Saturday, May 31, 2008

Christmas in July?

I know that Sunday is the first day of June. However, the reason I was late to a show tonight (other than the construction downtown blocking off most thoroughfares) was because I ran over a Christmas tree in a box which then got stuck under my car, necessitating Cheryl to get out of the car and pull it out from underneath while I alternately tried lifting the car and waving traffic around us (we were on the expressway exit ramp).

Yes, a Christmas tree.

If anyone had one go missing from their car Friday night, I might be able to help you out...

Friday, May 30, 2008

Women's Weekend

Last weekend was a women's weekend--or at least, it felt that way whenever I stepped into the theater.

It didn't start out that way. On Wednesday, I went to see Escanaba in Love at BoarsHead. The next two shows, though, were flip sides of the same coin. On Friday, I saw Maidens, Mothers, and Crones at Williamston Theatre and on Saturday Parallel Lives at Icarus Falling.

Escanaba in Love

I went into this show with high expectations. The same production with most of the same actors won several Wilde Awards last year and both local reviewers (Len Kluge and Ken Glickman) praised it highly in their reviews. I went in expecting a show that would top off what has been an excellent all-around season for BoarsHead.

I was disappointed. Yes, it was highly entertaining and had a good story. In all, I would rank it as a good, solid, show. I would not, though, call it a great one. It ranks far behind BoarsHead's Doubt, Souvenir, and Moonlight and Magnolias. Nor is Escanaba in Love nearly as good as the original Escanaba in da Moonlight. In fact, it suffers from trying too hard to recreate it.

The opening bit was way too drawn out and self-indulgent. Had it been cut in half, it might have been far more effective. It was also disappointing in a play at this level to have the accents constantly change. Sometimes they were Yooper accents, sometimes they were more Scottish. Wayne David Parker's Salty Jim was so over the top that he became a complete caricature who was impossible to relate to.

I'm still undecided about Big Betty Balou. I liked Charlyn Swarthout's performance and was impressed with her physicality and the commitment she brought to the part. I liked her and I liked Betty. However, I've spoken with several people who have said she just didn't do it for them because she was too petite, pretty, and wholesome to be believable as a woman who'd slept with every sailor who came into port. I can see that argument, but I thought her thinly-disguised vulnerability played well.

There were many touching moments in this play as the Soady men each exhibit their version of true love. It also has much of the ribald, laugh-out-loud humor that makes these plays such a success.

For all the criticisms I'm making, it's still a play worth seeing. Yes, it is flawed, but it's still a good show and a fine love story.

Maidens, Mothers, and Crones

Theater is for the mind, but it is also for the heart and soul. Williamston's Maidens, Mothers, and Crones is one of those shows that has all three. It's also a show that defies you to classify it. It's not a musical, but it has music, singing, and dancing in it. It's not a drama, but it has heartfelt, tear-inducing moments in it. It's not a comedy, but it is uproariously funny. It has no traditionally linear story line, but the "avant garde" label isn't quite right either.

So what is it? It's an experience; a shared experience that is moving because it draws the audience in through sheer recognition and empathy. While it is a new work, audiences can still feel like they know each of the characters because the characters are the women that they live with every day--whether they are mothers, sisters, wives, daughters, friends, or neighbors. I had a constant inner monologue running that would pipe up saying, "Hey! I know that woman!"

It was also a beautifully balanced play in the way it portrayed the diversity of women. There is not a single character who embodies everywoman, because everywoman doesn't exist any more than everyman does. None of the multitude of women portrayed in the show are mere caricatures or stereotypes. They have elements that are, but each person was treated with respect and honored. It made for a moving night at the theater.

Parallel Lives

Parallel Lives touches on many of the same themes as Maidens, Mothers, and Crones, but takes a different approach. It's a series of comic sketches done Saturday Night Live style. It tackles several serious issues, but it does so in an over-the-top method that relies on stereotypes and caricatures.

Laura Croff and Sara Frank are impressive in their ability to find different accents and voices for each of the many characters that they play throughout the two-act show. Each character has its single dimension that is exploited for laughs in a high-energy fashion. It's only afterward that the impact of what they are saying has a chance to land.

However, what makes this show popular and entertaining isn't any underlying message, it is the constant barrage of one-liners and comedic physicality. It's easy to understand why this is a popular show--everyone needs a night of laughter and it would be impossible to watch this show without laughing.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Brag Post

Last night was one of those proud mama moments that parenting is so blessed with.

My son's grade was putting on a drama presentation of fractured fairy tales. Some of it came from a script, some they wrote themselves. While he'd originally asked just to be on tech, he ended up picking up a couple of onstage roles as well. He opened the show as the "stage manager" who came out in theater blacks wearing a headset, calling for lights, and directing all the "crew" where to move the stage pieces. He also got to respond to a cast rebellion when he called "five minutes to places." All this he did while hamming it up and quite obviously having a great time. He's already developed a great deal of stage presence and comfort in front of an audience.

He was also one of the narrators for the Rapunzel story and a newscaster along with helping to move set pieces and do general crew work backstage.

Many kudos also go to Jennifer English, the drama teacher and director of the show. Not only did she manage to put a show together in which each and every fourth grader participated (I don't know the exact numbers, but there are three and a half fourth grade classrooms with 25 to 30 kids in each of them) but she also did it in a way that all the kids had fun. You could tell from the audience that they were all having a blast and no one seemed the least bit nervous or stressed. That's quite the accomplishment.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Star Power?

Last week, Williamston's Artistic Director Tony Caselli blogged about the auditions they were holding. I was particularly taken by what he wrote here:

Sometimes it shocks me when audience members ask me "Now where do you get your actors from?" because so many of them expect theatres in this state to be shipping in actors from the "Big Name" towns: New York, L.A., etc... I love the please/impressed/surprised reaction you get from folks unfamiliar to the theatre when they find out that most of the great talent onstage here in Michigan actually comes from Michiganians (Michiganders? You pick...).

I wanted to stand up and cheer. There are so many pieces to offering truly local professional pieces: the vision, the scripts, the playwrights, the characters, the themes, and yes, the artists who participate.

In the director's notes of the BoarsHead program for Escanaba in Love, Guy Sanville talks about how the BoarsHead theater changed his life back in 1979. He wrote:

For the first time in history, Boarshead produced a new play that year. The world premiere of a new play written by a guy from Michigan, a new play written by a guy from Michigan, a new paly about people who live and die in Michigan. The play was called Time Steps and it was written by Michgian native Gus Kaikonnen.

It was the first time I sat in a theatre and saw a play about people I knew, in a place I knew...Before that experience, I thought that all good plays were about neurotic people who lived in New York or were written by dead Europeans."

There is such incredible power in theater that is truly local in all senses of the word. Michigan theater--by, for, and about the people who live here--is what BoarsHead's Escanaba and Williamston's Maidens, Mothers, and Crones is all about. It's what makes them so exciting and so popular. It's what makes theater relevant to audiences here in a way that nothing else can do.

The experience we have at the theater has to be different from the experience we have at home with our television or in a movie theater--otherwise theater will never survive.

It's not that there is anything wrong with the stuff coming out of Nylachi. It's just that we often can more easily reach the universal through something familiar. We get plenty of Nylachi through the mass media and there is even a danger that the emphasis on the coasts and Chicago contributes to the homogenization of our culture. But I'm starting to digress.

Just as I get excited about plays like those being shown right now at BoarsHead and Williamston, I also get excited when actors from Michigan are used. There is no doubt that we have a tremendous talent pool in this state, one that never ceases to impress me.

I'll confess that television stars don't do much for me. For one, I don't own a television. For two, I rarely see more than one or two movies a year. This means I'm not exactly your standard audience member as I'm far more familiar with Michigan performers than I am anyone out of Nylachi.

Paula Prentiss was nice, but I would have far rather seen Janet Haley--one of the finest actresses I've ever watched. I'm sure Meshach Taylor will be good, but will he be as good as Flint-based Cameron Knight?

I don't blame BoarsHead for bringing in outside stars. Their box office told them that was the right thing to do. They also do use a great deal of Michigan talent--and local star Carmen Decker is as big a draw as a Hollywood name. I would, though, challenge local theater goers. How can we complain about the economy in Michigan for the arts if we're eager to throw our dollars at people from outside the state? What are we saying when we turn out in huge numbers to see people we could catch on the set any day of the week, but stay away when local artists take the stage?

Forget about Dance with the Stars--go see Happendance and the Ruhala Center. American Idol? We have plenty of local talent that can outshine the commercial gimmicky nature of that show.

If we want art to thrive in our community, then we need to demand that local artists be given a place to practice their art. Then we need to show up and see what they do.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Healing Power of Art

It's really not that much of a coincidence that hours before both the death of my grandfather and my father-in-law that I should find myself in a theater. After all, I spend much of my weekend evenings in theaters.

However, having it happen twice in such proximity did underline some things for me. Last October, hours before my grandfather died and a few days after I'd gone to say goodbye to him, I attended Guys on Ice at Williamston Theatre. It was a play that resonated in many ways because the guys reminded me a lot of the grandfather I knew I was losing.

This past Thursday, my husband and I left the ICU where my father-in-law was being transferred to hospice. We'd kissed him goodbye knowing that we might not make it back before he left us. However, we'd been there for two days and our son had a concert to perform in.

Pleasantview Magnet School for the Performing Arts has an annual spring dance concert. It was our first time attending it. They split the school in half and hold the concert over two nights with half of each grade performing each night. The theme this year was Broadway and movie themes.

I'll admit that I typically go to elementary school performances with somewhat low expectations. These are young children who are learning and growing. The focus is (and should be) on education and giving the children the opportunity to perform in front of an audience. Entertaining the audience is typically a pretty low priority--something I can wholeheartedly support.

However, this concert was the exception to that rule. It was absolutely incredible. The performances were entertaining and the children were good. It was obvious they had put a lot of practice in and that they were well rehearsed.

There were many wonderful moments: from the kindergartners dancing to Funky Town as Alvin and the Chipmunks to the band performance where some of the students "took over" from the band teacher to turn the piece into something jazzier. These were kids who were not only being taught their art, but taught how to perform and entertain.

I also have to give the school kudos for handling an emergency situation extremely well. Just as one of the dance numbers began, an audience member started to have a seizure. They immediately stopped the music and the students froze in place. The dance teacher grabbed a microphone and asked everyone to stay seated while the paramedics were called. The house lights came up, the curtains closed, and the person was able to get medical attention immediately. As soon as the paramedics took her out, the show resumed. It was handled exceptionally well.

And yes, I was especially proud of my own son. Despite his complaints about having to "partner" (something still icky for fourth graders), he and his entire class did a fantastic job. His face was animated and he performed the dance with great energy and precision--despite having missed the final two dress rehearsals because he was sitting in the hospital with us.

As we bopped in our seats to the songs and delighted in the moves the kids were making on stage, I was once again grateful at how live performances can lift the spirits. Even as we were mourning the loss we knew was coming, we were able to celebrate life in a way that transcended words.

Once again, I was reminded how necessary the arts are in our lives and how they can enrich our lives both in times of joy and in times of sorrow.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Lots to blog about, but...

I was looking forward to blogging this week. I'd seen both "Annie Get Your Gun" and "All in the Timing" over the weekend and had things I wanted to say about both. The East Lansing Art Fair is coming up and the arts & crafts business that I'm co-owner of will be exhibiting just west of the Union. I had an absolutely delightful interview with Diane Newman of Happendance and she touched upon many great ideas that I wanted to explore further here.

However, we came home Tuesday night to learn that Richard's father was in intensive care. They don't expect him to survive. We spent all day today in the hospital.

If his father doesn't make it, that will be the fourth family death we've experienced in the past six months. I haven't got much mental or emotional energy for blogging right now.

Monday, May 12, 2008

My Mother's Day Epiphany

Balance is a tricky thing to find in life.

'Night Mother is one of those shows I've wanted to see for a long time. I was very much looking forward to seeing it yesterday at Riverwalk's Black Box at the Creole Gallery in Old Town. I'd heard it was a good production and one that I ought to see. Thespie judging is coming up quick and by all accounts, this was a production that should be seen and considered.

However, as much as I have long wanted to see this show, I'd had a nagging voice in my head that I'd been trying to ignore for days. For personal reasons that I won't get into in a public blog, this show and its subject matter couldn't have come at a worse time for me. I knew this, yet I kept trying to ignore the internal warnings that this show would be emotionally draining and harmful at this particular moment in my life. Instead, I made all the arguments to myself that it was a show I should see, that I'd already reserved tickets, and that I had a duty to go see it.

Finally, about a half hour before the show started, I gave in to my inner guardian and acknowledged how much fear I had about seeing this show on Sunday. A month ago or a month from now would have been fine, but yesterday was not.

Then came the waves of guilt for not doing what I "should" be doing. I feel very blessed and very fortunate to be doing the work that I'm doing and I take seriously the responsibility that comes with that--that I need to see and hear as much as possible so that my reporting on the community can be authentic and informed.

However--and this is the more difficult part for me--I also need to take care of myself. If I do not first take care of me, then I cannot effectively serve my community or do my small part to promote the performing arts in the Greater Lansing area.

Theater is a powerful, powerful medium. It's a power that deserves respect along with the self-acknowledgment of what one can handle on any given day. I want to be able to watch any show that I attend with an open heart and mind--ready to receive what the performers want to offer. I don't want to enter from a place of fear or any other emotion that is going to block the connection between artist and audience.

So while I regret the missed opportunity to see 'Night Mother, I am now at peace that it was the right decision for me. My epiphany is that it is just as important for me to take care of myself as it is to be supportive of the arts community that has so enriched my life and the life of my family. That's an epiphany that goes far beyond a single show on a single Sunday.

Friday, May 9, 2008

BoarsHead extends Escanaba

I always love it when a theater is able to extend the run of a show. It lets more people see it and gives more working hours to actors.

BoarsHead has extended Escanaba in Love to June 15.

Now I'm even more excited about seeing it tonight.

Lots of theater this weekend

It was a real challenge trying to figure out my schedule for this weekend because there is so much theater. In fact, the next three days are so tightly packed that we'll be on the run constantly. I leave work at 2 p.m. today for a doctor's appointment and from there the schedule is:

5 p.m. Visit Happendance
6:30 p.m. Take son to audition for All-of-us Express
8 p.m. Escanaba in Love at BoarsHead (after dropping son off at babysitters)


9 a.m. Soccer game
11:30 Camp Kiwanis
8 p.m. Annie Get Your Gun at LCP


2 p.m. 'Night Mother at Riverwalk
6 p.m. Richard has auditions in Williamston
7 p.m. Dark Night at BoarsHead: All in the Timing

But there are other shows going on this weekend too:

  • Maidens, Mothers, and Crones begins its previews at Williamston
  • Blue Light Players are performing Saturday night
  • Seussical Jr. continues in Vermontville
  • An Evening of Scenes is being done at LCC
  • A musical version of Alice in Wonderland is being performed at the Ruhala Center
It's a good weekend for going to the theater.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Theatrical pet peeves

For the most part, I try not to be peevish. Yet, I'm human and I do have those little things that annoy me the way a mosquito bite does during an otherwise beautiful summer dusk.

Here's my list of minor annoyances that elicit sighs or eye rolls but don't really detract all that much from the overall experience:
  • Actors who don't smile during a curtain call--specifically, those who look grumpy or put out
  • Lack of bios in a program
  • Text messaging during a performance
  • Audience members who talk above a whisper during a performance
  • Being asked immediately after a show what I think of it
  • Getting a press release the day of or the day before an event
  • Seats placed so close together that I have to get intimate with the person sitting next to me
  • Pre-casting a community theater show
  • Scorn for community theatre (hmm, that one is probably more elevated than a peeve)
  • Flash photography during a show
  • Cell phones ringing during a show
What are your pet peeves?

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Nothing more than feelings...

Random feelings coming out of shows recently:

Flowers for Algernon: "Aren't we lucky to live in a community where people have the opportunity to scratch their creative itch. I'm glad I live in a place where people can turn to the arts in an attempt to find balance in their lives. This show is one of the signs of a healthy community." (Though I do wish the script itself had been less bloated.)

Leading Ladies: I walked into the show completely stressed out and tense from a rough week. I left relaxed and feeling better physically and mentally. The laughter served as a very real mental medicine, providing temporary relief from stress. It was better than a good pedicure.

Belles: Aside from the embarrassment I felt for the father who had brought his young daughter (after calling the theater to ask whether the show was appropriate) to a very adult show, I was deeply moved on an emotional level. My empathy for people was stretched. I was impressed with the talent and skill of these young women.

Stuff Happens: Would any amount of activism or protest prevented this mess (the war, not the production)? Do we really rely on the courage of a few in power who can stand up to their bosses and say "no, this isn't acceptable"? Yet, we reward with our votes the people who have shown the least amount of moral courage and insight. Instead, we demand that our politicians never change their minds, regardless of any new evidence (that's waffling).

Don Quixote: There is such beauty in non-verbal communication. The storytelling is so clear, yet not a single word is spoken. Dance is so athletic, it's surprising that there isn't more enthusiasm for it in schools.

Theater fills so many different needs. It's why it is sometimes hard to market theater. What you "get" from theater can be different on every night at every theater. It depends on what you bring to it, what you need, and what is being offered. I feel blessed that I am able to experience such a diversity.

Liking one kind of theater doesn't have to preclude liking another kind--even its opposite. For this, I'm grateful.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Back from Chicago

We're home from our two-day trip to Chicago and it's now official: Richard has his Equity card.

He had an audition for the North Carolina Shakespeare Festival yesterday at the Actor Equity offices. He took in his paperwork (he'd had to fill it out a second time) and they handed him his temporary card. The permanent one will arrive in the mail in the next three weeks.

I did not join him at the AEA offices, but he reported that they were quite nice. There was even a library filled with scripts where actors could hang out and read.

In the two days we were there, we managed to hit:
  • Adler Planetarium
  • Shedd's Aquarium
  • The Field Museum
  • Chicago Children's Museum
  • Sears Tower
  • Gino's East
  • Ed Debevics
However, given that we didn't arrive until Sunday afternoon and Monday is usually a dark night, we didn't see any theater. That's all right, though, between Stuff Happens and Don Quixote, I got my fix before I left town.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Not at all theater related...

...but I must say that Gino's East in Chicago makes absolutely incredible pizza. 'Nuff said.

Oh, and our son now wants to work at Shedd's Aquarium's Oceanarium. It's the perfect job in his eyes: swimming, working with animals, and performing in front of a crowd.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Roman Empire

I went to see Stuff Happens again last week--and they've definitely gotten better as the run has gone on.

There is a scene in it where Colin Powell draws a comparison to the president's need to make "an example" of Iraq to the actions of the Roman Empire. He tells the story about how if anyone so much as pricked a Roman senator with a pin, the Roman army would be sent out to that person's village to find his entire family. The army would then kill every single relative, rape the daughters, and burn their houses down. It set an example to not prick senators.

Today, while gratefully receiving my tax rebate check from the government, I'm feeling a little like the clamoring Roman mob who demanded bread handouts--handouts given to win the favor of the mob for the people in power. So is it hypocrisy that I plan to keep it anyway?