Category Archives: Shakespeare

Take a pill or see a play?

doctor writing prescriptionby Stephen Sachs

Need a cure for what ails you? Next time you see your doctor, the prescription he or she scribbles may surprise you: see a play.

Research is now proving that gathering with other people to see a play, listen to music or watch a dance concert not only heals the soul. It mends the body, as well.

Doctors generally prescribe pills to make people feel better. Yet the medical benefits of engaging with the arts are well-recorded. A first-of-its-kind study last year found that the social engagement of art is an effective way to improve the health and well-being of patients with such long-term conditions as asthma, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, epilepsy, and osteoporosis—which often exacerbate symptoms of depression and/or anxiety.

Going to the theatre and being part of an audience, joining other human beings in a shared live experience, has medical benefits. Countless studies have found that social isolation takes a heavy toll on our well-being over time. One of the advantages of joining other theater-goers to see a play is that it reduces feelings of loneliness. Our daily lives in front of computer screens can be isolating. Attending live theatre boosts a sense of belonging and face-to-face human connectedness.

In January this year, the U.K. appointed Tracey Crouch to serve as its first “minister of loneliness” to explore how to combat the “sad reality of modern life”. According to a report last year from the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, more than 9 million people in Britain—around 14% of the population—often or always feel lonely. The numbers are even higher in the United States. Cigna’s recent survey revealed 46% of Americans — nearly half the population.– report sometimes or always feeling alone.

“We should value the arts because they’re essential to our health and wellbeing,” says British Health Secretary Matt Hancock. “Access to the arts improves people’s mental and physical health. It makes us happier and healthier.”

The larger question we must ask ourselves is: What sort of society do we want? One that generates physical and emotional illness and then thrives on pharmaceuticals to put it right? Or a society that embraces a more holistic approach to public health through social responsibility and artistic engagement? Given the toxic state of our politics and the poisonous nature of our society and environment today, it is remarkable that we manage to keep going as we are. But for how long? The dilemma was raised by Samuel Beckett, once again, at the theatre, “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

Witnessing a powerful play can illuminate what it means to be a human being and connect us to a larger and higher vision of ourselves. In his powerful account of his own holocaust experience, psychiatrist Viktor Frankl concludes that the ‘search for meaning is the primary motivation in life’. He describes lack of meaning as an ‘existential vacuum’, often manifesting as boredom, and invaded by numerous neurotic and addictive problems. He quotes Nietzsche:

‘He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.’

This echoes, of course, the eternal question posed by Hamlet: “To be, or not to be …”  This is how theatre triggers self-treatment. A theater-goer witnessing Hamlet’s struggle on stage is himself, from the audience, thrown into questioning the purpose of his or her own life. A great play, seen in the most public of settings, generates intimate self-examination and, at the same time, connects us to our fellow beings. Theatre is a journey inward and outward.

The arts play a critical role in the better health of our nation.  Not only spiritually and aesthetically — but physically, medically.  The arts, like health care, not only make life better — they make it livable. Congress seems to agree. Despite Trump’s call to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts, Congress passed a 2019 budget increase of more than $2 million to the NEA and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Even with this modest 2019 budget increase in arts funding, the United States is writing a doctor’s prescription to itself. Politicians must learn to protect the NEA as fervently as they defend the Second Amendment.

More than guns, Americans have the right to bear arts.

Stephen Sachs in the Co-Artistic Director of the Fountain Theatre.

Fountain Theatre to host special performance of new play written by incarcerated youth in Antaeus Odyssey Artists’ Program

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Actor John Prosky teaches young men at Rancho San Antonio

They come from all over Southern California. From a wide range of backgrounds, for a variety of reasons. Many have no where else to go. Each has a unique story to tell.  And for the young men at Rancho San Antonio Boys Home in Chatsworth, the Odyssey Artists’ Workshop is an opportunity to use theatre as a vehicle to express their personal stories.

On Tuesday, December 13 at 7pm, the Fountain Theatre will host the culmination performance of a new play written by the incarcerated young men of Rancho San Antonio, made possible through the program launched by members of Antaeus Theatre Company.

“At the heart of the Fountain’s artistic mission is our commitment to giving voice to those who may not otherwise be heard,” says Fountain Co-Artistic Director Stephen Sachs. “We are happy and proud to host this program which embodies that artistic and social philosophy.”

Rancho San Antonio is a non-profit multi-service residential agency serving court-ordered adolescent boys. The primary goal of the agency is to provide an opportunity for rehabilitation of the total person through a balanced physical, social, spiritual, psychological, and educational experience. It focuses on personal responsibility, values clarification, and changing anti-social behaviors. Some of the programs provided include: individual, group and family counseling, drug treatment, educational services and emancipation assistance.

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The Odyssey Artists’ Workshop is a creative writing and theatre program for young adults from high-risk environments. The workshop teaches the structural elements of non-fiction writing as well as theater performance skills through the component of Shakespeare. The students craft and perform an original theater piece of their personal stories interwoven with selected characters and themes from Shakespeare’s plays.

How did the Workshop get started?

“I had been teaching acting and dramatic writing in the lock-down juvenile camps of LA County for a while, ” says actor John Prosky, recently seen at the Fountain in our west coast premiere of Tennessee Williams’ Baby Doll.  “In 2009, Kitty Swink at Antaeus Theatre Company asked me if I would like to put a Shakespeare program together at Rancho San Antonio. Kitty introduced me to artist and educator Liz Berman who had been teaching a writing program there and we decided to join our programs about 6 years ago.  And Odyssey Artists’ Workshop was born.”

The Workshop now teaches at Rancho San Antonio, Homeboy Industries, Van Nuys High School, Learning Works Charter in Pasadena. It starts at New Village Charter in January.

For actor Prosky, the impetus to launch the program was personal. “After working in TV and Film for more than a decade, ” he says, “I began to wonder if I was really contributing anything to the world. Plus, I was Jesuit trained and they beat into me the idea of service. I get much more from this program than the students do.”

What happens in a typical 10-week Workshop period?

img_0529“We pick a character arc or text from a play we think a particular student population will respond to and then we perform that arc for them through scenes and soliloquies using professional classical actors,” he explains. “Then we invite the students into the plot with writing prompts, improv and other acting exercises based on what they just saw.  The populations we work with tend to be highly polarized by gang affiliation and/or race, so we also spend a great deal of time on ensemble building exercises.  We also do mask work and are staging a short story written by a guy on death row in San Quentin, Jarvis Jay Masters, from his book Finding Freedom.

For the young men at Rancho San Antonio, the 10-week Workshop experience is more than artistic. It is also therapeutic.

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“We are not trained therapists or social workers by any means,” admits Prosky. “But all these theater exercises on a young mind that has experienced trauma is healing.  I tell these guys often that if you tell your story, you will gain wisdom, strength, and a lesson, but more importantly, we as listeners to your story will gain wisdom strength and a lesson.”

“What happens to a young mind that has experienced abuse, neglect, and addiction is that a sense of empathy gets damaged.  The wrong role models and a lack of empathy leads to crime.  Makes sense. But the young brain is repairable.  I’ve seen it over and over. These acting storytelling-exercises coupled with a lot of ensemble building techniques begins to give them back their empathy.  Towards the end of the ten week session racial and gang barriers in the room begin to break down.  Once they have gone through the crucible of performance, they are a new kind of gang; an ensemble.”

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John Prosky and Lindsay LaVanchy in Baby Doll at Fountain Theatre

Because construction for Antaeus Theatre Company’s new venue in Glendale is still underway, Prosky turned to the Fountain to host this culmination performance. The Fountain Theatre immediately accepted. Prosky couldn’t be happier.

“I am so grateful to The Fountain Family for the use of their theatre for this culmination.  Having just done Baby Doll at The Fountain, I felt like the positivism, love, and respect I experienced there made it the perfect place for these young men.”

The Odyssey Artists’ Workshop culmination performance will be on Tuesday, December 13, at 7pm at the Fountain Theatre. The event is free. Seating is limited. Please RSVP to Robin Campbell at robin@antaeus.org or (818) 506-5436.

7 Reasons Why Theatre Makes Our Lives Better

Howard Shalwitz

Howard Shalwitz

by Howard Shalwitz

As someone who came from a family of doctors, started out pre-med in college, detoured to philosophy, then teaching, and finally to theatre — not only did my career choices slide steadily downhill from my mother’s perspective, but I was left with a moral conundrum: does my chosen profession, theatre, make a valuable contribution to the world when compared with the other professions I left behind? I guess this conundrum has stuck with me, because as recently as this past winter I made a list of seven reasons why theatre matters and I’d like to share them with you briefly tonight.

First, theatre does no harm. Theatre is one of those human activities that doesn’t really hurt anyone or anything (except for its carbon footprint — but let’s ignore that for now). While we’re engaged in making or attending theatre, or any of the arts for that matter, we are not engaged in war, persecution, crime, wife-beating, drinking, pornography, or any of the social or personal vices we could be engaged in instead. For this reason alone, the more time and energy we as a society devote to theatre and the arts, the better off we will be.

Second, theatre is a sophisticated expression of a basic human need — one might call it an instinct — to mimic, to project stories onto ourselves and others, and to create meaning through narrative and metaphor. We see this instinct expressed in children when they act out real or imagined characters and events. We have evidence of theatre-like rituals in some of the oldest human societies, long before the foundations of Western theatre in Ancient Greece. So theatre matters, in essence, because we can’t help it. It’s part of what makes us human.

Third, theatre brings people together. For a performance to happen, anywhere from a hundred to a thousand or more people need to gather in one place for a couple of hours, and share together in witnessing and contemplating an event that may be beautiful, funny, moving, thought-provoking, or hopefully at least diverting. And in an age when most of our communication happens in front of a screen, I think that this gathering function of theatre is, in and of itself, something that matters.

Fourth, theatre models for us a kind of public discourse that lies at the heart of democratic life, and builds our skills for listening to different sides of a conversation or argument, and empathizing with the struggles of our fellow human beings whatever their views may be. When we watch a play, we learn what happens when conflicts don’t get resolved, and what happens when they do. We develop our faculty for imagining the outcomes of various choices we might make in our personal lives and our political lives. It’s not surprising that, in repressive societies, theatre has often been aligned with the movement toward openness and freedom. In South Africa theatre played a role in the struggle against apartheid; in Czechoslovakia, a playwright became the leader of a new democracy. If our own representatives and senators in Washington went to the theatre more often, I suspect we’d all be better off.

Fifth, both the making of theatre and attending of theatre contribute to education and literacy. Watching the characters talk back and forth in the theatre is tricky; it requires sharp attention, quick mental shifts, and nimble language skills. It teaches us about human motivation and psychology. In historical plays we get lessons in leadership and government. In contemporary plays, we learn about people and cultures in different parts or our own country or in other countries. Studies have shown that students who participate in theatre do better in school. Making plays together also draws kids out of their shells and helps them learn to socialize in a productive and healthy way.

Sixth, theatre as an industry contributes to our economy and plays a special role in the revitalization of neglected neighborhoods. We’ve seen this quite clearly in our own city. You can look at the role that the Studio Theatre played along the 14th Street corridor, or Shakespeare Theatre along Seventh Street, or Woolly in both these neighborhoods, or Gala Hispanic Theatre in Columbia Heights, the Atlas along H Street, or the new Arena Stage along the waterfront. As each of these theatres opened, new audiences started flooding in, new restaurants opened, jobs were created, the city improved the sidewalks, and neighborhoods that were once grim and forbidding became vibrant hubs of activity. And this pattern has been repeated in cities across the United States and around the world.

Finally, the seventh way that theatre matters — and this one applies to some kinds of theatre more than others — is that it influences the way we think and feel about our own lives and encourages us to take a hard look at ourselves, our values, and our behavior. The most vivid example of this I’ve ever experienced was during a post-show discussion at Woolly Mammoth when a woman said that one of our plays made her and her husband decide that they had a serious problem in their marriage and needed to go for counseling; and she was pleased to report that they were still together and much happier as a result. Now, I’ll admit, I don’t hear things like this every day. But speaking more generally isn’t this one of the things we go to the theatre for, to measure our own lives against the lives we see depicted on the stage, to imagine what it would be like if we had those lives instead? And isn’t it a very short step from there to saying, gee, maybe there’s something I should change about my own life? And it may have nothing to do with the message that the playwright wanted to deliver! Maybe the play is about a fierce battle over a family dinner that breaks the family apart over irreconcilable political divisions — but maybe you watch the play and say, gosh, wouldn’t it be nice to at least have a family dinner once in a while, and so you decide to plan one for next month.

So, those are my seven ways that theatre matters: it does no harm, expresses a basic human instinct, brings people together, models democratic discourse, contributes to education and literary, sparks economic revitalization, and influences how we think and feel about our own lives.

Howard Shalwitz is the Artistic Director at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.

10 Theater Superstitions: “Good Luck” is Bad Luck! And Never Say the Title of the Scottish Play!

Theater Folk are a superstitious lot, and considering the amount of things that can (and do) go wrong in a performance, it’s not surprising that folklore has popped up giving an explanation to these occurrences. These myths go above and beyond walking under ladders and opening umbrellas inside (although those are adhered to as well!). These are specifically for those working in the arts. In this list I delve into the world of theater superstitions and try to provide the reasons for their existence.

10 – The Blues

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Superstition: It is bad luck to wear the color blue onstage, unless it was countered with something silver.

In the early days of theater costuming, it was extremely difficult to make blue dye, and thus expensive to purchase. Companies that were failing would wear blue garments to try to fool their audience as to their success, and likely go bankrupt due to the cost of the costumes. The silver that countered it was proof of a successful company, as it proved to the audience that they could afford real silver or they had a wealthy backer.

9 – Unlucky rule of Three

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Superstition: Having three lit candles onstage is bad luck.

While it is adhering to the ‘rule of three’ having lit three candles on stage is considered bad luck. It is said that the person nearest to the shortest candle will be the next to marry, or the next to die. Before electric lights were commonplace in theater, the stage was lit by candles, although this is not the origin of the superstition – the unlucky candles had to be on the stage (i.e. – part of the set). Logic prevails on this one as with dim lighting, busy people and highly flammable fresh paint on the set, you are running the risk of burning down the theater.

8 – Peacock  feathers

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Superstition: Peacock Feathers should never be brought on stage, either as a costume element, prop or part of a set as chaos will ensue.

Many veteran thespians tell stories of sets collapsing, curtains catching alight and other disastrous events during performances with peacock feathers. The feather is said to represent a malevolent ‘evil eye’, that bestows a curse on the show. The association between peacock feathers and the evil eye is best illustrated by the Greek myth of Argus, the monster whose body was covered with a hundred eyes, these eyes were transferred to the tail of the Peacock.

7 – Graveyard Gift

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Superstition: It’s considered good luck traditionally to give the director and/or the leading lady, after closing night, a bouquet of flowers stolen from a graveyard (never give flowers before a performance – They are yet to earn them so it’s bad luck!)

Graveyard flowers are given on closing night to symbolize the death of the show, and that it can now be put to rest. The rational origin is that theater was, as most people who have worked in the industry will tell you, never a greatly profitable profession and despite being macabre, graves were a great source of free flowers.

6 – Mirror image

Original Photo Chorus Mirror

Superstition: It is bad luck to have mirrors on stage.

The myth is that many believe that mirrors are a reflection of the soul and breaking one can mean seven years bad luck, not only for the breaker but for the theater itself. However, having a mirror on stage can cause technical issues, such as reflecting light into the audience or into places never intended to be lit. It can also be a source of distraction for vain actors. The mirror superstition has since been challenged with the successful musical A Chorus Line, and its famous mirror scene.

5 – Hauntings

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Superstitions: Ghosts haunt theaters and should be given one night a week alone on the stage.

Depending on your theater the stories will change, but there is one specific ghost, Thespis, who has a reputation for causing unexplained mischief. Thespis, of Athens (6th BC) was the first person to speak lines as an individual actor on stage, thus the term “Thespian” to refer to a theatrical performer was born. To keep the ghosts of the theater subdued, there should be at least one night a week where the theater is empty, this night is traditionally a Monday night, conveniently giving actors a day off after weekend performances.

4 – The Ghost Light

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Superstition: There should always be a light burning in an empty theater to ward off ghosts.

Conventionally, the light is placed downstage center, illuminating the space when it is not in use, to keep ghosts with enough light so that they can see, which keeps them at bay. This is another superstition with a practical value: The backstage area of a theater tends to be cluttered with props, set pieces and costumes, so someone who enters a completely darkened space is prone to being injured while hunting for a light switch. It prevents those still living from having to cross the stage in the dark, injuring themselves and leading to new ghosts for the theater. It’s also known as the “Equity Light” or “Equity Lamp”.

3 – Whistling

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Superstition: It is considered bad luck to whistle on or off stage, as someone (not always the whistler) will be fired.

The reason for this superstition was that before the invention of walkie-talkies or comms, the cues for the theater technicians were coded whistles given by the stage manager. If one was whistling backstage it could call a cue before its due, which could have disastrous outcomes resulting in someone losing their job whether it be the whistler, the stage manager or the technician.

2 – Good Luck

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Superstition: To wish someone ‘Good luck’ before a show is bad luck.

Generally, it is considered bad luck to wish someone good luck in a theater, the expression “Break a Leg” replaces the phrase “Good luck”. There are many theories of the origin of this superstition of wishing luck to the actors, but here are a few:

– After a good performance during Elizabethan England, actors were thrown money on the stage and they would kneel down to collect the money thus ‘breaking’ the line of the leg.

– Similarly, for the curtain call, when actors bow or curtsy, they place one foot behind the other and bend at the knee, thus ‘breaking’ the line of the leg.

– If the audience demands numerable curtain calls and the actors are moving on and off stage via the wings they may ‘break the legs’, ‘legs’ being a common name for side curtains/masks.

1 – Macbeth

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Superstition: Saying the word ‘Macbeth’ in a theater will result in extreme bad luck.

Theater folk avoid using it, referring to the play as ‘The Scottish Play’ or ‘The Bard’s Play’. If the name is spoken in a theater, there is a cleansing ritual one can do to rectify the mistake. The ritual I am familiar with is: The person is required to leave the theater building, spit, curse and spin around three times, before begging to be allowed back inside. Other variants include: Reciting a line from another Shakespearean work, brushing oneself off, running around the theater counter clock-wise, or repeating the name 3 times while tapping their left shoulder.

There are several possible origins for this superstition. One option is to believe in witchcraft. According to one superstition, Shakespeare himself got the words from a coven of real witches, who, after seeing the play weren’t impressed by their portrayal. Another says the props master from the original performance stole a cauldron from said coven, and the witches, again, weren’t impressed. The best witchcraft explanation is that Shakespeare put a curse on the play so that no-one, other than him, would be able to direct it correctly.

Another origin is that there is more swordplay in it than most other Shakespeare plays, and, therefore, more chances for someone to get injured. But the option I believe is most likely is that, due to the plays popularity, it was often run by theaters that were in debt and as a last attempt to increase patronage; the theaters normally went bankrupt soon after.

NB: The superstition is even parodied in an episode of The Simpsons. While visiting London, the Simpson family comes across Sir Ian McKellen outside a theater showing “Macbeth.” Every time “Macbeth” is said, something happens to McKellen.

Have we left out any other theater superstitions?  Are you an actor or involved in the theater in any way? What special little private superstitions do YOU have?

Submitted by Molly at Listverse.com

My Shakespeare: the Bard’s online digital heartbeat

a place to consider what Shakespeare means to us today

Kate Tempest

myShakespeare is the digital home of the World Shakespeare Festival, a celebration of Shakespeare as the world’s playwright now underway in London through September, 2012.

Produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company, in an unprecedented collaboration with leading UK and international arts organisations, and with Globe to Globe, a major international program produced by Shakespeare’s Globe, it’s the biggest celebration of Shakespeare ever staged.

Almost 60 partners are coming together to bring the Festival alive.  Thousands of artists from around the world are taking part in almost 70 productions, plus supporting events and exhibitions, right across the UK, including London, Stratford-upon-Avon, Newcastle/Gateshead, Birmingham, Wales and Scotland and online.

Measuring Shakespeare’s Digital Heartbeat

At myShakespeare artists and audiences interpret, recode and remix Shakespeare’s online world. It’s a creative space to share thoughts and ideas, revealing how his words, stories and characters continue to influence and reflect human life.

Why are the plays of Shakespeare still so powerful today as they were over 400 years ago?  “The stuff that we care about doesn’t change,” says UK actor, musician and comedian Tim Minchin. Take a look at Tim’s video explaining what myShakespeare is all about:

From every continent, myShakespeare has commissioned a series of artists to create new work. First on the site is rapper, poet and playwright, Kate Tempest from Southeast London.

Check out her video rap/poem, My Shakespeare.  It’s wonderful!

Who is your Shakespeare?