Thursday, December 21, 2006

Cringeworthy Jenna Sherer

Jenna Sherer publishes her best of 2006 list. The Fringe she engages with regularly only makes an small appearance on this list.

Though she presents herself as genuinely interested in the fringe, I suspect from following her reviews that she is taken with production value as much as the Globe Herald and Phoenix critics are.

While I confess to enjoying her snark now and then, her inexperience and arrogant manner is defeating her attempts at being a young alternative to the other mainstream critics. And these problems are nowhere better encapsulated than in the following line praising The Pillowman at New Rep:

It’s about time Bostonians got a dose of the playwriting coming out of Ireland these days; and there’s no better man to start us off than His Royal Highness of Black Comedy, Martin McDonagh.

This statement is so clueless that it almost defies belief. Though Sugan is on hiatus this season, Boston has been treated to much of the best playwrighting coming out of Ireland in the last few years. McDonagh himself has been represented very well.

I do not believe that critics have an obligation to serve the theatre community, and Ms. Sherer and others should call them as they see them. But please try not to make ignorant statements when making your prescriptions for the theatrical landscape.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Stoic Gets His Comeuppance

For the past three weeks I have been under much pressure trying to close an important contract at my day job. (Finally, it came through!) And, at night, I have been performing in the most original production of Christmas Carol you will see in these parts.

I got a huge cold a few weeks ago, but all of my obligations have just kept me going, and going, and going. But I just couldn't shake the cough and the chills, I felt like absolute crap, and getting up in the morning became a labored, achey chore that seemed to take hours.

I went to the doctor's office hoping that they could give me something to knock out the cold. Well, it took just about one listen of my lungs for my doctor to say, "No wonder you aren't shaking the cold, you have pneumonia."

Chest X-rays confirmed this and I spent the about three days completely wiped out in bed as my body took its revenge on me for having pushed it to the breaking point for weeks.

I notice fellow Bloggers like Terry Teachout are having a hard time shaking colds. My advice is to make sure it isn't something more insidious and get some antibiotics before the holidays.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Onion Cellar reviews coming in.

It looks as if The Onion Cellar, the collaboration between the ART and the Dresden Dolls, is pretty much just what the pre show articles in the Herald, Globe and the Phoenix said it was going to be, a jumbled mess.

Larry Stark, Will Stackman and Terry Byrne have weighed in already. The Globe should be interesting.

An entry on On the Download on the Phoenix webpage pointed out that Amanda Palmer, lead singer of the Dresden Dolls, had left a message on a forum basically saying that all the pre-show hype was just to sell more tickets. However, that entry went on to then say all of the points covered in the articles about the tempestuous creative process.

Whereas the articles in the Herald, Globe and Phoenix wanted very badly to place the problem at the feet of "Artistic Ideologies Clashing," it really sounds to me that it was the process that was flawed.

This quote from Terry Byrne pretty much sums it up:

The piece is such a patchwork it’s hard to imagine any of the creators - which include Dolls songwriter Amanda Palmer, playwright Jonathan Marc Sherman, Stern, Christine Jones, Anthony Martignetti (a writer and psychotherapist) and the cast of “The Onion Cellar” - had a meeting to discuss the collaboration before they were in the midst of rehearsals.

UPDATE: Louise Kennedy of the Globe puts the usual Globe gloss on the proceedings, but pretty much confirms the disaster.

Both at "Wings of Desire" and at this show, I overheard people saying, "That's the best thing I've seen in a long time." I also saw people scurrying out, shaking their heads in confusion and annoyance. Which camp you land in on a given night may depend as much on your own predilections and emotions as on the work itself. This time, I found myself firmly in both camps.

The ART reigns in the publicity department. To their credit they took to the press and explained what was going on very clearly to the public. The result seems to be just what they were saying it would be.

Now I want to be very clear, I support these types of collaborations. It was interesting project and a risk for the ART to reach out and try to create something like this. The problem is that is seems nobody was in charge, which can be the problem when trying to create collaborations between people with big egos.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Just Pointing Something Out...

This movie airs on A&E soon:

Wedding Wars

Love, family, politics and the right to marry intersect in the A&E
Network original movie Wedding Wars.

Shel (Stamos), a gay party planner, agrees to organize the nuptials for straight brother Ben (Dane) to Maggie (Somerville), the Governor of Maine's (Brolin) daughter. After Shel finds out that Ben, a campaign manager for his future father-in-law, is behind the governor's speech against gay marriage, he decides to go on strike for equal rights. Shel's strike picks up steam and eventually spreads nationwide, leaving the impending wedding vows in the hands of a tacky planner and overall, in question.

This, of course, will play during the run of Paul Rudnick's new Play Regrets Only, which revolves around a wedding, family values, anti-gay politics and a strike by gay workers.

Of course, theatre patrons have to pay $65-75.00 to see the wackiness.

Boston Playwrights Making Good!

Two local playwrights are breaking out pretty regularly in other cities.

Melinda Lopez's Sonia Flew is at Steppenwolf in Chicago, after playing engagements in a few other cities. Here is the review from the now infamous Hedy Weiss. And here is the Sun Times PR piece on Melinda and the play.

And Ronan Noone's latest play The Atheist got a nice notice from the Times.

Congratulations to Ms. Lopez and Mr. Noone.

Friday, December 08, 2006

This is Not A Sports Blog

Yesterday, I waxed a little nostalgic about Jack Bicknell's departure from the football team in 1990 and even hazarded a guess that Tom O'Brien would be there for a while.

Well, this bomb dropped:

Amid swirling rumors yesterday Tom O'Brien was asked to clear out his desk and vacate his third-floor corner office at the Yawkey Athletic Center, Boston College's stunned football team found itself in a state of limbo after learning of O'Brien's imminent departure to North Carolina State.

Unlike my experience of the players being the first to know about Cowboy Jack's departure, apparently the team members were among the last to know about Tom O'Brien.

I now return you to your regularly scheduled Theatrical Broadcast.
A Permission-Based Plague Upon You!

Check out Brown University's production of Sartre's The Flies, which will be using....actual flies.

Producers of the Jean-Paul Sartre play "The Flies" at Brown University will subject the audience to 40,000 fruit flies to bring to life the existentialist work about flies sent to plague the city of Argos in ancient Greece.

Theatergoers know what they're getting into. Rutherford said the flies' presence has been heavily advertised, and anyone who reserves a ticket on a Brown online ticketing service is greeted with a disclosure:

"I am aware that there will be 30,000 live drosophila in the audience
area at this production," the message reads, next to a box that must be checked before reserving tickets.

Yeah, baby!

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Nicholas Martin Leaving the Huntington

In 1990 I got a message on the aswering machine at my dorm room at Boston College. There was a team meeting to be held at the Conte Forum. It wasn't necessarily out of the ordinary, as the season had just ended, but as we all gathered in the room, one of my friends, a running back, said he bet that it was bad news, "really bad news."

Just before we were able to say anymore, Head Football Coach, Jack Bicknell walked into the room. He had hardly reached the front when he said, very succinctly, "Well, they just fired my ass."

Though it was not entirely shocking, (we had gone through some dismal seasons,) it was hard to believe that the man who had built the football program, marshalled them to national rankings and coached Doug Flutie to a Heisman Trophy was gone.

The replacement was named very soon after: Tom Coughlin. Yes, that Tom Coughlin. Coach Coughlin was coaching in the NFL and was to bring his calculating, winning formulas to the Heights and get us out of our losing seasons and into the next level...permanently. Who could argue with that?

And Coughlin was a natch at the recruiting game. He was phoning key recruits from the locker room of then Superbowl Victorious New York Giants. Coughlin didn't mean much to my life; I was senior and graduating. But his martinet style and his regimented coaching was something that took players a little getting used to after the more laid back coaching of "Cowboy Jack."

Coughlin won football games. And at the end of the day, that is what he was paid to do. But everybody knew that Tom Coughlin was never going to stay in Chestnut Hill, at least not while there was a chance at getting to be a Head NFL job. (Similar to Governor Mitt Romney's political aspirations here in Massachusetts.)

Boston College now has Tom O'Brien settling in as a possible long term situation as an institutional man.

The Globe reported yesterday that Nicholas Martin will leave the Huntington Theatre Company after the 2007-2008 season.

Thomas Garvey at The Hub Review has some thoughts that I share about Martin's tenure, and he has some fears that I share as well.

His accomplishments here were significant for the theatre scene: building a legitimate second stage, opening that second stage with the work of a local playwright, his new plays development program, his attempt to establish Jon Robin Baitz as a resident playwright, and I could go on.

Martin states that he would like to concentrate more on his freelance directing career. This makes sense as Martin always appeared to have one foot in New York City, (or Williamstown.) The life of the successful freelance director is in always keeping irons in the fire, angling for the next job, keeping in contact with the right person. This is in Mr. Martin's blood and it was to the Huntington's benefit that Martin was able to lassoo some of those Big Apple contacts and pull them into our regional orbit, however briefly.

As Thomas Garvey states, we can't underestimate the emphasis Martin put on local talent, even reaching across the Charles river and pulling in some of the actors from the ART. (One of my most indelible theatre memories is Will LeBow's hilarious turn as Anthony Absolute in The Rivals.)

But, the freelance man can have a hard time becoming the institutional man. As much as I admired Mr. Martin's tenure and his talent, many theatre people in Boston always understood, (if only in the back of their minds,) that Martin's was a temporary gig, though he stayed for a good long while.

Like Tom Coughlin, (but without the abrasiveness,) Martin won games. The Huntington is functioning on higher level because of him. I thank him and wish him the very best in his career.

I am interested in who will be found to replace him. The search process should be intriguing, and with the HTC now sporting a second stage the short list could get very exciting.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Of Camels and Collaboration

Collaborative performances and ensemble-created theatrical works can be thrilling and exciting experiences, but at the same time they can often produce mixed results on the whole. I am intimately familiar with this rollercoaster ride after having produced more than a few ensemble-created works through my theatre company.

Perhaps one of my favorite satires on the idea of creating by committee is the little seen film The Pentagon Wars starring Kelsey Grammar and Carey Elwes. It is based on interesting book of the same title and the plot revolves around the Army's attempt to build what eventually became the Bradley Fighting Vehicle.

Even with military experience under my belt, the jaw-dropping examples of beauracratic ineptitude dramatized in the film shocked me into laughter.

Of course, after many Generals started lobbying for their own modifications, the Bradley Fighting Vehicle ended up being nothing like what the original concept was supposed to be. About midway through the film the Pentagon Brass are being briefed on how the project is coming along, and the officers in charge state the following:

"In summation what you have is a troop transport that can't carry troops, a reconaissance vehicle that's too conspicuous to do recoinassance and a quasi-tank that has less army than a snow blower, but carries enough ammunition to take out half of DC. THIS is what we're building?"

I would point to a couple of recent articles about collaborative creative efforts that are really instructive about how things work in these artistic environments:

The Good: This little article about the way the popular Sci Fi show Battlestar Galactica is put together:

Moore tosses out the idea of doing an episode told from the point of view of two of the killer androids. Then, the whole group tries to figure out the Cylons' deeper motivations via a rapid-fire series of metaphors. The Cylons are Nazis, hell-bent on solving the Human Question. The Cylons are Jews, trying to defend Israel. The Cylons are U.S. troops in Iraq, caught off guard by an uprising. Building in all that symbolism turns out to be complicated—who's representing what changes...I once heard a media-studies professor claim that the best, most adult television shows embrace cognitive dissonance as a storytelling tool.

This story about collaboration by five women playwrights in England:

Shaping the play and rejecting work that wasn't right proved remarkably easy. "We were bizarrely democratic," says Gupta. "As a writer, you're on the receiving end of criticism from script editors or literary managers, and quite often they're really bad at it. So you learn how not to do it yourself." Discussing the play, says Feehily, "was like working in a really good improvisation team. Even if you had an outlandish idea, someone would say, 'Yes - now what if I ... ?'"

The Bad: This contrarian piece about the ensemble creations of Christopher Guest and Company:

Mockumentaries are no more "real" than any other form of movie comedy. For one thing, if what Guest is doing is spontaneous, it's a highly stage-managed form of spontaneity: Guest sifted through 55 hours of footage to come up with the 80 minutes that make up Waiting for Guffman. Second, what's most important about comedy is whether or not it's funny, and I would argue that Guest's method
often begets a kind of dullness. He's content with his actors "jamming," when tireless preparation—the tedious writing and rewriting of scenes and gag lines—would have served him better.

Then, there is the Ugly: The Dresden Dolls are involved creating a a show for the ART called The Onion Cellar to be directed by Marcus Stern. The Boston Globe a brutally honest article about the construction of the piece:

While the Dresden Dolls were on the road, Palmer says, she, Stern, and Jones, who is based in New York, did ‘‘creative battle’’ via conference calls that sometimes lasted for four hours. At various points each took control of the script for a few days or a week, tried to whip it into shape, and returned it to the table only to be rejected by the others. The volleys came faster, the questions mounted and deepened, writers came and went, and the show’s prospects grew more convoluted.

On Nov. 7, when the actors arrived for the first day of rehearsals, they were told that the show was without a script. Palmer and Stern both marvel at the cast’s flexibility and good humor throughout the often grueling process.

The piece in the Globe intrigues me from a P.R. standpoint. It hovers between an homage to tempermental brilliance and veiled apology for what seems to be a disaster. It fluctuates between a pull-the-curtain-back, nuts and bolts expose of how experiemental works are put together and a come-and-see-the-car-crash carnival barker pitch.

By the way, the articles above are categorized by experience in the process, not by the artistic merit of the finished result. For instance, The Onion Cellar could well be far more beautiful than Battlestar Galactica. (And from the Globe article I think could possibly see some Cylons onstage during The Onion Cellar.)

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Critical Mea Culpas

This piece by Chicago Tribune critic Chris Jones, has elicited responses from several in the blogosphere, including Garrett Eisler of Playgoer.

I agree with Garrett that Mr. Jones seems to be speaking more tongue-in- cheek rather than ass-in-sackcloth.

But I was reminded of my favorite and sincere critical mea culpa that I have ever read. Adrian Ryan of Seattle's The Stranger wrote of a tendency to be overly harsh to small theatre companies in the beginning of critical career. She speaks about trashing, (really trashing if you read some of the quotes,) a company, Hyperion Productions, and their lead actor. However, she admits:

"Today, oh so many moons later, I must admit that I have a much broader perspective as far as theater criticism is concerned. I have seen 12 gagillion tragic Seattle shows in the intervening years, and I realize that I was dreadfully hard on Hyperion Productions in general and Mr. Sebers in particular. Although it may seem a bit grand, I feel that I contributed a nasty shove to Hyperion's fall—and perhaps even to Josh Sebers's, who, I have come to realize, was a darn good actor.When I think of it now, it makes me want to vomit."

90% of all theatre is done by people like Hyperion Productions. People who make absolutely no money from the endeavour at all. I don't advocate that they should be given a pass on anything, (90% of that 90% is mediocre to really bad.) However, as far as mainstream press, or even established alternative weeklies go, there is a real problem: The experienced critics don't want to waste their time going around to every small production, and the stringers who do go to the smaller shows can sometimes be a little inexperienced and every now and then overzealous in their condemnations.

Just some thoughts.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The Theatre Beat Shuffle

First Ed Seigel of the Globe takes an early buyout and then Bill Marx of WBUR is sent packing. And now, possibly, Terry Byrne fo the Herald will be cut loose:

A post on the Weekly Dig's Blog - The Daily Dig reports that Theatre Critic Terry Byrne has been laid off.

The post is not attributed to anybody. Byrne's column space has been shrinking, but this is getting ridiculous.

I will update when I receive any more information.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Eric Bentley Has Little Use for The Newspaper Critic
(or directors!)

Accepting the first annual Thalia award for criticism from the International Association of Theatre Critics, Eric Bentley suggests that daily theatre reviews could really be even shorter. In fact, possibly they could be dispensed with altogether:

Personally, I wouldn't mind if the newspaper critics didn't exist. Let
shows just open, and let the public find out about them by word of mouth from those who attend first or second nights. The modern theater is a huge industry which, like other huge industries, has far too many unneeded middle-men. I wouldn't mind if stage directors didn't exist, either. The 20th century welcomed them but they have outstayed their welcome, and are now a hideous imposition, especially in the opera house (which, for my money, is also a drama house). A friend of mine who is a director says plaintively, "Oh, but a play needs someone. Like orchestral music it requires a conductor, if only to beat time." Now I admit this had been believed as early as the 19th century. Not before that, however. In Mozart's day, no conductor was needed: time can be beaten by the first violinist

I am sure that the comment about directors will raise a furor.

If you read the full text of the speech you will find that he actually very practical about the idea of daily reviewing. His stance could basically be summed up this way: since the daily review is really a consumer guide, why not treat it that way?

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Too Much Sax?

On The Stranger's Slog, Josh Feit tees off on the The Seattle Rep's Great Gatsby.

Apparently, the Rep decided to insert a Jazz Saxaphonists as sort of an Emcee, a'la Cabaret.

The problem, Feit points out, is that this is wildly anachronistic:

When you’re putting on a 20s set-piece like Gatsby, you certainly oughta get your 20s basics right. Not only was their sexy sax an anachronism for the 20s (which is bad enough…sort of like watching a movie that’s supposed to take place in the ’70s and seeing a cell phone), but the Lester Young-style sax they conjured up is specifically evocative of the 1940s. (The sax didn’t emerge as a centerpiece of jazz combos until the late 30s and particularly the 1940s.)

I thought this is where dramaturgists are supposed to come in, especially for larger regional houses like Seattle Rep. But Feit sees a deeper institutional problem with this decision. Racism:

However, I’m not just being a finicky music snob. The main reason their lazy fumble got my goat has to do with racism. To drop the trope of a black saxophonist just whaling his haunting sexy chops into this play was a sop to the Rep’s banal white yuppie audience that loves its comforting, nostalgic, romantic stereotypes of black Americans. (That the Rep got their specific racism wrong—it should have been Louie Armstrong on hot trumpet or maybe even a Jewish cornet player—is just sorta funny.)

Immediately, I thought of August Wilson's 1920's chapter of his African American Play Cycle. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom has the hot trumpet player, Levee, as its focus.

Fitzgerald's novel has hardly a mournful passage in it. It is all about excess in life and death. Gatsby's hypnotic power lies not in his nostalgia of the past, but in his idealistic optimism about his ability to change the past by charging into the future. "Can't change the past? Well of course you can!" He tells the narrator, Nick Carraway.

August Wilson's Levee is a bundle of energy, seeing his talent, his drive and his entrepeneurship as a way of reconstructing his past, leaving it in the dust. Fate has different ideas for both Gatsby and Levee.
Robert Wilson

In this week's New Republic Stanley Kauffman has a review of the new documentary about theatre legend Robert Wilson.

Absolute Wilson a film by Katharina Otto-Bernstein contains interviews with critics and also footage of Wilson productions.

Most people I have met only know Wilson the legend, they have never seen a Wilson production live. Actually, I have met raving enthusiasts of Wilson's work who have never even seen a filmed piece of his shows. In fairness, I have met vicious detractors of his work who have never seen a minute of it either.
Then again, we have never seen a Brecht production live, or a Globe Shakespeare production. (Unless in some type of novelty production that tries to recreate the effects of seeing Shakespeare done as Shakespeare's contemporaries would have seen it.) Beckett's spare and minimal pieces, coupled with his demands for productions to keep to his stage directions, help to preserve a little of what his original concepts were.
We really do rely on second hand information about theatre. I see much theatre here in my Boston outpost, but, aside from the occasional splurge, I am reliant on New York critics to describe the latest BAM production.
So much of our academic and even cultural theatrical canon forming is done for us. We can read the texts, but the performance is something we cannot do alone.
So then we have the question of Robert Wilson and his aesthetic. So much of it is conceptual, though much of it is indeed text-based. How many professors of drama, teaching about Robert Wilson in our universities have seen a Wilson production? Those who haven't seen a production may be able to describe it from other accounts, and use critical assessments to triangulate it. However, it remains ephemeral.
I know this is really true for any director, but I am talking about the pure Robert Wilson show, not, as Kauffman terms it: "a Wilson production of a fixed work."
I am thinking out loud, and I am probably beyond my capacities to convey a coherent thought about this at this particular time. But I think Kauffman has given a clue near the end of his essay about the documentary:

For those who know Wilson's work and for those who may meet him here, this film presents a question of interest in all arts, a persistent question. What are artists to do in an age with few credible compass points? The matter besets serious artists of all kinds. From the beginning, however, Wilson ignored the absence of compass points. Without regard for tradition or anti-tradition, he plunged into himself, his imagination, his vitality, his quirks, and has progressed through them. His work is not always engrossing, but it is always
unique, with no aesthetic obligations to the past or present.

Originality is so often praised in our artistic landscape as of late, as is "quirky" and "interesting." Perhaps this explains the awe of Wilson. An artist who so boldly goes after his own imagination that he jettisons all tethers to traditions or principles. Though seemingly meticulously musical and exacting in the minute details of his work, he lets his larger canvases fly free from the yardarms.

But I wonder about the fine line of personal vision and artistic vision. How much of your friend's dream journals would you be able to take in one sitting? Interesting for a few entries I'm sure, but reading 200 pages would be another matter.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

TV Twists the Knife...

The creators of the cartoon satires that dominate Sunday night television and Comedy Central are devourers of high and low brow culture. And their appetite does not stop at the electronic media.

Anybody who has seen South Park; Bigger Longer and Uncut knows that Trey Parker and Matt Stone can take the current musical theater, chew it up and spit it out. Team America; World Police their brilliant send-up of action genres, featured a young actor in a musical called Lease, (read Rent,) who sings the show stopping number "Everybody's Got Aids."

Seth Macfarlane, the creator of Family Guy and American Dad, skewers and references theatre and literature continuously. For instance, a character demands more gravy with their meal because, "that last piece of white meat was drier than Oscar Wilde."

In one episode of American Dad, two characters have fun role playing when they go out to events. Their particular favorites are playing a professor and his wife. As the show goes on, their role playing gets wilder and meaner until, with two younger guests over, they go too far. The show ends with the camera pulling back on the wrecked living room, the two characters sit in a tableaux perfectly reminiscent of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

Though larger musicals enter the public consciousness, How many viewers of American Dad get an Albee allusion?

The answer is, more than likely, not many, and so serious theatergoers should thank Mcfarlane for his satirical reach. However, there is something else he provides us that is far more valuable.

In last Sunday's episode of American Dad, Stan, the protaganist of the show and a true-red Republican, goes to see a theatrical production about Abraham Lincoln and is appalled at the avante garde work.

The little snippets we see of this one-man Lincoln show is a piercing look at just how most of the country views the serious or experimental theater.

This show has it all:

*Solo Performance
*Spare Set
*Projections and Multimedia
*Weird sounds over the sound system
*Raw meat and vegatables are tossed about the stage
*And as the light dies, the performer states, "Maybe we are all slaves." But this is not enough. No, a mirror descends from overhead to illustrate to the audience that they are slaves as well. And even that is not enough. Hilariously, the word "SLAVES" is projected across the mirror. And even that is not enough. The word "SLAVES" flashes on and off as, "SLAVES" is heard over the sound system.

This send-up is painful, yet hysterically funny. It is also useful to understand that this is the way most of the country views experimental and even serious drama. Mcfarlane then continues to show us the gaping chasm between how we see ourselves as a theater community and how the rest of the country sees us.

Stan, disgusted over this portrayal of his hero, creates his own one man show, "Lincoln Lover." In his show he assumes the persona of Lincoln's bodyguard and Lincoln is represented onstage by a dummy with a top hat, which the protaganist moves around the stage. This convention has an eerie reminiscence of Absence/Presence a solo performance piece covered by George Hunka last year.

Stan is hilariously unaware of the latent themes of his production, and Lincoln Lover becomes a surprise hit with audiences who are enjoying all of the gay undercurrents and Stan's unintentional kitschy lines. (Some of them worthy of Mel Brooks' The Producers.)

I may be way off, but I think these are the two versions of the American Theatre that most people have: Pretensious and Opaque or Gay and Kitschy. After reading about the NEA's new survey last week, I really think that when most people weigh the prospect of buying a theatre ticket they assume they are either going to get Stan's Lincoln Lover or the avante-garde Lincoln! which enraged Stan in the first place.

And one more thing to think about, can you think of a theatre piece that so perfectly skewered the current political situation so perfectly.

Pictures: (Top Left: American Dad/Fox Network), (Top Right: Absence and Presence Photo by Steve Smith)

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Election Day

If God wanted us to vote, he would have given us candidates.

~Jay Leno

George Hunka rattles the sabres . He says it is time for the artist to start paying attention to the attitude of the electorate toward the arts.

A Poor Player in Buffalo follows up as well.

I have heard many people from Ben Cameron to Robert Brustein talk about how the artistic community blew it with the NEA fight. Brustein claims that we lost sight of the mission of the NEA: to make art accessible. Cameron has said that during the NEA fights, instead of trying to explain the value of the arts to the community, we chose to focus on explaining the quality of the art.

We have many different opinions about how the arts should survive: These run the spectrum from the "Artist Must Starve" to "Re-Centering Civic Arts Projects". (My take on these two different types is here.)

Many artists I speak with experience an inner conflict with regards to these poles of influence.

I will recommend the Americans for the Arts Website. And here is their page with the voting records of legislators.

Also check out the American Arts Alliance who are advocates more specifically for the performing arts.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Do We Stand A Chance?

In theater, you can be much more abstract and simple and be suggestive. When we do the savannah in The Lion King, people walk with platters of grass on their heads, and the audience gets it. They get that that's a field that's moving grass.

-Julie Taymor

I think everybody should have a least one super anti-corporate, live-life-off-the- grid, almost paranoid friend. I have a couple and, thankfully, they combine their vision with an almost defeatist realism.

Talking to one of these friends a few years ago, I mentioned how Wal-Mart had been successfully defeated by a community. Smirking, he said, "Man, we don't stand a chance."

He talked about how much big money can buy. "But I don't mean just the advertising," he said. "It's the research. The focus groups. The test marketing." Wal-Mart, he pointed out, was like the Catholic Church. "They're in it for the long haul," he said, " and that loss to that community will be a pimple on the enormous, profitable and comfortable ass of Wal-Mart in hundred years."

Malcolm Gladwell's article in the New Yorker regarding the idea of technology being able to pinpoint box office receipts to within a couple of million dollars is incredibly interesting, but as equally frightening.

A group of people with a company called Epagogix, have developed a way of analyzing the potential of screenplays. Gladwell starts his article with the well known proclamation of screenwriter William Goldman: "Nobody knows anything."

Goldman was talking of the inability of anybody in Hollywood to truly predict what was going to be a success. Well, it would appear the folks at Epagogix are able to actually succeed at doing just that with help of a nueral network. And their accuracy is pretty impressive.

The whole project reminds of the stats crunching theories that drove the Oakland A's in Michael Lewis's Moneyball. Lewis wrote about the decades old practice of baseball scouts rating potential recruits by things like, speed, physical type, etc.

Suddenly, there was a new way to look at things. A stat that had not really been looked at as heavily, On Base Percentage, was suddenly deemed to be one of the most important factors in picking up talent. In other words, the statisticians figured something out: The more you get on base, the more likely you are to score. So the A's drafted players that had higher on base percentages.

Though some things the scouts had previously looked at were the same things the statisticians were looking at, the new guard were emphazing things the scouts might have overlooked.

The team at Epagogix seems to be turning the Hollywood coverage game on its head the same way:

The way the neural network thinks is not that different from the way a Hollywood executive thinks: if you pitch a movie to a studio, the executive uses an ad-hoc algorithm—perfected through years of trial and error—to put a value on all the components in the story. Neural networks, though, can handle problems that have a great many variables, and they never play favorites—which means (at least in theory) that as long as you can give the neural network the same range of information that a human decision-maker has, it ought to come out ahead.

Copaken and Meaney figured that Hollywood’s experts also had biases and skipped over things that really mattered. If a neural network won at the track, why not Hollywood? “One of the most powerful aspects of what we do is the ruthless objectivity of our system,” Copaken said. “It doesn’t care about maintaining relationships with stars or agents or getting invited to someone’s party. It doesn’t care about climbing the corporate ladder. It has one master and one master only: how do you get to bigger box-office? Nobody else in Hollywood is like that.”

Here is an example of the types of feedback the system can give executives (and the success they are having in predictions):

The neural network put the potential value of better characterization at an extra $2.46 million in U.S. box-office revenue; the value of locale adjustment at $4.92 million; the value of a sidekick at $12.3 million—and the value of all three together (given the resulting synergies) at $24.6 million. That’s another $25 million for a few weeks of rewrites and maybe a day or two of extra filming. Mr. Bootstraps, incidentally, ran the numbers and concluded that the script would make $47 million if the suggested changes were not made. The changes were
not made. The movie made $50 million.

It is important to remember that this does not mean the result is a more artistic, or even better film. While it is more subtle than a cookiecutter, it is, in some ways, as blunt. This is all about making money, all about marketplace success, and about winning.

What are the benchmarks for something sublime. How would we calculate that? Can they feed Hamlet through the machine?

Though the the team at Epagogix claims they would have predicted the huge box office success of The Passion of the Christ, would they have predicted some of the smaller hits that have defied box office odds? Blair Witch comes to mind.

In the end, the Epagogix team and Gladwell are all too aware that the neural networks don't replace the artists. First, the neural network has to have something to feed into it. Second, the neural network can't even tell you how to improve the areas they suggest.

That was the thing about the formula: it didn’t make the task of filmmaking easier. It made it harder. So long as nobody knows anything, you’ve got license to do whatever you want. You can start a movie in Africa. You can have male and female leads not go off together—all in the name of making something new. Once
you came to think that you knew something, though, you had to decide just how much money you were willing to risk for your vision. Did the Epagogix team know what the answer to that question was? Of course not. That question required imagination, and they weren’t in the imagination business

But who says our environment doesn't shape our cultural imagination. And if the major manufacturers of culture are getting this good at proliferation, then the risk is that our cultural environment will start to more and more reflect what we want, and what we consider a good value, not what we consider good quality. "I have met the enemy and it is us."

There are breakthroughs. The i-pod is an effective weapon against the onslaught of the commercial machine. For example, I don't own an i-pod and so when I go the gym I have to listen the latest top 40 hits over the sound system. (I do bring a CD player sometimes.) But are people at the gym using the i-pod to listen to an indie band and, say, Mozart, or are they simply using it to listen to the Top 40 on a different shuffle than the Muzak at the mall?

The subtitle of Moneyball is The Art of Winning at an Unfair Game which refers to how the team with the second lowest payroll in baseball, the Oakland A's, by using statistics, became competitive.

What is competitive though? What is winning when we talk of theatre? Proliferation? Would more people attending mean better quality? Of course not.

Do we stand a chance? Against the machinations of the commercial cultural machine, are we ridiculously unarmed?

I have always agreed with one advantage theatre has. Theatre can be done anywhere. Absolutely anywhere. All you need is imagination, some text, and people.

In the preface to his collection of plays entitled Autobahn, Neil Labute suggests that his plays are not only set in cars, but can be performed in a car. That is the advantage we have. That is how we can win at an unfair game. Theatre cannot reach as many people, but it will survive and can maintain its integrity because you don't need battteries or a wi-fi connection to get it.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Size Doesn't Matter?

Matt Freeman asks about the incredibly shrinking play epidemic that is going on:

This trend towards shorter works strikes me as a concession to the ease by which we consume other media. (It may be that people don't mind something longer if they see uniform excellence.) It may simply also be that the shorter works are those that have the least fat on them, and therefore, are direct and elegant in a way that flabbier works are not.

Sometimes, though, there is power in some weight and length, and stories need to develop in a way that is firmly edited. Imagine trying to turn Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? into a more compact, sixty-five minute evening. How much of the play could be lost in order to get across the major ideas? Plenty? How much of the exhaustion and bullishness would be lost in a trimmer version... all of it.

The point about ideas was the focus of a Michael Billington column back in 2005. Billington was wary of the potential for dramatists to start getting slack on the way they attack ideas. Or, worse, choose smaller ideas that can be managed in a short piece. Billington, like Matt Freeman, understands that Beckett and others have mastered the "crystallisation of an idea." However, there is something lost on this way to bite-sized dramas:

But what I miss is the polyphonic richness of which drama is capable, or the complexities of character revealed by an unfolding narrative. One reason why people are flocking to Don Carlos is that it provides exactly the kind of stimulus so much modern drama lacks: exploration of ideas through character, examination of the manifold selves that make up individuals, the thrilling collision of private and public worlds.

August Wilson is always brought in these discussions, with good reason. Wilson's plays generally run two and half to three-plus hours, but, as Freeman points out in his example of Virginia Woolf, you can't really conceive of them being much shorther.

Of course, there really aren't many people, including Wilson enthusiasts, who could say that his plays couldn't deal with a little judicious cutting here and there. But could you cut... say... 45 minutes from Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and end up with the same play?

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Who The Hell Are We?

The blogosphere has been talking of how to handle criticism of the work of fellow bloggers.

Parabasis had thrown the question out on his blog this past week with regards to a production he currently has running: In Public, which is written by another blogger, George Hunka of Superfluities.

What i'm thinking about lately is how reluctant we are to criticize each other's work. I don't necessarily think this is a bad thing. But I've got a show open right now, and a lot of bloggers have come to see it, and they have said amazingly positive things about it. I am incredibly greatful for all the wonderful things people are saying. I also know (not because they've told me, but because it just makes sense) that at the same time they are withholding criticism of the play.

Scott Walters of Theatre Ideas points out that we are very quick to criticize the ideas of others, why are we reluctant to turn the searchlights on our own community.

All of this talk came home when I received a comment on a brief post I wrote about my wedding anniversary.

The commenter, one Neil Labute, posted a comment on my blog and another blog. (I am not sure if it really is the Neil Labute, in fact, I should assume it is not, but the idea that it could be Mr. Labute is interesting.)

Well, Mr. Labute seemed offended that James Comtois and I would spend time discussing his work. In both cases he said that he couldn't wait to see our next productions, so that he could see how it is supposed to be done.

This made me think about the questions of blogging criticism. I don't know Neil Labute and I have never been shy about writing criticism of his work. But it is out there. And he very well could be reading it.

At first my reaction to Mr. Labute's jab about us spending time discussing his work was anger. (His intended response, I am sure.)

I mean I can't speak for James, but I have spent money on tickets to Mr. Labute's movies and plays, and I have purchased several of his playscripts. I don't mind if he has disagreements with critical assessments, but the insinuation that people who have spent time and money watching and reading his work have no place to be discussing it is absurd.

However, that being said, Mr. Labute's comment about our next plays, which basically challenges us to do better, is well put.

Who the hell are we, theater artists, to proclaim what we think is the right way to do it, or the wrong way to do it, or what is wrong with American theatre or playwriting anyway?

Should playwrights be openly slamming the works of other playwrights? (Whether they are famous or not.)

Are we all part of the theatrical community, whether we are David Hare or a playwright producing his own play in a 40 seat theater in Seattle?

Do we circle the wagons, or so we throw each other under the bus?

Scott Walters makes sense when he says the following:

Blogging has the potential to spread ideas beyond a small circle of friends and acquaintances to the theatre world as a whole. A playwright reading a serious discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of In Public might be able to strengthen the play he or she is working on right now. The same is true of a
discussion of directing, or designing. As theatre bloggers, we have the opportunity to have a positive impact on the development of other theatre artists, and I think one of the things we need to model is a rigorous form of critical thinking and self-assessment. I'm not talking the spilling of blood, I
am talking the granting of the ultimate artistic compliment: taking something seriously.

With the decline of Arts Coverage, even in the alternative weekly press, (our own Boston Phoenix now has the lead critic sandwiching three weekly reviews into one column,) can blogs actually be considered a replacement? Probably not. Can blogs provide the positive impact that Scott is talking about? It seems more likely.

I always remember Michael Lewis' great book Next; the Future Just Happened. He presented a picture of how many massive changes happened during the explosion of the Internet. However, we were kind of oblivious to these shifts because they happened so fast and we were all right in the middle of them.

My last post was really more akin to something one would put in a greeting card I guess. A nice memory of my wedding day.

Ten years ago, who would have thought I would be interactively sharing it with people from all over the world. And to go one further, who would have thought that one of the most successful playwrights of the past twenty years would take the time to make fun of it. (If, in fact, it is really him.)

Thursday, October 26, 2006

A Perfectly Blessed Storm

Four years ago today, I woke from by bed at a small inn and padded across the floor to push back the curtains.

My view was the harbor of Edgartown, and what I saw could only be described as The Perfect Storm. Winds whipped nastily and boats rocked and pulled at their moorings. The raindrops spattered against the panes of glass on the window with horizontal impact.

Ahhh. My Wedding Day.

Blissfully, the rain subsided as we all arrived at the Church, and then laid off as we exited after the service as well.

However, the wind kept up and resulted in perhaps our favorite wedding picture of all time: My wife and I are exiting the church as the bridesmaids and groomsmen are trying to wrestle with the soaring and billowing train of the wedding dress, which looks as if it is threatening to pull them off the ground.

For any couples worrying about the forecasts for the blessed day, please don't lose any sleep. The weather couldn't get any worse than that day, and we had a day I wouldn't change for the world.

Happy Anniversary, My Love.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

To See, Or Not To See

I am a Hamlet enthusiast, if not a fanatic. I read the text at least once a year, I try to see as many productions as I can, and I devour criticism about the play.

However, strangely, I have never been much into the textual/authorship debates that occupy the discussion of many other bardoloters. My knowledge of these things is pretty much is confined to the notes and introductions in my Riverside Edition of Shakespeare.

I am torn about attending what looks like a great event tonight. Actor's Shakespeare Project is putting on a panel discussion at the Strand Theatre, which is the site of their current production of Hamlet.

Hamlet Conversations sports some of the fine directors of recent regional productions of Hamlet, and will include the added bonus of moderation by Stephen Greenblatt who is the author of the recent best-seller Will in the World; How Shakespeare became Shakespeare.

As much I would love to attend, this is one of the few nights in this busy theatre season when I can take advantage of a night off to catch up on sleep. I am moving through life the last five days as if I am underwater.

If any Mirror up To Nature readers attend, please let me have a rundown.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Being UnAlone
Thom Pain;(based on nothing) by Will Eno
at New Repertory

Who order'd that their longing's fire
Should be, as soon as kindled, cool'd?
Who renders vain their deep desire?--
A God, a God their severence ruled;
And bade betwixt their shores to be
The unplumb'd, salt, estranging sea.
-To Marguerite, Matthew Arnold

The New Rep production fo Thom Pain: (based on nothing,) surprised me with its emotional climax. I had read the text back when James Urbaniak was performing Will Eno's short little stealth missle of a play, but was unprepared for how moved I was going to feel at the end.

During its initial success, I reviewed the critical praises it was receiving and was intrigued with the concept. Charles Ishwerwood of the New York Times, in a rave review of Thom Pain, famously praised Will Eno by calling him "the Samuel Beckett of the Jon Stewart generation."

Most reviews seemed to focus on the long pauses and the acerbic provocations of the main character. However, on my first reading of the text, I pleasantly found that Eno had written a tightly scripted, very structured piece, in which seemingly disjointed clues come together in quick climax and then a touching denoument.

And, rather than bullying the audience, Eno wants to seed their imagination with natural imagery that is simultaneously beautiful and repellent.

One of the most amazing images that stays with you long after the production: A shy, awkward man, alone in the world, gets food poisoning, vomits and collapses in a park during December. He hears music and stumbles over to the brightly lit public skating rink where happy couples and families whiz by in joyful holiday bliss. He stands at the edge, covered in his own bile.

That image, and many others, resonates on several levels with such deep incisiveness that it is hard to dismiss.

But aside from the structure, there is even more to discover about this play. Given much of the talk around our theatrical blogosphere regarding experimentation and provocation, it was interesting to see that a play considered to be a very fringey and confrontational work, would have such a big, shaggy, lovable-mutt heart at its center.

At first, Diego Arciniegas, a wonderful actor, possessed of a great voice, seems the wrong choice. He is too handsome, and not schleppy enough to be the acerbic loser of the piece. Soon though, you are drawn into the patterns and rythyms of Thom Pain's web. So much for reading the text of the play beforehand.

On that note: I noticed in several other reviews of the play around the country, people have mentioned that when the lights come up, the actor playing the part doesn't seem to be whom they would expect. For instance, Brendan Kiley, in his "live blogging" review of Thom Pain at Seattle Rep, says almost immediately, "He [Moore] is in his 50s, which seems weird, having read the script, which is a monologue about someone who seemed to be an angry young man."

I realize now that these are really funny reactions on our part. Thom Pain could be anybody, he could be any person you pass on the street or he even could be you at either some time in the past or some time in the future.

Loneliness is a bitter disease. Thom is a clever, witty and, yes, attractive person. The key to the play is to realize that this man's life could just as easily have gone in a different direction, but the masterstroke is Eno's resistance of our need to pinpoint the cause of Thom's messed up circumstances. Thom gives us snapshots of somebody's life, incidents that perhaps all might add up to a diagnosis. But in the end, it doesn't seem as if the flawed man we see on stage is at fault for what has happened to him. And neither does it seem as if he is blaming anybody else.

He is the ultimate stoic, smirking his way through life, knowing that at least he is alive. Maybe he will find love, but maybe he won't. And at the core of such an existence we do not find freedom or grand enlightment, we find...Pain.

It is in Eno's commitment to his controlling idea that I find the Isherwood comparison to Beckett so fitting. In the end, the pain of Thom Pain is the pain we all experience, the bleak understanding of existence.

What this lovable loser, this post-modern, Beckett-like tramp would most desperately like for us to understand, is perhaps the only wisdom he can offer: In our time on this earth, sometimes just the simple state of being "Un-alone," might be the greatest joy for which we can hope.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

New New New

This week, if you want to see new plays, check out the following:

First Blush by Amy Adler at Boston Playwright's Theater

Mauritius by Theresa Rebeck at the Wimberly Theater

The Out on the Edge Festival at Theater Offensive is worth a look as well.

These are World Premiere shows. Shows that haven't been performed in other places, you are seeing them for the first time here.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Red Meat for the Masses

Mr. Excitement and Joshua James point to the recent article by Richard Nelson on the first anniversary of Nelson's taking over the Playwrighting Program at Yale Drama.

After reading teasers, I was pumped up to read the article. After all, what playwright wouldn't be stirred by this:

The damage this culture of “development” has done and continues to do to my profession is and has been immeasurable. To take just one catastrophic change: actors, directors, and even audiences are being taught by this culture to “help”
the playwright write his or her play...

here is a whole slew of individuals, often interesting and generous individuals, who have been put into the unfortunate position of “shepherding” plays through this process. In other words there are many many hands now stirring or being encouraged to stir the playwriting pot...

Getting others’ hands out of the playwright’s play (and head) is a major task and a necessary goal of the profession and of a professional playwright-training program.

Mr. Nelson's disdain for the development cycle is understood. I won't argue that, in fact, I agree.

However, (please read the rest of the article) his argument is near impossible to follow:

He wants a pre-professional program, but he seems to spit on any talk of the nuts and bolts of how a play works?

Hamlet has no structure? No character, no motivation? What the hell is he talking about?

For the record, I agree with 13P's mission and I agree that development cycles can be ridiculous. I do think that audience feedback takes things a little too far. But let's remember Shakespeare went through many versions of plays over the years, tinkering with Hamlet, etc. One has to believe that some of the changes were based on seeing the play performed and looking at how audiences reacted.

Having followed plays through development cycles and all the way to production, I will say that Mr. Nelson is dead wrong. One of the problems is that there is too much "What is the play about?", "Why did you write it?" Meanwhile, everybody tiptoes around the fact that the play is "not working," and that there are serious problems with it.

Mr. Nelson is too smart not to know that he is playing semantics. He is substituting the word "rules," (which he knows will always disgust artists,) for what are actually "principles."

(Far more valuable are Jose Rivera's Assumptions About Playwrighting.)

Now, once again, I would rather see productions than endless development. And, being a playwright, I do take ownership of my plays. Very often I have produced and directed my own plays.

What I see happening is that development programs are becoming the equivalent of the Hollywood test screening. Theatres put on a series of readings for the subscribers and see if they like respond positively. If so, then it wins a production. If not, the playwright is subjected to all sorts of vague advice and gets the equivalent of going straight to DVD.

Contrary to Mr. Nelson's view, I find that plays change very slightly from first reading to production.

At least he is clear what he thinks. Original Voice is the only thing one needs to succeed. No principles, no guidance, no knowledge of what has come before. The fact that the audience, or even the director has no clue what you are doing, (or what the point is,) should not matter. Once you have original voice, you need nothing else. You just need productions.

A friend of mine who graduated from an MFA writing program often jokes: "The first thing you notice about going to get an MFA in writing is that you are immediately set to studying the works of authors who never went to an MFA Program. And the second thing you notice is that most of the best teachers you have never went to an MFA program."

13P realizes what the answer is. They have formed their own company, and they are taking ownership.

As a supplement to this article, I would suggest people read Feingold's review of a Second Stage production last year.

I wish I knew who encourages plays like Rajiv Joseph’s All This Intimacy, the second entry in Second Stage’s summer "New Plays Uptown" season. I don’t mean that the results are so dire—Joseph has talent and is presumably young enough as
a playwright to be entitled to make the many kinds of mistakes that All This Intimacy commits, all over the stage, practically every time it draws a breath. Nor do I object, particularly, to the inflicting of such an immature play on adult critics with better things to do, or contrariwise, to the infliction of their resentment on the author: Baptism by fire may not be the most pleasant way for a young artist to learn, but it has its informative side, especially in our cuckoo-headed culture, which offers artists constant encouragement to repeat their worst mistakes. Some of Joseph’s elders and should-be wisers have built entire careers on such encouragement.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Kushner On Miller

I was running to the post office at lunch today and heard Tony Kushner on NPR talking about Arthur Miller on what would be Miller's birthday.

You can hear it here.

Kushner has become one of the most eloquent defenders of Miller, O'Neill and Williams as the playwrights who forged the way for serious American Drama.

Despite the inexplicably consistent efforts of many critics, some whom I greatly admire, to bring it down, Death of a Salesman, as Kushner explains, will continue to exist as a work of art.
Do Critics Need a Self Defense Class?

Bloom: Actors are not animals! They're human beings!

Bialystock: They are? Have you ever eaten with one?

-The Producers by Mel Brooks

Steve Irwin, the crocodile hunter, spent his life around dangerous animals. And he died, from a poisonous stingray, in pursuit of his passion and his vocation.

It seems that theater reviewers might be able to relate after the recent rough-up of a critic by the artistic director of the Cleveland Playhouse.

In the past few years critics seem to fall back on the fact that they often must engage personally with their subjects as some type of badge of courage. You would think the theater beat is akin to some strange tributary that must be navigated as if one was Mr. Irwin on a croc hunt for the Discovery Channel.

However, this latest incident in Ohio may lend credence to their tearwaters. The Denver Post theatre critic, John Moore, tries to make sense things, and ends up with some advice:

The goal of the critic is to move readers to action - usually to go and see a particular show. The goal is not to move an artistic director to deliver a sharp right uppercut.

There is no universal rule book for criticism, no how-to manual. My guidelines: Be true to your visceral emotional response, good or bad. State your case and back it up. Be a catalyst for discussion. Encourage dialogue. Don't be personal. Never try to be funny at the expense of someone's feelings.

Of course criticism is no place for grudges or vendettas or misuse of power. Every show at every theater must be a clean slate. Conversely I think it is the responsibility of any critic, especially one at a major metro newspaper, to use his influence and access to help build up the community he serves in any way that does not compromise his ability to also objectively evaluate theater.

That means speaking to classes, moderating forums, and most of all - seeing as many plays as possible, and writing about them honestly. Then let the readers decide.

Happy Hunting Critics!....And Artistic Directors!

Monday, October 16, 2006

While The Dig gets stuck, The Stranger leaps forward:

Jenna Sherer's caustic, but poorly constructed, rant about fringe theatre is still attracting comments on The Daily Dig .

Meanwhile, Brendan Kiley, writing for Seattle's Stranger, tries to blog a review in real time from a performance of Thom Pain at Seattle Rep. Technically, it was a nightmare, but you can read the aborted project notes.

Would any Boston theatre company, let alone the Huntington or the ART allow an alternative weekly or a blogger to live blog a review from the booth?

That's why Seattle and Chicago are theatre towns, and we are still trying to catch up.

And no, it doesn't mean I neccessarily think it is a good idea. But it is a good experiment.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

We All Get Bad Reviews Now and Then...

But there is really no excuse for this behaviour by at the Cleveland Playhouse:

Artistic Director Michael Bloom, inspired by an unfavorable review Brown had written of the play and his direction, spied Brown in the back row of the theater, hurried down the aisle and ran the critic down in the lobby, where he passionately delivered an intimate and unrestrained critique of the review.

Accounts of the exchange differ. Brown says Bloom gripped his
hand and wouldn't let go, cursed him loudly in a threatening way and then pounded him overly hard on the back as he left.

Bloom, calling the incident "unfortunate," declined to dissect it but described his parting gesture as a "pat" on the back.
What seems uncontested is that the encounter was uncomfortable, unfriendly and -- to Brown at least --
slightly scary.

Don Hall Responds

Don Hall wrote a response to my query about his thoughts on a critic like Jenna Sherer at the Weekly Dig.

Far from banning her from performances, Don says, "bring it on!" But there is so much more to his response that is worth reading. He talks about avante-garde and fringe theatre in general, but he also talks about the differences in audiences between cities:

I've noticed that in New York at least (I can't speak to the fringe scene in Boston) that the audience is a bit more European in their approach to theater. Joel Jeske once told me that in NYC, you can put up anything and it will get some sort of audience because going to the theater is a priority for New Yorkers. Theater is a part of the leisure activity scene.

Chicago, while having a thriving theater community, does not have a thriving theater audience.

Simply put, the Chicago audience, in general, will put up with a lot of high concept, intellectual, avant-garde shows but they will not, under any circumstances, put up with being bored.

What struck me is the distinction Don makes between theater community and the theater audience.

I went to see The Departed last night and, (sitting in a jam packed theater full of Bostonians,) I had a great time, and noticed the absolute blast the audience was having. Though the film is not at all the definitive Boston movie that some suggest it is, it revels in the attitude and patois of the area.

We, as an audience, were also all responding to the underlying corruption and tangled alliances between crime, cops and legislators that this city has experienced. Although, I guess we are like any other city whose current political system was birthed in patronage.

But the brief glimpses of Matt Damon's crooked cop staring at the dome of the State House longingly, just seem to strike a unique chord of cynicism and shame in a Massachusetts audience. Whitey Bulger, ( whom Jack Nicholson's character is based,) commited outright terrorism on the city of Boston for decades, while his brother Billy ran the Mass legislature.

Just for the record Boston went throught the hurricane of the Priest Abuse Scandal through the late nineties and early 2000's. And in all the time since, only one theatre production has dealt directly with that scandal. Sin, A Cardinal Deposed which was written by a Los Angeles writer from the transcripts of Cardinal Law's deposition, and produced by....a Chicago Company, Bailiwick Repertory Theatre.

I loudly spoke out about this at the time, basically saying that our neighbors were suffering and we as artists did nothing to try and help us make sense of this artistically. I think people misunderstood what I was asking for, most of the comments about my statements indicated that people believed I was advocating more "ripped from the headlines," or documentary theatre.

(For the record, in 2002, our local playwright Ronan Noone did write The Lepers of Baile Baiste, a fantastic play which deals with priest sexual abuse in Ireland, which was produced here in Boston.)

My question is: (and I would be very interested to see if what Scott Walters thinks,) Is there, or should there be a line between the theatre community and the theatre audience?

Monday, October 09, 2006

A Return To Strangeness

Yesterday's Boston Globe had an article about Small Beer Press in Northhampton, MA. Small Beer specializes in publishing a brand of literary fiction that isn't scared to introduce elements of genres such as science fiction, fantasy and horror. This type of hybrid is being called New Wave Fabulist.

``A new wave fabulist is a writer who has transcended the conventions of sci-fi and fantasy fiction, lifting the traditional genre form into a new literary realm," says Morrow. Any effort to narrow down the category much further than that, he
adds, ``would be like trying to nail a raindrop to the wall."

Critics have often talked of an element of strangeness or weirdness that that imbues almost all great works of fiction. Many consider Henry James a marvelous psychological and realistic novelist, but then again...Turn of the Screw and any number of short stories will show you his keen awareness of metaphysical possibilities. Toni Morrision's Beloved has a ghost as well.

Of course, talent will always out on these types of endeavours. Strangeness was special forte of H.P. Lovecraft, the inspiration of Stephen King and many other Horror writers. However, now that Lovecraft's fiction has been published by the Library of America, in one of its "for the ages" volumes, critics have been quick to point out its silliness, immaturity and amatuerishness.

The New York Review of Books has an article about Lovecraft this month:

Lovecraft is at his most effective when he evokes this inhuman realm, just as he is at his best when he suggests, rather than attempting to describe. He does himself no favors by revealing, for example, that the beings of the Great Race are cone-shaped, of a "scaly, rugose, iridescent bulk...ten feet tall and ten feet wide at the base"; the sight may cause Lovecraft's narrator to scream hellishly, but the reader is more likely to picture some kind of Cyclopean jelly candy. The more spectral and unimaginable his subject, the more Lovecraft is at home. Where he fails utterly is in conveying lived experience, the material counterweight to his phantoms. His monsters, when exposed to the light, exhibit the pathos of creatures in poverty-row horror movies; his depictions of human life on earth in his own day are the least credible elements in his work.

On our stages, apart from the occasional failed foray, we have essentially given up on the thriller. Some theatre companies will occasionally trot out Knott's Wait Until Dark, which only serves to highlight how much better film and television can do that genre.

The ghostly and supernatural are still viables, Conor McPherson, (The Weir, St. Nicholas,) has undoubtedly shown us how well it can work. And the psychological-thriller elements of The Pillowman seem incredibly weak compared to the ghostly and macabre stories the author Katurian weaves.

One of August Wilson's triumphant moments was Herald Loomis's vision in Joe Turner's Come and Gone. Indeed, anybody who reads Wilson's canon can feel that supernatural vision at the edges of the best of his work.

Maybe it is the Method's hold over actors, that makes them more comfortable with the realistic. Shakespeare had no problems with ghosts and witches.

I am doing Chilling Tales for Salem Theatre Company up in Salem, MA again this year. It is great practice for not only the actor, but the playwright as well. It is you, your story, and audience. That is it. Of course, we are surrounded by the replica of 1797 East Indiaman Cargo Ship, which is big help, but as far as pure theatre, you can't get better practice than this.

As a performer you are sitting in dim light, with just a story tell to a small group of people. Can you rivet their attention? Can you suspend their reality just for at least a brief moment somewhere in the course of the story? Can you bring them to a place where these eerie things are at least somewhat plausible?

It is great fun and a great challenge.

Does drama need to get back to a strangeness?

Thursday, October 05, 2006

When in Doubt...

I love situations where reviewers, who were sitting in the same audience, seem to have seen two completely different shows:

Here is the Seattle Weekly on the Seattle Rep's production of John Patrick Shanley's Doubt:

Everything that could go wrong with this edgy, risky work—and plenty could— goes perfectly right, resulting in a performance that carries an emotional and intellectual wallop that reverberates long after the final curtain. Deftly avoiding easy sentimentality and ham-fisted moralism, director Warner Shook stages Shanley's play with grace, confidence, and fierce economy....

At every turn, Doubt foils audience expectations—each moment shades to gray. And it's not only the play's central question that remains unanswered and steeped in uncertainty.

And here is Brendan Kiley in The Stranger:

The problem with Doubt as a production at the Seattle Rep is that there's too little of it...

...the audience member sitting in the Rep is too sure of everything—the direction (by the usually impeccable Warner Shook) and the muddled acting telegraph the conclusion from the first scene. To confirm my suspicions, I asked my date, who knew nothing about Doubt, at what point she figured out whether Father Flynn was guilty: "Oh, from the very beginning," she said. "The rest was obvious."

I guess this would be a case where you should see for yourself.

As a side note: I like Doubt, but "edgy"? and "risky?" C'mon Seattle Weekly, you know better than that.
When Arts Organizations Attack...each other

Hat tip to Blog for Cambridge on this story of two mainstays of the artistic scene here in Cambridge. The Cambridge Multicultural Arts Center and The Dance Complex continue their bitter fued.

The fight between the two groups began three years ago when East Cambridge-based CMAC tried to evict the Dance Complex from its Central Square studios. Since then, the battle bursts back into public view every time the City Council passes a budget.

CMAC wanted the dance group to pay market rate for Odd Fellows Hall. The Dance Complex maintained that the only reason CMAC holds the deed to the building is because in 1993 the better-established CMAC had a credit rating while the then-fledgling Dance Complex did not. Dance Complex officials said they have acted in autonomy, finding tenants for the two retail stores on the first floor of the building and paying for renovations and the mortgage since 1993.

"They've invested no money in the building," said Rozann Kraus, founder and director of the Dance Complex. "The only money they've spent on the Dance Complex is the money they paid their lawyers to try to evict us."

Kraus said CMAC is trying to make a money grab for the building. CMAC's executive director, Shelley Neill, declined to comment when reached by phone.

The city is involved in the dispute because Cambridge provides annual funding to CMAC and helped fund the down payment for the Central Square building. According to a 1993 agreement, the city paid CMAC $75,000 for a down payment for the purchase of 536 Mass. Ave.

Can't we all just get along.
(what would Don Hall do?)

How to respond to this...

Hey New England Theatre Producery Types out there: I have a really pressing question to ask you:can you stop making shit? Boston has thousands of fringe theatre companies out there, all with the same mission statement plastered boldly on the cover pages of their programs - to get us wee ones (65 and under)
into the theater. The problem is, we want theater that is relevant or at least entertaining. Not stuff that's so "avante garde" that it is actually meaningless or stuff that's too artsy to hold any water. And yet the shit keeps pouring out.

It goes on, and people are weighing in on the comments. I am going to say something that may be slightly controversial, but here it goes... this is refreshing.

Now, people have said I am wrong for giving Ms. Sherer any credit for her foul-mouthed reviews. ( She liberally peppers the f-bomb and s-bomb into her missives. )

Here is the thing though, this reviewer is receiving our marketing, reading our mission statements and going into the shows with expectations as high as we are making them. And I believe that she is trying to channel the actual, off-the-street audience member who may find themselves wandering into the BCA or the Devenaugh, or the Actors Workshop because they saw a flier or an ad. This is not neccessarily a bad thing for the theatre scene to have.

Would I want her to attend one of my shows? Good question. I guess because I am on a hiatus from producting anything right now it is easier for me to sit back and delude myself into thinking I would welcome it. "Bring it on!"-- so to speak. An the other hand, I wonder what Mr. Don Hall, the Angry Guy In Chicago would do. He more than likely would bar her from entering the theatre.

I would see his point, since the more experienced producer side of me knows from reading her reviews that she may be the type of critic who could haul off on you because she got no chicken in her pad thai before the show, or her umbrella broke in downpour that afternoon.

Somebody, (in talking about Ms. Sherer to me,) mentioned the Tricia Olszewski imbroglio in which a stringer theatre critic, who had a habit of consistently trashing productions, made comments on her personal blog that would indicate that she didn't like theatre in general. Olszewski was then pretty much forced to give up her post after local theatre producers vocally protested to the paper. This post from theatreboy is far more detailed.

Understandably, many critics, including our own Bill Marx, saw a sort of chilling effect in this event. After all, should theatre producers be able to force out a critic? My feelings, after reading many accounts (which included statements from Olszewski) were that Olszewski really didn't like theatre, and when pressed by her editors, she copped to that fact.

This isn't the case here, although I would say that Ms. Sherer has demonstrated that she has incredibly low tolerance and even hostility to avante garde work. But then again, this is the attitude of 98% of the theatre going public.

And I would agree that she should really dial down her outrage about shows she hasn't yet seen. It isn't civil, fair, or constructive.

That type of rhetoric would only be permissable in a column that is announcing her departure.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

"New" Versus "Current"

On a Google Playwriting Group I belong to there is discussion going on about defining what, exactly, are new works.

People may say that it is being too picky, but I think it is important to try and cut through the marketing flab that even theatres have to engage in in order to compete in the marketplace.

Will Stackman has introduced a possible classification system, and I have kind of fleshed them out below:

New: A new play is a play that is receiving a world premiere production. It may have received readings, or a staged reading before, but this is its first actual full production with a substantial run.

Current: Regional Premieres would be the prime example of this type of play. For instance, The Pillowman and Thom Pain, both playing regionally here in Boston are current plays. They have premiered within the last few years elsewhere and played in many different cities and garnered reviews and hence increasing the marketing power behind them.

Category X: (I haven't figured out a name for these types of productions yet.) Basically these are the types of regional productions that we get with Yale Rep's Eurydice, (which I reviewed below,) or bobraushenbergamerica, currently at the American Repertory Theatre. These are productions that make the regional circuit, (and perhaps even to off broadway,) but basically with the same players in place. The set design, sound design, director, and a couple of actors are usually the same.

The Eurydice currently playing at Yale Rep, is basically the same Eurydice that was done at Berkeley Repertory Theatre before, and bobrauschenbergamerica has played at Humana, BAM, etc.

In the comments of a post on Mr. Excitement, Isaac Butler of Parabasis points out that it is a little misleading to call Eurydice a New Play, because, as he says, "Ruhl wrote it in grad school, and it has been produced in many different places. The Yale Rep production is a re-mounting of the Berkeley Rep production, with a few cast changes, but the same design and central actor (Maria Dizzia). "