Tuesday, August 14, 2012

A Salute to Our Gracious Hosts!

Every morning before going to the Opera House, my husband makes a sandwich for his lunch.  And you if ask our roommate Zachary, those sandwiches are made exclusively for himself and it is only by cruel chance that he doesn’t eat every single one of them within minutes of their creation.  But, perhaps he wouldn’t tell you this in so many words as he is a ten-year-old yellow Labrador.

Zachary is the loving companion of our gracious host, Nancy Dontzin, who has been kind enough to share her home with us for the entire summer while we work at Opera House.  The fierce battle over the ownership rights of sandwiches between my husband and Zachary is just one of the many memories we will take away from our stay with Nancy this summer.  I will remember eating everyday dinners by candlelight, a habit Nancy says she has held over from living with her grandmother as a young girl, a practice I would like to put in place in my own home.  I will remember chatting with Nancy about family and politics and the great pleasure of conversation with someone who has seen so much of this world.  I will remember playing “monster” with Nancy’s visiting twin grandsons which involved chasing the identical four-year-olds around the house and pretending not to know where they might have hidden...despite the tell-tale giggles from behind a piece of furniture.  I will remember that when Joseph sprained his ankle, Nancy's neighbor, Pat Roth, who happened to be visiting, ran home to bring him an Ace bandage.

I will remember that for an entire summer we were welcomed into a home.  These memories wouldn’t have been possible had we stayed in a hotel or rented a cottage.  For theater people, staying in someone’s home during our brief residencies at the Opera House is not only a great relief to our struggling bank accounts but it also provides us with unique experiences and memories that feed us as artists.  So to Nancy, and to all the wonderful Opera House hosts in Stonington and Deer Isle, I salute you and I say thank you from the bottom of my heart.  This would not be possible without you.

Looking in on OHA - An Eagerly Interested Fly on the Wall

In September my husband, Joseph, and I moved to New York City so that I could begin a graduate program in Performing Arts Administration at NYU.  My goal is to arm myself with as much education and experience as possible so that we can follow our dream of launching a theater company in Rockledge, Florida, Joseph’s hometown. 

One of the first pieces of assigned reading during my first semester was a 2003 New York Times article about the Stonington Opera House.  I was thrilled to see that these women were successfully doing something very similar to what I hope to accomplish in Florida.  I knew I needed to meet these women and come to Stonington and after a few emails, and a lunch we were on our way.

Neither of us had spent much time in New England before moving to New York and this was our first time venturing out of the city.  Naturally, we were swept away with the magic of the island.  It was a cold and dreary weekend but that only added to the depth of its beauty.  And then there was the Opera House.  Despite the cold and the wet, more than 100 people showed up to support their friends and neighbors for “All Shorts,” a festival of short plays written and directed by community members.  The dawning realization that this place was so much more than a theater, so much more than just art, was invigorating.  This is a community and it is important to people.  We knew we could learn here if we could, for a short time, become a part of this community.

So here we are.  Joseph, a scenic designer, has been working 12-14 hour days as he assists in creating sets for three full productions in just under seven weeks.  I’ve been welcomed into the fold of the administrative office where I become exhausted just watching the unstoppable Linda Nelson work.  We are learning more than we could have hoped for about make a theater company go in a small town.  We are learning what it takes to “Incite Art. Create Community.”

Sunday, July 22, 2012

And in the end: We are hungry where we are most satisfied

Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra" is not the kind of play that ends after the lights come up and you head out from the theater into the world. It charts a story somewhere between earthly power and godly glory -- and it's impossible to be anything other than awed by its navigation of these worlds. But what is it exactly that makes a play -- or any work of art -- have staying power?

I'm sure the scholars and philosophers of the world can answer that question more eruditely than I. In fact, my own measure of the impact of a work of art is distinctly un-erudite. It's simply this: Does the storytelling continue -- infiltrate your personal thoughts and conversations well after the performance has ended?

For this play, my answer is a resounding yes. And that was true even before I saw the Stonington Opera House production of "Antony and Cleopatra" at the Burnt Cove Church on Deer Isle, Maine. It happened to me in the library reads with the community, when citizen actors dove into the text, querying its lines, marveling at its characters.

But the story kept growing for me. After seeing director Craig Baldwin's production, I recreated the opening scene to no fewer than three people in a week. It went like this: So the audience was outside, and the cast, minus Cleopatra, came over the crest of a hill in the neighboring cemetery, and the company members were singing church music and wearing choral robes, and they escorted us into the church through a installation of funereal kitsch such as fake flowers and plastic crucifixes, and inside was Cleopatra lying on her stomach naked cooing to a three-foot live python in her hands, and when we were all seated, she stood up, put the snake in a cage and pulled the sheet she had been lying on into a halter dress around her body -- except it wasn't a sheet, it was the Egyptian flag.

All three times, the listeners met my description with gasps.

But it didn't end there. I also found myself telling the entire story to both a 9-year-old girl and a theater buddy who hadn't read the play since high school. They both listened with rapt attention -- and when we were interrupted, for instance by the car's GPS giving audio directions -- they were the ones asking me to continue telling the plot. I found myself loving the story more and more with each re-telling of it.

For reasons I can't quite explain, the ephemeral nature of performance fascinated me with "Antony and Cleopatra." It could be that I was acutely aware that the characters are based on real people and real experiences, and history was writ large in the physicality of the performance. It could be that Shakespeare's language is so very poetic and rich in this play -- I texted whole passages to friends -- that I wondered deeply about where poetry lives when it's not being performed.

And now that it's over, the responsibility for and revelation within the production's life slides toward us, the audience. This is where the very fine creative team at OHA -- including the actors, designers, directors and administrators -- steps out of the picture, and the rest of us step into the picture. "Antony and Cleopatra" belongs to us now, and it did the second the performers crested that hill in the cemetery.

What do we take away though? The best performances nudge me to think about my own life -- how my great love affairs have influenced my actions just as Antony's and Cleopatra's did theirs (albeit on a much grander and more global scale), how my tempers play a role in how I treat people and how deeply I respect loyalty and the challenges to it. Here, I am thinking not of Antony and Cleopatra, but of Antony's compatriot Enobarus, who is so broken by Antony's downfall and his own disloyalty that he kills himself.

The best performances also spur us to think about our public lives, and in an election year, "Antony and Cleopatra" offers much information about posturing, branding, best practices and the world behind the scenes of political success and destruction. But also about the role of women in politics -- and in society -- and the worlds and wiles they have to understand.

"Cleopatra is Shakespeare's greatest role for women," a respected Shakespeare scholar recently told me. I believe that. I remember not so long ago in my 30s when I first read Jane Austen. I was an English major in college and graduate school but somehow never got around to reading "Pride and Prejudice." Of course, I fell in love with the book and with Elizabeth Bennett, and I lamented that Austen's and Elizabeth's voices weren't in my head earlier in life to empower me in all the ways great writers and characters do.

Now, there's Cleopatra and Antony -- I transpose their names on purpose even as Shakespeare gives us another order. Their voices and images are with us now, in our heads, in our communities in our collective and private experiences. Antony, the great warrior, statesman and lover. Cleopatra, the queen, the military strategist and a woman of such "infinite variety" that she "makes hungry where she most satisfies."

The play's the thing, Hamlet tells us in one of Shakespeare's other masterpieces. But the play is only one thing. Where it lives in us, where it goes now, is quite another thing.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Yu Jin Ko on Shakespeare's greatest lovers

Shakespeare scholar Yu Jin Ko didn't blink when I asked him to drive up from Wellesley College in Massachusetts to see the Stonington Opera House production of "Antony and Cleopatra." He said: "Yes! It's one of my favorite plays." This will be Ko's third year joining the Opera House Arts Shakespeare festival to participate in post-show audience conversations with the audience. You can read his thoughts from past years on "Much Ado about Nothing" and "Measure for Measure."  Ko, members of the creative team and I will talk with the audience after the performance of "Antony and Cleopatra" 7 p.m. Friday, July 13 at the Burnt Cove Church in Stonington, Maine. The show opens Thursday July 12 and runs through July 22. The following is an excerpt from an e-mail exchange with Ko. 

The Stonington Opera House production of "Antony and Cleopatra" is very intentionally set in a church, and many of the scenes make use of the church as "pulpit" -- even though there is no pulpit in the church. Is "A&C" a good "church" play? 
 It's not a "good" church play -- it's a great church play. The main characters continually assert a spiritual, transcendent dimension to their love, even as they heap disdain on Roman moral attitudes that befit a "pulpit." 

You wrote this about Antony and Cleopatra: "The heart of their world is the world of their hearts." Tell us more about this idea. Are they the greatest lovers in all of Shakespeare? 
Yes, they are the greatest lovers in Shakespeare. (They make Romeo and Juliet look like the young kids that they are.) They love to use the world as their stage, but the world that ultimately matters to them -- the "new heaven, new earth" that they seek -- is the one they create together through their unruly but sublime romance.  

You once mentioned to me that "A&C" is one of your favorite Shakespeare plays. Why?
It's the ultimate fantasy of sorts -- if you can be delinquent on an epic scale, you can achieve sublimity and redemption.   

What scene or character will you most be watching for in this production? Is there a place in the play that has to be highlighted, heightened or done perfectly for the rest of the play to fly?
I love every part of this play, but I'll of course watch Cleopatra most closely.  I like to joke with my students that either they're in love with Cleopatra or they're wrong.

Who is more powerful: Antony or Cleopatra? 
 Cleopatra. He always succumbs to her in the end, and it's Cleopatra who ultimately determines how we view Antony.  

Friday, July 6, 2012

Cleopatra's Snake

When Melody Bates steps onto stage next week as Cleopatra in the Opera House Arts production of "Antony and Cleopatra," she will at some point have with her Figgs, a three-foot, pound-and-a-half ball python. Eventually -- spoiler alert! -- the snake will be Cleopatra's undoing in what is surely the most famous snakebite suicide in literary history.  Bates has been tracking her experience as Cleopatra in her blog, including an entry about Figgs and his provenance. It's no surprise that the OHA creative team -- known for its derring-do -- wanted a live snake onstage for the dramatic finale. But what did surprise me is that OHA artistic director Judith Jerome found the snake in Maine in the Herp Lab of 7th-grade life science teacher Doug Kranich at Millinocket Middle School. Kranich's classroom is filled with reptiles -- teaching tools for a man who loves all things living. Figgs is a recent addition to the collection -- adopted by Kranich from a former student who was moving and couldn't take the snake along. I caught up with Kranich by phone in Texas, where he and another friend were rattle-snake hunting. "How do you hunt for rattle snakes?" I asked Kranich. "In a car," he answered. He and his snake-handling companion have only one thing in mind with the rattle snakes: taking pictures. Krannich and his wife will attend the closing night performance of "Antony and Cleopatra" and escort Figgs back to Millinocket. The following is an edited and condensed version of my conversation with Kranich.

What did you think when you received the request for a snake to be in a theatrical production?
It’s not like any request I’ve ever had. It truly caught my attention. My name is listed on the Maine Herpetological Society website, and we get a lot of strange calls. But this is something I had never heard of before. Judith [Jerome] told me what she wanted, and I had just been given the ball python. I thought: This just might work because these snakes are noted for their docile behavior.

Had you heard of Cleopatra and her dramatic death by snakebite?
Well, sure. Yes, I have. But as far as somebody using a live snake in a play, no, I had never heard of that.

When I saw the pictures of the snake around Melody’s neck, I got a little scared. Tell me why I shouldn’t be scared.
It’s a matter of faith. You’ve got to trust their demeanor. If we wanted to we could find a ball python that might not fit the mold, but generally they’re extremely docile and inoffensive. If anything, they want to hide their heads most of the time. Generally they are very reliable. You know people whose personalities are such that you know they’re not going to bite your head off. This snake is the same way. I know that’s a kind of strange connection, but it’s true.

Isn’t it also true that some animals – a snake or a pit bull – get a bad rap, that if we really understood their breed or were better informed than just from the media, we wouldn’t be afraid of them?
Everything you hear about these animals in the media is negative. Everything. They are represented as evil, as something to create fear, as a mystery, as danger – and it’s totally false in most cases. That’s what we have been conditioned to believe. We always hear about the pit-bull attacks. Nobody cares about them when they’re nice. It paints a bad picture for all of them – it’s the same way with snakes.

How did you prepare the snake for his debut at the Stonington Opera House?
Ball pythons are known for their fasting ability. I know of ball pythons that didn’t eat for a year. That’s hard to believe but they’re fairly heavy-bodied snakes. They have a lot of fat reserves. Having a month without any food is not a problem. I gave Judith all the basic housing he needed and said she didn’t have to worry about feeding because he’s been extra fed for the month. The only mistake you can ever make in picking one up is if you had held mice, and the snake would be misled by the stimulus of a food item because of the scent on your hand.

Why would someone want a snake for a pet? 
When I was a kid, I didn't have dogs and cats. But I loved everything under the sun that was alive. That probably has a lot to do with my teaching because I love life science and everything about it. I liked snakes because they were different. Most people like dogs and cats for their human characteristics--affection, answering to calls, loyalty. Reptiles and snakes in particular don't follow any of that. They don't hear. Even though some people will stake their lives on it, snakes are not affectionate. They don't create bonds with their owners like dogs do -- although that's a very controversial statement. I love them because of their different characteristics. That's what motivated me.

Opera House Arts presents "Antony and Cleopatra" July 12-22 at the Burnt Cove Church on Deer Isle in Stonington, Maine. For tickets, click here. Snake photos courtesy Melody Bates. Doug Kranich photo used by permission of Doug Kranich.   

Friday, June 29, 2012

Cleopatra the Superstar

I've conducted enough book discussions in Maine and elsewhere to know the show-up rate can be discouraging in rural areas especially in summer, especially in the evening. Imagine my surprise when more than 20 locals showed up, however, to discuss Stacy Schiff's biography "Cleopatra: A Life" last week in Stonington. What? Not even Shakespeare himself has drawn that many fans to a book gathering in my time of working with Opera House Arts and its annual Shakespeare production.

But this group was ready to rock. Most of the participants read the book or some part of it or were preparing to read it before the production of "Antony and Cleopatra," which opens July 12 at the Stonington Opera House. Many appreciated the impressive details in the biography. Some found them tedious. We grappled with the grey areas that imaginative biographies exist in: What can we really know about Cleopatra since the source material is so scant? What leeway does a biographer have with the facts? Where do fact and fiction meet in a biography?

In the end, however, it was clear that the attraction -- to the book and the play -- was the merging of legend and reality. Who among us didn't imagine walking down the main boulevard of Alexandria in Cleopatra's day or seeing her barge on the Nile or witnessing her unapologetically blatant glory in affairs with two married men? It was Cleopatra who drew this crowd. They wanted to talk about her, think about her, imagine her, exhume her.

And why? She's a strong woman who lived in a time when a woman could be the richest person in the world, when she could unflinchingly and unquestioned play politics alongside men. And that's not all.

This year's "Antony and Cleopatra" has a superstar, and the book group proved it. Cleopatra is one of the Top Ten Most Famous Women in History -- one ahead of Joan of Arc and second only to Mother Theresa, whom Shakespeare surely would have figured out a way to dramatize had he been born 400 years later. Cleopatra, Joan of Arc, Mother Theresa: There's a lineup for you. They are women who didn't validate barriers, who did't recognize "no" (unless they were the ones saying it) and who changed the world through both action and iconography (or, as we call it today, branding).

It did not escape anyone's notice that most participants in the book discussion were women. (Only two men.) Yes, women are big readers. But they are also -- all these years later -- still looking for role models -- and Cleopatra, though not admired by everyone in our group, is a powerful one when it comes to politics, leadership and -- some might argue -- sexual liberation and strategy. She was a superstar in life. She's a superstar in legend. And I'm pretty confident she's going to be a superstar on the stage at the Stonington Opera House.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Stacy Schiff, Cleopatra and the goodie bag

By Alicia Antead
OHA Critic-in-Residence

Stacy Schiff's book "Cleopatra: A Life" is a sweepingly imaginative biography of one of the most captivating and ubiquitous historical figures who ever lived. Cleopatra VII was wealthy, cunning, charismatic, sexually expressed and politically powerful. The portrait Schiff paints in her nonfiction book, however, is different from the queen Shakespeare portrays theatrically in "Antony and Cleopatra." Schiff, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, has said Cleopatra's subjects thought of her as a goddess and generally compares her not to Sarah Palin or Hillary Clinton but to Oprah. As for Shakespeare, Cleopatra comes after Gertrude, Portia and Lady Macbeth -- though it's doubtful many would refer to her as Shakespeare's most compelling female character. Schiff's 2010 book -- a Best Book of the Year in the New York Times Book Review -- will be the focus of a public discussion 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 20. (Reservations required.) The writer agreed to answer a few questions in conjunction with the book discussion and the Stonington Opera House production of "Antony and Cleopatra" running July 12-22 at the Burnt Cove Church in Stonington, Maine.

Since Shakespeare's kittenish portrayal of Cleopatra doesn't match your portrayal of a tactically powerful and intelligent queen, is there any way to correct the myth that Shakespeare hands an actor? 
Shakespeare plundered the historical sources completely and plotted brilliantly; in the case of "A&C" he lifted whole passages from Plutarch, which had just been translated into English. Shakespeare had no intention of correcting the historical record -- that's not what art is for -- and I don't think we should have any intention of correcting him. A lot has been written (a lot I haven't read has been written, I might add) on how an Elizabethan playwright approached women and women in power. It is interesting that Shakespeare was writing at the time of a female monarch and still leaves us a kittenish Cleopatra. In any event, I prefer his kitten queen to G.B. Shaw's
Stacy Schiff
PHOTO: Elena Seibert

What quality in Cleopatra would you most like to see exhumed today?
Two things impress me over and over about Cleopatra. The first is how she marches ahead without being hindered by her gender. Twice she lives in all-male military camps; she surrounded herself with male courtiers; she plays by Roman rules, which made for a very male game. She acknowledges her gender -- she has that gift for having children after all, and at the most opportune times -- but doesn't seem constrained by motherhood or femininity. She's also utterly, invariably accommodating. That's true both in her approach to her subjects, for whom she manipulates the imagery and the mission statements, and with the Romans, where she adjusts her loyalties nimbly and gracefully. There's no grandstanding and no gridlock. She's a master of opportunity and of compromise. One more thing I might add: A little charisma goes a long way. She was an inveterate charmer, at least when she wanted to be.

What would you most like to witness if you could go back in time and hang out in Cleopatra's world?
Any number of people have told me, on reading the book, that they want to move to Hellenistic Alexandria. I do, too. I'd like to walk down the streets of the perfume district. Ideally one would want to witness a Ptolemaic feast, as Cleopatra's family invented and dominated the hospitality business; wretched excess was their specialty. And you especially wanted a goodie bag, the horse or furniture or golden goblet with which the lucky guest headed home. 

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Ten Reasons to Love Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra"

OHA Critic-in-Residence

Every time I read Shakespeare – and by “read” I mean drop myself imaginatively into the world of the characters – the play I’m reading becomes my favorite. As I direct my attention to the Stonington Opera House annual Shakespeare festival, my new favorite play is “Antony and Cleopatra.” (Move over “Coriolanus,” which was my favorite play last month.) I’m a little fickle that way – never landing definitively on any one of the Bard’s plays as a favorite for very long. It’s a little like trying to choose a favorite child: You shouldn’t do it because it lessens the value of the other kids. And in Shakespeare’s case, that’s upwards of 40 plays.

The best approach for me is to fall in love with a play every time I read it.

In an effort to get you to fall in love with “Antony and Cleopatra” – assuming you need a nudge – I’m sharing my Top Ten Reasons for Loving “Antony and Cleopatra.” The Stonington Opera House production of “Antony and Cleopatra” runs July 12-22 at the Burnt Cove Church in Stonington. But keep checking back here at Shake Stonington for interviews with Stacy Schiff, whose biography “Cleopatra” will be the focus of a book discussion June 20, for interviews with actors and scholars, and for more commentary and conversation about the play.

My Top Ten Reasons for Loving “Antony and Cleopatra”

1.     Cleopatra is hot. She’s got it all: money, power, sex, a great hairstyle. She's my new favorite historical character. 
2.     Antony is a real dude. He loves his woman, loves war and says crazy-sexy things to his lover like: “What sport to-night?” I know, I know: He's not such a great husband. And if he were, we'd have no drama. 
3.     Passion rules. These characters go for it every time – not just the leads but everyone. Even the servants. Things going badly for the master? I’ll kill myself, too. To the death!
4.     Morals be damned. Adultery never looked so appealing. It doesn’t end well. (Does it ever?) But Antony and Cleopatra are having a great time together. And it’s fun while it lasts.  
5.     Where are we now? A&C has 42 scenes. That’s more than any other of Shakespeare’s plays. The distance between Rome and Egypt has never been so easy to traverse.
6.     The fake death trick. It didn’t work for Romeo and Juliet, and it doesn’t work for Antony and Cleopatra either. But it’s fun to see Shakespeare still rolling out the technique. You can almost hear Cleopatra say: “Oh crap! What have I done now?”
7.     Watch out for the snake. [Spoiler alert!] Is that a European asp or an Egyptian asp? (With apologies to Monty Python.) Rumor has it that Opera House Arts is hiring a live snake for Cleopatra’s famous death-by-snake-bite scene. Only Cleopatra could have the cojones to share the stage with an animal -- and not get upstaged. 
8.     Middle-age star power. At the time of this play, both Antony and Cleopatra are middle-aged. Are they slowing down? Hell no! (They die in the end, but what a way to go.)
9.     If it's a tragedy, why am I laughing? The play has a structural similarity to Shakespeare’s comedies (flipping between Rome and Egypt is similar to flipping between the court and the forest, duty and freedom). And then there’s Enobarbus. The guy cracks me up. Plus he's deep.
10. The poetry rocks. Shakespeare had already written "Hamlet," "King Lear" and "Macbeth" by the time he wrote "Antony and Cleopatra." His poetry chops are hot. 

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Caesar is master of the sound bite

“Rome," in our play, "is a world of rhetoric, brilliantly structured speech; Egypt is unconsidered, from the heart." Caesar is master of the sound bite, and Grant Chapman as our Caesar is so perfectly calculated and chilly you could chip him--though you wouldn't guess it from this photo, where he is in the back row, second from the right. On day 3 the full cast of A&C is together again, working their way slowly through the text, history, politics. Follow Melody Bates' A&C blog, too, which she started even before rehearsals began: http://melodyandcleopatra.wordpress.com/ 

Today 10 Real Star Acts has only four single actors, those who are not doubling. They are developing bits and the “family” relationships. They are brilliant, and Esther Adams among them. She is one of the overlapping actors, in both shows, and is completely holding her own in this professional cast. See her in the A&C cast photo above right, plus here is Aryeh’s daily:

So long actors, Triskelioin, and New York for now, as I am on my way to Maine . . .

Anyone get the feeling that your movement is not your own?

Both casts, for Antony and Cleopatra, and for 10 Real Star Acts, are rehearsing at Triskelion in Williamsburg. Four actors overlap the two shows. Day two sees Antony and Cleopatra, Enobarbus, and Caesar working in one room and the first rehearsal for Vaudeville in another. Director Jeffrey Frace begins the Vaudeville rehearsal as he always does with physical ensemble work. This is a particularly ensemble driven show because, building on an outline Frace has prepared and character work that  began in auditions, this cast is developing the show. “Anyone get the feeling that your movement is not your own? That’s a good feeling. Keep it,” he calls into the early work. Good general advice, I’d say. Each actor takes the hot seat in turn and does a character interview with Frace. All of us ask questions and the characters and relationship visibly grow as actors inspire and feed off each other.

Here is what Frace wrote to them before rehearsals began: “Here is a starting place for our script. It's an outline that serves to explain how we might deal with time (1912/2012), some key plot points, how acts may flow into one another. The acts aren't set, nor are they exhaustive. We'll start building these right away, but you may be inspired to expand, explore and offer completely new things. And that will be great. I will offer assignments, guidance, space and ingredients to create material. We will all create material together. I will be the lead editor & organizer of the material. It will be great if you all, in the spirit of vaudeville entrepreneurs, come with stuff that you really want to do. For example, if there's a song you really, really want to sing, come make a pitch. I honor strong impulses, and how the song ends up in the show may not be what any of us expect at first, but this is a valuable component of how this kind of show gets built.”

Here is Aryeh’s Day 2 photo. He promises one per day and I will post these.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Day 1 Antony and Cleopatra rehearsals

by Judith Jerome

This cast is researched and ready! As we are doing on the Island, many of the actors have read Stacey Schiff’s biography of Cleopatra. Two questions stay with me from our day of tablework: Melody Bates (Cleopatra) asks—what about this great love between Antony and Cleopatra? What part politics, what part passion? Why does she, twice, turn her ships from the battle, for example? Director Craig Baldwin suggests that we are in this production enacting a kind of ritual, and Stephanie Weeks (Charmian) asks what that ritual wants to accomplish? These are juicy questions we will be answering in the next weeks . . .
Aryeh Lappin's Day 1 photo of the rehearsal room. 

Monday, May 7, 2012

Titanic: 100 Years Ago, or Yesterday?

by Emily Cormier

Last month the Opera House had a free showing of Titanic by James Cameron as part of their Centennial Celebration Film Series. 100 years ago this April, the brand new luxury liner Titanic sank in the Atlantic Ocean on its maiden voyage to New York City, so the movie was an appropriate choice for the start of the free series--since the Opera House also turns 100 this year.

I had never seen the film, and I dragged my friend Ann along with me to watch what would be an agonizing three hours of drowning: the passengers in the Atlantic, me in my own tears.

I had not expected such an assault on my emotional faculties, and my reaction represents the effectiveness of the film to provoke a specific response. Films are means of communication: all screenwriters and directors have something they want to tell the world. A good film makes the viewer think, forcing them to see the world from a certain perspective for as long as the movie lasts. The hope is that this perspective will last after you leave the theater and remain with you in your daily life. Titanic accomplished this in full.

The class struggle in the film is especially poignant because the sinking of the ship pits the rich against the poor in a life-threatening situation. Those in the lower holds of the ship are separated from the upper class for the entire journey, unseen and unconsidered by their rich counterparts. The wealthy families believe they are entitled to the best treatment, and that their lives are more valuable than those below them.

As the ship begins to sink, the lower class are locked in steerage until all of the wealthy men and women are comfortably ushered on to the life boats. The depth of the class system stretches into the very roots of the human heart, and we are reminded that those class boundaries still exist in our own hearts; we all think of ourselves as better than someone, give our own lives more value than someone else's. But if it came down to it, would you take another's life in order to save your own? Or does that make you just like the first class passengers on the Titanic?

This movie brought me to the edge of my existence, so that I could look at the world as a whole: how thin the line between sophistication and savagery are. When our survival instincts kick in, the money, the manners, no surface civility matters, the only thing we have left is our integrity and true intentions.

What separates us from animals is our ability to choose whether to resist our animal instincts, or to embrace them depending on the situation. We have consciences, and feel the weight of what we do. Though we are animals, survival is not our primary concern. For humans, existence is worth nothing without a reason behind it, and in the case of the move Titanic this reason is love. The central female protagonist, Rose, is willing to give up her privileged spot on the lifeboat to stay with Jack because she has had enough of surviving- she's been doing it all her life. Jack was the one who showed her how to live.

As a whole, this movie was so powerful to me because it represents what I love and hate the most about humanity: the profound mercy and self sacrifice of the people who decided to stay behind and drown rather than take up space on the life boats, and the utter savagery and emptiness of the men who panicked and killed each other to save their own lives.

Emily Cormier is a senior at Deer Isle-Stonington High School. She will be attending Bowdoin College in the fall for English.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Students Speak!

What a whirlwind of a week!
What happens when you bring an expert in classroom management and team building into the classroom? A LOT!
I watched a group of students, known as the “tough group” come together and work as a team, solve problems and show their teacher they had learned the material! What a proud moment for a teacher.

It was really exciting to have Sean Layne, a visiting artist from the Kennedy Center, back with us, leading a workshop for teachers and practicing demonstration teaching in the classrooms. I really loved to hear the student reflections when Sean asked, "Why am I doing this? Your teacher must think I'm wasting time".

What did the students say?

“ It was challenging and I like challenges”. -6th grade
“It helps us learn vocabulary better because it helps us learn synonyms of the words”. -6th grade
“We worked together and cooperated as a team”. -7th grade
“We get to get up and move”. -3rd grade
“It helps us focus”. -3rd grade
“We worked on the length of our sentences”. -6th grade
“It lets us know if we are in symphony with the rest of the group”. -6th grade

What more can we ask for? A group of students engaged, working as a community, being recognized, listening and being listened to and learning more effectively.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Agony & the Ecstasy of Mike Daisey and the Theater

I wrote most of this update last week, just after seeing Mike Daisey's "The Agony & Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" at the Public Theater in New York.

Wish I'd posted it then. Because for some reason I couldn't put my finger on at the time, I just didn't like the show. I went in thinking I'd be wild about it: I'm a bit of a techno-geek, Apple fan, theater producer and political activist all rolled into one. I went to see it thinking I might direct it as part of OHA's "Our Own Community Playreading Series."

I still might. But the unfolding events around Daisey and this monologue during the past few days have helped me to place what I didn't quite like about the work to begin with.

We OHAGs were in town for our first-ever series of NYC board meetings. Judith and I had researched downtown shows to take our board members to, wanting to expose them to something Off Broadway. We'd considered Daisey's show because he is a native Mainer and a solo performer--both of which make him a potential Opera House performer. And more importantly, his theatrical monologue was making a real difference in the world: people were taking action to protest worker conditions in Apple's China supply chain. Ultimately it seemed the show would be closed by the time we arrived, and instead we (very happily) ended up attending "An Iliad" at New York Theater Workshop (see earlier post, below).

From theater to direct action to make the world a better place: this is a kind of mainlining Opera House Arts' mission. As Scott Rosenberg, former theater critic and co-founder of Salon.com, has written, "Theater can do journalism; it can do activism; it can do anything." Right on.

Rosenberg goes on to say, "What it must do first to do any of these effectively is to establish some kind of trust." Exactly.

Except it turns out Daisey has lied to his audiences--both in the theater and on the radio, for "This American Life." He undertook a grand charade, masquerading his very strong but fictionalized piece on his trip to China as documentary journalism--and even vouching for it as such with "This American Life"'s fact checkers.

He didn't need to do this for the piece to have such power. Daisey could have said, "I went to China, I did some research, and here is how I am going to present this to you, as a fictionalized collection of real facts." He could have kept it away from fact checkers and the news reporters of "This American Life." But I suspect he was having too much fun mocking journalists--which he does in the piece itself, and is probably one of the reasons I didn't like it--and being too carried away with the power his own words were having to set in motion action--to put the brakes on it. And all of this is what I didn't like about the performance itself: it had just enough edge of self-righteousness, of "nobody else would do this except for me"-ism about it, to give it the pure power Daisey hoped for and for which I was looking (and which many others apparently found in it). It felt, in fact, a bit like a movie--and it turns out it is exactly like a movie, in which the director works to heighten the drama and put the screws to your emotions in order to achieve the external result s/he desires.

Oh, right: this is called propaganda.

In many ways, all of this makes the piece even more fascinating to do. Daisey made the script available free for download and performance after the "This American Life" episode, one of the most listened to in the show's history. And in considering casting what is written as a monologue among a group of community members, we'd automatically take the "personal memoir" element out of the production.

So let's discuss: theater is supposed to move us, and has the capacity to move us to action. Knowing in retrospect that what Daisey performs as his experience is in many ways a fiction--but that the underlying facts of the oppression of Apple's China workforce are true--should we view it differently? How will this experience affect our ability to be moved by future theater performances? Will we simply return to blind consumption of our beloved, sleek, beautiful Apple goods?

Is "The Agony & the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" good theater? Bad journalism? A lie? Propaganda? Good propaganda or bad propaganda? Want to grapple with all of these issues as part of a community-based production at the Opera House? Let us hear from you!

Read more about it all here:
"This American Life" retraction
Mike Daisey's Blog response to "This American Life"'s retraction
the facts in Apple's Chinese factories: "The I-Economy" by the NYTimes
"With 'Agony' Fabrications Exposed, Theater Artists React," Wall Street Journal March 19
Mr. Daisey and the Fact Factory, by Scott Rosenberg
etc. etc. etc.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Teaching Cooperation DOES Change Our Lives

It's a concept that almost feels too obvious: we need to teach our children how to cooperate and collaborate.

Yet if you go into many public schools today, what is most obvious is that these skills so critical to our ability to learn are NOT being taught.

This past week, Opera House Arts and the Deer Isle-Stonington Schools, as part of our Kennedy Center Partners in Education program, brought Washington, D.C.-based actor and teaching artist Sean Layne into residence to work with our teacher and students on effective ways to use arts integrated learning techniques in their every day classrooms. Sean conducted a one hour professional development seminar for all teachers grades K-8 on the power of arts integrated learning and why it is where education is headed to advance the 21st century learning skills our students need to succeed.

Sean then lead self-selected teachers in an additional two hours of professional development on "Putting Drama to the Test: Increasing Test Taking Abilities Through Drama." Sounds like an odd marriage, yes, but the truth is that even if we can correct the imbalances created by No Child Left Behind, test taking will likely be a skill ALL of us need to succeed in life and work. Additionally, Sean worked for four days in classrooms, demonstrating techniques for building effective learning communities among students and teachers. The visible results of his techniques were amazing. With the repetition of a few simple terms and exercises each day, standardizing vocabulary and developing a practice in the students for concentration, cooperation, and collaboration, the climate of the classrooms greatly improved and we could all feel true "learning communities" in formation.

In fact, arts-integrated learning is not only being seen as a leading edge to improve and advance education nationally, but locally we are extremely well suited to it for a variety of reasons. The arts are a community strength on Deer Isle, which is home to four strong community and professional arts organizations as well as numerous individual artists. And our fisheries-based community is comprised primarily of kinesthetic learners, for whom the industrial model of classroom learning has never been a successful fit. As part of his workshop with the full staff, Sean presented a wonderful, short (6 min) video history of education as it has lead us to this moment, when arts-integrated learning is poised to take the lead.

Future posts will go into more detail on Sean's techniques: his Actor's Toolbox (and how we are using that monthly in our MAD (Music/Art/Drama) Morning Meetings, Concentration Circle, Cooperation Challenge, and One-Minute Tableau Challenges.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Could Paul Goodman Change Our Lives, Again?

Ever hear of Paul Goodman?

If you're under 60, probably not.

But look him up. Filmmaker Jonathan Lee and his new documentary film, "Paul Goodman Changed My Life," are trying to put Goodman back into the conversation. And with good reason.

Why invite a writer best remembered for the book he published in 1960, Growing Up Absurd, back into our public conversation?

Because Goodman is iconoclastic in some of the same ways Opera House Arts is. We showed the film this week, and were very lucky to have filmmaker Lee with us for a Talk Back and supper.

Goodman called himself a humanist and defined this widely to encompass a variety of disciplines and genres so that he never settled into one field or type of creation: fiction, poetry, and criticism; psychology, urban planning, community development. Goodman was passionate about life and appears to have wanted to "have it all:" he was an out bisexual as early as the 1940s, with a wife, three children, and numerous male lovers/affairs.

Despite being completely male-centric, Goodman's gorgeous writing and robust, iconoclastic ideas reached many, many people--including feminist heroes such as Adrienne Rich, Grace Paley, Susan Sontag, and Deborah Meier--who Lee interviewed for the film.

Goodman was hungry. He believed ideas matter, he believed that we could create the change our country desperately needed in the 1960s--and now. He believed in "the Grand Community." At the same time, he saw himself as an outsider--someone whose ideas would never really be accepted in the mold of Hannah Arendt's concept of "the pariah"--and became a contrarian when Growing Up Absurd and his politics and beliefs made him a darling of the growing anti-war movement, and thus a best-seller.

Yet in the end, dead in 1972 at too early an age from a series of heart attacks, his books quickly went out of print, and Goodman and his ideas went out of our public conversations. We haven't really seen a thinker or writer like him again--and we'd all be richer if we had.

Thanks at least in part to Lee's film, Goodman's work is beginning to make a reappearance. The New York Review of Books is offering Growing Up Absurd as an e-book now, and making it available again in a print edition in June. And Oakland's PM Press now has three collections of Goodman's writing back in print, including The Paul Goodman Reader.

Perhaps "the philosopher of the New Left" who set the agenda for the youth movement of the 1960s can generate a little hunger for life back into our own turbulent times.

In the meantime, to test and stretch the boundaries of your own humanism, keep coming to the wide variety of events like this one as Opera House Arts moves into its year of celebrating the 100th anniversary of its home, the Stonington Opera House.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Telling the Story of the Ages

Opera House Arts' board members enjoyed a group outing to New York Theater Workshop this past weekend. We were off our island and in town for our midwinter board meeting, including a meeting of our new Artistic Advisory Board.

We attended NYTW's new production, "An Iliad,' co-written by director Lisa Peterson and actor Denis O'Hare and, the night we saw it, featuring a virtuosic performance by Tony Award-winning actor Stephen Spinella. Artistic Director Judith Jerome and I wanted our board members to experience one of the many ways a well-known story can be movingly retold on stage.

Greek poet Homer's epic narrative is not only one of the oldest works in Western literature: it was also one of the most memorable books I read growing up. Raptly listening to Spinella appeal to his muses and "sing" his tale, I wondered: why? Why be so enamored of a 15,000 line epic poem on the Wrath of Achilles?

Was the main reason that Achilles loved Patroclus and Patroclus, Achilles?

Was it the "Trojan women," so remarkably memorialized by Euripedes, Katharine Hepburn, Vanessa Redgrave, and finally Christa Wolf in her 1988 novel and essays, Cassandra.

No. I think, looking backward and forward, the reason to be enamored with "The Iliad" and all of its heirs, including "An Iliad" at New York Theater Workshop, is Homer's portrayal of the terrible destruction the rage roaring inside each of us wreaks. The cities sacked, the battles fought. The endless, endless, cycle of pointless rage ("because you took my girlfriend," etc.) that has become our story for all ages.

Our human need to be confronted over and over again with the realities of our rages is why the poets write, the troubadours travel and sing and teach, and the rest of us go to theater. With luck, we each gain insight into our own rage and destructiveness as we fall under the spell of this classic tale. With luck, we don't find ourselves storming the battlements for 10 years.

"An Iliad" is there to remind us: it doesn't take much.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Bert and I

Part I of a Year Long Series

It's time we began talking "Burt Dow, Deep Water Man" again. Tonight was our second evening of Equity auditions for the show, at 440 Studios across from the Public Theater at Astor Place in New York.

The "Bert" in the title of this post may appear as an error to those unfamiliar with Opera House Arts' original "children's opera" version of Robert McCloskey's classic 1964 tale of the same name, which we commissioned from composer Maia Aprahamian in 2007, premiered in 2010, and will re-mount August 9-19, 2012, with a Maine tour April 21-May 5, 2013.

The real-to-life Bert Dow, on whom this story is based, was a Deer Isle mariner who is buried on King Row in Deer Isle. When McCloskey turned the real "deep water man" into the protagonist of his final children's book, he changed "Bert" to "Burt"--part of the process of transforming the real into the legendary.

I've titled this series of blog posts, which will track the process of re-mounting and touring "Burt Dow, Deep Water Man," in the spirit of Marshall Dodge's iconic Maine routines, "Bert and I."

And indeed, tonight's auditions were all about "The Burt's."

But first let me tell you how incredibly fun and exciting it is to hold auditions for a musical in New York City. Beginning with our own terrific musical director, Peter Szep, director Joan Jubett, and piano accompanist Michael--who could play anything anyone brought in--we were swimming in a sea of talent: talent with big voices. The kind that knock the back wall out of the room. You can imagine yourself in "A Chorus Line." You can feel as if perhaps you've never really heard a tenor before.

With all the talented bass singers we saw this evening, we're left wrestling with a philosophical question: do we cast someone in the mode of the real life Bert Dow, or the best vocalist?! It's a constant question when casting: so many variables make for a great performance. In this instance, our audience members' emotional attachment to the myth and legend of "Burt Dow" and to the world premiere version make this an even more difficult choice than usual.

What do you think? Shall we cast a grizzled, older New Englander who has Bert Dow in his body? Or go for a younger actor who will need beard and make up to age him, but has a more spectacular voice? What would you do?

Tell us. We want to hear from you.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

What's Going On

Two weeks ago, Opera House Arts' staff and Reach Performing Arts Center director Morgan Witham traveled to Washington, D.C. to attend the annual meeting of the Kennedy Center Partners in Education program, of which we are members in collaboration with the Deer Isle-Stonington Schools.

There were many amazing and inspiring aspects of this trip, not the least of which were all the great ideas we have for the coming year of arts education programming collaborations between OHA and the schools (more on these soon, direct from the keyboard of the Opera House's Education Associate Michele Levesque!). OHA was proud to have been asked to give the 300+ members of this nationwide partnership a presentation on our 2011 project, "Dear Fish," in collaboration with the partnership team from Juneau, AK. The presentation of the excellent work done by our teachers and students was enthusiastically received!

And right after our presentation, we were treated to a performance by students from Washington's Duke Ellington School for the Arts. Two girls, one a spoken word poet and one a singer, and a boy accompanying them on improvised acoustic guitar, wowed us with their passion, talent, and maturity. Speaking about their work after their performance, the singer said, "We want you to know that our generation is committed to making the world a better place." If we had not already all been in tears at the beauty of her performance of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On," we were when she said this.

The students introduced us to a new project the Kennedy Center is sponsoring, "What's Going On Now," in celebration of the 40th anniversary of Gaye's Kennedy Center concert of his influential 1971 album. The project asks students to weigh in on what has changed in the 40 years since Gaye so movingly captured the spiritual and cultural chaos of our nation. Gaye sang about war, peace, pollution, personal truth. The website asks students to pick an issue, create, and share their own thoughts on what is happening today--just as the spoken word poet did at the performance we saw, with her moving poems linking the civil wars and genocide in the Congo to the realities of her African-American community in D.C.

The project is a very cool way to encourage students to express their social engagement. It will culminate in an anniversary concert and fresh look at Gaye's album at the Kennedy Center in May, at which Grammy Award-winning R&B artist John Legend will appear with the National Symphony Orchestra--and with selected students from the project.

Art inspires. Art Makes Change.

The Still Point of the Turning World

It was a privilege last week to host John Farrell, the co-founder of Figures of Speech Theatre in Freeport, Maine, dramatically reciting all 1,000 lines of T.S. Eliot's master work, "Four Quartets."

The four poems, completed in 1943 and for which it is widely believed Eliot was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, are a mesmerizing meditation on mysticism and life's mysteries. Each poem is affiliated with one of the four elements (air/fire/earth/water) and a stage in Eliot's own complicated spiritual journey.

One of my favorite passages, from the second poem, "East Coker:"

Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,
Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,
Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.
The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.

The houses are all gone under the sea.

The dancers are all gone under the hill.

"Humility is endless"--there is really not much to say after that!

We had the predictable misfortune, scheduling this in February, of staging it during this winter's only true snowstorm. Yet we also could not help but wonder whether the small audiences had also to do with the passing of Eliot from our "collective culture." Maybe only people 50 or older know who T.S. Eliot is? Who cares about "The Waste Land" or "The Four Quartets"? And is this cultural changing of the guard something about which we should care? Can we not layer incrementally the master works of each decade, making our culture deeper and richer as we move into the future? Or do we just forget what is behind us, and move forward? And in moving forward, do those who keep the flame of the past keep current, too?

We did have one 13 year old there who loved it, and said she was thankful for her "training in classical music" which gave her the discipline to sit for an hour while all 1,000 lines washed over her--and us.

Thatchered at the Movies

Last weekend we screened "The Iron Lady"--just before Meryl Streep won another Academy Award for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in it. It's been on my mind ever since.

The film's portrayal of Thatcher in a mildly demented old age, looking back on her life, had--as so many of Streep's performances do--the uncanny effect of making me sympathetic towards a woman for whose policies and legacy I have only previously felt profound disagreement and distaste. The best type of both acting and filmmaking.

Scenes in the film remind us of that period in history, prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, all of it feeling very long ago in some ways and, in light of the current Republican primaries, not long ago enough. Reagan was just elected on this side of the pond and arm-in-arm he and Maggie began implementing what is now known as "Thatcherism" in England and "voodoo economics" in the U.S.: slashing taxes for the wealthy and using these revenue losses to eliminate social services and other job providing economic stimulus programs, while increasing defense spending and in general creating bloated national deficits and severe recessions.

The film nicely portrays this as a true philosophical divide: will services be provided by government or by private business? What it does not ask--because Thatcher herself, as slyly portrayed by Streep, did not, as we know from history, care--is who is left out in the cold and who benefits when services are left to private business. Thatcher, the dutiful daughter "of a Grantham grocer," was much the Darwinist on this note: only the fittest and meanest, like herself, survive.

The scenes of the IRA bombings are shocking today, and reminiscent of a time when we thought the Irish "troubles" would never end, could never be resolved. Yet they appear to be over. But mostly, I'm still thinking about the movie because of the questions it raised for me: would a movie like this ever be made about Reagan or any other male leader of the western world? (Answer: no. Unsettling realization, 30 years on: a woman is still a woman is still a woman--not a head of state.) And will we ever give up on economic policies that have been proven not to work?