by D.L. Rosenberg - 2/19/17
As a teenager growing up in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan in the mid-nineteen fifties, I was taken by my cousin Ann, a concert pianist, to what was to make an indelible impression on my imagination. I did not understand it at the time but Brecht’s THREE PENNY OPERA at the Theatre de Lys on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village introduced me to a wondrous world of whores, thieves and corrupt politicians who certainly were not common characters on the polite drawing room stages of those days.
Ann had shown me what was to be the most influential thing later to develop in my creative life. To be sure, my experience at Purdue became another major influence. I had a scholarship to study aeronautical engineering but soon changed to theatre. There Ross D. Smith showed me how visual the stage could be, Eugene Kildahl helped me see the importance of every word as he often looked away and just listened to a rehearsal, and Joe Stockdale required that it all had to be based on the inner truth of an actor’s craft. Yet it was the experience at the Theatre De Lys that filled a special place in my life.
Donald Rosenberg talks to Benny Sato Ambush
Some songs had been deemed too explicit for the cast recording, the first ever album of an Off-Broadway show, and in 2017 that seems incredible. Today’s theatre has the freedom to use any language, any subject to deal with the personal struggles of coping with life in a world where technology has outpaced humanity. The bawdy, burlesque then-shocking content today would obviously seem mild, naive. Yet it found a way to represent the challenges and struggles of life. Has today’s theatre found ways to reflect a social and political reality that often can seem brutal, ugly and hard? Finding depth and beauty in “the human experience” isn’t easy.
Recently, sitting in the LA Fitness locker room, a colleague seemed to enjoy the piped-in music that was to me painful acid rock. I asked how one might enjoy the harsh, blaring overly loud clash of sound and he said, quite sincerely: “That’s what life is like.” Lady Gaga at the 2016 Grammys seemed to surrender her excellent background in music and dance and together with her backup singers and dancers engaged in Metallica’s chaotic un-choreographed, wild leaping, tripping, screaming, unintelligible, unhinged frenzy. What has changed?
Have we given in to what is a reality: human communication replaced by social media? Meaningful relationships replaced by easy “hook ups”? A poetic use of language as a vehicle of understanding replaced by overused expressions such as “I am fucked up?”
The success of the film and previously the staged play FENCES by August Wilson with Denzel Washington and Viola Davis attests to the worthiness of “old-fashioned” things like depth of characters struggling with what Arthur Miller called a search for dignity. The language, the capturing of poetic expression of the depth, the deep depth of someone searching for meaning in his or her life is not unexciting, is it?
Changes that have happened in the sixty decades I have been looking at are reflected in some examples: Have body mics freed actors better to express inner struggles? Has mumbled prose replaced poetry in expressing the human struggle to understand the universe? Has technology’s expert depiction of the ugly, the violent, the graphic, made language unexciting ?
Not to say that technology has not brought many changes. Does anyone remember when on a larger stage we needed to motivate an actor to cross to the flowers on the table because the mic was hidden there and he needed to be there to be heard? No one wants to go back to that. But have we lost something of those old days when now basic human struggling is overshadowed by commercially necessary fixes such as a cast few enough to fit in one van plus a stage manager? Have we lost the appreciation of something quiet and sincere because it is lost in the turmoil of contemporary life?
Obviously there have been many significant developments. The Regional Theatre Movement is bringing live theatre to communities throughout the nation. Some argue that it is the real “National Theatre.” Equity has become more open to change. TCG facilitates communication among members. Higher education has seen many changes in performer, designer and technician training. U/RTA, KCACTF, NAST, ASTR, USITT, ITI, ATHE, NNPN are alive and functioning.
Theory has opened up new ways to look at theatre history. The living theatre bubbles with energy as so much is striving to be inclusive. Look at any fundamental theatre textbook to see chapters devoted to new and exciting movements in the thriving diverse American cultural scene.
The age-old argument continues about how/whether the arts will change in the future. Could I put on my haptic suit would I find in the new VR any arts equivalents to match the impact of cell phones, the internet or even the magic microwave oven? And will even the NEA and NEH survive in the political climate of 2017?*
Not to be a dinosaur lost in a past ice age, do I need to shelve my classical training as an actor, as a scholar and as a lover of the live theatre? In many wonderful ways contemporary production has explored heights that were never before possible. Who would replace large screens and color for black and white? But words, language, poetry, and I am afraid “humanity” needs another chance. I value the ZOOT SUIT now sold out at the Mark Taper Forum in LA and the new Schenkkan BUILDING THE WALL at The Curious in Denver (and four other regional theatres). Can there be more of an appreciation of small stages, intimate closeness between audience and actor, quiet moments, deep thought, beautiful language, dignity portrayed, . . . ?
And as if ironic, the Shakespeare Association of so very many American and British organizations is thriving and energetically exploring new creative approaches to producing Shakespeare for contemporary audiences. This is ironic because Shakespeare is taught less and less in both secondary and undergraduate classes. Greek classics have all but vanished from curricula as have offerings in Philosophy, Logic, Creative Writing, Poetry and even Cursive is gone.
Take this as a plea for adapting to new ways of seeing humanity with all of its diversity without losing value from old approaches. Passion and truth have always been the goals of artistic vision. Dramatic writing and its reliance on language has always trumped baser forms of expression.
*A few years ago a small committee visited the Chair of the NEH who was appointed by President Reagan and was considering cutbacks. We had hoped for understanding but soon were confronted with: ”How can we increase funds for the arts when people are starving?” On the spur of that moment I said: “People can starve in other ways than just their stomachs.” This was met with silence. Parenthetically, at that time the government was still funding and helping the tobacco industry
He studied in London and Paris and guested at the Centro Universatario de Teatro in Mexico City, at the Dolobois European Center of Miami University in Luxembourg, and at the Prague Academy in the Czech Republic. He has served on the board of the National Theatre Conference and has been a member since 1982. He chaired the Planning and Development Committee of the American Theatre Association, chaired its Commission on Theatre Development, was a founding member of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education, and Chair of the Chief-Administrator’s Program of the University and College Theatre Association.
At Miami Dr. Rosenberg chaired a series of national think tanks (often called the Oxford Accords) one of which resulted in “The Guidelines for Evaluating Teacher-Artists for Promotion and Tenure.” More recently he hosted a meeting of nine presidents of national theatre organizations who found significant opportunities for cooperation.
Dr. Rosenberg translated with Ramon Layera THE IMPOSTOR (El gesticulador), by Mexican author Rodolof Usigli, and adapted and directed the American premiere. Rosenberg’s experience includes: work with the distinguished actress, Walfriede Schmitt, of the Volkesbuhne Theatre of the former GDR; production with Jan Zavarsky, the Slovakian scenographer; Frederick Reeder of the Cleveland Opera; and Rosalie Jones of the Daystar Company and the Institute of American Indian Art in Sante Fe. He has been advisor to the Curious Theatre in Denver.
His Undergraduate and Master’s degrees are from Purdue University and his PhD is from the University of Iowa where Dr. Oscar Brockett was his Dissertation Advisor. He has been long been a supporter of the American College Theatre Festival and received the Kennedy Center Honorable Mention Awards for Directing and for Outstanding Performance Ensemble.