All Over the Map
Judith Malina on A Day in the Life of the City in Boston. Plus: The Bells in Princeton and The Stopover in Toronto.
Will having a home base of operations temper the company's wanderlust? Absolutely not! When I spoke with co-founder, Judith Malina, she was preparing for a trip to Emerson College in Boston for two events: a workshop production of A Day in the Life of the City and a presentation about the company, titled Love and Politics. The first enlists Emerson students, faculty, and staff to explore the local issues that affect them, while the second consists of poems, plays, and discussions by co-founders Malina and Hanon Reznikov.
A Day in the Life of the City is impossible to describe because it has not been created yet. The company is providing the participants with a forum to make a play and allows them to decide whether it will be performed indoors or as street theater. However, most of the program for Love and Politics has been determined. Highlights include excerpts from Capital Changes, a play by Reznikov about the origins of capitalism, and Antigone, the Greek classic about law and morality.
The troupe revisits Antigone often because, Malina says, it "keeps being relevant to the historical reality. I think political theater today is at its absolute high point," she adds. "There are great big demonstrations all over the world where there are 200,000 people out in the streets protesting capitalism, oddly enough...You get 200 different kinds of theater groups that are doing their drumming and their chanting, and they're wearing costumes. They have big puppets and they dance. I think it's a fantastic kind of street theater." She points out that many plays currently on Broadway explore political matters, whether explicitly as in Michael Frayn's Democracy or more obliquely as in the musical La Cage aux Folles.
Next, Malina and company intend to work on a piece called Enigma, based on the last notes of Julian Beck (who helped found the Living Theatre). Dealing largely with the issue of homelessness, the work will provide an opportunity for indigent New Yorkers to get off the streets and perform in a theater. Also, look out for a new play about the upcoming scarcity of water, cheekily titled Wet Dream.
The play is set during the Yukon Gold Rush, at the end of the 19th century. Bandhu plays XuiFei, a Chinese man murdered for his gold, who then comes back as a ghost to haunt his murderer and those who share the killer's secret. In preparation for the role, he studied the historical data available. "Research is very important," the actor says. "I feel like you can't crawl into another person's perspective without it." In addition to discovering more about Chinese participation in the Gold Rush, Bandhu also read the Tao te Ching -- a book that all educated Chinese men read -- as his character quotes from the text at different points in the show. "It really informed the way I entered this character," he says. "Before, my responses had been very American and I had to learn, for example, how to express my anger and search for justice from a Chinese way of thinking, how to wage a Taoist war."
Bandhu describes XuiFei as "strong" and "masculine," which he feels are qualities that Asian-American actors rarely get to display. He is grateful that Rebeck wrote the character that way and that Mann has made those attributes integral to the production. According to Bandhu, "having a masculine XuiFei makes his search for justice much more imposing and much scarier."
Even as he's treading the boards at the McCarter, Bandhu is making his first foray into producing on Broadway. ZenDog Productions, a company that he co-founded with partner Marc Falato last year, is helping to produce the revival of David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross. "If you had told us eight months ago that a Broadway show would be our first theater venture, we would have laughed," says Bandhu. "However the economics of the project made sense and I have always loved this play. As an artist, I am drawn to works that can articulate the world we live in and can articulate an understanding of our human condition. Mamet does both in this play and criticizes the American Dream in the process!"
Bandhu says that ZenDog is also interested in "cultivating new playwrights and producing Off-Broadway theater and film." In regard to managing both his theatrical endeavors simultaneously, he acknowledges that "it is hard to juggle, and you have to prioritize things very carefully." Still, each has its own rewards. "Acting is a party," he says. "It's a lot of hard work but it's also fun. Producing is like throwing the party. You do the hard work of organizing everything, but there's also a sense of fulfillment in knowing that you have made it possible for all these people to have fun. Not every actor has the ability or skills to produce, and if i can do it for other artists that i believe in so that they can concentrate on their work, then I am happy to do it."
Do you think it's hard to produce theater in the United States? It's no easier in Canada, where arts organizations are becoming as frugal as our own NEA, according to Toronto-based playwright Kristian Bruun. "Theater is expensive, and there's not a lot of money going out right now because not a lot of people are doing projects," Bruun comments.
The tightening of purse strings forces an alternative theater company to be inventive, and alliesallover theatre co-op is cutting back on venue expenses by performing its latest effort in a hotel bar. The Stopover follows two hosers -- the stereotypical, eh-talking, Canadian version of a redneck -- who use their Ontario farm to grow marijuana and intend to sell 12 large garbage bags of the stuff in Toronto. Their plan takes a wrong turn when they happen to find a cop passed out in the back of their truck. However, all of the action of the play occurs in the Art Bar of the Gladstone Hotel in downtown Toronto, where the stories of each of the three characters converge.
"Originally, I wrote this to be performed in a hotel room, but the hotel is under construction," says Bruun. Since a room was not available, the hotel offered the company one of the bars that they intended to use as an art gallery. Bruun took two of his fellow co-founders, who also appear in the play, to see the venue: "We looked at it, we really liked it, and I immediately adapted the play to take place there." The space gave them the opportunity to reach out to local artists, some of whom are donating installations to be viewed before and after the show.
"We like to mix genres," Bruun remarks. "For the last play, we had a Toronto musician, Jack Breakfast, write and record original music." That play, The Brotherhood of Manns, was performed in an actual theater that was large enough to accommodate a production with a whopping 27 characters. Still, economics forced the company to be crafty; they used a single futon to indicate such settings as a bar, a checkout counter, and twin beds.
Another benefit of working on a shoestring is that it may allow the company to tour the show in the future. "[It] would be a great dream for us to travel," Bruun says. "That's what we like about our shows so far; they've been so low maintenance in the set department that we could just pack them up in a van."