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Your passport to life behind the curtain!

How a Folk Music Hero Inspired a New Ailey Ballet

Megan Jackel & Hope Boykin in ODETTA

Megan Jackel & Hope Boykin in ODETTA

Inside the creation ODETTA

Matthew Rushing has been one of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s most indispensable and inspired dancers for over 20 years. These days, he wears two hats with the company. In addition to his responsibilities as Rehearsal Director, he continues to perform regularly as a guest artist. He delivers riveting interpretations of roles in classic Ailey works, but he also shows his versatility in recent choreography by Ronald K. Brown and Aszure Barton.

In case he wasn’t keeping busy enough, this season Rushing is wearing a third hat: he choreographed the major premiere of Ailey’s current City Center season, ODETTA. The ambitious 40-minute work—set to and inspired by the songs of the multifaceted singer and civil rights activist—will receive three more performances during the season, which continues through January 4th.

Rushing admits that when Robert Battle, Ailey’s artistic director, suggested he create a dance using Odetta’s music, he had only the vaguest awareness of her extensive career and its impact and influence. “I felt like I should have known more, by the way he asked,” Rushing says. “In the back of my head, it sounded familiar. Once I got home, I did some research, and of course I knew some of her songs. And there are certain pieces of music that are timeless. I’m pretty sure I had heard Odetta sing ‘Motherless Child.’”

Odetta Holmes (1930-2008) had a musical career that endured for over 50 years. Her earliest performances were in musical theatre; at 18, she appeared in the national tour of Finian’s Rainbow. But it was as a powerful, pioneering interpreter of folk songs, spirituals, and blues that she achieved fame and was cited as an influence on Bob Dylan, Harry Belafonte, and others.

Odetta was called the voice of the Civil Rights Movement and appeared at the 1963 March on Washington, singing “Oh, Freedom.” On David Letterman’s first show after the 9/11 attacks, she soothed a wounded nation by singing “This Little Light of Mine,” the spiritual that always opened her concerts. She made numerous recordings (earning her final Grammy nomination in 2007) and continued to give concerts until shortly before her death.

After Battle made his proposal, Rushing says, “I spent a lot of time listening to her music and doing research: interview footage, YouTube clips. As I listened to her music, I was touched by the nobility she had, the richness and power in her voice. I was impressed by how she incorporated the history of the prison songs and the work songs and how much work she had to do in terms of researching folk music. Then to hear her speak about what inspired her and also what she went through, and how she used her music for personal healing—that really spoke to me.” [Read more →]

December 21, 2014   No Comments

“You Can’t Take It With You:” Classic Play Vs. Classic Film

Annaleigh Ashord & Reg Rogers in the B'way revival

Annaleigh Ashord & Reg Rogers in the B’way revival

Welcome to Geek Out/Freak Out, where theatre fans get super enthusiastic about things.

This week, Stages editor Mark Blankenship geeks out (via Google Doc) with Catherine Sheehy, chair of Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism at Yale School of Drama and Resident Dramaturg at Yale Repertory Theatre.

Mark Blankenship: Hi Catherine! As you may recall, we were recently talking about the current Broadway revival of You Can’t Take It With You, which led us down all sorts of roads about the play’s enduring relevance, surprisingly resilient humor, and ongoing hold on the culture. And being the industrious fellow that I am, I thought it might be fun to revisit some of those ideas today… but WITH A TWIST.

The twist, of course, being that we both recently re-watched Frank Capra’s 1938 film, which won the Oscar for Best Picture and stars a whole bunch of Great American Actors.

So with that in mind, I’d like to launch with this opening volley: Now that you’ve been re-immersed in both the film and the Roundabout’s revival, did you find yourself discovering anything fresh in You Can’t Take It With You? Something that you perhaps hadn’t noticed before?

Catherine Sheehy: I have to say that it was my memory of Frank Capra’s film version that almost kept me from even attending this current revival. If I hadn’t had some friends in the cast, I might never have gone. But I am so very glad I did! The play itself is so much less heavy-handed than the film version, with its screenplay by Robert Riskin and its characteristic “Capra corn.”

Mark: You mean you find it unsubtle when Lionel Barrymore makes a huffing speech about how neighbors used to be friendly, but now they fight and carry on?

But seriously… I had never seen the film until this weekend, and mostly, it proved to me that the original play is remarkably fleet and insightful. But I’ll tell you something that works for me in both versions… that scene where the Kirbys walk in on the entire Vanderhoff/Sycamore clan painting and dancing and generally acting like fools. It seems like a miracle to me that something can still be so funny after so many decades.

Catherine: There are two things I think work about that scene. One is the genuine warmth that Kaufman and Hart have established in their characters without sentimentality…or rather at the verge of sentimentality. Penny with her play about a woman in a monastery, Grandpa telling the snakes they’re lucky that they don’t have to participate in human institutions like graduation, Kolenkhov sure that everything stinks! These people are not just lovable eccentrics, but they are lovable eccentrics with very keen social perception AND extraordinary tolerance for each other and for everyone around them. The other reason I think it’s always funny is because Kaufman honed his craft with the Marx Brothers, who knew better than anyone that the stuffiness of a drawing room went best with absolute anarchy.

Mark: Okay, I am SO glad you brought up the fact that this play—and most of the film—unfolds in a drawing room, because that location signals a lot of why I love it. Ultimately, this play presents this utopia of a space where everyone who enters immediately falls under the spell of open-hearted tolerance, which results in them expressing their best selves. Crucially, those “best selves” don’t necessarily mean their “most skilled selves,” because God knows Essie will never be dancing with ABT, but the selves that are least constrained by the so-called American ideals of capitalism and striving and success above all. Instead, everyone who enters this particular room gets to enjoy those other American ideals of individualism and self-actualization.

And to me it’s crucial that it all takes place in a drawing room, because the living room/family room/drawing room is such a powerful battleground for American identity. From O’Neill to Modern Family, we’ve played out so many ideas of ourselves in the room where the family gathers. If Mr. Sycamore were blowing up fireworks in a remote yert somewhere, it would be easier to dismiss him as a fringe weirdo, but by placing him and all the others in a family room, the play insists that we take these people seriously. One more way it refuses to let them become a joke.

Whew! But all that leads me to a question: Could you talk a little bit more about how you think the play avoids sentimentality? Because I agree, but I’ve never been able to quite articulate why.

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December 19, 2014   No Comments

WATCH: Meet Company XIV

From time to time, TDF Stages will highlight exciting Off and Off-Off Broadway theatre companies with exclusive “getting to know you” videos. Today we’re featuring Company XIV, a dance-theatre company where art and entertainment crash together.

 This video features company members Austin McCormick, Laura Careless, and Davon Rainey.

Company XIV is currently presenting Nutcracker Rouge: A Burlesque Confection, its naughty spin on the holiday classic.

Meet More Theatres!

This video was directed by Mark Blankenship, TDF’s online content editor, and shot and edited by Nicholas Guldner.

December 17, 2014   No Comments

This Play Needs a Co-Star. How About You?

Jonny Donahoe in Every Brilliant Thing

Jonny Donahoe in Every Brilliant Thing

The surprisingly rich audience participation in Every Brilliant Thing

You’re closer than you realize to co-starring in an Off-Broadway play. Just buy a ticket to Every Brilliant Thing, now at the Barrow Street Theatre, and you could easily land a significant role. That’s because the show relies on audience participation, and in a meatier, more dramatic way than you’ll find at a typical improv night.

As the unnamed narrator (played by British stand-up comedian Jonny Donahoe) tells the story of his mother’s suicidal depression and his own attempts to cure her, he enlists the crowd to play the people he loves. Randomly chosen patrons portray his father, his love interest, and even his veterinarian, and through some ingenious work by playwright Duncan Macmillan, they’re able to seriously impact the story.

At one point, for instance, the narrator tells us his therapist liked to play a game with him during their sessions, and based on how the selected audience member responds, he adjusts the rules. That leaves the civilian looking correct, no matter what.

And then there’s the list. When he’s a little boy, the narrator’s strategy for “curing” his mom is to create a numbered list of every wonderful aspect of the world. As he calls out numbers, audience members read the corresponding “brilliant thing” on a paper that Donahoe has given them before the show. By the end of the sixty minute production, which comes to New York after successful runs in England and Scotland, we’ve all become a chorus of celebration.

Crucially, the list (as well as Donahoe’s feisty performance) makes this play about depression and suicide feel buoyant and nuanced, not viciously dark or cheaply optimistic. As Macmillan says, “There’s a way of talking about it that’s sincere and funny and accessible and tries to communicate the complexity of the issue without being mawkish about it. That’s the tightrope walk.”

The impact depends, of course, on Donahoe finding people who want to participate, but that’s why he spends 20 minutes circulating through the house before showtime, passing out pieces of the list. “During that, I cast the play,” he says. “I try to get people involved in the spirit of sharing something. It would be very easy to give those sheets to the ushers and say, ‘Here you go! Hand them out at random!’, but that’s not what we’re creating.” [Read more →]

December 16, 2014   No Comments

Your Holiday Gift Guide: Theatre Books

So many theatre books!

So many theatre books!

Got a theatre fanatic in the family? Or a friend looking for a good read? Theatre books make perfect stocking stuffers, providing readers a lasting memento of an inherently ephemeral art form. Below are 12 books that would make perfect gifts this holiday season.

(1) The Untold Stories of Broadway, Volume 2 by Jennifer Ashley Tepper

For a front row seat to the ins and outs of the Great White Way, look no further than Tepper’s compilation of juicy stories. Told by the artists behind some of your favorite Broadway shows, this second volume covers eight theatres and over 70 years of theatrical history. Best of all, a portion of the proceeds will benefit TDF’s educational programs! [BUY HERE]

(2) Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh by John Lahr

A riveting personal biography, thoughtful textual analysis, and deeply resonant history rolled into one, Lahr’s long-awaited biography of America’s most tortured playwright makes for a sensational read. Given its in-depth research and incisive appraisals of Williams’ early and late plays, it’s no wonder the biography is generating buzz for the National Book Award. [BUY HERE]

(3) 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write: On Umbrellas and Sword Fights, Parades and Dogs, Fire Alarms, Children, and Theater by Sarah Ruhl

In this delightful, insightful essay collection, Ruhl seeks to understand life, performance, and motherhood through the prism of the artistic process. Covering everything from sleeping in the theatre to lice, the award-winning playwright’s thoughts are refreshingly bite-sized, making her piquant aphorisms pop. [BUY HERE]

(4) Fosse by Sam Wasson
As Wasson makes clear, Bob Fosse’s legacy encompasses far more than splayed hands and bowler hats. The iconic choreographer’s life proves as thrilling as his career in this revealing biography, which chronicles his offstage escapades with never-before-heard anecdotes from friends, enemies, and lovers alike. [BUY HERE]

(5) The O’Neill: The Transformation of Modern American Theater by Jeffrey Sweet

Accompanied by fascinating archival photographs, this sweeping history of the country’s foremost new play laboratory is as striking as it is informative. Theatre buffs will marvel at the effect the O’Neill has had on American culture—launching everyone from August Wilson to Meryl Streep—and the unlikely stories that led to its creation. [BUY HERE]

(6) Seth’s Broadway Diary, Volume 1 by Seth Rudetsky

Rudetsky’s Playbill columns have long been a source of informative industry know-how and delicious Broadway gossip. Now compiled into one journal of eye-opening, often hilarious personal experiences, these scoopiest of inside scoops will prove irresistible to anyone obsessed with the Great White Way. [BUY HERE] [Read more →]

December 15, 2014   No Comments