Friday, April 27, 2007

What's the new news?

April's e-newsletter should be hitting inboxes as I write this. Any loyal blog-readers won't be surprised by any of the updates, though if any of you aren't already on our mailing list, sign up right now!

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Festive post #100

While we're not likely going to be throwing a "100th Post Party," we nonetheless have some exciting news to share. The line-up and dates for the Pretentious Festival, the most important theater festival on earth, have been announced. We're very excited to aspire to the pretension of such fellow participants as Mr. Ian W. Will and Mr. Trav SD (both of whom I interviewed on the blog during the leadup to Kill Me Like You Mean It).

In a daring attempt to rival Moliere's greatest work and single-handedly revive the tradition of Commedia dell'Arte, Stolen Chair presents Commedia dell'Artemisia, a masked farce in rhyming couplets, satirizing the controversial rape trial of Italian Renaissance painter Artemisia Gentileschi. As the teenage virtuosa Artemisia tries to escape the clutches of her miserly father, she becomes entwined with Agostino Tassi, a master painter and criminal who would rather screw than woo. Transforming these complex historical figures into commedia stock characters, Stolen Chair irreverently eviscerates history, hypocrisy, rape, romance, art and artifice.

The production will perform on Sun 6/17 @ 2:30pm and Fri 6/29 @ 7pm at the Brick Theater. (...and, in case you've forgotten, between those two performances, Kinderspiel will have a staged reading at the Ohio Theatre as part of Soho Think Tank's 6th Floor Series on June 24th!)

To gear up for the piece, I'm thinking about launching a Commedia dell'Arte interview series on the blog and maybe even bring in an art historian to guest-blog about the historical background on which the play is based. In the meantime, I leave you with our research page and this link.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

99 bottles of beer on the blog

Yep. We're up to post 99. You're all invited to celebrate #100 with us as we commemorate the momentous occasion by proceeding with business as usual...

Now to turn this into a real post:

After last week's scheduling snafu, we finally had our first post-retreat rehearsal for Kinderspiel today. Here's what we learned:
  • Our threshold for boredom is extremely high. I was worried that in the work we were doing, we would be challenged to give ourselves permission to push past the place when repeated tasks, games, and play grow dull, but I just don't think we're ever going to get bored.
  • 15 minutes of improvised play can be easily repeated. I gave a simple scenario to be explored. 5 actors would pretend to be asleep. I would tap 2 while their eyes were closed. When I clapped my hands, they were all to wake-up. The tapped actors would playact as giants and the other 3 as kids. I just let the improv roll for 15 minutes on camera. Afterwards, we talked about the inner logic that people were using to explain their role in the playworld and we collaboratively narrated the improv as a Grimm's fairy tale; it was no more or less absurd than any of those tales. I asked them to repeat the improv without losing the sense of spontaneity and discovery, and it ran 14 minutes and 40 seconds...the only thing that really distinguishes the two improvs on tape is that I stupidly tried to zoom in and frame shots in #2, basically meaning I lost most of the action.
  • You can't MC unless you know your audience. Intuitive though it may seem to be, it did not occur to us that it would be difficult Alexia to experiment with the role of master conferencier without giving her any background on the fictional audience to which she was pandering.
  • In developmental work, failed exercises are just as useful as successful ones. Like any other laboratory group, sometimes we put an idea out there that falls so miserably flat that we just mop it under the risers and pretend it never happened. In Kinderspiel, however, these exercises are just as important to the feedback loop, and today, one of my (overly ambitious and complicated) activities flopped but nevertheless yielded some of the day's most productive advances.
After the day's highs and lows, we headed over to Sympathy for the Kettle to guzzle some tea and sort out how we should proceed. The current formula:
  1. Videotaped improvisation of a simple scenario (i.e. 2 giants and 3 kids wake up in the same space)
  2. Group discussion of the improv's kids-logic and literary tropes
  3. Before the next rehearsal, Kiran prepares a draft of the improv, rewriting it to reference said tropes more clearly, weave into societal analogues, metaphors, and morals, and add narration for the MC.
  4. Try to fuse the original improv with the new text without losing the spirit of spontaneity.
  5. Create an embarrassing video montage and post it on youtube (Optional)
At some point in the not too distant future, we're also going to need to begin kinderspieling as Weimar characters instead of as ourselves. We'll probably have the actors research photos and histories to develop a character and then see how these characters can play together.

Assuming that the final "product" for which we're shooting will be a sort of neverending story in which characters, props, and space continually transform to become new characters, props, and space, we need to explore what happens to the kinderspielers when they are not actively involved in the moment's play. Do they sit down and play cards and drink beer? Do they break-off into smaller groups and parallel play until their play intersects with the narrative again? I think we'll actually have to kind of reverse-engineer this: for the time being we'll just have people leave the stage and then, once we figure out how they'll need to reintegrate into the narrative, we'll find something for them to do onstage that can develop into the role they will need to serve in the story.

Simple, right? We'll see how this all goes...

The mean bone in our body

A few weeks ago, Kiran and I got quite a thrill listening to the new cast (featuring Stolen Chair's evil genius* set designer David Bengali, Stage Kiss's Layna Fisher, and SCTC resident actors Cameron Oro and Liza Wade White) read through Commedia dell'Artemisia for the first time. It's fast, it's funny, and it's filled with vitriol, like the sort they used to fling at those medieval-soldier-types as they tried to scale the castle's keep. As cynical as KMLYMI was, we have never since created anything that is as downright mean as Commedia... And I don't mean "mean-spirited" or "negative," I mean "ruthlessly and unapologetically nasty."

But it's funny. And it's really delightful. And it's mean-ingful.

As we've begun to rehearse the piece, it's been a treat allowing ourselves to forget the production's last incarnation and build the new production from the ground up, allowing the new performers to fully own these characters. The only moment that I would have been tempted to keep, I had to reimagine anyway, as Cameron doesn't quite have the circus-chops to do the front flip that Jon Campbell used to do just before the rape scene...oh, and speaking of rape scene: this sweet and innocent li'l comedy of ours actually has the stage direction "He rapes her."

The piece is rather magical insofar as it pretty much stages itself. Once an ensemble can get used to sharing the mask with the audience and figures out how to clearly demarcate each state change (similar to beat changes, except each one is played to 11, as they say in Spinal Tap, and they happen in rapid succession and seemingly without internal motivation), moments seem to flow logically from each other.

While we certainly had comic bits and business in the Stampede Fest version of the piece in early 2005, Jon Campbell and I (who had trained in classical improvised commedia) were disappointed that we didn't let any extended lazzi develop. While in lots of places, these lazzi would conflict with the timing of Kiran's couplets, I'm really eager to find at least 3 or 4 places where we can just run free of the text for a few minutes. That said, I know that can't happen until we have total security in the skeleton of the piece, something we were never able to achieve in the compressed developmental process for version 1.0.

Kiran's actually setting out to tinker with the script a bit for version 2.0, but it's certainly not going to be anything close to the overhaul that happened between Stages Kiss 2003 and Stage Kiss 2006 (which, as those who caught both know: had NOTHING in common!). She's probably just going to punch up some of the less punchy lines and maybe add a little bit more interaction between Tuzia (Artemisia's neighbor/surrogate mother) and Orazio (Artemisia's dad) and/or Tuzia and Tassi (Artemisia's tutor/rapist). We're tossing around the idea of reworking the ending so that the double-casting (the actress who plays Artemisia also plays the judge) can be a product of the plotting itself, but we still need to let that idea incubate a bit more before it hatches...

Can't wait until next rehearsal on's ladies night: just Liza and Layna. :)

*David is not, in fact, evil. But he is, in fact, a genius. I'm not kidding. And even if he wasn't a genius (which he is), he looks enough like a genius to pass as one.

Putting the "fun" back into annual fundraising drive...

It begins: that time of year when Stolen Chair ever-so-subtly asks you to dig deep into your pockets to support one of NYC's most ambitious indie theatre companies (that's us!).

We'll be sending out our fancy-pants trifold brochures and solicitation letters next week, but if you're ready to contribute now, you can save a few saplings and donate now.

For those who want to maximize their gift and minimize the impact this gift has on their wallets, we've introduced recurring monthly donations.

Visit this instant and we'll try to make this whole fundraiser thing as quick and painless as possible.

Old press is good press

"...twists truth and lies into a theatrical pretzel that circles around itself for 90 tight, funny minutes."

Check out Jeff Lott's review of Kill Me Like You Mean It and profile of Stolen Chair in the March issue of the Swarthmore Alumni Bulletin.

Available in pretty .pdf or humble .html...


For the first time in Stolen Chair's history, we're rehearsing two pieces simultaneously.

How did this happen?

As some of you may remember from an earlier posting ("Alma Mater Matters"), we were invited to bring a piece to Swarthmore College's 2007 Alumni Weekend Reunion. Not only will this be our first time bringing a piece to a college campus, it will be Kiran and my 5 year college reunion and the 5th anniversary of Stolen Chair's founding. Oh, the nostalgia!

We spent a long time thinking about what piece to bring to the event and had to consider two major factors:
  1. Mood: The spirit of most colleges' alumni weekends is usually pretty rowdy, so we had to knock The Man Who Laughs out of the running, figuring most alums wouldn't appreciate a tearjerker at 5pm on a Saturday, right before they head off to a party to hook-up with their freshman flame. We assumed that something with a libidinous streak would pair nicely with our audience's energy, leaving us with Stage Kiss and Commedia dell'Artemisia.
  2. Time: Though we could technically perform a piece of any length, doing so would likely mean alienating a majority of alums from our audience as most like to bounce from activity to activity. Stage Kiss hovers at about 90 minutes, so Commedia dell'Artemisia (gliding just past the 45 minute mark) seemed the natural choice.
Commedia dell'Artemisia??? What's that?!

Short answer (otherwise known as a blurb, in this case the ultra-pretentious blurb we submitted with our application for the Brick's Pretentious Festival): In a daring attempt to rival Moliere's greatest work and single-handedly revive the tradition of Commedia dell'Arte, Stolen Chair presents Commedia dell'Artemisia, a masked farce in rhyming couplets, satirizing the controversial rape trial of Italian Renaissance painter Artemisia Gentileschi. As the teenage virtuosa Artemisia tries to escape the clutches of her miserly father, she becomes entwined with Agostino Tassi, a master painter and criminal who would rather screw than woo. Transforming these complex historical figures into commedia stock characters, Stolen Chair irreverently eviscerates history, hypocrisy, rape, romance, art and artifice.

Long answer: Well, in 2004, Stolen Chair created (and self-produced) a piece called Virtuosa, a collective creation freely inspired by the lives and work of three female painters of the Italian Renaissance: Sofonisba Anguissola, Lavinia Fontana, and Artemisia Gentileschi. The play was a collage of different styles, one of them being a 10-minute long commedia dell'arte inspired farce in rhyming couplets, superimposing commedia stock characters onto the real life historical figures of Artemisia Gentileschi, her father (painter Orazio Gentileschi), the man she accused of rape (painter Agostino Tassi), and the neighbor who acted as a procuress (Tuzia). The piece let us throw our voices as Moliere, taking on the sexual hypocrisy inherent in the trial's original controversy and the equally hypocitical ways Artemesia's story was reclaimed by the feminist movement.

Later that year, Stolen Chair wanted to apply to the much-lauded Stampede Festival (produced by Feed the Herd Theatre Company), but we didn't have a new piece up our sleeve. We sent the festival's producer the 10-minutes of Commedia that we cannibalized from Virtuosa and we were accepted. Great! Except...we got this news just before X-mas and opening night was the first weekend in February. We had no cast and no script. The only reason we even had masks was because I was currently teaching a 10-week Commedia dell'Arte course for 9th graders.

Kiran put together a script by the new year, we found a terrific cast and somehow, over the course of our briefest rehearsal period ever (20 hours spread over 3 weeks plus about a half-dozen hours of tech, at best!), we managed to put on a show that was well-received (sold out all performances except for Super Bowl Sunday) and finally allowed us to make Martin Denton's acquaintance. Oh, and did I mention I was in it? Yep, the first and last time that I tried to direct and perform.

But now, over 3 years after the zygotic version of the piece first appeared, we decided it would climb out of rep for a one-night stand at Swarthmore College with an all-new all-star cast. It seemed a shame to get the show all tarted up for just one night out on the town, so we applied to the Brick's Pretentious Festival and we were accepted for two performances in June.

So, we are busy as Brighella (sorry, commedia reference) getting the piece back on its feet and it is a blast, if only because this time I get to sit back and watch all of the proceedings without having to put my actor cap on.


Today we also had the first post-retreat rehearsal of Kinderspiel. Blurb? Sure: Set in the demimonde of Weimar Berlin, one cabaret offers access to the ultimate taboo: watching adults play as children. Stolen Chair presents the world's greatest children's story, told exclusively for an adult audience. After all, why should childhood be wasted on the young? Kinderspiel was accepted into Soho Think Tank's 6th Floor Series for a staged reading on June 25, and will enjoy a full run at UNDER St. Marks in late September.

It is exhilarating (for me, at least) to have these rehearsals back-to-back. I can actually feel myself becoming a better theatre-maker by virtue of the quick gear-shifting I have to do, allowing me to become more aware of the elements of my directorial identity that are project/style specific and those that are tied to my overall vision of theatre-making.

I'll be blogging about both of these pieces at length either tonight or tomorrow morning...

Blogger's block

So, I think this stretch of blog-silence has been the longest since post #1. Why? Well, for starters, I haven't yet figured out the blogging balancing act of juggling this blog and my personal food blog ("Three Little Truffle Pigs"). A more thrilling answer, perhaps, is that Stolen Chair is currently in the midst of much excitement: 2 shows, our annual fundraiser drive, grant frenzy, our first college tour, our first festival appearance since early 2005, and more.

In the next few hours, I'll try to break this all down into a handful of shorter blog postings...

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Child by proxy

In 1st grade we had something called the Miss Piggy Contest. For each book we read, we received a Miss Piggy sketch that we cut out and glue-sticked (or is that glue-stuck?) to our composition notebooks. The first grader with the most Miss Piggy pages won. Ever the deal-maker, I convinced my teacher that since I was reading Hardy Boys and other big chapter books while everyone else was reading picture books, I deserved two stickers for each book. I easily overwhelmed the competition and won the grand prize of...a composition book filled with Miss Piggy pages. That's it.

In the past few weeks, I've been reading nearly as feverishly as during my golden Miss Piggy days, but instead of burning my way through books a few years ahead of my reading level (wouldn't it be great if adults had a "reading level?" Judith Butler writing for a 35-year old reading level? Salman Rushdie for the 45-55 set?) , I've been devouring children's literature so I can begin to get a handle on the tropes. I'm proud to announce I've read every last fairy and household tale of the Brothers Grimm and just finished the last delightful page of Dahl's BFG.

So, what did I learn?

Well, in most of the great children's literature I've been reading, from Dahl to Grimm to Kastner to Snicket to Carroll, the child protagonists don't actually think in kid-logic. The kids are usually very down-to-earth, pragmatic, sensible, and fully socialized, with flights of fancy few and far between. And yet, the fictional worlds in these works always seem to follow the rules of kid-logic: wildly unimaginable (to adults, at least) events occur spontaneously (and yet organically) and are accepted without question. What's particularly brilliant and insidious about the work of Kastner and Snicket is that this frighteningly unpredictable world with unstable rules is not some fictional wonderland, but the actual world. And actually, even the most fanciful elements of the work of Grimm and Dahl and Carroll are still fully in dialogue (sometimes fabulously anachronistically so) with the authors' contemporary worlds. In one of the Grimm's tales, a talking sausage has been sent to go cut wood to bring home for his friends the mouse and the bird (yes it is an AMAZING story!) and is devoured by a hungry dog who later justifies his actions by saying the sausage wasn't carrying the appropriate travel documents.

Now, how a child protagonist resolves her conflict with the absurdist worlds she encounters reveals quite a bit about a book's overall message. In some of the pieces (think Alice and Wendy), the protagonist expends all of her energy trying to make the nonsensical land conform. In others (think of Snicket's Violet Baudelaire, Kastner's Emil and Dahl's Sophie), the children are forced (usually under threat of real danger) to accept the world as it is; in abandoning their conformity they usually find the solution to their dilemma. One model bespeaks the child's struggle to master her own inner absurdist in order to transition to the adult world, the other validates the child's "special" modes of cognition and creativity.

This is interesting to me. Very. But it also brings me to another point. The tensions between the adult world (represented by child) and the child world (as represented by proxies, be they giants, witches or what-have-yous) are most often articulated (even in the Grimm's stories) by a wry omniscient narrator.

Now I struggle: how can we commit to creating a world of group fantasy and show its interaction with the everyday without such a narrative presence? And if we have one, how can that narrator be present without undercutting the world of play?


All right. You all ponder; I'm off to try to get 2005's Commedia dell'Artemisia back on its feet with an all-new cast...