Monthly Archives: September 2016

How the 90s changed theatre in the UK

There seems to be a bit of a 90s revival going on. The Lyric Hammersmith recently staged a 20th-anniversary production of Mark Ravenhill’s Shopping and Fucking, Philip Ridley’s 1991 play The Pitchfork Disney opens at Shoreditch Town Hall, directed by Jamie Lloyd, later this week, and Martin Crimp’s The Treatment is to be revived by Lyndsey Turner at the Almeida in April. Meanwhile, at Styx in Tottenham Hale, Rift are staging a whole 90s season kicking off with Sarah Kane’s Blasted, and featuring Anthony Neilson’s Normal and Caryl Churchill’s The Skriker (which had a brilliant revival with Maxine Peake in Manchester in 2015).

It’s good to see The Skriker in the Rift season because it hints at the fact that the range of plays produced in the 90s goes far beyond the In-Yer-Face moniker, which has tended to define the era. With hindsight that tag hasn’t always been most helpful because of the narrowness of the label and its emphasis on sex and violence. Yes, the 1990s did produce Kane, Ravenhill and Jez Butterworth, but it produced a wide range of voices including Roy Williams, Jonathan Harvey, Judy Upton, Zinnie Harris, David Eldridge, Helen Edmundson, David Harrower, Ayub Khan-Din, Martin McDonagh, Linda McLean, Patrick Marber and David Greig to name just a few. Scotland – in particular the Traverse in Edinburgh – saw as much of a boom as London.

The 1990s also produced Frantic Assembly and Blast Theory and saw companies such as Complicite and Forced Entertainment come to maturity. The Skriker was a boundary-breaking collaboration with choreographer Ian Spink, a coming together of text and movement that is common now in British theatre but wasn’t at the time. Stephen Daldry’s 1992 production of An Inspector Calls, designed so brilliantly by Ian McNeill, was another marker that British theatre was beginning to change as we moved into a new decade.

Back in 1991, in his book One Night Stands, Michael Billington was able to assert with confidence that “new writing for the theatre is in a state of crisis.” Less than five years later it would be equally possible to assert that UK playwriting had not enjoyed such a time of invention and boom since the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean period. We could argue forever whether Blasted really is a great play or whether Shopping and Fucking will still be revived in 50 years’ time, but actually the individual brilliance and longevity (or not) of particular plays is less interesting than the conditions in theatre that existed back in the early-to-mid 1990s that supported such a thrilling explosion of writers.
In the 90s, new writing had an opportunity to thrive. If there is one thing that the 1990s playwriting boom tells us it is that theatrical activity breeds ever more theatrical activity and that leads to more writers and theatre-makers and bigger audiences.

When the Bush’s Dominic Dromgoole and the Court’s Stephen Daldry agreed over a drink one evening to start claiming that it was a golden age for British playwriting, who is to say whether it was fact or myth. What it certainly did was fuel confidence, which in theatre breeds more confidence. One hit leads to another.

The London pub theatre scene which had lost the radical impetus of its invention in the late 1960s, began to thrive again in the 90s. Soho Theatre – then the Cockpit Theatre – expanded its writers’ programme. Touring companies including Out of Joint, founded by Max Stafford Clark after leaving the Court, contributed to the excitement around new writing. Vicky Featherstone, an assistant director at the Court in 1990 and then a literary associate at the Bush, took over Paines Plough in 1997 where new writing once again thrived.

Dromgoole’s presence at the Bush and the arrival of Daldry to reinvigorate the Royal Court were clearly significant factors in the blooming. In the case of Daldry it wasn’t just the fact that, like Dromgoole, he had a sharp eye and keen ear for the possibilities of a play, but also because he realised that the Court needed to expand production at a time of financial constraint, not retract. More slots meant more voices and newer voices.

Bringing Graham Whybrow into the Court as literary manager spurred the march of a new generation who wanted to reflect the world in which they found themselves, using a language and form that often owed more to popular culture, or growing up in a house where the TV was always on and the adverts blaring, than to Look Back in Anger.

Writing in the 2002 edition of his astute book The Full Room, Dromgoole observed that it was way too soon to know which of the plays from the period might survive, but added: “What is beyond denial is that there is no more fertile soil for greatness than an enthusiasm for the task, and there has been no more enthusiastic time than the one just past.” Twenty years on, it may still be too soon to say which of the plays from that period will survive, but British theatre is still reaping the benefits of a remarkable time.

How Theater for Young People Could Save the World

March 20th is World Theater for Children and Young People Day. Some of you might be thinking, “Oh lord, why do we need a day to celebrate actors being silly, wearing bright colors and singing obnoxiously at squirming kiddos and bored parents?”

But if you think that’s what Theatre for Young People is, you’re missing out on truly powerful, hilarious, bold, engaging, surprising theater that might just save the world.

Around the world artists are creating a new stripe of Theatre for Young People that combines the elegance of dance, the innovation of devised theater, the freshness of new plays, the magnetism of puppetry and the inciting energy of new musicals. Kids have access to more and more mature theatrical visions premiering from Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center to Atlanta’s Synchronicity Theatre to San Francisco’s Handful Players to Ireland to Adelaide to Kosovo to Cape Town.

These plays range from re-imagined fairy tales and adaptations of favorite books to brand-new plays and electric new musicals about everything from physics to bullying to the American Civil War.

But how could theater, especially theater for young people, really matter in a world as fraught and disparity-scattered as ours?

Not to sound overly grand (too late), but so much of the toxicity in this world comes from a collective draining of empathy. We don’t understand each other, and we don’t want to. But theater invites us — no, forces us — to empathize.

As my friend Bill English of San Francisco’s SF Playhouse says, theater is like a gym for empathy. It’s where we can go to build up the muscles of compassion, to practice listening and understanding and engaging with people that are not just like ourselves. We practice sitting down, paying attention and learning from other people’s actions. We practice caring.

Kids need this kind of practice even more than adults do. This is going to be their planet and they’ve got more time to apply that empathy and make a difference. Buddhist roshi Joan Halifax challenges us to actively and specifically teach children (and vote for presidents with) empathy. Why not take your child to the theater to do just that.

In fact “Take A Child to the Theatre Today” is the campaign theme of The International Association of Theaters for Young Audiences for the next three years.

If you take a child to the theater, not only will they practice empathy, they might also laugh uproariously, or come home singing about science, or want to know more about history, or tell you what happened at school today, or spend all dinner discussing music, or learn how to handle conflict, or start becoming future patrons of the arts.

On March 20th, take a child to the theater. Take them all the time. And don’t “sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.” Lean forward, engage and start changing the world for the better.

Candleman is a 3D platformer that will make your heart melt

Proper 3D platformers are a rarity these days, especially on the Xbox One. That’s why we’re intrigued by Candleman, a charming adventure featuring a tiny wax-based hero. To succeed, you’ll need to decide when and how to melt your little candle. Illumination can trigger vital bridges, or spook dangerous ghosts. As your hero shrinks in size, you’re also able to jump higher and flutter across gaps that would otherwise be impossible to traverse. The caveat? Candleman can only burn for 10 seconds before he disappears entirely. To survive, you’ll need to get used to the dark.

Candleman is also unusual because it was developed by Spotlighter, an indie outfit based in Beijing, China. Few Xbox One games emerge from this region — unsurprisingly, most of the console’s software comes from Western developers, playing to the audience Microsoft has nurtured in the US and Europe. Candleman started as a game jam project in 2013, and quickly gained recognition for its resource-based puzzle-platforming.

Marta Becket, desert icon who made the Amargosa Opera House a destination

Becket, who died Monday at 92, spent decades presenting self-written, one-woman shows at the Amargosa Opera House, first in front of only empty seats and then full houses as fans drove deep into the desert to watch her perform.

The opera house in Death Valley Junction, a former mining hub seven miles from the Nevada state line, was at once a classic desert curiosity and a cultural beacon in the middle of nowhere.

A classically trained dancer who grew up in New York and danced at Radio City Music Hall, Becket made her debut at the opera house in 1968.

By her estimation, the population of Death Valley Junction was two — she and her husband. When he left her, the population shrank to one.

Aside from the occasional drifter, nobody arrived to see her performances. So she painted a large and festive audience on the walls and a Renaissance-style explosion of billowy clouds, cherubs and musicians in an ocean of blue on the ceiling.

“People asked why I did it, and I said ‘Well, I have to be ready when they do show up,’” she said in a 2008 interview.

Initially she rented the opera house for $45 a month, and then bought the place outright along with an adjoining hotel, which she fixed up — each of its 14 rooms with murals of peacocks, clowns, ballerinas. She lived in a small shack behind the opera house with a dozen or so cats, two burros, a rooster and a flock of peacocks, including one named Vladimir.

An out-of-work chemical plant worker from Trona — another tired-out desert mining town — arrived in Death Valley Junction in the early ‘80s to work as a handyman.

He helped with repairs, bolted down all 114 seats in the opera house, sold tickets at the door, became her stage manager and in 1983 made his stage debut with Becket. His role in “The Second Mortgage,” which dramatized Becket’s struggle to hang on to the theater, called for him to recline in a lounge chair and leaf through a copy of Variety.

Willett died in 2005, and Becket continued to perform — asking the audience to pretend that he was still there, tromping across stage. Sometimes she’d step off the stage and leave the theater in silence, urging the audience to use its imagination to see her old partner.

National Geographic wrote about the opera house. TV crews arrived. And a 2000 documentary about Becket won an Emmy. Shows sold out. Fans showed up just to meet her.

She typically created two new shows each year and performed from October to May, when the blistering temperatures would begin to thin out the crowds

Screenwriter Todd Robinson, who directed the documentary “Amargosa,” told The Times in 2000 that he was overwhelmed when he first caught a performance.

“To me, she made Amargosa more than a place. It’s a state of mind about pure creative spirit.

By the time she was 87, Becket’s knees and hips had given out from decades of dancing. Unwilling to retire completely, she performed a show she called “Sitting Down,” singing but not moving around.

She quit performing altogether in 2012, but was a presence — sometimes in the front row, sometimes scooting through the hotel lobby in a motorized wheelchair — as others stepped in and performed.

In 2006, she wrote an autobiography, “To Dance on Sands,” a story of art blooming in unexpected places.

“Out here,” she told The Times in 1999, waving to the great emptiness and shifting sands outside the opera house, “anything seemed possible.”