Saturday, November 21, 2015

Anton in Show Business: Opens December 4

Is it a comedy about a tragedy? A tragedy about a comedy? A sophisticated backstage satirical farce about the madness of 21st century American theatre, with lots of costume changes? 

 It’s Anton in Show Business, performed at Gist Hall Theatre on Friday and Saturday December 4 and 5, Thurs. through Sat. Dec. 10-12 at 7:30 p.m., with a Sunday Dec. 13 matinee at 2 p.m. Tickets are $10 general/$8 students and seniors, with a limited number of free tickets for HSU students at each performance, from the HSU Ticket Office (826-3928) or at the door. Produced by HSU Department of Theatre, Film & Dance.
   Katie Taylor as Holly, Samantha Kolby as Casey.  Not pictured: Erin Henry as

Three actresses are performing a play about three actresses navigating through the gentle nightmare of preparing a low budget production of Anton Chekhov’s The Three Sisters in Texas.

 Passionate but plain Casey (played by Samantha Kolby), innocent young Lisabette (Erin Henry) and Holly from Hollywood (Katie Taylor) must deal with the conflicting agendas of producers, directors, critic, underwriter--and each other.
    Michelle Purnell in one of her roles, as stage manager T-Anne

 An all-female cast plays characters of both genders.
                      Fledgling drama critic Joby (Makenna Baker) interacts
                      with actors Holly (Katie Taylor) and Casey (Samantha Kolby)
                      as stage manager T-Anne (Michelle Purnell) looks on.

Since this is a play about a play, the actors also banter with a critic in the audience.
   Costume Designer Lynnie Horrigan suits up actor Camille Borrowdale

“We also have a ‘glam squad’ of five additional females who handle the wardrobe, scenic, makeup and all the changes that happen during the show, most of them in full view of the audience,” said director Rae Robison. “If you’ve ever been to a live show and wondered ‘how did they do that?’ you may have your questions answered as we show you some of our methods.”
“Even with all these weighty topics, it’s still at heart a funny, funny show,” Robison said.  “Audiences will definitely see something that they’ve never seen before in Humboldt, or maybe even anywhere else.”

Anton in Show Business: Cast & Production

Casey: Samantha Kolby
Lisabette: Erin Henry
Holly: Katie Taylor
Joby: Makenna Baker
T-Anne, Andwyneth, Don Blount, Airport Announcer: Michelle Purnell
Kate, Ben, Jackey: Stephanie Lemon
 Ralph, Joe Bob, Wikewitch: Camille Borrowdale
Understudy: Constance Hill
Understudy: Sammi Stowe

Director: Rae Robison
Scenic Designer: Calder Johnson
Costume Designer: Lynnie Horrigan
Lighting Designer: Jack Anderson
Sound Designer: Cory Stewart
Production Manager: Derek Lane
Stage Manager: Margaret Champoux
Assistant Director: Teresa Rosata
Assistant Stage Manager: Roman Sanchez

Anton in Show Business: The Director

Director Rae Robison talks about the play, the HSU production and what audiences can expect to see.

"I've loved this script by Jane Martin (who may or may not be Jon Jory) since I designed the show back in 2004 or so. At the time, I was just beginning to think about the implications of females in this industry, their power position or lack thereof and my place as an actor, designer and director involved in theatre. The past few years have seen a resurgence in the issue of the disparity between what female actors earn versus their male counterparts, why there are so few female directors and why there are so few female playwrights produced today.”

 Robison referenced recent comments by Jennifer Lawrence and Emma Watson (among other women quoted in a Guardian article) on sexism in motion pictures. “It is devastating that a play commenting on these issues that was written in 2001 is so relevant today. That's why we're doing it."

"Early in the play Kate, one of the characters, explains why the actors are playing both genders in this production. Holly, our television diva, gives the "dirt" on the beauty price of women in Hollywood. Late in the play, the idea of theatre as a self-reverential experience is discussed. I think there's a lot of thought provoking, hopefully discussion- inducing topics that Jane Martin illustrates in Anton in Show Business. "What is the role of theatre today?" This show may start the discussion."

  “I feel fortunate to have this show in our season and to work with seven wonderful undergraduate actresses, a talented production team and terrific designers including scenic designer Calder Johnson and costume designer Lynnie Horrigan, who were both former students of mine and now working professionals.

I've had a few years to think about how I wanted to stage this and had some definite visual ideas rattling around, but the team helped develop my earliest thoughts into an unusual visual aesthetic that should give audience members a unique view into the machinery of our theatre world. I've definitely not seen anything staged this way and am excited to see how it plays.

 We have a core group of seven female actors who play over a dozen characters, both male and female. We also have a "glam squad" of five additional females who handle the wardrobe, scenic, makeup and all the changes that happen during the show - most of them in full view of the audience. If you've ever been to a live show and wondered "how did they do that?" you may have your questions answered as we show you some of our methods. This show is a bit like a magician letting you see what's in his or her pockets - we're letting you see what we do behind the curtain.

 Even with all these weighty topics, it's still at the heart a funny, funny show. Audiences will definitely see something that they've never seen before in Humboldt or maybe even anywhere else."

Anton in Show Business: The Three Sisters

Sisters Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave with their niece Jemma
Redgrave in a 1991 production of The Three Sisters
Anton in Show Business is a play about a play about three actresses cast in a provincial production of The Three Sisters by Russian playwright Anton Chekhov.

His plays, first produced in the late 19th and early 20th century, soon revolutionized not only Russian drama but theatre in England (where Bernard Shaw was one of the first to praise him), western Europe, America and now the world.

There are many references to The Three Sisters in Anton... and views on how Chekhov is performed today.  The following elements of Chekhov’s play suggests some themes of idealism, disappointment and courage that are echoed to some extent in Anton in Show Business.

By 1900, playwright Anton Chekhov had two hits—The Seagull and Uncle Vanya—produced by the Moscow Art Theatre, directed by Konstantin Stanislavsky. The theatre wanted a new Chekhov play for their next season, and Chekhov obliged with The Three Sisters, the first play he wrote expressly for the Moscow Art Theatre.

 Chekhov did something different in this play—he showed how his main characters changed over time, especially as their lives were shaped by their surroundings and other characters.

 The three sisters—Olga, Masha and Irina—are the young adult daughters of a recently deceased army general. They remember their earlier years in the great city of Moscow as glittering and free, but they are now living in a provincial town where their father had been posted. Their dreams of getting back to Moscow are the focus of their yearnings for a better, larger life.

 The play begins with their restlessness and idealistic hopes, and that of their younger brother Andrei. But the rest of the play shows an encroaching banality taking over their lives, as they get older and the dreams fade from possibility.

 Irina, the youngest sister, finally seeks to break away from an increasingly stifled life, although at the cost of an unsatisfying marriage. But even that liberation is thwarted.  Without great or terrible events, their lives have escaped them.

 Throughout the play, several characters—but especially the three sisters—exhibit vitality and courage even as their lives diminish without their dreams fulfilled. In some ways the sisters don't fully understand the forces that have shaped their lives.

The play ends with music and resolution from the three sisters: "We must go on." "There is work to be done...I shall devote my whole life where it's needed." "Listen to the music...Oh, my dear sisters, life is not over for us yet.  Let us live."

Within a realistic framework, The Three Sisters expresses aspects of tragedy and of comedy, even clownish physical comedy.  (But then, so do Shakespeare's tragedies.)  Its ultimate nature is elusive.  Productions often treat it as a kind of tragedy, and the final affirmations as ironic.  Chekhov himself insisted it's a comedy.

Anton in Show Business is the second recently produced play locally to refer extensively to Chekhov and themes of his plays, the other being Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike by Christopher Durang, at Redwood Curtain last year.  But there hasn't been a local production of an actual Chekhov play in several decades. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival however has produced several.

Anton in Show Business: Meta Theatre

 “Meta Theatre” (or "metatheatre") is a fashionable concept without a precise definition. It’s been used for instance to describe plays in which comedy and tragedy occur in close relationship. But the Greek prefix “meta” suggests a second level above, the clearest theatrical example being the play within a play.

 Anton in Show Business is the second HSU production in a row this year to feature a prominent play within a play. Moreover, both Kiss Me, Kate and Anton in Show Business are about theatrical productions in process, exposing backstage activity as part of the onstage action.

 In Kiss Me Kate, the play within the play (Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew inside an ongoing production of that play) is designed to comically reveal the symmetry in relationships between the actors and their characters. But Anton reveals and satirizes the theatrical world in which the play within the play takes place.

 A play that comments on itself is more clearly “meta-theatrical.” Satire and parody can occur without that additional level of distance and complication, when the object of satire is business culture (How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying) or war and other human follies (Aristophanes, Stanley Kubrick) as well as particular institutions (as in Paddy Chayefsky’s films Hospital and Network.)

But when the target of satire is theatrical convention or institutions including theatre, that additional level of distance and complication in meta theatre may appear. In entertainment terms, it can be effective through the boldness and legitimacy of its critique, the language or action by which the critique is made, or in critiquing itself by answering a question that might occur to audience members at the time it occurs to them, as happens a few times in Anton (after the caricature of an activist black director, for instance.)

 Of Anton in Show Business, New York Times critic Bruce Weber observed: “The barbs are insider-specific and most are affectionately applied, and in the end the message is clear. The theatrical enterprise has been so fouled by money problems, so twisted by a culture of celebrity, so swaddled in intellectual pretension, that the simple desire to put on a show, to tell a story onstage, has been hopelessly -- almost hopelessly -- buried. What has risen in its place is a hermetic theater world that talks to itself and whose citizens are defensive and embarrassed about the fundamental joy that drew them to the stage in the first place.”

 That is, in part, to theatre without the meta.

Anton in Show Business: Why are women playing men?

 Why does this play stipulate that women perform all the parts, including the male characters?

 Joby, the critic in the play, asks the same question. Kate, the producer, answers: “Eighty percent of the roles in the American theatre are played by men, and 90% of the directors are men. The point of having a male director played by a woman is to redress the former and satirize the latter. How’s that?”

 These figures appear to be taken from the research of Karen Bovard, author of Voice, Viewwpoint, and the Adolescent Actor: a feminist ethic of directing. She adds that men’s roles outnumber women’s by 7 to 1 “in the dramatic canon.”

 Another estimate comes from dramatist and essayist Lauren Gunderson, who writes “It appears that in many major theaters across the country, men’s roles outnumber women’s by half. One out of every three roles go to women. (An informal survey of 10 theatrical seasons from across the country that I did put women in only 35% of the total roles.)”

playwright Marsha Norman
 But that 20% figure for the percentage of women’s roles is echoed in other aspects of theatre and beyond. Playwright Marsha Norman comments on this in the latest issue of The Dramatist, the magazine of the Dramatists Guild. An ongoing Guild study using three years of data from American regional theatre productions found that 22% of the plays performed were written by women.

Norman notes that in a survey of itself by National Public Radio, the percentage of women interviewed, doing the interview, or as the subject of the story was also about 20%. In art museums, 20% of the art displayed was by women, and “before the advent of blind auditions, 20% of the players [in orchestras] were women.”

 The Dramatists Guild count, Norman wrote, is “not to establish quotas, not to shame and blame those people who continue to produce only the plays of men, but to assure that the voice of women will be heard in this land.”

 Ironically perhaps, the author of Anton In Show Business—“Jane Martin”-- may not be one of them. For Jane Martin may not be a woman playwright at all.

Anton in Show Business: Who is Jane Martin?

 Nominally (that is, by name), Jane Martin is an American playwright of more than a dozen full-length plays, plus numerous shorter plays since 1982. Four of these plays have been honored by the American Theatre Critics Association (including Anton in Show Business), and one (Keely and Du) was a Pulitzer Prize finalist.

 But there are no photos of Jane Martin, no interviews, no public appearances. Jane Martin has never openly attended a rehearsal or a premiere of any of her plays. Her identity has never been revealed, even to actors in her plays. Even the “her” designation is open to question.

 The person who speaks for Martin is the director of all but one of the first productions of Martin’s plays (as well as the producer of most): Jon Jory. Jory was the legendary head of the Actors Theatre of Louisville since 1969, and began the Humana Festival of New American Plays there in 1976. It became the most powerful venue for productions of new plays in America.

 All of Jane Martin’s produced plays between 1982 and 2000 (including 10 full lengths and 6 one-acts) were first staged at the Humana Festival by Jory. In that period, Humana produced Martin more often than any other playwright.

 It was long suspected that Jory is Martin, but the premiere of Anton in Show Business at the Humana Festival in 2000—the year that Jory left Louisville for a teaching position at the University of Washington in Seattle—seemed to settle it for most observers.

 “Mr. Jory is widely thought to be Jane Martin,” wrote New York Times critic Bruce Weber in his review of that year’s festival, “or at least the chairman of a Jane Martin committee.”

 In the Winter 2014 issue of the Journal of American Drama and Theatre. Jeffrey Ullom analyzed the evidence in detail, in his article “The Playwright as Publicity: Reexamining Jane Martin and the Legacy of the Humana Festival.”

 There have been other names offered as the playwright who uses Jane Martin as a pseudonym. Ullom looks at two: playwright Beth Henley and former literary manager of the Actors Theatre Michael Bigelow Dixon. Though there are tantalizing threads of evidence for each, Ullom soon settles on Jory. (He accepts the possibility of Jory’s collaborations with others, particularly his wife, Marcia Dixcy Jory, also a playwright.)

 He notes that Jory was already a playwright, but that he stopped writing for production at about the same time as Martin began. Jory had used a pseudonym before, writing as a drama critic while acting in theatre in college, to the point of reviewing his own performances. A Louisville newspaper reporter even found that Jory’s freelance income greatly increased in the years that Martin was being widely produced, though his freelance activity didn’t.

 But among the strongest indications was this play, Anton in Show Business. In general it demonstrates a wide knowledge of American theatre that Jory possesses. A number of specific critiques made by characters in the play have also been made by Jory.

 For example, Holly describes directors such as the one she just fired: “They have these pushy little egos but hardly any usable information, which makes them very sad and time-consuming.”

 Jory, no stranger to firing directors, complained that theatre directors were inadequately prepared, and wrote an article for American Theatre magazine titled “Why Directors Can’t Direct.”

 Ullom notes that the conviction that Jory is “Martin” has strengthened since 2000, as “the location of Martin’s debuts have followed Jory around the country.”

 Ullom finds this masquerade troubling in a number of ways. As the title of his article indicates, the “mystery” of Jane Martin has been a dependable boost to publicity of Martin’s plays, suggesting more cynicism than irony.

 He also noted Jory’s role in selecting Martin’s plays out of the many vying for production in the Humana Festival, arguably the most important showcase for new plays in America. “With Jory selecting himself under the guise of a Southern female playwright, that objectivity comes into question.”

 This pseudonym also may have misrepresented the number of women playwrights the Humana Festival was actually producing, Ullom suggests. Other questions arise if a male playwright is representing himself as a female playwright, particularly as author of a play that criticizes the disproportionately low number of women actors, directors and by implication, playwrights in American theatre.

“If Jory is Jane Martin, how does this fact affect Actors Theatre of Louisville’s reputation as a home for women playwrights?” Ullom writes. “On numerous occasions, Actors Theatre employees have stressed the institution’s dedication to supporting female playwrights, adding to the theatre’s legacy. However, with the assumption that Jory is Martin, this achievement becomes tainted. For Jory and his company to have celebrated Jane Martin’s inclusion in any list of female writers is disingenuous at best and a lie at its worst.”

Sunday, October 25, 2015

KISS ME, KATE: October 2015

Is it real or is it Shakespeare—or is it both? High-spirited singing, dancing and a classic Broadway-sized orchestra take you back to a 1948 theatre stage, where couples behave badly but love conquers all in Cole Porter’s most applauded musical comedy, Kiss Me, Kate. 

Kiss Me, Kate is performed in the Van Duzer Theatre on Friday and Saturday October 16 and 17 at 7:30 p.m., and Thursday through Saturday Oct. 22-24 at 7:30 with one matinee on Sunday Oct. 25 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15, $10 seniors, students and children from the HSU Box Office (826-3928.) Kiss Me, Kate is a co-production of the HSU Music department and the HSU Theatre, Film & Dance department.  More information in the posts below and at HSU Music.

Advance Media: Mad River Union (photo & story), Humboldt State Now (photo & story), the Lumberjack (photo & story),  Times-Standard Urge (photo & calendar), North Coast Journal (calendar.)

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Kiss Me, Kate: Reviews and Final Weekend!

The Kiss Me, Kate reviews are in:

 “It takes a couple of strong actors to pull off the fireworks demanded by Kiss Me, Kate, and happily director Susan Abbey found them in Anna Duchi and Gino Bloomberg.” With a “regal bearing and rich, warm voice” Anna Duchi “is utterly convincing as a ‘40s film star...Bloomberg brings just the right mix of over-the-top cockiness and wounded vulnerability...”
 Lauraine Leblanc, Mad River Union

 “A scintillating score of marvelous, memorable music...A staggeringly lavish production...sparkling, comedic...a truly classy, classic musical comedy.”
 Beti Trauth, Eureka Times-Standard “Urge” Magazine 

 “It’s awfully fun to watch. Make sure you don’t miss it.”
 Kate Haley, North Coast Journal

 Kiss Me, Kate is on the Van Duzer Theatre stage Thurs.-Sat. at 7:30, Sunday at 2.

Monday, October 5, 2015

“It’s a big musical the way big musicals used to be,” said director Susan Abbey. “It’s not the spectacle-based musical of today—it’s driven by a great story that’s fun and funny, celebrating the magic of theatre and the power of love.”

Adding excitement for audiences is an orchestra of 20 community and HSU musicians, playing the original arrangements as they were performed on Broadway—an increasingly rare event. Though this music was meant for a full orchestra, “often it’s watered down to a combo or a few synthesizers and a drum machine,” said musical co-director Paul Cummings, who conducts this orchestra. “That’s even true for most musicals in New York today.”

The original Kiss Me, Kate opened in 1948 and won multiple Tony Awards including Best Musical while setting box office records. It is generally considered to be the best musical of Cole Porter’s long and legendary career.

 “People know these Cole Porter tunes,” said musical director Elisabeth Harrington, “even if they don’t know they are from this show.”  

Kiss Me, Kate: The Story

Fred Graham (played by Gino Bloomberg) is an actor eager to get back to the big time by producing and directing a new version of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew --improved of course, with songs for the 1948 tryout town audience.

Naturally he'll star as Petruchio, but the show needs a box office draw as Kate.  So his movie star ex-wife is persuaded to take the part.
Lilli Vanessi (Anna Duchi) has seen her Hollywood stardom fade since she got a reputation for being hard to work with. So she agrees to star as Kate.  But it's more than "Another Opening, Another Show." Besides getting back to the big time, there's the possibility of getting back with Fred, even after a year of divorce. And even though she's engaged to another man.

At first it seems the sparks between them have reignited, and everything is "Wunderbar."  Until Fred's roving eye drives Lilli into epic anger.  Can anyone blame her when she--as Kate--sings "I Hate Men?"
Fred makes indiscreet overtures to Lois (Tossa Hayward) who is playing Bianca in the Shakespeare play.  She is involved with Bill (Christopher Moreno) who plays Lucentio.  And maybe one or two others.  But she is "Always True to You In My Fashion."

Meanwhile Bill has lost at gambling to the local gangsters but signs Fred's name to his debt.  When the gangsters come to collect, there's even more trouble.
   So from Shakespeae's sunny Padua to their Baltimore backstage, Lilli and Fred are fuming and fighting, as are the characters they play (Kate and Petruchio), and it becomes hard for everybody to tell the difference.  A few more twists in the plot, many more songs and dances, and lessons are learned so that true love can triumph.

Kiss Me, Kate: Our Cast

Lilli/Kate: Anna Duchi
Fred/Petriuchio: Gino Bloomberg
Lois/Bianca: Tossa Hayward
Bill/Lucentio: Christopher Moreno
General Harrison Howell: Matthew Atkins
Gangsters: Ivan Gamboa, Mickey Thompson
Harry/Baptista: Bob Service
Sadie/Priest: Janet Waddell

The following members of the cast play multiple roles and/or are members of the Company:

Makenna Baker, Joshua Banuelos, Justine Bivans, Camille Borrowdale, Ambar Cuevas, Tyler Ewell, William English III, Ethan Frank, Erin Henry, Christopher Joe, Stephanie Lemon, Magdelinda Leyra-Garcia, Luz Meja, John Pettion, Fuafiva Pulu, Carolina Rios, Elio Robles, Samantha Kolby, Noah Sims, Ayanna Wilson, Jonathan Wisan, Britney Wright.

Kiss Me, Kate: Our Production

Tossa Hayward, Veronica Brooks

Director: Susan Abbey
Musical Directors: Elisabeth Harrington, Paul Cummings
Choreographer and Dance Director: Sharon Butcher
Scenographer/Scenic Designer: Derek Lane
Lighting Designer: Santiago Menjiver
Costume Design: Alexander Sterns, Izzy Ceja, Veronica Brooks
Props Designer: Brynn Allen
Stage Manager: Heidi Voelker
Asst. Director: Chelly Purnell
Asst. Music Director: Jessie Rawson
Asst. Orchestra: Starsong Brittain
 Asst. Scenic Designer: Maggie Luc
Asst. Stage Manager: Sarina Rodriguez

Publicity photos by Kellie Brown.
Publicity/site text & design by Bill Kowinski

Kiss Me, Kate: Our Director

Director Susan Abbey remembers the first time she went backstage. It was at the high school in her hometown of Burley, Idaho. “This was potato country, and a high school show was as good as it got.” She was in junior high and a girlfriend’s older sister was in the production of Oklahoma.

 “Seeing the structures of the set, the mechanisms and lights, and the actors back there--in a way it was just as magical as the illusion that was created out front,” she recalls.

 She wanted to tap into that feeling by showing this perspective to the audience of Kiss Me, Kate, partly for the magic but partly to suggest the importance of the theatre itself in the lives of these characters.

 “The people in this play, especially the two leads Fred and Lilli, have lived their lives on the two sides of the stage. Their marriage ended in a theatre world, and it is through the play they are doing, The Taming of the Shrew, that they see themselves and their relationship in a different way.”

 The shifting perspective is part of Derek Lane’s design, reflecting not only the backstage sometimes becoming the stage, but in other ambiguities and reversals.

 “I love Escher’s work, especially when things seem like they’re going up when they’re really going down,” Abbey said, “or the Rubin’s vase, which is either a vase or faces depending on how you look at it. Sometimes when we look at things one way, whether it’s a stage set or a relationship, all it takes is a shift in perspective to see it differently.”

 But what’s also onstage is singing and dancing, almost all the time. “Gino Bloomberg (Fred/Petruchio) is a real triple threat—acting, singing and dancing. Anna Duchi (Lilli/Kate) has a beautiful voice, and a lovely elegant quality about her. Tossa Hayward (Lois/Bianca) brings this Debbie Reynolds energy in contrast to Anna’s elegance.”

 “It’s been a great collaborative process working with Elisabeth Harrington on the singing and Sharon Butcher on choreography. Both of these powerhouse women have really honored the storytelling process. They keep coming back to me and asking, are we telling the story you want to tell?”

 That story particularly involves the relationship of Fred and Lilli, which sometimes spills over into their portrayals of Petruchio and Kate—and then spills back. Telling their tempestuous love story is more difficult given the expected gender roles of Shakespeare’s time, as well as of 1948, the year in which the story is set.

“How you work with the misogyny is again a matter of perspective. Shakespeare’s women are often the smartest ones in the bunch—he seemed to have a real affinity for the female soul. So I look for the truth under the connotations.”

 “Fred is egotistical and proud, and Lilli is angry and proud. But things happen to them in the play to change their perspectives. For one thing, Lilli is involved with the General, a real chauvinist, and Fred sees how badly he treats her, and wonders about himself.”

 “When they both get to the moment that they realize what they’ve done, and realize that if they are both willing to let those go, they can find their truth and strength in each other. They come to a sense of equality—we suggest this visually—and of a choice they both make.”

 “Directing this so those moments are there and clear is really important to me,” Abbey said. “It’s about owning all that you are, as opposed to a role. In this story, two human beings come together and are willing to honor each other and serve each other as equals. It comes from a place of honor, not need. It’s not about the fight. It’s about the willingness to put the armor down.”

Kiss Me, Kate: Our Choreographer

“This is a show that is really dance intensive,” said Sharon Butcher, choreographer and head of the HSU Theatre, Film & Dance department dance studies program. “We made decisions on dancing numbers and singing numbers to allow our students to shine but also to keep the integrity of the work.”

 “We have a small number of core dancers but we do incorporate everybody in the bigger numbers. Background dancers can provide a nice counterpoint visually and rhythmically to the main dancers. We try to get as many people involved as possible because they are just so willing, so enthusiastic. When they aren’t in a dance—because we can’t use everybody all the time, the cast is just so large—they are genuinely disappointed. Even those who are music and theatre-based are so eager to dance!”

 “Because the play spans eras, there are dances reminiscent of those times. When we’re in the 1940s, there are dances indicative of the Lindy Hop and swing, stylized jitterbug and Big Band social dancing. In the Shakespearian scenes, references to the pavane and old English folk dance styles. Because the play lends itself to quirkiness we blend a lot of that into it, even in The Taming of the Shrew parts. Even though they’re in Elizabethan dress, we take liberties of adding elements of modern surprise into those dances.”

 “The show is utterly hilarious and absurd, each character is really two characters and sometimes when they’re trying to be one of them, the other slips through—so that’s fun to work with in the choreography.”

 “All the while, movement also expresses character development, and what aspects of personality should be highlighted at a particular time. When I’m working collaboratively with the dancers who contribute their sense of who they are, I always have to check with Susan Abbey, the director: does the movement help to tell the story? I also have to be aware of the blocking—where dances have to start and where they have to stop.”

 “We’re also limited by directions in the script itself which can be very specific about particular cast members doing certain things during the dance numbers.”

 “But Susan is a very inspiring and nurturing director. She’s not just product-based but she constantly reminds us that the quality of process is so important to her, to keep everyone’s minds open to it and redirect behavior so that the process is a really enjoyable one.”

 “I did musical theatre for a living in my early 30s, and I have forgotten the rigors of these night-long rehearsals after a long day of school or work. I’m amazed at the students’ commitment to do that. I can feel how hard it is on me. But when I had a night off when I could do my laundry and my dishes and take a bath, I was at home missing being in the theatre. I missed being in the theatre with the gang.”

Kiss Me, Kate: The Composer

“People know these Cole Porter tunes,” said Elisabeth Harrington, music director of the HSU production of Kiss Me, Kate, “even if they don’t know they are from this show.”

"Another Opening, Another Show," "Too Darn Hot," "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" and "From This Moment On" are just a few of the enduring songs from Kiss Me, Kate.

 But there are other Cole Porter songs that might be a surprise.  "Anything Goes," "You're the Top" may be familiar as Porter songs, but how about "Don’t Fence Me In,” “Night and Day,” “Begin the Beguine,” “Let’s Do It,” “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” and “True Love?”

They are all Porter compositions—and they are all from his Broadway shows or Hollywood musicals. These and other songs have been kept alive through recording and reinterpretations by several generations of singers, from Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald through Elvis Presley, George Harrison, Natalie Cole, Elton John, Carly Simon and Celine Dion to U2, Annie Lennox, K.D. Laing, Alanis Morisette, Sheryl Crow and Diana Krall. Lady Gaga has recorded several Porter songs, and calls him one of her favorite composers.

“In a way no other songs of the period quite did,” wrote journalist Walter Clemons, “Porter’s created a world.”

 But the man who personified continental elegance and Manhattan sophistication grew up in a small Indiana town on the banks of the Wabash River. Its only distinguishing feature was as the winter home for a circus, and it was watching circus acts rehearse for the next season that young Cole got his first taste of show business.

 His maternal grandfather made a fortune, starting with a dry goods business supplying miners during the California Gold Rush. His mother was born in Brandy City in Sierra County, California, now a ghost town. His grandfather was determined that Cole would be a businessman, but his parents--especially his mother--supported his artistic expressions.

Cole went to Yale where he wrote over 100 songs and was the center of most musical and theatrical activity. His grandfather insisted he study law, but after a disastrous first semester, the Dean of the Harvard law school himself suggested Cole pursue songwriting, and sent him over to the Harvard School of Music.

He continued his musical studies in Paris, where his social circles intersected with Picasso, Stravinsky and Scott Fitzgerald, and where he met and married another American, Linda Lee. Though Cole Porter was gay and this marriage was in part a cover, he and Linda remained devoted to each other until her death. He relied on her judgment for every song. Said Saint Subber, producer of  Kiss Me, Kate, “Linda was the air that made his sails move.”

 His songs won praise in the communities of artists and wealthy sophisticates in 1920s Paris and New York but they were not mainstream enough for Broadway. Popular tastes caught up to him in a big way in the 1930s, resulting in steady work and a string of hit musicals on stage and screen.

He had hit shows and movies well into the 1950s, with songs introduced by Fred Astaire, Ethel Merman, Jimmy Durante, Mary Martin, Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly.

But in the mid 1940s he hit a dry spell. Though it had been nearly 10 years since a riding accident crushed his legs, he was still in near constant pain. He saw that musical theatre was changing, and he wondered if he could change with it. Then a writer he’d worked with before came to him representing an idea for a Broadway musical based on, of all things, a play by Shakespeare.

Kiss Me Kate: The Play

Alfred Drake & Patricia Morison in original
production of Kiss Me, Kate
There’s disagreement on who came up with the core ideas for Kiss Me, Kate—producer Arnold Saint Subber or writer Bella Spewack, but one thing is uncontested: it wasn’t Cole Porter. 

Saint Subber claimed that it came to him when he observed offstage arguments between the legendary Lunts (Alfred Lunt married to Lynn Fontane) during their production of The Taming of the Shrew.  Bella Spewack insisted that she came up with the idea of the backstage story that parallels the play.

Eventually she wrote the story and script, with her husband Samuel. That process was complicated by their marital split, when Sam ran off with a ballerina. Whether he was inspired by this play’s plot or the other way around, it adds another dizzying layer to the play within a play.  (And in musical comedy fashion, they later reconciled.)

 In any event, Cole Porter had to be persuaded to participate. He wondered if Shakespeare could be the the basis of a Broadway entertainment. But as well as doubts about this specific show he had doubts about himself.  His last show had been a flop, as was last movie (The Pirate with Gene Kelly--now a classic.) He noted that in the latest shows, the songs and story were more integrated than in his musicals.  He wasn't sure he could do it.

But once he committed to the project, he was more than just the songwriter. He was involved in casting, attended rehearsals and suggested staging. Perhaps most importantly, he raised money for the show—which took a long time, because, sure enough, it was hard to persuade people that a musical with Shakespeare in it was a likely Broadway hit.

 He wrote 25 songs, dropped several in rehearsal. When the choreographer complained about a song, Porter substituted another. When a secondary lead complained he didn’t have a song, Porter wrote one for him.

He must have found a kindred spirit in Shakespeare, at least when it comes to double entendres of a sexual nature.  Porter outdid the Bard, especially in the delightful "Brush Up Your Shakespeare."

 After so much doubt, the show went to Philadelphia for a tryout and was such a triumph that not one song was changed or dropped. It was a hit on Broadway from opening night. Reviewers especially noted how well Cole Porter had integrated the songs with the story.  One reviewer also complimented Porter for attuning himself "to a counter-melody of the play, the strain of gentle romance that underlies the boisterous comedy."

Kiss Me, Kate broke box office records when it ran for more than two years, and became one of the first Broadway shows with more than 1,000 first-run performances. It won Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Score for Cole Porter, Best Author for the Spewacks, Best Producer for Saint Subber and his partner Lemuel Ayers.

The original cast album received a special Grammy Award. The show made a star of the previously unknown Patricia Morison (who played Lilli and Kate.) Porter had worked with her and championed her for the role.

In addition to other musicals, Morison played this role many times on stage and television over some 30 years. This year she celebrated her 100th birthday, and is the last surviving member of the original cast.

 Fifty years after it opened, a 1999 Broadway revival of Kiss Me, Kate again won multiple Tonys. The script was slightly revised and a song added.  When the producers for the 1953 movie version wanted another song, Porter gave them “From This Moment On,” which had been dropped from another show by the director.  It's become a Porter classic, and is now part of the stage version of Kiss Me, Kate.

  Kiss Me Kate was produced successfully in London in 2012, and has been performed in Italy and Greece, among other places. It is still regarded as Cole Porter’s best musical.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Kiss Me, Kate: Coming Up!

Watch this space! for photos and info on the HSU production of the Cole Porter musical comedy Kiss Me, Kateopening for two weekends on Friday October 16 in the Van Duzer Theatre, a co-production of the HSU Music and HSU Theatre, Film & Dance departments.

 First, a few posts on some of the classic show’s curious history...

Kiss Me, Kate: Offstage, On Stage: All the World's a Stage

Shakespeare featured a play within the play in Hamlet, when the Prince of Denmark gets involved in the play that the traveling players will perform: "The play's the thing/ to catch the conscience of the King."  The players not only perform their play but have roles outside of it in the main action.

Kiss Me, Kate stretches this play within a play convention across the entire show (and in the process is much funnier.)  The main action consists of a theatrical company preparing an altered production of The Taming of the Shrew.  We see scenes from this production, as well as offstage antics that hilariously mimic the couples conflict in Shakespeare's script, which erupt on stage.

The idea of showing offstage mischief juxtaposed with the play onstage would be done again and again— notably in the Tony-winning comedy Noises Off.  Playwright Tom Stoppard constructed a play-around-the Shakespeare play in his first stage play, Rosencrantz and Gildenstern Are Dead, and then built a story around a theatrical production of another Shakespeare play in the Oscar-winning movie, Shakespeare in Love. It concerned the original production of Romeo and Juliet, with Shakespeare himself in both the play-within-the-movie and the main action of the romantic comedy film.

 But the mold was made by Kiss Me, Kate.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Kiss Me, Kate Meets Cinderella

What would a hit musical be without a Cinderella story? In this case it wasn’t in the plot but in the original production.

 After several opera stars turned him down, Cole Porter found himself without a leading lady. The show’s director suggested an unknown: Patricia Morison, a working movie actress in supporting roles, from B pictures (Queen of the Amazons) to a cut above that. (She has the distinction of performing in the last film of three popular series: the Thin Man, the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan and the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes.)

 Though she sang for soldiers on USO tours and at the Hollywood Canteen during World War II, she hadn’t sung a note in the movies. Cole Porter invited her to sing for him at his house in Hollywood. Her agent told her it wasn’t for any particular role, and she did it just for the contact and the experience. But according to Porter, as soon as she walked in he knew she was the one—if she could sing. He accompanied her on piano, and discovered, yes, she could.

 After she’d worked on some of the show's songs and brushed up her Shakespeare, Porter was even more convinced. He believed that overnight she might become “a great new star.”

 But the producers were still considering other possibilities, and the writers had to be consulted. Unfortunately they were all in New York, and Patricia couldn’t afford the plane fare.

 Then out of the blue she was invited to sing at a Bob Hope USO reunion concert at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The producers and writer Bella Sprewack were in the audience, and they all were convinced. Patricia Morison got the role as Lilli Vanessi.

 She was a great success. At the opening night party, after the rave reviews came in, she told everyone that she felt Cole Porter “has just lifted me out of my pumpkin coach.” It was a Cinderella story for real.

After 1,077 performances on Broadway, Patricia Morison starred in the London production for another 400 performances.

 Morison had another success in the original production of The King and I, both on Broadway and on its national tour. She subsequently sang in many touring musicals, and performed her starring role in Kiss Me, Kate many times, including in a television movie in 1964, onstage in Seattle in 1965 and for the last time, in Birmingham, England in 1978—30 years after her Broadway opening.

 Patricia Morison turned 100 earlier this year, and is the last surviving member of the original cast of Kiss Me, Kate. She lives in southern California.

Monday, September 21, 2015

3-D Kiss

When the Broadway show finally closed, production of the film version of Kiss Me, Kate began. Produced by MGM, it featured two of the studio’s contract stars, Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson, as well as dancer Ann Miller.

 Kiss Me, Kate has a special place in movie history: it was one of the few musicals to be filmed in 3-D. 

The first version of 3-D hit movie theatres in the early 1950s. It depended on special 3-D glasses but even more, on skillful projection. Not many movie theatres could bring it off, and somewhere between Creature From the Black Lagoon and Revenge of the Creature, 3-D died a quick death.

 Though this version got good reviews, in the end not many audiences actually saw Kiss Me, Kate in 3-D. Its premiere at Radio City Music Hall in Manhattan was in its standard version.

 One lasting contribution of the movie, however, is the Cole Porter song “From This Moment On.” When the movie producers wanted another song, Porter gave them this one. It had been cut from another Porter Broadway show by its director. It became a Cole Porter classic, and was added to the 1999 Broadway revival of Kiss Me, Kate. It’s been in the show ever since.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Blazing Mirrors

Kiss Me, Kate original Broadway cast
Kiss Me, Kate follows the romantic entanglements of two couples acting in a provincial production of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, in comic counterpoint to their characters in the play itself. Eventually the offstage antics spill onto the Shakespearian stage.

 Kiss Me, Kate celebrates theatre, while it reveals what everyone who has ever participated in making theatre already knows: that the real drama—and comedy—is often offstage.

That truism was reflected in the show's original production, and the gossip about it has come down through the ages.  One of the writers reputedly hated one of the producers, the director and choreographer didn't get along, and there was at least one problem drinker in the cast.

composer Cole Porter & writer Bella Spewack
Some of the shenanigans resembled the plot of the play. In Kiss Me, Kate, the fictional actor/manager is caught by his ex-wife (and lead actress) making advances to a younger actress.

  Meanwhile, in the real world: while they were writing this musical comedy, Samuel Spewack left his wife Bella Spewack for a ballerina. And after some vocal anger and bitterness, in true musical comedy fashion, they later reconciled.

Friday, September 11, 2015

He Didn't Want to Do It

Cole Porter didn’t want to do it.

 The legendary songwriter didn’t want to take a chance on a musical comedy based on, of all things, a Shakespeare play. How could that entertain a Broadway audience?

 He’d written his biggest hit, Anything Goes, some 14 years before. Musicals were changing, and he wasn’t sure he could change with them. Besides, he didn’t think the writers he worked with, Bella and Samuel Spewack, would want to mess around with Shakespeare either.

 He was right about that. When the producers approached them, Bella retorted that she hated The Taming of the Shrew—or at least she did when she read it in high school. Definitely not interested.

But producer Arnold Saint Subber had a vision. While still a young stage manager, he observed an offstage argument between the lead actors in a production of The Taming of the Shrew—who happened to be the most celebrated acting couple of their time, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.

 The couple's conflict was an unintended but hilarious counterpoint to the scripted couple's conflicts in the play they were performing. He had his inspiration: a comedy that wove together offstage antics with this Shakespeare play could bring together the brightest and funniest of both worlds.

 In the end his enthusiasm overcame all the objections. The Spewacks came up with an ingenious script, and Cole Porter wrote 25 songs—17 made it into the show—for what would be his most successful musical.

 Kiss Me, Kate opened on Broadway at the end of 1948 to ecstatic reviews, and was an immediate hit. It ran for more than two years, and became one of the first Broadway shows with more than 1,000 first-run performances.  It won Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Score for Cole Porter, Best Author for the Spewacks, Best Producer for Saint Subber and his partner Lemuel Ayers.  Fifty years later, its Broadway revival also won multiple Tonys.

Monday, August 31, 2015

2015-16 HSU Theatre, Film & Dance Season

Musical comedy based on Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew
Music and lyrics by Cole Porter
Directed by Susan Abbey
Musical direction by Elisabeth Harrington & Paul Cummings
Van Duzer Theatre October 16-17, 22-25

Contemporary comedy by Jane Martin
Directed by Rae Robison
December 4-5, 10-13 Gist Hall Theatre

Dance: Choreography Projects
 December 8  JVD Theatre

 Evening of Dance
 December 10 JVD Theatre

Drama-fantasy based on stories by Rudyard Kipling
Adapted by Edward Mast
Directed by Troy Lescher
February 26-27, March 3-6  Van Duzer Theatre

Artistic Director Sharon Butcher
April 7-9, 14-17 JVD Theatre

 Faculty Adviser Susan Abbey
 April 20-23 Minor Theatre, Arcata

Contemporary comedy by Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Michael Thomas
April 22-23, 28-May 1  Gist Hall Theatre

Dance: Dance Fusion
 May 3 JVD Theatre

Evening of Dance 
May 5 JVD Theatre