Monday, April 24, 2017

Seeing and Being Seen

I’m not particularly smart.
I’m not particularly beautiful.
But I suffer so well, and when
a stranger sees me cry-
they see a river they haven’t
swum in-
a river in a foreign country-
so they take off their trousers
and they jump in the water.
And they take pictures
with a water-proof camera
and then they dry themselves in the sun
but I’m still wet.

-Tilly’s Aria, Sarah Ruhl, Melancholy Play: A Chamber Musical

There is so much to say about Sarah Ruhl. So much, in fact, that the prospect of writing anything about her, or her work, is extremely daunting. But on the eve of the first day of load-in for Theatre KAPOW’s production of Melancholy Play: A Chamber Musical, I find myself thinking about what Ms. Ruhl has to say about seeing and being seen. Perception is integral to her work, both in terms of staging, and story.

On its surface, Melancholy Play pokes fun at human fascination with the tragic feminine. Its protagonist, Tilly, is so beautifully melancholic that everyone she meets falls in love with her. Chaos ensues when Tilly becomes happy and, far less alluring as a result. Melancholy Play mischievously confronts us with our societal fascination with, and objectification of, the melancholic female. But it also challenges us to ask why we are drawn to this trope. What is it about melancholy and sadness that we find attractive, and what happens when our expectations of melancholy do not line up with the far less romantic reality of sadness and depression? Tilly says it best when she asks, “Have you ever seen what sadness looks like on a person, once they take off their grey shoes and gloves? It looks different. Not like a movie. People wear sweatpants when they are sad in private. Not pearls.”

I do not think it is melancholy that makes Tilly attractive. Every character in Melancholy Play projects what he or she wants onto Tilly, because she sees them. Tilly looks carefully at each person she encounters; she strives to make connections. She feels things deeply. Tilly’s tragedy is that she knows she will never live up to the dream people impose on her. Dream Tilly wears pearls. Perhaps this is why she becomes melancholic and has to “lie down on the couch.” True connection is difficult when you feel people are looking at a version of you that doesn’t exist, when your name sounds wrong on their lips.

When Tilly becomes happy, when her focus is directed inward on her own sense of joy, she becomes less attractive. Frank, the man Tilly falls in love with and the catalyst for her happiness, tells her, “Your eyes aren’t looking at me. They’re looking at a great big storm of happiness. On the horizon. Can you see me?” It isn’t until one of Tilly’s friends becomes so depressed she essentially disappears into a shell, that everyone realizes how important it is to look at the people you care about and see them for who they truly are, not who you want them to be. When you see someone and they see you, it is easy to fall in love.

~ Emily Karel

Photos by Matthew Lomannp

Sunday, February 12, 2017

What the hell is going on?

This was the over-riding thought I had when I finished reading Exit the King. Ionesco's writing, I knew, like Beckett, like Sartre, can be esoteric and difficult to decipher. "Avant-Garde." "Absurd." "Didactic." In other words: inaccessible. I would be lying if I said I did not agree with some of these labels, especially during my reading of the play. For every insightful notion, there was a confusing one. At one moment I would be inspired by the eloquence of his language, at another irritated by his apparent pretentiousness. This is most certainly a play meant to be seen, not read, I thought to myself. It needs to be on its feet! We need our read through!

What the hell is going on??

Boy was I wrong. Upon completing our cast read through, I not only was left feeling similar to how I felt after reading the play, but if anything, I had more questions! I had suspected Ionesco would be daunting, and yet here I was feeling like years of performing theatre had left me utterly and singularly unprepared to turn these words into something resembling a coherent performance. Luckily, it appeared to me that I was not on an island in my thinking. Here were artists I respect and admire, and we all seemed equally humbled by how truly massive this text is.

If you had asked me what I thought our rehearsals held in store, I likely would have responded: Frustration. Confusion. Doubt. Or perhaps some combination of the three.

Fast forward four weeks.

What do I find dominate my memories of rehearsal thus far?

Tears of laughter. Barely concealed grins. Countless (failed) attempts to remain in character. These have been found in abundance through our rehearsal process. I believe this is due to a critical discovery made early in the process.

We discovered, that buried underneath a masterfully written political commentary, Ionesco has written a very funny play. This is our password. Our Rosetta stone. Because at the end of the day, Ionesco's wonderfully relevant text is useless if the audience does not connect with it. But because he was really, really smart; he wrote the key into the play.

Find the silly. Find it, and embrace it.

Laughter has the wonderful power to bring people from all walks of life together in a shared experience. This is intensely needed, in a time where people live in digital echoing chambers and spend their time dehumanizing "the other team." That is to say, anyone with different opinions.

One does not grow by hearing their own preconceived notions repeated back to them covered in sugar. One grows by honestly listening to someone who thinks differently. Who believes differently. One grows when one sincerely tries to step into their shoes. One grows when one realizes that "the other team" are human beings. Human beings that breathe oxygen, human beings that cry when they get hurt, human beings that just want to be happy.

Human beings that laugh.

That is what this play needs to do. It needs to invite the audience in. Reach out a hand, a genuine offer of inclusion. The production should invest and respect the audience as fellow human beings capable of rational thought.

This connection is made by showing them the silly, absurd things human beings do. But then show them the worst and best in all of us.

That inside every human being lives a great leader, with the power to inspire millions with a word. But inside every human being also lives a tyrant, who cultivates fear and dissent through propaganda and manipulation.

Inside every soldier lives a hero, who saves lives without regard for their own and stands up to injustice. But inside every soldier also lives a pawn, who only follows orders, and lets fear rob them of their spirit.

Inside every heart lives a lover, who puts their heart in the hands of another human being, risking shame, humiliation and pain for the chance at true happiness; who lets the one they love inspire them to be better, stronger, kinder. But inside every heart also lives a skeptic, who distrusts the world and lashes out with insecurity and fear. Fear of shame. Humiliation, Pain.

Inspiration. Fear. Heroism. Impotence. Happiness. Pain. In other words, being alive. This play shows what it is like to be alive. That we are all capable of greatness. That we need to strive for it. That we need to be better.

Be better.

~ Jimmy Stewart

theatre KAPOW presents Exit the King by Eugene Ionesco March 3 - 5, 2017

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Reflecting on the Past, Looking to the Future

As we all adjusted to writing the new year on checks and other documents this January, I was reminded of its significance in terms of one of our recent projects. 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the explosion in Halifax harbor, an event that inspired the June 2016 tKAPOW production, Raining Aluminum. As the date of the anniversary approaches, we look forward to new opportunities to share the amazing stories we discovered as part of the devising process.

On January 21st, at a ceremony in Concord, theatre KAPOW was awarded the NH Theatre Award for Best Scenic Design for Raining Aluminum. While the show was up for many awards, we are really proud of being recognized in that category because the scenic elements were such an important part of our storytelling process, and a result of the collaboration of the company or artists. In fact, the early work on the set dates all the way back to our 2015 Artist Retreat when we hung various props from somewhat precariously attached bungee cords in the barn at Chanticleer Gardens. The set and the production evolved considerably from there and really took shape at the Charlestown Working Theatre where the show really felt most at home. It was nice to see that all of the work that went into developing the aesthetic for that show was recognized.

This spring, I have been offered the opportunity to revisit some of the stories of Raining Aluminum when I will lead a class at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at Granite State College. I really look forward to sharing what I have learned with people who are so committed to continuing their own education.

The process of creating Raining Aluminum introduced us to some amazing people (past and present) and brought us together as a company. As December 6th gets closer, I look forward to the opportunity to find more ways introduce these people to more audiences.

~ Matt Cahoon
Montage by Wax Idiotical Films

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Hunting Absurd

I don’t really know how I got into acting and theater when I grew up in a home that really did not promote the arts. My first “acting role” was in chorus in elementary school- I got to hold a doll and fight with a little boy while the chorus sang “William Wants a Doll”. I got my first laugh; my first applause; my first bow; I was hooked. I guess you can say that’s when I started hunting for art and theater in my life. I followed the regular channels. I went to college. I acted in plays. I read plays. I took classes. I wrote papers. I never really saw a lot of theater. I was simply a pliable puppet being told where to go and how to act, which I did with gusto. However as I learned more about art and history I started to feel like something was missing from my tool box as an actor, artist, and human. I was searching for more. I wanted to become an artist- whatever that meant. I was hunting for meaning.

I traveled to Europe with a study abroad program my final semester. I had never done anything like this before in my life. It felt like something I had to do. I loved my time in Europe. I travelled. I saw Shakespeare’s birthplace. I went to The Globe. I was alive with art and theater. I became an audience member: Gobbling up other people’s talent. I realized I had never really seen a lot of theater; certainly not outside academia. All I knew was good safe theater: Pretty and pleasing to an audience. That all shattered for me one day in London. Strolling down a side street with 7 pounds in my pocket (Yes, this was before the Euro). I saw a sign for a play: Rhinoceros by Eugene Ionesco. I knew the name. I had studied him in college. I went in. Tickets were exactly 7 pounds.

I sat down happy and safe.
I left feeling weird: Ugly, Uncomfortable and Challenged.
The show was transformative.
In fact I still lay awake at night thinking about that play. How it changed my life and my hunt for artistic meaning. What was it about this play? I don’t know.

I can tell you what I recall: A simple stage: 6 actors; 3 men; 3 women; A set that was a brightly painted (a slightly messy city landscape); A few desks, black office chairs with wheels and a light design that was proficient at best; costumes were black pants and shirts with little flashes of colored layers and wigs that the actors used to help them portray character- Nothing truly outstanding; certainly it had a modest budget to say the least. But what it had was actors and direction that meant something more then the need to sell tickets. The acting catapulted this little show into my brain forever. Ionesco’s world was vibrant and his words were bold and bizarre. I had never seen theater like this: Edgy and Messy and Passionate. The actors used their human face to transform- their bodies were the costumes, and their faces, the mask. It was like I could see their inner halo shine as they embodied the roles-they changed in front of my eyes. They were not themselves- It was ugly, and scary, and brilliant. The actors were not the pretty actors I was used to seeing and studying. They were animal-humanity, scared, real, angry and full of a fierce life passion and energy that made me squirm in my seat. And, more then all that they were funny- Terribly, awkwardly, uncomfortably funny. I left the play in a haze. I lost the playbill. I don’t even know where I was or who produced it. All I have is the memory. I had found “absurd” theater. It was not going to sell tickets or make anyone famous- but it was art- It was history and politics and challenging.

I moved to New York City soon after seeing that play. I hunted for more of what I saw in that play. I got into grad school but did not go. I guess you can say I wanted to hunt solo. I have never really fit into any one slot or felt comfortable doing what others tell me to do. I wanted my own program: For me art was about life and making my life richer. Someone else can’t do that for you. I took many classes: Meisner, Shakespeare, Suzuki, Grotowski, Modern Dance, Improv, Stand-Up, Dell-Arte, Physical Theater, Clowning, you name it. Somewhere in there I took a “mask” class. I remember an entire hour of staring at myself in a dance mirror-using our face as a mask. I remember thinking of that play I saw in London while I stared at my flared nostrils and ugly squished mouth that made me red in the face for so long it felt like time had stopped. It was a good absurd theater moment. I discovered something about myself in that class. About the power and shapes of my face. A successful hunt if you will. I lived in New York for a decade. I studied hard, I produced, I directed, I acted; I saw a lot of theater- good, bad and amazing. I loved every minute of my NYC artist safari. My hunt for art is not over – It is evolving with me.

I left New York. I moved back to a quiet corner of the earth. A snow covered sleepy gray state. But I am still hunting… I have a bucket list: Producers, Parts, Plays and Playwrights I am searching for – to help me discover more of me. I have wanted to embody Ionesco in my own way - even if messy and not good enough- since I saw that play in London. I know I will never live up to the memory I have placed on a pedestal. However, I am eager to try. I hope we the cast, of Ionesco’s Exit The King come together and challenge someone in the audience in a weird way to go home and think about art and life and the world we live in…I hope it starts others hunting …Because, once you start you never really stop hunting…

~Paige Lussier Johnson

Friday, January 6, 2017

Making Art?

In 1934 – back when socialism still seemed possible, before Mrs. Thatcher closed the mines, and before Labour turned itself into a pale imitation of Bill Clinton’s Democratic Party – a group of miners in Ashington, England picked up paintbrushes and began making pictures of their lives.

Over the next several years, these untutored working men emerged as a significant force in British Art.  Known as the Ashington Group, these miners – pitmen, they’d call themselves – turned out hundreds of works chronicling daily life in the coal country. Their paintings, though, went beyond simple representational chronicles – the best of them have powerful political and spiritual dimensions; and the very best of them can be – to say it simply –  stunningly beautiful. In other words, the “pitmen painters” produced some powerful, enduring works of art.

Lee Hall’s The Pitmen Painters dramatizes the journeys of the individual Ashington Group members as they grope their ways toward creating their particular works of art.  In doing so, the playwright raises a number of difficult questions.  Some are aesthetic: what is art, anyways; do works of art have meanings; does a painting “mean” what its painter intended? Or do the meaning, value and beauty of a painting exist only in the person looking at it?  Some are political: what’s the implication of a bunch of working stiffs producing artworks to the class structure of pre-War and Wartime England?  Some are downright spiritual: what is an artist?  What does it take to create something that lasts, that is beautiful, that “means” something to the world?  And one is completely unanswerable: what do you do when it turns out that the most beautiful art in the world isn’t enough to redeem disappointment, failure, mortality? 

Needless to say, The Pitmen Painters is a comedy.

Really. For all the intense issues addressed in this play, one enduring fact is that it is continually, sometimes wryly and sometimes uproariously, funny. Frankly, if it’s about pitmen, it has to be.  Men who live in the mines, whose lives are dust-filled and always dangerous, tend to wield humor as a weapon against the constant darkness.  It’s an acerbic humor, a humor of jabs and insults, that I recognize from my Irish grandparents who were contemporaries with the Ashington Group painters, and shared with them, if not the mines (my grandparents were shoe workers), then the same irascible attitudes born of poverty and the daily struggle not just make do, but to make their lives enjoyable and occasionally beautiful and – every once in a while – filled with meaning.  Their bruising jokes were the only kind that death would understand.

You’ll recognize both the humor and the soul of this play if you’ve ever seen Billy Elliot – which 
Lee Hall also wrote.  Like that movie, The Pitmen Painters looks at the way that art – painting here, the ballet in Billy Elliot – can reach in and transform the harshest lives. In Billy Elliot, of course, the boy escapes – he makes it to the Royal Academy.  The Pitmen Painters, on the other hand, don’t, won’t or can’t all leave Ashington. Or the mines.  So the transformation for them – if you can call it that – is more constrained, more centered in the small facts of daily life.  They have to find the beauty in the depiction of a union hall at night, men fighting against a wind, a boy in a soldier’s uniform getting married, the simple truth of a Bedlington Terrier.

And it’s not a tragedy if all these things don’t in the end transform their lives; it’s a triumph that putting these things on canvas – making them into art – so very nearly does.

~ Walter Maroney

tKAPOW presents a reading of The Pitmen Painters on Sunday, January 8, 2017 at 2 pm at the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, NH.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Reinforcing Time

This past weekend, I attended Shakespeare & Company’s Boston Weekend Intensive. I highly recommend these weekends. They are affordable, and can fit into the crazy schedule of theatre/work/life/family without requiring too much of a sacrifice from any one of those areas.

Each meeting of this intensive begins with 13 chairs in a circle for each of the twelve participants and the teacher, Dennis Krausnick. The first night, we check in with four things: our name, the landscape of our childhood, our heart’s desire for the weekend, and something we would not normally tell a group of strangers. My heart’s desire for this weekend was to focus on myself. I am always providing opportunities for others, and I rarely get to focus on myself as an artist and restock my well. I wanted to leave my phone and all it represents in the greenroom for the weekend and be selfish. That was my heart’s desire.

After the check-in and a short break, we did an exercise focusing on becoming present in the space, starting to connect with our own breath, and making eye contact with the other participants. This shifting into an exercise inviting our past selves a chance to be present with us: 5 years old, 9 years old, and 13 years old. Each of these ages informed a delivery of our monologue (we had each memorized 14 - 25 lines of Shakespeare to work with over the weekend.) At the end of the night, we gathered the 13 chairs in a circle again to name a discovery or idea we wanted to reinforce over the rest of the weekend. I want to reinforce permission: the permission to be free to explore the present and play again.

On day 2 after a check-in of what stuck with us from yesterday and what we discovered from our homework (yes, there is homework for an intensive even when you get out at 9.40 at night!), we spent the morning on delicious voice work. What a truly lovely way to spend the morning. Breath, body, vibration: all things I work on in my daily practice but I had been rushing over. Practicing just to check it off the list of things done for the day. How wonderful to return to those very basic things and to really tune in to discovering my own habits and whether they truly serve me or not.

The afternoon and evening were spent observing and working individually with Dennis on the text we had prepared. Such wonderful text and characters: Cressida, Hermione, Paulina, Imogen, Edward, Helena. As each person connected the monologue to their own personal life experience, and as he worked patiently with each person to find their breath and release the words using that breath, the true power and beauty of this weekend and these actors came forward. We gathered our chairs in a circle to check-out at the end of the night, and we again said out loud a discovery or idea to reinforce for the weekend. I want to reinforce working without judgement: judgement of myself and assumptions/judgements of others.

Day 3 began with the usual check-in, with the added item of the question “did we have any remorse about anything we had shared yesterday?” This led to a wonderful discussion of drama therapy vs. personal connection, what are professional boundaries, and is personal tragedy required for one to be an actor? An important discussion indeed, which led to a great deal personal thinking on these questions. After a morning of voice work bringing breath, vibration, and presence to our chosen text, the focus for the afternoon shifted to setting Shakespeare in the context of his place and time, and looking at why the First Folio is important and what actors can learn from it. I was reminded of the words of another artist I greatly admire, Ellen Lauren: “The teachers of this work are leaving this world,” and I was so grateful to be learning from 79-year-old Dennis Krausnick. My notes on punctuation, capitalization, long spellings and two universes are so poignant and helpful, and I am grateful for his generosity in sharing his ideas and the fruits of his lifetime of experiences and learning.

After each person shared more discoveries from their chosen text, we gathered our chairs in a circle one last time for a final check-out. What were we going to take away from this weekend intensive? I want to reinforce Time, taking my time. Why am I already learning my lines for my next project: I will take time to fully explore my connections to the text, and take time in rehearsal to be present for true connections with my ensemble. I will take the time to breathe and to make eye contact: what is each person bringing to this story and how do I respond to that?

Theatre is important because we gather together there to hear and to tell stories. I will take my time and be a better listener and a better storyteller.

Thank you to Kirsten, Caitlin, Srin, Deborah, Nancy, Laura, Peter, Meg, Britney, Lei, and Julia for sharing so much this past weekend. And thank you especially to Dennis Krausnick for your generosity as a teacher, an artist, and as a human.

~ Carey Cahoon

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Supporting the Arts: A Circus Act

A couple of weeks ago Carey and I went to Montreal to take part in the CINARS Biennale, one of the most important international showcase and networking events in the performing arts industry.  The weeklong Biennale gathers around 1,500 participants from over 40 countries and presents more than 170 shows from Qu├ębec, Canada, and abroad. There were so many wonderful artists sharing work.  While the language difference made it difficult to see a lot of theatre, we did see a bunch of circus shows.  Montreal is pretty much the epicenter of contemporary circus with the headquarters of Cirque du Soleil, TOHU (a major circus venue), and the national circus school all located in one city block.  There was some absolutely incredible work that I’ll remember for a long time.

When not attending performances, I took part in some meetings with other artists and presenters from New England and some presenters and government officials from Quebec. I was there as part of a delegation assembled by the New England Foundation for the Arts (NEFA).  NEFA is the primary regional funder for the arts in New England.  Their budget is made up of funding from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), from the 6 New England state arts agencies, and from individual donations.  At one meeting that I attended we heard about the arts funding structure in Canada. Suffice to say, government funding for arts and culture is much more significant in Canada than it is here. The current budget for the Canada Council for the Arts is $40 million per year, but it is scheduled to increase to $180 million per year by 2020. Conversely, the NEA’s budget is currently at just under $148 million per year which is down almost $20 million since 2010.  Frankly, it is difficult to anticipate what will happen with federal funding for the arts in the US under the new administration, but I don’t believe we will see the budget quadruple in four years as it will in Canada.  In addition to federal funding, the Canadian provinces also support the arts at very high levels.  In 2014-2015, the Province of Quebec allocated just over $94 million in support for the arts.  $88 million of that was paid out in grants to artists. There are an estimated 8.5 million people living in the Province in Quebec.  By contrast, NEFA paid out $3.2 million in grants in 2015.  New England has an estimated population of 14 million people. It’s truly a testament to the work of the NEFA staff how much impact they have on the cultural landscape of the region given the relatively modest size of their budget. A feat no less difficult than many of the circus acts we saw in Montreal.

It’s not all super depressing, however. Where the U.S. does do significantly better than our neighbors to the north is in private philanthropy. On account of the high levels of government support for the arts, private philanthropy is virtually nonexistent in Canada. Artists and arts organizations in the U.S. are dependent upon significant support from private donors. As I’m sure many of you are aware, tKAPOW is currently in the midst of our annual fundraising appeal. We consider ourselves tremendously blessed that so many people continue to believe in the work that we do and choose to support our work financially.  
This coming Tuesday (November 29th), nonprofits across the country will celebrate Giving Tuesday. Started in 2012, Giving Tuesday is a global day of giving fueled by the power of social media and collaboration. While perhaps we can’t hope to ever achieve government funding levels similar to our Canadian counterparts, we do have amazingly generous people in our community who continue to make what we do possible. So, if you have anything left after the craziness of Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday, please consider supporting your favorite non-profits on Giving Tuesday. We truly can’t do this without you.
~ Matt Cahoon