Category Archives: theater

Mary Toft Lives

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Our final show just wrapped! This summer, I’ve been working with the amazingly talented Jon Gann to produce a Capital Fringe 2016 show on the famous “Rabbit Woman of Godalming,” who gave birth to a series of rabbits–in parts–over the course of a few months in 1726. It was a song cycle, each song in which was composed by a DC-area composer/songwriter, and then as a whole orchestrated by a brilliant friend of mine, Stephen Lilly, and the band he plays in–These Quiet Colours–lent their talents as the house band, The Bloody Bunnies. Craig Houk directed our four performers: Rachel Jones, Colin Brown, Christopher E. Robin, and Grant Collins. We rehearsed at Marymount University, where I’m sure we more than turned a few heads in the library!

Rachel was spectacular as Mary–here she is feeling very uncomfortable with her husband, Joshua Toft’s plans:

Here is Nathaniel St. Andre working it, as he sells his story:

We were extraordinarily lucky to receive two stand-out reviews, one by DC Theatre Scene and one by DC Metro Theater Arts, who described it as

a tale that is not only compelling in its own right, but, as we are reminded in the program notes, resonates forcefully today with its emphasis on “spin, celebrity, and agenda.”

You can read more about the performance at the website, and watch a mini- music video below), created by Pete Duvall and Tim Tate, featuring These Quiet Colours performing The Mauls’ song, “Media Madness.” The video was edited together for sound by the talented Steve Wanna.

Here is the program, and you can now view the whole show (and see more pictures!) at RabbitMusical.com.

Teaching in Tunisia

From March 3rd through the 9th, I was lucky enough to have been invited to give a series of lectures on modern American drama at the Institut Supérieur des Langues de Gabès in Tunisia. The experience was definitely a novel one for me, as I had never had the opportunity to travel outside of western Europe–I’ve had the pleasure of traveling pretty widely in the US, as well as to Scotland, Ireland, England, and France, but this was my first time on the African continent.


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While in Gabès, I taught mostly third-year English students in American Literature–they were learning about drama, and I was asked to speak with the students about Arthur Miller’s work. I’m not primarily an Americanist, much less a 20th-century Americanist, but it was exciting to bring this important and political playwright into the Tunisian context. I gave several lectures on Miller’s dramatic context, especially realism and expressionism; his use and adaptation of Greek tragic theory for an American context; his political context, including the effects of the Great Depression and the Red Scare; his Jewish-American identity and how that impacted his politics; the American Dream and Miller’s critique of it; and, the original stage design of Death.

Structure and Context:

The third-year class had approximately 300 students in it, which was also a novel experience for me; at Marymount, my classes are typically between 20 and 35 students. During the week I was there, I lectured each day for approximately 2 hours, and then conducted a series (usually between 4 and 6) of hour-long “discussion sessions” or travaux dirigés. This was also unexpected, and definitely something I wasn’t prepared for! I didn’t have a lot of time to explore the country, or sit in on other classes, because the entire day was spent in class. The Institute also closed at 6:00pm sharp–there was no on-campus housing. Unlike our university lectures plus discussion sections at large institutions, where the discussion sections are enrolled, the TDs were not assigned–students could drop in to any one they wanted.

ISLG Schedule
My lecture schedule at the ISLG

Because of the number of students, and the fact that the students are not officially divided into sections for discussion, these discussion sessions had uneven numbers–between as many as 60 or so, on the one hand, and 2 or 3, on the other.

I was also unsure about the extent to which the ISLG students were able to aurally comprehend my speech; part of the challenge of both the lectures and the discussion sessions was finding ways to rephrase things on the fly. I was often “Yes, Miss!-ed,” which practice one of my colleagues at the Institut explained to me as being a generic way of responding regardless of whether the concept or question was understood! So, these sessions were very pedagogically unfamiliar to me, as well.

The architectural design of the Institut was interesting–I regret not being able to take any photos of it. Essentially, the building’s three or four stories were arranged in a rough cube around an open courtyard; much of the classroom environment was open to the elements through windows and doors (it often rained while I was there, and given the courtyard arrangement, noise carried very easily into the classrooms). Classroom spaces were very minimalistic, which works well, I expect, for the lecture/TD format. Each classroom has a PA system, and I the students would volunteer to source a microphone for me at the beginning of each session. All other A/V equipment had to be requested and set up in the moments between the end of one class and the beginning of the next. Another element of note was that TDs and lectures did not seem to have a set location schedule; I am not sure if this was because my time there actually represented a compressed version of a longer period (i.e., three to five weeks condensed into one), and so disrupted a regular schedule.

I do wish that I’d had the time to sit in on a few other courses, at least once or twice, so I could get a clearer sense of what the Tunisian educational system is like–but, perhaps that will happen on a later trip. I was often at sea, because my sense of lecture/discussion/exam practices didn’t seem to match up to the Tunisian sense, and though I was asked (and willing) to bring my practices to the ISLG, I could only do so within a very specific context.

The students were in general much like my American students–there seems to be a lot of variety, both in terms of motivation and preparedness, and a large number of the class had not done the reading. In one TD, I did ask students to leave; it was clear that they’d not done the reading and were not too interested in concealing or suturing over that fact with questions. This led to an interesting situation in which I was left with a class of two students! We had what I felt to be a fascinating discussion, though, about expressionistic theatrical and dramatic techniques in Death of a Salesman, and what the play’s original title, The Inside of His Head, could tell us about Miller’s use of expressionism.

After the students who wanted to leave had left, one young man returned to the room to confront me. He explained that he felt I disrespected him by not fully engaging his questions in lecture; this was a little surprising to me, as it seems that lectures with 300 students aren’t really viable as discussion centers, on the one hand. On the other, when I did punctuate a lecture moment with a question, I quickly realized the error of my ways–several students would speak at once, making it very difficult to distinguish a single voice.

After explaining my experience to the student, I suggested that not reading and preparing for a discussion-based course, which makes it impossible for discussion to take place, amounts to a disrespect of the classroom space itself. I am not sure if I’d impressed my point, but it was very interesting as a case illustrating the prominence and sheer visibility of gender in the classroom context–indeed, gender difference was one of the most salient of experiences marking my trip to Tunisia (I hope to write more on this, later).

In another instance, I noted that there seemed to have been some reserve about watching the film I’d brought with me, the classic 1985 Hoffman-Malkovich film adaptation of the 1984 Michael Rudman Broadway production. During the scenes with the Woman, several students got up and walked out, and this happened periodically throughout the screening. I asked why, but the reason was unclear–I think it may have had to do with cultural sexualization norms.

Content:

I framed my week of lectures through the historical development of theater as a form of public, performative expression, which ties it closely to the polis.

A protest in Tunis
Protesting inflation in Tunis

Because of the resonances between the recent Tunisian revolution, which led to the flight of former President Ben Ali, and the social function of theater that Miller’s work embodies, my presentation of the playwright generally focused on the way that Death of a Salesman reconceptualizes the tragic mode. As Miller notes in “Tragedy and the Common Man,”

Insistence upon the rank of the tragic hero, or the so-called nobility of his character, is really but a clinging to the outward forms of tragedy. If rank or nobility of character was indispensable, then it would follow that the problems of those with rank were the particular problems of tragedy. But surely the right of one monarch to capture the domain from another no longer raises our passions, nor are our concepts of justice what they were to the mind of an Elizabethan king. […] The revolutionary questioning of the stable environment is what terrifies. In no way is the common man debarred from such thoughts or such actions.

I think the students responded well to this point of intersection, in general, and we returned to it periodically.

I also wanted to provide a context from which Miller’s own politics become legible in his plays, so we turned from there to the traditions of realism and expressionism that informed the staging of Salesman. We looked closely at the way the stage directions and the dialog drew on both realistic and expressionistic techniques to create something new and more capable of providing commentary on the modern experience.  We also looked at Mielziner’s original stage designs and the set created for the 1949 production.

The politics of such stylistic choices provided a theatrical context from which we could examine Miller’s relationship to key cultural and historical contexts, the Great Depression and the Red Scare. Both of these contexts are important when we think about how he presented his advocacy for tragedy as essentially located in the experience of the “common man” in modern America. We spent quite a long time talking about Miller’s adaptation of the Aristotelian tragic tradition, which led us into his New York Times apologia for Salesman and a series of discussions about the extent to which Willy, Biff, and Happy embody various responses to the central question or fear of modernity, for Miller:

the underlying fear of being displaced, the disaster inherent in being torn away from our chosen image of what or who we are in this world.

In all, I think the students learned as much from me as I did from them–about my teaching style, about what I take for granted, about the invisible rules that I tacitly and daily abide by in my own classroom. I would love to have the opportunity to return to the ISLG and teach again, with a little more breathing room and contextual awareness. And I would definitely like to see some of my colleagues there in action! That is perhaps my greatest pedagogical regret, and it’s one I hope to remedy sooner, rather than later.

Ion at the Shakespeare Theatre

Oh, what a wonderful thing theater is! I thoroughly enjoyed the Shakespeare Theatre’s new production of Euripides’ Ion, billed as a “Greek tragedy with a happy ending.” Though the “happy” part of the “happy ending” is always subject to nuance and debate, as the viewer must necessarily question the tidiness with which that “happy ending” is obtained….

The play is currently being staged at the Harman Center for the Arts, the newest venue for the Shakespeare Theatre, and I always find my time there well worth the effort. The play was only about an hour and a half in total, with no intermission, emphasizing the compression of time. In David Lan’s adaptation, the chorus–originally suppliants to Apollo’s oracle at Delphi–are modernized into tourists, a decision that works so perfectly with the idea of a suppliant to the oracle that I’m surprised that no one had done it before. The set design doubles this staging decision, retaining the “authenticity” of the temple place–Greek columns, flagstones, grueling steps, altar, grandiose doors separating the space outside the temple from the temple interior–but edging it round with the trappings of a tourist destination. The grueling stairs have been rendered safer with the addition of those metal handrails you might see at any scenic overlook, and the plaza is separated from the temple doors by a chain–no visitors beyond this point!

I won’t go into it all, but I was particularly interested–given that the play was being performed in Washington, DC–to note the resonance at times between Ion and our new President. Ion not only looked like Obama (whether this casting choice was deliberate, I don’t know, but I find it hard to believe the director could be so oblivious), but the character’s worries about being seen as an usurper, “son” to a non-Athenian but suddenly endowed with a massive political inheritance, could not but sound a note of familiarity.

If any from theater history are reading this, I highly recommend it and definitely encourage you to go! Try for half-price tickets via The Ticket Place.

Ushering for "Fabulation; or, The Re-Education of Undine"

On Saturday, I immensely enjoyed ushering for the CenterStage‘s production of Fabulation; or, The Re-Education of Undine. This season has been fabulous–with only one exception, The Matchmaker, I’ve seen every show through the magic that is volunteerism, and I’m not quite sure what my favorite’s been. The Kushner musical Caroline, or Change; the infamous Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; or Lynn Nottage’s funny-beautiful Fabulation–all have good cases in their corners…. Fabulation is a contemporary piece riffing on some of the same themes as Caroline; it’s a very Afro-centric play, but it doesn’t speak exclusively to people of color. It suggests that the world we immerse ourselves in creates identity, and that identity can just as easily be re-created–it’s a hopeful play, but a play not without acknowledgement of the pains attending any re-education.

The play’s title alludes to a the German folk tale of Undine, a water nymph that fell in love with a human man, bore his child, and was therefore consigned to mortality on land; however, when she found that he had become unfaithful, she cursed him with wakefulness and returned to the sea. This tale is, of course, the basis for Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid,” butchered in recent memory by Disney. The play doesn’t take up the subplot of the folk tale, Undine’s curse on her erstwhile husband,  but it does suggest that Nottage’s Undine–and by extension the many women in the play like her–has somehow exiled herself from her “authentic” identity (or at least, one part of her identity) in her quest to become part of the Black upper-middle class. In the first minutes, we learn that her husband, Herve, has not only left her–in part because she  herself drifted away–but also left her with nothing, cleaning out their joint accounts. Undine, rejected by her upwardly-mobile friends, returns to her home in Brooklyn, a past that she figuratively killed by creating a story of her rise in which her family died in a fire. Her grandmother, whom everyone thinks of as diabetic, is actually addicted to heroin, and Undine is pressed into service as a runner–when she gets pinched by the police and sentenced to rehab. She discover’s she’s pregnant, and–now a member of the poor underclass–must navigate the abstruse and illogical bureaucratic system signified by the Social Security Office to get an abortion appointment. By the time she finally comes face to face with a doctor, he informs her that she’s in her third trimester, and an abortion is impossible. In this Job-like fable, Undine is not only routinely stripped of every piece of armor and every bit of stable ground, but she is also forced to confront the part of herself she surgically removed in her own fabulous (the word is deliberate!) rise to fame in the business world.

While we can take issue with the one-dimensional idea that Brooklyn represents a forsaken authenticity and the white PR world of Manhattan represents an illusory fraudulence (literally, as Undine’s Latin husband has cheated not with another woman, but with her money and her idea of him), the play does an excellent job dramatizing the real distance between the two worlds, as well as the way our identity is often bound up with the discourses of each. As Undine falls further and further away from the life she’s grown accustomed to, the life she desires far away from her parents’ Brooklyn walk-up and her humorously heroin-addicted grandmother, the child inflicted upon her by husband Herve becomes a sign of her new life–and the pains attending its birth. The play could easily fall into sentimentalism, but it doesn’t; in part because of the play’s pervasive, sharp-edged humor, and in part becuase of the interesting choice to double Herve and Guy, the former addict Undine meets in her court-mandated therapy and with whom she later falls in step. Nottage avoids sentimentalism, too, by emphasizing the fabulation; the play names itself a fable, and it treats itself as such from start to finish–it is a fable that, like Undine’s brother’s epic poem on Brer Rabbit, has real political significance, but is capable of addressing those politics from the slight remove offered by the stage.

(The other thing that occurs to me, as I’m remembering the play, is Undine’s own affair with her mediocre rap-star client. In the staging, we were clearly to see him as “inauthentic,” a gangster who uses most of his six-figure income to associate himself with the streets; Undine treats him with condescension, a condescension that belies her own attempts to remove herself from her past. I’m not sure what to do with this, especially given the intertext of the water-nymph’s curse. Any ideas?)