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Offering a fresh way of helping you keep up with art and entertainment happenings around the Capital District.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

lanford wilson

On Wednesday evening March 30, all theaters on Broadway dimmed their lights in memory of Lanford Wilson who died last week. Though most of the media covered his passing, it was in mention and not as the major event it was when playwrights like Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams died. Which is right. Lanford Wilson was not a great playwright. He was, however, a very important playwright who represented an era. His career is not likely to be repeated anytime soon. His best known play is "Talley's Folly" a nice, sweet two-hander that won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Ironically, though chronologically it is the first play of his "Talley Trilogy" it was written second. In "Fifth of July" (which I think is his most important play) there is an eccentric aunt who is trying to decide what to do with her husband's ashes. The character, was so endearing and her love for her dead husband so sincere and enduring, Wilson decided to write a play about how they first met. So came about "Talley's Folly," a play that 31 years after it premiered is produced regularly. Actually, I wouldn't argue with someone who preferred Wilson's "Hot L Baltimore." The title refers to a run down hotel in which the e burned out of the hotel in it's sign and has never been replaced. Interestingly, after the play became a hit, hotels around the country were claiming to be the hotel that served as the playwright's inspiration. Imagine, claiming you were the dump that inspired someone to create a play about people who live in a seedy hotel. Cancel my reservation. Last summer Williamstown Theatre Festival produced "Fifth of July." The material seemed dated, which it is. But, to me, that is the critical element in Wilson's work - it is of the time it was written. If you want to clearly see the way the 1970s and 80s really were, read or see a play written by Lanford Wilson. He understood the time in which he lived and had the clarity of vision that all artists must have. His gift was the way he was able to articulate the voices of the people who lived in his world and this time. Wilson started writing Off-Off-Broadway at Cafe Cino in Greenwich Village in NYC and he populated his plays with the disenfranchised of society. The anonymous people who lived lives of daily desperation. Because he learned his craft in such an environment his language was as thrifty as were his sets. I think of him and those like Sam Shepard who came to the theater at the same time as the theater version of the Ash Can Painters. They created a style that is now called "lyric realism" as they found integrity and depth in those others dismissed or ignored. Perhaps the most important thing Wilson did in his life was, along with his director Marshall Mason and actress Tanya Barezin, formed the theater company known as Circle Repertory. Circle Rep was an actor driven theater that gave a theatrical home to many people who would later become household names. Jeff Daniels is the most enduring. It was this area's good fortune that Circle Rep was in residence for (I think) three seasons at the Little Theatre at SPAC from about 1980-83. There, Wilson premiered a couple of his plays - Angel's Fall" and "Talley and Son" (renamed A Tale Told"). Wilson wrote 17 full-length plays and 30 one-acts (most of the one acts at Cafe Cino). Few people could name three of his plays but would be familiar with many of the titles. That suggests his plays are remembered for themselves - not for who wrote them. I said earlier, his career might not be repeated anytime soon. That's because Wilson was not a writer of great plays and today it is tough to be produced without having written a great play. Too, he wrote for a company that was as interested as much for creating good material as it was producing a box office sensation. If there is another Lanford Wilson out there it might be Tracy Lett's who has Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre willing to produce his next play, no matter the fate of his last play. Lanford Wilson a good writer who wrote good plays. To judge the career of Lanford Wilson you must look at his body of work - not his individual plays. When you do that, you'll understand why Broadway paid tribute to him by dimming their lights on Wednesday.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

24 hour theater

There's a television show that runs on the Food Network called Chopped. It places four chefs in competition with each other eliminating one after each challenge until there is a final winner.

Each chef is given a basket with the same four ingredients and they are asked to make a meal that must include each of the items. The trick is the combination of items tends to make no sense. They could be peanut butter, sardines, horseradish and stale rye bread.

It is actually pretty impressive to see what each chef comes up with. But since television is a visual medium, not an interactive one, I have to trust the opinions of judges who actually taste the dish. I do know that if I were to go to a restaurant and saw an item that included peanut butter, sardines, horseradish and stale bread - I would not order that dish.

That said, it is a lot of fun to watch the show and appreciate the creative expertise of the chefs. Some of the things they come up with are inventive and near-brilliant. What makes it more compelling is the pressure they are under to produce something original within a half-hour.

I'm looking at the 24hr theater marathon that takes place between Friday and Saturday nights at the Troy Arts Center on River Street in much the same way as I do Chopped. It will be a creative challenge for the 50 theater artists participating in the event and probably a lot of fun to watch. However, I do not expect to see any of the finished products end up on the menu of a local theater company.

The idea is that on Friday night, during Troy Night Out, five playwrights will be given a "trigger". It can be anything - a word, an emotion or a concept. The writers have to take that "trigger" and incorporate it into a play they must write overnight.

Also on Friday night they pull names out of a hat to find out who will direct their piece. The same random process is used to determine not only who their actors will be, but how many actors they must write for.

On Saturday, they bring the finished script to the arts center and give it to the director. The director assembles the actors, assigns roles and begins to rehearse. That evening starting at 8 p.m. the plays will be performed on a set, in costume and with theatrical lighting.

Without question it is a daunting experience. Perhaps the challenges of the event is the reason so many of the best professional talent are participating in the project. The playwrights, directors and actors are an all star lineup of area talent. Adding additional interest is the talent pool is shared between people who live and work in the Capital District and those who live and work in the Berkshires. This is networking taken to a new level. Indeed, it is the hope this project will forge new relationships between theater artists in both regions.

There are many reasons that the project has value. The most important is seeing five original pieces on stage - even if they are only ten or 15 minutes in length - can be fun. But, I sense the participants will have the most fun. There is a sense of theater camp about the entire project.

I'll probably attend, but it will be to enjoy the process, not with the expectation of seeing great theater. With the greatest of respect to the talent involved I do not think this is the way to create lasting or even good art. But, I repeat, it can be fun.

I just hope the trigger for the playwrights is not peanut butter, sardines, horseradish or stale bread.