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  • Wheelock's 'In the Heights'

    This week, I returned to Boston’s Wheelock Family Theatre to photograph its production of “In the Heights.” The first show of Wheelock’s 2017-18 season, Lin Manuel Miranda’s Tony Award-winning musical opens tonight and runs through November 17. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays with matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.

    Wheelock Family Theatre, which was founded in 1981, is the fourth largest theater company in Boston. Its mission is to provide “professional affordable theatre that appeals to people of all ages,” and the organization also provides education programs on site and in the Boston public schools.

    This is my third time to shoot a Wheelock show, after working on “Billy Elliot” and “Charlotte’s Web” earlier this year. It is a pleasure to spend time with a group of creative and dedicated volunteers and professionals who love their craft.

    For more information about the theatre, or to get tickets for the show, visit www.wheelockfamilytheatre.org. To see more of my photos, go to my Facebook album here.

  • MYT Performs 'columbinus'

    Last night, in a small, sweltering room on the 18th anniversary of the mass shooting at Columbine High School, I shot production photos for Metropolitan Youth Theater’s production of “columbinus,” a provocative and troubling play that that focuses on “the dark recesses of American adolescence.”

    Suggested by the April 1999 Columbine shooting, with a script that includes excerpts from discussions with parents, survivors and community leaders in Littleton, Colo., the play was created by the United States Theatre project and performed Off-Broadway in 2006. It runs at 8:30 p.m. today and 7 p.m. Saturday in the Black Box Theatre at Metropolitan School of the Arts.

    The cast of eight opens the show as teenage archetypes, without names but labels (Loner, Freak, AP (Advanced Placement), Rebel, Faith, Perfect, Prep, and Jock). Freak and Loner are bullied by their classmates and morph into Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold at the start of Act 2. The rest of the show, which takes its script from the journals and videos of Klebold and Harris, shows what happens in the days approaching Columbine and their subsequent suicides. An epilogue features survivors, parents, and townspeople reflecting on the events.

    Warning: Given the subject matter and language, this is not a play for young or impressionable children. It is, however, a courageous step forward for Metropolitan Youth Theatre, which was founded in 2014 by three high school students who wanted area youth to perform in shows with adult themes. Past productions, all musicals put on entirely by high school and college students, have included “Rent” and “Spring Awakening.”

    “columbinus,” is directed by Chad Vann, a Hayfield High School senior who is one of the group’s co-founders. Vann also is one of the eight cast members (Jock). The rest of the cast includes Brian Perry (Loner/Dylan Klebold), Danny Waldman (Freak/Eric Harris), AP (Joshua Mutterpearl), Rebel (Bridgette Saverine), Faith (Erin Claeys), Perfect (Hallie Friedman), and Prep (Jackson Miller). Madison Hite is the understudy for Faith.

    Alyssa Denton is producing the show, with Hailey Parker-Combes serving as the costume designer and Delaney Claussen as the sound designer.

    A limited number of tickets are available at the box office for the shows. MSA is located at 5775 Barclay Drive, Suite 4 in Alexandria, Va., 22315.

    To see more photos from the production, go to my Facebook page here.

  • Charlotte's Web at Boston Theatre

    For the second time this year, I was fortunate to go to Boston to shoot a show at the Wheelock Family Theatre, a small regional Equity house on the campus of Wheelock College. Last Wednesday and Thursday, the cast of “Charlotte’s Web” conducted their final two dress rehearsals before opening on Friday night.

    As with many shows that focus on kids, the children in the cast were split into two companies, with the adults doing all the performances. I especially appreciated Wheelock’s total sense of inclusion in casting both the children and the adults. It gave this classic children’s story an even greater sense of universality.

    Also fascinating was the aerial silk choreography, which used fabric suspended from the ceiling to transport Charlotte (played by Caroline Lawton) around her web as she writes various words about Wilbur the pig (Michael Keita Hisamoto). It really is something to see.

    “Charlotte’s Web” runs through May 14. For tickets and information on the theatre, its classes and its mission, visit http://wheelockfamilytheatre.org.

    For more photos from the show, go to my Facebook album here.

  • MYT's 'Spring Awakening' Debuts

    The Metropolitan Youth Theatre, a company run completely by high school and college students, will present the Tony Award-winning musical "Spring Awakening" this weekend at 1st Stage Tysons in McLean, Va.  The musical is the fourth presented by the company since it was founded by three then-high school students (Sam Cornbrooks, Chad Vann, and James Woods).

    All of these photos were shot live during the final dress rehearsal on Thursday. No set ups and no retakes. 

    It has been a pleasure to serve as the company's photographer for all four shows, all of which have been interesting, contemporary, and challenging fare. "Spring Awakening" is suitable for mature audiences only.

    For more photos, go to my “Performances” page or see the full Facebook album here.

  • MYT's 'Songs for a New World'

    Metropolitan Youth Theatre will present “Songs for a New World,” its first show of the 2015-16 season, this weekend at the Workhouse Arts Center in Lorton. Jason Robert Brown’s 1995 musical is described as “a very theatrical song cycle” connected by a theme that focuses on “the moment of decision.”

    The show features Madyson Hanton, Emmeline Jones, Jordan Sledd and Hank Von Kolnitz. It is directed by Chad Vann and produced by Sam Cornbrooks, with musical direction by James Woods, who leads a three-piece orchestra.

    “Songs for a New World” is the third production by MYT, which was founded in 2014 by Cornbrooks, Vann, and Woods, all of whom are high school students in Fairfax County. The company is run entirely by high school and college students. I have been the group's photographer since its inception.

    Tickets for this weekend’s shows, which will be performed in Building W-3 at the workhouse, are $20 each. Showtimes are at 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday.

    To get tickets, go to www.metroyoutharts.com

  • A Crazy Week: Recap

    Life is crazy enough when you have four kids in four schools in three states. Add in two conferences, a Knicks game, Billy Elliot's 1,000th show, Nicholas' prom, Emma and Jill's 10 mile race, and my nephew's airplane ride, and you have the makings of a crazy week — even by our standards.

    Thursday: My mom and nephew arrived from Texas to take care of Ben. It's Eric's first trip here, and he seems a little intimidated. Looking good in my dad's UT jacket, however. With Jill and the girls in Virginia, and my mom and nephew Eric taking care of Ben in New York, I went to San Francisco for NSBA's annual conference. After the six-hour flight, I had an hour to go out with my camera before several 16 to 18 hour days.

    Friday: My mom and nephew Eric attended the 1,000th show for "Billy Elliot," where Ben played Michael.

    Saturday: In North Carolina, Nicholas went to his high school prom with his date, Gracie Strand.

    Sunday: While Kate enjoyed a sleepover at her friend Stephanie's, Emma and Jill completed the 10-mile GW Parkway Classic.

    Monday: While Jill and Emma recovered from their run, Nicholas went back to school after prom, and I prepared to fly on the redeye back from San Francisco, Ben and Eric enjoyed time together in the afternoon at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

    Tuesday: Before Eric and mom go home, I take him to see American Idiot before it closes on Broadway. Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes sit in the row opposite us. When I point them out, Eric notes that Holmes is gorgeous but asks me who Tom Cruise is. Youth...

    Wednesday: While Ben was at the show, i was able to go to the New York Knicks game against the Toronto Raptors. David Drier, another Billy parent, invited me to see the festivities from his company's box. Cool way to watch a game, and the beer wasn't bad either.

    Phew...

  • The Last Five Years

    This is a poster concept I shot for the Metropolitan Youth Arts Theatre’s upcoming production of Jason Robert Brown’s “The Last Five Years.” The two-character show, which explores the ups and downs of a couple’s five-year relationship, is the theatre’s first entirely student-run production.

    Shows will be at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 16, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 17, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 18 at The Atlas Performing Arts Center in Washington, D.C. The show stars Kyra Smith and Ben Cherington.

  • 'I Never Saw Another Butterfly'

    The MSA Academy performed its award-winning version of the Holocaust drama "I Never Saw Another Butterfly" for parents and supporters Sunday at the Alexandria studio. The story of children relocated to Terezin, a Jewish ghetto established by the Nazi party, the show received five awards at the Virginia Theatre Association's annual conference last weekend. Congratulations to Matt Bassett (Academy theatre department chair) and the cast and crew for their excellent work.

    For more photos, go to my Facebook album here.

  • Newsies Director Sees Himself in Kids

    Nice profile today of Newsies director Jeff Calhoun in the Huffington Post. Loved this quote in particular:

    "I mean, when I look up onstage and see the young man who's playing the role of Race in this, I can't help but think that that's how old I was when I first began dancing professionally. ... So there's not a day that goes where I don't see myself in these kids. And that — to me, anyway — is a huge part of the appeal of Newsies. That, as you're watching this show and seeing all those energetic young people up there on stage, this is the future of live theater right there in front of you. It's very moving. Even talking about it now, I get very moved."

    To see the whole story, go here.

  • History Lessons Redefine Meaning of Family

    I’ve always loved history. It started with memorizing the presidents when I was 8. My elementary school was named after Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, and I asked my mom who they were.

    “Why don’t you look it up,” she said.

    So I did.

    This was in the early 1970s, smack dab in the middle of the Watergate years, when you found your history not on Google or Wikipedia, but via the encyclopedias that were on the shelf in my parents’ house. My father was ill, and I found the encyclopedias just as fascinating as the sitcoms that were on perpetual reruns in our living room.

    I’m sure my parents had to be a little relieved, given I was taking an interest in history at a time when our nation’s faith in institutions was crumbling. It’s a faith that has continued to steadily erode as we’ve become more and more polarized amid promises of not leaving children behind, of restoring dreams, of rebuilding trust.

    Over the past few months, as the kids move closer to leaving the nest and as the challenges of my finding a new career remain relentlessly daunting, I’ve become increasingly aware that 50 looms. And I’ve started looking at history through another lens — the last almost half century that has been my life. 

    ••••••

    This spring, my older son, Nicholas, was asked to assist with the set design for Elon University’s production of “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches.” I had seen the production in Texas in the mid 1990s, and the subsequent miniseries on HBO.

    “Angels,” like “The Normal Heart,” is set in the early days of the AIDS crisis. The latter, written by Larry Kramer and revived for a Tony Award-winning Broadway production in 2011, is an urgent call to action. “Angels” has the same impact, although the style is less documentary and more allegorical.

    Watching “Angels,” which is set in 1985, and the Elon actors performing it, I was transported back to that era. As I told Nicholas, I was around the age of the actors — 20 — when the play took place, and I was reminded of how much had transpired in a single generation.

    I remembered the fear and lack of understanding about AIDS and HIV, how it was first dubbed a gay cancer and the gay plague. I remembered when Rock Hudson, an actor my father greatly admired, announced on his deathbed that he had AIDS. And I remembered how uncomfortable I felt when our president — Ronald Reagan, who most in my family voted for — refused to officially acknowledge AIDS as a public health concern until two years later.

    I remembered the absolute lack of understanding or compassion many people of my and previous generations had, especially living in the South. I remembered seeing people waste away in the arts district in Houston, where I lived in my early 20s. I remembered the controversy over Ryan White, the child who contracted HIV and later died of AIDS from a blood transfusion.

    I remembered how, living in North Carolina several years after White’s death, it was difficult to get my former boss to support me in writing a story about a high school student who died of AIDS after contracting HIV from a blood transfusion.

    That child, Brian Hare, was part of the first drug trials for AZT. When he died at age 18, he weighed just 45 pounds.

    ••••••

    The other night, my daughter Kate and I watched “Dazed and Confused,” Richard Linklater’s film about the last day of school in a Texas town in 1976. The ensemble movie, which launched what seemed to be 1,000 acting careers, is not awash in nostalgia for the era. The title fits; these kids are truly dazed and confused. Some want to grow up while others don't, but their afraid either way.

    I was struck by our different reactions to the movie’s candid depiction of hazing, which is considered abhorrent today but was part of the norm in many similar towns back then.  Mine was somewhat muted, even as it brought back memories of being bullied as a kid. Kate could not bear to watch.

    “I can’t believe they did that to each other,” she said. “Why?”

    I tried to explain that it was a combination of misguided tradition (“They did it to me so I’m doing it to you”), adults conveniently looking the other way, and the acceptance of misogyny in a small-town environment. I thought back to my own childhood, to the bullies on the football field with limited tolerance for someone who wasn’t very talented, but wanted to be accepted.

    “Why?”

    ••••••

    Given the snail’s pace at which change occurs, especially in the political arena, the move toward public acceptance of gay rights and same sex marriage over the past decade has been nothing short of remarkable.

    It’s also long overdue.

    This month marked the 10th anniversary since same-sex marriage was first legalized in Massachusetts, but the movement has taken off since 2013, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that part of the reprehensible Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional. Since, President Obama and many other elected leaders have said they support marriage equality, and polls show the same is true among a majority of Americans.

    Jason Collins became the first openly gay player in the NBA this year, and the St. Louis Rams made history when they drafted Michael Sam, who had come out to his University of Missouri teammates last summer and to the world before the NFL draft. Ironically, Sam grew up in Hitchcock, a small town only a few miles from my hometown of Texas City.

    Covering Hitchcock for the local newspaper several years before Michael was even born, I knew of the Sam family. They were, in Michael’s words, “very notorious in the town that we lived in. Everyone would say, ‘There goes those damn Sams.’” Three of Sams’ seven siblings are dead; two are in jail.

    Sam was fortunate. He found an extended family, thanks to a supportive football coach and a local banker who took him in and treated him as “just another son.” He channeled his anger and confusion and put it into football, graduating as an All-American after coming out to his team. Now, as he tries to make history, he has another supportive coach and team behind him.

    That these developments, albeit in the form of baby steps, are taking place in the professional sports world is a welcome surprise. But they also show times are finally changing.

    Gay couples now can marry in 19 states and the District of Columbia, and lawsuits have been filed in 30 others; only North Dakota has a same-sex marriage ban that has not been challenged.

    My children are part of a generation that is far more tolerant and accepting than mine was in many, many ways. They are the ones asking “why?” and not accepting the pat, go-to answers.

    Yes, we have bullies who take privilege in power.  Yes, we have great economic disparity that continues to this day. And yes, racism is still out there, 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education — another momentous event in history that marks an anniversary this month.

    But thanks to this generation of teens, and the ones surely to follow them, many have stopped asking why and are starting to take action.

    ••••••

    The best gift my parents gave me can be summed up in a few words: “We don’t want you to grow up with our prejudices.” My dad said that to me years ago, and it has stuck with me as a son and as a parent.

    Another gift came from my second family, the couple I grew up across the street from in Texas City. They informally adopted my sister and me, later calling our children their grandchildren. They opened their doors to one and all each Thanksgiving, welcoming co-workers and friends who did not have anywhere to go.

    Thanksgiving remains my favorite holiday, for just that reason.

    This week, as the film version of “The Normal Heart” premieres with an all-star cast on HBO, another show is being performed eight times a week in New York. It is a remarkable new play by Terrence McNally called “Mothers and Sons.”

    The four-character, single act play tells the story of Katharine Gerard (a wonderful Tyne Daly), who lost her son, Andre, to AIDS 20 years before. Still angry and bitter about his death and his lifestyle, she arrives on the doorstep of her son’s lover, Cal, who is now married to Will, a man 15 years his junior. The couple has a 6-year-old son.

    The play, which is the first on Broadway to depict a married gay couple, is part history lesson, part eulogy to the era so vividly depicted in “Angels” and “The Normal Heart.” It is a wonderful piece of work from McNally, who has long written about gay issues, and his husband, producer Tom Kirdahy.

    Both believe that the crisis they went through a generation ago should not be forgotten. They believe so strongly in the show and its subject matter that they have made all tickets $30 for audience members under 30 — a steal in New York.

    “First it will be a chapter in a history book, then a paragraph, then a footnote,” Will says to Katharine toward the end of the show. “People will shake their heads and say, ‘What a terrible thing, how sad.’ It’s already started to happen. I can feel it happening. All the raw edges of pain dulled, deadened, drained away.”

    I saw “Mothers and Sons” with my friends Bernadette and Ginno, who was Ben’s guardian on the “Billy Elliot” tour and is part of our extended family. Ginno, who is gay and in his mid 20s, is part of the generation that does not equate AIDS with a death sentence. And as he gets older, he becomes more interested in what helped bring him to this place in life.

    Over the past three years, we have talked frequently about the challenges we face — mine as a husband and father and his as a single man. We even shared a Thanksgiving dinner together in our (still missed) apartment in New York, complete with my entire family and friends who didn’t have anywhere else to go that year.

    That’s a piece of my history that bears repeating.

  • Baseball & Theater: What A Game!

    Baseball is known for its superstitions: Always respect a streak. Never talk to the pitcher who's throwing a no-hitter. There is some logic to them, even though superstitions can stray toward the weird sometimes. To quote a player trying to stop a hitting slump in "Bull Durham": Anyone have a live chicken?

    Theatre, as I've learned, also has its share of superstitions. Did you know that saying "Macbeth" aloud in a theater is the same as shouting "Fire!" in a crowded movie? (It is referred to, simply, as "The Scottish Play.") Or that actors do not, I repeat do not, discuss the show's reviews or their individual performances. (I'm pretty sure some read them, though...)

    Baseball and theatre share a single moment in "Ragtime," in which Father takes his Little Boy out to watch a game rather than talk to him. Baseball is, Father says, a "civilized" sport.

    Then, in the Act II number "What A Game!" Father finds that the other fans are less than proper and certainly not civilized, even as his son Edgar learns how the other half of a divided America lives. (Even though the play is set in New York, the fans act more like they're from Philadelphia.) It's a light moment in what becomes a progressively somber second act, and one of the play's many tips of the hat to America's greatest icons.

    Theatre, like baseball, also is full of traditions, some of which are better known to the general public than others. As rehearsals have moved to performances, I've learned about two such traditions that are just fascinating.

    One is the "sitzprobe," in which cast members sing through the show with the orchestra in a rehearsal hall without blocking, costume, or staging. The focus is on merging the two groups and in the case of "Ragtime," which integrated a 28-piece orchestra with a 40-member cast, it was quite the experience for all concerned.

    The other is the "Gypsy Robe" ceremony. Held an hour before curtain on Opening Night, it started in 1950 when Bill Bradley, a chorus member in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," persuaded a chorus girl to give him her dressing gown. According to the Actors' Equity website, Bradley sent the gown to a friend on opening night of "Call Me Madam," who then sent it to another chorus member on the next opening night. The tradition, which has continued nonstop for almost 60 years, now has official rules; for example, the robe is given to the most experienced chorus member, who then parades around the stage counterclockwise and slaps the hand of each person in the cast.

    Fortunately, Ben has participated in both events as part of the "Ragtime" company. This Saturday, when he goes on stage for the first time, he will sing "What A Game!" in the role of Little Boy. And as he learns more about the history and traditions of theatre, he flinches when I mention the word "Macbeth" in his presence.

    As long as he doesn't go on the hunt for a live chicken, I guess we'll be OK.

  • March Madness

    In our family, March is one of those months — like December — that makes me shake my head. Somehow, without help from the NCAA Tournament, we have managed to jam a year’s worth of madness into a single 31-day period we revisit every 12 months.

    From birth to marriage to death, our family has it all. And considering that we’re a theatrical bunch, we also have musicals, comedies, and dramas.

    The last week of the month is larded with psychological landmines, none more than March 27, the day of my parents’ wedding anniversary and the day in which my second “dad” died.

    Bill’s death, six years ago, fell on my parents’ 40th wedding anniversary. It was not completely unexpected, because he had been in poor health for several months. What was unexpected was the chain of loss that would follow, with my father and second “mom” (Bill’s wife, Fran) and Jill’s mother dying in the next three years.

    This year, I was fortunate to be with my mom on March 27, doing something I would not have thought possible in 2004: Driving more than 600 miles in one day to see my son, Nicholas, in a play. (The reason we drove up and back was because she saw Ben in his show the next evening.)

    Although it was a long day, the trip was nice. We didn't focus on the past, but looked more at the present and future. And it's a bright future because my mom, thankfully, is in a good place now. For the first time in her life she is financially comfortable, and traveling as all people who worked for their entire lives should get to do.

    More important, she has rebounded spectacularly from a hellish year that no one should replicate, in which she lost her husband, her best friend of more than 40 years, another close friend, and the woman who raised her — all in a four-month period.

    The circle backs were in full swing on this day. We drove through Reidsville, where I lived when I moved from Texas to North Carolina, got a divorce, met Jill, had three children in a year, and saw the course of my life change forever. We were going to see Nicholas in “South Pacific,” a play I had seen only a few weeks earlier with Ben in New York, and one that tells the stories of servicemen and women similar to my grandfather’s.

    As it tends to do, our conversation meandered from topic to topic. No great revelations, no family ghosts looking for skeletons. The occasional nod to the past.

    Just a nice day.

  • Stage Dad: Three Simple Rules

    Everyone has heard horrible stories about stage parents.

    Reality shows paint the worst pictures in vivid, cable-ready HD. Tabloids are littered with tales of the Lindsays, the Brittanys, the Mileys, the Gary Colemans, and other assorted child actors/personalities whose lives became train wrecks. Somewhere along the way, egos explode and lines get crossed. Advocates become asses.

    For a parent, that possibility is frightening as you enter into this strange world. In our case, we had a child who found a passion very early in life, and we wanted to support his pursuit of that passion. But we were terrified of becoming anything resembling the stereotype.

    Early on, my wife and I developed three simple rules that we live by regarding our son:

    #1: Maintain good grades: Your education comes first. Yes, the education and training you receive by working with professional actors, writers, directors, choreographers and others is invaluable. Doing so at the expense of your formal education is not an option, however. The minute your grades go south is the time to reevaluate what’s important, no matter how good the professional opportunity.

    Funny story: When Ben was in fourth grade, he got a role in the Folger Theater’s production of “Macbeth,” directed by Aaron Posner and Teller. Early on in the show’s run, he arbitrarily decided that math was not necessary for him to pursue an acting career. In Fairfax County, students receive interim report cards every three weeks. His grade was a “D."

    That night, when I picked him up at the show at 10:30, I started drilling him on multiplication tables during the 30-minute drive home. The next night, the same. The following night, the same.

    By the fourth night of 9x9 = 81, he looked at me exasperated and asked: “What do I have to do to get you to stop?” My response was simple: Get your grades up and I’ll stop. Otherwise, it will be a long 52 rides home for you.

    He got the message.

    #2: Be a professional when you are in a professional environment: You are working with adults who rely on this job for their living. You are lucky; you don’t have to do this to support your family. It doesn’t matter who you encounter — director, writer, choreographer, casting director, grip, stagehand, wrangler, costumer — everyone deserves equal respect. This is a very small world, which means you will encounter these people again at some point. How you represent yourself yesterday, today and tomorrow makes a difference.

    Working on his first show, Ford’s Theatre’s “A Christmas Carol,” Ben was five minutes late for a rehearsal. Traffic was bad and we did not plan accordingly. He arrived and promptly was chewed out by Mark Ramont; we were not late again.

    Later, I asked Mark why he did that. His reasoning was simple: No matter how talented our son is, having a lax attitude toward his coworkers is disrespectful and not acceptable. Again, lesson learned.

    And most important…

    #3: When you’re not in a professional environment, don’t forget that you’re a kid. You don’t have to be on all the time. Play (safely). Enjoy time with your friends. Get away from the pressure cooker that this life presents. Yes, it’s a remarkable life and you are having some fabulous experiences, but striking the life/work balance is just as important.

    We are lucky. Our son, and for that matter all of our kids, are still very much teenagers. Ben is interested in his technology, theme parks and Facebook. He has encountered the often-tangled ropes on relationships with girls. He still gets nervous when he’s facing a test in school or about to go on in a new role.

    And yet, he’s still our little boy, not afraid to give me a hug in public, not ashamed to be seen talking to his dad, his mom, or other adults.

    The best part of this entire experience is when friends and relatives see him now. Quickly, they discover the things we already know, that no matter how crazy and nontraditional things are, he has not become someone else. He is still “just Ben.”

    I would like to think that’s because we have preached and preached these rules, and that he has taken them to heart. Yes, my wife and I are stage parents. Yes, I’m a stage dad.

    But parent and dad come first.