Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for the ‘Theater’ Category

Quote of the Day

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A theatre play should be written, stage-set, costumed, accompanied by music, played, and danced by one human being alone. Such a complete athlete does not exist. It is therefore necessary to substitute for the individual what most resembles the individual: an intimate group.

Jean Cocteau, preface to The Wedding Party on the Eiffel Tower

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May 14, 2018 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

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As you introduce each prop, identify it by name. No matter how commonplace it is, never assume that the spectators can recognize it. Some of them may be nearsighted. Try to work the name in unobtrusively. Thus, you might say, “With this egg, I shall now demonstrate…” or “Have you ever stopped to wonder how an egg gets inside its shell?” If you cannot find a smooth description, it is better to state flatly, “This is an egg,” than to let some inattentive spectator mistake it for a golf ball.

Henning Nelms, Magic and Showmanship

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May 11, 2018 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

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The birth of a creature of human fantasy, a birth which is a step across the threshold between nothing and eternity, can also happen suddenly, occasioned by some necessity. An imagined drama needs a character who does or says a certain necessary thing; accordingly this character is born and is precisely what he had to be…It is no trick. The birth is real. The new character is alive not because she was alive already but because she is now happily born as is required by the fact of her being a character—she is obliged to be as she is.

Luigi Pirandello, in the preface to Six Characters in Search of an Author

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April 24, 2018 at 7:30 am

The velvet and gold braid

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The thing I like about magic is that it’s connected with circus, and with a kind of corny velvet-and-gold-braid sort of world that’s gone and that fascinates me and that I like. That’s really it. It’s not the skillful wonder-worker part of it but the ambience, the atmosphere of a magic show that delights me. I never saw anything in the theatre that entranced me so much as magic—and not the wonder of it: it’s the kind of slightly seedy, slightly carnival side of it. I’m a terrible pushover for all forms of small-time show business anyway. Small theaters, small circuses, magic, and all that. It isn’t the facility—that’s not a conscious part of it to me…But magic to me is a very special kind of thing. It’s just what Robert-Houdin, who was the greatest magician of all time, defined a magician as being: “A great actor playing the part of a magician.”

Orson Welles, to Peter Bogdanovich in This Is Orson Welles

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April 22, 2018 at 7:30 am

A choreographer’s checklist

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Having had a chance in five decades to make many choreographic mistakes, and having observed other people make them, too, I have compiled a short list of checks for the composer, something like a pocket set of rules for truing up a work in progress. It is all too easy to become absorbed in one part of the complex act of composition, and, while the attention is fixed on that, allow fatal errors to creep in elsewhere. A final checking up on balances is a wise—indeed, an essential—procedure. These, then, are some reminders which have been learned by painful experience and which should help the choreographer to avoid some of the commonest mistakes:

Symmetry is lifeless
Two-dimensional design is lifeless
The eye is faster than the ear
Movement looks slower and weaker on the stage
All dances are too long
A good ending is forty percent of the dance
Monotony is fatal; look for contrasts
Don’t be a slave to, or a mutilator of, the music
Listen to qualified advice; don’t be arrogant
Don’t intellectualize; motivate movement
Don’t leave the ending to the end

Doris Humphrey, The Art of Making Dances

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April 21, 2018 at 7:30 am

An exciting moment of theater

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There are different sorts of entertaining experiences in the theater. You can go to a play that is enjoyable because it’s funny, and then on the next night you can go to a play that’s enjoyable because it’s “disturbing.” For example, in the sixties, there were plays inspired by the black power movement where a guy would come to the front of the stage and yell at the audience, “You are pigs, we are going to get you.” And the drama critic would say, “My favorite part of the evening was the thrilling moment when that guy approached the audience and said ‘You are pigs. We are going to get you.'” To that drama critic, that was an exciting moment of theater. To the writer of the play—well, he might have meant it. But the critic watching the play didn’t really feel threatened, he just thought it was great theater.

Wallace Shawn, to The Paris Review

Written by nevalalee

February 25, 2018 at 8:09 am

Posted in Quote of the Day, Theater, Writing

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American Stories #10: Hamilton

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Note: As we enter what Joe Scarborough justifiably expects to be “the most consequential political year of our lives,” I’m looking back at ten works of art—books, film, television, and music—that deserve to be reexamined in light of where America stands today. You can find the earlier installments here

On August 6, 2015, Hamilton opened at the Richard Rogers Theatre in New York, where it has played to full houses ever since. It marked the moment at which Lin-Manuel Miranda’s brilliant musical exploded into the popular consciousness, and it also means that we’re approaching an important crossover point. In about three weeks, Hamilton will have spent more time on Broadway under a Trump presidency—either prospective or actual—than it did under Barack Obama. And its reception has been so inseparable from the historical era in which it happened to reach a vast audience, after spending more than five years in writing and development, that this fact seems more than simply symbolic. To a greater extent than any other recent work of art, this musical has engaged in a continuous dialogue with its country, and its most Shakespearean quality is the way in which it always seems to be speaking about current events. Its Broadway premiere occurred less than a month after Trump declared his candidacy for the presidency, and although his announcement is remembered mostly for equating Mexican immigrants with rapists, the words that he uttered a few seconds earlier were even more revealing: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you.” Among other things, Hamilton is a story about who “you” and “we” really are in America, and while its answer to that question has remained consistent, the culture in which its echoes are heard has changed with bewildering speed. During the campaign, I found it almost physically painful to think about the line “Immigrants—we get the job done,” which was received so enthusiastically by its listeners that Miranda had to add a few beats of silence to absorb the applause. I wanted to believe it, but I was also afraid that the job wouldn’t get done after all, and it didn’t. But it wasn’t the fault of our immigrants, who have found themselves back at the center of our politics even as they remain marginalized in other ways. And we might all be better off now if it really had been up to them.

Like many people, I haven’t stopped listening to Hamilton since. A couple of weeks ago, I attended a live singalong at the public library in Oak Park that drew hundreds of adults and children over the course of two days—they had to bring in extra chairs to accommodate the crowd. It was unbearably moving. Yet it’s also undeniable that Hamilton plays so well in part because it leaves so much unsaid. As the Rutgers professor Lyra D. Monteiro has written:

The idea that this musical “looks like America looks now” in contrast to “then,” however, is misleading and actively erases the presence and role of black and brown people in Revolutionary America, as well as before and since…Despite the proliferation of brown and black bodies onstage, not a single enslaved or free person of color exists as a character in this play. For the space of only a couple of bars, a chorus member assumes the role of Sally Hemings, but is recognizable as such only by those who catch Jefferson’s reference to the enslaved woman with whom he had an ongoing sexual relationship. Unless one listens carefully to the lyrics—which do mention slavery a handful of times—one could easily assume that slavery did not exist in this world, and certainly that it was not an important part of the lives and livelihoods of the men who created the nation.

I don’t think that there’s any question that Monteiro is basically right here, and that the diversity of Hamilton’s cast allows it to absorb America’s racial legacy into the overwhelming charisma of its performers, rather than confronting it explicitly in the text. (A song that addressed it directly, “Cabinet Battle #3,” was cut from the finished show, although it appears on The Hamilton Mixtape.) Unless you happen to actually be Mike Pence, it won’t make you uncomfortable for even a fraction of a second, which may have been necessary for it to reach its present cultural status. I’m grateful for what it does accomplish, but its success also points to how many stories have yet to be told. And perhaps it was more important that it gave us a chance, through a beneficent sleight of hand, to take pride in our history one last time.

Written by nevalalee

January 12, 2018 at 9:18 am

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