Local Theatre

Spotlight on the Small Ones: National Theatre of the Deaf

Jonathan Fong
When we talk about the ‘small ones’ in theatre, we must never forget those among us who may, by some metrics, be considered less fortunate, whom are often silenced and left without a voice. And yet, in a world which may seem so cruel to them, there is always a silver lining, a microphone left to those who wish to sing out.



The National Theatre of the Deaf, or NTD for short, is one of the oldest theatre companies in America—not only relative to theatre companies that cater to the deaf, but outright too. Based in Connecticut, they’ve been performing since the 1960s and, while operating somewhat out of the limelight relative to the able-bodied dominated theatrical establishment, they’ve had a massive influence on theatre not just in the US, but worldwide.

Conceived by Edna Levine and with the support of various influential people within the theatre and deaf communities, including Helen Keller’s teacher Anne Sullivan, actress Anne Bancroft, and Broadway set designer David Hays, the company was founded in 1967 with just 12 actors, 11 of which lacked formal training. The theatre company, whose first performances were at Wesleyan University, initially got off to a rocky start with the deaf community—the ASL used was hard-to-understand, while the material (mostly existing works translated into ASL) failed to explore issues relating to the deaf community itself, concerns which still sound familiar to those working in deaf theatre and theatre with disabilities even today.

However, as the theatre company matured, deaf artists moved into leadership roles and the company began producing not just translations, but entirely original works too focusing on the deaf community and deaf culture. Recognizing the aesthetic and visual qualities of sign language, the company left behind the traditions of realism and naturalistic theatre, moving towards a performance style dominated by the spatial aspects of communication. They branched out from the theatre too: collaborating with the Children’s Television Workshop, they’ve worked with TV shows such as Sesame Street to bring deaf awareness and understanding to the next generation.

Employing both deaf and hearing artists, the company caters to both the deaf and hearing communities—they often make use of shadowing, where deaf actors portray a role via ASL with a hearing actor standing either close by or off stage to speak or sing lines in English, allowing a diverse audience to understand their onstage art. Via outreach programs, they spread knowledge and encourage a sort of human connection only the theatre can provide. They train countless deaf artists, helping them hone their art; actors and performers who have passed through NTD’s doors have gone on to do truly great things, opening their own deaf theatre companies and spreading understanding of the deaf community further (Deaf West comes to mind).

NTD was, is, and will always be a pioneer in the theatrical industry and the deaf community in bringing together those without a voice and giving them a platform they were once denied. And in a world where people are so often silenced, one can only be glad they’re here.

Spotlight on the Small Ones: Zneefrock Productions

Jonathan Fong


In one of my earlier articles on this blog, I praised the smaller, less-known side of theatre—community theatre, amateur dramatics, high school theatre, etc — and how much they truly bring to the theatrical community as a whole. In line with that, I figured I’d start a little series of articles to do just that—put a spotlight onto the lesser-known theatre companies, organizations and people who make theatre what it is.

Zneefrock Productions, based in Woodmere, New York, is a youth theatre company that embodies everything that youth and the next generation bring to theatre. Founded by (then-12 year old) Andrew Feldman in 2014 (yes, the Andrew Feldman that’s currently starring in Dear Evan Hansen on Broadway), it has grown from a simple Bar Mitzvah project of a cabaret of showtunes to an established company who’ve performed everything from fully-fledged licensed productions of big musicals like Seussical and Be More Chill to concert performances akin to their first and even original musicals. And it’s run by teenagers.

They have a mission. The company raises money for, among other organizations, NEXT for AUTISM, an organization supporting people with autism across America in societies and communities; Feldman, who has a cousin with autism, explains in an interview on Odyssey that donating to them was “the obvious choice”. Run by teens at the forefront of the social movements of today, the company draws attention to the social dynamics of modern society in their productions. Their aforementioned production of Seussical, in Feldman’s own words, was a “re-imagining…more stripped-down and socially conscious”, while their novel production of The Last Five Years featured a rotating cast with differing gender pairings, with some performances done traditionally and others with one or both of the two main characters of Jamie and Cathy gender-swapped to explore the differences in gender dynamics caused by the flipping of gender roles and expectations on their head, even if within the confines of the same story.

They don’t mess around either. Their first original musical, a Star Wars parody named SW: A New(sical) Hope written by Feldman and Adrian Dickson, is a full hour and forty minutes long with an intermission to boot (an official recording of the full show can be found on YouTube). They’ve professionally recorded cast albums for their shows—their cast recording for A New(sical) Hope can be found on Soundcloud. And as a non-profit theatre company, they’ve raised over $21,000 US in support of autism-supporting organizations; their very first cabaret raised a thousand dollars for the cause, while more recently their production of Seussical raised $5000 and their production of Be More Chill, staged right before the show’s current Broadway run, raised a full $9000.

The point is—Zneefrock is what theatre should be. Not flashiness or money—they, driven not by money nor visual spectacle but by the society and social movements of today, demonstrate the power of youth. Not just within the theatre, but of theatre itself, in helping those among us in need and putting a spotlight on the chasms and gaps in modern society which need addressing. And with members of their company going on to achieve great things already out there in the world of professional theatre, there’s no doubt that they’re a force to be reckoned with, no matter how small they may appear to be.

How to Succeed in Performing Without Really Trying

Elizabeth Bergmann

Three years ago, at the 2016 Tony Awards, James Corden sang about how seeing a show makes us say "That could be me!" When I was a freshman in high school, I was cut from the volleyball team and needed a new activity to fill my fall semester, so my band squad leader suggested the fall play. In the summer of 2018, I talked my whole family (Mom, Dad, and younger brother) into doing The Music Man with my community theatre family. We all have different ways that we find ourselves wanting to enter the world of theatre. Maybe a local group is doing one of your favorite shows, or a friend keeps insisting you should do a show together (I am this friend).

 

Whatever the reason, providence seems determined to get you in a show. If you’re brand-new, from a non-theatre family, and generally haven’t done anything except those school plays about bullying and the seasons, you have no clue what you’re getting into. The idea of auditioning for a big show can be terrifying. People throw out words like “blocking” and “dramaturge” and you have no clue what they’re talking about. With no single source of all this information available up to this point, I’ve decided to become that single source myself. I plan to focus on auditions for musical theatre, mostly because those tend to be the most complicated, but aspects of it will apply to auditioning for plays, as well. So, if you have no clue where to start, why not start here?

 

Where do I find a group to do a show with?

There are lots of Facebook groups for different theatrical groups and communities. I’m lucky enough to currently be in two groups that cater to my area, but local news sources and postings can let you know what is in your area. There may even be smaller groups that you rarely hear about looking for fresh talent! I found my community theatre family pretty much by accident: they rehearse in the same community center where I was taking dance classes. If you know people who perform, ask them where. If you’re a student, look for your school’s program. Find out which shows these groups are doing, and check when they rehearse. What’s the cast size? Can you be at rehearsals? If it looks like you’d be able to be in this show, audition!

 


What do I do to get ready for auditions?

The first thing I like to do when considering auditioning for a show is research. Who wrote the show? What is the basic story? What style of music is it? Are there any characters you’d like to play? I tend to accidentally memorize shows, but general familiarity will be your best friend. You need to know what you’re getting yourself into (a girl quit a Guys and Dolls production I was in because she suddenly discovered it could be a little sexist), and this will also give you a baseline for your audition. The audition description will tell you if you need to prepare a monologue, a song, or anything else. Monologues should fit the tone and time period of the show you’re auditioning for. Pick a song that you know you can sing well no matter what condition your voice is in. I personally don’t recommend a song you don’t know too well, but also try to avoid cliché audition songs (that’s a whole other article, ask theatre friends and/or Google if you aren’t sure). The song should ideally be in the style of the show, so do a pop song for a pop show, a classical song for a classical show, etc. Be sure to have sheet music, or a karaoke track, or whatever else they might say you need to supply. Plan out an audition outfit (again, a whole other article), and make sure it’s not too specific and you can move in it.

 

What do I do once I get to auditions?

Show up a little early so you can fill out any forms, turn in sheet music, whatever you need to do before you get up and sing. As you fill out the form, be honest about any conflicts so they can make a rehearsal schedule. If they ask if you want a specific role, put it down. Since you’re just starting out, I highly suggest putting that you’d be willing to play any role and that you’ll take an ensemble role. Ensemble is a great place to start, and directors often like to see that you’re not just here for the one role you specifically auditioned for. After you turn in the form, you’ll usually be singing. You might sing in front of just those casting, you might be in a small group, or you might be singing in front of everybody. If you have an accompanist (pianist), let them know what sections you’re singing and the tempo you’d like to sing it at. You might be asked to introduce yourself, usually by giving your name and the song you’re singing. As you sing, try to act while you perform your song. If it’s a happy song, show that you’re happy, if it’s sad, be sad-- you get the idea. Once everyone has sung, you may be asked to dance a little, or to do “cold reads” from the script (perform a scene with little to no practice time). Take whatever they throw at you and give it 100% effort. You might get called back, you might not, but make sure they’ve seen that you can do a lot with whatever you’re given.

 

What happens after auditions?

The cast can be announced in a number of ways. You might receive a phone call or an email, there could be a website, a Facebook page might be set up, etc. A lot of groups may ask that you respond to accept or decline a role (I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to be prompt in responding).You’ll likely receive a date for a read-through and a rehearsal schedule, which you’ll want to put in your calendar as soon as possible. You’ll receive either a separate script and score or a full libretto. You’ll want to check and ask if you can use highlighters or if it’s pencils only for marking it. GUARD YOUR SCRIPT. Bare minimum, write your name in the front cover so people know it’s yours. Script thieves are everywhere, and your name in it means you can get it back.

 

What should I do in rehearsals?

Up until tech week, rehearsals will be just about learning and perfecting the material. You may or may not be rehearsing in the space you’re performing in. You’ll take this time to learn music, dances, and any lines or blocking you’ll need to know. Show up to rehearsal on-time, and don’t be afraid to ask questions! Your fellow actors, your director, and especially your stage manager are all there to help and support you. Write notes for blocking (movement while acting), choreography, and music so you don’t forget them. If someone asks a question about costumes, shoes, hair, or makeup, listen for the answer (and I’ll tell you more later).

 

What’s this “tech week” people talk about all the time?

“Tech week” is the last week of rehearsals before the show opens. It’s dedicated to incorporating the technical elements into the show, hence “tech week.” You’ll be in the performance space, and these will be the longest rehearsals you’ll ever experience. You’ll likely be called earlier and kept later. In addition to technical elements (lights, sound effects, microphones, etcetera), your show’s band/orchestra will appear (if there is one) and you’ll be in costume with hair and makeup done. These rehearsals are meant to perfect runs of the show so it’s ready by opening. You’ll likely get notes each night, and you’ll want to write these down and implement them. Everybody will be stressed and tired, so make sure to take care of yourself and have patience. Maybe give something nice to your stage manager so they don’t go insane.

 

You keep talking about costumes, hair, and makeup. What do I need to do for that?

Each theatre group is different. You might be supplying your own costume, or they might have them for you. You should learn what you need to supply from the production team, but don’t be afraid to ask. As a good base, it might be wise to invest in character shoes if you play lady roles, black dress shoes if you play man roles, and jazz shoes either way. Each production has different visions, but these shoes usually work no matter what time period you’re in. As for hair, you might be doing your own or someone might be doing it for you. This depends on the group. If you are doing it yourself, ask for what it should look like for the show. Wigs might be involved depending on the show.

 

Now, makeup. I know some groups will have other people doing your makeup, but I’ve always done it for myself. If you are doing it yourself, everybody has their own preferences for how they do it. Some shows will require bright colors or wrinkles or something drastic, but a lot of shows are fairly simple. My advice: Your face, but bigger. I recommend foundation to even out your skin, concealer for under your eyes, blush to give you some color, and eyeliner & mascara to bring your eyes out. If you’re an eyeshadow and lipstick person, use nude browns on the eyes and pick a lipstick that looks natural (unless this is a time period where red was the color of choice). Apply a little more of everything than you would for every day. The whole purpose of stage makeup is to ensure your face looks good from the back row of the theatre. Ask your castmates for help if you’re not sure how much is too much.

 

What should I expect from performances?

Things will go right, and things will go wrong. The whole atmosphere of a show is different when there is an audience there with you. The important thing is to not add things once the show opens. You’ll be tempted to push for laughs or try something new, but don’t do it. Make sure you’re paying attention to the show so you don’t miss your cues. Enjoy the applause and feed off the audience to keep your energy up. There is nothing more thrilling than performing for a great audience. You’ll likely get to greet the audience after curtain call, so take that opportunity to thank everyone who came to see you.

 

What happens when the show ends?

A lot of groups need help striking the show after, so be sure to stay and help with that. There will likely be a cast party that you should definitely attend. You’ll probably be sad, and your time will feel a lot emptier without rehearsals in there. But that just means you can look forward to the next show! Not many people can stop after just one.

 

I hope you’ll find your home in the theatre. It has been the best family I could ever ask for, and it really will fill you with a joy that nothing else can create. Welcome home! We're glad to have you!

Favoritism? Or Just Not Good Enough?

When one looks back at the high school drama experience, one common theme continues to rear its ugly head - favoritism. From TV shows to your local high school, you hear all about how favoritism is rampant… But what if I told you it does and SHOULD take more than talent to get a role at the educational level? Blasphemous, right? What else could possibly go into the process?

 

Show selection:

 For those of you who have had to pick shows for either a high school or other groups (community theatre companies, professional companies, etc.) there has to be a fundamental understanding of the community/talent you have access to. If I live in rural Alabama with 1% of the population being Black/African American, I’m sure as heck not going to be Hairspray or Ragtime (though that does not stop people, smh). If I have a huge amount of men who show up to auditions consistently, I probably wouldn’t do Little Women or 9 to 5. You get the point! You have to have some sort of idea of who you could potentially casting so that your company/school has a successful production. However, I will be clear that this is NOT the same as precasting - just because one is aware of the people who could be auditioning and picks shows that suit those strengths is not the same as handing someone a role regardless of the audition. Picking shows without your school in mind is a mistake.

 

****Your**** audition:

 Now, obviously, auditions can be scary! Nerves can happen, and in some cases, they can be super hard to overcome. Something that I have learned over the time I’ve spent auditioning is that instead of looking outwards and blaming others for me not getting what I would have wanted… Let’s examine how I actually did in the room. How did I sound? Was my song/monologue appropriate? Were my beats/intentions clear? There are SO many things that go into your performance/audition, and while obviously we all try our best in the room, sometimes our talent is not showcased to the best of our abilities. While blaming others is a very comfortable thing to do, without looking at what you could have done better you’re limiting your opportunities to grow.

 

Someone else’s audition:

 Sometimes, regardless of the subjectivity of talent, someone has just a better audition than you. It happens! They came in and had a really good day, they sang a better song, they showed their gifts off better than you did in this instance. There’s nothing to be done in a case like this except do the best you can each time you walk into the room. Hell, there are people who I have seen who are just SUCH great auditioners… And that work then doesn’t translate quite as well when they go to perform. Auditioning well is such a valuable skill, and sometimes someone else just comes in and kills it.

 

 

What the director values/is looking for:

 There are so many interpretations of theatre, which is one of its best qualities. We can agree or disagree, however when it comes to the director's vision at the end of the day that is what will shape the casting process. What if you’re a better singer than actress but the director wants a better actress than singer? Or vice versa? It’s all subjective, but at the end of the day if you don’t fit the director's vision you have to go about changing their mind. That may not happen in 16-32 bars, a cold read, a dance call, and a callback (if you get all of that!). While I did say previously we do need to be introspective about how we do in room, remember that the creative process is still more than just you!

 


High School Drama, the EXTRAcurricular:

 For one, being involved in your school’s shows is not a right but a privilege. Being a student of the school, things like behavior/grades will absolutely be something that is reflected upon. Whether it be in the classroom of the teacher or around the school, being a good citizen absolutely is something that is kept in mind. Being involved with drama (the non-performative sort) or being a disruptive force during the creative process will not bode you well. Regardless of how well you sing or anything of the like, educators don’t reward those (usually) who don’t deserve it. Unreliable students should not, and in many cases do not get what they want in drama departments. While people being a teacher's pet/etc should NOT be the thing that gets people parts, it is absolutely a point in your favor - do your best to be the best you can be… it will more than likely be noticed.

 

How “talented” you are:

 In an attempt to say this as nicely as possible - there are a lot of people in the world who have a slightly (or majorly) inflated sense of self. While someone may think they are the next *insert Broadway star*, the reality of it is that not only is there always someone better… But we may not be good as we think we are (or alternatively, we may not have done as well as we think we did). This is a weird bullet to swallow, but at the end of the day this absolutely can be someone’s Achilles heel.

 All of this to say, there is SO MUCH that goes into the picking of shows/casting/the creative process. While obviously there are PLENTY of schools/instances that really go above and beyond anything I’ve just talked about, we do have to continue to keep in mind the multidimensional aspect of casting and season selection. For those of you who find yourself stuck in either a school or community where you deeply/truly believe that the favoritism is so rampant do not hesitate to find greener pastures or other opportunities. It’s absolutely unfair at times that things like these can ruin an experience, however all I am asking for is for people to be honest with themselves and open about the potential “why” of a situation.

 Next article I’ll hopefully be talking the conversation of creating your own art! As someone who has recently started his own theatre company, I’ve spent the last year developing a nonprofit. If you have any questions you want me address in the next article comment below!

To the Unrecognized Theatre Workers

SarahLynn Mangan
A thank you letter to all those not recognized or hardly recognized for their work in the theater. Many times, the people who get the least thanks are those who do the most.

To the costumers to dressers to set builders to painters, to the stage managers and their tech-operators and their running crews, thank you. To the casting directors to the choreographers to the dance captains, thank you. To the laundromats to the wigmakers to the curtain cleaners, thank you. To the conductor to the pit to the assistant music directors, thank you. To the people who came up with the original vision of the production to the ones who decided to take a chance on it, thank you. To the marketers to the poster making companies to the web design fanatics, thank you. To the ushers to the program folders to the kiosk tenders, thank you. To the house manager to the production manager to the assistant stage manager to the interns to the box office manager, thank you.

 Thank you for creating theatre and always being willing to sacrifice your time, your energy and frankly your sanity to put on a wonderful show that is reflected through the actors on stage.

 Actors are consistently receiving flowers, food, and praise for their performances and connection with the audience, but I believe that the most praise should go to you people and even all the people I didn’t list. The actors would not be receiving this praise if it was not for you.

 I know you know this and you say it in your own head before the curtain opens or whenever someone gets hissy at you asking “Well what did you even do for this show?” but I am going to recognize it anyway, here in writing.

 For many of you on this list, your talents could be used in many different areas in the world, but you choose to spend them on something that can truly make an impact on either the teenagers seeing their first show or the elders seeing their last. Without you willing to spend a fraction of your talent in this industry, actors would not have anything to work for.

 Thank you for putting up with stuck up actors and people who really have no idea what your job entails but still being willing to continue to work with them.

 From the bottom of my heart, Thank you.

 

 Now for those actors who don’t always say thank you to the costumer every time they repair your costume or your dresser who helps you during the fastest quick change of your life, start thanking them. For those who don’t come in early to see what they can help with during tech week whether that being painting the set, sewing some hems, or even folding some programs, start doing that. For those who might have some extra cash to order an underappreciated crew member some coffee or a donut, start doing that. Start taking the time to really appreciate the people who help your job run smoothly, cause without them, you would be naked in an empty theatre with no lights on except for the ghost light.

Finally, for those audience members who get grumpy at the house manager or ushers when you arrive late and can’t be seated, take a deep breath and relish in the fact that you have made it to a theatre where all your troubles are supposed to melt away. For those who never shake the hands of the orchestra or stay until the end of the exit music, start doing so because they tend to do more work than the actors on stage, and applause for them after the exit music. For those who stare at the crew when you see them for a quick second in confusion for wearing all black, ask them what they did for the show and congratulate them on a smooth show. For those who aren’t patient with the box office start doing so and maybe they can figure out how the dates on your tickets were actually for a week ago instead of tonight.

 If everyone took the time to thank the people we don’t think of when we think of theatre production, everyone would have a grander time at the most amazing place in the world, the stage.

My (Not so Good) Thoughts on Community Theatre

Jyothi Cross

I was born and raised on community theatre, it helped me grow from a tiny 8-year-old with too much energy and no acting skill to what I am now. I will be forever grateful to the gifts of confidence, improvisation and voice projection (it’s never not useful) that community theatre has given me but over the past year I have come to understand the dark underbelly of community theatre and, in some ways, have come to resent it.

This week I directed my first show, a production of Peter Pan for a school competition, with a cast of mostly 13-year-olds and it rocked. The process was hell, but the show itself – which involved Tinkerbell flying in on a fishing rod to the Mission Impossible theme song and around 20 lighting cues – rocked. Nonetheless, one quote stood out just as we were preparing for our second out of three shows that day:

‘Let’s go show them that theatre kids can be cool!’

It’s a nice sentiment, but a sad one too. These 14 kids worked their butts off to produce a 30-minute show in 6 weeks, giving up most of their lunchtimes and spending however much on costumes and make-up. My co-director and I fell out 5 times over the course of the show and had both lost our voices by the end of it. Every single member of our production gave their soul to that show and all the audience would think of them was that these kids were ‘Theatre Nerds’ who weren’t worth their time. This is the first thing I hate about community theatre, the fact that this audience who would spend their weekends idolizing actors like Zac Efron or Zendaya don’t recognize how amazing these people are to even get up on the stage. Community theatre actors don’t want praise or fame, they act because that’s what they enjoy but are considered leagues below the football team who spend 80 minutes faking injuries and kicking a ball – Theatre Kids are cooler than them any day.

My second reason for hating community theatre? It all stems for the downfall of my local theatre group – my lifeline if you will. I had spent 4 years in a cold Church hall watching numbers slowly decrease until eventually, last November, the group kicked the bucket. I’m not afraid to admit that I cried pretty much all that evening, with my childhood gone there was nowhere to go and in a little town like mine, there were no other opportunities. Community theatre is addictive; it draws you in and then, unless you’re lucky, it doesn’t go anywhere. We get addicted to the lights, to the characters, to the rush of adrenaline when you step on stage in front of an audience even if that audience is just your mum and dad. Unfortunately, this addiction isn’t sustainable. 

Of course, my perspective is from one town in the UK and I know in bigger areas or bigger countries like America the opportunities are more common and there is more space for development but, nonetheless, the facts stand. Unless you are the best of the best community theatre doesn’t go anywhere, instead, it simply becomes a fun story you’ll tell your kids one day. However, people get bored of seeing the same crazy show again and again. They get bored of doing the same workshops again and again. In the moment it feels great but from the outside? People start looking for unique and varied theatre which often leads them to larger theatre companies and slowly but surely your local theatre group dies out. 

Do I sound bitter? Perhaps. I hate community theatre because I love it so much. I love the family, the characters, the training, and I hate it because no-one ever seems to realize how cool a person that makes you. Does that make sense? Put your thoughts in the comments!

 

An Ode to the Small Theatres

Jonathan Fong
Here’s an ode to the smaller ones among us.

Here’s to the actors who toil away in closet-sized rehearsal spaces, warm up in public bathrooms, and stretch on odd tables and benches. To the leading lady bursting with excitement to be let loose, even if only on a makeshift ‘stage’ that’s actually a cornered off part of the gym. To the boy cast in his first show, frantically going over each of his ten lines to make sure he nails each and every one of them.

Here’s to the artists who have to make do. Here’s to the painters who paint masterpieces of backdrops with dollar-store paint and decade-old brushes because they don’t have anything left in the budget to use. Here’s to the prop designers who stuff old top hats with underwear to make them stand and painstakingly tape together broken props that just need to last one more show five minutes before curtain. Here’s to the costumers who play Dr. Frankenstein each time a new show’s put on, mixing and matching costume parts and hats and wigs to make something that, in the end, surprisingly looks like it might actually be right.

Here’s to the crew, scurrying about and coordinating with runners and messengers because they can’t afford radios. Here’s to the volunteer stagehands dressed in varying assortments of black, grey, and the odd white sock from the newbie on their first production who didn’t know they were supposed to wear all black for a reason. Here’s to the stage managers, clipboards filled with unintelligible scribbles and minds filled with unintelligible cues they have to call right. Here’s to lighting, to SFX, to the technicians using decade-old mixers and forever entangled rigging, braiding old cables and wires if only to make do for opening.

And here’s to the director, hair in a constant frazzle from telling people where to go and what to do while himself trying to juggle his brilliant creative direction with the demands and limits of what he has now. Here’s to the choreographer struggling to teach the 10-year-olds in the ensemble how to do the finale song’s choreo the night before opening. Here’s to the friends, the family, those loved ones who inevitably come to support all this controlled madness on opening and closing night (sometimes, the same night). Because one day, maybe all of these people might move on, graduate to bigger and better productions, command Broadway stages and garner appreciation, while the next generation fills their place in the wings, waiting for their chance to shine.

Here’s to the small theatres and what they bring us all.

My Personal Year in Review

Steven Sauke
As 2018 comes to a close (already?!), I thought it would be nice to look back on the musicals I have seen in the past couple years. Looking at the list, nearly all of them are based on, or at least inspired by, real events. Some were live onstage, while several of them were on Fathom Events in movie theaters.

In no particular order, these are the shows that stand out in my memory.

Here Lies Love

This musical by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim tells the story of Imelda Marcos, former first lady of the Philippines. Having grown up in the Philippines in the 80s and early 90s, there were parts of this show that I remember experiencing.

A friend got me a ticket, and I wasn’t sure what to think about the “standing room” tickets that we got. I was particularly surprised to notice in the lobby that the “standing room” tickets were the most expensive at the Seattle Repertory Theatre. Having not seen a show at that venue in the past (also where Come from Away performed its pre-Broadway shows, which I missed), I was not quite sure what to expect. I was told we would be onstage, and that people would be directing us where to go as the actors performed. This confused me, as I wasn’t sure if we might be blocking the audience from seeing the show. As we entered the theatre, they handed out glow-in-the-dark earplugs, warning us that it would be very loud, and we would need them. We were ushered into a fairly small rectangular room with a large disco ball in the middle hanging over a long table spanning nearly the width of the room. Spotlights were everywhere, and there was a family portrait of the Marcoses projected on one wall. At first I thought we would go from there into the theatre. Then I realized this room was the stage. The seats are on balconies above the stage, looking down on it.

As the show started, the disco ball rose up to the ceiling, and the DJ introduced the show from his raised box in one corner of the stage. On the opposite end of the stage, a woman said, “Excuse me” and brushed past me as she climbed the steps to that part of the stage to join the young Imelda, already on stage. A tropical downpour was projected on the wall behind the actresses as we got to know Imelda and her childhood friend Estrella on the eastern Philippine island of Leyte. As the story progressed, we saw her growing relationship with Ninoy Aquino, who was more interested in politics while she was interested in fashion. She joined a beauty pageant and became the “Rose of Tacloban.” (Tacloban is the capital of the island province of Leyte.) I was fascinated with the quick costume changes during that song that they didn’t even try to hide, as she went from one beautiful Philippine dress to another, with stagehands donning new costumes on her. Eventually, her relationship with Ninoy was interrupted when she met a certain Ferdinand Marcos and dated and married him in short order. On their honeymoon, they danced on the beach, or in our case, what I initially thought was a long table when entering the theatre. This was also the first time I have seen someone dancing in tsinelas (flipflops). I was fascinated by the interesting footwear, and was then fascinated that I had to stop and think of the English word for it.

As the story continued, we learned about their turbulent marriage and the political rivalry that grew between Marcos and Aquino. Marcos would eventually declare martial law [side note: the period of martial law was when we moved to the Philippines], and Aquino’s outspoken opposition to it got him arrested and imprisoned. (A wheeled stairway was turned backwards and became his cell.) Imelda visited him in prison and encouraged him to move to America to escape all of this. He and his family moved, but he couldn’t stay away. In an emotional farewell on the tarmac in the US, he sang good bye to his wife Corazon and son Ninoy III, and climbed the stairs. The staircase that had been his prison cell was now the stairway to the plane, and then the stairs off the plane in Manila at what would eventually become known as Ninoy Aquino International Airport. As he started to descend the stairs, there was a loud bang, flash, and he slumped over as the lights went dark. His mother Aurora Aquino sang a mournful song, dressed in black and carrying a black umbrella, as the mourners crossed the stage. His assassination in 1983 played a major part in the people rising up in the bloodless 1986 People Power Revolution to elect a new president, Corazon Aquino, and force the Marcos family into exile in Hawaii. Imelda mournfully wondered why the Philippine people no longer loved her, and her estranged friend Estrella wondered the same thing about Imelda.

With the Marcos family gone, the DJ came down to the stage and sang the final song, accompanied on his guitar. The company then returned to close the show.

Throughout the show, the stagehands, wearing glow-in-the-dark pink and holding glowsticks, directed those of us in the onstage audience around the stage as stages, tables, and other set pieces rotated and were otherwise moved. By the end of the show, most of the stage and “long table” had moved to one end of the stage. For Aurora Aquino’s song, she and fellow mourners were on a part of stage that was slowly transported from one end to the other as the song continued. After that, the performance was on the bare floor on the end of the stage that no longer had raised stage pieces. Throughout, the action was all around us and we had to turn around and move to take it all in. The news media was represented by reporters and cameramen, and as the cameramen filmed, their cameras projected the footage on the wall. Throughout, people were identified by their name on the walls, similar to how they would be identified in a news report. The years and locations were similarly projected on the walls.

It was a powerful show, and the staging was unlike anything I have experienced elsewhere. Thus far, it has played in New York, London and Seattle, and last I heard they were hoping it will make it to Broadway. I hope it does. In some ways it reminded me of Miss Saigon and Evita, and was more powerful for me because I remember some of the events in the last few minutes of the show. In 1986, we got a vacation from school during the People Power Revolution because it was too dangerous for us to be out.

 

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Miss Saigon

This show is more familiar to the Broadway community, so I will not go into the plot as much as I did with Here Lies Love. It was inspired by several sources: primarily, a heartbreaking photo of a Vietnamese woman at the airport saying good bye to her child to give them a better life. It is also inspired by Pierre Loti’s novel Madame Crysanthème and the opera that book inspired, Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. I saw the London cast as filmed for Fathom Events to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the musical. It tells the story of Christopher Scott, an American marine stationed in Vietnam at the end of the war, and his relationship with Kim, a Vietnamese teenager who fled an attack on her village and found a less than desirable job in the big city. Chris and Kim spend an eventful night together, and just like that, Saigon falls and he is forced to leave without her. Three years later, Kim finds herself in Bangkok trying to provide for her young son Tam and absolutely certain that Chris will come back for her and their son. Chris, meanwhile, convinced he would never see Kim again, has remarried and is building a life with his new wife Ellen. Ellen is bewildered by Chris’s nightmares, and they are further shocked when they learn that Kim is still alive, and that Chris has a son. Chris and Ellen go to Bangkok, and though a series of unfortunate circumstances, it falls to Ellen to tell Kim that Chris has now remarried. Kim wants to send her son to America with his father, but Ellen feels it would be better for the child to be with his mother. Kim takes decisive measures to ensure that, by her sacrifice, Tam will have a better life in America.

There was an intermission between acts (the first time I have experienced this at a movie theater), and then a second intermission after the second act. After that, they showed the 25th Anniversary celebration. The original cast (as many as could come) were there, and Lea Salonga (the original Kim) sang a duet with the current “Gigi” of “The Movie in My Mind.” Lea also did a duet with Simon Bowman (original Chris). The composers were there as well.

While for the most part I loved the show, I find it sad that the song “Her or Me”, which then morphed into “Now that I’ve Seen Her”, was cut in favor of a completely different song called “Maybe.” The tune was nothing like its predecessors, and it felt out of place, tacked on to a masterpiece. I would have preferred that they keep the powerful “Now that I’ve Seen Her.”

This is an emotional and powerful show, and having grown up in Asia, it also resonated with me with the Asian elements. I have not been to Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City, but I have been to Bangkok (though not the parts of Bangkok portrayed in the musical). Before moving on to the West End and Broadway, Lea Salonga was popular in the Philippines, so I grew up hearing her. Though I do not recommend this show for children, it is very powerful and moving. My eyes were watering at times watching it.

Allegiance

This has played on Fathom Events in movie theaters several times. I highly recommend it, as it is very educational, and it is about a part of our history that was not taught at length in school. While almost all the characters are fictional, it is inspired by George Takei’s memories of being in a Japanese internment camp during World War 2. The way they were treated was shameful, and I believe everyone needs to watch this to make sure we do not repeat this dark part of our history. It is an inspirational story of never giving up on family and treating all humans with dignity. It teaches the Japanese concept of gaman (我慢), or holding up in tough times in a patient and dignified manner. George Takei, Lea Salonga, Telly Leung and the rest of the cast shone.

The show was followed by a documentary about the internment camps. There’s so much we weren’t taught, so much we need to know. The next time this airs, please do yourself a favor and go see it.

Puffs

This is a parody of the Harry Potter story, following the saga through the events of all seven books from the perspective of the Puffs. (The houses are renamed, probably to avoid copyright issues. They are the Snakes, the Braves, the Smarts and the Puffs.) Wayne lives in the US and is surprised to get an owl telling him that he has been accepted at Hogwarts in the UK. He had no idea his parents, who he never knew, were British. It skims over the highlights of the seven books, as the Puffs are constantly outshone and outdone, but they do their best to make their contributions despite being underappreciated. While this is not Harry Potter canon, I think I will leave the plot description at that, as it is important to #keepthesecrets with all things Harry Potter.

This play was filmed off-Broadway, and I saw it on Fathom Events in a movie theater. It is a fun show, particularly enjoyable for fans of the books that inspired it. I’m not sure how well people who do not know the story would understand what is going on, but I’m sure they would still enjoy it. The cast is small, with most actors playing multiple roles. It’s similar to Come from Away in that respect (though that’s probably the only similarity). The stage is also surprisingly small, considering the sweeping scope of the story. In a way, that kind of highlights how the Puffs are small and underappreciated (underrated?), but their value is much greater than it appears.

Newsies

Disney came out with their movie about the 1899 New York newsboy strike while I was in high school. My freshman year in high school we did a Disney revue and performed “King of New York.” So I was excited years later when they did a Broadway version, and was further excited when I found out they were filming a stage production with the combined touring cast and members of the original Broadway cast. This was an opportunity I could not pass up.

As with all Disney’s Broadway shows based on movies, they added songs and plot elements. For example, the characters of Denton and Sarah (Davey and Les’ sister) were combined into Katherine, daughter of Pulitzer. Medda Larkin, the “Swedish Nightingale” in the movie, was decidedly not Swedish in the Broadway version, but just as amazing. One of my favorite moments in the movie is where they sing near the beginning, “When you’ve got a hundred voices ringing, who can hear a lousy whistle blow?”, and then that changes later on to “When you’ve got a million voices ringing, who can hear a lousy whistle blow?” A stage production can’t replicate the large crowds they can have in a movie, so that didn’t have the same effect on me; however, what did give me similar chills was the new song “Brooklyn’s Here.” Up to that point, the newsies’ attempts to gather support from other groups depended on the response from Spot Conlon and his group of Brooklyn newsies. Once they respond in support, the other boroughs join in. This is a powerful story of what can be accomplished by a unified effort. I also liked the way the Broadway version incorporated Teddy Roosevelt better than the movie.

Something Rotten

This is the show that taught me that it might not be wise to listen to a cast recording of a musical comedy for the first time in the car while driving down the freeway. I tend to shut my eyes when I laugh hard. Yeah, not a good idea while driving. I managed to keep my eyes open, but it was a challenge. “A Musical” was the song that did me in.

So of course, the theatre being a much safer place to be doubled over laughing, I jumped at the opportunity to see the show when it came to Seattle! It was absolutely worth it. The rivalry between Shakespeare and the Bottom Brothers was like no other. Throw in Nostradamus and an attempt at stealing an idea Shakespeare will have in the future, and you get an omelet! The nods to other musicals and constant parodies and puns made for an evening of hilarity. Adam Pascal was brilliant as Shakespeare. I highly recommend this show if you get the opportunity.

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Hamilton

I was initially skeptical of this show. I am not a fan of hip hop and rap, and I also have an aversion to an excess of swearing. I learned early on that this show has both. When I first tried listening to the cast recording a couple years ago, I turned it off during the first track because it just wasn’t my kind of music. More recently, I decided to give it another chance due to its popularity, and I made myself listen to the entire (rather long) cast recording. I found out that, once you get past the style and the swearing, it is actually a powerful, moving show. So, when I learned it was coming to Seattle, I was much more excited about it than I had been in the past. But I didn’t have much hope of seeing it due to the very expensive price tag. My brother’s employer came to the rescue, as they paid for a group of their employees to go see it, with the possibility of bringing a guest. Since I have an awesome brother, I got to go see it! (My coworkers were jealous.)

The show follows the life of Alexander Hamilton, from his early political life, to his death in a duel with Aaron Burr, sometime after his son’s similar death. It follows his romance and marriage to Eliza Schuyler, with twists and turns along the way, as well as his contributions to American politics and history. It is a powerful musical, and I highly recommend it. (“Immigrants: We get the job done!”) I would love to see it again. (King George was probably right. I’ll be back. Da da da da da da da da da da-ya da!) I would also say it is worth it just to see Lafayette rapping in a strong French accent.

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Crowns

Taproot Theatre, one of Seattle’s premiere community theatre groups, put on the lesser-known musical Crowns, which is about the African American experience in the South. Yolanda, a city girl from Brooklyn, visits, and six women (and one man) tell her their stories with the hats (or crowns) they wear to church and elsewhere. It is a joyful and moving celebration of the human spirit, and Yolanda is slowly changed over the course of the show. I recommend it.

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Come from Away

I have gone into detail on the plot and songs of this show in previous blogs, so here I will focus more on my experience, most of which happened after my post in August. Interviewing the people who inspired the show gave me a new perspective on the tragedy that I remember, and the way others responded to it around the world. I now count several of them among my friends.

Our Bible study group from my church decided to go to the show during its run, as there are many lessons in the show that express a biblical view of how to welcome strangers with open arms (that far too many of my fellow Christians seem to have forgotten, but that’s another matter). Our group leader is a subscriber at the 5th Avenue Theatre, and bought tickets for us, that we were going to need to pay back. However, she asked that we wait to pay her back because an anonymous donor had offered to cover part of the cost. She was blown away when said donor ended up paying the ENTIRE cost for our group to see it! I still don’t know who paid for us to see it, but if you’re reading this, thank you!!

Top: With Diane Davis; Middle: with Kevin Tuerff; Bottom: Hannah, Beulah and Bonnie.

Top: With Diane Davis; Middle: with Kevin Tuerff; Bottom: Hannah, Beulah and Bonnie.

Having interviewed several of the people involved over the internet, I wanted to meet them in person. Kevin Tuerff invited me to a special screening of the HBO Canada documentary You Are Here: A Come From Away Story. He said I could invite a guest, so my brother came with me. It was a deeply moving documentary, and I am looking forward to it being available for US and international audiences. The experience was even more powerful sitting down the row from Kevin Jung, right behind Janice Goudie, Brian Mosher, Beulah Cooper and Hannah O’Rourke. Kevin Tuerff was a couple rows ahead of me. Before the show, I walked up to Nick and Diane Marson and introduced myself and thanked them for the interview. They then introduced me to Bonnie Harris, who was there with her sister. Afterwards, Beulah Cooper gave me a hug. I was amused that Oz Fudge was wearing an “STFD” t-shirt, as that’s his line in the show. I got to speak with Kevin Tuerff, who recognized me, and I took a picture of Bonnie, Beulah and Hannah. The only people not able to make it were Diane Davis and Claude Elliott, who had a conflict in Newfoundland, and Beverley Bass had to leave Seattle that morning, so couldn’t make it to the showing. The director and producer of the documentary were there. Sankoff and Hein were also there, but I didn’t get to meet them.

The Seattle Public Library hosted an event in which a representative from the 5th Avenue spoke about his research and knowledge of the show and its background. He explained how Come from Away is only the third of a very small subset of musicals, one based on interviews. It is not based on any book, movie or anything else. All research by the composers was done by means of interviews at the 10th anniversary celebration in 2011. They compiled many hours of recordings that they used to build a 100-minute musical. (The other musicals based on interviews are A Chorus Line and Working.) Chelsea LeValley, who workshopped the part of Beverley Bass before the show went to Broadway, sang “Me and the Sky.” Two Seattleites who were stranded in Newfoundland after 9/11 then shared about their experiences. One landed in Gander, and the other in St. John’s. Both were welcomed warmly. One difference was that while they allowed passengers to take their carry-ons off the planes in Gander, they did not allow that in St. John’s. So the passengers there had to make do with even less. One of them remembered that before they were allowed to land, planes were circling, waiting for direction where to land. As far up and as far down as she could see out her window, she could see planes circling, like a tornado of planes. But everyone made it down safely.

Our group from church went to see the show a few days later. Before the show, I attended a pre-show talk telling more of the background. We learned about how Sankoff and Hein met and got married. Their first argument was about whether or not music could change the world. They were Canadians living in New York when 9/11 hit, and that night they gathered around their piano with international friends and sang. It was very traumatic, but music and friendship brought them through it.

The show was everything and more I had dreamed it was. It was deeply moving, and I just had to go again. It just so happened that my previous birthday, my family told me we would go as a family to a show, and I was supposed to name the show. Knowing it was coming and that I would want to see it more than once, I requested Come from Away. So the week following the first showing, I saw it again with my family. I was surprised when Caleb at the merchandise booth recognized me and asked if it was my second or third time. My family was equally moved by the show.

Between showings, I had to go downtown to renew my car tabs. The man at the counter at the Department of Licensing saw my Come from Away shirt and asked me about it. He really wanted to see it, but he said his partner had been in New York at the time, and it was still too raw for him. He told me that his partner recalled being inside while everything outside turned black with the ashes from the fires and the rubble, and every once in a while, pieces of paper would hit the windows and blow away.

Partway through the run in Seattle, I found out that Diane Davis was coming, having missed the opening. While the first two times I saw it were planned, this one was not. She told me ahead of time which shows she would attend, and I decided to try to see one of those shows. It was Canada Night. I arrived at the box office and asked if they had rush tickets, but the show was sold out. They told me to wait and see if any seats opened up. So, I waited outside the theatre while someone dressed in RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) regalia welcomed guests into the theatre. Just before the show was due to start, I returned to the box office, and a seat had opened up! It was even relatively close to the stage. The first time I was in the balcony, and the second time I was in the back of the orchestra level below the balcony overhang. This time I was in row K. It was close enough see the actors’ expressions. After the show, they had a talk-back with Canadian dignitaries, the person who commissioned the show, and others, including Diane Davis. I moved closer to the stage, and when Diane saw me, she mouthed, “Steven?” After the talk-back, Diane gave me a big hug and told me it was nice to see a familiar face.

It was the experience of a lifetime. As my brother so eloquently put it, “So when are we going to Newfoundland?”

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a cod to kiss. I don’t know when, but that must happen.

 

These are the shows I have seen in the past couple years. What is next? My brother’s employer is sending a delegation to Dear Evan Hansen next month, and he invited me to come too! I can’t wait! I’m currently listening to the audiobook in preparation. (Well, not as I type, but I listen to it when I get the chance.

2018 has been an amazing year. It’s hard to believe it is almost over! I look forward to future adventures in theatre in 2019 and beyond, and I hope everyone has an amazing New Year!

 

Steven Sauke is a Broadway enthusiast who took all the pictures above, attended all the shows featured in the past couple years, and can get long winded at times.

Hadestown: E-Town to NYC and a Sense of Pride

Darren Wildeman

With the announcement of Hadestown coming to Broadway, I couldn’t help but feel a certain pride. Which is ironic, because I’m honestly not a huge fan of the show itself; or I’m not of the music anyways it really doesn’t do much for me (although it is growing on me some). The thing that’s really cool is it tried out in my home city. Now some of you might be saying “yeah, so what?” Well here’s the thing. I’m not from Chicago, New York, or one of the bit cities in California or even Florida which frequently get big tours or tryouts of some of these shows pre-Broadway. I’m from Edmonton, Alberta and currently live just outside of it. The theatre scene here is quite limited. We get about six touring shows per season, and the Citadel theatre (which is where Hadestown played and is pictured below) has its own shows and productions featuring local talent. I saw a fantastic production of Once there earlier this year.


“Citadel Theatre Edmonton”  by Citadeltheatre is licensed under  CC BY-SA 4.0

“Citadel Theatre Edmonton” by Citadeltheatre is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

I wouldn’t say the theatre scene in my city is dead. However, at the same time it certainly isn’t anything special. Not even for Canada. Toronto has the biggest theatre district in Canada, and the East in general tends to get different tours and have more local shows as well. Theatre here is certainly an afterthought. Being in Canada hockey is the big attraction here (Go Oilers!) that and having one of the biggest malls in the world. Theatre aside my city doesn’t even have a lot going for it culturally.

What few musicians, actors, and other talents that Canada does produce that go big time are almost never from my area. And Canada as a whole doesn’t produce that much for talent in the show business industry. There definitely are some big names but compared to their American counterparts it’s certainly limited. This is also why Come from Away is also kind of a big deal here. Canada not only produced a musical, but a critically acclaimed Tony winning musical; in New York or London this would be just another day, but here that’s kind of big. Which brings me back to Hadestown.

Hadestown itself isn’t Canadian written. The score and book writer Anais Mitchell is from Vermont. But what is significant is Hadestown had its tryout here. In my home city. In my city where hockey king and we’re more well known for being the coldest place on earth for one or two days every few winters (and even colder than Mars one day last year), hitting -40°F in the middle of winter, and typically having snow fall anywhere between September and May (even in June and August on rare occasion) than we are for our theatre scene. When your weather is more well known than your theatre, that is a telling sign. And yet, a soon-to-be Broadway show had its out of town tryout here in the Citadel theatre. Where I can go and see a musical or play.

There is talk that given that Hadestown had a tryout here that maybe Edmonton will become a destination for some other shows to try out. I don’t know if that will happen or not. However, despite not being a huge fan of the show’s music myself, I cannot emphasize enough how darned cool it is that a soon to be Broadway show actually came to my city on a tryout. Not a national tour, but a try out. Pre-Broadway.

Come from Away gives us pride because other than being an incredibly well reviewed and Tony Winning musical, it’s also about us, and how we helped our neighbours to the south on a dark day. It gives our normally humble and nice country a chance to brag a little bit about what we did (although not too much or we’ll have to apologize) and this piece of art a couple of our citizens have created. That in itself is really cool. It’s something else to have a musical written in the USA to come to Canada to try out. They not only came to Canada; they for some reason came to Edmonton. Not Toronto, not Ottawa or even Vancouver. But Edmonton. And that’s a really cool feeling.