Did you know that it’s Banned Books Week?
It’s also a subject that’s been close to the heart of Pioneer Theatre Company this year. This season, PTC will be producing a new play based on the true story of a children’s book that was famously challenged in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1959.
The controversy — about a picture book in which a black bunny rabbit marries a white bunny rabbit — made international headlines after a segregationist state senator challenged the state librarian to remove the book from the Alabama Public Library Service. He objected to its apparent pro-integration message, adding that the book — Garth Williams’ “The Rabbits’ Wedding” — should be burned.
The play based on this controversy, Alabama Story, is a highly theatrical 1950s-set drama about the clash of a fierce librarian and a bullheaded politician in the Deep South. It receives its world premiere at PTC January 9-24, 2015.
Artistic Director Karen Azenberg will direct the full, world premiere, main stage production – after having directed readings of the script in Alabama Shakespeare Festival’s Southern Writers’ Project in 2013 and in PTC’s inaugural new play reading series, Play-By-Play, last April, and two script-in-hand readings at Off-Broadway’s TACT/The Actors Company Theatre’
invited Ken and Karen to work on Alabama Story in the troupe’s , the playwright and director jumped at the chance. (TACT’s co-artistic director is Jenn Thompson, who directed Pioneer’s The Philadelphia Story and will stage the Salt Lake City premiere of the adventure Peter and the Starcatcher during the holidays this year.)
“This was a great opportunity to test some of the changes that I made to Alabama Story following the illuminating and useful Pioneer Play-By-Play readings earlier this year,” Ken explained. “I was also able to hear it in front of a completely new audience, with all but one actor who had never done it before — and with talkbacks, which were lively and enthusiastic. It pleases me that tears and laughter have been evident among audiences in all three cities where the play has been developed.”
In Manhattan, two script-in-hand readings (with about 20 hours of rehearsal) were presented to packed houses in the TACT Studio at 20th Street and Broadway. As is typical with developmental readings, the casting of barebones presentations does not necessarily represent future casting of a full production. It’s a listening experience for all, and a chance for networking and relationship-building among actors, directors, writers and organizations.
“New York served as a useful ‘bridge’ reading between Play-By-Play and the start of Salt Lake City rehearsals in December,” Ken said. “I even made some changes between the two performances in New York, continuing to clarify relationships and language in the script. I love editing as much as I love the initial writing. I’m really looking forward to the luxury of several weeks working with Karen and a cast in a rehearsal room later this year at Pioneer.”
He continued, “Plays are not written in a week and then instantly, magically produced. They are sharpened, shaped and developed over time, with a director and playwright listening to actors’ interpretations and questions. I’ve been very lucky to work with Karen, Pioneer and other people and organizations who are sensitive to making sure the play’s goals — and the playwright’s voice — are, yes, challenged, but also understood and honored in the development process.”
(But the way, dates have been set for PTC’s second annual Play-By-Play reading series in 2015. Titles will be announced later this season.)
Following rehearsals at TACT in June, Karen grabbed an umbrella and flew to Alabama Shakespeare Festival to choreograph Mary Poppins. After directing the PTC season opener (the funny, raucous, tuneful and touching musical comedy The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, which runs through Saturday night), she’s now preparing for the exciting new concert production of The Rocky Horror Show.
Don’t miss the world premiere of the full main stage production of Alabama Story, January 9 – 24, 2015. Include it in your season subscription, on sale now, or purchase single tickets for “Alabama Story” after Oct. 1. Visit pioneertheatre.org or call the Box Office at 801-581-6961.
The word bee, as used in spelling bee, refers to a community social gathering at which friends and neighbors join together in a single activity (sewing, quilting, barn raising, etc.) usually to help one person or family.
The earliest known example in print is a spinning bee, in 1769. Other early occurrences are husking bee (1816), apple bee (1827), and logging bee (1836). Communities took these activities that had to be done for growth and prosperity – such as apple-picking and logging trees for timber – and turned them into social gatherings that also strengthened their bonds to one another.
The social nature of the bee has been preserved over the years, as attested by Emily Stagg, three-time National Spelling Bee finalist and featured speller in the 2002 award-winning documentary Spellbound: “I have always felt incredibly grateful toward the bee. Whenever people ask me about my experience in the nationals, I tell them that the bee gives an awkward, precocious, out-of-place teenager (as most contestants are) a chance to make friends and learn to perform well under pressure. The confidence I found in just being myself and the pride I felt over my achievements have never left me.” (NY Times, 2006.)
Fun pop culture bee references
The 1986 ABC TV-movie The Girl Who Spelled Freedom, about a Cambodian immigrant girl who competes in spelling bees.
The 2002 Academy Award-nominated documentary, Spellbound, featured eight competitors in the 1999 Scripps National Spelling Bee.
A scene in the 2004 movie Mean Girls shows a girl spelling the word ‘xylocarp.’
The 2001 novel Bee Season and its 2005 film adaptation.
The 2006 film Akeelah and the Bee where a young girl from South Los Angeles tries to make it to the National Spelling Bee.
The 2013 film Bad Words directed by Jason Bateman.
The National Spelling Bee, held annually in Washington, D.C., has been administered by the educational, not-for-profit organization “Scripps” since 1925. Its purpose is to help students improve their spelling, increase their vocabularies, learn concepts, and develop correct English usage that will help them all their lives.
- The first official National Spelling Bee winner was Frank Neuhauser, with the word “gladiolus.”
- The competition has been declared a tie four times, in 1950, 1957, 1962 and 2014.
- As of 2014, 47 champions have been girls and 44 have been boys.
Several local schools attended our regularly scheduled student matinee of Sweet Charity this past Wednesday, and a few of those schools also stayed for a talkback with the actors.
Mediating: Sweet Charity Director and Choreographer (plus PTC Artistic Director) Karen Azenberg
Attending: Gerry McIntyre, Angie Scworer, Natalie Hill, Nancy Lemenager, Courtney Iventosch, Marza Warsinske, Carol Schuberg, Sean McDermott, David Guy Holmes, Michael D. Jablonski, Richard Gatta, Rhett Guter, Lenny Daniel, Joel Pellini, John Scherer, Brian Nelson, Bill Bateman
KA: All right, big question first – what about that ending?
(I’m not going to spoil it, but suffice it to say that there was a huge eruption of applause, moans, cheers, boos, and general very strong opinion on the part of the audience.)
KA: Did you guys like the show? Scale of 1-10, what does it get?
Student question: What’s that front panel made out of? The material is really hard to figure out.
KA: You know, I talk about our painters all the time, and how great they are – this is a painted (wood) panel. The painters here have made everything look amazing – these proscenium panels, the backdrops, even the tie-dye drop – the stained glass windows in the show? Remember those? Painted. Our artists are just awesome.
Question: Karen, how do you like the show?
KA: This is a show I’ve wanted to do for a very long time. And since I’m doing the hiring here now, I just hired myself to do it! …it has some of the very best dance numbers in the theatre. And I am extremely lucky to be able to have assembled the best possible cast for it, these guys are amazing.
Student Question: What advice do you have for an aspiring director?
KA: Do any and every project you can. Try it all. You have to try things in order to know what you like.
(The cast arrives!)
Student Question: Any advice on doing accents?
John Scherer: (Big laugh) You know, Michael Jablonski here talks to me in an accent backstage all night long and it jus drives me crazy!
Jablonski: Listen! Just listen to as many as you can – online, or in shows or movies, or talking to people.
John: And go to a coach. There are people who do that professionally – they’re called dialect coaches and they have a lot to teach about doing accents.
KA: Is there anyone up here that you guys recognize from other shows?
Student (To Nancy Lemenager, who plays Charity): You were in Other Desert Cities!! Oh, man, I just think it’s so amazing that you can do both of those roles – they’re so completely different! Aw, dude, you’re so awesome!
Nancy: Why, thank you!
KA: You’re absolutely right, she really is awesome.
John: Nancy really was scared – it was cute!
Nancy: It’s really high up, and it rocks – I wasn’t expecting that, I guess, the rocking. They roll us out from backstage, and it’s rocking the whole time. It felt very strange at first.
Student: How do you get in there?
KA: It’s a crazy process… So, the bottom car of the Ferris wheel moves out. They move it out, they push stairs up to where the car was, and the actors go up the stairs, get in the higher up car, and the backstage crew moves the bottom car back in place and roll the whole big thing out onstage. It’s a whole other show that goes on back there in the wings.
Student: I think I read that you guys, John and Nancy, have played these parts before – with each other? Is that right?
Nancy: We have!
John: I’ve played this role four times now.
Nancy: And this is my second.
Student: What do you think happens to Charity after the show?
Nancy: I think she eventually finds true love, I really do. She gets closer with every attempt all the way through the show, and she’s hopeful – she never loses hope. Your point of view matters in life, and Charity has just about the best one possible.
Student: What’s your favorite song in the show?
KA: I think if you asked everyone here you’d get a different answer all the way down the line.
Some answers: The Rich Man’s Frug (a nine-minute dance break in Act One). Rhythm of Life. I’m a Brass Band. Hey, Big Spender.
Angie Schworer: There’s Gotta Be Something Better is my favorite – because just getting to do that number with these two girls [Lemenager and Hill] onstage and [Music Director] Phil Reno down in the orchestra pit, that, to me, that’s the epitome of a musical theatre experience. That’s it, right there.
Sean McDermott: My favorite is Baby, Dream Your Dream. It’s the number between Nickie and Helene, and I sit back there and watch it every night – because, to me, that’s exactly what musical theatre is all about. Dreaming of a better life, and making it happen. And these girls are amazing to watch and see do that number.
Natalie Hill: Thank you!
PTC’s Student Matinee Program is supported in part by the Salt Lake County Zoo Arts and Parks Fund, The Simmons Family Foundation, The Meldrum Foundation Endowment, Salt Lake City Arts Council, and the George Q. Morris Foundation.
Due to some impending travel plans, the end of a school semester, and many other things that have kept me busy… I convinced my great Pioneer Theatre buddies that a caption contest would be the way to go for our opening night blog for Sweet Charity. Well, have at it!
A charming (I can’t think of a better, although blunt, way of putting it) “chick flick” set in the 1960′s, Sweet Charity is a wonderment of romance and chuckles. It’s incredibly fun to watch and the style sets me back to a simpler, perhaps somewhat desirable (I totally miss the days without technological distractions, at times…) life. Charity is a pick-yourself-up and keep going kind of a girl. And hey, it’s Bob Fosse – oh, the dance numbers!
Set, um, sort of, in that same style, I present to you… our “caption this” photos! Comment here on the blog with captions for any (or all) of the following photos by midnight on Sunday, May 18th (don’t forget to tell us which photo your caption corresponds to!). Our lovely staff here at PTC will choose their favorite and send the winner (plus one) to a show of Sweet Charity before it closes.
Comment below with your entries by midnight on Sunday, May 18 – and good luck to you all!
Lansia is a semi-pro social media artist – having blogged professionally and casually. An art major herself, Lansia loves to support and participate in the creative community: theatre, film, music, photography, writing, performance and art just to name a few off the tip of the tongue. In addition to her writing, she loves to cook, eat, travel, play, adventure and rock the headphones. Find her personal blog at http://daphnelcc.wordpress.com.
This weekend, as the third and final installment of the 2013-2014 season’s Play-By-Play series, Kenneth Jones’ touching drama “Alabama Story” will receive a staged reading at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts’ Dumke Auditorium. (Friday, April 4th at 8pm, Saturday, April 5th at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. Buy tickets here or at the door.)
Ken was kind enough to answer a few questions about his play for us – enjoy reading that transcript, and don’t miss out on this wonderful staged reading this weekend!
The play is inspired by real events. How did you find out about those events?
I draw on many sources for ideas for the plays and musicals that I write. This one is the result of my passion for reading newspapers. I grew up reading papers, began my career in journalism and can’t imagine a world without the daily routine of digesting headlines.
In May 2000, I was reading the New York Times and I came across the obituary of Emily Wheelock Reed, an 89-year-old former librarian who had been put on the grill by a segregationist state senator named E.O. Eddins in 1959 Alabama. He wanted a controversial children’s picture book — The Rabbits’ Wedding, about a black rabbit marrying a white rabbit — purged from the shelves of Alabama libraries. She refused to get rid of it. He later objected to other books that were being promoted by the library. And, later still, he and others sought to legislate Reed out of her job.
Strong characters and richly contrasting conflicts rarely just fall into my lap, but that’s exactly what happened when I read this obituary. Opposites — male and female, black and white, insider and outsider, Southern and Northern, child and adult, innocence and ugliness — were immediately evident in this slice of American history, and instantly I recognized the building blocks for a play. I took notes and began research.
Here’s the link to the published obituary: http://www.nytimes.com/2000/05/29/us/emily-w-reed-89-librarian-in-59-alabama-racial-dispute.html
What struck a chord with you, what made you feel like this was a story that deserved to be told?
The idea of something beautiful and pure being threatened (or even poisoned) by an outside unnatural force was evident to me from the beginning. Although I don’t necessarily write toward a “theme,” I did seek to deepen this idea as I charted Emily’s history over the play’s time period (it all takes place within the year 1959). The book is threatened, friendships are threatened, centuries-old traditions in Alabama are threatened. I became very interested in the question of how character is tested and revealed during times of conflict, change and transition.
Mostly, though, I saw a chance for a juicy, highly theatrical play loaded with opportunities for punchy exchanges between compelling people who have something personal at stake in that time of extraordinary social change in the Deep South.
How long have you been working on the play altogether? What has the writing or research process been up to this point?
The play was written in spurts over a period of 10 years, during a time when I was also writing two musicals and working a 9-to-5 job in arts journalism. The most focused period of writing for Alabama Story began in 2009 — the 50th anniversary of the book’s controversy. That summer, I took a research trip to Montgomery, Alabama, where the play is set. At the Alabama State Archive Building, which was home to Emily’s office in 1959, I paged through hardcopies of the segregationist newspaper that first reported about The Rabbits’ Wedding, I looked at microfilm of other local papers, I read about Montgomery residents living during segregation, I interviewed the director of the Rosa Parks Museum about African American residents’ experiences of the time, I walked through Oak Park (another setting of the play) and I wandered the streets of Montgomery — a city that was both the Cradle of the Confederacy (the first capital of the Confederacy) and the Cradle of Civil Rights (Rosa Parks and the famous bus boycott).
In addition to being thrilling, startling, witty, and sometimes even downright funny, Deathtrap is as meta as metatheatre gets.
Take a look at this painting by American “pop” artist Roy Lichtenstein:
Have you heard this one?
A rabbi, a priest, and an imam go into a bar and order a drink. “What is this,” asks the bartender, “a joke?”
So, what does the word “this” refer to in each of these two examples? The answer to that question is, essentially, the definition of the “meta” in “metatheatre.”
Bogged down by writer’s block, playwright Sidney Bruhl looks for his next big idea. A student sends him a script that’s titled Deathtrap and has the potential to be the next biggest hit in town. With that, Sidney begins to scheme, and work his way through the play we are watching—which is also, we are reminded, called Deathtrap. The plot points in the play become the plot points in the play… And we are soon watching metatheatre at its finest.
“Metatheatre is an attempt by certain plays to challenge theatre’s claim that it is a mirror for reality. By calling attention to the strangeness, artificiality, illusoriness, or arbitrariness — in short, the theatricality — of the life we live, it marks those frames and boundaries that conventional dramatic realism would hide.”
Some examples of metafiction from the movies: Adaptation The Princess Bride Disney’s Bedtime Stories (with Adam Sandler) Joss Whedon’s Cabin in the Woods Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead Fight Club Monty Python and the Holy Grail The Muppet Movie Television: Seinfeld – a narrative arc where Jerry pitches a show about a comedian (called “Jerry”) to a network The Michael J. Fox show Hannah Montana Arrested Development Community Buffy the Vampire Slayer (remember Buffy vs. Dracula?)
In the opening sequence of that film, the title character (i.e. “Jerk”) is found outside a Broadway theatre with some of his hobo compatriots. The show that was playing at that Broadway theatre? The longest-running comedy-thriller in Broadway history, and PTC’s next production: Deathtrap.
It’s interesting that Deathtrap showed up in a good-old-fashioned comedy. I don’t think most people realize just how funny Deathtrap is – it’s a thriller surrounding the finer points of murder, sure, but also, the phrase “die laughing” comes to mind. (In fact, TIME Magazine said of the show, “If you care to assassinate yourself with laughter, try Deathtrap.”)
Whether the use of Deathtrap in a Steve Martin classic was a comment on the serious nature of “Jerk’s” tragic predicament in a comedic setting, we’ll leave up to the critics. But it got me to wondering what else was going on the year that Deathtrap premiered on Broadway. (To clarify, it was, of course, still running by the time The Jerk was released in December 1979. And it ran for quite some time after that.)
Here’s a little taste, courtesy of Deathtrap’s dramaturgy team of Elizabeth Ferguson and Sydney Cheek-O’Donnell:
- Susan B. Anthony dollar is minted in commemoration of Women’s Suffrage
- Harvey Milk and San Francisco mayor George Mascone were murdered in their offices by former associate Dan White, who was disgruntled about their support for the Briggs Initiative and Gay Rights.
- The Year of Three Popes: Pope Paul IV dies of illness. Pope John Paul I is elected and dies a month later in his sleep. Pope John Paul II succeeds him.
- First crossing of the Atlantic by hot air balloon
- Serial killers Ted Bundy and David Berkowitz (“Son of Sam”) are arrested.
- The Camp David Accords culminated in Egyptian President Anwar El Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin being jointly awarded the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize in 1978. The Accords were the result of 14 months of diplomatic efforts by Egypt, Israel, and the United States that began after Jimmy Carter became President in 1977. Efforts initially focused on a comprehensive resolution of disputes between Israel and the Arab countries, gradually evolved into a search for a bilateral agreement between Israel and Egypt.
- Cult leader Jim Jones moves his cult from San Francisco to Jonestown, Guyana, and orders mass suicide of over 900 followers via Kool-Aid spiked with cyanide.
- The U.S. dollar plunges to an all-time low
- Worldwide unemployment rises
- Gold reaches what was then an all-time high of $200.00 per ounce (as of this writing, gold is worth $1362.40 per ounce)
- Taito‘s Space Invaders was the first blockbuster arcade video game. Its success marked the beginning of the golden age of arcade video games. Video game arcades sprang up in shopping malls, and small “corner arcades” appeared in restaurants, grocery stores, bars and movie theaters all over the United States, Japan and other countries over the next couple of decades.
- Public tests of the first cellular phone system began in Chicago, with more than 2,000 trial customers and mobile phone sets. The system, constructed by AT&T and Bell Labs, included a group of small, low-powered transmission towers, each covering an area a few miles in radius. That test was followed by a 1981 trial in the Washington-Baltimore area by Motorola and the American Radio Telephone Service.
- TVs were in 98% of American homes
- Louise Joy Brown was born in July, 1978, the first successful birth resulting from in vitro fertilization (or, the first “test tube baby”).
- The USSR detonates its first “neutron bomb.”
Deathtrap opens Friday, March 28 and plays Mondays through Saturdays until April 12th.
Deathtrap by Ira Levin holds the record for the longest-running “comedy-thriller” on Broadway. The comedy in the show is brilliant – matched only by the psychological tension in this superb thriller. Associate Dramaturg, Elizabeth Ferguson, tells us a little bit about the thriller genre.
What makes a good thriller? Is it the unexpected reversals? The high stakes? The conniving villain or the clever hero? The thriller is a genre that relies on the superbly constructed balance of pacing and suspense designed to keep us on the edge of our seats. Often mistaken for mystery, which typically involves solving a crime that has already occurred, the thriller discovers the mystery as it unfolds, sometimes even two steps ahead. The tension is derived from dangerous possibilities which evoke anxious anticipation. In a psychological thriller, the focus is on the inner psyche of the characters who play intricate mind-games and weave complex manipulations. While the formula for a great thriller is elusive, and, in fact, varies quite a bit depending upon the content, we certainly know a good one when we see it.
Ira Levin is one of the acknowledged masters of the thriller, writing his award-winning first novel, A Kiss Before Dying, in 1953 at the age of only twenty-two. The book was quickly made into a film starring Robert Wagner, Jeffrey Hunter, and Virginia Leith. In his fifty-year career as a playwright and novelist Levin wrote several hits, many of which were later turned into films, including the chilling Rosemary’s Baby, The Boys from Brazil, and The Stepford Wives. Levin’s biggest Broadway smash, Deathtrap, which won the Edgar Allen Poe Award for Best Play in 1980, ran for four years and was made into a film in 1982, starring Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve.
According to James N. Frey, author of How to Write a Damn Good Thriller, “a thriller is a story of a hero who has a mission to foil evil. Not just a hero—a clever hero. Not just a mission—an ‘impossible’ mission. An ‘impossible’ mission that will put our hero in terrible trouble.” In Deathtrap, Levin gleefully toys with this notion—our clever hero is certainly in terrible trouble and has an impossible mission. But “evil” is in the eye of the beholder.
Deathtrap runs March 28- April 12. Buy tickets here.
For each show in our season, PTC offers an opportunity to youth in schools throughout the valley to see professional theatre at an affordable price. There is always a talkback with the cast and those students who choose to stay afterward.
Attending: Marcella Pereda, Ashley Wickett, Mia Bagley, Zoe Heiden, Brigham Inkley, Rebecca Watson, Colleen Baum, Tobin Atkinson, Marza Warsinske, Christopher DuVal, John Ahlin, David Manis, Miles David Romney, Terrell Donnell Sledge, Terence Goodman, Bryce Edward Peterson, T. Ryder Smith
Mediating: Karen Azenberg (or, KA, for this blog entry’s purposes)
KA: (Answering a question about the period choice for the piece, which the director has described as “Arthurian” for this show)
For this particular production, the director, Matt August, was looking for something whimsical but not necessarily historically accurate. That way, you know, someone couldn’t come back later and say, “I don’t think they actually had unicorns in that time period…” There’s a lot of stuff going on here, actually, it’s not really restrained to a time period – there’s even some Japanese anime, so it’s a lot of fun. We had our costume designer, Elizabeth Caitlin Ward, we had here for almost two months – which is a really long time for us.
Student Question: I notice that there are many returning actors from this season or past seasons. How do you like being back in Salt Lake?
All out-of-town cast: We love it!
Terrell Donnell Sledge: Salt Lake has great food!
Rebecca Watson: You know, it really says a lot about this theatre and about the city that actors in New York want to come work here at the Pioneer. I run into actors all the time who are like, “Oh, the Pioneer! I loved working there” or “I really want to work there.” It has a lovely reputation, you guys can be really proud of that.
KA: (pointing at Rebecca) Do you guys recognize her?
Audience: She’s the dead body! The mustache! Something’s Afoot!
KA: (pointing at David Manis) How about him?
Audience: A Few Good Men!
He was the judge! And Clybourne Park!! Oh yeah, Clybourne Park, too!
KA: Terrell’s been here too, how long ago was it?
Terrell: Two years ago, I think?
Audience: Find and Sign! Oh yeah, he was in Find and Sign!
These kids really know their stuff.
Question: We recently did a production of, ahem, “The Scottish Play…”
KA: Thank you.
The title Much Ado About Nothing could easily sum up Shakespeare’s tragic-comedy all by itself. However, in late 16th century England, audiences would have also recognized a pun in the title: “Noting” was a word used to mean spying, watching, or eavesdropping. Without this double meaning, the title still works: there was much hubbub over Beatrice and Benedick’s relationship by their friends—that turned out to be entirely made up, and therefore actually nothing. There was also the matter of Claudio reacting so dramatically on his and Hero’s wedding day; his accusations of betrayal and adultery were based on a prank his “friends” played on him—so, again, nothing. And then there’s Hero’s and Leonato’s reaction to the horrific acts of that day—without any spoilers, let’s just say that a huge plot point actually turned out to be nothing.
However, when you add the pun of “noting” to the title—members of Shakespeare’s audience would have pronounced “nothing” and “noting” similarly—then there is another layer of meaning to the play. All of these instances of “Much Ado” being made over “Nothing” involve eavesdropping, watching or spying. Beatrice and Benedick are duped when they “note” their friends’ private conversations (which, of course, weren’t actually private at all but meant for the pair to overhear); Claudio is deceived by “noting” a prank put on by the villainous Don John and his henchman Borachio; and the tragic element of the play is put to rest when the clownish constable Dogberry and his rag-tag team of watchmen overhear Borachio confessing the duplicitous act.
From the title of the play and its multiple meanings, you can see the central points of the plot. You can also discern that the play is full of wit and humor. Note well the title—it is all, and nothing.