Monthly Archives: August 2016

Big band shakes up the Green Mill

It isn’t often that a 19-piece big band squeezes onto the stage of the Green Mill Jazz Club and puts forth a mighty roar from Down Under.

But the robust ensemble that packed the house Friday night did just that, giving listeners a taste of what Australian youths are up to, and it sounded as if they’ve been practicing. A lot.

 As its name suggests, the James Morrison Academy Jazz Orchestra is a student ensemble led by the hyper-virtuoso Australian multi-instrumentalist. Its technical elan and conversance with an array of musical idioms, however, marked this band as professional in the best sense of the word: It reaches a high level of performance.

That came as no surprise considering that it’s directed by Morrison, a musician who all too rarely gets to this part of the world. The last time I heard him, in 1991, he was playing a tiny, long-gone room on North Sheffield Avenue.

“The remarkable virtuoso who breezed through Chicago over the weekend is not yet a household name, but if there’s any justice, he will be,” I wrote back then.

Whether Morrison holds that status these days depends on the nature of the household, but he’s widely admired in the realm of jazz, particularly for his wizardry on trumpet. Little wonder that any student ensemble bearing his name would hew to the rather exalted standards Morrison long has held for himself.

Having just performed at this year’s Jazz Education Network conference in New Orleans, Morrison and the band headed north for a quick swing through Chicago and a rare one-nighter “at the legendary Green Mill,” as Morrison so aptly put it.

The band, which serves as the top-tier ensemble at the James Morrison Academy of Music, opened with Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia On My Mind.” But this was not a relaxed, meditative rendition of the sort we associate with Ray Charles’ landmark interpretation and others influenced by it.

Instead, the ensemble hit hard, its staccato, fortissimo blasts surely heard well outside the century-old walls of the Mill. Morrison led the charge on trumpet, his phrases punctuated by full-throated exhortations from his proteges.

Morrison’s big solo, of course, evoked a long line of leather-lunged trumpeters such as Maynard Ferguson, Arturo Sandoval and Charlie Sepulveda: big sound, nimble technique, larger-than-life conception.

Boundaries of contemporary performance

Celebrating its 30th Anniversary, Forced Entertainment has spent the last three decades pushing the boundaries of contemporary performance. Founded in 1984 by six recently graduated artists, the theatrical group have created numerous productions that have continued to play with language, staging, costume, lighting, humour, narrative sound and the very nature of a performance piece. Artistic Director Tim Etchells is also a solo artist and has seen his work exhibited internationally. This year he is officially Artist of the City of Lisbon. He speaks to Aesthetica about upcoming performance, The Notebook, and his ability to sustain a theatre company for 30 years.

A: Forced Entertainment has been running for 30 years now, within that time there must have been numerous other theatre companies open and close, what is it about your organisation that has made you so successful?
TE: I think we were lucky, in a way. We were friends who met at University. We made various things together whilst studying and from that experience we had the intuition that there was a dynamic conversation, that there were projects we could make together, questions that we could approach. That intuition proved to be correct – that was lucky! We could just as easily have been wrong. I guess the other thing that’s important is that we have taken risks. We’ve allowed ourselves to change the ground of the work – taking projects into different areas, aesthetics and concerns. That’s meant that what the work is, and who we are has changed – we’ve challenged ourselves as well as our audiences.

A: When working on a new production, how do you develop new ideas and keep the momentum of the company going?
TE: Mostly, I’d say, we make things by spending a lot of time in the same room together; by doing things in that room. This requires time and a group of people prepared to be there. Working collaboratively for us means just that everyone inputs and that no single vision holds sway. We all listen, adapt, compromise and mix them with ideas from other people. We start from an idea (and practise) of collective work; the performance we are going to make will be made by everybody. Everybody will have ideas for text, themes, images, music, costume, set and structure. On a daily basis everyone’s ideas will be met, challenged and reinvented by those of everyone else. The performers are a part of this process and so too is anyone with a title of some other kind, be it writer, director, set-designer or composer.

Long the Greatest Show on Earth

It has come time to pen a requiem for the circus.

“Why?” you wonder. Did not the unexpected announcement Saturday night of the closing in May of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus just mean the end of one circus? Do not many circuses remain, here and especially in circus-loving countries like Russia and Mexico? Did not the Cirque de Soleil of Montreal — the one the circus people call the Cadillac — already reinvent the circus form for the modern age?

All true, gentle reader. But the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was the Greatest Show on Earth. This was the American institution with roots in the spirit of P.T. Barnum, the uber-showman who pretty much invented hucksterism, and the aphorisms popularly attributed to him — “There’s a sucker born every minute,” “Every crowd has a silver lining” — now have extended far beyond the sawdust, all the way to Washington. If one person could have been said to have invented self-promotion, if one man could be said to have been the first to figure out that selling was more important than content, Barnum was your man. And the all-American circus was his baby. For 146 years, American audiences sat down convinced that they were watching, right there in their second-tier town, the biggest, the grandest, the most dangerous, the most spectacular, the best. “Win!,” Barnum surely would have tweeted. Had he been able.

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus never wanted to be anything other than affordable, traditional, family-oriented entertainment, a world run by a ringmaster, controlled by trainers and celebratory of its anachronisms: It moved around the country by train (what other business moves its people that way?), it carried its own schoolroom, it liked a parade. It only had screens when kids forgot how to pay attention, it only messed around with postmodern narrative when pushed to the brink by those arty Canadians with their three-figure tickets for admission.

Cirque always was red wine in the lobby; Ringling was popcorn in your seat. Cirque was for adults. Ringling was beloved by 7-year-olds and their moms and dads, who became heroes of a Saturday morning without needing to buy an electronic device.

And at a time when live entertainment is trying desperately to diversify its audience, 20 years of never missing that year’s Ringling show taught me this: There is no more diverse audience for live entertainment than the one that goes to the Greatest Show On Earth, be it in Rosemont or Madison Square Garden in New York City. Why? The form is omnicultural and global in origin. There are shows in Spanish and in English; the core of the show needs no language. And the scale of the enterprise has meant the tickets could stay affordable. Even the Chicago Bulls scheduled a road trip when the circus came to town. It had that much clout.

Counts for so much

Comedian Chris Tucker may not know how to structure a coherent 85-minute comedy set (more on that later) but he definitely knows how to make an entrance.

Most comedians enter from stage left or stage right. Saturday night at the Chicago Theatre, with Bruno Mars’ brash “24K Magic” blaring about being a “dangerous man with some money in my pocket,” Tucker burst through the middle of the back curtain in a gold suit coat, black pants and shimmering shoes. With a mic in one hand, he dispatched a solid minute of his signature dance moves before settling in and starting his freewheeling, often rambling, and occasionally repetitive set.

Refresher: Tucker — who has such a uniquely striking voice it’s almost a crime he hasn’t been tapped to voice an animated film yet — is the non-Jackie Chan half of the mismatched buddy cop duo in the hugely successful “Rush Hour” franchise, and originally broke out as the character Smokey in the Ice Cube-scripted stoner comedy “Friday.” While he may have started as a stand-up in the 1990s, he’s undeniably a movie star now.

As his Hollywood status attests (he reportedly earned $25 million for “Rush Hour 3”), Tucker has a presence and a talent that is impossible to deny. Aside from his energetic storytelling style, his impressions — over the course of the night he covered everyone from Barack Obama to Donald Trump to Jesse Jackson — are both subtle and incisive. He’s even better when he’s impersonating singers. Mary J. Blige, Prince and Michael Jackson (a personal friend of Tucker’s, whom he tells a number of stories about), all received remarkable singing/dancing personifications.

But raw talent only goes so far, and Tucker’s set — about half of which previously appeared in his uninspired 2015 Netflix special “Chris Tucker Live” and which he’s likely honing on this tour for a four-night gig in New Orleans next month with Dave Chappelle — has a few major flaws at the moment.

First, because Tucker has a habit of taking a good bit and milking it until the last laugh has been wrung from it — this leads to a good deal of repetition of both the set-up and the punchline of jokes, while with physical comedy it means continuing a given gesture for far too long — he has an inordinate amount of lengthy interludes between bits that absolutely kill the momentum and make the show drag when it need not.

Second, he often didn’t seem completely sure where to go next, frequently mumbling and stumbling over words before finding his footing and pushing on, occasionally after a few false starts. Several times he circled back to previously covered topics abruptly, tacking on additional thoughts that seemed much more likely to hit if they were grouped together with similar material.

How made a void Story

began writing and directing for Forced Entertainment since co-founding it in 1984, and have been responsible for an eclectic list of projects – ranging from all-yelling, all-dancing, all-fighting theatre shows, to subtle and intimate readings, performances lasting 12 or 24 hours and site-specific works disguised as guided bus tours. Outside the company, meanwhile, I’ve directed a cast of 16 children in an epic recounting of the ways in which adults make and shape their world, written dialogue for a play performed by remote-control replica modernist sculptures, made interactive sound projects in libraries all over the world, worked with choreographers in the edgy space where dance meets performance. In fact, of all the challenges and possibilities of the stage, one thing that seems to have evaded me is telling a story from beginning to middle to end. That is, until we started work on Void Story.

The show – which began a UK tour last week that continues until late November – is a bleak but comic fable that follows its protagonists from post-apocalyptic housing estates to subterranean tunnels, psychotic funfairs and haunted hotels. It’s a story that, if you were to film it, would stretch the budget of a Hollywood studio, and one that from the get-go mounts a challenge to our sense of what’s possible on stage.

We haven’t filmed it – not quite. For a while we enacted the Void Story narrative using objects on a table top, later discussing the idea of the performers dragging dummies around the stage to represent the action. In the end, though, we arrived at a more “sophisticated” technological solution, bringing us to a performance that lies somewhere between live radio play and film dubbing, in which hundreds of roughly assembled and heavily pixelated still images are projected on to a large screen, while the actors provide live voices and sound effects to move the action forward.

The results, in early rehearsals, were fascinating – cooler than many things we had done, but oddly visceral in the combination of projected images and sound. We started with a two-pronged process, writing scenes to sketch out the endlessly ill-fated lives of the protagonists (a random gun intruder in their apartment followed by an eviction, followed by a pursuit by dogs and a plunge into a darkened sewer), at the same time making images on the computer that might form the storyboard. The text itself came in naive shorthand – blunt, clipped, unemotional dialogue; momentous events and agonies – and a plot that nods in numerous sci-fi directions.

For the projected visuals, I began with two performers (Chris Williams of Drunken Chorus and performance-maker Rajni Shah), photographing them in costume against white backdrops in as many poses as I could think might be useful for a story that wasn’t yet written. As the script developed, I scoured these photos, selecting suitable shots of the two of them and combining them into landscapes and locations I either shot myself or cut, pasted and combined from images found on the web. The finished product, all black and white, has a rough-and-ready feel, an atmosphere of making do. The scale is wrong sometimes: sections of images are left blank or scattered with bursts of visual noise; perspective is abandoned for cartoon-like flatness of figure and ground.

Art experimental performance

Forced Entertainment have been making experimental performance work since 1984. But behind the forbidding impression this opening sentence creates, there’s plenty of joy, messiness and imagination that’s ready to be injected into the new territory of making work for children.

As Tim Etchells explains, “the impulse to make something for kids has been there for a long time, since different people in the company have had kids. Once the kids started to arrive you see the influence of that on the work; props or songs or story structures or images that belong in children’s stories kept creeping in.” Now, they’re letting these influences in through the front door, by collaborating with Vlatka Horvat to explore the idea of a house where “things would happen in different ways or strange things that would happen.” I wondered if it was influenced by 1927’s The Animals And Children Took To The Streets, and Etchell’s cites “a big endless list of children’s books that use the device of a familiar environment that has somehow been transformed or is transforming. There was an inkling we’d access that sort of magical territory through Vlatka Horvat’s work.” Known for her installations, here she makes surreal, melancholy collages which spring from the pages of a girl’s algebra book.

Where 1927’s impossible apartment block populated a vast stage, this piece “uses projection, but not in a spectacular full screen way. We’re making quite small projections on bits of cardboard that performers are holding, with objects that you observe or strange characters you meet. You might look over at the corner of the room and there on the cardboard appears a drawing of a mouse, or a soldier.” Etchells is intrigued by  the way that “those homemade, rather chaotic things produce something magical and you’re transported to a different place. It’s this doubleness of theatre’s ordinariness and everyday qualities, and its extraordinary capacity to summon other worlds, narratives and stories .”