Theatre In A Box

jp-one-popupAs someone who (happily) tends to experience visits to the theatre with anything between 30 and 140 others in tow, the subject of today’s post has a certain appeal. Currently in-situ in Times Square, New York, the Theatre For One is open for business. Brainchild of set designer Christine Jones, Theatre For One is a mobile space, big enough for just one performer and one audience member. The website says:

Theatre for One commissions new work created specifically for this venue’s one-to-one relationship. Embracing serendipity and spontaneity, Theatre for One is presented in public spaces in which audience members are invited to engage in an intimate theatrical exchange and enter the theatre space not knowing what to expect. Actor and audience member encounter each other as strangers in this suspended space and through the course of the performance allow the divisions and distinctions that separate us to dissolve.

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Now all of that appears a little pretentious, but a couple of articles and reviews, one from The New York Times and another from Exeunt, do make Theatre For One sound like something worth experiencing. In a programme for NPR, Neva Grant explores the growing trend for Intimate Theatre around the world:

I’ll leave you to make up your own mind about some of that. The taxi ride in Melbourne appeals though, as does the idea of a performance that lasts just 3 minutes.

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Literary Redundancy – Not A Chance

athol-fugard-2012I came across a programme this week on NPR, which celebrates one of my favourite playwrights Athol Fugard. At the age 82, the legendary South African is still actively writing and directing new plays.  Born in 1932, he grew up under white rule and for decades, Fugard worked tirelessly, both in South Africa and in exile, to illuminate the injustices of apartheid in his plays. Following the elections in 1994, which saw Nelson Mandela becoming president, Fugard says:

I sincerely believed that I was going to be South Africa’s first literary redundancy, but as it is, South Africa caught me by surprise again and just said, ‘No, you’ve got to keep writing, man. There are still stories to tell.’ And, possibly, at this moment in our history, the stories that need telling are more urgent than any of the stories that needed telling during the apartheid years.”

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Classed as one of the most important playwrights of the 20th Century, he has been prolific in his output and I have written about him here before in the post Mandela, Apartheid And The Theatre Of The Fight. The reason for the NPR broadcast (embedded below) is the off Broadway opening of his new play The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek which is, in part, based on the story of farm labourer Nukain Mabuza, who had spent about 15 years, in the late 1960s and ’70s, painting vivid, highly patterned designs on the boulders and stones in arid terrain of the eastern South Africa.

In the video, Fugard talks about his inspirations for the play that has received decent reviews, with Variety saying that it is thoughtful and poignant and that it places the powerful symbol of man’s dignity in a modern day context. There is also an excellent article in The New York Times by Roslyn Sulcas, Athol Fugard Tells of a Great Outsider Artist.

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Fugard’s work fascinates me because he manages to tell universal tales through an African context.  His work is always being staged and as I write, there are productions of My Children! My Africa on in London and Los Angeles,  People are Living There is being performed on his own turf in South Africa and in the US, as well as The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek, there is a production of The Island on in Virginia. He writes beautifully, more often than not for small casts, and if you don’t know his work, I highly recommend at least reading some and definitely seeing some when you get the opportunity.

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The meaning of life is that it stops

META-articleLargeMany writers find their work adapted for the stage, but perhaps one of the most recreated and reimagined is Franz Kafka. Similarly, there are few writers who have had their name turned into an adjective and, with the coining of kafkaesque, he is one of them. Born in the Czech Republic, but writing in german, Kafka is arguably one of the most intriguing and revered writers of the 20th Century.

Kafka on line, a one stop shop for all things Kafka, says the writer

…….is renowned for his visionary and profoundly enigmatic stories that often present a grotesque vision of the world in which individuals burdened with guilt, isolation, and anxiety make a futile search for personal salvation.

I think it is these universal themes that draw theatre makers and audiences alike. Metamorphosis, especially, has been adapted for the stage many times, perhaps most famously by Steven Berkoff, who also staged The Trial  and his lesser known work, The Penal Colony.

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Currently there is a series of programmes on BBC radio, In the Shadow of Kafkawhich explore his life, works and on-going influence. Amongst these is an adaptation of The Trial, by playwright Mark Ravenhill, called The Process (also embedded below) and well worth a listen.

Along with Gregor Samsa from The Metamorphosis, Josef K from The Trial is probably one of the most famous literary (and theatrical) characters of the last century, and both warrant their own programmes as part of the BBC series. The former is also being read by none other than Benedict Cumberbatch over 4 episodes.

The most stunning adaptation of Metamorphosis I have had the pleasure of seeing is by VesturPort Theatre Company from Iceland, performed here in Hong Kong a couple of years ago and which has toured world-wide to critical acclaim. A fabulous piece of physical theatre and stunningly designed.

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For me as a theatre maker, Kafka require risks to be taken both in staging and in interpretation and VesturPort do just this.

Finally, I should say that the title of this post is a quote from the man himself rather than a Sunday afternoon existential reflection of my own.

The Korean Way

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Courtesy of my friend Paul Mór who teaches at Branksome Hall School in Jeju, South Korea,  is my second quick share for today. Theatre in Korea is a publication from the Korean Arts Management Service which explores recent theatre history as well as contemporary playwrights and directors from the country. An unusual find in English, it is a great resource for any world theatre student. Korea has a rich performance history and has really embraced, integrated, made its own and adapted western theatre traditions to create a very distinct theatre landscape. Click the link above for a PDF download of Theatre in Korea. Enjoy.

Not In Polite Company

There is an old maxim that says you should never discuss religion or politics in polite company. Well today I am going to do both, by sharing a couple of articles that have caught my left-leaning, atheist attention.

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The Vote at The Donmar Warehouse

Firstly politics. Despite the best efforts of the out-going right-wing government in the UK to decimate all things culture by way of spending cuts in the name of austerity, whilst at the same time ringing the death knell of arts education in schools, theatre, by all accounts, would seem to be thriving. As a general election looms in two days time, British theatre is playing its part in the national political debate in a significant way. Written by Andrew Dickson for The GuardianJudi Dench and the anarchists: why British theatre has gone election mad explores the various plays that are placing the politicians under the spotlight and asking difficult questions. It comes as no surprise really given that theatre, by its nature, has a leaning towards the political left. In the article, Dickson talks to David Hare, the grand old statesman of political playwriting, who has spent much of his career exposing the dark underbelly of ‘the establishment’ in his work. Although focussed on Britain, Dickson’s piece is well worth a read, as he links back to the origins of western theatre in the civic ceremonies of 5th Century Athens.

Our theatre has always been a talking shop – and talking is still how we do our politics, especially during election season.

And now religion. Mark Lawson, also writing for The Guardian, has published an article, Dahling, you were divine: religion on the stage which explores why God remains a draw to theatre-goers. Obviously, in a country which still has an established Church, it is not entirely surprising that such representation happens. However, when that religion is in decline, the debate becomes very interesting.

Indira Varma and Ralph Fiennes in George Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman

Indira Varma and Ralph Fiennes in George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman

Again I recommend a read of Lawson’s article. He dutifully traces the lineage of religious drama in Britain back to the incorporation of performance into worship which was first recorded at the time when Christianity was only 500 or so years old. Lawson goes on to document how religion was manifest on the english speaking stage in the 20th century, and given the inherent link between church and state (religion and politics, if you will) it is hardly surprising that David Hare also makes an appearance in this article with his seminal work, Racing Demon, which examined religious faith from a sceptical perspective.

I have to say though, when a society examines itself this acutely through its artistic culture, it often means there is something rotten in the state of Denmark.

The Road To Nowhere?

Article Lead - narrow67219148141p4kimage.related.articleLeadNarrow.353x0.140qmk.png1426172861354.jpg-300x0Finally for today, a play on tour with a difference. Performances of Origin-Transit-Destination (O-T-Dhas literally taken to the streets of Sydney. Created by Australian Performance Exchange (APE) O-T-D takes its audiences, by bus, on a tour around the city and examines the issues of asylum seekers and refugees arriving in Australia. Variously called an immersive, verbatim or documentary piece (depending on what you read), it has been in development for a number of years and draws upon a wide range of interviews. The process of O-T-D’s creation is fascinating and you can see and read about it here.

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Immigration, asylum and the plight of refugees are hot political issues in Australia, especially under the current right-wing government, which has taken a particularly hard-line in determining who can enter the country. O-T-D even has as one of its stops, the infamous Villawood Immigration Detention Centre which has become a symbol for the harsh, and some say inhuman, treatment meted out to those seeking asylum in the country. One theatre reviewer, Den Doherty for Guardian Australia, had this to say about that particular element of the performance:

At the gates of [the] detention centre, a guard approaches the group and tells them they are not allowed to film or take pictures. He says the asylum seekers held inside “have it better than people outside, they don’t pay tax”. A few take umbrage, and debate his position. He is not part of the performance, but it will be a key memory for some of the audience.

Doherty’s full review, Strangers on a bus: Sydney show gives a seat and voice to asylum seekersmakes for interesting reading, as does Michael Koziol’s piece for the Sydney Morning Herald, Origin-Transit-Destination puts Sydney in the shoes of asylum seekers.

Article Lead - wide67219148141p3timage.related.articleLeadwide.729x410.140qmk.png1426172861354.jpg-620x349On board the buses, which transport the audience around Sydney, refugees share their own stories of persecution, escape, stolen documents and people smugglers.  Of the seven performers (who have all fled either Afghanistan, Iraq or Iran) only two have acting training.

Origin-Transit-Destination is clearly a very sobering evening of theatre.

In Its Blood and Bones

Graeae Theatre Company. "Reasons To Be Cheerful"For me, the power of theatre as a living art form is its ability to hold a mirror up to society, thereby forcing us to question and re-examine the world in which we live – by extension, therefore, theatre is politics. Today I found myself teaching the fundamentals of Brechtian Epic theory (as I do once or twice a year) and I am always energised by the potential and capacity theatre has to bring about change. Theatre is a hugely powerful medium with the ability to make people dig deep and really confront the issues of the moment. Here in Hong Kong during the Occupy protests , it was only a matter of weeks before the first Cantonese language performances hit the stage, questioning the violent and heavy handed reaction of the authorities to what was an essentially peaceful movement.

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However, my reason for this post is to share a truly excellent article written by Charlotte Higgins for The Guardian, Theatre: the nation’s debating chamber which explores what she calls a golden moment for political theatre in the UK. However, it does more than that – it explores its heritage as far back as Shakespeare in the UK and then even further to the birth of western theatre in ancient Greece.

Theatre is politics, in its blood and bones

I urge you to read it. It may be largely UK-centric, but I know it will have resonances for any theatre maker, anywhere.

The Last Great Titan

ARTHUR MILLEROne of my absolute favourite playwrights is Arthur Miller. I think I have might have seen more productions of his plays than I have any other single writer – including Shakespeare. He created fully conceived, living, flawed characters who inhabit the stage. A Pulitzer Prize winner for perhaps his most famous work Death of a Salesman, he is amongst the most celebrated playwrights of the twentieth century.

To quote the National Endowment for the Humanities,

For nearly six decades, Miller [created] characters that wrestled with power conflicts, personal and social responsibility, the repercussions of past actions, and the twin poles of guilt and hope. In his writing and in his role in public life, Miller [articulated] his profound political and moral convictions. He once said he thought theater could “change the world.”

It has been said that together with A View from the Bridge and Death of a Salesman, All My Sons established Miller as Ibsen’s dramatic heir.  This obituary from the BBC following his death in 2005, goes as far as saying that as a tragedian, his plays will stand alongside the masterpieces of not only Ibsen, but Shakespeare and Sophocles too.

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So why am a drawn to writing about him today? Well, as A View From the Bridge (above) transfers into the West End in London (also being broadcast to cinemas worldwide later in the month) and a new production of Death of a Salesman  to be staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company later in the year, Miller’s plays continue to demonstrate their enduring popularity – for audiences, actors and directors alike.

f2d11603538bbe93d0be50675361f8572015 marks the ten years since his death as well as the centenary of his birth, hence the new productions  – and this is in the UK alone. There have also a been a number of articles published in the last few weeks. From its archive, dating back to 1998, The Guardian shares an interview with Miller, View from the Barricades. It is a wide-ranging piece and makes a really interesting read. The Telegraph in the UK published another, Arthur Miller in his own words: from McCarthyism to Marilyn Monroe which brings together a series of quotations from the man across his career and life.  However, the best and most interesting I have read so far (also from The Guardian) is The economics of Arthur Miller: salesmen, dockers and gilded preachers. It takes a long view of Miller’s plays and explores the role of money as part of the American Dream so vividly captured and painfully explored in much of his great work.

For me though, his appeal goes beyond his genius as a playwright. He was a vocal advocate for human rights and equality and was never afraid to speak out. He challenged the status quo and the establishment almost to the day he died. One of his last public speaking events was to give the Jefferson Lecture in 2001, entitled On Politics and the Art of Acting, bringing together his two great passions.

To end, an excerpt from an interview with Charlie Rose, in which Miller was asked the question, what distinguishes a great playwright?

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All Mouth

As the Hong Kong International Arts Festival kicks off this week with a trilogy of Samuel Beckett plays in the shape of Not I, Footfalls and Rockaby I thought I would share an interview with celebrated British actress Juliet Stevenson about her current role of Winnie in one of Beckett’s more accessible plays, Happy Days. Stevenson was interviewed by Heather Neill for Theatre Voice in January this year.

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This particular show is a revival of a critically acclaimed production for Stevenson, as these reviews are testament to in The Telegraph and The Guardian. She has spoken extensively about playing Winnie and getting to grips with Beckett, one of them being an interview with Paul Taylor in The Independent.  The productions of Happy days and Not I/Footfalls/Rockaby have brought about a rash of writing in the UK with regard to Becket and his work. One of them, Up to their necks: The singular joys of appearing in Samuel Beckettwritten by Holly Williams for The Independent is great read, as is What lies beneath Samuel Beckett’s half-buried woman in Happy Days written by Beckett’s biographer, James Knowlson for The Guardian. Natalie Abrahami, director of Happy Days, spoke in January to the BBC Radio 4 programme Start The Week. This is the excerpt from that programme that carries her interview as part of a panel discussion about memory:

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The production of Not I/Footfalls/Rockaby which we will have the joy of seeing here this week, is the original London production starring Lisa Dwan, on its way from playing internationally in New York and Perth.

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Again, the reviews have been universally superb; The New York Times, The Telegraph, The Guardian and The Independent all throw superlatives at the production and Lisa Dwan in particular. Dwan wrote a piece published in The Guardian Beckett’s Not I: how I became the ultimate motormouth in which, not surprisingly, she talks about playing ‘the mouth’. You can see an excerpt of her in action here

One review spoke of the piece as being a ….deeply sobering and equally intoxicating experience…[and a] harrowing and beautiful production.  I can’t wait.

Is The Playwright Dead?

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Vanessa Redgrave

Today, I have stumbled across an astonishingly fascinating series of video recordings and I am compelled to share them straight away. They come from Humanitas, a series of Visiting Professorships at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge which brings together leading practitioners and scholars to explore major themes in the arts, social sciences and humanities. In one of the strands, Drama Studies, the visiting professors so far have been actor Vanessa Redgrave, director Greg Doran, playwright Athol Fugard and will be joined this year by another playwright, David Edgar. All of them are giants in their respective fields. Fugard speaks in three videos; firstly about the defining moments in his life and work, then about staging his plays and finally about his playwrighting process. In his first video Doran gives a practical masterclass looking at what clues Shakespeare puts into the verse for the actor and in the second, another, masterclass, this time on how Shakespeare spins rhetoric for the actor. However, my favorite, are the series given by Redgrave, doyen of the theatre on both sides of the Atlantic as well as prominent social activist. Click on the image below to take you to the first of a series of four lectures and panel discussions, entitled, not surprisingly, Theatre and Politics.

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The 2015 series, with David Edgar, promises to be equally interesting and provocative as he explores contemporary playwrighting from a number of perspectives. In an article in The Guardian born out of his appointment as Humanitas Visiting Professor, entitled Is the playwright dead?, he is quoted talking about the anti-writer trend that he considers to be prevalent in current collaborative theatre making. This notion will form the basis for his first lecture and the article itself, my next blog post.