Sunday, November 27, 2011

A Sondheim Weekend

Listening to: NPR's stream of the new Follies CD (Bernadette Peters, Jan Maxwell, et al). I've only ever heard the truncated 1971 recording, so this is a revelation for me!  Reading the Follies chapter in Finishing the Hat, one can come away with the impression that this is the strongest set of lyrics that have ever been written for an American musical, due to Sondheim's dead-on pastiche of all of the lyric writers who came before him, plus his own inimitable genius.

Reading: Look, I Made a Hat, volume 2 of Sondheim's collected lyrics, which came out on Tuesday.  It is just as full of odd, interesting insights as Volume 1 and is going to have an equally prized place on my bookshelf.  I brought it to a Thanksgiving party of theater people on Thursday, where it was a big hit. As a friend of mine says, "The only thing better than having these books by Sondheim is if we also had a book by Shakespeare titled How I Wrote My Plays."


Ring Round the Moon, the Jean Anouilh/Christopher Fry play that Sondheim and Hal Prince wished to adapt into a musical. When they were unable to obtain the rights, they adapted Smiles of a Summer Night instead -- it has a similar theme of romantic entanglements at a European country house.

I found Ring Round the Moon completely delightful. Its witty aphorisms made me laugh out loud several times, and I love the idea of having one actor play the identical twins Hugo and Frederic. (You'll recall that the one-actor-playing-twins was my favorite part of my experience working with Un-Scripted Theatre last summer!)

My copy, above, is an adorable 1950 edition, I believe the first American edition, which I found at Readers Café and Bookstore. Why do I never hear anyone talk about this used bookstore? It has some amazing items (I once saw a 1910 edition of Playboy of the Western World there!) and the proceeds go to a good cause.

Speaking of supporting a good cause: In 1981, Stephen Sondheim founded Young Playwrights Inc., to foster the work of American playwrights 18 and under. In 2006, I won their National Competition with my first play, Deus ex Machina.  And last week, the Young Playwrights office, on Fifth Avenue in New York City (right across from Lord & Taylor) was gutted by a fire.

This news is very sad, especially because Young Playwrights, like many arts nonprofits, always seemed to be a bit of a shoestring organization and, I know, was having difficulties in our current economic climate. (Young Playwrights used to present full productions of the plays that won the contest, but they have not been able to do that for several years.)  As they rebuild, they are taking donations through PayPal.

In order to thank them for the amazing two weeks that they gave me five years ago (a workshop of my play in New York, tickets to 10 shows, a downtown hotel room with a balcony...) and to support them in their rebuilding efforts, I'm going to give Young Playwrights some money this holiday season. Would you consider doing the same?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The secret miracle of Charlotte Salomon

Last month I attended an extraordinary art exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, on loan from the Netherlands Jewish Historical Museum: some 200 gouache illustrations by Charlotte Salomon from her Leben? oder Theater? (Life? Or Theater?) magnum opus.

Salomon was a playwright without a stage. A graphic novelist before such a thing existed. A young woman struggling to find and claim her voice, to affirm herself and her existence. It is no surprise that her work -- with its themes of theater, creativity, love, feminism, identity, and history -- should resonate with me; these are things that I think about a lot.

Salomon was born into an upper-class Jewish family in Berlin in 1917, part of that wonderful cultured Mitteleuropean milieu of the early 20th century. Her father was a surgeon; her stepmother was an opera singer; and Charlotte attended art school. But, needless to say, by the 1930s, Berlin was a very bad place to be a Jew. Salomon's father lost his medical license, Charlotte had a school prize taken away from her on account of her religion, and shortly before she turned 21, her family sent her to the south of France for safety.

What makes Salomon's story really interesting, though, is its more personal details. Not only did she live in a dangerous and tumultuous era, but her family had its own tragedy: virtually all of the women on her mother's side of the family killed themselves. This information was concealed from young Charlotte until she was an adult (she had always been told that her mother died of influenza). When she learned the truth, she wondered if she too was destined to commit suicide. In a state of shock and crisis, she decided that she had only two options: either to kill herself, or to "undertake something eccentric and mad." She chose the latter option. She holed herself up in a hotel on the French Riviera and spent several months creating the hundreds of illustrations of Leben? oder Theater?

The narrative starts with Salomon's family history (the suicide of her mother's sister; her parents' meeting) and continues through her childhood and young womanhood, up until the moment she undertakes the Leben? oder Theater? project. Much of the narrative concerns Salomon's love for her stepmother's voice teacher, Alfred Wolfson, or "Amadeus Daberlohn" as he is called in the paintings (all of the Leben? oder Theater? characters have thinly disguised pseudonyms). Wolfson/Daberlohn was a World War I veteran whose philosophies about art, creativity, and finding one's voice had a great influence on Salomon. She paints his face obsessively, but also seems able to view him with a certain objectivity and humor -- you get the impression that he was a brilliant but also a pompous man. There's a memorable series of gouaches where Daberlohn is stretched out on a couch, pontificating on art and life:

"It is part of my nature as a man among men to remind them of suffering, which in our day we like to pretend does not exist. Yet I have never forgotten to emphasize that I love life and affirm it threefold. In order to love life completely, one must also embrace and comprehend its other side, death, including suffering. This is how my oft-repeated words must be understood those whom I love to undergo bitter experiences so that they will be forced to follow the path into their own depths."

These ideas would come back to Charlotte Salomon when she was at her lowest point and influence the creation of Leben? oder Theater? For, in the end, she followed the path into her own depths, learned about the death and suffering that haunted her family, and rather than being swallowed up by the darkness, made the choice to love and affirm life. The final panels of Leben? oder Theater? remind me of the closing scenes of a Chekhov play, where the young woman (Nina in The Seagull, Sonia in Uncle Vanya) clings to optimism and hope despite all the suffering that has befallen her.

Charlotte urges her grandmother: "Look at the flowers in the meadow. So much beauty, so much joy. Look at the mountains up there, so much sun, so much light."

As with Chekhov's plays, Salomon's paintings gain an extra bittersweetness because we know that their creator ultimately died far too young. After Salomon had completed Leben? oder Theater? and entrusted it to a friend, the Vichy France authorities discovered her. She was transported to Auschwitz, and killed at the age of 26.

Charlotte Salomon's story is a tragedy, but also, somehow, weirdly inspiring. They killed her. She didn't kill herself. Despite her family history of suicide, despite the grave dangers that she faced, she chose to self-create rather than self-destruct. She attempted to understand and redeem her family history, to break the cycle rather than perpetuate it.

The thought of Salomon, hiding out in the Riviera hotel, obsessively painting her gouaches, knowing that her life was in danger and time was perhaps running out (you can see the brushstrokes get wilder and more frantic as the series progresses) reminds me of a real-life version of Borges' story "The Secret Miracle." In that tale, a Czech-Jewish playwright is condemned to die before a Nazi firing squad, and his only regret is that he never finished the verse drama that he was writing. At the moment the bullets are fired, God grants the playwright's wish: he stops time and allows the playwright to take as long as he needs to compose the play in his head. So, too, by some miracle, Salomon was granted the time and the resources and the energy she needed to make Leben? oder Theater?  (She already had the artistic skill.) It is also miraculous that the work survived, and that it holds interest from so many points of view -- artistic, narrative, historical, feminist. I confess I was less interested in the portions of the work that focus on Hitler's rise to power and the persecution of Jews, and more interested in the parts of it that reveal Salomon creating art, finding her voice, falling in love.  A lot of art, up to the present day, deals with the Holocaust and the historical events surrounding it. It seems far rarer to view a museum exhibition about a young woman's coming of age.

Clearly, my blog post can't do justice to the full richness of Salomon's achievement. I'd tell you to see it for yourself, but the San Francisco exhibition closed two days after I saw it.  However, the Dutch museum that owns it has scanned and posted every page online, and even included English translations of the text -- an amazing resource and well worth your time to browse.

Images from the website of the Joods Historisch Museum.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Soixante petites secondes

Spending today working on my submissions for the San Francisco One-Minute Play Festival. We are encouraged to think about what can happen in a minute -- how short it can feel, how long it can feel.

Here is a song that lasts only 60 seconds -- Carla Bruni's "La dernière minute":

Friday, November 4, 2011

Sam Shepard and the 99%

WESTON: I remember now. I was in hock. I was in hock up to my elbows. See, I always figured on the future. I banked on it. I was banking on it getting better. It couldn't get worse, so I figured it'd just get better. I figured that's why everyone wants you to buy things. Buy refrigerators. Buy cars, houses, lots, invest. They wouldn't be so generous if they didn't figure you had it comin' in. At some point it had to be comin' in. So I went along with it. Why not borrow if you know it's coming in. Why not make a touch here and there. They all want you to borrow anyhow. Banks, car lots, investors. The whole thing's geared to invisible money. You never hear the sound of change anymore. It's all plastic shuffling back and forth. It's all in everybody's heads. So I figured if that's the case, why not take advantage of it? Why not go in debt for a few grand if all it is is numbers? If it's all an idea and nothing's really there, why not take advantage? So I just went along with it, that's all. I just played ball.

-- from Curse of the Starving Class by Sam Shepard (1976)
edited to note: I read Curse of the Starving Class for the first time this week and this monologue really struck me as appropriate to our current era. As it happens, Charles Isherwood also quoted this speech in his review of the 2008 revival of the play at ACT, but I didn't read Isherwood's piece until after writing this blog post.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

My Olympians Festival Post on 2AMTheatre

I know I've been AWOL from my blog for too long, but you can check out 2AMTheatre today to see a post I wrote about the Olympians Festival (which is what kept me so busy in October)

Greeks and Geeks: The San Francisco Olympians Festival

Many thanks to Tim Bauer for suggesting that I write this post and to David Loehr for his stewardship of 2AMTheatre.