Tag Archives: Chicago

Consider the Audience by Kitty Felde

It was quite the weekend of theatre for me as an audience member

The Well-Heeled Audience at the Kennedy Center for “Hamilton”

I finally saw “Hamilton” at the Kennedy Center. Yes, it was a road show, where the singers cheated on the high notes and the very pretty fellow who played the title role kept blending into the scenery. Oh, but the actor who played Aaron Burr made me believe the show was named after him! A fine production viewed from a fine seat on the first balcony.

The night before, I was at a different theatre, seeing an old favorite: “The Pirates of Penzance.” It, too, was a touring production from a pair of Chicago theatre companies – The Hypocrites and The House Theatre.

It was fabulous. To quote from the aforementioned show, “Pirates” “blew us all away.”

The reason: the decision to put the audience at the heart of the action.
The experience began the minute you walked through the theatre door. Every cast member was onstage, singing not Gilbert & Sullivan, but beachy standards like “Sloop John B” and “Margaritaville.” A tiki bar was located on one side of the stage and remained open for business throughout the entire show. A batch of beachballs were flying overhead – audience members batting them at actors, musicians, and each other. I thought I was at a Dodger game.

The audience – an equal mix of senior citizens, 20-somethings, and parents with dozens of very small children – was invited to take a seat onstage.

Oh, sure, some of us fuddy duddies sat on chairs safely away from the action, but most of the audience was happy to plop down on painted wooden benches and ice chests and kiddie wading pools that filled the stage. They were instructed that whenever the action moved to the exact space where they were seated, they’d be politely tapped on the shoulder. This was their invitation to get out of the way. Fast. At times, it looked like a giant game of musical chairs as grownups and kids scrambled to find another seat.

Several members of the audience were recruited to actively participate in the play by holding up the Union Jack or the skull and crossbones of a pirates’ flag. Each was printed on giant beach towels. Parasols were handed out to young ladies who dutifully twirled them this way and that, trying to keep up with the cast member.

The smallest of kids congregated atop the lifeguard station at stage center. It was a magnet for them. Rather than making them scoot, the actors acknowledged their presence. The Pirate King and Frederic would declare that they were entirely alone – and then roll their eyes at the 3 year olds who surrounded them. The rest of the audience was delighted – when they weren’t scared half out of their wits that one of those toddlers would fall off the platform.

The evening was amazing. The energy bounced off the walls.
What a pity when those youngest of audience members discover that all theatre isn’t like this.

Which makes me ask: why not?

Playwriting can feel like such a selfish act. Yes, we have “important stories” that we believe must be shared with the world. But they are our stories. We hope they will resonate with the world in some way, and sometimes they do. (A young man told me that seeing my war crimes play “A Patch of Earth” was the reason he became an attorney specializing in international law.) But usually, it’s a bunch of people sitting in the dark watching a bunch of actors pretending to be imaginary people we made up.

I’ve been thinking hard the past week about the role of the audience in theatre and what I can do as a playwright to make the theatrical experience more about US and less about ME.

I have no immediate solutions, but just asking the question is a start. So I’ll also ask it of you: is it our responsibility as playwrights to also consider the audience? How can we bring them into the theatrical experience? Do we want to? Does the audience want to? How does that change the work?

The mission statement of The Hypocrites is to “re-introduce communal connection into contemporary theater by embracing the desire of all people to bond with each other, especially while experiencing the same event.” The House Theatre wants to “explore connections between Community and Storytelling through a unique theatrical experience.” What’s my mission statement as a playwright?

Which brings me back to “Hamilton.”

Most of the Kennedy Center audience was as familiar with the lyrics of Lin-Manuel Miranda as the actors onstage. Here and there, you could hear someone two seats over whisper, “teach ‘em how to say goodbye, say goodbye” or “never gonna be satisfied.” We all wanted to sing along. It was a show that did speak to us personally and we wanted to be part of it.

But we were at the Kennedy Center, not a black box theatre in rural Maryland. We knew that if we broke into song, a gray-haired, red-coated usher would find us and take us away.

Now that I’ve seen this production of “Pirates,” I’m never going to be satisfied to sit quietly in the dark.


Playwright Kitty Felde is also host of the award-winning Book Club for Kids podcast. Her play about the LA Riots “Western & 96th” will be workshopped this September at DC’s Spooky Action Theater and its New Works in Action series.

The Alcyone Festival

I first heard about the Alcyone Festival from fellow lafpi instigator Ellen Lewis’s blog. It is produced by the Halcyon Theatre in Chicago to celebrate female playwrights.

(I’ve always like the word halcyon but also have always been a bit hazy about its meaning. So, I looked it up. Alcyone is the daughter of Aeolus who, in grief over the death of her husband Ceyx, threw herself into the sea. Zeus had punished him for blasphemy. Both Alcyone and Ceyx were turned into kingfishers, so metamorphosis is the origin of the etymology for halcyon days, the seven days in winter when storms never occur, the seven days each year during which Alcyone, as a kingfisher, lays her eggs on the beach and during which her father Aeolus, god of the winds, calms the waves so she can do so in safety. Now halcyon days describes a peaceful time generally. A better meaning, however, is that of a lucky break, or a bright interval set in the midst of adversity.)

Halcyon is run by Artistic Director Tony Adams and his wife, Associate Artistic Director Jenn Adams, and they are in their fifth season. In 2008, they decided to do something about the fact that the percentage of women produced on Broadway hasn’t changed in a hundred years, and that only twenty percent of plays produced throughout the country are written by women. That summer, they mounted the first Alcyone festival, producing the works of ten early women writers, seldom or never seen today.

In 2009, they attacked the myth that women write only small domestic dramas, and picked as the festival’s theme, terrorism, the cult of martyrdom, and its effects on the innocents. In 2009, they chose from women playwrights all over the globe and in 2010, featured the works of Maria Irene Fornes.

This year, Ellen Lewis was chosen, along with four other contemporary women playwrights. She and J. Nicole Brooks, Coya Paz, Caridad Svich and Jennifer Fawcett, (who is based in L.A), were to adapt, leap off from, reinvent, reenvision, and/or be inspired by works from a wide range of classical texts. The only rules they had were that they had to be inspired by a female playwright’s works, written before 1870, and be ready to go into rehearsal in April.

What a heady assignment! A lucky break, a bright interval.

They chose plays by Pauline Hopkins, Charlotte Mary Sanford Barnes, Hrosvitha, Anna Cora Mowatt, and Maria de Zaya y Sotomayor.

The plays chosen are diverse and I’d love to have seen them. J. Nicole Brooks’s Shotgun Harriet was inspired by Peculiar Sam by Pauline Hopkins; Jennifer Fawcett’s The Invaders, from The Forest Princess by Charlotte Mary Sanford Barnes, EM Lewis’s Strong Voice from the works of Hrosvitha, Coya Paz’s Fashion, adapted from Anna Cora Mowatt’s Fashion; and Caridad Svich’s A Little Betrayal Among Friends, from Maria de Zaya y Sotomaoyr’s, La Traicion en la Amistad.

The festival ran from June 9 through July the 10th.

More about the plays tomorrow.

“The Why Before The What”

November 2009.  I was working on a project with Jennie Webb and Laura Shamas.  Laura had written a delightful play called Trapper Joan that was getting a staged reading at Theatricum Botanicum.  We were rehearsing at Jules Aaron’s house.  Jennie and Laura announced they had “a scheme” and took me into the kitchen.

“You can totally say no,” they began.

They were interested in doing a West Coast response to the controversial Sands Study released earlier that year.  Someone needed to collect data on the LA theatre scene — specifically, data that would reflect how frequently women’s plays were produced (or, we later decided, “nurtured”) in Los Angeles.  This wouldn’t be a money thing, though they did offer a small commission.  It was to be a labor of love.  Or principle.  Or something.

A number of factors influenced my decision.  (Spoiler alert: I said yes.)

For one thing, I have always been a feminist, though at different points of my life so far I have been more or less interested in describing myself using that word.

My great-grandmother was a suffragette.  In high school, a friend and I gave a long presentation on ‘the feminist movement.’  We reenacted various important moments in women’s history and looked into famous women writers of years past, even reading aloud part of a poem by Sappho.

I use the word “feminist” with my own definition, or rather, a definition that came up during a recent conversation with Cáitrín McKiernan – a young soon-to-be-attorney who recently co-produced a play about Martin Luther King with the National Theatre in China.  (Crazy?  Yes.)  She and I were talking about her experiences there, and I asked her if she considers herself to be a feminist.

Me: “Modern feminism”– I don’t pretend to be an expert or really even knowledgeable about the feminist movement…  I’m in favor of strong women.  But, um, would you say that you are a feminist?  Do you self-identify as a feminist, or… How do you feel about the word and do you think it applies to you?

Cáitrín: Oh my, I’ve had this conversation…  I think it’s an excellent question.  I think that so many women of our generation have kind of eschewed that term– tried to distance themselves from it.  But if being a feminist means believing that women should be equal with men, then I’m down.

Women’s rights have always been important to me– and I don’t think it’s just because I’m a woman.  It’s because I was fortunate enough to be raised by a family in an environment that promoted equality.  Unfortunately, the rest of the world– even the rest of the country– has not been so lucky.  This saddens me.  There are a number of traits associated with women.  True, this could be called / is stereotyping.  But until our minds are reconfigured, stereotyping will continue to exist.

What is too bad, though, is when women are lumped together in a group and the stereotyping is used specifically against them — to harm them, or to harm them indirectly by overlooking them.

This past year, a number of things have happened that have reminded me how necessary this kind of work, and this kind of group, is.

While we may be in 2011, and while we may have “come a long way,” in a lot of ways we are still comparatively in the dark ages when you think of where we’d like to be.  I’m not talking about the Equal Rights Amendment…

I’m talking about what Theresa Rebeck experienced.

I’m talking about the Ovation Awards and the LA Weekly Awards.

I’m talking about the Wasserstein Prize.

I’m talking about Chicago.

I’m talking about New York.

I’m talking about 20%.