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

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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.