COHORT REPORT: Silence and Reality of Film and Stage

The days of vaudeville into silent films was filled with images of actors like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. “Fatty” was a comedian, director and screen writer who earned, and lost, millions during the golden age of jazz and silent films.

The MRT rehearsals for Lost Laughs: The Slapstick Tragedy of Fatty Arbuckle presented an artistic challenge for the crew and actors. There was much involved to bring silent film slapstick into a creative production on the stage. You will see the amazing results by a very talented designer crew, Director Nathan Keepers, playwright Andy Bayiates (born in Lowell) and appreciate the era stunningly performed by playwright and actor Aaron Muñoz, and actor Kristen Mengelkoch.

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Aaron Muñoz and Kristen Mengelkoch in LOST LAUGHS… Photo by Meghan Moore.

 

Slapstick comedy is a fun-filled cascade of stunts and mayhem that require physical endurance. Fatty was portly, which he used as the image for his comedic creativity doing tumbles, jumps, chases with innocent looks and smiles. There are moments of “talking” by background music to reflect the theme and pace of the story. If you know Keystone Kops you know the comedy of Fatty Arbuckle.

Few knew and loved both Roscoe the man and Fatty the actor better than his wife. Yet, it was a wild time so being married was a struggle they lost. Fatty had popularity as a performer and enjoyed the wild lifestyle of the rich and famous. It was the twenties during prohibition, and Fatty and his friends knew how to party. When he held a weekend raucous party in a hotel with large quantities of liquor for his many friends, there was an incident that changed Fatty’s life forever.

You may know, Fatty was accused in the death of a young woman, but not the details of that evening and beyond. The trials depleted his funds then, sadly, he could no longer get anyone to laugh and his career was destroyed. MRT will bring you back to that time when the coverage of the story and public reaction was fierce, and Fatty was seen as a human being with a voice, rather than a silent slapstick on a screen.

–Gail Gauthier, Cohort

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Lost Laughs… runs February 14 – March 11

www.mrt.org/lostlaughs

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Playwright Q&A: Aaron Muñoz

Artistic director Sean Daniels sat down with playwright and performer Aaron Muñoz to talk about his new play Lost Laughs: The Slapstick Tragedy of Fatty Arbuckle.

Can you give us a little bit of history? First of all, who was Fatty Arbuckle? Why does he get his own play?

The reason why he gets his own play is because it’s a really cool story. He was pretty much a rival to Charlie Chaplin in the teens and 1920s. At one point, he was the highest paid movie star; he signed a three-year, three million dollar contract, which by today’s standards would just be insane, as far as money, at that time. He was really beloved by kids and families, and people just loved his character of Fatty Arbuckle, and his comedy. And like Chaplin and like Buster Keaton, he directed, he wrote, he starred, he had his own studio; it was a huge thing! That alone is like, “Wow!”

Imagine Paramount/ Arbuckle studios! Who could imagine Paramount, today, working with one guy?

Totally! That alone is interesting. The other interesting thing is that people are like: “Who?” So, to have someone with all of that clout and all of that creative output, and then a hundred years later, we’re like: “Wait, I don’t even know who this dude is.” And the reason is that there was a scandal; it was the first big Hollywood scandal, and he was charged for murder. It was kind of like if Kevin Hart or Will Ferrell was charged for murder. It was pretty crazy! You know, this really funny dude, who everyone really loves, and is genuinely a pretty cool guy, and gets run up on murder charges. To this day…in his story, nobody really knows what happened. That’s kind of the nature of it. There were two people in the room: one of them died and one of them didn’t.

I’m fascinated with the idea that, in America, we have such a complicated relationship with celebrities. We raise them up; we tear them down; we love nothing more than for child stars to become crack addicts later in life. This was kind of the first time that America did this: it raised somebody up and then tore them down and then felt bad about themselves. And then didn’t know what to do afterwards. Now, we do that all the time, right?

Yea, it’s the news cycle every day.

That’s right, what YouTube star must we crush today, for doing something we don’t agree with. Which I think is fascinating. We have a reality TV show host as a President. So, the question is: How did we get here? How did our relationship with celebrities and raising people up and putting all of our expectations or disappointments on them…where did that start?

I think so much of that is also connected to media. Not just journalistic media, but media as a whole; this was the beginning of film. You know, the first time people went to a theatre and saw a film of the ocean, they ran, because they thought the ocean was going to come and get them! That’s how real it was; that’s how mind blowing it was to see moving pictures on a screen. So, now, to see people up there on a screen and then to see them in real life, it’s the adulation! The kind of hero worship of celebrity and the connection to seeing them on a big screen is directly related to how we relate to celebrities today. I mean, our President, not withstanding other Presidents, have to be good on TV. That’s just a requirement of the job. It’s arguable if FDR would be okay right now because he was in a wheelchair. There is a lot of public perception that goes into being leaders and celebrities.

How long have you been working on this?

In earnest, I applied for a grant almost 10 years ago. Before that, I had read biographies, watched films, and stuff like that, but, then when I applied for the grant, I really started to just dig-in, research wise. So, it’s been about a decade of learning about Roscoe Arbuckle and the time. Then once this really kicked into gear, a little over a year ago, I delved deeper and found a lot more stuff, not only about him but about the people in his life. A lot of the play has some direct quotes but also some things that are pretty much what they said about Roscoe, and this is what they said at the time, about things. It’s really cool to unearth that and to find that, and then to put that into a piece of art.

Who are the other people involved? Your co-star? Your director?

Awesome co-star, Kristen Mengelkoch. We all worked together on a play at Geva Theatre [Center] called The Book Club Play, by Karen Zacarias. It was an awesome experience and Kristen and I remained friends. The development for this is interesting, because there was another actor named, John Gregorio, who is an amazing guy and an MRT Patriot, who we were originally working with. But as the story unfolded, it became very clear that we needed another voice and we needed an actress in the role. Both Andy, the other playwright, and I, and Nathan, the director, and John, were like, “Yeah, I think that’s the way to go.” Then we found Kristen and that’s when a lot of the play kind of opened up, in a way, and the story opened up. So, that’s who I’m working with on stage.

Who is Nathan Keepers?

Nathan and I worked together on A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Actors Theatre of Louisville, almost 10 years ago. We kept in touch and continually touched base, and talked with each other about various projects. Nothing has really lined up until this. Nathan is an awesome theatre maker. He has spent most of his career acting and is now segueing a little bit into directing and adding that to his theatre-maker palette. He was one of the first people that we thought of when thinking about a director; for someone who could do comedy, but also, we’re making a new play, we’re building something from scratch. So, to have someone with his experience, and his company, The Moving Company (that is what he does, and he was with Theatre de la Jeune Lune, in Minnesota), he has a lot of experience in building new work. Also, he is just a pretty crazy, awesome, human being.

Andy, my co-writer, Andy Bayiates, is a native of this area [he was born at Lowell General Hospital], and he still has family in this area, and went to school at Fitchburg. Andy was one of the writers for 45 Plays for 45 Presidents. He and I have known each other for awhile (and you, Sean, have known him for awhile, working with The Neo-Futurists, in Chicago). We were looking at good people to collaborate and his name really kind of popped to the list. Of course, my wife, who is always the smart one in the relationship, said, “Hey, why don’t you think about one of the 45 Plays peeps?” He and I started talking, and, I shared with him my thoughts about the play and he shared his thoughts, a lot of stuff lined up. And we have just been working, pretty much for the past year to get a solid script together to go into rehearsal and then continue to evolve and make something.

Will you do a little something for us, perhaps a hat piece?

Sure! [Aaron demonstrates several hat tricks.] I’ve been doing some hat stuff…there are some YouTube tutorials that are very good, about hat tossing and flipping. We’re incorporating a little bit of that because we have some vaudeville-type aspect to what we’re doing. It is also about the props, it’s about finding the right hat…what is the right hat that you can manipulate and make something that you can toss around? As you can see [laughing], we’re still in rehearsal; the show doesn’t open for two weeks. There are some old school hat-and-cane routines. A lot of Fatty Arbuckle’s genius was his ability to throw himself around, and to do some classic comedy bits. We have that in the play, as well, because his work was so important and a lot of people haven’t seen that, so, just trying to get that spirit of that and recreate it, is a good challenge to try to live up to.

To view the interview video, visit facebook.com/MerrimackRepertoryTheatre.

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Lost Laughs… runs February 14 – March 11, 2018.

mrt.org/lostlaughs

Cohort Report: A Deeply Moving New Play

It is the opening week of KNYUM, the exciting new one-man MRT production that brings Vichet Chum, exquisite playwright and performer, together with Director KJ Sanchez to expanded written words into a visual experience.

We meet Guy (Vichet) working late nights at a NYC hotel while trying to learn and connect with the language of his Cambodian heritage. As he struggles with the Cambodian dictionary of squiggles, letters, and words without spaces he is “frozen in fear” that he will never learn the language and bring honor to his parents on his first visit to Cambodia planned with them.

Guy wants to translate and write KNYUM, “the story” of his heritage. His mother (mae) and father (pa) are survivors of years of genocide with U.S. occupation during the Viet Nam War and encampment under the reign of Khmer Rouge at the end of the war. Vichet reflects about that time in history and it is riveting. He asks how we know Cambodia. Is it Amy Tan or Angelina Jolie? Do we only have after-thoughts of that time? I felt stunned by his poetic, powerful words that reflected my own choices and experiences during that difficult time when we were separated by beliefs and reactions to that War.

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Vichet Chum (Guy). Photo by Meghan Moore.

Vichet takes us on Guy’s journey escaping his mundane existence in a set of music and brilliant reflections of lights. As his emotions express sadness, anger and pensive tones we hear his memories in voices of mae and pa and others in a poetic “quirky, funny voice” (Boston Globe). Vichet awakens reflections of his heritage in the past and returns to now as he floats awake, but in a state of dreaming, in a spectacular creative movement of lights and shadows. And the wistful meaning of a feather.

It has been exciting to watch this production expand from the first reading of the script, during rehearsals and now onto the stage. There is no intermission, and none is needed, because it would break the mood of the intense reflection of language and tradition. While at this creative production I felt quiet, pensive, touched, sad, overwhelmed as Guy and Vichet searched to awaken their heritage. I learned too that Lowell has the second largest Cambodian population in the world.  And “Cambodia Town” on Plain Street in Lowell has amazing culinary and cultural offerings.

There is much to experience, contemplate and learn in this artistic MRT production. So, please get tickets for one of the performances between January 10 and February 4 to share in this deeply moving new play.

–Gail Gauthier, Cohort

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KNYUM runs January 10 – February 4, 2018.

mrt.org/knyum

Playwright Q&A: Vichet Chum

We sat down with playwright and performer Vichet Chum to talk about his journey of writing KNYUM.

What initially inspired you to begin working on KNYUM?

The genesis of the story actually came from an experience I had between my first and second year of grad school at Brown/Trinity. That summer, I attended a language intensive to learn Khmer at a Southeast Asian language institute. It was my first time formally learning my family’s language, and from day one, I knew it was a unique experience. I journaled everyday – trying best to capture my vulnerabilities and my anxieties learning this language that felt so familiar and foreign at the same time. Then, in my last year of grad school, all the students were asked to perform 30-40 minutes of anything as their final culminating recital. I began to put the pieces together for this story and found out I had something special there. I’ll never forget the first time I performed it in its initial iteration – it was perplexing and scary and rapturous. I felt like I had to keep going… and I did!

The play is inspired by your own life experience, but isn’t entirely non-fictional. How do you meld together fact and fiction and choose which moments to root in your real life and which to invent?

I don’t know! That’s why this play is so challenging to do. I began this process by wanting to give voice to my family’s story with as much truth and accuracy as possible. But at the end of the day, it is a play and there are already theatrical conventions at play that are artificial. I’m not really in a hotel. I’m on a theater set that indicates a hotel. There was a point in the process where I had to give myself the permission to really distance myself from the character of Guy to give him freedom. It was a huge turning point. After all, this play does not intend to be journalism. It intends to share a story that is based on real events. I’ve tried my very best to craft a story that has integrity, one that remains celebratory to my family and is authentic to my own story.

You get to experience the show both during the writing process and as an actor. How does also being the star of the show help you in the shaping of it — or make it more difficult?

Being both the writer and actor is simultaneously wonderful and maddening. It’s wonderful because I know where the words come from: me. I don’t have to think too hard about the intention of the words. At the same time, as the writer, I have to fight the impulse to constantly rewrite what I’ve done. In a play that isn’t your own, you have to dig for meaning and wrestle with the words you’ve been given. In a play that is your own, you just hate it all and want to rewrite what you’ve done. I’ve had to stop and allow my actor brain to take over the words and do the work of filling each word, sentence, and paragraph with meaning. I enjoy working with both hats – I just have to know when to put which one on.

Where have you drawn inspiration from in the writing of KNYUM, be it particular playwrights, plays, or anything else?

I guess this play has a little bit of Julia Cho, Will Eno, Tennessee Williams, Amy Tan, Billy Collins, John Leguizamo, Chet Baker, Lee Morgan, and so much of the poetic musings and downright truths of the Chums.

The play follows Guy’s journey to discover and connect with his family’s history and heritage, and it’s a reflection of your own journey. How has the actual process of writing KNYUM enhanced or directed that journey for you?

KNYUM has allowed me to interrogate my family’s history in a way that I may have taken for granted to begin with. All of our families have complicated, rich stories that deserve to be told. As a writer and a performer, I’ve always known that I’ve been endowed with a responsibility to share my family’s stories. When I began this play, I had not yet gone to Cambodia for the first time. You could say that my work on this play accelerated the process and the immediate need to go to Cambodia. And once I went, I found my ending. So, the play has been utterly precious to me. It’s pushed me along as much as I’ve pushed it along.

The play has a very gentle quality for it, even while delving into some extremely difficult topics. How did you balance the weighty nature of historical events with the tone you wanted for the play?

The story certainly tackles difficult things like the Cambodian genocide, but it’s balanced with me, the narrator, standing before an audience sharing this story because my parents did indeed survive. That proof of life should give relief and reason to celebrate for the audience. I don’t think you can write tone, I think it’s just about writing as honestly as possible. But that being said, I did want the play to be funny… and I think it is! There are family quirks, there is the awkwardness of learning a new language, there are plenty of miscommunications. I think you just have to find a balance between being convicted and making the story a shared experience.

What has the response been like from the Cambodian community?

The Cambodian community in Lowell has been very responsive so far. I’ve come into town a couple of times to meet with the wonderful people at the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association, the Angkor Wat Dance Troupe, and KhmerPost USA. Each time, I’m reminded of how familial the interactions are. It is like being home. After all, I think this story is not just mine, but it belongs to all Cambodians and Cambodian Americans. We share the struggle of inheriting a legacy of tragedy and survival, and honoring that complex history. I’m thrilled to share with Cambodians of all generations. This story honors their sacrifice.

How do your parents feel about the play?

My parents know that I wrote this play, that it’s happening and that I might be making fun of them… just a little. They have never seen a draft or a version of the play, but they’ve certainly been following the evolution of it. Ask me this question after they see it…

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KNYUM runs January 10 – February 4, 2018.

mrt.org/knyum

COHORT REPORT: MRT MEETS EBENEZER SCROOGE

In 1842, on a trip from London to Boston, Charles Dickens visited Lowell. The squalid work conditions of the Mill Girls and their “visits by spirits” inspired some of his A Christmas Carol. When he returned to Boston on a reading tour of A Christmas Carol at the Parker House, Charles Dickens practiced in front of a mirror which is now in the mezzanine and has had sightings of Dickens’ ghost.

MRT invites you to attend A Christmas Carol while Joel Colodner (It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, Going to See the Kid) narrates the life of Ebenezer Scrooge just as Charles Dickens did on his tour long ago. The costumes and set take us to London and perfectly reflects the Dickens’ era. MRT is blessed by the talent of Director Megan Sandberg-Zakian to bring such creativity to this production.

When Joel reaches into his Dickens to guide the spirit tour, he mesmerizes us. When he describes the “clutching, wrenching” Mr. Scrooge who wants “those who wish Merry Christmas be boiled in pudding with a stake in their heart,” his dexterous voice brings us into the character. When Marley arrives dragging his ponderous chains, Joel’s inventive acting lets us see their journey to the past. And, it is his acting that engages us in comedic exchanges, dramatic voices and gestures in and out of characters during the performance.

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Rebecca White and Joel Colodner in A CHRISTMAS CAROL. Photo by Meghan Moore.

There is a sprinkle of music by bells and instruments on the stage performed by the talents of Nathan Leigh and Rebecca White. They also bring forth the singing of known and unknown carols from long ago. You may find yourself quietly humming and perhaps there may even be sing along

When we see Scrooge go with the spirits to see his past and present we are moved to reflect on our own life. When he sees the future and pleads “no, no…” about his fate, Joel stirs our sadness. Then we are elated when Mr. Scrooge realizes it is “still Christmas Day!!!” And we can share in his pleasures making peace with all around him and his family.

Most of us know this holiday tale, but for MRT’s production it is Joel Colodner who takes us to London and lets us “know” Ebenezer Scrooge and brings us on his journey with the spirits on that Christmas eve so long ago.

–Gail Gauthier, Cohort

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A Christmas Carol runs November 29 – December 24

www.mrt.org/carol

COHORT REPORT: SEND MORE SKY

The Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s production of Silent Sky is simply radiant. A ring of soft lights circles the stage and another hangs over the performers, standing in for the stars and blinking brighter at a key moment. Onstage, lead Alexis Bronkovic echoes their glow. Her character Henrietta Leavitt is guided not by a desire for romance, but by her calling of astronomy. While a love interest does eventually appear, he’s a minor subplot. Henrietta’s work, her ideas, and her camaraderie with her coworkers are far more central to the plot.

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Victoria Grace and Alexis Bronkovic in SILENT SKY. Photo by Meghan Moore.

Another lovely way that that set informs the production is that it seems designed to suggest a telescope. The back of the stage is a small circular space lined with mirrors that is only inhabited by Henrietta’s sister Margaret, with whom she has a loving but contentious relationship. Several times while the two are separated, Margaret sits in that space, playing her piano and singing—and reflecting her light back at Henrietta. Even when they are distant stars in each other’s lives, they remain connected.

I love that the MRT followed up the very masculine play The Royale with this women-centric production, and I feel very lucky to have such high caliber theater right in my backyard.

–Amy Roeder, Cohort

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Silent Sky runs October 18 – November 12

http://www.mrt.org/sky

COHORT REPORT: THE MOMENTS THAT DEFINE A PLAY

There are moments that define when a play is ready for opening night.

One of these moments is the “Designer Run” performance before moving to the stage. The full play is performed in the rehearsal hall with Director Sean Daniels, designers, MRT staff, and cohorts as the audience. The actors wear more of their costume and use many props in the scenes. At this rehearsal, the original music by Dave Keaton is sprinkled between, and with, the actor’s lines and it is lovely. The play ends, there are soft tears and applause. Now the play can be moved to the stage to begin final rehearsals.

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The SILENT SKY team during tech. Photo by director Sean Daniels.

At the theatre, the next moment is actually a “full tech” all weekend.  The crew doing sound, music, lights and so much more, coordinate their focus on the intricacy of the performance.  Everyone is in awe of the set, furniture of the time and strewn with lights into the audience – it is more than beautiful. While the crew does their magic, the actors are in their fine ladies and gentleman costumes and their props have been set.  The actors walk around on the stage – stretch, whisper, smile – they are clearly ready to perform their roles together.  But, they must wait and wait and wait – all must be perfect before the actors step into their light.  Finally, they are called into place to begin the scene.  There it is – the production that is almost ready for opening night.  And, it is beguiling.

In a few days there will be reviews and then opening night.  It would be best to request tickets for a performance soon: it will be a success.

–Gail Gauthier, Cohort

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Silent Sky runs October 18 – November 12

http://www.mrt.org/sky