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.