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Dancescapes NJ - The Video

Passage Theatre's Producer, Kacy O'Brien, speaks about Dancescapes NJ!

Tossing Stones to Change an Entire Landscape

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CHANGE STARTS SMALL...RIGHT?

We have seen time and again that small pockets of people, when seized with an idea, can come together and with the right leadership, momentum, and tools can affect change.Change often starts with one person and a vision. If we want to be part of the “cultural zeitgeist, actively addressing the social inequities in our country” and reach “exponentially greater numbers of people,” as Diane Ragsdale suggests,then we need to do it in our backyards. That may sound counter-intuitive—“ to reach more people stay close to home”—but in my experience thus far as an early-career theatre producer, it seems to be the only way we’ll stay relevant to our respective communities. In addition, cultural institutions need to have the room to try out ideas that are related to our missions, but not bound by them. That is not a new idea, by any stretch, but I think if we’re able to consider programming—not funding (though we could use that, too!)—in terms of venture capitalism, we may see large equity returns by way of audience growth, community partnerships and social relevance.

We talk a lot about relevance to our communities in the arts sector, particularly in regional institutions, and I think that the future of arts institutions and artists would benefit greatly from pursuing high-potential, high-risk programmatic change—what I’ll dub “venture capital projects.” The more venture capital projects in a community, the broader the reach of the arts institution, and the higher impact we can have because we belong to our audiences and community partners. I’ve seen this happen at the theatre I work for (Passage Theatre in Trenton, NJ) due to the leadership of Executive Artistic Director June Ballinger. June’s modus operandi is to bring people of culturally diverse backgrounds together under one roof, which she does along with producing new plays.

In my tenure there, June has taken programmatic risks that many would not in a down economy. In 2010, June and our Associate Artistic Director/Resident Playwright David Lee White created an interview-based play about Trenton called Trenton Lights. We knew the piece couldn’t possibly have wide-spread appeal or life after Passage, but the local community buy-in was exceptional and audience attendance sky-rocketed because audiences felt ownership over the stories and Trenton. From the interviews and audience response to Trenton Lights came a realization that the vast Latino community in Trenton was fairly isolated in their cultural experiences, attending programs that were hosted only by various Latino organizations and rarely venturing outside that sphere. June subsequently decided to bring to Passage a bi-lingual documentary theatre piece on youth immigration and gang warfare called De Novo:Más allá de las Fronteras by Jeffrey Solomon and Houses on the Moon Theatre Company.

Political work can often be viewed as a programmatic death wish, but the response from the Latino community—and from Passage’s regular patrons—was overwhelming. Attendance was high, new patrons came through our doors, and the talkbacks were rich and emotional. Local problem-solving entered the discourse and Latino community members made connections with politically active citizens of Trenton, which resulted in joint presentations before City Council. Houses on the Moon Theatre Company was invited to perform De Novo at both at a local high school and college within six months of their show at Passage, reaching even broader audiences.

Broadening reach can also come by harnessing the passions of employees: June learned of my passion for environmental conservation and handed me a project that bloomed into an unprecedented collaboration between Passage and seven environmental organizations across the state of New Jersey. For three years, Passage presented an environmentally-themed work along with events from our partner organizations. Artist workshops, school performances, panels, and community performances throughout our county and beyond helped to bring the message of conservation to life, to areas of our community that are often never exposed to environmental and social justice information of this type, and got community members in the door who never come to theatre.

Putting our resources toward programmatic risk-taking at the local level has helped Passage stay socially relevant to our community, created space for civil discourse and public/private/social sector partnerships, and we’ve extended our reach and public awareness of what we do. Most arts institutions aren’t nationally recognized, but we don’t need to be—that would diffuse our impact. Within our communities we can be potent, viable, and beloved. Thankfully, community foundations and innovation labs such as EmcArts are making this possible. Arts institutions won’t be able to serve all of our communities all of the time, but if the majority of arts institutions serve many parts of our community in ways that matter, together we will be tossing the small stones needed to change an entire landscape.

Why Theatre? I'll Tell You Whether You Like It Or Not..

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By Ian August, Guest Blogger


               When the folks who run the Passage Theatre Company suggested I pen a blog for their website to promote the upcoming Solo Flights production of my new play, Donna Orbits the Moon (March 9th, 10th and 11th), I was honored by their reluctant request.  There are very few people within the theatrical community who respect my opinions enough to have me put them down on paper; and fewer still that would allow those thoughts to be displayed in a public forum (Weehauken Ukrainian Community Players, I’m talkin’ to you jerks).  These brave theatricians know how truly dedicated I am to the cause of dramatic discourse, and that I am devoted to the art and craft of playmaking, despite my often debilitating propensity to ingest large quantities of Mountain Dew and peanut brittle prior to performances.  
               Why, may you ask, am I such a devotee of the theatrical arts? Well, you may ask.  And I may answer.  But in answering, and also to uphold the grand traditions of the controversial dramatist, I offer you the following hypothesis:
 
               Dame Judi Dench should not have been cast as Rachel’s new duet partner on Glee.
 
               I know I know I know what you’re thinking—it’s Dame Judi Dench. The woman could play a soccer cleat and get an Oscar nod for it—why shouldn’t she be appropriate for the role of Alyssa, the high school freshman with a bookish personality and a big voice?  Why shouldn’t she be a potential love interest for Artie (Alyssa is also treasurer of the school AV Club, where they met), and throw Kurt’s newfound sexuality out of joint?  Doesn’t she have the sex appeal—the star appeal—to be on one of Fox’s highest rated musical teen comedies (second only to Step, the musical teen marching band comedy which features Jennifer Aniston as first chair flute and Kelsey Grammar as an irate parent who refuses his son to play sousaphone)?  Can’t Judi Dench carry a show like Glee to new heights?
 
               The answer is no.  And before you ask (because I know you--you will), I’ll tell you why.
               
               Glee has made a name for itself by taking real life situations, distorting them to within an inch of plausibility, and wrapping them in showtunes and bubblegum pop music .  Judi Dench doesn’t do bubblegum pop—she is an artist; with a career spanning from reggae to opera, with no stops in between (a fact that anyone would know if they listened to her latest album, Rigoletto’s Chronic, produced by Jay Z and Sean “Puffy” Combs).  The only thing close to pop music she’s ever performed was that ill fated duet with Justin Bieber (“Baby Baby Baby Baby Baby Baby”) which gave us the lyric: “You never shook my Snooki boo / I ain’t potatoes into you.”  Disastrous.  I might concede if the show took place in a haunted house—or even in the kitchen of a college cafeteria—but this strange cross cultural marriage of teen angst and high art will never survive the Neilsen families’ gin-soaked scrutiny.
 
               Secondly, this Glee show (if you could call it that) has singlehandedly reclaimed musical theater for the cool kids—allowing anyone to believe that they, too, could be popular if they belt out Andrew Lloyd Webber—even as they wet the bed.  Despite her lazy eye and tendency to blurt out obscenities, the grandeur of Dame Judi can’t be contained within this flimsy premise.    If they renamed the show “Alyssa!” and Dame Judi was permitted to perform to the full extent of her abilities (I’m speaking, of course, of her fifty-seven years of Tibetan Swing Dance training), then I would say it has a shot at success. But you and I both know that the writers of television are nothing if not bound by convention, and if her true talents made it into a script, they would just screw it up by reprising Gwyneth Paltrow’s role as the homeless nanny with a heart of gold, and Dame Judi wouldn’t get the recognition she so rightly deserved anyway.
 
               Lastly, and most importantly of all, Dame Judi Dench would NEVER date a character like Artie.  I mean, didn’t you see how insensitive he was about Tina’s speech impediment?  What a jerk, you know?  Totally. And taking the role of Rachel’s new duet partner can only serve to shadow the great and terrible talent of Lea Michele, who burst onto the scene with her Streisand-esque mastery of American song, deflated only slightly by her recent drunk driving arrests, numerous plastic surgeries and Youtube sex tape with (a highly underrated) Jack Black.  Come on, TV writers—get something RIGHT for once!
 
               So let me reiterate.  Judi Dench and Glee—two halves that only make up three quarters.  
               
               I understand that there may be nay sayers among you who say, predictably, “nay.”  There was a time I might have felt as you do.  But this is the nature of television politics.  This is the direction that the television executives and producers and executive producers and Stephen Spielberg want you to go.  It is the raging river, and we are all expected to jump in, grab the nearest log and hold on for dear life, even as we careen toward reruns of Two and a Half Men.  
               
               But there is a choice.  A choice unfettered by the whims of the Neilsen families, the advertisers, the studio heads.  The choice of LIVE THEATER; a place where the artists are permitted to ignore the ebb and flow of pop culture and delve deeper than any CBS sitcom or reality show dares to delve.  Theater, where men are men, and women are sometimes also men, and men are sometimes puppets or pretending to be animals. You have the choice of turning off that television, getting in your car, and seeing something real, something true—something that may or may not involve ghosts coming back to haunt tragic Elizabethan college students, but still so much truer than anything you’ll ever see onThe Bachelor. Here, at the theater, we trade in pop culture for just... culture.  And we are all the better for it.  
             This is why I love theater.  That, and some of the ushers are HOT.
               
               So come to the theater.  Enjoy it.  
               And if you’re that worried about missing Modern Family, TiVo it.            

-- Ian August, March 2012

PUNCHKAPOW! If I were a Superhero, I could...

 

Have you ever thought, “If only I was a superhero I could…”

…Open a bag of cereal without it exploding all over the kitchen.

…Avoid having to do all these stupid jumping jacks and pushups to stay in shape.

…Have an entourage of sidekicks who’d back me up in any fight – be it a master villain or my boss

…Tell my best friend…

Last year at precisely this time I saw a piece of theatre that I fell utterly in love with: Punchkapow! by Team Sunshine Corporation.  It wasn’t just the humor, or the stunning fight choreography, or the tequila – like, cheap tequila – that made it exciting..  What knocked my socks off was the craft of it.  Without knowing what would happen in the play, I knew with perfect clarity that the ending would have the power to both devastate and uplift me. The best example I can give to illustrate what I mean by “craft” was my experience reading John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany for the first time at the age of fifteen.  For anyone who is familiar with Irving’s novels you know they are sublimely ridiculous and none more so than Owen Meany.  While reading it, I fell in love with the characters but didn’t understand why the narrator’s finger had to be cut off, or why the narrator and Owen practiced launching Owen into the air to slam dunk a basketball for hours every day, but I knew it was important – I could feel it.  And when the final, beautiful, tragic moment arrived everything came together; I saw how Irving had so carefully constructed the story to get to this moment, how this was the only possible ending for the book, and how everything that came before finally made sense in the nonsensical world Irving had created.

I got the same feeling as soon as the actors in Punchkapow! entered the stage.  This is a dude’s play…and a chick’s play.  It is surprising and laugh-out-loud funny.  I felt like I was hanging out with two of my best guy friends – you know, nice guys who are a little ridiculous because they spend hours pretending to be superheroes pretending to beat the snot out of each other…which is really fun to watch, actually. 

One of them has a secret.

I thought I knew the secret early on, but the actors and director so expertly danced around it that when I finally realized the secret was not at all what I’d assumed I felt, in a visceral way, the same shift in perspective that I experienced reading along as Owen Meany was launched into the air for his one, final heroic act.  For me, this is a play about friendship in the 21st century, about the ways we reach for people we cannot touch and the ways we touch people we think we cannot reach.

It’s awesome to see to actors on stage who have so much fun and I can’t wait to share it with everyone here. Love to hear your thoughts! Let's chat on Facebook or email me..

 

Kacy   This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

The Concept: Bringing Ideas to Life

The coolest part of my job is the design and production process – the part that happens behind closed doors months in advance of audiences walking into our theatre to see a play. I often get asked about this seemingly Masonic period of time when the director, designers, technicians and I are hunkered down figuring what the heck things are going to look like, sound like, feel like; I could give you a timeline of what happens when…but timelines are BORING! So instead I thought I’d share fresh experiences from the show we’ve got on Stage in November – THE HISTORY OF LIGHT. This is the first blog in a four part series that will take you through the design process leading up to the first performance, by plunking you down smack in the middle of design meetings. Ready?

PART I: THE CONCEPT

history-of-light-revised

It’s early August, a warm summer evening – muggy, actually. I’m sitting at June’s kitchen table and we’re intently peering at the five little video feeds on my laptop that show each of our designers and our director in their homes in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York. It is our first design meeting – the “concept” meeting where we talk in big ideas, big themes, and images about the play.

What’s remarkable is not that we’re doing this via Skype (the first design meeting I’ve conducted this way), but that, unlike any other concept meeting I’ve been at before, everyone’s landing on the same ideas, feeding off of each other, riffing on what the sound designer says about texture, or the costume designer says about color and light. It’s a playful piece, The History of Light by Eisa Davis; we move in and out of time, dreams, memories – one moment we’re in the 1960s, the next 2002, the next the early eighties. We’re talking about how old faded photographs often have one color that remains vibrant, how our memories of times past are often viewed through the lens of old photographs – “Do you remember that red sweater Aunt Marnie always used to wear? I always picture her that way when I think of her…” We’re talking about how songs and the color of light can immediately transport us to a different time and place; how fluid this play is as it weaves through time and space, and how the design team can support that physically. What kind of set will help the actors change locations instantly? We all agree projections will help with the fluidity immensely. Then, the costume designer says, “I’m not sure why, but every time I read The History of Light, I think of The Glass Menagerie.”

Immediately, the videos fall silent. A second later everyone – literally everyone – is agreeing whole-heartedly: it’s the nostalgia, how we see things the way we want to, the fragile dreams and the heartbreak and how we heal after a dream has been broken, how we make ourselves whole again… The words are flying through my tinny speakers and then I watch as five little videos show our designers and director each with their own dog-eared copy of Tennessee Williams’ classic in their hands. Jade, our director, reads a portion of the opening stage directions aloud, describing the set, the house that the Wingfields live in:

The scene is memory and is therefore non-realistic. Memory takes a lot of poetic licence. It omits some details; others are exaggerated, according to the emotional value of the articles it touches, for memory is seated predominantly in the heart. The interior is therefore rather dim and poetic.

The entire story of the glass figurines and fabled gentleman caller are viewed through Tom, the narrator’s eyes. The journey that SOPH is on in The History of Light is similar – the worlds we follow her through are from her perspective, her memories. From that one comment by our designer, that one quote from Williams’ masterpiece, we have a synthesis in the design concept: it’s SOPH’s story and the lights, the costumes, the playground of a set will be as she envisions and remembers them and will have a distinct feeling from the “reality” of the present time.  

With that realization, the designers and the director are elated, some have already started sketching while we talk schedule and logistics for our next meeting; some are clicking away on their computers pulling up images, colors, and other research for inspiration. When we meet next, we’ll have sketches, ground plans, color palettes and where we’ll run into the practicalities of design, where we’ll struggle with what we’d like to do and what we can afford to do. The next phases brings us to the point where we decide to “throw out the babies”, but keep the bathwater: we toss the physical ideas that are less interesting but keep the concept until we find a baby that’s just the right size to fit in the tub.

 

See you in Part II: STROKE OF GENIUS, where practical challenges lead to surprising artistic solutions.

-Kacy