Sonia Velasquez endeavors to explore the question “What was Theatre?”

By Whit Emerson

Velazquez.soniaThere is a question that Dr. Sonia Velazquez attempted to answer in a new graduate level course this year: “What was Theatre?” The course might sound a bit mysterious but it covers medieval to early modern theatre in England, France, and Spain. New critical theory tools and contemporary ideas have lead many scholars to reexamine medieval texts, with the field being seen as wide open to new rules of interpretation. Most people think of theatre from the middle ages as dominated by the church and stilted in its performance. How can its study be liberating?

“So how do you approach a text? You look for your author. Well guess what? We don’t have an author and in the middle ages and there were no titles. By and large, these were concepts that were solidified much later. I’m fascinated when everything you thought you knew about how to read a text is no longer valid.” In a discipline with little concrete information to go on, a scholar must be either a good researcher or a good theorist. Which one is Dr. Velazquez? “I’m more into theory,” she laughs.

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Jusepe de Ribera (Spanish, 1591-1652), Mary Magdalene, 1641. Oil on canvas. Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, P1103. Image © Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid.

Dr. Velazquez holds a PhD from Princeton in Spanish Literature and Culture and has a background in comparative literature and world language education. She used theatre as a teaching tool for her students in Spanish language classes. “It was difficult for them to read the play out loud in Spanish so I made them imagine the play being produced. I asked the students to think about what they would do with [Calderon’s play] Life is a Dream.” Fluent in Spanish, English, French, and Norwegian, Dr. Velazquez tends to approach theatre from a literary analysis angle, but is quick to point out that text is just one tool in understanding theatre. “Another thing that I like about this time period is we see the emergence of theatre as a valid form of media.”

Dr. Velazquez splits time between teaching theatre and religious studies. Her forthcoming book, Promiscuous Grace: Rethinking Religion and Beauty with St. Mary of Egypt discusses the interplay of beauty and holiness and focuses on St. Mary of Egypt. In the spring, besides the theatre class, she also taught a religion class dealing with Greek myths and transformations.

So what is another course we can look forward to in the future? “I’d like to teach a course on adaptations, how a text can move through different media,” she says excitedly. Sounds like a great course to have, especially with the recent success of book-to-TV adaptations like Game of Thrones and book-to-play adaptations like Les Misérables. It’s something all young scholars would love to learn.

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IU production of ‘Into the Woods’ brings it with full force

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Mia Fitzgibbon and Robert Toms rehearse a scene from “Into the Woods.”

Stephen Sondheim’s musicals are synonymous with American theater, and at their best, they turn the cultural icons we know and love on their heads. Such is the case with “Into the Woods,” which opened Friday at Indiana University. What’s more beloved than classical fairy tale characters like Snow White, Rapunzel, Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood? Sondheim and James Lapine take these characters and put them all together in a forest teeming with menace.

“Ah,” but I hear you say, “‘Shrek’ did that, and it was adorable.” This is true, but while the ogre’s tale gave us a whimsical side, “Into the Woods” shows us that the real world can intrude on the fairy tale, so you must be very careful what you wish for.

As the story begins, the fairy tale characters all live in a far-off kingdom, along with a childless baker and his wife. The couple learn of a curse placed on their house by a neighboring witch and what they must do to lift the spell. The stories begin to intertwine, told in some of Sondheim’s best songs.

The IU production brought it with full force. It was one of those shows where the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. Individual performers had their moments, but when the ensemble came together for the group numbers, they were right on target, between Terry LaBolt’s musical direction and Kenneth Roberson’s stage direction — aided by Liza Gennaro’s choreography.

Standouts in the cast include Kaitlyn Smith as Little Red Riding Hood, Brian Bandura as the wolf, and Christian Fary and Elaine Cotter as the baker and his wife. Kelsey Shaw displayed some range as the witch, but I felt like she played too many scenes directly to the audience, rather than acting with the other characters in the scene with her.

I had some minor quibbles with the sound, as the orchestra sometimes overwhelmed the singers, but I also have to applaud the company’s innovation, like their idea of using actors to portray Cinderella’s bird friends and Jack’s cow. Between the puppetry and actor Kevin Renn’s movements, Milky White the cow was very emotive.

Christopher Rhoton’s scene design did a great job balancing the claustrophobic nature of the indoor scenes with a very striking presentation of the vastness and ancientness of the titular woods in autumn. A sunken staircase felt like it had been there for decades, and the trees periodically wept red and yellow leaves to the stage. These are no ordinary woods, and the design lent an “otherness” to them that was just right for the story.

True to form, the first act — clocking in at a hefty 85 minutes — introduced our characters, put them in precarious situations, and then gave them a happy outcome. You’re just about ready to believe that it’s done in one, until our narrator utters those infamous words, “To be continued.” What follows in the second act is as dark as midnight, with the naive characters facing the consequences of their fondest wishes. If you don’t have a tear in your eye by the time the baker and the mysterious man sing “No More,” you may have left your heart in the parking lot.

Of course, it’s not all gloom and doom. There are plenty of light-hearted moments. When the two princes duet on “Agony” — one of musical theater’s rare songs for two men — it’s a thing of comical beauty, and Robert Toms and Joey Birchler sell it perfectly.

At the final curtain, the full house was on its feet, roaring and cheering their approval for this energetic, heartfelt offering of one of Sondheim’s best-loved works. Only seen the movie? Baby, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

If you go

WHO: IU Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance.

WHAT: “Into the Woods,” by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine.

WHERE: Ruth N. Halls Theater, 275 N. Jordan Ave., Bloomington.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. April 21-25; 2 p.m. April 25.

TICKETS: $15-$25. Call 812-855-1103 or visit theatre.indiana.edu.

Reprinted with permission from The Herald Times – read review at http://www.heraldtimesonline.com/news/local/iu-production-of-into-the-woods-brings-it-with-full/article_7399149c-1adb-5efa-b708-8fd25789356c.html

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Adam McLean, Fight Choreographer for Mauricio Miranda’s AMERICAN ASTEROID

By Whit Emerson

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Adam McLean looks on in Tech Week fight rehearsal

Adam McLean’s office is a dangerous place. Between the axe on his desk, the Kali sticks by the window, and the numerous swords placed about the room, most people would feel nervous. But assistant professor McLean comfortably reclines in his chair and snacks on almond butter between his classes. McLean is a Certified Teacher with the Society of American Fight Directors. He holds a black sash in Wing Chun Kung Fu and has taught the martial arts of Silat and Kali. The axe is one of many weapons wielded by characters in the new play American Asteroid by Mauricio Miranda, which McLean is choreographing.

“The axe, because they need the weight of it, is a real axe that has been dulled down. How do you get two actors to struggle over something that heavy? It’s a big challenge,” McLean emphasizes. Other challenges for that show include a rubber hammer strike to the head and an actor being dumped out of a wheelchair. “That’s the job of fight direction anyway, to solve a problem.”

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Zach Decker, Ross Rebennack, and Chris Handley

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Director Henry Woronicz with McLean and cast

Designing stage violence is like any other design aspect of the play. Just as designers craft lighting to evoke a certain mood, physical struggle can be shaped to have the same effect. Communication is key in establishing the director’s vision for the drama. Actors have to be sensitive to both the stage director and fight choreographer in order for everyone to be safe. “Working with the director (Henry Woronicz) is fantastic. The way he directs is awesome, he gives me lots of space. He is very specific about what he needs and what the actors need -what the characters need- so there is no doubt what they need in that moment. It’s my job to figure out how.”

McLean has trained in stage combat for over 15 years, performing in plays, musicals, and opera. He has choreographed numerous fights from Illinois to Massachusetts. McLean has an MFA in Theatre Pedagogy and previously taught at Florida State University and Emerson College in Boston. What’s next for this stage violence and movement expert? Not content with his already extensive teaching and training background in stage combat, McLean says, “I’m teaching non-stop in workshops across the country.” He is on track to be a full Fight Director with the Society of American Fight Directors – one step away from the highest rank of Fight Master.

Ph.D. student Whit Emerson received his B.A. in Theatre Arts from Appalachian State University and his M.A. in Theatre Studies from the University of Central Florida. His research interests include intercultural performance, modern Chinese theatre, comedy, state-controlled theatre, edutainment, stage movement, and the historical avant-garde. 

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Campus Collaborations: Bringing Shakespeare’s music to IU Theatre productions

Huebsch_headshot 1By Bruce Walsh

When Sarah Huebsch plays a reproduction of a 16th century oboe, she feels centuries of music and musicians flowing through her person. It’s a rush to say the least, perhaps not unlike what actors feel when they perform the works of William Shakespeare.

“It’s like you’re bringing to life sounds and compositions that were originally brought to life centuries ago. There’s something really special about that experience every single time it happens,” she explains, while sitting in Angles Café in the IU Art Museum.

A D.M. student at the Historical Performance Institute of the Jacobs School of Music, Huebsch is helping to foster an unprecedented relationship with IU’s Department of Theatre, Drama, and Contemporary Dance, as well as building collaborations that raise the profile of early music on campus. The most recent event, From the HeART, which promoted the current production of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, involved the IU Art Museum, IU Theatre, and HPI musicians.

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Huebsch in rehearsal with her Renaissance Wind Band, Forgotten Clefs

Last summer she organized concerts of 16th century chamber music on 16th century instruments before each performance of Twelfth Night at IU’s Indiana Festival Theatre. This year, director Nancy Lipschultz invited Huebsch to join the production team of Romeo and Juliet. Advising sound designer Aaron Bowersox, she has helped to create a soundscape of music, evoking the London of the 1590s.

“If you’re going through all the trouble of having period costumes and choreography, you don’t want to hear Phillip Glass in that world – or even Mozart. You want the music to be relevant to the time period you’re working in,” she explains. “I think I was able to give Aaron [Bowersox] a good framework to work in. But I was amazed at the music he found on his own that was completely appropriate for the period.”

And Huebsch’s fascination with the Bard won’t end with this production. She’s currently researching a 1777 production of The Tempest art Drury Lane, London in search of a better understanding of the theatrical applications of music in the period.

“Shakespeare productions provide an incredible opportunity for music historians. Because of the massive interest in Shakespeare’s work, the scholarship is vast and excellent,” she says. “And, because theaters kept copious records, we have so much evidence as to what happened – what instruments were used and what musicians were paid. It’s a fascinating record of how and why music was utilized in the period.”

Since its founding by Thomas Binkley in 1979, the Historical Performance Institute (established as the Early Music Institute) of the Jacobs School of Music has been the pioneering, leading program of its kind in the United States.

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Herald Times Preview: Exploring the aftermath

Something important is happening at Indiana University Theatre next month, something worth talking about. They’re presenting Naomi Iizuka’s “Good Kids,” a new play commissioned by the Big Ten Theater Consortium.

The play deals with sexual violence among young people, focusing on an incident involving a student after a weekend party — something the victim herself can’t remember. But it seems everyone at school is talking about it. With so many stories going around, where does the truth lie?

Some of the cast members took time to talk to the media about this play and how meaningful it is in these times.

Junior Mandy Wenz offered, “This play is important to perform on college campuses because it confronts rape culture in a way that hits home. It’s one thing to tell people that rape can happen to anyone, but seeing the effects of rape culture live, on a stage, is more effective.”

Wenz added, “As an RA on campus, I have been trained to respond to sexual-assault incidents, and it is against my training to victim blame. “In portraying Amber, it’s as if I am playing a younger version of myself, before I had been educated on rape culture. It’s important for the audience to see a character who truly believes that rape is the victim’s fault, so they can see how damaging that is to the victim and to society.”

Senior Kelsey Carlisle shared, “Even though this play is set in high school, it is still very relevant to the college-age group. Sexual assault … happens so much that women feel unsafe walking home at night. This play shows that there are so many gray areas when it comes to what exactly happened at a party and who’s to blame for it. Most of all, it shows that these terrible situations can happen to anyone, whether you play the role of the best friend who didn’t take her home or the guy who was there and watched it happen or … the victim.”

Carlisle’s role is making her work through a lot of old memories, she says. “Kylie has this need to fit in and struggles with it. I remember how how being accepted and liked seemed like the most important thing in the world. I remember dreading going to certain classes because I knew I was going to get left out. I can relate to Kylie’s need to connect with someone. High school is hard. And the girls really are harsh.”

She calls the play “extremely important and relevant to our society right now,” and says that “the great thing about theater is that it can make people see things in a different way. When people start to feel, they remember. That alone can make a difference. This is especially true with our play, and it is absolutely important that everyone be a part of it.”

Wenz also said, “People should see this show because it … deals with things that affect us as a society today. It gives our generation a voice. And we need that. Parents, bring your teenagers. They are dealing with rape culture and social media every day, and they need to know that they are not alone. They need to know that they have the power to make a change — they are going to have to make a change.

If you go

WHO: Indiana University Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance

WHAT: “Good Kids” by Naomi Iizuka

WHERE: Wells-Metz Theater, 275 N. Jordan Ave., Bloomington

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 6-7, 10-14; 2 p.m. Feb. 14

TICKETS: $15-$25. Call 812-855-1103 or visit theatre.indiana.edu.

Reprinted with permission. See the original article here.

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Broadway choreographer Ken Roberson joins IU Musical Theatre Faculty to help students “hone the craft”.

By Whit Emerson

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Ken Roberson works with Musical Theatre B.F.A. students

How does one go from a degree in journalism to choreographing the smash hit Avenue Q? New professor of musical theatre practice Kenneth L. Roberson smiles as he readies his response, “My family was known to be great social dancers, including my father.” So it runs in the family? “The first thing I choreographed was a piece on the playground in first grade to Marvin Gaye.” It seems experience and environment are equally effective at giving you an edge in your career.

Roberson loved modern dance and musical theatre, performing in plays at the University of Georgia. After graduating with his degree in journalism, Roberson worked for a newspaper but continued to take dance classes. He flew up from Georgia to see The Wiz in New York, his first Broadway show. It was then that he knew eventually he was going to perform on those stages.

Roberson.kennethRoberson’s first professional off-Broadway show was the doo-wop musical Avenue X. He worked on and off Broadway as an actor, dancer, and choreographer for the next 15 years. Roberson went to many “cattle call” auditions for Broadway shows. Outside of one audition, a record company scout asked Roberson to be part of his group. With the addition of 4 more people the disco dance group Fantasy was formed. “It was different, it was fun,” Roberson smiles. They even had a Billboard top 10 hit and toured cross-country.

How did he make the transition from actor and dancer to choreographer? “I would be in rehearsal and directors would ask me things, and I would stay around and look. So I started assisting choreographers.” From there Roberson got a job assisting famous choreographer Hope Clarke with the Tony-winning Broadway musical Jelly’s Last Jam, directed by George C. Wolfe. Tap legend Gregory Hines played the lead in that show. “It was magical. It was all you want it to be. His generosity with other dancers and his respect for the work did not go unnoticed and stays with us.”

Eventually his choreography work lead him to the smash hit Avenue Q. Roberson enjoyed the challenge of working with actors and puppeteers. He had to walk a fine line in designing the dances, “We didn’t want the puppeteers to look like bad puppeteers.” But some puppets had to look like bad dancers. “It was humbling to work with the puppeteers and puppets.”

One of his favorite productions to choreograph was Guys and Dolls in the round at Arena Stage. The entire cast were first rate dancers. Roberson smiles and quips, “They had feet.” Is that a dig at Avenue Q? “No!” Roberson laughs.

So what is the most important thing for musical theatre students to learn? “Make a fair assessment of yourself, set your goals and work towards them. Hone the craft, hone the craft, do the work, hone, hone, hone.” Sounds like a lot of good, hard work. “Listen to constructive criticism. Your gut knows.” Great words of advice that any student can take to heart.

Roberson’s IU Theatre directing debut will be Stephen Sondheim’s INTO THE WOODS, coming to the Ruth N. Halls Theatre in April of 2015.

Whit Emerson is a first-year PhD student. Whit graduated from Appalachian State University with a B.A. in theatre arts and the University of Central Florida with an M.A. in theatre studies.
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A man of few words – Tarell Alvin McCraney play to be performed at IU

RB Water McCraney

Jean-Marc Giboux | John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur FoundationTarell Alvin McCraney was a 2013 MacArthur Fellow. The playwright’s “In the Red and Brown Water” will be open Friday at the IU Theatre.

Through the wonders of electronic mail, I was able to have a conversation with Tarell Alvin McCraney, the author of “In the Red and Brown Water.” For a prolific playwright, I found him to be a man of relatively few words, but I was able to get some more details from exactly the kind of mind that earned a MacArthur Fellowship Genius Grant.

McCraney was born in 1980 in the Liberty City area of Miami, Fla. He attended New World School of the Arts High School, earning an Exemplary Artist Award. After high school, he studied at the Theater School at DePaul University in Chicago, receiving the Sarah Siddons Award and a BFA in acting. Beyond college, Tarell attended the British-American Drama Academy (BADA) at Oxford, studying Shakespeare. But his education didn’t stop there. From the Yale School of Drama, he earned an MFA in playwriting, along with its Cole Porter Award.

With this impressive background, doors opened for him, including Chicago’s Northlight and Steppenwolf Theater companies. I asked him how this opportunity has made him a better playwright, and he responded, “Being an ensemble member at Steppenwolf allows me the freedom to write for a company of actors, directors and artists that I know, love and trust.”

Among his theatrical influences, he lists such acclaimed playwrights as John Guare, August Wilson, Lynn Nottage, Amy Herzog, Arthur Miller, Anton Chekov and Katori Hall. With Tarell’s impressive lineup of written works, he undoubtedly appears on the inspiration lists of many young playwrights himself.

In addition to “In the Red and Brown Water” (part of his “Brother/Sister Plays” trilogy), Tarell is the author of “Head of Passes,” “Choir Boy,” “American Trade,” “Without/Sin,” “Wig Out!” and “Run, Mourner, Run.” He also co-authored “The Breach,” a story of post-Katrina New Orleans.

I wondered what led him to choose rural Louisiana as the setting for “In the Red and Brown Water,” and his answer surprised me: “I didn’t. I placed it near the bayou, and everyone assumed that’s where it was, so I said sure, it can take place there.”

When I referred to McCraney’s storytelling style as groundbreaking, he was quick to remind me, “The employ of story theater in my work is not a new theatrical device. The form has been used in theater practice from Peter Brook to Noh. It allows the actors to tell the story directly to the audience and allows them to experience the movement of the story together rather than in two separate spaces.”

Having worked as a writer, actor, and director, Tarell observes, “Theater work is collaborative; it’s important to know what your collaborators do in service of the work.”

The interviewer got himself interviewed when I asked Tarell what he’d say to H-T readers to encourage them to come see his play. He replied, “Do you like the play?” (That’s a yes from me, by the way.) “You know your readers better than I do. What would you say to one of them if they said, ‘Red and Brown Water? About impoverished people in the South? Why should I see it?’ What would you say to them? Are they interested in stories about places far away yet right next door? Are they inspired by people who seemingly are different to them, yet somehow dealing with the same desire to love, live and thrive? To be honest, I hope I have put my best creative efforts inside the play rather than the pitch to see it.”

Reprinted with permission from The Herald Times. Story Link

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