Tag Archives: theatre

Writing Craft, Vol. XIV: CORE Theatre Ensemble’s adaptation of The Yellow Wallpaper


Cast members from the CORE Theatre Ensemble adaptation of The Yellow Wallpaper rehearse at the Little Theatre of Norfolk earlier this month. The play opens on Friday. Photos by John Doucette.

NORFOLK, Va. — CORE Theatre Ensemble revives its excellent The Yellow Wallpaper adaptation at Little Theatre of Norfolk this weekend.

I’m excited to see it again, and excited to talk to some old friends about how they adapted the Charlotte Perkins Gilman work – and how the show has evolved. The short story, a late 19th Century exploration of an isolated woman’s deteriorating mental health, is a key work of feminist literature.

The story is structured as journal entries of Jane, who suffers from the control of her husband, expectations of society, etc., which effectively deny her the ability to think and control her own life. Core is well known for its physical performances, and some of the themes and suggested characters within the story are reflected in the embodiment by actors of the wallpaper.

The show has been performed locally before, as well as being taken on the road. It has involved casts of varying sizes, and the latest incarnation features all woman in portrayals of the isolated, thwarted heroine at its center and the wallpaper itself.

I talked with members of Core shortly before the first run of 40 Whacks. At the time, we discussed the Suzuki Method of Actor Training and Viewpoints training, CORE’s founding, and some of their adaptations and originals. This talk is with my longtime friends Emel Ertugrul, managing director, artistic associate and actor; and Edwin Castillo, Suzuki/Viewpoints training instructor and artistic associate.

The show runs at 8 p.m., Friday through Sunday, Nov. 30 to  Dec. 9, at the Little Theater of Norfolk, 801 Claremont Ave. in Norfolk. General admission is $15 or, for season subscribers, $10. FMI click this link or call (757) 627-8551. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: As you guys know, I’ve seen [and earlier production of] it, and I loved it. I really thought it was – I’d seen a lot of bad local theater when I saw it so  –

Ertugrul: [Laughter.]

Castillo: Okay.

Q: And I’m like, “Oh, I just paid eight dollars.” [Laughter.] But I really enjoyed this. I thought a lot about it afterward, thought about what you did, why you did it, and I thought it was a lot of strengths you guys have in a really great package. One of the reasons I talked to you about [40 Whacks], which I didn’t know going in, is that I liked The Yellow Wallpaper so much. So what I hoped we could do is talk about how you found that short story, and why you thought that might be material.

Ertugrul: I believe – It was long ago. [Laughter.]

Castillo: It was so long ago.

Ertugrul: We were trying to look for things to adapt. We wanted to do more adaptations. We had done some before and thought, “Well, what else can we do?” I had read this story when I was taking English classes in college, and I believe someone else had read it as well. And we said, “You know, that story resonates with me.” So we all went back and read it, and it was amazing how concisely and beautifully that story is written. Everyone kind of looked at each other and said, “Yeah, we can do that.” … There have been a lot of people who have done this as a show, but a lot of them do it as a one woman show. We did not want to do that. Just what we feel about –

Castillo: One woman, one man shows – [Laughter.]

Ertugrul: “A tour-de-force!” Of one person. [Laughter.]

Q: With that work, that isn’t really moving the ball that far.

Ertugrul: It isn’t.

Q: The short story is journal entries. It’s like journal entries for the stage.

Ertugrul: It’s like a giant monologue.

Castillo: That would be an easy way out with the story, that it’s one whole monologue, which technically it is. It’s a big monologue.

Castillo and Ertugrul

Ertugrul: We had seen another show’s [production stills] that had taken it very literally. … Someone was actually holding a roll of wallpaper behind the woman. … They were in period garb and things like that. I said, “The title of the story is ‘The Yellow Wallpaper;’ it’s not ‘Woman Loses Her Mind.’” It’s not anything like that, so we thought what if it’s this long piece of paper? And, if it’s this long piece of fabric that all these people manipulate, then they actually are all the people that she talks about. What if there really are women in the paper and we manipulate it as she deteriorates? If you give yourself four wall, or three in front of an audience, it kind of takes things to a – We opened up a door that meant we could put that door in the middle of a performance. It doesn’t just have to be the way that some set designer decided.

Castillo: Actually having people manipulate the same piece of cloth, you realize very quickly that if you’re moving one piece, then somewhere down the line [it affects another actor].

Ertugrul: Someone’s either got a lot or not enough.

Castillo: It’s a great physical dialogue between everybody holding the paper. They have to create this breathing entity, basically.

Ertugrul: We’re taught that everyone [in a cast] is actively crucial. The quickest way to make them even more crucial is to tether them together.

Q: How did you approach the journal entry structure of the short story when you determined what the text was going to be?

Ertugrul: We started as a monologue, because at the beginning she’s really trying to hold it together.

Castillo: There isn’t much cut from it.

Ertugrul: Yeah, we didn’t cut a whole lot.

Castillo: The story was natural to adapt for theater because its just first person. We made a compromise here and changed –

Ertugrul: A couple of things like tense or things to make it more conversational. Like we do have conversations between her and John [the husband of the main character and, effectively, her doctor]. We made that happen. Instead of her remembering a conversation with John, which is a very passive thing, we actually had the conversation happen. We just tried to have that conversation relived. It’s a little different in this production than it was in the one you saw.

Castillo: We’ve actually subtracted all the male [cast members].

Ertugrul: Someone would play John, but this time it doesn’t happen. It’s more of a choice. We came back to again and said, “You know, it really needs to be all women.”

Q: But why?

Ertugrul: What we’re going toward is that this really is inside her head. If there are no walls, if there’s nothing really tangible for her to hold on to, then we’ve got to start breaking down what’s real and what isn’t. From the very beginning, we’re in her perspective, so therefore these conversations really didn’t happen. Was she ever really in this situation? By not really nailing down our room, it opens up so many other interpretations. … With the original production, there was a person there in front of her that she could grab and pull and try to hug. … This is all head space.

Castillo: Really all you see on stage is the wallpaper.

Q: Was it a controversial decision to make the wallpaper plaid? [Laughter.]

Ertugrul: Yeah, the tartan. We had a problem last time when the MacCleods came. [Laughter.]

Q: Where did you get the idea to use fabric as the wallpaper?

Castillo: We were batting around a couple of ideas. I remember seeing this one production a few years ago and I thought it was really cool that they had pieces of spandex on one side of a room – a completely different play – but it was sliced up and down every, I think, six inches, and the actors would jump right through.

Ertugrul: [With fabric as the wallpaper], could be like cat’s cradle and you could be in it. [Moving her fingers.] So we found it in a remnant pile at one fabric store.

Q: Did you know the text at that point?

Ertugrul: We knew we weren’t going to change the text too terribly much. We said, “Read the story.” And then we met. We had the idea for the paper and we had two songs that we liked. We said, “This is the opening, and this is where things come. We’re in the middle of it.” And we said, “Do you want to do it?” And, as long as [cast members] bought into the idea that they we were going to choreograph this entire paper everywhere, and they were excited about it, they were the right people to have.

Q: The paper’s a character and plays characters. I’m not explaining very well, but it’s a setting but it’s also characters, individual characters. Am I explaining that right?

Ertugrul: Yeah, and then, how do you integrate that. As she starts deteriorating, the wallpaper starts talking back. … There’s a lot of choral work that goes on in it.

Castillo: It’s one character and then it becomes individual voices.

Ertugrul: [The actors in the wallpaper] have to speak as a chorus and also speak individually.

Q: But it’s not bat—-.

Ertugrul: [Laughter.] No.

Playing us out – because we are born of this land, and, like this land, immortal – is a tribute to Connor MacLeod that someone made on purpose.

 

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LitFest staged reading of 8 benefits ODU Out, American Foundation for Equal Rights


NORFOLK, Va. – In addition to the many terrific readings, talks, visual arts presentations and the like, next week’s 35th Annual Old Dominion University Literary Festival will feature staged readings of Dustin Lance Black’s play 8.

The performances run from Wednesday to Friday, and proceeds benefit ODU Out: Student Alliance and The American Foundation for Equal Rights. Black, a screenwriter who won an Academy Award for Milk, is a founder of the latter group.

The foundation has been fighting Proposition 8 at the federal level, where two elements of the judiciary already have sided against the state constitution amendment California voters passed in 2008, ending the right for same sex couples to marry.

8 is based upon testimony and arguments from the federal trial in 2010 before the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which said Prop. 8 is unconstitutional. Proponents of the amendment are pushing the Supreme Court to overturn reversals, and there’s a possibility the high court may take the matter up soon.

The play debuted on Broadway last year, but it remains an incredibly timely work.

I traded emails with Bradley J. Bledsoe this week about the upcoming staged reading. Bledsoe, a junior majoring in finance, serves as director of finance for ODU Out. Here’s a quick Q&A:

Q: How did we get the staged reading here at ODU?

It was a combined effort that was initiated by ODU Out.  However – with the collaboration of the President’s Office, ODU Theatre Department and ODU Gay Cultural Studies – ODU will not only be producing the play 8, but also hosting a lecture for Dustin Lance Black for the President’s Lecture Series at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 2.

Q: Where do the proceeds of the performances go?

Ten percent of all these proceeds will be going to the American Foundation for Equal Rights to help fight the Prop. 8 trials. […] The remaining proceeds will go to support ODU Out: Student Alliance’s mission:

  • To provide safe and reliable resources to the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) community;
  • Provide a voice for the LGBTQ community and its allies on campus;
  • Educate the University population about LGBTQ  issues; and
  • Work to promote and advance LGBTQ rights within the University community through policy.

Q: Why did you join ODU Out? How has it been meaningful to be part of the group?

I joined ODU Out nearly a year ago through persuasion of friends, faculty and advisors to effectively market and promote this crucial organization to not only the student body but to build lasting alliances of local LGBTQ organizations. Through this networking of organizations such as Hampton Roads Pride, Hampton Roads Business Outreach, LGBT Center of Hampton Roads/Access Aids Care and Equality Virginia, I found that ODU Out has built a stronger foundation for the organization to stand in order to successfully implement our mission statement.

Q: How can folks find out more about ODU Out and contribute directly to the organization?

We LOVE volunteers! For anyone interested in finding out more about volunteer opportunities or for more information on upcoming events, sponsorships and donations, we have an interactive website and Facebook page.

Black

Black speaks at 7:30 p.m, Tuesday, Oct. 2, in North Cafeteria at Webb University Center at 49th Street and Bluestone Avenue. Admission for the talk is free. Parking is free for literary festival events. Here is a fairly helpful map.

The staged readings of 8 are at 8 p.m., Wednesday through Friday, Oct., 3-5; and 12:30 p.m., Wednesday and Thursday, Oct. 3-4 at Old Dominion University Theatre, 4600 Hampton Blvd. General admission is $20; students $15. Parking? Still free, unless you go with a metered spot, which is on you.

Again, proceeds benefit ODU Out and The American Foundation for Equal Rights.

Lisa Keen of Keen News Service on Thursday noted that there is a significant Supreme Court session for LGBT issues coming up, and the Prop 8 issue is not alone. Keen writes:

Two of the nine cases include high-profile landmark decisions in federal appeals courts – one declaring the California’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional, the other holding the core section of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) to be unconstitutional. Whether the court refuses to hear the appeals or takes them, the result will set up another landmark in the LGBT civil rights struggle.

Seven of the nine cases revolve around challenges to DOMA, one concerns Proposition 8, and the ninth is an attempt by the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage (NOM) to circumvent campaign reporting laws when it spends money to push anti-gay initiatives.

Here’s some background on “what’s next” in the Prop. 8 fight from The American Foundation for Equal Rights:

  1. If the U.S. Supreme Court decides to hear our case for marriage equality, the announcement can come as early as Sept. 25. AFER’s distinguished co-counsel Ted Olson and David Boies will file written briefs and present oral argument in the spring. A final decision would likely be issued by June 2013.
  2. If the Court decides not to hear our case, the announcement could come as early as Oct. 1. The Ninth Circuit decision that ruled Prop. 8 unconstitutional will be made permanent, with marriages starting as soon as the Ninth Circuit issues its mandate, likely within several days after the Supreme Court denies review.
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Theater: Karen Levy Newnam of RipplAffect on the local debut of Any One of Us


Karen Levy Newnam of RipplAffect. Courtesy photo by Andi Grant Photography.

NORFOLK, Va. — Norfolk marketing and communications executive Karen Levy Newnam has theater and non-profit roots, and these worlds meet in her involvement in RipplAffect.

Now in its fifth year, RipplAffect has produced a series of benefit performances of Eve Ensler’s plays, primarily The Vagina Monologues, to raise awareness and money for the YWCA of South Hampton Roads, among others, and support survivors of domestic violence and rape. RipplAffect has raised about $20,000 for the YWCA to date.

Three performances this month mark the local premiere of Any One of Us: Words from Prison, a collection of monologues conceived by Ensler and developed from writings by women serving in prison. LaToya Morris directs. Newnam, a founding member and principal of RipplAffect, produces and acts in the play.

We spoke by phone about a week ago for the following Q&A, which has been edited for clarity and length. As happens around here, I’m writing about a friend — and someone I admire for her heart, drive and commitment to the Hampton Roads community. Additional full disclosure: my wife, Cortney Morse Doucette, is a founding member of RipplAffect.

The performances are scheduled for 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m., Sunday; March 16-18; at The Perry Family Theatre, 485 St. Paul’s Blvd., Norfolk. Make reservations and get information by calling (757) 339-0578. Credit card ticket sales also may be made by clicking this link. Tickets are $15.

Donations to the YWCA of South Hampton Roads also are welcome. The performance is part of V-Day 2012, a response to violence against women.

I hope you’ll come away from this Q&A with a sense of how the arts can be used to support local charities, and I hope you’ll check out one of the upcoming performances. Additionally, Newnam speaks about some of the practical aspects of production — and about how conversations and ideas can become something that pays dividends.

There is one word below — hopefully, only one word — that may make you a bit uncomfortable. So you know.

Q: Let’s talk a little about RipplAffect. This is the fifth year, right? How did this start?

I was at a networking lunch with a group of women I met through Leadership Hampton Roads [now LEAD Hampton Roads]. We kept in touch and got together once a month. I was talking with Dorothy Dembowski, who is a friend of mine, just about plays that we enjoy and theater we hadn’t seen in a while, and just started saying, ‘Gosh, wouldn’t it be interesting to produce a play, and, if we did produce a play, why would we do it?’ And she had a lot of interest in women’s issues, as well. I did The Vagina Monologues years ago, a really great way to bring light to some of the issues facing women everywhere, but to particularly bring focus to issues in Hampton Roads.

I started talking to some of my friends in the theater. We said, ‘Okay, if we’re going to do this, why are we doing this?” We started talking about the issues that were important to us and the power of theater and the arts to really make those issues accessible. We weren’t interested in starting a non-profit to raise money that other people were raising or to start a non-profit to offer services that other people were doing a great job of. But we could certainly produce theater in an effort to bring more attention to what they were doing and help them raise money for the good work that already was happening.

Q: The first year you decided on The Vagina Monologues. Had you figured out you would be working with the YWCA before you decided on the play, or did the play come first?

The play had come first. I was at a fundraising luncheon for the United Way, and I ran into the executive director of the Y. I had been on their board in my early twenties. I said, ‘Some friends of mine and I would like to produce The Vagina Monologues, and we want to be able to partner with an organization that supports survivors of domestic violence and rape, and we thought of you and I wonder if you’d be interested.’ She said, ‘My goodness, we have an intern – her name is Denise Hughes – and she’s been wanting to produce The Vagina Monologues for the same reason. Why don’t I connect the two of you?’ So that’s really how it started. I connected with Denise. She’s amazing. She was a big part of the organization until she went into the Peace Corps. …  It just really came together.

Q: The first performance was at the YWCA, wasn’t it?

The first four were at the Y, actually.

Q: Some of the readers who aren’t from here won’t know the layout of the YWCA in Norfolk, but they’ve got this – what’s a wonderful meeting room, but not necessarily a wonderful theater space. But you guys kind of transformed it.

Exactly. We talked about getting theaters, and the folks at the Y said, ‘You know, it would mean a lot for us if we could bring new audiences into our building.’ So they have a very, very large multipurpose and meeting room …

We got in touch with fabric companies that support theaters, and we ended up ordering from a company out west. We ordered yards and yards and yards of black fabric and had it cut. I remember people with sewing machines and hemming and ironing, and we masked the entire space in black. Before that it was, ‘How do we turn this into a theater?’ That was one thing – let’s take the definition of the space away by masking the walls from floor to ceiling in black. Then we used some platforms to make some stage space, and actually that first year Natasha [Bunnell] directed, and she really had this vision of making the space even more vaginal. I think in between the black curtains we had flashes of red fabric. It was really something else. So when you bring the chairs in, you put a platform in, and you bring in the lights, and everything is black, it became a cozy theater.

Q: You have folks who are at, maybe, different levels of experience. I always found that the productions that you guys have done, that’s been really meaningful and informed the performances. Can you talk about the different kinds of people who have been involved in your performances over the years?

The first years, we really pulled a bunch of friends together, and said, ‘Hey, come do this with us.’ It was a phenomenal experience. We had some very talented actors. It was probably the second year that we had gotten a new director from outside of the group, and she brought in a bunch of women we didn’t know. So the group started getting bigger. The third year we actually advertised auditions. Little by little, new people entered the group. I think what speaks most to what it means to people was the fact that this year, besides myself and Cortney, the three young women – I say young women and I date myself – who are really instrumental in making this happen joined us along the way. [In addition to Morris, the director, they are Anna Sosa and Eileen Quintin.]

To some people it’s, ‘Oh, my gosh, I really want to do The Vagina Monologues.” Or ‘Oh, I need to do a play; let me audition.’ And then other people come into the fold, and it really touches them. Our director, LaToya Morris, has two jobs, and she’s doing this. She actually chose the play we’re doing, as well. This year we decided we needed a break from The Vagina Monologues.

Some people will do the show and be great at what they do and walk away. That’s fine, too. Other people, it’s the whole idea that through their acting they can elicit this thought process in people. They can open their minds to something that’s going on that they might not have thought about before and then hopefully give back in some way. It really has affected key members who keep coming back here year after year.

Q: You’ve had lawyers, students … Is it a challenge to bring people who don’t have theater experience into the story?

The year we did that the most, we were looking at it from a marketing perspective. How can we increase the audience? A lot of people, when they do productions as part of V-Day, will get members of the community to be involved. I reached out to folks, whether they were philanthropists or lawyers or radio personalities. That year, we pulled in a radio personality and a lawyer, and neither of them had acting experience. It definitely helped increase the audience, but it was an amazing process seeing someone who you consider a lovely person but is fairly reserved take one of the, I think, hardest monologues to do and get up on stage and, in character, talk about her vagina.

It’s pretty amazing. Challenging. You have a group of people and the director says, ‘You need to be off book by the 10th.’ Half the people are saying, ‘What does off book mean?’ When we have someone like that, we usually buddy up with them.

Q: The Vagina Monologues really does speak to people year after year. Could you please talk about why you think this material is something that is worth being performed and worth bringing people together in support of a community organization?

It amazes me, but at this point so many people haven’t heard it. It’s an interesting mix of humor, innocence, and just really, really in your face, dirty, ugly reality. I think for every moment of, ‘Oh, my goodness, I can’t believe they just said that’ or just horror at somebody’s plight in one of the monologues, the play also does a good job of bringing you around to the lighter side and just letting you enjoy a laugh, and then it wraps up with ‘I Was There in the Room,’ the monologue about birth, really celebrating women.

That’s one of the nice things with the new play, too. The final monologue in Any One of Us really wraps things up in a nice way. I think that’s why it’s successful.

We did The Vagina Monologues for a new group this summer, and I actually got into some intense conversations with one of the members of the board who was horrified and asked me to do some editing of the monologues and asked me to cut some of the monologues. It just got to the point where I had to say, ‘If you don’t think this is the right play for your organization, then you need to find someone else to do this for you.’ It’s not our mission to do easy theater. It’s our mission to make a difference, and this is how we make that difference. She had wanted me to cut [the monolgue] ‘Cunt’ and there were some other monologues she wasn’t comfortable with. We ended up doing the play, as is. At the end, she was just really touched. I think some of it probably offended her sensibilities, but I think she understood it. The audience, which was a different audience for us, was probably the best audience we’ve ever had.

Q: Any One of Us is kind of similar to The Vagina Monologues and some of the other theater work that Ensler has done. … This developed from workshops. [The project came out of a 10-year-old writing group involving Ensler and 15 women at a prison, according to V-Day.] Why did this play speak to your director and speak to the group as a whole?

We initially started doing this through V-Day, frankly, because it is easy. [If an application to do the play as a fundraising event is accepted by V-Day, there is no cost for rights.] They provide you all the materials for marketing. For people with full-time jobs, it makes it a manageable process. So when we decided to look at something else – that we wanted to do a different show –  the first thing we did was we went and looked at other pieces Eve had done and that were part of V-Day. And, also, we looked at other scripts. …

At the end, it really was the director who called our attention to this piece. I think the main reason was it was really eye opening. Once again, Leadership Hampton Roads – I guess it was a good thing for me – we did a tour of the Norfolk Jail, and we went through all the different floors. What really got to me was the women’s side of the jail. It wasn’t frightening being two inches from the bars where there were men. It wasn’t frightening being in the open areas where there were men. It was all fairly calm. But when you got to the women’s side, there was so much anger and so much aggression – and it wasn’t just bars separating, it was walls and windows, but it was palpable and it was, I thought, a very frightening experience. So when LaToya found this piece, it was the realization that, when you start looking at it, the numbers are staggering  –  women behind bars who are survivors of domestic violence or rape. Not making excuses for anybody’s actions, but we started realizing the correlation between the plight of these women and the causes we had been trying to bring light to.

Q: Is it a similar experience to The Vagina Monologues?

There are funny moments in the monologues, but I think the ride is a lot rougher. But, again, the final monologue is saying this could be any one of us. It’s not an easy ride. Not to say The Vagina Monologues is an easy ride, but this is entirely different.

Q: Why do you think this is a valuable experience for people to come and see? Why do you think this piece will speak to folks around here?

Hopefully, for me, it makes people want to help, want to support organizations like the YWCA that keep women from winding up in these places. I hope it at least makes them think twice instead of judging. When you think about neglect or you think about abuse, I don’t know that people often think about this side of it. I think making that connection is important.

Q: This production is going to benefit the YWCA again, but you’re not doing it at the Y. Why did you have the change of venue this year?

I just couldn’t see us getting on a ladder again and hanging curtains and sheets and begging for lighting again – not begging. The theater community is really warm. But every year we go out an say, ‘Can we please borrow your lights? Can we please borrow your platforms?’ Buying fabric when we don’t have it. And the idea of really being able to get in a space that already was put together and instead focus on the show itself was really attractive, and it’s been a much better experience.

Q: So the space has been pretty open about having you there?

Yes. We’re at the Perry Family Theater, [home of] the Hurrah Players. And I’ve known [Hurrah Players co-founder] Hugh Copeland since my time at Old Dominion University. Basically, I told him, ‘We ultimately will be looking to have a relationship with a theater where year by year we’re producing in their space. You’re probably not the space for that … ’ Not that Hugh doesn’t support it and believe in it, but they do family theater. It’s a very different audience. So they very graciously – I mean, they have let us rent the space for what worked in our budget. We don’t make any money. It all goes back to the Y. They’ve been great.

Q: Do you see a longterm relationship with this space, or are you looking for another space?

I think as long as they don’t get any backlash – which you never know – I think it’s a great space for us. It’s just a perfect space. We could produce there again. We’ll keep looking. There are other theaters we really need to be talking to and working with, and maybe their mission is a little more in line with us. I respect what Hugh is doing, and part of me does worry, ‘Is he going to get backlash for this?’ I hope not.

Q: Where do you see RipplAffect down the road?

I wish I could tell you. No one wants to let it go, but no one has the time to take it as far as we want to. In the perfect world I would have the money and create a non-profit and hire some of these fabulous women to run it for me. I don’t see that happening any time soon. I think this year we’ll be getting our 501(c)3, and we’ll make it official. And then I’d like to see us have a relationship with a theater so that, once again, every year it’s not running out to find a theater, find this, find that. I’d like to see it get a little more stable that way. In a perfect world we’d be running programs on college campuses. I mean, I think the mission is important, and it really speaks to the strength of the arts and to theater and the opportunity to really have an affect on people and the community.

Poster designed by Maya Elena Sosa.

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Belligerent Q&A, Vol. XVI: Hairspray author and scholar Dana Heller


Hi John: Look, when you take out this placeholder text and put in the real cutline in don’t forget to make it extra funny. For Pete’s sake, Dana Heller is chair of the English Department at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., where you are a student. And she’s the author of a book about the John Waters film Hairspray, and Waters totally is coming to ODU on Thursday. Don’t phone this one in. Bring the funny. Your pal, John. PS: Courtesy photo.

NORFOLK, Va. — Dana Heller is chair of the Old Dominion University English department and a professor whose scholarly work has tackled a wide range of subjects. Her most recent book is Hairspray, which discusses the significance of the 1988 film by John Waters. She considers it his most subversive movie.

Also, she is awesome.

Waters, as you should know, is a noted filmmaker, writer, visual artist, and, according to the good people who put such things on Wikipedia, one of the “notable persons who have worn pencil mustaches.”

Additionally, Waters remains the longest-serving Secretary of the U.S. Department of Not Quirky or Cute Camp But the Awesome Kind that Scares You Way Deep Down Where Your Real Dreams Are, also known as HUD. Okay, that last bit is not true but someone please get on that.

Say, maybe you should run it by him yourself. Waters will give a lecture called “This Filthy World” as part of the ODU Presents series at 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 10, at Webb University Center, 1301 49th Street, Norfolk. Admission is free but there’s limited seating, so RSVP via (757) 683-3116 or visit the University Events page via this link.

I recently finished Heller’s book, which is terrific. Highly recommended. As always, I should disclose that I am a graduate student at ODU. In addition to being a beautiful, beautiful man.

Heller engaged in this Belligerent Q&A via email. There is some brief adult language below. Which probably is why you’re here.

Q: Just who do you think you are? Please use three examples in your response.

Me? Well, if you must know, I am ODU’s resident champion of all things considered ‘bad taste.’ I’m not sure how it came to this, but I probably have only myself to blame for writing about cultural phenomena such as:

  1. Russian pop music
  2. Reality TV
  3. John Waters movies

There are worse ways to make a living.

Q: Your most recent book is an examination of Hairspray, the Waters film in which “the PG family movie meets the midnight cult film.” You note that Waters “made a PG-rated teenpic that encourages interracial dating and champions a family in which both parents are men.” Why did you omit the awesome part where Debby Harry pops Colleen Fitzpatrick’s zit? Does it blow apart your thesis?

No, in fact the zit-popping scene unequivocally proves my thesis that Hairspray is a teenpic posing as a civil rights comedy. I had an entire chapter on the zit scene but my editor cut it. Wait a minute. Were you making a pun?

Q: You’ve called John Waters a National Treasure. How will Nicholas Cage, reprising his role as Ben Gates, go about trying to rescue Waters from the clutches of the Illuminati while dispensing justice, thrills, and exposition?

By becoming a drag queen (code name: Bertha Venation), who bears an uncanny resemblance to Michaele Salahi, Cage will manage to penetrate into the darkest recesses of the Illuminati’s base station, located inside a Starbucks in a mall in East Baltimore.

Q: You edited the book Makeover Television: Realities Remodeled. It’s always fascinated me that people are willing to expose their insecurities and pain so publicly, however superficial the consumerist, conformist “solutions” offered by makeovers that, like Debby Harry snapping on a rubber glove to pop her daughter’s zit, seem to say, “Lie down. Mother is here.” I thought about that kind of superficial transformative process of such shows while I read Hairspray, because there are transformations represented in Waters’ films but also his films, generally speaking, seem to have transformed over his career from work that has a kind of mission to shock into work that, as in the film Hairspray, shows both communal and individual transformation toward acceptance and power. Indeed, his film creates its subversion by recreating and altering a television program and later adaptations seem to pander to “makeover” culture. What do I mean by the things I just typed?

It means the drugs are kicking in. Relax. Go with it.

Q: You write compellingly about how Hairspray “is the most subversive film that John Waters ever made, and possibly one of the most subversive popular comedy comedies ever made by an American filmmaker,” in part, because of Waters’ “representation of the unruly body.” And you mean subversive in the sense that it “transforms the cultural codes to which it ostensibly adheres.” When we think about the adaptation of the musical to film, does putting a straight actor (and one of a faith whose founder viewed being gay as a perversion) in a role created and recreated by gay men diminish some of force of the subversion Waters achieves in his film? A bit more widely, have the adaptations changed the legacy of the original film?

Every adaptation of an art work changes the meaning of the original in some way. But if I’m reading you right, you are referring here to John Travolta’s casting as Edna Turnblad and his affiliation with the Church of Scientology. That was a controversial decision, no doubt. And the director of the film, Adam Shankman (who is gay himself), got slammed in the LGBTQ press for casting Travolta, who persistently denied that Hairspray was a ‘gay’ film. What Travolta and Shankman failed to recognize is that LGBTQ audiences tend to feel and project a strong sense of ownership over certain cultural properties, and Hairspray is one of them, not simply because Waters is gay but because Edna had (until Travolta) always been played by openly gay performers (Divine and Harvey Fierstein). But I think that Travolta’s casting was a brilliant marketing strategy that helped rebrand Hairspray as a family-friendly film that could appeal to kids (Zack Effron) and their parents, who would have remembered Travolta from an earlier dance film, Saturday Night Fever.

Q: You note that Waters, as he said in a TV interview, makes comedies that “wink” at the audience. When art winks at us, how do you suggest consumers of such art – including those of us who want to make some of our own – return the favor and wink back?

By rewriting the comedies we love in our own creative idioms. We wink back by imitating (or stealing, if you will) from the artists who inspire us to make our own art.

Q: What is camp? If I was camp would I know it, or would I just want other people to know it with me?

Camp is ‘the lie that tells the truth’ (Philip Core). It ‘sees everything in quotation marks’ (Susan Sontag). And if ‘you’ were ‘camp,’ you really would not give a ‘crap’ what ‘other people’ ‘know’ or ‘don’t know.’

Q: Growing up, camp was where I learned exciting truths to hide from my parents. Am I on the right track?

If one of those truths has to do with popping zits so that they make a loud, splooshy sound, yes, you are on the right track.

Q: Does Nicholas Cage know what camp is?

Does the Pope?

Q: In your book Hairspray, you address racial representation as an area in which the film might rightfully be criticized. As in other Hollywood films, this is a Civil Rights movement story told through the eyes of and, in part, resolved through the agency of white characters. Did you ask him about that issue? What are your thoughts?

I did ask Waters about this, and he was quick to say that Hairspray is ‘a white man’s memory of civil rights.’ Waters admitted that he was worried about the racial politics of the film before it was released because he wasn’t sure if audiences were ready for it. But they were, they embraced it.  And I think that’s because the film creates a coalition of outsiders who band together to fight for a common freedom — to be part of the great television dance show that is American history.

There is no question that Hairspray romanticizes white people’s fantasies of blackness and racial otherness. But the film simultaneously pokes fun at those fantasies.  At one point, Tracy wishes that she and her boyfriend, Link, had dark skin.  They long to be part of a culture that they see as sexy and much cooler than white culture, and their wish is genuine yet at the same time satirical. The critic, bell hooks, sums this up nicely when she argues that ‘Hairspray is nearly unique in its attempt to construct a fictive universe where white working class ‘undesirables’ are in solidarity with black people. When Traci [sic] says she wants to be black, blackness becomes a metaphor for freedom, an end to boundaries.’

Q: In one of the most compelling passages in the book, you assert: “(W)e live in a culture of powerlessness.” I want to disagree, but what gives me the right? Discuss.

You have the right, but you refuse to take it. In my book, I explain this through an anecdote: A teacher once asked his students to form a line, beginning with the most powerful student in the class and ending with the least powerful. The teacher was then surprised to see that rather than arguing over who would be first in line, the students all ran to the back of the line. None of them, apparently, either felt they had power or were willing to admit it. A struggle for power occurred over the question of who would get to occupy the position of least powerful.

The anecdote affirms something that is admittedly tough to prove or disprove. But it is something that I have long suspected, although I acknowledge the tentative nature of my suspicion: we live in a culture of powerlessness. We believe in our powerlessness, and we reiterate this belief in the countless ways that we submit ourselves to state agencies, religious institutions, medical experts, advice and lifestyle gurus, intellectual authorities, and consumer appeals. No matter what our personal politics, no matter what our profession, social class, race, religion, sexuality, ability, age, ethnicity, or gender, we live in a culture that thrives — economically and ideologically — on the sublime fantasy of righteous disenfranchisement.

In this fantasy, those who possess and exercise power are evil and corrupt. Those who stand outside of it are morally and spiritually superior. The conventional narrative form this fantasy takes, or variations of it can be found in all arenas of cultural production, but nowhere is it portioned out more generously and reliably than in the realm we know as popular culture.

Q: When Waters comes to Norfolk, will you take him to Harbor Park and say, “See, it’s like our own little Camden Yards,” and then sigh, look down at the ground, and become lost in a moment of reflection before so recovering: “And over there is the highway to the Beach, see?”

I don’t see this happening, although it’s a sweet scene in someone else’s movie.

Rather, I picture us at lunch, No Frill Grill, perhaps. He orders the Reuben, me the Spotswood Salad.

‘I’d like a Diet Coke,’ he tells the waiter.

There’s a moment as we both silently wonder whether or not the waiter recognizes him. But there’s something weightier on our minds, something we must talk about, although neither of us wants to be the first to bring it up.

‘I don’t know how to ask this,” I begin, tentatively.

‘Go ahead,’ he encourages.

‘Ok, do you think Rikki Lake stands a chance of beating JR on Dancing With the Stars?’

And then we talk, and talk, and talk for hours.

Q: Could you talk briefly about how this project came together? Would you have written this without the opportunity to interview Waters?

A few years back, Diane Negra launched a new series at Wiley-Blackwell on popular films and television series that don’t get taken very seriously by the academy. This was a book series custom-made for someone like me. She cornered me at a conference and asked me to write something. So I decided to test her by proposing a book on a film that most would consider wholly unsuitable for scholarly purposes. And she loved it. So then I had to write it. But the fact is that  I would have written it anyway, eventually, even if Mr. Waters had not responded to my interview request. Because as difficult as it is to believe, nobody has ever written a scholarly book on ANY of John Waters’ films. And somebody had to do it. Why not me?

Q: We’ve covered so much ground. Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

One of my favorite Waters quotes: ‘We need to make books sexy again. If you go home with someone and they don’t have any books, don’t fuck them.’

Roger that.

Playing us out is Debby Harry. Poor lip-synching is a must for any respectable Blondie video, but this is some unusually poor drum-synching. But that’s okay. We are not here to judge, but to enjoy. Please put on your beret before viewing, and remember to arbitrarily remove it before the second verse.

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Writing Craft, Vol. VII: CORE Theatre Ensemble’s 40 Whacks


CORE Theatre Ensemble's 40 Whacks team: Edwin Castillo, Cayley Waldo, Steffani Dambruch, Paul Costen, Nancy Dickerson and Emel Ertugrul on the Little Theatre of Norfolk stage. Photos here and below by John Doucette.

NORFOLK, Va. — I caught up with members of CORE Theatre Ensemble this past week at Little Theatre of Norfolk while they readied their new play 40 Whacks, opening Friday.

Based on the Lizzie Borden murders, it runs for only three performances.

This talk discusses the Suzuki Method of Actor Training and Viewpoints training, CORE’s founding, and some of CORE’s past shows, including an adaptation of The Yellow Wallpaper and the original piece You Vs.

The members of CORE are Emel Ertugrul, managing director, artistic associate and actor; Edwin Castillo, Suzuki/Viewpoints training instructor, artistic associate and actor; Laura Agudelo, Suzuki/Viewpoints training assistant, artistic associate and actor; and Nancy Dickerson, artistic associate and actor.

The primary subjects are Ertugrul and Castillo, both of Virginia Beach and — full disclosure — longtime friends of mine. Sitting in were Dickerson of Chesapeake, as well as 40 Whacks actors Cayley Waldo of Norfolk and Paul Costen and Steffani Dambruch of the Beach. All were nice enough to humor my attempts at photography.

Showtimes are at 8 p.m., Friday, Oct. 14, through Sunday, Oct. 16, at Little Theatre of Norfolk, 801 Claremont Ave., Norfolk. Tickets are $15 for general admission; $12 for senior citizens, students, and active duty or retired military; and $8 17 and under. The play contains unsettling images and some sexual content. Reservations are via (757) 627-8551 or at the Little Theatre site.

My thanks to CORE for the time — and for keeping it pretty clean. It had been getting a little salty lately in these Q&As. I’ll try to do better from here on out, Imaginary Mom Who Can Work A Computer. And of course call more. Love you lots.

This has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: Can you tell me how CORE started?

Castillo: I guess this started because … we wanted to do it, really. (Laughter.)

Ertugrul: Well, we wanted to do a show that we wanted to make our own rules for. We didn’t want to do someone else’s piece. That’s usually what starts you with your own art, is deciding “I don’t want to do your art, I want to do my art.” So we did our art, and started involving people that – It’s not about finding people who agree with your art, but are willing to go along this way with you. It’s good to have people that agree with you just enough to feel comfortable to disagree and to make something beautiful. So that’s sort of how it started. It started with a conversation. And we’re still –

Castillo: Still at it.

Ertugrul: We’re still at it. I mean, five years later, six years later, we’re still doing it. It’s not like we started like, “You know what we’re going to do? In six years we’re going to be over there.” We did have a goal but it was much more immediate. It was about answering that first question, or answering that first desire of wanting to make our own stuff.

Castillo: And I guess our desire to create our own art, it’s not a slight against the theater scene around her at all.

Ertugrul: No.

Castillo: It’s just that we wanted to see something different out there.

Ertugrul: We wanted to do something different.

Q: From the start, there was a real emphasis on the physical Suzuki method. Could you talk about your influences? I don’t know if it goes back to (1990s performances at Old Dominion University performances of) MacBeth or (Eugene O’Neill’s) The Hairy Ape.

Castillo: Actually, it started with Hairy Ape. I met a guest artist Leon Ingulsrud (an actor and director  from SITI Company in New York) back in Fall 1997.

Ertugrul: Had you worked with “Bondo” at that point?

Castillo: I’d met him at ODU.

Ertugrul: Before (Ingulsrud), (SITI actor) Will Bond used to come down and work as a guest artist at ODU. One year, Will wasn’t able to do it and Leon came down to fill in, and then Leon kept coming back. Not every year, but for a good number of years.

Castillo: And the two of them belonged to the company in New York called the SITI Company, which was founded by Anne Bogart and Tadashi Suzuki, who developed the actor method of Suzuki training.

Ertugrul: And they got together because Anne had been working on Viewpoints, which is a way of breaking down physical performance, any physical performance. It does stem from dance, but then they decided not only does it apply to dance it applies to theater, any kind of physical performance. She teamed up with Tadashi. (His) own company in Toga, Japan, does Suzuki, so they wanted to make a company that was utilizing both of these thing. That’s what SITI is now, and still is doing amazing shows. … Most of it is just about “Are you physically capable to do these amazing feats onstage?” Well, you can’t just walk on stage and do amazing things if you haven’t appropriately conditioned your body to do so.

Castillo: And the training itself, I mean, for practicality’s sake, the actor – the Western actor – does not have the type of training skills like other artists do. That’s why we believe in the training and also the SITI company. A dancer can always do their position one, two and three, and jete and all of that. … Musicians can do scales, singers, people who play instruments. But an actor really didn’t have any of that, except for memorizing a monologue and looking in a mirror. But there’s nothing physical to it. So the Suzuki method of actor training actually gives you something physical to work with that is really breaking down basic movements and seeing how exact you can be.

Ertugrul: What this training brings up for discussion is how do you know how to carry this character across the stage if you don’t know how your body walks? … If you don’t know yourself, then how do you put a character on top of that?

Castillo: In a physical sense.

Steffani Dambruch, center frame, during a rehearsal this past Sunday for 40 Whacks, opening Friday at the Little Theatre of Norfolk.

Ertugrul: This isn’t how to act. This is literally how do you carry your body as this character you’ve decided to play.

Costen: It’s like a precognitive way of deconstruction. I mean, there’s nothing intellectual about it whatsoever, but it’s something like deconstruction in that you break down the pieces and parts of what’s going on within your body and the space as it relates to your body and everything, but it gives you a greater understanding.

Q: Let me ask you about The Yellow Wallpaper, which, as (Castillo and Ertugrul) know, I loved.  … I thought that really married words that could have led to a melodramatic play into something really physical and visceral and interesting. How did that project come about? And I wanted to ask you specifically about the adaptation process (from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story).

Ertugrul: We sat down and said, “We want to do a show and we want to do it on our own and we … don’t want to buy the rights to do something.” The show that we had done just before that was something we had bought the rights to do and that’s fun, but we really wanted to make something that was completely our own.

Q: Was that Duranged? (Two Christopher Durang one-acts “The Nature and Purpose of the Universe” and “Titanic.”)

Ertugrul: Yeah. … After we had done (Duranged) we decided we wanted to adapt something. We sat down as a group and said what do you remember? What is the one story you really remember? And we came up with this list, and then we went back and we read them all. Just to see, “Well, is it really just my ninth-grade memory of it being such an awesome story. Or was it really a good story?” The one that won was “The Yellow Wallpaper.” And it really was the way that story was written — how it is done in journal entries — it lent itself so well to staging. From there we just started taking the actual words that she does as journal entries and started cutting it and making it into (the same) number of segments (as there are entries in the story).

Castillo: The fun part of adapting that was figuring out who were the characters. Really the story is just her, from her point of view.

Ertugrul: But the name of the story is “The Yellow Wallpaper,” not “Woman in Room.” So we decided that the main character in that story was the yellow wallpaper. The main character was it living and breathing and being comprised of more than one person. It looks different. It can sound different. It needs to be people doing this.

Emel Ertugrul, center, with Steffani Dambruch and Paul Costen in a rehearsal of CORE Theatre Ensemble's 40 Whacks.

Q: Can you describe how you took something to illustrate and used the multiple bodies of the actors to tell that story?

Ertugrul: One of the first things that happened with this training was we taught them how to move together. That’s the first thing, and that’s what the physical training does.

Castillo: The company for the show, for those who aren’t familiar, is a woman, the main character, and a husband, the other main character, but then we had a chorus of other people, was it six or seven?

Dickerson: It started as seven and then became five (when the play was restaged as a traveling production).

Castillo: So we had the chorus of people as the wallpaper and the binder between the chorus was this 80-foot piece of cloth, which we learned very quickly how to manipulate around the stage using the physical space of the theater.

Ertugrul: And the people.

Castillo: It really was just playing with how many ways can we utilize this cloth? As the story progresses, she becomes sucked into to wallpaper, and it becomes her psychosis of sorts because she sees people and talks to people in the wallpaper. So as the story progressed, we had the wallpaper on the outskirts of the space and it started intertwining.

Ertugrul: Into her world.

Castillo: At one point we’re actually holding her up.

Q: Can you talk about how you make decisions like that? Do you find that in rehearsal or do you know that going in?

Castillo: I say almost 90 percent of that is finding it in the rehearsal process.

Ertugrul: I think with that one we did have a completed script going in.

Castillo: But as far as manipulating the cloth and seeing how it works in different scenes, it was really trial and error.

Ertugrul: I do think we knew when she was finally gone, when she was really part of it, and we worked from there. … Deciding which emotion would go there.

Q: What’s it like to play a role like that? Do you feel like you have a say in the process of writing it?

Waldo: I think they came in with the adaptation pretty much taken care of. We played around with who would say what when and when our voices would overlap. Creating the show physically, it had to be a group process because there was no director who could stand there and say, “Okay, now move the wallpaper downstage.” We had to figure out this labyrinth of cloth together. We were playing one character together.

Dickerson: I had kind of a unique experience because (when Dickerson joined the cast) they had already done the show and they were changing it because it was based upon who was available and could drop everything and go to Canada for a week. I was like, “Hey, I can do that.” (Laughter.) So I would up taking on parts other people already had done because we took (the chorus) from seven people down to five people. The patterns of the wallpaper had already been established and it was, “Well, we have to take this down to five people instead of seven, but we need you to be here.”

Ertugrul: There was a lot of modifications where it wasn’t you just filling another person’s shoes. It was combining two roles. It was a completely different configuration.

Q: Did you cut apart the text or move things?

Castillo: I don’t think we moved anything, but we definitely cut.

Ertugrul: We put a scene in there where it was full-on dialogue between the husband and the woman, which doesn’t happen (in the short story.) It’s actually told all from her perspective. We made that scene. I’m going to be frank: I have not read that story since we did our adaptation, and I don’t remember what we changed. (Laughter.)

Castillo: On the adaptation side, it really did start with: “Here’s this entry; let’s read it out loud.”

Ertugrul: And go: “Boring. No. Cut it.” Or: “That sounds good.”

Castillo: Or: “Who says that? Oh, she would say that.” It really was that process at the very beginning. Just read it aloud.

Ertugrul: We had much more of an issue with Poe, when we did (The Poe [n. proj-ekt]), because there’s a lot of things that sound great in your head when you’re reading but when you try to do it (aloud) it wreaks havoc on your mouth.

Castillo: And there a point of adaptation where it’s “well, should this be said or is it an image?”

Q: Do you give the text a couple of passes and then start to figure out the movement?

Castillo: Yeah.

Ertugrul: The short story’s job is to put those images into your brain. Watching something theatrically, we’re supposed to show you that image with our actors. So one of the key moments of adapting is going, “Okay, what are we showing and what are we talking about?”

Castillo: Normally the adaptation is not a pretty process.

Q: I don’t know that gothic is the right word, but there’s a kind of aesthetic to the stories you seem drawn to. Also, I had kind of assumed that this stuff is in the public domain so in adapting it you don’t have to pay somebody.

Ertugrul: That was another pull.

Castillo: Definitely.

Q: Is there a consensus about the kind of stories you do? You guys do a lot of dark material.

Castillo: Well, we definitely —

Ertugrul: Well, you can say that, but You Vs. was not dark.

Castillo: There are exceptions.

Ertugrul: And Three Penny Opera can be seen as dark because it’s Brecht, but it itself is hilarious. It’s a very funny show.

Q: You’re sometimes taking source material and you’re kind of assembling. Do you look at it as a group authorship or do people take the lead?

Ertugrul: It really depends upon the show.

Castillo: I feel like with every show we want to get the group involved in the writing. I know with this show, I asked the group to bring in text that’s related. We have text from the actual trial of Lizzie Borden. We also have text from —

Ertugrul: A 1960s novel that was about the women’s movement of getting out of the kitchen and into the workplace.

Castillo: We have text from a Mike Tyson interview. … And Antigone.

Dambruch: I brought in a lot of Richard III. We didn’t end up using it.

Q: Why did you bring that in?

Dambruch: Richard III is one of my favorite all time plays. It’s very dark. There’s something about him as a villain … that I thought would be interesting to put into the mind of a woman.

Castillo: The theme I wanted (the cast) to go off of was crime, and one of the central themes of the show is getting away with a crime and guilt.

Nancy Dickerson during a recent rehearsal for 40 Whacks.

Q: What was it about Borden? Was it just that this is gruesome and it might get people in?

Ertugrul: I had read about it once before and I thought about the brutality of what it takes to whack someone 19 times in the head. What that sounds like. Think about how long it would take if you had to sit her and listen to me whack something, hit something 19 times. Really at eight or nine, you’re going to go, “How many times are you going to do this, lady?” You know? And Abby got 19 — that’s the stepmother — and the father got 11. That’s originally what started it. It was me, Nancy and Edwin, and we were over at Doumar’s one day, and I was like “think about that” over our milkshake and fries. (Laughter.)

Dickerson: Eating ice cream.

Castillo: So where we really wanted to go with this was, she got away with it. She was acquitted of it. Now how do you live with it?

Ertugrul: If there’s any question of where we’re going with this, of: “Did she do it?” We’re going with: “Yeah.” (Laughter.) We’ve done a lot of digging. Don’t read the first Wikipedia entry that you come to.

Waldo: Even the transcripts of the trial, there’s a lot of discrepancies there, too. Either it’s people’s stories changing or people not documenting things correctly. It’s very hard to get a true handle on this story because of how poorly it was recorded at the time.

Castillo: How does Lizzie live with the guilt?

Ertugrul: If you don’t get punished, you may punish yourself. … And the way that we’re staging the show is as a recurring nightmare. This is the nightmare she has almost every night.

Q: Do you tie it into the act of punishing the people she’s killed?

Ertugrul: No. It’s all about punishing herself.

Q: Let’s talk about You Vs. There was a really unique way you found content for that play. Could you just talk about that process?

Ertugrul: It started with True Office Confessions. (Laughter.) Yeah. There is this website called True Office Confessions and it is a venting board where anonymous people can go on and complain about where they work and the people they work with. It is actually extremely funny and every now and then you get one that is heartbreaking. … It started with this notion of, it’s always you versus. The way you start out your entire life is you against something else, and then you against you. So that became the outline of the show.

Castillo: Then we branched off. The beginning lines and the end lines of dialogue, we started with what do you hear kids say? Why is the sky blue?

Ertugrul: And we came up with all this stuff that wasn’t on the internet. And then the end of it we decided, “Well, what are the actual answers?” And between that, what happens between you being a kid and being a parent? … What happened was we did this (the beginning and end) and we were still hashing out the middle portion of it, and went what are we trying to say to them? That was the question. And we all had to sit down and go what are we trying to say to them?

Dickerson: It was a whole rehearsal.

Ertugrul: It was a whole rehearsal talking about what are we trying to say? Why did I ask you to come in and sit down and watch what we just did?

Q: Were you concerned about tying it up in a big bow too much?

Ertugrul: Yes. … And then what we decided was: “Go for it.” And if you honestly believe what you’re saying it can’t be too sappy. If we were acting at the end of that and didn’t actually mean it, yes. But we meant it. And finding that poem.

Q: Can we spoil the poem (at the end of the play)?

Castillo: “Oh Me! O Life!” by Walt Whitman.

Ertugrul: Using that reinforces what we showed about life being cyclical. … Using something older (than other “found” materials in the play) reinforces that.

Q: My favorite sequence is the balloons. I knew there was going to be some killer movement stuff because it’s you guys but it was like a play within a play. There was like a story. Can I ask you to describe that scene for people who haven’t seen the play?

Castillo: That actually came from something created by Laura (Agudelo).

Ertugrul: We had created short pieces for something that was done over at ODU … and we were taking Wallpaper to Canada. Brant (Powell) and Laura were still local and we were able to work with them where they were able to build two pieces. One of them was the balloon piece.

Castillo: We had taken personal ads from Craigslist and Portfolio Weekly, like, years ago, and The Village Voice … and reading these personal ads we were struck by the amount of hot air. … So we just turned that into a physical thing. We created a balloon factory, where a balloon started at one end, was handed over to another person, which was blown up (with) a little helium tank, handed to another person, tied with a string, and handed to another person to hang up. That was the sequence.

Q: And what happened along that assembly line at certain points, and these were little stories, was reflected in how well the balloon is made, whether it pops or lasts.

Ertugrul: And each one was placed in such a way that: “Okay, this one sounds very perfect. This one’s not so perfect. This one is too honest.” And then the color of the balloon would change. … It went on the scale of perfect to whoa.

Q: It’s not just the stories. It’s the actions, and there’s a range of motions that the stories have and the people handling — in a way handling the story as they pass it along — and there’s all these ranges of emotions as they pass it along.

Ertugrul: It’s funny to see someone reacting to a popping balloon.

Q: You have to do all this stage business and there’s so much movement. I think what I haven’t conveyed in describing this is it’s a very intricate process.

Dickerson: There was a lot of making sure I did or did not do things to certain balloons that I was working very hard to keep straight. … We talked about it as we went through it: “Wait, are we the people speaking? Or are we third parties putting the words into the balloons? Do we look at each other? We want to look at each other. Let’s not look at each other. Okay, we are not the people speaking. We’re the little magic men in the ATM who make the money pop out. So we’re the people in the factory who make these balloons. What are the balloons?” We ended up being objective third parties working in this personal ad factory …

Ertugrul: It would probably astonish people how much we talk about really specific moments. … That’s the precision. This show alone, that opening is very precise about where everyone is and where they’re looking and what’s going on.

Waldo: The precision you were just talking about, whether it is the minuteness of how do we blow up this balloon or the elaborateness of some big dance that’s happening, I think that’s what the training really helps you to prepare for. I think there’s a misconception with Suzuki training that … you’re going to get on stage and stomp all around the place.

Ertugrul: What does someone call it? “Stomping and shouting.” Do you guys stomp and shout on the stage?

Costen: Only in my mind. (Laughter.)

Emel Ertugrul and Edwin Castillo of CORE Theatre Ensemble at the Little Theatre of Norfolk.


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Belligerent Q&A, Vol. XIV: CORE Theatre Ensemble


NORFOLK, Va. — CORE Theatre Ensemble, founded by alumni of Old Dominion University’s theater department, has a new show, 40 Whacks, opening this coming week at the Little Theatre of Norfolk.

It is, you might say, a family drama.

With axe murdering.

40 Whacks is based on the murders allegedly committed by Lizzie Borden of her stepmother and father in Fall River, Mass. Though she was acquitted, the case continues to remain a part of American folklore. There have been a series of adaptations (including a musical), a museum in Salem, Mass., and a bed and breakfast bearing the Borden family name at the site of the murders.

The B&B gift shop even sells a Lizzie Borden bobble head. So, you know, break out those credit cards.

40Whacks runs for only three performances. Showtimes are at 8 p.m., running from Friday, Oct. 14, to Sunday, Oct. 16, at Little Theatre of Norfolk, 801 Claremont Ave., Norfolk. Tickets are $15 for general admission; $12 for senior citizens, students, and active duty or retired military; and $8 for kids 17 and under. The play contains unsettling images and some sexual content. Reservations are via (757) 627-8551 or at the Little Theatre site.

In an email, CORE offered:

It’s a lot darker than The Yellow Wallpaper and definitely not as light as our last production You Vs.

The company practices the Suzuki Method of Actor Training and the Viewpoints improvisation system. They’ve been involved in traveling shows, workshops and collaboration with college and non-college theater students around the world.

Past shows include The Poe (n. proj-ekt), Duranged (Christopher Durang one-acts), and their excellent adaptation of The Yellow Wallpaper. Other productions include Frankenstein, The Threepenny Opera, and You Vs.

The members of CORE are Emel Ertugrul, managing director, artistic associate and actor; Edwin Castillo, Suzuki/Viewpoints training instructor, artistic associate and actor; Laura Agudelo, Suzuki/Viewpoints training assistant, artistic associate and actor; and Nancy Dickerson, artistic associate and actor.

The Yellow Wallpaper is one of the best plays I’ve seen around here, and I greatly enjoyed You Vs. earlier this year. We recently traded email for this Belligerent Q&A.

Q: Just who do you think you are? Please use three examples in your response.

We are:

  1. Students. In every production we create, we learn from each other as well as our casts as to what makes good theatre. Theatre that doesn’t bore us or make us wish we were somewhere else. We don’t pretend to know all the answers when we collaborate on new projects. We use our casts to help us understand how each production works. There is always so much to learn from another human being. It’s artistic conversation.
  2. Teachers. What we’ve learned over the years with our actor training and experiencing theatre outside of the U.S. Is that we strive to instill a sense of discipline and commitment in everyone involved with our shows, both onstage and backstage. Sometimes it’s easy to think that acting and theatre is ‘fun.’  Which it is and can be a lot of times — but it’s also hard work. It’s a craft. It’s something that needs to be developed and questioned.
  3. Harsh critics. Of our own works and others’.

Q: Is the Suzuki method the one in which you slap around some smart guy right out of the gate so the rest of the mugs in your crew lay off their damned shenanigans and focus on the one last job you got to do so the Big Man will let you out of the life once and for all and you can finally go straight with your best gal, Sheila, maybe somewhere warm like Costa Rica? Or is that the other Suzuki method with the violins?

Yes it is … the first one. In a weird way, yes, that’s exactly what it is.

The second one is also true, but we don’t know anything about violins.

Q: Castillo, you’re a love struck shoe salesman enamored with a walk-in customer seeking pumps. Agudelo, you’ve seen worse looking men, but you’re really just there for the pumps. Ertugrul, you’re the shoelace supervisor carrying a torch for Castillo, but he hardly seems to notice you – even when you try to lace up Agudelo’s non-lacing pumps. Action, CORE Theatre Ensemble. Action.

Black stage.

A blowtorch is lit by Ertugrul. Its light reveals Agudelo who is holding a broken bicycle pump.  Castillo is revealed, holding a sock and gently weeping.

Ensemble (whispered):  This is not a shoe store.

Blackout.

Q: A life in the theater – why? To very loosely paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut, aren’t you really just trying to hurt your parents?

It’s easy to be boring and a lot of other things in life are just that.

Mom and dad didn’t raise boring.

Q: Your new production, 40 Whacks, is based upon the case of Lizzie Borden. After your research, writing and rehearsal, where did you come down on the hot-button issue of axe-murdering?

 Two pro, two con — so you’ve really got a 50/50 chance of knowing what we’re thinking about whilst in conversation.

Q: Often a new work is made by a key line that captures the essence of the greater work, and drives it, oh so fiercely, into the audience’s collective ribcage. Presumably someone in the play has a line such as, “It’s cleavin’ time!” or “I’m gonna axe murder you so fast you won’t know what hit you; at this point you should understand that it will be an axe that hit you.” or “Heeeeeeeere’s Lizzie!” Were there any other lines that didn’t make the cut?

‘You can’t ax in here! This is the sitting room!’

‘Can’t get the candles today, Brendonna.’

‘Poor girl looks as if she’s been raised on promises’

‘That’s gotta hurt.’

‘Are you there god? It’s me Lizzie.’

Q: We’ve covered so much ground here. What else would you like to say?

There’s always more.  No matter what, there’s always more.

In honor of Fall River, the New England setting of the Borden murders, I am proud to present the following video.

There are many things to say about this video.

  1. Due to a very unfortunate editing decision early in the video, it is not safe for work.
  2. It does actually exist.
  3. Somewhere in New England, a place I like to think of as the Greater Rhode Island Metropolitan Environment (GRIME), the people who made this video are probably planning sequels.
  4. The decision to mix social commentary, quasi-sexual patter, and warmed-over Chamber of Commerce messages was somehow brave.

Remember: The city, they’ve been fixing all the cracks in the pavement.

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