WANNA BE A THEATEROBIC TORCH? by Paul Galinis

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Jump rope is just one example of the Theaterobics in 45 Plays for 45 Presidents. Veronika Duerr, Terrell Donnell Sledge, and Nael Nacer

“Lets get physical, physical, I wanna get physical…”  OK, enough of Olivia Newton John, I want to discuss the physicality of Theaterobics as it relates to 45 Plays for 45 Presidents.

Hmm, what in the world is Theaterobics you ask?  Well, it’s a concept on the stage whereby actors perform choreography of movement in sprint-like mode while acting, singing, dancing, and flat out falling on the stage itself (or physical comedy).  Thus, it’s a quadruple whammy workout for the Theaterobic Torch (i.e., actor)!  Let me just say that you better be in good shape to do a show like this for nearly four weeks.  It’s, also, a word created by me so I may someday shine in the world of linguistics and win a Linguistic Society of America award.  Alright, I’m talking mumbo jumbo; it’s another hot day, my brain has sun burn, and the best I can come up with is a loony play on words with aerobics.

But by my definition, is Theaterobics a loony word?   I say not in the least after observing a rehearsal of 45 Plays for 45 Presidents this past weekend.  Reading the day’s itinerary beforehand, I ventured out figuring I’d get a standard dose of good acting and direction during my short time in attendance.  But I experienced much more.  Personally, I’m a guy who follows the words of a play much more than anything (drama or comedy).  However, my sun burned brain took a shift this time around as Sean Daniel’s direction and the Five Theaterobic Torches (more on that later) took their physicality to center stage (forgive the pun).

There are five actors in this play and they do everything but the catering of the swearing-in-ceremonies for each Prez (hmm, don’t give them any ideas).  Because of the time element, there is no time for assistance.  For example, there are no helpers for scene changes, no roadies if this were a concert, just five actors, again, doing their thing.  This thing includes the actors setting up 45 plays in rapid torch like fire.  If it were me, I’d rename the play, 45 Sprints for 45 Presidents (hmm, maybe not).  But you get the point, it’s a marathon of theatrical sprints.  Not only do the actors have to know their lines, they have to be in certain places at specific times AND move tables, beds, props, etc. continuously along the way.  These transitions (as Director Sean Daniels describes them) are the bloodline or the choreography of the show.  With so many Presidents involved and constant movement, imagine if the Woodrow Wilson play transitions to the Hillary or Donald play in error.  This means we’re still in Prohibition and can’t have a drink until, possibly, November.  However, not to worry, I know a speakeasy nearby just in case.

Yes, there is the lighting, sound, and the technical aspect which is vital and I hope to comment on that at a later time.  But, again, it’s the choreography that stands out this time around.  The fast pace from play to play, the movement, the physicality.  So what’s the deal with the Torches?   Well, observing these five actors (albeit in a short time) and realizing all they must do to contribute towards the show’s success night after night; they have to be fantastic (physically and mentally).  So the heck with the Fantastic Four, give me this Fantastic Five and the Human Torch fire power they all possess and I’ll take my chances with the show’s success.  If anything, the following five Theateropic Torches offer us their own Department of Kinesiology and look to provide us a September/October evening or afternoon with a lecture and visual demonstration in exercise and movement science:

  • Celina Dean – pardon me (get it, groan) but I’ll be happy to make an anti-inflammatory and/or ice pack contribution for Prez #38’s play
  • Veronika Duerr
  • Aaron Muñoz
  • Nael Nacer
  • Terrell Donnell Sledge

-Paul Galinis, Cohort

SOMETHING MAGICAL by Marianne Gries

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The cast of 45 Plays for 45 Presidents: Veronika Duerr, Terrell Donnell Sledge, Aaron Munoz, Nael Nacer, and Celina Dean

After attending the first read-through for 45 Plays for 45 Presidents, I immediately told my Kristin how excited I was to see the show and how fun I thought it would be to see it together. One of our favorite things about last season was that after every play we saw, we had long and in-depth discussions about what we had seen, how it made us feel, how it connected with our lives and the larger world… You know, all the stuff art is supposed to do.

I had skimmed the play before the read-through, but hearing it read really got my brain buzzing. The play has a bit of everything: history and sharp political commentary, obviously, but it is also hilariously funny, it’s incredibly poignant, it has puppets, it has a song-and-dance number, it’s farcical, it’s moving… it’s 45 plays all wrapped up into one.

I’ve been eagerly reading everything my fellow cohorts have written about their experiences, and yesterday morning as we were having coffee, I mentioned that to Kristin and I told her that I was looking forward to observing a  rehearsal later that day. She asked if being so familiar with the play and the process would take away from my experience of seeing the “magic” of the finished product, I told her that I didn’t think so, but that I’d never done anything like this before so… who knows?

After yesterday’s rehearsal, I feel pretty confident saying that this experience will only enhance my appreciation and enjoyment of finally getting to see the show in its final form. I definitely get caught up in the magic of live theater and suspension of disbelief is a skill that comes easily to me. I understand that a lot of hard work goes into that magical thing that is happening in front of me, but I had never actually thought about what exactly that means and how it looks to create that magic. Now that I have a better idea of what it looks like, I am blown away.

The part of the rehearsal that I attended covered seven of the mini-plays about seven different presidents. The plays ranged from incredibly moving – one of them almost had me in tears watching the rehearsal – to sharp and biting, to laugh-out-loud funny. It was amazing to see the actors in front of me work to embody all of the emotions and characters required of them, not to mention the results of the prior work of memorizing their lines and understanding the context of each president in American history.

The last president that I saw rehearsed has some really tricky bits in it and seeing the process of Sean describing what was going to happen and the team work through making it happen was amazing. It was a team of people working together to solve the logistical problem of how to get what where without distracting the audience that, in the final product, won’t even be noticed by the audience because they’re just going to see the magic – the acting, the gag, the emotions – and they’ll laugh because it’s a really funny bit.

That’s what this experience is giving me, a deeper appreciation for the work that goes into making the magic. The final product seems effortless, but there is something magical about watching professionals work together to create a production that appears to magically and effortlessly unfold on the stage.

 -Marianne Gries, Cohort

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45 Plays for 45 Presidents runs September 7 – October 2.

http://www.mrt.org/45Plays

 

PRESIDENTS YOU PROBABLY DON’T KNOW MUCH ABOUT (BUT SHOULD): 3. James Garfield

 

20-GarfieldJAMES GARFIELD, 1881

Garfield was hounded through his short presidency by an endless stream of government job seekers. He was also one of a handful of presidents to be born into real poverty. As a boy he was a canal boat driver, as a young man he was a traveling preacher.

He was elected at a time of deep, deep division within his Republican party, between the moderate “Stalwarts,” and the conservative “Half-Breeds.” As the party was being ripped apart, Garfield emerged at the Republican National Convention as a dark horse candidate. He narrowly won by courting support from both factions.

But in office, he was tormented by choices on who to appoint to coveted government jobs, when countless whose help had won him the election came expecting favors in return.

He was shot and killed by deranged job seeker Charles J. Guiteau in a railroad station, barely six months after assuming office.

His successor Chester A. Arthur would pass civil service reform in an effort to rid government employment of corruption.

LEARN MORE: https://www.whitehouse.gov/1600/presidents/jamesgarfield

SEE THE SHOW: http://www.mrt.org/45Plays

ANOTHER GREAT CHAPTER by Lisa Arnold

I recently took a workshop on storytelling and learned that a good story has a beginning, middle, and an end; a great story adds tension and release. So, it was with this information

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Going to See the Kid
will open November 30, but is already being workshopped here at MRT

fresh on my mind, that I attended a reading of an early draft of Going to See the Kid at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre. As I listened intently to the script, read by the talented actors (who seemed to have their lines mostly memorized already), I paid attention to the flow and rhythm, recognizing key places where the script followed the rules and kept the audience interested. It gave me an opportunity to see these principles in action. Even though it was a first read-through, it felt like i was watching a completed work. If it was that good this early, I can’t wait to see what the final outcome will be.

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45 Plays for 45 Presidents,
in rehearsal now for its September 7 opening.

A few days later, the MRT Cohorts were invited to the opening rehearsal of 45 Plays for 45 Presidents. I wondered how the writers would take the linear history we are all familiar with and give it that same ebb and flow, a bit of negative tension followed by a positive release. The writers use song and dance, poetry and puppetry, and even a bit of audience participation to move through history and tell the story. But as it turns out, the history of the United States of America stands on its own as a great story. Over the course of our last 240 years the people have voted for some great Presidents and some pretty bad Presidents. We’ve suffered through some really bad events and celebrated some really great years. We have written an awesome story, and as we are nearing the 2016 election, we are writing another great chapter of our nation’s history.

Many thanks to Sean Daniels and the MRT staff for giving all of us this opportunity to experience our history through a fresh lens. If you don’t already have your tickets, WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?

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The cast of 45 Plays for 45 Presidents: Aaron Munoz, Terrell Donnell Sledge, Nael Nacer, Celina Dean, and Veronika Duerr. Photo by Meghan Moore.

45 Plays for 45 Presidents runs September 7 – October 2.

http://www.mrt.org/45Plays

HOW FAR THE EFFORT HAS COME

Another rehearsal.  What to say, seeing the first quarter of the show as a continuous effort was remarkable. How far the effort has come from table work the week before. For my part I noted that the cast is now much more engaged with the crew now that the props and their proper placement is important to the flow of the performance. Still the performance is evolving, Seeing the balloons worked on stage, and how they have random actions that must be reacted to by the actor. An informative experience as always.

-Richard Pitkin, Cohort

Rehearsing dance

 

Q&A: PLAYWRIGHTS ANDY BAYIATES AND GENEVRA GALLO-BAYIATES

Andy and Genevra are both alumni of Chicago’s Neo-Futurists, where they were among the writers and performers of the original 43 Plays for 43 Presidents. They live in the Chicago area with their “beautiful daughter and their two stupidly cute dogs.”

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Genevra, Andy, and daughter Ari

MRT: What about this play makes people excited to see it and feel connected with the story?

ANDY: I think nearly everyone is interested in presidential history; they just can’t conceive of having the time to learn it. So one appeal is like the impulse you have to read an article titled “5 things you absolutely must know before you refinish your basement.” You think, “THANKS, Neo-Futurists! Now I know who Benjamin Harrison is and it only cost me $20!”

But there’s something deeper that people connect with, especially during an election that’s so unprecedented. When you’re in the midst of a historical change, perspective is very foggy. You have no ground under your feet. It feels like the country is losing its moorings. And then you see a show like this and you’re reminded… “Oh yeah…we’ve been around for 240 years and we’ve been through 56 elections. We’ve survived so much change, so many contentious public debates, so many crises. We’ve fallen apart completely—literally killed each other—and then became whole again. We got this. I can do this. Gimme that ballot. I’m good.”

GENEVRA: A lot of people leave this show with a greater sense of ownership over the American political process. There is great power inherent in the right to vote, and the show seeks to honor that.

And I think people feel inspired by the very genuine balance of greatness and the mundane in each of the president’s lives. The show provides an opportunity for empathy in recognizing the humanity of each president, while realizing the power and impact of the electorate – the populace – on each of their lives.

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Andy and Genevra in the original Chicago production of 43 Plays for 43 Presidents

MRT: Was it tricky to balance a President’s portrayal as a human being with their political legacy?

GENEVRA: I found the plays about the lesser-known presidents much easier to write than those presidents for whom there is a collective cultural narrative. Understanding a president as a fully complex and complicated human being becomes easier when there’s no preconceived (or pre-learned) notion about that person’s motivations, desire, or missteps.

MRT: Any examples of one that was tougher?

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“He is such a looming figure – on both a political and personal level…”

GENEVRA: The one I struggled with the most, initially, was Kennedy. He is such a looming figure – both on a political and personal level – and one for whom most people have some sort of association, be it through personal experience, stories told by family members, or media portrayals. Thus, I felt the best thing to do was to turn the narrative over to the people.

 

I also felt that he was such a large presence that Jackie got lost in his shadow quite a bit, as well as in our cultural memory; we see her as a foil for him, rather than as a distinct person. So my goal was also to physically make her the anchor of the play.

MRT: Have you found that some plays generate a lot of audience feedback after the show—either positive or negative?

ANDY: I’ve seen some negative feedback here and there, but honestly, it’s rare—it’s usually because the person has a comparative perspective that the production never set out to have. In other words: “Why is one president treated so well and another not-so-well?” The answer is easy, but I’m sure disappointing: They were written by two different people. Each writer had very personal reactions to those president’s stories, and not enough time to have multiple perspectives. We never stepped back and did a “fairness” review or anything like that. And thank goodness. It was a very personal process. Much like voting is.

GENEVRA: Overall, positive feedback connects to how engaging and educational audience members consider the show. They leave feeling more knowledgeable about presidential history – and they had fun in the process!

Negative feedback tends to come from someone who feels their favorite president didn’t get enough depth or who feels complexity was lacking; and to be fair, it often has to be… because we’re trying to tell 45 stories in roughly two hours.

43 Plays
Promotional art for the original production: Genevra Gallo-Bayiates, Andy Bayiates, Karen Weinberg, Sean Benjamin, and Chloe Johnston

MRT:  Are you facing any unprecedented challenges in writing about the current candidates?

GENEVRA: Yes. They are so fresh, so present, so a part of our cultural consciousness that it’s hard to know where to focus the spotlight. In addition, this election cycle seems to be more highly personality-driven than any other I can remember in my lifetime. In some ways, we have these larger-than-life personalities about whom everyone has already formed a strong opinion and a detailed narrative.

ANDY: Actually, trying to rewrite the Obama play and summarize his presidency in the midst of an election (and such intense social change) has been much harder for me. It feels like an impossible task…like, I dunno, doing double dutch without messing up every night in front of audience or something…

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Cast of the MRT production: Veronika Duerr, Terrell Donnell Sledge, Aaron Munoz, Nael Nacer, and Celina Dean

MRT: Andy, you grew up in the Lowell area—any favorite memories?

ANDY: Yep, I was born in St. Joseph’s in Lowell, which I know doesn’t exist anymore. And I was raised next door in Billerica.

I lived in the area for the first 25 years of my life so most of my best memories are the stuff a broke 20-year-old does with this time: hanging out with my friends in the Billerica Mall parking lot, for example… totally a warm memory. I was a loyal paper boy for the Lowell Sun. I used to get lost in Lowell every time I drove there, which gave it a mix of power and mystique to me.

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45 Plays for 45 Presidents runs September 7 – October 2

http://www.mrt.org/45Plays

OMG – THEY’RE HUMAN by Geoff Bryant

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Veronika Duerr, Terrell Donnell Sledge, and Nael Nacer rehearse the jump rope scene.

OMG – they’re human. I dropped in again today and the cast was working on double dutch jump rope. It’s the first time I’ve seen them working to get something and not picking it up instantaneously. Maybe it’s because they’re adults and not the young girls who played jump rope incessantly when I was kid.

Today was hard though during the Trump piece. I know we cohorts are to observe, leave, and write and not to interrupt, but my brain was screaming and I so wanted to comment.     I picked up my phone and went back to the original email I received  from Sean and indeed he said the one rule is we must be quiet and not interfere.

As they worked on it, they got past almost all my objections, so that was good. It was a relief that when it was all over they felt the need to take a shower. While I sure don’t support Trump, I will have to get over the support for Hillary. Can’t we please have a None of The Above or Third Party choice?

The almost 2 hours I was there flew by. I wish I could have stayed longer. It is fascinating to watch.

-Geoff Bryant, Cohort