Archive for the ‘Places of Inspiration’ Category

Falling In Love With A Theatre

This article is revised from our Studio Newsletter archives in honor of World Theatre Day.

World Theatre Day

What makes someone fall in love with a theatre? I asked a bunch of theatrical colleagues to name a theatre that they love and say why they love it. Here are some responses:

“There are so many! But the one that comes to mind is THE GUTHRIE when it was being built and I was going to be playing Hamlet in the inaugural production. Tony [Tyrone Guthrie] and I walked into what felt like Yankee Stadium and I was terrified. How was I going to fill that space? Then when we walked down onto the stage, suddenly it was only half as big, and I did manage to fill it; over the years it was as if I was playing a dearly beloved instrument.” George Grizzard, Actor

“GLYNDEBOURNE, the famous Opera House in England. My husband and I had a private tour, and I stood on the stage alone and sang into the empty theater. The acoustics were incredible – I got the chills hearing my voice ring out like that… it sparked my imagination!”
 Melora Hardin, Actress

“THE MUSIC BOX, on Broadway. It’s a theatre of reasonable size and seating capacity, yet it manages to feel intimate. Rounded boxes flanking the proscenium are a particularly pleasing feature. It is a theatre that really helps the director.”
  Ed Sherin, Director

“IL TEATRO PIU’ TEATRO PICCOLO DEL MONDO (“the smallest theater in the world”) in Umbria. What a gem! It was built in the early 1800s by the families of Monte Castello di Vibio who wanted a place for social gatherings. The mindset at the time was of concordia tra i popoli (concordance between the populations) so the theatre was named Teatro Concordia. It is a space with perfect proportions; a space where you can feel the history of elegant and probably melodramatic performances in that tiny town.” Marianna Houston, Theatre Educator

“I love various parts of many Broadway theatres: the Tiffany stained glass fixtures and wood paneling of the BELASCO THEATRE; the inner lobby of the MAJESTIC and its grand house; the ingenious combination of new and old to combine two theatres into one dazzling space as the HILTON THEATRE [ed: now the FOXWOODS]. And I want to add another gem of a building Off-Broadway, the WESTSIDE THEATRE’s building, lobby and interiors are remarkably beautiful.” Bob Reilly, Company Manager

“THE VIGSZINHAS (Vigszínház) THEATRE in Budapest, Hungary – a magnificent 19th-century horseshoe shaped house with four or five balcony tiers. The stagehouse was completely re-built, and the stage is so deep – it covers a whole city block – with the loading door smack in the middle. For Six Characters In Search of an Author the city agreed to close off the street to traffic every night one half hour before the performance, so the audience saw the cast enter from the city beyond. That 19th century magic was made possible by the 21st century rehab.”
 Peter Frisch, Director

“THE BARTER THEATRE in Abingdon Virginia because it’s where I fell in love with my husband of 50 years! Barter inherited the seats and the curtain from the old EMPIRE THEATRE on Broadway, which gave it a certain mystique, and by the way, probably fostered more romances than any other theatre in America!”
 Diane Hardin, Acting Teacher/Coach

“I love lots and lots of theatres. At the moment I love the McCARTER in Princeton because Emily Mann and everyone there is so wonderful and willing to do anything I ask.” Eugene Lee, Scenic Designer

What is YOUR favorite theatre? Please share it!


Theatrical Staging? Or Real Estate Staging? A LESSON LEARNED

My husband Roger and I recently sold our big old New York City apartment on Riverside Drive. We had moved into the building  in time to celebrate our daughter’s first birthday in 1975, and six years later our son was born there (well, almost – we got to the hospital just in the nick of time!) When the apartment next door came on the market we borrowed money to connect the two spaces so our kids could run and play.

We were two country kids at heart, lucky in love and real estate, living our dream in Manhattan with a spectacular river view.

Thirty-seven years later we knew it was time to cash in our asset and (gulp) move on. Our kids had been happily independent for years, and even with two grandchildren FIVE bedrooms was ridiculous. 

Deanna Kory, our highly esteemed real estate broker, recommended staging the apartment. (What?) THEATRICAL staging refers to the mounting of a play; REAL ESTATE staging, I learned, means removing all traces of people living in the apartment so prospective buyers don’t get distracted; they’ll be able to imagine themselves living there. 

To be blunt, I hated the idea. One theatrical truth I’ve learned over the years is that specificity makes a landscape universal; removing specificity makes it generic. But that was the point: Deanna advised that staging could increase the selling price from 5 to 125 times the cost of staging (!) so Roger and I immediately got to work.

© Samuel Morgan Photography

Rented furniture (beige), lamps (square), towels (ugly) and chatchkas (weird) appeared. Plasterers, painters, window-washers invaded our turf, as did (thankfully) Amanda Wiss and Urban Clarity, who got us organized. Our son Sam, an architectural photographer, did a photo-shoot, and his fine photos didn’t resemble the comfy home in which we’d raised our family, but it sure was ready to sell. 

Preparing to show the apartment reminded us of the half-hour-call that precedes every theatrical performance: it looks hectic but in fact, it’s a meticulous routine.

Our routine: make beds, poof pillows, empty wastebaskets, clear every surface, vacuum (Roger), arrange fresh flowers (me), leave no traces of normal life, EXIT to the Metro Diner, contemplate our future and wait for Deanna’s “all clear” text, and head home. 

Eventually the perfect buyers arrived. And as the lovely young mother vividly described how her family would live in our space, I knew the staging had worked. But there’s another chapter to our story… where did we go? 

HA!  Not very far: we are now living 10 feet 2 inches below our former home. And here’s the beauty part: our new apartment was NOT staged, which I believe is the reason we got it.  

We were always fond of the elderly couple downstairs – they were good neighbors. Distinguished college professors who loved world travel and NY’s Upper West Side, they often gathered students in their book-lined home for heady salons: discussions of physics, languages and art.

It seemed natural that when our dear neighbors died (a couple of years apart) it was in the home they loved. In fact, their clothes were still hanging in the closets when the apartment was being shown, and their books and paintings were everywhere. It looked as if one of their salons for their students was about to begin. Their apartment reflected a highly specific way of life – in other words, it was staged according to the theatrical definition of the word. And it simply did not sell.

We knew that our neighbors’ apartment was for sale six months before ours, and we would’ve bought it in an instant if we didn’t have to sell ours first. But we couldn’t make an offer contingent upon a sale. Then Deanna’s brilliant and diplomatic negotiating skills proved it’s not just a rumor that she’s the best realtor in New York: 428 days after our neighbors’ apartment came on the market our offer to buy it was accepted.

I will forever recommend real-estate-staging to anyone who wants to sell their apartment. (And Deanna Kory, of course!) Theatrical staging? Nope. Though it sure worked in our favor! 

In the meantime, the Hudson River is a most inspiring setting. Roger and I thank our lucky stars for it every day.

 We may have moved… but we’re still here. 



A Theatrical Love Story

I’d like to introduce you to a great love of mine. Mind you, I’m not alone: hundreds of other theatre professionals continue to participate in our love circle of 33 years, including my husband.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I’ve been a member of EST since 1978. My husband and business partner, Roger Morgan, is a founding member who signed the original articles of incorporation in 1968, alongside EST’s Founder, the late Curt Dempster

EST is a safe haven for several hundred theatre professionals who apply for free membership based on:

1) the quality of their work

2) their commitment to collaboration. 

Actors, writers, producers, directors, designers, managers, technicians and critics (the 8 Roles of Theatrical Intelligence I write about on this blog), become “Ensemble Artists”.

THE ENSEMBLE in the theatre’s name = its members.

STUDIO = a “theatre gym”, where members gather for vigorous workouts and candid de-briefs from fellow members and the artistic staff.

THEATRE = Place: 549 West 52nd Street, Hell’s Kitchen. In spite of its grit and an occasional mouse, it is passionately loved by its users.

These three elements = THE ENSEMBLE STUDIO THEATRE, which provides a lifeline to creativity throughout the best (as well as the worst) years in the lives of its artists.

Since its inception, EST has developed an astonishing 6,000+ plays. More importantly, it continues to nurture its artists for as long as they care to be nurtured, using its own collaborative technique.

With a current annual budget of $1.3 million, EST has been recognized by the American Theater Wing, the NY Outer Critics Circle, Drama Desk Awards and Village Voice Obies; collectively, its members have won Pulitzers, Oscars, Tonys, Golden Globes… the list goes on.

So why does this trashy little place matter so much to its members?

To use myself as an example, I dared to write, direct, produce, and spread my wings as an artist at EST. I had never stepped into any of these roles before.

In 1987, EST actress Christine Farrell asked if I’d join a group of leading ladies in an evening of our own making. She knew that we’d never be cast in the same play, and she simply wanted to be onstage together for a change, instead of competing for the same roles. EST member Pamela Berlin joined us as DIrector.

We wrote, workshopped, disagreed, re-wrote, disagreed better, re-wrote better, learned to trust, performed, published and produced MAMA DRAMA, a collaborative piece that is still performed in academic and community theatres nationwide.

My development as a leader is directly attributable to EST. By the late-80’s I was sick of performing, but I wasn’t trained to do anything else. I wanted to work ON a play instead of IN it. Because EST members are able to initiate their own projects, I did. I wrote. Directed. Managed. Experimented. Convinced people to work with me for free.

It became clear to me that I could bring a project to life by identifying strengths in my collaborators that they didn’t necessarily know they had. The trick was to reflect them back so they were somehow quantifiable.  Each time this happened, a profound level of trust was established in the group and we often believed that together we could do anything! (This was frequently followed by a spectacular and unforgettable failure.)

Immediately after the experience of writing, directing and producing, I shifted my career, a direct result of exploring these roles. Writing is now one of my great passions and part of my daily life, and it would never have happened without EST. It’s where I discovered my “CEO shoes”, and they fit so comfortably I never wanted to take them off.

Curt, Christine, Leslie, Rita, Annie, Donna, Marianna and Pam changed my life.

There are many EST stories just like mine. Why? Because this theatre is the place to try out new stuff and know that it’s OK to fail. In fact, absence of failure is a bit suspect, and falling flat on your face is certainly the quickest way to learn: check out the 6 Principles of Theatrical Intelligence.

And at EST, once a member always a member, so we get to fail again and again!

These days I’m back at EST experimenting in yet another role: Vice Chair of the Board of Directors. 

I believe it’s essential to spread the word about this model of creativity, and work to ensure that it builds a financial foundation for its future. Because EST is not only a theatre that is deeply loved – it is a theatre that knows how to love back.

What could be better than that?


Photo above left: The Ensemble Studio Theatre by Christopher Cayaba

Photo above right: MAMA DRAMA, clockwise from left: Leslie Ayvazian, Christine Farrell, Rita Nachtmann, Anne O’Sullivan, Ann Sachs (seated, center). Not pictured: Director Pamela Berlin, Donna Daley and Marianna Houston.

If you’d like to see what’s going on at EST: please join us!


Theatrical Logic

Imagined interior of London’s Fortune Theatre (1599). Sketch ©Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland.

Occasionally a colleague responds to the term Theatrical Intelligence with “Isn’t that an oxymoron?” and much as it irks me to hear it, I understand. Theatrical logic doesn’t make much sense to those who are not in the theatre.

The theatre ditty below reflects amusing contradictions in what some think of as our oxymoronic world

In is down, down is front
Out is up, up is back
Off is out, on is in
And of course
Right is left and left is right.
A drop shouldn’t
And a block and fall does neither.
A prop doesn’t
And a cove has no water.
Tripping is OK.
A running crew rarely gets anywhere
A purchase line will buy you nothing
A trap will not catch anything
And a gridiron has nothing to do with football.
A strike is work (in fact, a lot of work)
And a green room, thank God, usually isn’t.
Now that you’re fully versed
In theatrical terms…”Break a Leg”.
But not really.
Author Unknown
 The language is confusing but absolutely explainable.

In fact, there is a long history of theatrefolk being thought of as not quite normal or respectable: in the early 20th century, it was common to see  NO THEATRICALS signs on reputable hotels and eateries; women onstage were assumed to be prostitutes. Yes, the prejudice was rampant.

When Actors’ Equity was founded in 1913 as the first labor union in the performing arts industry, it paved the way for The Four A’s: the Associated Actors and Artistes of America.

These days there is a national hunger for creativity in the workplace. Corporations, governments, academic organizations and communities of all kinds are looking to artists for inspiration and answers to the lack of satisfaction of their workers. It’s the reason I’ve started leading Theatrical Intelligence Workshops, because it’s time to spread the word.

So,what is the answer to the question “Is Theatrical Intelligence An Oxymoron?”

YES, if you’re a skeptic.

NO, if you’re willing to challenge your assumptions and imagine a stage as the center of your world.

For those of us who work in the theatre, that’s what we’re lucky enough to do every day.

Where Inspiration Spreads Wide Its Glorious Wings*

* Inscribed (in french) on the proscenium of the old theatre in the Carnegie-Mellon School of Fine Arts, my alma mater.

Once again I have returned to Baker Library in the town where I grew up: Hanover, NH. This is the place I wrote my term papers in high school…

The place I Iearned from a classmate in 1963 that Oswald had been shot.

The place I found a desk with a secret drawer filled with treasures.

The place of many flirtations.

The place “where Inspiration spreads wide its glorious wings”.

The place I am from.

Of the many rooms I love in this library, I’m drawn once again to the Theodor Geisel (Dr. Suess) “imaginative place to study!” Must be something about unleashing the imagination of my childhood.

Voices from long ago join me, yet it is silent and I am alone. An exhibit in the hallway about the history of printing and binding of books reminds me of my brother Jim (who invented the electronic book).

I ponder an illustration from Dr. Suess’s last book, published in 1990: Oh, The Places You’ll Go! and I can’t imagine a more perfect place to work.

It’s time to disconnect: no tweets, no emails, no calls.

Over and Out.

Retreating to a Place of Youthful Inspiration

Hanover, NH and Norwich, VT

Hanover, NH and Norwich, VT

For 10 days last month I retreated to the New Hampshire town of my youth. I had become increasingly frustrated with my inability to work effectively on my book in the middle of my hectic city life, and decided to just vacate. “To get away from it all”. (What a cliché from the 80s!)  I didn’t understand the phrase then, and wondered now: “What do I want to get away from?”

Of course it wasn’t what I wanted to get away from, but rather what I was going to that made the retreat a great gift to myself.

Baker's Tower Room

The minute I walked into Dartmouth’s Baker Library I connected to a place of inspiration from my past: the scene where my writer self had lived for a while, blossomed briefly, then disappeared for decades.

The aura of respect for the written word still permeates the hallways. How I cherished that environment! I could see my Hanover High School classmates walking the halls – same bodies, different heads – relentlessly writing and re-writing term papers and stories, all the while pretending we were in college.

I’m happy to report that my writer self fully emerged in New Hampshire and made herself comfortable. She has continued to grow after returning to New York and I’m confident will continue to do so. The book is depending on her.

New Hampshire Lilacs

It may not be necessary to do so, but I’ve decided to visit Hanover again in the end of March. And another trip is on my calendar for the end of May when the State Flower of New Hampshire blooms.

Inspiration from our youth is such a treasure, irresistible to touch, and to re-capture again and again and again.

Theatrical Intelligence: The Chaos of Collaboration

I’ve spent 40 years working in the theatre industry, experiencing the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” in a hazardous profession that chews people up and spits them out every day.  I’ve reached the age where I can profess wisdom simply because I have survived. This wisdom is based upon the age-old principle of the theatre as a collaborative art form, where people work together effectively, each in a particular niche that they have mastered, and that they love.

When I shifted careers about 20 years ago, transitioning from performer to small business owner within the same industry, my workplace changed from a theatrical environment to a regular old office; a serious place of business. During my first few years I made every effort to create a “corporate business atmosphere” with little success.  No matter how many businesses I observed and business books I read, none of them embodied the kind of workplace I was looking for.

It was during this search that I took a non-theatre business-owner friend of mine to a stop-go tech-dress rehearsal of a Broadway musical. As I had hoped, she was awestruck. We sat in the theatre balcony – quiet as little mice – and she barraged me with questions about who the hundreds of workers were, and what they were actually doing as they hustled and bustled down below:









Who is the woman who leaps onto the stage every few minutes? (The choreographer.)

What is that disembodied voice from above? (The stage manager on the god-mike.)

Why are the actors having trouble walking on the stairs? (The stairs are on an electronic revolve; stagehands are working out the speed.)

Who is in charge? Then she stopped, and said: No, no, no – don’t tell me!

First, she guessed that the person in charge must be the balding man seated at the table smack in the middle of the auditorium. Then she thought it must be the woman with the sassy haircut sitting next to him, talking over the headphones to the guy with the god-voice.  Next, she wondered if both of them were in charge.  We watched as the choreographer kept landing lightly in the row directly in back of them and something struck them as hilarious… Meanwhile a scrawny guy and a blonde kid kept appearing and disappearing on the staircase revolve and we listened to hundreds of bizarre sound cues.

My friend continued to ponder in silence until finally she whispered to me: There is NO ONE running the show. The theatre really IS magic!

That moment will forever be etched in my mind. Not so much that my friend thought the theatre was magic, but rather that the organization within the chaos was so clear to me, and so bewildering to her.

I proceeded to identify with certainty for my friend that the man and the woman at the table were the lighting and costume designers, the scrawny guy and the kid were the director and set designer; then I pointed out the company manager, spotlight operator, dance captain and two producers sitting in the back of the house. Mind you I didn’t KNOW anyone associated with the production except for one producer and the choreographer, yet my recitation amounted to a veritable org chart of a Broadway musical.

That day in the theatre when my friend “experienced the magic”, I recognized that the oh-so-familiar creative-chaos of a Broadway show was exactly what I was looking for in the work environment at the Studio, yet I had closed the door on my own professional experience because I didn’t think it “fit” – yet there it was, hidden in plain view.  I decided immediately to give up the feeble attempt to create my own little version of a Wall Street firm, and to lay claim to the collaborative art form I knew so well.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, the idea for Theatrical Intelligence had been born.

Photograph © Samuel Morgan

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