Tag Archives: Yale Repertory Theatre

Theatre: The Gift of Transcendance, Not Transactions

Polly Carl

by Polly Carl

We come to painting, to poetry, to the stage, hoping to revive the soul. And any artist whose work touches us earns our gratitude.  – Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World.

For months my life has been overwhelmed by a series of mundane transactions of various complexity usually costing me buckets of money. If we let it, life will drown us in transactions. The life of transactions is not a satisfying way to live. I prefer transcendence over transaction. Which is why I have chosen to work in the theater—for those moments in the rehearsal room that lead to something revelatory, something glorious or more than anything I could accomplish on my own. No money is exchanged, and in the very best moments transcendence feels within reach.

Money Trumps Love

During my fifteen years of making new plays, I’ve watched our field become more obsessed with the transactional and less obsessed with making good art. If I’m here for no other reason today, it’s to push you as artists and people who love the theater to rethink this momentum.

From the transcendent to the ugly. I was working on a play I was wildly passionate about, one that I wanted to see produced—a play that I believed to be sublime, transcendent, my reason for getting up in the morning these last fifteen years. There were a million issues surrounding this play, as there always are about every play. Multiple producers were interested in producing it, multiple agents were involved in figuring the rights and the royalties and the production path. This is typical. The further the play developed, the more clear the possibility that we had a “hit” on our hands. Because I work in the not-for-profit theater, always in a role that is advocating for the artists and the work, I didn’t have any financial stake in the play. I just loved it. I loved the characters, the language, the story—it was the best of what is possible in the theater, the best of what is possible in my work. I sat in rehearsals and listened and gave hardly any notes and got a little weepy from time to time and talked to the playwright and the director and colleagues. I was so in love with this process. But as the stakes were raised—the money, the players—I could see things beginning to unravel. I became privy to lies and deceit and I became obsessed with saving the integrity of the process that I had been charged to help oversee. We all say we are in it for higher purposes, but even in the theater, money trumps soul, and destroys love. I called one of the agents who was spreading particularly heinous lies (and let me clarify he wasn’t the only one lying, the lies were abundant from all camps). I was calm, trying to clarify the truth, intent on protecting what I thought were the interests of the writers. He actually said to me, “Who do you think you are calling me? I don’t give a rat’s ass about you and your version of the truth. For all I care you could die and it wouldn’t matter to me or this play.”

I walked back to the apartment where I was staying. I got a haircut along the way. I took a shower. I threw away the clothes I was wearing. I bought a new traveling hat. I thought about getting a new tattoo. I moved my flight to leave a day early, and went home. I walked away from that project for good and I walked away from making theater under those conditions.

I didn’t say I wasn’t dramatic.

Gathering Inspiration

In exploring the roots of the righteousness that informs my sense of theater making, I think it’s important for me to share some of the values that have shaped my thinking—to make sense of why an agent wishing my death doesn’t align with what I seek in my career. It’s important to note here, that it’s easier to walk away from something when you know what that something is. I’ve been very lucky, and yes, I mean lucky to have worked at the top of this field, with some of the best companies and best theater makers in the country. I’ve also spent significant time working with small companies, young artists, the uncertain, and the unknown. And I’ve learned, and perhaps it’s my failing, that I’m unwilling to make theater at all costs, and at the expense of basic human kindness and courtesy.

My instincts about where the arts live in relationship to culture come from my childhood. Art saved me. It gave me hope and purpose. I grew up in a family of very little financial and consequently cultural means in Elkhart, Indiana. These are the specific things that saved me; the handful of books my parents had on hand in the house that included a very old edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and the full collection of the Hardy Boys series and the Little House on the Prairie boxed set, plus National Geographics that my grandparents gave us when they finished reading them. The Public Library saved me. By the time I entered high school I had read every novel Charles Dickens had written, all of the Lord of the Rings, Anna Karenina, The Grapes of Wrath—well you get the gist. My public library card was my ticket from there to here. I did not attend theater in high school except for our high school productions. We not only couldn’t afford to attend theater, but cultural engagement wasn’t something of value in my family, economic survival was always front and center.

Zelda Fichandler

When I came to the theater, and I should specify, to the not-for-profit theater, I was instantly moved by what I began to read of its history. The vision of our founders expressed perfectly why theater and the arts in general mattered to me. Listen to these words from a recent address given by Zelda Fichandler, the founding artistic director of Arena Stage in DC:

What drew us to the way we went? What was the vision, the inciting incident? Actually, there was no incident, no high drama, there was simply a change of thought, a new way of looking at things, a tilt of the head, a revolution in our perception. We looked at what we had – the hit-or-miss; put-it-up, tear-it-down; make-a-buck, lose-a-buck; discontinuous; artist-indifferent; New York-centered ways of Broadway, and they weren’t tolerable anymore, and it made us angry. We thought there had to be a better way, and we made that up out of what was lying around ungathered and, standing on the shoulders of earlier efforts in America and examples common in other countries, we went forward, some of us starting small, some like the Guthrie, big.

The fabric of the thought that propelled us was that theatre should stop serving the function of making money, for which it has never been and never will be suited, and start serving the revelation and shaping of the process of living, for which it is uniquely suited, for which it, indeed, exists. The new thought was that theatre should be restored to itself as a form of art.

Yes! The idea that theater should “start serving the revelation and shaping the process of living”—I say again yes! The idea that artists wanted to build a life, not a hit-or-miss, from this moment to that moment, career in theater. These are the ideas and values I can commit to. The not-for-profit theater was about merging art and life. The ideas of our founders were so bold, so aspirational. And the dream was not a dream of selling tickets and making money. Nobody left New York to get rich. They left New York to seek meaning and build a life around what they loved most.

Zelda again:

Once we made the choice to produce our plays, not recoup an investment but to recoup some corner of the universe for our understanding and enlargement, we entered the same world as the university, the museum, the church and became like them, an instrument of civilization.

Going to Church

In restoring theater to itself, as Zelda implores, we must find ways to distinguish the parts of it that live in the market and the parts that belong to all of us.

Lewis Hyde

Lewis Hyde, again from his book, The Gift, differentiates the church, or the university, or the museum, from the market:

It is the cardinal difference between gift and commodity exchange that a gift establishes a feeling-bond between two people, while the sale of the commodity leaves no necessary connection.

Harold Clurman in his book, The Fervent Years, about the formation of the Group Theatre puts it in terms of our relationship with our audience:

When the audience feels it is really at one with the theatre, when audience and theatre-people can feel they are both the answer to one another, and that both may act as leaders to one another, there we have the Theatre in the truest form. To create such a theatre is our real purpose. (p.72)

Fichandler, Hyde, and Clurman give me clarity. They help me understand why the transactions that got us here today: filling up the tank, buying a cup of coffee, paying our bills, may have proved satisfying but they weren’t our reason for getting up this morning. We got up this morning because we believe in the bond of community, the bond that we form with our collaborators and the bond that is our communion with each other and with the audience. Continue reading

Tracy Middendorf Looks Back on her LA Fountain Years

Tracy Middendorf and Morlan Higgins in "After the Fall" at the Fountain Theatre (2002, photo by Ed Krieger); Tommy Schrider and Tracy in "Battle of Black and Dogs" at Yale Repertory Theatre (2010)

by Mark Kinsey Stephenson

Tracy Middendorf was hailed for her “delicious mixture of beauty and raw emotional vulnerability that makes you care deeply about her” by director Stephen Sachs in the March 2002 cover article of LA STAGE magazine. She had already become an LA stage star in 1999, when, at age 29, she received the Ovation Award for leading actress in a play – against powerhouse nominees Annette Bening, Ruby Dee, Phyllis Frelich and Linda Lavin. She earned a LA Drama Critics Circle Award for the same performance, in Summer and Smoke.

A little background

In 1992, straight out of SUNY Purchase, Middendorf was tested in NY for the successful daytime soap opera Days of Our Lives. “I was quite surprised they couldn’t find a young blonde actress in LA,” she says with a light, ironic laugh. “Surprise, surprise,” as she was promptly hired and moved over 2,400 miles — but only on Middendorf’s terms, which demonstrated her mettle.

“I was worried about taking the part; doing a soap opera wasn’t my first choice. They asked me to sign a five-year contract and I told them, ‘No.’ You can imagine the reaction of my agent. How many actresses get an opportunity to be a regular on a soap? But I had high ideals right out of college. They brought the contract down (in years) to what I wanted.” And she thoroughly enjoyed the Days of Our Lives experience – without compromise.

During the next decade, following her soap stint as Carrie Brady, Middendorf was cast on a variety of TV shows including Beverly Hills 90210, Murder She Wrote, Touched by an Angel, Ally McBeal, Six Feet Under and The Practice.

Larry Poindexter and Tracy Middendorf in "Tender is the Night" at the Fountain (photo by Ed Krieger)

But she also was able to incorporate her first love – theater – by performing at the small yet mighty Fountain Theatre. The relationship between actress and theater was mutually rewarding. Middendorf wowed critics in her first LA stage outing in Simon Levy’s 1995 multi-award-winning adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night, and followed up a year later with an Ovation-nominated feature actress performance in Tennessee Williams’ Orpheus Descending.

The East Coast beckoned Middendorf to return, which she did briefly in 1998, performing in Tony winner Daniel Sullivan’s Ah! Wilderness at NY’s Lincoln Center and Joanne Woodward’s The Big Knife at the Williamstown Theatre in Massachusetts. Then in 1999, Middendorf struck gold with Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke at the Fountain, under the direction of Levy. The actress and the production both received Ovation Awards. Life was good for Middendorf, but it was going to get better.

No fluke

It is early 2002. Arthur Miller’s After the Fall, directed by artistic director Sachs, has opened at the Fountain Theatre, and Middendorf is featured in LA STAGE. She almost had to pinch herself with everything happening – creatively and personally. “It was a really exciting yet exhausting time. Calvin (her son) was two, and I was a single mom. Juggling this amazing show and great part along with bills and everything life was throwing at me, it was… challenging and hard. But going through that, I was proud of myself. It’s important to always do what you love, no matter how difficult life may be. It’s something I’ll always remember.”

Sachs shares more. “Playing Maggie required Tracy to dig deep down into some very dark and scary corners of her own psyche where her own demons hide. Her performance was shattering, fragile, heartbreaking. Unforgettable.”

The recognitions Middendorf received in 1999 were no fluke. After the Fall received four Ovation awards, including best production and one of three lead actress awards that year. Middendorf also added a second LA Drama Critics Circle award for her performance. For a play that hadn’t been seen in LA for 24 years, the Fountain and Middendorf reaped the benefits of Miller’s work.

Five years passed before Middendorf returned to the LA stage. During this passage of time, she married Franz Wisner, author of the well-received book Honeymoon with My Brother, and had another child, Oscar. TV roles were plentiful, including Alias, Cold Case, House M.D., Without a Trace and Lost, as well as acting in the movie Mission: Impossible III with Tom Cruise.

Chuma Gault and Tracy in "Miss Julie" at the Fountain Theatre (2007, photos by Ed Krieger)

However, while she was at the Fountain in Miss Julie, adapted and directed by Sachs, based on the original play by August Strindberg, a canceled audition for a play flicked a switch. She felt it was time for another 2,400-mile move.

Going back

During the run of Miss Julie, Middendorf was scheduled to audition for Edward Albee’s The Lady From Dubuque, which was set to open in London, starring Maggie Smith under the direction of Anthony Page (Tony winner for A Doll’s House). But the production team canceled its trip to LA, leaving Middendorf in the lurch. Here’s where the rubber met the road.

“I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to audition for Mr. Page or the play or Mr. Albee, so I flew to NY with my two kids. Yes, it was crazy but this was important.” After booking a hotel room and auditioning, “They paid my flight fee so I could stay a few more days and attend the callbacks.” But the coastal reality hit hard. Two Ovations and LADCC Awards didn’t ultimately sway Page to cast Middendorf. “He didn’t know any of my stage work, never had seen me in anything.” That moment was critical for her. “I wanted to expand my horizons which meant moving back to the East Coast. I didn’t want to be limited.”

"The Pavilion" at Westport Country Playhouse (2008)

Soon an acting gig on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit followed, along with another opportunity to work with Joanne Woodward, who was artistic director at the Westport Country Playhouse. “I had such a wonderful time with Joanne when I performed in The Big Knife. It was a chance to get reacquainted with this fascinating woman. So I was able to do Craig Wright’s The Pavilion (2005-2006 Drama Desk Award nominee for outstanding play).”

Westport, CT, became home for one year with its quaint community, slower pace, dinners on the beach,… but Middendorf and her family realized they wanted to live in the city. To Brooklyn they moved, and they’re still there.

East/West – the active life

Since settling in Brooklyn, Middendorf’s professional resume includes two theater productions. In 2010, she performed at Yale Repertory Theatre in the haunting thriller Battle of Black and Dogs, by the late French playwright Bernard-Marie Koltes. Middendorf reflects on her time there. “It was incredible. I adored working with Robert Woodruff (the director) who has this amazing cult following. And it gave me a chance to work with Andrew Robinson (whom she had performed with in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) now at USC (professor of theatre practice and director of MFA acting).”

Holly Twyford and Tracy in Shakespeare Theatre Company's "Old Times" (2011).

A year later came Harold Pinter’s Old Times at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, DC. Middendorf wryly says, “It was the shortest commute I’ve ever had. They put me in an apartment three steps from the entrance door.” Expounding on her experience, “This Pinter three-character play is not hugely appealing to everyone. Audiences can be frustrated. Yet the show received good reviews. The director Michael Kahn (also artistic director at the Shakespeare Theatre) was magnificent. We had four weeks of rehearsal to focus on this dense material.” Sophie Gilbert, theater critic with the Washingtonian, wrote, “Middendorf, as Kate, does a remarkable job in expressing the character’s sexuality and the power it gives her over others.”

During this three-year span, Middendorf’s TV credits have included CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Bones, The Mentalist, NCIS, Criminal Minds and she’s especially grateful for Boardwalk Empire. “I play Babbette (the owner of the series’ central nightclub). The pilot was directed by Martin Scorsese. Watching him direct was thrilling.”

Tracy Middendorf in HBO's "Boardwalk Empire"

When it came time for the wardrobe fitting, the initial decision was to put Middendorf in a beautiful dress. She thought otherwise. “When I auditioned for the part, it came across as very masculine. So I told them I saw Babbette in a suit.” Giving the design team pause, Middendorf was told she would be called back. “When I returned later, John Dunn, the extraordinary costume designer, had me meet with a tailor to make a tuxedo. And that’s when they gave me a platinum wig.”

Looking through a different lens

As she reflects  on years past and where she is today, realizations are not far behind. “The ability to do those great parts at the Fountain…. I love that theater, Simon, Stephen…. After working on Old Times, which was in a huge space, I realized I prefer the smaller stage and a smaller audience. The intimacy of it feels comfortable to me. I miss having a place where I can do that type of work. I really appreciate and love the vitality of LA theater which is focused on the work and on the play.”

Looking at the arts with a different lens, Middendorf states, “I’ve begun to change my focus toward directing. I’m more interested in the vision for an entire piece rather than just one role in a piece. That seems like a natural step for me.”

"Break", directed by Tracy Middendorf (2011).

In August 2011, Middendorf directed Louise Rozett’s Break for the FringeNYC. The material dealt with the unexpected effects of the Ground Zero recovery effort on NYC’s firemen and policemen, and their families. How she came to helm this play was happenstance. “I was in the laundry room of our building. There was a woman (Rozett) there and we started talking. She had a Young Adult book coming out. I asked if she had written any plays, as I was looking to direct something. She said she did, and gave me her plays, which were wonderful.”

Not letting a moment such as this one go to waste, Middendorf gathered together some actors and directed a reading that had great response. “We submitted it to the Fringe Festival and it got accepted. Within a month of putting it out there, I wanted to direct a play, and that’s what I was doing. We raised money through Kickstarter to mount the production. It turned out wonderful.  Now Louise is giving me another play to consider directing.”

Giving back

This past summer Middendorf read Three Cups of Tea, Stones into Schools and Half the Sky (the Skirball Cultural Center is currently hosting an exhibit entitled “Women Hold Up Half the Sky” inspired by the Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn tome.) These books dealing with the plight of girls around the world touched Middendorf and made her consider ways she could make a difference in the lives of those “who don’t get an education and suffer a dismal fate.”

Middendorf rattles off a few startling facts: “Of the 104 million children aged 6-11 not in school each year, 60 million are girls; in South Asia, more than 40 percent of girls aged 15-19 from poor households never completed first grade; providing girls one extra year of education beyond the average boosts wages by 10-20 percent; educated girls are less likely to contract HIV; education can foster democracy and women’s political participation.”

“I wanted to help. My friend Laurel Holloman (an actress on The L Word), who is an abstract painter, donated one of her paintings for a charity auction. It made me think. With the digital age, what if I created a website with a gallery of photographs taken by actors, writers, musicians and directors? The limited number of photographs would be signed and sold with the money donated to charities focused on educating girls around the world.”

Her dream is near reality. The launch date for the website – www.shuttertothink.org – is scheduled for March 1, 2012, and its small collection of photography grows weekly.

Parting words

It’s fitting to close this article about the seasoned actress Middendorf with meaningful high praise from Sachs and Levy, who know her well.

“Tracy has this remarkable ability to blend both a ferocious work ethic with the ability to stay utterly alive in the moment,” states Sachs. “She possesses this other-worldly combination of skilled craft and gossamer magic. To work with her again would be a blessing I would cherish.”

Levy adds, “She’s translucent and a true artist. Absolutely one of the most gifted actors I’ve ever worked with. Her emotional well is so deep and so varied, and her moment-to-moment connection so riveting, that it’s impossible, for audiences and actors and as a director, not to be drawn into the world of her truth. Stunning. Truly stunning. She’s rare and a gift to theater.”

Mark Kinsey Stephen writes for LA Stage Times.