The Thief and His Thief-Taker General

The unbelievable true crime story behind the swinging jazz standard “Mack the Knife.”

Once upon a time, there was a five-foot-four London folk hero who inspired John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, which inspired Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera, which contained the song “Mack the Knife,” which became a snappy lounge tune for jazz bopper Bobby Darin.

This is the true tale of Jack Sheppard, born into poverty in 1702 in Spitalfields, England. Sent to work at six years old after his father died, Sheppard lived with a new master, Jonathan Kneebone, who eventually apprenticed Jack to a carpenter when Jack became a teenager, and life was good. For a time.

As fate would have it, Sheppard fell in with a charismatic, strapping yet morally suspect woman, Elizabeth Lyon, who was known about the neighborhood as Edgworth Bess for her propensity to liberate objects from their owners, including money for carnal knowledge that she possessed.

She introduced Sheppard, a young man of 21, to the vices of the London underbelly at the Black Lion, a local tavern. Quickly, Sheppard discovered he liked the Black Lion and Elizabeth more than carpentry, and in 1724, he made a life-changing (and, as you will discover, dear reader, a life-ending) decision to forego his upstanding path as a carpenter for a life as a petty thief and an escapologist of remarkable talent.

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Sketch of Jack Sheppard in Newgate Prison shortly before his execution, attributed to Sir James Thornhill.

Elizabeth introduced Jack to Joseph “Blueskin” Blake, a well-known thief. With his new associates, Jack began pilfering, earning a reputation as one of the city’s notable housebreakers.

After stealing spoons from Charing Cross, Jack landed in prison in February 1724. Tying strips of his bedsheets together, Jack escaped after breaking a hole in the roof and lowering himself to freedom. This stunt garnered public attention and admiration after people learned that Sheppard got away scot-free by standing amongst them, pointing at a rooftop and shouting “Look! There he is!”

A few months passed, yet Jack was caught pickpocketing in May 1724 and was thrown into a more substantial prison. Elizabeth visited him, was arrested herself and locked in the cell with Jack. As man-and-wife, they were moved to a new prison. Friends sneaked in a few small tools, allowing Jack to saw through the manacles. With a 25-foot drop to the ground, Jack needed more than his bedsheets, so Elizabeth gave her petticoat to the cause. Unfortunately, the 25-foot drop was into another prison yard. Jack drove spikes into the wall, the two climbed over and fled into the city.

If Jack’s exploits sound like make-believe, wait until you read about the next escapes.

A bigger problem for Jack arrived in the form of the self-appointed “Thief-Taker General,” Jonathan Wild. Wild was an utterly contemptible criminal who’d fashioned himself as a champion of the people by configuring an elaborate robbery scheme whereby he magically “found” people’s stolen property and scooped up all of the reward money. He could find all of their goods because his gang of thieves stole them in the first place. Wild ran the London thieves’ underground from the police station, and he pretty much ran the police department. He had the press wrapped around his finger. No one could rat him out or he’d cry “thief” and have the person hanged without trial. It was a good gig for Wild until he decided that nabbing Jack Sheppard would be his coup de grace. But he had to find Jack first.

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A book illustration of Jonathan Wild by Charles Knight.

Wild found Elizabeth, made nice and got her drunk, wherein she divulged Jack’s whereabouts. Wild’s goons apprehended Jack, threw him in Newgate Prison, and the court sentenced him to hang.

By now, everyone knew Jack Sheppard. Public opinion of the law and the upper class turned sour, especially as the disparities in treatment between the rich and poor became glaringly obvious. Jack was low-born, clever, unstoppable, heroically in love and handsome. No one actually wanted him to pay for his crimes. They wanted him to outfox the authorities forever. Suddenly, Jack was the champion of the people, not the smug Thief-Taker General.

Elizabeth, smarting from her betrayal, gathered another one of Jack’s paramours, Poll Maggot, and the two conspired to help Jack from his latest predicament. They smuggled him a nightgown. After loosening a bar on his cell window, Jack squeezed through the bars into a hallway, donned the nightgown, walked unrecognized across the reception area and out the main door. He escaped Newgate Prison with Elizabeth and Poll only hours before his gallows bell tolled. News of this flagrant escape spread like fire. People cheered him as the Hero of London.

Wild hated it. He managed to capture Jack again, this time chaining him to the floor with handcuffs. In October 1724, Sheppard somehow unshackled himself, broke open the padlocks on six separate prison doors and shimmied up the chimney to the rooftop. Once there, he realized he forgot his trademark sheet. So, he returned to his cell, grabbed his sheet, shimmied back to the roof through the chimney, then lowered himself to a neighboring house before spiriting into the night.

Just the day before, in a confounding turn of events, Joseph “Blueskin” Blake found himself against Jonathan Wild in court. Wild, still considered the law, gave damning testimony about Blake, who was sentenced to hang. Enraged, Blake drew a blade, slashing Wild’s throat. Chaos ensued, authorities rushed Wild to the hospital.

Jack burgled a final time and was apprehended, drunk, in a tavern wearing the clothes he’d purloined. Carted to the maximum-security room in Newgate Prison, Jack was chained to the floor under 300 pounds of irons. Prison guards charged four shillings for a glimpse of the great Jack Sheppard, raking in mountains of money.

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“The Last Scene” engraved by George Cruikshank in 1839 to illustrate William Harrison Ainsworth’s serialised novel, Jack Sheppard.

In November, Blueskin Blake hanged, and five days later, the gallows cart trundled to Tyburn Hill for the execution of Jack Sheppard. Reports say 200,000 people followed Jack to his hanging, with women throwing flowers and men fighting for the chance to shake his hand. Jack Sheppard died, well-admired, on November 16, 1724, nine months after the start of his life of crime.

And Wild? Well, he recovered physically, but his reputation was never the same. Despised, Wild fell from favor, his gang of thieves turning evidence on him one by one. Tried, convicted and sentenced to death, Wild met the gallows at Tyburn Hill six months after Jack Sheppard. There was also a large crowd that day, but no one clamored to shake Wild’s hand.

The courts banished Elizabeth Lyon to America, a fitting place for prostitutes and moral degenerates, though her story is lost after she arrived in Annapolis, Maryland, shortly after Jack’s death.

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Portrayal of Macheath and Peachum in Jobsite Theater’s upcoming version of The Threepenny Opera.

The impassioned tale of Jack Sheppard, Jonathan Wild and Elizabeth Lyon captured the public’s imagination. Only four years after Jack hanged, John Gay composed The Beggar’s Opera, with the main characters of Macheath and Peachum inspired by Jack Sheppard and Jonathan Wild respectively.

In 1928, Brecht and Weill remade Gay’s work into the ribald THE THREEPENNY OPERA, adding, at the very last minute, an intro number for Macheath called “Mack the Knife.”

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Original poster for The Threepenny Opera from Berlin, 1928.

Though Macheath is a psychopathic interpretation of the Jack Sheppard legend, “Mack the Knife,” took on a life of its own, becoming a hit for Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and most memorably in its lounge-worthy Bobby Darin rendition.

If you want to hear “Mack the Knife” and see what Macheath and Peachum are up to, catch up with Jobsite Theater as they perform The Threepenny Opera, Oct. 18 – Nov. 12, in the Jaeb Theater.

 

Celluloid Dreams

An in-depth convo with Straz Center Senior Director of Marketing, Summer Bohnenkamp, who directs her fifth production with Jobsite Theater – this season’s opener, The Flick.

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Summer Bohnenkamp directs Jobsite Theater’s season opener, The Flick. (Photo by Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.)

Jobsite Theater, almost 19 years into its illustrious reputation as one of the strongest regional theater companies in Florida and beginning their 13th as resident theater company of the Straz Center, earned their reputation by putting up challenging, edgy, sometimes cerebral, often hysterical, intermittently campy theater works designed to be politically and socially relevant. The company keeps the definitions of “political” and “social” loose on purpose: Jobsite prides itself on its blue-collar work ethic while keeping a watchful eye on the systems of power and relationships, always ready to mount the kind of winning assessment of both that good theater dramatizes.

This season opens with Annie Baker’s 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winner, The Flick, a play that captures quintessential Jobsite at its best: a simple set, a small cast of exquisitely drawn workaday characters, and a tiny little premise that symbolizes the entire degradation of moral authenticity that has become our modern life. It’s a play about people cleaning an old movie house.

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A peek at the set for The Flick during tech rehearsal.

“The story is about three people who are lost,” says The Flick’s director, Summer Bohnenkamp. “They work in the last indie movie house in Massachusetts that plays real film, not digital. It has a projector you have to load and everything. All the action takes place either before or after a film, and there they are in the theater talking, cleaning the theater, figuring out who they are. In a way, it reminds me of [the movie] Empire Records. It’s the same kind of idea.”

Bohnenkamp herself started similarly, selling tickets in the ticket office at The Straz, then working her way to senior management in marketing. By day, she handles the massive needs of overseeing the marketing of hundreds of performances – everything from networking and buying media to writing institutional marketing plans and providing voice-overs for television ads. Her abiding love of theater keeps her with one foot in the show, one foot in the business as she balances her life between the corporate pressures of arts marketing and the creative outlet of bringing excellent scripts to life as an actor and a director.

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Actor Georgia Mallory Guy, who plays the projectionist Rose in The Flick, posing with the projector used in the play.

“It’s cool to make something,” she says. “When I direct or act, I get to make something, and I don’t really ‘make’ other things. I don’t cook well; I’m not crafty. But, theater is something I can make that is good. It’s lasting. Hopefully, the audience and actors get something out of it, too. There are elements of trust and family that get created through the process of making a play that are very rewarding. Theater is a living, breathing thing that is never the same twice. It’s better than any therapy or exercise I can think of.”

Bohnenkamp’s other directorial achievements with Jobsite most recently includes their award-winning production of Time Stands Still. Prior to that she co-directed Annapurna and served as an associate director for reasons to be pretty and All New People. With The Flick, Bohnenkamp returns to her favorite style of script, a stripped-down, dialogue-driven, naturalistic look at people and motivations in situations we can all recognize.

reel cases from Tampa Theatre

These reel cases used in the show were lent to us by Tampa Theatre.

“I like plays that are real people talking. We’ve heard these people, we’ve eavesdropped on people just like the characters in this play. We know them. All the shows I’ve done have been about regular, recognizable people, and it’s interesting to delve into that level of realness when, in actuality, you’re creating something totally false. The three characters in The Flick have some very interesting quirks,” she says. “The dialogue reveals all the major surprises. These people who seem obvious have secrets and important stories. It’s very funny.”

From auditions, Bohnenkamp pulled three actors who can capture the subtle depth of the characters and deliver the complexity of the subtext in Baker’s script. “Brian Shea plays ‘Sam,’ the manager, and he killed it right off the page. He does neuroses so well, which is required for Sam. ‘Rose,’ the projectionist, is played by Georgia Mallory Guy, who can do anything. She came into the audition and gave off exactly what I was envisioning for Rose. We have Thomas Morgan playing ‘Avery,’ the young one of the bunch and the central character. Thomas knows who Avery is, and he had a well-defined character even in the auditions. It’s a good room,” she says, referring to a well-known theater term for having a cast that is positive and hard-working. “This is going to be a fantastic show.”

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Actor Georgia Mallory Guy pictured with director Summer Bohnenkamp (top left), stage manager Vivian Rodriguez (top right), actor Thomas Morgan (bottom left), and actor Brian Shea (bottom right).

The Flick runs in the Shimberg Playhouse from Aug. 30 until Sept. 24. Get your tickets at strazcenter.org.

Honor Thy Father? It’s Complicated.

Many of us observed Father’s Day last Sunday, which prompted us to take a broad sweep through some canonical plays to see how fathers and fatherhood fare. The answer: not good. In fact, it’s so bad it would be funny if it weren’t so tragic. So, let’s take a look at some of the Great Theater Works centered around father characters. Then we have a suggestion.

I. Greek and Roman

Well, there’s Oedipus, a play that sets the bar pretty low for father-son relationships. In this play, Sophocles, the famed dramatist, writes a queasy tale that starts with a father, Laius. According to a prophesy, Laius is going to be killed by his son, who will then marry Laius’ wife, the boy’s mother. Why would anyone believe this information? But, he does. So, when Laius’ son Oedipus is born, he orders a servant to kill the child. The servant can’t, Oedipus is raised in secrecy, and when he becomes a man, Oedipus is accosted by a rude traveler on a road, whom, in an altercation, he kills. That rude traveler is Laius, his dad, but Oedipus doesn’t know that. He marches on to Thebes and marries the queen, his mom, but he doesn’t know that, either. In fact, the only people who know what’s going on and witness this slow-motion train wreck are the audience. That’s what kind of sicko Sophocles was—we have to sit there with the Big Secret and watch this grody love triangle unfold. Woe is us. And you know what? None of this would have happened if Laius, the father, had made one or two other, more intelligent choices.

Atreus and Thyestes

Feast of Thyestés and Átreus (Václav Jindřich Nosecký, Michael Václav Halbax)

So, flubbing an attempt to kill your child and getting killed instead is pretty bad. But what about a father who unknowingly eats his two sons at a festival banquet? Yep, that happened. In Roman playwright Seneca’s gorefest Thyestes, two dads, who happen to be twin brothers, get tangled up in a father-son nightmare that makes Oedipus look about as dramatic as a public service announcement. Atreus, who is super evil and wants revenge on his twin brother, orders his sons to lure that brother, Thyestes, to Atreus’ house under false pretenses of reconciliation. There is to be a feast. Atreus then kills Thyestes’ sons, chops them up and serves them in a stew, which a drunken Thyestes noms on until the next dish is the two boys’ heads on a platter and the awful Atreus reveals the origin of the mystery meat. (Makes Quentin Tarantino look tame, right?)

Understandably, Atreus’ sons develop somewhat loose moral compasses and end up with their own tragic plays. One of those sons, Agamemnon, sacrifices (read: murders) his daughter for the gods and exacts an overall dismal attempt at setting a good example for his remaining alive children. However, they do love Agamemnon enough to avenge his death after he’s murdered (notably, by his wife and her lover), which we think proves the child’s bond to the father, however questionable he may be in his own decision-making abilities.

Which brings us to

II. Shakespeare

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Cordelia in the Court of King Lear (1873) by Sir John Gilbert.

Where to start, where to start. Look in any of the folios with dramas involving families, and you will find Shakespeare’s consistent typecasting of dads as either prideful punks or ghosts. Either way, these characters tend to care most about their honor and legacy, and the kids (and sometimes the wife) are plagued with ill-fitting assignments in duty fulfillment often involving murder. To save time, we’re looking only at King Lear and Romeo and Juliet, but you can have your own fun with Hamlet, the King Henry plays and The Tempest.

In Lear, the titular king decides to retire, divvying his kingdom among his three daughters. The catch? The spoils go to whoever displays the most love for him. Oh, the narcissism. Anyway, the one who won’t play along with his enormous ego game (naturally, his favorite daughter) gets disowned while the two remaining treacherous daughters conspire to murder Lear, who eventually dies of grief after his faithful but disowned daughter is hanged. In this play, the prideful punk becomes a ghost by the end, and we have another dad whose self-serving decisions ended up creating a chain of events that killed his children.

Ergo, Romeo and Juliet. The crux of the play rests in the bad blood between the patriarchal lines of Montague and Capulet. You know this story, so you can go with us to the quick summary of “more prideful dads, more dead kids.”

We are starting to feel like a broken record, so we’re happy to jump to

III. 20th Century America

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Burl Ives as Big Daddy and Paul Newman as Brick in the 1958 film version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Two major father characters emerged in plays that continue to get lively productions years after year: Big Daddy in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. These figures stand on either end of the dad spectrum, with cotton-magnate Big Daddy filling the overbearing paterfamilias role and traveling salesman Willy carrying the torch of fathers portrayed as ineffectual leaders psychologically desperate for success—theirs and for their children. Both fathers share an idealism built around a man’s success and the promise of what he can build and become, often to the detriment of other family members (so that much stayed the same from the Greco-Roman template).

The same goes for the repressed and oppressed character of Troy Maxson in August Wilson’s Fences, as his two sons struggle for his approval and love—which he can not give, thanks to his own painful back story involving murder, prison and the social captivity of black men. Troy also dies at the end, like Willy Loman, with a passel of unresolved family issues and a plague of emotional consequences from key bad decisions.

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Denzel Washington as Troy Maxson, reprising his role from the 2010 Broadway revival, in the film adaptation of Fences.

In all three of these dramas, sons seek an acknowledgement of love from their fathers who cannot or will not give it. Frankly, it’s a sad and infuriating commentary on emotional ineptitude that paints a rather depressing picture. Eugene O’Neill somewhat breaks from tradition in Long Day’s Journey into Night with the father James Tyrone, who is an unpretentious former actor with seemingly typical father-son power struggles amid a family stricken with an opioid-addicted mother and a weakness for whiskey. In fairness, the bad parent in that play is the mom, and we could certainly do a replay of this blog after Mother’s Day looking at mother figures in drama, who enact their fair share of emotional dishonesty and murder to ruin their kids’ lives.

The standout play, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, has no father in the dramatis personae. He dies before the play starts, and it is his life insurance check that brings the financial windfall that can change the life of the Younger family. All of the events that unfold sprout from his last gift to them, and, although circumstances prevented him from giving them what they wanted in life, he may be able to help them achieve their dreams in death. Although that interpretation may sound positive, that’s kind of a tall order for one man. So, even though he’s never in the play, it is, to some degree, a play about a father’s responsibility to his family—questioning the impossible expectations placed on men in a competition-based patriarchal culture.

But what about dads outside of the heteronormative patriarchal culture of toxic masculinity, you ask? Well, that brings us to

IV. Fun Home

We can’t say too much here because Fun Home runs this season at The Straz as part of our Broadway series, but it reached such massive acclaim because it is a compelling story about a daughter’s unique interpretation of her life with her dad. We don’t want to spoil the ending, but if you’ve been paying attention to patterns in this blog on father characters, you can probably guess how this musical unfolds.

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From Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home, from which the musical was adapted.

However, we can say this musical—based on illustrator Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel of the same name—examines a daughter’s relationship with her closeted father who runs a funeral home. This story depicts gay characters struggling in similar themes from the above list, which forces us to see what is universal in a writer’s struggle to understand herself/himself in the family context. It’s also really, really open in discussions about the daughter’s exploration of her own sexual identity and how that is reflected in her father’s struggle with his own sexual truths. So, that facet of the father is new and refreshing though it seems to circle the same drain of a dad’s inability to express himself emotionally.

V. Final Analysis and Suggestion (Said with Love)

So what is up with all this shade thrown at dads in drama? Are fathers really unbending tyrants of their own universe? Or, failing that, destined to chase the illusion of power and condemn their families to suffer their own shortcomings? Seems a rough assessment, though our cruise through these major works casts fathers in a rather unflattering light. (Daddy Warbucks somewhat excluded.)

As they say, the winners write the history books. Perhaps, in this case, the children write the manuscripts. What struck us in this broad review was how much the dramatic canon needs Good Dad, Solid Dad, Emotionally Grown Up Dad, and Dad with Admirable Character—all the multiple facets of fatherhood everyday dads represent. We were a little shocked and sad about the two-note roles recurring throughout our short sample for this blog though we can see, especially in the 20th century work, the resounding agreement of how important fathers’ words and deeds are to the development of a child’s identity. Let’s get some fresh interpretations on this important figure, shall we?

Admittedly, we passed over the comedies, mostly because it’s hard to find a famous stage comedy about a father, though we would be happy to hear if you know of one we overlooked. Got a thought about fathers in drama or an insight into a play or musical not mentioned in this blog? We want to hear about it. Leave us a comment below.

So, Who is this Tony Person?

The 71st annual Tony Awards air June 11, 2017 from Radio City Music Hall in New York City. The ceremony honors achievement on Broadway for the 2016-17 season, and we’ll certainly be tuned-in and on-edge as they announce the big winners. Like us, perhaps you’ve wondered “why are they called the Tonys?” We did some research, and the answer uncovered a rather fascinating story.

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Actress and director Antoinette Perry, c. 1910. (CSU Archives—Everett Collection)

Let’s start here, at the American Theatre Wing.

Actually, that’s not the beginning.

Let’s start here: 1917, and America is about to enter World War 1.

Somewhere in New York, seven established women in theater meet to discuss how they could provide war relief. If they could provide aid, what would they do? What did they have to give?

They form the Stage Women’s War Relief, an organization that raises more than seven million dollars for the troops and sews countless articles of clothing for soldiers. They become one of the most significant relief organizations in the world.

The war ends, life goes on, yet here comes World War II looming on the historical horizon. By 1940, the Stage Women’s War Relief revamps with an extra personality in tow: Antoinette Perry.

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Stage women’s war relief poster by James Montgomery Flagg, 1918. Depicts a woman on stage, throwing off her cloak to reveal a white volunteer’s uniform.

You can see where we are going, yes?

They regroup and form the American Theatre Wing, which sponsors Stage Door Canteens throughout the United States and in London and Paris. Theater stars work the canteens as wait staff and dishwashers, also putting on shows and other entertainment to keep up the troops’ morale. Money from a movie made about the canteens funds the production of touring hit shows for the troops. On the home front, the Wing’s Victory Players inspire civilians and their “Lunchtime Follies” entertain defense plant workers.

By the end of that war, Antoinette Perry is the driving force of the American Theatre Wing and spearheads the American Theatre Wing Professional School, a rigorous veterans’ art program to train anyone who served in the Allied Powers stagecraft and theater performance. Students include Charlton Heston, George Burns, Geraldine Page, Pat Hingle, James Earl Jones, Angela Lansbury, Tony Randall, Bob Fosse and many, many more notable notables of stage and screen.

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On June 28, 1946, just a few days before her 58th birthday, Antoinette Perry suffers a devastating heart attack and dies. She and others had decided that American theater needed a set of awards dedicated to honoring excellence. For Antoinette’s service to her country, to Broadway and to the theater community as a whole, the new award was named after her.

The night of the first award ceremony, a small dinner banquet at the Waldorf Astoria hotel, a presenter handed out an award, calling it a “Tony.”

The name stuck, and that’s why they’re called the Tony Awards.

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During the first two years, there was no official Tony Award. In 1949 the designers’ union sponsored a contest for the award. The winning entry, a disk-shaped medallion designed by Herman Rosse, depicted the masks of comedy and tragedy on one side and the profile of Antoinette Perry on the other. It continues to be the official Tony Award.

Want to know what Antoinette Perry was doing before World War II? Trust us, you’ll want to know. Get the scoop from a Playbill interview with her daughter, Margaret, in 1998. For the Tony Awards’ history of Perry, check out their bio by Ellis Nassour.

 

Everything the Light Touches is His Kingdom

James Earl Jones receives the Lifetime Achievement in Theater recognition at the Tony Awards this year.

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In 1957, during his first week in New York as a wannabe actor, James Earl Jones saw these shows:

Night one: Tosca starring Leontyne Price
Night two: Swan Lake starring Margot Fontaine
Night three: Pal Joey
Night four: Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

What a week, right?

This remarkable itinerary was put together by his father, the actor Robert Earl Jones, who wanted to give his son a taste of la crème de la crème on stage at the time (and probably of all time).

By night five, James Earl Jones, an unknown actor adrift with thousands of other unknown actors vying for a spot on Broadway, knew, one day, he would be in the glow of the warm stage lights.

One year later, he was. Jones landed the role of Edward in the FDR bio-play Sunrise at Campobello.

We feel safe assuming Jones did not know his career would land him the indelible distinction of being the voice of both the worst and best of fatherhood. And, really, who among us hears James Earl Jones speak and doesn’t automatically think, “[heavy breathing] I am your father” and/or “Look, Simba . . . everything the light touches is our kingdom.”

(Editors’ note for the benefit of diehard Star Wars fans who will surely mention this in the comments if we don’t: The classic line from Star Wars is often misremembered as “Luke, I am your father,” as even Jones’ mentions in the clip below, though the line is “No, I am your father,” as you can hear in the excerpt from the film.)

Jones, who continued to work the stage in New York after Sunrise at Campobello for the next decade, emerged as a man who would carve his place on the monument of Great Actors with his mind-blowing work as a heavyweight boxing champ named Jack Jefferson in The Great White Hope in 1968. In Clive Barnes’ review, he noted that as he was leaving the theater, Jones was “receiving a standing ovation of the kind that makes Broadway history.”

Jones won his first Tony, in 1969, for that role. His acting prowess and newfound fame steered his career straight to Sesame Street, where, also in 1969, he was the very first celebrity guest. As for another Tony, his work in the original production of August Wilson’s Fences (the role recently revived by Denzel Washington in the 2016 film) earned him his second award in 1987.

The great white hope

The Great White Hope also won the Tony Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Jones reprised his role in the film adaptation and received an Academy Award nomination.

In between, there was a little $7,000 gig voicing a character for George Lucas’ intergalactic war movie. What would Star Wars have been without Darth Vader? And what would Darth Vader be without James Earl Jones? (Rick Moranis in Spaceballs — if you don’t believe us, watch this short clip of David Prowse, who played Vader, saying the dialogue in that giant, plastic helmet-mask).

Jones, who stuttered, spent eight years of his childhood in relative silence, speaking to the animals on their farm in Michigan but avoiding talking to other human beings. Encouraged by his English teacher to recite poetry in front of his high school class as a means of overcoming the stutter, Jones eventually gained mastery. The last public return of the stutter popped up during a performance of Sunrise at Campobello when he stuck over the “M” in “Mrs. Roosevelt,” though Jones says the stutter remains, even now, at 86, which is notably ironic considering Jones’ fame emanates partly from his deep, clear, bass voice.

Try saying “This is CNN” without hearing Jones. It’s impossible. His voice is that powerful. In a little-known anecdote, Jones, who is by nature a merry jokester, used to pretend to be Darth Vader on his CB radio on long car trips. When he realized the truckers were genuinely getting scared, he quit. Best to use one’s powers for good, especially when you’re James Earl Jones. As evidence of his ability to still have fun and use his powers for good, he teamed up with Malcolm McDowell (A Clockwork Orange) in a series of Sprint commercials where the two former Stanley Kubrick actors performed texts and Facebook messages dramatically, on a bare stage and in tuxedos:

Congratulations, Mr. Jones, on your sixty years of valuable, funny, unforgettable and powerful work in the performing arts.

Want to see James Earl Jones receive his award? Then mark your calendars: The Tony Awards will be broadcast live from Radio City Music Hall on CBS on Sunday, June 11, 2017 at 8 p.m.

Extra Sensory Perception

How the stage allows us to get inside another person’s experience

Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, TheEthel Barrymore Theatre

Alex Sharp in The National Theatre production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in The Night-Time on Broadway at the Barrymore Theatre. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

“You never know someone until you walk a mile in their shoes,” goes the popular adage about trying to be less judgmental and more compassionate. The key to getting in someone else’s shoes is to imagine what his or her experience must be like, to feel what she or he must be feeling. This exercise is known as empathy.

One place that’s crackerjack at making empathy 3-D is the theater.

Since its invention, theater has served as a platform for dramatizing the human experience with all the joys, humor, complications, tragedies, injustices and awkward awakenings of the human heart. The stage also acted as a mirror, reflecting back at society what it refused to see—or, in many cases, was unable to see about itself until other people literally showed humanity what it looked like. The stage is a safe place to say uncomfortable things, to challenge the status quo, to make people laugh at themselves and others, to experiment with how to make abstract concepts concrete and in-the-flesh. Sometimes a play does all of these things while singing and dancing. (We’re looking at you, Book of Mormon.)

With the rise of interest in human psychology at the turn of the 20th century, a new challenge cropped up for playwrights and actors: how to capture the workings of the mind? We know Freud relied on his knowledge of Greek theater to name two of his bigger concepts (Oedipus and Electra complexes) and that psyche is the Greek word for “soul,” from the eponymous goddess. So, drama in real life goes hand-in-hand with the drama of the mind.

However, putting that mental activity on paper in dialogue and stage directions is not so natural. The key rests in the collaborative, team-based nature of manufacturing make believe: on stage and screen, other designers lend their skills to bring the vision of the mental landscape to completion. Set design, lighting, color palettes, sound and choreography become crucial to pulling the lofty, abstract ideas of “torment,” “sensory overload,” “insanity,” or “schizophrenia,” “addiction,” or “depression” into a detailed, concrete picture that audiences can see and understand. These elements help bring audiences to empathy, to the shift in perception that allows us to see into the soul of another—or ourselves.

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Some of the best representations of the wacky, disjointed nature of thought occur on film. We’re thinking here of Charlie Kaufman’s body of work (Human Nature, Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) or Chris Nolan (Memento, Inception) or Pixar’s 2015 offering, Inside Out, the animated film where even emotions get emotions.

Theater plays tend to explore psychology not as a setting (like literally finding a portal into John Malkovich’s brain in Kaufman’s delightfully bizarro screenplay) but as character traits or as a theme. Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf scarred several generations with its unflinching examination of alcoholism and head games, and Peter Shaffer’s boy-who-blinds-horses drama, Equus, continued to make audiences squirm even when Harry Potter’s actor played the lead. And let’s quickly nod to Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman, a frightful interweaving of psychological cruelty and children’s storytelling, that proved illuminating the deep, dark perversities of the minds of men was alive and well for this 2004 Laurence Olivier award-winner.

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Daniel Radcliffe, Lorenzo Pisoni, and Richard Griffiths in the Broadway revival of Peter Shaffer’s “Equus.” (Photo: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

Back in the day, playwright Arthur Miller wrote in his stage directions to Death of a Salesman that the set should indicate titular salesman Willy Loman’s varying psychological conditions, and Ntozake Shange’s fierce use of dance and poetry to reveal the psychological effects of racism and sexism on black women pushed For colored girls who have considered suicide/When the rainbow is enuf to be nominated for a Tony® award for Best Play in 1977.

Yet theater still experiments with finding ways to do what Kaufman’s and Nolan’s films are able to do—namely, make a character’s mind the landscape of a story. Finding plays or musicals that take place inside a person’s experience of the world to put the audience inside the character’s worldview are few and far between.

Then there’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, TheEthel Barrymore Theatre

Original Broadway Company of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

This play (it’s not a musical), based on Mark Haddon’s novel of the same name, takes theater one step further. Curious Incident follows the events of the main character, Christopher, a boy who has a rather brilliant and extraordinary mind, after a neighbor’s dog is murdered. That mind, however, processes the world unlike most people’s minds. So, how does a production team build a play to spark compassion and empathy for Christopher? It puts the audience in Christopher’s shoes. Or, literally, in Christopher’s sensory experience.

The set itself serves as Christopher’s psychological boundaries. His mind, a grid-based thinking system (as opposed to our floaty, nebulous artists’ minds), becomes the walls of the set, the grid illuminated in different ways throughout the performance. As audience members, we are thrust into Christopher’s perception of the world with its numbers, noises, chaotic choreography, indirect and disorganized language and baffling array of incomprehensible adult reactions to facts. Christopher and his pet rat Toby must solve the murder, and we tag along for the ride, strapped into the observer’s seat in Christopher’s worldview. Often, like Christopher, we find ourselves overwhelmed by the onslaught of movement, sound and unpredictability of every day living.

Frankly, it’s a stunning theatrical achievement. Perhaps, at least in this case, we can say we know Christopher by the end of the show, not because we’ve walked a mile in his shoes, but because we’ve watched two hours from the inside of his mind.

Curious about Curious? Then come see the show.

Leotard, Check. Make-Up Kit, Check. Valve Oil? Check.

The Patel Conservatory Gears Up for Another School Year

There’s no such thing as summer break for the faculty and staff of the Straz Center’s Patel Conservatory. We spend the summer months steeped in a camps, classes, workshops, performances and pre-professional productions like this year’s impressive mounting of an almost full-scale Les Miserables. So, we have just enough time to clean the mirrors and sweep the floors before we welcome our next season’s spate of students when the official school year starts Monday, Aug. 29.

While other school years start with a backpack full of composition notebooks, the Conservatory school year starts with small duffel bags stuffed with leotards, hairpins, dance shoes, make-up kits, music, reeds, valve oil and water bottles. No matter what class you’re taking, everybody needs a reusable water bottle. Our students also need plenty of traditional school supplies: paper for notes, pencils and three-ring binders.

In case any of our incoming students forgot what they’ll need for dance, theater or music class, we asked the tireless faculty to let us publish the must-haves for your first day of school.

So, scan these handy checklists to make sure you’re prepared for another exciting year of friends, rehearsals, creative challenges and unforgettable moments.

 

DANCE

  • Dance bag
  • Appropriate dance attire*
  • Appropriate dance footwear*
  • Personal hairbrush and hair spray (boys and girls)
  • Personal bobby pins, hair net (to match your hair color), hair ties (girls)
  • Performance make-up (refer to handbook for make-up suggestions)
  • Water bottle

*See your specific class information sheet

dance shoe collage

Did you sign up for ballet? Or tap? How about jazz? Maybe Flamenco? There’s a shoe for that.

dance - bobby pins

You can never have too many bobby pins. Ever.

dance - makeup

Our handbook has lots of helpful hair and make-up suggestions to get you show-ready.

 

THEATER AND MUSICAL THEATER

  • Performer bag (small duffel or backpack)
  • Pencil w/eraser
  • Folder or binder for sheet music & script storage
  • Highlighter
  • Scrap paper for notes
  • School appropriate movement/gym clothes
  • Jazz shoes or sneakers
  • Water bottle (healthy snack for classes/rehearsals longer than 2 hrs.)
  • Recording device (phone or tablet)
  • Personal hairbrush/comb & hair ties
  • Make-up kit for productions
theater_highlight 2_crawford long

A highlighter will make marking your script much easier.

theater - movement clothes

Make sure you are dressed ready to move.

theater - make up

Bring your make-up kit for dress rehearsals and performances.

 

MUSIC

  • Black, 3 ring binder (preferably with a matte finish that does not reflect light on stage)
  • Pencils (many!)
  • Water bottle, especially for singers
  • Extra paper for notes
  • Extra reeds for woodwind players
  • Valve oil for brass players
  • Rosin for string players
  • New set of strings
  • Scale and arpeggio sheets
  • Method books
  • Make sure your concert attire is clean and ready to go
Music - binder_crawford long

A black, 3-ring binder keeps all of your sheet music neat and tear-free.

music - Strings, rosin, pencil

Extra strings, rosin and a pencil are very important to have in your string instrument case.

music - method books, scale and arpeggio sheet, practice sheet

The one day you don’t have your book is the one day your teacher will ask you to take it out and use it in class.

For life-long learners in the adult classes, you can find similar information on the Straz Center website.

If the notion of arpeggio sheets, jazz shoes or two hour rehearsals get you as excited as it does us, know that it’s never too late to sign up for Patel Conservatory classes for yourself or your family and friends. View classes and register here.

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