Virtual Arts Guide - Vol. 13

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.

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VOLUME 13: AUGUST 19, 2020: THE WORLD ONLY SPINS FORWARD

As you read these words, Forward will have just commenced rehearsals for its first 2020-21 show: The Lifespan of a Fact. Like theater nearly everywhere in America this Fall, it will be rehearsed and presented virtually. And while that may not be your or my preferred means of experiencing theater, it’s neither fair nor right to simply see it as a second-rate alternative to the real thing.

If you’ve been reading this weekly column and sampling even the smallest fraction of what I’ve been recommending, you’re aware that there’s plenty of exciting theater being made online during this pandemic.

I stand with American Players Theatre Core Company actor (and Forward alum) David Daniel, whose optimistic, can-do approach toward this moment – enthusiastically espoused in the most recent Theater Forward podcast – underscores that creative artists are, by definition, people with the imagination and talent to create. Not “even” in a moment like this, but especially in a moment like this. As David and so many of his fellow APT actors repeatedly demonstrated during APT’s marvelous, just-concluded Out of the Woods series of Zoom readings, online platforms allow talented artists to explore new ways of seeing and being – while offering us new perspectives on what this ever-evolving art form might become.

Exploring those perspectives, most of the work highlighted in this week’s picks – coming your way from Scotland and New Zealand, India and the Middle East, Vermont and New York, Chicago and California and Wisconsin – was created during the pandemic.

Yes: there’s plenty of great archival work of past productions out there; it has featured prominently in my column in weeks past, and will do so again in the weeks to come. But as we begin a new theater season here at Forward and around the globe, I want to look, well, forward. As has been true during every August as long as I can remember, I can’t wait to see what the new season brings. As is true every season, this one will be different. Surprising. And wonderful.

I’d love to hear from you about the theater experiences you’re most enjoying and most looking forward to, here in Wisconsin and around the world, as the new season begins. You can reach me through Forward at info@forwardtheater.com or contact me directly at mjfischer1985@gmail.com.

Bonus Selections:

First, here’s Phillipa Soo and Steven Pasquale at Steppenwolf Theatre’s Pants Optional fundraiser, daring to hope and dream in a beautifully rendered medley of Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head and Over the Rainbow: WATCH

Second, from Chicago Children’s Theatre, here’s a new virtual puppet performance narrated by Michael Shannon of Leo Lionni’s Frederick. Lionni’s classic, Caldecott-winning children’s book about a poetic field mouse may now be more than a half century old, but this homage to the role of the imagination and the arts in hard times has never been more relevant: WATCH

Finally, I want to honor a gifted actor who has died since I last wrote you. Brent Carver, best known on Broadway for his Tony-winning performance in Kiss of the Spider Woman and his Tony-nominated performance in Parade, also acted for many years at the Stratford Festival in his native Canada. Here he is during his final Stratford season in 2017, singing as Feste in an ethereal and haunting production of Twelfth Night that I will never forget: WATCH

Selections for Volume 13 (citations and links for all selections are included as endnotes):

1. From Scotland, With Love (Edinburgh International Festival; Edinburgh Fringe Festival; Shedinburgh Fringe Festival): One of the biggest theatrical events each August is the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, which brings together thousands of artists performing in venues around the city to present every imaginable iteration of theater. Not to be denied, performers who’d normally be appearing at the Fringe and its upscale cousin – the Edinburgh International Festival – have gone online with hundreds of offerings, made during the pandemic and frequently free.

My Light Shines On: Ghost Light
Head first to the International Festival’s website, for one of the most gorgeous and inspiring pieces about theater I’ve seen since March: the National Theatre of Scotland’s My Light Shines On: Ghost Light. It’s a 30-minute tribute to productions past, present, and future that not only showcases some of Scotland’s best playwrights as channeled by some of its finest actors, but also pays tribute to the many never-seen artists and technicians who make onstage theater magic possible. If you watch nothing else from this week’s picks, I urge you to watch this extraordinary piece; the performance herein by Siobhán Redmond, of Jackie Kay’s Waiting in the Wings, is among the best three minutes I’ve seen on any stage in 2020 (yes, I’m including the 50-plus shows I saw in person this year before theaters closed).

In addition to the International Festival, there are three more distinct line-ups of Fringe Festival material.

First, check out the comprehensive Fringe Festival line-up itself, which includes free as well as ticketed offerings (many of the latter are pay what you can).

A healthy offering of Fringe Festival fare can also be sampled at theSpaceUK, a Fringe venue which has created its own online Festival of more than 80 shows, each written during the lockdown and most clocking in at under 45 minutes. All events remain viewable for free through August 30.

Finally, there’s writer-performer Gary McNair’s Shedinburgh Fringe Festival, involving works streamed online from makeshift sheds at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, the Soho Theatre in London and, in some cases, the homes of artists who can’t travel to either of those two venues. Each show is performed live and just once; tickets for most performances are just over $5 (all money raised will go to a fund established to support artists in bringing their work to the Fringe in 2021). Many shows include recreations of past Fringe hits and award winners.

2. Three Black Theater Festivals (Milwaukee Chamber Theatre; Harlem9; BOLD): Much of the best and most exciting theater in America right now is being created by Black theater artists. In this week of picks devoted to the future, here’s three (!!!) new festivals – all playing this week – celebrating some of the Black artists whose shining light illuminates how bright that future is.

Milwaukee Black Theater Festival (Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, with Lights! Camera! Soul!; Bronzeville Arts Ensemble; Black Arts MKE; and MPower Theater Group)
Brent Hazelton’s first season announcement as incoming MCT Artistic Director was among the boldest and most exciting Milwaukee season announcements ever. Then the pandemic hit.

Determined to make lemonade from that lemon, MCT has overhauled its website, introduced a cornucopia of online programming, and replaced its first originally scheduled opening production of Passing Strange with the first annual Milwaukee Black Theater Festival. The Festival will feature three full-length readings presented by Cynthia Cobb, Miles Coppage, Krystal Drake, DiMonte Henning, Chiké Johnson, Malaina Moore, Sheri Williams Pannell, Sherrick Robinson, Forward Advisory Company member Nadja Simmonds, Camara Stampley, and Malkia Stampley.

The three plays include a classic set during the Second Great Migration that I haven’t seen in a decade (Samm-Art Williams’ Home, directed by Pannell); a harrowing journey to the after life with a quartet of young Black men that has haunted me since I first saw it in March (James Ijames’s Kill Move Paradise, directed by Mikael Burke); and a new play revolving around women preparing an important meal and remembering so much else as they do (Zora Howard’s STEW, directed by Malkia Stampley, which debuted in New York in late January).

The Festival runs from this Sunday through September 12; a Festival pass allows you to watch all three plays as well as supplemental materials (spoken word, music, and interviews) over the course of one of the Festival’s three weeks (you choose the week). You can build your anticipation for the Festival by watching two interviews released this week: Marcella Kearns’ interview of Malkia Stampley (the latest installment of MCT’s Monday Morning Musings) and Forward Artistic Director Jennifer Uphoff-Gray’s interview of Brent Hazelton (the latest installment of Forward’s Tuesdays with Forward).

48Hours in . . . Harlem (Harlem9)
From tomorrow through Sunday the 23rd, you can watch six short plays created by BIPOC artists over 48 hours during July, with each playlet reflecting on one of the six Black classics commemorated at Harlem9’s first 48Hours in . . . Harlem Festival a decade ago: Zooman and the Sign, The Colored Museum, Day of Absence, Funnyhouse of a Negro, Dutchman, and Black Terror. Tickets are $10.

Ten Minute Play Festival (BOLD)
Unveiling two short new works by Black women on each of three successive Fridays at 5:00 CDT (the first, August 14, has come and gone), this year’s BOLD Festival involves work by Black women responding to the systemic silencing of Black women’s voices. Each evening will feature the work of two playwrights, followed by a talkback with the playwrights and directors. These live-streamed events on August 21 and August 28 are free, but you must register in advance to receive an event link.

3. #MeToo from New Zealand (Auckland Theatre Company): Before a new outbreak last week, New Zealand had gone 102 days without a new Covid-19 infection. That allowed Colin McColl’s Auckland Theatre Company the space to mount a film-theater hybrid of Ibsen’s The Master Builder from the rehearsal room for a small, socially distanced audience. After going five months without experiencing new theatrical productions that didn’t impose six-foot distancing rules, watching it this week was a cool drink of fresh water - WATCH

Ditto the rare chance to see the most enigmatic of that final quartet of Ibsen plays, each written after Ibsen’s return to Norway at age 63. I saw three productions of A Doll’s House in the six months preceding lockdown; I haven’t seen The Master Builder in nearly a quarter century (insert impassioned plea here regarding theater companies taking more chances, even when it comes to the classics). The story of an aging titan wrestling with mortality and threatened by a younger generation, The Master Builder is also, as McColl recognizes, a story about how such men take advantage of younger women – until one of them gives him an ingeniously concocted, long-deferred comeuppance.

In the event that you don’t know the play, that’s as much as I want to say about it here. The Auckland production is anchored by terrific performances from Andrew Grainger as the master builder and Kalyani Nagarajan as the young woman who refuses to be typecast as his latest conquest. You can stream it for free until 2 am CDT (7 pm Auckland time) on August 30.

4. The Power of One (Theatre for One; Weston Playhouse):

Here We Are
Before the pandemic, Tony-winning scenic designer Christine Jones’ Theatre for One allowed an audience member to step into a booth for a truly interactive experience with an actor staging a unique, one-off performance exclusively for that person. Now, Theatre for One is going virtual, with a series of playlets written and directed by BIPOC theater artists (the powerhouse list of playwrights includes Jaclyn Backhaus, Lydia R. Diamond, Lynn Nottage, Stacey Rose, Nikkole Salter, DeLanna Studi, Regina Taylor, and Carmelita Tropicana). Performances begin tomorrow and continue on each successive Thursday through September 24 between 5:00 and 6:30 CDT; you can see one play at a time by signing up for a 15-minute slot allowing you to watch an actor who will simultaneously be able to see you while performing. There will also be a virtual lobby where audience members can hang out and chat before and after performances.

Registration is free, but tickets go fast; all tickets for the opening round of performances on August 20 were gone within an hour of being placed online. Registration will ensure receipt of an email as soon as each succeeding batch of tickets is released.

One Room
Weston Playhouse in Vermont is also offering free on-demand streaming of mostly one-actor playlets in One Room, a collection of 14 short pieces in which playwrights respond to a prompt to think about what constitutes a home – and what secrets one’s home might hold. Taken in the aggregate, what we get instead is even better: a series of meditations involving narrative, that fictive house we build to structure reality and protect ourselves through stories making sense of ourselves and our world.

But as the brilliant Zadie Smith notes in Intimations, her just-published (and characteristically insightful) collection of pandemic-inspired essays about the relationship between the stories we tell and the realities they repress, none of those houses is as strong as we’d imagined. The best of these plays not only recognize as much, but also run with the consequent opportunity to rethink the boundaries dividing private from public – and our personal space from the larger community. Even the weaker entries are redeemed by consistently strong acting. (If you’d like to compare and contrast your own faves, mine are the plays by Will Eno, Andy Bragen, Jen Silverman, and Noelle Viñas).

5. Keep Moving (Battery Dance Festival - Program | Trailer): Over its first 38 years, Battery Dance’s free annual summer festival introduced the world to more than 250 dance companies performing from lower Manhattan. While many of this year’s Festival entries are indeed being performed in Wagner Park, the Festival itself has gone virtual and circled the globe, bringing us nine days of free viewing of pieces filmed not only in New York, but also in places as far flung as Indian forests, the Mediterranean coast, and a bazaar in Tehran.

Beginning this past Friday, August 14, each night’s program revolves around a theme and remains available on YouTube for ten days thereafter (i.e., the first program doesn’t expire until midnight on August 25). Having thus far watched the first three nights (Black Voices in Dance, Indian Independence Day, and Middle East), I am struck by how many pieces focus on the boundaries – historical and political, biological and sexual – thwarting our collective effort to explore and express who we are.

As an American, I found the four pieces brought together in Black Voices especially resonant; collectively, they take us from the Middle Passage to George Floyd, punctuated by the undaunted resilience and creativity of Black men and women nevertheless determined to have their say.

My favorite piece in Indian Independence Day (beginning at 53:30 of this program) is Aditi Mangaldas’ moving Amorphous, in which she juxtaposes film from a performance she gave five years ago and her recreation of that piece under lockdown at home. It’s a poignant embodiment of how the whirligig of time transforms the past into a foreign country on a receding shore, even as its afterglow lives on in the mind while we’re blown backward into the future.

The Middle East segment is rightly dominated by pieces commemorating the tragic death in May of 29-year-old Ayman Safiah, a prodigiously talented and infectiously enthusiastic Palestinian dancer. In a memorial toward program’s end, frequent collaborator Samar Haddad King leaves no doubt that Safiah has now crossed the threshold to immortality, living on through the work he made and the lives he touched.

Watching Safiah dance and teach while King describes how he could transform the most inhospitable of environments into a “place where we could create a new universe,” who am I – who are you – to gainsay her? For this is what artists do. This is who they are. They keep moving – giving us the courage and strength to keep living.

References (in order of mention):

* Theater Forward, The Future of Arts Education (Podcast Episode 38):
https://forwardtheater.com/learn/theater-forward-podcast

* Hal David and Burt Bacharach, Rain Drops Keep Fallin’ On My Head as well as Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg, Over the Rainbow (a medley by Phillipa Soo and Steven Pasquale): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WBkIurepsZs

* Leo Lionni, Frederick (as adapted by Chicago Children’s Theatre):
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qd2zaLyaCJM

* Leo Lionni, Frederick (Penguin, 1967)

* William Shakespeare, “The Wind and the Rain” (from Twelfth Night), as sung by Brent Carver (Stratford Festival):
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SZlEGuZbJtQ

* Hope Dickson Leach, My Light Shines On: Ghost Light (National Theatre of Scotland): https://www.eif.co.uk/whats-on/2020/nts-ghostlight

* Edinburgh International Festival 2020 Schedule:
https://www.eif.co.uk/whats-on

* Edinburgh Fringe Festival, 2020 Schedule:
https://listings.edfringe.com/

* theSpaceUK (Edinburgh), 2020 Schedule:
https://online.thespaceuk.com/programme

* Shedinburgh Fringe Festival (including 2020 Shed-ule):
https://shedinburgh.com/

* Milwaukee Black Theater Festival (Milwaukee Chamber Theatre):
https://www.milwaukeechambertheatre.org/milwaukee-black-theater-festival

* Monday Morning Musings (featuring Marcella Kearns and Malkia Stampley):
https://www.facebook.com/MilwaukeeChamberTheatre/videos/mct-monday-morni...

* Tuesdays with Forward (featuring Jen Uphoff Gray and Brent Hazelton):
https://forwardtheater.com/online/tuesdays-with-forward

* 48Hours in . . . Harlem (Harlem9):
https://www.harlem9.org/copy-of-48hours-in-harlem-2019

* Ten Minute Play Festival (BOLD):
https://www.eventbrite.com/e/bold-2020-ten-minute-play-fest-tickets-1143...

* Henrik Ibsen, The Master Builder (Auckland Theatre Company):
https://www.atc.co.nz/auckland-theatre-company/2020/the-master-builder/

* Here We Are (Theatre for One) (registration):
https://bfplny.com/event/theatre-for-one-here-we-are/

* One Room (Weston Playhouse):
https://www.westonplayhouse.org/shows-and-events/calendar/event/one-room

* Zadie Smith, Intimations (Penguin, 2020)

* Battery Dance Festival (trailer): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jaN9Ae2WpTc

* Battery Dance Festival (program): https://batterydance.org/battery-dance-festival/