For the past seven years, I have been a full-time drama student and an early career theatre professional. After a life full of amateur theatrics, directing and acting in plays and musicals with my best friends, always feeling like the stakes were approximately 10,000x higher than they actually were, it was a very sudden shift to find my hobby and truest love suddenly be what I did and thought about all day every day.
There were times when this would get me down and I would question why I was going into this insane industry anyway. What was the point of being in a field where things were rapidly reaching theme park levels of commercialization and where the barriers to participation were so high that who knew if I would ever surmount them? Theatre school was hard, and being a grown-up in the theatre industry has been even harder. Now, in a time when theatres are shuttered round the globe and I miss this art form I've dedicated my life too with my entire being, it is easy to think of all the bad things about this life, mainly the total instability.
It's times likes this, when I'm feeling sad or unsure about this life I've chosen, when I turn to the 2013 Tony Awards Opening Number.
Before we watch it together, I want to paint you a picture of who I was when I first saw this on TV almost seven years ago. I was a 17-year-old with less than a week of high school left, preparing for my upcoming first semester studying drama at Carnegie Mellon. I was sitting on the couch in the house I grew up in, where I'd watched many prior Tony Awards, and I was surrounded by my best friends. So, it was in that headspace that I saw this miraculous performance on that fateful Sunday evening in June.
Before we do a deep dive, I'm gonna let you sit with whatever you're feeling right now. Just let yourself feel it for a few deep breaths.
Ready? Let's jump in.
0:01-0:44 Let's start with the opening sequence, a sweet nod to Once, the musical that had won the Tony the prior year. I had yet to see Once, but I had seen The Swell Season, the music duo who wrote the music for the musical and the film it's based on, perform at the Hollywood Bowl three years prior with my friends, some of whom were with me on that couch. We saw them on accident- we bought the tickets because She & Him was their opener. It was a very pleasant surprise. A year after the Tonys, I saw Once by myself on the West End. It was the first musical I saw alone and I loved every second of it.
0:45 That Shia LaBeouf joke! Bet you forgot all about that Broadway controversy! Earlier in 2013, Shia was meant to make his Broadway debut in Lyle Kessler's Orphans, but left the show citing creative differences from his costar, Alec Baldwin. The New York Times maintains that he actually was fired.
1:10 One of the other things that made the 2013 Tony Awards so damn special was called out in the lyric, "And we're back where we began it all/Radio City Music Hall." This seems like an apt celebratory lyric for the first Tony Awards ceremony held at Radio City since 2010, as during 2011 and 2012 Cirque du Soleil was in residence there. HOWEVER this lyric is misleading because we did not, in fact, begin it all at Radio City Music Hall. The first Tony Awards ceremony was held in 1947 at the Grand Ballroom at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. The Tonys were held at hotel ballrooms for the next few decades, and in 1967 the awards moved to The Shubert Theatre. It wasn't until 1997, at the 50th Annual Tony Awards, that the show moved to Radio City. So while I applaud Lin-Manuel Miranda for the dramatically resonant lyric, it is not historically accurate.
1:53 A giant Tony Award emerges from the background. Neil winks at the camera and runs offstage for what can only be a quick change. Things are starting to get crazy.
2:22 After a quick jokes about how toned the men of Kinky Boots are, the camera pans to Billy Porter, not yet a household name and notably not dressed to the nines, Ã la 2020 Billy. This was an exciting moment for me as an audience member because it was the first shot of a CMU alum nominated that evening. He and seven other CMU alumni would go on to win that night, for acting, lighting design, producing, and costume design. Here's a picture of me meeting Billy Porter a little over three months later. Yes, he is very awesome in person.
2:39 Here we have the hilarious nod to the haphazard nature of putting on a Tony Awards ceremony, "I just learned this dance like half an hour ago." While that statement is a stretch of the truth, it isn't entirely inaccurate. The production number featured approximately 200 people (sadly cannot find a source with an exact count), and each group would rehearse their bit of the number separately, accommodating for the fact that most of them were definitely still doing 8 shows a week. The only run through with all of the performers present was the morning of the telecast.
2:53 Neil runs and jumps through a hoop mirroring Matthew James Thomas' acrobatic entrance as the titular prince in the 2013 revival of Pippin, written by another CMU alum Stephen Schwartz WHILE HE WAS A STUDENT AT CMU. Granted, the show changed a lot on the road from CMU to Broadway, but it was still a point of pride for me. That night alumna Patina Miller would win Best Actress in a Musical for her turn as Leading Player, and the production would win Best Revival of a Musical. I have not met Patina Miller, but I saw the show that December, and can affirm the show was worthy of all the accolades.
3:07 The cast of Bring it On: The Musical floods the stage. Bet you forgot about Lin-Manuel Miranda's Broadway flop, didn't you? It's okay, he's gonna win an Emmy for this opening number in a few months. Oh yeah... and Hamilton will take over the world in three years.
3:16 MIKE TYSON HAD A ONE MAN SHOW. WHAT. EVEN.
3:38 The four little girls playing Matilda RUN OUT OF THE GIANT TONY AWARD, previously unopened. Incredible. That show is amazing. I saw it in March the next year and in my opinion it should have won the Tony over Kinky Boots. But I digress. Moving on!
3:44 The "jaded former Billys" enter, calling back to the 2009 Tony Awards when the three young men who shared the titular role in Billy Elliot shared the award for Best Leading Actor in a Musical. I saw both Billy Elliot and Next to Normal, one of it's Tony Awards competitors on a high school drama club trip, and I maintain that Next to Normal should have won. Hey, I can be utterly obsessed with the Tony Awards and disagree with the voters. Once again, moving on!
4:00 Lilla Crawford, the star of the season's revival of Annie, starts off the choreography in the wrong direction. The magic of live theatre!
4:24 The lyric, "though being famous doesn't mean that you will get a good review, so Alec, write Ben Brantley if you want, that's entertaining too!" Oh boy, so much to unpack here. So, as discussed earlier, Alec Baldwin was in the Broadway show Orphans this season. Ben Brantley, the chief theater critique for The New York Times and, whether you like it or not, the most important critical voice in theater, called Baldwin's performance, "a mutating cartoon" with "only hints of the requisite menace." It was, all in all, not a glowing review. But wait, there's more! Alec Baldwin RESPONDED in HuffPost where he literally says, "Ben Brantley [...] is not a good writer" and calls him an "odd, shriveled, bitter Dickensian clerk." It's pretty incredible, and you can read the whole thing here.
4:32 That leads into a very quick tonal shift, referencing the much nominated Pippin with the lyric "we've got magic to do," and then an ACTUAL magic trick by ACTUAL magician, Neil Patrick Harris. Insane.
5:03 Neil is now "walking down the aisle with some Newsies in tow." Remember Newsies, Disney's completely accidental smash hit of the 2012 Broadway season. Here's the story behind that: Disney Theatricals has a whole line of educational materials for licensing their "Jr." productions to elementary schools, youth theatre companies, etc. The educators who put on these shows are asked to fill out a feedback form, and one of the questions is which other Disney properties they'd like to be made available in this format. They noticed that Newsies, the 1992 cult favorite movie musical starring Christian Bale, was requested very often, despite the film's lack of critical success. SO, the team at Disney decided to adapt it to a musical for the New Jersey regional theatre Paper Mill Playhouse so that they could have a quick turnaround for amateur licensing. HOWEVER, the cute dancing boys of the musical led the show to become an absolute hit with the teens, preceding what would become a decade of teens ruling the Broadway canon, leading Disney to swing Newsies over to Broadway for what was supposed to be a limited engagement run. That turned into an open-ended run, a handful of Tony nominations, a few wins, and Newsies becoming the fastest musical to recoup on it's investments in the history of Broadway. Once again, insane.
5:13 Some guy who I don't recognize gives the first standing ovation of the night. A little premature, but I get it.
5:20 "Can I have my Tom Hooper Les Mis close up please?" This is obviously a reference to the previous holiday season release of Tom Hooper's film adaptation of Les MisÃ©rables, famous for the previously unheard of live singing on camera and for dividing the theatre community. For the record, 17-year-old me loved it, and saw it in theatres three times.
5:58 "Just for the hell of it Tom Hanks!" I just wanted to say how much I love Tom Hanks, and how much everyone loves Tom Hanks. I hope he's doing okay. If you want to fall deeper in love with Tom Hanks and distract yourself from your current troubles and for some reason have lived under a rock for the past few months, please read Taffy Brodesser-Akner's beautiful profile of him in the Times.
6:06-6:18 If you don't cry at this bit about all the kids watching at home and how everyone up on that stage was that kid at some point... I don't even know. Just like... look yourself in the mirror and think about it for a second. I'll wait.
6:36 Debra Messing's face in this shot is the best moment of the entire video. I think it summarizes how all of us truly feel about this performance. I wish I was the kind of person that new how to make GIFs because this reaction is the perfect GIF.
6:37 SPIDERMAN. I don't even know where to begin. For those of you who are out of the loop or who have suppressed the memory, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark was the absolute train wreck that helped define the 2010 Broadway season. Tons of cast and creative team members dropped out, many many cast members got injured, and when it finally opened the show was panned by critics and lost shit tons of money. It would have had to have run on Broadway for at least 5 years to make back the reported $75 million dollars it cost to put up.
6:40 I love this part when they bring out a bunch of cast members from some of the longest running shows on Broadway- The Lion King, Mamma Mia, Jersey Boys, and Chicago. While the awards at the Tonys celebrate the newest productions, its so cool that they included these casts because these long running shows make up the backbone of Broadway. People come from all around the world to see the aforementioned productions and the likes of Phantom of the Opera, Wicked, The Book of Mormon, and Hamilton. They're often people's gateway drugs to the the addiction that is musical theatre. We love them too!
6:45 "Kathie Lee's a Broadway lyricist so anything can happen!" For less than a month, from November-December 2012, Kathie Lee Gifford, best known for her tenure alongside Hoda Kotb on The Today Show, starred in Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson. She actually wrote the music AND lyrics. Come on Lin. More inaccuracies. Gifford was nominated for a Tony for her performance... not her song writing ability.
7:02 Neil makes like King Kong (which would not come to Broadway for another five years, but was getting ready to open in Australia at the time) and climbs that giant Tony Award, leading the full cast of the number through to a big finish, and a rousing round of applause and roughly minute and a half long standing ovation. We get reaction shots from the great Harvey Weinstein, sweet baby Anthony Ramos, new to Broadway Cyndi Lauper, a sparkling Annaleigh Ashford, an absolutely shook Patina Miller, an under-reacting Jesse Eisenberg, a spectacled Bernadette Peters, and Megan Hilty, before NPH comes in with a button, "And that's our budget, good night!" He then welcomes Audra McDonald and Zachary Quinto to the stage to kick off the actual awards show.
Wow. Just wow. I don't know how to close out this blog post, because if it isn't clear to you now how much this opening number means to me, and how much Broadway and the theatre community means to me, then I don't know what to tell ya. I love the theatre community so much, and this number is just an incredibly elaborate love letter to that community. And, if you're still not bored, please watch this video of director Glenn Weiss calling the cues for the closing sequence. You're welcome.
That's all for today folks. Should I do a similar deconstruction of the closing number next? Let me know!
Now that you've made it all the way to the bottom, I leave you with some bonus content. The night before The Tony Awards, I directed an illegal concert version of Les Mis because my math teacher wanted me too (long story) at my high school that we marketed as Broadway Night and I lied on the phone to MTI about our intentions. It was a lot, but the whole point of it was to bring faculty, alumni, and current high school students together to honor the head of our performing arts department, who was retiring that year. After the Tonys, I posted the following incredibly self-aggrandizing tweet.
(I'm completely aware there is a typo. It was 2013 and twitter didn't [and still doesn't] have an edit tweet button, so leave me alone.)
K now I'm actually done. Bye!
I've been self-isolating since the evening of March 12, the same evening that Broadway shuttered for a minimum of one month.
I'm not going to sit here and write a think piece about theatre in the age of coronavirus, about how this is probably the worst economic catastrophe our industry has ever faced, about how we survived the plague and honestly have been "dying" for 2000 years and are somehow still kicking, or about how Shakespeare wrote three of his most famous plays and some bomb poetry when he was quarantined for a year. You all know all of that. Or if you don't, that's fine too.
I will say that I miss theatre more than ever. I haven't felt this ache since I was fourteen and quit theatre entirely to focus on my academics (lol). Seeing and working on shows has been a relative constant in my life, and I know I am not alone in missing the joy of collaborating, the thrill of the houselights dimming before a show begins, or just fucking around with my friends who love theatre like I do. Thankfully, I have a roommate that fits that description, so all is not lost.
So, enough of that emotional nonsense. This is gonna get worse before it gets better and we are going to be missing the bright lights of Broadway (and Off-Broadway, and Off-Off-Broadway, and all the amazing regional and community theatres around the country and world) for some time. Here is a short list of things I've been doing to try and numb the ache in my chest that only live theatre can really soothe.
Read More Plays
I have a bookshelf full of plays and although I've read most of them there are a few I'd somehow not gotten around to yet. I just read Sarah Ruhl's adaptations of Three Sisters, originally by Anton Chekhov, and Orlando, based on the novel by Virginia Woolf. Admittedly, I would maybe not recommend Chekhov or any adaptations of his work during these trying times, considering his plays are kind of existentially fraught. I know the whole thing people have with Chekhov is he's actually super funny, but I was not feeling his brand of humor. I did love this particular quote during one of the play's many philosophizing sessions, brought you by Tuzenbach, a lieutenant who is in love with one of the titular sisters, Irina:
"Well, after we're gone, people will most likely fly in balloons, wear a different cut of coat and discover a sixth sense.
But life will essentially be just the same.
It's difficult, and happy, and full of mystery.
A thousand years from now, people will be sighing, just as we do: Oh, life is hard!
All the same, they will fear death. And try to avoid dying.
Just as we do now."
I don't think I need to offer any sort of explanation about why that quote resonated with and comforted me right now. So maybe I do recommend reading Chekhov right now. I would, however, recommend keeping some sort of tracker of all the characters, because if you've read Russian plays or literature before you know that each character has approximately 12,000 names.
Orlando, on the other hand, was absolutely delightful. I haven't read the source material, but I love Virginia Woolf's other books (okay, I've only read Mrs. Dalloway. Sorry for not being a true fan girl) and this felt like a perfect marriage of Woolf and Ruhl. The play is, essentially, about a 16th century young man named Orlando who is a bad poet and has many a sordid affair and falls in love a lot and then one day wakes up and is a woman. It's awesome, and funny, and joyful, and silly, and I would highly recommend it. The book was also written as a love letter from Virginia Woolf to her lover, Vita Sackville-West, and who doesn't love a bit of 20th century queer history with their theatre?
Listen to Theatrical Podcasts
2. So, I used to be pretty anti-theatre podcasts because I thought they were all bad (except for Lend Me Your Ear, Slate's miniseries about Shakespeare and politics, which is phenomenal), but a recent NYTimes article led me to reconsider my position. Also, I have been listening to considerably fewer news, politics, and current events podcasts, and those are usually the bread and butter of my podcast listening experience. I've been enjoying Curtain Call, which has been posting short form interviews with theatre professionals from around the world, Variety's Stagecraft for longer interviews with Broadway's best, and Playing on Air for radio plays written and performed by New York theatre regulars.
Support Artists Online
So many theatre artists have been taking the time out of their newly quarantined lives to create content and virtual spaces for community. I know Young Jean Lee has been providing virtual playwrighting workshops, Rosie O'Donnell put together a star-studded virtual Broadway concert to support The Actors Fund, and every day on twitter and instagram theatre makers from amateur to professional and every where in between have been posting songs, monologues, and pieces of whatever projects they were working on that got cut short by this virus. This NYTimes article has info on where to find dozens if not hundreds and thousands of videos like those I've mentioned.
Of course, I do want to specifically plug my amazing roommate (and quarantine buddy) Hanna Berggren, who has been going live on her instagram, @hanberggers, most weeknights at 9:00 and Sundays at 11:00 to sing for whoever wants to tune in! She has an incredible voice and a deep love for music, and she takes requests! She's been singing a mix of musical theatre, pop music, and her original pieces. I personally requested "With You" by Jessica Simpson for tonight's live show, so if you, like me, love some early 2000s Jessica Simpson love songs, you should definitely tune in!
I think those are going to be all my recommendations today. Of course I've also been watching tons of movies and TV and YouTube videos and reading books and doing whatever I can to try and stay sane amidst all of this utter chaos. It's really hard. It's going to keep being really hard for a while. But I do believe there is a light at the end of this tunnel, we just don't know how long the tunnel is. Or what the light source is. However, I do have a feeling that the bright lights of Broadway will somehow be a contributor.
âStay safe and healthy out there.
Hello faithful blog readers who I have not blessed with a post since early December. Me, taking a long unplanned hiatus from blogging?
But hey, the only people that read this are my friends, my parents, and maybe some of my friends' parents, so you already have buy in!
Anyway, just because I haven't been writing doesn't mean I haven't been consuming content. I've seen some plays, watched some movies, read some books. You know, the usual.
Basically, to make the story really brief, I've been (a) super busy and (b) super uninspired for most of 2020 thus far. I've seen some incredible work that I've really loved, but haven't felt moved to say anything about it. Maybe one day I'll write an in-depth ranking and analysis of all four professional productions of Fiddler on the Roof I've seen, but do you need a white woman to write a think piece about Slave Play?
So, about two weeks ago I was having a Bad Day because, you know, adulthood, so to help me get back into the swing of things and feel better and more inspired, I went to what I venture to claim is, at the very least, in the top five most inspirational places in the entire world- The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
(If you didn't know I was a libra before, do you know now?)
I have a bit of a routine when I go to The Met. First of all, carb load before hand. The Met is huge and requires a lot of standing and walking. You don't want to do this on an empty stomach. Second of all, wear something nice. You don't want to look like shit in front of the artwork. It's disrespectful. Then, when you get there, follow your feet.
Occasionally I'll go to The Met to see a specific exhibit, like the annual costume institute show or because I'm just really craving some 18th century interior design, but usually I just want to be there. The Met is so big and so cavernous that even though I've been there at least six times I know I haven't seen it all. So I usually just go by instinct until I get tired or hungry or the museum closes, whatever comes first.
I've always loved museums, and I know that isn't true for everyone. They can seem cold or inaccessible or boring. So, because I'm a massive nerd and a weirdo who has been inspired by the recent conversation about whether or not you have an internal monologue (I, clearly, have a very verbose one), I decided to stream of conscious journal my internal monologue at The Met in a note in my phone. The following is an unedited excerpt from that note, hence some lapses in grammar and spelling, but annotated to include videos, podcast episodes, and explanations (in bold) where needed. Maybe this can help you fall in love with museums or find a new way to experience art. Or maybe you'll just think I'm even weirder than you already did. All responses are valid. Onto the note:
Awe is a very special feeling
The Buddha seems like a very approachable diety
I should reread siddhartha
How museum layouts preserve or dismantle cultural hegemony (if you don't watch any of the other videos in this blog post please watch the video below, it's amazing)
I wonder how many selfies museum guards see everyday
I’m peak libra right now (for more astrology content add me on costar, @stephaniekane86)
What if I got an art history degree
Is this art or can I sit on it
Imagine art out of context (Okay, it's really bothering me that I don't remember where I heard this idea, but I consumed some content about art where someone smarter then I recommended that when you're observing a piece of art, try to imagine it out of its physical context. For example, imagine a painting on a museum wall on a street vendor's display, or hung up on a fridge, and vice versa. Does it change how you feel about the art if it isn't validated by its presence in an institution? My favorite real world application of this is when people who probably can afford interior designers hang their children's artwork with equal reverence to professional pieces and it puts them in dialogue in a really playful way.)
Would arts education solve all our political problems
Was george Washington more or less attractive than his portraits
Important reminder that the met scene in when Harry Met sally was improvised
Fun museum games: imagine jumping into the paintings a la Mary poppins or talking to them like in Harry Potter (true story, the Harry Potter game is why I fell in love with art museums on elementary school field trips to LACMA)
Making art about war (I think the expanded version of my thought here is about the ethics of making something beautiful out of something so terrible? I don't remember. I also had recently seen 1917.)
What are we but a collection of things we find beautiful (this thought is a direct rip off of the following scene from the Hulu adaption of High Fidelity, which I loved and highly recommend)
^omg stop with your pretentious libra bullshit
Did you know in classical art a nude refers only to a figure without pubic hair (this is a link to an episode of the podcast Stuff Mom Never Told You all about The Female Nude in classical art and it is FASCINATING)
We should talk more about american Impressionism (this is mostly about Mary Cassatt, who has been my favorite artist since first grade. I think it's important that you know that in the first grade I hated Andy Warhol and cried and refused to participate in a project based on his work. I have since come around to Andy Warhol, at least in part because we are both Carnegie Mellon alums!)
How much does an authentic Tiffany lamp go for these days
I would rock an early 20th century silhouette (and I once did, in an 8th grade production of The Music Man)
How is there so much shit at this museum I’ve never seen
Will roll top desks ever come back in style
What if night at the museum took place at the Met
Sound design of museums (okay so most of The Met, aside from some occasional exhibits such as Camp [which had admittedly disappointing sound design. One Judy Garland song over and over again? Come on. Do better.] usually don't incorporate music or sound design, but after I wrote this note I went to the Bill Graham exhibit at the New York Historical Society which has a full soundtrack that you listen to on a provided device that responds to touch points on the walls as you walk through. It was very cool and I would love to see more of this!)
So excited for the music man revival (this was a specific response to an exhibit about musical instruments, and more specifically the section of the exhibit with brass instruments. Also, moving forward, we are getting to the section of the note and my time at The Met where I was clearly tired and under-fed. You have been warned.)
I need to work on my gallery wall
Watching other people take in art
I’m really lucky I live here
Not here for glass elevators
How the fuck did I just walk in a giant circle
I need to get my Tiffany necklace fixed
How the fuck is there so much amazing stuff in open storage always
Really feeling this 18th century Pennsylvania red stone pottery right now
I should find a Groupon for a pottery class
I could live here
I would put porcupine art in my house
There are really only so many ways faces can look
Unfinished paintings are kind of spooky
Mark Twain has great hair
I haven’t seen any weird theatre in a while
Marc Chagall was alive in the 1980s?!?!
Are there any other famous Jewish artists besides Marc Chagall
I want to go back to Paris but like midnight in paris
I need a vacation
I’m so lucky I get to see this
I have ancestors who were contemporaries to every artist in this museum
I should get my film camera fixed
So that, my friend, is how I experienced The Met on that particular day and time. I know this is a theater blog, but I have, in fact, dramaturged a play that takes place in a museum, and I really feel that my love for all art not only informs my dramaturgical practice, but also just makes me a better artist and a better person. I hope this inspires you to look at different art than you usually do or look at art differently than you usually do. And if you ever want to go to The Met, just let me know! I'm a great museum buddy.
Because I am a terrible human being, I didn't see a single play in November.
I KNOW. I'm garbage. I probably won't see anything in December either because the holiday season is TOUGH.*
*why the holiday season is tough: I have less income as a babysitter with kiddos on school vacations, higher spending because of gifts and social events, and ticket prices go through the roof because it's peak tourist season, ya feel?
BUT. The good news is I'm already seeing at least two shows in January. 2020 is gonna be great for the blog, because of this little thing I like to call managing my expectations. For now, here is a review of all the content I enjoyed in November. It finally started to get cold, which is the best time to consume content!
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
In October I had a conversation with one of my most well-read friends, and she told me she never reads old books. After reading The Handmaid's Tale, I understand why. The only reason I picked up the book from the library is, in the simplest terms, because of FOMO. Everyone was freaking out about The Testaments (the long-awaited sequel) and the TV show, and I felt like I just had to bite the bullet and read the book. The thing is, I feel like if I read the book two or three years ago I would have been pretty enthralled by it, but the most enticing thing about it is how fucked up and insane the concept is. Because of the TV show, everyone is aware of the concept, so I wasn't shocked reading about it. There were definitely details that took me aback and Atwood's world building is haunting and very impressive, but I wish I hadn't known as much as I did. Also, nothing really happens in the book. It is very much a peak at the life of Offred, a handmaid enslaved to bare children for a wealthy captain in Gilead, a dystopian and theocratic version of the United States, with a bit of minor excitement towards the end. This confused me because the book is hardly cinematic, so after I finished the book I read the entirety of the TV show's Wikipedia page. I won't be watching it.
Let It Snow by John Green, Maureen Johnson, and Lauren Myracle
Until now, Let It Snow was the only book with any contribution from John Green that I hadn't read. After seeing a trailer for the Netflix film, I decided to give the book a quick read before it came out. The book was delightful- a perfect sampling of three of the best YA authors of the aughts and teens, my prime YA novel consumption period, and possibly the prime YA period of all time (disclaimer: this is a bold and unsubstantiated claim). The book is a compilation of three novellas that all take place in the same small town on Christmas Eve and each story is expertly linked à la Love Actually through small moments and connected characters. It was also very fun to read a book that was obviously written for teenagers in 2008. The characters had iPods and used slang that is (thankfully) out of date. The love stories were adorable and filled me with those early winter warm and fuzzies. All that being said, the movie adaptation was pretty bad. They were only faithful to one of the three novellas (the one by John Green) and the other two were edited so much that they didn't even really make sense. It does feature Joan Cusack though, which is pretty much always a plus.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
I rarely read books by and/or about men, because they are generally not interesting, but I really liked this book! The book opens with the protagonist, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, a godson of an advisor to the Tzar, being brought to trial post-Bolshevik revolution and ultimately spared from the death sentence (his crime: being a social parasite) and instead sentenced to house arrest inside the glamorous Hotel Metropol in the heart of Moscow. The rest of the book spans the next at least three (I may have lost track) decades the Count spends in the hotel, befriending the staff and visitors as he goes on. The play touches on themes of loyalty, friendship, home, and chosen family, and I found the whole thing very sweet and charming. Give me any book where an old man befriends a child though and I'll probably have a good time.
Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino
Trick Mirror is the first book by essayist and current staff writer at The New Yorker, Jia Tolentino, and for the past week and a half or so since I finished reading it I find myself bringing it up in a ridiculous amount of conversations. Tolentino's essays manage to unpack the millennial ethos so intelligently without being condescending, probably because she actually is a millennial, and never before have I gotten so much joy and laughed so hard from being utterly and totally dragged about my buy in to the athleisure industry. Some of my other favorite essays from the book covered topics such as the scams that have shaped our generation and the wedding industrial complex.
Looking for Alaska (Hulu)
Although I read the book Looking for Alaska when I was a sophomore in high school (almost a decade ago now!!! I am old!!!), I don't remember many of the details about the plot. I remember the tragic ending and some of the funnier moments, but mostly I remember the feeling it captured. Watching the TV show felt like walking into a 2005 high school time capsule, which didn't feel that foreign when I read the book as a high schooler in 2010, but felt like a world away as an adult (lol) in 2019. The entire team did an excellent job bringing the book to the screen, and I loved the choice to make a mini series rather than sacrifice anything to fit into a 90 minute to two hour movie. My favorite part of the show were the breakout performances by Denny Love as the Colonel and Jay Lee as Takumi, the protagonist Miles' (Charlie Plummer) best friends at his new boarding school, Culver Creek. I also loved the various adult cast members who played parents, teachers, and school administrators, and felt that the audience gained a lot of perspective about them that are a bit unattainable in a novel that is narrated by a 15-year-old boy. To be perfectly honest, I did not love Kristine Forsith's portrayal of Alaska, the titular character who Miles falls for rather obsessively, but I think it is impossible to please everyone when bringing a character from the page to the screen. She simply was not the Alaska I imagined.
Modern Love (Amazon)
Boy am I an absolute sucker for any Modern Love related content. For those of you living under a rock or for whatever reason not captivated by true love stories, Modern Love is a New York Times column featuring essays about the many different ways people experience love. It has been spun off into books, podcasts, and now, finally, a TV show. It is very cute, as well as being at times heartbreaking, thoughtful, and hilarious. Each episode is based on a different essay and features a bunch of Really Famous People that don't have the time to devote to full TV Shows, such as Anne Hathaway, Tina Fey, Dev Patel, and Andrew Scott. While I genuinely loved each story, the ones that have stuck with me the longest are Episode 3: Take Me as I Am, Whoever I Am, featuring Anne Hathaway navigating life and dating with bipolar disorder, Episode 4: Rallying to Keep the Game Alive, with Tina Fey and John Slattery as a couple whose marriage might be over, and Episode 7: Hers Was a World of One, featuring everyone's favorite hot priest Andrew Scott and Brandon Kyle Goodman as a gay couple looking for a surrogate. All of the episodes are really lovely and each only about 25 minutes, so if you're ever feeling down about the world take some time and be cheered up!
Aside from the gooey cheesy deliciousness that is Modern Love, my other favorite thing about it was the setting. At risk of invoking the most cliché phrase in the history of stories that take place in New York, it felt like New York was a character in and of itself. Modern Love really couldn't take place anywhere else, and it made me fall in love a little bit more deeply with this city I call home every single episode. You can go throw up now.
Atypical tells the story of the Sam Gardner (Keir Gilchrist), a young man with autism, and his family. It is probably the only show I've ever seen that portrays autism realistically. Sam is not Forrest Gump (lovable but stupid) or Rain Man (obnoxious but a genius). He's a teenager on the cusp of adulthood with all the same goals and desires of other teenagers, just with the added complication of living with autism. I love this show so much, not just for the portrayal of Sam but also of the impact autism has on his parents and his younger sister, Casey (Bridgette Lundy-Paine) who, along with Sam's co-worker and best friend Zahid (Nik Dodani), is my favorite character. This season focused on Sam's first semester of college, Casey's increasingly complicated personal life, and his parents rekindling their relationship. My only critique of this season is I feel like they're drawing out the parents plot line too much and I'm getting pretty bored of it. Otherwise, I loved watching Sam navigate college and growing up. It's a really lovely and heart warming show and I highly recommend it, especially to anyone whose lives have been touched by autism.
The day after Thanksgiving, I went to a movie theatre for the first time since August (I unwillingly saw The Lion King remake and it was absolutely tragic) to see Frozen II. I went in with almost no expectations, especially considering that the trailer is incredibly vague and mostly just adventure-y, and, dear reader, I ask you to do the same. Since everyone who reads this blog probably has my contact information, please let me know what you thought if you've seen it. All I will say is, it's on this list for a reason.
And that's all for my November highlights. December is gonna be a great month for reading/watching/listening to things because not only is it dark and freezing out all the time, but I'm cat-sitting AND dog-sitting back to back so I will have nothing but time to watch TV on other people's couches! I'll let you all know what I thought in 2020 and until then... maybe I'll blog more. Who knows?
So this is a theatre blog. I know that, you know that. BUT I am a lover of all things narrative, regardless of form. I prefer some forms to others (and in college did play fuck/marry/kill where the options were theatre, film, and television), but it is important to me that, as a theatre practitioner, I stay abreast of what's going on in literature, television, and film as well. Good storytelling is good storytelling, and of course the best playwrights and actors work across stage and screen, so I like to keep up.
That being said, there are only so many hours in a day! I have other stuff to do! I spend so many hours consuming content and I simply cannot see everything. I'm doing my best to prioritize (spreadsheets are involved) and not just rewatch my favorite episodes of Friends and New Girl over and over again.
So I've decided that once a month on my blog I will recap the non-theatrical content I've been enjoying. I know you've all been wondering what I, a taste-maker, have been watching, reading, and listening to this month. So here goes nothing!
Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
I know what you're thinking- 'what is this, 2014?' Well we all get to be late to the party about some things, and I'm sorry I wasn't in your mom's book club during my freshman year of college when I was busy reading other things. Anyway, this month I finally read Big Little Lies, mostly because everyone is obsessed with the TV show and I don't have HBO (though if anyone wants to hook me up with the password that would be great) and now when people ask me about it I get to have a brief moment of superiority where I say, "Oh, no, I haven't seen it, but I've read the book." See also: why I am currently reading The Handmaid's Tale.
Anyway, I really enjoyed Big Little Lies! I don't usually read mysteries and I really enjoy that this one centered around a group of women with a diversity of life experiences. I also genuinely didn't see the ending coming, which was great. ALSO did you know this book takes place in the suburbs of Sydney? I assumed it took place in the States because of the TV show. I also learned that I do not have a diversity of Australian accents in my imagination so it was really hard for me to give the characters different voices in my head.
Beloved by Toni Morrison
I know, another instance of Stephanie being WAY late to the party, but I'm sorry my high school reading curriculum involved, as far as I can remember, zero (0) books by women of color*, so I'm playing catch up on a lot of seminal texts at the moment!
I went into this book relatively blind, knowing only that it deals with the aftermath of slavery and won the Pulitzer Prize, so I was prepared to be wrecked. Little did I know that this is a ghost story??? I don't really think that's a spoiler, I just think I'm a dummy. It was a really incredible read and put me in a slightly spooky (important: not scary) mood. It also takes place in the after math of the Civil War, which is a period of time I have not read much about and shed light on the harrowing realties of an entire community learning to exist in a nation that was founded on the principle that they are not actually human beings. All in all, a very heavy read with a huge touch of ghostiness.
*Just remembered that we read The Joy Luck Club as our pre-9th grade summer reading assignment. That's all I got though.
Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win by Jo Piazza
And now we confront one of my ongoing problems with reading as an adult- grown-up books are about grown-up problems. Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win is the story of the titular Charlotte, a Silicon Valley exec, who decides to return to her home state of Pennsylvania to run for Senate in the 2018 midterm elections. Unlike the other books I read this month, this book is solidly grounded in the very recent past and definitely did not provide a sense of escapism that I so often look for in a good book. The book begins with Charlotte hiring a campaign manager and ends on election night and takes so many twists and turns along the way as she and her opponent, the cartoonishly villainous Republican Senator Ted Slaughter, come after each other with personal jabs through out the election cycle. I enjoyed some of the wild revelations, but at the end of the day, I didn't love reading a book about a female politician being publicly humiliated. There's a reason I don't go on twitter anymore.
Additionally, the book was really more about Charlotte's challenging relationship with her husband Max. You find out early on in the book that Max has cheated on Charlotte in the past, and one of the reasons he is putting his whole life on hold to be a stay-at-home dad to their three daughters and support the campaign is because, essentially, he owes her. This brings me back to my ongoing problem about grown-up books being about grown-up problems. I'm too old for the YA books that filled my shelves in middle and high school (although tbh I still have The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and The Fault in Our Stars in my room), but so much of literary fiction is about proper adults. Not beginner adults, like yours truly. Oh well.
Big Mouth is a show I really should hate, but I absolutely love. I am generally biased against animated TV shows geared towards adults (examples of shows I cannot stand: The Simpsons, Family Guy, South Park), but when I saw the cast and creative team for Big Mouth I decided to give it a chance and now, three seasons in, I am still hooked. For those of you who don't know, Big Mouth focuses on 7th graders Nick (Nick Kroll), Andrew (John Mulaney), and Jessi (Jessi Klein) as the navigate the trials and tribulations of puberty, aided by their hormone monsters (Nick Kroll and Maya Rudolph). The first two seasons deal with more of the textbook puberty issues- periods, masturbation, first kisses, etc- so by season three we are delving into some more complicated issues, such as dress codes, cell phone addiction, and coming out.
My favorite episodes of the season were Episode 7: Duke, in which we find out the back story of The Ghost of Duke Ellington (Jordan Peele), who lives as a ghost in Nick's attic, alongside a very unique explanation of World War I and Episode 10: Disclosure the Movie: The Musical, in which the gang works on their school musical while Coach Steve (Nick Kroll) gets a makeover from the Queer Eye Fab Five, who were parodied flawlessly.
I finally finished Portlandia (only a year and a half late)! Portlandia is a sketch comedy show starring and created by Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, who play a series of reoccuring characters who are over the top parodies of Portland residents, including owners of a feminist bookstore, local goths, and overly competitive outdoorsmen types. The final season featured all the old favorite characters and a whole bunch of incredible guest stars, including Tracee Ellis Ross as a photo booth coach, John Mulaney and Nick Kroll as their characters from Oh, Hello!, and John Corbett as himself. Additionally, in the series finale we finally learn the backstory of Portland's beloved mayor, played by Kyle McLachlan, and it involves my fellow CMU grad and Tony and Emmy Award winner Cherry Jones playing a creepy witch who lives under a bridge.
In the interest of being perfectly honest, I think it's important you know that I've never been to Portland. I still find the show hilarious because so many of the characters would feel at home in any other hipster neighborhood in America, but I'm sure I am missing out on some Portland specific references. All I know about Portland is that one of my friends who moved there said all the things that made her interesting in other places she's lived were completely normal in Portland, so there's that.
Controversial opinion, but I LOVED The Politician. It was like film noir, Wes Anderson, and the camp exhibit at the Met had a baby, put it up for adoption, and had it raised by Ryan Murphy and I was here for every second of it. Is some of the writing clunky? Yes. Was the fact that Ben Platt's character an incredible singer and musician justified or necessary? No. Does the art department deserve every single award? Yes.
Honestly, I really enjoyed watching this show because it clearly had a very strong stylistic point of view and it felt like the cast and creative team were all on the same page about what that was. I understand that highly stylized television isn't everyone's thing and can often feel alienating, but I really enjoyed watching it. The first seven episodes focus on a student council election at a fancy Southern California high school where things are taken all together too seriously by presidential candidate Payton (Ben Platt) and his campaign team (Laura Dreyfuss, Julia Schlaepfer, and Theo Germaine). They employ every trick in the book to ensure they win the election, mirroring the questionable moral choices (if not downright evil choices) currently at play in American politics. However, grounding it in a high school eliminates the reality of partisan issues while still asking big questions about identity politics and the ethics of campaigning in this day and age. Additionally, the final episode dangles Judith Light, Bette Middler, and the promise of an amazing season two in front of our faces and I am ready.
I listen to a lot of podcasts because I can't read on buses (I can read on subways) and I take at least eight crosstown buses a week because I babysit two different kids who go to school on the Upper East Side. I'm not nearly as loyal to podcasts as I am to TV shows so here are a few of the podcasts I've loved this month:
(I do feel bad about not watching movies. One day when I have disposable income I will get AMC Stubs or something but for now I can't add another monthly expense to the list! Unlike literally every other millenial/Gen z-er, I actually pay for all my own streaming services.)
Stay tuned for next month! I'm already almost done with The Handmaid's Tale and the Looking for Alaska mini series on Hulu so there's gonna be loads to talk about.
For those of you who know me, you probably are not shocked that I'm using my theatre blog to discuss my other favorite topic- climate change. Let me explain.
The climate crisis (more accurate to call it that than simply "change") occupies my thoughts more or less all day, every day, and dictates how I live my life. I'm vegan because it is the single biggest thing an individual can do to lower their carbon footprint. I only buy second hand (or occasionally ethically produced) clothing because the fast fashion industry is one of the world's largest polluters and perpetrators of modern slavery. I avoid single use plastic whenever I can, which is difficult but gets easier with practice. I even have a sustainability Instagram (@sustainablysteph if you're interested) where I talk about the small steps I make in my life to be more sustainable.
I'm not telling you all of this to brag or assert that I'm doing The Most when it comes to slowing the climate crisis, because I'm not, not even close. This is just to build context for what I want to write about today.
Last week I participated in a short play festival at The Workshop Theater, where I am a staff dramaturg. I stepped into the role of playwright for the evening with my short play "The Specimen," about a man and woman that meet in the middle of nowhere in the aftermath of a climate apocalypse. The inspiration word for the festival of 20 minute or less two-handers was "environment," so naturally a lot of the plays had similar themes. Friday evening I saw pieces about the EPA confronting super heroes, two women resorting to murder to fertilize their degraded soil, and a conversation between a tree and an ant in the Amazon rainforest, rife with metaphor and political implications for our times.
I'm not going to critique my piece or the pieces shown alongside mine- that feels wildly inappropriate. Instead, I am going to extrapolate my experience to pose a broader question: are all plays climate change plays?
When I was a freshman in drama school one of the absolute first things we learned about script analysis was the given circumstances. The given circumstances are anything you can learn about the world of the play based on the text alone. According to the very tattered, water damaged, and post-it note filled script analysis textbook I still have, the given circumstances one should look for are:
So, time and place are two of the simpler given circumstances to pin down. As you move through the list, things get more difficult to ascertain and sometimes can seem absent from a script. Not all plays are explicitly political, or deal with economics or education or spirituality in a literal or outward facing way.
(It will probably tell you something about me that the first example of a political play that popped into my head was The Pajama Game, everyone's favorite 1954 Tony Award Winning Best Musical that focuses on a love story that crosses the picket line of a labor strike.)
Anyway, not all plays or musicals feature, for example, a main character tearing a Nazi flag in half, but have messages of equality, inclusivity, or defeating evil that could lead you to make political conclusions about the piece.
However, one of the most important things I learned freshmen year about given circumstances, the single sentence that shook me to my core as a 17-year-old babe and still impacts how I approach textual analysis is this:
The absence of any given circumstance can be as significant as its presence.
Is your mind blown yet? Let me dive deeper.
Do you have any friends or family members in your life that claim to not care about politics or choose not to get involved in political discussions? Choosing not to engage in political discourse or action is a political stance. It's a stupid political stance, but it's still a stance. In general, you can learn a lot about a person's other given circumstances through this lack of a political circumstance. For example, they're probably of a certain level of social and economic privilege that allows them to disengage because the outcome of the political sphere doesn't have an obvious or immediate impact on them. Or it could reflect the society they were raised in or their faith community (#jehovahswitnesses).
Just like your friend who doesn't engage in politics, plays or musicals that don't engage in politics are taking a political stance as well. I'm not saying that every single show has to tackle a singular issue, à la The Prom, or literally be a story about politics like Hamilton, but even in Mean Girls there's a line or two about the importance of consent. As I type this I realize that the mere fact that the importance of consent is political is truly atrocious and we live in WILD times, but you get the point.
The climate crisis is political, societal, economic, and contributes to the sense of time and place of a piece. It's truly the issue to end all issues because until we figure this one out nothing else really matters. Wars, famine, healthcare, inequality, and any other social or political issue you can think of are all just going to get worse as our world warms and we face natural disaster worse than any we've encountered so far. SO when I see a play or musical that exists in a magical fantasy land where the climate crisis isn't even REMOTELY addressed, I get concerned.
This doesn't mean I think every single play needs to address the crisis head on. There are other stories to tell and topics to tackle in our industry, and I am not entirely opposed to pure escapism. And yet, we still can do better.
For example, a few walks ago I saw Freestyle Love Supreme, a night of improvised hip hop sprung from the brain of Lin-Manuel Miranda and his collaborators that truly made every other improv show I've ever seen look like child's play. The night that I was there the team actually did improvise a rap about climate change (and it wasn't even my suggestion, I promise), but that's not why I knew that the team behind the show cared. I knew they cared because every single performer on that stage had a reusable water bottle.
This, dear reader, is huge. How many times have you been to a reading or a panel or some other less formal presentation of a work and seen every single person on stage holding a fucking Poland Spring single use plastic water bottle??? Probably every time! And it's bullshit because everyone uses reusable water bottles nowadays! And if you, yes you, dear reader, are not currently using a reusable water bottle, what the fuck is wrong with you? They're on sale at TJ Maxx literally all the time. Buy one, let it live in your backpack, and never by a water bottle again because bottled water is literally a fucking conspiracy unless you live in Flint, Michigan, in which case obviously I am not digitally yelling at you. The rest of you though, please stop fucking around and get a water bottle.
So all that is to say, thank you, Freestyle Love Supreme, for giving a shit. These are the things I pay attention to when I see theatre. Theatre is, unfortunately, an inherently wasteful industry. What makes theatre so beautiful and one of the things I love about it so much is its ephemerality, but by nature that leads to waste.
Years ago I read an article (that I'm trying to find but can't which is sad because it was very good) about a new artistic director of a theatre company (I think in Seattle?) who had made her career as a scenic designer, which is super cool because usually artistic directors are directors, dramaturgs, producers, or career arts administrators. Anyway, one of the things she discussed in the article was how her own vocation, scenic design, is both the most wasteful and most unnecessary aspect of theatre. She argued that scenic design is the most culturally specific design element and often times what is achieved through a set can be achieved through light and sound (which are usually digital) in a more inclusive way. Due to the suspension of disbelief necessary for an audience to accept that they are watching people stand in front of them experiencing something genuine, we can achieve a lot by doing very little. In contrast, if you go to the movie theatre and at the top of the film are met with a black screen merely featuring the words POLAND, 1939, you're gonna be pissed off if you see so much as a digital watch at any point in the next two hours. However, if an actor walks on stage wearing a black shirt and jeans and puts a cardboard sign that says POLAND, 1939, on the edge of the stage, your imagination will fill in the blanks anyway. No further scenic design necessary.
Before my scenic designer friends come for me, I'm not calling for the end of all scenic design. I have so much respect for scenic designers and the work that they do often is super important and beautiful and joyful and helpful to the creative process and to building a world for the characters to live in and for the audience to enjoy. But I am asking us, as an industry, to be more considerate of our impact. Unless you're fucking Phantom of the Opera, your set is, more or less, single use. Before you know it the pieces will be torn down and likely discarded. How can we be better? Where can we use recycled materials and how can we repurpose the materials we've used once we're done? I know there are people and institutions doing the good work on this front already, so if you're working in the scenic arts please make it a priority to find out what systems your institution has in place to cut down on your impact. If there isn't anything in place, start a Green Team! Do your part. So many people are already doing really cool and creative things with sets after a show closes.
Jennifer Wheeler Kahn, a stage manager on Broadway and around the country, channeled her passion for theatre and green/ethical fashion into an amazing company called Scenery Bags, which recycles theatrical curtains and backdrops and makes them into purses. They're really beautiful pieces (not super tacky I LOVE THEATRE emblazoned Playbill patterned tote bags, don't worry), and they've kept over 16,000 pounds of material out of landfills. Additionally, they donate a portion of their proceeds to TDF so students can see Broadway shows. Amazing!
P.S. You can buy bags made from the material Billy Porter used in his Tony's look. You can own that. Think about it.
The mindset of reducing waste shouldn't just apply to scenic designers. Everyone has their part to play. Costume and makeup designers- is there an alternative to body glitter that doesn't mean chorus members are washing microplastics into our oceans eight post-show showers a week? Sound designers and technicians- will we ever find a way to water proof a mic pac that isn't double wrapping it in condoms? Does your theatre have a recycling program for Playbills or offer digital programs? Playwrights- is your token environmentalist and/or vegan character just the butt of a joke with no personality?
Sorry, that last one was personal. It's true though! Aside from the terrifying First Reformed, starring Ethan Hawke and Amanda Seyfried, I cannot think of a single movie or TV show where a climate activist isn't a dirty hippie or a laughing stock. I was watching The Politician on Netflix and a minor character told her mom she wanted to go vegan and her mom told her not to because she already has enough trouble making friends. I make fun of myself for being vegan all the time, because I am ridiculous, but it's 2019! Can it stop being a joke to care about the planet?
This blog post ended up being a rant about waste in the industry more so than about the content of plays. But if you didn't get my point thus far, the answer to the question I posed earlier is yes, all plays are climate change plays. It is on all of us as theatre practitioners to be better in terms of the stories we tell and how we choose to tell them. Let's be better.
For more info on this topic, please peruse the Howlround series, Theatre in the Age of Climate Change.
Irresponsible Storytelling, or, Just Because Something is Based on a True Story Doesn't Mean It's a Good Play
Content Warning: This blog post discusses rape and sexual assault.
Last Friday night, the night after I was absolutely gutted by Hadestown (see previous post for more details), I was in for a very different theatrical experience.
On Friday evening I saw the play When It Happens to You by Tawni O'Dell, described as the writer's "theatrical memoir. " The play is based on the true experience of Tawni's daughter Tirzah's rape and the aftermath, and how the trauma impacted their entire family for years.
Let me start by saying this. If I had not done literally, the bare minimum of research to find out what the play I was seeing was about, I would have walked into the theatre having no idea that rape was mentioned in the play, nonetheless the crux of the entire piece. This is the exact marketing blurb from their website:
"Based on her personal experience, Tawni O’Dell’s theatrical memoir, When It Happens to You, is about a mother’s struggle to help restore a sense of safety and wholeness to her family after her daughter was the victim of a brutal attack. It’s a journey that continues to this day, nearly five years since she received that middle of the night phone call every parent dreads."
The website also has one quote from the play that says that Tawni's daughter was assaulted and goes on to say: "Rape touches just about every one of us. More women are sexually assaulted in this country than are affected by heart disease and breast cancer combined. To say it is an epidemic, is not hyperbole."
If this fact, that rape is an epidemic that touches every one of us, is something the writer and the production team know to be true, than how on earth could they be so irresponsible in their storytelling? Let me illuminate this topic with a play by play of my theatre going experience:
When I walked into the theatre, I picked up my ticket from will call and was directed towards an usher. The usher handed me a program, let me know that they play was 90 minutes with no intermission (thank God, I thought), and pointed me towards my seat. I sat down and began to read the program. There was no program note, which is common, but in this case I found completely unacceptable. This is a play that deals with violent sexual assault and rape, which I knew from the website, not from any sort of lobby display, verbal communication from box office staff or ushers, or from any written communication in the program. While I am not surprised at the lack of a program note, I am completely shocked that there was no content warning, or, at the BARE MINIMUM, a phone number for a rape crisis hotline.
The fact that this play is based on a true story and deals with not only the trauma of the rape, but the trauma of going through the court system, the medical system, health insurance, employment, dating again, etc, makes it that much worse! There is a line in the play where Tawni says she is so grateful that she was there to help Tirzah navigate the medical and legal system because so many people don't have that support and are left to figure it out (or not figure it out) all on their own. And Tirzah's case was, for lack of a better word, straightforward. She was violently assaulted by a stranger who followed her home from a restaurant, and they were able to use security footage to verify this. This is not common and often time rape cases are stuck in the system for years because of the rape kit backlog. So many people are never locked up for the crime they commit.
I find it truly difficult to respond and reflect on a play that didn't take responsibility for the safety of their audience members. I, thankfully, was not triggered by the story being told, but found myself so concerned for my fellow audience members that I was completely disengaged and disconnected from the story being told. I knew that so many people sitting around me were crying, and I can only imagine why. Maybe they were being moved by the story being told because of their empathy for the characters. However, as is pointed out in the play's closing monologue, one in four women have been sexually assaulted, and that is a low estimate. Tawni literally looks out into the audience and says (I'm paraphrasing), "If you know four women, you know someone who has been raped. It could be your mom, sister, friend, (etc etc) or the woman sitting next to you right now."
IF YOU ARE SAYING TO THE AUDIENCE THAT ONE IN FOUR WOMEN IN THIS THEATRE HAVE BEEN RAPED AND YOU ARE NOT PROVIDING SUPPORT FOR THEM THEN WHAT ARE YOU EVEN DOING?!?!?!
I retained hope. I thought maybe I would walk out of the theater after curtain call and see a table with a counselor sitting behind it, or be handed a pamphlet with phone numbers, websites, and other resources. But no. I just walked out. Amongst a bunch of tearful people whose feelings were not being supported.
I should probably write them a strongly worded email. The play is running through November 10, so they still have time to make a program insert!
Anyway, I should say some nice things, even though not only was the play irresponsible, but it wasn't a very good play. This is a thing that I'm probably not allowed to say, because it's based on a true story, but not all true stories should be plays. Or rather, if a true story is going to be made into a play, you need to be comfortable sacrificing some truth to make the play good.
This is not the first time I've sat through something based on a true event and had people around me crying and I just sat there upset because the play is bad. You can't just turn off your dramaturgy brain!*
*Dramaturgy brain can only be turned off if Harry Potter is involved.
Okay! A compliment! Kelly Swint did a really wonderful job playing the incredibly difficult and emotionally taxing role of Tirzah. Her first scene of the play is her sobbing hysterically in the aftermath of her rape. This is, in my opinion, not a great first moment, but I understand it. Swint played Tirzah with so much compassion and nuance and really demonstrated such a full emotional spectrum in the span of the play. Additionally, Tawni O'Dell is clearly a skilled writer. There were many moments of the play where I thought to myself that if I was reading it as a memoir alone in my room I probably would also be crying. I'm not heartless. I just couldn't allow myself to be vulnerable in that space because of the lack of support.
So, if you or a loved one is a survivor of rape or sexual assault, please call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) or visit www.rainn.org. You are not alone.
Hello faithful readers who, along with the reading of classic plays, I have abandoned for the past eight months. What have I been up to, you ask? Here's a quick highlights reel:
But God, I'm a dramaturg. And a dramaturg... enjoys writing and talking and thinking about plays. And even if no one ever reads this blog, the whole point of it is to keep my writing and talking and thinking about plays skills sharp. And even if I haven't done a great job of tackling the long list of classic titles that are nagging at the back of my brain saying, "Stephanie!! You STILL haven't read Waiting for Godot??? Or Angels in America??? When the BFA police find out they are going to rescind your degree!" I still love theatre and I still see it and think about it critically. So I'm throwing rules to the wind! And I'm writing about whatever I want now!
Well, that's not entirely accurate. It's still a theatre blog. I think I might talk about other arts and culture topics but I'm not gonna do a crazy 180 and talk about, I don't know, sports or something. Because everyone knows theatre people ALL HATE SPORTS.
The first topic of my new, laissez-faire blogging style is the winner of the 2019 Tony Award for Best Musical, Hadestown, because I know you all care so much about my opinion of a musical that has already achieved critical and commercial success without my two cents.
This is not a review. I'm not a critic. I don't feel comfortable calling this a review. Let's call it... a reflection.
I think I was destined to like Hadestown because when they won the Tony for Best Musical whoever was accepting the award (I'm trying desperately to find a video and I can't!) gave a shoutout to their dramaturg, Ken Cerniglia, which is literally one of my ultimate career goals. So although I had a feeling I would like it, what I didn't realize was how much I would like it.
The show opens rather abruptly, with the house lights dimming and the entire cast rushing to take their spots on the stage. The band is onstage with them, and the space they occupy looks like it once was a beautiful cafe but has become decrepit with time. For whatever reason, it still serves as the space for these people to gather and tell the story of Orpheus (Reeve Carney) and Eurydice (Tony Nominee Eva Noblezada) night after night. Hermes (normally played by Tony Winner André De Shields, I saw swing T. Oliver Reid, who was fantastic) begins the show by taking his place at the old-fashioned standing mic downstage right and introducing all the characters. I was, more or less, hooked.
As one would hope for a musical, I was immediately captured by the music. Let me make one thing clear, I love musicals. I love them so much. They are one of my all time favorite ways to tell a story. That being said, I don't sit around in my apartment an listen to cast albums. They usually aren't really my jam. In middle school and high school I did but then I went to drama school and had to be pretentious so I stopped.
Okay, that's a little unfair. I didn't have to be pretentious, but going to drama school is why I stopped listening to cast albums. It felt too much like doing homework in my spare time. I also decided to stop listening to cast albums of shows I hadn't seen yet so I would experience the full dramatic impact of the music the way it is most optimally experienced. And let me tell you my friends, this was a great decision. I managed to avoid the Hamilton cast album for six months after it dropped so I could hear it for the first time in the Richard Rodgers Theater.
Also, wow, I am so privileged. One of the reasons I listened to cast albums so much as a kid was because I lived in California and cast albums do so much to make theatre actually accessible to so many people. So I'm not saying you shouldn't listen to them. This is what works for me. Also if you're a musical theatre history nerd like me read this great article about how Oklahoma! revolutionized the cast album.
ANYWAY, so when I heard the first song from my seat in the Walter Kerr I was so happy because I actually loved the music. I'm literally listening to the cast album right now. Anaïs Mitchell did something really difficult in that she wrote songs that, in my opinion, are really beautiful and enjoyable outside of the context of the story but also move the plot forward. This is something that Rodgers and Hammerstein really excelled at, and they wrote musicals for decades. This is Mitchell's first musical in her career primarily as a folk singer-songwriter. Folk songs generally lean more towards having a narrative structure then say, pop songs, but it still is mind-blowingly difficult to write a musical and I want to honor that.
Also, I wish I new more about music to speak about this with more nuance, but instead, I'm going to introduce you to a concept created be my roommate Hanna and myself that we use to categorize musical theatre songs. I apologize to the BFA police in advance.
When it comes to listening to musical theatre songs outside of the context of their cast album, I am generally looking for the song to fall into one of two categories. Is it a banger or a baby maker?
Allow me to explain.
A banger is a song that you can move to. In the theatre you can't help but tap your toe or move your body in some unnecessarily constrained way that the social contract of the high brow arts world asks of us. It's a song that you can't help but belt in your car or sing in your shower. It's a song that will be covered by amateur theatre troupes in cabarets with subpar tap routines for years to come. And, most importantly, it's a song that you can dab to.
There is a rule though- not every musical has a banger (for example, although I love Mr. Stephen Sondheim, that man does not write bangers) and there can only be ONE banger in each musical. Some have secondary or even tertiary bangers, but there can only be one true banger per show. Thems the rules.
Examples of bangers include "On the Right Track" from Pippin, "Take Me or Leave Me" from Rent, and "Totally Fucked" from Spring Awakening. Here's a link to the playlist, although it needs a bit of cleanup and an update.
Hadestown has at least a primary banger ("Livin' it Up on Top") and a secondary banger ("Way Down Hadestown"). Feel free to argue with me in the comments. I'm also feeling "Chant" as potentially a tertiary banger but that seems controversial.
A baby maker, on the other hand, is simply a song that would make you want to make a baby with someone. Here's a playlist with some examples, including Aaron Tveit singing "If I Loved You" from Carousel, "Something Good" from The Sound of Music, and "Ten Minnutes Ago" from Cinderella. What can I say, Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote some stellar baby makers. The real question, though, is whether or not "The Lonely Goatherd" from The Sound of Music is a banger. Think about it.
I will add the disclaimer that Hanna and I are both women who are attracted to men, so that definitely skews our taste in baby makers. That being said, different strokes for different folks. So while I think "Wedding Song" or mabye "Epic III" is the baby maker of Hadestown, I think there are definitely arguments to be made for "Hey Little Songbird," if you're into that sort of thing. Hades (played by Tony Nominee Patrick Page) does have, and I cannot emphasize this enough, a deep voice.
In addition to the music, I am obsessed with Tony Nominee David Neumann's choreography. I think it's really telling that he, like Anaïs Mitchell, doesn't work predominantly in theatre. What I loved so much about his work on Hadestown was that the choreography was so consistently motivated by the intensity of the characters' emotions and was so integrated into the storytelling, alongside the music, lyrics, and design elements. It was another piece woven into the intricate story being told, and not a layer on top of everything else that serves primarily to be impressive, à la Casey Nicholaw's NOT Tony nominated #dancerfirst choreography in The Prom. Don't get me wrong, I love some kick yourself in the face while you belt your tits off ridiculous musical theatre choreography as much as the next nerd, but it doesn't always serve a story telling function beyond just being really cool. Just take a look at the difference between the two show's Tony performances:
It might not be super clear from the four and a half minute video, but imagine watching that for upwards of two hours. I was exhausted just watching that ensemble! Now let's compare that to Hadestown:
s sAdmittedly, this performance is more about lamp-ography then choreography, but I think it's still representative of the movement vocabulary employed in the show and the integration of the choreography with the other story telling elements (in this case, obviously lighting and scenic design).
This segues naturally into some of the things I loved about the design elements of the show. The team created a really cohesive steampunk-esque world for the characters to play in. Also, I don't really know what steampunk is, but the use of diegetic lighting (like in "Wait for Me") reminded me of the National Theatre production of Frankenstein with Benedict Cumberbatch, and everyone called that steampunk, so I'm running with it. Wikipedia calls the setting of Hadestown "Great Depression-era inspired post-apocalyptic," and that works, too!
It definitely was evocative of a more DIY style of theatre then is present on a lot of Broadway stages, with the actors using simple tables and chairs to represent different locations and operating handheld lanterns through out the show. The three wonderful actresses who portrayed The Fates also played instruments, and I LOVE when actors play instruments. Give me a quadruple threat any day of the week! Michael Krass' Tony-nominated costume designs looked handmade and thrifted, but by someone who is REALLY good at thrifting, and Rachel Hauck's Tony-winning scenic design held the entire thing together. I will say her design was definitely the least DIY because it featured literally a TRIPLE revolve turn table and the middle revolve was an elevator trap door so, it doesn't really get less DIY then that. But I digress. It was great.
Before I sign off on this ridiculous rant about musical theatre/love letter to Hadestown, I just want to add my favorite moment of the night. I was in the fourth row (thanks Mom!) so I had an excellent up close view of everything happening on stage, including Persephone's (Tony Nominee Amber Gray) zipper breaking early on in act one (shoutout to whichever dresser fixed that in the like two minutes she was offstage). But no, that was not my favorite moment of the night. My favorite moment was early on in act two, after Orpheus battles his way down to Hell to bring Eurydice home, Reeve Carney got a nosebleed. At first I thought it was part of the show, because he did have some scars and such from his journey to the underworld. But after some aggressive googling and comparing notes with friends who saw the show, I concluded it definitely was a real nosebleed. I watched Reeve Carney wipe his forearm across his nose, see that it was covered in blood, and just keep on doing his job up there. A second shoutout to whoever cleaned all that blood up in the two seconds he's offstage during that act. God, I LOVE live theatre.
Okay I feel like it's not fair to say that was my favorite moment because it was so outside of the control of any of the artists involved. My actual favorite thing about Hadestown wasn't that I'm obsessed with the cast album or the choreography or how integrated the whole production was. My favorite thing about Hadestown was that even though the story is so well known, and most people who know a thing or two about Greek mythology would know that Orpheus and Eurydice do not have a happy ending, I was on the edge of my seat until the last moment. It felt like I'd never heard this story before and that it was actually possible for these two people to change their fate. To quote Hermes, as he brings the story to a close, the beauty of music and of Orpheus' song is that it can "make you see how the world could be/in spite of the way that it is." The cast rejoins him onstage, in the same costumes and settings as the top of the show, and they prepare to tell the story again, because maybe this time, it could have a happy ending.
Now go see some live theatre. For more Hadestown content, please enjoy this article about their seven-foot-tall chorus member.
As you may have surmised by the title of this post, I am not an Edward Albee fan girl. I feel weirdly guilty about it, especially since he's dead. I feel like I HAVE to adore his work, and I do really like Three Tall Women (still bummed I didn't see the recent revival) and definitely appreciate the magnitude of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, but for whatever reason I've just never had the ardent respect and admiration of Albee that I've felt towards Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, for example. I blame too early an exposure to his Pulitzer Prize winning play Seascape, which was much too avant garde for high school Stephanie.
So when I read A Delicate Balance I didn't know what to expect. Even though it is also a Pulitzer Prize winner (one of three [almost four] for Albee), I had honestly never heard of it before I was asked to dramaturg a reading of it this coming weekend. Of course I said yes because I (a) am incapable of saying no and (b) am not in a position to say no to any theatrical endeavors. So, I checked the play out from the library and jumped into reading it without so much as reading the description on the back of the book.
Where to begin? Well, the play takes place in "the living room of a large and well-appointed suburban house. Now." First of all, LOVE a good assertion of timelessness in the setting. Very pretentious, but I'm here for it. I feel like nowadays we love looking at older plays and being like, "Wow, this could have been written today!" But in 1966 Albee was like, "I'm gonna write a play and forever and ever people are gonna produce it and say, 'Wow, this could have been written today!'"
The suburban house belongs to Tobias and Agnes, a wealthy middle-aged couple. Agnes' alcoholic sister Claire lives with them and on the evening of the play's events they are joined by their daughter Julia, newly separated from her fourth husband, and their best friends Harry and Edna, who show up unannounced after having been gripped by terror in their own home.
In true Albee fashion, the rest of the play is the five of them getting drunk and being horrible to each other. It's very well-written rich people getting drunk and being horrible to each other though!
After reading the play I proceeded to actually read the description on the back as well as some critical responses, and this is where I learned that the play is described as a "dark comedy?!?!?!?" I assumed Claire was a funny role because she was played by Elaine Stritch in the '96 Lincoln Center production, but based solely on a read and not having heard it out loud yet (rehearsal for the reading is in a few days), this play is not funny. It's definitely a downer.
Side note: in college we read 'night mother, famous for being INCREDIBLY depressing, and one of my friends brought up in the class discussion that he thought it was a comedy and when literally the entire class disagreed he was like, "I assume all plays are comedies until proven otherwise." Is that how anyone else on the planet reads plays? I feel like I assume all plays aren't comedies unless proven otherwise. Including comedies.
BACK TO THE PLAY: It's not super plot heavy so I don't feel the need to comment on the events of the play, but aside from the given circumstances of implied ~timelessness~ I was really intrigued by Albee's use of stage directions. I know, Stephanie loves stage directions, what else is new, but really, he uses them in a very specific way in this text. He doesn't include many large chunks of stage direction describing setting or the grand sense of the play but almost every single line of dialogue has an acting note on delivery or physicality. Some examples are "quiet despair," "surprised delight," "slight schoolteacher tone," or "the way a nurse speaks to a disturbed patient." Before Tobias' climactic Act III monologue, in which he begs Harry and Edna not to leave their home even though everyone else wants them to, Albee interjects stage directions liberally through out the piece, and begins the monologue with the following note:
"This next is an aria. It must have in its performance all the horror and exuberance of a man who has kept his emotions under control too long. Tobias will be carried to the edge of hysteria, and he will find himself laughing, sometimes, while he cries from sheer release. All in all, it is genuine and bravura at the same time, one prolonging the other. I shall try to notate it somewhat."
I love that he calls the passage an aria instead of a monologue. The whole play has a musical quality to it, with Albee's inclusion of deliberate pauses and pacing notes, and this monologue seems to be conducted by Albee. He also doesn't remove himself as the author from the piece. While I was reading the sentence "I shall try to notate it somewhat" I think my jaw dropped a little bit because I've rarely seen a playwright basically write the sentence "This is my authorial intent and you will stick to it" even if it is how they feel. I kind of love it.
At the same time it makes me sad because the characters in this play are based on actual members of Albee's adopted family, so it's safe to say he's conducting these monologues from a place of lived experience. Considering the play is about a bunch of rich alcoholics who are horrible to each other and also deals with some of Albee's other favorite topics, like losing a baby and adultery, that's pretty depressing. What is it they say? Difficult childhoods make great playwrights? I just googled it and apparently it was Ernest Hemingway who called an unhappy childhood the best early training for a writer.
Anyway, I could go on and on about the characters and their misery, but I don't really want to, and since this is my blog that no one reads, I also don't have to. But I hope you enjoyed my thoughts on A Delicate Balance. If you enjoy stories about how fucked up rich people's lives are, give it a read! Personally, I'm pretty grateful that the rich white people living room drama is not one of the chosen narratives of contemporary theatre, cause it's already been done, it's been done really well, and now I'd rather spend my time reading about other types of people.
Which reminds me! I said I was gonna read Torch Song Trilogy. I read the first two plays and haven't gotten around to the third yet, but I'll do it eventually, and when I do there will be a blog post about it! Thanks for making it to the end, friends.
I've gotten into this really weird habit recently where I serially join book clubs and then read the books but don't actively participate in any of the online or in person discussions. As someone who once got in trouble in elementary school because I would speak without raising my hand and than in high school became that student whose participation teachers had to limit to give other students opportunities, this is pretty out of character for me.
I was hooked by Our Shared Shelf, Emma Watson's feminist book club. I also will do pretty much anything Emma Watson suggests, so this was bound to happen eventually. Somewhere along the line I got on the Girl's Night In mailing list and they have a feminist book club as well, albeit their picks are usually lighter than Emma's. For example, last month for Our Shared Shelf we read Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde and for Girl's Night In we read Everything's Trash But It's Okay by Phoebe Robinson. Both awesome books by incredibly intelligent women, but tonally, pretty different! I also joined Banging Book Club which is also a feminist book club but with somewhat more sex-ed oriented choices and Life's Library, which as far as I can tell so far is just books that John Green likes, and I'm okay with this.
So I've been reading (and not discussing) lots of books because of these amazing book clubs (that I don't participate in), so it seemed like a good idea to also join the Early Career Dramaturgs play reading club (because in reading so many books, I've really been shirking on the play reading). So far, we've read The Danube by María Irene Fornés and God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza, and I have not participated in either online discussion. SO I'm writing about it here! Lucky you!
I would like to take a moment to quickly point out the irony that I'm using one post to discuss two plays by women after I just went on this whole tangent about all the capital-F Feminist Literature I've been reading. I know. Women do twice the work for half the recognition and I'm currently being #partoftheproblem but also both of those plays were really short.
I first encountered María Irene Fornés' work my freshman year of college when we read Fefu and Her Friends, arguably her most famous play. From what I can remember, the play is about a woman named STEPHANIE (I know) who goes by FEFU (weird) hosting a party for all her lady friends and it's very progressive and feminist but the cool part is in the second act when it becomes very immersive and site specific and there are like six scenes all happening at the same time and the audience rotates through the scenes and it's all timed perfectly.
I would take the time to confirm this information but sophomore year I lent my copy to an individual who shall remain nameless and this person lent my copy to somebody else and I haven't seen it since. You know who you are.
Author's Note: I started writing this blog post about two weeks ago and at some point in that process I accidentally closed the window I was working in without saving my draft, so I lost all my fresh insights about these two plays and I got very frustrated and haven't attempted to continue writing since. And then María Irene Fornés spoke to me from beyond the grave.
First of all, look at that picture! What a star!
Second of all, ugh, fine, I'll make myself write.
SO I ate some mac'n'cheese, took a walk around the block, smelled some books at the bookstore, left before I could make any impulse purchases, and now I'm gonna talk to you about The Danube.
The Danube tells the story of Paul, an American ex-pat living in Budapest, as he falls in love with a young Hungarian woman named Eve. The plot isn't crazy complex, although there is some weird mysterious illness thing going on, but I really loved this play for two reasons.
1. Language: The play exists in the framework of a language learning tape, which I have a vague idea of because of the scenes in Love, Actually where Colin Firth uses them to learn Portugese and woo the love of his life. Just kidding, I totally know about language learning tapes, I'm not THAT young. Anyway, each scene is labeled as a unit in a course, for example, Unit One: Basic Sentences, and many of the scenes briefly include a Hungarian tape played along with the actors speaking English. Even though the actors are speaking English through out the play, Fornés, who herself was not a native English speaker, nails the essence of what it is like to speak in a foreign tongue, or when two people who know bits of each other's languages interact. More on this later!
2. Puppets: There are puppets in this play. I repeat: THERE ARE PUPPETS IN THIS PLAY. After scenes 12 and 14 it is indicated in the stage directions for the cast to set-up a puppet theatre and then repeat the scenes they just did entirely with puppets. I don't fully get it, but I love it. It's very meta-theatrical, which is always a good time, and in a way lets the audience know that the performers are in on the joke. We all know it's just a play.