Wednesday, December 26, 2007

If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It

Dredging through some archives that I managed to catch up on over the holiday, and here's a little gem from American Theater (October 2007), from an interview with writer/director Craig Lucas. Says Lucas:
There's this whole play-development thing in America that assumes somehow all new plays are broken and need fixing. But what does that mean? Every single one of Shakespeare's plays has a bad fourth act in my view -- every one of them! And your job as a director is to find a way to make it play on stage, to sustain it. I keep asking dramaturgs: "What would you do if Chekhov's Three Sisters came across the transom tomorrow?" I think many would say, "Perhaps you need to explain why they aren't going to Moscow."
Lucas continues, "Theater should be a participatory event, not 'you sit back in your chair and we'll do everything for you.' That's fine for mass entertainment, but that isn't why I go to the theatre. I go to be teased and drawn out."

This fits neatly with another director/playwright's stance, this time from Harold Pinter, courtesy of John Lahr in The New Yorker (Dec. 24 & 31). His view is tidily expressed here: To supply an explicit moral tag to an evolving and compulsive dramatic image seems to me facile, impertinent, and dishonest. Where this takes place it is not theatre but a crossword puzzle. The audience holds the paper. The play fills in the blanks. Everyone's happy. There has been no conflict between audience and play, no participation, nothing has been exposed. We walk out as we walk in."

Yeah, consider how much the Times hated The Homecoming when it premiered in the '60s (though they offered a corrective a few weeks later, hint, hint), as opposed to how much they like it now. Truth be told, you'll always find someone who thinks the whole play is broke -- even Raymond Carver's brilliant short story collections were first torn to pieces by his editor (again, that issue of The New Yorker, specifically, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love"). So what's the trick to escaping "development hell"?

Try letting the playwright free-fall; whether there's a big impact or just a feeble splat, at least the work is being experimented with, at least it's not in limbo. Everyone's entitled to some failures, so long as they have the will to keep on going, as long as they're able to find the audience. That's what I admire about 13P (this year is Shelia Callaghan and Lucy Thurber): they're letting the playwrights do what they must, and last year's production of Have You Seen Steve Steven (and the revival of The Internationalist) both gave unique voices the opportunity to be heard. You'll also see things like this in groups focused on getting those voices out, like New Georges (God's Ear and Good Heif) or Clubbed Thumb (the upcoming Amazons and Their Men, but see also their recent book 'o seven plays: Funny, Strange, Provocative). I hope to talk to these groups in '08 to see what their perspective is on where the director steps in. (Note, I've left companies out of this mix, like Elevator Repair Service, Nature Theater of Oklahoma, the Debate Society, &c., because their work is collaborative, and totally something else that I'd like to focus on in the new year. Bold theaters, however, like SoHo Rep and the increasingly daring Playwrights Horizon are worth checking out.)

Theater should be more than junk food (I railed against a recent production of The Santaland Diaries because of this), and my resolution for the new year will be to challenge myself as an audience member at least as much as the playwright is challenging me. Doesn't mean I'll like it, but it doesn't mean it's broken either.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Critical Thought #3: Thoughts on Second Thoughts

Saw No Dice on Saturday. Got fired up by the show and wrote a review about it that evening. Saw two more shows tonight, The Devil's Disciple and Vital Signs (a one-act play festival), but kept thinking about No Dice. Now although I write on a website that is by nature fluid, I don't think it's ethical for me to amend any review that I write, at least not to change an opinion of it (making a technical correction, especially as I have no editor; that I feel is fair game so long as I credit the correction, much like a newspaper does the next day). But then I started reading the comments to my last thought here, and it occurred to me, when talking about subjectivity and the use of blogs, wouldn't it be great to be able to stay fresher?

I'm not talking about changing an opinion, or pulling a 180, but what if you realize you haven't spoken strongly enough in favor of a show or if you were too lenient? Sometimes it takes a while for something to sink in, and it's true that you don't always realize what you've got until it's gone. Also, let's not ignore the fact that in such a subjective field, mood plays a large part, and you'd be hard pressed to find any writer who can block out all moods, stresses, and other thoughts from their ultimate perspective. (That's why I'm against trusting any one voice.) So why not allow the critic a space in which to slightly touch up or touch down their thoughts? We've allowed John Simon to change his mind entirely about Sondheim over the course of 40 years (though the plays themselves haven't changed, only the times), so why not compress that and allow -- nay, expect -- that critics give themselves the room, even if only on the Internet to self-correct? Wouldn't that be an excellent use of blogging? The PR firms would still have their blurbs, and if the internet really is as shabby a tool as they think, any later corrections wouldn't really change those (not like the pull quotes are always honest, either).

I don't really know that there's so much of a point to this post, and it certainly feels like a ramble, but what I'm trying to say is that No Dice really is a striking show. I still prefer the more compressed and stylized work of The Debate Society, but that's because I'm an aesthete at heart, and I can't say that No Dice is as original as other theatergoers might take it to be, because I've seen a lot of experimental works from groups like Rotozaza. But that energy, those accents, that faux-amateurish charm (yeah, they knew exactly what they were doing), they really did succeed in getting the audience to love them, and I'd be remiss if I didn't tell the audiences that "I'm A Sexy Robot" is still stuck in my head (I want Nature Theater of Oklahoma to release a YouTube video . . . even though their whole point is that it's live).

Here's the point (at a point where some bloggers are worried about such a stupid, imaginary thing as "trust"): after editing, processing, careful considering, review, and publishing, the review is still a subjective force, and if we're really interested in the arts that we write about -- the theater itself -- then there's no reason why we shouldn't go back in to the fray and write for what we stand behind. Playwrights endlessly workshop their plays, changing them even in the midst of previews; perhaps it would be more truthful for critics to acknowledge that what's currently going as their final word isn't necessarily their most accurate one. And maybe they should explore ways in which they can continue to explore their reactions; otherwise, a deadline is just as cold as it sounds.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Critical Thought #2: What's a Spoiler?

Rob Kendt calls out Jacques Le Sourd for spoiling the big secret of Tracy Letts' new play, August: Osage County, which I review here. My stance on spoilers is simple: if the play does not earn its ending, then you have the right to ruin it -- think of it as an active choice to take away whatever incentive the audience might have to actually go out and see it. No spoiler alert is necessary (though it's certainly courteous): plot analysis is implicit in any critical reading or evaluation of a work. (For example, I wouldn't talk about the end of The Sixth Sense, but I would gladly tell you about The Village.) I generally extend it one step further, just because I try to be a nice guy and give the benefit of the doubt where I can, which is to say that I won't give away anything that is integral to the work itself; that is, if there's a perspective-changing revelation (Darth Vader is Luke's father), I wouldn't say a word, although if it were simply a surprising plot point (Darth Vader cuts off Luke's hand), I would.

In the case of August: Osage County, I don't think Le Sourd gives away anything that would ruin anyone's enjoyment of the play. The relationship between Ivy Weston and Little Charles isn't that big of a shocker, any more than Beverly's suicide after the first scene. The play is about larger things than that (and smaller things), and isn't impacted by this commentary. In fact, it's actually important, as it addresses one of the taboos of the play -- I mean, imagine trying to analyze The Goat (or Who Is Sylvia?) without mentioning that he's fucking a goat. How would you talk about our shallow notions of love, or the (admittedly exaggerated) very real prospect of loving two distinct people at the same time?

If this were the case, you'd only have solid reviews of revivals, for with those, there's an understanding that the plot is already understood (as with my usage of Star Wars above). Critics who analyze Romeo and Juliet, for example, seem to have no problem spoiling -- even for younger audiences -- the fact that these two star-crossed lovers both die. Yes, that's an extreme example, but I'm just saying: knowing how a play ends doesn't necessarily stop the audience from enjoying it, unless that's all there is to the show.

And seriously, if all a show has going for it is a twist -- which is certainly not the case with August: Osage County -- then there's a bigger problem with American theater than people say. Ultimately, the point I'm making is this: if you're reading a review, you're either looking for validation (or argument) regarding what you've already seen (and therefore can't have spoiled), or you're trying to be persuaded into seeing the show in question. Shouldn't the critic have the right to talk you out of seeing the show, if it so rankled their senses? Because if not, if we take away that most aggressive of critical tools, aren't we preventing the critic from justifying his or her own views, thereby belittling all negative arguments and simply promoting the positive?

Monday, December 03, 2007

Critical Thought: Introduction and #1

One of the things I find most interesting about the theatrosphere is that at times, even with all of the theatrical content out there, it is a self-generating gossip machine, a place where there are more comments about comments than actual observations about the industry itself. (For instance, Nick's wrap-up of the Hunka/Jacobs back-and-forth of earlier this year, and the various responses that's gotten.) There's been much said in the last month, but I've stayed out of it; I'm glad someone bashed the Isherwood column, but on the whole, I found that to be unnecessary; I was pleased to see such great coverage of the strike, but found myself with no hard news to contribute; and I was flattered to be mentioned in George's latest state of the union address, even though I think it's a good thing that there are no standards -- in other words, no limitations -- to what might be said on the Internet.

I had a great time reading all of these posts, or what might be called "lurking" by New York Times Magazine's new media columnist, Virginia Heffernan. You may have even seen the rare post by me, but for the most part, I've decided that whereas I already have my focus on reviews on my main site (That Sounds Cool) and over at the Show Showdown, I don't have the energy to talk about talking about other things, which is something this post seems to belie. So without further ado, I'm going to introduce the new direction for my blog, an attempt of mine both to break out of idleness and irregular posting here, but also to strengthen my original intent: to find the form of criticism that best realizes the medium, and also to show, to anyone reading, a different sort of artist's search for truth. I set out on this path back in April, with a mini-manifesto (of sorts), and I'll delve back into that search now by citing some good examples in the various literature I read, either of good usages, good observations, or things that just make me wonder what the whole point of criticism is, anyway.

Anyway, I'll begin with two excerpts from the December 2007 issue of Harper's Magazine.
Try to understand what the author wishes to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt . . . if the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author's ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it's his and not yours?
- John Updike, Picked-Up Pieces (1975)
Granted, he's talking about literary criticism, but theater is just a flesh-and-blood, three-dimensional production of what's already on the page, and what Updike says here is pretty accurate. If you're going to condemn craft, it helps to put that text into context, by either finding places where it works in the play and then doesn't, or by talking about the genre as a whole, explaining what extra piece was necessary to elevate the text or justify it. Of course, this requires a wealth of knowledge, which is why the theater critic must never stop seeing shows, and shows of all variety, not just those content to sparkle in a big house, but those that are forced by necessity to innovate in a smaller space.

And then these two gems from W. H. Auden's De Droite et de Gauche (1952), which has the French title because the original English was lost (meaning that the following is a return to form for this belated retranslation):
The best literary critic is not the one whose judgments are always right but the one whose essays compel you to read and reread the works he discusses; even when he is hostile, you feel that the work attacked is important enough to be worth the effort. There are other critics who, even when they praise a book, cancel any desire you might have to read it.
Man, to be that critic, the one who manages to spark a genuine excitement in the reader. There are all to many shows that I've written negative reviews for, but in all of those critiques, I always start by trying to set the scene, to explore what exactly it is that I'm responding badly to, in the hopes that the reader will be able to use their own judgment. I avoid hostility (though I often get it from anonymous comments that would rather attack me than explain the supposed merits of the play in question), because I don't think it is ever conducive toward discussion or thought, but I do think the important thing Auden says here is that the best critic is -- most importantly -- not always right. How dare we boil things down to such blacks and whites?
Judging a work of art is virtually they same mental operation as judging human beings, and requires the same aptitudes: first, a real love of works of art, an inclination to praise rather than blame, and regret when a complete rejection is required; second, a vast experience of all artistic activities; and last, an awareness, openly and happily accepted, of one's own prejudices. Some critics fail because they are pedants whose ideal of perfection is always offended by a concrete realization. Others fail because they are insular and hostile to what is alien to them; these critics, yielding to their prejudices without knowing they have them and sincerely offering judgments they believe to be objective, are more excusable than those who, aware of their prejudices, lack the courage to enter the lists to defend their personal tastes.
That quote there is the heart of criticism, and I think it explains why so many people out there are having poor reactions to modern American criticism. The easiest observation to make is that a lot of the professional critics out there don't seem to actually love what they do. You have to want the show to succeed -- even if that biases you a little -- or you become incapable of seeing anything other than what you've already established in that first five minute impression. Granted, we are a culture that works heavily off of first impressions, but historically, the first impression has never gotten us anywhere. Look at how many firsts we've been wrong about; Hell, look at how many people John Simon has reversed his opinion about as the years have gone by! That second point there, too, again speaks to the necessity of experience -- really the only qualifying point for any active critic. If you enjoy spending your time in the theater, it will never seem alien to you; instead, it will just be another adventure.

What I find most interesting about that whole thought is that prejudice can be something useful, and if you think about it, there's really no reason why we should be able to fight for the playwrights we love. The problem is, as with Isherwood and Sarah Ruhl (love), Will Eno (neutral), or Adam Rapp (hate), is that it's not enough to just have that closeted off: it needs to be clear, too. Why do I like Adam Bock plays so much? And how can I resolve his casual, completely innocuous language, with my other loves -- for lyrical text (specifically rhymed couplets) and a cinematic aesthetic on the stage (the sort of stuff Lear deBesonnet does). I imagine that delving into that would only make me a better critic, and as the months go on, I hope to start interviewing some of these delightful artists so that I can find out why I feel so connected to their styles -- and perhaps succeed in exciting the rest of you to the same degree.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Business Models

I choose not to review television shows because they're the common medium: it's all too easy to access them, even easier to pass judgment on them (and for the most part, given how much TV we watch, accurate judgment), and there really isn't that much art left in the great many shows out there. I won't say there aren't exceptions (The Wire), or that there isn't great writing (House), innovative storytelling (Lost), or superbly self-indulgent satire (Boston Legal). But the only purpose critics serve in television is to keep a show on the air, something they've been failing to do (Arrested Development on the high end, Veronica Mars on the low).

Which brings me to the point of this would-be screen screed: NBC is all but giving away Friday Night Lights in a desperate attempt to grab fearful audience's attentions for the second season, which everybody seems to know is good, but nobody seems to watch. (It can't be that they don't know when it's on; it's actually in the title of the show.) You can buy the full season, all twenty-two episodes, for $20 through their site, and most other outlets offer it for $30, which is still a steal. Not that I'm schilling for the marketing department, though. I'm just pointing out the brilliance of their marketing. NBC has the pockets to take a "loss" on their DVD (in this case, it isn't really a loss, since making the DVD costs next to nothing -- any copy they sell, for almost any price, is a profit), but in doing so, helps to build an audience of cheapskates looking for a good value who, after stumbling into this solid, solid show, will theoretically keep watching, week after week, the "after" economics that will then yield profits for the show and the network.

There are theaters out there that have started similar initiatives, all with the purpose of dropping prices NOW so that they will have a more sustainable fan base LATER. With every ticket Todd Haimes sells for Speech and Debate, he's getting audiences (lured in by the solid production values and the $20 ticket price) interested in what Roundabout does. Every discount, be it for "young professionals," tour groups from out of town, corporations, &c., helps to build word of mouth and spill over into a large enough audience to sell out the next show on trust alone. I never know what I'm going to find when I go to Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, but I'm willing to buy a ticket because I trust the company will be doing fun stuff. When I make a small investment of money or time at PS 122 or HERE Arts Center, I'm trusting that their directors and curators are putting up shows that they actually care about, and not just trying to lease the space out. (This isn't always the case, but one can hope.)

Sarah Benson, new artistic director of Soho Rep, makes a valid point in the new issue of TONY (which is all about where the cost of a ticket goes): "The box office is a piece of the pie, but it's a small piece . . . we don't rely on it." Like Signature Theater, she is looking outside the box to find ways to keep the box office inexpensive so that she can build loyal audiences who trust the programming enough to come back should donors dry up and prices go back down. It's a circle too: the New York Times Magazine recently wrote about the kinds of people who give to their colleges (and why), and I think we'd find that donors are those long-standing patrons who feel a connection, cultivated over the years, to a good-intentioned organization.

Discounts are but a limited band-aid on the overwhelming inflation of ticket costs, and I'm liking the balls of a group like Roundabout to commit to cheaper pricing (with their ACCESS ROUNDABOUT program, say). When I saw Speech and Debate, I saw the next generation of theatergoers, and if they were simply half as impressed as I, they'll be back for more.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Get Your Read On!

OK, so I wasn't a huge fan of Soho Rep's recent production of Philoktetes, John Jesurun's messy web of ideas and images. But if you read a little between the lines, you'll note that I very much admired the script, both for educational value and poetic aspirations. This is why I'm pleased to point out that at performances of Philoktetes, you can buy a slim copy of the script. It's a Soho Rep version, published through On Stage Press, and though I'm told it's a division of Samuel French, I couldn't actually find information on buying this through them or Amazon, or really anywhere but at Soho Rep itself. (Which is odd, since the book is labeled as being $8.00, and is being sold there for $5.00.)

Anyway, I'm excited about the initiative, apparently led by series editor Daniel Manley. I guess now that Soho Rep is on an Off-Broadway contract, they can branch out into publishing, but I'm thinking of all the new premieres at small houses, and thinking just how great it would be if you always had an option to buy the script from the theater: that is, after all, the greatest point of access. Not that there aren't flaws: Soho Rep only sells the scripts before the show, not after (when you might really be inspired to pick one up), and Manley's budget apparently doesn't extend to hiring a proofreader (read: I'm available), but the idea itself, of really spreading theater not just on stage, but in book, word of mouth, whatever . . ..

I've seen books for sale at The Public and HERE Arts Center, both of which are great hubs to the arts; I hope to see discounted versions, or annotated ones, somewhere down the line. In a world that obsesses over the 2-disc or 3-disc DVD version of a film, this might be a way to close the gap between art and understanding.

Friday, October 26, 2007

McFrankenstein and the HIPygmalion Party

Two interesting discoveries while on Broadway tonight. First (and yes, as it turns out, TONY is on this one, too), while grabbing an Angus Deluxe during the 15-minute break at Pygmalion (yes, I'm a pig, but at least I don't speak cockney), I encountered big advertisements for the lottery tickets being given out for Young Frankenstein. Apparently, three hours before that show, you go across the street to this strange thing called a theater (in fact the Hilton Theater, where the show is playing), and you put your name in a lottery. Should you win this lottery, you'll also (shockingly) buy your $26.50 tickets there. However, to find if you've won, you have to go into the heart of that neon McDonalds next door two hours before the show. Now, I thought as with Signature Theater that when there were corporate sponsors, all the tickets were $15 or $20 a pop. So what's the deal with this franchising? (As for the information itself, it's hopelessly hidden on the slow-to-load, hard-to-navigate site for the show, located here.)

As for the other, because I attended Pygmalion as part of the HIPTIX program, I got a chance to see their marketing department at work, as October 25th happened to be a "Makeover Party" for all the young professionals in the audience. The event was cheery, with a few of the actors making the rounds (Jay O. Sanders and Doug Stender), and there was free Tsingtao beer and light snack foods (followed by decadent mini-brownies). There were goodie bags, too. But aside from the two charming makeup artists giving penthouse guests a "makeover," nothing about the event tied to theater itself, which I thought was the whole point of the HIPTIX program. I was lucky enough to be introduced to some other people with an interest in theater, and I had a nice discussion about some other shows I'd recently seen or now plan on seeing (The Overwhelming and Speech and Debate), but for the most part, people came for the swag and the food, and stuck with their friends, and didn't seem to give a shit about theater. Heart's in the right place, but isn't there something more we can do? Surely there's something more I can do, and I'll keep reaching out until there are enough of us to actually affect a change in theatergoing trends.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Not Your Mother's Opera

I think this snippet from the 10/26 New Yorker sums up the theatrical generation gap better than anything else I can write:
[Mercedes] Bass[, a $25M donor] said that she was thrilled with Gelb's attemps to bring a new audience into the Met, and that she understood what a commitment a night out at the opera could be. "Opera is somewhat of an acquired taste, and it is very time-consuming--you need to have three or four hours to devote to it," she said. "And then, to a certain degree you have to have the finances. I am very aware that for a couple to go to the opera, it means basically a hairdresser, a babysitter, a taxi or car, dinner on the Grand Tier. All of that mounts up to being sort of an expensive evening."
I'm glad that the emphasis is on all of Gelb's attempts to make it less expensive, as not all of us have that sort of money, let alone hairdressers, babysitters, or cars. But the fact that people think theater needs to be some sort of social statement -- not in of itself, but by those who attend it -- doesn't bode well. Note also that this is expected to be the average operagoer, which means that every night, 3,800 rich socialites are expected to make an evening of the arts. Gelb's singled out, time and time again, as an outside-the-box thinker, in that he's aired live performances in less expensive venues, like movie theaters, and that he's instituted rush seating (specifically for the elderly, retirees who can no longer afford it). But what sort of box was the previous manager, Volpe, thinking in for such a business model -- for something that is an "acquired taste" -- to ever work?

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

America in a Nutshell

From a new commercial for CNBC: "I'd rather follow a fool with a plan than a genius with no plan."

Yeah, that pretty much sums up our country right now: our demand for the immediate makes us glom onto quick answers, even if they haven't been thought through, even if that first plan is so horrendous that it requires a second plan. See, I'd rather trust that the genius has our best interests at heart, and that change will come through gradual growth . . . but sure, why not take stupidity now.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Dropping the Ball

So I'm just wondering, in light of The New York Times' lack of coverage of New Georges recent premiere, Good Heif, what exactly a company needs to do for a review. I know the Times is sporadic, at best, in its coverage of off-Broadway plays (and with just cause, there are too many), but can't we at least have some guidelines? (1) The run is at least three weeks: then you don't have to feel as if the review is irrelevant. (2) The show is at least in a 99-seat venue: then you know you'll have readers. If that doesn't narrow it down enough, add requirements: (3) That there be good word of mouth about the company or the venue: why the Times covered Dead City at 3LD and God's Ear at CSC but not Good Heif at Ohio Theater. Or (4) That the work be new, which, in a time of not-often-enough-produced female playwrights or American ones, should call out to the "arbiters of taste" to render some judgment, if for nothing else than to help the Pulitzer committee out. The rest, the Gray Lady can leave to the bloggers or the umbrella websites that unite them: rest assured, there are many Martin Dentons out there. But seriously: The Ritz may be on Broadway, but I'd much rather read about something totally new than about something that's back again. Given the Broadway climate, it's possible we'll start getting a new Gypsy review every year -- and miss out on some of the new works out there. (Note: I didn't like Good Heif, but it's the principle that counts, and as I've said before, the more people who review something, the easier it is to remove pure opinion from the picture.)

Saturday, October 06, 2007

So What's the Pointy?

That is, why write reviews at all, you know? A lot of shows that I've seen lately, and artists that I've read, seem to support raw experience over processed analysis, and I'm in agreement. Kate Fodor (of 100 Saints You Should Know) and Elizabeth LeCompte (director of the Wooster Group, as profiled by Jane Kramer in the 10/8 New Yorker) both seek to play with character and explore possibilities rather than to stodgily or solidly define -- very different, I think, than the strict definitions of Beckett, or the precise language of Albee. Fodor's program notes point out that she doesn't have (or want) the answers that her character seek, nor even know their complete histories. And LeCompte looks to "get lost in it" until she knows what she wants.

Given this, why bother trying to define art within narrow boundaries? Why try to turn the beach of the mind into a sandbox?

That said, why not search for the middle ground? I see criticism as a non-affiliated tour agency, one that visits as many foreign vistas as possible, compiling them in such a way that they can simply lay out an audience's options as plainly as possible. It's not really my job to deny anyone access to a particular play, so much as it is to educate people to the possibilities: yes, you can go Iphigenia 2.0, but perhaps you'd be happier checking out Philoketes? Or if you hate the sound of The Misanthrope, maybe you'd be more comfortable seeing something more traditional, like The Children of Vonderly.

I don't understand criticism that seeks to define something simply as good or bad, especially when it is less than descriptive, or dismissive of positive points. Maybe that lopsided black and white works for the government's depiction of axes and evils, but art is far from being that easily summarized. I'm still looking to find the aesthetic that works for my own writing, and I'm far from perfect as a theatergoer and critic, but I'm getting better because I'm staying open to the possibility inherent in every show, no matter how sweaty the space, dim the lights, or eccentric the writing. Magic is happening, and I don't want to be caught sleeping when I see it.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Somebody Stop This Guy!

Note: this is strict opinion, and I fully endorse the right of other critics to have other opinions. I also don't claim to be any better, but I am interested in getting better, so I put this out there in the hopes of sharing my own personal progress as a reviewer, theatergoer, and writer.

I have to justify it because I briefly worked with Matt Windman during the neonatal stages of the New Theater Corps, and I don't want it to seem as if there's anything behind my critique of his critiques. But come on:
Okay, Mr. Hove. We get it. You're a smart guy with intriguing ideas. Nevertheless, wouldn't it have been better to just do Moliere's "The Misanthrope"?
Can somebody explain Matt's language to me? To know that Mr. Hove is smart and that he has intriguing ideas, you need to be watching his experimental modernizations of classic works. Had Mr. Hove done a standard reproduction, a carbon copy facsimile, it would be a simple revival, as bland as any star-vehicle on Broadway (take The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial). No wonder (as was pointed out at the recent Prelude panel I attended) downtown theater has it so rough: a lot of critics are stodgy traditionalists, who refuse to look critically at anything new, and say things like "Frankly, 'The Misanthrope' doesn't need to be updated." Can we expect honest opinions from someone who attends a Shakespearian play thinking there's only one way to present it? I'm all for period pieces, formal revivals, and time-capsule productions, but I'm wide-eyed and eager for the new, too: the chance to resurrect a play, not simply revive it.

Some critics seem unwilling to rise to the challenge of avant-garde, either from a lack of seeing enough "alternative" theater to know what is still avant-garde and what isn't. (This is actually a point I'd like to explore further: how long does it take before something isn't avant-garde any more? I'd say that The Misanthrope takes enough chances that it is genuinely surprising, refreshingly new, not just to the Broadway snob but to the ten-plays-a-week enthusiast. Iphigenia 2.0, which Windman also calls avant-garde, belongs to a style of work that Mee, among others, has been doing for years now, and to call that avant-garde expresses at best a disinterest and at worst a disdain for new works out there, that is, they weren't big enough to really be doing work before, they may have broken ground ten years ago, but only now is worth mentioning that they're groundbreaking.)

What I'm saying is that it's far easier to slap the disaffecting "avant-garde" label on something and to walk away than it is to actually try to process the pros and cons of a production through the filter of accumulated theater knowledge.

Which is, of course, why any theater critic must constantly travel not just to Broadway, but to the off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway stages, or even, for completists, to other cities and countries. I'm not saying that Matt can't dislike "The Misanthrope"; I'm saying that the reasons he cites are lazy and based on a personal bias. There's nothing wrong with there being a conservative audience, but a critic must write to teach and expose others, not to pander to that audience. So explain what makes some experiments succeed, and why others fail: don't just condemn an artist wholesale for trying.

Verbing Ourselves

It's official, or as official as an esteemed publication can make it. James Wood, for The New Yorker, applies everything he learned at Harvard to write the following sentence:
So here is Alter's inspired attempt to English the Hebrew:
What he's talking about is a new translation (as compared to the King James Version) of the Book of Psalms. Considering how much we bastardize our own language every day (and I'm a creative writer, so I know something about fucking one's own prose), it should be no surprise that we've now officially verbed it -- "to English" -- which is admittedly no worse than "to verb" something in the first place.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Prelude -- Not to a Kiss, but to Hot New Theater

Interested in hot, experimental theater, but don't want to shell out cool, hard cash? Then get to CUNY's Graduate Center (365 Fifth Avenue), and more specifically the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center, because this weekend (9/26-9/29), there's a festival of readings, performances, and panels that are all about the changing theater scene. Those of you questioning the limited scope of ethnic theater out there can talk with Jason Grote at a 4:00 9/28 panel about downtown theater and racial representation. Those of you interested in PS 122's '08 season can check out early drafts of Hello Failure (by Kristen Kosmas) and the Debate Society's The Untitled Auto Play. Or you can just pick random shows by interesting sounding theater companies--Lightbox, 31 Down--or by funky names--Sherri Zahad And Her Arabian Knights or Red Fly/Blue Bottle.

Of course, my goal isn't to advertise, but rather to hype up downtown theater, especially after attending today's prelude to the Prelude, a kick-off panel about Uptown/Downtown theater, and the struggle to change the mainstream, featuring comments from Sarah Benson, Jim Nicola, Alex Timbers, Adam Bock, and David Cote (that's the artistic directors of Soho Rep, NYTW, and Les Freres Corbusier, not to mention a fine playwright, and a fine critic). Panels do tend to be pessimistic, with larger institutions having to pander to their subscribers (Benson), the instability of an unfunded market for artists (Nicola), the condescension of certain critics (Benson), and a conservative audience (Cote, quoting Anne Bogart).

Timbers' valid question is: how do we get the younger, rock-concert going audiences to move from what's considered hip at UCB or Ars Nova, and to a theater out in Brooklyn doing some odd Radiohole event, or to a Clown Festival at The Brick, &c., &c. My main concern is that you can't: concerts--music in general--is a transportable conversation machine, something that you can pop in and share with everyone, and discuss at leisure around a water cooler, bong, &c. Theater doesn't really provide that, and there isn't any hub for young audiences, even though hip spaces like New World Stages or Theater Row could easily aspire to that. In other words, does Shakespeare in the Park get audiences to buy tickets to the Public's presentation of Wooster Group's Hamlet?

Things are commercial, and for every self-sustaining group doing good work, like Elevator Repair Service, there are plenty of groups that can't work outside of limited residencies, and who never get the budgets they need to fully realize their work. Under the Radar, Mark Russell's curated event at the Public, is one way of bringing attention to deserving groups (and the Public will be bringing back The Brothers Size), but there's only so much Mr. Russell can see, only so much that Soho Rep can host, or NYTW can develop. And these are just downtown theaters: what does it take to get MTC to really take more risks? (In this case, the success of Adam Bock's The Receptionist, though we can certainly be encouraged by modern Greeks like Ruhl's Eurydice and Mee's Iphigenia 2.0.) And even here, these aren't really company imports: they're built from the commercial model (when they go to Broadway), and don't foster the creative energies from both directors and writers that allows NYTW to keep reinventing the wheel.

Cote joked that in the next twenty or thirty years, a lot of theatergoers are going to have died. But nobody really laughed. Taste changes slowly, especially if conservative audiences are afraid to sample new wares (or worse yet, sleep through young works at Roundabout), and even more so if critics are steadfast in the works that they've been schooled in, the ones they are more fluent and conversant in. There's no need to get condescending: but there is a need to adapt, which may be where more bloggers come into the mix, bringing new sensibilities and a necessary balance to a jaundiced eye. I'll keep looking for the best in plays, and I'll keep trying to convince you all to go out to them, so keep reading: and check out Prelude if you've the time!

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Yes, But OPERA Still Isn't For All

I love the arts, but they can be expensive. For those in the know, there are plenty of resources out there to get cheap tickets, from butts-in-seats middlemen to theater-endorsed lotteries and/or rush tickets, not to mention old standards like TKTS (and TDF). There are also now individuals, like Roundabout's HipTix!, that play to the under-represented 18-35 demographic by using social-networking parties and discount offers to appear, appropriately, hip. Go a little younger, and you'll get the teen program, High Five!, which succeeded at least in getting me interested in the arts.

Democratically speaking, there hasn't really been anything to get people out to the opera, not en masse, that is, which is why I'm excited about New York City Opera's widening of their OPERA-FOR-ALL programming. In the interests of full disclosure, I was invited to attend their opening festivities this weekend, which kicked off with La Boheme and Don Giovanni, the latter of which I attended on Saturday, and commented on here. How pleased I was, then, to find that the audience was littered with both shy, jean-wearing first-timers and well-to-do socialites, opera-glasses in tow. Of course, this was just two days of $25 tickets, after which fans could look forward to spending upwards of $100 for decent seats, or $16 for the fourth-ring rafters (which, to be fair, would still be cheaper than gallery seats to see Patti LuPone in Gypsy). Instead, you can get exposed (for better or worse) to opera throughout the entire festival, with approximately fifty seats in the front orchestra going on sale each Monday to whoever gets them first (phone/online, too).

Now, I didn't like Don Giovanni, but the truth is that opera isn't really for everyone. It's an accumulated taste, one that runs on protracted exposition and often archaically rustic melodies to make its points. Even involving people like Hal Prince and Susan Stroman can't spark life on the stage when there's a complicated aria that requires stillness, and what you often get are overbearing sets that diminish the acting, and orchestras that drown out most of the men. Subtlety doesn't translate over the overwhelming space of New York City Opera, which leaves only the booming passages of Italian poetry (with the occasionally illuminating supertitle) to loko forward to. For some, this is their cup of tea. For me, I longed only to see Daniel Mobbs's Leporello up close, to hear Julianna Di Giacomo's indomitable Donna Elvira without the noise of squeaking sets around me, and after the first intermission, to get out of there. (Which would've been a mistake, as the second act was much more varied.)

But whether I liked the opera or not is beside the point: there will be $25 dollar tickets available this Monday for the Toni Morrison-inspired Margaret Garner (not to mention La Boheme and Don Giovanni), which rightfully puts the taste-making decision back in your court. I don't ever worry about theater, but that's because I'm hyper-exposed to it. Isn't it about time more companies started going out of their way to keep a healthy part of this population indoctrinated?

Friday, August 31, 2007

Any Time You Want to Talk....

In response to Leonard Jacobs (responding to me):

A review is a critical, but still at heart opinionated, appraisal of a work as is. So long as the format of the production you saw is acknowledged -- i.e., during previews, with an understudy, &c. -- then I see no reason why *THAT* performance cannot be objectively (and comprehensibly) covered. That's like saying the beta version of a software shouldn't be reviewed: not so. Such appraisals (often called "previews" but really, simply semantics--i.e., what if I just add a small "p" to my "review"?) are useful to people wondering about the process, the show, the buzz, and more.

The Little Mermaid, currently in Colorado, is getting reviewed there, and read about by interested audiences here. (The production there is even acknowledged as a tryout, and isn't that the same as a preview? Again: semantics.) When it comes here, it will no doubt be different from Denver (Riedel hints, through much denial, that it may have a new director), but does that invalidate the right of critics over there to review what they saw? Or should New York City audiences (and all relevant tourists) be under embargo from reading those foreign reviews until after it opens here? Why can't I read about Spring Awakening playing at the Atlantic Theater or Rock 'n' Roll playing in London? Someone sinking that much money into a show -- even a preview of a show -- should stay willingly in the dark? And let's not ignore that publicists reviving a show use quotes about what's been said about earlier, potentially different versions. Ultimately, if you aren't ready to be reviewed, don't let ANYBODY see your show. Everybody's, as they say, a critic.

However, the argument here is about what you call the "separate but equal" critics... where's the equality? I seldom get scripts when I attend a show, I rarely get press material, and I only occasionally have a seat reserved. I am certainly treated differently from the mainstream, and most invites are from people who are curious about what I might say about the show, formal or otherwise.

There is a difference between blogging and reviewing. I made that clear in an earlier post. It has to do with the medium you release your material into, and whether it's an institution or not. Denton et. al. are free to post reviews on their blogs: if they post to their INSTITUTIONS (for instance, if I were to post to Theater Talk), that would cross the ethical line. It goes from a singular thought to a commercially backed opinion by dint of the editor's publishing it.

As for hurting the artists? I've gotten thanked by people during previews and cursed by people after openings. I don't really think they're the fragile creatures you make them out to be.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

And Suddenly "100 Saints You Should Know" Has Tons of Free Publicity!

So, George Hunka posts a review of 100 Saints You Should Know. (He leaves at intermission, so perhaps it should be 50 Saints You Shouldn't Know.) This inspires some flurries in the blogosphere, particularly from Matthew Freeman, who wonders when it's OK to walk out. At this point, Leonard Jacobs gets involved, which starts out as a question of ethics about reviewing a show before it opens, and becomes a hyperbole heavy fallout, a response to the apologists, and a series of rebuttals between Jacobs and Hunka. Jay Raskolnikov weighs in from Chicago, talking more about the issue of when it's fair for a critic to review a new work, and using Hunka's blog/review as a discussion point.

The main talking points that sprang out of that included the difference between blogging and reviewing, the ethics of leaving a show, and what an audience owes a show. (Isaac Butler has a more specific question: "What do reviewers/critics owe their subjects?")

I'm not neutral on this subject; like Hunka, I was invited to attend 100 Saints You Should Know, and I accepted free tickets on the condition that I blog something about it after seeing the performance (good or bad), and was given a discount code to share with readers if I wanted to encourage others to see the performance more cheaply. I don't consider this to be using Playwrights Horizon publicity as a pimp, and I don't think I'm fucking a whore of a show (actually one of the lighter bits of hyperbolic metaphor Jacobs uses). I'm twenty-three, I work two jobs, and I love theater: if you give me a free ticket, and I am free, I will see your show. And, unless you ask me not to, I will probably review it, too.

I think an embargo is necessary for the mainstream media because they are businesses first and writers second: removing the prohibition forces critics to go to attend ever earlier previews so that they can get the first word while it's still relevant, much like movie critics are currently flying out to London to catch earlier and ever earlier premieres, chasing the scoop. But a blogger is a writer first, their reviews don't have an institution backing them up; if they happen to see an early preview, they're ethically off the hook so long as they acknowledge what they saw, and when. If a show has huge changes between previews and opening, then they've pretty much cheated their paying audiences, too, and a blogger, who speaks directly from that audience and not from a cultural arbiter, has the right to post a review as early as they like. Being formal isn't a crime, it's a blessing; a lucid blog is a treasure.

The issue I do have (which Hunka casually dismisses as me telling him how to write a review) is that Hunka left at intermission, wrote a review anyway, and didn't mention his incomplete knowledge of the subject until the end of the piece. That's a trust issue: what separates an opinion from talking out of your ass is knowing what you're actually talking about. You can review something you've only seen half of, but you need to make it clear early on that what you're talking about is that first half of the play. Otherwise, any assertion you make about the playwright's style, message, goal--you know, important things for a review--is ass talk, and I mean that respectfully. I walked out of Tragedy! (A Musical Comedy!) and made that clear. I did the same when analyzing Only Revolutions. That can, and should be a focal point: for instance, if Rob Kendt wrote a review saying he walked out of something, I'd pay attention. Doing otherwise devalues--collectively--everything that other blogging critics write; it puts a smear of doubt behind every flickering letter.

As for the obligations of a blogger or critic, I posted this one Isaac's site, and I stand by it:
I think a modicum of respect -- a silent acknowledgment that cast and critic share a desire for the work to be good. For that reason, the critic shouldn't launch personal (or political) attacks, and shouldn't put words in other people's mouths. The goal of a review, even a slam, should be as accurate a description of what happened, and, for the better critics, why.
Leaving at intermission is fine; failing to be accurate and being unable to offer constructive criticism on how a new work might be improved, that's not. Or at least, that's a type of reviewing that I want no part of.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Apologize? Oh, Wait, We're On FOX

OK, a not-so-guilty confession: I watch, and love, So You Think You Can Dance, FOX's American Idol of dance. Any one of the top twenty dancers on that show could be doing professional work, and any one of these last eight could be doing almost any style of professional work. But I'm here to talk about choreographer Mia Michael's wardrobe malfunction and Wade Robson's anti-war routine: not because there was anything wrong with any of them, but because they had to publicly apologize for them. If anything, the apology is what made me aware that there could even be a negative slant to what they'd done . . .

What did they do, you're wondering? Well, apparently something on the very slick and somewhat totalitarian blazer she wore was upside down, and apparently this wrong-faced symbol -- this symbol that nobody would've otherwise noticed -- caused a big stink a division of the US Military. We should be thankful, I guess, that this talented modern choreographer isn't answering questions in Guantanimo right now, on trial for demoralizing our troops (ala Tokyo Rose), but seriously: she's allowed to wear what she wants, with impunity. Granted, there are some symbols that have been corrupted, like the swastika, but to have to apologize for a pretty much unseen, unheard, non-politically motivated fashion faux pas . . . that's pretty petty of the military (who, I'm sure, have nothing better to do than watch So You Think You Can Dance through a fine-toothed comb).

As for Wade, well, this eclectic and interpretive guru choreographed a routine that was about making love, not war, and about peace, expression, freedom, and the good qualities that we'd like to see in our countrymen. Obviously, this must be an anti-war statement, and one that's specifically targeted at the soldiers, who clearly--clearly!--are less brave and courageous because of a commercially marketed dance competition.

I wonder if these two Emmy-nominated choreographers were singled out by their competition. The larger issue, of course, is what this says about the freedom of artists to express themselves in any space larger than a dusty 99-seat theater on the Lower East Side. Should they somehow manage to get into primetime with--gasp--a message, worry not, they'll be squashed, and made to kowtow. We have plenty of things to fight about, and to fight for. This is not one of them.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Look What They're Doing!

For the artistic visitors to this site, you should consider checking out the new floating model of theater showcase that's been proposed by the upcoming Collective:Unconscious "UndergroundZero" theater festival this summer. Curator Paul Bargetto and director Caterina Bartha are off to showcase "an alternative to the current system of limited runs that consign many successful shows to oblivion." I'd love to hear more, and I'll certainly try to get down there for some of these short plays, but I think the idea of a rotating theater, if it could sustain itself (you'd have a lot of casts with possibly awkward calls) would be great. Uncertain audiences might be drawn by the allure of a good program, just like some readers go for the trusted editors of an anthology rather than the writers themselves. Hell, there's a panel too, which I'll post information about in full below:

July 31 at 7:30
League of Independent Theater Convocation
The League of Independent Theater is the brain child of John Pinkard, John Clancey, and Paul Bargetto. This organization is dedicated to preserving and strengthening independent theater in New York City by fostering theatrical productions produced in 99 seat theatres. The League assists in the voluntary exchange of information among its members, serves as the collective voice of its membership, works to increase interest in independent theater throughout North America, strives to foster a sense of community among all members, and develops programs addressing the unique needs of its members. The League invites you to join them in a panel discussion of the of the AEA showcase code and welcomes commentary on what improvements should be made to the code. Info: FREE

They're in Tribeca, at 279 Church Street, so that's one idea for the summer.

Not to take away from any of the other festivals out there, by the way, I love them too. Though I have infinite space, I have limited patience to type this out, so I'll briefly shout out the one other festival I'm extra hyped about (and which you might not know about, unlike the all-encompassing Fringe): each week from July 4th to August 18th, there's going to be a new group taking the Ohio Theater (66 Wooster) stage at ICE FACTORY '07. This is all new work, but not just all new work -- it's all new work from established downtown staples (plus a few emerging and exceptional talents from all over). This is where the shows will start before they open big(ger) in two years, but here, the idea of a community of diverse artists coming together for a festival of "cool" new works -- that excites me. Wonder what the Soho Think Tank will think up next.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

I'm More Authentic Than You

Is nobody else offended about the recent Campbell Robertson article highlighting Spike Lee's plans to "try Broadway" by making Stalag 17 "more authentic"? I think it's fine that Lee "has never worked in the theater and couldn't recall the last play he attended," as that just means he'll bring a fresh eye to the craft. But he shouldn't be whittling his own agenda into an existing play by changing it in this fashion. If he wants to "make it interesting" for himself, he should pick a new play that he can shape with the playwright -- not mangle something that the writers (former P.O.W.s, by the way, which is as authentic as it gets, unless street cred has had a sudden boom in the market) can no longer change. Well, that's not entirely true; while Edmund Trzcinski is dead, his co-writer Donald Bevan (who hasn't even seen the suggested changed yet) is more or less on board. Now I don't care much for copyright, as I've said previously, and I don't mind Mr. Lee going nuts with his own vision, but why is there the need to tie this into the actual Stalag 17? Even the producer, Michael Abbot admits that "It's not really a revival, it's a new production." Well then: call it that. Because right now it seems like another producer is just trying to cash in on a box-office draw . . . and although "most of the 20 or so performers will be theater actors," they're looking at people like Clive Owen for the lead.

I don't know why I'm so up in arms about this -- after all, Hollywood defaces its own gems on a yearly basis, with shallow remakes that promise to reinvent the genre but really only cash in on the legacy of a better film. Mr. Lee is no stranger to that world, and at least he wants to bring his own strong perspectives to this play, but I just feel that the various shifts in theme are taking this play too far away from its core to be billed as Stalag 17 and becoming too wound up in publicity (so early in the game) to ever live up to any expectations or be a piece of art for art's sake. Granted, nobody wants another stale Caine Mutiny Court-Martial revival, but how about something new that really taps what Lee wants: "more profanity than appears in the script and, perhaps, hints that the relationships between prisoners of war could at times be intimate more than just collegial."

I don't doubt that money is at the source of the whole gimmick: while Lee's intentions may be true, Mr. Abbott didn't persist in trying to get Spike Lee to direct the play he had the rights to because he thought Lee would have such a bold vision. He did it because he thought it would generate attention and help an older play do well. Given that great reviews didn't help Journey's End at all, maybe that's necessary. But is "more exciting" and "more profanity" more authentic? Or more honest? Or are we just diluting our limited pool of Broadway shows with even more off-the-mark gimmickry?

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Complacent Theater

Here's a controversial topic for all the artists out there, but having seen two terrible shows in a row (and I mean awful, near unredeemable works) by the names of 27 Heaven and From Riverdale to Riverhead. I refuse to review these formally; as I've said before, I am not interested in bashing theater, although I will be blogging my gut responses, as usual, at Show Showdown. Anyway, here's the topic.

Whatever happened to booing in the theater? It seems to me that we've become complacent audiences, applauding even shows we don't like, and stifling our urges to walk out in an angry fuss. It's ironic that we show so much support considering how careless we've become with our cellphones and cellophane. Or perhaps our nonchalance is just a heightened form of reckless viewing.

Now, I'm not advocating disrupting the show, even though theater was born amongst rowdy crowds. On behalf of the one person who may be enjoying a horrible work, I would not begrudge someone their own pleasure, even if I find it perverse. However, I'd like to be able to do more at a curtain call than not applaud. But not only is it uncouth to boo, but such actions would actually villainize me and cast my critiques into doubt. Hell, even blogging a personal opinion sometimes draws down the wrath of the outside world. So why has making your private thoughts public--which is what a play does--become so unacceptable?

Friday, June 15, 2007

Running Commentary

"One must embrace the whole world to then be able to spit it back out again," writes Fabrice Melquiot, whose Devil on All Sides I just saw performed (in translation) by foolsFURY at PS122. Given the whole red state/blue state debate that's been boiling since the Impending Theatrical Blogging Event, I was wondering what the take is on this: clearly, if you want to write a piece about all sorts of characters, this is true, for accuracy's sake. But more and more often, plays are focusing in on specifics, which can either seem freeing or sheltered, and which is why some people I know refuse to go see plays: they find them to be bullshit. Melquiot's play is one of those dividing forces, which is poetic, and visual, and turns war (at one point) into a sort of game children play, but what's surprising about it is that it captures many different voices from the war in the former Yugoslavia. Most plays I see these days wouldn't bother having characters from both sides, especially when it comes to political ones . . . thoughts?

By the way, foolsFURY interprets theater like this: "We believe that for theater to be successful it must provide audiences with unique and powerful experiences that they cannot have watching television or film." This is along the lines of a discussion I just had with a co-worker, as to how I despise plays being adapted for film (which, even when it works due to visual prowess, is still just diluting a more intimate act, and justifying people's choices to stay away from the "overpriced" or "inaccessible" theater). Here's a company that's taking it back for the theater by trying to remind audiences that there are some things that they can experience only live and on stage. Devil on All Sides doesn't always work for me, but I'd still rather see that than a film.

Finally, a closing thought from E. B. White, no theater attached: "Once having given a pig an enema there is no turning back, no chance of resuming one of life's more stereotyped roles."

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Sympathy for the Devil: On Closure

It was while reading all the backwash about the season finale of The Sopranos that I realized one of the major problems playwrights, theater, and the arts are having as well: the demand of audiences for closure. I wouldn't compromise my vision to placate the audience, but luckily, I haven't yet been given an ultimatum to do so. This, at least, is a blog: I answer to no editor, and my audience, limited as it may be, is pretty accepting of whatever wild theories I may fling out there. But David Chase, who's big as they come in the wake of his success, got panned by "America" and it looks like it's only writers and fellow artists who enjoyed the final episode.

As of yet, David Grindley is one of the few directors I've ever seen willing to sustain a show through the obligatory curtain call, and he did so with Journey's End, which has been suffering. As with The Sopranos, the writers get it, the fellow artists do, but the audience itself, again this great confused entity of popular opinion called "America" hasn't responded well to it. Admittedly, it's a lot easier to accept a big show-closing number, even when it's depressing, than it is to have the play cast a lingering pallor over our moods, but why are we so afraid to allow ourselves to be affected?

Not that you have to end Pippin or Machinal without a curtain call, or that they're necessarily better for maintaining the artistic sentiments expressed within, but that so many people are frightened of making a stand, and so eager to break the illusion (look at our modern playwrights and the fourth-wall breaking trends) . . . that worries me a little. Comedies mock this all the time, like The Actor's Nightmare, in which George is killed at the end, and remains dead through the curtain call -- but that's OK for the audience, because it's just another joke. Were Pippin not to bring the players back onstage, despite them "quitting" moments before, the audience would be confused. In Machinal, the beauty of our heroine's tragic death is completely stripped by her reappearing thirty seconds later, smiling, bowing, and nodding, with little regard to the emotional journey that the cast has worked so hard to maintain.

Blogs rarely have closure, which is one of the reasons they undergo such scrutiny from the mainstream media: they offer topics for debate and give opinions, but these are often light pieces, unsubstantiated gossip or opinions, and not conclusive essays with beginnings, middles, and end. I would argue that it's not really lazy writing, just a different media, one that's trying to engage rather than simply to declare. This is Barry Champlain, trying to reach his audience, only to find out that nobody actually wants to connect, they just want to be told what to think: that way it remains at a distance, and therefore purely as entertainment.

Did I offer you a solution, or close up the magical question of what the status of theater is? No. Did I get you thinking about it? I hope so.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Well, It *MIGHT* Matter If You're Black or White...

I'm linking late into this story through Martin Denton's nytheater i, which is in fact linking into it late through BLOGstage (of Backstage). Of the many topics that sound in about this topic, the one I found most appealing was Cat*'s, as she says
To use another Shakespearean reference, in Midsummer's it is clearly written that Helena is tall ("painted Maypole") and Hermia dark ("tawny tartar" and "ethiope") and while often that is interpreted as her simply being brunette rather than blonde... there's a case to be made - a strong one - for casting her with an "actress of color"... but color-blind casting, switching the ethnic backgrounds of the actresses simply because the white chick did better reading for Hermia and the black chick gave a better audition for Helena is foolish and would require rewrites for the casting choices to even make sense...
Now, if you've got permission to rewrite the script, or if it's open domain, or the character is an ambiguous blank, by all means, cast color-blind. But here are a few anecdotes of my own as to why color-blind and gender-blind casting simply doesn't work. It's hard enough to suspend disbelief to watch a play; it's even harder when what you're watching distracts or takes away from the atmosphere of the play.

Take for example the current production of You Can't Take It With You at T. Schrieber Studio. Donald and Rheba are black, and they're most definitely the serving class. How ghastly. Except this is a play written in the '30s (as a film, it won the Academy Award in '38), and the current production is of a period piece, meant to take in--flaws and all--the situation back then. I was fine with Peter Aguero as Donald through the entire play; he carried himself with a portly bluff that made me guffaw many a time. Up until Rheba (Shirine Babb, who is a black actress) remarks, "I sure am glad I'm colored." To which Aguero, who is a white actor (and sketch comic), replies "I sure am too." Laughter, but not at all for the right reasons.

In an old college production of mine, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, our director chose to make the Player a woman. If the actress had been playing it as a man in drag (like most of the Player's troupe), the jokes would still have worked, but to translate the role itself just makes the jokes fall flat. Not that a woman being the pimped-out ringleader of a bunch of male "actors" is a bad idea, but it doesn't fit with Stoppard's jokes, and it devalues the role of Alfred, the most girlish lad, and the one who gets the most "parts."

It also puts a double standard on a woman who's playing the role as a man, as she has to work twice as hard to play the role as a guy, and not as a woman dressed as a guy: another production I worked on (Picasso at the Lapin Agile) had both Elvis and Gaston played by women. The girl playing Elvis was phenomenal, and the director actually used the genre to make some underlaying jokes (of the double entendre kind). The one playing Gaston, on the other hand, was just flat, because the one thing that needed to be true -- that it was old, lecherous man -- was constantly undercut by the fact that it was obviously a young (albeit lecherous) girl.

I can't speak to much of the rest of the debate about color on stage -- I don't know if there's a reverse racism (or not, as Matt Freeman asserts), but the noble cry of any role being open for any actor just doesn't wash with me. And I wouldn't want to whitewash it either. There are plenty of plays out there for women and black actors -- plenty of good ones, too -- and while I'd kill to be in Topdog/Underdog, if a really white guy acting really black would take away from the show (or subvert the point of the play), you have to wonder if you're not just making a different kind of art at that point. That, I'm all for: I'm against copyrights when they stand in the way of just making a good performance. But let's not call Raisin in the Sun that if it's got an all-white cast (although there are white raisins); at that point, it's not Hansberry's play.

As for the examples being given of black actors playing "white" roles in Shakespeare -- aside from the fact that Shakespeare is timeless and part-fantasy (even his history plays), most companies have already changed the way his plays were done, and I don't think Liev playing Othello or Denzel playing Macbeth would really change that much.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

No, THEM'S Fighting Words

In preparation to head back to the Pretentious Theater Festival, I saw some of the New York Times' summer listings. Not sure what the purpose of these blurbs are, however: is it to raise awareness of what's being done for these hot times, summers in the city, or is it to get a few extra bits of snark in about other shows?

For instance, how does this statement about SUMMERWORKS read to you?
It may not be as diverse and sprawling as the Fringe, but the chances of seeing something, you know, good at the Clubbed Thumb's annual showcase are considerably better.
Great for Clubbed Thumb; bad for the Fringe. Percentage-wise, it may be true, but the way it reads, it makes it seem like each of the three Clubbed Thumb shows is worth at least 70 of the Fringe shows, and I think this kind of equivocating is dangerous. Also, what is it that gets SUMMERWORKS a shout out (not that it shouldn't) and not the upcoming ICE FACTORY FESTIVAL? Because it's Jason Zinoman's listing that I'm quoting, I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that he just hadn't received a press release yet, but it seems to me that a lot of upcoming festivals were left off that page, and despite being online listings, my search of the NYT online archive hasn't yielded any updates even now, a month later.

I've got no problem with the Times wanting to be an authority, but little things like this (not too little to the festival organizers, I'll bet) are what make it into that disgusting "cultural arbiter" that so many of us out here rebel against. Report the news, write the listings, and let's stay away from snark as best as we can. You've got columns and reviews for the opinionated stuff, nu? As for the rest of us; this is just one of the necessary functions we can serve.

A few more random tidbits from browsing New York Times Online: did you know that you can now click any word twice and it'll bring up a pop-up with the definition, or have I just never accidentally double-clicked a word before? Also, kudos to Brantley's new coinage, "festivate," which is what all of us should be doing. I will nitpick about one more thing: why do Lincoln Center and the National Asian American Theater Company get links to their websites, but not the Pretentious Festival at the Brick? Is there diswebination going on?

Sunday, June 03, 2007

In All Seriousness

In part because I'm still feeling the residual effect of The Impending Theatrical Blogging Event (and the implied Yuenglings) and because the American Apparel advertisement (on the back of the A.V. Club Crossword) has the word "dysphemism" on it, I would like to upchuck an idea that's been lodged in my skull for a while. The ITBE was more a comic jam session, but it served the purpose of uniting various bloggers under one roof (or from secretive bunkers), and we did have some decent commentary (earlier and less drunkenly on) about theater itself, as in (a) what constitutes it, (b) why don't more people see it, and (c) what can we do to encourage it? (That is, aside from convening at The Brick to perform for ourselves and the caps-speaking AUDIENCE.)

What it all boils down to is our need to be social animals. We blog because we'd like to believe that someone out there cares enough about what we have to say on things: I assume theater comes from a similar, although probably more high-minded, place. The reason television (in particular, reality programming) is killing theater, along with the more spectaculicious (new coinage) movies, is that they are instantly accessible and discussable water-cooler topics. Our world is oversaturated with things to talk about already (and off-off-Broadway is no exception), and our biggest fear is in being left out of the conversation. This is why, if theater wants to grow, we need to nurture discussion about it. We need to insure that there will be a forum--even if it's online only--where theatergoers can nourish their attention-starved needs to vent. Even if it's just to make a connection over a powerful and gripping show, theater cannot thrive in an isolated context: not when there are so many other things competing with it.

So here's a topic that I've spoken about many times before, and which I again see inherent in the aggregate thought of the multiple bloggers who attended the ITBE. We need a real metaDRAMA. Not my sporadic ramblings about things that have irritated me. But a site, spun from the metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes model that provides playgoers a place to sound off about the various shows out there, and gives audiences a way to highlight the things most worth seeing. For me, the highlight of the ITBE was having Eurydice recommended to me by Adam Szymkowicz, and being able to recommend The Eaten Heart to everyone there.

To compete with lazy, idle, pop-culture laden, trend-following viewers, we need to appeal to theater's ability to engage, excite, be immediate and illuminating, public and live, and we need to start now, before we erode the next generation's tolerance for the immediate, entirely. I know there are people out there as excited about theater as I am; tonight, I met some of you. Unfortunately, there are critics out there who are no longer excited about theater, and unless we find a way to really spread word-of-mouth, it may be One Word to rule the shows, and One Word to bind them.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Emerging Emergency

I had a depressing thought after seeing the phenomenal The Eaten Heart. How long does an artist have to be emerging for? These days, it seems like it takes a long time to be recognized for your work, if it even happens, at all. I waxed momentarily on this last week in response to God's Ear, but The Debate Society shouldn't be "stuck" in an incubator, even if it is the very freeing Ontological-Hysteric Incubator: they should be having money flung at them to let their teeming ideas run rampant.

Part of the problem must be the general lack of profiles being run in high-profile publications; I rarely see any coverage of an innovative playwright or a theater company in The New York Times: just a lot of puff pieces given over to popular 'slice-of-the-moment' characters whose horns need no further tooting. So what can we, the internet bloggers and online critics, do to help ensure that brilliant artists are always given a packed house and a rabid following?

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Well, Why Not?

Just goes to show you (or shows to go you) how backed up I am that Surplus managed to scoop me (and so far as everyone else I can see) on the whole Addams Family musical coming to Broadway in '09-'10. I read it first here, where it apparently beat out Campbell Robertson of the Times, but I digress: there's a point.

A lot of shows have been taking flak lately, shows that aren't even in previews yet (and hence undeserving of criticism). Everybody laughed at Xanadu, but an early report from my fellow racer Patrick, shows that it might not be quite as bad an idea as we thought. People have been up in arms about the purported jukebox musical from The Flaming Lips and Aaron Sorkin, but I've seen odder cafeteria confections in children's lunch-boxes. What I say? Two things that I like, mixed together. There's only so much that can be wrong with that, especially when they go so far as to compare the forthcoming plot to Brazil. (Pretentious, I won't argue.)

Not that there haven't been bad ideas. I don't quite remember how much Lord of the Rings lost as a cash-crop musical, or what exactly they were thinking with The Apprentice: The Musical, but these were spur-of-the-moment attempts to make money off a hot, topical item. With The Apprentice now canceled, and spring 2006 far gone, we may be saved from another Trump fiasco (do we need his "great" White way on the Great White Way?).

But there are also those stuck in the mix between inspired and greedy: why are we so worried about Spider-Man: The Musical? The only question there is: why U2? Julie Taymor is pretty talented at finding unique ways to stage what we thought could only be animated (The Lion King), and a book penned by Neil Jordan isn't necessarily better than anyone else's, but why not give the guy a chance? Batman: The Musical is looking less and less likely, but was nobody excited (or jaded enough) back in '04 at the prospect of seeing Tim Burton's vision on stage? There's camp, there's kitsch, but then there's also sometimes a rare success in the ridiculous.

Which brings us back to The Addams Family. Granted, we're already getting a Gothic comedy out of Mel Brooks and his Young Frankenstein, but do we have any reason to shudder at this combination?
Composer-lyricist Andrew Lippa (The Wild Party) is writing the songs; Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice (Jersey Boys) provide the book. Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch, the Improbable Theater founders who created Shockheaded Peter, will direct and design.
I'd at least like to give them the benefit of the doubt, especially when one considers that they're modeling the show NOT after the well-meaning movies or their charming TV counterpoints, but on the original and disturbing comics in The New Yorker. Give the guys credit for reaching deep.

End point? Anything can work on Broadway, and given the current and much beleaguered "state" of musical theater, should be tried on Broadway. If Spring Awakening wins big, we might be able to take a step back from the cloying laughs of Legally Blonde, Spamalot, and the rest of the sugar-fed spectacles. And even if it doesn't, I'm all for adding some darker comedy to the mainstream: especially when it's at least starting in such capable, eager hands.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Language, Language, Language

Still caught up in the exuberant English of God's Ear, but I thought I'd comment briefly on something David Cote said in his preview of the show, something that should be painfully obvious to those who have seen this production (though pleasantly surprising for New Georges): why it is that "cult favorites such as Melissa James Gibson, Young Jean Lee and, yes, Schwartz still can't get arrested above 14th Street." As Cote points out, at least Playwrights Horizon and Manhattan Theater Club are producing someone like Adam Bock this year (and apparently Eric Grode of The Sun, my new hero, pulled hard for The Thugs). At the same time, he justifies the statement by mentioning that these "classics-oriented outfits" are "dabbling in new titles," as if it's a passing thought, rather than an artistically motivated decision.

But hey! Why is it that Sheila Callaghan, even after last year's triumphant Dead City, has nothing major in the city at the moment? I love Neil LaBute (especially the under-appreciated Fat Pig), and I'm glad that MCC has lavished such attention on him, but it seems to me that such partnerships (like Primary Stages and Terrance McNally or Playwrights Horizon and Christopher Durang) wind up churning out mediocre (at best) works, while the innovative wordsmiths scuttle about on the fringe. Why is the only time I see a Daniel MacIvor play at a festival? (And ones with somewhat self-deprecating names like the "Fringe" or "Under the Radar," as if that's where these plays should remain -- no disrespect to the awesome festivals themselves.) Some artists are at least by choice taking on site-specific work, like Lisa D'Amour, who last year explored multimedia in the stunning Stanley (2006), but are these artists doomed to HERE, PS122, and Walkerspace until they conform? (Not that that's much of a punishment: these spaces are rich with a myriad of intimate possibilities.)

I understand the commercial aspect of theater. And I understand that Broadway has more or less inflated the entire market (as has New York itself) by making the cost of living or producing so high that it's hard to be dedicated (the stuff of dreams). But I'm terrified that the pull-quote in this article is from New Georges' artistic director, Susan Bernfield, saying that "We have a bigger responsibility for the stuff that's perceived as weird." Not because Bernfield is anything less than a saint, and god bless her for producing such new and vibrant works, but because of the honesty in that statement: the great responsibility of pushing theater ahead has fallen far from Broadway, and shows have become "cult" where they should have become "classic." Push that envelope, people. Paper cuts today, Broadway tomorrow.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Gut Responses

So aren't gut responses awesome? Right below this post, I had some choice words to say for the offending audience at Mike Daisey's ART performance of Invincible Summer. As the days continue, it turns out that they weren't religious (they were a choir), and that it apparently wasn't premeditated -- in fact, it was "agitated" by the house manager's reluctance to pause the show. Of course, this is just what Norco High School says, still without explaining the fact that a chaperone felt it was necessary to also drown the script out (literally).

We can assume, as over at Playgoer, that it's a non-issue: that the high schoolers felt intimidated by what they perceived as rage in Daisey (though I feel that's hardly the case if you watch the much ballyhooed video), and that the chaperones thought it better to just leave without discussing their stance. And hey, I've had to walk out of productions before that all but force you onto the stage to exit, so I can sympathize with the unfortunate circumstances that led to the walkout being so disruptive. But this is all in looking back at the past, in retrospect: the fact of the matter is that when it happened, nothing really did either. Bloggers posted about it, and Daisey struggled with it in the moment, but so far as I can tell, charges weren't filed for what is clearly blatant vandalism, and I saw very little (which is to say none) in the actual print media about it. Apathy is one of America's problems, but it's also become more and more an issue in the types of performances I've seen. Ever safer, ever more passive: why is it that this spontaneous event was more visceral to me than the show itself?

The reason I think your gut is awesome is that that is where passion and excitement come from. I wrote the perhaps ill-informed blog entry below while I was piqued, but it was true at the moment I said it (to me). And that's what I'm really interested in, as a reviewer: not really the processed idea -- filtered, stretched, and frayed -- but in the immediate, the stirring, the real. You shouldn't have to like it more later by placing it into context (look at how Stoppard's stood by his statement that Coast of Utopia needs no reading list), and much as Steve Martin's lines about icebox laughs (in Picasso at the Lapin Agile) are amusing, who really goes to theater so that they can experience something later . . . if they're lucky?

Of course, as seen by what happened to Daisey, sometimes gut responses are bad, too, or perhaps just water bottles. And maybe it's a good thing that nobody's overreacting. We just banned fake weapons from the stage; should we ban water next?

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Invincible, Even After Kryptonite!

I had considered calling this post "What the Fuck," but I was fearful that it might make some crazed religious nuts march through my front door, up to my computer, at which point they'd pour water all over it, and then storm out silently. I suddenly had the thought, "Well at least we can be glad that's all they did to Mike Daisey," during the middle of his performance of Invincible Summer at American Repertory Theatre, but I don't really think glad factors into it at all. More like, where are the criminal prosecutions against the people who purchased tickets to visit someone's intimate home, where they could then defile it with a silent but disruptive protest of another man's art.

Wait, I don't think protest is accurate here either: there were no words, no comments, no explanation . . . even when the monologist begged them, choking back his anger simply to better understand the situation, to stay and discuss what they had done. This was a premeditated hate crime, violent as anything physical may be, and I'd actually call for the police to try to track down some of these people who purchased tickets (there were 87 of them, and some record of where they came from, or a credit card receipt should be around somewhere) and to press charges.

I'm angry, and I wasn't even attacked, but I don't like what this says about art. We'd press charges if someone walked into a museum and flung water on a priceless piece of art -- the only difference here is that the original text that Mike had composed for his show isn't seen that way. And why not? What makes words any less valuable?

I'm offended too. You can see a YouTube clip of the "protest" on Mike's site, here, and read the following comments about it from Isaac and Matt, though I certainly hope there's more discussion (and as I said above, active prosecution) about this subject over this next week.

[Notice: Theatreforte]