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.