Vaudeville’s Rooftop Theatres

This great post, “New York’s Incredible Lost Rooftop Theatres,” from Messy Nessy Chic is a fun scroll-through.

One afternoon, in the Billy Rose Theatre Division at the NYPL, I became distracted from my task as I began flipping through an old rooftop garden profile in a theatre program. It went into elaborate detail about the bucolic agricultural scenes fabricated for the audience. The tableaux starred buxom young women actually milking cows. And, apparently, it was an immersive environment that blurred the line between performer and audience space.

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Billy Rose Theatre Division, New York Public Library. (1895-1935).

Once my current writing obligations are squared away, I’ll return to this eccentric moment in popular performance history. In the mean time, Messy Nessy Chic’s post rekindled my interest in rooftop theatres and reminded me how deeply peculiar they were (and that Oscar Hammerstein’s Olympia Theatre was a fiscal hot mess).

As someone who studies circus aesthetics, I’m intrigued by the indoor/outdoor hybridity of the rooftops. What does that hybridity mean for the vaudeville acts that performed in these spaces? Did they transform audience reception and, if so how?

 

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Epic Fail / Epic Success

In the 2017 Oscar Best Picture debacle, we can see so much about our expectations for the seamless seduction of the entertainment industry and the inertia working against disruptions of established power dynamics.

First, I think it is important to lead with professor Brittney Cooper’s article about Moonlight being robbed of its moment. It took much too long for the stage to be given over to the people who brought “Moonlight” to fruition. Winning Best Picture should have been a full celebration of a poignant film about a specific experience of Black life in Miami, Florida. Instead, a muddle of doubt and confusion delayed Moonlight taking the limelight. Director Barry Jenkins noted the delay of disbelief: “Very clearly, even in my dreams, this could not be true. But, to hell with dreams. I’m done with it, because this is true.”

It just so happens my Introduction to Theatre Studies class was slated to discuss Bertolt Brecht on Monday. For most millennial theatre students accustomed to realism and steeped in consumer capitalism, it’s difficult to get on board with Brecht’s urge to disrupt audiences’ expectations and reveal the theatre apparatus in order to “make strange” what seems automatic and natural. Thanks to the 2017 Oscars, I had a ready-made lesson plan about the emotional and political costs of disrupting the status quo. Eight hours after the award show’s conclusion, fifteen students and I were able to discuss what happens when a seemingly seamless illusion unravels.

We watched the whole six minutes of squirm-inducing anxiety, confusion, embarrassment, and inadequate celebration of Moonlight that was the Best Picture award. The moments of fissure began to mount. First, Warren Beatty’s long pause. Could he read the envelope? Was this an age issue? Was he OK? Or, was he inappropriately mugging? When he turned to Faye Dunaway, was he looking for support or passing the buck? The moment appeared resolved when Dunaway announced “La La Land!

The cognitive blip disappeared as the key players of La La Land promptly fell into the ritual of crowding the stage and taking turns at the microphone, thanking loved ones and supporters. But, wait, look at that man with a headset on stage! What was happening?! The moment you see a headset on stage at an awards show, you know there is a huge problem. Months of planning and scores of employees work strenuously to make the events seem effortless, to render invisible the labor involved in getting celebrities to appear glamorous and unruffled on stage. In epic theatre, Brecht wanted audiences to pay attention to that invisible labor, revealing the means of production that bring a theatrical event to life.

With no Brechtian intent, the 2017 Oscars Best Picture error had audiences asking themselves “How could this have happened? What is it actually like backstage? Wait, how do the envelopes get into the hands of the celebrities? Do they sit on a table, does someone hold onto them? Who is that person?” All of a sudden, audiences were compelled to think of all the work that goes into putting on a live show, even a fairly staid and uninteresting live show like the Oscars.

The confusion of Beatty and Dunaway, and the inadequate quips offered by Jimmy Kimmel in response to this crisis of liveness, point to how difficult it is to imagine alternative possibilities when confronted with entrenched institutions. Why not just say “I have the wrong envelope”? Because the show must go on. Why did the words “La La Land” stick out to Dunaway’s eyes more than the phrase “Best Actress, Emma Stone”? Because Dunaway, like most of us,  saw what she expected to see.

Last year #OscarSoWhite brought needed attention to the persistent institutional neglect of films made by and about people of color. Moonlight was lauded for the story it tells and the subdued luminance with which it tells it, but there was strong consensus that Hollywood would continue to honor a story about itself.

The most conventional nineteenth-century melodramas involve the wrong documents getting into the wrong hands, and the right documents eventually getting into the right hands. The 2017 Oscars offered a similar crisis, in which a last-minute reveal changed the fates of the characters and the larger meaning of the story being told. Suddenly, we found ourselves in the bizarro world of La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz insisting “There’s a mistake. Moonlight, you guys won best picture. This is not a joke, Moonlight has won best picture.” And then, with the all-important evidence, Horowitz held the proof up to the camera, and reiterated “Moonlight, best picture.” Without the evidence of that heavy cardstock in hand, who could possibly have believed it?

From an epic disruption to a melodramatic reveal, this was certainly the most theatrical event of the evening, and one of the most theatrical in the history of the Oscars.

The New York Hippodrome!

As a vaudeville scholar, American hippodromes intrigue me. Their epic scale points to the propulsive consumption of spectacle during the early twentieth-century. I enjoyed reading Allison McNearney’s overview of the New York Hippodrome for The Daily Beast. One of my favorite research subjects, the German equestrian Therese Renz, made her US debut at the Hippodrome in 1906 before touring the Keith-Albee Circuit.

Applied Pedagogy: Black Lives Matter

Last Thursday, The CUNY Graduate Center’s Doctoral Theatre Students Association’s Professionalization Liaison, Margit Edwards, facilitated an applied pedagogy workshop on the topic of bringing #BlackLivesMatter into theatre and performance classrooms. Professors Erika Lin and Jim Wilson both contributed their expertise, and many students (and this alum!) attended.

Margit created a wonderful space of exploration and examination, beginning with the opportunity to share successes, concerns, and curriculum ideas via large newsprint post-its. The process of walking around the room, swapping markers, and doing our best to write legibly grounded the discussion in specifics while forging a productive and open space for discourse.

Along with my colleagues Stefanie and Janet, I presented a few curriculum ideas that I wrote up in a Google doc. There are so many ways to think about lesson plans, but I used a grid with five categories to help me organize my thoughts:

Learning Goal Necessary Background Assignment Prompt In class Discussion / Result Questions I still have

Within this rubric, I shared some of the resources that I include in my post “A Raisin in the Classroom.” We also discussed the continuing relevance of Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf, and how contemporary violence against Black women often remains invisible. This clip of Shange in conversation with Melissa Harris-Perry can be a strong tool for bringing for colored girls into the present day: Ntozake Shange on the prevalence of domestic abuse.”

Janet presented her robust Othello lesson plan, and others shared moments of tension and revelation in the classroom. This was a necessary and enriching event.

Hamilton’s Profit Sharing

This Bloomberg News piece, “How Hamilton‘s Cast Got Broadway’s Best Deal” is a great article for charting how the performers of Hamilton worked together to achieve retroactive resource distribution and royalty participation for future domestic productions based on their artistic contributions to the piece as it developed off-Broadway.

There are so many issues here! The messiness of collaboration, the fact that the letter itself was collaboratively composed, the classic use of a “buffer” beginning to an “ask” communication, the super shady way the head producer dropped off individual checks with a weird memo that made it seem like everything was over, the fact that the performers probably wouldn’t have known how to go about this and what to ask for if they didn’t have friends in Book on Mormon, and the dicey interpersonal dynamics.

This is a great article to assign for theatre and performance students and/or any communications class.

Jill Soloway’s “Female Gaze” Keynote

Jill Soloway, the creator of Transparent, gave a master class keynote at the 2016 Toronto Film Festival entitled “The Female Gaze.”

Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” was first published in the film journal Screen (vol.16, no.3) in 1975 and is canonical in film and visual studies. It is genuinely shocking to think no one has written a counterpoint argument to articulate what the Female Gaze might include. Perhaps fear of essentializing male and female ontologies prevented such a project.

There is definitely some essentializing going on in Soloway’s talk. Nevertheless, I’m posting it here because it offers a lot to consider and certain excerpts could be a great teaching tool to help students think about how nearly all mainstream cinema forces the viewer to either take up the male gaze or not enjoy the movie.