Sunday, September 21, 2008


I really wish I'd been able to get around to writing about the Lansing Civic Players' Rumors before today. Their final production begins in about 90 minutes and it is a show well worth seeing. It has the greatest depth of a show I've seen at LCP recently. Every single actor does a superior job and is a delight to watch.

The script itself isn't one of Neil Simon's cleanest endeavors, but it is still a lot of fun and is filled with sufficient satire to keep the audience laughing. Indeed, laughter was a frequent noise in the theater when I went last Sunday. The performances were crisp, clean, and quickly paced.

The set and costumes were also stunning.

I will try to get back to writing more about Rumors, but for now I need to get ready to go see Well at Michigan State University.

Friday, September 19, 2008

"Greater Tuna" at Ledges Playhouse

Last Saturday, I had the treat of watching Michael Hays and Terri Jones on stage at the Ledges Playhouse Theatre. It was amid the downpour of rain we were having and I fear the weather kept people from wanting to drive out to the park and make the long walk from the parking lot to see theater in a barn. At least, there were only a dozen of us in the theater--and I'm told that was twice what they had the next day.

Thankfully, the weather is promising to be much nicer this weekend, the type of weather that encourages a visit to a park as well as a show. This is good, because Greater Tuna is worth seeing. It's an entertaining, fun show with a heavy dose of satirical wit. It is almost the mirror image of BoarsHead's Permanent Collection. It too deals with racism, but Greater Tuna is purely a comedy while Permanent Collection is a drama. Greater Tuna also has a slightly more dated feel as we hope we live in a world where what is portrayed on stage can now be seen as quaint and unacceptable. Yes, there are still people in the world who are like those who inhabit Greater Tuna, but the optimistic among us hope that they no longer exist as an entire town.

Last Saturday was the first time I'd seen any of the three Tuna shows. It's easy to see why this show is considered an actor showcase. It definitely showcased the talents of both Hays and Jones. They created characters that you managed to care about even when they were at their most reprehensible. Perhaps it was more accurate to say that you wanted to see more of the characters even though the show was a goodly length.

There were issues inherent in the script that make pacing difficult. The play is set in small-town Texas and both Jones and Hays provided strong Texas accents for each of their characters. The drawl and mannerisms build in a certain amount of slowness and then it is necessary for the characters to make major costume changes in very short amounts of time. Sometimes it seemed as though having an additional person backstage (and I have no idea whether they had no one or ten people) to help with the costume changes might have helped the pace pick up a little.

It was impressive that despite the small audience size, both actors were able to create a chemistry between each other and the audience. I didn't see Michael and Terry up there. I saw the numerous characters and the distinct relationships between each of them. They both had a strong sense of what to play to the audience and what to play to each other.

Some of the funniest scenes came when they were playing the feminine half of the Tuna population. Granted, simply having a man come on stage in a dress invites a level of guffaws, but both Hays and Jones were able to create female characters that were funny in and of themselves, not simply because they were played by deep-voiced men.

Last week, I wrote about why the play's opening was delayed by a week. The fact that Terry still has minimal vision in one eye and spent most of this summer lying face down so his eye could heal made his performance particularly impressive. He gave no indication during his performance that his vision was impaired and never missed a step or a move.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Little Shop of Horrors

Riverwalk opened their season this year with Little Shop of Horrors, which I went to see last Friday night. It easily had the largest audience of the shows I saw this weekend--with rain possibly keeping away some of the crowds at other locales.

I have an audio interview with Stephanie Banghart that I'm going to try to post later this week. I promised I would go through it first and take out anywhere that we got sidetracked into non-show related stuff. Stephanie was in the very first show that I ever acted in in this area--a show called To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday out at Bath Community Theatre Guild. She was still in high school then and I had just found out I was pregnant with my now 10-year-old son. She was wonderful to work with then, and I have to imagine that her cast has also discovered the joys of working with her.

One of the things that stood out the most about the show (other than the knock-your-socks-off voices of the two leads) was the great time that the audience was having. The energy created on stage rippled through the seats and everyone was audibly enjoying themselves. It's exciting to attend a show that goes from being a mere performance to creating an experience for everyone who was there. The musical was very much a two-way conversation between performers and audience members, the kind of thing that draws people to the theater and keeps them coming back.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Weekend shows

I saw three shows this past weekend and all of them were enjoyable events that were time well spent. They included:

  • Little Shop of Horrors at Riverwalk
  • Greater Tuna at Ledges Playhouse
  • Rumors at Lansing Civic Players
They're all worth commenting on, so I'll work on making more entries this week.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Permanent Collection

Last Saturday night I saw Permanent Collection at BoarsHead. My biggest disappointment with the show was how small the audience was. It was a show that was perfectly put together with fine acting and a great script. It's the kind of work that theater needs to be doing--the kind of work that fulfills the mission of theater at a very deep level.

Permanent Collection doesn't preach. It doesn't make trite statements about racism or spout conventional wisdom. Instead, it provides one of the more honest discussions about the topic that have been offered for a couple decades.

In his book Boom! Tom Brokaw says that since the upheaval of the 60s, our society has been unable to have an honest conversation about race. We have too many hot buttons that keep us from tackling the problem head-on in a meaningful way. We talk about race a lot, but we're stuck in unproductive conversations that are simply a teeter-totter of accusations and denials.

Avenue Q came through Wharton last year and had an absolutely brilliant book. One of the songs in it is "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist." I couldn't help but think of the lyrics to that song while watching Permanent Collection. They sing the song in true muppet-style--upbeat, happy, and silly--while offering some extremely wise observations.

It left me wondering how different the outcome of the situation in Permanent Collection could have been if the character of Paul had been able to say to Sterling, "OK, I guess I am being racist. Help me to understand." and if Sterling had been able to respond without anger, arrogance, and smugness. What if both of them had been able to treat each other with compassion and respect and tackled the issue head-on rather than using the issue of racism as a further divider.

How would it change our conversations if we stopped arguing about whether we were or were not racist and instead said, "OK, what I'm doing is offensive. Let's work on it." and that people did not assume that because they were offended by something that the other person is automatically a bad, evil, or ignorant person?

I reviewed Permanent Collection for the Lansing State Journal here. This is one of those shows, though, where the discussion and interaction of it stretches far beyond a simple evaluation of performances and presentation. It's a show that asks a lot of questions and leaves it to the audience to work through them. It isn't educating or preaching, it's the start of a dialog that is important to all of us. In other words, it is theater at its finest.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Being too kind

Back at the NEA Arts Journalism fellowship in the winter of 2007, we had sessions where we met with a professional reviewer who was willing to act as a writing coach. We would attend a show, write a review, and then the coach would give us feedback on our writing in small group sessions.

It was an extremely helpful process, even if it was a bit nerve-wracking. I took a lot away from those sessions, much of which I've continued to mull since then. One of the things that came up was that critics do a disservice to the art form if they are too kind. That's the job of arts marketers and art leaders, but not critics.

Sure, people who take great risks in putting themselves before others and performing would love to hear only good things about what they have done. However, reviews aren't for them. They already have a director and audiences to provide them with that sort of feedback. A critic should not be in the business of directing.

A critic is in the job of having an open, honest discussion with the audience and the public about theater. Reviews should be a part of the public conversation about why theater matters and why art is important. If a critic is constantly kind and doesn't speak openly about flaws, then they not only lose credibility, but they aren't being authentic in their conversation. Their role is not to advertise, it is to help make sure that the art is seen and heard in its true form. And sometimes that means pointing out where bad choices have been made.

This is a tough one for me, because my inclination is to be kind rather than harsh. And I know there are many people out there who think it is wrong to be critical or that an over-critical eye is an insult. It's a shame, because in truth, being willing to criticize is a mark of respect to the artists and to the art. It expresses a faith in the vigor and strength of the art. It also shows a deep respect for the audience with whom one is speaking.

I've talked to some people who don't attend live theater despite the fact that they have many friends who are involved. I'm always curious why those people don't go. One response that I've heard repeatedly is that they associate live performances with poor quality. Now, yes, those of us who attend theater frequently know that you're far more likely to see an outstanding show than an awful one. However, it takes only one to turn someone off live theater forever.

So let's say that I go to a show that I think is mediocre or lacking in passion--a show that fails to excite me in any way despite my love and passion for theater and live performance. However, I know that people have worked hard and that they have day jobs, so I write a review that focuses only on the positive. I don't mention the lackluster singing or the inappropriate costuming that takes you right out of the story. I don't mention that the pacing is so slow that your butt gets numb in the seat. Instead, I write about the particular actor who does a great job despite not getting anything from his fellow actors. I write about the splendid dance number where the one actress brings incredible energy to the stage. I praise the script.

If I'm writing to people who are already theater folk, then no harm is done. There is great harm done, though, if someone reads the review who isn't a theater person and decides that perhaps they'll give it a try. They go and lose hours of their time that they'll never get back. They experience the disappointment of expecting something to be good and being greeted with mediocrity. Then what happens? What happens then is that they either decide that they're simply not fans of the art form--since this was supposed to be a good representation of it--or they take a cynical approach to all future reviews since this review sold them a faulty bill of goods.

Anyone who cares about audience development and getting new people into the theater have to be committed to an authenticity in their conversations, especially if they are talking to people who are undecided about the art--the people who make up the vast majority of the population.

Monday, September 8, 2008


"Voice lies at the nexus of talent (natural gifts and strengths), passion (those things that naturally energize, excite, motivate, and inspire a person), need (including what the world needs enough to pay someone for), and conscience (that still, small voice within that assures a person of what is right and that prompts a person to actually do it)."

--Stephen R. Covey, The 8th Habit

Friday, September 5, 2008

Theater that is NOT happening this weekend

That would be Greater Tuna out at the Ledges. When they first announced their season, the 2-person comedy was due to open this weekend. They cast Terry Jones and Michael Hays, two very actors who could deftly handle the comedy and the constantly changing characters.

Then Terry Jones had to go in for eye surgery. Kevin Burnham, the artistic director of the Ledges Playhouse, reports that the surgery left him temporarily blind. The decided to postpone their opening to give Terry an extra week to recover. The recovery is going well, Kevin says, though he is still blind in one eye. He will be ready for their new opening date: Sept. 12.

So if you were planning to head out to the Ledges for an evening of theater (and I do highly recommend that you do--it's a delightful experience in the park and even the temperature is starting to cooperate), plan to do it next weekend or any weekend through the 21st.

Here is the media alert they sent out with the correct dates:
The Ledges Playhouse Theater Company will be presenting the hit comedy
"Greater Tuna"
from September 12th through the 21st.
Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm.
Tickets are $10 and all seating is general.
Info: 944-0221
"This is radio station OKKK in Tuna, Texas serving the greater Tuna area at two hundred and seventy five watts, signing on!"

And so begins the morning on the radio in the third smallest town in Texas, where the Lions Club is too liberal and Patsy Cline never dies. GREATER TUNA is a hilarious look at life in rural America, filled with characters you love to hate and hate to love.

Using quick change artistry two actors, local favorites Terry Jones and Micheal Hays, create 20 howlingly funny characters. Tune in to hear all the latest news from Greater Tuna and join Thurston Wheelis, Arles Struvie, Aunt Pearl, Petey Fisk, and all their friends for an evening of non-stop laughter.

Genre: Comedy
Rating: PG
Length: 2 hours