Remembering Romance Under The Setting Sun in ‘The Glass Menagerie’

The premise of the well-known American drama The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams centers around single mother Amanda Wingfield, her oldest son Tom, and his little sister Laura who have found themselves in a financial squeeze since only Tom is able to work. Out of desperation, Amanda decides to try and set Laura up with a “gentleman caller,” a man from Tom’s work named Jim. What differs in this production is the centering of people of color and women in the casting of the play, a point of artistic pride for director Lisa Portes. Amanda and Laura’s predicament doesn’t come across as the result of a debutante who doesn’t believe women should toil, but rather a societal limitation imposed by the times (the play is set in St. Louis in 1937). This increased my empathy for these characters ten-fold.

The  Glass Menagerie is a play I read and loved, but quickly shelved because I didn’t want to get too attached a play in which I’d never be cast. This is why Lisa Portes’ direction of The Glass Menagerie at Cal Shakes is so essential for children of color to see, and within the first five minutes I was envious of all the young people and students who will see this play and never question their place in it.

Tom, played by Bay Area legend and Campo Santo Co-Founder Sean San José, is the first character we see. As narrator and character, he is the crux for most of the movement in the play, master of this dream universe, and guides the moving furniture around the space. These movements increase in difficulty and attention as the play moves forward, which creates the feeling that this memory play and this family is only held together by Tom’s sheer effort. This made me pay attention to Raquelle Baretto’s costume design – they have put together easy to wear and move in pieces for the artists that are elegant and often striking. The opening design and staging of the play is a wonderful duet between costumes and lighting (Xavier Pierce) that lives in a moment beyond time. Baretto makes use of Laura’s affectionate nickname “Blue Roses” by dressing Laura in a sweet patterned dress covered in blue roses.

Sean San José’s gentle depiction of Tom creates a generosity of spirit this character is usually denied. This pays off when Tom breaks the menagerie animal, he finally becomes frustrated and dangerous in his ability to hurt the family. At particular risk in this play is his differently abled sister Laura, played by New York based poet and activist Phoebe Fico. Fico makes a striking and elegant stage debut as Laura, and we empathize with her at every turn. Laura is a character that I’ve usually seen played with a debilitated spirit, but Fico’s Laura is full of endearing smiles and sweet quips that make her moments of devastation hurt even more. Phoebe Fico sparkles in her acting debut, and deftly works the broad Cal Shakes stage with an inherent grace. I could tell it was her debut – if only because everyone else onstage is so seasoned – yet I found myself completely forgiving the absence of technical training in exchange for the genuine light that exudes from Fico. I support Cal Shakes’ decision to debut a new actress on an equity stage. A tradition of the past, it is incredibly rare to do so now, but the risk paid off tremendously.

Karen Aldridge gives a hilarious and warm tour de force of a performance as Amanda. When attempting to get Tom to bring home a gentleman caller, she hollers at him from the front porch as he traverses through the audience to get to work, eventually eliciting applause from the audience at the end of this scene on opening night. A particularly slick bit of directing from Lisa Portes and Aldridge’s animated demeanor gives life to a typically dull scene: Tom describing Jim, the gentleman caller to Amanda. Tom and Amanda move together to construct the full parlor including hanging windows and arranging the dining table during this exchange, giving it buoyancy.

The set, designed by Annie Smart, is bare and simple but surprisingly flexible. One of the most difficult things about the Cal Shakes space is how to define it. Each designer and director has to decide where the limits are for their world and build something to illustrate that, and though you can’t cover the forest landscape you can decide how to utilize it. In this design, a huge frame gives us the context of the home, and it worked in pulling my focus to the center. As it got dark I don’t particularly recall seeing the forest and even when it was visible it felt more like looking through a window. Rolling and hanging furniture is slid into place during the play, and the worst thing I have to say about it is that I was so struck by its compositional beauty I thought it was all a bit too nice for the financially challenged Wingfields. However, it’s a memory play, and who complains about things being unbelievably pretty?

As the set comes together and time marches on, the gentleman caller advances, and his entrance is beautifully highlighted by Brendan Aanes’ haunting sound effects. When we are thrust into this romantic memory by the arrival of Jim, the effervescent Rafael Jordan, a truly magical feat in the field of lighting is delivered by Xavier Pierce. He gives us parlor candlelight, despite the fact that we are outside and it’s dusk. It’s gradual and does not try to pretend that we are not outside, which makes it feel even more real once the light cue settles. I gasped, and everyone outside the show was talking about that visually stunning moment.

The Glass Menagerie is a stunning memory play and a must-see experience at the Cal Shakes Bruns Amphitheater. It runs through July 30th!

Tom: Sean San José
Amanda: Karen Aldridge
Laura: Phoebe Fico
Jim: Rafael Jordan

Director: Lisa Portes
Playwright: Tennessee Williams
Dramaturg: Philippa Kelly
Stage Manager: Cheryle Honerlah
Asst. Stage Manager: Laxmi Kumaran
Lighting Designer: Xavier Pierce
Scenic Designer: Annie Smart
Costume Designer: Raquel Barreto
Sound Designer: Brendan Aanes
Casting Director: Clea Shapiro
Acting Coach: Margo Hall
Text, Vocal and Dialect Coach: Lynne Soffer

Photos: Kevin Berne

BIAS ALERT: This writer worked for Cal Shakes in various capacities including understudying, ending in 2016.

Marin Theatre Company’s Sara Waugh on her Role as a Marketing Director and Navigating Press and Critic Relationships

Rescripted’s Staff sat down to talk with Marketing Director Sara Waugh about the role of a marketing director, their relationship to critics, and tactics for both good and ‘unfavorable’ press. 

Rescripted: How would you describe what you do?

Sara Waugh: I’m the Director of Marketing & Communications for Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley, CA. I create all season-long & show/programming-specific marketing campaigns and outreach strategies employing multiple communications channels through what we call the “marketing mix”.  That’s a combination of direct mail campaigns, digital email campaigns, social media outreach, including sharing content organically, meaning, the level of engagement a post receives when you first post it, will affect how frequently and how many other people will see it, and sharing content that we promote with the help of our “digital presence” agency through Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat etc.  It also includes paid advertising both print & digital, “ earned” media  or features in the press that we don’t  pay for,  and sponsored media. Sponsored media is usually part of our paid advertising contract, though it doesn’t look like an ad, it looks like a feature story. I’m essentially creating a strategized “mix” of efforts—on a budget—in order to get us the biggest return in ticket sales for our efforts.

R: How much do “bad” reviews affect a show?

SW: “Bad” or “unfavorable” reviews are tricky, because sometimes they don’t affect the impact our show has on our community, which in turn does not affect ticket sales, and sometimes they do in such a way that we are unable to recover from the impact the review has had.

For example, when we produced Native Son back in January (2017), the reviewer for the SF Chronicle did not give us a favorable review, but coming off of the “high” our patrons were on, loving us after our holiday show, pre-sales, and name recognition for the play, which is based on a very famous novel, we were still able to fill houses and exceed our sales goal for that show. So in that case, audiences were more willing to take a chance on our show because of the strong word of mouth recommendations from other patrons,  and familiarity with the novel rather than go by the review alone.

Fast forward to April when we produced Guards at the Taj when we received another unfavorable review in the SF Chronicle, and unfortunately our patrons agreed with the rating of the review, if not the actual review itself. The review tore apart the text, while our patrons simply thought the production itself was far too gory. So oddly enough, though patrons were not enjoying the play for different reasons than the reviewer didn’t enjoy the play, the negative way in which it was received all around  inevitably  impacted our sales goal for the show.

Currently, we’re running a play called The Legend of Georgia McBride that our audiences are literally leaping out of their seats to sing, clap and dance along with the finale musical number and curtain call, though we again received a negative review in the SF Chronicle. Here, I’ll note that the Chronicle is the only publication that gave this show such a negative review; all other reviews we’ve garnered in the week since we opened have been glowing. So we’re now really feeling the impact that the review in “the big paper” is having on us, overshadowing not just patrons’ word of mouth, but also the positive sentiments coming from other reviewers. I have to add that patrons who are attending are absolutely loving it. So we can only think that the reason ticket sales aren’t being affected by positive word of mouth while seemingly moreso affected by this negative review, is that people are not even wanting to take the chance on coming because of the unfavorable review in combination with the last show’s negative review and possibly not having a good experience at the last show.

So all in all, ticket sales/attendance are going to be affected by a number of things, but the potential for a “bad” review to harm us is high, and that’s just something we’re always going to have to combat, especially when we see that the audiences who are  here, are enjoying the piece.

 

R: How do your marketing tactics change if a review is negative?

SW: Obviously we will promote all other good reviews, and patron comments in order to paint how the play’s being received in the best light possible. But that’s  always going to come with that an increased personal touch with every message, as if we’re reaching out to folks individually. For example, I might pull the list of attendees from the last play by the same playwright or or featuring the same beloved  actor and filter out anyone who’s already attended or bought a ticket, and then send them a “personal” (we call this microtargeting, because the language gets really specific) email communication to say “HEY—we know you loved that last play, so why not come give this one a shot?? Here’s a promo code for you and your friends to come have a great night at the theatre” or whatever the angle is we want to push.

How we change our tactics is always going to be specific to the show, because outreach efforts will vary based on what the  thing is that we’re trying to sell, but I am also not ashamed to write to people who’ve already attended to ask “HEY did you love this? Tell your friends!” because that personal ask can really work for us too.

 

R: Not every show is a great show, sometimes things fall apart or just don’t work as planned, does agreeing with a negative review affect how you approach your strategy?

SW: You know, going back to the Guards at the Taj fiasco, we started off trying to push the fact that it was an award-winning show and it had been received well regionally across the US, but then we decided we shouldn’t assume our patrons  here in Marin have the same feelings and want the same things from the plays they’re attending as folks in other parts of the country.

So by the last week we just tackled it head on and said “Let’s talk about the elephant in the room: this SF Chronicle review!!!” and encouraged folks to read both the Chronicle review AND the other, way more favorable reviews, and to attend the show and make up their minds for themselves. This did actually give us  a bump in sales, so we’re glad we didn’t try to just ignore it and push forward. We’re hoping that our patrons appreciated that fact, and truly encouraged the public to make up their own minds.

 

R: Can you give an example of a situation where you’ve had to employ creative tactics to get around a negative review?

SW: Well we can certainly talk about what we’re doing for our current show! We’ve been planting ourselves at way more community events to increase our presence. One of the first things I learned about advertising was that people have to see an ad  at least 10 times before the message will stick, and even more times to actually remind and motivate them to move  to the  purchase point. So we do what we can to get our advertising content out into the world without making people feel like we’re hitting them over the head . But I think pairing those advertising images with some talking heads from the theatre to really help fill out what the show is and what they can expect when they come to the theatre really helps drive that message home,  and hopefully to our website or to the phone or box office to buy tickets! Because it’s one thing to send emails, tweets, etc. but having a presence can make a huge impact. So we’ve had a presence at local events, like the Mill Valley Memorial Day Parade, we’re also attending several Bay Area PRIDE parades and festivals  we’re partnering with other local theatres to have a presence at their Summer of Love events, and we’re employing some guerilla marketing tactics like going to  the LGBTQI+ friendly neighborhoods to leave postcards on windshields, in mailboxes, at bars, etc. It does start to feel like a lot of extra legwork, but unfortunately, when you produce a play with an unrecognizable title that then gets slammed in the community’s biggest local publication, you’ve gotta roll up your sleeves and hit the town!

 

R: Do you think the critics who come to your shows reflect the preferences of your audience?

SW: Not necessarily… I can’t presume to know what our audiences prefer to see (outside of the occasional survey response asking us to re-mount show X that they loved 10 years ago), and I also know that many of our critics are seeing so many shows a week all over the Bay Area, unlike many of our patrons, so critics are automatically going to be the more experienced theatre goers of the patrons in any house. But for the most part we can count on the majority of our critics to write meaningful critiques of what they experienced in community with the rest of the audience the night they attended, which, if the experience was positive, that’s a good indication that more patrons will take their word for it and give our little show a chance.

It also starts to get weird if you try to break it down demographically. Especially because Marin County specifically is such an affluent, white collar, white community. So, yes, 99% of our reviewers are also white, and most of them are over forty; though our mostly white patrons are closer to the 65+ range. So my number one struggle is to get more, younger people of color in through the doors, to enjoy the shows we produce that are definitely geared towards that demographic. But do I focus my audience development efforts on more younger [white] people in Marin, or younger people of color who live outside of Marin?

When we produce August Wilson plays—or other plays by writers of color—we inherently see a more diverse audience in attendance: non-white, younger, and even more men.  Those folks are not necessarily interested in hanging out in Marin all the time and seeing all of our plays, but they can count on us being committed to producing these works—aka not an entire season of Neil Simon or Mamet—and they will make the effort to come to Marin because the stories we’re telling and the messages the playwrights want us to drive home are important.

But I digress…. Here’s my main struggle with aligning critics’ preferences with audience preferences in order to attract more, newer patrons: if we’ve got white people critiquing white plays, does that give them more license to get on a soap box about what they did and didn’t feel was “authentic” representation of the white community because they’re also a member of that identifying community? Probably. But if we’ve got white people critiquing African American plays, or straight people critiquing plays with  LGBTQI+ themes, does that give them license to get on a soap box about what they did and didn’t feel was authentic representation of that community even though they’re not a member of that identifying community? I don’t have the best answer here but it doesn’t feel appropriate. Because I don’t think African American people need white people to defend them just like I don’t think queer folks need straight folks defending them, but ultimately, I am not a theatre critic, so I can only react to what I think is or is not appropriate with what a critic is choosing to focus on in a review. But when anyone negatively criticizes a show for being “inauthentic”, with no prior knowledge of the content and experiences being depicted in the show, that review is only going to keep more people from said communit(ies) from attending—as we’re currently seeing—because at a glance, readers don’t know that the person writing doesn’t have that experience. They only know that the critic is the person who’s been hired to tell the world what is and is not a “worth seeing” piece of art. And making an assumption about a community/experience which you know absolutely nothing is so damaging to all of the artists involved, especially those who have lived the experiences being depicted on stage.

What I would LOVE to see more of are younger critics, critics of color, and critics that represent the LGBTQI+ community so that when we are producing non-white/affluent-centric plays (in this very white community) we’ll at least be receiving criticism (negative, constructive, and/or positive) from folks who have also lived similar experiences off-stage and who can themselves speak authentically to our company’s depiction of those experiences.

But for the time being, I will still, always, gladly take the positive reviews from the majority [old] white reviewers we have currently attending who, despite not necessarily being members of the communities whose stories we’re telling, can still find the space to appropriately comment on the pluses and minuses of the actors, direction and production quality, vs. criticism from someone who has chosen an appropriated hill to die on.

 

R: What is the relationship like between marketing directors and the press? Is there anything you do to foster long running positive relationships with reviewers?

SW: In many organizations, Marketing Directors do not even deal directly with the press; the publicity department does. So other than promoting reviews/putting content together, such as production photo shoots, interviews with artists,  there’s no direct line of communication. However, published reviews affect my marketing efforts, so the relationship is tighter than you’d think, even if I wasn’t communicating with them directly.

Here at MTC, I double as the publicity rep and the Marketing Director, so I communicate with all the press, all the time. I 100% try to keep relations good with the reviewers because regardless of one person hating everything we produce, we still want them to come back to the next show because there’s always the potential for them to love it, print a great review, and blow our sales goals out of the water.

At this point, because the reviewer for our largest publication, the SF Chronicle, is so unpredictable, I will likely always try to keep the dialogue open with her regardless of her loving or hating a show we produce, because maybe—just maybe!—the longer she’s in her position the more I’ll be able to pseudo-predict how she’s going to review a play. this is not to say that theatres should only choose programming they think reviewers will like. That’s not how this should work at all. Critics are not going to love your theatre 100% of the time. But if you can help the theatre stand out for whatever its mission is, and then stick to that mission, hopefully, all critics (and patrons too!) will recognize your organization for always being on mission, even if individual productions aren’t always top notch, and that’s what’s most important with branding in general. Say who you are. Be that thing. And hope that you’ve got enough tricks/creativity flowing through your team mates at all times so whenever a reviewer slams you, you’ve got extra ammunition in your back pocket to pull out and use to keep those patrons coming in!

‘Pass Over’ and the Chicago Theatre Aesthetic


By Monty Cole

Let me set the scene.

A couple of weeks ago, Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over opened at Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago and rocked the city –  folks are still holding on to anything sturdy. Nwandu’s Beckettian take on the plight of the American Black man drops Moses (Jon Michael Hill) and Kitch (Julian Parker) on a lifted cement street corner in an unnamed city. A street light hangs over them like Waiting for Godot’s infamous tree, and beyond that lies a black void.

The play isn’t easy. Antoinette Nwandu has written fiercely brilliant dialogue saturated with ebonics and “niggas” spun into its vernacular. The word is used so much that the one white character in the play points out his discomfort with the frequency of the word. Now might be a good time to mention that I’m a Black Chicago-based director. Hi.

Pass Over is like nothing Steppenwolf has produced before. The cast includes only one ensemble member: the young, Black and electric Jon Michael Hill. If most of the work by Black playwrights produced at Steppenwolf sounds like Miles Davis or even Frank Ocean, Pass Over has the potential to sometimes sound like Young Thug or Migos (and if you don’t know who those artists are, my point exactly). The play’s story is nebulous and has definite surrealist undertones, the likes of which infrequently occur on Steppenwolf’s stage, and are relatively foreign to Chicago Theatre audiences in general.

The Chicago Theatre criticism roster consists of Chris Jones (Chicago Tribune), Hedy Weiss (Chicago Sun-Times), Kris Vire (TimeOut Chicago), Tony Adler (Chicago Reader) and many, many blogs. I’ve been reading Chris Jones for the Chicago Tribune since I was a freshman in high school almost fifteen years ago. Before I went to school, I’d eat Pop Tarts and read the TEMPO section in the Trib. My parents didn’t get the Chicago Sun-Times.

Hedy Weiss has been the Theater and Dance Critic of the Chicago Sun-Times since 1984 according to the Sun-Times’ website. At this point, her reviews read like Trump tweets — simplistic, unbelievably insensitive, factually wrong, and mostly useless. For many years, the Chicago Theatre community has tried to get her off the job. We’ve tried writing to the editor, but America is more likely to impeach Trump than the Sun-Times is likely to fire Hedy Weiss for a racist review. The difference between the two is while Trump has been saying horribly offensive statements in his job as president for 6 months, Weiss has been doing the same thing for over two decades with no repercussions. Here’s an excerpt from her review of Pass Over.

To be sure, no one can argue with the fact that this city (and many others throughout the country) has a problem with the use of deadly police force against African-Americans. But, for all the many and varied causes we know so well, much of the lion’s share of the violence is perpetrated within the community itself. Nwandu’s simplistic, wholly generic characterization of a racist white cop (clearly meant to indict all white cops) is wrong-headed and self-defeating. Just look at news reports about recent shootings (on the lakefront, on the new River Walk, in Woodlawn) and you will see the look of relief when the police arrive on the scene. And the playwright’s final scenes — including a speech by the clueless white aristocrat who appears earlier in the story — and who could not be more condescending to Steppenwolf’s  largely white “liberal” audience — further rob the play of its potential impact.

Her work oozes with an ironic ignorance for a woman that writes at a liberal newspaper where I’m sure there are plenty of resources for her to dig a little deeper. (It’s especially ironic because that final monologue she’s referring to is actually aimed at conservative white audiences, but that went over Weiss’ head.) She has a history of reviews like this that are either ignorant or unintelligent and often both. The New York Times covered one of Hedy Weiss’ controversies in an article almost 11 years ago and compiled quotes from various esteemed artists who spoke out against Weiss. This includes Tony Kushner, who she infamously referred to as a “self hating Jew” in her review of his Tony Award winning musical Caroline, or Change. Yeah. That’s one of our top two critics. And the issue is never whether or not artists can tolerate a bad review. Artists receive bad reviews all the time. After reading a Hedy Weiss review I find myself wondering if we even saw the same play. It seems like she willfully ignores how a play is structured and the story it’s trying to tell.

Her work is unbelievably offensive, it spreads negativity about positive work being done in the theatre community, and it affects the artists who work on these new play processes. I keep finding myself wanting to shield the actors on stage at Pass Over. I can’t imagine performing this play every night, exposing parts of yourself, and being met with the negativity and false information spewing from critics like Weiss. By continuing to invite her and use her pull quotes, theatre companies are sending a message that they are complacent to her bigotry. What’s worse (okay maybe not worse) is she doesn’t even sell tickets. Before moving into directing, I was the Communications Manager at Next Theatre Company. I was in charge of marketing, audience services, and graphic design. In my experience, including a Hedy Weiss review on our poster, postcard, web ad, or lobby display did nearly nothing for ticket sales. Her words are not only damaging to artists, but also the audiences who are misguided by her wrongheaded reviews.

The Chicago Theatre Accountability Coalition was formed in response to Weiss’ Pass Over review. Enough was enough. The coalition is organizing artists and producers from all across the city to contact Chicago theater companies, asking them to join the cause and promise they will no longer provide Hedy Weiss with free tickets to their shows. They send out daily tasks to their group members to dismantle a failing system in a peaceful and controlled manner. Weiss is welcome to attend any show she wants to review – so long as she purchases a ticket.  Over 3500 people have signed the petition and over sixty theatre companies have signed. You can find the full petition by clicking here. I can’t stress this enough – my beliefs written here are not at all indicative of this pleasant, honest, and peaceful group.

The Chicago Reader, The Chicago Tribune’s Editorial Board, and The Chicago Sun-Times have all come out in support of Weiss. The articles that the media have released thus far omit facts and Weiss’ precedence for offensive reviews to almost shocking degrees. The Sun-Times wrote that they “may have room to grow when it comes to covering the diverse communities we serve, including in the arts. Our promise every day is to continue to do better. We do that, always, in the best of faith.” There’s been no evidence of the Sun-Times making any attempt to “do better” in the past.

For a lot of artists in Chicago, the issue ends here: keep Hedy from receiving free tickets. I’m also in favor of focusing our efforts here. But Hedy’s overt racism is not the full story behind Chicago’s troubled relationship with criticism. Most theatre companies in Chicago have one primary marketing strategy: get a 4-star Chris Jones review. The difference between a 3-star and a 4-star Chris Jones review is the difference between average and packed crowds. Notice I didn’t say a Chicago Tribune review, but specifically a Chris Jones review.

Jones’ review of Pass Over was, I’d say, mostly a rave.

“a very potent and promising play”

“Pass Over works … it lays out in stark and poetic fashion a quotidian urban, American reality that Beckett utterly failed to imagine.”

“Much of the language in the work is thrilling, poetical. Very. So is much of director Danya Taymor’s dynamic staging, which makes exceptional use of the width of the Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, sending genuinely disturbing attacks on the psyche across horizontal lines before packing a climactic punch in the vertical. All three of the performances are excellent, a complex trifecta of race, power and authority. To her great credit, Taymor really takes you there, whether or not you care to go.”

The review is one of Jones’ more comprehensive reviews. He identifies specific strengths of the work and displays an understanding of the playwright’s intentions. I would even argue that Chris Jones accurately analyzes the complex race issues that are stirring in the play.

As a critic,  Jones has a set of values and priorities that result in an aesthetic preference. I can not pretend that I know Chris Jones. What I have surmised about Jones from reading him since I was 14, is that he values an honest performance and honestly written characters . He prioritizes stories that are deeply cathartic and filled with pathos. He wants text that feels real to him. And realness must be subtle. It must have verisimilitude. It must be authentic, or at least feel authentic to Chris Jones. These priorities and values are often the backbone of his reviews resulting in a specific aesthetic preference. Steppenwolf’s previous work and a lot of work created by ensembles in the city fall under this aesthetic. Pass Over does not.

In the final paragraph of Jones’ review, he writes:

“I’d argue that this early version of this hugely promising play loses its way in the last third as it layers on so much symbolism that you somehow lose both the work’s crucial, real-time tension and the rich humanity of Moses and Kitch; their initial individuation becomes subsumed…But Nwandu paints these young men with such initially vivid humanity that you miss it when it exits, as you do the hope inherent in characters who know they must leave this place of waiting, this way of being, this life.”

Symbolism is not Chris Jones’ bag. Heavy handedness is not Chris Jones’ preference either. Nwandu’s finale sports both symbolism and heavy handedness with grace. Jones doesn’t like the ending so much so what star rating does the play get? 3 out of 4 stars. Though Jones can see why Nwandu made the choices she made, it wasn’t his preference and so it affected the play’s rating. Jones felt the ending extinguished the humanity in the play’s characters. When I left the theater after Opening Night, I remember saying to my wife that it’s interesting to me that artists of color tend to write and create in a world that doesn’t sit comfortably in realism. I can watch a magical or surrealist moment and it will ring more true than if the moment was played “realistically”. Because what’s “real”? What’s “true”? Is Chris Jones’ truth more important than my truth? I don’t need a critic to tell me how they would tell my story. I’d rather they try to empathize with the way I’m trying to tell it.

Flash back to a year and a couple of months ago when Steppenwolf was producing the world premiere of a new Tracy Letts play titled Mary Page Marlowe. Besides his adaptation of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, this would be Letts’ first full length play since his double whammy of August: Osage County and Superior Donuts (both went to Broadway). The play depicts the life of an intentionally unremarkable woman named Mary Page Marlowe. In his review, Jones wrote:

The end of “Mary Page Marlowe” is deeply frustrating.

So much so, in fact, I wondered about the four stars. But my internal debate — as unremarkable as the life of the protagonist — ended when I thought again about the emotional weight of a piece of theater so imbued with love and concern.

And so this relatively realistic play was awarded a 4-star review and here lies the problem.

We hear a question asked again and again when a play like Pass Over drops: how can we make room for people of color in theatre criticism? This is true, valid, and needed, but the issue might be broader than that. Chicago Theatre has a very specific aesthetic: intimate, realistic, honest, ensemble-based, text and performance-based theatre. And although these are values and priorities close to Chris Jones, this is an aesthetic that goes back to when Steppenwolf Theatre operated out of a church basement. This aesthetic reaches back to Gregory Mosher’s early productions of David Mamet at the Goodman Theatre in the 1970s. It’s a proud tradition, but it’s also a trap.

We create plays that we think will attract a Chicago Theatre audience, whatever that means. We think we know what they can handle and what they can’t. We produce plays that we think Chris Jones will enjoy. We say “chicago audiences” in artistic and marketing meetings but we’re really saying Chris Jones. We are inspired by Chicago productions before us and artists working with us and we don’t look outside of the city that much. Our work is intimate, small and intentionally claustrophobic. We produce plays that are socially relevant. These plays are allowed to ask a question, but never venture to give an answer. If you give an answer, you’re being preachy and not subtle which are the two worst things you could be. Instead, you better have 5 characters in a room that all have different perspectives that are equally valid trying to answer one question. Argument escalates, climax, denouement. We tell Chicago stories. We lead with our actors and playwrights. We shy away from devised theatre. Experimental Theatre? What’s that? We stay here, we keep our heads down, and we do the work. When something adventurous comes into town, we get inspired, maybe we steal something small, and we go back to our aesthetic again. I am comfortable saying that as a white man, Chris Jones cannot have the same priorities that I do as to how Pass Over’s story is told. In a broader sense, Chris Jones is a realist, and therefore doesn’t have the same priorities that I do as to how Pass Over’s story is told. He can forgive a realistic play’s frustrating ending, but won’t penetrate a surrealist play’s ending. Your perspective is built upon what you’re willing to forgive. This isn’t a petty complaint over a single star. I’m asking the question: are we letting our critics dictate the type of stories we tell and how we tell them? Do we keep our adventurous ideas away from Chicago audiences and our intelligent ideas from Chicago bloggers?

As evidenced by Weiss and Jones’ reviews, who’s allowed to have a successful production in Chicago isn’t necessarily only an alleged race problem, it involves anyone that wants to try something risky on stage as Nwandu has done here. Believe me, I’ve been deeply offended by overt and “well meaning” racism across Chicago theatre criticism. Critics and media companies almost never apologize for it. It’s easy to point out and it affects the work that is programmed. I’ve also seen strange play after play fail in Chicago and succeed elsewhere. At this point, Chicago audiences really might not be trained for experimental work because of how ill-equipped our critics are at covering that material. Though I wouldn’t call it “experimental”, Pass Over was a risk for Steppenwolf. Chris’ review broke my heart more than Weiss’. I expect a racist review from Weiss. I saw it from a mile away. This isn’t nearly the first time I’ve been disappointed with how Jones has watched a play. I’ve read that review in response to that type of work too many times to not notice a pattern – and I’m not the only one. I’ve talked to directors outside of the city who direct wonderfully successful productions elsewhere and won’t step foot in Chicago for this exact reason. As a producer, I’ve worked for companies that are too intimidated by Jones’ preferences to produce adventurous work. I actually think Jones is still an excellent writer, one of the best in the country. I think he writes from an honest and authentic place. He writes from his truth. But I wish he would display an ability to appreciate work outside of his preferred aesthetic and see someone else’s truth. I think it’s hurting our city.

Here’s the thing: I think part of Chris Jones knows all of this. Even today, he wrote up a defensive editorial responding to a lecture he had heard recently from Steven Tepper, dean of the Arizona State University Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. The article explains how young artists and audiences expect different responsibilities from their critics. The piece reports upon the recent trend of holding artists, producers and critics accountable for their words and actions. Jones comments that he took his 12 year old son to see Pass Over who immediately told his father that he needs to watch what he says in his review. Jones writes, “…what my 12-year-old immediately grasped that I did not, and what the events that played out later suggests, is that reviews now are different kinds of battlefields. Who is writing them is just as important – perhaps more important – than what is being reviewed. The old agreement, that the critic should de-emphasize self in deference to the artwork and a presumed diversity of readership, has fallen apart.” He understands the problem, but maybe what his 12 year old and the younger generations understand is… there is no de-emphasizing the self. Jones can’t help but write his reviews through the lens of his experiences. What he believes is honesty, truth, and authenticity will always be present in his work no matter how much he feels it is “de-emphasized.”

I don’t like articles that simply state the problem and don’t provide solutions so here’s some thoughts. The responsibility to evolve the work that Chicago produces and to widen the Chicago Theatre aesthetic is in our hands.

  1. Don’t invite Hedy Weiss to your opening nights. Plain and simple. Don’t do it. There’s no reason to be complicit in her bigotry.
  2. The Chicago Tribune hires a few critics to write their reviews. In the print newspaper and on their website, they include a section called Chris Jones Recommends showing the highest rated plays in Chicago. This omits any 3-4 star reviews from Kerry Reid and Nina Metz who cover the more adventurous theatre in Chicago. This section should change to the Theater Loop Recommends to include all of the excellent theatre in Chicago and not just the work Jones covers. Based on the current structure of the Tribune website, it seems as though the two female critics’ opinions are considered not to hold the same weight as Jones’ recommendations.
  3. At the very least, the Chicago Tribune needs to provide more freelance opportunities to fill out the diversity holes in their writing staff.
  4. Support Rescripted, a diverse and “artist-led interactive commentary on the state of the arts, including reviews, dialogues, and essays.” Invite them to your shows and use their reviews for your pull quotes.
  5. Make the theatre that inspires you. Make the passion project that feels out of this world. Produce theatre that feels bigger than Chicago’s critics. Produce theatre that feels so ambitious that it has the potential to go viral. And don’t settle. Excitement is contagious. There are so many types of theatre that don’t exist in Chicago. Produce for a reason.

When I was in college, I used to gush about Chicago theatre. I would say the best theatre in the country was in Chicago. I would say there was a great variety of theatre in Chicago. I would say if there was going to be a theatre revolution in America it would be in Chicago. When I got back here, I realized that this great variety that I spoke about was based on a select few companies in this city (still around) that provide something truly unique. I started to read Jones’ work because my parents took me to Chicago Theatre when I was 13. Sometimes when I see work in our beautiful city it feels like I’m traveling back in time. Sometimes it feels like nothing has changed — and not in a good way. Sometimes it feels like we’ve passed the same toolbox down from generation to generation and therefore our work looks exactly the same as it did then. I still believe Chicago can have that variety and that we can have a diversity of voices and styles on our stage. We have to dare to evolve — despite our critics.

 

(Production Photo courtesy of Michael Brosilow)

Gil Scott-Heron’s “Grandeur” is Eclipsed by Addiction

Grandeur, a play by Han Ong produced by Magic Theatre in San Francisco, is an intimate play about a larger than life performer, Gil Scott-Heron.  A black writer, poet, performer and political activist, Scott- Heron is famous for being the “Godfather of Rap”. His words and his songs have been sampled over and over, by Salt-N-Pepa, Kanye, Common, Kendrick Lamar, Drake, Rihanna and that’s only the tip of the iceberg. His influence on rap and hip hop as as artforms and as tools of political expression cannot be overstated. This play takes place in a single afternoon after his final album release I’m New Here, 40 years after his heyday, and many years into a crippling crack addiction. Grandeur is playwright Han Ong’s return to the stage after a sixteen-year absence. One of youngest recipients of the MacArthur Genius Grant,his talent shines through in this nimble and absorbing play. It’s a tour de force for Carl Lumbly who plays Gil Scott-Heron with a sharpness and a humor that stings and entertains. And yet, fourteen months ago when I was a member of the Magic Theatre Literary committee, I read the play and had strong reservations.

Sitting the audience, I was prepared to have my mind changed, and in many ways it was. Dialogue that had fallen flat to me on the page crackled onstage with the direction of Magic’s Artistic Director Loretta Greco. The underwriting of Steve Barron (Rafael Jordan), the aspiring New York Review of Books journalist interviewing Gil Scott-Heron, seemed more of a deliberate choice to make him an everyman rather than a lack of interest by Ong in anyone who wasn’t Gil Scott-Heron. But the question that had caused me to reject the play in my initial reading still filled the back of my mind: Why tell this Gil Scott-Heron story?

Grandeur is a good play. It has on a refreshingly straight forward, non moralistic attitude towards drug addiction. Scott-Heron is affected by his crack use, but he’s not a groveling, pathetic lesson. He’s an ornery, expressive old man with a gift for one liners, little patience, and a knack for getting people to give him what he wants. The single flashback that portrays him completely and uncontrollably high as the train rushes onward, and tweets about his career and downfall flash by is one of the most inventive and visually interesting scenes in the entire play. Miss Julie (Safiya Fredericks), his honorary niece and caretaker is a sharp reminder of all the women who keep the careers of famous men afloat without receiving any of the credit. Jordan’s acting talent shines in the second act as his anger at Scott-Heron for losing his heroic luster bursts through, and it becomes clear that Scott-Heron represents Barron’s deepest ambitions and his greatest fears as a black man and writer.

There is only so much space on the stage. Every theater company, every year wades through hundreds of options to decide what four, six, eight stories are worthy of being told that season on their stage, and even in the most progressive of theaters there is a comfort in familiarity. We produce and watch the same shocking and “edgy” stories over and over again until they become part of our consciousness. Lesbians die, women are madonnas and whores, and black men are felled by drugs. On stages across the country, smart, accomplished playwrights examined these tropes, they investigate them, they burst them open, they show their flaws and why these stereotypes are harmful. Yyet the logical next step of writing plays that don’t include these stereotypes, that don’t rely on exploiting the pain of minorities or have women who are people and not metaphors seems ever evasive.
.
Grandeur is a play about a man who’s most famous work is “The Revolution will not be Televised”, but this Gil Scott-Heron story is entirely non-threatening for white consumption. It’s is a safe story, centered around his crack addiction, and with very little about his music and almost nothing about his politics. It’s a play about a writer’s last hurrah long after his drive for success has dried up. A story that Ong, who’s spoken publically about falling out of love with dramatic writing after staggering initial success may have felt a strong kinship with.

There is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to explore stories about forgotten icons after the world has moved on without them, and telling stories about addiction without moralizing is an impulse I applaud. But every theater makes choices. Staging a play about a black man famous for his anger at the treatment of black Americans and his revolutionary music that expressed it, and stripping all of that away to make a story about addiction that ends with Scott-Heron taunting his interviewer saying “don’t you wanna look away?” as he lights up, the glow of the crack pipe in the dark theater as the final image the audience sees, is a choice. Similar choices are made in theaters across America everyday, and it says something about the stories that we’re comfortable telling, and what we see as worthy of our time, money, and stages.

Grandeur runs through June 25th. find more information here

Cast

Gil Scott-Heron: Carl Lumbly

Steve Barron: Rafael Jordan

Miss Julie: Safiya Fredericks

Creative Team

Set & Projection Design: Hana S. Kim

Costume Design: Alex Jaeger

Lighting Design: Ray Oppenheimer

Sound Design: Sara Huddleston

Stage Manager: Kevin Johnson

Dramaturg: Sonia Fernandez

Director of Production: Sara Huddleston

Props Design: Jacquelyn Scott

Local Casting Sonia Fernandez

Press Photos: Jennifer Reiley

Love and Talent Burn Fiercely in ‘Bright Half Life’

(Photo Copyright: Michael Brosilow)

By Regina Victor

Bright Half Life at About Face Theatre directed by Kiera Fromm is an elegant exploration of queer love and the quirks of relationships. A two-person play penned by Tanya Barfield, Bright Half Life centers around the intertwined lives of two women, Erica (Elizabeth Ledo) and Vicky (Patrese D. McClain). The play jumps back and forth through time to tell us the story of Vicky and Erica’s decades long love affair, from their first encounter at the job where Vicky is the only black female supervisor, to the marriages of their children. Fromm’s direction and Barfield’s sequence of events made it clear from the beginning that this love would be complicated and messy, that it would end and perhaps begin again. But whether or not they see a happy ending almost doesn’t matter. Bright Half Life  believes that it’s not about the result, it’s about the journey.

The play is non-linear, and often returns to moments from previous scenes, letting the audience discover new meanings and subtext to previously seen conversations as the new information about Vicky and Erica’s relationship comes to light. This could have been very confusing, but the design world gave the audience a clear roadmap to understanding the timelines. As they hurdled through time and space on William Boles’ angular and precise set, they only used two chairs and their bodies to set each scene, letting Christopher Kriz’s sound design guide the audience. This guidance is surprisingly subtle, you barely register the change of sound but rather sense the change of feeling. Kriz takes us from a Ferris wheel, to a hospital, to a conventional workplace, and more with a delicate clarity.

The lighting, designed by Christine Binder, consisted of ethereal side light, tight spot lights, beautiful overhead panels, and was used to tighten the focus of time and space. One particularly effective device was the use of a tight spot on a single actor’s face as she said something that at first seemed jarringly out of place in the scene. Then, as she would turn to her girlfriend and continue with her thought, it became clear that those moments in the light represented the actor’s internal monologue. This action informed the rest of the scene fabulously, utilizing an age old theatrical device in a fresh new way: letting an audience in on a juicy secret that only they know.  

What I truly loved about this show was the simplicity of the theatrical devices used, to an ingenious extent. Melissa Ng’s costume design was effortlessly able to scale 20+ years of a lifetime without either character leaving the stage. The secret? Layering. It is easy to muddy up a production like this trying to be cool or fancy, dazzling an audience with all the tricks available in 21st century theater,  but here the simplicity of the design and direction allowed these two stunning actors to shine.

 Actor Elizabeth Ledo as Erica comes out of the gate with such an infectious warmth that it makes you wonder how Vicky could possibly resist. Plaid-rocking Ledo is a crowd pleaser, and manages to infuse even Erica’s most infuriating moments with a helpless charm, invoking a beautifully tragic lesbian Hamlet. Patrese D. McLain has a tough job playing the  graceful but reserved Vicky, but when the walls come down and we do finally see her loving tendencies, the payoff is emotionally stunning and surprisingly playful.

The play focuses on the intimate dynamics that are found in many relationships. Certain arguments will feel painfully familiar, depending on your own lived experiences. After the show, each person I spoke to could point to a different moment in the play and say “my partner does that!”  It’s filled with the moments that build a relationship and slowly chip it away, the overarching question occurring over and over: would you do it again?      

On a personal note, I must discuss the social relevance of this play for me as a queer person of color and theatre artist. The play alludes to various time periods and stretches over decades as I previously mentioned, but the reference that caught my ear was to queer life in the early 2000s. Whenever marriage is discussed it is accompanied by a necessary trip to Massachussetts (gay marriage law was passed there in 2004), which struck an important chord for me.

I  felt incredibly inspired seeing a woman onstage who looked like me, playing a lesbian in an interracial relationship with children, discussing the hard truths about the difficulties of understanding cultural bridges. At one point, Vicky is discussing her own racial history and having been called an “oreo” in her past – a disrespectful term intended to imply one is black on the outside, and white on the inside. Erica has to stop and realize that though she lacks privilege as a white gay woman, she doesn’t in fact understand everything about Vicky’s identity as a black woman, and asks to be taught about her whiteness. It’s a touching moment of connection onstage in a world that feels so divided.

A timeless and compelling script, I recommend Bright Half Life for anyone wanting to see progressive LGBTQ+ theatre written by a black queer femme. About Face is one of the only companies where I can see queer, happy, healthy relationships portrayed without ever being the punchline or tragic figures. It is important that we get to see ourselves as the heroes and lovers, and About Face’s mission of portraying LGBTQ theatre is both necessary and commendable.

——-

Bright Half Life at About Face Theatre runs through July 1st, find more information here: http://aboutfacetheatre.com/

Erica: Elizabeth Ledo

Vicky: Patrese D. McClain

Understudy for Erica: Pamela Mae Davis

Understudy for Vicky: Demetria Thomas

Playwright: Tanya Barfield

Director: Kiera Fromm

Set Designer: William Boles

Lighting Designer: Christine Binder

Sound Designer: Christopher Kriz

Costume Designer: Melissa Ng

Props Designer: Vivian Knouse

Stage Manager: Helen Colleen Lattyak

Associate Lighting Designer: Bailey Rosa

Asst. Stage Manager: Gabriella Welsh

Asst. Director: Lauren Katz

Casting: Kiera Fromm & Alex Weisman

Production Manager: Alex Rhyan

Tech Director: Andrew Glasenhart

Master Electrician: Kristof Janezic

Scenic Painter: Jessica Howe

‘We’re Gonna Die’ at Haven Theatre Electrifies Audiences

(Photo Credit: Austin D. Oie)

By Regina Victor

Before I embark on writing the review for We’re Gonna Die, written by Young Jean Lee and directed by Josh Sobel for Haven Theatre company, I have to explain the circumstances under which I am seeing and writing about this show. I am writing this review on the way home from my grandfather’s funeral. A few hours before opening curtain for We’re Gonna Die on May 7th, 2017, my grandfather died. I wasn’t sure I was going to make it to the show that evening.

I am so glad I got there.

When you first walk into the Den and take a left into the Bookspan Theatre occupied by Haven and named after Artistic Director Josh Sobel’s aunt, Janet Bookspan, you are greeted with the sweet scent of a smoky haze machine. The entry to the space is plastered with pop and punk posters, and as I left the antique stylings of the Den lobby I felt like I’d walked into an independent rock show. The audience has the option of sitting at low, cabaret-style tables and being right up on the action (as I chose to do), or sitting in the more traditional bleacher-style seating. No matter where you sit, you can see the faces of everyone watching the show with you, which seems like an intentional effort to support the intimacy of this play.

We’re Gonna Die is an ode to living and dying, guided by the Singer, Isa Arciniegas, whose alto voice is versatile enough to go from sweet ballad to angsty rock song. Isa captured the crowd with her stamina and ability within the first ten minutes, as she effortlessly got the audience on board for the cabaret-style of the show. She never lost confidence or momentum and moved deftly through the witty and emotional text, trusting that the audience was smart enough to keep up with her. It’s a crucial first ten minutes in a compact play, running under an hour and a half with no intermission.

The design world of We’re Gonna Die fused effortlessly with the text. The simple stage (set design by Mike Mroch) ) and punky costumes (Izuma Inaba) were effective, I couldn’t help but think of Rosie The Riveter when looking at the red bandanna and brunette ponytail on “lady-drummer Sarah [Giovanetti]” as Isa affectionately called her during the opening performance. The play’s title We’re Gonna Die is cleverly turned into a band logo (WGD) that is stitched into Isa’s jacket and displayed in neon lights behind them.  But the most notable aspect of the design was the lighting crafted by Claire Chrzan, who hung a multitude of household lamps  above our heads mixed in amongst stage lights, making  the lights themselves just as intriguing to look at as the stage they were lighting. The play consists of various stories from people’s lives, and I couldn’t help wondering if these lamps had sat in their living rooms and now lived again as homage to them and part of this show. I could have spent the show watching the lamps dim in and out, but the ensemble is too ferociously entertaining to allow it.

As a performer and musician myself, I know one of the hardest things in the world is to act and be in a band at the same time. In such intimate proximity to the audience, I was probably five feet away from the nearest musician, all the band members are closely watched and can’t fudge any notes or lose their cool. I have never been so impressed. Elle Walker’s poise while playing the keys and confident tosses of her long brunette hair during an exuberant and carefree dance solo ensure she grabs the spotlight at choice moments in the show. Jordan Harris possesses a beautiful singing voice, their solo moment is only one line but I was struck by the melodic tendencies of their voice. Last but certainly not least is Spencer Meeks’ beautifully messy eyeliner, and funky scene-stealing guitar solos. On the night I saw it, they also had a standout improvised moment about how their Green Goddess veggie drink was not the best choice for hydrating during a rock concert. I can happily report that hydrated or not, Spencer’s vocal talent as they harmonized on various songs was still excellent . Every person in the ensemble not only had great stand-out moments, they were serving every second of the show!

The twists and turns of Young Jean Lee’s emotional journey are best left unsaid so that you can be as delighted and devastated by them as I was. The show is compiled of true stories collected through interviews, and through their specificity they give the audience a place in each anecdote. One sentiment that I feel was perfectly captured here was the (dare I say the word?) millennial sense of being special, and deserving of immunity from tragedy, while also being perfectly aware of one’s imminent mortality. It is a reality in this new world that each of us is more empowered than we’ve ever been and simultaneously just as helpless to our mortality as ever.

Despite this feeling of millennial immortality, as the play says if you are a person there will be a day when you die. When your time comes, that is your time. Instead of being a depressing realization I found it galvanizing. My grandfather has 12 grandchildren while being an aeroengineer as a black man in the 1950’s and 1960’s. As sure as we are of death, we can also be sure that our full lives will affect those we leave behind, and that our stories will be told. I came to this show with the rawest open heart, and I left with a sense of how important life is, and how important it is to record the history of those lives and immortalize ourselves through art.

I thoroughly enjoyed my experience at We’re Gonna Die, and would recommend it to anyone who is interested in a fun punk show about living and dying. The remarkable direction of Josh Sobel, artistic director of Haven Theatre, moves easily from deep tragedy to big joy (remember – I said dance sequence!!). Lucky for you, it’s been extended to June 10th, so be sure to get your tickets ASAP if you’re interested in this fun rock production!

http://haventheatrechicago.com/were-gonna-die/

Isa Arciniegas – SINGER

Spencer Meeks – GUITAR / BASS

Sarah Giovannetti – DRUMS

Jordan Harris – KEYBOARD

Elle Walker – KEYBOARD

Kamille Dawkins – SINGER u/s

 

PRODUCTION

Playwright – Young Jean Lee

Director – Josh Sobel

Music Director – Spencer Meeks

Scenic Design – Mike Mroch

Costume Design – Claire Chrzan

Sound Engineer – Archer Curry

Choreography – Jon Martinez

Production Management – Krista Mickelson

Stage Management – Julia Leghorn

Assistant Director – Abhi Shrestha

Assistant Production Manager – Corbin Paulino

Master Electrician – Cedar Larson

Technical Direction – Alan Weusthoff

Graphic Design – Jenifer Dorman

 

Production photos by Austin D. Oie