Tag Archives: theater education

Ode to the Oliviers

Scene from "Matilda the Musical" featuring characters Matilda and Mrs. Phelps (Image: Quirk Books). The show earned seven 2012 Olivier Awards.

I spent a lovely afternoon at Sunday’s Lawrence Olivier Awards in London thanks to a live online broadcast that’s got me appreciating all the modern technology I’ve typically scoffed at until now.

I was just a teen when the awards, first dubbed The Society of West End Theatre Awards, originated in 1976, but married and in graduate school when they became the Lawrence Olivier Awards in 1984.

In between, I studied for a year in Europe — but spent most trips to London exploring museums and architectural wonders rather than theater offerings. One of many oversights committed during my youth.

The awards are run by the Society of London Theatre (SOLT), which commissioned sculptor Harry Franchette to create the award that’s an elegant take on the young Lawrence Olivier as Henry V at the Old Vic in 1937.

I was struck by several aspects of the ceremony and its broadcast. Though the SOLT’s partnership with MasterCard is evident, there were no tacky commercials or other interruptions we accept too readily as American television viewers.

Instead, breaks during various portions of the ceremony were filled with live performances — of works nominated for an audience award — on a beautiful outdoor stage surrounded by theater fans.

The BBC Radio 2 Olivier Audience Award, voted for by the public, went to “Les Miserables” — a musical Arizona audiences can enjoy at ASU Gammage come September.

I was struck as well by the tasteful fashions worn by presenters, nominees and recipients — despite the ceremony’s lovely lack of obsession over such things. Way to rock the flats, “Matilda” girls. You’ll need those ankles for future roles.

“Matilda the Musical” led the list with ten nominations, and waltzed away with seven awards. The Royal Shakespeare Company production is based on Roald Dahl’s charming tale.

The musical’s director noted early in the ceremony that “productions are like children” — sharing that he’d still love both if one of two nominees he directed was chosen best new musical. Later, the award went to “Matilda the Musical.”

There’s a point in the musical, he explains, when Matilda pummels three times into her pillow — then looks up and shares the final bit of the story. Seems it’s “a metaphor for the healing power of imagination.”

“Matilda the Musical” director Matthew Warchus then delivered my favorite remarks of the evening — All kids have it. We all have it. Our educational system should promote it more. That was the gist of it — but there’s more.

Creative imagination, says Warchus, is the key to surviving life and improving it for all of us. It’s more important, he reflects, than science, math and testing — perhaps even literacy.

His riff made me wonder — Might more children achieve the literacy we so value if reading and writing were pressed more often into the service of creative imagination rather than the mere consumption of content?

They’re heady things, these British award shows. Words and ideas loom larger than the flashy sorts of sets and such we seem to favor for award shows on this side of the pond. Dry wit and genuine humility trump the faux and flashy.

Sunday’s ceremony included special recognition of the 60th anniversary of “Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap” — which continues to enjoy the theater world’s longest continuous run.

Seems Christie grandson Matthew Prichard, who shared remarks during the presentation, was given rights to the show for his ninth birthday — but admits to feeling fonder at the time of the gift with two wheels. Prichard notes that he gives income earned on the show to lots of charities.

I learned of the Mousetrap Theatre Projects, which serves more than 12,000 students each year, during remarks from its founder — which inspired me to explore other outreach efforts like the SOLT’s own “Autism and Theatre” program.

The Society of London Theatre presented two special awards during this year’s ceremony — one to Dame Monica Mason, honoring her career with the Royal Ballet, and another to lyricist Sir Tim Rice.

Rice shared reflections on the journey of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” from school show to musical theater sensation, and his reluctance to make the original “Jesus Christ Superstar” album — also noting that NYC audiences are fonder by far of current “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Evita” revivals than NYC theater critics.

My own budding theater critic, Lizabeth, had perfectly lovely things to say about both shows — but did share that seeing Ricky Martin shake his bum during “Evita” was rather the low point of it all. I’ll have to add seeing a slew of West End theatre productions together to my bucket list.

While I adored every performance during Sunday’s Olivier Awards show, a few will likely live longest in my memory — a stunning pas de deux that should be required viewing for all those “Dance Moms” settling for sickening alternatives to actual artistry, the vocal performance of a haunting song from “Whistle Down the Wind” that I first heard when Lizabeth performed it during a Greasepaint Youtheatre fundraiser, and the lavish “Circle of Life” from the cast of “The Lion King” — which made me remember the magic of seeing the musical with Lizabeth long before her NYC theater adventures.

I’ll be more mindful of the bridge between Broadway and the West End thanks to that one magical evening I felt honored to be part of the virtual audience for the 2012 Olivier Awards. London, anyone?

— Lynn

Note: Click here to see the full list of Olivier Award winners and highlights from the ceremony — plus here to enjoy West End news reported by Broadway World.

Coming up: Musings on “Smash” and “New York 22”

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Thespian crossing

The streets of Phoenix are overrun each fall by high school students who look like they just inherited the world’s largest candy store. Dressed in colorful garb, they chatter with wide-eyed excitement — thrilled to be out of the classroom and into the spotlight of Arizona’s Thespian Festival.

These Santa Rita High School students enjoyed the thespian marketplace on Friday

A teacher from Higley High School who had 28 teens in tow was the first to cross my path, pointing me to the right part of the massive Phoenix Convention Center — where I soon encountered all sorts of thespians dressed for the day’s “jungle theme.”

Students from Desert View High School doing the jungle theme proud

Linda Phillips, state director for the Arizona Thespians, gave me a warm welcome — then set me up with a nametag and such before I headed out to explore the exhibitor area.

These students from Notre Dame Preparatory High School rocked safari gear and dialect

I hit the silent auction area first, eager to see this year’s offerings — which include amazing autographed items (Playbills, posters and such), gift baskets and more. Proceeds benefit student scholarships and Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.

Samples of amazing silent auction items at this year's Arizona Thespian Festival

Soon I was trading Shakepearean insults with a charming fellow from Dramatic Publishing, and talking with a lovely woman about some of their newer offerings — including “The Bully Plays.” I bought a couple of things and made my way to several vendor tables.

I said hello to the fine folks from Valley Youth Theatre in Phoenix, talked with Amanda Melby of Verve Studios about their relocation from downtown Phoenix to the Scottsdale Airpark, and chatted with a gentleman from Jester’Z Improv Comedy in Scottsdale.

Valley Youth Theatre was there to share news of their many programs and shows

Next I strolled through a hallway running past several rooms full of students taking classes in everything from singing for actors to theater lighting. A class titled “No Fear Ballroom Dancing” seemed the clear favorite Friday morning, with well over 100 students taking part.

This Friday morning ballroom dancing workshop was packed

More thespians crossed my path after workshops let out for lunch, and the convention center seemed a sea of t-shirts — all bearing the names of shows the students recently performed, from “The Yellow Boat” to “The Elephant Man.”

Sudents from Cienega High School in Vail gathered during lunch on Friday

Watch for future posts featuring thespian tales from this year’s festival. And watch as well for thespians crossing the road. They bring an amazing energy to the streets of downtown Phoenix, and I can’t wait for them to cross my path again as they start making their way to stages in Arizona and beyond.

— Lynn

Note: If I snapped your picture but didn’t include it here, there’s a good chance you’ll see it in a future post — so stay tuned for more thespian tales.

Coming up: Spotlight on spring musicals

Play it forward

Phoenix Theater will soon be “playing it forward” with a pair of original works titled “At the End of the Day” and “Like Everyone Else” — both part of a “Weekend of Change” taking place June 3-5 at Greasepaint Youtheatre in Scottsdale.

Both works bring “youth theatre for social change” to the stage. Think arts and activism with a local twist. The “Weekend of Change” project has given youth ages 13 to 24 the chance to “participate in theatrical performance designed to create dialogue around social issues affecting an entire community.”

Both are part of the Phoenix Theatre education department, headed by A. Beck, who also serves as theatre arts coordinator for Arizona School for the Arts in Phoenix.

The “Theater for Social Change” class at Arizona School for the Arts partnered with the Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center to develop a work titled “Like Everyone Else.” 

The play is helping students, families and SARRC staff raise community awareness about autism spectrum disorders and the resources provided by SARRC for families affected by them. Click here to enjoy a trailer.

Ticket sales from “Like Everyone Else” — which is being performed Sunday, June 5 at 2pm — will raise funds for SAARC’s “Autism Artisans” program, a “series of art workshops that expose emerging and established artists with autism spectrum disorders ages 13 and older to a variety of art mediums.”

The “Autism Artisans” program at SARRC “utilizes art to promote autism awareness, therapeutic intervention and opportunities for the talents and contributions of individuals with autism spectrum disorders to be recognized.”

My daughter, Lizabeth, is privileged to be a part of the ASA “Theatre for Social Change” class, taught by Xanthia Walker — and also worked with Beck and fellow “QSpeak” youth to develop the other work being presented during Phoenix Theatre’s “Weekend of Change.”

“At the End of the Day: True Stories of LGBTQ and Homeless Youth” is being presented by Tumbleweed Center for Youth Development and QSpeak, both of Phoenix.

QSpeak’s mission is to “provide a safe space for queer youth and their straight allies to engage in community dialogue and affect positive change through storytelling and performance in order to bring awareness to their own lives and experiences.”

Tumbleweed serves youth ages 11-22 in Maricopa County who are “abused, abandoned, troubled, and neglected.” Many are runaways or homeless youth.

Tumbleweed helps these youth to understand and achieve their individual potential, increase their personal and social skills, and “become self-directed, socially responsible, and productive citizens.”

“At the End of the Day” will be performed Fri, June 3 at 7pm — also at Greasepaint Youtheatre in Scottsdale. Ticket sales benefit Tumbleweed’s GreenHouse Project, the Valley’s only LGBTQ transitional living program.

Tickets to “At the End of the Day” and “Like Everyone Else” are available online from Brown Paper Tickets or at the door the day of the show. Those wishing to make a donation or secure a sponsorship to support the “Weekend of Change” can contact Beck at Phoenix Theatre.

— Lynn

Coming up: 12 Arizona artists play 20 questions

Theatre of the absurd

Theatre of the absurd. It’s a perplexing mash-up of existential philosophy with unconventional playwrighting and performance art. And you can see it being performed this weekend, and next, at Scottsdale Community College.

It makes for a refreshing break from the absurd political theater swirling all around us of late.

Signs for which “yes” means “no” and “no” means “yes.” Platforms built on love of Constitution that seek to tweak its content in any number of ways. Cries for smaller government from folks eager to tell others what they can and can’t do with their bodies.

Real life not absurd enough for you? Check out "Rhinoceros" at Scottsdale Community College.

“Rhinoceros” is a late-1950s work by playwright Eugene Ioensco, who also wrote “The Bald Soprano” — which SCC’s theatre arts department will present come Spring in the school’s newly renovated performing arts center. Don’t even get me started on the absurdity of contractors and timelines.

I was drawn to the work by its social context of anxiety, fear and hysteria. Think communism and fascism. Think issues of race, ethnicity and identity. Think women who still walked around in hats, high heels and gloves.

Randy Messersmith, director or SCC’s theatre arts department and producer for SCC’s “Rhinoceros” suggested I “think of an episode of Family Guy, with Rhino heads” — noting that the play is appropriate for the sophisticated 14-year-old student and up.

It’s the perfect work to perform given the absurdity some see in contemporary politics. Signs likening our President to a “witch doctor.” Campaign commercials featuring “I’m not a witch” rhetoric.

Attempts to deny the American dream of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to fellow Americans whose religion or sexual orientation we deem inferior — even as these Americans serve at home and oversees to protect and preserve our freedoms.

I encounter the absurd on a daily basis, but it’s harder to recognize when you’re in the middle of it. Seeing “Rhinoceros,” directed for SCC by Boyd Branch, felt like a bit of time travel — and made me wonder what contemporary culture might look like if presented on a similar stage several decades from now.

I can’t claim to be a fan of this particular genre. But I do respect the artistry of Randy Messersmith and Boyd Branch. There’s never a dull moment in their offbeat offerings.

I prefer to get my existentialism from primary sources, many of which I read in their original language during graduate school studies in religion and philosophy. Still, it’s a thing of beauty to see what Boyd and Messersmith have done with this piece.

It’s odd and strangely jarring — just as it should be.

— Lynn

Note: When buying tickets for “Rhinoceros,” ask about their Halloween costume discount performance as well as dates/times for talk backs with creative team and cast members. Also note that several Valley theater productions feature a pairing of politics and performing arts — including “The Sound of Music” by Copperstar Repertory Company (through Oct 30 only at the Higley Center for the Performing Arts) and “A Christmas Carol” by Hale Centre Theatre in Gilbert (Dec 1-23).

Coming up: Theater with a holiday twist — from the Radio City Rockettes to an original adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” for Actors Theatre of Phoenix.

Update: Even as I prepare this for posting, three cable news outlets are reporting on suspicious packages aboard cargo planes using vastly different language ranging from “an abundance of caution” to “major (terrorist) event.” This play couldn’t be better timed if you have an interest in how individuals, groups, governments and media outlets gather, process and share information.

Theater for youth: Tips & trends

"Rumplestiltskin"

Performance art for young audiences is growing, according to Kim Peter Kovac, director of theater for young audiences with The John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts. He’s been in the biz for three decades and says “there’s more and more of it than there has ever been.”

So what trends has he seen in performance art produced and presented for youth during the past decade or so?

"Harold and the Purple Crayon"

First and foremost, the quality is improving as theater professionals reflect the general public’s recognition that youth are able to understand and appreciate far more than we may have given them credit for in the past. 

During times of economic downturn, however, many performing arts professionals choose conservative programming. You may see more adaptations of literary works or other theater works than new works because familiar works often appeal to a broader audience.

The bottom line for theater, like any enterprise, is the fact that “you have to bring people in.” Robert Kolby Harper, associate artistic director for Phoenix Theatre, agrees that factors affecting ticket sales must be considered along with artistic factors when weighing season selections.

"46 Circus Acts in 45 Minutes"

Kovak notes that groups who develop and deliver theater for adult audiences have much stronger education programs than was the case a decade ago–citing the work of Steppenwolf, which is increasing quality programming for young audiences (especially high school students).

As I ran through my mental list of Arizona theater companies (which is far too long to offer in its entirety here), I felt proud of the education work so many are doing.  Phoenix Theatre offers outreach and education to an incredible diversity of the Valley’s youth.

"The Cat Who Went to Heaven"

Companies like Actors Theatre of Phoenix and Arizona Jewish Theatre Company often produce or present work that appeals to both adult and teen audiences.

And groups like Arizona Theatre Company and Southwest Shakepeare Company are among those who offer extensive study guides and supporting materials for teacher or parent youth.

When I learned of The Kennedy Center’s “cuesheets,” which contain introductory information, related activities and suggested reading lists designed to “maximize the performing arts experience,” I immediately thought of our own Childsplay’s “360 degree” program with similar features and their lovely slogan: “Theatre for Everyone.”

"American Scrapbook: A Celebration of Verse"

We’re seeing “less of a separation of adult and children’s theater,” reflects Kovac. Other trends he shared include “more and more programming for young audiences, especially two and three year olds, and more programming for high school audiences.”

Among parents and teachers, Kovac is seeing what may be an overabundance of caution. “Often they’re more careful than they have to be.”

Kovac recalls a work presented many years ago about a young man in an internment camp for Japanese Americans. At one point in the show, the boy’s father hangs himself–a fact that kept many from attending the play.

But Kovac recalls that the event was tastefully presented–as the actor portraying the father stood on a chair, simply tilting his head to one side to signal what had happened.

“It was quite moving for the adults,” recalls Kovac, “yet the kids may not have really understood it.” I’ve noticed this many times when taking my own children to the theater. They rarely pick up on the things that aren’t a part of their world, such as drug or alcohol abuse, before they’re old enough to understand and discuss it.

"Snow White Rose Red (and Fred)"

Given his emphasis on good quality theater across the lifespan, I asked Kovac what makes for a good production.

“In the most successful shows,” says Kovac, “kids can see themselves on the stage.” It’s not that they imagine themselves performing the roles but rather than they can see at least of bit of themselves in the characters they are watching.

You should always try to have young protagonists on stage, he says, so that children will be able to relate to them–feeling empathy for their struggles. But forget about being preachy. “If you’re telling a good story, the message will come through.”

–Lynn

"Locomotion"

Note: Remember The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts when you’re traveling to Washington, D.C. Performance art is a relaxing yet exhilerating break from the miles and miles of memorials and museums. 

Coming up: Focus on films, Imagining Cosette in the classroom, “The Lion King” and leukemia

Photos from The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts website at www.kennedy-center.org