Friday, September 28, 2012

BIP Nominations--Erin Treadway, Ben Taylor Ridgway and Kathleen Fletcher!

B. Iden Payne Awards Nominations Meeting
Vortex Theatre
September 24, 2012

Costume Design by Benjamin Taylor Ridgway
Photography by Daniel Brock
The BIP awards nominations were held at the Vortex, on their main stage, with the set of Water still up. Director Cullum asked the entering audience not to walk through the dry pool to get dirt in it that will later muddy the waters in the show.

Tutto Theatre Company received three awards nominations for its work this year!  Two were for The Twelfth Labor, best lead actress in a drama, Erin Treadway; and best costume design, Benjamin Taylor Ridgway.  The third was for Kathleen Fletcher, best lead actress in a comedy, in The Alien Baby Play.   I was surprised--how could anyone remember back as far as February?  They could, and how!  This is a definite tribute to the power and hilarity of Kathleen's performances.

That's it.  I think it is important to note that both our nominated actors are resident in NYC.  Tutto has a commitment to supporting local talent, and this may seem like a contradiction.  But no, Kathleen is an Austin native, and Erin is a Texas native. Tutto is supporting our local and regional talent in their First Coast endeavors, doubly satisfying when their award nominated performances are in Austin before the home crowds.  Benjamin Taylor Ridgway moved to Austin from NYC within the last couple of years and counts as brilliant local talent.  We are honored to present his work on our stages.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Interview with playwright, Leegrid Stevens

Leegrid Stevens
Photography By Daniel Brock

An Interview with Leegrid Stevens

By Tutto Theatre Company

Tutto: Apart from any of your professors at SMU and Columbia, what modern playwrights influence you most?
LS: The most influential playwrights for me have been Anton Chekhov, Eugene O’Neill, Samuel Beckett, and Sam Shepard. Chekhov has probably influenced me the most out of those four. I constantly use his style and approach as a blueprint for structuring a new play. Sam Shepard has also been a big influence but more in terms of atmosphere and tone. Becket is strange to me because, generally speaking, I don’t enjoy his plays. However, I find myself constantly thinking about them and exploring his ideas. Right now I’m working on a play that is basically a modern Happy Days.

Tutto: There is a somewhat formulaic trend toward short plays--3-5 cast members, no more than two acts, upper middle class concerns and settings. Your plays are thoroughly unlike that; is this due to deliberate avoidance or pursuit of a different playwriting philosophy?
LS: You’re talking about middle-brow theatre! Ah, the middle. Not too artsy or ambitious, not too silly or stupid, just right in the middle with a comfortable sized (i.e., not expensive) cast and themes that play directly to the demographic of most theatre audiences (i.e., middle class with a stunning Manhattan apartment). I actually tried to write a play that fit that category and managed a three person cast, two acts, but it ended up being about a polygamist and one of his former wives who killed their child for his attention. So it didn’t quite apply to the theme of “stunning Manhattan apartment”.
To answer your question, it’s not deliberate avoidance or a different writing philosophy that prevents me from writing plays in that vein. The truth is that I simply can’t. I’ve tried and I immediately get totally depressed and I hate myself and think I’m a small person and a terrible playwright and, worst of all, that I’m utterly boring. So I stick with plays that feel impossible, and horribly flawed, and totally exciting. And I don’t feel like so much of a zero.

Tutto: Dialog in your plays and other writings shows an affinity for Spoonerism, the switching around of syllables in phrases to create nonsense phrases, often with editorial commentary implied or explicit. Is this a language feature that has always come easily to you, or is it a more thoughtful literary exploration you work very hard at in your plays? The Twelfth Labor is a real showcase of Spoonerisms.
LS: The most difficult subject for me in school was always spelling. I kept re-arranging the letters in the wrong ways. Calling it Spoonerism is kinda the nice way of putting it. But, yes, I think I’ve always had a facility (or failing) with that sort of thing. However, it was only after I encountered the work of James Joyce (Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake) that I became aware of the vast possibilities in puns and multiple layers of meaning. Twelfth Labor owes a great deal to those two books. I also read the entireDictionary of American Regional English (the first four volumes… Si-Z wasn’t published yet) and marked down all the interesting words for the play. That was no small task, I’ll tikki you that.

Tutto: Has anyone ever told you that you look like Brendan Frazier?
LS: Never, until last year, in Austin, live on the air with John Aielli of KUT-FM while I was promoting The Dudleys. During the interview he said I looked like Brendan Frasier and then we went to commercial and when we came back he assured all his listeners that I really do look like Brendan Frazier. Only in radio do I look like Brendan Frazier.

Saturday, August 25, 2012


Helen Allen
Photography By Daniel Brock
An Interview with the Hens (Chris Humphrey, Content Love Knowles and Helen Allen)
July, 2012
By Tutto Theatre Company (TTC)

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Twelfth Labor Impressions

Impressions of The Twelfth Labor: A Non-review
The Twelfth Labor
By Leegrid Stevens
Produced by Tutto Theatre Company
5600 Sunshine Dr.

I walked through the parking lot of the MacCallum Fine Arts Academy in central Austin in the energy-draining August heat that curls the very leaves of the trees.  Tutto Theatre Company’s US premiere of Leegrid Stevens’ The Twelfth Labor takes place in the Lab Theatre, a black box space across the parking lot from the still-new Mac Fine Arts Center.  Black boxes are where anything can and does happen.  On this night the first surprising impression in this black box was the sight of the exploding set by Ia Enstera.  The house left end of the set and the upper wall of the upstage center house wall seem to explode upward and away like a slow-motion film of a tornado lifting effortlessly the logs of a log cabin one log at a time.  This frozen explosion is the perfect metaphor for the family in the house below.  That family not only exploded in 1949, the time of the play, but they are still exploding, as does every family today. 

I have to state immediately that I am highly involved with this play as a producer and board member of Tutto Theatre Company.  I can make no claim of objectivity for these impressions, and I wouldn’t want to.  But the play strikes me deeply (who would produce a play that didn’t?), and I want to tell the world about it.  That’s why I’m calling this a non-review. 

The base facts of the play are that it’s about a hardscrabble Idaho farm family in 1949.  Earlier, their patriarch, Forrest Prater (Skip Johnson), had left the family temporarily for a construction job on Wake Island in 1941, where, although a civilian, he was captured by the invading Japanese.  He spent all of World War II in a prison camp, and by 1949 had still not returned home. 

Forrest’s developmentally delayed daughter Cleo (Erin Treadway), however, has persistent bright, prophetic dreams of Forrest’s safe homecoming.  On the other hand, Cleo’s mother Esther (Rebecca Robinson) has lost all hope for the future in the misery of her endless labor operating the farm and keeping the family together.  Hopelessness in the declining fortunes of the farm is the source of all the conflicts of the play, and all the characters take action (or simply writhe in place) out of their sense of desperation and widely varying visions of their personal futures. 

All the character interactions show their conflicts, but at the same time the characters hold each other with great tenderness.  For example, the acidly gossipy Hens (portrayed by Content Love Knowles, Chris Humphrey and Helen Allen) take Esther under their wings to get her ready for the awards ceremony.  Throughout the play, the characters play and often give each other food, some of it rotten, but still.  One audience member remarked that the play was a story having delicacy, and, yes, I can see it, right through the fight scenes. 

At least part of this underlying tenderness is due to Director Gary Jaffe’s sensitive direction.  His blocking of the stage action, in particular, is full of Baroque swirlings and asymmetric movements; these qualities give surprise to many entrances and flashes of costume color against the earth tones of Enstera’s set.  This movement style also heightens the Hens’ transit of the play, with their bizarre and crisp speeches, dialogues and evil cluckings. 

The play is a narrative drama, but one of non-linear storytelling, so a la mode.  Acts II and III depict fantasy landscapes and different times, all in Cleo’s dreamland and seen through Cleo’s eyes and spoken with Cleo’s voice.  And her language is incredibly rich, with Spoonerisms, neologisms and imaginatively distorted songs and dialogues from period movies beloved by Cleo.  This is a strange turn for any play, but the audiences embrace it from the first instant.  The cast delights in their lines; they take them (Cleo-speak) as a rhetorical challenge, to give as clearly as possible the dialogues with all their subtle and double and triple meanings available for the audience’s enjoyment.  The audience need not sit there with puzzled looks, wondering—what’s okasure? What’s snovel?  What’s coreshits? 

Wray Crawford and Trey Deason are standouts in this triumph of rhetoric and exposition, accepting the added challenge of rapid-fire patter and punning in their Abbott and Costello routine.  I would recommend this play to all my friends on the strength of acts II and III alone.  They are that good. 

Another variation from modernist drama and literature (I’m sure you’ve stopped thinking Tennessee Williams, Steinbeck and Faulkner long ago) is The Twelfth Labor’s act of breaking the centrality of story.  Where modernist stories have a main plot with subplots, The Twelfth Labor maintains a balance of stories, and gives equal weight to all the plot lines.  All the stories are strong and the play keeps its central secrets until late.  So one wonders what is truly the central story here.  More than half the play is seen from Cleo’s point of view, but when Esther steps on stage one is convinced that the play is really all about Esther.  Likewise, when Forrest takes us through the prison camp, and, in his long monologue explains why he left about a quarter of himself there, we feel as though everything was a lead-up to his character-revealing experience.  And so it goes.  When Esther and Donna (Megan Minto) finally confront each other about their lives, we believe there can be no higher plateau in the play.  Rather than feeling confused by all this storytelling at the end of the play, surprisingly one feels a vast, vast sense of resolution.  This is only for the audience, however, because the characters’ outcomes are varied—they are resolved or unresolved, succeeded or failed, fulfilled or left empty, just as in life.  But the feeling the audience takes away seems to carry with it the inspiration to struggle onward, that all is well. 

I have a final odd impression about the play and its writing.  The soldier Dee is the best nonembodied character I have witnessed in years, perhaps since Godot (probable overstatement).  Donna reads his poetic love letters (so does Cleo) and describes his desire for marriage, desire for a son, desire for the best of everything and motivation for education.  Esther describes his uniform buttons, deception, dark side and malicious intent toward Donna.  Between these extremes of dark and light we can easily see the outline form of a human character.  I felt I knew him.  All that remained was for an actor wearing his Army uniform to step on stage.  I enjoyed this small exercise of restraint, however, in not creating an enacted role for Dee. This restraint gave a tiny space for the imaginative play of the audience, and is also the best literal expression of the absentee husband. Such thoughtfulness is one mark of brilliant playwriting.

Director Jaffe and Annamarie Kasper as Herk together have crafted a gem of a role in the character of Herk, mud-covered yet shining.  At the end of the play, yet again, we think that it has all come down to the story of Herk and his relation to The Family Secret.  Herk has the actual end of the play, without a spoken line attached to it.  He turns away from the dining table and looks past and upward from the audience, seemingly looking toward the future.  The fear in his eyes, so well gathered in his short life, is gone.  To a certainty, what we see there now is hope.  

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The 8-Bit Art Trend

“8-Bit Artisan”
The Austin Chronicle
May 4, 2012
Vol. 31 #36: 48-49

I am struck by the ongoing rediscovery of 8-bit art and games.  The article referenced above in the latest Austin Chronicle by James Renovitch profiles Rachel Weil, a self-taught programmer of 8-bit video art and games on the highly obsolete 1980s Nintendo Entertainment System (NES).  Remarkably, Weil began this hobby in high school, long after the heyday of 8-bit and NES, in fact after it all ended, when electronics stores were, in her words, “filling Dumpsters with NES carts.”  Now Weil is a one-woman game and performance company named Party Time! Hexcellent!  Her demos, videos and games have been shown in North America and Europe.  Her game “Track + Feel II” has just been showcased in Austin and is available for purchase.  Without a doubt, Weil is a creative whose hobby became her career.  We can only wish Rachel Weil the greatest success.

Naturally, I cannot overlook the parallels with Tutto’s premiere of The Dudleys!: A Family Game by Leegrid Stevens, which opened at the Blue Theatre almost exactly one year ago.  That show was partly live stage play and partly 8-bit video art and chiptune music.  Austin’s own Gary Jaffe directed it.  The play’s characters moved back and forth between the live and 8-bit worlds, so that often the planar boundary of the 8-bit video world with the live stage set was indiscernible.  Admitting my biases, I declare again that The Dudleys! was some of the best multiple-arts theatre I’ve seen in the year since; I am not alone in my praise: the B. Iden Payne awards committee showered The Dudleys! with accolades. 

This 8-bit revival has about it an atmosphere of sharing which may be the aspect I like most.  The Dudleys! offered a concurrent 8-bit art show in the gallery next to the theatre, and in pre-production The Blue Theatre held events featuring chiptunes—dejayed by The Dudleys! playwright Leegrid Stevens.  Some of that music was featured in the play and was composed by the playwright himself; the 8-bit visuals were created by several artists from around the country, in collaboration with the playwright.  In his Chronicle article, Renovitch says of the “archaic programming language” that makes 8-bit possible and Rachel Weil’s mastery of it, that together they “made an interactive experience that brings people together.” My own experience confirms the truth of this statement, and I encourage the growth of the 8-bit art trend in our culture.  I don’t know if Rachel Weil attended The Dudleys!, but if she had, I’m sure she loved it.