Thursday, January 20, 2005

Is There An Arts Crisis?

In the political front, the Republicans have put the Reform of Social Security as an immediate and urgent concern of their current administration, and the Democrats, at least a groundswell of them, have launched a multi-pronged attack at refuting the idea that there is any type of crisis in Social Security.

The Arts, more specifically the performing arts, have been suffering quite a bit in recent years. This has led to a slight polarization of attitudes in arts journalism. A conservative faction that frames the argument in the terms of "there is no real crisis," and the liberal faction which would have you believe the sky is falling.

In Boston we are fortunate in that we are going through somewhat of boon in new performing spaces opening. But just in case we see those as any sure sign of healthier days on the way, just peruse some articles on the web concerning places like the ACT in Seattle, or TheatreVirginia. The blessings of new spaces often result in nightmarish Twilight Zone-Monkey’s Paw scenarios for the organizations christening them.

A couple of recent articles show how even seeming supporters of the Arts are asking tough questions. Seattle Weekly’s Roger Downey has a scathing, Corporate Capitalist screed about how letting Arts institutions fail is actually healthy for the arts themselves. Downey is harsh, and the following quote makes you flinch with either indignation or self-realization:

"We've forgotten, or been taught to forget, that whatever its social or spiritual value, art is a business like any other. When a fine restaurant closes its doors, we may regret its passing, but we don't try to set up an endowment to keep it open; when a plumber goes out of business, we assume the plumber must have
ignored the bottom line and hit the Yellow Pages to look for another. Even individual artists are expected to live by the economic rules that govern all the rest of us…"

Downey outlines some of the methods which Art’s organizations are turning towards in order to stay alive, including corporate partnerships and mergers. He rightly sees though, in these seemingly shrewd alliances, that these methods may only succeed in a watering down and dissipation of Art itself:

"Whether you happen to think these developments were inevitable or not, they have taken place, and they have consequences, not all of them economic. Organizations do not create art. Artists create art, and with the best will on both sides, it often turns out that the organizational machinery meant to support and foster creativity ends up stifling it. After a while, gilded mediocrity begins to seem the best to be expected."

True as that may be, Mr. Downey, however, leaves little other choice for the organizations. He certainly doesn’t see Arts Organizations as entitled to any sort of public money. In boxing in the options of Arts Organizations of he is supplanting his original thesis laid out in his earlier examples. I mean, a plumber may go out of business, but Downey, being the good Corporate Darwinist he is, would surely not fault the man for trying to use every means possible to stay in business. Though I am positive he was rabidly against it, could Downey really fault the masterstroke of the Airlines in getting a government bailout?

The article gets incredibly wry at the end, with a sneering little series of jibes:

"How long can the game continue? As long as someone's willing to pay the bills, as long as art is allowed a privileged status, as long as people continue to believe supporting the United Way and supporting Seattle Opera or Pacific Northwest Ballet are equivalent activities."

And when he asks the reader to consider the worst case scenario—(For Bostonians the Equivalent of the BSO or the ART or Huntington folding,) like Hickey in The Iceman Cometh, he tries to dispel us of our pipe-dreams:

"But beyond red faces, how much would it matter? A great deal to a few, most of all the artists newly unemployed; to many more, a regrettable reduction in the agreeable routine of middle-class life; and to a great many, very nearly nothing at all."

What is his solution? Resignation? What is his argument? And to whom is he directing it? Does he mean to convince people that if they feel that the arts are important enough to society to warrant government funding, they are foolish?

Deep in his heart, I believe he is of the mind that in the end, it is healthier for artists to be starving:

"Art continues to be made, perhaps in a quite different form, by quite a different kind of artist; to be made without subsidy from anyone but the artists themselves, who can no more stop making it than a spider can stop spinning webs."
This is the familiar battle cry of, "Artist’s must suffer to create great art." You may recognize its conjoined corporate twin, the whisper of "when lean and mean, organizations get more creative." Even worse, we hear echoes of it in Donald Rumsfeld’s unfortunate response to a soldier’s question as to why they have to pick through trash heaps to armor vehicles. "You go to war with the army you have!"
Well, Fast Company magazine had an article a couple of months ago that dispelled some of the myths of creativity, and one of the biggest is that people are more creative under pressure, fear, or during and after downsizing.

Now, the Opinion Journal gives a positive picture of the arts thriving in Suburbia. Nope, nothing wrong here!
"’What's happening is that the power base is shifting to the suburbs--they have the political and economic power to get what they want,’ observes Neal Cuthbert, arts program manager for the Minneapolis-based McKnight Foundation. He points to a ‘quiet arts revolution’ taking place in the region's hinterlands, including major arts developments in Anoka, Hopkins and Minnetonka, as well as a new $7.2 million arts project in suburban Bloomington, home to the massive Mall of America."

Although, I have often thought that the suburbs may be the solution to starting a theatre revolution, I can’t help shaking The Stepford Wives Syndrome that sends chills up and down my spine when I consider it. However, one can’t deny the eroding of the myth that the urban folk represent the consumer base of art anymore.

A recent marketing study of the Broadway theatre scene, recapped in Backstage, showed that most of the people who go to see shows are out-of-towners. The survey also shows, disturbingly, that though the overall ticket revenue is up on the Great White way is up, the statistics show that, "In a sign of just how difficult it has become to mount plays on Broadway, 10.02 million people saw a musical last season, a new record, versus the 1.57 million who saw a play, the lowest figure in almost a decade."

I wish there were some Off-Broadway numbers to peruse as well. But is it possible that the generally accepted idea of urban dwellers as being the primary performing arts audience is crumbling? And as city streets get harder and harder to negotiate and parking fees rise higher and higher , will a critical mass be reached. Would a civic arts center placed at say the junction of I95 and I93 or I93 and I495 be more profitable for touring productions of Wicked or Phantom of the Opera, or even Boston Ballet’s Nutcracker? However, would it be good for the Art?

Lastly, a recent article by Michael Billington of the Guardian heralds that the solution is "Who Dares Wins!"

The companies that are succeeding, in Billington’s estimation, are the ones who take the most risks, and present new work. He lauds the track record of Chichester Festival Theatre. However, just as you find yourself getting inspired, Billington slips in, (almost subliminally,) the enraging line, "It's an approach made possible only by subsidy, and Chichester currently gets £1.8m from the Arts Council and local authorities."

So this little triumvirate of articles comes full circle back to subsidy, and we start over again with the Downey principle of starve them into creativity.

So, is there a crisis? Value has been a popular word in Ben Cameron’s editorials in the front pages of American Theatre over the last few years. But what exactly does it mean?

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Humana Announces Its Play Lineup

The Actors Theatre Louisville, hosts of the National Ten-Minute Play Competition, have announced their lineup for the Humana Festival this year.

If anybody is interested in what plays and playwrights are going to be jammed into our consciousness over the next three years, always look to the Humana Festival. In a way, like it's counterpart Playwrights Horizons, it is the Sundance Festival of theatre. I don't mean this in a snarky way. In fact, Humana definitely produces plays that are out of the mainstream. For instance, Adam Rapp's Finer Noble Gases featured an actor peeing into a snare drum right in front of the audience. I wonder if ATL provided rain slickers like Blue Man Group does.

Anyway, Backstage has the rundown. And below are the plays and playwrights.

Hazard County by Allison Moore - Has already had a production in New York at least. Here is a review on of the Themanatics Group Production.

A Nervous Smile by John Belluso who penned the kind of hot Pyretown that is making the rounds right now.

A Shaker Chair by playwright Adam Bock who's most recent well-known production was The Typographer's Dream at HERE in New York. You can read the Curtain Up Review.

Moot the Messenger by Kia Korthron has probably the most cliched description of all of the plays: It's described as a

"complex and fierce indictment of contemporary American news media: An ambitious journalism student lands a job as an embedded reporter in Iraq. Her encounters with soldiers and others lead her to see that the truth is no longer
what the media seeks."

I was not a great fan of Breath Boom's production at the Huntington. I thought the play read well, but needed a more intimate space. Ms. Korthron is a political and social playwright, so no one should be surprised at her choice.

Pure Confidence by Carlyle Brown. A story about a black jockey, this is a combined effort between ATL and the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. Mergers continue.

Memory House by Kathleen Tolan has the kind of description that makes guys scream and run for the exit...

The essay question, "What’s in your memory house?," sparks the play, according to the Playwrights Horizons announcement. "This innocuous question for a college entrance essay prompts a free-spirited 18-year-old to confront her mother... about the ethical ramifications of her own international adoption. Unfolding in real time as one woman struggles to bake a pie and another races to meet a rapidly looming postmark deadline, Memory House is a remarkable, wryly funny and utterly recognizable mother-daughter drama that examines the global ties that bind family to state, and state to family."

but it must have some chops. Dianne Weist is starring in a production at Playwright's Horizon this spring. For those playwrights wondering how long it takes to get something to stage, apparently, the play began as a reading of a work in progress in 2003.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Plugging Favorites Hits Critical Mass?

Ed Siegel Likes the ART So Much That the Globe Forgets Which Theatre is Producing the Play.

Will Lebow owns the current Huntington production of The Rivals at the Huntington, and anybody who disagrees is free to post their disagreement on the Mirror. However, Globe critic Ed Siegel, once again can't resist his ART plugging as he opens and closes his review last Friday with subliminal ads for the American Repertory Theatre.

Witness the first paragraph:

"American Repertory Theatre audiences have known for decades that the presence of Will LeBow in the cast almost automatically means that the artistic level will be pretty high, at least when he's on stage."

And the Last:

"LeBow goes back to Cambridge for Christopher Marlowe's "Dido, Queen of Carthage" at ART in March. After "The Rivals," you might be convinced he could just walk across the Charles."

I have written before about this habitual plugging which is not reciprocal, but on Friday it actually went further than I think Mr. Seigel and the Globe intended, when the front page of the Globe's Weekend Section proclaimed, "Will Lebow is Stellar in ART Production." Followed by the page number on which to find the review.

Apparently, the person who was putting the sections together took a quick skim of The Rivals review and decided it was an America Repertory Theatre production.

Has anybody seen a retraction or correction for this?

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Send In The Stringers...

So the Glass Menagerie got the stringers this time around. I guess the chiefs were too busy trying to catch some skin over at the New Rep and the South African Festival is going on as well.

Sandy Macdonald in the Globe didn't like the set or the Laura, and she hated the miking effects...

"In antithesis, Engel's worst move is miking Amanda (Nancy E. Carroll) and Laura (Emily Sophia Knapp) in order to give certain lines an echo-chamber effect, akin to sonic italicizing. The effect is disruptive, and the wiring -- all too obvious in the Lyric's intimate space -- makes the two women look as if
they're ready to rip into a song from "Rent."

Her observation about the miking is valid, it is a strange effect, and it kind of just stops being employed about half way through the play. However, I was sitting fairly close and only one time did I notice the mike wires. In fact, the first time the effect kicked in, I immediately scanned the actresses for the wires and it took a little bit to find them. Ms. McDonald is guilty of too much snarkiness in this instance.

She doesn't care much for the miming either, (it is a bit sloppy,) but unfortunately that type of rushed miming is what we get in a culture that disdains the idea of serious dramatic training and the repertory company system. Movement, Mime and Mask are so ridiculed that they are completely lacking in some courses of instruction, and actors usually rush through the motions on stage as if they just want to get them over with.

The Herald sent Bob Nesti over to Clarendon street, but he didn't like the fire escape...

"Yet what is haunting the current production at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston isn't the ghost of Williams' troubled past, but the desire to rethink a classic. Some plays benefit from such treatment; others, such as this one, do not."

There are definitely issues with the production's minimalist staging, but
strangely, Nesti's main complaint consists of the fact that he has to use his imagination:

"Eric C. Engel's production features that fire escape; in fact, there's little else on the stage. This is a stripped-down ``Menagerie'' with no set decoration or even props. Even the glass figurines of the title need to be imagined; and the dining room table where the dinner for the Gentleman Caller takes place is represented by the fire-escape landing. ...There is no picture of Amanda's
absent husband in the living room because there is no living room."

Bill Marx, reviewing the New Churchill Play in New York, had this to say about his fellow Boston theatre critics,

"It doesn't help that reviewers often flinch at Churchill's demand that they think. Underdog Stage's recent Boston premiere production of her 1977 play "Traps" was generally greeted with incomprehension. Faced with different moments of time co-existing on stage and characters who might either be talking or
thinking their dialogue, some critics crumpled."

Nesti also exaggerates a little too much on the props. There are a few set decorations and props. There is even a nice bit of subtle lighting when the imaginary candles on the candelabra are lit.

However, the main distinction in the reviews is a strikingly different assessment of Elizabeth Knapp's Laura and the Gentleman Caller.

While the Herald praises:

"Emily Sophia Knapp plays the crippled Laura with conviction, and Lewis Wheeler makes a model Gentleman Caller. Their candle-lighted scene together is the production's high point..."

The Globe had this to say:

'Knapp's approach is more problematic, even puzzling. We've been prepped throughout the play on how "very, very, terribly shy" Laura is, but come the pivotal scene with the gentleman caller (Lewis Wheeler, miscast in a part that calls for physical robustness and mental density), she speaks right up, in the kind of voice that would go with a firm handshake. She's downright brash, more autistic than timid (that would be another story), a tomboy rather than a wallflower. Thus, there's no room for gradual blossoming as Laura lets this blundering stranger into her fragile little world."

In the end, it's all opinion, really.

Both Reviewers go out of their way to mention the staging of that scene as problematic for the audience. On a raised stage the scene would be in the perfect place, but the Lyric is a sunken thrust and the scene is more than likely lost to many people higher up.

Monday, January 10, 2005

The Spare Set Steals the Show

In his book Genius, Harold Bloom describes his "powerlessness" in trying to explain why the United States has only produced a handful of dramatists who even come close to approaching any kind of timeless creative powers. He muses that Tennessee Williams may be the only one who can hope to approach canonical status.

All of our feelings about Harold Bloom aside, the Lyric’s new, spare production of Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, makes an excellent case for his argument. There is something just right about the set, even upon first entering the theatre. The steel firescape, which hangs outside the cramped Saint Louis apartment where the events of the play unfold, has basically taken over the whole, black, right-angled set. Only a few props throughout suggest a homier atmosphere, but they are few and far between, and to my surprise, the titular central set piece of the play is nowhere to be seen.

This really is a play about memory. Afterwards you will swear that you saw the apartment, but I assure you it is not there. The audience will be excited to know that in place of those little glass animals, passages, which sometimes are buried to us, are allowed to come glimmering to the surface. For instance, Tom’s narration is infused with rumblings of war. (Although, maybe current events are helping that particular imagery spring forward.)

Director Eric Engel has dissected the play well and has not fallen into the trap of sentimentality, which hampers so many productions. If you love Glass Menagerie for its weepy climax, this probably isn’t the production for you. But, it is truer, in my opinion, to Williams’ intelligent assessment of his own feelings toward a certain time in his life and the life of the country.

Vincent Sider’s Tom delivers the closing with just the right amount of forced wry cynicism. He is a Tom who wants to play the sarcastic and cynical writer, swimming on the surface, but who knows too well the deep currents of horrible truths that run through his little domestic drama.

Like conceptual Shakespeare productions, this Glass Menagerie is refreshing for those used to seeing the play. However, unlike a lot of Shakespeare we see, Erik Engel’s concept is not gimmicky, but rather a sensitive interpretation of this deceivingly complex masterpiece.