Marie and Rosetta at Atlantic Theater Co

George Brant’s new play (jukebox musical?) Marie and Rosetta at the Atlantic Theater Company stars Rebecca Naomi Jones as the young Marie Knight and Kecia Lewis as the gospel and rock n’ roll legend Rosetta Tharpe.

This was an excellent show and I highly recommend it. If you’ve ever stood in a room full of coffins, you know it is indeed dramatic. I appreciated the bold choice that quickly became normalized as the audience became more and more drawn into the characters. Both women give charismatic and affecting performances, staying on stage the whole time in constant dialogue or song that flowed organically. A great night of live theatre.

I’ve been following Rebecca Naomi Jones since Passing Strange and enjoyed her vivacious presence in Charles Mee’s Big Love at Signature Theatre. The Interval conducted this great interview with Jones and Lewis.

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Real Time Research: The Hairy Ape

yank-and-three-policemen
Louis Wolheim as Robert Smith, “Yank.” Billy Rose Theatre Division, NYPL.

This is an account of one lesson plan’s pivot from slide presentation to real time research.

I wanted to make a slide show of production stills from the 1922 production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape. I imagined the students being brought into the creative decisions made by the Provincetown Players as we looked at the New York Public Library’s digital collection of slides together. We would analyze set design and lighting choices, as well as the gesture and physicality of the actors. It would be a great way to show students what the NYPL’s massive digitization project has made available.

Then I stopped myself. If I showed students the production stills in an assembled slide show, it would continue to obscure the process of using digital tools to find archival materials. Wouldn’t it be better if students located the images themselves?

They already had their laptops in class since we read the freely available script from eOneill.com. We spent a good portion of class discussing the episodic structure, the specificity of O’Neill’s stage directions, his use of language to mark ethnicity and class, and the staging of white working-class masculinity in contrast to Mildred’s white-dress wealth.

Then we discussed production options and the dilemma of the gorilla. How would they stage Scene VIII at the zoo? Is the gorilla meant to be a mirror or a contrast to Yank? Therefore, should the two figures be close in size or quite different? hairy-ape-board-workWhat are the aesthetic and political risks in staging the gorilla? Students identified a variety of problems with using a gorilla suit, including it becoming humorous and disrupting the pathos of Yank’s existential alienation. “Too literal / realistic” was another problem.

Finally, I asked students to get in pairs and google “NYPL Digital Collections.” They quickly chose the most obvious search phrase, the title of the play, and were amazed to see 21 actual production stills, like precious messages from the Provincetown Players from 94 years ago. In pairs, students clicked through the images, selected their favorite, and then did a low-stakes  freewrite about the image: what they saw, what they liked about it, and what it told them about the original production. We then discussed several teams’ responses while looking at their chosen image projected on the screen at the front of the classroom.

the-hairy-ape-gorilla-in-cage
Louis Wolheim as Yank. Billy Rose Theatre Division, NYPL.

This exercise brought the material to life, energized the classroom with visual culture and production discussions, and fostered community building among students who collaborated to analyze the production stills. Crucial to my learning goals, it introduced the process of digital research to students in a low-stakes atmosphere.

Feminist Websites About Theatre and Performance

History Matters – Celebrating women’s plays of the past

The Interval -billed as “The smart girl’s guide to theatricality”
The Kilroys – “The List” – first annual industry survey of excellent new plays by female-identified playwrights
The Killjoys – Response to “The List” comprised of playwrights identifying as trans or trans allies
50/50 in 2020 – The League of Professional Theatre Women’s initiative working to achieve parity for professional women theatre artists
The Feminist Spectator – reviews and ruminations on how theatre, film and television shape and reflect our lives, blog by Jill Dolan
Works by Women: Supporting theatrical work written, directed and/or designed by women.
The Women’s Project Theater in New York
Support Women in Arts Network
The Magdalena Project – an international network of women in contemporary theatre
Guerrilla Girls On Tour – feminist artists using smart humor to address sexism with performance art

Simpatico Syllabus

Some progressive educators go all in and have their classes collaboratively develop the reading list for a course. Traditionalists usually hand out the syllabus, ask if there are any questions, and then find themselves saying “It’s on the syllabus!” many times throughout the semester. I’m always aiming for a dynamic that responds to most of my students’ requests for clear structure, while also framing the process as a discourse-based exchange rather than a top-down transmission of ironclad facts.

 

This year, I greeted students with a very built-out syllabus. I did not read it to them in the rushed pace of a pharmaceutical warning. Instead, they took 15 minutes to read through it with a neighbor with the following prompts in mind:

  1. What do you like the most?
  2. What do you dislike the most (or have questions about)?
  3. What do you think is missing?

How did students feel about being asked to critique their professor on the first day of class? Fine! It seemed to create an atmosphere the students and I both felt comfortable with. They were vocal about the positives (always a good feeling) and I was able to clarify certain details (like that the workload description wasn’t the only description of assignments they’d be getting).

I’ll keep making space for check-ins about learning goals, assignment schedules, and reading load throughout the semester. My hope is that, having had this initial conversation, students will feel more comfortable being open about how things are going as we chug along into the chills of October and November’s inevitable craze.

Articles on Women, Gender, and Theatre

50 Women in New York Theater You Should Know About (Part One: 1-25)” theculturetrip.com (Dec. 4, 2017)

Where Are the Women? Parity Productions is Keeping a List” by Allison Considine (American Theatre, November 2, 2017)

Black Female Playwrights Want You to Face Facts. The Harsh Ones.” by Charles Isherwood (New York Times, September 16, 2016).

Internet Outcry Over Diversity Leads Manhattan Theater Club to Announce Season Details Early” by Laura Collins-Hughes (New York Times, August 20, 2015)

“Women Push for Equality On and Off Stage” by Suzy Evans (American Theatre, October 2014)

The Sexist Reality That the Tony Nominations Just Highlighted” by Michele Willens (The Atlantic, April 29, 2014)

The following is a collection of articles on women/gender and/in/or theatre we gathered for the fantasyfeminisms.com website, which was built to sustain discourse for two Women and Theatre Program roundtables at the annual conference of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education in 2013 and 2014.

“The Wellesley Man” by Katy Waldman (Slate, June 5, 2014)

“What Does It Mean for Feminism If It Becomes Trendy?” by Callie Beusman (Jezebel, 2/23/14)

“Encountering Black Culture in Acting Classrooms and Beyond” by Monica White Ndounou (Theatre Topics, Volume 19, Number 1, March 2009 pp. 95-102)

Rethinking Gender Bias in Theater” by Patricia Cohen (New York Times, June 23, 2009)

PDF “Opening the Curtain on Playwright Gender: An Integrated Economic Analysis of Discrimination in American Theater” by Emily Glassberg Sands (April 2009)

PowerPoint “Opening the Curtain on Playwright Gender: An Integrated Economic Analysis of Discrimination in American Theater” by Emily Glassberg Sands (April 2009)

The Color Purple: Best Fake Baby Ever

I’m trying to get as much theatre-going in as possible before the semester starts. Yesterday was a two-show day, with a matinee of The Color Purple and an evening performance of Fiddler on the Roof.

On stage pregnancies and infants are a dicey proposition. Get it wrong, and the audience is taken out of the action as they start to focus on the how of the scene instead of the what. Verisimilitude is a tall order and sometimes not theatrically effective.

(Spoiler alert!) When Cynthia Erivo’s petite and overwhelmed Celie “gave birth” on stage, it was a transfixing and transformative theatrical moment. Ribbons of white satin fabric came unspooling from her belly, and as Erivo handled the cloth until it became a baby bundle, it conveyed more about the character and dramatic action than any verisimilitudinous newborn prop could have possibly achieved.

 

 

Sara Warner’s Interview about Paula Vogel

The On TAP podcast (TAP stands for Theatre & Performance Studies) has been providing some really interesting conversations. This On TAP Special episode with Cornell’s Sara Warner deserves a special listen and is relevant to those across academia and beyond.

In the 1970s CORNELL DID NOT GIVE WOMEN FELLOWSHIPS for graduate study. Women were only allowed to have teaching assistantships (i.e. be cheap labor). Paula Vogel, one of the most important US playwrights, completed a dissertation with a feminist / revisionist methodology and, due to faculty changes, was blocked from receiving her doctorate.

Forty stankin’ years later, after Vogel transformed the landscape of US  drama and playwriting pedagogy, Cornell professor Sara Warner fiercely and ferociously redressed an institutional wrong. This is such an important story about queer lives, about women’s working conditions, about sexism in academia, and about triumph. I’m crying again! Thank you Sarah Bay-Cheng for taking the time to record this totally intimate but totally public piece of oral history!