HONK! JR. Director's Note

I’ve been thinking today about the Stages Bloomington production of HONK! JR. back in April, and felt like posting my director’s note. The following is slightly edited from the first draft, which needed to be cut down to fit in the program, but it has some of my thoughts about arts education and such. So let’s call this “The Director’s Cut”.

Welcome to Stages Bloomington, welcome to The Warehouse, and welcome to Honk! Jr. based on “The Ugly Duckling” by Hans Christian Andersen.  Published in 1843 in Denmark, it’s a true classic of children’s literature.  Why has this story captured our hearts for almost 200 years?  It’s a universal story about personal transformation, and about overcoming teasing and bullying.  I think we’ve all had times where we seemed different on the outside, or felt different on the inside. 

In our musical version, the lesson is not just about Ugly’s transformation, but what the other animals realize they’ve lost when he goes missing.  I’m pretty sure even if Ugly had stayed just the way he was, he’d have been welcomed back to the duckyard just as warmly.  I can’t think of more important message for children to learn: that difference isn’t something to fear, but something to celebrate and learn from (and, like most important messages for children, it’s a valuable reminder for grown-ups too). 

I owe a big debt of gratitude to everyone who made this show possible.  Thank you, Samantha and Emily, for doing a splendid job teaching the choreography and music.  Thank you, Lucia and Ceilidh, for being such a great backstage team.  Thank you Sheryl for helping run rehearsals and getting this whole production across the finish line.  Thank you Sarah, Brian and Joe for your lovely artwork and designs.  Thank you Pat, Molly and the Stages Board for entrusting me with this show.  Thank you cast for all your hard work!

And perhaps most of all, I want to thank YOU for joining us.  YOU, the audience, are the final collaborator in this story we’re telling.  And we here at Stages absolutely want to entertain you.  But we have other, bigger plans that don’t fit on this stage.  Because the performance you’ll see is a small part of what arts education is about.  The rest of it is hidden “behind the scenes”: 

·        Behind the scenes are the skills and discipline the cast can use in another show. 

·        Behind the scenes are the teamwork, creativity and confidence that will help them solve all sorts of problems in their future.

·        Behind the scenes are the friendships they’ve made.

·        Behind the scenes are the increased empathy and openness to the world around them.

     I believe arts education isn’t just about making more and better artists.  It’s about making healthier and better people and societies.  So, thank you for supporting quality arts education in your community.  [And I mean “your community” for all of you.  Even if you’re visiting from far away, for the time that you’re in the audience with us, for the time you spend with these performers and this story, Bloomington is YOUR community too.]

~Liam Castellan, Director

 P.S.  “HONK!”

PHOTO CREDIT: Lucia Davila

Posted on July 30, 2019 .

"Cherry Docs" program note

Come see us in Bloomington through May 19, 2019.

            I wake up Sunday morning, a week and a half before opening night.  We’re back in rehearsal tonight, after several days off.  “I should write my director’s note this morning”, I think to myself as I stumble towards breakfast.  I pull up last night’s episode of NBC Nightly News on my phone while I eat my Cheerios. 

            “One killed, three injured in shooting in California synagogue”

            I stop.

            I think back to my previous JTB production, Church & State, about a school shooting, and how we couldn’t even get through five performances without a school shooting making national news.   I think about Charlottesville and Squirrel Hill.  I wonder whether a play like Cherry Docs will even help, or if it will just poke at whatever individual or collective trauma you in the audience have brought in with you.  I wonder what I, a person who isn’t Jewish, who isn’t the target of any of this, can say to you in this note.

            It breaks my heart that the issues in this 20-year-old play feel more relevant today than when it was written.  I can’t wait until this play becomes a “period piece” and requires research to understand it. 

            I love theatre because it can show us stories about kinds of characters we don’t normally interact with.  Characters we may not think much about or may have assumptions about.  Mike’s hate and Danny’s tolerance are both, in different ways, based on assumptions.  Taken for granted.  As they are forced to get to know each other, those assumptions are tested, and we get to see what’s underneath that hate, what’s underneath that tolerance.  We’re left asking whether the change in one character is worth the cost to the other.

            I know this play won’t “solve” hate (I know that police and prisons won’t solve it either).  I know that things can feel bleak, with hate and anti-Semitism on the rise, emboldened by certain loud voices in our society.  I know that it’s not enough to be “non-racist”, we need to strive to be “anti-racist” (and I know I’m not doing enough on that point).

            Can a play like Cherry Docs help?

            That I don’t know.

            Let’s find out together.

            Thanks for being here.

Posted on May 11, 2019 .


So my thesis production for my final year of grad school is:


By Bertolt Brecht


(...translated by… ?)


Oh.  I guess my work isn’t done, is it. 


If only I’d chosen “The Seven Year Itch”*, I could have relaxed once it was put in the season.  But no, I just had to propose a play originally written in another language!!!  A classic blunder.  Now I have to choose a translation!  Fortunately, the list of translations, adaptations and “versions” (whatever that means) is minuscule for “Arturo Ui” compared to “Three Sisters” happening earlier in the semester (mad respect to director Dale McFadden for wading into that ocean of choices and emerging with my favorite, the Paul Schmidt), which means it’s possible for me to track down most if not all of the major versions and read them.  AND SO I SHALL.

My research uncovered a handful of major productions, which gave me several names to start my list with.  This mostly overlapped with the results on Amazon and other booksellers.  The only recent production in the Philadelphia area (where I’m from) was a university production within the last decade (featuring a female performer as Ui, I wish I'd have made it down to see it), and I actually had to contact them directly to find out which they used, as they omitted any translator name from their archived promotional/press material.  [Sidebar: can we talk about how frequently press releases, posters and websites omit the name of the translator?  Rude, guys.  Rude.]

Between the department’s generous assistance, inter-library loan and other sources, I got my hands on all the versions I knew about.

Now we must enter the Book BattleDome, a.k.a.:


I decided that to be thorough, I’d go through a series of single-elimination challenges, where I’d read each pair of scripts side-by-side, jumping back and forth after approximately each speech or page.  An illuminating exercise. 

~I will delay reading the version I already know (the Manheim). 
~I will compare the strength of the language overall, but won’t be swayed by individual lines. 

ARE YOU READY?  <<<(I dare you to leave this nonsense on while you read)


Tabori VS. Tabori/Beaton

I decided to read the two most similar versions first, figuring it would be easier to determine a winner. 

GEORGE TABORI was born in Budapest, one of many Jewish writers forced into exile by the Third Reich, so he certainly has a connection to the material.  He’s a playwright and a director as well as a translator, and even directed for the Berliner Ensemble late in life.  An impressive pedigree.  His translation was seen on Broadway in the 1960s, not once but twice!  The first starred Christopher Plummer and was directed by Tony Richardson (with a total cast of 35!!!!!!), but closed after 5 previews and 8 performances.  The second was performed in repertory as part of the Guthrie’s first tour: Edward Payson Call directed Robin Gammell in the title role, it opened without previews and ran for only 10 performances.  I doubt the fault is entirely Tabori’s, as his version still gets done (including a 2002 limited run in New York starring Al Pacino) and Sam French still sells it.  This is simply not a play for open-ended Broadway runs.

Bloomsbury Methuen Drama publishes a version with the following on the title page: “by Bertolt Brecht in a translation by George Tabori/revised by Alistair Beaton”.  So not “adapted” but “revised” by Beaton.  Intriguing.  To me that choice of verb implies less mucking about.  It premiered in 2012 at the Chichester Festival Theatre, transferring to the West End the following year, starring Henry Goodman.  In March this version had a clown-influenced production in Chicago (drat, so much for claiming the Midwest Premiere).

ALISTAIR BEATON is a British playwright, screenwriter and novelist.  This is not my first dose of Beaton: In 2011, Philly absurdism experts the Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium produced Beaton’s translation of Max Frisch’s “The Arsonists” (a.k.a. “The Firebugs”), and I played protagonist/victim Gottlieb Biedermann.

The Tabori is the earliest English translation I can find (Brecht had it translated by one H.R. Hay shortly after writing, but it appears to have escaped publication).  And at the time I started this process, the Tabori/Beaton was the most recent version available. 

It’s the OG versus its own offspring...



PLAY-BY-PLAY: Tabori’s translation uses blank verse to excellent effect, and is eminently playable.  That said, this was not a fair fight.  “Revised” turns out to be an apt verb, as Beaton mostly leaves the verse and the drama alone, staying out of the way of Tabori’s strengths.  But in just about every scene, he trims the fat off the longer speeches in ways you wouldn’t even notice if you weren’t holding both scripts side-by-side. 

Beaton also conflates a few characters in mostly smart ways.  Two main examples:

1.  Brecht has four members of the Cauliflower Trust plus shipyard owner Sheet and accountant Bowl.  Beaton cuts that down to four total INCLUDING Sheet and Bowl.  Slightly awkward, but overall worth it.

2.  City Council members Goodwill and Gaffles only exist for a single scene where they give bad news to Dogsborough.  Beaton uses two members of the Cauliflower trust for the same function.  (Bye-bye, Goodwill and Gaffles!)

One interesting difference is that Tabori has the epilogue spoken by the same Master of Ceremonies that introduces the characters, while Beaton has the actor playing Ui “take off his moustache” and speak the epilogue himself.  I’m leaning towards the first approach.  And Beaton gets a bit too cute in the scene where the Actor coaches Ui through Mark Antony’s funeral oration, which might cost him points in later rounds but didn’t hurt him much here.



Manheim VS. Bolt

The heavyweight contender in this entire bracket has to be RALPH MANHEIM.  His translation is the easiest to find and most frequently included in anthologies.  I’m not sure when it premiered, but it’s the version I first encountered as an undergrad, and the version I first fell in love with.  John Turturro starred as Ui in a 1991 Classic Stage Company Off-Broadway production of the Manheim.  When I originally pitched this play to IU, I listed the Manheim, and if there were no other versions available, I know I would be happy to direct it.


I’d heard of a production starring Antony Sher, which turned out to be in 1991 at the National Theatre.  It was translated by RANJIT BOLT, the well-known poet and translator.  His translations and "versions" of Moliere, Corneille and other classics are so popular that I found it odd I couldn’t find a copy of his “Arturo Ui” to buy.  A quick visit to www.doollee.com turned up the name of his agency, and I was shocked that a single email to them yielded a PDF of the complete script, featuring crossed-out lines and margin scribbles.  I guess it was never published.


PLAY-BY-PLAY: It was a fairly even match.  Bolt’s verse is superb of course, but the Manheim stayed solid throughout, just as I remembered.  Unlike the qualifier round, both translations here refer to projected text between scenes listing the real historical events that parallel each of Brecht’s plot points.  Bolt even wrote his legends in rhyming couplets of blank verse!  Delightful.

But over time, the way Bolt wrote his “thug-gangster dialect” became slightly annoying to hear in my head, and overall Bolt’s script feels like it drags a bit in places.  Manheim started to land some punches.

Then, a couple scenes before the end, a HUGE unforced error: Bolt completely skips one of the most theatrical moments of the play.  To avoid spoilers, let’s just say Brecht has a character return unexpectedly, in a manner that echoes “Richard III”.  Brecht was deliberately borrowing from Elizabethan structure and style throughout the play, so this is a bizarre omission, with nothing gained from it that I can see.  That alone gets Bolt disqualified.

VICTORY: MANHEIM [Though for a few months after, I toyed with the idea of trying to get the rights to Bolt’s projected historical rhymes, separately.]



Wise VS. Tabori/Beaton

After a few days’ rest, the Tabori/Beaton was chomping at the bit for a new opponent, which I found on Amazon.

JENNIFER WISE is a Canadian theatre academic.  This appears to be her first translated play.  In her introduction, she mentioned a colleague wanting to direct a production where she teaches, but she found the existing translations unworkable (mainly consisting of the Tabori and the Manheim, as Beaton wasn’t a contender yet).  Wise goes on at some length about the problems with the existing translation (hm, trash talking before a fight is allowed, but only if you can back it up).  So she worked on her German skills and rolled up her sleeves.  It’s had other productions since, including (I believe) its New York premiere within the last few years. 

So the first Broadways translation, revised by a Brit, is going up against a Canadian university project...



PLAY-BY-PLAY: A relatively unexciting match, yielding a clear victor.  The dialogue trims and tighter cast size continue to serve the Tabori/Beaton well.  Wise also talks at length in her introduction about the translator’s dilemma when forced to choose between accuracy of the translation and faithfulness to Brecht’s verse structure.  Wise frequently chose to abandon the verse, far more than any version listed above.  She claims this allowed her to better retain an English version of Brecht’s “1930s Gangster-speak” and produce a text that is “speakable” and “actable” in English (to quote one of her glowing Amazon reviews).  The end result, in my mind, is simply less fun than the more verse-faithful translations.  Brecht wanted the audience to confront low-life gangsters speaking in a structure normally associated with Shakespeare’s kings and dukes.  The lumps Wise smoothed out to make it "speakable/actable" turned out to be part of the recipe.



Tabori/Beaton VS. Manheim

PLAY-BY-PLAY: Both scored about equal points on the rhythm of the verse and the power of the poetry.  Manheim is still a powerhouse, but Tabori/Beaton was just too nimble on its feet.  Even with an expected cast of 15, a smaller character list will make life easier for me, my costume designer, my run crew, and I believe the audience too.  I'd be happy to work with either translation, but since there was no obstacle to getting the rights...


Okay folks, you can go home now, it's all ove-




Tabori/Beaton VS. Norris

Call this one the “Battle of the Same Publisher”.  During the early days of this tournament, it came to my attention that the Donmar Warehouse in London was producing the world premiere of a new adaptation by playwright BRUCE NORRIS (“Clybourne Park” and many others) from a literal translation by Susan Hingley (literal translators are starting to get listed in the scripts of adaptations now, which is cool).  I had to choose a translation before the Norris premiered, but I decided to add an extra bout.  (Because after all, it's my blog, dammit.) 

The production sold out, but my dramaturg (who just so happened to have an internship in London earlier this summer) managed to get a ticket, and she brought a copy of the script back across “the pond”.  It played with a cast of 12 (same as the clown-y Chicago production of the Tabori/Beaton), including Lenny Henry as Ui and RSC veteran Michael Pennington as Dogsborough.  So even though we already have the rights to the Tabori/Beaton, I decided to pick up two scripts simultaneously, one last time…



PLAY-BY-PLAY: From reviews and my dramaturg’s reports, I already knew that Norris' version was heavily about Trump.  And the script reflected that, mostly in ways that I feel make the play smaller.  This play is about Hitler, yes, but the fictional setting allows us a broader lens about authoritarianism in general.  Making Ui call a female character a “nasty woman” or frequently complain about immigrants ties it too strongly to one person.  It’s great that “They’re bringing drugs.  They’re bringing crime.  They’re rapists” is naturally a blank verse line with a feminine ending, but it took me out of the story too much to think about Norris’ “cleverness”.  Ui’s last line is “MAKE OUR COUNTRY GREAT AGAIN”, for cryin’ out loud. 

Also, the font is the same for both (being Bloomsbury Methuen Drama), and the formatting seems the same, yet Norris’ adaptation is 37 pages longer than the Tabori/Beaton.  My dramaturg reported that it ran a good 2:45, and felt long to her.  Norris made some cuts that Beaton didn't (Goodwill and Gaffles’ visit to Dogsborough became a quick offstage phone call), but he also added and padded certain speeches and weighed things down.  Norris’ audience participation (including a pivotal silent character in a long trial scene) also struck me as gimmicky and risky.  Norris moved the “Wounded Woman” monologue to an unhelpful place, and conflated it with a named character in a way that felt like a heavy-handed shot at Trump’s treatment of women.  His poetry and verse was overall quite good, but didn’t land any punches on the Tabori/Beaton, and was also quite vulgar in ways that I don’t think accomplished anything.  Beaton is more sparing with his profanity and slurs, which keeps the shock value from eroding through frequent use.  Less is more, Bruce.


I’m still glad I read the Norris, for one thing it was interesting to see a certain major character stabbed instead of shot.  And the way he transitions from Mark Antony’s funeral oration into the next scene is exactly the way I was already imagining it, so I have even more confidence to fiddle with that in my own production.  Norris also assigns the epilogue to the “actor playing Ui” (like Beaton), but my dramaturg remembers it spoken by the announcer.



This required a lot of rereading while double-fisting scripts, but it was quite valuable.  I got a glimpse at different productions via the stage directions, and got several data points on where to place intermission.  I’m confident that IU Theatre is bringing the best possible text to our audience. 

Now I need to figure out the character doubling and choose scenes to use in callbacks, so I’m ready for AUDITIONS…


Thanks for reading, and thanks for supporting live theatre. 



*Fun Fact: “The Seven Year Itch” and “Arturo Ui” were among the 6 titles I pitched for my first mainstage last season, as well as “The Exonerated” which is what I ended up directing.  Let’s just say I wanted to give the Play Selection Committee a diverse range of options…


Posted on July 27, 2017 .



In a speech today given while waiting in line at SaladWorks, President Obama called for funding to equip all members of Congress with body cameras, in addition to police.  “Congress is supposed to serve and protect the American people.  Based on recent shocking tragedies, it is clear that more oversight is necessary.  This pattern of lawmakers harming the citizens of this nation with impunity needs to end.  The next time you feel threatened and hastily fire off a bad law, the country will be watching.”


The plan calls for each member of the House and Senate to wear a clip-on camera that would record video and audio whenever they are legislating, campaigning, or fundraising.  Footage would be uploaded nightly and available online for viewing by anyone who wonders what on earth their elected officials are actually doing.  “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.  Never again will you have to wonder if the person you voted for is actually taking notes during committee meetings or just playing Angry Birds,” Obama added.


Body cameras are already showing up in certain police departments around the country.  A recent study in one California town showed that body cameras correlated with a significant drop in both police officers’ use of force and civilian complaints against law enforcement.  Predictions are mixed whether the Obama plan would cause a similar reduction in civilian complaints against Congress, and the Government Accountability Office has yet to issue a report on the topic.  Several companies who make the cameras are planning to bid on the contract, though more testing is needed to see if any models would interfere with the Pacemakers used by some senior lawmakers.


Republican critics on Capitol Hill have rejected the idea completely.  “This is just another shameless power grab by this administration,” said Speaker John Boehner.  “Requiring Congress to wear cameras would disrupt basic Congressional duties, such as exchanging political favors for campaign contributions and wearing American Flag lapel pins.”  Democratic leaders are cautiously receptive to the idea, with some members expressing concerns that the microphones have a “mute” button for classified intelligence briefings and when they have extramarital sex with lobbyists. 


MoveOn.org announced the plan “doesn’t go far enough”, calling for Supreme Court Justices to also wear body cameras while deliberating and writing opinions.  However, polls overwhelmingly indicate that this would be “too damn boring”.

Posted on December 4, 2014 and filed under Satire.

COMMUNICATING DOORS, a Hedgerow Blog Index

I just opened my latest production, Alan Ayckbourn's comedy thriller COMMUNICATING DOORS.  It runs through October 5th, do consider adding it to your busy schedule.


Hedgerow's Marketing department asked me to contribute some articles about the directing process to their blog.  Now that the show is open, I wanted to gather them all in one place.  They're written for a general audience, who hopefully appreciates theatre but doesn't necessarily participate in the industry.  It's been a useful exercise to articulate what exactly it is we do.

In chronological order:

~PRE-PRODUCTION, in which I overheat my library card before rehearsals start.

~WEEK ONE, in which we start blocking and build the characters who should live in this world.

~WEEK TWO, in which we finish blocking, add a missing cast member, and add fight choreography.

~WEEK THREE, in which we move from the rehearsal room to the stage, and start putting our scripts away.

~TECH WEEK, in which we add lights/sound/costumes, tighten the show and switch stage managers.

~PREVIEWS and OPENING, in which I say goodbye to a talented group of people, who no longer need me (which was the plan all along).


Thanks for reading.


Posted on September 12, 2014 .

Sustainability and the Artist

In 10th grade, my American History teacher (Ms. Roach) led a simulation/role-play dealing with “company towns”.  We were all workers who took a job mining or manufacturing or whatnot in a remote location.  We all worked for the Company, lived in Company houses, and shopped exclusively at the Company Store.  During each round of the game, we might get pregnant or injured, choose to marry, or our rents/prices might go up.

The point of the game, of course, was to realize it’s rigged.  The Company controlled wages and the price and supply of goods.  Almost everyone quickly fell into debt-slavery, unable to leave while owing the Company money, unable to afford the ticket (on the Company train) back to where you came from.  The only worthwhile strategy was to marry immediately and consolidate to one household.  If both spouses worked, avoided injury and pregnancy (both random events in the game), you could break even for a little while. 

A pretty weak “best outcome”.


Lately I’ve been thinking about that “worthwhile strategy” in regards to making a living as a theatre artist.  Too many of my colleagues can’t afford to get sick, and certainly can’t afford to start a family.  An interview with Charlotte Ford (revealing she’s stepping away from theatre to go back to school for speech pathology) seems to have sparked a vigorous public debate about how difficult it is to make a living as an artist, and what can be done about it. 

I’ve seen an understandable response of “this is new news?” on Facebook from older artists.  That it’s always like this.

That we all have to do something else for money.

That there’s a long history of people walking away from the arts, especially at major life milestones.

I’m not sure what’s different this time.  Perhaps it’s the tightening and changing funding landscape(part of Charlotte’s motivation), or the fact that some Philadelphia institutions are in the news for financial challenges as well (specifically, Philadelphia Theatre Company and the Prince Music Theater).  But whatever the reason, we’re getting press about it (both about those of us who are leaving/transitioning and those who are staying and forging ahead).  More people will hopefully read and understand.  The conversation is out in the open.  And I have to believe that a public, collective conversation will get better results than not having that conversation.


When I was a senior in college, the Northwestern Theatre Department realized that they weren’t doing much to prepare us for the “Business” side of Show Business (a lot of colleges still fall short on that, it seems).  NU’s stopgap solution was to invite some industry professionals to a few salons on different topics.  The most memorable one for me was on unions.  The three-person panel represented SAG, AFTRA, and Actor’s Equity Association.  There was talk about the possible SAG/AFTRA merger, and explanations on how to join each union and what their roles are in an actor’s career.  Like you'd expect.

But then the AEA member dropped a bomb on the conversation: for the last year he had data for (probably 2003 or some fiscal year around then), the average earnings for an AEA member from union work only totaled $6,000.




Now that average figure includes Equity members who have little or zero earnings because they mostly do film and TV, or mostly direct, or they’ve basically retired or moved on to other careers but haven’t given up their union membership.  But even if you shave those data points off the bottom, how much could that average possibly rise?  Even if it doubled, that’s still only $12k a year. 


When I first moved into Philly after college, I ushered my ass off.  I wanted to see who was doing what kind of work.  It was a necessary education.  I saw a lot of talented performers, many of whom I saw regularly all over town, including at the larger theatres.  Years later, I’d meet and befriend some of these talented, hardworking folks, and be puzzled that they (sometimes) lived in a crappy house with 4 other people and complained about being broke all the time.  “But you’re successful”, I thought to myself.  “I saw you at the Wilma.  How can you be broke?” 

That was also a necessary education. 

Clearly I had forgotten the $6000 figure.  And I’d forgotten that the “show at the Wilma” was four years ago.  I’m no longer confused by talented, locally-famous people being broke.  It’s hard at almost every level, I realize now.

It's still a bit strange to look up to and envy the careers of people who are still struggling, though.


So it’s always been tough, and people leave every year.  So what’s different this time?  Perhaps one thing is there seems to be more of an effort to change things for the better than I was aware of ten years ago.  I just finished reading a new local book “Making Your Life As An Artist”, available as a free PDF.  I don’t agree with 100% of its contents, but I highly recommend it.  I plan on reading it once a year, and I hope to take action and change myself from it.  It challenges the standard poverty narrative and busy-busy-busy narrative of many artists.


Also, some Philadelphians organized a large conversation on Sustainability on June 23rd that was directly sparked by Charlotte Ford’s interview.  I went, and was inspired that different ways, better ways, are possible.  I hope the initiative can gain momentum and solve some of these problems.  The video of the 2-hour conversation is available, along with links to other resources (click the square with three lines inside in the Upper Right corner to open the menu).


Reading the book and attending the event on Sustainability has made me think and dream about what actionable steps could help the community.  Hopefully that will be my next post.  But I’m off to sit outdoors and enjoy some Shakespeare.

Posted on July 10, 2014 .

On “Cutting and Running”, OR: Three Brave Cowards

“Sense & Sensibility” closed on June 1st, with nice big responsive crowds the final weekend.  Thanks to all who came out.  I haven’t had time to miss Hedgerow, however.  I’ve been here all weekend directing a three-reading series titled “RECKLESS ENTERTAINMENT: The Humor of Noel Coward”.   (Below is an example of the humor of Noel Coward that we did not include:)

[THE BACKSTORY: Hedgerow is making major improvements and renovations to the 1840 grist mill they perform in.  They’ve already added a glass atrium to eventually become the new lobby and welcome center.  And within hours of the final “Sense & Sensibility”, the theatre was stripped bare so the stone walls can be re-pointed with fresh mortar.  So:]

For the month of June, Hedgerow is throwing a party up the hill!  At the Farmhouse Studio (containing the costume shop, scene shop, offices and housing for the resident Fellows), a large room off the kitchen is the main space for rehearsals and classes.  In 1985 the theatre burned down to the walls, and for years the “Big Room” was the only performance space they had.  Last summer the Big Room hosted some short runs of solo performance and scene showcases, scheduled when the mainstage was dark.  It was successful enough that they’re slowly rolling it out as a regular second performance space.

Last weekend I had the privilege of directing concert readings of Coward’s three best-known plays: “Private Lives” (Friday night), “Blithe Spirit” (Saturday night) and “Hay Fever” (Sunday matinee), featuring the Hedgerow company.  The Farmhouse has a lovely porch on two sides which makes a charming and rustic open-air lobby, and there are obvious advantages to having a kitchen as your “green room” (even if the audience is constantly tiptoeing through to the shared bathroom).  Wine, cheese and dessert served at each show.  Each event was a cozy, casual party with fabulous actors speaking fabulous words.

Prior to rehearsals, I was tasked with bringing all the readings in under two hours, and cutting props and physical business from the dialogue.  I’m rather pleased with the results.  “Hay Fever” didn’t need a single stage direction announced, other than “Curtain” to button each act.  I was the reader for the other two.  I only read a brief description at the top of each act for “Private Lives”, and then contributed some Foley sound effects for the bits of domestic violence required by the plot (just a few slaps and a few shakes of a “crash box”).  “Blithe Spirit” needed table thumping and more crashing, and one or two internal stage directions, but otherwise flowed just fine without much interruption from me.

You might be alarmed at the thought of doing Noel Coward without cigarettes or martinis or gramophone records.  But the props are just the trappings.  The heart of the “style” comes from the attitudes of the characters, and how they respond to their problems (or their brief moments between problems, ha).  You remember the cigarette floating between the actor's fingers, but the real "style" was their hand on their hip, the arch of their eyebrow, and the way they dealt with their scene partner.  And of course, the icing on top of the style: that perfectly poised wit that Coward is famous for (in some lines you can feel Noel accepting the mantle directly from Oscar Wilde).

I’m always a fan of cheeky titles.  Both definitions of “blithe” are equally applicable to “Blithe Spirit”:  “showing a lack of proper thought or care: not caring or worrying” and then also “happy and without worry”.  And as a seasonal allergy sufferer, I see “Hay Fever” as absolutely being a reference to the annoying parts of that otherwise lovely and mood-lifting season, Spring.

It’s been a whirlwind process, with one four-hour rehearsal for each.  Fortunately with such sharp casts I was able to end each rehearsal early.  We basically had time to read through each scene, and choose a few moments to try again, where there was either some physical moment essential to the plot (=figuring out how to make that clear while standing at music stands with scripts), or the speech pattern wasn’t making the argument or the joke clear.  But the maxim “Directing is 90% casting*” is never truer than with a concert reading, and I must say these readings were cast extremely well for the dual purposes of sharing these plays clearly and showcasing the Hedgerow company. 

My “blocking” was basically an Excel spreadsheet, assigning the music stands as logically as I can (based on who talks to whom most), sometimes shuffling characters around based on exits and entrances.  It also has the virtue of being a built-in “French scenes” character plot on the same single page.

...Well it made sense to *me* at least...

...Well it made sense to *me* at least...

In addition to cheap, low-time-commitment programming, there was another purpose to the weekend.  Artistic Director Jared Reed (who also made a lovely Elyot Chase and Charles Condomine, and is one of my favorite brains in Philadelphia theatre: check out his podcast interview about the nature of comedy and Hedgerow's summer season) also wanted to test-drive all three plays for consideration in future seasons.  The Wilma does this sort of thing regularly (especially useful for a theatre that frequently does unfamiliar work).  I’m a fan of theatres involving their audiences in season planning (as long as it’s more useful than someone approaching you at an opening night and saying “You know what play you should do?  [INSERT NAME OF PLAY THAT IS TOO EXPENSIVE OR OBVIOUSLY TOTALLY WRONG FOR THE THEATRE]"). 

I remember seeing a lovely “Hay Fever” at Hedgerow less than ten years ago, with Penelope Reed hitting it out of the park as Judith Bliss (which she effortlessly reprised in Sunday’s reading).  “Private Lives” played so well at the Lantern recently and is also coming soon at the Walnut, so it’s getting a lot of exposure in the area.  But I’ve never read or seen “Blithe Spirit” prior to working on this festival, and it made me laugh a great deal, so I’m hoping that rises to the top of Hedgerow’s pile in the next few years. 

I actually meant to write this days ago, and post it in time to sell you intrepid “early fans” on attending all of them, but I was simply too busy.  So I drafted this post late Saturday night after the “Blithe Spirit” reading, as I sat on the porch while the young company members stayed up arguing about baseball sabermetrics and whether Brick from “Cat On a Hot Tin Roof” is gay.  But Sunday got busy and I didn’t post it until after the whole thing was over. 


Consider this the part of the blog post where I tell you that it went swimmingly and you should feel mildly sad about missing out (unless of course you showed up).

Have you bought tickets for your next play yet?


*Or, if you’re frustrated, “Directing is 90% fixing the mistakes you made in casting”.

P.S.  On a rehearsal break Saturday afternoon, Zoran (a veteran Hedgerow actor, set designer, and parking lot wizard) wondered aloud the origins of the surname “Coward”.  It turns out it originally came from the job title of “cattle guard”, and they actually needed to be quite brave!  BOOM.  FACT-BOMB.

P.P.S.  Even if Noel Coward wasn’t one of the greatest British playwrights and popular composers of his generation, he would still have a special place in my heart for his role in “The Italian Job”: 

If you’ve only seen the remake (what remake?  They stole the title and wrote a completely different movie set in the USA), you need a strong dose of Michael Caine, STAT.

Posted on June 9, 2014 .

Jane Austen, Dickens and "Chick Plays"

I’m in the 5th week of a 6-week run of “Sense & Sensibility”, adapted from the Jane Austen novel.  It’s a great group of people to put on a show with, and I’m always glad to be back at Hedgerow (a few blocks from where I grew up).

I read the novel (my first time reading Austen) without knowing which role I’d be.  Normally when Jared Reed (Hedgerow's Artistic Director) is directing me in an adapted novel, I’m one of the actors frantically changing costumes and playing all the “character-y” supporting roles.  I even tried to bribe Jared (with a dollar) if I was allowed to play Mr. Palmer, a hilariously rude minor role (hit out of the park by Hugh Laurie in the 1995 film). 

But to my surprise he cast me as Colonel Brandon.  Not only do I get to stay in the same character (and costume) the whole show, but I’ve never played a romantic role without also being some sort of comedic doofus.  But, I think part of Jane Austen’s point is that (WARNING: VAGUE SORT-OF SPOILER ALERT) the dashing gentleman sometimes isn’t all he’s cracked up to be, and the awkward boring fellows might be worth taking a second look at.  She’s essentially wrote some romantic roles for character actors.  It’s been an interesting challenge.

I’m happy with the work we’ve done, and audiences seem to like it.  We even had a review titled “I hated Jane Austen, But I Loved This” which made me smile.  The adaptation (by director Jon Jory) is quite good, it streamlines the story and gives us these pulses of scene that drive us through this eventful period for the Dashwood family.


A few weeks ago we had a talkback with a group of boosters who help out Hedgerow, often above and beyond simply attending the shows.  These are important supporters of the theatre, and we’re lucky to have them.  Jared talked about his affinity for adapted novels on stage (which I absolutely share), and how Jane Austen in particular offers better roles for women than a lot of plays based on novels (my first ever experience with Austen in any form was seeing Hedgerow’s “Pride & Prejudice” a year ago). 

Several other issues came up, and at one point an open call for feedback was put to the few men who stayed for the talkback.  One cheerfully shrugged and said:

“Well, it’s a chick play”

I believe his general point was to that it was well done, but not really meant for him.  And, ok, I get it.  I made a few remarks in response to that, but his comment stuck with me, so I’m going to include a revised version of what I said below, along with some other points that I didn’t think of at the time (but let’s pretend I did, and said it all with eloquence and panache).


So what exactly makes “Sense & Sensibility” a “chick play”?  Merely that the main characters are women?  I didn’t grill the audience member on this, but I bet that was a large part of it.

There are a lot of stories in the world’s history.  Most of them are by and about men.  Women in Western culture are naturally able to identify with a male protagonist, because they’ve often had to their entire lives.  Society has trained them to be okay with that.  Men have never needed to spend much effort identifying with stories of women, because there are so many stories about men lying around.  So when women latch onto books or other media that are about their experience and speak to them, it’s easy for us men to dismiss that as “chick lit” and go back to the rest of the bookshelves.  [I realized I just oversimplified a very large issue.  Welcome to the blogosphere.]

This is starting to change, slowly.  A few months ago, TIME magazine had a worthwhile article about how publishers and movie studios are realizing that there are a lot of young women who will pay money to see someone who looks like them kick ass.  Thus we have the “Hunger Games” books/movies, as well as the “Divergent/Insurgent/Detergent” trilogy of books/movies.

Yeah, yeah, I know the third one isn’t actually titled “Detergent”, but that doesn’t even rhyme. &nbsp;  I mean, come on, look at it, it's a swirl of water, just the way it would look inside a washing machine!!

Yeah, yeah, I know the third one isn’t actually titled “Detergent”, but that doesn’t even rhyme.  I mean, come on, look at it, it's a swirl of water, just the way it would look inside a washing machine!!

Representation is proving especially challenging in theatre.  We know women make up more than 50% of theatre audiences, and are even more likely than men to be the “decision makers” for the couple/family to attend.  So you would think that stories about women would be filling half our stages every year.  But because men aren’t trained to go along with a female “journey” on stage, even female artistic directors and literary managers haven’t been championing new plays by women the way you might expect.  And the classics are what they are: their unfortunate gender ratios are set, so your choices are to cast across gender or otherwise change the text or your concept. 


Let me change gears and talk about a different show.  Jared Reed has directed me in several shows at Curio Theatre Company, which he co-founded.  One of my favorites was “Great Expectations”, which Jared adapted himself.  He first directed it at Hedgerow about 15 years ago, but revived (with a few extra cuts) at Curio in 2011, and at Curio I had the pleasure of playing Jaggers, Orlick, and Bentley Drummle.  It was a great ensemble, and I had tears in my eyes during the final curtain call.

So what’s going on in “Great Expectations”?  Here’s a list off the top of my head:

  • Love, rivalries for affection, rejection and heartbreak

  • Money, class, and social status

  • Young people growing up and forming a more mature sense of the world and people around them

…sounds a bit like “Sense & Sensibility” to me.

But nobody goes around saying, “Dickens is such a ‘dude’ writer.  ‘Great Expectations’ is ‘dude lit’.”  It’s just a great work of fiction.  It doesn't need a categorizing label (sure, okay, "coming-of-age story").

Yes, okay, Dickens has more “action”.  Escaped convicts, manhunts, a fistfight or two, an old lady catching fire in her wedding dress, and far more characters die in it than in Austen.  I’ll admit that the first seven or so chapters of “Sense” (mercifully slimmed down by Jory for the stage) were a slog for me, and I worried the whole book would be equally slow.  I admit I cheered briefly when Marianne messed up her ankle (“Finally, something HAPPENED”). 

But is “Sense & Sensibility” a “chick play” because it doesn’t have enough explosions and fistfights (which YouTube has SOLVED for you, by the way) or because it focuses on female characters?  Or are both necessary?  And by calling it a “chick play”, are we implying that most men don’t/shouldn’t value stories of women, or that stories of love/money/class/social status aren’t things men care about? 

Perhaps it’s the order of priorities, since love and attachments are the main focus in Austen, while love is just one of many issues Pip works out in his coming-of-age story.  Both books are about equally chaste (there's multiple out-of-wedlock births in the Austen, and none I believe in the Dickens), and I got through “Great Expectations” just fine without my gonads shriveling up, so a love story can be valid for guys even if there’s no sex included. 

[SIDEBAR: I’ll admit I find Dickens the better writer, but let’s ignore any subjective gap in quality and call it a wash, since both have survived to be read to this day.  So I don’t think we can excuse labeling “Sense & Sensibility” as “chick lit” to imply it’s inferior, or that it’s only popular because it appeals to women and not because it’s any good. 

And even when that happens, when a play or movie is popular because of successfully targeting female audiences while the rest of us judge its quality and find it wanting, can we throw stones?  When we still have such a dearth of stories about women, can we blame some of them for being so hungry to see themselves in a story that they embrace something we’d consider an inferior product?]


So let’s be mindful when we’re quick to call stories about women “chick lit” or “chick plays” or “chick flicks”, while stories about men are just “books”, “plays” and “movies”.  It implies that male stories are the norm or the core, and the modifier “chick” segregates all of that as something other than the norm.  And guys, let’s be a little more open to the huge chunk of our culture that sometimes gets that modifier. 

Just don’t be this guy:

(I mean, at the very least buy the t-shirt instead of the trucker hat)

(I mean, at the very least buy the t-shirt instead of the trucker hat)



Men, start broadening your horizons today by getting a ticket to… “Sense & Sensibility”!  [What did you think I wouldn’t finish with a plug?]  It closes Sunday, June 1st.  Parking is free, and if you call in advance we’ll even pick you up from the train.  Come on out.



Posted on May 24, 2014 .