London Theater: This, That, and the Other (Glorious) Thing

“I’m going to a play.” A simple enough statement, but what does it conjure up in your imagination? A blockbuster musical? A small community effort? A revival of a standard? An experimental happening?

In a city with a rich theatrical scene, “going to a play” still means all of these and more. My recent trip to London reminded me of the many wondrous shapes theater can take.

MATILDA at the Cambridge Theatre:

I didn’t immediately think of attending a West End extravaganza. But then I remembered one quintessentially British Broadway piece worth seeing in its original London iteration. Matilda, based on the book by British children’s writer Roald Dahl, is as Brit as Brit can be. I swallowed my “big theater = lame theater” cynicism and went to the Cambridge for a night of pure entertainment.matilda

And, while I loved the production and performances (especially Alex Gaumond as Miss Trunchbull), I enjoyed the audience just as much. It was mostly parents and kids, the latter (at least) hyper from candy from the start plus the ice cream sold during the interval. They all had an absolutely joyous time watching live theater. Warmed the cockles of me heart, it did.

A SMALL FAMILY BUSINESS at the National Theatre

As well-established as the West End, but with a more respectable rep among theater aficionados, the National beckoned from the South Bank of the Thames. There’s no playwright more quintessentially British than Alan Ayckbourn, so I jumped at the chance to see his 1987 play, A Small Family Business. It was done in the National’s main space, the Olivier, recognizable by its famous gray stage with a rotating disc that bulges out toward the audience.

I’ll be honest: I don’t completely get Ayckbourn. I always wish his comedy were either a bit darker or a bit lighter. But that doesn’t matter. Ayckbourn’s work is a major cog in the mechanisms of British theater, and therefore must be seen, just as a music student who doesn’t dig Brahms should still get to know that composer’s oeuvre. And, as I expected, the largely British audience gobbled up this signature national dish by one of their favorite theatrical chefs.

BIRDLAND at the Royal Court Theatre

Another standard-bearer of British theater history is the Royal Court, on Sloane Square south of Hyde Park. In decades past, this theater was the working lab for such playwriting luminaries as Joe Orton and David Hare.

I attended Birdland, Simon Stephens’ exploration of the tortured life of a rockstar. The play, the performances, and especially the direction by Carrie Cracknell were astonishing and completely original, as the legacy of the Royal Court demands. I was delighted by the youth of the audience at this challenging piece. Their average age seemed to be 15-20 years below that of the National Theatre patrons. The future of great British theater is secured!

SAFE SEX / ON TIDY ENDINGS at the Tristan Bates Theatre

The show that made the biggest impression on me was by far the smallest affair. The Tristan Bates Theatre in Covent Garden presented the UK premiere of two Harvey Fierstein one-acts Safe Sexfrom the mid-1980s. (See my previous post about these plays.)

The production, starring UK television star CJ de Mooi, was a project of the Actor’s Centre. As I waited in their cafe to be let into the tiny black-box space, I was surrounded by theater pros discussing shows they were in or auditioning for, poring over scripts, and telling backstage war stories. This was theater by and for people who live theater, preserving these gorgeous little plays just for the love of the plays themselves.

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I hope it won’t be long before I can go back and attend four more London theaters for more uniquely thrilling experiences. Where am I going, you ask? To see a play! What does that mean? Anything and everything, and I can’t wait.

FEATURE: Luna Stage Short Play Festival Offers Big Payback for Tiny Plays

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Being a playwright is a lot like being a composer. Although what you write does exist on the page (or screen), it isn’t really complete until someone has performed it. A constant challenge for playwrights is finding a way to get their plays seen and heard. It takes, as they say, a village.

Or it takes a theater company committed to showcasing new works. Luna Stage, in West Orange, NJ, is offering 16 new ten-minute plays over two nights at their second annual New Moon Short Play Festival on May 12 and 13, 2014. (Yes, you can get there by public transit!)

Cheryl Katz, Artistic Director of Luna Stage

Cheryl Katz, Artistic Director of Luna Stage

Cheryl Katz, Artistic Director of Luna Stage, explains that, although doing so many little works takes a lot of effort, it’s worth it for everyone involved. “The festival allows us to give opportunity to writers, directors and actors. The new writers bring new directors who bring new actors who all bring new audiences.”

Getting his or her work before an audience is one struggle for a playwright. But crafting a complete idea to a maximum length of ten minutes (about ten typed pages of script) can be its own mini-mountain to scale. Writers have a number of reasons for taking on this feat.

For Cathy Tempelsman, there is a strong commitment to Luna Stage itself. Her plays Dog Days and A Most Dangerous Woman have had readings or productions with the company. Therefore she trusted Luna to do justice to her new work, Missing. “It’s a sad play—even dark,” she says, “but I wanted it to be funny and unsentimental. That’s a tough mix! But Luna has always been willing to take on plays that are difficult and downright risky to produce.”

Tempelsman sees value in writing very short works, comparing it to the way “poets often find it freeing to work within the confines of a sonnet. It’s demanding—it forces a kind of economy, which is important to playwriting.” There’s also the practical concern: shorter plays, she says, “can have a quicker turn-around in terms of production.”

Playwright Brad Baron has had a number of his works produced, but 140 Characters will be his first play at Luna. When the writing is going well, he says, what starts out as a ten-minute play doesn’t always end there. “Before you know it, your ten-minute play is a longer one-act, or maybe a full-length evening.” Yet he finds that the ten-minute format can be a blessing. At that length, he says, “You can experiment with whatever you like, and if it doesn’t work out, you’ll be forgiven.”

Diana Diaz, one of the playwrights featured in the Luna Stage festival

Diana Diaz, one of the playwrights featured in the Luna Stage festival

Baron admits that there’s a big risk involved for the playwright showing a work for the first time. “It’s like asking a very blunt family member to tell you what he or she really thinks of your baby’s face.” Hearing his words spoken makes the risk worthwhile, Baron says. “It renews faith in my writing, and also reveals the kinks. But the best surprises are when an actor reads a line of dialogue I absolutely hated, and does something to it that makes me love it again.”

Diana Diaz, who wrote Strolling Aimlessly, agrees. This is her first play to be produced, and she’s eager to see it interpreted. Her piece represents the voice of “that group of writers who were full-bloom NYC adults both pre and post 911. It’s an historical perspective with an expiration date. There are some nuances that can only be captured by people who have lived through [the event].” Describing her work as “creative non-fiction,” Diaz looks forward to “seeing how this talented crew keeps it fresh.”

Even with only ten minutes to make an impression, the writers included in the festival expect to gain plenty from the experience. You know who else benefits from a festival like this? You, the theater lover! For a suggested donation of $10 per night, you get to see 16 new creations by 16 different playwrights, all or most of whom will be new to you. If that doesn’t sound like being a kid in a candy store, then you just might be reading the wrong blog.

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 LUNA STAGE Short Plays Festival

Monday May 12th and Tuesday May 13th at 7:30pm
The 2nd Annual New Moon Short Play Reading Festival will be held over
two evenings with a different lineup of plays each night. Each evening
will culminate with a talkback with the
playwrights.

Reservations are strongly suggested (click here). No payment is necessary at the
time of reservation, but there will be a $10 suggested donation at the
door. Reservations must be picked up at
the box office 20 minutes prior to curtain (by 7:10pm) or tickets may
be released.

Evening #1: Monday May 12th at 7:30pm

Bedtime Story by Raphael Badagliacca
140 Characters or Less by Brad Baron
Supernova by Candace Clift
Park Bench Bingo by Kathryn Lieberthal
I Dom, I Sub by Malika Abdul-Zahir
Strolling Aimlessly by Diana Diaz
Yog Sothoth by Lia Romeo
Reason by Dania Ramos
Eugene Tillman by Crawford Daniels

Evening #2: Tuesday May 13th at 7:30pm

The Secret Keeper by David Meyers
The Countance Alterpiece by Elan David Garonzik
Maximun Velocity by Jonathan R. Citron
Point of Focus by Reg E Gaines
First Impressions by Kirsten Sughrue
Hitting the Glass Ceiling by Kathleen Ruen
Missing by Cathy Tempelsman