Monday, October 8, 2018

2 Sides of the Same Coin

“…Vedanta sets up no wall between religion and science. No Indian Galileo was forced to recant his heresies. Truth is truth. You can find it in the outside world, where we in the West have located what we like to call science, and you can find it in the world within, where – if we still believe in such a world – we confine religion. But they are different ways of looking at reality, not different realities.”
– Michael N. Nagler, Gandhi’s Way to God

Based on the Vedas, ancient scriptural writings that have influenced Hindu societies and religions for thousands of years, Vedanta (or Vedic philosophy) offers an alternative view of the relationship between religion / faith and philosophy / reason explored by David Davalos in Wittenberg.The characters of Luther and Faust embody the struggle that occurs when these two points of view refuse to acknowledge that they are looking at the same thing. 

‘Luther: It contradicts the word of God.
Faust: It also happens to be true.
Luther: Apostacy! That way lies the road to hell!’

The consequences of this division play out in subtler, but no less important ways in this script. The conflict is not only between religion / faith and philosophy / reason as embodied by Martin Luther and John Faust. Conflicts emerge between the reason inreligion and the faith inphilosophy. Luther truly grapples with the devil once he understands that his own reason, which is leading him to a Truth, contradicts his faith. Faust suffers no less when the results of his reason lead to outcomes different from those he knewwould come to pass.

Hamlet personifies the schizophrenic mind which is forced to reconcile this conundrum. It is impossible for the young prince to escape the friction of these two forces because he encounters them while in the confines of University, which should be the safest place for these debates to happen. When Hamlet makes a decision based on one world view or the other he is given pause by the same voice that prods Luther: ‘what if it isn’t true?’ The question arises: is whatHamlet decides more important than the fact thathe decides?

The set for this production reflects the Vedic sentiment that there is ‘no wall between religion and science.’ One side of the set represents Luther’s office and classroom, the other, Faust’s. Both are visible for the entire play, always present in the mind of the characters and the view of the audience. Action happening in one location can bleed into the other, while the setting of the scene will be defined by projections. The audience has a visual juxtaposition of the internal influences working on the characters which are inescapable in the bubble that is a college campus.

Apparently, Fausts’ travels have not taken him pass the Middle East, for if they had, the Vedas would definitely be on his shelf. Perhaps then he would be able to see Reason in God and God in Reason more easily. However, that would not leave us with much of a play.

Wittenberg is a comedy, after all (tragical-comical-historical, if we are to put a fine point on it). It is a funny play, a humorous play, a witty play, a smart play – and yet the comedy comes from a place of tragedy. There is great comedy to come from watching people stumble around in the dark. Nagle describes the tragedy above: that we do not recognize that philosophy and religion are describing the same reality; that each are telling us something different, together giving us a more complete picture of the whole. There is great comedy to come from watching people stumble around in the dark.

Does Wittenberg settle this argument of which point of view best describes this reality? No. It is a good play in that it offers questions, opinions, follies and passions, but no answers. If Davalos gave us only one way to look at the world, only one point of view, that would mean this world and the play would be pretty flat.

- Andy Kirtland, Artistic Director
The New Renaissance Theatre Company

Monday, September 24, 2018

Wittenberg: A Bromance?

While working on the scenes between Faust (Kevin Moore) and Luther (Adam Rutledge), an image struck me: Grumpy Old Men. Remember that movie from the 90’s? Walter Mathau and Jack Lemon played neighbors in a small town in Minnesota who have known each other for their entire lives, and who communicate by yelling insults at each other. Despite their children’s marriage to each other, they play pranks on one another and generally work hard to make the other’s life a living hell. If that were the extent of their relationship, the comedy would only be old men behaving like jerks, and while that could be entertaining for a little while, there would be nothing to redeem the characters. Perhaps all characters need not be redeemed, but in the world of romantic-comedies redemption is the order of the day. In Wittenbergthe question of redemption hangs over both Luther and Faust.

If only the animosity between these characters exists, the play can become flat and static their arguments solidify into Religion v. Philosophy and Luther v. Faust with one winning at the expense of the other. However, what is interesting and emphasized in our work is not the points on which Luther and Religion diverge from Faust and Philosophy, but the points on which they agree. The compelling attribute of the relationship is the genuine love and concern these two frenemies have for each other.

Martin Luther is genuinely concerned about the state of Faust’s soul. It is his life’s calling to protect and shepherd those he truly believes to be in danger. When Faust needles Luther on points of religion, it is because he truly believes that Martin’s misplaced faith in institutionalized religion keeps him from realizing his true potential. These colleagues do not hate each other. Their debates are not about defeating or destroying the other. Their debates, discussions and disagreements are about saving a friend.

These frenemies seek each other out and push one another to live up to their perceived potentials. Luther comes to watch Faust perform at The Bunghole. Faust urges Luther to step up and accept responsibility for his beliefs. The priest administers help to the soul and the doctor does the same for the body. They do not hide from the other they are both made better by their relationship.

It is interesting to see them agree without realizing it, or perhaps they just don’t acknowledge it themselves. They understand that on some level they mirror each other. Despite the constant collegial animosity, or perhaps because of it, Luther and Faust are drawn to each other. The two enjoy the intellectual rigor of a good, clean debate. A tough debate, but one that does not get personal. They do not just ignore the other side of the argument but confront it in a manner that leaves room to bring their opponent over to their side.

This could just be wishful thinking on my part, but it is comforting to think that this kind of conversation could still be had in the public sphere. People with diametrically opposed opinions discussing their points of view, can passionately state their positions over a beer without sliding into personal insults. It’s hard enough to do this when discussing sports, let alone someone’s personal beliefs or their calling.

I hope this will be a take away for our audience. It is definitely a layer that we are folding into the play. It is enjoyable to watch these characters, and the actors portraying them, to squabble and bark their claims to the Truth. There is great humor jibes and jabs at one another that only friends can get away with. But it much more powerful to recognize the love that exists between them. 

-Andy Kirtland, Artistic Director
The New Renaissance Theatre Company

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Why Wittenberg?

The New Renaissance Theatre Company is known for our Unrehearsed Shakespeare Project productions that have toured the Pittsburgh area since 2014. This fall we are taking the next step in our journey by producing the Pittsburgh premier of Wittenbergby David Davalos. The choice was made by Elizabeth Ruelas, our first Artistic Director because it ticks a lot of the boxes in our mission:

There are classical and historical characters. There is a modern imagining of what an university would be like. The script offers opportunities for our company members to collaborate in different ways. It is also a fun play!

Hamlet returns to Wittenberg University after studying abroad in Poland over the summer where he encounters the new theories of Nicholas Copernick. His world is sent spinning, literally. He seeks advise and solace from his professors Dr. John Faustus and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther, whose own lives are shaken up. Faustus is in love, and Luther is struggling with the church. These three giants of renaissance England culture come together before they grow into the influential characters that we know them to be. Davalos’ witty campus comedy offers something for everyone, the fans of Hamletand Faustand for those who may not be familiar with their stories. 

It also presents an interesting situation, in which an enormous shift in consciousness and awareness of the world around the characters changes the laws and meanings of their very existence. Looking around us today, with the acceleration of technology and new advances in scientific and philosophic theories, it’s possible to believe that we are on the verge of such another discovery. What would happen to us today if all of a sudden, through the use of virtual reality, we discover some truth about existence of which we currently have no concept. How do you go back to work when you realize that what you’ve dedicated your life to no longer resembles the place where you have placed so much faith for so long? Unfortunately, very often, the one thing we want is the one thing we cannot have.

Already this project is presenting new exciting issues. First of all, we are selling tickets! We’ve started up with TicketLeap, so keep your eye out, and be sure to get your tickets early. We have also started a relationship with the Carpatho-Rusyn Cultural Center in Munhall, where we will perform Wittenberg. It’s an exciting time for us to forge new friendships and partners in the communities we serve. And for our friends, fans and followers it is an opportunity to support us in new endeavor as we continue to grow NRTC. 

Wittenberg goes up 19 – 28 October at the Carpatho-Rusyn Cultural Center, 915 Dickson Street in Munhall. Tickets will be on sale shortly. For more information, visit our website

- Andy Kirtland, Artistic Director
The New Renaissance Theatre Company

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Looking Back at 'As you Like it'

Working onAs you Like itis a nostalgic experience for me. In the summer of 2002, this play was my introduction to Demitra Papadinis, The New England Shakespeare Festival and the unrehearsed technique. 

That spring, I auditioned for the first time at the New England Theatre Conference in Natick, MA. Standing outside the closed hotel room, waiting for my turn to walk in and do I know not what for a complete stranger, I found myself with a gentleman in glasses with dark beard and moustache. When the door opened, he entered and I could hear a friendly conversation. I felt even more out of place as I was clearly an outsider. I don’t remember much of what followed. The light in the room was dimmer than it should have been. I read a monologue from As you Like it. It was Slyvius. There must have been a conversation about what I was auditioning for (I had never heard of NESF or what was called the unrehearsed first folio cue script technique), but I don’t recall what was said. A couple of weeks later Demi offered me a position as an intern which included the role of Sylvius. I was not to read or see the play, and there was a mandatory 2-day workshop in Loudon, NH. Loudon was an eight hour drive from Carlisle, PA where I was a junior in college at the time. The workshop weekend also started finals week. After a slight hesitation (this was, after all the first professional job I was offered) I accepted.

On my long drive that Friday evening from Carlisle to Loudon, I picked up a fellow cast member at a train station in Connecticut, just across the New York border. John was waiting for me sitting on the sidewalk outside. We arrived at Demi’s farmhouse at around 1:30 in the morning, in plenty of time for the workshop that was to take place the next morning. The bearded man with glasses was at the workshop, too. He clearly had done this before. Kim, as I later learned his name to be, was a regular. 

That July was a full four weeks for us four interns: Iris, Mike Y, another Mike Y, and me. Our quarters were above the studio added on to the farmhouse: young artists, flopping in the garret. For the first week we got everything ready: helped with costumes, drove all over New England putting up posters, mowing the lawn. Once the rest of the cast arrived, we had a solid 3 weeks of performing 6 days a week at different small towns from Connecticut to Maine. We interns split our time between performing and being the front of house, which gave us a unique perspective on this weird unrehearsed thing we had gotten ourselves into. The interns drove the vans, and were in charge of packing and unpacking them. We did the laundry. But every night after the shows, some of the cast would gather in a screen room away from the house to play cards, or board games and share whisky into the night – which was a feat considering many nights, we did not return to the farm house until midnight, and whichever intern was on laundry duty had to start about 6am.

There were beautiful drives to Killington and Manchester, Vermont. After a performance in York, Maine one of the cast members, the owner of the York Inn, invited us to a party at the hotel. At that performance, a random passerby guessed correctly (and quite unexpectedly) that we were performing the play in the unrehearsed fashion. It so happened he played the role of the 2ndBrother in As you Like itin the unrehearsed manner for Patrick Tucker in London. He still did not know what the play was about. A van broke down after a blistering hot show in Kennebunkport, ME, and David and I stayed with the van till it was fixed, and drove it back, late at night blasting James Brown on back roads through dark forests. Jarol performed the role of Audrey à la Milton Burle. Polly and I cooked a proper English breakfast one day, baked beans and all. There was the bathroom lined with impossible numbers of rubber ducks. The cast passed the hat when I got a speeding ticket trying to get us to a show on time. I learned that if you have to wear tights for an outdoor performance in the summer, thigh-highs are the best option. After everyone had left, the interns still had a couple of days to help clean up the show, and Demi took us all out to dinner. It was one of the first times I had sushi.

It was an exhilarating and exhausting experience that has informed everything since. It was a great place to be, especially as someone who has taken to the unrehearsed technique. At the time, NESF was the only place working in this manner on any scale, and 2002, I believe, was its 7thseason. It was a great group of people, many of whom returned several times to perform with Demi. Kim Carroll, the bearded man with glasses, has since continued his performing, directing and fight direction / choreography career, and has started teaching at institutions such as Harvard. John Kissingford, my travel companion, and his wife, Kate, returned for another tour with NESF and started No Holds Bard, performing unrehearsed in Denver. Mike Yahn, the first Mike Y I interned with, returned several times as did I. Maybe my glasses are rose-tinted, but that makes no difference to me, nor does it diminish the impact that first unrehearsed job has had on my journey so far.

One of the actresses who played Celia generously bought each intern a gift: a square shot glass engraved with AYLI. It is still one of my favorite glasses to sip a good whisky out of. I plan on doing that quite a bit as I now take on As you Like it, unrehearsed, from the other end – as I like it, and I like it very much. 

-Andy Kirtland, Artistic Director

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Happy New Year 2018: All the world’s a stage

2018 marks the fifth year of The Unrehearsed Shakespeare Project, produced by NRTC since 2016. While everything in a young theatre’s life is a milestone, five years is a pretty big marker, and we are excited and grateful to be here.

For our fifth tour, we will demonstrate how, as Shakespeare once said, ‘all the world’s a stage.’ As you Like it and The Life of Henry the Fift display fantastic examples of role-playing in different facets of our lives. They display how we play different characters for one another, and the personas we create for ourselves. When, why and for whom do we put on these characters?

In As you Like it Shakespeare gives us one of his most beloved heroines: Rosalind. Initially dressing as a man for safety in exile, Rosalind’s persona, Ganimed, ends up instructing Orlando, the man whom she loves (and who loves her in return – yet is incapable of seeing through her disguise), how to woo the woman for whom he pines (herself). A woman playing a man, pretending to be a woman - a part that was originally played by a boy - presented on the stage speaks to the play-acting facet of our lives in a very fun way. This is also the text that gives us the famous speech by Jaques, the forest-wandering cynic and philosopher, for which this season is named and which is so well-remembered by many from high school English class. By far As you Like it has the most music of any play NRTC has produced to date, ensuring that this play will entertain.

The Life of Henry the Fift speaks to role-playing of a different nature. Young Henry’s reign and reputation are tested against the raucous image he projected as a youth. He must present himself as the King his people need him to be. Two of the best-known speeches of this play, indeed of Shakespeare’s canon, are exhilarating examples of political theatre: ‘Once more unto the Breach, / Dear friends…’ and the St. Crispan’s Day speech. Are they propaganda to inspire the troops, or strong words to convince himself? Removed from the common people he associated with before ascending to the throne, Henry disguises himself as a rank-and-file soldier on the eve of battle to discover what his people really think of him. He even reverts back to playing pranks as he was wont to do with his pals in Eastcheap. But which is the real Henry: the prankster, or the prince? What does he gain by the parts he plays?

Continuing with our theme that ‘all the world’s a stage,’ and starting our season off in February, NRTC will extend our geographical reach to New York City. We are co-producing a staged reading of Twelfth Night, or What You Will with Holla Holla Productions, directed by NRTC Co-Founder Elizabeth Ruelas. Company Member Nick Benninger will be traveling to the Big Apple to take part in the reading. In this story of love, loss and reunion, Viola pretends to be a man and the servant Malvolio becomes someone he thinks someone else wants him to be. Along with taking USP to Artscape in Baltimore for the last three years, this is the next step in realizing our goal of offering our company members opportunities to perform in diverse markets outside of Pittsburgh. If you will be in New York on February 24 & 25, be sure to check out the show.

Think about what roles you play in your day-to-day dealings with other people. Who do you play them for? Why? When are you a mother? When are you a wife? When are you a friend? What is the difference? But please don’t think about it too hard at the show. We invite you to come and have a good time. The only role you need to play with us is as an audience member – and we’ll be sure to remind you of that.

-Andy Kirtland, Artistic Director