Titanic Signature Theatre
Photo: Courtesy of Signature Theatre

TITANIC: The Musical at Signature Theatre

Known for taking grandiose musicals and reinventing them to fit within the walls of a black box theater, Signature Theatre Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer climbs aboard the unsinkable ship and steers it straight for Arlington. As the captain of the S.S. Signature Theatre, Schaeffer has quite a production to create, not only because of its familiarity, but because of the expectations that accompany a musical of such grandeur. As a matter of fact, Schaeffer and Signature’s production team designed the set to ensure it would fit their space and vision before deciding to produce the musical.

Despite popular belief, Titanic: The Musical is not based off of the film starring heartthrob Leo DiCaprio and should-be wife Kate Winslet (I’m obviously still bitter about this), despite both premiering in 1997. But that doesn’t make Titanic: The Musical any less daunting to produce.

When asked why Signature Theatre chose to tackle Titanic, Schaeffer replied, “It’s a show I’ve always loved. It’s underproduced. Titanic has the best opening number in the history of musical theatre.”

With a cast and crew comprised of over 50 members, it’s easy for one to feel overwhelmed.

“Sometimes I ask myself how I’m going to do this,” Schaeffer added. “But theatre is about collaboration, and everyone here is ready to make this show happen.”

When people think of big musicals, most imagine them taking place on a proscenium stage in a theater that seats thousands. As if Signature Theatre wasn’t making a big enough statement by producing this musical to begin with, the way they’re staging it makes an entirely new statement in and of itself.

Upon walking into the theater, which is a traditional black box but will be set as a theater in the round (meaning audience members will be sitting on all sides of the stage while the action takes place in the center), you can expect to see a set that’s built vertically instead of horizontally. There will not be a ship onstage, and said ship will not sink, but instead you will feel as if you’re inside of the ship itself. Actors will be exhibiting multistory blocking, including utilizing the catwalk as part of the stage, which is typically reserved for crew members to work and not be seen.

“Audiences will have an experience hopefully like none other. It’s not all bells and whistles. It’s an unexpected emotional connection to the show. What you’ll have as an audience member is a night of intimate theatre. You’ll be, at most, seven rows back from the stage, so you’re in the world of it. Who else in their right mind is doing Titanic in a small black box, not to mention in the round?”

Though Schaeffer never claimed to be in his right mind (what creative is?), he did claim to be ambitious, and this show is just that.

Apart from the spectacle of it all, Titanic: The Musical is also comprised of a wonderful cast of actors portraying both fictional and historical characters alike.

Captain Edward John Smith, played by Christopher Bloch, and Frederick Barrett, played by Sam Ludwig, are just two of many historical figures associated with the infamous 1912 sinking of the unsinkable ship.

Bloch, who has been an important figure in DC theatre for the past 15 years, said he associates himself with Captain Smith because of their similarity in age (early 60s) and their mutual affinity for sailing and operating big ships. His initial connection with the captain lead him to purchase Smith’s biography in an effort to learn to play the role more authentically, noting that he’s even dabbling with various dialects to accompany his portrayal.

“When creating a character, you have to find something that makes sense within the context of the story, even if they don’t seem to make sense,” Bloch said. “Are they illogical? A villain? Why do they do what they do? Find the truth for your character. The words give you that information.”

Ludwig, who plays the lead stoker in the boiling room (Barrett is the first to notice the iceberg’s impact on the ship), is reprising his role after playing the character at 19.

“I love playing roles I’ve done before, because you have a baseline understanding of your character,” he said. “I can think more holistically and be as natural as possible.”

If you’re a fan of engaging, ambitious theatre, Titanic: The Musical is not to be missed. With a lush score and a thrilling set, you’re sure to be transported back in time. Titanic opens December 13 and runs through January 29. Tickets are $40-$79. Check Signature Theatre’s website for  details about specialty nights and discounts.

Signature Theatre: 4200 Campbell Ave. Arlington, VA; 703-820-9771; www.sigtheatre.org

Moby Dick Arena Stage
Photo: Courtesy of Arena Stage

A Physical Telling of ‘Moby Dick’

Arena Stage is at it again bringing larger than life theatre right to DC, and this time, it’s sure to make a whale of a splash. Arena’s interpretation of the Melville classic is cranking waves with its innovative spin, and it’s sure to be a show you don’t want to miss. Partnering with the Actor’s Gymnasium in Chicago, Arena audiences will be transfixed by aerial stunts and storytelling, as well as journeying with Ishmael in the obsessive quest to battle the infamous great white whale. All hands on deck The Pequod as Moby Dick prepares to dock at Arena Stage on November 18.

On Tap got to chat with Chicago’s Jamie Abelson (Ishmael), who’s making his Arena Stage debut, for the inside scoop on all things Moby Dick.

On Tap: You’re making your Arena Stage debut as Ishmael, but this isn’t your first time playing this character. What are you planning to do differently this time around?
Jamie Abelson:
I wouldn’t say that I’m planning on doing anything differently, but I hope that performing in new theatres in different cities with a few new cast members and script changes can bring fresh ideas and images out in my performance.  While I think that we do a great job of weaving the narration into the action of the story, I am in charge of imparting a lot of information to the audience.  My hope is that while forwarding the plot I can also activate the audience’s imagination and create a personalized window through which they can relate the story to some time in their own lives.

OT: Tell me a little bit about Moby Dick and why DC audiences will want to come see it.
JA:
The story of Moby Dick is wonderful and as relevant as ever – especially in a city like DC where passionate people come from all over to test their ambitions against the best and the brightest.  I’m biased of course, but I think our production is spellbinding and unique.  For the most part, the show is true to the book and tells the story as simply as possible.  But when events require a leap of imagination, we help the audience make that leap with physical daring and innovative imagery.

OT: Arena Stage collaborated with the Actor’s Gym in Chicago for aerial stunt and stage combat training. Prior to this show, did you have much experience with these art forms?
JA:
I have always gravitated towards theatre that is driven by physical storytelling.  Maybe this is because I grew up competing as a gymnast, or maybe movement is just the way my imagination is activated.  In preparation for this show, I did take a few circus, aerial classes at the Actors Gymnasium in Chicago to build strength and to experiment with my skills.  Our cast is made up of performers with all different sorts of training and experience.

OT: How did you feel going into this? Were you nervous at all?
JA:
For better or worse, I’m pretty comfortable being high up in the air and taking calculated risks with my body.  However, as we have developed the show, I have thought more and more about safety and how to make sure that I’m not taking any unnecessary risks.  I have immense trust for all of my cast mates, and if we are all focused and communicating, there’s nothing to worry about.  The challenge is to maintain that focus day in and day out for a long tour.

OT: In what way are you hoping audiences feel after seeing Moby Dick?
JA: Invigorated, pensive, nostalgic, and transfixed.  There are so many possible messages to take away from this story.  For Ishmael, this is a story about a man driven to go on a daring adventure by an overwhelming sense of loneliness, isolation, and frustration with the shallow world surrounding him.  On his journey, he finds friendship, purpose, community and passion – enough for a lifetime. He may lose it all, but I hope audiences leave feeling like it was all worth it. The true tragedy would have been if he had never walked away from his desk to explore the world. Better to have loved and lost, than to die wondering what could have been.

OT: In your time off, will you have much time to explore? What are you looking forward to exploring most in DC?
JA:
Once we get the show open, we can’t wait to explore the city.  We have heard a rumor about the world’s largest whalebone collection, run by the Smithsonian somewhere in Virginia.  We’re trying to get in for a special tour.

Moby Dick is currently playing at Arena Stage and will continue its run through December 24. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit www.arenastage.org.

Arena Stage Carousel
Photo: Courtesy of Arena Stage

Arena Stage Brings Musical ‘Carousel’ to Theatre

Arena Stage is notorious for producing passionate, exuberant, and profound pieces of theatre, and their upcoming production of Carousel is no exception. Named the Best Musical of the 20th Century by Time Magazine, Carousel is sure to swing its way from the stage right into your heart. With an all-star cast comprised of Arena Stage veterans and newcomers alike, this love story is sure to hit you right in the feels.

On Tap had the chance to chat with leading man himself, Nicholas Rodriguez (Billy Bigelow) to chat about Carousel, how it’s been playing his dream role, and the best piece of advice he’s ever received in regards to acting.

On Tap: What made you get involved in acting?
Nicholas Rodriguez: It’s funny actually. I grew up playing sports (my dad was a football coach), but it wasn’t really my thing. I needed to find a before-school activity, and it was either football or the school choir, so I chose choir. That lead me to pursuing school musicals.

OT: Being from Texas, do you get typecast? Should actors break from this mold or embrace their type?
NR
: I’m from mixed-race heritage, so I fall into many types. I tend to play the leading man roles. I think it’s important to know your type and own it, but try to break out from it from time to time.

OT: Tell me a bit about the character you’re playing in Carousel, Billy Bigelow.
NR
: Billy, in a nutshell, is a bad boy. He’s a charmer, a performer, he’s lived a difficult life and makes bad choices. He does awful things – no spoilers!

OT: And your approach to playing this character is…?
NR:
Well, he doesn’t see himself as being bad, so I can’t judge him. As actors, we want to be liked and clapped for [laughs] so you have to separate your personal desires with the intentions of the character.

OT: Why should audiences come see this musical? What sets this production apart from other productions of the same show?
NR:
It’s a classic musical with gorgeous music and with themes like redemption, hope, perseverance, and love. It’s about what we deal with now. As far as what’s different? It has a diverse, multiethnic cast, but we’re not making it a plot point. It just is what it is. Also, the orchestra is onstage the entire time.

OT: What’s been a highlight of rehearsing for Carousel?
NR:
One is working with the team. I’m blessed to be working with everyone. There is trust onstage. Safety. Also, Billy Bigelow is my dream role. I’ve been wanting to play him for twenty years. The idea of performing as Billy in Carousel on the Arena Stage is a dream.

OT: Lastly, what’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given in regards to the craft and business of acting?
Rodriguez:
My voice professor told me, “You don’t know what you don’t know,” meaning it’s okay to not know something and to ask questions. It keeps you grounded. Another thing I’ve learned since acting professionally is that it takes the time it takes. We’re running a marathon, and we’re defining our own success.

Carousel runs from October 28-December 24 at Arena Stage. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit www.arenastage.org.

Henry Rollins
Photo by: Heidi May

A Conversation with Henry Rollins

Where do you even begin a conversation with Henry Rollins? You hear about people, especially artists and entertainers, wearing multiple hats; but this guy changes hats on an almost daily basis. He’s a screen and voice actor, a fervent writer, a radio broadcaster, a television show host, a publisher, a “spoken word” performer who sells out shows around the world, a documentarian and a globe-trotting explorer. And that’s just what he’s done this year.

Rollins, who grew up as Henry Garfield in the Wisconsin Avenue wilds of Glover Park, started growing his hat collection after joining the short-lived, simmering harDCore punk band State of Alert. From there, he launched into the national consciousness—as the lead singer of the L.A. hardcore punk band Black Flag. He would go on to form and front his own avant-edge punk band the Rollins Band, perform at the first Lollapalooza, win a GRAMMY for his audiobook Get In The Van!, become Monday night football friends with William Shatner, all while touring the world as much as possible.

While on the road in the 1980s, Rollins began writing to pass the time and to record what he experienced in the underground punk world.  As he wrote, he started to form his words into a spoken word routine, something akin to stand-up comedy, but with more story and righteous anger. Now his world-famous “talking shows” are an opportunity for Rollins to share his perspective on the world with interested parties. It’s something like storytelling mixed with surgical criticism, heartfelt examinations of the best—and worst—of human nature, with a little comedy to spice the mix.

And that is what brings Rollins back home to DC next week on November 8 to the Lincoln Theater. His 2016-2017 spoken word tour will reach a new fever pitch on election night, and will be a nice change of pace for the usual election night mix of anxiety, blues and aspirin.

On Tap caught up with Rollins by email to talk about the show, his feelings on international travel, and how he keeps his ears to the ground for his hometown.

On Tap: Much of your career has focused around the written and spoken word. How did writing become such an important part of your self-expression?
Henry Rollins: For me, writing, as far as working at it, writing every day, working towards a goal of someone else reading it, came awhile after I started writing. I first started writing while on tour, to alleviate boredom and loneliness. The hours pre-show were pretty still. You would be in a town, you had no money and there wasn’t always a lot to do but at the same time, a lot was happening. So, I started writing about it, writing about how I was feeling. It was a place to go. It still is. Writing is portable, quiet and cheap, it’s a great medium for travel.

OT: Has this election cycle prompted any changes in material?
HR: I always talk about an election when it’s happening during a tour. This time around, I am more interested in the process, how much it is a media play more than a presidential election. It seems to be more a dramatic tragedy than anything else. So, not a change, per se, but I’m definitely talking about it.

OT: How do you “prepare” material for your tours?
HR: A lot of preparation goes into the shows. I think it must be more than merely relaying information derived from being out in the territory. So, I get the information and try to figure out what the story is. That’s what takes the most time. I usually say the stories out loud to myself, which probably sounds strange but actually works for me. I like to be very prepared for shows. I am not all that good at being spontaneous.

OT: So much of your shows revolve around your travels. Are there any moment or stories that stand out from this year of touring that you haven’t talked about in the shows?
HR: A recent visit to a township in Hout Bay, outside of Cape Town, South Africa called Imizamo Yethu, which I go to every time I am there was heavy this time around. It always is but this time, one of the people I always visited with had passed away from HIV and the township itself is having a lot of challenges. I don’t know how to position it yet.

OT: Is it ever hard for you to come back to the U.S. after extended periods of time internationally?
HR: It’s not hard, but the reminder of how harsh the USA can be constantly presents itself. Like coming back from Ecuador a year ago, all that hospitality coming to an end so abruptly was a drag. I live outside of the US on a regular basis, so I am constantly readjusting. That being said, I can’t think of living anywhere besides here.

OT: What musicians out there now—whether they’re from Compton or Kiev—are hitting you hard right now?
HR: A few would be High On Fire, Wand, Ty Segall, Hierophants, Dick Diver, Zig Zags, Savages, Living Eyes, Lowtide, Thee Oh Sees, Brando’s Island, Ausmuteants, Julie Ruin, Lorelle Meets the Obsolete, Hiragi Fukuda, Wolf Eyes, Point Juncture WA, Red Red Krovvy, Jonny Telefone, VUM, The Anti-Job, Kikagaku Moyo, the Laurels, True Widow. I am sure I could find more to list. I think there is a great wealth of talent out there if you know where to look. There always is. There will always be great music. When someone says that music isn’t good any more, it doesn’t make sense to me, I have never found that to be true.

OT: Do you keep a finger to the pulse of the DC music scene?
HR: I like the band Cigarette. Olivia Neutron John, Anna is amazing. I saw her play last year and thought she was great. Chris Richards just sent me some new DC music but I have not checked it out yet. I do my best to find out what’s happening in DC music wise.

OT: The Lincoln Theater is such a storied venue in DC, but it was closed for most of your performance career. Does performing in such a landmark of your hometown have any meaning for you?
HR: Not outside of wanting to do a good show. I was there several months ago, which was useful but beyond that, all I can think of is wanting to be as sharp as possible on the night.

OT: You’ve been a musician, author, spoken word performer, stand-up comedian (sort of), radio host, DJ, podcaster, actor, voice actor, globe-trotting traveler. Is there anything you haven’t done yet that you want to do? What stones are there left to turn for Henry Rollins?
HR: I can’t think of anything, as I never really had a plan. There are more destinations I want to reach, more writing I want to do. But as far as another thing to do, hopefully, something interesting presents itself. I wouldn’t mind a little time at the end of this tour to get some vinyl listening done. I have been out for the better part of 10 months.

Henry Rollins will perform his election night spoken word on November 8. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. and tickets cost $40. The Lincoln Theatre: 1215 U St. NW, DC; www.thelincoln.com

Photo by: Heidi May

Romeo & Juliet Lansburgh Theatre (3)

Romeo and Juliet at Lansburgh Theatre

Romeo and Juliet after show happy hour on Friday, October 14, 2016 at Lansburgh Theatre, DC.

Secret Garden
Graphic Courtesy: Shakespeare Theatre

Shakespeare Theatre Cultivates Shorter, More Dynamic “Secret Garden”

In an all too familiar story of loss and grief, imagination and hope, Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of The Secret Garden, which is co-produced with 5th Avenue Theatre Company of Seattle, will take you through a season of emotions. With an all-star cast and accomplished director David Armstrong at the helm, the performance is sure to resonate with audiences ranging from young to old, while awakening a newfound taste for imagination in all.
When Mary Lennox loses her parents at the age of 10 and is sent to live with her reclusive and widowed uncle, she finds herself lost in the midst of grief and hardship, until she discovers a garden hidden within the walls of her late aunt’s property. By going here to escape, Mary reawakens her imagination and discovers a joyful world where she finds reprieve from a reality laden with suffering.

David Armstrong, Artistic Director of 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle, shared a little insight on his relationship with the musical and what the audience can expect with this production.
He is no stranger to the stage or to The Secret Garden, having directed the musical himself, and upon seeing the original Broadway production, has a firm grasp on his approach to the show. He says this time around, the show will be shorter and more streamlined than his previous productions, and despite having additional songs, it will tell the story more efficiently.

“It’s better to have a shorter show that gets right to the message than a longer one that drags on,” he says. “You want to capture your audience, not lose them.”

Armstrong believes The Secret Garden has one of the most beautiful scores written for musical theatre, and he’s excited to share it with the DC community, especially through some of the most talented actors from the DMV, Seattle and even London, like Michael Xavier, who just appeared opposite Glen Close in Sunset Boulevard. “The Secret Garden will be his US debut, so it’s very exciting,” he adds.

When asked how he’d like the audience to react to the show, Armstrong replied, “Well, first, I want them to cry [laughs]. Not from sadness, but from tears of joy from vicariously experiencing how a young girl emerges through trauma, anxiety and pain, and comes back to life.”

Armstrong ensures that, although The Secret Garden has melancholic undertones, the audience won’t leave the theatre feeling low.

“I shall see you in the garden, and spring will come and stay,” a key lyric in the musical and the show’s tagline, assures the audiences that there is hope, even in the most isolating of times.
“The garden is a metaphor that we [as humans] all have in us. It’s a place to find peace and love and joy.”

The Secret Garden opens November 15 and runs through December 31. Tickets are $59-$118.

Shakespeare Theatre Company: 610 F St. NW, DC; 202-547-1122; www.shakespearetheatre.org

Mosaic Theatre

Spurring Social Change Via the Stage: Mosaic Theatre

Mosaic Theater Company prides itself on being innovative, inclusive, diverse and, most importantly, uncensored. Although Mosaic is a relatively new company, it is comprised of professionals who are no strangers to taking theatrical risks in the name of social change. In an effort to bridge gaps within the DC community, Mosaic’s mission is to make their theater a “model of diversity and inclusion at every strata, onstage and off.”
On Tap had the opportunity to chat with Mosaic’s founding artistic director, Ari Roth, and resident director, Jennifer L. Nelson, to get the inside scoop on the creation of Mosaic and their upcoming production of Milk Like Sugar.
On Tap: Tell me a little bit about Mosaic Theater. It’s a relatively new company. What prompted its creation?
Ari Roth: We came together to create a new theater company dedicated to values of inclusion, diversity, equity and access, and devoted to programming that’s independent, intercultural, entertaining and uncensored. We’re striving to bring different communities together here in Northeast DC in the interests of creating a new fusion of passionate art enthusiasts and engaged citizens committed to public discourse informed by dramatic, personal stories.
OT: Why does Mosaic focus primarily on social change?
AR: We believe that art can transform consciousness and promote awareness and understanding, and little by little, person by person, and group by group, may be able to change the world. We believe theater is the most immediate, intimate, personalized and public kind of artistic transmission, fusing so many disciplines into something visceral, emotional, intellectual, visual and energizing.
OT: Milk Like Sugar, directed by Jennifer L. Nelson, opens in November. What are you looking forward to most about producing this play?
AR: I want to see a group of young women kicking ass in this play. I want to see them hitting back out at a society that marginalizes and dismisses so many of their dramas as being small and insubstantial. I want to emerge from this play with a sense that vibrant, flawed, fascinating, vital and vulnerable young women are the key to our future and that everything hangs in the balance with their fate.
OT: How do you connect with Milk Like Sugar, and why are you looking forward to directing it? 
Jennifer Nelson: There is little in the MLS details that I personally connect to: I grew up in a stable two-parent home where education and culture were prized above all. Perhaps that is why I am so moved by stories of those who have little or no supportive family life — particularly girls whose vision of themselves goes no further than those of the characters in the play. The play, on the other hand, gives us a chance to see how girls of limited means see themselves and their futures; and how once challenged and presented with other possibilities, their minds begin to open.
OT: How are you hoping “Milk Like Sugar” impacts your audience, and what message are you hoping to translate to the viewers? 
AR: We want laughter, tears, exhilaration, rapt attention, shock and some unexpected uplift and admiration. We need to emerge from this show trusting that our young women can be empowered to figure out how to forge ahead even when carrying burdens of their own, and of their family’s and society’s, making.
JN: The message is that in spite of poverty and limited education, the human spirit yearns for and responds to hope.
OT: What type of conversations are you hoping to spark within the community in response to this play?
AR: There’s a new initiative that’s been launched by the President and First Lady called “Let Girls Learn” that’s designed to help adolescent girls attain a quality education and enable them to reach their full potential. I’d like to see us tap into that huge community right here in our DC schools and neighborhoods. This play is about strong young girls being made vulnerable and vulnerable young girls becoming strong.
Mosaic Theater Company is setting out to change the world, and they’re starting right here in DC. Their second show of Season Two, Milk Like Sugar, by Kirsten Greenidge, which won the Playwriting Obie Award in 2012 and the San Diego Critics Circle Craig Award for Outstanding New Play in 2011, runs from November 2-27. Tickets are $20-$35.
Mosaic Theater Company: 1333 H St. NE, DC; 202-399-7993; www.mosaictheater.org
Curious Incident
Photo/artwork credits: Adam Langdon (center) stars in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Photo credit: Joan Marcus

‘Curious Incident’ is a Certain Success

A play is often like looking through a window yielding the experiences of the characters within the story, but The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time takes its audience deeper than that. The show, a winner of five Tony Awards including Best Play in 2015, proves a mesmerizing and thoughtful look into the mind of 15-year-old Christopher Boone, an autistic teenager who goes about trying to solve the mysterious death of his neighbor’s dead dog.

Immediately upon entering the theater, you know this is a different experience. The set primarily consists of three walls featuring grid-like squares and white boxes around the base. A few knickknacks are strewn across the stage, but in the middle is the remains of a dead dog, including a pitchfork poling out of its side. This bare bones design is contrasted by the loud music and strobe lighting signaling the beginning of the play, a purposeful sensory overload during the introduction of Christopher (Adam Langdon) and his discovery of the pet’s corpse.

The booming features, which occur numerous times throughout the performance illicit the multiple instances of Christopher feeling overwhelmed; these are brilliantly choreographed by director Marianne Elliott, who earned one of those Tony Awards for best director. It’s easy to see why she garnered the accolade, as Elliott constructs this story in a way which allows the audience to truly sympathize with the protagonists struggles.

This is helped by the set design. We quickly learn that the grids on the wall can be lighten up with individual dots, and that projectors help show examples of Christopher working out problems. The below the line work on the performance is easily some of the most impressive I’ve seen in a stage play.

But of course, as much as the lights and direction help this play succeed, the story must pull its weight as well, and it does in spades. We quickly learn Christopher experiences a mild case of autism, which allows him to understand basics and excel in school, but this doesn’t mean things are easy for him or his father (Gene Gillette), who is raising him alone.

The physical dog quickly turns into a McGuffin as the true crux of the story is found in the internal struggles of this family: how they must trust each other and learn to effectively communicate even though there is a tremendous barrier between them that is nearly impossible to overcome. However, as Christopher’s teacher Siobhan (Maria Elena Ramirez) helps him learn, the ability to focus on projects and little details is how they can effectively go about solving problems.

It was a great but rewarding risk to have the protagonist of this story be Christopher rather than his parents or his teacher. It reminds us that we can’t assume someone isn’t capable of performing tasks simply because we don’t understand them, just that it may be difficult and we need to be patient and caring.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a beautiful creation of body and soul. A stellar production that will leave you in awe of what can be accomplished on the stage, and hopeful from the story that played out on it.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is currently playing at the Kennedy Center and will continue its run through Oct. 23.

Photo/artwork credits: Adam Langdon (center) stars in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Photo credit: Joan Marcus

Song Wenjing

Artist Song Wenjing makes US debut in Arlington

When I was in a Texas mandatory middle school art class, I hated calligraphy. Something about the way you had to hold the pen made it difficult for me to grasp (pun intended), and the work I turned in never appeared in my portfolio, which honestly consisted of rehashed anime drawings and dope charcoal paintings.

For Song Wenjing, calligraphy is his masterpiece. The Chinese artist has racked up numerous accolades for his work, and has also dabbled in producing beautiful watercolor paintings to adorn his remarkable penmanship. In China, unlike my southern classroom, calligraphy is not only a form of art, but as influential as poetry, traditional paintings or architecture, if not more so.

This week, on October 21-23, Wenjing’s art will be on display at the Ritz Carlton in Arlington during his Art of Heart exhibition. Through a translator, On Tap Magazine was able to speak to the internationally renowned artist about his work, his inspirations and his first US gallery.

On Tap: How did you discover calligraphy, and were you always good at the art?
Song Wenjing: My dad’s older brother Mr.  Song Dachen was a graduate of Huangpu Military Academy (the equivalent of West Point of China) and is a great calligrapher.  I learned from him while he was not noticing.

From elementary school to university, I became well-known for all of the public posters and blackboards I drew.  Among my influencers there are my high school teacher Mr. Du Xijin and many folk artists. In other words, I started a love affair with painting since very early on, it was sort of a forbidden love and nobody understood what art meant. Not until 1976 did I realize that art has historical roots and traditions.

OT: Do you experiment in other forms of art?
SW: Calligraphy and Chinese painting are my all-time favorite.  Calligraphy and painting cultivate aspiration, pen and ink nurture emotions.  Other than that, I like seal carving, paper cutting, paperback design, and I am obsessed with Peking Opera, drama and crosstalk.  Also, I am passionate about Chinese folk art and engraved print, both Chinese and foreign, such as collectable book labels. I believe in the connectivity and fascinating internal logic. China has rich folk arts that intrigue me constantly.

OT: How much time do you spend on each piece?
SW: It varies by the number of characters, size of the painting and complexity of the techniques applied.  It can be from a few hours to a few days.  For watercolor painting, I like to go into the wilderness and paint live. The conditions can be tough, but my heart is filled with joy and passion.

For calligraphy, it has to be done indoors, where the calligrapher and his studio come together. Sun shines through the window, quality writing tools are displayed in perfect condition and the ambience triggers ripples of thoughts that go back several hundred years. A piece of work may seem simple, but the diligent practice requires at least 10 years.

OT: Are you from an artistic family? Describe your family’s role in your art work?
SW: I cannot say that my family is artistic, but all the members aspire to love art and culture.  My parental and maternal grandmothers were both good at needlework, which is a type of life art.  Dad is a man with many artistic and sports hobbies, he was my first educator who opened up my eyes for Chinese classical literature, through teaching me the relationships and poems from The Dream of the Red Chamber.

Other relatives are also enthusiastic fans of painting, calligraphy, drama and singing. My twin daughters, Han Er and Lu Er, carry the family torch and studied Western Art History at Central Academy of Arts and Fudan University, both graduated with Master’s Degrees. I am content to pass on art and poetry as our family legacy.

OT: Where do you get inspiration? Are there other artists you look to, or something completely unrelated?
SW: Life throws us different emotions and feelings- happiness, grievances, sadness, longing, yearning, admirations, heart-breaking, etc. All of them trigger art impulses and blend into the form of calligraphy and painting.

I also admire many Chinese artists, including Yan Zhenjing from Tang, Su Dongpo from Song, eight mountain masters fro Qing and Qi Baishi in contemporary time. They both exhibit virtuous personality and classic artistic concepts. I will spend the whole life learning from them. I am also a fan of several American artists, including humorous Rockville, stone-cold Weiss, and the creative Andy Warhol. Many contemporary rising stars also give me inspiration.

OT: How excited are you to bring your work to the United States?
SW: Since the end of last year, I had been contemplating a personal exhibition in the US. My objective is to “be different”—different from my previous exhibitions, discovering new ways to display Chinese traditional art, and creating more “Aha” moments both by the art forms and content. Certainly, the center of such efforts should be a unique personal style.

I have huge expectations for this show, for which I hand picked 30 pieces from 60 master works I did over the past few years. I look forward to meeting American art lovers and brainstorming.

OT: What are you working on now?
SW: Three things. First, promoting my US exhibition and Peking University exhibition, select works and prepare pamphlets. Second, visiting my twin daughters who are exchanging at Taiwan Normal University, while touring a few museums and former residences. Last, my recent life painting at Shanxi Hequ left countless thoughts about calligraphy and life. Painting has become part of my life, my bloodline and my soul. It is our collective culture tradition and my personal study blended together, which stimulates me to change and progress day by day.

This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.

Art of Heart is held from October 21-23. From noon-5 p.m. on Friday; 11 a.m. – 10 p.m. on Saturday; and 11 a.m to 3 p.m. on Sunday. Wenjing will be present throughout the exhibition. The Ritz-Carlton Pentagon City: 1250 S Hayes St., Arlington, VA; 703-415-5000; www.hurrahmarketing.com/productions/song-wenjing/

Trevor Noah
Photo: Courtesy of the Kennedy Center

Trevor Noah: Beyond Politics

We have just about a month left in this presidential election – thankfully. Last Friday was the perfect time for Trevor Noah, host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, to descend upon our nation’s capital to sum up all the shenanigans involved. However, his one night stand-up special at the Kennedy Center, which sold out fast enough to demand a second show, was at its strongest when he left American politics to the side and instead shared his unique worldviews.

That is not to say that Noah does not capture the ridiculousness of this election in humorous styles – his comparison of Trump to a toddler, and the fact that he hates toddlers more than anything, was accurate and insightful. But ever since Trump descended from that escalator almost a year and a half ago declaring his entry into the presidential race, every facet of his campaign has been cake for comedians, including Noah and his The Daily Show predecessor Jon Stewart. People laugh, but few of the jokes being offered are anything new, by Noah or any other comedian.

The big laughs for Noah came after he got in the obligatory jokes on the Republican nominee, when, like with some of his most memorable stuff from his year on The Daily Show, he is able to bring his outsider view to us inside the Beltway.

Noah has had the great experience of performing his comedy all over the world, and it is what he takes from not only these cultures, but their history, that made this set truly work. Despite having a regular spot on late night television here in the U.S., it is clear that he is at his best when he is talking about the world at large, not just America.

This is evident in his funniest bit of the night, when he did a version of how British colonialism might have first played out. It is a four or five-minute bit where he goes back and forth between a British soldier claiming India for his Queen, and a native Indian who he portrays as indifferent to England’s claim. In it, he covers a country’s self image, religion and the general absurdity that is history in itself.

Not only has his perspective benefited from his travels around the world, but he has also proved himself quite the adept impersonator, nailing accents from Scottish to Russian. Not to mention, he does a killer Nelson Mandela impression.

His role as host of The Daily Show may pay the bills Monday through Thursday, but it is clear that he is completely at home on the stage in front of a crowd of hundreds. And while politics might be the bread and butter of what he does on TV, Noah’s true voice comes from being our medium to the rest of the world.

Learn more about the comedian at www.trevornoah.com.

Photo: Courtesy of the Kennedy Center