Thursday, December 18, 2003

MY RESPONSE TO BILL MARX

On Larry Stark's Theater Mirror website, I wrote a response to an article Bill Marx wrote on criticism.

He responded to me, and the chain is to be found on Larry's site: http://www.theatermirror.com look under Mere Opinions

The following is a response I drafted to Marx, but didn't send:



Hi Larry,

In response to Mr. Marx:

I appreciate Mr. Marx responding to my post, but I feel I need to clarify a few things in my original statement to Larry. In no way did I mean to indicate that the size of one's readership in anyway increases or decreases the legitimacy of their arguments or the courage of their critical stands. I was alluding to the economical and editorial pressures faced by the critics on the panel. Also, the title of Mr. Brustein's panel was The "Function" of the Critic, not the "future" of the critic. Marx is right that the panel did not have a great amount of pizzaz or fiery debate, and I will admit that I too expected that at least Brustein would provide a little more of his trademark dissent. However, Marx went into the panel wanting it to be a certain something and was disappointed because it didn’t live up to his ideal that he had already formulated. When his pre-conceived expectations were not realized, he attacked the panelists as whimpering and the whole proceeding as a “schmoozefest.”

Mr. Marx wrote in his response to me, (posted on this site,) “Hennessey is hung up on opinion, which is part of the consumer guide mentality that’s increasingly turning criticism into sound bytes.” After his response, I went in eagerness to read Mr. Marx's new review of Snow in June, http://www.publicbroadcasting.net/wbur/arts.artsmain?action=viewArticle&id=578786&pid=30&sid=12, expecting to find an erudite and informative cultural criticism, but instead found, to my surprise, a nice, capsulated and “opinionated” review. All it was missing was a little cartoon thumbs down on the top left or right. In fact, I was even more pleased to find that he is kind enough to give the hurried and time strapped masses his "opinion" in the second line. I am being facetious, (and in no way am I endorsing the American Repertory Theatre,) but I am only doing so to illustrate my original point that all of the critics on Mr. Brustein's panel were complaining that in the course of “daily reviewing” they are increasingly being forced into, as Mr. Marx says, a "sound byte" structure.

What I found interesting is how these critics suggested that they are limited not only by editorial policies, but also by the reading public. (Ed Siegel stated that he gets complaints when he tries to infuse too much literature in his reviews.) My original statement about readership was made to defend critics who are writing for everybody from Bill Marx, to Larry Stark, to me, and to the guy out in Methuen who has never heard of half the references in a New Criterion review, but wants to know if he should spring the $150 plus for his wife to see Nathan Lane in Butley. However, I now must revise my statement and say that Mr. Marx appears to suffer from the same type of pressures, even though he has now proven that he knows better.

I think this point was actually best illustrated during the Critics Panel when Linda Winer from Newsday was stating how she had recently seen plays by four playwrights she absolutely loved, but she was disappointed by the plays. She then went on to explain fervently how criticism really shouldn't boil down to opinion. Ed Siegel smartly asked her; "When you reviewed those four productions, in what paragraph did you state that you didn't like the plays?" Winer, caught like a defendant on Law and Order, sheepishly answered that it was not very far into the review that she offered up her opinion.

Mr. Marx, I am on your side. I don’t think this is a good situation.

Marx is right to bring in the political question, and political debate is a healthy addition which reviewers such as Steyn, Brustein, and Heilpren bring to theatre criticism. I believe Robert Brustein might have coined the phrase “The Plays You Are Not Allowed To Hate” when talking about plays which weave politically correct agendas into their fabric so tightly that to bash them, (even though they may be mediocre or bad,) would be...well... politically incorrect. I also recall the phrase “Come See the Safe Pedophilia” which headlined John Heilpren's negative review of Paul Vogel's How I Learned to Drive. It is an interesting double standard that theatre artists so often want to shove political agenda into the audience's lap, but they think it is irrelevant and annoying when critics want to bring up political, (and sometimes legitimate,) responses to the production in their reviews.

However, political argument can be just as dangerous when it is wound into the helix of a reviewer’s DNA. Steyn's review of Trumbo while an intelligent, well-written, and supported argument is also dripping with so much McCarthy-loving, conservative political bent that is smells like Anne Coulter's perfume. I will not believe Mr. Steyn did not come slobbering to that table with his knives sharpened. Oh, and check out Roger Ebert's review of On the Waterfront in his Great Movies column and see how a "pop media" daily "reviewer" can include the same breadth of political commentary in his brief space allotment as Mark Steyn does in his leisurely column in last month's Atlantic regarding Elia Kazan.

I enjoy reading all sorts of theatrical criticism, (Marx included,) and I will confess to the guilty, (stress on guilty,) pleasure of reading a particularly nasty diatribe now and then, but I cannot fully support the side of "spirited" reviewers who pick and choose their targets with preconceived notions. Is Bill Marx, Robert Brustein, or Mark Steyn going be able to have a dialogue with me about that off-off Broadway show that is being done in the small 40 seat theatre?

If theatre critics are going to hold high standards for theatre then they should also expect to be held to high standards as well. By that I mean they need to work for a living. No, I don't mean that they need to get a “real job,” I would only suggest that they have to work at their craft. Not only should they know their field and know cultural contexts, they should also have to hustle their respective rears off to see as much theatre as possible. They don't have to like everything, or a majority of what they see. And I don't expect they will. I don’t like everything I see. If you are a professional theatre "critic" and you are not seeing seven to eight shows every week, then tell me, what are you doing? Philosophizing? Navel-gazing? Pontificating? All right, how about five shows? If your reaction is that you don't need to see all that much theatre because deep in your heart you think most of it is bad then I am not sure you are the right person to be a theatre critic.

I don't know Marx personally, but his vocabulary, ("dumbing down," "knee-jerk liberalism,") and his admiration for conservative voices seems to betray more artistic ideology than it does true "thinking." In fact, his comment "if one believes that Boston is in a perpetual Golden Age of Theatre, then one's mind has been made up," seems to closely echo Dale Peck's wildly brazen polemic, “if you honestly do not believe that this is bad writing, then you are part of the problem.” It reminds me of the boss who once elaborated on his freshly trumpeted idea saying, “I mean, you would have to be an absolute idiot to think anything else!” He then turns to his cowering employees and asks, “What do you think?” Although I will readily admit that liberals have a hard time getting over the fact that they don’t corner the market on thinking, I’d rather be “hung up on opinion,” than content to march in such lockstep pandering.

Loud and invigorating does not equal right and unassailable, (snarky or not,) if it did then Michael Savage would be Sainted by now. The Dale Peck school of reviewing is the talk radio of the arts and literature world, and is no more a shot in the arm to the true function of the critic than Def Poetry Jam is a catalyst for a theatrical revolution. Both are all one-sided, cliched, ideological bluster, but both are fun and hip for the crowds to which they are pandering. Marx speaks of “taking on the ever growing army of emperors with no clothes, which includes critics as well as artists.” Whose mind is already made up?


But what do I know? The world is an up and down place. I mean, after all, Brustein raged for years against Arthur Miller, kitchen sink, family dramas, but then he wrote a play in just that mold called Nobody Dies on Friday, (and it wasn’t a parody.) Oh, and Strom Thurmond has an interracial child. Will wonders never cease?

Friday, December 12, 2003

Just My Opinion:


Def Poetry Jam

Right at the beginning of Def Poetry Jam I knew that something was wrong.  The DJ walked onstage and immediately tried to fire up the crowd with a very sensible decibel level and carefully chosen, non offensive mixes of old school and new school hip-hop peppered with the obligatory record scratches.   The crowd needed quite a bit of warming up, and though some people "got into the groove," others were remaining very composed.

The show had been lauded in its New York run as the second coming of theatre.  "Exciting,"  "electric,"  and, "energetic."   Its hip  and young cast were praised as wordsmiths and the critics couldn't say enough about how dextrous they were with the language.  And while the performers are congenial and sometimes commanding presences, aside from a few brief glimpses of true creativity, I am sorry to say that the poetry is pretty standard, cliched, and very one-sided.    I have heard better at local poetry slams.  But the poets there are not the attractive, MTV Real World types that Def Poetry Jam can exploit for Broadway ticket prices. This is a fact that is unconsciously underscored when one attractive poet, Suheir Hammad, recites, "I am not your exotic," in a poem which chastises people for seeing her as some exotic pornographic creation. But she does so without displaying even a winking acknowledgement that her "look" is part of the marketing apparatus of the show.

The best of the bunch is Poetri, a self deprecating and very funny comedian who tells simple stories of his life views that really bloom into larger creations right before your eyes in ways that are truly magical. However, I couldn't help thinking that he would be more at home on the Def Comedy Jam.  The other standout is an Asian poet, Beau Sai, from Oklahoma who is amazingly confrontational in his delivery. ( "I am so extreme...I crank call myself!")   In fact, by watching his performance I realized what was missing in the rest of the evening and why this is not really theatre, but just a poetry slam in a much bigger venue. What was missing? Another viewpoint!   The reason for the success of such poems as Sai's "Asian Invasion" rant about how he is seeing America as a place where the "hair is getting a little bit darker and the eyes a little bit smaller,"  is that he is shouting it at us as if he knows that we might be disagreeing with him, or at least that we are uncomfortable with what he is saying.  

Other poets on stage make statements about cops killing blacks indiscriminately, and it is stated with a finality and a nobility, and with shouts of agreement from the audience.  However, poetry such as this doesn't examine anything deeper or beyond itself.   It borders on preaching to the choir.  For this to approach the level of real theatre Russel Simmons should seek out a talented New York City Police Officer and have him write a poem about being called night after night into tense and possibly violent situations in decrepit neighborhoods. In theatre it is fine to let your point of view win, but it is criminal to not let the other side have a good shot at making its case.   The play A Few Good Men, ultimately condemns the actions of Colonel Nathan R. Jessup, but I'll bet that more people in this country can recite the Colonel's eleventh hour, "You can't handle the truth," speech, or at least a portion of it, than can recite "Tommorrow and Tomorrow," from Macbeth.   Why?  Playwright Aaron Sorkin was not scared to give the best points, the best lines, and a lucid argument to his villain.

Another thing missing was a distinct lack of poetry regarding the War in Iraq, aside from a poem which appeared to have been written shortly after September 11th.  In the text, the poet realizes to her growing horror that by the nature of her genetic makeup she is finding herself and her brothers, (both of whom are dark, arabic looking men,) on the wrong side of President Bush's With-Us-Or-Against-Us policy.

Pockets of the audience were having a great time during the whole evening, other pockets were really silent.   It makes me think that the critics in New York have never seen a Chris Rock standup act, or listened to a hip-hop record.  Eminem regulary belts out deeper and more dextrous verse than anything I saw on stage last night, and he uses bigger words too.

Consider a line from Eminem's first popular single:

My brain's dead weight
I'm tryin' to get
My head straight
But I can't figure out
Which Spice Girl
I want to impregnate.

That line speaks so much of a culture of young people who may be smart, gifted, or talented, but are increasingly facing an all out assault by commercialism that is successfully scrambling their brains.


Being a dramatist by nature I envisioned a grizzled and cantankerous old man shuffling onto the stage and delivering the words of Robert Frost:

A SOLDIER
He is that fallen lance that lies as hurled,
That lies unlifted now, come dew, come rust,
But still lies pointed as it ploughed the dust.
If we who sight along it round the world,
See nothing worthy to have been its mark,
It is because like men we look too near,
Forgetting that as fitted to the sphere,
Our missiles always make too short an arc.
They fall, they rip the grass, they intersect
The curve of earth, and striking, break their own;
They make us cringe for metal-point on stone.
But this we know, the obstacle that checked
And tripped the body, shot the spirit on
Further than target ever showed or shone.


Monday, May 05, 2003

People Who Are Not Afraid

I watched the Boston University Production of Noel Cowrd's Hay Fever this past weekend. The set was
outstanding. The play is tour deforce of wit and manners, or, as the tagline on the marketing says,
"very bad manners." The program indicated that Noel Coward wrote the play in three days, and this was
the subject of a good amount of talk in the seats around me as to what a genius he was. However, as I
watched the play with great delight, the thought occured to me that it was not neccessarily a well-constructed
play, although it did have all of the trappings of such. The genius of the play, indeed of most of Coward's
writing, lies in the fact that he unashamedly courageous. He is not afraid in the least bit as he writes
away in a fever mode.

A recent Broadway Revival of Private Lives showed that people really have to work to make
serious of his plays. His works are a fresh breeze, and that is not a criticism at all. Remember
that works of genius defy the commercial conventions and go on to success. His light and airy
farces and his razor wit and dialogue will survive in productions probably forever, when, on the
surface, they should probably not have outlasted their original run.

Every play and song Noel Coward wrote, he wrote as if it was his last, jamming nuances, ideas
and melodies, and characters into them as if he were about to expire and needed to get it all out.
"Risk your reputation every time you write a play, " is advice I read recently. Noel Coward is a man
utterly confident in his talent, and his right to be writing and composing.

Paula Plum did a fabulous job as the matriarch of the Bliss family, and even though she is not a singer,
she did here best to soldier through the song required of her. It made me a little saddened that Mrs. Plum,
who is supposed to be Boston's shining star, diva, grand dame, is not able to deliver a Noel Coward song
with suitable panache.

The young actress playing the daughter Sorrel, was a bright and shining example for the BU Theatre Program.
if she does not go on to great success, I would be very surprised.

Friday, May 02, 2003

A Letter of Advice


I wrote this response to a playwright who had written in to Larry Stark's site about how the press was not
coming to see his play, and that it was resulting in poor ticket sales.


Hi Brian,

I am trying to make it to see your play. It sounds great. But really my letter is an open offering of advice
from one who has been in your position.

First, I would like to officially welcome you to the world of the smaller theatre producer here in Boston.
You have received your baptism by fire.

I want to thank you for the letter to Larry and tell you that many of us have gone through what you are
going through right now. All of the press releases, all of the calls to Arts sections of papers. I heard
of one company who finally succeeded in getting the theatre reviewer on the line, only to be told very
coldly, “Listen, I don’t know how to get it through your head, I Am Not Coming To See Your Show!”

Wear your scars proudly and soldier on. You are talented and nobody has a right to take that
away from you. This town is thrilling to me because we are still, somehow, able to mount productions
through independent means against impossible odds and an almost vengeful press.

The one thing I will impart to you, and to other theatre companies who want to listen is this:

DO NOT FALL INTO THE BELIEF THAT THE PRESS WILL BRING YOU THE AUDIENCE!

Now, this is not to say that a good Globe Review will not bring people to the theatre. It will, undeniably.
However, you always must think…What if I get a bad Globe Review?

I know you say that the press had brought you “nada” on the tickets, but I guess my
question is are you playing to empty houses?

If you are playing to empty seats the next questions follow:

How many people are in your cast?

How many people are in the crew?

How many Brothers and Sisters do all of you have?

How many Aunts and Uncle’s do you have?

Do you attend a church or place of Worship, and how many parishioners or people attend there?

How many people do you work with in your day job?

How many amateur baseball leagues are around?

How many people are in your neighborhood?

How many people are in the neighborhood around CWT?

In short, are you honestly doing everything you can be doing to make sure that the seats
are filled?

I know where you are, believe me. I can remember being involved in shows with casts of
larger than 10 people and playing to virtually empty houses on opening weekend. It is
really easy to blame the lack of press for this, but you have to wonder why 10 people
can’t get at least a few rears in the seats, if not a sell-out weekend.

Needless to say, I have learned my lessons. When we have a show going up, we
do nothing but hound friends, family, co-workers, fellow worshippers and theatregoers
about the show for months ahead of time. We all but dial the phone for them when they
make reservations. One theatre company I know went door to door in the residential
area around where they were performing to drop off flyers and tell people about their show.
It paid off in a big way.

I promise you that each time they come to one of your shows, your audience will need
a little less arm-twisting. Best of all, they will bring friends. You need to build an audience,
just as the bigger theatres build subscriber pools. People think, “If I could only get the
reviewer here.” As if they know for sure that they will receive a good review. If you are
going to live by the press then you are going to die by the press. The smart thing is to
start building an audience that will be able to support you when those reviewers do decide
to start coming.

Do not fall into the dangerous thinking that somehow you are not a serious artist or a
successful playwright because you cannot get scores of strangers to inexplicably want
to travel to Charlestown, fight for parking and work their way around the narrow streets
to see your show. However, I will say that if we cannot get family, friends, roommates,
office mates and the like to come, then we are not serious entrepreneurs or successful
businessmen and women.

I also agree with you on another point. We need to keep working towards doing full- length
plays that will originate here in Boston. However, I will take issue with you that you and
say that you are not the only one who is putting on original full-length plays. You are not
doing anything so unique that it is deserving of more or less attention than anybody else’s work.
If you want to be a producer as well as a playwright then you will take the advice I am offering you.
If you are just looking to score as a professional playwright then I would advise you to start
marketing your play away. Margaret Edson sent her play Wit to every theatre company in
the country and only one decided to produce it. It went on to win the Pulitzer prize.

Maybe consider taking the show on the road to a Fringe Festival or to another city.
From my experience, you can walk away with a nice review from a major paper in
another city, and then send that on to the Globe or the Herald and they will take notice, believe me.

Thursday, April 03, 2003

Come On and Chant with Me: "A.R.T., A.R.T, A.R.T."

I found a bright spot reading another of Ed Siegel's theatre pieces in the Boston Globe. At least he is acknowledging we exist in his weekly, curious, self-amused ponderings on the Boston theatre community's slow, agonizing slip into a coma and certain death. He is like a young boy experimenting with a magnifying glass and an ant. "Curious," he must jot into his little Boy Scientist Journal, "how can it possibly stay alive?"

http://www.boston.com/dailyglobe2/093/living/War_anxiety_takes_center_stage_as_theaters_endure_dip_in_sales+.shtml

The answer, silly, is to do exactly what the ART does.

"Greater Boston presenters and producers who've seen successes this season tend to talk about them with caveats.

'Our subscriptions are way up, and we're operating at around 84 percent of capacity, which is considerably better than last year,' when the ART subscription campaign was launched immediately after Sept. 11, said Robert J. Orchard, executive director of the American Repertory Theatre. 'But it's highly idiosyncratic. We had a change in leadership, so there was more media attention. And we were reaching out to our subscribers.

'If those things weren't happening, I think we would be in big trouble,' Orchard said. 'We're putting on progressive work, in a difficult environment. There's a niche for that, and it's one we're continuing to develop. I think you're seeing a lot of institutions refining and redefining their brands, if you will.' "


Since when is Cambridge a difficult environment for progressive work? I think the last part of his statement is more to the heart of the matter. They are developing their value to the community that already goes there, trying to keep thier fan base loyal. I look at the ART as the premiere marketing machine of this town, not as the premiere theatrical company.

I don't begrudge Ed Seigel for giving them props were the credit is due. However, between his last article and this one, combined with his reviews, I believe that he is giving the public the impression that if they have money to spend on theatre, they cannot go wrong if they see something at the ART.







Friday, March 28, 2003

APPLES & ORANGES?

Ed Siegel's Story in Sunday's Boston Globe takes a swing at not just Boston theatre, but all theatre in general. Is he shaping up to be one of those critics who seems to hate the area in which he is working? It would appear so, considering his weird argument comparing theatre to movies.

His call is for passion and artistry to improve, but is it really fair to compare the five Oscar nominees for best picture to the whole of American Drama this past year? It is kind of like the foreign film argument. We go to the video store to rent some of the Best Foreign Film winners of the last decade. Then, after watching them, we proclaim that foreign films are so much better than American films. Well, I have lived and gone to the movies overseas and I can report that 99% of their films are just as terrible as the vast majority of our films.

It is a weak enough argument to compare two completely different medium, it is even worse to compare the best from film to the middle of the pack from theatre. Mr. Siegel uses Ben Cameron's call for value (see my post on 3/21/2003) as a starting point for his thesis.

http://www.boston.com/dailyglobe2/082/living/Film_gaining_on_theater_in_the_quest_for_quality+.shtml

Mr. Siegel enjoys edgy theatre, and he is right that we don't really push the edge all the time in this town.

"In a speech at a theater community meeting in Boston a few years ago, Theatre Communications Guild executive director Ben Cameron pooh-poohed calls for quality in theater, arguing instead for ''value'' as the key to attracting and keeping theater audiences. Forgetting for the moment whether there is any higher value in the theater than quality, I fear that too many theater directors worry more about pandering to subscribers' desires than keeping theater a going artistic concern."

He then goes on to praise the American Repertory Theatre for taking risks. However, I think the disconnect in his argument comes when he misses that idea that "taking risks and playing edgy" does not equal quality, and could be considered "pandering" as well. The risks that need to be taken are not in concepts, as the ART so often does. Instead, the risks need to be in the themes and or the execution of the production, which he himself says in the article.

We have all gotten to know the definition of "high concept," from the 80's and 90's Hollywood scene. Concept movies were exemplified by the Buddy Movie. High Concept was termed when the concept movies became more complex, as when they would cross genres. For example, when describing a movie, they would describe it in relation to other movies- "It's When Harry Met Sally crossed with Thelma And Louise." Probably the most hilarious example is when the Die Hard movie spawned all sorts of imitators: It's Die Hard on a Boat, It's Die Hard on a Plane, etc. The original creator of Die Hard joked that he knew the concept was finally dead when he attended a pitch session in which somebody was actually trying to sell their project by proclaiming, "It's Die Hard in a building."

The American Repertory Theatre wants to take risks in concept not in artistry. Probably the most famous example was, "It's Endgame in an apocalyptic Subway Station!" High concept is not trying to find an edge, it is a marketing move that is trying to find what is new. And often, classics which are "rethought" end up being cut down, with major parts being excised because it doesn't fit the "concept." (Examples would be the Royal National Theatre's Hamlet, which completely did away with the Fortinbras story line, and the Abbey's recent Medea, which jettisons the tragic heroine's escape.) This kind of artistic carelessness will not help us at all, and is certainly not interested in, "keeping theatre a going artistic concern." This high concept mentality seeps into theART's selection of Adam Rapp as a playwright to champion. Rather than taking on a playwright who could write plays for the wonderfully talented, but oft ill directed, actors in their company, they choose instead to do the, "edgy," work of this newcomer. Stone Cold Dead Serious had not a single, well thought out theme or idea, and so it was a play that was all edge with no steel to its blade.

I do not mean to bash the ART, in fact, I commend them for the company structure which Robert Brustein has set up. What I mean to suggest is that perhaps the danger of theatre is not that we cannot match the movies, it is that I think we are trying too hard to match the movies.

I will be the first one to say that theatre is hitting a brick wall when trying to compete with film in certain arenas. For instance, film now completely dominates the thriller genre. I think that the final dirge was sounded with the artistic and commercial failure of a star packed Wait Until Dark a few years ago. (In an interview with director William Friedkin about his new movie The Hunted, he talked about car chases and how he sees them as a type of art. His reasoning is that it is something that cannot be matched by another medium. Novels and theatre cannot touch film when it comes to the visceral impact of car chases.) In reviewing Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, the New York Times critic started the review by discussing how film simply does the theme of war better. I would say that there are many themes of war and that the stage can do some of them infinitely better than film. The stage is about ideas, the movies are about emotions and immediacy. The stage can never match the movie Glory, but the movies can never match the play TopDog Underdog.

Mr. Seigel wants to hold up The Shape of Things as an example of what will help American Drama? While I think The Shape of Things is an excellent play, I have to admit that the movie version will probably be superior, and more available to people. Aside from the last scene, there is nothing theatrical about the play at all, including the dialogue and the characters. Why is Blue Man Group still selling tickets? You can't experience anything like it on film.

The last sentence of Mr. Seigel's article is probably closer to the point. He says,
"If movies continue to provide those experiences on a regular basis while theater is content with producing less daring diversions, what will be the motivation for paying up to 10 times as much for the experience? What will be the motivation for going at all?" The reason that movies are kicking our ass is not that they are good, but that they are good and available. Multiplexes abound, and television and dvd's bring it right into our home. Economics keep us theatre folks in the city because that is where most of the theatre-going audience is. However, the city keeps our prices high and will, in the end, stop anybody from coming in to see what we are producing. Perhaps the war for theatre must be fought in the suburbs, not in Back Bay, but we are unwilling to fight that fight, it would be long and hard and it would have too many obstacles.

Stagesource Town Meeting

"Dramatic Possibilities," read the program for the Stagesource Town Meeting on March 10th, but somewhere between Jeff Poulous's inspiring opening statements and the start of the panel discussion, that title would show an insidious, double-edged nature.

Despite the listing of the numerous new theatre spaces which will appear in the next year or so, (and the optimistic introduction of the six panelists, all of whom are involved in some of those projects,) the meeting could not shake the feeling that something terrible is going to happen. Questions were asked and answered very tentatively, as if the panelists were waiting for somebody to swoop in and take their new theatre space lest they give the wrong answer.

Indeed, something terrible may happen very soon, and it going to have an effect on our nation and economy. Being the artists that we are, our concern is, "how is this going to affect us."

A few years back, Ben Cameron, Executive Director of TCG, stood on the stage of the Huntington and delivered a message about Value to virtually the same audience. Mr. Cameron is a powerful and articulate speaker, and many were impressed with his exhortation that theatre must be able to articulate its value to the community in order to increase market share. He also supplied a firm slap in face by informing us that, "the excellence of the art that you create does NOT count as value."

I remember being intrigued and confused by his remarks. On the one hand, I tried to accept it as practical and sound business advice. On the other hand, I was seeing it as an order to start trying to play to the masses. However, I think that Michael Maso, Managing Director of the Huntington Theatre Company, was able to clarify it at Monday's meeting by saying that companies need to find the community where they are valued and strengthen their relationship within that community. This seems like an easier pill to swallow, but it is not going to make it any easier for us to digest. What it means is that we can survive, but not everybody is going to be an IBM or GE. Or in the case of Boston's theatrical landscape: Not everybody will be an ART or a Huntington.

Two years ago we were wondering how to get more people interested in theatre, now it seems that we will be fighting over the division of what currently exists. Ben Cameron provided the springboard into this fray as well when Barbara Grossman introduced the Panel Discussion with the thesis of Mr. Cameron's current essay in this month's American Theatre in which he asks, "Are there too many theatres?" In the article he again asks a hard question - Have we saturated the market to the point where some theatres will simply fail? Prove your value, or die.

I am sure that Ben is a lover of theatre, but I think he belongs to a masochistic division of us who constantly question our relevance. One is reminded of the writings of Robert Brustein, who, in a life-long love affair with theatre has seen and reviewed productions from one end of the earth to the other. If you read any of Mr. Brustein's many books you will find, after all of his artistic introspection, he has come to the conclusion that 98% of theatre falls into the abyss which lies beneath the chasm between mediocre and outright crap. Statistics may be on his side. Go to any fringe theatre festival and you will probably find that out of the 100 or so productions, maybe ten will be intriguing, and I would guess that only 2 will be truly innovative and gratifying theatrical experiences. Actually, I will even extend the statistic to the work done at Mr. Brustein's own theatre. But more about the ART later.

Oskar Eustis delivered a fascinating keynote in which he talked about the origins of drama, and why innovation was actually at the birth of drama. (Having two people turn and start addressing each other on the stage was a radical departure from one storyteller addressing the audience.) However, Mr. Eustis proved to be no more cheery than Mr. Cameron when he predicted that what we will experience in the next few years is, "a burning-off of dead wood." "Theatres will close," he pronounced solemnly and he went on to cite the example of the ACT theatre in Seattle which is in the process of closing.

It was all disconcerting on the surface. Our prayers have been answered, and all of these new theatres are opening, but we are going to experience a pruning of dead wood? I think Mr. Eustis would have tied the doom and gloom into the good news perfectly if he were to have gone on to elucidate that the ACT is closing despite having recently moved into a new downtown performance space which was supposed to be what they always wanted. This is an organization that is thirty-five years old!!! It's downfall is chronicled a little more in this article in the Seattle Weekly - http://www.seattleweekly.com/features/0309/stage-downey.php or here in the Seattle Times: http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/artsentertainment/134650125_act11.html

If one reads further into this month's American Theatre, they will see the account of TheatreVirginia and how they had to make the decision to close while waiting to move in as the resident company in a brand-new performing arts center. Growth does not mean value, and does not mean staying power.

In my day job, I work placing consultants for a very specific, rare, but necessary database. We service one technology, one type of consultant, and a very limited client base. During the IT boom times of the nineties many companies saw all the general needs out there and they went after them. What followed for them was incredible growth. Now, our industry, IT Placement, has suffered incredible hits and most companies have vanished or are on the verge, but we are still safely trucking along. Things are tight and certainly not as good as they used to be, but we are here. Why? Because we have virtually no competition in the world. Our value to the community we serve is incredibly strong and we have never abandoned them.

I think a fitting response to Mr. Cameron's question can be found in American Theatre's profile of the Director of the Roundabout in New York City. Basically, he took a theatre from Chapter 11 to the success it is today, and one of his inside secrets should serve as the battle cry of the value proposition---"SCREW THE SINGLE TICKET BUYERS." It may sound offensive at first, but let it settle in for a bit while we look at the American Repertory Theatre.

I have gone to see their shows on and off for years, and I am quite often stunned by the gushing response they get from both the audiences and the press. For years I wondered, "How can this happen? This is amazingly bad, amazingly expensive, and amazingly pretentious. How can this go on this many years? Why can't they do it right? Why can't they do something I like? I would love to take advantage of their subscription rates, if only there was something in it for me!!!" Suddenly, there is a pause of recognition...And I realize, that they don't give a rat's fart about me. I find no value in their theatre and I show it by not regularly attending their shows. Oh sure, I pop in now and then because something in their dramaturgy lures me there, or one of their expansive, Boston Globe pre-show articles contains a picture of a stunning set that looks like a must see, but in the end, I am an outsider. Why should they want to please me? Why should they suddenly start doing anything different for me? They have legions of subscribers and supporters that have bought their shows hook line and sinker for years. They feed that audience. They give them a great newsletter with fascinating articles about Checkov and Othello, they bring in world name directors, and have some of the most dazzling costumes and set designs. This is a perfect case of their worth not lying in the artistic excellence per se, but rather in the value they have to their community. I am a single ticket buyer. They charge me full price and kindly ask me to drop my comment card in a public wastebarrel on Brattle Street.

During the Open Mike portion of the Stagesource meeting a young woman thanked Michael Maso for the Huntington Policy of 35 and Under Pay Your Age. She said that she was glad that they were doing Breath, Boom because, "not everybody goes to Broadway Musicals." I think the Huntington has very progressive programs for getting young audiences into their theatres, but I think that a provocative follow-up question is needed to the young woman's statement. That question should be, "if you are only going to come to my theatre if I do a play like Breath, Boom, why should I be extending you a special offer?" Or even more provocative, "If you are only going to come to my theatre if I do a play like Breath, Boom, why should I even do a play like Breath Boom?"


Tuesday, March 25, 2003

APPLES & ORANGES?

Ed Siegel's Story in Sunday's Boston Globe takes a swing at not just Boston theatre, but all theatre in general.

http://www.boston.com/dailyglobe2/082/living/Film_gaining_on_theater_in_the_quest_for_quality+.shtml

Mr. Siegel enjoys edgy theatre, and he is right that we don't really push the edge all the time in this town.

"In a speech at a theater community meeting in Boston a few years ago, Theatre Communications Guild executive director Ben Cameron pooh-poohed calls for quality in theater, arguing instead for ''value'' as the key to attracting and keeping theater audiences. Forgetting for the moment whether there is any higher value in the theater than quality, I fear that too many theater directors worry more about pandering to subscribers' desires than keeping theater a going artistic concern."

He then goes on to praise the American Repertory Theatre for taking risks. However, I think the disconnect in his argument comes when he misses that idea that "taking risks and playing edgy" does not equal quality, and could be considered "pandering" as well. The risks that need to be taken are not in concepts, as the ART so often does. Instead, the risks need to be in the themes and or the execution of the production, which he himself says in the article.

We have all gotten to know the definition of "high concept," from the 80's and 90's Hollywood scene. High Concept movies were typified by the Buddy Movie. However, high concept became more complex when they would cross genres. For example, when describing a movie, they would describe it in relation to other movies- "It's When Harry Met Sally crossed with Thelma And Louise." Probably the most hilarious example is when the Die Hard movie spawned all sorts of imitators: It's Die Hard on a Boat, It's Die Hard on a Plane, etc. The original creator of Die Hard joked that he knew the concept was finally dead when he attended a pitch session in which somebody was actually trying to sell their project by proclaiming, "It's Die Hard in a building."

The American Repertory Theatre wants to take risks in concept not in artistry. Probably the most famous example was, "It's Endgame in an apocalyptic Subway Station!" High concept is not trying to find an edge, it is a marketing move that is trying to find what is new. And often, classics which are "rethought" end up being cut down, with major parts being excised because it doesn't fit the "concept." (Examples would be the Royal National Theatre's Hamlet, which completely did away with the Fortinbras story line, and the Abbey's recent Medea, which jettisons the tragic heroine's escape.) This kind of artistic carelessness will not help us at all, and is certainly not interested in, "keeping theatre a going artistic concern." This high concept mentality seeps into their selection of Adam Rapp as a playwright to champion. Rather than taking on a playwright who could write plays for the wonderfully talented, but oft ill directed, actors in their company, they choose instead to do the, "edgy," work of this newcomer. Stone Cold Dead Serious had not a single, well thought out theme or idea, and so it was a play that was all edge with no steel to its blade.

I do not mean to bash the ART, in fact, I commend them for the company structure which Robert Brustein has set up. What I mean to suggest is that perhaps the danger of theatre is not that we cannot match the movies, it is that I think we are trying too hard to match the movies.

I will be the first one to say that theatre is hitting a brick wall when trying to compete with film in certain arenas. For instance, film now completely dominates the thriller genre. I think that the final dirge was sounded with the artistic and commercial failure of a star packed Wait Until Dark a few years ago. (In an interview with director William Friedkin about his new movie The Hunted, he talked about car chases and how he sees them as a type of art. His reasoning is that it is something that cannot be matched by another medium. Novels and theatre cannot touch film when it comes to the visceral impact of car chases.) In reviewing Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, the New York Times critic started the review by discussing how film simply does the theme of war better. I would say that there are many themes of war and that the stage can do some of them infinitely better than film. The stage is about ideas, the movies are about emotions and immediacy. The stage can never match the movie Glory, but the movies can never match the play TopDog Underdog.

Mr. Seigel wants to hold up The Shape of Things as an example of what will help American Drama? While I think the Shape of Things is an excellent play, I have to admit that the movie version will probably be superior, and more available to people. Aside from the last scene, there is nothing theatrical about the play at all, including the dialogue and the characters. Why is Blue Man Group still selling tickets? You can't experience anything like it on film.

The last sentence of Mr. Seigel's article is probably closer to the point. He says,
"If movies continue to provide those experiences on a regular basis while theater is content with producing less daring diversions, what will be the motivation for paying up to 10 times as much for the experience? What will be the motivation for going at all?" The reason that movies are kicking our ass is not that they are good, but that they are good and available. Multiplexes abound, and television and dvd's bring it right movies right into our home. Economics keep us theatre folks in the city because that is where most of the theatre-going audience is. However, the city keeps our prices high and will, in the end, stop anybody from coming in to see what we are producing. Perhaps the war for theatre must be fought in the suburbs, not in Back Bay, but we are unwilling to fight that fight, it would be long and hard and it would have too many obstacles.

Sunday, March 02, 2003

Ed Siegel's Story in Sunday's Boston Globe takes a swing at not just Boston theatre, but all theatre in general.

http://www.boston.com/dailyglobe2/082/living/Film_gaining_on_theater_in_the_quest_for_quality+.shtml

Mr. Siegel enjoys edgy theatre, and he is right that we don't really push the edge all the time in this town.

"In a speech at a theater community meeting in Boston a few years ago, Theatre Communications Guild executive director Ben Cameron pooh-poohed calls for quality in theater, arguing instead for ''value'' as the key to attracting and keeping theater audiences. Forgetting for the moment whether there is any higher value in the theater than quality, I fear that too many theater directors worry more about pandering to subscribers' desires than keeping theater a going artistic concern."

He then goes on to praise the American Repertory Theatre for taking risks. However, I think the disconnect in his argument comes when he misses that idea that "taking risks and playing edgy" does not equal quality, and could be considered "pandering" as well. The risks that need to be taken are not in concepts, as the ART so often does. Instead, the risks need to be in the themes and or the execution of the production, which he himself says in the article.

We have all gotten to know the definition of "high concept," from the 80's and 90's Hollywood scene. High Concept movies were typified by the Buddy Movie. However, high concept became more complex when they would cross genres. For example, when describing a movie, they would describe it in relation to other movies- "It's When Harry Met Sally crossed with Thelma And Louise." Probably the most hilarious example is when the Die Hard movie spawned all sorts of imitators: It's Die Hard on a Boat, It's Die Hard on a Plane, etc. The original creator of Die Hard joked that he knew the concept was finally dead when he attended a pitch session in which somebody was actually trying to sell their project by proclaiming, "It's Die Hard in a building."

The American Repertory Theatre wants to take risks in concept not in artistry. Probably the most famous example was, "It's Endgame in an apocalyptic Subway Station!" High concept is not trying to find an edge, it is a marketing move that is trying to find what is new. And often, classics which are "rethought" end up being cut down, with major parts being excised because it doesn't fit the "concept." (Examples would be the Royal National Theatre's Hamlet, which completely did away with the Fortinbras story line, and the Abbey's recent Medea, which jettisons the tragic heroine's escape.) This kind of artistic carelessness will not help us at all, and is certainly not interested in, "keeping theatre a going artistic concern." This high concept mentality seeps into their selection of Adam Rapp as a playwright to champion. Rather than taking on a playwright who could write plays for the wonderfully talented, but oft ill directed, actors in their company, they choose instead to do the, "edgy," work of this newcomer. Stone Cold Dead Serious had not a single, well thought out theme or idea, and so it was a play that was all edge with no steel to its blade.

I do not mean to bash the ART, in fact, I commend them for the company structure which Robert Brustein has set up. What I mean to suggest is that perhaps the danger of theatre is not that we cannot match the movies, it is that I think we are trying too hard to match the movies.

I will be the first one to say that theatre is hitting a brick wall when trying to compete with film in certain arenas. For instance, film now completely dominates the thriller genre. I think that the final dirge was sounded with the artistic and commercial failure of a star packed Wait Until Dark a few years ago. (In an interview with director William Friedkin about his new movie The Hunted, he talked about car chases and how he sees them as a type of art. His reasoning is that it is something that cannot be matched by another medium. Novels and theatre cannot touch film when it comes to the visceral impact of car chases.) In reviewing Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, the New York Times critic started the review by discussing how film simply does the theme of war better. I would say that there are many themes of war and that the stage can do some of them infinitely better than film. The stage is about ideas, the movies are about emotions and immediacy. The stage can never match the movie Glory, but the movies can never match the play TopDog Underdog.

Mr. Seigel wants to hold up The Shape of Things as an example of what will help American Drama? While I think the Shape of Things is an excellent play, I have to admit that the movie version will probably be superior, and more available to people. Aside from the last scene, there is nothing theatrical about the play at all, including the dialogue and the characters. Why is Blue Man Group still selling tickets? You can't experience anything like it on film.

The last sentence of Mr. Seigel's article is probably closer to the point. He says,
"If movies continue to provide those experiences on a regular basis while theater is content with producing less daring diversions, what will be the motivation for paying up to 10 times as much for the experience? What will be the motivation for going at all?" The reason that movies are kicking our ass is not that they are good, but that they are good and available. Multiplexes abound, and television and dvd's bring it right movies right into our home. Economics keep us theatre folks in the city because that is where most of the theatre-going audience is. However, the city keeps our prices high and will, in the end, stop anybody from coming in to see what we are producing. Perhaps the war for theatre must be fought in the suburbs, not in Back Bay, but we are unwilling to fight that fight, it would be long and hard and it would have too many obstacles.