A Reminder of Why We Do Theatre

A number of television shows and films beckon me lately, and once I’ve seen them, I hope to write about them. There’s the blockbuster Knocked Up, about which I’m entirely suspicious, given its pedigree and given what I’ve heard about the choices—or non-choices—Katherine Heigl’s character makes around her unexpected pregnancy. And then there’s the recently opened Evening, based on the book by Susan Minot, which I read years ago and found very moving. With a cast so full of talented women, that film must be worth seeing, regardless of how well they adapt Minot’s non-chronological, elegiac story.

I’ve also recently started watching Rescue Me, Dennis Leary’s FX-broadcast dramedy, which I find I like despite the incessant boy-banter among him and his firefighter buddies. Too soon to discuss it here, but I’m getting hooked by original plot lines and characters (the gay son of Jerry, the stressed out fire chief; the beautiful, baby-faced young Mike, debating his sexuality and whether or not to kill his terminally ill mother; and Leary’s Tommy, with his fluid moral code and his 9/11-survivor’s guilt), by the confident and easy ensemble acting, and by the writing, which cuts way above network tv.

I’ve also tuned in to the new season of The Closer, which I’ve written about in this blog before. Brenda’s new style—less garish make-up and clothes, which I suppose means she’s assimilating to LA—and Kyra Sedgwick’s impeccably committed performance attracted me instantly, although a recent episode in which she worried about her father finding out that she and her FBI agent boyfriend were living together didn’t make sense to me. I might have missed some back-story, but I can’t imagine why a woman as tough as Brenda would be so concerned about parental approval. But maybe that’s one of her rich contradictions.

Sadly, because of other commitments—work, play, travel—I’m missing more theatre in Austin than I’m seeing. I was unable to catch Sharon Bridgforth’s Love Conjure/Blues, the next version of the performance novel that she continually reshapes and restages, much to the delight of Austin’s audiences. I utterly admire Sharon’s passion, and her luscious language, inflected with poetry and spinning into stories of love and betrayal and wily tricksterisms that please the ear and the imagination alike. I’ve heard that the most recent version was a video installation in which Sharon interacted with taped performers. The large-hearted generosity of Sharon’s vision, I’m sure, remained intact and inspiring throughout.

I’m also missing a production of Parallel Lives: The Kathy and Mo Show, which I’ve never seen performed by anyone but Kathy Najimy and Mo Gaffney. Produced in Austin by the City Theatre Company, Breanna Stogner and Kathleen Fletcher take on these roles, which require them, I assume, to play Kathy and Mo, as well as all the characters they cycle through in their performance/play, which addresses, with affectionate humor, the travails of everyday life for women in the 20th (and now 21st) century. I’d be curious to see how local actors handle performing performers performing multiple roles.

An event I was lucky enough to attend at Zach Scott Theatre last Tuesday night, however, reminded me why I’m a theatre person in the first place. Ann Ciccolella, who served since 1999 as the Managing Director of the theatre, recently opted to end her tenure at Zach to pursue other local arts opportunities. During her eight years with Zach, Ann directed, among other things, a remarkable production of Cabaret, in which she cast singer Susanne Abbott as the emcee, a brilliant decision that opened up all sorts of new gender meanings in the musical. Abbott’s performance was as (if not more) sexy and sly and riveting as Alan Cumming’s on Broadway, and her gender brought with it new implications about the erotics of power when it circulates among women (even if those women are primarily the Kit Kat girls).

Ann also directed the best production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf I’ve ever seen, finding in the play more layers of menace and malice, vulnerability and veracity than I thought possible to retrieve. With the inimitable Fran Dorn (a nationally known actor who came to Austin from the Shakespeare Theatre in DC to head the MFA Acting Program at UT), as Martha, a full partner in the play’s movement and mood and style, the intricate, lengthy play was tragic, crystal clear, and awfully quick.

In addition to these two unforgettable productions, Ann directed The Vagina Monologues with rotating cast of local luminaries, including beloved local theatre doyenne Karen Kuykendall, the Austin City Manager Toby Futrell, and Fran Dorn. Adopting the casting scheme that kept the play running in New York for many years, Ann managed to invigorate the event and keep audiences coming for more lessons about what women call their female parts. With her cagey creative intelligence, Ann fashioned a sharp production of a play that’s been long overdone by college students celebrating Eve Ensler’s “V-Day,” her own canny anti-domestic violence activist/artistic creation.

With these memories of Ann and many more to chew on, the theatre hosted a send-off that itself proved memorable and moving. Although I’ve only been in Austin for eight years, I’ve found the theatre community warm and welcoming, taking care of long term denizens of the scene as well as us newbies. As some indication of the eclectic, ecumenical bent of the community, the crowd at Ann’s party boasted administrators from the Long Center (the new performing arts complex that’s slowly unfolding its stages just across Town Lake from downtown Austin); members of Zach’s board of directors and its staff (from front of house folks to techies, designers, and performers); local arts writers from the Austin American-Statesman and The Chronicle; fundraisers and philanthropists; other theatre-makers and performers; and numerous FOAs (Friends of Ann).

After a bit of circulating in Zach’s hot, increasingly loud lobby, we were ushered into the theatre for an hour of testimony and performance in Ann’s honor. The chair of Zach’s board talked about being a Jew in Texas and broke a glass under his foot, a ritual performed in Jewish weddings for luck. A board member told a story about meeting Ann for the first time during his interview, and wrapping up the hour feeling pleased with their conversation. When he stuck out his hand to shake, Ann said, “No-no-no-no-no, in the theatre, we hug,” and warmly embraced this more or less stranger.

Ann’s assistant, Barbara Chisholm, who also performs regularly at Zach and around Austin, spoke of what it’s like to work with someone who’s also a friend. Robert Faires, the arts editor of The Chronicle, honored Ann with his reminiscences. And Toby Futrell, the city manager whom Ann had cajoled into taking a role in The Vagina Monologues, related what it felt like to make her stage debut under Ann’s auspices. As Zach’s Artistic Director Dave Steakley remarked, the list invited speakers ranged from the theatre into the community, representing the reach of Ann’s influence across the city.

While these remarks were always amusing and apt, the performances interspersed with speeches moved me even more. Austin is the kind of theatre town where performers who work regularly become known to audiences, where you can see the extent of an actor’s range and the breadth of her creativity. Zach employs a stable of performers who I look forward to watching in every production, and four of them presented at Ann’s party. Jill Blackwood, who recently played Julie Jordan in a TexArts production of Carousel, and who performed as the prostitute living in Cliff and Sally’s boarding house in Cabaret, sang a Sondheim number from Into the Woods, which Ann directed for another theatre earlier in her career.

Meredith McCall, who played Sally Bowles in Ann’s Cabaret, sang “The Waters of March,” the poignant bossa nova written by Antonio Carlos Jobim. She sang with such warmth and affection and hope for Ann’s future, the catchy tune couldn’t help but be infectious and inspiring. Martin Burke, a Zach regular who played Prior in Steakley’s production of Angels in America, which Ann dramaturged after local playwright/critic/theatre professor David Mark Cohen died suddenly, performed Prior’s final monologue, the one in front of the fountain of Bethesda where he looks forward to the future with hunger and wonder.

Helen Merino, a local actor who moved to New York after playing Honey in Ann’s Virginia Woolf, Antigone in Ann’s adaptation of Sophocles, and many other parts, performed a monologue after surprising the audience (and Ann) by appearing live.

But here’s the thing about those four performances: The performers offered each of those speeches or songs as a trove of love and respect for Ann. Whatever their original context, they all took on new meaning in the performers’ address, and in the context of tribute, of memory, and of hope for Ann’s future. Through performance, Jill, Meredith, Martin, and Helen clarified how often and how intimately Ann touches people’s lives.

In a theatre, but without the typical mediations of text and character, set or direction, these four actors marshaled their craft and polished their emotions to deliver lyrics and melodies that struck just the right chord. Without a play or a musical to guide them, they used their art to deliver other art, wrapped with bows to Ann. What better way for an artist to receive the gift of people’s admiration but in art, as art, through art?

The evening shored up my faith in theatre’s power to rally us. Plied with deliciously plentiful food and bellinis, the audience flew high on Ann’s tribute. But the cocktails only enhanced an evening that was already magical, bringing together a hard-working, supportive, committed theatre community to toast one of its own and send her on her way to her next adventure in the arts. Moments like these provide milestones for people like Ann, who are moving on, and touchstones for the rest of us, who receive the gift of connection with the things that matter, and are moved and reminded of why we we’re people of the theatre.

Thank you, Zach,
The Feminist Spectator

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