The final vote has come and gone, and the City of Germantown has chosen by a 5-0 budget vote, not to restore the $70,000 in funding that supported the Tennessee Shakespeare Company's educational programing.
"This vote will have devastating consequences on our ability to provide education programming for students in our community," TSC's founding director Dan McCleary wrote in a prepared statement. "Its impact will be felt immediately as we begin to re-program our upcoming sixth season, which we hope to be able to announce to you shortly. Its impact also will be felt this year as we undertake a review of our organization's long-range planning."
Publicly-assisted arts organizations are easy targets in budget battles, and the recently cut TSC is, at least, in good company. The Iris Orchestra, helmed by conductor Michael Stern, was birthed at GPAC in 2000 with the help of a $200,000 grant from the City of Germantown. In 2007 the IRIS Foundation was established to transition into the private sphere. And the beat goes on.
Obviously this isn't good news for a scrappy professional company that has, in its short history, produced shows, deployed teachers, conducted camps, and developed all the trappings of an institution with staying power. If the company's last gala fundraiser is any kind of indicator, there is quite a bit of private support for McCleary's troupe, and a hero in this saga may yet emerge. Also, to play Devil's advocate for a moment, and with all due respect for Mr. Shakespeare, $70,000 is a fair chunk of change for a city to spend in the service of any one author, primarily. It's also difficult to determine what kind of branding value the inclusively-named Tennessee Shakespeare Company provided, especially with many of the company's recent performances drawing audiences, and their loose dollars, to locations inside the I-240 loop.
So, does this budget cut represent the end of the world? Maybe for TSC's education program as it exists now, but McCleary ends his note with an encouraging word: "Onward."
It's helpful to remember that the new $14.5-million-dollar Playhouse on the Square was built with zero city assistance, and in all likelihood POTS's long capital campaign will finally come to a close at the end of this month. It's possible that, as this massive effort winds down, new sets of fundraising opportunities will be created.
On a related note, with a million promised by the City of Memphis, it will be interesting to monitor the progress of the new Hattiloo Theatre, which broke ground earlier this month. In the meantime, TSC's McCleary, and Hattiloo's founding director Ekundayo Bandele might want to get together for a drink.
I'd also be interested to hear what interested and concerned parties think about what's happened, what it means, and what's next.
This weekend The New Moon Theatre Company opens Endgame, Samuel Beckett's tragicomic meditation on mortality, tyranny, servitude, and the cycles of nature and necessity that bind us together in mutual discomfort. Beckett knew his plays weren't easy. He called them his "monsters," but they're well worth the extra effort.
The New Moon's Endgame features Ron Gephart, a Eugart Yerian honoree for lifetime achievement in Memphis theater, as Hamm, the fading lord of all he surveys, now blind, and confined to a wheelchair. Here's what he had to say about the character's condition, and what it takes to wrestle with a "monster."
Intermission Impossible: Beckett's writing is so rich with Metaphor. Obviously Hamm the tyrant is nearing the end of life, but I've often wondered if his sight actually failed, or if, at some level, he just forgot how to see. And to walk. I've wondered if these troublesome degradations of aging were, in some regards preferable, or protective. Not that that's the case, I'm just thinking aloud and wondering what kinds of questions you've asked while working on this character.
Ron Gephart: “The New Republic” recently had a cover story about the debilitating effects of loneliness, not just on the mind, but the body as well. I was struck by how this might apply to the characters in “Endgame.” The script makes it pretty clear that faculties are lost as they are not used. So, yes, I can accept that Hamm is really blind and cannot stand. Also, in the absence of much life left on the planet it’s a struggle to hang on to the essence of the human experience: relationships built on shared stories. Hamm and Clov desperately cling to each other for survival because if their relationship ends they are both doomed. I don’t necessarily think the game ends in stalemate but I do think there are no winners.
Intermission Impossible: Plays like Endgame require so much physical restraint and precision. How hard is it, sitting in the wheelchair being served?
Ron Gephart: It’s a monster of a role. It’s a bit odd getting out of the chair at the end of the evening because you really do accept the conditions of the play and the restrictions are daunting. I’m just now opening my eyes behind my dark glasses a bit. I used a blindfold for a few rehearsals.
Intermission Impossible: Hamm's one of those roles like Hamlet, or Lear—- or like Willie Loman who you played not so long ago. It's considered to be a test great actors measure themselves against. How are you doing so far?
Ron Gephart: Trying to memorize the lines I haven’t had much time to become a Beckett scholar in any sense. I’d only seen the play once and I don’t remember ever reading it. As an actor I figured I’d be best off to learn the lines and make them true to Hamm. It seems to be the kind of play New Moon should be tackling. When Eastern was having difficulty casting the role, I agreed to step to the plate. The downside is that he lost about a week of rehearsal while trying to get it cast. Since I’m retired I could devote quite a bit of time to learning the part and I think we’ve come through with a decent production.
Directed by Eastern Hale
June 21, 22, 28, 29 & 30, 2013
Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm
Last Sunday, June 30 at 2:00 pm
Tickets: $15 Adults, $12 Seniors, Students & Military
Today, Saturday, June 8, 2013, The Hattiloo Theatre broke ground on a new, multi-purpose theater space in Overton Square. In the same moment Overton Square, already home to Playhouse on the Square, The Circuit Playhouse, and TheatreWorks, officially became Memphis' theater district.
"It's a glorious day," said Ekundayo Bandele, the Hattiloo's founding director.
Blank became the performing arts writer and theater critic for The Commercial Appeal 2001 and continued on in that role in a freelance capacity after he was laid off in 2009.
More recently Blank, who will no longer freelance for the CA, has produced feature stories for WKNO-FM, and cultivated a Memphis-area performance club.
"I'm hoping to add some sort of critical element to the station's already great attention to the arts," Blank says. "[I] don't know what form that will take yet. An arts blog? A group of regular theater patrons generating commentary? I think we can find way to pay extra attention to the art that knocks your socks off."
The Ostrander Awards, Memphis' answer to Broadway's Tony Awards turn 30 this year, and a big change is being made to better celebrate the Memphis theater community and this important milestone. I could tell you all about it but it will be a lot more fun if you clicked on this special video message from Sister Myotis, who returns to host this year's ceremony.
I'll be writing much more about this in the weeks to come, so stay tuned. Meanwhile, please share this message from all of us, with all of you friends who love live theater.
Not yet anyway. But if Sister says it's big, y'all better all believe.
The message, as it was shared unto me:
If you want entertainment, go see Miss Saigon or Brighton Beach Memoirs. If you want to experience a harrowing slice of life from the perspective of a disadvantaged, mentally ill woman who's committed murders she can't begin to comprehend, you won't want to miss The Ballad of Angie Awry, presented by Our Own Voice Theater Troupe.
"In the past, I've avoided doing any kind of play where a mentally ill person does something bad, because the stereotype is that they're all a bunch of serial killers," Bill Baker says cautiously. As the founding director of Our Own Voice, Baker works with like-minded artists to explore issues and ideas related to mental health. With his new play, The Ballad of Angie Awry — a play on the not-guilty-by-reason-of-insanity legal plea (NGRI, get it?) — Baker is simultaneously exploring new territory and getting back to basics.
"Basically, I've tried to get inside of a person who commits a horrible crime," Baker says. "In the first act, all of her hallucinations are experienced by the audience. We get this extra information, the voices, the paranoia, the heightened trepidation. In the second act, I take that away so the audience is no longer subjectively inside the character. They are looking at things from the outside, as most of us do when we're watching someone with a mental illness on trial."
Baker isn't excusing the crime. "We will certainly recognize that what she's done is wrong," he says. "We'll also understand the obstacles and judgments that led her to these actions, and, hopefully, there will be some compassion for her."
Baker describes Angie Awry as a Brechtian tragedy at the crossroads of the justice and mental-health-care systems, inspired by Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and legislation that would prevent the use of the death penalty in cases where a defendant has a severe and persistent mental illness.
What do we mean when we say Brechtian? In this case it's a deemphasization of traditional theatrical elements like spectacle, fancy dress, and slick acting. Although Baker says the aim of his teaching play is compassion, that may be an over simplification. The audience, being exposed to information the characters don't always have, is shown why compassion is appropriate, even in the midst of horror, when the blood is calling out for vengeance.
OOVs work is fascinating, but it simply isn't going to appeal to everyone. I hate making that disclaimer when I review the group's work, and only do so because the company values a completely different set of theatrical principles than what most people are accustomed to. It's my sincere wish that more people would try a sample, and Angie Awry, with its relatively straightforward narrative, seems like a good place to start. Although it's not a musical, a folk trio has been incorporated into the story, narrating, and commenting on Angie's pitiful circumstances with an extended acoustic ballad that, contemporary references aside, could have been penned a hundred or more years ago. It's this ballad that most firmly connects Angie Awry to something more than a single moment in history, and implants her story deeply in our consciousness.
Our Own Voice Theatre Company presents The Ballad of Angie Awry at TheatreWorks, Through May 11th. $10.
James, a foreign correspondent (Michael Gravois) who's spent his entire career/adult life documenting the atrocities of war complains about how Americans, of a certain class and disposition, go to see plays that reinforce previously existing worldviews and self-images. We go home basically unchanged, he argues, but feeling like we’ve meaningfully engaged with the world and its woes. Like driving with your headlights on to show you “support the troops,” these personally affirming, but hollow rituals, James suggests, make people feel like they are participating when they're only consuming, and are more aligned with problems than with solutions.
As a nicely-imagined counterpoint to all of this Margulies has given James a new obsession. He’s becoming a critic, fascinated with bloody snuff-fluff cinema and convinced that the Saw series, and similar torture porn says something unexpected about the modern condition. He’s just not sure what, exactly.
Time Stands Still wallows in visceral sado masochistic pleasures. After James more or less reviews the first act of the play he lives in (potentially insulting a swath of the audience along the way) it’s difficult to experience the drama as anything but another kind of commodity. It's difficult to not see selfishness and hypocrisy at the core of everything the main characters do. It makes arguably brave, intelligent, committed people look petty and small, and impossible to like as they pursue unique personal comforts like addicts, while managing more common obstacles like injury, insult, and infidelity. Normally, that might not be a good thing, and that's why this play is special.
The play’s jabs at the audience, and the ritual of live performance are bracing and the big themes emerging in act one crumble as the political turns personal.
The basics: Set in an in a nice but neglected Brooklyn apartment Time Stands still chronicles the quickly evolving relationship between a small group of longtime friends, lovers, and ex-lovers.
James returns home to cope with the nervous breakdown he suffered after seeing one too many kids blown to bits. Sarah, a respected photographer, and James’ life partner (Leah Bray Nichols) follows shortly thereafter when her body is similarly ripped apart by a roadside bomb that kills her guide.
Sarah, the intellectual daughter of wealthy Southern Conservatives, is badly injured, permanently scarred, and grief stricken. She is entirely unable to imagine the kind of mundane upper middle-class life James is trying to embrace.
James and Sarah eventually formalize their relationship with marriage vows. They observe the ever-expanding happiness their old friend Richard (Barclay Roberts) seems to have found in his new, somewhat gooey, romance with a sweet, simple (and extremely young) woman (Katelyn Nichols). The previously unthinkable possibility of children is broached. But life is messy.
Margulies, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Dinner With Friends, has a gift for finding incredibly funny moments in incredibly dark and disturbing places. His most effective joke here is, perhaps, the one that never gets a laugh. Richard, a magazine photo-editor, is helping to create a coffee table book of Sarah's photography. Because nothing speaks to the comforts of home and hearth like a beautifully made coffee table book full of severed limbs and phosphorous burns.
Over and over again Margulies pulls back the curtain on hollow social transactions, and the casual commercialization of foreign suffering by very extremely serious people who know the score and care deeply. Or something.
“You’re the Sid and Nancy of journalism,” Richard says to James and Sarah at one point. This Romantic grotesque couldn't be a worse comparison. It is, however, a perfect example of how people in media instinctively, "sell the sizzle," not the steak. Margulies, on the other hand, is trying very hard to move beyond the usual tropes of socially aware performance, to get a little closer to the red, red meat of things.
Deftly directed by Stephen Hancock, and beautifully performed, Time Stands Still is a great night of theater doing what theater does best. If you miss this Circuit Playhouse production, you’re missing one of the best and most provocative shows of the season.
To acquire tickets.
Everything you need to know about the HSMAs in one convenient video.
Last year's big winners Sam Shankman and Sabba Sharma— who I interviewed here— were featured in the PBS miniseries Broadway or Bust.
Tickets are $15-$35 and go on sale to the public May 6.
People's Choice Award voting begins on May 10, 2013.
The Orpheum Crew was created to cultivate the next generation of Broadway Theatergoers.
The April 23rd launch pcoincides with the Opening Night of MEMPHIS THE MUSICAL. To RSVP or request aditional information, digits: 901-529-4287 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
As Greg, a man in the throes of a mid-life crisis, Randy Hartzog took the less-is-more approach and came out on top. Greg's a man who loves his dog (and what’s wrong with that?). And he's confused by an increasingly hermetic world that has disease-a-fied even the mildest imitation of passion.
Okay, that was a false start. But that's what I wrote, more or less, in the year of our Lord nineteen hundred and-mumblemumblmumble, when I reviewed the second (I think) of director Ann Marie Hall's three productions of Sylvia. Flash forward (mumblemumble) years and Hartzog, who knows the piece intimately, is in the director's chair at Theatre Memphis, staging one of the shaggy dog story's best productions yet. The set: perfect. The cast: perfect. Lighting, costumes, sound design: Perfect, perfect, perfect.
So why did dead-half of a show I thought I (mostly) liked leave me colder than a polar bear's dirty martini? I've been asking myself, and friends, the same question.
Sylvia is still the story of two New York empty-nesters and (of course) Sylvia, the stray dog that comes between them. It’s yet another A.R. Gurney sitcom, featuring a variety of WASPy dilemmas served on a bed of WASPy relationships, dusted with WASPy wit, and smothered in sentimentality. Scary? Very. Awful? By no means. It's a real Scooby snack: a sweet that would rot your teeth in no time given a steady diet of the stuff. Delicious? Yes. Nutritious? Probably not, but it tastes so good, who cares?
That last paragraph, is also from a past review, mostly.
Aliza Moran's performance as the home-wrecking mutt might provide a bit of insight for theologians wrestling with the concept of a being both fully human, and fully divine. She's one hundred percent human and completely canine. If all performances had this degree of specificity and commitment there would be no need for critics — it would all be good.
As Greg, a man in the throes of a mid-life crisis, Tony Isbell takes the less-is-more approach and comes out on top. He is a man who loves his dog (and what’s wrong with that?) and... wait, isn't this where we came in?
Sylvia has moments of inspired, if lowbrow comedy. When a dog calls a cat a cocksucker, that's just funny. But the show hasn't aged especially well. The problem is Kate, Greg's wife, a teacher re-entering the workforce after the last kid has gone off to college. She's got a WASPY savior complex, and is driven to bring Shakespeare to inner city kids with their raps and rhymes. She is, at once, the only responsible adult in the show, and the villain of the piece. Most of the piece anyway.
When Greg brings a dog home Kate—strongly portrayed by Bonnie Daws Kourvelas— puts her foot down. Because dogs require a lot of work and something about her career and teaching Shakespeare to inner city kids. Her position never fluctuates. Until the play absolutely positively has to end.
She's a straw wife, existing only to serve a few functional purposes. Our modern woman provides the show a modicum of conflict and social context but in the end she'll compromise her dreams to allow for her husband's mid-life indulgences. And they live happily ever after, more or less.
Sylva's obviously not just a dog. She's a stand in for many possibilities: A sports car, some extreme hobby, or a common affair. The dog is literally another woman, and jokes about her cute little ass are an end run around straight objectification.
But it's funny, right?
When it's funny, it's very funny. Moran, a strong, physically changeable performer with a real knack for comedy gives as virtuoso a performance as you're likely to see this season. Spencer Miller is superb as both a dog loving bro and a profoundly white woman.
But I don't think I like this play very much. And when this Sylvia finally runs off, I hope she stays gone.
And she's gone after this weekend.
Ticket information here.
Guest Director Nick Hutchison has staged a beautiful production of Shakespeare's somewhat naughty As You Like It at Rhodes College. But I have to admit, the Wednesday night preview occasionally left me scratching my head and thinking decidedly un-Shakesperean thoughts. "WTF," for example.
Hutchison's previous production of Twelfth Night at Rhodes was top notch, and, as I have already reported, I had an absolute blast sitting in on a team-taught Hamlet class that the RSC-bred actor/director helped to lead. So, I was more than a little surprised to find myself occasionally struggling to stay engaged with the first of Shakespeare's comedies that (thanks to a no-holds- barred 80's- era production by a young Nashville Shakespeare Festival) I ever truly fell in love with. This production, like Hutchison's Twelfth Night, delights in the meaning of the words, rather than the words themselves, but unlike the earlier effort, there are some odd character choices, and the words and actions aren't always fairly matched.
If you need a synopsis, that's what the internet's for. Intermission Impossible attracts a fairly literate crew and I expect most readers know the story of Orlando, Rosalind, an exiled Duke, and a variety of clowns that journey from the city to the country and discover love in its infinite variety.
Many of Hutchison's more theatrical choices— the sort of non-literal choices I usually revel in— seemed like the stubs of interesting ideas, barely realized. I was especially confounded by the stylized finish to the wrestling match. Did young Orlando win his match or did Charles the wrestler have an aneurysm? Also, confetti boxes exploding as if at Orlando's command, had no precedent, or ensuing rhyme. So they stood out as an odd gimmick. Although, for those willing to stoop at intermission, it was nice to see the name "Rosalind" — Orlando's love — written on the tiny slivers of paper.
In many ways Hutchison's As You Like It resembles his Twelfth Night. There are scenic resonances, and cast members returning in similar roles. Steven Brown, whose Malvolio, is among the best I've seen, has returned, and is a convincing Jaques, if not as colorful as the grumbly former libertine might be. Likewise, Donald Jellerson, a brilliant Feste in Twelfth Night, showed real promise, but often seemed unsure of himself as Touchstone, the syllogism-spouting clown, who's in love with a shepherdess, but not the idea of settling down.
The student work was uniformly solid, though some character choices were questionable. I'm never comfortable laughing at a character someone has randomly designated as a fop, merely for the sake of the comic potential found in broad stereotypes. That happened. And there was a strong sense — at least on the night I attended — that everyone needed more run-throughs. Obviously, time has passed since the night I dropped by, and I would be very interested to see how the show has grown in a week.
It's probably easy to read this as a review filled with complaints. And I suppose that's what it is. But it's really more of a review full of questions in the form of statements and disagreements that are more quibble than qualm. Others may be un-bothered by the inconsistencies, and happy to play along. For me, what's proving to be special about a Nick Hutchison production, is the rare, and wonderful opportunity to see actors— especially young actors— playing Shakespeare's characters, not acting Shakespeare. It's a quality that smooths over imperfections, and difficult to quantify. It's also why you might want to see this show whether my review makes it sound appealing or not.
For deets, here.
I have mixed feelings about how actors and audiences should handle ringing cell phones. Part of me thinks all action should stop and everybody should stare daggers at the offending party. Another part thinks "the show must go on," and anything else is an even greater interruption. Anyway, what follows is a slightly edited version of a rant by Memphis theater stalwart Tony Isbell, who is currently starring in Sylvia at Theatre Memphis alongside Aliza Moran and Bonnie Daws Kourvelas. This is his description of an event that occured during a Sunday matinee, and I'd love to collect readers' thoughts on the matter.
I did something on stage today that I have never done before. I stopped the performance because of a ringing cell phone in the audience. Allow me to elaborate...
Bonnie [Daws Kourvelas] and I have a short scene [near the end of the play]. In the [audience], a phone starts ringing and it was loud. The lady had one of those rings that literally sounds like the bell on an old rotary phone. Two ladies were sitting on the front row in the Next Stage, which means they were sitting on the stage floor itself. The phone was obviously in the purse on the floor between them. Ultimately the phone rang between 12 and 15 times.
Here is the sequence:
1: The phone starts ringing. Bonnie and I tried to continue.
2. The phone rings about three times. I turn and stare at the woman giving her a nasty look. I can see one woman turn to the other. I can read her body language. She indicates "Should we get the phone." The other woman indicates, It'll stop. This makes me very angry.
3. Bonnie and I try to continue the scene. The phone keeps ringing. I turn to the woman and say, "Would you please turn that phone off?" Both women sit stone-faced and do not move. Bonnie, bless her heart, tries to keep the scene going for another line or so. The phone is still ringing, now up to 8 or 10 very loud rings.
5. I turned to the audience. I say, "Ladies and gentlemen, I apologize for this, but seriously, turn that phone off. The lady still isn't moving.
6. Finally, as I stare, one woman starts to reach for her purse. Then, after all that, the phone stops ringing.
I have been tempted to stop performances before but I never have. But I've got to tell you, this is kind of like losing your virginity. The next time will be a lot easier.
So, did the actor overreact or do the right thing? This sort of response has become increasingly common, it seems. But cell phones aren't going away, and accidents do happen.
If it's Springtime it's New Ballet Ensemble time. And if there has ever been a time for New Ballet Ensemble, it is now. This has been the blow up season of Memphis Jookin, especially as the street-born style has impacted classical culture, and gone global. NBE is the nexus where these two worlds first collided and this progressive dance school continues to experiment with classical, modern, and folk forms from Memphis and around the world.
This year's SpringLoaded concert showcases new work from Alan Obuzor, inspired by his Nigerian heritage and also a new fusion of flamenco and Jookin developed by Noelia Garcia Carmona with dancer Shamar Rooks and multi instrumentalist Roy Brewer.
‘Springloaded’ by New Ballet Ensemble. Playhouse on the Square. 7 p.m. Friday, 5:30 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $20; $10 students.