Stage Struck Review

Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years

Category Archives: Blog

Adjusting To The New: Musing on Life and Art

I was reading a review by theatrical critic Laura Pels in the New York Times, and was struck by my immediate resonance with her lead paragraph: “When classics get adapted or updated, I often find myself asking: What’s the added value? What do you get from Shakespeare with penguins that you don’t get better from Shakespeare straight up?”

I suppose this is because, to some extent, I’m trying not to see my life as “Shakespeare with penguins”, for I have left my well defined, life-long comfort zone of Los Angeles County for another land: Louisville, Kentucky. It is much smaller (I’m trading a county of over 10 million for a county of just over 700,000), but still an artistic hub, and it is where my wife grew up and many members of her large extended family still live. And I am retired from the day job, so it is right to be in a state of reinvention. I just don’t want it to be too random, or worse, get in the way of who I am or what I want to achieve.

On the other hand, this resonated with me because Pels’ questions are ones I have often had to ask as a critic as well. Looking, as she was, at Shakespeare… or Moliere, or even Ibsen, Williams or Miller, I am well acquainted with the fine line between innovation which makes the story relevant to a new audience, and the kind of “messing with the original” which becomes a distraction. (You’ll notice nobody seems to do this with Shaw, and I’m sure it is because any decently superstitious director/adaptor knows that Bernard Shaw will rise from the dead to slap you silly if you mess with his work. He was a remarkably adamant man.)

When I think of this, two instances come to mind. In the first, one director I used to review frequently was obviously so sure that nobody would get Shakespeare’s jokes that she had fairies do gymnastics as they talked, or “rustics” (peasants) engaging in constant slapstick. Not only was this exhausting for the performers, it meant you really couldn’t hear the lines to see if they were funny or not.

Granted, there is a long, supposedly clever speech toward the end of As You Like It which every director would like to cut, but can’t because of a costume change. It may have been funny in Elizabethan times, but its entire context is lost on a modern audience… and there you could have the character stand on his head or juggle and it would make the scene a whole lot better. On the other hand, the rustics in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or the watchmen in Much Ado About Nothing, if performed by people who know how to speak Elizabethan English naturally, can be very funny indeed, because the lines actually are.

The second involves a production group which fell into the habit of putting in costume non-sequiturs where they made no artistic sense: bowler hats or batwing glasses in what are otherwise naturalistic, clearly 18th Century settings of definitely and comfortably period plays. Like… is this supposed to tell us it’s a comedy? Certainly, playing with time period and construction, especially when it comes to costuming, is a thing, but there should be a reason for it, not just a pair of out-of-place glasses that add absolutely nothing to either the character or the play.

This does not mean I am opposed to taking, say, Shakespeare out of its time period. I have a friend in Britain who apologized for taking me to the RSC theater in Stratford, because it wasn’t going to be “real Shakespeare” because it wasn’t being done in doublet and hose. (It was a terrific production of As You Like It that even the 16-year-old me knew was extraordinary.) Adaptations of time period that work can create a freshness which brings a great work to a new generation. Orson Welles’ 1930s production of a “Voodoo Macbeth,” or his Julius Caesar set in Mussolini’s Rome, or a great and far more recent Julius Caesar at the Mark Taper Forum set in the time of Kennedy, were historically powerful. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s addition to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Arts Festival, a production of Much Ado… reset in in the glamour of the Restoration period, was magical. More recently, Ian McKellen’s Hitlerian Richard III was stunning onstage (though deadly on film, but that’s another discussion).

Which brings me back to my own situation. I have made a big life shift, and I’m not done thinking it through. I don’t want to paste things on which will turn out to be superfluous. I am – for the first time in 15 years – a home owner. That’s not superfluous. I have references from theatrical friends and my editor to reconnect with theater here, from a local dinner theater to Actors Theatre of Louisville, a highly respected regional company. How I reconnect with that side of my life, now that I’m settled in, will either result in penguins or profundity. Still evaluating the approach. And, of course, it being Kentucky, there is politics. Living in a blue city in a red state has its own drama. Is that a penguin for my life, or a chance to make change?

Today it is exactly three months since I first set foot in my new home. Still, I still find my L.A. roots are a part of me. In any case, I’m not in Los Angeles anymore, though I still receive emails from press representatives for shows I would love to see… Ah well. A shout out to my friends and colleagues in the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle. A shout out to my friends and colleagues at Pasadena’s Blair High School, which once again avoided budget-related shuttering. That life goes on without me. Now it’s my job to figure out what this new life is really going to be all about. I’ll let you know. Hopefully, it will not include penguins.

Our new (to us) residence, on the outskirts of Louisville, KY

Did You Fall Off the Face of the Earth… or What?

I know, it certainly seems like that. I was here, and then suddenly I wasn’t. It wasn’t intentional, but rather a result of being completely overwhelmed by the (to me, anyway) monumental shifts in life which seemed to all hit at once.

I owe a huge apology to Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont for not ever writing the review I intended to write about their fine production of Steve Martin’s “Bright Star,” a Eudora Welty-ish tale of class, hate and redemption in the South. I hope some of you went. It was disturbing in places, but strong, well directed, and filled with the bluegrass-tinged music that always reminds me of the musical based on Welty’s “The Robber Bridegroom” which I adored in my 20s.

I also owe an apology to the Ahmanson, for seeing and then never writing about the touring production of “Falsettos” which landed there. It was, to be frank, a bit disappointing to see how dated this had become. What were once triumphant, charming, and sad facts about life in gay America in the early 80s had become dry and thus somewhat slow, stating so many things now painfully obvious. Still, the performers were good and deserved to be celebrated.

So… what was I doing instead? Well, I was becoming a retired person. Not, at least not immediately, from theatrical criticism, but from the day job. After a total of 40 or so years as an educator, the last 35 of which have been spent at Blair High School in Pasadena (a treasure of a public school which never gets the credit it deserves), on May 31 I literally left the building.

Prepping for this is when I discovered my classroom (including the boxes full of stuff which had been schlepped from place to place as we moved out of our main building so it could be refurbished and remodeled) was essentially my attic.

Thus I have been sorting through nearly 40 years of educational stuff I had saved, some so old they were printed in purple ditto ink, and tossing away outdated paperwork, sample history textbooks, academic competition format materials, pirated VHS recordings, worksheets, workbooks, and an awful lot of “why the hell did I save that?” bits and pieces. The things which still had value were handed off to those who will be teaching what I have been teaching. It was weird to be divesting myself of so much, but it was time to go. I still love teaching, and care deeply about my students, but it is hard on the body to stand on linoleum over concrete day in and day out, and my oomph was not optimum.

Anyway, on top of this I had promised my wife that when I retired we could move closer to her family. Once she knew retirement was near, her family chimed in with “when you move to Louisville…” advise and comments even before we had decided to return to what was her home town. So, we’re returning to her home town (where I also went to grad school, so it is not entirely foreign territory). That meant that what of the last month and a half or so has not been involved with the details of retirement, and passing various educational batons, has been dedicated to house-hunting. This has meant flying back and forth, lots of document-gathering, etc. Found a nice place too, at a ridiculous price for anyone used to housing costs in SoCal.

Now I have been coming to grips with leaving my own home town. Let’s face it, I love California. I love Los Angeles County. I love the theater culture here, and the extraordinary diversity of people, cultures, arts organizations, languages… all of it. I have roots here dating back to the 20s. To walk away from this is a huge shift in some elemental personal paradigms. Still, it is time for a new, and frankly affordable adventure.

So, what happens to me, the drama critic? Well, I’m not gone yet and there are still some things to see. Still, my son is already talking about a redesign of this blog space to reflect a theater writer talking about Louisville (Actors Theatre especially) and the comparatively nearby regional theater world of Cincinnati. We’ll see. I may end up writing more philosophically about theater, its role in culture, and the need for its preservation. Nothing is yet completely decided, and – of course – the artistic world I move into will have to decide I’m worth listening to. This is never a one-way street.

So, that’s where I’ve been. That’s where I’m going. I am getting over the overwhelming redefinition of my day to day, predicated by walking away from one profession I have practiced for nearly 2/3 of my life, and am beginning to look at what awaits on the horizon. I’ll let you know what I find along the way. You may end up as surprised as I probably will be at the results.

In the meantime, expect a few more reviews from the L.A. area before I leave town. Expect some from some part of the country even after that, if I can manage it. I am preparing to move, not die, and I’ve been writing about theater at least as long as I have been teaching – perhaps even a bit longer. This labor of love, which has survived the curtailing of newspaper publication and the shifts in Equity rules, is not ready for a final curtain.

As for the school I’m leaving behind? I am most proud to have helped found the Gay Straight Alliance there in 2005, and worked hard to create the school’s currently touted “open and accepting” atmosphere, where being a nonconformist in any one of a number of ways is welcomed and appreciated. I am also proud of my work with their strong and creative student government (the ASB). I am told the administration intends to name the ASB room after me, which is touching and humbling. Still, this is a public school district, where bureaucracy can sometimes thwart intent. We’ll see.

Now You See Me, Now You Don’t: SCNG Gives Up Printing/Posting Reviews

Fate plays tricks on one, now and again. Change can arrive bidden or unbidden, and the consequences are not always predictable. Take this site, for instance. Originally my son arm-twisted me into creating it, concerned that the medium of print news was disappearing. Still, my theatrical critiques continued to appear in the Pasadena Star-News, the first daily I ever wrote for, as well as other related papers: a list which grew longer and longer as the parent company morphed into the Southern California News Group. The size of the once proud and independent Star-News shrank from a historic building bustling with reporters, editors, workers in the basement press room, and all the others who make a newspaper go, to three guys in the back of a modern building doing local reporting while everything else was handled by some editor or business exec at one of various other sites. Still, one of those editors (it changed over time) okay’d my assignments, and my critiques still showed up in print.

Now print news – at least major outlets’ version of it (NY Times, LA Times, Washington Post, etc.) – is making a comeback in the era of “Oh my God! What kind of crazy is going on in Washington?”, but the damage has already been done to the smaller papers, who have been bought and consolidated, and then consolidated again, until what were once the voices of local information have been homogenized nearly to the point of pointlessness. Online sources (Pasadena NOW, for instance) have taken over some of that, though their journalistic skill can vary greatly.

And what of coverage of the arts? In the case of the SCNG, the Lifestyle pages, once the home of critiques of theater, dance, restaurants, film, etc., are now all apparently controlled from a single desk for all papers in the chain. Local is out. This is why all theater criticism disappeared from those pages in August. They were still available online, though you had to be a detective to find them (as I heard over and over again from those who couldn’t figure out to get there). Then it was determined that too few people were visiting those online pages (see above, though that wasn’t apparently part of the discussion), and it was concluded that nobody wanted to read theater criticism anymore. So… no more critiques will be offered in any SCNG papers.

Thus it turns out my son’s urging was a very good thing. My reviews will still appear here, and linked to my new Facebook page, called rather obviously “Reviews by Frances Baum Nicholson”. There will be a monthly preview column which will appear in only the San Gabriel Valley-area papers as well, but it will be mostly a preview of what’s coming up, rather than any evaluative tool.

There may be other connections. I’m still looking into other avenues for my work to get out there. What will come of that I do not know. In the meantime, here I am. Please go to the “Contact the Author” section of this website to see how to receive word of reviews, go “like” my FB page, or subscribe by email in order to see what I’ve posted, if you are interested.

Thank goodness for the Internet, I guess. It is seen as being the death of the daily paper, but it has to be acknowledged as where the majority of Americans find their information these days. Of course, you do need to be careful and find trustworthy sources in order to avoid being led by the nose. In that vein, and to be helpful, I offer the chart below. Critiques or no, being able to access accurate information has never been more critical, and I find this chart, created by a nonpartisan organization, is valuable to have on hand. Yes, this is me wearing my “other hat” as a teacher of US government, but there ya go. Sometimes the two parts of my life blend.


Tribute play “Screwball Comedy”: great potential, shaky comic timing

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The classic screwball comedy films of the 1930s and 40s have remained popular from that time on because of four basic elements: the ridiculousness of the essential storyline, the crisp and evocative dialogue, the quality of and apt casting of the performers, and timing – always the fast-paced, pinpoint timing of the lines and scenes which makes the whole thing memorably funny. This is what playwright Norm Foster wants to celebrate in his play “Screwball Comedy,” now receiving its U.S. premiere at Theatre Forty in Beverly Hills.

Although Foster himself has created a play which honors all the above, with dialogue only slightly more ridiculous than the real thing, and just as deliciously improbable a plot, the current production does little with the rest. With a few exceptions the casting (or at very least character interpretation) is problematic, and the direction by Howard Storm profoundly uneven.

The play follows all the classic tropes. A rough-around-the-edges newspaper editor sends his star reporter (whose ego and nightlife have begun to erode his gifts) and an earnest young woman trying to get hired off to cover the society wedding of the son of the paper’s wealthy-widow owner. What they find is conniving on all fronts, which in turn leads to a certain amount of romantic sparks between the two.

The highlights of performance in this piece come mostly from the performers who seem to have grasped the timing aspect, even if those around them don’t always. Gail Johnston, as Jones, the editor’s secretary, is keen and consistently funny in ways one hopes the rest of the show will emulate. As the wealthy widow, Sharron Shayne has a flamboyance which works well, and an energy which powers points in the production which would otherwise wobble. As the son, hiding his gifts to keep his mother happy, Niko Boles charmingly underplays his part, making it stand out in lovely ways.

Although Lane Compton, as the egotistical ace reporter, has conquered the style of that specific kind of comedy part, he often plays against people whose timing is so slow it remains somewhat difficult to assess his gifts in that regard. As his supposed foil, the prospective cub reporter, Kate Whitney lacks that immediacy of delivery so necessary in this kind of script, where lines need to jump on top of each other to create the humor. As the gold digger trying to marry money, Jean Mackie also supplies little to play off of, as her way to embrace her character’s constant state of inebriation is to slow things down.

Daniel Leslie, as the editor, seems to struggle with his lines, though his characterization proves fitting. George Villas, as the man trying to marry the widow, is so off from the feel of the play he isn’t even giving his lines at the same volume as the rest, booming them out with overelaborate zest. David Hunt Stafford, as the grumpy, bumbling butler, is indeed funny, but funny like a recurring burlesque joke, and thus out of keeping with the rest of the tale.

Much of this lands at the feet of director Storm. Indeed, even among those doing a good job, they are flying solo – there is no sense of directorial coordination of the humor. On the other hand, the set by Jeff G. Rack uses the stage space remarkably well. The costuming by Michele Young misses at important moments, especially in over-dowdying Whitney’s character, though it generally seems to be roughly in that early 40s period. Brandon Baruch does a fine job with the lighting, absolutely necessary when you place different rooms on different parts of the set.

In short, there is nothing horribly wrong with “Screwball Comedy,” except that it doesn’t seem to have any feel of ensemble, and ensemble is what made the great screwball comedies work. It is sometimes quite funny, but not anywhere near as funny as it could easily have been.

What: “Screwball Comedy”  When: Through August 19, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays  Where: The Reuben Cordova Theatre on the campus of Beverly Hills High School, 241 S. Moreno Drive in Beverly Hills  How Much: $35. Info: (310) 364-0535 or

Musings: Theater and the Observant Outsider: the importance of feedback in the production process

One of the more memorable moments from my college years has to be the day I happened upon Mel Brooks in the lobby of the then-brand new Hyatt Regency in San Francisco’s Embarcadero District, filming a sequence from “High Anxiety.” He was starring in it, of course, as he often was in his movie-making days, but after each shot he would dash over to a video screen to watch what had just gone on.

Had he done what he wanted to do? Was everyone in the right place? Was it as funny as he had hoped? Nope. Discussion with the actors. Discussion with the cameraman (the video camera shadowing what the film camera was doing). Back for another take of the same scene, with a few adjustments both to himself and the others involved, to make it better.

On and on it went, until finally he called it a wrap and they began packing up to move to a new location.

This is the elemental advantage of film, for a man like Brooks. He can be in his creation and direct his creation and have eyes in both places, as the camera becomes his surrogate. Behind the scenes, he will take the rushes from his filming and fiddle with them, pass them by producers and editors who will offer advice and expertise, and the end result will be something that is very much his, but also well vetted.

The same is not possible on the stage, really. The very immediacy which makes stage performance so emotionally satisfying means that a director cannot be in two places at the same time. If you are on stage performing with others, you cannot watch yourself in the moment. If you are off stage, in director mode, you are not allowing those you perform with to do what they need to do in relation to your character.

This is, if anything, more intense when one is performing solo, as the entire piece is just the performer, obviously unable to stand out front or in the wings to watch him or herself. Even the great solo performances – Hal Holbrook as Mark Twain, Eileen Atkins as Virginia Woolf, or Robert Morse as Truman Capote, for example – most definitely had someone else direct. Having more eyes involved with the creation of the final product allows the actor to practice his or her craft with that vital second opinion – a different eye – to avoid the traps of ego or of simply being too close to the material.

Interestingly the same can often be said of the relationship between writing and directing. Particularly in smaller theaters, it is not uncommon to see a director who is working with his or her own material. In theory this can be a good thing, but the concept often has fatal flaws.

(I cannot help but remember the professor in a class on readers theater who made us all buy his poetry chapbook “because when you read those poems I can tell you exactly what the author meant”. This created issues because many of those poems became subjects of ridicule among us, meaning we simply wouldn’t want to read them aloud – as we actually understood them – to the man who was giving us a grade. We were not allowed to edit, and trust me, they needed work even this college junior could see.)

So let’s face it: in reality (and I do not discount this in myself) any author has a strong tendency to fall in love with the work he or she has written to the point where it is tough to see the flies in the ointment. Editing is tough without feedback. Feedback rarely comes most efficiently from oneself, particularly in the admittedly ego-driven world of performance. The American greats from Arthur Miller on down did not direct their own iconic dramas. Neither did the likes of Neil Simon, whose comedic view of the mid-20th century is startlingly timeless.

Sometimes this is an obvious choice, as many writers are more cerebral than physical in their view of what their play is trying to say. In other words, a person proficient with words isn’t necessarily proficient with the physical interplay of bodies in a stage space. The added plus of an outside director, beyond a more visual artistic understanding, can be the work of an editor. What looks good on paper doesn’t always translate to what captures an audience from the stage, and the director is there to illuminate that.

For over 50 years there was a small amateur theater company in Altadena, California which devoted itself to producing untried plays. Theatre Americana would advertise in college newspapers and literary journals, and would sort through the hundreds of scripts they received annually to find four plays which would each be “put on its feet” every year. Their structure underscored this need for a writer to be open to outside input.

Their contract with the authors insisted they be allowed to edit the work, and they often did. Those who would not agree were told that TA was not interested in their work. Even with edits it was often obvious that playwrights tend to write more than the stage can stand. (As my mother would have said, perhaps George Bernard Shaw could get away with plays which were really more “costumed panel discussions” but nobody else can.) But then that was what TA’s mission was all about. They always invited the authors to come and take a look at the results, and thus to take away some sense of where the play needed to be worked on next.

Sadly, in these days when getting people into a theater is tougher than ever, and getting them into a community theater is even harder, the last members of Theatre Americana found it difficult to pass their legacy on to a new generation. Just as this was dawning on them, the County saw fit to remove them from the building they had, in the first part of the 20th century, been instrumental in getting built in a local county park. Finally, the enterprise shut down, though still stating a wan hope of revival. I admit I miss their energy. It was an education to see their productions, not only for the playwrights, but for this then-much-younger theatrical critic.

All of which to say that I have seen several productions over the past year where the critical objective eye was missing in some way. The person who wrote was directing and pretty much running the show. The person directing was also the star. In each case, the loss of an independent critical eye meant that some amount of potential went unrealized. I cannot claim this is always, universally true. Still, that desire to save money or make something totally one’s personal vision, or whatever causes such foreshortening of the elemental staffing of a theatrical production should be approached with deep caution. In the theater, perhaps more than most other art forms, independent observation is key.

So… Where Have I Been?

It’s the start of June. It’s the start of the Hollywood Fringe Festival. It’s… well, there’s a lot of theater going on out there. So, why is nobody hearing from me? Because I’m not in Los Angeles at the moment.

As anyone who has read the “About Me” part of this blog-thing knows, I teach high school. Last week was finals week. Then Friday morning way, way, way too early, I got on a plane to Salt Lake City, Utah… not because I wanted to see the sites (though there are sites to see) but because I was meeting with over 700 other teachers and professors of US Government to score the nation’s Advance Placement American Government and Politics exams. This year there are 320,000 to be read.

I do this for a lot of reasons. First, I teach the course and the best way to know how to prepare my students is to see how students respond to the questions, how those essays are being evaluated (i.e.: what the rubric looks like), and what nuances are implied in the process of scoring which will let me read between the lines of what the people who write this stuff are really emphasizing.

I also came this year because the curriculum is changing, as is the test, in a year or so and I want to know lots of details about that.

And, of course, they are paying me. Not the only reason to come, but it helps.

I do not get to choose when this happens, and it just so happens that this time it completely coincides with the start of the great wave of show openings which become the Fringe every year. And the opening weekend of Whittier Community Theatre’s last show of the season. And a lot of other fascinating things.

So, I’m sorry to have been silent. Look for me again closer to the end of June, when I will be back in action. And in the meantime, go look at the Hollywood Fringe website, find something which looks interesting, and go. You can tell me all about it.

Okay, so… I’m kinda back! Thanks for waiting.

I’ve been away, so let me catch you up. The last post I left here explained that I had gone in for a knee replacement (officially a “complete right knee arthroplasty” for those who embrace technical accuracy). And, that I did, on June 15.

I had no idea how long recovery would take, but got a reality check just before they wheeled me in, as the anesthesiologist explained “This is the most painful operation you can have, because of what they do to the bones, so don’t get behind on your pain medications afterward.” Truer words were never spoken. Now, seven weeks since the operation, I begin to feel like myself again, am off the prescription pain med, and – though a little shaky of balance, but improving – ready to resume something vaguely like a normal life.

I am seeing a couple of shows this coming weekend, and will post the reviews here as soon as is appropriate, given my contract with print media as well. Then, well, I may take some more time because my day job starts up again and I will have to measure my stamina to some extent. Anyway, every theater I usually cover is opening something in September, so you’ll be hearing a lot from me in the near future.

While in recuperation mode, I have been watching a lot of films made from plays. I have come up with some musings on the subject of when that works and when that doesn’t work… but I think I’ll save that for tomorrow. Suffice it to say that I’m really glad to be getting back to being creative, thanks in part to no longer being hindered by medication which – though necessary – left me really a bit fuzzy around the edges (I keep hearing my former husband, after receiving an opioid to enable a biopsy, saying “You mean people PAY to feel like this?!”).

With that fuzziness departed, I’m climbing, albeit slowly, back into the saddle. Thanks for hanging in there. Thank you also to those of you who sent sympathetic and/or encouraging messages. That was lovely. Now I can look forward to walking again without being distracted by constant knee pain. And that makes the rest of this summer worthwhile.

Apologies – a brief (I hope) break

Greetings. Just a word to let all those who read this blog know that I had knee replacement surgery on June 15. Because of this, and the recovery necessary to be able to sit comfortably in any chair, theatrical or otherwise (not to mention getting past the use of the walker which would make that even more complicated), I must take a short hiatus from theatrical reviewing.

I hope to be back in a few weeks, and will gladly make contact with all those companies/press reps who wish me to cover their productions as soon as I know I’ll be able to attend. In the meantime, enjoy your summer and may all your productions sparkle, or spark important thought, or both. Live theater is the true magic in the world.

Musings: A Mom’s Gotta Boast

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Proud mom with the newly minted grad, showing off the top of her mortar board, with her last college cue call: Stand by, Graduation… Go!

I have two children. They are grown now – one is about to turn 29, and the other is 25. Both are married – actually got married about two months apart. Both, as children, were members of the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, touring Europe, singing with the L.A. Philharmonic, the Pasadena Symphony and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, and becoming child chorus members (even featured performers) and supernumeraries in productions of the Los Angeles Opera.

Being a part of LACC taught them a lot, and not just about music. They acquired a sense of professional discipline, a more global world view (when I asked my daughter about singing at the Vatican, all she wanted to discuss was what it was like to be in the streets of Rome the night Italy won the World Cup), and the virtues and rewards of hard work. They also learned to love the process of theater, and both were in school musicals in high school long after they’d left LACC behind. My son, as he grew older, began to focus more on computers, though he now helps run a company which provides services to the film and television industry.

My 25-year-old daughter, who ran the stage crew through the latter half of high school, has landed closer to her family’s theatrical roots. (Her dad and I met in the drama department of the University of the Pacific.) A bit more than a week ago, she graduated from San Francisco State University as a Technical Theatre major. She helped operate the scene shop, ran or helped run shows large and small (the most recent, tech directing a full-blown production of “Urinetown”) and is a techie to the core.

During this past year she has also been an intern at San Francisco’s Circus Center, where people learn how to perform circus acts. Just after graduation, she jumped into a gig as a house manager for a music festival. And on it goes. In this industry what she has accomplished is important. She’s, well, a she. She’s not quite 5’5″. She doesn’t tower over people and she’s not the strongest person in the shop, but she has proved over and over again, in a very male-dominated part of the theater business, that she knows what she’s doing and can get it done.

So, I’m a very proud mom. Congratulations, Mary Kate Nicholson-White. Who knows where she will land eventually, as her husband is an active-duty Sergeant in the US Marine Corps. But wherever she goes, she will be the woman in the room who can use all kinds of power tools, build a stable structure (even a multi-story one), understand how to run a production, and… well… do a whole lot of behind-the-scenes things. Yup. That’s my girl.

Musings: Bad Behavior, Theatrical Edition

Over the past couple of months there has been a significant discussion in theater circles about the concept of basic theatrical etiquette. By this I do not mean how performers and/or crew behave backstage, but rather, the increasingly boorish actions of some audience members. The general question appears to have two foci: whether or not some audience members have forgotten how to appreciate a live performance in a group setting, and how addicted people in the US have become to electronics.

And here comes the moment when I begin to sound like a curmudgeon, which I really am not. However, my observations over time have made the most recent events in New York seem recognizable (regrettable, but recognizable), particularly when I see echoes of the behavior here, closer to home.

To begin, the problem of inattention or distraction due to electronics is not new. I can remember, a good 25 years ago and more, being startled to see parents take their tween children to shows, only to allow them to listen to their headphones the entire time. I kept wondering what made that experience any better than leaving a kid with a babysitter? And that was before the onset of our most addictive convenience, the cell phone.

Cell phones have become an increasing annoyance for actors and audience members alike. I can remember several searing moments of theatrical drama which were interrupted by a loud electronic cha-cha, deep in someone’s purse. And you know how that one goes: first the quieter but annoying music, then the dive-and-dig by the phone’s owner, leading to the much louder musical interlude before the phone can finally be silenced. Best of all is the person who just denies the call, and thus must face that exercise all over again about ten minutes later when the person at the other end calls back.

But now many of us Americans see phones as our appendages – something which must be on, or even out, all the time. YouTube is full of union-violating cell phone footage of, say, Idina Menzel’s last night as Elphaba in “Wicked,” or someone or other’s stellar curtain speech, even though the program specifically states (and sometimes so does an announcer at show’s start) that the taking of photographs and videoing is strictly prohibited. And, of course, even if not recording the performances onstage, texting with its ensuing glow can distract actors and audience-members alike, particularly if something intense is supposed to be happening in the production itself but the audience is full of little, glowing screens… and audience members are looking at them instead of the stage.

Hence the reaction of most in the industry to Patti LuPone, who, on July 9 – having been annoyed by the glow of cell phones all through a matinee of “Shows for Days” – had finally had enough. That evening, a young woman in the front row spent the entire first portion of the play looking at her phone, and LuPone was done being nice. As she exited – as she usually did – through the audience, she reached over, pocketed the woman’s phone, and gave it to a stage manager so it could be returned at the end of the show.

The reaction was swift, and dual. When I mentioned this outside the theatrical community, there was outrage: “She had no right to do that,” was the common reaction. On the other hand, from those I know who are theater lovers, the reaction was congratulatory. Indeed, the overall impression was similar to that I felt when watching those kids with headphones: she (or someone else) paid a lot for that seat. Why did she come if she didn’t want to watch the show? And maybe, just maybe, those around her learned a lesson about how to be an audience. I tend to lean toward the latter, but I do understand that swiping someone’s possession, even temporarily, is fairly extreme.

But some audience members these days evoke the extreme. In that same week, also in New York, just before the start of an evening’s performance of “Hand to God,” an audience member climbed up on stage to plug his cell phone into the electrical plug on the show’s set. The plug was a fake (because… it was part of the SET), but the opening had to be delayed while a stage manager came out and cleared the phone. The general reaction to that was “What was that guy thinking?” Ironically, you can see this on YouTube too, because someone… wait for it… filmed it on his or her cell phone.

To simply finger-wag at the obsessive and tech savvy, however, would miss a larger point. We are growing into a people who simply do not know how to behave when in large groups. We see movies in our own homes, where we can talk to our partner, get up and walk around, even take the show we want to watch into a different room on our tablet. There is no longer, unless we’re willing to pay top price, even a chance for seeing films in the communality of a darkened theater. And when people do go to such places, top theaters such as the ArcLight chain have someone come in to gently remind people they are not at home and quiet is expected. Because you have to say that now.

Theaters are apparently the same way. That man who thought a piece of set was there for his personal convenience is symptomatic of the “I’m seeing it in my living room” philosophy. This lack of consideration for those around you has been experienced in a number of live productions – the drunks at the dinner theater I discussed a few weeks ago, the mother who chatted with her young daughter (who should have been learning how to behave in a live performance space) and handed her snacks from noisy bags all through a production of “Wicked” I attended a couple of years ago. These are symptomatic of a larger lack of empathy and/or respect for the communal wonder of live theatrical performance.

My mother, who taught middle school for a generation, used to say that for people in that age group (say, 12-14) the world is a movie put on for their benefit. When they walk out of a room, they intuitively believe that nothing happens until they walk back in. Teachers and such don’t have home lives, because that’s not how the students know them. Consequences come as a surprise, because all around them is – in their minds – really only going on in their heads.

The problem is, this attitude seems to now be spreading to adults, and live theater is most especially vulnerable, and thus having to deal with the results.

So, why am I writing about this just now? I’ve recently seen a few egregious bits of audience behavior which seem to underscore both the obliviousness and the electronics addiction of modern audience members, and I found it particularly annoying. The most recent came while attending a show at a small, but increasingly professional theater. I watched as a group of people in the front row, at one edge of the stage, proceeded to put their water bottles, and even a purse, on the stage itself, like it was a nearby shelf. Fortunately, their possessions were out of the area in which an actor would have to stand. On the other hand, their detritus was on full view to the rest of the audience. Besides, that was just extremely tacky.

Of course, audiences have been a trial at times since the days of Shakespeare and before. In those days they’d throw garbage at actors they didn’t like, and pour beer on each other. Then, and clear into the 19th century, audience members of the wealthier classes could actually sit on the stage, and interrupt as they felt was warranted. But it was assumed we had outgrown some of that foolishness – certainly the more we got into realism as an acting and production style.

Of course, the point could be made that even if they were throwing fruit, it was because they were engaged with the production, even if on an insult level. What bothers me the most about the obliviousness factor of today is that it means they are disengaged from the very thing they have come to watch. The patrons who have come to the theater with the intent to immerse themselves in the sights and sounds and insights on the stage lose out because of those who aren’t able to be fully present.

What can be done? As usual – and I admit I’m doing it – it’s easier to complain and highlight than to solve. Change will be a matter of group effort, I suppose. Perhaps the widespread publicity created by both Ms LuPone’s action and that idiot who thought a set was just another room created for his convenience will be a start. Perhaps these will spur people into thinking about how to appreciate what legitimate theater is: a communal experience of art and expression with a treasured immediacy no other medium can produce.

That would certainly be nice. In the meantime… wait. That was my cell phone. I think my editor has an assignment for me. BRB…

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