In Defense of the “Boring Classes” for Theatre Majors

In Defense of the “Boring Classes” for Theatre Majors

Theatre history, script analysis, and dramatic lit are vital areas of the art-form for you to understand…and to strive towards expertise in.  I know that that sounds daunting and intimidating.  I understand that these classes require long hours of reading and studying, paper writing and research.  I know that it’s more fun to be plotting a set design on Vectorworks, or doing Suzuki movement exercises, or sewing, pulling props, or building.  But the foundation that you are laying now will shape those designs, help you to use that intense energy, and help you to find the correct props.  You can do this.  Your professors are here to help.

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A Director Prepares - About my process: Chapter 1 - Preproduction

C. Austin Hill

  • OnStage Ohio Columnist

One of my favorite things about writing for OnStage is that we have a very broad array of readers that includes actors, designers, designers, and lifelong theatre-lovers.  While I am sure that there are many directors amongst our readership, I also recognize that for many there is a certain mysticism to the art of theatrical direction.  In the interest of helping to demystify things a bit, I thought I’d chronicle my own process as I prepare for upcoming projects.  I don’t mean to imply that mine is the only, or even the best, way to approach directing—indeed there are as many styles of director as there are directors—but I wanted to shed some light on the work that goes into directing a piece of theatre for those that might otherwise not know what we do behind the scenes.  I also hope this is helpful for experienced directors that might be looking for a few new tools for their toolboxes, or confirmation that what they are already doing is solid.

Perhaps it’s best if I start with a word about my credentials.  Recently, in the comments on one of my columns, I was accused of being “just an academic,” with an implication that I was unaware of the realities of life in the trenches.  While it’s true that I AM an academic, with a PhD in Theatre History, I also have a wealth of experience in those very trenches.  Since 2008, I have directed over 30 productions, with 11 different companies including community theatres, academic companies, and LORT theatres.  My upcoming productions—those that I’ll be chronicling here—will be numbers 34 and 35, and add two more producing companies to my list.  In addition, for 4 years I served as the Artistic Director for a successful small company in Columbus, Ohio producing and directing shows that won accolades and awards.  So while I am certainly an academic, I am not “just an academic” (whatever in the world that means…).

My readers might recall that I have recently moved back to Ohio following three years as the Director of the Theatre Program at a small university in Tennessee.  This move into a new academic position brings exciting new opportunities—not the least of which the chance to work with new actors, new designers, new music directors, and new companies.  Part of my job includes directing for the university’s season, but I think it’s important to work outside of the institution as well.  I was very lucky as I was quickly introduced to a number of people working in a very lively and very welcoming theatre community, and subsequently offered the chance to direct for the Youngstown Playhouse—a 91 year old community theatre that produces excellent work.  I was also lucky because that project was slotted to begin immediately following my production for Youngstown State University—AND both of these productions open in the spring.  The upshot is that I get plenty of lead time to prepare. 

Opening in February, I’m working on an 81 year old piece of political satire (with music) by German playwright Ernst Toller.  I was excited about the piece the second I heard the title NO MORE PEACE! And more so when I learned the premise—Napoleon makes a bet with St. Francis (atop Mount Olympus, of course) that man is inherently warlike, and sets in motion a plan to prove it by provoking a peaceful  (fictional) Balkan country into a war with an unknown neighbor.  This is right up my alley—it’s weird, it’s political, it is non-realistic, and it is hyper relevant.  The other piece I’m working on, opening in May, is HAIRSPRAY.  I’m an odd academic in that I ADORE musical theatre, and this one in particular—with its questions about race and gender and whose lives seem to matter to whom—is absolutely perfect at this socio-political moment.  So away I go…

Prepping two shows at the same time is hard.  I am working with very different pieces with very different needs.  With HAIRSPRAY, I have a few things going for me—I have lots of time before I have to have a concept in place, I know the show very well (in all of its versions, including the original John Waters film), and my set designer and choreographer will be my wife, with whom I’ve collaborated many times.  So I am able to put that one on the back burner a bit—we’ve re-read the script, and talked through some early ideas for the visual world of the production, and now I can let my team begin to think through the show from those early seeds.  We’re doing research into Baltimore architecture (formstone, and general shapes), dance in the early 60’s, and thinking hard about the many theses in the show and how to best bring them to our audience.

My process on NO MORE PEACE! is a bit more involved immediately.  I am working with a team of designers and collaborators whom I am just getting to know.  At this point, we don’t have a good working shorthand, so I’m going to need to be much more specific much earlier in the game.  I have some time before we begin production meetings in earnest, but this is a script that I have only recently read, and don’t thoroughly understand yet. So for the time being, it’s all about research, research, research.   It’s a complicated text, translated to English from German (which I don’t read in any way that would help me), and it has a very limited production history.  

Then there’s the music—I have most of the sheet music in the text (though not all) but I am struggling to find reference recordings at all, and those that I’m finding are far from the overall tone I would want for a production in 2016 Ohio.  I’m reading up on Ernst Toller—who has a FASCINATING biography—and about the moment in which this play was written—in 1935-6 Germany—to make sure I’m getting the politics right, and to try to make sure I’m finding all of the points of resonance with our current political world.  I’m reading about Balkan countries, about their folk festivals (the play opens at one), about their traditional music (will THAT help me find the right tone for the music in the play?).  I’m reading the Bible, as all of the characters in the fictional country of Dunkelstein have Biblical names—a choice that was undoubtedly intentional, so I’d better understand exactly why each character carries its name. 

I’m reading the text repeatedly, each time taking notes of my questions AS I READ, and noting if and when they get answered.  Right now, my primary focus is context.  Later it’ll be on dramatic action (how we get from one point to another), and on broad conceptual matters like costumes, scenic needs, and lighting, all of which will be fleshed out by my collaborators.  I am my own sound designer on this piece, as I am on much of what I direct, and because I tend to think in terms of rhythms and beats I’ve already begun gathering an inspirational playlist (did you know there’s a genre of music called “Gypsy punk” that includes updated conceptions of Balkan folk music?).

Directing is about so much more than blocking.  Before I begin my 6 weeks of rehearsal time (and I’m lucky to have that much), I will do months of preparation, thinking, research, and analysis.  I’ll check in again ere long and tell you more!

Why ‘Monopoly the Musical’ will Flop; or, Lessons We Fail To Learn

C. Austin Hill

  • OnStage Ohio Columnist

Recently it was announced that Hasbro will be partnering with a producer to bring a musical based on the board game Monopoly to Broadway.  While the creative team hasn’t been announced, I am going to call my shot—this endeavor will invariably fail.  While I’m here, I’m also going to call my shot on the upcoming revival of CATS—this one will fail as well.  And, though I’m sure some will loudly disagree, it has everything to do with Hamilton.

Let me begin with a short disclaimer—I LOVE CATS. I have seen 4 different touring companies (from Equity to bus-and-truck) , I own at least 2 different cast albums, I own the DVD, I have been a Broadway cat more for more than one Halloween, and I know every single word of the show (and am still FURIOUS when productions cut Growltiger’s Last Stand and the Ballad of Billy McCaw).  I love Gillian Lynne’s choreography, I love the costumes, and I love the music.  To me, CATS is best understood as a dance show with singing, and when viewed that way, it might just be purrrrfection (SORRY).  None of that matters anymore.  Not on post-Hamilton Broadway.

The key ingredient for a theatrical success is a firm understanding of the target audience.  When CATS first opened, Cameron Mackintosh understood that the play would be a difficult sell—it was weirdly structured, strangely costumed, and concept heavy.  Instead of casting pop stars and praying for their fan-base to carry the ticket sales, which is apparently the sales pitch of the revival, Mackintosh entirely changed the way that Broadway shows are marketed.  All over NYC billboards started to appear featuring the show’s now-famous cat eye logo.  No Text.  No dates.  No title.  No pop stars.  No explanation of any kind.  Instead, these cryptic billboards made people talk.  The talk led to interest, and the interest led to HUGE ticket sales.  The production used actual theatre people—not pop signers—and incredible production values to continue their sales.  CATS was innovative, the music felt fresh and new…moog synthesizers abounded, there was a certain rock element to the thing that seemed SO 1981.  The quirky little show sold well for 18 years. 

Unfortunately, the producers of the revival seem to have completely failed to pay attention to what’s happening on Broadway lately—or more likely, they seem to have little understanding for why Hamilton is selling out and shows around them are packing up.  What Hamilton did is nothing short of a theatrical coup. The lament of theatre producers for decades is that the younger generation(s) are staying away from the theatre in droves.  Hamilton changed all of that.  While ticket prices are a major barrier, the younger generation—the Millennials—can’t seem to get enough of the show.  The cast album has gone platinum, and is currently sitting at number 3 on the Billboard top 100.  This is only the third Broadway recording to reach the Top Ten in 50 years.  The grant-funded school performances are the talk of the town.  The Chicago production will undoubtedly sell out in minutes, as will every single tour stop.  Why?  Because the show was WRITTEN for the Millennial mindset.  It was created specifically to attract the sector of potential theatre-goers that producers seem to want most, and miss most frequently.

This attempt to court the younger audience sector isn’t really new, and it isn’t all that unique.  Hair and Rent certainly knew their target audiences.  The Lion King and all other Disney musicals knew who they were targeting. Wicked has no misconceptions about their market, and the show continues to thrive because of it.  But there was an interesting moment at the 2016 Tony Awards…you might have missed it.  There was a very quick joke about the only audience for Phantom being your aunt from the Midwest and international tourists…and that is exactly right.  Who is going to see Phantom?  Not the Millennials.  Not NYC locals.  CATS will have this same problem, only first, unlike Phantom for whom this happened decades ago, the revival will have to recoup expenses…which will never happen.  People will come for the pop star and the costumes, realize that it’s really just a rehashing of the show they saw in 1981, or 1992, or on tour, and go away.  They won’t come back.  They will not camp out for tickets in Chicago.  They did not pay attention.

Gillian Lynne

Gillian Lynne

That’s not to say that CATS couldn’t work.  They have hired Hamilton's Andy Blankenbuehler, for crying out loud…but, unfortunately, the producers hired him to “recreate Gillian Lynne’s choreography” and THEN allowed Lynne access to the cast during which she entirely undermined his authority and artistry, and THEN let Lynne publicly discuss her lack of faith in his work.  This is NOT how to reach a new audience.  This is how to create a museum piece.  Sorry, but I have the DVD of Lynne’s work already.  I’ll stay home.  In droves.

Which brings me to this ill-advised Monopoly debacle.  You’d have thought that Hasbro would have learned from the failure of recent board-game-based films, or from the disaster that was Clue: The Musical…this isn’t going to go well.  Who is their audience?  Monopoly players?  Pro-tip: The Millennials don’t play Monopoly, and those that DO will certainly understand the irony of plunking down $200 for tickets to watch someone pay $400 for Boardwalk.  What could the plot be of a Monopoly musical?  Watching a real estate developer help kill off Atlantic City?  Will the developer have orange skin and terrible hair?  They are promising some sort of audience participation…how will that work?

I might be wrong about all of this.  Perhaps the pop-star marketing scheme will work for CATS even while it’s failing to work for Chicago which is playing to 50% capacity even with a 20th anniversary marketing push.  Maybe Monopoly will be the harbinger of new and highly successful board-game crossover musicals…I’m excited about Connect Four: The Musical.  But, really, I hope Broadway producers all figure it out and stop bringing tripe and/or museum pieces to the stage.

Show Souvenirs, or Clinging to the Past

C. Austin Hill

  • OnStage Ohio Columnist

I am moving.  I’m packing my house and my campus office, and in two weeks my family and I will leave for a new home, in a new state (returning, really, to a state we loved for 5 years before moving to Tennessee).  Once there, I’ll start on the theatre faculty of a new university, I’ll meet new students, colleagues, and friends.  Part of the packing process has included boxing up some of the collection of bits and bobs from my past shows.  Some of these souvenirs have been gifts from cast members, others simply collected from amongst unwanted props.  Unwanted, that is, except by me.

My collection would never interest a museum, though some pieces have drawn an interested glance and a chuckle from a student or two.  There are some weird things in my collection.  At one point I had no fewer than three rubber chickens atop my bookshelf.  One of these chickens is painted white and has white feathers hot-glued to it…it played a guest role in my production of Dancing at Lughnasa.  Also from that show, I have a tri-cornered hat, festooned with an enormous feather, which was worn by Uncle Jack (played by my dear friend Ken Erney). 

I must have a thing about chickens, because I seem to collect fake ones.  See, I also have a stuffed nylon, tied in just the right way to look like a whole baked chicken (think rotisserie) that I used (along with 20 more just like it) in a production of Beware the Man Eating Chicken for Evolution Theatre Company in Columbus, Ohio.  It’s particularly convincing when wrapped in foil, but alas the foil has been lost.

I have a wooden stake and a skull from the world premiere of A Night of Blacker Darkness.  I have strips of bandanna, a piece of graffiti and a toilet seat from Urinetown.  I’ve a lovely rosary from my production of Doubt, a Groucho Marx nose and mustache from Twelfth Night (it was Feste’s of course), and pictures of Irish towns from The Weir. These, of course, in addition to cast photos, press clippings, signed posters, and other beautiful gifts. 

I have other things on my shelves too, in addition to books.  I’ve got a Carol Channing ventriloquist dummy that was a gift from my wife; pictures of, and from, my children; a piece of fake bacon that I found in the lobby of my theatre and found hilarious; a cryptex from The Da Vinci Code that I won in an online promotion; and an antique Prince Albert can that was found under the stage floor in my building when the stage was refurbished.

Like I said, my collection wouldn’t interest a museum.  It’d never draw a crowd, and isn’t very well curated (what WAS that fake bacon doing in my lobby?!?).  What is is, though, is a way for me to combat the ephemeral nature of the theatre.  Shows come and they go, and it’s nice to be able to hang on to something tangible to help spark our memories.  I’m excited to pull unpack my curiosities on my new campus, and to be asked about each item by visitors, and to have the chance to tell the story of each and every piece.

What do you have in your collection? 

Graduation: A Light at the End of the Tunnel—A Note to Theatre Students

C. Austin Hill

  • OnStage Ohio Columnist

Dear theatre students:

 My name is Chris, and I am a theatre professor.  Though I may not be YOUR theatre professor, and though I don’t mean to imply that I speak for ALL theatre professors, I wanted to reach out as the year winds down and share some thoughts and wise words with you.  I hope you’ll find this useful whether this you are graduating college along with some of my students, graduating from high school and looking forward, or looking back on a lifetime of theatre.

Graduation is upon us.  For some of you this is the culmination of years of training, classes, productions, and living.  Those graduating with degrees in theatre have written dozens of papers; memorized countless lines; plotted hundreds of lighting fixtures; given (and received) many line-notes; scribbled more blocking notes, acting notes, design notes, course notes, cue-sheets, ground-plans, beats, and ideas than anyone would ever care to count.  Some are going on to graduate schools or into the industry, some from graduate schools into the industry or into teaching, some have no clearly-defined next-step.  All of these are okay—we, your faculty, love you and will miss you…and regardless of your next destination, we are VERY proud of you.  Here are some things I’d like you to remember.

It’s not what you know…it’s WHO you know

This old adage is true—in more ways than you might realize now.  Yes, it’s true that the well-connected have more access to opportunities than those who lack those connections.  But here’s the thing about college…by virtue of having been in a theatre program, you are now better connected than you might think you are.  Those who are graduating with you, who have graduated ahead of you, and who will graduate behind you will become a wide network of theatre professionals.  They will spin off, meet people, do shows, land jobs, meet other people, and make art.  STAY IN TOUCH WITH THEM. 

If you haven’t already, create some sort of alumni social-media page—not just the official one your program might keep, but one driven by students past and present.  Then, USE IT.  Tell each other about your successes, about your failures, about shows you are doing that NEED a person just like your friend to take a role, or design a set, or hang a light.  Having been to a couple of schools myself, I am still a member of groups like this from my undergrad institution, and from my graduate institution.  Though I am not a lighting designer, I am on a lighting design-specific board from my grad school…and have found amazing help there…and provided some opportunities myself.  Become your own network. Cultivate it. You never know when your next paycheck will come straight from this network (pro-tip: it can happen more often than you think).

Celebrate the success of others

Theatre, as we all know all too well, is dog-eat-dog.  We battle each-other for opportunities: for roles, for design gigs, for jobs.  Too often this leads to bitterness, to jealousy, and to a feeling of competition with those around us…even (maybe especially) those with whom we went to school.  STOP IT.  Just cut it right out.  There is no sense in wasting your energy begrudging others their successes. 

A great arts administrator I know (Steven C. Anderson, Artistic Director of CATCO in Columbus, OH) shared with me an idea that I’ve made my mantra—there is NO SUCH THING as competition in the arts.  I know this sounds counter-intuitive, but hear me out.  Art breeds art.  When we all work together to create an audience in a city, then to help that audience grow, the larger audience will spread their wealth to other organizations.  I’ve seen this happen. A performance space in an area will benefit the galleries in that area.  A theatre company in a city, by working with another theatre company, will double their audience…and that larger audience will continue to support BOTH companies.  This idea works for individual artists, too.  By becoming our colleagues’ loudest cheerleaders, we all benefit.  Go see your friends in shows, congratulate them for a job well-done.  Do it because they are great—not because you want something from them.  But then watch as they come to your shows, and congratulate you—and as they introduce you to their friends, and invite you into their projects. Stop treating your colleagues as competition.  Instead treat them as artists—and learn from them, as you should learn from every artist with whom you come into contact.

Never stop learning

Just because you have a degree in theatre, or 3, don’t assume you know everything.  You don’t.  Neither, certainly, do I.  Nobody likes a know-it-all, and if you present yourself with that kind of attitude—argumentative, superior, arrogant—word about you will quickly spread.  I read a recent article in Stage Directions magazine (do you subscribe?  It’s free…you should subscribe) that indicated that there is some resentment of MFA-holding stage managers within the industry.  See, the reputation is that these individuals, though HIGHLY competent and very well trained, have a tendency to be arrogant and to act as though they have nothing left to learn…and that’s unfortunate.  You never have to pretend to know less than you do, but there is a huge difference between being competent and being cocky.

Treat every theatrical opportunity as a chance to learn a new skill…to work with a different directorial style, or with actors from different schools of theatre.  Treat each chance to design a set or lights or costumes for a new director as a chance to learn a new theatrical language, and to broaden your voice and vision—while bringing your training and skills and artistry to bear on the production.  You will have opportunities you love, and those you hate…both are chances to learn and to grow.

Allow yourself to fail

You will have tremendous successes.  That’s my hope for your career.  You will also, undoubtedly, have failures.  You’ll have shows that don’t sell, that the critics hate, that YOU hate, that you’ll be totally relieved when they are over.  You’ll have performances that are flat, you’ll go up.  Your actors will go up.  Costumes will rip.  Props will break. Sets will look nothing like your designs.  Lighting cues will misfire.  Everything will go PERFECTLY and the critics will hate your show.  The critics won’t even show up. You’ll hate your stage manager, they’ll hate you right back.  Sometimes you won’t even get the gig at all. You’ll totally fall right off the stage.  How do I know?  Been there…all of there. Do not ever be discouraged by failure.  These are times when you learn what not to do, what to do differently, and how to persevere. What defines great theatre artists is their ability to move on…to have a bad show, a bad year, a bad decade, and to move past that.  The ability to wake up in the morning broken and sore and tired and go to the next audition, the next dance class, the next voice lesson, the next rehearsal, and to keep fighting is what should define you…not your failures.

The light at the end of the tunnel

You have worked hard.  You have earned the right to graduate.  You have endured years of stuff, learned tons more stuff, and you are ready for the next adventure.  But, dear students, what I want you to know is that the light at the end of the tunnel is YOU.  You are an artist and a scholar.  You have to manage your own brand now—where do you want to go?  Remember, you don’t need anyone’s permission to make art (though make sure you have the rights to perform what and where you are trying to perform).  Hard work alone will not make you a success…but neither will sheer talent.  You need both. And a bit of luck. We are here when you need us—your teachers, your friends, your parents.  We are ready to cheer you on, to be your advocates, and to applaud your successes.

Break a leg.

Photo: wright.edu

Integrity and Ethics in the Theatre

C. Austin Hill

To my shock and dismay, these past few weeks have seen several stories hit the news—and the pages of this blog—that all center upon matters of integrity and ethics in the theatre.  From a “volunteer professional non-Equity theatre company” (whatever in the world that means…are they volunteer? Professional? I have no idea) stealing designs from other companies, to colleges violating authorial intent by failing to take the race of characters into consideration, to one of those same colleges proceeding to tech week WITHOUT a signed contract granting them rights for production, it seems that integrity is sorely lacking in our industry.  

And, perhaps most stunning of all, there has been backlash upon writers for this blog for having the NERVE to call out this type of bad behavior.  My friends, some of you are thinking about this all wrong, placing blame in the wrong places, and failing to uphold what I had always considered to be an unspoken code of ethics and mutual respect for other theatre artists.  So, indulge me, if you will, while I try to elucidate that code…or at least the version of it that I teach and model for my students, expect them to uphold, and hope that they carry with them into the industry when they leave me.

1: Do no harm

When you endeavor to make theatre, be thoughtful.  Be considerate of other artists—playwrights, directors, actors, technicians, designers, stage managers, choreographers, dramaturgs, and anyone else you may run into.  No single person in a production is more important than any other, and all of us are theatre artists.  A playwright is not a far-distant creature whose wishes and intentions can be ignored.  The director isn’t a villain to be fought against, nor a figure whose work can be ignored after opening.  Designers are not outsiders, even if they aren’t in the rehearsal room until tech.  Technicians are your friends…not food—they are NOT your servants, nor are they underlings.  The stage manager is not your enemy, she is there to ensure that everyone’s job gets done.  The dramaturg is not your research mule, there to do your work for you—they are there to help and support the production.  As theatre artists, you must understand the work of all other theatre artists.

2: Get permission

When you undertake an act of theatre, you have certain obligations.  You are obliged to secure the rights to, and pay royalties for, the work you are producing—even if you are a community theatre, a children’s theatre, a student production, or a group of actors just doing this for fun…EVEN IF YOU ARE NOT CHARGING FOR TICKETS, YOU MUST HAVE THE RIGHTS FOR PRODUCTION.  You may not take someone else’s work and use it without permission.  You may not watch a movie or listen to a cast album and then recreate the work without the knowledge of the creators of that work.  You may not advertise your production of “Frozen” without permission from Disney.  This is deceitful, and it is unethical…not to mention illegal.

Similarly you may NOT, not EVER, make changes to a published script without the express permission of the writer or their representative.  You cannot take out language you don’t like, you may not omit songs you think don’t work, you may not change the race, or the gender, or the names, or anything else about the characters without permission—particularly when race, gender, or otherwise is a crucial element of the play.  Some plays lend themselves to experimentation, or to explorations with gender or race—others simply do not.  If you cannot tell the difference, you really have no place in the theatre.  But there is always someone who does know the difference—the playwright or his or her representative. Again, it doesn’t matter if it seems like a good pedagogical tool, or an “interesting idea,” or if you are “certain it will work,” don’t cast a white actor as Martin Luther King Jr. without talking with the playwright; don’t cast a white woman to play a black male character; and do not cast white actors to play Asian characters when the playwright has already expressed their concerns about just such a thing.  If you can’t figure this out, do work that is the public domain.  Do Hamlet in Hawaii, or Moliere set on the moon.  Or, better yet, write your own ORIGINAL work and produce that.

3: Do not steal

It would be a great honor for me to know that my directorial or design work has inspired you.  It is another matter altogether if you take my designs and reproduce them without my permission.  It is another matter, too, if you attempt to recreate my blocking, or my stage pictures, or other aspects of my direction.  If you like my direction, hire me to direct for you…but do be warned that my production of Cats for you won’t look anything like my production of Cats for another theatre, and it CERTAINLY won’t look like the Broadway production.  I am a director, and my obligation is to make every one of my productions unique—not just from all other productions, but also from my own.  If you want to produce my production of Cats that I directed elsewhere, you’ll need to talk not just to me, but to that theatre—because, see, while I have rights to my directorial work, so does that theatre.

It is true that some plays are very specific about the settings, and that set design ideas are right in the script—along with blocking suggestions and costume design suggestions.  You need to learn to identify the times where these specifics are mandates from the playwright, and when they are descriptions of the original production designs.  It is VERY common, in authorized acting versions of scripts (those you’ll get from Samuel French or Dramatists), for there to be detailed set designs, or ground plans, or descriptions, that are NOT set down by the playwright.  Dramatists’ acting version of The Crucible, for example, very pointedly describes the original Broadway design, complete with diagrams.  This does NOT mean that this is the only way of visually interpreting the text.  Other scripts—John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation, for example, spell out some author-directed scenic design elements—a two-sided Kandinsky painting rotating above a red couch, a hidden door on a raised platform—but there is still an incredible array of ways to interpret that design.  Looking at the Broadway production, great as it was, will inspire you…but it does NOT give you license to recreate it.  Even Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, one of the most tightly regulated plays in existence, allows for infinite variation in the visual design—how many different versions of a tree can you think of?

Taking a design and recreating it, or taking a director’s work and recreating it, is theft.  It is not flattering imitation, it is abhorrent appropriation of intellectual and artistic property.  As a designer or as a director, I spend hours—weeks, even—researching other productions (when they exist) of the play, or of similar plays.  I look at everything, and I draw inspiration from this place, and from that—I like this color palate, or that visual style, or the other piece of furniture—and then I work hard to make them my own.  I also draw inspiration from film, and from literature, and from art, and from architecture, and from nature…and I work to incorporate these ideas into my work.  For the world premiere I just directed (A Night of Blacker Darkness—a gothic vampire farce based on the novel by Dan Wells, and adapted by Allison Hill and Dan Wells), I was greatly inspired by the Wes Anderson film The Grand Budapest Hotel, the film helped me into the pacing and timing of the comedy, the mise-en-scene, and matters of physical style (particularly the fight sequences).  In NO case did I recreate so much as a line-delivery, nor a piece of staging, from the film. Nobody who saw my production would have thought I copied Anderson (as if that were possible), but it helped me all along the way.  This is how artists work. If you are not able to come up with your own ideas, you are not a theatre artist…you are a thief, and have no place in the theatre.

4: Become an advocate for ethics and integrity

When you see someone in the theatre acting in unethical ways, whether it’s a production making changes to the script, or a director or designer copying work, or someone mistreating another theatre artist, SPEAK UP.  I give huge kudos to Chris Peterson for speaking out against the theft that occurred at TheatreWorks, and for whomever tipped off Lloyd Suh and Katori Hall.  I think that if we sit back and allow these types of ethical violations to happen unquestioned, we all lose—the theatre as an industry loses.  Artists get devalued when artistry is no longer held sacred. 

It is no secret that there isn’t much money in being a theatre artist—at least most of the time.  So why do theatre artists pour days and weeks and years of their time into their work?  So that they can create art.  When someone takes that art and appropriates it in certain ways that violates a simple set of ethical guidelines—guidelines so basic that they shouldn’t have to be spelled out in an editorial—it takes something from us all.  The good news is, we can also help.  We need to stop defending bad behavior.  We need to stop making excuses for the dishonest, the unethical, the thieves, and the altogether uninformed.  Instead we need to situate ourselves as high protectors of this art form we hold sacred.  If we—the theatre artists—refuse to take a stand in favor of integrity and ethics, then we’ve already lost. 

Photo: Calvin College Theatre Department

Teaching, Learning, and Making Theatre in a Time of Crisis

C. Austin Hill

Arben Celi / Reuters

It’s been a difficult week.  From terror in Paris, Beirut, and Baghdad to racial tensions at the University of Missouri and other college campuses nationwide…it’s been a difficult week.  When things get this hard and this stressful, I think back to a question someone asked me once when I was an undergraduate.  “Why,” they asked,  “when there are people starving, and terrorists, and police brutality, and injustice, and racism, and political upheavals, and homeless people, and so many other terrible things, WHY would you think THEATRE is important?!?”  My answer then is the same as my answer now.  Theatre is important specifically BECAUSE of all of those things. 

Some time ago, in one of my previous pieces for OnStage, before I got caught up in the rigors of producing, directing, and technical directing a world premiere production of a play by a New York Times bestselling author (it went very well, by the way), I wrote about the need for politically literate theatre artists.  I quoted Oskar Eustis, saying “I think that theater is the democratic art—it's no mistake that they were invented in the same city in the same decade. It's the proper place to exercise democratic virtue, for the contesting of different points of view, identifying with other people, what citizens need” (http://www.timeout.com/chicago/theater/angels-butterflies-oskar-eustis-and-david-henry-hwang-at-the-u-of-c).  In that post I focused on the first half of Eustis’ quote, but in a time of crisis—and this is certainly one of those—I’d like to discuss the second half of this quote. 

The theatre, Eustis says, isn’t just a place for the “contesting of different points of view” or of finding commonalities between ideologies or perspectives…it’s the proper place.  And, of course, Eustis is correct.  The theatre was invented as a public forum for the exploration of thought and politics.  Though theatre has served different purposes throughout history, that position of (willing or unwilling) public airing-ground for debate and philosophy has always remained.  What makes theatre so important though, is that it affords us access to crisis in ways that other mediums cannot.

A great play (even a not-so-great play) can show us multiple sides of an argument—the centerpiece of what Eustis means in calling theatre the democratic art.  We get causes AND effects, we see plans and results, we watch myriad perspectives.  And we get all of this in the language of human emotion and thought.  Great theatre makes us think and feel, it helps us, perhaps, to know our enemies as people—to understand their thoughts, their objectives, their dreams, and their desires.  And, if we can understand the humanity in those who oppose us, perhaps we can seek the inevitable common ground.

College theatre companies play an incredible role in this negotiation of humanity.  In America, they were born from elocution departments as a supplement to debate classes.  Early American theatre students learned rhetoric and debate to understand argumentation, and acting and playwriting to get a grasp on emotion and psychology.  If we try hard—and if we are brave—as theatre teachers and learners, we can use the theatre as our avenue to interrogate the crises that exist in our world. 

The Connecticut Repertory Theatre's ‘The Laramie Project,’  at the Nafe Katter Theatre in Storrs. (Gerry Goodstein for UConn)

This past week, in my Dramatic Literature class (which also counts as a general education literature class, and consequently draws a hearty enrollment with a mixture of theatre majors and others) we discussed Athol Fugard’s play Master Harold…and the Boys.  The play is set (and written) during the Apartheid in South Africa, and provided an excellent opportunity to discuss otherness and institutionalized racism.  It also became a prefect forum to broach the subject of the racial tension at Mizzou.  Some of my students had heard about the protests, and the resignations, and about the terribly racist response to those events, but most of my students had not.  They certainly hadn’t thought about those events in relation to a 33 year-old play set in South Africa.  But discuss we did.  And next week we get Suzan-Lori Parks’ The America Play, where we’ll get to ask difficult questions about history, and those parts of it we’d rather forget.  Perfect timing.

I call upon all of us in this industry to try—as we’re able—to insert ourselves into these difficult conversations.  Let us attempt to help our audiences understand their own pain, their grief, their assumptions, their fears, and their joys.  Theatre has done this before—many times. In 2000, The Laramie Project helped us process and contextualize the death of Matthew Shepard.  Just after 9/11, Broadway’s reopening provided relief to a stunned New York City…and that was good.  The Flea Theatre’s production of Anne Nelson’s The Guys helped us heal, let us cry together, and gave us a language for our grief.  George Takei’s Allegiance is teaching us about an oft-ignored part of American history—the internment of Japanese families during WWII.  Naomi Iizuka’s Good Kids is interrogating sexual assault and campus rape culture—and is being performed on campuses throughout the country.

Soon theatre will explore #BlackLivesMatter, and terror in Paris, and homelessness. Theatre will help us to mourn and cry.  Theatre will help us find our people, and understand the humanity in those who oppose us.  Theatre is primed to help us, as a human people, deal with crisis…if we are brave enough to fight the good fight.

#Dim4Paris

A Reflection In Memoriam: Brian Friel

C. Austin Hill

In his beautiful play Translations, Brien Friel wrote the following words: “it is not the literal past, the ‘facts’ of history that shape us, but images of the past embodied in language.”  When I read those words as an undergraduate student searching for direction for my looming graduate studies, I knew I had found the first marker for the path of my scholarly life.

To be up front, I never knew Brien Friel—not in real life.  I never met him, nor shook his hand.  He was unaware of my existence.  To him, I’d have been just one of legions of fans of his work—those so taken with his words and ideas that we poured over them like gospel truths…because that is what they are.  And that is what they will always be.

I first became aware of Friel at about the same time most American theatregoers did…and for the same reasons.  I remember vividly watching the presenters at the 1992 Tony Awards struggle to pronounce the title of Friel’s masterful Dancing at Lughnasa as it won award after award (incidentally, it’s LOO-nuh-suh…not loo-NAW-suh).  I remember when my high school theatre department took a field trip to see the Denver Center Theatre Company’s production—and that I didn’t go.  I didn’t know at that time the direction my life would later take.

I met Friel’s work again years later, in 2004 or 2005, as a non-traditional undergraduate student.  In a Theatre History class, we were assigned the afore-mentioned Translations.  I devoured the play, having suddenly taken an interest in Irish theatre after reading Conor McPherson’s Shining City in my Dramatic Literature class.  Also in 2005, the University of Utah’s Theatre Department produced Dancing at Lughnasa, and I finally had the chance to see it.  Amazing.  That combination of plays, in a very short span of time, got me asking questions about why a small island with only 4-million residents produces so much brilliant theatre.  As I sit here, 10-years later, with a PhD specializing in Irish drama, I’m no closer to a satisfactory answer to that question than I was at that time…and that’s how I know I picked the right specialization.

In the decade that followed the beginning of my passionate exploration of Irish drama, Friel’s work has always played an important role.  I have written about many of his plays for conference papers, class papers, and in my thesis and dissertation.  I have now directed my own production of Dancing at Lughnasa. I remain fascinated by the philosophy—Friel’s work consistently questions the role of memory in shaping our lives; the place for story in the telling of history; our relationships with each other, and with ourselves; and the very ability of language to shape our understandings of the world.  His characters are beautiful and complicated and human.  They want real things, and fight real battles—often within themselves.  Friel’s plays are distinctly Irish, and positively universal.  His work has had a demonstrable influence on 2 generations (already) of Irish playwrights, teaching them the efficacy of monologue, and the slipperiness of time, memory, and nostalgia.  His work has inspired brilliant scholarship and analysis.  Brian Friel’s plays will live on as a testament to his genius.

No, I never had the chance to meet Brian Friel.  He didn’t know I exist.  But his passing has stricken me like the loss of a close friend.  He let me in to his world, into his past, into his philosophy.  He allowed me to meet his family, showed me around his town, and let me feel his pain—and his joy. 

In his Making History, Friel’s character Lombard tells Hugh O’Neill, “Ireland is reduced as it has never been reduced before—we are talking about a colonized people on the brink of extinction.  This isn’t a time for a critical assessment of your ‘ploys’ and your ‘disgraces’ and your ‘betrayal’—that’s the stuff of another history for another time.  Now is the time for a hero.  Now is the time for a heroic literature.”  Brian Friel was just such a hero.  He was one of my heroes.  And I mourn his passing.

Thank you, Brian Friel, for writing your plays, for embodying your own past into language and stories.  Thank you for that amazing gift.  Requiescat in pace. 

The Hamilton Cast Album: Has Theatre Been Reinvented?

C. Austin Hill

I don’t live in New York.  I don’t have the funds to travel to see theatre, and I’m so frequently in production (as I am right now) that I frequently feel distant from the Broadway vibe.  And it’s been hard that I’ve not been able to see and respond to Hamilton and the buzz it’s creating.  I’ve had to wait for the cast album, and hope that (unlike so many others) it will simulate the visceral ephemerality of the stage production.  I also felt this way about Spring Awakening…and the cast album failed me in nearly every way.  I suspect that Spring Awakening played so much better on stage than it did on CD—it must have, because I was completely unmoved by the album.  So much so, in fact, that I lost any interest in seeing the show.  So Hamilton has had me worried.  I’m always leery of hype, and always suspect of largely universal praise.  I was very intrigued yesterday when the album dropped on NPR. 

Having listened to it, I’m ready to respond. Maybe I'm overreacting, or maybe I'm taken by the reviews, or maybe it's just a remarkable recording--whatever the reason, this does strike me as an INCREDIBLY important piece of theatre. A few minutes ago, in my Dramatic Lit class, I talked about Marlowe. I told my students about how blank verse had existed BEFORE Marlowe used it, and that iambic pentameter had been around for centuries before Marlowe...but I explained that somehow when Marlowe used it in his plays it forever changed the flavor of theatre. I'm not a hip-hop fan--not usually. But something in this recording strikes me a revolutionary. Like Marlowe's mighty line. Hip-hop has been around for decades. It has been used on stage before. But this FEELS so different. I'm so moved and engaged and enthralled by this piece. What if Lin-Manuel Miranda has just given theatre a new beat? What if he's reminded us how to use "popular music" to do something entirely new (not a jukebox musical or a review)? What if he's shown us how to talk about history, or feelings, or passions, or whatever we need to talk about us in a new and challenging and unelevated vernacular? Sure, history might prove this all wrong...but what if it isn't wrong?

It seems to me, without having seen the show that Lin-Manuel Miranda has found a wonderful way to talk about Hamilton’s life and history.  This doesn’t sound like any other show I can think of—including In the Heights.  In that show, Miranda tells a new story—one from his life and imagination.  Yes, it’s inventive musically, but not necessarily in the same way that Hamilton is.  The earliest drama we have record of—in ancient Greece—retold existing stories in innovative ways.  Myths, legends, and religious stories have been reinvented through emerging theatrical forms ever since.  Histories, too—of course—have been reimagined and re-presented to new audiences throughout theatre history.  That’s precisely where Hamilton sits.  In many ways, the play is like Sondheim’s Assassins—telling historical stories through musical theatre forms.  But unlike Assassins (which I absolutely adore, by the way), Hamilton is telling its story in a language that isn’t like anything else on Broadway—EVER.  The incredible precision of the dialogic sections is breathtaking.  Musically, the dynamics are engaging…even on a recording. This show really seems like a masterpiece.

Let’s then couple this with what Miranda has done in terms of race.  In the casting of this show, race has been inverted and manipulated—and it leads us to have to interrogate it.  We suddenly need to explore our historical narratives, and the ownership over those narratives.  This isn’t color-blind casting—this is something MUCH more interesting—this is deliberate, and groundbreaking.  Taking a narrative about a mixed race man, whose story has either been ignored entirely or has been whitewashed—like so much of American history.  The insistence that Hamilton is white (and therefore acceptable as a “founding father” in the history books), or the relegation of his story to the margins, is PRECISELY what Miranda’s bold production is calling to your (and my) attention. 

So what if Hamilton has changed the rules?  How can we know?  Where do we go from here?

Actors with Disabilities, or This is How I Roll

C. Austin Hill

This column is inspired jointly by Anthony J. Piccione’s brave column “Being Autistic in the Theatre Community” (Aug 18, 2015), and by a recent conversation I had with my dear friend Dr. Jill Summerville.  Jill is an artist and a scholar; she holds a PhD in Theatre History, Dramatic Literature, and Criticism, and she is a phenomenal playwright and actor.  I feel very fortunate to have been asked to direct Jill’s beautiful play Elysium Interrupted when we were both in grad school at Ohio State.  Jill also has cerebral palsy, and spends much of her life negotiating with Chitara—her manual wheelchair.

As Piccione said in his column, one of the best ways to address our differences, and the challenges faced by autistic actors, and those faced by actors with disabilities, is simply to talk about the issues at all.  Jill, to her credit, is willing to speak up…but to our mutual dismay frequently has difficulties in getting people to listen.  Though she is a tremendous writer, and though she does write frequently, in addition to giving presentations on the topic of disabilities in theatre at academic conferences, she lacks access to a platform like this blog.  Today, I wish to change that, to turn over my weekly column to help ensure that all of you have the chance to meet Jill and hear what she has to say.

Rather than attempting to speak for Jill, I asked her some questions…which I share with you along with her beautiful answers:

 Mark Hale Jr, Jill Summerville, Allison Brogan in  Elysium Interrupted. Photo by C. Austin Hill

 Mark Hale Jr, Jill Summerville, Allison Brogan in  Elysium Interrupted. Photo by C. Austin Hill

Can you tell me some of the challenges you have had as an actor with a disability?

The most basic challenge is theatre and rehearsal spaces are inaccessible to actors with physical disabilities; as you know, I had to give up my chance to work with you as an actor in The Illusion simply because I couldn't navigate the rehearsal space.  I was lucky to be your dramaturg...but of course I was sad to lose the role.

The most pernicious challenge is the idea that my wheelchair, Chitara, constitutes the totality of my stage presence. More than one director has communicated to me that I, as a gimp woman, am not worth seeing. My wheelchair, which in a theatrical context is an extension of my body, is the only thing about me that deserves attention. I acknowledge Chitara is fascinating. I acknowledge she'd make a better date than I; she loves long walks on the beach. However, there's no question I have the more expressive face!

Do you find that people have difficulty in seeing you as an “actor” as opposed to as a “disabled actor”?

 YES! A cornerstone of disabilities studies is that this attitude comes from American society's wish to render the disabled body invisible. A disabled actor has broken that contract. When an audience responds to her, it's primarily responding to that breach. These points have merit, but the perception of me as a “disabled actor,” is due to more complex factors. First, Chitara often upstages me. Second, she's a metaphor for all of the negative qualities disability represents to an able-bodied audience. Third, sometimes those qualities contradict qualities of a character I'm playing. If these complications remain unaddressed, my performance will be regarded as a failure.

Imagine the “Nobody puts Baby in a corner,” scene from Dirty Dancing. Now imagine I'm playing Baby. If you can't, take a moment to ponder why you can't. The conclusions you reach will probably be good illustrations of how qualities associated with disability can confine a trained actor who happens to be physically disabled into a “corner” labeled “disabled actor.” For the record, I'd make an excellent Baby. I'm frequently parked in corners, and I always dance out of them!

When I directed you in Elysium Interrupted and in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, you and I had already developed a short-hand that helped that process.  Can you tell me some tips that other directors might use when working with a disabled actor?  Essentially, how can you and I help other artists to better work together?

The most effective solution I've developed is to keep working with you! For those who aren't so lucky, these are my tips: First, the director and the disabled actor should do dramaturgy together. The presence of a disabled actor is like a stone dropped into a previously placid pond. It will create ripples, and the effect of each ripple has to be tracked. Second, the director and the actor will have to decide what constitutes virtuosity for this particular actor in this particular role. (Hint: It won't be “becoming” her character.) Then they should decide when she succeeds at displaying that virtuosity---and when she doesn't. Third, they should enjoy themselves. Hopefully, they'll create work that challenges the perceptions of disabled actors I've discussed. That may create moments that are uncomfortable or scary for them, as well as their audiences. That's promising, but don't forget that unexpected joy is just as captivating as justified angst. One of Chekov's characters said that, or at least one should have.

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Working with Jill is a singular pleasure—and the fact that she has difficulty getting attention as an actor is very upsetting to me.  She is a very generous actor, patient and professional with everyone in the room.  She’s quick with a joke, and will always make you smile.  Jill also happens to be the best dramaturg I’ve ever worked with—she has an impeccable eye and ear, and she has talked me through some very complicated theatrical moments.  If anyone out there in the OnStage-o-sphere is looking for an amazing artist, of for a consultant to help you work better with actors with disabilities, I’d be proud to make the introductions.  This won’t be the last time you hear from her in my column.