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Hotchkiss School

Stage AND Screen: Broadcasting Broadway to the Berkshires

Chris O’Dowd and James Franco. Photo by Richard Phibbs.

By Nichole Dupont

The greatest moments are sadly the most fleeting. And what is more fleeting than the stage? We mourn that we never saw the sweat on Lawrence Olivier’s newly-muscled forearm in his stage debut as the Moor of Venice. Or Al Pacino’s contemptible grand ruse as Shylock in Central Park. “If only I’d been there,” we say. “If only I lived closer. If only I had $150, I’d have gone.”

Don’t fret. The opportunity to see our generation’s beloved stars in revival acts and canonized roles is now just an affordable ticket (and short drive) away as more and more stage venues — the Met, Broadway, the National Theatre — open their curtains to live and taped broadcasting, bringing groundbreaking performances to community theaters across the globe. In fact, London’s NT Live company got its feet wet in Broadway recently, filming the revival of Steinbeck’s classic “Of Mice and Men,” starring James Franco, Chris O’Dowd and Leighton Meester. The Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center will be screening that taped broadcast of the sold-out summer production on Saturday, December 20. A live panel including Producer David Binder, Executive Producer/General Manager Wendy Orshan, Steinbeck Estate Representative Elizabeth Rubinstein and Marketing Director/Associate Producer Eric Schnall will precede the screening.

“I think seeing live theater is a not-to-be-missed opportunity,” says Mahaiwe executive director Beryl Jolly. “But at the same time, when something is as inaccessible as it is powerful, it’s a shame not to be able to enjoy that, especially when the dialogue sharing happens with audience members around the world.”

The Mahaiwe caught on to the live broadcast scene early on in 2008 at the end of the Metropolitan Opera’s first “live HD” season, bringing Gounod’s “Romeo et Juliette” (conducted by Placido Domingo) to downtown Great Barrington. Since then, the broadcast option has gained traction and has expanded to include National Theatre Live productions from the UK, and now Broadway.

“There were so many people in the beginning who have seen the opera live and who joined early, and people who had a passion who would listen to the shows on NPR and could now see them fully staged and with interviews at intermission. It really started to gain traction.”

Chris O’Dowd and Leighton Meester. Photo by Richard Phibbs.

Of course, it helps to have a star-studded cast and a ridiculously well-known tale to present, too. Eric Schnall, a Litchfield County part-timer who has been a producer and marketing director for the last 20 years (he’s currently running “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” and worked with David Binder on the 2004 production of “A Raisin in the Sun” starring Sean Combs, Phylicia Rashad and Audra McDonald) says that there was something surreal about bringing “Of Mice and Men” to a 2014 audience.

“It’s what I call a ‘meat and potatoes’ play, full of chunky, great stuff and great story-telling,” he says. “We have the right stars and that helped us bring this amazing play to a wide audience. I think Leighton Meester was our secret weapon. She really has an incredible fan base that was galvanized. The actors are very brave. Some of them haven’t done much stage work and it takes a huge risk to go in front of 1,000 people a night. No one’s doing it for the money. They’re doing it for the challenge.”

O’Dowd’s transformation from the charmingly comedic Irishman (he hails from County Roscommon) to a slow-witted, hulking migrant worker is, to his fans, nothing short of miraculous. And that Franco has to kill him night after night…heartbreaking, although we know the story by heart.

“People come into the theater to watch their favorite stars and yet they get wrapped up in the piece, you can’t help it,” says general manager Wendy Orshan (101 Productions, Ltd.), who was prepping for a busy weekend with the December 7 opening of “The Elephant Man” starring Bradley Cooper and Patricia Clarkson. “Even at that last moment when you know that George is going to shoot Lennie, you cry ‘no!’”

Bringing this experience to a wider audience outweighed the numerous hurdles of filming the production—think of the Unions, the permissions, the cost, the offstage interviews—which may or may not have been Franco’s idea depending on who you ask. But in the end, it may well be worth it. For everyone.

Orshan (who has a home in Sheffield) hopes that bringing NT Live’s first Broadway broadcast to local community theaters will whet audience appetites for more—maybe bringing people out for a day on Broadway, or just getting them into the habit of coming to more broadcasts and opening up a largely untapped social media space where fans and critics can discuss the performances of our lifetime.

“It’s interesting. I’ve spent my whole career doing theater. And somehow live theater feels, still, very elitist,” she says. “So when you have the opportunity to bring well-represented theater to people, you do it.”

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Posted by Nichole on 12/08/14 at 12:09 PM • Permalink

How Playwright Winter Miller Got The Story Of ‘In Darfur’

Rehearsal photo by Enrico Spada.

By Jeremy D. Goodwin

She didn’t get there without an argument. Winter Miller, a playwright who’d been working as a research assistant to New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, had finally gotten her boss to agree to let her join a trip to the border of Chad and Sudan, where refugees had taken shelter from the ongoing genocide in Darfur.

Miller had been hearing endless stories of the atrocities there for two years, fact-checking drafts of Kristof’s much-read columns and remaining privy to details and survivors’ stories that never made it into print. So she planned a visit to see for herself in 2006, to do research for a play that might raise awareness about the ongoing atrocities.

But a few days before departure, Kristof raised his objections again. It was a dangerous place, and it was best for Western visitors to travel light, in small groups. “The one thing I was pretty sure of was that taking someone who didn’t really need to be there was not a good idea,” he later wrote about his thought process at the time.

He had the world’s ear, and in fact would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the crisis. But his young assistant wanted to potentially put herself in harm’s way for lesser stakes.

Playwright Winter Miller (L) and director Kristen van Ginhoven. Photo by Enrico Spada.

The debate lasted “all the way until the airport,” Miller says now. “No, I’m not an op-ed columnist. I write plays,” she remembers telling him, “and I have all this information, and I’ve committed to going, so how about we just end this conversation here and I write the best play that I can possibly write?” They arrived at JFK airport and got on the plane.

The resulting play, In Darfur, played the Public Theater in New York City in 2007, including one summertime staged reading at the famed Delacorte Theater.

It makes its New England debut this week in a Berry Family Studio Production by WAM Theatre in Shakespeare & Company’s Elayne P. Bernstein Performing Arts Center, at the Berry Family Studio. WAM artistic director Kristen van Ginhoven will direct the seven-person cast.

The play aims its gaze at issues of journalistic ethics as well as the particulars of the situation in Darfur, where the Sudanese military and paramilitary groups launched a campaign of so-called ethnic cleansing, including systematic rape, against non-Arabs. An estimated 300,000 people have been killed, and another 2 million displaced, in the ongoing conflict.

In Darfur looks at an American journalist covering the crisis, confronted with the opportunity to rally world opinion but endangering her source in the process.

Miller visited the region in a group of eight, including Kristoff and NBC correspondent Ann Curry. She spoke with refugees living semi-permanently in border camps, hearing their stories and seeking a way to dramatize the events in a way that would reflect the facts on the ground while staying compelling theater in its own right. She also injected a bit of unexpected humor.

Rehearsal photo by Enrico Spada.

“The most difficult part was how to convey what’s happening when people donn’t know much about it, but also keep the story moving,” Miller says. “Some important facts were cut. Some good jokes were cut. It’s all about what the container of the play is capable of holding, and being true to that — rather than pushing an agenda of all the things you want to say.”

Miller has also written about the arts for the Times, traveled to Uganda to write short plays for children to perform, and founded the (now-defunct) creative collaborative 13 Playwrights. In Darfur has been produced around the country and seeing it onstage has been the end result of a years-long process, including one very intense field trip. In the end, was it a particularly difficult play to write?

“I sort of felt called to tell the story. And the story was telling itself, but what was difficult,” Miller says, “was the question ‘Who am I to tell this story? Do I have the right to?’ And for me, I answered that by asking ‘who am I not to?’”

For his part, Kristof has enthusiastically plugged the play in his column and on his blog. Apparently it made sense to make room for one extra traveler, after all.

In Darfur
Through November 16
WAM Theater at Berry Family Studio, Elayne P. Bernstein Center
70 Kemble Street, Lenox

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Posted by Jeremy D. Goodwin on 10/27/14 at 10:36 PM • Permalink

Review “An Enemy of the People” at Barrington Stage

Arthur Miller’s 1950 play, An Enemy of the People, which he adapted from Henrik Ibsen’s prophetic 1882 play, is the story of a small Norwegian town called Kirsten Springs whose prosperity and identity are dependent on its salubrious waters, which the town doctor discovers are, in fact, toxic.  The doctor, who is friends with the so-called liberal press, is certain that he will be hailed—if not canonized—for making this news public, saving lives as well as the town’s soul. Alas, his fervor is matched only by his naïveté.

Like other Miller plays that Barrington Stage Company’s artistic director Julianne Boyd has mounted as her fall production (The Crucible in 2010 and All My Sons in 2012), An Enemy of the People resonates with contemporary concerns. I found my mind wandering as I watched this superbly acted and directed production, which was, counterintuitively, a good thing: I thought about climate change, the dangers of hydraulic fracking, the recent contaminations of drinking water in Ohio and West Virginia. It wasn’t until intermission, when I saw stories from the Berkshire Eagle mounted on the lobby’s walls about General Electric’s dumping of toxic PCBs into the nearby Housatonic River, that I realized how the storyline hit so close to home. Boyd demonstrates that great theater is a public service on many levels.

As usual at Barrington Stage, the casting is dead on. Steve Hendrickson as Dr. Thomas Stockmann who sounds the warning bell is convincing in the Jimmy Stewart-esque role of the moralist who refuses to compromise his convictions even though he puts himself—and his family—in danger. As his malevolent brother, the mayor of the town, Patrick Husted brings to mind the evil Mr. Potter (Jimmy Stewart’s nemesis in It’s A Wonderful Life) who cannot see past the bottom line. He is so convincing in his portrayal that he was actually booed at the curtain call by several members of the audience at last Sunday afternoon’s performance. And as the liberal journalists who betray their ethical responsibilities, Scott Drummond, Christopher Hirsch and Jack Wetherall devolve with plausible deniability.

As Dr. Stockmann gradually becomes so irate that he becomes unhinged, I couldn’t help but think of the playwright and activist Larry Kramer whose often-hysterical behavior was the only way he knew how to respond to the government’s lackadaisical response in the first decade of the AIDS crisis.  We’ve all known or read about zealots like Dr. Stockmann, but few of us have the courage of our convictions.

Although some of the dialogue feels old-fashioned, Boyd’s direction makes An Enemy of the People absorbing, intense and rewardingly relevant. She stages a near-riot scene by cleverly having several actors yell and arrive on stage from the aisles, making us fully aware that we are participants in such conflicts whether we like it or not. After all, passivity is as much a choice as activism. Miller’s morality tale is especially unnerving because the ending is intentionally ambiguous, bringing to mind the somewhat cryptic AA slogan, “Would you rather be right or happy?”

An Enemy of the People (through October 19)
Barrington Stage Company
30 Union St, Pittsfield, MA

October 8
Post-Show Talk with the Cast

October 12 @ 5:30 pm
Pre-show panel discussion: “Housatonic River Clean-up: What’s Next?”

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Posted by Dan Shaw on 10/06/14 at 12:29 PM • Permalink

John Waters Brings His Filthy World To Hudson (To Fundraise!)

Photo by Greg Gorman

By Robert Burke Warren

Ever since filmmaker-performer-author John Waters unleashed his transgressive 1972 cult classic Pink Flamingos on an unsuspecting public, he’s accepted numerous titles: The Pope of Trash, The Baron of Bad Taste, The Prince of Puke. With a reputation like that, attendees to his one-man show This Filthy World, Volume 2, at Basilica Hudson on Saturday, October 18 may be surprised to discover he’s actually quite the charming raconteur. Outsider shock remains his calling card, yes, but as a presence, he’s genuine and warm, a skilled and often hilarious storyteller. (The performance is a benefit for the Basilica film program and the AIDS Council of Northeastern New York.)

Waters is excited about coming to Hudson. “I understand it used to be a center of vice,” he says with relish from his Manhattan apartment. Upon finding the once-tawdry town has become a Williamsburg-esque arts mecca, he says, “So it’s hipster; the men all look like they just kidnapped Elizabeth Smart. They’re really cute but they work really hard to be ugly to prove they’re so cute they can’t be ugly. That’s what that look is about. I love hipsters. I’ll be fine.”

Waters has reason to be sanguine about this gig. Although he achieved fame as a screenwriter and director, he’s always been a performer; back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, he often did stand-up before film screenings, and as an actor, he appeared in Something Wild, Homicide: Life On the Street, and The Simpsons, to name a few. All those showfolk chops came in handy when he first presented This Filthy World in 2006. (The acclaimed documentary of the same name is streaming on Netflix.) “I sold out Sydney Opera House and the Southbank Centre in London, a huge place,” he says.  “I didn’t see how big Southbank was until I did the Q and A, because when you’re onstage you just see black. It was amazing.”

Although he’s not made a movie since 2004’s A Dirty Shame, this Basilica engagement – his only local appearance – comes at the tail end of a particularly busy year. 2014 has included the release of the bestselling Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America, a chronicle of his recent adventures thumbing it, and a Lincoln Center retrospective, Fifty Years of John Waters: How Much Can You Take? He says all this action keeps him fit: “I’m the only gay man you’ll meet who’s never been to a gym in his life.”  (Waters will be signing copies of his book at Finch on Warren Street in Hudson at 2 p.m. prior to the Basilica show.)

Basilica owner and former Smashing Pumpkins and Hole bassist Melissa Auf der Maur couldn’t be happier about This Filthy World coming to her establishment. “As an original, independent risk taker, Waters captures the spirit of a large part of our mission,” she says.

Waters promises This Filthy World, Volume 2 will be completely different from the 2006 version. “I’m always on tour,” he says. “And I’m constantly upgrading the show, putting in new stuff and rewriting.” Along with his Carsick adventures, the Lincoln Center retrospective will likely make its way into his monologue. “It was exciting,” he says of the event, with wonder. “No irony, for once. It was like being at my funeral.”

Speaking of funerals, Waters has dealt with his share of death this year. First, his beloved mother passed away in February at the age of 89. “She always made me feel safe,” he says. “My parents were horrified by what I did, but they gave me a good foundation.” In addition to his mother, Waters lost his friend Joan Rivers. “I was with her just before she died,” he says. “And it’s not such a terrible story. She performed the night before, and she didn’t even know she died. I hope that happens to me. And now her family can sue the hospital, and they’ll be doubly rich! It’s sad, because she was so vital, and believe me, she didn’t want to die, but she didn’t know she died, and that is so important, having gone through my parents’ deaths. [Waters’ father passed away in 2008.] The last four years of old age can really be ugly. I couldn’t imagine Joan like that, and now I don’t have to.”

As for himself, Waters plans to be buried near his dearly departed muse, Divine, whom he discovered (and named) in the ‘60s. Divine was the star player in a troupe of oddballs that included actors Mink Stole, Pat Moran and Mary Vivian Pearce, all of whom remain close. “We all bought a plot where Divine’s buried,” he says. “Friends don’t usually get buried together, but we will be. We call it Disgraceland.”

But that’s all far in the future, of course. For now, John Waters, visionary filmmaker, author, and raconteur, is quite well, thank you, and ready to remind us how deliciously shocking life can be.

John Waters’ This Filthy World, Part 2
A benefit performance for Basilica Arts and The AIDS Council of Northeastern New York. 
Basilica Hudson
110 South Front Street, Hudson
(518) 822-1050
Saturday, October 18, 8 p.m.
$125 General admission | $175 Preferred Seating with Open Bar
$50 Students (with valid ID)

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Posted by Lisa Green on 10/06/14 at 11:26 AM • Permalink

Review: “The Visit” at Williamstown Theatre Festival

By Dan Shaw

Without baring her famous legs or a single high-step, Chita Rivera razzle-dazzles us in Williamstown Theatre Festival’s production of Kander & Ebb’s The Visit. As Claire Zachanassian, the richest women in the world who has returned to the small, down-on-its-luck European village where she grew up, Rivera is perfectly cast as the formidable grande dame who seeks revenge on the man who deflowered and disappointed her when she was 17.

As soon as you take your seat in the ’62 Center, Bruce Pask’s haunting set transports you to a small town in Europe that’s obviously on the brink of collapse. The glass is cracked in the roof of a once grand public space — perhaps the train station or central market — and the columns are overgrown with vines. There is a profound sense of desperation. The villagers make it clear in the opening numbers that they have become permanently disillusioned but are suddenly optimistic by the prospect of the billionaire Claire Zachanassian returning home. The possibility that she will save them is the only good news they’ve heard in years.

As Anton Schell, the man who broke her heart by marrying a once prosperous shopkeeper’s daughter instead of Claire (who was treated like a second class citizen growing up because she was half Jewish, half Gypsy and poor), Roger Rees still charms even as we begin to understand the depths of his cruel betrayal. Claire wants them to revisit their old trysting places, and it seems that it may not be too late for them to rekindle their youthful infatuation, which is underscored by the presence of two actors playing their younger selves onstage for the entire show. The memory of young love can never be forgotten. But neither can a broken heart.

Claire offers to give billions to the town if the villagers will sacrifice Anton, which at first seems preposterous and beyond the pale. But Terrence McNally’s book (based on the play by Friedrich Durrenmatt that was brought to Broadway in 1958 by Peter Brook in a translation by Maurice Valency) presents the situation as a moral dilemma resolved with a surprising inevitability.  Directed by Tony Award-winner John Doyle and choreographed by Graciela Daniele, The Visit floats along like a long, complicated but entirely rational dream. Certainly, there’s a surreal quality to the story as personified by two eunuchs in formalwear and yellow platform shoes who travel with Claire; they’re evidence of her power and peculiarities. Kander & Ebb’s songs are lush and captivating (although they are not listed by title in the program) with faint echoes of Cabaret and Chicago but only one number called “Yellow Shoes” has what you’d call razzmatazz.

The Visit, a contemporary musical that’s as highly stylized as an opera, is intimate and grand, cerebral and seductive. A showcase for the 81-year-old Rivera, the performance proves (as if there were any doubt) that she’s a genuine legend of the American stage. As so often happens at Williasmstown, you will leave the theater surprised that you are in the country and not Times Square because you’d swear you just saw the season’s most buzzed-about Broadway show.

The Visit
Williamstown Theatre Festival
‘62 Center for Theatre and Dance
1000 Main Street (Route 2), Williamstown, MA

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Posted by Dan Shaw on 08/04/14 at 12:54 PM • Permalink