Tag Archives: Shakespeare

From Schenkkan to Shakespeare, the same urgent warning

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Victoria Platt and Bo Foxworth in ‘Building the Wall’

By Stephen Sachs

One play was written more than 400 years ago, the other last October. Both written by playwrights worried about the future of their countries. One author took months to pen his work, the other took one week.  One writer has been dead 400 years, one is very much alive, chronicling the current political crisis of his time with a dire new play now playing on our Fountain stage. Both authors and their plays have been in the news in recent weeks, igniting a firestorm of national conversation on the role of theatre to express political outrage, and its fundamental right and responsibility to do so. The Fountain Theatre is a voice in that debate. 

As many know, The Public Theater’s production this month in New York of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar drew fire from Right-Wing Conservatives for its depiction of the ruler as a petulant Trump-like politician with blondish hair and a sullen Slavic wife.  Outrage from Conservatives targeted the play’s depiction of Caesar’s assassination, missing the larger meaning of the play, as if director Oskar Eustis was advocating the killing of the current president. Delta Airlines and Bank of America withdrew their corporate sponsorship. Right-Wing groups hired demonstrators to picket the venue and harass theatergoers. Protesters heckled the live performances and wildly stormed the stage to stop the play mid-show. The demonstrators’ feeble attempts may have halted a performance momentarily but, in each instance, the show went on. If anything, it drew national focus to the very thing it schemed to suppress. Art cannot be stopped.

Most discouraging to me, the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency that hails itself as providing all Americans with diverse opportunities for arts participation, distanced itself from the production by releasing a statement declaring that NEA funds were not used to support this staging of Julius Caesar. An ironic stance for a federal arts agency whose very existence Trump has vowed to destroy.

Julius CaesarBy William Shakespeare Directed by Oskar Eustis Featuring Tina Benko (Calpurnia); Teagle F. Bougere (Casca); Yusef Bulos (Cinna the Poet); Eisa Davis (Decius Brutus); Robert Gilbert (Octavius); Gregg Henry (Caesar); Edward James Hyland (Lep

‘Julius Caesar’ at The Public Theater, NY

Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, the Fountain Theatre has been running our sold-out world premiere of Robert Schenkkan’s new play, Building the Wall. It is a riveting drama set in the near future exposing the vulnerability of one man caught up in the horrific unraveling of Trump’s anti-immigration policies.  Robert and I knew the play would generate some interest from the press. Neither of us anticipated the avalanche that has ensued. We’ve been bombarded by interview requests from everywhere. The play and the Fountain production were featured in national news outlets across the country, like the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and TIME magazine. Plus international coverage in the UK and France. “Theatre in the Age of Trump” is now suddenly a hot topic.

untitledThe Public Theater’s production of Julius Caesar and the Fountain Theatre’s production of Building the Wall coincided this month.  Newspapers on both coasts featured stories on both productions, with Oskar Eustis and Robert Schenkkan speaking out boldly for not only the right, but the necessity of freedom of speech and unrestricted artistic expression in this country.  The subject of ‘The Politics of Theater’ became a significant Arts cover feature in last Sunday’s Los Angeles Times.     

The Right-Wing protesters who stormed the outdoor Delacorte Theatre in Central Park no doubt never read Julius Caesar and certainly knew little about it. They focused on the killing of the king, unaware of the greater warning the tale foretells: Beware when you get what you want. A tyrant in power mandated to save the republic can lead to the destruction of the very republic he vows to protect. Shakespeare demands us to recognize that more than a ruler is assassinated in this tragedy. It is democracy itself that is murdered.

Julius Caesar and Breaking the Wall expose the same fatal wound within ourselves. Our susceptibility to become what we hate. Rick’s slow and seamless transformation in Building the Wall, from well-meaning Trump follower to death camp superintendent is so nightmarish and appalling because it seems somehow plausible. This is how Schenkkan and Shakespeare caution us. This dark truth is perfectly crystalized by Shakespeare when Cassius warns, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” It is not fate, but weakness of character that forces a person to act against his will.

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Playwright Robert Schenkkan in rehearsal, Fountain Theatre

“The danger is always giving over your moral calculus to the state,” Robert Schenkkan has said. Fighting a tyrant does not mean imitating him. Julius Caesar no more advocates the killing of a king than Building the Wall promotes the mass detention and extermination of immigrants. Neither play is about genocide or the murder of a tyrant. Each is about the killing of social and political order, played out in the souls of specific human beings. Building the Wall is a razor-sharp two-character play that takes place in one room. Two people in extreme close up.  

Shakespeare based his play Julius Caesar (some say he stole entire sections of it) from Plutarch’s biography of the ruler. Of his examination Plutarch said, “It is not histories I am writing, but lives.”

Plays, too, are about lives, not ideas. Good plays, plays that matter and live forever, have compelling themes and thought-provoking viewpoints and concepts but they are told through the dramatization of human lives. The power of Building the Wall lies in how it puts a human face on the inhuman. It reveals the dichotomy of opposites alive in one man: the wish to do what is right versus the inability to see, and speak out against, what is wrong.   

For all of us at the Fountain Theatre, Building the Wall is more than a play. It is a defining moment, one of many that help set our compass as a company and as artists. Who are we? Why do we do what we do? What is our service, our responsibility, to the community, to our nation?   

This administration fears artists for the same reason it has banned TV cameras from live press briefings. It is terrified that the American people will see the truth. Our role as theatre artists, like that of a free press, is to be truth-tellers.  And to fight for the freedom to speak it, through art.

I am so proud that the Fountain Theatre took the stand of leadership in launching Robert’s new work, and that it continues to ignite this firestorm of conversation, artistic soul-searching and journalistic examination.  That our world premiere production is not only still running after four sold out months but has been extended through August is a testament to its urgent necessity and the overwhelming will expressed by our audiences to engage. 

When art and politics collide like this on a local and national level, theaters like ours, and the art we create, become indispensable not only to our city, but our nation. 

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

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.

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.

 

Actor as Entrepreneur? The Business of Actor, Inc.

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by Bryce Pinkham

Bryce Pinkham

Bryce Pinkham

If you’re anything like me, you probably found yourself down at the theatre in college in large part because you wanted nothing to do with the business school. You felt drawn to expressing yourself creatively in an environment that allowed for, even praised, your uniqueness, your eccentricities and your lack of desire to do high-level math. If you’re anything like me, you probably don’t fully comprehend business terms like “overhead” and “distribution outlet.”

If you’re anything like me, you went to graduate school because you wanted to be able to do anything onstage, you wanted to stretch and challenge yourself not only as a performer but as an artist. If you’re anything like me, you probably left graduate school feeling like you could do anything and that “the business” didn’t know what was about to hit it.

If you’re a professional actor and you’re anything like me, you’re probably figuring out how to pay your rent, your loans and remain connected to the joy you once felt offstage left.

I take a stab at self-revelation: “I view my acting career as my own start-up business. It’s something I ‘go to work’ to do. Every day, I attempt to promote, expand and grow Bryce Pinkham, Inc.”

actor businessIn theory, and aside from the terribly uninventive name, it sounds smart: I am building my own business and that business is “me.” I know I’m not the first actor to attempt to use this model; in fact, I’m sure I stole it from somebody else. And yet, as I’m describing this approach out loud, it seems somewhat absurd: How can I claim to run a business when I don’t know the first thing about business? I’ve never even taken a business class. While college roommates were throwing around words like “capitalization” and “accrued interest,” I was geeking out about iambic pentameter and Uta Hagen.

One of the handicaps actors who train in the theatre face is that we enter “the market” believing we can do anything. It’s not our fault; it’s part of our training. But from a business standpoint, “I do everything” might not be the wisest approach. Imagine an entrepreneur who goes to school to be a computer programmer and then shows up at his first tech fair selling iPhone apps (software), a new smartphone (hardware) and cases (accessories). Not only is this entrepreneur going to lose valuable time and energy running back and forth among three different booths at the fair, he is going to confuse potential costumers as to what his brand actually sells.

Three People at Casting Call

Imagine a different programmer showing up with just his best product: an iPhone app to compete with Apple Maps. He happens to program apps particularly well and he’s found a demand in the market (I mean, have you tried using the new Apple Maps?). His app sells like hotcakes. After selling apps for five years, he goes on to sell things no one would necessarily expect from him: phones, accessories, games, a whole search engine—he’s the Marlon Brando of the geek elite, but only because he started small.

I know comparing actors to computer programmers is more than a stretch, but the point that Marcia DeBonis has helped me realize is that an entrepreneur does not try to conquer the market all at once by saying he can do everything. Initially, he seeks to enter the market in any way possible. Marcia believes it’s the same for young actors: It may be true that we do many things really well, but at first, maybe we should just focus on what we have that will sell, and conversely, what we have that won’t.

creativity_cartoon“Don’t give them any more reasons to say no to you,” Marcia beseeches. “If you have bad legs, don’t come into an audition wearing a miniskirt just because miniskirts are in style.” She explains that many actors, in their desire to say “yes” to everything, end up misrepresenting themselves: “If you’re a character actress, don’t describe yourself as a young Meg Ryan. Don’t say, ‘Yes, I’m funny,’ unless you mean it; it’s really easy to find out that you’re not.” These warnings may be tough to swallow after three or more years of teachers encouraging a young actor to stretch himself, to say “yes” to every opportunity and challenge, but they are business lessons that may be crucial for survival. By the end of my interview with Marcia, one thing is abundantly clear: Too many young actors are entering our field without sufficient focus.

thinking-manBut there’s the rub: Maybe one reason business is so hard for actors is because we do take everything personally. We’re supposed to: We train our brains to take imaginary circumstances personally. So how can we be expected not to take the same approach to every interaction in our real lives? In fact, our “business” is so closely tied to who we are and what we look like, it’s almost impossible not to have our feelings hurt when someone doesn’t want to buy our product. We’re artists because we didn’t want to be salesmen.

It’s hard to improvise with strangers at commercial auditions when we trained in ensembles to perform the words of Shakespeare and Chekhov for hundreds of live audience members. It’s hard to pick up the phone and complain to an agent we worked so hard to get, or to turn down an acting job because it doesn’t pay more than unemployment. It’s hard to shamelessly promote ourselves on Twitter and Facebook when our acting idols are monuments to humility. It’s easier for us to dream about the future than it is for us to get down to the nitty-gritty of the present.

But at the end of the day, we are the only ones responsible for the success of our business. It’s not up to a casting director or an agent or a director. It’s not all luck—it’s business, and whether it feels good or not, it’s how entrepreneurs survive.

Remember, if you’ve made it far enough that you consider acting your profession, you probably have a natural sense of purpose and the backbone to shoulder more than the average José. If your skin crawls at the idea of trying to sell anything, let alone yourself, try approaching the challenge as you would approach a role. As former talent agent Phil Carlson suggested to me, think about it as “the acting you have to do in order to get to do any acting.”

It may seem unnatural at first, but after some practice, you’ll make people believe it’s real. After all, though you probably weren’t calling it “entrepreneurship” back then, if you’re anything like me, you’ve been hustling your product ever since you stumbled onto that first homemade stage—you know, the one with the raggedy old sheets you pinned up for curtains and the priority seating for stuffed animals—and bellowed with the confidence of a seasoned veteran, “Hey, guys! Look at me!”

Bryce Pinkham is an actor and contributing editor to The Actors Center Journal.

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?

Women Attend More Theatre Than Men: Why Not More Roles?

by Lauren Gunderson

"El Nogalar" at the Fountain Theatre.

It appears that in many major theaters across the country, men’s roles out number women’s by half. One out of every three roles go to women. (An informal survey of 10 theatrical seasons from across the country that I did put women in only 35% of the total roles). This means that men’s stories out number women’s by the same amount.

Those of us noticing this could be considered big old whiners if it weren’t for some solid business-y sounding facts:

  • Women buy 70% of theater tickets sold
  • Women make up 60%-70% of its audience (see here and here)
  • On Broadway, shows written by women (who statistically write more female roles than men) actually pull in more at the box office than plays by men

In any other market the majority of consumers would significantly define the product or experience. Why not theater?

Raushanah Simmons in "In the Red and Brown Water"

I will disclaim right away that this is not about women playwrights, though plays by women represent less than 20% of the works on and off-Broadway and in regional theaters (and also in the UK, as The Guardian illuminates). I consider August: Osage County and In The Red And Brown Water plays about women though men wrote both.

This is about modern theater telling its predominantly female audiences that the human experience deserving of dramatic imagination is still the male one. In TV, this might be a top-down insistence. In politics or business we see it all the time. But in theater?

Sean Daniels, Artist-At-Large/Director of Artistic Engagement at Geva Theater, says:

“In addition to it being inconceivable in 2012 to not program any female playwrights (or really any year past 1913), it’s also just bad business. Just from a business model, look at Menopause: The Musical. Though we may take it to task for not hitting all of Aristotle’s Six Elements, it’s a show that looked at who the main people buying tickets were, and allowed them to see themselves on stage — thus making millions and not only preaching and loving the choir, but getting tons of new patrons into the theater.”

But what would it be like if this were more common? What if American theater equally reflected and projected its own audience (at least 60% women) and their audience’s wallets (which are in their purses) in their season choices?

Estelle Parsons on Broadway in "August: Osage County"

Theaters might make more money. A friend and artistic leader at a major regional theater remarked on the marked success of Molly Smith Metzler’s plays Elemeno Pea, a play about sisters. Or what about Tracy Letts runaway hit August: Osage County (a play with incredible parts for women including three sisters), or Lynn Nottage’s Ruined, or Margaret Edson’s Wit, or John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt or Steve Yockey’s Bellwether (with seven parts for women)?

Cate Blanchett in "Streetcar Named Desire".

We wouldn’t lose our classics. Shakespeare’s plays are notoriously under-femmed, but not all of them are. Give me Much Ado About Nothing or Twelfth Night or wacky Midsummer. Or re-imagine the Bard for us. I saw a truly fresh and powerful production of Julius Caesar at Oregon Shakespeare Festival last year in which Caesar was unapologetically played by a woman (it might have been the best show I saw all year, including my own). I didn’t think “Oh look at that woman playing a man’s part.” I thought, “Oh my god she’s channeling Benazir Bhutto.”

Ibsen also gave us stunning women’s stories. So did Shaw, Chekov, Williams, Miller. And don’t forget the female playwrights of those same eras. Complex parts for more than one token women are there for the planning.

We might inspire new classics. I’m not telling playwrights what to write.Wait. Hell yes I am. And I’m hoping they get commissions to do so. Please write those complex and shocking and profound parts for our great female actors. Lead roles, supporting roles, lots of roles. Imagine writing for Stockard Channing or Viola Davis or Amy Morton or Meryl Streep. How about putting all of them in the same play. Oh my god, I just died a little thinking about it.

However, the now famous study by social scientist Emily Glassberg Sands about gender bias in theater says that though female playwrights write more roles for women, they are aware that plays with female protagonists aren’t as likely to be produced as plays with male protagonists. “One way women have compensated for writing female stories is to write fewer [female] roles, which make their plays accessible to more theaters,” the study finds.

So American theater might need a theatrical version of the The Bechdel Test for movies which names the following three criteria: (1) it has to have at least two women in it, who (2) who talk to each other, about (3) something besides a man.

There are bright spots however. Chloe Bronzan and Robert Parsons of Symmetry Theater in San Francisco have already put into practice their own version of the Bechdel Test. They built their company around the precepts: “We will never produce a play with more male than female characters,” they said, “We will never have more male than female union actors on our stage and we will produce plays that tell stories which include full, fleshed out and complex women that serve as propellants to the human story being told.”

"Menopause: The Musical"

We won’t lose our audiences, but we might just gain new ones. Another Artistic Director colleague noted that if theater companies counted Menopause: The Musical as part of their actual season (as opposed to the touring or rental production it usually is) it would be the best-selling show in their histories. Why? Women go to the theater and they bring their friends if they have shows that reflect their experiences. A dear friend connected with August: Osage County‘s fierce females so much that she flew from Atlanta to New York three times just to see it as many times on Broadway.

As Hanna Rosen has pointed out in her articles and lectures — there is a definitive rise in women as breadwinners and moneymakers in this country. I live in the Bay Area and am delightfully surrounded by brilliant women running major intuitions, businesses, and government orgs. Smart institutions will notice this and deliver. Women are already your majority, and women share experiences with other women, so it shouldn’t be hard to bring new women into the theater patronizing community.

Sean Daniels again:

“I think there’s a hidden thinking in here that men won’t watch women centric plays, but women will watch men centric plays — which really just sells everyone in that equation short. There are men watching The Hunger Games, but eventually there won’t be ladies watching dude filled plays and seasons.”

Viola Davis in "Fences".

We might help the world. Women are always underrepresented in positions of money, power, and personal safety. This comes, as most inherent biases do, from a lack of understanding and empathy. If we see more stories of women on stages across the country and the world we can change that.

Maybe what we really dream of is the day when plays by and about women would stop being “women’s plays” and start being — oh, y’know — really successful, moneymaking, audience-supported, universal, true, bold, smart plays. Everyone wants those plays, no matter what your gender.

Theater audiences want the designers of theatrical seasons to pay attention to the women onstage. Count them (as Valerie Week is doing in The Bay). The women in your audiences will.

Joy Meads of Center Theater Group in LA says:

“It’s frustrating that we have to have this conversation in 2012. But I’ve experienced this in my conversations about plays with colleagues across the country. Colleagues dismissing a play because its female protagonist was ‘unlikable.’ Producers should recognize that ‘we just choose the best plays’ is no longer an adequate defense: no one believes that there’s a shadowy cabal of avowed misogynists determined to keep women offstage. We need to be brave and rigorous in examining the shadowy, unconscious ways gender bias influences our decision making.”

Theater should be in the complex and necessary business of illuminating the human condition, of inspiring empathy and community, of provoking understanding, of entertaining and surprising and exposing and making beautiful the complete world of our time.

You know what helps that?

Telling everyone’s stories.

Lauren Gunderson is an award-winning playwright, screenwriter, and short story author living in The Bay Area. She received her MFA in Dramatic Writing at NYU Tisch, her BA from Emory University, is an NYU a Reynolds Fellow in Social Entrepreneurship. Her work has received national praise and awards. She writes for The Huffington Post.