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]

Friday, April 20, 2007

Criticizing Criticism: A Manifesto of Sorts

Lately, I've been asking the big "why" of more than a couple of shows I've seen: that is, "Why do this production?" But there's just as easily another question beneath that, and that's applicable to me: "Why review this production?" and along with that, what is a review, what's criticism, and what's a blog. Those of you browsing the "blogosphere" have probably come across various meditations on this theme before, but I'll do my best to address them all with this mini-manifesto, engaging with some recent reads (including an old post of Garret Eisler's, something heartfelt from Martin Denton, and some wit from Howard Kissel) and building toward a more communal ideal, where the line between artist and audience and art and criticism isn't so wide.

I love Martin Denton, and what he's doing over at nytheatre.com and his personal blog (which is attached to the intriguing, but still-in-progress indietheater.org):
No matter how terrible or misguided or perverse a show seems to be, always remember: they didn’t do it just to annoy you. Anyone who works in Off-Off-Broadway knows how hard it is to get a show up—any show. Almost everyone involved is doing the work for no money, and finding time to do it around day jobs and other responsibilities. They’re running on passion—that’s why I love OOB so much. These artists are compelled to tell us something. Try to figure out what it is. Give them room to say it.
This is from his commentary on the NY IT Awards (and don't forget to vote): even this comment on criticism itself is filled with passion and genuine love, which is where the reviewer has to come from. However, the one caveat to Denton's post above (applicable to Broadway and more and more to Off-Broadway) is that while they may not do it to annoy you, there are quite often financial reasons creeping in that lull both the subject material that's produced and cull a certain type of performance.

That's why it's so important to see new work, the kind that is still willing to be rough and risky, and why we should make it a point to go in blind: for the experience and the love, rather than simply to make notes on a play. Denton says he doesn't write things down during a show because he doesn't want to abstract the experience: one way to know how much I'm enjoying a show is to look and see how much I'm writing down. (The true value of a press kit is not needing to take factual notes.) I disagree that what's happening in the audience has relevance to the show (especially with the rudeness of ringtones), but this here's a pretty accurate job description (can we standardize it?) of a reviewer: "(a) have the experience, and then (b) report honestly and articulately about it."

Nobody's questioning Isherwood's paper proselytizing ability; it's when they feel he's been dishonest with judging the work, or when he's veered from critiquing the experience to making moral (or otherwise) judgement calls that he gets slammed by his readers (as with the infamous assessment of Adam Rapp's Essential Self-Defense). On the other side is the danger of those with too little experience: although Cynthia Ozick writes her April 2007 Harper's essay to talk about literary bloggers, theater bloggers are only one remove away:
Less innocent is the rise of the non-professional reviewer on Amazon--though "rise" suggests an ascent, whereas this computerized exploitation, through commerce and cynicism, of typically unlettered exhibitionists signals a new low in public responsibility. Unlike the valued book club reviewer, who may be cozily challenged by companionable discourse, Amazon's "customer reviewer" goes uncontested and unedited: the customer is always right. And the customer, the star of this shoddy procedure, controls the number of stars that reward or denigrate writers....Most customer reviewers, though clearly tough customers when it comes to awarding stars, are not tough enough--or well-read enough--for tragic realism or psychological complexity. Amazon encourages naive and unqualified readers who look for easy prose and uplifting endings to expose their insipidities to a mass audience.
These are the people who have an experience, but have no experience from which to write more than the flimsiest of visceral responses. These opinions are valid, but only when weighed in aggregate: on their own, featured as they are, they are often too personal to engage the work, and as Ozick points out, too exclusive to provoke commentary (which is why I will always have comments turned on). So to add another another items to Denton's admirable start: (c) a reviewer must be looking to add to the discussion which the piece itself, in its creation, has already sparked.

This is what I think Garrett was getting at when he reviewed Linnea and wondered "if it was even worth reviewing at all."
Exposing the flaws of prominent productions that are taken seriously by others is an essential function of criticism. (See Richard Gilman's famous contrarian essay "On Destructive Criticism.") But something like "Linnea" seems the result of some part-time theatre enthusiasts (no doubt with serious ambitions) who are just not ready for prime time. I'm all for letting them hone their craft out of the public eye until they have something really ready.
There's a reason New Theater Corps refuses to publish bashes of shows: we're simply not interested in beating a dead horse, nor are we interested in promoting one. Our reviews are aimed at pointing out shows that get limited exposure and helping audiences find the shows that would catch their eye, if only their eye was focused on it. Here's the fourth function of a reviewer then: imagine the finest story ever, written on a grain of rice. It is (d) the reviewer's job to be the magnifying glass for a show, to serve as an after-the-fact amanuensis who is more interested in highlighting talent than shutting it down.

It is Howard Kissel who makes the greatest case for reviewing:
[W]hether or not their ultimate judgments are sound, they ought also make their prose lively. It doesn't help the theatre when readers are sent to shows that are boring, but it's even less help if their writing is mundane. Whether praising or panning a show, the critic's basic job description is to make the art itself sound exciting.
Yes, here's the essential final part of reviewing: to be art in of itself. Not just a magnifying glass, but (*d) a mirror too, one that encompasses not only the play, but also the critic, one that continues the experience from the page to the stage and to the people.
Many reviews are written with an eye to scoring intellectual points rather than simply informing the reader whether or not he'll have a good time. In fact, many reviewers do not like to see themselves as consumer advisers. They are writing about an art form and want their observations to be treated seriously, not simply as a matter of thumbs-up or thumbs-down.
Nothing is as easy as Caesar's ominous verdict makes it look: we should treat the plays we see with the utmost of respect, as if they were gladiators themselves, men and women who should live, regardless of whether we ourselves were merely entertained. As Kissel reiterates: "it's much easier to write a negative review than a positive one," so let's keep with Denton's first comment and remain honest, above all else, which leads us to the final ideal (e) that a reviewer exercise thought and care and -- dare I say it -- love. To go back to Ozick for a moment:
What is needed are critics who can tease out hidden imperatives and assumptions held in common, and who will create the contentious conditions that underlie and stimulate a living literary consciousness. In this there is something almost ceremonial, or ceremoniously slow: unhurried thinking, the ripened long (or sidewise) view, the gradualism of nuance.
So, a distilled manifesto of what I will do my best to become as I continue this metamorphic journey as a critic:

(a) I will look the experience first and then
(b) be honest, always, about it.
(c) My goal is to add to the community, to
(d) magnify the artistic experience, and
(*d) to mirror the work with as much craft as possible in the review.
(e) Finally, to linger in that moment, to nourish with love, not hate.

To do these things, to spring forth not just stale commentary but living, breathing text on what has blown our mind or percolated our soul or resonated in our being . . . that's exciting. That's worth reading. To do these things is to be a real writer, interpreting the world through the narrator (or critic's) lens, the author's (hopefully experienced) viewpoint, and to make our work counterpart to theirs: to use Ozick's beautiful closing phrase, to make our work a "ghostly twin" to theirs.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Plagiarize This!

Last week was a big week in Greek drama for me, and it resurrected the idea of plagiarism once again, as in: is it wrong for an artist to steal if it changes the work? I'll stress: my qualifier is that the new is different than the old, that you don't just add a line about cellphones to Alcestis and slap your name on the play as "Adapted by." How can it be wrong to play with text in theater if one of the things we celebrate is the way in which directors find ways to play with shows?

It comes down to money and ego, but remember that the words are out there. Just because you find them first doesn't mean you own them, especially when those words are a product of the experiences born out of this life. But if I can go out and write a better Harry Potter book than J. K. Rowling, if I can convince people to read it, why don't I have the right to do so? Theoretically, it won't hurt her capital unless my product is genuinely better (or achieves the odd sort of social popularity of cumulative advantage): in either case, I've a right to do so.

The triggering thought extends back to the controversial Harper's article of February 2007 in which Jonathan Lethem steals text (only to credit it in the end notes) to make a verbal collage on the subject of plagiarism. He's linked different ideas in a new way, and hence elevated the individual thoughts and methods, in much the same way that we vaunt the ability to "tag" things on the Internet and to explore the heretofore unseen connections between what's out there. In medicine, in sports, in history, in pretty much anything but art, this is an incredible boon: doctors making realizations about their differential diagnoses, coaches and trainers coming up with new strategies, historians making new realizations from the multiple angles . . . only in the "creative" arts is it a bad thing that we're scanning books onto the Internet or spinning off ideas to invent something new. I want to put James Tyrone in a play I'm working on: why not?

There's another article in that Harper's issue that was somewhat overlooked, and that was a joint piece between artist Joy Garnett and photographer Susan Meiselas as to who had the right to use a picture of "Molotov Man." Well, all Meiselas did was snap the camera at the right moment, to do what some cultures still believe to be "soul stealing" and then develop the print and find a willing publisher. What makes her the owner of that moment in life, then? An artist is really just in the right place at the right time: as Steve Martin writes in Picasso at the Lapin Agile, the best artist is really just open to receive the idea at the moment it happens. In this case, Joy catches the reflection of genius off another person's "work" and in turn she adopts it. In this case, the controversy actually causes a whole cadre of netizens to adopt the art, and suddenly we're swimming in beautiful new works. And how can anyone possibly find that a bad thing?

Maybe I'm naive, but the artist is a filter. He or she (and gender is really irrelevant here) experiences the world and then creates something from those experiences. But the world is the universe and everything in it. Including plays, photos, advertisements, and so forth. The idea that work should be kept out of the public domain for x years is only more ridiculous in the medical community. But wait, you ask: if not for the protection of rights, why would anybody struggle so hard to create at all? Well shit, I say. If you're in this to make money and not because you love what you're doing, then you're in the wrong business. This will, inevitably, lead me into the class discussion that's come up on other blogs, but rich or poor, if you're striving to create from a commercial aspect, your work is already tainted by a need to succeed, and a fear of experimentation (or of succeeding at your experiment only to have someone take the next logical step off your experiment before you can).

The commercial world works so hard to force things into the public domain: lights flash, bells whistle, and smells drift at us through almost every orifice. When we succumb and allow the world to transform us, we should then be careful in our most intimate, free-thought moments of creation to then partition ourselves from all that is not truly "public domain" once more? I liked OEDIrx, but didn't like Orestes 2.0. Both, however, gave me thoughts for my own ideas (which is why there's no such thing as a bad night at the theater): why can't I use them? Chuck Mee was recently subverted himself, in the brilliant transFigures. Why shouldn't they use him? Notice how all this reviving hasn't stopped anyone from doing straight classics, like Prometheus Bound (to their own detriment), see how The Polish Play hasn't ended the career of Macbeth (this version itself being an adaptation) or Ubu Roi.

I'm a big supporter of the thoughts of the masses over the thoughts of the few, and when you limit anything, you come close to ruining it. Obviously, you shouldn't call something Beethoven or Samuel Beckett if you've altered their originals . . . but remember, it's when we try to call their adapted work something else (without permission) that we get into trouble as artists. Look at how the blogosphere works. I see a post that inspires me, I link to it and post about it. Someone else reads mine (and perhaps back to theirs), and then write their own. Suddenly there's discussion; suddenly there's something new. Nothing is wrong, everything is sacred. Go ahead, plagiarize this. You must.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

An Intimate Look

I've noticed a growing slant in my reviews, and I want to honestly air it. If you perform a show in a small, cramped space -- if you use the audience for part of the performance -- if there's not so much distance between the stage and the first row -- I'm probably going to be more interested in your show. Now, it's not a bias: I still like highly theatrical Broadway shows that rely on distance and space, but that's an aesthetic type of show, like the heavily stylized Coast of Utopia, which I connected to more on a visual than emotional level. But I can't help but think that Well did so much better off-Broadway than on because it had an easier time connecting (filling a smaller house, too), and that one of the reasons I liked Macbeth: A Walking Shadow better than the Public's version was that I felt more implicit in the show.

My basic take is that shows have compensated for the ebbing fourth-wall in theater by simply increasing the comfort zone between audience and actor. What it results in is an audience that has the luxury of tuning out; an audience of observers, but no more activists. I like that the Neo-Futurists of Too Much Light Make the Baby Go Blind will pull you up on-stage, and that if you mess with them, they'll mess with you. I like that in volume of smoke, Isaac Butler made us implicit in the theatrical tragedy of 1881 by placing his actors (who played audience members) right next to us in the audience.

I saw Howard Katz and Los Angeles within the same month, and liked the latter, less professional production more. Why? Because in the cramped underbelly of The Flea, with a suffering girl slumped over the divider, her head practically in my lap, I'm more alert, more sympathetic, and more interested in the work. I'm active, whereas with Marber's play, I was admiring the acting, sure, but also drawn to the noisy old man beside me who kept fidgeting with something in a plastic bag. Alfred Molina is far more entertaining than old men with mysterious packages (usually), but proximity is a huge factor in personal investment.

If we really are becoming more apathetic theatergoers, we need to get more invested in our shows. Hard to ignore a show that's being performed in a bathroom, an elevator, or a train. (Or, as in The Sublet Experiment, in someone's house.) This upcoming interactive play I'm seeing, Accomplice: New York, promises to mix theater with life. Rotozaza's Five in the Morning as PS122 uses audience members, or something. From what I heard about Hell House, it was a very lively experience. Maybe I'm just too young to sit idly in my chair and appreciate a show; maybe I need to depreciate in age before I can do that. Or maybe it's really just about restoring that connection between the stage and the audience, about remembering that we're all really, when it comes right down to it, on the same stage, all together, all one.