Saturday, July 11, 2020

How I faked my way into becoming a theater nerd

It all started when I was in high school—Hattiesburg High School, Hattiesburg, Mississippi, 1960. Everyone was encouraged to join some kind of school club or activity, 4-H, Junior Kiwanis, Young Republicans, debate team or something. I chose Sock and Buskin, the drama club. We never did any drama. I can’t remember if we ever even talked about it. The reason I picked that club was the faculty advisor was a former Miss Mississippi. Every boy in my class and possibly quite a few of the girls had a gigantic crush on her.
The only thing the club ever did was to cover a convertible with toilet paper flowers and ride in the homecoming parade.
Fast forward ten years. I’m applying for a job teaching art at a school in Clarkton, Missouri, population 1,207 in 2017. Lord knows what it was back then. I got the job. When I met with the principal for the first time, he said, “I see here on your application that you were in the drama club.”
“Yes sir, I was.”
“Well, how would you like to direct the school play? We’ll pay you an extra $200.” (equal to $1,321 today according to what I could find on Google)
Oh yeah, I was all in for that. Never mind that I had never directed a play or even been in a play. Except . . . oh, wait, I played one of the dwarfs in Snow White in the first grade. I almost forgot about that. I not only had no theater experience at the time, I hadn’t even seen more than four or five plays in my life. Naturally, I said, “Yes sir, I’d love to do that.”
The play was some stupid teenage comedy about a bunch of boys dressing up as girls and crashing a girls-only spend-the-night party. Whoever chooses the plays—most likely a committee of parents and teachers—had already ordered scripts.
I held auditions in the gymnasium and cast everybody who showed up. Everyone who didn’t get cast as a named character was put in the ensemble. I told them to hang around on stage and pretend they were talking to other cast members.
The cast was as skeptical as I was, and from the first day of rehearsal they started improvising. Most of the improvised lines were better than what was in the scripts, so I’d say, “Yeah. Let’s keep that.” Other than letting the students rewrite the play, I can’t remember what I did by way of rehearsal. But the play was a hit. The audience laughed hysterically. Afterwards, one of the parents who helped picked the play told me it was the best play ever done at Clarkton High School and said, “I hope you can direct our play every year.”
Well, I didn’t do that because they didn’t hire me back, not as a director and not as an art teacher. That’s a whole different story.
Let’s fast forward another decade. By then, I had seen a little more than four or five plays. Maybe as many as ten total, mostly Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway when I was in New York. And then we moved back home to Mississippi where my nine-year-old son got cast as one of the Lost Boys in a local production of Peter Pan, and he fell in love with theater. From then on, he was a theater kid all the way through high school and college, and I went to see as many of his plays as I could.
In about 2003, I got a part-time temporary job as an assistant features editor at The News Tribune. The job lasted nine months. And at the end of that time my editor asked if I would be willing to write theater reviews. She had no idea how little I knew about theater but trusted I could do it. I managed to fake it while I learned. Since that beginning, I have written something more than a thousand theater reviews, and I feel like I’m beginning to get the hang of it. It’s been a great learning experience, and I’ve made many wonderful friends in the theater community. I so look forward to when live theater can start back.

Monday, June 8, 2020

American Way: A virtual theatrical experience at Tacoma Musical Playhouse

Not to be defeated by the coronavirus pandemic, Tacoma Musical Playhouse is doing a virtual performance of American Way by Jeremy Gable, one night only, Friday, June 12 at 7:30 p.m.
Faced with disappointing comic book sales, benefit packages and retirement, four superheroes take a break in their secret cafe to reminisce about the good old days. But when an unexpected tragedy hits the town, they are forced to deal with being powerless for the first time in their lives.

“Gable’s distinctive voice offers great promise… His lacerating piece evokes a tragicomic
Kubrick-esque brilliance.” – BACKSTAGE WEST

“Wickedly funny stuff.” – L.A. TIMES

“A superhero parody with a lot more brewing beneath the surface.” – L.A. WEEKLY

The Cast

CARL OLSON (Crescent Wonder)
Carl is a retired teacher from South Kitsap High School in Port Orchard. His last full-time assignment included teaching Stagecraft, Beginning Acting, and serving as the Win Granlund Performing Arts Center's technical director and directing thirteen productions during his tenure. Carl has been active in area community theater since 1985, both as an actor and director…many wonderful shows and memories. Carl is excited to be once again working with his former student, Erik Furuheim.

Rafe is a teacher and musician from Tacoma, Washington. When he is not directing choirs or playing rock and roll, he can be found on stage mugging for a laugh (and a few tears) in local musicals. Rafe is a father to two teens, Ava and Dean, and his wife Dawn is a midwife. He is thrilled to be a part of this unique production surrounded by talented artists.

ARIEL VAN DYKE (Mandible Maiden_
Ariel is a native Washingtonian, having taken classes at Pacific Lutheran University and been a Tacoma School of the Arts graduate. She is inspired not only by music but visual and digital art in her spare time. She can be seen at the Tacoma Musical Playhouse every so often, and dedicated each performance to her husband, son, and daughter.

BENJAMIN USHER (Pungent Huboldt)
Benjamin grew up in Kitsap county. He headed east to graduate from Central Washington University with a BFA in Musical Theatre, apart from pursuing a career in performing, he also enjoys building sets and solving problems in creating magic off-stage.

Producer, Director & Sound Design ERIK FURUHEIM ()
Erik resides in Newport, Oregon, with his beautiful and talented 10-year daughter. In the past two years, he has been in numerous productions all over the US, portraying “The Big Bopper” in Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story. In his daily life, he is a Network Security Engineer for Checkpoint Software and loves the job and flexibility it gives him to perform anywhere in the world and spend quality time with his kiddo. Erik was last seen on TMP’s stage in TheFull Monty, and Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story (Big Bopper). He hopes you enjoy the presentation and hopes that everyone is safe and sane.

Donation – Pay What You Can ($5.00 minimum) - All proceeds go to Tacoma Musical Playhouse
Order the link Online:  | Season + Tickets (Tab) | Virtual Events

The strange wonder of the juxtaposition of disparate objects or the Surreal legacy of modern day collage

Sharon Styer and Gail Ramsey Wharton

By Alec Clayton

I recently wrote about collage artists Sharon Styer and Gail Ramsey Wharton for Oly Arts (see CreativeMinds: The Collage Art of Sharon Styer and Gail Ramsey Wharton). Since writing that article, I have had additional thoughts about their work that I’d like to share.

Collage from Food for Thought series by Gail Ramsey Wharton


“What she really wanted was to just stop worrying” collage by Sharon Styer

Poet Isidore-Lucien Ducasse, writing under the nom de plume Comte de LautrĂ©amont, penned the line "as beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table," and AndrĂ© Breton adopted that line as a guiding principle of Surrealism. The beauty of chance, and the strange wonder of juxtapositions of disparate objects. That is in essence a description of both Dada and Surrealism and of collage as medium and as a method of design. It has been paramount in the works of artists from Picasso and Braque to Duchamp, to Jasper Johns to David Salle. Collage, in fact, has been the design method of just about every art since Picasso and Braque first glued imitation wood grains into their paintings—whether or not the actual gluing of paper or other materials is involved.
Collage as a method of design is not hierarchical. There is no main character centerstage with smaller supporting cast off to the sides such as in the typical Renaissance triangular composition. Rather, all characters, images, shapes tend to be of equal value. Rules of perspective are often ignored. There are realistic images because the images tend to be taken from photographs ripped from the pages or newspapers and magazines, but the relationships of the various images are often unrealistic. Parts of bodies don’t match. Background images may be larger than foreground images. Collages are narrative by nature, but the narratives are more implicit than explicit. If there are stories, they are stories with no logical beginning, middle and end.
A collage from Gail Ramsey Wharton’s “Food for Thought” series pictures an androgynous figure in an interior setting seated on an antique chair. There’s something strange and comical about the figure, and about the entire scene. For starters, the figure’s head is way too large for the body. And for quite some time I thought of the figure as a woman, but eventually noticed that her (or his) chest is bare and does not look like a woman’s breast, and he’s wearing long stockings and men’s pointy-toed saddle oxford shoes. And there are things in that room that do not belong (as out of place as the sewing machine and umbrella on a dissecting table). He or she is eating an apple, there’s a snake coiled around the chair leg, and there’s a peeping Tom at the window who looks like popular images of Jesus. And then it dawns on me: it’s Adam (or Eve) in the Garden of Eden, but the garden is a Victorian era bedroom, and if that’s God watching over him or her, he’s a very creepy god. Quite often art is both upsetting and funny.
A friend of mine owns another Ramsey Wharton collage. It pictures a woman riding an ironing board as if it is a surfboard. I’ve often enjoyed looking at it, but it only recently dawned on me that the artist’s turn of mind in noticing that an ironing board is shaped like a surfboard and coming up with the quirky idea of putting a surfing woman on it is akin to the kind of thinking Picasso must have done when he combined a bicycle seat and handlebar to make a sculpture of a bull.
Collage artist Sharon Styer’s “What she really wanted was to just stop worrying” is a languid, pastoral scene with a pair of lovers reclining on a bridge. The scene is a surrealistic mix of photographs and images cut from paintings. The landscape is a photograph—all but the blue tree in the foreground, which is painted in a single, flat color, as are the clothes and the bodies of the man and woman. Pop Art images with a hint of Asian art. The man is clothed in a blue suit, and the woman is naked. Her flesh is purple. Even though her head and shoulders rest on his body, they seem unattached and uninterested in one another. The bridge they rest upon is an arch of something like a Japanese paper lantern. The bridge and the man and woman are gigantic in relation to the landscape. By comparison to the size of the bodies, the creek is a mere trickle only a few inches wide. No bridge should be needed to cross it.
Much of the beauty of “What she really wanted was to just stop worrying” is in the movement of lines, the bend of the tree that mimics the shape of the bridge and the sensual lines of the people’s bodies, particularly the position of their arms. Every edge, every line, directs the viewers’ eyes in lyrical movement across the surface. And there are butterflies. There is clearly a story behind this picture. We want to know what they are doing and why, how they got there and what is going to happen next.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Becky Knold’s Veiled Distance and other works

A coronavirus sampler
By Alec Clayton
Veiled Distance
Art galleries and theaters being closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, I am forced by boredom to review works in my own collection.
Becky Knold’s painting “Veiled Distance” has been hanging on my living room wall for years. Recently, I moved it to the bathroom where, to my surprise, I look at it much more often and more thoroughly. I stare at it and find myself being drawn into its veiled depths. (The title does not refer to social distancing and the wearing of masks; it was painted and given that title long before the present horror.)
I have never asked the artist about the media, but I assume from the appearance that it is acrylic on paper, a heavy paper with a simulated canvas surface.
“Veiled Distance” is a contemplative and mysterious painting. There are three flat black opaque shapes floating on the surface, with a background of loosely brushed, transparent, washes of watery paint in white, orange and pink. I italicize the word background to indicate it is not really background but rather the lively, atmospheric surface upon which and over and under which the black shapes are painted. We’re seeing here mysterious organic shapes in space—outer space or perhaps under water or wrapped in layers of transparent muslin, the veil of the title. The spatial ambiguities are fascinating. At top there is a circular shape that is only partially overlapped by the muslin veil, which opens up to a deep hole in space through which a fiery sunset sky can be seen. Below that is a heavy black shape that looks like something prehistoric. It brings to mind the slung bone in the opening scene of 2001: A Space Odessey. (Here’s a reminder: The third black shape is also bone-like. It stands upright on the shores of an orange lake. This interpretation of abstract forms evoking water, sky and bone are perhaps but one of many possible interpretations. I wish you could see it in person, because a reproduction on a computer screen can’t possibly do it justice.
"Riches Over Rags" mixed media on cardboard
"Cave Dweller" mixed media on cardboard

This is an early Becky Knold painting, typical of many works she did in the early 2000s when she first began painting fulltime after retiring from teaching. More recently she has started experimenting with little collage paintings on cardboard and other found materials. She has been posting photos of these on Facebook but has not yet shown them in a gallery. I hope she will be able to post pandem.
The paintings on cardboard are not atmospheric as the earlier works are, but have a kind of solidity, or more specifically the appearance of solidity one might associate with heavier materials. Many of these latest works appear heraldic like medieval armaments, shields or coats of arms. And they are not constricted by the traditional rectangular format of most paintings. Typically, there is a standing vertical rectangular shape topped by a horizontal shape. The colors are bolder than in her earlier paintings, and the paint tends to be heavier and more opaque. There are strong contrasts between expressive marks and flat shapes reminiscent of Adolph Gotlieb and Robert Motherwell.
I have written an in-depth profile of Knold that was recently published by Oly Arts. See it at

Monday, March 30, 2020

Forgotten Stories: Northwest Public Art of the 1930s

Forgotten Stories: Northwest Public Art of the 1930s
Reviewed by Alec Clayton

Note: Publication of this review did not happen as planned because of the corona virus pandemic.

Morris Graves, The Church at Index

Forgotten Stories: Northwest Public Art of the 1930s is an exhibition of mostly unknown but historically important art created under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration in Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington during the Great Depression. Curator Margaret Bullock spent decades pulling together this exhibition which fills two of the largest galleries in Tacoma Art Museum with paintings, prints, sculptures, and murals pulled from the walls of schools, libraries and post offices. Also included are little-known early works by more well-known artists such as Kenneth Callahan, Morris Graves and photographer Minor White.
During the Roosevelt presidency hundreds of artists were employed by the WPA. They created thousands of works of art even in the sparsely populated and remote Northwest, many of which have since been lost or are located in small, out-of-the way towns where few people see them, and those who do don’t know their significance. TAM’s exhibition uncovers and re-introduces to the public hundreds of these forgotten works.
“TAM is fortunate to be able to exhibit a number of works that have not been seen since their creation and also to borrow several large-scale murals that normally never leave their permanent locations in schools and post offices,” Bullock said.
The large murals were painted on canvas and glued to walls in public buildings and have been carefully removed and installed in the museum for this exhibition. Most of these works are from what is generally thought of as American scene paintings, which glorify working people and small town-life. Typical is Jacob Elshin’s “Miners at Work,” a 5-by-12-foot mural in the Renton, Washington Post Office. It depicts miners hard at work mining coal in a dark and dirty mine shaft. Like so many figures in American scene paintings, the figures appear anonymous, seen from the back or in profile. They appear rounded as in bas relief. The painting is somber and dark and quietly salutes cooperative work.
Also somber is Kenneth Callahan’s, “Dock Scene from the mural cycle Men Who Work the Ships,” depicting men at work on what looks more like girders of buildings than ship building. Like Elshin’s miners, these workers are rounded figures with some bulbous areas of clothing that bear little relation to reality. This painting is a far cry from the energetic and spiritual abstract paintings Callahan became famous for later, other than the angular structure of the beams, which lends dynamism to the composition.
Another artist in the show who later became famous is Morris Graves with his 1934 oil on canvas, “Church at Index.” It is a strong painting of a small-town church with a bridge in the foreground and odd gridwork in the sky. With hints at abstraction, this painting is a harbinger of Graves’s later work.
Aimee Gorham, Solomon, wood marquetry
Aimee Gorham made many large-scale decorative panels in wood marquetry for seven schools in Portland, Oregon. The one in this show on loan from Portland Art Museum is called “Solomon.” It is a flattened, icon-like figure of the wise man rendered in an Egyptian style with a strong ray of light angling in from top right and many subtle variations of wood tone and grain.
Dora Erickson, Dakota Hotel
The most eerily haunting painting in the exhibition is Dora Erickson’s oil on canvas “Dakota Hotel,” picturing a strange isolated hotel on an empty prairie with five lonely figures sitting on a makeshift wooden porch. The sickly green building against a star-filled night sky gives the image an otherworldly appearance.
The many works of art in this exhibition epitomize an historic era and an approach to art making that played an important role in American art in the first half of the 20th century.
Forgotten Stories: Northwest Public Art of the 1930s continues through Aug. 16.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Review: “A Chorus Line”

By Alec Clayton
Note: This review was supposed to be published in The News Tribune, but since all area theaters have been shut down due to the coronavirus it will not be. 

You might remember the 1985 movie of A Chorus Line” with Michael Douglas as Zach the director. You might have seen it on Broadway in the 1970s. Chances are you’ve forgotten just how good it was. Tacoma Little Theatre is now giving local audiences a chance to remember.
A Chorus Line” is rarely performed by community theaters for the simple reason that it is too hard to do. It requires a large cast of beautiful young people (and one middle aged man) who can sing, dance and act with knock-’em-dead skill and an incredibly talented director and choreographer. TLT’s Eric Clausell is more than up to the challenge as both director and choreographer. Add to that a fabulous set by Blake R. York and lighting by Niclas Olson, and you’ve got a show worthy of another Broadway revival.
The set is an empty stage with a back wall of mirrors that rotate to become a black wall and another set of mirrors that are brought onstage to create five stunning reflections of Whitney Shafer in the most marvelous dance performance of the night.
It’s a chorus cattle call with a stage crowded with dancers – some veterans and others starry-eyed wannabees – filling every inch of the stage while auditioning for a part in the chorus. But the director, Zach (Michael O’Hara) demands more. He wants them to open up about their personal lives, which they reluctantly do in sometimes tortured speeches and in song and dance.
Sheila (Heather Malroy), a jaded Broadway veteran who acts like she’s bored with the whole thing, reveals a sad childhood in which ballet was her only escape. She sings the haunting “At the Ballet” and is joined by Bebe (Lisa Kelly) and Maggie (Cynthia Ryan) who also used dance as an escape from a sad childhood.
A couple of the men come out as gay at a time when coming out was much riskier than it is today and when internalized homophobia was common.
Val (Melanie Gladstone) talks about how despite being a great dancer she could never get cast because she was flat chested and, in her estimation, ugly. So she had reconstructive surgery and became successful. Her tale leads to the hilarious and sassy song-and-dance number “Dance:Ten; Looks: Three” about her beautifully augmented body parts.
Cassie (Shafer), whose star shone briefly on Broadway and then in Hollywood can no longer get cast in anything and is reduced to begging for a job in the chorus, and in one of the more poignant and dramatic scenes in the play it is revealed that she and Zach have a troubled past together, which sheds light on why he is more demanding of her than of any of the others in the audition. The scene with Zach and Cassie arguing about their relationship while incongruously everyone else sings and dances behind them is a bit sappy and unrealistic, but it leads to Shafer’s wonderful solo dance.
Finally, Zach asks of all the hopefuls why they want to be in the chorus and speaking for them all, Diana (Keola Holt) sings the spellbinding “What I Did for Love” with a voice that is wonderfully clear and bell-like.
The entire cast is outstanding, each standing out as an individual while fitting in with the chorus, and their interaction in movement, song and speech is like pieces of an intricate moving jigsaw puzzle. This is a production that should not be missed. It is recommended for ages 12 and older and has flashing light effects, adult language and sexual suggestiveness.

Tacoma Little Theatre, 210 North I St., Tacoma,


It is with a heavy heart that Tacoma Little Theatre is cancelling our shows through April 23, 2020.  Based upon recommendations from the government, regional sources, and our board of directors, it is in the best interest for the health and safety of patrons, artists, staff, volunteers, students, and all who come through our doors, that all public performances and classes will be cancelled.
If you had purchased a ticket to A Chorus Line you will be contacted by the box office staff within the next few days.  We will offer you the following ticketing options:
  • A voucher to be used for any mainstage production through June of 2021
  • You may generously choose to offer your ticket expense as a tax-deductible donation to TLT
  • One bright light in our day is that we are actively working with our production team to see if we can remount A Chorus Line after this crisis has passed.

Monday, March 9, 2020

The Wolves at Lakewood Playhouse

A season of fierce women’s soccer

By Alec Clayton
Published in the Weekly Volcano
Ensemble cast of "The Wolves". Photo credit: Tim Johnston
Despite being a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize three years ago, Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves is not well known, which is probably why more than half the seats at Lakewood Playhouse were empty opening night. That’s also why community theaters are reluctant to try new or little-known plays, and that’s a crying shame. They should be rewarded, not shunned.

The Wolves is a uniquely structured play. Lakewood Playhouse’s production takes place on an almost empty stage ― the only set being artificial turf on the floor and a curtain at the back that serves as a soccer goal. It is the story of a season of a high school girls’ indoor soccer team, and it takes place on a series of Saturday practice sessions as the girls talk about life, love, war, sex, soccer and each other while getting ready for the next day’s game. As groups of people do in real life, they talk over each other with often multiple conversations going at once, and their talk happens while doing stretching exercises and kicking soccer balls and running around (in this case off stage, stage right, out into the lobby and back in stage left). Keeping up with the various conversations and story lines is challenging to the audience since there are multiple, overlapping stories and not everything they say is easy to hear. Pay close attention. But if you miss a few words here and there, you’ll still be caught up in the action.

The first practice session opens with one of the girls talking about the Khmer Rouge and their murder of millions of people. Most of the team know nothing about the Khmer Rouge. Another girl uses the word “retarded” and the team captain (Andreya Pro) says “Don’t say the ‘R’ word.” And yet another girl makes a snide comment about pregnancy and the others get upset because, as it is soon revealed, one of the girls may have had an abortion. The goalkeeper suffers from anxiety and keeps running off the field to vomit. A new girl joins the team, and there is mystery about where she came from and why she plays so much better than the others. And there is talk about wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is modern life as it is lived and talked about by teenage girls, and it is as uncompromisingly realistic as a play can get.

The Wolves is a true ensemble piece, with no stars and every actor but for a soccer mom (Elain Weaver) who shows up only in one pivotal scene. The girls do not even have names, but are listed in the program only by the numbers on their uniforms. They are, in addition to Pro: Taylor Greig, Alyssa Gries, Kaydance Rowden, Jasmine Smith, Courtney Rainer, Penelope Venturini, Mia Emma Uhl, Sierra “Max” Margullis. All but Pro, a college graduate who has performed with Tacoma Arts Live and Shakespeare Northwest, are students in high school or college who have had relatively little stage experience other than school performances, but each and every one act like professionals. They come together as a team, and each actor plays her character as a unique person with distinct character traits. The key is you can’t see them acting, not a one of them. They are simply girls being girls, talking about the things girls talk about while going through their paces on the soccer field. Through this process, they reveal a story that includes a lot of humor and coming-of-age angst and ultimately tragedy which they rise above due to their mutual support and strength of character.

Every audience member who is a parent of a teenage girl, or who has ever been a high school girl or has known high school girls will recognize these fierce warriors, The Wolves.
Congratulations to Lakewood Playhouse, to Director Indeah Harris and this outstanding all-female cast for a job well done in presenting this play.

It is not recommended for young children. Tough subjects are discussed in language typical of the characters portrayed.

The Wolves, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, through March 22, $27.00, $243.00 Military and seniors, $21.00 students and educators, pay what you can March 5, Lakewood Playhouse, 5729 Lakewood Towne Center Blvd. Lakewood, 253.588.0042,