Julia

“The staging was fantastic, but that tenor was horrendous!” Lately you hear more operagoers gripe like this about how one particularly atrocious singer ruined the whole show for them. These horrendous singers are ruining the opera experience, and “advanced casting” is to blame.

A-list houses like the Met, La Scala, Chicago Lyric experience this criticism on a regular basis. Why do so many A-list houses have this same issue? Is there some commonality that someone could identify? Turns out, there is!

You might think that major opera houses run annual auditions like theater companies or smaller opera houses. At the end of a season, houses hold auditions and all the roles for next season are filled from that pool. Right? Wrong.

Many opera houses contract their lead roles years in advance without an audition. (I wonder when Netrebko last auditioned for a role?) Larger houses cast half a decade in advance. This strategy is only lucrative for the well-established and well-managed singers.

In the 60’s Rudolph Bing planned the next season of the Met while on tour with the previous season; just a few months in advance of the new season. Now, opera houses scramble to book a dwindling pool of “world class” singers years in advance. Meanwhile, the “not so world class but damned fine” singers hang out to dry. The only way to make a big debut at many of these houses is to land an understudy gig and step in at the last minute for the ailing superstar.

Now, a lot can happen in those 2-5 years. The issue at hand is, a singer can overbook herself, show up in less than stellar form, and it is increasingly hard to fire them.

The contracts are bulletproof. Even if the whole show sags because of a singular performance of a world-class star the opera house loses lump sums of money if the star gets fired. The only way to nix the star and pull in a ringer is to pay out the original singers contract AND pay the new artist’s fees.

So, instead of firing the stars, the show just goes on, much to the chagrin of the people who paid hundreds for their seats.

Now that doesn’t seem fair. . . Does it? 

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Decreasing Capacities to Increase Ego

A second attempt at “Trend” pieces.

In the dark and damp basement of Warner Gymnasium ten people walk through watching as actors perform in devised theater pieces. It’s an intimate and engaging experience for all involved, actors and audience members alike.

Seniors Erin Amlicke and Julia Melfi took a different approach to their senior capstone projects. Rather than use an already-written text and just direct a play like so many seniors do as part of their culminating projects, Amlicke and Melfi proposed and were granted the opportunity to work with a cast and devise their own shows. Throughout the month of January, Amlicke and Melfi worked with the same set of actors to create two very different productions. Amlicke’s Playtime looked at the process of creating in a meta and self-aware way, asking the audience to think critically about their own creative processes and desires to create. Melfi’s Devour Me crafted a fantastical world full of dragons, fear, and wonder. Both women had full audiences for every performance and it was well-received by all who saw. Third year Theater major Ian Emerson said, “It was amazing, I love immersive theater and I’m glad Oberlin is allowing people to explore it”

It’s wonderful that Emerson had such a great experience at the show, but so few people were able to. Each performance of Devour Me and Playtime housed only 10 audience members. Does a full house mean as much when there are only 10 people seeing a show and the majority of the audience is faculty members and Theater majors? It’s easy to argue that these two seniors were limited by space, but there’s more to it than that: people just aren’t seeing shows and smaller audience capacities create the illusion of full houses.

There is tons of publicity: posters, emails, facebook invites, tweets, the whole nine yards to try to get people to buy tickets for theatrical performances at Oberlin. Nonetheless, attendance for theater productions tends to be the same: faculty, Theater majors, and assorted friends of people involved. Though the numbers for attendance are up this year, they really couldn’t go anywhere but up after dismal turnouts at Mainstage and LabSeries shows alike last year. This shouldn’t speak for the quality of the productions, but rather to the apathy of many Oberlin students and the other exciting opportunities on campus like concerts by big name music artists like Joey Bada$$.  So what better way to make a show seem desirable than to advertise it as an elite and limited experience? Lowering audience capacities makes a show seem like a more unique experience and speaks to the desires of those Oberlin students who wish to be on the cutting edge, outside and above their mainstream peers. Lowering audience capacities help combat apathy. And what better way to make those involved feel fulfilled by their involvement than to have people want to see the show?

The shrinking audience capacities are directly influenced by the lack of attendance at Oberlin College Theater productions. It is a rare and exciting moment when a show sells out, but damn, does it feel good for everyone involved in the production. Decreasing audience capacity allows actors, designers, directors, faculty, everyone, to boast about selling out a show. It feeds the egos of everyone involved.

The trend seems to have started last year during a production co-directed by Melfi and then 5th year Linus Ignatius. The show was House and audience members were given little information about the show other than its setting: the Frank Lloyd Wright House just a few blocks from campus. The show ran for 4 performances and because of the nature of the setting—a museum—there was a cap put on how many people could attend. The cap was purely out of procedural necessity: the Wright House is a museum and must be treated as such.

Ignatius already made it seem sexy to be able to go to House. Each person lucky enough to grab a ticket was told to dress formally and meet in front of Oberlin Market where they would be picked up and driven to the Frank Lloyd Wright House. The well-dressed audience watched silently and followed different characters around the house—each audience member choosing who they followed and thus which plotline they saw. The tickets sold like hotcakes and people begged Ignatius and cast members for a way to get in.

There began to be excessive Facebook posts about getting tickets to House and the egos of everyone involved grew like the Grinch’s heart after he discovers the joys of Christmas. That is to say, everyone got cocky. Rather than disappointment at a turnout of 25 people for a show with roughly 15 people in it to begin with, the cast was ecstatic. The hype around the show was great and it brought in new faces, but ultimately, only a select few really got to enjoy the experience, and everyone bragged about it.

Capstones and student-directed shows like Playtime, Devour Me, and House serve an educational purpose primarily for the directors who get to see what it’s like to direct, and in these cases, create, a show from start to finish. But shouldn’t the directors be wont to share their work with as many people as possible?

It’s a double edge sword because after putting months of work and preparation into a performance, those involved want to perform it for people who want to participate and be active audience members. Playing a show to an empty house on opening night (as is so common with shows performed in Oberlin College’s black box “Little Theater”) is discouraging and depletes the performance experience for the actors and designers and especially for the person who proposed the project.

It’s understandable why audience capacities are shrinking at Oberlin from an artist perspective: Theater majors are in the game for a reason. I say this with love and from experience, we Theater majors want attention and recognition and we’d rather get it from an intimate group of engaged audience members than scattered faces in an almost-empty theater. It’s scary to go out on a limb and produce something new when it seems all people want to see is college standards like Rent or Spring Awakening. If the ego stroking that comes from small audiences is helping artists put on more adventurous productions like Playtime and Devour Me, maybe it’s not all bad that Theater at Oberlin is becoming so exclusive. But maybe next time a friend asks if you want to see the latest production, you should say yes, because you never know what cutting-edge production you’re going to miss out on while the Theater majors are pumping up their egos.

A Philly Take on Willy Shakes

A Philly Take on Willy Shakes

There comes a time in every season when the theaters of Philadelphia bring the works of William Shakespeare to life. This year it so happens, the theaters are all putting on the Bard’s works at roughly the same time. Each theater is trying to breathe new life into Shakespeare’s carefully crafted works. But why are these theaters so intent on producing Shakespeare with an edge?

The Barrymores must be at fault. Not the family but the awards. After a brief hiatus, the awards that honor excellence in theater in Philadelphia area are back and last year it was a new take on the Bard performed by the fresh talent Inis Nua Theatre that ended up walking away with all the coveted awards including Outstanding Overall Production of a Musical, Outstanding Direction of a Musical, Outstanding Leading Actress in a Musical and more. But Shakespeare is not known for his Broadway quality musicals. Nonetheless, Inis Nua’s production of David Greig’s risqué take on Shakespeare’s classic comedy, Midsummer [a play with songs] garnered positive press and large audiences. The play, originally performed in Edinburgh at the the fringe festival, loosely takes the story of Midsummer Night’s Dream and turns it into a contemporary romantic comedy complete with heartbreak, sex, music and laughs.

Now the well-established theaters of Philadelphia are attempting to compete with this well-received approach to the Bard. So what are theaters like The Wilma, The Arden, and The Lantern doing this season to bring something new to the well known and often performed plays of Shakespeare? There will be no new texts like Midsummer [a play with songs], just alternative strategies to illuminate the Bard’s beautiful use of language.

Walking down Broad Street it is hard to miss the posters of Philadelphia veteran actor, Zainab Jah plastered on the front of the Wilma Theater’s prime location. The artistic director, Blanka Zizka, has taken a huge risk in casting a female actor in the title role of perhaps Shakespeare’s best tragedy, Hamlet. In an interview posted on The Wilma Theater’s website, Blanka Zizka speaks to her choice in casting Jah, “I needed an actor who I could trust…Hamlet is not going to change gender because he’s played by a woman, rather, I expect that Zainab is going to transform into Hamlet” What the press surrounding The Wilma’s production is lacking is the discussion of race. Philadelphia is an incredibly heterogeneous city with an African American population that exceeds the Caucasian population.

In choosing Jah as Hamlet, Zizka appeals to a demographic usually untouched by the well-established non-profit theaters of Philadelphia. With the average Philadelphia theater subscriber clocking in at an average age of sixty and coming from a privileged white background, casting a black female Hamlet goes completely against the grain. Will the Wilma’s typical demographic be able to cope with such an adventurous choice and will the Barrymore voters respond positively?

It seems unlikely. With the recent national conversation about race in America and police brutality, putting a black woman in such a powerful role is interesting, but ultimately, Zizka is asking Jah to play a white man and reject her own dialogic patterns and culture. Dramaturg for the Wilma, Walter Bilderback, says that in choosing this production of Hamlet with Zizka, the idea was “that we wanted our Hamlet to be about Hamlet within his society.” But how can the production look at Hamlet the character in society, and not Jah in her own society? The set designs for the production utilize designs from street artist CERA, a type of art more common to the lower income neighborhoods of Philadelphia primarily occupied by people of color. It just seems as though the entire production team and the theater is skirting around the issue of race. The conversation about the set design, costume design, and Bilderback’s blog post all fail to mention race. Is ignoring race a sign of attempting to move toward a post-racial society? Or is it part of the whitewashing that is ubiquitous among regional theaters all throughout the United States? Despite my doubts, I am still incredibly curious to see how Zizka brings the story of Hamlet to life for Philadelphia audiences, as she has been so successful in bringing new and established stories in the past.

Competing directly with The Wilma’s Hamlet is The Arden Theatre Company’s production of Macbeth. Both tragedies are taking the stage this month and there is a constant competition between the two theater houses to create interesting and engaging material for audiences. Using Philadelphia native Alexander Burns as a director is a bold choice for the Arden which has a group of directors it seems to pull from every season, rarely bringing on anyone too new. Burns is young and has been working on the fringe-theater side of Philly for the past several years and Macbeth marks his Arden directorial debut. But you can’t have too many unfamiliar faces if you want to appeal to Philly subscribers so accomplished Shakespearean actor and Arden Theatre veteran Ian Merrill Peakes takes the title role. In advertising the production, The Arden attempts to appeal to the latest craze: Netflix. The description of the play reads “Before House of Cards and Game of Thrones there was Macbeth.” This seems obvious to the well-read Shakespeare buff but in a time of obsessive binge watching, advertising Macbeth as a play with all the riveting twists and turns of fad tv shows like House of Cards in only 2 hours time is incredibly appealing.

The Arden Macbeth attempts to make the riveting action of the plot more accessible to its audience members by physicalizing it. The show features incredible bouts of well-choreographed stage combat with attractive men dressed in military camouflage. Nationally renowned fight choreographer, Paul Dennhardt, worked with each actor and choreographed to a t each movement. Each actor is encouraged to have their own fighting style to show who they are allied with in the story. This lively physical combat is complimented by the beautiful set and modern costumes.

This all seems well and good, but is an entertaining production with some good fight choreography edgy enough to win a Barrymore? What makes this production of Macbeth different than any of the other hundreds of productions that occur throughout the United States at any given time? Burns’ vision for the show is not necessarily to be edgy or beat out the other theaters, but just to get people off of their couches and into the theater. Burns wants to create a Macbeth that everyone wants to watch, not necessarily just the theatrical intelligentsia. Accessibility is key to Burns’ vision to the show. HE wants to create the kind of buzz that an action film gets and with the praise from The Philadelphia Inquirer and several sold out performances, it seems Burns’ vision is becoming a reality.

If your Shakespearean palate is not in the mood for death and decay, fear not, The Lantern Theater Company is mounting the Bard’s comedy, Taming of the Shrew. The much smaller company should not be ignored because of its size. Between the three theaters doing the Bard’s works, it is The Lantern that won a Barrymore for producing Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar last year as well as 3 other Barrymores for a variety of other shows. Their range of artistic feats makes them a huge contender to take home more awards this year.

The Lantern’s concept for their production of Shrew is to physicalize the sexual tension that lie within the text through dance, tango and Latin inspired dances specifically. The Lantern’s description for the production says the main question is “who is going to lead?” which speaks to their physicalization of the power play that exists between Katherine and Petruchio. Artistic Director for the Lantern, Charles McMahon, will also be directing this production though he has said little about his concept beyond that it will incorporate dance and be incredibly sexy. Despite this lack of description about the concept, the show must be impressing preview audiences as its run was just extended several weeks into the month of May.

Whether or not you have a chance to see one or all of these Shakespeare productions, Philadelphia theaters are making a serious effort to bring high quality and interesting Shakespeare productions to the community. Whether or not they are successful in doing so, is up to you…and the Barrymore voters.

“Who’s got it worse?” by Julia Rudolph

The Pepto-Bismol pink of the paperback covers deceived my parents. Had they known the content of the candy colored books while in line to check out at the local Barnes and Noble, I doubt my parents would have signed off on the books I read as a pre-pubescent tween.

But we all read them. It was a strange contest of sorts: who could read the most disturbing or intense book? Among my homogenous “alternative advanced group learning” middle school peers, stacks of canonical books like Romeo & Juliet, Canterbury Tales, and Tales of King Arthur’s Court, were topped by books by Laurie Halse Anderson and Sarah Dessen. These contemporary Young Adult novels passed through the hands of my classmates and during our lunch break or recess at the local park, the contest would commence.

“Well, in this one, the girl has an eating disorder”

“This one is about a girl who cuts herself”

“In this one the girl is so depressed she tries to kill herself.”

We were all disturbingly intrigued and moved by the plotlines about mentally unstable female protagonists.

We were also all well-off, healthy, privileged kids with loving families. The desire to read books like Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson came from a desire for knowledge, knowledge of a world none of us truly knew. None of us ever went hungry, but we wanted to know on some surface level what that might be like. But we didn’t read about underprivileged youth going hungry to attempt to experience that hunger. Instead we turned to books about other privileged white girls with eating disorders because to some extent, we felt we could relate to the protagonists. We thought we were mature, and thought reading these books were a mature way to experience the world without being reckless.

Were we making light of serious issues? Could we as what the literature community classifies as “young adults” really understand the gravity of topics like suicide and domestic abuse? Yes and no. We knew they were serious, but we were removed from them, thus, in a strangely Brechtian sense, we were able to be critical of them and chat about them casually while still maintaining what we thought to be respect and reverence. Whether or not it was politically correct, we were going to talk about these books and characters and no one was going to stop us. Why would they? We were a bunch of young, flat-chested, overly-pretentious girls gabbing about books–it was a middle school teacher’s dream!

II

At the same time my pre-adolescent friends and I read books about ballerinas with type I diabetes who had to stop dancing and girls with cancerous boyfriends, my 3-years-older than me brother, Josh was listening to Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. I tried to read these books to relate and talk to him. If we had a shared interest we could talk and bond. But I gave up: on the staple fantasy classics, and on talking to him. We lived in the same house but inhabited different worlds. I was in my own less dramatic YA novel.

Josh was, and still is, autistic. Social interaction is hard for him. It makes him anxious and uncomfortable. Ninety percent of the time he would prefer to be by himself reading a book than interacting with another human. That other 10 percent results in unsatisfactory social interactions where Josh tries to communicate, but his special quirks and anxiety hinder him from doing so effectively. I write this not to create sympathy for him or for me, but rather just to explain the situation. Josh is incredibly happy keeping to himself. Being alone does not scare him; in fact, he’s quite comfortable that way.

I didn’t understand that at age 12 though. I felt iced out and deprived of my sibling. I felt unloved and unwanted. It took so much out of me to interact with him because it was so frustrating. I tried and tried and thought I was failing. I harbored an immense anger toward him. He was not what an older brother should be. I saw older brothers–yes, they were mean and teased, but at least they engaged with their siblings. A lot of the time I felt Josh forgot I existed. He was too busy, off in the labyrinth of his strangely wired mind. While he is a much higher functioning person now, when he was 15 he was not and that also warranted a lot of attention from my parents. I knew he needed it, the attention. I only attempted to steal it from him on special occasions. But I attempted to garner that attention in other places, at school or dance class, restaurants…you name it, I was there and trying to have the spotlight. I was a terror and obviously people did not respond positively to my desires for attention.

But I needed my own outlet to deal with the issues I had with Josh. I wanted to know that other people out there were dealing with “real” issues. I knew I was privileged, I knew I had food, I knew I had parents who loved me, I knew I had medicine that would balance out the chemicals in my brain so I would always be so upset. I wanted to know something new. These young adult fiction books were my outlet. They helped me put my life into perspective when in fits and rages of tweenage angst, I found myself thinking I had the worst life in the entire galaxy.

III

I made friends with the girls in these books. I looked to them and asked them questions. Underneath their melodramatic surfaces were truly helpful answers. How did these girls deal with their issues? The swarthy, chubby, frizzy-haired 12-year-old me searched through the pages looking for ways I could apply the characters’ coping strategies to my own life. I remember finding solace in Laurie Halse Anderson’s book Speak. The protagonist Melinda finds herself alone with no one to talk to as she enters her freshman year of high school. It seems everyone has a vendetta against Melinda. The reason? Melinda called the cops during the biggest party of the summer and got the vast majority of the partygoers in trouble.

Though I had peers to read these books with, I don’t necessarily know if I considered them my friends. We did not interact outside of school. Because I was now going to private school rather than the local public school, I didn’t get to see the people I actually did consider my friends that often. I wanted to tell people that the reason I was so loud and upset was because of my brother. The reason I came on so strong was because I wanted to forge relationships with people who could take the place of my brother—be a surrogate sibling. I sympathized with Melinda. I wanted to talk to people but, like her, couldn’t find the words or ways to go about it. I couldn’t speak.

So I asked Melinda, “What are you doing to get through this?” and she showed me a beautiful array of paintings, drawings, and collages. The subject of which were trees, assignments for her art class. I always loved drawing and painting, so thanks to Melinda, I spent more time with it. I chose to spend my free periods and study halls in the art room the same way she did. It was liberating to have control over something and express myself through it: the way it looked and was formed.

Through a series of flashbacks to the party I found out what happened to Melinda. A classmate several years her senior forced himself on her at the party and in her panic she called the cops. She did not reveal to the cops that she had been sexually assaulted. I barely knew about sex—I knew the mechanics of it, but that was about it. I hadn’t even gotten my period and yet here I was reading about rape. It was precocious, and startling, and strange, but I knew it was awful and crippling. I don’t think I had ever cried while reading a book before, but strange folds on the pages from my tears still remain in my copy of the novel. It was the first time I had heard about sexual assault and rape, though certainly by no means the last.

Knowing about Melinda’s situation and knowing how much different forms of artistic expression helped her, as cliché as that seems, helped me a lot. I hadn’t gone through anything as severe so I rationalized that if the drawing was helping her, it sure as hell was going to help me. Of course that’s not how necessarily how therapeutic outlets work—the same things don’t help everyone and many people should go to professionals in order to cope with their trauma—but nonetheless, Melinda and Laurie Halse Anderson helped me.

IV

I continued to play the contest of “Who’s got it worse?” with my peers. Looking back, the books were my connection to them and they helped me forge relationships with them in addition to helping me cope with my own personal drama. So we sat, eating leftover pasta salad and crustless peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and dished about our new fictional friends and their troubles. And finally I became comfortable enough to speak to them and told them about my brother. It definitely helped them to understand me more and their reactions were far more supportive than I imagined they would be—same way Melinda’s friends ended up coming to protect and support her.

I know our situations were incredibly different, but knowing that I could always open up and find Melinda or some other strong female roughly my age was such a comfort. When I felt I could no longer handle the stresses of taking on the responsibilities of being a sibling to an autistic sibling, a blanket and a book were always there for me to escape to.

Julia Rudolph “Better Call Saul Review”

Julia Rudolph

“Better Call Saul Review”

“Money is not beside the point, money is the point” James “Jimmy” McGill exclaims during a verbal altercation with his father Chuck McGill. Money drives the action throughout the first two episodes of AMC’s newest primetime drama, Better Call Saul. The pilot did not carry the same dramatic weight as creator Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad pilot where Walter White stands pantsless in the desert with a gas mask, but Gilligan’s Breaking Bad spinoff, Better Call Saul brings its own brand of suspense and excitement to the table.

The Saul Goodman viewers came to know and love throughout 5 seasons of fast-talking and meth making appears to viewers as his former self: an Irish lawyer, Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk.), in Albuquerque struggling to make ends meat. The audience first encounters Saul as a public defender representing 3 teenagers. It seems innocent enough, but like its predecessor, Better Call Saul does not shy away from the shocking and disturbing. These three unassuming teenagers sexually defiled the severed head of a cadaver in a private morgue. While this could seem over-the-top, it’s apropos for an audience that watched, glued to their screens, as the severed head of drug transporter “Tortuga” crawled across the desert strapped to a turtle shell.

Better Call Saul lures you in and tells you one thing is going to happen then completely reverses your expectations. This kept me engaged to an extent, but I must confess, I got bored in the middle of the pilot and felt as though I couldn’t identify or feel sympathy for Saul. He doesn’t have a family to care for the way Walter White did so his lust for money is just that: unsubstantiated lust. The stakes seem too low for Jimmy.

But the pilot serves to build up momentum for a significantly better second episode. Yes, the first episode is expository and a bit slow but all the information is pertinent to the plotline of the series. It is vital we know that Jimmy struggles to make money and that once upon a time in Illinois the kids on the block referred to him as “Slippin’ Jimmy” because he used to hustle passersby as he slipped on ice and threatened to sue. Money is Jimmy’s modus operandi, it always has been, it always will be. Anything Jimmy does, he does in pursuit of putting green presidents into his wallet. Luckily, Jimmy believes hustling is what he does best, despite his destitute circumstances, and in his quest for fortune and fame (as much fame as a lawyer can get in Albuquerque) he encounters two bone-headed twenty-somethings as he crashes into one with his car. As he pulls the surprisingly uninjured skateboarding ginger headed brothers into his plot to gain a high profile court case involving embezzlement, everything goes awry.

We begin the second episode with Raymond Cruz reprising his role as beloved Breaking Bad villain Tuco Salamanca. It is roughly 15 minutes before the previous episode ended, but now we see the action occur from Tuco’s point of view. This interesting framing device allows the audience to see into the everyday life of a drug kingpin and his adorable abuelita. As Saul walks into the scene all that’s left of his two fiery headed accomplices is a red stain on the floor. Saul pulls out his only weapon, his words, to prolong his life in the hands of Tuco but finds himself in the middle of the dessert tied up with the skating boarding brothers alive and also tied up. Under pressure and threat of death, Jimmy uses his words to become an FBI agent and then himself once again. Saul does not allow the pressure to affect his longevity. He sweet-talks himself and leaves the desert unscathed, convincing Tuco not to resort to violence because his goal as a drug kingpin should be “all about justice.” In his most successful negotiation yet, he says to the now broken skating duo “I just talked you down from a death sentence to 6 months probation. I am the best lawyer ever.” This is by far the best scene in the two episodes and I suspect there will be many more like it in episodes to come.

With appearances from Breaking Bad favorites like Jonathan Banks as Mike, Better Call Saul seems like it will fill the void that Breaking Bad left after its conclusion in 2013. The cinematography is stunning and the specificity in the images tantalizes viewers and keeps their hands away from the remotes. The acting is more honest than most shows on television right now. These actors are not playing characters: they’re becoming different people. Better Call Saul has big shoes to fill, but I believe it has the potential to. Though Jimmy says at the end of the episode when he is offered a large sum of money to do some dirty work, “I crossed a line…I’m not doing it again, ever” it’s inevitable that the line will be crossed, and I will be watching to see what happens when he does.