I realized the other day that the two theatre companies that I am the most involved with in Los Angeles are both doing plays about art. This fascinates me, especially the process of choosing a play about art for their season. I wondered what these companies wanted to say about art and what was driving them to say it.
As White As O
As White As O by Stacey Simms at the Road Theatre Company poses the question, what if your life was an inadvertent work of art, complicated by an onrushing riot of the senses? As White As O is the story of a lost young fellow named Jack who has synesthesia, a condition involving an involuntary cross-wiring of the senses. This means that Jack tastes his feelings, can hear sounds and smell what he touches and even sees numbers and letters in vivid color.
The play is set in New York, and opens on a scene at an art gallery where an art installation, entitled “30 Years of Outsider Art,” is scheduled to open the following day. As the story gradually unfolds, we learn that Jack’s father Sam, a loner, plagued by his son’s oddity and the loss of his wife shortly after giving birth. Somehow the pair began embellishing their ramshackle bungalow with buttons and pennies and all sorts of found objects in collective patterns. Eventually Clara, an ambitious young woman from the city, stumbles upon the odd home and, after anointing it an important work of “outsider art,” devises a scheme to profit from it and further her career. Clara manages to purchase and then move Jack and his father’s house to an art museum in New York. There Jack is forced to revisit his painful past. Arriving in New York for the art opening, Jack becomes overwhelmed by memories of his father’s life and death, learns more about his absent mother and reunites with a girl from back home that he never stopped loving.
The set is truly a piece of art. On the transplanted house every available surface area is covered with clusters of items such as bike bells, kewpie dolls’ plastic heads, bottle caps, license plates, multi-colored wooden blocks, golf balls and crushed soda cans – all forming a pleasing mosaic effect. In one corner of the stage is a small, raised set of institutional white surfaces. Anyone interested in learning more about outsider art will enjoy this story.
Sam Anderson, the Co-Artistic Director of the Road Theatre Company and the director of As White As O says that “when I first read the play I was struck by the uniqueness of the voice of Stacy Sims, a voice I had not heard in a theatre. From the poetry of her language to the depth of her themes and unique structure, the play moved me so much and I could "see" it in my head on a stage and wanted to create what I saw -- the challenge of visualizing the inside of a synesthete's mind, the dovetailing themes of coming to terms with one's family of origin while dealing with the whole panorama of obsession with art, from the people who make it, sell it, look at it, want it, are destroyed by it or healed by it. With the help of the Road's crack design team of Desma Murphy (sets), Dave Marling (sound), Jeremy Pivnick (lighting), Adam Flemming (video design), Mary Jane Miller, costumes and the mystery prop designers, I feel we achieved that dream and brought this beautiful, moving and unique story to life.”
Another play about art in town is Chesapeake by Lee Blessing, produced by the Syzygy Theatre Group. It is an existential quest by a New York performance artist, to conform a conservative Southern politician with – ironically – a flair for fiery dramatics, and the dog that intrinsically unites their fates. The dog, a Chesapeake Bay Retriever named Lucky, is the beloved pet and mascot of this right-wing Senator who takes it upon himself to lambaste a solo artist’s provocative experimental performance in order to propel himself to political victory. When the performance artist finds his arts grant called into question by the ambitious Senator, he concocts a scheme for revenge. A highlight of this poetic and profound script is a speech that compares artists with pioneering explorers who delve into the unknown in order to “bring it back to us.” The play speaks to the possibility of true mutual understanding and the power of art to help us find it.
Martin Bedoian, the Artistic Director of The Syzygy Theatre Group, and the director Chesapeake says that “the play speaks passionately and profoundly to the power of art to bring redemption and disparate ideologies together to work for the common good. Syzygy was formed in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and at the time I was asked in an interview, ‘Why start a not-for-profit arts organization in such difficult times?’ My answer then holds true in the times we are living through today; a loss of art reflects a loss of our humanity and, now, in troubled times, precisely because they're troubled, we need art more than ever.”
The Artistic Mind
Both of these plays explore questions that we as artists ask ourselves everyday-does art matter? Does what we do effect or move people? Do we contribute to making the world a better place? The mind of an artist is a complicated yet delicate one-one that you can delve into when checking out these two magnificent productions.
Written by Che’Rae Adams for NOHOARTSDISTRICT.COM Oct 2009
I recently moved to Vegas and have been desperately searching for culture ever since. This was my biggest fear about moving there-not the excessive sex, drugs, alcohol and gambling so much, but the lack of culture kept me up at night. But what was I to do? I landed a role in the new Cirque du Soleil show about Elvis and that is where the show is! Besides I have been doing things I have never done before in my life, like gone 70 feet in the air across the stage! I had to take the job right?
My alma mater, The College Conservatory of Music of Cincinnati, announced that I was doing the show in one of their newsletters and one of the alumni emailed me to assure me that indeed there is culture in Vegas. He is the musical director for Cirque du Soleil’s “Ka” and said that I would be “happy to know about your work with original pieces out in LA and I think you'll be glad to know that there is a small but vibrant community of writers, playwrights and composers out here in Vegas that would welcome your friendship. There have been whispers of a new works festival out here for years and with artists like yourself joining the community, it gets closer to a reality.” That gave me some hope! But alas, no new works festival yet, so where does one go to find culture? It turns out that on the first Friday of every month, you can find it!
It is a hot Friday night in Vegas and the spirit is festive and the drinks are ice cold! I am in downtown Las Vegas, where, once a month the pedestrian-friendly streets transform into a huge block party during FIRST FRIDAY. Each celebration, the entertainment shifts and multiplies as ice sculptors, fire breathers and fortune tellers serve as a back-drop for this ongoing festival of art perusal and appreciation. Local bands perform throughout the evening, and the streets turn into canvasses for children (young and old) to decorate with chalk. FIRST FRIDAY is a stage for local galleries and Las Vegas' vital Downtown cultural scene. It's a place to meet friends new and old, and rejoice in the preservation and innovation of an historical neighborhood. In this land of suburbs and strip malls, it is a welcome cultural event that is well worth the price of admission-Free!
Since it began in October of 2002, FIRST FRIDAY grown every year. It is now considered the premier arts event in Las Vegas. From the shops and galleries on Charleston (the Arts Factory, S2, Main Gallery and more) to the new galleries on Main Street (Atomic Todd and others) to the spaces on Commerce St. (Commerce Street Studios), down to the whimsical offerings of The Funk House antique store, and the art galleries and vintage shops in the cottages on Colorado. And no matter how you decide to get around, you can always expect a diverse crowd, cool local art, live music, street performances and plenty of surprises!
Now, don’t get me wrong, Las Vegas as plenty of entertainment. Everything from the Lion King to Jersey Boys is there if you can afford the $100 plus ticket! Las Vegas also has a ballet company that is very diverse and exciting. It is a combination of traditional and modern dance styles. In fact, they also do a co-production with my new employer, Cirque du Soleil which is a choreographer’s showcase. That is something that I will look forward to seeing, along with attending First Friday every month! Ok, so Las Vegas has some culture…but is it enough to encourage artists like me from out of town to stay? Not quite yet….
Written by Che’Rae Adams for NOHOARTSDISTRICT.COM Sept 2009
Michael Jackson and Elvis:
The death of Michael Jackson shocked and devastated me, as I am sure it did most of the world. I was in Memphis when I heard, doing research on Elvis for the new Cirque du Soleil show that I am performing in. Cirque flew the entire cast (over 80 of us) to Memphis to soak up the true Elvis experience. For three days, we did nothing but listen to amazing live music, eat fantastic food, and absorb the history of one of the greatest cities I’ve ever been to. The first thing I saw when I stepped off the plane in Memphis is a store in the airport completely dedicated to selling Elvis souvenirs. Little did I know, that was just the beginning…
Memphis loves Elvis! You can buy just about anything with Elvis’ face on it-clothing, jewelry, a vile of Elvis’ sweat, and even Elvis toilet seat covers! We had the opportunity to meet with members of the Memphis Mafia, Elvis’ entourage, who worked for him, protected him and loved him dearly. They encouraged us to look at the positive things about Elvis’ life and to focus on his creative genius and generosity. Jerry Schiller, one of Elvis’ closest friends, recounted how he thought it was Elvis’ lack of creative control over his career that lead him down the path of self destruction. As I toured Graceland, I could not help but think of the demons that might have lead to the untimely deaths of both Elvis and Michael Jackson; artists who were considered musical genius’.
What is genius?
According to Wikipedia, a genius is “…one who possesses great intelligence and remarkable abilities in a specific subject or shows an exceptional natural capacity of intellect and/or ability, especially in the production of creative and original work, something that has never been seen or evaluated previously. Traits often associated with genius include strong individuality, imagination, uniqueness, and innovative drive.”
The truth is that artists, especially those deemed a genius, are afraid. They are afraid to fail, especially if they achieved greatness and fame early on in life. Is it a rational fear that they will fail since they have already reached a level of fame that seemed somewhat unreachable to them in the beginning of their careers? Is it rational to be afraid of the work that they feel they were put on this earth to do? Artists, in general, have the reputation of being mentally, emotionally and financially unstable. As a society, we have made the association between creativity and suffering, and have accepted as a rule that it will always ultimately lead to anguish.
“Eat, Pray, Love”
Author Elizabeth Gilbert's book "Eat, Pray, Love" was so successful that everyone worried if she'd ever be able to repeat that creative performance. Given the pitfalls associated with being an artist (especially a writer), she found herself in the position to protect herself from these accepted rules and try to create a healthy distance between herself, her work, and what others might think about it. The concern led Gilbert to investigate how past cultures and societies handled creative people, to see if they had a saner way of helping them to manage the inherit emotional risks of creativity.
Her search led her to ancient Greek culture and the realization that people did not happen to believe that creativity came from human beings. People believed that creativity was this “divine attendant spirit that came to human beings from some distant and unknowable source for distant and unknowable reasons”. The Greeks referred to these spirits of creativity as “deamons”. Socrates believed that he had a deamon who spoke wisdom to him from afar. The Romans had a similar idea but they called that sort of disembodied creative spirit a “genius”. They believed that a genius is “a sort of magical divine entity who was believed to literally live in the walls of an artists studio, who would come out and sort of assist the artist with their work and would shape the outcome of that work.” Voila! A physiological construct to protect Ms. Gilbert (and other artists) from the results of thier work.
She goes on to say that this construct was indeed the way that people thought in the West for a really long time until the Renaissance came along and everything changed. We had this big idea to put the human being at the center of the universe, above all Gods and mysteries, and suddenly there was no more room for the mystical creatures serving as our muses. People started to believe that creativity came completely from the individual and started referring to people as “genius” instead of “having a genius”. According to Ms. Gilbert, “that has proved to be way too much responsibility for one human being (especially one with a fragile human psyche) to handle. It can completely warp and distort egos and it creates all of these unmanageable expectations about performance.”
Has the pressure of our modern definition of genius been killing off our artists for the last 500 years? What if we adopted this ancient construct today? How would it have effected Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson’s untimely deaths? My guess is that it would have helped them to release the heavy anxiety around the creation of a project and allowed them to enjoy their process and to be less tormented. So what do you say-do you believe in fairies?
Written by Che’Rae Adams for NOHOARTSDISTRICT.COM June 2009
Theatre is dying along with funding for the arts in America…
…so what are American theatre artists to do? According to freelance theatre director Dan Wilson, “Old is out - new is in. We have to come up with a new system. We have to crush the way it was done and rebuild it. We have to look for new models. We have to listen to new voices. We have to think in new ways. We can't let theatre continue to thrash about on the gurney - we need to let it quietly pass away - help it even - and give it a funeral. And then we need to start fresh with a new theatre for a new century.”
Dan goes on to say “If I had all of the power for a few brief moments in this American Theatre world, I would re-name, re-brand, re-envision, re-introduce, re-invite, and renew our commitment to audiences - the people that we do this for. And I would create a popular theatre for the masses. Why aren't they a part of the same brand? It works for Starbucks, it works for McDonald's, Home Depot, Banana Republic, The Disney Store... so WHY NOT our theatres too? Why can I get a membership at 24 hour fitness and travel the country as a Sales Rep for my computer consulting firm and work out in every 24 fitness gym location in the country with my member card but I can't go and enjoy the benefits of being a member in the theatre? Why don't we build brands in the theatre?”
Swallowed by the clown tongue
I flew to Montreal last week to visit the home base for Cirque du Soleil for a costume fitting and head scanning. I am playing the role of Elvis’ mother in their new multi-million dollar show about Elvis scheduled to open in 2010 in Las Vegas. In my twisted mind, I imagined that their headquarters would be a building shaped like a huge clown head with the clown’s tongue acting as a draw-bridge welcoming it’s visitors into it’s crazy clown head. Instead, I found a huge corporate office building with floor after floor of creative space for artists to do their best work.
Once I received my security badge, I was able to roam the building freely, although often accompanied by a guide so I would not get lost in the massive concrete structure. I was ushered to my first costume fitting where I met with the designer and his assistants, all of whom spoke only Italian and French. For hours, they fused over every single stitch of fabric, making sure that I was fitted perfectly with no room for imperfections. Measurements are very important to them, as each and every costume piece I wear will be custom made to fit my body, including my wigs and shoes. At one point, I think they spent a half an hour discussing a sleeve of one of my 1950 period dresses! I found this kind of meticulous behavior to be both exhausting and refreshing.
After I was fitted, I was given a tour of the facility by the director of the show, Vincent Paterson, who glowed like an expectant father awaiting the birth of his eagerly anticipated child. He has after all, been creating the show for three years and it is finally, finally, coming to fruition! He is in the period of production they call the “creation” where everything he has talked to the designers and producers about for three years is finally being built from scratch and implemented. He showed me the room where the acrobats create their work, and the studios where he and his choreographer will create their dance numbers for the show. There was an entire floor for costumes, and even a floor for hats and other accessories and an additional one just for shoes. I have worked at some of the best regional theatres in the country, but never before have a seen a facility such as this. It’s sole purpose is to house space for artists to create, and to provide them with whatever they need to achieve artistic excellence. It made me think-why don’t we have a facility such as this in the U.S.A.?
Cirque du Soleil has figured it out
Somehow Cirque has managed to make performing arts a multi-million dollar business without any government funding. Besides putting out a great product, they also manage to make lots of money for which to continue creating this product over and over again, flawlessly. They seem to employ some of the best artists in the world, including directors, choreographers, coaches, composers, and performing artists. How do they do it?
Apparently, one of their goals early on was to create a household name for themselves that would be has American as Coca-Cola or Disney. This goal I believe is one of the keys to their success, (along with the excellent product and genius employees). I am wondering if American theatre should look to Cirque as a role model for theatre in America and if so, what would it require to transform itself?
How could you make yourself or your company a household name like Coca-Cola or McDonald’s? It is food for thought if nothing else…
Written by Che’Rae Adams for NOHOARTSDISTRICT.COM May 2009
“The American theatre movement is nearing disaster.”
“Without an adequate sense of tradition or a sense of social responsibility, it is in danger of becoming a movement whose only purpose is self-perpetuation. This idealistic movement begun some generations ago has been unable to achieve a living wage for its actors, a livelihood for its playwrights; it demands that its designers accept 12 to 15 productions a year just to make ends meet, and forgoes its responsibility to train directors while permitting, under the heading of financial survival, the average income of its audiences to climb higher and higher, until this once bastion of social ideals and aesthetic concerns has become the plaything of the upper-middle-class and the very wealthy. How did this happen?”
Richard Nelson wrote these words 25 years ago as the opening to an essay about the state of American theatre and I’m not sure much has changed. Most American theatre artists in are out of work, and that was before the recession! It is still nearly impossible to make a living in the theatre, so artists subsidize their income with work in television and film. Those that can’t get work there, have the infamous “day job” which they pray will be flexible enough so they can go on auditions when they need to.
American Theatre Magazine recently asked 25 theatre artists “What do you imagine might happen in the American theatre over the course of the next quarter-century?”
Mike Daisy, monologist and playwright, had this to say:
“I look forward to the great work of the next quarter-century as a time of crisis and renewal. I hope we begin to take back institutions for artists, in cities and towns we don't hear from today. I hope that we will discover together a new theatre of the living moment, beyond the thumb of film and television. I hope we are making art that is like life itself: unrepeatable, illuminating and unforgettable.”
This is a far cry from his 2008 article “How Theatre Failed America” which has subsequently been adapted into a one man show and performed in such venues as The Kirk Douglas Theatre, Joe’s Pub, and The Woolly Mammoth Theatre. It is nice to see that he has some hope for American theatre after all.
Sarah Benson, artistic director, of Soho Rep, in New York City had this to say: “What will emerge is a more culturally connected and art-driven model that stems from the work, rather than simply sustaining self-perpetuating institutions. The most exciting work will be exuberant, uncompromising and handmade. It will be intimate, whether made for tiny or vast spaces, and yet large in scope. And it will utilize the strange theatrical principle of alchemy, by taking rough materials and using them as they are—to turn out something remarkable.”
Go Sarah! Remember when you and your friends all got together and created intelligent, passionate, heartfelt new work that was inspired by how you felt about the world and your place in it? That is where the future of American Theatre is headed! No more cookie cutter theatre where all of the regional theatres are doing the same thing over and over again without much original thought. New work is almost always a comment on the present time and we all need to grow the balls to write about it.
What would your new play be about?
Written by Che’Rae Adams for NOHOARTSDISTRICT.COM April 2009
Hello. My name is Che’Rae. And… I am a Pippa-holic….Hi Che’Rae!
I recently realized that I’m addicted to Pippin by Stephen Schwartz. I see every single production that I come across, in Los Angeles and otherwise. I don’t care if it is part of UCLA’s Reprise series, The Mark Taper Forum’s season or at a local high school. I can’t help it! After all, they’ve got magic to do! Just for you!
I have asked myself the question many times-Why must I see this show no matter who produces it or how poor the quality may be? Basically they could throw poo on the show and I would still give it a standing ovation. I realize now that I must seek help with this addiction or it could effect me for the rest of my life!
It turns out that the first step in my recovery is admitting that I have a problem. That is the easy part-I admit it! The next 12 steps were a lot harder. I even got a sponsor. It turns out that one of the steps is reaching into my past and discovering the deep rooted reasons that I have to see Pippin. As I reached back, a suppressed memory was revealed. When I was in Jr. High School, I was invited to see a production of Pippin by one of my best friends, Zirka Keske, who was an inspiring dancer. In the dark recesses of my mind, I could barely make out flashes of the brightly colored costumes, sexy dancers, and fabulous music. There was slight of hand, a duck puppet, and people of all ages in the show! There were even half naked cute boys, especially the one who played Pippin! In fact, I think I might have kissed him after the show at the cast and crew party as I hung out with Zirka who was just fabulous in the chorus!
This early memory of Pippin, might explain where the roots of my addiction lie. Afterall, Pippin is not only for all ages, but it has characters of all ages, ranging from 10 years old to 60. Everyone can relate to the story, because it has a fairytale structure and it has a sense of humor about itself. The music is unforgettable and timeless, a true masterpiece by the author of Godspell and Wicked. The title song “We’ve Got Magic to Do” symbolizes what I think the theatre is all about-the ability to transport the audience to magical places just for them.
We’ve got magic to you, just for you
We’ve got miracle plays to play
We’ve got parts to perform, hears to warm
Kings and things to take by storm
As we go along our way
Pippin’s solo “Corner of the Sky” has been done to death at every musical theater audition in the country, but it has a special place in my heart as an anthem to self awareness, prosperity and growth.
Rivers belong where they can ramble
Eagles belong where they can fly
I’ve got to be where my spirit can run free
Got to find my corner of the sky
The entire concept of the show hinges on the actors as “players” which is a nice echo to Shakespeare’s famous idea that “All the world is a stage and we are merely players”. But by far the most poignant part of the script is when Pippin decides that he wants his life to be “something more than long” and is offered the chance to make a real difference in the world if he sacrifices himself by jumping into a pit of fire. Pippin discovers in that moment that life is to be shared with someone you love and who loves you, and does not necessarily need to be “extraordinary” to be fulfilling.
Last week I had the pleasure of seeing Deaf West’s version of Pippin at the Mark Taper Forum. Who would have thought that the added layer of ASL would resonate with me so much? It makes perfect sense actually-what better thing to take away from Pippin in the end but his voice? The concept of two Pippins, one deaf and one hearing, allowed for Pippin to have moments where his inner conflict was literalized. In the end, this production of Pippin fed my addiction because it is everything that I feel theatre should be-magical, sexy, wildly entertaining, and in the end, it gives us something to think about.
Written by Che’Rae Adams for NOHOARTSDISTRICT.COM March 2009
I just came back from a play reading about five clowns trapped in a jail cell.
Although the play had it’s humorous moments, such as the secret clown hand shake, I was surprised and a bit put off by the amount of angst in the piece. For example, the play opens with one of the clowns screaming at God, expressing his disapproval for the job he has done and even goes as far as to say that he hates God. The actor was great, the director too, but the uneasy text just did not work. Angst is a interesting dramaturgical element. It rarely works, and when it does, it takes a very skilled writer to pull it off.
What happened to the Angsty Girl?
When I was in college, I loved to do shows that had lots of agony in them. We all did right? College was our rebellious time, when plays like Hair, Spring Awakening, Orphans and Getting Out seemed really cool. We got to express ourselves, complain out loud and in front of other people. Our parents might even have been in the audience and therefore hear our passive aggressive cry for help and stop suppressing us!
I honestly think I am too old for angst now. What happened to the rebellious college kid of yesteryear? I liked her! She had passion, spunk, and seemed tireless! She directed and starred in shows that said “Bleep You society!” and “Take that world!”-shows like Look Back in Anger and Shadow Box which featured female characters who were strong, independent, and didn’t take anybody’s crap! Where did she go? I think she grew up and became someone who wanted to mount shows with some iota of hope in them.
For example, last year I directed a show for The Syzygy Theatre Company called Tender. The play was offered to another director before me who turned it down because he felt it was too depressing-too full of angst. I accepted the job because when I read it, I saw a play about a group of young Londoners who are all searching for some tenderness in their very difficult, lonely, stressful lives. Sounds angsty right? Not when Abby Morgan writes it. Abby is a gifted and skilled writer who does not focus on the angst and complaints of her characters, but instead focus’ on what her characters are hungry for and the lengths they will go to get it. The angst therefore comes out of action, instead of being thrown into dialogue without any action backing it up. And although the play ends with a couple breaking up, an affair revealed and a friendship ending, it still manages to end with a degree of hope.
Suggestions to make sure your angst is connected to action
Exercise #1-Look for the “Action and Objective”
Action is what the character does to get what they want and the objective is what the character wants. For example, in Hamlet, the title character wants to prove to himself that Claudius killed the king (so that he can seek revenge for his father’s murder with a clear conscience). He does many things to achieve this objective, and his actions change depending on the scene.
Each angsty scene in your play or screenplay should have an action and an objective in order to be effective. You may ask, why do my scenes need action? First, because “drama” is the Greek word for “action”. But also because I believe that action is what an actor needs in order to play a scene. I don’t believe that an actor can play an emotion, or a situation, or an atmosphere. Actors also need an objective for their character or the scene will fall short. If you can not find an action and objective, then your angsty scene needs to be rewritten.
Exercise #2: Find the Function
The other trick to check whether or not your angsty scene works is to take a look at the scenes in your script and discover what it’s function is — that is, how the scene serves the story. The function of a scene is the reason the scene is in the play, the purpose it serves in moving the story forward. For example, the function of the Ghost scene in Hamlet is to plant doubt in Hamlet’s mind—perhaps his father did not die of natural causes. I have to admit that sometimes the function of the scene is a device used by the playwright. For example, the purpose of the gravedigger scene in Hamlet is to provide some comic relief at a time in the script when Ophelia has died, Hamlet has been banished, and there is nothing but despair in the kingdom.
Finding the function of each scene can be a useful tool, because if the scene does not serve the story, you might want to ask yourself whether you need it at all. It doesn’t matter how brilliant the dialogue is, how witty you think the moment is, how much your ego is involved in the writing. If it does not serve the story, let it go.
Well, that is my angsty diatribe about angst. Form does follow function afterall.
written by Che’Rae Adams for NOHOARTSDISTRICT.COM Jan 2009