Monday, January 22, 2007

A Remembrance: Curt Dempster (1935 - 2007)

I was warned to fear the Gypsy. For those unfamiliar with the term in its theatrical context, a “Gypsy” is a dress rehearsal for Curt and other members of the EST staff to attend so that they can evaluate the progress of the theater’s current production to make sure it is fit to open the following week. Curt, I was informed, had a reputation of being a particularly harsh critic – so much so that one member of EST affectionately rechristened the Gypsy “How Long Until Curt Makes You Cry?” The most frequent advice I was given before the Gypsy of my play A Bitter Taste was, “Bring a box of tissues.”

I knew as I sat down for our Gypsy rehearsal that things would not go smoothly. A bout of the flu had meant a lost week of rehearsals for the cast. Nor was there – for various and temperamental reasons - an excessive amount of love and devotion amongst our actors. They were under-rehearsed, under-prepared, still fumbling through lines and generally adrift. Two hours later, after sitting through the most painful dress rehearsal of my brief career, I watched the actors wheeze across the bloated finish line that marked the end of what had once been my play. Curt politely thanked the actors for their time and talent; he then took the director, the co-artistic director, and me into his office to talk.

If Curt had wanted to cancel the opening (which was less than a week away), he would have had my full support. I had, by this late point in the game, lost most of my faith that my New York theater debut would be a successful one. It wasn’t simply the lost week of rehearsals and the unsteadiness of the actors that dampened my hopes. It was the fear that this unsteadiness that seemed to permeate the production stemmed from the fact that no one seemed to understand what my play was about - and no was getting closer to figuring it out. To explain it in the simplest terms: I thought I had written a battle to the death; I was getting something closer to a very intense thumb-wrestling match.

“What is this play about?” Once we were all assembled in Curt’s office, that was the first question he asked. No threats. No warnings. No catalogue of flaws of what he’d just suffered through. Just a simple question, “What is this play about?” My heart stopped because I thought he was being literal. I thought we had failed at the most basic level of storytelling and he had not understood the plot (even though he’d seen a workshop production a year earlier at Carnegie Mellon University). A moment later I realized Curt was not talking about plot. He was asking – as all good theater practitioners do – what we were trying to communicate. Before we could answer, Curt proceeded to tell the room what my play was about.

Playwrights – particularly fledging playwrights looking for their first production – can spend a lot of time explaining or defending their work to people. But in Curt’s office that day, someone other than me did the explaining. More importantly, he got everything right. Everything I felt was important in the play, everything that needed to be communicated to the audience – he understood it all. And it didn’t take him more than five minutes to impart this to those gathered in his office. What he was essentially saying was “Kevin’s play is about X, Y, Z and what I’m seeing is A, B, C.”

The production had gotten off track, and Curt knew it. He knew it wasn’t just line flubs and missed blocking that was standing in our way. He knew what he had just seen wasn’t my play, but some spiteful doppelganger posing as my play. The production had strayed from the play. (His wittiest observation that I recall concerned the role of the underage male prostitute, “This kid lives on the street, and you’ve got him dressed like he orders his clothes from L.L. Bean.”) Curt might not have been saying anything new to the people assembled in his office. But it served as a wake-up call. We had five days before we opened and a lot – a lot – of work to do to get this play back on track. It wasn't just Curt lighting a fire under our asses, it was Curt reminding everyone in that room that there was already a fire - in the play that I had written - and we needed to use that.

That hour in Curt’s office was the first time since coming to New York that I felt like I was taken seriously as a playwright. Only two weeks earlier the photographer taking publicity shots for A Bitter Taste overheard some of the more risqué dialogue and remarked rather snarkily in front a full room of people, including the actors, “Do your parents know you write this kind of stuff?” (Imagine such a remark being addressed to Neil LaBute or Adam Rapp or Christopher Shinn and expecting them to take it in stride.) I was used to being treated like a kid who didn’t know what he was doing. But Curt trusted the text. He trusted the play I had written. He not only understood the play, but championed it to room full of people, telling them, “This is what this play is about. Do THAT.”

I have great memories of A Bitter Taste and rather depressing memories of A Bitter Taste. I have pleasant memories of Curt, and I have frustrating memories of Curt. What I will remember the most, though, is the first time I was treated like a playwright. For that memory, I will always be grateful to Curt.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Upcoming Event: Staged Reading of Rothstein's For Abigail

The New Georges Theater Company will present a staged reading of Sharyn Rothstein's play For Abigail, Who Drowns Men next Monday, January 22 at The Room. For Abigail, Who Drowns Men is the story of Benji Jacobs, a celebrated professor of evolutionary psychology, who falls in love with Abigail Marks, an under-cover government researcher who has been using Benji's theories to deprive political prisoners of their ability to communicate. The reading will be directed by Catherine Ward, who previously directed Rothstein's Neglect and RelationTrip. The show features David Gelles-Hurwitz, who has appeared in the Youngblood plays of Courtney Lauria and Kevin Christopher Snipes, as well as in The True Life Story of Tom Richford at the Brick Theater. Also starring are Nina Hellman, John Henry Cox, Stu Richel and Thom Rivera.

For Abigail, Who Drowns Men will be performed on January 22 at 7:00 PM at the Room, located at 520 8th Avenue, Room 326. Admission is free. A wine reception will follow.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Youngblood 2006: A Year in Review (September – December)

(Yale Rep.'s The Mistakes Madeline Made by Elizabeth Meriwether.)
As we finish our review of Youngblood’s accomplishments in 2006, it’s time to look at the closing months of the year.

Daria Polatin’s one-act Ninja: The Musical is part of Unbound, a theater workshop on Theatre Row, produced by Despina and Company. R.J. Tolan directs a cast that includes Jessica Bhargava, Leanne Cabrera, Kay Trinidad, and Nitya Vidyasagar in this tale of three singing ninjas.

Two new plays and the return of two others cram this month full of Youngbloodiness. Over at the Bank Street Theater, the 3Graces Theater Company produces a staged workshop of Sharyn Rothstein’s Neglect. William Harper and Geany Masai star as two neighbors who face a tense stand-off during a fatally hot summer day. Catherine Ward directs this show, a new version of which will be coming to Ensemble Studio Theatre in February as the full-length mainstage production in Youngblood’s annual Thicker Than Water. Masai and Harper will reprise their rolls. Over at Abingdon, the Visible Theater presents Krankenhaus Blues, a new play by Sam Forman about a group of artists held in a Nazi asylum. Donna Mitchell directs a cast that includes Christine Bruno, Bill Green, Joe Sims, and Angela DeMatteo.

Outside of New York, two theaters host the return of two Youngblood classics. Yale Rep is the new home for Elizabeth Meriwether’s The Mistakes Madeline Made. Directed by Mark Rucker, this production sees the return of Colleen Werthmann reprising her role of Beth. She is joined by Patch Darragh, Michael Chernus, David Jenkins and Aubrey Dollar as Edna. In LA, the Secret Rose Theater plays home to Kevin Christopher Snipes’ ten-minute play Party Lights, which is part of their ActoberFest. The LA premier is directed by David Robinson and stars Susan Savage and David DeSantos.

Meanwhile six new playwrights are welcomed into Youngblood. After a grueling elimination process that left hearts broken and faiths challenged, Youngblood admits into its ranks Delaney Britt Brewer, Jihan Crowther, Justin Deabler, Matt Schatz, Michael Sendrow and Emily Chadick Weiss.

It’s the return of the Youngblood Sunday Brunch! For the first Sunday of every month for the next seven months at EST, audiences will feast on pancake, bacon and four new ten-minute plays all written around a unifying theme. November’s theme? Naked Brunch. New naughty plays are revealed by Kevin Christopher Snipes, Edith L. Freni, Emily Conbere and Sam Forman.

Also in November, Ensemble Studio Theatre celebrates its 35th Anniversary with Project 35. 35 staged readings of 35 new plays span 35 days at the theater. Alongside new plays by Romulus Linney, Anton Dudley, Frank D. Gilroy and Jose Rivera are new works by Kevin Christopher Snipes and Annie Baker. The Chimes, written by Snipes and directed by Catherine Ward, follows a group of boys in a New England boarding school on the eve of World War II who slowly find their world torn apart. Christopher Murney and James Murtaugh head a cast that includes Greg Coughlin, David Gelles-Hurwitz, Corey Johnson, Alex Organ, John D. Ivey and Kurt Everhart. In Annie Baker’s Three Knocks Grant (Murphy Brown) Shaud plays as man at war with his girlfriend’s daughter. Dana Eskelson, Adam Horowitz, and Spenser Leigh star. Melissa Kievman directs.

Matt Schatz, Annie Baker, Courtney Lauria, Sharyn Rothstein and Sam Forman pen How the Brunch Stole Christmas, a collection of holiday themed ten-minute plays for the Sunday Brunch at EST.

In their end of the year retrospectives, David Cote in Time Out NY names Elizabeth Meriwether’s The Mistakes Madeline Made as one of the best shows of 2006, while actor/waiter/general hottie David Bell at Hot Guy Alerts names Heddatron the Best Off Off Broadway play.

With the year coming to an end, Youngblood heads to the Catskills for its Winter Retreat and a little rest and relaxation. New York waits in anticpation for the new year and all the great theater Youngblood will bring to it.

* * *

Thus concludes Youngblood 2006: A Year in Review. Be sure to check out all the upcoming projects that will happening this year by visiting the Youngblood website.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Youngblood 2006: A Year in Review (May – August)

Today we continue our three-part review of Youngblood’s accomplishments in 2006 with a look back at those sizzling summer months.

Qui Nguyen has his second production of the year, this time at Center Stage with his own company Vampire Cowboys. Living Dead in Denmark, an action-adventure / horror sequel to Hamlet in which Shakespeare’s feistiest heroines battle the undead, is directed by Robert Ross Parker and stars Carlo Alban, Jason Liebman, Maggie Macdonald, Tom Myers, Melissa Paladino, Jason Schumacher, Maureen Sebastian, Andrea Marie Smith, Temar Underwood, & Amy Kim Waschke. Living Dead in Denmark goes on to win the New York Innovative Theater Award for Best Choreography (Marius Hanford).

The Youngblood Sunday Brunch comes to an end as Glory Days at Jesus High and Sexmento reach their finales. On the first Sunday of every month for the last eight months, the scribes of Youngblood slaved backstage to cook bacon and pancakes for their hungry audiences, while on stage the actors performed their serialized episodes of the mysterious Sexmento and the sacrilegious Jesus High. The cast of Sexmento includes Diana Ruppe, Dawn Evans, Emily Mostyn-Brown, R.J. Tolan, Graeme Gillis, and J.J. Kandell. Jesus High stars Julie Leedes, Anna Stumpf, Steve Sanpietro, Gregg Mozgala, and Josh Haness

Over at the 31st Annual Samuel French Off-Off Broadway Original Short Play Festival, Sharyn Rothstein’s RelationTrip wins First Prize. This tale of couples coming together and falling apart over the course of a train ride is directed by Catherine Ward and stars Will Harper and Youngblood alum Zakiyyah Alexander. The play will be published later this year.

Also on the publishing front, Kevin Christopher Snipes’ Virgin Rock is published as part of The Best Plays of the Strawberry One-Act Festival, Volume 3. The one-act previously won Best Play during the Summer 2005 Strawberry One-Act Festival at the Producers Club.

Youngblood sells their artistic vision, their playwriting, and their very souls - to the highest bidder as part of the Brick Theater’s $ellout Festival. In early April, Youngblood ran an eBay auction to dramatize the true-life story of the highest bidder. Tom Ritchford wins and his life of wild parties, terminally-ill parents and (possibly) underage sex become fodder for playwrights Qui Nguyen, Michael Lew, Courtney Lauria, Daria Polatin, Emily Conbere, Edith L. Freni, Sharyn Rothstein and Annie Baker who pen The True Life Story of Tom Richford. R.J. Tolan directs a cast including Lucia Brizzi, Helen Coxe, David Gelles-Hurwitz, Debbie Jaffe, Moira Lael MacDonald, Gregg Mozgala and Steven Sanpietro.

Over at Ars Nova, Elizabeth Meriwether has a reading of her new play Bobby, starring Josh Hamilton and Tony-nominee Jayne Houdyshell.

And last but not least, Time Out New York lists the ten most promising playwrights in New York City. Two Youngblooders make the list: Qui Nguyen and Elizebeth Meriwether.

Needing to refuel their creative sprits, Youngblood heads to Lexington for their annual Summer Retreat. Much merriment is had despite the thunderstorms.

Still refueling, Youngblood goes on hiatus.

* * *

After all that refueling, you’re probably curious what amazing things Youngblood did when it returned in the fall. The only way to find out is to check back in a few days when we present the third and final chapter of Youngblood 2006: A Year in Review.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Youngblood 2006: A Year in Review (January – April)

(A scene from Elizabeth Meriwether's Heddatron at HERE Arts.)

Here’s a look back at 2006 - a year in which it can be fairly stated that without Youngblood there would not have been much theater in New York City. Or, at least, not very much interesting theater. What follows is a brief summary of all that Youngblood accomplished in those twelve theatrical months of 2006.

Youngblood comes out swinging with the first part of Thicker Than Water at Ensemble Studio Theatre. On the double bill are one-acts by Maggie Smith and Amy Herzog. In Smith’s Henrietta Hermaline’s Fall from Great Heights, directed by Abigail Zealey Bess and starring Nicol Zanzarella-Giacalone, Denny Bess and Brendan McMahon, a socially backward, chronically allergic young secretary is swept into a world of romance, heartbreak and despair when the pigeons on her roof proclaim her the rightful Queen of the Bird People.

In Amy Herzog’s Hungry, directed by Christine Farrell and starring Lucia Brizzi, Erin McMonagle and Rebecca Pace, three friends - in the middle of the 90s, in the middle of New Jersey - try to hold onto each other.

Thicker Than Water continues with Kevin Christopher Snipes’ full-length drama A Bitter Taste, in which a mild-mannered college professor (Peter O’Connor) and a smooth-talking divorce attorney (Paul Clark) explore the underbelly of their lifelong friendship after their world is thrown off balance by an underage male prostitute (Haskell King). The New York Times praises that, "Under R. J. Tolan's direction, the play offers some taut drama."

Meanwhile the ever-irreverent Les Freres Corbusier team up with Elizabeth Meriwether and a couple of real honest-to-god robots for Heddatron at HERE Arts. Directed by Alex Timbers, Heddatron follows the adventures of a housewife abducted by robots and forced to act out Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler. In the New York Times Ben Brantley calls the show an “exultant celebration of the cathartic powers of theater.” Carolyn Baeumler, Gibson Frazier, Nina Hellman, Ryan Karels, Julie Lake, Daniel Larlham, Spenser Leigh, Michael Schulman, Ian Unterma, and fellow Youngblooder Sam Forman star.

In front of judges Sigourney Weaver, Julia Stiles, Christopher Durang, Oskar Eustis, Jo Bonney and David Cote, Youngblood squares off against rival New York theater companies including Partial Comfort, Vampire Cowboys, and Labyrinth at the 2nd Annual Battle of the Bards at Crobar. Ed Murray pens the entry (a journey through a Dantesque gym hell) and R.J. Tolan directs. Sadly, Youngblood gets its ass handed to it by Ma-Yi, which takes home first place.

Meanwhile two new plays by Youngblooders open in New York: Qui Nguyen’s Trial by Water (produced by Ma-Yi) at the Culture Project and Edith Freni’s Baby Girl (produced by Partial Comfort) at Center Stage. John Gould Rubin’s directs Nguyen’s historically-inspired tale of a group of Vietnamese immigrants trapped at sea and forced to savage lengths to survive. Dinh Q. Doan, Genevieve DeVeyra, Jojo Gonzalez, Karen Tsen Lee, Arthur Acuna star. Baby Girl, directed by Padraic Lillis, focuses on a recent drug addict turned mother who must decide whether or not to sell her baby. Curran Connor, Sarah Hayon, Chris Kipiniak, Trisha LaFache, Andrew Stewart-Jones, and John Summerour star.

After Battle of the Bards, Youngblood decides it can play well with others and rounds out the month by teaming up with local theater groups for its annual ten-minute play festival Asking 4 Trouble 5. In addition to acting and directing collaborations from Partial Comfort, Les Freres and Labyrinth, A4T5 finds a new home at the Kraine Theatre. New short plays are served up by Annie Baker, Emily Conbere, Courtney Lauria, Michael Lew, Elizabeth Meriwether, Edward Lee Murray, Daria Polatin, Sharyn Rothstein, Kevin Christopher Snipes and Maggie Smith.

Elizabeth Meriwether’s The Mistakes Madeline Made opens at the Culture Project, directed by Evan Cabnet and starring Colleen Werthmann. It is subsequently named one of the Best Plays of 2006 by Time Out New York.

* * *

Want to know what contributions to New York theater Youngblood made from May to August? Check back here in a few days for the second part of Youngblood 2006: A Year in Review.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Kevin Christopher Snipes on the Top 10 Plays of 2006

People like Top 10 Lists. I like telling people what to think. This list is my way of ensuring that everyone wins. However, to set it apart from the other Top 10 lists currently flooding the Year in Review periodicals, I’m limiting my Top 10 List only to new plays/musicals (on and off Broadway), since it’s the new works that will maintain the theater as a growing, vibrant and necessary medium. As a disclaimer I should admit that I missed many shows last year (Grey Gardens among them), so the list is undoubtedly incomplete. Also, I’ve excluded my own play A Bitter Taste, which premiered at Ensemble Studio Theatre last year and would obviously be on any Top 10 List for New York Theater. So in no particular order, here are my favorite new plays of 2006.

The Pain and the Itch
by Bruce Norris
A Thanksgiving Day party centered around possible child molestation is the backdrop of this devastating critique of liberal hypocrisy. Vicious, cutting dialog and alternately loveable/despicable characters flesh out a play that contains one of the cleverest dramatic structures of the year.

My Name is Rachel Corrie
by Katharine Viner, Alan Rickman, Rachel Corrie
Granted, the production left me a little cold, but there’s no denying the power, passion and persuasiveness of Corrie’s condemnation of Israeli’s American-backed occupation of Palestine. It’s a brave play that is more politics than drama, but I applaud Viner, Rickman and the Minetta Lane Theater for attempting to raise the collective New York consciousness about the conflict in Palestine.

The Lieutenant of Inishmore
by Martin McDonagh
Euripides meets Quentin Tarantino. A brilliant and bloody play.

Spring Awakening
by Duncan Sheik, Steven Sater, Frank Wedekind
With embarrassment I must confess that I didn’t care for this show when I first saw an early preview at the Atlantic, and I still have problems with some of the conventions, but I’ve always said that a show is great not despite it flaws but because of them. Broadway needs more shows like Spring Awakening that are willing to push the boundaries of form and content. Also, the nebbish Ernst’s (Gideon Glick) seduction by blond bad boy Hanschen (Jonathan B. Wright) is probably the sexiest scene in theater for 2006.

The Mistakes Madeline Made
by Elizabeth Meriwether
Fellow Youngblooder Elizabeth Meriwether’s dark comedy about surviving the daily grind and absurdities of life had me laughing and crying within minutes of each other. Favorite moment that punched me in the gut both times I saw the show: Edna's breakdown when she laments her insignificance in the world with, “I have this life. I have this little life.”

The History Boys
by Alan Bennett
Do I really need to defend this choice?

The House in Town
by Richard Greenberg
I’ve got a thing for fragile but quirky heroines struggling to keep it together, and Greenberg’s play provided Jessica Hecht with the chance to out-DuBois Blanche DuBois. Greenberg didn’t reinvent the wheel with this play, but he gave us a solid and entertaining period piece that examines how fragile our sense of self truly is.

Post Mortem
by A.R. Gurney
A small, simple and (intentionally) self-indulgent play, but Gurney’s wit has never been sharper, whether turning it against the Bush administration or himself. Missing his Indian Blood is one of my great regrets of 2006.

Stuff Happens

by David Hare
Hare turns the Bush administration’s decision to wage war on Iraq into a Shakespearean epic. Political theater at its best.

The Internationalist
by Anne Washburn
Cultural and language barriers create an atmosphere of menace and wonder in Washburn’s dreamlike play about an American struggling to understand his place in a foreign country. Few playwrights can earn an ambiguous ending that leaves so much unresolved, and while it frustrated me, I also respect her decision not to provide easy answers in a play that so strongly examines the impotence of communication.