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Daniella Ignacio

Theatre artists gather in vigil to honor black lives lost to police violence

By Daniella Ignacio

This article was first published June 5, 2020 in DC Theatre Scene here

On Monday, June 8, Galvanize DC and Actors Arena will host “Making Space To Breathe/Gathering To Grieve” outside Arena Stage at 7 p.m.  The artist-driven vigil is being held to create a safe space to acknowledge what everyone is going through and to honor the lives of George Floyd, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and countless others taken by police brutality.

Local artists and prominent DC theatre community members will speak. The current list of presenters (subject to change) includes Jade Jones, Temídayo Amay, Psalmayene 24, Felicia Curry, KenYatta Rogers, Kasai Rogers, Jefferson A. Russell, Ines Nassar and Lady Dane Figueroa Edidi. The team has planned an invocation, and appropriate songs and spoken word recitations.

The water facing Molly’s Study will be the front of the event. The organizers plan to maintain proper social distancing and encourage all attending to wear masks. There will be a plot laid out with “X”s marking places six feet apart to stand. The crowd will, if needed, wrap around the sides of Arena as well.

We spoke with two theatre artists and Galvanize DC organizers: Jefferson A. Russell (he/him/his) and J. J. Johnson (he/him/his).

Russell is confident that there will be enough space to safely accommodate a decent enough crowd. For those who cannot attend in person, the vigil will be streamed through Facebook Live and Instagram.

Russell and Johnson want everyone to come to, or stream, the vigil: theatre folks and non-theatre folks, black folks and white and non-black POC allies alike.

“We are gathering in an effort to make people know they’re not alone, to acknowledge that we are in this together, that we are seen and we are heard,” Russell said. “It’s to be able to acknowledge that, yes, we are all feeling this. It’s a safe forum to put these feelings and speak those truths. We live it, so there it is.”

Johnson agreed, saying that when incidents occur, it can sometimes feel very lonely. “It’s nice to reinforce community, to reinforce that we’re not alone and that there are methods to deal with this,” he said.

Russell has a uniquely personal perspective on the behaviors of the police.

“I used to be a Baltimore police officer, and I’m not ashamed of it, but I don’t live in that place. I’ve always been the person I am, even though that was over 20 years ago. But at the same time the reasons why I became a police officer are completely counter to the sh*t that we see, pardon my language, but the things that we see especially in the past few days.” Regarding the police presence at some of the protests:  “They’re aggressive. It’s counter to the ideals of law enforcement. They come in and it is not a thing of the objective being to de-escalate a situation. They, generally speaking, bring the energy to escalate the situation. And it’s like a personal thing that these police officers have, it’s a shallow sort of ego thing. They can’t be wrong.”

“It takes everyone to do the work, you know,” Russell said, “I would think and I would hope that it’s not just the DC theatre community, but the country and the world. It’s not just about, ‘Oh, they just want to be heard, so let’s let them be heard.’ No. It’s never been about that. We recognize we gotta take one step at a time, but, good God, man, what else does it take? Folks don’t like us protesting in any kind of way; there’s an issue with every which way a protest is made regarding equity and black lives. And it’s a thing where white people are uncomfortable with that, and I’m okay with that, because we have to be okay, because that’s the only way for something true, something real…to change.”

Russell and Johnson spearheaded the efforts. Jjana Valentiner, a co-organizer, worked with Arena Stage to get the outdoor space. All three are members of the steering committee for Actors Arena, an organization that previously collaborated with Galvanize DC on mental health workshops for black people at Arena Stage, including “Conscientious Theatre Training”centered around dismantling racism led by Nicole Brewer.

“We had talked about something for Galvanize to step forward and do, centered around black mental health,” Russell said. “Little did we know.”

Social media is being used to spread the word about the vigil, as well as email outreach and connecting with their built-in communities. Johnson said that he hopes black folks will find their community and find ways to engage with like minds online.

“When I was 20-something, I was just getting introduced to the Internet and social media wasn’t a thing, so we weren’t so connected back then,” Johnson said. “When you were alone, you were really, really alone. And so now you have the option of connecting with like minds and nurturing yourself almost instantly, which is a great privilege…that’s different for every demographic and group of people.”

Galvanize DC was established in 2005. Johnson and Russell’s previously worked with #BlackLivesMatter efforts include working with the group to create a video and collage to honor Trayvon Martin and town forums at Forum Theatre and the Silver Spring Black Box. One forum was to come together as a community, similar to the vigil planned for Monday, and another was a conversation with the Montgomery County police chief about creating better understanding between both communities.

Russell and Johnson said that this vigil continues the Galvanize DC mission of supporting artists of the African diaspora and all black lives. Both spoke to the importance of standing with trans black people.

“Our trans brothers and sisters are being beaten and killed, sometimes by our own,” Russell said.

“Just for existing,” Johnson said.

“Just for being who they are,” Russell said. “And that is the most ridiculous thing. So yes, all black lives matter.”

Moving forward, Russell and Johnson believe that DC theaters must commit to anti-racism efforts. As Russell put it, “Making Space To Breathe/Gathering To Grieve” is on June 8.  Protests will eventually subside, but the work continues.

“It’s gotta be real, it just can’t be cosmetic. It just can’t,” Russell said.  “Especially at this time, when there is severe lack of national political leadership, we have to do the work ourselves. That goes without saying. That would be the case even if 44 was still in the office. We have to do the work ourselves. He would be out there saying that. He said that yesterday. The work is up to us.”

Up-and-coming company Like Fresh Skin pushes the boundaries of live Zoom theatre

A screenshot of Zoom. The cast of Too Solid Flesh is rehearsing for their upcoming live performance. A sunny meadow is seen in the background of each actor's screen.

By Daniella Ignacio

This article was first published May 15, 2020 in DC Theatre Scene here

“O that this too solid flesh would melt, / Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!” Hamlet cries out in his first soliloquy of the eponymous Shakespeare play. And as Shoshana Tarkow (she/her, resident director) and Megan Lohne (she/her, resident playwright) of Like Fresh Skin discovered, many young people in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic find themselves feeling the same way.

Through Too Solid Flesh, written by Lohne and inspired by the young characters from three Shakespeare plays and Adelphi University theatre students’ stories, young artists were given the chance to process their feelings as their lives have been affected by the coronavirus and to explore a new form of immersive, technology-driven theatre.

The play incorporates live performance, pre- recorded videos, apps like Tik Tok, a video game, chat boxes and other games like Pictionary and presents it all over Zoom.


When the COVID-19 quarantine hit New York, Lohne and Tarkow did a Zoom call together. Playing around with the platform, Tarkow said “Let’s push this platform to its limit in seeing what it can do, and let’s try to use it in ways no one else is using it and let’s create something that’s interactive and immersive and is narrative-driven and all of those things,” she said.

Lohne sent out a questionnaire for the Adelphi students. 18 students responded and are now part of Too Solid Flesh, with original characters written for them by Lohne, inspired by the experiences that they shared.

“The answers that came back to us were so genuine, truthful and honest, that we really just thought, this is a great springboard to create something,” Lohne said.

“You’ll see that it’s not the text, it’s not the Shakespeare, but it’s the ideas and the feelings of how big it is to not be able to graduate in real time, to not be able to finish out a semester, to be relocated to a family home where there’s all kinds of things happening there for you that make you almost feel not empowered anymore,” Lohne said. “It’s like you’re a kid again, right at this moment when you’re about to become an adult. And I think that’s very powerful. It’s so interesting when we see this with teens, with people who are age appropriate. I think they attach onto it very easily and it means something.”

The play, as it has evolved, concerns an anxiety-ridden student, O, who tries to find a connection while trying to do online distance learning, to “save her from her thoughts and herself,” as well as many other young characters inspired by those in Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet and The Tempest.


Too Solid Flesh uses various emerging technologies, from Zoom to next-generation apps. Among these technologies include specific sections that have been pre-recorded for different purposes; Tik Tok, used in both a presentational and interactive way; a video game in an observational capacity; Pictionary; chat boxes; and the Zoom live performances themselves.

They are constantly developing the piece, actively fixing it and changing it throughout the rehearsal process. For Tarkow, in both this virtual setting and in the previous theatre work Like Fresh Skin has done in the past, rehearsing a show that requires an active audience can be unpredictable.

“When you invite them to interact, you have to prepare for all of the ways that could go wrong, as well as all of the ways that could go right,” Tarkow said. “It’s sort of this teeter-totter between making sure that the narrative is there and the acting is solid…and all of that stuff you have in any normal production, and then simultaneously, structurally – it is working? – technically – are things falling apart? – there’s sort of two conversations after every rehearsal, in a debrief. And then we move forward.”

In order to ensure that all of the different modes of technology can be used efficiently for performances, four stage managers are on the project, including one designated stage manager as the media and content supervisor. All of the materials are on one Google Drive.

“It’s really been a team effort to accomplish that,” Tarkow said. “We are 100% blessed to have all of them on board for this.”

“A lot of it honestly came from the students, things they are interested in, things that are inspiring to them on social media,” Tarkow said. “It feels very timely and very contemporary to be using things that are their means of expressing themselves anyway.”

Beyond the performance, students are also taking to social media, using Tik Tok, Instagram and even one Tinder account to interact with each other and audiences as their character. They’ve also started doing Instagram Story takeovers to help share who their characters are and to help create buzz.

“I will say that as the director, in the room, I’ve noticed a sizable difference in how connected they are to their characters since they’ve started doing this,” Tarkow said.


It’s been a learning process to explore new ways of playwriting and engagement with Zoom.

For example, the company has been attempting to re-create the experience of immersive theatre where oftentimes the audience gets subdivided into multiple spaces and has experiences in smaller, more intimate settings, and then gets brought back into a big physical space, where they have a group scene. To emulate that physical movement, Lohne and Tarkow  tried using Zoom breakout rooms.

“Our experience thus far has been that there’s a lack of forward momentum that is caused by doing it in Zoom that doesn’t exist when people are walking in a physical space,” Tarkow said. “So in order to not halt the narrative, and have there be this waiting to see what’s next, we are going to be cutting back on our use of breakout rooms, and sort of re-evaluating.”

According to Tarkow, it is important that whenever you’re doing something, any kind of theatre, but specifically something that is groundbreaking or changing structures, to always sit back and say, “What is the value of doing this thing? What are we gaining?”

For Lohne, the process of playwriting over Zoom has allowed for quick and efficient troubleshooting and communication. While in Zoom rehearsals, Lohne can rewrite in real time, and she has been revising the play to account for technical elements and timing.

“We’re very collaborative, and I think that generates these very cool, exciting new forms of theatre that we’re really trying to push the bounds to what that can be for us and our company,” Lohne said.


This kind of innovation is vital in a world where many educational institutions have not yet made final decisions on whether students will be returning to the classroom in the fall, and pre-existing online universities that offered arts programs could benefit from more streamlined live performances. Like Fresh Skin hopes to make performances like this a “next step process.”

According to Lohne, some of the early responses from audiences who have come to rehearsals were that it really hit home, which is what the company wants to do with this piece. She hopes people will leave the play thinking about what’s next and allowing themselves to live in their emotions a little more.

I do hope that it actively makes them consider, ‘What do I miss?’” Lohne said. “I can’t tell you one conversation I haven’t had with a friend, who brings up missing something, however small it might be. I miss walking down the street to get frozen yogurt. I miss meeting up with friends and sitting, like less than six feet apart, on a park bench. It’s very simple little things and I think if we can ignite that big universal truth, we’ve done our job.”

Tarkow agrees. She said that when they first sent out the questionnaire, she thought that she would receive reactions from students asking for something light and fun, an escape. It turned out that what they really wanted was to process what was going on and work through it in the best way they knew how: the performing arts. Tarkow said that it excites her to create a new kind of theatre, and she wants theatre makers to be excited, as well.

“I hear so much dismay and so much giving up on the arts right now, like ‘We will come back stronger than ever,’ but it doesn’t address what happens until we come back,” Tarkow said. “And I think there is the potential to create moving, affective, beautiful entertainment given the technology available to us now, and that I hope that we move beyond live streams and pre-records and staged readings. Not that there isn’t value in all of those things. But I hope we move into something that feels a bit closer to what you feel when you’re in a theater.”

Olney Theatre is running Zoom classes for kids and adults: Here’s how it’s going

By Daniella Ignacio

This article was first published April 13, 2020 in DC Theatre Scene here.

Although performances and the National Players tour have been canceled at Olney Theater Center, the artistic staff, education staff and the National Players have found a new way to stay engaged with the community — through eight hours of Zoom classes on Mondays through Fridays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. All classes are free of charge, ranging from master classes and courses, to business advice, seminar-style discussions and storytelling. The classes began as open to the public, but, as of April 8, require registration through a Google Form on the Olney website. As of today, Olney Theatre offers 22 classes.

“The reason why we wanted to start doing classes online was we wanted to stay connected to our community, from the very young to adults who are curious about how we do what we do,” said senior associate artistic director Jason King Jones, who teaches Directing Shakespeare For A New Era, Resume and Audition Tips, You Are Your Own Business and Storytime. “We’re offering them for free because we want to encourage as much participation as possible. Besides with so many people suddenly out of a job, the last thing we’d want to do is try to take money from people struggling right now. Of course, if people have a great experience and want to donate to us, they are certainly welcome to do so.”

With each instructor using Olney’s single Zoom account all day, they’ve developed a system of logging off at 55 minutes after the hour to make time for the other person to log on. Each instructor serves as the host of each Zoom meeting, and the new registration model gives more agency to the host, as Olney has encountered difficulties with intruders, a problem that other educational environments have faced. Jones himself has had to kick people out of Storytime classes that were being disruptive. In New York City, security issues led to Zoom being banned in public schools.

“Our initial plan was to kind of have an open door policy and allow people in but it only took about five days for some nefarious actors to decide it would be more fun to troll our Storytime site and our classes with trollish behavior,” he said. “So we deleted all of those open Zoom meetings and then created a registration system through Olney so people register with us.”

Olney asks parents to register their kids, and adults to register themselves. The company is able to monitor who is registering on an individual level, to ensure that everyone is being forthright with their identity, and already has been able to red flag an individual who they identified as not being entirely forthright in trying to register for Storytime. Once registered, participants receive a new link and password to the Zoom meetings.

“The downside of that is that access is more limited, so our participation numbers may skew a little bit smaller initially, but our hope is that the security measures we’ve put in place will then encourage parents to see that this is a safe opportunity for their kids, a safe and secure learning environment,” he said. “We re-launched everything and everything is already going so much better.”

A lot of the Zoom settings now allow for more host controls that are not provided in the default settings: participants can only chat with the hosts, not each other and only the host is given control over participants’ mics and cameras, annotating white board and generally the features that Zoom has. If the host chooses to then allow for participation, the host is in control of that.

“In order for us to effectively teach our classes, we had to make some more stringent restrictions on how people get access to class and what the host can allow in order to have a controlled learning environment,” he said. “You know, if you’re in a classroom, you have classroom management techniques that just aren’t available using a video conference software, other than muting people’s microphones or muting their cameras or just removing them from class.”

For Jones, Storytime is a family affair, and the class provides a function that is otherwise inaccessible right now.

“Storytime seems like an obvious one in some ways, because libraries are closed, preschools are closed, some parents may not have a lot of kids’ books lying around,” he said. “I happen to have quite a few having gone through two kids and collected a lot of stories, and knowing that I like to read stories to kids, why don’t I offer that as a thing for parents to be able to give that opportunity to their kids?”

His 11-year-old daughter Gwen and 5-year-old son Elliot often show up as “guest artists” who participate in the readings. Elliot models good behavior for being a good listener; Gwen sometimes reads the books. Every time, Jones welcomes everyone at the top of the hour and goes right into it, reading “basically what’s on the shelf” in his house: Eric Carle, Maurice Sendak, Marissa Meyer, Dr. Seuss or various books on animals and nature they have.

“I see my job as basically a person they could log on to and see some stories being read,” he said.

Using Zoom for Storytime has had its ups and downs beyond disruption, Jones said. He has to be more mindful of his posture while reading books to a laptop camera and change up the location in his house based on what activities his kids and wife are doing at the time.

“I take some time with each page, I look at their faces on the screen, I try to mute them because sometimes there’ll be other noise around and I watch their reactions,” Jones said. “If they’re reacting with the books, I make sure they have some time with it. So I’m following their faces on the screen and that’s the best that we can do right now.”

Jones runs a plethora of other classes for Olney that are online, including Directing Shakespeare for a New Era, which examines how directors can view Shakespeare’s works in the current climate.

“I’ve been directing a Shakespeare play for National Players every year for eight or nine years, so it’s very much on my mind of ‘how do we direct shows now in this world?’” he said. “It’s about understanding Shakespeare’s relationship to gender, to violence, to the technologically advanced society in which we live; it’s understanding how these plays speak to us differently. Rather than requiring artists to adhere to some kind of outdated mode of telling the story, it’s giving people permission to meet the plays where they are in this time and day.”

In just the first week of running the classes, the company has already amassed a far reach. The demographics collected from registration show that people are attending these classes from within D.C., Maryland, South Dakota, Pennsylvania, Texas, South Carolina and California.

“There certainly are other theatre companies that are offering some classes or some coaching, but I would say that at least in the D.C. area we are unique in the volume of classes we are offering,” Jones said.

In a world shut in by COVID-19, three DMV theaters find innovative uses for Zoom

A gif of a man performing an exercise move. He is bringing his elbow to his knee while standing.

By Daniella Ignacio

This article was first published April 8, 2020 in DC Theatre Scene here.

Zoom is a common mode of communication for the world affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools and colleges use it for online classes; companies are using it for meetings; friends and family use it to stay in touch during a time of social distancing. For theatre companies, Zoom has proven to be an innovative tool to push forward the communal spirit of art in new ways, from online classes that go beyond the norm for theatre companies to livestreaming performances to the public. Here is just some of the interesting work that is being done by DMV theatre artists to maintain community and creativity. 

Virtual Fitness at Synetic Theater

At Synetic Theater, Virtual Synetic Fitness classes are currently being offered over Zoom, which utilize Synetic physical theater techniques to give participants workouts. The class is taught by Synetic company member Alex Mills (he), who has been with the company since 2008. 

“Because we are a physical theater, training has been an important part of our company since its birth,” education director Christopher Rushing (he) said. “We do training like three to four times a year with our company members, and then when we’re not doing training with our company members, we offer a fitness class where company members can attend for a reduced or free rate. But then we figured we’d also open it up to the community.” 

Rushing said they initially looked into YouTube Live because of its accessibility, but decided on Zoom because of the ability to have both privacy and participation options, since it’s easy to pull up those who are using their own camera and participating, so Mills can give feedback. 

“Obviously it’s different doing a fitness class online inherently because I’m by myself, I kind of get stimulated by having people in front of me, and you know, seeing the progress, how it’s going,” Mills said. “But using Zoom, I still actually feel like I’m with a class, because I can see people, I can still give technique notes or clarifications.” 

Typically, when the class is run in person, it takes place in Synetic’s rehearsal studio, The Factory, where Mills would lead across the floor work that used the entire large space. Now that the class is online, tests are conducted for lighting, sound with a snowball mic and the company’s EpicCam HD camera 20 minutes before class. But besides not having the space, there actually is not a huge change in what can be taught, because “a lot of things that we do or that we do in training can be done, quote on quote, ‘in place,’ so to speak,” Mills said. 

He also feels an extra layer of support, because people are actively like “I want to get up and move, you know, I want to do something,” he said. “It’s even more kind of that level of participation, it actually feels increased.”

Mills divides the class into four sections: cardio for about 15-20 minutes to keep participants’ heart rate going; stretching and technique work to slow it down, which is broken in various categories (isolation work, coordination exercises, pantomime, etc.); muscle work such as arms, shoulders or legs; and ending with a specific set of leg or core exercises. To explain movements, he demonstrates them from a few different angles, describes what muscle groups are activated and tries to put imagery in participants’ heads.“A lot of it is show and tell,” Mills said. “That’s the luxury of it being visual, is that I can go and do the movements with them, and then and say ‘Well, here’s what I need to correct, keep your head straight, lift your knees up, toes pointed,’ all those details. So I mean, it’s easy to communicate. Granted, I wish I was there to be able to give physical adjustments, to say isolate this or move this shoulder. But it’s still translating.” 

Rushing has been taking the class and said he enjoys learning Synetic physical theater techniques. The first time Synetic tried out using Zoom for the class before opening it up to the public, it was after the indefinite postponement of Life Is A Dream, for which Mills served as movement director, and when people were practicing social distancing but it hadn’t been officially requested yet. 

“Our company kind of all had gone home and they’d all been working with this common goal in mind and now that was gone,” Rushing said. 

But with Synetic Fitness coming back, it gave the company a new way of coming together. 

“It was cool to see how excited everyone was that it was coming back, and like, the energy, even though it was through virtual means, was like, palpable,” Rushing said. “It was really exciting and fun to be a part of. Even though I wasn’t teaching it, I was just producing it and making sure everything was running smoothly, it was still a really cool experience to see how excited everyone was and just how thankful people were to have that connection and that release again.” 

It’s that kind of release that Mills believes can help artists maintain a sense of sanity during this time. 

“We can get so stuck in our rooms, in our houses, and feeling like we can’t get anything done. I think just having that release, that physical release, is good for your own sanity, for real,” he said. “And feeling like you’re doing something — and a lot of us are, we’re still creating things, we’re still doing stuff — but physically doing something, moving our bodies, you know, makes it feel like, okay, I did that, I did that for an hour.”

Synetic offers a link to each class that’s available for a week afterwards for people who can’t attend it right at that time. It currently runs on a pay-what-you-can basis. Soon, Rushing said, Synetic will be expanding into school aged virtual options, during the school day as well as after school options. Synetic is currently working with Alexandria City Public Schools to deliver one of their family series shows as a streaming show. 

This Vessel Is A Fragile Thing at 4615 Theatre 

For 4615 Theatre, This Vessel Is A Fragile Thing  by Britt A. Willis (they) was the company’s first foray into online readthroughs, by streaming a Zoom meeting to Facebook Live on March 23. The script has been around for some time, and during the first video call between 4615 Theatre resident artist Ezra Tozian (they) and Willis since the beginning of social isolation, Willis said, “Oh, it would be really cool to do a live reading of this and stream it, would you want to do it?” 

Tozian had always been the first person Willis thought of to read for the role of The Body. This play’s messages spoke to Tozian. 

“Being a nonbinary performer, person, human, whatever, and also going through the whole body positivity thing, well, how does one come to terms with their body?” they said. “And then like, what does one do when the idea of your body or what you’re promised is taken away or changed without your consent? I definitely got that from the play and it meant a lot.”

Tozian asked artistic director Jordan Friend (he) if 4615 could produce the show as part of the EP program which allows resident artists to pursue side projects. Friend’s response? “Absolutely, let’s do it.”

For Willis, this play was written in one week, but it was a hard piece to write and make feel complete. Though it is not autobiographical, the play reflects their feelings and relationship with bodies and chronic illness and their issues with the current body positivity culture. 

“Often, I feel it still kind of puts the onus on people with bodies that are perceived as different or outside of the norm by our society,” they said. “It says you have to love yourself, and if you don’t, that’s a problem, when the truth is, it’s very hard to accept and love your body in every way possible, when that’s not how society functions, society hasn’t changed to do that as well and also I don’t always love my body, and that’s fine. It’s a body. And it’s okay that I don’t always love it. It’s a special play to me because it’s the first time that I very honestly engaged with those questions in my writing.”

Willis was the host for the Zoom meeting. Though they initially looked into the differences between Twitch and Zoom, they eventually decided on Zoom for its ease. According to Tozian, the cast all had at least basic experience with Zoom beforehand, so things like changing names were not hard to figure out. 

The night before the readthrough, Willis did a practice run on their personal Facebook page. The cast rehearsed the same day as the readthrough, doing a runthrough with director Jon Jon Johnson, who gave notes on how to make it feel more like a live performance and how to draw focus using Zoom.

“One very cool thing that we couldn’t tell in the meeting is Jon Jon suggested people turn off their cameras when they weren’t in a scene, and on our meeting screen, the person would still be there but their box would be black,” Willis said. “But in the Facebook video, the way streaming works, it just drops the person.”

The result of this was that there would be long stretches where the Facebook livestream would just show certain actors performing and Willis saying the stage directions on screen, even though everyone was still on the call. At some points, it would be Tozian alone on screen. According to Friend, it was lovely to watch. 

“It gives the feeling of someone being alone onstage, to have it just be our lead actor for a while and have sort of the company reappear,” he said. “It’s exciting because I think it lends a dynamic to the experience that can’t normally be there.”

For Tozian, this experience was a little bit like combining theatre and film acting together. 

“I’ve been in the theatre long enough that I just speak loud all the time, so that’s why I have a hard time with a lot of film stuff,” they said. “I had to have my headset half out, just to make sure I wasn’t blowing out the mic or getting super fuzzy. Most of the time it was actually okay, it was kinda just like doing a readthrough, frankly, that’s kind of what it was, but every now and then reactions would take an extra second.”

It was also hard, Tozian said, because over Zoom, it was difficult to talk over each other or cut each other off, which happens frequently in this play, without it getting super fuzzy. That aspect of the script dynamic got kind of lost, they said. But with this group of actors who just made it work, it didn’t prove to be a problem. 

They said that it still felt similar to performing live. 

“To me, it felt the same as doing a live staged reading,” Tozian said. “So I thought that it was really fun, I had the same endorphin rush that I get after performing, it was great. It felt very normal, I guess.” 

Willis has argued that Twitch is a form of theatre (“it can be affected by the audience, it is live, someone can mess up”), and having live functions similar to Twitch could make it a little closer to what they perceive as theatre. But they think this one worked incredibly well. 

“I love that we did it live, I love that we didn’t try to turn it into something more film-like,” they said. “It’s not meant to be, it really can’t be, so I appreciate that we just committed to a reading. I think as a reading, it functioned really well. I got to hear a group of outstanding actors read this play, so it was absolutely great.”

Friend said that in the long run, 4615 is not doing this because the company thinks it equals live theatre; they’re doing it to give voice and support to D.C. playwrights. 

“I don’t want us to pretend like we’re doing this instead of normal staged readings,” Friend said. “One of the things that we wanted to do was more work to help D.C. playwrights get their work displayed and trumpeted and workshopped. It’s so important for new plays to be heard out loud for the playwright and to raise awareness about these playwrights and their work. So I think the real benefit is there, not so much in 4615 creating content that substitutes live theatre because it just doesn’t.”

According to Friend, the company will probably do more play readings “to kind of keep the embers glowing, but mostly we’re in a phase of planning, just kind of figuring out what the next chunk of time is gonna look like,” he said. 

On The Wings of a Mariposa at Adventure Theatre MTC 

Similarly, at Adventure Theatre MTC, the company’s recent digital sneak peek presentation of next season’s On The Wings of a Mariposa by Alvaro Saar Rios also used a Zoom meeting that was streamed to Facebook. According to artistic director Chil Kong (he), the company was deciding between Bluejean and Zoom, and picked Zoom due to its ease of use. 

“We’re trying to be creative and fun, doing some interesting innovative things,” Kong said. “We’re soon to be the first to really attempt distance rehearsals and we’re figuring out all of the technical strengths and weaknesses and how do you tell a story within this medium that you can’t really control? You know, we’re used to teching a show. So we’re learning a lot and we’re flying the plane while we’re building it.”

During the livestream, Kong had four screens operating at all times: Zoom itself, showing the actors’ faces; the chat box that was on his second screen; the Facebook live stream that he had an on iPad (because he “can’t be on the same system because it pulls so much energy and bandwidth to have it on the same system, it would literally crash everything,” Kong said); and a fourth screen with Instagram, which is connected to the ATMTC website, to check people’s comments. 

“It’s not easy because what you see during Zoom isn’t necessarily what’s presented online,” Kong said. “Along with the marketing team, we’re all kind of tagging, checking each other so that if there are any glitches or faults, we are on it. And it’s not just one person, it’s like three of us who are on top of it, and I have one separate production stage manager who’s dealing with the Zoom itself. So it’s a lot of bandwidth, a lot of people power once we get it up.” 

He’s been speaking with Silicon Valley consultants to figure it out, as well. “There are a lot of specifics within Zoom that you can learn, but I think what I have faith in is that the smart people who will learn how to use this, and not just Zoom, like any other platforms, is that you’ll learn the idiosyncrasies of each of them, and then figure out how to use that to help you tell your story,” he said. 

Kong said that using Zoom with three young children from the ATMTC Academy and professional actors proved to be a lesson into how to connect without looking at someone’s eyes and learning what can be heightened using this platform, which proved to be acting that is more reliant on sounds because Zoom is sound-powered. For example, actors found that they needed to use gutturals before speaking in order for their videos to be highlighted on Zoom. 

“The weird thing about the way this works, is that I have to connect with a dot, and so what’s happening is a lot of the the acting has to be about connected to something that doesn’t exist, and hope that the expressions that you’re presenting in your voice – so it became a lot of auditory responses as opposed to connecting visually one on one,” Kong said. “In a weird way it’s like watching a lot of people who don’t know how to connect.” 

Kong connected this to his work with kids on the spectrum, who he said are amazing actors if they are told what the people are feeling; if you scripted it out for them, they can react in an interestingly natural way. 

“It’s actually not that different for what we’re doing online; we’re scripting the emotions that are being presented to you and then you have to react to those things that are scripted, and not as much on the total visual,” he said. “So it’s a whole other style of acting.”

According to Kong, this is not a replacement for live theatre. 

“At the end of the day, we will never be able to replace one-on-one human interaction, but we did want to at least tell the story so you can see it,” Kong said. “I think what was great was that everybody understood that this was a digital presentation, that this was a sneak peek into the theatre piece, and a great way to get excited about it, but it wasn’t the actual thing and our marketing team was really good about explaining that.” 

For Kong, Zoom also exemplifies the beauty of one-on-one human interaction outside performance. He is on several leadership panels that deal with the API racism that is happening right now, and is in a group of artistic directors of color who are all new leaders in the DMV. Some other members of that group include Maria Manuela Goyanes from Woolly Mammoth and Raymond Caldwell from Theater Alliance, and they’ve been holding live panel conferences every week using Zoom to discuss how COVID-19 is affecting them and their work. They generally keep the topics loose, but they have that space to discuss and share with each other. 

“We were the first one out of the gate to do a digital gala, so I talked about what we learned from that, and the only way that we can make things better is all of us talk to each other to figure out what’s working, what doesn’t work,” Kong said. “The dissemination of information is really, really exhilarating because of Zoom and these public panels in a way that hasn’t happened before.” 

Before, he said, it used to be just people putting Facebook posts up and hoping for enough critical mass. But now it’s creating one-on-one connections that you can create on a conference call. 

“You know, it’s weird, this is one step above the old days of ‘on the phone,’” he said. “And so you can see people’s interactions and though you can’t truly trust your gut instincts about what you feel on a video call, you have a closer connect than just a phone call.” 

The future of Zoom and theatre: how long can theatre last like this? 

According to several of these artists, for live streaming performances and staged readings, this form is something that needs to be assessed if it were to be used for an extended period of time. 

“I think it would be a really different case if we were looking at converting our entire audience to a virtual audience,” Friend said. “In a way, it’s more akin to pop-up theatre in that it’s about “Where are the places where we can put something up where we know that people are already congregating?’”

Kong said that it will take certain people to truly make this platform work for them. “Here’s the thing, the innovators, the ones who figure this out, they’re the ones who are really gonna succeed beyond this, I think,” Kong said. “‘Cause they’ll figure out ways to generate revenue easier for themselves. But it’s really tough for us, in an art that is completely reliant on personal one-on-one interaction. So it is harder for us to make money this way, but there are ancillary ways to make money.”

But for people who are learning to take advantage of online options like Zoom and receive income from it, it can be the only way to receive income right now. That’s the case for Mills right now.

“That’s what’s hard right now, theatre artists in particular, is that we were doing stuff, or we should be doing something or working on something and we can’t,” Mills said. “And actually what I found is that this could be a totally viable option even when this whole thing is over. Just because I have people from New York taking the class, or people who couldn’t be here in person to do it, so I think it’s something that we could still offer once we’re back up and running.” 

For many struggling artists right now, one staged reading is not enough to survive. As Friend said, it was the first time they did it (This Vessel Is A Fragile Thing)  and people are not going to donate every time they do it. 

“There’s a novelty to the process that gets everyone excited, but I think there’s a law of diminishing returns,” he said. “I don’t think this is a sustainable way for us to support our artists, I think we need to support our artists through emergency funds, and, you know, better unemployment laws. I think there are much bigger forces at play that need to happen for how we support our artists. I’m deeply grateful to everybody who gave, and deeply glad that we were able to compensate our artists, in a way that’s not insubstantial, but we’re not taking care of anybody’s rent on a staged reading, you know.”

How Monumental Theatre honors Head Over Heels’ celebration of acceptance with a young, inclusive cast

By Daniella Ignacio

This article was first published February 25, 2020 in DC Theatre Scene here.

Head Over Heels made a splash on Broadway in 2016, notably starring the first transgender actor playing an out nonbinary character in a Broadway musical  — Peppermint as Phythio. Now, the DMV is about to experience a whole new “Beat,” as Monumental Theatre Company produces the first regional production of this musical, which is based on The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia. It’s about people fighting to save their kingdom from extinction and going on a quest for self-discovery and love – all while singing the lively music of the Go-Go’s.

I got the chance to talk with Monumental’s artistic director Jimmy Mavrikes (directing his first big musical for Monumental), managing director Beth Amann and actor Topher Williams (who plays Phythio) to discuss how Head Over Heels examines gender and sexuality.

Why did you want to produce Head Over Heels at this particular moment in time?

JIMMY MAVRIKES (he/him/his): I saw it on Broadway closing weekend, and I didn’t want to see it, I hadn’t really heard much about it, but my friend was like “we’re going, we have to see it, it’ll be like my third time seeing it, I absolutely adore it, and I think it would be up your alley.” And she was right. I was immediately drawn in by the script, and as the story went on, I loved the inclusiveness, the body positivity, the feminism, just everything that it was. And it was such a fun musical, and I fell in love with it, and obviously I knew it was closing weekend so I figured rights would be opening up soon. So I reached out to the rights company and we are the lucky ones who get to be the first ones to do it in the DMV.BETH AMANN (she/her/hers): It’s definitely a show that celebrates the myriad types of people that there are, relationships you can have and gender expressions. Especially in this political climate where sometimes it feels that those things are being threatened, the best thing we could do is throw our support behind everyone getting to be exactly who they are and who they want to be. It’s also just a bopping show and it fits really in line with the types of shows that we produce. It’s a mission we believe in — getting to put diverse people onstage and show off all their talents is very important to us.

TOPHER WILLIAMS (she/her/hers): It’s FUN. It’s music, that if you don’t know it yourself, you kind of know it on the periphery, and it has this sort of infectiousness, and it’s a really, really fun way to come back and start doing what I want to do again, which is storytelling. If you find me at a party, I’m the person telling you an anecdote about one time a year ago, or this one time that I got to watch my best friend fall over laughing. I love stories, I love the way you get to pass them on and watch someone’s face as the twists and turns are happening.

BETH: And theatre is storytelling. And it’s a two-way conversation. So getting to share this type of stuff with our audience and see them absorb it, understand it and then perhaps go have a conversation they might not have had otherwise, is really exciting.

What’s the importance of young artists telling this story?

JIMMY: We work with mostly young professional artists and I feel as though we’re the generation who are really fighting for this inclusiveness in the world, as well as in the theatre, and so there’s just a real passion behind the work we do in all aspects — not just in the theatre, but in the good work that we should be doing in this climate that we have today.

BETH: Young people are the ones pushing this into the forefront of conversations at your family holiday, at parties with friends. It’s not important that we’re the only ones telling it; it’s important that we see our responsibility to take up the charge to do it. I think for me, Jimmy and Michael [Windsor, co-artistic director] as producers, we recognize that there’s stories that should be told, that we cannot tell as white people and cisgender people. So giving an opportunity for those who have had a different experience than us to tell the story is incredibly important to us. We’re just giving them the stage.

TOPHER: For young people, a lot of times there’s this idea that maybe you haven’t gotten there yet, and sometimes you put a lot of pressure on yourself like, “I’m not all together yet.” The truth is everybody has an inner life, right? Everybody has a story, and a narrative, and a force that they’ve been walking through, and they’ve picked fruit, and they’ve seen flowers, and allowing them to talk about that can be so informative in a lot of different ways. When it comes to a lot of industries, there’s this idea that you can only do it if you have a certain pedigree or hegemony. Allowing younger people to do it, especially in the climate that we are in…a lot of us have an understanding of kindness. Saying, “okay, I got to talk, but what do you have to say? And what do you have to say? And what do you have to say?” Making space for everybody in a way that is so desperately needed.

Topher, how does it feel to have the responsibility of being the first person to play Phythio in this regional premiere?

TOPHER: I think that it’s important to set a standard. A standard of what this person should look like, who this person should be and a sort of understanding of what that life and body of work is. Because there are certain roles where it’s like, you’ve never been a green witch, but you can pretend, because anyone can pretend. You can pretend to be a lawyer, you can do research, you can kind of shift it. But not everyone is in certain positions where they know certain life stories intimately, particularly when you talk about groups of people who have traditionally not been allowed to speak up for themselves: not been given a voice, not been given a time and a platform. I’m grateful that it was a choice that was thought out and properly made, because I’m grateful it was me (because ya girl likes to work), but also, even if it wasn’t me, I trust in the people that are in charge here that they would make that right choice. Because when you tote yourself as having a role that’s supposed to be outright queer or positive or these very specific things, and then you cast it in a way that it’s not that, especially the way that people like to play act in “tradition,” it’s blatantly disrespectful in a way that’s saying “you don’t exist,” or “this is what we prefer to see.” And it’s a good thing that’s not what happened here.

What’s the importance of LGBTQIA+ artists telling stories about your own identities?

TOPHER: So, history is important, right? If it’s not your history, it’s probably not your story to tell. And there’s places in which those lines get kind of gray. But I’m a black person. I can read poetry from Korea. I have very intimate relationships with people from Korea. There is nothing I can ever do that gives me the right to try and tell a story about and for Korean people, because that’s not my history. I can learn about it, I can love it, I can respect it, I can support it, I can give it a platform, but I cannot take that in my hands and say “look at my shiny baby,” because it is not mine. And particularly in this industry where it’s hard enough to tell your own stories and they certainly won’t let you tell anyone else’s, the ones that are supposed to be so universal and that everybody kind of gets to hop on, it’s so important to give people with specific histories the chance to revel in it and stand in it and be proud of it.

During the casting process, did Monumental make any effort to reach out to LGBTQIA+ artists specifically or did they naturally come to you?

JIMMY: I knew when I saw this show and when I wanted to do it, that I wanted Topher to play this role, because I knew that she’d be a great person like Peppermint was on Broadway. So she was a precast. We knew that if I was doing this show, that I wanted to do it with her. And we lucked out, and she wanted to do it with us, as well, so that was really welcoming. Otherwise, we had so many people come out to our open call of all facets of the LGBTQ+ community and we were just really lucky that we had so many to choose from and we got really cool people who might have reached out and said “I’m interested in this piece because of this,” and we took an extra look at those people.

ell us about the rehearsal space and how you’re creating a supportive environment for everybody.

JIMMY: Day one: as soon as we introduced everybody, everybody used the pronouns that they wanted to use in the space. We had a handout on how to use gender in the space so we were all on the same page with how we were going to handle it. And honesty, it’s like second nature, and it’s really beautiful. I’m really proud of the space that we’ve created. Just thinking about some of the things that some other theaters might not even think about, like dressing room assignments and stuff like that. Or vocal parts in an ensemble, shoe sizes, you know. We’re taking the time to make sure that everybody is comfortable. The world is so binary and we have to deconstruct that. We may be making some mistakes, but I think it’s super important that we learn and we grow and hopefully people who come to see our show will ask us questions to break down the binary and create a more inclusive environment in the theater and elsewhere.

Has it made for a better experience?

TOPHER: Yes. Because here’s the thing. So often in our society at large, particularly in workspaces, there’s a lot of division of who’s capable of what, and who can do P, Q and X. It makes a difference when someone asks you what you like. It makes a difference when you can say “this group of people, you, you, you and you, come over here,” instead of being like, almost, I don’t know if reductive is the right word?

BETH: Simplistic?

TOPHER: Simplistic, but also, like, reductive feels right, reducing it down to the ways you are associated with what a doctor said when he was holding something covered in fluid. It definitely feels better.

What new awareness do you think people will have of nonbinary people after seeing Head Over Heels?

JIMMY: I hope that somebody who may not know the basics about gender can learn something. I know I have people in my life who’ve never met an out nonbinary person, and I’m just very excited for them to experience the real world. And I think the representation of this character is super important and the fact that it’s the first out nonbinary character in a Broadway musical is great for us, but also I can’t believe it’s taken this long and it’s really exciting.

TOPHER: I think not just this performance, but in general, what I always want people to take away is I’m human. And you’re human. So walk. There’s so many things that are always kind of flying around and stressing everybody out, and you get to watch [these characters’] lives explode and fly and sing and cry and fall down in the rain so quickly. And I want people to take that from the theater and hold space for the people that they might never have even heard of until they got the stage, but also, for the people they have heard of. Take it. Love the people around you, love yourself and walk. Just get one foot in front of the other.

Anything else?

JIMMY: Things change. Nothing’s changed, but that things should change, and change should be good, and change should be okay. There’s this whole thing about the “Beat” in Head Over Heels. They are really wary of losing their “Beat” and Phythio has a scene where they’re like, you’re gonna lose your beat, but also that might be okay and a new beat might arrive. And spoiler alert: the old beat dies and a new beat comes alive, and that new beat introduces a queen instead of a king, [who] realizes that he might not have known anybody in the entirety of Arcadia the whole time because he was suppressing their true selves from coming out. And this all happens in the last five minutes of the show! But I think this all shows the main message of the show.

TOPHER: This show has a big neon-colored flashing heart, and it’s just beating right on the center of that stage.

BETH: You can see it in the floor color right now!

TOPHER: Look. (laughs) And it’s about the love that we have for people. Because a lot of the decisions that are made in this piece are made out of love. Learning to love people in the way that they specifically need it is important. And I think that might be what it is. Like, love people but love them in the way they need to be loved. It’s kind of that thing, “Don’t go out and buy me diamonds ‘cause you messed up, when all I want you to do is wash dishes.” Like, just wash the dishes. Oh! And listen when somebody tells you who they are! Listen!

JIMMY: I really just want everybody to have a good time. No matter what your thoughts or beliefs are, I want you to come to this show and have a great time because everybody deserves that. I think that if you come, you’ll have a pretty damn good time getting to know this “Beat.”

TOPHER: And though we discourage getting up and dancing during the show, Topher said she will dance with you after the show!

Choreographer Christopher Evans Discusses His Work for the Fiddler on the Roof

By Daniella Ignacio

This article was first published in DC Theatre Scene here.

Professional productions of Fiddler on the Roof traditionally feature the iconic Jerome Robbins choreography from the original production. The 2015 Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof was the first major production to get permission to use new choreography, created by Hofesh Schechter and his company. That revival is now on tour across North America, with the choreography restructured by Christopher Evans, Schechter’s associate choreographer.

Evans has a long working relationship with Shechter, having worked with him since 2005, and was instrumental in the process of developing the choreography for Broadway. I caught up with Evans in the week leading up to the national tour’s stop in D.C. at the National Theatre.

What intrigues you about Israeli styles of dance – particularly Hofesh’s style?

CHRISTOPHER EVANS: I met Hofesh at such a young age [Evans was a student at the London School of Contemporary Dance] that I wasn’t really that hardened by training yet. I could still kind of go anywhere with my training, I hadn’t been fully disciplined, there wasn’t a lot of “unlearning” to do with me. And I think, naturally, that kind of grounded, slightly animalistic way of moving really suited me because I was into martial arts. I always found dance to be just another kind of movement that I had been doing previously. Martial arts is just movement and dance is just movement. I wasn’t interested in particular styles or vocab, I just liked moving.

[Hofesh] came from a folky background but then got involved with Batsheva and Gaga. His way of moving was more about turning imagery into flesh, rather than having very recognizable technique. For me, when I first met him, it was like watching him through the Wild West, I couldn’t categorize it, so I was really enjoying that. Learning how to move like that whilst making a piece was really useful because it meant you could really understand what was going on, not just do the movement thing, but how it’s used to communicate.

How does the choreography differ from the original Jerome Robbins choreography for Fiddler? 

EVANS: It feels, as far as I’m concerned, very far away from what I would consider musical theatre vocabulary, or how [that vocabulary] can sometimes present itself: that kind of cleanliness or the frontal nature of how that dance could be. For me, Hofesh’s movement could be very grounded in detail and grounded in community. When people watch Hofesh’s work, whether they’re dancers or not, they always get the slight feeling like, “I can do that, that looks like something I could do,” it doesn’t look like that kind of virtuosity that’s flashy where you enjoy it because you could never do it. Like, this is connected to something quite human, which I think is perfect for Fiddler because I think it’s ultimately about a community of people who celebrate being alive at every opportunity and any opportunity to dance, and move, and be physical.

What [Hofesh] enjoys communicating with Fiddler, is that in every movement [there] is this feeling of “we are together, and there is something above us, there’s something bigger than us.” In some moments, it sits slightly more into the ancient or timeless, almost tribalist, message of “we are humbled by something bigger than us, in service to something great.” And in other moments, it has that kind of bravado [and] virtuosity, that comes, in my opinion, in a very small, undulating, articulate way.

What I always loved about Jerome Robbins’ choreography is its strength, and drive, and its lines, and its very sure, defined gestures. The power that can come from his choreography is a lot about definition and throwing energy in very specific directions, whereas Hofesh’s work’s power comes mainly from its use of unison: how you can get a whole group of people to do very very tiny things that are actually quite smoky and you’re seeing a lot of unity onstage but you’re not seeing clones of people, you’re seeing people who are sharing some very specific idea, but they don’t have to be exact movement in the same way. So it looks very complex and quite organic. I guess that’s the best way I could articulate dance over the phone. (laughs)

Which moment do you think defines that the most in the show?

EVANS: I would say probably “L’Chaim” is one of those great examples. There are two conflicting energies in the room and it is obviously loaded with tension because of the politics and the context of the story, but all of those tensions subside mainly through this idea of “we’re gonna loosen up and we’re gonna dance, we’re going to enjoy life and we’re going to show off.” What I like about that scene is that it gives the opportunity for virtuosity to be the thing that two opposing groups can share. So it’s a nice opportunity for swingy, smoky, slightly messy, tumbly style of the Jews who are just going to get up and dance slightly drunk, but we’re going to show off. Then there’s the very clean, powerful, sure movements of the Russians. And of course it’s all going to be amalgamated into a big number and it’s just purely about enjoying life.

What are some of your favorite elements of the choreography?

EVANS: In terms of a pure feel-good wave of energy coming towards you, I love “Tradition” because it’s one of those rare opportunities when the entire cast is dancing together and people of different ages are dancing with the feeling of “we are dancing now because these are the moves we have always had, these are the movements that represent this community and God” and it’s nice that everyone has that at the beginning of the show.

How did you restructure this new choreography for the tour?

EVANS: I think of all the things that were streamlined, the dancing element, because it always had a feeling of being a flexible style to work with, I feel that the dancing got changed. There are very, very small spacing changes that we have because the show now has to accommodate different kinds of venues. I have preferred watching shows on tour in a slightly more compromised space sometimes because I think Hofesh’s style lends itself to that feeling that you’re in the room with the dancers, and there’s not huge leaps or crosses. I’ve enjoyed seeing the dancers being more particular and more skillful with their bodies and space.

But restructuring things for the tour, it’s been pretty glorious and I guess the biggest, biggest, biggest change was an enormous staircase that came up the back and underneath the stage. On Broadway, they came from the bottom of the stage as a shadowy, ghost of the past up and it’s a lovely image but trying to negotiate and find the same punch to start the show up was a cool challenge. I think what we settled on, now having watched it many times on tour, I really can’t remember how the beginning of the Broadway show would have gotten anywhere near the same kind of punch. We have such a percussive start to “Tradition” now. It’s one of those creative challenges where you have to make it work, I think it really does.

How do you feel about this cast?

EVANS: For me, my visits now get less and less frequent. And I think what strikes me is the cast that we have for the tour, I’m always completely staggered by the quality and integrity of the people who absorb every drop of information. I’m so impressed by the cast that we have now. I was blown away by what they achieved in the time I was there. I think it has something to do with the touring mentality; it’s not just the show these people see, these people really travel and they see a lot together and accumulate this wealth of experience together, which for a show like Fiddler on the Roof about such a tight-knit community, it just matures and strengthens. I think the touring life comes out on the stage. Every time I see it, it incrementally gets better.

As associate choreographer, how much of a say did you get in determining the choreography when it was on Broadway?

EVANS: The first time, my job was to audition all the dancers, understand and work out which people are going to understand that world of dance very quickly. Once we had that group of people, there was a beautiful two and a half weeks where it was just me and them and my job was to lead them through the style, unlearn a few habits and help them unlock parts of the body that are really crucial to execute the movements like the pelvis as an anchor to get your agility really from the floor. I think it’s amazing how we can train our bodies to be very specialized. And during that journey of training up for a few weeks, we also played with choreography while waiting for Hofesh to arrive. We’d already started playing with compositions musically and in the movement, so by the time Hofesh arrived, we’d not only had the training in place but we had little pockets of things for him to look at. I personally felt very integrated into the process and we were very closely working together to work out this code of moving which has lasted all this time.

Why should people see this production of Fiddler?

EVANS: I really think the choreography is incredible. It’s just very, very high quality movement that slightly sits just outside of what you expect in a musical theatre setting. Hofesh is a contemporary dancer and he created basically a small dance company within a musical, which I think is quite rare. But also I just think Bart [Sher] is a very clever man and he made a show that is about what it is to be a human being, he managed to achieve the action, the beat and the rhythm, the important stuff that gets it right into that naturalism.

Mozart’s whimsical Magic Flute from Washington National Opera

By Daniella Ignacio

This article was first published in DC Theatre Scene here.

Wild things abound in this production of  Washington National Opera’s The Magic Flute, currently playing at the Kennedy Center. With Maurice Sendak’s artwork at its forefront, the opera’s elements of childlike whimsy makes it an entertaining night for audiences of all ages. Conventions of opera are adhered to, with all of the classical training obvious in each and every performer, from the principals to the chorus … yet there’s something more to it.

There’s whimsy and there’s a clear focus on the power of young people: something this opera always inherently does with its magical story about the journey of a prince, Tamino, and his sidekick Papageno, not to mention its accessible, tuneful Mozart score. This production highlights with no apologies in a language that children can understand: clear English (not the original German) and fun storytelling all-around.

Neil Peter Jampolis realizes the Maurice Sendak scenic design and artwork in a way that allows for wonderful theatrical moments, with lighting design (John Garofalo) that brings it to life even further. It’s clear from the moment the curtains open up and the audience’s first glance is a Maurice Sendak illustration highlighting the moon above the priest. There’s a beautiful connection between static image and dynamic, live theatre through this design. As the light on the scrim dims and the audience begins to see the physical set behind it, for a moment, one might think that the fantastic creatures in the illustration are also onstage.

And then the opera begins and the audience immediately sees the three ladies (Alexandria Shiner, Deborah Nansteel and Meredith Arwady – a fearsome trio who can also be flirtatious) attacking a serpent that is coming after Papageno. Said serpent, quite adorable with its big green eyes, waddles out almost unsuspectingly until it’s killed, smoke comes out of it and it creeps offstage. A wide array of creatures inhabit this production besides our friend the dragon: lions with golden manes and creatures right out of “Where The Wild Things Are” that resemble trolls.

Pamina and Tamino are the heart of the story. Sydney Mancasola’s Pamina brings a master class of a performance in “Ach ich fühl,” fully using the legato lines to demonstrate the character’s sadness and allowing her voice to travel up and down fully and freely, which is not easy to do in that aria. David Portillo’s lush tenor provided for a romantic feel for Tamino with just the right amount of vibrato, especially in his opening arias, and when Tamino decides to join Sarastro’s brotherhood, Portillo portrays that resolve with strength and fervor.

Michael Adams as Papageno is the standout in this production. His soaring tenor has a powerful speaking voice to match, with a slight twang that characterizes the chatterbox excellently. Adams finds moments to make the score his own and to create physical comedy with the role and allows the audience to laugh at him, all while making Papageno a person that you want to root for. Especially in his interactions with Papagena (a winning Alexandra Nowakowski), all culminating in the “Pa-pa-pa-Papageno” duet where they celebrate their love, he crafts a truly winning character. Nowakowski is a standout in her own right, as well. Her reveal from the cleaning lady to Papagena’s true form, with bucking “ahhh”s turning into a beautiful true-to-opera “ahhh,” was a comedic highlight of the show.

As the Queen of the Night, WNO veteran Kathryn Lewek (who played the same role in 2014) takes control of the stage and pulls off a stellar “Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen” that was the crowd pleaser of the night. Although she seemed a little off (one could wish for her to get some of the notes from right on top of them, not by working up to them), she still remained in character and made the number a showstopper. Her rival in this story, Sarastro, played by Wei Wu, has a lyrical bass with low notes that are a joy to hear. It can be soft, and one could wish that he could allow it to boom out a bit more, but overall his voice matches the character well.

On a libretto note: I can appreciate the original choice of librettist Emanuel Schikaneder to ground the story with spoken moments; however, sometimes I wished that I could hear more singing, as some of the book scenes tended to drag out and contributed to a feeling of the opera starting to feel long. One full scene in the first act was entirely spoken and, to be quite frank, it was forgettable. The second act opened with the priests and followers talking, rather than a grandiose opening like that of the first act, and I wanted to just get to another magical, musical moment again. Although the performers played the straight acting scenes as best as they could (some rather excellently: at one point, Papageno conjured up two imaginary chickens to play with, much to the chagrin of Tamino and much to the enjoyment of the audience), musical moments in combination with powerful acting and design choices are what draw people to The Magic Flute; filler book scenes, not as much.

However, that doesn’t discount all of the incredible moments of this opera. Washington National Opera’s The Magic Flute takes you on a journey with unexpected moments.Take it all in with heart and joy, and try to remember the childlike wonder of seeing your first opera or musical.