Andrew Hamm: the Bipolar Express

Ruminations on theatre, music, and just about anything else that crosses my bipolar brain.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Ten Albums That Made Me A Musician, Part 1

I've always been fascinated by the process of art-making, and at the intersection between an artist's personality and his/her influences. How much of who I am as a musician has been created by the music I've happened across, and how many of the artists to whom I listen are favorites because of my personal wiring? I suspect it's a circular thing like acting; your external action affects your internal life, which affects your external action, etc.

Last week I gave a listen to one of my all-time favorite albums, Peter Gabriel's 1982 CD Security. It's one of those albums that affected me so profoundly that I remember the very first time I listened to it, where I was, how I got a copy of it, and how it made me feel. This memory led me to many other strong reactions I've had to music; weeping openly at the climax of Yes' "Awaken" on the way to visit my friend Rob Leary in high school, opening the car window and shouting at "The Howling" by Rich Mullins on a riverside highway between Albany and Manhattan in 1999, and other times. I started to examine the landmarks in my development as a musician: where are the moments that changed me the most, the albums that made me the musician I am? It also occurred to me that the people who introduced each of these albums, usually members of my family, were inextricably linked to my memories of discovery. It took me a few days to narrow it down to ten albums.

Today I'm beginning a series of pieces examining each of these discs in the order I discovered them. This is autobiographical music reviewing at its most esoteric, a map of my trajectory of musical influences. Enjoy, or ignore. Extra points for readers who can guess what some of the forthcoming nine are. Some will be obvious to anyone who know me, and some will surprise.

1. Dan Fogelberg - The Innocent Age
Released in 1981
Shared by my sister Lisa Hamm-Greenawalt in 1984

This was the first album that made me sit up and take notice of a specific musical artist and begin to care about their larger body of work. In a very real way, this is the album that made me notice music.

I vividly remember hearing this album on cassette in my sister Lisa's silver Mitsubishi Mirage on camping trips and drives to the Farm in the mid-1980s. I remember wanting to hear it over and over again but being shy about asking her to put it back in the stereo when we had just heard it a couple hours ago. If I had had my way, we would have listened to it on a loop for the entire trip.

Fogelberg is an artist I still revisit from time to time, and much of what originally attracted me to his music still captivates me. This, the first of his albums I heard, remains my favorite. I'm not sure I've ever heard another artist who puts such raw emotion into his music (Rich Mullins is a close second). Whether striving for the epic, the intimate, or the sentimental, Fogelberg always goes full-tilt, occasionally to the song's detriment. The Innocent Age has the best of what makes Fogelberg Fogelberg. It opens and closes with drama, starting with the driving sweep of "Nexus," highlighted by percussion that would do Peter Gabriel proud, and ending with the grand, eerie "Ghosts." The album's first disc features three of the artist's biggest commercial hits, "Leader of the Band," "Same Auld Lang Syne," and the way-too-schmaltzy "Run for the Roses," the one Fogelberg track I genuinely hate. Another highly sentimental, country-tinged song, "Only the Heart May Know," a duet with Emmylou Harris, avoids some of "Roses" 's faults. The first disc includes my favorite song in Fogelberg's entire catalog, the huge-scaled "In the Passage."

The Innocent Age was the first of many two-disc concept albums to catch my ear, setting my musical attention span to a long default. It's a song cycle loosely following the path from birth to death, foreshadowing the similarly-themed Blaze of Glory, Joe Jackson's underrated 1989 epic. Like Jackson, Fogelberg here utilizes the most eclectic songwriting of his career to mark points in the cycle. I've always been an admirer of musicians who can tackle a wide variety of styles to serve an album structure, and this disc may be the genesis of that attraction. "Nexus," "In the Passage," "The Lion's Share," and "Ghosts" are emotional high points that cast the more personal tracks in deep contrast. Hard rockers like "Times Like These" and "Empty Cages" set the acoustic songs apart. Throughout, Fogelberg is adept at creating songs based around the guitar and the piano with equal facility, eschewing his early-career backing-orchestra sound in favor of a more stripped-down but no less full production style that keeps the whole piece remarkably consistent. The Innocent Age is vast but never meanders or loses momentum for long; it's ambitious but never pompous.

I continue to be amazed at how successfully Fogelberg managed the enormous variety of musical ideas in this album. From The Innocent Age, I drew a number of elements that would become the backbone of my musical aesthetic. I learned to be ambitious, to love variety and dynamics, and to reject the idea that I should only like one kind of music. I learned to play whatever instrument I needed to play to make the song in my head work. And I learned to create music whole-heartedly and passionately. Fogelberg's eclecticism led me in all directions, priming me both for singer-songwriter craft and the bombast of arena and progressive rock.

NEXT: A hit single and innovative video lead me down the rabbit hole into a wonderland of sonic experimentation.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Richmond Family Magazine: "Breast in Show" "sometimes garner[s] laughter, other times silence, and a few times tears."

From Richmond Family Magazine:
Breast in Show: High-Energy Musical Offers Laughter and Tears
Reviewed by Lynn Kirk, breast cancer survivor
The humor of breast cancer sounds like the ultimate oxymoron, but the musical Breast in Show masterfully blends comedy with tragedy as it examines six very different people’s struggles with the way-too-prevalent disease.

Playing to a nearly full house at Willow Lawn, talented actors donned multiple roles as they guided the audience through the harrowing, yet sometimes humorous journey of breast cancer diagnosis, treatment, and life (or not) thereafter.

Its high-energy musical numbers sometimes garnered laughter, other times silence, and a few time times tears. In between, skilled one-liners zinged the patrons in unexpected ways:  “Time, all I need is time” … “My oncologist is the man I adore!” … “How I long for a chance to play at NORMAL” … “Cancer arrived like a thief”… and from a co-survivor (one character’s spouse), “I know she’s sick, but why do I feel I’m dying?”

The stretches of humor helped ease pain, tackle stress, and balance perspectives. The Chemo Café’s poison cocktails; the deadliest-cell-in-town dance; the oncologist’s blah, blah, blah diagnosis no one can understand; and Freddie’s trunk of life-changing cranial prostheses, i.e. wigs, provided comic relief when needed most.

There were no misrepresentations, probably because the show was inspired by actual medical interviews with patients, medical personnel, and families. True to the disease, the actors represented women of different ages – as well as a male breast cancer victim – and not all survived. And though each prognosis and circumstance differed, every breast cancer patient was deemed a warrior: a determined fighter strengthened by hope!

Produced by Carol Piersol, the 90-minute show is part of the annual Acts of Faith Festival and is in partnership with the Virginia Repertory Theatre, Willow Lawn Stage.

Breast in Show continues with performances on various dates through March 19. Tickets are $25 per person; $20 per person for groups of 10 minimum; and $10 per student (with valid ID). Additional details are available at  or (804) 282-2620.

Times-Dispatch: "Breast in Show" full of "irreverent humor" and "vulnerability"

 From the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

Theater Review: "Breast in Show"
Special correspondent

You might not expect to meet comedy in a chemotherapy ward. But irreverent humor bubbles up often in “Breast in Show,” a breast cancer-themed musical whose characters spend a good deal of time in a hospital’s chemo treatment zone.

For instance, at one point in director Billy Christopher Maupin’s lively production of the musical — at Virginia Repertory Theatre’s Willow Lawn Stage — a group of gutsy cancer-patient characters interacts with a zany wig vendor, played by Andrew Hamm.

Submitting stoically to their IV drips, the patients — who have lost their hair during treatment — look on bemusedly as the exuberant vendor pulls headdresses out of a pink trunk: red, curly locks worthy of a femme fatale; a clutch of ebullient dreadlocks; and more.

“Try a hairpiece that hangs! /Add a hat! Add some bangs!/ Or a turban!” the vendor sings, pulling a silky turban over his own head and striking a regal pose.

Humor can be a survival strategy for the sick and beleaguered, so it’s apt that levity should abound in “Breast in Show,” an earnest, smartly constructed 80 minutes of theater created by book writer Lisa Hayes and composer/lyricist Joan Cushing, based on a concept by Eileen Mitchard.

Presented in Richmond by Carol Piersol, in partnership with Virginia Rep, the musical depicts — in short, snappy scenes and longer songs — the diagnosis, treatment and (mostly) recovery of various breast cancer patients: a workaholic lawyer named Wendy (Lauren Leinhaas-Cook), a fragile young mother named Chelsea (Brittany D. Simmons), a wisecracking man named Pete (Russell Rowland) and others.

Hanging out in the chemo ward, these characters support one another by telling jokes; their brave quips harmonize with Cushing’s witty, cabaret-style musical numbers, which include a torch song for a deadly cancer cell (Chloe Williams, in a sultry black dress and red feather boa); an aria for pompous doctors who warble incomprehensible medical jargon; and a ballad for an elderly woman who has a crush on her oncologist. (Jeanie Rule is droll as the amorous patient, who looks rapt as the doctor, played by Rowland, probes her mouth with a tongue depressor.)

Not that “Breast in Show” is all laughs: Exchanging humor for poignancy, the production periodically spotlights characters in moments of vulnerability.

In a couple of touching mini-monologues, for instance, Wendy’s husband (Hamm, speaking quietly in a pool of dim light) talks about how lonely he feels as he tries to be a pillar of courage for his spouse.

Lynne M. Hartman designed the relatively sophisticated lighting, which jazzes up the minimal set. Maupin and Nikki Wragg designed the character-appropriate costumes.

Maupin and choreographer Jennifer Hammond do an admirable job keeping the scenes fluid. (There are some clever almost-dance numbers featuring the hospital chairs and IV drips, for instance.)

On opening night, the singing and acting were occasionally hesitant, but the production will probably gain poise in subsequent performances. The three-piece band is already launching into Cushing’s score with gusto.

John Porter: "Make the time to check out 'Breast in Show'."

From Mondo Johnny:

Breast In Show Powerful and Funny
by John Porter

While the subject of breast cancer might seem unusual subject for a musical, but BREAST IN SHOW turns a healing light on the darkness and the outcome, while mixed, is generally satisfying. The show, produced by Carol Piersol in Partnership with Virginia Repertory Theatre is being staged at the Willow Lawn Theatre and running through March 19. Director Billy Christopher Maupin has assembled an ensemble of six strong performers and singers and the script takes the audience on a truly emotional ride.

All six performers: Andrew Hamm, Brittany D. Simmons, Chloe Williams, Jeanie Rule, Lauren Leinhass-Cook, and Russell Rowland play multiple roles, all of whom have been affected by breast cancer. Most play patients, even one of the men for the play explores many of the myths and truths about the disease.

The strongest part of the play, aside from the subject matter, is the music. The music and lyrics are by Joan Cushing and she takes on the confusion that accompanies learning one has breast cancer in a song called, I think, “The Blah Blah Song.” I say “I think” because unfortunately there is no list of songs in the program. 

While the new patients ask questions, all they hear from the doctors is rhythmic blah blah blah and thus learn very little about their condition.

Another stand out song is the Kander and Ebb inspired “Chemo Café” as the group welcomes a new member to the circle of friends undergoing chemotherapy. Jennifer Hammond’s choreography at this point may be hampered by having her dancers in rolling chairs and attached to iv units, but she makes the most of it and the song really hits home.

A couple of other songs that really resonated were “Normal Someday,” a quartet of two married couples sharing their dreams of having a normal life. Rowland’s deep baritone is particularly expressive and when coupled with Leinhass-Cook’s quiet pleas, the song wrings out a great deal of emotion.

A big laugh however is provided with “Dr. Honniwell,” a risqué ditty from Jeanie Rule to her oncologist.

Laughter is a big part of BREAST IN SHOW and that makes the play more human. If this had been an 84-minute unrelenting drama, it would have been difficult for many to take. I doubt you can find any person on this earth who hasn’t been touched by cancer, and if you do that person should count themselves blessed beyond belief. So, with every audience member potentially reflecting on their own memories and emotions, the humor allows us to release the tension just a little bit.

One weaker portion of the play is the book by Lisa Hayes. I felt the script was almost there – it still has a few rough edges that can be smoothed out further to make the show even stronger. Telling several stories at once is a great device, but sometimes things don’t come together as well. For example, Andrew Hamm has two nice moments as a breast cancer husband in a support group setting. Both are very quick, but easily could have been used to a greater power as a further commenting on what his wife was going through – or used as a longer monologue. But two vignettes separated as they lose their power.

Hamm does have a couple of great moments; one in particular is Fabulous Freddy who brings wigs and prosthetics to the chemo café. Jeanie Rule has a great supporting moment as Aunt Bonnie, a loving but misguided family member.

One of the more powerful moments of the play is Lauren Leinhaas-Cook’s emotional meltdown and the effect on the audience was heart rending.

Musical Director Kim Fox and her two musicians, Derrick Englert on bass, and Scott Milstead on drums provide a rich sound. Lynne M. Hartman’s lights are good as she moves us around the stage and from scene to scene in the blink of an eye. Nikki Wragg and Maupin have designed a nice collection of costumes.

The fragility of life is deftly explored in BREAST IN SHOW, but it is tempered with good songs, a little silliness, and a great deal of hope. I hope the limited run production will not be lost in the avalanche of good theatre  that has been running around Richmond.

Make the time to check this out.

(As always, I copy entire reviews on this blog for archival purposes only.)

Friday, August 17, 2012

Musical theatre versus theatrical music

There are a few people in RVA whose presence in the audience of a show I'm doing excites me just a bit more. Dave and Liz White, Stacie Rearden Hall, Maura Burroughs, and several other sometime collaborators always guarantee an erudite discussion of the craft of theatre after the show, and the only thing I love as much as creating art is discussing the creation of art. In the same vein, when David Timberline sees a show I've directed I get a little extra-excited to see what he's going to say. His criticism is always intelligent, always fair, and always invites discussion.

Dave saw Joe Jackson's Night and Day last night. No fair sitting in the front row, by the way (though that wasn't nearly as distracting as Tim Kaine striking up a conversation with me ten seconds before my entrance last Sunday. Turns out Tim and Anne are huge Joe Jackson fans. Who knew?). Dave's take on the show was published on his blog this afternoon. As is so often the case with his writing, it got my mind whirling with deep thoughts and counter-arguments. And that's what this blog is for, friends.

"Concert musical" is the term I've been using to describe JJND for the past few months, and I've never been entirely happy with it. Dave's reaction to the show's lack of narrative brought my dissatisfaction home, and hard. Celia Wren eloquently described the piece in the Times-Dispatch a couple weeks ago thus: "Built around an onstage band, Hamm's production wasn't a play per se. Rather, he drew out, expanded and interlinked narrative elements in Jackson's albums, turning the songs into musical scenes and sketches featuring recurring characters. A principal storyline, concerning a New York-based songwriter striving to capture the city's energy in a catchy tune, added unity."

Finally this week, words that resonate came to mind: Joe Jackson's Night and Day isn't musical theatre. It's theatrical music.

The reason this terminology is so important is evident in Dave's completely reasonable response to the show's lack of through-lines. In coming from a theatrical standpoint, he walked into the theatre with storytelling, character-fulfilling expectations that the material not only doesn't meet, but doesn't even care about. The comparison with Tommy is telling and, in my humble opinion, quite mistaken; Tommy is in absolutely no way a "concert musical;" it's an entirely traditional book musical that just happens to have rock music at its core. It's full of dialogue songs, storyline, and characters with beginnings, middles, and ends. Joe Jackson's Night and Day makes no attempt at any of these things.

Expecting JJND to have the same aesthetic resonance as a play is like reading a collection of Chekhov short stories and expecting them to result in a novel, or like seeing David Mamet's New York Stories and expecting them to result in Glengarry Glen Ross. The best theatrical analogue to JJND that I can think of is Neil Simon's The Good Doctor, a collection of short plays based on Chekhov stories and linked together by a Writer character who has several monologues and acts as a narrator. But even that isn't quite right, because the scenes in The Good Doctor are all little plays in and of themselves, with traditional storytelling narrative. A better example would be Randall Kenan's short story collection Let the Dead Bury Their Dead, which I'm fairly certain no one I know has ever read, making it a moot instance. But trust me, it's good.

Songs are like short fiction or poetry in that they don't have any requirement to tell story, only to create imagery. I hate hate hate jukebox musicals, and the thing that distinguishes JJND from jukebox musicals is that it very specifically refuses to shoehorn story and character development into the material in order to spoon-feed connective tissue to the audience. JJND is still in development, and has changed a lot in the past 12 years, but it will never ever ever have an over-arching story, nor will the characters go from point A to point Z. Instead, we see sketches of lives, point D through J, L through M, R through V.

We are creating something unique with Joe Jackson's Night and Day, and it is as much a challenge to the audience as it has been to the artists. We welcome the challenge, even if it means that the show occasionally hits audience members bonk on the brain a bit. I'm glad that the show's critics have had questions and disagreements with our choices, because they will help us grow the show for October's New York showcase, as well as future iterations. And I love talking about the craft of theatre!

For now, we have two shows left and limited seats. I invite you to let the show wash over you like songs, not like scenes. Come out to Joe Jackson's Night and Day and see what all the fuss is about.

Dave Timberline: JJND is "pushing the creative envelope".

From Dave T's Richmond VA Theater Blog:

A Night of Night and Day

It’s not unusual for me to leave a production I’ve enjoyed with a bit of a crush. That’s part of the joy of plays, movies, TV, even dance in my opinion: someone you see grabs your eye and something they do captures your heart. Even though I’m a straight guy, my crushes aren’t always young women: I left “All Fall Down” on Monday with a little crush on Matt Shofner, both times at “Spring Awakening” I was enamored with the couple of Wendla and Melchior as played by Ali Thibodeau and Oliver Houser.

I took in Joe Jackson’s Night and Day at Richmond Triangle Players last night and came away with a new infatuation with Rebecca Muhleman, one of five very talented singers that populate Andrew Hamm’s world premiere brainchild. Whether standing stridently at center stage or bopping around seemingly overcome with love of the music, Ms. Muhleman is an electric presence in this so-called concert musical. Her shock of white blond hair, dramatic eyes, and imposing physicality are complemented by an expressive voice that adds all sorts of nuance to familiar JJ songs like “Dear Mom” and especially “Breaking Us in Two.” Her energy bubbled up and overflowed at different times, making her the engine that powered the action through much of the show.

That’s not to say she was the only shining star on the Triangle Players stage. All of the other singers – Augustin Correro, Keydron Dunn, Anne Carr Regan, Liz Blake White and Mr. Hamm himself – all had moments of star power in this production. I was most entertained by Dunn, particularly in his second act rant, “Cancer.” I was enthralled by White in the pensive “Why,” while also loving her great duets with Correro in “Real Men” and “Glamour and Pain.” Regan steps to the fore in “Love Got Lost,” a strong song that she infuses with passion.

It’s hard to know what exactly to call JJND – I guess concert musical makes sense, though the thread of something like a story here is not even as strong as other pretty loose concert musicals like “The Who’s Tommy” or Green Day’s “American Idiot.” I like the general premise – the “songwriter” played by Hamm seems to be imagining the characters in his songs, mostly people from the streets of New York, each with their specific quirks and vocations – White is a prostitute, Dunn a homeless guy, Correro an art student perhaps with maybe a night-time propensity for cross-dressing. As he writes their songs, he apparently wills them into being and we see their stories play out before us. Particularly with some of Jackson’s more compelling songs – faves like “Chinatown” or “Another World” – it’s easy to imagine the swirl of street life, the bustle of New York and the inherent drama of life there.

A few things hamper the show as conceptualized, in my opinion. One is that most of the characters aren’t give through-lines – Regan plays a NYC tourist but then reappears as a character otherwise undefined. You can kind of develop a full-fledged character for Correro but it’s not inherent in the material and it’s a bit of a drag to have to second-guess what the intention is. The other thing is that there isn’t really enough connective tissue to make the stories all work together. For instance, the songwriter and his relationship with his girlfriend (Muhleman) is encapsulated solely within “Breaking Us in Two,” a great song but not as complete as say Billy Joel’s “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” in terms of background, conflict and conclusion. I loved the scene but it didn’t make for a complete theatrical trajectory. The finale is ultimately a self-centered one: the songwriter finally gets his one problematic song to work – “Steppin Out” – which makes for a rousing conclusion but again, not quite a dramatically satisfying one in terms of incorporating any of the other stories.

Finally, there seems to be a certain urge toward completism that doesn’t necessarily serve the show. “T.V. Age” is a fine song and I loved the closed circuit broadcast accompaniment (could that coquettish little scamp be Annella Kaine???) but I didn’t see how it fit in this show with these characters. I understand the show spans two of Joe Jackson’s album but it’s somewhat arbitrary from a dramatic standpoint that all of the songs had to be included.

Still, if your expectations are set appropriately – a hot evening of cool songs performed by a kickin’ band – the performance is not lacking for anything. The addition of strings in the form of violin (played by Seamus Guy) and cello (Michael Knowles) is inspired and really raises the musicality to another level. I agree completely with John Porter that the percussion is often overwhelming and could stand to be scaled back, even though I loved the licks Adam Young was pulling on the drums and Jake Allard’s percussion – whether on congas or plastic drum – was energizing.

Probably most of all, Hamm’s perseverance in getting this world premiere up and running, then going the distance in delivering a thoroughly entertaining evening of music, deserves to be roundly applauded. The concept is inspired and the performances he and codirector Stacie Rearden Hall get out of their cast are fabulous. Richmond is lucky to have talented people like Hamm pushing the creative envelope, not to mention giving an old guy like me the chance to relive the joy of discovery of Joe Jackson’s stirring and sophisticated song-craft. Bravo, Andrew!

Friday, August 10, 2012

John Porter: " 'Joe Jackson's Night and Day' Rocks Richmond Triangle Players"

As usual, I choose to copy and paste entire reviews because URLs and webhosts tend to change and archival reviews tend to disappear...

From John Porter's Blog:

Joe Jackson's Night and Day Rocks Richmond Triangle Players

“One of the things I love best about Country Music,” a young Ray Charles answered a reporter, “is the stories the music tells.” Joe Jackson’s Night and Day, a world premiere now running at Richmond Triangle Players has nothing to do with country music, but it tells some of the most compelling stories and the appreciative audience on opening night hung on nearly every musical phrase and savored the experience for every second of the production.

Joe Jackson’s Night and Day is the brainchild of Andrew Hamm, a dedicated musician as well as actor, writer, and director. Hamm has done much more than string together some of Jackson’s music; he has crafted them in such a way as to tell the story of New York through the eyes of several different people. These are songs of innocence and songs of experience to steal titles from William Blake. And like the visionary that Blake was, Jackson has a way of looking at the darker side of his world and transcending it to the heavens.

Hamm not only crafted the show but serves as the musical director, a character within the play, and co-director with Stacie Rearden Hall. That’s one dedicated obsessive fan. Apparently the show has been percolating in his fertile imagination for a number of years and he finally has it ready to share with the world.

I think the play is a solid work-in-progress that is almost ready to be released with perhaps a few adjustments. Let’s consider the pros of the production first.

The music is wonderful; building on two of Jackson’s best albums – Night and Day and Night and Day II. The first album lived in my cassette deck for a long time, until the tape stretched too thin and snapped. This of course was in the days before compact discs. It has since been replaced. Hamm has chosen several songs that set the mood beautifully and his cast performs admirably.

Which brings us to the second pro; the cast and band. The singers include the aforementioned Hamm as well as Augustin J. Correro, Kedron Dunn, Rebecca Anne Muhleman, Anne Carr Regan, and Liz Blake White. Each has more than one moment to shine and they make the most of it. Real standouts for me include “Stranger Than You” featuring Hamm, Correro, and Muhleman; “Chinatown” featuring Dunn, the duet of Correro and White on “Real Men”; “Cancer” again featuring Dunn, and the poignant duet between Hamm and Muhleman on “Breaking Us In Two” could make a statue tear up. I do wish that Regan had been able to solo more, although her take on “Another World” was jubilant and over the top fun. Even a member of the audience got pulled into that number.

The band featured a number of very good musicians including Jake Allard on percussion – mainly congas. He was joined by Adam Young on drums with Philip Hamm on bass to complete the rhythm section. They were joined by Michael Knowles on cello and Seamus Guy on violin. I was surprised by the string section as they added so much especially considering that live strings are often replaced by synthesized ones. The one issue I had with the band was the increased volume in an intimate space. The drums especially were overpowering and often took focus away from the singers.

I was also a little fuzzy on Hamm’s initial concept. At the beginning we see Hamm, as Jackson – or at least someone very much like Jackson – working out the song “Stepping Out.” Once he is seated at his keyboard, the other musicians enter and are mostly in the back, except for the strings. As Hamm rarely makes any eye contact with the musicians except to count time or to end a song, I’m not sure if the musicians are meant to be in the mind of Jackson as he’s imagining the music or something else. We see the creation of the music, but not what created the image.

The set is a representation of a New York street complete with homeless people and piles of stuff. The set is designed by T. Ross Aitken and it makes the most of the small surroundings. Kay Renee designed the costumes which are especially good on Regan’s “Another World” and anything featuring Dunn. The lights by David White were mostly good, although I could do without the strobe effects. I also like Deanna Danger’s choreography on “Dear Mom.” I’m not sure if Hamm or co-director Hall did the other choreography, but that is one area that needs to be beefed up a little more. The stage pictures are nice, but sometimes the movement leaves a little to be desired.

Joe Jackson’s Night and Day will have a limited run as it gears up for a Producer’s Showcase in New York and the work is a great way to spend a summer’s night.

Monday, August 06, 2012

Richmond Times-Dispatch feature on "Joe Jackson's Night and Day"

Celia Wren, one of my favorite theatre writers in the world, has written a wonderful piece about Joe Jackson's Night and Day that was featured in Sunday's Richmond Times-Dispatch. I love that Celia does a far better job describing the show's aesthetic than my rambling attempts ever do. Check it out!

World premiere concert-musical for Richmond Triangle Players

Never underestimate the power of a hand-me-down: That's a lesson you could draw from the latest exploit by local thespian Andrew Hamm.

In 1995, when Hamm was an undergraduate at Virginia Commonwealth University, he received a used turntable and a slew of old albums from his brother, Philip. As a more or less direct result of that acquisition, Andrew Hamm conceived, and is now directing and performing in, a world premiere concert-musical: "Joe Jackson's Night and Day," running at Richmond Triangle Players Wednesday through Aug. 18.

Those cast-off records included "Night and Day" and several other albums by Joe Jackson, the rock/pop musician known for hit songs "Is She Really Going Out with Him?" and "Steppin' Out."

"I instantly fell in love with his music," Hamm remembers, remarking on Jackson's flair for conjuring up people and anecdotes in song. "He had a great ability to tell character stories that were snarky and affectionate at the same time."

In subsequent years, Hamm made an effort to catch Jackson on tour and was impressed by the theatricality
of the rocker's concerts. A show might feature instrumentalists in costume, and Jackson might make an entrance with a conspicuous prop, such as a suitcase.

An enthusiast of theater and music, Hamm was naturally inclined to appreciate such rock-drama hybrids.

He grew up in New Jersey and Virginia and earned a bachelor's degree in theater performance from VCU in 1996. A multi-instrumentalist, he spent time after college in New York, where he wrote music for an album he titled "Strange Education."

In 2000, Jackson released "Night and Day II," a follow-up to 1982's "Night and Day." After catching the "Night and Day II" tour in New York, Hamm found himself brainstorming staging techniques that might further underscore the drama in Jackson's music.

When Hamm returned to VCU for a master's degree in theater pedagogy — he received his degree in 2005 — he thought about creating a concert-musical version of the two "Night and Day" albums as his dissertation project. He contacted Jackson's manager, Michael Maska, who supported the idea, even helping Hamm secure permissions.

Built around an onstage band, Hamm's production wasn't a play per se. Rather, he drew out, expanded and interlinked narrative elements in Jackson's albums, turning the songs into musical scenes and sketches featuring recurring characters.

A principal storyline, concerning a New York-based songwriter striving to capture the city's energy in a catchy tune, added unity.

A workshop version of the show, with a volunteer cast, received two performances at the Science Museum of Virginia.

Hamm went on to other theater work: He has acted and directed on local stages and he served for a time as Richmond Shakespeare's associate artistic director. But he couldn't put the Jackson project behind him and eventually started exploring a professional production.

Maska again gave his endorsement. "It's a win situation for everyone," the manager said, pointing out that Hamm's show could introduce Jackson's music to new audiences.

Besides, he said, "Joe is very supportive of the arts overall. He likes musicals. He likes theater." (Indeed, Maska added, Jackson is working on a musical about the life of "Dracula" author Bram Stoker).

When Hamm approached Richmond Triangle Players with the "Night and Day" idea, the company's artistic director, John Knapp, was interested.

"It felt like a good fit, in size and in scope," Knapp said in an email, pointing out that RTP has experience nurturing new work, having hosted a workshop production of Julie Fulcher-Davis' musical "Company of Angels" in 2010.

Hamm, who performed in the play-with-music "This Beautiful City" at RTP last year, believed "Joe Jackson's Night and Day" has found the right home: RTP's mission focuses on works relevant to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities, and in the new concert-musical, "as with a lot of Joe's work, there (are) a lot of gender issues and identity issues."

Hamm will be playing keyboards in the six-piece band that's central to "Joe Jackson's Night and Day."

And on the bass will be his brother, Philip, who accidentally sowed the seeds for the concert-musical all those years ago.

Monday, February 20, 2012

"Broadway" comes to town. And there was much rejoicing.

Hallelujah! The Legitimate The-ay-ter has finally come to town. The Lion King is on tour and we poor benighted souls in Central Virginia can finally get some culture. It's "Broadway in Richmond" at the Landmark Theater, and now we can spend a fortune on it just like real big-city folk. All it takes is $80 for each ticket and $15 for parking and you, yes, you can have a real honest-to-goodness theatrical experience!

(Sheldon Cooper alert: The above paragraph was, indeed, sarcasm.)

Every time one of these big shows comes to town I get the same slow, cynical burn of anger. Whether it be not one but two productions of Wicked in an 18-month span or the current tour of The Lion King, the local media behaves as if heavenly choirs have descended from the clouds, singing the praises of the Angel of Theatre, finally come to save us all from our regional culturelessness. "Praise Thespis!" cries the local media, beckoning families to spend Christmaslike sums of money on "Broadway in Richmond."

To put my frustration into perspective: The Times-Dispatch has no fewer than five links to Lion King articles or video on their website right now. But local theatre reviews are often relegated to inner pages of the paper facing obituaries. No wonder we theatre folk feel like our art is dying.

It's so frustrating that I find it difficult to even determine who or what I'm mad at. The fact is, I love The Lion King. I saw it on Broadway in 1998 and wept like a child when the elephant appeared in the aisle. Julie Taymor's direction and design were not only gorgeous and moving, they were something the like of which I had never seen. Then Timon and Pumbaa appeared and engaged my cynicism circuit with their entirely commercial duplication of the movie's character designs, voices, and even line readings. I started the show transported, and then Di$ney callously added the dis- to my enchantment. I certainly enjoyed the show, but was left with a very clear impression of what the production's priorities were, and insane profit was at the very top of the list. In the end, Taymor is a master of spectacle, of mime and mask, but the show is far more flagrantly commercial than we tend to think it is.

We all love spectacle. It's why the awful Star Wars prequels and Transformers movies are among the top-selling films of all time. But you know what's more impressive to me than the multimillion-dollar spectacle of a production with the financial might of Disney behind it? The bear in Richmond Shakespeare / Henley Street's The Winter's Tale. The spiral staircase from Theatre IV / Barksdale's Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. The running water and incredible bravery of Richmond Triangle Players' Take Me Out. The gripping contradictions of This Beautiful City. The hysterical fearlessness of the cast of A Midsummer Night's Dream. The entire worlds created by Jill Bari Steinberg in The Syringa Tree and Scott Wichmann in This Wonderful Life. The lively urgency of Cadence's Kimberly Akimbo and the unapologetic boldness of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. The Firehouse's consistent commitment to craft. Did you notice when I stopped being impressed by technical aspects and shifted into the ineffable wonders of theatre that no amount of budget can buy? That's because those wonders are, in the end, all that theatre is. What's more, they are the things local theatre does that no other art form can approach.

By all means, go to the Landmosque and see The Lion King. Next to 1988's The Phantom of the Opera in London it's the best spectacle I've ever seen on stage. It's certainly the best thing Disney and Taymor can throw millions of dollars at while requiring their actors to impersonate the voice inflections of a 20-year-old movie cribbed from Hamlet and made for children. (Sarcasm: yes.) But please take this admonition for what it's worth: If you can afford to see The Lion King, you can afford to see many many shows by local arts organizations this year. And the money you spend on local companies is better than money spent on touring shows in a multitude of ways. Here are just a few:
  1. Money spent on touring shows goes largely to out-of-state megacorporations who frankly don't need it. Your $80 ticket is a drop in a drop in a bucket.
  2. Money spent on local arts organizations goes straight into the local economy. Damn near every penny of it. The companies benefit, and their actors, directors, designers, technicians, administrators, and sponsors all benefit. Your $120 season subscription buys an actor's entire wardrobe for a show, or enough gas for a sexual abuse prevention play to drive to Roanoke and back, or a new headset microphone that will be used for the next five years.
  3. Touring Broadway musicals are re-creations of productions that were originally designed to make as much money as possible in New York City for audiences primarily composed of tourists. Irony, that: the show was made in New York for non-New Yorkers, and touring shows are made to seem as much like New York theatre as they can. The result is quite literally the most generic theatre experience possible.
  4. Local theatre is created by local artists for local audiences. That means your neighbors are creating their art for you specifically. The issues on your mind are on their minds, and their work is informed by it. The artistic directors, as well, select their seasons for you and for your community. Local theatre is designed for you, to make you think and feel as much as possible. That shared context is something no big tour can approach.
  5. Touring shows are here and gone. You will likely never see the artists or technicians again.
  6. Local shows feature local talent with deep ties to the community. You can easily end up sitting in an audience with an actor or director or designer whose work you like, and get a chance to talk about it with them. Better still, you get to see artists progress, learn whose work you like and make it an event to always see their shows. Is your favorite actress growing as she works? Is a director you like challenging himself, and you, with his choices? Are that designer's costumes as beautiful as the ones she produced last year?
So The Lion King has come to Richmond. So what? It's a great show, there's no denying it. But if you like The Lion King, if you like "Broadway in Richmond," if you like theatre, I guarantee you're going to absolutely love what your local theatre company has to offer.

Support your local artist!


Tuesday, December 06, 2011


The Richmond theatre community has been abuzz this week in response to a post on Dave Timberline's blog on the subject of texting/tweeting/etc. (hereafter referred to as "texting") by audience members of live theatre events. I was drawn into a continuation of the discussion into the wee hours of last night on, ironically, Twitter. In fact, long after I had put aside my phone (thus proving that it is, in fact, possible to put your phone down and stop typing on the thing), my mind was churning with thoughts on the subject. Finally I concluded that I would darn well have to write a blog post on the subject.

This is what happens when you text in the theater.

As soon as you turn on or open your phone in a darkened theater, the blue light from the screen is visible to every single member of the audience next to or behind you. If you are in the back row, the light reflects off the back and side walls and is perceived in the peripheral vision of audience members in several rows in front of you. Physiological reflex responses cause virtually everyone who sees the light to look at it, which has two effects: 1) their pupil dilation decreases, which blurs their vision and color perception for the next several beats of the play, and 2) whatever emotions they may be feeling in response to the show they are seeing are immediately subsumed by their irritation with you. So your phone has now created a breach in both the visual and emotional connection between performance and audience.
Even if your phone is on silent and is neither seen nor heard, the fact that it is on has several effects. To begin with, no one is 100% effective at remembering to silence their phone; if you habitually refuse to turn your phone off before curtain, as almost all theatres require, the time will come when yours is the phone that rings in the middle of the play. It's a statistical near-certainty, one that can only be remedied by your following the incredibly simple instruction to turn your phone off before curtain.

Your phone doesn't need to be open, active, or even in your hand to disrupt a theatrical performance. It receives texts, calls, and data constantly while it's on, much of it on radio frequencies overlapping those singers use for their wireless microphones, musicians use for digital electronics, and sound engineers use for signal processors. Stage managers communicate using walkie-talkies, and board operators often use remote controls for lighting and video equipment. Have you ever heard funny sounds come through the system while an actor on a mike was talking or singing? Much of that interference is caused by cellular phone signals.

Theatre artists themselves are also strongly affected by your active cell phone and texting. The wonder of theatre, the thing that makes it different from TV, movies, and internet entertainment is the simple fact that the performers are sharing the same space as the audience. Simply put, the actors are as aware of you as you are of them. Stage actors are not your TV. They are trained to perceive audience response and to alter their actions accordingly. Konstantin Stanislavski, the father of modern acting, coined the phrase "dual consciousness" to describe it: actors are simultaneously aware of their environment as characters and as performers. So when that blue light flashes in the audience, actors have exactly the same automatic reflex response as audience members who see it: their eyes dart to the source of the light and their emotions are automatically engaged--usually with extreme irritation. This immediately pulls part of their attention away from their task at hand, which is to create the most honest and engaging performance possible, and to do it for you, gentle texter. And it doesn't matter if you are texting "zomg this show is sooooo great!!!!!1111oneoneone" because the actors can't possibly know that. All they can see is that you have a higher priority right now than paying attention to the performance they are putting their heart and soul into.

Perhaps more importantly, active phones in an audience are a legitimate safety issue for many performers. Dancers and stage combatants often engage in actions involving spotting, i.e. fixing their gaze on a point, turning swiftly, and re-orienting themselves on the same point. A suddenly-appearing new light source in the midst of an otherwise-darkened audience area within a dancer/combatant's field of vision can be an extremely dangerous distraction. Even non-spotting choreography requires focus for safety, focus which is diverted by the appearance of sudden light sources. This is part of why pre-show announcements also include the admonishment that "No flash photography is permitted." The fact that your cell phone is not as bright or sudden as a camera flash makes it only moderately less hazardous.

Last month I saw a show in Richmond wherein an audience member seated in the front row answered a phone call, stood up, and to my complete befuddlement walked into a dark area next to the stage. She stood directly in front of a curtain which had been used earlier in the show as an entrance for actors and set pieces, and engaged in a hushed but clearly audible and visible phone conversation for a full minute before hanging up and sitting down. The audience was flabbergasted; it was all people talked about during the intermission, and we were still discussing it after the show ended. Please understand me clearly when I say this: An audience member reading or sending a text is only marginally less of a disruption for actors and audience than this woman's actions were.

New standards and paradigms for new technology

An argument can be made that society evolves with new technology, with new standards and mores, and that the fact that 80% of Americans text should cause us to adjust our expectations for audience members. Yes, that argument can be made, but it shouldn't, because it's irrelevant.

First of all, the standards have not, in fact, changed at all. I know of no theaters that don't ask their patrons to turn off all cell phones before shows. The phone being on is required for texting, ergo the standards are already in place. If anything, I would suggest that the language we use should express the reality of the situation more clearly, i.e. replacing "Please turn off all cell phones" with "All patrons are required to power off all electronic devices at this time. Silent or airplane modes are not acceptable. All electronic devices must be turned off at this time." No phones on, no texting. Bazinga.

Secondly, it isn't as if theaters are the only place in the western world where texting is considered inappropriate. Just off the top of my head, churches, synagogues, mosques, libraries, movie theaters, doctor's offices, schools, art galleries, government chambers, police stations, and courtrooms all have strict "no cellphone use" policies. Many of them will kick you out or even jail you for disobedience. A theatrical event is just as disrupted by a phone as church or court, and far more than a movie. The expectation is clear and understood by all but the most recalcitrant or inconsiderate.

We make the rules for new technology, the rules don't just default to the low standards of the laziest or most inconsiderate users. New technology doesn't come with ready-made rules and regulations. When the automobile was invented, there were no laws to govern its use. It took years for such issues as which side of the road to use, how to determine right-of-way, and even how to use lights and horns to be determined. Laws weren't written to suit the whims of what drivers wanted, they were written in order to govern safe, responsible use. Smartphones, even standard cellphones, are still very new technology. Now is not the time to cave to the whims of early adopters, it's time to write and codify the standards and protocols by which such devices will be operated. Rule 1: Do not operate your phone while you drive. Rule 2: Do not operate your phone in an environment wherein its use negatively impacts both the observers of a show and the show's performers.

History and future

An argument can be made that the propriety of audience response has changed over the years. In particular, the example of Elizabethan audiences throwing vegetables and talking to the performers has been cited. This is true, but is again largely an irrelevant argument for several reasons: 1) Theatre had only been professional (paid practitioners, paying audiences) for about two decades when Shakespeare started, so audiences were still figuring out how to behave. The fact that the throwing ceased in the decades after it started is similar to audience texting stopping a few years after it started (which it must). In Shakespeare's day, playhouses and five-act drama were the "new technology." 2) The lighting for both actors and audiences was shared in Elizabethan theatre, so audience disruptions didn't create a large visual aberration for performers and audience. 3) The audience expected yelling and throwing, as did the performers, and the actor training was designed to prepare for it. No one in the audience was offended or distracted by a yeller. Theatre doesn't work that way now, and hasn't for centuries. Current theatregoing audiences don't want to see those blue lights any more than the actors do. 4) In some theatre, the American "Chitlin Circuit" and children's theatre for example, there's plenty of yelling at the stage. These forms are designed and prepared for it. They are a very small minority. And texting is rude there, too.

The argument to which I turn the most sympathetic ear is the economic one. Theatres are losing audience members, the subscriber base is almost gone, and we need to find ways to reach out to more potential patrons. This is the tricky one, because I certainly want to reach more people with theatre, and I desperately want people who never thought they would like theatre to fall in love with it. However, I simply can't understand how allowing people to text and tweet in the theatre is at all a solution to this problem.

Audience members aren't staying away from theatre because they ask you to turn your phone off (else they would also be staying away from movies). No one puts on their coat on a Friday night and says "Where can I go tonight that will both entertain me and allow me to send text messages?" I understand the desire to make the theatre more accessible to a new generation, but I draw the line where this perceived "accessibility" comes at the expense of product quality and interferes with other audience members' ability to enjoy the show. The same argument could be extended to smokers, with one exception: unlike texters, many smokers actually will make their evening plans based on whether or not they will be able to smoke at the venue. You want a box office boost? Add a smoking section. And a cigar lounge. And a section for parents with small children. And a bring-your-own dinner section. And a section with the football game playing on a discreetly-placed TV. And a talk-out-loud-to-your-friend-during-the-show section. At least one of those is a million-dollar idea.

Many theatres, our own Richmond Shakespeare included, have experimented with "tweet seats" or social media nights. This is an intriguing idea, so long as the affected seats are in the very back of the theatre, and so long as all patrons are made fully aware of where the distracting blue light will be centered. I'd like to know when these performances are going to be so I can skip the show that night. And I'd like to know which theatres are going to relax their "phones off" policies so I can stop attending their plays.

Theatre is special

Audiences aren't staying away from theatre because they can't text there. Audience members are staying away from theatre because they prefer other, cheaper, less intellectually and emotionally challenging entertainments. I want them in the theatre, make no mistake. But I want them to sit down knowing that what they are about to experience is different, more immediate, more alive. I don't want them to turn off their phones grudgingly, I want them to turn them off because theatre is special, and it is so much better when you apply your full attention to it. Audiences are staying away from theatre because they haven't fallen in love with it. Yet.

There are pages of personal emotional arguments I can make against texting in the audience, arguments regarding how insulting it is as an actor to work for weeks or months crafting a performance, memorizing lines, rehearsing and engaging all of my skills and crafts to create a reality and a connection with my audience, only to have one or more members whip out their phone to update their Facebook status, or to do any number of other activities that can damn well wait for intermission. But those arguments, valid concerns though they may be, pale in comparison to the triumvirate of irrefutably logical reasons texting is and should remain forbidden in theatrical audiences:

1) It distracts other audience members.
2) It diminishes the artistic product.
3) It is potentially dangerous to the performers.

When the audience activity in question creates a decrease in the quality of product, the quality of experience, and the safety of the workers, there is no reasonable compromise or discussion to be had. This is a black and white issue. We don't text in the theatre.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Arkansas Times: "As You Like It" is "a gracious romp".

"As You Like It" a lively production
by Bernard Reed
Arkansas Times
July 6, 2011

Shakespeare, for being the untouchable granddaddy of English-speaking arts and culture, can be remarkably lowbrow. For some, his name makes them yawn and think of incomprehensible soliloquies to skulls and a confusing mess of "thees" and "thous," highfalutin drudge much like opera or Russian literature. Of course, back in his day, the bard wasn't thinking about academic immortality or what Harold Bloom would eventually say about him. He was a simple playwright with the rabble of Renaissance London to entertain — no doubt a tough crowd.

Dan Matisa as Jaques.

Therein lies the amusement of "As You Like It," which has remained a crowd-pleaser since 1600 or so. Much like traveling thespians of yore, the Arkansas Shakespeare Festival took its production of this comedy from Conway to the Argenta Community Theater in North Little Rock for its final weekend of shows.

It's a lively, fast-faced production, with a crew of bumbling, romantic characters who are all ironically fated to go head over heels for each other. Orlando (David Huynh), appropriately wide-eyed and optimistic, is a gentleman of the kingdom who is tormented by his older brother. After defeating the court wrestler in an uproarious and anachronistic showdown, Orlando is exiled by Duke Fredrick (Robert Dillon) and must flee his home into the Forest of Arden, but not before falling in love at first sight with Rosalind (Amy Fritsche), the daughter of a usurped duke. Conveniently, and without reason, Rosalind is likewise banished shortly after. She and her cousin, Celia (Christa Whitlow), along with a bouncy court fool, make haste as well to the Forest of Arden. For protection (but really to line up your typical gender-bending, mistaken-identity Shakespearian gags) Rosalind assumes a man's disguise, adopting the name Ganymede.

Superbly acted and directed, the rest of "As You Like It" is the typical lighthearted pastoral romance. "Ganymede" does "his" merry best to unite a pair of lovesick shepherds, one of whom falls in love with "him" instead. Ganymede also runs into Orlando, who unwittingly confesses his love for Rosalind. An assortment of other forest characters, blessed with their author's sharp-tongued wit, amorously pursue each other, while back in the kingdom Duke Fredrick calculates his revenge against all those characters in the play who are having more fun than him. Finally tiring of her charade, Rosalind drops her disguise and works on making sure that everyone ends up coupled and happy. Spoiler alert — everybody gets married in the final scene.

As enjoyable as he can be, Shakespeare is also dauntingly complex — one wrong move can make him boring and impenetrable. Although at times a bit lightning-quick, this is not a trap that the Shakespeare Festival falls into; it's a gracious romp on the playwright's more high-spirited side. Instead of pondering "To be, or not to be," they frolic in the good news that "All the world's a stage"— a monologue that in this production is both melancholy and humorous, not forgetting its comedy with the fame of its lines.

Unless you're an actor, you may hesitate to say that any work of Shakespeare's is fun; most of the time, that doesn't seem quite the word. But this production of "As You Like It" could be described as such. The actors seemed to be genuinely enjoying themselves, delivering their speeches and asides as much for the audience as for themselves. Scattered with references to the modern day, as well as a live soundtrack of a few eighties pop classics, a purist might not have been amused; but what is Shakespeare if not eternally accessible? It is for the people, the hardscrabble crowds that thronged the Globe Theatre to stand in the mud and get drunk. If Harold Bloom doesn't like it, that's because he was never supposed to.

Here's a link to the original article.

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Monday, June 27, 2011

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette: "Othello" is "a wonderfully vivid and lively experience."

— Good productions should, at the very least, make an audience understand why a play is great. That Shakespeare’s Othello is a great play is beyond question, but the Arkansas Shakespeare Festival production, which opened at the Reynolds Performance Hall in Conway on Saturday, makes the tragedy a wonderfully vivid and lively experience.

It is helped in great measure in this by the performance of David Alford as Iago. Alford, who also happens to be the director, is electric in his malevolence and guile.

With his shaved head and dressed in camouflage, he is utterly believable as a soldier of second rank who can charm at parties (even performing a rap of Shakespeare’s surprisingly suitable verses) while putting together the pieces of his plan and sowing the seeds of doubt for poor Othello (Derrick Parker).

Alford transports this Othello to the modern Middle East, and this kind of setting-shift can be fraught with danger, often drawing unintended conclusions or simply distracting from the play itself. But the impressive set design by Chet Longley - a blasted place with ominous ruins and sandbagged fortresses - and incisive sound design by Matt Choirini make for an ideal setting where love can so easily and so quickly turn sour.

The wild, drunken party where Casio (an excellent Chris Crawford) loses his reputation is expertly staged. After it is done, you understand that this debauchery is part of the bargain in a war-torn land where soldiers are going to blow off steam after battle.

As Othello, Parker makes a convincing case for being a leader only too ready to be led to the madness that is jealousy. Parker, who sometimes speaks too softly in his first scenes, is especially effective in the second act when clutching at his head as if trying to rid himself of the thoughts Iago has planted there.

Paige Reynolds’ Desdemona is a touching figure, a soul who is completely unaware of the darkness that is enveloping her new husband. Likewise Emilia (Heather Dupree), who unwittingly helps her husband, Iago, set the trap for Othello. Adam Mincks as Roderigo has many nice moments where his displays of ignorance come in comic form.

But this Othello pivots on Iago, and Alford makes him so real and alive, you are on the edge of your seat at the end wanting a full explanation for his vile deeds. Shakespeare leaves that question hanging, not unlike a piece of tantalizing but bitter fruit. That the Arkansas Shakespeare Festival makes that question plain is but one measure of its success.

Othello continues as part of the Arkansas Shakespeare Festival through Sunday. Call (501) 450-3265.

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Friday, June 17, 2011

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette: "As You Like It" is "a spirited take on the comedy"

Setting clicks for spirited "As You Like It"
by Werner Trieschmann
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
June 17, 2011

LITTLE ROCK — Plan to perform "As You Like It" outdoors in June in Arkansas and you can expect to like it hot and steamy. But just when the Arkansas Shakespeare Festival was about to kick off its fifth season at The Village at Hendrix in Conway, what must have been the only black cloud in the state parked itself over the stage as well as the waiting crowd sitting on blankets and chairs in front of it.

The black cloud didn’t produce any rain Thursday. The strong wind that came with it did push some curtains around, but then the weather settled down. The happy result was a cool evening in which the game performers offered a spirited take on the Shakespeare comedy that goes to the forests of Arden to tangle and untangle many romantic knots.

The production, directed by Andrew Hamm, was playful and managed to walk the very fine line of being funny without falling completely over into corny. An early wrestling match between the fearsome Charles (Dan Matisa, wearing a Mexican wrestling mask) and fearful Orlando (David Huynh) was a highlight. The wrestlers even used the old hit-the-opponent-with-a-folding-chair trick.

"As You Like It" is pretty much about the love affair between Rosalind (Amy Fritsche) and Orlando. Fritsche brought a recognizable zeal to the part, especially when disguised as a man and spurning the advances of Phebe (Caroline Mincks). Huynh played the lovesick puppy part to the hilt.

As Orlando’s brother, Oliver, Derrick Parker did some nice double-takes and stares of disbelief in the second act. Matisa, playing in the second act the melancholy Jaques (who delivers the famed “All the world’s a stage” speech), is a natural comedian and offered a fresh spin to his lines throughout.

While the entire company of actors did have to compete with thunder rumbling in the distance and microphones that cut out from time to time, they held the sizable crowd’s attention.

The enjoyable evening was capped by a song about the spring in which the cast incongruously but hilariously danced the macarena. Put that together with the lovely setting of Hendrix Village and cooperative Arkansas weather, and the Shakespeare Festival’s decision to take it outdoors was a smart one.

"As You Like It" continues today and Sunday with pay-what-you can-performances at 7:30 p.m. at The Village at Hendrix on the Hendrix College campus, 1600 Washington Ave., in Conway.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

"As You Like It 3: Like with a Vengeance!"

As You Like It opens next Thursday, inaugurating the green at The Village at Hendrix as a theatre space and launching the 2011 Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre season. Yesterday was a day off, concluding our second week of rehearsal, and it feels like the whole show teeters on a balance point. Behind us lie two weeks of learning blocking, music, combat and dance choreography. In front stand five days for us to play, refine, specify, sharpen, clean up, and shave some time off the show, followed by next week’s tech rehearsals and finally opening night. Throughout the process, the amazing artists I’ve worked with continue to remind me why directing theatre is my deepest and most joyful artistic passion. Every single day leaves me exhausted and thrilled in equal measure.

Theatre is by nature the most collaborative of all art forms.  A playwright gives words to speak and life events to perform. A director takes that text and casts it in the context of a vision of performance and meaning. Designers create environment and mood, locating the show in a specific place and time. Actors interpret the words, guided by the director’s idea and the designers’ context, into action. Everybody throws an ingredient or two into the resulting artistic gumbo, and then the audience shows up with a spoon and the spice of their own perspective, the last addition and the one that makes the whole thing, officially, into theatre.

Theatre is collaboration above all else, and the company members of As You Like It have all added their own uniqueness to the show. In several cases, an actor’s or designer’s work has made me completely junk my own ideas about the play in favor of theirs. Touchstone (Adam Mincks) and Audrey (Rachael Small), for example, are so cute together that I couldn’t bear to let Shakespeare’s intimation of an unhappy ending for them stand unchallenged; in this production, they may work out after all.

Over and over, the actors teach me anew what the play is about. In this, my third time directing As You Like It, I feel like I’m just beginning to really understand what the play is about. Different directors and different companies will have different ideas, but for me, this summer’s production is about truly being yourself. Every character who tries to create an identity for themselves end up in trouble at best, miserable at least. Duke Frederick (Rob Dillon) puts on the manner of a conquering lord, and loses his family. Orlando (David Huynh) puts on the trappings of a wrestler and almost gets himself killed. Rosalind (Amy Fritsche) puts on a man’s clothing and wreaks havoc in the Forest of Arden. Oliver’s (Derrick Parker) pretensions at being in charge, Phebe’s (Caroline Mincks) strained shrewishness, Touchstone’s city snobbery; it just goes on and on. And then there’s the melancholy Jaques (Dan Matisa), one of Shakespeare’s most enigmatic characters, who refuses to be happy in the face of four weddings and the very god of marriage herself. It is only when these characters allow themselves to simply be who they are, in the presence of someone who accepts them as such, that they are happy.

And such wonderful happiness it is! As You Like It is full of music, romance, silliness, excitement and reconciliation; the play is full to bursting with the simple joy of simply living. I can’t wait for you to see what the amazing artists of the Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre have cooked up for you.

Every one of the four shows at Hendrix Village is pay-what-you can, so bring the whole family. Bring the whole block. Come early to stake out a good seat; live music starts at 7:00 each night.


Saturday, April 30, 2011

Auditioning essentials!

UPDATED 4/30/11!

Among the many things that make me weird, near the top of the list has to be the fact that I love auditions. Auditions are the most compressed, highest-stress part of the craft of acting. I love auditioning as an actor, I love coaching actors to audition, and I love being a casting director more than almost anything in theatre. I love the unique energy of auditions, I love getting to know new actors, and I love imagining the possibilities of the upcoming show.

In January, we three directors for the 2011 Arkansas Shakespeare Festival watched scores of actors audition for us. I originally prepared this document for AST's website for those actors to read, and have since expanded it from notes I wrote during those auditions and suggestions from the other directors. Thank you all for your horrible mistakes. Be assured, several actors were cast who didn't get it all right. There are exceptions to every rule. Well, most rules.

Different directors are looking for different things from actors, so I can only speak for myself. But here are a handful of things I think every actor should know before they audition. It comes down to two major principles:
  1. Control the things you can control.
  2. Completely and totally let go of the things you cannot control.
In more specific terms:

Be yourself. The message of your audition shouldn’t be “I am the best Juliet you will ever see,” it should be “I am the best me you will ever see.” I will either see you as Juliet or I won’t. Sorry about that. Typecasting is both a necessary evil and a powerful tool, and either way you will never make it go away. So don’t worry about it.

Choose monologue and song material that allows the amazingness of you to shine, rather than something that projects which role in the show you want. I don’t want to see you as Juliet, I want to meet you. You can show me Juliet at callbacks. From your slate through your “thank you,” the central message of your audition should be “Hi. This is me. I am very glad to be here. And I will be awesome to work with.”

A related anecdote, though not one applicable to all situations: I once auditioned an actor for Julius Caesar. He came in with an incredibly intense look on his face, performed an incredibly intense monologue from Hamlet, and he was so scary that I almost didn’t call him back. I had just done a show with an actor who was had displayed some borderline psychopathic behaviors behind the scenes, and I was half-convinced that this auditioner was going to be crazy trouble. My artistic director shared my concerns, but after some discussion we called him back with much hesitation. He turned out to be a delightful human being and a fine actor; he was cast as our Antony. But the fact that he was projecting the image of a tragic hero at his audition rather than projecting any of the image of himself nearly sabotaged his audition.

Be awesome. Believe me when I tell you this: we want you to be amazing. Every single person who auditions for me I want to be exactly what I need. We’re on your side. You are entering a friendly environment. In a related item:

Don’t make assumptions based on my behavior. It is a very long day for casting directors, and just because we’re sitting doesn’t make it less exhausting. I may not look at you much. I may not smile. I may not laugh. I am probably focused on taking notes or imagining what to read you as in callbacks.

Don’t look at me. Once your slate (which is totally appropriate to direct at me) is over, find a spot on the back wall of the theatre and look at that. Looking at me does two bad things for you, 1) it makes me sympathetically want to look back, which makes me take fewer notes, resulting in my having a harder time remembering you in seven hours when the directors are all discussing you, and 2) if I do take notes, it distracts you and makes you wonder what I’m writing and why I’m writing it.

Don’t apologize for anything. If you mess up, just fix it and move on. If you have a frog in your throat, work around it and move on. Actors who make excuses in auditions project as actors who will make excuses in rehearsal and performance.

Dress appropriately. No words on your clothes, no holes in your clothes, no distracting logos, no inappropriately exposed skin, no outlandish hairstyles, no enormous jewelry, no six-inch heels. Your clothing should draw attention to you, not away from you. Wear practical shoes, and avoid noisy heels that will drown out your voice. Get your hair out of your face

Dress to move. Assume that I'm going to ask you to roll around on the floor at your callback, and gird your loins appropriately. I don't want you holding back because you don't want to mess up your clothes, and I really don't want to see your underwear up your skirt or above your beltline.

Dress to work. It's business time. No ridiculous cleavage, no foul language on your T-shirt, no words or logos of any kind that might distract me while I'm watching you work. Your audition is a job interview. Dress like a professional.

Dress for your body. This is a delicate subject. Don't wear that form-fitting cocktail dress you had to squeeze yourself into. It is not attractive, it restricts your movement and breath, and it makes you look like you have no body awareness. You may be in the middle of a 20-pound weight-loss diet and workout plan, but this is what your body looks like today. Own your body with pride, fearlessness, and a sense of reality. This is a note for life, not just auditions. I have a belly; everyone in my family has a belly, and I will always have a belly. I'm not squeezing myself into a man-corset vest to conceal it for auditions. I will be much happier if I am cast for who I am. So will you.

Warm up. Don't work cold. Warm your voice up, warm your body up. The tension of adrenaline and emotional pressures will tighten your body and voice; you may not feel like you need to warm up, but you do.

Fill the space with your voice. If I think you can’t project enough to be heard in a large theater, I will not cast you in a production in a large theater. This is an absolute deal-breaker; if I think the audience won't be able to hear you, I can not use you.

Nail every note. Choose a song you know you can knock out of the park. I'm not interested in hearing the highest note of your range, I'm interested in hearing the best notes of your range. Pick a song that hits the sweet spot. If you have any doubt that you can sing the song perfectly every time, you have picked the wrong song.

Leave me wanting more. If the audition notice is asking for a 60-second monologue, prepare a 50-second one. For crying out loud, don't pick that 70-second monologue you love and rush through it to squeeze it in; you look like a fool. Save it for the 90-second audition notices, or cut it. Cutting pieces to make them fit is always appropriate. It is always better to end early than it is to be cut off. Bear in mind that the person timing your audition is often pretty low on the stage management totem pole; they may start the clock when you begin your slate.

Bring everything you might need. A whole group of actors came to audition for us from one school. All of them had musical theatre on their resumes, and none of them prepared a song or brought sheet music. What??? We were doing Joseph that season, for crying out loud. Do you want a job or not? It's one thing to have decided to audition last-minute; that's fine as long as you are a smart, prepared actor who always has four monologues prepared at all times. It's another to have a resume that screams "song-and-dance man" but bring no sheet music or dance shoes. Many of those actors did not get cast for the sole reason that they refused to show us they could sing.

Don't shock me. If you're auditioning for a theatre company with a history of producing Shakespeare, musicals, and Neil Simon, your monologue full of F-bombs and incest references is not likely to win you any fans. Trust me; the shock-value audition is ten times more likely to hurt you than help you. It makes you look like an anti-social twit with no sense of the appropriate. For companies doing more edgy, contemporary work, you can push the envelope a bit, but it's safer to pick something less likely to offend.

Avoid emotional peaks. It's really easy to play anger, and usually feels quite cathartic for the actor. It's also quite boring to watch, and usually comes across as entirely self-indulgent. I simply don't believe that you can sincerely reach that huge emotional peak of screaming or anger in 60 seconds, so don't try. Pick a monologue that reaches a 6 on an emotional scale of 1-10, not a 9.

Show me something new. Do a monologue from a play I've never heard of, or do a monologue I've never seen from a play I know. If you do something I've seen, directed, or acted, you're competing with all my preconceptions. If you show me something new, you get to be the one to which I compare everyone else. "To be or not to be?" Bad. "If we shadows have offended?" Bad. "Think not that I love him?" Bad. Measure for Measure, Henry VI, Richard II, The Two Gentlemen of Lebowski? All excellent sources. 

Don't do a piece from the play you're auditioning for. There are two schools of thought on this. My school is right. Don't do it, unless the audition notice REQUIRES it. I have my ideas of what the play is; you're not going to change my mind with your monologue. Save it for callbacks.

Take direction. If I give you adjustments, do what I told you to do. If it doesn’t fit in with your image of the character, convince yourself it does. Ability to take direction is one of the most vital things directors are looking for.

Go too far. If I give you adjustments, take them as far as is possible while still remaining in the realm of plausibility. One of my mentors was fond of the phrase, “Extend to the logical absurdity.” Show me that you will make bold choices. It is MUCH easier for a director to tell an actor to pull it back than it is for us to drag bigger choices out of you. 

Respond to your scene partners. Show me that you can actually, you know, act. Lots of people can recite lines in an interesting fashion; it’s your ability to be changed by another person, and to change them back, that makes you an actor instead of just a reciter of memorized lines. Sometimes your scene partner is a block of wood, sometimes they’re a stage hog, and sometimes they smell like salty garbage. Take what they give you, respond in the world of the character, and trust that if YOU can see that your scene partner is a dud that we can see it far more clearly than you can.

Play with me. Have fun, even if what we’re doing isn’t. Show me that you will be pleasant to work with. I will cast a less talented nice person over a surly genius any day of the week. I can coach up acting; I can’t coach up jerk.

Over-prepare. Remember this as a rule: The adrenaline of auditioning plus your nervousness will erase 25-50% of your preparation. That means you need to rehearse, memorize and prepare 125-150% as much for an audition as you think you need to.

You need to know your lines cold. You need to NOT have just memorized your monologue the night before or (shudder) in the car on the way. ESPECIALLY if it’s Shakespeare. I’ve probably directed, acted in, produced, or composed music for the show you’re doing a piece from. I know your monologue as well as you do.

When you blow your lines, I will know. When you are improvising your physicality, I will know. When you don’t know what your character’s goals, obstacles or tactics are, I will know. When you don’t know what the scene or the play are about, I will surely know. And you will not be called back.

Preparation: it’s the number one thing you can do to improve your chances of being cast, and the number one thing actors fail at the most. I can not stress this enough: I can tell the difference between a talented unprepared actor and a less-talented actor who really worked on their audition. And I WILL PICK THE HARD WORKER EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.

My not casting you often has nothing whatsoever to do with you. Often, I’m looking for fit, for chemistry, for a certain height, build, or hair color, ethnicity, gender, or for any number of characteristics over which you have no control. My not casting you is in no way a judgment of your character, your future, or even your talent. Honestly, you may look like an ex-girlfriend I had a bad breakup with; I may be rejecting you for reasons of which I’m not even aware. It is not personal. Get back on the horse and audition again. By all means, audition for me again.

And finally, Shake it off. Actors have to be like NFL cornerbacks. Sometimes you get burned, and you have to forget it and move on to the next play with your maximum professionalism. You can’t worry over the could-have-beens; just don’t do again the things you did wrong.

I look forward to seeing your audition. I sincerely hope that every one of you amazes me, and I hope you make our casting decisions impossible.

Be your most awesome you! I can’t wait to see it.

Originally posted on Arkansas Shakespeare's blog.

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Sunday, April 24, 2011

What is "The Water Principle" about?

I'm directing a staged reading of an amazing play by Eliza Anderson called The Water Principle, which performs at the Firehouse on Tuesday night at 7:30. (Here's a link to the Facebook event. You're invited!) Jeffrey Cole, Stacie Rearden Hall, Sarah Jamillah Johnson, and Scott Wichmann are the cast, and I'm unbelievably thrilled to be directing them; they are four of my favorite artists and people, and I haven't directed any of them in years. In fact, the last time I directed Sarah, it was for a staged reading of The Water Principle at VCU in 2005, wherein she met her future husband. Neat.

It's a somewhat obscure play by a little-known writer, and the only people I know who are familiar with it are people I've exposed to it. So when I mention that I'm directing the show, people often ask, "What's it about?" I usually come up with some kind of plot synopsis about a woman named Addie defending her property from a real estate developer named Weed when a drifter named Skimmer happens into the area. That's an accurate surface description. But it's not what the play is about.

The Water Principle is about Addie, a woman defending the last vestiges of life in a barren land. She lives in a shack with a pan, an axe, a shovel, a rain barrel, and a few bird traps. Why she is alone there we don't know; why she feels compelled to defend the remains of life in her demesne we are not told. It's about Weed, a man who wants what Addie has, who may be willing to do anything to get it. It's about Skimmer, who walks from place to place with his hand out, spinning whatever story he needs to get a few moments of security--until he gets bored and moves on.

The Water Principle is about faith. It's about Addie, who believes fiercely and unquestioningly, about Weed, who believes only in what he can build, and Skimmer, who doesn't want to believe in anything. It's about betrayal. It's about how we make alliances with whomever can give us what we need this moment, without any thought for what it will mean for our lives in the future.

It's about snow, cheese, and what it means to be a beaver. It's about an axe, a gun, and a single bullet. It may or may not be a post-apocalyptic survival thriller.  It's a love story in which the words "I love you" are never spoken.

It's a playground for actors. The text is incredibly open to interpretation, and any number of choices can be justified and committed to. Sarah, Jeff, Scott and Stacie are all making wonderful and bizarre choices with this strange little play as we focus on the text and human interactions rather than blocking and stage pictures. The script reminds me of Sam Shepard and T-Bone Burnett, with a healthy dollop of absurdism.

It's the music of Sam Phillips put on stage, all fragility and betrayal and sensuality and torch songs. If you love Sam, you really have to see this play.

The Water Principle is my favorite play of the past 20 years and it's a privilege to direct a reading of it for a second time. I am incredibly thankful to Eliza Anderson for granting permission, and to Billy Christopher Maupin, Carol Piersol and the Firehouse Theatre for giving us a stage to play on. I hope you'll come see it.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Style Weekly: "This Beautiful City" is "what good theater should be."

Pious Peak

“This Beautiful City” takes on the gay marriage debate.
by Rich Griset

In 2006 Colorado found itself the ground zero of the national debate on gay marriage. Long a Christian stronghold, Colorado Springs was home to a series of megachurches, including the followers of evangelical firebrand the Rev. Ted Haggard. As in Virginia that year, an amendment to the state constitution banning gay marriage was on the ballot and passed.

A theater group from New York City called the Civilians descended upon the city before the vote, conducting dozens of interviews with residents. A play that chronicles the lead-up to and aftermath of the amendment (as well as the downfall of Haggard after allegations arose of drug abuse and a gay affair), “This Beautiful City” attempts to give a glimpse at the forces behind the gay marriage debate.

Borrowing an idea from the playbook of “The Laramie Project,” the script was culled from the interviews that the group made while in what is sometimes called the evangelical Vatican. Every word spoken in the play came from the mouth of a real-life person.

Richmond Triangle Players’ staging of this unusual production gives audience members the feel of being one of the interviewers, jumping from New Life Church’s Christian rock services to voodoo-esque visions in Manitou Springs, a nearby town. Triangle’s talented six-person ensemble brings to life dozens of characters. Whether it’s Tarneé Kendell Hudson’s three Baptist church members, Andrew Hamm’s militant Mikey Weinstein or Layana Burnette’s moving portrayals of a transsexual person and a former drug addict, the cast imbues even the smallest roles with dignity and warmth. The portraits are well-crafted, giving voice to both camps. John Knapp’s direction emphasizes the docu-drama tone. The audience never feels as though it’s watching caricatures — these are real people with real opinions.

Triangle’s bare-bones production focuses more on the tale of Colorado Amendment 43 than glitzy stage values. Sometimes a backdrop and PowerPoint slides are all you need to tell an engaging story. Accompanied by piano, drums and guitar, Kim Fox’s musical direction highlights the beautiful voices of her cast. Philip Milone’s multitiered set is functional, but offers little else, and K. Jenna Ferree’s lighting design is as basic as possible.

“This Beautiful City” obviously has an agenda, but presents its viewpoints in an attractive and often humorous way. This is what good theater should be — something that engages the audience in a conversation about issues that remain quite relevant.

“This Beautiful City” shows through Feb. 5 at Richmond Triangle Players, 1300 Altamont Ave. Tickets are $20-$25. Call 346-8113 or visit for information.


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