You know it's going to be a good day when, during the morning commute, you spot a familiar face on the front page of the New York Times entertainment section.
Taking Over made its world premiere on Berkeley Rep's Thrust Stage in January. Created and performed by Danny Hoch and directed by Berkeley Rep Artistic Director Tony Taccone, it received raves from critics here. Those great reviews helped springboard the piece to other theatres around the country, where Danny and Tony have continued to collect the highest praise.
On Friday night, Taking Over opened at The Public Theater in New York. The Public, you may recall, was the theatre with whom Berkeley Rep partnered to bring Passing Strange to New York, and ultimately, to Broadway.
And then, today and yesterday, the reviews hit:
“A sustained tour de force… the fiery polemical portrait gallery of a play [contains] pulsing, seamless studies of character clashing with context, of people learning to sink or swim in suddenly unfamiliar waters… Mr. Hoch is a specialist in placing invisible people in the line of vision of folks who might otherwise never see them. Marion has too much pride to yell, ‘Look at me!,’ but her creator is happy to raise his voice – loudly and raucously – on her behalf, by bringing her and her spiritual kin into being. The extravagantly talented Mr. Hoch has been channeling the restless souls of the dispossessed and the marginalized since the early 1990s, becoming a boiling one-man melting pot in shows like Some People and Jails, Hospitals and Hip-Hop. Now he is insisting that attention be paid to the endangered species to which Marion belongs. That’s the hard-core group of New Yorkers in Williamsburg, of varying ethnicity and slender means, who have come under siege from a growing army of upper-middle-class invaders.” – Ben Brantley, New York Times
Hoch gives voice to a range of perspectives utilizing a powerful combination of humor and sharply etched portraits...Many of his characters are depicted with humor, such as the revolutionary rapper, Launch Missiles Critical, but it's also true that Hoch reserves the most biting satire for those that can loosely be grouped together as the gentrifiers: a developer, a real estate agent, and an NYU dropout artist now selling her wares on the streets. Even these characters, however, are allowed to make the occasional good point about the positive effects of their presence. --Theatermania
Reviews will continue to appear over the next week. But it looks like it's going to be a good day indeed.
Sometimes the design for a show poster comes together very quickly: we have an idea, it gets approved, and the finished image is completed within days. Other times, however, the process can take weeks, such as was the case for The Arabian Nights. Here's how we arrived at the final image.
Anytime I begin a design, it's at least two months before the show goes into previews. Frequently, all I have to go on is the script and a conversation with the director, who may or may not have concrete ideas about how he or she is going to approach the play. The lighting, scenic, and costume designs are usually still being finalized. The play is mostly cast by that time, but the actors aren't necessarily local. On top of all that, even if the director can communicate a strong vision for the show, it may not translate into a strong vision for the poster, which needs to grab your attention and get you to investigate further. The poster probably won't sell any tickets on its own, but it should get you to look at our website or call us up.
With this show, we had a couple of additional factors from the start: the title and the writer/director, Mary Zimmerman. Anytime I design a poster for a show with a recognizable name, such as The Arabian Nights, I have a certain flexibility with the logo of the show. I can play with the legibility of the words a bit, because the viewer will go along with me more easily.
The title can also be a liability; one can easily fall into a cliché and rely on a typeface that evokes Arabic writing, such as Disney's Aladdin.
I wanted to go a different direction and do my own lettering. I looked up antique Islamic/Arabic calligraphy and found square Kufic script, which originated around the time of the earliest incarnations of the 1,001 Nights stories. I decided to riff off that look and came up with this:
Did I say I had leeway to make a logo that's hard to read? Not that much leeway. Fortunately, once I did lowercase letters rather than capitals, people felt the title was much more legible:
Still, people felt that the logo was a little cold. I had reactions from people saying they thought the letters looked futuristic, mazelike, hip-hoppish, and even like this Jesus logo, apparently a common piece of folk art I'd never seen before. It wasn't important to me that people get the Kufic reference; I just like having the deeper layer. But I was happy to hear that one of our staff members, someone who spent many years in Saudi Arabia, got the reference right away.
Anyway, I connected it a little more to the subject matter by giving it a bit of ornamentation. Everyone was happy, and I was done:
Now it was on to the poster image. After reading the script, I decided that rather than showing a scene from any particular story in the show, I wanted to highlight Scheherezade and the power of storytelling itself. (A brief synopsis of the play, in case you don't know the story: Scheherezade is a young queen who keeps her husband from murdering her by telling intricate, cliffhanging stories for 1,001 nights.)
This is the draft I came up with. I had decided I wanted a seductive image, focusing on Scheherezade but also showing how entrancing her stories could be. The image here is just a stock photo I found on iStockPhoto that captured the characters in the pose I envisioned; I planned to shoot my own models in that pose, but since the actors playing those roles weren't yet in town, I thought I might use staff members. Because the show featured a multicultural cast, I felt I had a fair amount of flexibility in my casting.
I never got that far -- the draft was rejected. It didn't communicate the humor of the play. Furthermore, it was, if anything, too sexy; it should show off her creativity rather than her sex appeal.
So I tried some different approaches, seen below. First I tried a silhouette of Scheherezade (left) and an illustrated adaptation of the original stock photo (middle). I added a bit of playfulness with her smile and all the bright moons issuing forth from her mouth, symbolizing the stories. I went with a style reminiscent of local design star Michael Schwab, who did all those fantastic images for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
Good news: people liked the style. Bad news: it still focused too much on Scheherezade. It was more about the stories, not her. (The rejection was fine -- I hated the middle one myself, and the one on the left just looked too 70s for me.)
So I went back to the script and pulled out another image, one of finger cymbals, which would be struck one time each new story begins in the show. I did it once again in that faux-Schwab style. I was pretty happy with that version.
However, that too was rejected. By now the director and cast had arrived, and we were a day or two away from missing the deadline for the first use of the image. Surprisingly, after all the different ideas, I was asked to go back to the first draft and reshoot it now that we actually had the actors in town. We already had a press photo shoot planned with those actors, so I hijacked that shoot, which ended up doing double duty. Finally I had an approved image (photo courtesy of kevinberne.com) and logo (and I didn't even end up cribbing Michael Schwab!):
It was a very long and occasionally frustrating process, but in the end I'm very happy with the result and am glad to have contributed to such a fantastic show. The part I liked best? Watching the performance on opening night and seeing the two characters end up in exactly this pose during one of the scenes. I think it's the only time I've seen one of my posters come to life on stage.
A coda: It's not all bad when a poster idea gets thrown out; what doesn't work for the poster might work perfectly well in the Berkeley Rep Magazine. I still loved my little moons from the rejected drafts, so I found a way to use them. Here's the first spread of the dramaturgy section:
I don't mind waking up early, if it means waking up to good news. If you get the Chronicle, I'm sure you saw Rob Hurwitt's glowing review of The Arabian Nights on the front cover of the Datebook. Or maybe you read the raves in the Mercury News or the Contra Costa Times.
It's extremely gratifying for everyone at the Theatre when a show receives such uniformly positive praise. I think it's fair to say that we've got a hit on our hands. In fact, I kind of feel bad for the folks in our box office, because the phones are about to start ringing like Pete Townsend's ears.
One of the things that PR and marketing people do, when reviews appear, is pull out the juicy quotes that best describe our show. By now, though, everyone is rightfully suspicious of ads that say things like "Spectacular! The... most... AMAZING... show... EVER." We all know to be wary of those ellipses, because who knows what nasty words appeared in between?
Well, with reviews like these, the challenge actually is to decide which of the many, many compliments to keep and which to sadly leave behind. Here's a taste of what the critics have to say about The Arabian Nights, with as few ellipses as possible. I've also provided links to each review, so you can check to see if I cheated:
I can do my best not to deceive you with those three little dots, but I can't grant you three wishes. So here's some free advice for those who want tickets: you'd better buy them now, because I suspect they're going to sell faster than Sno-Cones in the Sahara.
The Arabian Nights is unique in that there are absolutely no pre-recorded sounds. All of the sound effects and music are comprised of live instruments from around the world. In order to enhance the quality of the music in the most transparent way, the sound department hung eight microphones from the catwalk and in the ceiling above the stage.
1,001 instruments are used--or, at least, it feels that way when the stage crew is meticulously and strategically pre-setting these music-making devices. The show begins with a high-energy bang rhythmic beating on djembes (a West African hand drum) that are joined a by a tambourine, then clave, followed by a cow bell, a darbuka (goblet drum), a bodrahm, shakere, and many more. (If you do not know what these are – don’t worry – I’ll spotlight a few each week.)
Until next week…
So, yesterday, we talked about the living room in Joe Turner's Come and Gone. Today, our journey begins in the kitchen.
We found this lovely item on Craigslist which Gretta transformed into a built-in kitchen unit by taking off the feet, building cabinets around it, and adjusting the top "warming oven" to be larger and taller.
There’s a lot of action with making the biscuits in the upper "warming oven" section, but the rest never gets used. Gretta also changed the backsplash shape to allow the kitchen tile wall to show through, and of course painted the whole thing.
It’s super-sweet and cozy now, even without real wood burning inside. (And yes, the actors are eating real biscuits and grits, made in the real kitchen backstage).
The sink was actually one of the hardest pieces we had to deal with on this show. It was extremely hard to locate a sink that had the basin on the left hand side and the drain board on the right. Scott’s design would not work in the opposite configuration, unfortunately. After much searching we found this one, which wasn’t Scott’s ideal size or shape, but it was an acceptable option. We added the plumbing, faucets, and base to this New Jersey salvage yard sink (I won’t tell you how much this project cost, but it might be the most expensive thing on stage). It’s a hollow cast-iron sink, and still incredibly heavy. This picture shows where Jill added back and bottom pieces to join the sink to its legs.
And then she built the little period-appropriate refrigerator and counter to match. With help from the scene shop, she installed real plumbing to the faucets, as well as fake pipes that go up and into the window. (The actors wash their hands and dishes throughout the play.)
There are many more items in this set which we built from scratch. Ultimately, nothing was untouched by us, whether it was painted or reinforced or re-manufactured. It’s a pretty stunning set overall, and the props really add to it, if I do say so myself.
The Arabian Nights opens tonight…and, while I’m not sure I should tell you all our tricks before it opens, maybe I’ll give you a little sample of things to look for that won’t look like what you see here:
We purchased some beautiful umbrellas that will look nothing like this by the time you see them in the show. They've been totally transformed to the world of sari fabric and gilded trim of Mara’s costume design.
This is Dan, the set designer, figuring out how to make a glorious throne out of a Moroccan import chair. It will be absolutely fabulous...
And this is one of many sad pillows from our stock that gets a total make-over. It’s actually pretty unrecognizable in its new form:
Lastly, we got these "ottomans" from Lookingglass Theatre, who originally produced the play (they’re also Mary’s home base). Sarah from our shop worked with the new scene shop C&C router (such a glorious addition to our arsenal of cool tools) and the scenic art department to make these look even more exciting than they do here.
We repaired all of them, and Jill built one more from scratch. These ottomans are integral to all the action in the show--they create spaces in the way scenery usually does, so they're more than just furniture on the set. One even becomes a flying carpet...!
This is another totally lovely show. Both of these set designers are ones we thoroughly enjoy working with, and they come up with such pretty stuff. It really makes the effort worth it.
All photos here courtesy of brtpropshop.
Being in Berkeley (and because people know me as a recycling freak), I often get asked if we reuse props in shows. Of course we do, but no designer is going to use something exactly the way some other designer did. Even when we buy something specifically for a show, it's rarely put on stage looking as it was bought, no matter how simple the object is. And sometimes it's so far from the original that we wonder why we bought the item in the first place!
So, I thought I’d share some examples of transformations that have happened in two shows we've been working on simultaneously…Let me give you a little tour of the furniture before and after.
For Joe Turner’s Come and Gone we created a beautiful parlor and kitchen on the set from various real items.
Here we have a chair we borrowed from our friends at American Conservatory Theatre (A.C.T.) in San Francisco. Scott Bradley, the set designer, saw this chair in their inventory catalogue and fell in love.
But when we went to pick it up, we realized it had been used in one of their recent productions and had been transformed to this not-so-period-appropriate version, which was definitely not in Scott’s color scheme:
Since this chair had been painted silver, the only real way to get it back to looking like its original wood was to strip it down and start from scratch. We took it to a furniture stripper after getting it this far ourselves. Since we had to re-upholster the chair, as well as a settee we had in our stock (which we'd received as a donation a while ago--we love donations, by the way), Scott chose a fabric for them both, and Bruce re-covered them. This settee wasn’t a simple recovering job either. Its sprung seat got completely replaced and we gave it a height enhancement Here, you can see Bruce adding to the wood on the legs, after which he carefully painted it to match the original wood of the settee. Scott also asked that we have some wood showing on the front edge, so we refinished the wood interior piece and changed the upholstery point to be higher than it was in the original version. It’s a subtle difference, but quite nice and slimming. Overall, the actors sit more firmly and higher up on this settee than they would have originally, which helps them project their voices as well as be seen better. To finish off the parlor, Sarah (Miss SupertyDooperino) created the lighting fixture from a mix of parts ordered from our now-favorite online lighting store, Rejuvenation (they are the nicest, fastest vendor I have found), from random found parts, and even stolen pieces of lamps we had in stock (one of which we had bought/created for another Scott-designed show). Paint it all brass and it looks as if it was born this way! Then some careful masking and spray paint on the shade to tie it into the color scheme...and here’s our finished parlor (at right, you can also see the final version of the macrame curtain): Stay tuned for tomorrow--the Joe Turner kitchen, and a quick look at The Arabian Nights.
Since this chair had been painted silver, the only real way to get it back to looking like its original wood was to strip it down and start from scratch. We took it to a furniture stripper after getting it this far ourselves.
Since we had to re-upholster the chair, as well as a settee we had in our stock (which we'd received as a donation a while ago--we love donations, by the way), Scott chose a fabric for them both, and Bruce re-covered them. This settee wasn’t a simple recovering job either. Its sprung seat got completely replaced and we gave it a height enhancement
Here, you can see Bruce adding to the wood on the legs, after which he carefully painted it to match the original wood of the settee.
Scott also asked that we have some wood showing on the front edge, so we refinished the wood interior piece and changed the upholstery point to be higher than it was in the original version. It’s a subtle difference, but quite nice and slimming. Overall, the actors sit more firmly and higher up on this settee than they would have originally, which helps them project their voices as well as be seen better.
To finish off the parlor, Sarah (Miss SupertyDooperino) created the lighting fixture from a mix of parts ordered from our now-favorite online lighting store, Rejuvenation (they are the nicest, fastest vendor I have found), from random found parts, and even stolen pieces of lamps we had in stock (one of which we had bought/created for another Scott-designed show).
Paint it all brass and it looks as if it was born this way! Then some careful masking and spray paint on the shade to tie it into the color scheme...and here’s our finished parlor (at right, you can also see the final version of the macrame curtain):
Stay tuned for tomorrow--the Joe Turner kitchen, and a quick look at The Arabian Nights.
If you follow this blog regularly, you may have noticed that blogging was light this week. It's been busy at the Theatre: we very rarely have two shows opening so close together. The cast and crew of Joe Turner's Come and Gone are enjoying their first week post-opening, as across the way, in the Thrust, Mary Zimmerman's The Arabian Nights has been been gearing up for previews--the first of which was held last night.
For now, though, audiences have been really responding to Joe Turner--they've been quiet and thoughtful, yet laughing in all the right places. And everyone seems to really love the pre-show playlist compiled by our music director, Dwight Andrews. It's a great mix of blues and gospel that really sets the tone for the world of the show. The music is really great--I might even add a few of these to my personal playlist. I highly recommend you check them out.
Mississippi John Hurt / Memorial Anthology Vol.1
“12 Gates to the City”
Reverend Gary Davis
“My Jack Don’t Drink Water No More”
Shortstuff Macon / Classic Blues--Smithsonian Folkways (CBSF)
“Been in the Storm So Long”
Mary Pinckney / Classic African American Gospel from Smithsonian Folkways (CAAGGSF)
Reverend Gary Davis
“Clog Dance (Stomping Blues)”
Champion Jack Dupree / CBSF
“Shake It and Break It”
Charlie Patton / The Best of Charlie Patton
“Hallelujah, It Is Done”
Elizabeth Cotten / CAAGGSF
“If I Had My Way”
Reverend Gary Davis / There is No Eye
“High Water Everywhere”
Charlie Patton / The Best of Charlie Patton
“I Belong to The Band” Reverend Gary Davis / “Black Woman” Rich Amerson “Jesus Going to Make up my Dying Bed” Horace Sprott / CAAGSF “Soon, One Mornin” Willie Gresham / CAAGSF “Been in the Storm So Long” Mary Pinckney / CAAGSF “Low Down Death Right Easy” Dock Reed / CAAGSF “Black Woman” Vera Hall / CAAGSF
“I Belong to The Band”
Reverend Gary Davis /
“Jesus Going to Make up my Dying Bed”
Horace Sprott / CAAGSF
“Soon, One Mornin”
Willie Gresham / CAAGSF
“Been in the Storm So Long”
Mary Pinckney / CAAGSF
“Low Down Death Right Easy”
Dock Reed / CAAGSF
Vera Hall / CAAGSF
There is a fantastic mailing list that many of us at the Theatre subscribe to called You’ve Cott Mail. It’s a daily digest of the salient threads in the ongoing discussion around the world about the arts and their future, sent straight to your inbox. (I love that reading and thinking about this stuff is actually part of my job.)
Today, one of those threads was a discussion on the future of arts educations in public school systems, especially given President-elect Obama’s proposed changes to No Child Left Behind.
If you’re reading this, I’m assuming you support (in theory, at least) the need for arts education in the schools. I’ve always been a strong proponent, but I became an impassioned advocate last season, when we were preparing to present Nilaja Sun’s No Child…. Among the many hats I wear, I am the editor of the theatre's playbill magazine. When I saw the first draft of this article, I was horrified.
“Fully literate” teens arriving in high school having never read a book from cover to cover? Middle-school kids who have never learned how to color?
Here’s the problem: how do you set “adequate yearly progress” markers for imagination? And failing to define them, how do you make arts in the schools a priority when an ever-shrinking budgetary pie must cover increasing needs in measurable subjects like English and math?
The Berkeley Rep School of Theatre does a lot of outreach work to local schoolsto help bridge some of that gap, but they’re one organization in one very small part of a very large country.
Obviously, it’s a tough call--where you fund one thing, you can’t fund another. But it’s still a topic worthy of discussion, and I thought I’d throw it out to you…Given the chance, how would you fix our schools? For that matter, do you think art has a necessary place in our educational system? And, assuming it does, how would you bring the arts back into the curriculum?
Phew! What a week. No one could accuse me of slacking off at the moment.
Wednesday was opening night for Joe Turner's Come and Gone, so -- as I described in an earlier post --all of us were rushing around getting ready for the big event. Many of my friends in the media stay for the post-show party, so I was here late into the night chatting. (OK, I was also hovering over the buffet provided by Tomatina and admiring the new history display in our upper lobby, which was a hell of a lot of work for our department.) Whatever the cause, I didn't get out of here until after midnight.
I slept in the next morning, but it was another long day nonetheless. I took Delroy Lindo to an afternoon interview on KGO-AM with Rosie Allen and Greg Jarrett. Then we fought rush-hour traffic coming back, and I scoured the web looking for reviews. Although you don't see them in the newspaper until Friday, usually you can find them online on Thursday afternoon. And, while the myth that actors don't read reviews during the run of a show is generally true, everyone else at the Theatre is eager to find out what the critics say.
I'm thrilled to report that, in this case, all of the reviews are quite good. Here are some excerpts:
“A gripping search for love and identity… How far we’ve come. Wednesday’s post-election euphoria was running high before the opening of Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s production of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. Two and a half hours later, the high of President-elect Barack Obama’s victory had gained deeper resonances from August Wilson’s dramatic depiction of the lives of African Americans just a few generations ago.” — San Francisco Chronicle
“Riveting… a full scale spiritual tsunami… Mysticism and pragmatism collide head-on across the dining room table of a small boarding house in the Pittsburgh Hills District of 1911…The play is beautifully produced [and] the acting is outstanding.” — Contra Costa Times
“A stirring revival of the playwright’s masterpiece… In the wake of Tuesday’s historic election, the plays of August Wilson sing with a renewed sense of urgency. It’s the heartbreaking sound of history crying out to be remembered… Delroy Lindo, who was nominated for a Tony for his portrayal of Herald Loomis in the original Broadway production, here directs the play with a sure sense of the musicality of the text.” — San Jose Mercury News
Today we were at the Claremont Hotel so that Bob Redell could interview Delroy for NBC's Morning Show. And tomorrow morning, we're right back at it. I pick up Delroy at 7:30 AM so that we can drive into SF to appear on KRON-TV with Jan Wahl. Then we pop across town for a live interview with Dave Padilla on KCBS-AM before zipping back to Berkeley for two other interviews -- one with a print reporter and one with a professor who is working on a textbook that includes a chapter on Joe Turner. How's that for a Saturday?
Next week is more of the same:
Brent Jennings, who plays Bynum, will be interviewed by C.S. Soong on KPFA's Against the Grain at 12:30 PM on Monday.
On Tuesday at 11 AM, Teagle Bougere (who plays Herald Loomis) will tape a 30-minute interview with Marcy Solomon for KUSF's Words on Theater -- and I guess I'll have to clone myself, because Delroy will be in Berkeley at the exact same time taping a 30-minute interview with Richard Wolinksy for KPFA's Cover to Cover. (You can hear both of these interviews on Thursday, the former at 7 PM and the latter at 3 PM.)
On Wednesday morning, Delroy will be on KBLX at 8:00 AM. Luckily, that's a phoner, so I can listen from the comfort of my nice, warm bed. Good thing, too, because I'm one of many people staying late that night for the final dress rehearsal of The Arabian Nights.
On Thursday, Sam Hurwitt is coming by to interview Les Waters about next year's premiere of In the Next Room (or the vibrator play) for an upcoming edition of Theatre Bay Area -- and I'll be sifting through hundreds of images from the previous night's photo shoot looking for the shots that best capture the play.
Finally, on Friday, Barry Shabaka Henley (who plays Seth) will tape an interview with Alan Farley for KALW at the NPR studio in San Francisco.
You might think it would be time to rest at that point... but you'd be mistaken. Because we open another show the next week, and the madness begins again.
I think I speak for all of us at the Theatre when I say, I can't wait for Thanksgiving!
Last night, I'm assuming that you, like me, were glued to the TV and watching the election. However, at the theatre, there was a performance taking place -- the final preview for August Wilson's play, Joe Turner's Come and Gone.
After each performance, the stage manager creates a performance report that is emailed to all members of the staff. This report keeps us all on the same page about what happened during any particular performance -- including the show's exact run time, info on any injuries or illnesses, or acting and technical notes which require attention. There is also a field at the bottom called "special notes," which encompasses the truly unusual, and is often left blank.
Here was stage manager Cynthia Cahill's final note in last night's performance report:
An historic evening everyone! As Obama was making his acceptance speech tonight, Dan Hiatt (as Selig) was onstage talking about how his Grandfather and his Father used to bring slaves over from Africa, and how they used to find runaway slaves for the plantation owners, and I looked over at Obama on TV and looked down at Dan on the stage and was so struck by the contrast and by how profound this day is for the history of America, and I felt privileged to witness it, this evolution of our society. Happy Day.