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News in Brief, November 2012

New ventures in Denver, Detroit, and New York City, a close call for St. Paul’s Penumbra, an Al Hirschfeld exhibit, and more.

A Curious New Model

DENVER: “We’re all aware there is a significant conversation taking place right now across the field about the relationships between artists and institutions,” says Chip Walton, producing artistic director of Curious Theatre Company. After 15 years, Curious has decided to revamp its artistic model in hopes of creating an organization that more thoughtfully and rigorously involves artists at all levels of operations. To that end, the company is adding 14 new artists to the fold, making a total of 31 local artist members.

In addition to this more-the-merrier philosophy, Curious has also implemented new artistic groupings and governance. An artistic council will be made up of six artists who work together leading the company through conscious growth, innovative thinking and risk-taking. Producers-in-residence will operate on a rotating basis and “Curious 360” outreach events will be staged throughout the season.

Funding for this rethinking of company models was provided by the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation and the MetLife/TCG A-ha! Program: Think It. Do It. For Walton, the resulting change means that “Curious has stayed ahead of the curve, and may well be implementing innovative practices that could be of interest to the wider field.”

Drilling Down

NEW ORLEANS: The devastating Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill of April 2010 may not be making national headlines anymore, but its long-term effects on Gulf residents and their environment still constitute a story worth telling. At least,
playwright Leigh Fondakowksi thinks so, which is why she and visual artist
Reeva Wortel have been traveling to southern Louisiana since March 2011 to interview Gulf residents about their experiences and reactions to the 87-day spill
and its aftermath.

The result is Spill, a docu-theatrical piece that will have workshop performances at Bayou Playhouse in Lockport, La., on Nov. 4, at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge Nov. 18–19, and finally at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA), which supported the work’s development, Nov. 25–27. An installation of Wortel’s life-sized portraits of the play’s subjects will also be on display. Spill was originally
commissioned by the Center for the Arts at Wesleyan University.

Fondakowski, the head writer on Tectonic Theater Project’s The Laramie Project, says she “fell in love with the people” of the Gulf, whose resilience in the face of an eroding landscape and lifestyle deeply impressed her. She also learned a lot about
the weird science of deep drilling, in which drillers typically can’t even see the surface they’re penetrating.

“One interviewee said, ‘Drilling in deep water is more complex than going into space,’” Fondakowksi recalls. She started to see the oil as “this huge volatile monster that we are addicted to, pulled in by. It is worth money, but it is also our lifestyle and economy at stake. It seems to me that we are leaping into these depths without a plan for getting out if something goes wrong.”

The work-in-progress will star Tectonic member Kelli Simpkins, and Fondakowski says she plans to premiere Spill professionally some time in 2013. Go to www.nocca.com.

Match Game

NATIONWIDE: Theatre artists know the drill all too well: Google “rehearsal space,” include your zip code, and let the scramble begin—a scramble that invariably culminates in a series of phone calls. The arts service organization
Fractured Atlas is hoping to bring this fax-age process into the 21st century with the national roll-out of Spaces, a new software application that will employ a calendar-sharing functionality to match seekers with available spaces—essentially an OpenTable reservations platform for rehearsal space.

Executive director Adam Huttler says Fractured Atlas is already running similar applications in a dozen cities under different names, such as PhillySpaceFinder,
SpaceFinderLA and Austin Venue Menu. But the new project’s “Share My Calendar” feature, being tested now through NYC Performing Arts Spaces and soon to be offered in L.A. via L.A. Stage Alliance, is a game-changer, he says. “Now, instead of having to make 50 calls for last-minute space, you can search in real time across every calendar in the system.” He adds that the most dramatic results have been seen in last-minute booking. “Space is a perishable inventory—if you don’t sell it it’s gone. And until now, venues would have no way to promote the fact that they have last-minute availabilities.”

Huttler also mentions a feature, now being betatested, that would go even further than OpenTable: the “booking engine” for Spaces would allow patrons to pre-pay for the space as well as reserve it. Go to www.fracturedatlas.org.

Bad News, Hopeful Signs

ST. PAUL, MINN.: It looked like another bad-news blow, the kind the nonprofit theatre world is unfortunately all too used to these days, when the venerable Penumbra Theatre announced in September that it would suspend programming and lay off six of its full-time employees. But later that month, artistic director Lou Bellamy, who founded the African-American theatre company in 1976, sounded sanguine about the theatre’s future. Though a cash-flow shortfall of $500,000 led to serious belt-tightening, Bellamy pointed to two hopeful signs.

“We’ve got a few things that are bringing in cash streams,” he said, referring to Penumbra productions that have been sent on the road, including a “signature series” of shows that come with “an education package and an audience engagement package.”

Hawking Penumbra’s wares to other theatres won’t take up all the slack, Bellamy conceded; and that’s where donations come in. Bellamy said that “people have been stepping up—it’s been very cool.” The 255-seat theatre’s fundraising goal of
$340,000 by Jan. 1, if met, would “retire any debt and put us on firm ground. We
will be able to mount a show.” And rehire some of the laid-off workers? That may take time, Bellamy admitted: “It will be a slow growth forward.”

Still, Bellamy—who is in the midst of succession planning after 36 years at the company’s helm—sounded gratified by the response to his theatre’s hardship. “The worth of Penumbra has been demonstrated,” Bellamy said. “I think people are going to step up and help. I’ve got one more time in me, I think.” To donate, go to www.penumbratheatre.org.

Drawing Lines

ST. LOUIS, MO.: The first major hometown retrospective of St. Louis–born artist Al Hirschfeld has opened at the Sheldon Art Galleries, as part of the organization’s 100th anniversary celebration. “Al Hirschfeld’s Jazz and Broadway Scrapbook” features more than 100 original drawings, paintings, prints, collages, posters and ephemera culled from the artist’s career, revealing a heretofore unexplored appreciation of jazz. Featured also are Hirschfeld’s custom-made stereo system, jazz record collection and the African drums and Balinese shadow puppets from his home.

Hirschfeld, born in 1903, moved to New York City in 1914 at the encouragement of his art teacher. There he quickly gained footing for his witty celebrity portraits, which were marked by a linear calligraphic style. Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Lena Horne, Josephine Baker, Julie Andrews, Rex Harrison, Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey are among those whose faces have been mimicked in Hirschfeld’s distinctive curvy lines.

“Like his subjects, he improvised with pen and ink,” says curator and Hirschfeld archivist David Leopold. “Hirschfeld takes basic forms and transmutes them to make an altogether beguiling portrait of jazz.”

The artist received two lifetime achievement Tony Awards, and a 1996 documentary about him, The Line King, was nominated for an Academy Award. A Broadway theatre was named in his honor on what would have been his
100th birthday in 2003.

The retrospective will run through January 2013 and last month coincided with the American Arts Experience, a 17-day festival of concerts and theatre performances around St. Louis. “St. Louis is where Al was born and first contracted
what he called a ‘sickness for drawing,’” says the artist’s widow, Louise Kerz Hirschfeld. “We are so delighted that he is returning, in style, to his hometown.” Visit www.sheldonconcerthall.org/galleries.asp.

Down on the Corner

DETROIT: Students in Wayne State University’s Hilberry Theatre MFA program certainly perked up when they saw the syllabus for Pegi Marshall-Amundsen’s Outside the Box class: Course activities would include “extreme design” and “extreme painting.”

From Sept. 10 to Oct. 22, students found out what their professor had in mind, as they transformed a former parking lot near the Wayne State campus into a performance venue called “The Magenta Stage,” named after the local Magenta Giraffe Theatre Company. The company was a producing partner with Marshall-Amundsen, along with an initiative of ArtsCorpsDetroit’s Lots of Art program, which gave a $3,000 grant in support of the effort.

Though Magenta Giraffe didn’t mount any performances on the stage, executive artistic director Frannie Shepherd-Bates said she joined the project to raise awareness of an arts-space crisis in the city. Like too many local companies, Magenta Giraffe has no permanent home, but it’s not for lack of vacant arts venues.

“There’s a lot of space in Detroit, but it’s not all accessible and affordable,” said Shepherd-Bates. “A lot of theatres are empty and decaying, and we don’t have resources to rebuild them. So one idea is for property owners to work with artists to make spaces more usable and accessible.”

For the past month, then, Marshall-Amundsen’s students, local performers and community donors have given the community a live demo of a way forward. “During the ‘create’ phase, the designers were the performers, and the audiences were the passersby,” Marshall-Amundsen notes. “Then, in the life cycle of the space, the community became the actors, and we became the audience.”

All joined at the end for a “lot sale” and a community dinner hosted by Detroit Soup, with local actors performing showtunes. Maybe Joni Mitchell could revise her lyric: They saved paradise by transforming a parking lot! Visit www.artscorpsdetroit.wayne.edu.

Voices, Revisited

NEW YORK CITY: How do you give theatrical voice to communities whose stories often go untold? Since 1992 Ping Chong + Company has been trying to answer that question with Undesirable Elements, a series of nearly 50 productions created from interviews, part oral history and part live theatrical event.

In celebration of 20 years of this investigative approach, Ping Chong + Company will present Undesirable Elements Festival: Real People. Real Stories. Real Theatre, through Nov. 4 at New York City’s La MaMa ETC, featuring such shows as Cry for Peace: Voices from the Congo, Secret Survivors, featuring adult survivors of child sexual abuse, and Inside/Out…voices from the disability community.

“All the plays in the Undesirable Elements series share the belief that theatre can help to break the cycle of revenge, trauma and misunderstanding to create a better future for us all,” says Chong. “In this sense, the series is a prayer for compassion and social justice.”

Each show develops through an extended residency period in which Chong and associate director Sara Zatz get to know the issues and concerns facing a particular community. Creating Cry for Peace, for example, Chong and Zatz spent time in Syracuse, N.Y., which is home to a number of refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Syracuse Stage dramaturg Kyle Bass co-wrote the script with Chong and Zatz, based on interviews in the community. For more on Undesirable Elements and Ping Chong, visit www.pingchong.org.

Middle East Summit

SAN FRANCISCO: In the wake of the recent unrest over the anti-Islam video Innocence of Muslims, now seems like an especially essential time for Golden Thread Productions’s ReOrient, a festival and forum of short plays exploring the Middle East, which runs at San Francisco’s NOHspace and Z Space Nov. 1–18. “This year’s line-up questions conventional notions of identity, conflict and even peace,” says Torange Yeghiazarian, Golden Thread founding artistic director.

Programming includes 10 fully produced works by writers including Amir al-Azraki, Tawfiq al-Hakim, E.H. Benedict, Farzam Farrokhi, Yussef El Guindi, Tala Manassah, Mona Mansour, Silva Semerciyan, Jen Silverman, Reza Soroor and Naomi Wallace. The selections are as varied as the writers themselves. Al-
Hakim, Egypt’s foremost playwright, presents the allegorical War and Peace, featuring Politica, a vivacious woman forced to choose between her domineering husband, War, and her oft-disappointing lover, Peace. San Francisco–based Benedict takes on the complications of race in Orhan, about a half-Turkish, half-black British man who is accused of being a terrorist.

In addition, viewers from around the world can live-stream several panel discussions, including “Comedic Counter Terrorism” and “From ‘War on Drugs’ to ‘War on Terror’: Parallels in Latino/Chicano and Middle Eastern American Performance,” on #NewPlay TV, through the Center for the Theater Commons at www.HowlRound.com.

“As the Middle East goes through sweeping changes,” says Yeghiazarian, “we hunger for deeper understanding of how theatre informs and reflects that process. This is an opportunity to hear directly from Middle Eastern artists about their recent experiences, as well as explore unexpected bonds and shared strategies.” Visit www.goldenthread.org.

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