Category Archives: Creativity

Essay Section: Creativity

Community Theater: Opening Night of Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Holy crap.

There are few things that compare with the pleasure and terror of opening nights. Will one’s mind go blank in the middle of a line?  Will anyone show up to see the show? Will they laugh at the parts the ensemble thinks funny and be properly scared by the more thrilling moments? It’s like being on the roller coaster as it heads up and up and still more up before reaching its crest and letting loose.  Nothing for it but to  hold the safety bar and hope you enjoy the ride!  Except there is no safety bar.

Jekyll and Hyde, which we opened last night, somehow makes me think of President Jimmy Carter. Remember his peanut-grower’s smiling face? He usually smiled.  Carter is infamous for saying something to the effect of “I lusted in my heart.”  The actual quote is  “I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.” per the Top Ten Unfortunate Political One-Liners of Time Magazine, but “I lusted in my heart,” sums it all up well enough.  Carter’s only problem was the he was President of the US (admittedly a pretty bad problem to have!), ‘cause everybody lusts in their heart sometimes.

So Dr. Jekyll’s problem is not so unique, even if his “scientific” solution of devising a potion to separate his “good” and “bad” sides is a bit extreme. Like most myths, the difference between Jekyll/Hyde and us “normal” people is only a matter of degree. By exaggerating a “normal” condition, J&H brings that condition into focus. This is why I love the line, toward the end of the play where my character, Mr. Utterson, says, “It is the curse of mankind that these incongruous personas are bound together in an agonized womb of consciousness.”  Anyone who has any insight into themselves at all recognizes that there are aspects of our personality that are incompatible with each other.

Don’t we all struggle to reconcile “incongruous” aspects of ourselves? The wish to be brave and daring and the pull to hide in the corner? Lust and moral rectitude? Hatred and benevolence?  And doesn’t most of humanity share with Dr. Jekyll the curiosity that drives us to tinker with the very building blocks of nature? Most of us are openly fascinated with the unraveling of the genetic code.  Most of us are similarly fascinated with the unlocking of the enormous power inside the atom even as we may decry it’s use against people and the dangers of trying to supply our energy needs through such potentially catastrophic means.

So it is a great pleasure for me to play the role of the Everyman in this dramatization of what is a natural human conundrum.   How can we reconcile conscience with licentiousness? Not easily, is the short answer.   To our peril if we try to find a way around our inner contradictions is the moral. But it strikes me that Dr. Jekyll, even to the end, regrets most that he didn’t quite get the formula right, that he is doomed only because his potion was not quite correct.

Like Dr. Jekyll, is humanity still tinkering with the formula? Trying to find ways to have it all for ourselves and still hold our head hight in moral superiority? Seems to me there’s an awful lot of that going on all over the globe. And we all fear catastrophe may lie around the corner.

Read ore on how this production of Jekyll and Hyde evolved…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Theater Jitters

Anyone involved in any theatrical venture has a point in time, if not several, when they get the jitters.

There is a great scene in Day for Night, a Truffaut film, where Truffaut himself plays the role of the director of a film within the film.  Toward the end of the movie, after all hell has repeatedly broken out in the course of making the film within the film, Truffaut’s character is being interviewed.  Asked about what the process is like, he says something like this:  “When you start making a film you think it will be the greatest ever made.  Soon thereafter, as everything begins to fall apart, you despair that you will never be able to finish the film at all and that it will never be released.  Toward the very end, you begin to see that you may actually be able to cobble together enough footage to at least finish the film. Then, in the final days, you begin to see how, just possibly, the film will actually turn out to be good.”

I think every actor, stage manager, set designer, director (and I’m sure a very similar process happens in virtually all creative endeavors) goes through the awful moment where it seems that nothing is going to work out as planned and that, far from being a brilliant display of wonderful talent, the play is going to be a complete disaster. Perhaps it will never even see the light of day.  Perhaps it shouldn’t ever see the light of day.  The sets don’t come together, the lighting and special effects don’t work, the actors don’t know their lines, advance reservations are pitiful. One begins to wonder why one ever thought this would work.

Of course, what makes the jitters intensify is the realization that sometimes one’s worst fears do come to pass. There’s often a point after that initial horrible feeling that nothing is going to work where still more things begin to fall apart: a key actor or technical person gets hurt or sick or disappears; a key rehearsal can’t be run because of a leaky pipe in the theater; a crucial set piece is broken during a run-through.

Live creative artistry is literally like riding an old-fashioned roller-coaster ride.  The whole long process building up to the first public showing is like the slow cranking up as the roller-coaster is pulled up the long incline up. You can’t quite believe that you’re so high up and there’s still what looks like an infinite upward slope before the thing will let loose. And there’s no getting off.  You’re on the ride and it’s going up and soon will come down like a hurricane. Nothing to do now but hang on.

Roller-coasters, though, do tend to stay on their tracks. That’s the fun of it: all of the terror but little if any (hopefully) real danger.  Not so true of theater.  I’ve seen seasoned professionals go completely blank in front of a full house. Set pieces can and do fall apart and crash to the ground. I saw a performance of Porgy and Bess where an understudy had to play Porgy’s part in the second act because the lead actor broke his leg coming off stage in act one.

So jitters though they may be, they can’t be easily dismissed. Contrary to the show biz trope, “The show must go on!” there isn’t any guarantee that it does have to go on.

So if local/community theater has the advantages of not needing thousands of advance sales to be viable, of not having to deal with the egos and personal foibles of big stars, and of not relying on massively complex staging and million dollar pre-promotion, it also has only so much room for error. People are likely to be more tolerant of minor glitches, but there are limits to that even in the smallest theater setting.  The audience is coming to see a show. They want to experience what a troupe actually does, not just what it aspires to do.

A week before opening is when these jitters usually begin to peak. Suddenly, there’s no sense of unlimited time to fix whatever isn’t working, to be confident that actors will learn their lines and the technical folks will make everything happen as planned that doesn’t seem to have happened correctly thus far. Now it’s all got to come together and, nine times out of ten, maybe 99 out of 100, it doesn’t come together yet.  Time suddenly becomes painfully finite. If it takes an extra hour to get a set piece or a costume together, if an actor is delayed getting to the theater, there’s no way to get that time back. Sometimes sleep is sacrificed.  But that too is a finite commodity and sleep-deprivation is rarely an ideal state for optimal performance.

So that’s where we are now with the production we’re putting together of Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde.  A unique conception: Taking the original Robert Louis Stevenson story and Stevenson’s evocative prose and using modern stagecraft to upset audience expectations and make the performance scary, theatrically jarring, philosophically meaningful, and simply fun and funny in parts.  All put together on a tiny, minimalistic stage. Classic black box theater.

If you’re in the Brattleboro, VT, area this coming weekend (the show opens Friday, October 24 @ 7:30, continues the next day, Sat. Oct. 25 and then Thursday, Friday, Saturday Oct. 30, 31 and November 1;  all seats $10.) come see what we’ve done.  Jittery as I am, I’m still hopeful, like Truffaut, that it will actually turn out to be quite good.

If you’re interested in some of the thought process that went into the production, take a peak at the essays I’ve included here, including a new one:  Monsters from the Id.    

 

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Hyde, continued

Murnau's Nosferatu

Murnau’s Nosferatu

(Continuing to blog the development of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, directed by Josh Moyse, opening on Friday, Oct. 24 and running through Saturday, Nov. 1 at the Hooker-Dunham Theater, 139 Main St., Brattleboro, VT)

From the multitude of possibilities of where one might take re-telling the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, there comes a point when you have to make some choices. We, the actors, have been deeply enmeshed in this process, though ultimately Josh Moyse, the director, is both determining the script and the staging of the piece.

I say “determining the script” because he isn’t writing it from scratch, but is using the text of the original Robert Louis Stevenson novella as the primary source of the dialogue and much of the imagery. This rendition of the tale is quite unlike any of the film versions of Jekyll/Hyde and completely unlike the musical version.  The films introduce characters not found in the novella: a virginal “good girl” whom Dr. Jekyll intends to marry before he goes off the rails and a down and dirty barmaid whom Mr. Hyde abuses. The films needed love themes so necessary for Hollywood, but quite irrelevant to the core of the tale.

By following the Stevenson story and using his archaic-sounding vocabulary and syntax, the tale is necessarily set in the Victorian era. Because that era is so associated in our minds with an exaggerated dichotomy between the moral and immoral, it is fitting for this tale, but the setting is ultimately irrelevant: the “issues” raised by the novella are as relevant today as they were a hundred and thirty years ago.

Though our production uses the novella as a starting point, where we have gone from there is the product of long conversations between the director and cast.  Some characters from the original story have been dropped and some given more prominence. In our version, unexpected interludes, interspersed between sequences of dialogue drawn from the original novella, disrupt the audience’s expectations of a chronological sequence.

We are trying, as I see it, to do a few things: To give the audience a sense of the terror that unrestrained evil evokes, but also a taste of the humor inherent in the over-exaggeration of dichotomized good and evil. Yet what we are going for is not parody of the Robert Louis Stevenson story so much as satirizing the idea that good and evil can always be so easily distinguished.  We are also striving to evoke the sense of claustrophobia and shadow that are essential to a good nightmare.

The core of the story is the tragedy that Dr. Jekyll’s proving the validity of his theories destroys himself. Dr. Jekyll asserts that all people contain within themselves both good and evil, that life involves a continuous struggle to act humanely rather than meanly, cruelly.  But horror is the consequence of trying to enjoy the fruits of both morality and immorality.  Death is the price Dr. Jekyll must pay for toying with the balance between the two, for trying to find ways in which to be both morally superior and to allow himself license to do whatever he wants.

But The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is not only about the horror unleashed by toying with human nature, nor is it, at least as we conceive it and portray it, only the condemnation of the dark side of ourselves. It is also a critique of the whole notion of moral superiority.  Jekyll tempts fate not only because his Mr. Hyde alter ego acts immorally, but also because he tries to elevate himself above others in his Dr. Jekyll persona. It thus condemns moralism just as much as immorality.

One does not have to believe in Hindu reincarnation, nor in some kind of “final judgment,” nor even that bad acts create bad karma and thus we must pay in this life for our misdeed, to grasp the psychological truth that we suffer consequences for our actions. The Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde makes the consequences literal: When Dr. Jekyll as Mr. Hyde cannot transform himself back to his “good” self, he destroys himself. This is psychologically valid:  When we act inhumanly, unless we are such psychopaths that we have rid ourselves of all human emotions, we pay the consequences, whether we are conscious of our guilt or not.

In melodrama, all of this must play out literally: Dr. Jekyll, trapped by his potion in the persona of the evil Mr. Hyde, destroys himself. In real life, we usually pay more subtly. It isn’t that we can’t formulate the potion that will relieve us of our responsibility for our actions, it is our own mind — or soul if you prefer that metaphor — that will not allow us, whether consciously or unconsciously, to escape from our responsibility for our actions.  And this is true whether the action is to moralistically condemn others as our moral inferiors or it is to abuse our fellow human beings.

In this sense, Jekyll and Hyde, for all its dramatic exaggeration of good and evil, makes a simple yet psychologically valid existential point:  We choose our lives by our actions. We can never escape the consequences of those actions, because we know what we’ve done, what we’ve chosen to do.

This a very crucial point to me in this age in which denial of responsibility is so prevalent. Everything wrong in the world is either someone else’s fault, viz. the demonization of “them” and near deification of oneself,, If something clearly is one’s own fault, then it’s our genes or a chemical imbalance, or a lousy childhood, or “stress” or trauma we’ve endured that causes us to act destructively.

Meanwhile, while we contemplate these complex moral, psychological, existential, ethical questions, we should enjoy the roller coaster ride.  When we look at our reflection in our bathroom mirror as though it were one of those shape-contorting mirrors of an amusement park “fun house,” we should remember to laugh heartily at ourselves.

For more on exploring how to portray The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, check out these articles.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Black Box Theater: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

NosferatuShadow

Nosferatu

(link to initial entry on this thread)

One of the most alluring possibilities in using a black box theater like the Hooker-Dunham is creating a production from the ground up.  It’s “minimalistic” set-up, a small stage framed by either thick black drapes or, if the drapes are open, stone slabs and bricks. As I write, we’re trying to do that, starting from the Robert Louis Stevenson novella (yes, the author of the Disney-ized, i.e. sanitized Treasure Island!.).

Josh Moyse is developing an entirely new rendition of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  I say “rendition” rather than “adaptation.” We are paying great heed to the iconic story of the doctor who took a potion that transformed him into all that was evil inside of him, all that was instinctual, and all that was vile, despicable.

Most people cannot think of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde without conjuring up images of Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny, or Heckle and Jeckle. It is engrained in the cultural heritage of many cultures and is, perhaps, universal:  The divide that sometimes can feel so deeply embedded in our nature between the will to be good and beneficial to others and the will do whatever the heck on wants.  If that includes doing harm to others (and what else is that axe raised over your head in anticipation there for?) a line is crossed that no one can abide.

Theater has the wonderful ability, not unlike a really good roller-coaster ride or anything else that’s scary at first but you’re really glad you did it, to allow us to feel fear and see evil and, at the same moment, to feel safe. The homicidal maniac on the stage is not going to come and actually attack us in our seats.

So here is a simple space in which to build a world of claustrophobic nightmare. Because that’s what Jekyll and Hyde is, a nightmare, in which the truth is horrible to behold).  (Hyde complains:  “Why does it always have to be Jekyll and Hyde? Why can’t it be, at least some of the time, Hyde and Jekyll. I know, it sounds like a law firm, but it still would be more fair.”)  A nightmare.  Jekyll goes too far and terrible things happen. Man crosses a boundary he should not cross.

(It occurs to me that this is not unlike the central question of Copenhagen, that just finished a wonderful four-week run at ATP in West Chesterfield.  In our infinite quest to know but also in our fear of other humans and desire to be able to destroy them before they destroy us, we have delved inside the atom, and found a way to unlock its energy.)

Dr. Jekyll is toying with the laws of the universe. He is Edward Teller ( “father” of the hydrogen bomb). He is Faust Robert Johnson at the crossroads, making his pact with the devil.  Or Robespierre, chopping off the head of the king, and so, according to some psycho-historians, killing God and kill Father.  He is poor Oedipus — except that Oedipus had no idea what he was doing while Dr. Jekyll is trying to do what actually happens.

The point is that working with the novella means exploring some very interesting terrain.

Here are some ideas that have crossed my mind.  (Whether any of them will seep into our production remains to be seen.)

An theatrical analysis of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde ( some practical, some psychological, some philosophical, and some nonsensical ideas)

The tragedy of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

An imagining of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Another scenario of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Final imagining and alternatives

 

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

A local director has been talking to me recently about a Dr, Jekyll and Mr. Hyde project for this fall at the Hooker-Dunham.   He isn’t interested in a conventional melodrama, but in using Jekyll and Hyde as a jumping off point for exploration.

The beauty part of Jekyll/Hyde is of course its greatest challenge:  it is utterly familiar to everyone. We’re not in the realm of work, as was Jean Genet’s The Maids production we did last year, known primarily by theater aficionados, but a world that’s, if anything, utterly familiar to everyone.  When I asked my sons to tell we the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, they all knew instantly. When I asked them where they learned the story, they certainly hadn’t read Robert Louis Stephenson’s (yes, the author of Treasure Island) novella. When pressed, they remembered Daffy Duck or Bugs Bunny cartoons, but the impression was indelible.

I have no idea, at this point, of the specific direction the director wants to take the production, but the concept started me thinking.   So I’ve decided to share my thoughts here just as a way of starting a conversation, and, possibly, being of interest to others in other settings who might be looking for an interesting project.   Jekyll and Hyde has the great advantage, from a community theater perspective, of being in the public domain, removing the hurdle of getting rights and, very often, being bound to copyright restrictions about how one puts the show together.

Everyone knows the basic story:  Dr. Jekyll (people are often confused on who’s the “evil” one;  Jekyll, despite his “beastly” name, is the doctor-scientist, while Mr. Hyde is his hideous “other self.” The “correct” pronunciation is apparently JEE-kyl, btw.) endeavors to separate good and evil parts of himself into separate beings. He develops and drinks a potion that turns him into the horrifying Mr. Hyde.  The same potion transforms him back to Dr. Jekyll.   In typical morality play fashion, catastrophe ensues and ultimately Jekyll/Hyde must die.

But, since every re-telling of Jekyll and Hyde is different, we can go anywhere we want with the story. So while the audience knows everything, ideally it begins to realize that it knows nothing, that this re-telling of story is in our hands now. That opens some very exciting possibilities.  I’ve started sketching out some imagined scenes.  Regardless of where we go with this “production,” the process is fascinating.

More to come…

 

 

 

Confluence

René Magritte: The Empire of Light

René Magritte: The Empire of Light

 

Empire of LightI’ve always been thrilled by spots where waters merge:  streams to rivers, inlets, bays, fjords.   Confluence.   What emerges is new, different, often exciting.

In all the arts,  this is the moment:   When an ensemble joins as a group, be it jazz or dance or theater or video or any artistry, conceives of something that brings together disparate elements to create something new — something that opens the mind to possibility — what emerges is more than the sum of its parts.

Obviously not a goal that is easily achieved, but a worthy aim, all the same.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Hooker-Dunham Theater: A personal message

A benign madness?

With shakes of hands and the blessing of the building’s owner, I will be taking over management of the Hooker-Dunham Theater as of May 15.   (I don’t have control over the website yet, so the site out there is the current management’s site.)

I’m taking this on because I think the theater itself is a marvelous asset to the town of Brattleboro, one that can serve many people’s needs.   It’s done that for a long time by being open to be rented.  I will certainly continue this fundamental structure.

I am not taking this on as Artistic Director.   I am managing the space.   I am giving my time to this.  If a miracle happens and the theater earns more than it costs to run, I solemnly promise to put that money back into the theater.    The theater is not currently fully accessible.   Perhaps, if the right lights shine on this cavern of a theater , it will one day be safely accessible to all.  That is  a goal.

My wildest dreams?

That some combination of actor and directors will take root in the theater.

That video artists might find it an interesting space to work with.

That a group or groups of musicians might find it a nice place to play.

That people living around Brattleboro or coming into town will think:  I wonder what’s at the Hooker-Dunham tonight?

That it will be a place where performers of all kinds will feel they have the opportunity to stretch their legs and try their wings.

That a few New Wave or Jim Jarmusch or Film Noir or whatever film fanatics will find a comfortable home.

That we’ll have a kind of playground for myself and others who enjoy a stage — or a seat in audience — a space where we can explore whatever we’d like to explore…

…and see what we come up with.

 I won’t bore you with my fears.   You could probably imagine them easily enough.

I’ve committed myself for giving it a go for a year.

If you’ve never seen the Hooker-Dunham, there are pictures of it on its website.

For some additional thoughts about community theater, check out these essays:

On amateur creativity

On Community

 

 

 

Wigged out

Probably the most frequent question I got after playing Madame in VTC’s production of Jean Genet’s The Maid, was why I didn’t wear a wig.   The early publicity photos showed me with a frumpy blond wig that we ditched at a dress rehearsal, instead opting for my bald head in all its glory.

Whether we fully succeeded or not isn’t for me to say, but what we were going for was a Madame who clearly a male playing a woman, but not pretending to be a woman.   We thus presented three very different sexual images on stage:  Claire as an attractive female female, Solange as a male transformed into a female, and Madame as a male woman.

Madame, as I played her, is not a transvestite in the popular understanding of that word.   No one, not even for a moment, would wonder if I were really a man or a woman.   You wouldn’t need to look at my Adam’s apple.   Nor, again at least what we were trying for, would it be a wolf-in-grandma’s clothes or J. Edgar Hoover in a dress kind of fake.   It was just a direct man playing out this bizarre woman’s role.   She had to come through for herself.   And the man in Madame as himself.

Playing absurd theater — my personal favorite genre — means bringing forward extreme contrasts.   The audience is confronted repeatedly by jarring contradictions.  But it is these very contradictions that make absurd theater emotionally real, psychologically accurate.   Real life is full, for example, of words of hate spoken as though they were love.  Disgust and desire, hope and despair, fear and fearlessness do not exist in separate universes, but mingle and intertwine.   Our rage at ourselves turns outwards and our rage at others turns inwards.   Our desire to show ourselves honestly and our desire to hide everything beneath an impenetrable facade co-exist.

So I/we chose Madame to be strong and vulnerable, determined and utterly dependent, cruel master and, at the same time, victim of the same system that enslaves her maids.      Addicted to her clothes and to her domination, she has lost her humanity yet is all the more human, even if a rather despicable human.

Oh, what fun!  Fun, because Madame is also a laughable exaggeration of a “woman of society.”   I consider myself truly blessed to have a had a chance to stand on the “catwalk” the set designer built into the cave known as the Hooker-Dunham Theater and declare, gesturing wildly with my French manicured nails, how “Outrageously happy!” I was because my lover’s imprisonment had “only made me aware of my attachment to him.”   And equally happy that I managed to clomp my way off that platform without breaking my goddamn neck!

 

Madame and her faithful MaidsMy heart will beat with this terrible intensity

Howard Wagner’s real identity

In an odd and delightful twist of fate, I have gone from being Howard Wagner, the “business is business” boss who fires Willie Loman in Death of Salesman to playing  “Madame”in Jean Genet’s The Maids.

So I’ve gone from backstage at Next Stage/Apron Theater with “Charlie”, learning, for the first time in our lives how to tie a bow tie, to Madame, by far and wide the strangest role I have ever played in my life.

Charlie (Ray Mahoney) ties his bow tie

Charlie (Ray Mahoney) ties his bow tie

Put it down, I'll drink it presently

Madame

Playing Sidney Bruhl in Deathtrap by Ira Levin

Ira Levin was an amazingly creative writer.   I knew nothing about him until recently,when I took on the role of Sidney Bruhl in Deathtrap, but he reminds of  Stanley Kubrick, in a way, because of his ability to tackle multiple “genres.” It’s more than just genre.  Marlboro, where I taught psychology for a couple years, had Gender Bender dances.  Levin and Kubrick have genre-bending styles.  

There is something else that ties them together, a kind of self-reflection that their works have.   They turn in on themselves like an Escher drawing.   Deathtrap is particularly self-reflective, continually turning back to look at itself.   The play, Deathtrap — “a five character, one set thriller”  is about a play Deathtrap, that is described bas the holy grail of theatre:  “a five character, one set money-maker.”   (The actual play, Deathtrap, did in fact, become an enormous money-maker.  The longest running thriller in Broadway history to this day and still making tons of money on the amateur rights, exactly as described in the script, feeding and clothing generations of its author’s family.)  All five characters, in one way or another, all more or less normal people, if a  bit strange, but basically normal, transform into people who are willing to kill for the chance to have a five-character, one set money-maker.

“Thrilleritis malignis,”  Sidney Bruhl, the semi-demonic thriller-writer cum potential murderer, calls it.  “The fevered pursuit of the five-character, one set, money-maker.”   

It is most certainly not a classic thriller like Gaslight. Again, in mirror upon mirror reflection to infinity, Deathtrap refers repeatedly to Gaslight’s theatrical origin, Angel Street.  The classic thriller has no time for such idle play.   The victim and audience must be terrified from start to the final release in the denouement.   But here we have time to play.  And that, too, lets the audience relax and enjoy itself.

In Deathtrap, Levin plays with dimensionality.  His characters are both two- and three-dimensions simultaneously;  they are caricatures of human nature at the same time as being very real, believable, understandable.

Sidney Bruhl’s character is very dark, and, at the same time, very light, comic-book thin.   We are more apt to laugh at Sidney than to cry at his tragic greed.   We are able to laugh because he is unreal at the same time that we can experience him as completely real, feel his pain and his hatred, his grandiosity and his emptiness.   His utter desperation.   And laugh again at his stupid attempts at humor in the most unlikely situations to be making a joke.