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

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Down Time?

“You must love that you have a bit of a break now.”  That is the most common thing we hear when a show closes.

Yep, I do love it. I’ll be going to a beach, putting my feet up and having drinks with tiny umbrellas in them.

Or, I’ll be catching up on all the "administrivia" that fell by the wayside or got put on hold in the weeks leading up to a production. There is an art to arts administration, I know that. Strong administration is absolutely essential to any successful arts organization. We see the result of the hard work that artists out into a show. But the work that happens in the offices, or the storage rooms, or late at night on the laptop is supposed to be invisible, right? That’s what makes it good work.

We often only realize that this important work isn't being done well or done right when it is too late. We see another headline about a theatre closing its doors, or an orchestra going under, or a museum having to sell off part of its collection.

There is, indeed, an art to arts administration. And like the arts it supports, it can be messy, confusing, and full of doubt.  Here are just some of the ways that manifests itself (this week anyway):
  • Enter receipts and update budgets. We were over in some areas, under in others. What’s the bottom line on this show?
  • Return some canvas storage bins that we didn’t ending up using on the set because they were the wrong size. That helps the bottom line (every little bit helps, right?)
  • Wash the costumes from the show and return them to storage. Do we have enough hangers for the things that we bought for this show? Should we bother saving this orange t-shirt?
  • When will we finally organize the costumes in storage? We always say we are going to do that and then just stick them on the first available space on the costume racks and can't find them again. Is that why we spend so much at Goodwill?
  • Update the email list. When does the next e-newsletter need to go out? How much growth has there been from this show? What is the open rate/click rate?
  • Update our database with all the people who attended the last show. How should these people be coded? Do we get enough data about ticket buyers from the ticketing system?
  • Check in on the marketing plan. What gets posted to Facebook now that the show is done?
  • Schedule rehearsals for the next play reading. When will we get the cd of images of works of art we are supposed to use with this show? Where is the copy of our license agreement? When are the royalties due on that?
  • Segment lists of lybunts, sybunts, and prospects for the fundraising appeal. Do we need envelopes? What is the goal for this year? Where’s that budget?
  • We’ll need to get these appeal letters signed. When is our next board meeting?
  • Update the website. Do we need to add more photos?
  • We got that grant award last week. What paperwork do we need to send back?
  • What are we forgetting?
Hug your arts administrator, your managing director, your stage manager, your wardrobe tech. They deserve it.  Artists could not thrive at arts organizations without them.

~ Carey Cahoon

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Anton Chekhov, Aaron Posner, Cameron Crowe?

Last night theatre KAPOW opened Stupid F%cking Bird by Aaron Posner. Posner’s “sort of” adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull poses questions about the nature and purpose of art. Why do we make art? Who is our art for? What does it mean to be an artist? Does art reflect life, or do we try, often in vain, to make our lives reflect our favorite works of art? These questions are enormous; it is up to each individual to find the answers for her or himself.

Stupid F%cking Bird is my first show with theatre KAPOW and I have loved every moment of playing Nina and working with this dedicated and talented group of artists. However as any artist knows, it is one thing to be invested in the art you are making, the question is, will others connect with your art? My parents saw the show last night and when I was able to talk with them about it, my father said something I found very interesting. “Your relationship with Trigorin was just like one between Pennylane and Russell in Almost Famous. It was the same story.” He went on to say that he wondered if Cameron Crowe had read The Seagull and was inspired by the Nina/Trigorin dynamic when he was writing the screenplay for his early twenty-first century rock n’ roll masterpiece.

Of course, I have no idea if Cameron Crowe has read The Seagull, or if the doomed romance between a teenage groupie and a famous rock star was in any way inspired by Nina’s adoration of the brilliant, narcissistic writer. Still, there are certainly recurring themes here. There are other parallels to be drawn as well. Both stories deal with the struggle between “art” and “fame,” persona and reality, our desire to connect and our desires.

If we go back far enough in dramatic history, we can find many other parallels. (The similarities between Chekhov’s Konstantin and Shakespeare’s Hamlet have inspired dissertations.) But the takeaway for me is that the very questions and struggles that plague artists also inspire art. My dad loves rock n’ roll and has never read The Seagull. But he was able to see similarities between the characters and story of Almost Famous and the Chekhovian-inspired characters in Aaron Posner’s modern adaptation. He found something he could connect with there. Maybe he’ll read The Seagull one day, or maybe he’ll be content with what he got out of Bird last night. Either way, those works of art inspired discussion, thought, and ultimately, connection. Not earth-shattering, but perhaps just enough.
~Emily Karel

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