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A Band, A Butterfly, and a Bob: Broadway Greets the Autumn

by david lefkowitz

(This article is scheduled for publication in Long Island Pulse, Sept. 2017)

 

Last spring, as Tony voters for best musical pitted Come from Away vs. Dear Evan Hansen, most voters for off-Broadway awards had a simpler time of it: they chose The Band’s Visit. A small-scale tuner that debuted for two months at the Atlantic Theater Company, The Band’s Visit racked up best musical plaudits from the Outer Critics Circle, OBIEs, Lortels, and New York Drama Critics Circle.

Based on a gentle 2007 film about a group of Egyptian musicians accidentally stranded amongst wary Israelis in the Negev desert, Visit would seem to be an odd choice for musical adaptation—especially by the composer of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and The Full Monty. But David Yazbek and playwright Itamar Moses apparently found the perfect tone for a tuner that Hollywood Reporter theater critic Frank Scheck called a “delicately wistful and poignant chamber piece” that “could easily find receptive audiences in a smaller Broadway house.” Producers listened—The Band’s Visit, directed by David Cromer, will open Nov. 9 at the not-so-small Barrymore Theater. With stars Katrina Lenk and “Monk” maestro Tony Shalhoub expected to reprise their roles, Visit is the most strongly anticipated show of a relatively quiet fall Broadway season, but that doesn’t mean it’s alone.

Playgoers have to be curious about the upcoming revival of David Henry Hwang’s Tony-winning M. Butterfly (opening Oct. 7) because it’ll be staged by Julie Taymor in her first rialto assignment since Spider-Man—and third since a little show called The Lion King. No doubt the design will be captivating, as it promises to be in Farinelli and the King, an English drama that will bring Oscar and Tony-winner Mark Rylance back to Broadway in December. Like 2014’s celebrated Richard III and Twelfth Night, this new play—by Rylance’s wife, Claire van Kampen—will feature mostly natural lighting and music played on period instruments. The plot? Rylance plays an insomniac king who can fall asleep only when sung to by his favorite castrato. I think we can all relate to that.

Speaking of singing, one of the lovelier musicals of the 1990s was Ahrens and Flaherty’s Once on this Island, a bittersweet Caribbean fairytale that gets its first Broadway revival Dec. 3 at Circle in the Square. Michael Arden, who staged Deaf West Theater’s stunning Spring Awakening two years ago, will helm this tuner by the composers of Ragtime and Anastasia.

Shows coming in more under the radar include an English import, The Children, about nuclear engineers; Junk, about nasty capitalists; and J. B. Priestley’s Time and the Conways, about an American family on the downslide. So while next spring promises such mega-events as Harry Potter and Frozen, autumn won’t be entirely without wow factors. After all, Dec. 4 marks the Broadway debut of a certain porous ocean dweller who lives in a pineapple under the sea. Let’s see Bette Midler do that.

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BYLINE:
David Lefkowitz hosts Dave’s Gone By (davesgoneby.com) on UNC Radio, co-publishes Performing Arts Insider, and founded TotalTheater.com. His comedy, Blind Date, recently played in Chennai, India.

 

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INTERVIEWS & PROFILES

KAREN ALLEN (actress, May 2017):
http://wp.me/pzvIo-aP

BOB BALABAN (actor-director, June 2015):
http://wp.me/pzvIo-cB

ANNE BASS (Lantern Theater executive producer, March 2017):
http://wp.me/pzvIo-bu

VALERIE BERTINELLI (actress, March 2017):
http://wp.me/pzvIo-b0

LORRAINE BRACCO (actress, Nov. 2009):
http://wp.me/pzvIo-2p

DIAHANN CARROLL (actress, Oct. 2008):
http://wp.me/pzvIo-2r

PATTY DUKE (actress, Sept. 2009):
http://wp.me/pzvIo-2x

SUSIE ESSMAN (actress, Dec. 2008):
http://wp.me/pzvIo-2A

JULES FEIFFER (author-cartoonist, April 2017):
http://wp.me/pzvIo-a8

CARRIE FISHER (actress, Oct. 2009):
http://wp.me/pzvIo-2D

TONY GEORGAN (Merrick Theater founder, Feb. 2016):
http://wp.me/pzvIo-bX

SEAN GRENNAN (playwright, Nov. 2015):
http://wp.me/pzvIo-cc

BRUCE GROSSMAN (Cultural Arts Playhouse producer, March 2016):
http://wp.me/pzvIo-bU

CHRISTOPHER HACKERT (playwright, May 2017):
http://wp.me/pzvIo-bk

ALLISON JANNEY (actress, April 2017):
http://wp.me/pzvIo-aV

BILLIE JEAN KING (athlete, Jan. 2017):
http://wp.me/pzvIo-b5

TARMO KIRSIMAE (director, Feb. 2016):
http://wp.me/pzvIo-bX

CHRIS LEMMON (actor-singer, Oct. 2015):
http://wp.me/pzvIo-cl

OLIVIA NEWTON-JOHN (actress-singer, July 2017):
http://wp.me/pzvIo-aK

KELLI O’HARA (actress, Dec. 2017):
http://wp.me/pzvIo-bq

JEFFREY SANZEL (Theater Three artistic director, Sept. 2016):
http://wp.me/pzvIo-bG

ALENA SMITH (playwright, June 2015):
http://wp.me/pzvIo-cB

JONATHAN TOLINS (playwright, May 2016):
http://wp.me/pzvIo-bM

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FEATURE STORIES

Sept. 2017: A Band, A Butterfly, and a Bob – Broadway Greets the Autumn
(A preview of Broadway’s fall 2017 season)
http://wp.me/pzvIo-bE

July 2017: Sometimes a Grain of Sand – Olivia Newton-John Reflects on Glory and Grief
(An interview with pop songstress and actress Olivia Newton John)
http://wp.me/pzvIo-aK

May 2017: Karen Allen and the World of Yes
(An interview with “Raiders” actress Karen Allen about her latest film project, “A Year by the Sea”)
http://wp.me/pzvIo-aP

May 2017: In Bloom – Christopher Hackert Gets his Theatrical Wish
(A profile of longtime Long Island florist–and playwright–Christopher Hackert)
http://wp.me/pzvIo-bk

April 2017: The Ceiling’s the Limit: Jules Feiffer Collaborates on a New Musical
(An interview with Pulitzer-winning cartoonist Jules Feiffer about his work on The Man in the Ceiling, a musical premiering at Long Island’s Bay Street Theater)
http://wp.me/pzvIo-a8

April 2017: To the Oval Office from the Bunion Derby: Allison Janney’s Slow Rise to Stardom
(An interview with “West Wing” and theater actress Allison Janney
http://wp.me/pzvIo-aV

March 2017: Spring on Broadway – Old Friends and Oddballs
(A preview of Broadway’s spring 2017 season)
http://wp.me/pzvIo-ba

March 2017: Valerie Bertinelli – Taking Life one Dish at a Time
(An interview with “One Day at a Time” and cooking-show star, Valerie Bertinelli)
http://wp.me/pzvIo-b0

Jan. 2017: Serving Love – Billie Jean King Still Winning for All of Us
(An interview with tennis legend and activist, Billie Jean King)
http://wp.me/pzvIo-b5

Dec. 2016: Kelli O’Hara on Living the Theater Life
(An interview with Tony-winning actress Kelli O’Hara)
http://wp.me/pzvIo-bq

Nov. 2016: L.I.’s Lantern Still Burns Bright
(A look at Long Island’s 64-year-old Lanter Theater Company)
http://wp.me/pzvIo-bu

Oct. 2016: Broadway’s Fall Shows Open on Their Own Terms
(A preview of Broadway’s fall 2016 season)
http://wp.me/pzvIo-by

Sept. 2016: Theater Three Starts a New Season without an Old Friend
(Jeffrey Sanzel, artistic director of Long Island’s Theater Three, reflects on the new season and the passing of longtime musical director Ellen Michelmore)
http://wp.me/pzvIo-bG

May 2016: Aria Grande – Playwright Jonathan Tolins and his Fandom of the Opera
(Playwright Jonathan Tolins discusses his latest, A Forgotten Woman, premiering at Long Island’s Bay Street Theater)
http://wp.me/pzvIo-bM

April 2016: Springtime in New York – Where Broadway is Blooming
(A preview of Broadway’s spring 2016 season)
http://wp.me/pzvIo-bP

March 2016: A Chance to Shine: Syosset Dons a Shiny New CAP
(A chat with Bruce Grossman, artistic director of Syosset, Long Island’s Cultural Arts Playhouse)
http://wp.me/pzvIo-bU

Feb. 2016: Women on the Verge – Daughters Arrives at the Merrick Theater
(A preview of Daughters, John Morgan Evans’s comedy-drama at Long Island’s Merrick Theater)
http://wp.me/pzvIo-bX

Nov. 2015: The Tin Man Writes a Play Full of Heart
(A profile of playwright Sean Grennan on the eve of his drama, The Tin Woman, opening at Long Island Bay Street Theater)
http://wp.me/pzvIo-cc

Oct. 2015: Lemmon’s Pledge
(An interview with actor-singer Chris Lemmon, son of legendary actor Jack Lemmon)
http://wp.me/pzvIo-cl

Oct. 2015: Theatrical Island Hoppers
(A look at famous theater people born and/or raised on Long Island, including Alec Baldwin, Charles Ludlam, Patti LuPone, Adam Pascal, Idina Menzel, and Edie Falco)
http://wp.me/pzvIo-cf

Sept. 2015: Fall Approaches Quietly
(A preview of the fall 2015 Broadway season)
http://wp.me/pzvIo-cp

June 2015: Sincerely Yours, Bay Street Theater
(Featuring interviews with playwright Alena Smith and director Bob Balaban, a preview of the comedy, The New Sincerity before its opening at Long Island’s Bay Street Theater)
http://wp.me/pzvIo-cB

Nov. 2009: Lorraine Bracco on Life as a Post-Doc
(An interview with “Goodfellas” actress Lorraine Bracco)
http://wp.me/pzvIo-2p

Oct. 2009: Carrie Fisher – She Moves On
(An interview with “Star Wars” actress Carrie Fisher)
http://wp.me/pzvIo-2D

Sept. 2009: Call Her Anna – Patty Duke
(An interview with “Miracle Worker” actress Patty Duke)
http://wp.me/pzvIo-2x

Dec. 2008: Curb Your Ensusiessman: The Comedian Speaks Out on Being Fair – and Foul
(An interview with “Curb Your Enthusiasm” comic actress, Susie Essman)
http://wp.me/pzvIo-2A

Oct. 2008: Diahann Carroll Looks Back – and Forward
(An interview with Tony-winning actress Diahann Carroll)
http://wp.me/pzvIo-2r

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SOMETIMES A GRAIN OF SAND: Olivia Newton-John Reflects on Glory and Grief

by David Lefkowitz

(Note: this article was first published in July 2017)

“I’m waking up this morning
Grateful for the gift of one more day
The light of hope is dawning
It fills my heart and lifts my fears away.
Live on, live on.”
– “Live On” (Olivia Newton John)

When songstress Olivia Newton-John comes to mind, we tend not to think of words like grief or pain or endurance. After all, the English-born, Aussie-raised, American-minted beauty came on the music scene nearly fifty years ago with the looks of a Cover Girl model, the persona of the ultimate girl next door, and a voice any girl group would covet. From 1971, when her take on Bob Dylan’s “If not for You” zoomed up the pop and adult contemporary charts, through the early 1980s, when music critic Robert Christgau wrote, “Any heterosexual man who can deny `Physical,’ with its detonating blonde bombshell… needs his monkey-gland shot,” Newton-John led the kind of stars-aligned life of which mere mortals can only dream.

But the actress-singer is 68 now, and a lot can happen when you live long past your thirties. She married actor Matt Lattanzi, but they divorced after only nine years. Their daughter, Chloe, now 31, struggled with anorexia, drug-and-alcohol abuse, and a seeming addiction to plastic surgery. And though Newton-John has been happily married to businessman John Easterling since 2008, her previous partner, John McDermott, disappeared after a fishing trip and has been presumed dead—though reports that he faked his own demise and has been living in Mexico continue to surface. Oh, and let’s not forget The Big C. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992, Newton-John underwent chemotherapy and a partial mastectomy. After a decade and a half of being cancer-free, John learned in May that the disease had reappeared. She canceled a planned tour and instead will undergo radiation and “natural wellness therapies.” The news is especially sad because four years ago, her sister Rona succumbed to an aggressive brain tumor.

That last tragedy hit the singer especially hard. “I will miss her forever,” Newton-John then wrote on her Facebook page, “my beautiful, smart, talented, funny, brave sister.” At the time, Olivia was working on a Christmas album, which helped lift her spirits, but she eventually felt the need to reach deeper. The result is her latest musical project, “Liv On” (sic), a collaboration between her, veteran country tunesmith Beth Nielsen Chapman, and Canadian songwriter Amy Sky. All three turned to music as a way of understanding and coping with loss.

In a phone conversation with Newton-John (that occurred before her recent diagnosis), the new album often came to the fore, but she was also willing to share her thoughts about the many events of her life—good and bad—that brought her to this point. We began, of course, with music.

Olivia Newton-John: I’ve always found that music has been my way of healing. So I was writing a song for Rona and about her. I called Amy Sky to ask if she’d help me finish it. We talked about her just losing her mother the year before, and we realized that there really wasn’t music specifically for people going through loss and grief. So I said, “How would you feel about doing an album of these songs?” We talked about it and decided to invite Beth Nielsen Chapman, too. She’s a longtime friend of mine and fellow cancer “thriver.” Also, she was doing quite a lot of music at that time for people who were grieving. (I didn’t even know that; it just happened to be wonderful timing.) She wanted to join us on the record because she had lost her husband, 14 years before, to cancer, and wrote a beautiful, beautiful song called, “Sand and Water” that’s become kind of a classic. Elton John has sung it many times.

“All alone, I heal this heart of sorrow
All alone, I raise this child
Flesh and bone, he’s just
Bursting towards tomorrow
And his laughter fills my world, and wears your smile.”
– “Sand and Water” (Beth Nielsen Chapman)

So we all got together on three occasions and wrote new songs in my kitchen. And we talked about the different stages of grief. Grief is not something discussed in our society very much, but everybody goes through it at some point. We lose a relative or a friend or a pet (which has always been devastating to me). Or we move or we lose a friend or our circumstances change. There’s lots of areas of grief in life. We thought, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to write some songs that address those things?” So that’s how the album was born, and we’ve been touring it.

Was it cathartic to sing these songs in public and then hear audience members offer their personal experiences with loss?
Yes, of course. That was our intention making it: to bring some people relief and let them know they’re not alone. That song, “Live On,” for instance. I wrote it for my sister and as an inspirational song for my cancer-wellness and research center in Melbourne, Australia. When we did the tour, no one had heard these songs, so it was incredible to hear the wonderful reactions. We also did a Q&A. We didn’t know how that would go, but people raised their hands and wanted to tell us about what they’d gone through. They wanted to share. That’s really healing: when people can share their feelings and know they’re not alone.

Your sister’s death was tragic but a fairly common life experience. Was the grieving process different when you didn’t actually know what happened to John McDermott?
I don’t really like to discuss that because it’s very personal to me. But grief never goes away. We wrote a song on our album called “Stone in My Pocket.” It says that with grief—sometimes you carry it around like a boulder, sometimes it feels like a rock, sometimes it feels like a pebble, and sometimes a grain of sand. But grief is always there, and you learn to deal with it and live with it. All the different stages, and all the different people that you’ve lost are always part of that. Not to be too specific, but I’ve had a lot of grief in my life—as most people have.

Well, on the positive side, between new music, touring, and your philanthropic endeavors, you seem incredibly busy and healthy for someone nearing 70. Do you see that pace continuing for another 10, 20 years?

(laughs heartily) I like your optimism! But I’m very grateful to be here, and I think age is how you feel and not the number you put on it. And music is eternal, so as long as I feel like I wanna sing, and people still show up, I’ll do it. I have a wonderful marriage with a lovely home and animals and things, so I’d like to spend more time at home. But I really enjoy singing, and I get pleasure out of it and give pleasure to the audiences. So I’ll do it as long as it feels right, and when it doesn’t, I won’t.

And having beaten cancer 25 years ago, you must be pretty proactive about your health and diet?
My husband is an expert on homeopathics, so I take a lot of Amazonian herbs. John also has a dear friend who runs a clinic where I do DNA tests twice a year, just checking out my body. I also do a blood test about once a year—things like that. I try to keep my immune system strong, so that even with all the hard work that I do, I stay very healthy.

Does that include avoiding red meat and other “bad” foods?
I’m not totally vegetarian; I go in and out of that. My daughter is a vegan, but my body sometimes craves meat. I’ll go through phases where I don’t eat any, and then my body tells me I need it, so I will eat some. I eat very healthily, but I also enjoy myself. I believe that you have to have fun, and have a cookie or dark chocolate (which is healthy anyway!). Luckily, my indulgences are usually things that are fairly healthy. My mother was German, and she would feed us potatoes with the skins on and steamed vegetables. When I was a young girl, I’d say, “Oh, mom. This is so boring!” But now I’m very grateful to her for teaching me to eat well.

What about exercise?
I do what I can, though I’m often traveling. Plus my show is actually quite “physical”—not to be punny there. I do like to take walks, hike, play with my animals. I have a gym at home, so I’ll do that when I can. I have my own little workout that I put together, and I keep pretty fit. Still, I’d like to get into a yoga class, and I even used to do the hot yoga years ago, but I’m never home long enough to get into a routine. So I do yoga stretches that are very important for the spine as you get older.

It sounds like your health consciousness has been a long-term thing, even though you achieved success in the 1970s-80s, an era of excesses that were the opposite of healthy.
I stayed totally away from that. I went to Studio 54 a few times, and I used to go to clubs, but drugs? I never saw them. I think you find things only if you’re interested in them, and I wasn’t interested. I really wasn’t aware of it.

So maintaining a healthy lifestyle is one suggestion you might give an up-and-comer entering the music business. What are some others?
Finding your own style and not copying anybody else. I was lucky enough to have a wonderful producer and songwriter, John Farrar, who did most of my production. Also, finding great songs is so important. I was very lucky in my career to have John and Steve Kipner and Peter Allen. All Australians writing the majority of my hit songs!

“You never chase your dreams, they find you
Love, I know you; if you need love, it finds you, too
Don’t stop believin’, you’ll get by
Bad days, bad days will hurry by.”
– “Don’t Stop Believin’” (John Farrar)

It’s not as if you faced no setbacks early on. Just before you hit it big, you were part of a Monkees-like group that made one weird movie, Toomorrow, and then disbanded. Since you were only 22 then, was it a devastating blow, or did you simply move onward and upward without much regret?
Well, the group was me and three boys—an Englishman and two Americans—all of us put together by Don Kirshner, who put the Monkees together, and Harry Saltzman, who did the James Bond movies. It sounded great, and we made a movie, and of course it’s disappointing when you have things that don’t work, but that’s the only way you grow. But I was never gonna give up. Of course not! I was still singing and performing. All failures are disappointing for everybody, but you just keep going. One of the songs I do in my show is, “Not Gonna Give in to It.” You learn from a mistake, and you realize later that it was a big lesson.

Do you have any thoughts on the current pop music scene? Any artists who impress you?
I love Adele, Rihanna, Pink. I love a lot of people! (laughs) I was watching the [Grammy salute to the] Bee Gees special the other night, and everybody up there was so gifted. There have always been wonderful artists every era that I’ve witnessed. And now it gets more and more interesting and diverse as different kinds of music integrate together.

You’ve released nearly a dozen albums since 1990, though casual fans might still know only your work from the two prior decades. Are there more recent songs you wish were as widely known as the early hits?
Gosh. I’ve recorded so many songs, but I probably would say songs from the “Liv On” record because it’s the most current thing I’m doing. And the songs “Live On” and “Stone in My Pocket” would be the ones I’d want people to hear now because they’re where I’m at in my music at the moment.

“In every heart of those we touch
In every dream that means so much
Yes, I believe that all of us live on.”
– “Live On” (Olivia Newton-John)

SIDEBAR

OLIVIA ON THE CLASSICS

Let Me Be There
We did that record in England, I think. It was producer Bruce Welch’s idea to put that bass voice on there, which made it very original and clever. It’s a great song, and it started my career in country music—when I wasn’t even aware it was a separate category!

I Honestly Love You
A magnificent, beautiful love song that I’m lucky to still be singing.

Summer Nights
I just think of fun. Fun days filming with the girls. It was great.

Physical
That’s a song I put out and then got panicked because I thought I’d gone too far. But then it was too late—it went to number one so quickly! I tried to counteract it because I thought maybe it was a little too raunchy for me. I said to my manager then, “We need to do a video and try and make it more about exercise!” And that took it to even greater heights, so it kind of makes me laugh now.

Have You Never Been Mellow
That’s a John Farrar song. Classic, beautiful lyric, beautiful melody. I love singing that and still do it in my show.

Live On
A positive reinforcement of life.

*

BYLINE:
David Lefkowitz is an adjunct professor of English at the University of Northern Colorado. He also co-publishes Performing Arts Insider (TotalTheater.com) and hosts Dave’s Gone By (davesgoneby.com) on UNC Radio. His short comedy, Blind Date, recently played at the Alliance Francaise in Chennai, India.

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In Bloom: Christopher Hackert Gets his Theatrical Wish

by david lefkowitz

(This article was published by Long Island Pulse in May 2017: http://lipulse.com/2017/05/24/christopher-hackert-moonlighting/)

 

Someone who gives floral arrangements names like, “Out of the Woods,” “Bursting with Glee!”, and “High Drama Roses” has an obvious theatrical streak, but for Christopher Hackert, true creativity begins after the doors to East Meadow Florist are locked for the night.  That’s when he ceases to be Patch magazine’s “Best Florist in East Meadow” and morphs into a dramatist with a growing list of local credits.

He’s a longstanding Playwright in Residence for the South Shore Theater Experience, and this month, and his latest comedy, The Texas Palace Taco Incident, arrives there in June. “It’s very out there,” laughed artistic director Deborah Cascio Plezia, who will stage the show. “It’s a sci-fi farce that starts at home and literally ends up at the taco palace.”

Hackert’s last comedy, Walter’s Wish, played at SSTE as well as at Northport’s Bare Bones Theater Company. That piece told of a husband and father who wants nothing more, on his 39th birthday, than to make his family disappear.  Then a genie appears.

For Hackert, Walter’s Wish was a departure because much of it is told in monologues.  When writing it, the scribe was unsure if it was even funny, but after seeing audience reaction to the world premiere staged at South Shore, Hackert took heart: “apparently, it’s pretty hilarious.”  In fact, the only revision he’s done to the play was one suggested by its SSTE director: moving the first scene of the second act to the end of the first. “It was something I’d thought about when I wrote it,” Hackert said. “So when I saw it, I said, `Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.’”

“The play happened very serendipitously,” he continued, “as do most of my plays. I start by writing the name of a character and a line of dialogue.  I answer with another name and another line.  Then I keep writing to see if it goes anywhere.  This one went somewhere very unexpected.  Not that it’s a `serious’ or `meaningful’ play because I’m the least serious, most shallow person you might meet!”

He’s also one of the most committed. As SSTE’s playwright in residence, he writes one full-length show plus a one-act each year. Somehow, all this activity doesn’t conflict with Hackert’s sensible day job, which he has held for 35 years. “My older brother worked for the original family of East Meadow Florist. Then I got a job here and eventually bought it from the son when he was ready to give it up.” Hackert has owned the business for two decades and often spends seven days a week at the shop. Nevertheless, over the past two years, for South Shore, he played the lead in 2015’s Anybody for Murder and penned the original comedies Ready or Not and `Til My Dying Day; while for Bare Bones, he starred in The Pavilion and Scapino, and wrote the one-act Don’t Forget to Write.

Asked how he finds the time for theater when he dwells amongst the thorns, Hackert, who has enjoyed writing since he was a child and readily admits his shows can be “a little silly or sitcom-y,” replied, “Even though I have to be here physically to answer the phones and take care of customers—since I own the place, when there’s downtime, I do whatever I want. Still, I tend to write better when I write under pressure and last-minute. So when I have false starts, I can pick them up and see if they mean anything or I’m always willing to throw them away and start anew.”

Walter’s Wish ran March 2-12, 2017 at Bare Bones Theater, 57 Main Street, Northport. (800) 838-3006, barebonestheater.com.

BYLINE:

David Lefkowitz hosts Dave’s Gone By (davesgoneby.com) on UNC Radio, co-publishes Performing Arts Insider, and founded TotalTheater.com. His award-winning solo comedy, The Miracle of Long Johns (miracleoflongjohns.com), has played engagements in Colorado and New York City.

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NOTES & BACKSTORY:

This piece was written for Long Island Pulse early in 2017 and scheduled to run that March, when Walter’s Wish was opening. The magazine delayed the story’s publication, however, so by the time it ran, it had to be significantly revised to put Walter in the past and Texas Tacos on the front burner. The version posted here is expanded from what was actually published in Pulse’s May 2017 issue.

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Karen Allen and the World of Yes

 

by David Lefkowitz

 

(Note: This article was first published in Long Island Woman, May 2017)

 

Before you even ask: yes, she still has those eyes and the smile.  They’re often on view in the new film by Alexander Janko, A Year by the Sea, in which Karen Allen plays a woman of a certain age on a journey of self re-discovery.  It’s a hejira that suddenly, but by choice, puts this long-married, well-to-do mother of two, alone, in a beach house on Cape Cod where she can observe the tides, the sea lions, and her own reawakening as a person.

With gorgeous location cinematography that belies the film’s low budget, A Year by the Sea, based on the memoir by Joan Anderson, is not so much a chick flick as a wake-up call to all people who are stuck in a rut and think that, at a certain point, life holds no more adventures.  For the film’s Joan, those include pumping her own water, making new friends, and the need to row herself to and from her cottage.  “I think I have rowed a boat over the years,” Allen says in our phone chat, “but I certainly wouldn’t consider myself good at it.  Also, I have a rotator cuff injury, so I was worried about those scenes.  But it worked very well for the character because in the beginning part of the film, she’s not really good at it, either.”  The actress does confess that in some of the long shots later on, the person rowing is actually one of the movie’s producers.  “We didn’t have a big stunt-person budget,” Allen chuckles.

As someone who may be most famous for a scene in which she’s dangling over a pit of snakes—Steven Spielberg even dropped a dead python on her head to bolster her screams—Allen had an understandably better time consorting with seals.  “Not that I have anything against snakes, but the day we spent on Monamoy Island on the cape where there were all these seals was enchanting!  They’re very shy, so no matter how gently I moved towards them—even if they had their backs to me—they could almost sense my approach.  Which was fine with me, because as beautiful as they are, they’re very powerful creatures.  I did probably get within 20 feet of them on land before they high-tailed it into the water.”

That said, the film is more about human relationships than aquatic ones, and the actress found parallels between her own life choices and those of her character.  “When I accepted this role,” Allen notes, “I had not been married for about 18 years.  I’m very good friends with my ex-husband and with the father of my son.  I have a fantastic relationship with them; we’re just no longer married and don’t live together, but we hang out together and do things all the time.  So I didn’t have the same dilemma in my life as Joan.

“But in her case,” Allen continues, “she felt as though she had lost her own voice, her own sense of productivity and forward motion.  She began to reassess her marriage, which I think happens to a lot of people.  I’ve been through it with a lot of my friends.  At the end of the child-raising phase and having those shared responsibilities and concerns, people really can find themselves looking at each other and feeling, `And you are . . . who?  We’re still together . . . why?’  At that moment, people either—and often do—leave relationships that have meant the world to them.  Or they really dig down and find a way to renegotiate, renavigate the relationship with the idea that they can discover things about themselves, and it won’t put the relationship in jeopardy.”

 

Most inspiring about the Year by the Sea story, says Allen, is Joan’s willingness to adjust.  “I don’t think we get to see that in films very often,” the actress notes.  “We see men leaving their wives for younger women or women leaving their husbands for younger men.  Those sorts of shenanigans!  But we don’t see mature people who really care about each other trying to figure out what they have to change and grow in order to deserve their relationship.”

Currently single, the actress has been trying to simplify her life.  She closed the textile company she founded in 2003, Karen Allen Fiber Arts, because she found herself “juggling way too many things,” and has been concentrating on directing.  Her short film, A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud, based on a story by a young Carson McCullers, is making the festival rounds.  “I’ve been directing plays for about 10 years,” says Allen, “but I hadn’t put my foot in the water of directing a film, which is a much bigger deal.  With plays, I work under the auspices of a theater, so I step in as the director, cast the play and work with a designer, but I don’t have to raise money and pull together a crew myself.  It’s a big commitment.  In fact, it took two-and-a-half years just to get to our world premiere.”

Despite the labor-intensive nature of moviemaking, Allen says she looks forward to her next project, a feature.  She says, “I think I turned to directing because I didn’t want to work just to work.  During fallow periods when I wasn’t finding a project I wanted to do, I felt I should be able to open up a much broader world of material.  There doesn’t have to be a role in it for me in order for me to have a lot of interest in it.”

Allen’s wider angle on the arts goes back to her early 20s, when a friend brought her to a performance by Jerzy Grotowski’s legendary experimental theater troupe.  Before then, she had “literally zero interest in the theater and acting.  I was a film lover just in my life, but film was something at a great distance.  I never had met an actor growing up.  I couldn’t wrap my mind around that being a job anyone could imagine themselves doing.”  However, post-Grotowski, Allen immersed herself in training: “reading plays, performing in plays, even producing and directing plays back then.  One of the first I ever did was by the wonderful writer, John Hawkes.  It was called The Innocent Party, and it was very interesting and surreal.  I also did a play that Sylvia Plath had written as a radio play, called Three Women. And I did The Player Queen by William Butler Yeats.

“Back then,” continues Allen, “I directed more out of necessity than choice.  We had an experimental theater company, and we’d develop our own projects both within and outside of it.  So we did our own sets, found our own costumes.  We all did a bit of everything.”

But then came Animal House and a little film called Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the boho, Illinois-born actress became everyone’s girl-next-door crush with a powerhouse punch.  Asked if appearing in two pop-culture classics kept her from being taken more seriously as an artist, Allen replies, “I don’t really know.  I think the film industry has a certain desire to put people in a box or create a stereotype.  I know that after I did Raiders, a lot of the film offers that came towards me were very similar in nature.  And that didn’t interest me.  I mean, I also did The Wanderers, based on Richard Price’s novel — and that was right after Animal House.  I did a more serious film called A Small Circle of Friends about students at Harvard during the late 60s.  But before Starman, I also went back to the theater for a year and a half and did two plays [Extremities and Monday after the Miracle] that challenged the living daylights out of me.  I was waiting for the right film to come along that wasn’t trying to capitalize on Raiders’s success.”  Allen stops for a moment, then laughs, “Maybe that was the wrong way to have a career—I think you’re supposed to capitalize on success!”

 Now at 65, Allen appreciates her level of fame but has also experienced the challenges facing performers who’ve moved past the girlfriend/glamour roles.  A Year by the Sea features many closeups of the actress that are compelling but not always flattering, which leads to the question of whether she, like far too many Hollywood cohorts, ever considered going under the knife.  “I am such a wuss,” she answers, “that the idea of letting anybody sticking a needle in my face, for any reason short of being in a car accident or if somebody cut my face, is beyond my wildest dreams.

“To me, it’s a personal choice whether people wanna have plastic surgery or not,” she continues.  “I often feel a kind of sadness or horror when I see it too much.  With Botox and those things, sometimes the real character and human quality of the face is lessened.

I like the way an aging face looks.  It’s not great for one’s vanity when you blow it up onto a screen, especially with these very unforgiving digital cameras that we have these days.  You notice every little sag.  But you just have to take a deep breath and say, `yeah, I’m not gonna look the way I did when I was 35.’  I know there’s a lot of pressure on actors and people in many professions to look younger, but for myself, I really do question the value that we seem to have within our culture.”

 

On the personal side, although certainly open to another serious relationship at some point, Allen puts no pressure on herself to find a partner.  “I’m waiting for the right person to come into my life,” she says, “but I’m not somebody who is uncomfortable being alone.  There are pros and cons to being on your own, but I don’t feel the need to be in search of a relationship because I have difficulty being a singular person in my life.  On the other hand, I would be delighted to meet somebody for the next phase.  It just hasn’t happened; I don’t know why.”

Though she still keeps an apartment in Manhattan, Allen makes her home on 28 acres in the small town of Monterey, Massachussetts.  She explains that New York City, especially after Sept. 11, 2001, became too challenging a place to live full time.  “My son’s 11th birthday was a few days after 9/11,” she recalls.  “We worked our way through it as a city and as a community, but it had a terrible impact on the film and theater world for quite awhile afterwards.  And simultaneously with that, I was discovering that trying to raise a child while working would be all-consuming.  My husband and I had separated, and I wanted to be a more present parent in my son’s life.  I had been working fairly consistently with a great deal of interest and joy for a good 20 years, so it just felt like a good time to take my son out of the city and move to the countryside.”

The actress adds, “For my son—when he was little and we would be in the country—it was the world of `yes.’  He would be outside, running—he could pick up an insect from the grass.  Everything was `yes!’  Then we get to New York City when he was four or five years old, and I’d be constantly running after him going `NOOOOO!’ and grabbing, like, a crack vial from the playground: `Oh my God, put that down!’  So do I want to live in a world of `yes,’ or do I want to live in a world of `no?’  I kept coming back to the feeling that `yes’ was the better choice.”

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MISC-ALLEN-EOUS

Do you have a diet/exercise regimen?

I wish I could say I do!  If I had my druthers, I’d do vigorous yoga every day and try to eat healthy and organic.  I do love raw foods: vegetables and salads, though I’m not a vegetarian right now.  So the reality of my regime and what I aspire to…there’s a little distance between them.

Favorite meal?

My son Nicholas [Nick Browne] is an extraordinary, French-trained chef.  In fact, he just won on “Chopped.”  He’ll make a fresh tomato sauce on pasta that’s better than anything I’ve ever tasted in my life.  He makes a Jerusalem artichoke soup that I love.  But you know what?  Every recipe, if you wonder where the turning point is…it always comes down to butter.

Favorite vacation spot
A place with beautiful, clean, clear, salt water.  I have a little fixation on the west coast of Jamaica in the West Indies because I went there when I was 18.

Read any good books lately?

Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, which I thought was breathtaking.  I’ve been reading and re-reading a lot of Carson McCullers and early Donna Tartt books.  I also read a lot of books on Buddhist thought because it inspires me.

What have you been listening to?

I love the band Dawes, and I’m a huge Van Morrison fan.  Also, David Gray, the blues, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Tom Petty, Joni Mitchell, and on and on and on.  There’s a whole world of 60s-70s music that just sits in my soul from growing up during that period. And I know the words to every Beatles song ever written.

If you could go back and give your 20-year-old self a message, what would it be?

Don’t get so stressed out about things.  Relax and enjoy the ride a little more.  We have to take a deep breath and allow the space in ourselves to accept things, to let go of the anxiety that sits in us and prevents us from enjoying the moment as much as we should.

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 BYLINE:

David Lefkowitz is an adjunct professor of English at the University of Northern Colorado. He also co-publishes Performing Arts Insider (TotalTheater.com) and hosts Dave’s Gone By (davesgoneby.com) on UNC Radio. His play, The Miracle of Long Johns, won the best non-fiction script award at the 2015 United Solo Festival.

 

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The Ceiling’s the Limit: Jules Feiffer Collaborates on a New Musical

A year ago, when East Hampton’s Bay Street Theater mounted a staged reading of The Man in the Ceiling, audiences were so taken with the musical that, in post-show talkbacks, they wondered aloud why Bay Street wasn’t doing a full-scale production.

Fast-forward to May 30-June 25, when the show, co-created by composer Andrew Lippa and legendary cartoonist Jules Feiffer, will officially premiere on Bay Street’s mainstage.

Feiffer’s 1995 children’s book, The Man in the Ceiling, told the story of Jimmy, a 12-year-old boy who dreams of being a cartoonist but faces apathy and even hostility when trying to follow that path instead of becoming an athlete. Asked if his own life paralleled Jimmy’s, Feiffer told Pulse, “It’s only autobiographical in terms of Jimmy’s emotions and sensibilities. Everything else is complete fiction. But his anxieties, doubts, the lack of support from his family—well, you can check my memoir, Backing into Forward, to get the true story, but Jimmy is based on how I felt and behaved as a kid.”

Turning a graphic novel about a boy cartoonist into a musical isn’t all that far-fetched—and not just because the 2015 Tony-winner Fun Home also focused on a protagonist who escaped to drawing for both refuge and redemption. A crucial character in the Ceiling novel and show is Uncle Lester, who writes musical after musical until, finally, he gets one on Broadway. How his show fares there is less important than the self-confidence and persistence that allowed him to dream big in the first place—a lesson not lost on Jimmy.

The Pulitzer-winning Feiffer added that when he was Jimmy’s age, he was already driven but didn’t know if he actually had talent. Of course, decades of doing panels for The Village Voice, not to mention Broadway plays (Little Murders, Knock Knock, Grown Ups), illustrations (The Phantom Tollbooth), and movie scripts (Carnal Knowledge, Popeye, the Oscar-winning animated short Munro), have shown the 88-year-old Feiffer to be an American master. “Age doesn’t matter as long as there’s work I want to do and the work is play,” he explained. “It’s hard play; you make a lot of mistakes and screwups, but I’ve always loved it. Now that there are so many things I’m physically unable to do, my youth is entirely based on my ability to draw and write stories better than I did when I was 20, 30, or 40.”

Nearly three decades younger than Feiffer, composer Lippa first came upon The Man in the Ceiling in 2000. “He was in the middle of finishing The Wild Party off Broadway at the time,” Feiffer noted. “He got interested in my book and invited me to see his show. I was expecting very little—because that’s my attitude when I go to the theater!  But I was blown away.  Every aspect just floored me.”

It turned out, though, that Lippa didn’t want Feiffer to co-write Ceiling. “He thought I was too old,” the cartoonist laughed, “I told him, `That may be true, but there won’t be a musical unless I write the book. So he reluctantly agreed.” The collaboration blossomed, however, when Lippa realized Feiffer wasn’t afraid of revisions. “I know the violence you have to do to your own work,” Feiffer said, “That’s part of the fun.”

Things got even better when Lippa’s childhood friend, director Jeffrey Seller—whose day job has included co-producing such musicals as Avenue Q and Hamilton—signed on.  That led to a 2015 workshop at Palo Alto’s TheaterWorks, which led to the Bay Street readings, which has led to the current world premiere. “From the beginning,” said Feiffer, “it’s been a joy.”

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This article was published in Long Island Pulse magazine in April 2017: http://lipulse.com/2017/04/24/pulitzer-winner-brings-tale-to-life/

 

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