‘Pasadena Playhouse’ Announces New Director of Development

Photo by Jackie Ortiz
NANCY GRIFFITH BAXTER

The Pasadena Playhouse has announced that Nancy Griffith Baxter is their new Director of Development, bringing with her more than 30 years of fundraising and wealth management experience.

Previously as Director of Gift Planning at LA Opera, legacy gift contribution revenue increased nine-fold during Baxter’s time at the organization. Prior to the LA Opera, she was also recruited by her alma mater, Colorado College, to serve as Director of Gift Planning, pulling the program out of dormancy and growing its Legacy Society significantly towards raising over $15 million during the 2015-2016 fiscal year in new future gifts.

With a master’s in Finance from Claremont Graduate University and a bachelor’s in Political Science – International Relations at Colorado College, she’s also an award-winning one-time Senior V.P. and Senior Philanthropic Investment Manager at Wells Fargo where she oversaw the investment team that brought and influenced $18 billion in charitable assets. With it, Baxter is looking forward to working with her new team at Pasadena’s landmark and official State Theater of California.

“It’s an honor to work with a dynamic leadership team at an institution with the amazing history and impact that [the] Pasadena Playhouse has had on both the local and national entertainment industry, including theater, film, and television,” said Baxter in a statement. “I look forward to working with the community to ensure the longevity of this amazing theater for another 100 years.”

In addition to coaching and building wealth teams around the US to attract and expand philanthropic business opportunities and clients, recruiting and managing investment management, and developing investment strategies for endowments, deferred gift programs, and private foundations, “a lover of the arts” Baxter also brings with her extensive and continued volunteerism in the performing arts. She has served as a board member with the Colburn School, as well as with LA Opera, Shakespeare Festival/LA (now Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles), Young & Healthy, the Rocky Mountain Women’s Film Institute, and Woman’s Educational Society of Colorado College.

In 1937, the Pasadena Playhouse was “officially recognized as the State Theater of California for its contribution and commitment to the dramatic arts”. Pasadena Playhouse recently hosted the LA Drama Critics Circle Awards where it recognized excellence in Los Angeles theatre and it continues its own tradition of excellence under Producing Artistic Director Danny Feldman.

“I am thrilled to welcome Nancy to the leadership team as we continue to take the Playhouse in a new and exciting direction,” said Feldman. “I know her wealth of energy and experience will be invaluable to us in garnering support from the Pasadena community and beyond.”

Featured Photo by Freed14, used via Creative Commons permissions, Wikipedia. The Pasadena Playhouse – State Theatre of California.


JOAN OF ART: An Old Fashion Musical, Puppets, Whales and Books (yes they still exist)

The 1952 MGM song and dance classic that immortalized Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds is considered by everyone one of cinema’s greatest. A true classic. Adapted for the stage in 1985 by the film’s legendary creators Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Singing in the Rain comes to The Soraya thanks to a lavish new production by McCoy Rigby Entertainment before it moves to the La Mirada Theatre.

This will be one antic-laden spectacle as Hollywood history is made when silent film transform into talkies.

The show is choreographed by Spencer Liff who has earned two Emmy Nominations for Outstanding Choreography for his work on the hit Fox TV show So You Think You Can Dance. As always McCoy Rigby entertainment casts their show with the top notch people many who have performed on Broadway. I’m seeing it Saturday night and can’t wait.

The show runs at the Soraya on April 12th at 8pm, Saturday April 13 at 3pm & 8pm and Sunday April 14th at 3pm. To purchase tickets or for more information go to TheSoraya.org or call 818-677-3000.

Now I for one love to read…Not on a Kindle and not on my iPad, but books. I love to read books so I was so happy to hear that this weekend The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books has returned. Since 1996, this event has become a world renowned experience gathering writers, poets, artists, filmmakers, musicians and emerging storytellers like no other. There will also be signing areas where various authors will sign for about an hour.

 

Today over 150,000 people attend, making it the largest festival of its kind in the United States. How cool is that?

The Festival of Books runs Saturday, April 13, 2019 from 10am-6pm and Sunday April 14th from 10am -5pm. On Friday at 7m there is a Book Prize Ceremony at Bovard Auditorium, USC Campus.

General Admission to the Festival and Newstory is free. There are certain additional special presentations and conversations which even though free, there is a service fee charged.

The event takes place on the University of Southern California campus located near the historic Exposition Park.

For more information visit Events.LATimes.com/FestivalOfBooks

I don’t know about how you all feel about puppets, but I just love them. I also love the musical Les Miz so I happy to report that LES MIZ and FRIENDS!: A PUPPET PARODY will be at the Hudson Theatre in Hollywood every Friday and Saturday until May 11th.

A human production of the Broadway classic ‘Les Miserables’ is overturned by a bunch of foul mouth puppets who throw a revolution of their own. Both a loving tribute and a brutal deconstruction of the beloved musical, ‘Les Miz and Friends!’ will delight the show’s lovers and haters alike.

Full of irreverent humor, parody and original music, improvisation and no-holds-barred attacks on musical theatre this production is definitely not for kids.

The Hudson Theatre is located at 6539 Santa Monica Blvd. Los Angeles. To purchase tickets go to LesMizAndFriends.com.

And now for something completly different. One of the most majestic creatures in the ocean is here in Calfornia and you have an excellent chance of seeing it. I’m talking about WHALES…

One of the most amazing sights in nature is that of majestic whales swimming and playing on the ocean’s surface leaping out of the water and slapping their mighty tales. On this 2.5 hour cruise of the shores of Newport Beach you may see giant blue whales during the summer and fall months or the annual grey whale migration that brings tens of thousands of grey whales along the coast during the winter and spring months. Huge pods of several species of dolphin are very common, as are the resident sea lions.

You might also get glimpses of killer whales, sharks and many other marine creatures. This is an event for anyone that loves these sea creatures. I know I do and can’t wait to go on Sunday.

For information go to NewportWhales.com. The cruises go on through September 30, 2019.

So most importantly whatever you choose to do this weekend, make it a fun one.


Steven Sabel’s Twist on the Trade: Do The Show That You Know

This week I will open my 128th full-scale production as a producer/director. The group of artists working on this post-modern adaptation of Euripides’ “Trojan Women,” will become the 128th group of artists to hear me say – at every rehearsal and performance to come over the next three weeks – one of my most famous Sabelisms: “Do The Show That You Know!”

Having produced and/or directed 128 productions, I still hesitate to say I’ve seen it all. I’ve learned that’s the best way to ask for a situation you have yet to encounter. Nobody likes to face a situation they have not yet encountered. Familiarity is an essential part of success in our trade. Look how many directors and actors have chosen to work together time and again due to their familiarity with each other’s work. The history of famous director and actor teams goes back hundreds of years. Familiarity is the reason why theatre companies form and exist. It is an essential focus in the making of every major motion picture – especially today, when audience “familiarity” with certain brands leads to entire series of films featuring the same actors playing the same characters in sequel after sequel. It is the key to the success of any long-running sitcom, dramatic series, and even game shows, with audiences developing their familiarity with the hosts of the shows.

Humans crave consistency. With hundreds of millions of dollars on the line, film producers crave consistency too. Consistent talent, consistent performance, consistent work ethic, productivity, attitude, and most of all – consistent box office draw! The best and most sought after artists in every field of this trade – editors, sound engineers, lighting designers, special effects teams, make-up artists, costumers, actors, directors, you name it – are the people who are known for their consistency. They are the people who do the show that they know, consistently. They are a known commodity, and in this industry, where a known commodity can be worth gold, it is no wonder that a known commodity is always going to be considered for the job before taking a risk on an unknown.

Taking all of this into account, you would be surprised how many times I have watched an artist decide to stray away from familiarity and throw consistency to the wind while on stage in a performance. “Do The Show That You Know” is a pretty clear direction. It is straight forward. It contains only single syllable words. It even rhymes so conveniently. Yet there are actors – I’ve seen countless numbers through 128 shows – who just can’t seem to understand those six simple words. As I mentioned above, I hesitate to ever say I have seen it all, but I have seen a wide variety of actors do outlandish things in changing a performance after a show has opened.

Green Room Gary has been giving advice to his fellow actors throughout the production process, continues to do so in performance, and then also decides – since he obviously knows best – to make changes to his own performance as well. “When the director isn’t here, I’ll do it my own way,” says Gary.

Sam the Ham

Dorothy Drama and Sam the Ham have different motivations. When her best friend, Edna, and her Grandma Matilda are in the audience, Dorothy just can’t help but turn on that extra juice, and melodrama the bones right out of the text of the play! With sudden bursts of random emotion and much sawing of the air, Dorothy sets out to prove to her friends and relatives that she is indeed a serious actress. Sam has the same intent whenever his mother comes to the see the show, or even worse yet, when he has a potential love interest in the room. Then consistent performance be damned, because Sam is trying to impress a lady and win himself a date.

Isaac Ideas isn’t a bad fellow, but his “magnificent brainstorms” are a day late and a dollar short. Poor Isaac is just trying to be helpful when he arrives to the theater with new blocking in mind for an important scene. He isn’t trying to sabotage his fellow actors by presenting them with something they haven’t encountered before on stage, he’s just trying to make the show “better.” His pal, Brandon Brando, is just trying to keep things “real” when he decides to change a line or two to make them sound more “natural” and “true” to the character.

Last Night Norman is such a prankster. He just can’t help chatting with everyone back stage about anything and everything completely unrelated to the show at hand. He’s full of funny jokes and silly anecdotes, and thrives on being the class clown of the cast. On the last night of performances, Norman just can’t resist playing that little prank on his fellow actors, that he is oh so sure will help them forever remember closing night. He is always right. We never forget him…

These types of actors can be a terrible detriment to a performance. Changes of any kind to a performance should be made only with the knowledge of the stage manager, and only after thorough discussion with every actor involved in the scene. Anything less is disrespectful to all involved, and completely self-absorbed behavior. Whatever your great new idea is – if it wasn’t good enough for rehearsal, it isn’t good enough now.

On occasion there are unforeseen circumstances that call for required changes involving safety, or semantics, or sight lines, etc. There are occurrences on the stage, mid-performance, which sometime call for quick thinking, adjustment, and adaptation right on the spot. Props hate people, and they can often be the cause of these unforeseen moments. It’s live theater. Things happen. All the more reason you don’t want to be the person causing things to happen that are outside the realm of what was rehearsed and prepared for performances. If a prop sabotages a performance, we blame the theater spirits. If you sabotage a performance by making changes, we blame you.

Do The Show That You Know. Stick to the plan. Be consistent. It is what your fellow artists have become familiar with. It’s what they expect from you, and it’s a quality that will get you more work in the future.

Actors often ask me why I don’t make it a point to watch every performance of my productions. Part of that aspect of me is based in having other responsibilities to fulfill, and the nature of our trade which finds the director’s job complete after opening night. It is the stage manager’s show after that, and their job to maintain a consistent production. You think directors get upset when an actor changes things on stage? Hah! I fear any stage manager worth their salt on this issue, and you should too.

Secretly a key reason I often can’t bear to watch performances of my productions is because of actors like Green Room Gary, Dorothy Drama, Sam the Ham, Isaac Ideas, Brando Brando, Last Night Norman, and any variety of others who decide that they just can’t possibly show up to the theater on time, follow their preparation routine, warm up, get on stage, and do the show that they know. I don’t give director’s notes to actors once a show has opened. I shouldn’t have to. The show should be the same way I left it on opening night, if you will just Do The Show That You Know!


JOAN OF ART: Three Different Kinds of Theatre and A Celebration of Beer – What Could Be Better?

Last weekend I saw a powerful, emotionally moving, beautifully acted one woman show entitled The Meatball Chronicles and I highly recommend it. If you do only one thing this weekend, run over to the he Hudson Theatre in Hollywood and get your tickets for this excellent must see production.

This is actress Debrianna Mansini‘s story and one you won’t forget. Mansini is a brilliant storyteller and she takes us on a journey of her life and asks the question, ‘What happens when from the day your are born you are made to feel invisible by your mother, who just happens to be a narcissist.’

The Meatball Chronicles which first played last year at the Fringe Festival follows Debrianna’s journey through humorous and sometimes heart wrenching meals that align with stories of her childhood, her relationships with men and in particular her complicated relationship to her mother.

Mansini crafts the piece in a way that transcends her own story into universal themes that anyone who has a family can love and understand. As she kneads the dough and thickens the sauce through each Italian recipe, the stories associated with those recipes reveal the complex ways that families cope, laugh, grieve and show their love through food.

To purchase tickets go to OnStage411.com/meatball. The show plays Friday and Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm. The Hudson Theatre is located at 6539 Santa Monica Blvd, Hollywood. The play closes on April 14, 2019.

On Friday I’ll be going to another kind of theatre and one I’m a huge fan of…SLAM POETRY which will be playing at Greenway Court Theatre, 544 North Fairfax Avenue, Los Angeles from April 5th – April 27th. This is the 3rd Annual LA Get Down Festival celebrating hip-hop and the spoken word.

Da Poetry Lounge Co-Founder Shihan Van Clief serves as the Festival’s Artistic Director. The festival features: Atlanta based Poetry vs. Hip-Hop; invitational team and Indie slams from all over the country from youths to adults. If you’re a fan of this medium then this is an event you do not want to miss. Also April just happens to be National Poetry Month.

Spoken word expands all ages and cultures. Besides watching the various shows there will be a diverse schedule of talent leading various poetry workshops availabe for you to take. You’ve never experienced poetry like you will at the LA GET DOWN FESTIVAL

To purchase tickets go to boxoffice@greenwayartsalliance.org. or call 323-655-7679.

Come Saturday evening I’m headed downtown to see BIRDLAND BLUE a play with music that takes us back in time. The year is 1959. The place is Broadway and 52nd Street in New York City, the nightblub is the world famous BIRDLAND which was the legendary center of the jazz world, where the glitterati of Broadway, Hollywood and the sports world regularly filled its 500 seats.

In August of 1959 the biggest star in jazz was Miles Davis who earlier that year recorded KIND OF BLUE, regarded then and now as the most innovative and best jazz album of all time.

BIRDLAND BLUE is a behind the scenes look at Miles on one evening. He flirts with a beautiful reporter for a jazz magazine. He copes with division within his rank as two of his musicians Julius Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane are on the verge of leaving the Sextet to start their own groups. He also deals with substance abuse problems, his own and that of one of his musicians.

The play is put on by the Robey Theatre Company and promises to be a very memorable one.

To purchase tickets go to TheLATC.org or call 866-811-4111. The play runs through Sunday May 12. Showtimes are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 3:00 pm except Sundays April 21 and May 12 when the showtime will be 7pm.

So in between experiencing alll this culture you might get thirsty so luckily on Saturday April 6th from 12-8pm at Los Angeles Center Studios located at 450 South Bixel Street, the11th annual LA BEER FESTIVAL is taking place.

The event will feature dozens of international and domestic beers, over a dozen food trucks as well as live entertainment. Your general admission ticket ($45) includes unlimited beer tastings with food sold separately.

If you buy a Connoisseur’s Ticket ($85) you get air conditioned bathrooms (that alone is worth the extra money) a taco bar, an indoor/outdoor event deck overlooking the event featuring limited beers/one-offs that are not available with general admission.

I went last year and it was a blast. For more information visit LABeerFest.la.

Whatever you do this weekend folks, have a great one.


Memories Are the Heart’s Reality

In The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams’ first success and now on stage at A Noise Within theater in Pasadena, a still young man, Tom Wingfield, relives the memories of his last months, living through the Depression with what was left of his family after his father had run out on them. He returns to the scene of this crime-of-the-heart, compelled perhaps as much by a need to justify abandoning the two most important women in his life, as his father had, as to recapture a “truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion,” as he tells the audience in the opening moments of the play. “Yes,” he warns us, “I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician.” But don’t believe him. Coming from the soul of perhaps America’s greatest poet-dramatist, the graceful rhythms of Williams’ rueful elegy are truly theatrical magic.

Tom remembers his loving, yet overbearing mother, Amanda, surviving the gloom of
her forsaken life on reminiscences of a proper, well-mannered past that may never have been as genteel as she tries so hard to imagine. He has an aching love of his
handicapped younger sister, Laura, who escapes her intense sense of inadequacy by
mothering a collection of sparkling figurines, most particularly a unicorn – that
mythical symbol of unattainable desire – a glass menagerie, if you will. And then there’s the “Gentleman Caller” (Amanda’s phrase), Tom’s friend from the shoe factory, Jim O’Connor, who Tom invited to dinner one evening to satisfy – you might say, shut up, his mother who needs a suitor for Laura. Jim is a young buck with dreams of breaking into the big time, being a “player,” on the world stage – mostly by applying the confidence he has to believe he’s gaining from the course public speaking he’s taking.

It’s a brash, show-offy color that brings a cold-water splash of reality into the monotony unrealizable neediness that fills the Wingfield’s down-at heel apartment in St. Louis.

But what drives this tale of rueful romantic yearning is Tom’s craving for a poetry in life that breaths adventure. He longs to be free of the smothering delusions of the women he loves. Amanda and Laura, fill their lives imagining their own “could be’s” and “only if’s.” But they have no idea of the passions that are driving Tom away from them – passions even he has trouble granting himself. His need to be free of them breeds a corrosive guilt towards mother and sister, feed his anger at life’s cruel niceties. He knows they could never, would never, allow or accept him for what he is, what he wants, what he would be.

Played out on a simple setting, young Tom’s memories “turn back time…” to a
“quaint period…  when the huge middle class of America was matriculating in a
school for the blind. Their eyes had failed them, or they had failed their eyes, and so they were having their fingers pressed forcibly down on the fiery Braille alphabet of a dissolving economy.” Williams’ The Glass Menagerie refract the many facets of love-hate, alone-togetherness that seem so vivid almost a century later. And A Noise Within is doing a service allowing us to consider it’s truths in these troubled times.


An acclaimed playwright creates a script about – of all things – an acclaimed playwright.

Oscar Wilde, was an Irishman of uncommon wit, reached the pinnacle of his career with the opening in London of his highly acclaimed farce, The Importance of Being Ernest, in February of 1895. Within four months, Wilde began serving a sentence of two years at hard labor in England’s Redding Gaol that would ruin his health and bring about his early miserable demise.

A hundred years later, David Hare (another greatly admired British playwright) wrote a play about the troubled end of Oscar Wilde’s life. Hare titled his play The Judas Kiss.

The Theater at Boston Court in Pasadena presented the play in an intimate setting that allowed Los Angeles to see the play with great attention to the writing.

Hare’s award-winning work in film and television as well as stage should have been sufficient enough to draw local audiences to the production. Also, while the script’s first presentation in London wasn’t the success everyone expected, it involved an above-the-title name from many a Hollywood film. Indeed, most people put the play’s initial failure down to the casting of movie hunk, Liam Neesom as the aging Oscar Wilde. Commercial, yes – appropriate, not really. He’d just been playing title roles on screen in films like Schindler’s List and Rob Roy, as well as Jean Valjean in Les Miserables (non-musical). A star, yes – but as a disgraced homosexual?

In 2012, Rupert Everrett revived the play in London and took it to New York two years later. A more sympathetic casting to be sure, and one that garnered better reviews (and spurred Everrett to write, direct, and play Wilde last year in his own end-of-Oscar’s-life film The Happy Prince).

The script began on the fateful day Oscar Wilde allowed himself to be goaded into
facing prosecution for “gross indecency” rather than taking the opportunity provided by the courts to go abroad and avoid trouble. It ended with Wilde’s self-imposed exile in Italy when the cause of the accusation walked out on him. Wilde had been involved with a number of men in London, most particularly flaunting a love affair with Lord Alfred Douglas –  the selfish, troubled, son of the Marquis of Queensbury [he of the gentlemanly code of boxing rules]. Wilde’s aesthetic love for Douglas (no less than his physical passion for the young man) required of Wilde that he stand on principle: the love of beauty demands it be admitted. And so he did, and so he was convicted and imprisoned, and died alone far from the island of his success..

Reportedly, David Hare has said he was trying to use “the Wide-Douglas-relationship as a prism through which to examine the phenomenon of sacrificial love.” Sacrificial to English hypocrisy and xenophobia. To honor and to love – Wilde would say. And as one would expect, Hare does it with wit – Oscar’s and his own. As for the details of the plot? You should have seen it at the Theater at Boston Court.


Steven Sabel’s Twist on the Trade: Tailor Your Career

Either your mother lied to you, or she was just flat out wrong. Though her intentions may have been the best, and her motives without suspect, nonetheless the damage has been done and you will only compound the problem unless you listen to this advice. Your “book” will be judged by its cover.

In a previous column, I covered the importance of having proper headshots. In last month’s column, I covered how important it is to be consistently working and generating content. These are both crucial aspects to how you will be judged by casting directors, agents, and others who may have a hand in the future of your career in this industry. Yes, the person at the desk when you arrive to an audition WILL say something to the casting directors inside the audition room if you give them reason. Those words can be the difference between you getting the role or getting the shaft. I can’t tell you the amount of times I have had an audition monitor come into the room to tell me things such as: “That person is weird, don’t cast them,” or “That person wouldn’t shut up in the lobby,” or even “Whatever you do, don’t cast that person, they were a real A-hole!”

In this instance, your mother was correct. You do not get a second chance to make a first impression, and there are several moments when first impressions are made in the audition process. It begins with your cover letter or email upon submission. Do not submit to auditions from your cell phone unless you have no other choice. Yes, it is important to submit to projects fast and early, but not at the expense of your first impression. You MUST tailor your first impression, and it begins with the first communication. If your cover letter is informal, full of typos, or otherwise slovenly, then that is exactly how it will be viewed. Take the time to sit at your computer and write a professional, well written cover letter or email to accompany your submission. Proof read it before sending. Brief and concise is good, but clean and proper is more important. Use proper forms of address, and please use proper punctuation. If you can’t pay attention to those simple details, you are demonstrating that you cannot pay attention to details in the script, in the rehearsal schedule, in the direction you receive, etc.

Tailor your resume to the project. That doesn’t mean you should pad your resume with lies. It means you should organize the elements of your resume so that you are properly highlighting your qualifications for the role you are submitting for. If it is a theatre project, move your relevant theatre credits to the top of your resume. If it is a musical, make sure you list your musical theatre credits first. If you are submitting to a classical production, be sure to prominently place your classical theatre training and experience where it can be valued. It is also a good idea to include a line or two about those aspects of your resume in your cover letter or email. Make sure you have properly spelled the titles of shows, characters, names, etc. You would be so surprised at how many resumes I have seen where the actors have listed “McBeth” as one of their theatre credits. Yeah? Yeah, and NO. No one can possibly take you serious if you don’t know how to spell the titles of shows you claim to have spent several weeks, or even months working on or in.

You may be the type of person who lives life overlooking little typos and grammatical errors as “common mistakes,” or “no big deal.” That’s all good and fine for you as a human, except for the simple fact that the goal in this industry is to be un-common-ly good in order to become a very big deal. If your cover letter or your resume contains careless typos and errors, you aren’t going to make it. Perhaps your mother’s basement back in Oklahoma would be a great place to return to in order to consider another career choice. Tailor your attitude to success.

Tailor your clothes! We have all heard it before, but it always bears repeating: An audition is a job interview. Dress for success. That doesn’t mean you have to arrive in a suit and tie or fancy dress in order to get the role, but you also can’t expect to be considered a professional in your trade, if you show up wearing flip-flops and a RVCA t-shirt, complete with a mustard stain courtesy of today’s 7-Eleven hot dog lunch. If you don’t have the time to properly prepare and dress for your audition, then you don’t have the time to commit to the project. That is exactly what you are telling the casting directors the moment you walk into the room. It’s that simple.

Dress appropriately. Be sure to dress nice, but not fancy; professional, but not uptight. Be sure to wear clothes and shoes that will allow you to move well and make strong physical choices. For guys, a suit and tie doesn’t allow for strong physical choices, unless the role is established that way. For girls, skirts and high heels are a terrible idea. You can’t make bold character choices if you are worried about your balance, or your skirt flying up. If you have to be pulling on your clothes to keep them up, or keep them down – don’t wear those clothes. The character isn’t going to be constantly checking to make sure their skirt is down, or their top stays up. Character shoes are fine, but those sexy boots with the three-inch heels are best saved for the club scene, not the audition scene. Both genders should definitely accentuate their physical attributes, but don’t flaunt them. No muscle shirts. Don’t be that tool. No excess cleavage. You’re selling your talent, not your body. You want them to assess your abilities, not stare at your bust line.

Tailor your monologue. Don’t show up with the same tired monologue you have been doing since you learned it in high school. Don’t just drag out that monologue you still know from when you played the leading role in that one college production. Learn something new and specific to help you land the job. In a future column I will elaborate on the number and types of monologues you should always be “carrying in your back pocket,” as I like to say, but for now, suffice it to say: if that old tired monologue hasn’t been landing you work…. Duh…. Throw it out and learn something new. Tailor it to the project if you can in some way, and in case there is any confusion about my “back pocket” analogy: don’t show up with script in hand. Ever.

Take control of your career path. Take control of your image and appearance as a professional artist. Being hip or cool, isn’t going to get you the gig. Showing a concentrated and professional work ethic right from the start – with a clean and proper cover letter, a well-tailored resume, and clothing that bespeaks professionalism and hygiene – says to the casting director, the agent, the manager, the contracting producer, and everyone else on the job, that you are a committed and dedicated artist worthy of hiring and working with.


STAGES OF DOUBT: AN ANALYSIS OF THE KENNEDY ASSASSINATION IN AMERICAN THEATRE – PART 6 – Final

To read Part 1 of this series, please click here.

To read Part 2 of this series, please click here.

To read Part 3 of this series, please click here.

To read Part 4 of this series, please click here.

To read Part 5 of this series, please click here.

It’s been fifty-five years since Oswald’s three shots rang out in Dallas and their echoes still reverberate throughout our nation. In that time, the conspiracymongers have accused 42 groups and 214 individuals of involvement with the murder of JFK and have put forward the names of 82 “assassins.”

I’ve no doubt in the years to come additional transgressors and villains will be placed on those lists, and new titles added to catalogue of “Assassination Dramas.”

The suspicions, paranoia and dissemblance of some have seemingly diminished the gravitas due the assassination of John F. Kennedy, while the shallowness and gullibility of others have rendered their historical awareness the death of America’s 35th president to the level of a National Enquirer headline. For many the idea of a conspiracy is not a matter of study, evidence or plausibility, it is a matter of faith.

Not long ago I was at a pool party, when a casual remark on my part disparaging Oliver Stone‘s JFK brought on an onslaught by another guest.

Let’s call him Don.

Don defended Stone, his film and ranked Garrison as the greatest American since Honest Abe.

Needless to say he was strident in his insistence that Oswald was innocent and that a vast and malevolent conspiracy was behind it all. As with all “True Believers” facts are meaningless, and I began to feel like Michael Palin facing John Cleese in the “Argument Clinic.”

Finally I put to him, “What proof, what evidence, would it take to convince you that Oswald was guilty?”

He snapped back, “There isn’t any, because he’s not!”

And there you go. The same mindset that denies the holocaust ever happened, insists FDR knew of the pending attack on Pearl Harbor, that NASA faked the moon landing, maintains 9-11 was an inside job, that Barack Obama was not a US citizen, that Hillary operated a child brothel in the basement of a pizza parlor, that the “deep state” is undermining Donald Trump’s presidency and believes that the plays of Shakespeare were actually written by some guy named Rollo Gobermouche.

University of Miami political scientist and conspiracy theory researcher Joseph Uscinski warned that “Conspiracy theories are becoming part of our national dialogue.”

The danger here is all too present in our society. The maxim to “question authority” is sound, but to outright dismiss authority is fraught with peril. Hence the cancerous concept of “Fake News” and the hazardous inclination to put one’s trust in the opinions of personalities and reject those of the experts.

That everyone is entitled to their own opinion is one of the bedrocks of this nation, but that foundation will be irrevocably damaged if we come to accept that everyone is also entitled to their own “facts.”

Sadly, it is as Eric Hoffer observed that one of humanity’s great failings is that most people can only be completely certain about that which they know absolutely nothing about.

In her seminal book Virtues of the Mind (1996) Linda Zagzebski lists the barriers to sound inquiry and judicious appraisal as gullibility, close-mindedness, lack of thoroughness, rigidity, negligence, carelessness, prejudice, obtuseness and insensitivity to detail. These “intellectual vices” are the hallmark of the conspiracy minded.

There are those who readily point to the fact that the most recent polls suggest that over 2/3 of the country believe that some conspiracy was behind the events in Dallas as if this in some way establishes the historical facts. But to quote Robert Ingersoll “- majorities count for nothing. Truth has always dwelt with the few.”

Today the Assassination has become the great national Rorschach test for Americans. They look at the events that occurred on November 22nd, 1963 in the city of Dallas, and what they perceive tells you more about them than the ink blots. The ink blots never change.

And the ink blots say, “Oswald. Only Oswald. Nobody else but Oswald.”


  • Howard Brennan, a forty-five year old steam fitter had been standing across the street from the Book Depository on Friday November 22nd to watch the presidential motorcade.  Looking up he saw a man in the window of the sixth floor holding a rifle, just as the motorcade turned onto the street, the shots that killed the president immediately followed.  In the confusion afterwards it was Brennan who first directed the police to the Book Depository and provided them with a description of the man in the window, the information he provided would be broadcast over both channels of the Dallas Police radio.  Twenty-three minutes later, Patrol Officer J.D. Tippit pulled his squad car to a stop near the intersection of Patton and Tenth Street to question a man who matched the Brennan’s description of the shooter. It was Lee Harvey Oswald. Witnesses observed Oswald fatally shooting Tippit before fleeing the scene. At Oswald’s third lineup Brennan would claim he couldn’t be sure Oswald was the man he had seen in the sixth floor window prior to Kennedy’s assassination.  He would later confess before the Warren Commission that he had recognized Oswald as the man he saw in the window, but feared if he came forward as a witness that he would be placing his family in danger.
  • For my comparison review of JFK and Parkland see: TheTVolution.com/2015/04/parkland-and-jfk-two-views-of-the-assassination
  • For a fascinating debunking of the film JFK go to McAdams.posc.mu.edu/jfkmovie.htm
  • The “magic bullet” is only “magical” to those having no experience with firearms.  If you want an education in what bullets do once fired, I recommend you watch The Magic Bullet, Episode 2 from the first season of Forensic Files.
  • It should also be noted that Robert Caro, after 36 years of intense research into Lyndon Johnson, stated he found no indication whatsoever of an assassination plot.

Steven Sabel’s Twist on the Trade: Content Equals Character

We were all recently reminded that it was Martin Luther King Jr. who famously dreamed of a world where we would all be judged by the content of our character, but in our industry, artists are judged rather by the amount and quality of their generated content. Content equals character in a world where online presence is often the key to getting the job.

Whether we like it or not, the norm of the modern age of entertainment is to judge an artist by the amount and quality of the online content they can continue to generate. Relevant content equals relevance in the industry and viability as a marketable commodity. As an entertainment industry professional, you are a commodity. Or, you are not. We have all heard the stories about people getting work because of their large social media followings, YouTube subscriber base, or viral content. Go viral, or go extinct. Create a high profile, build an online presence, generate constant content, or slide into the oblivion of just another fantasy hobbyist. Get serious, or seriously reconsider your choice of profession.

Think about it. You are a business. Your commodity is you. You are your product and you are selling a service. In order to succeed in business, you must build your marketing machine, and your marketing machine must include an online presence filled with relevant content for prospective customers to seek, find, and assess before they will purchase. In today’s age, nobody purchases anything or uses any service without first researching the company or the product – even if all that entails is posting to the “hive mind” for recommendations of where to eat, what to buy, or who to use for a needed service. I won’t eat at a new restaurant, if they don’t have a website with a menu, photos, and reviews. Would you?

As entertainment professionals, we cannot expect that anyone will hire us if we are a complete unknown without a relevant online presence. If you don’t have a website, you don’t exist. If all you are is a collection of personal social media accounts, you are no different than your cousin, Cecil, who works at the canning factory back home in Wisconsin. Get real. Google yourself. I guarantee that casting directors will before they offer you a job. What will they find? Your personal Facebook page? Your Instagram account?

If you don’t have a fan page and a website associated with you as a commodity, then you are not a commodity. How serious can you really be about your professional career if you can’t take the time to register a domain name and build a simple website? Or if you’re completely tech illiterate – get a friend, bribe a friend, or pay a friend to build a site for you. Look at the major professionals whose careers you wish you could have. Assess what they all have in common when it comes to their online presence and generating relevant content. Most of them have people who do it for them, but until you are able to hire a marketing team – you are your marketing team.

If you don’t have available content associated with your career – you don’t have a career.

What you have is a fantasy life – no different than your best hometown friend, Sallie Mae, who you left behind back in Nebraska to become the manager of the local mini mart. If you happen to be the manager of a mini mart here in LA, but you’re not using every spare hour striving to demonstrate that you are something more than a fresh-off-the-bus fantasy player – then Sallie Mae has it all over you, because she isn’t paying $800 per month to rent a room with five other people in a three bedroom apartment in Koreatown with one bathroom. In fact, Sally Mae is laughing at you from her three bedroom, two bath house in Omaha, that (according to a Zillow search) she can get for $1,000 per month.

Get real. Get serious, or you might as well move back to Nebraska. If your only online presence is your personal social media accounts, you are not a professional business person – you’re a hobbyist. In this world, you are what you do. If all you do is post about drinking at local bars with friends – your social media presence says you are a bar fly, not an industry professional. If all you do is post about political issues that interest you – you are a gadfly, not an industry professional. If all you do is post about that great restaurant you ate at last night – you are a wanna-be food critic. You are not an entertainment industry professional.

Entertainment industry professionals post about the work they are doing – even when they do not currently have any employment in the industry. Remember my favorite Sabelism: you have to do the work to get the work. True professionals will post about anything and everything they are doing to better their career. They post about acting classes they are taking, auditions they are preparing for, new physical workouts and diet regimens they are committing to in order to enhance their physical viability for the roles they wish to play. At the very minimum, true professionals are posting about new scripts they are perusing, monologues they are learning, accents they are perfecting, skills they are acquiring, or industry books they are reading to learn more about their craft.

When they do have work, true professionals are generating content about that work. They are posting about learning their lines, studying their scenes, doing their research on their project’s time era, setting, hairstyles, clothing, manners, and any other thing that can assist their backstory and the creation of a viable character. They post about rehearsals. They post from the set while on break from filming. They post behind-the-scenes looks into their processes. They provide hints about their costuming or props, and they sell themselves as professionals on the job. Even when they are not on the job of fulfilling a role or a contract, they are on the job of getting more jobs by constantly generating content to demonstrate that they are true serious professionals.

True professionals post about the projects they are working on – promoting themselves and whatever it is they are doing day and night. The best way to market your product and services to new potential customers, is to promote the work you are currently doing for existing customers. It is far easier to generate relevant content when you are working, and far more important too, if you want to keep the string of work flowing. When you book a gig, it isn’t an excuse to take a break from doing the work, but should rather serve as the impetus for doing even more work to line up the next project.

Build and fill your website. Create a public fan page. Flood your sites with relevant content. Do your best to be the only Joanie Jones or Sam Smith on the first page of a Google search. Content is character, and if your dream is to make a living in this industry, you must know that you will be judged by your content, or lack of it….


Marsha Hunt, Actor, Activist and Survivor

In today’s volatile political and social climate, actors and celebrities are often as well known for their causes as for their movies and plays. Angelina JolieOprah WinfreyYoko Ono, and Alyssa Milano, to name just a few, are known for numerous foundations and humanitarian causes, for speaking up and out, and for making huge financial donations. It seems as if this is a new development, due to the omnipresent information that fills our screens regarding the famous. However, if you travel a little further back in time you find Jane Fonda fighting the Vietnam war, and prior to that, Audrey Hepburn leaving acting to focus on humanitarian work for UNICEF. The intersection of arts and activism is not new, and it doesn’t always have clear cut benefits for those who engage in it. Especially in certain eras, morals and integrity stood in direct opposition to fortune and popularity. Many who stood up for the former ended up fading in the latter. For those who aspire to use public platforms to create and facilitate change, Marsha Hunt is a person to both honor and emulate.

Marsha Hunt is a retired actress and activist. She is 101 years old and still lives in her beautiful home in the San Fernando Valley. She has led an amazing life, both as an incredibly gifted and intelligent performer and as a forward thinking activist championing both individual rights and institutional evolution. Everyone should know her name, her unique voice and be aware of her legacy. This article serves simply as an introduction to her incredible life and work. It is impossible to condense all that she has created and stood for into one piece. I’ve included numerous links and additional information at the end of this post.

Ms. Hunt was born in Chicago in 1917. She did it all. While training as an actor, she began to work as a model, becoming one of the industry’s highest paid by 1935. Although she wanted to do theater, she moved to Los Angeles in 1934 at the age of 17 and was initially signed by Paramount, where she starred in several films. Even at this tender age, she started to assert her rights. She refused to do pin up photos (known as “cheesecake” and “leg art”) and did not take part in the social party scene. She was starting even then, to find her own voice and to stand up for her values. Although she showed promise, Paramount released her from her contract after a few years. She freelanced for a while before ending up at MGM, where she stayed on contract through 1945. Notable films include Pride and Prejudice and Blossoms in the Dust. She also starred in the only wartime film to acknowledge the Holocaust, None Shall Escape (1944). While she did not become an A list star, she worked constantly as a supporting actor in quality films. During the war she also sang on USO tours and developed a career in radio. She appeared in over 50 films in her career, over the course of several decades.

Ms. Hunt’s film career came to an abrupt halt when she was caught up in the Communist witch hunt of the McCarthy era. Ms. Hunt was and continues to be outspoken, with a liberal belief system that she guards fiercely. Ms. Hunt, along with her second husband, screenwriter Robert Presnell Jr., were so disturbed by the actions of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) that they joined the Committee for the First Amendment which was formed in 1947 and made up of many A list actors and Hollywood players. The group went to Washington to protest the hearings and produced Hollywood Fights Back, a star-studded radio program which was co-written by her husband.

Like many other notable actors and screenwriters who dared to stand up to the government and studio system, Ms. Hunt’s career came to a complete stop in Hollywood. She was asked to denounce her activities if she wanted to find more work and she steadfastly refused. In 1950, Hunt was named as a potential Communist or Communist sympathizer (along with 151 other actors, writers and directors) in the anti-Communist publication Red Channels. Though she would continue to work through her 90s, the blacklist effectively stopped her ascent in major motion pictures.

Not one to sit still however, Ms. Hunt simply knocked on other doors, returning to her first love; theater. She made her Broadway debut in Joy To The World, in March of 1948. She continued to go between theater, working both on Broadway and in Los Angeles, television and radio for the rest of her career. She starred in the first live televised Shakespeare play, playing Viola in Twelfth Night. In 1950 she appeared on the cover of Life Magazine as the star of the Broadway play, The Devil’s Disciple. In 1987 she even appeared in an episode of Star Trek! In addition to opening up time for theater, the blacklist also opened up her time for activism. This was not a new avenue for her to travel. She had worked throughout the war years at the Hollywood Canteen dancing and socializing with service men, especially on Saturday nights, when no one else wanted to. But, after the blacklist, the world opened up to her. As she stated in an interview with Film Talk in response to the question:

“How did you get involved in all the charity work you did for so many years?”
When I had so much free time because I wasn’t allowed to act, I discovered the outside world. I went around the world with my husband and I came back as, what I called, a planet patriot. I fell in love with the planet, not just my country, but all of us. I learned about the United Nations which was right here in this country and I spent twenty-five years working as a volunteer on behalf of the UN, I worked on the Year of the Child, international cooperation, and made a documentary film during World Refugee Year with fourteen stars appearing in it to tell the stories of different refugees. There were still twenty-five million people floating around the world, stateless, with no travel papers, no identity papers, no work permits – fifteen years after World War II ended. The United Nations was trying to get the governments to open their borders and let their fair share of refugees in, so I made this film to acquaint Americans with it. It was very rewarding.

In addition to world wide charity work, Ms. Hunt made a huge difference right in the San Fernando Valley, opening the first homeless shelter for women and children. This is especially poignant because her own baby did not survive. During the turmoil of the McCarthy era, she gave birth to a baby girl, born prematurely, who later passed away. This was a true heartbreak for her and she did not have any other children.

Ms. Hunt’s creative spirit is expressed in numerous ways. In 1993 she published The Way We Wore … a beautiful coffee table book detailing fashion of the 1930s and 1940s. All of the photos are of her, in glorious outfit after glorious outfit. Many are studio shots used as publicity for her 50 movies, some are fashion shots for the designers. Each photo is explained and detailed by Ms. Hunt in her own charming manner. I actually met Ms. Hunt when I was directing and costuming a play set in the 1940s. She lent us clothes, making sure that each piece was truly representative of who would wear it. Her knowledge of fashion rivals many who made it their life’s work. Her generosity of spirit was on display even in such limited contact.

One of the most charming surprises, but one that goes to the heart of Ms. Hunt’s belief system is the song that she wrote about love and marriage equality for same-sex couples, titled Here’s To All Who Love. She wrote it at age 95, and it has become an anthem at marriage ceremonies. She wrote it as a gift and it is has been received as one.

There is a documentary by Roger Memos about Marsha Hunt. It had a short run in 2015 but in order to recut it for streaming services, Mr. Memos is raising funds. The documentary was filmed in collaboration with Ms. Hunt and features countless interviews, clips and insight. It is a labor of love and an amazing project. If you would like to read more about the documentary you can check out the Facebook page. If you would like to donate to the GoFund account to help with the sound mix, closed captioning, the film’s website and the film trailer, please click here.

In preparation for this article, I sent Ms. Hunt some questions to answer via email. Rather than edit them, I will share them with you as is.

Marsha being surprised by the crew of her documentary for her 75th anniversary. She is in her late 90s in this photograph.

What similarities do you see in the political climate today and during the 1940s and 1950s? Are there differences that you feel are more or less dangerous? 
At 101 years of age I am not as well informed as I once was. But of course I favor, as always, the most peaceful, most even handed solution to problems.

I don’t know if you would remember, but we have actually met! You were extremely generous in helping me costume a play that I directed, set in the 1940s. I came over and you lent us clothing and gave me a copy of your book, which I treasure. How do you feel that fashion (or the lack of it) affects women’s power and collective voice? I have been watching the new congress and all of the new younger and female members of the House in their bright clothes and fashion forward choices. Does this, in your opinion empower or diminish them?
I think there is an effect but it’s hard to define. I think how well, how effectively, a woman legislator dresses can tell us something about her IQ, the effective, the becoming, the appropriate, which then empowers them. I don’t think “fashion” diminishes unless it’s extreme – then it can be negative, but I think that’s pretty rare. I guess women in government dress without “headlines’. If they were fashion plates it would be distracting from their effectiveness in what they are there to do. It would become the wrong topic.

What do you want to tell women and actors who find that their activism is more important to them than their acting careers? Do you think it is worth it, if being known for your politics is hurting your castability. Do you think that is a truism, or simply a fear?
When you take positions you lose some people just as you gain others. On matters of importance to me, it is worth it.

What role do you think that the unions should play in helping actors become activists? Should the union be neutral or an active partner? (NB: Ms. Hunt was active in SAG prior to the blacklist and served on the board)

The union is there to protect and help the actor so when one’s union takes a position the individual is spared blame or credit for it. At that extent we are protected by our unions.

Do you see any positive aspects to social media as it it used today? Do you see it as a danger (do you not care about it at all??)
The internet/social media is a way of “getting it out there” but then nothing remains private including opinions.

What changes would you like to see, both in the nation and in the entertainment/film industry, in regards to women specifically.
The changes in the entertainment/film industry ideally would be that it that it be an open opportunity to write, direct, produce whether a woman or a man.

Sweet Adversity Documentary:
Review

Book website:
The Way We Wore

Links to additional articles:
NPR: Actress Marsha Hunt, 100, Has Matters Of Principle
Movie Maker: Marsha Hunt at 100: The Actress Recalls the Blacklist, Film Noir and Being Cast in Gone With The Wind
IMDB bio
British Film Institute: Marsha Hunt: American girl, Un-American woman, upstanding centenarian
LA Times: Actress Marsha Hunt survived the blacklist without apologizing for her activism
Film Talk: Marsha Hunt: “MGM let me play absolutely everything, the studio gave me such joy”
Huffington Post: Marsha Hunt Pens ‘Here’s To All Who Love’ Gay Rights Anthem

Video:
Marsha discusses her career and the Hollywood Blacklist


Novel Entertainments – Part 3

This is a three part series.

To read Part 1 of this series, which discusses the recent production of The Picture of Dorian Gray that was performed at the Pasadena Playhouse, please go to Novel Entertainments – Part 1.

To read Part 2 of this series, which discusses the recent productions Creation (Pictures for Dorian Gray) by the Gob SquadThe Woman in Black at the The Pasadena Playhouse, and The Turn of the Screw, by noted playwright-screenwriter Jeffry Hatcher, please visit Novel Entertainments – Part 2.

Intriguingly, The Actors’ Gang has brought us a new production of Johnny Got His Gun, the 1938 award-winning anti-war novel from legendary screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo – Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, Roman Holiday (1953), Spartacus (1960), and Exodus (also 1960). Trumbo directed his own film adaptation of Johnny Got His Gun in 1971, and has himself become widely known through the recent biopic starring Bryan Cranston (2016).

The novel is an excruciating tragedy, a dark, anti-war satire about a patriotic young American in WW1 (it was published two days after the declaration of war in Europe, more than two years before the United States joined World War II). It’s the story of Joe Bonham, a duty-bound volunteer, who enters the war to the rousing hoopla of “Over There” which repeats and repeats the Civil War rallying cry:

“Johnny, get your gun, get your gun, get your gun.
Johnny, show the Hun, you’re a son-of-a-gun.
Hoist the flag and let her fly
Yankee Doodle, do or die.
Pack your little kit, show your grit, do your bit.
Yankee to the ranks from the towns and the tanks
Make your Mother proud of you
And the old red-white-and-blue.
Johnny, get your gun, get your gun, get your gun…”

“Johnny get your gun” became a slogan encouraging enlistment in the army in 1917 as American entered the War to End all War. Most recently the lyric was used by the rock band Ladyjack, as an ironic protest. But Trumbo’s past tense use of the cry says it all: Johnny got his gun and see what that got him?

Joe – the “Johnny” who got his gun in the novel was, by a horrific artillery shell attack, rendered blind, deaf, and mute, even losing his arms or legs. In the book, trapped in what’s left of his now limbless body, unable to communicate with the world around him, he recalls his earlier life and attempts to overcome the tremendous obstacles that stand between him and contact with the rest of humanity. After learning he can pound out Morse code with his head against the bed rail, the outer world’s indifference to his consciousness forces him, in desperation to find a way out, to end his life.

Trumbo’s film version succeeds because his adaptation lets us see and hear the doctors and nurses, so we understand that they’re only keeping Joe alive to study the effects of such mutilation on a mangled human body. The doctors are convinced he’s a vegetable, unable to feel pain, without memory or hope. Trumbo’s elegant, heart-wrenching narrative, puts the lie to that medical diagnosis. It presents the reality of Joe’s situation in stark black and white and his memories in color.

The Actors’ Gang production, directed by artistic director, Tim Robbins, from an adaptation by Brandley Rand Smith, is in effect a solo performance, with eight actors functioning like a Greek chorus. They echo words and voices in Joe’s mind’s ear. They move choreographically, sometimes in military formations, sometimes as leaves blown on the wind, generally as remembered characters, but sometimes as mere impulses in Joe’s memories. But unlike the novel, The Gang’s script/production is really narrative drama brought to life as agitprop theater. It mimics rather than dramatizes – at least until that magic moment when a nurse with her finger spells out “Merry Christmas” on Joe’s chest. Suddenly, he has real communication, his first since his war wounds rendered him what was then insensitively called “a basket case,” and the script springs to life, beginning to achieve what the novel does so profoundly – let us experience the horror of war.

What is ultimately so devastating in the book and the film is the continued indifference to Joe’s inner needs and the service to which the world around Joe puts what’s left of his body – his life, even when the nurse and a soldier discover his ability to communicate. They deny his own best interest with the same arrogance as the politicians and general who sent him into their useless war.

That the Actors’ Gang, with all reverent homage to Trumbo’s novelistic efforts, fails so completely as a stage work, is unfortunately an opportunity missed. What is lost in the Brechtian approach Robbins uses in staging the piece is the real drama. When Jow, four to five years into his post-War experience is finally able to communicate with the outside world, he is thwarted at every turn. Using his Morse code technique, he tells his caregiver he wants to be displayed around the nation as an emblem of the reality of war. “It’s against army policy” is the excuse, drawn on his limbless, torso. But in the Gang’s production, we never really grasp the outside world’s take on Joe. Where the Dorian production gives us mostly exterior, this Johnny locks us into the interior. That the essentially human tragedy of the novel is lost in the staged political message is a dramatic miscalculation!

***

Last but certainly not least, Kenneth Ludwig’s adaptation of Murder On The Orient Express at the La Mirada Theatre. It’s based on that most famous of Agatha Christie’s novels (whose play, The Mousetrap, is the only show in London that’s been running longer than The Woman In Black (since 1952, 65 years). The Hercule Poirot mystery was first published as a novel in 1934 (originally, in the US, as a serial in The Saturday Evening Post under the title Murder in the Calais Coach). The story, (one of 33 in which Hercule Poirot is a character) was inspired by the Lindbergh baby kidnapping case of 1932 – at the time considered “the biggest story since the Resurrection.”

On his way from Istanbul to London on the swanky Express in the Calais Coach and its adjoining dining car, an American gangster is found murdered in his locked compartment with nine telltale knife wounds and a broken watch. As Poirot, at the begging of the train’s general manager, sets out to identify the killer, the train gets stuck in an avalanche of snow.

So he does what the detectives in Agatha Christie novels always do – interview everyone with even the slightest access to the dead man, comparing everyone’s statement for inconsistencies, oddities, and lies. He follows the clues, looking for a motive. He reconsiders the clues again and again, with an open mind, and fearless in the face of truth. The script and the novel follow the tried and true Christie formula.

But perhaps unique in Christie’s work is the unexpected drama of Poirot agonizing over a criminal dilemma. That he comes down on the side of the angels is, perhaps, a tragedy of ethics? Certainly, it shatters his devotion to legal absolutism, and after more than two dozen novels, it forces him to face his so easy convictions, painfully reducing his certainty about his role in life. Welcome to humanity, Hercule! The recent TV adaptation (with David Suchet) and the two films versions (one with Albert Finney – the most recent with, and by, Kenneth Brannagh) emphasize this internal issue.

The tone of the Ludwig’s adaptation used in the La Mirada production is lighter, playing the story for its humor and theatricality, not for the emotional reality. It’s a matter of style. Playwright, Kenneth Ludwig, is a popular American stage-crafter (Lend Me A Tenor, Crazy for You, Moon Over Buffalo, and many others), with a string of awards and successes. He created this script for a 2017 presentation at The Old Globe (reportedly, at the request of the Agatha Christie estate). It is both efficient in the telling and entertaining in performance. This Poirot is charmingly effective as the driving force, and all characters are drawn with a comic precision that is probably more what novelist Christie had in mind. The emphasis on Poirot’s internal agony is the fortunate product of our culture’s craving for “relevance” and “profundity.” A sort of political correctness required for art today which in this case is to the advantage of the novel.

As this survey hopes to demonstrate, a well-written novel is a compelling journey into and through a fully integrated world. It’s either an extended, totally immersive read you can pick up and put down and contemplate at will, or it’s a page turner you can’t.

But the theater is a very different art form. Each viewing is a one-time experience in a single sitting. The dramatis personae are right there in the same room, living through the series of happenings before your eyes and sharing it with us, the patrons?

That’s what makes live theater so special. You’re there when and where the adventure – emotional and intellectual – takes place. It exists only, as Shakespeare tells us, “in the two hours’ traffic of the stage.”

Laugh, cry, groan, leave! It’s over. It’s memory.

And each time, a very novel experience.


Novel Entertainments – Part 2

This is a three part series.

To read Part 1 of this series, which discusses the recent production of The Picture of Dorian Gray that was performed at the Pasadena Playhouse, please go to Novel Entertainments – Part 1.

In a short run recently at Red Cap, co-presented with Center Theatre Group, the members of The Gob Squad fashioned Creation (Pictures for Dorian Gray). It’s a fascinating thematic exploration of The Picture of Dorian Gray by the seven-member, Anglo-German “arts collective” based in Berlin.


In the program the Squady quotes Wilde from the preface to the novel: “It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.” Which speaks to the endless reflections of looking into the mirror, which is what The Portrait is for Dorian. So, as one of the members told me, the work is based on Dorian’s reaction to first seeing the portrait of himself, his contemplation of what he sees – and what he makes of it as it ages and he doesn’t.

There is no attempt to bring its story, even its characters, to life. It’s not an adaptation. But it is theatrical, albeit more didactic than dramatic. All seven members of the Gob Squad are self-identified as middle-aged. They employ three local actors over eighty and three in their twenties to assist in making their Dorian-esque exploration of youthful hopes and beauty versus the elderly value of memories and experience – the dreams of youth in the light of the value of aging. Beginning with an Ikibana floral display which they put under a heat lamp to see the effects, they continue discussing the theme and creating examples using the young and the elderly singing and in confessional self-revelation.

It was an intriguing astringent amongst a group of dramatized novels, related to but with no attempt at capture the novel on stage.

***

Another offering in Pasadena this fall (at The Pasadena Playhouse) is Susan Hill’s acclaimed novel, The Woman in Black. It’s one of those English Christmas stories of ghostly gothic horror set in the very early years of the 20th Century. Written in 1983, it was dramatized in 1987 and presented in London’s West End in 1989 where it’s still (almost 30 years on) playing eight times a week. Mostly to tourists, I suspect.

Hill’s book tells the tale of a young lawyer who encounters horrific visions in an isolated windswept mansion set amidst the eerie marshes and howling winds of England’s forbidding North Coast. Brought to the stage by virtue of Stephen Mallatratt’s minimalist two-characters script, it is now touring the US in a re-creation of the London production. And it’s come for Halloween. Good timing. We colonials like our ghosts in their proper time slot – on All Hallows’ Eve or Dia de Los Muertos. Generally, we want our Christmas stories warm and toasty, infused with the exhilaration of a brightly wrapped present, not served on a plate of misty gloom with spine-tingling chills and startling thrills.

In the Playhouse production two excellent American actors (Bradley Armacost and Adam Wesley Brown) successfully capture a handful of the book’s idiosyncratic characters with consummate skill, and the technical production, the design, lighting, and special effects all work to create the novel’s mood. It is all one could ask for.

But as a piece of spooky stage drama? Adapted from a novel? Well, the play-within-a-reading concept seems at odds with itself. For this viewer, it never really achieves the “scary” heights the book provides, and the theatrical promos promise. Indeed, it seems that the brilliance of the theatricality and the clever direction work against it.

In the most recent film of the novel, Daniel Radcliffe played Arthur Kipps the central character, as a young troubled lawyer, whose unease was affecting his career. So, his journey to the haunted house was meant to give him a reboot. Hah! In this stage version Arthur Kipps is a middle-aged man (not the youngster of the novel) needing to share the horrors of his past with friend and family (so the action is in flashback). He’s written it down, and he starts the evening by reading it us. That he’s hired a never-named actor to help him with his presentation provides a wonderfully entertaining, charmingly humorous opening that leads the two of them to “act out” what Kipps has written down. This cleverly tips its hat to the prose origins of the story. Yet the rollicking entertainment of the opening sets an expectation of comedy. And as the tale unfolds, the stage script frequently breaks in on the intended mood of otherworldly eerie-scary. It shatters the illusion, mostly because the humor doesn’t flow from the tale but reminds us that the tale is being enacted on a stage.

The result is a production greatly to admire but ultimately a less than effective transmogrification of a top-notch ghost story into a spooky coup de theatre.

***

Another classic piece of ghostly English prose brought to the stage this fall in Los Angeles is another two-character reduction, this time of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, by noted playwright-screenwriter Jeffry Hatcher (screenwriter of the sublime Mr. Holmes and the lavish The Duchess). There are three characters if you believe you see the lady in Black.

Of the handful of adaptations viewed for this writing, even with its less than effective production values, this was the most satisfying – because the script hones to the intent of the novel and the actors were so convincing. Both actors made the experience of the novel’s legendary ambiguities palpable.

But it’s Hatcher’s script that, even if reduced to a handful of characters, quite successfully captures the tone of the novel, reducing the action to its essentials. Hatcher vividly brings key passages to life in mostly short effective scenes that sweeps the audience into and through the story. Like The Lady In Black, it takes place in a house haunted by past horrors. This time it’s about a young governess determined to care for two young children, but in over her head. Is the naughty boy playing a spooky game intent on driving her mad? Are there two spirits haunting the house, jealous of the governess’ presence? Is the all too knowing creepy housekeeper working to maintain control over the house by driving her bonkers? The questions, as per the novel, remain long after the curtain calls. And the mood lingers in the memory.


Novel Entertainments – Part 1

Ever read a book and wish you could experience it, live? That’s what playwrights are in business to do, isn’t it? But how can the hundreds of pages of a novel be captured in “the two hours’ traffic of the stage?” With nearly 600 pages, The Cider House Rules by John Irving needed two plays (well, one play in two parts for a five-hour encounter) to do it justice. The movie version reduced it to just over two-hours, leaving out so much, but wonderfully capturing the essence of Irving’s intent. Shakespeare worked mostly with short stories and historical accounts, not whole novels – a chapter of Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, one of the tales in Boccaccio’s Decameron or Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, a section of Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans. But The Bard was mostly interested in plot points and character, not mood, tone, or style.

And most theater-goers in the 16th/17th Centuries hadn’t read the story or poem that was crafted from the “best sellers” or important literary works available in their day. Today, books are often evaluated before publication for their dramatic potential with an eye to the commercial value they bring to a project. (“Everybody’s read it.” “They’re dying to see it on stage!” “It’ll sell like hot cakes.”) And the dramatizations are usually (too often, perhaps) evaluated for their “faithful” representation of the source.

Of course, in the limited a space of a theater, with less than a tiny portion of the army of collaborators that’s scrolled at the end of a film, what can you do? Obviously, it ain’t easy. We’ve had five (and a sixth “inspired by”) such productions in Los Angeles this fall. Let’s look at how they fared.

Let’s begin with Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, recently presented in a relatively large-scale, rather complex production at Pasadena’s popular classical repertory theater, A Noise Within.

There is a mythic conceit at the center of Oscar Wilde’s late-Nineteenth Century novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. A trope that taps “into a root of Western folklore” according to the author of a recent study of the poet John Gray, who is believed to be the real Dorian Gray.

The conceit of the tale is the painted image of a beautiful young man that suffers the corrupting ravages of age while its living subject physically retains the bloom of youth. Hence, the vanity of beauty is made visibly dramatic by a Faustian bargain – a bargain that leads the living Dorian Gray to regret the deal he made, for it brings him a loveless life and the corruption of his soul. With this conceit, Wilde the novelist sets out to plumb the cost to the spirit of rampant narcissism. Originally made available to the public as a homoerotic magazine serial, the critical reception to Dorian Gray was typically Victorian – the wit and the writing were praised but it was deemed “unclean,” “poisonous,” “heavy with the mephitic odors (noxious vapors) of moral and spiritual putrefaction.” Sometime later, Wilde “cleaned up” the prose, extended the tale by a few chapters, and published it as a novel. That was 1890.

Five years later, 1895, Wilde was defending himself in a court of law against the charge of “gross indecency,” for which the main exhibit against him was his novel. He insisted that The Portrait of Dorian Gray was “a highly moral book decrying the pursuit of pleasure devoid of empathy or personal responsibility.” Does that mean that by portraying the sin of vanity as it inevitably corrupts the soul, one is forearmed against the commission of that particular sin? Isn’t that like showing you the effects of excessive fatty food intake as a cure for the ills of obesity?

It is with a deep appreciation of Wilde’s intent that one of the Southland’s most talented directors, Michael Michetti, has created his own stage adaptation of Dorian Gray. Originally produced at the Boston Court in Pasadena, Michetti’s newly revised adaptation, in a no-holds-barred, visually fascinating production aptly achieves the homoeroticism of Wilde’s work.

Okay, but does Michetti’s unquestioned artistry (and A Noise Within’s restrained-lavish production elements) succeed in creating an effective stage work? In this case, it depends upon what one thinks is the purpose of the novel. Michetti, as director, has an abundance of theatrical ideas, filling the stage with Wilde’s wit, strident music, and a wide-ranging cast of Victorian characters. At the center is, of course, the handsome youth, Dorian Gray. But there is also a loquacious Wilde stand-in, Sir Harry Wotton, the enlightening goad to Dorian’s tragedy. Do these two characters give us a satisfying performance version of the novel’s essence?

Unfortunately, except for a stunningly-staged finale, the real drama, the raison d’etre of the novel, seems veiled behind the verbal onslaught of Wilde’s notorious wit and some over-wrought modern dancing.

While director Michetti fills the stage with movement and adaptor Michetti with a full evening’s helping of the Wildean excess, “the mephitic odors of moral and spiritual putrefaction” – the corrosive effects of vanity on the soul – seems to get lost in the theatricality.

Even more than Shakespeare’s Hamlet, The Picture of Dorian Gray is an internal drama – the soul as the battlefield between social values and naked impulse, the need to hold on to one’s youth being at odds with the richness of experience and age. In Michetti’s version, what seems to be lacking is the interior of the character. We are given a blank picture frame instead of being able to see the painting age, as Dorian’s soul is increasingly devastated by the corruption of immortality.

Michetti, the ever-inventive director, has a penchant for countering expectations. In Michetti the adaptor’s version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet (also for A Noise Within, but many years ago) he eliminated the Ghost of King Hamlet. Why? Because, I think, Michetti the director wanted us to believe the dead monarch was not a ghost, but a deep-seated construct within the psyche of young Hamlet. So, his Hamlet is both characters, speaking the lines of the revengeful spirit facing a mirror (or really any reflective surface, for that matter). An intriguing idea that didn’t always work.

Oscar Wilde, the novelist, is exploring the internal agony of Dorian’s external vanity, but in Michetti’s Dorian Gray, it’s largely (not completely) missing – presented off-handedly, an observation here or there, buried in directorial business, or presented enigmatically in a Martha Graham-esque dance with extensive narration read from the novel. How much more moving would it be, how much more dramatic to hear – in private moments – Dorian speaking to himself, first recognizing, then denying, eventually trying to manage, finally being overwhelmed by the inner corruption that forces him to put a violent and tragic end to the conceit. But where Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is a tragedy, Michetti’s Dorian is melodrama.

Of course, there is a more contemporary way of handling Wilde’s novel. It would require some modest changes to the plotting, but it would realize the hidden drama – Oscar Wilde confronting his own beliefs. What adaptor every worried about a little dramatic license? By positioning Sir Henry as the central character and Dorian as the object of Henry’s influence – just as Salieri, the lesser composer in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, sets Mozart, the better composer, on the road to destruction – it would allow the book’s deeper concerns to be dramatically realized. Sir Henry would for all intents and purposes be Oscar Wilde, the narrator/novelist, living through the experience he’s relating. And like Dr. Dysert, in Shaffer’s Equus – a tame if wise psychiatrist, trying to cure the very pagan passions (in a young patient) he only wishes he was brave enough to experience – such a dramaturgic approach would allow the audience to experience the tragedy Wilde’s novel give us.

Either approach would allow the stunningly-staged climax to bring Wilde’s confrontation with the dangers of beauty to a more successful conclusion. Destroying the Picture of Dorian Gray would be the only way out.