Since 1980, performance troupe Split Britches has been gifting the world with its unique brand of feminist political theater. Today, Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver—original co-founder Deb Margolin is no longer with the group—are still devoted to their queer-eyed vision: a mix of vaudeville comedy, music, poetry, and pop-culture appropriations that draws incessantly from their personal lives and politics. Their latest work, Unexploded Ordnances (UXO), plays through January 20 at La Mama's Ellen Stewart Theatre, ahead of a forthcoming tour to England, Ireland, and Wales. I recently sat down with Shaw and Weaver to discuss the production and why it remains so important for them to keep the spirit of the Split Britches alive.
Interviews (#1–10 of 123)
Lear deBessonet’s passion for her work is infectious. Just listen to the 37-year-old director speak and you can sense how she’s been able to harness the disparate energies of 200-strong mixed casts of professional and non-professional performers for her vibrant community theater projects. The Louisiana native has also garnered acclaim for her Obie Award-winning production of Brecht’s Good Person of Szechwan, starring a transcendent Taylor Mac in the gender-shifting lead role, and this past spring, her exuberant revival of Suzan-Lori Park’s thought-provoking Venus at the Signature Theatre.
I recently sat down with deBessonet at the Public Theater to chat about her journey as a director and her latest project, the Shakespeare in the Park production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, starring, among others, Phylicia Rashad, Richard Poe, De’Adre Aziza, Annaleigh Ashford, and Danny Burstein.
It’s hard to pin Martin Sherman down. His work as a playwright ranges across a wide variety of styles and subject matter, and getting him to talk about this work isn’t exactly easy. As I learned from several conversations with him over the past two decades, Sherman can be friendly without being revealing. Now a sprightly septuagenarian, he hasn’t exactly changed his tune.
Sherman’s best-known work, of course, is Bent, arguably one of the most influential gay-themed plays in theatrical history. That 1979 triumph is in large part responsible for raising awareness of the persecution of gay men in Nazi-occupied Germany, and the adoption of the pink triangle as a symbol of gay activism may be traced to Bent’s cultural impact. The American-born writer made London his home nearly four decades ago, shortly after the 1980 Broadway debut of Bent. Today, as Sherman himself ruefully acknowledges, his subsequent plays are better known in London than in New York.
Among those plays that still managed to cross the pond and find success in America: When She Danced, a comedy about Isadora Duncan; A Madhouse in Goa, an apocalyptic satire about art and commerce; and Rose, a one-woman show (starring Olympia Dukakis) that chronicles the life of a European Jewish émigré. In addition, Sherman also wrote the book for the Broadway version of The Boy from Oz, the musical which starred Hugh Jackman as the Australian composer and entertainer Peter Allen.
Sherman was recently back in the United States for the world premiere of his latest work, Gently Down the Stream, which is currently in previews at the Public Theater in Downtown Manhattan. When we sat down to chat, I set out to draw him out enough to learn something about the current play, which is publicized as a funny and moving love story about Beau (played by Harvey Fierstein), an expat pianist living in London who meets an eccentric young lawyer, Rufus (Gabriel Ebert), at the dawn of the Internet dating revolution.
Whatever the forbidding stature of his work, Béla Tarr was nothing if not gracious during a roundtable discussion at this year’s Marrakech International Film Festival. At the end, he even acknowledged that he knows “the roundtable is the most horrible thing for a film journalist.” Tarr is president of the jury at this year’s festival, which means mandatory morning viewings of each film in competition—and, if the rumors are true, much behind-closed-door deliberation. (Neither the festival’s assembled press nor its publicists have quite recovered from the shockwaves of Francis Ford Coppola’s landmark decision to grant last year’s jury prize to “cinema itself.”) Three days into this year’s festival, Tarr played it close to the vest, preferring to discuss his post-retirement career at the Sarajevo Film Academy’s film.factory—which sounds like heaven for cinephiles—and why, even if he’s no longer directing features, he’s far from finished with the “drug” of filmmaking.
Heather Phelps Lipton
Over the course of the past two decades, Leigh Silverman has spent most of her time as a director working on new plays, collaborating with writers and helping shepherd their work through years of development. Her partnership with playwright Lisa Kron led to her directing Kron’s quasi-autobiographical Well, which marked Silverman’s Broadway debut 10 years ago. At age 31, she joined that extremely exclusive club of female directors working on Broadway. That group has grown larger in the intervening years, and Silverman herself went on to direct the Broadway premiere of Chinglish by David Henry Hwang, with whom she enjoys an enduring collaborative relationship.
Under Silverman’s sure-footed directorial guidance, several actors and writers have received Tony recognition, but it was for her direction of the 2014 revival of the musical Violet that she finally garnered her first Tony nomination. Now Silverman is directing Violet star Sutton Foster in the New Group’s Off-Broadway revival of the 1966 musical Sweet Charity, playing at the Pershing Square Signature Center. We talked recently to the director about her current production and her relatively new foray into the world of musicals.
It’s no exaggeration to claim that Peter Brook is one of the most influential theater directors of the latter half of the last century. The English-born theater maker, and established filmmaker in his own right, is internationally hailed, revered even by some, as a kind of guru whose work is a constant search for the essence of theater. His 1968 book The Empty Space is a seminal work of theater analysis, and his productions for the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 1960s and 1970s (Marat/Sade, King Lear, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream) are celebrated for their groundbreaking innovation.
Since then, he’s developed and staged a series of adventurous productions around the globe. In New York City, Brook’s experimental staging of The Tragedy of Carmen re-lit and revitalized Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater in 1983, and in 1987, his elemental nine-hour production The Mahabharata, based on the ancient multi-volume Sanskrit epic from India, restored life to a long-defunct movie theater in Brooklyn.
That venue, now the BAM Harvey Theater, has been an integral part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s arts programming ever since. It’s to this same stage that the 91-year-old director brings his latest, Battlefield, a small-scale production featuring four actors and a drummer, which is also based on the classic Indian text that inspired him three decades ago. When I reached Brook by phone earlier this month, he spoke from his office at the Théâtre Bouffes du Nord, his home base in Paris since the mid-’70s.
Earlier this year, playwright Richard Nelson launched a unique three-play cycle at the Public Theater which sets out to track, in real time, the lives of an American family during this tumultuous election year. Each play takes place on the day of its opening night: the first, Hungry, which opened in March, introduced us to the Gabriel family of Rhinebeck, New York (the playwright’s own home for the past 34 years); the second, What Did You Expect?, opens tonight at the Public Theater, while the final play in the cycle, Women of a Certain Age, will premiere on election night, November 8.
This isn’t the first time that Nelson has undertaken a project that comprised a set of contemporaneous plays. His last venture at the Public, The Apple Family Plays, was a cycle of four intimate plays that premiered over a period of four years. The Apples, like the Gabriels, also lived in Rhinebeck, and each play was designed to open on the evening of a significant moment or event in American life and politics: That Hopey Changey Thing on the eve of the 2010 midterm elections; Sweet and Sad on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks; Sorry on election night 2012; and Regular Singing on the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
The silence enforced on six participants of a healing retreat proves most eloquent in Bess Wohl’s Small Mouth Sounds. A small theatrical gem, where minimal dialogue is enhanced with acutely observed and honestly portrayed human behavior, the play made an acclaimed debuted at off-Broadway’s Ars Nova last year. Directed by Rachel Chavkin, the production, staged alley-style in an intimate setting, has made a welcome return and is now playing for a limited three-month commercial run at the Pershing Square Signature Theater. I talked recently with Wohl and Chavkin about their collaboration on this unusual and compelling theater project.
Back in 2011, when George C. Wolfe was on a panel of theater professionals tasked to pick the top 10 American musicals of all time, he made a special plea for Shuffle Along, an all-black musical from 1921. “It has a great score that brought jazz dance to Broadway and invigorated the form,” argued the award-winning writer and director. It wasn’t the best musical, he explained, but it should be considered for its status as a phenomenon of the musical theater. Shuffle Along didn’t make the cut on that occasion, but the Tony Award-winning director of Angels in America and Bring in ’Da Noise, Bring in ’Da Funk can be very persuasive when he’s impassioned about something. Fast-forward a few years to the present and Wolfe has gotten the opportunity to mount a new production of the long-forgotten musical on Broadway.
Now sporting a new title, Shuffle Along, Or, The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed, the trail-blazing musical gets a new lease of life this month with a stellar cast headlined by six-time Tony Award-winner Audra McDonald. Wolfe’s production retains the groundbreaking score by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, and features a new libretto by Wolfe which replaces the original book by vaudevillians Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles. The song and book writing teams who created the show have now become characters on the stage, portrayed by Brian Stokes Mitchell, Billy Porter, Brandon Victor Dixon, and Joshua Henry. Wolfe talked to me recently about the legendary musical from 95 years ago and what fires his enthusiasm for this current Broadway production.
“Finally I’m in a place where I’m doing the kind of work I want to do, and I’m being seen in the way that I want to be seen,” says Sri Lankan-born actor Sanjit De Silva. Landing the part of an American CEO in Sarah Burgess’s new play, Dry Powder, a high-stakes financial drama which opens this week at the Public Theater, is a milestone in De Silva’s decade-long career as a working actor in New York City. “I hope this trend continues,” he adds smiling.
De Silva left his native country in 1984 at age seven, not long after the outbreak of a civil war that would tear apart the South Asian nation for the next 30 years. (His parents each belonged to the opposing ethnic groups in the conflict, which made normal life untenable for them in the country.) After a brief stint in Africa, the family moved to America in 1986. Now based in Brooklyn, De Silva recently spoke to me about his experience establishing a career as an actor in his adopted country, both as an immigrant and a person of color, and about his current role in Dry Powder.