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.