Write on Wednesday – Recent Center Stage Baltimore Productions – February 13, 2019

I’ve seen two terrific plays at Center Stage Baltimore recently.

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A Wonder in My Soul

In late December I saw A Wonder in My Soul. I came out of the theater thinking this was one of the best plays I had ever seen at Center Stage. Written by Marcus Gardley and directed by Daniel Bryant, the play is about two black women who open a beauty shop in their neighborhood. Many years later the neighborhood has changed, and Pen Lucy and Swann Park are behind in their rent; the building where their salon is will be sold.

The playbook talks about the importance of beauty parlors in black communities. I remember when I was in school getting my Master of Social Work degree, we often talked about the fact that beauticians provide therapy for many of their clients.

This production was in the Pearlstone Theater at Center Stage. This is a proscenium theater although it doesn’t have a curtain. I’m always looking at staging. In this play the salon had two styling chairs, a loveseat in the reception area of the stage, a door which led to outside and a slightly lower apron area on which some “flashback” scenes were performed. The door was clearly the entrance to the salon and when people left the stage, they opened the door and walked through. It defined an action more clearly than just going off stage.

All the actors were wonderful, but Kalilah Black and Harriett D. Foy were exceptional.

Our tickets always seem to be the last performance in the runs. I need to try to change that. I would have gone to see this show twice – or more.

Fun Home

Then last Sunday I saw Fun Home, a musical memoir based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel. The book and lyrics were by Lisa Kron and the music was by Jeanine Tesori.

Billed as a play about a dysfunctional family, I wondered if I even wanted to see it. I get enough dysfunction these days watching the news.

It was another stellar show. A closeted gay father raising three children with his increasingly angry wife. One of the daughters is gay but only understands that when she goes to college. Oh, and the father teaches literature at a local college, but runs a funeral home on the side. Hence the title of the play, Fun Home.

In this show the gay daughter is depicted as a ten-year-old, a college student and a woman in her forties. It was the actress who played the ten-year-old who caught my eye. Molly Lyons is her name and she’s nine. Someday I’m going to see her on Broadway.

Fun Home was performed in the Head Theater which is a thrust theatre—a stage surrounded by audience on three sides. The fourth side serves as the background. Hydraulic lifts in the floor raised and lowered part of the sets. If only the community theaters that produce the play I wrote with Laura Ambler (The Santa Diaries) had those kinds of options. Another staging tool that could be translated to community theaters was a slightly raised platform with furniture that was rolled onto the stage when the scene took place in the living room. Faster than having stage hands carry furniture on and off stage. A similar platform on the other side of the stage was a kitchen area that rolled on and off. Of course this only works if you have off stage areas that will accomodate the platforms. Many community theaters don’t.

Watching live theater is enjoyable (I go with some girlfriends) and educational. I always come away with some ideas about improving the plays Laura Ambler and I write.

Write on Wednesday – Countdown – October 31, 2018

A FaceBook post from a cast member in the new play, A Christmas Wedding, that blocking for the play was complete got me thinking about how playwrights turn their babies over to directors, cast and crew.  It’s an open adoption of Laura’s and my work. We’ll get to see how the baby is raised but someone else is now doing the heavy lifting. Getting the show on its feet and ready for the curtain to go up. It’s a thousand details and, I expect, some sleepless nights for the director.

dancing kids

When I think about those details a wave of anxiety (okay a small tsunami) washes over me before I remind myself that every single one of the people involved in the new show and the original want each performance to be the best it can be.

We, the playwrights, have a vision and the words we’ve written must stay the same. That’s in the contract.  But that’s where any control we might have ends. Each director has a vision, an interpretation of our words and how they instruct the actors to say them. The blocking can make a difference and put a slightly different spin on the characters. The set and costumes are part of that spin. Every production is different and that makes each unique.

Of course my writing partner, Laura Ambler, and I are going to see the shows. We have a busy December planned. On Friday, November 30 we fly to Indiana. That night we’ll see the opening performance of The Santa Diaries in Crawfordsville, Indiana produced by the Sugar Creek Players and performed in the Vanity Theater. Directed by Keith Strain  and produced by Kym Bushong.

On Friday, December 7 we fly to Faribault, Minnesota and that night will see the premier of A Christmas Wedding: Santa Diaries Two performed by the Merlin Players at the Paradise Center for the Arts. Julianna Skluzacek is the director.

And on Friday, December 14 we fly to Bath, Maine to see Chocolate Church Arts Center’s opening performance of The Santa Diaries, directed by Dennis St. Pierre.

At each venue we’ll see two performances. It will be exciting to see our babies all grown up. Laura and I are filled with gratitude to all the people involved in producing our plays, and humbled by the dedication of time and talent that goes into each production.

To paraphrase Tiny Tim, “God bless you, every one. You are awesome!”

 

Write on Wednesday – Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – October 17, 2018

The 2018-2019 season at Baltimore Center Stage started with a stellar production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams. I hadn’t see it in years. The show was directed by actress Judith Ivy who has recently added directing to her resume.

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The Pearlstone Theater doesn’t have a traditional stage. There is no curtain so when you enter you and wait for the show to start you get to examine the set. And it never disappoints. This show takes place in the opulent bedroom/sitting room of Big Daddy Pollitt’s home situated on his 28,000 thousand acre plantation. At the back of the stage double doors open to an unseen outside terrace and on stage right there is a door that opens to a small room seen through a scrim. Actors enter stage right, stage left and through the back of the bedroom.

Here’s how the playbill summarizes the play.

In this enduring American classic, family ties and layers of lies collide over the course of one simmering Southern summer night. Themes of morality, greed, and desire play across the stage in this explosive drama about what can happen when illusions begin to unravel. Brick, racked with guilt over his best friend’s death, numbs his pain with drink. Maggie, his wife, is determined to win even fleeting attention from her neglectful husband. But when three generations come together to celebrate a birthday—and discuss a will—all of the players start to crack under the pressure and the heat. How long can tensions build in a house boiling over with uncertainty, secrets, and maybe even love?

Director Judith Ivy commented on what she wanted the audience to experience.
“I certainly want to honor much about the traditional interpretation of this play. But I guess if I were to put my own interpretation within that tradition, I see it as a love story. In some of the productions I’ve seen, the focus has seemed to be on how much these  people hated other, but I think they really love each other. It may be hard or complicated or even unspoken, but I think there’s real love in this play.”

Under her direction, the actors succeeded in showing us a glimmer of that love. You left the theater hoping, but I suspect that if we could have seen the story further unfold, we would have seen the secrets and the money win.

 

 

Write on Wednesday – Short Attention Span Theatre – July 11, 2018

Last Sunday I attended (with Laura Ambler and my husband) the Short Attention Span Theatre in Chestertown, Maryland. Performed in the Garfield Center for the Arts,  on Chestertown’s main street, the space used to be a movie theater. Laura spent summers with her grandmother who lived in Chestertown and remembered seeing movies here — sometimes with bats flying in the high ceiling. I saw no bats on Sunday.

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A group of playwrights meets monthly at the Garfield to read each others works and critique them. Here’s a link to more information in case you’re interested in the group. Once a year nine or ten ten-minute plays are selected for production. This is the 14th year for these Short Attention Span Theatre productions. Why did we never get to one before?

During the intermission we smelled popcorn. Laura loves popcorn and went to the concession stand to get some. You could get a beer or a glass of wine but they didn’t have any popcorn. She came back disappointed. We wondered if we were having a folie à deux, the psychiatric term for a shared delusion.  The first ten-minute play after the  intermission had a bowl of popcorn as a prop. Turns out we aren’t as crazy as sometimes we think we are.

We love theater because we always get ideas, and these ten minute plays must be a challenge to write. No time for multiple plot lines. The story is set up right away and moves quickly to the denoument when the threads of the plot are pulled together. Several of the plays relied heavily on physical comedy which also gave us some ideas as what Laura and I write often turns comedic.

We really went to see the show because our writer friend, Brent Lewis, was on the bill. (It was piece of Brent’s writing that I shared on last week’s Wednesday blog post.) His play,  All Over But The Shouting, has only two characters, cranky elderly brothers in a nursing home who think an incoming missile is going to obliterate them in ten minutes. This gives them just a little time to try to resolve every damn argument and misunderstanding before they are blown to bits.

Below are Brent, me, my husband Roger and Laura. Laura’s husband would have been with us but he was flying.

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But I’m really glad we went. Brent’s play was awesome and I know from experience how important it is to have people you know see your work — and like it. Somehow Chestertown, Maryland seems further than going to Baltimore, but it’s not. We need to try harder to see local theater and support all the playwrights, even the ones we don’t know.

Write on Wednesday: Soul: the Stax Musical

Going to the theater is always a treat. For Laura Ambler and for me, it’s also educational. As playwrights we watch to see if there’s something to learn — and there always is.

Sunday afternoon we saw the World Premier of Soul: the Stax Musical by playwright Matthew Benjamin. It was a great show. The narrative arc was the origins and life of Stax Records in Memphis. Stax began as Satellite Records in 1957, founded by Jim Stewart — a banker by day and a country fiddler by night. Stewart had a dream, but no knowledge of the recording industry. With the help of his older sister, Estelle Axton (who mortgaged her house to buy recording equipment for the studio) they set up shop in an abandoned movie theater in Memphis, Tennessee.

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These two white people (who didn’t know that what they were doing was impossible)  launched the careers of of iconic artists—Otis Redding, The Staple Singers, Isaac Hayes, Booker T & The MG’s, Rufus & Carla Thomas, David Porter, Wilson Pickett, Johnny Taylor, and Eddie Floyd—artists who made American Soul Music mainstream. What a great story!

This show had a large cast — twenty people were on stage at the standing ovation curtain call. We were interested to see how that many people were handled as our two plays also have large casts. Many of the performers in this production had multiple stage, tv and film  credits but were having their debut at Center Stage Baltimore. These actors had to be outstanding singers as well as great dancers. The show featured exceptional choreography by Chase Brook. I predict it will be a hit on Broadway and then tour. The music will keep you clapping. See it if you get a chance.

The two plays Laura and I have written were Christmas shows written with Community Theatre in mind. Community Theatre works with limited budgets and local (often exceptional) talent. But these theaters have constraints. Christmas shows are frequently fund raisers so in the case of our first play, The Santa Diaries, anybody who wanted a part got one.  Large casts are great for ticket sales to grandparents, aunts and uncles and next door neighbors, but large casts create staging problems and parts that were written originally for one theater may not work for another.

The idea for our next play has been germinating for a while. It will have just four cast members. We’ll start work on that soon. In the meantime we see as much theater as we can. We have a lot to learn.

 

Minnesota Calling or Why You Should Read Messages to the Bottom

Three years ago Laura and I went to Faribault, Minnesota to see the Merlin Player’s production of our play, The Santa Dairies. We’ve kept in touch with the director and some of the performers.

That’s characters Sandy Hawes, who has the ‘Santa calling’ and Martha, one of the Hot Dish ladies.

At the beginning of September I received a text from Julianna Skluzacek who directed The Santa Diaries in Faribault. She asked if Laura and I had a new Christmas play. We didn’t have a new play and knew we couldn’t do something in a month. I replied, “Sadly, no.”

Then a week or so later I reread the text more carefully and sent an email:

Julianna, I just reread your message and realized you said 2018. What do you need? Laura and I would love to collaborate on something. Mala Burt

Julianna replied:

I’m looking for something that is like “Santa Diaries” in that it has a great love story, funny, some kids maybe but not necessary. I would need a title by October as that’s a deadline for a Paradise publication for 2018. Do you have something you could turn into a holiday show?

Laura and I talked. We had a funny holiday movie script called #Santa. We thought we could turn it into a play, so I sent an email to Julianna attaching the script, synopsis and cast list.

Julianna, we have a Christmas movie script that we could turn into a play. It’s called #Santa. It’s the story of a celebrity PR “reputation manager” who is arrested and sentenced to community service answering childrens’ Letters to Santa.

And we would work with you to make any changes you’d need for your geographic area. Cast list is based on the movie script and would be pared down. This would be fun!

Then we waited impatiently. After a week or so I forwarded the email above with this message.

Julianna, I just wanted to confirm you got our email. (the one with the script, etc.)

She replied she wanted to talk, so we set up a phone call for September 28. Julianna told us that she loved the script, but had some concerns. Our script was for a racially diverse cast and the Minnesota community wasn’t very diverse. She also thought there might be some expensive production challenges.

Toward the end of the converstion Laura wondered out loud what it would be like to do a play with the Santa Diaries characters but five years later. Light bulbs ignited in our brains. Who is Timmy’s father, anyway? It turned out the October deadline was really in November so we suggested sending her a one page synopsis of the arc of a new play.

Laura and I met, brainstormed, pulled together a synopsis and sent it off to Julianna. Then we waited.

And waited. (We aren’t very patient.) I knew Julianna was in a two week production and figured she was too busy to focus on our proposal. Waiting was hard. Laura and I really wanted this to happen.

Yesterday, early in the morning, I sent an email to Julianna. I knew her show had closed over the weekend and wanted to congratulate her on that, but I really wanted to know if she had any response to the synopsis. After all, this was not just her decision. It had to be presented to the theater board for approval.

She said she’d met with the board and they’d approved moving forward with the project. Then said she’d had a dream about the play and outlined an addition she thought might work. Actually it was brilliant if we can pull it off. (It invovles some cast diversity.)

Laura and I are over the moon! Of course we will go to Faribault, MN next December to see the premier production of our play – name to be determined. We would have missed this opportunity if I hadn’t gone back and reread that original text. Read to the bottom, folks.

 

 

 

Absence is a Play

Absence is a play, by Peter M. Floyd, about Alzheimers. It was part of a week long marketing effort by Integracare, parent corporation of Candle LIght Cove in Easton, MD, to bring awareness to their memory unit.  They want to have full occupancy which helps pay the bills and makes it possible for people with enough money to be able to have a safe place for those they love. That’s my cynical take. The week was also meant to be educational for professionals and families. All proceeds of the play ticket sales went to the Alzheimer’s Association

The play was heartbreaking, and difficult to watch. It made me want to cry. If I hadn’t been sitting in the middle of a row near the front with a friend, I would have left. I reminded myself that if you are caring for someone with dementia, you can’t leave. And quite possibly can’t afford the best residential care.

I suspect my cynicism was in part an emotional reaction to the play. As a playwright, I thought there were some problems with the structure and pacing of the play. Denial at work again? Maybe I was thinking about play structure so I didn’t start sobbing at what it must be like to lose the memories that make us who we are.

I wanted to go home and find a Doris Day movie on Netflix, lose myself in well-lit sets where beautiful people struggle with life, but always have a happy ending. As my friend and I walked into the parking lot, I was so absorbed that I almost tried to get in someone else’s car. I so hope that is not an early symptom of a downward slide.

Part of the week involved workshops and activities for professional care givers. A friend in my morning yoga class took part in a sensory deprivation exercise. She said it was extremely disorienting, but she was glad she’d done it. It gave her a better idea of what having dementia would be like. I think I’ll stick with denial for now.

It is estmated that 10% of people 65 and over have Alzheimers, and one-third of people age 85 and older (32 percent) have the disease. If other forms of dementia are added to that number it could be much higher. So kudos to all the people in the community who participated in bringing awareness to this issue. But the cynic in me wonders how the heck our country going to take care of all these people. I suppose women can quit their jobs and stay home to care for the elderly. Maybe lower income people without access to adequate healthcare won’t live long enough to develop dementia.

And then I wonder how the pharmaceutical industry is going to benefit. Would they really want to cure this disease? 10% of the increasing demographic of our aging population — that’s a lot of drug sales. What if the answer is less alcohol, less sugar and non GMO food? Or more good fat in our diets?  I’m cynical enough to think that profitability always seems to win. And that really makes me want to cry.