Monday, June 29, 2009

Pondering Riverwalk’s the Dead and Lost Loves

Despite my plans, I did not, in fact, get to any shows this weekend. However, with my son still out of town, I did get some very high quality time in with Richard—the kind of time that every marriage should make room for once in a while.

On Sunday, I took a long walk, enjoying the beautiful day and found myself thinking back to Riverwalk’s production of James Joyce's The Dead. One of the beautiful things about great shows is how they stick with you and continue to give you things to think about long after they are done. The Dead had such beautiful imagery, language, music, and themes, that they’ve continued to resonate with me and to occasionally stroke my thoughts with new ways of looking at them.

The Dead is a memory play, but the memories central to the play are less those of the narrator and more those of the narrator’s wife. So why not have the wife be the narrator? That was the fascinating layer that my mind played with on Sunday. Joyce invites us to ask what we would do if faced with the narrator’s circumstances—what do you do when your love of a lifetime is flush with remembered love and filled with tears over the loss of a past lover, one who disappeared decades before?

This is where Doak Bloss’ choices and Mary Job’s direction was truly brilliant. For it was as much the facial expressions, the movements on stage, and the lighting as it was the words of the script that showed the husband’s choices. He was pained that the love he thought was exclusively his belonged in part to a memory. Yet, the love for his wife was so great that he did not berate her. He did not turn her pain into a betrayal of him or of their marriage. He didn’t try to exorcise the ghosts of the past, but rather, went and held his spouse so that they would not be alone during the haunting.

Would their marriage be the same afterward? Joyce doesn’t tell us, but if I were to believe the interpretation presented, I would say no. Neither person nor marriage would ever be the same afterward, but they would likely be better.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Free Theater this Weekend

June has been the month for free theater--and one of the best months in Michigan to do the outdoor theater thing.

Richard, Dominic, and I caught "Leading Ladies" last week at MSU's Summer Circle. It was quite the riot. I enjoyed it when I first saw it at Starlight last year and it was fun to see it again with the different interpretations.

Summer Circle closes its season this weekend with "Kid Purple" and the late-night shows of "Clevenger's Trial" from Catch-22. I'm especially curious to see what they're going to do with the latter.

Mid-Michigan Family Theatre is performing two one-acts at their home in Frandor this weekend. They're doing Pied Piper and Dick Whittington and His Cat. I'm planning to take some kids to that one this weekend, though my own is still off at his grandparents.

Finally, I very much want to see Our Town at Lansing Community College. It's got a stellar cast and it's one of those classic shows that I've only ever seen once.

If you're in town, treat yourself to an outdoor show--there is something about the non-contained environment that makes for a truly special experience.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Learning Courage from my Father

At the risk of turning my theater blog into a journalism blog, I’m going to make yet another entry that is more about journalism than theater, though it doesn’t abandon the latter theme. Also, with Father’s Day right around the corner, it is, perhaps, timely.

One of the things that has been very comfortable about being a performing arts columnist is that I’m mostly writing stories that my sources want to have told. People get angry at reviews, they rarely get angry at previews (except when I get something important like a time or a date wrong).

Like most people, I prefer to have people pleased with me rather than angry with me. However, I also learned a long time ago that such desires cannot be a driving force in good, moral decision making. How did I learn this? Many ways, I suppose, but what sticks out to me is one of my family’s stories about a choice my father made.

My Father’s Example of Moral Courage

My dad was a career journalist, one who was inspired (like many in the field) to enter the newspaper business because he wanted to make his community a better place. He graduated from college and immediately took a job as a community editor for a suburban Detroit newspaper.

This was during the Vietnam War, though because he had just graduated from college and was looking to pursue a master’s degree, he had received a draft deferral and his draft number was such that it wasn’t likely to come up yet for several years.

One of the early stories he covered were grand jury proceedings of a city politician who had hired a hit man to kill his opponent. The politician was furious at the coverage and brought a libel lawsuit against my father, seeking damages of $1 million. Eventually, the politician’s lawyer pointed out to his client that when it comes to libel, truth is an absolute defense and he was going to lose his suit as my father’s coverage had been accurate and truthful.

So the politician took another tack. He was chair of the draft committee in the community and changed my father’s number so that it would come up immediately. My parents were married on a Saturday and on that Monday, he received his draft notice. The politician took great glee and boasted about what he had done to his buddies in a local bar.

NEA Fellowship Instructor: “Be Brave. Be Specific.”

One of the things I’ve observed in the recent coverage of BoarsHead and the board’s decision to oust Kristine Thatcher, is that most of the public commentary has come from people out of town. Locally, people have opinions, but few are making any sort of public statement (with some notable exceptions).

I understand why this is the case. People locally have much more to risk, especially if they wish to work in a field that has very little opportunity in the best of times. I’ve had my own moments of paranoia—for while I myself have very little at risk in covering this story, I recognize that I could be jeopardizing opportunities for both my husband and my son. That thought pains me a great deal as I am a wife and mother before I am a journalist.

However, I have my father’s example to put that in perspective. My dad, by choosing to do the right thing, put his very life in jeopardy. Because he accurately and faithfully covered a story that needed to be covered, my brother and I might never have been born. I am faced with no such choice. Compared with the choices that my father made, mine are easy.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Listening Skills are Critical to Both Reporting and Reviewing

Michigan State University's J-School does a great job of training journalists—or at least, it did when I went there, I'm not sure what the program is like now. There was an emphasis on always getting facts correct (any factual error—even a typo in a proper noun—meant your grade on that assignment was an immediate 1.0), and a demand that you take a variety of classes so that you could be knowledgeable on a variety of topics. You had to take courses in English, history, economics, plus an emphasis that was different from all of those (mine was Russian). You were limited in how many journalism classes you were allowed to take because they wanted to make sure you had a broad knowledge base. We were also strongly encouraged (it might have been required, I can't remember) to get practical experience through internships and other methods.

Learning to Listen

The one thing that got very little attention was reviewing. While I was assigned book reviews while interning at the Grand Rapids Press, I don't think I ever had a class assignment in which we had to write a review or where we even talked about how to review. Those were skills I had to pick up through practical experience through the course of my career. Looking back, I would now encourage J-schools to make review writing a mandatory course. Why? Because being a good reviewer develops the same skills that are essential to being a good reporter and they are the softer skills that can be hard to teach—the skills of listening, of setting aside one's own ego, and of being patient.

When I first started reviewing, I would try to critique my experience from the very beginning. When I was reviewing a book, I would start taking notes while reading. When I did restaurant reviews, I tried to memorize as much of the menu as I could and would be thinking about what I was going to write from the very first bite. When I started reviewing theater, I would spend half of the show thinking about how I wanted to write the review based on what I was seeing. It was while doing the latter that I finally figured out the flaw in this approach. This "pre-writing" kept me from hearing the story. Because I was mentally engaged in my story, I wasn't hearing the story that was being told to me. I had to learn to discipline my thoughts so that I could be open to what was being performed and to fully experience the work before I started critiquing or figuring out what I was going to write. It is only after a show is over that I let myself begin the process of critiquing—of evaluating how well the story was told and whether the choices made helped or hindered what appeared to be the director's vision. It is afterward that the mental work begins—not during the show. It's also why I almost never take notes during a show—it distracts me and gets me focused on what I think I want to write later and not on the story that is being told to me.

Reviewing Skills Transfer to Reporting

When a few weeks ago I found myself again reporting, I discovered that those skills have made me a better reporter than I used to be (of course, years as a ghost writer and a researcher haven't hurt either). Being objective as a reporter doesn't mean that you don't have an opinion, but it does mean that you have to truly listen to each source you're talking to without pre-judging or pre-writing. It wasn't that I didn't have an opinion on the story that I was covering, but I did have to set that opinion aside and lock it safely away into a compartment of my brain. It meant that every person I spoke to I needed to truly listen to and try my hardest to understand what they were saying, what they wanted to communicate, and to hear their angle of the story. It meant being open and not asking only the questions that would tell the story I thought I wanted to tell. It meant not determining what the story was until after I had the information. It meant giving each person every opportunity to present their information so that when I did write my story, it wasn't a story that reflected my opinions but one that represented the facts as I was able to find. It meant being willing to have my opinions changed by what I learned—to go the extra mile to hear each side of the story before doing the hard work of shifting through each fact and each source's information.

I have my own distinct taste in theater. There are some types of shows that I like more than others. However, if my readers are able to discern my personal taste from what I've written in a review, then I've failed in that review. My personal likes and dislikes are irrelevant. What is important is the informed, disciplined opinion on whether the show accomplished what it was meant to accomplish. Was it a good show? A good script? A good performance? Those are the things that are worthwhile to write about. My likes or dislikes are merely a matter of egoism—which is why, frankly, blogs exist. In a blog, I'll reveal my likes and dislikes. This is one of the main reasons that I insist that what I write in my blog is not a review—because it does not meet professional standards for a review. I hope it is interesting to read and that it might spark a conversation about theater, but it is not a critique in which I am attempting to objectively evaluate the art that I experienced.

The same is true with a story. You don't cover the theater community for any length of time without forming an opinion about what is going on. Years worth of observations, conversations, and events help to inform those opinions. However, when reporting on something that is taking place in the theatrical community, those opinions cannot be what drives the story. Just as in a review you present an opinion supported by specifics, a news story presents events with facts and specifics that explain those events. Yes, reporters still interpret, but the interpretations must be completely divorced from their egos.

Being Respectful

I've noticed that many novice reporters take great glee in being rude to sources—they consider that rudeness is necessary to ask tough questions. They thrive on controversy and scandal. I was never comfortable with rudeness nor do I expect that I ever will be. I used to think that would hinder me as a reporter. Twenty years later, what I've learned is that the opposite is true. I can write a better story when I go in to each interview with an open mind and a willingness for each source to be able to tell his or her story and to be receptive to what I am being told. I need to treat each person I interview with respect and fairness. After the interview is done, I can sit with it, listen to it again, think about it and compare it to other information I have. After the interview is done, I can begin the work of interpretation and reporting knowing that I haven't pre-judged the information that I've received. I can search for the way to make the story as balanced as possible so that multiple sides are presented and given appropriate weight. Does that mean being na├»ve? Absolutely not. But it does mean that the filter doesn't get applied before the information is received.

I've devolved into a lecture on journalism when really what I intended with this blog entry was to share what has come as a discovery to me—that the approach I learned to effective review writing is an approach that works equally well in the very different product of news writing.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Rothschilds Resumes Tonight

I've been having a blast watching my son (and the rest of the cast) perform in Rothschilds.

Were I speaking, that last sentence would be slightly tongue in cheek as my son actually has a pretty small role in the play--only one song and two scenes in a play that is epic in scope. He's also only one of seven kids and one of 30 cast members. However, I'm a proud mama and I'll confess that I'm pretty focused on the antics of my son.

Being a Stage Mom, but Not a Mama Rose

So tonight I'll watch the show for the fifth time and will likely continue to beam through the entire show. For his part, Dominic has said he would gladly do another musical and that he's had a fantastic time.

While Dominic has grown up in the theater, we've tried to be careful about not pushing him into theater just because we're passionate about it. We've tried to make sure he's exposed to lots of other things so that he can make choices from athletics, outdoor activities, music, animals, etc. while trying hard not to overschedule him.

Working with Good People

Given that, our goal with his involvement in theater has always been for him to have good experiences. That takes precedence over everything else. Before we let him audition for anything, we try to find out who is going to be involved and how that person is with kids.

We let him do Macbeth with the Michigan Shakespeare Festival because we knew we could trust John Neville-Andrews and because his dad would be there to help make sure he behaved in an appropriate manner. We let him participate in Fantastical Friends because we knew we could trust Bill Gordon as a director and because there would be lots of other kids for him to spend time with. There are other shows that we investigated and would have let him audition for except he would sometimes say he didn't want to and that would always be the final word.

Neither Richard nor I want to be a Mama Rose and we do want to make sure that any theatrical participation is his choice and will be a good experience for him.

Rothschilds a Great Experience for Him

It's also one of the things I've been thrilled about with The Rothschilds. It has been a great experience for him and Jane Falion has been an excellent director, conscious of their need for sleep and for their studies. She's been a great guide for them, providing the structure that was needed and not hesitating to reign them in when necessary. The rest of the cast has also been very good to him--something that has made it a great experience for him. He's made friends and he loves going to every rehearsal and performance.

Lastly, but certainly not least of all, the show has been a good one--one that he can be proud of belonging to. He's gained wonderful experience in singing, dancing, and performing with adults on a thrust stage.

And if I weren't proud enough already, it doesn't hurt that he was also mentioned in the City Pulse review (which I'll have to make sure I get a copy of!).

Friday, June 5, 2009

Three Artistic Directors

Is it something in the water?

I posted yesterday about BoarsHead's Kristine Thatcher being told that the board would not renew her contract. She's joined by two other women in the state's theaters who have been given the boot as artistic directors of professional theaters:

Evelyn Orbach, the founder of the Jewish Ensemble Theater and its AD fr the past 21 years, is no longer with the theater according to the board president.

And Tipping Point announced that its executive director had resigned. They, at least, had the courtesy to thank her for her work and effort. Perhaps it is because, officially, she resigned.

Early Morning Thoughts

A few random thoughts after getting to see The Rothschilds all the way through for the first time:

If in life, we are fortunate enough to be given the blessing of doing some good, we are indeed rich. It's a big world we live in and very difficult for one person (or one family) to be able to significantly change it. Yet, in smaller worlds--in our individual communities, we are sometimes given the opportunity to do some small amount of good. I sometimes feel as though those chances are rare because the demands of scrabbling out a living can be so great. Also, doing good can sometimes be a risky business--a truth illustrated very well in this musical. How does one know that what you do will effect change that is meaningful and useful? How does one know whether one is on the side of angels, as it were.

Having a chance to make a difference in one's community is something that is worth striving for with a humility of spirit that acknowledges what an honor and a blessing it is. I hope I am aware enough to recognize opportunities when they come my way and to have the energy to pursue them. I hope also that I can remember that one doesn't have to alter the state of world affairs to make a difference. Perhaps it is enough to make a few people's lives somewhat more joyful.

Something else I was moved by: At several times during the play, the boys devolve into fights--either physical shoving matches or verbal shouting matches. Yet, despite the fights, there is an amazing bond between the brothers. They truly love each other and nothing could come between them.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Lots of Theater News

There is so much going on in the theater world right now, I hardly know where to start. Given that, I'm just going to post some links and a few comments.

Kristine Thatcher To Leave BoarsHead
I have opinions on this issue, but since I'm currently covering it as a news story, I will keep those opinions to myself. My need at this time is to be as objective and fair as possible. I will, though, gladly host any discussion on the issue that anyone might want to have here.

The Rothschilds Opens Tonight

I'm very excited about this show, in no small part because it is my son's first time in a musical.

Flyover, USA Review
I loved Kate's review and agreed with every word.

Wilde Award Nominations
Encore Michigan and Between the Lines have announced their Wilde Award nominations. Lansing theater-goers will recognize several of the nominees.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Flyover, USA from a playwright's perspective

I've been enamored with the concept behind the Voices of the Midwest series that Williamston is doing ever since I first heard about it. I've heard too many people who think the Midwest is a cultural wasteland and those who think that theater happens only in New York and London and everywhere else is just a pale imitation.

The Midwest series that Williamston Theatre is doing is fantastic because it "gets" it. I was fortunate enough to see one of the preview performances of Flyover last week and loved it. The day after the show, I was able to interview both the director and one of the two playwrights. The story was published here, but it had to be cut due to lack of space--and even when I first wrote it, I felt as though I left out as much good stuff.

So I'm going to share a little here. Joseph Zettelmaier is one of the two playwrights (the other is Dennis North). His play, All Childish Things, was performed at BoarsHead earlier this year along with a staged reading of Night Blooming. He and I talked quite a bit about Flyover. Here are some highlights:

I did (see Maidens, Mothers, and Crones) right before I agreed to work on Flyover--within a week. I tend to like theater for the emotional experience, so I tried to come in and absorb what was going on. I loved it--absolutely loved it. To be totally honest; I was a little nervous going in; I thought 'oh god, don’t let there be too many things about why men are the devil.' There absolutely wasn’t any of that; I thought it was pretty spectacular.

Dennis and I are both proud Midwesterners. We wanted to capture both parts of the series: That it is men and that it is the Midwest. I wrote the food fight scene, largely because I wanted to make sure we got a literal Midwest flavor into the show.

For most of the process, we went to our own corners and wrote. As we got close, we started sending in all our scenes and it was largely John (Seibert) and Tony (Caselli) who put together the play. At the first rehearsal I had 3 scenes I cut right away because Dennis touched on the same thing and did it better. The key to make a process like this work is to check your ego at the doorway. That’s the key to make any process work. I have no problem stepping aside for something that is a little better.

My favorite one to write, for different reasons: the Jack sandbox scenes are very personal to me. It’s something my younger brother went through almost verbatim. (Picking a favorite scene) is like picking my favorite kid. I liked food fight and first kiss as well. I like writing comedy.

First kiss—the scene with the young man taking the SAT after kissing the girl for the first time. We had a good read for it; but didn't know what to do with it. We’ve got John Seibert--he’s one of the best diretors in the state--he did so many different things with it. We looked at it so many different ways, each one just killed me; I was really happy. It’s very freeing writing that kind of thing. Every single guy could tell you the name of their first kiss within a milliscecond. Anything that happened more than five years ago hazes away, but I can remember my first kiss with crystal clear clarity. It was fun going back to that place. It’s a seminal event.

The big difference (in writing this play compared to other plays) is that it was a cowriting and it was a commission. Usually my plays are born out of whatever crazy ideas are running out of my head. I felt an obligation to really honor the work that was being submitted to Williamsoton. That was a different way for me to think. I like boundaries; I like structure. Maybe it's my German nature, having this framework to work in was really, really useful and to be honest, we got some amazing stories.

I take such solace with Midwesterners--we got so much of this in the responses--despite everything that is going on; the thing that I’m not getting is defeatism. It’s more a sense of a bad storm is coming and you weather it. That is something that I take great faith in. You prepare for it, you do what you can, and you get through it.

I lived in Georgia for four years and I’ll take Michigan winter to Georgia summer any day. That was what was hardest: the seasons aren’t really defined. It’s like there is sort of fall, but not really, sort of winter but not really; they all just kind of blend together. They have summer and then less summer. I like all four seasons.

During my first year in college, they got half an inch of snow. It was like the Apocolypse: No one knows how to drive in snow. I shuttled people around because people didn’t know what to do.

We’re in the new century. There are men who remember what our fathers taught us. We look at the lives that our fathers and grandfathers had and we're wondering what the hell are we supposed to do? We understand that the world changed; but we’re not sure what that means for us. They're just trying to find their voice and find their footing. Be it unemployment, understanding your father or your son: there’s something everyone is fighting for in this play.

Something that really came through in the submissions--and the voice of that was very strong--was how important family is and how important work is. I would personally gravitate toward that even if it wasn’t there, but boy, was it there. I think it is especially strong in a place; like in a lot of places in the Midwest where work is so scarce and laziness equals death. Get it done. Get a job. It was Dennis who wrote the unemployment scene. I love that scene. I love that it is about—"Look, I would love to work with what I know, but at the end of the day, I just want to work." I love that. Dennis is a brilliant writer. I love that he doesn’t say I “need” to work. He says I "want" to work. The need is obvious; but what is more interesting is the want.

With so many of these hunters, it’s not them against nature. It’s the exact opposite. It’s wanting to be a part of nature. It’s so easy to forget how massive Michigan is as a state. It’s gigantic. It takes as much time to get the U.P. as it does to drive from here to Georgia. So much of the state is natural beauty and forest and rivers and lakes. It’s one of the reasons I keep moving back here. It's just breathtaking. I can’t tell you how many actors I know have gone off to the big cities and keep coming back here.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Rothschild's Second Son Solomon

The Rothschilds opens at Riverwalk this Thursday. It will be my son's first musical and I've been splitting child wrangling duties with my husband this past week so that one of us is always there for him backstage. It's been impressive to see the incredible scope of this musical. To throw out a statistic for you--there are more than 300 props in this show, all period props.

I spent some time talking with the director today about the show and we digressed into the history of the play. It got me curious about the character my son plays and what his life went on to be. Here's what I found:

Salomon Mayer von Rothschild was born September 9, 1774 and died uly 28, 1855. When Mayer sent the boys out, he was sent to Vienna where he was instrumental in establishing the finances of the Austrian empire. When he was 26, he married Caroline Stern and the two of them had two children, a boy and a girl. His eldest son, Anselm, married his cousin--Nathan's daughter. His daughter, Betty, married her uncle James (who is called Jacob in the play).

In Vienna, Salomon founded S M von Rothschild, a business that helpd finance Austria's first steam railway. In 1822, he was made a part of the Austrian nobility, being given the hereditary title of Baron. However, it wasn't until 1843 that he was given honorary Austrian citizenship--the first Jew to receive that honor.

Salomon invested much of his money in art and antiquities, though he also gave large amounts of money to charities. He became interested in engineering and foundries. He, like his brothers, was also interested in gold mines.

Salomon also became somewhat of the family's historian. He first began to gather family documents into an index that would record the history of their accomplishments. This index became known as Salomon's Archive. He saved letters to his brothers in which he reminisced on when the five of them lived in a single attic room in the ghetto. Salomon's archive contains the original court document naming Mayer as a court agent of Hesse in 1769.

It was also Salomon who hired Moritz Oppenheim to paint significant events in the Rothschilds' lives.

After handing the banking firm over to his son, he retired in Paris. When he died in 1855, some of his art works were donated to the Louvre.

S M von Rothschild stayed in the family for four generations. From 1911 to 1939, Louis Nathaniel von Rothschild was its president. When there was the financial crash of 1929, he personally shored up Austria's largest bank to prevent financial collapse. His fortunes soured when Nazi Germany took over Austria in 1938. His brothers Alphonse and Eugene escaped, but Louis was arrested for being Jewish. Louis was held in prison for a year. It was only when his family paid a large ransom that he was released. He was stripped of his Austrian citizenship and had to leave the country empty-handed. In 1939, the Nazis took over the banking firm and then sold it to the German private bank of Merck, Finck, & Co.

The Nazis had confiscated all of the papers and archives of the bank--including Solomon's Archive. Those papers made their way to Germany until 1945 when the Red Army found them and took all of the archives they found (50 rail cars full) to Moscow. They were maintained by the secret police and the West didn't find out about them until the 1990s. It wasn't until 2001 that what was left of the archives were returned to the Rothschild families. In return, the Rothschild families gave Russia a collection of letters of Tsar Alexander II and Princess Yuryevskaya.

A quote of Soloman's:
We are like the mechanism of a watch: each part is essential" ... Solomon von Rothschild, 1818.

I will also say that I found some pretty disgusting Websites created by conspiracy theorists. These are sites that are filled with seething hatred toward the Rothschilds and toward those of Jewish heritage. One goes so far as to say that the Rothschilds have reptilian blood and that Salomon impregnated an innocent maid in his house--a maid who went home and gave birth to Hitler's father.

It is sites like that which underscore Director Jane Falion's comment that we are still fighting the prejudices that are illuminated in this musical. There are still those in the world who will rail against those who have risen out of oppression and try to help others who are oppressed. There are still those whose lives are so small that they have no room for anything but hatred.