Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Last post of 2009

Before the year comes to a close I am excited to share with you the news of the last weekend.  On Saturday the 19th our production team met for our first Production Meeting.  Then on Sunday the 20th the cast assembled to read Rob's latest draft of the script, which has gone under some revision in the past month through banter between him and I.

A Production Meeting, in case it needs explaining, is a gathering of all the designers involved in the play, the writer, director, assistant director and production manager, and occasionally the artistic director of the company producing the play is there too to have a greater idea of how all resources will be used in realizing this sprawling urban fantasy.  We all sit in a circle and after confirming details like dates, rehearsal schedules and deadlines, we start a creative discussion of all the aspects of the script that require that special art of stagecraft to do. 

The theatrical medium is unique different than movies/television. We take the arts of sound and lighting design, the technologies of craft and sculpture and flash animation projection, the textile fashion creative art of costume design, the creative architectural magic of scenic design, the thoughtful and exciting passion of combat choreography and the inspiration of puppet techniques to try to create a cohesive world that will help us tell the story of NEVERWHERE.  There were 12 of us in the room and for about four hours we bantered over everything.  From the look and feel of the costuming to the use of projections to create mood and atmosphere. We always struggle with budget and scope and think out loud on how to creatively work around a our resource limits to fit the storytelling we are all so motivated to get right.  It takes a group of very smart and experienced people, all of whom must be motivated by the play itself as well as inspired by their contribution to the whole, and I am overjoyed to say this meeting illustrated how right this group of collaborators is for this production.  When you come to the NEVERWHERE on Lifeline's "postage stamp" sized stage, you will be transported to another world. 

Sunday's reading was terrifically exciting as well. My job as director involves wrangling the various gifts of the desingers into a cohesive whole as well as casting the show and guiding those actors to perform their lines and move in a way that effectively conveys the emotional and grippingly adventurous through line of the quest.  Again, all in the room are enthusiastic and engaged by the material and bring a wealth of experience, intelligence, passion and imagination to their work.  Hearing it read aloud is such an exciting thing, you feel the beginnings of something incredibly special going on.  After the reading, many of the cast stuck around to talk about the script, ask questions about it, wonder aloud at plot points and give Rob some things to think about as he makes another revision before we start rehearsal.  One of my joys was being present when stage directions (those parts of a script that aren't character lines but describe Rob's vision on how special effects are staged) were read.  My assistant director Jessica would read something along the lines of "She walks to a bookshelf with her hand outstretched. A small panel on the side swings open and DOOR reaches inside. She pulls out a sphere of brass and wood, polished copper and glass. She picks up a small platform from the desk and places the sphere atop it. The sphere begins to spin and a beam of light projects onto a nearby wall." and everyone would start laughing at me - it is apparently very funny to them that I will have to somehow make this happen. :)

I can't help but smile, sure there are demands in signing on to stear a ship this big and wild, but it feels right, and I am in a comfortable place to be filled with questions and wonderment over answers. Something my mom mentioned to me yesterday (she just read the book) is that quest stories speak to all of us because they magnify something very universal.  We all face challenges not knowing whether fortune or fate will make us fly or fall in our endevour. We chose to go outside and face a world that can be dangerous, we take risks and go on quests every day.  That's what makes us rock stars. 

I'm proud to be a member of this team of rock stars and wish you all a very safe and splendiferous New Year of bold choices and risky adventures.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Spoiler Alert!

The Lifeline Theatre Ensemble and Board is in early planning stages for our benefit this year, being held at the Cultural Center in the Preston Bradley Hall on April 19, 2010.  The board and event committee are moving forward whole-heartedly and enthusiastically with a "Neil Gaiman's Floating Market" theme.  Our managing director Allison Cain is bursting with ideas, ensemble member and NEVERWHERE scenic designer Alan Donahue has devised a plot for designing the event and we're gathering entertainment, food, slient auction items and volunteer character actors to populate the event with weird and wild personas.  We already plan on showcasing some combat from the show and I'm talking Rob into being a twin weirdo carney barker type MC with me somewhere along the lines of the Fop with No Name. 

If only we could have open flame indoors - I'd see if I could import this nut seen here at the Jubilee Walkway.  Right before I started recording, he took a giant swig from a jug of kerosene, which you can see he's holding in his cheeks...

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Floating Market at Harrods

The night I made my way to check out the location in Harrods famous department store where Hunter is hired to be Door's bodyguard, my camera decided to take some shoddy pictures. Regardless...
I ended up at Knightsbridge, of course.

(Interesting tile work here at Hyde Park Corner, one stop away.)

Harrods was decked out in green not for the holidays (too early for that) but for the 70th anniversary of the movie The Wizard of Oz.

"The Meat and Fish Hall" inspires by name the image of a spacious, cavernous room.  Meeting by the "fish statue" evokes a museum like space, populated by artwork and marble.  Well, it's almost like that.  But with the amount of intense fighting involved, there is just too much in this room! It wouldn't fit an arena - these masters of combat are fighting in cramped, ornate quarters!

The titular fish statue, I believe... the only one I found.

I wanted to hang out at the caviar bar and sip champagne, maybe eventually making my way to the oyster shucker, but I was pressed for time.  So I went next door to the cheese shop, to see if I could find a contest on "silliest walk."

Imagine this scene at night, the perishables put away, and in the aisles a menagerie of stalls, vendors, smells delightful and gutwrenching, crowded with people shoulder to shoulder of all different shapes, sizes, colors, dress, dialects, shouting, pushing, vying for your attention, some looking like they'd pick your pocket, some looking like they'd slit your throat, some looking at you with hungry, cold eyes.

Monday, December 7, 2009

A partial telling of the Story of the London Underground

It should be no surprise that a major part of my visiting London involved a growing fascination with the London Underground.  I tried to catch as many pictures and ogle the tile work of the tube stations I visited as much as possible without blocking pedestrian traffic.  Sadly for me, London Transport officials have stopped allowing public tours of the derelict stations, of which Down Street was high on my wish list.  But I wandered happily around where I could, paid a visit to the richly curated London Transport Museum (where I bought the souvenir you see above) and I recently watched for the last time The Story of London's Underground, the cheesy 2006 doc I've had on loan from Netflix for over a month. The music is annoying and the presentation grainy but the information is fascinating to someone who's a little fanatical about finding bits of history about the London Underground.


In as early as 1800 London was the largest city in the world.  In the early years, horse was the only way to get around and traffic congestion was a huge problem.  A commission started in 1855 looked at the problem of traffic congestion and one of the members of the commission, solicitor Charles Pearson, saw public transport as a way to clear London slums and get the poverty stricken, disease ridden populace into safe, affordable homes.  At the end of the Crimean War, parliament voted public money for a vast network of sewers, fearing the city would not survive without them. Thus begins a new London under ground.  Cholera practically disappeared and London engineers began to lead the world in tunneling. 

The horse driven bus first enabled London to grow outwards but by the 1840's London had grown beyond an hour's ride to the city center. The arrival and development of the steam rail by 1829 didn't solve anything, because the main railways wanted to build their termini as close to the city center as possible. A commission early on decided that railways couldn't build too close to the city center because of the destruction of property that involved. As a result, they came in to a periphery of the city so that people arrived into London by train and immediately wanted to go elsewhere, which meant either by foot or by horse drawn cab.  So the railways brought more and more people to London and actually made the congestion worse. Pearson's idea was to connect the mainline railway stations with a new system, the issue being how to build it when London was so built up. Money was raised and work actually started by cut and cover tunneling - dig a trench, put a railway at the bottom and here and there roof it over so that property could be restored on top.  Today's Maryleborne and Euston roads cover the first section of tunneling.  In many cases they did actually have to purchase property and demolish it. 

Steam was the only viable technology present to propel the trains and they had areas of open tunnels to allow the steam and smoke to escape. A condensing engine was developed to consume its own smoke but it took some revising.  The 1866 engine for the Metropolitan Railway was the most successful first development, used until 1905.  In 1864 the Met started to issue workman's fares - costing less for the skilled working class to move out of the center to Hammersmith, Waterloo.
The system was the first classless public transport with no classification for seating.  

The construction of new suburbs did not take place as rapidly as Pearson envisioned while the slums were being torn down and the central tunneling of the Met didn't really extend outwards as much as envisioned meaning it didn't solve the congestion as much as it was hoped to because the lines circumnavigated the city center.   The concept was okay but clearly the cut and cover record wasn't working and was too expensive.  They needed to find a new engineering method.

Marc Brunel constructed the Thames Tunnel, a 20 year long financial disaster, started off an engineering process of a tunneling shield held back the walls while the tunnel was bricked off.  He succeeded at building the tunnel eventually but his technique, developed by James Henry Greathead and William Henry Barlow, using hydraulics, would erect an iron lining behind the shield advancing the tunnel by 13 feet a day.  The fact that beneath the city was there was a huge bed of clay, made this kind of tunneling possible.

Propelling trains still being a problem that deep under ground, steam powered cable hauling was tried but in 1888 an inventor and engineer named Frank Sprague proved that a number of trains could be run simultaneously by electric motor in Richmond, Virginia. First everything was built too small to make enough money, the first effective tubeline ran from the city out to Shepard's Bush.  Infamous financieer, Charles
Tyson Yerkes arrived in London from Chicago to persuade the Americans to finance a plan to further the underground by 1907, providing electrification and the building of a number of new lines.

The new system had a distinct marketing problem asking pedestrians to feel that going underground was safe, clean, easily accessible and sensible. Frank Pick lead the charge on developing a bold marketing move across the board. The use of high quality graphic design was established, with new artists and traditional designers creating beautiful poster art advertising the system.  A new typeface was commissioned in 1916 and the Bar and Circle logo was developed. Charles Holden created a functional and marketable design for new stations utilizing the logo design that was also highly functional.  And in 1933, a man named Henry Beck designed a map of the underground system some say revolutionized the way the public perceived the system (though not all agree).

Investors in the development of the underground were also investing in property in the green fields surrounding London, knowing that suburban development would soon follow. "MetroLand" was begun by Metropolitan Railway, given free reign to develop land as they wished, establishing ten huge estate near the railway, encouraging other developers and builders through 1933.  The West End flourished thanks to public transport, what was once an upper class residential area without commercial business development welcomed big department stores, theaters and movie houses, creating a great draw for the public.

World War I saw the first use of the tube as a bomb shelter which returned in World War II.  While some bombs did fall on stations and lines, people by the thousands would bring their families underground and lie there on the platforms through thesuspenseful nights. In 1942 some stations were converted into underground arsenals and munitions factories.  Here's a clip from the doc about that:

Story of The London Underground - Underground Shelter

Of course after I dropped the doc back in the mail I found these clips online that are much better. Oh well.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Rememberance Day

Being in London so close to Remembrance Day meant that the cultural heritage of war was very present. Everywhere you looked there were red "poppies" - signifiers of a society that shall not soon forget the devastating experience of violence in their City, in their communities.  There are many families still living in the aftermath of World War II's blitz, less than a generation after the Armistice that marks Remembrance Day.

I saw the National Theatre's production of WAR HORSE at the New London Theatre and was heartbroken by the story.  As enamored as I was by the production's incredible use of Handspring's articulate puppets, seeing the horror of World War I though the eyes of Joey and Albert, the British calvary and the German soldiers, the French peasants and British countrymen, made the story rich and evocatively emotional.  

My personal experience of war is removed - I've not known one person in service to the United States Army, Navy or Air Force involved in any war. I haven't been faced with the savage loss of living under siege, seeing my neighbors' homes destroyed, my proud city burning, my family taken from me, my peers hurt by PTSD or loss of limb or brain injury.  I am always fascinated in the culture of being British, due in no small part by my many experiences playing Brits and directing plays about them and the dramaturgy that accompanies this work.  Also thanks to public television in the States broadcasting BBC television shows.  Americans are somehow aware of a common idea of what it means to be a Brit, and like racism, this (to coin a phrase) culturalism is deeply rooted in prejudice and half truths. It incorporates a wry wit, a stalwart determination, stoicism, a "stiff upper lip" and any number of fill-in-the-blank ignorant assumptions about the stereotypes we use to isolate ourselves as different from Them.  But we must acknowledge that there is a stark influence of violent war on the culture of the country and its people.  The legacy of war in the attitudes and traditions of the populace is a direct and clear influence on the realites of being human in that community.  And like humans all over the world, it is passed on, from parent to child, generation to generation.