Friday, November 21, 2014

The Science Behind The Other Place

When Dragon started work on The Other Place, I wanted to learn more about the science presented in the play. I wasn't clear on the difference between dementia and Alzheimer's, which seems to get the most press, and wondered what the latest statistics on memory related disease was in America. Like cancer, in my experience, it seems to be a disease that hits every family in some way.

According to the national Alzheimer's Association:
"Dementia is a general term for a decline in mental ability severe enough to interfere with daily life. Memory loss is an example. Alzheimer's is the most common type of dementia.   
Dementia is not a specific disease. It's an overall term that describes a wide range of symptoms associated with a decline in memory or other thinking skills severe enough to reduce a person's ability to perform everyday activities. Alzheimer's disease accounts for 60 to 80 percent of cases. Vascular dementia, which occurs after a stroke, is the second most common dementia type. But there are many other conditions that can cause symptoms of dementia, including some that are reversible, such as thyroid problems and vitamin deficiencies.  
Dementia is often incorrectly referred to as "senility" or "senile dementia," which reflects the formerly widespread but incorrect belief that serious mental decline is a normal part of aging."
 The Mayo Clinic further says:
"Memory loss generally occurs in dementia. However, memory loss alone doesn't mean you have dementia. Dementia indicates problems with at least two brain functions, such as memory loss and impaired judgment or language, and the inability to perform some daily activities such as paying bills or becoming lost driving.  
Dementia can make you confused and unable to remember people and names. You also may experience changes in personality and social behavior. However, some causes of dementia are treatable and even reversible."

I know that I'd heard that you can't officially diagnose Alzheimer's, and in the play they reference the fact that they can't officially diagnose Juliana's illness while she was still alive, which made me wonder about the diagnosis process and the truth of that statement.

According to the Mayo Clinic, some common symptoms of dementia include:

  • Memory loss
  • Difficulty communicating
  • Difficulty with complex tasks
  • Difficulty with planning and organizing
  • Difficulty with coordination and motor functions
  • Problems with disorientation, such as getting lost
  • Personality changes
  • Inability to reason
  • Inappropriate behavior
  • Paranoia
  • Agitation
  • Hallucinations
Further, the National Institute of Health's Institute on Aging says this about Alzheimer's: 

"Alzheimer’s disease can be definitively diagnosed only after death, by linking clinical measures with an examination of brain tissue and pathology in an autopsy. But doctors now have several methods and tools to help them determine fairly accurately whether a person who is having memory problems has “possible Alzheimer’s dementia” (dementia may be due to another cause) or “probable Alzheimer’s dementia” (no other cause for dementia can be found). 
To diagnose Alzheimer’s, doctors may:
  • Ask questions about overall health, past medical problems, ability to carry out daily activities, and changes in behavior and personality
  • Conduct tests of memory, problem solving, attention, counting, and language
  • Carry out standard medical tests, such as blood and urine tests, to identify other possible causes of the problem
  • Perform brain scans, such as computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), to distinguish Alzheimer’s from other possible causes for symptoms, like stroke or tumor
These tests may be repeated to give doctors information about how the person’s memory is changing over time. 
Early, accurate diagnosis is beneficial for several reasons. It can tell people whether their symptoms are from Alzheimer’s or another cause, such as stroke, tumor, Parkinson’s disease, sleep disturbances, side effects of medications, or other conditions that may be treatable and possibly reversible."
Since Alzheimer's is by far the largest subset of dementia, I wondered how prevalent the disease is. The Alzheimer's Association reports that around 5 million Americans are currently living with Alzheimer's disease. Almost two-thirds of those Alzheimer's patients are women. In her 60s, a woman's estimated lifetime risk for developing Alzheimer's is 1 in 6. For breast cancer it is 1 in 11. Alzheimer's disease is the 6th leading cause of death among Americans. In 2013, 15.5 million caregivers provided an estimated 17.7 billion hours of unpaid care valued at more than $220 billion. 

Not only does it take a severe emotional toll, it takes a massive financial toll on America as Alzheimer's disease is the most expensive condition in the nation. In 2014, the direct costs to American society of caring for those with Alzheimer's will total an estimated $214 billion, including $150 billion in costs to Medicare and Medicaid. 

Nearly one in every five dollars spent by Medicare is on people with Alzheimer's or another dementia. The average per-person Medicare spending for those with Alzheimer's and other dementias is three times higher than for those without these conditions. The average per-person Medicaid spending for seniors with Alzheimer's and other dementias is 19 times higher than average per-person Medicaid spending for all other seniors.

There is currently no cure for Alzheimer's but there a whole lot of research being directed in the area. Some traction has recently been made on helping to delay the inevitable progression and there are a number of clinical trials open to patients to help test new solutions. 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Who Is Sharr White?

Sharr White, age 44, has been writing plays since the 1990s. They've been presented around the country, including at South Coast Repertory, Actors Theatre of Louisville, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Lincoln Center Theatre's Directors Lab and Key West Theatre Festival. The Other Place marked his first major New York appearance, and became his first Broadway show.

Sharr White in Playbill
Born in Frederick, Maryland, Mr. White moved to Southern California when he was young. The family moved to Boulder, Colorado for his junior high and high school years. And after high school he moved back to Southern California, took some time off, and worked in a warehouse for a few years. Mr. White eventually went back to school where he planned to major in biology since his father in in the sciences. He also took some acting classes and decided to switch to theatre. Mr. White then moved to San Francisco to go to the A.C.T. [American Conservatory Theatre] program. He didn't get accepted into the program and ended up at San Francisco State for a little bit and then jumped over to A.C.T. and finished the acting program there. He started writing at A.C.T., though they didn't have any writing classes.

Mr. White graduated with an M.F.A. in 1993 and was hooked on writing, so he moved to New York. He gave up on acting to solely focus on writing. Mr. White says "From there it was a long process for me, because I didn't go to grad school for writing, I didn't go to any writing programs, I wasn't formally trained at all. I felt like when I reached a point in beginning to develop I didn't have anyone to turn to, which was pretty isolating. My time in New York has been about writing, writing, writing. I did some self-producing in the '90s. The big break was with Humana Festival in 2006. I was able to start surfacing to people, and I got a couple of commissions. It's been a long process to get [to Broadway]."

The Other Place, was produced by the Manhattan Theatre Club, and opened at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre from December 2012 (in previews) through March 3, 2013. The play, directed by Joe Mantello, starred Laurie Metcalf and Daniel Stern. It was originally produced Off-Broadway by the MCC Theater in 2011. The Other Place received two Outer Critics Circle Award nominations, for Outstanding New Off-Broadway Play and Outstanding Actress In A Play (Laurie Metcalf). Laurie Metcalf won an Obie Award, Performance. Metcalf was nominated for the 2013 Tony Award, Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play. 

Friday, October 31, 2014

For Halloween - The Raven

Since we're running The Woman In Black this Halloween evening, I thought it was fitting to pair it with this American classic. Happy Halloween!

The Raven - Edgar Allen Poe

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary, 
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore— 
    While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping, 
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door. 
“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door— 
            Only this and nothing more.” 

    Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December; 
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor. 
    Eagerly I wished the morrow;—vainly I had sought to borrow 
    From my books surcease of sorrow—sorrow for the lost Lenore— 
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore— 
            Nameless here for evermore. 

    And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain 
Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before; 
    So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating 
    “’Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door— 
Some late visiter entreating entrance at my chamber door;— 
            This it is and nothing more.” 

    Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer, 
“Sir,” said I, “or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore; 
    But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping, 
    And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door, 
That I scarce was sure I heard you”—here I opened wide the door;— 
            Darkness there and nothing more. 

    Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing, 
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before; 
    But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token, 
    And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, “Lenore?” 
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, “Lenore!”— 
            Merely this and nothing more. 

    Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning, 
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before. 
    “Surely,” said I, “surely that is something at my window lattice; 
      Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore— 
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore;— 
            ’Tis the wind and nothing more!” 

    Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter, 
In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore; 
    Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he; 
    But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door— 
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door— 
            Perched, and sat, and nothing more. 

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling, 
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore, 
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no craven, 
Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore— 
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!” 
            Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.” 

    Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly, 
Though its answer little meaning—little relevancy bore; 
    For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being 
    Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door— 
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door, 
            With such name as “Nevermore.” 

    But the Raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only 
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour. 
    Nothing farther then he uttered—not a feather then he fluttered— 
    Till I scarcely more than muttered “Other friends have flown before— 
On the morrow he will leave me, as my Hopes have flown before.” 
            Then the bird said “Nevermore.” 

    Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken, 
“Doubtless,” said I, “what it utters is its only stock and store 
    Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster 
    Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore— 
Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore 
            Of ‘Never—nevermore’.” 

    But the Raven still beguiling all my fancy into smiling, 
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust and door; 
    Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking 
    Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore— 
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore 
            Meant in croaking “Nevermore.” 

    This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing 
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom’s core; 
    This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining 
    On the cushion’s velvet lining that the lamp-light gloated o’er, 
But whose velvet-violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o’er, 
            She shall press, ah, nevermore! 

    Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer 
Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor. 
    “Wretch,” I cried, “thy God hath lent thee—by these angels he hath sent thee 
    Respite—respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore; 
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!” 
            Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.” 

    “Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!— 
Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore, 
    Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted— 
    On this home by Horror haunted—tell me truly, I implore— 
Is there—is there balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell me, I implore!” 
            Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.” 

    “Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil! 
By that Heaven that bends above us—by that God we both adore— 
    Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn, 
    It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore— 
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.” 
            Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.” 

    “Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!” I shrieked, upstarting— 
“Get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore! 
    Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken! 
    Leave my loneliness unbroken!—quit the bust above my door! 
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!” 
            Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.” 

    And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting 
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door; 
    And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming, 
    And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor; 
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor 
            Shall be lifted—nevermore!

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Woman In Black On Film

You might have heard about The Woman In Black because it was recently turned into a film. It featured Daniel Radcliffe, aka Harry Potter and Ciaran Hinds. It has more than two actors and some seriously gorgeous scenery. It got a Rotten Tomato score of 66% and did moderately well at the box office. It's got its flaws (I'm not a fan of the movie ending) but it's a wonderfully atmospheric film. To get a feel for it, watch the trailer below.

I read recently that there's actually a sequel in the works. It's called The Woman In Black: Angel of Death and it's slated for release in 2015. It takes place at Eel Marsh House during World War II - some Londoners end up at the old house to escape the Blitz and run into the home of The Woman In Black. The first trailer was just released. 

Did you see the movie? What did you think? Will you check out the sequel? 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Ghost Lights and Haunted Theatres

Working on some surrounding material for The Woman In Black got me to thinking about how it's kind of funny that a theatre is performing a ghost story, as theatre folk are notoriously superstitious. Like most things, a lot of the superstition is rooted in practical sense. For example, many theaters have what's called a "ghost light." It's basically a bare light bulb on a pole that's left out on stage. The story is that it's supposed to keep ghosts away - I guess ghosts don't like light? The truth is, it's more likely that it started as a safety measure - when you enter a dark theatre, it's pretty darn dark, and in a traditional theatre there's often an orchestra pit so you do run the risk of falling off the edge and breaking your neck.

The Dragon Theatre ghost light in action

All good theaters have a resident ghost or spooky story. There's an old theater in London that has two seats in the balcony bolted down in the open position so that the resident ghosts have permanent seating. Which brings me to my personal theatre ghost story. Years ago when I was in college I worked at a theatre in St. Louis. This was my first summer as a "professional" theatre worker. The theatre was an old church that was built in the late 1800s and had been converted into a theatre.

The Grandel Theatre in St. Louis

I was helping out on the St. Louis Shakespeare production of The Kentucky Cycle, a Pulitzer Prize award winning play by Robert Shenkkan that is actually a play in two parts and spans about 200 years of American history. I was helping the Technical Director (TD) after rehearsal hours to get the set painted and complete so we'd start work at around 10p and would paint till about 2am. One night as we were painting, I mentioned that the wedding dress was really pretty. The TD said "what wedding dress? There's no wedding in the show." And I replied that I'd seen a woman in the upper balcony walking around in a wedding dress while I was up in the balcony working on a prop. The TD laughed and said "oh, you met one of the ghosts then." I rolled my eyes and kept painting and said I didn't believe in ghosts - I figured they were having a bit of fun with the new girl.

I hadn't met the whole cast yet and the next night they were doing a full run so I decided to scope them out to find the prankster in the dress. None of the women in the cast or on the crew remotely resembled the woman in the wedding dress. That evening as they ran the show we noticed a problem with the lights - several of the lights that were supposed to be hitting the front of the stage were aimed too low and were hitting the audience instead of the stage. As I looked up to figure out what row of lights it was, I saw a man up in the front of the balcony, on or near the light pipe where the mis-aligned lights were, so I figured it was a lighting guy working on the lights to re-aim them. At the end of the run during the post-show notes, the lighting came up and I mentioned that I'd seen a guy up there. The Master Electrician and the TD looked at me and said "what guy?" I said "I dunno, some guy in work boots and pants and a plaid kind of shirt was sitting up there on the pipe." And the TD replied "ah, well, you've just seen the other ghost then. He likes to sit up on that front pipe and when he's done, every single light on the pipe has dropped like there was a weight up there that knocked them down." They all proceeded to tell me that the woman in the wedding dress was allegedly killed on her wedding day while heading to the church, and the gentleman was supposedly an old handyman that used to live at the church. They said the ghosts were never malicious, they'd just pop up from time to time walking around and hanging out and doing their thing.

I'm still not sure I believe in ghosts but I know that I walked by a woman in a wedding dress one night at rehearsal.

The Dragon Theatre was a travel agency before we moved in, and then it was abandoned for several years, so I don't think that it's got any tragic stories or ghosts. Now excuse me while I go knock on some wood, go outside, spin in a circle three times, spit, curse, and knock on the theatre door to be let back in just in case I just angered our resident Woman In Black.

Anyone else have a theatrical ghost story to share?


Friday, October 10, 2014

This One Is Different

In roughly thirty years as an actor, I've done many different types of theatre: from Greek tragedy to musical comedy, from drama to farce, improv to operetta... you name it.

But I have never done a show quite like The Woman in Black, and I'd like to take a moment before the show opens (tonight!) to discuss some of the things that have made the experience of working on this play truly unique.

First of all, it's a ghost story. And when you think about it, there are surprisingly few ghost stories for the stage. Sure, there's the occasional ghost in Shakespeare, but those stories – with the possible exception of Macbeth – aren't the sort of spine-tingly tales you'd tell around a campfire on a moonless night. Ibsen's Ghosts (entirely ghost-free, if memory serves) and Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit are even further from the mark. The closest comparison I can think of is the adaptation of The Turn of the Screw that Dragon produced in 2010 – another minimalist interpretation of a classic novel.

Because this is a proper ghost story – “a story of haunting and evil, fear and confusion, horror and tragedy,” as one of the characters describes it – Tasi and I have had the opportunity to explore a range of emotions that stage actors are not often called upon to portray. There's not a lot of otherworldly terror in Chekhov or Neil Simon; drumming up a believable facsimile of blood-curdling fear is usually the domain of film actors.

We've also had to hone another skill that more often falls to film actors – especially the stars of CGI-laden special effects blockbusters – namely, the ability to react to things that aren't there. The bare-bones, highly theatrical style of The Woman in Black requires Tasi and I to create much of the play's atmosphere – marshes, graveyards, etc. – with nothing but our words and actions. This is not an unusual acting task, but The Woman in Black carries it a bit further than most plays. One of the play's characters, for instance, is a Border Terrier named Spider who exists on stage only because Tasi and I interact with a dog-shaped figment of our imaginations. The experience has given me more respect for movie stars who routinely play scenes opposite computer-generated animals, aliens, and robots that aren't added until post-production, long after the scene is shot.

Tasi and I rehearse with Spider's body double, just to get a sense of her size and cuddliness. I'm fairly sure I've never rehearsed a scene with a teddy bear before.

Also, in adapting Susan Hill's novel for the stage, Stephen Mallatratt relied heavily on sound effects, not just to establish mood and setting, but also to tell crucial parts of the story. It was not until our first tech rehearsal, last Sunday, that Tasi and I began to hear the terrifically creepy and sometimes terrifying sound cues produced by our sound designer, Lance Huntley. For the previous five weeks of rehearsal, we had simply been reacting to nothing, or to stage manager Kristine Gilreath calling out “From out on the marshes comes the sound of a child's cry.” (Another way in which The Woman in Black is unique: I have never heard a stage manager read so many stage directions aloud, nor with such panache.)

As the various elements of the show have come together this week, it's been a reminder of the power of live theatre to conjure worlds, to evoke powerful emotions, all without the benefit of expensive CG effects. I look forward to seeing the reactions of audiences as we tell a story unlike any I've ever told before.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Who Is Stephen Mallatratt?

In the mid-1970s, Stephen Mallatratt, while working as an actor in Alan Ayckbourn's company in Scarborough, wrote An Englishman's Home. It was, recalls Ayckbourn, a near-perfect first play. Like his better known peers - John Osborne, Harold Pinter, Ayckbourn himself - Mallatratt's writing was addressed and stamped by his experience as an actor.

Playwright Stephen Mallatratt
Mallatratt, who has died of leukemia aged 57, went on to achieve fame and fortune as the adapting dramatist of Susan Hill's novel The Woman In Black, premiered in Scarborough as a stocking filler over Christmas in 1987.

The Woman In Black, a beautifully wrought, classic thriller for two actors, the successor to Anthony Shaffer's Sleuth, is now the second longest-running West End play - after The Mousetrap. It has been translated into a dozen languages and produced in 40 countries.

Although never a "brand-name" playwright, Mallatratt's craft and professionalism made him well-known as a core member of the Coronation Street script-writing team from 1985, and as the author of such fine television series as his 2002 version of John Galsworthy's The Forsyte Saga and last year's Island At War, set on a fictional Channel Island.

When Ayckbourn invited Mallatratt to Scarborough, he was still under contract to the Ipswich theatre, but he paid out his employers. Mallatratt originated roles in such Ayckbourn modern masterpieces as Confusions, Absent Friends and Bedroom Farce; other Ayckbourn proteges of this glorious past half-century at Scarborough were the playwrights James Saunders, Stephen Lowe, Robert Eaton and Tim Firth.

Mallatratt moved on to Bristol. When the Old Vic closed its collaborative operation in the nearby Little Theatre in the late 1970s, he and Neilson were among the outstanding group of actors who took the place over; others were Daniel Day-Lewis, Pete Postlethwaite, Pam Ferris and George Costigan.
Mallatratt returned to Scarborough in autumn 1985 and acted in Ayckbourn's production of The Bront√ęs Of Howarth by Christopher Fry. When Ayckbourn took a sabbatical to join Peter Hall as a National Theatre associate, Mallatratt stayed on as the stand-in resident writer for stand-in artistic director Robin Herford.

Herford commissioned a play about witchcraft in Heptonstall that became the not too dissimilar precursor of The Woman In Black. The rest is history; Herford's only regret is that Mallatratt was about to hit "an even longer stride" as a dramatist.

(Taken from The Guardian's 2004 obituary for Stephen Mallatratt)

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Who Is Susan Hill?

The play The Woman In Black is based on a novel by author Susan Hill. When I started reading, I assumed that the story was written in the early 1900s. It turns out that it wasn't - the book version of The Woman In Black was actually first published in 1983. I did a a little digging to learn more about Susan Hill and here's what I learned.

Author Susan Hill
Ms. Hill has written a number of novels - literary works, a number of ghost stories, children's books, detective novels, and even a memoir.

Born in Scarborough, England in 1942 her first novel, The Enclosure, was published in 1961 while she was still a student. She worked as a freelance journalist from 1963-1968. She was a presenter for BBC Radio's "Bookshelf" Program from 1986 - 1987. In 1996 she started her own publishing company, Long Barn Books.

Her books include I’m the King of the Castle (1970), winner of the Somerset Maugham Award; The Bird of Night (1972), winner of the Whitbread Novel Award and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize (1972) ; and The Albatross, a collection of short stories, winner of the Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. She was appointed a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) in 2012 for services to literature. 

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Backstory of "The Woman In Black"

The Woman In Black is the second longest running straight play in London's West End's history - second only to Agatha Christie's classic play The Mousetrap (4th overall if you count musicals) which is an achievement in and of itself. The fact that the play is really told only by two men (and one creepy ghost lady) makes it even more impressive in my book. It's a play that replies not on big lavish spectacle, but on two men who can tell a ripping good yarn. I got curious as to how the play came about, because the credits tell you straight away that it's based on a novella by Susan Hill. I did a little digging and found this backstory

Robin Herford was running the Stephen Joseph theatre in Scarborough when he realised he hadn't spent his entire grant. His boss, Alan Ayckbourn, was off on sabbatical, so Herford decided, what with Christmas coming up, to put on a ghost story that could be staged cheaply and quickly – not in the main theatre, but in the bar. He asked the venue's resident playwright Stephen Mallatratt to rustle one up, with the proviso that the set and costumes couldn't cost more than £1,000, adding that there was only enough money to pay four actors. 
"He wasn't terribly impressed," remembers Herford, 25 years on. "But he came back a couple of days later and said, 'Have you read Susan Hill's book The Woman in Black?'" Hill's creepy novella had been published a few years earlier, in 1983. "I read it overnight and said, 'It's a fantastic story – but it's got a dozen characters.'" 
"I've got an idea about that," said Mallatratt. His masterstroke was to make The Woman in Black a play within a play, one that needs just two speaking actors, and a backstage crew of four. Elderly Arthur Kipps brings a ghost story to a young actor; it's the story of something that happened to Kipps 30 years earlier, and the actor turns it into a drama. 
I rather love that one of the top grossing plays of all time was conceived by a scrappy theatre on a shoestring budget. 
Our fellows and lady are working hard at creating a creepy fun story for our version of The Woman In Black. I think that sitting in such an intimate theatre will really help amplify the story. And they look fabulous don't they? 
Tasi Alabastro, Lessa Bouchard, and Kevin Kirby
Photo by James Kasyan
The show opens next week - it has a pay-what-you-will preview on Thursday, October 9th and then runs Thursdays through Sundays till November 2nd. Pre-sales are pretty strong so get your seats while you can

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Lessa Bouchard and Andy Hertzfeld Talk Archiving

Producer Lessa Bouchard sat down and had an interesting discussion about technology and memory with Andy Hertzfeld. For those of you that are quite a bit less geeky than I and didn't automatically squeal when you saw the name, Mr. Hertzfeld is a bit of a computer legend. He was one of the main authors of the original Macintosh operating system at Apple. He's basically one of the people to thank for getting us to use a mouse to click on icons on your desktop rather than type out commands on a command line. More recently, he's moved from computers to writing.

Lessa sat down with Mr. Hertzfeld and they recorded some interesting conversations around the A Moment (Un)Bound - check them out!

Where do you stand on digital versus physical collections? What book changed your life upon reading it? 

Friday, September 19, 2014

Arc:Hive Presents A Moment (Un)Bound - The Music

A Moment (Un)Bound is a new work more than a year in the making. It was written and created as a collaborative effort by a number of Bay Area artists. You can read up on the artists at the Arc:Hive website. But it's more than just a linear story - many of the components that make up the world being displayed on stage for the next two weeks are also the technical bits and bobbins that get overlooked. It's a very tech intensive show, with projected images, sounds, costumes, and very specific set dressing.

One of the things that struck me as I watched a rehearsal was the sound. There was music and sound in there that I couldn't identify. Lessa chose to use music by a number of artists local to her hometown of Detroit.  Detroit's a city with rich musical history - it was the foundation of Motown and has its roots in jazz. Of course Eminem is the most recent version of Detroit's musical history, but there's a lot of interesting music that the Arc:Hive project brought to the table.

Frank Pahl's Scavenger Quartet provides some of the sonic background for the show.

We also listened to a little Audra Kubat, another musician from Detroit. 

Moving a little west to Chicago, we have some music by Wooden Rings

"Finding Me" by Wooden Rings 2012 from Ramah Jihan on Vimeo.

If you like what you hear, go check out these indie artists and pick up an album. If you like what you saw on stage, the sprites need a little help with fundraising - hit their Indiegogo site up and feed the sprites!  Thanks for supporting new talent!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

A little hump day artistic inspiration

"Theatre is a safe place to do the unsafe things that need to be done. When it’s not a safe place, it’s abusive to actors and to audiences alike. When its safety is used to protect cowards masquerading as heroes, its a boring travesty. An actor who is truly heroic reveals the divine that passes through him, that aspect of himself that he does not own and cannot control. The control and the artistry of the heroic actor is in service to his soul.

We live in an era of enormous cynicism. Do not be fooled.

Don't act for money. You'll start to feel dead and bitter.

Don't act for glory. You'll start to feel dead, fat, and fearful.

We live in an era of enormous cynicism. Do not be fooled.

You can't avoid all the pitfalls. There are lies you must tell. But experience the lie. See it as something dead an unconnected you clutch. And let it go.

Act from the depth of your feeling imagination. Act for celebration, for search, for grieving, for worship, to express that desolate sensation of wandering through the howling wilderness. Don't worry about Art. Do these things and it will be Art."

 - John Patrick Shanley (part of the author's note from The Big Funk)

Playwright John Patrick Shanley

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Who Is Ron Hutchinson?

Ron Hutchinson was born in 1947 near Lisburn, Northern Ireland. He moved with his family to Coventry where he attended school. He got his start in theatre by attending plays at Coventry's Belgrade Theatre. One of his first plays, Risky City, was produced by the Belgrade Theatre in 1981 where it was directed by a trainee director by the name of Michael Boyd. Michael Boyd later went on to become the Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company from 2002-2012, while Ron Hutchinson became a playwright-in-residence with the RSC in the 1980's and eventually left to move to L.A. to write screenplays.

Mr. Hutchinson is a prolific writer who has written more than 2 dozen plays and a number of films and television shows. His plays include Topless Mum, Says I, Says He, Rat In The Skull, an adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s Flight, and The Master and Margarita.

A winner of the John Whiting Award and other awards including the Dramatist’s Circle Award, he is an Emmy-winning feature and television writer whose credits include Murderers Among Us: The Simon Wiesenthal Story, The Josephine Baker Story, The Burning Season, The Ten Commandments, and Traffic.

Moonlight and Magnolias was commissioned by the Goodman Theatre in Chicago and premiered in 2004. Mr. Hutchinson says the following about Moonlight and Magnolias: “The inspiration for Moonlight came when I was visiting my father in England. I was reading Daily, Daily, the autobiography of Ben Hecht’s week rewriting Gone with the Wind, and literally from one footstep to another, it struck me, wow—this is classical farce. Can you imagine? All the elements are there. Three high-powered individuals lock themselves in a room existing on peanuts and bananas, and they are ever mindful that the clock is ticking, in a total pressure cooker situation.” He also says that “Moonlight and Magnolias, was really more of a celebration to correct the image of film’s golden age writers, directors, and producers than an indictment of Hollywood. Though Hecht is the voice in the play, the hero is the producer David Selznick. Too often today, the producer’s image is that of the sleazy, behind the scene guy, who rakes in the money. Selznick had everything on the line: his fortune, reputation, and his marriage. The producers of yesteryear are the ones upon which the industry was built. I’ve had the great fortune to work with some outstanding producers who aren’t afraid to make the tough decisions.”

Mr. Hutchinson lives and works in Los Angeles and teaches screen-writing at the American Film Institute.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Fun Facts: Gone With the Wind

Because of its length, the novel sold for $3 a copy, 50 cents higher than most hard-bound books of the day. The book weighed 2 1/2 pounds.

Gone With the Wind is the only book that Margaret Mitchell ever published. With Gone with the Wind she won the National Book Award for Most Distinguished Novel of 1936 and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1937.

Half a million feet of film were shot. All of it was edited down to only 20,000 feet.

When Victor Fleming came on board in February 1939, he rejected the script. Production was shut down for 17 days while it was rewritten by Ben Hecht. Hecht used Sidney Howard's original script (which he felt was superb) as the basis for his rewrite.

After the opening titles, there is a scene-setting crawl which was originally written by Ben Hecht. Nothing like this appears in the novel and, privately, Margaret Mitchell was none too enthused by it.

One month after the book was published, David O. Selznick purchased the movie rights from Margaret Mitchell for an unprecedented $50,000. At the time it was the highest sum that had ever been paid for an author's first novel. Realizing he had underpaid Mitchell, Selznick gave her an additional $50,000 as a bonus when he dissolved Selznick-International Pictures in 1942.

It is estimated that if David Selznick included all the dialogue from the book in the movie, Gone With The Wind would be about 168 hours long. And that is just the dialogue... they would still have to add all the dances and so on.

Mitchell told friends she considered Basil Rathbone perfect casting for Rhett (this was before he had played Sherlock Holmes on screen). When the press asked her for her choice, she threw them off by suggesting Groucho Marx or Donald Duck.

Vivien Leigh worked for 125 days and received about $25,000. Clark Gable worked for 71 days and received over $120,000.

After a few requests for background information from producer David O. Selznick's researchers, Mitchell refused to have anything to do with the film. She did not consider herself an expert on Southern history and did not want to be held responsible for any historical inaccuracies that might make it to the screen. Instead she suggested they hire Atlanta historian Wilbur Kurtz and writer Susan Myrick, who made numerous contributions to the production.

Gone with the Wind was the first color film to win the Best Picture Oscar. It is the longest movie ever to win a Best Picture Award, being almost 4 hours long.

 Melanie’s blue dress had the hoops removed and was only shot from the waist up since aspect ratio of the time couldn’t accommodate two dresses built with hoops in the same shot.

The biggest star to come out of the talent search was a New York hat model named Edythe Marrener. After testing her in Hollywood, Selznick told her she didn't have what it took to be a movie star. She decided to stay on anyway and changed her name to Susan Hayward.

When nobody could figure out how to shoot the camera movement at the end of Scarlett's first scene with her father -- which involved synching film of the actors, a sunset effect and two different matte paintings, all shot at different times -- production manager Ray Klune turned to the UCLA math department, which calculated the effect using advanced calculus.

Scarlett's retching in the "I'll never be hungry again" scene had to be post-dubbed, but the ladylike Leigh could not produce a believable sound, so de Havilland dubbed it in for her.

At the Oscar ceremonies, host Bob Hope quipped, "It's a great thing -- this benefit for David O. Selznick."

Margaret Mitchell did not approve of the text at the introduction that reads: "There was once a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind..."

There were more people in that section in Atlanta during the premier than there were at the height of the Civil War, when the soldiers were defending the city.

For the premier in Atlanta on December 15, 1939, the governor of Georgia declared a state holiday. Ticket prices for the premier were going 40 times the usual rate.

Selznick's first choice for Rhett was actor Gary Cooper. But he passionately rejected the role. He said "Gone With The Wind is going to be the biggest flop in Hollywood history. I'm glad it's going to be Clark Gable falling flat on his feet, and not Gary Cooper."

In August 1936, six weeks after publication, Macmillan estimated that if all copies of Gone With The Wind that were sold were piled on top of each other, the stack would rise 50 times higher than the empire state building.

Gone With The Wind stayed the #1 best selling book in America for 2 whole years (1936-1937).

The first scene to be shot was the burning of the Atlanta Depot, filmed on 10 December 1938. If there was a major mistake during the filming, the entire film might have been scrapped. They actually burned many old sets that needed to be cleared from the studio backlot, including sets from The Garden of Allah (1936) and the "Great Wall" set from King Kong (1933). The fire cost over $25,000, and yielded 113 minutes of footage. It was so intense that Culver City residents jammed the telephones lines, thinking MGM was burning down.

Mitchell wrote the end of the book first. She knew Rhett and Scarlett weren't going to make it. The first chapter is the one she wrote last, and it is also the one that she liked the least.

If ticket prices are adjusted for inflation, Gone With the Wind is the highest grossing film of all time. Behind Gone With the Wind comes, in order, Star Wars, The Sound of Music, E.T The Extra Terrestrial, and finally Titanic.

The horse that Thomas Mitchell rode was later Silver of The Lone Ranger (1949) fame.

There are more than 50 speaking roles and 2,400 extras in the film. 1,100 horses were used in this film.

Gone With The Wind is the 34th best selling book of all time.

1,400 actresses were interviewed for the part of Scarlett O'Hara. 400 were asked to do readings.

Prominent Atlanta preacher Martin Luther King, Sr. (father of Martin Luther King) was invited to the cotillion ball held in Atlanta at the film's premiere. King, Sr. had been urged to boycott the festivities by other community leaders because none of the black actors in the film were allowed to attend. A forward thinker, King, Sr. attended because he was invited - and brought along his famous son with him.

The film had its first preview on 9 September 1939 at the Fox Theatre in Riverside, California. In attendance were David O. Selznick, his wife Irene Mayer Selznick, investor John Hay Whitney and editor Hal C. Kern. Kern called for the manager and explained that his theater had been chosen for the first public screening of Gone with the Wind (1939) though the identity of the film was to remain undisclosed to the audience until the very moment it began. People were permitted to leave only if they didn't want to hang around for a film that they didn't know the name of, but after they'd gone, the theater was to be sealed with no re-admissions and no phone calls. The manager was reluctant but eventually agreed. His one request was to call his wife to come to the theater immediately, although he was forbidden to tell her what film she was about to see. Indeed, Kern stood by him while he made his phone call to ensure he maintained the secret. When the film began, the audience started yelling with excitement. They had been reading about this film for nearly 2 years, so were naturally thrilled to see it for themselves.

In 1939, the Hollywood Production Code dictated what could and could not be shown or said on screen, and Rhett Butler's memorable last line presented a serious problem. A few of the suggested alternatives were "Frankly my dear... I just don't care," "... it makes my gorge rise," "... my indifference is boundless," "... I don't give a hoot," and "... nothing could interest me less." Although legend persists that the Hays Office fined Selznick $5,000 for using the word "damn", in fact the Motion Picture Association board passed an amendment to the Production Code on November 1, 1939, to insure that Selznick would be in compliance with the code. Henceforth, the words "hell" and "damn" would be banned except when their use "shall be essential and required for portrayal, in proper historical context, of any scene or dialogue based upon historical fact or folklore ... or a quotation from a literary work, provided that no such use shall be permitted which is intrinsically objectionable or offends good taste." With that amendment, the Production Code Administration had no further objection to Rhett's closing line, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn."

Clark Gable was so stressed out for the requirement that he cry when Scarlett has her miscarriage, he almost quit. Olivia de Havilland convinced him to stay, and cry. After watching a clip of him crying and one without crying, Gable admitted that when he cried, the clip was better.

Hattie McDaniel, who played Mammy, was the first African-American to be nominated for an Oscar. She also won. She would remain the only African American actor to win an award until 1964 when Sidney Poitier won the Best Actor Award.

None of the African American cast were allowed to attend the movie’s premiere. The fact that Hattie McDaniel would be unable to attend the premiere in racially segregated Atlanta annoyed Clark Gable so much that he threatened to boycott the premiere unless she could attend. He later relented when she convinced him to go.

Olivia de Havilland always meticulously researched her roles. As she had not yet had a baby in real life, she visited a maternity hospital to study how various women coped with the stresses of childbirth for the scene where Melanie has her baby. Off-camera, the scene's director, George Cukor, would occasionally pinch her toes to make her feel pain.

Although he was dismissed from the production, George Cukor continued to privately coach both Vivien Leigh and Olivia de Havilland at their request on weekends.

The character of Ashley Wilkes was based on Margaret Mitchell's cousin by marriage John "Doc" Holliday. Melanie was based on Mitchell's third-cousin, and Doc's first cousin and close friend, Mattie "Sister Melanie" Holliday. Doc moved West and became the gambler and gunfighter we know. Mattie joined a convent and became a nun, but maintained a correspondence with Doc.

The film has never been cut. Recent releases are longer because of the added Overture, intermission, and exit music, not because any deleted scenes have been restored.

The four principals were billed on the film's posters in this order: Clark Gable, followed by Leslie Howard and Olivia de Havilland and then "presenting" Vivien Leigh. This changed when Leigh won the Oscar.

David O. Selznick bought the rights to the best selling novel for $50,000. Louis B. Mayer, Selznick's father-in-law and head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, was determined to make Gone with the Wind an MGM film. Mayer initially offered to buy Selznick out at a handsome profit. Warner Bros. offered Bette Davis, Errol Flynn and advantageous financing. Selznick's own distributor United Artists showed interest in providing a production financing package. However, none of them had an actor capable of portraying Rhett Butler except MGM, which offered a deal that included Clark Gable. After much vacillating on Selznick's part, a deal was struck with MGM on January 19, 1938 that gave Selznick Clark Gable and $1.25 million toward production costs, in return for giving MGM distribution rights and 50% of the profits, which were further reduced by Loew's Inc.'s 15% interest and a requirement to pay Gable's $4,500 per week salary and one-third of Gable's $50,000 loan-out bonus. Gone with the Wind was, of course, a box office triumph, grossing over $20 million during its initial release alone. Selznick eventually earned $4 million on the picture. Unfortunately, a few years later he sold his rights to John Hay Whitney for a paltry $400,000 to keep his independent production company afloat. John Hay Whitney later sold the rights to Gone with the Wind back to MGM for a $2.4 million.

The Ku Klux Klan was written out of the screenplay as the organization to which Frank Kennedy turns after Scarlett is attacked in Shantytown. Producer David O. Selznick said that he had no desire to remake The Birth of a Nation, telling screenwriter Sidney Howard in 1937, "I do hope you will agree with me on this omission of what might come out as an unintentional advertisement for intolerant societies in these fascist-ridden times. . . ."

Judy Garland was the leading contender for the role of Scarlett's sister Carreen before her Andy Hardy series co-star Ann Rutherford was cast, but she was tied up with commitments to another film directed by Victor Fleming: The Wizard of Oz. Ironically, Fleming would replace George Cukor on both The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind.

The only four actors David O. Selznick ever seriously considered for the role Rhett Butler were Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Errol Flynn and Ronald Colman. The chief impediment to Gable's casting was his MGM contract. Gable was not drawn to the material; he didn't see himself in a period production, and didn't believe that he could live up to the public's anticipation of the character. Eventually, he was persuaded by a $50,000 bonus which would enable him to divorce his second wife Maria ("Ria") and marry Carole Lombard.

Nothing in the internal memos of David O. Selznick indicates or suggests that Clark Gable played any role in the dismissal of director George Cukor. Rather, they show Selznick's mounting dissatisfaction with Cukor's slow pace and quality of work. Almost half of Cukor's scenes were scrapped or later re-shot by others. From a private letter from journalist Susan Myrick to Margaret Mitchell in February 1939: "George [Cukor] finally told me all about it. He hated [leaving the production] very much he said but he could not do otherwise. In effect he said he is an honest craftsman and he cannot do a job unless he knows it is a good job and he feels the present job is not right. For days, he told me he has looked at the rushes and felt he was failing... the things did not click as it should. Gradually he became convinced that the script was the trouble... So George just told David he would not work any longer if the script was not better and he wanted the [Sidney] Howard script back... he would not let his name go out over a lousy picture... And bull-headed David said 'OK get out!'" Selznick had already been unhappy with Cukor ("a very expensive luxury") for not being more receptive to directing other Selznick assignments, even though Cukor had remained on salary since early 1937; and in a confidential memo written in September 1938, four months before principal photography began, Selznick flirted with the idea of replacing him with Victor Fleming. "I think the biggest black mark against our management to date is the Cukor situation and we can no longer be sentimental about it.... We are a business concern and not patrons of the arts... ."

Writer Sidney Howard was paid $2,000 a week to do the screenplay. Many other writers contributed to the final script, with the final sum paid to every one of them being $126,000. Sidney Howard received sole screen credit. David O. Selznick also wrote much of the screenplay.

Even though he played Brent Tarleton in the movie, the opening credits mistakenly say that Fred Crane played Stuart and that George Reeves played Brent.

Margaret Mitchell's nickname was "Peggy."

Micheal Jackson paid $1,542,500 for David Selznick's best picture Oscar from Gone with the Wind.

Margaret Mitchell hated the sets for Tara and Twelve Oaks. She said, "I grieve to hear that Tara has columns. Of course, it didn't and looked nice and ugly like Alex Stephens' Liberty Hall in Crawfordville, Georgia.' And, "I had feared, of course that Twelve Oaks would end up looking like the Grand Central Station, and your description confirms my worst apprehensions. I did not know whether to laugh or throw up at the TWO staircases... God help me when the reporters get me after I've seen the picture. I will have to tell the truth, and if Tara has columns and Twelve Oaks is such an elegant affair I will have to say that nothing like that was ever seen in Clayton County, or, for that matter, on land or sea... When I think of the healthy, hardy country and somewhat crude civilization I depicted and then of the elegance that is going to be presented, I cannot help yelping with laughter..."

David Selznick used all 7 Technicolor cameras in existence for the filming of Gone with the Wind.

There were a total of 5 directors for Gone with the Wind. First was George Cukor, who was fired because Clark Gable didn't like him. Then, Sam Wood was hired to fill in. The director came in next, and got all the credit, was Victor Fleming. During the filming, Fleming collapsed from exhaustion, so Selznick called in two second-unit men to direct temporarily.