Thursday, February 27, 2014

A Sneak Peek of "Love Alone"

The final dress rehearsal has taken place and previews have begun for PlayMakers' new production Love Alone. With opening night just a few days away, we wanted to share some pictures from this gripping drama.

JULIA GIBSON as Helen Warren, in foreground, and ARIELLE YODER as Clementine. Photo by Jon Gardiner.
JENNY WALES as Dr. Becca Neal and DERRICK IVEY as Mr. Rush. Photo by Jon Gardiner.
JULIA GIBSON as Helen Warren and JENNY WALES as Dr. Becca Neal. Photo by Jon Gardiner.
PATRICK McHUGH as J.P. Whitman and JENNY WALES as Dr. Becca Neal. Photo by Jon Gardiner.
JULIA GIBSON as Helen Warren and ARIELLE YODER as Clementine. Photo by Jon Gardiner.

ARIELLE YODER as Clementine, JULIA GIBSON as Helen Warren and DERRICK IVEY as Mr. Rush. Photo by Jon Gardiner.

ARIELLE YODER as Clementine and JENNY WALES as Dr. Becca Neal. Photo by Jon Gardiner.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Bringing One-Armed Edna to Life

Dominic Abbenante, Media Designer for Love Alone

Love Alone is a fantastic story that crosses a generational gap between the mother, Helen Warren (Julia Gibson), and her daughter Clementine (Arielle Yoder). We wanted to find a way for our audience to connect with Clementine, and we believe that way is through the visualization of her music in the show.

Clem’s band, One-Armed Edna, is a fictional band that grows in popularity over the course of the show. We decided to tell this part of the story through video, during the transitions of scenes within the play. This allowed us to access a whole other side of Clem’s story without having to bog down the production.

In order to accomplish this though, we needed to actually create a band. We recruited 3rd year MFA Technical Direction students Chad Rodgers (bass) and Mike Epting (drums) to fill in as part of the band and arranged a music video shoot the week before technical rehearsals. We would record three songs by our composer for the show, Peter Kendall, and with the help of sound engineer Robert Dagit, we set up a fully functioning stage with amplifiers, lights, and haze. The shoot went fantastically and within a weekend of editing we were able to create from scratch a three piece band which now has several music videos to their credit.

The music videos will be used in the production during the transitions in addition to an array of other abstracted videos and effects. We use video during a deposition scene to communicate and reinforce the claustrophobic nature of the scene. At other times the production feels like you are at an actual rock show, which sets the stage for much of Clem’s side story throughout the production.

The video design for Love Alone grew as a storytelling tool for the production and lends an extra artistic element that effectively helps draw the audience into the Love Alone world. It is exciting to see such this artistic device for the American stage incorporated into such a breathtakingly compelling story of love.  

Check out other music videos created for One-Armed Edna.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

By Stages: Grief, Gratitude, Guitars

By Gregory Kable, dramaturg

Deborah Salem Smith’s intimate and expansive drama Love Alone deftly engages several seminal debates of our cultural moment, including the effectiveness of our health care system, escalating litigation and its impact on doctor-patient dynamics, and the status of women in male-dominated professions. It equally addresses broader themes of mother-daughter relationships, generational gulfs, interpretations of justice and personal responsibility, core human experiences of love and loss, the legal standing of same-sex couples and the painful, yet profound process of recovery from any life-altering circumstance.

Thanatology, the interdisciplinary field focusing on death, dying and bereavement, entered popular consciousness in the 1960s, due in large part to the widespread influence of a pair of books generating considerable attention. The first was journalist Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death, a 1963 expose of the funeral industry which spoke to a dominant national repression and avoidance in all matters related to mortality. The second was the classic 1969 study On Death and Dying by Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. Rooted in her clinical work with the terminally ill, Kubler-Ross provided the psychological complement to Mitford’s sociology, identifying a cycle of responses in the face of death which she famously proposed as stages of grief. For Kubler-Ross these were comprised of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, the purity of any theoretical model complicated by Kubler-Ross’ awareness that individual reactions vary greatly from any definitive pattern, particularly given the thread of hope that passes through all of these permutations.
Gustave Moreau, Orpheus (1865)
Several of Mitford’s indictments led to industry reforms, although she still found much unchanged in attitudes and practice decades later in a revised edition published posthumously in 1998. Kubler-Ross’ conclusions were both celebrated and consistently challenged by rival perspectives, sparking controversy to the present day. What makes these still valuable touchstones are their shared articulation of a deeper process beneath the rush of concerns and conflicting emotions in confronting and surviving loss. As does Smith’s play, they share a compassionate acknowledgment that in the wake of death we are thrust into passages which both transform and redefine us.

How appropriate, then, that the settings in Love Alone are intermediary spaces such as waiting rooms, a house made alien by absence, a new home, consulting offices, music touring arenas and parking lots, and that its characters are likewise in varied states of transit. A realtor, a rising musician, a doctor just out of residency, a young married couple in a period of adjustment, combine for a study of lives in flux, and their consequent mutual vulnerabilities are equally revealed as potential strengths. In such tentative environments, emergencies can land with seismic force, while the opposite can also be true: without the certainty of long-held habits and stubborn resignations, the known and familiar are less calcified obstacles, and growth can occur with unforeseen swiftness. But Smith refuses easy answers and pat resolutions. As in classical tragedy, her characters must navigate a complex landscape of ethics, law, and politics. 

Love Alone further resonates with the classical world in its themes attending to art. In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell outlined the main contours of the Hero Quest in religion and mythology, defining three recurrent phases he labels separation, initiation, and return. This pattern of isolation, immersion, and reintegration is as applicable to one’s progress through mourning as it is emblematic of the creative process. Among the most prominent mythic figures in twentieth-century art is the Greek god Orpheus, a deity whose story is inextricably tied to music, death and rebirth. Orpheus charmed nature itself with the sound of his lyre, journeyed to the underworld in a vain attempt to recover his lost wife Eurydice, was torn apart by frenzied Bacchants, and ultimately resurrected.

For numerous artists, Orpheus has served as a symbol of both the creative spirit and the alienation which can accompany that identity. Tennessee Williams wedded both perspectives in his mid-century tragedies Orpheus Descending and Suddenly, Last Summer, whose respective protagonists were a musician and poet broken and literally consumed by corrupt contemporaries. In contrast to these metaphors of a fallen world, Smith offers a rebuttal in the person of a female guitarist, whose success in a punk band “One-Armed Edna” (recalling the dismembered Orpheus) is a testament to all of the women of rock before her, from acoustic legends Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell and Bonnie Raitt, to electric pioneers Nancy Wilson of Heart and Joan Jett, to our present spectrum of pop confessor Taylor Swift and Moscow activists Pussy Riot. This ascendance of female guitarists in the often unwelcoming male landscape of rock embodies a message of empowerment which speaks to that promise of survival in the Orphic legend. And the assertiveness linking these divergent women is another marker of those wider drives toward greater equality in America and abroad. Nevertheless, on the personal level, such a journey, like Orpheus’ own, is fraught with peril. States of uncertainty, fear, and regression are as frequently suffered through in the arts as in grief. In this respect, it’s telling that the renowned American director Anne Bogart titles a central chapter in her essays on the profession “Terror”, counseling the anxious that in making peace with danger, “beauty is created and hence, grace”. 
A Modern Day Orpheus: Heart's Nancy Wilson
Just as artists embrace the darkness, and each successive female musician widens the path for those who come after, Smith’s play confirms that mourning can be an experience as marked by dignity as distress. As she reinforces in an interview, “You never know who you are until it’s your tragedy.” Love Alone offers us a collective portrait of individuals simultaneously bound together and pulled apart by a common crisis: their emotional evolutions tracing a syncopated yet similar arc in the direction of that terminal point of the mythic quest: moving through stages, rebuilding relationships, aspiring toward healing, committing to wisdom, and finding a way back into the light.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Vision Series: Love Alone

Join us February 19th in the Paul Green Theatre for the next installment of the Vision Series.

Come and learn about a production in process while enjoying some delicious hors d'oeuvres through this hugely popular series. Meet Love Alone director Vivienne Benesch and get a behind-the-scenes look at the design and vision for this production.

Vision Series events are free and begin at 6:30pm.

6:30pm - 7:15pm - A conversation with the artists
7:15pm - 8:00pm - Refreshments in the lobby

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Coming Soon: Stephen Sondheim's Assassins

By Mike Donahue, director of Assassins

“In America, our dreams not only can come true, but should come true. And if they don’t, something or someone is to blame.” – John Weidman, librettist, Assassins

In the opening number of Assassins, a carnival proprietor invites eight people onto the stage to take their turn in the carnival’s shooting gallery. Hit the target, get the prize of your dreams. Only the guns he sells them—at a remarkably low price—are real. And the targets are US Presidents.

There have been over twenty attempts to assassinate sitting and former presidents; four of them have been successful. If you’re like me, when I first encountered this show, you know relatively little about most of them. John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald have entered the zeitgeist, but most of the others have been forgotten, dismissed as footnotes, or live on only as trivia.     

Assassins is a dark musical comedy about a disparate group of misfits, all of whom have attempted to assassinate a president. Not exactly standard musical fare. So why spend an entire evening with these people? Why risk getting to know them, their stories, their vulnerabilities, their reasons for doing it? Surely they were crazy, dangerous, fringe, outsiders…right?  

I grew up in St. Louis, living with my mom and grandparents in a house that had secret passageways and hidden rooms, where at age eight I would direct productions of A Christmas Carol and The Lion King starring my cousins and using my humidifier as a fog machine. I was lucky: my family was always supportive of my dream to be a director (and still is; my mother will visit me in Chapel Hill, eager to see the show and go back to Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen).

Throughout childhood, I was always told by my family and in school: you are special and you can be anything you want to be if you set your mind to it. It was a vital part of the American Dream. As I started to work on the show last summer, I suddenly realized I wasn’t as far away from the characters in Assassins as I had assumed. We shared a common understanding of what it meant to be an American.

For Sondheim and Weidman, these people aren’t outsiders, to be dismissed as crazy or unhinged. They are infinitely human, in all of their differing motivations and vulnerabilities.  And they are infinitely American, united by a shared sense of entitlement: they all buy into the idea that we as Americans have (as the opening number states) “a right to be happy” and “a right to our dreams.” So, when we’re not happy, when we don’t achieve those dreams…what then?  

Assassins is outlandish, irreverent and immensely entertaining. It also holds up a mirror to one of the very foundations of our national identity. At one moment in the show, one of the assassins slyly notes that “when you have a gun – everybody pays attention.” If we do it right, there will be a surprising and vital reason for you to pay attention – and, we will definitely share some laughs along the way.    

I hope you’ll join us in April to spend some time with our Assassins!

Vivienne Benesch and Deborah Salem Smith discuss "Love Alone"

Director Vivienne Benesch and playwright Deborah Salem Smith discuss staging the regional premiere of Love Alone at PlayMakers.

Vivienne Benesch & Deborah Salem Smith
VB: My previous productions at PlayMakers were In The Next Room by Sarah Ruhl and Red by John Logan. Both are exceptional contemporary plays, but both are set in the past and explore either historical characters (Rothko) or inventions (the vibrator). One of the things I’m most looking forward to about Love Alone is working on an amazing new play about now, about people just like us.

DSS:  Well, one thing we all have in common is that everyone will be a patient at some point.  In light of that truth, this play takes on one of my personal fears. A character loses her partner of 20 years––so I confront that possibility through fiction. The story begins when a routine hospital surgery goes tragically wrong, then tracks the emotional and legal aftermath for both the victim’s and the doctor’s families. I focus on four characters, and how fiercely they love whomever they love. A marriage in one case; a mother-daughter relationship in another. The title of my play comes from an Edna St. Vincent Millay poem that begins “love is not all.”  But then, of course, the poem goes on to prove––when we really must choose what we care most about––love is all.

VB: Love Alone confronts emotional and ethical dilemmas that are extremely topical and timely. Did you mean to write something so “today”?

DSS: To be honest, not really!  [Laughter.]  I write a play out of personal hunger for a topic. And sometimes it happens to land at a moment when our communities are debating these same ideas––so this play happens to arrive as we debate these essential questions. Should laws protect doctors who want to apologize? How should we reform our health care system? Do lawsuits empower victims and thus aid the grieving process? Or does a lawsuit disrupt that process?  Does forgiveness require remorse or an apology by the offender?  

VB: It’s very rare to see a play (or film or TV show) using malpractice as an anchor for the plot that is not exclusively told from one “side” or the other.

DSS: I’m drawn to stories that let audiences bear witness to the humanness of every person involved––where your sympathy bubbles up unexpectedly, where there are no black and white answers. 

VB: You certainly accomplish that in Love Alone. Audiences can identify with the compelling struggles of all the characters––the family of the deceased and the doctor who was charged with her care. The play is ultimately about the process of grieving and forgiveness—between mother and daughter, husband and wife, doctor and patient. And you manage to make it simultaneously compassionate, unsentimental, heartbreaking, and even funny!

DSS: Of course it’s certainly a play where people are journeying through grief, but there also has to be very real joy. Even in our hardest hours we experience a range of complex feelings. There can be laughter at a funeral. There can be loneliness at a wedding. So it was essential to write some big, joyous scenes into the story.

VB: Let’s not give away any more than that for now!  What about doing Love Alone at PlayMakers makes you most excited?

DSS: I’m coming home. I was inspired to write about forgiveness because of a powerful choice my beloved grandmother made. She lived on a farm in Burnsville, North Carolina. And I grew up in Charlotte. I left North Carolina after high school. So it’s exciting to return home to share my play in this place, where I still have so many friends and family members. 

VB: Well, I can’t wait for the discussions this story is going to ignite. The Triangle community has such an incredible intellectual presence to engage with the issues of Love Alone. With the wonderful group of creative artists we’ve assembled and rehearsals underway, I can't wait for PlayMakers audiences to join us!

Deborah Salem Smith grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina. She is now the playwright-in-residence at Trinity Repertory Company, in Providence, Rhode Island. Love Alone premiered at Trinity Rep, and received an Edgerton Foundation New American Play Award as well as an Honorable Mention by the Jane Chambers Playwriting Award.
Vivienne is in her tenth season as Artistic Director of the renowned Chautauqua Theater Company and Conservatory. Recently she directed a highly acclaimed re-imagining of Romeo and Juliet featuring Chautauqua, New York’s symphony, theatre, opera and dance companies.She previously directed In The Next Room (or the vibrator play) by Sarah Ruhl and Red by John Logan at PlayMakers.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Cocktail Culture in the 1930's

ELYOT: I think I mentioned once before that I have only had three minute liqueur glasses of brandy the whole evening long. A child of two couldn't get drunk on that.

When Private Lives was written by Noel Coward in 1930, you could not legally drink in the United States, in fact, you would have to wait three more long years for Prohibition to be repealed. But, if you headed over to London, you could get served at the Savoy by none other than Harry Craddock. 

After reportedly serving the last legal cocktail in New York in 1920, he sailed for England and spent the next 20 years shaking and stirring masterpieces at the Savoy. In 1930, his famous mixing manual The Savoy Cocktail Book was published. It contained about 750 recipes ranging from slings to fizzes, and its beautiful art deco illustrations captured the elegant sophistication of the era. It also contained the recipe for Craddock’s infamous Corpse Reviver #2.

Corpse Reviver #2

Shake equal parts gin, lemon juice, Lillet and Cointreau, and a dash of absinthe. Then strain into a cocktail coupe. Craddock dryly notes “Four of these taken in swift succession will unrevive the corpse again.”

Image from:

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Behind the Scenes: The bias cut revolution

In the 1930’s waist-lines returned and hems dropped back to the floor for eveningwear. And, undergarments virtually disappeared from under bias cut dresses featuring low cowl necklines, body skimming lines, and plunging backs. Weather you were long and lean or curvy from head to toe, these created a sexy, yet elegant silhouette that remained popular throughout the 1930’s.

What is the bias? It is the direction of a piece of woven fabric that is at 45 degrees to its warp (lengthwise threads that are held in tension on a frame or loom) and weft threads (thread which is drawn through the warp threads to create cloth.) So, if a fabric is woven, it has a bias. Cutting fabric along the bias creates elasticity and fluidity, perfect for the elegant, flowing, form skimming gowns popular in the 1930’s. According to the Voguepedia bias-cut styles of the 1930’s had their origins a decade earlier, when the Parisian couturier Madeleine Vionnet began experimenting with this tricky line. Cecil Beaton said, “Women dressed by her were like moving sculptures.” The Voguepedia also points out that the bias cut goes as far back as the Middle Ages, when men’s linen and wool hosiery was cut on the bias for better fit. But, as anyone who has watched Jean Harlow or Carole Lombard grace the silver screen knows, the bias cut’s highest form is in the elegant, and oh so glamorous satin evening gowns of the 1930’s.