IRT’s Westside Experiment Provides Eureka Moments for Teens

I got to interview a group of youngsters well-versed in the art of experimental theater! Reminded me of my summers teaching musical theater to middle schoolers. The following article appeared in the most recent issue of Backstage magazine, the must-read “Backstage 30” issue! Read it on!

IRT's Westside Experiment

Photo Source: Courtesy IRT

IRT Theater’s Westside Experiment is not your average summer camp.

Instead of mounting a musical or learning to tap dance, teenaged actors immerse themselves in the art of devised theater, developing original work with a professional downtown company. “I think a lot of theater [education] programs are about the spectacle and making sure that the kids have really great costumes for the parents,” said Kori Rushton, producing artistic director of IRT. “This is about the work, this is about the process, this is about the nitty-gritty of the core of the art form.” As evidenced by their exuberant July 19 showcase, teens and experimental theater are a perfect fit.

An offshoot of IRT’s 3B Development Series, the Westside Experiment has for the last three years paired middle school- and high school-aged kids with a theater company for two weeks of unstructured collaboration, physical expression, and improvisation training. This summer’s teaching artists were Qui Nguyen and Robert Ross Parker, co-artistic directors and founders of the Obie Award-winning “geek theatre” group Vampire Cowboys. Their wacky genre-blending approach to devised work matched the youngsters’ bouncy energy, and culminated in three original mini-comedies dubbed “Inquiries of Time Space and Robots.”

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What are your favorite “guilty pleasure” shows?

Here’s a crazy idea. What if theater journalists wrote about shows the same way TV recappers chat, or the way friends talk about their favorite art? TDF Stages is launching what I believe to be an innovative approach to theater writing, with more informal, buzzy coverage and an attitude of unabashed enthusiasm. Check out the latest installment of the new Geek Out/Freak Out, in which I geek out about “guilty pleasures” with none other than Nate Silver, up-and-coming director extraordinaire. Don’t be afraid to share the article, and join the fun!

Bring It On

Bring It On: The Musical


Welcome to Geek Out/Freak Out, where theatre fans get super enthusiastic about things.

This week, Stages contributor Jack Smart geeks out (via Google doc) with Nate Silver, Managing Director of Chicago’s Jackalope Theatre and assistant director of the upcoming Broadway production of Disgraced, which previously played at Lincoln Center.

Today’s Topic: What are your favorite “guilty pleasure” shows… and what constitutes a “guilty pleasure” anyway?

Jack Smart: Well hello there, Nate. You and I have managed to see a lot of theatre together despite the fact that I’m in New York and you live in Chicago. I feel like we tend to see the kind of theatre some audience members might have a hard time publicly admitting they like. I think everyone has their tastes and preferences, but some shows are generally deemed “classy,” while others must be enjoyed secretly. What do you think? How low under the bar of lowbrow culture are we “allowed” to limbo? Is there something shameful about sitting gleefully among dozens of tweens in princess dresses at the very first preview of Cinderella? That was us, after all.

Nate Silver: For me, going to the theatre means different things at different times—to satisfy different cravings for different moods. In the same way that I am equally engaged by Mad Men and Modern Family, there’s a place for both Bring It On: The Musical and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Sure, there’s the idea of hate-watching (see Smash), but I inherently trust the theatre more than television. If something makes it all the way to Broadway—if it has financial backers, critical interest, a top-notch production team, actors at the top of their game—I’m going to see it.Bring It On was a surprise high point for me. I’ve never seen that brand of athleticism onstage. I had a similar experience at Rocky: I’ve never seen a set move in the way that one did. Was I truly moved by either of those musicals? No, not really. Was I actually, legitimately, not faking it, shamelessly entertained? You bet. Sometimes that’s all I’m looking for.

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Tanaquil Le Clercq

Choreographer George Balanchine and his muse, Tanaquil Le Clercq

A beautiful young woman rests her hand on a ballet bar with tentative delicacy, contemplating the audience as though they are her mirror. This is Tanaquil le Clercq. Nancy Buirski’s documentary of her life on “American Masters,” Afternoon of a Faun, opens and closes with this same mesmerizing image: a ballerina of exquisite poise onstage, emanating that intangible, unknowable quality known as grace.

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The O’Neill Celebrates 50 Years

My time at the O’Neill Center as a National Critics Fellow culminated in a fabulous, fun anniversary gala. The O’Neill is turning 50, read about it here or over at Backstage! Also, this morning CBS is airing a segment about the O’Neill called “Launchpad of the American Theater.” #oneill50

The Eugene O'Neill Theater Center

The full moon shone over the ocean at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center during its 50th Anniversary Gala July 11. It was a fitting coincidence, as actors Reed Birney and Sally Wingert performed a stirring reading of a play set right there in O’Neill’s New London, Conn., neighborhood: “A Moon for the Misbegotten.”

“We knew that we had two really special actors who really wanted to do that scene, and we had a full moon outside,” said Gregg Wiggans, artistic associate for the National Playwright Conference and director of the gala’s entertainment. “It’s special to George C. White, that particular play. So it’s as much a gift for him as it was for everyone else.”

It was 50 years ago that White discovered what some of the country’s best theater artists now refer to simply as “the O’Neill.” Passing by on a boat, White learned the property’s facilities were going to be burned for a fire exercise. He approached the O’Neill family about turning the grounds into a play development conference instead. “The O’Neill was founded on somebody’s willingness to move forward and take a risk,” said Wiggans. “It’s very much a supporter of the new and the now and what’s next.”

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Smart Review: Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s GYPSY

Leslie Uggams Gypsy

Leslie Uggams stars as Mama Rose in Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s multiracial production of ‘Gypsy’

Leslie Uggams playing the role of Mama Rose in Gypsy is significant for two reasons.

Firstly, Leslie Uggams is an African American actress. This shouldn’t be noteworthy, but given the buzz of the Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s current production of Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim’s classic musical, it is. Billed as a “mixed race” rendition, claiming “no African American actress had ever starred as Rose in an Equity production,” this show’s marketing flaunts its diverse cast even as it clarifies that Uggams got the part solely because of her legendary talent. Publicity gambit or no, it becomes obvious upon seeing this venerable actress onstage — for ten nights only! — that she desperately wanted to give it a shot.

And why not? Uggams throws herself into this formidable part as capably as she can, and a nonwhite Mama Rose suddenly makes all the sense in the world. Audiences members for whom a person’s skin color is distracting will accept that Rose, whose touring Vaudeville act recruits stray tap-dancing children, doesn’t have to be a specific ethnicity. Her daughters don’t even necessarily have to be the same race, as they could just as easily be adopted in this story of gypsies and chased dreams. As American audiences are slowly but surely learning, this is proof that even in period plays, characters that aren’t explicitly ethnic can easily be portrayed by nonwhite actors.

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Smart Review: An Evening in Mystic, CT

Mystic Pizza & the Ancient Mariner
A restaurant review by Jack Smart

Mystic Pizza

Mystic’s mystical MYSTIC PIZZA [Julia Roberts not pictured]

If, like me, you’ve never had the pleasure of seeing the early-career Julia Roberts showcase Mystic Pizza, you may feel on the outside of some cultish form of nostalgia when visiting the restaurant that inspired the film. An otherwise unremarkable pizza joint in the middle of Mystic, Connecticut, Mystic Pizza (“A slice of heaven!”) daily attracts thousands upon thousands of movie fans who happen to be hungry — rather more than the amount of hungry patrons who happen to be movie fans.

The familiar ambience of this mecca is as important to its character as the merchandise shop on the bottom floor (for a mere $26, you can own the same t-shirt the movie’s waitresses wear!). Walls are plastered, Pinterest-style, with framed pictures of Lucille Ball’s eyebrows, classic Coca-Cola ads, and of course, Roberts’ timeless smile. It’s comforting and mainstream, a pop culture obsessive’s fever dream. The staff is bubbly yet laid-back, ready to recite recommendations from the menu, which dedicates more space to describing the Hollywood backstory than what’s for dinner.

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Smart Review: JERSEY BOYS (The Movie)

Jersey Boys

Effie, Deena, and Lorrell sing “Dreamgirls”… I wish.

On some level it makes sense that Clint Eastwood, the ultimate cool straight white guy, would want to take a crack at directing a movie adaptation of Jersey Boys, the Broadway hit about four cool straight white guys. The grand story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons is one that exemplifies the American version of braggadocio, a stirring tale of hard knocks and success against all odds. Plus, guys get to shove each other and say things like, “Fuggedaboutit!”

Despite such inspired source material (Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice adapted their Tony-winning show for the big screen), not to mention some of the most recognizably catchy songs in the pop music canon, in Eastwood’s hands this jukebox movie musical is almost entirely off-key.

Valli’s astonishing voice, still regarded as one of the most original sounds in music history, should be the axle on which the entire film pivots. But the sound mixing is almost as choppy as Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach’s curiously erratic editing. Lighting and 50’s-era costumes, all whites and soft browns, practically glow with a high-budget sheen, yet no one seems willing to spend money on the kinds of tricks that make films like Chicago and Dreamgirls work – the all-important montage, for one, is forgotten – so the whole affair appears both amateurish and expensive.

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