Virtual Arts Guide - Vol. 1
Curated by Advisory Company member Mike Fischer
Advisory Company member Mike Fischer is a dramaturg and former theater critic for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. This. Guy. Knows. Theater. We hope you'll enjoy his recommendations for the best arts-in-quarantine content.
VOLUME 1: May 18th, 2020
In a short and stirring video about why theater matters, Guthrie Theater Artistic Director Joseph Haj got it exactly right when noting that “the very premise of theater is gathering people together in a shared space to enjoy a shared experience.” But when we can’t gather together, sharing electronically is the next best thing to being there.
With that in mind, I’ll be sharing five theater-related streaming recommendations each week for as long as this pandemic prevents us from gathering together in theaters. I won’t presume to tell you that these are the “best” of the many streaming options out there; there’s way too much available, and hence way too much I haven’t seen, for that. In any event, I’m not trying to be prescriptive, but rather foster dialogue. I therefore encourage you to make and share lists of your own; I’d love nothing more than for you to share your picks with me, either through Forward at firstname.lastname@example.org or directly at email@example.com.
And finally. It’s no secret that this is an extraordinarily challenging time for theaters and theater artists. While many of my recommendations come your way free, the theater organizations offering this content badly need your help. Keeping in mind that many of you won’t be in a position to support the theater companies offering this material, I urge those of you who can to consider a donation. Every such donation is an investment in a future where we can once again come together, forging those unique communities that theater makes possible. As noted in the following brief, star-studded bonus selection to kick off our first week, when it comes to theater artists, you can’t stop the beat! Happy Viewing!
Selections for Volume One (citations and links for all selections are included as endnotes):
1. What Do We Talk About? (The Public Theatre): Between 2010 and 2013, playwright Richard Nelson premiered a four-play cycle revolving around the Apple family: four grown siblings who gather in real time in one sister’s Hudson River Valley house, where they eat, drink and talk in the intimate way of people who know each other. When I reviewed two of them in 2015 at Chicago’s TimeLine Theatre, I singled out “some of the most refreshingly honest and thoughtful political conversation I’ve heard on any stage in a long time,” adding that there are “few American plays that connect the dots between public and private as well – or with as much honesty – as these plays do.”
Nelson has now given us a fifth Apple family play, set during this pandemic; the family members therefore gather via Zoom. What Do We Talk About? brings back the same actors who’d appeared at New York’s Public Theater in the first four plays.
In her review in The New Yorker, Alexandra Schwartz rightly called What Do We Talk About? “the first great original play of quarantine.” It’s streaming for free at The Public’s website through June 28. And while you certainly need not have read the quartet of preceding Apple plays to enjoy it, those plays are in print, gathered together in one volume; your favorite independent bookstore would surely be glad to order it for you.
2. Coriolanus (Stratford Festival): The best theater company in North America, the Stratford Festival made a commitment several years ago to film Shakespeare’s entire canon, deploying the sort of sophisticated camera work that’s made the weekly National Theatre Live broadcasts from London so special. Twelve Stratford productions, all staged between 2014 and 2019, have been filmed thus far; Stratford is making a new one available each Thursday, with each released film then available for free streaming for three weeks (there are consequently three available at any one time, with the oldest one dropping off as the newest one is added). They’re all conveniently gathered on the Stratford At Home webpage.
Through this Thursday, one can still watch Stratford’s outstanding 2018 production of Coriolanus, cinematically directed by the justly renowned Robert Lepage and starring Andre Sills. No Shakespeare play has a firmer grip on the dangerous relationship between populism and authoritarianism – a point driven home by Shakespearean scholar James Shapiro in a recent article in The New Yorker. Stratford’s Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino interviews Shapiro as one of the several features Stratford is sharing in conjunction with each of its released films; those features are also available at Stratford at Home. And while you’re at it, check out Shapiro’s excellent, just-published book, Shakespeare in a Divided America.
3. Fun Home (Victory Gardens Theater): Forward Theater fans need no introduction to Fun Home, the Tony-winning musical by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori that’s based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir. The first musical ever staged by Forward, it’s also one of the best productions in Forward’s first decade.
One year before the Forward production in 2018, we were treated to another Fun Home production in a similarly cozy space: the Victory Gardens production, helmed by one of this country’s best directors: Gary Griffin. “Having previously seen Fun Home in larger houses on Broadway and then on its national tour,” I wrote in my 2017 review, “I can now offer first-hand testimony that this extraordinary show plays even better in an intimate space.”
Thanks to a unique agreement involving Kron, Tesori, Griffin and three different unions, Victory Gardens’ archival film of Fun Home can now be streamed through May 24, for $20; proceeds help ensure that the actors in that production are paid during this virtual run. And while an archival film is no substitute for a more elaborate shoot, this one isn’t bad, of a production which was excellent. That’s why all but the last four performances have already sold out (ticket sales are capped at the 299-seat capacity of the Biograph Theater space in which Fun Home was performed). I’m on record suggesting Fun Home is as emotionally resonant as Hamilton; watching it again this week, I stand by that assessment.
4. Sondheim@90 Roundtable (Porchlight Music Theatre): Take Me to the World: A Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration, recently gave us two-plus hours of Sondheim songs, performed by some of his closest collaborators and best interpreters. Driving home anew that Sondheim is to the musical what Shakespeare is to drama, this lovefest is repeatedly and rightly cited by theater fans everywhere as among their most uplifting and enjoyable online experiences throughout this pandemic.
Since one can never have enough Sondheim, Michael Weber – Artistic Director of Chicago’s Porchlight Music Theatre and himself a gifted interpreter of Sondheim – has been convening a weekly roundtable every Saturday night, with a new Sondheim musical being discussed each week by directors and artists including E. Faye Butler, David Cromer, Robert Falls, Gary Griffin and Hollis Resnik. I’ve watched the first three (links below), covering West Side Story, Sunday in the Park with George, and Follies; they’ve been both incisive and informative.
Did I mention that one can never have enough Sondheim? The Porchlight series provides a perfect excuse to revisit Sondheim’s own two-volume discussion of his work (complete with all his lyrics and remarkably candid, spot-on assessments of other lyricists and theater generally), while reading along in Meryle Secrest’s landmark Sondheim biography. Put it all together, bit by bit, and one has a Sondheim masterclass – at a time when we’ve never more needed his wisdom about being alive.
5. QuasimondoYO and QuasimondoTHREADS (Quasimondo Physical Theatre): I can’t think of any theater company in Wisconsin which has done more in the past decade to push the boundaries of how we think about theater than Quasimondo Physical Theatre; during my years as a critic, one or more of Quasimondo’s devised productions found a home on nearly every one of my annual top ten lists.
This week, Quasimondo launches two new online series: QuasimondoYO, which will allow us to revisit some of Quasimondo’s past productions, and QuasimondoTHREADS, a virtual book club involving play readings featuring devised works from similarly collaborative theater companies around the world.
Debuting Monday night, QuasimondoYO’s first offering showcases scenes from its unforgettable Giraffes on Fire (2015), a multimedia look at Salvador Dali’s life and work which Quasimondo described at the time as a “dance rhapsody in the key of Dali” and which I described in my review as “thrillingly ambitious.” Debuting Tuesday night, QuasinondoTHREADS begins by profiling the work of Milwaukee’s legendary avant-garde troupe, Theatre X; there’ll be a talkback with Theatre X ensemble members Deborah Clifton, Flora Coker, John Kishline and John Schneider. See you there, in a Zoom conference room!
– Milwaukee, May 17, 2020
References (In order of mention):
* Joseph Haj’s Message from the Guthrie: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eZ1b8XX0XZA
* Richard Nelson, What Do We Need to Talk About? https://publictheater.org/news-items/buckets/conversations/what-do-we-ne...
* Richard Nelson, The Apple Family: Scenes from Life in the Country. (TCG, 2014)
* National Theatre at Home: https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/nt-at-home
* Stratford at Home: https://www.stratfordfestival.ca/AtHome
* James Shapiro, The Shakespeare Play That Presaged the Trump Administration’s Response to the Coronavirus Pandemic” https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/the-shakespeare-play-that...
* James Shapiro, Shakespeare in a Divided America: What His Plays Tell Us About Our Past and Future. (Penguin, 2020)
* Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori, Fun Home. https://victorygardens.org/
* Alison Bechdel, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. (2006)
* Take Me to the World: A Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration
* Porchlight Theatre, Sondheim RoundTable: West Side Story
* Porchlight Theatre, Sondheim Roundtable: Sunday in the Park with George https://www.facebook.com/PorchlightMusicTheatre/videos/sunday-in-the-par...
* Porchlight Theatre, Sondheim RoundTable: Follies
* Stephen Sondheim, Finishing the Hat (Knopf, 2010)
* Stephen Sondheim, Look, I Made a Hat (Knopf, 2011)
* Meryle Secrest, Stephen Sondheim: A Life (Vintage, 1998 and 2011)
* QuasimondoYo and QuasimondoTHREADS: https://www.quasimondo.org/qtv.html