Jim Fitzmorris

new orleans' theatrical pugilism

For Want of a Nail: Shoebox Lounge

April 23rd, 2014

Before I begin, let me offer a full disclosure, many of the people responsible for the excellent Shoebox Lounge currently playing on St. Claude were deeply involved with my one-man show Urban Education Smackdown. Lighting designer Vic Woodward, sound designer Mike Harkins, and photographer John Barrois each contributed to the success of my run, and each has returned to aide Jen Pagan’s tight, controlled production that wraps up its run this weekend.

So, rather than discussing the quality of their contributions, I would rather focus on the value lesson Pagan has given to anyone interested in putting together a one-person show in New Orleans. What she has done has reminded potential theatrical creators to not let their eyes exceed their stomachs, focus on what can be done, and do those things exceedingly well.

In fact, it’s not just one-person shows but small independent productions that could benefit from what she has accomplished.

The Shadowbox has a limited space and a rudimentary lighting system. It doesn’t behoove a producer to attempt complex looks, pyrotechnic tricks, or detailed sets. Yes, there are exceptions, as was the case with Clybourne Park, but most smaller producers are out of reach of the manpower or resources that a more established company can call upon.

It makes more sense to do what has Pagan has done. On her set, she has one multi-purpose chair, a specially upholstered bench, an offering altar, a coat stand, and a hung sign. The set is littered with candles, knickknacks, and burnished gold shoeboxes that open to reveal surprising props leading us to other parts of the story.

Here’s the conceit. All objects share the same aesthetic. Each looks carefully considered and, ultimately, feels of the show in microcosm.

Lighting wise, there are really only five looks: a pre-show, three specials and a general wash. The complexity comes in combination. She moves through the show using each of these looks in different arrangements to create the 9 different worlds within which her central character exists.

When coupled with a rich soundscape of effects and music, the show ends up having a much higher production value than many shows that have attempted more in that space.

Notice I don’t suggest your show should be a clopping, silent room with no feel of a theatre. People paid money, and they have a right to expect beautiful women in sculpted lights, devastatingly sad Italian music underscoring the passing of loved ones, and boxes filled with a diorama of the death of John the Baptist.

But all those things should work. In Shoebox Lounge, they do. After a time, it begins to feel as if Pagan is a magician escorting her audience through a series of simple yet elegant tricks.

This clean approach allows Pagan to focus on polishing what is really important: the show itself.

You’ve got three more shots to see her remarkable piece. I would love to hear your thoughts here.

 

 

 

#twf14: A House Meant to Stand (The Hotel Plays)

March 23rd, 2014

Created by The Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival, the environmental and fully immersive The Hotel Plays was, from a logistically standpoint, one of the most harmonized theatrical productions I have ever seen in New Orleans.

A number of local companies have taken a run at just this sort of Punchdrunk you-are-in-it approach, but none have even come close to what the two Williams’ festivals and The Herman-Grima House pulled off.

Of course, part of that success was from the obvious time that co-directors Jeff Hall-Flavin and David Kaplan took in creating not only the individual theatrical vignettes but also the overall flow of traffic.

Unlike, a number of home-grown attempts in time’s past that simply thought the location would be enough, The Hotel Plays seemed to operate under the assumption that a traffic jam could happen at anytime or that a delay could derail the proceedings. Because they proceed with that sort of paranoid caution, neither disaster occurred.

Using not only their snap-to-it stage managers but also the cast itself, the two directors ingeniously moved theatrical patrons throughout The Hermann-Grima’s stairwells, lobby and rooms.

Three separate groups were given different color-coded hotel keys, and a unique guide takes you to the four one-acts Green Eyes, The Traveling Companion, Mister Paradise and Our Lady of Larkspur Lotion in a different sequence.

Through the walls, you heard the lamenting of broken poet Paradise played with fading heartbreak by David Landon in one room and the unnerving mewling of Jeremy Lawrence as an affection-starved writer trying to manipulate sexually-inaccessible manipulator Matt Story in another.

After awhile, you forgot you were being led, herded, or steered. You simply moved throughout the fictional hotel, sometimes actually chasing Kathryn Talbot’s desperate Lady of Larkspur Lotion up a stairwell, until you returned to the exit lobby for a clever final curtain.

This is not to say its amenities are perfect. Accents came and went, performances ranged from the great to the simply solid, and the production’s handlers came up short accommodating more physically challenged patrons.

But rather than an accumulation of missteps unravelling the effort, the exact opposite occurred.

The overall experience built a momentum that bowdlerized the production’s bumpy sections. Actors like the New-Orleans-accent-spot-on Desiree Ledet held character while functioning as guides, languid blonde Beth Bartley with a singing voice right out of To Have and Have Not haunted the halls, a bellboy checked on our well being while delivering continental breakfast to enraged lovers Jami Paige and Matt Rein, and doors sprung open to reveal the idealistic eyes of Francesca McKenzie as a young Bryn Mawr student.

On and on it went. The combination of built in sound and the aural reality of the actual French Quarter permeated the proceedings, audience placement was always from the most advantageous angle, and the breaks were designed just long enough to catch your breath.

In many ways, the experience was this year’s festival’s commitment to theatre in microcosm. It was a wildly ambitious, riverboat gambler approach. After years of timidity, The Tennessee Williams’ Festival seemed to push all its chips in on that bet that Williams’ is, perhaps, the greatest of all American dramatists and productions of his plays should be front-and-center.

As a lover primarily of theatre, it was the first year I felt fully welcomed to the festival.

Thank you, you gave us our playwright back.

 

#twf14: Gift of an Orange

March 21st, 2014

I just got finished watching Gift of an Orange at The Hermann-Grima House.

Imported from The Williams Fest of Provincetown, director Jackie Davis’ production of Charlene A. Donaghy’s play is actually two separate experiences: the play and the directorial/happy accident use of the venue.

The script itself, based loosely around the Williams’ short story Gift of an Apple, is an erratic text that fluctuates between inspired theatrical poetry and a bit of a pretentious bore.

Aspiring to be a Williams-like mix of the mythic, the hyper-sultry, and the real, Orange details the chance encounter between a young man looking for work and a strange woman who is part sexual-shaman, part grieving mother.

It fails to pull off the Williams hat-trick of mythic-sensual-real, because it keeps the three worlds too separate and their rubbing up against one another grates after awhile.

Rather than a combustible cocktail it comes off like a schizophrenic collision.

However, that grating did not last long for me, because its director takes full advantage of Hermann-Grima courtyard. She manages to create a theatrical weave that rises above the show’s lower points, and it makes the hour pass like a meditative prayer circle.

Pulling the viewer in with some lovely musical sound effects and a performance by Dayenne C. Byron Walters that walks a knife’s edge between performance art histrionics and something more organically soulful, Orange was aided by the spring breeze, the sounds of men in other yards roughhousing, and the four orange trees in the courtyard’s center.

Nice being only two blocks from where Williams’ lived. You get why he loved it so.

As for Walters, I am still not sure if the performance she and Davis have collaboratively concocted is greatness or simply gravitationally absorbing. 

I-don’t-believe-what-I-am-watching can be said both ways.

No matter, you’ll stay with her until the end.

I am off to The Hotel Plays.

Careful What You Wish For

March 18th, 2014

The theatre community in New Orleans can no longer bemoan the lack of press in town.

Ted Mahne, David Lee Simmons, Doug McCash, Andrew Adler, Alan Smason, Tyler Gillespie, Philip Yiannopoulos, Brian Sands, Dean Shapiro and myself are all covering theatre in one way or another on a regular basis both in print and online.

There was a time when something like Zanna, Don’t! getting coverage would have been a long shot at best. Now, it gets a feature story and two reviews.

And that is a good thing. First of all, it is a very good production. Second, given that The Tennessee Williams’ Fest is going to get a lot of print in the coming week, Zanna, Don’t! needs it so as not to disappear. Finally, Christopher Bentivegna’s production boasts a lot of talent many regular theater goers are not familiar with seeing, and without coverage, they might never be seen.

Those three points are the heart of what healthy theatrical coverage should provide. It should point to quality work, give that work a chance to find an audience, and introduce those who follow the art to new trends and faces. That is a three-legged-light-stand that illuminates a building narrative.

Of course, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out what is missing from the list of aforementioned performance journalists.

There are no women or persons of color.

Now, maybe that situation will rectify itself in the coming year on its own, but like the initial coverage problem, do not hold your breath waiting for it. If you want to see more diversity both on the stage and off, you’re going to have to pressure some of these institutions to come up with solutions along with offering fixes of your own.

But I think we can all agree that is a longer conversation for people with more insight and qualification than me.

What I want to focus on today is the responsibility of theatre artists in what is hopefully a genuine Spring of performing arts’ coverage.

Press Releases, Kits and Fliers: It all begins with your press release. Before including your two-page bio of how you studied with a strange shaman in Lithuania or your spellbinding work in Lend Me A Tenor at some Mississippi community theater, how about you start with place, date, time, price and contact info?

I know that sounds obvious, but I think I speak for my critical brethren when I tell you it must not be. I have had to pour over emails, stock cards and posters in search of at least one missing item crucial to knowing where I should be and when I should be there. Part of my job on a feature story is to list necessary info your show, and when you couldn’t bother to put it front-and-center it puts me in the foulest of moods.

Yes, I am a smart guy, and I do eventually suss those things out. But the time I spent looking for that has taken away time that could’ve been used putting those nice finishing touches on your preview piece.

I will clarify by way of a little story.

I get two press releases. One is a clean document that would make Sgt. Joe Friday happy, and the other is a self-serving mess about the staggering genius responsible for what they are sure will be The-Most-Important-Work-Of-The-Century-Of-The-Week. But it lacks the matinee times, box office hours and the ticket prices.

Who do you think is getting the closer look?

Art: Early in the process, take pictures that communicate the energy of your show, make sure they are at least 1 MB in size, and present plenty of options from which editors can choose.

Keep three things in mind.

First, print publications hate using the same photo twice. So, just because you sent a publicity shot for your feature story does not mean you are covered for a potential review. There are considerations for laying out the paper or online site that have nothing to do with you. Rather than trying to force your one image on an editor, give them choices.

Finally, do you really think it is a good idea to give three different publications the same photos?

Figuring Out How Your Piece Speaks to Community: You are wonderful, and you are talented.

You are not enough.

Unless you are someone who has built a sizable audience and has a sterling reputation for first-rate work, you are not news unto yourself. And interestingly enough, those sizable-audience-sterling-rep people I am referring to very rarely make themselves the story.

Those people ask themselves this very important question.

Why would anyone in this town want to see this?

Now, you should be able to answer that reflexively. After all, you didn’t pick it just to serve your ego, did you? You must’ve seen something in the work that you felt had to be communicated to a wider live audience.

That answer is your pitch to the press. And you should be thrilled to hear that, because I know you took the time to write out the reasons for the production’s relevance to its potential audience.

Right?

Of course, you, yourself and you might just be enough to sell the show. I mean, why would anyone want to cover Dita Von Tease in April with you taking the stage in the same month?

Accepting That Coverage Is Earned Not A Right: We’re not your friends, enemies or publicists. We’re the press. We gravitate towards the action, bite the hands that feed us, make heroes, drop people from great heights, and love a good underdog story.

Sulk, pout, and stamp your feet all you like. It won’t make you news. Being news is not your due or your birthright.

Nor is it an honor or a gift bestowed.

It’s either news or it isn’t.

Zanna, Don’t! proves a good model here. I decided to pursue the story, because it had been created by the same people who had done Evil Dead: The Musical. That effort had been a nice little hit and held the promise of more good work to come from its creators. The show itself had never been done before, fit the space, and seemed to have a potentially built in audience who might not know about it.

That accumulation of factors made it something newsworthy.

Furthermore, their press release and publicity material was exactly how I suggested you lay yours out. They made it easy to pursue.

Tell you what… build your audience, spend a little on marketing, and focus on creating quality work. Keep doing that, and you might find we come to you.

Be a New Orleanian

March 16th, 2014

I lived in Seattle for four years. I loved it.

Rather than depress me, the weather was refreshing, bracing, and prevented me from having sinuses headaches. I loved the coffee shops on every corner, I devoured a wide variety of Asian-Pacific cuisine, the theatre was terrific, and I got to be a season ticket holder for a baseball team that won the most games in Major League history.

In fact, my dad and I saw Ichiro make a spectacular over the wall catch at Safeco Field the weekend I received my PhD.

That is a memory.

I made friends there who are still with me, and The University of Washington is the school that I am most proud of attending.

I lived in Seattle for four years. And I loved it.

But I am not from Seattle. Would never claim to be.

For you see, I am a New Orleanian. I was raised in Lakeview, went to 12 years of Catholic school, lived within two blocks of Tony Angelo’s, got rides to Jesuit High from Harry Connick Jr., went with my dad to a Knights of Columbus meeting to introduce Dutch Morial to potential supporters, worked on electing one uncle to office, cried when another one just missed becoming governor, and attended parades when they still rolled in Gentilly.

Get the picture?

That being said, I don’t second line. I don’t make groceries. I don’t bark out “where y’at.” I don’t talk about putting “the gris gris” on anyone. And while I think I can sometimes blow jazz with words, I do not have a musical bone in my body.

None of that stops me from being who I am: A New Orleanian.

That is who I am. I don’t care who thinks I am not, I don’t care whose family has been here longer (although mine’s been here since 1847) and I don’t care if I move tomorrow and never come back.

I am a New Orleanian. I just am. I don’t need to explain myself.

Now, before you think this is the part where I tell you that you’re not, I am going to make a deal with you…

You can be one too. And here’s how.

Don’t insist upon it. Stop asking how many years of service you need to give before you’re invited to the secret New Orleans native membership meeting. We don’t have one. We’ll leave that to the carnival krewes. In fact, there is no one who has the right to decide whether you are or aren’t a New Orleanian other than you.

Look there are people who will pull the high school card on you. I am not one of them. So what if some guy who went to Brother Martin thinks you’re not a New Orleanian? It’s not his decision to make.

Besides, he lives in Kenner because of the crime.

The only way I am sure you are not a New Orleanian is if you’re not sure you’re a New Orleanian. Make a decision and live in it.

Don’t lecture us on how to do things better. We like-no, we love-having you here. And you probably have some great ideas for how to improve the situation, but none of those ideas will happen if you tell us how stupid, backwards, and dense we are.

People always love when someone comes into their home tells them they love it and then suggests changing everything.

Here’s a thought. Ask a native you like why things are the way they are, ask him if your brilliant insight has been tried, and then work with those from here to make that happen.

Do that and watch how many New Orleanians include you in their ranks.

Finally, and this is crucial: stop trying to define it. 

If you took all the things I wrote that I didn’t do as a New Orleanian, and only showed that to some locals, they would say I wasn’t a New Orleanian. But show them all the things I did do growing up, and those same folks would exclaim, “That’s my partner!”

Despite Richard Campanella’s herculean efforts to find it, there is no secret formula.

Just when you think you’ve figured it out, it becomes something else. A New Orleanian simply stops trying to figure it out and just lets it be.

New Orleans is not just The Sliver by The River, it is not just membership in an old-line club, it isn’t just belonging to a specific Archdiocese Parish, it’s not just an argument over the best sno-balls, red beans, or doughnuts.

New Orleans is not just a Chocolate City, The City That Care Forgot, The Big Easy, or The Crescent City. It’s not even just Who Dat Nation. It is not just what it was, and it is certainly not always going to be what it is now.

But being the magnificent memory machine it is, it will carry all that forward into whatever the future holds.

It tends to be a bit too sensitive, but it does have a great sense of a humor about itself. It does tolerate too much racism, excess, and violence, but it does forgive like no other.

And it does still need a lot of work both in its physical and human infrastructure. Blighted houses, dysfunctional schools, crumbling historic districts, and crushing poverty are all still waiting to be fixed.

It’s going to need more New Orleanians to make that happen.

Won’t you join us?

 

 

Jim Fitzmorris

new orleans' theatrical pugilism