Category Archives: Theater

Ask Your Mama

February 20, 2014

The past several weeks have been very busy at school. This semester I am teaching a graduate seminar in 20th century American literature that I’ve never taught before, so I’ve been kept busier than usual in preparing for my classes. Linda and I have had the chance to eat out more often than usual, in part because a couple of good new restaurants have opened nearby. Portfolio Cafe at the corner of Junipero and Fourth Street most certainly be getting close to its 25th anniversary; it recently underwent a renovation that mainly seemed directed at shedding any image it might have of a 20th century coffeehouse. The rear area still retains its laid-back ambiance, but the front now seems to possess more of a Peet’s polish, though still having some measure of individuality. The storefronts next to Portfolio’s, which I read at back in 1993 with Harry Northup and Linda Albertano, had been vacant for almost two years, or so it seems, but very recently two restaurants have opened up, one featuring an Argentinian menu and the other specializing in Peruvian cuisine. We had a free meal at the latter a couple of days before it officially opened because the owners apparently wanted to conduct a trial run of the kitchen. We can’t wait to go back.

Bridge Markland presented a one-actress performance of Robbers in a Box last this past week at CSULB. The advance publicity hinted that she was adept at playing both female and male roles, and perhaps she is accomplished in that regard if she avails herself of speaking in her native language. Unfortunately, she presented what amounted to a karaoke version of Schiller’s drama. Recorded voices intoned the dialogue as Markland toyed with puppets and a wig to enact an adult variation of a child’s fantasy of theater. Indeed, the title of her evening suggested the mise-en-scene, several short linked walls were unfolded as to resemble a large cardboard container, such as the kind a child might appropriate from the leftovers of a moving-van. Markland use of that space would have been much more lively if she had spent time thinking about ways to incorporate that element into a metatheatrical meditation rather than assembling a collage of pop music songs that rarely seemed to apply to the mood of the moment in the play.

Linda and I saw Sarah Jones in a performance of her Bridge & Tunnel in NYC, and the gap between the Markland’s and Jones’s quality of performance and talent is enormous. I still fondly recollect the manner in which Sarah Jones managed to play a variety of roles with extraordinary dexterity. I would hope to have a chance to see her again. Markland’s performance was simply another evening of theater aspiring to be memorable, but never getting past the first whiff of possibility.

Far, far more accomplished than Markland’s staging was a one-time performance of Langston Hughes’s Ask Your Mama, It opened with a trumpet solo by Ron McCurdy, who walked out of a darkened passageway to the side of the auditorium’s seating onto the stage in a elegant, understated arrival. McCurdy led his band through the paces of a dozen or so compositions with joyful affirmation of one of Hughes’s lesser-known works.  Actor and director Malcolm-Jamal Warner read Hughes’ book-length poem. There were several very witty moments in the text. Hughes recounts Louie Armstrong being asked if he could read music. “Not enough to hurt my playing,” Armstrong replied. (That response reminds me of the section in WC Williams’s Spring & All in which the assessment of technique runs like this: “That sheet stuff’s a lot of cheese.”)

The film collage that accompanied the music and reading of the poem added little to the public performance, which was free and open to the public. I’m happy to report that the Bovard Auditorium was almost completely full. We sat in the first section of the balcony and there are were only a handful of empty sets behind us in the rear balcony.

 

Lunar Walk Poetry Reading, Brooklyn

Monday, October 7, 2013

One of my oldest friends, Harley Lond, runs a listing of video releases called “On Video” and the following notice in the most recent edition mainly caught my attention because Brad Dourif is the character voice of Chucky. Dourif recently was in a substantial run in a Broadway production of a play by Tennessee Williams, which Laurel Ann Bogen was fortunate enough to catch when she went to NYC to give a recent reading at the Cornelia Street Cafe.

Here is Harley’s description: “It’s been a quarter of a century since fans were first petrified by Toyland’s most lethal serial killer, and now Chucky is back to finish off the job he started so long ago in “Curse of Chucky” (2013), staring Fiona Dourif, A Martinez, Danielle Bisutti, Brennan Elliott and with Brad Dourif once again providing the voice of Chucky. When a mysterious package arrives at the house of Nica (Fiona Dourif), she doesn’t give it much thought. However, after her mother’s mysterious death, Nica begins to suspect that the talking, red-haired doll her visiting niece has been playing with may be the key to the ensuing bloodshed and chaos. On DVD and Blu-ray Disc from Universal.”

Now it’s my turn to head to NYC, and give a reading at the Lunar Walk poetry series in Brooklyn this coming Sunday. Another old friend, Lynn McGee, is the co-curator of the series with Gerry LaFemina. Here is the announcement that Lynn recently sent out:

Dear Friends,

Another bi-coastal reading! October 13 at 4:00 p.m., Patricia Spears Jones and Bill Mohr will read in the Lunar Walk Poetry Series at the Two Moon Art House & Cafe in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

Bill Mohr is coming all the way from Los Angeles, where he teaches in the MFA program at California State University, Long Beach, and Patricia Spears Jones, as many of you know, lives right here in Brooklyn.

Bill Mohr is known as a poet, founder of Momentum Press, and literary historian. His latest book, Hold outs, covers a pivotal time in the Los Angeles poetry scene, and was published by University of Iowa Press. Patricia Spears Jones teaches, reads, appears on panels, blogs and more—and her latest book, Painkiller: Poems, is out from Tia Chucha Press.

Our admission fee of $10 gets you a free drink, and there is an Open Mic. The Two Moon Art House & Cafe is on the east side of 4th Avenue (315 4th Avenue), between 2nd and 3rd Streets, on the edge of Park Slope, Brooklyn. If you’re coming by train, take the (R) to Union, or the (F) to 4th Avenue, and walk about four minutes up (or down, depending on which train you take) to the Café. If you’re driving, street parking is available. If you’re a teacher, encourage your students to come and read in the Open Mic. And if you’re a poet, read in it yourself!

Looking forward to seeing you on Sunday, October 13.

Sincerely,

Lynn

Lynn McGee

Co-curator, with Gerry LaFemina

Lunar Walk Poetry Series at the Two Moon Art House & Cafe

This event was funded in part by Poets & Writers, Inc., with public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.

 

“Estimated Center. Exact Center” — NYC, 1977

A Piece of Conceptual Art, NYC, 1977

In 1973 I almost moved to New York City. I spoke of my plan of living there primarily because I was more interested in theater than poetry, and NYC at that point offered the best chance for an aspiring playwright to get his work staged. (The decentralization of theater had commenced by that point, but was very much in its nascent state.) Even a brief trip to NYC, however, kept getting put off until October, 1977, when I got a table at the NYC Book Fair and gave a reading of Los Angeles poets at Bragr Times Bookstore. It was a peculiar time for a published poet and hopeful playwright to visit NYC; a fire had seriously damaged St. Mark’s Church a few months earlier and so all the activities of the Poetry Project were suspended. If alternative spaces were taking up the slack, they were not particularly visible: I spent most of my time gong to plays at night, visiting museums in the daytime, and wondering why a city that was supposed to be the center of American culture had so many unused wharfs and abandoned warehouses at its southeastern edge.

The three artists who made the biggest impression on me during my first visit to New York City in October, 1977, were Ynez Johnson, Paul Cezanne, and a conceptual artist whose name I have not been able to dig up. Let’s start with the anonymity of the last artist. I’m not sure of the exact title of the work, but it was a rectangular canvas, close enough to being square that for the purposes of this commentary, an imagined stage of 30 x 30 inches will do. There were two marks on the canvas. The card by the side of the canvas read: “Estimated center, exact center.”

I remember being rather skeptical about this particular work and saying to someone who happened to be standing near me, “I’d rather read a good novel than spend a couple hours thinking about this painting.” “Oh, I know this artist, and he reads a lot of novels.” It was an odd conversation, because I certainly wasn’t implying that I thought the artist was illiterate. I did think at the time, though, that there wasn’t a lot of depth of thought to this work of art.

Out of the several thousand paintings and works of sculpture I’ve seen since 1977, however, it is this particular piece that keeps coming to mind. It seemed to be about a spatial perception, and yet I now comprehend it to be equally about a temporal dimension. The order of the “description” of the painting suggests that the estimated center came first. How else would it be challenging to engage in this projection? The eventual question that emerged was: How long did the artist spend estimating the center? If you only get one try, and that was my understanding of this effort, then you might well spend weeks in front of the canvas, perhaps in increments of several uninterrupted meditations lasting for hours and hours. No break. No water, No grapes or almonds or berries or peanut butter on toast. Complete immersion, dedicated to eliminating any sense of periphery. And then to pick up the pencil and make one’s singular mark upon the canvas. No revision permitted. The ratio of that time to the time required to measure the “exact” center seems to be what this piece of art was trying to teach me about efforts to ascertain the center of any piece of choreography. Subjective freedom will absorb vast amounts of temporal commitment. So let every poem and act of the imagination flow from that basic premise.

“Escape by Balloon”

Monday, September 23, 2013

“Escape by Balloon”

The Burbage wasn’t the only theater group to make use of the Company Theater’s space on Robertson Boulevard. The most unusual play by a visiting troupe was called “Escape by Balloon,” which I have no program for. My guess is that it was the spring of 1972, when I was putting the finishing touches on editing the poetry section for the first issue of Bachy magazine. How long the play ran at the Company Theater I can’t be sure, but I doubt it was for more than a month. It was an ensemble-oriented effort, though, intriguing enough that I went to see it a second time. The “plot” line (what there was of it) clustered its images around a plan by some captured soliders in the War Between the States to escape from their prison by making use of a balloon. At some point about three-fourths of the way through the play, each character was asked what they would be willing to give up. The second time I saw the play, on the final night of its run, one of the members of the troupe said to the others, “I’m giving up this role,” and walked off-stage, but not before turning to the audience and inquiring, “Anyone want to take my place?” There was a pause. Whatever any character in the play had recited in any earlier performance of the play had obviously never been as radical as this gesture. No one in the audience responded to the gap in the performance for about 90 seconds. Then I stood up and walked onto the stage, a sudden stranger in the midst of an unforeseen escape. I had seen the play and so I knew where it was headed: from that point on, the character who left did not have any dialogue, but primarily moved in a slow dance towards an imagined culmination. I rode home on my motorcycle that night, certain that something beyond my control had guided me to the theater that night and would continue to accompany me, in all the guises and ruses that an artistic life requires of its celebrants.

 

 

 

 

 

Two Theater Companies in Los Angeles

September 22, 2013

TWO THEATER COMPANIES IN LOS ANGELES

When I moved to Los Angeles, I was more interested in theater than poetry. The most important theater company in the city back then was the Company Theater, located on Robertson Boulevard south of Olympic Boulevard. This troupe of actors and actresses understood better than anyone else in Los Angeles how to empower the “empty space” that Peter Brooks had proposed as the only sine qua non for theater. They also fit the prevalent pattern of being the senior segment of young people who were revising cultural expectations for avant-garde activity. Although the category of “baby boomers” gets more frequently cited in this period, the cultural reality of the 1960s and the first year or two of the 1970s was that young people born between 1940 and 1945 were the primary instigators of alternative artistic communities. One of leading actors in the Company Theater, for instance, was Gar Campbell, who was born in 1943 (11/9/43), just a few days after Sam Shepard (11/5/43).

It’s my understanding that Campbell went to the University of Southern California, where he met most of the people with whom he would go on to create the Company Theater, after which he founded and directed plays at the Pacific Resident Theater. The USC connection with the Company Theater goes past the undergraduate terms of its founding members. Laurel Ann Bogen may have been the first poet in Los Angeles to have seen the troupe, since she says they returned to campus to take part in an orientation week presentation in the fall of 1967. USC wanted to showcase the up-and-coming troupe as an example of the intrepidity of their recent graduates and Bogen’s life-long foray in poetry’s underground probably was kindled by the celebratory energy of Company Theater; Bogen herself became involved with the group in the second half of the 1970s, founding the Los Angeles Poets’ Theater at their venue as a way of trying to revive their depleted circumstances.

Although I attended and enjoyed the undulant sensuality of their early signature rite of passage, “The James Joyce Liquid Memorial Theater,” the play that hurled an image into my permanent definition of theater was “The Emergence.” Several characters who seemed to be jovial versions of the knight in Bergman’s “Seventh Seal” were off on a quest: suddenly the theater went dark. When the lights came up, we in the audience could barely see the actors stretched out on their backs on the floor of the stage, the backlit tips of their boots protruding past a long, slightly curved board that was as far downstage as possible. The heads of each character were tilted up off the stage floor; each character peered “down” at us, each of whom in the small theater (which perhaps held 90 people) had a profound sense that suddenly we were at the bottom of a deep well, and that what the actors were seeing were these odd characters peering back at them with awkward expectation of being recognized as exactly what we were: illuminated, puzzled beings, tussled into their story. Never before, and never quite to that extent since, have I felt as if the audience was so profoundly integrated into the mise-en-scene.

The Company Theater went on to produce a considerable number of plays, especially by Michael McClure, with whom later I would have the privilege of studying at Padua Hills. One of the twenty most startling performances I have ever seen in any theater was by Gar Campbell, whose enactment of the mania of “Spider Rabbit” at the Company Theater on Robertson Blvd. still reverberates in my mind. One of the other plays the Company staged at their original digs was Lance Larsen’s “The Hashish Club,” which was derived from Theophile Gautier’s “Le Club des Hachichins” (1846). I saw the play before it moved to New York and had a very brief run at the Bijoux Theater in January, 1975. Gar Campbell, Lance Larsen, Dennis Redfield, Jack Rowe and Michael Stefani comprised the cast. The one-sheet program for the production in Los Angeles prominently acknowledges Trish Soodik as the person whose idea of an adaptation was the original impetus. Soodik was a very fine and courageous actress who was brilliant in a production of McClure’s The Grabbing of the Fairy. Soodik died a couple years ago and you can still read the blog of her final months. Her first husband, novelist and scriptwriter Henry Bromell, also recently died. In addition to acting, Soodik was herself a playwright. I regret not having a chance to see her play, “The 60s,” at the Pacific Resident Theater on Venice Boulevard.

I can’t recall the specific reasons that the Company Theater found itself with an open enough schedule to sublet its venue, but a theater troupe that had started in Hermosa Beach in the late 1960s found refuge on Robertson Boulevard in the early seventies. The Burbage Theater Company, headed up by Sal Romeo, had run into conflicts with the local police in Hermosa Beach and given up its venue rather than endure harassment for putting on plays such as Rochelle Owens’s Futz. Finding another theater to work in was less than easy, and so it eventually borrowed the Company Theater’s space for a production of Paul Foster’s Tom Paine. The Burbage also staged Ionesco’s Exit the King for a brief run at the Company Theater. Theater company rarely thrive as houseguests, however, and fortunately the Century City Playhouse on Pico Boulevard became available for a lease. At that point I joined the Burbage as it slowly pulled together its first production in Rancho Park, The Devils.