Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Our Fin De Siecle?

Love's Labour Lost, Hinterlands, and Ed Seigel's Farewell

"In Love’s Labour Lost Shakespeare seeks to test the limits of his literary powers and finds that they are limitless."–Harold Bloom

"Is there anything particular you want to do onstage? Or do you just want to be onstage?" Max in Hinterlands

The Huntington Theatre Company’s Love Labour’s Lost is probably the best way to experience the literary feast Shakespeare has laid out for his audience in this early comedy. It is generally held that Love’s Labour is minor Shakespeare, but most voices in the canon of Shakespearean criticism will add a caveat that the play does provide them with endless pleasure. The story of four young men who swear to forego earthly pleasures in the pursuit of immortality through knowledge and scholarship is a light comedy that provides virtually no suspense, but instead washes us over with great language. Nicholas Martin’s cast is certainly an endless pleasure to behold, and they have done Shakespeare well, but across town, over the last few weeks, there was another production that could provide insight into not only this grand experiment of Shakespeare, but also of our larger theatrical landscape.

At the Boston Center for the Arts, Rough and Tumble’s Hinterlands Season One was playing up in the Rehearsal Hall C . At one point of Hinterlands, the ringmaster of a travelling performing troupe confronts their company manager, a dedicated backstage helper who is always expressing a desire to get on stage. She has come up with a weird routine that completely bombs when she is finally allowed to present it to an audience. Afterwards, the ringmaster tries and fails to get her to describe what, exactly, her act is. He asks her, not unkindly, "Is there anything particular you want to do on stage? Or do you just want to BE on stage?" This is the question we could ask, with equal kindness, of both productions, and indeed both plays.

Nicholas Martin has set his Love’s Labour just after the Fin De Siecle. As is explained in a program note, this is a perfect setting for it frees the production of any overriding feelings of impending doom. Meanwhile, over at the BCA, Dan Milstein’s marvelous, enjoyable and sweet band of travelers also seems to exist in a period free from depression-era hardship. And though there is wisp of the idea that the days of these travelling circus shows are coming to an end, it only blows through the production like a light breeze.

There is an inescapable truth that sneaks into the end of Love’s Labour, and Nicholas Martin does effectively convey that moment of harsh reality’s intrusion on the frivolous proceedings. However, the moment is fleeting, and the song of the country folk, (meant to be an earthy and simple ending to the stylistic fireworks that have mesmerized us for over two hours,) is rushed through and presented as a punch line to the evenings proceedings. Martin clearly understands the theory of the poetic character of Berowne as being a nascent Henry and Hamlet, but his ending tableux blacks out far too quickly to register the full impact. In retrospect, lightly treading on these concepts is a wise choice for Martin's production, and Shakespeare himself more than likely knew he was trying to place undeserved weight on his prior construction. W.H. Auden pointed out that the young men in Love’s Labour are, "pursuing seriousness in frivolous way." And Auden suggests that Shakespeare too could be found guilty of this in the case of this play.

Over the past couple of weeks, Village Voice critic Michael Feingold has expressed a feeling of watching a theatre trying to come out of something. This past week he cites the plays of Adam Rapp as evidence of a mal de siecle, a "century sickness," the type of which gripped French Society 200 years ago. (One hundred years before the fin de siecle of Martin’s Love's Labour.) Perhaps he is right. The Huntington’s production of Love’s Labour Lost is refreshingly free of any heavy conceptual elements and exists solely to be enjoyed as the flourish of literature it is. Hinterlands is a joy as well, though in a quieter, but equally stylistic way. The backstage life of the performers of the Hinterland Travelling Revue is well observed, and generates feeling, empathy, and smiling sadness. In the end though, our emotions are left slightly unresolved, much as they are when we are left standing in the fields of Navarre, watching the Ladies return to their country.

Critic Mark Van Doren wrote that Love’s Labour Lost remains minor Shakespeare because of the artificial story imposed upon it by Shakespeare in order to shape some sort of coherence and meaning to his linguistic playfulness. Rough and Tumble is exploring and taking joy in the elements of theatre that they do best, but the artifice placed as its frame doesn’t quite hold either. There is much of that in our theatre and indeed our literary culture today. Somebody once said that we don’t need any more ideas in our theatres, we need more storytellers. Shakespeare went on from Love’s Labour to compose some of the greatest comedies and tragedies of all time. Now, what is important about the Rough and Tumble’s Hinterlands is not so much the artificial story, or that it is stylistic, but that it doesn’t try to be something else, and is free from heavy aesthetic influence and most of all - cynicism.

Rough and Tumble’s production is inspiring because it feels as if it is a move towards something. Michael Feingold writes of the plays he considers emblematic of our current mal de siecle, "the characters bristle with unspoken agendas that are all too obvious; and people about whom we know little begin to reveal improbably dark inner impulses...., the characters seem unaware that anyone has ever had problems like theirs before and invariably choose the worst possible solutions." You don’t get that feeling watching Hinterlands, or Love’s Labor Lost. While the mal de siecle writers, "are essentially romantics, aggressively delving into the bleak and the sordid as a way to ward off their own sentimental impulses," Martin and Milstein are romantics engaging the romantic.

I don’t mean to bastardize Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence, but as I have navigated through my own creative projects and watched so many of my peers working over the last ten years, I have noticed the pressure of three large forces hanging over younger American playwrights: David Mamet, Sam Shepard and, on the comedy side, Christopher Durang. One of the more frustrating things is to see people with clear talents, who are trying so hard to work within the templates left to us by these playwrights, who themselves have moved on from their work of the 1970’s and 1980’s. Perhaps playwrights have just not reached the misreading stage of approaching those dramatists, but I am of the opinion that many a young playwright, myself included, writes with Shepard rather than Shakespeare in his head.

The thing that excited and, quite frankly, surprised me about Rough and Tumble’s Hinterlands was how free from those influences it seemed. And, magically, without those encumbrances, the play and production breathes in a fresh way. It doesn’t try to be clever, or try to be edgy, or try to be really any one thing at all. And though this free spirit of invention is its ultimate undoing, (as, on a smaller scale, it is also the undoing of Nicholas Martin and Shakespeare in Love’s Labour,) it provides a breath of fresh air, a light through which we can see the emerging of a new period.

Ed Seigel’s farewell piece in Sunday’s paper was generous, but still had the hallmarks of what made his tenure so stressful for the theatre community here in Boston. I have always detected a bias toward production value in Mr. Siegel’s commentary on the Boston theatre scene, this bias is nowhere better indicated than by his classification of Fringe theatres as being established companies with actual operating budgets. I never felt he clearly understood that the best theatre scenes are grown from the ground up, from people operating in garages, and groups of new graduates taking on theatre in headstrong way. The theatre community doesn’t grow from the top-down, with the vanguard being the import of "hot" New York shows.

Ed Siegel is right that new spaces have provided breathing room for the anchor theatres to present edgier work. But, remember, Charlie Victor Romeo, (now playing at Zero Arrow,) is a play that premiered in 1999, seven years ago. Orpheus X, and The Road Home are more of what we should be seeing in those spaces. Small and fringe theatres need to be pursuing projects that reach for something new as well. I would like to see smaller companies try to link more with artists from other disciplines.

Perhaps after a relaxation period, and playful period, we will be able to confront things like the Iraq War that loom over us so heavily, but seem to be approached only through docu-drama so far. Here’s to the future!

Friday, May 26, 2006

The Delusion of the Most Theatre Artists

I agree with most of what P'tit Boo says in her post regarding Scott Walters and his recent return to Blogging.

I agree that theatre artists do not HAVE to be business minded. (Although the examples of Shakespeare, Richard Foreman and some others give me pause on that front.)

With regards to Ads in theatres, I think this question did indeed quickly become a straw man. And quality and aesthetics will always rule anyway.

As Ptit boo says, the artist who does not run their own business can succeed, and I agree that their business acumen does not neccessarily dictate their time to success.

However, I will emphatically say that the independent artist who somehow believes that they are functioning free from corporate capitalist influence is dangerously naive.

Anybody who thinks that our non-profit theatre is existing in vacuum from corporate capitalism is really living in a dream world.

Just as an example: Here are the corporate producers of the Manhattan Theatre Club
Corporate Producers $50,000 and above
Altria Group, Inc
General Atlantic LLC *
Integrated Finance Limited *
Peter J. Solomon Company*†
SMBC Global Foundation, Inc.*†
Verizon Communications*†

By the way, Altria was formerly Phillip Morris, just so there is no confusion there.

Oh, in case you think that avante garde or experimental projects are different: Performance Space 122 has also been the grateful recipient of Altria's generous donations. As has the Kitchen, Playwrights Horizons, New Dramatists...We could go on, (and you can read the complete list here.

So, let's put the blinders back on and head back to the word processor, rehearsal space, or wherever we create our art, so that we can send it out to P.S. 122 or the Kitchen, or maybe get into New Dramatists.

At least that will enable we "pure artists" to keep deluding ourselves as long as it is not actually WE that have to put our lips to the cancer- infested corporate teats. And this will allow us to continue to cynically snicker at American Idol's Coke logo saturation. One step removed and all that.

I am starting to believe John Clancy left one group out of his clever wall analogy: He should have added that is always the camp that doesn't believe there actually is a wall.

One thing Scott has right in all this is: Where do you draw the line? What is independence?

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Theatre People Thinking Like Businessmen, Or
Businessmen Thinking Like Theatre People

Scott Walters is back on his blog with vengeneance, and I hope he sticks with it.

The current discussion going is in regards to pre-show Ads being incorporated into live theatre performances. Scott, to his credit, is not necessarily saying it is a good or bad thing, what he is asking is, "why not?"

There is ample discussion on his site and others, (like Superfluities,) about how the art is impacted with commercial decisions like these, so I am going to take it from more of business angle.

First of all, the idea is obviously a carryover from the film business. Of course, pre-show trailers for coming attractions have always been around. But, we first started to see television type advertisements on video tape releases of studio films in the eighties, with one of the most notorious ones being Top Gun's soft drink ads. Slowly, the practice moved into the theatrical releases. Now, we have car commercials, soft drink/pop videos, and Will Rogers Foundation charity ads.

The main question is: Is it effective? Advertising is incredibly hard to calculate without a specific call to action that can measure response. My guess is that most of these types of ads are going after general Branding.

More and more companies are advertising in the theatres, but how is that impacting the movie business? Quite frankly, it is hard to tell. It is obvious that there is a huge core of people that are enraged by the practice. For Example: Captive Audience is an organization and website extremely dedicated to stopping the practice. Roger Ebert has spoken out about it as well.

Scott Walters wants us to think more business-like, and so taking a page from the book Good To Great by Jim Collins, I have to say we need to look hard at the data.

As much as we want to think that declining movie attendance or box office is because commercials are ruining the theatrical experience, we have to confront data that is available.

A research firm, OTX, released a study last fall that examined declining motion picture attendance. You can read more about the study at this post on Big Picture, but basically the studies main findings pointed to a lack of quality related to cost:

"The perception among young male moviegoers that there wasn't
much to see this year was a difficult barrier to overcome, regardless of price," said Vincent Bruzzese, Senior Vice President, Entertainment Research of OTX. "But this demographic, more acutely than any other, is weighing the value of the in-theater movie experience compared to many other lower cost, more immediate and convenient entertainment options. And increasingly, young males
are deciding to grab a DVD or video game to watch or play at home."

Of course, there are a combination of reasons why there is a decline, but I did not detect "commercials in front of movies" as one of them.

As Big Picture sums up: "Its not the Revenge of thge Flop; As we mentioned back in July, its the overpriced, mediocre experience that is increasingly keeping movie goers away; males teens in particular are emblematic of this trend."

Strangely enough though, it would appear that Radio is a completely different experience regarding commercials. Big Picture, once again, looking at the case of the Clear Channel consolidation finds:

"Lost in this charming PR hype was a simple fact -- Clear
Channel’s fastest growth is behind it. When they were early in the process of consolidating and homogenizing U.S. radio, they a huge growth curve ahead of them. At an earlier point in their growth cycle, Clear Channel was able to wring out massive cost savings as they consolidated their network. That phase is now over.
This efficiency, cost cutting, and uniformity came at a cost: Clear
Channel wracked up big margins with their streamlined McMusic programming, but they ended up driving away listeners, also."

People started leaving or "flipping channels" when they were frustrated with too many commercials. Obviously, this is a different model than pre-show advertising. Commercials in radio can frequently interrupt programming.

At this point, you are probably wondering, What is his point? Well, to be honest, I think that the OTX study of movies shows that really, people will take the pre-show commercials as long as they feel they are getting to see a good film for the money. Would theatre be the same way? I believe so. Now, we can get into the arguments of what value means. (Does it mean giving them what they want? Or does it mean a truly great film?, etc.) Ben Cameron of TCG often gets slammed a bit with regards to his statements about value. However, rather than seeing his statements as a call to change what you do in regards to the audience, I have always understood him to mean this: Find the audience that appreciates what you do, what your visions are, what your aesthetics are, etc. Then, Mr. Cameron would advise, market the hell out of them.

In other words, if you want to create avante garde theatre, great! Your responsibility then is to find a way to get every possible person who likes avante-garde theatre into your show. What about those who don't like avante-garde theatre? They will, once and while, come in on their own, but you best not spend a single moment worrying about them or chasing them.

My best example of this is the ART in Cambridge, they have a thriving subscriber base, and critical accolades. There are many, myself included, who believe this is ridiculous, we believe that it is an incredible travesty. The ART, in response to me, would smile, take my higher priced-single-ticket-buyer money, and kindly suggest that I drop my comment card in a waste barrell on Brattle Street. And they are damn right to do so.

The next question I see is: If the ART started pre-show advertisements, would all of those who rabidly enjoy their productions stop going? Probably not. Especially if the practice was presented to the audience as necessary to cover the costs of say, the stunning effect of continuous snow during their Production of Snow In June.

Of course, there is always the spectre of corporate influence. How many steps away does corporate sponsorship put us towards being used as tool of the corporations.

Placement advertisement is becoming increasingly common in the television industry. In fact, writers are now starting to get the union involved in navigating this growing phenomenon. An article from the Chicago Tribune:

On the scripted show "7th Heaven" last month, there was an extended story line in which the Camden family went on about their love for Oreos, including whether they preferred to dunk them in milk or screw the cookie apart. An anchorman in "Pepper Dennis" was recently shown receiving a case of teeth whiteners, and using one on the air."What happens is that storytelling can come to a screeching halt under an order to tout products on television," Baer said.Cherry said he wrote one scene at a mall parking lot in cooperation with a
car manufacturer that worked because Gabrielle made a joke out of it. But he was recently approached by another auto company that wanted to be featured but wasn't happy with the characters Cherry made available -- including Bree's sociopathic son. The deal fell through

The real interesting thing we should look at is not so much how we should look to business to show us what to do, instead, we should look at how much business is emulating us.

Think that couple on the train last night who were listening to their new I-pod with two cords were just being cute and loud, singing along to that catchy new pop song? Think that woman who asked you to take her picture with that weird, but interesting, video camera was just looking to get a shot for her scrapbook? Think that strange arrangement of boxes, all from the same company, sitting on the street by the doors to an apartment building are going to delivered to a bunch of tenants?

Well, if you have thought that, you can consider yourself the victim of Stealth Marketing, which is the corporate colonization of our beloved Street Theatre.

So much more to talk about with regards to this, I hope the discussion continues.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The Blue (Rumpus) Room

Lots of local hubbub over the sudden closing of The Blue Room at the BCA before it opened.

Larry Stark's Theatermirror has the coverage. See here. It is best to start with Naeemah White-Peppers' first letter to Larry, so you'll have to scroll down.

The basic rundown is that an actress auditions for and is cast in David Hare's The Blue Room. She leaves the production, directed by Chris Cavalier. She contacts Samuel French because the director has made some major changes to the script. Samuel French closes the show down.

Those are the facts as we know them, and seem to be the things that are undisputed on both sides.

So far, other parties have written letters defending the director, saying that the actress was unprofessional and had no problems with the script changes until she was left. Naeemah White-Peppers' original letter seems to portray the actress as protesting script changes from the beginning and heroically taking her departure on a stand of integrity.

More than likely, both sides are exaggerating. Though she may be lionizing this actress a little, as far as the facts of the case are concerned, Ms. White-Peppers is dead on: The actress didn't close the show, the director's actions in illegally changing the script eventually closed the show. No other way around it.

I have heard of these types of things happening before, and it always boggles my mind. (Perhaps because I am a playwright.) I mean, if you are going to make that many substantial changes to the script, ...hell, just make and write your own show from scratch. (Oddly enough David Hare's The Blue Room is, itself, "freely adapted" from Arthur Shnitzler's La Ronde.) It it doesn't take plagiarism either, although it is apparent that you can still have a theatrical career doing that. (Just ask Bryony Lavery.)

Actually, maybe Schnitzler's writing just lends itself to free adaptation. After all, his novella Traumnovelle was contorted, unrecognizably, into the Stanley Kubrick film, Eyes Wide Shut. Perhaps somebody should start an Arthur Shnitzler Free Adaptation Festival.

As for the letter writers defending the Mr. Cavalier; I feel for them, but even they admit that the script was altered without permission from Mr. Hare or Samuel French. Game. Set. Match. Let's all learn and move forward.

Adding to Ms. White-Peppers, I would only say that the REAL important question is why a new young company would want to do The Blue Room in the first place. Which should lead you all to the discussions going on at Scott Walters Theatre Ideas and Jack Clancy's site as well.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Now, with comments.

After having some initial bad experiences with comments in my early days of blogging, (nasty spam, and nothing else) I have once again enabled comments.


Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Simon Says, "Worship American Idol"

"Criticism is a study at which men grow important and formidable at a very small expense." - Samuel Johnson

(Simon Cowell, left,
Edmund Wilson, right)

The New Republic inadvertently launches another salvo at the crumbling wall that may still stand between art and commercialized popular culture.

In a perceptive piece this week, Franklin Foer writes about the ascendance of Simon Cowell and the juggernaut of American Idol. The interesting tactic of the Foer piece is his brush-off of the usual highbrow complaints about the show. Instead the focus here is on the empowerment Cowell's evaluations could give to the fading idea of the critic.

We have all read endless articles about the shallowness and depravity of watching public emabarssment on live television. But, Foer says,...

"Leveling this critique at "Idol," however, requires a certain myopia. It mistakes the trappings of the show--the endless renditions of Phil Collins, the shrieking, sign-waving girls in the audience--for "Idol"'s true contribution to culture. That contribution comes in the form of Cowell, who, along with his
fellow judges of lesser intellect, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson, issues critiques of each singer's performance. Every week, he finds new pejorative descriptions for the lame music he encounters. 'I think you're possibly the worst singer in the world,' he has quipped. Or, 'You take singing lessons? Do
you have a lawyer? Get a lawyer and sue your singing teacher.' But, far from precipitating cultural decline, these vicious performances have restored authority to the one figure that can salvage us from doom: the critic."

Foer's real attack is not on the popular culture machine, his real target is the highbrow cottage industry that is fueled by the idea that serious criticism died with Edmund Wilson. His argument is quite easy to follow:

"On the program, 'Idol' judges render assessments but don't actually vote for contestants. Their power rests entirely in their ability to sway the public--in other words, with the power of their criticism. Although Cowell's harsh pronouncements frequently make him the subject of jeers during the live broadcasts, his opinions routinely lead millions to pick up their phones and
vote for his favored candidates...Last year, he (alone among the judges) declared country singer Carrie Underwood the inevitable winner of the competition two months before the season finale, thus sealing her fate. (Remind me again: How many readers did Wilson win for the French symbolists?) "

But what are we really talking about here? Foer, in the article, praises Cowell for his ability to cut through the heart of American Idol:

"When he keelhauls contestants, his favored terms of abuse are 'karaoke,' 'cabaret,' 'cruise ship,' and 'wedding singer.' These cut-downs capture the essence of 'Idol.' Contestants are singing well-known pop songs. Successful singers are those who transcend the artificiality of the format and become more
than 'some ghastly Xerox machine.'"

The real question though, (using a reversal of Foer's clever line,) is: Remind me again, how many viewers did Simon Cowell win for transcendental singers? If anything, Idol seems to propel the Music Industry into the stratosphere, not artists. Kelly Clarkson didn't exactly go on to transcend anything.

Also, Foer gives far more praise than is deserved to what he perceives as Cowell's wit and style. WBUR Critic Bill Marx often writes of the authority of the critic lying not with his or her opinion, (after all, we all have those,) but instead with his or her wit, style and occasional adeptness at snark. Foer agrees, and sees all of those facets incorporated in Cowell's repertoire. However, Foer gives a very weak body evidence for this shaky appeal. Maybe I am wrong to assume Foer would include the best of Cowell's put-downs and observations in his article, but, honestly, I only found one to be even close to attaining canonization: "You have about as much Latin flair as a polar bear."

Cowell is not, as Foer points out, as offensive as some may think. My own first experience with American Idol happened well into the "Simon Cowell as Rude Offensive Jerk" publicity push. And I was strangely underwhelmed by the "snark" of his evaluations. His assesments are usually precise, calm and direct. However, where Foer sees a critical style affecting artistic substance, I still see a Coca-Cola marketing executive giving notes on the campaign and packaging of Coke Zero.

Interesting that just an issue or two ago The New Republic launched a takedown of Harold Bloom, who, more than others, gives truth to the lie that the critic has no authority. Though the article, by James Wood, was more about theological differences regarding the new book Jesus and Yahweh; The Names Divine, it still seems to downplay the "phase" of Bloom's career that has produced his bestsellers like The Western Canon and Genius. These are popular works by man who makes no pretense that he about anything other than the championing of aesthetic standards and the support of truly transcendant artists.

So, in the funhouse of our commercially driven society, Cowell is the Highbrow, and Bloom is the ineffective, whiny Gasbag.

Mr. Foer may do well to listen to a quote from Mr. Edmund Wilson:

"The implied position of the people who know about literature (as is also the case in every other art) is simply that they know what they know, and that they are determined to impose their opinions by main force of eloquence or assertion on the people who do not know."

Shameless Plug - Update!

Opening Night Jitters

Last night, the 48 Hour Film Project held their Best of Boston Screening and Awards at the Good Time Emporium in Somerville, MA. There were 70 Teams in the project this year, and so even making it to the Best of Boston is an accomplishment for any team.

The quality of the films was really great, and my team, Playomatic Productions, won three awards for our film, Opening Night Jitters:

Best Acting
Best Editing (Steven Stuart)
Best Use of Genre

The Best Acting award is quite a triumph, being that our category was Silent Film. We intentionally tried to emulate the performances of the silent film days. It was an interesting process, a grand experiment, and a smashing success.

Thanks to our great Filmmakers Steven Stuart and Brad Kelly. Their skills behind the camera and in the post-production are awesome.

Congratulations Playomatic!

Friday, May 05, 2006

Seattle Out Front

There is now no doubt in my mind that Seattle's independent media is providing the most interesting and thought provoking weekly reportage on the Non-Profit Arts World.

Playgoer tips off to The Stranger article about a possible new model for Non-profits.

This Stranger article should be read with the brilliant companion piece Play Money by Brendan Kiley, which I posted about in March. Kiley followed the money trail of a city funded piece of theatre that was one of the worst shows he had ever seen, in talking to the city employees he found out something interesting:

"Part of the reason the Conciliation Project got funding was because it planned to take the show to local schools. You haven't made a socially useful piece of theater until you've tormented some school children with it and proved what they already suspect: Theater, like, totally blows. I couldn't find anyone at the city who admitted to having seen Global SeXXX-ism. If you're going to write a five-figure check to an obscure—and lousy—theater group, the least you could do is follow up, if only to make an informed decision about whether they deserve a
five-figure check next year. Right?"

And of course, the Seattle Weekly published an article titled Tough Love for the Arts by Roger Downey last year that had a grim reality weaved through its capitalistic theme.

"If the unthinkable should happen—if against all odds one or more of our big arts organizations should actually fold—it would be a grievous blow to our civic pride. The embarrassment caused by the opening and speedy closing of that aimless exercise in arts wanna-be, the Bellevue Art Museum, gives only a faint notion of the impact on our civic pretensions. But beyond red faces, how much would it matter? A great deal to a few, most of all the artists newly unemployed; to many more, a regrettable reduction in the agreeable routine of middle-class life; and to a great many, very nearly nothing at all."

If you care about these issues, you should read all three articles and let them simmer in you.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Shameless Plug

Opening Night Jitters

Well, for the second year in a row I have participated in the 48 Hour Film Project with the great Playomatic Productions, headed by the talented filmmakers Steve Stuart and Brad Kelly.

Our team, full of fantastic and theatrically experienced thespians, once again came up with an imaginative universe full of interesting characters and great visuals.

We drew Silent Film as a Genre and came up with a farcical, funny and authentic-looking throwback to the silent film era. Here is a photo from the production of Opening Night Jitters. Yes, that's me at the center, and my lovely wife on the right. (Local actors Frank McDonald and Chip English are the looming villians.)

We were fortunate to Win Audience favorite for our night and we will be shown at the Best of Boston screening on Tuesday, May 16th, 7:00PM at the Good Time Emporium in Somerville, MA.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006


Bill Marx is right to be examining the rise of internet criticism, but more importantly he doesn't seem to be dismissing the signs that say, "objects in rearview mirror are closer than they appear."

"With all of its editorial shortcomings, the web is increasingly becoming the place where ideas can be conveyed with a fervor and skill no longer possible in conventional journalism."

The survival of the mainstream critic, and I don't use that term derisively, will depend on his or her adaptation to this changing landscape. Roger Ebert, a few years ago, launched his revamped website which provides everything an internet movie-buff could want. One key ingredient to the success of Roger was the addition of a blog by Jim Emerson, the site's editor. Mr. Emerson adds important regular postings of interesting film articles and observations. And, as a bonus, provides a different opinion of some of the more controversial issues.

But, as Mr. Marx is right to point out, none of this would matter as much without style. Though Roger Ebert brings a great deal of film scholarship to the table, his authority has never been the key to his readability. Rather, his ability to add wit, polish and, where necessary, erudition to what are essentially mini-essays bring even those who disagree with him back for more. Emerson has equal talents for internet writing.

I have enjoyed following Mr. Marx's charting of this course over the past several years, and I am powerless to explain why it is only now that he would have begun the WBUR Arts Blog. Although, I am happy to say that he appears to be on the leading edge with the Arts Podcasts.

Perhaps one reason the Mainstream Arts Journalists, (outside of film reviewers,) are slow, or resistant in making the jump to the internet is the demand the new medium puts on them. Regular updates and extensive coverage are expected. Internet consumers want broad coverage, AND in-depth coverage. The want to see reviews of every show in town, but they may only be interested in one particular show, and when they click on that review, they want it to be extensive and in-depth.

Current Mainstream Critics have perhaps grown too fat and lazy with their shrinking pages and columns. If you only have room to publish a few theatre reviews every few weeks, then incisiveness and style becomes deadened and unexcercised. Instead, snark takes the place of these talents and skills. Snark with wit and style can be sublime, snark pretending to be wit and style is ugly and destructive. Internet publising would be like hopping on an functioning treadmill for these folks.

Networks of reviewers is one way to combat this, much as newspapers are using stringers. Larry Stark's Theatermirror in Boston has functioned this way for quite a while. A reliable stable of independents critics weigh in with, sometimes, multiple reviews on the same production. These regular contributors are supplemented by other, less frequent reviewers. (Myself included.) Larry's site also includes Quick Takes, (shorter capsules of impressions on productions,) Essays and general comments from Larry, (including almost annual epistilatory tangles with Bill Marx himself,) and Mere Opinions, (an area in which people post manifestos, observations and sometimes rants about the Boston theatre scene and the world beyond.)

Is Theatermirror a perfect system of critical assesment? I don't think Larry or anybody else would have the audacity to say that. On the other hand, I think Larry might actually be too humble to admit that his was one of the first and most extensive uses of this form for truly extensive regional theatre coverage.

The dangereous side to network coverage is that the more expansive the network gets, the more wit and style you lose. Amazon reviews, a topic brought up more than once, are interesting case in point. Yes, Amazon's forum can contain scintillating and styled short reviews, but more often you have a case of champions and detractors, (some who have not even read the book,) shouting at each other. And, as always, such a forum contains the danger of publishers and producers posting reviews. Mr. Marx's criticism of web based community reviewing like Theatermirror always seem to be mainly rooted in this fear. Larry's site does appeal greatly to the theater community and so Marx's fear is naturally not unfounded, but I have yet to find evidence of reviews that are planted by "cheerleaders." Carl Rossi, a frequent contributor to Theatermirror, has never been frightened of a negative review, and his dissenting views have been rabidly protected by Larry, (however much he may disagree with them,) against a sometimes hostile readership.

While Mr. Marx is never afraid to express his disdain for the Theatermirror neither on Larry's site or at Stagesource town meetings, he seems strangely to eschew its mention in his columns or blog postings. This seems more good business than anything else. After all, one link to Larry's site and a BUR reader would see right there on the daily update page, all of the reviews and coverage that it offers.

Perhaps Mr. Marx would keep his readers safe from what he perceives to be the bland and generally unenlightened commentary by web critics. But in a Blog posting yesterday (May 1,) Bill complained about the generally gushing reviews of the Globe and the Herald on the Boston TheatreWorks production of Rebecca Gilman's The Sweetest Swing in Baseball. However, on-line critic Will Stackman had mentioned this on his blog back on April 19th. This was, of course, after his negative review of Sweetest Swing had appeared on his review site On the Aisle, along with a quicktake on Larry's site.

On the other hand, Mr. Marx had picked Sweetest Thing in his Monthly theatre preview entitled April Stage Standouts! So now, (a month after doing so, and weeks after the show has opened,) Mr. Marx decides to post about its shortcomings and to skewer the now weeks-old, establishment reviews.

It really comes down to business though. Who will be the first to branch out into a theatre web center that provides the best and most extensive in theatre journalism, criticism, and general information. And is there profit to be made this way?

Let's look at the case of Andrew Sullivan, a free-lance journalist and former New Rebublic editor. His blog, The Daily Dish, has now been nestled into the Mothership of Time Warner at The Mainstream Media Giant recognized the power draw of the blog center.

Another case is TalkingPointsMemo, the site of journalist Josh Micah Marshall, whih appears to be self sustaining from Ads and donations, including the expansion of an area called the TPM cafe.

In the theatre world, blogger George Hunka, a playwright, writes great stuff on his blog Superfluities. He reviews as a stringer for the New York Times. And he has been recognized by Bill Marx on podcasts and in Bill's Op-Eds.

Another theatre blogger case is Garret Eisler who runs the blog Playgoer. In the last few months I have seen that what Eisler and Hunka are doing is going a step beyond blogging. Unlike infrequent dart-throwers and musers like me, Garret and George are picking up the telephone. What I mean is that in the case of the Rachel Corrie Controversy, Garret was on the phone and e-mailing key people to get statements and clarifications and George recently conducted an interview regarding performance with Marilyn Nonken. In these instances, Garret and George, without losing any of their style and wit, have bridged a sort of gap in the theatre journalism wilderness.

The future will be interesting to see. Will Superfluities be nestled into the wing of a mothership like the NY Times? Will Playgoer become a self sustaining network a la Talkingpointsmemo? Will anybody read what I am writing right now?

That being said, power is not truth and truth is not power. Just as a faith should not measure its truth by how many people it converts and how fast; art, art criticism and art journalism, should always remain truth seeking and not approval and income seeking entities.

Mr. Marx puts is best by saying, in his comments section, that he has no idea how all of this will shake out.