Bruce J. Robinson
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Sunday, February 15, 2009

Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival

For those of you who aren’t aware of this organization, here are a couple of paragraphs from their website:

Started in 1969 by Roger L. Stevens, the Kennedy Center's founding chairman, the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival (KCACTF) is a national theater program involving 18,000 students from colleges and universities nationwide which has served as a catalyst in improving the quality of college theater in the United States. The KCACTF has grown into a network of more than 600 academic institutions throughout the country, where theater departments and student artists showcase their work and receive outside assessment by KCACTF respondents.

In January and February of each year, regional festivals showcase the finest of each region's entered productions and offer a variety of activities, including workshops, symposia, and regional-level award programs. Regional festival productions are judged by a panel of three judges selected by the Kennedy Center and the KCACTF national committee. These judges in consultation with the Artistic Director select four to six of the best and most diverse regional festival productions to be showcased in the spring at the annual noncompetitive national festival at the Kennedy Center, all expenses paid.

For the second year, I was asked to participate in a regional festival by the head of Region I - Kelly Morgan. Last year’s festival featured an unrehearsed reading of my play ANOTHER VERMEER, starring the eternally remarkable Austin Pendleton. Kelly directed Austin in the play at the Abingdon Theatre last spring. He’s also directing one of my new plays (SACCO-VANZETTI) VINCE, AL & TEDDY, which is having a similar (though Pendleton-free) reading.

The festival took place in and around Fitchburg, MA (Jan. 27th – Feb. 1st). I had four major jobs:

1. To teach a playwrights workshop
2. To direct a student-written, student-acted 10-Minute Play
3. To “respond” to two productions.
4. To witness an unrehearsed, public reading of the above (SACCO-VANZETTI)

What a magnificent time I had. And what spectacular people I met. I’ll only mention two of the legion students and teachers who had an impact on me.

I’ve already noted the first, Kelly. He did a spectacular job in his last year as regional chair. The collective love that was showered on him was earned by his boundless energy and his prodigious talent.

The second is Jillian Durkee. A sophomore at Middlebury College, she wrote the 10-Minute Play that I directed. To our delight, BOB’S CAR was one of two plays (of six) that continue onto the national competition. Jillian was a game and enthusiastic collaborator. She solved problems and re-wrote with skill and zeal. It’s my pleasure to be a footnote in what I expect to be phenomenal career. Despite my hatred for that Middlebury God Robert Frost (and I wish the road not taken were a long one off a short pier), I love Jillian.

My workshop went well. Great connecting with the students.

I “responded” to two productions. This involves seeing the show, analyzing and evaluating the various production elements and sharing them with the full cast and production team the next day.

To me: critical reaction is always essentially visceral – a positive or negative grunt. Afterwards, you string the words to describe or justify your reaction. I guess that there are probably almost as many styles of responding as there are respondents. I think I was benign.

The renowned teacher/director Milton Katselas said:"When I teach, my job is to bring out whatever is possible. It's not my job to push the ejector seat on somebody's dreams." I operated in a similar manner.

The reading of my play (SACCO-VANZETTI) VINCE, AL & TEDDY went terrifically. I’ve had readings done at Theatricum Botanicum (Ellen Geer’s wonderful theatre in Topanga) and at the Ensemble Studio Theatre. Each time has encouraged and informed serious rewriting. Hey, I’d be an idiot not to pay attention to what I hear and what others think.

Without rehearsal (other than informally), the actors were uniformly excellent. They let me and the audience hear the piece.

It would be premature to discuss the practical results of this reading. Still; the reaction of a variety of theatre, grant-giving, private, and academic individuals encourages me to think that the piece has huge potential.

The audience was touched by the piece. The actors were ecstatic. And Kelly was elated. Me? Guardedly optimistic.

The moments that will stay longest, I think, were when I connected with the students; when I was able to encourage the truly talented. Also among the most-memorable (and the last person I’ll mention) is Kelly’s 4 year-old daughter, Maia.

I’d known and, of course, adored her since I met her during our ANOTHER VERMEER run at the Abingdon. This delightful young lady and I got along very well. Kids just want you to pay attention to them and to realize that their concerns are very real and meaningful to them.

She insisted on addressing me as “handsome.” Of course, I immediately inquired if she had vision problems. Then, I suggested to Kelly that maybe through applied education her aesthetic judgment could be righted. My wife, Donna, isn’t jealous at all – dammit!

I’m just happy to participate in the lives of the young – the future. I can share what I’ve learned, what I suspect, what I think. I can use my many mistakes as cautionary tales. And next year, I’ll have another chance to do so. I’ve already been asked by the new chair to attend next year’s festival.

This is just the surface of what was a rich, thick, packed, exhausting week. The truth and joy of the time was in the many interactions with the vivid, complex, and colorful personalities that crowded the halls, theatres, and classes. Sign me up for another, baby!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

BLACK WATCH and P.S. 156

A couple of nights ago; my wife (Donna), brother (Peter), and I saw BLACK WATCH. This production of the National Theatre of Scotland is paying a highly praised second visit to St. Ann’s Warehouse in the delightfully named Dumbo district of NYC (for you non-Knickerbockers: Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass).

To me, every show is site-specific. The smell and look of the theatre (and sometimes, even the bathrooms) have impact on the appreciation of the show. Moreover, every show is time-specific. Let’s face it: if Ben Brantley has a good day, it’s gotta make him more relaxed and probably more available to a show.

Well, we had a spectacular day. Here’s the backdrop:

Our mother, Ada, died about six months ago. She’d spent 30 of her 40 year career as a kindergarten teacher in P.S. 156 (Laurelton, Queens).

To commemorate her life and life-work by making a family donation to beloved 156, Pete contacted the magnificent Noreen Little – that school’s generous and wildly competent principal. She was so grateful for our gesture that she suggested that we donate to the library, which would then be re-named The Ada P. Robinson Library. We were delighted.

We agreed to present the check (and the identifying plaque) at 11 AM this last Wednesday. This took some arranging, ‘cause Pete lives in California.

We park our rental car (Donna and I don’t own a gas burner and are so green we’re almost chartreuse) and scurry to the school on this first day that really feels like New York autumn. On the door’s a sign advertising the ceremony to name The Ada Robinson Library!

Pete, Donna, and I thought this would be a meaningful handshake and a sweet “adios.” We meet the remarkably warm Ms. Little, who offers the first of legion “thank-yous” we would gratefully receive this glorious afternoon.

It was amazing to be back at P.S. 156. In that Ada had taught there for many years, Pete and I had spent a fair time in these ancient corridors. The building is even older, of course; but it looked clean, neat, and festive.

We were escorted into the auditorium. To our shock, the place was soon filled with row-after-row of attentive and orderly elementary school kids.

We were handed a lovely little program chronicling what was to come. Again, we were astounded. The program listed skits, songs, and presentations that we were going to enjoy in the next hour.

The show began with Ms. Little addressing the assembly. This brilliant educator clearly had folded our donation into an educational event! Next came a kindergarten teacher now at 156 had been one of Ada’s kids! She spoke about Ada as inspiration and teacher.

Still another of Ada’s kids is teaching at 156. She also recalled how gentle and nurturing Ada was to her.

Then: the meat of the event. The children enacted skits that foreshadowed the use to which they’ll put the new library, that extolled their favorite books; they recited wonderful poems about teachers and about our mother’s dedication; finally, they sang WIND BENEATH MY WINGS.

That was it. Donna started to cry. (My Aunt Temi, Ada’s sister; Andrea, Temi’s daughter; and Karin, Ada’s very close cousin – sitting next to her stalwart and sensitive husband, David - also broke into tears.) Caught up in all this emotion (or maybe reminded about a loss she’s felt), one of the little girls singing onstage also started to cry. It was an amazing moment.

Afterwards: we went up to the library; cut the ribbon; and had some delicious food, meaningful talk, and meaningless fun. The gratitude for our donation was palpable and warming and wonderful. I want to do this kind of thing all-the-time. Peter, Donna, and I agree: it was one of the greatest days of our lives.

It’s in this context that later that day we drove down to Dumbo to see BLACK WATCH. THIS IS NOT A REVIEW!!!!!

Not exactly. I don’t want to use this site to flaunt my superior taste or dismiss inferior artists. There are plenty of outlets for such exercise, should you choose to flex that lesser muscle. I want to use what I see and what I blog to help define my idea of that nonexistent entity – the ideal theatre.

For fear that I’ll leave the wrong impression, let me say that I was very happy to be in the room. I got sufficient bang for my buck. There were at least 10 or 12 superbly theatrical moments.

This had to be a theatre piece. And this reminded me that this should be a central question a writer must ask himself when choosing something to dramatize: why could this be a theatrical event and nothing else?

I won’t spoil any of the wonderful surprises that await future audiences. There were images and moments that I’ll remember until senility or death.

Still, the three of us agreed: we were very happy that we were there, but we were oddly unmoved. All three of us lauded the stage-craft and the value of the piece. We all even felt that the play had given us more than a taste of what it must be like to be in Iraq.

As we left the lobby of St. Ann’s, the crowd simply wasn’t vibrating with the passion and joy that follows “true-theatre” ecstasy. Everyone look engaged, alert, and satisfied. That’s okay. And it was.

The three of us agreed that what separated us from true engagement with the characters was that they were general. They were genial, coarse, and human. I just didn’t know their insides. Souls. Drive. Passion. Secrets. I was unable to climb into their skins – to feel their hearts. Stanislavski – always clever – was right: “generality is the enemy of art.’

The truest theatre for me that day was on the stage of P.S. 156. I was able to look into the eyes of that little girl crying to WIND BENEATH MY WINGS. I felt how high the stakes were for her. I felt her need. I could look through her eyes. We shared.

Theatre is where you find it.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Abingdon Theatre Does Reading of RARE INDULGENCE

This Monday (October 13th) at 7 PM, the Abingdon Theatre is having a reading of my new comedy, RARE INDULGENCE. My goal is to hear the piece with an audience and gauge its reaction.

I'm delighted with the cast. The four-character, dark comedy features a wonderful cast: David Wohl (whose many credits include the recent revival of FIDDLER), Donna Robinson (my brilliant wife), and Kate Bushmann (a superlative actress, director, and human being). The piece is being coordinated by Mark Finley - a terrific director.

We'll have a minimum of rehearsal. Should be fun - and a little trauma-inducing.

Hope you can join us. The show played like gang-busters in our living room. Now, let's see how it plays in semi-public.

(312 W. 36th St. - bet. 8th and 9th)

Friday, September 19, 2008


Art isn't a competative sport. It's not a race. It's not comparative. I know this. Yet why does it feel so damned good to have won this award? Am I not as evolved as I suspect?

The AB*IE awards are given annually by the Abingdon Theatre for the Abingdon play, actors, and design elements deemed "the best." It's voted on by the subscribers and others who've seen the play.

This Monday, my play ANOTHER VERMEER won for "Best Play." Our star, Austin Pendleton, won "Best Actor." It was a beautiful evening.

Patently, I'm predisposed toward the Abingdon (and, happily, they are to me). They did a reading and a staged-reading of my play INNOCENCE. (This play is having an invited reading at THEATRE 40 in Los Angeles on Oct. 9th starring my dear friend, the remarkable actor Alan Blumenfeld.) Further, they did ANOTHER VERMEER.

The food was wonderful (paid for by a generous board member). I didn't think I would win, so I decided to gird my loins with carbohydrates. I ate my weight in cookies - which I followed by a sandwich for dessert.

What also led to our ("our" includes my wife, Donna) joy at being there was that we really like the people on the staff at the Abingdon. The Artistic Director and co-founder, Jan Buttram, is a woman of extraordinary talent, drive, and energy. Luckily for the Abingdon, she uses these resources in maintaining a small theatre dedicated to new work - a marginal art form that shrinks as we speak. Kim Sharp (the Assoc. Artistic Director) brings a calm, ordered, perceptive, and tireless presence - which, I imagine, he also does as a director.

We were invited into the June Havoc Theatre (one of two in the Abingdon stable) to begin the presentation. The first award ANOTHER VERMEER won was for "Best Costume." I accepted for Deborah Caney. She did extraordinary costumes on an extraordinary budget. She was also a terrific collaborator. I extolled her and expressed her gratitude.

It was time for "Best Actor." All of our 5-man cast was nominated. I wasn't surprised when they announced the winner. Austin Pendleton. Donna and I love Austin as a man, artist, and friend. The ever-generous Austin heaped praise on both the role and the play.

Finally, they announced the nominees for "Best Play." I had seen the other shows and know just how good they are. The awards had been somewhat split, so I wasn't wildly optimistic. Bang! We won.

A few years back, I had won the Berrilla Kerr Award (a remunerative and prestigious one). I was told that I might have to make a speech. Well, it turns out that every winner was making a formal address. Heck, I wasn't worried. I could wing it. After all, I won 3rd Place in the New York State High School Boys' Extemporaneous Speaking Championship.

I forgot to thank my wife. Yipe!

This time, I began with encomium to the sublime Donna. She liked it.

Best-of-all, however, is that after the ceremony so many people told me how much pleasure and insight my play had brought to them. More than anything, that makes all those hours of solitary writing feel worthwhile.

And now; each afternoon, a beautifully mounted crystal box balanced on one of its points catches the sun and diffuses the colors on the far wall. It says "Best Play." And that is mega-groovy.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Reading Trauma

I had a reading of one of my plays this week. It was in our apartment. I'll divulge nothing about the piece and the event (other than the fact that it's clearly a work of great genius). This is a safe place.

There was no audience. There was no judgement.

Well actually, there was plenty of judgement. Every actor was judging the others and everyone was judging my script, God knows. Moreover, I was judging more than anyone: judging whether I wanted these actors to continue with their roles; whether I wanted to remember them for other things; and whether I am a talent-free putz (despite what my family and friends tell me).

Set against the backdrop of my raging anxiety at hearing my words, the evening is essentially a series of traumas.

TRAUMA ONE: WILL THEY SHOW UP? - These are actors who are being paid gratitude and nothing else - and this is New York, where the subway rules. And people are fallible. Even actors.

About fifteen minutes before the start, actors come filtering in. I try to make polite conversation. At this point, I'm friendly with almost all the actors who read for me. Happily, there's food. In fact, our in-apartment readings have acquired the name Popcorn Rep (given, I think, by Austin Pendleton - a brilliant actor and popcorn-consumer).

Donna likes to put out some nice refreshments as a way to reward them for their efforts and to vitalize their occasionally flagging energy. Some actors are delicate. It's time to start. Rinnnnggg!

"I had subway trouble. I'll be there in 10 to 15 minutes." Okay. Fine. But I've run out of material. I asked the actors about their careers. I've even shown them my trophy for winning our Fantasy Football League. I've been through my "A" material. Fortunately, they are actors. They're delightfully capable of entertaining themselves (if not always others).

The actor showed up, was superb, and is now a favorite of mine. The sign of a good playwright is the capacity to forgive. (Sidebar: an actor was there with a direct connection to an important play, loved this tardy actor's work, and recommended this actor to the casting director - reminding me that so much is about showing up.)

TRAUMA TWO: DO I SUCK? - I'm not bragging: I'm not Mamet, but I'm not chopped liver. My work has garnered respect from many I greatly respect. People have actually paid their hard-earned money to spend time with my material. But do I suck?

I sit there and hear the words that I linked together and am generally appalled at what a moron I am. I seem fatuous, shrill, and goofy - and that's when I like my work.

Fortunately, I have the actors and my wife to counter that. They love the piece (and they really, really did!) and tell me I'm a genius.

Of course, the truth is somewhere between. Ain't it always?

TRAUMA THREE: ARE THEY LYING? - The actors are kind. I was an actor for many years. I won't claim that actors are generally any better or worse than any other profession or stratum of society. I do claim this: the best of actors are the best of people; the most odious, the most odious. I try and generally succeed in surrounding myself with the former.

This reading was a shining example of this principle. These monumentally charming and generous people could be lying to me to a) be kind b) curry the favor of a playwright or c) in the case of Donna, sidestep witnessing and cleaning up a very messy wrist-slicing.

They convince me that their enthusiasm is real. They love the piece. I am happy. They are actors.

POST-TRAUMA: THE PLAY WORKS, with a number of rewrites in the offing. I'll keep posting about its future - which is bright. I complete the very satisfying evening in what's become a tradition: I engorge myself with abundant carbs. It was a good evening. Just another anxiety provoking episode in that long journey to stage.

Happily, we go to bed. I know the play basically works. I drift off - a smile and banana bread on my lips and visions of rewrites dancing in my head.

Friday, August 8, 2008

HAIR in Central Park

Once more, in the minority. Oh, well. So it goes.

My wife, Donna; our beloved niece, Daisy; and I saw this production the day before yesterday. This was the last performance before the press opening.

Donna and I got on line at 10:10. Happily, we were surrounded by some terrific people. We were told that most times people who were in our spot on line got tickets.

As we approached the woman handing-out tickets, we heard: "Only single tickets left." Gulp! A few moments later, we were serenaded by: "Only vouchers left."

Yipe! Had all that sitting on that uniquely hard rock been for nothing?

They informed us that throughout the runs of HAMLET and HAIR (so far) nobody with a voucher had been excluded. So, we were hopeful.

We showed up at the prescribed time and waited. Not only did we get tickets, but they were both all together and excellent. These were the best Delacourt seats we've ever gotten - including those for MOTHER COURAGE, for which we made a donation.

I wish I could have joined the audience (and the critics) in celebrating this production. After all, there's very little as magnificent as sitting in Central Park and hearing some of those wonderful tunes.

Let me make two disclaimers. First, Donna did a production of HAIR at the Odd Chair Playhouse in Pittsburgh. It was run by Thom Thomas - Donna's first acting teacher (at Point Park College) and to this day one of our best friends. Thom's a great director, writer, and an even better human being. Thom directed HAIR - and brilliantly, according to Donna. So, she has solid ideas as to what HAIR should be.

Second, I lived through this era. I saw HAIR a bunch of times in its earliest incarnation. I saw it even more times in the last revival because one of my closest friends - Eva Charney - was a swing and asm. She grew to be a close friend of Tom O'Horgan - the remarkable and wonderful director of the original HAIR. I met him through Eva - and found him to be a lovely man.

I have ambivalence about the era (and this piece). It's the need to sort out my feelings and thoughts about it that is motivating me to write a new play about it. My reaction to and experience in the era is significantly different from those of the HAIR characters.

I was in college at the time. Nonetheless, I was dealing with the draft. My family was lower middle-class - but in that my mother was a teacher, education was always exalted. Moreover, I was blessed by left-wing parents who quickly came to see the War in Vietnam for what it was.

The characters in HAIR were far different. They were fairly poor and had insensitive parents. However, Claude could've done what I did: find a dodgy, anti-war shrink; tell him you believe in aliens and that little people were living in your teeth; and get exemption - which, in my case, was a 4F!

I always found the characters in HAIR a little self-congratulatory and naive for my taste - just as I did my legion "oh-wow" friends and acquaintances who didn't see the sixties in historical context.

I found the direction and choreography wrong-headed. The direction started the show with a good deal of direct address (see my previous raving vs. the breaking of the fourth wall). All of that early material should have been delivered to the Tribe.

This group of actors was called "The Tribe" but they simply didn't seem Tribe-like nor were they molded by the director into a Tribe. They weren't a bunch of drugged-out freaks (as my friends and I sort of were. Now, we're mainly doctors and lawyers and playwrights). They looked liked hairy AMERICAN IDOL competitors.

Clearly, all or much of this material was initially a by-product of improv and of the specific talents around whom the show was molded. The show centers on Claude and his draft situation. Around that, however, revolve a bunch of skits that are presented straight-out. Maybe these skits had greater resonance when the actors helped to mold them. I'm not sure. I do think, however, that they can work as events that the Tribe can share - that's part of re-enforcing their collective identity.

The choreography in HAIR shouldn't look like dance. It should be dynamic, organic movement - as Twyla Tharp concocted for the film HAIR. Here, it was usually dull and occasionally coy.

The direction was consistently ineffective. It was wrong-headed starting with the casting of Claude and Sheila (neither of whom captured the character's soul and both of whom had the wrong vocal quality) to the set (which put the band up-center and put a wall between the stage and the lake, which would have immeasurably added to the evening's magic). To her credit, however, she did cast a wonderful actress who sang "Aquarius" and the equally outstanding actor playing Hud.

I'm delighted that all these people (and I include reviewers in this category) have found pleasure in this production. There are pleasures to be had. Nevertheless, it didn't carry my wife and me away (as various productions of this problematic piece have).

Enough. It's a beautiful Sunday in New York. We'll probably take a walk in Central Park, where I'll continue to consider and talk to Donna about my own sixties play and just what impact that charming, energized, and seriously silly era had on this seriously screwed-up one.

It's so odd to be so out-of-step with consensus. Taste is an odd piece of business. I read and occasionally post on TALKIN' BROADWAY (All that Chat). Taste is so important to so many there. And being a fan of a particular talent is also so vital to so many. I find it so strange that one day I intend to write a play about it, too. So many play-topics; so little time.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The Fourth Wall

Last night, Donna and I went to a play reading. It was the first or second time it was done in public, and the goal was to allow the playwright to hear his work and get a little audience feedback. Believe me, it's an event that at best is traumatic.

Of course, I'll preserve the piece's anonymity. After the reading, there's time in which the audience shares observations with the playwright.

This was not a terrible play. Believe me, I've spent untold hours listening to inartistic drool while tracing with my tongue on my front teeth "kill me." This wasn't good by any means, but it certainly wasn't a suicide-aid.

However, the central character delivered his first line directly to the audience. NO!

Who am I supposed to be that this guy is talking to me? In Hal Holbrook's magnificent MARK TWAIN TONIGHT, Twain was lecturing an audience (of which I was part). That's organic and therefore acceptable.

In this piece, this initial audience-addressing character even acknowledged us as "the audience." I suppose at least this is frank.

The thing is: I don't need to be or want to be reminded of the fact that I'm a guy in an audience, in a theatre, witnessing make-believe. I want to be a fly-on-the-wall.

Theatre allows you to go to places and witness things that would otherwise be impossible to access. It allows your to lose yourself. This becomes increasingly difficult when not only the central character but nearly all of them use direct address and by doing so remind you that this is just a play. There is no real vulnerability, because these are just a bunch of artists who will ultimately step out of costume and make-up. No harm, no foul.

The voluntary suspension of disbelief is what a good audience member tries to bring to the play. This is something that shouldn't be peevishly withheld. On the other hand, it's something difficult to achieve. It demands the participation and encouragement on the part of the theatre artists.

I think that breaking the fourth wall is largely the easy way out. Of course, someone will cite Shakespeare as someone who often does so. True. But we must remember that genius trumps everything. According to the theatrical saw, WAITING FOR GODOT is a play in which nothing happens. Twice! Would another playwright be advised to try to pull-off something like this? Hardly. But genius is sui generis and self-defining.

The "wright" part of "playwright" suggests a mastery of craft (as in "cabinet wright"). A playwright is part artist and just as much artisan. Part of what we try to do is through the deft use of subtext, inner-monologue, and physical action bring to life the heart and soul of the characters. It leads the audience to discoveries and allows the audience members the opportunity to make discoveries by themselves.

It's easy to recite the inner-life. It also creates a cheap intimacy. "Hey, he's talking to me. Of course, I care about him." Real intimacy with a character happens when you share his or her humanity.

These moment of heart-felt and intimate acknowledgement are the very grist for the drama that should drive the action. Don't allow it to be the easily achieved rhapsodizing that feels good to the playwright (ah! the sound of my voice!) but at best is far too easy and at worst tears the drama out of the play's heart.

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