Wednesday, November 18, 2009
"Studs Terkel was the last of a generation of Chicagoans who came of age in the fifties and sixties, and through a combination of talent, output and staying power became fixtures in our cultural consciousness...." Read the whole entry here.
I was out of town last weekend. Maybe someone can grab me a leftover copy of New City from November 11 ?
And remember to see Tony here at 16th Street Jan 21 - 30.
Thursday, October 8, 2009
16th Street Theater in a co-production with Teatro Vista... Theatre with a View presents Tanya Saracho's Jeff-nominated play Our Lady of the Underpass on the 5-year anniversary of the Holy sighting on Fullerton Avenue.
We will be cheering Tanya on as she competes against herself for Best New Play at the Jeff Awards on October 18. She also is nominated for her play Kita y Fernanda which we produced last fall here at 16th Street.
Tanya also is up against Pulitizer-prize winner Lynn Nottage, Masha Obolensky and the excellent Lisa Dillman. All women, I might add.
Keep the faith!
Read Roeper's full article here.
Wednesday, October 7, 2009
A theater critic once wrote that Smith doesn’t impersonate characters so much as she does impressions of their souls. As lovely as that sounds, it’s not what she’s striving for. Her project, since the ’70s, she told me, has been about trying to understand “the relationship of language to character.” She explained: “By that I mean the rhythms, the sounds people choose to make while they’re speaking.” Pursue those, she argues, and you’ll get somewhere interesting, even if it’s not precisely inside their heads or inside the part of you that can relate emotionally to what’s inside their heads. Read the entire article by Susan Dominus here.
Thanks, Kathleen, for passing this article on. Enjoy!
Saturday, September 12, 2009
Karl Paulnack, music department head at Boston Conservatory, wrote and presented this speech to the incoming freshman at Boston Conservatory earlier this year.
One of my parents’ deepest fears, I suspect, is that society would not properly value me as a musician, that I wouldn’t be appreciated. I had very good grades in high school, I was good in science and math, and they imagined that as a doctor or a research chemist or an engineer, I might be more appreciated than I would be as a musician. I still remember my mother’s remark when I announced my decision to apply to music school—she said, “you’re WASTING your SAT scores.” On some level, I think, my parents were not sure themselves what the value of music was, what its purpose was. And they LOVED music, they listened to classical music all the time. They just weren’t really clear about its function. So let me talk about that a little bit, because we live in a society that puts music in the “arts and entertainment” section of the newspaper, and serious music, the kind your kids are about to engage in, has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with entertainment, in fact it’s the opposite of entertainment. Let me talk a little bit about music, and how it works.
The first people to understand how music really works were the ancient Greeks. And this is going to fascinate you; the Greeks said that music and astronomy were two sides of the same coin. Astronomy was seen as the study of relationships between observable, permanent, external objects, and music was seen as the study of relationships between invisible, internal, hidden objects. Music has a way of finding the big, invisible moving pieces inside our hearts and souls and helping us figure out the position of things inside us. Let me give you some examples of how this works.
One of the most profound musical compositions of all time is the Quartet for the End of Time written by French composer Olivier Messiaen in 1940. Messiaen was 31 years old when France entered the war against Nazi Germany. He was captured by the Germans in June of 1940, sent across Germany in a cattle car and imprisoned in a concentration camp.
He was fortunate to find a sympathetic prison guard who gave him paper and a place to compose. There were three other musicians in the camp, a cellist, a violinist, and a clarinetist, and Messiaen wrote his quartet with these specific players in mind. It was performed in January 1941 for four thousand prisoners and guards in the prison camp. Today it is one of the most famous masterworks in the repertoire.
Given what we have since learned about life in the concentration camps, why would anyone in his right mind waste time and energy writing or playing music? There was barely enough energy on a good day to find food and water, to avoid a beating, to stay warm, to escape torture—why would anyone bother with music? And yet—from the camps, we have poetry, we have music, we have visual art; it wasn’t just this one fanatic Messiaen; many, many people created art. Why? Well, in a place where people are only focused on survival, on the bare necessities, the obvious conclusion is that art must be, somehow, essential for life. The camps were without money, without hope, without commerce, without recreation, without basic respect, but they were not without art. Art is part of survival; art is part of the human spirit, an unquenchable expression of who we are. Art is one of the ways in which we say, “I am alive, and my life has meaning.”
On September 12, 2001 I was a resident of Manhattan. That morning I reached a new understanding of my art and its relationship to the world. I sat down at the piano that morning at 10 AM to practice as was my daily routine; I did it by force of habit, without thinking about it. I lifted the cover on the keyboard, and opened my music, and put my hands on the keys and took my hands off the keys. And I sat there and thought, does this even matter? Isn’t this completely irrelevant? Playing the piano right now, given what happened in this city yesterday, seems silly, absurd, irreverent, pointless. Why am I here? What place has a musician in this moment in time? Who needs a piano player right now? I was completely lost.
And then I, along with the rest of New York, went through the journey of getting through that week. I did not play the piano that day, and in fact I contemplated briefly whether I would ever want to play the piano again. And then I observed how we got through the day. At least in my neighborhood, we didn’t shoot hoops or play Scrabble. We didn’t play cards to pass the time, we didn’t watch TV, we didn’t shop, we most certainly did not go to the mall. The first organized activity that I saw in New York, that same day, was singing. People sang. People sang around fire houses, people sang “We Shall Overcome”. Lots of people sang America the Beautiful. The first organized public event that I remember was the Brahms Requiem, later that week, at Lincoln Center, with the New York Philharmonic. The first organized public expression of grief, our first communal response to that historic event, was a concert. That was the beginning of a sense that life might go on. The US Military secured the airspace, but recovery was led by the arts, and by music in particular, that very night.
From these two experiences, I have come to understand that music is not part of “arts and entertainment” as the newspaper section would have us believe. It’s not a luxury, a lavish thing that we fund from leftovers of our budgets, not a plaything or an amusement or a pass time. Music is a basic need of human survival. Music is one of the ways we make sense of our lives, one of the ways in which we express feelings when we have no words, a way for us to understand things with our hearts when we can’t with our minds.
Some of you may know Samuel Barber’s heart-wrenchingly beautiful piece Adagio for Strings. If you don’t know it by that name, then some of you may know it as the background music which accompanied the Oliver Stone movie Platoon, a film about the Vietnam War. If you know that piece of music either way, you know it has the ability to crack your heart open like a walnut; it can make you cry over sadness you didn’t know you had. Music can slip beneath our conscious reality to get at what’s really going on inside us the way a good therapist does.
I bet that you have never been to a wedding where there was absolutely no music. There might have been only a little music, there might have been some really bad music, but I bet you there was some music. And something very predictable happens at weddings—people get all pent up with all kinds of emotions, and then there’s some musical moment where the action of the wedding stops and someone sings or plays the flute or something. And even if the music is lame, even if the quality isn’t good, predictably 30 or 40 percent of the people who are going to cry at a wedding cry a couple of moments after the music starts. Why? The Greeks. Music allows us to move around those big invisible pieces of ourselves and rearrange our insides so that we can express what we feel even when we can’t talk about it. Can you imagine watching Indiana Jones or Superman or Star Wars with the dialogue but no music? What is it about the music swelling up at just the right moment in ET so that all the softies in the audience start crying at exactly the same moment? I guarantee you if you showed the movie with the music stripped out, it wouldn’t happen that way. The Greeks: Music is the understanding of the relationship bet ween invisible internal objects.
I’ll give you one more example, the story of the most important concert of my life. I must tell you I have played a little less than a thousand concerts in my life so far. I have played in places that I thought were important. I like playing in Carnegie Hall; I enjoyed playing in Paris; it made me very happy to please the critics in St. Petersburg. I have played for people I thought were important; music critics of major newspapers, foreign heads of state. The most important concert of my entire life took place in a nursing home in Fargo, ND, about 4 years ago.
I was playing with a very dear friend of mine who is a violinist. We began, as we often do, with Aaron Copland’s Sonata, which was written during Worl d War II and dedicated to a young friend of Copland’s, a young pilot who was shot down during the war. Now we often talk to our audiences about the pieces we are going to play rather than providing them with written program notes. But in this case, because we began the concert with this piece, we decided to talk about the piece later in the program and to just come out and play the music without explanation.
Midway through the piece, an elderly man seated in a wheelchair near the front of the concert hall began to weep. This man, whom I later met, was clearly a soldier—even in his 70’s, it was clear from his buzz-cut hair, square jaw and general demeanor that he had spent a good deal of his life in the military. I thought it a little bit odd that someone would be moved to tears by that particular movement of that particular piece, but it wasn’t the first time I’ve heard crying in a concert and we went on with the concert and finished the piece.
When we came out to play the next piece on the program, we decided to talk about both the first and second pieces, and we described the circumstances in which the Copland was written and mentioned its dedication to a downed pilot. The man in t he front of the audience became so disturbed that he had to leave the auditorium. I honestly figured that we would not see him again, but he did come backstage afterwards, tears and all, to explain himself.
What he told us was this: “During World War II, I was a pilot, and I was in an aerial combat situation where one of my team’s planes was hit. I watched my friend bail out, and watched his parachute open, but the Japanese planes which had engaged us returned and machine gunned across the parachute chords so as to separate the parachute from the pilot, and I watched my friend drop away into the ocean, realizing that he was lost. I have not thought about this for many years, but during that first piece of music you played, this memory returned to me so vividly that it was as though I was reliving it. I didn’t understand why this was happening, why now, but then when you came out to explain that this piece of music was written to commemorate a lost pilot, it was a little more than I could handle. How does the music do that? How did it find those feelings and those memories in me?”
Remember the Greeks: music is the study of invisible relationships between internal objects. This concert in Fargo was the most important work I have ever done. For me to play for this old soldier and help him connect, somehow, with Aaron Copland, and to connect their memories of their lost friends, to help him remember and mourn his friend, this is my work. This is why music matters.
What follows is part of the talk I will give to this year’s freshman class when I welcome them a few days from now. The responsibility I will charge your sons and daughters with is this:
“If we were a medical school, and you were here as a med student practicing appendectomies, you’d take your work very seriously because you would imagine that some night at two AM someone is going to waltz into your emergency room and you’re going to have to save their life. Well, my friends, someday at 8 PM someone is going to walk into your concert hall and bring you a mind that is confused, a heart that is overwhelmed, a soul that is weary. Whether they go out whole again will depend partly on how well you do your craft.
You’re not here to become an entertainer, and you don’t have to sell yourself. The truth is you don’t have anything to sell; being a musician isn’t about dispensing a product, like selling used Chevys. I’m not an entertainer; I’m a lot closer to a paramedic, a firefighter, a rescue worker. You’re here to become a sort of therapist for the human soul, a spiritual version of a chiropractor, physical therapist, someone who works with our insides to see if they get things to line up, to see if we can come into harmony with ourselves and be healthy and happy and well.
Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, I expect you not only to master music; I expect you to save the planet. If there is a future wave of wellness on this planet, of harmony, of peace, of an end to war, of mutual understanding, of equality, of fairness, I don’t expect it will come from a government, a military force or a corporation. I no longer even expect it to come from the religions of the world, which together seem to have brought us as much war as they have peace. If there is a future of peace for humankind, if there is to be an understanding of how these invisible, internal things should fit together, I expect it will come from the artists, because that’s what we do. As in the concentration camp and the evening of 9/11, the artists are the ones who might be able to help us with our internal, invisible lives.
Tuesday, July 28, 2009
But I also find it "sad and funny" to read such dissection of the despair. As one respected writer commented: "...the devastating view of everyday people who would surely have ended it all at 18 had they only known what their lives would look like 10, 20 and 30 years down the road." Really? Suicide? Just cause Ted only wants to enjoy a quiet evening alone in the backyard? Because he gets frustrated when he can't find the briquettes? Because he dreams of the things he used to do when he was younger: dreams that are now buried in the back of his closet?
Ann James who plays Jan, the mom who is determined not to let anyone or anything dampen the spirit of "fun!," told me a story of the last time we performed the show. One woman approached her after the show and said, "You frustrated me to end! You reminded me of my mother." Another woman after the same performance came up to Ann and said, "You were so sweet. You reminded me of my mother." Ann told me, "It was at that moment I knew we were on the right track."
Let the audience bring their own baggage.
For both productions the cast was given this extraordinarily difficult yet simple task: Do nothing. Stay on your mantra. Say the lines. Adhere to the rhythm. During a pause, keep the silence until it becomes unbearable. And more than anything else: No added subtext. No tricks. No acting. (Mamet would be proud.)
I have always loved Brett's work cause he just tells it like he is. He writes what he hears. He observes. It seems random and profound at the same time. Like art. Like life. Like poetry, I'm not always sure what it all is supposed to mean, yet it is profoundly meaningful to me.
So it is because of this that I also argue with another writer I thoroughly respect when he says "few audience members are likely to have Chekhov, Ionesco, Beckett and Pinter floating around through their heads to help build some kind of intellectual resonance with this difficult and at times depressing material, an emotional connection may be an even harder thing to expect." I will respectfully counter: our audiences don't need intellectual resonance. They are all alive and human and American and because of this I bet they have experienced a barbecue or two and maybe even a reunion.
I find it just as ironic that while everyone (myself included) is here trying to dissect what it all means , and uncovering some deep pain underneath, Brett sits in the back of the dark theater laughing. All we have to do is listen to Barry and Ted, the two competing "assholes." The two clowns laughing at each other when the joke of life is on the other one, yet defensive when the tables get turned: "It wasn't a big deal. It's a reunion. It's just for fun."
I sit in the back of the theater too. Watching and listening to audiences. Hearing the laughter of recognition. I would argue that most of our audiences don't see despair: they just see real life. Funny and sad. We all have dreams, most of which are never fully realized. We rail against our parents and then often end up just like them. We complain about the briquettes being in the wrong place and want to throw Frisbees at our loved ones sometimes. And man! I would have to argue that Ted isn't just triumphant that he was able to drive his son's ex-girlfriend away. Ted is also relieved by the end of the play to be the asshole left sitting in the wet grass all alone, as opposed to being the man next door dead at 54 from mowing his lawn.
I love The Last Barbecue because like life it unnerves me: it is deeply profound, completely meaningless and totally random at the same time. What the hell does it all mean?! We are always asking life's biggest question.
So I am glad to still be here, existing in my own suburban backyard. Left here to grapple with simple annoyances, few answers and lots and lots of questions. Existential? I guess so.
Wednesday, June 10, 2009
"The Blair", as he is known to the two or three hundred of his closest friends, was born in Redlands, California during the last Ice Age. He graduated from Redlands High in 1961 with a 3.71 grade average. That's a lie. Who remembers? Our mascot would have been a Terrier, if we'd had an actual one, because the University of Redlands' was a Bulldog. I firmly believe that John Lennon wrote "Hey Bulldog" about us. Everybody gets to believe what they want.
The last time I Googled “Redlands”, the High School I went to was now the Jr. High School. And the elementary school I went to was now a park - or perhaps just a verdure of some kind - bordering a huge parking lot. The trees were still there, but the building not so much. It was on the corner of Cajon and Cypress. Check it out.
The Blair came to Chicago in 1982 and didn't work for seven years. As an actor. Too many guys in front of me in the line. Then I met Russ Tutterow, and my life was enriched. People started calling, The Blair started working. The frustration gave way to unmitigated joy. Well, perhaps slightly mitigated. We never get everything we want, do we?
Along about this time, I was called to audition for Descent - A Darwinian Comedy by Tom Patrick (I quote from the poster which sits in the foyer of my palatial one bedroom apartment in Edgewater.) The Director was a shy, slightly awkward teenager from my home state ( California ) who'd been a dance major. A Dance Major. From Northern Cal. A blond. I knew I'd get the part because God hates me. I did, and it was a great experience. But wait, it gets better!
So, some time later, this same pink-cheeked schoolgirl asked me to read a role in a play she was considering for the upcoming season at her theater – The Aardvark - for potential backers. I read the script and I was horrified. This guy was the meanest son of a bitch on the planet. I had no idea how to play him, but I'd already said yes to the reading. So I was in a cold sweat when it came time to do the thing. As we walked from the lobby into the rehearsal room where the reading was to take place, I was panicking - any emotion, any inflection in my interpretation of this character would turn him into a monster. So, being the cautious individual that I am, I decided not to do anything. What the hell, it’s only a reading. They'll hold auditions if they decide to do the play. So I didn't inflect, I didn't act, I tried to be as neutral as a stone. And then Ann started laughing. You should be so lucky in your life as to hear this woman laugh. And then I began to understand what Brett Neveu, the playwright, was saying. And now here we are.
Hope you like The Last Barbecue. But, as one woman who saw a production of The Marriage of Bette ' n Boo I was in at Apple Tree said: " I don't need to come to the Theater to see this, I can get this at home."
Saturday, April 18, 2009
Now you are a part of his memory. Thanks for coming. Just 2 more shows left. Spread the word!
The first picture is from Sat April 18 at 8pm. 2nd pic from Friday April 17 at 7:30 PM, and the third from the Free Senior Preview Wed April 14 at 4:00 PM.
Friday, March 27, 2009
Best Emerging Theater Company
"Most Chicago theater companies get started because like-minded artists decide they want to do the work they love best the way they want to do it—finding a space and an audience comes later in the process. Ann Filmer took a different approach. When she moved out to Berwyn a few years ago, she found there was a nifty little black-box theater in the Berwyn Cultural Center, but no professional company to use it. So with the help of the North Berwyn Park District, the longtime director started 16th Street Theater, and got busy producing work that would speak to the western suburb’s ethnically diverse, working-class audience base..."
Thanks Chicago Reader and Kerry Reid!
Wednesday, January 28, 2009
Overwhelmed from hearing Ms. Smith speak and seeing her perform last night. It was unforgettable.
"The stories that we express--and that we don't--determine our survival."
---Anna Deavere Smith, 1/27/09
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
Been getting lots of inspiration from these three exceptional human beings.
And then in speaking to a fellow artist today, a playwright, the two of us (as unexceptional yet full human beings), were debating the issue of THE STRUGGLE. In his case, is it worth it to continue rewriting and working on his play if there is no guarantee he will ever see his play produced on stage?
So the question is: Does satisfaction and reward only come through a sense of accomplishment? And if one does NOT accomplish the goal, is it worth the effort? OR as in yoga, is it not about successfully completing each and every pose, but about the practice? The struggle. Action.
So our conversation has me go back to the posting from Jan 19 (see below), MLK's speech on race relations: That the extreme optimist and the extreme pessimist have one thing in common. Neither will do anything about race relations. The extememe optimist because there is nothing to do since we have come so far. And the extreme pessimist because it is futile since we have so far to go.
Do we not put any effort into this goal, or any other goal, unless we are ABSOLUTELY sure there will be a clear and positive outcome and reward?
If we only attempt to achieve what we know we can accomplish, where does greatness live? Where does creativity live? Imagination lives in the unknown, rather than what is clearly known. If we knew all, we would not need imagination.
And I realize that Obama ran for President of the United States even though there was no guarantee that it would be worth it. In fact most of us thought we would never see the day. Yet people were moved to action. Without guarantee. And that action did result in the reward. At least for this moment.
But of course as Obama said in his inaugural speech, the struggle continues. It is in each and every one of us. It takes the effort of us all, even though we do not know what the result will be. Yet we move to action. Take on the struggle
So I will try to be, as MLK asks of all of us, to be the extreme realist. To struggle for the outcome, to live in action, even though I do not know where this will all end up.
Interesting to note that my friend's play is about death. Inevitable death. Why do we continue to fight to live even though the outcome is clear: That we all someday will die.
Sorry to be so grim! I am hoping this knowledge is liberating as opposed to paralyzing.
So I say to him and to me: the day we give up the struggle... isn't that the day we truly cease to continue living?
Here's to the struggle.
Monday, January 19, 2009
Today was an emotional day for me. Working deep on FIRES in the MIRROR. When insecurity takes over, I feel overwhelmed by the emotions within this piece. The strong and sharp words. Today I took the opportunity to read the words of MLK for inspiration and guidance. And tonight in rehearsal I read this excerpt from Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech A Realistic Look at the Question of Progress in the Area of Race Relations
"...There are three basic attitudes that one can take toward the question of progress in the area of race relations. And the first attitude that can be taken is that of extreme optimism. Now the extreme optimist would argue that we have come a long, long way in the area of race relations. He would point proudly to the marvelous strides that have been made in the area of civil rights over the last few decades. From this he would conclude that the problem is just about solved, and that we can sit comfortably by the wayside and wait on the coming of the inevitable.
The second attitude that one can take toward the question of progress in the area of race relations is that of extreme pessimism. The extreme pessimist would argue that we have made only minor strides in the area of race relations. He would argue that the rhythmic beat of the deep rumblings of discontent that we hear from the Southland today is indicative of the fact that we have created more problems than we have solved. He would say that we are retrogressing instead of progressing. He might even turn to the realms of an orthodox theology and argue that hovering over every man is the tragic taint of original sin and that at bottom human nature can not be changed. He might even turn to the realms of modern psychology and seek to show the determinative effects of habit structures and the inflexibility of certain attitudes that once become molded in one's being. (Yes) From all of this he would conclude that there can be no progress in the area of race relations. (Alright, Alright)
Now you will notice that the extreme optimist and the extreme pessimist have at least one thing in common: they both agree that we must sit down and do nothing in the area of race relations. (Yes) The extreme optimist says do nothing because integration is inevitable. The extreme pessimist says do nothing because integration is impossible. But there is a third position that is another attitude that can be taken, and it is what I would like to call the realistic position. The realist in the area of race relations seeks to reconcile the truths of two opposites while avoiding the extremes of both. (Yeah) So the realist would agree with the optimist that we have come a long, long way. But, he would go on to balance that by agreeing with the pessimist that we have a long, long way to go. (Amen) [applause] And it is this basic theme that I would like to set forth this evening. We have come a long, long way (Yes) but we have a long, long way to go. (Amen) [applause]..."
So I am thinking that "long, long way to go" starts with dialogue. It starts with hearing each other. I must believe it can begin within the sacredness of a communal place, like a theater. Where we sit in the dark, side by side, in order to see it clearly.