I think that the first musical that inspired me to be a director (even though I didn’t know it at the time) was “Ain’t Misbehavin’”. I wore that album out! When I was in High School in the late 70’s I was obsessed with it – I thought the staging was so simple and thrilling, and the performers were absolutely incredible. I saw the national tour in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and then when it was in San Diego I volunteered to usher for the week it was there. It was perfectly staged by Richard Maltby Jr. It was seamless and moved so beautifully. It felt like a big show while retaining the intimacy of only 5 performers (with big personalities)onstage.
I think this was the first time I watched something and took notice of the direction. In my first 10 years or so in New York, I concentrated on being a performer and I wasn’t really aware that I wanted to direct – but I’d subconsciously absorbed the shows and experiences where the staging had a big influence on me. A Chorus Line, Dreamgirls, Evita, Once On this Island, Me and My Girl and Ragtime to name a few were shows that wowed and inspired me with their direction and choreography and the way the two were integrated. Never did I dream that I would be creating my own work for the Broadway stage.
Casey Nicholaw is a multiple Tony award nominated theatre director and choreographer best known for his work on The Drowsy Chaperone, The Book of Mormon (Tony Award- Director), Something Rotten!, Aladdin, Mean Girls and The Prom, and for choreographing Monty Python’s Spamalot.
In 1981, I was in my last year of high school in the suburbs of Toronto. I’d done a bunch of musicals in theatre class (Godspell, Pippin, Fantasticks) but never worked professionally. I got a job bussing tables at a brand-new dinner theatre uptown, O’Neill’s. The opening show, starring six young actors in their mid-20’s, was a collection of songs (from other musicals) about making it in show biz. It was called, literally, One Big Break. Five nights a week, for months, I’d clear plates and glasses, then sit at the back, by the spotlight, and watch my new, slightly-older friends perform. After one show, I was washing dishes when I overheard the owners, in a kitchen corner, whispering their concerns about Stephen, one of the actors.
“He could barely sing tonight,” said Sandra O’Neill, the theatre’s namesake. “Well, we don’t have understudies, Sandra,” hissed the other owner, “what would you suggest?”
“I can do it,” I blurted.
They looked over at me, in my apron and my mullet. Sandra smiled, like I was an adorable puppy. “Aww,” she cooed, “thanks, hon. It’s Eric, right? We’ll figure it out, sweetheart.”
The next day, in history class, I got called to the front office. This had never happened in my life. The principal’s secretary handed me the phone. Sandra O’Neill was on the other end.
“Were you… serious?” she asked, with hesitation.
“Absolutely,” I replied, with none. The bravado of eighteen.
I met with the musical director at 4:00 and we ran the numbers. Once. When the actors got there, they looked ashen. Sure, I was their favorite busboy, but…this? We reviewed choreography for about half an hour…then we opened the place for dinner.
And I bussed tables.
At 8:00, the waiters (to the surprise of the patrons) suddenly became the performers. One by one they’d put down their trays and start to sing the opening number. I was the last. The first lines out of my mouth, the first words I ever sang in a professional theatre…
“One good break is really all I need to make the world stand up and cheer…”
It was a pretty good night. I played the role for two more months. I will always have a special place in my heart for Sandra.
And for Stephen McMulkin.
Best known as Will Truman on TV’s Will & Grace, Eric McCormack made his Broadway debut in The Music Man. He appeared as a mystery guest star in The Play What I Wrote, starred off-Broadway in Neil LaBute’s Some Girl(s) and returns to the Main Stem opposite James Earl Jones in the 2012 revival of Gore Vidal’s The Best Man.
This may come as a surprise to some, not so much to others, but Othello is a complex role to accept for the 21st century black actor. On one hand, he’s an incredibly deep, densely drawn character and one of the few that are built specifically for actors of color in the Elizabethan canon. On the other hand, he’s been reduced to some pretty nasty stereotyping. The character has a well documented history of blackface, and the optics of a white woman being strangled by a black man brings to mind the gut-dropping feeling we got in those last moments of Jordan Peele’s Get Out (Daniel Kaaluya hands wrapped around the neck of his captor/honeypot/devil in a white dress, Allison Williams, when suddenly red and blue lights wash the screen). So in my second year of graduate school, when I was called into my department chairs office to talk about playing Othello in the spring…I wasn’t sure what to do. I mean sure; in the name of the pedagogical experience, in the name of practice (because inevitably it wouldn’t be my last time playing the character) and well, the thing looks good on the resume, so why not? But does taking the part make me a sellout? Or worse…is it a full on soul sell?
Around this time, I was reckoning with myself, my artistry and this liquid prison I was attempting to construct. Growing inside me was this festering shadow of insecurity, imposter syndrome, and the ever present doom of letting everyone down, one I tried to bar up with Whiskey, Tequila and Rum. Little did I know, this shadow loved a drink, and despite my attempts to drown it, grew gills. I’ll spare you the rest of the bloody details but I can tell you with confidence that some people do indeed crack their skulls open on rock bottom. Others, however, bounce off stones of despair (it’s my band name, you cannot have it) and are given a chance to change direction.
I started writing letters to Othello in between classes, outpatient treatment, rehearsal and AA meetings on cold Sunday mornings (so much coffee and the squeaking of grey slush on the bottoms of winter boots). It’s not a ritual I had experienced before, but one of my Sunday Morning Crew was like “I write letters to myself and found xyz”. I thought that was a corny thing for a person to do, so I wrote letters to the characters I was cast as (a practice I still carry with me and yes, it is a far cornier endeavor).
We all “know” the play, and in that “knowledge” Othello is this larger than life character who looms over the canon/performer. If the past were to be prologue, he “should” be this gravitational force, the embodiment of strength and “manly-ness”. He’s jealous and angry or something along those lines. So rather than fall in lockstep with the mythic barnacles of the play, I re-read it with the fresh young eyes of a curious child at Disneyworld for the first time.
The first Act is the portrait of a man in love, a man with purpose, a man who has a grasp on what he wants the world to look like and how he can nudge the paradigm a bit closer to the shores of that promise. In my letters, I asked Othello to teach me what love was; specifically, to teach me what it was to be in love with oneself and one’s purpose (he later taught me that once you do that, falling in love is relatively easy). I asked him to remind me of what it means to see beyond what “is” into the realm of what “can be”. I asked him to demand my radical honesty. For a time it felt as though the letter went unheeded. Instead of waiting, I worked my ass off. I scanned and rescanned text, I battled tooth and nail for text to be re-entered into the cut, I linked arms with my castmates/peers to honor the work put in to tell the story as written. I fought for the story in the hopes that it would fight for me. And then, out of that big, looming shadow shrank there emerged a man. He looked a bit like me; a little stockier, a whole lot wiser and a generous smile. And we walked side by side through the play and he revealed things to me. Little secrets other people overlook.
Jealousy seems to be a trait oft associated with The Moor of Venice. I ask…where though? He’s one of the highest ranking generals in the nation, he’s got the hand of one of the most sought after bachelorettes in the nation, he talks business, pleasure and war with the Duke. Iago mentions jealousy, sure…but when does Othello? On the page, he wants to be the change he wants to see in the world. He chooses to partner with the only other human who sees him as such: who sees the sensitivity and the vulnerability in Othello, rather than upholding the expectations of manhood set upon him. With this realization, I felt a little hydrophobic daemon, resistant to my attempts to drown him, squeal away in a puff of brimstone and smoke. I dug deeper: when it is made known to him the possibility of deceit on the part of Desdemona, there is no time for jealousy when your heart is shattered. When you’ve been duped, hoodwinked, bamboozled, how can you blame anyone else but yourself? You can only perform the confusing task of picking up the shards of your heart and fighting through the wincing pain of putting it back together…even though you know it will not refract light the same way. Huh. That’s not jealousy. That’s good old fashioned world weary heartbreak and disappointment. In understanding a bit about him, I understood a bit more about myself. He wasn’t a monolith looming over me, he was right there, next to me, ensuring I honored every step in his shoes.
It’s a cliché to say that Theatre saved my life…so I won’t (it did though, *insert eyeroll*). I know that the characters aren’t actually leaping off the page to rescue me (I’m fully aware it’s my imagination+therapy+the work doing some heavy lifting). As much as I say that the characters are teaching me things, I know that ultimately it’s me, a room full of people, blood, sweat, tears, imagination, and ink on paper. Nor am I here to suggest that Theatre is a replacement to therapy, psychiatry, and/or AA/NA meetings (it isn’t, shout out to my therapist). But it can be a supplement (like B12). The gift and wisdom of the playwright is their ability to teach us lessons about what it means to be human. Sometimes those lessons are about success. They are often about failure; but always, there are lessons to be excavated, digested and shared. There are empathetic bridges to be built; within ourselves, to each other, and to the world into which we wake. And while that sounds like a gushy Barney sing along, the work is hard. It requires dedication, it requires an open mind and an open heart. Building empathetic bridges to truly see each other can be painful. Much like a journey to sobriety, it can feel pretty ugly (ha, I did one of those Shakespeare things). Much like nudging social norms and our existential paradigm towards a just and verdant society, you take it one day, one hour, one minute at a time.
It’s worth it.
Brandon Burton is a 2020 graduate of The Yale School of Drama Master of Fine Arts program. He can be seen in Spotlight on Play’s reading of The Baltimore Waltz streaming April 29th
When I first came to New York, with all those aspirations, I, through a fluke of a chance conversation between an actor I know and her agent, learned that Jerry Robbins, who was about to direct, off-Broadway, Arthur Kopit’s brilliant play Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Momma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling so Sad, was having a terrible time casting the part of the young son in the play. I worked hard on the audition and waltzed in and knocked him out with the audition. So he asked me to come to a callback audition a few days later. At which I totally bombed. I’d never heard of a callback. It was a fiasco. Jerry called me the next day and asked me to come see him. He said. “what happened?!” He wasn’t angry, he was just bewildered. I told him that I had no idea, at that second audition, what I was doing. So he kept calling me back and calling me back, looking for the fire to return. Then finally, on, I think, the sixth audition, he had me read opposite the magnificent Barbara Harris. And we soared.
So my career was launched. Jerry was the launcher and Barbara was the rocket.
Luck. Pure, wild luck. This business is beyond capricious.
The sun is shining, cherry blossoms are blooming, and many world economies are opening up (slowly but surely). It seems like spring 2021 has finally arrived, bringing with it the seasonal sense of joy, promise, and new beginnings that has long been lauded by writers and artists throughout history. While many people may associate springtime with Shakespeare sonnets, Impressionist paintings, or even madrigals, spring has also been the focus of many Broadway composers and lyricists.
The most obvious example of springtime making its way into the Broadway canon is the song “Younger Than Springtime” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific. Sung right after Lieutenant Cable and Liat first meet (and make love), “Younger Than Springtime” has all the classic markers of a spring love song. Cable compares Liat to spring – favorably – saying she is “younger than springtime,” “gayer than laughter,” “sweeter than music,” and “warmer than the winds of June.” But the song also has a great “turn” – certainly one of the reasons it’s still so well-known today. While Cable begins the song by saying that Liat is like springtime, halfway through, he implies that she is also transformative: “when your youth/and joy invade my arms/and fill my heart as now they do/then younger than springtime/am I.” Through Liat’s love, Cable argues that he becomes someone who is “gayer than laughter,” “softer than starlight,” and “younger than springtime,” too.
Another well-known use of spring in the lyrics, title, and imagery of a Broadway song can be found in “It Might As Well Be Spring” from State Fair, another Rodgers and Hammerstein collaboration. The song plays with some of the springtime tropes and patterns used in “Younger Than Springtime.” The singer, Margy, makes clear that she hasn’t seen any of the typical, physical signs of oncoming spring. In fact, it’s decidedly not spring: “I haven’t seen a crocus or a rosebud/or a robin on the wing,” Margy sings, “But…it might as well be spring.” This is a prime example of Oscar Hammerstein’s genius use of conditional thinking. In the same way Hammerstein implies in Carousel that Julie Jordan is madly in love with Billy Bigelow using the conditional “IF I loved you,” and that Laurie and Curly in Oklahoma! are similarly destined to mate with the conditional “people will SAY we’re in love,” Hammerstein is able to write a spring love song that’s not actually sung during springtime.
The song grows even more rich and complex in its associations with the season. While the characteristics of springtime that Cable lists in “Younger Than Springtime” are all positive, for Margy “it might as well be spring” not only because she’s “starry-eyed,” “giddy,” and “gay,” but also because she feels “restless,” “jumpy,” and “vaguely discontented.” In “It Might As Well Be Spring” you get both sides of the coin: the good and the bad, the positive and the negative, perhaps best summed up by the lyric: “But I feel so gay/in a melancholy way/that it might as well be spring.” Here, spring is being used as a metaphor for the “nameless” discontent Margy feels with her life at the moment – a vague restlessness which sets up most of the action of the play: while Margy is dating Harry, who wants to marry her, she “keep[s] wishing [she] were somewhere else,/Walking down a strange new street./Hearing words that [she’s]…never heard/ From a man [she’s] yet to meet.” These lyrics foreshadow her meeting, and falling in love with, Pat at the (titular) state fair. It’s also hard not to read these lyrics without picking up something of a sexual edge. When Margy starts the song, she sings of “want[ing] a lot of…things/[she’s] never had before.” Given the traditional associations of birth, new beginnings, love, and even sexuality, with springtime, “It Might As Well Be Spring” could easily speak to Margy’s desires as a newly minted young woman.
Many Broadway songs focus on this deeper side of spring’s transitions. In Rodgers and Hart’s I Married an Angel, for example, Willy sings “Spring Is Here” when things with his angel-wife (yes, you read that correctly) have gone sour. “Spring is here/why doesn’t my heart go dancing?/spring is here/why isn’t the waltz entrancing?…Maybe it’s because nobody needs me…Maybe it’s because nobody loves me,” he sings. It’s another clever inversion of the springtime myth: spring may be here, with its gentle “breezes,” and “lads and girls…drinking May wine,” but because Willy has fallen out of love, he can no longer enjoy it. It’s a springtime love song that depends on negative space rather than positive space: without “love,” “desire,” or “ambition,” there can be no spring.
“Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most,” Fran Landesman and Tommy Wolf’s 1955 tune which was then incorporated into the 1959 musical The Nervous Set, similarly focuses on the “have-nots” of spring rather than the “haves.” A send-up of the first lines of T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” (“April is the cruelest month…”), “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” implies that spring can actually be the worst time of the year – if you’re single, that is. “Spring this year has got me feeling like a horse that never left the post;/I lie in my room staring up at the ceiling/Spring can really hang you up the most!” the lyrics read. The song reverses traditional springtime psychology and implies that the singer was happy and in love in the winter, and now, during the joyful spring season of rebirth, is experiencing loneliness. “Love seemed sure around the New Year,” she sings, “Now it’s April, love is just a ghost;/ Spring arrived on time, only what became of you, dear?” It should be noted that this song, as well as “It Might As Well Be Spring,” became jazz standards, covered by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra. The season’s failure to deliver on its promise is clearly a recurring theme on Broadway and beyond.
But no discussion of spring on Broadway would be complete without “Springtime for Hitler” from Mel Brooks’ The Producers. The major song in the musical’s show-within-a-show, a favorable retelling of WWII from the perspective of a disgruntled Nazi, “Springtime for Hitler” shows Brooks’ thoughtful understanding – and appreciation – of spring’s metaphorical function in Golden Age musicals. As the tap-dancing, sausage-wearing Nazis sing lines like “And now it’s springtime for Hitler and Germany/Deutschland is happy and gay,” Brooks is sending up the positive traits associated with springtime in musicals like South Pacific and State Fair. And to the Nazis represented in the show, “springtime for Hitler” is indeed positive: it encapsulates their military campaign to take over the world. Brooks makes clear, however, that this seasonal rebirth is actually extremely dark. Peppered in with the image of a “happy and gay” Germany are lyrics about “U-boats…sailing once more.” In the song, springtime equals gaiety, but it also happens to equal “bombs falling from the skies again.” Combined with the schmaltzy musical style, movie-musical tap-dancing, over-the-top costumes, and of course the late, great Gary Beach’s acting, springtime in “Springtime for Hitler,” repeated over 20 times in the eight-minute song, becomes an absurd (and incredibly funny) dramatic irony.
Brooks’ hilarious treatment of springtime is similar to the season’s representation in a lesser known E.Y. Harburg and Fred Saidy song, “Springtime Cometh” from the 1951 flop Flahooley. Like “Springtime for Hitler,” “Springtime Cometh” relies on and leans into the audience’s positive associations with spring and its traditional representation in Golden Age musicals. Sandy/Penny and her genie (truly – don’t ask) sing about “lilacs growing on the clothesline,” “roses growing in the ashcan,” “hummingbird[s],” “merry maidens,” and repeat the word “springtime” six times in the short song. Harburg went one step further and even wrote the lyrics in a sort of faux Olde English: “Springtime cometh,” the characters sing. “Hummingbird hummeth,/little brook rusheth,/merry maiden blusheth…springtime cometh for love of thee.” Harburg pushes this construction even further for comedic effect with “Sugarplum plummeth,/Heart, it humpty-dummeth,/And to summeth up,/The Springtime cometh for the love of thee.” The faux Olde English language reaches its zenith with Harburg’s tongue-and-cheek reference’s to spring’s inherent sexuality: “Lad and lass/In tall green grass/Gaily skippeth,/Nylon rippeth,/Zipper zippeth…which is to say/Spring cometh.” Harburg’s ironic send-up of springtime is sexual, funny, self-aware, and, most importantly, irreverent.
Broadway clearly has a long-time fascination – and infatuation – with all things spring. From the huge number of songs with “spring” in their title (and chorus) – to ones that rely on springtime imagery like the lilac trees in My Fair Lady’s “On the Street Where You Live” – lyricists have used the season to convey and inspire romance, joy, lust, restlessness, loneliness, humor, and personal transformation in equal parts. So in this close-to-post-pandemic moment: crank up the Broadway show tunes, smell the flowers, and look forward to a new (and hopefully, better) day. As they say: “springtime cometh!”
Katie Birenboim is a NYC-based actor, director, and writer. She’s performed and directed at Classic Stage Company, Berkshire Theatre Group, Barrington Stage, City Center Encores!, The Davenport Theatre, and Ancram Opera House, to name a few. She is a proud graduate of Princeton University, member of Actors’ Equity, and hosts a weekly interview show on YouTube with theatre’s best and brightest entitled “Call Time with Katie Birenboim.”
During my run as Melchior in Spring Awakening, I was living a double life. (No wonder ALIAS was my favorite tv show at the time…) On stage, I played a fearless and intelligent rebel who refused to let the world define him. In my personal life, I was living a completely closeted existence. My “roommate” was just a “roommate” – certainly not a “BOYFRIEND.” Backstage at the show, I never spoke of my personal life in an honest way, and blessedly the cast never pushed me for the truth. I performed the show for almost two years. In June 2008, a month after I finished my run, I came out of the closet and started my journey towards self acceptance. Looking back, I see how much Spring Awakening changed me. Getting the opportunity to grab the mic and express myself every night was the therapy I didn’t even know I needed. Just thinking about singing the song “Touch Me” every night still makes me well up. I found the courage to come out of the closet from cultivating bravery every night trying to be more and more like Melchior. The show changed the game for me professionally, but it hit me harder in a personal way at the exact moment I needed that form of self expression. I think the ultimate legacy of Spring Awakening is the opportunity the show provides future teenagers by taking their struggles seriously and giving them an outlet to express themselves. Every time I see the show performed in community theaters and schools, I can feel the experience is changing the lives of it’s fearless young performers in ways that they might not even be aware of yet. And watching them transforms me all over again.
Jonathan Groff, recently seen off-Broadway as Seymour Krelborn in Little Shop of Horrors, earned Tony nominations for playing Melchior Gabor in Spring Awakening and King George in Hamilton. His film and television credits include Disney animation’s Frozen, HBO’s Looking and Netflix’s Mindhunter.
In 1997 I did a one man play about a drunken Irish theatre critic at the Bush theater in London. St Nicholas! Written by Conor McPherson, which I subsequently performed the following year at Primary Stages in New York on 45th street, and for which I was honored with ‘The Lucille Lortel Award’!
But the previous year the play was premiered at the Bush Theatre in London. The Bush was a small intimate theatre with the audience on three sides. This particular night was a sellout performance. The audience were packed to the rafters.
Now St Nicholas is an extremely intricate complicated and fantastical text. With a sinewy comic thread! It demands an incredible level of Concentrated attention from the player. That evening started well.
But…About 6 minutes into the evening I noticed that sitting on front row…in…the middle…to my right was my ex girlfriend. Who I had recently broken up with. I was a little thrown by this …and wondered why on earth she had chosen that particular, really, quite prominent, seat.
I recovered from this slight ‘hiccup’ and continued, feeling proud of myself that I was not thrown by this ‘obstacle’. So I proceeded with renewed confidence.
After a few minutes, I’d just gotten back in stride when I turned to address my audience stage left and there sitting…in the middle of the left front row was…my ex ex girlfriend. The girl friend previous…to the girl friend…now sitting stage right. In fact these two young ladies were actually sitting…facing…each other. I didn’t panic… but, my anxiety…was, shall we say…mounting.
What on earth was going on? And of course various scenarios began to play out in my mind!
Had they come together?
And as some bizarre joke decided to sit opposite each other?
Or??….were they there by pure coincidence?
My brain became occupied with, what seemed endless permutations on these shifting scenarios. The text of the play, the main purpose of my attention, was drifting in my consciousness. And..ten minutes into the evening….the inevitable happened. I went up! Dried stone dead.
I struggled like a drowning man seeking a life raft. But after..a beat..which seemed a lifetime. I stopped turned to the audience, and said “Ladies and Gentlemen I’m afraid for reasons I can’t entirely explain, I need to start the evening over again! Apologies!” And so indeed I did…and it was truly scary!
“Will I get over the point where concentration abandoned me.”
And…”Will I indeed get through the entire evening….”
The moment where I had lost my way, was looming like one of those huge fences at the English Grand national horse race. Would I get over the fence? The moment arrived… and I lept the fence.. and..proceeded obsessively to the finish. After it was over, I left the stage exhausted!
I sat in my dressing room. There was a knock on my door. It was my ex-girlfriend. “Brian that was wonderful, what an incredible evening.” I was about to answer when there was another knock at the door. Enter my ex-ex-girlfriend “Brian that was wonderful, what an amaz….Oh hello, blank!
I was about to answer when there was another knock at the door. Enter my ex-ex-girlfriend “Brian that was wonderful, what an amaz….Oh hello, blank! Were you in?”
Ex-girl friend, “Yes, were you, wasn’t it wonderful
I sat there in a state of stupefaction! Me “But weren’t you?… didn’t you? ..Um..ah…see..?”
Ex girlfriend “ I was absolutely caught from the moment you came on!
(New York, NY) Armie Hammer has withdrawn from the production of The Minutes for personal reasons.
“I have loved every single second of working on The Minutes with the family I made from Steppenwolf. But right now I need to focus on myself and my health for the sake of my family. Consequently, I will not be returning to Broadway with the production.” – Armie Hammer
“Armie remains a valued colleague to all of us who have worked with him onstage and offstage on The Minutes. We wish only the best for him and respect his decision.” – A statement from The Minutes
As previously announced, Steppenwolf’s production of The Minutes by Tracy Letts, directed by Anna D. Shapiro, will return to Broadway in the 2021-2022 season.
In 1990, the year that Anna Campbell would have first performed her protest piece, “Naked Wilson,” at the National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the word intersectionality was not yet in common usage. The idea that individual bodies can collide with multiple, often overlapping forms of oppression simply because of their race, gender, and sexual identities was not widely acknowledged or understood. For African American women like me, hoping to craft careers in the American theatre, the work of August Wilson presented a special challenge by forcing considerations of race and gender to be viewed exclusively through a passionate and undeniably black male lens. Many late-night sessions examined and reexamined the plays hoping they would reveal themselves to be love letters if we could just break the code. “Naked Wilson” would certainly have been part of those conversations.
Pearl Cleage is an Atlanta-based writer whose works include three novels, What Looks Like Crazy On An Ordinary Day (Avon Books, 1997), I Wish I Had A Red Dress (Morrow/Avon, 2001), and Some Things I Never Thought I’d Do, (Ballantine/One World, August, 2003); a dozen plays, including Flyin’ West, Blues for an Alabama Sky, Hospice and Bourbon at the Border; two books of essays, Mad at Miles: A Blackwoman’s Guide to Truth and Deals With the Devil and Other Reasons to Riot; and a book of short fiction, The Brass Bed and Other Stories (Third World Press). She is also a performance artist, collaborating frequently with her husband, Zaron W. Burnett, Jr., under the title Live at Club Zebra. The two have performed sold out shows at both the National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, North Carolina and The National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta, Georgia.
She is a frequent contributor to anthologies and has been featured recently in Proverbs for the People, Contemporary African American Fiction , edited by Tracy Price-Thompson and TaRessa Stovall and in Mending theWorld, Stories of Family by Contemporary Black Writers, edited by Rosemarie Robotham.
Broadway’s Best Shows is proud to present Spotlight on Plays, a starry series of livestream readings of Broadway’s best plays to benefit The Actors Fund.
With Debbie Allen, Ellen Burstyn, Bobby Cannavale, Kathryn Hahn, Kevin Kline, Eric McCormack, Audra McDonald, Mary-Louise Parker, Phylicia Rashad, Keanu Reeves, Heidi Schreck, Alia Shawkat, Heather Alicia Simms, Alicia Stith, Meryl Streep, and many more.
The “Spotlight on Plays” presentations premiere on Stellar at 8PM ET / 5PM PT. Following the live premiere, presentations will be available to watch anytime on-demand for four days ONLY after its premiere.
THE THANKSGIVING PLAY By Larissa FastHorse Directed By Leigh Silverman Starring Bobby Cannavale, Keanu Reeves, Heidi Schreck and Alia Shawkat
Premieres Thursday, March 25th, 2021 at 8:00PM ET– available to stream on demand for four days ONLY through Monday, March 29th at 6:00PM ET
Larissa FastHorse’s wickedly funny comedy finds a troupe of terminally “woke” teaching artists scrambling to create a pageant that manages to celebrate both Turkey Day and Native American Heritage Month. “A delicious roasting” (NY Times) of the politics of entertainment and political correctness, The Thanksgiving Play puts the American origin story in the comedy-crosshairs.
ANGRY, RAUCOUS AND SHAMELESSLY GORGEOUS By Pearl Cleage Directed By Camille A. Brown Starring Debbie Allen, Phylicia Rashad, Heather Alicia Simms, and Alicia Stith
Premieres Thursday, April 8th, 2021 at 8:00PM ET – available to stream on demand for four days ONLY through Monday, April 12th at 6:00PM ET
Pearl Cleage’s “funny and hopeful” (Georgia Magazine) comedy is all about aging gracefully and gorgeously. Anna Campbell, now 65, sparked controversy when she bared it all on stage years ago. When a theatre festival asks to re-stage the work with a younger actress in her role, dramatic and comic fireworks ensue.
WATCH ON THE RHINE By Lillian Hellman Directed by Sarna Lapine Starring Ellen Burstyn and Carla Gugino
Written and set during the rise of Hitler’s Germany, Watch on the Rhine is a play about an American family, suddenly awakened to the danger threatening its liberty. Hellman’s powerful drama won the 1941 New York Drama Critics Circle Award.
Premieres Thursday, May 13th, 2021 at 8:00PM ET – available to stream on demand for four days ONLY through Monday, May 17th at 6:00PM ET(date subject to change)
THE SISTERS ROSENSWEIG By Wendy Wasserstein Directed by Anna D. Shapiro Starring Kathryn Hahn
Three very different sisters reunite after a lengthy separation and discover humanity, respect, and love in this definitive serious comedy about sisterhood.
Premieres Thursday, May 20th, 2021 at 8:00PM ET – available to stream on demand for four days ONLY through Monday, May 24th at 6:00PM ET(date subject to change)
OHIO STATE MURDERS By Adrienne Kennedy Directed by Kenny Leon Starring Audra McDonald
Ohio State Murders is an unusual look at the destructiveness of racism in the U.S. When Suzanne Alexander, a fictional African American writer, returns to Ohio State University to talk about the violence in her writing, a dark mystery unravels.
Premieres Thursday, June 3rd, 2021 at 8:00PM ET – available to stream on demand for four days ONLY through Monday, June 7th at 6:00PM ET(date subject to change)
DEAR ELIZABETH By Sarah Ruhl Directed by Kate Whoriskey Starring Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline
Based on the compiled letters between poets Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, Dear Elizabeth maps the relationship of the two poets from first meeting to an abbreviated affair— and the turmoil of their lives in between.
Premieres Thursday, June 17th, 2021 at 8:00PM ET – available to stream on demand for four days ONLY through Monday, June 21st at 6:00PM ET(date subject to change)
I was in a sauna with my husband and 3 year old son on the Dingel peninsula when I received a phone call from Joe Papp asking me to start a multicultural Shakespeare company for him to play for the New York City school system.
Why me? He had seen a multicultural-multilingual production of ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA that I had directed at the Womens’ Interart Theater on 52nd Street. I put together a company: 5 Blacks, 6 Hispanics, 3 Japanese, 2 Whites and 1 Turk.
We played in the Anspacher theater at 425 Lafayette Street for one year and then moved to the Belasco Theater on West 44th Street as SHAKESPEARE ON BROADWAY. It was Joe Papp’s dream.
We played daytimes during the school week for high school and junior high school students. On Friday and Saturdays they could bring their families from great grandparents to babes-in-arms. It was all free.
I TOOK FIVE MONTHS TO DEVELOP THE COMPANY
First an hour of relaxation and physical work led by a member of the company who was a dancer.
Then an hour of vocal work led by another member of the company. Then, five hours of free form work to find out who these actors were.
The reason for these five months?
Commercial actors of whatever culture or race learned to “act white” back in the 80s. I wanted to know who these people really were, their customs, their talk, their heritage, themselves. That stuff is the bedrock of compelling theater and fine acting.
One day Rene Moreno, an Hispanic, was showing us something of his heritage when Vince Williams, a big black guy from a family of musicians in New Orleans, sitting near me watching in the audience, piped up with “My heritage is some guys standing on a beach waiting to be brought here to be slaves”. Necessary talk this. Five months of it.
What do high school students like? Sports teams, oh, yes!
We put sweats on the actors and we had a sports team. (Ruth Morley of ANNIE HALL fame did the costumes). THE NEW YORK SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL PLAYERS
AFTER 5 MONTHS, HERE’S THE DRILL!
The actors came out to introduce themselves “Hello. I’m . . .”
But-hold it! Is that theater? What is your moniker, what is your “John Hancock”?
What is yourself? Show me your essence!
Not easy. Maybe impossible. Try.
One actor was really good at juggling. One could do backflips. One had been trained at New York City Ballet. Got it? Too big a challenge? Yes. Try!
By now the kids were into it.
Bess Myerson, a former Miss America, now part of the city government saw just this much of the performance and gave us a big donation.
BLACKOUT. LIGHTS UP. AS YOU LIKE IT.
Natsuko was Rosalind. Celia was Regina Taylor—with a live boa constrictor around her neck. 25 pounds. Had his own dressing room.
“I can’t rehearse all day with this thing around my neck.” Of course not—but it had been her idea.
One matinee, lights came up and a big girl in the front row shot to the back of the house – faster than any animal I had ever seen run.
The snake was still on Regina’s shoulders.
We alternated AS YOU LIKE IT and ROMEO AND JULIET.
We played the Anspacher, the Mobile Unit in the parks all summer, and then added the Scottish play when we became SHAKESPEARE ON BROADWAY. Ching Valez played Lady M.
Oh, but she could.
After the students had seen the productions, the actors, as themselves, visited the schools and “played Shakespeare” with them.
At the end of our second season, I went, as a wife, to Gracie Mansion for dinner with the Mayor. My husband worked in the city government.
Bobby Wagner, head of the school board, was there. He told a story.
“I was in a school elevator and asked a teacher how her year had been. She said ‘Estelle Parsons’ Shakespeare program was the only good thing that happened all year.”
Estelle Parsons received an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Blanche Barrow in Bonnie and Clyde, and was also nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her work in Rachel, Rachel. She is well known for playing Beverly Harris, on the sitcom “Roseanne”, and its spinoff “The Conners”. She has been nominated five times for the Tony Award (four times for Lead Actress of a Play and once for Featured Actress) for her work in The Seven Descents of Myrtle, And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little, Miss Margarida’s Way, Morning’s at Seven, and The Velocity ofAutumn.
Beverly Jenkins is not afraid of a cut show. That’s a performance where there are more actors calling out than there are understudies or swings to replace them, and it requires a last-minute reconfiguration of everything from blocking to costuming to the placement of props.
For many people, this would be terrifying, but for Jenkins, who’s been a Broadway stage manager since the early 90s, it’s an opportunity.
Case in point: At one performance of Broadway’s A Bronx Tale The Musical, she only had one Black actress available, even though there was a scene that required two. “I had to decide,” she recalls. “‘Do I have one Black female on stage, or do I have a Black female and a Black male in that other track?’ I’d planned for that, because you have to plan for that, even if it never happens. So I made the decision to have a Black male on stage, because otherwise it would have thrown some things off [to just have one person]. I spoke to some people; we made a few changes, and it worked. No problem.”
That solution indicates what a distinct style of stage management Jenkins has developed over her career, which includes landmark productions like Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk; the original Miss Saigon; and her current gig as the production stage manager for Hadestown.
Crucially, she sees a cut show as a chance to connect. “It’s a community event,” she says. “You check with wardrobe, and they’ll make adjustments. The music department and the dance captains are involved. I always reach out to the director or the AD to make sure my choices are okay. And I take the personal trip to tell people what’s happening. I get a couple of extra steps in on my FitBit, and I’m good. I want to make sure I’m personally letting people know what’s going on before they step on stage.”
Those steps — up and down stairs, into the green room, into the wings — set Jenkins apart “Beverly runs a building, and she doesn’t have to open her computer to do it,” says Michael Rico Cohen, a fellow stage manager who has worked alongside her on A Bronx Tale The Musical, Amazing Grace, and Fully Committed.
Or to borrow a phrase Jenkins uses to describe herself, she’s a mom of many. “I’m fine with the tech,” she says. “It’s all good. I’m very calm, and I can call a cue just as well as the next person, but I believe my speciality is about being hands-on with the people. I put a lot of thought and care into everyone — not just the actors, but everyone — coming into that theatre.”
On every show, then, a big part of her job is figuring out exactly what this particular group of people needs. For instance, on Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk, the 1996 dance musical that uses tap to trace Black history in the United States, Jenkins worked with performers who were more familiar with the dance world than with Broadway. “Sorry Equity, but I had to bend the rules for this group of young men,” she says. “I had to assess the rules and see what they needed. Like, ‘I know this is half hour, and if you’re not here at half hour, then I need you to call me and tell me how far away you are. And as Iong as I know you’re coming, you get a five-minute grace period.’ And that’s something I still do, the five-minute grace period.”
On Noise/Funk, she also turned her office into an occasional daycare center, so that parents in the company could bring their children with them when there were no other options. She recalls, “I had Barney tapes. I had a playpen. I was like, ‘You’re not going to be forced to miss work because you’re doing the right thing with your child.’ I have to get my show up, no matter what. I have to figure out how to get the best show on stage today. And on that show, watching kids was part of it.”
For Amazing Grace, the 2015 Broadway musical that explores how the British slave trade inspired the titular hymn, Jenkins knew her job required extra compassion. She says, “Amazing Grace was important to me because of what was happening on stage. How hard is it that the first time you see Black people on stage, they are stuffed in a crate, and then they get pulled out, thrown on the ground, and shot in the back? So when the actors come off stage, how can they not carry that off stage? How do we make sure that these people are not carrying the feelings of trauma off stage with them?
“We had company morale-building events. We had t-shirt day. We made sure the dressing rooms were mixed, and that we weren’t keeping the Puritans over here and the Africans over here. It was good to see everyone put thought into how to make this a harmonious backstage area and still tell that particular story.”
It no doubt helped that Jenkins herself was spearheading the backstage culture. “She is wildly good at creating fellowship and community,” says Rachel Chavkin, the director of Hadestown.
Jenkins asserts that small touches help a company avoid bigger problems, particularly when they’re together for a lengthy run. That’s one reasons she runs a “turkey hand” contest for Thanksgiving, getting everyone in the building to trace their hand on construction paper and then turn it into a decorated turkey drawing. “And believe me, there are prizes, honey,” she says.
Cohen confirms, “There’s nobody that loves a turkey hand competition more than Beverly Jenkins. But it’s more than just turkey hands or door decorating contests or the Father’s Day barbecue. She’s a master of the casual-but-meaningful interaction. It creates a camaraderie and an immediate trust. It’s these little things that really make the building a happy place over a period of years. All of those things are just as important — and sometimes more — than announcing what we’re doing in understudy rehearsal on Friday.”
Mark Blankenship is the founder and editor of The Flashpaper and the host of The Showtune Countdown on iHeartRadio Broadway.
Nostalgia has always been a powerful force in the theater – and right now, it’s stronger than ever.
With shows on Broadway and around the country unlikely to resume until the current pandemic’s final phases of reopening, fans and professionals alike find themselves missing almost everything about going to the theater. The sound of a live orchestra tuning up for an overture. The feeling of an audience-wide belly laugh. The hush that falls over a crowd at a dramatic moment. Pretty soon fans might start to miss the bathroom lines at intermission.
Nostalgia is evident, too, in the ad hoc streaming offerings that theater people have produced during the current lockdown. Original casts have reconvened online for readings of shows like “Significant Other,” while Seth Rudetsky’s ongoing variety show “Stars in the House” regularly hosts reunions of TV and film actors. Even playwright Richard Nelson’s just-written “What Do We Need to Talk About?” was performed over Zoom in conversation with the past, bringing together a familiar cast of actors reprising characters they’d portrayed in the four previous shows that comprise Nelson’s Apple Family Play.
“We’re all streaming content that is based in reminding us what it was like to go to the theater,” says Elizabeth Wollman, the Baruch College theater professor whose books include “The Theater Will Rock: A History of the Rock Musical, From ‘Hair’ to ‘Hedwig.’” “One of the reasons that I thought the new Apple Family play worked so beautifully is because it did exactly what those plays do in the theater.”
All of this is just the latest evolution of the way in which nostalgia has always had a presence theater. It’s baked into the form itself. “Theater is defined by legend, because each performance is once in a lifetime,” says Laurence Maslon, the New York University Tisch School of the Arts professor and the author of “Broadway: The American Musical.” Either you were in the house at “Gypsy” the night that Patti LuPone snatched a cell phone out of an audience member’s hand, or you weren’t.
The memory of a night at theater is more than just the show itself. It’s where you were, who you were with, what you did before and after the performance, and all the sense memories associated with those things. “It’s coming out of the subway and smelling the salty pretzels and getting a drink at Joe Allen,” Maslon says of the Broadway experience.
It’s no accident, then, that theater has always celebrated its history — its groundbreaking productions and talents — more than TV or film: The impulse rises from the effort to preserve what we can of an impermanent form, and it’s part of why we return so often to classic plays and musicals.
“People want musical art to be timeless, and it isn’t,” notes Raymond Knapp, the UCLA musicology professor whose books include “The American Musical and the Formation of National Identity.” “The impulse to revive is very, very strong. It’s partly based on nostalgia, and it’s also based on the notion that music transcends time.”
Revivals and even new works can draw on nostalgia on both a national level and a personal one. “The idea of doing a revival of ‘The King and I’ or ‘My Fair Lady,’ those tap into a national, theatrical, Broadway-musical sense of nostalgia,” notes Stacy Wolf, the Princeton University professor and author of the book “Changed for Good: A Feminist History of the Broadway Musical.” “Broadway can be nostalgic in wanting to revive classics like those that have this aura of Americana, or sometimes, like ‘Jersey Boys,’ a show can speak to individual theatergoers or generations of fans and to their personal feelings of nostalgia for the music they grew up with.”
For some critics and scholars, nostalgia raises red flags. Commercial producers and nonprofit theaters alike sometimes ignore new work to return again and again to established sellers like “The Sound of Music” and “Death of a Salesman,” and many new musicals draw on popular song catalogs – The Four Seasons (“Jersey Boys”), ABBA (“Mamma Mia!”), Tina Turner (“Tina”) – rather than original scores. “I get nervous about the word nostalgia, because executives often lean too heavily on it, or it’s their own personal nostalgia that clouds their decision making,” says Ashley Lee, the theater reporter at the Los Angeles Times.
But don’t dismiss nostalgia entirely, warns Chris Jones, the longtime theater critic at the Chicago Tribune. “Nostalgia is a powerful force in why people go to the theater, and some of my most glorious moments in the theater have been really driven by nostalgia either for me or the people around me,” he explains. “I remember being at the opening night of ‘Mamma Mia!’ in London, and the audience on this wave of joy remembering their youths. Or when I was at a press performance of ‘Jersey Boys’ on Broadway where I would say, of all the tens of thousands of shows I’ve seen in my life, I don’t think I’ve ever seen an audience so excited.”
Right now, looking to the past can also provide clues to what Broadway and the theater business will look like in the coming months, when they finally reopen. Many point to the post-9/11 popularity of good-time shows like “Mamma Mia!” and “The Producers” as an indicator that in the wake of the coronavirus, audiences and producers will similarly gravitate to escapist fare.
But looking further back suggests that the future might not be all frivolity. Maslon notes that during the Depression, Broadway was a place not just for crowd-pleasing baubles like “Anything Goes” but also for socially consciousness works like “The Cradle Will Rock.” “There was this bifurcation where Broadway was either escapist or very engaged,” he says. “It actually forced theatermakers to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and to be very much in vogue and at the forefront.”
Gordon Cox is a theater journalist and the host of Variety’s Stagecraft podcast.
Broadway photographers have a big task: capture the magic, beauty and wonder of a brand new show every night, each one posing new and unexpected challenges. It is essential work not only for the show’s marketing team, but for the historical record. Their work may well shape how, or if, a show is remembered.
We spoke to seasoned veterans Joan Marcus, Matthew Murphy, Jeremy Daniel and Peter Cunningham about memorable shows, challenging shoots, and why they do what they do.
In this last abbreviated season, is there a show that stands out in your memory as having been particularly challenging to shoot?
Six was hard. The lighting, which is totally spectacular andfabulous, was challenging because it moves so fast. Fortunately on that one I got to do set-ups [a photoshoot designed to replicate scenes or moments in a show]. So you could slow it down a bit, and make some images that you wanted to make but couldn’t quite do – because the show moves so fast!
The Inheritance was so stunning, but the design of the show was really sparse. It’s a lot of people on stage most of the time, on opposite ends of this really wide platform – which as an audience member is so striking, but as a photographer you’re like, “How do I establish the relationships between the characters in a single frame that doesn’t feel too sparse, or too overly spread out?”
How I approach production photography is, it really is about finding an image that feels like the show feels to an audience member. We finally did get to do a set-up call early in February and figure out a way to shape it for a camera so that it had the maximum emotional impact on first glance.
Especially now, with how quickly we all ingest imagery on a constant basis, you have to figure out a way to make it “thumb-stopping.” If you’re scrolling through Instagram, you need something that immediately is going to be dynamic enough that it’s going to stop you at least for that 0.5 seconds to tap the “Heart” button. That’s how it’s changed.
“The Sound Inside,” Adam Rapp’s brilliant Tony-nominated play starring Mary-Louise Parker, was especially tough. Normally when shooting a show, my gut instinct is to accentuate the light and minimize the darkness. Within the composition of a photo, empty stage space is one thing — but total, complete darkness is another. For “The Sound Inside,” I had to put those gut instincts aside. I had to do a complete 180, and consciously pay attention to the darkness. I had to allow space for it. I had to include it, because it had a role to play in the remarkable story being told. It was a brilliant lesson.
Reflecting back on your career during this time, what memories of past shoots have especially stuck with you?
The very first show I did. I ran into [then press representative, now producer] Jeffrey Richards on the street. He said he had this new guy Harvey Fierstein, who was doing a show called International Stud, and he needed a photographer. So my first initiation to the theater business was Harvey, who is absolutely wonderful and outrageous. That was a great training for me. I have never had a chance to thank Harvey for that, actually. To just be immersed, for a short while, in his perception of the world was the best thing that could happen to a young photographer in the late 1970s.
Then in 1982 I photographed Nine. They wanted to decorate the outside of the theater differently than had ever been done before. So I had the whole cast, 22 women and Raul Julia, come down to the studio one day to be photographed. And it was that day that the toilet decided to break. So that was a challenge – and a pleasure, obviously. The photos made quite a stir, and are still talked about as having changed the way theater displays are done.
Right now the set of the play K2 is all I can think about, because it was designed by Ming Cho Lee, who just passed away. It was unbelievable. I shot it at Arena Stage in Washington [in 1982] when I was first starting out. The play was about two mountain climbers who are in an avalanche and get stuck on a ledge on K2, and only one of them can survive.
So the whole play takes place on the side of the mountain. And it was the most amazing set you’ve ever seen. Just floor-to-ceiling mountain, into the pit, up into the flys, and edge-to-edge – just ice. But it was really styrofoam, unbelievably lit by Allen Lee Hughes. It was just regal and magnificent.
The first thing that really pops into my mind is Howell Binkley’s face [Tony Award-winning lighting designer of Hamilton, who died of lung cancer on August 14]. Losing Howell over this time has been so heartbreaking for the community. From the minute I started working with him, he just had the most warm, generous energy. He had an incredible way of shaping a space as a designer, and an incredible way of shaping a space as a human.
You watch Hamilton and you’re just like, holy crap – how is he telling this much of a story with just lighting? It’s crazy the way he could shape a space. I’ll miss walking in and hearing his laugh at the tech table.
Normally each November I’d be getting ready to hit the road for my annual photo shoot with the “White Christmas” Broadway national tour. That show always techs out-of-town during the first week of November, and it has held a special place in my heart for years (mostly because I’m a total sucker for an old-fashioned musical comedy). How I wish audiences around the country could experience the joys of that show this year. Boy, do we need it.
Four years ago, on the day after the election, that evening was the final dress for “The Babylon Line,” a new play at Lincoln Center. When I arrived at the theatre that evening, everyone was in a state of quiet disbelief, stunned and shocked by the events of the day. The mood was unlike anything we’d ever experienced. But then the final dress began. And God bless Julie Halston. Julie Halston made us laugh. It was just the right thing, at just the right time. That night was a glorious lesson in how incredibly healing and uplifting theater can be. For that reason, whenever I see photos of “The Babylon Line,” I’ll always be grateful.
How Are You Reflecting on Life as a Broadway Photographer?
I loved the human experience. What I remember most from photographing Jeffrey Richards’ 2000 revival of The Best Man is actually being there for the readthrough. The production photographer has so many different interfaces with a play. In that case, I was part of that first day where the actors meet each other, and the director – and me. That’s a great feeling, to be there at the beginning of a project, and to be part of the team.
That may have been the most unique read-through I attended. Charles Durning, who was to star in the production as the ex-President, had been hospitalized for an operation (successful) to remove polyps and the cast was informed right before the read-thru that he would be joining the company in two weeks. Gore Vidal agreed to read the role of Art Hockstader…he was mesmerizing, sharp and funny and even folksy (well patrician folksy) when his dialogue called for it. When there were scene breaks, Gore would regale the company– Chris Noth, Michael Learned, Liz Ashley, Christine Ebersole, Spalding Gray–with anecdotes about the original production and anecdotes about the politics of the era. Gore loved doing the role and the company loved his doing it…
I know photography is recording somebody else’s work, and being a little bit of a cipher. But it’s kind of the whole package – every day is different, every show is different, every show poses a different challenge. And that’s scary, but the fact that you have to problem solve with every show you do keeps it really interesting.
The greatest thing is being in that room. Like seeing Hamilton for the first time and thinking: “It’s even more wonderful than they say!” It’s that element of surprise when you’re one of the first people to see something. Being with all of these people who are so talented, and seeing something wonderful – or even seeing something disappointing! I just miss it.
As a photographer, my heart will always be on Broadway. One evening last in May (which feels like a lifetime ago!), just as the industry was starting to accept the long-term realities of what lay ahead, I took a walk alone, around the theater district. The sun was setting and the sky was absolutely gorgeous. As I looked up at the Broadway marquees, still shining brightly against that sunset, I thought “Oh, right now would be the places call.” Yes, the streets were empty and the doors were shut, but there was something magical & hopeful about it.
It gave me an idea for a photo series…but then the vibe in our city shifted again with the George Floyd protests, the curfews, etc. That’s when most of the Broadway lights were turned off as a safety precaution. So while the photo series couldn’t materialize the way I’d hoped, I think the social uprising that ensued was a worthwhile exchange.
In September, I shot the cast of Moulin Rouge! as they returned to the empty Al Hirschfeld theater, marking six months since the shutdown. I never took being in a theater for granted. But it was even more obvious how special of a place it is, and how fortunate I am to do what I do. Reflecting back on that day in the last month or so, I’ve felt a lot of sorrow about it, and a lot of joy about having that moment with those people. A moment to really look at them, and be present with them – and to value the space, the sacredness of a theater.
Joey Sims has written at The Brooklyn Rail, TheaterMania, Culturebot, Exeunt NYC, and Extended Play. He was also Social Media Editor at Exeunt for two years. He has written short plays and sketches at The Tank and The PIT. Joey is an alumnus of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Critics Institute, and a script reader for The O’Neill and New Dramatists. Prior to the theater shutdown, he was an Operations Manager at TodayTix.
During my Signature season, I discovered I would be missing a producer/artistic director, Jim Houghton, who took a much needed sabbatical. And so I found myself perching in the position of “all hands on board:” parking the car for the habitually late music director on my first show, and apologizing to critics when our electricity went out on critics night (the old signature theatre shared electricity with a medical office that did MRIs so the circuit somehow always tripped on opening nights). There was a director I couldn’t fire, because there was no artistic director, and who refused to quit, so I needed to be at every rehearsal. The women cast members and the stage manager ended up staging the play, and their spirits saw me through. My directors Mark Brokaw and Les Waters saw me through the rest of the season.
And so one night I was keeping vigil in the lobby during “Hot ‘N’ Throbbing.” As we watched through the monitor, the house manager and I saw something…not right. A woman got up from the audience, and tried to make her way up the side aisle, weaving and stumbling. A heart attack? A stroke?
We rushed into the back of the theatre, up a flight of stairs, and caught her at the top of the stairs as she passed out in our arms. We quietly carried her out of the theatre—the audience didn’t even notice. We laid her down on the lobby floor. The house manager ran to the phone and dialed 911, while I stayed with the woman, leaning over her. She suddenly opened her eyes and exclaimed: “Who wrote this play?!”
“Oh!. Are you a professional?”
(I thought she was talking about being a professional playwright). “Yes, I am.”
“I thought so! Only a professional could know this stuff! “. She chatted as she sat up, and we gave her orange juice. “I used to do films, too. But…it got too rough….and when I heard the whir of the camera, the sound effect kinda of….well, I knew I had to get out of there. My John is still inside.”
“Do you want me to get him?”
“Nah! He’s enjoying it.”
She refused to go to the hospital. I insisted on walking her to tenth avenue to get her a cab.
She chatted, happy to find that a professional sex worker was engaged in playwriting. But does it pay? she asked. Not really, I admitted. By this point I realized what she meant by being professional, and I didn’t want to dash her enthusiasm.
“I am so glad you are out of the trade!” she told me as the cab neared. “I’m gonna leave it soon, too.”
With the cab door open, she gave me a hug.
“I’m so proud of you!”
I hope she got out of the trade. One day, I’m gonna leave my trade, too. We all do.
PAULA VOGEL is a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright whose plays include INDECENT (Tony Award for Best Play), HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE (Broadway production set for spring 2020; Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the Lortel Prize, OBIE Award, Drama Desk Award, Outer Critics Circle and New York Drama Critics Awards for Best Play), THE LONG CHRISTMAS RIDE HOME, THE MINEOLA TWINS, THE BALTIMORE WALTZ, HOT’N’THROBBING, DESDEMONA, AND BABY MAKES SEVEN, THE OLDEST PROFESSION and A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS.
2016-2017 is what I would have called my “breakout” season as a young director, I was working on three shows: Lucas Hnath’s Red Speedo at NYTW, Alice Birch’s Revolt. She said. Revolt Again. at Soho Rep and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins play War at LCT3. I was thrilled!
So I’m known for being rather enthusiastic in rehearsal rooms, and the energy of this season was apparently really sending that enthusiasm into its extremes – hah!
I’m in rehearsal for Red Speedo at NYTW, a lovely sunny room on the third floor… I’m standing with Lucas Hnath and the actors…essentially hyping them up about the fight scene near the end of the play…..as I’m running around the room I joke that it would be amazing if they bounded off the wall in the stage in epic fight mode and proceeded to run to the wall as if to kick off it to punch my imaginary co partner…but instead of kicking off elegantly in epic style….my foot…. explodes through the other side of the wall.
…I was mortified. Luckily the room erupted in laughter and NYTW was ever so gracious about my overenthusiastic mishap.
Needless to say…I don’t kick walls anymore!
But the memory brings me joy about returning to rehearsal shenanigans.
Lileana Blain-Cruz is a recent recipient of a Lincoln Center Emerging Artist Award and an Obie Award for Marys Seacole at LCT3. Recent projects include Anatomy of a Suicide at The Atlantic Theater Company, Fefu and Her Friends at Theater For a New Audience, Girlsat Yale Repertory Theater, Faust at Opera Omaha, and The House That Will Not Stand at New York Theater Workshop. She won an Obie Award for her direction of The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World AKA The Negro Book of the Dead at Signature Theater. She also directed Paula Vogel’s The Baltimore Waltz for the Spotlight on Plays series which will stream on April 29th.
On the night of February 1, 1979, I stood in the vom of Circle-in-the-Square on Broadway, terrified. I kept repeating to myself, “You didn’t have to take this job. Why did you take this job?” The job I had taken was standby for the female lead in the entire four acts of George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman.
An hour earlier I had been having a glass of wine with my brother and sister-in-law who were visiting New York and had tickets to see Da. It is my habit to get to the theater early, but that night I arrived a wee bit late only to find that our leading lady was ill, and I was going on. The following half hour was a blur. As I was being helped into costume and makeup, one of the other cast members asked if there was anyone I would like to have notified. I later learned that within minutes of my response, ushers were hurrying up and down the aisles of the Morosco, whispering, “Mr. Dunagan? Mr. Dunagan?”
Luckily there had been an understudy rehearsal and I was well prepared, but I felt totally inadequate as I stood there waiting for my cue. In what seemed like a lifetime but was really only minutes, I remembered that my only obligation as standby was to say the lines in the correct order, with the correct cues, so that the other actors could do their usual stellar work. That realization (and maybe that glass of wine) helped me get through the performance, which astonishingly, may have been one of the best of my life. To top it off, my brother and his wife had made it to the theater seconds before the lobby doors were closed. After the show, we had a jubilant celebration at The Russian Tea Room.
The day after my Broadway debut, while walking around the Upper East Side, my brother spotted a small second floor cafe which offered tea leaf readings. He insisted I have a sitting to see what my future held and was dismayed when the “seer” said the leaves didn’t show anything special. No matter how he argued, recounting the story of the previous night, she stood by her reading.
It’s true, that after a brief flurry of activity during which a column was written about me in Backstage and I signed with ICM, nothing else ever came of my one night stand. But I think there may well be a time limit on one prognosticatory cup of tea. For soon I found myself in Chicago, a city I love, where I have spent a long and gratifying career as part of the vibrant theater community. It was because of that involvement that, almost 29 years later, in 2007, I made my second Broadway “debut” in Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County. This time my brother was in his seat well before the curtain.
I was in my second season at the Asolo Theatre in Sarasota when one afternoon the phone rang. It was Mark Medoff, the playwright, which was odd because I had never met or spoken with Mark. He was calling me out of the blue to ask if I would like to come to New Mexico State University in Las Cruces (where he was head of the Department of Theater Arts) to teach Voice and Diction and work on my play, “The Legend of Pecos Bill.”
I am not a playwright, but when I was in grad school at the Dallas Theater Center, I couldn’t find a children’s play to direct for the new Magic Turtle Theater program, so I wrote one. Several years later Mark had been working on a new play at DTC and in the market for a children’s play. Someone had given him my script and he liked it well enough to follow up with that phone call.
I explained that I was extremely flattered, but that I wasn’t really a playwright, I was an actor. When we hung up I thought that was the end of it. But after the season, when I was living in New York, I heard from him again. He was opening a new play at Jewish Repertory Theater and wondered if I would like to be his guest at the opening. We met, hit it off, and kept in touch. A couple of years later, in 1980, his award winning Children of a Lesser God was casting for the First National Tour. I loved the play and wanted to audition, but ICM, my agency at the time, was unable to get me seen. My friend Mark Medoff thought I might be good in the role of the lawyer; he had no trouble getting me in.
That tour took me to Chicago where I fell in love with the city and its thriving theater scene. After my six month commitment to the production, I moved from New York to Chicago where I have had a rich and satisfying theatrical career. My involvement with Chicago theater led me to be cast in the Steppenwolf production of August: Osage County which moved to Broadway in 2007 and won five Tony Awards.
I sometimes wonder what would have happened in my life had I been able to find a children’s play to direct in grad school.
Deanna Dunagan is an actress best known for her Tony Award-winning portrayal of Violet Weston in Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County and for her portrayal of Nana in M. Night Shyamalan’s 2015 film The Visit. She has also appeared in the recurring role of Mother Bernadette on the Fox television series The Exorcist, and Dr. Willa Sipe in the 2018 film An Acceptable Loss by writer Joe Chappelle.