What’s the alternative?

Dear Friends,

It’s night in Ireland and I returned to my hotel room to do a bit of writing.  I think this hotel is an ideal spot for working. Opened in 1845, the fading elegance suggests the ghost of any number of fabulous characters.  I’ve opened up a bottle of Writer’s Tears whiskey, the seagulls are crying outside, and I suspect soon it will rain.  Perfect writing conditions.

But first I wanted to take an opportunity to reach out to all of you in this lull between seasons.  Folks at Triad Stage are busy at work preparing for the season ahead.  Designers are working on the first two shows and our production staff are building sets and making costumes for Arms and the Man.

I’m in Europe because I was asked to join a group of UNCG students in London to guide them around the city and take them to a number of plays.  The students and Denise Gabriel, UNCG faculty member and Triad Stage Resident Movement Director, had spent a terrifically challenging couple of weeks studying theater in Wales.  I was pleased to meet them at Paddington Station last Sunday and begin an immersive journey through varied types of theater in London.

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From a 55 seat fringe theatre above a pub to a center for new writing to a West End auditorium to the wonder that is the National, the students saw a wide variety of new work.  We also visited some of my favorite museums, buildings and parks in the city.

As usual, any trip to London for me is an opportunity to experience new plays, new directors and to seek inspiration.  I was also able this trip to fit in a walk to the home where George Bernard Shaw wrote Arms and the Man and I was delighted to realize I was watching Headlong’s visceral and challenging 1984 in the theater where Arms and the Man had its world premiere in 1894.

Shaw home  Shaw home 2

One of the great pleasures of my artistic life in the Triad is that I get to work so closely with UNCG.  I’m honored to help mentor the MFA directing students, get to work with so many of the other students and am thrilled to get to work so closely with the faculty of the theater department.  Many of the faculty work with me at Triad.  Jim Wren provides the excellent fight choreography.  Chris Morris is our voice and dialect expert.  And Denise Gabriel works wonder with movement.

Because I was rather frightened of my movement teachers when I was an acting student, I was at first surprised that Denise and I work so well together.  But from the first time I experienced her coaching an actor, I realized that she is a kind of miracle worker.  With a few words and a touch, Denise can get an actor to break through any walls or resistance.  I’ve been privileged to see her work with students and professionals and I know that her tenacity and talent are an enormous boon to UNCG and Triad Stage.

Denise is one of the most dedicated teachers I have ever seen.  She cares passionately for her students.  She works beyond the call of duty to help them, to create exciting opportunities and to build bridges between the university and the profession.  Her dedication to the Wales theater program is just one example of her constant striving to spur creativity at UNCG and in Greensboro.  This fall, Denise has arranged for an acclaimed South African company to travel to Greensboro and perform Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms in the UpStage Cabaret.

After the student program ended, Denise and I decided to travel to Ireland to begin to make connections to establish new international partnerships for Triad Stage and UNCG.  We’ve seen rough and tumble new theater, contemporary Irish classics and still have a few shows to go.  We also did a 15 mile walk through the country side where we were attacked by bats and cows, but we survived the wild beasts of the Irish jungles because I remembered that St Patrick had rid the island of snakes and that gave us courage.  Why St. Patrick didn’t also kick out the bats and at least the most violent of the milk cows is something I will never understand.

Violent cow

I’m surprised it has taken me this long to make my way to Ireland.  I have no Irish ancestors, but I have always loved so many of the great Irish writers.  Ireland is also a place where theater and the identity of a nation are so entwined.  The Abbey Theatre played such an instrumental role in the formation of the nation.  The idea that a theater could become a vital part of a community, engage in the conversations essential to its audience and belong wholeheartedly to its place makes the Abbey one of the touchstone theaters that provide inspiration to me as Rich, the staff, and I continue to create Triad Stage with you.

It was a little disappointing to find that the outside of the Abbey looks a bit like a Belks in a late 1970’s shopping mall.  But the inside lived up to all that I had imagined.  Not only is it a beautiful theater but I saw a risky and stunning production of Tom Murphy’s The Wake.  Annabelle Comyn’s direction was gorgeous and Aisling O’Sullivan’s performance as Vera was daring and true.

Abbey

The great thing I love about travel—whether to another world in a theater or down an undiscovered street in a new city—is that if one carries curiosity with them, wonders will be found.  I’ve not been able to stop thinking about O’Sullivan’s performance and the way it relates to risk.  The risk that an artist takes when they do the unexpected or try out a new way of expressing themselves or dares to create outside the established contemporary forms entails real danger.  And the reality is if one makes bold choices there will be many who criticize and mock.  But what’s the alternative?  To be safe?  To not try?

When I see a performance like O’Sullivan’s I’m reminded of the necessity to risk disapproval.  Art without bold choices accomplishes little.  I often tell students, professionals, and myself, that not making choices feels safe, but it doesn’t make great art.  I’m thrilled to return back to Triad Stage recommitted to our core value of “Artistic Risk.”  Without that “Artistic Risk” we could never hope to really engage with our community and belong to the Triad.

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Preston Lane
Triad Stage Founding Artistic Director

 

A Good Month for a Little Mystery

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Dear Friends,

This past weekend we said goodbye to the cast and crew of Wit and said hello to the first audience for Ira Levin’s fiendishly clever Deathtrap.  As expected there were more than a few screams as the evening progressed.  I’m happy to say the screams were from audience members and not the director.   We hope to keep audiences guessing, jumping, and screaming well into November.

October is always a good month for a little mystery.  There’s something about the chill in the air that seems to demand a chill to the spine.  Shorter days, early dark, and everywhere the dying of summer makes our minds turn to darker themes.  This is, after all, the month of Halloween and I noticed yesterday on my walk home from teaching a class at UNCG that skeletons were peeking out of a neighbor’s front yard and that a group of witches had taken up residence just down the street.

Truth be told, I think just about any month is a good time for a mystery.  I didn’t really discover this guilty pleasure that is my love for crime fiction until I was already in grad school.  Peter Jackson’s brilliant film Heavenly Creatures was playing at the York Square Cinema and since I was working a lot with Julie McKee, a great playwright from New Zealand, I decided to go over and check it out.  I was blown away.  The film is a bold, heartbreaking and visually stunning re-imagination of a brutal crime committed in New Zealand in the 1950’s.  I learned later that week that one of the teenage murderers, Juliet Hulme, had changed her name, was living in the UK and writing mystery novels under the pen name Anne Perry.  So, off I went– out of morbid curiosity– to Atticus Bookstore where I purchased The Carter Street Hangman.  I figured meeting Victorian sleuths Thomas and Charlotte Pitt in their first mystery would be a onetime thing but I’ve read 27 of the 30 books, and from Anne Perry I’ve made my way to any number of unputdownable writers like Ruth Rendell, Karin Fossum, and the granddaddy of them all—Wilkie Collins.

I mainly listen to them now as audiobooks.  After my stroke almost 5 years ago, I started walking much more.  I find that a desperate need to discover just exactly whodunit is perfect motivation to add steps to my daily routine.  I just downloaded Robert Galbraith’s (aka J.K. Rowling) new book last night at midnight and I may not stop walking for days to come.  All of these mystery novels are a true escape, but they also are expert lessons in the art of plot and craft.  Common Enemy was deeply influenced by the fact I was walking my way through Val McDermid’s Karen Pirie books.  They were a crash course in how to plot.

As a writer, I’ve never attempted a stage thriller, but I want to.  It’s an extremely tricky art form and common wisdom says that modern technology has made them nigh on to impossible.  You can’t dail “m” for murder on your cell phone and DNA tests would be rather boring on the stage.  But as a director, I love the art form.  Triad Stage has produced many of the great stage thrillers from Angel Street to Wait Until Dark and I hope there will be many more opportunities to scare you and perplex you.  Witness for the Prosecution anyone?  Or how about my favorite, the ever creepy Bad Seed.

Deathtrap is one of the best.  I’d love to tell you all sorts of secrets about how Bryan Conger and our wonderful company of actors, designers and production staff are putting it together, but I just don’t want to ruin the surprise.  The great joy of a good mystery is a delicate mix of chills, clues, red herrings, reversals, and unexpected events.  As I write this, the company is in rehearsal in the theater tightening the screws to make the tension even stronger.

I think there’s nothing more elemental to the incredible human experience that is live theater than the shared emotions that performance creates in an audience who have been united by their experience of the story.  Screams, tears, laughter and, yes,  even anger can remind us that we’re not so different from each other when we notice the people next to us—strangers, perhaps, until tonight—experiencing the same thing.  I think that’s what I love most about this thing I do.  At its best theater calls us to be human, to be fully alive, to be engaged with our self and with others, and to recognize how much alike we really are when we break through the artificial dividers and seek the essence of what is human.

Thanks,

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Preston Lane, Founding Artistic Director

P.S. – There are so many wonderfully talented professionals working on every Triad Stage production. See what our resident fight choreographer Jim Wren had to say about the art of stage combat and working on this production in a recent video.

Creating a gift from the heart

Wit Photo with Art
Pictured: Kate Goehring in WIT. Photo by Fred Kinney.

Dear Friends,

The first few weeks of a season can be some of the most promising and relaxing weeks of the year. Most of us at Triad Stage are focused only on the opening show and most of us still have some sense of calm thanks to a few weeks off in July.

I usually spend my downtime in the summer in the old part of Puerto Vallarta. It’s off-season, rates are cheap, and I accomplish an enormous amount of writing and reading done sitting on a balcony overlooking the Bay of Banderas.
My return to Greensboro always throws me instantly back into rehearsals, but thankfully there’s always Los Gordos, Greensboro’s best Mexican restaurant, to remind me of that Puerto-Vallarta-escape-from-it-all feel. I love the homemade care that goes into their food and the remarkable respect for authenticity.

Good food and good theater seem so much alike. Both are prepared with great love from the finest ingredients, made by hand and shared with their patrons as a gift from the heart. We can always go to a national chain or a national tour if we want something made for someone else, but if what we’re really hungry for is “homemade” buying local promises a level of care that values creativity far more than convenience. (And those homemade tortillas at Los Gordos keep me coming back for more.)

Soon after the Opening Night of the first show, the activity of the season explodes. We’re currently in rehearsal for DEATHTRAP and deep in preparation for two holiday shows and the first shows of the New Year. As many of our staff were toasting the final performance of CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, I was in New York casting both VROOOMMM! (with director David Karl Lee, an old friend from grad school and one of the wackiest, funniest directors I know) and BEAUTIFUL STAR. We cast our shows by auditions here in the Triad and in New York. As a result, I spend quite a bit of time in New York — reminding myself why I don’t live there.

Our New York auditions happen at Pearl Studios, located in the mid-thirties on 8th Avenue. We have a New York casting director, Cindi Rush, who has worked with us from the very first show of our inaugural season. Cindi is, as my mountain relatives would say, just good people. She places talent before celebrity and values craft and dedication more than anything else.

She sends out a breakdown describing key characteristics of all the roles we will be casting and requests submissions from actors’ agents and managers. We then spend several days watching actors play scenes we have selected from the play with a “reader” — an actor who reads all the other roles. After the first auditions, we decide who to call back and then see another day of auditions with new material and a chance to revisit scenes from the first day. Once Cindi and I (and the guest director and/or the music director) have decided who we want to hire, we make offers through the agents and wait patiently to see if the actors will accept.

This waiting game can be nerve-wracking. No actor will ever get rich working in regional theater. We are often competing with far more lucrative film and television offers. Triad Stage is building a reputation as a place where actors want to work. Almost always we get our first choices.

Sometimes, we don’t audition a role at all. Sometimes, an actor I know and love is the reason we select a play. We call the agent directly to make an offer. Such was the case when we began the casting process for the first show of our third season at the Hanesbrands Theatre in Winston-Salem. I programmed WIT knowing that I could not imagine producing the play without a Triad Stage favorite, Kate Goerhing, in the lead role of Vivian Bearing.

Kate has appeared in numerous shows at Triad, from THE LITTLE FOXES at The Pyrle to UNDERNEATH THE LINTEL at the Hanesbrands and she is one of the most compelling and talented actresses I know. Working with an extraordinary cast including two recent UNCSA graduates and UNCSA legend, Lesley Hunt (the fabulous teacher who taught me how to breathe, stand up straight, take snuff, and dance the Gay Gordon).

Look, there’s no way to sugar coat this: Kate is going to rip your heart out. WIT is one of the most powerful theatrical experiences you will ever see in your life. If you have battled cancer or loved someone who battled cancer, you must see this show.

Even though there is lots of laughter along the way, I’m being honest when I say there wasn’t a dry eye in the room when we watched the final run in the rehearsal hall before moving to the theater to begin technical rehearsals. I’ve seen the play numerous times, I knew what was coming, and I told myself I wasn’t going to embarrass myself in front of the company — but a box of Kleenex later the only thing that mattered was the deep connection with community this remarkable Pulitzer Prize-winning drama creates whenever it is done with great love and truth. And Kate and company are doing just that!

I can’t wait to share it with all of you and look forward to seeing you in Winston-Salem.

Thanks,

Preston Lane, Founding Artistic Director

A Director’s Thoughts Post-Preview #1

Dear Friends,

Yesterday I woke up and the thought that slammed into my consciousness as I opened my eyes was that in less than 12 hours CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF would be in its 1st preview performance. I was a bundle of nerves, anticipation and hope. I had that queasy stomach ache I seem to recall from my awkward childhood as I woke to first days of schools or final exams or big trips to the big city (Winston-Salem and Greensboro for a boy growing up in Boone. I was very impressed by revolving doors and escalators). After 4 weeks of rehearsals, after hundreds of hours of talking, attempting, dreaming and experimenting, after learning how to collaborate with this brave group of artists, halfway through our journey, last night we welcomed the missing and much anticipated character: the audience.

CAHT Preview 1

Last night at 7:30pm I walked down the center aisle and welcomed an audience (right), many of whom have been celebrating watching me in that terrifying 1st preview vulnerability for 15 seasons. I know so many of them from hundreds of conversations in the lobby, from comment cards and Monday morning emails. They’ve seen me and my work more raw and exposed than any other audience. And they have truly shaped the productions Triad Stage shares with our community. They alone witnessed the huge walking skeleton in PROVIDENCE GAP, the improvised final light and sound cues in DRACULA, the failed spin the bottle magnet trick in NEW MUSIC and so many more moments that didn’t make it to the 2nd preview. Their laughter, silence, coughing, comments and applause (or lack thereof) has inspired 14 seasons worth of artists to roll up their sleeves and head back into rehearsal Tuesday morning to risk more and strive for better. We make our theater here from scratch and unlike Broadway tours, the audience is an essential partner in the process.

I suspect last night’s 1st preview audience saw a fireworks display that will be very different from the final version. For the past week, we’ve been in what the theater calls “tech” – short for technical rehearsals. I don’t like the name because it sounds so scientific. I wish we could call them something like “discovery rehearsals”, because it is in this week that the actors and I leave the rehearsal hall and join the designers and production staff in the theater to weave together the set, costume, lights and sound with the lives we’ve been creating. We don’t layer design on top of acting, but discover new language, new moments and new possibilities. It’s an exhausting but thrilling week. And some of the discoveries we make open our eyes to opportunities in the play we had not yet discovered.

One of these ideas grew out of the references to the fireworks in honor of Big Daddy’s birthday. Our original thought was that we would have a couple of loud sound cues and a flash or two of light. But as we bridged Williams’ 2nd and 3rd act, we began to feel we needed a moment to bring the outside in, to make palpable the upset of the night and to contrast the outer and inner confusions confronting Brick. And so, we began to build a fireworks display. We combined lights and sound, developing a design vocabulary. We debated and experimented with how it would start and how it would end. We added two of the kids to the confusion, then added almost everyone else. We tried the fireworks watchers moving in slow motion then tried fast motion. We tried them standing stock still. We convinced five children to listen closely and to run at the exact boom in a long series of booms, snaps and bangs. We altered the moment when Big Daddy rushes from the room and we carved out what we hope will be the perfect moment for Brick to enter his own world. And after hours of shaping and re-shaping, tonight our 1st preview audience showed us something wonderful that we had missed.

I never know how a 1st preview will go. I suppose that’s part of the thrill that keeps me making live theater. I do know, however, I will be back Tuesday making changes from fresh discoveries. The fireworks display will change. On Wednesday it will change again. I have no idea what it will be by Friday’s opening.

And, if you’ll forgive this personal confession, last night (or rather this morning) right before 2 am, I ordered my last bourbon and lifted it, as I always do after a 1st preview, in a silent toast of gratitude for the audience who become artists on our journey towards opening night.

Thanks,

Preston Lane, Founding Artistic Director