Apparently It Isn’t Woolf They’re Actually Afraid Of

I’m still reeling a bit about a recent decision by the estate of Edward Albee re: a production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?:

According to sources, the estate of the late playwright, Edward Albee, demanded that a theatre company in Oregon, The Complete Works Project, who was producing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, fire the black actor playing the role of “Nick” and be replaced by a white actor or they would rescind the rights to the show.

I don’t know which wrongheaded defense to tackle first, not least of all because of the conflation of multiple arguments. So how about I break the arguments apart first, since my answers to some of them are different than my answers to others:

1) The Rights of the Albee Estate

I’m seeing defenses of this which cast this argument as one about the legal rights of the Albee estate. They assert the rights attached to production of the work, assert the law, and so completely miss the point that it’s no longer a point, but rather a round blunt object.

No one, including the theatre which complained about the decision, claims the Albee estate isn’t invested with the legal power to exert its rights.

Rather, people are following the standard trajectory of free speech: the Albee estate is fully entitled to make fucked up, racist decisions. And everyone else, likewise, is fully entitled to call out just how fucked up and racist those decisions are. You would think that anyone running the estate of a man whose work is rife with people calling each other to the mat might be able to recognize that pattern outside of a three act structure.

2) The Importance of Authorial Intent

As a writer, obviously I have a soft spot for authorial intent. When I write something, I’m attempting to evoke some range of emotions and thoughts in my audience.

However, I’m also well aware that what I want as a writer and what the audience of my work will take away from it aren’t the same thing. If it’s co-opted by a group whose ideology I find abhorrent, and if that co-opting happens in clear breach of my copyright, I have legal recourse to remove it from their use. I can’t, however, control what they think about my work, what they take away from it. The only art which isn’t a conversation is art which has no audience in the first place.

This is especially true in collaborative arts. Yes, the playwright is important. I’d go so far as to say they’re essential. They are not, however, the only aspect of their art. Again, unless a playwright is writing work which they never want to see performed, the nature of their work is to be adapted and interpreted through the lens of those other artists (actors, directors, designers) who attach themselves to it.

And unlike, say, film or television, live theatre is in constant intepretive flux. Hell, something as small as an actor’s mood on a given night can drastically shift a performance. Live theatre is at its core alive. That means it changes, it grows. If it doesn’t, it no longer serves a purpose.

Shakespeare wrote all of his work to be performed by exclusively male casts. He wouldn’t, at the time he wrote his plays, have even conceived of a performance where his female Ophelia was actually played by a woman. Nor would he, for that matter, have imagined the panoply of temporal and environmental backgrounds future theatres might use as the setting for his stories. Last I heard, however, no one’s spending much time grousing that Shakespeare’s intent has been bastardized by contemporary artists bringing new and different influences to bear.

Rather, the response by many is to praise Shakespeare for providing a template which continues to resonate and inspire, which ebbs and flows in a way that allows it to remain relevant, rather than proving itself a hidebound cultural dinosaur.

3) The Slippery Slope

Otherwise known as “Good God! Next you’ll say you want women playing men” and … probably?

Look. I am just the wrong audience for this kind of thing because I’m not seeing the problem here. Aside from my previous point re: Shakespeare, honestly, even if your show is explicitly “about” men, I still can’t think of a lot of instances where there isn’t something interesting an artist might bring to the work through variable gender casting, not least of all interrogating the notion of Man.

Also, let’s be honest, there are still painfully few acting roles for women with the same richness and variety as exist for men. Ditto actors of color and other marginalized identities. If it takes women in traditionally male roles and ethnic minorities in traditionally white roles for audiences and playwrights (or their estates) to stop making lazy, default cultural narrative choices about what constitutes a character of a given gender expression or a character of color or a character of disability or a character of a given sexuality or, or, or? Then I say re-cast the hell out of that shit.

4) “Historical Accuracy”

I’m sorry. I can’t even write that phrase without the scare quotes.

It took me a hot minute after entering “African-American professors 1962” in Google to have third party verification of what I shouldn’t have to prove to reasonably well-educated people: not only did African-American professors in the US exist in mixed race settings, but they’d been around for over a century already:

1849: Charles L. Reason is named professor of belles-lettres, Greek, Latin and French at New York Central College in McGrawville, New York. He appears to be the first African American to teach at a mixed race institution of higher education in the U.S.

That Albee couldn’t conceive of a scenario in the 1960s where such a character could exist without hopelessly straining credulity says a metric ton more about institutional erasure and the success of privileged narratives than it does about verifiable historical reality.

That those caring for Albee’s estate continue to be unable to imagine such a scenario in 2017, especially in a play where every other damn thing the characters say has two or three meanings and / or is elaborate fiction meant to stymie genuine interaction — where the primary actors go so far as to invent people who don’t actually exist but apparently it’s too difficult for the rights holder to imagine people who do — borders on intellectual failure of the sort that, come to think of it, deserves Albee-style disdain and mockery.


Fan-Directing: Sweeney Todd

The recent PBS showing of Sweeney Todd in concert nudged a lot of ideas I have about the show again. Since I’m not a director and never want to be one, I sort of figure the only way I’m going to get those ideas out in any fashion will be to write my way through them.

This is long. It contains spoilers if you don’t know the show. It’s also probably more than a little esoteric. Feel free to turn back now. You’ll get no more warnings from me.

Baiting the Hook

While the final “Ballad of Sweeney Todd” calls the show out as a cautionary tale, the bulk of the text pretty heavily belies that classification. Up until then, the ballads want you to “attend,” but they largely praise Sweeney. He’s strong and quick and clever and the ensemble implores him to “lift [his] razor high.” Whatever tragedy it ends up being, the lion’s share of the show is much more clearly a revenge fantasy (with a healthy dose of dark comedy) which the ensemble (and if it’s done right, the audience) is utterly behind.

Due to the outcome, though, on another level Sweeney Todd is about a slew of characters who are attempting to force the world to obey their individual wills, and about every single one of them ultimately failing miserably to do so. It’s a study in ambitions frustrated and twisted over and over again, where even getting what you’re after results in losing what you really want.

Those are the thematic roots of my idea: what if the staging reflected this tension of individual vs deluge-of-humanity more directly? What if the audience could see the mob infusing the principles with its fury, see the mass will twisting and turning and dictating, essentially forcing the tragedy upon the principles for some never-fully-voiced reason?

These Are My Friends

As much as the themes of the show are at work in the slightly-off way I want to stage things, there are two very specific moments from the show that I think work as precedents for what I’d make more prevalent:

As it’s often staged, the first “Ballad of Sweeney Todd” sees the ensemble effectively call forth Sweeney. We open on a body being buried, as well as–in some cases–a box of ashes. The ballad builds until everyone is participating in a long, keening, dissonant “Sweeeeneeey!” And, as if called forth, Sweeney steps out of the grave. There’s a very clear element here of the ensemble calling Sweeney (back) to life.

Then, in Act II, there’s a small sequence as Sweeney composes his letter to trick Judge Turpin into returning to the barber shop (where he’ll meet his bloody fate). A quintet of ensemble members sing pieces of the letter. It’s more integrated than the other, recurring “ballad” sections, and with strange echoes, the singers seem to play up the resonance of the lines he’s writing, emphasizing which ones he lingers on. “She will be waiting…” they sing together at one point, then a soloist echoes “waiting,” since, of course, that word in particular means much more to Sweeney. The line between what Sweeney thinks and what the ensemble voices is especially faint here, and it’s always stuck with me.

Sweeney Pondered and Sweeney Planned

Setup finished, we get to the heart of my notions: all of the above mashed up in my head to this idea of Sweeney Todd not as a person in his own right, but as an expression of the will of the mob. What if they aren’t relating Sweeney’s tale, but actively constructing it?

I probably need to stop here and acknowledge the 2004 John Doyle revival, which casts itself as a performance given in the heart of an insane asylum. Obviously the “constructing narrative” elements are there, but I think it goes much too far into the realm of putting on a show. I can’t argue that an insane asylum isn’t an appropriate metaphor (especially since the show itself uses that metaphor late in the second act), but despite the liberal buckets of blood poured on stage for that particular production, it feels far less, well, sanguine than I think the show deserves.

Despite my position that our ensemble is creating this story, I want a world that feels more real. Especially because, I think, there comes a point where the story overcomes the people creating it….

But now we’re getting into the particulars, so let’s just get into them.

No Place Like London

I think Sweeney works best in his original context: 19th century London, filled with commoners suffering and struggling and generally not enjoying all the magical improvements the Industrial Revolution is providing the rich. It’s dark, it’s dirty, and it’s full of frustrations. And because of that it feels real and immediate and in your face.

Given what’s about to happen, I think this is important. I want the audience to see and feel that the ensemble are as real as the principles here. They aren’t detached from the squalor; they’re inundated by it. The ensemble is going to be doing some things that set them outside the story, but I don’t want them to feel like they’re outside life. These aren’t capricious supernatural folks toying with people from above. They aren’t going through some questionable therapy scenario: they’re very real, very angry people who are enacting this revenge fantasy as much because of their own personal pain as for the benefit of the audience. This is a visceral catharsis for them.

Attend the Tale

Quick aside to clarify: I’m never talking below about adding any text to the show. When people “say” things that aren’t in the original score / book, I’m referring to thoughts they’re conveying through body language and staging. I don’t want to put a single new word in anyone’s mouth. Sondheim and Wheeler wrote plenty of good ones; they don’t need more.

So, there we are, in 19th century London. Citizens in squalor and desperation mill about. Instead of a graveyard, though, I’d want us in the heart of London, in the middle of what passes for the working class. That loud, shrill whistle takes on a more concrete role, as the sound that lets them stagger out of work for the day. Only, of course, the day keeps going. There is no rest. There’s only different kinds of misery and watching the rich gentlemen and ladies live their lives by walking on the backs of the increasingly-frustrated poor, and there’s nothing said poor can do.

But what if there is? The Londoner who will eventually embody Toby, after being brushed aside and ignored, steps up to the first few people who will sing with him. Toby asks them to “Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd,” and almost immediately it catches on. They add to it, expand it. This story of a man who killed all those damnable gentlemen, oh, yes. And the story spreads, through the ensemble. Their voices grow, and so, too, does their insistence on having a Sweeney. But who will it be?

The crowd begins focusing on a few different men, choosing sides as the more cacophonous section of the song builds. They look men up and down, cast them aside. Some are eager to take the role, but don’t fit the bill for whatever fickle reason the angry mob happens to hold. And then, shortly before that keening call to Sweeney I mentioned above, they find him: some previously-mousy member of the ensemble, who has the look they want, whose mousiness means they can impose their will on him.

He resists, this man, meekly trying to break out of the crowd which is surrounding him. They have the wrong man, surely. He’s a nobody, a nothing. But the crowd won’t let him out, closes in on him, essentially envelopes him as they call upon Sweeney.

I think our Sweeney should start meek for more than just the sake of contrast. In the show itself, Sweeney is mostly a reactive character. He has stuff done to him, then he turns dark and bitter and eventually violent, but he’s almost always being played (mostly by Lovett), up until his final act of violence, at which point he breaks down. That the citizen who will embody him in this revenge tale writ large should be a bit of a spineless sort prior to being chosen, then, feels accurate, feeding into the themes.

Back to our opening, where suddenly the crowd parts, darkly proud and enthralled, to show us Sweeney. He’s the first to sport red, and we see his small piece of it now prominently displayed. Our sheepish man is now filled with anger and menace as Sweeney calls out his first lines, and the mob is equally kind of enthralled by him. The call and answer at the end of the first ballad shows off the fact that he is the expression of their voice and rage and all manner of darkness they’ve been holding down.

I Was Thinking Flowers

Here’s the thing: I want to do something that is more than “we’re acting out this story,” obviously. These aren’t actors, but citizens, possessed by the story, entering it and enacting it, but in a way that they can’t, for the most part, control. With a couple exceptions that I’ll get to, once you’re in the story, you’re stuck inside it. You’re living it, not acting it.

Because everyone’s part of the same time and place, though, we need something to help designate who’s inside the story and who’s still part of the mob forcing its will upon them. I think Sweeney Todd is a dark and dirty sort of world, though, so bright shocks of color seem wrong. This is where a costume designer would have to come in.

We need something(s) smallish that lets the audience know who’s in and who’s out of the story, but which can be taken and assumed (and removed, eventually) pretty quickly. While a few characters will get prep time, most will be possessed pretty much right on stage, and with very little time for any kind of full change.

I say “red” above, but I’d fully expect that a costume designer could come up with something far cleverer. I don’t have especially awesome ideas of what that is, I’m afraid, but I recognize that something costume-centric has to exist to serve our purposes. I could call it just about anything, but I need a placeholder of some sort, and “red” seems as good a one as any. If you feel like internally translating “red” to “whatsis” or something else because you’re in that kind of mood, have at.

Whatever it is, our reds would be consistent with each character, wearable, and easy to put on and take off. I figure they would definitely be different for each character, but would share something (obviously I’m assuming color at the moment) that makes it clear to the audience sooner rather than later who stands apart.

Ah, Sir. Ah, Miss.

Anthony and Johanna are ostensibly the romantic couple in the tale. I’m going to go on record right out of the gate as calling bullshit on that notion.

Here’s the thing: I think Sweeney Todd has, at best, one actual innocent soul in it. That’s Toby, and even then I’m sure someone could argue against that (and what I’m setting up may make a lie of that notion, as well). This show is almost all about cynicism and the worst of humanity. If it were an uplifting tale, Anthony and Johanna would be smart enough to run away, instead of come back to witness the bloody aftermath of Sweeney’s final revenge.

There’s just too much offal at play here for me to believe Sondheim and Wheeler are honestly trying to write a sweet, heroic love story for these two, and I think the text bears me out.

First of all, take a real look at some of the lyrics of Anthony’s “Johanna”: “Even now I’m at your window … I am in the dark beside you … buried sweetly in your yellow hair.” These are creepy lyrics, especially from someone who’s said all of two words to this girl, if that. He’s not interested in getting her out of her current situation, mind you. He just wants in, and as far as I’m concerned, he “wants in” the same way Judge Turpin does.

Anthony’s a sailor, just back in port after a long journey at sea. He turns down the Beggar Woman because he’s young and good looking and well aware he can get pretty much anyone he wants. Then he sees Johanna, and is immediately told he can’t have her.

Screw that. I’m already in there, he effectively responds. Guys, come on. Anthony is basically a stalker.

Johanna, too, isn’t the naive waif she might seem. Let’s remember, she’s spent the last 16 years or so growing up under the Judge’s increasingly lascivious gaze. And she’s somehow managed not to fall victim to him. Johanna is painfully well acquainted with What Men Want, and has spent years figuring out how to make use of her ostensible naiveté and innocence to keep from letting the Judge take that.

Let’s remember, this is a man who had no problem holding down and raping a woman in the middle of roomful of party-goers. Johanna’s managed to keep him at bay while living in his house. If this girl’s vapid and guileless, you should probably enroll Mensa in remedial classes.

Of course, it’s also becoming evident that she may not have much time before she can’t keep him at bay any longer.

Enter Anthony, practically drooling at the prospect of getting up close and personal with her. Johanna isn’t in love with him any more than he is with her. She’s something he can’t have and therefore needs to prove he can get. He, on the other hand, is her ticket out of hell.

“Kiss Me” takes on a very different meaning in this context. Anthony has snuck in with the hope of making his little creeper fantasy come true. Johanna, on the other hand, playing up the scatterbrained, fragile innocent angle that–as I said–she’s been using to save herself from the repugnant Judge, effectively makes it clear to Anthony that he will never get what he wants until he gets her the hell away from the Judge.

Thus Anthony’s hastily-constructed–and poorly enacted–escape plan is hatched.

It’s sad that one of the optional cuts that can be (and often is) made in the script is a scene in which Johanna manipulates the Judge in order to steal the key to the house and drop it to Anthony below. I think it’s a great one for showing our ingenue to be a woman with agency and resources despite the fact that her situation is designed to remove both.

Married on Sunday

To play up some of the subtext here, I think it might be interesting to use an existing young, married couple from our ensemble crowd. This is a twisted little role-playing scenario to them. They take off their wedding rings on stage, give each other a passionate kiss: this is going to be so hot. And since it’s a bit of a game, the audience is already sort of prepared to see them as toying with one another.

In other toying, I think this is a good spot to play up Toby’s role in things. He started this story, but has yet to enter it. A moment where our Toby steps up to be Anthony, but is bumped aside by the couple sets a bit of tension that we’ll use later.

For now, Anthony and Johanna claim their red, and the first strains of “No Place Like London” send Johanna offstage and Anthony into his opening number.

Don’t I Know You, Mister?

I’m of two minds for the Beggar Woman / Lucy. It might work just fine to have a woman begging within the crowd, only to be thrown into the story as a means of getting rid of her. Throw on her red, shove her forward, and make Anthony deal with her.

On the other hand, given who she really is, and that Lucy–like Todd–is a character broken by the events of her story, I think it might be better if she has a relationship with our Sweeney as we find him originally. Obviously that would be a brief moment during the first ballad, after which he’s pulled from her.

The introduction of the Beggar Woman, then, is the first chance this woman has to enter the story, to try to reclaim her … whatever he is to her. They shouldn’t be wearing wedding rings like our Anthony and Johanna. I like the idea of making their particular relationship muddy. But I think it would be a nice moment to see her turn from pleading with the crowd to let her enter the story to having her pleading for alms, and then just as disturbingly turn on the crazy.

Folks might argue that this gives too much away. Personally, I’m not sure we’re really meant to be all that surprised at who the Beggar Woman is, and I don’t know that half a second of held hands in the cacophony of the opening ballad will be any more noteworthy a clue to sharp audience members than the fairly obvious “I’m Someone Important” recurrence of the character in the first place. Still, I’m torn.

Sweet Polly Plunkett

The transition music out of “The Barber and His Wife” and into Lovett’s pie shop is this awesomely chaotic, banging sort of instrumental. It rather perfectly embodies what I want the moment to be like when our Mrs. Lovett claims her role.

Unlike Todd, Lovett is proactive. She’s the primary instigator in a lot of plot, so it seems right to have her be someone of agency outside the world, as well. Sweeney is a product shaped by the nasty world. Lovett’s not waiting around that long.

So as the chaotic, bang-y music plays, one Londoner roughly pushes, shoves, and likely pulls hair to get the other women out of her way so that she can claim her red, grab up her rolling pin, and corner Sweeney Todd before he leaves her shop.

Another Lad Who Once I Had

Judge Turpin and Beadle Bamford are introduced in a flashback, to some rather playful music. The nature of who and what they are comes out slowly in that little dumb-show. This is also, I should note, one of the first places where the commoner ensemble can participate.

I think it’s rather perfect that its setting is a masquerade.

On the heels of the first fully comedic number, “Worst Pies In London,” the crowd has started to feel, as a whole, that this is a rather twistedly amusing game. So while ensemble members take up masks, and play at being voyeur rich folks (not recognizing, of course, the resonance that holds with the Grand Guignol they’ve incited), Judge and Beadle snatch up their red and enact their back stories.

I don’t have as distinct an idea for who these two men should be prior to joining the story. I imagine they’re both relatively jovial, though. They take up their red, after all, in the play-acting section. I don’t think they have any idea what they’re signing up for.

Which, as it stands, is fairly appropriate given how clueless the two characters are to the plot at hand.

May I Have Your Attention, Please?

Prior to “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir,” our Toby has had to watch Johanna and Anthony entering into their little sexual dance. As such, he’s had quite enough of being sidelined from the story he started.

The Londoner who will be Pirelli reaches for some red, but as he picks it up, Toby grabs it, giving Pirelli a different piece and swinging him off-stage. It’s my turn. You can have the next one. Pirelli doesn’t much care, so he follows his momentum off-stage as Toby grabs up his red to start singing.

This also, on a level that darkly amuses me, means that Toby effectively chooses the first person to die.

All in Masks

I should mention here that, thus far, the ensemble has not taken on any red when they enter into scenes as a crowd. They’re filling in responses from the wide world, but aren’t fully engaging. Like with “Poor Thing,” the crowd’s participation starts in upbeat moments (for a show about murder, rape, and cannibalism, that is), and is part of their having a bit of fun with the story as it trundles along.

I have a notion that principles / people with red never quite make eye contact with these crowds. Because the crowd can also observe and affect things in the story when they shouldn’t be seen. It’s a tricky notion, but I think it’s manageable. Toby’s giving a presentation, after all, and Sweeney / Lovett are talking out loud so people hear them en masse, rather than speaking directly to anyone. Even in “God, That’s Good,” Lovett could reasonably be talking to folks without bothering to look at them.

As the ensemble is effectively invisible when they nudge the story along (more on that in a minute), I think it might be worth the trickiness of it all.

Teach Me How to Sing

The first time this “no red for the crowd” rule changes is the shaving contest. If our rule is that you can’t fully interact with anyone in the story without fully entering it, then being one of the volunteers for the contest requires two men who will temporarily grab some red.

And when the contest is over, we’ll establish one of the restrictions of our concept: you can’t leave the story on your own. Our two contestants will be ready to walk off without the ensemble, out into the world of the story, until someone else removes their red.

Whomever this is holds the red for the newly-released chaps to see. They’ll quickly acknowledge that they now remember their place and re-join the crowd as we enter another ballad. That this is the “pondered and planned” iteration is appropriate, as we’re starting to ask the audience to understand some of the ramifications of what’s happening.

I recognize it’s slightly odd, but it becomes important in the second act that entering the story gives up one’s ability to leave it. Someone has to free you from the story, otherwise you are victim to it. And that, itself, is tied into what I’m wanting to do to make death matter in a framed tale like this.

The Engine Roared, the Motor Hissed

With all the pieces on the board, then, it’s time to talk a bit more about how I picture the ensemble / mob imposing itself on the principles without, I hope, upstaging them. I want a nice balance between the characters interacting on their own, and the crowd stepping in to force the story in the direction it wants.

A lot of this will be from individuals or small groups. I don’t want an ensemble to have to mill about the set for the full run of the show (which isn’t anyone’s idea of short). That way lies madness and mutiny, and it makes my back ache just thinking about those poor souls.

Establishing them on the outskirts, however, with lighting allowing them to fade offstage seems a reasonable way for it to feel like they might always be there, just out of reach. And a few secret entrances into sets that let them seem like they’ve always been there when they just stepped in when you weren’t looking could help. Again, obviously, the importance of good production people comes into play. The illusion of the crowd’s omnipresence will depend in large part on good lighting and sets.

The Work Waits

In any event, with minimal contact, key moments would wind up partially incited by one or more ensemble members. In all cases, the principles don’t respond to the ensemble members as if they’re really there, though it’s clear the crowd is partially the incitement. These fall into a few rough categories, and I’ll give a few examples of what I’m thinking of in each case:

1) Glancing inspiration. This is probably the one that would happen most. Here the appearance, gathering, or just pointed changing in the looks of the ensemble correspond to, as Lovett once says, “bright ideas pop[ping] into” the heads of the principles.

* A group of young ladies who might normally be Anthony’s type look up to Johanna to draw his gaze there.
* An individual looks into the trunk with Pirelli, and Lovett notices his coin purse to take.
* Sections of the crowd point Sweeney in the direction of those souls in the audience he menaces during “Epiphany.”
* A gathering of souls on her side of the stage near the end of Act I coincides with Lovett feeling inspired. The shifting of the crowd to Sweeney’s side of the stage brings him in on the plan which launches their pie-making innovation.
* One or more souls point or gather near Lovett to draw Toby’s attention to Pirelli’s purse.
* A few lingering crowd members glance oddly at the pie Toby’s eating, at which point he finds first the hair, then the finger.
* As one of the two moments that inspired all this, I wouldn’t forget “The Letter.” Definitely here, the quintet are dictating to Sweeney.

2) Invisible obstacles. This is similar to the first, but the crowd members physically put themselves in the way of a moving principle, which corresponds with a sudden change in direction.

* Someone stands in the Beadle and Judge’s path when there is a sudden thought for the Judge to see Sweeney for a shave to impress Johanna instead of going home.
* Another person or persons block the exit from the barber shop as Sweeney is about to leave Johanna alone, invisibly reminding him he’s forgotten something for which he has to return.
* A crowd member stands in Anthony’s way, turning him in the direction of Johanna at Fogg’s asylum.

3) Prop and set manipulation. Certain key props would be held / revealed / manipulated by one or more members of the crowd. The members would effectively be taking the place of furniture that would normally hold them.

* Someone produces Todd’s razors as Lovett remembers them / goes to get them.
* Someone opens the trunk for Pirelli to fall in, and for Johanna to hide in and exit.
* One or more members of the crowd help ferry the key from Johanna to Anthony.
* Members of the crowd produce the paper and quill Sweeney uses to write the letter to Turpin.

4) Just plain tossing folks around. I think in a couple of spots, it may work to have the crowd physically pushing and pulling principles. This one needs to be pretty rare, but, for example, I think it might be fun to have Anthony pulled and pushed quickly onstage near the end of “Pretty Women,” as members of the crowd decide they want to draw out their revenge fantasy. I suspect the same thing might work once or twice with Toby or the Beggar Woman. Most of the other characters feel wrong for that kind of thing.

Poor Thing

I mentioned above that I want there to be more of a sense of the reality of death in this production than there was in the Doyle revival, and in the second act, the rules we’ve established about entering and leaving the story become important in making that work.

Drunk on the fun of “God That’s Good,” Sweeney’s first victim in the second act dons some red and goes to sit in the chair. Not wanting to be left behind, a second grabs red just as the first is being killed. It’s not until after this second death that we see the body of the first, brought out to one of the edges of the stage, where, yup: he’s dead. For reals and all.

Appalled by this, no one wants to touch him to remove his red, so he stays there as the second victim dies, and people on that side of the stage begin to realize their Sweeney isn’t just killing the rich and entitled. Everyone is on his list now. Mind you, not everyone cares. Some of the crowd are feeling the same bloodlust as Todd. In this act, the crowd is slowly losing its detachment, is becoming infected with Todd and the story just as much as they are themselves influencing the principles.

The third potential victim comes from the side of the stage that hasn’t witnessed the truth of what’s happened, possibly obscured by those who want this revenge fantasy to grow bloodier. He’s already donned red by the time his little girl recognizes the danger. She rushes to grab red of her own even as some of the crowd try to stop her, and succeeds, shifting from a frightened rush to save her father into a playful frolicking that takes her into the barber shop just in time.

The two dead men will be shifted far enough offstage so that the actors don’t have to lie there for the next several scenes, but, as another Sondheim show tells us, “no one leaves for good.”

Lunatics Yelling at the Moon

As the Fogg’s Asylum scene begins, our crowd is still not fully integrated. They’re playing at crazy, though the real thing has been slowly seeping into them as the act has built. When Johanna / Anthony shoot Fogg, however, it’s the last instigation they need. Everyone essentially loses it, and just about all of them go crazy trying to find and don red.

Of course, as with just about every other resource at the time, there’s not enough red to go around. “City on Fire” is, in part, a sequence with people entering and being ripped back out of the story in quick succession as the scarce and coveted red is yanked from person to person.

Remember our two dead men from before? Here’s where they come back. Dragged out during one of the ensemble sections of this number, their red is torn from them so two more people can fully subsume themselves in the story. And when that happens, the men come back to life. We’re setting up the final “Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” here, but also, really, zombie barber victims don’t exactly seem out of place in a sequence that declares itself “the end of the world.”

Seriously, the more messed up and confusing this whole sequence is, the better. I want the “out” for death to show up here so I’m playing fair, but in the middle of a manic jumble where I’m not shouting “Look! Look what happened here!”

Eventually, lead by our returned dead folk, those members of the crowd who are horrified at what’s happening manage to pull the red from the others, who scatter off to witness the end of all they’ve wrought.

It’s the End of the World

After the chaos of the “City on Fire” sequence, the crowd sort of comes back to its senses. They recognize that what’s happening only ends one way, and they start acting to make sure that happens. They help Johanna hide, though only so she can see just what her father truly is. One may even yank Johanna into running when Lovett’s cry distracts Sweeney as he’s about to unwittingly kill his daughter.

Definitely it’s a member of the crowd who shines the “furnace light” that shows the Beggar Woman’s face clearly and lets Sweeney know just what he’s done. Then the final tragedy plays out. Crazy Toby stands there in the wake of it until a member of the crowd (my inclination is one of the two men who rose from the dead during the lunatic section, now standing in as police?) yanks his red from him to finish this all out.

Toby is back to himself, but also realizes what’s been wrought. Because here’s the thing: like I said at the start, Sweeney Todd really doesn’t seem to be judging Sweeney harshly until the final ballad. It’s a sharp, sudden shift for the ensemble to suddenly speak of this as a cautionary tale. Having a sudden shift out of Toby and back into his Londoner self, I think, emphasizes that break.

Toby grabs the red from Johanna and Anthony, who have their own shift back during their lines, and they all move through to remove the red from the others, as well. As during “City on Fire,” removing the red brings the dead back to life so they can sing. The reactions of those pulled back into the “real world” will vary based on the characters, but all of it feeds into the warning we’ve now moved into giving. And this movement helps mask Sweeney’s sneaking out of the way.

As we’ve established that people are having their red reclaimed, though, it’s not wholly surprising when our Sweeney and Lovett show up for the last few lines. Red in their hands, they hold it as a reminder of what they’ve done and what it might mean.

Hush, Love, Hush. Wait.

In the swell of music at the end, the full ensemble begins throwing their red into a pile center stage, gathering around it. One of the interesting bits of the final ballad is an especially long pause between “Fleet” and “Street,” the final two lyrics. Bringing the cast center gives them plenty of space to march for the edges of the stage and the exits during that pause without quite leaving.

It’s hard to resist, though, the temptation to use a final bit of staging to point out just what the final ballad says: that Sweeney might be lurking in all of us. After most folks have exited on the final lyric, there’s just enough music left with which I can send in one or two folks. I go back and forth about whether that’s the “crowd selves” for Sweeney and Lovett, or whether it should be two non-featured ensemble players (probably younger ones). I’m inclined toward the latter, as it speaks to not learning from others’ mistakes.

Either way, that final music sees a rush center from whomever toward that pile of red center stage, with each one snatching and raising up a piece triumphantly at the end and donning it, thus letting the audience know that this bloody story is the kind of thing that lingers and returns and is never quite over so long as there are people to tell it.

Just Love Me (but Not On the Lips)

I’m still ambivalent about a The Last 5 Years1 film, largely because its concept has always seemed so tied to live theatre. Mind you, I don’t mind adaptation. It happens all the time. Filmmakers adjust stories to better fit the new medium and I totally think they should.

That said, the central conceit of The Last 5 Years–that Cathy is moving backwards through the relationship as Jamie moves forward–feels both essential to the material and all wrong for film. In all honestly, while there are a lot of songs I love in the show, I think the reason you sit through those songs all at once is the time juggling. It’s a device that engages your mind in a different way than a linear narrative, and by around the midway point, starts encouraging you to try fitting songs back together internally. The intellectual exercise of figuring out who is when keeps your brain working to put together what is, on its face, a fairly standard relationship narrative.

And, in a theatrical setting, no one really balks at just having two people performing a series of musical monologues. We’re used to folks getting up on a stage and doing just that. It’s the buy in. We don’t need anything cinematic. And, again, that intimacy seems kind of crucial to what this particular story is trying to accomplish. As, effectively, an elaborate he said / she said story, forcing the audience to lock in on whomever is currently doing the saying is important. It’s not a tug of war if you aren’t being yanked from deep within one person’s perspective to deep within another’s. Film tends to want to be far more immersive with its environments, and rightly so.

So, yeah. Given that the two things that I think make The Last 5 Years, you know, The Last 5 Years are both elements which I think don’t work especially well in cinema, I’ve been apprehensively curious about how things are going to work in this new film.

The first clip from the film feels a bit like my concerns are at least reasonably valid2:

So, in an effort to help things move, to give the world of the film that immersive environmental element I was talking about above, we have our lead characters in a car. We get wind, we get scenery, we get all that wild, fun energy of being out on the road with the person who gets you going, which of course leads to pulling off said road in order to get going with said person.

But because Cathy has to keep singing the whole time, the scene plays really awkwardly for me. There’s no real musical break to let Anna Kendrick fully connect with Jeremy Jordan. She manages to sneak in one, very quick kiss, but the rest of the scene, which is attempting to build to some spontaneous roadside nookie, keeps fighting with the need for Kendrick to keep singing. I count three or four different spots where it’s clear that the actors’ instincts (which I think are spot on) are to be kissing, but: Must. Keep. Singing.

So instead we have Jordan going to town while Kendrick sings about how into it all she is without being able to actually be into it. It’s kind of a perfect example of the tension between the needs of the filmmakers and the needs of the show they’re adapting.

Maybe this is just a particularly off example of the rest of the film released because “look, we made it full of sexy stuff!” or something. Still, it’s not doing much to reduce my ambivalence.

1. I thought for half a second about going back and forth between 5 and Five in the titles to distinguish film from stage show, but it just became confusing, not least of all because, while MTI lists the title with Five-the-word, the poster just about everyone associates with the show uses 5-the-number, and I’m done with the headache, so this is what you get.

2. The original clip is actually from Entertainment Weekly, but after much screaming and gnashing of teeth, I cannot get that into WordPress. Thus the YouTube.

Internal Conflict

Venice Theatre, whom I last mentioned when their open secret of paying some but not all performers went public, has decided to modify the script some more. They announced a move hinted at in the previous Jay Handelman article on the subject of payment–acting internships:

The chosen actors will get housing and a small weekly stipend. They also will be expected to audition for several mainstage, Stage II or cabaret shows, where they will compete against other local performers. [Producing Director Allan] Kollar said there are no expectations that the interns get leading roles. Auditions will remain open to all interested actors.

The interns will also take part in a variety of outreach programs, presenting brief shows at community and retirement centers and schools in the area.

The first few times (that I know for sure) I was in a Venice show with a paid performer, those performers were Equity actors. It was a pretty solid line: union received paychecks, and had their names marked specially in the program, making their status clear. It wasn’t until later that I discovered non-union volunteers were receiving paychecks in some cases, as well, which is where things start getting incredibly muddy.

On one level, I think this new program is perhaps meant as an attempt to re-establish that “professional” line. Over here are the people who will be paid. They went through special criteria to get on the books. They are, effectively, staff. Or, at least, they’re meant to be regarded as such.

I’m especially interested in the comment about the roles interns will play in shows. In what I’m assuming is a bid to assuage volunteer fears and head off attrition, the theatre wants to make sure folks know that interns aren’t guaranteed any kind of lead roles. They’re auditioning just like everyone else. And I’m sure most directors will try to be fair about that kind of thing.

Of course, it seems like it would speak especially ill of either the applicant pool or Venice’s choices if their interns aren’t the kind of performers who are going to be in contention for significant roles throughout the year. Especially when they’re picking the interns knowing full well their performing needs for the season.

Even tossing that aside, it’s hard not to expect that interns won’t be used regularly, lead or no. Not using them would seem to be a rather horrible ROI, after all. If they aren’t the leads, then it only stands to reason they’d be filling out the ensemble of Venice’s larger shows. Which brings us to the same, chafing situation as has happened before if you’re paying ensemble members and asking your leads to do it all for free.

Let me stop right now: ensemble is hard. It’s exhausting and frantic and often filled with the kind of nightmare quick changes and whiplash shifts in character that no featured role outside A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder will experience. This isn’t about belittling any of that.

However, if we’re talking about teaching folks about professional theatre: barring hazard or specialty pay, in professional theatre, isn’t ensemble remuneration lower than that of featured performers? Not only, then, might that situation wind up rubbing featured performers badly; it seems to be actively working against the stated intent of the internship, which is to prepare the interns for the reality of a professional career.

I’ll give a thumbs up to this inasmuch as this program, on the books and publicized, provides the kind of transparency that I think a community organization should have. It’s out there and everyone knows about it. Or, at the very least, folks would have a hard time pretending anyone was hiding it.

Of course, this kind of publicity is also one of the continuing frustrations. You know, hooray for bringing it out in the light, but I’m not sure this does much of anything to change the message to volunteers or the frustrations I outlined last time.

It’s also hard not to notice this announcement rather neatly sidesteps questions about how much other hiring might still happen. In any event, I’ll be especially interested to see how this inaugural class shakes out, both in the way Venice implements and uses the interns, and the way volunteer performers respond to them.

Throwing Coins with the Roses

Venice Theatre (née Venice Little Theatre) has had something of an open secret amongst local community theatre actors and assorted other theatre folk for a while now. This weekend, local critic Jay Handelman outed them:

While preparing to write a story about the upcoming Venice Theatre production of “Oklahoma!” I discovered that the actor playing Curly McLain, the leading male role, is being brought in from New York, provided housing and a small stipend. He’s a young actor just beginning his career and it will be good experience for him.


Then I discovered that several other performers in the show also are being compensated with what I’m told is nothing more than gas money to help cover the cost of their driving some distance to nightly rehearsals and performances.

None of this is really news to me, or to a lot of people who do shows regularly in our local community theatres (I was rather surprised to hear that The Players in Sarasota has supplied “gas money” to folks; I suppose theirs was a better-kept secret).

The article is generally an overview of the issue, asking each of the Artistic Directors of the three local community theatres (Manatee Players, The Players in Sarasota, and Venice Theatre) if and in what context they’ve provided financial compensation. Handelman poses a host of questions, clearly intending this to be a conversation starter.

Anyone who’s spoken with me much about local community theatre knows I’ve been waiting for that public conversation for a while now.

I may or may not come back to this and take on different aspects from the article, but for now, I’ll try to give this some focus by using Handelman’s questions concerning other volunteer performers. Since, you know, I am one on occasion.

I’ll take them in order, and with the obvious caveat that I can only speak from my own experience, from my own thoughts and feelings on the matter and what I’ve personally heard in a reasonable number of conversations on the topic with other theatre friends. Much as I want to, I don’t have psychic powers; I can’t tell you what everyone in the community thinks and feels.

Some personal context, to whatever extent it might influence your interpretation of what follows: I’ve never received financial compensation for a community theatre show. Venice did arrange for another cast member to provide me with a workout plan when I was Rocky in The Rocky Horror Show, but I can’t tell you if they paid her or not, because I honestly don’t know. At the time I assumed she did it for free, since she was a pretty big supporter of the theatre and the show.

I have been paid for two shows I did through PLATO, the nonprofit started at the former Golden Apple Dinner Theatre. As did every other performer in a PLATO show.

All that out of the way, let’s get to the questions:

Don’t fellow performers become resentful if they realize they’re not getting stipends that others are getting?

Not everyone, and the extent and the target of said resentment will depend on the person, but it would be silly to expect there wasn’t some resentment. Personally, I’ve never taken issue with any of my cast members who were pulling a paycheck. As I’ve pointed out before, doing a show is always hard work. It’s hard work we often love doing, but it’s still hard work. Hard work is always deserving of reward, and every person I know who’s been paid did that work.

But with rare exception, so does everyone else in the cast of the exact same show. It’s incredibly difficult not to take selective payment practices within a cast as an implicit indictment by the theatre of one’s worth as a performer. No one likes to feel de-valued.

What does that do to cast bonding?

I’ve actually never experienced a problem in that arena, but as I said, I’ve never held hard feelings toward my fellow cast members because they were or weren’t pulling a paycheck. And honestly, it’s hard to do a show, to really engage in the work of doing a show, if you’re putting up walls between yourself and cast members. Some casts bond better than others, but I’ve never noticed a paywall, as it were.

Will it mean some performers won’t audition for shows if they’re not going to get compensated in some way?

I can confirm at least anecdotally that this is the case. As I said near the top, Venice’s policy as regards payment has been an open secret among a lot of theatre folks for years. I know of several instances where folks refused to accept roles without compensation. I know people who have walked into auditions explicitly requiring payment in the case that they’re cast. I know people who don’t audition because they assume Venice will just be bringing in paid ringers for X show, anyway, so why bother auditioning?

What talent will we be missing?

From the responses in the article, the argument of Venice and — to my surprise — Sarasota appears to be that we’re missing out on the talent if theatres don’t pay.

I do know a few working performers who actively suggest Venice as a venue from which other working performers should seek employment. I know some directors who, likewise, walk into auditions with the mindset that they can hire in for X roles in a show if they aren’t satisfied with the volunteers who show up to audition. That and the response to the previous question may or may not point to missing talent in the volunteer pool depending your own point of view on the matter.


In the end, mileage on all of this is going to vary. No one wants to put on a horrible show. If that costs a little extra money, maybe that’s the price of admission (and, hey, if you can defer the cost of your avocation, most folks aren’t inclined to say no). On the other hand, every dollar spent bringing in a paid performer to fill a perceived shortcoming in the volunteer talent pool is a dollar that can’t be spent expanding volunteer outreach and visibility, which may in itself mean a smaller available volunteer talent pool, and then we’re heading into Ouroboros territory.

Said Inigo Montoya to Vezzini

I live in an area which is fairly unique in the way its community theatres run. Shows are on 5 to 6 days a week, sometimes putting on shows twice in the same day. Production staff who work at the local Equity houses likewise direct and design for the community set. There’s a much closer amount of crossover than I’ve ever experienced, at least. Which may be why there’s so much tension around the word “professional” hereabouts.

There has semi-recently been the start of a discussion about what “community theatre” means, so to steer clear of that particular murk, I’m going to be talking about volunteer actors and paid actors. It’s a cleaner line to draw, especially as regards where this is all going.

Back on the professional front, however: yes, absolutely professionalism is not limited to paid professionals. Volunteer performers still need to have respect for one another, still have to take pride in what they’re doing. There are noses and grindstones which need introduction. Anyone who wants to have a six week picnic would, in all cases, do best to find something other than theatre–community or otherwise–upon which to spend time. So, yes, “professional isn’t just paid.”

It is, however, willfully wrong-headed to believe and expect that volunteer actors make their show decisions the same way as someone who pays his or her bills through acting gigs. Professional (as the -ism) is not the same thing as professional (as the job).

It is professional (as the -ism) to avoid responding to directors’ casting rejections as insults. Rejection in this context isn’t personal: they don’t hate us, they just feel the show they want to make would benefit from a different choice. That’s the job. It’s not the director’s job to make everyone happy.

Mind you, it is only fair for directors to accept that the reverse is true: the responsibility of a volunteer performer is to choose shows and roles he or she finds fulfilling. It is not the onus of any given volunteer to ensure a director gets the cast he or she prefers. That’s not personal, either, and a volunteer’s choices are not stupid or wrongheaded just because they hamper a director’s desires. Nor, more importantly to my point, are those decisions necessarily going to align with the expectations of a professional (as the job).

It is professional (as the job) to accept good, paying gigs when they’re available, because this is one’s career. There are career path considerations to be made, of course: the prominence of the venue, of the role, of the production personnel, and a host of others I can’t begin to guess. But–again–you’re making them as part of the job.1

Volunteer actors don’t have to make those considerations. Or, at least, I don’t believe anyone should treat us as if we do. We are professional (as the -ism), not professional (as the job). The ONLY payment a volunteer actor receives are those ephemeral whatsits which drives us to be in a show. For some people, that’s solely the camaraderie of having a communal experience. For others, it’s the last bow. Or it’s the cathartic release of harsh emotions in a drama, the air of lightness and laughter from a wonderful comedic turn, the giddy moment when you hit that money note and everyone is listening. And any one of those things might simultaneously be something another volunteer actor wants to actively avoid.

I’m missing about as many reasons as there are people, as well as their various combinations, but the point is: our individual, ephemeral reasons are the sum total of our compensation. They are, without qualification, our reasons for being here. And because that is what we’ve decided we’re after (for whatever value of “that” we personally choose), because we have eschewed traditional payment or career pursuit but are nonetheless still here, the choices of professional (as the -ism) volunteers cannot and should not be judged using the same measures and gauges as one uses for professional (as the job) performers.

It’s all well and good to play this game of qualitative comparison between community and professional (as the job) theatre, but I think the real fracture between folks from one world and another is a far more fundamental paradigm shift. Comparing the choices of a volunteer performer to those of a working actor is comparing apples to Martian plutonium, folks.

“That’s the lead,” “That’s a big role,” “That’s a huge opportunity,” are the kinds of things you say to someone trying to make a living as an actor. They’re the kinds of things which should always hold influence in that context. But for volunteers, if that lead happens to be comedy relief when our personal pay scale requires drama, if it’s something we’ve done a hundred times before when our bottom line needs variety, outside our comfort zone when we act for comfort, if it’s older or younger than we want to feel, if it’s too many costume changes, not enough costume changes, difficult or easy music … for whatever reason it doesn’t trip our triggers, it doesn’t matter how “big” a role is, how “brilliant” the show is. It won’t be enough. It is impossible to pay us enough to do it because we aren’t getting paid money.2

Put in another context, I don’t often hear anyone clamoring that folks are uppity for not auditioning for a given show in the first place (my own heckling notwithstanding). Those just aren’t our shows, and that’s okay.

How is that qualitatively different from thinking that bloke in the corner who has one brilliant-but-short moment is more interesting than the whiny lead role whose actor gets the last bow?

So, yeah. It would be ever so lovely if we could start parsing our professional definitions for context. For some of us, it’s not a job. And there’s nothing wrong with that if only because, if it was a job for all of us, the community theatre personnel would be out of theirs.

1. None of this is meant to minimize a paid actor’s love of theatre, or the existence of dream roles and beloved shows. My point is, however, that a true, working actor can rarely ever make decisions without also taking far more concrete concerns into account.[back]
2. There’s a clear exception to be made for those folks — and there are more than a few in the area — who mix volunteer and paid gigs. I drew that very thick line between paycheck and no paycheck for a reason, though. Even those people will only volunteer for shows and roles which meet their volunteer pay scale. That they have a second job as an intermittent paid performer doesn’t negate the point here; rather, it makes it. You have to put them in another category of performer to get them into something that doesn’t meet their volunteer needs.[back]

Who Drood It?: Posterized

Yes, I disappeared. I don’t know how widespread the term “Hell Week” is when discussing the week and change leading up to a show opening, but, well … yeah. That’s where I’ve been. I did, however, manage to put together all those D(r)oodles I’ve been doing and take another crack at some marketing materials. Wonkery to follow, but pictures first (click each for zoomy biggerness).

I tried a horizontal layout (around legal paper size) first, as I wanted everyone more or less on the same level:

Then, because normal paper is easier to print on, I tried vertical:

I started with the scanned sketches, pulling them all into a layered document and shuffling them around until I had two groups of four that I thought fit well together. I wanted to make sure I got everyone’s face and his or her “weapon of choice” visible. I used masks to chip away elements that other characters would cover without losing my lines if I changed my mind (which I did several times). That also helped when I switched layouts, since Drood covered different bits then.

Durdles was originally meant for the right side group, but I realized when I started piecing things together in the mockup that he and Princess Puffer had almost identical body lines, which looked repetitive in that context. One of them was going to have to move. I needed/ wanted to keep Puffer’s knife sheathe exposed, since I feel that’s what gives her weapon character beyond “pointy stabby.” It was easiest, then, to flip Durdles, since his raised shovel made it a lot easier to slot him in behind the other characters without losing him and his. Bonus points for their mirrored body lines providing a bit of a frame for Drood.

Since I knew I wanted multiple layouts, but that the groups of four would be the same either way, I made three documents for inking: the left group, the right group, and Drood on his own. Then I pulled those into Manga Studio to have another crack at vector inking. I think I’m getting a better handle on some workflow, though I’m still not sure on line weights. The thick lines seem heavy handed, but thinner ones have a tendency to disappear when I go light on the pressure for variance. Learning curve and all that, I suppose. Still, for the most part I think things cleaned up reasonably well.

The inks got exported back to raster for compositing, where I scaled things around, then did some text skewing and reshaping until I liked something for a logo. Then I added a sepia toned layer on top in burn / color burn, eh voila: Victorian postery stuffs.