Hamlet: The Notes – our fourth involvement with the Hamlet story


This coming weekend the SJTC will present Hamlet: The Notes as part of the 2015-2016 Canadian Stages: Professional Presentation Series at the BMO Studio Theatre.

Purchase your Hamlet: The Notes tickets here

This marks the fourth time that the SJTC has offered this classic story to our audiences. In 1998, I directed the play at Imperial Theatre with the amazing Ben Stone (of Zuppa Theatre fame). It was that production that really allowed me to penetrate into the text and gain a deeper understanding of the narrative and the characters. Since then, I have continued to have a love-affair with the work which has made me gravitate towards it whenever the opportunity presented itself.

A number of years later, as part of the SJTC Shakespeare in the Park-inglot series, Sandra Bell directed a pared down, small cast version of the play which was hugely successful. Seeing the play stripped to the bones with a cast of less than 10, somehow made the story even more accessible.

Two years ago – pared down even further – we were thrilled to welcome Raoul Bhaneja as he performed Hamlet Solo, his one man version of the play in which he played every character. Watching him perform the work – on a bare stage – with no special costumes of props – was really quite amazing. His mastery of the language was impeccable. His ability to physically create multiple unique characters was inspired. You can’t help but admire both the clarity of Raoul’s performance and the clarity of Shakespeare’s text. I would highly recommend the show to anyone who gets the opportunity to see it.


Raoul Bhaneja as Hamlet in Hamlet Solo presented at the BMO Studio Theatre October 25th 2012

Well – here we are again with another take on the Classic story. John Fitzgerald Jay a colleague of mine for many years, has helped put together a unique version in which the actor plays the director and the audience plays the cast of Hamlet. The director leads us through the entire text in the form of giving rehearsal notes. It is an amazing concept and one that I felt we had to share with our audiences.


John Jay (left) as John Proctor – Stephen Tobias (third from left) as the Reverend Parris in the 1984 production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible

I’ve known John for some time and I sent him a note to get some insights about the play for him to share in advance of his coming here.

ST: Why theatre? How did you get started?

JJ: I’m in the theatre because I didn’t want to be a doctor. I was studying science at Dalhousie University and hated it. I accidentally got into a play in the summer after my first year of a BSc, and had a great experience, and when it came time to choose my second year science courses I decided to wander over to the theatre department and see what I needed to do to be an actor. I’m still trying to figure it out.

ST: How did you get from there to here? Training? Major career highlights?

JJ: After my studies I moved to London England and set about trying to be a professional. I got to watch some incredible theatre, and also some terrible work, I dug in and eventually started doing some terrible work myself. I guess I had a pretty lucky time really. I stayed for sixteen years and was fortunate enough to work all over the country and also at The Royal National Theatre, and in the West End.

I managed to wheedle my way into some classic English television shows along the way. I suppose sitting next to Arthur Miller as he quietly dozed through late afternoon rehearsals of his play After The Fall was special. A lovely wise man. Difficult play.

I recently went to Paris with my theatre company 404Strand (which is based in Pittsburgh). We created a beautiful theatre piece from a book of poetry by Michael Ondaatje called The Collected Works of Billy The Kid. We rehearsed in Paris and played at the legendary Theatre des Bouffes du Nord. Peter Brook the iconic theatre creator who established the Bouffes was there to welcome us and give us notes. And Michael came over to support us and see the work. I remember sitting in the little cafe in the front of the theatre with Michael Ondaatje and Peter Brook and thinking it probably doesn’t get any better then this. Pretty wonderful. Directors give notes. A lot. Mr Brook gave us beautiful kind notes mostly to do with the difficulties of playing in his amazing old theatre.

ST: Why Hamlet? Of all the great well-known works of Shakespeare and others, why invest this energy into a re-telling of the Hamlet story? What was the initial inspiration?

JJ: My colleague, Dan Jemmett is a brilliant director and Hamlet (the notes) was his idea. He marvelled at the special language we have in the theatre to communicate sometimes quite difficult ideas. And the tactics and trickery often employed by directors to get what they want from actors and technicians. He did a version in France called Macbeth (the notes) it was and is a big success. So we went to Pittsburgh last year to do a version of it in English. After two days of excellent work on it, we met for coffee one morning and Dan said “…..ah the hell with it, we should be doing Hamlet” and so we did that. This is one of the nice things about having your own theatre company, you can change plays whenever you like.

ST: Tell me a bit about the development process?

JJ: Dan and I are both obsessed with Hamlet, I already new all the texts for memory, we have talked about the play for years, and Dan had recently directed it in French at the Comedie Francaise. So we set about creating this theatre piece. In all our work together we improvise a ton. We are able to generate a lot of material in this way, Dan is great at coming up with imaginative scenarios to improvise and is also great at curating the material, all our work is made in this way. The key to our success I guess. We locked ourselves in a studio for three weeks and came up with what you will be seeing. We tested it in Pittsburgh as we usually do, and then made adjustments and had another rehearsal phase in Toronto.

ST: What has the response been to the show in other performances?

JJ: The show itself is largely improvised and is changing and evolving all the time. People seem to love it. There is something for everyone in it. It’s an interesting insight into how theatre is made. The madness. The frustration and the joy. Somehow it also manages to illuminate Shakespeare’s great play in small and interesting ways. It’s fun to perform, and I think pretty fun to watch.

ST: Is your character in the play based on any real-life directors you may have worked with? No need to name names.

JJ: Dan and I have referenced many many directors who we have worked with, versions of the play we have seen, notes we have been given, and problems we have faced in trying to make theatre. It’s all in there.

ST: Can you tell us about your links with Atlantic Canada?

JJ: I love coming back to the Maritimes to work. My family are all in Halifax, and it’s a chance to be around home for a bit and work with people I don’t often get to see. I’ve managed to do a few seasons at the Festival in Antigonish, and the occasional play at the Neptune. This will be my first time working in New Brunswick. I’m delighted. Other notable details Owned a bar (The Cobourg) Started and currently run a men’s fashion accessories business. (Hook and Furl) Curated my neighbourhood’s entry for The Nuit Blanche art show for two years commissioning dozens of new contemporary art installations. Started 404Strand Theatre co in Pittsburgh about ten years ago with Dan Jemmett.


John Fitzgerald Jay in Hamlet: The Notes

We are all very excited to see Hamlet: the Notes when it plays at the BMO Studio Theatre this coming week. It should be of great interest to lovers of theatre and students of theatre.

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Why produce An Enemy of the People?

Why Ibsen? Why now?


I have been asked a lot lately why I would have so much interest in producing a 19th century Ibsen play for audiences in 21st century New Brunswick – and that’s an amazing question worthy of an answer.

At first glance – in a theatre eco-system that rewards popular fare – I can see that it might seems odd to produce such a work. At first glance. But I’ll invite you to look again. There are many reasons why such a work interests me.

1. The Classics rock. When i first started work in theatre, I was often encouraged to avoid the classics because “they are hard”. Absolutely 100% untrue. Classics become “classics” because they have a tremendous impact. They have resonance. They move an audience. They have a narrative that is somehow compelling and has a universal appeal. In my opinion that makes them quite easy to produce. I’d work with world class material any day rather than a flawed popular work.

I remember a number of years ago being challenged for wishing to produce GB Shaw’s Arms and the Man. “Shaw is boring”……”no one will come”….”people won’t get the humor”. I heard it all. the same season we also produced the ever popular Noises Off. While Noises Off was clearly a hit…..Arms and the Man sales were within 10 tickets. So much for the lack of appeal of classic works.

2. Sometimes I want to produce work for people who like theatre. Doesn’t everyone like theatre? No. No they don’t. When we produce a play like Annie, we will set box office records because the theatre will be filled with people who may only see one or two plays that year. They aren’t ‘theatre lovers’ they are ‘Annie lovers’. However, when we produce a work such as Death of a Salesman, or The Crucible, or Venus in Fur, we are attracting a more discerning group that have a base of knowledge about theatre and are coming to the show prepared to experience something special.

I admit: it would be easier in many ways to annually produce a season that looked like a summer stock season. The light musical….the Norm Foster…..the Agatha Christie or Neil Simon. Nice polite safe theatre designed for people who don’t really enjoy theatre but are looking for a diversion. Sales would be respectable. Audiences would be politely appreciative. BUT it would be deathly boring and creatively unsatisfactory. Our organization has always thrived in challenges and creative risk taking, and this kind of vanilla programming would spell the death of creativity.

3. I had the opportunity to see another adaptation of this play which was produced in Toronto last fall. At that time, New Brunswick was in the grip of an election campaign where responsible resource development was a topic on everyone’s mind. As I watched Ibsen’s story of Dr. Stockmann who becomes whistle blower about industrial contamination of the local water supply, I couldn’t help but make the connection: conversations just like this happening in this play were happening all over New Brunswick at that very moment. At that point I knew we had to do it. The subject matter of this play is of vital interest to New Brunswickers and we hope that out production will inspire significant debate and discussion among those who see it.

As we are preparing for an early round of auditions, I am getting even more excited at the prospect of working on Enemy of the People. We have been fortunate enough to have piqued the interest of Richard Rose, who is slated to direct. We are working with the award winning German playwright, Maria Milisavljevic has been engaged to create a new efficient modernized adaptation that is specifically set in Canada. Much of the adaptive work will not begin until after the auditions so that we can tailor the script to the talent we have available. At this time we have not even fully established the gender of the cast so that we are open to any and all configurations of casting. It’s an exciting process that I have never before been through and I love the challenge.

Another important aspect of this production that I’m proud of  is our commitment to engaging New Brunswick based professional talent. Quite simply, there isn’t enough work here for our artists, and we are now committed to creating working opportunities whenever possible. We have hosted workshops and master-classes in the past but there simply is no developmental substitute for getting the artists in front of an audience. If we are not creating real production opportunities for NB based theatre artists – we are failing in our responsibilities to our community. To help develop our theatre artists, we created the Fundy Fringe fest and made a guarantee that 1/2 of the artists would be from Southern NB. We have made a strong commitment to presenting works created by NB artists as part of our Professional Presentation series at our BMO Studio theatre. We also plan to engage NB resident artists whenever possible. Last season the SJTC facilitated the professional engagement of over 130 artists and I hope to grow that number this year with projects such as Enemy of the People.

In the next couple of weeks Richard Rose will come to SJ and we will host the auditions. Then the real work begins. Until then – a little bit of nail biting.

Stay tuned

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One week of performances


Here’s a shot of me as Mark Rothko in #RedSJTC #RedTNB – March 20 – 22 at Imperial Theatre in Saint John & 27-29 at The Fredericton Playhouse (photo: Matt Carter)


Well – I had hoped to make some posts earlier than this but the process has been so intense that the whirlwind of activity has made it almost impossible to get my head screwed on straight enough to string words together….unless they happened to be written in John Logan’s script for RED.

I still want to get into some thoughts about the process of emotion on stage – and humour – and several other issues that crossed my mind during the rehearsal process…but for now…with two performances on-line for today…I think I only have the bandwidth to share some observations from the last week or so. After today – I have two days off from the show. I hope to find the time to offer some more in-depth observations.

Some of these thoughts will be old-hat to practiced theatre-makers – but for those less proficient, I hope they have some resonance

1) Two-Handers are an surprisingly solitary process. One would think that there would be a real buddy-mentality that would set in, but that has not been my experience. This is the fourth two-person play that I have been in (Mass Appeal – Oleanna – The Guys – and now Red). There is little of the comradery or activity of a larger production. Not a lot of post-rehearsal drinks and laughs. The process is intense. The rehearsals are relentless. The homework required is overwhelming at times. Unlike larger shows, the requirement of being on-stage the entire time also means that one is rehearsing the entire time. After an 8 hour rehearsal of this kind I find that I am exhausted mentally and emotionally. After one particular day of rehearsal that involved two full run-throughs – plus a lot of working notes – I found that I spent the entire evening constantly on the verge of tears. Look at my kids – get misty eyed…a sad scene on tv – reach for the kleenex…..cello music – forget about it.

Even now that we are in the theatre and have gone through several performances, I’m still amazed at how quiet it is. There is almost no activity back-stage. I never see Caleb (who plays Ken) until he walks on-stage for our first meeting in the play. After curtain call – it takes me so long to get all the paint off me that I am usually the last one out of the theatre – so I have no contact with the company at that point either.

None of this is a complaint. The process is what it is. I am just observing.

2) There is no substitute for homework and knowing the text cold: Early in my work as a younger actor, I had a director rant at me saying, “I cannot rehearse this fucking play until you learn your fucking lines”. It’s very true. There is a lot that can be accomplished – perhaps some staging and table discussion…. But the real work of bringing a play to life cannot begin until the ‘text’ is a given. I have directed and worked with actors who seem incapable of learning lines until the last minute. First – they seem to have no concept of the growth potential that they lose out on by not having more rehearsals that are free of text issues. Second – it is incredibly selfish to hold the rest of the cast hostage to your shortcomings. The other actors need something concrete to respond to in order to facilitate their growth. They don’t have too much to work with if what they are looking at is an actor struggling to recall his lines.

Luckily – that was not in any way an issue with this current production. One of the reasons rehearsals could be so intensive was that the text was fairly secure from day 1.

3) Standing alone on a stage at the opening of a long tech rehearsal takes balls. I deal with many young actors who want the title roles. they want to be ‘the guy’ on stage. It’s not as easy as it looks. I’ve learned over the years that it takes a lot more than talent to carry a show. I have known untalented actors who could carry a show and I’ve known talented ones who couldn’t. It hits home for me at those times when – alone on stage – I realize that everyone is looking to me….expecting me to hit my mark…to remember countless adjustments being offered on the fly….to take it all in without question or comment. Playing a role in a play like this is a huge responsibility. It isn’t about the fun of it. It is about mastering a huge challenge. It takes just the right amount of ego to feel confident in mastering that challenge – yet feeling humble enough to submit willingly to the process and submit to the script, the director, the other actors, the designers and crew. It’s a fine balancing act. It also requires a certain leadership. Not the kind of leadership that involves telling others what to do. Rather it is the kind of leadership that involves being prepared and setting a tone.

4) For me: of all the skills – maintaining focus is the most important and the most challenging: A show like this requires 100% intense focus from curtain to curtain. For 90 minutes there are absolutely no breaks – not one opportunity to stop for breath. Even the scene changes are extremely choreographed ballets in which I need to complete several steps and am literally just hitting my mark as the next scene begins. Over the years I have noted that those times when actors get lost on stage – forgetting a line or missing an entrance or key piece of business – it isn’t that they have “forgotten”. It is that they lost focus. Some nagging thought crept in and for a split second they are not on stage in the moment. They are re-living a moment from earlier in the day. They are considering some other aspect of the production. They are wondering what that noise was back-stage – or questioning an audience response or lack of response. 

I will admit – even in this production – there have been brief (and terrifying moments) when I have realized that my mind is elsewhere on stage. Or more specifically – my mind is not 100% focused on what is happening between me and Ken at that specific moment. I have caught myself wondering briefly about an upcoming costume change…or questioning the placement of a prop that I need to use shortly. The feeling is almost one of ‘waking up’ on stage. I am momentarily lost in a random thought and then – with a start – I have this feeling of “holy shit –  what is happening? have I missed something?” It has never led to a problem as (fortunately) the mind can move at lightning speed in such circumstances and my lapse of attention may have only been for a fraction of a second. However – I will say it again – maintaining absolute 100% focus – being 100% in the moment – is the most challenging aspect of what I have to do in this production.

5) the best on-stage experiences are like jazz – it’s all improv within a strict structure: I recall being told that good acting is just talking and listening. Sounds simple – but it takes a lot of time and homework to get to that point. The biggest leap that I have watched young actors make is when they realize that acting is not about what they see themselves as doing. It is about paying close attention to what the others are doing on-stage and reacting honestly to that. Since what everyone else is doing will vary slightly from evening to evening – the responses will also vary slightly from evening to evening. The moments on-stage that I enjoy the most are those times when all the homework is secure…all the text is rock solid…every word and movement is connected to a specific thought and reaction. These are the times when I can just sit back into it and listen….and respond. No thought of what came before. No thought of what is to come. Everything happens within the framework of the script, the blocking, the interpretations set out by the director – but it is fresh and brand new every time……like good jazz.

6) I’m running out of time and need to go review my script for the upcoming matinee so here are a few specific and quick ones:

     -Getting paint in your eye on stage is a pain in the ass

     -Buttoning a shirt and putting on a belt – in the dark – in a hurry – is a very very difficult thing to do

     -As a practical point – eating rice on stage  is terrifying. Every night I have a split-second image of myself lying on-stage choking     and turning blue in front of several hundred people

     -Audiences laugh at the strangest things and it is extremely difficult to predict what they will find amusing – particularly in an intense production

     -No one will give you an honest opinion in a theatre-lobby – but post-show social media can be the most uplifting or the most depressing

     -No matter what people say about you after the show. No matter how much your ego swells….there is nothing quite like being left the job of plunging the toliet in the morning to bring one back down to earth. Being left with laundry to fold also is helpful on this point.


OK – now off the review my script before the matinee.

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Distractions – One week out


Production poster for the Saint John portion of the production schedule

So – one week from today we have the preview performance of RED. I’m extremely impressed at how smoothly the process has run up until now. Tomorrow we will run the play twice with notes and it feels like we are ready to be doing that.

It occurs to me right about now that I am envious of those who work on projects and only have to consider their personal work on that project. I have really never had that luxury. As the Executive Director of the SJTC, I am responsible for all aspects of the company activities. Practically speaking: that means that I am constantly being pulled in multiple directions. I have, over the years, learned to focus on rehearsal while there. While in the rehearsal hall I am 100% there in the moment – which is the way it needs to be. However – every coffee break…every lunch break…..I’m answering staff questions, dealing with marketing and production issues for RED and three other projects that are currently in development, dealing with e-mails, proofing programs and various print materials, fund-raising issues, next season planning, etc etc. In fairness: I sense the same multi-tasking issues pulling at our production director, Caleb Marshall, as he is the Artistic Producer of his company, TNB. He, too, seems to have mastered the skill of putting that all aside while in the rehearsal hall.  Anyone who thinks that is easy….please think again.

I bring all this up, I guess, to illustrate my envy at those who have the luxury of simply learning their lines, doing their homework, and showing up for rehearsal. How stress-free that would feel by comparison. I hope to have that experience again someday. The last time I had such an experience was playing the role of Lloyd in a KV Players production of Noises Off – over 20 years ago.

That being said – I am having a blast. The rehearsals are hard and exhausting…….mentally exhausting….and emotionally draining. But the experience is well worth it.

Tomorrow – if I have any head space for it after two run-throughs – I’d like to chat about emotion on-stage. There are a couple of fairly deep dark personal moments for me in this production and it has given me reason to think quite a bit about how my emotional life on-stage has changed over the years. However – for now – I have e-mails to answer and more homework to do in order to be ready for tomorrow.

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One week of Red rehearsals

So – as promised – here is a bit of an update on how things have been going for me.

To recap – I am playing the role of Mark Rothko in a production of RED by John Logan. Getting here has been a roughly two-year process that I recounted in a previous blog post. the play is a co-production between Theatre New Brunswick and the Saint John Theatre Company. It is the first such partnership between the two larger English Language theatre companies in our province and it has been a long time coming. The Production Director is Caleb Marshall (Artistic Producer of TNB) and I (playing Rothko) am the Executive Director of the SJTC.

So – how is it going?

In one word – it’s really tough. Yes – that’s more than one word – but one word can’t really describe the process for those who haven’t been through it.

I had promised that I wouldn’t get into making too many comments about the team or what may transpire in rehearsals beyond my own personal impressions. I really didn’t want to get into anything that would resemble rehearsal gossip or leave any negative impressions. Yes – I have had moments of frustration – but that frustration has been with me and my grasp of the material. I’ve been down this road before and that is a normal part of the process for me. Progress is not measured in a steady upward slope. It is a bit of a jagged graph full of ups and downs yet constantly edging upwards (hopefully) I’ve learned to embrace personal frustration as it tends to come shortly before breakthroughs.

However – in spite of my promise not to – I will make a couple of observations about the team. General impression – simply put: everyone on the team is really good. Caleb Cosman – who is playing Ken is a formidable actor and I feel a lot of pressure to keep up with him. His daily progress is amazing and it is motivating me to keep pushing hard into the text to continue to work for discoveries and nuances. It also forces me to contend with a huge amount of new information every rehearsal as he continues to bring in new things for me to react to.  Caleb Marshall, the director, is every bit as good as I had expected him to be. Very subtle and unintrusive – yet very keen in his insights. He is extremely helpful and is clearly and ‘actor’s director’. I’m glad to be working with both of our Caleb’s on this project. I’m also really impressed with the design and production teams.   All – in all everyone has been a joy to work with.

But back to the rehearsals.

I am very glad that I had put in the extra time in advance of rehearsals starting. the process is fast and intense. If I didn’t arrive feeling very on top of the material – I’d be lost and would find myself unable to catch up. Homework is never wasted.

After five rehearsals we were able to run the entire play off-book and fully staged. While that feels like an accomplishment to me – I can’t imagine that we would be able to take any longer to get to that point.

I have made some major discoveries in rehearsal. In spite of the intense amount of work I had done with the script leading up to the first reading – there is nothing that compares to standing alongside a flesh-and-blood ‘Ken’ as opposed to the imaginary ken that I was rehearsing with for several weeks. His approach has forced me to re-think a number of moments. Without giving too much away – I was able to fully re-conceive the end of scene 2 creating an entirely new approach from what I had considered in advance of rehearsals.
Creation is an exciting process.

Tomorrow – we have a visual artists coming in to offer guidance and coaching on the scene 3  painting sequence. The idea of actually laying into some serious painting live on-stage is kind of exciting. It’s the kind of physical action that one rarely gets a chance to do on-stage.

My biggest concern at this point: my voice. The play runs roughly 90 minutes and I likely have around 60 minutes of the text. I’ve had a day off so I’m feeling fine – but I could feel the strain after a few days of rehearsals. I’m making sure to do good warm-ups in the morning. I’m also working to find more nuances for the scenes of conflict. Continually raising my voice in anger will become boring to listen to for the audience. It’s up to me to find vocal variety (the 3 P’s – Pitch Pace Power – as my vocal coach used to drill into me). Finding more vocal variety will not only make things more interesting to listen to – but it will reduce any potential vocal strain

Week 2 looms ahead and we will be getting into much more detailed work on the story. I’m looking forward to another inspiring week.

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First Day

Short but sweet:

If ever there comes a time when I feel comfortable at this moment…..a time when I’m not wondering if I have done enough homework…..if I am ready…If I’ll be able to keep up……. If that day ever comes and that anxiety isn’t there – it will be time for me to quit.

First reading for RED begins within the hour. By end of day today the expectation will be past and the process will begin.


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Homework for Red…always homework for Red

Well Blog Buddies – the first rehearsals are fast approaching and I’m starting to feel the crunch. In spite of working on this script for some months – I still feel like I have piles of work to do before the first read.

I feel like the lines are coming along and will be well in hand before starting rehearsals. But that can be risky. I often caution younger actors not to worry too much about learning lines too early. There is always a concern that they will become trapped into line readings that become entrenched hindering the give-and-take required to bring a script to life. However – in this particular rehearsal process – we will have only slightly longer than two weeks to get the show together. The challenge for me will be to be fully comfortable with the text – while still maintaining the openness to listen and respond. I do this – and here is the hard part – not by learning the lines, but by learning the thoughts that flow beneath the lines.

Text – to me – is a symptom of thought. Only by penetrating beneath the text and making informed personal judgements about the thoughts and connections that lead to the actual words, am I able to incorporate the text and deliver it by rote. Usually – if I can’t recall a line – it is usually because I have not fully conceived of the thoughts that flow behind that line.

In a work of complete fiction – it can requires substantial imagination and acrobatic leaps of faith to reconcile my personal experiences with the given circumstances of a story. In Red – however – there are a great many details about actual people, places, things and events. So – beyond the lines and the motivations – and the subtext – and moments before – beyond all of that: is a lot of basic homework to gain an understanding of the historical facts of the material.

I’ve said before that research is one of the aspects of producing, directing, or acting that I enjoy the most. I love doing homework on a new period in history. John Logan’s Red is chock full of references to artists, artworks, and places – many of which I had never heard of before reading the play. That is now changing. At this point I have read several books about Rothko and about art history in general. I’ve watched numerous documentaries. I’ve looked up countless references.

Red is – among other things – a mentor/student story. In the play, Rothko spends considerable time schooling his assistant Ken an various aspects of art and art history. As result of this constant tutelage within the text: exploring the play – for me – has also meant exploring a number of  artworks – some of which I never knew existed. There are five major works that are discussed at some length in the production of red. I would like to share a few thoughts on them.


Some of Rothko’s Seagram Murals at the Tate Modern in London


The Seagram’s Murals: The process of executing the commission of these works for the Four Seasons Restaurant shapes the central narrative of the play. Rothko engages a new assistant, Ken, to help him with the grunt work of creating as many as thirty or forty large canvases for the series of murals. These murals were commissioned by architect Philip Johnson for the restaurant that was to be in the new Seagram Building on Park Avenue. Historically – Rothko received the commission, which was one of the largest modern commissions ever. Then – after completing the murals – he refused to deliver the paintings and returned the money. There has been much written and discussed as to why he changed hi mind, but no definitive version of events seems to exist. Rothko’s journey  from celebration to disillusionment is – for me – a central through-line of the play.

As I have previously written, I was in London when I randomly purchased this script two years ago. Had I read it during the trip I would have had the chance to some of the Seagram Murals first hand. Seeing these – and the other artworks discussed in the play – has now become a bucket-list item for me.


The Santa Maria Del Popolo in Rome

The Conversion of Saul: One of the first major references discussed is in a story that Rothko tells about visiting The Santa Maria del Popolo which is the home of Caravaggio’s ‘Conversion of Saul’

This discussion is in the context of Rothko explaining his aversion to painting outdoors because “the light’s no good” . He defends this ideal by explaining the ‘inner luminosity” that


Caravaggio’s Conversion of Saul

Caravaggio achieved in his painting. “…the painting glowed. With a sort of a rapture it glowed.” This – in spite of the fact that the painting was created for a  dark corner of a dark church with no natural light.

It offers an interesting insight into the artistic aesthetic of Rothko  who created powerful, multi-layered images that seem to glow and pulsate and move on the canvas.

I find it interesting also as Rothko’s telling of the story has a lot of humour imbedded within it. This was a bit of a clue to me in terms of Rothko’s journey through the play. This story comes fairly early on and while the tone of Caravaggio’s artwork is dark – the telling of the story is one of the lighter moments in the story. Michael Shurtleff (again Shurtleff…I know) would often lament about American ‘method’ actors having a complete lack of humour in their approach to the work and would often miss entire aspects of a performance because they would allow their character no sense of humour. This would, in his opinion and in mine, reduce the the sense of truth and humanity presented on stage. In my reading of John Logan’s Red – I find a great deal of humour in Rothko – particularly in the early scenes.


The Red Studio by Matisse

The Red Studio by Matisse: at another point in the story, Rothko tries to give his assistant Ken an insight into what drives him. He starts the story by discussing in detail his visceral reaction to seeing Matisse’s painting: The Red Studio. Rothko describes an early incident in his career of seeing the picture at the  Modern when it was first installed. “…it swallowed me…” ” Such plains of red he made. Such energetic blocks of color. Such emotion” “…everything I do you could trace the bloodlines back to that painting…”

The point of the story, however, is one that compares his youthful enthusiasm with his current mid-life obsession with mortality.  The story illustrates a major theme in the Rothko of John Logan’s play: the conflict between the Red and the Black – Emotion and Intellect – Life and Death.




Belshazzar’s Feast by Rembrandt

Belshazzar’s Feast by Rembrandt:

In a further  – and slightly darker – discussion on the concept of “Black” Rothko gives a brief description of the painting as a way of explaining a hostile reaction to his assistants “adolescent” views on art. Rothko describes the painting and then translates the Hebrew words “You have been weighed in the balance, and been found wanting”. This message is in the form of a warning from God, via an angel, to a blaspheming Belshazzar.

To me – the reference speaks to a growing sense of dread within Rothko at this particular point in the play. The Seagram’s Murals have been ongoing for some time and the process is very slow. Rothko speaks often in the play of mid-life angst. Specifically that he may be slowing down or losing his edge. (“as you get older, the palette fades and we race to catch it before it is gone”) To me – the discussion of the painting in the context of this particular moment in the play is a confession of a deep seated fear on Rothko’s part….an insecurity that is very related to the project at hand.

Having read up on it, I see that this is a fairly large canvas (roughly 6 ft x 7 ft). I have seen larger works of Rembrandt in the past but never this one. I certainly hope to see this picture some time soon.


the staircase at the Medici Library in Florence

The Staircase in the Medici Library in Florence: Another place that I have never been to and hope to visit soon. Rothko describes for Ken how he was inspired to create the images for the Seagram Murals by relating his experience of visiting Michelangelo’s architectural marvel. He describes the staircase as being a “…tiny vestibule. Like a vault it’s so cramped.” I had seen images of this staircase before but I never equated the image with Rothko’s description in the play. Once I started to research the reference I quickly recognized this famous staircase from having previously read about Michelangelo.

In the play, Rothko tells of how the false rectangular doors and windows inspired him as they “…make the viewer feel he is trapped in a room where all the doors and windows are bricked up…” This sense of claustrophobia led to his conceiving the rectangular panels of the Seagram’s Murals

Technically called The Laurentian Library it was commissioned in 1523 and work continued until it’s opening in 1871. According to my reading, it is considered to be one of Michelangelo’s most important architectural achievements. The photos show this to be an amazing feat of design, engineering and construction. I can’t wait to visit this place and see it for myself.

Next up I’d like to share some of my impressions of the many artists that are discussed in John Logan’s Red. I’m getting very pumped to begin rehearsals. Hard to believe – after all this time – we are less than three weeks away from beginning.







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