Open Studio with Jared Bowen

S9 E6 | FULL EPISODE

"Godspell," Boston Landmarks Orchestra, and more

The Berkshire Theatre Group’s live, in-person musical, "Godspell." The Boston Landmarks Orchestra presents a series of new concerts streaming now and materialized in the most creative way. Plus, The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum exhibition, "Boston’s Apollo: Thomas McKellar and John Singer Sargent."

AIRED: August 07, 2020 | 0:26:46
ABOUT THE PROGRAM
TRANSCRIPT

>> JARED BOWEN: Welcome toOpen Studio,

WGBH's weekly spotlight on arts and culture

from around the region and the nation.

I'm Jared Bowen, coming up onOpen Studio,

one of the few places in America where the show is going on.

>> If I can keep the actors safe,

then I'm also learning how to keep the rest of the staff safe

and the audience safe.

>> BOWEN: Then the Boston Landmarks Orchestra

in concert with the sounds of summer.

(orchestra playing slow, gentle piece)

Plus John Singer Sargent's model relationship.

>> I thought, "What's going on here?

Who is this man?

Has anyone figured out who he is?

>> BOWEN: It's all now onOpen Studio.

First up, it might be in a parking lot,

it might not be quite what you're used to,

but a real, live, in-person musical

has just opened in the Berkshires.

That's where Berkshire Theatre Group

has found a way to safely stage Godspell.

>> ♪ All good gifts around us

♪ Are sent from Heaven above

>> BOWEN: Kate Maguire, artistic director

and C.E.O. of Berkshire Theatre Group,

thank you so much for joining us.

>> Oh, my goodness, how great to be with you.

>> BOWEN: You are among the first theater,

live theater shows to open in this country,

because you've found a way to do it.

Tell me, how are you presenting Godspell?

>> Well,Godspell is gonna be presented outdoors under a tent

adjacent to our beautiful Colonial Theatre.

We put up a tent on our grounds here

to serve 100 under the tent.

That's what is allowed in phase three.

AndGodspell will happen outdoors there.

>> BOWEN: How are you able to do it?

How are you able to make everybody safe,

from the audience to your stage people

to the actors on stage?

>> Sure, so, like so many theaters in the country,

we reached out to Actors' Equity Association

and began to put together a manual to try to put a show on.

>> BOWEN: And we should mention,

they're the big union that represents actors

and has been looking out for actors

from the beginning of this.

>> That's correct.

And so in March, mid-March, when all the theaters closed,

you know, we hunkered down and thought,

"Well, what, what is possible?"

And we began to study all the data that was out there.

Around the end of April, we approached Actors' Equity

with a plan, a plan to produce theater outdoors.

And I will say the first plan was rejected.

We were told no.

And then I got on a phone call, just to ask about

what the next step might be,

when we might be able to resubmit.

And as we worked through that initial phone call of rejection,

and all of us expressing the desire to sort this through,

I was asked if I would be the first to really work diligently.

Because the numbers in Berkshire County

were dropping dramatically.

So it also meant that we might be a safe place

to do the work.

So at the beginning of May, I entered into negotiations

and a process with Actors' Equity.

We were literally on the phone some evenings

at 10:00, 11:00 at night.

Again, back on the phone in the morning.

I don't think I did anything else for the next two months

but work with Actors' Equity, the doctor that they hired,

a wonderful doctor named Dr. Michaels,

who kept sending things back to us.

And we were always asking how, what, why.

It all boiled down to testing, social distancing, and masks,

which is what we've all been told for this.

>> BOWEN: You've also taken a page out of the playbook--

pun intended-- from, from some of the sports leagues,

like the NHL, the NBA, which are creating bubbles.

How is that the case with you?

>> So like the NBA,

we've created really restrictive bubbles.

So the acting company, the director,

the music director, and the choreographer

are all in one bubble.

They are tested three times a week

and live together, stick together.

Groceries are brought to them.

I mean, it's a very restrictive process.

>> BOWEN: What about your audience?

For, for people who want to come see the show,

what have you done to make them feel safe?

>> You know, when we were working with Actors' Equity,

what I began to realize is, if I can keep the actors safe,

then I'm also learning how to keep the rest of the staff safe

and the audience safe.

So when the audience arrives, their temperatures are checked.

They are all are required to wear masks.

But also, each day we arrange the seats in different formats.

So if you're coming with your family,

and there are four people and you are all together,

you can sit together.

Distanced is the next couple.

Distanced is the next group.

>> BOWEN: I'm sure you've weighed whether

this is the right thing to do.

How did you come in favor of, essentially,

the show must go on?

>> Well, the show must go on probably because

I've been in, doing this for the past 60 years.

I was four when I started. (Bowen laughs)

So the show must go on.

But the show must go on and we always have to make sure

that our actors are safe.

And what I had said to Equity was,

"I'll say yes until we have to say no."

But we kept finding ways, and the group of actors

that are with us also wanted to find the way.

And so the level of hope is enormous.

And in these times,

it is one of the reasons that we pickedGodspell.

It is the, one of the reasons that we stuck with it.

And truly, just for glimmers of hope

here or there means so much.

>> BOWEN: Well, I was just going to ask about whyGodspell,

why now.

It does seem-- first of all give, for people who...

For the uninitiated, give people a sense

of what this show is and why this is perfect for this moment.

>>Godspell, with music and lyrics written

by Stephen Schwartz, the great Stephen Schwartz.

Folks recognize him from the fabulous musicalWicked,

and so many others--Pippin-- so many.

It was written about the Gospel of Matthew,

and Jesus, and Judas, and a group of individuals

that are in chaos in their lives.

>> ♪ Bless the Lord, my soul, bless the Lord, my soul ♪

>> ♪ Bless the Lord >> ♪ Oh, bless the Lord

>> ♪ Bless the Lord, my soul

>> ♪ Bless the Lord, my soul

>> The story is essentially about love and community.

>> BOWEN: And you've set this in the present day.

This isn't a period piece.

>> This is not a period piece.

This is in the midst of COVID.

>> BOWEN: How will it feel?

We're so used to seeing musicals.

Yours will be, again, really the first time

that we see how a musical

will be staged in this era.

How do you prepare people?

What should we expect?

>> Oh, we should expect a great show.

(Bowen laughs)

And I don't know how the experience is going to feel.

I mean, when we finally got the agreement,

I think it was our choreographer, Gerry McIntyre,

that just, he literally burst into tears and said,

"Can you imagine what it's going to feel like on opening night?

We will have done it."

>> BOWEN: What has this done to you?

We, we keep hearing reports

of what this has done to the arts sector.

But will you survive this?

>> I hope we'll survive.

The Berkshire Theatre Group is going to be celebrating

its 100th anniversary in this coming decade.

So we have to survive.

But we're a $4 million budget.

We'll probably lose about $2 million this year.

We have been very fortunate

in terms of people giving and supporting us.

But the industry itself,

if this goes on for another year,

what will happen to all the artists?

It's a dangerous time.

>> BOWEN: What are you most cherishing

about returning to the stage?

>> Just watching-- imagine watching the audience's faces.

>> ♪ Yes, it's all for the...

>> You must never be distressed!

>> ♪ Yes, it's all for the...

>> All your wrongs will be redressed!

>> ♪ Yes, it's all for the...

>> Someone's got to be oppressed!

>> ♪ Yes, it's all for the best ♪

(holding final note)

(song ends)

>> BOWEN: Kate Maguire, thank you so much.

It's such a pleasure to speak with you.

>> Such a pleasure to meet you-- come visit.

>> BOWEN: I will, I will-- thank you so much.

(orchestra playing lively, rhythmic piece)

In any other summer, you'd hear those symphonic sounds

of the Boston Landmarks Orchestra

floating over the Charles River Esplanade.

That can't happen this year, of course.

But, undaunted, the group found a way

to bring its musicians together

for a series of new concerts streaming now.

Christopher Wilkins,

music director of Boston Landmarks Orchestra.

Grace Kelly, you are all over this concert

that we're about to talk about as host, writer, performer.

But we'll get to all of that.

But Christopher, first, tell me, you had, have this moment...

As I mentioned in my intro, we're so used to being able

to attend your concerts in the summer.

It's a rite of passage in the summer,

especially in downtown Boston, the heat, the music,

just being all together.

You were undaunted, you weren't going to let this

go by without happening, but you've also given

this summer's concert series a particular voice.

Tell me about that.

>> Right, well, the Boston Landmarks Orchestra

is about giving all Bostonians a voice.

That's our, our goal, anyway.

Uh, people in all kinds of neighborhoods,

from different backgrounds,

people with no musical experience,

people with considerable musical experience,

all Bostonians, uh...

We try to devise ways

for people to interact with us, and...

Obviously, this year, there's a real limit

to what we can do in terms of active participation.

(orchestra playing gentle piece)

We've done something, um, which is consistent

with our work in the past, but is playing out differently.

We're still giving voice to a lot of different, uh,

musicians, singers, composers, performers,

most of whom have strong Boston connections.

And then we've, as you know, involved a distinguished host

each time that we've performed,

and so Grace will be that on August 18 for us.

>> BOWEN: Well, Grace, tell me about that.

Speaking of, of a person with local connections here,

with Berklee, gone onto pretty great things,

as we see on television, uh, with Colbert and such,

but tell me about the piece that you have written

that really is the foundational element

for this upcoming concert, "She's the First."

>> Well, I was so excited when Christopher and,

and the Landmark Orchestra reached out, and...

This particular song is one I wrote a few years ago.

There is an amazing nonprofit called She's the First,

and they empower young girls all around the world

to be the first in their family to

perhaps graduate high school.

That was actually the impetus

for writing the song "She's the First."

♪ She's the first to dare to leave her mark ♪

♪ First to rise to start a spark ♪

♪ Oh, fire's burning bright

♪ She can lead us through the night ♪

It has a really special music video

that features a lot of these girls all around the world.

And Christopher reached out about this song,

highlighting it in this very historical concert

that I'm going to be joining them in.

And I couldn't be more honored and thrilled

to be performing this original composition with them,

and this is going to be the first time

that it debuts with its orchestral arrangement.

>> We had approached Grace, I don't know, uh, maybe

almost a year ago to participate in our 19th Amendment

Centennial Celebration concert on the Esplanade.

And then, when we decided to perform live,

but indoors and to live-stream, uh, we went back to her

and said, "You know, what would be a really cool thing,

"would be for you to perform multiple functions.

"To be a performer live, to be a performer remotely,

but then also to host the entire event."

And we haven't filmed all that yet,

but, uh, we're going to have a blast doing it,

walking around Boston,

and the, uh, Boston Women's Heritage Trail

and the Boston Women's Suffrage Trail

will be a focal point for us.

And Grace, you've done a lot of

remote live shoot, or remote shooting, anyway.

It's kind of one of your things, isn't it?

>> Yeah, I have a, um, a love for popping up.

I was in past videos where I'll just...

Who knows where I'll be? On top of a car,

I've been on Ferris wheels, but..

When you brought this up, of, Christopher,

of doing this remote set-up

and also linking the history with it, and, you know,

keeping it fun, but also, um...

With all the music that's connecting in the storyline,

it really perked up my ears, because I also think, you know,

to do this in this digital format is

very innovative and exciting.

>> BOWEN: We should mention that this also acknowledges

the, the 100th anniversary of the right to vote for women.

But going back to the pop-up moment, I'm intrigued by this.

What does that give you, this, this moment,

this element and this, these moments of surprise?

>> I really thrive on the energy of...

being in the moment.

And originally, when I thought of this,

this pop-up web series idea, I wanted to figure out a way

to break the barrier between the stage and audience.

And so that's initially how the idea got started and

then ended up getting, you know, millions of views on YouTube,

and, and suddenly, and a lot of really beautiful moments

between people and comments and people watching online.

And I was, like, "Wow, this is really a fun cool thing

that people are relating to."

>> BOWEN: Which, Chris, you've recognized.

I mean, you, you're, you're not...

This isn't the, just the concert experience.

You, you, which you had to break open, again, because

of the pandemic and ways to perform this year,

but how have you brought musicians together?

>> Well, it's, it's a particular challenge.

You're right.

And it, there are severe limits on what we can do.

We're a much smaller orchestra than we normally would be.

We've been performing with an orchestra of about 18,

socially distanced, wearing masks, those who can.

Those who can't are really wrapped in plexiglass.

And we have all kinds of protocols for the comings

and goings and the way that we interact.

To this point, it's, it's worked out really beautifully.

And we, we've done some things

we never would have thought to do otherwise.

>> BOWEN: Well, Grace, what is it like to perform right now?

You're among the, I mean, countless musicians

across the world who've just lost that opportunity.

And then to see you around Boston,

as we will, in a city that's largely emptied out.

Uh, what is it like to bring music back into spaces?

>> Yeah, I mean, it's a very wild time.

Um, I'm sure myself and all artists

saw a whole calendar year of tour dates

literally disappear overnight.

And it's been just an interesting,

um, exciting challenge to pivot everything online.

This particular performance with Christopher

and the Landmark Orchestra is, I...

I mean, it hasn't happened yet, but I can feel in my heart

how special it's going to be.

I mean, we're definitely breaking some new ground

as far as how to perform and connect with people

on the digital front.

And I think, like Christopher was just saying,

it's bringing a whole new way

of thinking out of the box,

and I'm very excited that, that we can make this happen.

It's going to be fabulous.

>> BOWEN: And finally, Christopher Wilkins,

Grace just talked about the innovation

that's happening right now, you've had to dig deep.

Do you think this changes things going forward,

or do we return to music that has existed the way

it kind of has for centuries, in some cases?

>> Well, I, I hope it returns in a new way.

I think what we do so depends on community coming together.

That's, that's what we're about.

We're about people coming together

and enjoying the moment,

and then they disperse and the moment is over.

And right now, we're creating a lot of work that will live on.

So we're learning to also, I think,

create meaningful work that's online, and preserved,

that we wouldn't have done before,

and we're finding new ways to do it.

(orchestra playing)

>> BOWEN: Well, Christopher Wilkins,

Grace Kelly, thank you so much.

Congratulations on everything you're doing

to keep music going in this moment.

We are all grateful, thank you.

>> Thank you, Jared. >> Thank you so much.

>> BOWEN: From deep dives into drama to museum strolls,

it's time now for Arts This Week.

Immerse yourself in an installation

at the newly re-opened Peabody Essex Museum Sunday.

Charles Sandison fills a whole hall

with a piece drawn from old ship captains' logs.

Wednesday, check out Boston Lyric Opera's new podcast.

At Its (s)Core explores the drama of an operatic life

on stage and behind the scenes.

Not a book club, it's a play discussion club Thursday,

as SpeakEasy Stage Company presents

a virtual discussion of the dramaDependently Yours.

Friday, head to the Fuller Craft Museum

for Stephanie Cole's Secular Cathedral exhibition.

The artist explores her identity

through found and recycled materials.

Saturday marks the anniversary of the first day

of the Woodstock Music Festival.

400,000 people heard performances by Janis Joplin,

Jimi Hendrix, and other icons.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum recently reopened

and it's extended its latest exhibition,Boston's Apollo.

When artist John Singer Sargent

was commissioned to paint a series of gods and goddesses

at the Museum of Fine Arts,

he turned to one man, Thomas McKeller.

He was a young, strapping, African American model.

Little has been known about the pair's relationship

until now.

The upper reaches of the Museum of Fine Arts rotunda

is where the gods and goddesses live.

They stand in radiant glory,

they ride chariots,

and they soar on feathered wings.

They are white and idealized, but they...

are him.

>> The man in these drawings was clearly Black,

and I thought, "What's going on here?

"Who is this man?

Has anyone figured out who he is?"

>> BOWEN: These murals and figures

have hovered over the MFA for roughly a century

since they were conceived by painter John Singer Sargent

in 1916.

But it's only now that there's been

a comprehensive look at Thomas McKeller,

the Black model behind the murals.

It's all thanks to an accidental discovery

at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

by collection curator Nathaniel Silver.

>> In 2017, I was in our storage facility

looking for another work of art,

and I opened the wrong cabinet, um...

And happened to find this portfolio-- it was huge.

And I thought, "What's that?"

So I pulled it out, and I had a look through it.

And I had never seen these Sargent drawings before.

>> BOWEN: That find has led toBoston's Apollo,

an exhibition examining the relationship

between Sargent and McKeller,

who was the painter's principal model

for the MFA murals--

an artistic relationship lasting eight years.

>> It wasn't that just anyone could have helped Sargent

get to this point.

It was Thomas McKeller specifically

that allowed Sargent to unlock a creative potential

that had not been tapped before.

>> BOWEN: Sargent was a celebrity painter,

and tired of doing the portraiture

that was his bread and butter

when he received the MFA commission.

There are no known pictures of Thomas McKeller,

who was a 26-year-old bellman when he met Sargent

at Boston's posh Hotel Vendome.

>> He was a veteran, a Roxbury resident.

He came from Wilmington, North Carolina, in the 1890s

in the wake of devastating racial violence.

So certainly, coming to Boston meant

the opening up of professional opportunities

that he never would have been able to explore in Wilmington.

>> BOWEN: In these charcoal sketches

Sargent ultimately gave

to his friend and patron Isabella Stewart Gardner,

we find the artist drawing

the fine contours and musculature of McKeller,

a sometime contortionist

turned stand-in for mythological gods.

>> There were specific skills that a model needed to have.

You needed to be able to hold difficult poses

for very long periods of time.

But you also had to be able to work with somebody

who was constantly moving you around.

>> BOWEN: There is little known about the extent

of the relationship between the two men,

but consider this Sargent painting of McKeller.

It's Sargent's only major nude

and was hung prominently in his studio,

never intended for public view.

>> Sargent lavished attention in making this work.

You can see it in the highlights on the shoulders

and on the chest here.

This incredible tiny little shadow

just over the Adam's apple,

and another one just under the bottom lip.

This was not a painting that was dashed off in a few strokes.

This was a painting that he spent

an incredible amount of time, effort, and love in making.

>> The first thing I saw was all the drawings together,

and so that impact, that first and initial impact

on my eyes and on my senses and...

That got me so excited!

>> BOWEN: Performance artist Helga Davis

is a visiting curator who directed this short film,

in which the last of McKeller's direct descendants

literally comes face-to-face with his legacy.

>> The posing of my great-uncle for these sketches was...

Really a... means of survival for him.

>> He had many jobs, but...

the modeling feels like his work, his life's work.

>> BOWEN: Sargent was paid $40,000 for the murals,

a tremendous sum in 1916.

McKeller, as this letter reveals, was cash-strapped,

and for his modeling made just a few dollars a day.

>> He had this life that, that put him in a uniform,

that put him in a box.

That perhaps people would see him

and they identified him as one thing.

And we are never only one thing.

And he certainly was not one thing.

>> BOWEN: McKeller was also the model

for Sargent's murals at Harvard University

and for the body of onetime Harvard president

Abbott Lawrence Lowell,

who had expelled Black students from freshman dorms.

He also stood for this statue of Massasoit in Plymouth.

But with the exception of census and military records,

Thomas McKeller has been erased from this story.

>> How could we possibly forget somebody who was so pivotal,

who played so pivotal a role

in the production of Boston's public art?

That's a question that revolves around blind spots

in the discipline of art history,

of history, and of society in general.

>> BOWEN: The Gardner is confronting history here,

calling out the erasure of a Black man by a white artist

a century ago

and what that looks like today,

when there is finally a reclamation.

What do you see when you look up at those murals

at the Museum of Fine Arts?

>> I see yes, and...

Yes.

You, you made Apollo, you made...

You made these things, and...

Here's the body that inspired it.

Here's the body that really made it.

>> BOWEN: And that is all for this edition ofOpen Studio.

Next week, a show filled with song.

>> I did think about leaving the music business,

because I was so distressed by the big star-maker machinery

and the push to always be kind of sexualized in photo shoots,

or just the misunderstanding of my message.

>> There's a lot of luck in what I do

and the way my career has taken off.

>> I just live with rhymes in my head.

And music, everything I hear, even a rhythm,

somebody walking around clicking on...

You know, in the kitchen cleaning dishes,

I always got to pick up on some sort of a rhythm.

>> BOWEN: Tune in for our conversations

with Grammy-winning singer-songwriters Paula Cole,

Lori McKenna, and Dolly Parton.

Until then, I'm Jared Bowen, thanks for joining us.

As always, you can visit us online

at wgbh.org/OpenStudio.

And you can follow us on Instagram and Twitter,

@OpenStudioWGBH.

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