Friday, February 12, 2016

Opening Friday February 26: JUNGALBOOK

The gym teacher—a big bear of a man—surveys his fourth and fifth graders at recess, inert and buried in smart phones and laptops on their battered schoolyard. He challenges them to enter a jungle of imagination, to take on the roles of animals and the young human foundling raised by wolves, who faces life and death decisions, and the future. 

So begins the HSU production of Edward Mast’s prize-winning play Jungalbook, a family drama with comedy and magic based on tales from Rudyard Kipling’s famous The Jungle Book

Jungalbook is performed by HSU students in the Van Duzer Theatre on Friday and Saturday, February 26 and 27 at 7:30 p.m., and Thursday through Saturday evenings, March 3-5, with a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday March 6. 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.
Packed with action, comedy and magic, unfolding in short, fast-paced scenes, the Jungalbook story centers on the coming of age of Mowgli (played by Camille Borrowdale), a human baby left in the jungle but saved by the panther Bagheera (Bryan Kashon), who bargained with Akela, the leader of the wolf pack (Hanah Toyoda), to protect and raise the infant.
Matthew Hern, Camille Borrowdale, Jenna Donahue.  All actors are HSU students.
Now Mowgli is ten, befriended by Baloo the bear (Matthew Hern) but endangered by the tiger Sherakhan (Jenna Donahue.)  Other animals--elephant, python, monkey, vulture and hyena--populate her world, as she learns the laws of the jungle.  Mowgli faces questions of identity, and whether the jungle or the human village will be her home.
Other themes include loyalty, trust, friendship and dealing with fear. Moving the jungle to “the blackboard jungle” also focuses a contemporary issue: “One of the major themes of the play is bullying,” said director and new HSU Theatre, Film & Dance professor Troy Lescher.
“There are a lot of light moments in the play, moments of joy and humor and pleasure,” Lescher said. “But also some heavy and darker moments, and surprises. The jungle is a place of adventure but also of danger. That’s one reason this play appeals to young and old.”
Jungalbook runs about 75 minutes. In addition to public performances, more than 600 students from Eureka, Arcata and McKinleyville elementary (grade 3 and higher), middle and secondary schools will attend a special show on the morning of March 2.

Jungalbook: Our Cast and Production

The Cast

Baloo: Matthew Hern
Bagheera: Bryan Kashon
Sherakhan: Jenna Donahue
Mowgli: Camille Borrowdale
Akela: Hanah Toyoda
Grab: Roman Sanchez
Hathi: Elio Robles
Grey: Ivan Gamboa
Kaa: Rilo DeAnn
Perchy: Ashlyn Mather
Chill: Josh Banuelos
Hyena/Baby Buffao: Isabella Ceja


Director: Troy M. Lescher
Scenic Designer: Derek Lane
Lighting Designer: James McHugh
Assistant Lighting Designer: Makenna Baker
Costume/Hair Designer: Alexander Stearns
Sound Designers: Derek Lane, Cory Stewart
Props/Puppet/Mask Designer: Sydnee Stanton
 Production Manager: Derek Lane
 Assistant Director: Heidi Voelker
 Assistant Director: Heather Karns
 Stage Manager: Jillian Park

Assistant Stage Managers: Sarina Rodriguez, Sammi Stowe

Light Board Operator: Kai Lassen
 Sound Board Operator: Cate Hatfield
 Head Dresser: Sarah Haley Burfoot
 Hair/MakeUp Crew: Connie Hill
 Costume Shop Manager:Catherine Brown
Sound/Projections/Lighting Manager:Pablo Midence
 Prop Shop Manager: Emma Lubin
 Scene Shop Manager: Jayson Mohatt

Administrative Support: Debra Ryerson, Lorraine Dillon
Photography: Kellie J. Brown
Publicity/site copy & design: Bill Kowinski

Jungalbook: The Director

Director Troy Lescher
As the HSU production of Jungalbook got closer to opening night, the cast was working on fight choreography and brushing up on their drumming for a percussive moment. Director and new HSU Theatre, Film & Dance department professor Troy Lescher paused to talk about what audiences could expect.

 “There’s a lot of action,” he said. “In our staging, scenes are short and fast. There are a lot of light moments in the play, moments of joy and humor and pleasure, but also some heavy and dark moments. The jungle is a place of adventure but also of danger. That’s one reason this story appeals to young and old.”

 New audiences can be captivated by the characters coming to grips with themes of loyalty, identity, friendship and coping with fear. But older audiences can share in the discovery. “We sort of know what The Jungle Book stories are,” Lescher said, “and we sort of don’t.”

 “It’s also a play that has fantasy and magic in a realistic setting,” he said, “so it’s a challenge to create that with lighting and sound and transforming the space.”

 Using the startling premise of Edward Mast’s script (and all of his words), the play is set in a contemporary playground. But Lescher also devised a framing story that provides a rationale for skeptical adults, and especially skeptical kids.

 “Our story begins with a group of fourth and fifth graders, all in drab school uniforms, during recess in an urban schoolyard. The recess monitor, a PE teacher, notices that they are so absorbed in technology that they aren’t engaging with one another, and they aren’t using their imaginations."

" So he gets the idea of sending a jolt of electricity into the playground by involving them in an activity called The Jungalbook. The students discover pieces of clothing in the ‘lost and found’ container, and use them to inhabit various animals in the story. And that’s how human characters transform into the animal characters.”

 The main character is Mowgli, who starts out believing she is a wolf, then wonders if she is a bear, before deciding what kind of a human she will be. Although Mowgli is a young boy in The Jungle Book stories and the Jungalbook script, she’s a girl in the HSU production, played by Camille Borrowdale.

 “For most of the parts, gender isn’t specified,” Lescher said. “Once I cast the antagonist—the tiger Sheracon—with a female actor (Jenna Donahue), I thought it made sense to cast a woman as the protagonist as well. From a storytelling perspective, that works better.”

 “Also, one of the major themes of the story is bullying, and although we sometimes think that young men do all the bullying, research has shown that young women do as much, but in different ways.”

 As a theatre actor, Troy Lescher was following a fairly conventional path. From elementary school and high school in his hometown of Bloomington, Illinois, he performed in the usual plays and musicals. He continued on that path in college at the University of Virginia. But then he won a job as the performing mascot—the Virginia Cavalier—and everything began to change.

“I was one of three young men who performed at football and basketball games, wearing that costume and a huge mask on my head.” Some of the actor’s primary tools—words, voice and facial expressions--were gone. “I began to embrace physical acting work, where it’s more about the body as a communication tool in storytelling. That got me into clowning.”

 After college he moved to New York City, interned with a clown troupe and became a street performer. He clowned at corporate gigs, took a one-person puppet show to public schools and libraries, all while acting in off-off Broadway shows and pursuing a Masters in Fine Arts at Brooklyn College.

 He started teaching during his nine years in New York, and completed his doctorate in Texas with a dissertation on clown training. “I was still drawn to movement work,” he said. “It’s amazing what our bodies can tell an audience.”

Cavalier Troy 
Lescher couldn’t account for his interest in theatre. “My father was a truck driver, my mother was a hair stylist. How I wound up in this I don’t know.” It was only much later that he learned his maternal grandfather had performed for awhile—as a clown.

 While his wife began teaching English at CR, Troy started his latest gig--as an assistant professor in the HSU Theatre, Film & Dance department—and almost immediately, as the director of Jungalbook.

 That process began with concept meetings with designers in September, and auditions in November. Then the havoc of an academic schedule came into play. “There are lots of breaks in this period—Thanksgiving, Christmas, semester break and a week when everybody goes to the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. Plus finals. So what’s normally a six or seven week rehearsal period is spread out over six months.”

 But that did provide opportunities for actors to go deeper into the story and their characters, on their own. After early weeks analyzing the text and building an ensemble, Lescher gave them some homework, relevant to the physical acting they were learning.

Most would be portraying animals--not only the bear, tiger, wolves and panther that drive the main story, but also elephant, python, monkey, hyena, vulture and buffalo.  “I asked each of them to screen four or five Youtube or National Geographic videos of the animal they were going to play, to zero in on postures, style of movement, respiratory patterns, the sounds of their animals, so we could incorporate this into their acting work.”

 He also asked them to read the appropriate pages of Animal Speak, a popular book by Ted Andrews about animal totems. “The book talks about individual animals, what they represent, the energies they give off and their connection to the world. I asked them to read the sections that apply to their animal, to give them an idea of that animal’s significance, what makes it unique. I wanted them to develop respect, and fall in love with their characters.”

 Inhabiting their characters physically provided student actors with insights beyond this play. “Teachers talk about ‘the light bulb moment’ when students suddenly understand an important idea. I love to see when actors do something with their bodies or voices or even their emotions, when they make an acting choice that surprises them—and they realize ‘That was in me, and I just found it.’”

 Lescher is eager to experience how they apply these insights to performing Jungalbook. “I want to empower them as storytellers. And that’s what I tell them—it’s your story, you’re the ones who will go on stage and share this tale with the audience. I hope they will enjoy and embrace every moment they have on stage. The run is over in just a couple of weeks, and I hope they own and embrace every moment along the way.”

 “So I’m excited to pass the torch to the students come opening night, and see them run with this thing--and blow the doors off. Because that’s what we should be doing.”

Jungalbook:The Playwright and the Play

Rudyard Kipling’s tales collected in several volumes of The Jungle Book have been adapted in many media, including music, comics, stage, television and the movies--the best known probably being the 1967 Disney animated film.  Disney is set to release a new star-studded live action version of The Jungle Book this April.

But the most widely performed stage adaptation is this one: Jungalbook by Edward Mast.

The Jungle Book was first published in 1894.  Edward Mast wrote his adaptation in 1984.

Born in California, Mast earned his B.A. and M.F.A. in playwriting at Sonoma State University, a sister university to HSU in the CSU system. Mast became a fan of The Jungle Book in his twenties.

 “When I came to imagine an audience for a dramatization, naturally I thought of children,” he wrote in the introduction to the published play. “This was partially because the stories spoke to my own childhood world of loyalty, adventure and betrayal, but also because I feared that an audience of grown-ups would require a snicker or a sidelong glance from actors pretending to be bears and hyenas. At the same time, I feared that children might find the themes of the play too merciless or harsh.”

 “I was wrong on both counts. Adults were challenged by the grimness of the play much more than children, though many seemed to respond to the same qualities of the story that I did. The young people, on the other hand, taught me that the younger the audience, the more it is filled with passionate extremists, hungry for actions of inevitability and consequence, eager to witness the workings and misworkings of justice, emotion and responsibility. Why any of this should have surprised me, I don’t know; as a child, I was much more enthusiastic about grappling with grown-up issues than I am as a comparative grown-up.”

 Jungalbook won the 1991 Distinguished Play Award from the American Alliance for Theatre and Education.

 The main character in Jungalbook is Mowgli, the human foundling raised by wolves. Eight of the stories in the two volumes of The Jungle Book (three in Book One, five in Book Two) involve Mowgli as a character. Mast uses elements of several of these, especially the first (“Mowgli’s Brothers.”) There are also differences from what happens in Kipling’s tales.

 Mast moved the action from the jungles of India to a “jungle gym” on an urban playground. Since its first production, Jungalbook has been staged many times, by professional and community theatres, and by colleges, high schools and elementary schools. Various productions have modified the setting, such as emphasizing gang warfare in an urban jungle (as in productions at Northwestern and Sarah Lawrence.)

Other productions are staged more specifically in schoolyards, as is this HSU production.

 Though Mast calls for ordinary playground clothes, some productions use elaborate costumes and makeup. The HSU production takes an organic approach, as the school kids select costume elements from a “lost and found” box and put them to imaginative use in suggesting their animal characters.

 Some productions even improvise dialogue. At HSU, there is a framing narrative (the coach/recess monitor challenging students to imagine the jungle story) but once that narrative begins, the actors stick to the script and say the lines as Mast wrote them.

Based in Seattle, Edward Mast has continued to perform and to write plays. His adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine was staged by Ohlone College, and produced on the Van Duzer Theatre stage as part of the 2011 Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival hosted that year by HSU.

 Mast’s work with a group of Seattle activists called Theater Squad was the subject of a 2012 article by Theresa J. May, theatre professor at the University of Oregon, former member of the HSU Theatre, Film and Dance Department, and co-author of HSU’s current Book of the Year, Salmon Is Everything.

Jungalbook: Rudyard Kipling in America

The first writer in English to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, Rudyard Kipling was one of the most popular and internationally famous British authors of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But he wrote the tales collected in The Jungle Book while living as a young married man in the United States.

 Kipling was born in India of English parents, and spent the first five years of his childhood there. He was then sent to relatives in England for his education, where he experienced “a certain amount of bullying,” as he later wrote.

 In an historical oddity, Kipling spent this part of his childhood in the nondescript town of Southsea, where in just a few years the teenage H.G. Wells and the young doctor Arthur Conan Doyle would briefly live. All three would become major writers whose work lives on in contemporary culture.

 At 16, Kipling returned to India to work for a newspaper. He spent seven years or so in that vast country as a writer and editor. Some of his newspaper stories were collected in a book, and with the money it earned he decided to return to London.

 But he did so by way of North America. Kipling sailed to San Francisco and eventually took a train to Portland, Oregon on a route apparently a bit inland from the North Coast. He later traveled to Seattle and British Columbia, then through the Midwestern US to Pennsylvania and New York (where he met and befriended Mark Twain) before crossing the Atlantic to England.
The Twain-Kipling meeting was so famous that it
became the subject of this Old Crown Whiskey ad.

But he must have liked what he saw, because after a few years as a budding author in England, he got married and selected the United States for his honeymoon. And it turned out to be a long one—about four years. He and his wife remained in Vermont, and had two daughters there. (By this time he was friends with Conan Doyle, who visited him in Vermont and taught him to play golf. Though he hadn’t met H.G. Wells, they had the same London editor.)

 During those Vermont years, Kipling wrote some of his most famous works, including the poem “Gunga Din,” the novel Captains Courageous, and the tales set in the jungles of India, collected in two volumes of The Jungle Book.

Josephine Kipling
 He wrote these tales for young readers, and enjoyed letters from children responding to their publication in periodicals. In 2010, a note in his hand found on a first edition indicates that Kipling wrote the tales expressly for his first daughter, Josephine, who died at the age of 6.

His work following his U.S. stay in particular became controversial, and marked him as an apologist for imperialism and militarism. But at least in his early work, he was an intuitive writer. His motto for writing was “drift, wait and obey.”

Kipling is not much known in the United States today, except through The Jungle Book. Its influence also lives on in the Cub Scouts. Robert-Baden Powell, founder of the Scouts, deliberately adopted elements from Kipling’s jungle tales (with the author’s permission.) That the Cub Scouts are organized in “dens”, and the dens in “packs” as well as other elements, are all directly from The Jungle Book. Even the name of the den leader—Akela—is the name of the wolf leader in The Jungle Book-- and Jungalbook.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

December 2015: Anton in Show Business

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.

Media: Eureka Times-Standard Urge, Mad River Union, North Coast Journal, Humboldt State Now
   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.”