Tag Archives: Hamlet

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.

When Real Life Interrupts

Hamlet and skull

by Stephen Sachs

She was sitting with friends in the third row of the center section. Good seats close to the aisle. She was enjoying our world premiere of Athol Fugard’s The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek. An older woman, she liked going to the theatre and had seen many plays over her long span of theatre-going. She also had a history of heart trouble.

Midway through the first act, audience members nearby noticed that she was becoming restless. She leaned forward like she was trying to stand. Suddenly, as the performance continued on stage, she passed out in her seat, unconscious.  As the play unfolded, the woman’s friend dashed out of the theatre and alerted the house manager in the lobby. When paramedics arrived, the performance was stopped and the house lights came up. The stage manager stepped forward and made an announcement to the audience. The actors stood motionless on stage and patrons watched in hushed silence as the emergency team entered the auditorium, put the woman on a stretcher and wheeled her out to the waiting ambulance which then sped away into the night. Meanwhile, inside the theatre, the lights went back down. The performance continued. Shaken and dazed, the actors and audience then took on the shared task of rebuilding the imaginary world they both had created and were inhabiting together.

Emergency incidents like this are jarring and upsetting wherever they occur. And they feel strangely at odds and in sudden conflict with the imagined reality in a theatre when they interrupt a play being performed. Like that jolting moment in a movie theater when the projector suddenly breaks and the movie stops. The screen that one moment ago held glorious vistas of outer space or the intimate electricity of a lover’s kiss — without warning goes blank. The lights come up. You are violently thrust back into real life. You look around, disoriented, no longer on a faraway planet or in a seducer’s bed. You’re in a multiplex.

Over our twenty-five year history, the Fountain Theatre has endured a handful of emergency incidents in the audience and on stage during a performance or immediately after. A patron passing out in the front row, an actress collapsing in the middle of a performance, an actor having a heart attack on his drive home. And, of course, the murder of a director in his apartment prior to coming to rehearsal.

Each of these turmoils remind us of the delicate uncertainty of each of our lives and theatre’s seemingly impossible task to express it. Yet that is its aspiration.  Then life intervenes.

Conflict is the engine that drives a good play. We go the theatre to witness human beings struggle to overcome a life-or-death conflict. Its one thing to watch a fictional character battle for survival on stage. Quite another to see it happening to the person sitting next to you in the audience. Drama is meant to erupt on stage, not in the auditorium. In plays, we watch bad things happen to good people to learn an important truth about ourselves. But when bad things happen to good people in the audience, perhaps a deeper and harder truth is enacted. One that no play can equal.

Good theatre, theatre that matters, is not an escape or diversion from the reality of life. It is an art form attempting to explore and shed light on human experience. A good play will try to make sense of what often seems senseless, to give meaning to that which feels meaningless, to illuminate the dark.

Hamlet instructs the band of players that the purpose of theatre is to hold a mirror up to nature. But, as these emergency incidents brazenly remind us, theatre is not real life. It is merely a reflection of the reality that stands before all of us. And when real life intervenes in the theatre, the mirror shatters, the spell is momentarily broken. We are shaken awake from the dream we have entered and are reminded of the precarious fragility of life and the “thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.”

Then the lights dim once again. And the performance goes on.

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

 

Diarra Kilpatrick is a natural as a force of nature

los-angeles-times-logo

Diarra Kilpatrick

The actress has been called ‘superb’ in her role in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s ‘In the Red and Brown Water,’ a play that exists in two conceptual dimensions.

by Reed Johnson

Before Diarra Kilpatrick was cast in August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson,” at age 12, she already knew what she wanted to do with her life: anything but acting.

So when her hometown Detroit newspaper interviewed her about the production at a suburban theater, Kilpatrick told the reporter she wanted to be a lawyer or maybe the president of a public relations firm. But definitely not “a struggling actor,” she said.

Recounting that anecdote recently at the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood, where she’s playing the lead role in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s mytho-poetic drama “In the Red and Brown Water,” Kilpatrick laughed at the memory of her precocious pre-adolescent self.

Because by the time the article went to press, Kilpatrick knew what she absolutely had to do with her life: Be an actor.

“It was the quality of the actors that I got a chance to work with and see them up close,” she said, explaining her overnight career conversion during “The Piano Lesson.” “And the production, the material — it was August Wilson.”

Startling transformations are the stuff of theatrical magic, and they’re central to McCraney’s play, which opened at the Fountain in October and has been extended through Feb. 24. “In the Red and Brown Water” is the first of McCraney’s trilogy “The Brother/Sister Plays,” produced off-Broadway at the Public Theater in 2009.

Set during the “distant present” at a mythical housing project in a make-believe Louisiana bayou town, “In the Red and Brown Water” exists simultaneously in two conceptual dimensions.

There’s the 21st century world of Oya (Kilpatrick), a high school track star torn between her college ambitions and the need to care for her ailing Mama Mojo (Peggy A. Blow) and between her affection for the stammering, sweetly devoted Ogun (Dorian Christian Baucum) and the dangerous erotic heat she feels whenever Shango (Gilbert Glenn Brown) comes around her door.

Diarra Kilpatrick and Gilbert Glenn brown in "In the Red and Brown Water"

Diarra Kilpatrick and Gilbert Glenn Brown in “In the Red and Brown Water”

But in another dimension — parallel, yet inseparable — the play is a spiritual struggle that draws on the stories, cosmologies and archetypal gods of the Yoruba people of West Africa, whose legends were transported by slaves to the New World. Virtually all of the play’s 10 characters are named for traditional Yoruba orishas, or spirits: Elegba, the shape-shifting trickster; Shango, god of fire and lightning; Ogun, the deity of iron-working and war.

And Oya, goddess of the Niger River, wind, storms and, as Kilpatrick puts it, “revolutionary transformation.”

“It’s not like ‘Let’s redecorate the house,’ it’s like ‘Let’s tear this [stuff] down! Let’s knock the walls out!'” Kilpatrick explained. “So when Oya comes into your life, people fear her because it means your life is about to change.”

For Kilpatrick, the task was to simultaneously, plausibly portray Oya as a contemporary young woman as well as a force of nature. “This is a girl who listens to Nicki Minaj and Rihanna,” Kilpatrick said. “This is the texture of right now. But yeah, we also carry in our DNA these stories from hundreds and hundreds of years ago.”

In his review, Times theater critic Charles McNulty praised the Fountain’s production, directed by Shirley Jo Finney, as “sensational” and Kilpatrick as “superb.”

Growing up in Detroit, Kilpatrick was taken regularly by her mother to plays, art exhibitions and other cultural events. “Let me just say, if there was a play that was done in Detroit I probably saw it, particularly if it was a black play, and let’s say 95% of them are black plays in Detroit.”

Between ages 12 and 16, Kilpatrick took part in Detroit’s Mosaic Youth Theatre, one of the country’s most accomplished youth theater programs. She also acted at her private college prep school, Detroit Country Day, before moving to the theater program at New York University, where she performed in plays like Suzan-Lori Parks’ “In the Blood” and Stephen Adly Guirgis,’ “Our Lady of 121st Street.”

“I was one of the only black girls who had made it that far who could cuss and make it sound real,” Kilpatrick said, laughing. NYU instructors strongly encouraged her to lose the vestigial Southern accent she’d picked up from her South Carolina-migrant forebears.

Given the realities of casting for African American actors, Kilpatrick said, it’s important to be able to switch accents and speech styles depending on the role. “You don’t want the private school to eat up all the richness of … your flavor. Because no matter what that flavor is, that’s going to be your calling card at the end of the day.”

Kilpatrick came to Los Angeles in 2007. She has appeared in the Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble’s version of “Three Sisters,” set in Trinidad, and a half-black, half-Mexican transgender male in the Bootleg Theater’s production of Gary Lennon’s “The Interlopers” last year, among other roles.

But getting to play a role like Oya “is a blessing,” especially with this cast and “Shirley Jo at the helm,” she said.

“There aren’t parts like this for black women very often. It’s like Hamlet, it’s like King Lear, it’s Medea. It’s an opportunity to really go in there.”

In the Red and Brown Water  Extended to Feb 24  (323) 663-1525 More