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Why Alessandro Nivola Loves “The Elephant Man”

Alessandro Nivola in The Elephant Man

Alessandro Nivola in The Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper wasn’t the only actor obsessed with bringing the Williamstown Theatre Festival revival to Broadway

Welcome to Building Character, our ongoing look at performers and how they create their roles

When director Scott Ellis called Alessandro Nivola back in 2012 about playing the part of moralistic Victorian doctor Frederick Treves in a mounting of The Elephant Man at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, the actor knew he couldn’t say no. After all, his old friend Ellis was responsible for his entire career in the theatre and beyond. “It’s true!” Nivola insists. “In 1995, Scott cast me in a revival of A Month in the Country opposite Helen Mirren. I was just one year out of college and that play was not only my Broadway debut but my first show in NYC. It was entirely because of that exposure that all the other opportunities came.”

In fact, so many Hollywood offers flooded in that Nivola’s stage career was immediately sidetracked. Although he and Ellis attempted to work together many times over the years, their schedules never aligned… not even for The Elephant Man. “I was filming a movie [Devil’s Knot] in Atlanta at the same time as rehearsals,” Nivola recalls. “I had to fly to and from Williamstown three times if that gives you any indication of my level of commitment. There was no way I wasn’t going to do this thing.”

The life of Joseph Merrick, a real 19th-century Englishman afflicted with mysterious deformities who was treated and befriended by Dr. Treves, seems to have a compelling effect on actors. Nivola’s costar, Bradley Cooper, who plays the title character, recently revealed that David Lynch’s movie The Elephant Man is what inspired him to become an actor. And when he discovered Bernard Pomerance’s Tony-winning play of the same name, he did it for his grad school thesis.

Nivola, similarly, was introduced to Merrick’s story through the film, but he was pleasantly surprised when he realized the movie and the play were completely different. “I remember loving The Elephant Man but it was so filmic, especially Dr. Treves, who was played by Anthony Hopkins,” he says. “The character was fascinating but so understated. I couldn’t imagine how it would translate into a great theatre role. And then I read the play and was struck by Treves’ main arc. He goes from having supreme confidence and conviction in his own beliefs and the cultural values of the time and place to just total loss of faith and self-loathing. There are hints of that in the film but nothing like what plays out onstage. I saw it as a huge opportunity.”

Thanks in part to Cooper’s movie star cred, The Elephant Man was an insanely hot ticket at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, so a Broadway transfer seemed like a no-brainer, especially since the lead actors and director all wanted to do it. It was just a question of juggling everyone’s commitments, which wasn’t easy. As Nivola explains, “We were supposed to do it last fall so I had blocked out that time but when it fell through, that’s how I ended up doing The Winslow Boy,” which was produced by the Roundabout Theatre Company, where Ellis is associate artistic director (yup, him again).
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November 20, 2014   No Comments

90 One-Person Shows, Three Days, Countless Laughs

Peter Michael Martino, co-founder of Solocom at The PIT

Peter Michael Martino, co-founder of SOLOCOM at The PIT

How writer/performer Peter Michael Marino’s biggest professional failure led to the founding of SOLOCOM.

When Peter Michael Marino‘s splashy West End musicalization of Desperately Seeking Susan opened to scathing reviews in 2007 and closed a month later, the performer/writer/director thought his entertainment career was over. But after emerging from a year-long depression, he developed the no-holds-barred one-man comedy, Desperately Seeking the Exit, about the harrowing experience, which toured for two years to three continents and turned him into a solo show guru. After directing dozens of one-person pieces and teaching solo theatre classes at The Peoples Improv Theater, Marino and Toby Knops cofounded SOLOCOM, NYC’s only solo theatre festival dedicated to brand-new comedic shows.

For its second year, SOLOCOM expands from two nights to three, and 60 shows to 90, each presented for one performance only at The PIT. (The shows play this weekend, November 14-16.) In between producing 89 shows, and writing and starring in his own new one, Marino chatted about the differences between stand-up and solo theatre, the rewards of taking a chance on untested material, and the SOLOCOM entries he thinks could have a future.

Raven Snook: So let’s start with a serious question about a comedy theatre festival: How and why did SOLOCOM come about?

Peter Michael Marino: As someone who works almost exclusively in the solo show genre, I was seeing a lot of solo theatre festivals in NYC that didn’t have much comedy in them. The United Solo Festival, the All For One Festival, the Sola Voce arm of the EstroGenius Festival, they’re all great but comedy isn’t their thing. While teaching my Flying Solo classes at The PIT, when I added the words “funny stuff” to the description, I suddenly got all these people who wanted to take their unhappy childhoods, battles with various diseases, coming out of the closet stories, all of those clichés we tend to see in solo shows, and find a way to make them funny. I thought if I created a festival that was about presenting only comedic solo shows, it might change the way people view the genre.

Raven: And how do you think the general public sees solo shows? As these dire, depressing performances or Karen Finley covered with yams? [Read more →]

November 10, 2014   No Comments

The Rhythm of Grief

The cast of brownsville song

The cast of brownsville song

Playwright Kimber Lee asks audiences to mourn for a murdered up-and-comer in brownsville song

Though not a tuner, brownsville song (b-side for tray) has a musical sensibility. Hip-hop frequently blares from the speakers, and the characters deliver impassioned speeches that often sound more like lyrics than lines. In fact, the searing soliloquy that opens Kimber Lee’s new drama at LCT3′s Claire Tow Theater features a chilling sort of refrain, as a grief-stricken grandmother who recently lost her grandson to a senseless street shooting defiantly repeats, “He was not!” over and over and over again.

“I was actually supposed to be working on something else at the time and that first monologue just came pouring out of me,” remembers Lee. An amateur boxer just like Tray, brownsville song‘s promising but ill-fated 18-year-old protagonist, Lee was inspired to write the show after reading a blog post by a fellow female pugilist. “She was coaching at one of the gyms owned by Teddy Atlas, who’s a pretty famous boxing trainer,” she says. “It was out in East Flatbush in Brooklyn, and they lost one of their kids to violence. He was a rising boxer and getting ready to go to college in the fall and had won a scholarship from a local community organization. Even though I didn’t know him, I couldn’t stop thinking about his family and what they were going through.”

Despite similarities between the real-life victim and the character of Tray, the family at the heart of brownsville song is purely fictional. But in a country where the murder rate for African-Americans is four times the national average, Lee believes the play reflects a grim reality, one that should make citizens sit up and take notice. “There are young black men dying every day in struggling neighborhoods,” says Lee. “We all get news of horrible things like this but they’re in our consciousness and in the news for a very short amount of time before we move on to the next thing.” And yet this tragedy got stuck in Lee’s head—almost like a song. “There was something about this story I couldn’t shake. It just kept coming back. I felt very helpless but I thought letting it drop would be an admission that it didn’t matter… but it mattered to me.”
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October 28, 2014   1 Comment

Debt-setting Around the Country

Ben Rimalower in Bad with Money

Ben Rimalower in Bad with Money

Solo artist Ben Rimalower uses his lifelong financial problems for laughs and insight in Bad with Money

In the age of oversharing in life and online, it’s not surprising that many autobiographical solo shows take a no-holds-barred approach. Yet while there are countless one-person pieces about a writer/performer’s struggles with sex, substance abuse, food, or alcohol, there’s one major issue that’s rarely explored: crippling debt. Now chronic confessionalist Ben Rimalower is breaking that taboo by putting his overspending issues in the spotlight in his new solo show Bad with Money.

Best known for his hit 2012 solo play Patti Issues—about his complicated relationships with his gay father and two-time Tony Award-winner Patti LuPone—Bad with Money has a similar, casually comedic vibe with super-serious undertones. Born with what he calls an “addiction to more,” the charming chatterbox admits to some astonishingly reckless behavior in his quest to acquire, including borrowing, embezzling, and even prostitution. Though he had no personal qualms about divulging his unsavory secrets—”I’m really into exposing my garbage to the world in an almost compulsive way,” he says—he was concerned about tackling an ongoing problem. “Everything I talked about in Patti Issues had been resolved in my life,” he explains. “I felt a safe distance from all that strife. In Bad with Money I don’t at all; I’m still in the throes of it. In a way that’s the point of the show, that money issues are tough to fix, but I wanted to make sure I gave the audience a sense of a journey with an ending of some sort.”

Bad with Money, which performs at the Duplex Cabaret Theatre, actually grew out of Patti Issues. “At one point while developing the first show, I was calling it Patti/Daddy/Money because there was a lot of financial stuff in there,” he remembers. “But as I worked on it, I realized that wasn’t what that show was about, and I was left with all this writing about money. Aaron [Mark, the director of both shows] kept asking, ‘So when are we going to do the ‘money show’?”

As Rimalower began working on Bad with Money in earnest, he felt the need to try to contact some of the folks who were negatively impacted by his behavior—especially the ones name-checked in the show. “I know some of the edgier stuff might be difficult for my family and close friends and people I had financial dealings with,” he says. “I’ve tried to do it in a way that feels respectful of their privacy. It’s been stressful figuring out how to navigate all that in the most conscientious moral way, but also making sure I was writing the show I wanted.”
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October 14, 2014   No Comments

How Theatre for Young Audiences Is Maturing

The Haunting of Ichabod Crane

Trusty Sidekick’s The Haunting of Ichabod Crane

Two new immersive shows at the Park Avenue Armory appeal to grown-ups as much as children

I’ve been taking my nine-year-old to stage shows since before she could talk. (Access to quality theatre is one of the perks that justify the cost of raising kids in New York City!) While she’s a pretty forgiving critic, for my own sake, I try to find family shows that actually engage adults as much as children—after all, I’m a member of the family, too. Over the years, we’ve spent a lot of time at the New Victory Theater, which presents innovative shows for young audiences from all over the world. It’s there that I met Jonathan Shmidt Chapman, the New Vic’s associate director of artistic programming, who also happens to run his very own theatre company for young audiences, Trusty Sidekick. From October 13 to 26, the Trusty Sidekick Theater Company is mounting a pair of interactive, site-specific works at the Park Avenue Armory that make traditional family theatre look like child’s play. Shmidt Chapman took time out from his two jobs to chat about the shows, and the remarkable evolution of theatre for young audiences over the past decade.

Raven Snook: How did you become interested in family theatre?

Jonathan Shmidt Chapman: I’ve always been interested in the intersection between art and young people, figuring out how to merge the two worlds. I got my BA in English literature and theatre at Boston University. Initially, I imagined teaching young people theatre techniques, or using theatre as a tool for social change. I didn’t think theatre for young audiences could be innovative and imaginative and exciting because I had never experienced that myself.

Raven: Did you go to a lot of theatre as a kid?

Jonathan: Absolutely. I grew up on Long Island and my parents took me to a ton of stuff, but mostly “adult” professional theatre in NYC. Once in a while they took me to local children’s theatre, these tiny places that were doing like Charlotte’s Web in an attic. I remember having conversations with my parents about that being so different than the other kinds of theatre we had seen together. Already I was noticing a difference in quality between what was being done for adults and what was being presented to kids.

Raven: Is there a particular show you saw as a child that inspired your lifelong love of theatre?

Jonathan: When I was about four or five, my parents took me to see Mummenschanz. I was blown away by the visuals and even though I didn’t quite know what I was watching, I felt myself leaning forward.

Raven: I saw Mummenschanz as a young kid, too, I also remember it vividly. It was so inventive and playful. I think it’s telling they’re still around. In fact, they’re coming back to NYC this fall.

Jonathan: That’s right! That show really expanded my definition of theatre. So after college, I came to New York City to do my master’s in educational theatre at NYU and start my original job at the New Victory Theater as an education programs associate. That’s when I became fascinated by the divide between what was going on abroad and what was happening in the U.S. in terms of theatre for young audiences. The real turning point for me was when the New Vic presented a Scottish Festival in 2009. Tony Reekie, the founder of an organization called Imaginate [which promotes and develops performing arts for children, and runs an annual festival], spoke about how he and his colleagues had helped change Scottish theatre for young audiences over the past 10 years. I was so impressed with the clarity and intelligence he brought to looking at the field, and the practices Imaginate put in place for artists, giving them time and space to work on projects. It’s a really cool model and made me wonder, why isn’t this happening here? Why aren’t there more companies in NYC creating work for young audiences? In a city with so much theatrical innovation and so much range, it’s a shame that there aren’t more companies making work for young audiences that are experimental.

Raven: I’ve wondered that for a long time, too. I also wonder why lauded NYC theatres like the Public and Playwrights Horizons don’t reserve at least one slot per season for a family show.

Jonathan: I think there are two main reasons. There’s a common misconception that family work doesn’t belong in the same category as theatre that lives up to, let’s say, the Public’s aesthetic. But I also think it’s a marketing and branding challenge. Theatres with adult subscribers are nervous about expanding that brand to include families. Peter and the Starcatcher is a really good example. When it was at New York Theatre Workshop, it attracted a lot of families. But I remember being in the lobby and overhearing an adult subscriber saying in a frustrated tone, “I didn’t know that this was a kids’ show. Why are there kids here?”

Raven: As if that made the show less than somehow.

Jonathan: Exactly. I found it fascinating that when Peter and the Starcatcher made a commercial transfer, the tagline on the posters said “a grownup prequel to Peter Pan.” The producers wanted to reiterate that it was not just for kids.

Raven: It seems to me that there’s a lot more crossover between adult theatre and family theatre in Europe and Australia. There isn’t such a stigma attached to work for children.

Jonathan: There’s definitely more fluidity. Take London’s National Theatre: They can do the highest art for adults and then a few years ago they created this brilliant adaptation of The Cat and the Hat—that all happens under the same roof. Some theatres in the U.S., like the Berkeley Repertory Theatre and the People’s Light & Theatre in Pennsylvania, are starting to think about how to include family programming in their seasons. And I think it’s really encouraging that adult artists like The Civilians and Taylor Mac, who are both part of the New Victory’s LabWorks Artist Residency Program, are creating their first shows for kids. I was really excited when Moisés Kaufman created Puss and Boots with the Gotham Chamber Opera, and Tony Kushner and the late Maurice Sendak collaborated on Brundibar. We just need to make sure these are more than one-offs. Artists need to start making work for young audiences part of their practice.

Raven: Let’s get back to your career. How did the Trusty Sidekick Theater Company start?

Jonathan: After the Scottish Festival, I started thinking about how I could produce and direct theatre for young audiences in my free time outside of my work at the New Vic. A bunch of likeminded friends and I decided that, instead of renting an expensive off-Off Broadway theatre, we would build relationships with organizations that might be interested in hosting us. Our first residency was at the Abrons Arts Center at Henry Street Settlement where we created a puppetry-based folk tale called The Little One and the Sea of Letters based on the stories of immigrants who had lived in that Lower East Side neighborhood. And that became our trajectory: Finding organizations with inspiring spaces where we could create site-specific work like Governors Island, the Old Stone House and now the Park Avenue Armory. I feel like the biggest issue in theatre for young audiences is lack of range. There’s a lot of one kind of thing happening. Trusty Sidekick provides alternative shows that experiment with the relationship between audiences and performers, and use techniques from downtown fringe theatre. So kids can experience something besides a musical or a book adaptation or traditional proscenium-based theatre.
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October 10, 2014   No Comments