Friday, December 15, 2017

Change Is The Only Constant

Written in 1845, Elizabeth Barrett Browning's 43rd sonnet reads as follows:
"How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death."
The beloved 19th-century English poet wrote that sonnet as an intensely personal expression of her love for her husband, poet and playwright Robert Browning. According to Wikipedia, he felt that her poems were "the best sequence of English-language sonnets since Shakespeare's time" and urged her to publish them.

Portraits of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning
painted by Thomas Buchanan Read in 1852

The emotions expressed in Browning's sonnet have a curious relevance to how many people feel about theatre. And so, as a stressful year comes to an end, perhaps this is a good time to reflect on what theatre means to us and the many ways it wins and continues to hold our affection.

For some people, theatre refers to a structure which often stands as a unique piece of architecture. If one examines the design of concert halls, opera houses, movie palaces, and legitimate theatres, one is struck by the attention to detail, the ways in which certain acoustic and physical challenges are met, and how a theatre's specific needs differ from those of a supermarket or skyscraper. From the outdoor arenas of ancient Greece to the ultra-modern, architecturally thrilling new Chinese arts centers in Jinan and Harbin, a major theatre complex may house one or more performance spaces. Some may be designed as proscenium or shoebox environments; others boast a thrust stage. Some may have arena seating; others function as highly adaptable black box spaces which can be reconfigured to suit the a wide variety of dramatic desires.

Houston's famed Alley Theatre suffered severe water damage in the
aftermath of August's Hurricane Harvey (Photo by: Thomas B. Shea)

In addition to being architectural landmarks, most theatres (like hospitals) serve a critical municipal role as economic engines for the neighborhoods in which they stand. On August 25th, when Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, Texas, both the Alley Theatre and the Wortham Theatre Center suffered severe flooding. Even though it may take a year for the water damage to be repaired, arrangements were quickly made for the Alley Theatre to move its scheduled world premiere of Rajiv Joseph's new play, Describe the Night, to the Quintero Theatre at the University of Houston while the Houston Grand Opera set about transforming Exhibit Hall A3 at the George R. Brown Convention Center into a temporary 1700-seat performance space to be known as the HGO Resilience Theatre for its 2017-2018 season's opening production of La Traviata.

For people who are actively employed in the entertainment industry, theatre is an artistic process which depends upon collaboration. Some productions require more elaborate trimmings in the form of scenery, costumes, lighting, musicians, sound design, tech support, choreography, and people working in administrative positions. Even the most primitive form of theatre (a homeless person ranting at passersby on the street) features an actor and a somewhat captive audience.

For ticket buyers, theatre is often viewed as a multidisciplinary art form that inspires, creates, and shares some kind of artistic product. Some may view theatre as more of a commodity rather than an experience. Some may read scripts for various plays at home while others must travel to a venue for a particular experience. Streaming broadcasts of performances from great theatres and opera companies around the world have now become commonplace, yet sometimes theatre still comes to its audience in the form of a touring production by a company like Cirque du Soleil (which erects its Grand Chapiteau in open spaces and parking lots around the world).

Over the course of many years, theatre has been nicknamed "the fabulous invalid" (no doubt in honor of Moliere's 1673 play, The Imaginary Invalid). Often teetering on the brink of financial disaster, some theatres fall victim to the wrecking ball while others succumb to economic mismanagement by their executives and/or Board of Directors. Amazingly, some theatres are reborn and find new life. From old movie palaces that have been converted to concert halls, to a powerhouse cluster of theatres like downtown Cleveland's restored Playhouse Square, new money and community support can build new audiences, restore a theatre's structure, and revise its mission statement. New technologies like the Hamilton lottery and such popular mobile apps as TodayTix, Vivid Seats, and StubHub! have helped to grow audiences through the easy accessibility and economic appeal of discounted tickets.

The Bay area is currently in a major transition phase as artistic directors of local arts organizations vacate leadership positions they have held for many years. In recent seasons:
Michael Tilson Thomas rehearsing with the San Francisco Symphony

The more institutionalized a theatre company becomes, the greater the likelihood that the organization will stay the same when it experiences a major change in leadership. Some seasons are planned well in advance; some companies are involved in year-round community and educational outreach programs. Some companies are sources of municipal pride; some have built solid development departments which continue to write grants and raise money from individual donors. However, metamorphosis is one of the most amazing transformative processes found in nature.

One local theatre company is currently undergoing a radical metamorphosis in its structure, artistic goals, and its determination to give back to the Bay area's thriving theatrical community. When Clive Chafer founded TheatreFIRST in 1994, his goal was to focus on international plays that were rarely produced for Bay area audiences. In 2009, his successor (Michael Storm) shifted the company's focus to staging more popular plays and, when TheatreFIRST lost its lease, helped the company to negotiate a nomadic existence as it moved from one performance space to another.

When Jon Tracy was hired to replace Michael Storm, he decided to reinvent the company as an arts organization dedicated to the exploration of social and economic justice. Tracy redefined and renamed his job description from Executive Director to artistic facilitator. Together with his colleagues, he sought to transform the company's board of directors and artistic staff so that they represented the demographics of the local community while refocusing the company's artistic output. Tracy's explanation stresses that:
"As an all in-house development company, TheatreFIRST seeks to revolutionize the intersection of audience, artist, and activism. Our staff, board, artists, creative and production teams are built to lift the marginalized stories we are dedicated to amplifying. Making theatre a place where social justice happens means breaking down perceived barriers so that we might all explore an equitable world. TheatreFIRST will continue its model of doing first-round auditions by video and will assist any actor without the technology. It will allow artists the ability to deliver work around their schedules. Invited callbacks will be viewed as process, with each actor being paid $15 for any portion of an hour in the room (during this process, TheatreFIRST will provide onsite child and elder care)."
TheatreFIRST's Jon Tracy

Making TheatreFIRST's artistic mission less about producing standard repertoire (and more about how theatre can serve a community while reflecting the needs and demographics of a multicultural environment) has been demonstrated in its first two seasons by the creation of new works whose world premieres were written, directed, and designed by local talent. Thanks to the power of social media and the company's new home (quite appropriately located) in the Live Oak Community Center, TheatreFIRST has enjoyed the flexibility to embrace new challenges and seize unexpected opportunities. Instead of following Nancy Reagan's advice to "Just say no," T1's supporters are developing the happy habit of saying "Yes!"

The "T1 Presents" program has been designed to build solo residencies that can empower storytellers to develop new work in a progressive environment. Not only did TheatreFIRST work with the Fusion Theatre Project (run by the theatre company at Laney College in Oakland), it presented Iretonia (a science fiction fantasy by Wry Crips Disabled Women’s Theatre) and welcomed Symmetry Theatre Company's production of Sharr White's drama, The Other Place, to the Live Oak Theatre. Following Hurricane Harvey, comedian Josh Kornbluth performed his monologue entitled Ben Franklin: Unplugged as a fundraising benefit for Puerto Rico.

In addition to frequent post-performance talkbacks, Tracy and his colleagues have come up with ideas which serve the Bay area theatre community in ways not always addressed by older, more established organizations such as Theatre Bay Area. One of their most exciting new ventures is an initiative named CALLBUCKS, which grew out of a discussion with actor-activist Carl Lumbly about how to empower actors. At a time when numerous arts organizations (up to and including the New York City Ballet and Metropolitan Opera) are struggling with power dynamics and accusations of sexual harassment, TheatreFIRST is putting its money where its mouth is by trying to negotiate the redistribution of power among its artists and collaborators. In Tracy's words:
"It all starts with the audition process. An actor in the room with a director, exploring stories, is more than an audition. It’s development work that requires tremendous dedication from all involved. Therefore, all involved should be paid. It values an artist’s time, voice, and craft. CALLBUCKS works in connection with TheatreFIRST's Actor Bill of Rights (an evolving document that seeks to give artists assurances in the room, including well-prepared audition material, on-time and well-organized processes, zero harassment tolerance, and respect for personal identity)."
Poster art for CALLBUCKS

* * * * * * * * *
TheatreFIRST's latest world premiere, Participants, strikes out in a completely new direction. Instead of the audience being seated according to the Live Oak Theatre's standard configuration, seating has been reduced to 50 people per performance, arranged arena style on Live Oak's tiny stage. Having already been surveyed by actor Ed Berkeley as they approach the theatre to determine whether ticket buyers consider themselves to be patriots and/or activists, the audience then experiences a dozen short dramas written by such talented playwrights as Christopher Chen, Octavio Solis, Anthony Clarvoe, Carl Lumbly, and Linda McLean.

The evening's dramas are based on a simple question Tracy posed to 12 playwrights after the 2016 election: "Where have we been, what are we doing, and where do we go now?" Their answers raise questions about privilege, systemic discrimination against minority theatre artists, and society's confusion over how to react to gender nonconformity. Because some works were likely to trigger emotional discomfort in some audience members, the printed programs included advice on how to make an exit (if necessary) without offending or confronting the actors.

Ed Berkeley stars in Anthony Clarvoe's Show of Hands
(Photo by: Cheshire Isaacs)

With costumes by Miyuki Bierlein, video by Teddy Hulsker, lighting by Stephanie Anne Johnson, and sound design by Kristoffer Barrera, I found five of the short plays comprising Participants to be particularly intriguing.
  • Written by Aaron Loeb and deftly directed by Elizabeth Carter, A Sure Cure Lure Story demonstrates the what can go wrong when people stumble all over themselves and try to claim they are the victims in a situation instead of admitting that the real problem is a failure to communicate based on misperceptions. Loeb's play uses an old learning tool (the telephone game) as the mechanism which shows how people use racism, misogyny, white privilege, and other forms of discrimination to steal the spotlight of victimhood from the hands of anyone claiming to be the true victim.
  • Directed by Mary Guzman, Living Proof stars its playwright, Skyler Cooper, in a poignant monologue about how a gender neutral person faces peculiar challenges in such social situations as entering a public restroom. Should the transgender, heavily-muscled Cooper use the ladies' room because he was born as a female or should he use the men's room, where his buff body makes it easier to pass as a man? How does his physical presentation impact his sexual orientation and affectional desires? And why should it matter to anyone other than himself?
Skyler Cooper wrote and stars in Living Proof
  • Written by Dipika Guha and directed by Susannah Martin, Scenes From My Terrific Death is a deliciously subversive political dramedy in which Roy Cohn (Marjan Safa) has to explain to Donald Trump (Michelle Navarette) that America's 45th President has already died and there is nothing he can do to boost his ratings because nobody cares about him anymore.
  • Directed by Jessa Brie Moreno, Geetha Reddy's poignant drama, A Hole in the Shape of a Play, features a young Indian-American actor (Akash Patel) describing how an older Indian-American woman abandoned her pursuit of a theatrical career because there simply weren't enough jobs to keep her busy. As a result, the younger actor's generation of Indian-American theatre artists is now being denied opportunities to keep working because fewer roles are being written for mature Indian-American actors (like the woman who had to give up on her dream) and because casting directors are struggling to find older South Asian actresses.
  • Written by Star Finch and directed by Brit Frazier, Take The Ticket features Dezi Solèy as a young African American playwright who finds herself wondering if Black lives really matter when she is constantly being pigeonholed as the token black playwright who is somehow always matched up with Asian American stage directors.
Dezi Solèy stars in Take The Ticket (Photo by: Cheshire Isaacs)

On opening night, Tracy asked members of the press who were in attendance to discuss how their personal politics impact their reviews and if they could explain why there were so few black critics. At a time when there is so much political tension around the simple act of touching a person of the opposite sex, it was refreshing (prior to the show, during intermission, and after the performance) to see members of the audience -- as well as the artists who appeared in Participants -- warmly hugging and embracing each other in celebration of a world premiere and an increasingly "woke" community.

In a recent interview with veteran journalist Bill Moyers entitled "Time Is Running Out For The Planet," Bill McKibben refers to academic Erica Chenoweth's claim that "If you can get 3.5 percent of the population actively engaged in some fight, then you usually win." Just before the performance of Participants ended, actor Ed Berkeley distributed flyers to the audience listing organizations that could benefit from their help. Broken down by category, the suggestions included:
  • Organizations led by people of color working toward racial and economic justice in the Bay area.
  • Organizations led by poor people that deal with community and housing projects.
  • Organizations led by allies in solidarity.
  • Organizations tackling issues of justice in the tech industry.
  • Organizations that help survivors of sex trafficking.
  • Organizations that help homeless families.
Poster art for Participants

While those flyers might be preaching to the choir, there is no doubt that TheatreFIRST's latest endeavor hit its mark. Performances of Participants continue through December 23 at the Live Oak Theatre in Berkeley (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer: