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.