Monday, November 28, 2016

Mind the gap

In my early 20s, I lived in a house with four wonderful women. We were all theatre artists, had all moved to DC after graduating college, and were all working different survival jobs while we pursued our dreams. We kept each other sane: cheered each other on through success, consoled each other through challenging times, and hosted the best parties.

There was, of course, a fly in the ointment.

My roommates, all of them, loved The Gilmore Girls. Not just liked it. Loved it. Many a Saturday morning was devoted to binge-watching whole seasons of the TV show, enjoying the heart-warming and witty banter of its protagonists as they lived their lives in the mystical and Hallmark-esque town of Stars Hollow, Connecticut. Saturday mornings being a great time for lazy camaraderie, I would frequently try to join these watching sessions.

Here’s the thing. I hate The Gilmore Girls. That might not be strong enough. I loathe them. I despise them. Even just thinking about the show, I find myself getting riled up.

Which is fine, right? It’s a TV show. My friends love it. I don’t. That should pretty much be the end of it.

It’s not. My emotions about the show don’t allow me to have a live and let live approach with it. When I learn that a friend loves it, I become a little irrational about it. How can a person I love find something so odious to be good? Worse, how can I person I love – how can that person love something I hate?

All this to say, as I spend time in the rehearsal room this week, working on our staged reading of ‘Art’ by Yasmina Reza, I am finding some deep resonances to the work. When Marc says that his sense of self is shaken by Serge’s love of his white painting, I can hear my own disbelief over a friend choosing to spend time with the denizens of Stars Hollow.

At this particular moment in our history, though, I don’t need to look to an early 2000s TV show to see reflections of Marc and Serge around me. The political arena has poured itself into our personal lives, shining a light on places of disconnect between us that we never previously acknowledged. And this new illumination reveals facets of ourselves that make us uncomfortable.
If I’m who I am because I’m who I am, and you’re who you are because you’re who you are, then I’m who I am and you’re who you are. But if I’m who I am because you’re who you are and you’re who you are because I’m who I am, then I’m not who I am, and you’re not who you are. 
A friend of mine recently posted to Facebook that he was so distraught at learning a friend of his voted for Trump that he was re-evaluating both the friendship and his sense of who he understood his friend to be. Other friends – on both sides of the political spectrum – shared their trepidation about going home for Thanksgiving and the political conversations that would arise over the holiday dinner table. In dialog, on social media, and in comment threads of news articles, we can see the gap between who we think we are and who our actions reveal us to be.

In ‘Art’, Serge has bought a painting Marc hates, and it drives a wedge between them. Absurd? Yes. But very very familiar as well.

How do we engage with those closest to us about differences of belief in ways that continue and deepen our relationships rather than shattering them?

Join us this weekend as we tackle this tough, funny, absurd, entirely human play.

'Art' plays Dec 2 at 7pm and Dec 4 at 2pm in the Stonington Opera House.
Each performance will be followed by a community conversation.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Sitting down with Sarah Gazdowicz

OHA's Director of Engagement and Development, Amy Kyzer, sat down with Mr. Burns, a post-electric play director Sarah Gazdowicz to talk about the show. Here's what Sarah had to say:

What specifically about this script and this season of Opera House Arts Main Stage productions were you drawn too?

'Mr. Burns' is an undeniable challenge. There are so many moving parts to it logistically and the play's rich content is not easily mined on a first...or second...or third pass.  To be frank, I found the play more than a little frightening, but I also found it incredibly fascinating.  Why turn down opportunity to push yourself and grow as an artist? 

What is the connection from your piece to our island and situations that affect us on a larger scale?

An important element of 'Mr. Burns' is how groups or communities of people evolve and persevere through the passage of time.  The island, and the Opera House itself, is a place and a community that has grown and changed a great deal even in only the last few decades.  The recognition of history along with the need for change is a balancing act that people from or who have had a long relationship with this island must understand very well.

What was your preparation leading up to auditions and now entering rehearsals?

Read the play. Consider what elements are necessary to fully illuminate it's story and characters. Ask questions. Talk to designers and collaborators about the play. Read the play again. Research. Ask more questions. Read the play...

What outside sources are you utilizing as research to assist you in your creative process?

I have done some research on 'doomsday scenarios' especially those pertaining to pandemics and the effects and circumstances of nuclear meltdown. I watched a lot of pop music videos, refreshed myself on some Simpsons' episodes including the 'Cape Feare' episode and watched films such as Martin Scorsese's remake of 'Cape Fear'. I listened to a lot of Gilbert and Sullivan. I was particularly inspired by a wonderful novel called "Station Eleven" by Emily St. John Mandel.

Will our audiences have had to read the script to understand the play?

I think the cast and crew of 'Mr. Burns' would agree with me when I say that the play is better understood when it is seen rather than read, so much is dependent upon what a production chooses to build with the text.  I will say, however, that in either format, the play really requires you to listen and come in with an open mind. You will walk away with a lot of questions but, isn't that part of what art is supposed to do?

Get your tickets to Mr. Burns today!

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Q&A with ORLANDO director Natalya Baldyga

A Q&A between OHA's Director of Development & Engagement Amy Kyzer and Orlando's director, Natalya Baldyga:

What specifically about this script and this season of Opera House Arts Mainstage productions were you drawn too?
Orlando was compelling to me because of the way that it combines storytelling, wonderful language, and the possibility for physical theatre. I find the story of Orlando (in both Virginia Woolf’s novel and Sarah Ruhl’s play) to be extremely moving, while at the same time not taking itself too seriously. There are equal parts poignancy and humor. I enjoy that Orlando makes a statement about how we view gender, but I’m particularly affected by the main character’s journey through life. The play reminds me that we experience the act of living differently at different stages in our lives, and that there are sometimes no words that can do justice in describing what means to be alive in the world.
I love how the season pairs classical and contemporary plays together in order to ask a central question – how do you respond when the world is changing around you?

What is the connection from your piece to our island and situations that affect us on a larger scale?
I’m just getting to know the island, so I don’t want to make any assumptions, but something that might resonate with audiences is the profound connection that Orlando has to home. The character has many adventures and some exciting travels, but always returns home to regain a sense of self. 

What was your preparation leading up to auditions and now entering rehearsals?
Leading up to auditions, I spent a lot of time thinking about what kind of actors I needed for this play and especially the qualities that I was looking for in the lead actress. I needed actors who were comfortable playing both men and women, who could move well and who handle language well. I also was looking for actors who would be good in an ensemble piece like this one, and who seemed like they would be fun to work with. We have a small number of actors who play all the roles – they have to work well together to create a cohesive world.
Now that we’re in rehearsals we’ve been doing a lot of movement work with Danny McCusker, who is doing the choreography for the show. We don’t have any dancing, but we do have moments when the cast helps to create the world of the play through movement. The physical work that Danny has done with the actors has given him the building blocks to start creating some of the choreographed moments of the show.

What outside sources are you utilizing as research to assist you in your creative process?
Other than images of the historical elements of the costuming, we’re relying primarily on Virginia Woolf’s novel, Orlando, on which the play is based. The novel has given us insights into characters and specific moments in the play, really allowing us to flesh them out.

Will our audiences have had to read the script to understand the play?
Absolutely not! Some audience members might enjoy knowing the story of Orlando in advance, but audiences should be able to walk in without any advance preparation and still have a good time. You can either walk in thinking, “I know this story – I wonder how they’re going to make it happen?” or walk in thinking, “I wonder what the story is?” Both should be equally fun.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Art makes the world slow down

 I’m paraphrasing Diane Paulus, artistic director of the ART, in her opening plenary address to the annual Americans for the Arts Conference, today in Boston. Art is antidote to information overwhelm. It causes us to pause, and in the best of circumstances to be present—and to go deeper than the surface of an idea, a feeling, or an event. If the theme of this OHA season has to do with how we deal with a world spinning too quickly, Paulus has one answer.

Echoing in many ways Orlando director Natalya Baldyga’s beautiful and passionate post three days ago, Paulus begins by telling us that the speech she had been planning radically changed last Sunday in the wake of the shootings in Orlando. “I make theater,” she says, “because it is a forum to ask questions. To live inside questions. To push boundaries with questions. To provoke with questions. “ She tells young directors, “If the theater you create is banal, it is most likely because you have not asked a big enough question.”

Paulus’ tenure at the ART, like Rob Orchard, Polly Carl, and David Dower’s at ArtsEmerson, like Melanie Joseph’s at Foundry Theater, and on and on, has been signally engaged with how to get the big questions in the water, to get them to live in the staff and artistic teams, in the audiences, and those who don’t usually come to theater, those who we in theater are often talking about. Those of you who know the Opera House know that that was the OHA founders’ goal as well, in the post-show conversations, invited rehearsals, and Shakespeare-in-Stonington reads, and in general the commitment to listening to our community, making work that responds to this community. I am moved and heartened by the new additions and directions in which Meg Taintor, the new Producing Artistic Director at the Opera House, is taking these efforts.

Here are a few of them: Preparation for the summer season begins with sit-down read-throughs of the season’s plays. You are invited. Next, Page One conversations are held with each director, to apprehend their vision, their big questions, to—get everybody on staff on the same page before the rehearsal process begins, to understand how to market the shows, to understand to whom to reach out, to whom to ask questions. The whole staff attends, and community is invited. YOU are invited. To read, to listen, to ask your big questions.

This week there was a sneak-peek at an Orlando rehearsal. YOU were invited, and will be again. Come! And if there is any question about how theater slows time down, observing just this one thing: how in rehearsal a gesture is taken apart, again and again and again, to make it visible in terms of sight lines—can everybody see this!?—and visible in terms of what it communicates, to the other actors, to the audience, about the character—will answer that question. Liz Rimar is sublime in giving us a turn of the wrist that is at one moment male and in the next female, whatever that means. Feel how that sets loose something in your gut.

Paulus, in her also Harvard role these days, actually begins the remark about time slowing down by talking about how college offers this to young people. Scholarship, at many levels, offers it to us all. Pausing . . . to think things through, to find out what we mean.

Shout out to Linda Nelson who at this very moment is at the Americans for the Arts conference and texted me to say: Watch this now! You can watch Paulus’ speech on Youtube (Diane Paulus, Opening Plenary: Arts and Engaged Citizenship—but you’ll need to skip to hour two, precisely, past the welcomes and awards), and I cannot recommend it enough.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

On directing a play called ORLANDO

A note from director Natalya Baldyga

When I accepted the invitation to direct Orlando, Sarah Ruhl’s charming and poignant play, the title had two associations for me. The first was Virginia Woolf’s novel, from which the play is adapted, and the second was a city that I knew fairly well from my time as a professor in Florida. Although Ruhl’s play features a protagonist who changes mysteriously from a man to a woman, and who experiences desire for both men and women, I was more focused, as we entered rehearsals, on how the play explored the multiple identities we embrace as we move from young adulthood to mature middle age. I did not see myself, or the production, making a bold statement about same-sex attraction or relationships. “Let biologists and psychologists determine,” says the play, quoting Woolf directly – that is, let others attempt to analyze why these things exist – it is enough for us to accept that they do.

All this changed on Sunday, June 12, 2016, when I woke to the hideous news of the mass murder at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. Like so many, I sent a message to a loved one, “Please check in.” Thankfully, that former student, now a professor at the University of Central Florida, was safe. Social media informed me that those I know who live and work in the city – other former students – all vibrant, young, and dear to me – were safe.

So many others were not.

I can no longer hear the name of the play that I am directing without new and painful associations. It bears the weight of the innocent dead. Of the fear and hatred that could lead a person to coldly murder so many of his fellow human beings, most of them young people with their futures ahead of them. All because of a fact that he could not – would not – choose to accept: that men have loved men, and women have loved women since time immemorial. That gender and sexuality have always resisted, and will always continue to resist, simple binary definitions. That love will continue to defy hatred, misunderstanding, and even atrocity.   

Virginia Woolf wrote Orlando as a love letter to another woman, Vita Sackville-West, who was herself a prominent writer. Sarah Ruhl’s adaptation retains the novel’s passion, its longing, and the intense beauty of its language, all of which were inspired by the romantic feelings shared by Woolf and Sackville-West. It is no longer enough for me that we merely accept this great love as a fact. Our production, Orlando, must embrace that love. Our production, Orlando, must celebrate that love. Our production, Orlando, must proclaim that love.

Whether theatre can change the world, I do not know. Whether it can change minds, I do not know – although my most fervent hope is that it can. What I do know is that art – at least the art that I love – demands that we pay attention, that we ask questions, that we challenge as much as we inspire and delight, and that, above all, we never take the act of living for granted.

Natalya Baldyga
Stonington, Maine
June 14, 2016

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

A Species of Storytellers

by Kelly Johnson

We’re all storytellers. There’s no real way around it. From telling someone about your day to performing on stage and everything in between, every human being is telling stories constantly. We can’t help it. We’re compelled to do so.   

Perhaps what I’m most excited about this summer at the Opera House is the conversation that all our mainstage shows have about this very compulsion.

The story that we all start with is our own – and it’s constantly changing, which is so beautifully illustrated in Orlando. How do we age? And does that process alter us? How do we choose to present ourselves to other and what part of ourselves do we try to ignore?

Time can be viewed as a fairly consistent construct. 60 minutes to an hour. 24 hours to a day. But I’d be hard pressed to say that the flow of time always feels the same to me. Looking back on moments of great joy or great trauma, it can sometimes feel simultaneously like they happened to someone else lifetimes ago and that they’re still happening to me right this second. All of these things impact who we are, but when we choose what to share with others, we craft our own stories. We do what we can to influence how we’ll be remembered. But we’re not the only ones who have sway over that memory.

In An Iliad, the Poet tells the story of the Trojan War and many of those who were involved. And while she undoubtedly feels deeply for those she’s discussing, she also undoubtedly tells the stories of these individuals differently than they would tell their own. Which is the more truthful retelling? Or can they be both equally truthful and significantly different?

And why do we tell other people’s stories at all? Do we do it for them or for ourselves? Is it possible to tell someone else’s tale simply for the sake of telling it, without any of yourself coloring it? Or by telling the story of someone else’s life in our own voice, does that person’s life become part of our own? The Poet certainly has purpose. She states it early on, "Every time I sing this song, I hope it's the last time." She wants to effect change, and that desire and the manner in which she tells this story, makes the retelling as much about her as about anyone else she mentions.

We go through life challenging ourselves to reconcile the linear chronology of our lives with the chaotic spontaneity of the moments within them. We’re born, we live, we die. Therefore we expect a beginning, a middle, and an end to our stories and the stories of those around us. The danger in this is when we begin to guess at what the middle and end will be for others. This can be done as innocently as a parent’s wishful planning for their child or as complicated as the Senate’s fear of the threat Caesar could possibly pose in a hypothetical worst-case scenario. Without question our guesses as to how someone else’s story will progress says more about our own that it does about theirs.

In Caesar, Brutus states:

And since the quarrel
Will bear no color for the thing he is,
Fashion it thus: that what he is, augmented,
Would run to these and these extremities;
And therefore think him as a serpent's egg,
Which, hatch'd, would as his kind grow mischievous,
And kill him in the shell

Sure, Caesar hasn’t done anything wrong yet, but the possibility exists that he could. Better nip that in the bud.

How many times do we do this? Look at someone else’s actions (or inactions) and project our own fears on to them until the person in question becomes the villain of our story? While true villains can and do exist, do we just as frequently create our own antagonists out of those who had no intention of doing us harm? How do we use storytelling as a weapon to prevent other people from reaching their goals? A tool to get what we want?

In Mr. Burns, the human compulsion to tell stories is both center stage and shown as a vital tool of survival. After a cataclysmic event, those who remain use storytelling – in this case, retelling episodes of The Simpsons – first to survive, then to rebuild. Can we tell stories for the sole purpose of escaping reality or do all stories serve a greater purpose? Must that purpose be deemed by the storyteller, or can different purposes be given by each listener? At what points in your life have you used stories as a coping mechanism? How effective was it? What story did you choose – your own or someone else’s?

It is this steep waterfall of questions that has me so fascinated with and so excited about this summer’s season. Nothing impacts our daily lives, and the relationships in them, like the manner in which we tell stories and the stories we choose to tell. I hope you’ll join me in enjoying this summer’s shows, and in thinking about what stories each of us feels compelled to tell and why.