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SOCIALLY DISTANT THEATER: The Solo Show As Seen By Al Hirschfeld

Stage Directions • June 2020The Callboard • May 22, 2020

On May 11, The Al Hirschfeld Foundation (AHF) opened the first in a series of online exhibitions exploring the work of one of the most iconic artists of the last century. The special exhibition is ideal for these times: “SOCIALLY DISTANT THEATER: The Solo Show As Seen By Hirschfeld”, a collection of 25 drawings, paintings, collages, and prints documenting a half century of one-person theater productions. This special digital exhibit will be online free to view through June 20 at  AlHirschfeldFoundation.org/exhibitions.

“In the world of the theater, the one-person show is perhaps the best situation and the worst,” writes David Leopold, Creative Director for the AHF in the introduction to the exhibition. “It is a supreme test of assurance and ability; of magnetism and charisma. But the format is also frightening; there’s no one to play against, to lean on, to share the criticism. For an actor, if there is no one else to take the blame, there is also no one to share the credit with as well. The applause at the end is for only one performer. In many ways these performers are all caricatures in the sense they have exaggerated elements of their subject to bring a whole life or simply a story to life. So in essence, Al Hirschfeld, the ultimate solo artist, is the ideal portraitist for this unique form of theater.”

In addition to showing the artwork in detail as it has never been seen before, throughout the online exhibition are links to videos of parts or the whole of some of these solo performances. You can see Henry Fonda as Clarence Darrow, Julie Harris as Emily Dickinson, or Robert Morse as Truman Capote. Or you can see Whoopi Goldberg, and John Leguizamochannel a seemingly endless parade of characters from their solo shows.

Christopher Plummer in Barrymore, 1997
(©The Al Hirschfeld Foundation. All rights reserved.)

Al Hirschfeld’s drawings stand as one of the most innovative efforts in establishing the visual language of modern art through caricature in the 20th century. A self-described “characterist,” his signature work, defined by a linear calligraphic style, appeared in virtually every major publication of the last nine decades (including a 75-year relationship with The New York Times) as well as numerous book and record covers and 15 postage stamps. Hirschfeld said his contribution was to take the character, created by the playwright and portrayed by the actor, and reinvent it for the reader. Playwright Terrence McNally wrote: “No one ‘writes’ more accurately of the performing arts than Al Hirschfeld. He accomplishes on a blank page with his pen and ink in a few strokes what many of us need a lifetime of words to say.”

Whoopi Goldberg in Whoopi Goldberg, 1984 (©The Al Hirschfeld Foundation. All rights reserved.)

 

In celebration of the birth of his daughter Nina in 1945, Hirschfeld placed her name in the background of a drawing. What the artist described as an innocent prank soon became a personal trademark and national obsession, as he began hiding numerous NINA’s throughout his drawings for years to come. (There was always one hidden NINA and if more, he would reveal the amount to find with a number next to his signature. There are 40 NINAs to find in the Whoopi Goldberg drawing!)

Hirschfeld was declared a Living Landmark by the New York City Landmarks Commission in 1996, and a Living Legend by The Library of Congress in 2000.  Just before his death in January 2003, he learned he was to be awarded the Medal of Arts from the National Endowment of the Arts and inducted into the Academy of Arts and Letters. The winner of two Tony Awards, he was given the ultimate Broadway accolade on what would have been his 100th birthday in June 2003. The Martin Beck Theater was renamed the Al Hirschfeld Theater.

Elaine Strich in At Liberty, 2002 (©The Al Hirschfeld Foundation. All rights reserved.)

The show is part of the AHF’s continuing mission to promote interest in the theater and visual arts. The Foundation supports non-profit museums, libraries, theaters and similar cultural institutions, fulfilling its mission through grants and exhibitions of Hirschfeld’s art, lending and/or donating pieces to institutions all over the world. You can also go behind the lines of Hirschfeld’s art with The Hirschfeld Century Podcast, nominated as “Best NYC podcast” by the 2020 Apple Awards.  A special episode dedicated to the works featured in Socially Distant Theaterwill be available starting May 20 from AlHirschfeldFoundation.org/podcastsiTunesand other popular podcast sights.

 

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