Thoughtful and candid discussion and commentary on the performing arts by "those who do." This is a forum meant to reflect what's currently on the minds of working actors, directors, designers, producers and writers.
Last Saturday I saw what may be the 6th or 7th production of Stephen Sondheim’s INTO THE WOODS I’ve seen, including various college and highschool productions over the years and Rob Marshall’s gorgeous filmed version, now in theatres. This Fiasco Theater production was presented by Roundabout in their intimate Laura Pels Theatre. Fiasco seems to be a group of recent graduates of Brown University’s MFA Program. And their approach to this piece was bare bones, back to basics, emphasis on audience imagination over costly spectacle.
First of all, I LOVED this production. And at first, I wasn’t sure I would at all because the instrumentation used by Fiasco is so very stripped down that I often found myself missing Sondheim’s full voicing of certain complex harmonies. Especially when songs were accompanied only on guitar, I found myself straining to imagine the full chords underneath. However, within minutes, I forgot all of that and found myself drawn in – quite possibly more deeply than ever before – into the humanity of the show.
But here’s what surprised me and what I’m stuck pondering.
Would you like to contemplate time, continuity, community, creativity, and spirituality while seeing beautiful images of an architectural marvel? If yes, have I got a film for you: Sagrada: The Mystery of Creation, directed by Stefan Haupt.
For reasons that remain a mystery to me but which I sort of expect may reveal themselves in time, we hear a lot about story and storytelling these days. It's not uncommon to hear writers of all forms talk about the fundamental human hunger for good storytelling. And thanks in large part to the efforts of The Moth and others like it, storytelling, as an art form is enjoying a renaissance.
Don't get me wrong. I love a good storytelling. And I love the Moth, whose Artistic Director Catherine Burns, is an old pal of mine. But as much as I may love good story, I love great writing more. And that's what I fear gets too little attention in a world where "content is king."
In my younger and more vulnerable years I spent a lot of time with my friend, Carol, smoking and drinking in various venues in Brooklyn. We lingered long and tipped well, so they were always glad to see us (“Norm!”).
Carol was then in the midst of making her first documentary, the superb Camp Victory: Afghanistan. It took her all around the world, particularly to Kabul and it’s environs. She met many interesting people there - renegades and ex-pats and idealists - and they would occasionally come through New York and drink and smoke with us.
One of these people was a woman who ran a children’s hospital in Kabul. Like many interesting people, she asked more questions than she ever answered. Specifically, she asked me about playwriting.
Sometimes I get sad and I don’t know why. This happens to everyone, of course, and can be caused by anything from hormones to weather. The idea that sadness is a problem – that you are supposed to be happy every minute of the day and if you aren’t there is something wrong with you – is a particularly American mania, and a destructive one at that. I try to ignore it.
Still, when sadness persists, and no cause from my life or psyche rise to the surface, I start to wonder.
Last night we attended another tour de force performance given by the New York Philharmonic. Featured artists included violinist Joshua Bell, who dug into the Glazunov violin concerto like a teenager behind the wheel of his first car. It was thrilling to hear and watch. And at the podium was assistant conductor Case Scaglioni, age 31, who conducted two of the three pieces on the program from memory with great artistry and depth. There was real joy in watching him coax various nuances out of Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony. There were shouts of "Bravo" from all corners of Avery Fischer Hall. That Prokofiev symphony has some magnificent textures and really difficult passages for the entire orchestra. I, for one, was so thrilled with their skill and enthusiasm that I lept to my feet to initiate a well-deserved standing ovation.
I was reminded of similarly thriling performances given nearly 20 years ago by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, then and now considered to be the superior of the two orchestras. Here's the thing. It's true that the musicians in Boston were then and are now among the best in the country. And, sure, the New York Philarmonic has improved over the years so that the gap between the two in terms of skill is now not what it once was. But you want to know what the key difference between these two orchestras is?
Just saw Jesse Moss' arresting documentary, The Overnighters in a screening room the size of my livingroom at IFC Center on Sixth Avenue. If there's a movie that captures this moment in American history -- the tearing apart at the seams of our social fabric -- it is The Overnighters. Through the microcosm of the city of Williston, North Dakota, which is undergoing a kind of Frack Rush the likes of which this country hasn't seen since the days of the California Gold Rush the film can be seen as a portrait of America. In case you hadn't heard: The Dakotas are booming thanks to fracking and one of the results is an influx of men seeking work in the oil fields.
I'm absolutely over-the-moon with pride and joy at the recent announcement that my dear friend, Laura Callanan, has been appointed Senior Deputy Chair of the National Endowment for the Arts. Anyone who follows me on social media knows what an admirer I am of Laura's unique perspective on the role aritsts play in shaping our world. What better time than now to re-share one of my favorite videos of a talk Laura gave entitled, The Surprise Social Entrepreneur. I still find this talk simply astonishing. I'm sure you'll agree.
Is it just me? When a friend tells me I'm onto something, I tend to push harder and faster on a given writing project. Or if I have a new play read aloud to a small audience of colleagues and the vibe in the room is positive, I leave renewed and chomping at the bit to get right back to it.
The other day I happened to tell my therapist about something i was working on and she encouraged me to go for it, even suggesting that she'd be excited to read what I produced.
When Roland Tec asked if I’d be interested in spending a weekend in CT with him and John Yearley, writing, I was onboard. I liked the idea from the start, but I also wasn’t sure what I’d work on. Though Roland had labeled it, “writing weekend” I was pretty sure he wouldn’t mind if I worked on my documentary, A Life’s Work. But something in me said, “Write.”
I was sitting at a diner in Westport, CT with Extra Criticum's estimable founder, Roland Tec. He was describing how, when he writes, he can get to feeling isolated. But if he can just see other people, even through a window, down several stories, he's fine.
I have been thinking a lot about community lately. I've been thinking that much of what ails me in my creative life stems from a lack of community. We created our own little community last weekend, Roland, David Licata, and I. We spent a writing weekend up at Roland's beautiful childhood home.
Just had a wonderfully productive writing weekend with two pals and EC contributors, John Yearley and David Licata. And this never would have happened were it not for John asking if it might be possible. I'm so glad he did. It's always the same with such things, isn't it? It's somehow not until you're in it, in the thick of it, that you remember just how important it is to your work.
Within minutes of our arriving at the house, I found myself a nice perch by the pool where I could sit in the warm late summer air and write a little, think a little, read a little, doze a little, rinse and repeat.
What I noticed immediately was surprising to me though it shouldn't have been.
Speaking of ideas, here’s a good one: write emails to people (friends, people you’ve fallen out of touch with, friends of friends, complete strangers, anyone, really) who work in fields you're interested in pursuing and ask them for professional advice.