Qiu Jiongjiong’s absurdist epic of 20th century China is both a movie and a play, both tragedy and farce.Per the title, Qiu Jiongjiong’s magnificently layered historical epic, “A New Old Play,” draws as much from Brecht and Beckett as from cinematic traditions. At once tragedy and farce, it breathes new life into a story as old as civilization.The opening scene is disorienting at first, not least for the film’s protagonist, Qiu Fu (Yi Sicheng), a well-known actor from a Sichuan opera troupe. We meet him when he is old and stooping, in a crumbling mountain village enshrouded by fog. It is China in the 1980s, and the Japanese, the nationalists and the communists have wreaked their havoc in turn. Now two raggedy demons have arrived in a broken-down bicycle rickshaw to cart Qiu off to the underworld.Still, something feels uncanny, demons notwithstanding. The entire mise-en-scène of the film, we discover, is artificial, an assembly of stage props and hand-painted scenery. Qiu has always played the clown, shuffling from scene to scene, a hapless pauper harassed by need and political fashion. Even his wife (Guan Nan) may not miss him when he’s gone. Somehow he, like the film, maintains a sense of humor. Such is life for a poor player.Qiu isn’t keen to leave, but his time is up — as the demons remind him, it’s no use trying to outrun fate. Also, the King of Hell is a fan, and Qiu’s failure to appear would make them look bad.But first, let’s drink and play mahjong in purgatory, where Qiu awaits final passage to oblivion. Absurdities and indignities mount as he reminisces about a life spanning wars and famine, revolution and betrayal. The director’s cleverest trick is having also found joy there.A New Old PlayNot rated. In Mandarin, with subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 59 minutes. In theaters. More
At Theatertreffen, an annual celebration of the best in German-language performance, music plays a profound, and intelligent, role.HAMBURG, Germany — During the five and a half hours I spent immersed in “Die Ruhe” (“The Calm”), a performative installation that was one of the 10 productions selected for this year’s Theatertreffen, I put a live worm in my mouth, cut off a lock of my hair and held a giant African snail.I also participated in a group therapy session, during which a severe doctor pushed us to share our secrets and fears, and drank bitter mushroom tea (non-psychedelic, I hope), vodka and schnapps.Along with the other 34 ticket holders for that day’s performance in the Altona district of Hamburg, I had checked in as a prospective patient at a fictional facility for people exhausted by modern life.At once intimate and visionary, “Die Ruhe” was far and away the most unusual and daring title in the remarkable first live Theatertreffen since the start of the pandemic. After spending the past two years online, the festival, which celebrates the best in German, Austrian and Swiss theater, came roaring back to life with a wide-ranging and eclectic lineup that highlighted the creativity, resourcefulness and persistence of German-language theater in 2021.Originally staged by the Deutsches Schauspielhaus theater here, “Die Ruhe” was the brainchild of SIGNA, a Copenhagen-based performance collective led by the artist couple Signa and Arthur Köstler, which has specialized in large-scale, site-specific performance installations for the past two decades. SIGNA was previously invited to Theatertreffen, in 2008, with an eight-day performance held in a former rail yard in Berlin. This time around, the installation was too complicated to transfer to Berlin, where all the other Theatertreffen performances have taken place, so in a break with tradition, “Die Ruhe” has been mounted in the former post office in Hamburg where it was originally seen in November.With the other members of my small group, I was guided through a sinister sanitorium whose inhabitants — patients and doctors alike — seemed to have all suffered a psychological collapse. Upon entering the post office, we were welcomed to the institute by being asked to lie down on mattresses on the floor. Shortly afterward, we changed out of our clothing and into the institute’s baggy uniform of gray hoodies and sweatpants.Simon Steinhorst in “Die Ruhe,” which was staged in Hamburg.Erich GoldmannAs I was led with the group through dimly lit corridors and rooms — including a simulated forest filled with damp earth and dry leaves — by a fragile and haunted guide, Aurel, it became clear that the institute was the center of a threatening and shamanistic sect. Over the multiple floors of the post office, SIGNA and its large cast (there’s an almost even number of paying participants and institute members) formulated a holistic worldview for the cultlike institute, complete with an origin story and a rigid creed that its adherents, even the mild-mannered Aurel, were fanatically devoted to: a vision of Edenic return symbolized by becoming one with the forest.Aesthetically, this stylishly designed immersive experience seemed to take inspiration from movies: from recent films of dystopian horror, including Yorgos Lanthimos’s “The Lobster” and Ari Aster’s “Midsommer,” as well as Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch, masters of atmospheric dread. As a marathon plunge into a complex and intricate world, “Die Ruhe” resembled another recent and more infamous project: the scientific institute DAU, devised by the Russian filmmaker Ilya Khrzhanovsky in Kharkiv, Ukraine, between 2009 and 2011, which was recreated in Paris in 2019. Like that controversial performance, “Die Ruhe” contained deeply unsettling elements: a strong, pervasive atmosphere of menace, as well as a demanding (and at times exhausting) format that forced the viewer-participant into disturbingly close confrontations with cruelty, manipulation and violence.Back in Berlin, none of the other Theatertreffen shows I saw came close to “Die Ruhe” in sustained intensity and startling originality, but the productions I caught were of a consistently high caliber, and formally innovative.A scene in Claudia Bauer’s “humanistää!,” an exploration of texts by the experimental Austrian writer Ernst Jandl.Nikolaus Ostermann/Volkstheater One of the lineup’s most striking features was how profoundly, and intelligently, musical many of the shows were. In several of the best plays, live music played a fundamental role in generating a distinctive aesthetic as well as meaning. In thinking so musically about theatrical practice, it seemed that many directors at the festival were pushing against the limits of language.From the hits by Britney Spears and Meat Loaf crooned by the cast of Christopher Rüping’s “Das neue Leben — where do we go from here,” to Barbara Morgenstern’s vast and haunting original score for Helgard Haug’s “All right. Good night,” a hypnotic and mostly wordless production about the 2014 Malaysia Airlines disaster, this Theatertreffen seemed to insist on the primacy of music both to conjure and to enrich intellectual and emotional states.The single most astonishing show on a traditional stage was Claudia Bauer’s “humanistää!,” a surreal and dazzlingly inventive exploration of poetic and dramatic texts by the experimental Austrian writer Ernst Jandl.Bauer is one of Germany’s leading directors, and she created this breathtaking theatrical immersion in Jandl’s playful linguistic cosmos at the Volkstheater in the poet’s native Vienna, which is where I caught the production several months ago. (It remains in the company’s repertoire and is also available to stream on Theatertreffen’s website until September.)In “humanistää!,” 10 works by Jandl attain new vitality through conventional monologues, onstage projections and elaborate vocal performances reminiscent of Jandl’s radio plays. Bauer complements the torrent of highly musical texts with startling visuals and energetic performances that beautifully match the rhythm of Jandl’s sound poems. Eight actors perform vigorous and highly choreographed pantomimes and dances amid Patricia Talacko’s shape-shifting set, which is spectacularly lit by Paul Grilj. Throughout, Peer Baierlein’s propulsive music, performed live, accompanies the performers as both their bodies and their voices twist through Jandl’s linguistic games.Lindy Larsson in Yael Ronen’s “Slippery Slope,” an English-language musical about cancel culture.Ute LangkafelText and music combine in a much more straightforward, yet no less riotous, way in the Israeli director Yael Ronen’s “Slippery Slope,” an English-language musical about cancel culture with infectious songs and foul-mouthed lyrics by the singer-songwriter Shlomi Shaban. When it premiered at the Maxim Gorki Theater in Berlin in November, it was an immediate cult sensation. It’s not hard to see why.The plot, about a disgraced Swedish pop star (Lindy Larsson) trying to stage a comeback, and his protégé (Riah Knight), whose meteoric rise is inversely proportional to her mentor’s fall, is both sordid and deliriously enjoyable.What’s more, the five actors in the show can actually sing — a true rarity at German theaters — and they belt out Shaban’s rousing and cheeky numbers with gusto. For perhaps the first time I can remember, Broadway-caliber musical entertainment has come to a German dramatic stage. (It’s the only production from a Berlin repertory theater at the festival.)Cultural appropriation, political correctness, #MeToo debates and social media trolling are gently skewered in a production that is eye-popping and outrageously glam. At the same time, everything is so loopy and chock-full of schlock that there’s little danger of anyone’s taking offense at this vulgar and punchy musical burlesque. Although its themes are urgently contemporary, “Slippery Slope” handles them with a lightness and wit that are rare in theaters here. I’m glad that the Theatertreffen jury, a high-minded bunch of tastemakers if there ever was one, selected it alongside the festival’s more straight-faced entries. It’s a sign of their belief in theater’s ability to startle, to provoke and, yes, to entertain.TheatertreffenThrough May 22 at various theaters in Berlin, and at the Paketpostamt in Hamburg; berlinerfestspiele.de. More
Teenagers bond after school in a sort of classroom purgatory. And, where is the teacher?Detention is a drag. For the students in “Exception to the Rule,” it’s also emblematic. Whatever landed them in the after-school slammer, these teenagers were already trapped by forces far beyond their control.They barrel in one after another, their voices ricocheting around the Black Box Theater, where the Roundabout Underground production opened on Wednesday night. In a space no bigger than a classroom, the audience, sitting on three sides, is spitball distance from the bickering, the posturing and revelations of what lies beneath.There’s Mikayla (Amandla Jahava), who balks at her reputation as a bad girl while relishing the attention; the goofball Tommy (Malik Childs), who claims he’s “not tryna holla” at Mikayla while very obviously taking his shot; Abdul (Mister Fitzgerald), who appears guarded and pensive, preferring to keep his head down; Dayrin (Toney Goins), who is quick-tempered but eager for a laugh; and the sweet but tart Dasani (Claudia Logan), whom Dayrin mockingly calls Aquafina (as in the other bottled water brand).Then there’s Erika (MaYaa Boateng), otherwise known as “college-bound Erika,” whose late entrance comes as a shock to the bunch. Upwardly mobile and buttoned-up, she’s what Dayrin calls “the whitest person in a room full of Black people.” What could she have done wrong? And where is the teacher, anyway? They can’t go home until he signs them out.As for the show’s conceit, the playwright, Dave Harris, borrows from both “Waiting for Godot” and John Hughes’s classic portrait of detained and misunderstood youth, “The Breakfast Club.” It’s doubtful that the students’ savior will ever come, and discovering what they’re in for, and what that says about their stations in life, propels the story forward. Throw in a few romantic sparks between opposites, and it’s all a bit too familiar.But what appears at first like a mundane exercise in remedial discipline sours into something more sinister. The P.A. system starts to glitch, no one can tell the time, and bars slide over the window as the school goes into after-hours lockdown (sound is by Lee Kinney). Take away the desks, and the scuffed floors and cinder-block walls could just as easily be the setting of a prison (the set is by Reid Thompson and Kamil James). And the flicker of fluorescents and red glow of the hall suggest a kind of purgatory (lighting is by Cha See).As the kids clash and open up to one another, surreal elements creep up, appearing to represent the systems and obstacles — poverty, redlining, over policing — that can entrap many Black people in rooms like this, and worse. And the students’ back stories illustrate how they try to maneuver against such repression: Dasani has stolen food because she’s hungry; Mikayla made her own too-short skirt out of necessity. (“You think I got money for all that extra fabric? I look sexy on a budget.”)Under the direction of Miranda Haymon, the performances have an exaggerated quality that keeps the characters at a distance, despite the action being in your face. Each one has subtler, more grounded moments, but there’s a heightened sense to their personas that hints they’re stand-ins for broader ideas. Even as the even-keeled Erika, Boateng has an almost mechanical, doll-like carriage that evokes the concept of what it takes to escape social constraints rather than someone with one foot out the door.As in his previous work “Tambo & Bones,” Harris toys with stereotypes about Blackness in order to turn them inside out, pointing to the history, circumstances and motivations behind ways of thinking and behavior. It’s an exercise performed for the benefit of audiences presumed to be in need of instruction, and for some it will no doubt be an eye-opening lesson.But there’s a restlessness inherent to every schoolroom timeout, and to theatergoers being positioned as pupils. What happens once we can see people for who they are and then dig deeper into their contradictions? Understanding how lives are shaped by their limitations, as Harris details here with an ultimately pat sort of logic, is foundational to social justice. But in order to see that there’s more to people than what keeps them in margins, first we may have to set them free.Exception to the RuleThrough June 26 at the Black Box Theater at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theater, Manhattan; roundabouttheatre.org. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes. More
Performers and stage managers were released from agreements they signed to work on four shows that were produced by Scott Rudin after their union, Actors’ Equity, filed complaints.Performers and stage managers will be released from the nondisclosure agreements they signed to work on four Broadway shows connected to the producer Scott Rudin under a settlement between the Broadway League and Actors’ Equity Association.The union said that the two parties had agreed that, going forward, producers would no longer require actors or stage managers to sign such agreements unless approved by the union, which might sign off on them in limited circumstances to protect things such as intellectual property or financial information. The League declined to comment.The settlement arises from a labor dispute that began last year, when Rudin, long one of the most powerful producers on Broadway, was facing accusations that he had behaved tyrannically toward a variety of people who worked with him, prompting an Equity stage manager to alert the union to the nondisclosure agreements required by some Rudin shows.Last spring, the union asked Rudin to release employees from the nondisclosure agreements, and in January, the union filed a pair of unfair labor practice complaints with the National Labor Relations Board regarding “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “West Side Story,” both of which were at the time produced by Rudin.The union argued that nondisclosure agreements illegally restricted worker rights. Its complaints were initially filed against Rudin and his general manager; in recognition of the fact that Rudin is not currently actively producing on Broadway or in Hollywood, and last year resigned as a member of the Broadway League, the complaints were expanded to include the Broadway League, which is a trade association representing producers.The union said it has since learned that nondisclosure agreements were being used by four recent Broadway productions, including not only “Mockingbird” and “West Side Story,” but also “The Iceman Cometh,” on which Rudin was a lead producer, and “The Lehman Trilogy,” on which Rudin was among the lead producers.The union withdrew the National Labor Relations Board complaints earlier this month, after reaching a settlement agreement with the League. According to a copy of the settlement agreement, the League has agreed to release from confidentiality, nondisclosure and nondisparagement agreements any actor or stage manager who signed such an agreement with the four recent productions. (The agreement does not affect workers in Rudin’s office, many of whom were required to sign detailed nondisclosure agreements as part of their employment contracts.)The settlement comes at a time when nondisclosure agreements in many workplaces have come under increasing scrutiny.“Exploitation feeds off of isolation,” said Andrea Hoeschen, the union’s general counsel. “There is no stronger tool for an abuser or a harasser, no matter the setting, than silence.”It is not clear how frequently nondisclosure agreements are used on Broadway.“We intend to tell our members broadly about this settlement, and if they are asked to sign a nondisclosure agreement, we are going to push back on those as violative of our members’ rights,” Hoeschen said. More
The Adaptation Game with Sam Briggs and Maddie Gray
Those of you keeping up with what we are up to here at ET will have hopefully seen (and listened) to our recent podcast recording with the team at Chewboy Productions, where they told us all about the upcoming ChewFest. And you will have also seen the recent interview with Gutter Street, one of the companies putting on a night at the festival.
But in our continuing attempt to become the unofficial publication of choice for ChewFest, we didn’t want to stop at just those two interviews. Which led us to The Adaptation Game. A joint venture between Visability Film Festival and Yellow Hat Productions, it is described as an evening of transmedia storytelling, an integrayion of film and theatre, breathing new life into some of their favourite films of the past two years by adapting them for the stage!
No, we wasn’t too sure what transmedia storytelling was either, so what better way to find out more than by asking those behind it. It was our pleasure then to catch up with Sam Briggs, writer and co-director for Visability Film Festival, and Maddie Gray, DIrector and co-founder of Yellow Hat Productions.
What exactly can we expect from an evening of “integrated film and theatre”?
SB – The fantastic thing about an evening of integrated film and theatre is that you’ll be getting award winning short films and bold new theatre presented side by side. In the case of The Adaptation Game this means watching the short films Bulldog, Glaucon, and To The Dusty Sea, immediately followed by a new chapter in their stories presented as stage adaptations. A ‘remix’ of the stories, if you like, but told in a new medium, live in front of you.
MG – A night at The Adaptation Game aka an evening of integrated film and theatre will bring you an exciting and eclectic mix of the mediums of film and live performance. Visability Film Festival have chosen three award winning short films and together with multidisciplinary arts company Yellow Hat Theatre have adapted them for the stage.
So we’ll be watching the short film and then a theatre piece will follow on? Will it be taking just the theme or be almost as an extension of the short film?
MG – Each theatre piece will take a different approach to the process of adaptation and the theatre performances will be an expansion and further exploration of the themes and ideas in the films. They exist within the world of the films and as standalone works. We didn’t want to take a literal and formulaic approach to the adaptations but instead found ways to bring out the situations, ideas and characters exploring events post-films.
SB – For example, the play Caved In, will involve a character from the experimental film, Glaucon, watching his own death on screen and coming to terms with it. Buckle up.
Is this something you’ve done before, or something you’ve wanted to try out for a while now?
SB – We were really fortunate to be asked to be a part of Chewfest. Having had great success during the first two years of Visability Film Festival, the question instantly became ‘how can we do something different?’ for what would be our 3rd edition. I’ve been fascinated by Adaptation Theory since studying Adaptation and Transmedia Storytelling as a creative writing module at UEA some years ago. I instantly thought of Yellow Hat Productions and their theatre expertise to help me get this fresh new idea off the ground.
MG – We were very excited when Visability film festival came to us with this idea as it sounded right up our street. We’re buzzing to host a night alongside them as part of Chewfest. This is our first venture as a company, but as freelance creatives, working in the theatre industry adapting and devising work inspired by original material is very much something we’ve done before and something we love doing. Working across medias was an exciting prospect for us as our background lies mostly in theatre and we were intrigued to find out how we could explore the essence of these wonderful short films and transport them into a live theatrical space
And how have you selected the three short films that we’ll be seeing?
SB – Visability Film Festival has been blessed to have some truly outstanding films submitted over the past two years. Between them, the three films we’ve chosen have played at huge BAFTA-qualifying festivals, including Norwich Film Festival and Manchester International Film Festival, as well as winning several awards at our own festival. At Visability, we like to focus on films that have the potential to bring about meaningful social change. Through its re-evaluation of the stereotypes surrounding UK rough sleepers, the short film Bulldog was instantly high on our list of films to adapt.
MG – We’ve been fans of Visability Film Festival since its inception and when Sam brought us a selection of the award winning shorts it was a difficult choice.
We also share a passion for creating work for social change so choosing our first short Bulldog, an exploration around the stereotypes of rough sleepers seemed a no brainer. The style and the rhythm of the piece plays such an instrumental role in the overall effect and really makes an audience question their held beliefs and prejudices. We were excited to see where that would take us as we moulded these ideas for the stage.
To The Dusty Sea, an animated short exploring the relationships of a family in turmoil was also a very easy choice as it is both incredibly beautiful and moving and offers such rich material to work from.
Finally Glaucon, an experimental mask work piece inspired by Plato’s Republic and allegory of the cave was a clear choice as the style was so different to most of what we had seen before. It really creates an otherworldly atmosphere and brings an audience right down into the cave with it.
We wanted all the films to come from different genres and explore varying ideas and themes whilst also complimenting each other as a whole collection.
SB – Really we’re just grateful that each filmmaker agreed to hand over their babies to us so that we could tell the next chapter in the amazing stories they started.
Is the plan to enhance the original short films, or to make us view them in alternative ways?
SB – Both! It’s important for us as creatives that these new plays hold up on their own. But at the same time, by being performed alongside screenings of their original films, we actively want to encourage audiences to feel as though the pieces are in constant conversation and open for reinterpretation.
MG -Absolutely, both. We’ve taken the short films as starting blocks for our theatrical work so as to keep the essence of the short but freedom for us to play and explore with character, situation and idea. We hope that seeing these works side by side adds a whole extra dimension to each.
What made you want to take part in ChewFest? Is this type of event good for experimenting and putting your work in front of new audiences?
SB – Exactly that. We’ve been massively grateful for the success of Visability in its first two years but are constantly on the lookout for something new that we can do with it. Chewfest has given us that opportunity.
MG – This kind of platform is perfect for emerging creatives to test out new work and new ways of collaborating and experimenting. We are very grateful to Chewboy Productions and Visability Film Festival for providing the opportunity to do that. We’ve been fans of Chewboy for a while and having the opportunity to be a part of their next project is super exciting. We can’t wait to see what the other companies taking part bring to the table!
And do you see the short plays themselves ever taking on their own life away from the film, or do you imagine they would always need to play together?
SB – The hope is that by playing them together with the films we’re offering audiences something new and original. Each play definitely has the potential to stand alone and be developed further, but for me, the uniqueness of our interdisciplinary approach is what makes them so exciting.
MG – Each theatre piece, despite being able to stand alone is intrinsically tied to the short films they were inspired by. I think there is certainly potential for these pieces to develop further independently but I think watching them alongside the films will be so much more impactful and interesting.
What else do you have planned after your participation in ChewFest?
SB – This year it seems like Visability have been moving into unchartered waters at every turn. Recently we’ve been accepting applications for the VFF Short Film Fund. This is our way of giving back to filmmakers and supporting the emergence of new and exciting work that seeks to utilise film as a tool for positive societal change, by offering funding to filmmakers whose work we love. MG – Here at Yellow Hat Productions we are getting into the swing of things as we navigate the waters of company life. Our debut play Still Alive Mate by Theo Toksvig Stewart was due to premier at the Vault festival in January 2022, which was sadly postponed due to Covid 19. So we are busy working behind the scenes to bring back this much anticipated show. In the summer we are filming our first short film and are currently developing a podcast.
Our thanks to Sam and Maddie for the time to chat to us.
The Adaptation Game plays as part of ChewFest on Tuesday 24 May. The festival runs from 23 – 29 May at Lion and Unicorn Theatre.
Tickets and details of all the evenings can be found here. More
Sam Wilde on the I Want My Hat Back Trilogy
Think back to the dark depths of Covid lockdown: thousands of parents all over the UK were stuck at home with young children. They had to educate and entertain them, read to them, create – without access to shops or theatre. How on Earth to do that?? Then suddenly one day a bear arrived on our screens and everything changed. The fabulous picture book I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen was adapted as an online puppet show by Designer Sam Wilde and Director Ian Nicholson. Suddenly, everyone was enjoying watching it, and many of the families made their own theatres out of cardboard and scraps from around the house, filming their own stories. Two more fabulous shows followed, as creativity and fun became possible again!
Fast forward to this summer, and Little Angel Theatre will now be presenting the Hat Back books not on the small screen but on a full-sized stage. We were delighted to be able to ask Sam Wilde about what we might expect when the bear re-emerges from his hibernation.
Sam, the reaction to the Hat Back shows in lockdown was simply phenomenal, wasn’t it? Just how widespread was the response?
It certainly was, I mean, it changed everything! Not only was it seen 400,000 plus times in over 50 countries, but we were best shows of lockdown in The Stage, The Guardian, The Metro, and featured in the BBC and The New York Times. Ian got recognised in the street!
It reminded me of how important stories and art can be. I’d been working in theatre for ten years at that point and I have to admit had become quite… complacent isn’t the right word, but I’d certainly lost a little faith. When this came along, we were all stuck inside and suddenly there was something NEW, not something big and flashy, not something that took hundreds of people and required motion capture technology, but something new that was made by three guys chatting over Zoom and with whatever materials I found lying around; something you could do too. That felt important. It felt like a declaration of the importance and power of art and the artist at a time when we could all do with a little… new. Then when we announced the next shows suddenly there was something to look forward to as well. Saying that now feels like it’s such a little thing, but at the time, for me at least, it was massive. It helped.
It looks like you made the original set and all the characters on a shoestring, from cardboard, glue and sticks; was it all really created from such basic items? And is that how people were able to get so involved in the sensation at home?
Absolutely! I mean, I do tend to have a lot of cardboard knocking around the house. I’ve been making things out of cardboard for years and years. I’ve got two kids and have taken the idea that “they’d rather play with the box than the toy” to the extreme, constantly making them cardboard castles, cars… I made a rabbit during lockdown so they could have a cardboard pet! But I think the first three shows cost £30 in total, and that was mainly postage (I made them in Bristol and posted them to Ian to film in his living room).
When people started making their own shows, the joy and privilege I felt – it still makes me giddy that I was a small part of that! That was more important to me than the shows were I think.
Cardboard is such a joy to work with, and it’s become such a big part of my life. I find such freedom in it because you don’t need special tools to work with it; you don’t need to worry about spoiling it as people literally give it away! If you’d have told me back when we did Hat Back that a year later I’d use some old cardboard boxes to do a window display at Fortnum & Masons, and then the year after that I’d take some moving boxes and make puppets for The Globe’s Christmas show… well I don’t know if I’d have believed you. I love me some cardboard. Just like me it’s all about play and questions!
So not only do you use recyclable materials to create, but now Bear himself is being recycled, and moving up to the big stage! Is the design of the production rather more complicated now? And larger??
Larger is without question, more complicated, and I don’t think as… simple maybe. So much of the joy of the original shows was that people found it accessible. I’m not about to take that away from the process. It’s not really a show, it’s more an offering. It’s like ‘I’ve done this, now it’s your turn, what can you do?’ We’re not hiding any tricks, everything’s on show: it’s an open book that I hope people read and borrow some of how we did it!
That being said, we worked out there’s a new puppet about every 30 seconds of the show… so it’s by no means simple!
And what about the cast? Have you recycled that as well?
Ha, we do have a wonderful wonderful cast on board. Ian’s going to be doing some of the shows again of course, but he’s going to be sharing the role with the incredible Simon Lyshon, who is a joy to work with! He’s a really brave creative, always there with an offer and an idea. We’ve also got Imogen Khan, who is far from recycled, she’s brand spanking new! She is a recent graduate from Rose Bruford and is just perfect! Easily one of the top ten actors I’ve ever worked with. Everyone should hire her for everything, only don’t, because we need her!
As wonderful as Imogen and Simon are (and they are!) I don’t think any of us would have felt right without Ian doing at least some of the shows. He’s an inspiring, driven, conscientious creative and a very dear friend. None of this could have happened without him! He’s like the Christopher Nolan of wonderfulness!
I also just want to add a shout out to Sherry Coenen, our fantastic lighting designer, Tish Mantripp, who worked with me as a puppet maker and Alana Ashley, who assisted me on the project and is a paragon of everything I want to be as a creative: she is moral, thorough, informed, talented and above all joyful – the perfect mix of craftsperson and artist! So often, backstage roles are overlooked in the press and excitement approaching a show and they (we) are such an important part of it all, so I wanted to make sure they were all mentioned!
Will there be musical accompaniment to the adventures in the wood?
In the woods, the desert and under the sea! We’ve got the AMAZING Jim Whitcher back, who did the incredible music in the original production. There were times where he’d get the recording the night before it went live and he’d just make magic happen overnight!
It’s also worth mentioning that when we made the original shows Jim and I had actually never met. We made those shows as a team of three and two of us had never even had a conversation! We have met since, and I’m pleased to say the man’s character and rhythm are just as beautiful as his tunes. I find it impossible to say enough kind things about Jim; he’s just an inspiration and a gentleman!
This is a trilogy of the books, so are they going to be staged consecutively, one after another, or will you merge the stories into one ongoing tale?
Ahhhh!! Now that would be telling! You’ll just have to come to see the show and find out!
One thing that I will say is that Jon Klassen, the author and illustrator, has created three perfect, perfect books, so we’ve tried our best to add only what was necessary to put them on stage. If it’s not, broke don’t fix it!
You published lots of online activities for the original streamed versions; will they be available for this run as well?
Not only available but essential! There’ll be activities that are freely available for sure, but what was so beautiful about the originals is that people made puppets and did their own shows. The show lived beyond the four walls of the screen and it felt like we all – Ian, Jim, myself, the audience at home as well as everyone at Little Angel (who are without a doubt the best, most exciting, kindest and most wonderful theatre in the UK! The impact and help they offered us all, not only through Hat Back, but all of the shows and activities they provided during the pandemic should have got them all knighted!) – we all made this vast web of a show together. It felt like a collaboration with the whole planet. This time we’d love to try and get a flavour of that as well. You can make the puppets, bring them along and be part of the show with us!
I’ve even had a haircut. The amount of people who messaged me after seeing those making videos telling me I needed a haircut was unreal!
We’d like to thank Sam for taking the time to chat with us about this exciting new production at the Little Angel Theatre, which runs from 21 May – 31 July. The I Want My Hat Back Trilogy is aimed at ages 3 – 6 and runs for approximately 45 minutes. You can find out more about it and how to buy tickets here. More
Ponder Productions’ Can I Call You Back at Peckham Fringe
We have to apologise to Emily Rennie and Phoebe White, who make up Ponder Productions. We asked them if they would like to do an interview back in April, then someone in our team misplaced the email. We won’t mention names, but they have been severely reprimanded and forced to watch a West Musical as punishment. Ironically, the show in question is called Can I Call You Back?, something we failed to do originally!
But having finally got back in touch, we were delighted to sit down with them and find out more about their show that is playing at Peckham Fringe 18 & 19 May.
Can I Call You Back?
It’s August 2016, one of the hottest summers on record, and Steph hasn’t left her room in two weeks. For the seventh time in eight years, her medication has stopped working. With University looming and big plans to become THE It Girl, Steph has limited time for contemplation. How did she get back to this place? Who CARES about psoriasis, anyway? And will that constant Skype call ever stop ringing? This coming-of-age comedy explores visible auto-immune disorders, female body image, and overcoming all kinds of grief.
The show focuses on a woman with psoriasis, an auto-immune disorder. What made you decide to follow that route?
Emily: I’ve had severe psoriasis for over a decade – it genuinely seemed to happen to me overnight. To suddenly have a demanding auto-immune disorder that affects so many aspects of your life at age ten was tough, and at times extremely isolating. I’ve been a theatre-lover for as long as I can remember, and have always been writing things down. The idea of making a show where an awkward teenager was coping with her illness – amongst other things – was something I’d wanted to do for years but never really had the courage. Then one day I just thought: who else is going to do it but me? So I bit the bullet, and here we are!
On top of auto-immune disorder, there are themes of female body image. How important is it to tackle this subject and hopefully show an audience that there isn’t one size fits all?
Phoebe: The debate on how the female body should or shouldn’t look feels like an ever-changing argument I’ve heard throughout my life. I think especially for young people, the pressure to fit in, and be liked, can feel all-encompassing and when you add on the pressure to look a certain way in order to achieve that it can become a dangerous road to go down. I think a show like this one allows the audience to empathise with the character Steph as we see her buy into the beauty standards, however as she begins to deconstruct them it creates the space for audience members to allow that same empathy for themselves.
Emily: When I first got diagnosed, I was aware I looked and felt very different to all my friends. I’d rake through all these beauty magazines desperately looking for somebody like me. It can really have such a massive impact on you, this idea of ‘perfect’ skin. There’s no such thing! Even now that I’m on medication and look relatively clear-skinned, those things can stick with you. Embracing imperfection is tough in today’s society, but it’s so important, which is something that Steph unpacks during her journey.
Is the play aimed at a younger audience due to those central themes or do you feel it will resonate with any audience?
Phoebe: I believe that the play is able to resonate with most audiences. We tackle grief and body issues throughout the show as well as issues around self esteem. I believe it’s one of those shows that you will be able to relate to on some foundation either having experienced some of these themes yourself or knowing someone that has. To me the show feels very bitter-sweet and nostalgic as it reminds me of all those awkward phases I went through in school trying to figure out who I really was. We wanted to hone in on that tone and include humour and nostalgia to offset the more serious moments.
Is Peckham Fringe the show’s debut?
Phoebe: So we were lucky enough to show it in the Golden Goose Theatre for a two day run back in February, which was very nerve-wracking as it was not only the first time an audience saw it, but the first time we ourselves were able to view it on a stage rather than a living room which had been our working rehearsal space. It was great to see such a warm and positive reaction from the audience and then be given this second opportunity.
And this festival is rather new, how important are the opportunities they provide to new theatre companies such as Ponder Productions?
Phoebe: I believe that opportunities like this are the foundations of the theatre world. When you take a chance on a smaller show with a lesser known company I believe it always feels like a slightly more intimate experience. I myself have loved going to see work of new companies, writers, or actors and watched their show grow and blossom. It provides opportunities to get your work out there and a platform to network and to do what it is all us creatives love to do: create.
Emily, you write and perform the piece, but hand the directing duties over to Phoebe White – is it important to have someone else add a creative eye that way?
Emily: It’s absolutely so important! This play wouldn’t be what it is without Phoebe’s incredible insight and input – I couldn’t do this without her! Of course it helps that we’re such close friends already, so Phoebe knows all about the challenges that come with this auto-immune condition, and how important it felt to showcase on the stage. On a practical side I think it’s also so important to have another creative eye on the project, especially if it’s a piece you’ve written. It’s easy to become blase – or even bored – with your own work. Just because we’re so used to it ourselves doesn’t mean it’ll make sense to everyone!
You are doing two nights, does that allow you the chance to put on a new show and test it out first before you decide where to take it next?
Phoebe: The wonderful thing with theatre is no show will be exactly the same. As soon as the audience sits down they become as much a part of the show as the acting and directing. So much of this show is a conversation with the audience so it is imperative to find that rapport with each audience and let them into the world much like you would find the same relationship in a stand up performance. Having done this show before we were able to see any scenes that needed tweaking and it’s been a pleasure to watch Emily feed off audience reactions and try new things on the night that suit that audience.
Emily: Audience interaction is so fun, especially in the more surreal scenes. On our last performance I ad-libbed…a lot. I’m going to have to actually stick to the script this time around.
Thanks again to Emily and Phoebe for both their patience in waiting for us to get back to them and for the time to chat to us finally.
Can I Call You Back plays at Peckham Fringe 18 and 19 May. Further information and bookings can be found here. More
In a wheelchair after being hit by a car in her 20s, she became an advocate for people with disabilities in her writing for the stage and as a novelist.Susan Nussbaum, a playwright and novelist whose work reflected her concern for the rights of people with disabilities, died on April 28 at her home in the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago. She was 68.Her sister, Karen Nussbaum, said the cause was complications of pneumonia.Ms. Nussbaum began using a wheelchair after being hit by a car at age 24 and soon became an integral part of Chicago’s burgeoning disability-rights scene.Incensed by a lack of accessibility in the city for theater people with disabilities, she wrote her own plays, starring herself and other disabled actors.“If the dominant culture was saturated with backward concepts of who we were, I would answer back with my own collection of disabled characters,” she wrote in a 2012 essay published in The Huffington Post.Ms. Nussbaum began her playwriting career with “Staring Back,” which was performed on the Second City’s E.T.C. stage in 1983. She then collaborated with Mike Ervin, a disability activist who writes a column for Progressive.org, on a series of satirical sketches about disability. Titled “The Plucky and Spunky Show,” it was presented at the Remains Theater.The first reading of her acerbic comic play “Mishuganismo” was in 1992 in Chicago. The Chicago Tribune, in an article about that reading, called it “a mad-sad-glad whirl of politics, activism, love, need, sex and other items.”Directed by her father, Mike Nussbaum, an actor, and based on her own letters, the play took its title from a term that one of Ms. Nussbaum’s friends coined, meaning “a syndrome when a Jewish woman goes crazy for a Latin guy.” The play was later published in the 1997 anthology “Staring Back: The Disability Experience From the Inside Out.”Her last major play, “No One as Nasty,” which documented the relationship between a disabled woman and her paid caretaker, was performed in 2000 at the Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago.As a member of the Chicago-based disability rights organization Access Living, Ms. Nussbaum campaigned to make theaters more accessible to wheelchair users and participated in other protests, including efforts to make public transit in the city accessible.After decades of work in theater, she turned to fiction. Her novel “Good Kings Bad Kings,” which follows workers and residents in a Chicago care institution for people with disabilities, earned acclaim for its candor and sensitivity and won the 2012 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.The book’s title came from reporting in The New York Times about Jonathan Carey, an autistic boy who was killed by an employee of the Oswald D. Heck Developmental Center, near Albany, where Jonathan was living. “I could be a good king or a bad king,” the man told the boy as he asphyxiated him, according to court documents.That line stuck with Ms. Nussbaum, she said in a 2013 interview with the website Bitch Media. “It became the title because it reminded me how, when it comes to kids, the adults have all the power. And when the adult in question has no emotional connection to the child, and the child’s welfare is turned over to that adult — as is the case in institutions — terrible things can happen.”She continued: “The disabled characters we’re presented with usually fit one or more of the following stereotypes: victim, villain, saint, monster. The fate of the disabled character is usually miraculous cure, death or institutionalization.”In writing the novel, as in her other work, Ms. Nussbaum said, “It was really important to me to give disabled characters — more than one — their own voices, and the agency to represent themselves and their own perspective on what happens.”Susan Ruth Nussbaum was born on Dec. 2, 1953, in Chicago to Mike and Annette (Brenner) Nussbaum. Her mother worked in public relations. She grew up in Highland Park, a suburb of Chicago, and attended Highland Park High School, graduating in 1972.Interested in theater from a young age after running lines with her father, she began writing plays in high school. After graduating, she took drama classes at the Goodman School of Drama (now The Theatre School at DePaul University) in Chicago.She was on her way to an acting class when she was struck by a car. She spent seven months in the hospital.She then navigated through life as a wheelchair user, becoming angry at the lack of accessibility. At one job, as she recounted in a 2013 Psychology Today article, the workplace did not have accessible bathrooms. Finding no ramps on public transportation, she and other wheelchair users began taking an ambulance to and from work. These experiences galvanized her to join Access Living and begin writing plays.Her activism extended outside Chicago as well. A longtime leftist, Ms. Nussbaum visited Nicaragua and Cuba as a member of coalitions on disability rights. Later in life she founded Empowered Fe Fes, a Chicago organization for disabled young women seeking to explore their sexuality.In addition to her sister, she is survived by her father; a brother, Jacob Nussbaum; and a daughter, Taina Rodriguez. More
Target Margin Theater stages an enchanting riff on “One Thousand and One Nights” inside an old Brooklyn garage. Tea and pastries included, blankets welcome.The inspiration for “One Night,” the nine-hour theatrical event at Target Margin Theater in Brooklyn, began about 3,000 nights ago. Or, to tell the story another way, it began more than 1,000 years ago when certain Middle Eastern and Indian folk tales first appeared in Arabic collections. “One Night” distills these nested tales, known as “One Thousand and One Nights” or the “Arabian Nights.” Some editions include dozens of tales; some hundreds. So when you think about it, nine hours isn’t very long at all.“What it really is, for me, is an extended adventure in storytelling,” said David Herskovits, the artistic director of Target Margin, during a recent video call.The actor Anthony Vaughn Merchant telling a story to audience members who are drinking tea. Justin J Wee for The New York TimesTarget Margin, an Off Broadway stalwart, has told stories for more than 30 years, gaining a reputation for deconstructing complicated texts — Plato’s “Symposium”; Gertrude Stein’s plays; both parts of Goethe’s “Faust”— and offering them up again with colorful costumes, playful lights and stages bedecked in 99-cent store pizazz. For a company that bops cheerfully from German opera to Greek tragedy to Yiddish folklore, a lingering sojourn in the Middle East shouldn’t come as a particular surprise. But the company has never worked on a show over quite so many years or served quite so much food to audiences — fruit, pastries, popcorn, chocolate, tofu bowls, grape ceviche.That work began about eight years ago with Moe Yousuf, then an associate artistic director, now an M.B.A. student (“He’s no fool,” Herskovits said). Even though the company was then enmeshed in a yearslong exploration of Eugene O’Neill, Yousuf took turns reading aloud “One Thousand and One Nights” with other members in the company’s office in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.Herskovits didn’t think that anything would necessarily come of it. But he became fascinated by the stories and their complicated textual history.Copious servings of tea.Justin J Wee for The New York TimesPastries as well.Justin J Wee for The New York Times“There is no text,” he said, excitedly. “What you have is a tradition of stories, layered over so many different languages, cultures, religions, geographical locations.”As a longtime storyteller, he also savored the primacy of narrative within the stories — particularly the frame story. In this story, King Shahryar, outraged by the unfaithfulness of his wife, resolves to marry a virgin each night, bed her, then kill her before she has the chance to dishonor him. He kills some number of women until his vizier presents his own daughter, Scheherazade. On that first night — and for a thousand nights after — she tells a tale so enthralling that the king stays her execution so that she can continue.In 2017, with the O’Neill project concluded and the company newly relocated to a converted garage in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, workshops began. These workshops, many of them led by longtime company members, evolved into public presentations: “Pay No Attention to the Girl,” “The Sindbad Lab,” “Marjana and the Forty Thieves” and one more with an unprintable title.To devise the scripts for these presentations, the company told — and retold and retold — the tales to one another.Small stage, big tale: The actor Leonie Bell, standing center on the yellow box, recounts a story to audience members.Justin J Wee for The New York Times“I always describe this process as: How many different ways can you play telephone?” the performer Anthony Vaughn Merchant, who joined in 2017, told me, referring to the children’s game in which players whisper a message to one another, transmuting the message as the game goes on.None of these stories are played straight, not only because Target Margin has rarely confronted a text head on (please, it’s right there in the company’s name) but also because the stories themselves — with their sex and violence and exotic locales — invite Orientalist perspectives. And many of the stories, including the frame story, promote a misogynistic worldview.Audience members are encouraged to get cozy.Justin J Wee for The New York TimesSleeping is optional.Justin J Wee for The New York TimesRawya El Chab, an actress of Lebanese descent, grew up with these stories. When she began working with Target Margin in 2019, she worried how they would be told. “Are we going to say that all these Arab women need saving, which is mostly the narrative that I am afraid of, that Arab men are brutes and Arab women need saving?” she said during a recent video call.But she soon learned that Target Margin emphasizes collaborative creation, which encourages conversation among the company members. “Something amazing about working with David is the possibility for dialogue constantly,” she said.Elsouki, left, with Kate Budney. The company divides the material over two nights; other times they perform from afternoon toward midnight. A few performances run from dusk till dawn.Justin J Wee for The New York TimesDina El-Aziz, a costume designer of Egyptian descent who first worked with Target Margin in “Pay No Attention to the Girl,” also knew these stories from childhood. And she appreciated the liberties that the company took with them, as they told them anew.“We’re not doing an accurate retelling of ‘One Thousand and One Nights,’” she said. “It’s a bunch of people in a garage in Brooklyn.” She let this approach inform the costumes. “I did purposely steer away from harem pants,” she said.Pandemic closures paused these explorations. But during the pandemic’s second year, Herskovits felt the pull to return to these tales, with a totalizing show that would combine what the company had already created with new material, interpolating stories from other traditions and personal stories, too. That became the nine-hour “One Night.” For some performances, the company divides the material over two nights; other times they perform from afternoon toward midnight. A few performances run from dusk till dawn.Budney, left, performing with James Ferguson. Justin J Wee for The New York Times“That’s the dream,” Herskovits said of these overnight performances. “That’s what Scheherazade does.”This is a challenge, of course, for the actors. When he first experienced the overnight performance, during a dress rehearsal, Vaughn Merchant found it exhausting. “It was like, Oh, this is rough,” he said. But it has since become easier. Now, he said, the hours fly by.El Chab agreed. “You feel tired at the end,” she said, “but you feel a sense of liberation, you feel a sense of joy at having accomplished this.”Herskovits wants liberation and joy for the audience, too. Which explains the food, as well as Carolyn Mraz’s cozy set, scattered with comfy sofas, beanbags and poufs. Breaks are encouraged. If someone were to fall asleep, that would be OK, too.“That might even be great,” Herskovits said. “It’s like you’re a little kid, somebody’s telling you a story. That would be beautiful.”“You feel tired at the end,” an actor said, “but you feel a sense of liberation, you feel a sense of joy at having accomplished this.”Justin J Wee for The New York TimesOn a rainy Saturday, I stopped into an afternoon-to-evening performance, settling into a buttercup sofa with a mug of herbal tea. An actress (actually a stagehand, Kate Budney, gamely standing in for an absent performer) stopped by and told a small group of us the biblical story of Esther. Then the room reset for the tale of the porter and the three ladies of Baghdad, derived from the “Thousand and One Nights,” which had several other stories — dogs, a dervish, the wife-beating son of a caliph — smuggled inside.The room reset again for the story of the seven voyages of Sindbad, during which tofu bowls (delicious!) were served. Then the cast took the stage at the far end of the room to discuss how Scheherazade, having borne King Shahryar three children and entertaining him for 1,001 nights, finally earned his pardon. (Which means she gets to stay married to a rapist and a serial killer. Happy endings are weird.)“And this is the completion and the end of their story,” a performer said with brisk finality.But, of course, it wasn’t. It was just after 7 p.m. The show had four more hours to go. More