Thursday, December 23, 2010

A walk with Jack the Ripper

For my theatre and performance theory class we get to choose our own topic for our essay (which is due in January so a big fat Merry Christmas to me). A few weeks ago, I thought about what I might want to write my essay on:  Something specific to London, preferably something site-specific, involves walking and tourism. Of course, the first thing that popped into my mind was the Jack the Ripper walking tour - so added bonus a mysterious serial killer! Because of my final performance for performance lab, I didn't really have a lot of time to do any preliminary research until now. I wasn't really worried because I have a lot already to pull from in terms of architectural theory as well as the impact walking has on a spectatorial experience. So last week Monday, I went on the "original" Jack the Ripper walk with London Walks. Our tour guide was Donald Rumbelow who's written the critically acclaimed book The Complete Jack the Ripper. A former police officer and Blue Badge tour guide, Rumbelow has been guiding this particular walk for the past 16 years.

This particular tour meets at Tower Hill station. I got there early; in fact, I was the first one there. I had chatted with Rumbelow a bit and something he said really struck me:  "I like my crime at a distance." I had been wondering not only why the Jack the Ripper murders were so popular, but also why people would actually flock to the murder areas. It all seem, well, rather morbid. Anyways, back to Rumbelow. "I used to work as a police officer for 30 years. So I saw plenty of it [crime] up close." It's been 122 years since the "Autumn of Terror" and the murders have surpassed urban myth.

On with the tour. I reckon there were around 40 people there on this very chilly night. Rumbelow began the tour bringing our attention the the Tower of London across the way. He talks about how one day in 1888 there was a procession of soldiers who were basically participating in a line up in which a prostitute had to identify the man who murdered her fellow prostitute friend (I think, I'll be honest and say I don't remember the exact details). Anyways this was a precursor to the Whitechapel Murders (what they were called before the press named the murderer Jack the Ripper). He also pointed out the partial wall next to us - the lower part is Roman and upper part is Medieval. It's the part of the wall that surrounded the original square mile of London.

We then walked around the corner, through a hotel drive-way and through a passage in that same wall. Here he told us of the reality of the East End prostitute. They were poor, dirty and most were alcoholics. It cost more to buy a loaf of bread and some cheese than it did to buy a prostitute. He also told us of the division between the City of London police and the Metropolitan police force - this division was used by the murder as he went back and forth between the City and East End. He also said the back in 1888 the City of London was the richest city in Europe which the East End was the poorest. It's pretty much still like that today.

We then walked to what's known as Prostitute's Church where prostitutes would hang out walking around the church, hoping to pick up their next John. After that we walked to Mitre Square which is where the body of Catherine Eddowes was found. Here Rumbelow set up the scene of the crime: There was a cracked door straight ahead, a policeman and his family living just down the way and the police force on constant rounds surrounding the area. No one heard nor saw a thing, which means that the murderer was quick and extremely skilled with his knife.

We then to Devonshire Square where he told us about the differences from 1888 to today. He also mentioned stories of past walks saying "anything can happen." We then walked past the boundary line between the City of London and Whitechapel - which is just a road, showing how easy it was for the murderer to simply walk back and forth the divide. After this we visit an old apartment building where there once was a lobby (which is now a restaurant called "Happy Days" - no joke) where some believe Jack the Ripper wrote on the wall "The Juwes are the men that will not be blamed for nothing" and left a piece of Eddowes' bloodied apron.

We then walked to an old building originally built as a lodging for the homeless where one of the victims had lived. Then we set off to Spitalfields Market where we learnt about the second murder.

We walked past the Ten Bells pub which was a popular pub for one of the victims. For the last stop, we went to what once was Dorset Street - the worst street in London - where the Ripper's last victim, Mary Kelly was found dead in her room, completely mutilated and the heart missing.

Rumbelow ends the tour with how Jack the Ripper has become mythologised in the search for his identity, not only in reality, but most prominently in fiction. He ended with what had become a popular rhyme: 
I’m not a butcher,
I’m not a Yid,
Nor yet a foreign skipper,
But I’m your own light-hearted friend,
Yours truly, Jack the Ripper.

I chatted with Rumbelow on our way to Liverpool St Station. He told me he thought of himself as a story teller and I enjoyed hearing him speak of his experience as a police officer, a writer and a Blue Badge tour guide. 

I went on the same tour (with Rumbelow again) this past Monday with a friend who was visiting and wanted to go on the walk. The last time she came to London she went on a JTR tour with her boyfriend. She said that the guide was really animated and theatrical and went a little overboard with the descriptions of the mutilations done to the victims. So much so, that her boyfriend fainted and they weren't able to finish the tour. She definitely preferred Rumbelow and as we walked (in the snow) I listened to others saying how much they enjoyed Rumbelow as a tour guide. The walk itself was pretty much the same (there were a few physical changes due to snow and ice) and Rumbelow's "script" was the same. It was interesting seeing how different groups responded to him. Also, this time we had a lovely drunk man at Devonshire Square serenade us. Rumbelow kindly paused while the drunk man and his mate stopped to sing to us.

So I still have a ton to read up on: tourism, walking, history, place, performance. The list goes on. I'm still trying to figure out my exact angle for the essay but I'm going to put that on hold until after Christmas. And then it will be a mad dash to get all my research done before the New Year. 

Have you been on a Jack the Ripper tour? If so, please share your experience with me. 
Want to go on a Jack the Ripper tour? If so, why? Also if so, then come visit me!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Readers Wifes Fan Club

Friday night my fellow American, Rachel, and I celebrated our very own Fakesgiving. There were no more turkeys when I went to the store so I got a chicken and dubbed it “Chicurkey.” We had mashed potatoes and gravy, corn, stuffing and rolls. For dessert we had my homemade pumpkin chocolate chip cookies, delish brownies from midnite cookies with vanilla ice cream.

After our meal we met up with a few of my fellow MA’s at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern for Duckie’s Readers Wifes Fan Club. So. Much. Fun.

It's really hard to explain what the Readers Wifes Fan Club show is all about. It's a compilation of obscure (well obscure to me anyways) pop culture stuff from what looked like predominately the 80's. There was singing and dancing; a lot of hilarious lip-syncing; amazing hula-hoop tricks; and some drag. There's really nothing much to say other than I had a great time.

After the show we danced the night away and then stumbled to the bus stop in the freezing cold. It's times like that where I miss my car. And LA weather. But thankfully, I managed to get us home. Barely.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Blasted and Men Should Weep

Fifteen years ago when Blasted by Sarah Kane premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in London, it was harshly criticized and labeled a 'disgusting feat of filth', with audiences walking out. Since then, and since her suicide in 1999, the play (and the playwright) has been rightfully reassessed as a stark and illuminating examination of violence both domestically and globally, emotionally and physically. The latest revival at the Lyric Theatre is a stunning, well-paced production of this intensely disturbing piece.

The play opens in a posh hotel room where the older Ian, a paranoid, racist, homophobic,  hack-journalist misogynist makes advances towards the much-too-young-to-be-with-him Cate. Their past sexual relationship feeding into his advances, I wondered why they were ever together in the first place. And why the hell Cate doesn't just leave. Although the epileptic and sometimes simpleton Cate stays, she seems to hold her own. Until the next day when we realize that Ian has raped her. She eventually runs off through the bathroom window, just in time to miss the soldier who storms into Ian's room. His machine gun pointed at Ian whilst he eats two plates of English breakfast - to an effectively comical moment.

What was an act of private violence has now opened up to a war-torn world. A bomb hits the hotel and in the next scene the set transforms to just a bed and remnants of the structural metal grid. In this scene the soldier re-counts how he has become another cog in the machine of war. How his girlfriend was raped and killed and how he, in turn, has become the very thing he's fighting. Disturbing, heartbreaking and hyper-real the plight of the soldier is one the will forever dwell in my mind. He is the monster, yet he is fighting the monster. Which makes one ask - which came first: violence or violence? After raping Ian nd sucking out his eyeballs, he then commits suicide - leaving Ian blind and alone.

Cate returns carrying a baby that she found and is trying to care for. The city has been overturned by soldiers and there's chaos in the streets. The baby dies so Cate makes a grave through the floorboards and attempts to pray for the baby.She leaves in search of food - again, leaving Ian blind and alone. In his desperation and starved state, he goes into the whole and tries to eat the baby but spits it out. With just his head sticking out it looks as if he's dead. But as rain falls through the cracks onto his head he wakes up saying, "Shit." Just then Cate returns with a sausage that she prostituted herself out for and feeds Ian. The play ends with him saying, "thank you."

After the curtain call, the guy next to me and I just looked at each other and shared a giant exhale. "That was a bit of a mind0fuck," I said. He had seen it when it first premiered and said the there where no stops in the first production - that it was relentless. We didn't get to chat further but it seems like he appreciated the breaks in this piece. Each scene the curtain came down - and the scene changes felt like an eternity. So we're sitting in the dark for awhile contemplating what we just saw. Knowing that when the curtain goes back up - it's going to get worse, and worse, and worse. After the show my mates and I went to a pub to discuss the play. We talked about the character of the soldier, about Ian's rape, about Ian and Cate's relationship, about the mythology surrounding Sarah Cane and her suicide and also about the audience at the theatre. There were a lot of students there. Which in interesting how a play can be received over time. When it first came out it was cast aside. But since then it has entered the world of academia - something worthy of study. And because it's been studied and analyzed, of course those at the play are most likely to be familiar with its content.

Overall, I was completely satisfied by this production - wonderfully acted and directed with a stunning set and lighting. Now I need to actually read Kane's plays - apparently her stage directions are very poetic. Next on my ever growing reading list.

Onto a completely different production:  Men Should Weep playing at the National Theatre was written in 1947 by Ena Lamont Stewart. This play about Glasgow during the great depression is an interesting artifact from a moment in history. Not only is the play written by a woman, but it's told from a distictly female perspective through the protagonist Maggie, a mother of five and whose husband always seems to be in between jobs.

Director Josie Rourke has taken full advantage of the National's space and money. The set is phenomenal - talk about "slice of life." The set resembles that of a dilapidated doll house with Morrison's flat center, a staircase to the left, complete with flats above and below where you can see the occasional goings-on of the neighbors. My one complaint about the set is the built in lights in the framework that turn on brightly in-between scenes. They felt way too modern and briefly took me out of the experience. If you're going to do realism, commit to it.

It was really interesting to see a play about the 1930's from a different worldly perspective. My lexicon form that period are specifically American, like Tennessee Williams, Lillian Hellman, Arthur Miller, Thornton Wilder, George Kaufman, etc. So it was really nice to see something specific to Glasgow - although I couldn't understand half the things they were saying. And it wasn't just the accents - the performance was surtitled and reading the words didn't help either.

I also find it interesting when depression era plays are revived today. The themes definitely translate, yet they also remind us that things could be worse. Here's hoping that they don't.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Complicite, Kira O'Reilly, Ron Athey and Shunt walk into a bar...

This week (my week off from class) has been crazy busy - as usual. Monday I saw Complicite's Shun-kin at the Barbican. This week Queen Mary hosted OUTSIDE AiR which presented two performance pieces; one by Kira O'Reily and the other by Ron Athey (the latter in which I participated). And last night I went to Shunt and saw a couple of performances. So, let's begin!

Having heard about the amazing theatre company Complicite I was eager to see this re-installment of Shun-kin. Based on the 1933 writings of Japanese author Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, the story chronicles the life blind Shaminsen player Shun-kin and her intensely loyal servant Sasuke.

Under the helm of Artistic Director Simon McBurney this production is beautifully and imaginatively choreographed. The puppet of Shun-kin was eerily effective and all the acting was strong with a sharp and efficient ensemble, however, it was that story itself that was lacking for me. Shun-kin who is adorable for all of five minutes at age eight quickly turns into a complete bitch. And that's putting it nicely. Once she becomes Sasuke's shaminsen teacher she goes absolutely power hungry and becomes a a complete dominatrix, which eventually leads up to the blossoming of a  sadomasochistic love affair between the two.

There's one scene where the two begin to have sex, and puppet legs were brought out. I couldn't help but laugh. And the woman sitting behind me couldn't help it either. Thankfully they eventually switch the puppet for an actual woman, although she wears a mask and is treated like a puppet. By the end I was ready for both Shun-kin and Sasuke to die.

Interspersed with the Shun-kin story is that was a woman who serves as the narrator, doing a voice recording at a studio of the book. Although her stroyline is pretty much irrelevant, she serves as much needed comedic relief. And her voice as the narrator was enchanting. Although she spoke in Japanese (it was all done in Japanese), as I read the surtitles I could almost here her voice in English - it was wonderfully eerie. Also, the woman playing the voice of Shun-kin and who later transforms into her mature self was absolutely pitch-perfect (she's the one on the right in the picture above).

The narrative perspectives were often times a bit murky - one character who I think is supposed to be Tanizaki (who originally wrote the book in 1933 as a factual historical piece, when in fact, it is just fiction) feels completely superfluous. His character adds nothing to the show.

With narrative/character issues aside - it really is visually stunning production. Fantastic use of lights and shadows, paper as birds, sticks as halls and swaying trees, breath as the sound of sliding doors and the constant hum of the shaminsen make for a thoughtful and constantly shifting mode of storytelling. I just wish I knew Japanese, that way I could have just watched the action onstage and not the surtitles, trying to follow the story.


Kira O'Reily's piece Untitled (syncopations for more bodies) is comprised of five nude women with black showgirl-esque hats, round mirrors and red heels. They slowly and meticulously entered the space of the Great Hall. Playing with the light and the mirrors as audience members walked around the space. Then a frenetic shift occurred and the ladies frantically moved backwards about the space - with audience members trying to get out of their way. Then there were a series of movements and then more frantic backwards walking and then more stationary movements. Based on the title syncope has a wide variety of meanings - most of which deal with loss:  loss of consciousness, fainting, loss of sound, a missed beat. Although there were bits that I found intriguing, I think overall the piece misses the mark. Although I also found it fascinating how after a while, a nude body no longer appears nude.

I'm the black blob hunched over on the right.
A couple of weeks ago the lovely Ron Athey came to our performance lab and talked to us about his work and showed us some of his favorite videos. It was pretty much an awesome day. He also invited us to work as a part of the automatic writing machine for his piece for the QM festival. We all eagerly volunteered.

Ron grew up in the Pentecostal church and was brought up on spiritualist teachings. For this project, stories of his upbringing were used to inspire us, (in a hypnotized or trance state) in automatic writing. We wrote pretty much non-stop. While we were writing, "editors" went around cutting out stories to give to typists to type on typewriters. In the background, piano keys were hit ominously by boxing gloves (it sounded amazing). I'm not really sure what it looked like to the spectators because I was so focused on what I was doing. I was, however, acutely aware of the audience looking at me and trying to read what I had written. It was a very out-of-body experience. The first night I wrote out a lot of very personal and slightly troubling feelings, which I why I think for the second night it wasn't so personal. I think subconsciously I knew that I'd be able to feel people reading my words so I kept the writing at a slight distance. I have to say though the second night I was really in a deep trance - I was writing some crazy shit and even wrote in symbols and gibberish. Over all it was a cathartic experience and immensely pleasurable.


Last night I went to Shunt with my friend Jane and her flatmate. The first performance was called Tiny Distractions by a company called Fail Better. The lower "Sauna" room from the Machine was completely covered in plastic wrap and clad with a bubble wrap floor, with a telly on with static playing in the up-left corner and a record play in the down-right corner, center - a table and 3 chairs. The performers (two girls and a guy) were dressed in white tank tops and undies. With their intensity and committed movement it was an absolutely riveting piece and stunning to watch.

The late night show was called Beast which was an installation/performance piece that utilized all three stories/floors of the Machine and explores humans' relationship to eating meat. It was stunning, disturbing, and intoxicating. Down on the bottom floor was a tribal "creature" eating human head. On the 1st floor were "animals" (wonderful masks and head-dresses): a rooster, cat, owl, hippo and others with a dear at the head of the table. And on the second floor (where we were standing and able to see though the glass floors all the way down to the bottom) was some scary futuristic human farm which was much too similar to modern day farming practices. At the end the woman feeding the humans brought a tray of "meat" to us for us to eat. As soon as I grabbed it I knew I would not be putting it in my mouth. Jane, on the other hand, wasn't so bright. Ha!

Another gripping, fascinating piece. I seriously made me think about becoming vegetarian/vegan. But I think this typically once ever other week so I don't think it had much of an effect.  I can't say enough how much I love this venue. Although the show Money is ending soon, I do hope they keep the Machine up for a while.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Julia Bardsley and Almost the Same

A couple of weeks ago Julia Bardsley, who is a "live art" artist and former Artistic Director of the Young Vic, came to do a workshop with us for my Performance Lab class.

The workshop was immensely satisfying and thought provoking. After a few warm up activities to get our minds and bodies ready she had us discuss our modes and aesthetics of creating work. Then we had an just over an hour to create an "Installation of the mind" or an "altar of ideas." Here's mine: I call it Imagined City

It's "floating" on the wall.

After that we created a character through qualities of movement. We began with individual qualities and then fuzed them together. After that we did a ritual of creating the face (or the projected self) of that character on our partner - who's face was made "blank" by a stocking over the head. To finish the projected self we added a wig.

Overall the workshop's structure was enlightening and really a lot of fun. Having spent the day with Bardsley I was excited to see her performance Almost the Same - a collaboration with sound artist Andrew Poppy.

Playing at the Chelsea Theatre, my fellow classmate Jane and I went to go see the "feral rehearsals for violent acts of culture." It begins with the audience lining up according to height - we then enter the space and stand in a triangle formation. The curtain opens revealing Bardsley at the apex of an opposing triangle set up in the seats of the house. She emerges from a black plastic body bag and continues to pull out two feral rabbits. Lights out, we then move to the actual audience and sit, again, in a triangle.

The rest of the piece is in three parts - the first with Bardsley clad in black animalistically and ritualistically mourning the hares. Poppy's live mixing of the sound give the piece a stunningly eerie vibe. Along with Bardsley never-wavering intensity. The video of the pale and almost transparent Bardlsey evokes an almost "master"-esque and controlling juxtaposition to the live animalistic Bardsley on stage. The images of the skinned hares, meat, sculls, ritual - along with the elaborate wigs, costumes and gestures mix horror with absurdity, disgust with fascination. Although "live-art" is not my personal aesthetic, nor do I have a lot of experience with the mode I was really transfixed by the combination of Bardsley's performance, the amazing use of projection and the stunning sound. Having met Bardsley, I was surprised out how intense and striking the piece was compared to her soft demeanor in real life. She's definitely created a heightened performing persona, which can be traced back to her methodologies. Really fascinating.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Whoopi Goldberg enters the stage and the audience goes wild.

Sorry this post is super super late. I've been busy these past couple of weeks reading, writing and coming up with a performance (which went disastrously - but that's another post in and of itself). So I'm finally going to write about Sister Act the musical.

I grew up on the Sister Act movies. I know them by heart, I had the soundtrack of the first one on cassette and my mom and I would take hours watching Back in the Habit because she would rewind our favorite songs over and over. The movies in and of themselves aren't anything spectacular - what makes them so watchable and charming is the one and only Whoopi Goldberg.

The musical originally opened at the Pasadena Playhouse in 2006 and has since then become a mega-musical. It opened last year in London and is opening on Broadway next year. Back in August Goldberg had made a 3-week engagement as Mother Superior (Maggie Smith's character in the films). I was sad to hear I had missed out but wanted to see the musical anyways. So I was really happy to see that Goldberg would be coming back for a 5-performance engagement. I bought a ticket (the most I've ever paid for theatre) and marked it in my diary.

The musical begins with Mother Superior asking for help. So as Goldberg took the stage the audience applauded and cheered for what felt like a solid five minutes. Goldberg motioned for us to settle down so she could carry on with the show. Ah to be a star where all you have to do is enter the stage and the audience goes wild.

The musical is much much different than the movie. Which is why I think it works so well. It is definitely its own entity. There are no songs from the original film at all and it takes place in 1978. Patina Miller who plays Delores has definitely made this character her own - there are no traces of Whoopi's character. She's vivacious, funny and a terrific singer.

Anyways back to Whoopi - watching her really made me think about the star's persona and how it comes to play in performance. I didn't feel like I was watching Whoopi Goldberg be Mother Superior, I was watching Whoopi Goldberg playing herself playing Mother Superior. And I couldn't help but smile. (But now I'm curious to how I would have responded to the show had I seen a regular production). Her interactions with Delores were delivered with the typical Whoopi sass. There's one scene where Whoopi just gestures (that's it) and the audience ate. it. up. And at the finale when she dances it felt like the entire audience wanted to go up there and dance with her. The excitement and energy was felt by all.

I rarely stand at curtain calls and honestly, the musical isn't the most amazing thing I've ever seen but that evening's performance is definitely something I'll remember for a long long time. So I, like every person in the theatre, jumped to my feet when Whoopi came out for her bow.

Other thoughts on the musical itself. Like I said the musical is completely different. There's enough of the charm and characters from the films to satisfy the nostalgia but I'm really happy that the show is completely different. It's difficult to make movies into musicals. With musicals there needs to be spectacle and this show has plenty of the "good" kind of spectacle (unlike the other movie-turned-into-musical). The music by Alan Menke and lyrics by Glenn Slater are effective and catchy --  this show is simply fun. The characterization is a little 2D but I feel that's almost a musical theatre necessity. It has everything to be a huge mega-musical so congrats to Goldberg and everyone involved. Those are incredibly hard to create and maintain. I hope it keeps its charm as it continues to grow.

Here's a video of one of the songs "Raise Your Voice"

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Performance as an academic discipline. A dialogue with Ashley Steed.

Below is an essay I wrote in response to a prompt for my Performance Research class. The class is unassessed (meaning it doesn't matter) and so this is how not to take an assignment seriously and write whatever you feel like (in 750 words). I decided to write a dialogue based on conversations I've had with people about my MA programme.


‘Ashley is going to London.’
‘Ah’ [in approval].
‘Yeah, to get her Masters.’
‘Ahhhh’ [even more approval].
‘In theatre!’
‘Oh’ [disappointed].

My best friend recounted this scene he had with his father, which makes me laugh because it is actually a common response. There is a stigma around theatre, especially in Los Angeles where someone studying theatre is synonymous with someone wanting to break into the ‘business,’ i.e. the film/TV industry. Even I shared in the stigmatization of theatre studies. I started out as an architecture major, something ‘practical.’ When I switched into theatre I went from responses of ‘wow, architecture! That is really intense’ to, ‘oh, theatre. That must be fun.’ [Defensively] Yeah it is fun, because I love what I do.

Then I decided to get a Masters in theatre and performance. Which has brought on even more confounding inquires. Like the following conversation I had with a guy at a pub.

So you are studying acting?
No, not really. I mean I guess acting is what brought me here and I am an actor, but no that’s not really what I’m studying.

Oh, so it’s directing?
Uh, no. I mean, I do want to and have done directing but that’s not it. It’s more academic-y. A theoretical look at theatre and performance. But there’s also practical application too.

What do you mean?
Well, for instance, in my performance lab class, last week we had to watch this visually stunning and completely crazy film by Fellini called Satyricon and recreate a scene or image. Well, there’s this one scene where this woman is cursed for making fun a magician so he takes away all the fire in the town and when villagers need fire they have to come get it from her, well, va-jay. So I basically recreated a fire crotch. With a can of hairspray and a lighter. And that prompted all these questions about fire and the way different things burn; different special effects with fire; the different burning sounds things make, etc. It also brought up the different things fire evokes and stories of fire societies, and buildings and cities catching on fire. And the destruction fire can make. There’s also a deep history of theatres catching on fire. Basically my assignment for the next two weeks is to play with fire.

That sounds awesome, and then what?
I’m going to create a performance from the research and different fire experiments I do.

Like a play?
Like… a… performance. [Silence].
I’m also interested in architecture in relation to performance.

Oh, like set design?
No. As in, how a site or place impacts a performance and vice versa. I’m also interested in site-specific and site-generic pieces and would like to create some sort of walking piece for a project. I’m also interested in the performance of the everyday. And observing, then mimicking behaviour.

It sounds like your programme is all over the place.
That’s the nature of performance, though, isn’t it. For instance, a play can be about anything, and for that matter even a theatre (building) or stage can be anything. There’s this famous director and drama theorist Peter Brook, who in the opening of his book The Empty Space says, ‘I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and that is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.’ And if we look at the root of performance, which is basically the carrying out an act, then performance can literally be anything and also take place anywhere.

Hmm, I feel like performance is so abstract compared to science.
I’m really glad you just made that comparison because I believe that the study of science and the arts (to use a general overarching term) are both rooted in a fundamental commonality. They’re both grounded in what was (as in, what came before), and explore what is at this present moment, and both project or hypothesize the possibility of what can be. The late astrophysicist Carl Sagan said, ‘Imagination can often carry us into worlds that never were, but without it we go nowhere.’ Imagination is fundamental to both science and performance. But where science is reliant on the laws of the universe, or the defining of facts, performance is basically reliant on suspension of disbelief, or the mutual willingness to participate. I think it’s just as exciting, and dare I say important, to study the laws of physics, evolution, thermodynamics, quantum mechanics, etc. as it is to study performance. There is an apparently inherent need to perform, pretend, imagine within the human condition. Today we are constantly bombarded by performance with TV, films, ads, the internet, the news, sporting events, concerts, and, of course, galleries and performance spaces; as well as adopting performative behaviours of certain customs or cultures, etc. Which poses the question, why? Why does every culture have some mode of oral or storytelling tradition? Why do we adopt certain performative behaviours over others? Why do we willingly suspend our disbelief? Why do we participate in and perpetuate fantasy?

Sounds like you have more questions than answers.
Yeah, learning would be obsolete if I already knew everything.

So let me know what you think! Also, stay tuned. I saw Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act the musical last night so you know I've got to blog about that.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

I visited The Country, went to Hell's Half Acre and ended up at T.E.O.R.E.M.A.T.

This post is a little late as I've been very busy being lazy and procrastinating so now I've had to catch up on school work. Sometimes I forget that I'm in London to get my masters, not to just see shows.

Last week Monday two of my classmates and I saw The Country by Martin Crimp playing at the Arcola Theatre in Hackney. It went off to a smashing start as Joe and I got lost - thankfully I was able to call Jane and have her give us directions. Then we sped-walked to the theatre.

The Arcola is a wonderful space. As we walked into the theatre there were trees and pebbles all over the floor; the seating set up in the round. As we walked in, I said to my friends, "I like this already." Set up in the round the design is both simplistic and infused with symbolism. Anna Bliss Scully’s design with it's deteriorating layers of wood flooring, a stove, telephone, bench, and table an chair - and the trees surrounding the audience, magnifies the isolation of the country.

The play chronicles the relationship of Richard, a doctor, and his wife Corinne after he brings home a strange woman, Rebecca, whom he claims to have found passed out on the side of the road. Crimp's use of language is evocative and eerily unsettling. It took me some time to settle in to the repetitive and quizzical dialogue - but once I did, I was absolutely transfixed. That is until the character Rebecca comes out. Crimp has written the character as an American (why, I don't know) and I have to say that the accent was terrible. I took me completely out of the experience. Although Naomi Wattis had great characterization and physicalization - and it was apparent she understood the text - her accent was quite baffling. That being said, overall I found the production to be well done with Amelia Nicholson's to-the-point direction and smart staging. Simon Thorp as the doctor with too many secrets does especially well portraying a man struggling to keep control and has pitch-perfect black-comedic timing. Amanda Root, however, shines as the exasperated, albeit controlled, wife. Her big eyes somehow manage to simultaneously hide and reveal everything.

This being my first exposure to Crimp - I'd love to read and see more of his work.

Here's a teaser trailor of the play:

Friday night I went to see an art installation called Hell's Half Acre in the Old Vic Tunnels by Lazarides galleries with my fellow American, Rachel. The installation is based on Dante's Inferno. There were some wickedly awesome paintings, sculptures, videos and photos.

Here are some pics:

Sunday I saw T.E.O.R.E.M.A.T.  by the Polish company TR Warszawa at the Barbican. This stunning production inspired by Italian poet, writer and activist Pier Paolo Pasolini and his film Teorema is grippingly absurd as it depicts five family members and their sexual interaction with a young man who comes to stay with them. Although there were points where I was wondering what the hell was happening, the visual styling and sensual acting were superb. The play begins with the patriarch at center stage behind a desk who is questioned by members of the audience. The last question being, "Do you believe in God?" His reply, "I don't understand the question."

Then the style and pace changes dramatically. The large stage is fully utilized as each member occupies their given space. The patriarch at his desk, working; the mother at her boudoir delecatley putting on her makes up; the son and daughter the the mirror getting ready for the day; and the maid going about her duties. The daily routine is played slowly and deliberately - and they do variations of this three times. The rest of the scenes pick up the pace with the introduction of the stranger who seduces each member and then departs just a quickly as he arrived.

Superbly acted, along with a viscerally stunning score, this experimental mode of story telling makes me long to see more work by this evocative company.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

A giant Margaret Thatcher and a rotund Falstaff.

This week I saw two shows: One a West End musical, the other a Shakespeare history play.

Tuesday I saw Billy Elliot with the USC kids. The musical lacks the charm and sincerity of the 2000 film. Does being a big musical mean that you have to be cheesy? I don't think so. Granted when I think musical, I automatically think spectacle - which, I suppose, could be good or bad. Here it was both.

The story takes place during the 1984-85 coal miners' strike in Durham (that's North East England for all my American friends) and tell the story of 11-year-old Billy who trades in his boxing gloves for ballet shoes. Overall I'm hugely disappointed in the music (by Sir Elton John) and lyrics (by the original screenplay writer Lee Hall). And really - this may be obvious - it's the music that makes or breaks a musical. I can see why this show has been hugely popular but at the same time that really doesn't mean anything - the last time I was here Lord of the Rings:  The Musical was here soo....

Overall the direction is ok -- there's a lot of having the coal miners and the kids overlapping in the songs/choreography which sometimes works. Sometimes. There was one moment where the miners were talking and also acting as dancing partners to the little girls - all whilst acting like everything was normal. I'm one who gives a giant margin for suspension of disbelief - but this part was laughable - and it wasn't a funny part.

For a moment in the film that was barely a blip - where Billy goes to see his friend Michael, who is dressing up in his sister's clothes - turns into a huge musical number that feels like it comes out of nowhere. Although I love love love both Billy and Michael and it was great watching these young boys totally kill it in the dance number - I was completely perplexed by the song itself Expressing Yourself (a song about, uh, expressing yourself but 2 minutes before Michael told Billy that he shouldn't be a ballet dancer) and to make the bad side of spectacle worse, there were giant dancing dresses. Why are the giant dancing f*cking dresses!?

The opening of the second act was even more confounding. After the brother and father yell at Billy for wanting to be a ballet dancer - the second act begins with a Christmas party where the brother is dressed up like an elf and is acting pretty gay. Billy can't be a dancer but you can act like a twat? But this isn't the real problem here -- the problem is the song "Merry Christmas Margaret Thatcher" in which a GIANT MARGARET THATCHER comes barreling out on stage. Why?!

So that's the bad first -- now on to the good. The kids. Seriously, so many talented kids - they really carry the show. In fact the show opens up with the most adorable little boy (who looked like the little boy on Jerry Maguire) The boy playing Billy was absolutely fantastic. He was doing some seriously hard and advanced dancing. At the end of the first act it's basically him running round dancing out his anger and he was simply marvelous. I can only imagine how amazing of a dancer he'll be when he's older. Speaking of which -- there's a scene where he dances with his older self which is definitely a spectacle good -- although there's a moment when he's flying and is just spinning and it looked a little lame but other than that the dance was lovely.

Overall I found the musical to be disappointing. Maybe I was going in with high expectations because of the film. There were just too many ridiculous moments that seemed out of place in what should be a charming show about a little boy who wants to dance in midst of economic hardship.

Wednesday I saw Henry IV, part one at the Globe which was amazing. I was exhausted (and slightly tipsy) so that fact that I was able to stand all the way through it is amazing. Falstaff and Henry (in the picture) were absolutely amazing. This was a very straight forward, top-notch production, exactly what I would expect from a Globe production. Not much else to say at this moment. It seems I like to write a lot when I don't like something. So glad I was able to see this show before the Globe closes for the season.

Sir John Fallstaff (played to perfection by Roger Allam) is one of the most loved baffoons in Shakespeare's plays - he's a liar, gluttonous and a braggart - but he's also so lovable, funny and it's easy to see why Henry keeps him around. Prince Hal played by Jaime Parker foreshadows the charismatic leader to come in Henry V all while being wonderfully drunk through most of the play. Dominic Dromgoole masterful and seamless direction never drags and keeps true to the spirit of Shakespearean theatre.

Friday, October 1, 2010

I entered the machine and never left. And then I got "Scorched" and didn't like it.

So I've been in London for over two weeks now. In my last post I talked about Shunt and how I asked if they needed any volunteers. Well that Saturday I volunteered for their bar night at the warehouse. It was a lot of fun as I became and impromptu bartender.

Last week I volunteered as a stage hand for Money. This comprises of me getting dressed up as a guard and directing audience to where they need to go. It also includes scene changes - so those moments when I was wondering "wow, how'd they change the scenes!?" I now know. Because I'm one a few who's running around in the dark and smoke. Everyone I've met thus far have been pretty awesome and I've enjoyed hanging out at the machine. Nigel keeps encouraging me to use the Shunt performances on the weekends as an opportunity to show workshops of things I'm creating for my performance lab class. And I think I just might take him up on that.

I also saw Money again last Friday - and, yep, I still love it!

Someone had recommend Scorched by Majdi Mouawad playing at the Old Vic Tunnels. Hmm, a play in tunnels underneath the Underground? Sounds right up my alley. Unfortunately it wasn't. First off, I really like the concept of having a theatre underground and I really like what the Old Vic has done down with the space -- for the most part. However, the space it much too narrow to have that many seats (I'm guessing around 100 seats - I'd suggest half that.)  I was so far back that it was difficult to see the stage, especially because some guy who was about a foot taller than anyone else was right in my line of vision. So I had to constantly maneuver around his head to see the action.

Now on the the actual play. Scorched depicts the quest that twins, Janine and Simon, are sent on posthumously by their Lebanese mother Nawal, who had been silent for five years prior to her death. The quest is to find their father and brother - one they thought was dead and they other they didn't know existed. The story jumps back and forth from the mother's past, in search of her child given away by her family, to the twin's present search of the reason behind their mother's silence.

The play has a lot of potential but falls flat. The supposed humor or lighthearted parts aren't all. There is too much exposition in the first act, making the second act convoluted and and contrived. There were some lines that made me laugh - not because they were funny (I've already covered that) but because of their overt earnestness. It's short-comings are made even more apparent in some of Patricia Benecke's over-compensation in direction. There were, however, some wonderfully fluid and striking transitions. But when the sprinkler came out, I was completely taken out of the story. That moment where Nawal talks about witnessing a massacre on the bus could have been much more powerful with a simple, raw and honest delivery. The need for theatrics (and this is coming from someone who LOVES theatrics) was unnecessary. Also, the big reveal at the end wasn't that shocking - I had already guessed it as the moments leading up to it had been so over-dramatized that the play had given itself away.

For me the saving grace of this production is Jennie Stoller who plays the Nawal in her last years (the character is played by two other women - one for the young Nawal and one for the middle-aged Nawal.) Her performance is haunting and engrossing. She doesn't overact, nor does she hold back. She is the fully realized embodiment of a woman with too many secrets whose horrific past had made her stubborn and impenetrable.

I did like the setting of the tunnels - the sounds of the trains added to the sound scape of the play. The rumbling of trains overhead evoked the rumbling of the war-torn Lebanon as well as the inner-turmoil of the twins. However, I'm not sure how I would feel about it for other plays because it can be quite distracting.

The few lovely and poetic moments are overshadowed by the overall lack of focus in writing, direction, and acting.

Friday, September 17, 2010

I haven't got a flat yet but I've got a ticket to a play.

Well thankfully the title of this blog post is no longer true - I found a flat Thursday. Whew.

But it was a joke I was telling people right until I landed a flat. "Hey I haven't found a flat yet, but I'm seeing a play!" Priorities.

My dearest Matt McCray, AD of my beloved Son of Semele Ensemble (SOSE) told me about this absolutely amazing play he and his father had seen in London back in June. Trusting him I decided to buy a ticket for my first Friday in London. Granted, this was before I even knew if my visa would be approved and mailed in time for my flight. (Thankfully I got my visa last Friday. My plane left Monday. Everything seems to be falling into place at the last minute - kinda like in theatre. Speaking of which...)

So the play is called Money by the ensemble company Shunt. Based on the novel L’Argent by Émile Zola, Money takes the audience (literally) into a three-story tall financial machine. The set is quite the beast. The instant I stepped into the warehouse and saw the monstrosity in the center, I knew I was going to be in for quite the treat.

Sipping on my Magner's cider and sitting alone, I took my solitude as an opportunity to observe those around me, the machine and it's inhabitants. Everything was in a harmonious balance as the cacophonous sounds blared, a guard of the machine handed out balloons, and audience members shuffled in. If one isn't instantly amazed by this elaborate setting and atmosphere, they sure will be once inside the machine. Pure theatrical magic and stunning ingenuity. I've never before seen anything like it.

What seems entirely fragmented becomes painfully clear and socially relevant as the money machine builds up speed and then plummets. Leaving the audience in silence. I think I had a smile on my face the entire time. Funny, absurd, relevant, biting and creative - all things that in my opinion make up great theatre.

After the show I awkwardly stood around scrounging up the courage to introduce myself to any member of the company in hopes to find out more about the production and the company. Finally I did. I first spoke with Nigel who plays the creator of the machine, the "man on the future." He told me that they had been working on the piece for quite some time and that everyone in the company contributed to it's creation. I told him I was envious of their space and the unbelievable set. "How did you get your funding for all this?" I ask. Well, Shunt originally was in the Shunt arches underneath London Bridge. The space has been converted into a lounge/bar area and basically they were able to fund this project by all the alcohol sold. (Are you paying attention my LA theatre peeps?)

Then I spoke with Gemma who plays the man's girlfriend and helps to bring the machine into fruition. She told me that Shunt has been around for about 13 years and has grown over time. Money has been playing for a year now and she can't believe it's been running for that long. They've recently extended it again for two more weeks. I ask her when they began devising this piece. "It was before the financial crisis, it's been that long," she tells me. How serendipitous! She agrees saying that their last project was about Guy Fawkes who is infamous in Britain for his failed attempt at blowing up parliament in 1605. Back then you could rent a room in the basement of the building, which is where the attempt happened. It was one of those securities things that no one really thought about. After they had opened the show, 9/11 happened, back when no one thought terrorists would hijack a plane and crash it into a tower.

Louise, the dramaturg on Money laughs at the coincidences of their past two plays with major global events. "Maybe we should make our next show a happy one."

After awhile I asked Louise and Gemma if they needed volunteers. And like all struggling theatre companies - they jumped on my inquiry. Haha, glad to see there's the same spirit here as there is in the LA theatre community. I haven't even been here a week and already I'm whoring myself out for theatre.

Considering this is my first show of my year in London, I sure have started off with a bang!

Here's a link to a cool promo video:

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Home Is Where the Heart Is

My departure is fast approaching. I leave for London in five days and am busy seeing as many friends as possible, tying up any loose ends and, uh, trying to find a place to live in London (eeek). I've spent the past five years building a life here in the city of angels and now I'm leaving it all behind.

People here tend not to live up to the name of the city. But there are indeed angels here. My personal angels are those I call my friends, colleagues, mentors and inspirations. In other words, the people who put up with me.

Anyone who knows me, knows I hate goodbyes. I get all awkward (I mean, more so than usual that is) and shut down emotionally. If I don't shut down, then I'll start crying, like full on ugly cry. No one wants to see that. I get emotional because my friendships mean everything to me; and yet, I consider myself a loner. But most would consider me a social butterfly. Which is also true. But how many times have you seen a bunch of butterflies socializing? Normally I see just one butterfly at a time fluttering about. I may flutter from place to place, but generally I flutter alone. Before this butterfly metaphor gets out of hand, I'll get to the point. Those who I've let in past the tough facade - those who get to see the gooey mess inside; the vulnerable, insecure, overly-sensitive, hurt, angry, sad side of me, and still call me friend are indeed my angels.

My friends are my family - and they've helped me make Los Angeles my home. Which is hard to do in this urban sprawl. A city where most migrate here for selfish reasons. I'm guilty of that. I came here for college and was hoping to break out into the film industry. But life happens in the most unexpected ways. I fell in love with the theatre community. YES, we have theatre in LA! No matter how spread out we are, those of us in the community are willing to help out one another and to support each others work.

I've had the pleasure of meeting so many inspiring artists who simply love to tell stories and do whatever it takes to make it happen. That's all I've ever wanted to do - tell stories that resonate; that have an impact; that inspire, challenge and encourage.

It's nice to know I'm not the only one who feels this way - and that there are people in this city who are of like mind. And now I'm crossing the pond to my favorite city, London. Where I'll bring with me the determination, dedication and passion of the Los Angeles theatre community to a city enriched with theatrical history. A city where theatre draws in the masses rather than begs desperately for attention... and respect.

As I study and conduct research for my Masters in Theatre and Performance, I hope to find theatre artists of a like mind. Those who face challenges with creativity and sheer bravado. I often joke about LA theatre saying we make magic happen with duct tape, superglue and pure imagination.

I'm also going to have to find new friends. My group of what I would call my bestest friends didn't just happen over night. It took years to develop - earning trust, telling secrets, inside jokes, etc., etc. But as I always say, home is where the heart is. And my heart is somehow able to be in multiple places at once: with my friends and family, in the theatre, in the arts, places that resonate with me, and even with the lone butterfly that contently flutters around.

Although I am sad to leave my home and the people in it - I am so excited for the next chapter of my life. Sometimes I have to remind myself that the only constant in life is that everything changes. It's funny, I'm slightly resisting the change I've put on myself. After all, it was ME who decided to go to London for grad school. No one made me do it. I thought of it all on my own. And yet there is a part of me that is grasping on to the way things are, well... were.

To my friends who make me laugh, console me when I cry, and put up with my mood-swings: I love you. Don't ever forget that. And to my friends I have yet to meet: prepare yourself!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Violators Will Be Violated

You know the saying, “Screwed-up people make great art?” Well, it doesn’t get any more screwed-up than Casey Smith’s solo mime-esque show Violators Will Be Violated.

The show consists of 17 short skits; most are set to music, all of which are disturbing, disgusting and absolutely delightful. In other words – it’s so wrong, it’s right. Smith takes the theme of self-destruction to new extremes. Many times throughout the performance there were audience outbursts of “This is so wrong” and “what!?”

Smith unassumingly enters the stage set with a wooden stool and glass of water. He stares at the audience while gulping the water. Then, out of nowhere, he starts screaming which culminates into him having his way with the chair. And this is only the beginning. In the course of 45 minutes he’s a slut, a bulimic ballerina, a man with polio who decapitates himself with an electric knife, a Catholic who crashes his motorcycle, a failure at suicide, who accidentally shoots his dog and himself and dies floating in his own feces. Just to name a few. No topic is off limits and the audience is bombarded with the unimaginable that the demented Smith has somehow imagined.

Smith exudes child-like innocence mixed with perverted depravity. His ideas are so extreme, so far out there, but his skilful use of his body and expressions are so clear that he makes the most outrageous scenarios happen before your eyes. I had one moment where I shifted to see the dog he was petting on the ground, and then realized – there is no dog. It is all in Smith’s splendidly twisted imagination.

The first time I saw this, I was completely inspired. At the time, I was taking a clowning class and in high school I had competed in pantomime. I have always struggled with getting the ideas out of my head and making them understandable. If Smith can cut off a horse’s head, wear it like a mask and then ride off on a bomb รก la Dr. Strangelove style, then I ought to be able to do, well, anything.

Most importantly, it reminded me why I became an actor: pure entertainment. Laughter. As a child I would do impressions of people and mime out stories to make my mom laugh. I even did a slow motion mime skit of the time I was hit by a car (and nearly died). We both thought my skit was hilarious. Sometimes things are so horrible that all we can do is laugh. Somehow I had forgotten that.

Smith’s love for entertaining is evident in the buckets of sweat flung around as he maniacally assaults the stage. His sense of play is infinite and his comedic timing is impeccable. And he is the epitome of the clown who revels in failure. Smith has taken the very human tendency of self-destruction and put it under the microscope of the absurd, insane and disgusting. As the woman who sat next to me said when the show was over, “I was somewhere between laughing and throwing up.” How many actors can say they’ve had that kind of affect on the audience?

Theatre should elicit a reaction. Whether it’s tears or laughter – or in this case – vomit. And it should also be entertaining – where the audience is held captive. And captivated we were.