28 October 2011

PA Shakespeare 2012 season

OK, so last week I promised to announce the upcoming season at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival as soon as I was allowed. Well, it's now public!

Here is the artistic director's official announcement. This summer's plays will include:

by William Shakespeare
July 11 - August 5

by Tennessee Williams
July 19 - August 5

by William Shakespeare
June 20 - July 15

by William Shakespeare
July 25 - August 5

by Stephen Sondheim
June 13 - July 1

Wowie kazowie! I am super excited, most especially about King John. Last summer's "Shakespeare untamed" version of The Two Noble Kinsmen (original performance practice, i.e., without a director, rehearsal, blocking, etc!!!) was STUNNING. One of those memorable theatrical experiences that changed my life and will live along as part of me. I've been blessed to have lots of those!! -- but this was certainly up there. I have high hopes for King John. Plus if I just stick around the Lehigh Valley and live long enough, I'll meet my goal of seeing all of Shakespeare's plays live. (I've seen 15 of the, ahem, 40? plays)

Now, I'm also engaged in reading up on the authorship controversy these days in preparation for seeing Anonymous tomorrow. I'll report back on that. I'm sure it will be lavish.


20 October 2011

Inklings Reading List

OK, so a couple of friends who attended my Inklings presentation last week have asked for a recommended reading order to get into the Inklings' works. (I've added Chesterton & MacDonald & Sayers to the list to be more inclusive). I've chosen to put only fiction on this list. This is because these two friends are English/History profs. at a community college, so will probably be more interested in the "literature" side of things. I've also tried to keep the list short and to ease the reader in from most accessible to more difficult. What would you add? What would you omit? Would you change the order? Do you think it really needs to include theological and lit. crit. works? How about poetry?

1. The Narnia Chronicles - Lewis
2. Three "Princess" books by MacDonald: The Princess & The Goblin, The Princess & Curdie, The Light Princess
3. The Screwtape Letters - Lewis
4. The Lord Peter Whimsey mystery novels - Sayers
5. The Man Who Was Thursday - Chesterton
6. War in Heaven - Williams
7. The Great Divorce - Lewis
8. The Hobbit - Tolkien
9. The "Space" Trilogy by Lewis: Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength
10. The Place of the Lion - Williams
11. The Lord of the Rings (The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King) - Tolkien
12. Descent into Hell - Williams


18 October 2011

5-minute Glyer

The Company They Keep: C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien as Writers in CommunityThe Company They Keep: C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien as Writers in Community by Diana Pavlac Glyer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of the most important Inklings studies in the last few years (the others are Planet Narnia, C.S. Lewis on the Final Frontier, The Cambridge Companion to C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams & His Contemporaries, and C.S. Lewis & the Church). If you had to pick just two, I would recommend this one and Planet Narnia. This is a lovely, lively, fascinating study of the many ways that the Inklings influenced one another. As a writer in community myself, I found it very encouraging.

View all my reviews


16 October 2011

PA Shakespeare volunteer dinner

This past Thursday, I attended a thank-you dinner for volunteers of the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival. It was a beautiful event, with lovely decorations, good food, and good talk. Not many organizations treat their volunteers so well!

This past season at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival was, as usual, excellent. The time has come (believe it or not) to begin thinking about this coming summer! This evening I am attending a thank-you dinner for Festival volunteers, and I'm already getting excited for summer 2012. So whoever you are, wherever you are, please plan ahead to attend the Festival next year!

South Pacific, Comedy of Errors, Pride & Prejudice, Hamlet, The Two Noble Kinsmen
Record attendance; record sales. National coverage.
Added 5th production, 3rd Shakespeare play, two plays in rep.

This past summer was, as I mentioned, excellent. It was not uniformly so (the musical, South Pacific, was rather silly and artificial; I've seen a better Comedy of Errors (at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, MA). However, the quality of Hamlet and The Two Noble Kinsmen just blew me away. This is world-class theatre, let me tell you. As the speaker said during her introductory remarks, "Excellence is an intoxicant." If you attend one of the great plays at PSF, you'll need to come back for more.

PSF has admirable long-term goals. Artistic Director Patrick Mulcahey summed up "Vision 2030" thus: A world-class Shakespeare festival celebrated regionally and recognized nationally, with artistry consistent with leading regional theaters.

He also announced the 2012 season, but that's not public yet, so I can't share it here! Check back later. :)


14 October 2011

Interview with Ron Reed Part 2

Please read Part I of this interview. Your comments are welcome.

Part II

RP: You also write for the Soul Food Movies blog and are currently at work on a book, Soul Food Movies: A Guide to Films with a Spiritual Flavour—so you are also knowledgeable about contemporary film. A glance at your blog suggests that you have seen just about every movie that came out this past year, so it’s pretty fair to say that you have a good sense of what the film world looks like right now. What topics would you say tend to recur in films that have been released in, oh, the last ten years?

RR: The book’s on hold; it started to come back alive again, and then I got three ideas for plays and decided I’d write them. And I’ve seen all the good movies that came out last year.

Ten years is a big sample size. It probably shifts more frequently. I’m actually going to go back 12 years, to 1999, which was a milestone year. It was this peculiar explosion of really memorable films that are still watched over and over again. There’s just a ton: Magnolia, American Beauty — just a heap of remarkable films in 1999. The peculiar thing, as Mr. Soul Food Movies, is how many films there were that were engaged with spiritual themes, even Christian themes. Before that, by and large, if a film had spiritual themes, it still wouldn’t be a Christian story. And so Babette’s Feast or Chariots of Fire, every Christian on the planet would go see those, because we were never up there on screen, unless we were a lying evangelist, a pedophile, a bigot, or a Klansman. I’ve been a Christian all my life and I don’t know any of those people. They’re choosing a really small sample size. And then all of a sudden there’s just people who are Christians, or themes that are obviously spiritual and Christian, or just spiritual but in an unabashed way. I think it was a certain amount of superstition about the turn of the millennium, but whatever. It was also some kind of synergy with the economy of the film industry itself: the rise of independent films, the health of film studies, some kind of sweet spot for money to fund the films, some peculiar flowering of screenwriting, Many, many real lovers of film emphasize the director. I would never minimize the role of the director, but I actually give equal weight to a strong screenplay. That is diminished in a Hollywood film, because so often the screenplay is just a piece of processed meat; it’s been ground up and reshaped and repackaged so many times. But on a smaller independent film or an auteur film, that screenplay is incredibly important. Again, coming from the theatre world, you don’t change a word of that play, the script is Scripture. In the film world it’s almost opposite, but it shouldn’t be. Many of the best films come from a screenplay that is superb. Half the time it wasn’t developed by committee. Somebody wrote that thing. It comes from a person’s heart, so I really value the writer.

All that to say, for whatever reasons, 1999 was such a year. And then that openness to spiritual things has continued. I feel like it lulled some, because as the conservative presidencies carried on, the country became more polarized again, and people who were scared of Christians or scared about Christianity – sometimes with good reasons, because of the only churches or Christians they knew – that asserted itself again. Whatever kind of openness there’d been started to get polarized again: “Oh, those Christians just want to invade countries and bomb people.” The tide’s turning again, and these tides do turn. I’m seeing more of those Christians who are obnoxious characters, more films that vilify Christians or even generally spiritual characters. But nah, not too bad. It’s not like some backlash. It still comes up more often than you might have thought, more often than I grew accustomed to growing up in the 60’s, 70s, and into the 80s. It still feels like a heyday for films that are spiritually engaged.

RP: What specific film techniques have you seen invented or significantly developed in your years as a film critic?

RR: Disruption of narrative continuity. It doesn’t flow from beginning to middle to end. It can be a gimmick, but it can also be very invigorating. A good film used to be filmed consistently from beginning to end with one look and feel that would give a sort of visual unity -- just like we have the dramatic unities of time and place. Certain kinds of filter or film stock were used throughout. You’d see Scene 3 of Dr. Zhivago and Scene 10. One was a frozen ice palace, and one was blood in the streets, and yet you’re going “that’s the same film.” A good thing, however I think of a film like Into the Wild. I love the way that was filmed. One section is shaky like it was filmed with a camera phone, and then another is a panorama, a massive gorgeously detailed, sculpted shot. I like that kind of mash-up of filmic style at the same time as I can love a film that has unity of style. I think that comes about because people have camcorders and cell phone cameras and point-and-shoots, and all that. So we are used to that variety. The news used to just be film: Channel 5 film crew filmed all the events. Well now, people’s cell phones capture an accident, and they put it on. “If it bleeds it leads.” We just take the data in through every kind of form, so films can reflect that.

There’s also the fact that you can shoot a pretty gorgeous film now with far less expensive equipment, so it doesn’t need to be a studio. There’s been some discouragement in recent years, though. We thought independent film would explode, but then we found out that distribution is critical. That’s still a challenge.

RP: I’m guessing more people are trying to make films now, just because the cost of equipment is going down, and the understanding of filmmaking as an art form is more available, you can learn about it on the Internet.

RR: You don’t assume a studio has to hire you or bankroll you. But also there’s the proliferation of film schools. With the first film school graduates of the 70s, now there are so many film school graduates, you’ve got a large community of highly educated people doing it. So I suppose there’s more crowding, harder for an individual to do it.

RP: But there are all kinds of ways to distribute a film solo, by publishing it on the Internet; you might not get a lot of money from it, but you might get ad clicks, you might get discovered.

RR: If people want to do that, there are those ways to make a webcast, something made for the Internet. There is a proliferation of small film festivals, so you can have a very little film. I have one friend who makes a film or two a year, shows them in those places, and is quite content to do that. That’s his art. He no more craves nationwide distribution than I crave a 2000-seat theatre. I’m going to do my work for 100 people at a time. I wouldn’t mind 250, but that’s it. It’s like the slow food movement. You don’t expect to feed 5000 people with this meal. You take five hours to make it, and it’s for a dozen guests, and that’s it. And that’s what my theatre is, and that’s what my friend’s filmmaking is. And if you’re content there, great. Most people who make the webisodes are doing it as a calling card so someone will hire them to do it for real. That’s a shame. But I mean, why not. Any strategy you can use. I say it’s a shame, because the chances are still so slim.

RP: Social networking is affecting film too, isn’t it? Not a huge number of people hit it lucky in that way, but if you are able to catch a huge wave, if you’ve got something that’s really good and somebody forwards it around to enough people and it spreads…

RR: The first movie like that was Blair Witch Project. That’s the one that the Internet made. But it had no legs. As soon as it closed at the end of the summer, nobody watched it anymore. People laugh about it: “Why were we scared about that?” Somehow the hype made it a phenomenon. But some things that have been Internet driven have great staying power I think.

Lots of little independent films were made last year for terribly shrunken budgets with little hope of getting beyond Sundance, and Winter’s Bone did. Why? Well, it’s phenomenal. It really is a piece of complete integrity. It’s real filmmaking, extraordinary story, fine screenplay, based on a novel. That probably could be said of a number of other projects. But somebody saw it, somebody promoted it, somebody else decided to show it. It is a combination of luck, perseverance, and high artistic quality. Those ones with the luck factor will keep happening. Every now and then there will be a piece that’s just terrific. I believe that Animal Kingdom was an equally strong picture. In my experience it was actually slightly stronger. They’re very comparable. But it didn’t catch the same wave in America. Most people, when I say Animal Kingdom, say “oh, that nature thing?” No, It didn’t get on their radar. I remember several years ago, two films that I saw, really close in time, that were so comparable in so many ways: The Lives of Others and After the Wedding.

RP: I saw The Lives of Others; haven’t heard of After the Wedding.

RR: My point exactly. When I saw them, I was equally excited about both. One of them caught the wave, got lucky (in my opinion that’s the only difference), and became a “you’ve got to see this” movie. And I was thinking, “But what about After the Wedding?” In retrospect, I think After the Wedding was a better picture. Remarkable film. Maybe it had a less sentimental ending; and people, even when they like their art films, they still like – I don’t want to call it “sentimental” – that’s a little too strong a word. I don’t mean to demean The Lives of Others. But you know, you felt good. And I’m not sure After the Wedding gave you quite that. It’s a little bit cool and more Nordic, so maybe that’s why. Nonetheless, very comparable films. One you’ve heard of; the other you haven’t. So there’s that luck factor. Luck or who knows what.

RP: How do you think spirituality (in general) is faring in films? How about Christianity, specifically? How should it fare in the movies, and how should the Church respond to filmmaking?

RR: I’ll just take the “should” part, because that’s where my mind tends to go. When Mel Gibson made The Passion of the Christ, he made a personal vision, a peculiar, eccentric film, where he might as well film it in weird languages, because nobody was going to see anyway. It was only going to be shown in a few art houses, so he would follow the limit of his vision and make his most distinctive film. He could make Lethal Weapon 79. But this was his heart. He put that film out there. It became the biggest sensation imaginable. And then the organized church said, “Hey, he made a film for us. There’s a Christian market. Let’s tap it. Let’s have more of those films for us, and let’s make money off making them. So let’s do some market testing, and find out what Christians want to see, and let’s make that for them.” Is that what Mel Gibson did? No. Some people say it was a mercenary, calculated financial thing to make all this money. They are full of rocks. That’s just not true. It did not begin there. I know that once they saw that this could sell 87 trillion dollars worth of business, they went after it. Well, so would Winter’s Bone if it had the chance, or the most obscure Polynesian postmodern performance art. So it became a bit of a media circus. But it was not made for that purpose. They got it completely wrong. And so we saw many years of insipid, churchy movies. Now, some of the people who worked on those films are people of integrity, artistic skill, even vision. But still, what showed up on the screen was like Hallmark movie of the week, with more religion. That’s OK. That’s what some people want to see. I don’t criticize them. I don’t think that Mrs. Swenson in some small town in Minnesota should have to watch Jesus Hopped the “A” Train. She should have some art that suits her, and that does, so God bless it. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be made. I’m just saying “is it actually of any interest to anyone who is not in that subculture already?” Nope. Find me a positive review from your regular old theatre reviewer about those and they’ll be in short supply. They tend to make vastly populist, sweetly religious films, though there are some exceptions.

RP: There have been a couple that got attention outside the Christian subculture. I can’t remember when the remake of Shadowlands came out. That was before Mel Gibson’s...

RR: Oh, that had nothing to do with the Christian subculture. No, that wasn’t made for the church.

RP: What about Amazing Grace?

RR: Amazing Grace got marketed a little more that way. That is post-Passion. But it wasn’t made by a group of Christians who said “Let’s make something for the mega-church-goers in Atlanta and LA.” They were trying to do something different. They marketed it, though, very much to the churches, especially evangelical churches, saying “Look, evangelicals were at the forefront of abolitionism. Why shouldn’t we be today?” They loved the way it engaged social conscience and explicit themes of faith. And they were evangelical Christians in this film, as opposed to those dread Catholics or Anglicans or Lutherans or something like that (all in quotation marks). So it crossed over that way; it tried.

RP: There were a couple of films where there was quite a push in the evangelical subculture to email all your friends and get them to go see such-and-such a movie, because if it doesn’t get enough views the first weekend, it’s going to die, and we need to have it survive. I don’t remember which ones they were.

RR: Well, exactly. If you actually came up with the name of the film, you wouldn’t remember anything about it.

Another thing that’s happened more and more. Young Christians see no barrier to working in the film industry, whether they are a camera person, a screen writer, a director, a grip. So more and more there are Christians involved in the film industry. I want to put an asterisk by that. I keep differentiating between evangelical Christians and other Christians. It’s not because one is real and one is not, at all. There have been Catholics and mainstream Christians involved in live theatre and film way back. Far less of a divide there. It’s just that evangelicals came later to the game, in engagement with the culture as a whole (late 60s into the 70s), in letting their kids go to theatre schools and film schools (70s, 80s). And then with film, again, something happened ramping up to the late 90s to make an explosion in the world of film. Partly DVDs. You could get whatever film you wanted. Partly the Internet. You could read about any movie you wanted. You learned about films. So I think that explosion caused lots of Christians to end up there. The business itself has a lot more Christians, evangelical and not. (Those labels become not that useful.) So that shifts how the whole things works. Though, again I don’t want to be negative about this, but money drives most of the movie business. Massive amounts of money, power, ego. And all three of those are a poor fit with the real gospel of Jesus. Most people who decide they’re going to invest $20 million in a film aren’t probably going “I admire the integrity of this work. It needs to be done, even if only five people see it.” I don’t think so. I think it’s “If I put $20 million in, I get $40 million back.” So however many Christians might be involved, as producers, directors, writers, it’s going to have a pervasive effect. But that’s exactly where Christians should be. The most venal of motivations can lead to a spiritually profound work of art. It doesn’t matter if the producer is married to Satan. If it happens that the screenwriter was telling some truth, and it makes it through the rewrites, doesn’t get cut, you can go to that theatre, you can see that, and your life can be changed.

RP: Who are some of the most important directors working right now, and why those? What is it about their work that you think will make it last and become classic (if it hasn’t already)?

RR: I could have given you a really good answer on this five years ago, but not now, partly because I’m not immersed in it anymore. Partly also because the people I would have named then haven’t made any good films since. I would have pointed you to Lars von Trier, P.T. Anderson, Whit Stillman, Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth). I might have thrown Peter Jackson in the mix. Also Anders Thomas Jensen who made Adam’s Apples.

They all made extraordinary films with the kind of things I especially like in film, but then— Lars von Trier had a really dark and nasty element in his film that I felt was in tension with the other elements; the other elements fell away and it just, oh my goodness, the poor man. Antichrist is so toxic and so nasty. He had a breakdown and fell into a clinical depression and didn’t make films for a while. Who knows what’s to come of that? Then P.T. Anderson, people felt he had come back with marvelously with There Will Be Blood. I didn’t like it. I admired it. It’s well shot, it’s fascinating. But to my mind it went back to a story that I was sick of by 1970. I was only 13 in 1970. The venal, compromised revival preacher who really doesn’t care about spiritual things, and is just as much of a manipulator as the oil baron, and it’s two power-grubbing people. Yeah, yeah. And it didn’t surprise me at all when I found out eventually that it’s actually from a novel that was written 80 years ago. That’s what the stories were about then, and I find that boring. Well-made, but I was disappointed. Whereas in his previous films, there was so much nuance and intricacy about spiritual themes, even Christians themes. And all of a sudden, the Christian character is reduced to this two-dimensional cardboard stereotype. Quite a disappointment. It was still a very strong film, though. So, is he still a strong filmmaker? Yeah. Although he went from Hard Eight to Boogie Nights to Magnolia in the space of a few years. And then…Punch Drunk Love. To my mind a wonderful but more minor film. Other people feel it’s his best of all. I think it’s a little bit more of a side exercise before his next great film. That looked like the trajectory: Really interesting small, independent film; much bigger, really good film; and then a masterpiece. And then this wonderfully quirky brilliant smaller piece, while he’s gathering strength for something big. And then a bunch of years, nothing. And then, what many people consider his greatest masterpiece, which I feel disappointed in. He’s just not on that pace he was on as a brand new filmmaker.

Then there’s the Coens. You never know. Each new film comes out. People see it and go, “Nah, it’s too clever, it’s shrill, it’s jokey.” And then a little bit later, the tide always shifts and people go, “That’s really interesting, that’s substantial.” They keep pulling that out of their hats. Their recent film, A Serious Man, engages right on the center of theological questions in a direct sort of way. I think they’re playing for keeps there. And then True Grit. I still don’t know if that Protestant voice of the narrator is meant to be taken seriously in the novel. The Scripture-saturated, hymn-quoting thing, is straight-up. And this is a good, religious character, in the middle of an anarchic world. Or if that’s the irony, that this girl, in her naiveté sings hymns, quotes her daddy, quotes Scripture, quotes theology, and heads out to commit vengeance, and actually is as conscienceless a killer as anybody around her. I haven’t discerned that yet. The Coens may have just liked it because they like strong voices. They like Marge Gunderson to talk with her accent. They like O Brother, Where Art Thou to talk from the South. They like the dude to be a Southern California drop-out. They love those. When I say “voice” I mean a character voice – an audible, spoken voice. And I bet they like the voice of that character in that book. And they found it funny, and they found it ironic; they probably never stopped to go “Hmm, are we setting this up or not?” But they play with that stuff; they keep doing it. Who knows what lies ahead for the Coens; they’re pretty fascinating.

RP: What are some good movies waiting in the wings—films that you either know are in production, or that you wish would be made in the next few years?

RR: Again, because I’m not writing regularly about film, I’d have to think about it. I’ve got some written down. That’s a really good question, but I’m kind of stuck. David Michôd, the guy who directed Animal Kingdom. That is the director I’m most interested in right now. I can’t wait to see what he does next. I’ll also say playwright Martin McDonagh. His first, which he wrote and directed was In Bruges. And that’s got legs. I loved it overwhelmingly when it came out, and now it’s one of those ones that everyone talks about. It’s so good, and very theological, as well as very funny, very offensive, very entertaining. He was kind of the bad boy entertainer-playwright, and then he made that film. He made a short film, Six Shooter, that won an Academy Award that’s really interesting. And then In Bruges. I hope he makes another film. No guarantee it’s going to be theologically or spiritually engaged. But he’s pretty fascinated by moral and ethical questions. So I’m curious to see if he makes another film. [He is at work on Seven Psychopaths (2012). – rp]

And Danny Boyle! I can’t wait to see what he does next. His last films have been very flashy. 127 Hours was his most recent. And Slumdog Millionaire. Some pure cinephiles have thought it was a little superficial. I don’t find it to be so. Both films were engaged with spiritual questions. I know you could say that Slumdog Millionaire is about getting rich quick. You could say it’s about rags to riches. It’s the Horatio Alger nonsense. I don’t think so. I think it’s about a young man’s faithfulness. It’s about doing whatever was needed to recover this relationship with a girl that he knew. It’s got all the social conscience of Dickens. It’s also got all the storytelling tricks and melodrama of Dickens. I don’t care. It’s wonderful. And it was profoundly about the question of this peculiar series of coincidences. Were they luck? Were they skill? Were they “Insha’Allah” (God’s will)? 127 Hours is about an irresponsible, bike-riding, adventure party boy who gets in a scrape and by his ingenuity gets out again. What’s spiritual about that? Yeah, well, it is. Profoundly it’s about a young man who is all the things we described at the beginning, who realizes as he sits there for 127 hours alone, facing his death, “I lived every second for me. I deserve everything I’m getting.” It’s like The Christmas Carol in a gorge. His life flashes before him, and he comes to reckon with…[goes to get The Christmas Carol and reads an excerpt] “’Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,’ said Scrooge. ‘But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me.’ The spirit was immovable as ever.” That’s at the heart of 127 Hours. There’s a parallel theme in Into the Wild. Danny Boyle goes after those things. I recently saw the National Theatre of England broadcast of the Danny Boyle stage production of Frankenstein. It was broadcast live to theatres. Brilliant. And again it deals with these questions about the nature of humanity, consequence, ethical things. Danny Boyle is all over that stuff.

RP: Where is the film industry going in the future? How has technology affected it (online streaming, etc.) With amazing home theatres, will we stop going out any more? How much further can special effects and digital technology go? Is the movie experience become more solitary rather than communal?

RR: Yes, the film viewing experience is more solitary than it used to be, significantly so. However, two things: after you’ve seen the film, it’s more communal. People really didn’t have as much opportunity to talk together about a film afterwards. So you’d go for coffee after and talk with your friends. Sure. But that’s it, you couldn’t see it again. There is such a conversation about film now, in the culture as a whole, and online. This conversation makes me wonder if cinemas are going to become like live theatres. They will never go away. The feeling of sitting in a room with strangers, munching popcorn, and looking up at that massive screen as the movie starts, and nobody can text you and phone you (if people text in front of me I tell them to stop). That’s something. I’ve got a 52” screen. I believe you can have a great experience in your home, a better one sometimes. But the cinemas are never going to go away. There are always going to be people showing movies in public.

RP: Are our standards for acceptable content shifting, and is this to be deplored? Are Christians going to have more or less influence in Hollywood over time?

RR: Well, the influence in Hollywood we touched on. There are more Christians there. That’s lovely. It’s still Babylon. But that’s where Christians belong. So, enough said. Content? Well, the movies have always had appalling content and great content. Just because it’s sexual content or violent content doesn’t make it bad content. Just because it portrays characters who are morally appalling… Well, Macbeth. Where are his redeeming features? Should we watch that? “No, he’s a terrible role model. What do we see except bloodshed and sexual undertone and ambition.” Well, take away Macbeth and I’ll punch you in the eye. So those are very open questions to me. I have a very safe middle-class upbringing. I’m a jerk sometimes. But I’m a nice person. I’m very invested in being a good citizen. Just a decent, boring, white, middle-class guy. But artistically, I’ve always been fascinated by films about very dark or questionable things. Maybe that’s an indulgence of my dark side. I don’t know. Now there are films that I simply don’t go see. A couple of films by Gaspar Noé. Would I say that film should never be shown? No, I wouldn’t say that. But I’m not going to see it. I just have a feeling that it’s not what I want to put in there. On the other hand, I watched Antichrist. And that’s nasty. And I watched Dogville. With Antichrist, I borderline regret that I saw it. I’m glad I saw it, but I would not see it again. But Dogville is one of my three favorite films of all time. But it’s nasty. That’s where the Holy Spirit comes in. Each individual has to discern, listening to the Holy Spirit and their conscience: what should I see, what should I not see, what films should I make, what should I not make? There’s so much made and shown that really is morally vacuous, and even negative, even bad. I’m sure the Devil himself runs many studios and can make pictures that are appalling, and yet you don’t know. Tom Key, the man who took Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch Gospels and made them a stage musical. He is a marvelous man. He’s a Southern gentlemen, deeply Christian, a Catholic man. He’s a leader. He runs a live theatre in Atlanta. He’s a respected member of the theatre community. His conversion came when he saw Bonnie and Clyde, which his church friends were completely opposed to. It was degenerate, conscienceless kids, with a level of violence that was unacceptable. He went, and he got saved. God spoke to him, and he changed from a safe church-going kid to someone who saw the commonality of sin in them and himself, realized that he actually needed God instead of God being a nice little add-on to his merit badge collection. Did anybody making that film intend that? I doubt it. Neither was it made just to exploit. It was made I think by artists. But it’s very violent, and especially for its time, over the top violent. Should it have been shown? Well, apparently. God’s mysterious. As long as he’s engaged in the whole thing. And he won’t allow himself to be disengaged.

RP: Well, thank you very much.


08 October 2011

Interview with Ron Reed Part 1

This is THE LAST INTERVIEW in the "Where Are We Now Series"!!! Please take a moment to peruse the INTRODUCTION AND INDEX to this series, to leave a comment on this post, or to tell us what you thought of the series.

This interview was conducted by my blog co-writer, Rosie Perera. Thanks, Rosie!

Interview with Ron Reed, actor, playwright, director, founder and artistic director of Vancouver's Pacific Theatre, and writer about films
(Edited from our conversation on 21 March 2011)

Part I

Rosie Perera: Let’s start by talking about your acting, writing, and directing. You studied at the University of Alberta, and received an MFA in acting from the California Institute of the Arts. Were you trained in a specific acting style? Would you say you are you a “method” actor?

Ron Reed: The approach at CalArts is the standard approach now in actor training. It’s got lots of Stanislavski in it. It is that you act from yourself. You don’t picture a character and then try to embody that person and copy their emotions. Instead, I imagine me, as if I had been born in the circumstances of the character in the world of the play. And then within that, there’s an objective that my character is yearning for, whether he knows it or not. This is the “super-objective” of the whole play. Then each scene has an objective that is a stepping stone to that super-objective. When acting the scene, I’m thinking what do I do with the other character in the scene. I’m not playing my emotions. All I’m trying to do is to win the other character’s allegiance to me. You don’t think of the audience at all, except that’s where your technical training comes in. You develop your voice, your speech, your body, so that there are no barriers in talking too softly, or whatever. That said, you’re not playing for the audience, you’re playing to the person opposite you. You don’t do what is called “indicating” – which is taking what you might feel and pumping it up so the audience will get it. Don’t do it! Forget that you’re in a play. Live in the reality of it. And then the director can shape it.

Chris Humphreys and Ron Reed in A Man For All Seasons; photo: David James

RP: You have also written close to 20 plays, including Book of the Dragon, Tent Meeting, A Bright Particular Star, Refuge of Lies, A Wrinkle in Time, You Still Can’t, Dreams of Kings & Carpenters, Remnant, and your one-man show Top Ten Thousand of All Time. Can you give us a brief overview of some of the topics, themes, and ideas in your plays?

RR: Long ago I said to a dramaturge friend “They say ‘write what you know,’ but I think you should write what you don’t know. Your plays should be as different one to the next as possible.” My friend said, “Yeah, as far as the setting of the story is concerned, sure, but I bet the real essence of your stories is the same from one to another.” Then I realized that there are a couple of threads that occur very pervasively. The central one is the preoccupation with two related things: one is the continuum of sin, responsibility, accountability, judgment, all to the end of reconciliation, forgiveness; and then the related thing is new life – we can be changed. Unbelievably, it wasn’t until a decade ago that I encountered the story of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables, and I realized that that’s my central story. My plays, as different as they are, almost always end with reconciliation – between two characters, between one character and a community, or between a character and God. They are often about something in someone that needs to be reckoned with, and their agonizing journey to reckon with it and be humbled, and reach out to make that relationship right.

Two other things that are common in my plays: a character who thinks they can do it on their own, they are the king of their own world, but they are challenged to accept an outsider, to change their view of how the world works; and that’s the crisis for them and they can’t do it.

And then a common figure that I’ve noticed is the plucky girl. I’ve written a ton of plays where there’s a young woman under 30 who goes up against it and has to tough it out and find a way to achieve what she needs to achieve. For example, Lilia Macdonald in A Bright Particular Star. She’s a compliant first-born, not going to make any waves, gonna be the best person and make everybody happy. However she has an extraordinary ability as an actor and comes alive when she acts. But there are many other things she’s passionate about. Octavia Hill, her mentor, works with the poor in London. She falls in love for the first time with a young man who loves her. She reaches that age where life’s full of possibilities, and then they collide. And she still wants to please her parents. Suddenly all these forces are saying “Don’t be an actor. It’s self-indulgent, it’s spiritually dangerous.” Is she putting it ahead of God, her social concerns, her family, her parents, her lover, her fiancé? She has to decide. The fact that it plays out in a young woman’s story – I’m not sure why.

RP: What specific techniques do you use in your play writing? Do you use any experimental narrative, set design, casting, or other techniques? How would you describe your particular style of play writing?

RR: All the specifics that you mentioned come after the fact. The playwright doesn’t write those by and large. I believe that the playwright needs to write whatever comes to mind. It was a pressing point in my very first real play that I wrote which was on a fishing boat. As soon as I had the idea for it, I said to my director “I want to write the play on a fishing boat. But that’s crazy. So should I set it somewhere else?” He said, “No write the play however you want. The designer will solve the design problems.” Or you’ll do it in later drafts. You get the most exciting results that way. So I endeavor to just write the story. It’s also true that when you’ve been in the theatre a long time, you get theatrical ideas. Bright Particular Star was written without any idea of how it ought to be staged. I simply told the story scene by scene. Every character has that kind of story arc that I described. But one character drives the whole story. When their objective is reached, or not reached, the play is done. When I write the play, I’m finding who that central character is. Sometimes in draft two you rewrite the play; it’s about a different character. Then you go scene by scene. They’re always fighting for something. One thing leads to another. There’s a circle of consequences to each choice. I spend a great deal of time thinking about the dramaturgical structure of the choices, actions, consequences. I carry around blank business cards, I get a scrap of dialogue, a phrase, I see someone in the bank lineup and I go “That’s what Fred looks like!” That’s the soil from which the things grows. When all is said and done, the play might not look anything like that.

I do think of staging things. There are two plays that I want to start. One of which is a straightforward adaptation of Longford, the film that Peter Morgan wrote. I’ve been in touch with his agent and he says I can adapt it for the stage. That’s fairly straightforward. The other one is a non-fiction work that reads like a novel about some events in the 19th century, and I won’t say what they are because I don’t have the rights yet. In this case, I can picture how it’s staged, and written in the play will be the fact that one woman plays all the female characters; words/definitions/phrases are projected onto the stage and included in the sound design at certain points in the story. So sometimes I think of the staging of it and sometimes I don’t.

RP: Who are some other contemporary playwrights whose work you particularly admire? And how does your work compare to theirs?

RR: One is Stephen Adly Guirgis (Jesus Hopped the “A” Train). Extraordinary writer. His themes are mine. This constant attention to sin, redemption. Always complex. Not a straightforward narrative of “do something bad, apologize, God loves you, go to heaven.” It’s shocking to find such complex, unsolvable kinds of questions in plays that are so popular, contemporary, edgy. His great strength is dialogue. Sometimes story structure is not important to him. In The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, it’s more about what each successive witness says. They each hold the stage in a remarkable way. Is there really a story? Yeah, but I always lose track of it. The important thing there is the line of the argument. I actually value storytelling above following the line of an argument. So for me that is not the strongest thing about The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. That said, I couldn’t care less. It’s stunning on stage; you can’t take your eyes off it.

There is also Lanford Wilson. I love his stories, I love his characters. I love the fact that every play is drastically different than the last one. Same thing is true of John Patrick Shanley.

RP: Do they all have that same sort of common theme that you can pick up in their plays even though they’re all different?

RR: I can’t come up with it in Lanford Wilson. My favorites of his are Talley’s FollyFifth of July) and Talley & Son. Another of his that I really love is Angels Fall, about a priest, a native American young man who’s becoming a doctor, and a tennis player. With John Patrick Shanley, there are themes in common. Widest possible variety of styles. He’s a complete chameleon. I get a whiff of what his themes are. But I have a hard time putting my finger on it. Next season at PT we’re hoping to do a John Patrick Shanley trilogy, Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, which is very dark. These are characters that would easily fit in Stephen Adly Guirgis’s neighborhood. Really troubled characters. And there is real hope and restoration in the end of the play. Small enough glimmers I suppose, but in light of how dark their circumstances and their personalities are, it’s incredible. And then Doubt, which won the Pulitzer Prize; I’m going to direct that. And then concluding with, we hope (this is the only one that’s not confirmed yet) a musical version of Joe Versus the Volcano, which is a wacky, absurd, romantic comedy. For those who love it, like me, it’s off the charts lovable. They are so different from one another. But the whole idea for that season occurred to me when I was watching Danny and the Deep Blue Sea last summer. I thought “oh my goodness, that’s like Joe Versus the Volcano.” And it’s a bizarre thought. They are worlds apart. Joe Versus the Volcano is all about living day to day, celebrating life. His character is told he has X number of months to live, and so he says “what the heck, I’ve got nothing to live for.” And he finds a remarkable freedom and becomes a full version of the person he can be. I see something of that in Danny and the Deep Blue Sea. As well as specifics. They’re both love stories. Doubt doesn’t fit those things. It’s about the uncertainty – well, doubt – about things. The central character, Sister Aloysius, is either on a horrific witch hunt, because she’s a closed-minded, frightened, almost McCarthyist, maybe anti-homosexual. Or she’s right, and she’s a proto-feminist woman, protecting helpless victims of a pedophile in a male hierarchy where she has no voice. And Shanley swings you back and forth between these two things until you’re completely dizzy. If in one scene you think that Father Flynn is being persecuted, in the next you go “no, he’s a monster,” and the next thing you go “no, he’s fine.” And Shanley does it with complete mastery. That play is about certainty and faith, the danger of faith, the need for faith, the nature of truth. But it’s more relational, it’s about…is she destroying a man’s life who is innocent, or is she bringing justice? If you want to go way back to the question you asked before about my themes: Justice in a dialectic with mercy. That’s huge for me, and Doubt is absolutely there.

Interestingly, Guirgis and Shanley both grew up Catholic, both I think let that go, and then it cropped up tremendously in their playwriting, more and more progressively, to the point where Stephen Adly Guirgis, in the introduction to A Jesuit Off Broadway, makes it very clear that he has come to, at the very least, honor his Catholic faith. And Shanley – I don’t know, but last year he spoke at a big conference of Christian universities. He doesn’t seem to be the least bit shy about questions of faith. So there are some favorite playwrights. And I should throw in Shakespeare, not as an obligatory “well you have to have Shakespeare” but truly. [I can tell from his bookshelves.]

RP: In 1984, you founded Pacific Theatre, which exists as “a non-propagandist professional theatre where [actors, etc.] would be free to explore work having particular meaning to them as Christians.” How do you do this? How is the work meaningful to Christians? How does it avoid any appearance of being propagandistic to someone outside the Christian community?

RR: Well, I can’t speak to whether it appears propagandistic to anybody. But I know it’s not there to propagate the faith or to persuade anyone to believe anything in particular. There might very well be actors in certain plays who pray every night that people will become Christians by seeing the play. I’ve prayed that. But that’s not the intention of the work. I’m an evangelical Christian, but I’m not a Christian evangelist. My work as an artist is to explore, to push the boundaries. I don’t make plays about what I already understand. I make plays about what I don’t understand. Fundamentally our mandate is to explore spiritual experience. As Artistic Director, I choose works that interest me. Most of them deal with questions of faith, spirituality, those kind of things. Now and then there’s a play that doesn’t have any apparent spiritual content. But actually, there’s usually a way in which some element of that play speaks to what is for me a spiritual or Christian theme. I sometimes program plays that don’t absolutely fascinate me but that round out our season. That’s another job as Artistic Director. If I’ve got a nasty, dark, challenging piece, there’s gonna be something very light and reassuring and sweet and wonderful; and if I’ve got a musical, there’s going to be a piece that’s somehow experimental in form. I’m always looking for things people haven’t seen on our stage before.

We do not call ourselves a Christian theatre. It’s such a problematic adjective. We never have hidden the fact that our company is about spiritual questions, spiritual experience of people, particularly from a Christian perspective (though we’re not limited to that). It meant that for a decade, funding was almost impossible. People hardly even saw our work, but assumed it must be propagandistic. We’re way, way past that. In the last five seasons, my great delight has been how many people from the theatre community will see a play like The Woodsman, Grace, Prodigal Son, Mourning Dove, and go, “Nobody else is doing plays like that! It’s edgy; it’s challenging, ethically complex, and provocative, and asks these questions that are so hard to deal with.” I respond, “Oh sure they are!” Prodigal Son was a co-production with Touchstone Theatre in Vancouver; in fact they initiated the play. So clearly other companies are doing that. But we do have a track record that every season there is at least one play that is going to be a challenge at an ethical, philosophical, spiritual level. Refuge of Lies last season, Jesus Hopped the “A” Train this season. Balanced by, this season, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which is no trite superficial play. But it’s not going to offend people. We don’t usually put up something that’s just plain dumb but will sell tickets. We’re small enough that we don’t have to.

RP: How do you think what Pacific Theatre is doing is typical? In one way, its spiritual vision sets it apart from mainstream theatre. Are there other theatres with a similar Christian vision? If so, what are they, and how do they compare to Pacific Theatre? (I’m thinking of Chemainus Theatre on Vancouver Island, Taproot Theatre in Seattle.)

RR: There’s also Rosebud Theatre in Alberta and Lamb’s Players in San Diego. Those companies have a core mandate that is very closely aligned to PT’s, but in each case is very particular to the community out of which they sprung and/or the vision of the artistic director. Chemainus puts on plays that go well with dinner theatre, that serve tourists. They rarely put on a play that has Jesus in it. For a while they called themselves “theatre with good taste.” Nobody’s going to smoke, nobody’s going to swear. I don’t mean to trivialize it. They need to sell a lot more tickets than we do, so they need to go for things with wider appeal. And they are going for tourists, among others. So it does tend to make their choices a lot more mainstream than PT’s would be. That said, they every now and then do something very substantial. The past Artistic Director and the current one are very much Christians of faith; and there are a lot of Christians in the company. Not exclusively. Not exclusively at our theatre either. Not exclusively at any of the theatres we’ve mentioned. There is almost no overlap between Chemainus and PT, except for the works of Lucia Frangione, for various reasons, mostly relational. The one of her plays that is the most explicitly Christian or spiritual is Espresso which they have not done, because it’s too religious for their mainstage, and it’s too provocative, the language and the sexuality. So we’re lucky. We’re an urban theatre, and we can be as edgy as we want. We’ve had to build that up. We’ve had to educate and win the trust of an audience over almost 30 years. But we have done so. It’s been a long time since we’ve worried at all about putting up a show that was way over the line for most companies, Christian or not. Read the opening monologue of Jesus Hopped the “A” Train and decide how many theatres with a mandate like ours could do that. Lamb’s Players is the longest established of any of those companies, and they have to play it pretty safe because they are the biggest of all these companies. They are apparently one of the 50 largest theatres in America. So they have to put plays up that will sell lots of tickets. That means there are shows that they can’t take the risk on that we can do. So it’s another benefit of the size of our company, and the reputation or the style we’ve built, the expectation of our audience.

Those are companies that have been around for 15 years or more. And that was kind of the end of it. When all these companies started, evangelical Christians had recently emerged from a sort of separationist stance toward culture. If you were an evangelical and a creative person, what did you do? Theatre was one of your best options. Or music. Hence the burgeoning of the whole Christian music, Christian rock thing. In the past decade or so, evangelical culture is much more engaged with the broader culture. Not always – sometimes it can be very separationist – but far more so. Nowadays you can buy a HD video camera and editing software and make a movie. So a lot of the folks who would have made theatre headed toward film. That said, there have been some new ones. There’s Firebone Theatre in New York City founded by Steven and Chris Cragin Day, and Fire Exit Theatre in Calgary. There’s also a new company in Orlando. So I guess it is bubbling up again. That could be because there will always be a hunger to be in the same room as actors who are living out a story. I love film, and I wouldn’t rank one above the other. There’s so much of what they do that’s the same – that need for story. But a play is people literally breathing the air you breathe. In my theatre, you have your feet on the stage, if you’re in the front row on either side, where the actors are walking. You feel the vibrations in their feet treading on the stage. If they stand close and turn the wrong way, you might get spit on. It doesn’t happen too much. But it’s that visceral and close. And when a real person’s standing in that room with you, if they’re working the way I described, immersed in that world, and they’ve just found out that the person they love will die, and they weep, it’s almost unbearably tender. I have a friend who won’t sit in the front four rows of the theatre, it’s too much for him, too intimate. I know movies can do that, sort of. I’ve sobbed through many movies. It’s still just a little different when it’s a real person. And there will always be people who want to see that and people who want to do that. When I put on a play, every night I get to tell a story from the beginning to the end. When I make a movie, as soon as they’ve got a good take, good coverage for the sound, and the light was right, they move on. I will never do that scene again. As the person living in the story, there are two kinds of actors that are shortchanged by filmmaking. One is the performer who lives to share the experience with the people in the room. The film actor doesn’t get that. To a slight degree, the audience is the crew, the director, whatever. But it isn’t the same. And the other kind of actor that is shortchanged is the storyteller – that’s me. I’m not about performing for the audience. The big deal for me is living in it, like make believe. To be caught in that world and live in it and imagine myself in it. That’s what I live for. The world is so chopped up when you make a movie. I don’t get to tell a story from “Once upon a time” to “…and they lived happily ever after.”

RP: Where is theatre going in the future, from your vantage point?

RR: Well, it’s not going away, that’s for sure. I think that’s important to be said, because with the dominance of television, film, and then the convergence of those on the Internet, it would be easy for people to think that’s it for live theatre. But the fact is, the obituary got written in the 1930s, when radio took over, then television. Now you can have DVDs in your home. But you know what? We kind of reached rock bottom as far as our share of the cultural marketplace, and that’s where it will stay forever.

Where will it go? Who knows. It is a plant with regional varieties. It needs to be highly adaptive to survive. Two things happened in Vancouver that created a specific emphasis in the theatrical art that’s created here now. One is the fact that there was a tremendous shortage of performance spaces. (That’s being rectified to some degree.) Secondly, back in those postmodern days, there was a fascination with highly theatrical, non-narrative performance. So it gave rise to site-specific work, plays performed in a parking garage, in a closed factory, under a bridge, in a forest, you name it. Survival technique. Can’t do it in a theatre? Do it somewhere else. Also what a great pace to have 30’ high puppets hanging from the trees and project light and have someone come up through the earth. So in fact, Vancouver has become a source for a tremendous amount of site-specific work that happens outside a theatre. I suspect that’s becoming more and more common in other cities as well. And that could be because of the need to get the public’s interest, to ask them yet again to come into a theatre and sit in a chair and watch a play. If you can say the play moves from the top of this tower to five stories underground in a parking garage, the response will be “Really? Oh, that will be cool!” So there’s a novelty factor too, I suppose. There was a movement, again with postmodernism, away from narrative, and that’s now kind of part of theatre culture, I suppose. I may be betraying my biases, but I feel like narrative has returned very strongly. It might be splintered, scenes might not be in chronological order. Playwrights will play with that, but a strong commitment to dramaturgical structure has returned. Film has gained a new prominence in the culture in the last 20 years. And film, except for certain European film, certain independent film, is predominantly narrative, story. It may be told more visually. Live theatre may be told more in dialogue, but they’re both fundamentally, in the North American mind, storytelling media.

RP: That’s a good segue to talking about film.

Please read Part II of this interview.