Saturday, July 21, 2007

Lyonesse Under the Sea

Lisa Wilson and I have begun work on dissecting and discussing The Skriker by Caryl Churchill. She will be playing the shape shifter and is wonderful at wanting to get as much research in as possible. She's one of the most dedicated actors I've had the pleasure to work with and it's going to be incredible helping her shape and become the role. Lisa played Morse in One Flea Spare, which was GreyZelda's first production in Chicago and, during the rehearsal process, we went to T's Bar and Grill, I told her about The Skriker and how it's been one of my favorite plays since I directed it in college. I promised her that evening that if we ever did The Skriker, I would love her to consider playing the role. The time has come to do the show ... she's available and I can't think of another artist I would want to work on with this other than the talented LZ.

We started the initial meeting by watching the old video of my 1998 production performed at Michigan State University ... there were many things we laughed about ... for example, she thought I was kidding when I said I used Studio 54 as an inspiration, but when the party struck up in the Underworld midway through the play and the disco music started blaring and the disco ball started sparkling, she realized that, yes, indeed I went for a Studio 54 theme ... ah ... college. I was really into (and still am) the subject of "glamour" which a faerieworld creature can put on and off so blending 70's party culture with the dionysian splendour of the Skriker's cast of characters seemed perfect to me ... plus you had the drug culture, rampant sex and fabulous polyester clothing.

There were a few things from my initial blocking that I may end up exploring more, but a lot of it will be sparkling and brand new with the new cast. GreyZelda really likes its actors and we try to cast people that will really bring a sense of originality and exploration to the process, so there's going to be tons of room to play and create scenes around the performer's individual talents.

Lisa also brought over a ton of Faerie books ... oodles of Froud, history and stories ...

We started going through the Srikers's first monologue and broke down its meaning. We only got as far as the first page because there's so much in there and we loved spending as much time on a single word and idea as we wanted to ... there's so much time to explore, at this point, that we're taking full advantage of it. We first discussed the initial feelings and images from the line then we started researching and coming up with historical backing and logical conclusions. Right and left brain conversations.

"Heard her boast beast a roast beef eater, daughter
could spin span spick and spun the lowest form of
wheat straw into gold, raw into roar, golden lion
and lyonesse under the sea, dungeonesse under the
castle for bad mad sad adders and takers away.
Never marry a king size well beloved. Chop chip
pan chap finger chirrup chirrup cheer up off with
you're making no headway. Weeps seeps deeps her
pretty puffy cream cake hole in the heart operation.
Sees a little blackjack thingalingo with a long long
tale awinding. May day, she cries, may pole axed
me to help her. So I spin the sheaves shoves
shivers into golden guild and geld and if she can't
guessing game and safety match my name then I'll
take her no mistake no mister no missed her no
mist no miss no me no. Is it William Gwylliam
Guillaume? It is John Jack the ladder in your
stocking is it Joke? Is it Alexander Sandro Andrew
Drewsteignton? Mephistopheles Toffeenose
Tiffany's Timpany Timothy Mossycoat? No
't ain't, says I, no tainted meat me after the show
me what you've got. Then pointing her finger says
Tom tit tot! Tomtom tiny tot blue tit tit! Out of her
pinkle lippety loppety, out of her mouthtrap, out
came my secreted garden flower of my youth and
beauty and the beast is six six six o'clock in the
morning becomes electric stormy petrel bomb.
Shriek! shrink! shuck off to a shack, sick, soak,
seek a sleep slope slap of the dark to shelter skelter
away, a wail a whirl a world away.

Slit slat slut. That bitch a botch an itch in my
shoulder blood. Bitch botch itch. Slat itch slit
botch. Itch slut bitch slit."

I'm not going to share all the discoveries publicly, but just know that in that bit of loveliness there's talk of Arthur and Guinnevere and a country below the sea, betrayal, cranky Rumplestiltskin, vaginas, castration, newborn and dead babies, the antichrist, hospital terrors and a healthy dose of types of food and what you can do with said food. So much fun to play with, my friends.

When we were done, Lisa said, "Was that as good for you as it was for me?"

And I said, "Totally, dudarina."

She and I are going to meet weekly until we feel absolutely satisfied with everything ... what's wonderful about this type of language is that we can think one way on one day and then wake up the next day and have a brand new discovery and idea. It's the type of stuff that we can totally geek out on and have way too much fun putting our heads in books and studying.

If you'd like to contribute any thoughts on the language and the play, please feel free ... I'll take everything into my discussions with Lisa and we'll add it to this amazing time of learning and, for me, relearning ... I've taken so much time away from the script ... it's been almost ten years ... that talking with Lisa has provided tons of new insight.

(Posted by Rebecca Zellar)

Friday, July 20, 2007

And-a-One! And-a-Two!

I'm going to audition to lead the crowd in a rousing rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" at the September 22nd Cubs game against the Pirates. Holy Cow, friends. I'm very excited.

I'll be arriving at Wrigley Field next Friday and will audition at 10am. I'm excited just to get a chance to do this.

I registered a couple of weeks ago and, in a limited amount of words, had to describe why I felt I was the Ultimate Cubs Fan. I didn't have a lot of room to write but I touched upon the fact that I think Ronnie and Pat are amazing radio announcers. Pat's a poet and is able to paint the action for the listeners' imagination. I mentioned that I've been cheering on the Cubs since I was a wee thing. Mentioned that I like leading people with enthusiasm and that I have a theatre company here in town.

According to the website at

"The winner will be the individual who complies with the Official Rules and, in the opinion of Cubs, displays the best combination of creativity, talent, singing ability, loyalty to the Cubs, passion for the team and for "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," leadership skill and who embodies the spirit of being a Cubs fan. Semi-finalists will be chosen based on these criteria and on the quality of the essay submitted with their application. Public voting on semi-finalists and finalists will be conducted online. ...All performances will be videotaped and the best ones will be posted and voted on by the fans here at"

So, GreyZelda supporters, it looks like you may be called upon to help this gal out. I'll let you know what happens after the audition. My goodness gracious.

Go Cubs!!!!!!!!!!!!


Friday, July 13, 2007

Spinning our Wheels in the Orbit of Ego

Update: I'm going to try to get Chris to write his thoughts on this, as well, because I'm not the only mouthpiece for GreyZelda - he's got his own ideas and some differ greatly with mine. I'll see if I can encourage him. He's the writer in the family after all. RZ

The Chicago theatre scene is alive with hundreds of theatres lifting their voices in inspiration, but are we really be heard? Or are the voices getting lost in the noise?

So many start-up companies ... our theatre company started up in the same way ... Chris and I had a vision we shared. He got me, I got him, so we thought, "Hey! Let's start a theatre company because we feel we can do what we do better ourselves then with another group of people who will argue with our vision, therefore our ideas would be sacrificed to another's lesser idea. We work hard and we know we push ourselves hard. " We've had people join us as members who work with us show by show and we're slowly growing, but we share a lot of our collaborators with other theatre companies our size who do similar work as us. Chris and I double our work load because we can't seem to find collaborators who are as passionate as we are at making GreyZelda a successful creation and who only want to focus on our theatre company. I think a lot of our peers have the same problem.

I believe that there are other theatre companies around our size that share the same vision, but we refuse to start a dialogue. I feel the fear just sitting here typing. I want to do it my way. I don't know if I'll like your way. Creativity is such a fragile egg. By starting a dialogue, I'm going to have to speak with someone who might disagree with me. That's scary to an artist. We want to create our warm caves of creative growth. But there are so many caves out there right now and in each of those caves are a handful of collaborators thinking that they know how to do it better than me and maybe they do, maybe they don't. As the Desiderata states there are always those lesser and greater than me. Why do I gag myself from opening myself up to a new possibility? To something bigger and greater than me and mine.

What I'd really like is to be able to have our company absorb with other companies and we could become a SUPER COMPANY. I'm currently working for a company who did just that. I'm talking about my day-job here. They wanted to become bigger so they purchased smaller staffing companies. The company I initially started working for in January has now become something new and all of a sudden, we have new employees and more business opportunities. The company I'm working for now is looking to purchase more small staffing companies in the Chicago market to become bigger and better. Being on the non-profit circuit and dealing with creative egos makes that idea a little tricky. I've started tentative conversations with other theatre companies about this very thing, but it always comes back to the egos and how we can't quite give our initial vision up nor are we willing to compromise. There's a fear. Everyone wants to be in charge. So, we just keep trudging along, competing with each other, and mourning the fact that our audiences aren't bigger, the critics aren't coming, the money's too tight, blah blah blah. We want to build a tribe but have a hard time inviting others or approaching others to see if they'd like us to offer our talents up. Everyone wants to be in the driver's seat.

If we morphed together, like The Blob, say .... who knows what we could accomplish?

But, like weeds, new, teeny-tiny theatre companies keep cropping up in Chicago's fertile creative grounds ... I'm not saying that's a bad thing, but I speak to a lot of peers in the storefront theatre world of Chicago and I think .... we all want the same thing .... why don't we just try working together and pooling our resources like most normal businesses? Why do we all continue to isolate ourselves from each other?

I'd welcome any thoughts on this, blogging friends.


Tuesday, July 03, 2007

A Delight, An Instruction, A Consolation

I found the following speech over on Malachy Walsh's site who is a writer in LA, originally from New York. He found this over at Crowded Fire's BANTER.

Prepared text of June 17, 2007, Stanford Commencement address by Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts

"Good morning.

Thank you, President Hennessy.

It is a great honor to be asked to give the Commencement address at my alma mater. Although I have two degrees from Stanford, I still feel a bit like an interloper on this exquisitely beautiful campus. A person never really escapes his or her childhood.

At heart I'm still a working-class kid—half Italian, half Mexican—from L.A., or more precisely from Hawthorne, a city that most of this audience knows only as the setting of Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown—two films that capture the ineffable charm of my hometown.

Today is Father's Day, so I hope you will indulge me for beginning on a personal note. I am the first person in my family ever to attend college, and I owe my education to my father, who sacrificed nearly everything to give his four children the best education possible.

My dad had a fairly hard life. He never spoke English until he went to school. He barely survived a plane crash in World War II. He worked hard, but never had much success, except with his family.

When I was about 12, my dad told me that he hoped I would go to Stanford, a place I had never heard of. For him, Stanford represented every success he had missed yet wanted for his children. He would be proud of me today—no matter how dull my speech.

On the other hand, I may be fortunate that my mother isn't here. It isn't Mother's Day, so I can be honest. I loved her dearly, but she could be a challenge. For example, when she learned I had been nominated to be chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, she phoned and said, "Don't think I'm impressed."

I know that there was a bit of controversy when my name was announced as the graduation speaker. A few students were especially concerned that I lacked celebrity status. It seemed I wasn't famous enough. I couldn't agree more. As I have often told my wife and children, "I'm simply not famous enough."

And that—in a more general and less personal sense—is the subject I want to address today, the fact that we live in a culture that barely acknowledges and rarely celebrates the arts or artists.

There is an experiment I'd love to conduct. I'd like to survey a cross-section of Americans and ask them how many active NBA players, Major League Baseball players, and American Idol finalists they can name.

Then I'd ask them how many living American poets, playwrights, painters, sculptors, architects, classical musicians, conductors, and composers they can name.

I'd even like to ask how many living American scientists or social thinkers they can name.

Fifty years ago, I suspect that along with Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, and Sandy Koufax, most Americans could have named, at the very least, Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, Arthur Miller, Thornton Wilder, Georgia O'Keeffe, Leonard Bernstein, Leontyne Price, and Frank Lloyd Wright. Not to mention scientists and thinkers like Linus Pauling, Jonas Salk, Rachel Carson, Margaret Mead, and especially Dr. Alfred Kinsey.

I don't think that Americans were smarter then, but American culture was. Even the mass media placed a greater emphasis on presenting a broad range of human achievement.

I grew up mostly among immigrants, many of whom never learned to speak English. But at night watching TV variety programs like the Ed Sullivan Show or the Perry Como Music Hall, I saw—along with comedians, popular singers, and movie stars—classical musicians like Jascha Heifetz and Arthur Rubinstein, opera singers like Robert Merrill and Anna Moffo, and jazz greats like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong captivate an audience of millions with their art.

The same was even true of literature. I first encountered Robert Frost, John Steinbeck, Lillian Hellman, and James Baldwin on general interest TV shows. All of these people were famous to the average American—because the culture considered them important.

Today no working-class or immigrant kid would encounter that range of arts and ideas in the popular culture. Almost everything in our national culture, even the news, has been reduced to entertainment, or altogether eliminated.

The loss of recognition for artists, thinkers, and scientists has impoverished our culture in innumerable ways, but let me mention one. When virtually all of a culture's celebrated figures are in sports or entertainment, how few possible role models we offer the young.

There are so many other ways to lead a successful and meaningful life that are not denominated by money or fame. Adult life begins in a child's imagination, and we've relinquished that imagination to the marketplace.

Of course, I'm not forgetting that politicians can also be famous, but it is interesting how our political process grows more like the entertainment industry each year. When a successful guest appearance on the Colbert Report becomes more important than passing legislation, democracy gets scary. No wonder Hollywood considers politics "show business for ugly people."

Everything now is entertainment. And the purpose of this omnipresent commercial entertainment is to sell us something. American culture has mostly become one vast infomercial.

I have a reccurring nightmare. I am in Rome visiting the Sistine Chapel. I look up at Michelangelo's incomparable fresco of the "Creation of Man." I see God stretching out his arm to touch the reclining Adam's finger. And then I notice in the other hand Adam is holding a Diet Pepsi.

When was the last time you have seen a featured guest on David Letterman or Jay Leno who isn't trying to sell you something? A new movie, a new TV show, a new book, or a new vote?

Don't get me wrong. I love entertainment, and I love the free market. I have a Stanford MBA and spent 15 years in the food industry. I adore my big-screen TV. The productivity and efficiency of the free market is beyond dispute. It has created a society of unprecedented prosperity.

But we must remember that the marketplace does only one thing—it puts a price on everything.

The role of culture, however, must go beyond economics. It is not focused on the price of things, but on their value. And, above all, culture should tell us what is beyond price, including what does not belong in the marketplace. A culture should also provide some cogent view of the good life beyond mass accumulation. In this respect, our culture is failing us.

There is only one social force in America potentially large and strong enough to counterbalance this profit-driven commercialization of cultural values, our educational system, especially public education. Traditionally, education has been one thing that our nation has agreed cannot be left entirely to the marketplace—but made mandatory and freely available to everyone.

At 56, I am just old enough to remember a time when every public high school in this country had a music program with choir and band, usually a jazz band, too, sometimes even orchestra. And every high school offered a drama program, sometimes with dance instruction. And there were writing opportunities in the school paper and literary magazine, as well as studio art training.

I am sorry to say that these programs are no longer widely available to the new generation of Americans. This once visionary and democratic system has been almost entirely dismantled by well-meaning but myopic school boards, county commissioners, and state officials, with the federal government largely indifferent to the issue. Art became an expendable luxury, and 50 million students have paid the price. Today a child's access to arts education is largely a function of his or her parents' income.

In a time of social progress and economic prosperity, why have we experienced this colossal cultural and political decline? There are several reasons, but I must risk offending many friends and colleagues by saying that surely artists and intellectuals are partly to blame. Most American artists, intellectuals, and academics have lost their ability to converse with the rest of society. We have become wonderfully expert in talking to one another, but we have become almost invisible and inaudible in the general culture.

This mutual estrangement has had enormous cultural, social, and political consequences. America needs its artists and intellectuals, and they need to reestablish their rightful place in the general culture. If we could reopen the conversation between our best minds and the broader public, the results would not only transform society but also artistic and intellectual life.

There is no better place to start this rapprochement than in arts education. How do we explain to the larger society the benefits of this civic investment when they have been convinced that the purpose of arts education is mostly to produce more artists—hardly a compelling argument to either the average taxpayer or financially strapped school board?

We need to create a new national consensus. The purpose of arts education is not to produce more artists, though that is a byproduct. The real purpose of arts education is to create complete human beings capable of leading successful and productive lives in a free society.

This is not happening now in American schools. Even if you forget the larger catastrophe that only 70 percent of American kids now graduate from high school, what are we to make of a public education system whose highest goal seems to be producing minimally competent entry-level workers?

The situation is a cultural and educational disaster, but it also has huge and alarming economic consequences. If the United States is to compete effectively with the rest of the world in the new global marketplace, it is not going to succeed through cheap labor or cheap raw materials, nor even the free flow of capital or a streamlined industrial base. To compete successfully, this country needs continued creativity, ingenuity, and innovation.

It is hard to see those qualities thriving in a nation whose educational system ranks at the bottom of the developed world and has mostly eliminated the arts from the curriculum.

I have seen firsthand the enormous transformative power of the arts—in the lives of individuals, in communities, and even society at large.

Marcus Aurelius believed that the course of wisdom consisted of learning to trade easy pleasures for more complex and challenging ones. I worry about a culture that bit by bit trades off the challenging pleasures of art for the easy comforts of entertainment. And that is exactly what is happening—not just in the media, but in our schools and civic life.

Entertainment promises us a predictable pleasure—humor, thrills, emotional titillation, or even the odd delight of being vicariously terrified. It exploits and manipulates who we are rather than challenges us with a vision of who we might become. A child who spends a month mastering Halo or NBA Live on Xbox has not been awakened and transformed the way that child would be spending the time rehearsing a play or learning to draw.

If you don't believe me, you should read the statistical studies that are now coming out about American civic participation. Our country is dividing into two distinct behavioral groups. One group spends most of its free time sitting at home as passive consumers of electronic entertainment. Even family communication is breaking down as members increasingly spend their time alone, staring at their individual screens.

The other group also uses and enjoys the new technology, but these individuals balance it with a broader range of activities. They go out—to exercise, play sports, volunteer and do charity work at about three times the level of the first group. By every measure they are vastly more active and socially engaged than the first group.

What is the defining difference between passive and active citizens? Curiously, it isn't income, geography, or even education. It depends on whether or not they read for pleasure and participate in the arts. These cultural activities seem to awaken a heightened sense of individual awareness and social responsibility.

Why do these issues matter to you? This is the culture you are about to enter. For the last few years you have had the privilege of being at one of the world's greatest universities—not only studying, but being a part of a community that takes arts and ideas seriously. Even if you spent most of your free time watching Grey's Anatomy, playing Guitar Hero, or Facebooking your friends, those important endeavors were balanced by courses and conversations about literature, politics, technology, and ideas.

Distinguished graduates, your support system is about to end. And you now face the choice of whether you want to be a passive consumer or an active citizen. Do you want to watch the world on a screen or live in it so meaningfully that you change it?

That's no easy task, so don't forget what the arts provide.

Art is an irreplaceable way of understanding and expressing the world—equal to but distinct from scientific and conceptual methods. Art addresses us in the fullness of our being—simultaneously speaking to our intellect, emotions, intuition, imagination, memory, and physical senses. There are some truths about life that can be expressed only as stories, or songs, or images.

Art delights, instructs, consoles. It educates our emotions. And it remembers. As Robert Frost once said about poetry, "It is a way of remembering that which it would impoverish us to forget." Art awakens, enlarges, refines, and restores our humanity. You don't outgrow art. The same work can mean something different at each stage of your life. A good book changes as you change.

My own art is poetry, though my current daily life sometimes makes me forget that. So let me end my remarks with a short poem appropriate to the occasion.

[Part III of Gioia's poem "Autumn Inaugural"]

Praise to the rituals that celebrate change,
old robes worn for new beginnings,
solemn protocol where the mutable soul,
surrounded by ancient experience,
grows young in the imagination's white dress.
Because it is not the rituals we honor
but our trust in what they signify, these rites
that honor us as witnesses—whether to watch
lovers swear loyalty in a careless world or a newborn washed with water and oil.

So praise to innocence—impulsive and evergreen—
and let the old be touched by youth's
wayward astonishment at learning something new,
and dream of a future so fitting and so just
that our desire will bring it into being.

Congratulations to the Class of 2007."

Monday, July 02, 2007

Cock-a-doodle-do you feel it?

We had our reading of The Skriker by Caryl Churchill this Sunday and it went very nicely. It's a hell of a script. It's not easy to breeze through. The actresses reading the Skriker, Josie and Lily did a great job wrapping their lips around the words and the story. I think and hope they walked away with a disturbed feeling, an injection of healthy brain food and a desire to speak in riddles.

I directed The Skriker when I was a senior at Michigan State University during the fall of 1998, so it's been almost 10 years since I've heard it outloud. A lot of the staging came rushing back to me ... I remembered my actors' deliveries and movements and silently gave them props again while I heard the new voices. To take on such a challenge and go down to the Underworld each night while taking classes, having other rehearsals, having college dramas, etc was a huge commitment and I'm so thankful that the people committed to the project back in that day. It was really hard, there were a lot of tears, a lot of discussions, a few arguments, a few cast replacements, a few friendships made and ended, but ... that time and the play has stuck with me. I'm elated to come back to the story again and the previous experience under my belt will really help me this time through as a director.

The Skriker could be directed a million different ways and still bring people salivating for more.

Listening to the actors read this time around, I was struck by how much tablework this play will require. Which is great because I could talk about this play until the cows come home. Each line can be discussed, researched and deciphered ... my actors will need to be willing to do their research, grab from their deepest emotional places, take huge risks and can't be afraid. This script is a lightning bolt that needs to be grasped with both hands and the actor needs to be able to take the charge of being a conductor for it. I'm happy that I've had close to ten years to obsess on the script because the actors will be able to use me as a resource, but they're going to need to embrace and make their own discoveries of the faerieworld and the ether as well. Or at least understand it and do their research of its history. Wolves, snow and 1066. New Orleans voodoo. American Gods and Ghosts. And once the tablework's done, we'll go to town and it'll be amazing.

I'm going to have an audition in the late Fall for performers. I'll be looking for underlying acting experience, but I'm going to allow the performers to show me their individual talents in five minutes ... so, if you're a fire-breather, poi spinner, stilt walker, knife thrower, gymnast, dancer, aerial artist, performance artist, musician, vocalist, etc ... I'm interested in collaborating with you on this project. You'll get to come play in the Underworld and Urban Nightmare. You know that "Additional/Special Skills" section of your resume? That's going to be what I look at first when you hand over your headshot and resume.

We had the reading for A View from the Bridge last week and it's really interesting to compare the straight scripts and their accessibility to the actor. Miller really lays it out and makes it easy for the readers ... the stage directions are firmly there, beats laid out, identifiable characters, well-written exposition. The Skriker's the polar opposite. There are historical faerie creatures that not many people have heard of (Rawheadandbloodybones, Black Annis, Jenny Greenteeth, etc.) and they're present during the scenes but are given very little direction from the playwright. Churchill sets the scene with as few words as possible, which allows the recreators of the script a lot of freedom to build their own exposition, their own through-stories, their own blocking.

Next season is going to be a lot of fun and I'm glad that we're giving the theatre company enought time to do its backwork because both plays are going to require a good deal of it. I'm going to write a little later about how our producing/directing is going to change and the steps we're going to follow moving forward with our theatre company.

We're expecting a lot out of our collaborators ... we always have, but we've raised the bar again. I like standing on my tippy-toes and reaching for that bar. I hope that those who want to work with us will feel the same.

"The Skriker" will be performed in Spring 2008. "A View from the Bridge" will be performed in January 2008 at Stage Left Theatre.