My Town: Reflections on Our Town at The Broad Stage

31 01 2012

According to a woman sitting behind me at the Broad Stage on Sunday afternoon, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town is performed at least once a day somewhere in the United States. The middle aged couple next to me remembered reading Our Town in high school, but they were a little fuzzy on the details. I first encountered Our Town on an episode of Growing Pains. Or maybe it was The Wonder Years. Either way, cultural fragments and countless community theater productions have convinced us that this Pulitzer Prize winning play is all about small town nostalgia. Daily Life, Love and Marriage, Death and Eternity in a small New England town at the turn of the century. Those were the days.

I have a problem with small town nostalgia because, unlike most audience members at the Broad, I am from a modern day equivalent of Grover’s Corners: Albemarle, North Carolina. Population: 15,489. A professor from the nearby Pfeiffer University could recount an exciting history of Albemarle, from the tribes of hunter-gatherers 10,000 years ago to the 20th century textile mills to the country music star Kellie Pickler. The editor of the Stanly News and Press could easily quote the editor of the Grover’s Corners Sentinel: “Our young people here seem to like it well enough. Ninety percent of ’em graduating from high school settle down right here to live – even when they’ve been away to college.”

I am part of the 10% that left Albemarle after graduating from college – and part of the <1% that left North Carolina entirely. My history of Albemarle is just a little different from the histories of those still living there. I grew up in a town without a bookstore or a coffee shop, but with a Confederate soldier statue standing guard by my church. I spent hours in dance and piano lessons and buried myself in the books and music and movies that were available, trying to dream my way out of this culturally stunted town since elementary school. A favorite Albemarle anecdote really says it all: At the turn of the century, the city built an opera house that held live performances from 1908 to 1913, was converted to a movie theater from 1914 to 1915 … and became an annex to the undertaker’s shop by 1916.

Because of my small town background, I have always been wary of Our Town – but David Cromer’s production amplifies the play’s embedded critique of small town life to strike a necessary balance between nostalgia and criticism. Cromer’s direction restores nuance, depth, and detail to a play that too often falls into idyllic cliche. His production made me see Our Town as if for the first time. In fact, the Sunday matinee sent me spinning through a spectrum of heightened emotions that I am still teasing out.

To begin, I was pleasantly taken aback at how pointed Cromer makes the critique of small town life in Our Town. Mrs. Gibbs’ (Kati Brazda) thwarted dream of a vacation to Paris, France, stings like never before. Brazda punches the plea: “Only it seems to me that once in your life before you die you ought to see a country where they don’t talk in English and don’t even want to.” Employing a female stage manager (the naturally luminous Helen Hunt) draws heightened attention to the confined roles for women in Grover’s Corners; Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb cook three meals a day, clean house, and care for their families for decades – without a day off or a single nervous breakdown. The Angeleno audience also participates in the criticism of small town life through their knowing laughter, recognizing all that Grover’s Corners lacks – particularly in the way of culture.

What happens to those who are interested in “culture” in a small town like Grover’s Corners? My eyes were continually drawn away from the primary playing space and up to the misfit artist Simon Stimson (Jonathan Mastro), poised at an upright piano in the balcony of the Broad. This gifted musician grunts and groans his way through teaching an amateur church choir to sing “Blest Be the Tie that Binds.” He pounds out the individual vocal parts, stops and starts, all the while growing increasingly tipsy and irritable about his incompetent singers. When he is not scandalizing the women by getting drunk during rehearsal, Stimson is a spectral presence to the main action of the play. The isolated genius slumps over his piano to compose. He occasionally picks out dissonant modernist music that unsettles any potential utopian vision of Our Town. Quite simply, “Some people ain’t made for small-town life.”

Though the teaching may be tedious, Simon Stimson’s work in Grover’s Corners is not in vain. The church choir is a bastion of culture in this small town, and the singers’ voices join in perfect harmony to accompany some of the play’s most affecting moments with familiar hymns. This kind of culture may not suit Simon, but it is undeniably a culture of great value and worth – emphasizing community as much as artistry.

Small towns do have their own pleasures. The sound of snapping beans tossed into a wide metal bowl during Act I triggered memories of gossiping in my grandmother’s kitchen while helping to prepare the vegetables for dinner some summer nights in Albemarle. As the fresh beans simmered on the stove, my little sister and I would convince Gog to play beauty parlor. We would poke our skinny little fingers into the holes of the old rotary phone in the back room and call Gog to make an appointment for a hair-wash in the kitchen sink. Gog would take the weight of my head in her hands, lather the Prell into a heavy hat of suds, then pour a smooth and steady stream of water over my hair until all the soap washed down the drain with a satisfied gurgle.

My childhood stability in Albemarle was both a blessing and a curse, coupling comfort and security with a stifling sense of stasis. I have only grown to appreciate it in retrospect, at a physical and temporal distance.

“Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? – every, every minute?”

“No. The saints and poets, maybe – they do some.”

I think David Cromer does.

My most visceral reaction to Our Town came not during the production, but immediately afterwards. The house lights came up. Staring at one another from across the narrow thrust stage, the audience continued applauding beyond the curtain call. We gradually realized that the cast would not be returning for a second bow … but we lingered in the theater for a prolonged moment of communal appreciation. With our senses newly attuned from an awe-inspiring Act III, we began to take in the sights and sounds and smells surrounding us: the wrinkled faces and the silk shawls, the crisp applause covering a few sniffles, the pleasant perfume wafting from a few seats down. Somehow, we had failed to notice these rich and wondrous details before. We had even failed to notice that we had become a “we,” a temporary community established in and through the theater. A small town of our own, now dispersing.

I noticed the gravel crunching under my feet as I ambled back to my car with the warm Sunday afternoon sun beating down on me. Before pulling out of the parking lot, I called my parents back in Albemarle, in the same house where I spent the first 17 years of my life. And I began describing what I had seen. The full impact of David Cromer’s production didn’t hit me until I reflected on it, until I tried to explain the beauty and wonder Act III to my family. And then the tears started. I don’t get nostalgic, I don’t get nostalgic, I don’t get nostalgic.

I was kind of nostalgic.

I think we too often create false divides between small town and big city. I feel more a part of a community here in Los Angeles than I ever did in Albemarle; I felt a part of a community on Sunday at the Broad Stage. We also create false divides between high and low culture; it even bothered me a little that Cromer elevated Stimson above the ground-level playing space, as if the musician were meant for loftier things than what Grover’s Corners could offer. The truth is, Stimson was just meant for different things. I know because I was meant for different things.

I live out a daily contradiction of loving and hating “my town” of Albemarle, NC. Knowing that I was meant to leave but others were meant to stay. Feeling blessed by the opportunities a “big city” has afforded me but regretting how much I miss in my family’s lives. Peeling back the layers, David Cromer’s production of Our Town embodied the complicated and contradictory relationship that arises at the intersection of where I grew up and where I live now, who I was and who I am becoming. For a moment on Sunday, I think I realized life. And that is a rare gift.


Celebrating 2 Years of Blogging

14 01 2012

Two years ago today, I launched my new blog Compositions on Theatre with a Prologue:

My roommate Roxanne has urged me for months now to start a blog about all my theatrical adventures – seeing and critiquing shows, as well as occasionally composing and working on them myself, in LA and beyond. I hope this blog will be a valuable place for me to work through my ideas, since I often do my best thinking through writing. Hopefully it will be an interesting read for others, as well.

This is my 139th post. So I hope someone out there is reading!

Actually, I know several people who are reading, who have been advocates for my theater criticism from day one. Within the first month, Colin Mitchell gave me a huge boost of confidence and expanded my audience with a Bitter Lemons post on “The Democratization of Theatre Criticism.” Trevor Thomas, with whom I engaged in some early debates about objectivity in theater criticism, invited me to write for EDGE Los Angeles beginning in November 2010. John Topping and Tony Frankel invited me to join Stage and Cinema in March 2011. Some of my most rewarding professional relationships and friendships have emerged from my criticism over the past two years. Thank you all.

Since January 2010, I have reviewed theater and other performance events in Los Angeles, Orange County, San Diego, New York, and Chicago. I have written articles on the blogger-critic, repetitive theatergoing and fandom, and the art of listening. I have used this blog for unabashed self-promotion as I composed, music directed, and dramaturged from coast to coast. I even blogged my trip to Israel with Manny Azenberg and a bunch of “show business Jews” last summer.

But the heart of this blog is and always will be the criticism. From the very first post, I set out to write smart and accessible, personal and visceral reviews for a theatrical community that rarely gets the coverage it deserves in the mainstream media. I am not a paid “professional,” so try as I might, I can’t see and review it all. But I see a lot, review a lot, and think a lot. And I am thrilled by the increasingly porous boundaries across academia, professional criticism, and blogging.

Although the LADCC still has its qualms about blogger-critics, Princeton professor Jill Dolan was recently awarded the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism specifically for her blog The Feminist Spectator. There are so many reasons to praise the award committee’s decision. Dolan breaks down the binary between “educated” critics and “uneducated” bloggers, as well as between “objective” scholarship and “feeling” human beings. What’s more, Dolan is only the 7th woman to win this award in its 56 year history. As Karen Fricker writes in The Guardian, “Much of the joy of the online Feminist Spectator comes from the sense of someone letting their hair down, writing with lucidity and freedom about whatever she bloody well pleases.” What a refreshing thought!

At the same time, the increasing recognition of blogger-critics is part and parcel of the death of theater criticism as a viable career. Only this past week, longtime critic Dany Margolies was let go by Backstage. It is a sobering realization that “professional critics” are increasingly freelancers, jumping from job to job, while “bloggers” are often constrained by time and funds, writing in their spare time for the occasional comp ticket. This is a false binary, but it serves a point: I sometimes wonder if I am blogging myself into an impossible future career in theater criticism.

Yet the critics who navigate this Catch 22 – whether as professionals or as bloggers – are often united by an unquenchable thirst for theater and a passion for dialogue and debate. For the writers who persevere in this strange new system, criticism is more than a job and and more than a hobby: it is an imperative. We write because we can’t imagine not writing.

Perhaps this is the democratization of theater criticism after all. If so, I’m honored to be a little part of it, and I look forward to the next chapter.

A Year in Theater: 2011

20 12 2011

2011 has been a whirlwind theatrical year. Last winter, I music directed two incredibly rewarding ensemble shows: Brecht and Weill’s Happy End (with director Hunter Bird) and The Civilians’ Gone Missing (with director Lane Williamson). My family musical Thank You, Mr. Falker (with book and lyrics by Andrew Bentz) premiered at the Morgan-Wixson Theatre in May. I traveled across the US to see and review and dramaturg shows this summer and fall. I was particularly drawn to experimental literary adaptations this year, straying from the mainstream venues and musicals that dominated last year’s list.

I always see more theater than I have the time to review, but here are my top 10 shows of 2011 – from LA to Chicago to NYC, from gritty black box theaters to Broadway stages.

10. The Comedy of Errors (Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble) – Review

Playing in the realm of contemporary pop culture, this free summer Shakespeare production had the audience roaring with laughter from start to finish. It’s perhaps no surprise that I saw The Comedy of Errors twice.

9. God of Carnage (Ahmanson Theater)

Yasmina Reza’s play snaps from a sophisticated realist dramedy to a brilliant physical satire of “modern” man. With a star studded cast direct from Broadway, God of Carnage was an unexpectedly explosive favorite this year. (While the stage show has more fireworks, Roman Polanski’s film Carnage offers powerhouse performances and clever drunken camera work.)

8. D is for Dog (Rogue Artists Ensemble) – Review

The collaborative artistry behind D is for Dog was astounding – from the story to the music, from the set to the puppetry. I was enthralled by every twist and turn in Rogue Artists Ensemble’s smart sci-fi thriller.

7. Hugh Jackman, Back on Broadway (Broadhurst Theater)

This unbelievably charismatic man lives up to the hype. Whether you’re seated on the first row of the orchestra or the back of the mezzanine (like me), Hugh invites you into his musical world with silly stories and flirty banter, cool and confident moves, a powerhouse voice, and genuine smile. He leaps effortlessly from macho Billy Bigelow to flashy Peter Allen, and I adore him for it.

6. Jerry Springer the Opera (Chance Theater) – Review

Kudos to the Chance Theater for conquering such a morally and musically challenging opera. Jerry Springer the Opera has yet to receive (and may never receive) a full production at a mainstream venue in the United States, but the Chance continually impresses with exciting productions of innovative work.

5. David Greenspan’s Poetics and Plays (Getty Villa)

David Greenspan’s performative lecture of Aristotle’s Poetics and Gertrude Stein’s Plays enacts the imbrication of performance in academics and academics in performance. I was dorkily enthralled. Charles McNulty may have preferred the classical Aristotle portion, but my theatergoing companion and I found Greenspan’s Stein to be uncanny.

4. The Last Act of Lilka Kadison (Lookingglass Theater) – Review

On my first trip to Chicago, I was inspired by the palpable art of listening across ensembles at Steppenwolf and Lookingglass. The Last Act of Lilka Kadison made theatrical magic of an utterly predictable story.

3. The Select (The Sun Also Rises) (Elevator Repair Service)

I have never been a fan of Hemingway’s macho prose – but with an ensemble of enthralling storytellers in a bar, corks popping and bottles flying, and a dash of music and dance, Hemingway was transmuted into a kind of camp. I was captivated. I’ll be back for Gatz this spring.

2. Septimus and Clarissa (Ripe Time) – Review

I was already a fan of Virginia Woolf’s soft, sensuous narrative voice that sweeps from one character to another, from interiority to exteriority. Ripe Time clarified and amplified Mrs. Dalloway for me, physicalizing Woolf’s words with such profound nuance and care.

1. Cyclops: A Rock Opera (Psittacus Productions) – Reviews and More

This raucous rock opera adaptation of Euripides’ satyr play consumed me – from Son of Semele to Pasadena Playhouse to the NY Musical Theatre Festival. I ended up occupying a strange and shifting position as a fan, critic, scholar, and dramaturg on the company’s road to NYMF. But most of all, I loved being a friend and advocate for such a smart and sexy new work.

Happy holidays, all. Looking forward to a very theatrical 2012! I’m kicking off the new year by dramaturging a new rock opera The Demise, previewing at The Roxy on January 19. And look for me music directing Act III Theater Ensemble’s Xanadu at UCLA in early March!

Are We Listening?

4 09 2011

In my summer of excessive theatergoing, I have learned a few things about my theatrical tastes. Specifically: I am not in love with the genre of musical theater as I once thought I was. (Gasp!)

I am actually in love with the art of listening.

My interest in sound and the art of listening must stem from my own training as a musician and composer. I listen to music less frequently than some might expect, because I have a constant soundtrack in my head – familiar and original tunes, winding their way through my skull, often making unexpected connections. I read an article a few months ago about “musical hallucinations,” which suggested that the fullness of sound in my head could actually be considered a psychological disorder. But I suspect most musicians have this constant aural activity, and it doesn’t interfere with our everyday lives (too much). In fact, it comes in handy. I don’t know how I could compose without musical hallucinations. When I was bored in middle school, I could mentally start up a CD and tune out the teacher. Sometimes when I am sitting in a restaurant with a friend, I will point to the ceiling and identify a song playing on the radio. Following a confused look, my friend usually takes a few seconds to tune in to this alternate wavelength – then she hears it. What is background noise to others often occupies a central place in my soundscape. Are you listening?

Sound is something too often marginalized in theatrical productions, hence my affection for the genre of musical theater where sound occupies a central and privileged position. I have written before about the dynamic range of a musical that absolutely captivates me: the ecstatic shift from book scenes to musical numbers, from everyday speech to heightened song and dance. Within a musical number, I love how voices harmonize and bodies sync. Musical numbers require intense listening across the ensemble. Musical numbers also temporarily banish the constant soundtrack in my head: I became wholly absorbed in listening to – or, rather, listening with – the ensemble. I bob my head or tap my foot along with the beat. If I know the songs already, you might find me playing piano on my knee. I am not bored: my body is engaged in musicking along with the actors. The boundary between us is porous. I will leave the theater with their songs incorporated into my mental soundtrack; I will sit down and play them on the piano; my friends will sing along.

“Straight plays” can have this captivating, dynamic range of sound too. On my recent visit to Chicago, I saw 8 plays in 6 days — and the musicals (The Adventures of Pinocchio and The Original Grease) were actually my least favorite of the lot. From Collaboraction to Abraham Werewolf, from Steep Theatre to Steppenwolf, I was continually impressed with the vivid soundscapes of the “straight plays” I saw. Collaboraction’s 1001 and Abraham Werewolf’s One Night Only relied on familiar musical strains, such as Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo score and classic Hall & Oates, to explore the self-conscious storytelling that constitutes our lives. The subway trains running beside Steep Theatre made for a chillingly atmospheric soundtrack to Pornography, a play set around the London tube bombings in 2005. Steppenwolf’s Middletown was concerned, in both content and style, with communication: the construction of language, the gaps and distortions, the meanings of sound and silence.

In LA, I recently caught the first preview of Stranger Things by Ghost Road Company. What drew me to this production in the first place was sound. This show wasn’t even on my radar until I read Steve Julian’s LA Stage Alliance article, which had me at David O. From Songs and Dances of Imaginary Lands to the Blank’s The Cradle Will Rock, David O is one of the most eager and innovative musical collaborators in LA; I actively seek out productions with his music direction. The same goes for Gregory Nabours, who played the delightfully sarcastic accompanist in Celebration Theatre’s [title of show]. I am fundamentally opposed to song cycles, but his own song cycle The Trouble with Words washed away all my usual qualms about the form. Gregory is MD’ing Third Street Theater’s Falsettos next. I’m there.

Yes, I follow gifted music directors as much a I follow companies, directors, or actors. But really, who wouldn’t be intrigued by a hybrid graphic novel play with music? A good mystery is all about the timing, and Stranger Things still has a few plot twists to be ironed out. But many moments are positively chilling – and the immersive soundscape holds the audience captive for the duration of this spectacularly layered tale. David O has crafted sparse and spectral underscoring, in addition to a hauntingly simple waltz and a few piercing songs. The songs are fragmentary and Brechtian, cold and isolated, like the frigid environment in which the play is set. David O is himself a dead and ghastly figure, hunched over the keys, invisible to the characters in the play. (“In a perfect world of endless budgets,” O imagines, “my character would be the invisible ghost piano player Irma at the Magic Castle [in Los Angeles].  It would work well in the story if the piano could play itself.”) His underscoring sweeps seamlessly into Cricket S. Myers’ soundscape of whirling winds, haunting whispers, and gasping breaths that still echo in my head today. The creaking boards of Maureen Weiss’ set, the crisp flip of a page of sheet music, Helga’s stilted and unaffected speech … sound is style and substance in this show. Are you listening?

Back to Chicago: It was at Steppenwolf and Lookingglass (The Last Act of Lilka Kadison, my favorite) that I particularly grasped the dynamic power of ensemble – the power of listening – in a non-musical. Over and over again in my Chicago reviews, I point to the ensemble as engaged listeners, palpably aware of one another’s presence at all times. The actors were not grounded in themselves, but in one another. Their work was not a self-serving showcase, but a long-term collaborative effort built on communal process as much as product. I believe that when the actors are so palpably engaged, the audience is likewise engaged. After every performance at Steppenwolf, a company member leads a talkback. This is not a Q&A with the creative team, but a chat among audience members about the themes and questions that the play brought up. On the night I attended, 25 or 30 people stayed: enough to foster a dynamic discussion.

I find myself drawn to theater companies that emphasize the art of listening both onstage and off. These companies recognize their audiences not as passive spectators but as active and engaged collaborators, an integral part of the theatrical exchange. My Name is Rachel Corrie, which recently opened at Theatricum Botanicum, featured a rousing post-show discussion that almost the entire audience attended; even after the formal discussion had ended, audience members lingered to further discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Coeurage Theatre Company recently kicked off a very cool post-show entertainment called Live Theatre Blog, 20-minute “monthly blogs […] written to be plays performed onstage and streaming online for who ever wants to listen.” This crafts a space for the audience to linger after the performance, to extend the show beyond the curtain call. Gedaly Guberek introduced himself after The Trouble with Words the other night, and we had a great chat before the first installment of LTB. I was a little astonished that Gedaly recognized me from the online LA theater community. But he was listening …

How can the LA theater community better engage in the art of listening, onstage and off? How can we broaden our range of theatrical possibilities? How can we expand our audiences? The alternate wavelengths are, no doubt already there. Are we listening?

1001: Collaboraction, 8/14/11

28 08 2011

1001: Review for Stage & Cinema

Pornography: Steep Theatre, 8/11/11

28 08 2011

Pornography: Review for Stage & Cinema

The Adventures of Pinocchio: Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, 8/10/11

21 08 2011

The Adventures of Pinocchio: Review for Stage & Cinema