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Stages: February 2011
Tuesday, February 1, 2011
Tuesday, February 1, 2011
Click on the title to go directly to the story
- Remarks from the Chair: A faculty member's premiere in a new Arena
- Marcus Gardley's Every Tongue Confess debuts at Arena Stage
- Forefront: Alumnus Shawn LaCount '09G and his company thinks about the future of theater
- Video: Stage Matters, Part Two
- Slideshow: Company One and UMass Connections
- Alan Jaffe: Paying it forward
In the two previous issues of Stages, I shared with you my travels to honor the achievements of several of our alumni. This time, I was privileged to celebrate the achievement of one of our faculty members, Assistant Professor of African-American Theater and Playwriting, Marcus Gardley.
Marcus's Every Tongue Confess was one of two productions chosen by Washington DC’s Arena Stage to inaugurate the company's two new performance spaces. It was an auspicious event that garnered much media attention, including a review in The New Yorker. I marked the occasion, together with a number of UMass officials and alumni who traveled to see the show and meet Marcus and the cast.
Accompanied by Professor Harley Erdman, I flew into Washington DC on Friday, Nov. 12. We took the sunny weather as a good sign and met up with Dean Julie Hayes for lunch.
That evening, the festivities truly commenced as Harley and I were joined at dinner by alumni and long-time theater friends Susan and Larry Benedict, as well as the man of the hour himself. The restaurant, Founding Farmers, has a stellar reputation in the DC area and we found it well-deserved.
That evening, Larry and Susan and I saw Marcus' beautiful, poetic, awe-inspiring play at the Kogod Cradle. The smaller of the two new theaters in Arena's facilities, its name is symbolic of its purpose; the gorgeous, egg-shaped space is intended as a cradle for new works. It's truly something you must experience.
Saturday was another spectacular day in our nation’s capital. Vice Provost for Academic Personnel (and former CHFA Dean) Joel Martin joined the UMass team, as did former Department of Theater faculty member Patricia Warner. Pat, Julie and Marcus took in the Saturday matinee.
Following the matinee performance, we all had an in-between shows buffet dinner with members of the cast and crew of Every Tongue Confess. It was during this dinner that we were joined by longtime friends of the College of Humanities and Fine Arts, David Briggs and John Bennett. All of us met the actors and had a wonderful meal together.
During the meal, we shared a rousing toast to celebrate Marcus. There was also a wonderful discussion with the actors about the play and the significance of the piece. It was inspiring to hear their respect for Marcus and their enthusiastic recounting of his collaboration with them during the rehearsal process.
That night, it was David, John and Joel's turn to see the work, and following the play, they were introduced to actress Phylicia Rashad.
Marcus Gardley, surrounded by his UMass fans, at Arena Stage.
Meanwhile, Pat, Julie and I attended the performance of Oklahoma! being presented in Arena's other space. The production was directed by Arena Stage's visionary artistic director, Molly Smith. We were pleased to have the opportunity to congratulate her on the company's amazing work and new space.
Sunday, Harley and I got a chance to see the show and dine with another friend of the college, Richard Harland, and then, sadly, it was time to board the plane for our return journey.
It was a whirlwind weekend, but one that, again, left me proud to be part of the UMass Theater community.
— Penny Remsen, Chair
In high school and later college, Professor Marcus Gardley spent hours obsessively watching news reports on Black church burnings in the rural south. This obsession became the root ingredient for writing Every Tongue Confess, which is garnering national attention for the Department of Theater’s very own professor of playwrighting and African-American Theater. Marcus joined the Theater faculty in the fall 2008 and has since had premieres at Lincoln Center, Cutting Ball Theater, Shotgun Players, and most recently Arena Stage.
Every Tongue Confess began as a commission in 2006 when Arena’s former literary manager, Mark Bly, introduced Gardley's work to Artistic Director Molly Smith. Smith was an instant fan and called on Gardley to write an original work.
There were over 300 church burnings in the 1990’s, and what struck him most about all the reports he read was that the arsonist was always a missing voice. When he received the commission from Smith, Gardley went further with his research and uncovered an incredible story about a young white man who grew up in a small Black church in North Carolina. He would sit in a tree outside the church and listen because he didn’t think he would be welcome. The church did welcome him as a member, but when his father found out, he beat the young man in front of the congregation. This same young man ended up burning the church down and joining a white supremacist group.
This intrigued Gardley. In the rural south, church is the center of community, and he became interested in what it means to search for a community that has truly been there all along. These burnings were reminiscent of lynchings during civil rights movements and served as a prime example of how people in these communities have long been ignored by larger communities. One of the questions Gardley wanted to ask is, “How do you forgive?”
Tongue had been slated in prior seasons, but for a variety of reasons was pushed back each time. This turned out to be a blessing. The delay allowed Every Tongue Confess to be slated as the inaugural production in the Kogod Cradle, one of the new theater spaces in Arena Stage’s new complex at The Mead Center for American Theater, and ensured the participation of Tony Award-nominated director Kenny Leon and beloved veteran actress Phylicia Rashad. Having artists of such caliber involved in the project was a dream come true for Marcus.
Kenny Leon had worked at Arena Stage before, having directed Lydia Diamond’s Stick Fly, and Smith felt he was great at handling the complex and rich material. Leon himself, upon reading the play, felt a strong connection to the material and said no one could direct it but him. Leon brought Rashad to the production as they have a long history together, and Rashad loves D.C.
Marcus is extremely proud of the production, saying, “What we made together as a group was a really successful production. The actors were incredible, bringing so much heart and skill to the production.” Although it met with mixed reviews, Marcus looks forward to the next life of the production.
“I finally feel in control of the story. Some of it works some of it doesn’t. I never meant for it to be epic, but it is,” he said.
And as we brought our conversation to a close, he reminded me “the beauty and the danger of theatre is that you don’t know what you have until it is too late. That is the nature of what we do."
A few months ago, the Theatre Communications Group released a video entitled Stage Matters which featured interviews with artistic directors, theater artists, politicians, teachers, and people on the street gauging the state of theater in America and thinking ahead to its future.
If you watch the whole 10-minute piece, you see that it ends with Shawn LaCount ‘09G, artistic director of Company One, a Boston-based non-profit theater company, considering the question implicit in the piece’s title.
(See part two of the video, which concludes with LaCount's comments, here.)
“I don’t know if theater matters, I can say that honestly,” he says in the film. “But I know that it’s a tool, it’s an avenue for discussion… (for) … solving problems in a way that only many voices can solve.”
That encapsulates much of what LaCount — and Company One — feels about the place of theater in our world, and it’s gotten the company noticed, not just by TCG, but by a powerful grantor and an influential critic.
Although LaCount had been interviewed for the Stage Matters film, he was pleasantly surprised to find his comments included, along with images from Company One productions and interviews with company collaborators, since he’d been told the filmmakers were interviewing thousands of people across the country. The film, and the fact that Company One attracts the youngest and most diverse audience in the country, pushed the group into the spotlight at TCG’s annual conference in Chicago as a voice representing the future of theater.
“It’s both wonderful and sad. I’m proud of it, but hopefully this is something that will change,” LaCount said, as theaters move away from old ways of doing things. Theaters, he argue, need to think about why they’re struggling to get younger audiences.
LaCount has loved theater for years and used to attend productions in Boston when he was growing up. But even as he recognized the craft with which the pieces were put together, “none of the stories mattered to me and my experience growing up in an environment that was multi-class and multi-cultural.”
Blunt words, as are his assessment that theater can’t get away with programming one play a year from a multi-cultural artist and call themselves diverse, and his opinion that some theaters' talk about “educating” their audiences comes off as patronizing. Indeed, LaCount and his compatriots were amused to find, when they attended a screening of extra film footage entitled “Too Controversial for Stage Matters,” that “we were all over that section.”
“When you’re a small company, you only have so far to fall,” LaCount said, and it offers a freedom to “be a lot less diplomatic.”
Recognition for innovation
TCG wasn’t the only organization that recognized Company One’s potential this past year: in October 2010, Company One was one of 10 recipients of a $10,000 grant given by American Theatre Wing to emerging theater companies.
On its website, American Theatre Wing said Company One “redefines the typical theatrical experience by developing, producing, and promoting socially relevant plays and innovative educational programming that appeal to, represent and include Boston's diverse urban communities.”
Several members of the company, including LaCount, traveled to New York City for the awards ceremony, where they had a chance to meet Angela Lansbury, the organization’s honorary chairwoman.
It was at this event that the theater learned of a third milestone they’d achieved: A member of the New York Times arts staff mentioned that a project the company was part of — The Shirley Vt. Plays, a series of three Annie Baker plays, produced by three different Boston theater companies, including Company One’s take on The Aliens — was getting a review from venerated critic Ben Brantley. “We were thrilled,” LaCount said, just to have attracted the newspaper’s attention, “but that he liked what he say made it even better!”
A place to learn, reflect, try
LaCount had only just finished his undergraduate studies when he founded Company One with his friends 12 years ago and did a fair amount of on-the-job learning as the company’s Artistic Director. As well-received as the company’s work was, however, he found himself wondering, "When do I have time to learn how to be a better director?"
He looked into programs near Boston and found himself most interested in Brown University and UMass-Amherst. Explaining his decision process, he said, “Brown wanted $40,000; UMass didn't — and it had Gil (McCauley).”
Nearly 2 years after graduation, he knows he made the right decision.
"I'm a better director for doing the program," he said. Being able to "play, and learn, and reflect" without having to worry about being reviewed by the Boston Globe gave him the opportunity to try new things that directly impacted his work for the company. For example, a directing studio assignment to direct Sondheim's Company offered him valuable experience that fed directly into the Company One production of Sondheim's Assassins. And UMass gave him the opportunity to direct his very first Shakespeare work, Pericles "to varying degrees of success, but boy was that a learning experience," LaCount said.
Mentorship drew him to UMass, and it is also what he took away with him upon graduation. LaCount cited Harley Erdman, Gina Kaufmann and Julie Nelson as "people whom I value as artists and collaborators." Those relationships continue — only recently, LaCount consulted Erdman and McCauley about a play he wanted to direct. The piece, Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins’ Neighbors, which opened earlier this month, deals with race and class and is by LaCount's estimation "the most controversial thing" the company's ever done.
He’s stayed in contact with fellow students as well. LaCount has fond memories of being in group studio with artists of various disciplines, “listening to them as potential co-artists.” Students have taken classes the company offers, and several have been collaborators on projects. Dramaturg Liana Thompson was the literary manager for GRIMM, a collection of new short plays based on fairy tales (including a piece by one Marcus Gardley), among others, which got the company a brief mention in the New York Times and which was featured in a WBUR story. Sean Coté, meanwhile, designed sets for After the Quake and The Overwhelming. “At his best, he is a designer who can’t be beat,” LaCount said.
Company One has a number of interesting projects coming up on its main and second seasons after Neighbors — Suzan-Lori Parks’ The Book of Grace, for one, as well as some Boston and world premiere pieces.
LaCount said the Boston theater community is a vibrant one these days. Several of the established companies have new, younger leadership — “so we really have to step up,” he said. “Boston is a very exciting place to make theater these days.”
Over the 2010-2011 schoolyear, we'll be using our Stages newsletter to introduce you to some people who are supporters of the Department of Theater, who remember their experiences here when they think about the charitable giving they want to do. This time, we connected not with an alumnus, but with the parent of an alumna who continues to support the department.
Affiliation: Alumni parent of the Department of Theater (Caitlin Jaffe ’05)
Favorite UMass Theater memory: “When (Caitlin) had a production, I’d go up and spend time, stay overnight on the couch (at her apartment) or at the hotel.” When possible, they’d make a weekend of it, catch a football game, too, and even after he had a stroke that rendered him unable to drive, he looked forward to taking the bus up for his visits.
Why do you donate to the UMass Amherst Department of Theater? “I think … it’s the right thing to do. Someone, somewhere in the past donated money so your child could have a good experience. As long as I can do it, I’ll donate the money so someone else’s child can have a good experience.”
Alan Jaffe didn't attend the University of Massachusetts; not for a single class. He's not a theater professional, either. But his daughter, Caitlin Jaffe '05, was a theater major, and her experience here prompts Jaffe to remember the Department in his annual giving.
Jaffe is a New York City resident. He has pursued several careers, most recently as a real estate appraiser specializing in co-op apartment buildings. He has a son and daughter, and Caitlin is the younger of the two.
Caitlin's interest in the performing arts became evident long before college — as a high schooler, she attended the famed Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. Jaffe remembers her doing much of the college research herself, and that UMass quickly made its way onto the list of serious contenders.
Jaffe tried to keep his counsel during a Halloween-time campus visit, but he remembered that Denise Wagner, then still the Department secretary, had arranged for a student to take them on a tour through the bowels of the Fine Arts Center. They also checked out a soccer game (Caitlin was an athlete in high school) and toured the rest of the campus.
"We had a good feeling about it," Jaffe recalled, and one of the selling points was the convivial atmosphere they witnessed in the department lobby. "There were a number of students in the lobby area, sitting around, talking. They seemed relaxed and they seemed to like it there."
Caitlin's final decision was influenced by affordability and proximity to New York, and one effective instance of parental bribery: As Jaffe recalled it, Caitin told him, "I'd rather go to UMass, but it's very cold."
His response? "I agree with your decision, and I will buy you the warmest coat I can find."
That apparently sealed the deal, and Caitlin Jaffe went on to a very fruitful 4 years at UMass, appearing in mainstage productions, smaller student works, and some non-departmental productions as well. He recalls seeing her in Love's Labor's Lost, Play-In-A-Day, and a couple of productions of The Vagina Monologues.
They settled into a pattern where Jaffe would drive up from the city to visit and crash on the couch in the living room of the apartment Caitlin shared with other theater students. He remembered with amusement, "I'd get up at 8 o'clock, and they got up at 2 o'clock. I would read newspapers until one of them got up."
Jaffe's experience with UMass was as a concerned parent. He also cites with approval the services the campus offered to keep his daughter safe.
Jaffe likes going to the theater, but ultimately, his reason for supporting the Department of Theater with annual donations is more personal.
"If she had had a poor experience, I wouldn't do it. My daughter had a good experience."
The Department of Theater now has a bike rack and picnic table outside the Curtain Lobby entrance. We'd show you photos of both but they're currently buried under giant snow piles!
Jim Bowser '76 got in touch with us. He remembers that he was involved backstage on the opening shows in all the theaters in the FAC. Nowadays, he is Scenic and Lighting Designer at Braintree (MA) High School, which recently produced Phantom of the Opera. He is also the Lighting Designer for the Plymouth (MA) Philharmonic Orchestra.
Rachel Braidman (née Cummings) '07 emailed news of August Company's latest undertaking, a production of Albee's The Zoo Story directed by fellow alumnus (and husband) Scott Braidman '07. The company, which includes a bevy of UMass Theater alumni and friends, mounted the piece in the old Dynamite Records space in Thornes Marketplace. Steve Pierce '07 played one of the lead roles. Here's the publicity picture:
Rob Corddry '93 is in Cedar Rapids and recently guest-starred on Community. Here's the trailer for Cedar Rapids, which is a Sundance Festival Film:
Jeffrey Donovan '91 is slated to direct a prequel film to his Burn Notice Series.Professor Harley Erdman shared a NY Times review by Ben Brantley of a show he worked on that was showcased at the NY Public Theater. (He was commissioned to do the simultaneous supertitles translation.) The review does not mention the translator, but it is still a great write-up. Harley also brought to our attention that one of our alumni is featured in the anthology, The Best American Short Plays 2008-2009. Joe Salvatore '98G's III was about the 15-year menage between Glenway Wescott, Monroe Wheeler and George Platt Lynes. The original production, the book notes, also featured several other alumni: dramaturg Jennifer Werner '00G, lighting and projection designer Emily Stork '98G, set designer Troy Hourie '97G and sound designer Ben Johnson '00. The piece was presented at the 2008 Fringe Festival. Recent graduate Michael Greehan '10 was in the cast of Serious Play's Wider Than the Sky - a love story about neuroscience this December. The publicity shot from the show: Greene Room Productions, headed by alumna Erin Greene '02, presented a holiday cabaret and a production of The Grinch this holiday season at Monson Developmental Center Auditorium in Palmer. In August 2010, Jacob Hellman '09 won a spot on the Dramaturgy Debut Competitive Panel at the 24th Annual Conference on Theater and Higher Education in Los Angeles, where he presented a paper and video on his work on 13 THE MUSICAL in Israel entitled: "Dramaturgy for a New Generation: Bringing Middle America to the Middle East." Check out the video, showcasing him at work and interviewing 4 of the Israeli actors. Jacob noted that Professor Harley Erdman was in attendance, as he and graduate student Sarah Brew were presenting their papers on the Spanish Golden Age the next day. Jacob also received a note of recognition from Jason Robert Brown, writer of the music and lyrics for 13 THE MUSICAL. Jay Herzog '87G still serves as the chair at Towson University in Maryland. Upcoming professional lighting designs this spring are AN AMOST HOLY PICTURE at Rep Stage in Washington DC and STICK FLY at the Everyman Theater in Baltimore. As well jay is among the many academic designers in the U.S doing RENT this spring. His president at Towson University will be in Massachusetts as the new President of the UMASS system. He hopes to visit UMASS/Amherst on his way up to Maine this summer. <br>Timothy Joliat '87 is living in New Jersey with wife Carol, daughter Olivia (6 months), and Jack Russell terrier Leo(12 years). Asked to share a memory of his time in the department, he recalled "having a ball playing Hamlet (in R & G Are Dead), opposite Joe Cavanaugh as a hilarious Polonius. All during the run he swore to me that he wasn't wearing underwear under his robes. I never found out the truth. Nor did I want to know.... " As for his current activities, he is just starting a new project as a set dresser on Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, a new movie directed by Stephen Daldry with Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock. "I use the skills I learned in set design & construction, even in acting--- EVERY DAY! Thanks Umass theater!!!"<br>David Korins '99 designed the set for the Broadway production of The Pee-Wee Herman Show. David is also designing the sets for La Jolla Playhouse's upcoming Little Miss Sunshine.<br>Kyle Lampe '10 wrote Penny : "About a month ago I ran into Traci (Klainer) at Hartford Stage and she said you're always asking about alumni. I figured I could check in. I was doing some overhire sound work for Hartford Stage, helping them set up Antony and Cleopatra and A Christmas Carol. I also did the board op for some of their Brand: New festival, where I ran into Traci. I was looking for other work though, as Hartford was not frequent enough to help me pay my loans. I now have moved to Boston to work full time at a restaurant, and I'm looking for more opportunities here.<br>Kat Lovell '07 will be traveling the country for the next few months working on various projects. She's keeping a blog where you can read more. First up for her is Buddy at the El Dorado hotel/casino; she will be lead Production SM. She's also slated to handle tech for an original work being produced by Andrea Assaf, formerly of New WORLD Theatre, for Pangea World Theater in Minnesota. Jeff Maynard '09 is a projection designer for Eastern Connecticut State University's productions of The Gilded Age and Pleasure Beach. He is also the assistant ME and Master Carpenter at the Boston Conservatory.
A short screenplay by Duncan B. Putney '83, Icarus of Normandy, just took top honors in the Going Green Film Festival in LA (www.goinggreenfilmfestival.com), and he's currently working on the Boston 7DAYPSAcompetition that he started last year as a national effort for filmmakers to write, shoot & edit public service announcements for deserving local non-profits with events in cities across the country. So far they've done RI, ME & MA and are talking with host organizations in more states.
Ben Stanton '99 was among those production team members singled out for praise in Charles Isherwood's New York Times review of The Whipping Man.
Ashley Toolan '06 has been accepted into the Masters of Arts Administration program at Boston University for Fall 2011. She's sad to be leaving sunny and warm San Diego, but is excited to be heading back to the thriving MA arts community.
Fresh off his Broadway debut designing Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Justin Townsend '97 designed the lighting for The Fever Chart, which is Underground Railway Theater's first production as part of Central Square Theater's 2010-2011 PowerPlays & Possibility. He's also the designer for ART's The Blue Flower.
Directing MFA candidate Dawn Monique Williams spent her winter break as assistant director to Jeremy B. Cohen (Artistic Director of Playwright's Center in Minneapolis, MN) on Snow Falling On Cedars, at Hartford Stage. The show opens January 21 and runs thru February 13, 2011.
Andrew Wittkamper '97G knows how to make an entrance: "Recently I was given the opportunity to host the Grand Costume Parade at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival, an event which showcases Region One's best costumes, created in college costume shops all around New England and parts of New York. Rather than stand at a microphone in a suit reading a script, I thought it might be more meaningful and inspiring if I, myself, created a modeled a costume for the event. Last year I did a sendup on Lady Gaga's video Bad Romance, and this year, a costume and choreographed intro inspired by Natalie Portman's Black Swan. I hope you enjoy!"
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