Tuesday, February 12, 2019

The Acting Dramaturg Goes Profesh!

YOU GUYS...there are so many exciting things happening in the world of "let's make Meredith a professional dramaturg!" I'm sorry I haven't posted in awhile but I have certainly been busy following leads and creating opportunities for myself. I recently asked the artistic director of PBD to make space for me to learn professional dramaturgy within the company. After discussing my ambitions and reading THIS BLOG (I know!) he agreed to have me on as the festival dramaturg for the New Year/New Play Festival. I put together comprehensive research packets for three of the five plays involved and worked extensively for the new play development of one of them.

A lot of the work I did is privy to the playwrights and other artists involved, I think. But I wanted to be able to share some of my work with you. Below you will find short articles written for the three plays I worked on. I have also included a brief synopsis of each play to give you context. My friends, I'm so proud of this work! I'm so curious to learn this craft by practicing it. And I'm so grateful to the people making space for me to learn. The Acting Dramaturg is making it happen.

It's interesting that when you put these three articles together like this you can see the through-line of how I perceive new American stories. Or perhaps you can see the message that many modern story-tellers are most compelled to illustrate.


Confronting Our Moral Relativism: Or why we need Red, White, Black & Blue

Red, White, Black and Blue by Michael McKeever
Dramaturgy by Meredith Bartmon

The President has been shot. The Secretary of State and the Vice President spar in the Oval Office over what happens now, the right way to be a politician and the VP's family history. Will a shocking reveal shape the future of American Democracy or simply silence a powerful voice of change? 

       As long as there is Government, there will be great political theatre. In fact, these days you can barely tell the difference between a political media pundit, a comedian and a dramatist. However, politics, as acted out for our entertainment on the 24/7 news cycle, is the cheapest kind of theatre. "Travesty,” according to NY Times theatre columnist, Paul Krugman. Michael McKeever’s Red, White, Black and Blue must then be the elegant response to a political world gone mad. It’s the kind of political drama that holds the audience captivated with nothing more than five people, one room and an argument. 

      Political drama has a history of forcing audiences to see the social realities of their zeitgeist and to accept their own responsibility for this world in which we’re living. Red, White, Black and Blue beautifully mixes a private tragedy with a modern political “what if.” The exploration of presidential assassination is incredibly timely but not necessarily for the reason you might think. Great theatre and good politics are both excellent at making people ask questions. This story about assassination, espionage, and ambition forces the audience to ask questions about their own moral relativism. When Vice President Lenora Waters whispers that deadly order are you unfazed? Do you forgive her because of her liberal agenda? Are you appalled regardless of what side of the aisle she is on? Or, do you disbelieve a progressive individual would ever do what she does? Perhaps, you struggle to believe the American Government would ever do such a thing. In today’s world, there has been a significant blurring of moral lines – we say; “Well, it’s ok if someone on my side did it.” This play explores that relativism to the extreme. Is it time to stop putting blind faith in our government institutions and demand change? Do we have any ground to stand on if we don’t fight for our integrity? 

      The great political playwrights of our time understand that in order to expose moral relativism in politics you have to shine a thoughtful and captivating light on it. You have to open the door for audience members to probe their own reactions. Michael McKeever’s Red, White, Black and Blue reminds us that the road to Hell can be paved with good intentions. The beauty of the argument between Lenora and Secretary of State Warren is that they’re both right. And in the end neither of them wins. Their partisan high grounds leave them both robbed of their moral voices. Mr. McKeever has opened the door and turned on the light in the dark room that we call the Oval Office – what will you allow yourself to see? 

“You don’t go to the theatre, you’re missing out there, everyone in politics should.”
 – An Absence of War by David Hare


Bid it Quiet: Or Why With will Resonate with Our Audience

With by Carter W. Lewis
Dramaturgy by Meredith Bartmon

An elderly couple hilariously argue over the simple frustrations of old age and the mundane annoyances of a long relationship. But it doesn't take long to recognize the spiraling repetition of these last days of their lives. 

          Playwright Carter W. Lewis has been compared by critics to the great character writers of the theatre; such as, Chekhov and August Wilson. He explores the humanity in his characters by saturating their actions with fallibility, believability and gentle compassion. His plays take seemingly mundane situations or relationships and then painstakingly peel back the layers to reveal the extraordinary intertwined with the ordinary. Whether the situation is dinner between old friends as in Women Who Steal, a student/teacher friendship in The Storytelling Ability of a Boy, or getting older as in With, you can never quite predict where Lewis’ characters are headed. 

        In the first part of With, the audience laughs their way through familiar territory. We meet Minnie and Clifford Habberdeen, an older couple who have been together for sixty years. The two Midwestern retirees are bickering over the amusingly mundane problems of old age – oncoming hearing problems, forgetfulness, and a certain difficulty with getting up an infernal flight of stairs. We can relate to the two octogenarians coming to terms with the fear they might no longer have a purpose in this world – we can giggle at the futility. However, as the play proceeds we start to notice the horror of the repetition. Minnie changing sheets is normal, Clifford missing the doorbell is endearing; but she changes the sheets every day and he forgets that he’s missed that important doorbell numerous times. It becomes terrifying to watch their decline - hoping desperately that they will find peace and dreading that you have already seen how this story ends. 

        Minnie and Clifford are becoming increasingly disconnected from the physical world as their failing minds become disconnected from reality. They have already withdrawn from the cycles of their lives as parents and professionals. Clifford’s mechanics business is probably sold and the teaching profession is completely different now from what Minnie remembers in her youth. At what point do we actually die – when our hearts stop or when we stop engaging with our humanity? The world they know is already gone and they are vestiges of it. There is nothing holding them to this life now; it’s just the letting go. 

         Minnie and Clifford are desperately trying to control death – to outsmart it. Life expectancy has jumped thirty years in the last two centuries and we have become less accustomed to the present specter of death. We’ve been trained by technology to out-run nature. However, while death can be held at bay for some time, eventually it will come for everyone. Why does the snow begin to fall inside at the end? The winter of our lives will come, we will return to dust, to nature – the cold will win out. Why does the play end in the middle of Minnie’s story? Because when death comes it’s not meant to be expected or planned – it can stop you in the middle of a thought. 

        With is a poetic fight against the inevitable surprise of death. "I will choose", they say. "I will go with dignity", they insist. Their diseases will kill them so they aren’t choosing between life and death; they are attempting to choose the manner in which the final moment enters the stage. But in the end, your story will go silent whether or not you bid it quiet. Perhaps we should take comfort in that uncertainty rather than try to strangle it into submission. 

“If we’re so afraid of death and dying, I have to wonder if we’re also afraid of life and living.”


The Beauty and Horror of the Every Day American: or Why Drift is Important for Today’s Audience

Drift by William Francis Hoffman
Dramaturgy by Meredith Bartmon

         In Drift, we meet the three brothers of the Dolan Family. Angelo has just returned home after ten years in jail. All he wants is to provide a brighter future for his little brother, Vinny. Will a jealous older brother derail Angelo's hopes? Will he manage to escape the demons of his family's past? Is Vinny the lucky one who could actually make something of himself? Mr. Hoffman’s writing style has been compared with the likes of Harold Pinter, Arthur Miller and Sam Shepard. Shepard was well known for portraying the decay of the American ideal and Mr. Hoffman’s plays look at the underbelly of the American Dream. In Cal in Camo, a previous William Francis Hoffman work, Cal is a new mother, expected to be in love with her baby and her family, but she cannot manage that expectation. In Drift, the Dolan brothers live in the age of the white picket fence and “father knows best” but that isn’t their reality. Mr. Hoffman’s plays are about pulling back the façade on expectations of joy, prosperity and comfort. Is there anything more strangling than feeling as though you are supposed to be happy with what you’ve got and knowing that you cannot reach that mild mountaintop? 

         The scene is 1957 Chicago. The ideals of the American Dream are at their Zenith. Men go to the office in their three-piece wool suits; women tend to a house with 2.5 kids, a white picket fence, and a new state of the art cold pantry in the kitchen. America is the shining city on a hill for the entire world to admire and emulate. Through their sparkly new personal televisions, the American public is sold the idea that if a man follows the rules and works hard, he can achieve that great beacon of existence - the American middle class. However, for the working-class sons of Italian and Irish immigrants in inner city Chicago, the American dream is built on a crumbling foundation and steel beams that are too small to support its weight. The underbelly of the American dream is a place where men disappear in a crowd and young people tear at their own flesh in order to feel substantial. 

       The story of the Dolan boys resonates with today’s audience because we are once again opening our eyes to the underbelly of the “great” American ideal. Men like Angelo Dolan have always tried to build their American success story and found that the builders of the social ladder cut corners. The whole thing will come crashing down at their feet but the men with the money will walk away. It’s important for all generations to look at the masses of men and women on top of whom we built our good fortune. If we see them then we can accept our responsibility for them. 

       Drift is also a story about family ties and how they anchor men to a purpose. When Joe Sr. died, his sons were set adrift. Angelo has returned from incarceration after the death of their mother to try to reclaim a direction for himself and his brother, Vinny. Unfortunately, old family demons haunt his most earnest efforts. There is a lot of beautiful symbolism in this piece. In the annex of his mother’s church, the stair case has been removed for profit. Something beautiful that Angelo could use to climb to higher places has been sold for pennies. Angelo cleans the windows to allow some light in but he still literally doesn’t have a pot to piss in. 

     Drift is a wonderful example of a genre of plays where the point is the observation of human struggle in recognizable circumstances. The beauty of Mr. Hoffman’s characters and storytelling lies in humans existing in the everyday. The director of Cal in Camo, compared Mr. Hoffman’s writing to the photography of Gregory Crewsdon. Crewsdon describes his own aesthetic as “ordinary tinged with beauty and terror.” Likewise, Mr. Hoffman’s plays portray familiar domestic scenes that have gone rotten and been swept under the gilded rug of American exceptionalism. The characters that populate Drift are the disinherited reality of the American dream.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Ten Questions With... The Ladies of Equus

Peter Shaffer's Equus is undeniably a show about the male psyche. The two lead characters are very masculine in their own way and while the many other characters could effect the show badly if we, as actors, were in any way not up to scratch there is no way we could make the show any good if those two lead men weren't excellent - which, in our production, they obviously are. At one talk back, a young male audience member asked about the female characters. After all, there are only four of us in a cast of thirteen. If I'm being charitable than I find it very interesting that the male playwright wrote strong, confident women to counter his scattered men. Hester is the stalwart frienemy to Dysart's overwrought emotions. Jill is adventurous and wise at the same time - in comparison to Alan's insanity. Dora is sure in her beliefs despite incredible push back from her husband. However, the perhaps braver answer to that audience members question was given by one of the our male actors; these are female characters written by a male playwright - in other words, incomplete angels of his perception that aren't given half as much space to stretch their three-dimensional wings as the incredibly poetic male leads. I don't know if I necessarily or completely agree with that but it's certainly an interesting debate. One that I have no intention of getting into here.

Now for something quite different, I have interviewed my fellow actresses. It seemed appropriate in this male-driven story to give voice to the ladies - and what incredible ladies I get to share the dressing room with. There is no debate that these three actresses imbue their characters with remarkable and complex humanity. Here is Equus through the eyes of its women!

Peter Simon Hilton, Steven Maier, and Mallory Newbrough

Who do you play in "Equus"?

Anne-Marie Cusson: Hester Salomon

Julie Rowe: Dora Strang

Mallory Newbrough: Jill Mason - the girl.

What fascinates you most about your character in "Equus"?

Anne-Marie: Hester listens to and witnesses Dysart’s musings and longings -- which to me, Anne-Marie, are very compelling -- and ultimately advocates for the professional stance of maintaining his psychiatric mission.

Julie: Dora is an incredibly strong woman with a passionate belief system. I admire those qualities. She is able to keep moving forward in spite of upheaval.

Mallory: She is the one who is the catalyst for the catastrophic event. Her desires, her throughline, her objective from the moment she meets Alan is what happens to instigate the climax of the play.

What do you hope the audience will take away from seeing "Equus"? Give us a specific quote you'd love to overhear as the audience walks out. 

Anne-Marie: Perhaps continuing the conversation of the doctor’s psychological conundrum.  Perhaps:  ‘THIS is why I come to see theatre!’

Julie: Are you following your passion and living it?  Or are you going off into the concrete world and following the drill?
"Worship as many as you can see - and more will appear."

Mallory: After a matinee the other day I was having lunch with a few friends who came to see the play and one of them mentioned something that the rest of us connected deeply with. She said: “Honestly right now...I feel kind of personally attacked by Equus... I feel like there's a lot of eyes on me...”
Our whole play is about eyes staring straight at you...like the picture of the horse staring over the gate that hangs at the foot of Alan’s bed. I very much enjoy the moment in the show when Julie Rowe, who infuses the role of Alan’s mother with a fierce desperation and compelling intensity, responds to Dysart’s probing her to describe the picture, she says:
"...it’s most extraordinary. It comes out all eyes...”.
The eyes of this horse are constantly staring straight at Alan, just as our main character, Dysart, is having eyes on him the whole time - his own eyes, other eyes, everything - audience members can personally feel like eyes are on them within their own lives. They can have a cathartic reaction to whatever is going on onstage. They can relate in such a visceral way to our play. I spoke with one woman who said: "I wasn't able to stand up for the first five minutes after the end of Act One."

Meredith Bartmon, Peter Simon Hilton, Steven Maier and Julie Rowe

What is your favorite moment in "Equus"? Why is it your favorite?

Anne-Marie: I can better give a montage of moments:  first hearing the HUMMMM and then watching the collective head-tossing of the horses; the reverence on Alan’s face when he first sees the collective embodiment of his ‘god’ approach him in the stable; hearing Alan bite out the word ‘Swizzy’ to Dysart when he feels forced to tell his first horse tale; the sudden silence of the audience when Alan confronts Dysart with ‘we’re playing what I say;’ the layered effect of listening to Dysart’s monologues and hearing NEW things, performance after performance...

Julie: The opening moment when Alan gives the Horseman playing Nugget his mask to begin the story.  So simple, yet so layered and powerful.

Mallory: Out of the many favorite bits that I have stored into my memory bank from this never-to-be-forgotten play, I think I most enjoy certain moments of lightness. The moments of levity are the most poignant to me because a lot of the time the audience doesn't realize they have permission to laugh when Shaffer has granted them permission to do so several times throughout the piece.
There’s a whirlwind of darkness piercing the minds of those on stage and still, there's so much comedy in this play.
Some of the significant moments that I enjoy giggling at are: when Alan is having the time of his life riding a horse for the very first time, when Dora starts cracking up at Alan’s dad after they get covered with water and sand at the beach, and the many humorous and beautifully connected moments that Dysart shares with the Magistrate in both acts.
Somebody said that to me after seeing the play. They said "I didn't realize it would be that funny. It's really funny." It's funny because it's real life.

What is the most memorable audition experience in your career?

Anne-Marie: Oh, auditioning!  I remember having prepared for ‘Josie’ in A MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN and being asked to do a scene that I had NOT prepared; I went into the hallway to look it over, feeling that panicky ‘I-don’t-know-this-section’ sense, and basically took hold of myself to LEAP into it.... what followed was one of those moments of stars aligning/fully connected experiences that one relishes -- both in the audition room and onstage.  It’s actually a great touchstone reminder to follow instincts and trust.

Julie: I walked into the audition room, shut the door behind me and the door knob fell off in my hand.  The pianist said, no one leaves until she gets the job!

Mallory: I went in for Janis Joplin at The Wick breaking ALL the rules I was told to follow in school. When it comes to auditioning, in college I was advised to not wear a costume or dress for the part, sing songs from the show, wear your hair funny and to not do this and not do that...etc. Well, I showed up completely hippie-ed out as if I were just getting off a bus at Woodstock, I sang two songs from the show and I wore round purple sunglasses similar to the ones you see Janis wearing in many of her iconic pictures... I never took those sunglasses off from the moment I walked into the room till the moment I left. Some people say it’s better to not wear glasses during an audition so that the auditors can see your eyes and facial expressions...I guess my thought about that was ...Nope. I like going against the grain, just as Janis did.

Tell us about one of your career favorite onstage moments.

Anne-Marie: How about the fluffs of falling?  The college production when I was dressed as ‘Sir’ in ROAR OF THE GREASEPAINT/SMELL OF THE CROWD:  surrounded by a group of actors as I leaned against a shooting stick and fell over backwards off a platform....  or having forgotten my shoes and borrowing some weird flat rubber ‘water-wear’ shoes and tripping UP the top platform as ‘Titania’ in an outdoor production of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM...

Julie: I’m in Equus.... that is amazing. And certainly a career favorite.

Mallory: Its so very difficult to choose a specific all-time career favorite onstage moment...but I think I’m going to say ALL of the many moments that I had onstage in HAIR at The Kravis Center. I was cast as a tribe member and was given the opportunity to create my own character with absolutely no rules of limitation. I ended up creating this crazy, free-loving, hippie-flower child who I appropriately dubbed Looney...last name Bin. I got to create thousands of beautiful unscripted moments throughout that production with my fellow tribe members and the audience for that matter... One specific instance I remember is being pinwheeled round and round on the hips of Elijah Word as Hud Johnson during Black Boys...it was epic.

Anne-Marie Cusson and Peter Simon Hilton

If you could invite three people, living or dead, to a dinner party who would you invite?

Anne-Marie: (Only three?)
Scenario One (Esoteric:)  Leonardo DaVinci (just to hear what he had to say,) one of the Apostles, Thomas Edison (all that ‘trying & failing & trying some more’);
Scenario Two (Inspirational:)  Alan Alda, Judi Dench, Bette Davis;
Scenario Three (Ancestral:) The young Irish lass who came to America on her own; the patriarch who moved his large family from Canada to New England; my Mum (she’d be all ears WITH me;)
Scenario Four (Just Plain Fun:) Nora Ephron (she had a famous Roast Chicken recipe and KNOWS how to keep a lively conversation,) Bill Murray, Elizabeth Gilbert

Julie: Patrick Stewart, Oprah, my great grandmother Marie.

Mallory: Oh my god. Alright, Ian McKellan - he'd be one of them. Anne Frank. No, I don't know about that. I mean I would love to know Anne. Carol Burnett. Judy - no, no - Elaine Stritch is first. Elaine Stritch is definitely on the invitee list. Ian McKellan too. I also want Shakespeare. OK, Shakespeare, Elaine Stritch, and Ian McKellan.

Do you have a dream role? What is it and why?

Anne-Marie: (I really don’t...)

Julie: Honestly, not really.  I just want to do great stories with great artists.

Mallory: Well I have several dream roles...one of which, I am so excited to say, I have been cast as later this season, Yitzhak in Hedwig. That story connects very closely to me. Another dream role happens to be in my favorite musical of all time - I do have a favorite musical of all time, I can't help it - it's Les Mis. I would like to play either Eponine and Fantine. Or Madame Thenadier even. Anyone of those three roles in Les Mis would be a dream come true...Fantine probably the most. I also very much want to play Diana in Next to Normal when the time is right.

What advice would you give to aspiring actors or theatre-makers?

Anne-Marie: Know Thyself.

Julie: Have a hobby that has nothing to do with theatre.

Mallory: I want to quote our play - when Dysart talks about a thousand local gods. "Worship as many as you can see and more will appear." I would advise that it's a continuous flow - information will always continue to be influx-ed into your brain so there's never a final answer in theatre. Take in as many Gods as you can, take in as much as you can, and more will appear. I would say shut down nothing, absorb everything. Everything is a learning experience at the end of the day. No matter if it's a good situation, a bad situation, a horrifying situation, an embarrassing situation - you can learn from everything. AND - observation is one of the strongest tools for learning. To observe others - to watch them explore - exploration is key.

Describe "Equus" in three words.

Anne-Marie: Intense, intriguing, visceral.

Julie: Riveting, spiritual, haunting.

Mallory: Raw, riveting, realness.

Peter Simon Hilton, Director J. Barry Lewis, and Mallory Newbrough

Come see Equus at Palm Beach Dramaworks playing until Sunday, June 3rd. Call the box office at 561 514 4042 ext 2 or visit www.palmbeachdramaworks.org for more information.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Second Day Play

Equus is what you might call a Second-Day Play. 

The first time you meet Equus, you notice its most obvious features. However, by the Second Day the play’s true themes start to reveal themselves to you. Those first impressions and primary attributes peel away and the true impact of the story hits you on the Second Day. Equus has incredibly pronounced First Day features. First Day: the story was triggered for playwright Peter Shaffer by the true account he had heard of a boy who blinded twenty-six horses somewhere in the UK. First Day: Equus is the portrayal of a disturbed kid who has a religiouserotic obsession with horses. First Day: Equus includes a remarkable theatrical representation of horses. First Day: full nudity from both its male and female leads! First Day: Equus, once upon a time, somewhere else, starred Daniel Radcliffe – you know, Harry Potter. Hey, it sells tickets. 

Now, all of these selling points and impressions are perfectly valid, of course. But on the Second Day with Equus you start to notice that it’s also a beautifully crafted and complex story about a psychiatrist's breakdown. On the Second Day, maybe it’s not about horses and maybe it’s not even necessarily about that boy in the stable. Dr. Martin Dysart is tasked with treating Alan Strang while personally dealing with the most severe personal crisis of his career. On the Second Day, it’s the doctor's breakdown that might linger with you. 

A quick dramaturgical side note – the structure of the Second Day Play is especially popular with British playwrights. British writing is multi-layered, complex and intelligent – there are as many big themes as there are big words. Playwrights like Tom Stoppard, Alan Bennett, and Peter Shaffer cover up their character's deep emotions under massive themes of science, god, and education. After all, the British are notorious for their stiff upper lip and for hiding their emotions behind traditions and manners. American and Irish playwrights, such as Sam Shepard and Enda Walsh, don’t necessarily write in a linear or simple fashion but the emotional themes of their plays are less opaque. We wear our emotions closer to the surface on this side of the pond. Plays like Equus, while not necessarily uniquely British, are most certainly quintessentially British. 

The conversation on the themes of Equus and their relevance to a modern audience often revolve around the sexual element of Alan's obsession. Audiences, artists and critics alike consistently take the religious-erotic element of the story as a rumination on Alan's repressed homosexuality. Interpreters point to Dysart’s failing marriage, his obsession with Alan’s nightly expressions of unabashed erotic joy, Alan’s sexual otherness and his failure with Jill Mason, and the horses themselves being portrayed by strapping young men. And Shaffer was gay. However, if you read interviews with Peter Shaffer about the themes of Equus, he seems very annoyed that people have taken Equus to be some kind of veiled and tortured self-portrait. Could Shaffer himself be keen to have his audience re-think their First Day impressions of Equus? 

In fact, according to Shaffer, Equus went through many significant revisions. First, Frank and Dora Strang went from ‘dotty’ members of a religious cult to perfectly normal, if flawed, illustrations of repressed British parents. Second, the scene in which Jill seduces Alan on the floor of the stable changed from a successful but guilt inducing first sexual escapade to the agonizing failure that incites Alan to lash out against his demons. Dysart also used to have a son. “…but it became too complicated…”, says Shaffer. “It involved me in endless speeches. I had to pare away the child and the psychiatrist's wife to make the central conflict stand out more clearly.” Perhaps, the multi-layered nature of the play’s inception is why our reaction as audience members takes on such a long-term and morphing quality. 

Over the years, much of the play’s audience has found the subject matter highly controversial. The extended nudity scene is a rarity on Broadway stages. Psychiatrists and psychiatric patients have attacked Shaffer for what they see as a glorified and false portrayal of their work. The idea that a psychiatrist might have doubts or even, god forbid, be envious of his patient is abhorrent to them. The suggestion that Alan’s insanity is equal to freedom and living in the moment is unacceptable. But Dysart admits that it’s ridiculous to be jealous of Alan. One of the sensations that lingers with people is the creepy crawly sense of kinship with Dysart’s doubts, his feelings of pointlessness, his envy of the unhinged. "It's an enactment", Shaffer says, "of my own internal tension. A part of me is always envious of people who live in the present and are sustained by a sense of spontaneity. Even dogs have that capacity: they're always wanting to participate in something and I don't often have that element in me.” The Second Day Play is often very successful at sticking to your consciousness because of how uncomfortably close it gets to your deepest, darkest fascinations. 

If you ask five different audience members which moment they felt most entranced by in the play you will get six different answers. In various speeches, Dysart expresses being torn apart by the thought that his work is not only useless but ultimately harmful. He doesn’t love anything in his life, he doesn’t want anything anymore, his passions are opaque and ephemeral. He has nothing to show for any moment of his life – and no one cares because no one is most concerned for his well-being. On the Second Day – if you can admit to yourself how disturbed you are by Dysart’s ruminations – then you just might be compelled to see the play again and again. 

That’s the thing with a Second Day Play – when the true themes hit you, they often hurt. They “clop away with your intestines in their teeth.” Equus employs that wonderful theatrical tool of being able to see into Dysart’s inner thoughts – his private world. He speaks directly to the audience as a true confidant – he lets us in on his secrets slowly, inexorably, painfully. We sit listening like the frog in the pot, unaware of the heat until it’s too late to jump out. Usually, we can only witness this internal kind of breakdown within ourselves. We feel dreadfully unique, alone, isolated and unimportant in our own minds. But when we see Dysart or Alan or Dora or Frank suffering a loss in such recognizable ways, we realize we must not be alone if someone else once wrote it all down. It both stings and soothes. 

Despite that feeling of being desperately understood that Equus inspires in so many, some audience members have doubted the importance of Equus to the modern audience. It was written in 1973 and it’s about the difficulties of being male in British society at the time. You wouldn’t be terribly remiss if you argued that a story so heavily told by men is out of date in the time of #metoo and the zeitgeist of the empowerment of women. However, you might also argue that men's ability to embrace and discuss their least flattering emotions is hugely important to any discussion of feminism. Women can certainly be significantly affected by Equus as well. One woman in the audience admitted that she “wasn't able to stand up for the first five minutes after the end of Act One." However, many of the most intense reactions to the play have been from male audience members. Perhaps, Equus allows men with repressed anger, envy and isolation to feel seen. Allowing men to interact with their deepest emotions is a vital component to feminism and gender equity. And Equus is about the community’s responsibility for and response to the violent outburst of a young white male. Don’t say that isn’t frighteningly relevant. 

There is a monologue of Dysart’s in which he talks about children’s demons. He says they lie in wait in the dark as palpable beings or objects. He sees the giant horse head that is Alan’s personal demon/god and says that Equus was always there waiting for Alan to come upon him. He can treat the welts that the horse mane left on Alan's soul but he cannot say why or how Equus came to be in the first place. He feels he could not have stopped Alan from falling victim to his demon/god because he cannot tell how he was conceived. “And if I can’t know that, if I can never know that, then what’s the point?” If his brand of treatment can only be reactive and never preventative than what improvement is he actually making in society? Let that sink in for a day.

So, here we are on the Second Day, the second week of rehearsal, the second time seeing the production, the second night ruminating on what you witnessed on stage. Equus is a stunning portrait of something so human and so relatable if you’re willing to delve into the darkness of your own psyche. On the Second Day, you feel the shame in envying Alan’s ability to live in the moment with a total lack of self-consciousness. Second Day: you question what it means to be responsible for the emotional suffering of those in your community. Second Day: you wonder if anything you’ve done in your life with such dogged effort and energy has meant anything in the great happening of the universe. Second Day: you wonder if your colleagues and friends feel this same upheaval and cover it up as you have done. Second Day: you realize that you’ve been blindly stumbling toward an end point without any actual desire to arrive. 

In other words, once you get past the metal horse heads, the naked bodies and Harry Potter – then you can see the demons – then you can know yourself more fully through the words – then you can see what Equus is really about. Equus waits for you in the dark on the Second Day.

Come see Equus (in fact, see it twice!) at Palm Beach Dramaworks from May 18th - Jun 3rd. See what the critics are raving about. Call 561 514 4042 ext 2 or visit www.palmbeachdramaworks.org for tickets and more information.

Poster Design by Frank Verlizzo 

Inside the Actor's Mind: Animal Movement Studies

Dominic Servidio and Steven Maier

One of my goals with this blog is to spend some time de-mystifying the work of the actor. Today I want to tell you about a key area of study for many performers. Movement studies are a huge part of actor training. From Laban to Linklater and from puppetry to acrobatics, performers have to maintain a wide variety of movement technique and skill. While in acting school, one of my favorite units of study was animal movement studies. Here is how it went down:

First, we were assigned animals based on personality traits our head-of-course felt we ought to explore more. The lumbering manly man got flamingos, the light and polite young woman studied an ape, the happy-go-lucky lad became a vulture and the independent ladies were given pack animals like otters. My teacher assigned me the flying squirrel because I needed to study lightness and joy - which I apparently lacked. Oy. Next, we were given a worksheet of specific details to study about our given animal.

And then we went to the London Zoo! Unfortunately, the London Zoo did not have flying squirrels so I went in search of a small, joyful creature. I wandered into the tropical habitat and found the Emperor Tamarin - a tiny and very playful monkey. 😍

We were to study the breath and where it originated in the body, the pattern of muscular impulses that create movement, diet, and relationships to other creatures, etc. The point was to practice detailed and purposeful observation.

I began taking notes and after a while, the scratching of my pencil attracted the little teenage Tamarin. The tiny monkey boldly made his way over to me and jumped directly onto the ledge where I was taking notes. He stared curiously at my book, then my pencil, then my hand, then back at the pencil. He inched toward me (along with a watchful zookeeper) and he actually took hold of my pencil! Then he drew a picture! Well - I moved the pencil while he held on - but it was magical!

After the observation period, we then worked on the implementation of foreign movement patterns in our own bodies. We spent hours performing the movement of the animal in the classroom. I was especially thrilled during the class final. We were meant to cross the room fully realizing the movement of the animal. As I leapt across the room with my long tail - I heard the scritch scratch of a pencil. I cocked my head to the side and cautiously approached the movement studies professor (the incomparable Tracy Collier) as she took notes on my work. I inched closer to the scratching pencil and bounded away when she got too close. I aced that class.  😂

So, why bring up this brand of study right now, you ask? Well, I'm so glad you want to know! This kind of study has been a huge part of the magic of my current contract. In Equus, the beautifully nuanced physical performances by the actors playing horses are integral to the production. The five excellent young actors playing horses have created very distinct physical personalities without an ounce of dialog. Robert Richards, Jr. plays a gentle and restless horse, Nick Lovalvo a fidgety and unpredictable colt, Austin Carroll a poised and mannered Cremello, Frank Vomero is mature and hates flies and Dominic Servidio is a huge stallion who stamps and moves his large limbs very deliberately. I challenge anyone who sees Equus to doubt the richness that these detailed physical performances bring to the overall experience of the play.

Stephen Maier
Mallory Newbrough

Like in my movement class, the actors at Palm Beach Dramaworks went to a stable in Jupiter Farms to observe a number of horses during rehearsals. The trip greatly informed their work. They found that horses rarely stood still and often stood in a "B-plus" position - like a dancer poised to do a traveling combination. They observed the horse's whole body reaction to the torture of the flies. They also noticed the movement of the head on top of the neck. They described the move as being fairly quick but since they have more vertebrae in the neck than a human does the performers have to imagine the added adjustment when moving their own heads around.

As an actor who greatly appreciates the moving nature of movement, it is an incredible joy to watch the animal work being done in Equus every night. The actor's physical creativity and specificity has added so much to this production. Their work alone is worth the price of admission. (Not to mention everything else is stupid incredible.) I mean look at that lighting...

Meredith Bartmon, Austin Carroll, Robert Richards, Jr., Dominic Servidio, Steven Maier, Frank Vomero, Nick Lovalvo,  John Leonard Thompson

Come see Peter Shaffer's Equus at Palm Beach Dramaworks from May 18th to June 3rd. Call the box office at 561 514 4042 or visit www.palmbeachdramaworks.org for more info and to purchase tickets.

Directed by J. Barry Lewis
Lighting Design: Kirk Bookman
Set Design: Anne Mundell
Costume Design: Franne Lee
Sound Design: Steve Shapiro
Movement Coach: Lee Soroko
Photo Credit: Alicia Donelan, Mallory Newbrough, Samantha Mighdoll

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Meet the Characters: Beasts of the Stable

In the original production of Equus in London, the stage was set up in a way that allowed audience members to sit on stage. The recent NYC revival also did this. I did not have the honor of seeing either production (I'm a bit too young for the first in 1973) but I did recently see another play, Good for Otto, in NYC. Good for Otto is a play set in a community mental health center and, like Equus, audience members are sitting on stage with the actors. The experience of sitting on the stage made me feel like a part of the community. It gave me the sensation of being in some sort of meeting with the characters. I almost felt like after their scenes it would be my turn to share my own issues. It was a remarkable experience.

Equus is also set in a mental health facility. I can't help but imagine that sitting on the stage would give the audience member a sense of being in a surgical gallery...Watching from above as the Doctor dissects his patient's illness. Of course, having audience members on stage can cause certain problems. Daniel Radcliffe played the role of Alan on Broadway and he describes audience members trying to talk to him and even propositioning him from their on-stage position. At PBD, the plan had been to seat audience members on stage but the fire marshall, unfortunately, put an end to that ambition. The permits alone would have cost thousands.

We may not have on-stage audience members but every member of the cast remains onstage for almost the entire play. At five minutes to 'curtain', the actors begin to enter along with the audience. We mill about and take up our positions behind the playing space. We observe the action until we pop up and enter it. I have had the great privilege of watching the amazing work being done by my fellow actors from the start of rehearsals through the end of the run. I encourage you to come experience this wonderful play with us. Let me introduce you to the beasts of this stable, the characters, and I hope to see you on the Psych ward soon!


Dr. Martin Dysart (Peter Simon Hilton)
Dr. Dysart is on the verge of what he calls "professional menopause." He wonders desperately whether he has helped anyone and whether even one moment of his life has been spent well. Alan enters Dysart's 'torture chamber' at a time when Dysart is doubting his place in the world. How can he handle the Patient's pain when he can barely put one foot in front of the other with confidence?

"I need - more desperately than my children need me - a way of seeing in the dark."


Alan Strang (Steven Maier)
Everyone in Equus is dealing with their own demons. Alan's are so present and powerful that they invade every part of his being. His mother gave him Jesus but he saw Equus and he has given himself over completely to that worship. His obsession is honest and passionate but ultimately destructive. Now, Alan grasps blindly at Dysart's ability to "pull him out of the nightmare he galloped himself into."

"Every time I heard one clop by, I had to run and see. Up a country lane or anywhere. They sort of pulled me."


Dora Strang (Julie Rowe)
Dora was a teacher before Alan was born but gave it up to answer the greatest love that God could bestow upon her - a child. She is significantly religious but she married a man who is significantly an atheist and they've had major differences of opinion on how to raise their child. She has genuinely no idea why her son, the child she loved and cared for with everything she had to give, has done this terrible thing. She wrestles with a crisis of faith and the weight of responsibility for who Alan has become.

"I only know he was my little Alan, and then the Devil came."


Frank Strang (John Leonard Thompson)
Alan's father is a hard-working, irreverent man of the earth. His wife defends him as a good father who cares for his family but it's clear he's had trouble communicating with his only son. Open emotions aren't in his nature. Alan has always been a "weird lad" in his father's opinion. Now, the awful thing Alan did has laid all of Frank's shortcomings bare.

"He was always mooning over religious pictures. I mean real kinky ones, if you receive my meaning. I had to put a stop to it once or twice."


Hesther Salomon (Anne-Marie Cusson)

Hesther offers an emotional counterpart to Dysart. She stands out as a woman in a primarily male world. The male playwright has written a woman who is sure and stalwart and a man who is emotional and unpredictable. She is both compassionate with and unswervingly demanding of her friend the Doctor.

"Hesther. I suppose one of the few things one can do is simply hold on to priorities.
Dysart. Like what?
Hesther. Oh...children before grownups."


Jill Mason (Mallory Newbrough)
Jill is the one who introduced Alan to the stable where he works. She is a young woman of her time - ambitious in her search for adventure and experience. She's drawn to Alan's cagey-ness but she really has no idea what she's getting herself into. Jill almost manages to get Alan to grow up and place his worship someplace healthy. She almost provides him with a healthy reaction to emotional trauma. She almost reaches him. Almost.

"Jill. There was an article in the paper last week saying what points about boys fascinate girls...I think it's eyes every time...They fascinate you too, don't they?
Alan. Me?
Jill. Or is it only horse's eyes?"


Harry Dalton (Steve Carroll)
Dalton reminds the audience and the Doctor that Alan's act was not a victimless crime. It knocks some sense back into Dysart. Alan's unbridled worship destroyed something that Dalton loves. Who gets to decide when to kill someone else's passion?

"I tell you, this thing has shaken me so bad, I'm liable to believe anything."


Meredith Bartmon - Me!
The Nurse reminds us that we are in a Hospital. When the Doctor or the Patient get too bogged down in their own inner worlds she enters and puts things back in motion, no nonsense.

"You'll have a much better time of it here, you know if you behave yourself."


Dominic Servidio
Early on, Alan tells the story of the first time he ever saw a horse. The horse itself was huge and the man who was riding gave Alan a lot of the vocabulary for his obsession. The man on the horse is so innocuous that he doesn't get a name and yet something snapped together at that moment for Alan. Years later Alan still tells his horse-god to "bear me away!"

"Horseman. Do you want to go faster?
Alan. Yes!
Horseman. O.K. All you have to do is say 'Come on, Trojan - bear me away!'"


Dominic Servidio - Nugget, Frank Vomero, Robert Richards, Jr., Austin Carroll, Nick Lovalvo
The spectre of the great horse's head haunts both Alan and Dysart. It stares out of the darkness demanding to be acknowledged.

"Hesther. He blinded five horses with a metal spike."

Come see Equus by Peter Shaffer at Palm Beach Dramaworks from May 18th - June 3rd. Call the box office at 561 514 4042 or visit www.palmbeachdramaworks.org for more information.

Directed by J. Barry Lewis
Lighting Design by Kirk Bookman
Costume Design by Franne Lee
Set Design by Anne Mundell
Sound Design by Steve Shapiro
Photo Credit: Alicia Donelan, Samantha Mighdoll
Poster Design: Frank Verlizzo

Monday, October 30, 2017

Ten Questions with...Elizabeth Dimon

What fascinates you most about your character in "The Humans"?

What I find fascinating about Deirdre is her loyalty. She has stuck to the same job for 40 years. She has stuck by her husband despite his infidelity and loss of job. She is fiercely loyal to Momo, her mother in law. She sticks with her daughters despite their lack of respect. She helps her friends and relatives to the point of not taking proper care of her own needs, she is loyal to the church. 

What do you hope the audience will take away from seeing "The Humans"? Give us a specific quote you'd love to overhear as the audience walked out. 

I hope the audience takes away that despite the human condition, we keep going. We don't give in to the fear. We feel it and keep going. We fall and we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and start all over again. I would like to hear someone say they recognize themselves in our story. That they can relate to it. Because it is indeed a very "human" story.

What is your favorite moment in "The Humans"? Why is it your favorite?

Because of the structure of the play, we as actors have to stay in each moment because each moment leads us to the next and the next. But the most poignant moment for me is near the very end of the play, after Momo's breakdown. And Aimee says to Deirdre, "I'm sorry" and she responds: "I'm sorry you're sick". She feels responsible for Aimee's illness and it's something she can't fix by hard work or will. She feels at fault. It is her most vulnerable self.

What is the most memorable audition experience in your career?

My most memorable audition experience has been the sheer and utter joy of leaving the audition room and being offered the job before I made it to the lobby and that is in contrast with going to a huge group call for "Les Miz" in Miami and after hours being typed out for a role I was totally right for. The highs and the lows.The normal ups and downs of our business. 

Tell us about one of your career favorite onstage moments.

My most memorable onstage moment in my career was when I was doing a play called "The Music Lesson" by Tammy Ryan at Florida Stage. A most beautiful play about Bosnian refugees in Pittsburg. And in one of the final scenes the family is gathered and we watch it snow. It is a very emotional scene and I witnessed a patron, a woman, lean over to her husband, take his hand and share a hanky because he was crying. Theatre did that. It allowed emotion in a 75 year old man to happen in public, a shared experience with others. And I got to witness it. And not for nothing, but I also had to say a prayer for the dead in Hebrew in "The Last Schwartz" and a man in the audience started to pray with me. I lost it.

If you could invite three people, living or dead, to a dinner party who would you invite?

If I could share a dinner with 3 people who would they be? Well, sharing a meal with friends around my dinner table is one of my greatest joys. The preparation, the dining, the conversation, the shared experience. So I've had many a wonderful dinner. But if I'm playing fantasy dinner, I would choose, John Lithgow, Judy Dench and Lidia Bastianich.  

What would you do if you were not an actor?

If I could do something else other than acting.....and Lord knows, I don't know how to do much else. But I would either teach kindergarten or I would work professionally with hospice.

Do you have a dream role? What is it and why?

My dream role was always Lola in "Come Back Little Sheba". It's the role I saw Shirley Booth play and it's what made me want to be an actor. 

What advice would you give to aspiring actors or theatre makers?

My advice to anyone wanting to become an actor would be: get an education, pursue it if you must, but be prepared to do a
lot of something else to support yourself, go for it, because life will tell you soon enough if it's really for you, don't burn your bridges, be respectful, know whose shoulders you stand on and never ever take yourself too seriously. 

Describe "The Humans" in three words.

Describe "The Humans" in 3 words.........A GRATIFYING CHALLENGE.....both to do and to witness.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The Humans: Thanksgiving DO's and DON'T's

It's begun. The Christmas aisle at Target is assembled and I just heard "All I Want for Christmas is You" for the first time on the radio. Sure, it's only mid-October but the dawn of Christmas overload is upon us. Can't I just enjoy Tim Burton films and slutty costumes for two more weeks?! It's that time of year - when people are split into two camps - the Halloween/Hocus Pocus/Witches and Candy Camp and then the Christmas/Home Alone/Jingle Bells and Red Tinsel Crew. But wait, we have a last minute competitor - its the Thankgiving Turkey/Pumpkin/ Offensive Representations of Pilgrims and Natives Clan.

It's almost Thanksgiving! I don't think I've ever heard anyone say Thanksgiving was their favorite holiday. I mean, sure it gets mad points in the food department but you have to see every member of your extended family and they aren't even contractually obligated to give you gifts. So, in the spirit of the season, here are a few suggestions for getting through the unwanted third cousin of holidays with your dignity intact - if not your waist line.

First of all, DO come see The Humans at Gablestage running until Nov 5th. I bet none of your Thanksgiving dinners have been as shocking or as funny as the Blake family Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving DO's and DON'T's

Alex Alvarez (Richard Saad)
and Katie Ellison (SM)

DO have the best chef do the cooking
This should really go without saying. Most people agree the only good thing about Thanksgiving is the food. Literally nothing is worse than rubbery turkey, watery potatoes and moldy pie.

DO be thankful for what you have
Its called Thanks-Giving. Its sort of, like, the whole point. So tell your parents you're grateful for that healthy upbringing, tell      your Grandma you love having her there and tell your little sister how much you enjoy always beating her at Clue.

The set of The Humans
DO make sure your home is ready for guests
Thanksgiving is difficult enough with the proper furniture. So if you just moved in yesterday and everything you own is stuck on a moving truck somewhere in a different borough maybe consider heading to a nice restaurant.

DO celebrate family traditions

Those crazy folks are your crazy folks. So dig in and celebrate what makes your loony family uniquely insane. Whether its going to a soup kitchen to volunteer or smashing a piece of peppermint candy molded into the shape of a pig for good luck.

Robert (ASM)

DO be good neighbors
Today and every day - be good to your neighbors. From putting down rugs for the people below you to toning down the sex noises for the people next door and from not cooking curry at 2am for the folks above you to bringing all of them some of your famous PBChocoNana pie on Thanksgiving...good deeds come back around to you.

DO stock up on air freshener
All that onion powder in the stuffing, all that butter in the potatoes, all that salt in the gravy, the legumes and the carbs...just trust me on      this one.

Diana Garle (Brigid Blake) 

DON'T offend the host
Listen, one person drove over, ate and drank and then drove home. The other person got up at 6am and scrubbed every inch of their house, polished cutlery that hadn't seen the light of day in a year, cooked for ten hours and then tried to look fresh and rested in the last five minutes before your lazy ass arrived. They don't need any of your ungrateful, judge-y bullshit.

DON'T wait too long to have dessert
This is what we are all here for. By the time you have arrived at 3pm, suffered through three hours of small talk before dinner, ate more turkey than you thought possible and watched grandpa undo his belt and zipper...the only thing keeping you from running away screaming is the promise of an immediate serving of pumpkin pie. Don't delay. Idle mouths are the devil's playground - or something like that.

DON'T discuss money or what medicines you're taking or your bowel movements 
Is that just my family?

Alex Alvarez, Michael Gioia (Eric Blake) and Diana Garle

DON'T discuss religion or politics.
Would you rather spend your night fighting or inhaling your weight in cranberry sauce? Thanksgiving is a secular holiday so lay off your kids' church going or not going habits. As for politics, considering today's current political climate...you know what, go for it. Its such good theatre.

Happy Thanksgiving! 
And come see me and the rest of the Blake family celebrate their Thanksgiving in The Humans by Stephen Karam at Gablestage. Running until Nov 5th in Coral Gables.

305 445 1119
Joe Adler (Director) 

The Acting Dramaturg Goes Profesh!