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Hot News

By Andrea Simakis, The Plain Dealer on April 4, 2015\

Christopher Durang is glad you asked, but he's not the Vanya of his 'Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,' coming to the Cleveland Play House.

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- If you're thinking about sending a letter to Christopher Durang, don't. Or, at the very least, don't expect a stamped piece of snail mail in response. You're more likely to get a lengthy, lovingly crafted message in your in-box.

It's not that he doesn't appreciate handwritten notes and longhand sentiments. It's just that he likes the quickness of email, something that might surprise fans of his play "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike," now in previews and opening at the Cleveland Play House's Allen Theatre on Wednesday.

That's because of an impassioned monologue delivered by the 50-something Vanya late in Act 2, prompted by a much younger character blithely texting during the reading of a play.

In an epic rant clocked at a glorious 10 minutes, Vanya takes on our Twittering, Tweeting, emailing culture -- our lives "abuzz with electrical communication" ... "lower case letters, and no punctuation."

Vanya laments the passing of our "shared memories," relics from a time when there weren't "785 television channels" but only three or four, and everybody watched "I Love Lucy" and "Ozzie and Harriet" -- which, "even though it was boring," Vanya admits, "still it was a SHARED MEMORY BETWEEN US."

It's a great, cranky, iconoclastic speech, one that no doubt helped the comedy critics hailed as "riotous" and "utterly refreshing" win the 2013 Tony Award for best play.

"Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" has become one of the most produced plays in America, both this season and last. (According to the Theatre Communications Group's American Theatre magazine, some 25 theater companies will stage it in 2014-15, more than double the 11 houses that produced it in 2013-14.)

Vanya's hilarious harangue has also made the playwright feel really guilty. "People send me letters all the time now, and I feel terrible about it," he says. "I put them in a pile intending to answer, and then I don't."

For the record, Durang is also partial to computers (great for making changes in scripts) and Google searches (for looking up things like when Tuesday Weld and Warren Beatty appeared in the TV series "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis": 1959, Season 1.)

But it's no wonder people think Vanya is Durang and Durang, Vanya.

"I am a crank the way Vanya is. Most of what he says I agree with." (As written, Vanya's tirade is about four pages "single-spaced," says Durang. There were two more pages in the first draft.)

And, like Vanya (played by friend and Durangian actor David Hyde Pierce in the original production), the playwright inhabits a pretty farmhouse on a hill surrounded by trees in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

But at 66, Durang is a little older than the middle-aged Vanya, a man resigned to his uneventful, bucolic existence, and he doesn't live with his glum adopted sister Sonia but with his husband and longtime partner, the writer, director and actor John Augustine.

"I dreamt I was 52 and I wasn't married," Sonia tells Vanya in Act 1.

"Were you dreaming in the documentary form?" Vanya asks.

In the play, Vanya and Sonia (Durang muse Kristine Nielsen on Broadway) are shaken from their torpor by a weekend visit from their celebrity sister Masha, with her muscled boy toy, the much younger Spike, in tow.

"Spike is a very gifted actor," says Masha. "He was almost cast in the sequel to Entourage, Entourage 2."

Thanks to the whim of their professor parents, the three squabbling siblings are saddled with names from the plays of Anton Chekhov. They scrap and spar with sidesplitting results.

Unlike poor Vanya and Sonia -- and Chekhov's Olga, Masha and Irina, "The Three Sisters" who long to leave the pastoral dullness of home for the glamour of Moscow -- Durang isn't trapped in the country.

"I came here because I wanted to be here," he says. Durang commutes to New York City at least once a week to teach a class at Juilliard with fellow playwright Marsha Norman, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama " 'Night, Mother."

For Durang, Vanya isn't a thinly veiled version of himself so much as a sad doppelganger, the person he might have become if he hadn't pursued a career as a playwright.

"At a certain point in 2012, or maybe the end of 2011, I suddenly thought to myself, 'Oh my God, I'm actually now the age of the older characters in Chekhov,'" says Durang.

That thought inspired him to write a comedy, "sort of set in my house and set in the present," with Chekhovian themes, something that tapped the Russian dramatist's "What a fine weather today! Can't choose whether to drink tea or to hang myself" ethos.

Then Durang played a game of "what if."

"I got to pursue theater, and I got into the Yale School of Drama, which was lucky," he says. It's where he met fellow classmate Sigourney Weaver, his original Masha.

"And although my career has had ups and downs, it's certainly had a lot of nice ups, and I got to do what I wanted to do."

(Following a spate of uncharitable reviews in the late 1980s, he left the New York theater scene to form a faux lounge act called "Chris Durang & Dawne" with Augustine and actress Sherry Anderson, in which he swung from warbling Michael Jackson's "Bad" to "South Pacific's" "Bali Hai." Perversely, the critics loved that, he says.)

"But what if," Durang continues, "like Vanya, I went to college and came home afterward and just didn't leave?"

In Durang's play, it's not just Vanya who is stuck. Sonia can't even bring herself to leave the morning room of the farmhouse after smashing Vanya's coffee cup against a wall. "I'm in mourning for my life," she says, an homage to one of Chekhov's most famous lines from "The Seagull."

When Vanya suggests she consider pharmaceuticals to control her moods, she quips, "If everyone took antidepressants, Chekhov would have had nothing to write about."

But you don't have to be able to quote "The Cherry Orchard" to appreciate the show (though, naturally, Vanya and Sonia have "10 or 11" cherry trees).

"I wrote the play specifically, I hope, so that people who don't know Chekhov can still enjoy it," says Durang.

And "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" is accessible to nostalgic seniors and multitasking millennials alike because of its delirious mash-up of influences. (As Durang is fond of saying, "I take Chekhov scenes and characters and put them into a blender.")

He also throws in references to '50s TV shows, "South Park," Greek mythology, Maggie Smith, Lindsay Lohan, Disney characters, video games, climate change and Earth-killing meteorites, among other things.

Durang's gift for colliding high art and pop culture is hard to match. If the relationship between aging screen queen Masha and the 20-something Spike reminds you of the former coupling of Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher, all the better.

And in the end, the play isn't about Chekhov anyway, but about the relationship of a trio of delightfully dysfunctional siblings, a funny, poignant, love-hate rivalry Durang nails, despite growing up as an only child.

"I frankly didn't have any trouble with it at all," he says. "Both my mother and father came from big families." He watched the battles royal in his extended family and, like Vanya, played household peacemaker when his parents fought about his father's drinking.

Durang's own history is often fodder for his plays. His days in Catholic school informed his acerbic, breakout hit about a murderous, sadistic nun in "Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All To You." His parents' fraught union and his mother's heartbreaking succession of miscarriages echo throughout "The Marriage of Bette and Boo."

Like Chekhov, Durang's comedy is shot through with tragedy. In "Miss Witherspoon," his tar-black farce and finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in drama in 2006, the title character kills herself in the 1990s, a delayed reaction to NASA's Skylab space station falling to Earth, and then has to endure a spate of unpleasant reincarnations. ("At least I got to miss 9/11," she says.)

Although "sunny" is never an adjective used to describe his work, his latest is something of a departure, a fact that even caught the playwright off-guard.

Durang's Vanya (unlike Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya," for whom he is named) is disappointed in his life but not bitter. And, like light peeking under the crack in a door, Sonia's disposition also improves.

After its New York opening at Lincoln Center, a friend approached Durang, amazed.

"'Chris, I can't believe it,'" she told him. 'In Act 2, the characters make some good choices, and their lives get better!'

"When she said that, I thought, 'Yeah, she's right!' " says Durang. "I hadn't really thought about it."

That a slightly sunnier Durang captured theater's biggest prize is odder still, given the track record of popular comedies losing out to more serious fare.

"I said to people that I am just so lucky that this particular year there wasn't some brilliant play about cancer, because then I would have lost," says Durang. "And I think that's kinda true."
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Photo Flash: First Look at ALL MY SONS, Directed by Theresa Rebeck at Alley Theatre
April 1
5:31 PM
from BROADWAY WORLD.COM - April 1, 2015

THERESA REBECK directs ALL MY SONS

Alley Theatre presents Arthur Miller's All My Sons. Playwright Theresa Rebeck directs the Alley Theatre Resident Company in this riveting American drama, officially opening tonight, April 1, and running through, April 19 at the University of Houston's Wortham Theatre. BroadwayWorld has a first look at the cast in action below!

Arthur Miller's 1947 classic is about social responsibility set against personal gain, as the play pivots on the secrecy held within in a postwar American family. Joe Keller, a success in business and a solid family man, once supplied faulty parts to the US military. Men died as a consequence and Keller's business partner has been jailed. The Kellers' youngest son went missing in action, and, as the truth comes home, there are consequences for all. The plot resonates with uncanny timeliness - and unfolds with the excitement of a thriller. Miller earned his reputation with this, his first major success, and an American masterwork.

The cast of All My Sons features Jeffrey Bean as Dr. Jim Bayliss, James Black as Joe Keller, Elizabeth Bunch as Ann Deever, Winch Eagleton as Bert, Chris Hutchison as George Deever, Josie de Guzman as Kate Keller, Chelsea Ryan McCurdy as Lydia Lubey, Melissa Pritchett as Sue Bayliss, Santry Rush as Frank Lubey and Jay Sullivan as Chris Keller.

All My Sons includes scenic design by Alexander Dodge with costume design by Judith Dolan and lighting design by Philip Rosenberg. Sound design is by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen with Assistant Director Brandon Weinbrenner.

Tickets to All My Sons start at $26. All tickets are available for purchase at alleytheatre.org, at the Alley Theatre Box Office or by calling 713.220.5700.

Photo Credit: John Everett
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from The Baltimore Sun - April 8, 2015 by Mary Johnson

Austen's work again on stage in Annapolis in engaging 'Sense and Sensibility' adapted by Jon Jory

Laura Rocklyn as Marianne and Rebecca Swislow as Elinor in Annapolis Shakespeare Company's production of "Sense and Sensibility." Photo by Joshua McKerrow

Firmly established in Maryland's capital city at its Studio 111 home, the Annapolis Shakespeare Company continues its fifth season with the production of Jane Austen's "Sense and Sensibility," adapted by Jon Jory.

In returning to another Austen classic, Annapolis Shakespeare also connects with a proven box-office formula; two seasons ago, the company achieved acclaim with a production's Jory adaptation of "Pride and Prejudice" at Bowie Playhouse.

This new production pays homage to Austen's ability to create vital characters, such as sisters Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, who draw us into their independent, intelligent, goal-centered lives 200 years after their birth in Austen's novel.
Willoughby and Marianne

James Carpenter as Willoughby and Laura Rocklyn as Marianne in Annapolis Shakespeare Company's production of "Sense and Sensibility." Of course, helping Austen connect with a 21st-century audience is the task for Jory, whose lively, dynamic adaptation does the trick.

Artistic director and producer Sally Boyett directs and choreographs this production in the troupe's stark set, where bare simplicity comes alive in the dynamic action. The minimalist set lends purity and elegance; scenes are changed by choreographed placement of chairs in deft movements that become entertaining elements.

Outdoor scene may be established by the simple addition of suitably authentic hats; indoors by artful costume design or by adding a small chest or table. Nuances of climate — fair, cloudy or stormy — are created by Colin Dieck's lighting design, and also by dialogue, as couples chat amiably as they stroll outdoors.

Under Boyett's direction, the action moves swiftly with help from Jory's knack for adding contemporary energy to Austen's late-18th-century characters. The era is suggested by the authentic costume design of Kat McKerrow, whose creativity helps define each character — stylish, plain or rumpled, privileged or lowly.

The elegant costumes particularly enhance Boyett's choreographed dance scene, perfectly executed by the cast.

Boyett has gathered an excellent cast, the majority of it consisting of Annapolis Shakespeare's evolving resident group. The players weave a tapestry of simmering emotions beneath an exterior of restrained English deportment. Rebecca Swislow as Elinor Dashwood and Patrick Truhler as Edward Ferrars in Annapolis Shakespeare Company's production of Sense and Sensibility.

Together, they tell the story of these sisters after the death of their father, dealing with newly reduced living arrangements. In a new locale, Elinor and Marianne are captivated by very different men — sensible Elinor by quiet, bumbling Edward Ferrars, and passionate Marianne by the mysterious John Willoughby. When Willoughby's scandalous past and Edward's secret fiancee come to light, the sisters rely upon one another's strength to learn that when sense and sensibility meet, love is not far behind.

Having impressed as Lady Macbeth in the troupe's season opener, Rebecca Swislow defines the role of sensible, strong Elinor, who is never dull, despite her calm exterior. She is fiercely protective of her impetuous sister and of her kind, fragile mother, played by Sue Struve. Swislow projects Elinor's longing for Edward, and is emotionally touching when her trust in him is shaken.

Laura Rocklyn's portrayal of spoiled, self-centered Marianne is equally compelling in conveying the heedless, headlong rush to seize her romanticized fate with Willoughby — and her later bitter disappointment. Rocklyn persuades us to sympathize, and later rejoice in her growth and new-found maturity.

In his Annapolis Shakespeare debut, Patrick Truhler inhabits the role of Edward Ferrars, conveying an aura of reliable strength and faithful devotion to Elinor in response to her respectful admiration.

Marianne's love, Willoughby, is dashingly portrayed by James Carpenter, who was in the "Macbeth" production and here delivers a spot-on portrayal of the enigmatic character.

Another outstanding performance is delivered by Annapolis Shakespeare resident member Renata Plecha as avaricious Fanny Dashwood, the wife of the late Henry Dashwood's brother, John. Plecha's Fanny forces the sisters and their mother to leave their former home so she can claim all of Norland Manor for her husband and family. Plecha summons cruelly dismissive barbs with relish.

Amy Pastoor returns to Annapolis Shakespeare to play three roles — mysterious loves Lucy Steele and Miss Grey, and a servant. She also serves as understudy for Elinor and Marianne. Playing two roles are Brian Keith Macdonald as John Dashwood and the Gardener, Richard Pilcher as Sir John Middleton and the Doctor, and Annette Mooney Wasno as Lady Middleton and Mrs. Ferrars.

Weekend performances continue through May 3 at 111 Chinquapin Road, Suite 114 in Annapolis. For showtimes and ticket information, call the box office at 410-415-3513 or go to annapolisshakespeare.org.
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