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How Many Times Would You Forgive Someone?

Ismenia Mendes as Emma & Quincy Tyler Bernstein as Shelley

Ismenia Mendes as Emma & Quincy Tyler Bernstein as Shelley

Heidi Schreck on the moral questions in Grand Concourse

After I saw Heidi Schreck’s play Grand Concourse, I made a mistake. The show left me uncomfortable, so I thought that meant I didn’t like it.
But I realized I was wrong: The play, which is at Playwrights Horizons through November 30, is successful because it makes me uneasy. Lots of writers tell me what I think I want to hear, but Schreck forces me to consider things about myself that are no less true for being unpleasant.

Specifically, she deals with forgiveness. Set in a Bronx soup kitchen, Grand Concourse follows a nun named Shelley who’s trying to reconcile her crisis of faith with her strong desire to help people. Soon enough, she meets a volunteer named Emma, a troubled but charismatic young woman who hurts Shelley (and others around her) several times.

So can Shelley keep forgiving Emma for causing her pain? Or is there a limit to how much one human being can possibly overlook?

When I recently spoke to Schreck, who is Playwrights Horizons’ first Tow Foundation playwright in residence, we discussed Grand Concourse‘s moral compass and the stark realities of forgiveness.

Mark Blankenship: What made you want to tackle forgiveness as a theme in Grand Concourse?

Heidi Schreck: I came to the play with the question of how forgiveness works generally and more specifically how it works for me. It’s a question that has haunted me for a long time. I grew up in a family of do-gooders in the best sense of the word. My parents ran a home for homeless kids and really devoted their whole lives to our community. They taught me that forgiveness was what one ought to give, no matter what happened.

MB: Which can be easier said than done.

HS: Oh yes. As I got older, I began to realize that I didn’t fully understand what that meant and that I had a more superficial relationship to it than I realized. I got into the question of “Is everything forgivable”? Well, clearly not everything. But putting aside great acts of evil, are there small, personal acts that are also unforgivable? And how do you decide? And what is forgiveness anyway?

MB: Without giving too much away, I can tell you that I was deeply struck by Shelley and Emma’s conversation about this very subject at the end of the play. Did you start the script knowing it would end there?

HS: At first I thought the play was about this younger woman inspiring this older woman who has lost faith in her vocation. But then I realized Emma was not as honest as I thought she was.

MB: Right. Which makes it harder to deliver the tidy ending where everyone feels good and makes soup. [Read more →]

November 24, 2014   No Comments

WATCH: Wild new videos in the Theatre Dictionary

A scene from the "Experimental Theatre" video

A scene from the “Experimental Theatre” video

The Theatre Dictionary is back in action. Woo!

In case you’ve never visited, the Theatre Dictionary collects short, funny films that define theatre lingo. Wanna know what an 11 o’clock number is? Watch this video with the cast of Avenue Q! Trying to explain “commedia dell’arte” to your friends? Just show them this video starring Jinkx Monsoon, Season 5 winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race! (And be honest… you are ALWAYS trying to explain commedia dell’arte to your friends.)

We’ve got over 60 videos in the Dictionary, and you can browse all of them for an entire afternoon of delights.

And NOW we’ve got four theatre companies with new Dictionary videos to premiere. I know! So fancy! In the last few weeks, I’ve collaborated with artists from Clubbed Thumb, the New York Neo-Futurists, the PIT, and F*It Club to create 13 new Theatre Dictionary videos, defining terms both familiar and obscure. Our process was loose and creative: We showed up with no scripts—just a cameraman and a handful of props. From there, we worked fast and furiously, giving ourselves four hours to complete as much as we could. The results are energetic and funny (if you ask me), and they deliver some helpful info to boot.

We’ll be rolling out these videos regularly over the next few months, and today we’re premiering the first three.

(1) “Heckling,” made with F*It Club and the PIT

(For the full “Heckling” experience, including essays and feedback, go here.)

Watch Experimental Theatre and Understudy (after the jump) [Read more →]

November 17, 2014   No Comments

Did You Notice the Tiny Fireflies?

John Hawkes & Tracie Thoms in Lost Lake

John Hawkes & Tracie Thoms in Lost Lake

The set for Lost Lake explodes with details

There’s no way to see the entire set of Lost Lake. A slightly surreal cabin in the woods, it’s packed with so many objects that it would take hours to absorb them all. And besides, some elements are only visible to the actors—props and pictures tucked behind curtains or just past the edge of the stage.

But even if some of them are individually elusive, those details coalesce into a stage picture that feels instantly authentic. With just a glance, we can sense that, yes, a woman might rent this place for the week, trying to give herself and her children a break from life in New York City. A troubled man might live here his whole life, hiding from his mistakes until he decides to let the place to a stranger on holiday.

That believability is important to David Auburn’s play, which is now at New York City Center’s Stage I in a production from Manhattan Theatre Club. The characters—Veronica and Hogan—collide in unexpected ways during her vacation at his cabin, and to track the subtle shifts in their relationship, we need to feel intimately connected to their world.

“You never want to be taken out of the play,” says set designer J. Michael Griggs, who also designed Lost Lake‘s first production at the University of Illinois earlier this year. “You never want to stop being involved with the characters.”

Every detail, then, draws us more fully into the story. The old board game under the couch and the slightly crooked shutter lend weight to what we see. [Read more →]

November 14, 2014   1 Comment

What Do You Think About Straight White Men?

The cast of Straight White Men

The cast of Straight White Men

No matter what you think about privilege, Young Jean Lee will challenge you

When you hear about a play called Straight White Men, what do you think it’s going to be? Which cultural and political assumptions do you think it’s going to challenge? Which audience members do you think it’s going to unsettle?

Whatever you’re thinking, you’re right: That’s exactly what Young Jean Lee is doing with her new play. But she’s also doing the opposite. In fact, Straight White Men, which is now at the Public, wants to make everyone face their assumptions and hypocrisies about privilege in America, no matter who they are.

“I don’t want to alienate anyone too much, but I don’t want to make anyone feel too comfortable either,” says Lee, who both wrote and directed the show. “A lot of time was spent on, ‘How do we keep white people from getting too comfortable?’ and ‘How do we keep people of color or women or queers from getting too comfortable?’”

From a certain perspective, of course, the play seems innocuous. Though Lee is known for experimental dramas like Untitled Feminist Show and Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven, Straight White Men is her first naturalistic piece.

Consider the plot: In three scenes, a father and his three adult sons celebrate Christmas in the family room. Amid casual conversation about the neighbors and a few rounds of brotherly horseplay, the oldest son, Matt, becomes unbearably sad. As they try to comfort him, the rest of his family reveals their judgments about his place in the world.

So… you know. Basic family drama. That paragraph could describe fifty percent of the plays on Broadway in any given season.

But then there’s the stuff around the play. During the preshow, for instance, hip-hop music blares through the room, with an emphasis on female rappers. Meanwhile, the curtain speech is delivered by a trans person in Lee’s theatre company, who promises the actors will jump off stage and intimidate people whose phones go off.

And during the show, scene changes become silent performances of their own, with a crew of non-white and non-male stagehands rearranging furniture and props with an almost ritualistic precision.
“It’s all very aggressive,” says Lee, who was born in Korea before immigrating to the States at a young age. “It was a way of saying, ‘This is my play and my space, and the people who are behind the show are not straight white men.’ There’s a different perspective behind it.” [Read more →]

November 13, 2014   No Comments

Why Does Mummenschanz Work So Well?

A Mummenschanz scene

A Mummenschanz scene

The beloved theatre troupe returns to New York

For over 40 years, Mummenschanz has arguably been one of the most reliable sources of all-ages theatre in the world. With their unique style of mask and prop performance—which uses no speech, sound effects, or even music—they create scenes that are both charmingly abstract and recognizably human.

For instance, a creature with eyes made of blue toilet paper rolls might seem cheekily bizarre, but when it cries by pulling the paper to the ground, like a kid wasting the Charmin, it’s also weirdly familiar. The same is true for cardboard boxes that come to life and enormous gloved hands that cavort around the stage.

New Yorkers can rediscover Mummenschanz’s particular magic later this month, when the troupe plays the Skirball Center from November 20-30. The show, which is part of a U.S. tour, will feature some of the company’s greatest hits, as well as one piece that’s been crafted especially for local crowds.

And of course, audiences can expect that signature, silent style. According to Floriana Frassetto, a Mummenschanz co-founder who still performs with the group, it’s the key to the company’s work. “People are seeing something abstract that they can relate to individually, in their own way,” she says. “We give them this freedom, and it’s so beautiful to be able to give freedom in a relationship with the audience. [So often] they are told constantly what to do, what to think, how to feel. Here you’ll have four generations in the audience enjoying it in different ways. But they’re enjoying it together.” [Read more →]

November 10, 2014   No Comments