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2016 January 18

Theatrical weekend

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This weekend has been a busy one for me—I went to three different theatrical performances:

Saturday night: 8 tens @ 8
Each year, the Actors’ Theatre puts on a show consisting of 8 10-minute one-act plays, which they select from submitted manuscripts.  (I wrote a little of the history in 8 Tens @ 8 in 2016). My wife and I went to see the A show on Saturday night—we’ll go to the B show in a couple of weeks.  The plays were not all of equal quality—not in the writing, not in the directing, and not in the acting.
Our favorite of the A show was You Too, by Tim Woods, directed by Scott Kravitz.  The lines were good, the characters believable, and acting and directing spot-on.
Also excellent was A Shared View, by Mary Caroline Rogers, directed by Audrey Stanley.  The script was a little less strong, but the acting and directing were excellent (both MarNae Taylor and Marcus Cato were well cast).  Good Medicine by Rod McFadden was fun, but very predictable. Flirting with Age, by Jack Spagnola (the only author without a blurb in the program), was a pretty predictable farce, but we enjoyed seeing MarNae in a very different role than she had in A Shared View. It is always a good idea to end with a farce (or at least a comedy), so that people leave feeling good about the show. Flirting with Age was a good choice for this position (though Good Medicine might also have worked, it wasn’t quite as fun).  
Threatened Panda Fights Back was too silly for the somewhat serious theme of extinction—the costuming was fun, but I was not otherwise impressed with the play. The Italian Prisoner by Paul Lewis had directorial problems (the singer was much too loud relative to memory of the boy Joey Rosen), the acting was a bit wooden, and the script too obviously borrowing from Tosca. Following Ms. Sergeant was a good effort with a rather flawed script—the sudden confessional mood seemed out of character for both characters, and the resolution too forced. Janis Gives Comfort was trying to handle “death and sex” as a theme in a nostalgic vein, but it didn’t resonate at all with me—perhaps I just didn’t care enough about Janis Joplin, who the main character was obsessed with.
Sunday morning: Winter’s Tale
The Del Mar Theater had the broadcast of Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale performed by the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company from the Garrick Theatre.  The Winter’s Tale is not often performed, because it is a somewhat muddled combination of a number of themes (jealousy, young lovers in disguise, rustic merriment, …) better handled in other plays. Branagh assigned himself the choice role of Leontes, but then over-acted the part. OK, it isn’t the subtlest part Shakespeare ever wrote, but it doesn’t call for crumpling up on the stage with stomach cramps all the time.  Setting the initial scene at a Victorian Christmas party exchanging token presents also seemed rather forced. Judi Dench as Paulina was very good, though, and the dancing in the rustic scenes quite impressive (if a little more balletic than country).  It was worth going to see The Winter’s Tale, but there’s no reason be sad if you missed it.
The Del Mar had put the broadcast in one of their small upstairs theaters, which sold out—I think that there was a high-school class getting credit for attendance. It would have been better in the larger theater downstairs.  But the Del Mar was definitely the right theater to show the broadcast in, as it has the closest that Santa Cruz gets to the gilt plaster ornamentation of the Garrick Theatre.
Sunday evening: Neil Gaiman’s Graveyard
West Performing Arts did a theatrical performance of Neil Gaiman’s Graveyard, using only 6 actors (5 female, 1 male) and 3 musicians. The actors were fairly young (middle school or early high school, I think). One review on a homeschool mailing list said “Very different from everything else I’ve seen going on locally in this age group,” but it seemed to me to be pulling together many of the theatrical techniques I’ve seen WEST developing over the past few years with their teen actors. 
They did a lot of chorus work, like at the Shakespeare conservatory; they did a lot with solid colored lights and backlighting (using their LED floods); they had movement pieces like the ones S. Kate Anderson had done for Call of the Wild; there was a “seduction” scene done in single-word lines, inspired by a Carol Burnett sketch that my son and another teen actor had performed at AFE (under WEST direction); and the actors kept changing roles, with a hat or a shawl to mark the characters (also from a Shakespeare conservatory). They had a dance scene under blacklight with fluorescent makeup (WEST has learned something since the days they tried Star Wars with glow-in-the-dark paint—fluorescence is much more visible and controllable than luminescence).
They were pretty true to the plot of the book, while making a very theatrical production, and I was impressed by how well they pulled off a rather difficult bit of theater.  The next generation of WEST actors is going to do well. I was only sad that the light rain had kept people away, and the house was only about 80% full—the performance was good enough that they should have been selling out every night.  (Of course, with only 6 actors, the built-in audience of family and friends is smaller than when they have a larger cast.)

My weekend was busy (in addition to the theater, I did a bit of blogging and spent most of a day putting together a course fee request for two-quarter version of the Applied Electronics course), but my wife was even busier, as she went to a Metropolitan Opera broadcast on Saturday morning, at a different theater chain than the Shakespeare broadcast on Sunday morning.

2014 August 17

Oregon Shakespeare Festival

I’m a little envious of my son—he’s gotten to go to Ashland twice this year to see plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.  He’s seen nine different plays there this year, two of them twice.

For the first trip this year he went with Alternative Family Education, as part of their Dramatic Literature course in spring semester.  They teach the course each year around the plays that they’ll be seeing in Ashland—he’s taken the course three times and enjoyed it each time (except for some of the written assignments).  The first time he went, I was on sabbatical, so took the time to travel with the group as a “chaperone”—we’d had to fly to Ashland separately, rather than travel with them on the bus, because the trip left the day of the state science fair, though we both rode the bus home.  Since then he’s been able to travel both ways with the school group, but I’ve always had a heavy teaching load in the spring, and couldn’t justify skipping class for a pleasure trip to Ashland.

Last week, he traveled with a group from West Performing Arts.  This is the first time that WEST has done an Ashland trip, and it was planned at the last minute, so they were not able to get enough tickets or transportation for parents to accompany the group. It was a smaller group than the AFE—only ten teens and two adults. They were originally planning to see five plays, but while they were in Ashland they managed to get the last twelve standing-room tickets to Into the Woods, so they ended up seeing six plays—a pretty intense schedule with only three hotel nights!  They didn’t do as many workshops as the AFE group, but a lot of the workshops are aimed at general school groups, not at kids who had as much theater training as this group.  I don’t think that the teens minded not having a lot of workshops—most of them had just finished a two-week intensive Shakespeare conservatory, and all of them had done at least one of the Shakespeare conservatories (either this year or in a previous year).  It was an older group than the AFE trip also, as three of the teens were 18 or older and had graduated from high school.

I had some time this summer and could have gone myself, but arranging my own transportation and lodging at the last minute did not appeal to me, and my wife was not particularly interested in going there. She would travel to see world-class opera, particularly if the destination also had great art museums, but not for theater—the local productions are high enough quality for her and not much trouble to attend.  We had season tickets for Santa Cruz Shakespeare this year (as we did for Shakespeare Santa Cruz most previous years), and we’ve got season tickets for next year’s Jewel Theatre season.  We’ll also go to 8 tens at 8, an annual production of 8 new (or fairly new) ten-minute one-acts, and probably the best of the rest, a staged reading of another 8 from the pool considered for 8 tens at 8.  We also usually see the Shakespeare To Go performance, though not together—my wife sees it when they tour to her school, and I see the last performance they do, up on the UCSC campus. We’ll probably also go to the WEST Ensemble Players performances and the summer teen show by WEST. Though our son won’t be in them any more, we still know a number of the actors and they kids usually do a good job (tickets are cheap also).  If Santa Cruz Shakespeare puts on a holiday pantomime this year, we’ll probably go to that to, and possibly go to see the long-form improv group Freefall at one of their shows.

We’ll be going to one more WEST Performing Arts performance this year—a fund-raiser for their scholarship program this Friday.  This is not a rehearsed production—they’ve just requested a number of their more reliable actors to do monologues or sketches.  So my son will have one last chance to perform at West End Studio Theatre, though he hasn’t decided what he’ll do yet.

So with 14 or 15 theater events a year, and more available if we wanted them (UCSC stages several plays every quarter, but we rarely go to any of them), it isn’t as if I was starving for theater. My wife doesn’t get to anywhere near that number of operas (a few in San Jose and a few in San Francisco) and has to make do with broadcasts in the movie theater—and I wasn’t counting the broadcasts of National Theatre London that we see at the movie house, so I shouldn’t count opera broadcasts either. I’ve no cause for complaint.

Still, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has a bigger budget than anything in Santa Cruz and produces some pretty impressive shows—I would like to see them again. Maybe next year.

2014 August 9

WEST closes

As I mentioned in End of an Era, the West End Studio Theatre had their last scheduled performance tonight, with the showcase for the teen Shakespeare Conservatory which they teach with the aid of Santa Cruz Shakespeare. The first week of the conservatory is acting classes, seeing all the Santa Cruz Shakespeare plays, talking with dramaturges, actors, and other creative staff from Santa Cruz Shakespeare and post-performance analysis of the plays.  The second week is intensive work on the showcase that they perform at the end of the week.

They named the show Villains and Braggarts, doing seven scenes and four sonnets.  My son was one of the 5 performers in Sonnet 133 (which they played as a courtroom scene), Malvolio in a scene from Twelfth Night (where he ends the party of Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Maria, and Feste), RIchard III courting Lady Anne over the corpse of her husband, and Theseus in the play within a play scene from Midsummer Night’s Dream.  This is the second time that my son has played Malvolio at one of the WEST Shakespeare conservatories—he did the cross-gartered and in yellow stockings scene in 2011.

I thought that they did a very good job of the scenes, but the sonnets were rather hard to follow when played as scenes—I needed for them to go at about half the speed they did to catch what was being said.  Members of the audience who were even less familiar with Shakespeare than me had trouble following some of the scenes also, as they were just snippets from the plays and rather heavily cut.

Although a couple of the actors have graduated from high school, most of the troupe were younger, so I think that West Performing Arts has a good crop of actors coming up, and I’ll continue to go to the teen performances for the next couple of years, even though my son will no longer be on their stage.

I think that the audience most appreciated the fight scene from Romeo and Juliet, where the students got to show off the dagger stage fighting they had learned a week earlier, and the play within a play from Midsummer Night’s Dream.

I overheard plans for  WEST doing a fundraiser (probably for their scholarship fund) in a couple of weeks, but I don’t know whether this will be at the West End Studio Theatre or at Broadway Playhouse.  Next week Terri Steinmann and John Pasha will be driving 10 teens up to Ashland to see five plays there and take a few workshops.  My son will be going, though he’s already seen two of the five productions from when he took the spring trip to Ashland with Alternative Family Education.

2014 July 14

End of an era

My son has his last performances at West End Studio Theatre this summer—his last summer before college.  He has had theater classes with Terri Steinmann and various of her staff members since the Wizard of Oz class in July 2004, and he has been performing on the WEST stage since they opened in 2007.  Between Pisces Moon (where Terri taught before founding WEST) and West Performing Arts, he has done at least 42 classes with them (I’m not sure how to count the Dinosaur Prom Improv troupe, which he performed with for two years—I counted that as only one class, though it probably should count as more, as there were weekly practice sessions for the two years).  Adding up all the course tuition over the 10 years he’s worked with them, I think we’ve paid around $20,000, averaging $2k a year—well worth it for the pleasure and the learning he has gotten from it.

This past weekend he performed as Otho (the interior designer) in Beetlejuice. After seeing the movie, I did not know how they would pull it off as a stage play, but they did quite a good job of it—particularly since they did not have the complete script until a few days before they performed (a long-standing WEST tradition of writing the script after rehearsals have started).  There were two casts (the morning class and the afternoon class), but I only saw the afternoon cast’s production—I understand that the interpretations of essentially the same script and set were quite different for the two casts (costumes had to be different, because the actors were very different sizes).

He has one more class with them this summer—the summer teen conservatory with Santa Cruz Shakespeare, which I believe still has room for another student or two (the conservatory is limited to about 12 students).  He’s done their Shakespeare teen conservatory for the past four years—it is quite different each time. The conservatory is probably West Performing Art’s most advanced theater class.

After this summer, not only will he be finished with West Performing Arts, but the West End Studio Theatre, where about half his performances have been, will be closed. We joke that they can’t go on without him, but the truth is that they are losing their lease.  They’ve been renting on a year-to-year contract for eight years, and the landlord has found a tenant (a beer brewer) willing to lease the space on a longer term lease.  The parting is amicable, but everyone will miss the W.E.S.T. space, which has been much more flexible and functional than any of the other spaces children’s theater has used around the city.

West Performing Arts will continue classes at the Broadway Playhouse and at schools, but they’ll need more space for classes than Broadway Playhouse can provide, especially for their popular summer classes, so they are looking for a new home. If anyone knows of spaces that might meet their needs (ideally, two large adjacent spaces that can be used for classes, one of which can be a flexible performance space, totaling about 10,000 sq ft, with storage, office space, and nearby parking and not needing a lot of renovation).  They don’t have a lot of money (they’ve been keeping the classes affordable), so the typical $15–20/sq.ft./year leases locally are probably beyond their means.  If anyone has any leads for them, their contact information is on their web site.

2014 January 26

Mostly in the Timing

Last night, I watched my son perform in the high-school play for his home-school umbrella school (Alternative Family Education).  The parents’ club hires West Performing Arts to organize the school plays (they had three—elementary, middle, and high school) and provide the performance space (West End Studio Theatre).

The high school production this year consisted of 8 one-act plays, seven of which were from David Ives’ collection All in the Timing,hence the name “Mostly in the Timing”. The one exception was a sketch from the Carol Burnett Show (episode 10.6 in 1976, of two people in an elevator with one-word lines).

I had not seen any of the plays before—I’d not even run lines with my son for this production, so it was all new to me. I enjoyed all the plays, though “Degas, C’est Moi” needed some more rehearsal, particularly for the stage crew. I can see why these pieces by Ives are so popular for high schools and colleges—they are funny, well-written, and fairly easy to stage, relying on the lines and the acting, rather than on sets, costumes, or props for the entertainment.

"Variations on the Death of Trotsky"  Leon Trotsky with axe smashed into his skull.

“Variations on the Death of Trotsky” Leon Trotsky with axe smashed into his skull.

My son was in five of the eight one-acts, with one of them being a last-minute casting after another student dropped out of the production.  He had the role of Frank Mikula, a construction worker in “Mere Mortals”; Horace, the male mayfly in “Time Flies”; Leon Trotsky in “Variations on the Death of Trotsky”; Collin in “Elevator”, and Pedestrian and Unemployment Worker in “Degas, C’est Moi”.  This required some quick changes of costumes and some radically different body language for the different parts.

They had 11 actors and 3 directors (for a total of 13 students, as one director also acted) for a total of 38 roles. My son ended up with the most roles and the most lines, probably as a result of stepping in at the last minute for the role of Frank Mikula.

My wife made the ax-in-the-head costume piece for Leon Trotsky.  They debated for a while whether to shape it like the mountain-climbers’ ice axe that the script calls for, or a more iconic wood-chopping hatchet (which seems to be the more popular choice for staging the play, based on Google image searches).  They went with the hatchet.  It was constructed out of old padded envelopes, cardboard, and duct tape, sewn to a wig.  It ended up looking pretty good, and it did not flop over (which is what my wife was most concerned about).

Victoria and Collin in the elevator

Victoria and Collin in the elevator

Frank Mikula (left) and Charlie Petrossian (right) eating lunch 50 stories up.

Frank Mikula (left) and Charlie Petrossian (right) eating lunch 50 stories up.

Mayflies Horace and May, discovering that they're on television.

Mayflies Horace and May, discovering that they’re on television.

They have another run this afternoon, and I look forward to seeing it again.

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