Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Beauty of Being Wrong

Earlier in the week, I questioned all of the new plays that seem to be cropping up with scripts, but without performers. I asked whether or not these were works of theater, or if there was some sort of requirement that would distinguish the people begging for change on a crowded subway car from the people begging for change on a crowded subway car who called themselves actors. Well, I'm still wondering if it's fair to call certain shows theater, like the glib and impactless An Oak Tree, but I would like to rescind my pre-buzz commentary on Doublethink, which I've since seen.

Simply put: it's theater if it is a performance meant to illustrate something -- be that a moral, a story, an emotion, or an idea -- to an audience and given that the performance isn't meant for personal gain (i.e., a con game). If a show is produced simply to make money, the greatest impetus for performance is removed from the equation: that is, the why of performance: why this show, why this night, why, why, why. To use the two examples I keep swinging about: An Oak Tree told a rather bland story that constantly kept both the audience and performer at arm's end, more like inviting someone to read off of cue cards than asking them to use their confusion and personality to join a more involved process (the upcoming NBC show, Thank God You're Here, tries to mine the neuroses of comedians for laughs). Doublethink, on the other hand, already starts on the high note of a social experiment: we have the intimate privilege of seeing how two actors interpret the same directions, whereas they, seperated by a screen and blinded by floor lights, washed out in the dark, can only follow those directions to the best of their ability (it appears to be very freeing).

In An Oak Tree, there was very little direction (beyond Tim Crouch's stifling control), and the theatricality didn't extend far beyond Crouch's shiny coat and shinier pate. Rotozaza, on the other hand, have not only sleekly produced a lot of intricate technical effects for Doublethink, but they've managed to keep the actors engaged directly in their world, wheras Crouch kept releasing his guest from theirs. One thing to consider: I've only see one night of either performance, and for all I know, An Oak Tree was better with another performer, and Doublethink could be bombing right now, as I type this. But I maintain that Doublethink is grounded in true theatrical conventions, whereas An Oak Tree is a manipulative stage-show, like a bar-mitzvah magician, and that the former is true theater because of its encompassing vision, whereas the latter is failed hypnotism because of its limited goals.

I'll continue trying to define theater, here, as I continue to see shows as often as I can: if any of you out there have genre-bending recommendations, please make them, and let's all see if we can find the trust, communication, and committment of Doublethink as we go about seeing and recording as much as we can about theater as humanly possible.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Why Nobody Listens to Critics

The more I write reviews and the more I read them, the more attuned I am to the selective presentation of press clippings and quotes. I understand that a lot of reviews tend to be mixed, and the publicist obviously has a need to protect his client from the snarky asides, but when you're reduced to quoting one word ("Great") or when you're deliberately misrepresenting the original content . . . at what point do we stand up, wave our arms around, and shudder? Now more than ever, I'm convinced we need some sort of aggregate theater system that eliminates (or at least provides a second opinion to) the fictitious quote-mongering out there.

Here's an example:

PRESS: "An indestructible global blockbuster! It will probably run forever!"

NEW YORK TIMES (Jason Zinoman):
“Be,” the latest low-budget spectacle trying to tap into the seemingly inexhaustible tourist market for banging on trash cans in unison, seems like a collection of loose parts stitched together to create an indestructible global blockbuster. Produced by the Israeli company Mayumana, it starts with elements of “Stomp” (like drumming on one’s chest), throws in some from “Blue Man Group” (giant tubes) and then adds sex appeal. It will probably run forever. (I just hope I’m not quoted on the front of the theater.)
Let's be honest: with the latter quote, Zinoman was begging for it. But the first part? Dishonest exclamations. Mind you, I enjoyed the show. I wasn't blown away by it, but I wouldn't advocate against it (like Isherwood against Rapp). This is why people should just go to the theater more regularly, to be surprised: then all this nonsensical buzz wouldn't matter.

At the 032607 blogging panel, one of the questions that was raised was in reference to the quid pro quo symbiosis of the critic and publicist. I ask that question again, as critics routinely allow themselves to be misrepresented: can anything be done to stop such indebtedness?

Surprise, Surprise

Riffing off a lovely post by the Playgoer, I wonder if anybody goes to the theater to be surprised any more. In part because I'm trying to win a race, in part because I'm an editor and a critic, and in part because I just love theater, I rarely know anything about the show I'm going to see on any given night. Have a cool poster or postcard? (Orestes 2.0) Nice; I'm game. Are you a theater company that I trust, like The Flea? (Smoke and Mirrors) Dope; I'm there. Discount offer? (Serendib) Sweet. I don't know what I'm going to get, but it hardly matters at affordable off-off and off-Broadway theaters. I admit, when I'm shelling out full-price to see Spring Awakening, I consider what I may or may not have heard about it, but even then, I don't want to know what happens in the show itself. (The gimmicked audience and needless use of meta elements on the chalkboard, ugh; everything else, anachronistic staging, yes!)

The only way my guerrilla audience tactics work is if you accept one reasonable premise: there is no such thing as bad theater. There are awful shows, but even those evoke something in you (and I actually find passable theater, or bland theater, to be far worse). And if you're at all involved in the arts, as a writer, director, amanuensis, whatever: it's a learning experience. You may see a production that gets everything wrong . . . except for one shining moment of stagecraft, and that's what lives in you and fills you. Yes, you've got to have passion for this to work; but why should we as an audience be any less receptive than we expect the actors to be? (Amendment: if you're torn between two shows, neither of which runs past the evening in question, there's nothing wrong in doing a little research; you'll feel more content with your choice, rather than restlessly wondering about the other show you're missing.)

The other advantage toward being surprised is that you lose preconceived notions. Nothing kills live theater more than stale expectation. If you've read a play before seeing it, or you've seen other productions, you should do your best to block those from your mind: we ask the actors to treat each night like it's their first, and we should do the same from our seats. I consider myself a critic, but I have very little patience for comparative analysis (and even less for those who preface their reviews with showoffy references to past productions). What's important is the immediate, visceral response (which is why blogs have such a future) -- as a person -- and what follows are the deep-seated thoughts and observations about why that work affected you as it did, or where you feel things could've been improved (in technical relation, perhaps, to other work).

I love theater. That should be enough.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

I Know My Calculus: It Says NYC Plus Theater Equals Naught

So, Robin Pogrebin reports from the NYT today that Signature Theater will not be moving into the new Ground Zero Arts Center (which would make it the second theater in the neighborhood, right after the sleek, wave-of-the-future 3LD Performing Arts Center). The reason, according to Deputy Mayor Daniel L. Doctoroff is "because of the cost and complicated logistics of having the two institutions share a confined space." That cost, by the way?
Estimates of the performing arts center’s cost were approaching $700 million, city officials said. Under the new plan, the center and a new Signature Theater are expected to come in at about $350 million combined.
I'm assuming the unspoken $350 million are going toward the Joyce Theater, a center for dance that will remain there. I'm happy for the Joyce Theater, though I'm not a dance enthusiast, but why is it okay to spend that much on one theater, and not that much for Signature? (And I won't even mention the other two companies that were dropped from the roster. Well, okay: one of which, the Drawing Center, seems to have been ousted for "controvserial programming," which sounds a lot like censorship to me.) I've got a better question: why do we need to spend $350 million dollars to build a theater? If you've already given up the dream for erecting a cultural mecca to counter the bleak terrorism of nineeleven, what does it matter? Certainly the artists themselves, who have worked in far nastier off-Broadway spaces than the current location of the Signature Theater, can deal with a less-than-perfect (and cheap) building.

Nor do they really need that much money to make a brilliant building. I mentioned 3LD earlier:
In August 2002, Three-Legged Dog committed to a 20-year lease on the space at 80 Greenwich Street from the building's owner, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. By last August, the group managed to raise $3.1 million toward the $4.6 million arts complex. The largest contributor has been the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs through the support of Alan J. Gerson, City Council Member, District 1. Other contributors have been the Luesther T. Mertz Advised Fund of the New York Community Trust, Booth Ferris Foundation, the New York State Council on the Arts, and the Non-Profit Finance Fund. Critical financing has been provided by FJC, the Fund for the City of New York, and the Alliance of Resident Theaters, New York.
Their space looks phenomenal, the ticket prices are affordable, and they did it for $4.6M. You're telling me that it costs sixty times that to move three blocks north into what is more-and-more looking like just another high-rise office habitation? Hell, if the city is that bad at negotiating contracts, we should give all our property over to the MTA: they know how to contract things out (although their station-work on Cortland Street slips past their February 2006 deadline).

Here's an irony though:

[T]he city hopes to move the Signature to Fiterman Hall at 30 West Broadway, cater-corner to 7 World Trade Center. Fiterman, part of the Borough of Manhattan Community College, was heavily damaged by falling debris on 9/11.

This, of course, is the former residence of 3LD, so at least one theater company seems to have benefitted from the transition. In some ways, this may end up being a boon for Signature Theater, which needs to move out of their current Tenth Avenue theater by 2011 (a real loss for the neighborhood) -- it's not like this new cultural center will be ready in time, given the boondoggle of the last five years. Either way, someone should let them know: their website still has hope for the WTC district.

End note? Stop mistakenly equating theater with luxury: we don't need to hemmorage cash to put on a good show, and some of the most inventive work is made from its mother, necessity. On Broadway, producers don't seem to understand how to make a show for less than an ever-ballooning billion dollars (hyperbole, lest I get hate mail from equally snarky producers), so let's please cut the crap folks, and use some common business sense.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

So Easy, Even A Monkey Could Do It!

Last year I covered a much-hyped show that I was most unimpressed with. An Oak Tree was mind-numbing gimmickry: one actor who knows the script, and another--who has never read or seen the show--doing a cold reading off a clipboard. I'd love to hear what James Urbaniak got out of his personal experience performing the play at random, but as a casual observer, all I could think was that I could do that. I've performed, and I don't think I'm a terrible actor, but trust me: if I think I can do something, you aren't doing a very good job.

While browsing Culturebot (yes, Guitar Hero is a fantastic game), I read hype about an upcoming show at PS122 in the form of twin shows called Doubletalk and Five in the Morning. The picturesque charm described in the synopsis doesn't sound all that bad, but have you noticed how many theater companies are relying on intrigue to get people to the theaters lately? Even fantastic multimedia shows that I loved, like HERE's Stanley (2006) or 3LD, which is mounting the upcoming Losing Something, can't keep from hyping the gen-re-defining technologies going into the performance, as if that's the reason to see a show. When I had the pleasure to speak with Mark Russell on an episode of Theater Talk, I spoke honestly that I thought the appeal of his Under The Radar Festival at The Public would be the lure of seeing an expertly curated open-house of out-of-city performers, bringing new (but professionally culled) works to the stage. I wasn't disillusioned at the festival either: I saw more of Canadian Daniel MacIvor's narrative-bending work and puppetry that seemed a natural evolution of the past. So yes, we all want to see something new, but it has to be more than new -- and this should go without saying -- it has to be good, too.

Yes, But Is It Theater?

Which brings me back to the act-by-numbers approach of this new theatrical rage. I've seen happenings, or even flash-mobs, that involved the audience in a carefully planned theatrical experience, usually without them even being aware of their participation. But to put that same concept on a stage, and then to try to think outside the box, when you are, by nature, usually in a black-box theater . . . heavens, what are you doing?

Is all this post-post-drama even theater? Isn't that the same as saying (as we have with art) that all we need to do is exhibit something on a stage for it to be theater? The two shows at PS 122 have sets and, as with An Oak Tree, use silent audio devices to feed their characters text, so you can make the argument that there's still creativity. It's not quite improv: there are scripts. But it's not a reading. And it's not technically acting (any more than going about life is). So what is it?

Monday, March 26, 2007


Welcome back to the official relaunch of my actual blogging. If you're looking for reviews, you want to go back to my archival site, That Sounds Cool. But hey, so long as you're here, why not stay and check out the view? I've left the remnants of my stalwart-but-rapidly-staling rants below from when this place was called Verify This; the name of the site now speaks for itself. I don't believe in mixing blogging with criticism, so this will be the site where I make comments on my comments, and on the selected musings of others. As for the title of this post, the rather cryptic string of numbers refers to the inspiring date for this relaunch: a little blogging symposium moderated by David Cote on behalf of the Summer Play Festival salon series, with special guests like Isaac Butler, Garret Eisler, Cara Joy David, and George Hunka. (And by "guests like," I mean those specific people, specifically.)

The observations of the evening were what you'd expect, but they did shed some light into the conflict-of-interest debate that wound up removing two prominent bloggers from the gaping freelance staff of the New York Times, and the usual questions about the purpose of blogs and the use of complimentary tickets boomed throughout the attic studio. One clarification: I don't get free tickets for Show Showdown, the four-person blog/chronicle/race to see the most shows in 2007. If they were offered, I would certainly take them, although I would never pander to a publicist to maintain a sycophantic relationship. (I do receive tickets through New Theater Corps, the Theater Talk-sponsored blog for young critics for which I currently serve as editor, and occasionally through my own site and my own connections.) I consider the work we do at Show Showdown to be a valuable, albeit snarky and unprofessional, asset to anyone looking to see what's out there, and while the gimmicky nature of the site may explain why it is one of the first blogs to have been featured in the Arts & Leisure section, the work there is genuine and produced out of a real and undeniable love of theater. Blogs tend not to make money: after listening to the evening's panel, if not for love, what then?

The one worry I had was listening to how Cara Joy David had received industry "threats" because of her non-libelous and column-like posts. Does Michael Riedel get the same? Is an "insider" or a "journalist" not allowed to have an opinion outside of the news? Heck, they wouldn't be human if they didn't. (There are, for the record, many alien news anchors.) It's one thing for an artist to write to a critic and discuss a comment or review (some more vividly than others) -- and in fact, the panelists seemed to welcome raging debates on their sites or via more ignorable e-mail -- and it's another to use the leverage of excompensation, like some Pope of Theater, against freethinkers and freer writers.

I also wanted to address an issue that didn't come up at the salon, and this was the necessity of blogs to review certain shows. Theater, especially off-off-Broadway theater, the kind that doesn't get coverage in even the local media, is the most transitory art form out there. As a happening, that's fine, but as the product of hard work, it drives me nuts that there is often no record of the fine theater being produced every day. A network of hardworking bloggers can help point out some of the overlooked gems the city has to offer, and the rapid response times allowed by online publishing allows the word to get out almost instantaneously. I'm a big fan of Isaac's process-oriented musings of theater craft, and I check Garret's journalism (vulturized from other writers or not) religiously, but don't leave legitimate review-oriented sites out of the blogosphere.

It's a pleasure to be back, folks. I hope you'll stick around for a while.