Baayork Lee: Bring It ON!

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Photo credit Kacey Anisa Stamats

Happy Chinese New Year! It’s the Year of the Dog and Baayork Lee blew us all away with her own fireworks at the League of Professional Theatre Women’s Oral History series Monday, February 12th at The Bruno Walter Auditorium at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.  Honoring an Asian woman for the first time not only made this an exceptional evening of distinction, but also showcased an actress who is one singular sensation!

Her vast career spans from being cast as a five-year-old in the original Broadway production of The King and I to creating the role of Connie Wong in A Chorus Line.

Baayork’s career arc was consistent and auspicious:  “You gotta know somebody to be somebody,” she quipped when asked about how fortuitous opportunities struck. None of this, of course, happened without the support of her mother, her friends, and her commitment to future generations of artists through her work with The National Asian Artists Project.  In 2017, she was recognized for her work in theatre education globally with the Isabelle Stevenson Tony Award.

Robert Viagas & Baayork Lee

Photo Credit Kacey Anisa Stamats

Deftly interviewed by Robert Viagas, a journalist and theatre author with more than thirty-five years’ experience on Broadway, Baayork shared her story with energy and enthusiasm, insight and inspiration. The conversation between these two friends who met over four decades ago and became collaborators and biographers on their book, “On the Line: the Creation of A Chorus Line” was funny, smart, and sassy with Baayork never resisting a beat to deliver comical asides to her adoring audience filled with fans and former cast members. But as the entertainer made way for the woman, it was her wisdom about her culture, her craft, and her stamina that was most telling.

She knew from the very moment when her mother brought her from Chinatown to audition for The King and I that “this is what I wanted to do.”  Atypical of “Tiger Moms” who have specific agendas for their children who have no say in their career paths, Baayork’s mom “listened to me at five.  And supported me.”  Encouraging Asian talent that “You don’t have to go to Harvard. You can go to Broadway” is among her mantras.

But in order to make it in this business she gave some practical advice:  “It’s about being ready to survive.  If you want to be in this business . . .  you have to be ready to survive because it is very, very hard to first of all live in New York, the competition is so much more than when I was growing up and you have to have the tools to survive first in the city, and then second of all you have to be ready with your talent which is singing, dancing, acting, taking your classes, and be ready when the door opens for you to walk in. “

I had the opportunity to chat with Baayork about the vital importance of the arts and how they change people’s lives; without any hesitation she emphatically pointed to herself:  “Sitting right here. Changing lives.”  And why she is so dedicated to the National Asian Artists Project, showcasing the work of Asian-American theatre artists through performance, outreach, and educational programming.  Her work as Master Class teacher, the children at P.S. 124 “even if I get ONE [child] in the theatre, then it’s all worth [her time and talent]. “ As the dedicated voice of an Asian role model Baayork has been representing her community for the last 50 years:  “I was one of the very lucky ones to do twelve original Broadway shows, to do television, to do films, to do all of those things.  I always felt that I was representing my community.”

She is best known as a choreographer and director, internationally, although none of her work has been performed in America, she persists. “I love being in the theatre. I keep that spirit, in me. Keep that child within me. [I don’t] get bitter. Don’t give up on your dream.” Her dream project is “to have her company go on to the next level [in order to] sustain itself” and to “open up the eyes of parents – there are choices.”

Proud to be an American, Baayork has no regrets: “I’m doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing.” The League of Professional Theatre Women is indebted to her commitment, creativity, and passion for defying the obstacles so that ALL women can create their own fireworks!

The Oral History Project is an ongoing project made possible by generous grants from the Edith Meiser Foundation, the Robert and Betty Sheffer Foundation, and private sponsors. The Oral History Project is produced by Betty Corwin and LPTW Members Pat Addiss and Sophia Romma at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. Oral History chronicles and documents the contributions of significant theatre women in diverse fields. Interviews with such outstanding women are videotaped and housed in the Theatre on Film and Tape Archive at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. For further detailed information, kindly email Sophia Romma at sromma@theatrewomen.org or Pat Addiss at paddiss@gmail.com.

 

Extraordinary Women Telling an Extraordinary Story: SHADOWS ROUND THE MOON

“This is a story of incredible love and extraordinary loss. The play is a chance to introduce an amazing woman to the world since Mary Shelley has not received the attention she deserves. People will be astounded to learn about the many tragedies she suffered. And yet, she survived. This play allows her to talk about how she did that, in her own words, her own voice.” ~ Kate Burton

“Many people know Mary Shelley as the writer of Frankenstein, but they don’t know what an extraordinary person she was,” says actress Kate Burton. “I didn’t know until I read Janice’s play.”

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Mary Shelley, author FRANKENSTEIN

Shadows Round the Moon came to Kate after playwright Janice Kennedy presented an excerpt at the Santa Monica Library and an actor in the audience asked her for a copy of the script. “He contacted me later and said he knew someone who would be a great match for the material, ” remembers Janice. “I didn’t know it was Kate, but he was absolutely right. Kate is perfect.”

Janice had a chance to see Kate as Mary Shelley when Kate did a reading of Shadows Round the Moon at a Women in Film benefit in Los Angeles. “It was extraordinary to watch her,” says Janice. “Even with no movement or staging, Kate transformed herself into Mary Shelley and the audience was mesmerized. They gave her a well-deserved standing ovation.”

Flash forward to Spring 2017 with Kate in a critically acclaimed revival of Present Laughter on Broadway. Kate and Janice decided this would be a good time to introduce Shadows Round the Moon to New York people. They set up an informal presentation at the Dramatists Guild and invited several Broadway producers and a rep from the Williamstown Theatre Festival. Janice gave an overview of the play and Kate read a couple of excerpts. The May presentation was so successful that a full reading of the play took place this past Wednesday, July 12th at the Dramatists Guild.

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Janice Kennedy and Kate Burton   Photo Credit Ellis Gaskell 

 

“This is a story of incredible love and extraordinary loss,” says Kate. “The play is a chance to introduce an amazing woman to the world since Mary Shelley has not received the attention she deserves. People will be astounded to learn about the many tragedies she suffered. And yet, she survived. This play allows her to talk about how she did that, in her own words, her own voice.”

 

To find that voice, Janice read Mary’s letters and journals as well as biographies of Mary and her husband, the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Janice found that even though Frankenstein was a publishing sensation, Mary did not receive much money for it. Copyright laws at the time she wrote the book did not favor the “creators” of literary works and music.

After Percy Shelley died, Mary was dependent on her father-in-law for money and forbidden by him to write Percy’s biography, even though she was constantly asked to do so by publishers. “This became the catalyst for the play,” says Janice. “What if Mary, as a way to write about Percy, wrote the story of her own life?”

This story begins with the death of Mary’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, when she was but a few days old. In the play, Mary Shelley talks about this being her introduction to “Mr. Bones,” her personification of Death.

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Kate Burton Photo Credit Ellis Gaskell 

The death of Mary Wollstonecraft reverberated throughout England because she was both revered and reviled as the founder of modern feminism with her book, A Vindication of the Rights of Women. After Wollstonecraft’s death,  Mary was raised by her father, William Godwin, a radical philosopher whose house was often visited by other philosophers and poets of the day, including Percy Shelley. As Mary grew up, she often hid on the stairs to listen to the talk of these men.

Kate Burton says she can relate to this experience of Mary’s. Recently, an old friend of her father’s came to see Kate in Present Laughter. He told her of sitting on the stairs as a child and listening in on the gatherings his father would have with people like Noel Coward, John Gielgud, Terrence Rattigan and Somerset Maugham.

At sixteen, Mary meets and falls in love with Percy Shelley at her father’s house. Janice’s research told her that the relationship that developed was not typical of the times. “Percy was devoted to the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft and truly believed the younger Mary was his equal — that she was as smart as or smarter than him,” says Janice. “Percy and Mary fell deeply in love and established an extraordinary partnership where they fueled each other’s ideas. Unfortunately, their life together was marked by tragedy after tragedy that began with the death of their first child when she was but a few days old.”

A few days after their baby’s death, Mary woke to tell Percy that she dreamed their little girl was “only cold and that we rubbed her by the fire, and she lived.” This dream of “reanimation,” Mary would say later, provided the seed for Frankenstein.

Two more of Mary and Percy’s children would die as small children and Mary suffered a miscarriage while in Italy that almost took her life as well. It was in Italy that Mary and the world suffered the loss of Percy Bysshe Shelley when he drowned at age 29 while sailing in the Mediterranean. Mary was only 25.

“These are things I do not want to remember,” Mary says in the play. “But remember I must, as we all must. What we have known, we cannot cease to know.”

Janice says she titled her play “Shadows Round the Moon” because Percy Shelley used the moon as his symbol for Mary in his poetry. And as Mary recounts her life in the play, all of the deaths she endured are like shadows surrounding and haunting her. “I made it a one-woman drama so that Mary is finally the focus of the story,” says Janice. “While Mary was alive, no one but Percy seemed to realize her brilliance. The irony is that he was largely credited with writing Frankenstein, something he consistently denied.”

Critics especially had a hard time believing that a young woman, only 17 at the time, could have written such a tale. One reviewer of Frankenstein exclaimed that “this is the foulest toadstool that has sprung up on the dung heap of mankind.”

“But what do critics, know?” counters Kate, who seems to intuitively understand Mary Shelley since Mary was raised in a “British culture” as she was. And Kate grew up in an artistic and literary family as well. Her father, Richard Burton, was an actor as was her mother Sybil, who became a literary agent and then a theatre manager. Sybil, in fact, founded The Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, NY. But Kate says she didn’t know she was going to pursue the arts until her senior year of college:

I was going to be a diplomat but in my senior year at Brown, I decided to apply to drama schools. I knew that as the daughter of a famous actor, I would need all the proper  training. The basic decision became whether I would go to graduate school in England or  America because I am a British National. So, that was the only big fight in the family. Not with my mom, but with my dad. He wanted me to go to Britain and I said no, I was an American. So I went to Yale. I had a very interesting, good, and hard time while I was there. My first big job after graduate school was playing the ingénue in Present Laughter directed by George C. Scott, which was crazy.

For nearly 17 years, Kate was a working actress and then in her 40s, Hedda Gabler and The Elephant Man came along and “that changed my life as an actress because suddenly I was being moved into a different pantheon: I was no longer an ingénue and I was no longer a character actress. I could do more. That was 16 years ago. Then I went through a fallow period and I auditioned for this television show about doctors called Grey’s Anatomy. I was to be the mom of the leading lady, a mom who had early onset Alzheimer’s. I thought , ‘Oh my God, what a horrible thing.’ And I ended up [with] THAT [changing] my life and that was great.”

What does Kate think about the challenge of doing a one-woman show like Shadows Round the Moon?  “It’s very hard learning an hour-and-twenty-minute monologue and then, of course, I love being on stage with my fellow actors. But it has to be Mary’s story. It has to be her voice.”

Realizing the significance of providing role models, Kate values women writers like Mary Shelley and playwright Janice Kennedy.  “We’re in a time when women are being heralded in a way they haven’t been before . . . I am glad that women are being rewarded not because they’re women but because they’ve done a fantastic job.  We have two plays on Broadway right now written by women and that’s exciting.  They’re both Pulitzer Prize winners from before. They have stayed the course.”

Kate’s career arc is one built over the years:  “I came into my own in my 40s,” she says. “For me, now it’s about focusing in on what I really want to do for the rest of my time.”

After taking five years off from being active in the Union, Kate is running for the Council at Actor’s Equity  “because I know that I’m good at that, I know that I’m good at being a Union person. That’s a place that I can be helpful.” She is on the board of Broadway Cares and works with the AIDS Foundation in AIDS education. Her life is good, says Kate, and she wants to give back.

“I am very lucky to be in this amazing Broadway production right now that is going incredibly well critically and financially,” she says. “It’s so thrilling. Now, I’m about to become a “Professor of Practice” at the University of Southern California in August.” Kate’s husband, Michael Ritchie, is the artistic director of the Center Theatre Group (CTG) in LA so she’s happy she’ll be living on the West Coast again. The CTG includes the Taper Forum, the Ahmanson and the Kirk Douglas theatres.

And the best is yet to come with the possibility of her own one-woman show about Mary Shelley. Helen Mirren once said, “Your 40s are good. Your 50s are great. Your 60s are fab.  And 70 is fucking awesome.“ Kate would probably agree with that as she looks forward to more incredible opportunities coming her way.

For more information about the play contact Janice Kennedy

Arts as a solution – let’s start a movement!

Posted by Shoshana · Thursday, November 10th, 2016

Shoshana Fanizza
Chief Audience Builder, Audience Development Specialists

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“The arts can be a healing agent and a solution to what we are experiencing. We need to heal the fear and create a more loving experience for all considered and for our planet.”

I woke up this morning realizing that major changes are coming to my country and to the world. We are all super connected now. What affects one will affect another. We are a global community.

The choice is ours to build from where we are. There are people that are afraid to move forward in our evolution of humanity, to be super inclusive, super kind, super supportive to others. They rather take time back when people did not have equal rights. What do we do with this fear that seems to have overtaken history once again?

We, the people that want to move forward, can still be who we are and continue our journey regardless. We can create art that speaks, music that emotes, theatre that connects to our souls, and dance that moves us.

The arts can be a healing agent and a solution to what we are experiencing. We need to heal the fear and create a more loving experience for all considered and for our planet.

Let’s use this moment in our history to strengthen us and launch a new movement of arts as a solution! People need arts to not only escape from their troubles, but to allow themselves to express and alleviate the pains of their lives. The arts matter more than ever now!

Arts as a solution! We got this!

Cheers to happy and loyal audiences,
Shoshana

 

Young Women in the Theatre and Media

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In our continuing effort to develop and promote women in the professional theatre The League of Professional Theatre Women invite you to another…

NETWORKING EVENT
Connect, Collaborate, and Consolidate
Join your colleagues, expand your networks, bring a potential new member!

Tuesday, October 25, 2016, 6:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m.
Castillo Theatre 543 West 42nd Street

RSVP: Networking@TheatreWomen.Org

Young Women in the Theatre and Media
Learn from the young professional dynamos who make it happen.
Projects and strategies to create work for, by, and about women of all ages.

Panelists include:
LAURA ARCHER (Executive Director, March Forth Productions),
VALERIE BROOKS (Filmmaker/Director/DP),
CHRISTINE DIXON (Director/Producer/Actress/Singer, Harriet Tubman Herself),
RACHEL GRIFFIN (Composer/Lyricist, We Have Apples),
MITRA JOUHARI (Writer/Comedian, Full Frontal With Samantha Bee),
MEGAN MINUTILLO (Director/Producer/Writer/Arts Educator, Founder, TheWriteTeachers.com),
ELISABETH NESS (Producer/Actor/Creator, Redheads Anonymous),
DANA VERDE (Filmmaker/Producer, The Perfect Match)

Moderators:
KIMBERLY EATON, Broadway Producer/Director, Theatrum Mundi Productions
KATIE ROSIN, Publicist/Marketer, President Kampfire PR

LPTW Members: FREE Non-Members $15
Non-Members with Theatrical Union Affiliation $10

Brought to you by your LPTW Networking Committee:
Frances McGarry, Chair; Katherine Elliot, Salon Series Chair;
Ivy Austin, Mary Candler, Lorna Lable, Romy Nordlinger, June Rachelson-Ospa,
Amie Sponza, Amy Stoller, Elizabeth Strauss; Amanda Cardwell Aiken, Apprentice, Amanda Salazar, Apprentice

 

Off-Broadway Review: ‘The Lady Liberty Theater Festival’ at Urban Stages

New York Theatre Guide Posted By: Jacquelyn Claire on: September 10, 2016

LLTF promo poster June 24

“The Lady Liberty Theater Festival,” presented by Aizzah Fatima and Monica Bauer, comprises three short punchy plays and a song in praise of freedom and against Islamophobia. As I arrived in the theater, the soundtrack was blasting out music with American themes. I got into the mood as Neil Diamond sang, “they’re coming to America.” As a recent immigrant to the shores of the Land of the Free, I felt the need to sing along, quietly.

. . .deeply satisfying. . .

The scene setter was a quirky comedy called “Lady Liberty’s Worst Day Ever,” written by Monica Bauer. Lady Liberty (Frances McGarry) has been summoned to her agent Vinnie’s office (J.Dolan Byrnes), and if she can stay off her cellphone for long enough, he will tell her the shocking news that Trump is about to rebrand her in his image and do away with the Emma Lazarus poem on her pedestal.

Cheryl King directs this comedic sketch, where she crafts a pithy little satirical stab at the “Orange” man who has literally forgotten where he comes from. Byrnes and McGarry charge around the stage with enough energy to set the Lady’s torch on fire. They have great stage chemistry together and seem to really enjoy their volleys of dialogue, served forcefully at each other.

Dolan Byrnes soulfully covered the scene change with a rendition of the Irish traditional folk song “No Irish Need Apply,” beautifully setting the context of bigotry and exclusion through the ages in Manhattan. We segued into the next movement, “No Irish Need Apply,” written by Monica Bauer and directed by Cheryl King. Joan Fitzgerald (Frances McGarry) is a shop owner looking to hire a new employee. Ahmed Famy (Ali Andre Ali), a Shi’ite Muslim, enters to apply for the position. He takes one look at the image of the “Bleeding” Christ on the wall and decides he would not be welcome.

What follows is a very clever job interview which exposes prejudices and cultural assumptions in a refreshing way. Ali is powerful as the defensive and stoic academic. He has a wonderful command and ease on stage, which makes him extremely watchable. McGarry was lovable and charming as the irreverent and open-minded Irish widow. It feels like this sort of situation is happening all over the city on a daily basis, but I am not sure that the outcomes are as congenial and generous as this pleasant oasis.

The final element of the theatrical Lady Liberty hat-trick was “Dirty Paki Lingerie,” brilliantly written and performed by Aizzah Fatima, with direction by Erica Gould. This was more of a standard one-woman show length, so it was deeply satisfying. The other performers had joyfully served up the appetizers and entrees so that we could sink our teeth into this delicious main course. Fatima and her transforming piece of green fabric weave a tale of various Pakistani women living in the U.S. who are torn between cultural expectation and their personal desires. She inhabits mothers, strong independent woman, children, teenagers, and traditional girls who show the diversity of experience of being a woman in their community and in the United States. The six Muslim-American women were drawn from real-life incidents and interviews, which lends a truthfulness to the production that is spellbinding.

Gould has ensured a piece that has flawless transitions between characters and situations, allowing Fatima to excel in birthing this wide range of distinctive female Pakistani dreamers. Fatima is an extraordinary performer with a vocal range that is impressive, and she is enormously funny. This piece will definitely have a long life ahead of it!

“The Lady Liberty Theater Festival” celebrates freedom of speech, the power of artists to defy oppression, and the ability to heal after traumatic life events. On the eve of the 15th Anniversary of 9/11, this festival is a perfect way to honor the past by submerging oneself in the shadow of Lady Liberty to remind ourselves of our glorious freedom.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with one 10-minute intermission.

Advisory: Adult language makes this production inappropriate for some audiences. Recommended for ages 16 and up.

“The Lady Liberty Theater Festival” plays through September 25, 2016 at Urban Stages in New York City. For more information on this festival, click here.