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Cover Story Creative

Spotlight on Plays

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

TodayTix is Spotlight on Plays exclusive ticketing partner. 

TIME STANDS STILL is Pulitzer Prize winner Donald Margulies’ play about a photojournalist and a foreign correspondent trying to find happiness in a world that seems to have gone crazy. Laura Linney, Alicia Silverstone, Eric Bogosian, and Brian D’Arcy James return to the roles they originated on Broadway. They are once again directed by Tony Award winner (Proof) Daniel Sullivan.


BARBECUE

In Robert O’Hara’s rollicking BARBECUE, the O’Mallerys have gathered in their local park to share some barbecue and rousing straight talk while they await their youngest sister’s arrival. What appears to be a festive occasion is actually something quite different. O’Hara, who staged this year’s acclaimed Slave Play, directs a company that includes: Colman Domingo, S. Epatha Merkerson, Tamberla Perry, Kimberly Hebert Gregory, Heather Simms, Tony Award winner Laurie Metcalf, Carrie Coon, David Morse, Kristine Nielsen and Annie McNamara. 


TodayTix is Spotlight on Plays exclusive ticketing partner. 

The Actors Fund envisions a world in which individuals contributing to our country’s cultural vibrancy are supported, valued and economically secure.

Mission: The Actors Fund fosters stability and resiliency, and provides a safety net for performing arts and entertainment professionals over their lifespan.

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Cover Story Interviews

All The World’s Her Stage (…and Backstage)

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.

“It’s a challenge I actually enjoy,” she says. “I know it’s a crazy thing to enjoy. It’s not something you wish for, but if you need to make it happen and you have the right people, you can make it happen.”

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.

The cast and crew of 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.

“She is the person-to-person contact. She’s the problem solver. She’s the empathy master.”

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.

“She exudes exuberance, but also doesn’t beat around the bush when she’s got a problem to work through. And she’s not precious, because she’s focused on problem-solving at every turn.”

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.

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Cover Story Long Form

Looking Back to Look Ahead: How Nostalgia is Baked Into 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.

“What Do We Need to Talk About?”

“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.

Joe Allen Restaurant in NYC

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.”

Adrienne Warren and the cast of Tina! The Tina Turner Musical (photo by Manuel Harlan)

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.”

Mamma Mia
Mamma Mia!

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.

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Stories from the Stage

STORIES FROM THE STAGE – Stacy Keach

The Challenges of Zoom Theater

In April of this year, just as the Pandemic was in full swing, I was approached to play King Lear in a zoomed, 90-minute adaptation, celebrating Shakespeare’s birthday, and to raise money for the poor.

It was a daunting experience.  Even though I was familiar with the text, having played him in two previous productions, I felt the need to have the text close by, requiring me to scroll the words on the computer with my right hand while making sure to keep my eyes focused on the little green dot at the top of my screen, that being the camera.

Also, whenever the actor is not in a scene, it behooves he or she to “mute” and “stop video”.  The problem is remembering to “unmute” and “start video”.  Too often, an actor forgets, and this becomes one of zoom’s frequent mishaps.  In the live theater, to offer good luck, we say “break a leg”.  In the world of zoom, we say, “forget to mute”.

 Choosing the right virtual background is yet another challenge. A green screen becomes an essential component, along with a ring light.  Most of the time, zoom works best with each actor shares the same background.  However, there are exceptions to this. My wife, Malgosia Tomassi, created different backgrounds for each character in our recent zoomed production of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, each color representing the essence of their particular character. For example, my Big Daddy had a purple backdrop.  What I have discovered about his new medium is the degree of concentration required to give a successful performance.  We, the actor, become our own camera and sound man. Depending on how close or far away we are from the screen, we establish the nature of the shot. Also, I have learned that 1) glasses are the enemy as they cause reflections that block the eyes; 2) the actor must be so familiar with the text that “wandering eyes” are avoided, and the actor can look straight into the camera.  In my recent zoomed version of Hughie, one of my favorite characters, having played him at LAMDA in 1965, the National Theater in London in 1980, and now on zoom, I discovered that the essence of zoom theater is a hybrid cross between live theater, film, and television.  Hopefully, zoom theater will become an anomaly of the present, and that we will be back in the live theater in the near future.


An Embarrassing Moment

The year was 1969.  It was my Broadway debut playing Buffalo Bill in Arthur Kopit’s Indians.  On opening night, I galloped onstage, enveloped in my imaginary horse, and due to my jitters, yanked back so hard on the horses’ reins that I snapped his paper mâché neck!  Profoundly embarrassed, I had to think fast!  What to do?  

Somehow, I managed to “get off” or “get out of” my horse, took his drooping head in my hands, came forward to the apron of the stage, and delivered my opening speech.  I was mortified!

However, some weeks later, I was greeted backstage by a fan who informed me that, “I was here opening night.  What happened to that wonderful moment when you snapped the horse’s neck?!!” 

Almost immediately, my embarrassment and shame were alleviated!


Stacy Keach, one of our most distinguished stage actors, made his New York debut in “Macbird” for which he won an Obie and a Drama Desk Award.  His Broadway debut was in “Indians”, for which he received a Tony nomination and a second Drama Desk Award, and his Broadway credits include “Deathtrap,” “The Kentucky Cycle,” “Solitary Confinement” and “Other Desert Cities”.  For the New York Shakespeare Festival he played the title roles in “Peer Gynt” and “Hamlet”, for which he won an Obie.  He was also the recipient of an Obie for “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”.  His many notable films include “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter,” “Fat City”, “The Long Riders”, “American History X” and “W” among many others.  Known as the definitive Mike Hammer from the successful television series, Keach won a Golden Globe Award for the television mini-series “Hemingway”.  He is an inductee in the Theatre Hall of Fame.

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Streams

Barbecue

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Long Form

Two People and Limitless Possibilities: Why the two-hander is so resilient on Broadway and beyond

“When she’s around him, her mind dilates.” That’s how Adam Rapp describes Bella, the college literary professor in his play The Sound Inside who develops a life-changing connection with a student named Christopher. In the show, which opened on Broadway last fall, the pair’s banter about novels and academia evolves into a spiritual bond so intense that during the shocking final moments, they reveal the deepest parts of themselves.

Mary-Louise Parker and Will Hochman in The Sound Inside on Broadway

“It’s kind of metaphysical,” Rapp says. “He walks into her world and wants to throw himself into the fire of great art, and she’s inspired by him, because she’s lost that passion. There’s an element of her seeing who she was and him seeing who he wants to be.”

Crucially, Bella and Christopher don’t see anyone else, at least not on stage. The Sound Inside was one of the season’s most notable two-handers (or play for two actors), a form that has proven to be one of the most resilient in modern theatre.

On Broadway alone, two-handers like The Fourposter and Red have won the Tony Award for Best Play, while Talley’s Folley and Topdog/Underdog earned the Pulitzer Prize in the midst of their runs. Two-handers also led to Tony Award-winning, breakout roles for Anne Bancroft (Two for the Seesaw) and Nina Arianda (Venus in Fur) and earned Tony nominations for Ruth Wilson (Constellations) and Diana Sands (in a production of The Owl and the Pussycat that famously broke the color barrier in 1964).

And that doesn’t even account for two-hander musicals. I Do! I Do!, adapted from The Fourposter, is arguably the most notable example on Broadway, running for over 500 performances in the 1960s. And titles like The Last Five Years, John and Jen, Goblin Market, and Murder for Two have made two-person tuners part of the Off-Broadway landscape for decades.

But why? What is it about this type of show that’s so appealing?

Sometimes it’s a practical choice. “When I was coming up, a lot of playwrights would talk about things like unit sets and small casts, because you’d be more likely to be produced,” says Rapp.  “It was more cost efficient.” He wrote Blackbird, his first two-hander, after downtown theatre troupe Mabou Mines gave him a grant to experiment with directing his own work. Company founder Lee Breuer encouraged him to cut his teeth on something straightforward, so he wrote a play about a troubled couple trying to survive in a dank apartment.

What started as professional prudence, however, led Rapp to some deeper reasons a two-hander can work.

“It forces you to ask really in-depth questions about the characters,” he says. “You have to keep finding reasons for them to stay together. And those questions — ‘Who’s in love with who?’, ‘Who wants to hurt whom?’ — feel more feral because two people are stuck in a room together.”

Lauren Gunderson says the form crackles with energy, and she should know. Her two-handers like I and You and The Half-Life of Marie Curie have helped her become America’s most produced living playwright. (That’s according to the record-keepers at TCG, who note that despite not having a Broadway credit, she has had an incredible number of regional productions in the last few years.) Speaking of two-handers, she says, “When you only have two people, then you know that something is going to happen between them. You can’t think, ‘Well, I don’t know. Who’s the story about?’ It can only be about these people, so for us in the audience, part of the excitement comes from wondering where we’re going with them.”

As an actor, Mary-Louise Parker has experienced that excitement firsthand. Her two-hander credits include the Broadway productions of The Sound Inside (with co-star Will Hochman)  and Simon Stephens’ play Heisenberg (with co-star Denis Arndt). She says both created an unparalleled sense of urgency. “It’s risky because you’re so dependent on that other person,” she explains. “It’s like life. If you’re stuck somewhere with one other person, it’s risky, but it’s wonderful because it forces you to create a real closeness. And when it’s working, the audience feels that, too.”

Many two-handers are potent because of how they wield the dynamic between the people on stage.  In Edward Albee’s A Zoo Story and Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman, for instance, seemingly banal interactions in public places escalate to horrific violence. In ‘night Mother (another Pulitzer Prize winner), Marsha Norman exploits our assumption that a woman can’t be serious when she enters the play and tells her mother she’s going to kill herself.

Kathy Bates and Anne Pitoniak in the original Broadway production of ‘night Mother

Sometimes, a two-hander pulls us out of reality altogether. Take Charles Ludlam’s The Mystery of Irma Vep, in which two actors play eight characters in a camp satire about monsters run amok on a posh estate. “That play lets the audience enjoy the impossibility of what they’re seeing,” says Catherine Sheehy, Resident Dramaturg of Yale Repertory Theatre. It would be much less satisfying with eight actors, she notes, because that wouldn’t let us savor how the performers (and the playwright) create so many people with so few bodies.

“There’s tension and conflict just in the act of performing it. And it turns theatrical tradition on its head, because it refuses to let us associate one body with one character.”

That underscores how challenging a two-hander can be for the actors. “I have never had another job that called on me to do as much as that one did,” says Jeff Blumenkrantz, who played a collection of suspects in Murder for Two during its extended Off-Broadway run in 2013 and 2014. “The challenge really hit me in rehearsal. I was on stage the whole time, so for the entire eight-hour rehearsal day, I was required to fire on all cylinders. It was exhausting, but it was also really rewarding. Whatever was happening on stage, I knew for a fact that I was contributing to it.”

Brett Ryback and Jeff Blumenkrantz in Murder For Two

For Parker, the primary effort comes in staying connected with her co-star. “You have to keep the energy between two people really taut,” she says. “It’s like somebody at the top of a mountain dangling a rope: You can’t let go. I think of it being that intense.”

While performing in The Sound Inside, she was especially fascinated by the interplay between Bella’s monologues to the audience and her intense scenes with Christopher, who never addresses anyone but her. “There were some moments when I actually felt like I was in two places at once,” she recalls. “I was with him and with [the audience], talking to them. I was still working on that quite actively when the play ended, and I would just die to get the chance to do it again.”

And there it is again: The reminder that two-handers, these seemingly small theatrical jewels, can feel enormous. Just like a relationship with another person, the best ones can create an intimacy that dilates our minds.


Mark Blankenship is the founder and editor of The Flashpaper and the host of The Showtune Countdown on iHeartRadio Broadway.

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Stories from the Stage

STORIES FROM THE STAGE – Kenneth Posner

My most memorable Broadway moment happened long before I became a Broadway lighting designer, when I was 17 years old.  It was the early 80’s and I was walking through Shubert Alley on my way to see a show.   I loved theatre and was fascinated by the magic of backstage. There was a man standing outside the stage door of the Shubert Theatre, where A Chorus Line was playing.  We struck up a conversation and he introduced himself as Bob, the show master electrician. I had seen A Chorus Line twice and was mesmerized by the way Theron Musser was able to tell a story with light. 

BEETLEJUICE, Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy

It was about to be half hour, but he brought me inside and that was the first time I had ever walked through a stage door. He showed me backstage and when we ended up onstage, I turned around and looked out into the house and was captivated by the beauty of the Shubert Theatre. Bob invited me to watch the Sunday matinee of A Chorus Line from the control booth. It was the single kindest thing anyone has done for me in the business.  I came back the next day and watched Bob do his pre-show lighting check out. He introduced me to the stage managers and some actors and crew and then I watched the show with him from the booth.  Everyone has a person and an experience that changes the trajectory of their life and cements their decision to go into the theatre. That was my moment and Bob was my person.

PIPPIN, Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

Fast forward to San Francisco 2007.  I was standing on the stage of The Golden Gate Theatre during load-in of Legally Blonde when a man came up to me and said, “you probably don’t remember me,“ I stopped him mid sentence.  I recognized his voice immediately and said, “I know exactly who you are!”  It was Bob.  I threw my arms around him and said, “I probably wouldn’t be standing on this stage if I hadn’t met you”.  It turns out that Bob left New York after A Chorus Line closed and ended up in San Francisco, where he was working as a stage hand on Legally Blonde.  It was wonderful to reconnect with Bob and he has since been on several other shows that I designed.  Bob shared his passion for theatre with me when I was young and inspired me to become the designer I am today.  Sharing our passion as theatre creators is my favorite part about making theatre.

THE COAST OF UTOPIA, Photo Credit: Paul Kolnik


Kenneth Posner is a ten-time Tony nominated lighting designer — winning for The Coast of Utopia: Shipwreck. Among his nearly 50 notable theatre designs are BeetlejuiceWicked, Hairspray, Catch Me If You Can, If/Then, Mean Girls, Pretty Woman, Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, and Glengarry Glen Ross.

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Streams

Time Stands Still

A special reading to benefit The Actors Fund

The presentation will run 1 hour and 42 minutes with one short break.

To turn on subtitles, click the CC button in the video player.

TIME STANDS STILL is available to stream only through Monday, December 7th at 6pm ET.

TIME STANDS STILL is not formatted to be streamed on a TV. We apologize for the inconvenience.


TIME STANDS STILL is Pulitzer Prize winner Donald Margulies’ play about a photojournalist and a foreign correspondent trying to find happiness in a world that seems to have gone crazy. Laura Linney, Alicia Silverstone, Eric Bogosian, and Brian D’Arcy James return to the roles they originated on Broadway. They are once again directed by Tony Award winner (ProofDaniel Sullivan.

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Stories from the Stage

STORIES FROM THE STAGE – Elizabeth Ashley

My Most Embarrassing, Humiliating & Humbling, Moment On The Broadway Stage

Having been on B’way for 62 years (I made my debut in 1958) I’ve had a plethora of embarrassments.

BUT one is spectacularly horrifying!

Way back in the olden days (1974) I was blessed to be in the kind of gig every actor prays for, almost never gets and if, by some miracle, does – they been kissed on the butt by God.

First – a little context:

I was having my 2nd  ‘15 minutes  of fame’. Having had my 1st  ’15 minutes 13 years earlier (i.e. you’re the ‘hottest, brand new shiny object of the moment’, on magazine covers, critic’s darling, prizes galore including a Tony, Neil Simon writes a play for you, etc.)

AND , OF COURSE I BLEW IT!

It went straight to my head. I was so stupid and immature I believed everything I read about myself –

ALWAYS A FATAL MISTAKE!

Being young, inexperienced, not realizing those 15 minutes are mostly marketing tools for producers and never last past your last show and mean nothing in the long run, I became an arrogant, ungrateful brat. I went to Hollywood, made some films, got burned out, married a movie star and quit acting.

Then came the inevitable divorce. All in the world I wanted was to get back on the stage. Needless to say no one was interested. If Broadway remembered me at all it was for my difficult reputation.

Then, out of the blue, I got a call from The American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, CT to play ‘Maggie the Cat’ in ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’. My hero, Tennessee Williams, wanted to do his original version of ‘Cat’.

In 1955 producers had huge reservations about the language and homosexuality. The play got cut and was a huge success, but Williams always longed to have his original version done and Stratford agreed.

I got to work with Tennessee Williams every day in rehearsal under the direction of the great Michael Kahn. The Stratford production was so successful it got national press, due to Tennessee’s involvement and got transferred to Broadway. (Unheard of back then)

All the above to explain how extremely high the stakes were for me. Not only did I have to ‘redeem’ my reputation as a ‘wild child’, foul mouthed, ‘out of control hippie’ – I had a debt to Tennessee and Kahn. They had taken a risk on an actress who Broadway considered ‘down, dead over with and finished’. I prepared every way I could think of.

I studied my 3 cat’s behavior by decreasing their food. I needed to know what they’d do when hungry. After all – Maggie is – above all – hungry! (Relax animal lovers – I didn’t starve ’em – just put ’em on a diet.) We opened on Broadway to raves and sold out houses and once again I was the ‘hottest’ actress in the hottest play on Broadway, but the establishment was still skeptical so I was watching my P’s and Q’s. A second chance is nothing short of a miracle! The set was an extremely raked deck (no longer allowed) that came to a point over the orchestra pit and met the front row.

There’s a moment in the 1st act where Maggie physically moves in on Brick and he rejects her by pushing her away. Thanks to the director and stunt supervisor I was given a spectacular physical move. Brick is far upstage left when she moves into him and when he pushes her away she falls backward, rolls head over heel very fast all the way downstage right edge of stage and like a cat, jumps immediately into a squat, from there slowly rises, faces him and smiles.

One night during that fast, tricky roll to the edge of the stage, I thought I heard something peculiar, but the audience always gasped and scream at that moment so I ignored it. But then I began to hear whimpering that got progressively louder. At first I thought someone had an infant in the audience. I assumed they would get up and leave. But the sounds kept getting louder, like animal squeals. By the time the audience was twisting in their seats and craning their necks trying to see where the sounds were coming from.

Some were shouting “quiet”. Others  were standing, people were hanging over the balcony rail trying to see. By that time the sounds were screams, howls, and yowls, obviously an animal in distress.

I finally, totally lost control and shouted “WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT NOISE?” Realizing I had stopped the show but still steaming with rage, I stepped out of character, turned to the audience and said “Ladies and Gentleman – some Muthafuka has an animal in the house who doesn’t seem to be enjoying the show. I cannot continue until it’s removed.” Applause from the audience.

A man got up from a 4th  row seat & slowly made his way to the aisle. I saw he had a huge dog with him, then to my horror I realized the man was blind and the dog was his seeing eye dog!

I just stood on the edge of the stage while he and the dog slowly made their way up the aisle and out into the lobby.

Needless to say the audience got very quiet while I just stood there and blabbered on and “I’m so sorry – so very sorry – I really couldn’t go on – so very very sorry – blablabla…”

Then, from the balcony, in a loud, unmistakable New York accent, came “You’re paid to act – so act!” Humiliated, I tried to stumble through best I could. The tabloids went crazy with page 6 headlines:

“ASHLEY THROWS BLIND MAN OUT OF THEATER”

“ASHLEY STOPS SHOW DUE TO DELICATE EARS”

“ASHLEY WONT ACT FOR THE BLIND”

My reputation was not redeemed! UNTIL: A letter left back stage from the dog’s owner, saying he’d been bringing his dog to theater for years and dog always sat quietly under his seat, never making a sound. But the dog hated cats with a vengeance and that had to be the only explanation for the dog’s behavior.

NOTE TO ACTORS: Be careful when doing your animal research!


Elizabeth Ashley, a Tony Award winner for her performance in Take Her, She’s Mine, was nominated for Best Actress for her memorable Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and her delicious Corie Bratter in Barefoot in the Park. Her recent Broadway stage credits include August: Osage County, Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, You Can’t Take It With You, and Enchanted April. Her many film and television credits include: Netflix’s Russian Doll, The Carpetbaggers, Coma, Ship of Fools and Ocean’s 8.  

Categories
Streams

Uncle Vanya

A presentation to benefit The Actors Fund

The presentation will run 2 hours and 20 minutes with one short break.

To view on a TV, search for “Spotlight on Plays Presents UNCLE VANYA” on your SmartTV’s YouTube app.

To turn on subtitles, click on the CC button in the video player.

UNCLE VANYA is available to stream only through Monday, November 16th at 6pm ET.


Neil LaBute’s World Premiere adaptation of Anton Chekov’s UNCLE VANYA sees Tony Award winner Alan Cumming take on the titular role joined by Constance Wu, Emmy Award winner Samira Wiley, K. Todd Freeman, Anson Mount, Mia Katigbak, Manik Choksi and Academy Award Winner Ellen BurstynGabriel Ebert narrates the proceedings in an evening directed by Danya Taymor (Heroes of the Fourth Turning).

Categories
Long Form

THOUGHTS ON UNCLE VANYA

Written by Neil LaBute

Imagine an American playwright directing a Russian play for a German-speaking audience…and if that wasn’t enough, setting it in Czechoslovakia! This is where I found myself just a few years ago at Theater Konstanz, the oldest working theater in Germany (nestled in the South near Switzerland on beautiful Lake Konstanz).

I had worked several times with the artistic director there, a wonderful man named Christoph Nix, along with his fantastic in-house repertory troupe of actors, and I was returning to direct a play on the main stage for the first time. Without hesitation I chose UNCLE VANYA.

It was an immersive dream to create with a company of actors in that way, men and women who work together year round and season after season–it was like coming to live with a family during the holidays with all the ups and downs that you can imagine could come with such an experience. Every actor had been in multiple productions with each other and knew all the tricks and tics of their contemporaries; I was the one play- ing catchup but luckily we were given a generous six weeks in which to discover the heart of the play.

We worked each day in harmony (mostly), pouring over my own adaptation of the play, along with a German translation and a copy of the text in the original Russian (thanks to having an interpreter available to the production throughout). Even after working on my own version for several months, many new and wonderful questions about the play cropped up from the eager actors and myself as we slowly worked our way from one end of the play to the other.

Our production was placed in a very specific time period–the ‘Prague Spring’ in Czechoslovakia, 1968, just before Soviet tanks rolled through the streets–and it was a great pleasure to watch the colorful design take shape under the guidance of the hugely talented Regina Fraas. Period furnishings, details and costumes augmented a soundtrack of vintage Beatles music.

All in all, I spent a wonderful two months in the beautiful lake-side town (a marvel of Medieval architecture) and had an intensive, engrossing and fulfilling experience with a group of actors and technicians who didn’t share a common language but shared something far deeper, a profound and endless love for the history and craft of the theater.

Our VANYA ended like no other production I’ve ever heard of or seen but I believe we really did seize upon the spirit of Chekhov’s play and ran with it…I’ve never had a greater or more satisfying stage experience in my entire career.


Neil LaBute is one of our most illustrious playwrights, whose body of work includes Reason to Be Pretty (Tony nomination for Play), Bash: Latter-Day Plays, The Mercy Seat, The Distance From Here, Autobahn (a collection of five of his one- act plays), Fat Pig and Some Girls. His motion picture output is equally impressive, as writer and director, including: In the Company of Men (New York Critics’ Circle Award for Best First Feature and the Filmmakers’ Trophy at the Sundance Film Festival), Your Friends and Neighbors, Possession, and The Wicker Man.

Please tune in beginning Thursday, November 19th at 8pm through Monday, November 23rd to see Neil LaBute’s World Premiere adaptation of Anton Chekov’s UNCLE VANYA. Tony Award winner Alan Cumming takes on the titular role joined by Constance Wu, Emmy Award winner Samira Wiley, K. Todd Freeman, Anson Mount, Mia Katigbak, Manik Choksi and Academy Award Winner Ellen Burstyn. Gabriel Ebert narrates the proceedings in an evening directed by Danya Taymor (Heroes of the Fourth Turning). Tickets from $5 and are available only on TodayTix. Proceeds go to benefit The Actor’s Fund.

Categories
Stories from the Stage

STORIES FROM THE STAGE – Danya Taymor

Like many directors before me, acting was my gateway drug into the theater.  I caught the bug very early on, when my mom brought me to an audition at my local Children’s Theater. I remember feeling a thrill as I lied about my age on the audition sheet: you had to be 7 years old to try out and I was just shy at 6 years 10 months. I felt an even bigger thrill when the cast list was posted, and I saw my name on the list. After the first rehearsal, I was hooked. 

Later on, the possibility of directing came into my life through my incredible high school drama teacher, Kristen Lo. We all thought Kristen was impossibly cool: 28 years old, she was close enough in age to know what we were going through, but far enough that she could keep boundaries. We adored her, and she inspired us to consider all aspects of theater-making: light board operator, playwright, costume designer, stage manager.  We were able to see theater through her eyes: an incredible tool with which to break down social barriers, an artform that demands rigor and mutual respect among its practitioners. Kristen shared her boundless love of plays by dead writers like Ibsen and Shakespeare, but also a devotion to new work by a myriad of voices. Kristen rallied parents from the community to organize field trips to our nearest regional theaters: ACT, Berkeley Rep, Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I didn’t yet recognize the names: Heather Raffo, Dael Orlandersmith, Edward Albee, Mary Zimmerman, August Wilson, Les Waters, Eve Ensler, Caryl Churchill, Nilo Cruz.  But I could feel the power of their voices and of the freshness of the work. As I look back now, I can see the profundity of this early exposure. But Kristen didn’t stop at just exposing us to these pieces, if we saw something we loved, she programmed it the next year and let us take a swing at our own interpretations. If we didn’t like the piece, she encouraged fiery and open debates and encouraged us to get specific. By placing our work alongside that of the pros, and validating our disparate points of view, she made us feel like we could do anything. She shared the anthologies of work from the Humana Festival, 10-minute plays that were hot off the press and encouraged us to direct them ourselves. I directed a one-act that year that had premiered only a few years before at the Humana Festival. 

Kristen wanted to inspire us further and show that we truly didn’t need anything but ourselves and our imaginations to create theater: She created a new work festival “Speed Limit 25”. All work produced in the festival had to be directed, written, and produced by people under the age of 25. In reality, it was all created by students 18 and under. This was revelatory. We witnessed each other be creative in ways we had not yet dreamed we could be and expanded our perceptions of each other. Whether we went on to pursue theater or not, we all were emboldened by the brilliant audacity of our teacher and her fierce belief in each of us. 

Kristen somehow managed to treat us as adults, while not denying our youth.  She taught us to respect one another by showing us how it’s done: never favoring the actor over the techie, stage manager over understudy. Kristen taught us that every theater marker is crucial, and it is only through a collective effort that the work can truly sing. When I think of the director who made me feel most inspired, free, collaborative and safe enough to take risks, I still picture Kristen Lo.


Danya Taymor is an Obie-award winning New York based director, writer and translator. Recent direction includes Will Arbery’s HEROES OF THE FOURTH TURNING (Playwrights Horizons) Korde Arrington Tuttle’s GRAVEYARD SHIFT (Goodman Theater), Jeremy O. Harris’ “DADDY” (Almeida London + New Group/Vineyard), Antoinette Nwandu’s PASS OVER (Lincoln Center + Steppenwolf, Lortel Outstanding Play), Danai Gurira’s FAMILIAR (Steppenwolf), Martyna Majok’s QUEENS (Lincoln Center Theater).

Please tune in beginning Thursday, November 19th at 8pm through Monday, November 23rd to see Neil LaBute’s World Premiere adaptation of Anton Chekov’s UNCLE VANYA directed by DANYA TAYMOR (Heroes of the Fourth Turning). Tony Award winner Alan Cumming takes on the titular role joined by Constance Wu, Emmy Award winner Samira Wiley, K. Todd Freeman, Anson Mount, Mia Katigbak, Manik Choksi and Academy Award Winner Ellen Burstyn. Gabriel Ebert narrates the proceedings. Tickets from $5 and are available only on TodayTix. Proceeds go to benefit The Actor’s Fund.

Categories
Stories from the Stage

STORIES FROM THE STAGE – K. Todd Freeman

Sitting at home in exile from doing the thing one loves the most as well as the thing that supports ones existence has been torture, as I’m sure it has been for many others. I had never imagined that I would live in a time that truly experienced a worldwide plague of medieval proportions. Living through the initial AIDS crisis was as awful as I thought it would get during my lifetime. Clearly I was wrong. I never imagined that something would threaten the existence of something so essential to the breath of humankind….. the mass gathering of humanity, theatre. The sharing of a communal experience. The universal religious communion of soulful connection that is theatre.

Being trapped at home has postponed my participation in many theatre projects that were slated to come to New York City. One being The Minutes by Tracy Letts, which will hopefully see the light of day on Broadway in the near future. The other is Bruce Norris’ DOWNSTATE which I have been blessed to be a part of since it’s premier at Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago in the fall of 2018. We then moved it to The National Theatre in London in 2019 and hopefully it will be coming to New York via Playwrights Horizons next year.

The play and the role have been an extraordinary highlight of my life.

Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow

Americans, as we have all hopefully figured out by now, are living through an extraordinary time in history. Daily, we are being challenged with tough questions that will affect our futures in profound and significant ways. Bruce’s play DOWNSTATE does that as well, which to me is the absolute best sort of dramatic literature. It provokes and challenges in a similar way that Angels in America did in the early 1990’s. DOWNSTATE, takes place in a group home for sex offenders in southern Illinois, and it is those offenders, of varying degrees and types, who are our protagonists. Those roles are some of the most, complex, nuanced, fascinating, difficult, and exhilarating parts written for the American stage. Obviously, in my opinion. I’m a bit biased, apparently.

Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow

This theatre piece does exactly what I demand all great plays should do: challenge and provoke. It demands each audience member to look inside themselves and reexamine their prejudices, morality, and ethics at a base almost primal level. Playing the character I played in front of a live audience every night was a thrilling and intoxicating rush. I felt as though I were center court in a Wimbledon final every night playing alongside the likes of Nadal, the Williamses, McEnroe., and Sampras. The electricity that flowed between audience and actors was life affirming. An intangible, unquantifiable purity that I miss so excruciatingly much, during this particularly difficult time of blight.


K. Todd Freeman recently performed in Steppenwolf’s The Minutes on Broadway, as well as Steppenwolf’s Downstate (Jeff Award, Evening Standard nom.). Broadway: Airline Highway (Tony nom., DD Award), The Song of Jacob Zulu (Tony nom.). Off-Broadway: Fetch Clay, Make Man (Obie); Spunk. TV: “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” “God Friended Me.” Film: Anethesia, Cider House Rules, Grosse Point Blank.

Please tune in beginning Thursday, November 19th at 8pm through Monday, November 23rd to see K. Todd Freeman in Neil LaBute’s World Premiere adaptation of Anton Chekov’s UNCLE VANYA. Tony Award winner Alan Cumming takes on the titular role joined by Constance Wu, Emmy Award winner Samira Wiley, K. Todd Freeman, Anson Mount, Mia Katigbak, Manik Choksi and Academy Award Winner Ellen Burstyn. Gabriel Ebert narrates the proceedings in an evening directed by Danya Taymor (Heroes of the Fourth Turning). Tickets from $5 and are available only on TodayTix. Proceeds go to benefit The Actor’s Fund.