Jan Powell 
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Re: “Richmond Tech Chief Rebecca Hough: Paris Climate Deal Helps All

Thank you for this excellent coverage of a crucial issue, and I applaud the fine work of Evatran and Ms Hough! Just a note: I suspect you mean to write about ELECTRIC vehicles, rather than "electronic," and that Ms Hough intended to say the significance of the problem can't be OVERSTATED, rather than "understated".

5 likes, 0 dislikes
Posted by Jan Powell on 12/17/2015 at 9:26 AM

Re: “Speed Dreaming

Like Rich Griset, I seldom comment on criticism of my work; I believe in the critic’s right to review as s/he sees fit. I have held off on commenting, for this reason. However, given that this review has sparked such fervent discussion, I feel I would be remiss not to weigh in.
I am deeply grateful for the extremely kind words that have been written about my work and this production; thank you so much—your faith bolsters me and is deeply meaningful. For those who disagree with my interpretation of this play, I value your viewpoint, and will endeavor to use your comments to improve my work.
My thoughts:
1) Our play takes place in America, not in Cuba. My notes in the program, as well as all aspects of the dialect, dress, and behavior of the production, were intended to make that clear. If there was confusion as to where the play was supposed to be set, that’s a failing on my part. Within this context, I can understand why this review expressed disappointment in my failure to make the show more Cuban. (On his part, Shakespeare did not make the setting terribly Athenian, either....)
2) The Rough Rider/Spanish widow interpretation of Theseus and Hippolyta was a bit of fun, extrapolated from a line that comes in the first scene of the play. Theseus says to his fiancée:
I wooed thee with my sword
And won thy love doing thee injuries.
Titania refers to Hippolyta as:
Your buskin’d (wearing boots) mistress, your warrior love.
So, Theseus had to be an American military leader, and Hippolyta had to be his equal. I looked for a context that would allow for armed battle between two fierce, provocative personalities in 1905. The Spanish-American War offered the perfect circumstances for this type of meeting. It provided for a pair of amusingly pugilistic lovers—but we brought it back to an American context. It was a portrait of lovers who entwine through battling one another, not a comment on expansionism. The two are portrayed as equals, purposefully. Not only is that true to the text, but the sparks flying between them as they argue, their differences ultimately bringing them closer together, are intended to explore this type of aggressive relationship in the context of our theme of the overwhelming power of love—and also to defuse any sense of domination/submission or, heaven forbid, colonization.
3) The swift pacing of the play is intrinsic to the construction of the text. Shakespeare authored his plays to suit Elizabethan performance circumstances, which are quite deliciously identical to the performance circumstances at Agecroft, and the plays are intended to move at a quick clip (Sometime try reading Romeo and Juliet in two hours; it’s virtually impossible, though the prologue to the play says “the two hours’ traffic of our stage”. Scholars and theatre practitioners tend to agree that Shakespeare’s company likely moved very quickly through the text). Although I am disappointed that Rich did not enjoy the pace of the play, our record-breaking sellout crowds and standing ovations—including so many happy children—at the end of each show seem to indicate we’re probably not leaving too many audience members behind.
4) The comment in the review regarding Puck’s casting and the question of race has prompted strong reaction—and rightly so. While I doubt Rich intended to stir up this firestorm of accusation, and while I understand those who say those accusations are groundless, it is true that the statement can also be read as indicating that the actress playing Puck was cast primarily because of her race. While this is absolutely not the case, I would not expect an audience member to know what happened in auditions. And yes, in theatre productions, sometimes ethnicity matters, and sometimes it doesn’t—therefore it is incumbent upon theatre artists to make it crystal clear to the audience which pertains in any given production. I would hope that a number of other factors in our Midsummer might have made the colorblind nature of this show apparent—
a. Our cast is comprised of actors of various ethnicities, and our “colorblind” approach in terms of costume, demeanor, status, etc is meticulously maintained. These characters vary in status only due to their positions in society, not the color of their skin. In the one textual reference to ethnicity (the “Indian boy”), our young actor is not, to my knowledge, Indian (nor do I believe is he primarily Caucasian), but it is his costume that clearly indicates he is a character from India. All aspects of the production are in keeping with the ethnic nonspecificity of the production.
b. Re the comment of a “young woman of color (doing) the bidding of a white male Oberon,” I am disappointed that all other signs of their status and relationship seemed to have escaped notice in this review. Puck and Oberon are dressed identically; no status difference whatsoever can be determined by the costuming. Their demeanor is primarily that of playmates and co-conspirators. Oberon, as King of the Fairies, does utter commands sometimes, telling Puck to “fetch me that flower”—just as Titania, Queen of the Fairies, commands her coterie of fairies (who happen to be of a different ethnicity from Puck) to do her bidding. When Oberon commands Puck, it has the tone of an ally—Oberon is also at work here, not simply waiting to be served:
About the wood go swifter than the wind,
And Helena of Athens look thou find:

By some illusion see thou bring her here:
I'll charm his eyes against she do appear.
c. The forms of address Shakespeare has given us between Puck and Oberon are only ones of collegiality and warmth: “gentle Puck”, “sweet Puck”, “Welcome, wanderer”, and on and on. There is no dominance, except that accorded Oberon as King of the Fairies.
d. Puck has higher powers than the other fairies, and commands them to do her bidding. Ethnicity does not pertain in terms of fairy powers, in our production—in fact, Puck’s powers are in many ways greater than those of Oberon; he relies upon her to do those things he cannot.
e. Puck’s character is that of the Trickster—as old a character as human civilization. Ancient folk tales from many cultures revel in a trickster archetype who is a powerful, godlike entity, but wonderfully bent on upsetting order and puncturing pomposity. Shakespeare’s Puck is a master of the art—famous in the fairy world for epic pranks: admired, loved and a bit feared by all.
f. The comparison between Caliban and Puck is extremely tenuous in this context. Caliban is maligned as a beast; Puck revered, admired and loved for cleverness, potency, and charm. A clearer correlation might be between Puck and Ariel, who works for Prospero in effecting his plans—but Ariel owes Prospero his life, and earns his freedom by doing tasks. That dynamic of obligation is entirely missing from the Puck/Oberon relationship. The structure of the fairy world in the Midsummer text is drawn from Elizabethan royal society; a monarch may command a subject, but it is an honor and a mark of respect to be so commanded, never a belittlement.
g. I believe that at least some of the vehemence in responses to this review stem from the undeniable capability and charisma of our actor. Raven Lorraine Wilkes is a wonder of discipline, intelligence, talent, training, energy and joyous ebullience. When Raven left the room after her audition, I turned to my colleagues and said, “Well, Puck is cast.” Although I had never met her or seen her perform before she came to auditions, there was absolutely no question in my mind that, not only was she was meant to play this role, she also had the craft and control to be able to manifest a brilliant Puck in performance. I have seen many Pucks, and Raven’s is among the very best I have ever seen, anywhere. I am so proud and grateful that she is in this production. To have any comment about her casting construed as due to her ethnicity is stunningly heartbreaking for those of us who have had the privilege of working with her and watching her win over the audience, night after night.
5) I must address the final statement in the review. “Anything less than great” art is still art. I have seen a lot of art—performing and visual—that I would not deem great by my own standards, but that was nonetheless moving, challenging, transforming, inspiring, poignant, and utterly valuable, even when measured by a number of reasonably objective standards. I would encourage a critic—whose job I do not envy—to shout it from the rooftops when he or she deems a work of art great. However, I believe that any given standard of artistic “greatness” lives very much in the eye, ear, heart, and gut of the beholder. Most importantly, artists must experiment, investigate, venture, risk, and go for broke—or their art dies. I strongly caution against attempting to define a standard of artistic “greatness” if it involves denigration of anything deemed to be less than that as “not worth watching.” That statement, to me, is terrifying.

Jan Powell, Artistic Director
Henley Street Theatre / Richmond Shakespeare

9 likes, 4 dislikes
Posted by Jan Powell on 07/02/2014 at 11:37 AM

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