Wednesday, January 30, 2008
Congratulations to the Richmond Boys Choir! Out of 350 nominations nationwide, the RBC was selected as one of only 18 nonprofit organizations in the nation to receive the prestigious Coming Up Taller Award 2007 from the President’s Committee on Arts and Humanities. The award ceremony took place in the East Room of the White House, with First Lady Laura Bush presiding.
For ten years, the Coming Up Taller Awards have honored youth organizations that make extraordinary contributions to the arts and culture in their communities. The Richmond Boys Choir is the first and only Richmond group to receive this national recognition for artistic and community service excellence. The honor was accompanied by a $10,000 cash award and a plaque.
The current Richmond Boys Choir was founded as a subsidiary of Theatre IV in 1996. At that time, Bruce learned that the original Richmond Boys Choir had fallen into non-existence in the three years following the death of its founder. He decided that Theatre IV was in a position to reinvigorate the Choir. He convinced me, and we convinced the Theatre IV Board of the validity of this idea.
Billy Dye (pictured to the left), who was at that time a fulltime staff member of Theatre IV, was assigned the responsibility of serving as the artistic director of the new Choir. He’s continued to serve in that role ever since.
I. B. Taylor, a Theatre IV Board member, was asked to chair the committee that provided governance for the new choir. From 1996 until 1999, Theatre IV mentored the Richmond Boys Choir, paid its staff, built its Board, managed its finances, and raised funds on its behalf. During this three year period, the choir was housed in Theatre IV’s offices and rehearsed and performed in Theatre IV’s historic Empire Theatre.
In 1999, the Richmond Boys Choir fulfilled its strategic plan and became the fully independent nonprofit organization that it is today. I. B. Taylor resigned from the Theatre IV Board and became the first President of the Board of the RBC. Bruce served as a charter Board member. Nine years later, our two independent companies continue to be the closest of allies.
The Richmond Boys Choir welcomes members from all socio-economic, religious and cultural backgrounds. They have opened for and/or performed in association with Wynton Marsalis, Lily Tomlin, former Supreme Mary Wilson, James Earl Jones and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Their spirit and talents have been showcased at the Governor’s Inaugural Prayer Breakfast and broadcast nationally on The Today Show, winning praise from Katie Couric.
First Lady Laura Bush had this to say during the award presentation earlier this week:
Mrs. Bush - “Thank you all for coming, and thanks to each and every person in this room for your work to promote the arts and humanities—especially through these Coming Up Taller Awards. The 2007 winners are outstanding. Choirs and theatre groups entertain. Museum and heritage programs educate. Art and dance studios delight and inspire. And every single Coming Up Taller program helps young people use their energy and creativity to succeed. In Philadelphia or Fort Worth, what all of these programs have in common are dedicated adults, eager to help young people make the most of their talents and their lives.
The voices of the award-winning Richmond Boys Choir have delighted audiences across Virginia. They've also delighted audiences from “across the pond.” This year, the choir performed for Queen Elizabeth at the opening ceremonies of Jamestown's 400th Anniversary. In addition to learning protocol for meeting the Queen, and proper table manners for a formal banquet, choir members develop teamwork, patience, and outstanding musicianship.
Congratulations to all of the recipients of the 2007 Coming Up Taller awards. Because of the great programs you represent, young people are discovering the humanities and the arts. They're building the confidence to paint, dance, speak, and sing—and in every one of their communities, to walk taller. Thank you all very, very much.”
(At this point in the program, the Richmond Boys Choir was introduced to perform before the assembled body, under Billy Dye’s direction.)
Mrs. Bush – “Thank you very much to the Richmond Boys Choir. You were terrific, and that was a really wonderful way to end this Coming Up Taller awards program. I like that you sang Stevie Wonder's song "Always," because I think that's what children in each one of these programs that we've represented today will learn in your programs, and that is that somebody will love them always.
So thank you to each and every one of you. We really can change lives for the better. We really are choosing a life, a wonderful way to live, when we teach and study the arts and humanities.”
All of us at Theatre IV are bursting with pride that our brother organization has received this national recognition. Congratulations to Billy and to all the boys. Job well done! We feel like proud parents, and that’s a great way to feel.
Monday, January 28, 2008
As previously mentioned, most of the complaints I receive from offended audience members are about language. The second biggest grievance is sex, closely followed by the third major offender, race. Among the racial objections I receive, most document a strong distaste for any onstage depiction of interracial romance. Call it the Guess Who's Coming to Dinner objection.
To an extent, this issue used to split on the “religious right” / “religious left” divide as well as the fault line that separates political conservatives from liberals. But now that Barack Obama and Tiger Woods stand as the two most recognizable children of interracial marriage … now that a conservative icon like Clarence Thomas walks proudly arm in arm with his Caucasian wife … now, I daresay, objections to interracial romance are more generational than anything else.
Before discussing the particulars of present day grievances, let’s look at the history that forged the attitudes of most of the grumblers. As many of you may know, our home state of Virginia played an infamous role in that history.
Virginia is for Lovers. That’s the way the slogan goes. But in 1958, for Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter (pictured to the left), it must not have felt that way. Richard was white, and Mildred was of “mixed blood” (white, African American and Native American). After seven years of friendship and courtship, they married in Washington D. C. and then returned home to live in peace in Central Point, about an hour northeast of Richmond, halfway between Bowling Green and Tappahannock.
Less than a month after their wedding, the local sheriff’s department raided their home at 2 a.m., roused them from their sleep, and hauled them away to face the law. The anti-miscegenation statutes in Virginia and 15 other states (mostly Southern) prohibited the marriage of whites and “non-whites.” Richard and Mildred were arrested and charged with a felony for “cohabiting as man and wife, against the peace and dignity of the Commonwealth.” They were tried in the county courthouse in Bowling Green. They pleaded guilty and were sentenced to a year behind bars—Virginia law requiring a prison term of one to five years.
The judge agreed to set the punishment aside, however, if they promised to leave Virginia immediately and not return together for 25 years. He justified his verdict as follows: “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, Malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with His arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix." (From the end of WWI until the sixties, the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel [pictured above and to the right in a Bruegel painting], found in the eleventh chapter of Genesis, was used by numerous religious faiths as proof that God intended the races to remain separate. It was also used as a Biblical foundation for racism and Jim Crow laws.)
For the next several years, the Lovings lived in a Washington D. C. ghetto, while keeping and occasionally visiting their modest Virginia home. They always drove in separate cars, and met covertly while in Virginia to avoid incarceration. In 1963, after one of her three children was hit by a car in their D. C. neighborhood, Mildred Loving wrote to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who referred her to the American Civil Liberties Union, which agreed to represent the Loving couple in an appeal of their conviction.
During four years of subsequent litigation, the Virginia Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s verdict. Finally, in 1967, in the aptly named Loving vs. Virginia, the U. S. Supreme Court, under Chief Justice Earl Warren (pictured to the right), voted unanimously to overturn the conviction on the grounds that the Virginia law that forbad interracial marriage was unconstitutional. Only then did the American South finally become one of the last places in the world to do away with anti-miscegenation laws. Other holdouts included Nazi Germany which overturned its laws in 1945, and South Africa under Apartheid which abandoned its laws in 1985.
Coincidentally, 1967 was also the year that Guess Who's Coming to Dinner made it into the nation's movie theatres.
To view the amazing, actual ABC News report that was broadcast in 1967 (including footage of Mildred and Richard Loving and their three children), go to http://abcnews.go.com/US/Story?id=3277875&page=2.
On a personal note, the Virginia law defined “non-white” as someone who had “one eighth blood” of a minority population. My wife’s (Terrie’s) great grandmother was full-blooded Oklahoma Cherokee. Her grandfather was one half Cherokee, her mother is one quarter Cherokee, and Terrie herself is one eighth Cherokee. Terrie and I were married only 19 years after Loving vs. Virginia. Had the Virginia law not been overturned, Terrie’s and my marriage would not be legally recognized. Moreover, Terrie’s mom and dad, married in Norfolk, VA 13 years before Loving vs. Virginia, were married illegally under the law of the day. Had they been turned in to the police, as the Lovings were, it’s possible that they too could have been convicted of a felony and sentenced to one to five years in prison.
Coming soon – How Darwin’s Theory of Evolution contributed to anti-miscegenation sentiments.
Sunday, January 27, 2008
What some are saying about Rumpelstiltskin's Daughter at Theatre IV:
Mary Burruss (a regular theatre critic for STYLE Weekly) writes on the RichmondVATheater Blog:
"Engaging for kids of a variety of ages and the adults who escort them, funny, enlightening with it's message, politically correct for our time, colorful and just the right length"
"new, well directed, well acted, well designed and crafted set, sound, and lighting, appropriate, fun, well thought out costumes, excellent make-up, choreography that is appropriate for the show and its actors, and wonderfully talented cast who's abilities are utilized properly to make a show that flows seemingly flawlessly across the stage"
"hilariously wicked duo of Jackie Jones and Matt James"
"fell in love with Richard Koch as the King"
"really great theatre"
Susan Haubenstock writes in today's Richmond Times-Dispatch review:
"Dawn A. Westbrook is the director/choreographer, and she brings lots of fun to the show, aided especially by Elizabeth Weiss Hopper's witty costumes and Greig Leach's brightly colored scenic design. Westbrook's dance numbers are especially amusing, and she gives her villains--the hilarious Jacqueline Jones as the Queen Mother and Matthew James as the Duke of Bonfire--loads of funny business to do."
Also be sure to be on the look out for another free ticket contest and the "An Actor Prepares" blog at http://www.theatreiv.blogspot.com/.
Tickets can be purchased online or by calling the box office at 344-8040. (Or you can purchase tickets through the Barksdale Theatre box office with the same phone call, while you're purchasing tickets for Doubt: A Parable [Starring Duke Lafoon, Irene Ziegler, Maggie Roop, and Katherine Louis]).
Saturday, January 26, 2008
I’m going to withhold my thoughts on sex for the time being—I have my reasons—and discuss the issue that comes in third on the list of “most complaints received.” Race.
I respectfully consider and respond to every communication I receive from audience members who are offended by the plays we choose to produce. I encourage and appreciate such communication. I hear from 50 to 75 angry people a year. (These figures include only those who are offended by content, not those who object to the comfort of their seat or the HVAC.) Almost all of the 50 to 75 allege that they’re contacting me on behalf of a large group of like-minded individuals who are equally offended but less inclined to tell me so.
We sell 42,000 tickets a year. Even believing the multiplier claims, which I do, I think 50 to 75 out of 42,000 is pretty good.
To be candid, I sometimes find objectors to be closed-minded and their comments to contain a certain amount of ill will. On occasion, the complaints offend me just as much as the language or action offends the audience member. This is often the case when people complain that I try too hard to be “politically correct.”
In my experience, the term “politically correct” is used mostly by conservatives when they’re mad at moderates and liberals. Make no mistake, conservatives apply considerable political pressure on organizations like Barksdale Theatre to act in accordance with their tastes and wishes. When we select a play that matches their conservative standards, they have no sense that we are catering to their tastes. They think we simply are exercising common sense.
But when we select a play that is more in sync with the standards of our more liberal audience members, the conservatives often complain that we’re caving in to some sort of pressure in an attempt to be “politically correct.”
Let me say this as clearly as possible, the pressure we receive from the right is no different from the pressure we receive from the left, and vice versa. I NEVER try to be “politically correct.” I ALWAYS attempt to find a balance among shows that have conservative appeal and shows that satisfy our more liberal brethren. It’s as simple as that.
My main criteria have nothing to do with politics at all. I choose plays that:
· I personally enjoy, think my parents would have enjoyed, or think my children will enjoy;
· are artistically sound;
· will have a positive impact on the community;
· represent a broad cross section of the world theatre repertoire;
· are likely to sell well, both as individual productions and/or as part of a season; and
· will help us retain our existing, mostly mature audience while adding to it with new, younger audience members.
When it comes to race, I receive complaints from those who object to:
1 racially mixed couples on stage,
2 racial stereotyping,
3 racial slurs, and
4 under-representation of ethnic minorities.
And now, in an effort not to write blogs that are too long, I will pause. Coming soon – a discussion of racially mixed couples on stage.
Thursday, January 24, 2008
Yesterday was Arts Advocacy Day at the Virginia General Assembly. Representatives of over 200 nonprofit arts organizations from throughout the Commonwealth joined forces to lobby the House and Senate for increased funding for the Virginia Commission for the Arts. Whereas many of our neighboring states fund their nonprofit arts industry at $2 per capita or more, Virginia funding still falls far short at less than 70 cents per capita.
The goal of Arts Advocacy Day is to increase Virginia’s public support for all of the Commonwealth’s nonprofit arts organizations to $1 per capita. That’s right, we’re working strenuously, and have been for years, to convince our elected officials that all of the arts in the entire state are worth one tax dollar per citizen.
We at Barksdale and Theatre IV did our part in this lobbying effort by providing each legislator with a voucher for two free tickets to the show of his or her choice, and by asking two of our handsomely costumed characters to help escort elected officials into the House of Delegates.
Above and to the right you'll see Jennings Whiteway escorting Del Riley Ingram from Hopewell. Del Ingram is a GREAT guy and a longtime friend. He entered the chambers through an alternate entrance, and when he noticed the performing artists escorting the Delegates in, he left his seat, worked his way around back to the main entrance, and re-entered with Jennings as a way of showing respect and support for Virginia's arts community.
The photo above and to the left shows Del Chris Saxman from Staunton, and the photo to the right shows Del Tom Gear from Hampton. In keeping with the theme of the Jamie Brindle blog post, we offer the photo below and to the left. When we were getting set up to begin the ushering, an eighth grader came racing in to say hello. Turns out it was Jake Boon, veteran child actor of Theatre IV's Santa's Toyland Adventure and The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, now serving as a page in the General Assembly.
Great work, Jake!
After the escorting was done and the House had convened, Del Jennifer L McClellan, District 71 Richmond (the district in which the Empire is located), introduced our actors to the assembled body as follows:
"Ladies and Gentlemen of the House of Delegates –
It is my pleasure to recognize our two escorts today – Ms Jennings Whiteway and Mr. Eddie Tavares, representing the cast of The True Story of Pocahontas, produced by Theatre IV – The Children’s Theatre of Virginia.
Created and presented in association with the Virginia Historical Society, The True Story of Pocahontas toured to hundreds of elementary schools statewide throughout all of 2007, reinforcing the instruction mandated in Virginia’s Standards of Learning. In fact, Theatre IV, headquartered in my district, is the largest school-based, professional children’s theatre in the United States. They have performed in every school district in the Commonwealth, and currently reach over 500,000 Virginia children, parents and teachers each year.
Theatre IV is only one of over 200 nonprofit arts organizations in our state that are participating today in Arts Advocacy Day, in support of the Virginia Commission for the Arts. With you, I applaud all of our state’s nonprofit, professional arts organizations, and thank them for their invaluable contributions to education, tourism, economic development, and the quality of life we all enjoy throughout the Commonwealth."
Thanks to Jennings and Eddie for their efforts on behalf of Theatre IV and Barksdale Theatre. Special thanks to Del Jenn McClellan (pictured to the right with Gov Tim Kaine and Barack Obama) for her gracious introduction.
Wednesday, January 23, 2008
As a child, our good pal Jamie Brindle (pictured to the left) played Christopher Robin in Theatre IV’s The House at Pooh Corner, the title character in Theatre IV’s Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible…, and a young ensemble member in Barksdale’s Carousel. Jamie’s now all grown up, and recently returned from his volunteer work with the Child Rescue Center in the African country of Sierra Leone, one of the most impoverished nations in the world.
Jamie filmed a lot of what he saw and many of the children whom he met, and now plans to create a documentary from this footage. He’s in contact with Whoopi Goldberg’s people in hopes of recruiting her to participate in this project. To that end, Jamie created a “trailer” for the documentary and has posted it on YouTube.
We couldn’t be more proud of this talented, young Theatre IV and Barksdale alum. If you’ve ever wondered how all those child actors turn out, please check out Jamie’s remarkable work at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fynZEXQNT5U.
We wish him the greatest success.
From 1983 until 2003, Millie owned 322 W. Broad Street, a couple blocks west of the Empire. During most of those 20 years, the small business she founded and managed, Festival Flags, was one of the few thriving enterprises in what was otherwise a seemingly derelict commercial corridor. We joined her as urban pioneers in 1986 when Theatre IV purchased the historic Empire Theatre. Phil and I acquired and renovated the Marshall Street office building that houses most of our staff in 1990.
Today, the Empire Theatre District (or Arts District or President’s Row, depending on which moniker you prefer) is one of Richmond’s hottest neighborhoods, home to First Fridays and ten dazzling restaurants and hundreds of apartments within a two-block radius of our marquee. I know Millie must have been thrilled.
Millie was an accomplished seamstress and graphic designer. In 1971, she bought a piece of Scandinavian cloth, made it into a flag and flew it at her Fan District home to direct guests to a party. When friends and neighbors requested custom-made flags of their own, she started a small cottage industry in her basement. In 1975, she created an “It’s a Boy” flag to mark the birth of her son, Jonathan. When she did, she earned near-celebrity status as the national press from The Wall Street Journal to "Good Morning America" descended on Richmond to interview the “flag lady.”
But it was Millie’s excitement about and dedication to downtown revitalization that made her our steadfast friend. She LOVED IT when we bought and restored the Empire. For years we’d see her three or four times a week. She was constantly walking up and down Broad—creating, leading and building the Old and Historic Broad Street Association, organizing us neighbors to lobby for the city’s attention, and doing whatever it took to get people interested in our little corner of downtown.
When her “It’s a Boy” son Jonathan came of age, Millie signed him up with us for a summer internship. Whenever graffiti scumbags defaced our historic buildings, Millie came running. She made sure that we removed the graffiti immediately, that the police investigated the crime with vigor, and that prosecutors sought serious punishment for the vandals if and when they were caught.
When we produced Stand-Up Tragedy in the Little Theatre, we hired a VCU art student to simulate graffiti all over the theatre’s interior walls, helping to set the scene for this urban drama. When Millie stopped by to see how everything was going, she stepped into the Little Theatre and immediately went ballistic. She swore she recognized the style of several of the “tags” that were spray-painted on our walls, and demanded to know the name of the person we had hired so that she could turn him over to the police.
We panicked. There was no way we were going to give up the name of the art student if doing so would get him into trouble. Prior to Millie’s recognition of his work, it had never occurred to us that he might be one of the ones who actually was vandalizing the neighborhood—much less a ring leader. So we met with Millie and the police, and they gave us permission to talk with the scenic artist personally without their involvement.
When we did, we soon found out that Millie was right. After learning that his work had been recognized, the art student confessed. We outlined for him all the costs that we and our downtown neighbors absorbed each month to remove the graffiti that he and his friends were creating. After hearing everything, he vowed never to deface a building again. He promised to talk with the other graffiti vandals, many of whom were his friends. In return, we pledged never to release his name—not even in the playbill. Not even in this blog.
For the next couple years, graffiti in our neighborhood decreased significantly. And it was all because of Millie Jones.
For her friendliness, her creativity, her passion and her care, we loved Millie. With affection and respect, we will be dedicating our summer production of Guys and Dolls to her memory. We will never forget her many contributions to our theatre and downtown Richmond.
Dawn Westbrook, our hysterical director of Rumpelstiltskin's Daughter, has filled out the new questionnaire! This woman is a riot! So I'm just gonna let it speak for herself. And if you wanna see her hysterics onstage, come check out RD at Theatre IV, opening THIS FRIDAY!
Hometown: Sandston, Virginia
My turn! (Makes me think of Bronson Pinchot in the Broadway revival of Putting It Together when he came out to sing "Buddy's Blues" from Follies. Anybody? ...Nobody?)
I thought I wouldn't do the questionnaire, since it might seem a bit odd to do it and post it myself. And my boss (the fabulous Sara Marsden, Director of Marketing) also thought it was odd), but I figured what the heck. I'm in a show daggone it; and the mood struck me, so here it is: (Just ignore the rather dated headshot there at the top.)
Hometown: Campbellsville, KYAudition song: "Not a Day Goes By" from Merrily We Roll Along (for EVERYTHING!!!) I auditioned for a pop show in NY with this song and the casting director asked me to learn a pop song and he would like to see me again. Very nice guy.
Got my Equity card singing this song in the style of Huck Finn!!! Special skills: hehehe...a bad Katherine Hepburn imitation. And I can eat popcorn out of my nose without using my hands.
Favorite word: lascivious
First show ever saw: Cats (ech...ech...sorry, hairball)
If you could go back in time and catch one show (Broadway or otherwise) what would it be?: First replacements in Sweeney Todd: Dorothy Loudon (Tony winner as the original Miss Hannigan) and George Hearn
Favorite show tune: "I Dreamed a Dream" from Les Miserables; such an incredibly well-crafted piece.
Least favorite word: How about phrase? "You're too young." I've heard that several times lately.
Favorite play: The Zoo Story by Edward Albee (who turns 80 on March 12!!!)
Favorite musical: Oh...so hard to choose... Godspell, Les Mis, Jekyll and Hyde (concept version, not that mess that ended up onstage), Sweeney Todd, ...
Most played song on your iPod (or CD player): currently anything on Patti Lupone's The Lady with the Torch album
Last book you read: Pillowman by Martin McDonagh. Disturbing. Wish that I hadn't started, but once I did, I couldn't put it down.
Sound or noise you love: a creek
Must-see TV show: Golden Girls (hehehe)
Last good movie you saw: Across the Universe (I bow to Julie Taymor)
Sound or noise you hate: Macy Gray singing.
Worst job you ever had: McDonald's (four times; three different McDonald's), which was rivaled only by a theatre I did summerstock with, but we'll let that lie.
First stage kiss: I was 21, she was 15 (and in her first professional production). I had just moved from Kentucky to take my first fulltime professional acting job in The Diary of Anne Frank. She remains to be one of the most professional actors I have ever worked with.
Worst costume ever: The Secret Garden. Dickon. Knickers. Vest. Neither of which are very flattering to guys that are not small. I was quite not small then.
What turns you on (creatively, spiritually, emotionally)?: A great connection. Onstage or off. Indefinable. But you can feel it when it happens. Especially when you're sitting in an audience watching it happen...or sitting across a table from that person and it's happening.
Tuesday, January 22, 2008
Sunday's Richmond Times-Dispatch featured a fantastic feature about Rumpelstiltskin's Daughter with a HUGE picture of Gigi!
You can check it out at InRich.com. The piece is by Celia Wren, who does a lot of really great coverage of theatre here in Richmond, as well as in several other publications, including American Theatre magazine.
Monday, January 21, 2008
The following comments were phoned in to Theatre IV’s general voice mail yesterday (Sunday) by a very distressed older woman. I’m quoting the message in its entirety, word for word. “We’re just wanting to know why in the world Barksdale chose such a play as Doubt. That is obnoxious in every way. And we are grossly disappointed in the selection of that play. And we just wanted to express our sincere regrets.”
Had the distraught woman left her name and/or phone number, we would have called her back today, respectfully, and offered her tickets to Greater Tuna or some other play to replace the tickets she is apparently holding to our upcoming production of Doubt. But as is so often the case, the message was left anonymously.
As a further wrinkle, we suspect she may not have named the play she intended to condemn. In some ways, it makes more sense if she had just seen Moonlight and Magnolias and was among those who objected so strenuously to the language in that comedy. Doubt doesn’t begin performances for four weeks, and the immediacy in her delivery made it seem like she had just witnessed something horrible. Furthermore, it’s hard for me to understand what would make anyone who had read Doubt or seen it previously say that it was “obnoxious in every way.”
I guess we’ll never know … which is frustrating.
Perhaps we should take some comfort in knowing that theatre artists have been shocking audiences with “offensive language” ever since the first curtain rose on the first performance. In fact, long before theatres even had curtains, conservative playgoers were taking umbrage at some of what they heard on stage. Back in those pre-curtain days, the consequences of offending the powers-that-be were a lot worse than they are today—setting aside for the moment that little matter of “eternal damnation” mentioned in a comment to Language – Part I.
Consider the Puritans. The Puritan movement began to gain strength in England in the 1570s, about the time that Shakespeare was entering grammar school. The Puritans didn’t call themselves Puritans; if they called themselves anything, they called themselves “the Godly.” The name “Puritans” was devised and employed by their opponents, who resented their attempts to “purify” the Church of England in keeping with other Protestant reformation efforts in John Knox’s Scotland, John Calvin’s Geneva, and Martin Luther’s Germany.
Today in the U. S. of A. we tend to think of the Puritans as the guys who landed at Plymouth Rock. We should also remember that it was the Puritan Roundheads under the political and military leadership of a “born again” Oliver Cromwell (pictured to the left), who closed England’s theatres in 1642. (Shakespeare, had he lived, would have been in his 70s.) The Puritans also defeated the royalist Cavaliers during the English Civil War, and beheaded King Charles I in 1649.
Needless to say, throughout Shakespeare’s lifetime, the Puritans were a force to be reckoned with. And they hated the theatre. They found the worldly delights of London to be so abhorrent that, during the Great Migration of 1620-43, approximately 21,000 of them crossed the ocean to establish wilderness homes in the Massachusetts Bay Colony—and in communities surrounding the Chesapeake Bay.
In his new biography, Shakespeare – The World as Stage (my daughter gave it to me for Christmas and it’s a great read), Bill Bryson (pictured to the right) says, “Puritans detested the theatre and tended to blame every natural calamity, including a rare but startling earthquake in 1580, on the playhouses. They considered theatres, with their lascivious puns and unnatural cross-dressing, a natural haunt for prostitutes and shady characters, a breeding ground of infectious diseases, a distraction from worship, and a source of unhealthy sexual excitement. All the female roles were of course played by boys—a convention that would last until the Restoration in the 1660s. In consequence the Puritans believed that the theatres were hotbeds of sodomy—still a capital offense in Shakespeare’s lifetime—and wanton liaisons of all sorts.”
The good news for theatre artists during the English Renaissance was that Queen Elizabeth (pictured to the left) was relatively neutral in the religious culture wars. She returned her country to Protestantism after succeeding her half-sister, Mary, to the throne in 1558. (Queen Mary had earned from the Puritans the moniker “Bloody Mary” because of her Catholic persecution of Protestant reformers.) But despite her Protestant leanings, Elizabeth had a healthy distrust of the Puritan movement because of its anti-monarchist sentiments. Throughout the Shakespeare Era, she resisted the Puritan’s efforts to shut the theatres down while enacting rules and regulations that encouraged the Puritans to feel like their concerns were being addressed.
From all accounts, Queen Elizabeth enjoyed the theatre herself, and her government certainly benefited from the substantial licensing fees that the theatres were charged. The Master of the Revels, Edmund Tylney (Tilney), licensed all play scripts at 7 shillings each. To mollify religious conservatives, he also served as the royal censor, expunging language that could be perceived as anti-God or anti-Queen. In 1592, when the Puritans convinced the Lord Mayor of London to close the theatres, it was Tylney who lobbied on behalf of the crown to keep the theatres open, protecting royal revenues and keeping Puritan power in check.
Despite his liberal use of odds bodkins, ‘zounds and ‘sbloods (blasphemies all), Shakespeare remained relatively free of official condemnation and/or punishment throughout his career. Several of his colleagues fared far less well.
Henley Street Theatre is now presenting The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd, frequently referred to in theatre history texts as the “most popular play” to grace London’s stages during Shakespeare’s lifetime. Kyd heads the list of playwrights who are believed to be the author of Hamlet and King Leir, late 16th century plays that preceded Shakespeare’s revered rewrites by a decade or more. Thomas Kyd was also horrifically wrapped up in British censorship.
In the 1580s and 90s, both Thomas Kyd and fellow playwright Christopher Marlowe (Tamburlaine, The Jew of Malta, Edward II, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus) were working under the patronage of a particular nobleman, most likely a fellow named Lord Strange. Kyd and Marlowe became roommates for a time, and both men wrote a quantity of plays that were hugely successful.
In 1593, the Master of the Revels and the Privy Council ordered the arrest of both Kyd and Marlowe on suspicion of creating “divers lewd and mutinous libels.” Tracts, it seems, had been posted all around London disparaging the Protestant refugees who had come to England to escape the Catholic societies in France and the Netherlands. One of these posters was written in blank verse, mentioned themes, characters and scenes from several plays by Christopher Marlowe (pictured above and to the left), and was signed “Tamburlaine.”
Thomas Kyd was the first of the pair of playwrights to be apprehended and sent to Bridewell Prison. Built by Henry VIII, Bridewell was London's first correction facility. The former gatehouse (pictured to the right) is all that remains today.
Under the threat or the actuality of torture—we’ll never know for sure which one—Kyd proclaimed his innocence and implicated Marlowe in the “crime.” When incriminating evidence was found among Kyd’s papers, Kyd asserted that the offending document had found its way into his portfolio by accident during that period when he and Marlowe had been roommates. He accused Marlowe of blasphemy, atheism and homosexuality.
Bill Bryson continues the story: “Marlowe was brought before the Privy Council, questioned, and released on a bond that required him to stay within twelve miles of the royal court wherever it happened to be so that his case could be dealt with quickly when it pleased his accusers to turn to it. He faced, at the very least, having his ears cut off—that was if things went well—so it must have been a deeply uneasy time for him.”
Marlowe’s biographer, David Riggs, reminds us, “There were no acquittals in Tudor state courts.”
Now back to Bryson. “It was against this background that Marlowe went drinking with three men of doubtful character at the house of a widow, Eleanor Bull, in Deptford in East London. There, according to a subsequent coroner’s report, a dispute arose over the bill, and Marlowe—who truly was never far from violence—seized a dagger and tried to stab one Ingram Frizer with it. Frizer, in self-defense, turned the weapon back on Marlowe and stabbed him in the forehead above the right eye—a difficult place to strike a killing blow, one would have thought, but killing him outright. This is the official version, anyway. Some historians believe Marlowe was assassinated at the behest of the crown or its senior agents. Whatever the motivation, he was dead at 29.
Kyd died the next year, aged just 36, never having recovered from his ordeal at Bridewell. Shakespeare would have no serious rivals until the emergence of Ben Jonson in 1598.”
And all I get is letters, voice mails and blog comments—mostly anonymous. I guess I should count myself lucky.
Saturday, January 19, 2008
Rumpelstiltskin's Daughter Grows a Bit of Magic Herself with the New and "Improved"(?) Questionnaire
Guinea pig number two turns out to be the actress playing the title character in Theatre IV's AMERICAN PREMIERE production of Rumpelstitskin's Daughter. Gigi Galiffa is a 17-year-old senior at Atlee High School. 17!!! Playing the title character!!!!! And her singing the song "Secret of Gold"!!!!!!! I would buy a ticket just to hear her sing this song. Even if there weren't a gazillion other fantastic things about this show, Gigi singing this song is...yeah...the first time I heard her sing it was during a run-through and I was sitting off-stage talking to Thomas and apparently dropped out mid-sentence to listen. It's really stunning. Aside from being a great talent, she's so much fun! Such a fun cast we have!
Hometown: I’ve lived in the Ville my whole life (aka Mechanicsville, VA).
Audition song: For Rumpelstiltskin’s Daughter I sang “A Place Called Home” from A Christmas Carol. I recently sang “Home” from Maury Yeston’s Phantom for another audition…. Hopefully singing about home is my good luck charm =].
Favorite word: Serendipity: an aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident. I like the movie, too.
First show ever saw: The first show I can really recall seeing was The Best Christmas Pageant Ever when I was in 4th grade. And where else but Theatre IV? Then 4 years later, I actually got to be in the same show at Theatre IV. Now it’s about 4 years later and I’m in Rumpelstiltskin’s Daughter, the first show I’ve been in at Theatre IV since then. Funny how things work out, huh?
Favorite musical: Holy cow. Where do I start? If I had to pick one, it would probably be Hairspray.
Most played song on your iPod (or CD player): Most likely something by Michael Buble or the Candyskins.
Last book you read: I read The Kite Runner after I got it for Christmas. It was one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read and I definitely recommend it. Now I’m reading Dracula, but I’ll probably have to set that aside to read Pride and Prejudice (one of my all-time favorites) for English class.
Sound or noise you love: Waves crashing at the beach. A racquet hitting a tennis ball.
Must-see TV show: The Biggest Loser. They change people’s lives on that show! I love it!
Last good movie you saw: Shakespeare in Love…*sigh*
Worst job you ever had: Well seeing as I’ve only had one job…it wasn’t bad. I was a hostess at the Grapevine II in the Short Pump area.
First stage kiss: Two years ago in Guys and Dolls. I played Sarah Brown and my friend who played Sky Masterson is about 5834956289305732 feet tall. Haha. It was interesting.
Worst costume ever: I could tell you about several dance costumes, but here’s one of the worst. Picture a black biker shorts unitard with cap-sleeves. Oh, and it gets better…a huge, red, sequin-bordered, velveteen, broken heart covering the entire surface area of my third grade stomach and chest. And we mustn’t forget the accessories: bright red bobby socks worn with pink ballet shoes and a red and silver sequined headband worn hippie-style. Song, you ask? "Don’t Go Breaking My Heart."
Wednesday, January 16, 2008
There are some new and exciting things happening on Barksdale Theatre's sister theatre's blog these days. You can check it out here!
One of these fun new things is (drum roll please...)
The new, improved(?) questionnaire has arrived! I have combined questions from James Lipton's adaptation of Pivot's questionnaire (featured on Inside the Actor's Studio), added several questions from Playbill.com's Cue & A, and decided to see how things play without pictures. I'm working toward creating a questionnaire completely (or relatively) unique to Barksdale Theatre and Theatre IV, but for now it's fun to play around with others' ideas.
Our first interviewee is David Janeski who plays Rumpelstiltskin in the American premiere of Rumpelstiltskin's Daughter at Theatre IV (opening next Friday). David also appeared in Smoke on the Mountain (as Dennis, one of the twins; "[He's] the boy.") and Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap at Barksdale Theatre at Hanover Tavern, as well as Mame in Barksdale Theatre's Signature Season.
So...on to the questionnaire!
Hometown: Haymarket, VA. It used to be nowhere. Now it’s where Disney got kicked out, now holds the title of first outpost of DC Traffic. Thank you over development without infrastructure. Grr.
Audition song: I should have one shouldn’t I? I don’t parade myself as a “musical theatre actor;” I think not having a song repertoire is my subconscious way of keeping that. I once sang 8 bars at a 16 bar audition. I offered to sing it twice. They declined.
Special skills: EVERYONE involved in a production has special skills. Skills like imagination, promptness, teamwork.
Favorite word: Whatever my line is :)
First show ever saw: It was a Langston Hughes something at the Kennedy Center
If you could go back in time and catch one show (Broadway or otherwise) what would it be?: Somewhat hesitantly I would go back and see a performance that happened in Richmond December 26th 1811 entitled Raymond and Agnes or The Bleeding Nun, during which the scenery overhead caught fire and burned the place to the ground in
Favorite show tune: Aw really? You know not all of us are in love with musicals. I’ll go with “Till There Was You,” the Beatles version.
Least favorite word: Words mispronounced. ie: Exspecially.
Favorite play: I think this answer for most of us is influenced by the latest plays we’ve read. In that regard I’ll say An Enemy Of The People Ibsen w/ Miller
Favorite musical: Ragtime
Most played song on your iPod (or CD player): Eisley, "Many Funerals." It’s the 1st song on their latest album entitled Combinations
.Last book you read: 1491 by Charles C. Mann. It explores the pre-Colombian societies in the Americas and how they rivaled and even surpassed those of Eurasia.
Sound or noise you love: The tearing of a perforated edge.
Must-see TV show: Frankly, none of them. Aside from a football or baseball game I don’t watch television.
Last good movie you saw: Stardust
Sound or noise you hate: Screeching brakes; I hope nothing serious happened.
Worst job you ever had: I worked as a surveyor for a couple of summers. I carried a compound bucket full of wooden stakes, a small sledge hammer, radio, 5’ metal pole for shooting topography, and drug it all through briars, bogs, and wherever else was still undeveloped in northern Virginia in the late 1990’s. A wasp stung my eyelid; an hour later it looked like I was hiding a golf ball under there. Woo fun!
First stage kiss: I played Romeo in college in a production directed by Richmonder Jack Parrish. That stands as my only stage kiss.
Worst costume ever: Worst as in didn’t fit the show, poorly constructed, I would never wear it but on stage? As Puck in college I wore fur overalls cut for a flood
What turns you on (creatively, spiritually, emotionally)?: Wit coupled with intelligence.
So have a looksey at the Theatre IV blog and bring your kids (or just yourself) to see the American premiere of Rumpelstiltskin's Daughter!
Tuesday, January 15, 2008
Warning: To add clarity to this discussion of "offensive language," a few words are used that you may find "offensive." Continue at your own risk. Thanks.
Under U. S. copyright law, it’s illegal for any theatre to rewrite or edit a single word in any play published after 1923 without first receiving written permission from the author or his/her agents. It’s not only a legal issue; it’s an ethical issue. If you’re going to tell people that you’re producing a play written by, say, Tennessee Williams, then the only honest thing to do is present the play as Williams wrote it. Williams no doubt chose his words carefully and with purpose, and it’s unethical to “sanitize” his language and then market the play as the authentic original. That’s why Barksdale, along with every other professional theatre worth its salt, presents plays as they were originally written.
Our 2004 production of The Man Who Came to Dinner starred Jill Bari Steinberg and Joseph Pabst (pictured to the right), and was written by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart in 1939. During the run I received several letters from audience members complaining that I’d “added” profanity to the play. Of course I hadn’t. The few mildly profane words that were spoken from our stage all came from the minds and pens of those beloved, iconic American playwrights, Kaufman and Hart (pictured below and to the left). In the popular culture of 1939, their language caused nary a ripple. In today’s cultural climate, heavily influenced by the rise of the religious right, these same words prompted a small parade of conservative audience members to march to the exits in a huff.
When I assured the complainers that I had not added profanity to this cherished American script, they told me I was lying. They had “seen the movie,” they said (and perhaps a couple high school or community productions), and “those words were not spoken." What they may have failed to consider is that the film codes of the ‘40s were more Puritanical than the Broadway codes, and so Kaufman and Hart apparently chose to cut a few words from the movie version while keeping the original stage version in tact. The high school and community producers who had removed the words on their own accord most likely did so illegally.
Yes, I know this happens all the time and I'm making no judgements about high school and community theatres. They face their own challenges and I applaud their work. I also believe that professional theatres are held to a different standard.
As we engage in Part II of this discussion about “offensive language,” I’m using “profanity” as the catch-all word. At its root, “profane” means “worldly,” as in the opposite of “spiritual.” Profane language—profanity—can be sub-divided into four categories:
· blasphemy (taking the name of a diety in vain),
· obscenity ("crude" words for sex acts or private body parts),
· scatology (having a fascination with excrement or urine), and
· cursing (“damn you,” “go to hell” etc. and their abreviations and euphemisms).
There are other offensive words having to do with race, but we’re going to discuss race in a separate blog entry. Slurs and profanity are not really the same thing.
By far the most objections I hear relate to blasphemy and stem from offense to religious principles. (If you like, you can read my thoughts on “offensive language” and Christian faith in Language – Part I: From Potter to Shakespeare to Jesus and Beyond, Jan 12, 2008.)
Sometimes it almost seems ludicrous. We produced The Lark in 2006, written by Jean Anouilh and adapted by Lillian Hellman, and the central character of the play was Joan of Arc (pictured to the left in a painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti). This is, of course, the same Joan who was at first persecuted and later sainted by the Catholic Church. A couple audience members were offended when Joan cried out to God in her moments of greatest spiritual despair. “Why did you have to make Joan of Arc use the Lord’s name in vain?” one chastiser wrote. IN VAIN!!?? What on earth led any audience member to think that Joan’s cry to God was in vain?
When we produced The 1940's Radio Hour in 2002, one congregant really let me have it over the telephone for performing “Satanic music.” “That old black magic has me in its spell,” she eerily chanted into the phone. “That old black magic that you weave so well. Those icy fingers up and down my spine…” Finally the images became too much for her to continue.
Sometimes religious concerns cross over into moral situations. When we produced Winnie the Pooh at Theatre IV, a very sweet grandmother called me to ask if we couldn’t rewrite A. A. Milne to make it clearer that Mr. and Mrs. Rabbit were married. “I mean they keep talking about having all those babies, and you never really make it crystal clear that they’re married.” When I reminded her that Mr. and Mrs. Rabbit were, in fact, rabbits, and that rabbits didn’t get married, even in the days of A. A. Milne, she simply said, “Oh, you know what I mean.”
I did know what she meant. But still...
Another animal that never ceases to rile the religious right at Theatre IV is the ass referred to in Peter Pan—come see it this spring; my mailbox is ready and waiting. When Tinkerbell becomes frustrated with Peter’s attentions to Wendy, she calls Wendy “a silly ass.” Of course, Tinkerbell “speaks” only through the tinkling piano (or is it a flute?) that represents her fairy voice. Peter giggles when Tink calls Wendy the name. When Wendy inquires as to what funny thing Tinkerbell just said, Peter translates, and you can often hear the gasps.
I’m frequently told that language is so much more coarse in popular culture now than it used to be—and in many ways that’s true. But what’s also true is that there’s a growing group that becomes offended far more easily than people used to. When Mary Martin (pictured to the left) said “a silly ass” on the national airwaves in 1954's TV version of Peter Pan, no one batted an eye. Everybody accepted the word “ass” as another word for donkey. Today, some people hear “ass” and all they can think of is someone’s buttocks.
So is the problem with the word or the person hearing the word?
Thousands of audience members have loved our current production of Moonlight and Magnolias (pictured to the right, starring Dave Bridgewater, Scott Wichmann and Joe Pabst). And 20 or 40 audience members have been really offended by the language. A group of well-meaning folks from Good Samaritan Ministries called and asked for comps to one of our shows. They do amazing rehabilitation work with indigent men dealing with addiction in Richmond's South Side, and we were eager to help them out. We gave them comp tickets to the show of their choice, and they selected Moonlight.
The woman who set up the group called the box office to double-check the language. “No, the language isn’t bad,” our box office representative assured her. “They say the d-word once…I’m a little embarrassed to say it over the phone…but other than that, the language is fine.”
The woman thought, well, they only say “damn” once, and I think we can handle that, so we’ll accept the 15 free tickets and have a lovely evening out. What she didn’t know—what we didn’t make clear—is that “the d-word” was not “damn” but “dick,” as in Selznick’s graphic line about Hollywood pandering, “We suck the collective dicks" of our audience.
In fact, the actors in Moonlight say “damn”—and the far more controversial “God damn”—several times long before they get to the “collective dicks.” Our box office representative never even noticed that language when he saw the show. It simply rolled by him without calling any attention to itself. I'm not faulting him for this. He is pure of heart and more power to him. I'm just telling the story the way it happened.
When our urban missionaries arrived at the theatre and took their seats, they lasted only about 10 minutes before they couldn’t take it anymore. They stood up en masse and beat a hasty retreat to the lobby. Others in the audience looked at them and hadn’t a clue as to what was the problem. I called them on the following Monday, after hearing about their departure, and learned the whole story.
One of the challenges we face is finding the correct way to communicate with our audience about the language they can expect in any particular production. It is never our intention to surprise or offend. It is also not our intention to bowdlerize the language of the great playwrights to meet the particularly sensibilities of our times.
Coming soon – Language Part III: a history of censorship