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