WBEZ | performing http://www.wbez.org/tags/performing Latest from WBEZ Chicago Public Radio en Wrestling with dead playwrights http://www.wbez.org/blogs/onstagebackstage/2012-08/wrestling-dead-playwrights-101486 <p><p>Generations of producers, directors and actors have joked that &quot;the only good playwright is a dead playwright,&quot; and sometimes they are half-serious . . . but only sometimes and only half. They damn well know that theater requires a steady diet of new works, and everyone one of &#39;em constantly is on the lookout for the next hot author and the next great script.</p><p><img alt="" class="image-original_image" src="http://www.wbez.org/system/files/styles/original_image/llo/insert-images/shakespeare%20bust%20flickr%20BayerNYC.jpg" style="float: left; height: 399px; width: 300px; " title="Shakespeare haunts us still. (Flickr/BayerNYC)" />Still, a dead playwright can&#39;t argue about how the play is cast, about whether or not the design elements meet the author&#39;s intentions, about changes to the script or about radical directorial concepts, let alone gross misinterpretations by actors. Perhaps the old joke should be altered to read &quot;the only safe playwright is a dead playwright.&quot;</p><p>Except that&#39;s not true, either. Even dead playwrights can rise from the grave to bite you in the butt if they have well-managed literary estates and surviving copyright holders. Case in point, some years ago Chicago&#39;s long-gone (but then high-flying) Remains Theatre staged the Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht opera, <em>The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny</em>. Although it only was a local production, scheduled for a limited run in a small Off-Loop venue, the Weill and Brecht estates shut it down in less than three weeks when they got wind of it via newspaper reviews.</p><p>Remains made two errors. First, they used an English translation that wasn&#39;t authorized for stage performances but only for reading purposes, thereby avoiding paying royalties to the Brecht Estate. This is one of the sinkholes of producing works in translation. Remains could have made things right by paying the Estate royalties for the authorized translation and then not using it, but they also would have had to pay royalties for the translation they <em>were </em>using.</p><p>But Remains could not possibly square things with the Kurt Weill Foundation: with brass balls and incredible stupidity, the ensemble decided that <em>Mahagonny</em> primarily was a Brecht work, so they threw out all of Kurt Weill&#39;s music and wrote an original rock score! Hey, let&#39;s do The Ring Cycle but we&#39;ll write new music and only use Wagner&#39;s words. No amount of money could make that right as Remains had violated the fundamental artistic integrity of the work.</p><p>On the other hand, since the death of August Wilson in 2005, his estate has sanctioned several productions of his plays by white directors, something Wilson did not allow in his lifetime.</p><p>So, the <em>real</em> deal is that the only safe playwright is a dead playwright whose works no longer are under copyright, and who wrote them in English in the first place. Think Shakespeare, of course, or Oscar Wilde or Gilbert and Sullivan. Otherwise you&#39;re still stuck dealing with copyrighted translations into English of, say, Moliere or Sophocles or Chekhov or Ibsen.</p><p>The way to get around that, as many producers and directors have done, is to cobble together a &quot;new&quot; translation using bits and pieces of many, so that no single translator quite can claim that it is his/her work. In terms of literary quality, of course, you get what you pay for.</p><p>Another thing is simply to write your own work, freely stealing storylines and characters from an existing classical source. Hey, <em>The Boys from Syracuse</em>, the Rodgers and Hart musical, is based on <em>The Comedy of Errors</em>, which Shakespeare took from the antique Roman playwright, Plautus.</p><p>In Chicago two seasons back, Sean Graney of The Hypocrites assembled <em>Seven Sicknesses</em> by consolidating elements from the seven extant plays of Sophocles, setting the work in a modern hospital. Several years before that, he thoroughly dumbed down Sophocles <em>Oedipus the King</em> by creating a contemporary Classics Illustrated-type version, complete with original rock music. Both of Graney&#39;s riffs on Sophocles are far enough afield from the originals (in any translation) for Graney to be able to secure his own copyrights for them, although I don&#39;t know whether or not he has.</p><p>All of this leads me to the fact that a new theater troupe in town calls itself, with self-conscious cheekiness, the Dead Writers Theatre Collective. Its mission not only is to perform the works of dead authors, but also plays <em>about</em> dead authors, such as Edward Bond&#39;s <em>Bingo</em>, in which Shakespeare and Ben Jonson engage in a drinking bout (although the company has not programmed <em>Bingo</em>). Some of the company&#39;s plays in the latter category will be new plays by living authors. The inaugural production (through Aug. 26) is <em>The Vortex</em>, the 1925 play by Noel Coward (1899-1973) which was his first great success. My Dueling Critics colleague, Kelly Kleiman, and I discuss the production on <em>Eight Forty-Eight</em> on Tuesday (Aug. 7).</p><p>Perusing the July theater calendar, I see that the first three productions of the month were a variation on Euripides&#39; <em>Electra</em> (at Mary-Arrchie Theatre), Chekhov&#39;s <em>Three Sisters</em> (still running at Steppenwolf) and Luis Alfaro&#39;s take on Sophocles in the Barrio, <em>Oedipus El Rey</em> (at Victory Gardens Theater). The month also offered at least four Shakespeares (all out doors) and one each by Harold Pinter, Tennessee Williams and Eugene O&#39;Neill (who has been having a very big year in Chicago).</p><p>Obviously, dead playwrights are alive and well and still serving to inspire &mdash; sometimes wisely and sometimes not &mdash; theater artists of today.</p></p> Tue, 07 Aug 2012 07:00:00 -0500 http://www.wbez.org/blogs/onstagebackstage/2012-08/wrestling-dead-playwrights-101486 Young actors: Step up to the plate http://www.wbez.org/blogs/onstagebackstage/2012-07/young-actors-step-plate-101033 <p><div class="image-insert-image "><img alt="" class="image-original_image" src="http://www.wbez.org/system/files/styles/original_image/llo/insert-images/merchant%20of%20venice%20first%20folio%20theater.jpg" title="Young actors just out of school play six of the 19 roles in First Folio’s ‘Merchant of Venice.’ (Courtesy of First Folio)" /></div><p>Wednesday night I trucked out to see <em>The Merchant of Venice</em>, at the annual outdoor Shakespeare festival presented by First Folio Theatre at Mayslake Forest Preserve in Oak Brook, Ill. I enjoyed this handsomely-designed and engagingly-acted production very much, until the show was cancelled at intermission due to approaching violent storms. Lucky for me, I know how the play ends.</p><p>Most Shakespeare plays require a large cast, and the program for <em>Merchant</em> listed 19 actors. Combing through the credits, I found that six of the 19 either graduated from university acting programs within the last two years or still are in school. None of the six yet has a union card from Actors Equity Association (which will celebrate its 100th anniversary next year).</p><p>This is one of the finest characteristics of Chicago theater. Our Off-Loop and Off-off-Loop companies abound with embryonic talent; kids just out of school or soon-to-be. Our larger institutional theaters, too, often engage early-career actors. Once upon a time, I was one of those kids myself acting for peanuts in the seminal Off-Loop troupes of Lincoln Avenue, among them Kingston Mines Theatre Company, the Body Politic, Pary Productions and Del Close&#39;s Chicago Extension improvisational company.</p><p>Thinking of then and thinking of now, this is the<em> perfect</em> time to be a young actor. So, yeah, sure, the global economy sucks, we&#39;re in a depression (don&#39;t buy the nonsense that it&#39;s only a recession) and if the Eurozone totally melts down we&#39;ll really be in the crapper. But what the hell? When has it <em>ever</em> been a <em>good</em> time for a career in the arts? Actors are perpetually under-employed even in the best of economies &mdash; it&#39;s one of the occupational facts of life &mdash; and a sour economy does not substantially offer <em>less</em> employment or less opportunity for employment.</p><p>So go for it.</p><p>Fact is, electronic, digital, online and video media offer more employment for actors than ever before. From voices for video games, to the explosion of cable TV shows (just think how many actors the Discovery Channel and the History Channel employ), to self-produced internet programs and serials, to direct-to-disc movies, the entertainment industry is exploding with new ways for actors to act in addition to the familiar categories of commercials and voice-overs, TV, film and theater. Yes, much of it is shallow, formulaic and sometimes amateurish; and much of it &mdash; perhaps most of it &mdash; is not covered by actors union contracts (Equity, SAG-AFTRA), so the possibilities of being underpaid, exploited, ripped-off and/or sleazed are very real, but this blog column isn&#39;t a business lesson.</p><p>Compared to many of these, live theater may be the worst way to make a living, and I use the words &quot;make a living&quot; with great reservation. In Los Angeles, a newbie actor can appear at an Equity Waiver theater and earn nothing but car fare for professional work, often with established veteran actors. Difference is, the established veterans can afford to indulge their passion for live art, but the starter-out still is eating beans. On the other hand, a newcomer also can find himself/herself on a soap or a series making several thousand dollars a week.</p><p>The difference in Chicago is no one becomes rich here from any type of acting, whether you&#39;re working at Steppenwolf or the Goodman or a neighborhood storefront theater. Chicago is not the town where you make a killing or become a star; it&#39;s the town where you hone your chops, stretch yourself and practice your craft. And, with over 220 producing theater companies, the odds are <em>much</em> better here than in New York or Los Angeles of your landing a role and actually honing, stretching and practicing; witness those six young&#39;uns in <em>The Merchant of Venice</em>.</p><p>So, young actors, give it a whirl. No matter if you act for little or no money as long as shoes still need to be sold, hash still needs to be slung, dogs still need to be walked and temp work still is available. Keep in mind that the cost of living in Chicago still is considerably less than in NYC or L.A. Even more important, audiences here are sharper, more receptive to the new and better-informed than just about anywhere else. The lesson from that is to hold yourself to a high standard of craft and intelligence, and to take risks. If not you, who? If not now, when? If not here, where?</p></p> Fri, 20 Jul 2012 06:00:00 -0500 http://www.wbez.org/blogs/onstagebackstage/2012-07/young-actors-step-plate-101033