An Introduction to Japanese Kabuki Theatre, Featuring 20th-Century Masters of the Form (1964)

The English language has adopted kabuki as an adjective, applied to situations where exaggerated appearances and performances are everything. Business, politics, media: name any realm of modernity, and the myriad ways in which its affairs can turn kabuki will spring to mind. A highly stylized form of dance-drama originating in the seventeenth century, it continues to stand today as a pillar of classical Japanese culture — and indeed, according to UNESCO, one piece of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The worldwide regard for kabuki owes in part to self-promotional efforts on the part of Japan, whose Ministry of Foreign Affairs commissioned the half-hour introductory film above.

Produced in 1964, Kabuki: The Classic Theatre of Japan holds up as a representation of the art, as well as a view of some of the mid-20th century’s master practitioners. These actors include Jitsukawa Enjaku III, Nakamura Utaemon VI, and Ichikawa Danjūrō XI, whose stage names reflect their place in an unbroken professional lineage.




In fact, Ichikawa Danjūrō XI is a predecessor of Ichikawa Ebizō XI, previously featured here on Open Culture for his work in kabuki Star Wars adaptations. The generations shown here didn’t go in for such pop-cultural hybridization, but rather plays from the traditional kabuki repertoire like ShibarakuMusume Dōjōji, and Sukeroku, scenes from all three of which appear in the film.

“Through elaborate costumes and vivid makeup, through beautifully stylized acting and exaggerated vocalization, and highlighted with picturesque settings and colorful music, the kabuki actors create dramatic effects of extraordinary intensity within a framework of pure entertainment,” explains the narrator. And as in the early performances of Shakespeare, all the roles are played by males, specialists known as onnagata. “Because the emphasis in kabuki is on artistic performance, not realism, the onnagata is considered more capable of expressing true femininity than is possible for an actress.” This may have struck Western viewers in the 1960s as an odd notion, but the sheer foreignness of kabuki — cultural, geographical, and temporal — must have been as captivating back then as it remains today, no matter how long we’ve been throwing its name around.

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A Page of Madness: The Lost, Avant Garde Masterpiece from the Early Days of Japanese Cinema (1926)

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Airline Toilets Theatre Company: Watch One Man Stage Comical Shows in Airplane Bathrooms

When COVID 19 struck, theater lovers were faced with a choice.

Let go entirely, or expand our definitions of what constitutes “theater.”

We’ve had 14 months to get used to the idea of performances staged in closetsin podcast form, or as phone calls hinging on audience participation.

We’re sick of Zoom, but we no longer consider it mandatory for the players to inhabit the same space as each other or the audience.




This is all old news to Peter Brooke Turner, a member of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain and the founder of the Airline Toilets Theatre Company.

The ATTC’s repertoire consists of great works of literature, song and dance… performed exclusively in aircraft lavatories, a true feat when one considers that Turner, impresario and sole company member, is 6’8”.

2015’s inaugural production, above, remains among the company’s most ambitious —  a 50th anniversary recreation of Bob Dylan’s 1965 promotional film clip for Subterranean Homesick Blues, shot on various flights throughout the Ukulele Orchestra’s US tour.

Before long, Turner’s carry-on was stuffed with props and costumes — a toga, three self-adhesive Abraham Lincoln beards, a fat suit, a plastic cigar, cardboard face masks of Jimi Hendrix and Queen’s Brian May, and a numbers of inflatables, including a woman, a horse, and a not particularly realistic handgun.

Staging solo, site specific mini productions struck Turner as a far more amusing prospect than remaining in his seat, watching a movie:

I don’t like passive consumerism — I’d rather make my own movie than watch some CGI blockbuster on a plane. 90% of touring is NOT performing but sitting around on a plane/train/bus staring into space — I’m just trying to do something creative to make the time pass. 

With advance planning, the simpler productions can make it into the can on a single take.

The James Bond Tribute, below, which called for costume changes, puppets and cardboard masks of Sean Connery, Roger Moore, and Daniel Craig, was shot in segments — London to Frankfurt, Singapore to Auckland, and Singapore to London.

Rather than projecting for the benefit of folks in the non-existent back row, Turner prefers to lip synch prerecorded lines, fed to him via earbud. This helps dial down the suspicions of flight attendants and fellow passengers. Once the “occupied” light comes on, he reckons he has between 7 to 10 minutes to take care of business. Should anyone question the length of his stay, or his large bag of costumes and props, his excuse is that “I suffer from haemorrhoids and need to change my pants. (Believe me, this is a conversation no one wants to take further.)”

Watch a playlist of the Best of the Airline Toilets Theater Company here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her June 7 for a Necromancers of the Public Domain: The Periodical Cicada, a free virtual variety honoring the 17-Year Cicadas of Brood X. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Lou Reed Concert Film Berlin Streaming Free Online for the Next Week

Last laughs can be sweet, and according to music journalist, Anthony DeCurtis, his friend, the late Lou Reed, “reveled” in the critical drubbing that greeted his 3rd solo album, 1973’s Berlin.

Not immediately, however.

Berlin, which followed hard on the heels of Reed’s widely adored Transformer, had a painful, protracted delivery.

This was due in part due to RCA execs getting cold feet about releasing Reed’s grim concept record as a double album. This necessitated a lot of pruning, a week before deadline.

Producer Bob Ezrin, who had planted the idea for a concept album based on a track from Reed’s eponymous first solo effort, was detoxing in the hospital, and thus not present for the final mastering.




But much of the hell leading to Berlin’s release was a hell of Reed’s own making.

His dependence on drugs and alcohol hampered the writing process, as per Reed’s first wife, Bettye Kronstad, who filed for divorce midway through the process.

If you want a glimpse of what that marriage’s final days might have been like, look to Berlin.

Kronstad was distressed to find many private details from their relationship on display in the tragic rock opera. There was some fictionalization, but Reed also put his thumb on the scales when it suited him, in songs like “The Kids,” which recast Kronstad’s late mother in a particularly unfair way.

Reed once took a shot at the album’s critical reception, suggesting that people didn’t like it because its depiction of a miserable couple, whose union is marred by infidelity, domestic abuse, addiction, and suicide, was “too real”:

It’s not like a TV program where all the bad things that happen to people are tolerable. Life isn’t like that. And neither is the album.

Sometimes he bluffed:

I have never been interested in critical receptions, deceptions, hellos, goodbyes, huzzahs, hurrahs. I don’t read them, so I don’t care.

At other times, he raged:

There are people I’ll never forgive for the way they fucked me over with Berlin. The way that album was overlooked was the biggest disappointment I ever faced.

In a more vulnerable mood, he admitted:

Berlin was a big flop and it made me very sad. The way that album was overlooked was probably the biggest disappointment I ever faced. I pulled the blinds shut at that point, and they’ve remained closed.

Unsurprisingly, his early plans for staging a theatrical companion piece to the album, with possible participation by Andy Warhol, were shelved.

34 years later…

Cue director Julian Schnabelthe Brooklyn Youth Chorus, and St. Ann’s Warehouse, the New York City venue that had previously co-commissioned Songs for Drella, a musical Warhol tribute by Reed and John Cale.

In 2006, Reed took centerstage in Brooklyn for a 5-night theatrical run of Berlin that also featured a 35-piece ensemble, original guitarist Steve Hunter, and dreamy videos by the director’s daughter, Lola, starring Emmanuelle Seigner as an abstract sketch of the doomed protagonist, Caroline.

The resulting concert film, which St. Ann’s Warehouse is streaming for free through November 29, proved far more popular with critics than the 1973 record had been. (Three years prior to the St Ann’s staging, Rolling Stone upgraded its original opinion of the album from career ending disaster to 344th Greatest Album of All Time.)

Stephen Holden’s glowing New York Times review of the film made multiple mention of angels and demons, as is perhaps to be expected when a work combines Lou Reed, a Sid and Nancy-ish romance, a children’s choir, and the ethereal voice of Anohni, late of Antony and the Johnsons.

Readers, see for yourself, and let us know—did RCA’s promotional poster for the original album get something right nearly 50 years ago? Is this “a film for the ears?”

Listen to the original 1973 album and the live concert version at St. Ann’s for free on Spotify.

Stream Julian Schnabel’s Lou Reed’s Berlin, Live at St. Ann’s Warehouse here through November 29.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

When ABBA Wrote Music for the Cold War-Themed Musical, Chess: “One of the Best Rock Scores Ever Produced for the Theatre” (1984)

Chess is amazing. The simplicity of its characters and plot (capture the king!) can be appreciated and understood by children; the complexity of its tactics can consume an adult life. Despite its medieval origins—and stumpers for us moderns like the strategic importance of a bishop on the battlefield—chess remains as much a potent allegory for power and its tactics as it was 1,500 years ago in India when it was called “chaturanga.” 

The game has inspired great works of literature, film, and arguably every creative move made by Marcel Duchamp. So why not a musical? A musical with a Cold War-era chess battle between a Bobby Fischer-like character and a Russian grandmaster loosely based on Boris Spassky, with music by the guys from ABBA and lyrics by Tim Rice?




The drama is inherent, both within the game itself and its geopolitical significance in 1984, the year the concept album above debuted in advance of the show’s first European tour, a fundraising maneuver also employed before the opening of much better-known Rice shows like Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita. While Andrew Lloyd Webber may be an excellent stage composer, though not to everyone’s taste, partisans of Mamma Mia! might agree with critic William Henry, who wrote at Time that Chess, the musical is “one of the best rock scores ever produced for the theatre.”

The show itself, Henry wrote, was “difficult, demanding and rewarding” and pushed “the boundaries of the form.” According to a site documenting its history:

Chess at London’s Prince Edward Theatre was a love story set amid a world championship chess match, the tensions of the Cold War, and a media circus. It ran for three years. When the Berlin Wall fell, a radically altered version of the show was presented on Broadway and failed.

The new version, with lyrics by Richard Nelson, ran for only two months. Its unpopularity did not tarnish the reputation of Chess, which was revived to great acclaim several times afterward. The show may not have had the widespread cultural resonance of Hamilton or the gravitas of Nixon in China, but Chess has inspired devotion among musical fans, ranking seventh in a recent BBC listener poll on the top ten essential musicals. It is now, 34 years after its London debut, running in Moscow, in a Russian translation, with “rewrites,” notes MetaFilter user Shakhmaty, “that humanize its KGB antagonist.”

Chess produced the hit “I Know Him So Well,” a duet by Elaine Paige and Barbara Dickson that “held the Number One spot on the UK singles charts for 4 weeks and won the Ivor Novello Award as the Best Selling Single,” Ice the Site writes. A VHS video appeared in 1985 featuring the performers on the album singing that song and others from the show like “One Night in Bangkok” (above), which also became a “worldwide smash.”

Like Mamma Mia!, Chess is a medley, of sorts— in this case of musical styles rather than greatest pop hits. A contemporary New York Times review called the concept album “a sumptuously recorded… grandiose pastiche that touches half a dozen bases, from Gilbert and Sullivan to late Rodgers and Hammerstein, from Italian opera to trendy synthesizer-based pop, all of it lavishly arranged for the London Symphony Orchestra with splashy electronic embellishments.” Hear the full album the top of the post, read a summary of the show’s plot here, and see Tim Rice and ABBA’s Bjorn Ulvaeus promote the show in 1986 on a British morning show just above.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

When Edward Gorey Created Set Designs & Tony Award-Winning Costumes for a Broadway Production of Dracula (1977)

Edward Gorey and Halloween go together as well as Dracula and Halloween. Bring the three together (well, it’s almost Halloween), and you’ve got a triumvirate of classic, wicked, scary fun. The alignment of these dark stars first occurred, Olivia Rutigliano writes at CrimeReads, when a Gorey-designed production of Draculapremiered on Broadway at the Martin Beck Theater on October 20th, 1977, just in time for Halloween.” Starring Frank Langella in the title role, “the production was a smash,” and Gorey, who designed the sets, costumes, posters, playbills, and merchandise, won a Tony the following year.

To hear Gorey tell it, in Episode 4 of “Goreytelling,” an animated series of previously unheard recorded interviews with the reclusive writer/illustrator, he was “only too conscious of not being a real set designer or a real costume designer or a real anything…. I designed it the only way I could.” His seeming pain over the whole thing extends to the play itself. “I don’t know what anybody saw in it, exactly,” he says, “but it was a big hit.”




The play was first staged in 1973, and for years, Gorey says, each time a theater company decided to put it on, he was called up to consult. He dutifully turned up each time, scowling glumly and wondering why. When it finally hit Broadway, he saw two-thirds of a rehearsal and left “jaundiced.” The final product left an even more sour taste. It was, he says, “absurd,” but very lucrative. As for the Tony, he says ironically, the award turned out to be “the cross I had to bear,” an embarrassing accolade for costumes he deemed unworthy of the honor.

Rutigliano deems the set designs “gorgeous… three giant tableaux, in his familiar inky, meticulous style” and features a few photographs from a production in Houston. We would not expect otherwise from Gorey, who was always himself and always a professional. The sets have lived on in photos—some featuring Langella, some his successor, Raul Julia—in miniature models, and in the brief but sort-of compelling production of “Dracula: Starring Edward Gorey’s Toy Theatre,” just below. Gorey also created an illustrated edition of Dracula in 1996.

“It should be noted,” Goreyana writes, “that all the sets for Dracula were hand painted by talented scene shop artists. Every cross hatched line on the walls, furniture, and floor had to be recreated to size by hand.” This is indeed impressive, and Gorey is probably right: the sets, which he also seemed to loathe, were probably more deserving of the Tony than the costumes. “The overall aesthetic,” says Rutigliano, “matches the period of the original Broadway run, the 1920s.” (The production won another Tony for Most Innovative Revival.)

The original theater adaptation was commissioned by Bram Stoker’s widow, Florence, “as part of her copyright crusade against F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu.” It debuted in England in 1924, then premiered on Broadway in 1927 with a then-unknown Bela Lugosi. “This production would be adapted, in turn, by the director Tod Browning into the famous 1931 Dracula film.” Gorey himself may have hated it, but the play he so meticulously brought back to life in the 70s descended, in a way, in a long, venerable, undead line, from the original Dracula himself.

via CrimeReads

Related Content: 

Edward Gorey Talks About His Love Cats & More in the Animated Series, “Goreytelling”

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Horror Legend Christopher Lee Reads Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Watch Nosferatu, the Seminal Vampire Film, Free Online (1922)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

David Byrne’s American Utopia: A Sneak Preview of Spike Lee’s New Concert Film

First came the album and tour in 2018. Then the Broadway show in 2019. And now the latest incarnation of David Byrne’s American Utopia–the concert film directed by Spike Lee. Debuting on HBO Max on October 17th, this Spike Lee joint shows David Byrne “joined by an ensemble of 11 musicians, singers, and dancers from around the globe, inviting audiences into a joyous dreamworld where human connection, self-evolution, and social justice are paramount.” If the movie is anything like the tour, it will be sublime. For now, we’ll whet your appetite with the sneak preview above.

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Related Content:

David Byrne Launches Reasons to Be Cheerful, an Online Magazine Featuring Articles by Byrne, Brian Eno & More

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Watch the Opening Credits of an Imaginary 70s Cop Show That Stars Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett: avant-garde dramatist, brooding Nobel Prize winner, poet, and…gritty television detective?

Sadly, no, but he had the makings of a great one, at least as cut together by playwright Danny Thompson, cofounder of Chicago’s Theater Oobleck.




Some twenty five years after Beckett’s death, Thompson—whose credits include the Complete Lost Works of Samuel Beckett as Found in a Dustbin in Paris in an Envelope (Partially Burned) Labeled: Never to Be Performed. Never. Ever. Ever! Or I’ll Sue! I’ll Sue From the Grave!!!repurposed Rosa Veim and Daniel Schmid’s footage of the moody genius wandering around 1969 Berlin into the opening credits of a nonexistent, 70s era Quinn Martin police procedural.

The title sequence hits all the right period notes, from the jazzy graphics to the presentation of its supporting cast: Andre the Giant, Jean Paul Sartre, and Jean “Huggy Bear” Cocteau. (Did you know that Beckett drove a young Andre the Giant to school in real life?)

Thompson ups the verisimilitude by copping Pat Williams’ theme for The Streets of San Francisco and naming the imaginary pilot episode after a collection of Beckett’s short stories.

He also notes that a DVD  release of the first, only and, again, entirely non-existent season has been held up by the notoriously litigious Beckett estate. Alas.

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in 2015.

Related Content:

The Books That Samuel Beckett Read and Really Liked (1941-1956)

An Animated Introduction to Samuel Beckett, Absurdist Playwright, Novelist & Poet

Watch Samuel Beckett Walk the Streets of Berlin Like a Boss, 1969

When Samuel Beckett Drove Young André the Giant to School: A True Story

Samuel Beckett Directs His Absurdist Play Waiting for Godot (1985)

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday

Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast #53 Explores the Hamilton Phenomenon

Your hosts Erica Spyres, Mark Linsenmayer, and Brian Hirt are joined by Broadway actor Sam Simahk (Carousel, The King and I, My Fair Lady) to discuss this unique convergence of musical theater, rap, and historical drama. Does Hamilton deserve its accolades? We cover the re-emergence of stage music as pop music, live vs. filmed vs. film-adapted musicals, creators starring in their shows, race-inclusive casting, and the politics surrounding the show.

Some articles we looked at included:

Learn more at prettymuchpop.com. This episode includes bonus discussion including Sam that you can only hear by supporting the podcast at patreon.com/prettymuchpop. This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts.

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