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On Stage: Empathy takes the stage

  • Contributed photo “After Orlando” will be performed Friday at 7:30 p.m. at Jack Golden’s Studio, 9 Mill St. in Greenfield.

  • Free performances of “Richard II,” produced by The Young Shakespeare Players, will take place at The Sloan Theater, Greenfield Community College on Jan. 11 at 6 p.m.; Jan. 13 at 6 p.m.; Jan. 14 at 10:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m.; Jan. 14 at 10:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m.; and Jan. 15 at 10:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. More details are available online at: youngshakespeareplayerseast.org

  • Young Shakespeare Players' production of "Richard II"



For The Recorder
Wednesday, January 11, 2017

“The theater should always be a safe and special place,” Donald Trump tweeted after “Hamilton” actor Brandon Victor Dixon addressed comments from the stage of a Broadway theater to Mike Pence, vice-president-elect.

But should it? Should theater be — of all things — a “safe place?” As with so many of Trump’s statements, I find reason to doubt.

Unlike Facebook, fake news sources, and the hundreds of entertainment offerings on cable television, theater is not a place where people go to have their own views reflected back to them. As Meryl Streep said in her Golden Globes speech Sunday night, actors relay the experience of empathy to their audiences. What is it like to be someone completely different from me? actors ask. And then they show us how to answer that question.

The fact that even the oldest dramas — Sophocles, Euripides, Moliere, Shakespeare — continue to instruct us in new ways is evident in the ongoing production history of these playwrights’ works.

This week, Franklin County audiences have their choice of something old or something new, both of which offer us expanded perspectives on the current contextual stage our lives are played out on.

On January 13th, Eggtooth Productions will stage a selection of short plays from “After Orlando,” a project called by its creators “an international theater action” taken in response to the shooting deaths of 49 people in the Pulse Nightclub on June 12, 2016.

Feeling the need “to give artists a place to respond to the tragedy in Orlando and the current state of the world,” the commissioning theater company Missing Bolts Productions solicited plays between 3 and 5 minutes long from playwrights from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and Uganda.

They received over 70 responses from playwrights internationally.

Many of the plays deal directly with issues of sexual identity, racism, Islamophobia, gun violence, and other topics connected to the shooting massacre, while others take a broader view. Neil LaBute’s contribution, “Fun Fact,” for example, dramatizes the grossly simplified and easily forgotten character of the 24-hour news cycle media as it deals with real human tragedy.

Blair Baker from Missing Bolts has discussed how short plays allow artists to address contemporary events and developments quickly, making theater that place people in our digitally-connected world long for — shared human space and connection.

To date, selections of these plays have been produced in over 40 locations nationally with an aim to schedule performances in every state.

Eggtooth’s production, directed by Josh Platt, will feature local actors playing multiple roles. The cast consists of Athan Vennell, Sloan Tomlinson, Kent Alexander, Rachael Katz, Tim Fisk, Linder Hart, Jeannine Haas, Toby Bercovici, Trenda Loftin, and Julissa Rodriguez.

Admission is free to the public, but donations are welcome. Other productions have suggested making donations to charitable organizations that promote tolerance or minimize gun violence.

Also on stage this weekend is the Young Shakespeare Players’ (YSP) production of “Richard II,” directed by Suzanne Rubinstein (with apprentice directors Annabelle Fitch, Leo Sanzone, Izzy Snyder, and Spencer Wolf).

“Richard II” dramatizes the contentious quest for power between Henry Bolingbroke and Richard, highlighting themes of leadership, the responsibilities of privilege, and the difficulty of discovering truth in a world of multiple perspectives and outright dishonesty.

“It has been a fascinating journey for the young actors to immerse in (this play) during this election cycle,” said Rubinstein.

“The actors were surprised to find a familiar lack of restraint, empathy or civility in the public forum displayed by some of the nobility in the play. In Richard II, there is a lot of aggressive, argumentative, and accusatory behavior — which never leads to anything positive.”

Paradoxically, in order to achieve this fraught and fragmented political drama, the young actors must work very closely as a team, helping and trusting each other every step of the way. “We all take care of each other and help each other be better actors,” said Meena Relyea-Strawn, a newcomer to YSP.

YSP has grown to 25 young actors between the ages of 8 and 19. Because of the imperative to give every actor an important role with real lines to learn, Rubinstein has split them up into 4 casts. Max Shannon, a seasoned Shakespearean actor at the age of 19, plays both Bolingbroke and Richard in 2 different casts.

“This must be the first time in history an actor has played both these roles,” Rubinstein marveled.

The actors I spoke with mentioned how challenging this play is compared to some of the others they’ve done. Snyder said, “It’s a heavier play, dense with dialogue and big monologues and not as action-packed.”

Solena Carroll chimed in, “It made us try out different kinds of acting to make the characters better. They are very realistic and complex characters.”

Observing all these young people in action, some taking the stage while others function as stage crew, it is clear how seriously they approach their roles. A young girl convincingly weeps a mother’s tears for her condemned son, a group of friends part ways knowing they will never meet again, and a king removes his crown with the self-realization of his common humanity:

“I live with bread, like you; feel want, /Taste grief, need friends. Subjected thus,/ How can you say to me I am a king?” Snyder’s delivery of these lines will surely raise her audience’s awareness of the empathetic magic of the theater.

There is something about watching such young people inhabit such eternal human passions and problems that gives this magic added potency. The empathy necessary to make these roles realistic is a reminder of how quintessentially human this ability really is.

“It is my hope that by immersing in ‘Richard II,’ these young actors gain a deeper understanding of human nature and the spirals of history, and this knowledge provides them with some comfort and strength,” said Rubinstein.

This play certainly imparts many useful lessons. When I asked a group of actors what they’ve learned about leadership, Nola Busansky said, “Being a leader isn’t just about controlling other people. It’s about taking control of yourself, being responsible and happy in yourself.”

How many world leaders would benefit from this 11-year old’s observation?

In “Richard II,” Shakespeare shows us the mistake of seeing power as an end to itself. Power can only be borrowed, and when it must be given back, the plain person who wore its mantle is revealed, perhaps to no one more clearly than to himself.

In the speech that precipitated Trump’s tweet about theater being “safe,” “Hamilton” actor Dixon said, “We are the diverse America that are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us … We truly hope that our show has inspired you to uphold our American values and work on behalf of all of us.”

With the diverse cast standing behind him, hands clasped in solidarity, Dixon drew out and then repeated, “all of us.”

The responsibility of power to people was not unfelt in Shakespeare’s time. Richard poignantly asks, “Is not the king’s name 40,000 names?” (Clearly there’s been a population explosion since then …) From Shakespeare to “Hamilton,” theater has raised voices to equalize privilege and people.

We are alive in a historical moment when John of Gaunt’s lines in “Richard II” resonate powerfully: “England (read “America”), wont to conquer others, has made a shameful conquest of itself.”

How do we respond to such a “shameful conquest?” About “After Orlando,” McInerny says, “Our offering is part of an important movement. If ever there was a time to stand up, it’s now.”

Actors have been heeding that call, and the final theater event I’ll mention in this column is the Ghost Light Project, which will take place in theaters all across the country on January 19.

“Inspired by the tradition of leaving a ‘ghost light’ on in a darkened theater, artists and communities will make or renew a pledge to stand for and protect the values pf inclusion, participation, and compassion for everyone — regardless of race, class, religion, country of origin, immigration status, (dis)ability, gender identity or sexual orientation.”

Theater provides opportunities to better understand “all of us.” Join your community in shining a light at the Shea Theater on Jan. 19 at 5:30 p.m. For more information, visit: theghostlightproject.com

The free performance of “After Orlando” by Eggtooth productions will take place on Jan. 13 at Jack Golden’s Studio, 9 Mill St. in Greenfield at 7:30 p.m.

Free performances will take place at The Sloan Theater, Greenfield Community College on Jan. 11 at 6 p.m.; Jan. 13 at 6 p.m.; Jan. 14 at 10:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m.; Jan. 14 at 10:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m.; and Jan. 15 at 10:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. More details are available online at:
youngshakespeareplayerseast.org

Jenny Abeles is a writer and educator living in Greenfield. You can search her work online by including her middle name, Terpsichore.