Archive for the Indie Theatre Category

The High Aspirations of The Princess Theatre

Posted in Broadway, Indie Theatre, LEGIT, EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 14, 2017 by travsd

I’ve had the damnedest time locating an image, but this seems to be it, from the vantage of the Sixth Avenue elevated

On March 14, 1913, New York’s Princess Theatre opened for business. Aside from a couple of exceptions (e.g., the Palace, Niblo’s Garden) we don’t typically write about specific theatrical venues here except in passing. The lapse isn’t inadvertent. It simply isn’t my line. As a general rule, I have very little to say about buildings. But today we make an exception, both because this one had an interesting history, and because it was partially owned by my wife’s family!

The Princess Theatre was an outlier, both in terms of geography and in mission. It was located at 104-106 West 39th Street, off Sixth Ave, which is farther west than most (but not all) Broadway theatres, as well as a bit on the southerly side as the years passed (there also used to be plenty of theatres in the 30s, but gradually, as you know, 42nd Street became the approximate southern boundary.)

But beyond its relative remoteness, it was unusual in other ways. It was an early harbinger, both in size and in mission, of what came to be known as the Little Theatre Movement. At 299 seats it was far smaller than most other Broadway houses. The intimate scale was intentional. The venue was designed to present one-act dramas by a repertory company, a very early reaction to the commercialization of mainstream theatre certain people were already identifying, coming from an almost identical conceptual place as the later Off-Broadway, Off-Off-Broadway, and Indie-Theatre Movements (the only difference being that the response was coming from the commercial theatre industry itself). The main players in the venture were producer F. Ray Comstock and the Shuberts, with actor-manager Holbrook Blinn and theatrical agent Bessie Marbury (to whom I happen to be distantly related;  Katherine Marbury is my 12th great grandmother; her sister was Rhode Island founder Anne Hutchinson).

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The first few years of the Princess were bumpy; the serious plays were not filling the seats. But the venture found success in the middle teens with a series of “thinking man’s musicals”, which have since become known as the Princess Theatre Musicals, with integrated songs, and books less crude than the standard fare of the day. Most of them were authored by the team of Jerome Kern, Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse. The most successful of these was Oh, Boy! (1917) which ran for 463 performances.

In the 1920s, the theatre returned to its original mission of dramas. The best known plays from this period were Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones (1921, transferred from the Provincetown Playhouse) and the American premiere of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author (1922-1923). But it was a tough slog. In 1928, after only 15 years, it ceased to be the Princess Theatre.

Next came a quarter century of name changes, transfers of ownership, and new missions: it became the Lucille Laverne in ’28, the Assemble Theatre in ’29, was shuttered from ’29 to ’33, then became the Reo Theatre, a cinema, in ’33.

In 1934, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union acquired the space to use as a recreation hall. Normally, I bemoan such repurposing of precious theatre space, but this new ownership ironically resulted in the greatest theatrical success ever mounted in that location, the Depression Era labor revue Pins and Needles, which ran for 1,108 performances starting in 1937. The Princess was now the Labor Stage, and remained under that name for a decade. In 1947, the legendary Actors Studio was hatched in one of the theatre’s rehearsal spaces.

In 1947, it became Cinema Dante, which showed foreign movies; in 1948, the Little Met; and in 1952, Cinema Verdi. In 1955 it was torn down to make way for an office building. For more on the cinema years, and this theatre in general, see its entry at Cinema Treasures, a wonderful resource.

For all of its history, the Princess Theatre and its later incarnations seem to have been governed by moonbeams, a series of Noble Experiments. It is not atypical that the venture was short lived. But as I sometimes like to joke, the art of theatre would do okay if it weren’t for these damn audiences.

To find out more on theatre historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Killy Dwyer in “Not Show Business”

Posted in Art Stars, Contemporary Variety, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Indie Theatre with tags , , , , , on March 5, 2017 by travsd

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I was so grateful Kelly “Killy” Dwyer flushed me out of my hiding place yesterday to come see the last performance of her work Not Show Business in the Frigid Festival at Under St. Marks. We’re longtime fans of Killy’s, not just as an artist but as a person; we love her so much we asked her to officiate at our wedding.  Little did we know that she was going through tough times then, which I only make bold to mention because she talks about it openly in her work.

What do we admire about her work? Well for one thing, she can’t be pigeon-holed. She’s a singer, comedienne, storyteller, musician, autobiographical performance artist. The word “collage” occurred to me looking at the stage yesterday, a piece built of cut-up fragments. In addition to the performance aspects, she was working with found objects (real physical items from her childhood) in this show, as well as video (home movies).

She is extremely bold and brave. I know this because I have been watching her for a long time and I catch quick glimpses of what’s behind the mask. She does a high wire act. Once you’re on the wire, there’s only one way to do it and that’s with the confidence that you can. But there’s that second before you step off. She doesn’t hide that second from anybody before she climbs up, but it’s there. She’s whistlin’ in the graveyard. She mines a lot of humor from mock insincerity in the show biz tradition (after she finished a song yesterday, she said, “Let’s hear it for that, huh?”) and that’s endearing. At the same time, she bares all, about her mistakes, about her foibles, and in particular (in this show) about struggles with mental illness. She switched up her meds six months ago because she was afraid she was losing her memory, and this show is all about memory. Hence the giant baby-jammies, and the box of keepsakes full of old photo albums and yearbooks and the projected home movies on stage.

Now, I have seen shows just like what I just have described that have been insufferable, and you have too. What sets Killy apart, aside from honesty that’s not bullshit, is a high level of craft that allows her to turn the mess of her life into art. She is a great legit singer in a very old school way (like, really, I don’t know, Doris Day or something) and that impression is reinforced by the fact that her physical raw material looks like the Ohio mom she probably would have been if there wasn’t an exploding genius inside fucking up her brain. (I know I’m not alone in that impression because she gets cast as moms all the time in TV commercials.) But in reality she is a feral free spirit, and that comes out in her songwriting and arranging which is modern and technological and would not be out of place at a party (unless you made a point of listening to the dark and funny lyrics). In the show I saw she sang a song about her high school romance with Jack Daniels (the kind that comes in a bottle), an abusive romance which resulted in her breaking her nose at her 18th birthday party. She blended the song and the story perfectly into a seamless performance although it was presumably performed spur of the moment as the result of an audience member choosing it by spinning a “Wheel of Destiny”.

Killy’s work is inspirational to me and it was heartening to see it at Under St. Marks, a space I have been coming back to for almost 20 years now, a place that has hung on to its mission of presenting such work when the whole city seems to be becoming a brothel of high-priced sell-outs. This is pure work. It’s kind of the only work that matters. Made me want to jump on up there and try to do a show just like it, and that’s the highest kind of praise I got.

BTW, Killy’s been doing a terrific prime-time radio show on Radio Free Brooklyn, Friday nights at 8pm. You should check it out!

Tonight: Leah, the Forsaken

Posted in Indie Theatre, Melodrama and Master Thespians, PLUGS with tags , , , on February 10, 2017 by travsd

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At Travalanche we are of the opinion that all who were once household words…should always be so. My friends at the Metropolitan Playhouse share a similar mission, making the works of pivotal theatremakers from earlier times live and breathe today. One of these is Master of Melodrama Augustin Daly, and their present offering of his play Leah the Forsaken (opening tonight) couldn’t be more timely: it’s all about a persecuted refugee. The more things change, the more they stay the same! The Metropolitan’s work is always top-notch, educational, and thought-provoking. Get your tickets for Leah the Forsaken here.

Tomorrow at Dixon Place: A Great Free Opera

Posted in Classical, Indie Theatre, LEGIT, EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE, Music, PLUGS with tags , , , , , , on February 3, 2017 by travsd

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A couple of years ago we waxed enthusiastic about the samples we heard of The Hat, an opera-in-progress by Karen Siegel and Zsuzsanna Ardo at Opera on Tap’s New Brew series (same folks presenting our opera section tonight). Now Siegel and Ardo’s show is more topical than ever. It’s about the affair between a young Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger. It’s been both heartening and dismaying to know that sales of Ardent’s books have gone up the past few weeks (she’s the person who coined the phrase “the banality of evil” to describe the rise of the Nazis). And Heidegger of course, though one of the most brilliant existentialist philosophers of the 20th century, actually became a Nazi apologist! The romance sounded do distant and faraway the last time I heard it. Now it’s hitting terrifyingly close to home.

They’re presenting the whole thing tomorrow night at Dixon Place in the Lounge — admission is free. An edifying way and place in which to spend a winter evening.

Author Directing Author: Out-Takes

Posted in Indie Theatre, ME, Playwrights, PLUGS with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 19, 2017 by travsd
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Photo by Theo Cote

Just hitting the stands now in the Villager/ Downtown Express/ Chelsea Now, my feature on AdA: Author Directing Author, opening at La Mama later this week. Read the article here.  For this piece I interviewed the three principle artists, director/playwrights Neil LaBute, Marco Calvani and Marta Buchaca (the latter two in person, the former by phone). After you read the article at the link, please come back here and read these additional out-takes from the interview, with Marco and Marta and check out Cashel Stewart’s great photos, below. I’ve done hundreds of interviews over the last 20 years, but I believe these are the first still photos ever to catch me in the act of interviewing. But really, read the feature first, these out-takes won’t make any sense unless you do.

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MARTA, on the transfer from Barcelona to New York:

Barcelona was a big success. Now we are here doing the same plays with different actors, in a different language and that’s good for me. I can improve my English! (laughs) There are a lot of things that changed and I think its really interesting as a playwright and director. Now I see parts of the play that I didn’t see in Barleona, more levels. You’re discovering another way because you have different actors and different approaches. I love the actors they have, they are amazing, they are really really good. In general you have amazing actors here in America.

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MARCO, on the methodology:

We pick a theme and then we share it and each of us wrote a piece separately. We didn’t get in touch and tell each other what we’re writing about. Of course we set up some rules. We say it needs to be two characters, that’s the main thing, it needs to relate to the designated theme, and shouldn’t require a complicated, elaborate set, not just for the financial aspect but also because the three plays have to be part of one show, so the setting needs to change easily. Or, at least, if you write a play that has specifies five floors or something be ready for the director to have to throw that out. But the biggest rules are the theme, the number of characters, and the length, which were set at 30-35 minutes.

MARCO, on writing female characters:

For reasons that are spontaneous I like writing female characters in general. Especially in terms of speaking of the struggle of aging, which is more traumatic for women unfortunately. Sometimes. Not all the time. At least in my story, in my situation, it is. It’s a woman alone. She’s been left alone by her man and is at the end, probably, of her professional career. So it was dramatic as a choice for me.

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MARTA, on her play Summit, which is based on real-life Barcelona mayoress Ada Colau

“Power” [the theme of this year’s production] for me means politics. I had never written a play about politics. And this was great, because after the Barcelona production I got the opportunity to to talk with [Colau], and could add some new things. She was really interesting to write about. When she was in the campaign, all of the other candidates were men, and she was of a lower [economic] class than the other politicians in Barcelona. And she semmed really “apart” from them. They were doing a tv show and she was alone with her cell phone, because no one wanted to introduce her to that world. Now she’s in that world and doing an amazing job. But you know, like Colau, I’m a mother. When I wrote this play I had just had a baby. For me it was really important, to talk about having a professional career and having a baby. I just spent 10 days alone with without my child. For men, that’s not even a topic of conversation. If my husband had to come here to New York as I did, no one would say anything. But when I say to my family, “OK, I’m going to New York, I’m spending 10 days alone, everyone was like, ‘OK we will come and help your husband!'”. Well, yeah! But I mean, he will be fine! But you know we’re still at that point. If you are a mayor you work from 7 in the morning to 1 the next morning. All day. I talked to her about this. She was kind of unhappy about being separated from her child. She said, “It’s hard but I;m doing very important things for the city.” She made her decision. For me as a woman, that’s important. And I love these men telling her that she has to be a mother. Just a mother. We can do both. I can be a playwright and a director and a mother.

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MARCO, on the process

When you write it’s a very lonely activity and when you are director you are called to also be a leader. In the way we are collaborating it feels more like a friendship than a responsibility. It’s always shared. That doesn’t mean you get to do less, but its about sharing. It’s a good fit. Wherever we are going to, we are having a very good experience….I have learned so much from AdA, by allowing somebody to work through your plays and being responsible for another play by another playwright, who is working on the other playwright’s play. I’ve learned a lot not just about theatre and writing and directing but about collaboration and trust .

 

MARTA, on working with actors Gabby Beans and Margaret Colin: 

Maggie and Gabby are open to do anything and they want to … they are really free and they have their own proposals. And they listen to me and I listen to them and its really a collaboration. I have no friends here in New York. My cast are my friends and family. I think they know this. I think it was quite the “mom” thing in this case. Gabby is newer and brings the energy. Maggie has the experience. They are nice people. I think it is more important to me when I cast someone that they nice than they be perfect. He might be the most perfect actor in the world but if he is an asshole I don’t want to work with him! Because you work together for many days, all day, and it’s so intimate and it’s so hard, you want to be with people who have humor and are nice and have fun,

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Sometimes I have to stop my actors (Richard Kind and Gia Crovatin) from having fun and say let’s be serious! We’ve done a lot in a very few days and that makes me feel very good.

 

 

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Run to the box office and see it! It’s going to be amazing!

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Art Startup at Theater for the New City

Posted in CULTURE & POLITICS, Indie Theatre, ME, Protests with tags , , , on December 29, 2016 by travsd
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L-R, Michael-David Gordon, Brianna Bartenieff, Crystal Field

See this week’s Chelsea Now for my article on Theater for the New City’s community meeting this week in response to NYC’s announced Cultural Plan. 

It was interesting — I didn’t mention this in my article (it’s more objective than that) but as a private citizen I felt that only a couple of people at the meeting seemed to have any sense of the tidal wave of awfulness headed our way. One of them who clearly did was artistic director Crystal Field, who’s seen a thing or two in her day, not just as a New Yorker, but as a child of Europeans. People with family in Europe the 20s, 30s and 40s all seem to get it. Most people (especially younger ones) all seem to still have their head up their butts or to be in serious denial, and seem to be picturing what’ll be happening six months or six years from now as a PRECEDENTED inconvenience, the kind of stuff we’ve always dealt with. Sure, the concerns most of the people were expressing were legitimate, in the sense that all concerns are legitimate, but my instinct is that most of them are going to be moot. We cannot plan for tomorrow as we have always planned. Much of what you are taking for granted may not be here, including entire government agencies, including a safe or “neutral” or non-hostile environment for self-expression. People seem to lack the imagination to apply what has-historically-proven-to-be-possible to our formerly-fortunate slice of the earth. Where so much is so unknown, I think it is a good idea to plan for it being worse beyond your wildest dreams. If it’s not, that will be a wonderful surprise. If it is, perhaps it won’t be as terrible. Anyway, call me a Jeremiah, call me a Cassandra, but most of all call me a TAXI, because I WANNA GET OUTTA HERE!!! My Chelsea Now piece is here. 

A Cultural Plan for New York City

Posted in Indie Theatre, PLUGS with tags , , on December 28, 2016 by travsd

Just learned about this last night at a special meeting at Theater for the New City. Given what will be happening at the federal level, such plans may be essentially moot, but it is good to know about

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The NYC Department of Cultural Affairs and Hester Street Collaborative have launched the development of New York City’s first-ever comprehensive cultural plan. NOCD-NY is excited to be a partner in this process. Through intensive public input and an in-depth evaluation of the city’s cultural assets, the plan will become a roadmap for supporting the entire creative community and expanding opportunities for residents to access and participate in the city’s rich cultural life. For the plan to be successful, we need to hear from you! Visit  createnyc.org to learn how to participate in the process.

photo: etccdb (West Indian Day)

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