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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   No Comments

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

A Deceased Disco Diva Sings Again

Anthony Wayne (r) and cast

Anthony Wayne (right) and cast

Sylvester’s incredible life story becomes an Off-Broadway musical

Sylvester is one of history’s most fabulous pop stars. Back in the ’70s, the flamboyant diva scored with disco hits like “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” and “Do Ya Wanna Funk,” belting out songs in a powerful falsetto and blithely defying gender roles. (When Joan Rivers called him a drag queen, he vehemently rejected the label and replied, “I’m not a drag queen! I’m Sylvester!”). Along the way, he also performed with San Francisco’s legendary Cockettes, became one of the few out gay performers of his generation, and worked as an early AIDS activist before succumbing to the disease in 1988. His life is a remarkable story, and now it’s the subject of an Off-Broadway musical.

Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical at Theatre at St. Clement’s was written, directed, and co-produced by a pair of dedicated first-timers, Anthony Wayne and Kendrell Bowman, who are also a real-life couple. Though they’re huge fans now, neither had even heard of Sylvester until Wayne came across an Unsung episode about the singer while flipping TV channels one night in 2011. “He was such a trailblazer,” Wayne says. “I was so inspired by his desire to be himself. His career was short but very impactful; he paved the way for so many others but got ‘lost in the sauce’ as I like to say. I started listening to his music and then singing his songs, and from there it just kind of evolved.”

Wayne, a Broadway chorus vet who’s appeared in Pippin, Anything Goes, and Priscilla Queen of the Desert, initially resurrected Sylvester in a series of concerts with fellow gypsies Anastacia McCleskey and Jacqueline B. Arnold playing his big-voiced back-up singers Izora Armstead and Martha Wash, better known as the Weather Girls. (“They sang “It’s Raining Men” in Priscilla, and if that wasn’t a sign to do this I don’t know what was!” Wayne says.) After touring around the country and playing clubs in NYC, Wayne and Bowman decided to take the performance to the next level and turn it into a book musical. But though they raised seed money through Kickstarter in early 2014, they realized it was going to take more than a little help from their friends to mount a full-fledged production. That’s when Bowman took to Twitter to solicit high-profile support.

“I had a long list of people to try to reach out to: Whoopi Goldberg, RuPaul, Melba Moore, Martha Wash and Sheryl Lee Ralph,” he says. Ultimately, Tony Award-nominee Ralph signed on as a co-producer… but only after Bowman tweeted her regularly for four months. “The tweet I sent Sheryl was simple, something like ‘Please view our promotional video and please retweet,’” he says. Eventually she did, and after a brief correspondence, Bowman and Wayne met her in person. “It was 9 in the morning when she picked us up wearing a big fur coat and red lipstick, fully done!” Bowman recalls. “We sold the show to her that day, and ever since she’s been so hard working, helping us to get the word out.”

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September 24, 2014   1 Comment

A Woman Walking in A Man’s Shoes

Kathleen Chalfant and Paul Niebanck in A Walk in the Woods

Kathleen Chalfant and Paul Niebanck in A Walk in the Woods

Kathleen Chalfant puts a feminine stamp on a traditionally male role in A Walk in the Woods

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

A famous old adage says if women ruled the world, there would be no war. So it stands to reason that one of the two envoys attempting to negotiate an arms treaty in A Walk in the Woods is female—only that’s not the way Lee Blessing’s play was originally written. Loosely inspired by a real-life meeting between the U.S.’s Paul H. Nitze and the then U.S.S.R.’s Yuli A. Kvitsinsky during the 1982 Geneva peace talks, the 1988 Tony- and Pulitzer-nominated drama initially starred two men. But over the past quarter century, as more women have become high-profile players in international politics, some theatre companies have opted to change up the characters’ genders. And that’s exactly what Keen Company has done by casting Kathleen Chalfant as seasoned Russian diplomat Andrey (rechristened Irina) Botvinnik in A Walk in the Woods at the Clurman Theatre.

This isn’t the first time the Obie Award-winning actress has played a part that was meant for a man. Her diverse and illustrious career is filled with performances that blur gender boundaries. “I feel like I do this all the time,” she says with a small chuckle. “I have played a number of characters who are actually male, like in Angels in America, [affecting a flawless Russian accent] Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov, the world’s oldest living Bolshevik, which was also my first Russian role. In Sarah Ruhl’s Passion Play, I played Queen Elizabeth, Hitler and Ronald Reagan—that part can be portrayed by a man or a woman, but it’s mostly been done by men. And I also played Clov in Beckett’s Endgame. So I had no hesitations when Johnny [Keen Company artistic director Jonathan Silverstein, who also helms the production] asked me to play Botvinnik.”

Of course in this mounting, Botvinnik is no longer a male character, which meant some slight script adjustments were necessary—mostly pronoun switches. But Blessing, who was present during the rehearsal process, was happy to oblige. “I’ve formally been asked for my approval to change the gender of one or the other negotiator in A Walk in the Woods four times, that I recall,” he says. “In each case I gave it. I think the gender change can wake us up a bit more to a play that discusses issues that haven’t been on the front burner in quite this way for decades. It reminds us that more and more women are finding their way into our society’s biggest socio-political discussions.”

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September 18, 2014   2 Comments