Tag Archives: Theater

Woolly through an Intern’s Eyes

Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company has been around for about 30 years now, all under the guidance of beloved artistic director Howard Shalwitz.  His leadership has distinguished the theater as one of the longest lasting contemporary American theaters dedicated to producing some seriously provocative work.  As such, it was my immense pleasure to accept a seven-week internship here at the theater working in the Connectivity Department.  Woolly’s reputation is known far and wide, even reaching to the corners of Vermont, where I have spent the last year and a half in my cozy little liberal arts college.

My experience with Africa has been limited to a bleary-eyed 8am class about its democratization record (spoiler: not stellar).  Imagine my surprise and ultimately, my excitement, when I realized that my internship would essentially revolve around The Convert, a unique play simply by virtue of the fact that it is an African play written by an African woman about African people.  Wait, it gets better – not just a play about African people, but about an African woman. 

Through my work in the Connectivity Department here at Woolly, I have plunged into a deep, refreshing pool of diverse theatre.  The unfortunate reality of being a drama student (and this is anywhere) is that what is often filtered down are the classics—all important, yet all very white.   The unfortunate reality is that not very many stories on the stage have been told about black women – or African women for that matter.  Besides For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Was Enuf, and a few notable others, I’m not sure I can think of many famous shows telling the stories of black women.  And when you broaden the racial scope, you find yourself with even less choices—Hispanic women (West Side Story doesn’t count)?  Asian women?  Arab women?

That’s why I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to work at a theater that has the means and the resources to commit to new shows written by women and men who are striving to diversify contemporary theater.  It makes my job at Woolly even more daunting – while the playwrights are aiming to diversify the plays available, my department is essentially aiming to diversify the audience to match the play.

I hope I’ve done the task justice.

-Tenara Calem, Connectivity Intern

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What We Monologue About When We Monologue About Monologues

Hey, what did you do this weekend? Oh yeah? The beach? Cool, well, I –  Oh, you went parasailing? That’s really – A secret midnight beach party? With an open bar? Brittany Spears invited you to the VIP lounge?! Well, shut up. I had a cool weekend too, alright? You want to know what I did this weekend? I mean, what I did this weekend besides watch random Olympic events (Canoe Slalom anyone?) and feebly “work out” to stave off the overwhelming sense of my own physical inadequacy in comparison to these athletes?

Well, I spent nearly five hours of my weekend sitting quietly in a dark room while a large, passionate and frighteningly articulate man berated, seduced, interrogated and confided in me. No, it wasn’t date night. I was watching two interrelated monologues by Mike Daisey: The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs and The Orient Express (Or, The Value of Failure), which wasperformed at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in a special workshop presentation.

OH MY GOSH, huge surprise! I totally lured you in with that intro, right? You thought I was starting a new gossip and nightlife column on the Woolly Mammoth Blog. Instead, I’m going to perform my own monologue (see what I did there) about monologues. A meta-monologue. I know; it’s a huge disappointment to all of us.

Now, I know I wasn’t the only one sitting in the audience of The Orient Express who’d just been to The Agony and the Ecstacy, and, to further complicate this Venn Diagram, I imagine that of the segment of the audience who were there seeing both monologues nearly back to back, I wasn’t the only one who’d seen some of Mr. Daisey’s other work, like How Theatre Failed America or The Last Cargo Cult. And of that minority, maybe even a few had been to Woolly Mammoth in previous seasons to see Josh Lefkowitz’s monologues at Woolly. So, with all this said, I may be making an unfair assumption, but I believe I was one of the few, if not the only, person who was there not because of the controversy and press surrounding Mike Daisey, or because of the low price (free) of the tickets, but because I’m a real fan of monologues as a theatrical genre. I mean the real introspective, storytelling, “non-fiction” kind of monologue written and performed by artists like Mike Daisey and Spalding Gray and Eric Bogosian. They get me going, get my brain working, my heart thumping, my juices flowing.

Now, to be honest, I’m the kind of person who gets excited by a great New Yorker article or by someone reading out loud to me, so if you’re thinking, “Uh, the The New Yorker?  Reading out loud? So Lame,” then you might want to leave. But, as a consolation prize, here’s a great YouTube video. Really though, I think the comparison between a well written monologue and a well written New Yorker article is apt. There’s a certain way in which both are constructed, esoteric observations, descriptive metaphors, digressive anecdotes, and cold information jutting off like ribs from a central narrative spine made up of the author’s personal experiences on a trip to China or following a celebrity or researching Shakespeare or investigating the spread of Dengue fever. In some sense, it’s an ethnographical approach to storytelling; by inserting themselves into the narrative and subject matter, the author’s cultural biases and personal proclivities are made evident, making space in the narrative for matters of subjectivity and cultural relativism. But what’s so beautiful about the monologue is that, unlike just about any other narrative form, is that everything – its creation, presentation, and reception – happens at the same time, in front of the audience, in the same room, united within the single figure of the monologist.

The first monologist I saw perform was the afore-mentioned Josh Lefkowitz, when he performed as part of the 2006 Washington, DC Fringe Festival. I was a young and impressionable 16, an aspiring and apparently terrible actor just introduced to Stanislavski, The Actor Prepares, objectives, beats, spines and super-spines. I was filled with theatrical jargon and misconceptions about what constituted “real” theatre. But, when Josh walked on stage, sat behind the table that was the only set piece in the tiny room, and began talking to us, the audience, without pretense, without character, without objective, I was blown away.  I was blown away by the form’s immediacy, it simplicity, its intimacy. That someone would sit there and with the self-bearing honesty of a confessional, talk about their life, their passions, their family. In the monologue, Josh mentioned a couple other monologists, but in particular he talked about Spalding Gray. When I got home, I sat down in front of YouTube and watched the entire film version of Gray’s Swimming to Cambodia. You can too, if you like. Then, I bought up book versions of all his monologues. I even read his collected journals (really interesting by the way). I was, and still am, fascinated by the connection that Gray forms with his audience. I could feel it even through the computer screen. I felt like I knew this man, and that he was speaking directly to me. And in some sense, he was. Gray never wrote down his monologues, rather creating rough outlines in journals and on legal pads, from which he would perform the monologue in real time. In that way, the monologue could be different every time. Gray would perform a monologue over and over again, and based on the audience’s response and his own perception of how it went, would add or subtract text, move passages and words, try a new inflection or add a pause. Through that process he would crystalize and refine the shape and content of his monologues, all based upon his relationship and his perceived relationship with the audiences he had in front of him.

And that’s exactly what was so fascinating about watching Mike Daisey perform The Orient Express, a brand new piece and is still finding its exact form. In The Agony and the Ecstasy it is clear that Daisey, over the course of much iteration, has found exactly the right metaphors, the exact words, perfected when to quip and when to shout, when to draw the audience in and when to excoriate them. But, with The Orient Express, he’s still in the process of distillation, and watching him search for exactly the right way to say something to make it clear to us, was evidence of just how much his monologues are based upon that basic interaction between performer and audience. If he sensed we hadn’t understood something, and who knows exactly how one feels that, he’d try to refine whatever image he’d just presented us with to make it clearer. Often, he’d make several passes over the same point, approaching from different angles, burrowing into its marrow, ear cocked to hear just how we, the audience, reacted to each pass.  And midway through the play, as I sat in the dark way up in the second to last row of the balcony watching this process, I realized that my laughter, my shifting in my seat, my nodding, my gaze may affect some small part of The Orient Express, and that was truly exciting.

~ Sam Lahne, Literary Assistant

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Filed under Artistic, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs

Felipe Cabezas on Meaning & Theater that Matters

“Your life is meaningless, my life is meaningless, and the only thing that gives any meaning, that brings any hope to this life, is my unshakeable belief that God will come again in glory to replace this disgusting life with something new, and pure, and meaningful.” – Will

To me, the overarching theme of A Bright New Boise is the search for meaning in one’s life—validating that one’s thoughts and actions contribute to a greater good. As the play’s five characters pursue five distinct paths to meaning, we inherently identify with that universal quest—even if our definition does not include the divine annihilation of the world.

This theme, and Will’s journey, resonates particularly closely to me: my father entered the Catholic seminary because he wanted to help people improve their lives. The best way to do this, he thought, would be to guide them spiritually, yet he quickly realized his vocation did not rest in the priesthood. He eventually became a lawyer and spent decades working for the World Bank and International Finance Corporation, where he aimed to improve communities’ quality of life through the organizations’ development projects.

I followed in my father’s footsteps by working at Ashoka and GlobalGiving, yet I also find myself on another career track: acting. When one works in the international development sector, it is relatively easy to answer “What am I doing for the greater good?” In the performing arts sector, it becomes trickier.

Howard Shalwitz, Artistic Director of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, recently shared his struggle with this very question: “As someone who came from a family of doctors, started out pre-med in college, detoured to philosophy, then teaching and finally to theater—not only did my career choices slide steadily downhill from my mother’s perspective, but I was left with a moral conundrum: does my chosen profession, theater, make a valuable contribution to the world when compared with the other professions I left behind?” He then listed seven reasons why theater matters:

1)     Theater does no harm.

2)     Theater is a sophisticated expression of a basic human need—one might call it an instinct—to mimic, to project stories onto ourselves and others, and to create meaning through narrative and metaphor.

3)     Theater brings people together.

4)     Theater models for us a kind of public discourse that lies at the heart of democratic life and builds our skills for listening to different sides of a conversation or argument and empathizing with the struggles of our fellow human beings whatever their views may be.

5)     The making of theater and attending of theater contribute to education and literacy.

6)     Theater as an industry contributes to our economy and plays a special role in the revitalization of neglected neighborhoods.

7)     Theater influences the way we think and feel about our own lives and encourages us to take a hard look at ourselves, our values and our behavior.

The fourth and seventh points underscore why I value theater and believe it to be a critical component of society, just as valuable as architecture, medicine, or the law. The plays that excite me most are, yes, ones that entertain but that also challenge the audience’s beliefs. Core beliefs –those that fundamentally shape people’s identities—share universal emotions and interpersonal relationships. Where political discourse constructs compromises through an intellectual understanding of separate parties’ positions, theater encourages sympathy through emotional connectedness. In this way, wouldn’t theater facilitate political discourse? As JR, a French street artist, said: “In some way, art can change the world. I mean, art is not supposed to change the world—to change practical things—but to change the perceptions. Art can change the way we see the world . . . Actually, the fact that art cannot change things makes it a neutral place for exchanges and discussions and then enables it to change the world” (21:39).

A Bright New Boise is one of those tremendous plays that entertains and challenges. Regardless of religion, you will laugh . . . a lot. Yet if you cast a sideward glance at fundamentalist Christians, you will second-guess whether to think of them as Will says as “bigots, fanatics, hicks and idiots and to mock and to insult their beliefs.” In fact, leaving the theater, you may sympathize with Will and want to explore why exactly people cling tightly to their religious beliefs. In a society in which people pray for the Rapture, atheism is growing, and politicians tout Islam as a trait of enemy countries, isn’t this important?

~ Felipe Cabezas, “Leroy” in A Bright New Boise

 

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