Wednesday, April 18, 2018

A Cliff's Edge

Then know this: where you are standing now
Is a cliff edge, and there’s a cold wind blowing.

~Tiresias, The Burial at Thebes

It is probably safe to assume that if you are reading this blog you are at least somewhat familiar with theatre KAPOW. It is probably equally as safe to assume that if you are somewhat familiar with theatre KAPOW you are aware of the company’s relationship with the Antigone. Every year for almost six years now, theatre KAPOW has produced The Burial at Thebes, a version of the Antigone, at St. Anselm College. So, when I recently heard an interview with Lucas Hnath, playwright of our current project, The Christians, in which he said, “the bones” of his play are the same as the Antigone, it definitely changed my perspective on the piece.

When we do The Burial at Thebes, we often discuss how much like a courtroom drama the show is. Creon and Antigone go back and forth and the chorus (and the audience) is swayed one way or the other. In The Christians, there is a similar courtroom dynamic. The tension from both pieces comes from the conviction of their characters. Characters on both sides are absolutely convinced they are right and are capable of articulating their sides really well.

While there are some similarities in the plots of the two plays, the real parallels between The Christians and Antigone are found in the relationships. The dynamics of the father/son relationship for example are very present in both pieces. As is the relationship between the leader and the elder. In Antigone the prophet Tiresias comes to Creon and warns him that that his actions will lead to disaster. Similarly in The Christians we see Elder Jay come to Pastor Paul and warn him about how his sermon may cause problems with the church community.

**As an aside, one of the greatest things about having a company of actors that work together frequently is that they bring every character and every relationship from previous shows to each new show. In this case, Peter Josephson who plays Creon in The Burial at Thebes and Elder Jay in The Christians has in those two roles played both the warned and the warner. It’s a detail that perhaps only the most diehard of tKAPOW fans will catch, but I think it adds a depth to the company’s work that wouldn’t exist if we worked with new actors for every show.**

While he may bristle at the comparison, but another similarity between the work of Lucas Hnath and Sophocles is an incredibly poetic efficiency in the use of language. At one point a musician friend of mine told me that in music the rests are just as important as the notes. That’s how it is with both The Christians and Antigone. Both plays are relatively short but so skillfully crafted that they land with more impact than most longer plays. The information communicated in a look or a breath is sometimes even more powerful than what is said aloud. In one scene of The Christians there is a page with only 17 words on it. It comes at a critical moment and the stakes are incredibly high. Many playwrights would overwrite this sequence, but Hnath lets it breathe. He lets the subtext dominate and allows the text to take a backseat. Like the composer using rests, Hnath expertly creates a piece where what he doesn’t write is as important as what he does.

I will be so curious to take part in conversations with audiences following The Christians. I recently had a conversation with Bryan Doerries, the Artistic Director of Theater of War Productions, who said that the basic tenet of their work is that the audience knows more than they do. tKAPOW truly has the most intelligent audiences members I have ever met so I certainly understand what Bryan is saying. I just can’t wait to hear from you all about your experience with The Christians. I will be particularly interested to speak with those of you who have seen our version of Antigone. The Christians absolutely stands on its own as a brilliant piece of dramatic literature, but the theatre nerd in me relishes the opportunity to consider this piece in relation to some of our other work. I really look forward to seeing you there and learning from everything that you observe.
~Matt Cahoon

The Christians by Lucan Hnath runs April 27 through May 5, 2018. More info here.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Names Read Aloud

"Tigers die and leave their skins; people die and leave their names."
-Japanese Proverb
Image result for 9/11 lists of names
The list of names on the 9/11 Memorial in New York City

I’m not giving anything away when I tell you that names play a major role in Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns, a post electric play.  

In act one we meet a band of travelers sitting around a campfire.  We come to learn that these people are living in a world after a cataclysmic event that has destroyed the electrical grid. Before too long a stranger enters and, after a few tense moments trying to ascertain whether he is friend or foe, the group pulls out their notebooks and reads lists of names of people that have gone missing.  It is clear early on that some of the names only remain on the lists as a way to remember them rather than out of any hope that they will be found.  

In act three, 75 years have passed and the notebooks have been replaced by a large tome from which the names are read aloud.  For a contemporary audience, this moment is clearly reminiscent of the annual tradition of reading the names of people who died on 9/11.  Washburn includes names that clearly indicate that their owners were from a variety of backgrounds.  The apocalypse didn’t discriminate.  

Street artist writes out the list of the victims
of the Sandy Hook shooting
Unfortunately these lists of names have become commonplace in our culture.  On December 16th, 2012, Broadway composer Jason Robert Brown wrote a song in response to the Sandy Hook school shooting which had taken place just two days earlier.  He entitled the song “Twenty-Six Names” and posted it along with the names and ages of everyone who died in that shooting on his website.  At the top of the page he wrote, “I will remember their names and I will sing them to a safer place.”  It’s a beautiful and haunting piece of music and I try to remember to listen to it every December 14th.  I’m ashamed to say sometimes it’s hard to remember to remember.  

Like many of us, last week I was glued to my TV watching the news about the horrific events at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.  On Thursday afternoon, just about 24 hours after the shooting, Broward County Sherriff Scott Israel started his press conference by reading the names of the victims of that senseless and still inexplicable act.  He was emphatic that their names be the focus and that their families be respected during this period of immense grief.  

The conversations that I had with my co-workers, my students, and my daughter following the Parkland shooting give me hope that this would not be an event that would fade so easily from our collective memory.  This time, I swore to myself, would be different.  This would be a call to action.  While there is certainly more that can be done, my first instinct was to seek out way to make a financial contribution to help make a difference.  That’s when I came across Sandy Hook Promise and I encourage you all to check them out.  Based in Newtown, Connecticut, Sandy Hook Promise’s intent is to honor all victims of gun violence by turning their tragedy into a moment of transformation by providing programs and practices that protect children from gun violence.  Sandy Hook Promise is absolutely taking the lead in training students and adults to know the signs of gun violence.

I was walking across the Pinkerton Academy campus this afternoon plotting out this blog post and how I was going to discuss the listing of names in Mr. Burns in context of current events when my phone buzzed signaling an incoming email.  The subject of the email was “Honoring Dylan” and it was written by a woman named Nicole Hockley whose six year-old son died in the massacre at Sandy Hook.  Even though I had made my donation last week, I knew that it was an automatically generated email sent from Sandy Hook Promise.  It’s a heartbreaking but inspiring email filled with pictures of Dylan who was just the absolute cutest kid you have ever seen.  Then I came to this passage which I share here in its entirety:

Dylan Hockley
After my precious Dylan was killed in the senseless violence at Sandy Hook Elementary, my other son Jake asked my husband and me not to say Dylan's name aloud. The reminder of how quickly and violently his best friend had been snatched away was too painful and raw.

Now, I sometimes hear Jake talking to Dylan, just chatting to his brother quietly while he plays. I stop, steel myself, allow myself to feel the anger that Jake can no longer play with his brother, and then I remember that this is Jake's way of moving forward, of keeping Dylan's memory alive.

I hate that this woman had to write this, but I love this sentiment.  Even after we are gone, our names will keep us alive in the memories of those we’ve left behind.  

These blog posts almost always end with some kind of pitch to come see our next show.  While I certainly want you all to come take part in the craziness that is Mr. Burns, a post electric play, what I really hope is that, in light of current events, we will all take a moment to remember the names of those lost.  Let’s write them down and read them aloud and, more importantly, let’s work everyday to make the world a better place.  

~Matt Cahoon

Sunday, January 7, 2018

A great thing

Five years ago, our artistic director had an idea for a project. I thought, "Well, that could be a thing. Sure, lets try it." We put together a series of three plays to share staged readings of at the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester. We wanted plays that were directly related to works in the Currier's collection or to special exhibitions at the museum. We invited Dr. Landis K. Magnuson, professor of theatre at Saint Anselm College, to lead a discussion with the audience after the play was read.

Sure, I like reading plays. That's what I have been doing all weekend. Reading plays that stimulate thought and conversation. I know it's a good play when I tell my husband he needs to read it when I am only at the end of the first act because I want to talk to someone about it. But who else likes reading plays as much as I do?

The first season we read Donald Margulies' Time Stands Still because the Currier had mounted an exhibition of Vietnam War photography. We read Edward Albee's The American Dream because the Currier had acquired a screen print by Robert Indiana, so named after he saw the premiere of that play. We read John Logan's Red because a 1967 painting (Untitled, Red Over Brown) by Mark Rothko is a favorite in the Currier's permanent collection. Each play was followed by a discussion with the audience. We launched the program and thought, "Will anyone else come?"

We're in our fifth season now of the ARTiculate Playreading Series, and it is always an absolute joy to have as many as 75 people join us in the auditorium at the Currier on a Sunday afternoon to listen to a play, to talk about the ideas in it, and to look at art. Doing a script as a reading really harnesses our focus (and the audience's) on the words of the playwright, and on the stories and ideas in the plays. It's funny, because stripping away design and the visual element of theatre (sets, lights, costumes) seems antithetical in a setting which celebrates the visual. An audience member told me recently that the play readings have become her favorite program at the Currier, and provide her a new lens through which to look at the art.

We'll be back at the Currier again this month to read Sight Unseen, another play by Donald Margulies. Among other things, the script raises questions about the value of art, the definition of art and who can be an artist, questions of cultural appropriation and gender politics, and truth/memory/ownership/identity. It is not uncommon to have to cut off the conversation after a reading because the galleries are about to close but folks are still talking. Now that's just a great thing, isn't it?

~ Carey Cahoon