Thursday, March 27, 2008

Bifocals Bargains, Meeting and Auditions

Posted by Jessica Daugherty

Bifocals Meeting Friday 3/28 at 11 AM for theatre lovers aged 55 and older

Show Business: Examine the process of producing a big musical in New York and in Richmond. Includes video footage of some of the greatest Producers and Directors discussing their work in the theatre, as well as discussion on what it's like to produce a blockbuster musical right here in Richmond.

At Barksdale at Willow Lawn. Suggested donation of $5 includes post discussion luncheon.

Bifocals Auditions for Fifty Years Ago will follow the meeting:

Fifty Years Ago
by Murray Schisgal
May 1 & 2, 2008 at 1PM at Willow Lawn
Touring performance run through May 16, 2008.
Directed by Vaughan Gary

Donald and Patricia Lumley, two World War II veterans, reunite and celebrate their one-year wedding anniversary after having not seen each other in 50 years. On this special day, the Lumleys reconcile the life they lived apart with their new life together.

Auditions will be held on Friday, March 28 at 1:00 PM at Willow Lawn.

Seeking actors aged 55 and older.

All actors will be paid a small stipend.

Questions? Please contact Chase Kniffen at (804) 783-1688 ext. 14.

Bifocals Bargain Tickets

For only $19, Bifocals members age 65 and older can reserve Bifocals Bargain Tickets for selected Barksdale performances. To join our Bifocals Theatre Project, senior theatre enthusiasts must register their email and/or street mail address with Chase Kniffen, Barksdale’s Special Projects Manager. There is no charge or membership fee associated with joining Barksdale’s Bifocals Theatre Project. For more information, visit our Bifocals page.

Bifocals Bargain Dates for Greater Tuna and The Little Dog Laughed have just been announced! Click for details...

To get the latest Bifocals events delivered to your inbox, sign up for our eNewsletter and select "Special Events" as an area of interest.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Word of the Week - HALLOING

Posted by Hannah Miller
On Saturday March 22, the world wished a very happy 78th birthday to STEPHEN JOSHUA SONDHEIM, so this edition of Word of the Week is created in his honor. This week’s word is HALLOING.

Stephen Sondheim is one of the most respected composers and lyricists of the 20th century. He has won more Tony Awards than any other composer on Broadway. Sondheim developed his love for theatre and music after attending his first musical at the age of nine. He was hooked when the curtain rose and a piano was revealed.

Never fitting easily with his parents, Sondheim spent many afternoons learning from his “surrogate father,” Oscar Hammerstein II, of Rodgers and Hammerstein fame. The Hammersteins and the Sondheims lived near each other on the upper West Side of NYC. When Sondheim wrote By George, a musical for his high school, Hammerstein spent an entire day teaching him what he could do to make the musical better. In Sondheim’s words, he “learned more about songwriting and the musical theatre” in that one afternoon “than most people learn in a lifetime.” Sondheim continued his apprenticeship with Hammerstein until he left New York to attend Williams College in Massachusetts.

In 1957, Sondheim made history by writing the lyrics to West Side Story, and then to Gypsy in 1959. Though both of these shows brought him great success as a lyricist, Sondheim knew that what he really wanted to do was compose. Three years later, he received that opportunity and wrote both music and lyrics for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, another hit. His string of commercial success was broken in 1964 when he wrote Anyone Can Whistle, which lasted for only nine performances.

Sondheim went on, of course, to write other history-making hits such as Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures and Sweeney Todd, all in partnership with director Hal Prince. He was disappointed by the short run of their next show, Merrily We Roll Along. Following this commercial flop, he considered quitting theatre to write murder mysteries. Instead he switched directors, breaking with Prince and teaming with James Lapine (pictured with Sondheim to the left), who not only directed his subsequent musicals but also wrote the books. The first Sondheim/Lapine triumph was Sunday in the Park with George (my favorite musical), based on the artistic genius of French painter Georges Seurat, the father of Neo-impressionism. Sunday in the Park is one of only seven musicals to have won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Other Sondheim/Lapine musicals include Into the Woods (produced at Barksdale last summer), Passion, and Assassins.

I study voice with Amy Hruska, and one of the songs she has me singing currently is Green Finch and Linnet Bird from Sweeney Todd. Inspired by the beautiful warbling of caged birds, the character of Johanna sings:

Green finch and linnet bird,
Nightingale, blackbird,
How is it you sing?
Whence comes this melody constantly flowing?
Is it rejoicing or merely HALLOING?
Are you discussing or fussing or simply dreaming?
Are you crowing?
Are you screaming?

When I first sang the word HALLOING, I assumed it meant something like “saying hello.” But this is Sondheim, so of course there are other layers of meaning. In 16th and 17th century England, to hallo or halloo was to shout an exclamation in a hunt when the quarry was spotted. In Coriolanus, Act I, Scene 8, Shakespeare writes, “If I fly, Marcius, halloo me like a hare.” Considering the plot of Sweeney Todd, certainly the birds were halloing when they spotted Johanna—or perhaps when they spotted the Judge.

Our word hello, issued as a greeting rather than a shout, dates from the mid-19th century, and fell into popular usage when Thomas Edison proclaimed it the appropriate way to greet someone when answering a telephone. Alexander Graham Bell preferred the phrase Ahoy, as used on ships. But by 1889, telephone operators were known as hello-girls due to the public acceptance of the Edison-inspired hello.

Today, Sondheim continues to write, create and inspire young admirers like me. His 2003 original musical Bounce has failed thus far to receive a NYC production. But in 2007, he composed incidental music for the Public Theatre production of King Lear, directed by Lapine. In that same year he had a bit part as himself on The Simpsons episode Yokel Chords.

--Hannah Miller

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Word of the Week - BANDY

Posted by Hannah Miller
Welcome to the third Word of the Week. From March 3 until 7, I had the chance to spend my Junior Work Week volunteering at Barksdale. It was a great experience being with the staff for five days. Phil, Brad and Janine (my supervisors) let me spend a full day and a half working on this column. Thanks to Barksdale’s accounting, marketing, development and costume staffs for letting me share their offices.

This week’s theatre artist is EDWARD ALBEE, and the word is BANDY.

Edward Albee is often named as America’s greatest living playwright. His credo is that each of his plays should “bring its audience some special sense of awareness of the times.” He celebrated his 80th birthday this past week on March 12.

Edward Albee was adopted into an affluent family and lived a pampered childhood as the grandson of a vaudeville producer. He did not have an admirable school record. After getting kicked out of a boarding school and a military academy for bad conduct, he finally found his place at Choate where he discovered his love for writing. He wrote many poems, short stories, a play and a novel, working sometimes for 18 hours a day.

After graduating from Choate, Albee left home and spent a decade studying at several universities, working a variety of jobs, and attending theatre as often as possible. During a state of depression, he wrote his first successful play, The Zoo Story. Originally rejected in New York for being too “experimental,” the play was recognized by reader after reader and finally premiered in Berlin in 1959.

Albee then went on to write other plays that proved to be controversial in many quarters. In the preface to the first published edition of The American Dream, which was written to bring attention to the shortcomings of American values, Albee wrote that the play was "a stand against the fiction that everything in this slipping land of ours is peachy-keen. Is it offensive? I certainly hope so; it was my intention to offend ... as well as amuse and entertain.”

In 1962, Albee created even more controversy with his most successful play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, for which he received a Drama Desk and Tony Award. Though he was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize, the controversy kept him from winning.

In 1961, Albee helped found the Playwrights Unit. This project was meant to provide a jump-start to young, inexperienced playwrights, an opportunity that he did not have when he wrote The Zoo Story.

In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, when Nick tells George that he isn’t planning on working as a professor forever, George replies, “Well don’t let that get BANDIED about. The old man wouldn’t like it. Martha’s father expects loyalty and devotion out of his…staff.”

BANDY – (ˈban-dē) verb – to bat (as a ball) to and fro, or
to discuss back and forth in a casual or offhand manner—often used with about

The verb, to bandy, comes from the game of Bandy, which began as an open air, warm weather sport in which opposing teams try to take control of the ball and land it in their opponent’s goal. In Romeo and Juliet, Act III Scene 1, Shakespeare writes, “The Prince expressly hath forbidden Bandying in the Verona streets.”

Some time in the 18th century, the warm weather version of the sport became better known as Field Hockey, and the winter version, played on frozen lakes and fens, took over the name Bandy. Ice Hockey, played in a smaller rink and with a puck instead of a ball, was developed in Nova Scotia in the 19th century. But it was in the 20th century that the verb to bandy first fell into popular usage, usually associated with the back and forth tossing of ideas or gossip.

George makes a great deal of Nick’s athletic prowess throughout Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfe? Perhaps that’s why Albee had George, a professor who obviously relishes language, use a quasi-athletic term to describe Nick's idle chitchat.

Edward Albee is continuing to work in the theatre today. In honor of his 80th birthday, several of his plays are being performed Off-Broadway, including The American Dream and The Sandbox. Both of these are directed by, who else? -- Albee himself!

--Hannah Miller

Postscript - I was in Lancaster PA last night watching Hannah Zold's TERRIFIC performance in All Shook Up at the Dutch Apple Dinner Theatre, when the character of Dennis used the word bunk, not once but several times, to describe the life philosophies espoused by the leading character Chad. Bunk, of course, is the shortened version of our first Word of the Week, buncombe.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Albee Turns 80!

Posted by Billy Christopher Maupin

(NOTE: This post was written on Wednesday, but found itself stuck in draft mode until today.)

Today (March 12) is the birthday of one of our greatest living playwrights, Edward Albee. Since 1959, Albee's plays have been produced all over the world. In fact, his first play, The Zoo Story, was originally produced in Berlin (through some circuitious networking, following numerous rejections from New York producers). The Zoo Story was then produced in New York City the following year on a double bill with Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape.

Albee's work continues even now, almost 50 years later. Occupant will premiere in April at Signature Theatre in New York. Occupant was originally to open in 2002, but only made it through a week of preview performances before Anne Bancroft was taken with illness. The premiere production will star Mercedes Ruehl (Tony-nominated for her performance in Albee's The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?). The world premiere of his newest work Me, Myself, and I (about twin brothers, both named Otto, and starring Tyne Daly) had a January-February run at the MacCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ.

According to GOING ON...BARKSDALE THEATRE: The first thirty-one years, Barksdale Theatre produced the first professional production of an Albee work in Virginia in 1966 with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at Hanover Tavern (and again in 1967with one cast change). Albee also appears in a picture on the porch of Hanover Tavern in 1978. (The caption of the picture above, to the left, also from the book, reads "Muriel's niece, Karen Schroll, a girl of obvious good taste.")

Other Richmond productions of his work include The American Dream at TheatreVirginia, Three Tall Women at Barksdale Theatre at Willow Lawn (starring Katie McCall, Yvonne Erickson, and Mary Sue Carroll, pictured to the left), The Death of Bessie Smith at the Firehouse Theatre Project (accompanied by a visit by Albee himself and "An Evening with Edward Albee"), an independently produced production of The Zoo Story at Fielden's Cabaret Theatre, The American Dream (FTP), and most recently The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? also at the Firehouse Theatre Project.

So "Happy Birthday!" (However now belated...) to perhaps our greatest living playwright!

Monday, March 10, 2008

Some Coffee and Some Conversing

Posted by Billy Christopher Maupin

Tomorrow at 9:30AM Duke Lafoon (Father Flynn), Maggie Roop (Sister James), and Keri Wormald (Director) from our production of the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning Doubt: a Parable by John Patrick Shanley, together with artistic director Bruce Miller, will be discussing Doubt in the Coffee and Conversations series at Barksdale Theatre at Willow Lawn on the Lobby Stage. The discussion also serves as part of the Acts of Faith Festival.

Coffee and pastries will be available for consumption, with a suggested
donation of $3. The discussion with these artists that have proven themselves with a production hailed as "superbly acted," "perfect for the Acts of Faith Festival," and "an edgy and engrossing delight" promises to be quite fascinating. I might even use the word stimulating, but that might seem a bit much for 9:30AM.
A few other relevant quotes:

"Duke Lafoon skillfully moves from..."

"Maggie Roop convincingly shows us the character's innocence, enthusiasm, confusion..."

"Under Keri Wormald's meticulous direction, the Barksdale's cast doesn't just do justice to John Patrick Shanley's Pulitzer Prize-winning script; it delivers a precision-cut gem of a production, each facet sharp and sparkling."

I highly recommend coming out tomorrow morning to chat with Duke, Keri, Maggie, and Bruce. No reservations are needed!

Update: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof Debate

Posted by Billy Christopher Maupin

Last week, I wrote about an episode of Theater Talk with Elizabeth Ashley and John Lahr debating the relevance of the Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof featuring an all African-American cast.

In response to an email I sent, Theater Talk replied:

We are scheduled to have several of the cast members a couple of weeks from now who we'll ask about this, but I didn't want to "jinx" that by putting it in the press release. The show was supposed to be about the BACKGROUND of the play, but then Lahr started talking about how the play was really about people tainted by the legacy of being slaveholders (I trivialize his point), so a Black cast didn't make sense ("like an all-white August Wilson wouldn't make sense"). Ashley strongly disagreed, so it turned into this interesting debate. [sic]

--Billy Christopher Maupin

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Word of the Week - BILIOUS

Posted by Hannah Miller

Welcome to the second installment of Word of the Week on the Barksdale Buzz. Every seven days or so, I’ll discuss a theatre legend whose birthday was celebrated during the previous week, choose a word somehow connected to the selected artist, and define it.

This week’s theatre artist is REX HARRISON, and the word is BILIOUS.

Rex Harrison is a beloved English actor of the stage and screen, best known for creating the role of Henry Higgins in Lerner and Lowe’s My Fair Lady. My Fair Lady has been produced in Richmond by both Swift Creek Mill Theatre and TheatreVirginia. Before it changed its name from the Virginia Museum Theatre to TheatreVirginia, VMT also produced Pygmalion, the classic play by George Bernard Shaw on which My Fair Lady is based.

Rex Harrison was born in Liverpool, England as Reginald Carey Harrison on March 5, 1908. On Wednesday of this week, the world celebrated his centennial. As a child, Harrison changed his first name to Rex (Latin for “King”). After he made his stage debut in Liverpool at the age of 16 and his film debut at the age of 22, his career as an actor took off. He became a star after his 2-year run of French Without Tears in London, and continued acting until just a few weeks before his death in 1990.

In response to his multiple marriages (6 wives), the press dubbed him “Sexy Rexy,” a nickname with which he was none too happy.

In 1956, Harrison starred on stage in My Fair Lady in New York and London, garnering fame on both continents. His co-star was Julie Andrews.

In 1964, Harrison won the Oscar for best leading actor in a film when he reprised the role of Higgins in the screen adaptation of My Fair Lady, co-starring Audrey Hepburn. In 1967, he earned a new generation of fans playing the title role in Doctor Dolittle. Despite his reservations about performing in a children's movie, Harrison agreed to star in the film because of the involvement of lyricist Alan Jay Lerner. Harrison stuck with the movie even after Lerner pulled out due to frustration.

In addition to his popularity with audiences internationally, Harrison was well respected among professionals. The Oscar-winning actor Jose Ferrer explained, “I've been in this business a long time, and Rex Harrison is the only actor doing comedy that I can learn from.” Impressed by his talent, Noel Coward (an acclaimed playwright and comedic actor) named him “the best light comedian in the world—after me.”

In My Fair Lady, Harrison’s character (Henry Higgins) is an expert in phonetics. While visiting the open-air market in London’s Covent Garden (the first scene of the musical), Higgins encounters an uneducated flower girl named Eliza Doolittle. In the following lines, he arrogantly tells her how much he dislikes her way of speaking.

Eliza: I have a right to be here if I like, same as you!

Higgins: A woman who utters such disgusting, depressing noises has no right to be anywhere, no right to live! Remember, you’re a human with a soul and the divine gift of articulate speech. Your native language is the language of Shakespeare and Milton and the Bible. Don’t sit there crooning like a BILIOUS pigeon.

Shortly after this encounter, Higgins bets a fellow gentleman that he can transform Eliza from a “guttersnipe” into an elegant lady by teaching her proper diction. The rest of the musical tells the story of how he does just that, with questionable results.

BILIOUS - (ˈbil-yəs) adjective - of, relating to, or containing bile; or
peevish, irritable, cranky, extremely unpleasant or distasteful

BILIOUS comes from the Latin word bilis, which means anger or displeasure. Practitioners of ancient and medieval medicine believed that health was governed by the four vital fluids or humours: blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. Gasses rising up through the body from a supposed excess of yellow bile (the yellowish, greenish digestive fluid secreted by the liver) were believed to make a patient irritable. Consequently, BILIOUS now has two definitions: the first having to do with the fluid from the liver and the second having to do with a cranky dispostion. Today, of course, we know that bile has nothing to do with crabbiness.

Higgins’ analogy of Eliza “crooning like a bilious pigeon” conjures up the amusing and pathetic image of her chirping like a peevish pigeon, incapable of speaking English.

If I'm not mistaken, I believe I heard our word BILIOUS spoken onstage in Little Women, now playing at the Mill, to describe “Aunt March.”

In 1990, Harrison returned to Broadway in The Circle by Somerset Maugham, author of Barksdale's 2006 hit, The Constant Wife. In May Harrison fell ill and was replaced, temporarily it was believed, by his understudy. Three weeks later he died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 82, closing the show.

To read previous Word of the Week columns, click on “Word of the Week” in the labels below. Thanks for reading!

--Hannah Miller

Panel to Debate Relevance of the All African-American Cast of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Posted by Billy Christopher Maupin
There has been quite a bit of buzz surrounding the revival of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Tin Roof, which opens tonight at the Broadhurst Theatre. Why? It's been seen on Broadway in four different productions before:

1955- Director Elia Kazaan, Starring Burl Ives and Ben Gazzara

1974- Director Michael Kahn, Starring Elizabeth Ashley

1990- Director Howard Davies, Starring Polly Holliday, Charles Durning, and Kathleen Turner

2003- Director Anthony Page, Starring Ashley Judd

This is the first of these five productions to feature an all African-American cast. However, in many of the articles about the show, TheatreVirginia is mentioned as having produced what is considered to be the ONLY all African-American production prior to this revival.

The revival boasts a spectacularly talented cast with three Tony Award winners (Phylicia Rashad for A Raisin in the Sun, James Earl Jones for The Great White Hope and Fences, and Anika Noni Rose for Caroline, or Change, also recently seen in the motion picture adaptation of Dreamgirls), as well as the Oscar-nominated Terrence Howard. But the buzz doesn't center on all that prestige.

Today on a headline caught my eye: Ashley and Lahr Will Debate Cat Revival on March 8 "Theater Talk". They are to "debate the relevance and implications of doing Tennessee Williams' fifties Southern family drama Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with an all-Black cast."

There are four panelists in this discussion.

Elizabeth Ashley, star of the 1974 revival. (You may also remember her from Evening Shade or perhaps as the original Corrie in Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park.)

John Lahr, critic for The New Yorker

Susan Haskins, Executive Producer of Theatre Talk.

Michael Riedel, a writer for the New York Post.

These four people will be debating the relevance of an all African-American cast of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

What are your thoughts? The floor is open for comments!

(Oh, and if you would like to contact Theater Talk, you can click here. Their email address is
--Billy Christopher Maupin

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

What is the BTW? (Barksdale Theatre Workshop)

Posted by Bruce Miller
A respondent to the previous post about TenSpot tickets made a good comment. "Hi. I'm confused. I understand the high school ticket rate; that's great. But what is the Barksdale Theatre Workshop? Is it really some type of free workshop for high school students?? Thank you."

Great question. I'm posting the answer here rather than in the comment section so that it can be seen by more people.

The BTW (Barksdale Theatre Workshop) is our outreach program designed to improve our service to high school students who love theatre. Through the BTW, we create opportunities for young actors, directors and designers to become more interested in and more connected with Barksdale Theatre.

The word “workshop” has two definitions. Quoting Merriam-Webster, a workshop is:
· “a small establishment where manufacturing or handicrafts are carried on, and
· a usually brief intensive educational program for a relatively small group of people that focuses especially on techniques and skills in a particular field.”
To help us create the BTW, we turned to our best resource, the talented and committed high school teachers who direct the drama programs in schools throughout our community. In the fall of 2005, we invited these drama teachers to Barksdale Theatre at Willow Lawn to discuss what Barksdale should be doing to serve their programs and their students. They identified five areas where we could have a positive and much needed impact. These five areas are the five components of the BTW.

In priority order, the recommendations of the teachers were:

1. Stage a summer production in which our community’s best high school theatre students could perform with Richmond’s major professional theatre. The program should be open to high school actors from all programs and backgrounds. Students should be able to audition for and participate in the program without charge. Rehearsals should be at night so that those students who needed to hold down summer jobs could participate. No other program, at that time, was filling that need. In partnership with The Steward School, we filled it, with Grease in 2006 and Disney’s High School Musical in 2007 (pictured throughout this article).

2. Create a discount program that allows high school students to come to plays at Barksdale Theatre for $10 each. The BTW TenSpot program now fills this need.

3. Create an externship that allows students interested in the performing arts to meet in a small group with our community’s top theatre, music and dance professionals in an after-school program for academic credit, learning firsthand about careers in the performing arts. In partnership with the CenterStage Foundation we have created and now operate the SOAR program (Student Opportunities in the ARts) to fill this need.

4. Expand our website to create a place where high school students can post information about the productions they’re working on and share their theatre interest with other high school drama enthusiasts—a community-wide high school theatre bulletin board. If you go to the Students section on the Barksdale website, you’ll find the pages where we’re filling that need. We’ve also created an interactive FaceBook page that hundreds of high school drama students access and contribute to each week.

5. Create Master Classes led by Greater Richmond’s best actors, directors, designers etc. and make those classes available on tour to individual drama classrooms in Greater Richmond's high schools. Also, conduct Master Classes in our theatre facilities so that students can access them on their own. We’re planning for our Master Class program to be in place by the beginning of the 2008-09 school year. The Master Classes will be unique, not duplicative of other programs currently existing in the community, such as (in alpha order) Christian Youth Theatre, HATTheatre and/or SPARC—all of which we support.

If you or someone you know is a high school theatre lover, we hope you’ll make sure they know about the BTW (Barksdale Theatre Workshop). For more information, they can email or call Chase Kniffen, 783-1688 ext. 14.

--Bruce Miller

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Hangin' in the TenSpot

Posted by Billy Christopher Maupin

Here's the deal! High school students can join the Barksdale Theatre Workshop (for FREE) by emailing Chase Kniffen, Special Projects Manager, or by calling him at 783-1688 x 14.

THEN...those students can purchase one or two high school TenSpot tickets for our critically-acclaimed production of the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Doubt: a Parable, by John Patrick Shanley for only $10 each! (Note: Regularly priced tickets are $38.)

TenSpot tickets are available for the following performances:

Wed Mar 5 – 8 pm,
Thurs Mar 6 – 8 pm,
Wed Mar 12 – 2 pm and 8 pm,
Thurs Mar 13 – 8 pm,
Sun Mar 16 – 2 pm,
Wed Mar 19 – 8 pm,
Thurs Mar 20 – 8 pm,
Sat Mar 22 - 2 pm.

Tickets will be on an "as available" basis. When these discounted tickets are sold out, they are sold out, so call the box office ASAP!

Students must pick up these tickets themselves with ID. Students without an ID can fill out a form listing their name, age, contact information, and high school or home school affiliation.

So, if you're a high school student, email or call Chase today to sign up for the BTW! Then call the box office to reserve your seats for Doubt: a Parable!

--Billy Christopher Maupin

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Word of the Week - BUNCOMBE

Posted by Hannah Miller

Welcome to the first Word of the Week. My plan is to pick a playwright, actor or other well known theatre professional every week, someone whose birthday was celebrated during the preceding seven days. I’ll write a short bio of his or her life and accomplishments, select an interesting word from his or her work, define it, and put it out there for whatever it’s worth.

This week’s theatre artist is BEN HECHT (pictured above) and this week’s word is BUNCOMBE.

Ben Hecht was a great American playwright, an Oscar-winning screenwriter (mostly uncredited), and an internationally recognized Jewish activist before, during and after World War II. A character based on Ben Hecht was portrayed by Scott Wichmann in Barksdale’s recent comedy Moonlight and Magnolias. Moonlight is a somewhat fictionalized depiction of the emergency re-writing of the screenplay for Gone With the Wind.

Ben Hecht was born on February 28, 1894 in New York City. He moved at an early age to Racine, Wisconsin. He was a child prodigy violist and circus acrobat. He started his career as a writer in Chicago while still a teenager, working for the Journal and the Daily News. In 1923, he founded his own paper, the Chicago Literary Times, and lost all his money. During his Chicago years, he met and befriended Charles MacArthur who was working for the City News Bureau. In 1926, both men moved to NYC to pursue careers as writers of plays and novels.

In New York, Hecht received a telegram from another friend, Herman J. Mankiewicz, who had recently moved to Los Angeles. "Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don't let this get around." He meant millions of dollars. Lured by this promise of prosperity, Hecht moved to L A and began a lucrative career as a screenwriter.

Dividing his career between Hollywood and New York, Hecht co-authored three Broadway plays with MacArthur: The Front Page (1928), Twentieth Century (1932) and Ladies and Gentlemen (1939). The first two are American classics. Barksdale produced The Front Page at Hanover Tavern in 1974, and both Swift Creek Mill and the Henrico Theatre Company have produced the musical comedy On the Twentieth Century, based on the Hecht/MacArthur play.

In his autobiography, A Child of the Century, Hecht wrote, “The American of 1953 is a cliché-strangled citizen whose like was never before in the Republic. Compared to the pre-movieized American of 1910-1920, he is an enfeebled intellect. For forty years the movies have drummed away on the American character. They have fed it naïveté and BUNCOMBE in doses never before administered to any people. They have slapped into the American mind more human misinformation in one evening than the Dark Ages could muster in a decade."

BUNCOMBE – (bŭng'kəm) noun – empty or insincere talk, claptrap, hogwash, nonsense

The word originated during the debate in the U S Congress regarding the Missouri Compromise, circa 1820. Felix Walker, an old and fading moutaineer representing Buncombe County, N C, rose to speak after the question had been called. With numerous congressmen begging him to sit down and be quiet, he persisted in delivering a lengthy lecture that had nothing to do with whether Missouri should be admitted to the United States as a slave state or a free state. In his ramblings, he said he felt compelled to “make a speech for Buncombe,” despite having nothing to add to the debate. Today, BUNCOMBE is frequently shortened to BUNKUM or BUNK.

Despite earning his fortune from the movies, Hecht had little respect for American filmmaking. He thought most movies were as meaningless as Felix Walker’s Congressional ramblings, nothing but a load of BUNCOMBE.

Hecht died of a heart attack at the age of 70 on April 19, 1964, while working on the script for the first movie version of Casino Royale, a “pointless” satire (according to critics of the day) in which the character of James Bond was played by multiple actors including David Niven and Peter Sellers. It sounds like exactly the kind of movie that inspired Hecht's grumblings.

Nonetheless, Hecht will go down in theatre history as co-author of two classic American comedies, The Front Page and Twentieth Century.

--Hannah Miller