By John Moore
The design concepts for the Denver Center’s recent world premiere staging of “Sense & Sensibility the Musical” earned a two-page spread in the October 2013 edition of American Theatre Magazine. Featured are director Marcia Milgrom Dodge, scenic designer Alen Moyer and costume designer E. Sosa. Phootgraphs by our own Jennifer Koskinen.
By John Moore
Playwright 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.
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
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?”
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
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.”
Letter follows. Start worrying.
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.
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.
DCPA: 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.