Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The O'Neill Dilemma

Eugene O'Neill's father James was a famous actor. He played Macduff opposite Edwin Booth in Macbeth, and was a renowned Romeo (onstage and off). But he was best known for his role in The Count of Monte Cristo, a part he played regularly over more than forty years. It wasn't long before his popularity in the role became a trap. The San Francisco News Letter complained that his performance had "degenerated" from art to mere commerce. O'Neill tried to turn to other works - notably Julius Caesar - but when those flopped financially he found himself back in The Count to recoup his lost money. Thanks in large part to his son's retelling of the story, O'Neill's dilemma has become a warning trope to actors who repeat a role: This way lies artistic peril.

theatre KAPOW just completed its fifth production (in four years) of The Burial at Thebes, Seamus Heaney's adaptation of Sophocles' Antigone. Each year we remount our production for Saint Anselm College, as part of the College's Conversatio course for first-year students. The production helps us pay the bills for the rest of the season. Four of our company have appeared in the same roles in all five productions. Yet with some effort on all our parts, we have avoided the artistic peril.

This summer during our annual retreat at Chanticleer Gardens we dedicated five class sessions in what we called the Michael Chekhov Practicum to rehearsing just the first scene of Antigone, each day from a different starting point in the actor's art: psycho-physical center, quality of movement, atmosphere of place, expansion and contraction, rising and falling. Apart from the pure joy of exploring a great story, we learned that the first scene alone remains full of new possibilities for us. We haven't come close to plumbing the depths of the Antigone story.

A month later we began formal rehearsals for this latest production. The design and staging elements remain largely the same. But the four actors who were returning for the fifth time each found a newness in the work. Each of us had the experience of hearing or seeing something in a new way, and thus each of us could realize new relationships and possibilities. For me that was the result of a new starting point. If last year was all about what Chekhov called psychological gesture, this year began with the atmosphere of corruption, and the corruption of flesh and morals that runs through the play. That atmosphere generates an odor, an imagined sensation on the skin, and a visceral experience of corruption. That experience of the atmosphere led me to an enhanced understanding of Creon's action through the play. He's not only "saving the city;" this year he's purging the corruption, and again that action carries him from the beginning of the play to the very end. The experience of atmosphere led also to a new quality of movement - less flying this year, and more molding. And then to a new experience of psychological gesture that develops from expanding and contracting in the atmosphere. Purging is a kind of expansion; the defense against or retreat from corruption is a kind of contraction. And those new or refined gestures led further, to a new consideration of archetype. This year, Creon is not so much a king as he is a priest (who else has the work of saving the people or purging the corruption?). Antigone, in my mind, becomes a priestess, or nun, or sacrificial virgin. And thus we arrive - in fairly rapid fashion - at a deeper layering of the relationship between the two characters.

Of course we still encounter the usual troubles that plague almost every production in almost every company - too little time to rehearse, uncertainty about the receptivity of the young audience (which this year was superb), and so on. But the lesson of this year's remounting, and of all great plays, is that we never really "close" a production, or "put to bed" a great role. We've discovered that there's a lot of work left for us to explore in this story, and that as we continue to incorporate trainings with rehearsals we can avoid "the O'Neill Dilemma." Next year's Thebes won't be a mere repeating of the old chestnut for us, but the opportunity for our deepest artistic growth.

~Peter Josephson

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Through with Read-throughs

"Usually, a first day of rehearsal goes something more like this. The actors arrive. The entire theater staff arrives, occasionally along with some board members. We eat stale donuts and mill around nervously. The artistic director says a few words. The director does a presentation. The designers do a presentation. The playwright says some awkward heartfelt things. It’s something like an ad campaign, but for who? We’re still trying to convince the theater to do our play, but they’re already doing it! We tell the actors how the play will look and sound, proud of our work, but because we’ve done the work already, the actors’ very particular imaginations won’t influence any of our big plans!
Then we sit down nervously, surrounded by a ring of about fifty people (depending on how big the theater is), and we read the play out loud at a table. The pencils are sharp, and the actors do a strange dance of auditioning for each other. The day ends, we are all relieved, and the next day we actually begin rehearsal. What if the first day of rehearsal could contain more joy? More costumes and fewer packets of information? What if it were as secretive and intimate as children building a fort, covering themselves with blankets, sitting in the dark, saying to the outside world: keep out, keep out, for now…"
Sarah Ruhl, “On the First Day of Rehearsal,” 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write on Umbrellas and Sword Fights, Parades and Dogs, Fire Alarms, Children, and Theater
If you haven’t figured it out by now, I love Sarah Ruhl. Her plays are genius, but this little book of 100 essays has become my guidebook for theatre and life. I’m sure many of us have, on a number of occasions, experienced a read through just like what Sarah Ruhl describes above. It feels much more like ritual than rehearsal and without question there is a sense in the room that it is just something we need to do before we can start actually rehearsing. Lost in the ritual is any sense of purpose. Why do we do this? What is the point?

On Saturday morning, we had our first rehearsal for Stupid Fucking Bird. Before heading to the theatre, I re-read Sarah’s essay and was determined to avoid the typical read-through. We only allowed ourselves a 2 hour block for our first meeting because we were also scheduled to rehearse The Burial at Thebes that day. This is a cast in which some people have worked together a number of times and some people are completely new to tKAPOW so, yes, we spent a few minutes on introductions. And, yes, we spent just a few minutes explaining what we had in mind for the physical playing area. But, when it came time to dive into the script, I wanted to approach things a little differently. Stupid Fucking Bird is an amazing script and one of the things that makes it so great is that it very deliberately blurs the line between actor and audience. So, for the first rehearsal I set up 8 chairs in two rows of four. The two rows faced each other with about 15’ between them. Then we read the script, but rather than remaining seated, the actors moved into the open space between the chairs and walked through the whole show.

It was fascinating to watch the cast make decisions about where and how to enter, where to play the scene, and how to exit. If they felt chairs were needed they would drag them into the space and then take them with them when they exited. I was fortunate that so many of the cast members were off or almost off book so there wasn’t much of the awkwardness of having to balance your script while moving through space.

In this way, the first rehearsal was just that. A rehearsal. But, a rehearsal virtually free of rules. The actors went where they wanted to go and got to be in complete control. And, you know what? There were some moments, some real moments, created during that two hour rehearsal. Moments that I can guarantee we would not have found sitting around a table. Is it performance ready? No, but I truly believe that the cast learned more about the show, their characters, and their ensemble than they would have in a typical read through. Most importantly, I think this rehearsal set a tone for the rest of our work. It will be a process where the actors will be empowered to take risks, to explore, to play. I’m not trying to claim that there is anything really revolutionary here. I know that many theatres have long since abandoned the read through, but for us it was a new approach and I am really encouraged by the results. I’ll be very curious to see how many of the little discoveries from the first rehearsal end up in the finished product. Until then, we’ll have a lot of fun building blanket forts.

~ Matt Cahoon

Monday, August 22, 2016

Theatre as a Universal Language

Some of my favorite theatrical experiences as an audience member have been shows performed in languages other than English. As I've discussed in a previous blog, Teatr Zar, a Polish company that performed at Charlestown Working Theater a few years ago, put on one of the best pieces I've ever seen. I've been fortunate enough to see shows in Italian, French, Farsi, and ASL (which I'll grant included lots of English). In all of these cases, the power of the performances have had the ability to transcend the language barrier. It takes a special performer to bridge the gap of understanding, but when they are able to do so the results are profound. I suppose this is a reality with which opera fans are quite familiar.

As I write this, I'm on a plane back from Italy where I have spent the last 9 days in residence at LaMaMa Umbria International. I was last in Italy in 2013 for LaMaMa's Directors' Symposium. This time I was in Italy directing an original, one-woman piece entitled Bea and Me. The piece was written and performed by Marybeth Berry, a friend I met during the 2013 symposium. The show explores Marybeth's personal life story dealing with domestic abuse at the hands of her husband who died of cancer. As a means of unlocking this story, Marybeth wrote the piece as a conversation with Beatrice Herford an early 20th century monologist widely recognized as a pioneer of solo performance. The play deals with complex themes and features an equally complex format. We spent most of our time in Italy refining the script so as to improve flow, timing, and message. The piece was performed twice at Cantiere Oberdan, the host venue for the LaMaMa Spoleto Open.

About mid-week, one of the organizers of the LaMaMa program asked us how we were going to address the language issue for Italian audiences. Honestly we were so heavily involved in script edits and staging rehearsals that we hadn't really considered that at all. I reached out to an Italian friend of mine for help, but with time so short, the decision was made to just present the piece in English. We figured that if nothing else, the playwrights currently working at LaMaMa (a group of about 12) would come to the show and the language would not be a problem for them.

Friday night, the night of the first performance, came and we only had four people in the audiences, all Italians (some with very limited English). I gave my curtain speech and had the first in my lifetime experience of having to pause while it was translated for the audience. Marybeth pressed forward with her piece and the audience was absolutely enthralled. As a side note, I've never seen an actress embrace having an audience to play for as much as Marybeth did that night. Her story burst forth from her as if it just needed to be released. The performance reached its end, the lights dimmed, and our little Italian audience absolutely went nuts. They clapped and clapped and then clapped some more. It was clear that while they may not have understood all of the language (or Marybeth's crazy accent which is two parts South Carolina drawl with one part Rhode Island speed), but they were moved. They were moved because Marybeth was moved. The emotional tension in the room was evident and it needed no translation.

Here I am,somewhere over southern France and I find myself contemplating what lessons from this experience I can take with me to my work at home. tKAPOW has always been committed to producing the very best of dramatic literature and that commitment will not change any time soon. What I believe I will continue to explore as a director, however, is performance that is highly expressive and storytelling propelled by strong imagery. I will challenge my actors to consider those audiences members who may not be able to rely on understanding of the language alone. I hope that this approach will help us create productions capable of transcending language all together.

~ Matt Cahoon

Friday, August 5, 2016


Season 9 is here! It's actually hear, here. (See what we did there?)

It’s hard to believe, but tKAPOW is about to start work on our 9th season.  Since the very beginning we have prided ourselves on choosing scripts representative of the highest quality of dramatic literature.  As many of you may know, we generally program a piece by (or inspired by) a European playwright in the fall, a comedy in the winter, and a piece by an American playwright in the spring.  We also like to plan our seasons around unifying themes.  I’m really thrilled with what we have put together for season 9.  

Here are some fun facts about season 9:

  1. All three of our “mainstage” shows are comedies which means season 9 will be the funniest season to date.  
  2. With a combined 17 roles in the three shows, season 9 will be one of the largest seasons we’ve ever produced (by comparison, season 8 was the smallest season to date with only 5 combined roles).  
  3. All three shows feature musical instruments (more on that later).
  4. For the first time ever, tKAPOW will be doing a musical!

The season 9 theme is HEAR, HERE!  The shows in the season will all have a musical element (HEAR) and will all feature a meta-theatricality that sheds light on the shared experience of the artists and audiences when they are present together (HERE).  It’s going to be an amazing season with multiple NH premiere productions.  

We’ll kick off season 9 (after a quick stop in Thebes and a reading at the Currier) in early October with Aaron Posner’s Stupid Fucking Bird.  Posner describes the piece as “sort of adapted from The Seagull.”  The show was written in 2013 and this will be its first production in NH.  It’s a very smart and funny script that roughly follows the same story as Chekhov’s classic play.  tKAPOW has produced plays by European masters including Strindberg and Ibsen and have always wanted to explore one of Chekhov’s full-length pieces (we did several of his one-acts in 2015).  It just turns out that in this case we’ll be looking at Chekhov through the words of one of America’s great contemporary dramatic voices.  As you can probably guess by the title this is something of an irreverent adaptation.  I promise that this will be a fun night of theatre as the lines between actor and audience are blurred and someone plays a ukelele!

In March, we’ll explore another piece that comes to us from a European master when we tackle Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist play Exit the King.  My father once told me that it was the funniest play he had ever seen. Okay, he told me more than once. In fact, basically every time that tKAPOW has done a comedy my father has told me that Exit the King is the funniest show he has ever seen.  So, you know it was only a matter of time before tKAPOW dove into this one.  The show is pure madcap fun as poor old King Berenger refuses to believe that his time on earth has come to an end.  

And, yes, in April, after years of saying that we’d never do it, tKAPOW will be jazz squaring our way into the world of musical theatre. Kind of. For this show we’ll be returning to the work of Sarah Ruhl, a tKAPOW favorite whose Eurydice we produced way back in season 4.  I truly cannot express how much Sarah Ruhl’s work has inspired me.  Her grasp of the English language is amazing and while she is a very efficient writer she manages to develop moments of such profound depth.  So it is with her piece Melancholy Play: A Chamber Musical.  The reason that I say it is kind of a musical is that Ruhl originally published the piece as a play with a cello.  Approximately 10 years after its original production, she, along with composer Todd Almond, reenvisioned the piece as a musical complete with a string quartet and piano.  It’s beautiful.  Don’t let the name fool you, this is a very funny play.  We’re especially excited about this project because we will be collaborating with the NH Philharmonic.  We last worked with the NH Phil on their concert showcasing music inspired by the works of Shakespeare.  This collaboration will be more substantial and, we hope, will help both organizations reach new audiences.    

As the summer all too quickly fades towards fall, I look at the work ahead with a great deal of eager anticipation.  In just a couple of days we will be holding auditions for Stupid Fucking Bird and Exit the King and that process is always an exciting one.  Soon after we cast the show we’ll be heading into rehearsal.  It’s amazing how quickly each season comes and goes.  I hope that you will continue to check back HERE to HEAR what we are up to.  Before we know it, we’ll be headed to season 10.

~ Matt Cahoon

Monday, July 4, 2016

The Courtship of Season Planning

Okay, so I’ll admit up front that in the last nine years I’ve done a lot more season planning than dating, but it strikes me they are pretty much the same thing. Hear me out. Imagine, that a play is the boy/girl of your dreams. You’re totally into this play, you do all your research so that you know as much as you possibly can about him/her. Are you compatible? Is he/she up to your standards? Is he/she worth the time and energy necessary to make the relationship a successful one? Can you afford him/her? (Okay, so maybe the metaphor doesn’t work so well there, but you get the point and besides, I warned you that it had been awhile since I’ve done this). So you’ve found him/her, the one you really want to be with. You know that a relationship with him/her will be so good for the both of you. You decide that now is the time to make your move so you work up the nerve and pick up the phone or send an email (or submit answers to a bunch of questions on a website form). You say, “Listen, I know that we’d be good for each other, I really like you and I’d love to spend a rehearsal process getting to know you better.” Admittedly, my suave talk probably isn’t what it used to be, see above. If you are lucky, the response is, “Absolutely, I’d love to go out with you, I just need to check my calendar and see when I am available.” In the best case scenario, you hear back almost instantly. You are both available to meet at a mutually agreed upon date (or weekend) and all is good. Sometimes though, sometimes it doesn’t go so well. You work up the nerve to ask and the response is “Gee, I’d really like to, but I’m already going on a date that weekend with someone else in your area,” or “Sorry, but I only date professionals,” or “I haven’t started dating Americans yet.” Sure, the initial letdown can be harsh. After all, you had done your research and out of all the boys/girls you really thought you had found the one for you. Sometimes you know that if you are patient they will come around eventually. And, sometimes you let out a huge sigh of relief because you were scared shitless at the prospect of dating this particular person anyway. Often though, and this is key, the process of getting rejected makes you look a little harder and dig a little deeper and, I think more often than not, you find someone else so much better. Okay, I think I’ve played out this metaphor.

In just a few days, theatre KAPOW will announce the shows that will make up the schedule for season nine (yikes, nine, wow). I’ll be honest, we’ve courted a lot of plays over the past few months. I’ll also tell you that some of the plays we wanted weren’t available for one reason or another. Some of them remain on a short list of what I refer to as “tries.” We can’t do the show now, but we will try again in the future. This list gets longer and longer each year, but it means that there are some really great shows coming in future seasons. But, and as I said before in that horrible metaphor that started this perhaps disastrous blog post (yay for you if you’ve stuck through it thus far), I think the plays we’ve chosen are better than the ones that we originally pursued. We have a really strong season with wonderful stories and even more wonderful characters. Oh, and trust me, there is one major surprise. And now, dear reader, is my opportunity to play coy with you. I turn my best sultry look towards you and say, “if you want to learn more about what we’re doing next season, let’s hang out on Saturday night (or perhaps at the Sunday matinee) at the performance of Raining Aluminum.” Yeah, I admit, my game has some holes in it, but you get the point. We are thrilled with season nine and we know that you will love what we have in store.

~ Matt Cahoon

P.S. Anyone looking for relationship advice can hit me up on facebook.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Exquisite Pressure

Pressure is a central ingredient:  pressure of collaboration, of time, of putting all this stuff together...I cannot possibly control it, therefore I start to work on a more intuitive level, rather than on a logical level, which is what you are trying to get to because all creation is intuitive.
-Anne Bogart

tKAPOW spent last week in residence at Charlestown Working Theatre developing our new piece Raining Aluminum.  This process was simultaneously thrilling, terrifying, inspiring and exhausting. While we have been doing pretty heavy research on the piece for about 15 months, we walked into CWT with little more than a collection of stories we’d like to explore and a few movement sequences.

The day before we set out for Charlestown, Carey and I assembled ten brand new 4’ x 4’ platforms to act as the set (with the side benefit of being small enough to fit in the Opera House elevator for future shows) and loaded a truck full of various objects that we thought would help with the storytelling.   With Cynthia MacLeod, our musical collaborator, set to arrive that day, I spent Sunday loading in all of our odds and ends.  Just before I left CWT, I arranged the platforms and objects into what I proposed would be their starting position for the show.

Monday morning, we stopped at Cynthia’s hotel and Carey got to meet her for the first time (they became pretty close by the end of the week).  We drove down to Charlestown and discussed the plan for the day.
While Tayva and I worked on hanging a light plot (difficult to do when you don’t even have a script yet), Peter and Carey worked with Cynthia on learning a seated step dance that we planned to incorporate into the piece (it turns out that it was a remarkably effective way to start the show).  That evening we had our first rehearsal in space.  The daily schedule for the rest of the week was similar with intensive work during the day with our visiting artists on music, puppetry or text and then we’d rehearse in the evenings.  Now you probably understand the use of the word “exhausting” in the first line above.

The week culminated in three work-in-progress showings.  On Thursday, Cynthia and the music was featured; on Friday, Vit Horejs and the object work was the focus; and, on Saturday, we were able to share a full first draft of the piece that included a lot of the text developed by our dramaturg Kelly Smith (including a monologue that was re-written about 10 minutes prior to the start of the showing).  An important part of the process was the audience feedback session that we conducted each night.  It was fascinating (and occasionally surprising) to hear which elements of the piece really resonated with the audience and equally as helpful to hear what wasn’t working.  This is all feedback that we will consider as we continue to develop the piece.

By far the best part of this opportunity was that it gave us a concentrated stretch of time to experiment, work, and play.  What Anne Bogart refers to as “exquisite pressure” was definitely a major contributing factor to our work last week.  Charles Mee describes Bogart’s “exquisite pressure” in the following way:

 “[it’s] one which promotes creativity by overwhelming collaborators with a lot to do in a short amount of time so that they do not have the chance to think too much.”

We often said last week that when creating original work you might work for an hour and only find 30 seconds of useable material.  Last week we certainly did create a bunch of stuff that ended up on the proverbial “cutting room floor,” but I think the pressure of having to have something ready to share with an audience resulted in the discovery of a few pearls.  In the coming weeks, we’ll work on stringing those pearls together to create a complete piece.  The new piece will premiere at the Stockbridge the weekend of July 8-10 and then we hope it will have the opportunity to tour around a bit.  If you are interested in seeing new and non-traditional theatre, I hope that you will come check it out.

~ Matt Cahoon

Monday, May 2, 2016

How am I doing today?


Grounded closed yesterday, its initial run anyway. We got home after a 4-hour strike, I put the flight suit and boots away, shirt and socks into the laundry. I slept very, very soundly last night, which hasn’t been the case for the last two weeks. This morning I got up, and went through my full morning routine.

Read a chapter of Zen in the Art of Archery. Since the new year, I have started my day each day by reading 15 - 20 minutes of eastern philosophy, which has been incredibly calming and strength-building.

I spend a few minutes seeing off my husband and daughter as they head to work and school. 6 minutes of balance exercises. This six minutes every day is a great opportunity for me to check in with my body and my mind. How am I doing today? Am I steady? Am I grounded? I unroll my yoga mat, and stretch for 10 - 12 minutes. Breathe into those muscles, those joints, those hard-working tendons that need breath. Today was a return to planking in the morning. How am I doing? Do I feel strength and can I balance the tension and find relaxation?

I roll up my yoga mat, and bring up a guided vocal warm-up on my i-phone. I have been doing this vocal warm-up for almost six years now. In 2010, my husband pushed me to go to an actor training program. He researched summer programs and sent me the information on the Atlantic Acting School and said, “this is the one you need to go to.” He was right. I come back to the vocal work I learned there almost every day. I spend 10 minutes, 20 minutes or more if I have the time, breathing and generating sound. How I am doing today? Where am I feeling vibration? The warm up is different every day because I am different every day. Sometimes I spend my vocal time in the morning focused only on the breath, with very little sound. I am grateful for this time to breathe and nourish this very basic starting point for everything.

Make sure the water is heating up for my cup of tea.

I turn to another practice: speech. Working the muscles of my mouth. Tuning in to vibration and sound waking up the full range of my voice. Articulation, clear pronunciation, strength and freedom of movement to shape breath and sound to clearly communicate. How am I doing today? Am I here in this moment or just going through the motions? I spend about 16 or 17 minutes on this speech practice.

Brew a cup of green tea and let it steep.

Meditate 10 - 12 minutes. Breathe. How am I doing today? Am I here in this moment? Am I grounded?

Drink my green tea. Eat breakfast, face the day. Carry the work from the morning into the day.

I was terrified when theatre KAPOW chose to put Grounded into the season. There was a time I said, “Find someone else to do it. I won’t be able to do it.” 100 minutes on stage, just me. Lean into the uncomfortable, face the fear. I know that the only way I was able to do it was because of those daily practices. My voice did not give out, my body did not give out. Voice, speech, and most importantly breath.

I am grateful for those practices. I am grateful.

~Carey Cahoon