2003 LOVE’S FIRE. Herberger Theater Center Lunch Time Theater Series.
Call it “Shakespeare moderne.” Created by today’s most famous playwrights, Love’s Fire is a collection of 10-minute plays inspired by the Bard’s love sonnets. In the next installment of Lunch Time Theater, Black Ball Ensemble presents three of the original seven plays: John Guare’s play, based on sonnets 153-154, as well as those by Tony Kushner (#75) and Eric Bogosian (#118). Christian Miller and co-director April Smith created Black Ball Ensemble to provide an outlet for more avant-garde theater; this is the company’s third production for Lunch Time Theater. “We picked Love’s Fire because we like a challenge,” says Miller. “To do something original is not easy — I can only imagine what a difficult assignment it was to write.” — Robrt Pela, New Times
2001. THE ALL MALE REVIEW. Interview by Kyle Lawson, The Arizona Republic, April 8.
Feeling jaded about theater? Spend an afternoon with the young people of Blackball Ensemble. They still get excited about the little things, like whether there should be a hyphen in The All-Male Review, their new show at their new home on north Central Avenue.
There’s plenty of good-natured bickering between April Smith and Christian Miller, who themselves are hyphenates (as in actor-director), and playwright William Carton, who’s penned Review, which once was The Amazing All-Male Revue but weathered a name change because everyone worried that “amazing” was putting it a bit thick and “revue” would lead audiences to expect a musical.
It’s good to hear the joking. Fans were worried about Blackball. When the Phoenix fire marshal closed Planet Earth Theatre, the 3-year-old troupe was among the resident companies pitched into the streets. With its founders finishing up their college degrees or working full time, the hassle of finding a new home seemed beyond them.
That was a loss. The company was responsible for some of the edgiest theater in recent years: David Greenspan’s Dead Mother or Shirley Not All In Vain, Trista Baldwin’s Sex and Other Collisions and Alan M. Berks’ Mourning Rituals. Like their producers, the shows exhibited attitude, considerable talent and a knack for knocking the audience on its collective fanny.
Thanks to Carton, who works at the Holiday Inn Midtown, 4321 N. Central Ave., the company has found a new home in the motel’s conference center — to be known henceforth, at least on play nights, as the 4321 Theatre. (Miller likes to say it over and over: “FOUR-THREE-TWO-ONE.” Without knowing exactly why, he finds the backward cascade of numbers serendipitous.)
With the new home comes a new play, which, Smith says, thumbing her nose at her partners, answers the question: “What the hell is wrong with men?”
QUESTION: Why the name change?
SMITH: I wanted to avoid people thinking they were going to come and see a Broadway-style show.
CARTON: I’m not too proud to throw in some tap dancing.
MILLER: The real change is from “revue” to “review.” That really says it. A review of the many varieties of the American male.
Q: The flyer calls it “a raucous, dark comedy that probes the male psyche and uncovers some deliciously wicked secrets,” including “thugs who like to play with Barbie dolls as much as their guns.” Sounds like it would have been perfect for Planet Earth. Do you miss the place?
SMITH: I guess. We put a lot of time into renovating that building. It was a piece of crap.
MILLER: I have it written down. More than 400 hours.
SMITH: That’s how many hours you spent on it. All of us? I’d say about 1,197. It was horrible, starting with the fact it had no plumbing.
MILLER: When we finished, two out of three toilets worked. We all know two out of three ain’t bad.
Q: Aside from the funky environment, what did Planet Earth offer you?
SMITH: A cheap place to produce … a full budget there was about $1,500.
MILLER: Losing it forced the guerrilla companies like us to come up with bolder ideas for places to perform. Ultimately, it’s going to be a good thing. A ton of people are gearing up.
Q: The Holiday Inn is a bolder place?
SMITH: They like the arts and they like William.
CARTON: I’m their bat, their vampire, their night auditor.
MILLER: That’s such a great title. The Night Auditor. Right out of Hitchcock. But it’s a good space for theater. We can do all sorts of things with it. And it has 180 rooms attached. A captive audience.
Q: Do you really think Planet Earth’s audiences will come to a Holiday Inn?
SMITH: If they’re that closed-minded, it’s their problem.
MILLER: I think they’ll come to see William’s play because it’s very funny. And because we’re serving free quiche. This play goes well with food. The first read-through, we threw a barbecue in our back yard and stoked burgers.
CARTON: Fifteen guys at that party, and it took the one female there to get the fire started.
SMITH: That’s why I’m co-directing the play.
Q: Review actually is eight short works, each dealing with a different aspect of the masculine experience.
CARTON: I think it’s a vain search for male role models. I lost my father early and I spent the next few years trying to figure out what manhood was supposed to be. The things that happened to me were funny and ironic — as silly as the play gets, it comes out of experience.
MILLER: Good decisions and sensitivity can happen to males at any time, but there is so much stuff to go through to find those moments.
INTERVIEW, KYLE LAWSON, ARIZONA REPUBLIC, APRIL 2, 2000
Coming out of last year’s Mourning Rituals at Planet Earth Theatre, an audience member remarked of April Smith: “If she were making movies, more women would avoid showers.”
Good point. The Valley’s most-talked-about young director has Alfred Hitchcock’s knack for knowing when to ratchet up the suspense and when to let the paying customers simmer in their apprehension.
Emotional and physical deviancy. Sexual violence. Familial abuse. Smith, 28, flinches from very little, though it would be hard to accuse the Arizona State University graduate theater major and co-founder of the prickly Blackball Ensemble Theatre of gratuitous anything.
Sure she loves to fling back the shower curtain metaphorically speaking and scare the hell out of her audiences, but she always has reasons for her shock effects.
QUESTION: Why are you so good at this sort of thing?
A: I don’t know. Every play has a voice, and I try to listen to it. The thing is to let the story tell itself at its own pace. It’s timing. That’s probably something they can’t teach you at school. You’re just lucky to have it.
Q: You seem drawn to material that freaks an audience. Have you always been quirky?
A: Quirky – I like that. Quirky’s good. I think it’s just me. My father bailed out when I was 5, and my mother, who’s a preschool teacher, did her best to provide a normal childhood. She encouraged a lot of creative play, but I don’t know that it ever got into the avant-garde stuff.
Q: Your off-campus directing is mostly for fringe theaters.
A: Theaters with no money, you mean. You have to gain credibility somewhere. It has its advantages. Mourning Rituals required a lot of video equipment, which came out of my pocket. I now have a very nice media room. Actually, I’m still looking for the room.
Q: You rely on the kindness of creditors, then?
A: The secret of my success is student loans. I also was a bartender at Leghorn’s Bar & Grill, but I had to stop that when I started three shows at the same time. No one forces me to work at Planet Earth. I do it because it’s one of the few places where I can take chances. It’s the perfect place for young artists. No one asks for credentials. All they want to know is if you can do more than talk the talk.
Q: You’re also a member of the Childsplay acting ensemble. That must mean speaking in a different language?
A: In its way, Childsplay is as courageous as Planet Earth. The company doesn’t talk down to children, it challenges them to really look at their world. I like being part of that but acting for children isn’t the limit of my ambitions. I want to do work that speaks to my passions and directing excites me in a way that acting never does. I see things. That’s the simplest way I can put it. I feel lucky to be coming into a time when young directors and new concepts and individual style are appreciated.
1999. MORNING RITUALS. A play by Alan Berks. Director April Smith. Cast: Christian Miller, Megan Towle, Stewn Galatro
By Kyle Lawson
The Arizona Republic
The young believe that they will live forever. Given the movies they see, the television they watch, you’d think they’d know better, but the knowledge of their mortality always seems to come as a surprise. Juliet and her kid brother, Jeremy, the protagonists of Alan Berks’ “Mourning Rituals,” can’t believe what’s happening to them. Their father dies in an accident. He is hit by a wind-tossed sign as Jeremy watches, too far away to do anything. Afterward, Juliet conscientiously cares for their cancer-stricken mother, but she dies, too. These seemingly random deaths (“Why them? Why then?”) offend the siblings and frighten them. What is the point of going on when it could all end with a surge of air or with the body consuming itself while the mind watches, helpless to stop the feast? Who can assure them that they, or anyone they love, will last the day? The title suggests that Berks’ drama is about death, but “Mourning Rituals,” whose world premiere is being staged by Blackball Ensemble at Planet Earth Theatre, is more concerned with finding reason to live after the holocaust. Juliet and Jeremy set out on a cross-country odyssey to make sense of chaos. They “investigate accidents,” recording on tape and video survivors’ accounts of what happened. In the privacy of their motel rooms, they replay these again and again, editing them, combining them in different forms. Could these “accidents” have been prevented? If not, was there some plan? Did God, fate or whomever, whatever it is that controls our destinies know what the hell it was doing? Their quest reaches a climax in a seedy Phoenix motel, where the air-conditioning doesn’t work and their nerves wear thin. Their latest interview subject is Guy, who, like Jeremy, has witnessed a tragedy he was unable — or unwilling — to prevent. Guy, too, is investigating the way of things, finding most of his answers in the whiskey bottles he strews in his wake. He is bent on killing himself, though he has hopes of meeting someone who will do him the favor. Berks plays out the confrontation in the manner of the siblings’ approach to their research. The audience is presented replays and edits that wreak havoc with time and place. Dialogue and action sequences that seem fraught with meaning in one scene take on a new dimension when seen and heard in the context of another. It is an ambitious approach that doesn’t always work. In spite of the complexity of the play’s structure, we can see the end coming. In giving us the sociopath we know from countless TV shows and movies, Berks misses the opportunity to confound us with hope. Like his characters, he succumbs to the fashionable pessimism of youth. But then, it is a young man’s play, with many of the faults common to early efforts. Berks, who is in his final year in Arizona State University’s creative writing program, is still gauging the effects of language. His characters’ dialogue can be gripping; it also can be self-consciously arty or unnecessarily obscure. Like many playwrights before him, he has discovered the joys of repetition, which, in moderation, is a good thing and, in this case, even serves as a useful plot device. Unfortunately, he is immoderate in its use. He hasn’t reached the stage where he’s comfortable with letting the audience do some of the work. That aside, it’s refreshing to find a young playwright who has something to say other than four letter words and who doesn’t stoop to baring his characters’ flesh while revealing their souls. You don’t have to be in your 20s or 30s to rail along with Juliet, Jeremy and Guy at the unfairness of life. Anyone who has lost someone will find himself caught up in Berks’ debate. Director April Smith constantly rachets up the tension. If the ending is anti-climactic, it isn’t her fault. Christian Miller creates an appealing Guy, cutting into the audience’s emotions as deeply as he does his own, while Megan Towle’s Juliet has one of those moments actresses live for when she reveals her feelings about her mother’s death. Stewn Galatro’s Jeremy disappoints, but perhaps that is unfair criticism. Berks saddles him with the role of the stereotypical, disturbed youth, and there’s only so far an actor can take that. Still, whenever Galatro’s emoting, one wonders whether the sign outside doesn’t read “Bates’ motel.”