Posts Tagged ‘Ford Amphitheatre’

Interview with Neil Labute

neil_labuteA few weeks back, I wrote an article about “An Evening with Neil Labute,” where I attempted to analyze the appeal and occasional controversy of Labute’s work. His play Mercy Seat, which runs at [Inside] the Ford Amphitheatre until April 24th, is one of my favorites, and I was fortunate enough to be able to ask him a few questions about the piece and his work in general:

Q: Mercy Seat, for many, seemed to be your ‘mercy seat’ as a writer in that you seemed softer, for lack of a better word. Here you were taking on a subject that could have been more provocative and controversial (at least at the time of the original premiere) than anything you’d written to that point. And yet, at least in my opinion, it turned out to be one of your more emotional pieces. Is there truth to this claim, and if so, why do you think that is?

A: I don’t suppose I can judge any of that very clearly—as the author you’re just usually too close to the damn thing to know the truth. That’s why you spend so much of your writing time searching for the truth—in good literature, it never feels like the author is there as a teacher but as a fellow explorer. Struggling to find meaning if any exists. If the play was softer and more emotional in the end it’s simply where those characters led me—I go on the ride and see where it takes me but I do know that I cared for the characters and the dilemma they found themselves in and that’s my job as an author: to create people that an audience can find interesting and complex enough to care about, even if what they’re up to is highly questionable.

Q: In hindsight, do you feel Mercy Seat makes a political statement at all? And do you feel any responsibility toward exploring bigger global/societal issues in your work? Or is the personal political in itself?

A: I try to steer clear of politics, on the page and in my life. Personal politics are where I find my work and my interests colliding most successfully. There are enough people out there who want to screw things up on a local, national and global basis; they don’t need an amateur like me helping them out.

Q: I’ve read and seen much of your work, and the more I investigate it, I can’t shake the idea that a lot of it might be allegorical? Do you ever write with the intention of allegory?

A: Some of it probably is but I try not to do it too intentionally—I did a bit more with my newer play THE BREAK OF NOON and I received many resounding critical slaps for it. Mind you, that won’t stop me doing it again; I have a general disregard for authority that makes me want to push back when I get pushed.

Q: Have you ever received (or considered receiving) any chances in your own life to simply start over? Escape? Or does drama and the theatre provide such escape already?

A: That’s a great question and I probably won’t answer it honestly—but yes, my work is a great escape. It allows me to turn the page (quite literally) all the time and start fresh with new ideas and faces and locales. I couldn’t ask for more (or could I?)

Q: The last time I saw you talk, you brought up how much you love seeing the work of younger playwrights. I was wondering if you could recommend any?

A: I love other writers, whether they’re young or not. I think Christopher Shinn is writing very good stuff lately and Polly Stenham over in London. It’s happening all the world (new writing), it’s just getting the stuff produced that’s the trick. I like when people do not take ‘no’ for an answer and produce the work themselves—I’d like to see more of that from young writers.

Q: Mercy Seat is partly about revisiting one’s life, reexamining it. And for you, this show presents another opportunity for you to reexamine your own work. How would you compare that process to putting up a brand new production?

A: Sadly I’ve been out of the country so it’s been a bit from afar—that said, I always take a look at the play again and I think this one holds up. I love a good two-hander in real time and I think MERCY SEAT is a great test for actors. I’m working on a new one in London right now and it’s the same thing—a real Olympic event for actors. I like it on stage when there is no place to hide; just like a wounded animal, actors are at they’re best when they are a little scared, a little wounded and completely cornered (or without props!)

Q: One criticism I’ve read of your work is that you write for an ending. Is this true? If not, what do you say to that?

A: Critics, like cabbages, should be eaten and not heard (to anyone who’s had his or her work reviewed by the critical community, this meaningless phrase will make complete sense).

Q: What is it about infidelity that attracts you and so many other writers? Is the subject ever exhausted?

A: Betrayal is a pretty fascinating subject—why people turn on those they supposedly love or care about. Betrayal of a sexual nature is only one tree in this fertile soil (to coin a really lame expression).

Q: There’s a sense of humor that’s prevalent in most of your work, even at its darkest. And this is a trend I see more and more in mainstream drama (the show Eastbown and Down is one example that comes to mind). What is the effect, do you think, of blending darkness or sadness with comedy? And why not just attack pathos straight-on?

A: Comedy is the ‘Neosporin’ of dramatic life—I like to apply a little from time to time to make the audience feel a false sense of hope and security. I’ve done this ‘theater’ thing enough that people should know that we’re going to be peeling the scab off at some point during the evening but they still like to laugh and think it’s all going to be ok in the end. That’s fine by me—theater is about allusion and if laughter helps, then I’m all for it.

Q: Finally, I wonder what advice, as a director, you would give (or have given) an actor preparing to perform your work?

A: Take no prisoners. People are there for the ride and want you to show them something magical and different and new. No one gets points for being mediocre, so go for it.

Neil Labute’s The Mercy Seat, presented by Vs. Theatre Company and starring Michelle Clunie and Johnny Clark, runs at [Inside] the Ford Amphitheatre until April 24th. Wednesday evenings are pay-what-you-can nights. For more information, visit www.fordtheatres.org, or call (323) 461-3673.

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Extra! Extra! Win Tickets to See Angel City Jazz Festival!

Wadada_Leo_SmithThere’s a famous quote from Miles Davis addressed to the younger, dynastic, neo-traditionalist jazz musician/composer Wynton Marsalis; he simply asked, “Didn’t we do it right the first time?”

Davis was referring to the newest movement in jazz at the time (the 1980’s), neo-traditionalism, which was exalted more by critics and record companies than musicians and fans, and was dedicated to a strict, backwards-thinking definition of the genre. Essentially, musical virtuosos like Marsalis were limiting the scope of their instruments to “swing” only, ruling out borderline off-shoots like “Dixieland” and “free jazz.”

These days, though, the great Davis has officially been vindicated. Establishments such as the Angel City Jazz Festival—which commences its 3rd annual live-concert series tomorrow, Saturday October 2nd, and lasts an entire week, hitting various spots around Los Angeles—has committed themselves to “rethinking jazz.”

The eye of this Angel City Jazz storm takes place on Sunday, October 3rd, at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre in Hollywood, spotlighting five future-thinking, jazz-influenced musicians beyond category.

The first is a name most anybody in or out of the jazz world has heard of: Coltrane. Not John, of course, but his second son, Ravi—named after the famous sitar player. Ravi, though steeped in the tradition of his father, studied under Steve Coleman, founder of the M-Base movement, which goes beyond definition in its own definition, but often combines looping rhythmic patterns with free improvisation, creating an unpredictable and complex sound.

Also joining Ravi on Sunday night are avante-garde composer, multi-instrumentalist, and philosopher Wadada Leo Smith; improvising trio Sons of Champignon (with Wilco guitarist Nels Cline); multi-woodwind performer Vinny Golia; and Kneebody, a wild, post-modern jolt of free jazz, post-rock, and the avante-garde.

To win two free tickets to this amazing night of experimental jazz, simply enter your first name, last name, and e-mail address into the form below, and not only will you be put in the running for Sunday night’s 5:00 PM show, but also our next three ticket give-aways as well. Jazz is important for a reason, and to continue to support its on-going evolution is to continue to support American music. That’s what Miles really meant.

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Jewphony!

LAJS10-Ford-ORCHef48c13GuyMadmoni-1024x682The Ford Amphitheatre, located not a stone’s throw away from the Hollywood Bowl off the 101, is a good venue to stage a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or possibly Into the Woods. The sandstone sloped arena, where the audience sits, collides onto a central platform—to be had by the performers—which is backed by a lush, green, jungle-like mountain-side. It’s a little like one of those alternate dimensions you see characters in science fiction movies walk into, and it provides a sense of imminent danger. It’s perfect for Shakespeare, for fairy tales, and as was evidenced in the case of this past Sunday night, for Jews.

As a card-carrying member of Jewish tribe, who has attended my fair share of family Passover dinners, I know all too well the importance of a real or perceived threat (historical oppression, a gentile daughter-in-law, an infamously inedible recipe, etc.) in accommodating the success of a large-form, Jewish get-together. It creates unity. And the effect was no different on Sunday evening at the Ford Amphitheatre when the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony performed their latest melange of classical numbers, entitled “Cinema Judaica,” for a sold out audience of almost all geriatric Jews.

A woman two rows in back of me: “It wouldn’t be a Seder without Bubby’s kogl.”

Another woman holding two fingers together: “Our daughters and Sherri are like this!”

About the conductor: “She let her hair grow longer.”

And indeed the conductor, Dr. Noreen Green—also the founder and Artistic Director of the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony—did have long locks of blonde hair that bounced neatly atop her shoulders as she walked casually out to the central, elevated plank, and initiated a  rousing rendition of Alfred Newman’s20th Century Fox” theme, arguably the best known musical score in cinema. It was after the piece finished, however, that Dr. Green started in with her second role of the night (equally integral), which was quiz master and all-around emcee.

“What movie won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1956?” she asked aloud to the crowd, following a brief introduction of the program on bill.

The Ten Commandments,” screamed back some sporadic (though passionate) voices from the audience. But they were wrong. Cecille B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments did not win Best Picture that year; it was just nominated. But it was first up on the night’s listing of Jewish-composed/themed film scores—the composer of this piece being the great Elmer Bernstein.

He was supposedly hired by DeMille after another composer dropped out, and is still credited with changing the face of music for cinema. Hearing his epic “Ten Commandments Suite” played live by truly professional musicians—depsite the summer-camp vibe—I could make out the roots of Laurie Johnson’s Dr. Stangelove score, or even early John Williams.

Bernstein’s composition for The Chosen was next was on the agenda (after, of course, a second round of the ever-more-crowd-pleasing Quiz Show with Dr. Green.) This film demanded both jazz and traditional klezmer, in addition to Bernstein’s classical model. What emerged on stage was a swirling mixture of all three genres. Like a practiced jam band, the bass-players plucked swinging jazz riffs, while the clarinet and synthesized harpsichord snapped along with the klezmer, allowing for improvised sax solos and piano doodles. Never before had I considered the obvious connection between jazz and klezmer; they both rely on similar tools, such as off-key sharps and flats, to attain a colorful, upbeat music of the oppressed.

“There’s so much stuff up here,” kvetched Dr. Green once her second finely-conducted number was finished. The audience laughed, and watched her fiddle with cue-cards, batons, and god knows what else before launching into the most complex piece of the whole night: Jerry Goldsmith’s suite from the six-and-a-half-hour miniseries QB VII. Quick, unexpected changes in tempo, along with diverse instrumentation—congas, xylophones, electric guitars, and the entire Ford Festival Choir—combined for what I can only describe as Sciezmer, a perfect combination between between sci-fi and klezmer. Where the string section appeared semi-bored during the last Bernstein bout, their eyes were locked onto their music stands for this piece. Finishing off the suite with Goldsmith’s purposefully fragmented version of the Mourner’s Kaddish, the music was mesmerizing to say the least.

But just in case it wasn’t exactly a “greatest hit,” the orchestra went on to perform the instantly recognizable theme from Schindler’s List, as composed by John Williams, with Mark Kashper, Associate Principal Second Violinist for the L.A. Philharmonic, playing the solo. This piece was so moving, the couple sitting next to me (who must have been in their 70’s) started holding hands. And they kept them held together all through Charles Fox’sVictory at Entebbe Suite,” a powerful, pop-y, Phillip Glass-inspired melody, as well as Israeli pianist Andy Feldbau’s own solo arrangement of Alan Menken’sA Whole New World” from Aladdin. All this before intermission. No one ever said the Jews didn’t know how to squeeze in a good show.

However, Dr. Green and the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony’s directors must have been counting on the majority of the audience falling asleep during the second half, because it simply was not up to par.

First was Danny Pelfrey’s suite from Joseph: King of Dreams, which was rousing if only because it seemed like one long crescendo of music. After that came the song “Trinkt L’Chayim” from Elmer Bernstein and Sylvia Neufeld’s score for Thoroughly Modern Millie. This piece was sung by Ariella Vaccarino, who’s gift lies in her voice, not in her fashion sense (she was wearing a sparkly, red strapless dress that was a bit too Broadway for the event).

And what kind of Jewish symphony would it be without the conductor’s own daughter performing a solo? That’s right: Hannah Drew, the gorgeous (and might I add, finely dressed), 13-year-old seed of Maestra Green sung the title song from Disney’s The Prince of Egypt, as composed by the legendary Stephen Schwartz. I hesitate to critique her performance, because, after all, she’s only 13. But then again, why is her mother hoisting her up on stage at such a fragile age? All I’m going to say is that while Hannah was, for the most part, brave and astonishing, she was clearly a product of intense coaching. In other words, she’s in training, as she should be at 13.

Luckily, the most inspired and fun composition of the night, written by Yuval Ron for the Oscar-winning short film West Bank Story, came next. Ron, himself, played the oud live with the orchestra, and his passion for the Arabian/klezmer/Israeli/show-tune music was palpable. Along with his colleague Jamie Papish on drum, he was on fire.

Lastly and appropriately, the show ended with a reprise of Jerry Goldsmith, this time from his score for the film Masada. It cleanly showed off the overall unity of the orchestra, the immense responsibility it takes from each and every musician to come together as a cohesive and beautiful whole. I looked around the audience, and not a seat was empty. Everyone, even the oldest and the youngest, were still present and awake. I realized that a symphonic piece of music like Goldsmith’s is not a bad metaphor for Masada, or even Jewishness in general. Because group unity (borne from individuality) is what’s it’s all about.

- By Joshua Morrison

Photography by Guy Madmoni.

For more information about Ford Amphitheatre events, please visit www.fordamphitheater.org, or call 323-461-3673.

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