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News in Brief for December 2012

A roundup of news from around the U.S.

Freeing the Beast

WASHINGTON, D.C.: Playwright Mia Chung’s You for Me for You marks the first production supported by Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s Free the Beast fundraising effort. The program, which launched in May, aims to raise $4 million over the next 10 years to support the production of 25 new plays. Free the Beast plays will receive varying kinds of developmental support, including commissioning, research enhancement, readings and workshops, larger casts, extra rehearsals and increased technical resources, and each will proceed to a full Woolly Mammoth mainstage production.

Says artistic director Howard Shalwitz (who spoke about the need for holistic theatre development at the recent TCG conference), “Our extended process of working on the play—made possible by Free the Beast—has allowed all the artists to engage more deeply, to experiment with new approaches and to galvanize a shared sense of purpose.”

Chung’s play is a comedic fantasy about two North Korean sisters on the brink of starvation. When one sister is too weak to cross the border into China, the other promises to travel across time and space to save her. “Chung’s poetic fantasy movingly depicts the immigrant experience, and stitches together two very different societies—North Korea and the United States—in surprising ways,” says Shalwitz, who likens Chung’s imaginative play to the work of Paula Vogel and Sarah Ruhl.

Woolly Mammoth, in partnership with Sandbrush Inc., will also act as a gallery space throughout the run of You for Me for You, showing work by Korean pop artist Song Byeok, who previously served as the official state propaganda artist for North Korea. Song knows a thing or two about crossing the border into China to find food—he endured torture after trying to do so, and since escaping to South Korea in 2002 has dedicated himself to the promotion of freedom. His acrylic paintings, which once sang the praises of Kim Jong Il, now satirize oppressive regimes around the world.

You for Me for You runs through Dec. 2. For more information, visit
www.woollymammoth.net.

A Legacy of Art

NEW YORK CITY: The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in our nation’s capital signals that political family’s particular devotion to the power of art—and now another prestigious Kennedy dedication has arrived on the theatrical front. Columbia University Libraries and Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith have jointly announced a major new award, the Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History (or the EMK Prize, for short).

The $100,000 accolade, to be awarded annually to the writer(s) of a play or musical, was envisioned by Smith to memorialize her brother, Senator Ted Kennedy, who died in 2009 (both are younger siblings of the 35th president). “My brothers, sisters and I were raised to appreciate how much a society’s culture contributes to the happiness of its citizens and to the health of its civic institutions,” says Smith in a release announcing the award. “I decided to establish a prize for dramatic writing that speaks to this connection between art and civic life as a way of honoring my brother, and also as a way of acknowledging my family’s commitment and indebtedness to the arts.”

Smith turned to playwright Tony Kushner and a governing board of artists and educators to design the prize and secure its home at Columbia. James Neal, the university’s vice president of information services and librarian, will serve as the award’s administrator. In addition to its hefty sum—one of the largest for writing in America—the prize will also include the creation of a website dedicated to each winning play, which will feature extensive historical research, scholarly discussion and critical interpretation.

Plays and musicals by American writers that have received a professional
production will be eligible for nomination, and winners will be announced annually on Feb. 22, Ted Kennedy’s birthday. For more information, visit http://kennedyprize.columbia.edu.

Appalachian Boy

BOONE, N.C.: The books and papers of Romulus Linney have found a home at the Belk Library & Information Commons at Appalachian State University of Boone, N.C., an institution with which the late playwright forged ties throughout his career, in a region he often returned to in life as well as work.

Linney was born in Philadelphia in 1930, but spent much of his childhood in Boone and Madison, Tenn. His first novel, Heathen Valley, was published in 1962 (he later adapted it as a play), followed by 2 more novels, 85 plays, 20 short stories and 4 opera librettos. Many of Linney’s works, such as the plays Holy Ghosts and Gint, are set in Appalachia. His connection to the university began in 1952 when he took a course on “Folklore and Ballads.” In 1995, ASU bestowed Linney with an honorary doctorate.

According to Cynthia Harbeson, processing archivist and assistant professor, the collection includes more than 500 books and copious materials, including the playwright’s manuscripts, correspondence, photos, research and personal library, often annotated by Linney. A dedication in September, on what would have been Linney’s 82nd birthday, introduced the collection to the public and included a master acting class taught by the playwright’s daughter, actor Laura Linney, and a talk by James Houghton, artistic director of New York City’s Signature Theatre Company, of which Linney was a founding playwright.

To peruse the collection online, visit http://collections.library.appstate.edu/appcoll/AC494linney.

Opera Buffa

CHICAGO: They might seem like strange bedfellows: Second City is known for its comedy improv prowess, while the Lyric Opera presents classic opera. But the two groups have teamed up in Lyric Unlimited, an unlikely program that features performers from both organizations.

Popcorn & Pasquale, scheduled on Dec. 2, is a 70-minute opera for children ages 5 to 12, hosted by actor Ross Lehman. The production will feature singers from Lyric’s upcoming Don Pasquale and will cajole young audience members into learning a bit of opera and engaging in a singalong. Next up will be The Second City Guide to Opera, on Jan. 5, featuring renowned soprano Renée Fleming and members of the Second City cast in a snappy musical revue that is likely to be as droll as it is tragic.

“We hope we will stimulate new interest in Lyric and in opera,” said Anthony Freud, general director of the Lyric, at a recent press conference. “It’s a terrific creative cross-pollination by two leading cultural organizations with different audiences.”

Fleming is no stranger to comedy: She has appeared on “Sesame Street” as well as lending her voice to “A Prairie Home Companion” as a character named Renata Flambé. In fact, the partnership may not have come together without her. Kelly Leonard, executive vice president of Second City, reveals that Fleming attended a Second City show last year and, “as she lifted her purse off the beer-sticky counter, she heard her own uncredited voice being sampled.” Instead of pursuing legal action, Fleming began chatting with Second City music director Jesse Case.

“It’s all too easy to be intimidated by the sheer scale of grand opera,” Fleming notes. “This is a great opportunity to show audiences, especially new audiences, a fun side of our centuries-old art form.” This just might be the beginning of a beautiful collaboration. For more, visit www.lyricopera.org/lyric-unlimited/index.aspx.

Pushing Boundaries

MINNEAPOLIS: Performance art is alive and well in Minneapolis, as the annual Naked Stages, presented by the Pillsbury House Theatre Dec. 5–15, proves. This festival will push aesthetic boundaries this year with a quartet of works from some of the city’s most exciting emerging artists: Ahanti Young, Jeffry Lusiak, David T Steinman and Zoe Sommers Haas.

The works incorporate puppetry, masks, layered projections and video, lighting effects, poetry, dance and, of course—drag! Lusiak’s A.SM.IL.8 offers a challenging and postmodern take on the assimilation of queer identity through love, shame, violence and pop culture. Steinman’s bagman is an image- and music-driven piece illuminating the world of an airline baggage handler, complete with “brutal acts” of TSA pat-downs, labor rights disputes, terror alert levels and dream-like flight sequences. In Devon, Haas sends spectators spiraling into the eponymous character’s world with a multimedia composition of movement, video and pop songs. Young, creator of Aklound Sowell, has made waves nationally and internationally as an actor, musician, spoken-word artist and choreographer.

The performances follow a seven-month training fellowship at Pillsbury, funded by the Jerome Foundation. For more on Naked Stages, visit www.pillsburyhouseandtheatre.org.

House Proud

NEW YORK CITY AND CHICAGO: Chelsea may be known for its art galleries and hip restaurants, but it also boasts a number of landmarks repurposed from historic sites. The High Line is an elevated park on an old rail line; Chelsea Piers used to get visits from luxury cruise liners along the Hudson. Add to this list the newly renovated Atlantic Theater Company, whose mainstage Linda Gross Theater sits in a 19th-century church that recently underwent an $8.3-million renovation.

Actors Felicity Huffman and William H. Macy, along with Atlantic company members and various local government officials, attended an October ceremony to officially open the redone space. Among the additions? “Name in Lights,” an illuminated wall in the lobby that features the names of donors who have contributed $5,000 or more to the campaign; the expansion of a 5,100-square-foot basement to create an enlarged lobby with new restrooms, and a new box office, prop-building workshop, costume shop and backstage offices. Upgraded dressing rooms, a load-in area for sets and handicap access bring the Atlantic into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Theatrical makeovers have also visited the Windy City. Chicago’s Den Theatre opened Jane Anderson’s The Quality of Life in October in its newly revamped site. The formerly empty space now boasts not only a bar and café, but also five theatres on two floors. Companies who call the Den home include the Den Theatre Ensemble, Black Box Studio and Seanachi Theatre Company. Anderson’s play, which runs through Dec. 1, kicks off the Den’s first full season of programming.

Stars Upon Thars

NEW HAVEN, CONN., AND PALO ALTO, CALIF.: Bullying is wack. Everybody says so, including Dr. Seuss and Prince Gomolvilas.

The text of Dr. Seuss’s The Sneetches is the artistic jumping-off point for a new after-school program engineered by the education department of Connecticut’s Long Wharf Theatre and Connecticut Center for Arts and Technology. To coincide with its 30th anniversary, Long Wharf made a commitment to work in 30 schools in 2012, including this new partnership with ConnCAT.

The Sneetches was one of my favorites when I was little, particularly the animated short,” recalls Long Wharf teaching artist Mallory Pellegrino of the tale in which “the star-bellied Sneetches had bellies with stars. The plain-bellied Sneetches had none upon thars.” Prejudice and mean-spirited exclusion ensued. “I worked at South Carolina Children’s Theatre for two years, and we toured around to schools doing bullying prevention. Now we have a national anti-bullying month”—October—“so this seemed like a great connection,” explains Pellegrino, who is working with high school students to create a performance of the Seussian tale as well as an original piece echoing similar themes in their own lives. Both plays will then tour for younger student audiences.

On the West Coast, the outreach program of TheatreWorks of Palo Alto is taking the anti-bullying message to K-5 students in Bay Area schools, via Gomolvilas’s play Oskar and the Big Bully Battle. Here a schoolyard scuffle escalates out of control, and a trio of kids has to learn what it means to be an “UPstander” rather than a “BYstander.” The show’s tour runs through Dec. 14.

Both projects had committed partners. The Palo Alto Unified School District helped commission Gomolvilas’s show. A four-year grant from the Werth Family Foundation made Long Wharf’s expanded outreach—as well as the doubling of its staff over the past year—possible.

Hidden Heroes

WALNUT CREEK, CALIF.: The Great White Way usually evokes images of dazzling lights and put-together productions. But on exhibition this month at Bedford Gallery in San Francisco’s East Bay area, Broadway is discovered anew in “Broadway Revealed: Behind the Theater Curtain.”

Photographer Stephen Joseph, in a series he calls “360 Degree Projects,” has taken behind-the-scenes images of such spectacles as Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark, American Idiot and Chicago. The 75 photographs on display uncover the hidden heroes and hard work that go into making high-caliber, innovative shows possible, and Joseph characterizes his shots as an “accidental compendium” to the usual depictions of Broadway. Directors, set designers, costumers, tailors and milliners are captured in the photos Joseph has taken over the past three years. Among the theatrical artifacts on display alongside the photos are a Phantom of the Opera mask by Rodney Gordon, playbills, T-shirts and albums from American Idiot, and wig and mustache creations by master perruquier Paul Huntley.

“Broadway Revealed” runs Dec. 6–Feb. 17 and, starting in the summer of 2013, will travel to galleries and cultural centers across the U.S. For more information, visit www.bedfordgallery.org.

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