Friday, October 31, 2014

Theatre & Politics... Same thing

Contributed by Elizabeth Burke

I have always said that two things I love equally are basically the same thing, politics and theatre. Years ago, when I worked on local and national political campaigns, I used to stand in the back of a crowd of supporters and watch candidates give the same stump speech day after day, week after week, sometimes 2 or 3 times on the same day.  It occurred to me this is the same as doing eight shows a week, week in and week out, month after month.  How do you keep it fresh?  How do you keep saying the same words without sounding like you would much rather be at the bar with your audience having a noisy, slightly tipsy good time.  How do you convince your audience that this is the first time you are saying these words?

Like actors, politicians play to their audience, and in politics, they are usually speaking to people they already know so the audience is hard to fool. Pols need to connect somehow so they talk about local issues, whatever is important to this neighborhood so these voters will go and vote for them on Election Day.  Politicians also spend more face to face time with local political leaders, eating terrible meals at Veteran’s Halls, Booster Clubs, and (shudder) Holiday Inns.  The energy that it takes to engage with each person at these events, learning and speaking about their homegrown concerns all while acting like there is no place you would rather be could wear down the busiest Broadway actor, even the indefatigable Nathan Lane! Nathan only needs to be fully present for about 3 hours on show night, but a candidate needs to be fully engaged for about 12-18 hours in a given day for months on end. 

Actors are given a script which they memorize and from which they (almost) never deviate. The same goes for politicians. Yet, there are politicians who think that improve is the way to go!  Keeping their message fresh and new means that they will just speak “from the heart.”  This rarely goes well.  Have you ever been in improve class and you have to work with someone who loves improve, wants so badly to be funny but is not and never will be?  They try so hard, but being funny is not within their grasp because, humor is something one is born with, it’s inherent. Same with politics, some are just born with the politicking gene. It is physically painful to watch a candidate go off script, trying to be something they’re not just to forge some kind of connection with their audience. 

See, actors and politicians are both going for the same object, making the audience believe every word they say.  They both assume another identity and commit 100% so the audience can suspend their disbelief and not see them as the carefully crafted character that was created for them.  For if we believe, so will the audience.

Arthur Miller saw the same thing and made this observation of Al Gore and George W. Bush following the 2000 election. 

"Political leaders everywhere have come to understand that to govern they must learn how to act. No differently than any actor Gore went through several changes of costume before finding the right mix to express the personality he wished to project. Up to the campaign he seemed an essentially serious type with no great claim to humor, but the Presidential type character he had chosen to play was apparently happy, upbeat, with a kind of Bing Crosby mellowness. I daresay that if he seemed so awkward it was partly because the image was not really his, he had cast himself in a role that was wrong for him. As for Bush, now that he is President he seems to have learned not to sneer quite so much, and to cease furtively glancing left and right when leading up to a punch line, followed by a sharp nod to flash that he has successfully delivered it. This is bad acting because all this dire over-emphasis casts doubt on the text. Obviously, as the sparkly magic veil of actual power has descended upon him he has become more relaxed and confident, like an actor after he has read some hit reviews and knows the show is in for a run."


Liz Burke (bio coming shortly)

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Why Are We Artists?

Contributed by Brad Burgess

“They have very prominently placed cultural policy as part of the national agenda…intelligent and insightful debate around issues of culture, the cultural agenda, the possibilities of culture to determine the future of a nation…”
          ~ Professor Peter Eckersall, Graduate Center CUNY
               speaking on Singapore 10/14/2014

Political theatre starts with a fundamental question, “Why are we artists?”

In Singapore, it sounds like almost a sacred duty for this young country to utilize arts to examine, explore and ultimately improve their culture through suggestion of political, spiritual or emotional betterment…

We are artists because on some level we are reacting to reality and saying, “this is not enough.”  We are saying we need more to experience in our daily lives.  We need to create something more, explore deeper, discuss in more detail.

For me, political theatre moves forward from the recognition that this feeling of need is a political reality.


Recently, at Prelude Festival, there was a conversation about honesty. 
Allison Lyman, Artistic Producer MESTC asked “How do you know when a piece is honest?” I responded something like: "I always think of Judith and what she would say as founder of The Living Theatre. For her, every play is about inspiring the audience to a beautiful, peaceful revolution that transforms our communities into better functioning communities that care for the needs of all."

That can mean a lot of things politically, not all as overt as social revolution.

In these times, the word political has been reductively devalued by a two party system, and so now much of “political” theatre has to be directed at this reduced reality, and the issues it has left us with the environment (Extreme Weather by Karen Malpede), with our health , with poverty (That Poor Dream by The Assembly), with our hardness and violent solutions that are not working (Won't Be a Ghost by Francis Weiss Rabkin).

But political theatre is also deeper than two-party issues caused by our current version of a capitalist democracy.  It is really about our political duty to our world as artists responding to the original question, “why are we artists?”


The Assembly’s adaptation of Great Expectations in That Poor Dream, is overtly political about socio-economic class in modern day America and how it’s the same product of our financial system as Victorian England was…

At the same time, the actors break through the 4th wall and communicate stories from their real lives that are intimate, personal, and emotional.

In those moments they are recognizing a political mandate that the actors lives matter in the creation of work.  Similarly, by doing this, they are acknowledging that the individual story of each of the audience members in attendance, also matters.

The politics of this play are that we need to address class reality with each other in order to avoid the pain of the characters, and on a more Artaudian level, the pain of the actors and the the pain of the audience.

But it doesn’t have to be so heavy either.

For instance, David Neumann’s work at Prelude, I Understand Everything Better…all on death…had an inescapable delight, a playfulness and light that was its own political statement about how we can meditate together on death and its pain and react to it.    It was fun as well as meaningful.

Having fun is just as political as feeling pain in answering cultural need and development.

For me, all that and in between is our political theatre.

Political theatre is whatever it means to you as a person that answers the cultural need for artistic creation.

Don’t get me wrong, I think more people should come right out with direct action and political critique to encourage a more politically engaged society and work with as many organizations to do so as possible.

“Art is certainly for art’s sake,” she said. “But I also fervently believe in art for life’s sake.”         
                       ~ Deborah Rutter, President, Kennedy Center (Washington Post)

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

War Makes a Play

Contributed by Virlana Tkacz

I first saw Izolyatsia just over a year ago. Yara Arts Group, which I direct, was invited to create a new theatre piece for the Izolyatsia Platform for Cultural Initiatives housed in an old factory complex in Donetsk, a city in eastern Ukraine. Donetsk is known as the home of miners. I had been there once before with Serhiy Zhadan, a wonderful young writer, exploring working mines and illegal digs. So I started thinking of tunnels and what people imagine while they are underground.

Luba Mykhailova, the founder of Izolyatsia, liked my proposal to build a tunnel, but asked that we think about people other than miners. We decided to interview young people in Donetsk and posted a note on a local website inviting people to come tell us about their dreams and their city. Over twenty people showed up. Most were in their early 20s and were overwhelmingly positive about Donetsk and their hopes. As we recorded them, our designer Volodymyr Klyuzko photographed them. We decided to create an installation based on these interviews. We made giant cubes with their photographs. As you approached each cube you could hear the stories people told us. We also started a workshop for young performers and worked on the dreams they would relate in the labyrinth we built out of huge slabs of Styrofoam the factory produced.

For our performance the audience walked on a path of yellow leaves and then entered one by one into a labyrinth of dreams. At the other end of the tunnel they came out into a large space lit up by a colorful projection. On one side were the lit up cubes with contemporary young people talking about their city. As the last of the audience entered the space we began our performance which stripped away the layers of time in the region. Donetsk was founded by John Hughes, an industrialist from Wales. Zhadan wrote a monolog for a Welsh engineer who arrived in the area in 19th century that revealed his dreams of building a new world in this area. Afterwards, there was a scene based on a story from Mediaeval chronicles about steppe nomads who lived in the region a thousand years ago. This led to fragments of poems about trees intertwined with ancient songs. Leaves fell for 150 million years in this area to create the rich veins of coal. The piece ended with a fragment of a poem by Zhadan: 

What are dreams made of?
An idea of how things should be
An aversion to how thing are
Distrust in what’s offered
And a belief in what’s hidden from us.

Then the great gate in the side of the building opened and daylight filled our dream space… Over two hundred people attended our workshop production of Underground Dreams in Donetsk  on October 10, 2013. They loved it and we were invited to return in June to create a full production.

All winter we were glued to our computers watching the protests in Kyiv that led to the fall of the government which had been led by a corrupt president from Donetsk. It seemed Ukraine was given a chance to truly break with its Soviet past. In May a new president was elected.  There was a lot of hope, but it was soon dispelled  by the crisis in Donetsk. Terrorists supported by Russian President Putin  were determined to separate this part of the country from the rest of Ukraine.  

I arrived in Ukraine on June 8, the day before terrorists captured the Izolyastia factory complex. The staff was allowed to leave with only some of the artwork and then the premises were mined.  Today, the war continues and hundreds of civilian hostages are being held there for ransom by one of the factions of the separatist army.

I met Luba Michailova in Kyiv and we decided to continue the Underground Dreams project in exile. Zhadan and I re-interviewed many of the same young people by Skype. Some were refugees in other Ukrainian cities, others were still in Donetsk. They told of morning commutes to work that meant enduring up to six searches at the armed posts set up by various factions. They talked of the difficulty of concentrating on work when people with guns ran past the window, the terror of walking through a totally abandoned downtown during lunch, the cold sweat induced by any loud noise once they had lived through a bombing raid. These interviews described the reality of war on very personal level.  We decided to include excerpts of these interviews in the show. 

Our piece about the dreams of young people from Donetsk became about the difficult reality of their lives. The audience listened to these tapes as they walked through the numerous corridors that led into the main space of the theatre. They had to pass through a metal detector, sit in a cramped locked room, watch a woman try to pack all her belongings in two small suitcases, read projected phone texts to realize that the “good job” promised one of the characters was to fight on the other side. 

Zhadan wrote poetry and monologs based on the stories we heard. One young man from the Carpathians told us he had built twelve large wooden buildings for a vacation complex near Donetsk. He showed us the pictures of the construction and then whispered the name of the place. We had all heard it. The place had recently been bombed and many people died. We found a video someone had posted on YouTube of the burning complex which we used in the show.  As the projected flames enveloped the wall of the theatre, the doors flung open and four young women from Donetsk who had been in our workshop, but  were now refugees in Kyiv, entered the space with suitcases. Tanya Hawrylyuk sang Zhadan’s poem.

Take only what is most important. 
Take the letters. 
Take only what you can carry. 
Take the icons and the embroidery, take the silver… 
We will never see our city again.

We kept the scenes with the reverse history of the area, but now they took on much deeper meanings. What happened to the utopian vision of the new world in this place? The nomadic tale of sense memory inspiring a return home, now reminded everyone that they too wanted to return to their homes as they were before the crisis.  We repeated excerpts of the original interviews. They were so beautiful, so naïve, and truly unattainable dreams today. 

We presented the new version of Underground Dreams at the Les Kurbas Theatre Center in July and were invited to perform in September at the GogolFest International Art Festival, held at an old factory complex in Kyiv.  The two performances were sold out. A reviewer from Donetsk wrote:
Underground Dreams is such an emotional, powerful and deep piece, it is simply not possible to fill a performance with more pain... It is a good that they show the war and the situation of the refugees to people in Kyiv. People in other regions simply do not understand what it means to be a refugee – to be forced to flee from your own home.”


Virlana Tkacz is the artistic director of Yara Arts Group, a resident company at La MaMa Experimental Theatre in New York. She has created 25 original theatre pieces with Yara which have premiered at La MaMa and performed in theatres and festivals in Ukraine, Central Asia, Siberia, Mongolia, China and Canada. Her piece Fire Water Night was nominated for two New York Innovative Theatre Awards this year.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Theatre & Politics

The midterm election is just around the corner and it got us thinking about theatre and politics and political theatre and the politics of theatre and how theatre affects politics and vice versa.

Jonathan Mandell has written a number of great pieces about theatre that effected political change. He recently asked for examples of theatre that helped change the world. He uses the New Brooklyn Theater production of Edward Albee's The Death of Bessie Smith to illustrate how theatre can lead to a tangible change. The Interfaith Medical Center was facing bankrupsy and eminent closure. However New Brooklyn's production attracted a large audience, including celebrities and politicians and helped to bring attention this the challenges the hospital was facing. While IMC still has many obstacles to overcome, it seems to be on the road to recovery. Mandell also shared the results of his informal poll and it is inspiring how many examples he came up with.

In this spirit, we asked a few folks to talk about their thoughts, experiences and insights of creating political theatre and why theatre artists should be aware and involved with politics.

Don't forget to vote on November 4th.


Monday, October 13, 2014

The Story of the Caffé Cino

Magie Dominic recently gave a presentation at the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation about the origins of Off-Off-Broadway and the Caffé Cino. She says that she covers Lanford Wilson to Bette Midler and everyone in between.

You can read also her 2paragraphs post about the presentation.

Cast of Tom Eyen's “Why Hannah’s Skirt Won’t Stay Down” at the Caffe Cino, 1965. Featured: Magie Dominic, Joe Cino, Helen Hanft, Tom Eyen, Steven Davis, Jack Quinn. (Photo: Jim Gossage)

Wednesday, October 8, 2014