Monday, June 14, 2010

Getting Clear On The Concept

One of the functions of a high school biology course is to give students a deeper understanding of animal and plant life. Rather than warn young minds that "You don't want to mess with Mother Nature," or suggest that they were delivered to their parents by a friendly stork, biology students are taught about genetics, anatomy, and in some school districts, evolution. Whether or not they've seen films of a sperm cell fertilizing an ovum, most of today's high school students have a fairly basic understanding (and occasionally some real life experience) of how babies are made.

Sperm cell fertilizing an egg

It usually isn't until later in life, when they go to college or travel abroad, that they are exposed to different cultures and learn about the fetishization inherent in many fertility rites. In order to gain a better understanding of primitive fertility rites, they may end up reading Sir James George Frazer's groundbreaking volume of cultural anthropology entitled The Golden Bough: A Study In Magic and Religion. Or, while traveling abroad, they may step into a Portuguese bakery and see these famous San Goncalo pastries on sale.

San Goncalo pastries from Portugal

With the exception of recessive genes, the fertility among plants and animals yields fairly predictable results. Tigers beget tigers and tuna spawn tuna. To quote Tevye the Dairyman: "A fish may love a bird, but where would they build a home together?"

Enter the artist, who might well conceive a children's book about a fish and bird who became best friends. At the Dahe Pet Civilization Park in Zhengzhou (in the Henan province of China) golden retrievers have had their fur dyed to make them resemble tigers.

Using similar techniques, chow chow dogs have had their fur dyed to make them look more like pandas.

Art doesn't thrive in a vacuum. Whereas a lone artist may struggle to make a project grow (in a manner that resembles parthenogenesis), the process gets accelerated when (a) an artist's grant proposal gets approved and funding starts to flow his way, or (b) an individual or funding organization seeks out the artist and offers him a commission to create new work.

There's a wonderful moment in Stephen Sondheim's 1981 flop musical, Merrily We Roll Along, when a reporter asks Charley (who writes the lyrics for Franklin Shepard's hit songs) which comes first: the words or the music. His answer? "The contract."

Two San Francisco arts organizations have recently witnessed the fruits of their commissions take center stage. Although The Marsh and American Conservatory Theatre lie at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of organizational size, budget, and attendance, each has an educational arm which allows acting students to hone their craft with the ultimate goal of appearing before a live audience. Each regularly acts as an incubator for new work.

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The artistic management of The Marsh (Stephanie Weisman, Charlie Varon and David Ford) just completed a nine-month development process backed by the National Endowment for the Arts, The Kenneth Rainin Foundation, and other contributors that allowed them to:
  • Commission six new full-length monologues from talented solo artists.
  • Commission 11 shorter pieces of solo theatre.
  • Work with the artists on writing their monologues and bringing them up to performance level.
  • Teach the artists about the nuts and bolts of producing theatre.
The participating artists were broken down into the following groups:
  • Groundlings (those attempting to link theatre with contemporary issues such as schools, housing, the judicial system, and urban life).
  • Formalists (those attempting to push the boundaries of solo performance).
  • Established performers (Marsh regulars Don Reed and Ann Randolph), who were chosen to begin and/or refine work on shows they have been developing.
On Saturday, I attended a double header that allowed me to see some of the results of The Marsh's second Festival of New Voices. Opening up for another artist, Randolph came charging into the performance space as the hyperactive Charlene (the "real" Miss America). With two of her front teeth blacked out -- and an insatiable hunger for candy corn -- Charlene is the kind of poor white trash who proudly insists that "I may be retarded, but I ain't stupid!"

Ann Randolph

During a meeting with a social worker, when Charlene is asked if she has any special skills that might help her secure a janitorial job at a local rehab center, she doesn't hesitate to brag about how her uncle trained her to give the best head in the county. After being assigned to the floor that houses all the sex addicts, Charlene demonstrates her entrepreneurial talent by selling suggestive pictures of her eight year old cousin, Sue Ann, to the patients.

Although I had previously seen video clips of Randolph's functionally illiterate but fiercely interactive Charlene, others were dutifully shocked and awed by the character's intensity. I have no doubt that when Randolph has a full show built around The Real Miss America, it will be every bit as fearless and daring as Loveland and Squeeze Box.

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Currently enjoying an extended run of his one-man show, East 14th: True Tales of a Reluctant Player -- which details his experience during the 1970s when he was routinely shuttled back and forth between the homes of his mother (a devout Jehovah's Witness) and father (a pimp with a great collection of hats) -- Don Reed makes his entrance in slow motion as he carries a silver tray toward a table for two.

In an excerpt from his new show, Kipling Hotel, Reed describes what it was like (as a student at UCLA on a partial scholarship) to apply for two part-time jobs: one as a male stripper for a club's ladies' night, and the other to help serve breakfast at a retirement home in a rundown section of Los Angeles.

Although the manager of the Kipling Hotel is quick to inform Reed that he likes to keep firing workers to ensure a healthy turnover, the young student is intrigued by one of the facility's elderly residents. A 92-year-old survivor of the German concentration camps, the old man has a bone to pick with another resident who likes to sit in a different seat for each meal. On Reed's first day on the job, the feisty geezer asks Reed if he thinks it would be all right to jab a fork into the other man's skull.

A trained dancer with strong beatboxing skills, Reed uses his body language and comic timing to draw in his audience. By the time he arrives at the end of his short piece, people are hungry for more (and rightly so).

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Marilyn Pittman is not the kind of lesbian you'd ever want to antagonize. Prone to violent outbursts, occasionally too smart for her own good, and not exactly a role model for anger management, Pittman has issues. Oh, boy, dos she have issues! Her strong comedic instincts come in handy as she describes a mother with no backbone, a father who was never famous for his communication skills, and the smug, self-absorbed residents of Noe Valley.

Directed and developed in collaboration with David Ford, It's All the Rage: (Not Just Another Family Tragedy -- This One Kills) goes to a very dark and uncomfortable place that more timid performers -- even those who have spent years in therapy -- would not dare to make public. Marilyn's parents lived together (and claimed to love each other) for nearly a half a century. Until, that is, the day her father pumped a handful of bullets into his wife and and used his last bullet to take his own life.

Pittman's material is so intensely personal -- and radically dysfunctional -- that it can really rattle an audience. In addition to reading from her mothers' diary, her father's post-war love letters, and the transcript of his last interview with his therapist in Durango, Colorado, Pittman uses her audience to test several theories of precisely how her father committed the murder/suicide that shattered her family in May of 1997.

Frequently reaching for a glass of water or trying to calm herself so she can move on to the next segment of her monologue, Pittman's journey takes the audience on a white-knuckle journey through the depths of dysfunctionality with almost laser-like precision as she tries to examine how she and her sister missed the signs that something was so desperately wrong.

This monologue is the kind of theatrical event that uncompromisingly delivers some heart-stopping moments. Once Pittman tightens up the show's ending, she will have a defiantly brave and singular piece of performance art.

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The most satisfying monologue, by far, was Pidge Meade's 40 Pounds in 12 Weeks: A Love Story. Carefully nurtured by Charlie Varon, Meade's monologue explores her life-long battle against her hips, her thighs, and people whose behavior could quickly trigger her eating. They include:
  • Pidge's father, an uberjock/gymnastics coach whose only concern about his daughter is what she weighs on any given day. Upon picking her up at the end of her freshman year, he delivers a stern ultimatum: Either Pidge lose 40 pounds or he'll refuse to pay the tuition for her next semester and she will be forced to drop out of college.
  • Pidge's mother, a meek, chain-smoking woman who, instead of standing up to her husband, tries to get her daughter hooked on diet pills.
  • Pidge's college boyfriend, who likes her just the way she is ("No, Dad, he's not black").
  • Pidge's former college roommate, who encounters a trimmed down Meade years later at a class reunion and gives her a heaping share of the exactly the kind of attention Pidge doesn't want. Embarrassed by her nephew's morbid obesity, Sue wants Pidge (who has just shed 70 pounds) to give her the quick-fix secret to losing weight so she can quickly get her nephew in shape and stop being mortified by his appearance.
Pidge Meade

As someone who has been obese for most of his life, I was fascinated to watch Meade's meticulously crafted, gently sculpted monologue about the heartaches of being short, fat, unloved, and unappreciated while maintaining a quiet, knowing humility about her situation. Mocking her weight loss in the voice of a circus performer ("And now, presenting the former fat lady......."), Meade takes each insult with a surprising sense of inevitability until she gets the emotional strength to stand up for herself.

Anyone who has boomeranged from one diet to another in hopes of finding a new body and/or self image will emit gasps of recognition while listening to Meade describe the casual digs voiced by her parents and friends (who have absolutely no understanding of the cruelty of their words). Although far less aggressive and strident than Pittman's rant, 90 minutes with Pidge Meade captures the sad torment and frustration of any fat person who tries to explain the challenges of dieting to someone whose higher metabolism rests on a solid foundation of crippling insensitivity.

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One of the hardest things to do when creating a piece of new art is to leave stuff out.
  • For some people, the temptation is to use as many gimmicks or ideas as possible, even if doing so clutters the story line.
  • For others, there can be a tendency to want to show off as many talents and tricks as possible by including them in a new piece of work.
  • Some people find themselves "writing up" to a certain length, stretching what might have been a good, tight 40-minute piece into a lumbering 90-minute show whose weak points become painfully visible.
  • Others find the research part of the process so fascinating that they lose all objectivity and are unable to stand back and make cuts.
All of these challenges are on display in A.C.T.'s world premiere production of The Tosca Project, which has finally reached the stage after four years of workshops. Back in 2006, when Morris Panych and Wendy Gorling's adaptation of Nikolai Gogol's 1842 short story, The Overcoat (a wordless piece of dance theater set to the music of Dmitri Shostakovich) opened up the A.C.T. season, ticket availability reached the kind of scarcity that a friend of mine likes to describe as being "as tight as a cucumber in a women's prison."

Shortly after that, A.C.T.'s artistic director, Carey Perloff, and local choreographer Val Caniparoli discussed collaborating on a new piece of dance theatre that would bring together actors and dancers to merge the two artistic disciplines as part of a long discovery process. Their focus was the famous Tosca Cafe, which has been a North Beach landmark since it opened in 1919. Part of their goal was to create a site specific piece which would show the role of the Tosca Cafe in the local community while paying tribute to its place in San Francisco history.

The workshop I attended at the Zeum Theatre in January of 2007 was a bit mystifying and directionless. I couldn't quite figure out what Perloff and Caniparoli were aiming for. Later, one of A.C.T.'s actors (Jack Willis) reminded the creative team that they can't set a piece in a bar without having a bartender. That gave them a dramatic hook upon which to build their story. As The Tosca Project developed into a series of dance vignettes, so many options presented themselves:
Pascal Molat as Vaslav Nijinsky

But consider some of the most successful site-specific pieces of dance theatre and you'll quickly notice a common thread. Unlike The Tosca Project, each piece as a palpable sense of urgency:
Each of these pieces is encased within a very specific dramatic time frame. By contrast, The Tosca Project lumbers through nearly 90 years of brief affairs and local trivia, causing audiences to ask "You mean there's another 50 years to go before this thing ends?"

A pleasant enough but decidedly tepid piece of dance theatre, The Tosca Project is pretty to look at, if not particularly exciting (does anyone still care that Armen Bali introduced Natalia Makarova to her future husband, Edward Karkar?). Try to imagine what would happen if a chef had meticulously prepped his ingredients to be crisply stir fried in a wok but his guests were served a stew that had been slowly cooked in a crock pot.

A moment from The Tosca Project

Appearing onstage were the San Francisco Ballet's Pascal Molat, Sabina Alleman, and Lorena Feijoo. Actors from A.C.T. included Kyle Schaefer, Rachel Ticotin, Jack Willis, Peter Anderson, Sara Hogrefe, and Gregory Wallace. The most exciting performance of the evening came from Nol Simonse, an artist whose arm movements have a thrilling grace and fluidity seen all too rarely among male dancers.

The Tosca Project continues at A.C.T. through June 27th. Although the opening night audience was politely enthusiastic, I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for a revival.