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Archive for May, 2012

This past weekend I took part in a very cool project called House of Democracy. It was one of the events at the Helsinki World Village Festival, an annual festival that brings together performers, musicians, activists and other involved individuals from all over the world. This year’s theme was democracy. Something that is always in short supply.

House of Democracy was set up to show people  how democracy works. It was a simple tent with a voting poll inside, where you could vote for the theme of the next year’s World Village Festival. Now, you may say, what does this have to do with theater?  The House of Democracy was, in fact, a piece of performance art. The theme for the next year’s festival has already been set (it’s going to be Human Rights) and so the whole voting poll was a show we put on to illustrate a point.

The set up was pretty elaborate and there were a number of stages, but the gist of it was as follows. Outside the tent stood a clown who with cheerily ushered people in, promising them an opportunity to see democracy in action. Inside perspective voters were greeted by two grim individuals in booths and two queues (Men vs Women; Poor vs Rich; Foreigners vs Finns, etc.). The booth people were hostile and demanding, pelting voters with arbitrary question, forcing them to switch lines and generally acting unpleasant.

Vintage Vote poster from Obey

Even though there appeared to be two queues, only one actually led to the to the voting area. The other one just sent you outside where you got a leaflet stating that you had just experienced democracy as the majority of the world experiences it, i.e. you didn’t get any of it.

Those who despite all obstacles got inside were treated like royalty. There were comfy couches, drinks, and polite staff. Voters were encouraged to vote for human rights and there were plenty of subtle and not so subtle prompts.  Those who chose to vote for something else would see their ballot torn to pieces right in front of them. As the would-be voters, either disgruntled or content, left the tent, they got a flier explaining that though they did vote, it didn’t mean anything since the elections were fixed. And the staff, the clown and the bureaucrats were all actors putting on a show.

This project was really interesting and challenging. It was imporv from start to finish and keeping in character wasn’t always easy. Especially when you had to be incredibly hostile to people. It was terrifying to see how few people protested or got angry with you for asking personal questions. I was truly glad when someone would stand up for themselves and call me out. But it was disheartening to see how many went along with it and voted for the very thing we suggested.

Caption: “I vote for people’s happiness!” Soviet poster.

This performance art piece really made me think about ways of combining theater and activism. We often think of theater as one-way – the audience is passive, soaking up what’s going on on stage. The play can have a message and the audience is invited to consume this message and possibly internalize it, but they’re not expected to experience the message firsthand.

If Shakespeare was right and all the world’s a stage, then we are all indeed actors. You’d be surprised to see how easily people fall into expected roles. As any sociologist will tell you, people start following unwritten scripts the moment they recognize the situation and very rarely deviate from these scripts. The goal of such a performance (and of many experiments conducted by social scientists) is to see how far you can push the script before people feel compelled to break it. And many of these scripts need to be broken if we want to build a better world.

Whatever you feel about democracy as a political system and it’s obvious shortcomings, I’ve always believed that art exists to help people think about the world around them. Theater can do much more than just entertain. It can be a catalyst for change.

The House of Democracy was the brainchild of Kepa and Political Parties of Finland for Democracy, Demo Finland, who promote international cooperation on democracy. The project was brought to life by artist Jani Leinonen,who is known for his somewhat controversial art (he once kidnapped a statue of Ronald MacDonald and held it for ransom).

Fun fact, both theater and democracy were invented by the Greeks.

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It is my firm belief that any work can be improved if it’s given the Shakespeare treatment. It’s true; rewrite anything in iambic pentameter and it will instaly sound more intelligent.

This is equally true for Battleship, a recent fluff action flick based on, of all things, a Hasbro board game of the same name. It’s official, we’ve run out things to make movies about.

Hey, was that the plot?

Luckily, Yoni Brenner was kind enough to write this Shakespeare-inspired scene for Battleship, which also doubles as a review of the movie.

SCENE I
A Battleship, sailing majestically. Enter a common SAILOR.

SAILOR
Ahoy ye sailors!—friends and noblemen—
Riding ‘twixt glist’ring waves so bright and blue
That one cannot help but stand and marvel
At the resplendence of Neptune’s kingdom
And the miracle of color correction!
A Band of Brothers we are not, but rather,
A jambalaya of studs and starlets,
Drawn from ev’ry creed and ev’ry hair-type,
Selected, as if by algorithm,
To inflame the hearts and body issues
Of the prize’d target demographic.
Anon, we join this ship—this Battleship!—
With spirits high and cheekbones higher still,
Our sextants fix’d upon the one truly
Bankable star aboard this o’erstuffed vessel.
He whose sapphire eyes and manly shoulders,
Doth evoke the simple ethos of the
Heartland; belied only slightly by the
Rich Irish brogue that doth cling to ev’ry
Consonant like so many barnacles.

Liam Neeson enters, dressed as a CAPTAIN.

SAILOR
Hark! He comes! Pray don’t mention what I said
About his accent.

The CAPTAIN addresses the CREW with a barely concealed Irish accent.

CAPTAIN
Friends! Gaffers! Hang’rs-on!
‘Tis I, thy totally American captain,
Proud son of one of those states in the middle
That definitely hath a name, although
I cannot recall it at the moment.

SAILOR
Forsooth Captain, canst thou at least name the
First letter o’ the state?

The CAPTAIN shakes his head.

CAPTAIN
Alas, I cannot.

The CREW grumbles in disappointment.

CAPTAIN
But stay, friends! I come bearing sweet tidings:
For my accountant hath called and confirmeth
Beyond all doubt that mine check hath clear’ed!
And so I am honor-bound to maintain
A straight face for the next ninety minutes,
Even whilst barking generic orders,
Like “Hard to Starboard!” and “Full speed ahead!”
All of which hath been trademarked by Hasbro.
‘Tis indeed an honor to serve amongst
Such distinguish’d mariners as the guy
From True Blood, Riggins from Friday Night Lights,
And th’ pop star Rihanna—all of whom
Seem to be coated in a thin layer
Of Neoprene.

SAILOR
Er, Captain, excuse the interruption,
But art thou going anywhere with this?

CAPTAIN
Nay, my good man, not really. Just riffing.

Enter RIHANNA, THE GUY FROM TRUE BLOOD, andRIGGINS, FROM FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS.

CAPTAIN
How now, Rihanna? What ho, guy from True Blood?
What news dost thou bring from the radar thingie?

RIHANNA
Ay me, dear captain! Most grievous fortune!
For we are invaded by space robots!

The CAPTAIN is confused.

CAPTAIN
Space robots? Art thou sure sweet Rihanna?
For yea, I cannot recall any such
Robots in the original board game.
Only a grid of numbers and letters,
And cheap plastic pegs with which for keeping score.

THE GUY FROM TRUE BLOOD
Thou rememberest correctly O Captain
But the gods at Hasbro hath recognized
Long ago that the Battleship brand
Couldst not survive on grids and pegs alone.
Hence the space robots.

CAPTAIN
I see thy logic.
What say’st thou Riggins from Friday Night Lights?

RIGGINS
Pray let me defer to the True Blood Guy,
For alas, I have forgotten my lines.

The CAPTAIN nods, resolved.

CAPTAIN
If Riggins concurs then it is settled!
We shall attack the space robots at once!

The CREW cheers.

CAPTAIN
Hard to starboard! Full speed ahead! Ready
The doubles! For if we are true of heart
And straight of face there is no way this thing
Cannot gross a bajillion dollars!

Exeunt. End of scene.

The Bard would be proud!

Source: Timothy McSweeney’s Only Desire Is For Your Happiness

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I have a little confession to make. When I go to the theater I can’t help but bring a few little accessories that are frowned upon in other settings, i.e. opera glasses and a fan. So imagine how thrilled I was to come across this clever late 18th century fan.

Fan, 1787-1788, London, Victoria and Albert Museum

The theater in the 18th century was not just a place where you went to see a play, it was also a place  you went to see people. And not just ordinary boring people, but a fascinating mix of peers, royals and royal mistresses. Many of these celebrated or notorious folks were subscribers – they rented a box at the theater for a season.

This particular fan was designed for celebrity-spotting at the King’s Theatre, Haymarket, originally called the Queen’s Theatre. It helpfully tells its owner the names of the subscribers of different boxes. So that when you grow tired of looking at the stage, you could gawk at the famous and the fashionable.

I can see how this could be very entertaining.

Source:  Victoria and Albert Museum

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The show is just a weekend away, so panic is setting in. I’ve started having those nightmares where you’re at the play and everything goes wrong. Like you realize that all your fellow actors have turned into pineapples and you have to do their lines for them.

Our gorgeous Chemical Imbalance poster

Lauren Wilson’s play Chemical Imbalance: A Jekyll and Hyde Play is a hilarious take on Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr HydeThe play, unlike the original novella, pokes fun at everything starting from the concept of duel nature (Dr. Jekyll is pretty darn evil to begin with) to our idea of what Victorians were like to the evil twin trope.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde poster from the 1880s.

Working on this play was a real treat. There is slapstick, unbridled humor and an opportunity to overact and ham it up. I was playing Plodgett  the Cook. And a Scottish cook, at that. I will be issuing a formal apology to Scotland, its people and all cooks who may have been offended by my performance. As it happens, I had to do (and I use the word ‘do’ very loosely) a Scottish accent. It was more like Chekov trying to imitate Scotty while drunk (mind the Star Trek reference).

I’ve never read the original story and can’t say if the adaptation is very different. My general impression is that Victorian gothic horror is not very subtle. The narrative is often drawn-out and dull, while the individual elements are over-dramatic. Yes, I’m looking at you, Dracula. I think thta’s why most of these stories serve as perfect comedy fodder. The line between the dramatic and ridiculous is so fine that one tiny step will take you to the other side.

We tend to think of Victorians as incredibly polite and proper and I love how Wilson uses that idea for comedic effect. All the characters are trying so hard to keep up the appearance of normalcy and propriety while there is a maniac running wild and attacking dogs and policemen. In fact, the range of crimes that Mr Hyde commits is pretty silly – he kills a dog, gets a baby damp in a fountain, tramples a Christmas wreath and flattens a pigeon. He eventually works his way up to murder, but he takes a while to get there .

It’s hard to say if Wilson was trying to use this black comedy to make a point about society and our attitude towards violent crime, but in the end the maid gives a little closing speech reminding us that when Mr Hyde was caught the “world was once again  safe for the rich and dangerous for the poor” which I thought a very apt point.  And so the status quo is reestablished.

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Since I’m a theater geek (please refer to the blog title), I do quite a bit of theater. I love directing, acting, even the occasional play-writing, but one of my ruling passions is costuming.

My theater group, Thespians Anonymous, is putting on Chemical Imbalance: A Jekyll and Hyde Play (two weeks ’til showtime) and yours truly was in charge of costumes. They were a delight. I’m not a huge fan of modern costumes, they look too much like everyday clothes; but historical costumes are always fun and a nice challenge. Especially when the setting is a semi-fictional Victorian England. You can go pretty mental with the concept. The whole scene is pretty macabre with dark shades and ruffles, lace and pearls.

The cast of Chemical Imbalance, Thespians Anonymous. Image by Stuart D. McQuade

The men are proper Victorian gentlemen, albeit late-Victorian pushing on Edwardian. Thank God, men’s fashion has been chnaging so very little over the decades. The older ladies are flirting with the Belle Époque, while the younger ones are ready to embrace the Gibson Girl look.

Matrons Euphronia Jekyll & Lady Throckmortonshire. Image byby Stuart D. McQuade

You can read my full post about the costumes and see more fabulous pictures HERE.

Photographs by Stuart D. McQuade.
Please do not copy or reproduce without permission. 

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