Posts Tagged ‘theater’

Save the small theaters!

Oh man.  Another small theater is taken out of commission.  I just learned that Climate Theater has lost its lease and is moving operations to the Traveling Jewish Theater.  Chloe Veltman covered it on her blog.  (Somehow I keep crossing paths with Chloe Veltman.  I think I only met her in person once, very briefly at the opening night parties that Cutting Ball theater threw for their production of Mud, but she keeps on popping up.  First she’s friends with fellow Richter Scale Jerry Cain (via NY Times blogger Scott James).  Then she’s interviewing my composition teacher David Conte.  This time I was actually in Jessica Heidt’s living room getting ready to do some work on Failing That while Chloe was interviewing her. One of these days we might actually have a conversation. But I digress…)

As someone who prefers his theatrical spaces to be intimate (more accurately, someone who prefers theater that isn’t going to draw more than 50 people in any given night) this is a bummer. We need all the small spaces we can get. So as a tribute to the Climate’s lost space, why don’t you take a look at what’s playing in San Francisco’s teeny houses this weekend. Or next weekend. (But don’t wait too much longer, lest they lose their leases as well…)

The Real Kim Harmon is doing a performance piece in the art space/curio shop hybrid Viracocha in the mission

The Dark Room is continuing it’s Twilight Zone productions as well as their bad movie nights.

Stage Werx has Lisa Marie Rollins’ solo show  Ungrateful Daughter (which features a scene that came from a suggestion I made at one of W Kamau Bell‘s solo performance workshops…)

SF Playhouse is previewing their re-imagining of The Fantasticks set in a contemporary dystopia.

The Garage has got the athletic dance group the San Francisco Moving Men

Counterpulse has a new show about LGBTQ elders by Outlook Theater Productions

Intersection for the Arts is celebrating its 45th anniversary with a Gala auction.

And, of course, up in Petaluma, I’ll be performing in the closing night of Emmeline at teeny opera company Cinnabar.



Jun 2010

Channeling my inner Merman

In the great canon of musical theater and opera roles, there are a few numbers that every actor/actress aspires to perform. Show stopping, scenery chewing, career making moments that put all of your talents on display for the world to see. The finale of Cabaret, Ya Got Trouble from the Music Man, and my personal aspiration, Sweeney Todd’s Epiphany.

This Saturday night, I’m going to be performing the big one.  The great grand daddy of all musical theater show stoppers.

I’m performing Rose’s Turn.

That’s right. Me. In Ethel Merman’s shoes. Belting away, strutting my stuff in that triumphant nervous breakdown of the hopelessly abandoned, desperate, and deluded.

But this isn’t a production of Gypsy.  Oh no. Not at all. What we have here is a genre mash-up of Gypsy and the Exodus. Called, (of course) “Everything’s Coming Up Moses.” That’s right. Moses.  And I’m playing Moses. And it’s pretty damn inspired. It originated from the pen of New York author and playwright Rachel Shukert and had it’s first reading last Passover in NY. It went over well so they’re bringing it out to San Francisco this Saturday as part of the Dawn Festival. It’s a staged reading, so the whole affair will be pretty loose, but still. I can’t wait to sing this music. It’s a welcome relief from rehearsals for an opera about a miserable New England teenaged girl who gets raped before intermission. (And the second act is even sadder.)

So, come on out to the California Academy of Science this Saturday night. The tickets are advance purchase only. Hope to see you there…

Oh…and here’s Bernadette Peters doing Rose’s Turn at the Tony Awards in 2003. (fast forward to 0:51 to skip the intro talking)


May 2010

Richard Foreman bails on theater

Looks like Richard Foreman was serious this time. He’s not doing anymore theater productions. I’m damn glad I caught Idiot Savant last year at Joe’s Pub. I’ve been a big fan of Foreman’s work since I went to see Lumberjack Messiah on a complete whim five years ago. Now I see whatever is playing at Ontological-Hysteric whenever I’m in NYC.

Foreman’s own pieces were surreal, lyric, highly stylized, fetishistic affairs. I had long imagined a kind of theater that was more music than narrative, using phrases, gestures and situations as motifs and melodies and his pieces were the first I had seen that realized that vision.

I’ve found his film and video work much less compelling. I’ve only seen a few pieces, but what I’ve seen is pretty damn boring: non-actors standing in a room, staring at a camera, repeating a phrase or two, making a gesture… hohum. I don’t get it. I’m sad to hear that this is where he plans to spend his effort from now on. Maybe they’ll get more interesting…


May 2010

Review: …and Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi

There’s a lot to like in Marcus Gardley’s …And Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi, a co-production of Playwright’s Foundation and Cutting Ball Theater. There’s a top notch cast, a beautiful set, gorgeous integration of very well sung spirituals, and more than a few breathtaking moments. It is, perhaps, an embarrassment of riches, and at the risk of appearing an ingrate, I can’t help but wish that the playwright had spent a bit more time honing these moments into a leaner, more focused piece.

Gardley knows he’s throwing a lot at us; he calls his piece a gumbo, a melange of characters and situations, a cross between storytelling and dream poem. The narrative is loosely based on the Demeter myth set towards the end of the Civil War. In the original, the earth goddess Demeter walks the earth to rescue her daughter Persephone, who has become the queen of Hades (it’s unclear how interested Persephone is in being rescued). Read the rest of this entry →



Apr 2010

Top 10 Moments of Sondheim Genius (part 2)

Gah!  I would have published this earlier, but I spent two evenings tearing my house apart trying to find a photograph of me and Sondheim taken when I was in the ensemble for the 2001 PBS production of Sweeney Todd in Concert. I’m a bit freaked out that I haven’t been able to find it yet. I’m sure it will show up eventually. At least that’s what I keep telling myself.

But here we are, the five top moments of Sondheim genius (read about numbers 10-6 in my previous post). Again, this is not a ranking of shows or songs, but of individual, isolated moments of genius. (In my browser it looks like he’s reading this paragraph… Eek!)

Read the rest of this entry →


Mar 2010

Top 10 Moments of Sondheim Genius

In honor of the eightieth birthday of the greatest musical theater writer/composer to ever live, I’ve gone ahead and curated the 10 most brilliant moments in a body of work that is chock full of genius.  For purposes of this list, I’ve tried to identify specific moments, as opposed to stretches of time or entire songs.  I’m not ranking the best Sondheim shows, or the best Sondheim songs, I’m identifying short bursts of time, rarely more than a few seconds, sometimes a single measure, when something remarkable happens. These are the moments to eagerly await each time a production shows up, the moments that reveal if the director and music director “get it”. And I’ve also tried to find moments that are not merely theatrical or musical, but moments when both the music and theater combine to make something amazing happen.  Any one of his shows contains dozens of inspired musical gestures that bear close analysis, but these are the instants where the musical and theatrical ideas converge to a razor point of revelation, providing multidimensional insights into characters or situations.

Today I’ll count down 10-6.  Stay tuned for the top 5…

Read the rest of this entry →


Mar 2010

When theater is a joke. Or vice versa.

There’s a fine line between a practical joke and engaging theater.

This video (courtesy of the always entertaining Mind the Gap blog) documents an elaborate prank the likes of which could only be organized in the name of global commerce and fermented barley beverages. 1,000 soccer fans were forced to miss a championship game by their bosses or girlfriends, and instead attend (i.e. suffer) a concert of classical music.

It pains me to see classical music as the butt of the joke, and the enthusiasm of the crowd when the match starts up makes me squirm a little. How must the poor string quartet have felt, hearing a crowd start cheering at the realization that they’re about to shut the hell up?

But what a divine bit of experiential theater. I wish the video did a more accurate job of portraying how things actually went down when the reveal was made (I sense a pretty heavy editorial hand in this clip). How quickly did different members of the audience catch on? How quickly did they start abandoning expected concert protocol? When did the beer start pouring?

I can think of some other examples of such extreme context switching in real performance situations. John Fisher’s Medea the Musical starts out as an ultra campy gay rendition of the Euripides yarn for a good 15 minutes before the director stops the show and you realize that you’re actually watching a play within a play about a gay theater company’s campy production of the Euripides yarn. Similar hijinks occur in Noises Off.

A lot of great theater is about the setting up of expectations and the twist, the surprise, the sudden reveal that makes you reconsider and reevaluate everything you had experienced up until then. But these are examples of a special kind of twist. This isn’t the story twist that you’ll often find in thrillers (Hannibal Lecter’s amazing escape scene in Silence of the Lambs is a great example), but an experiential twist. A twist that isn’t contained in the character’s world, but leaks into the audience’s world and their understanding of what they’re actually experiencing.

But if theater depends on a series of lies, an elaborate ruse, perhaps events that create disorienting moments when the “joke” is revealed are more honest than the ones that never acknowledge the lie.

Either way, Theater definitely kicked the stuffing out of Music in this video. But I’m pretty sure Music was payed good money to take a dive.

ps – My soccer hooligan friend Shona just informed me that the reveal is actually in the music.  The quartet starts playing the “Champion League Anthem”, which is apparently recognizable by any fan. There’s a surge of applause in there that doesn’t really make sense unless you recognize the song.


Mar 2010

Too Much Workshop Makes the Weekend Go Fast

Every time I’m in New York, I make it a point to see Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind.  Every time.   And I try to drag as many friends as possible (as any of my Facebook friends who live in NY can attest.) One visit I went to both weekend shows.  This show and its aesthetic epitomizes much of what I find interesting about theater.

The show was created by the origianl Neo-Futurist troupe in Chicago over twenty years ago. It is dedicated to “non-illusory” theater, that is, there’s no attempt to suspend the audience’s belief. The actors always play themselves, and while they may evoke other locations, there’s no attempt to pretend that they’re anywhere other than the theater.  The audience is always acknowledged and often integrated.  They don’t so much as break the fourth wall as they refuse to conceive of one. The material they use comes from experiences in their own lives and must be true.  If they perform a monologue about how they broke their leg last week, it’s because they broke their leg last week.

In Too Much Light, they attempt to perform 30 miniature plays in this aesthetic in 60 minutes.  In whatever order the audience calls out.  When the 60 minutes are up, the show is done. And then each week they replace a random number of those plays with new ones. So the piece is constantly evolving and changing from week to week. As they’re fond of shouting “If you’ve seen the show once, you’ve seen it ONCE.”

The shows are high energy, interactive, surprising, hilarious, surreal, and sometimes heartbreakingly beautiful. If a few of the small plays don’t connect, that’s just fine, cuz you can be assured that a bunch of the others will.  Plays can be one of the neos discussing their childhood aspirations while performing a classical ballet routine to Pat Benatar, or the ensemble taping streamers across the stage, putting on corsages and boutonnieres, and standing shyly against the walls while Phil Collins plays over the PA, until audience members catch on, come on stage, and ask them to dance. It’s purely Definite Content.  Translation into any other medium is impossible.

This weekend I was fortunate enough to be invited to a workshop given by two Neo-Futurists from Chicago. Over the two full day sessions we ran a series of explorative exercises, focusing on things like site specificity (doing a piece that can uses unique aspects of the performance space, again, making it a kind of Definite Content), adapting true stories for a non performative performance, and task based theater, theater that involves undertaking some actual activity on stage, whether folding laundry or making a sandwich.  Each student produced three complete Neo performance pieces, one of them written from nothing in 30 minutes.

One of the revelations of the class was how damn good everyone was.  Even though only one other student was directly familiar with Neo-Futurist ideals, all of the nine students seemed to immediately get it. I’m not sure if it speaks to the talent of the students, the teachers, or the intrinsic nature of the aesthetic but each piece felt rich, deep, and profoundly affecting.

So now I have to figure out how to integrate this style of work into what I’m doing right now.  After all, this is the theater I love, why not try to make some? Some of it’s already in my piece.  What would a Neo-Futurist opera be? While large chunks of my opera are “illusory”, I’m pretending to be someone else (a few people, actually), there are crucial bits where that all falls away.  But perhaps there’s a task that can be performed during an aria?  Something site specific?  Perhaps I could involve the audience directly?  Pull them onto the stage? How can I counter the distancing effect of opera, of sung dialogue.  Or at least utilize it as a foil to the more immediate, non-illusory moments.

PS In other news, I found time to edit the first movement of my string quartet.  Look for the audio and some detailed program notes about the composition of the piece later this week.  The rest of the piece will come in the weeks to follow.


Mar 2010

So… why Music vs Theater?

Music vs Theater. What the heck do I mean by that? Is it a lawsuit? A wrestling match? A fight to the death? When I was pitching potential blog titles to my friends, some were confused by the implications of this particular one. After all, I’m trying to make works of music and theater, why would I want a title that makes it sound like they can’t work together?

Here.  Lemme splain…

Obviously, music and theater are separate things. And if you try to combine them in a single piece, they won’t necessarily work towards the same goal. They can operate on separate planes, like a form of macro counterpoint. Usually composers try to make the music act in tandem with the theater, illuminating nuances or internal states of characters, setting atmospheres, supporting the action. But it doesn’t always. How many musicals grind to a halt to make way for the dance number, or cram in a song that doesn’t advance the action one bit, but may sell an album? (I think I’m letting some of my preferences show through. That’s OK.  It’s a blog.)

Sometimes the music works against the theater due more to stylistic reasons. They’re different and sometimes incompatible languages.  Many audiences expect a degree of naturalism in their theater. Conversation on stage should sound like conversation in life. Sung theater immediately makes the conversation, well, less natural. The pacing of the action is altered. This isn’t always a bad thing, but it creates a challenge that must be addressed. In future posts we’ll take a look at different solutions through the eras and how well they’ve held up.

But perhaps it’s not so obviously true that music and theater are different things. After all, theater has innate music in its rhythms and sounds. And music relies on creating tension and resolution over time, a purely abstract form of drama or theater.

With Music vs Theater I’m interested in this overlap, the middle of the spectrum. The area where you’re not sure if  you’re experiencing the theater of music or the music of theater.


Feb 2010

Upcoming Event: Failing That Workshop Presentation

Failing That: A Minor Tragedy (excerpt)
7pm February 28th
Stagewerx Theater
533 Sutter St (at Powell)
San Francisco, CA 94102

I’ll be performing a 25 minute excerpt from Failing That as part of the Stage Werx Solo Sunday festival on February 28th.  This excerpt will follow the arc of Steven Scafidi as he finds himself completely unprepared for a final exam.

These workshops are a great way to see a work as it develops, and also a great way for me to see what works and what doesn’t work.

I’ll be presenting my piece in the first half of the evening (note the early start time, 7pm).  My good friend, the lovely and talented Katie Rubin will be presenting a section of her solo show in the second half.   I hope to see you there after the show.

Read more about Failing That (including audio samples)  here.

You can purchase tickets here.


Feb 2010