September 24, 2022

Alan Cumming Follows His Passion in "Burn"

The very limited six-day run of Burn, Alan Cumming’s solo performance piece at The Joyce Theater, ends this weekend but there is so much joy in it that I can't resist celebrating it. 

Cumming, who broke out as the emcee in the 1998 revival of Cabaret, has gone on to make a good living doing movies (“Spy Kids,”  “X-Men”) and TV shows (“The Good Wife,” “Instinct”) but he has remained at heart a true artist who is always looking for new ways to express himself.

In 2008, Cumming opened that year’s Lincoln Center summer festival in an exuberant production of the seldom-performed The Bacchae that had him making his entrance by descending, upside-down, from the ceiling. Five years later he turned in an intense performance in a one-man version of Macbeth in which he played all the parts. He’s also written three memoirs and a children’s book, is a co-producer of A Strange Loop and the host of “Club Cumming,” a showcase for queer comedians that is currently streaming on Showtime (click here to check that out).

Now Burn is at the Joyce, the Chelsea venue for dance, because Cumming teamed up with the choreographer Steven Hoggett to create a movement-and-word tribute to the 18th century poet Robert Burns, revered as the national bard of their native Scotland. 

After working on it for nearly seven years, the duo took the piece to the Edinburgh International Festival in August (click here to read about their journey). When word came that they were also bringing it here to New York, my always-up-for-anything theatergoing buddy Bill and I bought tickets to see it.

To be honest, the show is far from perfect. For starters, Cumming is not a trained dancer and, at 57, he often gets winded as he executes the movements that Hoggett and his co-choreographer Vicki Manderson have created for him to perform. The words he speaks are drawn from some of Burns’ poems but more so from the letters that Burns wrote and that reveal more about the man inside the icon. But, alas, some of those words were occasionally drowned out by Anna Meredith’s score, a crazy-quilt fusion of Scottish folk tunes and techno beats.

However in the end, none of that really mattered. Burns, the author of the New Year’s Eve classic “Auld Lang Syne,” is a compelling subject. The son of a poor tenant farmer, he was largely home schooled and spent most of his early years laboring on the farm although he never developed a knack for it and would struggle with making a living until he died at the age of 37. 

Burns began writing mainly as a way to woo girls and he remained lusty throughout his life, siring 12 children, three out of wedlock and the last born on the day of his funeral. But his poems, an innovative mix of Scottish and English wordplay, eventually branched out to deal with such subjects as class inequality, the role of the church in society, the poet's own intermittent bouts of depression and his always abiding love for his homeland. 

Cumming and Hoggett are proud Scotsmen too and both have worked often with the National Theater of Scotland, where they incubated this piece. As always, Hoggett, who has devised distinctive movement for such shows as Once, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, found surprisingly playful and inventive ways to tell Burns' story. 

There were bits of stage magic—a quill pen that writes by itself—and other memorable images: the women in Burns’ life were represented by shoes that dangled from the ceiling on ribbons. Terrific videos by Andrzej Goulding and effective lighting by Tim Lutkin recreated the Scottish landscape and the peaks and valleys inside Burns’ mind. 

And, of course, Cumming was as passionate and committed as ever. He never left the stage during the 60-minute performance and his obvious delight in what he was doing kept the audience right in the palm of his hand. 

As Bill and I stood outside the theater after the show, he said how glad he was to have seen it. Me too.

September 3, 2022

A Labor Day Salute to Stage Managers

Monday is Labor Day, which means that it’s time for my annual tribute to some of the people whose labor makes the theater we all love work. I’ve been doing this for 15 years now and I can’t tell you how embarrassed I am that I’m just getting around to celebrating stage managers, who may be the hardest working people in the business.

Stage managers are the linchpins that connect the creative and technical sides of every production. They make sure that actors don’t forget their cues and that props are where they should be onstage. They run tech rehearsals so that the lighting and sound folks can work out their plans and replacement rehearsals so that newcomers to a production can figure out what they’re supposed to do. They provide a shoulder for everyone from the director to the dressers to cry on. And they gamely—and graciously—shoulder the blame when things go wrong, even when it isn’t their fault (click here to read some specific stories about what they do).

I got some further insight into what it takes to be a good stage manager by reading “Whenever You’re Ready: Nora Polley on Life as a Stratford Festival Stage Manager.” When Polley first started out in the early 1970s as an assistant stage manager at the Ontario-based festival, an old-timer told her “If anybody notices you are doing your job, it’s because you’ve just made a mistake…good stage management is invisible.” 

Over the next four decades, Polley would take that to heart, quietly dealing with everything from doling out breath mints to actors about to engage in an onstage kiss to administering first aid when an actor collapsed in the middle of a scene. And, like her brother and sister stage managers at theaters large and small, doing it all without the glory that comes from being onstage, content to settle for the occasional compliment of “Good show.”

Polley had retired by the time Covid created the unprecedented crisis of closed theaters all over the world. But Richard Hester, a Broadway stage manager who has worked on such shows as Titanic, Sweet Smell of Success and Jersey Boys, swung into action and, in typical stage manager style, kept up the morale of his colleagues in the community with a series of blog posts about how he and they were making it through the pandemic. He’s collected those tales about that darkest time between March 2020 and April 2021 in his new book “Hold, Please: Stage Managing A Pandemic.”

Another thing to come out of the pandemic was the call for greater diversity and inclusion backstage as well as onstage. There have been stage managers of color in the past. My college schoolmate, the great Fémi Sarah Heggie, got her start with the Negro Ensemble Company and was one of the first African-American women to get an Equity card as a stage manager. 

Over the years, Fémi has worked on such Broadway shows as Ain’t Supposed to Die A Natural Death, Jelly’s Last Jam and Once on This Island.  And there have been others, including Lisa Dawn Cave, who has some 20 Broadway credits over the past two decades, including the original production of Caroline, or Change and Shuffle Along. 

But a study conducted by Actors' Equity Association (which represents stage managers as well as actors) revealed that between 2016 and 2019, fewer than 3% percent of the stage managers working on professional productions in the entire country were black (click here to read more about that). And when African Americans do get hired, they tend to get hired primarily for shows by black playwrights or those with largely black casts.

Lately, there have been some more hopeful signs of change.  Both the La Jolla Playhouse in California and the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta have started programs that provide BIPOC fellows with salaries, benefits and the opportunity to work on major (and hopefully not just black) professional productions. 

There’s obviously still a long way to go.  But as we move along, I hope we’ll all take the time to recognize and appreciate the vital work that all stage managers do. In the meantime, I hope they’ll accept this belated salute and my most sincere wishes that they—and you, dear readers—have a Happy Labor Day.