Friday, September 28, 2012

2012 IT Awards Ceremony Celebrates Outstanding Off-Off Broadway Achievement

By Byrne Harrison

On Monday, September 24th, the New York Innovative Theatre Awards celebrated the best of Off-Off Broadway at their annual award ceremony.  The ceremony featured comedian Harrison Greenbaum as host, was directed by Tim Butterfield, Artistic Director of the Straphanger Collective, and was written by playwright Christopher Weikle.

Presenters for the evening included: Arthur Aviles (dancer/choreographer, BAAD!-The Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance), Boom Boom and Ceil (characters from Doric Wilson's Street Theatre), Jen Cody (CatsGrease), Jill BC Du Boff (sound designer for theatre, radio, television, film and special events), Laura Braza (director, artistic director of The Attic Theater Company), Joe Calarco (Shakespeare's R&J), Tovah Feldshuh (Irena's Vow, Yentl, Lend Me A Tenor, Golda's Balcony), Elena Holy (FringeNYC), Rick Lyon (puppeteer "Sesame Street", "Big Blue House", Men in Black), Peter Michael Marino (cabaret-spoof hit Lance Jonathan: All About Me!), Timothy Mason (Dr. Seuss' How The Grinch Stole Christmas!), Julie Menin (Chairperson of Community Board 1 in Lower Manhattan), Chris Muller (set designer, clients include Alvin Ailey, Juilliard Opera, Atlantic Stage), Diane Paulus (director, Artistic Director at the A.R.T.), Dick Scanlan (librettist, writer and actor Pageant, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Everyday Rapture), Jessica Shay, Roma Torre (NY1 "On-Stage"), Camelita Tropicana (a.k.a. Alina Troyano), and Jean-Claude van Itallie (playwright The Serpent, America Hurrah).

2012 Recipients:

5 Lesbian Brothers - Artistic Achievement Award

The Theatre Development Fund (TDF) - Ellen Stewart Award

Astoria Performing Arts Center  - Caffé Cino Fellowship Award
Katie Kavett - Outstanding Stage Manager Award
Donnetta Lavinia Grays - 2012 Doric Wilson Independent Playwright Award 

Outstanding Ensemble

Conni's Avant Garde Restaurant Returns in: The Mothership Landing 
Justin Badger, David M. Barber, Melody Bates, Stephanie Dodd, Jeffrey Fracé, Connie Hall, Kelly Hayes, Jerusha Klemperer, Peter Lettre, Rachel Murdy, Melody Bates, Peter RichardsConni's Avant Garde Restaurant in association with the Irondale Center

Outstanding Solo Performance
Melanie Jones
Endure: A Run Woman Show
Collision Productions

Outstanding Actor in a Featured Role
Stephen Alan Wilson
The Last Days of Judas Iscariot
T. Schreiber Studio 

Outstanding Actress in a Featured Role
Celeste Arias
Demon Dreams (Oni No Yume)
Magic Futurebox

Outstanding Actor in a Lead Role
Greg Horton
A Man of No Importance
The Gallery Players 

Outstanding Actress in a Lead Role
Renee Claire Bergeron
A Man of No Importance
The Gallery Players

Outstanding Choreography/Movement
Joe Osheroff & Evan Zes
Homunculus: Reloaded
Homunculus Mask Theater

Outstanding Director
Joe Osheroff
Homunculus: Reloaded
Homunculus Mask Theater 

Outstanding Lighting Design
David A. Sexton
The Spring Fling: My Best/Worst Date Ever
F*It Club

Outstanding Costume Design
Sidney Fortner
The House of Mirth
Metropolitan Playhouse 

Outstanding Set Design
Kevin Judge
LoveSick (or Things That Don't Happen)
Project Y Theatre Company

Outstanding Sound Design
Matt Schloss

Outstanding Innovative Design
Joe Osheroff
Mask Design
Homunculus: Reloaded
Homunculus Mask Theater

Outstanding Original Music
Jeff Raab
12th Night
Libra Theater Company

Outstanding Original Short Script
Chisa Hutchinson
This is Not the Play
Mad Dog Theatre Company

Outstanding Original Full-Length Script
Melanie Jones
Endure: A Run Woman Show
Collision Productions

Outstanding Performance Art Piece
Conni's Avant Garde Restaurant Returns in: The Mothership Landing
Conni's Avant Garde Restaurant in association with the Irondale Center

Outstanding Production of a Musical

Outstanding Premiere Production of a Play
Advance Man
Gideon Productions 

Outstanding Production of a Remounted Play
Ajax in Iraq
Flux Theatre Ensemble

Theatre critics Doug Strassler (IT Awards Newsletter, Show Business Weekly, Off Off Online) and Aaron Riccio (That Sounds Cool and New Theater Corps) live-blogged the event at

THE INNOVATIVE THEATRE FOUNDATION is a not-for-profit organization, which recognizes the great work of New York's Off-Off-Broadway—honoring its artistic heritage and providing an alliance for this extensive and richly varied community. As advocates for Off-Off-Broadway, they recognize its unique and essential role contributing to global culture.

Each season, The Innovative Theatre Foundation publicly recognizes excellence in Off-Off-Broadway, with a high-profile awards ceremony. The New York Innovative Theatre Awards celebrate the community and honor some of the previous year’s greatest achievements. The IT Awards heighten audience awareness and foster greater appreciation of the New York theatre experience.

Don’t Mess With Texas: "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" at the Signature Theatre

By Mark A. Newman

Despite a game cast and charming design, the Signature Theatre’s production of late 1970s chestnut, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas makes for a dull night at the theatre. Don’t get me wrong, Signature has put on some amazing productions that should have seen the lights of the Broadway stage — Chess, The Visit, and Les Miserables, to name a few — but the first show of the 2012-2013 season is a relic from another time that has lost its relevance in the intervening decades.

While I can appreciate the thought of trying to breathe new life into something so old and creaky, this is a patient that died back when Reagan was still in office and does not need to be resurrected. Signature stalwart Sherri L. Edelen takes on the role of Miss Mona the madam with a heart of gold. As genius as Edelen’s comic timing has been in other shows, Miss Mona simply doesn’t allow her to shine. Musically she was spot on but Edelen needs a more multi-faceted and fun character to work with.

That was probably my biggest issue with Whorehouse: the characters were barely developed and those that were, well, stopped being developed. For example, the show starts with two new aspiring girls showing up at the house wanting jobs. One is an innocent farm girl whose daddy took a shine to her (ewww) and the other was an experienced call girl from, ahem, Galveston. Promising start, no? Promising finish? No. These two characters were pretty much abandoned by the middle of the first act.

Admittedly my only familiarity with this property prior to seeing it on the Signature stage is the campy movie starring Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton from 1982, and I was none too fond of that either. But at least the characters were better defined in the film. Plus you had Dom DeLuise who never disappoints. Wish I could say the same for this lackluster show.

I can’t really lay all the blame on the show’s creators; at times the cast seemed to be “going through the motions” somewhat. During the one big dance number toward the end of the first act there were more than a few missed steps and the timing was way off. Also, the characters didn’t seem to connect to one another which is odd considering they were all from this tiny Texas town.

Despite my mostly adverse reaction to the show, the scenic design by Collin Ranney was nicely done with lots and lots and LOTS of red throughout the able-bodied set that served the action well. Colin K. Bill’s lighting and the costumes by Kathleen Geldard also contributed to the show’s antiquated look and feel but in a good way. Speaking of antiquated, it was difficult to tell exactly when Whorehouse was taking place; I thought I heard the year as 1972, and the costumes would indicate as much. But there was a reference to “The Gong Show” which didn’t premiere until 1976. 

However, regardless of the “when,” the bigger question is “why” as in why would such a reputable company pick such a lackluster show to start off its season? With such a simplistic, mediocre score and poorly developed characters, maybe Signature was bound to have a misstep…and I’m not just talking about the dancers clattering on the boards in cowboy boots.

The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas

Featuring: Sherri L. Edelen (Miss Mona), Christopher Bloch (Melvin P. Thorpe), Thomas Adrian Simpson (Ed Earl), Nova Y. Payton (Jewel), with Jay Adriel, Madeline Botteri, Brianne Camp, Matt Conner, Erin Driscoll, Jamie Eacker, Nadia Harika, Davis Hasty, Benjamin Horen, David Christopher Jennings, Vincent Kempski, Dan Manning, Amy McWilliams, Gannon O’Brien, Tracy Lynn Olivera, Nora Palka, Maria Rizzo, Stephen F. Schmidt, Stephen Gregory Smith, and Tamara Young.

Book by Larry L. King & Peter Masterson
Music & Lyrics by Carol Hall
Scenic Design: Collin Ranney
Costume Design: Kathleen Geldard
Lighting Design: Colin K. Bills
Sound Design: Matt Rowe
Music Direction: Gabriel Mangiante
Choreography: Karma Camp
Directed by Eric Schaeffer

Signature Theatre
4200 Campbell Avenue
Arlington, VA 22206

Tickets: 703 820 9771; Ticketmaster: 703 573 SEAT

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Review - "Gift of an Orange"

By Byrne Harrison

It's amusing to me that my favorite play in the Tennessee Williams Festival wasn't written by Tennessee Williams.  "Gift of an Orange," Charlene A. Donaghy's play inspired by Williams' short story, "Gift of an Apple," both captures the spirit of Williams' work and brings something new and wonderful to life.

Set in backwoods Louisiana, the play opens with Oshun (Dayenne C. Bryan Walters), a voodoo woman casting a spell.  Powerful, but bearing both physical and spiritual scars, she uses her magic to bind men to her - men who would otherwise never pay her any mind.  When the handsome Taurean (Richard Caines) comes by looking for work or food, he falls under her spell (like Persephone, his undoing is a piece of fruit).  But as Oshun finds out more about the handsome stranger, now fully ensnared by her, she realizes, perhaps for the first time, that her magic can have terrible and unforeseen consequences, ones she never experienced with her former lovers, including Jake (James Babcock) who shows up to claim his woman.

The ensemble is terrific, though Walters is truly a force of nature.  Her Oshun is strong, hard, and broken, and watching her confront what she has done to Taurean is deeply moving.  Babcock and Caines are very strong in their roles, and people who enjoy well performed fight choreography will admire the rollicking fight scene between the two of them.

Live music provided by Liz Raposa, Joshua Ziemann, Ukumbwa Sauti, and Pete Hennig provides depth to the production, bringing raucous energy to the fight and dance sequences, and quiet power to the subtle moments.

The thing that sets this production apart for me is the decision to perform the play in the zen garden at Wa, a furniture and design store.  The intimate space limits the number of people who can attend the performances, but it provides such intimacy and immediacy to the performance.  In addition, the swoosh of the wind through the thick limbs of the maple trees, and the deep resonant notes of the wind chimes that Wa hangs in the garden, added an entire new layer to the production - musical accompaniment by Mother Nature herself.

"Gift of an Orange" is an outstanding production, and an excellent example of the best that this festival has to offer.

"Gift of an Orange"
By Charlene A. Donaghy
Directed by Jackie Davis

Producer: Cliff Odle
Stage Manager: Samantha MacArthur
Set Design and Properties Master: Luke Sutherland
Production Assistant: Tychelle Jackson
Technical Venue Manager: Mark Sternlof

Cast: James Babcock (James), Dayenne C. Bryan Walters (Oshun), Richard Caines (Taurean)
Musicians: Liz Raposa, Joshua Ziemann, Ukumbwa Sauti, Pete Hennig

Original White-Line Woodcut by Bill Evaul

Review - "Ten Blocks on the Camino Real"

By Byrne Harrison

Sometime the thing that makes a production is finding the right company for the play.  In the case of "Ten Blocks on the Camino Real," the right company is Beau Jest Moving Theatre.  Beau Jeste creates theatre pieces with a strong sense of physicality and experimental interpretations of existing plays.

Beau Jest's esthetic works extremely well with this odd, nonrealistic one act.  Made up of ten scenes (or blocks), "Ten Blocks" is a fevered dream of a lost traveler named Kilroy, who has a heart the size of a baby's head; a gypsy girl, Esmerelda, whose virginity is restored every month; and a strange town on the Camino Real.  Other lost souls congregate in the town, including Casanova and Marguerite Gautier... there's even an appearance by Don Quixote.

Beau Jest embraces the strange and wonderful aspects of "Ten Blocks" by using song, dance, masks, puppetry, costumes, and music to highlight the nonrealistic elements of the play.  The result is a warped, trippy, and wonderful confection.

The ensemble is extremely strong, with particular praise going to Nick Ronan (Kilroy), Larry Coen (Gutman), Jordan Harrison (Guitarist, Baron, Quixote), and Lauren Hallal (Gypsy).

The strongest moments of the play are the least realistic - a wonderful, glow-in-the-dark skeleton dance, the otherworldly laughter of the street sweepers (the masked collectors of the dead), the jerky walk of the desiccated puppet.  But what truly makes the production is the wonderful use of music and sound.  Most of composer Don Dinicola's music is played live during the show by Santiago Cardenas, Adam Schutzman and Mark Fredericks.  Using a wide variety of instruments (including tubing and a musical saw), they create a rich and complex atmosphere for the play.

Bringing all the various aspects of the play together is director Davis Robinson, who proves a virtuoso with this style of theatre.

As my first play of the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Festival, "Ten Blocks on the Camino Real" is both the perfect play to whet my appetite and to demonstrate the theme of the festival, Tennessee Williams and Music.

"Ten Blocks on the Camino Real"
By Tennessee Williams
Directed by Davis Robinson

Stage Manager: Colin Dieck
Costume Designer: Fabian Aguiar
Composer: Don Dinicola
Set Designer: Judy Gailen
Mask & Puppet Designer: Libby Marcus
Lighting Designer: Karen Perlow
Musician/Guitar: Santiago Cardenas
Musician/Musical Saw/Foley: Adam Schutzman
Musician/Percussionist: Mark Fredericks
Technical Venue Manager: JD Falotico

Cast: Larry Coen (Gutman), Robert Deveau (Casanova), Lauren Hallal (The Gypsy), Jordan Harrison (The Guitarist/Baron/Quixote), Kathleen Lewis (Esmerelda), Ellen Powers (Street Sweeper/Peasant), Nick Ronan (Kilroy), Robin JaVonne Smith (Officer/Street Sweeper/Singer), Lisa Tucker (Marguerite/Madrecita)

Additional music by Jean Claude Chapuis, Ibrahim Ferrer, "Film Noir" soundtrack, and Mariachi de la Ciudad de Pepe Vilella.

Provincetown Tennessee Williams Festival

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Interview with David Kaplan, Curator of the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Fetstival

By Byrne Harrison

David Kaplan is curator and co-founder of the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival and the author of the book Tennessee Williams in Provincetown. He is the editor of Tenn at One Hundred,  the centennial anthology on the subject of Tennessee Williams' reputation.

In 1993 he directed and designed the Russian premiere of Suddenly, Last Summer in Russian at the Gorky Theater of Samara. In 2003 Mr. Kaplan directed Tennessee Williams’ The Eccentricities of a Nightingale in Cantonese at the Hong Kong Repertory Theater, and in 2008 in Chicago, he staged the critically acclaimed world premiere of Williams' The Day on Which a Man Dies.

Other Williams plays he’s directed include The Dog Enchanted by the Divine View ,Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me ListenFrosted Glass CoffinsA Perfect Analysis Given by a Parrot , The Traveling Companionand The Chalky White Substance.

For decades he has staged cultural collisions of classic Western texts in unexpected languages: a SufiKing Lear in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, performed in the Uzbek language; Genet’s The Maids in Ulaan Baator, Mongolia, performed in Mongolian; A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Buryatia, performed in the Buryat language. In Russia Mr. Kaplan directed the first Russian productions of Auntie Mame and Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness! Also in Russia, Macbeth.

Plays directed by Mr. Kaplan have appeared in over 40 of the 50 United States. 

How did you come up with the idea for the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival?

My partner is hairdresser to the stars in Provincetown; he comes here in the summer.  I came here once after having done some Tennessee Williams research for a production of The Eccentricities of A Nightingale that I was directing in Hong Kong.  

Which sounded fascinating, by the way.

That was a really fun project.  I had done some research for the play in Texas, and because I had been in Provincetown, those things called out to me.  The next time I was in Provincetown, which was right after that job, I wanted to go see this or that that was mentioned in the letters and diary.  So I began to track down the people who were in their 80s who knew him that were still living in town.  Some would talk to me and some would not.  While I was interviewing a woman named Jeanne Bultman who had lent Williams the typewriter he wrote The Glass Menagerie on, I said, “You know, I’m thinking of writing a book.”  I said it very casually, and Jeannie said, “Well, you might as well.”  And so I said, “You know what, I might as well.”

Then I had another job that brought me back to Provincetown, only this time I was seriously researching the book.  There was a new building in town, which was the first building solely dedicated to theatre that the town had had since the last avatar of the Provincetown Playhouse burned down in 1977.  I met with the board of the foundation that ran the theatre and I said you can’t just have a building that’s in use, if this is really to serve the community you have to go out into the community and invite participation.  So the first thing that I suggested was a children’s company, and they were completely uninterested.  And then the second thing I suggested was a dance company, and they were completely uninterested in that.  And the third thing that I suggested was a Portuguese language theatre and I didn’t even get past the second sentence.  And then really, because I was working on the book, I said, well you can always start a Tennessee Williams festival.  Someone said to me, "So you want to do this next year?" And I said, no, I’m not available in a year and the level of talent that I want to ask is not available in a year. You need two years to set this up.

One of the things that I made a point of was that the people who were going to put this together with me go to the festival in New Orleans. And that we would have a contact and learn from the festivals in Clarksdale and Columbus, to learn what they had succeeded at and what they suggested, what they wish they had done less of, what they wish they had done more of, what we were in a position to do that they weren’t, and also I wanted to make it very clear from the beginning that we were not competitive that we were synergistic.

So by the time we opened, we opened with a bang.  Doing the research, I had dug up "The Parade" – a very, very charming young gay romance, no one had any idea that he was writing anything like that - and we had local people to do it.  My team from my Hong Kong production came and played in Cantonese.  I had a student, Lowell Smith, who has since passed on, that was the original Stanley in the Dance Theater of Harlem version of the Streetcar ballet.  He put together a reconstruction of that.  At the last minute we had a cancellation, but I had found a production of Streetcar the opera that had just closed in Atlanta.  I called the director up and said we had a cancellation; you’ll get a lot of publicity if you come and save the day.

So our first year we had something in Chinese, an opera, a new play that no one knew about.  And we had the local high school do a production of The Glass Menagerie.  Which I think was kind of the perfect thing, that what he had written here in a dune shack was such a classic now.

That was the first year and I knew we would have themes every year, and so the first year there was no choice, we had to be about Tennessee Williams and Provincetown.  And then the second year, I knew going into it what the second year would be.  At first we were calling it Camp Williams and then it became a broader theme which was Avant-Garde Williams.  And so every year we’ve had a theme and this year it’s Tennessee Williams and Music.

How did you decide on that as the theme for this year’s festival?

One of the things that interests me about Williams is his ironic use of production elements.  There’s a great Jean Cocteau quote in the introduction to The Eiffel Tower Wedding.  Cocteau says we all know what poetry in the theatre is, but there is another thing – poetry of the theatre, and it’s combining the elements of a theatrical performance in a poetic way.  This interests me very much in Williams in the work I’ve been directing and also in observing other people’s work.  I saw a very special way that the music was used.  It was not used like movie music - it didn’t set the emotional tone.  It set the dynamic tension.  Williams had an idea how music could be used in an ironic way, so very often there’ll be an unhappy scene on stage and the music will be very happy.  And that’s a basic experience of living in the Depression – that there was all this happy music blaring on the radio.  He grew up in that - the irony of being miserable while “We’re in the Money” is blasting away.  We forget how political he was in overt, as well as in coded ways.  He saw the music politically as well.  The music was a social commentary and that it was meant to be used as something that would alter the mood of the public, and not always as intended.

The Tennessee Williams Songbook [with Alison Fraser] had its own trajectory.  I had had this idea for a while – to research what pop songs were in Tennessee Williams plays.  And it’s not an “oh, by the way” thing – trust me, Irene Selznick doesn’t want to pay for the rights to “It’s Only a Paper Moon.”  So for Williams to say "I want this" is a significant thing.

I went into this Songbook Project with all this material, and I had a hunch that it was about something.  But I didn’t want to pin it down until we were in the rehearsal room.  And then when Alison Fraser and I were in the rehearsal room, it just became inescapable that all the lyrics are about a woman waiting for someone who never showed up.  All of them, over and over and over again.  I remembered that Williams began writing A Streetcar Named Desire when he was in Chicago, and his initial image for the show was a woman sitting in the moonlight waiting for someone who never shows up.  That image organized the Songbook's material.  We realized that we were essentially following the trajectory of Blanche in doing this series of songs.  And may I remind you that it’s not a happy ending.

What was it that drew you to Williams?

I think that Williams is like a shaman in that he goes to a place, he sees it and he comes back and reports it.  And in the words that he uses to make the report, he evokes the same vision that he had when he was in the other place.

That’s what I consistently go back to, that the words themselves are incantations.  That they evoke a vision when they are spoken out loud.  Even in the first rehearsal when I am working on a Williams play, when those words are spoken out loud, something happens in the room.  It’s like a recipe for a vision.

How do you capture that when you do these shows in other languages?

It’s because the plays are about something. Suddenly, Last Summer is a perfect example.  At the first rehearsal for the play at a large theatre in Russia, I was interviewed and the first question was how do you think a Russian audience is going to relate to the controversial nature of the play.  I said, I’m assuming by controversial nature of the play you’re talking about homosexuality.  I could see the reporter lean forward like she smelled blood and the beads of sweat were forming on the theatre director’s forehead because I was already getting him in trouble. So I said Ibsen wrote a play about how we’re haunted by our pasts, Ghosts, and he found a really good metaphor for that in syphilis.  At the time they were confused, they thought the play was about syphilis.  But now at a distance of a hundred years we understand that that’s a metaphor, a universal metaphor.  So in Suddenly, Last Summer Williams is using homosexuality as a metaphor for the truth that everyone knows and no one wants to talk about.  I would bet a Soviet audience could relate to that.

So I think that’s why they last, and why they go from culture to culture.  One of the reasons Eccentricities of a Nightingale worked in Hong Kong is that it’s about a condition that the Chinese could relate to – public shame.  And that’s why Suddenly, Last Summer could work because it was about secrets that were uncovered.  What a great playwright does is have a vision of how human beings relate to each other.  Williams' vision was very clearly that love, like many other important things, happened fast and disappeared, and needed to be recalled in words and in memory. The fact that it didn’t last forever made it that much more imperative to talk about it and remember it.  I think that’s a universal.  I really do.

What are the plans for next year?

The theme is Tennessee Williams and Women, through a very particular lens.  It’s a concentration on avant-garde women playwrights through the ‘20s and ‘30s who were creating new ideas about women’s roles onstage and off.  So it’s Gertrude Stein, Maurine Watkins, the woman who wrote the book for Chicago - she was a crime reporter,  and Eulalie Spence who wrote comedies.

And we’re going to do Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, a nutjob play by Williams called The Mutilated, and in the 1930s Williams wrote 5 or 6 plays about chorus girls.  Who knew?  And what the hell does he know about chorus girls?  Nothing except what he got from Joan Blondell in the movies.  So they’re really fantasies which is very interesting, and he hadn’t hit his stride yet creatively.  So were going to do a collection of them.

You mentioned earlier is that there is a lot of community involvement in this festival. One of the things I’ve noticed with a lot of festivals is that it’s almost like the productions are parachuted in, they perform then disappear.

That is something we don’t do.  We don’t like being treated like a hot sheets motel.

The earliest that people can perform is a Thursday or Friday, but we want people here for the whole week.  That’s so they can see each other’s work and hang out together and come up with ideas for further collaborations.  A really good way to piss me off if you come as an artist is not to see other people’s work.

And you’d be missing such a great opportunity

It’s a resource. Olympia Dukakis, who believe me knows a thing or two about craft, went to see other people’s work.  Betty Buckley went to see stuff because she was curious.

What we are about ultimately is to change the way that Williams is spoken about and thought about in the world.  We gather here and we do our thing collectively and hopefully it spills out when people go home or work with each other in other ways. That really has happened, it’s not just a pious wish.  Many of the plays that we have done here first have been published, have entered the repertory, and have been performed in other places.  We have had a number of people who met here and have gone on to collaborate - choreographers, directors, actors, playwrights.  And that makes us very happy.

For more information about the Provincetown Tennessee Williams festival, visit their website.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Alison Fraser on "The Tennessee Williams Songbook"

By Rob Hartmann

Broadway regular (and two-time Tony nominee) Alison Fraser, starring in The Tennessee Williams Songbook at the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Festival, discusses her year of Tennessee Williams, how a ukulele chooses you, going platinum blonde, and singing everything from Bessie Smith blues to Noël Coward.

Rob Hartmann: So you premiered The Tennessee Williams Songbook in Mississippi a few weeks ago.

Alison Fraser: Yes, we premiered down in Columbus, Mississippi, the hometown of Mr. Tennessee Williams, which was really fun. It was incredibly exciting, because we didn’t really know how it was going to go together. It’s a very interesting piece – it’s the music that Tennessee Williams wanted put in his various plays. The music is very eclectic. And then the director David Kaplan, the great Tennessee Williams scholar and the curator of the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Festival – you know he’s a world-class scholar of Tennessee Williams, and a terrific director – David has put various pieces of text in with the songs. So, we didn’t know how this hybrid was going to go over with an audience. And, down in Mississippi we had a very sophisticated audience because it was a Tennessee Williams festival, and there were a lot of scholars there and real aficionados – people who are very, very passionate about Tennessee Williams. And it went over like gangbusters.

Of course, just for heritage’s sake, doing it in his hometown was lovely. But I am really looking forward to doing it in Provincetown. For me, this has been the Year of Tennessee Williams. Last year, I was introduced to the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Festival. David Kaplan had called me because they had lost an actress for the finale of the festival. It was called Dirty Shorts, two wonderful erotically tinged short stories, with Michael Urie.

I thought, I’m a good fit for this because, one, I had just finished Love, Loss, and What I Wore, which is reader’s theater – which is what this was. And two – unbeknownst to David Kaplan – among my many hats, one of them is actually reading erotic literature under the name Alison Valentine. So they got the whole package with me, let me tell ya. (Laughs.)

After that, David called me in November and presented this songbook project. I said it was a spectacular idea – thank you so much, I’m thrilled with this. And we started working on it. And then, oddly enough, in the spring, I got cast opposite Shirley Knight, the great Tennessee Williams actress, in In Masks Outrageous and Austere, Tennessee Williams’ last play, at the Culture Project. She’s a good friend of mine, because I had worked with her before in Come Back, Come Back, Wherever You Are, Arthur Laurents’ last play.

So this has really been the Year of Tennessee Williams for me, and I’m thrilled to go up to Provincetown – it’s really an impressive festival this year. And I have a nine piece band, which is incredible.

RH: And you’re working with Allison Leyton-Brown. (

AF: I knew that she would be a good partner for me on this. I really felt like I needed a female presence on stage with me. And she’s a superb musician – she has a great background in Dixieland and that New Orleans sound that we really need. She’s really a character in the piece as well as the piano player. She’s my familiar, let’s call her. She leads me on my path to musical degradation. (laughs) And redemption!

RH: It sounds like a really interesting collection of songs.

AF: It is, it is. You know, my late husband, Rusty Magee – an astonishing composer –he had this wonderful bit in his live act about “the soundtrack of your life” – the songs that resonate through your entire life, and can evoke certain periods of elation or sadness or romanticism or despondency. That’s what I really think we have here – the soundtrack to Tennessee Williams’ life. As you look at these songs, you can picture him sitting in Columbus, Mississippi with his ear to the tabletop radio and hearing “San Antonio Rose”, or “Sophisticated Lady”, or “St. Louis Blues”, or “Sweet Leilani”. You can really feel his presence in this incredible collection of music. “Bye Bye Blues” is from Vieux Carré; “Come Le Rose” is from The Dog Enchanted by the Divine View. “Estrellita”, which is going to be this magnificent set piece, is from a wonderful short play called Talk To Me Like the Rain … And Let Me Listen. The big monologue I do is from that play. It’s a magnificent monologue which is going to be done opposite a fantastic guitarist playing “Estrellita.”

“It’s Only a Paper Moon” is of course in A Streetcar Named Desire, as is “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles.” If you can’t get the rights to “It’s Only a Paper Moon” when you’re doing Streetcar, you can replace it with “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” – and we do both of them. “The Pirate King” is used in The Glass Menagerie; “The New San Antonio Rose” is from Auto-da-Fé; “St. Louis Blues” is from a little play called Hello From Bertha.

An interesting thing – I’ve sung Noël Coward a lot – but I had never heard this Coward song, “The Party’s Over Now.” That’s my swan song in this piece.

I’m singing some Bessie Smith blues – I’m singing “Yellow Dog Blues” from Summer and Smoke. And then, from This Property Is Condemned, I’m doing an amazing song that has really found my heart. It’s by Gene Autry, a 1930s song, a Depression song, called “You’re the Only Star In My Blue Heaven.” And when David and I were talking back in November, I said, I know I’m going to hate myself for this later – but David, I have to play the ukulele in this song. And of course I’ve never played the ukulele in my life. I’ve sung my whole life, I’ve done vocal arrangements, but I have never played an instrument on stage before.

So, a few months ago, I started ukulele lessons with the guy we’re so lucky to have, J. Walter Hawkes – he’s won three Emmys for writing songs for TV – he’s a fantastic trombonist, and he’s also a seriously great ukulele player.

I actually went to a ukulele festival with Walter to pick out a ukulele for me. He had been loaning me his grandfather’s ukulele – I think it was a Gibson. I said, Walter, I am so terrified every time I even pick this thing up – I need my own ukulele. (laughs.) So together, we went to the New York Uke Fest. And Walter said to me, “You don’t pick the ukulele – the ukulele picks you.” I must have expensive tastes – or the ukulele does – or it knows a sucker when it sees one (laughs) because the most expensive ukulele in that room chose me.

But it sounds very beautiful. And the thing about ukulele is, if it’s not a good sounding ukulele, you don’t take it seriously. Believe me, I take my ukulele very seriously. (Laughs.)

RH: I think people don’t realize, in putting together an evening like this, what an enormous challenge it is to find that emotional arc among all these disparate pieces, especially when you’re incorporating text.

AF: David has thought it through so beautifully. There’s a great emotional arc to it. The subtitle of the show is “Variations on Blanche.” What you’re really seeing is the emotional trajectory of a woman who is waiting for someone who might not come. You see her going through various moods of elation and romance, tentative flirting and devastation and longing, and into real loss – deep, deep sadness, and then ultimate redemption through music.

But what has really tied the music together is these gorgeous, gorgeous pieces of text. It’s the most marvelous seasoning on this bouillabaisse of music. There are a couple of gender-switching things, which is really fun. Down in Mississippi, I was wondering, how am I going to make the audience buy me as Stanley Kowalski? But if you do it through the clouded memory of Blanche DuBois remembering what Stanley said, then you can do it. He’s a bad memory in her head. And it’s devastating.

I have to say, it’s a difficult emotional trajectory. I really haven’t sung like this in years. When you’re singing something like “Yellow Dog Blues”, you gotta go all out. We’re doing “The New San Antonio Rose” and I said to David, I hear something here, and I think it’s yodeling. And again, I think it’s probably something that Tennessee Williams did hear over the radio. You know, those marvelous, marvelous Bill Monroe recordings, you know, the Columbia recordings from the 30s and 40s. You can’t tell me he didn’t hear that stuff. You know, that yodeling, it’s very plaintive and really comes from the solar plexus. I just felt like this needs to be a real palette of the musical influences that I would say colored Tennessee Williams’ writing. Because of course his text is unbelievably musical.

One of the things I learned from Shirley Knight when I worked with her – I already knew you have to trust the music. But Shirley really taught me to trust Tennessee’s words. And as soon as I opened my mouth for the prose, the text, down in Mississippi, I almost felt like I was in his hands. I felt – he has so protected me as an actress, because these people are hanging on my every word. You could hear a pin drop.

You know, my great passion is originating material, and I’m so, so proud to have originated this. It’s a great, great gift to have been handed this opportunity. I’ll forever be grateful to David Kaplan.

Here’s a funny thing. I do this speech about Jean Harlow. David’s lovely longtime partner, Jerry Stacy, is a fantastic hairdresser. And three of us agreed – you know what? I gotta look like Jean Harlow. (laughs) So, we’ve taken like three months to bring my hair up to almost platinum blonde. So I’m kind of living this piece every day. It’s not just when I’m onstage – because it’s a very severe look. You know, I’m platinum blonde, walking around New York City. And my agents were like, oh wow … that’s a look. And of course, auditioning –  “oh yes, I’m an actress, I can do anything” – no you can’t, because you’re platinum blonde. (Laughs.) But the thing is, I didn’t want to use a wig, because I wanted to be absolutely authentic. I wanted to be able to run my hands through my hair, and mess it up, and, you know, act like it’s real hair. I didn’t want that wiggy thing happening.

You know, I gotta tell you, I don’t think I’ve been this excited about a project in a long time. A new project. David has been incredibly open to my ideas, and that’s when I can thrive, that’s when I can really, really help a new piece. When I feel absolutely necessary to a piece, there’s just no better feeling.

And I really feel like this piece is peculiarly suited to me. I do have a voice that can go all through different styles of music. To have to sing a Bessie Smith song and a Gilbert and Sullivan song in the same night and be equally valid on both of them – that’s not an easy task. And, I have to tell you – to yodel. That’s tough on my voice. To have to go from seriously grinding my voice up in “Yellow Dog Blues” and “St. Louis Woman” to that other stuff, the very pure country folk – it’s tough. We’ll see how it goes.

Tennessee Williams’ words are incredible, and his words combined with the soundtrack of his life, as performed by the great Allison Leyton-Brown and J. Walter Hawkes and the band that we’ll have up in Provincetown, I just think it’s really going to be a special evening.

The perils of becoming Blanche: Alison Fraser goes platinum blonde.
(With hairstylist Jerry Stacy)

Alison Fraser was twice nominated for Tony Awards (for The Secret Garden and Romance/Romance). She is a nationally acclaimed performer who has appeared in concert at such venues as Carnegie Hall, The White House, The Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, The Tisch Center for the Arts, The Folger Shakespeare Library, Joe's Pub and Symphony Space. She will perform her show “New York Romance” at 54 Below in Manhattan on Sunday, November 4th.

The Tennessee Williams Songbook. Directed by David Kaplan, starring Alison Fraser. Music direction by Allison Leyton-Brown.

Performs Sunday September 23, at 5:00 pm.

Town Hall
260 Commercial Street
Provincetown, MA


The Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival takes place Thursday, September 20 through Sunday, September 23, 2012. Festival passes, including access to all shows, are available now online at or by calling 1-866-789-TENN (8366).  A Carte Blanche Pass includes tickets to all performances as well as access to exclusive donor parties, events, and more.  Special group packages, student prices, and Flex Passes are also available. For full details on Festival performances and events, visit

BC/EFA Broadway Flea Market This Weekend




10 AM – 7 PM

Walk-on appearances in Broadway's biggest hits, on-set visits to television’s most popular shows, lunch with Angela Lansbury, and the shirts off Hugh Jackman’s and Ricky Martin's backs – literally – are among the priceless lots now available for pre-bidding as Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS presents the 26thAnnual Broadway Flea Market & Grand Auction.

Plan now to spend Sunday, September 23, 2012with Broadway Cares and thousands of other theatre fans in Times Square, Shubert Alley, and along West 44th Street searching for one-of-a-kind theatre keepsakes. Held from 10 AM – 7 PM, this not-to-be-missed event for every Broadway theatergoer is free and open to the public and has been called one of the "Best Once-A-Year Markets" in New York City.

For an exclusive, sneak peek at the Flea Market, visit:

Grand Auction items now open for pre-bidding on include:

Walk-on roles and backstage experiences at The Book of Mormon, Bring It On, Chicago, Mamma Mia!, Newsies, Once, Rock of Ages, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, and Wicked

VIP visits to the sets of TV's Emmy Award-winning comedy “Modern Family,” hit drama “NCIS: LA” and the popular inside-theater drama “Smash” (with each show featuring its own Broadway stars-turned-TV-favorites)

Shirts worn by Hugh Jackman and Ricky Martinduring their Broadway performances, autographed and dated by each actor

One-of-a-kind show memorabilia signed by Daniel Radcliffe, Julia Roberts, Bradley Cooper, Nick Jonas, Hal Prince, Neil Patrick Harris, Sutton Foster, and more

An unforgettable lunch with stage-and-screen legend Angela Lansbury, winner of five Tony Awards and three-time Oscar nominee and 18-time Emmy nominee

Opening night VIP tickets and party passes to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Anarchist (starring Patti LuPone and Debra Winger), Dead Accounts (starring Katie Holmes and Norbert Leo Butz), The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Kinky Boots, and Matilda, with more to be announced

Musical phrases written by and signed by Stephen Sondheim, Stephen Schwartz, Alan Menken and Jack Feldman, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, Bob Gaudio and Frankie Valli, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, Billie Joe Armstrong, Maury Yeston, and more

The always-popular Celebrity Autograph Table & Photo Booth will feature stars of stage and screen, including Harvey Fierstein, Cheyenne Jackson, Jeremy Jordan, Steve Kazee, Jan Maxwell, Bebe Neuwirth, Laura Osnes, Bernadette Peters and more. One of the most popular sites at Broadway’s "one-day sale," the Celebrity Autograph Table offers fans the opportunity to get autographs and pose for pictures with their favorite stars from Broadway and Off-Broadway in exchange for donations to Broadway Cares. Celebrity appearances subject to change. For an up-to-date list, visit

This year, the Broadway Flea Market & Grand Auction will be in Times Square, Shubert Alley, and along West 44th Street.

Regardless of what you're looking for – whether it's a lost cast recording, signed show posters and Playbills, rare costume sketches or that special gift for a theatre-lover you can't find anywhere else – this year's Broadway Flea Market & Grand Auction promises to offer something for everyone.

Among the shows scheduled to have tables are Bring It On, Evita, Jersey Boys, The Lion King, Mary Poppins, Naked Boys Singing, Newsical the Musical, Newsies, Once, The Phantom of the Opera, Rock of Ages, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark and Wicked, with more added daily.

Silent auction lots will be opened every half hour from 10 AM until 4:30 PM, when the live auction begins, featuring a collection of unique items and experiences only available at the Grand Auction. Pre-bidding on all auction lots is available online through 10 AM ET on September 22, the day before the Broadway Flea Market & Grand Auction.

Specific items for sale at the Broadway Flea Market, other packages to be offered at the Grand Auction and a complete list of stars to appear at the Celebrity Autograph Table & Photo Booth will be announced on, on Twitter and on Facebook at

Last year, the 25th Annual Broadway Flea Market & Grand Auction raised $547,658, bringing the event's 25-year total to $9,185,327.

The 26th Annual Broadway Flea Market & Grand Auction is sponsored by United Airlines and The New York Times.

Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS is one of the nation’s leading industry-based, nonprofit AIDS fundraising and grant-making organizations.  By drawing upon the talents, resources and generosity of the American theatre community, since 1988 BC/EFA has raised more than $195 million for essential services for people with AIDS and other critical illnesses across the United States.

Broadway Cares awards annual grants to more than 400 AIDS and family service organizations nationwide and is the major supporter of the social service programs at The Actors Fund, including the HIV/AIDS Initiative, the Phyllis Newman Women’s Health Initiative and the Al Hirschfeld Free Health Clinic.
For more information, please visit the Broadway Cares online

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