Adventures in Digital Theater: Or when the comments section strikes back

On President’s Day, I did a live digital reading of a play I’d written called Mayor Pete.

It’s a one-man show about Pete Buttigieg, small-town mayor, former Presidential candidate, and current Secretary of Transportation, who recently made history as America’s first openly gay cabinet member.

Because I’ve been a little wary of doing any long-form content on my theater’s social media, I was ambivalent about the reading itself.

I thought it might be useful to practice performing the piece in front of the one or two people I assumed would be watching in preparation for an in-person production of the show later in the year. Then again, I thought assuming one or two people might show up was already setting the bar way too high.

The only marketing I did for the show was a press release I sent out that, as far as I can tell, got picked up by exactly one news outlet.

Of course, due to the wonder of Google alerts, sometimes one news outlet can be like the chimney in Mary Poppins — sending a ripped up note to a magical nanny land where Julie Andrews is just waiting to come down to earth so she can organize your nursery.

The resulting article was noticed by Pete’s fan club, and they showed up in droves to watch me do a 90-minute play all about their idol.

Unfortunately for them — and I guess, for me — the play is not a cut-and-dried autobiography of Pete. In fact, it’s an imagined version of Pete that presents a fantastical and unfiltered look at him and his brief time in public life. While it doesn’t exactly make him look bad, it’s not striving to present any kind of accurate picture of him.

Guess how well that went over with the fan club?

As I was reading the piece, I made an effort not to look at the comments section, but once I reached the ending, I knew the firing squad was already locked and loaded. It’s funny how, even with a digital audience, you can tell when your work has landed like a parachute made out of titanium. In a moment of great wisdom, I had promised at the top of the reading that once it was over, I would do — deep breath — a Q&A.

Reader, there were so many Qs and I had so few As.

For one thing, many of the people watching the livestream had little-to-no knowledge of theater. That isn’t me being a gatekeeper, but just someone pointing out that some of these people really expected me to simply repeat things Pete has said or read sections of his book Trust like a witness reading a statement into the public record.

Others were more open to the idea that I would be taking liberties, but they felt that I was misrepresenting some of Pete’s views, and they wondered why I would use Pete at all and not just write a play called Generic Gay Mayor Who Runs for President. I tried to think of a tactful way to say “Nobody would watch that” while not exactly admitting that playwrights use public figures in their work to draw interest to it, because I’ve done that once before, and it turns out that while those people are fair game, there’s nothing preventing them from sending you a cease and desist letter all the same.

After about a half hour, I found that most of the people commenting were quite nice, even if they weren’t fans of what I had done. Most thought the play needed to be cut (they’re right) and some openly espoused their love for Pete. I had to be frank and say that I don’t think it’s a wise idea to idolize any politician. One woman accused me of being a “Bernie Bro” and while I was trying to stay cool and collected, I felt steam coming out of my ears like one of those cartoon wolves watching a pretty girl perform in a nightclub act.

Performing to that kind of hostile audience is exactly the kind of thing I shouldn’t miss about doing theater, but the truth is, it felt more like theater than anything I’ve done since the start of the pandemic, because if you were trying to embody what stand-up comedy feels like, you’d be dishonest if you told yourself it felt like the time when everybody was laughing and you were nailing every joke.

It’s the same for theater.

While we’re tempted to remember only the good things, I think it’s safe to say that at this point, I’ve started to miss even the bad stuff — like that audience that just isn’t into what you’re doing. The talkback where you feel as though you’re defending your work like it’s a child being bullied on a playground because the kid talks a little too much. Having to grapple with the fact that any new work that elicits a strong response is always preferable to everybody saying, “Good job,” then high-tailing it out of the lobby.

For a half hour after I was finished reading my new play, I was harangued, insulted and criticized. For most people, it would have been a nightmare. An entire comments section that you can’t look away from regaling you with negativity. I had a moment where I wondered if I should simply throw water on my laptop in the hopes that it would be destroyed and I could stop having to explain myself.

It wasn’t until I was on the way home that I thought to myself–

Wow, I missed that.




On “Plenty”: The play to read right now

There are certain plays I reread every year, because in some ways, it’s the best way to remind yourself how to write.

David Hare has, sadly, become a rarely produced playwright. It’s partly because he’s not scared of being topical, leaning into the moment and creating something that’s so specific it feels out of place even a year or two later.

He’s more accessible (and much more emotional) than Stoppard, but Stoppard is more fun to perform, and much more witty, whereas Hare prefers unabashed intensity.

If I had to give you a title to introduce you to Hare, it would be Skylight, but it’s yet another love story between a younger woman and an older man (on Broadway it was Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy, which … eek), and I don’t think it gives you the full scope of Hare’s abilities.

For that, I would recommend Plenty.

And upon my annual re-reading of the play, I found that not only is it Hare at his best, but it’s a forty-three year-old play that is so perfectly suited, not to the moment we’re in, but the moment I believe we’re about to be in.

Plenty is the story of Susan Traherne, a former government agent, as she tries to adjust to life post-war, while flashing back to some of the most exciting and traumatic events of her past. The title refers to the promise of England after the war, that there would be “plenty.” Those promises fell flat, and those called to serve their country were told they should be glad those days are behind them, even as the rush from being of service lingers on.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about plays I’d like to see produced once the pandemic is over. Plenty could be on that list, but it’s also a play you could benefit from reading right now, because it’ll take some time to process.

It makes the unusual argument that when exiting a catastrophe, you might find yourself missing the circumstances of the catastrophe, and what it does to the human psyche to feel nostalgic for periods of hardship and danger.

We now have more information about trauma than we did when David Hare wrote Plenty. We understand that it’s not the conflict we miss, but the feeling of importance people might have as they navigate a significant moment in history, particularly if they assist in the battle for what’s right or put themselves in the line of fire.

As I read Plenty, Susan called up the image of frontline workers to me. People who give selflessly and who, when all this is over, will most likely be expected to deal with the years-long struggle of having lived through this time without much help, because it’s what was expected of them.

There’s a joke in a play I love (Bernard Slade’s Same Time, Next Year) where a woman complains to her lover that her husband misses being in the armed forces. Her lover replies that many men have fond memories of that time in their lives. She then counters by saying that her husband was a prisoner of war.

The idea of longing for a time in your life where you were woefully unhappy, but perhaps, also feeling of use, is a complex one. It’s one of those internal struggles that theater so often avoids tackling, because first you have to clear the hurdle of explaining the conflict to an audience, then explore the issue, then, most of the time, leave them without an answer.

You have to throw the word “bravery” around, but that’s probably as close as writing comes to bravery, and it’s what theater has the potential to do so well–better than any other medium. There’s something about witnessing a character in crisis while surrounded by people who might be in the midst of that same crisis themselves that lands in a different way.

We are all in the middle of a crisis. We can’t wait until we’re on the other side of it. And yet, nothing of this magnitude can be construed as simple.

When prisoners are released, many of them report that in addition to the expected troubles they face, the one that surprises them the most are the times they miss being locked up, because while logically they can understand that life on the outside is better, they had trained themselves to enjoy whatever they could about being imprisoned as a means of staying sane. It’s like silver lining survival.

I’ve had artists confess to me that during this period of time, while others have seen their creativity numb, they’ve made more work than ever before out of a lack of anything else to do. 

Will they be able to keep that up once the pandemic is over and that grind we all hated so much returns — and perhaps even intensifies?

Are there things about this period that we could possibly take in the after-times? Not just the obvious lessons we’ve learned about savoring life and community, but personal things about ourselves and how we make ourselves feel valuable?

Can we miss how good it felt to be the person we were during a war without missing the war itself?

What I’ve heard over and over again lately is “Wait until somebody writes a play about all this,” but as is so often the case, somebody already did and they didn’t even realize that’s what they were doing.




Capture the Block — Stories from Ward 15: Building community block by block

The Wilbury Theatre Group has teamed up with The Rhode Island Council for the Humanities’ Culture is Key Initiative, and will soon be presenting the fruits of their labor with Capture the Block: Stories from Ward 15. Culture is Key is an initiative to understand, test and evaluate the role of cultural participation on our state’s civic health. Working in collaboration with journalist Ana González of The Public’s Radio, and with support from ONE Neighborhood Builders, The Wilbury Theatre Group solicited stories from neighbors in the Olneyville section of Providence who were willing to share their experiences of loss and resiliency in the COVID-19 pandemic. The project will culminate in Capture the Block.

In keeping with their mission, The Wilbury Theatre Group, being a nonprofit theater company that engages our community in thought-provoking conversation through new works, artistic director Josh Short contacted González for this collaboration. “The very real and human impact that COVID-19 has had on our neighborhood this year is heartbreaking,” says Short. “As one of the neighborhoods hit hardest, our friends and neighbors have seen their lives change drastically over the last 12 months. It’s our hope that Capture the Block provides a forum for remembrance and mourning through storytelling that helps our community in its healing, while amplifying the Humanities’ Council call for the urgent need for increased civic engagement from all of us.”

Ana González

Due to social distancing, González and Short had to get creative in their fact-finding mission. “The way we wound up doing it was like sample size. We weren’t able to go into the streets and talk to people, so we brought in about 10 people, of all different ages, to come and talk about the pandemic. We spoke with two high school students about the pressures of learning from home. They are taking on extra responsibilities themselves. One had to teach her younger sibling how to use Google Classroom because her parents don’t speak English,” González explains. “We also spoke with some parents about the stresses and challenges involved for working parents.”

“When we started this project almost six months ago, the world was in a different place,” says González. “We were hopeful that the pandemic would be over and done with by 2021 and we would be able to have an awesome in-person event with popcorn and hot chocolate, celebrating the streets of Olneyville in the streets of Olneyville. Obviously, we were wrong. This pandemic has taken so much from us. So, Josh and I decided to change the direction of our event to help our communities begin to heal by remembering all that we’ve lost and celebrating all that we’ve gained.”

Josh Short

The pandemic has created a space between neighbors that’s hard to fill, leaving us all feeling detached. “Afterward, Josh and I talked about how really great the experience of interviewing people and hearing their stories was, that it was nice to at least share the thoughts with people,” says González, who feels the sentiments span from low to high. “Sometimes it’s painful, boring, silly or weird — everything from sad to hopeful. Being able to talk with the community is really helpful.

 “The RI Council for Humanities started this as a pilot program. They want to support cultural institutions in the state on a civic level,” she says. “They’re learning in this process how museums and other cultural venues engage in the communities on a civic level, and I think they chose that word because of how tumultuous this past year has been — not just with the pandemic but politics, job security, because it’s been such an intense time for everybody. I was just kind of brought in as a journalist partner. They wanted to connect to these cultural organizations. I work with immigrants on very human interest stories and share their experiences. Josh asked me to get involved because of that. Olneyville is very Spanish speaking and I speak Spanish, so I was able to help Josh in the way he wanted help.” She is proudly of Puerto Rican and Irish decent.

As part of the Culture is Key initiative, five RI cultural organizations will undertake pilot projects where they will collaborate with local journalists to test and evaluate ways to further integrate civic engagement into cultural programming. These organizations span diverse disciplines including museums, libraries, theaters, festivals and youth programming. Each has a strong track record of delivering quality cultural experiences for diverse audiences across the Ocean State.

What’s next for González? “I’m still working on mosaics. We have a series of episodes for the summer. I’ll keep working with the immigrant population in the state, talking to them and helping them to communicate with each other. I think that’s so important in these isolating times.”

Capture the Block: Stories from Ward 15 is streaming for free on The Wilbury Group’s Facebook and YouTube Channels on February 21 at 6pm. For more information, visit thewilburygroup.org/capture-the-block




The Race: Wilbury’s latest offering was written for Zoom

“I’m a professional storyteller by trade, and I pretty much stopped working because of COVID,” says Mark Binder, the writer and playwright behind The Wilbury Group’s newest online offering, The Race. “Watching somebody tell a story in this [Zoom] setting is like bad TV a lot of the time.” Binder says it was the Boston-based Arlekin Players’ creative staging of State versus
Natasha Banina
that inspired him to write a show specifically for Zoom. “That was the first piece I saw that really used the zoomscape. I saw that it could be done and I thought, ‘Okay, I gotta play with this.’”

The result was The Race, playing as part of Wilbury’s streaming program through February 7. In the play, “Joseph Black and Joseph White are two men who are stuck in the same Zoom interview with the same interviewer, interviewing for the same job; the audience is the selection committee.” The two men are played by Jim O’Brien and Rodney Eric López, who switch roles from night to night, giving the show different resonances depending on when you attend. “We’ve consistently had people who’ve come back a second time to check out what’s different,” says Binder. “They’ve all said they enjoyed it as much the second time, which is very gratifying.”

“The dynamic changes every night,” says director Brien Lang. “It’s a testament to the depth of the script.”

The script speaks to urgent issues, says Binder: “There’s elements of race, there’s elements of sexuality, there’s elements of wealth inequality.” Binder continued to write during the rehearsal process, rewriting the script after every rehearsal. “It was lovely to work that way. I always hearkened back to what Kaufman and Hart and the Marx Brothers used to do. They would take the show to, like, Philadelphia and rewrite it every night.”

The interviewees’ unseen and mysterious interlocutor is played by Jennifer Mischley. “As an actor it’s awesome,” says Mischley. “The audience doesn’t know if I’m computer generated or an actual person, or a computer that’s learning as the interview goes.”

Unlike other Zoom shows, The Race involves audience interaction, using poll questions to keep the viewer engaged. “You get creative with the tools you have,” says Lang, who has directed several of Wilbury’s streaming offerings. “People have been getting really animated and engaged about the poll itself.”

“What you bring to the play changes how you see it,” adds Binder.

Nikita Zabinski wrote music for the show. “I’ve been wanting to work with Nikita for a while,” says Lang.

“The music is tense,” adds Mischley, “it immediately sets the tone.”

Wilbury is currently teaming up with WaterFire Arts Center to build a livestream studio. Their next offering will be an audioplay by Don Mays, God Talks to an Agnostic. While the group recognized the hunger theater artists have to return to the stage, Binder said he was “wondering if this form will persist: it allows people in different places to play with each other in a way that live theater can’t.”




They Say Write What You Know: How (not) to write a play about a pandemic

This was my first week teaching classes as an adjunct professor in playwriting. One of my students asked a question I’ve heard from a lot of other writers lately.

“Should we write about the moment we’re in?”

It can seem like one of those lose-lose situations when we talk so much about needing to remember history to be living history and cry out that we cannot handle any documentation of it even though most people agree that the moment you’re living through something is exactly when you should be documenting it.

I guess we could all write time capsule plays, seal them in a steel tub, and then bury them for 100 years so that the fish-people of 2121 can one day do nothing but perform plays about binge-watching Devs and learning to salsa while FaceTiming an instructor thousands of miles away.

(Those poor, future humans-with-gills.)

There’s also the obvious problem of not being able to avoid two years of human history that have this big a cloud hanging over them.

If you write a play that takes place in “modern times,” and everybody isn’t walking around wearing a mask, have you then written a play that takes place in an alternate reality?

The temptation to write something that is as seductive as not having to deal with characters who actually have to work for a living. Recently, a film critic complained that she was watching a movie where the protagonist spent a lot of time in their office seemingly doing nothing. I can go into that problem at a later date, but suffice to say, if hundreds of plays can be written about characters who appear to never worry about money or talk about work, then it should be possible to simply edit out a worldwide pandemic so you can have two straight characters arguing about their relationship in a gorgeous apartment you doubt either of them could afford.

But we want to come back better, right?

So maybe skip writing something like that.

Admittedly, I am one of those folks who does not want to read a play where the pandemic is used as a plot device.

I am, actually, very offended by movies like Locked Down, not just because they’re poorly written, but because it seems like the definition of “too soon” to use a crisis that’s taken the lives of scores of people across the globe as a centerpiece of your heist flick. Rarely do I argue that something is in poor taste, but in this case, I’ll make an exception.

That being said, it is difficult to tell writers to set aside something that is currently permeating their lives and write about … something else.

My first bit of advice was to look at that permeation as encouragement.

It really doesn’t matter whether you want to write about the pandemic or not. Whatever you’re writing is going to include the pandemic, because the pandemic is in our pores. It’s in the atmosphere.

If you’re going through a divorce, and you write a play about talking magpies, I guarantee you those talking magpies you’re creating are working out your divorce for you. It’s unavoidable.

That means if you do feel inclined to make something that deals with the COVID era head-on, I would argue that an audience living with something every day does not need it reflected back on themselves six months from now in some 50-seat blackbox. Whatever lessons we need to take from this moment will probably need to come with a good deal of retrospection.

In other words, you shouldn’t be trying to figure out how the fire started while you’re still inside the house.

What I did suggest to my students was that they could break down the themes that exist in their lives now and write about those instead. Things like isolation, disconnect, absence.

They could think about how this past year has further allowed technology to invade our lives. They could examine FOMO culture and what happens when it’s challenged.

They could write about community and what our responsibilities are to our community.

I advised them to go really, really easy on the metaphors, because while we’d all like to believe we’re Arthur Miller writing The Crucible, most of the time we’re some hack writing a one-act about an evil troll king that looks and sounds just like George W.

Careful with your metaphors.

Finally, I reminded my students that audiences watch plays the same way they vote — with an eye on personal interest.

There was a trend in the mid-aughts of every play having that David Hare flair for big, global arguments about 9/11 and the Iraq War and politics and ideas so complex you were handed an essay before the curtain rose so that you could understand just what the hell everybody onstage was screaming about in flawed accents.

I love David Hare and I love big ideas and I love a large worldview, but you can write a play that still showcases universal feelings like anxiety and loneliness and hope. Idea-driven plays are one of the things I think we can leave in the before times, since even Aristotle agreed that plot and character should come first.

I had a hard time — and still do — finding plays that deal with characters who are struggling to pay their student loans. People who are working two jobs, people who are smart and funny and clever even if they’re not formally educated. People who are used to living and working and getting things done even as the world around them falls apart.

One day, 100 years from now, when most of my body is bionic, I hope to see a play that looks as though it has nothing to do with the pandemic until a character walks onstage wearing a mask. During that play, maybe the characters will be dealing with other problems that are pandemic-related like the matriarch of the family being laid off or the son needing to adjust to learning at home after being the star of his school.

Those characters won’t necessarily be saying the word “COVID” all the time, and maybe they won’t even say “pandemic,” but they’ll be reminding me of a time that was, yes, unique, but also, one section of human history that still featured many of the conflicts and drama we’ve seen throughout time.

That’s why successful war movies don’t make war the star of the film.

That’s why effective horror movies are not concerned with the element of fear.

That’s why despite what SJP says, New York City cannot, in fact, be the fourth character on Sex and the City.

Ultimately, it has to be about people and the connective, emotional throughlines that run through us all.

A play about masks isn’t just unnecessary; it’s unoriginal.

Just ask the Greeks.




The Top Ten Things I’ve Learned from Going Digital: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Zoom

Now that we’re careening toward the one-year anniversary of all us having to learn that our faces look best when a ring of light is aimed at them, I thought it might be a good time to take stock and figure out what exactly I’ve learned and which mistakes I’ve made when it comes to taking the oldest “you really had to be there” industry, namely theater, into the digital age.

This is in no way an exhaustive list, although I am exhausted.

It is also not meant to come from a place of “Here are the things you should have been doing, other theater people” as much as it is “Look at everything I learned after I did everything wrong four or five times over.”

That aside, the mantra that I wrote down on a Post-It note last March that I almost immediately lost had one sentence written on it–

“Every crisis presents opportunities.”

In this instance, it was the opportunity to watch all of “Drag Race: Holland” and learn to say five different words in French.

Plus, I took my theater online.

In no particular order, here are the 10 things I learned from going digital–

10.  It took a pandemic to make me stop paying lip service to accessibility and really think about it.

Everything we’ve done up to now on my theater’s social media platforms has been free. We also have a service where you can sign up, and give us money, and we give you some cool content, and baptize your children, but other than that — all free.

And while the refrain I heard as we began taking programs online was “But is anybody watching this?” I was watching the numbers, and the answer was–

Yes.

And not only were they watching, whoever “they” are, but they were watching in bigger numbers than would have watched a play in a theater. It’s amazing that someone like me, who saw nothing wrong with performing a one-man show about Herbert Hoover for an audience of 10, suddenly felt like there wouldn’t be enough eyes on a digital production for it to be “worth it for me.”

The biggest takeaway was that while we were reaching people from all over the country, and in some cases Japan (?), the most surprising thing was hearing from local people who had no experience with our theater previous to the pandemic, but were now familiar with us and watching what we were doing.

When I reached out to a few of those people and did the standard “I hope you’ll join us when we’re back in the theater even though we’ll need you to wear a mask and sit inside a plastic bubble,” those people confessed that they never considered seeing live theater. In most cases, it wasn’t because they weren’t interested, but because they consider it a luxury. Something they can’t afford, or an outing that wouldn’t be welcoming to them because their idea of a person who goes to the theater doesn’t resemble them.

We clearly have a lot more work to do, and not just finding ways to get all kinds of people from all levels of the economic spectrum into the theater, but making them feel like they belong there. There’s more to say on that, but it’s probably best addressed in another essay that’s too long and features way too many commas.

9.  Shorter Is Better

I’m not just talking about French emperors. When “all this” (my preferred term for the worldwide trauma we’re still very much in) started, there was an impulse on all sides to rush to that obvious audience favorite — a reading. I don’t know how so many of us forgot, myself included, that while sitting in a theater and watching people read can be somewhat boring, sitting at a laptop while watching it feels like a nightmare dreamed up by Rod Serling. And boy, oh boy, did some of us pick some lengthy nightmares. There are plays out there that can be read in an hour’s time, but apparently, those were all uninteresting to us in March and April, and instead, we opted for perennial mood-lifters like The Lower Depths and Mourning Becomes Electra. My favorite experience was attempting to watch a bunch of A-list actors perform a Mamet play on Zoom, only seeming to realize, in real time, that cross-talk doesn’t work so well on Zoom, and Mamet is, aside from being a colossal prick, really into cross-talk. You would assume that in the age of TikTok and Insta-stories that we’d understand people want less not more, but then again, Quibi failed miserably, so what do I know? I think the point is, at least if you plan on doing something brief and it doesn’t work, it’ll be over soon. If you start reading Long Day’s Journey Into Night and you realize your mistake early on, you’re still in for a very long night.

8.  Everyone Is Available

Some of the people I’ve gotten to agree to talk to me on my theater’s interview show are people I’m assuming I never could have gotten during normal times. It took me way too long to figure out that NOBODY IS DOING ANYTHING. The fact that most of the guests are also very kind people doesn’t hurt, but scheduling sure is easy when there’s absolutely nothing going on. Initially, I was only asking the people I regularly work with, and then a very bright person, who I no longer speak to because interacting with bright people is bound to lead to insecurity, suggested that I try expanding my range of guests. So I started reaching out to friends in far away places, then strangers, then strangers in far away places, and I’m sure, at some point, this will all lead me to Angela Lansbury. I can’t wait.

7.  Give Out Your Passwords

If you had told me a year ago that I would willingly give out the passwords to my social media pages to 10 different people, I would have assumed that it was under duress, like, I don’t know, perhaps I’d be kidnapped or Channing Tatum was blackmailing me with that video of me at his 27th birthday party (it’s hardly the worst anybody’s behaved at an Outback Steakhouse). It turns out that when you need a wonderful, talented, generous group of artists to create content for you, the easiest way for that to happen is to loosen up on the reins and let them have as much agency as possible. While I think nearly anybody in charge of anything prefers to keep as many cards close to the chest as possible, it’s so much easier to put them down on the table. (I don’t play cards, so I have no idea if this analogy is working. The point is, learn to give up some control.)

6.  It’s Okay to Be Silly

Some of the programming we’ve created over the past year has been frivolous. Goofy. Nonsensical. And that’s on top of posting tweets about dogs that look like Paddington and people who dip their french fries in milkshakes (I know, I gagged as well). Somewhere along the way, I came to believe that theater was a very serious thing that needed to, at all times, convey its seriousness. Yes, we could be irreverent, but at no time could we be silly. The trouble is, when a plague is sweeping the land and all you have at your disposal are memes, silly goes a long way. Silly actually tripled my engagement on our digital platforms, and, I don’t know, it just feels good? It feels like playing. Remember playing? Being at play? Maybe we can go back to that. I forgot how much fun it is.

5.  Everything Is Going to Go Wrong and Then It’s Going to Go Worse

For a while, I was one of those people who strove for perfection, like Martha Stewart or every character Reese Witherspoon plays. When I started curating digital content, I was immediately taken aback by how many errors I was expected to just brush off. People on mute when they were supposed to be talking. Bad Internet connections. Shoddy video. Videos that wouldn’t upload. Disappearing posts. The choice was: Either learn to live with all this and assume people are cutting you more slack than you’re cutting yourself, or give up. I’m glad I didn’t give up. Theater was never perfect, not even at its best. Why should this iteration of it be?

4.  Audio Is Your Friend

I think that when losing a very visual medium, it’s understandable to try and recapture the spirit of that medium as much as you can, which, to many, meant video programming. But, oh my god, video is so awful. It is so, so awful. And difficult. And audio–

Again, podcasts are so popular.

They’re so, so popular, and I listen to at least six a day, and somehow, it didn’t occur to me until MONTHS into the pandemic that maybe we could do audio programming as well as video programming, and things immediately got easier. Like, overnight. Sound is your friend, everyone. Maybe your best friend. Have you called your best friend? Give them a call. See how they’re doing. But first–

3.  Try Everything

We’re told that branding and sticking to a mission and having a cohesive look and style is important, and it is, or rather, it was, before the entire world got turned upside down and we threw all the rules into a bonfire along with all that sourdough bread we made, but couldn’t bear to eat. So just try everything. A lot of what we’re able to do now, we’re able to do at a much lower cost than what the productions we usually mount require, and the stakes are so low, they may as well be at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, so just throw a bunch of spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks. If you try out 10 digital programs, and one really connects, never talk about those other nine failures, and hope everybody forgets about them.

2.  Remember Those Talented, Wonderful, Generous People I Mentioned Before?

I’ve never seen a theater that didn’t have at least two brilliant people working at it, and so while it may seem like the only people who should be creating content right now are artistic directors, actors, and that guy who stands outside the theater selling Hall and Oates t-shirts (Is that just my theater? Ugh, okay. Great. Gotta figure that out before we reopen.), the truth is that there might be people throughout your organization who have interests and hobbies and passions that they want to share with others. And what a great opportunity (there’s that word again) to showcase the many different personalities that populate your theater, and hopefully they don’t all exist within the head of the t-shirt guy (I really need to check in on Gary). We all talk about how we can get the general public invested in the lives of artists and their well-being, and the first step would be giving them every chance to get to know us as people who have lives and homes and bills just like everyone else. Again, give out those passwords. Then write down what they are, because you’ll never remember, and neither will anybody else.

1. Take Yourself Off Mute

Need I say more?




Cover Me!: Where have all the arts writers gone?

I should start by mentioning that even writing this would normally be considered a conflict of interest.

That’s because for the past nine years, I’ve run a theater company.

A small one.

As in, “you could fit in the back of a pick-up” small.

Part of running a small theater company, in addition to producing, you know, theater, involves endlessly chasing down press and coverage for the work you’re doing.

If you’re lucky, you can get a feature here and there for something you’re working on.

If you’re really lucky, you can get a feature and a review for whatever that thing is.

And if you get both, I assume you’re married to Rupert Murdoch.

I’m sure there are parts of the country where getting people to write about your work is not difficult, and goodness knows I am far luckier than most when it comes to press, but that’s partly because when people ignore me, I dress up a pug to look like Ophelia or antagonize the star of Pineapple Express.

I’ve often been accused of producing “stunts,” and it’s not an unfair assessment, but I would always point out that stunts get you a returned phone call from an arts writer or a critic, whereas the best production of some play anyone has ever seen could possibly get you a mention in someone’s Facebook status.

We have a serious problem with arts and arts writing, and while it may be tempting to blame it all on the pandemic, the reality is, it’s been an issue for far longer than that, and it needs to be added to the long list of things we should be addressing before we even think about getting back onstage.

Before we get too far into this, let me just say that I’m sure some of what I’m about to say is not going over well with some people, so I’d like to preface it all by stating that I understand most of these problems are not the result of any one person (aside from Rupert Murdoch, probably), and that systemic elitism and capitalism are likely to blame for it, just like everything else, but by not talking about it, or by pulling the ol’ “That’s just the way it is” mantra that I heard over and over again when I was asking why coverage for my work and the work of other smaller theaters in the area was so inconsistent, we are looking at a problem that is not all that hard to fix and claiming it unfixable.

And if we can’t fix the fixable problems, what chance do we have to fix the bigger ones?

So all that being said, let’s talk about pay-to-play.

(I can already feel you bristling. It’s okay. Take a deep breath. It’s not going to be as bad as you think. Or maybe it is, but there’s no way you’re going to stop reading now.)

I am not naive to the ways in which money affects just about everything, but perhaps there’s a small part of me that would like to believe a state that constantly — and accurately — touts its arts sector as its main selling point would see the value in writing about and spotlighting as much of that sector as possible.

Instead, we see publications giving coverage to the same major arts organizations time and again, and those organizations just so happen to have the money to take out large ads in the pages of those newspapers and magazines.

Now, I’m not faulting any theater for how it chooses to advertise, and indeed, if most of us were able to afford to play the game, I’m sure we’d play it happily as well, but it doesn’t make it any less distasteful that some of the best productions I’ve seen in recent memory went mostly unwritten about, because it was happening at a theater that couldn’t afford to advertise.

Do I have any proof that advertising will automatically get you more coverage?

Well, if you look at who is getting the coverage and who isn’t, and what both of those groups are doing and not doing, it seems logical to assume that ad dollars are playing a part, and if they aren’t, that means the size of the theater or its perceived reputation or longevity is a factor, and I can’t think of a better way to tank a blossoming arts community than to have the media in that community telegraph to its young artists that whatever they do or create will go mainly unrecognized unless they do it somewhere that has been deemed “reputable” or “impressive.”

You can imagine what would have happened to the adventurous spirit in theater communities like New York or Chicago if the arts writers there had balked at going to an opening night that wasn’t catered or asked to review a show without being given two free drink tickets along with their program. I’m starting to pray that the founders of the next Steppenwolf or NYTW aren’t going to make a go of it in Rhode Island, because chances are, they’ll be widely ignored.

And if I sound like I’m being unreasonable, please know that I have tried to meet editors and publishers halfway so many times, I now own a condo at the halfway point.

In fact, I once suggested to an editor that if space in a newspaper was an issue, and I’m sure it is, could he just agree to send someone to write about my theater’s work and only post the article or review online. I assured him that wouldn’t bother me at all since most of my audience base would still see it. I stopped just short of saying, “Because none of them read your newspaper anyway,” because I was attempting to be diplomatic.

I was then told that even writing something digitally would be fiscally prohibitive, and I dropped the matter, believing what I was told.

Two days later, an article appeared on the front page of this newspaper’s arts section all about a random actor in a random tour that was coming through town, and I had to wonder how that kind of coverage could fit within a budget?

A puff piece to promote a project that really had no local ties whatsoever aside from the fact that it was playing a local venue that regularly advertises in the paper.

Now listen, I’m not against puff pieces. I’ve written them and I’ll read them, but if something has to be prioritized, I think it only makes sense to prioritize local arts in a local paper before you get around to writing yet another review of the latest non-eq Jesus Christ Superstar tour that’s rolling through the town for a total of three performances.

I’m not speaking morally either.

Yes, covering local theater is the right thing to do, but it also just makes sense from a business standpoint.

My mother has no interest in who’s playing Elphaba in the latest Wicked tour, but if I’m in even so much as a blurb in The Providence Journal, she buys out the newsstand, and I’m sure she’s not alone in that. Yes, ad money is important, but so is a paper’s responsibility to cover stories based on the interest level of its local readership, which subsequently turns into an investment in that institution.

We frequently hear about how the media is under assault and we need to support our local papers, and I agree with that, but local arts writers, just like our local theaters, also need to be spending this time, as my friend Aaron Blanck says, justifying why they should exist. And if their best argument for that happens to be a thousand words on somebody growing a zucchini that looks like Roger Williams, I’m not sure they’re going to be around much longer.

This might be when you present me with the argument that because theaters are not regularly producing in-person programming right now, there isn’t anything to write about, and you’d be arguing that with someone who has done nothing but write since all of this began. That isn’t me patting myself on the back (okay, maybe a little), but it is pointing out that when there’s no art, there are still artists, and artists are worth writing about, especially as it pertains to how important they are, the fact that they’re human beings with bills and livelihoods and personalities and interests that stretch beyond spending five minutes on the phone promoting their latest project.

What an amazing opportunity we’ve been given right now to talk to artists about their creative process, what they do when they’re not onstage, what they’d like to see happen when theaters come back.

Human interest stories, remember those?

And no, the Roger Williams zucchini does not count as human interest.

I spent months after the pandemic began speaking to artistic directors from all kinds of theaters about how they were weathering the storm. I’ve reviewed digital productions. I’ve written think-pieces like this that nobody asked for, but seemed worth working on anyway.

There is still plenty to write about, and arts writers or editors saying there isn’t is a failure of imagination from a group of people whose job is to celebrate imagination.

This is also not a problem that is specific to Rhode Island. I’ve heard from theaters all over the country about how their local papers and publications are letting them down at a crucial moment. Yes, many of those papers are, themselves, in dire straits, but isn’t that all the more reason why we should be helping each other, and giving each other reasons to champion the work being done on both sides?

While it would be arguably more awful if the arts sections just up and disappeared, at least then, there would be a certain amount of equity to the matter.

Okay, we’re on our own. It’s horrendous, but at least there’s a level playing field.

Instead, what we’re met with is the same, ongoing nonsense that we’ve seen for years–

Smaller organizations not only being ignored, but being given no rhyme or reason for why, and certainly no criteria for how they can find themselves in their local paper, because, chances are, the criteria involves money, but nobody wants to admit that, so instead, many of us just cross our fingers and hope we’ll do something so undeniably brilliant that editors will feel they have no choice but to send in their critics.

I once sat next to a group of women at Trinity Rep who told me they loved theater and wanted to see more of it. My ears perked up, and I asked them what theaters they were currently subscribed to.

“Well, we see everything here,” one of them said, meaning Trinity. “And we go to PPAC, and the Gamm, and Theater by the Sea, but we wish we had a few more to choose from.”

I then started listing other theaters, including my own, that they could check out. They were stunned. They had no idea any of these places existed. They were general audience-goers. A bit older, and not that active on social media. The way they located events and organizations was by reading the Journal, Rhode Island Monthly, Providence Monthly, and one or two other publications. While nearly every theater appears in at least a few of those once or twice, they regular spotlight on the bigger groups guaranteed that, as far people like these were concerned, they only needed to memorize the names of a handful of places.

The age-old argument that reviews don’t matter and you shouldn’t read them is not without merit, but even at the height of online participation, there is still the feeling that if nobody is writing about you, it’s because there’s nothing there worth writing about, and that is unacceptable, but not likely to change, which means what does have to change are the people doing the writing or the ones handing out assignments.

That’s where you come in.

Right now, you’ve probably heard a lot about how much artists need your help, particularly your money, and that’s still true. If you can donate to a fund that’s supporting artists and freelancers right now, please do.

If you don’t have the money to donate, there are still things you can do to help, and I’ll be writing more about them later this month, but for now, here’s one thing you can do–

Call whoever is left at your local paper and tell them they need to be consistently writing about local artists, and they need to be sure to spread the wealth. Chances are, if the first one happens, then the second won’t be hard to do.

If you see that a local theater is putting on a digital production of something, or revamping their Instagram, or even regularly making an effort to keep a presence online until this is over, consider writing to an editor and telling them they should be writing stories about it.

They’re going to tell you it’s a financial matter, and while that might not be a lie, the fact is–

They have to write about something, and if you’ve pursued any of these magazines or newspapers lately, you can see that they are writing about a lot of–forgive the term–utter crap.

If there’s room for movie reviews, there’s room for a profile of a local set designer.

If there’s room for articles online that are rerun from the AP about a celebrity marriage, there’s room for a reporter to spend a day at a small theater that’s struggling to keep the doors open.

If there is room for politics and sports and inflammatory hate-speech masquerading as “opinion pieces,” then there is room for the arts.

If you’re going to put arts on the tourism brochure, you need to put us in The Providence Journal as well.

And if anybody working at The Providence Journal or Providence Business News or Providence Monthly or Rhode Island Monthly, or any of the many papers in cities and towns all over the state reading this, feels angered by what I’ve said, I have good news for you. 

You can do better.

And I look forward to reading all about it when you do.

Ed. note: Motif maintains a strict separation between our ad and editorial departments, and we never engage in pay for play.




The New Classics: Ten titles to produce when we’re back to producing

As a theater lover, this is usually one of my favorite parts of any season.

January has become the de facto time for theaters to take on some of their most ambitious projects, and normally, that means tackling a classic.

While a season opener sets the tone, and the season ender assists in you going out on a high note, the middle of the season, combined with the arrival of a brand new year, can sometimes be a reset or a chance for an organization to greet audiences who’ve made a resolution to see more theater with the best it has to offer.

And clearly, we’re not doing that this year.

But while most of us agree that many models need to be chucked out the nearest window, I would argue that barring something in the mission statement that has us avoiding anything that isn’t extremely modern, we should fight to keep the classics spot alive.

What I think we need to look at is what defines a classic.

First off, let’s not get into Shakespeare.

If you love it, fantastic, but it’s the customary go-to, right?

Also, I know The Great Gatsby is in the public domain now, but for the love of god, don’t. We had a wonderful local production only a few years ago, and another fabulous college production before that. Let’s put a moratorium on all things Gatsby for the foreseeable future.

Then there are the Tony and Pulitzer winners.

I promise you we have raked those coals bare. One of the benefits of living in an area with so much theater is that your “I’ve never seen” list gets shorter and shorter until you find yourself wondering why you’ve seen six different productions of Bus Stop.

The question is: What are the new classics?

The shows that wouldn’t immediately jump to mind as something that works for both a field trip and guarantees audience and critical acclaim unless you royally mess it up?

These would be my choices for the Top Ten shows we should see not only being produced more often, but conceptualized. Reimagined. Given the kind of signature performance that helps establish younger companies still introducing themselves to audiences and assists theaters with more longevity in demonstrating their acuity at tackling the big texts.

All of these plays are just old enough to have cemented their inarguable excellence while still being new enough to ensure that many of us have probably only seen a few of them onstage. I also tried to weave around choosing titles that are already highly produced even if they could be thought of as new classics (plays like The Clean House or Appropriate.) I also tried to keep manageability in mind, which is why you won’t see M. Butterfly on the list. It’s a gorgeous play, but only if you can find someone to play the title role, and that’s no easy feat.

Feel free to argue with me, that’s part of the fun of theater and Top Ten lists, but after you’ve run to the comments section, run to wherever you get your plays and read all of these.

In no particular order–

10. bobrauschenbergamerica by Charles Mee

For my money, everybody should do a Charles Mee play once a year. This just happens to be my favorite, but all of them are wild and wonderful. I’m already breaking my rule about audiences though, because boy oh boy, do you need an audience that’s willing to go on a ride, but what better way to cultivate one than with work this joyous? Plus, you can read all his plays for free right on his website (charlesmee.com)

9. King Hedley II by August Wilson

I have no idea why this play isn’t done all the time, especially since this is the play that got Viola Davis her first Tony Award. While I’ll never quibble about which Wilson play is the best, the 1980s seems like a time worth examining again in the current moment. When I spoke about conceptualizing earlier, Wilson is who I was thinking about. In America, you know we love you when we start deconstructing you, and it seems a shame that Wilson’s work has never been attempted by directors willing to view it through a less-than-naturalistic lens. His later work, like Gem of the Ocean, even seems to beg for it. I can see why trying something like that with stalwarts like Fences might be tricky, so why not give it a try with something lesser known, but equally powerful?

8. On the Verge by Eric Overmyer

I allowed myself one of those “it used to be done all the time” plays, because this is one even I haven’t seen, and goodness knows, I’ve tried. Go back and read it and you’ll find it not only holds up, it holds on. It is long overdue for a professional revival.

7.  An American Daughter by Wendy Wasserstein

When theaters produce Wendy Wasserstein, they produce The Heidi Chronicles and call it a day. In my opinion, this is the play we need from her right now. A blistering condemnation of what women face in the political arena, with observations on the media that seem prescient and dialogue that ranks among her best. Why it wasn’t done everywhere in 2016 is beyond me.

6.  Dot by Colman Domingo

No artist should be allowed to be as talented as Colman Domingo, and yet, he’s just as good a playwright as he is an actor, which is saying something. His play Dot is one of the best I’ve read about aging and how it impacts a family, and it offers a star-making turn for its title character.

5.  Sonnets for an Old Century by Jose Rivera

Trinity’s recent production of Marisol should have had everybody going back and looking at the work of Jose Rivera, but unfortunately, I’m not sure we were as adventurous in the before times as Rivera requires. Luckily, we’re all game for much bigger leaps once this plague is over, right? And the perfect way to showcase that is by taking a look at Rivera’s half-poem, half-exaltation that offers unlimited possibilities for casting, directing and designing. It features some of the best monologues I’ve ever read and language that you’ll never be able to forget.

4.  What of the Night? by María Irene Fornés 

It’s possible you know Fefu and Her Friends and Mud, but while you might be tempted to produce Mother Courage once you’re back in business, I’d plead with you to look at this grandiose theatrical experiment instead. It’s epic in scope and messaging, and features the legendary playwright at the height of her prowess.

3.  Drowning Crow by Regina Taylor

Regina Taylor’s gospel musical Crowns is more well-known, but I found her adaptation of The Seagull to be one of the best ever written. It’s a no-nonsense, gutsy approach to the work that has no reverence for the source material whatsoever (which is sort of how you have to do it if you’re going to adapt Chekhov). Sometimes you have to meet an audience halfway with a story they know, told in a manner they’re not familiar with, and this is a great example of that special kind of artistic marriage.

2. Satellites by Diana Son

Son’s play Stop/Kiss is her most popular work. Even my theater produced it years ago, and while I can see why it packs a punch, a part of me was upset I didn’t discover Satellites until much later, and in the middle of an already-programmed season, because it’s an elevation of all her previous fascinations in a way that’s both humorous and devastating. It’s also one of the best plays about city living that I’ve ever read.

1.  Father Comes Home from the Wars by Suzan-Lori Parks

Before you tell me you’re too scared to take on a play this massive, I’d like to remind you that nearly every artistic director I’ve ever met has wanted to produce Angels in America at some point, most of them will eventually, and once the rights to The Inheritance become available, I’m sure I’m going to have to sit through at least two local productions of that before I ever get to see something as exciting as Father Comes Home from the Wars. Parks’ play was met with near universal acclaim when it premiered, and like most plays that look at history and race, it barely ever appeared outside of major markets after that. It’s exactly the kind of work we need to be doing when theaters reopen, and it still has all the strengths of any and all American classics, while not letting America off the hook.

If you don’t end up liking any of these plays after you read them, use them as a jumping off point to discover more work that could find a home on your stage.

Just please don’t make me sit through another production of The Glass Menagerie.

I’m begging you.




Transform the New Year: Metamorphosis Dance Company’s NYE Extravaganza

It’s possible you’re missing the New Year’s Eve party you would have had if this had been anything resembling a normal year, but it only stands to reason that some of most innovative partiers in the state are more than prepared to bring the December 31 festivities online.

I spoke with some of the artists at TEN31 Productions and the Metamorphosis Dance Company all about how they’ve managed to soldier on in 2020 and what we should expect from their first virtual end-of-the-year spectacular.

Kevin Broccoli (Motif): When putting together an event for NYE this year, how much did the events of the year inform the way you wanted to construct it? I feel like NYE is going to be so bittersweet because everybody is excited to leave this year behind, but celebrating is going to be both difficult and seem difficult with the amount of loss we’ve had. I’d love to know what the conversations were about how to approach putting together the evening.

Alicia Wilder (Choreographer): When we discussed the idea of applying for the Rhode Island Commerce HArT Grant to put on a performance for the end of the year, we were trying to find a way to spread joy and cater an event specifically to the virtual world. 2020 was overall meant to be a year full of  celebration at TEN31, as it was our 20th anniversary year. In May we had plans to host a retrospective concert, highlighting pieces that had been produced by MDC over the last six years, as part of our contribution to the celebration. We decided not to focus the performance on something holiday specific, but instead as a celebration of all that we have accomplished that brought us to this point, and all the hard work the dance company members have put in to keep the space and programming alive through the pandemic. The pieces were chosen based on overall visual impact, smaller cast sizes, and to showcase a wide range of what MDC has to offer. 

The process of putting the pieces themselves together has presented us with a new challenge. We had to take all the contact and partnering out of the work, in order to keep everyone as safe as possible. In particular, the piece “Natural Enemies” was 90% partnering and contact. The way these parameters have evolved the piece is truly remarkable. The distance between the dancers is greater, but it in turn increases their mental connection, which makes the space between them vibrate and really brings new life to the piece. I will be working closely with Montage Media Productions, the videography team for this project, to add the camera into the work, almost as an additional dancer. We want the show to have a concert dance feel, but the beauty of video production allows us to take the audience deeper into the work, and really immerse them. My overall challenge, or goal, has been to navigate how the restrictions can send us in new directions and create an immersive experience through film and movement. 

KB: It’s so exciting that dance is the focal point of the event. Will this be brand new material or work you’ve been putting together previous to this event being planned?

AW: I agree! The pieces in this show span from works created in 2014 through fall 2019. All of the pieces have been reworked slightly over the course of this process, but nothing has been created brand new for this show. However, most of the pieces were presented at private events, so this is the first time they will be performed for a public audience. 

KB: This will actually be the first dance event I’ve watched digitally since the pandemic began. Can you talk about how you factored in the digital element?

AW: The show will start with a brief introduction and welcome from me, as the dance company director. Then the pieces will be presented one after the other, still having the same feel that an in-person dance concert would have. We have shortened the overall program to fit into a 45min time block, because it is my experience that shorter broadcasts work better on a virtual streaming platform. It’s easy to be distracted when you’re in your own home. To add to that, we’ve really thought out how the camera, and in turn the audience, can become another mover in the show. This gives an audience the chance to see details and nuances they may not have seen from their seats in a theater, and also makes them feel like the piece is happening around them. The camera angles to me are so important. Being mindful of how you are visually telling the story, and keeping the audience engaged as well. We could have set the camera up with one wide view and let the audience view it just as if they were in theater, but I wanted to find ways to take it to the next level. My mindset during this whole pandemic is to find the positive. To look for ways to grow and build in the boxes we have been put in, both literally on the dance floor in divided spaces, and mentally. Setting restrictions is often used as a choreographic tool. It’s how you utilize those restrictions that creates the magic. 

KB: It looked like the event at Roger Williams Park this Halloween was a big success. Did that teach you anything about how to move forward with events like that until we can return to some kind of normal?

Eric Auger (Co-Founder/Artist): Creating a haunted house type of event that adhered to COVID-19 social distancing parameters felt daunting at first, but after having success with a few outdoor, community-based events earlier in the fall, we felt prepared. Adapting our costumes to include full face coverings was the easy part, as it was just an extension of the existing costume in material and design. Our biggest challenge was to figure out how to keep the energy transference of our performance intact with our audience while socially distancing. The Museum of Natural History (where the event took place) had already cleverly designed a one-way path through all of their galleries, so we took what they had already established and embellished it with some living tableaus presented here and there, all socially distanced, of course. What we learned is that ‘the show can go on,’ it just takes a bit more time to add in these new extra precautionary steps to our normal show guidelines, guaranteeing the safety of our staff and the audience. More importantly, we realized that our performances can still resonate with our audience, even with all of these restrictions; more than ever, people want to make pretend with us, because they have been restricted in their homes for so long. We had a lot of ‘thank you for doing this’ comments as people were exiting. 

KB: How has the company been adapting overall? Ten31 relies so heavily on events and obviously winter is going to be tough for anything indoors. Are you making plans for more digital events?

AW: Overall TEN31 has been doing alright. We have an amazing group of artists who work with us, and are willing to try new things! We’ve had a few events here and there, but the biggest thing for us has been the ability to shift gears and grow the dance space, and what I hope to soon be an arts and performance hub.  

MDC has a Youth Program (MDYP) that is now in its second season. We did lose a few students, due to having to shift virtual, but the program is still going strong and I have a feeling we’ll be back to where we were at the end of last year soon.  

Our open adult classes had just been one class on Tuesday nights. With the shift of things in the pandemic we now have 10 open adult wellness & dance classes running regularly, which in January we are planning to increase to 14. We offer hybrid classes, so people can come in person and follow all safety regulations, or they can take class from home. Our classes include: yoga, barré, strength and conditioning, jazz, contemporary, ballet, hip-hop and Latin dance. We’ve been able to bring in outside local artists to the teaching roster, and we can’t wait to keep building that.  

As for digital events, we don’t have any specific shows in mind, but are setting ourselves up with the ability to stream not only classes, but performances as well. We hope to have space for not just MDC and TEN31 to put on shows, but for local artists as well.  

TEN31 has also added some new skills to our performance roster, like virtual hosts for your meetings, conferences and parties. To pre-recorded or live performances to fill virtual events with entertainment. We have worked very closely with the clients for the few events we have done to make sure that our performers and the guests are kept safe. The winter does make things tough for indoor events, but we’ve been working to find ways for our outdoor characters to be a part of festivities as well. 

NYE with Metamorphosis Dance Company will be streaming live on December 31 @ 8pm. Admission is **Free.** For more information, go to ten31productions.com




Try to Keep It All the Year: Trinity Rep’s “A Christmas Carol”

“There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say,’ returned the nephew. ‘Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that—as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”

While it’s not uncommon to use a quote to kick off a review, I’m probably not supposed to use a quote that large. I did it anyway, because it’s not only my favorite quote from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, but it’s also one of my favorite lines in literature, and the one most likely to choke me up no matter what time of year it is.

It’s spoken by Fred, the nephew of Ebeneezer Scrooge, a miser who spends the day before Christmas terrorizing his employee, Bob, dismissing his beleaguered nephew, and mocking those collecting money for the poor.

“If they would rather die, . . . They had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

Reading that is almost like listening to C-SPAN, isn’t it?

The most famous Christmas story of all time, aside from the Nativity, also happens to be the most popular, go-to holiday programming for seemingly every theater in the country. Annual productions are usually a great way to bank some money, and a way for directors and adapters to play around with a story audiences know well enough to allow for some artistic interpretation.

This year, that interpretation comes with the added challenge of taking the magic of Dickens and putting it on televisions and laptops. For many people, this might be the first digital production they’ve agreed to sit though since the pandemic began, and while all audiences these days have dwindling attention spans, you can see how it might be difficult to convince the kids to sit and watch a streaming version of something that has a hundred other purely cinematic versions–including one with Muppets.

(Or as I call that film, “the definitive Christmas Carol.”)

So rejoice, because Trinity has stuck the landing.

A series of smart directorial choices, and a bevy of enchanting performances, has made this Christmas Carol one you won’t want to miss, and the best part is, it’s free.

Taking the story to film seems to have opened up the creativity of Trinity’s team, including some absolutely gorgeous animation from Michael Guy, when Scrooge is spirited into a book by the always-beguiling Rebecca Gibel as the Ghost of Christmas Past. Gibel and Rachael Warren pop up throughout the play in various roles, and the two of them were playing off each other so well, I completely forgot they were filming from separate locations.

Filming actors from various places, including their homes, a cemetery, and the streets of Providence, is just one hurdle the production had to clear. Director Curt Columbus and director of photography Albert Genao had a lot of plates to spin with this one, and they’ve knocked it out of the park.

This Christmas Carol manages to be many things all at once: a love letter to Providence, a celebration of family and community, a welcome opportunity to let us take a far-too-brief look back into a performance space none of us have seen for months, and an entertaining hour of holiday fun that balances fine-tuned videography with that special brand of unique theatrical energy that sometimes reads as too much  when a camera is aimed at it, but attached to this story seems more than appropriate.

Joe Wilson Jr. is a marvelous Scrooge, who adjusts beautifully to each new medium we see the character in — whether it be standing among the stunning set and props from S. Michael Getz — or on a Facetime call with Fred, played with just the right amount of hope and subtlety by Rodney Witherspoon. There are so many ways to play Scrooge, and a wise actor won’t ask how their Scrooge can be different, but what kind of Scrooge the moment requires, and it struck me that this Scrooge seemed more withdrawn than anything else. Instead of just bluster and snarkiness, we see the pain in him right from the beginning. He’s left the world, and so it makes his return to it in the finale that much more cathartic.

Daniel Duque-Estrada does double duty as a kind of mad scientist narrator leading us through the interactive portions of the show (get your bells ready), and the Ghost of Christmas Present. His interim pieces between scenes reminded me of the videos you see before you step onto a ride at an amusement park, and while that may sound like a dig, it’s actually perfect for keeping the energy aloft throughout the show. It doesn’t hurt that Duque-Estrada commits to it fully, and it just feels fantastic to see actors we know can play serious get to be silly for a bit.

One of the most striking moments of the play is the appearance of Stephen Thorne as Marley, standing right outside the Providence Public Library. There’s always the question of how scary you actually want A Christmas Carol to be since it can run the gamut from “mildly spooky” to Scrooged, but I found the scene where Marley visits Scrooge to be exceptionally filmed, edited and performed.

As Bob Crachit, Taavon Gamble is endearing early on, alongside his equally charming family played by Adam Crowe as his husband Sam, and Tiny Tim, played by the lovely Evelyn Marote. Gamble’s performance eventually turns heartbreaking when Scrooge gets a vision of not just his future, but the futures of those he impacts.

It’s a good reminder that it’s not just about how we, ourselves, change, but how we change those around us.

While theater requires attention to detail, anything on film has its detail magnified by 10. So you’ll be relieved to know Trinity has all its bases covered. The quality is stellar, the costumes by Amanda Downing Carney are exquisite, the music by Michael Rice and the sound design by Peter Sasha Hurowitz are both eerie and evocative, and the lighting by Steve McLellan has that perfect theater glow to it that we all can’t wait to see again live.

When done well, A Christmas Carol is a story you should take something new from each time you see it, but it’s understandable that the proliferation of it in culture has made us numb to its message. We see it because seeing it is tradition, but it becomes just one more thing to check off our holiday activity list as we careen towards the 25th.

This year, I hope when you put on Trinity’s A Christmas Carol, you do your best to sit and experience the show the same way you would in a theater. Phones off, eyes forward, open to letting a little magic into your life.

With this year being what it was, it’s okay if you haven’t felt like finding something to cherish yet, but this Christmas Carol might just be that thing.

And the good news is–

You haven’t missed it.

Trinity Rep’s A Christmas Carol streams for free now through January 10. For tickets, go to https://www.trinityrep.com/buy-tickets/