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.