Tag Archives: technology

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.

Playwright Lauren Gunderson offers theatre as an antidote to social media

I AND YOU star faces

Lauren Gunderson’s “I and You”, Fountain Theatre, 2015.

By Lauren Gunderson

Think of this pitch to a room of venture capitalists: “What we’re proposing is a scalable, repeatable product that makes vital intellectual and emotional wisdom portable, communicable, and adaptable and memorable. Everyone will use it and keep using it for millennia. We call it: storytelling.”

But unlike most social media technologies, live storytelling actually is social. And perhaps that’s why it’s still around, never having been truly eclipsed by radio, TV or the Internet. In defiance of each generation’s claim that theater is dying, both “Hamlet” and “Hamilton” would beg to differ. Yes, online social media offers us on-demand communication, information and all manner of opinion articulated and shared to the world. But is there congregation?

I use that word deliberately because, though I grew up going to church in Georgia, I find most of my philosophical and humanitarian meaning coming from theater. Theater is my church. And what it offers in the way of congregation, catharsis and wisdom is not just entertainment or art, but might also be an antidote to stress related to social media.

That stress can be the fatigue that comes with nonstop screens that can disrupt sleep patterns, change our breathing (“email apnea” as coined by Linda Stone), hamstring live interpersonal communication with all ages, and lead some to become addicted to the dopamine of pings and alerts. The stress for some might feel like the constant search for information or connection, but isn’t it really the search for meaning that comes up short?

Theater offers resolution. While social media is often a nearly endless scroll of information and opinion, it often doesn’t lead to any ending, any answer to the question “so what?” But theater answers that question by taking the audience all the way through a hero’s odyssey of struggle and revelation. Being witness to a complete story, instead of the bits and bytes we find online, offers a more satisfying and thoughtful resolution. Meaning is made not from pieces of information but from journeys and fellow journeyers.

LGunderson-new-thumbnail

Lauren Gunderson

Theater is right here, right now. Theater is not on demand. Rather it asks you to show up on time and focus in order to experience the intimate intensity of its medium. Screens cannot replicate the feeling of being in a shared space and time with other humans. Theater is one of the most intense artistic experiences because the fiction is happening to real people who are right in front of you. You can hear it, smell it, see their passion and pain only feet away from your seat. This viscerality is unlike what you can experience through a posted video on your smartphone or even a TV show at home. The emotionally and physically distinct power of being present for art is hard to document or measure, but it’s apparent to everyone who has witnessed live performance’s arias, embraces and thunderous ovations.

The Bay Area is not only a hub of innovation but for art, too. Silicon Valley lives right next to the “city by the play,” with an abundance of theaters that rivals even Chicago. Bay Area theater companies have transferred shows to Broadway, incubated prize-winning plays and playwrights, and drawn world-famous actors to our stages. The wisest of us (and thankfully not just the wealthiest with a new push for affordable tickets for all) should take advantage of the digital relief, inspiration and empathetic reboot theater has to offer.

For a hotbed of tech that we are, it might be a good time to go old school and let live performance open your mind in a way social media can’t. Who knows what pattern-breaking ideas might occur to you once you leave your bubble (and your phone), focus on someone else’s story with a group of strangers, and see what wisdom alights on you at the theater.

Lauren Gunderson is the author of I and You (Fountain Theatre, 2015). She is a nationlly acclaimed award-winning playwright and the resident playwright of Marin Theatre Company. This essay originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle. . 

Stop. Look. In wonder.

iceland-reykjanes-peninsula-northern-lights-rth

Northern lights in Iceland

by Stephen Sachs

A wondrous event happened last month in Reykjavik, Iceland. The glorious mind-blowing spectacle of the northern lights refracted a kaleidoscope of color across the night sky. But that wasn’t the only astounding event occurring that evening.

In a remarkable demonstration of forced reverence, the Icelandic city government ordered the power of all public lights be switched off at 1opm local time for one hour so the citizens of Reykjavik would be compelled to look up into the heavens to experience the otherworldly splendor.

Reykjavík is the capital and largest city of Iceland.

Think about that. The city government ordered — as a mandate of civic policy — that all public streetlights throughout Iceland’s capital be turned off so its people would be forced to experience the otherworldly glow of the aurora borealis dancing in the sky above them.

 

Can you imagine such a thing happening in our country? Can you envision politicians in Washington DC, agreeing to switch off all public lighting throughout the district to compel its citizens to step outside, look up, and witness, say, the cosmic majesty of a lunar eclipse? The dazzling array of a meteor shower? Neither can I.

Fortunately, awe doesn’t have to be government ordered. We can sanction it for ourselves. If we only would.

I don’t know about you, but I am often so locked into my own wheel-spinning routine that I seldom take a moment to stop and absorb the overwhelming miracle of the world around me. Or take time to marvel at the astonishing, the mind-boggling, in daily life.

I scream and curse at the GPS on the dashboard of my Honda, bellowing over being late to a meeting, never considering the technological miracle of this tiny device sending signals up into outer space to four different satellites simultaneously orbiting 22,000 miles above the earth, each racing through the galaxy at 17,000 miles per hour, then sharpshooting signals back down to the exact location of my tiny car as I drive on a planet that is spinning at 1,040 miles per hour, so I can turn left on Ventura Blvd. I use NASA technology to find the next In-N-Out Burger and don’t give it a second thought.

But more than just being dazzled by the wizardry of our own self-serving inventions. There are times when we must switch off our devices, set them down. Step outside. And look up. To give ourselves permission to gaze upward — and inward.

The natural world around us offers limitless opportunities to peer upon and ponder beauty, majesty and wonder. A lush forest, a glowing sunset, the meditative ocean, a breathtaking mountain or canyon.

I believe, at its best, a good play can do that. It can gift us with the chance to view the wonder within ourselves.  Reveal the glorious mystery of being alive.

Seeing a meaningful play is more challenging than going to a movie. It requires more of us, demands a deeper concentration and emotional investment. Sometimes we drag ourselves to the theatre like we go to the doctor, not because we want to but because we know it’s good for us. That’s okay. I don’t mind. Whatever it takes. Even if the city government has to switch off your lights at home to get you outside, that’s all right. As long as you come, sit in a chair, and view wonder.

As futurist and philosopher Jason Silva says, “We have a responsibility to awe.”

Before a play begins, we are instructed to turn off our digital devices. Not only because of the distraction to others. We must also switch off the distraction to ourselves. And savor the opportunity to experience something miraculous.

Viewing a powerful play — like gazing on the heavens — requires us to stop. And look. In wonder.

The reward is there. When we look. When we give ourselves permission — or are forced — to do so.

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

 

Theatre students must disconnect from technology to connect with each other

Full length portrait of young men and women holding cellphone

The study of theater has always been a slightly odd fit with higher education. Theater’s departmental needs are so different from the norm: Where other programs require smart classrooms, desks, and Wi-Fi, we seek vast, empty spaces with sprung wood floors and natural light. The inner life of a chemistry major should not affect the outcome of an assignment; for theater majors, the inner life is the assignment.

The craft of acting involves human behavior. Constantin Stanislavsky, the father of American acting style, was a Russian actor who became frustrated with the inconsistencies of his own work. He sought to define a “system” for creating believable behavior on stage, which involved an in-depth study of a character’s motivations and circumstances.

Some of the precepts of Stanislavsky’s technique for embodying life on stage include fierce concentration and the ability to focus one’s attention at will, significant mind/body reciprocity, a developed and practiced imagination, and the exploration and study of the outside world (other people, other art forms, literature, and one’s own life experiences). Acquiring those skills could be an antidote for college students who are said to be lacking empathy, isolated and narcissistic, distracted and jaded.

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Theater (slow, communal, physical) may be the cure for what ails us in the digital world. Social psychologists, neurologists, and doctors tell us that cellphone use (in the way our students do it, more than eight hours a day) is altering modes of attention, reducing eye contact, hurting necks and hands, and changing our brains and sleep cycles. Apparently nothing feels as good as the dopamine rush that floods our brains every time the phone “pings.” We are all of us, to a degree, nomophobic (the term coined to describe the anxiety that results from being without one’s phone).

A colleague tells a story about assigning a scene from a 1970s play in which one character waits on a park bench for some time. The actor was unable to conceive of any kind of “waiting” that did not involve having a cellphone to mitigate the boredom. She simply did not know what to do.

Our students (and this will very likely increase in the next couple of years, as the first cohort of 21st-century children goes to college) are unfamiliar with the experience of being alone with their thoughts or of following their thoughts, unimpeded, wherever they might travel. Solving a STEM equation is important, but discoveries in the sciences will occur only when people know how to be alone with their thoughts. Who is teaching that?

acting-class-05-400In acting classes, students grapple with the effects of technology on their brains, bodies, and social selves. Cellphones must be turned off and put away. The goal is to disconnect with technology and to connect with one another and themselves. Students struggle to maintain eye contact; they work to develop a psycho/physical connection for what they think, feel and do; they concentrate for longer and longer periods of time. They read plays; they memorize text; they learn to follow their impulses to create movement, gesture, intimacy, community. If this scene were unfolding in a movie in which computers were threatening to destroy humanity, you’d be cheering for the theater majors to save us.

A colleague recently despaired because her students no longer understood the action “to flirt.” Accustomed to soliciting one another via text, and more used to hookups than dates, this verb was no longer a touchstone for college students, and “flirting” did not elicit any specific physical or emotional behaviors (sustained eye contact, light touch, smiling, playfulness) from the actors. When asked to flirt, they went straight to simulated sex. There was no in-between. Bottom line: Even though technology has become what we do all day, it isn’t human behavior.

From 2011 to 2014, the Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation worked with theater artists in Chicago through an online survey and a battery of aptitude tests to determine whether there are innate skills shared among theater workers. The aptitude called “foresight,” which is the talent to envision many possible outcomes or possibilities, was present in all theater workers (playwrights, directors, designers, actors). When actors try out various line readings or interpretations of a scene, when they improvise or create backstory, they are using foresight.

But foresight would be impossible without empathy. The actor’s ability to envision multiple outcomes or motivations in a play must be based on the character’s circumstances, not the actor’s. That requires a kind of stepping into another person’s shoes that social scientists say is dwindling among college-age students.

Death of a Salesman

Philip Seymour Hoffman as Willy Loman in “Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.”

When he played the role of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, Philip Seymour Hoffman explained that his preparation each night included sitting for at least a half-hour at the cramped kitchen table onstage, experiencing his shabby surroundings, sipping coffee, and allowing his imagination to wander as Willy’s would have. Our student on the park bench would have had trouble with that.

Algorithms recommend music based on what we’re already listening to, books similar to others we’ve read, and “friends” from among people we already know. As a result, we are less frequently confronted by the other, the unknown, the different. Stanislavsky’s technique requires a thorough study of a character’s situation — whether geographic location or state of physical health — and asks that actors explore the effects of those circumstances on their own selves. In a semester, a college actor will play multiple characters, stretching to inhabit another psyche, another intellect, another body. It’s a veritable empathy boot camp.

Businesses have long recognized that elements of actor training can be used to develop creativity, improve communication, and resolve conflicts. Many corporate consultants have bachelor’s degrees in acting and make a good living teaching improvisation, role play, and collaborative problem-solving to M.B.A.s. Yet universities with theater departments have failed to recognize that they have this resource in their own backyards.

Whatever your feelings about the legitimacy of theater as a college major, or its eventual earnings potential, there are important struggles and discoveries happening in the acting classroom. As technology and machines consume more and more of life, perhaps theater can help us remember what it means to act like a human.

 

Tracey Moore is an associate professor of theater in the Hartt School at the University of Hartford. This post appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

10 Ways To Make The Magic of Theater

Fountain Theatre

by Jonathan Mandell

“How do you make the magic?” students from a middle school in the Bronx asked after seeing their first Broadway show. Their attendance was an outgrowth of a conference Monday at TEDxBroadway 2014.

TED, which started as a conference thirty years ago and has expanded into something of a movement, stands for “Technology, Entertainment and Design.” The dozen and a half people who spoke or entertained (or did both) at the third annual TEDxBroadway included representatives of all three fields—from well-known theater artists such as director Diane Paulus and composer Bobby Lopez, to tech or design oriented visionaries whom, one sensed, hadn’t been to a play since they were kids.

For all the sophistication of the presentations, all the speakers on the stage at New World Stages were addressing, in different ways – directly or by analogy, accessibly or obscurely—the simple question that the students asked after their first Broadway show: How do you make the magic of theater?

1. The theater experience should not just occur on the stage

Theater, Theatre, TEDxBroadway, TED, TEDx, Diane Paulus,

“What is the theater experience?” asked director Diane Paulus, the first speaker. Too many people think of it as just the show on the stage—“You go inside, you arrive with friends, but once it starts you’re not allowed to talk to one another. You’re either deeply moved or you’re bored, but when the experience is over, you’re asked to leave.”

But the artistic director of the American Repertory Theater at Harvard University asked us to consider the history of theater to realize how much more theater can be—and should be. Greek theater, she said, was more like American Idol than it was like the theater we know today, taking place at competitive festivals. It was also engaged in the “civic, religious, social and political” life of the times.

The nineteenth-century opera house was a beautiful environment, much like our Broadway houses, but part of the reason why people went was to be seen. They dressed up; that was part of the experience.

Diane Paulus, Theatre, Theater, TEDx, TED, TEDxBroadway, Dan Gurney,

Dan Gurney offered similar advice in a completely different way. A self-described “six-time United States Champion on the button accordion,” he played a tune for the audience, before describing his business, Concert Window, which enables musicians to record their music using only a laptop, and to make money by showing the resulting video online. Neither Gurney nor his business has any apparent connection to the theater, but his remarks included suggestions on ways for theater and theater performers to engage audiences online before and after the show— building “new digital native experiences” such as an  “interactive video chat with the show’s director.”

Gurney seemed unaware of the regular live-streaming of theatrical performances by National Live and others, but he did say: “A venue has four walls, but that doesn’t mean that your whole audience has to fit inside them.”

2. Embrace your audience in innovative ways

Paulus took us on a whirlwind journey through recent shows, many of them her own, that illustrated ways of extending the theater experience by engaging audiences.

For the 2011 musical Prometheus Bound, a political protest play “inspired” (in the words of the blurb for the show) “by Aeschylus’s Ancient Greek tragedy about the heroic struggle of Western civilization’s first prisoner of conscience,” A.R.T. partnered with Amnesty International. “After the show, people stayed and had a chance to talk with Amnesty International volunteers.”

For the Broadway revival of Hair that Paulus directed, she insisted that the audience be allowed on stage, and had to fight the theater’s management to keep the ushers from shooing people off the stage too quickly at the end.

Witness Uganda, a musical this season at A.R.T. based on a true story about a volunteer for a project in Uganda, includes a discussion (she didn’t call it a talk-back) after every single performance. Paulus pointed out that the show’s creators, Matt Gould and Griffin Matthews (who also stars in it), have created a non-profit foundation, Uganda Project to provide a free education and otherwise aid the children of Uganda, 2.5 million of whom are orphans.

3. Consider crowdfunding

In 2012, $2.7 billion was raised worldwide through crowd funding,  $1.6 billion of it in North America, said financier David Drake, founder of financial media company The Soho Loft, and the amount being raised just about doubles every year. About 15 percent of that, Drake told me afterwards, has been for theater projects. Crowdfunding can be defined (but wasn’t) as the effort to fund a project by reaching out, usually online, to a large network of regular people who aren’t professional investors, are unlikely to be rich, and donate on average just small amounts.

Diane Paulus, Theatre, Theater, TEDx, TED, TEDxBroadway, Dan Gurney, David Drake, Crowdfunding,

For a crowdfunding campaign to be a success, Drake said, the fundraisers must

be connected to a crowd, know their audience, and put together a great video.  The three biggest online sites for crowdfunding creative projects are KickstarterIndiegogo, and RocketHub.  Recent federal legislation, Drake said (and has written about), will make it easier for theaters to reach out and create a new network of donors.

4. Don’t punish theatergoers for being digitally connected

Diane Paulus, Theatre, Theater, TEDx, TED, TEDxBroadway, Dan Gurney, David Drake, Crowdfunding,

Until three years ago, the Apollo Theater in Harlem punished theatergoers for being, like much of the world, “connected 24/7,” according to Dexter Upshaw.  “By definition,” Upshaw said, the Apollo’s famed Amateur Night is an “interactive show.” Yet, if anybody took out their mobile devices during a performance, “immediately, ushers would come and shine flashlights in their faces, and say ‘put that away.’”

We have to engage people where they are, Upshaw said, and where they are is in the digital realm.

Upshaw, hired to take charge of all digital projects at the theater, helped change that. Now every Wednesday at Amateur Night, theatergoers are encouraged to use their phones to tell them about the show, using the Apollo Amateur Night app.  Upshaw is planning to expand digital interaction at the theater, with a forthcoming app for the Apollo in general Upshaw’s advice to theaters: Don’t think about digital last. Involve staff who are responsible for social media and other digital projects from the very beginning of any stage show, because they might be able to identify opportunities to use digital that can then be more seamlessly incorporated.

Upshaw’s presentation was part of a larger theme for the day, reflecting the fact that the “T” for technology in TED is first, and expressed by designer David Torpey:  “Theater is about magic. Lets embrace technology and make it happen…” The potential of technology in immersive set design is overwhelming and beautiful.

Torpey also projected on the screen a quote from industrial designer Dieter Rams that designers “should and must question everything generally thought to be obvious…They must also be able to assess realistically the opportunities and bounds of technology.”

5. Make the neighborhood your lobby.

Diane Paulus, Theatre, Theater, TEDx, TED, TEDxBroadway, Dan Gurney, David Drake, Crowdfunding,

Craig Dykers of Snohetta, the firm that’s redesigning Times Square, offered an overview of their approach to the Crossroads of the World, which gets 42 million visitors a year. In discussing the “reimagining” of Times Square, he cited the work of Temple Grandin, comparing people’s movement to that of cattle. My favorite detail is how they embedded little shiny pucks in the ground to reflect the light of the marquees.  The redesign’s main aim: “We want Times Square to be the lobby of the theater district.”

6. Collaborate

Yao-Hui Huang, founder of The Hatchery, “a venture collaboration organization” (probably translation: a business consulting firm), contrasted the competitiveness of producers on Broadway with the collaborative attitude and activity of the L.A. Stage Alliance, in which theaters share services and marketing.

Mark Fisher and Michael Keeler, co-owners of a gym that caters to the theater community, offered similar advice, more flamboyantly. Both also wore capes, and asked the audience to stand up and participate in a dance party for fifteen seconds. It’s easier to get in shape, and to build a business, if you are part of a community.

7. Collaborate some more.

Diane Paulus, Theatre, Theater, TEDx, TED, TEDxBroadway, Dan Gurney, David Drake, Crowdfunding,

Bobby Lopez, co-composer for Avenue QThe Book of Mormon, and the Disney movie Frozen, was one of the TEDxBroadway guests who both spoke and performed—  including, memorably, his Oscar-nominated song, “Let It Go,” from Frozen. If his presentation deviated from the norm, his presence was in one way the most apt—the entire conference took place in the theater in New World Stages that normally presents Avenue Q.

He played a song he wrote when he was fourteen, motivated by a medieval belief that when you sing a song, “airy spirits come out of your mouth and mingle with other people’s spirits and influence them. That’s what was special about music. I thought that was a cool idea.”

He explained how much he had to grow from his early attempts. Initially, “I thought it was cheating to accept help from someone else.

“I started to work with other people. My work started to benefit from other people’s talents, thoughts, ideas, qualities. Everything was not about me, and about how my stuff was going to impress people.” He said none of the work for which he is now known would have happened without his change in attitude.

“Every step in the writing of Avenue Q was motivated by: how do we help people with their adult problems?”

He said his growth reflects that of the character Princeton in Avenue Q, and Elder Cunningham in The Book of Mormon.

Both were self-involved guys who learn how to give and accept help. “Princeton learns that Kate Monsters is not an obstacle to his finding his purpose in life; making her happy is part of his purpose.”

8. Understand the connection between the arts and the sciences. Understand the need for diversity.

Diane Paulus, Theatre, Theater, TEDx, TED, TEDxBroadway, Dan Gurney, David Drake, Crowdfunding,

The cell phone was inspired by Star Trek— just one example out of many of art inspiring science, and of the connection between the two, said Ainissa Ramirez:

“The three-act play and the scientific paper come from the same seed.”

“Scientists and screenwriters are both:

Curious

Crazy about detail

Creative

Committed

Understand you have to fail to succeed.”

Ramirez, a former professor of mechanical engineering, is the head of Science Underground, a science education consulting firm. She focused on the need for a different kind of diversity in the theater—theater about science and scientists.

“Your mission if you choose to accept it,” she said, is to improve the connection between the arts and the sciences, which “will create something wonderful, and humanity will be better off.” Implicit in her focused argument was a more general lesson—the need for more diverse subject matter in the theater, and more diversity in general.

9. Realize that new forms of entertainment have changed would-be audiences

Diane Paulus, Theatre, Theater, TEDx, TED, TEDxBroadway, Dan Gurney, David Drake, Crowdfunding, Gabe Zichermann,

Games, said “gamification” guru Gabe Zichermann, have changed our very neurochemistry, so that we demand a constant rush of sensation. “We can’t even sit through 22 minutes of television without reaching for another screen”—Facebook or Twitter on our computer or mobile phone.  How can people be expected to sit through two hours of theater?”

However, “we can use the power of games to our advantage,” he said, and urged the listeners to embrace games as a way to draw in an audience. He didn’t seem to say how, but he did offer what sounded like a really useful game: At a restaurant, put everybody’s cell phone on the table; the first person to reach for theirs has to pay for everybody’s meal.

10. Have fun

This was the explicit and implicit message throughout the day-long conference—a day that included spontaneous raps by Freestyle Love Supreme (pictured), magic tricks from Todd Robbins and jokes from Lea DeLaria:

By the end, though, Daniel Rehbehn was surely speaking for more than himself when he Tweeted: “My brain is hurting from trying to download so many ideas into my head from #TEDxBway.”

Jonathan Mandell, a proud member of the American Theatre Critics Association, is a third-generation New York City journalist who has written about the theater for a range of publications, including Playbill, American Theatre Magazine, the New York Times, Newsday, Backstage, NPR.com and CNN.com.  He currently blogs at New York Theater and Tweets as @NewYorkTheater.

This post originally appeared in Howlround

‘On the Spectrum’: A Love Story with a Difference

Virginia Newcomb & Dan Shaked

Virginia Newcomb and Dan Shaked

“As with all great love stories, there are obstacles,” says Jacqueline Schultz, director of the West Coast premiere of Ken LaZebnik‘s play “On the Spectrum,” now playing to terrific reviews at the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles. Quirky and unexpected, “On the Spectrum’ is a love story with a difference; in LaZebnik’s award-winning play, an online e-chat blossoms into a  courtship between two young people with autism. “Ken’s play is original, charming and moving.”

Jacqueline Schultz

Jacqueline Schultz

Schultz is an award-winning actress and a theater director at The Help Group’s Summit View School for students with learning differences. The Help Group is the largest and most innovative nonprofit of its kind in the U.S. serving children with autism, learning differences and other special needs. She was immediately drawn to the project. “Theater is about all of those things that help children learn,” says Schultz. “The art form has a special way of helping autistic children learn because it helps kids discover how to act together with others.”

In LaZebnik’s play, Mac has Asperger’s, and Iris is autistic. Many people on the autism spectrum take pride in their distinctive abilities and “atypical” ways of viewing the world. Mac (Dan Shaked), whose mother Elizabeth (Jeanie Hackett) provided years of mainstreaming and therapy, passes as “typical.” He connects online with Iris (Virginia Newcomb), an activist who proudly champions her autism as a difference, not a disorder. A relationship quickly forms between the two.

“The play demonstrates how technology has allowed the characters to communicate what’s inside, rather than be judged on the outside,” says Schultz.

Dan Shaked & Jeanie Hackett

Dan Shaked and Jeanie Hackett

“Part of the love story is a mother’s love for her son,” says LaZebnik. “His mother has been his guardian and shield, his whole life. The potential of him going off with this girl obviously is hard for her, and it’s hard for him to contemplate leaving her.”

“Iris has an opinion. Elizabeth has an opinion. Mac bridges both of those worlds,” says Schultz. “Ken does a great a job of breaking down the myths about autism and autistic people. They can feel. They can fall in love. They can get actively involved in their own community.”

“I would love it,” LaZebnik says, “if people saw these characters as just two unique human beings who fall in love.”

Ken LaZebnik

Ken LaZebnik

Winner of a 2012 Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award citation and a 2011 Edgerton Foundation New American Play award, “On the Spectrum” was commissioned by Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis, where artistic director Jack Reuler directed the premiere as part of the Center of the Margins Festival. Ken LaZebnik has written two other plays about autism: Vestibular Sense, which also premiered at Mixed Blood, was honored with an award from the American Theatre Critic’s Association at the Humana Festival in Louisville; and Theory of Mind, commissioned for young audiences by Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, has also been produced in Minnesota, Hawaii and Michigan, and was published by Dramatic Publishing.

Schultz has worked as a theater director/educator with learning disabled students for over 12 years. As a professional actress, she was recently seen at the Fountain in the U.S. premiere of Athol Fugard’s “The Blue Iris.”

Ken LaZebnik’s “On the Spectrum” is earning wonderful reviews and is currently running at the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles through April 28.

Reposted  from  The Imitated Life.

On the Spectrum Now to April 28 (323) 663-1525  MORE

Gifts of Language Continue in ‘Cyrano’

Troy Kotsur as Cyrano.

The forces behind a well-received stage production have worked together for a long time, forever bonding the Fountain and Deaf West theater companies.

by Karen Wada

Nearly a decade ago, an improbable dream came true for Deaf West Theatre and its founder, Ed Waterstreet. The small, L.A.-based company went to Broadway with its signed and spoken version of the musical “Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

Even as he savored their success, Waterstreet had another dream — creating an original musical inspired by Edmond Rostand‘s “Cyrano de Bergerac.” What better tale for his theater to tell than one that explores the universal desire to express oneself?

This spring, “Cyrano” is making its debut, albeit as a straight play. Stephen Sachs’ modern-day adaptation, which is directed by Simon Levy, opened to acclaim in April at the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood and runs until early July. The co-production represents a reunion of old friends — the Fountain gave Deaf West its first home and Sachs, the Fountain’s co-artistic director, is one of its longtime collaborators.

Sachs says the show also has turned out to be “a special farewell to Ed” since the 69-year-old Waterstreet, whom he calls “a delicious mixture of bulldog and teddy bear,” has retired after two decades as his company’s pioneering artistic director.

“Cyrano” marks a beginning as well, as it is Deaf West’s first production under new artistic director D.J. Kurs.

“I want to build on the tradition and passion Ed brought while keeping us moving forward,” says Kurs, 34.

Rostand’s 19th century drama about a 17th century soldier-poet has been reset in a world with Facebook and Starbucks. In the original, Cyrano fears rejection because of his huge nose, so he secretly uses his way with words to help his comrade Christian woo beautiful Roxanne.

In Sachs’ story, a poet believes his deafness will ruin his chances with a hearing woman named Roxy, especially after he learns she’s fallen for his hearing brother, aging rocker Chris. This Cyrano pinch-hits for his less-than-eloquent sibling via text and email.

“Technology has opened up the world” for the deaf community, the playwright says, although it can be a blessing and a curse for someone like Cyrano, “who connects back to a more romantic age.” Sachs’ hero — brash, brilliant and yet plagued by self-doubt — often feels he’s out of place, not fitting in with the hearing and choosing not to fit in with the deaf.

Sachs and Levy have integrated e-language into Deaf West’s trademark blending of signed and spoken language presented by deaf and hearing performers for deaf and hearing audiences. Flat-screen monitors glow with online messages while actors such as Troy Kotsur, who plays Cyrano, express with their hands and faces what Sachs calls the “intimate, visceral, kinetic” beauty of American Sign Language. (The ASL translation was created by two ASL masters working with the actors, director and playwright.)

Sachs discovered the richness of sign language in the late ’80s when he observed the interpreter at a play he was directing. He began holding workshops with deaf actors and writers; when he and Deborah Lawlor founded the 78-seat Fountain in 1990, he hoped to start a deaf theater company as well. Then he heard about Waterstreet, a National Theatre of the Deaf veteran who wanted to establish a company for deaf artists like himself.

The Fountain offered Waterstreet office space, from which he launched Deaf West in 1991. In its first show, “The Gin Game,” actors signed while hearing audience members listened to the dialogue on infrared headphones.

Deaf West ventured out on its own in 1993, eventually settling in North Hollywood. The company has gained a national reputation for expanding opportunities for deaf artists and defying expectations — especially by pursuing what Waterstreet calls “that crazy idea, the deaf musical.”

Just as “wonderfully crazy,” he adds, was the notion that such a musical could reach Broadway. “Big River,” which was directed by Broadway veteran Jeff Calhoun, opened in North Hollywood in 2001, moved to the Mark Taper Forum in 2002 and, in 2003, landed in New York, where it earned two Tony nominations and a Tony honor for excellence in theater.

Deaf West achieved its goal of presenting an original musical in 2007 with “Sleeping Beauty Wakes,” which opened at the Kirk Douglas Theatre with a book by Tony-winner Rachel Sheinkin and a score by Brendan Milburn and Valerie Vigoda of indie pop-rock’s GrooveLily. That Center Theatre Group co-production was followed by another, “Pippin,” in 2009.

Over the years, Sachs has continued to create work related to deaf culture. His “Sweet Nothing in My Ear,” inspired by the debate over cochlear implants, debuted at the Fountain in 1997 and was made into a TV movie. For Deaf West, he has directed two plays and written two others. His drama “Open Window,” in which a deaf young man is accused of killing the father who kept him chained in the basement, premiered in 2005 at the Pasadena Playhouse in a co-production between Deaf West and the playhouse.

When Waterstreet suggested collaborating again, Sachs asked about “Cyrano.” “Ed told me they had kicked it around, but it never got off the ground,” he says. So he proposed his modern-day version.

Kurs hopes the strong response to the show, which has been extended through July 8, will attract donors who can help ease the financial challenges Deaf West has faced after the loss of crucial federal funding, starting with a major cut in 2004. He is seeking additional funding sources for the company, which receives foundation, individual and local and state government support. Meanwhile, Deaf West has reduced its staff and rented out its theater during 2012.

Looking beyond “Cyrano,” Kurs is considering possibilities for the next production, which is scheduled for early 2013.

Waterstreet says he decided to leave at the end of last year but didn’t officially retire until Kurs, a former Deaf West artistic associate, was appointed in January. “The theater is still my baby,” he adds, noting that he plans to help with fundraising.

Returning to the Fountain for “Cyrano” proved to be what he calls “a very nice homecoming. … I had tears in my eyes as I saw the play for the first time in the space where we had so many memories.”

On opening night, Sachs sat behind Waterstreet as they watched the world premiere, deaf and hearing actors and an array of high-tech screens filling the stage where Deaf West got its start two decades earlier.

“At intermission, Ed leaned over to me,” Sachs recalls. “He said, ‘Wow! Look at all this. Look at how far we’ve come.'”

Cyrano Extended to July 8th (323) 663-1525  More Info  Buy Tickets