban

Caliban is incredibly articulate for someone who's speaking in a second language - the bulk of his lines are even in verse. This production tried to give him some kind of speech impediment, as a means of conveying his brutish, I'm-part-animal quality - as though speaking the language were still difficult for him. But we have to remember it's been 12 years since Miranda and Prospero landed on the island. Conservatively, Caliban's been speaking this language, and only this language unless he speaks to the other animals on the island, for the past 10 years. Even if he has some kind of accent (or speech impediment), finding the words (because of a language barrier) should not come in to play. I think his beast-ness should instead come from some kind of huge physical presence. I would love for him to come across as something like Wolverine or the Incredible Hulk - a ridiculously strong, basically human form with wild emotions who's super useful for certain things but difficult to control. Is Lebron James available? Because he would be about the right size to make everyone else seem puny. 

- The Island

I would love for the island itself to come across as beautiful, but crazy dangerous - like the rainforest where many of the plants and critters are gorgeous, but potentially deadly. Not sure how you convey that. Perhaps there could be some staging with Miranda and Ferdinand where you see her stopping him from touching some of the wild life? Where you see her indicating "eat this, not that" or "don't touch those". Especially, since you have the lines where Caliban talks about how he taught Miranda and Prospero how to survive on the island. It would stand to reason that Ferdinand would also need to be taught some survival basics about the terrain.

- Magic Rules

Wherever there is magic, there are rules for magic. It's important to clarify at least for the cast, if not also for the audience, what the rules are because rules help us understand how the game is being played. Prospero seems to be able to exercise physical control over the bodies of others in his immediate vicinity - plaguing Caliban with cramps, freezing Ferdinand's arm as he reaches for his sword, making Miranda instantly fall asleep - but lacks the ability to control the sea and the winds. (Presumably, since this is what he makes Ariel do and why he seems to be keeping Ariel prisoner). One of the things I appreciated in this production was a representation of Ariel causing the storm. This production utilized an army of spirits under Ariel's command, which I liked. But I would I have liked to see a more tangible communication between him and his legions or more of a recognition that he was directing them to do what they were doing. (The pronoun "he" will be used for this post, since this production chose to cast this role as male.) Although, Ariel having a whole troupe of spirits does make me wonder why he can't/doesn't utilize that against Prospero. It makes me want a clearer understanding of what exactly Prospero's hold over Ariel is. At the end of the play we have Prospero breaking his staff (and thereby giving up his magic powers). It's possible to tie this to Ariel's freedom, but this is only satisfying if we can establish a more direct link with this object being the thing that keeps Ariel prisoner throughout the play. (Writing this I'm reminded of a story that was on The Jim Henson Hour called The Heartless Giant. Basically the Giant is unkillable because his heart is hidden in a vault somewhere far away...until someone tracks the heart down and crushes it. Perhaps this kind of mythology could be established for Ariel and Prospero - where Prospero physically holds an aspect of Ariel captive, so that Ariel's form can roam around the island but never leave until what Prospero has is relinquished. I'll grant that this could be tricky to establish, but it's interesting to me.) Also, magic is not splendor, glitz or glamor. Magic is something we cannot explain. 

- What Turns Prospero's Heart?

Prospero spends the bulk of the play seeking revenge on his brother and then when they are finally face to face he's like "it's cool, I forgive you." Which begs the question, why does Prospero have this sudden change of heart? This production had a fun moment, where Miranda, in her delight and wonder at seeing a whole crowd of people on the island, unknowingly embraces her uncle - the one person her father would have most strongly objected to her hugging had he been able to stop her in time. While I didn't see them utilize this moment in this way, I think it could be shaped as the trigger for his change of heart.

- That Wedding

I've always found the wedding to be incredibly dull. I would love to see it really feel like the show erupts into celebration when the goddesses arrive. There is nothing that advances the plot in the lines that the Goddesses have. Why not turn that into some great gospel number...maybe reminiscent of the goddesses from Disney's Hercules? Also, Miranda says she's never seen another woman's face (and she's soon about to be wowed by the miracle of humans when she sees her uncle and the other men from the ship), so perhaps it's impactful to not see these goddesses as fancy humans? Perhaps they appear as some kind of creature? Or perhaps some element of nature (maybe in puppet form)? Or maybe even as shadows?

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

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

I Am Not A They.

I was working on a staged reading recently. Rehearsal time was limited, but it was just a brief excerpt of a larger work. The hope (expectation) of the creative team was that everyone would be off book for the final presentation. The end of our one rehearsal concluded with notes from the director, one of which went something like this, "I'm not going to name names, but some of you really haven't done enough preparation for this project. You guys are incredibly talented, but you need to go home and do your homework."

It's easy to imagine why this director addressed this issue in this fashion. He may have felt pressed for time. He may not have wanted to single anyone out. He may have just not really thought about it. But ultimately, I think it did more harm than good.

My initial response was one of confused shame. Did he mean me? I had been involved with this project in a previous iteration and while I was referring to my script due to changes that had been made late the night before I was not glued to it. I decided that he was not talking about me. I decided he was talking about two (possibly three) people out of our ten person ensemble. Certainly not the majority that you might infer from a group note like that. As I rode the elevator down with some other members of my cast (after a round of "Did you think I was unprepared?") the consensus that was reached was this: when you give a note like that, the offenders don't think it's for them and everyone else is already doing it.

The negative effects here are two fold. First, if his note was meant to apply to any of us who were in that elevator, it was not received. We all came to the conclusion that it was a note we should disregard. Any time an actor hears a note and thinks, "that must be meant for someone else," is dangerous. I think it sets a precedent for your future notes to be ignored and/or significantly watered down. Second, the scolding tone of the note created a negative emotional tone for the relationship. Of our 10 person cast, only one of the actors had worked with the director previously. For the rest of us, our first interaction with this person was being put on the defensive with regard to our professionalism in how we had prepared for this project.

My point is that this was not a group note. This was an individual note that happened to pertain to 2 or 3 people. If you're going to give a group note, it should be about information. (Any time you exit stage left, be sure to pull the curtain behind you.) If it's behavioral (Learns your lines. Pick up your cues. Etc.), it should be an individual note. Our strongest potential for change (which is what we're trying to do when we give notes), lies in our ability to make our relationships personal - our ability to say I see you specifically and what you're doing matters to me. It give the note immediacy, urgency and accountability. Giving personal notes, especially unpleasant ones like "you need to work harder" take more effort. But it reaps more rewards. 

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

Monday, May 18, 2015

All In The...Timing

My last post was inspired by Hamilton. This one is inspired by The Flick (directed by Sam Gold, currently remounted with its original cast at the Barrow Street Theatre). Or rather, this post is inspired by the radically different pacing that's exhibited by these two shows and the question of how timing effects storytelling.

Both of these shows are on the longer side. Hamilton was running around 2 hours and 45 minutes when I saw it. The Flick ran around 3 hours in it's previous run at Playwright's Horizon. (Although, it was 3 hours and 30 minutes when I saw it at Barrow Street, which was during previews. So perhaps they are in the process of tightening it up.) I would wager that Hamilton squeezes in at least double the volume of words that The Flick does within that roughly 3 hour period. Hamilton is an ever singing, ever moving roller coaster. The Flick is a slow burn of sparse language and even sparser action. Stylistically, I don't know if these shows could be more different. Yet, in theory, the goal remains the same - tell the story at hand with the greatest emotional impact possible.

As a general rule, I believe that lines should be delivered as quickly as possible while maintaining the integrity of the story. I believe that we should speak at the speed of thought (which tends to be pretty fast) and that pauses should be earned. As such, The Flick was a challenging piece for me to sit through with its massive gaps between sparse exchanges of dialogue. And while it was well executed by the performers and achieved the Chekhovian effect of making ordinary interactions poignant, I couldn't help but wonder if all that time was really necessary.

Because I'm really not sure that it was. I feel conflicted saying that. As I read various articles about how technology is shortening our attention spans - how musicians are having their instrumental interludes gutted in order to be played on the radio and the acronym TLDR (to long, didn't read) haunts articles that take longer than 60 seconds to read - I feel determined to retain my ability to focus in concentrated blocks of time. But at the same time I have very little use for theater that is described as being best for "serious theater goers" (as reviews from The Flick's initial run hearkened to). If our audience has to work to stay engaged with our story, maybe we need to adapt how we're telling it. I genuinely don't know what the answer to this is.

I would love to know, from a scientific standpoint, how time - specifically the gaps between cues - effects perception of the story. This is clearly the issue at hand for film editors all the time. But I would love to see a controlled experiment where the pauses between lines were systematically shortened to test whether or not the scene could be as effective in a shorter amount of time. Much like the way researchers test whether people make higher donations after receiving appeals letters written in blue on black ink. Until then, we'll have to continue to feel it out.

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

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Start At The Top

I recently had the pleasure of attending a talk back for Hamilton, the fantastic new show by Lin-Manuel Miranda that's currently playing at the Public. The show is sung (or rapped) straight through from beginning to end. During the talk back, someone asked if Lin had ever considered making the format of the show be more like a traditional musical, with scenes broken up by songs. Lin responded that they had tried that, but because the language in the songs was so heightened there didn't seem to be anyway for the scenes to maintain the momentum of the music. So, instead they opted to let the piece be sung through, to start at a high point and build from there. And, amazingly, this is exactly what watching the show feels like. The opening number feels like you've been shot out of a cannon and the story continues to escalate through the whole show. It's one of the few performances where I've been exhausted by the end, as an audience member, because I have been watching and listening so intensely from start to finish.

This strikes me as a terrifying, but fantastic way to operate. Throw out the best idea you have and continue to raise the stakes. Often my instinct when I have an idea I'm really excited about is to view it as the climax (figuring out how to appropriately scale everything back that comes before it) rather than the starting point. This approach makes a lot of logical sense. It's much easier to plot your course if you know where your going. Plus, if you start with your best idea right out of the gate, you're in the daunting position of having to meet or exceed it in your next scene/song/moment. But the value of an artist lies in being able to present something in a way that feels fresh and new and relevant, not repackaging the same old thing over and over again. Which means part of our job description is stepping out onto a limb and taking risks.

If you want to do big things, you have to think big thoughts. The way that we get to a point where we think in big thoughts, is by routinely stretching our brain (and our comfort level) to produce big thoughts. If you read any of James Altucher's work (and I highly recommend it) this echoes his concept of how you can grow your creativity and train yourself to become an idea machine - by continually pushing your brain to think that way.

It's not genius, it's training. Time to start doing the heavy lifting.

(I'm trying to write shorter posts, so it's easier for you to read and me to write. I can't make any promises, but I'm trying.)

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

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Carry the Ball Forward

For any large event (moving day, opening night, wedding, etc), I like to worry early and push hard right at the beginning. Like is a strong word. It's probably better to say I really DON'T like feeling any undue stress related to these events. In this case, when I say "stress", I mean the range of duress you feel between genuinely not knowing if you will be able to be ready on time and seriously doubting that you can be ready in time. I work very hard to avoid feeling this way. 

By and large, I'm successful in doing this by implementing a philosophy I call "carry the ball forward." Anytime you're looking eye to eye with a massive project, make constant progress any which way you can from the moment you become aware of your responsibilities. Big projects, especially in the creative realm, have many unknowns. They often include coordinating with a whole bunch of moving pieces. Various people with different agendas will likely need to converge on the same space in order to do what you need them to do. And there will never feel like there's enough time to get everything done. So, planning, strategizing and really making the most of the time you have beforehand will make everyone's life easier.

The benefits of this are two-fold. First, I can react to any last minute surprises from my calmest state of being and I have the bandwidth to actually deal with them, both of which enable me to give them my best response. Second, being well prepared going through the process allows my mind the time and space to think of other things that might come up. Which often translates to even fewer surprises.

Things that can help with this process...


I like to think that everyone recognizes how fantastic pre-planning is, but that they sometimes find it difficult to get fired-up about it. Seth Godin was asked at a speaking event if he ever got nervous about presenting. He replied that he always gets nervous about it, but he's trained himself to be more worried about what the ramifications would be if he never presented again. If he never did this presentation, maybe he would never make the next one and the next one and so on. Maybe he would have to go back to doing work he didn't care about with people he didn't like for the rest of his career. By making the fear of not presenting so vivid, the initial fear of presenting pales in comparison. 

To that end, I invite you imagine the full experience of what being under-prepared for your big day would be like. On a physical level it might feel like that time in school where you thought you'd studied the right material, only to find out on the test that it was the other chapter you should have focused on. Your heart pounds, your stomach drops, your mouth goes dry, you start to sweat. Now consider how that unpreparedness could impact everyone else involved in this equation - the friends who gave up their Saturday to help you schlep boxes, the investors who believed in your vision enough to sink money into your project, your mom or dad who (presumably) will only see you get married once. Consider what would happen if there was suddenly an emergency in your own personal life - right before this event - that demanded your attention be elsewhere for a week? Injury or illness to your or a friend or family member, a catastrophe at work, a fire or robbery in your apartment building. Or perhaps imagine what it feels like when you have to pay double what you were expecting because you're forced to use the only vendor who can deliver within your time frame. I don't mean to rain on your parade, but all of these things are real possibilities. And you can either be a victim of your circumstances or you can be well prepared to take on the world. If you've done a great job of preparing, you'll be in the best position you can be to temper or take advantage of any last minute surprises. When the experience matters, set yourself up for success.


It's tempting to just jump right in and start doing stuff when something over-whelming is on the horizon. But without planning, this isn't progress. It's creating chaos. Not helpful. Not helpful at all. I start my planning by doing a huge brain dump with just plain old pen and paper. Start by writing down...


Categories are the major areas of focus. These are the main components of your events. When I got married, my categories were things like "flowers", "food", "ceremony". If anything pops into your consciousness during this phase that isn't a category, write that somewhere in the margins so that it can be plugged into the process at the appropriate time. (If you're into mind mapping, this is a great place to use it.) The idea is to create as much of a broad scope as you can. Once I've got what seems like a good overview, I go back through each category and start identifying... 

Your subcategories are things that are manageable chunks, but still require a couple of steps of parts to complete. So, for example, my category of "flowers" yielded the subcategories "bouquets", "boutineers", "centerpieces", "accessories" and "misc. decorating". From there, I could move to...

Asking Questions.
How many boutineers do I need? What are the centerpieces going to be? What kind of flowers do I want? Am I going to hire a florist? Who do I know who might know a good florist in that area? Ask, ask, ask. As some things are answered, they will generate more questions. But this initial round of questions at least alerts you to what it is you know you don't know. From here, begin...

Prioritizing is initially a question of where your minimum requirements lie. What are the things that you absolutely could not be satisfied going without? Once you've determined your list of "must haves", then identify what from that list is going to take the most time to get done. (Note: if there's something that is on your "must have" list that you have no idea how you're actually going to pull off that automatically classifies something that will take the most time.) From there divide everything into one of three groups - "most important", "important" and "nice to have". If it's a top priority and you don't know how you're going to do it/you know it IS going to take a long time, it moves to the "most important" section. Just under that in the "important" realm will be the things that are straight forward and don't involve a long process. And lastly, the rest of the stuff that would be "nice to have", but is not imperative. Now for the fun of...

Identifying Next Actions.
What are the next actions (the first steps) that needs to happen for your top priority items? (This part of the process may trigger a whole other round of questions. Fear not. There will always be a certain amount of refining in this process.) Your list of next action steps should be as black and white as possible and ideally have a definite end point. It might be "decide on colors". It might be "ask my Facebook friends who they would recommend as a florist". It might be "research where I can buy 13 glass bowls for centerpieces". List these as succinctly as you can. If you've identified something as a next action but you actually need to do something else before you can complete it, it's not a next action. If you've listed "address envelopes" as your next action item, but you're still missing a number addresses from your mailing list, your next action item is actually "get missing addresses"...followed by "address envelopes". Once you've got your next immediate actions in order, you're welcome to list all subsequent actions that you can foresee. If the next action is "get missing addresses", the progression from there might be "address envelopes", "buy stamps", "mail invites", etc. (The difficulty I always have with this phase is in telling myself that I don't really need to break things down THAT explicitly. Although I'm capable of figuring out that addressing envelopes should come after actually getting the mailing address, I have a much better grasp of everything that needs to be done - and I'm able to plow through it faster - if I've identified the very next thing that needs to be done.) And now, the moment we've all been waiting for, you get to...

Go Wild!!
Attack that list of actions. If you're waiting for a response on one action, attack another one. When you get an answer to one of your questions, channel that back into action. The beauty of this process is that you will always know where and how you can make immediate progress. You will also be able to delegate, if given the opportunity, because you will have a precise list of what needs doing. If you've really planned out everything that you need to do, you should have a pretty realistic picture with regard to how things are coming together. If things seem like they're way behind, figure out what the minimum you need to accomplish is. Also, look to see if there are ways to get the work done that may be less ideal, but significantly faster. When I was moving it would have been ideal to pack each box only with items for a certain room. But it was significantly faster for me pack things as they were no longer needed and as they could be fit into boxes. Extra towels in the linen closet became the perfect thing for wrapping extra glassware from the kitchen.

I realize that at this point I've beaten this concept to death. But I really and truly believe in its merits. We DIY'ed just about everything that could be DIY'ed for our wedding. I made my dress. I made the flower girls dresses. My husband made all our signage. We built the website from scratch. We made all of our flowers. We made our favors. We made our centerpieces. We designed our own programs. We made our guestbook. We wrote our own vows. If it could be done, we did it. Additionally, I was out of town for a month working on a show that closed two weeks before my wedding. My husband took off the three days before our wedding so that he can be available to help with last minute stuff. But we were in such great shape that we basically spent that time goofing around. And it was the best way to start our wedding weekend. We were able to just be happy and relaxed before all our family and friends descended. It's possible. And it's so fantastic to step into the hurricane knowing that you're really and truly ready.

Carry that ball forward!

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

Friday, February 13, 2015

Kiss Me Kate Thoughts...

The following was a response I wrote as part of my application to the Charles Abbott Fellowship. It contains some thoughts relating to Kiss Me Kate and the challenges and opportunities of staging a classic American musical.


The challenge in staging a classic American musical is making it relevant. The opportunity you stand to gain by achieving that is enabling your audience to connect to the show on deeper level. Kiss Me Kate is a great show. It’s got great music and wonderful dance numbers. It’s a show that audiences know and love. It’s a little sexy without being over the top. In short, it’s a classic for a reason. However, it’s definitely from a different era. And while I think it will always be something of a period piece. (Although now, as I think about it, I’m really intrigued by the idea of setting it in modern day Vegas or someplace where gangsters could feasibly show up.)

When I say relevant, I mean that I want the lead characters – the characters who carry the emotional weight of the show - to feel more real. It would be so exciting if you could create the same suspense that a good romantic comedy evokes, where you root for the main couple to get together but you don’t know until the end if they will or not. In a classic musical, where much of your audience has seen a previous production of the show (or can take a guess at the formula the show is based on) it’s certainly difficult to build any “will they or won’t they?” suspense - I don’t think I’ve ever experienced this with a classic musical - but it would be incredibly powerful. I think one of the worst and most human things about love is how completely uncontrollable it is. We don’t control who we love. We can’t will ourselves to stop loving someone. And it’s agonizing to love someone who you believe you shouldn’t love or to love someone who you think doesn’t love you back. I don’t want to just accept that Fred and Lilli end up together. I want to genuinely believe that Fred is the only man who could truly make Lilli happy and vice versa. I want “So In Love” to rip your heart to ribbons. The more the lead characters can be fully human, the more we are willing to forgive them for having beliefs or attitudes that are somewhat archaic. , I would love to see it have more emotional impact. How do you make it more than “nice”, more than just “amusing”? To me, this is Kiss Me Kate’s biggest challenge, and its biggest opportunity.

In watching the 1999 London version of Kiss Me Kate that’s available on YouTube, I was very turned off by the portrayal of the leading female characters, Lilli and Lois. Ultimately, it struck me as a rendering where the women were significantly more flawed than the men. The men seemed to end up on top and managed to maintain a bit more dignity. And while I realize that this is in text of the book and the lyrics, it’s not something that appeals to me. One of the challenges of a classic musical is that you are limited with regard to what you can change. This can become doubly challenging if the piece reflects attitudes or stereotypes that are less acceptable today. Sometimes this can be mitigated by cutting certain numbers or getting permission to modify some of the language. However, with a work like Kiss Me Kate, I don’t see that being the answer. I would be curious to see if the men and women could be rendered as equally flawed by tweaking the casting, interpretation and physicality. I am not interested in one party “taming” the other. I am interested in two evenly matched parties who learn they can’t out battle each other and realize they are very much in love.

For starters, I would love to see Lilli and Fred be the same height. (I would also love to see Howell cast significantly shorter than Lilli or Lois so that 1) he can’t physically dominate either of them and 2) it becomes more apparent that they were both with him because of his powerful position. And I think it could be really funny.) Or at least the same height when Lilli has a heeled shoe on. In this way, they visually become equals and Fred ceases to be someone who can physically dominate Lilli into doing what he wants. I think this could also add to the insecurity that Fred feels around Lilli. In the fight sequences for this show that I’ve seen, Fred and Lilli seem to beat each other up with equal success. However, Lilli has specific lines about how she can’t sit down because Fred has beaten her so severely, a gag that continues to be exploited as the show goes on. I would love to see - within the physicality since it’s not mentioned in the text - that Fred has also sustained some lasting injuries that Lilli is able to periodically exploit.

With regard to the relationship between Lois and Bill, I would love to ramp up the issue of Bill’s gambling. This gets brushed under the rug with a kind of “boys will be boys” shrug. The text says it’s not the first time he’s lost a significant amount of money gambling. It could be that Bill’s debts are part of the reason why Lois needs to see other beaus - because she’s paying for his losses and, rather than live on beans and rice, dates other guys who can pay for her dinner. I wonder if a visual reference to Bill’s gambling could be planted in or around “Always True To You In My Fashion” as a way to link their transgressions - a sort of “you do this thing that you shouldn’t, which makes me do this thing that I shouldn’t”. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to imagine that if Bill were able to hold on to his money, he and Lois might be able to settle down and legitimize their relationship. Additionally, while Lois could just be played as a dumb tart, I think it’s also possible to play her as someone who pretends to be dumb and uses her sexuality in order to get what she wants. While the second option is perhaps a bit darker (and maybe even less comedic) it’s the more interesting interpretation to me.

The flip side of evening out this dynamic for the women, is that it allows the men to also be fully-developed, thinking, feeling characters instead of just caricatures. Love stories are not new. They are one of the most fundamental human narratives. If they are told specifically and allowed the full spectrum of thoughts and feelings that accompany them in real life, they cannot help but draw us in. If not, they become irrelevant and easy to step over on our way to something more interesting.

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