Buyer and Cellar- 1812 Productions

Sarah Grimke is a maker and administrator

In My Pockets 

I’ve worked for 1812 before and I know most of the people involved in the show. I love a good laugh, so I was really here for a comedy the day I went. World is rough!

 

The Take-Away 

  • Great performance and production of an ok play

  • Don’t know why this show was chosen or why it was written

  • Production values on this were on point. 1812 doesn’t fool around (that was a joke about them being a comedy company- get it?- this is why I wouldn’t be a good comedic performer).

 

The Design

The set by Chris Haig was stunning and clean. The simple white set transformed the familiar and vaudevillian Plays and Players theater into an almost unrecognizable clean space that easily aided our imaginations in creating each unique setting the play called up. The custom black masking framed the white set to give the illusion that it floated in space. I thought this was incredibly effective for a one man show where we  follow the story telling to and from so many places, but also in a show where so much of the story happened in a place where he is alone and cut off from the world.

 

The Script

I’m not a huge fan of the script, but I also think that’s because the play was not meant for me. Which is totally fine. Not everything has to cater to me! I think this play was written for communities I’m not necessarily a member of. Discussing it with other audience members later, nearly everyone felt like it was full of inside jokes that they were missing.

I think the target audience loves musical theater (excellent musical theater deep cut references peppered throughout), which is actually not as small a group as one might think based on the hearty laughs all around me. Most people got some of the jokes but few got all of them. 

While this isn’t a brand new play, it is the first time I came into contact with it, and while I laughed a good amount, I left feeling like it wasn’t complete, or at least like I was missing something. I’m just not sure why the story was told, and it ultimately didn’t feel like there was a true arc.  Technically, a story happened start to finish, but that story didn’t feel connected to the real world or this character’s larger life. It was like watching someone tell an amusing anecdote for 90 minutes. It was fun, but I was hoping the story would go somewhere more.

The Direction and Performance

Dan O’Neal’s direction did the job of keeping the audience engaged and feeling like they were a part of the story, despite the fact that at least some of it was inaccessible to most of us.

Dito is the master at connecting with an audience, and I loved seeing him work. That being said, I wish this play had more meat. I’ve seen Dito slay a number of juicy roles, and I wanted to have that experience again.

 

Why this Play Now?

Every single production element was tight, the performance was wonderful, the directing was dynamic and kept my attention for 90+ minutes, which is no easy feat. I just wish that all of those resources and talents had been put together in service of a better play. Especially right now, I feel like artists need to be responsible about what stories they are elevating and why, and this story felt like a throwaway.

Talking about the show the next day at brunch, a friend pointed out the need for escapism and laughter in the current climate and how that is precious as a form of self-care. I absolutely get that, and if that’s what this was supposed to do- it worked. I’m just not sure that’s what I go to the theatre for. I’ve got YA fantasy novels for that.

Still, I’m glad for people who were able to turn off their anxiety for 90 minutes watching this show. Drink some water and take care of yourselves!

 

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Long Day’s Journey into Night- Quintessence

JG is a performer and deviser

Linoor is a director and dramaturg

In Our Pockets:

Linor

One of the things that was most definitely in my pocket was this strong sense of dread about how long the production is. I’ve read this play before, but never seen a performance. I have no relationship with anyone at Quintessence.

 

JG

I’m a company member at Quintessence. I had not read the play before. Also, I thought it would be three hours and was surprised to hear that it was a four hour run time.

 

Linor

I definitely expected three hours too – only because I didn’t think that modern audiences could handle the whole play in one sitting. I was nearly wrong – some folks left towards the end during the performance I attended, but other than that, the audience was very engaged.

 

JG

I’ll second that on engagement.

 

The Take-away

  •  Epic performances

  •  Spare design

  •  An overall sense of devastation.

  •  Mental and societal ills with no room for hope.

  •  This play? Still?

 

The Design:

Linor

I appreciated that the design elements only served to enhance the characters’ journeys. It certainly made me focus on the acting. I did feel like it straddled an interesting line – if it had gone a little further into realism, I would have seen the set as another character. If it had held back, I would have appreciated the subtle placeholders for a period piece. As it was, I didn’t really feel anything about it – and I don’t know if that’s a good or bad thing.

JG

I found myself at times thinking the transition music hedged on the modern like it was coming from a different place than the story. The set. I wondered specifically with the chairs if I was going to be on a patio at one point and in a waiting room the next.

 

Linor

That makes sense. I think I agree. In general, the design seemed inconsistent with the overall vision, which made me focus on the performances and the writing.

 

JG

I have a suspicion that part of that is by design, knowing the respect Burns holds for the text of each piece.  I’d prefer a bolder move in one direction to give more definition and not leave me wondering.

 

Linor

I agree with that. I noticed some subtleties with the lighting that I liked – how I didn’t notice it changing until it had already changed, matching a character’s mood. That felt very strong to me.

 

JG

Agreed.

 

The Direction

Linor

Where I think Long Day’s Journey really works is when Mary’s unraveling comes at an even, steady pace, because we are watching her journey into the fog, and how her family copes. There’s a lot of signaling in the play about what’s coming, and constant rebuttal from Mary. What disappointed me about this production was that it seemed like Mary came to a place of devastation very quickly, and so there wasn’t a lot farther she could go. Likewise, I think the play is at its strongest when we don’t know who to believe – Mary or her family – and are walking that fine line with a nuanced performance (only to come to the dreadful realization that her family was right all along, and she is past helping). I just couldn’t feel that with this production.

 

JG

I see what you mean.  The cat comes out of the bag rather quickly and so we’re caught in an endless cycle of flips before the problem is truly revealed.

 

Linor

That being said, there were really, really strong moments of this piece. I think – similar to how I felt when reading the play – it cracked wide open for me when Edmund (James Davis) really got to talking. It was a window in Eugene O’Neill’s soul, which is exhausting and devastating and beautiful.

 

JG

Yes, I was struck by the maddening flippancy with which the family deals with Mary (E. Ashley Izard), who had me in her grip at every turn – when she gets close to the truth of her predicament, when each character comes to a place of truth only to be shut down as trivial or inappropriate. Though I didn’t have much sympathy for the father.

 

Linor

I did by the end. That level of extreme poverty, especially at a time when Irish people were institutionally unwelcome in specific parts of the United States – I understood it, even if I was really irritated by the father’s inability to see past himself. I think in some ways this play is so brilliant because it is structured to be inevitable – we know how it will end before it does and we’re just hoping that each character will make a highly uncharacteristic move to change something, but they never do.

 

JG

Oh, The timely metaphor of it all! That last sentence alone is what irks me today. I suppose that my dislike of James (played with honesty and vulnerability by Paul Hebron)  likely stems from my frustration with the things he represents (capitalism, theatre, patriarchy, misogny, racism,  self loathing, etc.)

 

The Performances

 

JG

I know you spoke earlier of James Davis portrayal of Edmund, I found his glimpse behind the veil to be quite beautiful. The real surprise performance for me was that of Jamie (Josh Carpenter) the reveal of his secrets was heartbreaking. I did not see that coming,  or I didn’t want to believe it was true.

 

Linor

Oh yeah, Josh Carpenter was great. I really appreciated his performance – I think it was nuanced and strong. I found myself rooting for Jamie in a way that I never did when reading the play, and in a way that surprised me. I think that’s a testament to Josh. In general, while I could see that the actors were all skilled and strong, it was the direction that left me wanting more.

Why this play now?

JG

My frustrations noted in the above, and my own lived experience tell me that this play is relevant. Yet, I also wonder at the idea of presenting only that,  the play which, yes is diving deep into substance abuse, mental health, and a host of other ills wrapped up in the American dream that are deep, ugly, and ultimately accepted to be the way of the world. I yearn for it to be coupled with conversation, resources, or an organization that is actively working to combat or rehabilitate the issues that persist. Without something like that it feels just like it’s adding more fuel to the commentary fire.

 

Linor

I feel similarly. I can see and recognize that this play is brilliant, but to be honest, I crave a new voice that dissects the same things, and perhaps in a way that speaks to specific parts of our culture as it has evolved and grown since the time of Long Day’s Journey. I think this is an important play, but in general, I bristle at the production of old white plays like this. If we’re going to do an old play, why don’t we do something from black playwrights, or female playwrights, or Hispanic playwrights? There are “classics” that don’t have to fall into the tired, over-produced list. Which is not a disparagement on the play itself.

 

JG

Indeed.

 

Linor

Sure, this play is relevant, but is it adding something new to the conversation?

 

JG

Can I get a Phillis Wheatley?!

 

Accountability

Linor

This play represents a very real problem in this corner of American history, and likewise it is limited by the social parameters of its’ time. I see that, I get it, I can respect it. But we’re no longer in that corner of American history, we’re in ours. And I feel a sense of urgency for us to have explicit conversations about a lot of the themes and topics that O’Neill had to dance his way through as a mid-century American playwright. At the end of the day, it makes me feel like this play isn’t necessarily being produced to contribute to the conversation about addiction in America, but because it’s famous and will sell.

 

This play is a testament to the writing of unresolved familial, generational, national trauma that cannot be fixed by vice, or packed under a bandaid of shame/complacency. My question is: if after seeing this piece over and over again do people leave this piece inspired to work on their own issues or is it an accidental tool of oppression, just normalizing that behavior over time?

 

Interview: Jackie Goldfinger

TC is a director

 

TC

Tell me a little bit more about Click.

 

JG

Click is about college-aged friends who are involved in a frat gang-rape that goes viral. It spans 20 years, and it shows how that event, and the subsequently evolving technologies change the course of their lives.

 

TC

What drew you to these themes of gendered violence and technology?

 

JG

After the Steubenville Rape case, I was thinking a lot about technology, especially having a teenage daughter. A lot of people said, ‘Oh this is a rare incident, people aren’t going to live-stream violence or put it online like that again’, and I just felt…the opposite. Now that we have these tools, and especially because our kids have grown up using them to communicate, it’s going to feel different to them, it’s going to feel natural. Live-streaming and other technologies are the new reality, and are going to shape how we see the world, and our place in it.

 

I spent the last four years writing this play; creating a draft and then having something happen that blew the draft up (technology shift, etc), and then writing a new draft, on and on. It’s been a long process, but it’s been great because I’ve been able to revise significantly and dive deeply into the relationship between humans and technology, and how our lives are altered by those we get to know through a screen.

 

TC

Let’s pivot a little bit – I’m curious to know more about how current events shaped your play, particularly in the development. But I guess before we dive into that, let’s talk a little bit about what new play development means in general. I’m interested in hearing from your perspective as both a playwright and a dramaturg what new play development is and how we as a community can better support it here in Philly.

 

JG

Right. So, a play is not a piece of literature. It’s not made to be put on a page and be read by someone in private, in quiet. If you write something in private and in quiet and never hear someone speak it out loud, there’s a chance that it will come off more like a narrative fiction. And so development serves the incredibly important role of making sure that theater is actually theater. It’s what makes the art speak through character and gesture and movement. Theater is equally a literary and a visual art. And visual art is made in space, made in three-dimensions, so we have to make sure that our new playwrights and our makers have access to the same opportunities to make their work in space that any other visual artist has.

 

What’s most important in the communities where new work thrives is that they offer a broad spectrum of development possibilities for different types of work; and within each development process they’re focused on what the art and the artmaker needs rather than what the institution sponsoring it wants. That’s a paradigm shift, definitely. I say this having worked in institutions, many of which I admire, but knowing when you apply for grants so far in advance, you have to create a certain infrastructure for the piece before you really know how the piece, itself, will breath, will be in the world. So how do we as a community create support that involve funding and grants that remain flexible enough so that they can move in nuanced ways with the art? I think that’s one of the biggest questions we have to ask as a community.

 

TC

I definitely feel that, especially because Philly has such a strong devising community too. In some ways devising is a really visual representation of bodies in a room developing something new, like a new play – so how do we support that work with funding when the purpose of that work is that we don’t know what it is before we’ve made it?

 

JG

I agree. A lot of the questions that we need to ask as a community about supporting new work, are not about agreeing on one way of making, but about insuring diversity of making and preserving the uniqueness of the form itself. And I would say that devised work is definitely playwriting. Unless you’re doing improv, you may be starting with bodies in the room, but you end up with something that can be performed the same way every time. So really, while “regular playwrights” may come at it from the written word, “movement artists” come at it from gesture, “devisers” come at it from physicality and other methods – there are as many unique ways into piece as there are artists – at the end of the day, it’s all playwriting. A play is just a word for text and other notations used in theater to give us a framework of what to do performance after performance.

 

TC

Totally. So let’s talk a little bit about the development of Click. You already talked about how current events shaped the writing process, but what about the development process? I’m thinking a lot recently about the backdrop of social networking being a huge contributor to the conversation about Harvey Weinstein, how this #metoo has created a self-identifying survivor platform in a way that some people – including me – have concerns about. So I’m wondering how current events have shaped the development of Click, especially when those events involve issues of consent and gender.

 

JG

One of the mistakes I made early on when I was writing Click was that I was writing too much about the technology. And at the end of the day, I just felt like, unless it’s a TedTalk, people probably don’t want to come see a talk about technology onstage. It’s just not theatrical. So the first draft or two I was focused on the wrong thing, which is why I had to completely rewrite every time there was a new technological or social media evolution. But what that allowed me to do was to dig down deep and ask about the human relationship questions that are really at stake here. If technology is just a conduit for human relationships, then what do those relationships do as it evolves? What we found through that process is that these questions of identity are all pretty much the same throughout the history of technology. Those aren’t changing.

 

In the play, we start off with the technology that we have access to today, and then we’ve created a new technology that’s in line with where we’re going. It’s a rather simple and straightforward tech so that we can highlight the relationships of consent and identity. The emphasis is still on the human story. I was very lucky to find The Producer’s Fund here in Philadelphia which funded part of the development, and receive a residency with Emerson Stage in Boston that allowed that tech to be developed through workshops. So now, for the reading with Exile, I actually have two final scenes. We’re thinking that we may read both scenes for the audience and have a talkback after, because they’re both great ways to end the play depending on what we want to do and how the audience engages with the piece.

 

TC

That’s so cool! I’m someone who’s particularly fascinated and excited about the intersections of technology and theater. I personally find that technology as another making tool allows artists and audiences of all backgrounds and abilities to participate in the work. Where do you see tech and theater taking us in the future? Are you looking forward to it or do you have any reservations?

 

JG

Oh, I’m really excited about where we’re going. I think it’s going to be beyond anything we could ever imagine right now. I mean that in terms of where technology can take the technical side of theater, but also in the ways that technology can open up conversation between different communities. One of the things in Click that I’m drawn to is that because the characters connect online, I can have people talk to each other who in the real world probably would never run into each other. So I get to have these phenomenal conversations that are made richer because it’s online. Segregation based on geographical, racial, gendered, or class lines isn’t as permanent online as it is in real life.

 

TC

Yeah, that’s interesting. I mean, in some ways I can see how the openness of online spaces certainly has the potential of creating conversations across communities, but I can’t help but remembering how the same thing is true for communities that are highly homogenous and insular, and are looking to attract more folks. Like how the alt right definitely used the internet to grow, or how search algorithms that bring information to folks are not in any way democratic or neutral.

 

JG

Yes, absolutely. Well, I mean one of the great things is that when we learn to use technology efficiently in plays, which people like Jen Haley and Quiara Hudes have already done, it’s going to blow open the door of who can have conversations onstage. We’re not limited geographically anymore. It’s not the same six all white or all black or all Asian men sitting around the kitchen table. Now, will the dominant theatrical voices take advantage of those possibilities? Who knows? But there are projects like Jeremy Gable’s twitter plays, as well as theater artists who are now doing work in multiple cities, where one portion of the play is performed at one end and the other in the another city. We have an entire new branch of theater makers who are making specifically online theatrical experiences. And that is – and will be – stunning.

 

TC

My last question actually touches on this idea of bringing together a more diverse group of voices at the table that you already mentioned – specific to new plays. How might you categorize your responsibility as the playwright in writing inclusive work without telling someone else’s narrative?

 

JG

What an important question. So, I am a white middle-class chick, and I have been, from the start of my career, invested in representing a diverse array of voices on stage in a lot of ways – class, gender, ethnicity, race, and more. The foundation of my process has always been research. And making sure, especially when I’m creating a piece about a character who has a vastly different experience than my own, getting the right people to take a look at drafts and participate in developmental workshops. A major part of the job is then making sure that I am being open so I can actually hear them. For example, with Slipshot, both Akeem Davis and Cathy Simpson were incredibly key in creating those roles from the beginning. In Click, there is a trans character, and so MJ Kaufman, Viv Burke, Finn Lefevre, Ashley Rogers and a number of other trans theater artists have been kind enough to look at drafts and come to readings and talking with me about both trans life and the play. Having people with experience different than your own involved early and often is key.

 

In Click, I knew that it’s not my place to tell a trans transitioning story. It’s defining of that community, and I didn’t feel that I could truly and deeply tell that story. But I do want to support the trans community, and amplify their voices on-stage. After doing research and talking to a few folks, I felt that I could tell the story of this character well if she had already transitioned. So I’ve worked to tell that story well, and have been grateful for the support of all of my collaborators.

 

Every writing process is going to be different, but regardless, I find it’s important to have other people with unique expertise and insight involved early and often.

 

TC

So then, for the folks who are involved, how do you define their roles? Are they readers? Are they participants in the making process itself? Like with Akeem Davis, were the two of you writing that character together, or was he more of an advisor?

 

JG

It really just depends on where the other artists are and where I am, but I try to make sure that at every step of the way those voices are included in the process. Sometimes I share pages. Sometimes they come to private workshops. Sometimes public showings. It’s usually a combination of ways of sharing – but sharing and being opened to seeing the world through another’s eyes is essential to creating great work.

Red Velvet- The Lantern Theater

Sarah Grimke is an artist and arts administrator in Philadelphia. They love art that grasps you fully and pushes boundaries. They want to desperately need to discuss a show after seeing it.

VT is a deviser that makes it a point to not see shows too often in the hopes that it won’t taint the joy and wonder they feel whenever they watch live performance.

Nan is an actor and maker.

Unloading our Pockets 

Sarah

I know and like some of the people involved in this show, but I’ve had really hit or miss experiences with The Lantern’s work and was kind of expecting to hate it.

 

VT

Same. I have a strong aversion to the their programming in general. I actually received a ticket from a friend and was very let down when I learned that it was a 2 hour and 30 minute Lantern show about race.

 

Nan

I also had some friends in the show, and I’ve been seeing Lantern shows on and off since I was a kid, with some really amazing experiences and some pretty lackluster ones. I also have friend who saw the original production of the play in London and adored it. I had heard really amazing things about this production, but I also know the director and was confused as to who thought it would be a good idea to have a white man directing this play.

 

The Take-Away:

  • Sarah– I thought the scenic design hurt the show and the lighting did very little, but that there were some strong performances.

  • VT –  In a play that seems focus a lot on the role that white saviors play in the livelihood of their black peers, why would the Lantern decide to hire a white director to work on a piece like this? It’s incredibly tone deaf. 

  • Nan –  I also think DeLaurier was the wrong man for the job– the show really needed a POC in charge, and you could tell.

 

Design:

Sarah

I thought the scenic design caused some serious problems and didn’t help tell the story. Parts of the stage were barely used because the sight lines were abysmal for much of the audience. I could see some sections well, but others required leaning or turning my head entirely in one direction. I was super frustrated by that.

VT

I agree about the scenic design, although the combination of the lighting under the backdrop of the red curtains felt like perfect synergy.

Nan

The most noticeable design element for me was the costumes. I noticed that some garments desperately needed alteration. The wigs were terrible– to put Liz Filios in a red wig and not even try to get close to her natural color? Yeesh!

Sarah

I thought that the costumes were beautiful, but I agree that the wigs were atrocious. Poor Liz Filios in the same wig in 3 different colors, did a beautiful job acting up a storm despite it.

Lighting didn’t aid the story or give me much information. They did some marvelous things at a couple of points (for example, the thunderstorm), but otherwise it was just a wash.

The sound design provided lots of ambient noise that helped tell the story and also good use of scoring to aid in the emotional arc.

Props crushed it with a million beautiful tiny details. Those newspapers! The furniture!

 

VT

I know! It was really some of the best prop design I’ve seen – Shannon O’Brien’s work really lends a lot of verisimilitude to a play like this. 

 

Nan

Agreed that props were fantastic, big props to Shannon!

 

Talk about the direction :

VT

The ending of this show is incredibly confusing to me. And I actually think this is a director problem – not a problem with the script. There’s this question of, “Does Forrest McClendon putting on whiteface while performing King Lear serve to enhance the ideas of this piece, or undermine them?” There were so many choices Peter DeLaurier could’ve made to give this moment some clarity – clarity that an audience at the Lantern needs in order for this show to have any impact.

Nan

I was also confused by the ending. And I also think DeLaurier was the wrong man for the job– the show really needed a POC in charge, and you could tell. The amount of energy put towards the “oh shit, it’s a black man” reaction of the white company? Clearly his favorite part of the play.

 

The Script:

VT

This is a relatively newer play, receiving its world premiere in 2014. Lolita Chakrabarti has done a great job of capturing the racial stumblings that come with being the only person of color in a white space, but there are certain character choices that feel as though they contradict the message of the story. For instance, the choice to relegate the only other black character to the role of a maid is a bit frustrating. Product of the times, yes, but to use this as the basis from which her entire character operates feels so reductive.

Nan

Completely agreed. I was also disappointed in the maid character. I felt like under DeLaurier she mostly served as someone for the white audience members to look at uncomfortably as all this awful racist stuff went down, and wonder if she is going to say or do anything about it. And then she never really does. I think Chakrabarti likely had a clearer idea of the function of the character that somehow did not make it into this production.

Performances:

VT

This was the first time I’ve seen Forrest McClendon perform, and he certainly lives up to his reputation. He carries the weight of the entire show on his shoulders, and oozes a special kind of charisma.

Nan

McClendon was fantastic! I was a bit surprised at how affected his performance was, but overall it was definitely the highlight of the production for me. He also manages to craft some kind of character arc out of a script that really only gives him Amadeus-esque old age bookends and a single complicated event in his past. Definitely not an easy feat. I  really enjoyed his scenes with Damon Bonetti.

VT

Damon Bonetti is a solid performer, but he had a tendency to lose commitment to to his accent, and slipped up quite a few times. Liz Filios does a great job of garnering empathy in her opening and closing scenes.

Nan

Liz Filios was also great in a pretty challenging range of characters.

VT

I want to add that David Pica is always endearing to watch onstage and manages laughs with very little effort.
Accountability:

Sarah

While there are some things that I didn’t like in this script, there were also some really wonderful ideas being explored. What is the toll of being the trailblazer or the only one of your race in a room over and over again?  I really liked the discussion it brought up of what being a good ally or accomplice is. Damon Bonetti’s character is a good talking point.

VT

Agreed, I think Damon’s character in this play captures a lot of what we’re thinking when we talk about the differences between allies and accomplices. He is willing to rock the boat to a certain point, but quickly becomes wishy-washy when the going gets tough.

I do, however, think there’s an irony in certain choices that the Lantern made that sort of negates these talking points. In a play that seems focus a lot on the role that white saviors play in the livelihood of their black peers, why would the Lantern decide to hire a white director to work on a piece like this? It’s incredibly tone deaf. 

Nan

VT, I completely agree. I think the playwright intended this for a director with a much more nuanced concept of race. This play could have been presented as so topical and relevant, but instead was treated like a classic written by a contemporary author.

DeLaurier seems so much more interested in the actors’ conversations about craft, and their reactions to Aldridge’s appearance, than in race, even in a “product of the times” play, as Sarah says.

In short, I don’t think the play  is for a white director or a very white subscriber base like the Lantern has, and as a result, the production is more for liberal leaning white people who like to think they can take a challenging conversation about race.

For me, the Damon/McClendon scene was the only part of the play where they really started talking about interesting nuances, as opposed to the incredibly unuseful and oversimplified “things were really shitty back then for black people”, which it mostly seemed to come down to.