Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Internalizing versus Regurgitating?

I will never forget a moment when I was watching a play with a friend and we suddenly heard a few phrases of dialogue that stopped our hearts cold. For a few seconds we couldn't imagine what was happening. Her heart raced, and I really don't think I paid attention for a few minutes afterward.

I was sitting there, watching a play, having a good time when suddenly I heard my friend's dialogue, (which she had written in one of her produced plays.) Right there in front of us, different characters from a different play were speaking her dialogue. I mean, not just sounding like it, but IT.

Of course, both of us thought, this couldn't be possible. The play we were watching was by a famous author and was written a few years before my friend's play had been produced. So, this famous playwright hadn't copied my friend, but....had my friend copied this playwright?

After the play, we discussed it in a "man, that was weird," sort of way. And my friend insisted she had never read or seen this play before. As we walked through everything step-by-step, we realized that nothing else in the play was remotely similar to her play. However, the passage of dialogue, quite witty and unique, was there alright. We were both mystified. What most addled my friend was the nagging question that if her play is produced in the future will she have to strike that dialogue?

Perhaps therein lies the problem with some issues of awkwardly recurring dialogue. If many people are trying to be overly witty and unique with dialogue and observations, is there more chance of random similarities occuring. (Monkeys on the typewriter and all of that.)

Screenwriting Guru Robert Mckee advises something like, "Once you have written that purely scintillating gem, that phrase so wittily turned, that expression of wit which you are sure people will be quoting for ages. Once you have done that, then immediatley DELETE IT!"

I bring all this up in regards to the now raging debate about Kaayna Viswanathan who wrote the book How Opal Mehta got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life. This young writer, a Harvard Sophmore now, got a $500,000 advance to write two novels of which Opal Mehta is the first. This is enough to drive people absolutely crazy with jealous rage.

However, I am sure not many people would trade places with Opal's author this morning. It appears that Kaayna was cribbing from another Young Adult author, Megan McCafferty to the tune of 29 similar passages. You can read all about it at the Boston Globe or Harvard Crimson.

Although the idea that two authors in the same genre would come up with a couple of glancingly comparable half-witty commentaries about the suburban landscape in which those genres inhabit is actually quite understandable. However, the sheer number of passages that are similar are a little overwhelming.

Viswanathan has released a statment saying that she had read McCaffrey's work and must have (ooops) "internalized it," but after reading more than a few of the similar phrasings it seems as if her excuse may be getting too much traction for my taste.

Her excuse would appear to suggest Harold Bloom's Anxiety of Influence without the Misreading.

Lest, theatre lovers, you think we dramatists are exempt from such scandals, might I remind you that one of the best articles about the nature of creative plagiarism was about a play called Frozen, by Bryony Lavery. It was by Malcom Gladwell and is still available online.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Huntington Season Announced
Subscribe! - For One Reason

Though there are still two more plays to be announced, I would say that people should look to possibly subscribing to the Huntington Theatre Company next season.

They announced their season yesterday and let's hope they can keep what they have on the schedule. Two world premieres, the crowning play of a late master, a big star in Checkov masterpiece would seem like reasons, right? Well, not quite. Subscribing can be expensive and I will be honest when saying that in the season they have outlined so far I have only one singular reason. It may be unexpected. Let's do the rundown and see if you can guess.

First up is the obligatory Radio Golf, August Wilson's final play in his ten play cycle of the African American experience. Radio Golf made its premiere at Yale Rep last year and comes on the heels of Gem of the Ocean at the Huntington two years ago. Being overwhelmed by August Wilson's poetry is always a joy, but this is not the reason.

Theresa Rebeck is getting much love lately, but praise for her touched off a little torrent against the Times reviewer Charles Isherwood from the ever-growing ranks of the theatre blogosphere. Her Mauritus, which has received a few readings, will be premiered. I am not huge fan of Rebeck, but I will say that an evening spent with her plays is never unenjoyable, just sometimes unfulfilling. But this is not the reason to subscribe.

Noah Haidle is the It-Boy that Adam Rapp, (despite his Pulitzer Nomination,) probably wishes that he was. Haidle's Mr. Marmalade, (a play about a little girl creating an imaginary husband who came complete with workaholism, misogyny, and a personal assistant,) was celebrated by many. The blogger Playgoer has an interesting minority report here. Haidle will be presenting his play Persephone in a World Premiere. Great news for the Hungtington to be nabbing a World Premiere of a rising talent, but this is not the reason to subscribe.

The Cherry Orchard opens with Kate Burton and Nicholas Martin teaming up, a la Hedda Gabler a few years ago. It will be interesting to see Martin bring his comic touch to Checkov's play, but this is not the reason.

My reason for encouraging subscription? It is based on the selection of one play in particular.

The most interesting play listed in their future season is David Rabe's claustrophobic masterpiece of violence and war, Streamers. This drama, set in the stateside barracks during the Vietnam era is one of my favorite plays. A group of regular cadre soldiers live a pretty normal military life, although with the ever-present fear of being deployed to the war. Into their midst, like some coiled snake, enters a transient soldier. Dumb, scared, dangerous and heading for deployment to the front lines, this outsider creeps eerily into their ordered life and constantly builds the threat of explosive violence.

Rabe's masterstroke though is the insertion of two older, drunk veterans who have come out the other side of war, and provide in beautiful and lyrical fashion the plays titular metaphor of parachute that does not open.

With its frank sexuality and physical nature, it seems an odd choice for the Huntington. ( I am not complaining though.) This play, if done correctly, is the real deal and the perfect play for our times. The only difference being that we are not sending all of our kids to the machine of war. The reason I am suggesting that your subscribe, (if you care about the health of the theatre, and if you care about tragedy and drama, and if you believe in theatre's importance,) is because people are not going to like this play. It is depressing , subversive and uncomfortable. It deals with race, sexuality and violence. It is bloody and taut. The Huntington needs your support because people are not going to like this play. It is not a play you choose because you think people will like it. It is a play you choose because you think people should see it.

Good for Nicholas Martin, the Huntington, and the rest of the crew making decisions there. When you subscribe, tell them you are subscribing because they chose Streamers.

On a wider note, it is interesting that we have to reach back to Rabe for this commentary. The World Premieres we get are about stamp collectors, art scams, and sculptors. Back in another day Rabe was writing Streamers and Sticks and Bones, and Shephard was writing Operation Sidewinder.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Oh to Be a Fly on That Wall...

David Hare’s Stuff Happens opened last night at the Public Theatre in New York, and I am sure that it will be praised by the theatre community as daring. However, as one insightful blogger pointed out, now that the President’s numbers are in the toilet and America is getting sick of this war, the idea of the play seems quaint.

The reviews seem to be pretty good. The Times and the Wall Street Journal perceive that the play, having been scaled down from a mammoth, "Olympian" London production, has actually shifted the focus to more of a beauracratic morality tale. Meaning that it appears, on second look, the play has more in common with Kenneth Lonergan’s Lobby Hero than with Shakespeare’s Henry plays.

What I am more interested in is the possible attendance of some of the figures involved. Colin Powell’s daughter is an actress and so he is at least tangentially interested in theatre. And we all know that Ms. Rice makes theatre going a priority, even over disastrous events. But come on, those tickets are expensive!

I certainly don’t expect Bush, Cheney or Rumsfeld, (who uttered the titular phrase in response to Iraqi looting,) to be logging onto Ticket Master. But now that the the play seems to focus on Colin Powell’s ethical conundrums, could it be possible that the playwright could have set his own Mousetrap!

Now, I don’t envision Mr. Powell running up the aisle screaming, "Lights!" However, it is fascinating and breathless to think that some of the "behind closed doors" scenes Mr. Hare has constructed could possibly "catch the conscience."

I wonder if we will get Stuff Happens here in Boston. Does it really matter? If it already seems old news to some people, how stale will it seem when it arrives in Boston a season or two on?

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Getting the Hang of It...

WBUR's Arts Blog "Atittude" got off to a shakey start with infrequent postings and tentative opinions. But if Thomas Garvey keeps up his posting at the pace he has as of late, WBUR's Arts Blog should become a regular stop for the Boston theatre lover.

Garvey's post today praises local actors and questions the practice of the "Imported Lead." He mentions The Goat at the Lyric as an example of the locals, (Paula Plum and Richard Snee,) outshining the New York imported lead. I was tempted, after seeing The Goat, to write something similar. The lead actor spent the whole play shuffling around in the dazed and absent minded manner which was appropriate for the opening scenes, but proved excrutiating to watch for the entire length. Ms. Plum was giving the New York actor a virtual smorgasbord to work with, but sometimes to no avail.

I held my pen at the time, because I understood that the actor was thrust into a rushed replacement situation, and so it was kind of hard to make any pronouncements.

Really, the big Regionals are the most responsible for the Imported Lead phenomenon. But read the back and forth between Larry Stark and the ART's press person today in the Theatermirror and you will see that sometimes the Regionals can seem woefully out of touch.