2016: excavation review themes

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After six annual marathons captured in “what Martha has seen” lists of theater and film adventuring (2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016), I’ve learned a few things. I’ve learned that sometimes theater gluttony can build personal knowledge but impede creative critical output. I’ve learned that it’s a great privilege to be among the frequent theater-going population in Manhattan and surrounding areas and that while theater-going, I’m always among family — I most often attend theater solo and almost always greet someone I know when I arrive. I’ve learned that I miss international travel in those years when it doesn’t occur — trips this year were limited to U.S. cities in which I’ve lived, Chicago and Philadelphia, and professional meetings of various types occurred in my New York City home base. And I’ve learned that a resorting of work priorities can assist productivity. After three years of increasing editorial responsibility on the still-evolving Chance Magazine, I resigned at the end of 2015 to move on to other writing and editing adventures: writing reviews and theater musings for multiple outlets, reading and working on scripts with playwrights, and pursuing some book projects. Here are some reflections on 2016 activities.

Publication Themes and Outlets.

I researched and wrote about gender parity and equity in theater (playwrights, directors, designers) and other theater-related topics for Howlround, The Clyde Fitch Report, TDF Stages, Broad Street Review, and Theater Pizzazz among other outlets, and worked on the third annual Women Count report on the status of women playwrights, directors, and creatives hired Off Broadway, set to be released in early 2017.

Professional Boards.

Glutton for punishment (and professional pleasures), I began or continued service on three organizational boards during 2016: American Theatre Critics Association, League of Professional Theatre Women, and Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas. I guess if you live long enough and are enough of a loud mouth, you’re eventually asked to serve in this manner. It has seemed a career re-alignment in the best possible way.

Dramaturgy, Play Reading, and Play Development.

Script reading joy for several competitions, festivals, and development programs happened during the year: the ATCA New Play Committee that selects several prizes (ATCA/Steinberg New Play Award for new plays premiering outside NYC and the M. Elizabeth Osborn Award for emerging playwrights); Harvardwood Writers Competition (for which I read screenplays in contention this year); O’Neill National Playwrights Conference Artistic Council (reviewing plays at the final stages of consideration for the NPC); and plays submitted for the PlayPenn New Play Development Conference. I also worked on evolving scripts with the marvelous playwrights Riti Sachdeva and Cesi Davidson.

Panels and Public Conversations.

I moderated public conversations that showed me again how much I enjoy talking to creative people. Two events were hosted by Harvardwood, the Harvard alumni arts organization, with luminaries of theater and Hollywood history. In June, Albert Poland regaled us with stories from his memoir-in-development of a career in the arts as a performer, producer, and general manager. In October I interviewed Joan Benny at the Lambs Club about growing up as the daughter of Jack Benny, and her 1990 memoir Sunday Nights at Seven that combines her memories with unpublished memoir pages her father left behind. During an October meeting of the American Theatre Critics Association in New York City, I hosted a panel of projection and sound designers to discuss challenges and delights of their art forms.

I participated in two panels during the year on different dimensions of women in theater. In January I joined Jenny Lyn Bader, Jody Christopherson, Libby Emmons, Erin Mee, and Ludovica Villar-Hauser for “Necessary Exposure: The Female Playwright Project: Parity Panel” at Dixon Place, to coincide with a photography exhibit designed to highlight the work of female playwrights. In August I traveled to Chicago, a city in which I lived and worked as a dramaturg from 2005 through 2009, to join Megan Carney, Kerry Reid, Willa Taylor, and Joan Lipkin in a “Women in Chicago Theatre Roundtable” at the ATHE Women and Theatre Program Preconference.

2016 Production Favorites.

And through all these other activities I fed my love for theater in different locations but primarily in New York City. I became a voting member of the Drama Desk in fall 2016, after a hiatus of several seasons, inflating (or inflaming) my theater attendance. Here are some highlights from the almost 200 productions I saw this year, including multiple viewings of some productions and excluding readings and screenings. These productions charm me, haunt me, and define what keeps me going to the theater almost every night.

Repeat viewings of three productions stood out this year. I saw Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 the first time in 2012’s truly immersive experience for less than 100 at Ars Nova, the second time in 2013’s Kazino tent in the Meatpacking district, and finally the current Broadway production of a short section of Tolstoy’s War and Peace presented as a sung-through dramatic tale of letters and 19th century Russian rich people playing games. I visited Stephen Karam’s The Humans three times during the year (and have just scheduled a fourth visit in early 2017 before the production closes), a haunting and magnificently crafted inter-generational family story of contemporary Manhattan life. These visits were in three different theaters — the Roundabout’s Laura Pels and the Helen Hayes in January and the Schoenfeld in September. Two fall visits to The Wolves by Sarah DeLappe about a girls’ soccer team introduced me to a powerful young playwright who crafted a marvelous world populated completely by strong, complex, active female characters.

Seven new creations were favorites among many single viewings this year. Lynn Nottage’s Sweat at the Public, slated for a Broadway transfer, speaks powerfully about the swift transition in the life conditions for downsized working class men and women in American’s industrial north; Qui Nguyen’s Vietgone at MTC tells a Vietnamese American story of loss and assimilation and pain in a graphic comic sensibility; Marie and Rosetta at Atlantic Stage, a two-hander with music, delivers a rousing, inspiring, and mostly true gospel ghost story; Richard Nelson’s trio of plays illuminates the middle class Gabriel family in their Rhinebeck New York kitchen: Hungry in March, What Did You Expect? in September, and Women of a Certain Age in November; and a quietly entrancing new musical The Band’s Visit, at Atlantic Theatre captures the gentle disruptions in a small Israeli town when an Egyptian military band ends up there briefly by mistake.

And five revivals wowed me. David Hare’s Plenty in a modernist take on wartime bravery and postwar trauma and assimilation at the Public; Brian Friel’s Afterplay in the Irish Rep basement theater that imagines a meeting between two Chekhov’s characters from Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters in a Moscow cafe, and in the newly refurbished Irish Rep upstairs theater a smashing small-scale return to Finian’s Rainbow that delightfully honors the laughter-through-tears cabaret standards “Old Devil Moon” and “Look to the Rainbow” and “If This Isn’t Love” in a repeatedly extended run; Athol Fugard’s Master Harold … and the boys at Signature with musings about power and class and race that resonate with our contemporary political climate; and a New Group production of Sweet Charity that re-imagines a dance hall dreamer’s life on a small-scale that provides audiences with thrilling proximity to the performance of Sutton Foster as Charity.

Finally, and perhaps first, certainly in its own category (or categories): the multi-chapter, multi-decade creation Taylor Mac: A 24-Decade History of Popular Music ambled through several years of development and a number of venues before it landed at St. Ann’s in Brooklyn for a several week stay in fall 2016. Different decades occupied different evenings and there was one 24-hour endurance run of the entire set of creations that I did not attend. I saw one decade (1900-1909) in 2012 at the Manhattan JCC (then entitled “Sleep Fast We Need the Pillow”) and two other decades in development at Joe’s Pub in July of this year. I did see three decades as finally realized at the splendid St. Ann’s Brooklyn home at the end of September (Act VI covering 1926-1956) and it was splendid — an exercise in stagecraft, in costuming, in community building, in song stylings, in pageantry. This talent, his musicians and his minions, my friends, are a prime reason to live in this part of the world, to be living now.

Good-bye to all that, 2016, and bring on 2017.

© Martha Wade Steketee (December 30, 2016)

 

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