Put As Much As You Can Into Your Heads – Nobody Can Take That Away From You

“Every day in life is beautiful. Every day. It’s beautiful.”

Alice Herz-Sommer’s stellar heath at the age of 109 is not the only thing that makes her special. She is the oldest living pianist and Holocaust survivor, and arguably one of the most optimistic people you may ever meet. This touching preview for the upcoming documentary following her life,  “The Lady In Number 6,” shows how music not only saved her life in the camp, but also continues to carry her through each day after the ordeal.

The camp in which she was placed is a terrifying example of the ultimate living-theatre experiment. In 1944, the German leaders created a propaganda film and presented Theresienstadt as a model Jewish settlement to the visiting Red Cross; it was all an elaborate hoax.

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The Germans “beautified” the ghetto, planting gardens and painting houses. Individuals received roles to play and the Nazis staged social and cultural events for the visiting dignitaries. Hints that all was not well included a bruise under the eye of the “mayor” of the “town.”  In the Nazi propaganda film, Theresienstadt was cynically described as a “spa town” where elderly German Jews could “retire” in safety. Once the visit was over, the Germans resumed deportations from Theresienstadt, which did not end until October 1944.

And yet still, shining examples like Alice appear, wielding hope as an impenetrable shield:

“I have lived through many wars and have lost everything many times — including my husband, my mother and my beloved son. Yet, life is beautiful, and I have so much to learn and enjoy. I have no space nor time for pessimism and hate.”

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Celebrating Our Human Freedoms

Dr. Viktor E. Frankl was psychiatrist and a concentration camp prisoner during WWII. His work, Man’s Search for Meaning, has invigorated and inspired with its tips for spiritual survival in the some of the darkest hours. His book is a testament to the power of the human spirit, with moments that capture something innate in our shared resilience:

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through huts, comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Other wise passages include:

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Playing an Instrument Like It Will Save Your Life

Because, who knows? It just might.

Watch Colin Stetson, a saxophonist known for touring with Arcade Fire, Bell Orchestre and Bon Iver, barely pause for a breath as he creates a wonderwall of sound underneath the city.

A reminder that whatever you choose to do, do it wholeheartedly. Because passion like that is infectious. 

What Is Essential Is Invisible To The Eye

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly” – Saint Exupéry

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Deconstructing opera’s mega-material roots is a challenge.
Sharing an opera live with a group of roving wireless-headphone-wearing audience members? Sounds near impossible.
And yet, The Industry ambitiously tackled all this and more through its Invisible Cities project in LA’s Union Station.

Composer and librettist Christopher Cerrone’s adapted a 1972 novel of the same name by Italo Calvino. The story depicts a host of fantastical cities the explorer Marco Polo narrates to Kublai Khan – unreal cities of desire, of memory, of the imagination.

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You check in and trade your license for a pair of headphones before following a drove of listeners into a large room where an orchestra sits, no singers in sight. The overture sounds forth and even before the final notes of this first movement end, individuals exit through the large glass doors to search for the rest of the opera. There’s no traditional stage here. The train station itself houses the characters, and like a living giant that seems to expand and contract as singers reveal themselves from the shadows.

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A man hunched over in a wheelchair, dressed like many of the homeless souls that take shelter in the station, begins to sing. And you realize that the performers are not so much hidden at all. Instead, you did not know what you should have been seeking.

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  A lofty soprano tone sounds from another room. Many turn to rush to find the source of the music and discover a janitor – with a voice of gold.

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You traverse cities of the living, cities of the dead.

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You follow in Polo’s footsteps and happen upon a dance core (seven dancers from LA Dance Project) as they guide and affront the viewer through a collection of miniature vignettes.

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You wander into a hallway – the station’s old ticket lobby – and see no action, just a mist of light fog…

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…Only seconds later to be bombarded by a procession of singers and dancers as the opera’s final scenes culminate around you.

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You notice how each person in the room is now a character in the piece as well. An old man in his own wheelchair is not altogether different from the singer at the start.

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The piece challenges the viewer to realize that the eye creates what it wishes to see. At every new port – there is a promise of hope, discovery, release. But we bring ourselves with us wherever we go, thus in order to find new things, we must truly see with new eyes.

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Gathering Round for One of Shakespeare’s Eeriest Texts

It is known as “The Scottish play,” “Mackers,” “The Scottish business” or “the Glamis comedy.” With a play where so few are willing to utter its name, you would think that it would remain buried under the Bard’s lesser known works. But “Macbeth” is more popular than ever, with adaptations like Sleep No More re-imagining the tale in a 6 story warehouse to Alan Cumming’s recent one-man-show, a decent into madness set in an insane asylum. And still companies are able to find new ways of telling Mac’s universal story of greed and guilt – one of which is CityShakes undeniably unsettling production here in Santa Monica. mac1

Director Brooke Bishop sets the show in the round, emphasizing the show’s ceremonial roots - from the ever-plotting witches to the individuals who ban together to unseat Macbeth from his newly-found power.  The production’s site-specific location, a storage garage behind a stark empty art gallery, also aids in the creation of an ominous air surrounding the text.

Smartly constructed with a cast of seven, perhaps the most compelling aspect of the production is the use of suggestion. Swords have bases, but no blades. Children tinker with toys offstage, but are never seen. These powerful “absences” both underline the swift decline of Macbeth’s sanity (particularly in his “Is this a dagger” soliloquy), and make Macduff’s loss all the more heartbreaking. It also featured some truly thrilling cast-made auditory soundscapes that could have highlighted other earlier moments as well.

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A ceremony that shouldn’t be missed, this Macbeth breathes life into the age-old text with its crafty ways.

To see it: “Macbeth” plays Thursdays and Fridays at 8 pm through Nov. 22, and Saturdays Nov. 9 and 16 at 8PM, at 1454 Lincoln Boulevard, Santa Monica, CA 90401. For more information, visit www.CityShakes.org.

Ol’ Bag o’ Bones

Happy Halloween!

In honor of today’s terrorfest, it’s time to delve into the archives for some unsettling photos from decades now past.

Enjoy (or reel in horror at) these shots from  Narre Tod, Mein Spielgesell (Fool Death, My Playmate), a series of portraits of a love affair between a female model and a skeleton. The set is by eccentric photographer Franz Fiedler, 1921.

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The look of love.

Image Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

Lizzie’s Back

The team behind the raucous rock retelling of Lizzie Borden released their concept album this month. Few things will prepare you for October thrills and chills as well as this CD.

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Based on the most notorious “unsolved” murder case of the 1800s, this Cheslik-DeMeyer, Hewitt and Maner tuner is currently getting a treatment in Houston’s TUTS Underground season.

The album’s powerhouse voices and catchy belt-along-numbers are made only more delightful by some thoughtful sound editing that infuses tense moments with an extra dose of terror. A terrific adrenaline-infused ride from start to finish.

For a taste of the show for those not familiar, check out the clip below:

 

Reasons why this montage from last year’s Cleveland production might rock your world a little:

Lizzie ________ Borden. Who knew that the real life Borden had such intense daddy-issues?

Look at what they’re wearing. Uptight Victorian dresses devolve into Versace-inspired rock wear. Leather, lace and tulle give this 19th century retelling a vicious bite.

Look ma! No Men. They effectively tell the entire story employing only female characters – Lizzie Borden, her sister Emma, the housemaid and the girl-next-door/maybe-secret-lover.

You will never think of hairspray cans in the same way again. Brilliant take on Borden burning up an old dress, one of the pieces of potential evidence.

Four ladies fierce screlting their faces off. Enough said.

“Cabaret” in Putin’s antigay Russia

A production of the musical Cabaret is set to roll into Seattle shortly complete with a fascinating setting – that of modern-day Russia.

The Tony Award winning show is a favorite for those willing to explore the shadows of a culture butting heads with a political wave. Though the musical’s original setting takes place in Berlin as the Nazis are rising to power, this production’s concept of setting the action in Putin’s current regime seems somehow apropos.  This production will feature an all-male cast and will combine theatre, drag, and short clips of actual vigilantes and neo-Nazis to comment, agitprop-style, on the tumultuous cultural climate there. 

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The Artistic Director of Arts on the Waterfront, the company producing this version, posits about the upcoming show:

“The whole point of the show is to draw connections between the beginning stages of the Holocaust in 1930s Germany and the current situation in Russia, with Putin’s antigay laws and the killing and torture of gay youth by the Russian neo-Nazis. But, to tell this story well, we need to completely seduce the audience in the first half of the play into thinking that this Cabaret is the most fabulous place they have ever seen, so we plan on striking a careful balance between modern Russian imagery and the musical’s German roots.

So many actual lines used by emcees in Berlin in the 1930s fit so nicely into our retelling. A great line from Werner Fink, who was emcee of Die Katakombe in Berlin, which we have incorporated into our show, is: “Yesterday we were closed, today we are open, if we are too open tomorrow we’ll be closed again the next day.” In our Cabaret, it’s said by our Emcee while he tears down the rainbow flag which, up until then, had been hanging with the Russian flag proudly across the room from it.

Another example of great pieces actually used by the emcees of 1930s Berlin is a song that we have given to Fräulein Schneider to the tune of Carmen‘s “Habanera.” The lyrics, by Friedrich Hollaender, a Jewish emcee of the time, originally went:

If it’s raining or if it’s hailing,
If there’s lightning, if it’s wet,
If it’s dark or if there’s thunder
If you freeze or if you sweat,
If it’s warm or if it’s cloudy,
If it thaws, if there’s a breeze,
If it drizzles, if it sizzles,
If you cough or if you sneeze:
It’s all the fault of all those Jews.
The Jews are all at fault for that.

But we have:

If it’s raining or if it’s hailing,
If there’s lightning, if it’s wet,
If it’s dark or if there’s thunder
If you freeze or if you sweat,
It’s all the fault of all those gays
The gays are all at fault for that
You ask me why the gays at fault
You just don’t get it, dear, they are at fault…
You disagree, then you’re at fault,
The gays are all at fault for that.

When the audience first hears the tune they go, “Oh, isn’t it funny?” or “Isn’t it sweet that they’re using the tune of that song we know?,” and then you hear the lyrics. So the song tricks you into not knowing whether to laugh and applaud or not.”

A thought-provoking take on the classic which will also soon be returning to Broadway with Alan Cumming in tow.


Alan Cumming in the 1998 Broadway revival of Cabaret

Image Source, Interview Source

The Comic Strip City

Angoulême, a city in Southwestern France, dubbed itself the international comic strip city in the early 2000s. The city is mostly known for its Angoulême International Comics Festival and now its namesake is unmistakable as walls all over the city sport huge comic strip displays.

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Image Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8

Post-Apocalyptic Pop Culture: What The Simpsons Looks Like Decades Into the Future

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Dr. Strangelove. Atlas Shrugged. The War of the Worlds. 28 Days Later. The post-apocalyptic narrative is not one that’s new to us. In fact, we seem to be fascinated with the “what if”s that humanity might face when forced to start over from scratch.

In Anne Washburn’s new piece Mr. Burns, the playwright takes a lens to what life might look like weeks after a pandemic wipes out most of human civilization…and how the remaining folks choose to remember The Simpsons. The play opens with a group trying to recall exactly what happened on the episode “Cape Feare.” What starts out as a way of passing the time, the shellshocked survivors attempt to make sense of their new fate using the show as a means of connect with a pop-culture world now lost to them.

The play revisits the group seven years later to find that their connection and conversations have evolved into a theatre-troupe-retelling of said Simpsons episode, complete with attempts at commercial breaks. With no electricity and no recent entertainment product in the wake of the disaster, they are forced to recreate their own. Actors buy lines from passersby – attempting to reconstruct a pop culture phenomenon from the fading chambers of strangers’ memories.

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In the final act, 77 years into the future – with the original generation of those that remember the show now gone – the play has transformed into an epic Greek-tragedy style opera, revering the Simpsons family as they try to escape an evil Mr. Burns and his nuclear powers. 

The play’s postulation on what would happen to our culture if forced to move from a strictly electronic and digital one back to one of oral history is an absolutely fascinating one. After all, how many phone numbers do we have committed to memory? Why memorize the names and dates of important cultural moments when they are just a simple Google or Wikipedia search away? Mr. Burns asks us to consider our role in a technological world and how that affects our process storymaking.

Makes you wonder when a Dadaist deconstruction of Toddlers and Tiaras will hit the stage. But until then, Playwrights Horizons has a show to pique the interest of anyone the least bit concerned about the human condition.

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Got No Strings to Hold Them Down

Evolution of the puppet in modern day theatre:

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Sound of Music. 1965.

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Little Shop of Horrors. 1982.

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The Lion King. 1997.

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Avenue Q. 2003. First instance of Human Puppet Nudity on Broadway.

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War Horse. 2007. 3 Puppeteers to each horse.

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Bread and Puppet’s Decapitilized Circus. 2010. They’ve been around since 1962. At the end of every B & P performance, the group shares fresh baked bread with the audience, suggesting that art should be as basic to life as bread.

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The White Snake. 2012 at Berkeley Rep.

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King Kong. Australia 2013. 14 People to operate the King.

Image Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8