Jim Fitzmorris

new orleans' theatrical pugilism

Critical Engagement: Class

June 8th, 2015

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  • Class: Critical Engagement
  • Time: Mondays 6 to 7 pm (July 13th-September 14th)
  • Place: The Theatre at St. Claude (2240 St. Claude)
  • Instructor: Jim Fitzmorris (jim.bhproductions@gmail.com)
  • Cost: 150.00 (free for members of Visceral Punch)

I will be teaching a class entitled Critical Engagement beginning July 13th and lasting until September 14th. Every Monday for ten weeks, I will direct a conversation concerning ways of thinking, discussing and writing about performance.

And it will involve shows that we see around town. I hope you can see where this might be fun…

The class has three objectives.

  1. Create a common vocabulary
  2. Engage that vocabulary into critical thought
  3. Move from lecture into discussion

Let’s break that down shall we?

First, Critical Engagement seeks to create a common vocabulary among peers allowing them to discuss theatrical texts and performance in a way that moves past cliche. In other words, I seek to remove the words suck and awesome from your vocabulary when speaking of performance.

Second, I want to foster a room of people writing both in journals and more formal fashions about the work they see around town. This written work will become part of the discussion, and that discussion is my final objective.

As the class moves towards completion, it is my hope that lectures give way to discussion, and those discussions effectively engage with the students’ use of the vocabulary and their writings about the work they have seen.

Goal: Create theatrical thinkers capable of understanding and articulating why they do or do not enjoy the work they see.

Bringing me to the goal: a common vocabulary shared among thinkers and writers of performance should create an exchange of ideas holding the theatrical community accountable for its work when it is not up to par and effectively celebrating it when that work is successful.

Into The Marigny Theatre

May 27th, 2015

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As you may have heard, my brother and I have a theatre. We have taken over The Marigny in the back of The Allways. After a brief transition, we will unveil a new name and a new program of shows, concerts, and classes.

Now, our press people have given all the official statements, and I will have another entry about what kind of shows we’re looking to produce. But I wanted to make a more personal statement to the entire theatre community about what you can expect from us.

We hope you will be part of this new adventure. All of you.

And I really mean that.

I have run one other theatre in New Orleans, and I believe, in my heart, that I ran it well in collaboration with a dear friend of mine. I believe I made that institution an inclusive one where a wide swath of the talent in town got a chance to show off their skills. I saw its audience increase, its local and national reputation grow, and its loyal employees rewarded.

But I was somewhat of a know-it-all, a wee on the officious side, and often a tad dismissive of the concerns of others. Just a bit.

Well, maybe more than a bit.

I aim to change that. I am going to assume more of you know what you are doing, let you have your say rather than cutting you off, and honor your dreams to the best of my ability by giving you a fair hearing if you come with a show in mind.

I am still a tough bastard who has little room for The Theatre of Bad Faith, but the last five years have reminded me how tough this racket is on the pocket, the body and the heart of those who dream of telling tales in a spirit of generosity.

I am over the moon to be back in the neighborhood that I left five years ago. And my brother (who I can assure you is the real hero of this story) and I are thrilled to be on a street named after the patron saint of toymakers.

Let me help gifted director Jen Davis give Kate Bailey’s wonderful new play Strays the opening it deserves, and then, I invite you to stop by the theatre to take a look around at what we’ve done, what we’re doing, and listen to what we’re planning.

Perhaps you have some plans you’d like to share with us as well.

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Exit the Critic…

December 22nd, 2014

After a wonderful 12 months, I will no longer be covering theatre or writing criticism for The New Orleans Advocate.

A number of professional opportunities have presented themselves in the last few months, and I just didn’t think I would’ve been able to manage the time in a way that would have honored the treatment The Advocate and my editor Annette Sisco had extended me in my time there.

If there is an unsung hero for theatrical coverage in New Orleans, it is Annette.

So, consider my top ten list and the lovely spread in The Sunday edition as my official farewell.

Let me first begin by telling you what a pleasure it has been covering your work.

And I mean that. I know some of you think I can be a little hard in how I view your efforts, but let me just say that I hope a year’s worth of reviews has proven me what I actually am: an enthusiast.

I am intoxicated by live performance. I adore the sense of community it creates. I have been thrilled to watch your work develop and mature over the course of a number of years. And I am particularly jonesed when I see self-correction and rigorous self-examination present itself from one production to the next.

Despite some outliers, it is a good community, surprisingly supportive and magnanimous in its actions.

If you don’t think so, ask around how Chris Marroy ended up with the lead in One Man Two Guv’nors, or check out the cast lists for numerous shows and look at the crossover from company to company. I could give a dozen other examples you guys might not be privy to, but suffice it to say, there is a limited amount of backstabbing and resistance to the efforts of others. And those who do practice that sort of zero-sum-game have found themselves on the outside looking in on everyone else having a good time.

My biggest concern for the scene is the lack of space to play.

It has been quite an education observing different companies and organizations scramble, hustle and brainstorm to come up with solutions for the spatial problems that are the biggest threat to the art form we hold so dear. Watching both Southern Rep and The NOLA Project attempt to balance finding a theatrical venue that nonetheless fits the mandate of the chosen show has reminded me that simply having an open space is not enough if the space doesn’t match the mandate.

The fact that both organizations synched the material to location more often than not is no excuse for the mavens of art in this town not to work harder in providing permanent homes for those two theatrical cornerstones. In fact, those two companies’ efforts alone should prove, once and for all, that simply one or two theatrical spaces for local companies would ignite a renaissance of theatre activity that has been poised to happen for almost a decade now.

If you care deeply about live performance in this town and don’t want local performers to have to hold their hands out for crumbs from some of the new energies that now hold sway at available venues, you will get in the game, commit to local theatre, and help the search for space.

The window is closing. It is time to act.

As for me, I have tried to lend my voice towards improving the art all over town. I feel like I have done my bit. I am going to focus exclusively on my work in the coming year both in and out of town. I have a number of exciting projects that are dear to my heart, but I will let the producers of those works announce them when the time is right.

Once again, thank you. I am moved that you put up with my voice.

 

Cycling Through: Enter Your Sleep, A Review

November 23rd, 2014

Towards the latter half of Christina Quintana’s Enter Your Sleep, moving into its final week over at the Fortress of Lushington on Burgundy Street, a childlike, diminutive Becca Chapman, as the play’s principal character Zico, becomes lost in a dark wood.

That treacherous forest is actually the landscape of a dream from which she is unwilling to wake up.

Having scattered the stones that would’ve led her back to safety, Chapman’s Zico suddenly finds herself face to face with a spinster hermit who adamantly denies having any taste for human flesh.

The elderly woman, played by Chapman’s physical opposite but energetic equal Matt Standley, has a much darker secret than ones involving gingerbread houses. It falls to this elderly soothsayer to inform Zico that she is a woman for whom a life with a man is not an option.

And this is despite the fact that her soul mate is a man.

Under Joseph Funari’s clear-if-on-the-nose direction, the scene is simple, abruptly humorous, tonally out of place, expertly acted, runs a bit long and ultimately breaks the heart.

In short, it is everything right and wrong about Quintana’s new play.

Taking place in the REM stages of Zico’s dream, The Elm Theatre’s production of Enter Your Sleep is a two-person tragic-comedy that showcases the impressive talents of its actors Chapman and Standley. Using memories as its springboard, it follows grammar school friends Zico and PK who wrestle with trying to figure out not only how they fit into the world but each other as well.

I am not familiar with Ms. Quintana’s work, but it shows great promise in its highly imaginative exploration of two relatively ordinary Midwest kids whose relationship defies easy category.

Rather than having the play be a series of realistic encounters over the course of a brief lifetime of friendship, Quintana has instead chosen to explore the characters’ emotional difficulties with a dash of August Strindberg, a taste of Tennessee Williams and some wisdom from Billy Crystal.

Aided by Alex Smith’s sharp lighting design and Swamp Deville’s clever series of boxes for a set, Quintana pens a series of vignettes exploring tropes of childhood with a reliance on make believe, love of storytelling and need for naps. Those vignettes serve as a structure to track Zico’s gradual sexual awakening and PK’s long drift away from a woman whose love he never fully understands.

Where Quintana’s play becomes fitful is in its inability to decide whether the story belongs either to both characters or merely Zico.

As the work stands now, it is Zico’s dream, Zico’s awakening, and ultimately her story. However, just enough time is spent following the arc of PK to become disappointed when his tale begins to fade in level of importance.

It seems Quintana can either increase the strength of PK’s presence, making the evening a full one requiring an intermission, or reduce the dramatic burden of her male figure, reducing the play to a character study of the fully realized Zico.

But regardless of Enter Your Sleep’s structural tossing and turning, the performances themselves are first rate. Chapman and Standley are a natural odd couple and should develop something together along the lines of Elaine May and the late Mike Nichols.

Tiny, energetic and bursting out her frame, Chapman pivots from frightened child to condescending teacher to smug talk show host. And Standley beams expansive warmth at one moment by channeling the beloved Ferdinand the Bull and projecting glowering menace the next as a film noir heavy.

Most importantly, they listen to one another.

I am not always a fan of demonstrative, expressionistic acting with its reliance on funny voices and big faces. However, Standley and Chapman’s employment of those techniques works in Enter Your Sleep, because there isn’t a moment where they are not honed in on each other’s rhythms, pace or energy.

Don’t take my word for it; watch either actor when the other is speaking.

And for all of this Funari is to be applauded. I was rather harsh on his directing for A Lie of The Mind. That show simply overwhelmed him, but given his strong work here, I can now see there are strengths he brings to a project.

The piece is visually balanced, the performances exist in the same show, and Funari keeps the action moving only slowing in those moments where reflection or tension is mandated.

But the great success of the acting and directing is in communicating the complexity of the relationship Quintanna is trying to project. Neither lovers nor simply best friends, Zico and PK are instead something elusively undefinable and rewardingly heart aching.

Which is also another way of describing this play at its best.

 

 

 

The Barren Earth: Oxblood

October 23rd, 2014

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Swaying with shovels, dancing spouses dig graves. Long lost tools emerge from the ground like secrets better forgotten. And the earth itself becomes an anatagonist pushing against all who would seek to labor it for either profit or solace.

Elliptical to the point of almost willful inaccessibility, the avant-garde theater company New Noise’s Oxblood is an hour-long intellectual hybrid of dance, song, and Southern Gothic sensibilities.

Taking place in City Park’s Grow Dat Youth Farm in the late afternoon, this original work is deeply connected to the outdoor environment in which it plays. And that may be its biggest selling point.

Despite its form being more sophisticated than its content, director Joanna Russo’s collective piece is worth a trip to the park if only to see a rigorous example of theatrical potential outside traditional confines. It truly lives in the space, much like ArtSpot’s Loup Garou did, and forces you to change your perspective in how you approach theatre as an audience member.

Ostensibly following a triangular and embittered relationship between a married couple and the wife’s left-behind sister in The Deep South, Oxblood is actually a performance poem about the inability to recover or escape our roots.

Staged lovingly by Russo alongside set designer Joan Long’s creepy replication of the burnt out husk of a family farm house, the show flirts with a Flannery O’Connor energy and has more than a few flashes of compelling imagery supplied by its three able actors Kylie Arcenaux, Phil Cramer, and Bonnie Gabel.

If you are able to make the performance, watch any of the moments where the actors work the land while conversing. Engaged in seemingly innocuous dialogue, the actors utter commitment to “farming” the earth suggests a second meaning of regret and recrimination underneath their exchanged expositions.

But Oxblood is neither linear enough to drive us with a compelling narrative nor sufficiently eerie to suggest darker secrets beneath its surface. Instead, it unwinds as merely a coming home story whose details have been replaced with interpretive dance routines or choral folk songs.

And eventually, the wonder of Oxblood’s locale began to work against it.

I was drawn at first by the use of distance and kinetic motion in the large field, and I was delighted that the environment was regarded as an equal collaborator in how its landscape pushed against the efforts of the performers. That world, lush with just-browning-green life, mosquito hawks circling prey and the rich sweat of labor, seemed to promise darker more violent timbers, perhaps worthy of Terrence Malick’s earlier films.

But when the thinness of the story began to become apparent, nothing more than a sad surrender of an already lost country to strip malls and exburbs, that carefully framed wilderness only served to amplify those shortcomings. Its content unable to fill form, the show reaches for something that was obviously rendered undefinable even before the reach, and becomes people grasping for a place that was never theirs to begin with…

It is less a matter of feeling as if Oxblood’s meaning escapes you and more a sense that the mystery is solved for everyone but the characters who inhabit the tale.

Jim Fitzmorris

new orleans' theatrical pugilism