One of my favorite experiences as a Stage Manager has been working on the show Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth. It stands out to me for several reasons. I went to London to rehearse the show which was a first for me. Working with my assistant Ken McGee, I learned a lot about how differently a British director and acting company work on a play. There was a lot of improvisation and playtime built into the day. The majority of the cast had done the show before so this helped the new members (and us) get a feel for the show and become integrated into the world of the play. We also had to work on our accents (we all had to practice it for a few days). And we took a field trip to the area outside London to the part of England where our play was set.
This passion and care to create the exact atmosphere was invaluable as we moved this show to New York.
Another extraordinary component was that the show had live chickens, (kept in their own “star” dressing room) a turtle, goldfish, a horse trough full of water, small children, real grass and dirt and an Airstream trailer on stage. As it turns out this was not the last show I did with live animals and children but that’s another story. The magic we created together with Mark Rylance as the lead actor and Ian Rickson as our director was an amazing experience. The show started with a late night rave party with strobe lights, stage fog and LOUD music and ended with the conjuring of mythical giants.
Every night I was swept away as the actors and technicians joined together to believe wholeheartedly in the story we were telling. We were lucky to be able to make that magic with every performance.
The role that escaped me – one that I would have loved to play.
It’s a play I’m pretty sure hasn’t been written yet. There are significant roles for Vinie Burrows and for me. I’ve met Vinie only a couple of times and seen only a little of her work. But she impresses me, and I want to do this play with her.
Maybe we, the not-only-white American theater, are on the verge of gaining and expressing more insight about how our country’s systemic racism has formed us, as people, as citizens, as artists. If so, then this insight will of course flow through us, from us, in our work, as our gift to our audience.
Vinie has experienced the injustice of lessened opportunity in our racist theater, and also her own resilience and strength. She carries the legacy of the crimes against her forbears, and their suffering.
I have experienced easier opportunity, and a sense of such privilege as normal. That has certainly made earning a living as an actor easier. I’m not feeling strengthened though by a legacy of racism. In this case, easier isn’t better. I need to keep learning more about my history and experience of racism, and of hers.
It would be my privilege to do this play with Vinie. Working together is more fun than anything. I like to think we have something to offer each other, our colleagues, our audience.
I hope she’ll say Yes when the offer comes. I don’t know who is writing the play. Quickly please. Vinie and I are getting on.
Once upon a time, a young woman ventured forth on a long road trip to attend the dreaded entrance interview for the Yale School of Drama.
That was me, in a carefully chosen brand new double-breasted suit, hopeful, like a lottery ticket holder. I nervously entered an unremarkable brick building on York Street in New Haven.
I lugged my giant black bag filled with everything remotely artistic I have ever done up the stairs and sat in the Design Office waiting to be called, smoothing down stray hairs and trying to get my heart to slow down.
My fate would be decided by legends of design; professors Ming Cho Lee, Jane Greenwood and Jess Goldstein. I walked in, unzipped my portfolio, took a deep breath and launched nervously into my spiel.
After a short while, I was interrupted by Ming who raised his hand and said, “That’s enough.”
The group silently pawed through my pile of naive attempts at designing the set for King Lear, pencil sketches of my mother (my only willing model), photos of medieval armor I made out of carpet pads, earnest attempts at still life paintings, laughable costume designs for Twelfth Night and my diaries filled with memories and doodles.
Finally, Ming spoke. “Your watercolor is terrible!”
“The proportions on your figures are all wrong!”
“Your set and costume design is really terrible!”
And, finally, he said, “I think you don’t know many plays!”
Sad but true.
“But… this…” He added, “this is something.”
It was my hoard of scrappy, little diary/sketchbooks. The ones I’d take to concerts, museums, restaurants, on the subway, in which I’d sketch and write about the things I wanted to capture and commit to memory anytime I was still for more than a few minutes.
He flipped through them, nodding his head.
The others began nodding silently, too.
To my amazement, I was accepted right there on the spot.
What I realized then was that I didn’t need to show dazzling proficiency in theater design to be a promising designer; they were looking for a keen observer and a willing sponge.
Designers draw from their wells of artistic inspiration. They fill this well with amazing and ordinary things they see and experience everyday and everywhere.
I learned my first lesson before classes even began.
Linda Cho is a Tony Award winning costume designer with extensive experience designing for both theatre and opera in the US and internationally. In 2014 she won the Tony Award and the Henry Hewes Design Award for the Broadway musical A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. In 2017 she was nominated for the Tony, Outer Critic’s Circle and Drama Desk Awards for Best Costume Design of a Musical for the Broadway production of Anastasia. In 2018 she was proud to be part of Broadway’s first all female creative team for Lifespan of a Fact.
Part documentary, part stage performance, “PIAF… Her Story… Her Songs” is a “powerful, emotional and mesmerizing” (San Francisco Chronicle) look at French chanteuse Edith Piaf as she tells her story through a theatrical presentation by singer Raquel Bitton. Bitton literally becomes Piaf while singing, but steps back and tells her story – in English – between the mostly French songs. Archival photos of Piaf illustrate her life of lucky breaks and tragedy. Some of the evening’s best moments are of Bitton and Piaf’s friends, lovers, composers happily discussing Piaf over food and wine at a Paris bistro. The event features 16 songs performed with a full orchestra, including “La Vie En Rose,” “No Regrets” and “Hymn to Love.”
Looking Back at Forgotten Plays by Black Playwrights
A New Series in Honor of Black History Month
Almost 70 Years Later, Take a Giant Step Remains a Vital American Play
By MARK BLANKENSHIP
Spencer Scott, the hero of Louis S. Peterson’s 1953 drama Take a Giant Step, ought to be listed alongside Willy Loman, Walter Lee Younger, and Joe Bonaparte as one of the great, socially aware protagonists of American drama. Just like those characters, he fights as hard as he can against the country’s failures, and even though he doesn’t win, he exposes something true.
But as vital as they are, both Spencer and his play are largely forgotten. That’s our mistake. Now is the perfect time to remember them.
To a modern audience, the story of Take a Giant Step will seem acutely familiar: The only Black kid in his tony northern high school, Spencer gets suspended after angrily contradicting a teacher who says the slaves were too lazy to free themselves during the Civil War. When his parents find out, they’re horrified, though not by the teacher. They tell their son that as a Black man, he doesn’t have the privilege of contradicting white people.
How is he supposed to be happy, he wonders, when everyone he knows just wants him to remember his place?
Peterson understood this conflict. He based the play on his own experience growing up in Hartford, Connecticut, and critics hailed him for his uncommon insight and feeling. After the show played five weeks on Broadway — and returned Off Broadway for an impressive eight months in 1956 — he abandoned his earlier career as an actor and became a trailblazer on Broadway and in film and television. He not only wrote the screenplay for the film adaptation of Take a Giant Step, which made him one of the first Black screenwriters in the Hollywood system, but also got an Emmy nomination for Joey, a 1957 installment of Goodyear Playhouse starring Kim Stanley and Anthony Perkins.
Granted, Peterson’s success didn’t always shield him from the very oppression that Spencer tries to fight. The film of Take a Giant Step, for instance, was forced to be re-edited because it was deemed too frank in its language and sexuality. As the critic Mark A. Reid noted in a Jump Cut magazine article about Peterson’s work, onscreen depictions of Black sexuality in the 1950s and 60s were typically limited to lusty madness (like Dorothy Dandridge’s character in Carmen Jones) or violent crime (like the the courtroom description of interracial rape in To Kill a Mockingbird). In this thick of this era, it was considered taboo for Spencer to have everyday confusion about growing up and meeting women.
Undaunted, Peterson kept writing about social issues. His 1962 play Entertain a Ghost examines interracial relationships, as does his sweeping 1979 drama Crazy Horse. In 1983 he wrote Another Show, about the rise adolescent suicide, specifically for his students at SUNY Stony Brook.
None of these later plays were as successful as Take a Giant Step, but Peterson still had an undeniable impact on the arts in America. Along with laying a foundation for other writers of color, his work also highlighted a generation of Black performers. At the age of 17, for instance, Louis Gossett, Jr. made his Broadway debut playing Spencer, and before he became a superstar pop singer, Johnny Nash played Spencer in the film. Ruby Dee also appeared in the movie, while Beah Richards, Bill Gunn, and Godfrey Cambridge were among the stars of the Broadway and off-Broadway productions. (It’s worth noting that Gossett briefly reprised his role in the Off-Broadway run as well.)
The astonishing cumulative success of these performers just burnishes the legacy of both a play and a playwright that are ripe for rediscovery.
Mark Blankenship is the editor of The Flashpaper and the co-author of the recently published book Madonna: A to Z.
Thank you for all who have donated to the Actors Fund!
GORE VIDAL’S THE BEST MAN weaves humor and suspense in equal measure as a Secretary of State and a U.S. Senator contend for the Presidential nomination and, most importantly, for the endorsement of a colorful and canny ex-President. Academy Award winner Morgan Freeman plays the ex-President and the company of actors includes John Malkovich, Zachary Quinto, Vanessa Williams, Stacy Keach, Tony Award winners Phylicia Rashad, Reed Birney, Katie Finneran, and Elizabeth Ashley, directed by Michael Wilson.
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.
GORE VIDAL’S THE BEST MAN weaves humor and suspense in equal measure as a Secretary of State and a U.S. Senator contend for the Presidential nomination and, most importantly, for the endorsement of a colorful and canny ex-President. Academy Award winner Morgan Freeman plays the ex-President and the company of actors includes John Malkovich, Zachary Quinto, Vanessa Williams, Stacy Keach, Tony Award winners Phylicia Rashad, Reed Birney, Katie Finneran and Elizabeth Ashley. The director is Michael Wilson, who staged the acclaimed 2012 revival.
Kenneth Lonergan’s acclaimed THIS IS OUR YOUTH, which follows forty-eight hours in the lives of three very young New Yorkers at the dawn of the Reagan Era, has attracted a trio of the most exciting new actors. Lucas Hedges, an Academy Award nominee from Lonergan’s Manchester By the Sea, this year’s Emmy Award nominee for Best Actor, Paul Mescal (Normal People) and Grace Van Patten (The Meyerowitz Stories, Good Posture). This play which involves theft, drug-dealing and youthful desiresis a riveting snapshot of the moment between adolescence and adulthood. Lila Neugebauer (The Waverly Gallery) directs.
RACE, by Pulitzer Prize winner David Mamet, tackles America’s most controversial topic in this provocative play. A potent dramatic cocktail of sex, guilt and legal maneuvering, Race concerns three lawyers (Ed O’Neill, David Alan Grier and Alicia Stith) defending a wealthy white executive (Richard Thomas) charged with raping a black woman. David Alan Grier and Richard Thomas return to the roles they created during the play’s hit run on Broadway. Tony Award winner Phylicia Rashad directs.
In David Mamet’sBOSTON MARRIAGE Anna and Claire, two scheming “women of fashion” have their world upended when Anna receives an enormous emerald and an income to match from a wealthy admirer. Claire, meanwhile, is infatuated with a respectable young lady and wants to enlist the jealous Anna’s help for an assignation. Tony Award winner Patti LuPone and Rebecca Pidgeon are Anna and Claire, with Sophia Macy as their Maid. Mamet directs.
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 Burstyn. Gabriel Ebert narrates the proceedings in an evening directed by Danya Taymor (Heroes of the Fourth Turning).
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 Daniel Sullivan.
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.
With Stars Of Hamilton, The Band’s Visit, and Fiddler On The Roof
Based in Jewish tradition, Shabbat — and its teaching that spending meaningful time connecting with friends and family — is for everyone. Much like yoga or meditation can be, Shabbat is an act of peaceful rebellion against a constantly moving world. When this isolating global pandemic took hold, OneTable was looking for a way to keep the magic of Friday night Shabbat going, and for a way for people to mark time when every day feels the same.
They landed on PAUSE, a new video series collaboration between OneTable and Broadway’s Adam Kantor. Initially conceptualized as a one night special, OneTable and the production team behind Saturday Night Seder were stuck on the fact that the beauty of Shabbat comes from its unfaltering arrival every single week. The series is designed to build on the ritual of Shabbat, to take a moment — a pause — and ask big questions. Each video melds tradition with innovation, asking and answering the question how might we imagine the world not as it is, but as it could be?
“Since Broadway has shut down, I’ve been missing the joys of collaborating with artists who inspire me on the daily,” Kantor said. For the series debut, OneTable and Kantor collaborated with dancer/choreographer Jesse Kovarsky (The Band’s Visit, Fiddler On The Roof, Sleep No More). “Jesse is one of my favorite artists and collaborators on Broadway,” Kantor said. “We first met during Fiddler On The Roof, in which he played the titular role, and then we had the good fortune of working together again on The Band’s Visit, in which he was the associate choreographer.” Filmed in his own NYC apartment, Kavarsky explores his interpretation of receiving traditional Shabbat candles in the mail from his parents, and figuring out how to make them his own — delving into the question, “What do we do with the things we inherit?”
The second installment (Friday, November 6) features Daniel Watts (Hamilton, Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, In the Heights, Tina) and Kelly Hall-Tompkins (the fiddler violin soloist in the recent Broadway revival of Fiddler On The Roof), wrestling with the concept of making the ancient new, through music and spoken word poetry. The remaining ten episodes of the series (co-produced by Eric Kuhn and production agency Gesundheit Media) will debut on each of the first Fridays of the month, culminating on Friday, September 3, 2021.
You can watch the first video above, and stay tuned at @onetableshabbat or onetable.org/pause on the first Friday of each month at 5pm Eastern as featured artists offer their personal interpretation of the traditions, intentions, and contemporary applications of Shabbat ritual through digital performance art, spoken word, dance, song, humor, meditation and more.
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.