Thursday, December 3, 2009

"Life by Lobster" DVDs available for the holidays!

The insightful new documentary from Iain McCray Martin is now available for sale at OHA. For just $15 dollars, you can own the latest production from Opera House Arts' Imagination Project Public Access Digital Media Studio.

"Life by Lobster" examines the the continuation and barriers for a young generation of commercial lobster fishermen. Martin's compelling footage included images of Deer Isle and Stonington and conversation with local lobstermen. Martin was a 2005 graduate of Deer Isle-Stonington High School and 2008 graduate of Emery University. The film was screened at the Camden International Film Festival, Reel Pizza in Bar Harbor, and the Grand in Ellsworth. To buy "Life by Lobster" and other films produced through the Imagination Project visit the OHA store

Monday, October 26, 2009

Island Readers and Writers History and Book Tour

The Island Readers and Writers Book Tour

Recently, I participated in the Island Readers and Writers History and Book Tour as videographer. The tour, which ran from October 5th till 16th, visited the year-round island communities of Vinalhaven, North Haven, Isle au Haut, Swans Island, Frenchboro, Isleboro, Isleford, Stonington, Mount Desert Island. The tour will visit Matinicus on November 5th!

Chris Van Dusen, writer and illustrator, brought his children’s book “The Circus Ship” to community members and school students, and Opera House Artistic Director and Storyteller, Judith Jerome, told the history of the Royal Tar.

The “Royal Tar” was a steamship, carrying circus animal, that sunk in Penobscot Bay in 1836. It is reported that survivors were taken to both Isle au Haut and Vinalhaven. However, the question of what happened to the animals on the ship lives in many islanders minds, and has created legends and folk tales, which today are still spark active and vibrant dialogue in these small island communities.

"The Circus Ship" is a children's picture book that tells a more cheerful and hopeful tale of historic steamship.

The tour was welcomed in many communities with stories and family traditions related to the steamship the Royal Tar. The team visited island schools and historical societies telling the both history of the Royal Tar and reading and talking about Chris Van Dusen’s new book "The Circus Ship".


Special Thanks to the Maine Arts Commission and the Maine Humanities Council.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Amanda Crockett

Last night, on August 12th, comedian and trapeze artist Amanda Crockett appeared for the weekly "Live! for $5". She wowed the crowd with jokes, juggling, dancing, and trapeze work! She encouraged audience participation with jokes and interaction. "Live! for $5" is made possible through support from the Whitman Family Foundation.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Trust me

At a recent outdoor concert by a Cuban hip-hop group, my friend turned to me and said: "This is quite a spectacle to watch." He was referring to the dance component of the concert -- the hip grinds, the slips and slides, the hand gestures. Anyone who has watched MTV or TV dance competitions has become accustomed to seeing this kind of movement. It's part of our everyday world now. Like the way sports are ubiquitous in the media, dance has started to find a place in the mainstream.

And yet, and yet ... I wonder how many people have actually been to a live dance performance on a stage or, in the case of this blog, at a quarry? And how many of us think: Dance? Dance? I don't get dance.

My answer? Yes, you do. Understanding dance is as easy as watching a Cuban hip-hop singer gyrate onstage. You get it. She's sexy. She's groovin'. She feels the music. It makes sense because you're familiar with what she's doing. You've seen it on TV. Or maybe you've even done it at home. (Don't worry; your secret is safe with me.)

"The more you go to dance, the more you see," said Alison Chase, choreographer for Q2: Habitat, which opens this evening and runs through tomorrow at the Settlement Quarry in Stonington. I asked her how she'd like people to "understand" dance -- what skills do they need to "get" it?

"Trust your own responses," she said.

OK, great start. But there's more you can do ahead of time.For instance: You're at a quarry. The title of the piece is Habitat. There's gotta be a clue in there somewhere.

Also, you can spend a few moments reading other blog entries on this site, OR check out Emily Burnham's recent story in the Bangor Daily News.

The point is: You don't have to go in cold. Or you can. You don't have to think about it beforehand. Or you can. You don't have to know the entire history of dance. Or any of it. But it's also OK if you know all of it.

Follow Chase's advice. You'll get it. Pay attention to whatever draws your eye rather than what you think you should be looking at. You'll feel something. Trust me. Then trust yourself.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Well, you can dance

Switching gears now, kids, because, while I'm not done thinking about Shakespeare, I'm moving on to dance for a while. Last week, the giant choreographer Merce Cunningham died at 90 -- if you don't know him, read the comprehensive New York Times obituary by Alastair Macaulay.

Cunningham's death got me thinking about form in dance. A few years back, Anna Kisselgoff -- another great dance writer -- reprimanded me for reading too much story into a dance work. It's about form and movement, she said, not about your silly story-making. (That's a paraphrase.)

But I'm as devoted to narrative as Kisselgoff and Cunningham are devoted to form. So I was thrilled to hear Q2: Habitat choreographer Alison Chase, at the Stonington Opera House in Maine, describe her two Quarryography works as "narrative spectacles."

For more background on the two-year Quarryography diptych, spend some time surfing the Story at the Quarry blog. More succinctly: Chase is working on her second major site-specific choreography at the Settlement Quarry on Deer Isle. She includes professional dancers, some of whom are from her time with the famous dance troupe Pilobolus, of which she was a co-founder. Many others come from the community.

It's that community part that got me thinking about form. We all know professional dancers are trained. Presumably they can move in ways we find pleasing and thrilling. But Joe Fisherman onstage? I'm sorry; I'm thinking he's not going to be my Dancing-with-the-Stars dream guy.

I'm wrong. Chase filled me in: "Those community-and-professional dynamics allow a wider range so that you get a variety of gestural exploration. Because someone isn't a trained dancer doesn't mean they don't have a range of expression. We're always amazed at the power of simplicity. Once we get rolling, it's exciting to see the exchange between non-dancing adults and trained dancers."

In other words, she's not looking for a perfect plie out of Joe Fisherman. She's looking for an "individual expressive quality." And that information helps her shape the overall piece. She finds a dance move where it's least expected and then uses it. Ah, back to form.

That's perfect for Q2 because, as an event, it's happening in an unexpected place: a quarry. Which is where "narrative spectacle" comes in.

"It's about habitat, about who inhabits that space," said Carol Estey, production manager and the Opera House co-founder whose roots on the island go back to childhood. (She's in the picture here rehearsing with Chase.) The people who will "inhabit" the quarry at the sneak-preview-in-development Aug. 7 and 8, and then again in its premiere in 2010 are going to look a little like you and me -- except for those pro dancers in the group. And it's not just because Chase wants to see the unexpected. It's because she has a story to tell, and some of that story comes from the bodies of local residents.

"People have always wanted to perform," said Estey, who is a trained dancer. "People have always wanted to be in things. They realize now they can be, and they don't have to have as much skill as they have to have commitment and desire. They see the possibility."

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

9th Annual Jazz Festival

July 24th and 25th were jamming nights, at the Stonington Opera House, with the Deer Isle Jazz Festival. The event was the 9th annual festival and continued with the tradition of showcasing innovative jazz musicians.

On Friday, July 24th, the Danza Quartet performed. It was New Orleans "deep cuts" with pianist Tom McDermott and clarinetist Evan Christopher. The show explored music of New Orleans, French West Indian beguine, Brazilian choro, and Trinidadian calypso. The quartet was completed with drummer Shannon Powell (who has drummed with Diana Krall and Harry Connick, Jr., among many others), and Matt Perrine (arguably the finest sousaphonist in the world). Pianist Tom McDermott had spent the week prior to the performance in residency at the Haystack Mountain School of Craft in Deer Isle.

On Saturday, July 25th, the Pyramid Trio with Roy Campbell (trumpets) performed showcasing avant-grade, modern jazz. Campbell is one of modern jazz's most articulate and wide–ranging trumpet voices. His Pyramid Trio references the musical lineage that spans Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. This year marks Parker's return visit to Stonington; he was a performer and Haystack artist–in–residence in 2004. The trio also includes drummer Michael Wimberly.

Each night's performance was opened by local bands;on Friday, saxophonist Duncan Hardy's quintet; and on Saturday, George Stevens Academy's awarding–winning combo, Musaic, directed by Steve Orlofsky.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Is That All There Is

An excerpt from the July 22, 2009 performance by Adele Myers and Dancers at the Stonington Opera House, as part of the Live! for $5 series presented by Opera House Arts.

Old Gray Goose

Jeff (Smokey) McKeen and Carter Newell perform an old-time classic by Bonnie Quinn as part of the Live! For $5 series at the Stonington Opera House on July 15, 2009.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Adele Myers and Dancers

As a part of the weekly Live! for $5, at the Stonington Opera House, Adele Myers and Dancers appeared. The show was an inspiring blend of music, contemporary dance, and storytelling. The humorous and sometimes unsettling choreography explored human interaction in a modern and dynamic manner.

During the Talk Back session, the Connecticut-based dance company explained their dance style and voiced their delight at Deer Isle and the community of the Opera House. The Opera House Arts’ Live for $5 Family Theater Series is a six week long series of hour-long, live performances designed so that all family members, regardless of age, can enjoy live theater.

Live! For $5 tickets are available only at the door beginning at 6:30 p.m. Live! for $5 is made possible with the generous support of the Whitman Family Foundation. For more information call 367-2788.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Life by Lobster

Last night, the Stonington Opera House filled the house when it screened Iain McCray Martin's documentary: "Life by Lobster." The film is the latest production from Opera House Arts' Imagination Project Public Access Digital Media Studio. Other films from the studio have included "Tire Tracks" and "Island Prom."

"Life by Lobster" examined the the continuation and barriers to commercial lobster fishing for a new generation of lobstermen. Martin's compelling footage included images of Deer-Isle and Stonington and conversation with local lobstermen. A talk-back discussion after the show included impressions from Martin, a 2005 graduate of Deer-Stonington high school and 2008 graduate of Emery University, as well as commentary from the film's subjects.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Post Shakespeare: Is That All There Is?

Life is but a dream?

If in dreams we be constantly reinventing and reimagining who we are.

The truly amazing thing about Shakespeare's texts is their capaciousness: like a large soul, the works embody and hint at the mysteries of our human experiences in ways that constantly invite us to reinterpret this literary tradition--the one we call Shakespeare.

Dreams, the classics, jazz, theater, religion--allow me to suggest all are ways we meditate on, explore, and reinvent our human traditions: both as communities and individuals. They provide the shared metaphors for our lives, as well as the practices needed to interpret them.

And when it comes to capaciousness of metaphor--a size and generosity of story which allow reinterpretation over centuries--perhaps the only rivals to Shakespeare's in our western cultures are the Greeks and, yes, the Bible. This weekend's readings in our local Episcopal church were the familiar stories of David and Goliath: when I was very young, we watched a Sunday morning cartoon based on these stories. I've known this story all my life, and every time I hear it I understand it differently--now, for instance, most particularly in the ways we understand the histories of the middle east. And so we tell the same stories, over and over, in different ways: constantly transforming our understandings of who we might be, constantly remaking our worlds--hopefully for the better.

Thus there is no "post-Shakespeare"--in Stonington or elsewhere. Our experiences of wrestling with metaphor, through art and religion, are central to our humanity; and there just aren't enough opportunities or time for this work and pleasure. So we are going to let our ShakeStonington blog live on, and hope you will continue to bring to it your ideas, thoughts, and questions: about Shakespeare, about metaphor, about theater, spirituality, life--because ultimately, in the dream we call our lives, this IS all there is.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Biffing Mussels

Biffing Mussels

Last Wednesday, OHA opened our annual Live for $5 Series with a short comedic play by Mike Gorman, originally from Vinalhaven. "Biffing Mussels," performed by Tommy Piper and Melody Bates (shown here), professional actors from our "A Midsummer Night's Dream" cast, also included all six of the teen counselors from our Island Arts Camp; plus Dave Bennett, Peter Richards, Galen Koch, Judith Jerome, and other special guests. There were about 100 kids in the audience, and they screamed with laughter at the absurd silliness of the play.

From the guy who teaches us how to "biff" mussels in 40 feet of water (shown in red shirt, right); to the guy in the checkered coat who is fascinated with a new way to count grains of sand on a beach; to the guy who eventually strips down to his skivvies and says "I think that is really interesting" throughout the play, triggering waiters to appear and pour more coffee over the pair--"Biffing Mussels" is a terrific way for young and old alike to experience the theater of the absurd. What is absurdity? What is comedy? What makes live theater like this, with an audience full of children, so magical and special? If you don't know the answers to these queries, you will have to attend a show and find out. OHA's full schedule is at

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Remembrance of Midsummer past

Where does the performance of a play live once a production closes? This question, which I was considering yesterday at the closing performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Stonington Opera House, has been central to my understanding of the arts because theater, like dance and music, is one of those confusingly ephemeral art forms, at once fleeting and enduring. I wondered: Will this Midsummer last in my memory, in the collective memory of the community?

Increasingly, I've come to value art that asserts itself long after the experience of the art has ended. When it comes to Shakespeare, a handful of productions remain imaginatively for me: the 1995 Broadway production of The Tempest with Patrick Stewart, the 2008 Broadway production of Macbeth (but only because of Stewart's performance), the English all-male Propellor company's Taming of the Shrew at BAM, Wooster Group's post-apocalyptic Hamlet at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn, NY, and John Wulp's As You Like It on Maine's North Haven Island in 1998. (Here's my story on Wulp's production in the Bangor Daily News.) The vision and aesthetic, the purity of performance, the sheer moxie made the works indelible.

This happens less commonly on screen with Shakespeare, but Max Reinhardt's 1935 film version of Midsummer with James Cagney as Bottom gave me as much insight to the character of Bottom as any reading I've done or seen. Bottom's transformation to an ass is a potent moment of self-realization -- bolstered by a Narcissus-like scene in which he looks deeply at his reflection in a pond and, then, achieves ultimate understanding with the ballad of "Bottom's Dream": There is no Bottom, there is no fixed self, only endless possibility. Watch the first four minutes of this clip of James Cagney and you'll see only part of why Reinhardt's movie makes my list. (Other reasons: Golden Age of Hollywood, Mickey Rooney as Puck, Joe E. Brown as Flute, Bronislava Nijinska's modernist choreography, the commitment to beauty in the midst of the Great Depression.)

Will Julia Whitworth's Midsummer make the list? While I suspect her production -- outrightly feminist, defiant of capitulation, fierce in its conception and performance -- will linger in my personal canon, only time can tell. Midsummer has never been my favorite play, but Whitworth -- who had also struggled with the "woo'd" by sword/wed in "another key" marriage contract -- found her own way into the text through the conceit of a forcibly drugged dream of the Amazon warrior Hippolyta. Very gutsy.

I've been struck throughout this run of Midsummer at the number of young people -- from tots to teenagers -- in the audiences at the Stonington Opera House. This defies the more typical older audience demographic nationally. But Shakespeare and Midsummer in particular work an uncanny magic on youth, and I can't help thinking that those young people will be the carriers of durable memories. In Stonington, where Shakespeare is now in the drinking water after a decade of shows, the youngest of theatergoers think about what they see. Morgan, who is 13, explained her take on the Whitworth production this way (and check out the kid in the background, too):

What I value in Whitworth's production is the drive to reach beyond the conventional -- not for art's sake but for understanding, including an ambiguous ending (which allows understanding in multiple directions). It's not clear that Hippolyta will love Theseus at the end -- and the 9-year-old boy who was with me declared that it didn't seem as if the deal would be a particularly good one for the Warrior Woman.
I spoke with several other young people at intermission on Sunday, including two 15-year olds -- Esther who is local and Tobin who is from Rhode Island. Like others who were buzzing with questions at intermission, the girls were deep in Shakespeare's world, enthralled in fandom. You can hear their thoughts in the short video below, but they nailed it for me: Taking risks can pay off -- even the risk of simply going to theater. Is risk-taking enough? Nope. Is liking the show enough, or even all that important? Nope again. I've disliked many a show that I also found meaningful.

What's important is that a long memory gets cast, like a shadow, like a dream. Or as Hippolyta says: "minds transfigur'd" to "great constancy."

And just for fun:

Understanding Shakespeare

Last night's performance of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" was Opera House Arts' 10th Anniversary Gala production, and the high level of excellence, fun, and magic brought to our theater by director Julia Whitworth & her talented cast was a perfect way to celebrate. This complicated and hysterical production is an excellent reminder that truly satisfying "entertainments" are never simple, but are rather created from layers of meaning and complexity.

This is why Opera House Arts does Shakespeare. The Bard was a master of crafting beautiful language and sophisticated plots around human conflicts which dog each of us to this day--and making us laugh at the whole thing. As Artistic Director Judith Jerome said at Friday night's Talk Back, our job is to constantly reinterpret and wrestle with these universal themes within our own contexts: to keep Shakespeare alive and vigorous--and ourselves as well.

Yet many productions quail at taking on the conflicts and tensions which underlie Shakespeare's comedies; or fail to interpret the richly-layered language in meaningful ways. Thus, modern productions of Shakespeare can all too often fall into the trap of our popular American culture: playing it on the surface. We don't need another sitcom! Listening to several of the Talk Back participants Friday night, I was grateful to have not previously seen productions of "Midsummer" but to have had my first introduction to the play by reading the text. It's difficult for me to believe that any woman, of any generation, can read the first act and not be caught up in the intense male-female tensions which frame this comedy.

Productions, readings, and interpretations that shy away from Shakespeare's conflicts are no doubt why so many young people yawn when they hear the word "Shakespeare," or think of these plays as merely grim school studies rather than the deeply transformative cultural artifacts they might be. Kids minds are hungry for the challenges of seeking multiple ways to address our natural conflicts. This week, I've had many parents express to me how delighted they are that our lively, somewhat dark production has kept their children enthralled from start to finish. In fact one mother told me that her usually extremely restless son said to her, as they exited the theater, "I love Shakespeare." Mission accomplished.

Thanks, Will, for these amazing plays; and thanks to our directors, Julia and Judith, and actors for daring to take them on as we do in Stonington.

Friday, July 10, 2009

It's Shakespeare, Kids!

On Sunday, I'm taking a 9-year old to see the final performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Stonington Opera House. This morning he and I watched Peter Hall's 1968 movie version -- which I ordered through the Bangor Public Library. From the opening credits, it struck me that Hall and Julia Whitworth have some crossover about the mysteries of this play. Even the setting of Hall's movie looks ever so slightly like Deer Isle. (Check out the granite-like backdrop to the opening credits.)

You can learn more about Hall's movie on IMDB. Love the Hollywood writing credit: Shakespeare. Too bad Will's not a member of the writer's guild, eh? He could live off of summer royalties alone. And for those who love Brit actors and hearing the language in its natural patois, look for Helen Mirren, Judi Dench and Diana Rigg in all their youthful glory. They speak the language perfectly, so it's an excellent place to start learning the rhythms.

An alert for the nudity censors among you: Hall's fairies show a lot of skin (it's the 1960s, after all). This is VERY different from Whitworth's production (although Stonington does get some steam going). But both Whitworth and Hall see the (somewhat rotten) fruits of power plays in love. And the scenes can be as chilling as they are exciting.

Most important: If you're thinking of taking a youngster to the Stonington Midsummer this weekend, help him or her before the show by going over the plot and characters together, talking about the themes and getting familiar with the style of Shakespeare's poetry. (Not a bad habit for adults, too.) Perhaps on the ride to Stonington, pop a DVD into the car player -- perhaps the 1999 movie with an all-star cast including Kevin Kline, Michelle Pfeiffer, Calista Flockhart, Christian Bale, Stanley Tucci.

Children have a natural openness to Shakespeare's verse, and I think Whitworth's interpretation, which features four local Island girls, is engaging for young people, too.

Here's the point: Learn Shakespeare early and you have the basis for a lifelong relationship with language, history, beauty. Take your kids to live performance and you engender creativity, elegance and the ability to think imaginatively -- as well as good community participation.

See you Sunday, kids.
PS: Look at the amazing Helen Mirren as Hermia. She was 23 in 1968, when the film came out.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Tragical mirth in MIDSUMMER

A Midsummer Night’s Dream walks a fine line between comedy and tragedy – and never more so than in Julia Whitworth’s production running through July 12 at Stonington Opera House. Whitworth’s production begins with a haunting drum. Could it be a heartbeat of love? Or a martial call to war?

Then, in the midst of combat between Athenians and Amazons, a soldier and a woman warrior inexplicably kiss in the heat of battle. Is it love? Or a war crime?

Later, nectar from a magic flower makes one person fall in love with his enemy, another fall in love with his beloved’s best friend, and still another fall in love with an ass. So what if it's delivered by hypodermic needle.

From any vantage point, it’s a dark and stormy night on the outskirts of Athens, where Ray Neufeld’s humid, leafy set underscores the tightness of the air, the deepness of the woods – where shadows lurk and fairies work wondrous mischief.

And yet this production has some of the lightest humor imaginable. Three Stooges meet Fred Flintstone. The Marx Brothers. Lucille Ball. Goldie Hawn. Robin Williams. Their spirits are all in the rafters of this production.

In Shakespeare's own words: Very tragical mirth? Merry and tragical? Hot ice?

When I asked Dr. Esther Rauch, a literary scholar and retired vice president of Bangor Theological Seminary, how to think about these wacky contradictions, she said: “I think this play is best read as a kind of a riff on ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ It’s almost exactly a twin play, and they both are based on ‘Pyramus and Thisbe.’ But where ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is very serious, this is a send-up.”

What do Romeo and Juliet have in common with Midsummer’s four young lovers? What is the relationship between laughter and tears? City and country? Athens and Maine? For more, listen to my full conversation with Dr. Rauch or read the transcript.

Better yet: Dr. Rauch and I will discuss all of this – and more – in a talk back after the performance 7 p.m. Friday, July 10 at the Stonington Opera House. Come join us for a conversation about the course of true love and how it never does run smooth, whether you’re laughing or crying.

Painting: William Blake's "Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing" (1785)

Photo: Esther Rauch and Alicia Anstead

Reviewing the situation: MIDSUMMER RAVE IN BDN!

Check out Judy Harrison's review of A Midsummer Night's Dream in today's Bangor Daily News.


"Considered by many a director to be a madcap romp in fairyland, Shakespeare’s comedy at the Stonington Opera House becomes something more under Whitworth’s direction. This is not glum production."

"The lush, green backdrop full of dark, leafy greens seductively draws the audience into the action onstage."

"The opulence of the kings and queens, be they fairy or mortal, is dazzling."

AND THE CORKER: "While many theater companies in Maine send audiences home with a new appreciation of the Bard’s work, Opera House Arts is the only one that consistently sends them into the foggy night thinking, questioning and rethinking Shakespeare’s canon."

Reviews are such quirky and debatable acts of journalism: consumer guide? critical analysis? a good read? Is the critic part of the arts world? Should she remain aloof? objective? analytical? And what role does the review play in the life of a show or the career of an actor?

All good questions. Judy? Readers? Actors? What's your review of reviewing?

Sunday, July 5, 2009

How now?

Welcome to Shake Stonington! If you were in the audience Sunday July 5, please take a few moments to share your thoughts on the Stonington Opera House production of A Midsummer Night's Dream -- and to read earlier entries on this blog. (Scroll down the right side of the home page and look for June and July entries.)

Please also take a few moments to share the blog with friends. You can do this by email, Twitter, Facebook or knock on doors! When you do, please share info about upcoming performances 7 p.m. Thursday July 9 and Friday July 10, 5 p.m. Saturday July 11, and 2 p.m. Sunday July 12. And you can join critic-in-residence Alicia Anstead and guest scholar Esther Rauch, plus director Julia Whitworth and members of the creative team for a talk back after the performance 7 p.m. Friday July 10.

What fools these mortals be? Naw. We're only fools for Shakespeare.

Getting to the Bottom of Midsummer

If you think A Midsummer Night's Dream is simply a walk in the woods, joke's on you. Director Julia Whitworth's takes the audience on such an entirely unexpected journey with the show that it's anything but a walk. It's a trip -- beginning with the siege of the Amazons and ending with, well, as a veteran theater critic I'm constitutionally incapable to delivering a spoiler here. Let's just say that if Shakespeare twists notions of love and marriage into a knotty bow, then Whitworth adds swords and shackles.

This is why I can't wait to hear the thoughts of Richard Brucher, a professor of English at the University of Maine -- and guest scholar after the 7 p.m. performance (TONIGHT, JULY 5) of Midsummer at Stonington Opera House on Deer Isle in Maine. He will be in the audience tonight and will join Whitworth and me for an onstage conversation with the audience after the show.

For a preview of his thoughts, you can listen to my interview with Brucher or read the transcript.

We'll be talking about how sexy this production is, and also about Nick Bottom, my favorite character in the play. I think he may be Brucher's favorite character, too, because old Bottom is so genuine. "Shakespeare gives him some wisdom about the unpredictability of love," Brucher said. "But of all the characters he seems to be the most willing and able to accept it when it’s offered to him. Nick Bottom is the only one who gets any sex out in the woods."

And believe me, Titania makes a donkey out of Bully Bottom.

TONIGHT: A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, 7 p.m. July 5, Stonington Opera House, Stonington, MAINE.

Photo by Carolyn Caldwell, courtesy Stonington Opera House.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

A Disco Donkey Dream

Diane Paulus is one of the most exciting theater artists in America today. You may have read about her recently in a New York Times article on women directors. Or you may know her as director of the Tony Award-winning Broadway revival of the musical Hair. She is also the artistic director of American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, MA, where an earlier work of hers The Donkey Show (a collaboration with Randy Weiner) opens in August. Donkey is Paulus' 1999 disco adaptation -- that's right, disco -- of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Like Shakespeare in his own time, Paulus looks back to classic works of theater and opera to make new works for modern audiences. It's a bit like re-mix, but riskier because it's live.

In the case of Donkey, Paulus uses the story of Midsummer, but not the text. It's more Studio 54 than Elizabethan England or Athens. She changes everything to magically tell the same story and a whole new story at the same time. "I am a huge fan of marrying tradition with modern culture," said Paulus earlier this week in a phone conversation. "That’s one of my passions. So to go back to Shakespeare, who in my mind is one of the greatest sources of structure and character and story, and mash that up with some of the elements that we as audience have experienced in not only modern but more specifically in pop culture is a specific interest of mine."

Listen to the podcast of our entire 8-minute chat or read the transcript. Paulus also talks about the themes of Midsummer, the liveliness of theater in Shakespeare's time and her interest in "theater as experience."
That's what Hair is, too: an experience, or as we might have said back in the '60s, a trip. Actors bound into the audience to deliver the "love in" up close and personal. Similarly, in the NYC production of Donkey, anyone who wanted could dance with the actors to bumpin music such as I Love the Night Life and Car Wash. Paulus' ideas for Donkey and for theater are very much in the ballpark with the Community Reads the Stonington Opera House hosted over the last 10 days: Citizen actors giving voice to Shakespeare's poetry and breathing life into his characters -- and to the rompy love stories and family tangles we all face in the theater of our own lives.
In the end, it's all about the "love juice" (as Oberon calls it) that intoxicates us the minute we walk into a place like the Opera House or a Broadway house. It's the work of directors such as Paulus at American Rep and Julia Whitworth at Stonington Opera House to draw us into the dream.
A Midsummer Night Dream opens tonight, July 2, and runs through July 12 at the Stonington Opera House on Deer Isle in Maine. The Donkey Show runs Aug. 21-Sept. 26 at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, MA.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

9 Years of OHA Shakespeare

BDN sees magic in MIDSUMMER

MAJOR shout out to Emily Burnham, with photographer Gabor Degre, for this awesome story in today's Bangor Daily News.

Come laugh with MIDSUMMER fools!

Last night's community read was one of those rare and extraordinary experiences of clarity through art-in-numbers. Stonington Public Library hosted an overflow crowd of citizen actors reading the first half of A Midsummer Night's Dream aloud. Some participants didn't want to read (which was fine) and others were shy (also fine). But as the plot unfolded -- with us sometimes stopping to talk about language or scenes -- the readings and readers became funnier and funnier. No kidding: We were laughing out loud. Big laughs, too.
That can mean only one thing: Shakespeare speaks to us.
Last week, when we read the same words at Blue Hill Public Library, the first half of the play felt a little threatening. We were serious and dramatic. And hey, it worked that way, too, because the text is elastic enough to withstand stretching in various directions.
I happen to prefer hilarious.
By the second night of the Blue Hill read, the "actors" took it there, and it was truly funny, especially because one of the readers had a great Brooklyn (NY) accent, and when she read her lines, it brought the play squarely into a U.S. vernacular, and I love, love, love when that happens with Shakespeare.
If last night was a knee-slapper, I can only imagine what tonight will be. The second half of this play is the Three Stooges meet Monty Python. Yuk, yuk, yuk, who knows what'll happen?
Anon: 7 p.m. at the Deer Isle Public Library in the village. Starting at Act 3, scene 2. No need to catch up on the reading if you weren't there last night. Just come. Laugh with us. See what fools these mortals be.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Can't touch this....

Stonington Opera House is on the cutting edge again. Check out Patricia Cohen's NYT article on women directors in NYC, including Diane Paulus, who just won a Tony for her B'way revival of HAIR (and who will be a guest on on our blog later this week).

Now take a minute to count the talented women working in leadership positions for A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM at the Opera House: director, artistic director, executive director, composer/music director, lighting designer, costume designer.

Right on, Opera House!

And a shout out, too, to the amazing scenic designer...the man on the team.

Does it matter that women are in these roles? Yes, because women have traditionally been underemployed in authoritative positions in the arts.

So kudos to Stonington. Where the women are rockin' the boat.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

We are sitting around our kitchen table at the Ashcroft House on Deer Isle, where half the cast of Midsummer is housed. The rest of the cast and two-thirds of our band have arrived here after a day that included our first full run of the show, unbridled musical antics at the open mic in Blue Hill, and a field of impossible glimmering lights that could as easily have been fairies or stars as fireflies.

The table is covered with empty soup bowls...Stephanie is offering refills of the amazing chicken soup that she and Rebecca made yesterday...drinks in hand, the present company are debating the uses of Shakespeare's text. I'm typing away at the table, enjoying the inside-outside quality of writing while socializing.

Now the talk has moved to great concerts. "I saw Tori Amos in a coffee shop," says Tommy. Stereolab, Lyle Lovett, Cherry Poppin' Daddies, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Tom Petty, Concrete Blonde, Neil Young by himself in an old theatre with a stage full of about a hundred instruments...It is no wonder that people who speak of music as passionately as these people sitting at our kitchen table are drawn to Shakespeare, where the music of the language and the rhythm of the text add a dimension often wanting in contemporary texts.

Now we're talking about Michael Jackson.

It was exciting to run the whole play today. It is wonderful to be back in Stonington to make another play for this amazing community. And when we come out of a barn that was filled with homemade music into a misty night full of fairy lights flickering like nothing I have ever seen before...well, we're here to make a Midsummer Night's Dream, and live in one, for a few strange and admirable weeks.

But all the stories of the night told over,
And all their minds transfigured so together,
More witnesseth than fancy's images,
And grows to something of great constancy--
But howsoever, strange and admirable

I hope I didn't just misquote my own line.

There is music in the living room now, and Jason tells me the backyard is full of fairies. The kitchen has emptied out. The company has moved into the next act, heading towards the only "free" day between us and an audience. Four nights will quickly steep themselves in days...

National Endowment for the Arts Announces Highlights from 2008 Survey of Public Participation In The Arts

National Endowment for the Arts Announces Highlights from 2008 Survey of Public Participation In The Arts

Shared via AddThis

Public participation in the arts is the foundation on which live performance, such as Shakespeare in Stonington, is built. I'll also be bold enough to say such participation is a cornerstone of strong democratic communities . . . and certainly, as columnist Thomas Friedman notes in this Sunday's Op-Ed, a key to the innovation Maine and our nation need to jump start now, during this recession.

The attached report from the National Endowment for the Arts, just released on Friday, shows that public participation in the arts is decreasing. Whether we're talking brain research; effective education; or economic innovation, this is a trend which bolds ill for the vitality of American culture--and here in our own little corner of the world, we'd like to do our part in reversing this trend.

YOUR increased participation in the arts is a major reason we have partnered with cultural reporter Alicia Anstead to launch this blog; our "Community Reads" series; and our post-show Talk Backs.

As Alicia (and Theseus) note below, the artistic PROCESS--as well as its final product, the show you see on stage when you buy a ticket--of problem solving and creating can have many positive impacts on our lives and in our communities. Here at OHA, we believe the more opportunities we can offer you to be a participant in the process of creating performance, the greater the benefit these performances bring to you; and the more they therefore strengthen our local communities.

Hope to see you tomorrow at 4 p.m. in Stonington, and Tuesday at 7 p.m. in Deer Isle, for the next round of "community reads" of "A Midsummer Night's Dream"!

Hey you, got a problem?

Rehearsals are SLLLLLLOOOOOOOWWWWWW moving events. Do a scene. Do it again. Now a third time, but change it, and remember it, and make it real, too. Yesterday at the Stonington Opera House, director Julia Whitworth was working on the scene in A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM when the four lovers wake up in the wood after all their jumbles have been resolved. The cast, in a sleepy scrum onstage, worked on the scene three times, then Whitworth thought about it and said: "Can we try Option B now?" So they did, and it worked. At least for the moment.

Last night at a party, the Brooklin (Maine) painter Bill Irvine told me he is headed into new territory with his work, new formal problems he wants to explore and solve.

Seems that all art is problem solving. How to get a brush stroke to look like a cloud or a sail boat. How to get an actor from one side of the stage to the other. How to make comedy and tragedy out of meter.

In MIDSUMMER, Theseus, Duke of Athens, puts it this way:

The poet's eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

That is to say: The artist takes that which is "airy nothing" and gives it form. Bill Irvine's paintings. Shakespeare's plays. Actors in character.

"For me, the work of problem solving often is the creation of something beautiful," Whitworth said by phone today. "I'm not a director who plans out in my head how everything will look. I like to trust the process and the people I'm in the room with."
Whitworth's small son was in the background dealing with his own problem solving: how to get Mom off the phone and pay attention to him.
All this meticulous, very hard work takes place so that when we walk in a theater, the plot quickens and the only problems left to solve are our own: Do we believe? Does it take us there? Are we deep in the Athenian woods?
Reminds me of Woody Allen, who said in a recent interview that filmmaking distracts him (and us) "from the uncertainty of life, the inevitability of aging and death and death of loved ones; mass killings and starvation, from holocausts — not just man-made carnage, but the existential position you're in."
Theseus says the same thing: "Is there no play to ease the anguish of the torturing hour?"

But, hee-haw folks, let's not go too deep. Remember, this is a play in which Bottom's head is turned into the head of a donkey -- and he's got no problem at all with it.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Original Music, Great Musicians from Home and Away

Rumor has it (and very good rumor, from the musicians mouths) that the composer and musicians (including local fav Ross Gallagher) and maybe a few actors will be jamming at Tinder Hearth's open mike on Sunday. 5-8 don't be late - visit to find out more about the venue or just follow direction below - you'll have to translate coming from the Island -

Traveling Directions

From Blue Hill:

Head southwest on Main St/Rt 15/Rt 176 towards Deer Isle. After 5 miles, you’ll reach a “T” intersection. Turn right onto Rt 175/ Rt 176, towards Penobscot. After 3.5 miles, follow Rt 176 when it turns left onto Frank’s Flat Rd. After 1 mile, you’ll reach another “T”
intersection. Welcome to Brooksville! Turn right onto Coastal Rd (Rt 176), and follow this for about 3 miles. You’ll see an elementary school on your left, and then the rd will curve sharply to the left. Tinder Hearth is the first house on the right that is close to the road. It is a white, rambling farm house, with an attached barn, and a blue front door.

From Jennifer via Judith

Friday, June 26, 2009

Most wonderful!

Shakespeare and summer. The two go together like Poe and Halloween, Dickens and Christmas, Austen and any holiday. Perhaps the most famous U.S. production (outside of the Stonington Opera House, that is) takes place in Central Park each summer. You can read one of my favorite critics -- Charles Isherwood -- writing in the NYT about the new Public Theater production of Twelfth Night here. The aptly named Anne Hathaway stars with opera diva Audra McDonald. Gist of Isherwood's review: "All together now: most wonderful!"

Reading about other productions is a good way to get in the right head space for Stonington's A Midsummer Night's Dream. But keep an eye out for features on the local production in both the Ellsworth American and Bangor Daily News.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Community takes on "Dream"

Last night's community read at the Blue Hill Public Library was a blast. Midsummer can be tricky to read sitting alone in your apartment, but it's hilarious to read outloud with friends and neighbors, especially when they share your enthusiasm for language and laughter. Judith Jerome, of the Stonington Opera House, and Bob Burke, a carpenter from Sedgwick, were reading Titania and Oberon -- and got a little close in one scene. I especially liked listening to Veronica Young, assistant director at Penobscot East Resource Center, whose British-inflected accent is a little closer to what I imagine Shakespeare's actors to have sounded like. But everyone added a voice to the night, and it made the play sing. We're doing it again tonight, 7 p.m. We'll pick up after Act 3, scene 1 -- but don't worry about reading the earlier acts. I'll give a synopsis and we'll read until we're done. C'mon and join us.
(Out-of-town visitor Peter Katz, of California, took the photos.)

Mawidge is what brings us together

Here's the love situation in Midsummer: Hipployta is a war bride for Theseus. Hermia has the choice to marry the guy her dad chooses, die or become a nun. Helena finds true love only if her man stays drugged -- an early version of taking lithium, I suppose. And Titania, Queen of the Fairies, is essentially drink-spiked (by her husband, no less) into a night with a guy who has a donkey head. (Not going to explicate that one here.) Except for pandering to Queen Elizabeth, who never married (or rather considered herself betrothed to England), why would Shakespeare make marriage so utterly unappealing?

For one thing, he's working within classical conventions of "lovers." Goes back pretty far -- Ovid's Metamorphoses, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and, big leap, movies such as Princess Bride. One of my favorite scenes from that flick is very Shakespearean actually -- and very much on point for our marriage theme. You can watch it here.

Another way to learn more about marriage Shakespeare style is to listen to an interview I did recently with Stephen Greenblatt, world-class Shakespeare scholar, Harvard professor and author of "Will in the World" and "Cardenio," a "lost" play attributed to the Shake man. (Here's the Greenblatt interview.) Greenblatt told me that "all of Shakespeare's comedies are a little strange -- in fact extremely strange." When I asked him why get married if you're a woman in Shakespeare, he said: "Alicia, if you ask that question too strenuously, no one would get married." People don't get married based on cost-benefit analysis or rationality, he explained. They get married because they are desperately in love.

Wish I'd thought of that.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Why Do We Do It?

In the past 48 hours I've seen people overcome by internal impulses and paralyzed by intellectual pursuits, while others have been torn by instincts in multiple directions and liberated by an artistic aesthetic years in the honing. While I thoroughly believe it takes time to build a company, it is amazing to me that this ensemble, en masse, met just sixteen days ago.

We're getting there. Someone in an earlier post used the word "Whirlwind", and as I looked around rehearsal this afternoon, no other phrase could better capture the apparent dichotomy of forces at work. People spoke words, taught children, experimented with sounds, hoisted weights, jumped around, argued, laughed, and sang ... and all somehow paid attention to the other groups in an effort to create some sum vastly more powerful than the individual ingredients. It was literally order being applied to chaos, or chaos let loose in the midst of order. Perhaps it's an observer's inability to tell the difference that allows and demands we label it as that "magic" that happens en route to an opening..

And that was only inside the theatre; no doubt similar dances were executed in the office, on the phone, and within vehicles running errands around the area. Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when we attempt to do some theatre.

I hope it continues, as this mass of human endeavor, is literally, inspiring. Stonington, more than most places, should know that a high tide floats all boats, and this collective effort asks, better yet, incites me to rise to the occasion. I can only speak for myself, but maybe that's why we do it: what a thrilling challenge.

Will in the World

Exclusive to Shakespeare in Stonington: with renowned Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt, conducted last week by Alicia Anstead. The man in general, and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in particular.

Click here to listen to the podcast.

We've Got Sound

In "A Midsummer Night's Dream:" get out your guides to Greek mythology, and stay tuned for podcast interviews by Alicia Anstead with noted Shakespeare scholars Stephen Greenblatt and "our own" Richard Brucher of the University of Maine at Orono. Music from Beth Ann Cole.

Click here to listen to the podcast.

Forest for the Trees, Part 2

Today, we brought the forest in through the trees.

Too few people get to experience the wild creativity that happens BEHIND the scenes in a theater. With a Scenic Designer, Costume Designer, Technical Director, and tech crew all in residence building out the set and costumes for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” there are so many types of creativity buzzing around the Opera House it could make your head whirl. Today, another wet Wednesday, we fetched a large (15’) log from our woods, and had long discussions as to how to rig it to fly onto the set—as well as how to rig it to ride in on my pickup to the Opera House! Meanwhile, we also fetched and delivered a special type of sewing machine, since our costumer, Jennifer Paar, and her two excellent high school interns, Hannah Avis and Lily Felsenthal, are busy making horned helmets for our fairies; papier mache ass-heads for our “Asshead Ballet;” and minotaur tattoos for everyone. Don’t you wish YOU worked at a theater?! (Photo is from an early costume prototype from the production. Volunteers get to have all this fun, too, so email me if you want to spend some time with this creative whirlwind.)


Last summer at a community reading of MACBETH in Stonington, Maine, one of the participants was moved to tears at the end. As a group of citizens sat around a table and read aloud of Macbeth's demise, she was overcome with emotion. Suddenly, she understood that even monsters have a human side. And more penetrating: She felt Macbeth gave her insight into Saddam Hussein. You can imagine the stunning discussion that arose just as spontaneously as her emotion had. People were in awe of her revelation. People disagreed. But it was Shakespeare at his best: Provoking us all these years later to understand the shocking humanity behind greed, ambition, power and tyranny.

So that's an invitation to join us tonight and tomorrow -- 7 p.m. Wed June 24 and Thurs June 25 -- at the Blue Hill Public Library, where regular -- no, extraordinary -- citizens (like you) will gather to read and revel in A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM. A comedy this time. I'll be there. Actors will be there. But otherwise it's Shakespeare, his words, your voice and our collective imagination.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

O,o,o, that Shakespeherian tango!

Can't wait to see the choreography of MIDSUMMER. It's such a physical show, I can well imagine the transformation of what director Julia Whitworth calls "tedious" and "fun" blocking to elegant and funny movement by the time the rest of us see it. "Asshead" ballet? Get out!

An exciting heads up from this end. Stay tuned for TWO audio interviews with: one of the world's leading Shakespeare scholars STEPHEN GREENBLATT, who spoke with me from Harvard this week, and another with RICHARD BRUCHER, one of my favorite interpreters of Shakespeare from the University of Maine. They both have big thoughts about The Man, and about MIDSUMMER's take on marriage, sex and what happens in the wood...

Teaser: Who's the only person in the play "getting any" -- as one of the scholar's put it?

Friday, June 19, 2009

News Flash

We've been building a sequence that has been affectionately dubbed the "Asshead Ballet."
Another name for it: the "Half-Ass Tango."

Good fun. Come check it out!

Forest for the trees?

This week the work of rehearsal has been all about "blocking" -- that is, figuring out the physical movement onstage. It's slow work -- sometimes tedious, sometimes fun-- and often during the process of working scene by scene, beat by beat, even bit by bit, it's easy to loose sight of the big picture.
Midsummer Night's Dream is a comedy, and not just because it observes the generic convention of a marriage (or three) at its end. It has a lot of funny stuff in it -- fights and sight gags, plays on words, etc. But being who I am, I'm interested in the shadow side of this humor as well -- where the laughter of the play covers, just barely, the tensions that lay behind it.
Linda mentioned the penalty named in the first act for defying the patriarchy -- death (or celibacy) for young Hermia, if she does not marry her father's choice. By the end of the play, it all gets worked out, by hook or by crook, through many shenanigans in the forest.
We are working hard to figure out those shenanigans right now, but I'm trying not to forget that darkness of the set up, the stakes that face these characters. The scenes in the woods are all a little crazy, and we are playing with the idea that everyone's ids get a little "blown out" in the dreamscape of the fairy forest.
What happens when they return to civilization, however? How will the excesses of desire, jealousy, and new love, be regulated again? We're not there yet, I'm afraid to say -- so time will have to tell.

Thursday, June 18, 2009


Ten years ago, I organized a Shakespeare program with disenfranchised single mothers in Upper Manhattan. They were insightful interpreters of Shakespeare -- although sometimes class had to be reshaped because "real life" would stomp forth: Someone would get kicked out of subsidized housing, one of the women had an unexpected abortion, another needed to talk about a visit with her son in prison. Our final event was a Broadway production of ROMEO AND JULIET, and the women offered rich criticism -- they understood the dangers of the hood, the strictness of the law and the compulsions of young love. It was one of the most revealing Shakespeare experiences I've had.

I was reminded of that today reading about a production of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM at San Quentin State Prison in California. The inmate-actors have been rehearsing alongside members of Marin Shakespeare Company for months to stage the play for the Big House. A lockdown canceled opening night -- an equipment problem apparently. But even in prison, the show must go on, and it did Monday night. You can read more about it here.

But it got me thinking. Again. What is it about art that speaks to people across all lines? What can we learn about Shakespeare from prisoners? What does Shakespeare say to them?

One answer is embedded in this excerpt from the director's blog: During the rehearsal I, like Hermia, struggle with trying to figure these men out. I can’t do it. Who are they? Are they actors? Are they criminals? What are they thinking? Like Hermia and her struggle to understand Lysander– I cannot read their minds. I can only read the smile on their faces and trust that the words coming out of their mouths are true.

Interesting stuff.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Why Feminists Could Hate Midsummer (but won't in Stonington)

This is a play that begins with dialogue from Theseus to his captured bride-to be, "Hippolyta, I wooed thee with my sword,/And won they love doing thee injuries . . ." and goes quickly on to father Egeus citing Athenian custom in regard to his rights to marry off his daughter:

I beg the ancient privilege of Athens,
As she is mine, I may dispose of her,
Which shall be either to this gentleman
Or to her death, according to our law
Immediately provided in that case.

Shakespeare's most beloved comedy, indeed. And the joke is on . . .?

Needless to say, neither our incisively smart director Julia Whitworth (Taming of the Shrew) nor journalist, commentator, and literary scholar Alicia Anstead will let us or Shakespeare's complicated, often-allegorical text off easily on this one; still, it is frustrating that this "masque" hinges on, well, let's for now just call it the "same old, same old" plot devices as our current sitcoms!

Stay tuned to witness how such a well-worn plot can be intelligently unraveled . . .

Truth or Catholicism?

Now reading Clare Asquith's SHADOWPLAY: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare in which she investigates the plays by looking at the religious rules and undertones of the Reformation, Henry 8, Bloody Mary, the Counter Reformation, QE1 -- and basically says that Shakespeare was on the Catholic side. The "Shakespeare as Catholic" question is not a new one, and while some of my favorite scholars dismiss the Bard's religious beliefs as irrelevant, there isn't a Catholic among us (or at least me) who doesn't feel some sense of triumphalism in this speculation. (It's like when Stephen Colbert makes insider Catholic jokes on late-night television.) Asquith lands Shakespeare squarely into the Protestant-Catholic brawl with A Midsummer Night's Dream, which she sees as exposing his split loyalty -- on the one hand to religion (Cat'lic), on the other to his queen (early WASP). That's why all the light-dark, high-low tension in the play. Dark Oberon (Protestant), light Titania (Catholic). Short Hermia (P), tall Helena (C). And yet, and yet, that wicked cunning Shakespeare is so clever that everyone felt validated by the poetry. And we still do. Bless you, Will.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

I *miss* being in the midst of rehearsals now that I am back in Maine ("Green and cold," Nick, our local bookstore owner remarked, looking thoughtfully out the window--"that ought to be the new Maine license plate slogan."). Multiple projects are pressing, not just one that I can sink down in to. Alicia's post about QE1 referring to herself as "Prince" reminds me of how much I want to do Timothy Findley's "Elizabeth Rex," in rep with "Much Ado About Nothing." Peter Richard's idea and I am thinking 2011.

Reading and discussing the text, however, as Jason fully knows, and as Julia articulates below in her character excercise, is not the only way this company of actors explores the play. Physicality is a hallmark of Shakespeare in Stonington productions, and each rehearsal begins with a Viewpointing session. Here is a quote from the SITI Company website on Viewpointing:

"The Viewpoints is a technique of improvisation that grew out of the post-modern dance world. It was first articulated by choreographer Mary Overlie who broke down the two dominant issues performers deal with - time and space - into six categories. She called her approach, the Six Viewpoints. . . The Viewpoints allows a group of actors to function together spontaneously and intuitively and to generate bold, theatrical work quickly. It develops flexibility, articulation, and strength in movement and makes ensemble playing really possible."

Then, as in the last rehearsal I attended, the actors are asked to create a "composition," in ten or fifteen minutes, using elements of the play, and a varying set of parameters that Julia gives them. Language may or may not be used. As the rehearsal process goes on the Viewpointing itself becomes more and more about the play, physical articulations of relationships and energy.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Then & Now

Seeing pictures of ourselves in rehearsal, (funny, I don't _look_ Puckish) reminded me of the juicy gap between the play's genesis and what we're now doing with it. Surely Shakespeare would balk in puzzlement at the host of activities we now 'do' with his plays.

Like, reading them, for example. They were, after all, written to be heard, not read. The overwhelming majority of Elizabethan London was illiterate, paper and ink were prohibitively expensive, and the canon wasn't published in an organized format until seven years after his death. The very word 'audience' is echoed in journal entries of the time: "This afternoon I heard a play by a William Shakespeare ...", and stands in stark contrast with our modern habit (as spectators) of 'seeing' a movie. To the Elizabethans, language ('action of the tongue') was the firework display, the CGI, the set change, and the orchestration of entertainment. In a society commonly without books, newspapers, internets, (or blogs!), Today's Play was all of the above, plus an education on religion, the law, history, royalty, gossip, and current events.

It would be quite a feat if our Midsummer qualifies as all of the above to our Stonington _audience_ in twenty short days. But before we panic, we should remember that the original production had far less time to prepare. Contemporaries of Shakespeare's King's Men offered new plays at a furious pace, one year premiering 180 new titles. With just a few days, no Director as we know it, a grab-bag repertoire of dances and fights, and an ensemble that had been through the Wars of the Roses (on stage) together, the 'mounting' of new work must have been bracing. Also, many plays only ran one performance - and failed; as the playwright wasn't paid until the second, if there was a second, the finances must have been bracing, as well. (Well, _that_ hasn't changed!)

There are many elements I won't miss from Midsummer's Elizabethan roots (the audience's smell and their proclivity to throw vegetables, to name just two ... oh, and the plague). But as we embark on day four of rehearsal, I will revel in the luxury of in-depth character study, the collaborative generation of a vocabulary, and the flourishing of an imaginative world as fantastical as a Dream. What could be more Shakespearean than that?

Character Presentations tonight!

Tonight and tomorrrow are my favorite rehearsals of the rehearsal process -- character night!

After a few days of working on the text, discussing themes, ideas and characters, I always invite the actors to create character presentations based on a set of questions that I assign them. They are encouraged to use a "sky's the limit" approach to their imagination, and they are assured that they will not be held to anything they come up with so early in the process.

And tonight they present their work -- I can't wait.

Here are the fill-in-the-blanks that I assigned them:
My name is ______
I'm from _______
My age is ______
Three things I know about myself from the text are:
Three things I intuit about myself are:
Some ideosyncrasies I have are: (3-5)
Some things I might do during the course of a performance are: (3-5)
My dream is:
My nightmare is:
A shape (in my body) that says everything about my character is:
A way of locomoting is:
Two gestures (behavioral or expressive) that illuminate my character are:
[the last three are demonstrated, rather than spoken]

I can't wait to see what these smart, creative actors come up with !


TOP 10 thoughts for why I'm digging A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM

1. Lovers lose their minds over each other. Relate?
2. In case you think you're special, love apparently has always looked the same. Ergo, the Demetrius/Helena/Lysander/Hermia mash.
3. Try fitting this line into a conversation today: "Methought I was enamored by an ass."
4. Who names their kid Snug? or Snout?
5. If I were Titania, I would SO wear a fabulous tiara.
6. If I were Hippolyta, I would dress like Xena.
7. Bill Bryson -- the Walk in the Woods dude from Iowa -- wrote a book about Shakespeare. No, there's no bear head on the cover.
8. The Folger Shakespeare Library edition calls Bottom an "ass-headed monster." Scholar humor?
9. QE1: Bad makeup. Called herself "prince." Was the "Faerie Queene.' Wait, what century was this?
10. MIDSUMMER is the Elizabethan code word for: Go crazy, people!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Midsummer: romance or nightmare?

The imagery of the paintings Julia shared in rehearsal (see earlier post) point to the fractured, nightmarish possibilities for Hippolyta and Titania. More typically, we tend to focus on the ethereal qualities of MIDSUMMER (see images here I found online) -- dreams, the magic of the woods, luminism, idealization, youth. And yet even in my own reading this time I'm finding a darker side to the story. Drugged lovers (yikes!), conquered brides (yikes!), patriarchal rule (hmmm). Hardly the romantic view represented by the images above. Of course, Shakespeare is elastic enough to allow for many visions, but I am eager to see where Julia and the cast take us. Julia, can you tell us more about your view of the surrealist image, please?
Am halfway through the 1999 movie version of MIDSUMMER -- with Calista Flockhart, Kevin Kline, Michele Pfeiffer. Stanley Tucci makes for a very corporeal Puck....go figure. American screen actors and Shakespeare are always a tricky mix... More after the show.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Well, Alicia, if you like slow reading, you would indeed enjoy being around our table...
Julia, here ... director of Midsummer. This is, officially, my first posting on any blog, anywhere. (took me about 10 minutes just to figure out how to initiate a post.) I'm more of a live communication kind of gal.

But, we are off, and it's thrilling to be in the room (and the phone, and the internet) with this magnificent team. For those of you who have followed the nine years of Shakespeare in Stonington, you'll find that there are many new faces in our midst... four new actors, three new musicians, new designers and technical director, and some new young ladies from the community that will be joining us onstage as Titania's fairies. It's exciting and a little frightening to continue to expand our ranks -- it's a short rehearsal period, and to do the kind of ensemble physical work that I love to do (and the OHA audiences have come to expect), we have to move quickly to create a tight artistic and intellectual community. But that sometimes means moving slowly -- very, very slowly when it comes to unpacking a play as dense as Midsummer Night's Dream, or the conceptual framework I'm laying upon it. I'm sure we all are having some panicky moments about wanting to get MOVING, but I'm a firm believer in laying a strong foundation to support a complex work. So that's what we are up to.

One of the ways I like to spark conversation and reflection on a play is to show imagery that has been evocative for me when preparing. Here are two works I shared last night:

The first is a Dali painting, "The Woman with and Egg and a Spear." For me, the surrealist quality of this is important, as is the composition itself. Is this Hippolyta? The second, is the British romantic painter John Edward (I think) Fuselli's "The Nightmare." I love the little hobgoblin sitting on the woman's chest. Is she dying? Is she in ecstasy? What's with the horse (or mare, as the case may be) on the margins of her dream? Is this Titania?

Neither of these is aesthetically related to our production (well, the first, sort of...) but both animate aspects of the play for me in exciting ways. Hope they do so for you as well...