Saturday, October 18, 2014

Closing Curtain

For you who found your way to this blog, you are welcome to take in any of the past posts. I am no longer maintaining it regularly, and have shifted my interests to a new journal, Cohannet Commentary. The topics of Stage Picture have related to my professional life in art, theater and learning, with digressions. I have now retired from that profession entirely. I have given up my work in theater art and criticism, withdrawn from organizational responsibilities and no longer teach or design. Should I return to discussions of art and performance, I likely will revive this writing.

The focus of Cohannet Commentary currently relates to my work on family history. In that forum I try to articulate my evolving discoveries and awareness of past times and people, research challenges, dilemmas and achievements, and observations on the work. It's an informal research journal that, like Stage Picture, will evolve its character over time.

I hope to reward readers with thoughtful ideas, possible insights, shared frustrations, and collegial discussions on topics with a connection to history, family history, and historical research and writing.


18 Oct 2014

Monday, March 10, 2014

Watching a World Go Away

The nature of this journal may take a different turn as I move away from active participation in the production of theater, teaching, consultant responsibilities and production reviewing. I expect it to enter a more broadly reflective phase.

It's our nature to grow up thinking that the world is all about what we refer to in theater as the pregnant present. Certainly momentous things have brought us to this point, but this moment now is only about now. As we age we become more fascinated with how we got here and the history of it all.

I grew up in western Kansas and watched the parade as my town celebrated it's Centennial. There were people knew the first settlers personally. I had friends whose late grandparents were among the first settlers. Before 1861, most of the territory was grasslands and prairie that had only been surveyed for benchmarks, along with the rest of the West.

1870s Limestone farmhouse in western Kansas
But there were old homesteads. Growing up in the 1950s we could find them. Splintered old farmhouses, some with evidence of yards, old root cellars, yard pumps and windmill parts still standing. Trudging around them one had to watch for rattlesnakes. The most fascinating ones were the prairie homes made out of the old limestone quarried nearby because there were no trees. Many of those were canibalized for foundation stones under newer structures. Most remaining were on old ranch lands miles away from towns on lonely roads. Some that weren't too remote were repurposed, added onto and modernized.

In much of the rest of the country the old structures may be harder to find buried in woods. Reforestation happens when you aren't looking. Heavily forested land once was farmed, as the thrown stone walls here testify to old land clearing. The power of the forests to reclaim ground is immense where it thrives. A trip up Rt 9 to Saratoga Springs, NY, once showed miles of deteriorating resorts being reclaimed by the woods - and may today. The expressway passed them by.

It is no secret that way too much of our land goes into parking lots. Single story shopping structures spread over acres and acres with immense lots and toxic drainage. The roads themselves eat up huge amounts of land, the wider and safer we make them. Failure to concentrate development stretches infrastructure. It also affects groundwater, waste disposal and other ecological conditions. We spend too much fuel and time transporting children to and from school and other activities, and we increase commuting time and impacts. Instead of developing local economies we build bedroom communities. A substantial part of any residential community travels into or half-way around Boston to go to work because that's where the work is. People from north of Boston travel to our area to work, rather than move their families from established surroundings. We can't seem to create an appropriate rail system to solve the transportation issues in a comprehensive way. We've been told repeatedly how bad this is for our ecology and communities, but we seem powerless to change things.

Rural farm, Lyons, Kansas, dates from late 1800s.

It's no revelation that we're caught in an ongoing struggle between legitimate urbanization and perpetual cancerous residential sprawl. In some ways we are luckier than parts of the country where the sprawl becomes a sea of blocks and crossroads. We are less lucky that we have failed to develop an efficient and effective alternative to private individual transport. Part of me feels great concern that we have reached a tipping point and that we are determined to return to the meagerly forested world of Nineteenth Century New England. But instead of replacing the woods with farms, we are eating it away for acre plots and McMansions, or for a half-dozen cheap duplexes put up in a week on an acre of land bulldozed out of the woods. We spread out the population creating school transportation problems. We thin out commercial development into even more dozens of little plazas that eat up land and require way too much driving to reach. We pave over huge acreage for parking lots because we have to drive. And we compound the transportation mess that we can't build our way out of. We have very little vertical development outside of 128.

What's the answer? Lets value living closer together. Instead of building new McMansions, let's reward better land use with higher density goals in rural towns, and improved services for concentrated populations. Let's reduce lot sizes and really tax people for non-agricultural land use above a certain size. And encourage focused and even more high-quality multifamily development - condominiums and quality apartments with garages and amenities, to allow concentration of schools and businesses. Let's up the game for sewer hook-ups and other services in rural areas, and get rid of septic systems and other ground disposal of waste. Then perhaps we can work on public transportation issues. What if it was really cheap and convenient to ride? We ARE going to have to deal with it someday and it will just get messier and more expensive.

It could be a tough pill for some, who value the rural world that has nothing to do with farming or animal husbandry. But it won't be long before those forests will be gone again, and most of the farms. Density is coming there, too. The population of Taunton has indeed grown ten percent in twenty years we've lived here, but the town is geographically very large. Old woods are falling under the bulldozer for new developments, instead of redevelopment of blighted properties. The huge woods behind my house is half the size it was when we bought.

I suppose much of this is inevitable, and alternative perspectives are cogent. But it shouldn't happen without a protest.

Arthur Dirks
March 10, 2014

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Theater Lives in the Young

It is (very) early spring and the time of the year when fortunate youth in many high schools are investing their energies in competitive theater. As in many states, the Massachusetts Educational Theater Guild encourages and supports theater with its annual round of competitions. I have been fortunate to have judged festival presentations for many years, and truly have been astonished at many, many of those forty-minute productions.

I'm aware that there is tremendous investment that these students and their teachers carry in creating and presenting their work. As judges, we are kept well away from all that, but see only the final invested expression of all their anguish of creation.

It's no walk-in-the park for judges. We see eight or so, 45-minute productions in a day, and we take every spare minute to try our best to say useful and helpful and encouraging - but artistically and intellectually honest - things about each of the eight or so works we see before us in the long day. We look like 1940s reporters dashing back to our computers (now) to write lots of profound things, rank performers, catch a bathroom break, and be back in our seat with a clear head in twenty minutes. We spend the lunch hour desperately trying to catch up, refining our observations and trying gently to frame some advice. In the 1980s we wrote in longhand with one or two carbons. The writing room held three really intensely focused judges, often around the same table. Electric typewriters were made available in the late 1990s and some judges brought their own portables, but many judges continued to longhand the responses. Today we have a computer station and a prescribed template to fill in our thoughts. It's faster and more efficient, with a chance to write more. Our assignment also is more refined with expectations for observations on particular points.

Only after the awards ceremony are the judges available to directors when they pick up the written critiques for their school. But there's not much basis for conversation. It's been a long day for everybody.

The circumstances of the festival are very measured and obsessively observed. There are strict rules about time limits and run length, and the strike and setup times in the swing between performances. All of the students remain captive for the day and must be counted in the school's section of the theater before each of the performances and activities.

The organization requires that new and past judges attend a development workshop each February. Part social and part useful, the meeting is to review the rules and changes, discuss goals, share approaches and receive a pep talk. While I found it annoying to give up an additional Saturday (for which we were paid), I had to admit their value.

I have been fortunate to judge the festival in all its three rounds of elimination. My preference has been for the initial round, when I feel that my comments will be most considered, both by those who move on and by those who don't. At the intermediate level, only the winner moves on, and the rest have heard all they care to. Both are one-Saturday commitments. The final state round is a four-day affair, held in Hancock Hall in Boston, and judges are sequestered incommunicado in a Boston hotel for three nights, ushered everywhere by handlers. Throughout the festival at all levels there is real investment in keeping the judges away from all participants until the awards are given at the end of the day.

All of the performances I saw at state level were interesting, challenging, first-rate works of theater. The critique there is much different. Since all of the performances are excellent, the response is not about the principles, but more about imagination and commitment to sophisticated choices, deftness in the refinement and execution, and ability to astonish. And ultimately, why this one is better than that.

It's been a real pleasure for me over the years to see and critique these festivals. I've seen much theater that is exciting, imaginative, and very adept. But most importantly, in every case I've seen young people really invested in craft and collaboration, creating something artful together.

February, 2014

Friday, February 14, 2014

Astonish Me

With apologies to critic John Lahr, who wrote an excellent volume of discussion of the new approaches to the theater in about 1970. What theater experiences will stay with you? I will remember many, but I think these did something important to shape and affirm my understanding of what theater is and can be as an aesthetic adventure.

  • A Fernando Arrabal in a studio at the University of Kansas. 1970s
  • Lansdowne street club. 1990s
  • Wings of Desire at American Repertory Theater. 2000s
  • Ryan Landry's M at Huntington Theater. 2013

  • No. 1. In graduate school at the University of Kansas, in the early 1970s, there was a kind of intensity of work going on that I barely understood at the time. Theater in America was undergoing tremendous change from the Broadway model. A graduate student whose name I don't remember did a studio production of a play by an intense Spanish writer Fernando Arrabal, the title of which I also have forgotten. I only remember the experience of the play, whereby I first understood that theater had a real intensity that was much deeper than text. I became aware of the idea that theater did not really have to be ABOUT anything, except its own experience. I still retain mental images of that spare, dark production and an intense, mysterious, emotionally charged hour or so, that had nothing to do with the stuff of mysteries or horror movies.

    No. 2. In the 1990s, a younger couple took Diane and me to a club in Boston, across from Fenway Park on Lansdowne Street, named after the surrealist photographer Man Ray. Many details escape me over the twenty years since, but it was a new way to think about theater. We arrived shortly before ten o'clock and it was the usual loud, clubby dance-trance music with decor that suggested dark pocket-like dance rooms, shot with energetic, shadowy lighting. After about a half-hour, the music stopped, lights came on and the crowd moved toward a large open corner of the floor with a five-foot high platform against one wall. A couple uncolored, unartful spotlights illuminated this stage. Within a few minutes, skits began of bawdy parodies of fairy tales, with actors in outrageous, comedic sexualized costumes. Dialogue was shouted. There was no curtain or wings. Costumes were emblematic and satyrical. Props were handed or thrown in as needed, mistakes were applauded, people pushed each other around to the position they needed to be onstage, and everybody had an hilarious time. Maybe two or three such skits transpired, and then the crowd gathered around a giant pinata, lowered in from the ceiling. Patrons were given swings with a stick, and it finally broke, spilling condoms, sex toys, and other unidentified merchandise over the crowd. A few minutes later, the music began again, the lights dimmed, and the dancing went on. I realized that theater can thrive where it has vitality and imagination, and an audience that wants to invest in it. I would later see this kind of performance as the clear legacy of European cabaret in the 20s and 30s.

    No. 3. In 2006, American Repertory Theater mounted a production of Wings of Desire, a stage version of the story that was the film (not a stage version of the film). The story is about an angel that falls in love with a mortal and descends to become mortal to be with her. It was staged in association with a theater in The Netherlands, and was shaped by director Ola Mafaalani in the European metaphoric style. The production was open and full of actions to provoke thought, association, surprise, and wonder. The play began in the dark with four dimly lit large columns of sand pouring from the grid. It was difficult to identify what they were, and it went on for many minutes, eventually filling the stage floor with piles of sand. With lights up, two male angels in modern street clothing sat on the roof of a food vendor's wagon as aromas of fried onions filled the theater. They were discussing one angel's infatuation with a mortal and his choice to join her. He descended from the cart, and the play progressed with representations of common life and its trials, which he observed. Throughout the performance, his mortal love was a dancer entangling and dancing in a long swag of bright fabric suspended from the flies, an inversion of the earthbound-mortal - celestial-angel dichotomy. As I recall she never touched the stage until the end when they met in an embrace. The stage was open to the walls without draperies.

    No. 4. In 2013, an impressario of those Lansdowne club events above had studied theater and developed his chops as a writer, and created one of the more interesting nights in the formal theater in my experience. Ryan Landry participated in the Huntington Theatre's playwright development programs in association with Boston University. They gave him a season slot at the Wimberly, their South End second theater, where the Huntington stages their new works. Landry took the basic story line and characters of the 1931 Fritz Lang movie thriller "M" and rewrote it. In his production Brecht and Pirandello met Man Ray (artist and Boston rave club) big time. all structured around a rich vocabulary of pop and old movie references, loaded with iconic surprises, cheesy cartoon imagery, giant props and wonderful metaphors. Shouted dialogue, broad gesture and obvious takes and gags, all at a break-neck pace almost leaving one breathless by the end. The plot moved from the "M" deviant into a serious "Six Characters" hook that made it all make sense. In the end the eraser of a giant pencil from the flies took out everybody, including the author, except the last two characters who exited out the back door of the stage to end the play.

    These have not been all of my theater highlights - I have many others in the 300 or so productions I've seen over the years. Certainly these have enriched my life immeasurably.

    Tuesday, May 8, 2012



    I've been thinking about how different designers are in the theater, compared to other people involved - notably the director. No big revelation - we frequently refer to the difference in perspective. But it's another dimension of recognition for me.

    First, I've been an actor and director in other lives - before I became a designer. So it's not like I don't get it, the act of directing is very social. The act of designing typically is not - at least for me.

    The difference became evident at the retirement tribute for a long-term (40-year) faculty member who directed at least one production a year in the program, and sometimes another off campus. There were many, many testimonials by former students about his guidance and friendship, arising out of the very social nature of the production experience. To be fair, he also had some experience as a gaffer and a little lighting design, but his overwhelming relationships were forged in the process of directing productions. In the academic environment, those relationships also extend to other classes.

    I was thinking about what was important to those students. For them the relationship was forged in the collective, informal give and take of the rehearsals, when the director must engage the actor, teasing out the best expression and forging a collective dynamic in an ensemble. With young actors, this engagement is very personal. The engagement is with the personality and psychology of the actor.

    In the production experience, my mind is really elsewhere and my connections are less engaged with the actors - or even the technicians. I'm thinking about the mechanics of the stage, certainly, but really about line and mass and color and light and sound. About period and style, context and meaning, nuance and things that will make differences nobody will notice. Along with the director I also think about facilitating the movement of the play and the life of the moment - the impact and experience of the moment.

    For technical directors there is the team engagement of the production crew. It is an important collective activity at the beginning level, and there is great pride in achieving Herculean feats of production. But it is intended to be out of sight, known only to those involved, and actually prized for not being evident. The engagement isn't at the same interpersonal level as the director and the actor. It's about shaping the work, doing the job well, and making it happen on time.

    At least this is true in the educational environment. In professional work, directors can be more demanding of actors. Actors know how to go about the creative process of the role, and they know the shorthand of directing. Give them goals and they know how to get there. The director can focus on getting the metaphor just right - the expression and timing of it all. Designers and technical directors assign tasks to trained technicians who focus on doing the job.

    But the love affair of former students with my colleague was genuine. He had done things that shaped their lives in a good way. That is something to be applauded.

    8 May 2012

    Friday, April 20, 2012

    Animal Crackers

    The end of the academic year is just over the next hill, and those of us who teach are steeling ourselves for the final push.


    I had several paragraphs of whining here, which I have deleted. How can I whine about the greatest job in the world!

    It is opening night for our final production of the year, and this year it is The Glass Menagerie. It is an unusual choice for a major production in a program such as ours, because there are only four characters. Of course, everybody knows Tennessee Williams' somewhat autobiographical piece. It is heavily taught in classrooms because it has such relevance to personal development and frustration with family constraints and values. There is a huge amount of critical material and curriculum guidance for this piece available online.

    Our production is really unusual in an attempt to realize Williams' stated intentions in a technical way. In our production the interior of the apartment is completely behind a white scrim, for which we had to install a separate truss proscenium frame. Text and images are superimposed upon the action in the apartment. Current lighting and projection technology makes it possible to do what it seems Williams had envisioned in writing the work. The action in the apartment appears clear but slightly hazy and distant, as if in memory or a dream, as Tom states. The original production abandoned the scrim and much of the projection because the technology wasn't up to the aesthetic in the 1940s.

    For us this means a great deal of light control. There is hallation off the lighting instruments above and behind the scrim that casts a slight haze on it. Even the bright aisle lights are a problem. And there is a really tricky lighting problem in a candelabra scene. How do you light people behind the candelabra and cast their large shadows on the walls, without lighting the candelabra itself and casting its shadow? Our lighting designer did achieve it well.

    In addition there are narration scenes on a fire escape outside the apartment, and access to the fire escape is from below, from our orchestra pit. Add the need for powerful equipment for bold enough projection and wireless mics for actors behind the scrim to be heard well in a large hall. It's easy to understand why most productions of this play are more simply realized.


    Back to whining.

    We always end the year with a major theater production such as this, which means the student work to be graded piles up while I focus on making the show happen well. Sadly, most feedback to the student at this point is moot - it won't be read because it has no future utility - except to argue a poor grade.

    Meanwhile, the appeal of large blocks of potentially free time are a magnet for meetings and work groups.

    There is little wonder we see commencement come around with mixed feelings.

    20 April 2012

    Sunday, March 11, 2012

    Student Work and Tutorials

    On this last day of spring break I'm gathering my resources to return to classes. It's been a busy quarter and I've had less time to post.

    Our student-mounted productions transpired well. Lysistrata, Aristophanes' 5th Century BC anti-war comedy, played well. The play is still outrageous with prosthetic phalluses, costume jokes and bawdy gags that predated all Christian modesty. The show alternated with the musical A New Brain, very well sung and played. Each had its accommodations to the small 28'w x 18'd thrust playing space, but they worked, playing in rotating rep for three performances each.

    Lysistrata was directed by a graduate student who had not directed before, but she pulled it together and learned a great deal. A busy area director was brought in for New Brain, which is all sung and was heavily rehearsed by the music director. It was good to see new student faces in these shows. A member of the shop staff designed the Acropolis facade for Lysistrata. I put a curtain in front of it for New Brain and the director provided projections.

    We move now into Tennessee Williams' Glass Menagerie. A full-auditorium production, although we are limiting seating to the center section. The director is doing the play through a scrim, which means viewing angle is important. I found in researching the design that there is a tremendous amount of material about the play online, probably because it is a standard on many high school reading lists - right up there with Hamlet and MacBeth. I'm sure one analysis I read far exceeds the length of the play. We'll give the show a first-rate production, since with only 4 characters there can be such focus on acting (not that the 20 other acting majors are happy about that cast size). With a couple daytime performances and lots of school tickets, we can afford to pull out the stops.

    I spent my break updating tutorials and templates. I have developed them for things that my students need to engage and learn -- most requiring some sophistication with technology. There isn't enrollment or class time routinely to teach them well, but my production students require this background. These include templates for formatting a stage manager's production script, for an Excel lighting hookup and for Vectorworks CAD drawings in our theater, tutorials for common graphics applications and mechanical perspective drawing, and process manuals for stage management and designing lighting. [Find these at They are all my own copyright, but some rely upon the contributions of others. They are free to use, but please give credit.]

    As happens, some of my former students, many who intended only to be actors, have found their way into positions where they need to return to these materials.

    When you teach in a largely liberal arts based program, you understand two things (at least): 1) There are so many legitimate program requirements there is little room for both exploration and concentration. 2) Almost everybody is an actor until they learn their opportunities, affinities and limitations. By the time they comprehend them they have missed the chance to develop with depth as a designer and/or technician at the university. Often they find their way later into production work, often in the schools, and too often make it up as they go.

    In New England there also is a lot of community theater, much parent-supported high school theater, and numerous people involved who "took a course in college." There also are English (and math) teachers pressed into guiding productions for competition who never had a production course. Beyond that, some former students discover after they leave us that they prefer the opportunities for creative contribution in production work, and they want information and guidance they missed or need to review.

    There are books, but they're usually too general, and who goes there any more? I post my materials for all these folks.

    11 March 2012