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Packing for Poppins: A Survival Guide to Packing on the Road

Madeline Trumble in Mary Poppins. Photo: Jeremy DanielWhether it’s a carryon, a suitcase, a traveling trunk or — as in the case of Mary Poppins which flies into Denver’s Buell Theatre May 1-5 — a carpetbag, it takes a little organizational magic to pack when you are constantly on the road. So we turned to Madeline Trumble, who plays everyone’s favorite nanny to get some helpful, handy tips.

How many markets will you travel to during your run as Mary?

Oh my goodness, I think I’ve traveled to about forty different cities, in three different countries. And we still have a few stops left!

When We Are Married: To Be or Not To Be Married?

By Dan Sullivan

When We Are Married logoAll hail the Emerging Playwright, as celebrated by the Denver Center Theatre Company’s Colorado New Play Summit; but don’t write off the Vanishing Playwright.

Today’s example: J.B. Priestley and When We Are Married.

Such a sweet title. For years I thought that Priestley’s 1938 comedy concerned a moony young couple looking forward to a blissful 50 years together, like the kids in the Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” How did that work out?

And what ever happened to Priestley? Once a literary titan, he’s almost forgotten today: an old master whose name still rings a faint bell but whose 60 books tend to be in storage when you hunt for them at the library.

Plays, novels, short stories, biographies, literary criticism, political tracts, journalism, radio talks, TV documentaries—Priestley did them all and did them well. Too well, probably. Critics distrusted his facility.

He also stayed around too long—more than 50 years. When the angry young hero of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (1956) throws down his Sunday Times in disgust, it’s because he refuses to read one more J.B. Priestley disquisition on anything. (As Jack Benny used to say, “eventually they resent you.”)

Beyond that, Priestley’s private life was scandalously ordinary. No sexual romps, no drug rehabs, no sickening failures, no miraculous comebacks. No tell-all biography drama there. Even his name was flat. “J.B. Priestley” (for John Boynton) sounds like a bank president, an attorney, an assistant principal— honest, reliable, humdrum.

Wrong.

Try staunch, forthright, pugnacious. Hear him in the 60s: “One of our poets told a friend of mine in New York that I had a second-rate mind. I have a second-rate mind. But it is my own; nobody has hired it, and what it chiefly desires, even more than applause, is that English people have a good life.”

He kept on writing until his death at 89 in 1984, a latter-day Shaw, full of energy and opinions. A central one was that “ordinary” people knew more than the experts hired to sell them something. He loathed the Cold War, the “central vacuum” of modern politics, the greasy hustle of public relations.

What Priestley cherished was private relations, as remembered from his Yorkshire boyhood before World War I. When We Are Married looks back on that world—and not in anger.

The title—originally Wedding Group—throws you off. No moony young lovers here. Rather, three 40-plus couples who’ve been married forever. Tonight is their silver wedding anniversary (it was a joint ceremony), so let’s have a toast.

The toastmaster is a bit fuzzy on the history of marriage (“It goes back… right back to… well, it goes back”), but he’s dead certain about its utility as an institution, because what would you women do without marriage? What would us men do?

This brings a hearty laugh, not that anyone’s trying to be risqué (the year is 1912), but these folks have known each other for years, it’s a small town and the bubbly is flowing.

Jollity reigns until our six friends discover, thanks to I won’t say what, that they aren’t the respectable married folks they thought they were. They’re not married at all. Some problem years ago with the marriage license.

This isn’t funny—except to watch. The outcome can’t be revealed, but we are dealing with Priestley the entertainer here, not Priestley the scold, and he brings his tale to a smooth, safe landing. But not before certain characters have learned either to speak up for themselves or to leave off nagging. Priestley’s message (after three marriages of his own): Count your blessings.  

This isn’t Strindberg, but it’s as practical a view of marriage as that provided by our better sitcoms (The Middle and Modern Family, especially) and it leaves a more pleasant aftertaste than other fables I could mention, such as We’re Not Married, a mid-50s take on Priestley’s theme (though not credited to him) from 20th Century Fox.

This was an omnibus comedy starring the newly-minted Marilyn Monroe and a clutch of old reliables such as Fred Allen, Ginger Rogers and Eve Arden. Again, a handful of married couples find themselves liberated from their vows by a legal glitch, with various outcomes, which, by the 1950s, included divorce. Though nominally sophisticated, the story provides a rather grim survey of postwar togetherness, sometimes as a mask for actual dislike. Can these marriages be saved? For what?

Where We’re Not Married presents marriage as a somewhat lonely business, When We Are Married sets it in the heart of a community. This gives it a topicality it’s never had before. You can’t see it in an election year without being reminded of our gay marriage debate. 

What is marriage? What’s it for? Who’s it for? Just the questions facing our toastmaster. Suddenly, a harmless little “farcical comedy” becomes a conversation-starter. Priestley couldn’t have foreseen this, but he would have approved. Get them talking!

As a dramatist, he also knew the value of an uptight, rule-bound community as a background for a farce-comedy. The first rule in farce is that the characters have to care, and the folks in When We Are Married care desperately about their respectability. Not that they’ll be tarred and feathered if they’re outed—this is Yorkshire, not the Wild West—but people are going to talk and, worse, they’re going to laugh.

All this makes for prime comedy. The husbands haven’t a clue as to how to get out of this mess and the wives are furious about having been dragged into it. As if by a law of nature, the men must now sneak off to their club to lick their wounds, while the women repair to the parlor to elaborate their accusations.

Good strategy Priestley seems to be saying. Stick with your tribe. For all his forward thinking, he had nothing against tribes, clubs, veterans’ posts and sewing circles, and he mourned their loss in the awful “central vacuum.” 

That was the real enemy.

“More and more I distrust that bigness before which a man feels helpless and baffled,” he stated. “Once past a sensible size, things get out of hand, acquiring an alien, sinister life of their own. 

“If a city is miraculously efficient but is also filled with people who are worrying themselves sick or becoming uglyminded and cruel or turning into dim robots, it is a flop. If the people in a neighboring country are comparatively poor, but contrive to live zestfully, laugh and love, still enjoy poetry and music and talk, then that country has succeeded.”

It’s good to have Priestley out of storage.


Dan Sullivan directs the O’Neill Theater Center’s National Critics Institute and teaches journalism at the University of Minnesota. He has reviewed theatre and music for the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and the Minneapolis Tribune. This article appeared in Applause magazine.

When We Are Married plays Denver’s Stage Theatre Nov 16-Dec 16, 2012. Tickets: 303.893.4100 or 800.641.1222.

Chas Addams: The Man Behind the Family

All artwork copyright Charles Addams with permission of the Tee and Charles Addams Foundation.

The musical The Addams Family is inspired by the creations of the legendary American cartoonist Charles Addams, who lived from 1912 until 1988. In 1933, when he was just 21, his work was published in The New Yorker, and over the course of nearly six decades, he became one of the magazine’s most cherished contributors. 

Bizarre, macabre and weird are all words that have been used to describe Charles Addams’ cartoons. Yet adjectives such as charming, enchanting and tender can just as accurately be employed to depict the same body of work, as well as the man himself. His unique style and wonderfully crafted cartoons enabled his work to transcend such dichotomies for his millions of fans worldwide. 

Shrew-ing it up in the 1950s

THE TAMING OF THE SHREWThe Taming of the Shrew has been a paradox of late.  

   Despite harsh feminist critiques over the past 40 years (in fact there are many who feel the play is so deeply misogynistic that Kate and Petruchio should be banished from the stage for good), Shrew remains one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies. How can this be? Artistic Director Kent Thompson, who is directing the play this season, views the play not as merciless gender warfare but as a battle of equals, “the kind of fight between two people who are outside the norms of conventional society…Two people with larger than life personalities who fight their way through their romance and end up being in love.”

   To stage his reading of the play, Thompson sought out a period when roles were well defined and rather inflexible. He landed on the 1950s, a time of conventional role models for men and women—women could keep house while men brought home the bacon. Katherina is too strong-willed and intelligent to comfortably fit into a housewife’s apron, and Petruchio is too wild to settle for a gray-flannelled businessman’s life. So in this version, Petruchio is a cowboy from Texas, while Katherina (or Kate) is a fiery Italian-American who works in her father’s restaurant in Chicago.

   The play takes place in an imagined America with U.S. place names changed to the Italian cities of Shakespeare’s text. Scenic designer David Barber has dreamed up a large map of the country that will hover over the set, lighting up to show the travels of the various characters. The main playing area rests on a 22-foot-diameter revolve to keep the story’s many scenes flowing smoothly. To the left and right of the set, billboards set the period by displaying iconographic 50s’ advertising art. Watch for this: as “a little extra added kick” and to lighten the mood, Barber is sneaking clever Shakespearean references into each of the signs.

   Speaking of scene changes, composer Gregg Coffin will be composing brief songs based on Shakespearean text set to 50s-style music. This is the great period for Italian-American singers: Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Tony Bennett to name only a few, so he’s got plenty to work with. And expect some country western sounds to accompany Petruchio’s visits to his ranch deep in the heart of Texas. Coffin is also going to have a bit of fun “Elvis-ing up” the scene in which Lucentio, disguised as a music teacher, gives Bianca a lesson.

   Costume designer Susan Branch describes the costumes as having a heightened reality: “There are certain icons, like Elvis, that are being referenced. We’ve created the iconic gangster from New Jersey and the iconic cowboy from Texas.” She admits it’s difficult when clothing is described in the play, such as Petruchio’s wedding outfit, and you are setting it in a different period. “How do you take the clothing of the period you’re dealing with and still make the descriptions work?” she asks. “It’s fun to figure that out.” 

   While Bianca will be dressed as a bobby-soxer (“more frivolous, lightweight, a girly-girl”), headstrong Kate will be much more no-nonsense. She will be introduced working in her father’s restaurant, dressed in functional slacks and flat shoes. Her clothing tells a story of its own—her wedding dress getting soiled on the trip home with Petruchio, the improvised outfit his ranch hands rustle up for her, and finally the beautiful dress that the tailor made for her (the one Petruchio destroyed in front of her eyes).

   Although many of us remember the 50s in black and white, Thompson wants this to be a Technicolor production, which really works for Tom Sturge, the lighting designer: “The play is definitely set in the summer, so that lends itself to the hot stickiness of Chicago and the lush, bright sunlight in Texas. Sturge also feels the use of bright color lends itself to comedy: “The Taming of the Shrew is a comedy, and if it takes itself too seriously it will die a quick and sudden death.”

   That may have been the problem with the last production of the play he worked on which featured cross-gender casting. “That,” Sturge admits, “was a pretty big mistake.”

   For Thompson, Shakespeare’s characters are inherently bold and colorful: “All the characters come right out of Commedia dell’Arte. Gremio, the old Pantalone pursuing the young woman; Lucentio, the handsome young man whose father won’t let him marry; Bianca as the female version of that; and Kate as the shrew.”

   At the end of the day, where does Thompson come down on the question of Petruchio’s (mis)treatment of Kate?

   “I don’t think that what Petruchio does to Kate is cruel, but he gets close to being not very nice. I think audiences will see the progression of their love, because I think that, even in a play based on Commedia, Shakespeare has planted clues to show that she starts to understand his game.”

   In the final, most controversial speech of the play, Kate’s vow of love and possible submission, Thompson believes she’s promising “…what she’s willing to do for him more than making a statement that she’s capitulated completely as a human being, because I don’t think she has.”


 This article originally appeared in PROLOGUE, the Denver Center Theatre Company’s subscriber newsletter.

Some Funny Things about an often Serious Play

Lisa Loomer, playwright of TWO THINGS YOU DON'T TALK ABOUT AT DINNERPlaywright Lisa Loomer describes her Two Things You don’t Talk About At Dinner as “an often funny play about some serious things.” It is an improbably even-handed look at the extremely complex issues surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian situation—on the ground and in our dining rooms. Funny? Serious? You bet. Loomer’s assessment is on the money. Yes, people do tend to fly off the handle when discussing the ongoing conflict in that part of the world, but the play? It is often funny and it is about serious things. To honor the spirit of that fearless enterprise, we assembled some funny and some serious notes—and one cartoon—in support of Loomer’s efforts.


THE SERIOUS 

Civil Discourse — A Lost Cause? 

   Civil discourse is not about niceness. It is about respecting the other individual and having the ability to passionately disagree without being disagreeable. One of the hallmarks of a civilized society is that civility must be guaranteed and observed among those who will inevitably disagree. Civil discourse is fundamental to the fostering and protection of a civilized society.

   It is about ensuring a safe environment in which people can express ideas without fear of attack. It is about tolerance for those who think differently. Yet it seems many in our society have come to regard the old saw “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me” not as a proverb but as a truism—a license to say anything, regardless of what harm it might cause. Sadly, name-calling and bullying increasingly have become the accepted norm in daily human interactions.  

    As a result, not-so-civil discourse has become the one, true equal-opportunity issue. It crosses political lines, sparks acerbic debates about family, sexual orientation, roots itself in religious intolerance and ignores the right to exist of “the other”—other socio-economic classes, cultural and racial groups. Its common language is inappropriate, corrosive, insulting, hostile and aggressive.

   It is mean-spirited behavior.

   How do we re-establish the value of civil discourse? First, we must teach our children the tremendous power of words. Words have the capacity to build or destroy, empower or diminish, enable or disable. Words can support, inspire, motivate, stimulate, encourage. Or not. What words do we teach our children? Who should teach them?

   The answer is all of us. Everyone. Regardless of differences.

   Lisa Loomer’s Two Things You Don’t Talk About at Dinner touches on this subject by frontally addressing political and religious differences that are at the forefront of our lives and happen to explode at the Passover Seder that is the fulcrum of her play. For all the pernicious—and often very funny—exchanges, the outcome of the piece skillfully shows us a path to sanity. It may not be a total solution, but it does indicate that, given a choice, human beings prefer kindness to vilification, understanding to bullheadedness, peace to war, even at the dinner table. 

   We can refuse to be debased by uncivil discourse. We can restore faith in words that heal rather than wound, sometimes mortally. 

—Portions of this text were excerpted from www.thefreelibrary.com 


THE FUNNY

Braille for Jews? 

   Helen Keller was handed a matzoh, the first she ever touched.

   As she felt it using her fingers to decipher what it was, she asked, “Who wrote this nonsense?”

 

British Jews

   A British Jew is waiting in line to be knighted by the Queen.

   He is to kneel in front of her and recite a sentence in Latin when she taps him on the shoulder with her sword. However, when his turn comes, he panics in the excitement of the moment and forgets the Latin. Then, thinking fast, he recites the only other sentence he knows in a foreign language, which he remembers from the Passover Seder. “Ma nishtana ha layla ha zeh mi kol ha laylot.”

   Puzzled, the Queen leans over to an advisor and asks: “Why is this knight different from all the other knights?”

 

Divorce Jewish Style 

   An elderly man in Phoenix calls his son in New York and says “I hate to ruin your day, but I have to tell you that your mother and I are divorcing. Forty-five years of misery is enough.”

   “Pop, what are you talking about?” the son screams.

   “We can’t stand the sight of each other any longer,” the old man says. “We’re sick of each other, and I’m sick of talking about this, so you call your sister in Chicago and tell her,” and he hangs up.

   Frantic, the son calls his sister, who explodes on the phone, “Like heck they’re getting divorced,” she shouts. “I’ll take care of this!”

   She calls her father immediately and screams at the old man, “You are not getting divorced! Don’t do a single thing until I get there. I’m calling my brother back, and we’ll both be there tomorrow. Until then, don’t do a thing, do you hear me?” and
hangs up.

   The old man hangs up his phone and turns to his wife. “Okay,” he says, “They’re coming for Passover and paying their own airfares.”

 

Jewish Telegram

Letter follows. Start worrying.

 

Arabic Sayings

Enfiha el kheir ma yermiha el ter: If it was beneficial the bird wouldn’t drop it (don’t expect something from him).

Ye khaf we ma yekh te shish: he knows fear but never recognizes shame (an unscrupulous person).

E’d sawaba’ak b’ad mat salem a’leh: Count your fingers after you shake his hand (he’s a thief).

A ed a la hassira we me dandel regleh: He is sitting on a carpet and pretends to dangle his feet (an obvious deceiver).

Ed-deeny el bakht oo er-meeny fel bahr: Give me luck and throw me in the ocean (with luck on my side, nothing can hurt me).

Ed ghadabou abl ma yetacha bek: Eat him for lunch before he eats you for dinner (do unto others before they do unto you).

Yeslam bo’okom, we khalou el kalam yehla: Bless your mouth and let the words get sweeter. 

Yom assal, yom bassal: One day is like honey, one day is like an onion.

El khonfessa fe-e ou e she-e omm ghazal: To the cockroach, its child is like a gazelle. 

This article originally appeared in PROLOGUE, the Denver Center Theatre Company subscriber newsletter.

 

Profile I: Hal Brooks, director of THE WHALE

Hal Brooks has a highly diverse list of directing credits. Most recently, he staged Will Eno’s Off-Broadway Pulitzer finalist THOM PAIN (based on nothing) at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, at the Soho Theatre in London, and at the DR2 in NYC. The Whale, a new play written by Idaho native Samuel Hunter and developed at the Colorado New Play Summit in February 2011, presented some major production challenges for the director, many of which Prologue won’t reveal—to avoid spoilers. Brooks and Hunter were introduced to each other by their respective agents and have spent hours on the phone, by e-mail, and in person at New York casting sessions for The Whale, preparing for the play’s Denver Center Theatre Company (DCTC) premiere. We recently chatted with Brooks to get some insight into his working process, his collaboration with Hunter, and his thoughts on his first DCTC project.

Hal Brooks, director of THE WHALEDCPA: You’ve been associated with particular playwrights, such as Nilaja Sun, Don DeLillo and others, but you’ve also free-lanced a good deal. You seem to specialize in staging new and challenging work. How do you pick your projects? 

HB: When I did Delillo’s Valparaiso a few years back, we had a nice [New York] Times review and I got a lot of meetings out of it. Tim Sanford [Artistic Director of Playwrights Horizons] advised me to “find my writer.” And then I met Will Eno and I felt I had found my writer. But truly, as much as I would work with Will anywhere, anytime, realistically I need to keep working when I cannot direct his work—so I’ve modified Tim’s advice to read “find your writers,” plural. I’m always on the lookout for new voices. I’m constantly reading new plays, meeting writers. My agent, Val Day, does a great job of introducing me to new writers too. She was instrumental in putting me together with Sam Hunter for DCTC’s premiere of The Whale. I’m really excited about this project. I think Sam Hunter has become one of my writers.  


DCPA:  I’m sure each project has its own unique requirements—do you have an overall approach to directing? 

HB: I always think the job of a director is twofold: honor the intent of the playwright, and tell a good story—or tell the story well. So in that sense the job remains the same. I’ve directed a play with a cast of thousands and budget of hundreds—but no matter the play or the budget, the need is to tell the story in the best way we can, with the resources we have. And The Whale presents huge challenges: how to tell this difficult story, full of anguish and pain and humor and humanity, to a new audience every night? How can the actors, with my help, find a way to make their characters real for themselves? Accessible to the audience? How to make the story matter?


DCPA: Can you tell me something about your working process with Sam Hunter? 

HB: Sam and I get along very well—I’m experienced with developing and directing new work, and Sam is an exciting young writer who loves to keep working on his plays—modifying the script to accommodate actors and production needs. Sam is enjoying considerable success of late—his play A Bright New Boise has gotten fantastic reviews in both New York and Washington D.C., but his focus remains on the work. So—we do well together, since we both like to keep developing and refining the script.


DCPA: You two auditioned actors for The Whale in New York recently—did you see eye-to-eye on the actors who came in to read? 

HB: We did! We saw some great people out there, and were pleased that we were able to get the cast we wanted. The central role of Charlie is especially challenging, and we were very lucky to find the right actor. We both knew who we wanted the minute he came in the door.


DCPA:  In addition to last season’s Summit workshop of The Whale, the play had a reading last summer at Icicle Creek in Washington state—outside of the Denver Center process. Did Sam do any major rewrites as a result?  

HB: Sam is always rewriting, based on what he sees in a reading or rehearsal—he’s always looking to focus the work, the characters. One thing that came out of the Icicle Creek reading was that he decided that he needed to put the kitchen of the lead character Charlie’s apartment onstage, for dramatic reasons. Originally the set was confined to Charlie’s living-room. This makes for some challenges for the set designer, but it helps move the play forward in an important way. 


DCPA:  Sam has set The Whale, like some of his other plays, in his native Boise, Idaho. His characters are mostly everyday people, in a generally conservative, small town environment. How does he find drama in what might seem overly familiar and in conventional settings? 

HB: Part of Sam’s genius is to take these people and put them into extreme situations. He finds deep, universal themes that run through their lives—he avoids melodrama, though the play might be considered to be “kitchen-sink realism.” He also looks to tell the truth in ways that some audiences may find tough. And like any good playwright, he has a knack for finding interesting character relationships even in familiar settings. Sam never condescends to his characters—he clearly loves and embraces the people and their milieu. He knows them so well.  


DCPA: The actors have to portray people who might not be terribly sophisticated and yet need to resonate as larger than life in some ways. There also are some big literary themes—the Book of Job, Melville’s Moby Dick—as well as discussions of organized religion. Will you look for ways to bring out these ideas? 

HB: No. My job as I see it is to tell the story, let the characters and the audience find their own way to the heart of the play, which has plenty to say. Think of [Arthur] Miller’s Death Of A Salesman—those characters are garden-variety middle-class working folks—and yet their story has been told and retold, and has moved audiences, for decades. The Whale involves an outsider, a working man in extremis, trying desperately to reconnect to his angry, estranged teenage daughter, hoping he can help her, against her will, to a better life.

   He’s surrounded by controlling people with their own motives. His journey is to get past the others and through to the girl while there’s time. The story might sound familiar, but the play has such richness and depth. My job in part is to help the actors find the connections with each other and with the story. Sam is a really strong writer, and I think The Whale is his most mature work. I’m really enjoying working on this project and being able to be part of Sam’s next step in his professional life as a playwright. I think Denver Center audiences will really embrace this play.  

This article originally appeared in PROLOGUE, the Denver Center Theatre Company subscriber newsletter. 

Post #7 (final) - Dramaturg Doug Langworthy follows Ruined to Africa

I’m back in Kampala after a week in Gulu. It amazes me when I think back on everything that I experienced in that week! And it all happened because two years ago, back at my theatre, we decided to do a play called Ruined. There were many points of connection between Lynn Nottage’s play and my trip. Salima, one of the main characters in the play was abducted and forced to serve as a sexual slave to one of the militias. Many of WGEF’s women share that same horror story. Abducted persons, many of whom were children when they were taken, are still returning from “the bush.”

I met so many powerful women on my trip, survivors all, who share their strength with Mama Nadi. Karen Sugar, the founder of Women’s Global Empowerment Fund, keeps saying that women will always rise to the challenge when given the opportunity and some support. Given the example of Grace, who rose from the grim reality of the internally displaced person’s camp to win local elected office and hopes to run for Parliament in 2016, I’d have to agree with her. Some of the women are currently forming an agricultural union. Throw a drama festival and playwrights will emerge.

Watching the women perform their monologues, dramas and dances last Saturday affirmed not only the empowering effect of self- and group expression, but also the galvanizing effect drama can have on those gathered to witness it. This tradition of performing to heal a community goes back as far as the beginning of theatre itself. The theme chosen by the women of a woman’s right to own land, previously lurking in the wings, has now (post drama festival and town hall meeting) been pushed center stage. And there is no turning back.

So where does the Denver Center take its relationship with WGEF from here? For one thing, Karen is hoping to bring one of the rising playwrights to Denver this winter. What about bringing one of our commissioned women playwrights over for the festival? Or what about staging a play from the western canon with these women, a play that would connect with the social impulse behind their dramas and have a little humor, something say by Brecht or Dario Fo. It could be translated into the local language and adapted to have local resonance by one of the festival’s emerging playwrights. 

To return to Ruined, the tragic fact is that in neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo the conflict still rages. It has been called the most dangerous place in the world to be a woman. Here in Uganda, now that the conflict has ended, women are busy trying to heal past wounds and move ahead with their lives. It’s extraordinary to see how far some of these women have already come. And it’s heartening to see the impact that theatre can have in creating a voice for women.