IS HE DEAD? proceeds apace.

I am directing Is He Dead? this spring on the Cowan stage at Otterbein University.  We have been in preliminary design meetings  for a week or two and just yesterday i got the first renderings from my wonderful set designer and colleague Rob Johnson.  Take a look and enjoy.

  Is He Dead?   Act I

Is He Dead?  Act I

  Is He Dead?    Act II

Is He Dead?   Act II

Re: "A Facelift for Shakespeare" or WTF?!

A day or so ago an article appeared in the Wall Street Journal describing a commission made by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to have all of Shakespeare's plays "translated" into "modern English."  You can read about the idiocy here.

One cited reason for the translations (I still can't get over that word choice.  It's in English, it does't need to be translated!) is; "Much of Shakespeare goes over our heads because, even though we recognize the words, their meaning often has changed significantly over the past four centuries."  I guess the people making this argument have forgotten what their teachers  instructed them to do in grade school when encountering unfamiliar words, "divine the meaning from the context of the sentence." 

The author (so called) of this article concludes with, "I suspect that Shakespeare himself, in his eagerness to reach audiences, would be perplexed by the idea that our job today is to settle for only half understanding his work."  No, thou clay-brained guts, thou knotty-pated fool, that isn't our job (and I bet you understood that OK, eh Dr. McWhorter?). Our job is to do the work Justice!  If Shakespeare is done well it is understandable and exciting and inspiring and if it is ill done (sorry do you understand that to mean poorly or do you think I meant sickly?) it is a turn off...just like anything else.  

The chief problem the average person on the street has with 'getting' Shakespeare has mostly to do with the fact that they were introduced to this works of genius by being forced to read them in a junior high school English class.  And that is the first misstep in how we teach Shakespeare...the plays were never meant to be read!  Handing a student a Shakespeare play to read and expecting them to find the play beautiful is like handing that student an architectural blueprint and expecting them to be able to see the building.  A play script is a notation system and nothing more.  The play being described does not exist until it is performed before a live audience.  These plays were meant to be heard.  The audience is meant not only to have the words spoken clearly but to also have their bodies struck by the sound eaves of the spoken words so they can vibrate their bodies.  Yes, just like musical instruments do.

And if audiences are having trouble understanding or following Shakespeare when it is performed for them then guess what, it isn't the audience that is lacking, it isn't Shakespeare that is too difficult, it is the actors not doing their bloody jobs.   No one will ever convince me that Shakespeare is only for the intellectual elite or that the common person can get it or won't like it.  I saw my first Shakespeare when I was 9, the 1967 film of Taming of The Shrew with Burton and Taylor as a Saturday afternoon movie.  I saw Midsummer when I was 11 at Arena Stage with Avery Brooks and Kathleen Turner.  I LOVED it all.  In 2013 I directed my own production of A Midsummer Night's Dream in Egypt with a cast of non-native English speaking undergraduate BA theatre students for audiences of non-native English speakers and that play was the most successful English speaking production that that theatre has done to date.

Shakespeare is transformative.  It is as close to literary alchemy as anyone will ever hear and to claim that it is too difficult rather than raising ourselves up off our couches to reach for it  is the most destructive kind of foolishness that human beings can practice.  We must fight against what is seemly a modern compulsion, chiefly that we should only reach for that which is already well within our grasp.

"Let’s embrace Shakespeare for real and let him speak to us."  Hear, Hear!  And that means letting Shakespeare remain Shakespeare.

P.S.  And yes, Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare's plays.


Time for a Change

June 30th marked my last day as Associate Professor of Theatre at The American University in Cairo.  My time there was well spent.  

I directed three main stage productions in four years, and in each we took on something that had never been done at AUC:  One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest had a full understudy company, A Midsummer Night's Dream was the most highly attended English-speaking production the university had ever produced, and Little Shop of Horrors was the first musical done on the New Cairo campus.

In addition to MainStage productions i directed one student generated production of Oleanna as well as evangelized and supported many other student-generated works.

More importantly, in a country that has little time or money and even less encouragement for the arts, former students are currently completing or beginnig further training in nationally recognized programs in the United States such as the MFA Theatre program at Tisch, the T Schreiber Studio, the Professional Actor Training Program at the University of Houston, and Second City in Chicago.  Others are targeting London and careers and continued study in the U.K.  Others are successfully working in the Middle East in the film and theatre industry including two students who were selected to work with Kevin Spacey on the Home Grown Middle East project in conjunction with the Middle East Theatre Academy and the Kevin Spacey Foundation.

I am incredibly blessed to have met, gotten to know, and work closely with amazing young people that are pursuing extraordinary lives and dreams both in and outside of the arts across the globe.  I am very grateful to them all.

I am equally fortunate to be beginning work with a new group of young people and colleagues at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio.  There I will be serving as Associate Professor of Theatre.  My first production in the spring of 2016 will be  Is He Dead? a farce by Mark Twain and adapted by David Ives.  I hope you can attend!


Excerpted from a Reddit post.

"Caroll Spinney, the puppeteer who brought to life Sesame Street’s Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on television, did an AMA session on Thursday to talk about a documentary about his life, titled I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story.

Naturally, the actor—whose voice can easily trigger fond memories of eating cereal for breakfast in front of the TV, happily learning the alphabet in singsong—spent most of the hour answering expected questions like, “How do you feel, knowing that you have touched so many lives through your work?” (Short answer: “It feels incredible.”) He also lent insight to Sesame Street-related queries that have been bugging fans for years.

But the winning inquiry of the day was courtesy of Reddit user man_mayo, who asked Spinney about his most meaningful interaction with a child during filming or off the air.

Here’s what Spinney had to say, which you should try reading with Big Bird’s voice in mind for full effect: 

Okay, here's one.
This is a very sad story, but it's real.

I got a letter from a fan who said his little boy, who was 5 years old, his name was Joey, he was dying of cancer.

And he was so ill, the little boy knew he was dying.

So the man, in his letter, asked if I would call the little boy. He said the only thing that cheered him at all in his fading state was to see Big Bird on television.

So once in a while, he wouldn't see Big Bird on some days, because he wasn't necessarily in every show. So he asked could I telephone him, and talk to the boy, tell him what a good boy he's been.

So I took a while to look up a phone, because this was before cell phones. And they got a long cord to bring a phone to the boy.

And I had Big Bird say "Hello! Hello Joey! It's me, Big Bird!"

So he said "Is it really you, Big Bird?"

"Yes, it is."

I chatted a while with him, about ten minutes, and he said "I'm glad you're my friend Big Bird."

And I said "I'd better let you go now."

He said "Thank you for calling me Big Bird. You're my friend. You make me happy."

And it turns out that his father and mother were sitting with him when the phone call came. And he was very, very ill that day. And they called the parents in, because they weren't sure how long he'd last.

And so his father wrote to me right away, and said "Thank you, thank you" - he hadn't seen him smile since October, and this was in March - and when the phone was hung up, he said "Big Bird called me! He's my friend."

And he closed his eyes. And he passed away.

And I could see that what I say to children can be very important.

And he said "We haven't seen our little boy smile in MONTHS. He smiled, as he passed away. It was a gift to us. Thank you."

The heart-wrenching response quickly became the thread’s most popular comment, with Redditors expressing gratitude to Spinney for sharing such a cherished memory. That, plus all the feels in the world."

Former Students work with Kevin Spacey

Recently I got to help about a dozen current and former students record auditions for the Kevin Spacey Foundation's Home Grown Project in the Middle East.  About half a dozen received call backs and were flown to the UAE for further auditions and two, Mona and Dahlia, were successfully cast.  They just closed their show last night.  Kevin even skipped his win at the Golden Globes to be there.  You can find out more about the project through the links following.  It's exciting stuff!  Big congratulations and thanks to everyone who took part at any level.  The Middle East has a lot of talented young people and is ripe for a theatrical revelolution.


On Performance & Pretense

I attended a friend’s birthday celebration the other day and part of the event was going to hear some live music, specifically The Decibelles, a wonderful 3 woman trio.  The Decibelles were great, and you should catch them if you ever get the chance, but sadly, the band that opened for them, the house band, was impossible for me to enjoy.

At one point in the set I closed my eyes in fatigue and annoyance and was surprised to discover that with my eyes closed I was able to authentically enjoy the music.  I have had similar experiences with actors but it had never been as clear cut.  Why could I enjoy these performers when I listened to them but not when I watched them as well?

The answer came to me when I opened my eyes: the music was their performance and what they were doing while they played, the closed eyes, the cupping of the mic, the saxman rocking back and forth and slinging his bell skyward , etc was a pretense.  It wasn’t real.  It wasn’t a necessary part of playing the music, it was something that was put on top of the music, or better said, something  that was put between the audience and the music.  

Do not get me wrong.  I am not suggesting that the house band should have stood stock still like ciphers during their set.  What I am advocating is that they leave out is the bullshit.  I don’t want to see what they think musicians look like when they are really ‘into’ performing, I want to see what musicians are like when they are really performing their music.  Doing that, rather than pretending to do that will take a performance to the next level, rather than prevent the full engagement and enjoyment of the audience.

Performers, here is the take-away:  your pretense will never trump performance.  Do the doing. 

On Fear and the core of transformation

The last rehearsals of Oleanna and my subsequent teaching in Acting I has distilled some thoughts for me that I would like to share with you here.


The great actor Jack Lemmon said that in order to satisfy an audience an actor must be vulnerable.  My current thinking is that it goes deeper than mere satisfaction.   Many actors are afraid when they walk upon a stage.  What are they/we afraid of?  Of judgment, of failure, of letting their company mates down, etc.  In a discussion with some of my classes what seems to hold water is that if you trace this fear back far enough you come to a fundamental terror of  doing so badly upon the stage that we as people become unlovable and doomed to die alone.  And I think that in this there is something worth examination.


Most people who attend the theatre would never be able to get up upon a stage.  Moreover most people have very few, if any, relationships in their lives where they are 'comfortable' being fulling exposed, at risk, or to reference Mr. Lemmon, vulnerable.


It occurs to me that this vulnerability, the requirement of the actor to be fully available, the best and the worst of each of them, at any and all times in the presence of an audience is perhaps ultimately the thing that grants to an audience the possibility of transformation.


These thoughts may not yet be fully formed, but my experiences bringing Oleanna to performance as well as the work and teaching begin done in my Acting I and Acting Shakespeare classes seem to support that this fundamental presentation of the bare, forked, unaccommodated fragility of all of us is the fuel that great plays make use of in the service of our audiences.

Oleanna Photos

A few snaps from the Bare Bones Oleanna that opened tonight at The American University in Cairo's Gerhart Theatre.

Opening Night!

Student Generated Bare-Bones Oleanna opened tonight.  The cast stepped it up and played well to a full house.  Wonderful and timely for university audiences.