Categories
Interviews Photos

The Minutiae of The Minutes

Everything about The Minutes on Broadway has been crafted to make its world seem as real and as familiar as a half-remembered episode of a classic Americana sitcom. A lost episode of The Andy Griffith Show where Opie learns about local politics, maybe.

The Minutes is, however, a Tracy Letts play—so it doesn’t take very long before things begin to shift from the comedy of small-town bureaucracy to something more sinister. Told in real-time during a city council meeting, Letts’ play lures audiences into expecting something very different than is what is on the playwright’s mind. But it all begins with the set on the Cort Theatre stage, a room of desks and framed certificates and flag stands as instantly recognizable as your parents’ living room.

It’s an American iconography. You feel that immediately when you walk in the door because it’s so recognizable.

“The setting carries with it an iconography,” director Anna D. Shapiro says. “You look at the set, you see those tables, all those little microphones, you see the flags behind them—I mean, it’s an American iconography. You feel that immediately when you walk in the door because it’s so recognizable.”

That familiarity—culled by set designer David Zinn from an actual coffee table book of city council rooms—is the result of a specificity so honed that it becomes universal. “When you’re that specific, it really tightens the focus,” Shapiro says. “The audience starts to understand that contract of where they’re looking for their information. And all that we’re trying to do in theater is figure out a way to communicate the contract to the audience as fast as possible: These are the rules, these are the possibilities, this is the world.”

The set is all Zinn, but the individual props on each council member’s desk all came from the performers. Each character may seem like an archetype—the befuddled but vocal older man; the very prim and dignified woman of a certain age; the combative guy; the new guy still figuring it out—but each is also a fully realized person participating (or zoning out) in the meeting being held.

“I have to say, I watched probably 100 hours of YouTube videos of city council meetings from all over the country,” says Letts, who also stars as the mayor. “If you suffer from insomnia, let me recommend you watch 100 hours of YouTube videos of city council meetings, because they’re crashingly boring. But they’re also very funny in their own way.”

For a play about politics on Broadway in 2020 (and one written in 2016, no less), The Minutes is both apolitical and shockingly current. “I don’t think the words ‘Republicans’ or ‘Democrats’ are ever spoken in the play,” Letts says. The Minutes is not intended to be a comedy about political party differences; what Letts and Shapiro are interested in is engaging audiences about bigger questions. “How do we conduct ourselves as a civilization, as a society, particularly an American society?” Letts says. “And I think it’s asking some very basic questions about the kind of society you want to live in. Where do you want to live and how would you have us conduct ourselves in the world? And I hope it’s doing it in a comic and accessible way.”

Beyond local government and its politicians, Letts points out that the way we behave in any meeting—be it in an office, during a job interview, or anywhere else—is a different mode of conduct than in a restaurant or with friends. “You see a lot of different types surround the table that you recognize,” Letts says, adding that he also drew upon meetings with at the Steppenwolf Theatre for the play, “though I won’t mention any of them by name.”

“You know, you could watch it several times because you could track one person through the whole thing once you actually know the plot of the piece,” Shapiro adds. “It would be fun to be able to watch your favorite character and how they dealt with all of these little moments that you didn’t understand the first time you saw it.”

The Minutes

Those little moments add up to what Shapiro refers to as “a tipping point” in the play. In fact, it’s a major reason the play is 90 minutes long, with no intermission. “It takes a really long time for things to either go bad or get good, but the truth is that there is a tipping point,” Shapiro says. “There’s a moment where you go from being OK to not OK. There’s a moment where you were healthy, and then there’s a moment where you aren’t. There’s a moment where the German town became a Nazi village. There’s a moment, those things happen. And I think it’s important to know that that can happen in minutes.”


Categories
Creative

Talkin’ Turkey


Exclusive excerpts from Talking Turkey: The Wit and Wisdom of President Charles H.P. Smith. For one night only, tune in on Thursday, May 7, 2020 at 8pm ET to see President Smith (John Malkovich) and two key members of his campaign team, Clarice Bernstein (Patti LuPone) and Archer Brown (Dylan Baker) tackle major American concerns just days before the upcoming Presidential election. To quote one of President Smith’s most famous lines:  “I always felt I’d do something memorable… I just assumed it’d be getting impeached.”


THE ELECTORAL SEASON

My opponents are yapping at my heels.

I have been asked if I wish them ill.

No, I do not wish them ill. If I wished them ill I would withdraw from the race. For this job, finally, is an unmitigated pain in the ass.

Yes, there are moments of reward – as when the Press goes home, or I can just sit back on Air Force One and tell racist jokes; but, by and large, the job is a never ending grind, with little to look forward to but the hundreds of millions of dollars my supporters will be called upon to cough up when I have left office.

Let me serve notice on them now: you may call it “directorships,” or “Charitable Institutions,” or stock tips, or the “loan” of your beach house, but, friends, I did my part and you’re going to do yours.

And, should one of my opponents prove successful come November, I say to them what the aged parents say to those with a newborn: “Ha Ha – you’re in for it now!”

God bless the United States.

Charles H.P. Smith


ON THE SUBJECT OF THE CONSTITUTION


The constitution is one of the foundation documents of this great country. No, it is not written on stone, it is written on parchment or the skins of some animal which, though perhaps endangered now, was, at the time of its composition, perfectly disposed to have its skin written on.

Is this different than tattooing? Yes and no.

Tattooing is a custom brought to thee shores by those intrepid mariners who first ventured to the great south seas, bringing syphilis and bringing back coral, pineapples, and those cunning print shirts so popular during the summer months. Tattooing is also used, as we know, in identification of the lips of horses, poodles, and other beasts both of burden and enjoyment. These tattoos identify the animals, should they be lost or stolen. So the next time you see an ownerless horse, thank those visionaries who drafted that compact which keeps us safe and secure: your constitution.


Sincerely, 

Charles H.P. Smith, President of the United States


MY MILITARY SERVICE

Military Service, as I understand it, means nothing more and certainly nothing less than service in those branches of the Armed Forces we, as a Nation, have assembled to stand between us and those countries, individuals and groups which want us dead.

What is America? Some might say it but a “washer” keeping Mexico from crashing into Canada, and thus, unacceptably mixing the beavers and the gauchos.

But it is more than this. It is the place where we, many of us, first got laid; and, as such, it is inexpressibly dear to us. Perhaps it was in the backseat of a Chevy, perhaps it was “up against a tree.” How, and wherever, it is an event graven on our memory. And a country worth fighting for.

I recall a poster from the Days of World War II: We’re one for all and all for one Behind the Man, Behind the gun” – as was I, during the years of my eligibility for Military service. 

Did I “serve” – in the commonly accepted sense of the term? Not in uniform, no.

I wear that uniform now. It is a blue suit, and I wear it to my office. Every Day, as Commander-in-Chief of those who also risk their lives, their jobs, and the stability of their marriages, while their spouses, tempted beyond restraint to cavort with the grocer, the UPS Man or Woman, the poolboy, clerk, firefighter, secretary, whose combined effort is summarized in the phrase: “United States.”


DO I WEAR A TOUPEE?

When young we are taught not to make personal remarks. 

Which of us has not seen the unschooled youngster, shocking and disgracing its parents with the remark, “Mommy, look at that Jew!” or similar slurs.

No, we must curb our tongues. The foundation of a viable community is our ability to refrain from those thoughtless commends which sow discord.

“Look at that Big Fat Pig,” for example, is a phrase acceptable only as an expression of delight at the State Fair; and I am hard-pressed to imagine an acceptable situation for “Mormons make me vomit.”

We are all in this together, and even the least of us, the homeless, the old, producers of Reality Shows, are entitled to the same courtesy we extend to their productive neighbors.

Don’t make personal remarks. Teach your children so that they may teach their children (such conceived, hopefully, after the former’s teenage years).


Yours for Abstinence,

Charles H.P. Smith


CONGRESSIONAL SEX SCANDALS

Congressmen should be allowed to turn over a new leaf, but not allowed to turn over one of the pages.


YOGA

Yoga is responsible for more human vice and misery than any force I know.

Children in India steal, some from their very parents, to get money for the study of yoga.

I would rather have a child on drugs than “on” yoga. 

For there is an organization especially created to counter drugs, we call it the police, but where are the heroes, standing up to the scourge of yoga?

I therefore have asked congress to prepare a bill which will be named: “Defense of the Country – The War on Yoga”.


Your President, 

Charles H.P. Smith

P.S. If you see anyone “bending over” too long – call the police.

March 26, 2008

Categories
Interviews

Giving Props to Broadway’s Secret Hoarders

A lamp, a locket, a fiddle, a pie. To theatre fans, these four items conjure up images of iconic shows, and that’s the secret power of props. Though they often blend into the scenery, each prop has its own story to tell and can become the eternal image of a production. But how do you go about finding that all-important piece?

“My process starts with dramaturgy—reading the play, reading the play, reading the play,” says Kathy Fabian, owner of Propstar. “I read about the play, the playwright, about the playwright’s other plays, listen to the director and the other designers [discuss] their interpretation of the piece and their goals so I can attempt to interpret what’s in their ‘mind’s eye’ when they picture the world we are about to create.”

Kathy Fabian - courtesy American Theatre Wing
Kathy Fabian – courtesy American Theatre Wing

Since 2005, Kathy’s company has designed and managed large-scale prop packages for dozens of Broadway and Off-Broadway shows, as well as for TV and film. From All My Sons to Kinky Boots, her keen eye and amazing artistic vision have dressed the sets of some of the biggest productions in New York—and her latest challenge is quite a feat.

Kathy will provide the props for David Mamet’s classic play American Buffalo, which is due to open at Circle In The Square Theatre this summer. Set in a junk shop in the late 70s, it tells the tale of the shop’s owner, Don, who plans to steal back a buffalo nickel he believes is worth more than he sold it for.

“The junk shop definitely has its own presence, and even though it doesn’t have a voice, it’s integral to telling the story,” Kathy explains.

“People who do what I do enjoy the hunt…so I got on a plane to St. Petersburg.”

Like an actor building their character, she digs deep to get to know her subject inside and out ensuring it becomes a real place in the minds’ of the audience. “I ask myself many questions like what’s the history of the shop? How long ago did the junk begin to amass? What are Don’s personal interests that might influence what he collects? Does he curate his goods or did he just happen upon/steal/salvage/buy them? What’s the difference between a pawn shop, a thrift shop, an antique store, and a junk shop?”

Monger’s Flea Market

Just like a missed line or an ill-timed lighting cue, a prop from the wrong decade or even a piece with the wrong texture can pull an audience out of the world presented on stage. But sourcing items takes time, research, and patience, particularly for a set that’s densely layered. “I start looking at advertisements from the era and head to eBay and Etsy to look for hero items first. Once I’ve got my smattering of jaw-dropping 60s and 70s lamps, famous toys, posters, comic books, car parts, and specific items mentioned in the script by name, I move onto vintage fillers. Other than a few iconic gems an audience member might recognize from their past, the merchandise, (if you can call it that), is truly junk – used items you wouldn’t believe anyone would buy.”

Kathy Fabian – courtesy American Theatre Wing

Though filling a junk shop may be a prop master’s dream, each show offers its own opportunity, challenges and excitement, with no two jobs ever being the same. “You probably won’t learn something from one project that you can use as a go-to solution on the following ones. One morning, you may find yourself embarking on a play that’s set on an imaginary planet 100 years in the future, and after you’ve translated the playwright’s words into 3D for the stage, your next endeavour might be to recreate the inside of a military hospital during World War II.”

With a breadth of eras, locations, venues, and environments to create, the number of items needed by such a prolific prop specialist is astounding. “Space is always an issue, especially in Manhattan,” Kathy explains. “I keep two large rooms of small items like houseware, tools, soft goods, and collectibles at my studio on 52nd Street. We offer smaller companies with challenged budgets the option to rent items for $5 to $10 a month. This keeps things moving. I keep larger items in storage units in New Jersey and Yonkers. Shows like American Buffalo provide a great opportunity for spring cleaning as they allow me to lend things from my own stock and make some much-needed space for a while.”

With rows and rows of incredible items that have created their very own time capsule, along with all the equipment any theatre company may need to kit out a rehearsal space, Propstar’s warehouses are treasure troves that would wow anybody lucky enough to explore them. Packed full of vintage telephones and signs, banquets of fake food and old-school accounting calculators, miniature books and handmade textiles, Propstar’s wealth of products are more than a starting point for any production’s needs. However, Kathy’s hunt for the perfect items never stops. “I visit flea markets, Goodwills, salvage yards, Craigslist… the online auction sites these days are so very helpful. When I started my career, all my shopping was on foot, and in some cases, I really had to get lucky!”

Kathy is part of a community of prop specialists that work on Broadway. Between them, they form a network of knowledge and contacts that can find almost anything a director could want or need for a show. “If I hit a wall and can’t find the particular item I’m looking for, I call around to some of my junk dealers and other pals in the business. People who do what I do enjoy the hunt, so often once I put the word out there that I’m after something, folks join in on the search. We trade favors.”

However, there are times when all the favors in the world aren’t enough to find that one special item and you have to go a little further afield to find what you’re looking for: “For Fiddler on the Roof in 2004, no one could come up with the authentic Russian antiques which were required to fulfil the design vision, so I got on a plane to St. Petersburg.”

With tight schedules and a creative team awaiting input, prop masters don’t always have time to fly across the world. Luckily, there are other ways to get your hands on that elusive object. “Sometimes, rather than wasting too much time looking for something, I decide it’s more effective to just start from scratch and build a copy of the item. The wealth of talented craftspeople in this local network affords us that option as well.”

Kathy herself has always had an interest in making and creating, learning crafty hobbies at a young age. “Both my grandmothers taught me to sew, and so my hands were busy with crochet projects, needlepoint, doll-making, etc. from a very young age.”

This creative nature followed Kathy throughout her life and eventually led her to a career in props. “During my time at the University of Vermont, I was very active in theatre, both the performance side and the technical side. I took a special interest in carpentry and finish work. When I first moved to New York, I worked as a furniture maker and began receiving offers for props work. Slowly I took on more and more projects (while keeping my night job, of course), built a small company, and graduated from Off-Broadway to Broadway offers. Finally, one day I realized I didn’t need to wait tables anymore.”

For anyone interested in starting a career in props, Kathy has two pieces of advice: “Number one, call me! And number two, be prepared for a wild ride of multitasking and shedding your fears of trying new things and asking questions. You will never find the words ‘I’m so bored’ floating in your mind again.”