Thursday, August 31, 2006

Ghost Story Chills

The air in the evenings and the mornings is getting that crisp feel, and for me that means my ghost story is due.

One wing of my personal theatrical profession is perennially linked to the North Shore and, more specifically, the town of Salem, MA.

Yes, that Salem, MA. I perform annually during October, telling ghost stories on the Friendship, a replica East Indiamen that is docked in Salem Harbor just off Pickering Wharf. The Custom House of Hawthorne's prologue to The Scarlet Letter sits just across the street.

For the past two years I have contributed a ghost story of my own creation, which we put into the mix with other stories of ghosts on the high seas. Stories like, The Upper Berth by Marion Crawford and Message in a Bottle by Edgar Allen Poe have been adapted in the past.

Writing the ghost story for the purpose of it being told to people is a great excercise for the playwright. You must combine vivid imagination and an adherence to the principles of suspense and surprise, but you also must always be aware of the fact that the teller will be before a live audience ranging from young children to adults.

Commercial restrictions provide another unique factor. The stories cannot exceed a certain length. We tell three storie, each in differnt location on the ship, at three varying lenghts: 1st story is 8-10 Minutes, 2nd story is 5-6 minutes, 3rd story is 3-4 minutes.

These lengths keep the flow of audience groups moving quickly. If anybody wants to know what Salem is like the closer you get to Halloween, just think Woodstock and you start to get an idea. So on Halloween night, when you have 200-300 people in line to get on the ship, well...timing is everything.

In addition, the stories are told by actors dressed in early 19th century period costumes, so your language and setting must match at least the idea of that period. I usually get myself in the mindset by reading Poe and Hawthorne to get the rythym of their syntax and vocabulary.

I have completed two drafts of my story, and I need to trim some more.

Happy Halloween! (Early)

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

"People from a planet without flowers would think we must be mad with joy the whole time to have such things about us."

- Iris Murdoch

Our American Rythyms

"Can't repeat the past...Well of course you can!"
-Jay Gatsby

With the recent flap regarding the Guthrie's The Great Gatsby, versus the Elevator Repair Company's Gatz, it is important to think about the theatrical values of Fitzgerald's novel.

I have never seen a theatrical or filmed version of The Great Gatsby, and I do not really intend to do so anytime soon. My vision of Jay Gatsby relies completely and utterly on Nick Carraway's narration. With this in mind, if I were to see an adaptation, my preference would be most likely to see ERC's Gatz, which is essentially a six hour reading of the text of the novel.

My feeling is basically this: The manifestation of Gatsby as an actor on stage to whom the production points to and says, "this is Jay Gatsby," immediately starts to corrode Fitzgerald's artistic vision.

Jay Gatsby is Ahab, but like failed film and stage versions of Moby Dick his essence is forever in the telling of his novel. Only Ishmael and Nick Carraway can give us the characters of their authors.

Ahab and Emerson, these are our fathers, and Gatsby and Charles Foster Kane are their offspring, and the grandchildren are Blanche Dubois, Willie Loman...Shelley Levene...

August Wilson understood this. Wilson created powerful dramatic representations of the Emersonian spirit being steamrolled by socio-economic forces. Herald Loomis and Levee are some the best characters created by American Dramatists in the last 20 years.

The conclusion of Wilson's ten play cycle about the African American Experience concludes with Radio Golf, which is playing at the Huntington Theatre Company starting in September.

Real random post, but I don't have much time today.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Surrendering Eros to the Sea of Ehn, O'Neill and Crane

Where icy and bright dungeons lift
Of swimmers their lost morning eyes
And ocean rivers, churning, shift
Green borders under stranger skies

Steadily as a shell secretes
Its beating leagues of monotone,
Or as many waters trough the sun's
Red kelson past the cape's wet stone;

O rivers mindling toward the sky
And harbor of the phoenix breast-
My eyes pressed black against the prow
-Thy derelict and blinded guest

Waiting afire, what name, unspoken,
I cannot claim: let thy waves rear
More savage than the death of kings,
Some splintered garland for the seer.

That is the twentieth century American poet Hart Crane writing on the ocean and its mysteries and power. Crane's poem Voyages is filled with images of the ocean's flowings and risings and the relocation and disorientation of swimmers. Like Sarah Kane's Psychosis 4:48 it is hard not to read Crane's poem as a suicide note. Crane threw himself from a ship into the ocean and died, and this is a circumstance that inspired a short play from Tennessee Williams, who considered Hart Crane a strong influence on his aesthetic.

Erik Ehn's Seal Skin, a short play done this past weekend at the FeverFest in Cambridge, is influenced heavily by the same imagery of Crane's visions. A short poem/play that consists only of text, Seal Skin is the experience of a young woman who prefers to lose herself in the sea rather than face the awkwardness of adolescence and who swims to escwew the shame and changes of the teenage years.

It is probably no coincidence that Hart Crane also penned an ode to Herman Melville's tomb. Melville is central to the canon of our poetic imagery. It is refreshing to hear the power of sea poetically conjured by Ehn, considering that natural imagery of this type is so rately approached by our leading dramatists.

Eugene O'neill visited this imagery in his earlier dramas and returned to it once again in the unforgettable monologue of Edmund in Long Day's Journey Into Night. Here Edmund recounts his experiences at sea:

"and for a moment, I lost myself - Actually lost my life. I was set free! I dissolved in the sea, became white sails and flying spray, became beauty and rythym, became moonlight and the ship and high dimmed sky! I belonged without a past or future, within the peace and unity and wild joy within the within something greater than my own, or the life of Man, to Life itself!...

And several other times in my life, when I was swimming far out or lying alone on the beach, I have had the same experience. Became the sun, the hot sand, green seaweed anchored to a rock, swaying in the tide. Like a saint's vision of beatitude. Like the veil of things seems drawn back by an unseen hand. For a second, you see...and seeing the secrect, you are the secret."

The girl of Ehn's piece seeks the same, desperately. The title refers to the myth of the Selkie, aquatic women who can come on land as human by shedding their seal skins. They can marry men and are said to make excellent wives, but they always can be found staring longingly to the sea.

The woman of Ehn's poem wishes to not surrender her skin to land or a husband, and she chooses instead to receive the sea as her beginning and end:

12 plus 6 at two AM swimming shell crushed by wave's finger the ocean has her celibacy. Red wisp, she follows blent. You do not take her, you relocate her, the celibate celibate sea. Otters are nuns and as long as she is in the water she is where her younger was, spiraling, capturing means.

Our desires to live so fully, to live so in the mysteries of the turbulent cosmos that we consume our death. For more on Eros and the tragedy of Eros, you should consult George Hunka's writings on the subject at Superfluities.
Tennessee Williams, fascinated with the subject, (and with Hart Crane,) weaved it into much of his drama. Hartford Stage in Connecticut will be opening Summer and Smoke, (Williams' meditation on body and soul,) this weekend. They have a pay what you can show on September 9th.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Influence Watch

Some plays and playwrights are done again and again in perpituity. But everything is cyclical, and some reemerge with the changing of generations.

The Spanish playwright Pedro Calderon de la Barca wrote many plays and his influence was very strong over European dramatists. Although Lope de Vega may pop up in a rep season now and then, Calderon is a scarcity.

Brandeis Theatre Company, now in their second year will be doing The Physician of His Honor this season. It will be worth a look.

Project Gutenberg has the online text of a few Calderon plays.
An Interesting Sampling

I went to see Whistler in the Dark's Fever Fest on Saturday. It was an interesting kickoff to the coming theatre season.

With all of the talk in the blogosphere about the influences of Howard Barker et al., it was a great place to get a sampling of three, what I would call, darlings of the avante garde movement.

Deborah Levy's The B-File

Erik Ehn's Seal Skin

Howard Barker's Don't Exaggerate; (a political statement in the form of hysteria.)

I will write a little more about Ehn's Seal Skin when I have some time. I see influences in his poetry to Hart Crane following down to O'Neill's Edmund.

(Full Disclosure: My lovely wife appeared in the Ehn play.)

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The Pay What You Can-Can

The crazy sounds that swept London are now crossing the pond and invading the U.S.

Yeah, so sit back and let the cool sounds of corporate underwriting of tickets wash over you and take you on the magic carpet ride.

Nick Hytner's well-publicized discount ticket plan at the National, has taken root here in New England.

The Huntington Theatre Company offered tickets for Radio Golf at $25.00 for all seats on the first day of public sales.

New Rep in Watertown offers pay what you can night in September for The Pillowman.

And now Trinity Repertory Company, underwritten by The Rhode Island State Lottery, offers pay what you can on the September 15th also for their production of The Cherry Orchard.

Also Trinity is getting some help from Corporate Sponsor Ocean State Job Lot to provide a limited amount of 20.00 tickets to all shows.

I will try to take advantage of one of these pay what you can nights and see what happens.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Everything Old Is New Again

Recent discussions of Sam Shepard's Buried Child at Superfluities, Matt's Site, and Scott Walters's Theatre Ideas, all talk of the ending of the play. The Michael Chekhov Theatre Company in New York is presenting an ambitious series of all of Shepard's work, and this is probably the most appropriate venue. Although many influences are attributed to Shepard, I have always found Chekhov to be the strongest. In particular, Chekhov motivates the beautiful and mysterious ending tableaux of Buried Child, which approaches, as near as possible, pure poetry in its strangely harmonius yet dissonant composition.

Rather than any sort of influences Shepard gained from the avante-garde of the sixties and seventies, (or any Amerian playwright,) the last moments of Buried Child have always seemed to me a deliberate misreading of the ending of The Cherry Orchard.

Here in the Boston Area we are going to get a chance to see, in the next five months, not one, but two productions of The Cherry Orchard.

Trinity Rep's Cherry Orchard opens this month on September 15th.

The Huntington's Cherry Orchard opens in January with Kate Burton.

Joel Brown writes at HubArts about getting his press invites to the openings of bobrauschenbergamerica at the ART and Radio Golf at the Huntington Theatre Company.

Problem is: they are both on the same day:

"The relevant publicists and others were quick to point out that they do in fact talk about these things ahead of time - months in some cases - and well, the occasional head-on is inevitable. There are universities and boards with their own needs that must be served, you see. (There are varying versions of
what happened this time around.) Well, fine. But there aren't that many big theater companies in town, and I still don't see how this is good for anyone. And I remember theaters being all sad when they got a stringer instead of the main critic for an opening."

I know that the Lyric Stage started putting their opening nights on Sundays, which seems to make sense with regards to battling it out with the two Regional Anchor theatres and also the latest Broadway imports.

Monday, August 21, 2006

You Give Me Fever...

Superfluities quotes from Howard Barker on the Theatre of Catastrophe.

"The real end of drama in this period must be not the reproduction of reality, critical or otherwise ( ... socialistic, voyeuristic), but speculation–not what is (now unbearably decadent) but what might be, what is imaginable. The subject
then becomes not man-in-society, but knowledge itself, and the protagonist not the man of action (rebel or capitalist as source of pure energy) but the struggler with self."

Thus continues the long decline from James Joyce at the Pinnacle of literature's Chaotic age.

It seems somehow fitting that Robert Brustein's last transmission we received from the New Republic was entitled: "Now We Are Dispersed."

Brustein sums up the direction playwrighting is going:

On Richard Maxwell:

One must assume that this randomizing of violence and vacuity is meant to imply something about the age in which we live. And Maxwell is much admired by people I respect. I respect him, too, without much admiring him. The playwright's resolve to create a reality so empty of meaning that it becomes an abstraction produces not an advance in authenticity so much as another kind of style--insular, claustral, and isolated. For Maxwell, art is not so much a criticism of life as an act of submission to it.

Lindsay Abaire:

It is the kind of occasion where the middle-class audience begins by applauding the set, because it resembles their own apartments; then applauds the stars, because they seem like old familiar friends; and finally applauds the curtain call, because the play has touched their hearts without making any demands on their spirits. Rabbit Hole has depth, power, and humanity. But aside from a passing reference to people falling out of windows at the World Trade Center, it could have been written at any time in the past half-century.

Adam Rapp:

But affectless despair among the disaffected young is a condition that may be wearing thin. (Kenneth Lonergan's This Is Our Youth is the locus classicus of the genre.) It is a subject toward which Rapp is now making largely self-involved and self-referential gestures.

and Will Power's update of an Aeschylus Play:

The Seven includes hints of a gay relationship between Polynices (Jamyl Dobson) and his New Age friend Tydeus (Flaco Navaja), references to illegal immigration, and analogies between the war being waged in Thebes and the mess in Iraq. Some of this updating is forced, but most of the show has a sly, winking, and good-natured verve that keeps you engaged with the action. And it is a relief to find someone writing new work for the theater who recognizes that, however dispersed, we still share a lot of the same anxieties, particularly regarding those twin threats to our national security: terrorism and the administration of George W. Bush.

For those who are in the Boston Area this coming weekend and wish to see the work of Howard Barker, as well as the work of some of the other avante garde theatre artists such as Erik Ehn, you should check out Whistler in the Dark's FeverFest '06. It plays one day only at the Cambridge YMCA this weekend.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Under the Influence

George's discussion of his reading list, which I talk about below, led to an interesting discussion in the comments. An overall theme of "creating a course to teach theatre" arose, and I agree with Christopher Shinn, and few other commenters, who basically talked of passion being the supreme guide to decisions on subject and materials for the courses.

One commenter though, an experienced teacher, pointed out:

"Teaching what you love: Great, so long as what you love intersects with what students need to know. Typically, in any curriculum there are core courses and electives. Core courses used to include massive surveys taught by generalists or those who could fake it or those who were stuck with the assignment. Electives were where the people taught what they loved and what they loved only."

The joke from Good Will Hunting was quoted by Scott Walters:

"You wasted $150,000 on an education you coulda got for a buck fifty in late charges at the public library."

People seemed to agree with the joke, though I remember finding the joke supremely unfunny in its context. (Perhaps it is because I live near Harvard Square, know many Harvard Grads and or students, and I have even taken courses through the Extension School there.)

You see, Will Hunting, the character in the movie, is speaking these lines to a very well-pedigreed looking man who is attending Harvard. Well, I doubt very much that this particular man will be lamenting his Harvard Education in 50 years, and with the opportunities and earning power that would come to this person, the $150,000.00 will probably seem like a bargain.

Of course, the real joke of the scene, (in the context of the film,) is on Will Hunting; if he continues going as he is, he will lament his frittering away of his life and wonder about his inability to deeply understand the value of all the information he has gathered. But this point is lost, as are so many good ideas in that movie; lost through the desire to make a cool scene. Style over substance, function following form.

We want to see Will sticking it to the Harvard guy. We need to see Will sticking it to somebody who is not "to the manor born," but rather somebody aspiring to a higher social class, but too blind to see that they are playing a lottery they might lose. Too painful would be the scene of Will throwing that statement at a student attending anything but an Ivy League school. But that scene would would contribute to the theme of the film, exploring its questions deeper.

My opinion about higher education in the Arts, this includes literature, is that it should teach you how to think, not what to think.

I am in the employment business and a headhunter as well. Many times I am asked, in either casual conversation or by freshly-graduated candidates, "what is the big deal about a college degree anyway?" The shortest answer I can give is this:

"Basically, to an employer a college education is the same thing as a standardized test is to a college. When an employer looks at the fact that you have a 4 year college degree, they can reasonably assume that for four continuous years you had to accomplish something. You had to work on deadline, write papers, recall knowledge, present your thoughts and hopefully work together with others. Many people do this while also working at least a part-time job. Even though there are millions of people out there who have attended college, always remember that there are far more that have not put themselves through
that. When an employer puts the requirement, "4 Year Degree"' on a low-level or entry level job it is the same as a college wanting you to have a high school diploma and to have taken the SAT's."

That is my exterior monologue to people. The interior one continues below:

If you approached college with the idea that it would help you get a job, well, this is what you paid for. That's it. Nothing more.

If that was your intent, I'm afraid that all you have to show for your money, (or your parent's money,) is the inch or two on your resume in which you put: BA, Some Subject, Any College.

You didn't make the Ivy League, what can I say? In the game you were playing, you lost big time. While you were working at JC Penney during junior year in high school, the winners were interning at the UN. But, actually, you probably lost in elemetary school.

If there was any doubt, you really should have known when the envelopes came with your SAT scores. The day you realized that you didn't get over 750 in Verbal and Math is also the day the odds changed. On that day, the price of college slipped from a sound investment to double down on the roulette wheel.

I know, I know. It is unfair.

You were playing the game, sent to left field in the dusky evening. The light faded to black and you didn't know that nine innings had expired, somebody took the ball home and you never got to bat.

What do you get for second place? Well, I am not so sure you are in second place. Really tough to tell. see the game kind of...drops off after first place.




Precipitously? Well, let's just say that it means that if there is a second place you are not in it.

That sounds harsh, I know.

Everybody else?

(Long Pause.)

Don't be angry. Remember, you chose the game. I'm sorry if nobody explained the rules, but...

What? How long does it retain its value? Tough to say. Some pessimists would tell you that it expires after your first interview. I am a little more cheerful. I place the mortality of your degree at about the moment you are first shown to your first cubicle.

Now, it may have a pulse in it which will allow it to gasp for breath from time to time; a supervisor may have attended your school, or the CEO might have a nephew going there. That is exciting, isn't it? I mean, such circumstances could land you with another project that you can't possibly juggle.

But in most situations you will feel the separation anxiety from the money you spent for college as soon as you are left alone in those those three-and one-half walls... those thin, ceilingless and doorless walls. You will then hear its fading death rattle rumble to a soft halt, overcome by the increasing hum of the other losers about you.

Oh, you're cry... Would you like a tissue? I'm really sorry. I wax poetic sometimes.


I was an English major.

Hold on, I have to take this call...

Theatre Minima - Education Department

George Hunka has a spirited discussion of a reading list he would arrange if he, "had, for 15 weeks, a seminar room filled with drama-maddened 18-year-olds, or even drama-maddened 48-year-olds, to break the molded mindsets of what theater and drama mean to most people in the early 21st century."

I say...why don't you, George? Hang out a shingle, make a syllabus. 15 Weeks $25.00 a week. $375 for the whole course. Location TBA. Post it around town. Guaranteed you'll get at least a few people who are interested. The cost is less than credited courses, even if people are auditing. 4 Students and you just grossed a over a grand.

Or volunteer to offer it to a high school afterschool program or something.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Or bid the soul of Orpheus sing
Such notes as, warbled to the string,
Drew iron tears down Pluto’s cheek.
-John Milton

An interesting compare and contrast opportunity is available this fall. Yale Repertory Theatre is presenting a new Sarah Ruhl play. (She of The Clean House fame.) The new project is entitled Eurydice.

Take a look at the marketing blurb:

In Eurydice, Ruhl reimagines the classic myth of Orpheus and Eurydice through the eyes of its heroine as she journeys to the underworld and struggles to retain her memories of her lost love. With contemporary characters, ingenious twists of plot, and breathtaking visual effects, this award-winning play is
truly an original tale.

Last Spring, The ART presented the world premiere of Orpheus X by Rinde Eckert. Here was the blurb they presented:

composer and performer Rinde Eckert and director Robert Woodruff are joining forces to create another world premiere - A new riff on the ancient myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. The famous singer Orpheus has locked himself up in his recording studio, where he dreams of rescuing the poet Eurydice from the underworld. Eurydice, meanwhile, is welcomed to the afterlife by the Queen of the Dead, who offers her something she could never have in the world above.

The ART production was also heavy on visual imagery.

The Orpheus legend has inspired many artists of all disciplines. Perhaps it is a way of sidestepping the proclivity artists have about making art specifically about artists.

We haven't seen a production of Ruhl play in the Boston Area yet, despite her association with the Brown University program. (Trinity Rep will be doing The Clean House in April 2007.)
Vacation...Joyce, Melville, and Woody Allen

I was off on a four-day weekend to Nantucket. No internet. No Cell Phone. Just beach and ocean.

Great time with wife and family.

I brought along Ulysses and came about one hundred and fifty pages shy of finishing it. In between, I also read In The Heart of the Sea; The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. Which is a gripping account of the true incident that inspired Melville's Moby Dick.

I also watched Woody Allen's Match Point, which gave me too many creepy feelings about how Allen's mind must by working over the notorious events of his own life. People talk about how "this isn't a Woody Allen film". Au contraire... the fingerprints of Allen, (the man and the artist,) are present on this film to the point of distraction.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

New Season is Starting Up!

Before we know it, September will be here and thea season in full swing.

Here are some shows you may want to check out here in Boston:

The Pillowman by Martin McDonagough at New Repertory Theatre
Starts September 6th. (Lots of hype when it played New York.)

The Moon Away by Edward Crosby Wells. AYTB Theatre at Devenaugh.
Starts September 1st. (Small company, original play in world premiere.)

bobraushenbergamerica by Charles Mee at the ART. (This is an Anne Bogart/SITI production so you may want to check it out to see what all the viewpoint hype is about.) Starts September 9th.
Network of the Controlling Ideas

What makes the greatest works of theatre, literature or film work their incredible hold over us?

There are probably as many answers as there are people on the internet. In most every great work there is an overriding feel of inevitability, or a clash of opposites that is almost unbearable in its tension.

I was talking of Structure in the last few posts and listed some comments from Jose Rivera about structure and the process of connecting everthing in your play towards the meaning, or the ultimate question you wish your audience to grapple with.

Screenwriting guru Robert Mckee may not be the first person who springs to mind when talking of theatre arts, (and, yes, I am well aware that McKee is basically blending everything from Aristotle to Egri.) But if we want to talk at all about structure, he has much concise advice to offer.

Robert Mckee is an advocate of linear, three act "arc plot" storytelling. There is no doubt about this, but it is a mistake to think that he has disdain for absurdist or avante garde, (what he calls "anti-plot.") What he is most passionate about, however, is the idea of a "good story, well told."

It may be surprising to some, but McKee's is not really advocating for formula as much as structure. His advocacy is not for all movies to look the same, rather his advocacy is for the artist to interpret life experiences into meaning.

"In life, experiences becoming meaningful in reflection and time. In art, they are meaningful now, in the instant they happen."

Emotions can't be trusted in everyday life. They come and go. We can't live our life in our good or bad emotions. Would you want to live your life constantly in the state you were in the night your fiance broke up with you? Or, on the flip side, can you imagine trying to function like a rational being if you were forever locked in the screaming euphoria you were in when you won the big game in high school?

The best theatre does not have to have you weeping or screaming or laughing out loud, (though these are great bonuses,) the best theatre should have you feeling something though. When I watch the end of Krapp's Last Tape I do not weep, but I have an enormous feeling right through to my heart.

If you have done your job as a theatre artist, that feeling should be in synch with "the controlling idea." (Which, yes, I agree is horrible sounding term.)

The controlling idea would be defined as that which represents the "irreducible meaning" of your piece. (Sometimes this controlling idea can consume myriad works by one artist.) You can spend volumes writing about your controlling idea, but it should be able to be stated in a very brief way.

The controlling idea never seemed to me to be adequate enough to explain the greatest works of art. I did, however, stumble across a thesis from Drew Kopp at the University of Arizona, who has a paper which expands the controlling idea to include a Network of controlling ideas. This Network is brought about by finding not only the "purpose' of the controlling idea, but also its "context," which usually means something akin to its opposite:

Purpose: Work industrously and you will get great financial and social rewards.

Context: Goofing off and always partying leads to mediocrity.

These are expamples of one controlling idea. However, for the network to be established, you must add the opposing controlling idea, which inverts the original. So the Opposite of the above controlling idea would be:

Purpose: If you party, you will have incredible experiences and
great friends.

Context: If you always work, you will be a boring nerd.

Kopp uses a simple example from the film The Matrix to present a diagram of this network. The controlling idea of The Matrix is that Knowledge is Freedom, which plays against the context of Ignorance is Slavery. The Opposing controlling idea would be that Ignorance is Bliss which plays against the context of Knowledge leads to pain and suffering. His plotted diagram of these ideas results in an almost perfect network of tension:

You can see clearly in the diagaram that the purpose of each controlling idea is directly related to the context of the opposing controlling idea.

Moving into theatre, you could map Streetcar Named Desire the following way:

When diagrammed this way it becomes somewhat easier to break apart and examine the way some great works of drama, comedies or tragedies, are able to sustain their hold on us. I believe, some of the reasons we can go back to those works again and again, is partially because their network provides an endlessly intriguing cycle of experience.

As a theatre artist we must tease apart the noise of the everyday, the wild emotions and experiences, the mess of existence, and try to reassemble it into meaningful experiences.

I know, boring and theoretical. And almost useless to us in the process of writing, but invaluable when assessing our work, successful or not.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The Sid Finch of the Theatrical Blogosphere

Professor Frink: N'hey hey! Ahem, n'hey.... So the compression and expansion of the longitudinal waves cause the erratic oscillation -- you can see it there -- of the neighbouring particles.

(Sees little girl waving her hand.)

Yes, what is it? What? What is it?

Little Girl: Can I play with it?

Professor Frink: No, you can't play with it; you won't enjoy it on as many levels as I do.... Mm-hai bw-ha whoa-hoa. The colours, children! Mwa-ha-lee!

The Scott Walters experiment, complete with comments is available to be read on his site.

Scott, a professor at UNC at Asheville, wrote this post first.

And then, after monitoring the responses for about a day, revealed that the post was an experiment to basically see what the reactions would be.

The response to the initial post was, as Scott outlines, hostile. There is absolutely no doubt about this. I know because I followed it myself, reading at different times throughout the day.

Suddenly, Scott Walters is the pariah, Scott Walters doesn't know how to teach. Scott Walters has never actually done any theatre. Scott Walters is a frustrated artist who couldn't make it in New York. Scott is right, it was amazing how quickly things devolved.

Remember, the real tragedy in the whole Dixie Chicks fiasco, had nothing to do with the substance of Natalie Maines comments. Rather, the real problem with the enormous backlash by pundits against the Dixie Chicks was the proliferation of the message that a pop star has absolutely no right to comment on political matters.

The Scott Walters of the first post, ("the character,") because he is ignorant of anything after Bertolt Brecht, is a "douche." He is the "problem," he is to be ignored boycotted and...what the hell is he doing to our children in our theatre department anyway.

George Hunka's first response to Scotts post was dead-on, right on target. He listed ten shows he thought were innovative, and the innovative companies he thought were doing them. However, I was surprised, even as I was reading it, how quickly it got personal. I fully realize tht there was more than a subtext of personal remark aimed at George in Scott's original post, but if you read Scott's original post, he never attacks people's competence, talent, skills, their work ethic, or worse. (As Don Hall pointed out yesterday, the full majority of the post is actually taken up with an attack on how academic departments are teaching theatre.) He is commenting on innovation.

Avalanche is a cliched phrase, but I don't know how else to express how quickly the condescension, epitephs, and stereotypes began to fly. Like e-mail though, the blogosphere comments section has to be read with a thick skin and much leeway when interpreting it. Humor, backslapping and kidding can sometimes come across as really harsh. However, there is no doubt that a distinct insider vs. outsider dynamic began to arise.

Probably the comment I identified with most was Issaac's at Parabasis. His initial response was that he had many of the same feelings as "Scott Walters" when he hadn't been to see an Off-Off-broadway show in a while. Very true. I like innovative and risk-taking theatre myself, and I try to see as much of it as possible, but it is in short supply here in my regional outpost, (if you want to call Boston that.) There is definitely some stuff out there, but for risk-taking and innovation the ART is probably your most consistent outlet. That is a dicey proposition though, some of their productions could turn you off avante guard for years. (And before anybody attacks me, please understand that in recent years I have seen 19 productions at the ART, everybody from Sasz to Eckert to Rapp to Serban, so I am not just tossing off that line.) I like some of them, but more often I am enraged by others. (I do not use that term lightly.)

Herein lies the problem. The shows George lists are what should be imported by regional theatres, but for the most part, they are not. (However, the ART does make a concerted effort to bring us these types of imports, especially since their expansion into the Zero Arrow space.)We get mostly the Proof's and the Doubt's and the latest Lindsey Abaire or Neil Labute, sometimes two to three seasons after they have premiered in New York.

There may even be some who will comment on this blog, as they did on Scott's, "then why don't you do something!" I have. I have run a theatre company here in Boston that started as a collaborative, used multi-media and incorporates themes of technology and society. But the difference, I have come to realize, can be expressed best by coopting Jack Clancy's wall analogy.

Most generations divide into two camps. One camp recognizes the wall, measures it, and begins to climb it. Some may actually get over to the other side, who knows? Most of the first camp, however, settle on finding a position somewhere on the wall and begin to jealously guard it.

The other camp, standing at the wall, not climbing, divides as well. Half spend their lives standing at the foot of the wall, shaking their fists and shouting. The other half grows bored and walks away.

I have always thought that there is one camp that Mr. Clancy left out: There is always a camp that does not believe there is a wall.

Bill Marx, who I have definitely had my differences with over the years, always has said, "For those who believe we are in a Golden Age, there is nothing I could say to you, is there?"

Even before the birth of the Blogoshpere, (on local or national message boards,) these types of discussions would flare up. Somebody will send up an SOS flare, only to be attacked by people giving examples of great theatre that is going on. This is followed by the SOS shooter spending about two weeks apologizing to all the artists he has offended, then this is usually followed by a round of the offended then saying that they actually sort of agree with some of the things in the original SOS.

This is the cycle and it goes on in theatre communities, book communities, political communities and religious communities.

Some on the comments sections have mentioned that they equate the Scott Walters project/lie as the same type of rhetoric as Anne Coulter. I disagree. Anne Coulter has never couched her rantings as performance, (if only she would.)

Was it an interesting experiment? I guess I would say that even George, though he seems to have major reservations, is starting to assess the project differently. Which is probably the right tone.

After all, George Plimpton's famous Sidd Finch episode was a delightful April Fool's joke, but met with serious criticism because it was run in an iconic journalistic periodical.

Should we be afraid to agree or disagree with his posts? Should we be afraid that we will be the butt of the joke again?

As incoherent as all of the above is, it is my initial reaction.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Structure Vs. Experiment

Where is the place for bold experiment? Yesterday, I wrote about structure in response to Michael Feingold's review of All This Intimacy at Second Stage.

I remember this story from Wired magazine last month about David Galenson, an economist who has come up with a new theory for discussing genius. He started by looking in the Art world and has since expanded to literature, science and economy.

Galenson has tried to quantify artistic success by looking at the history of Art auctions, museum collections, poetry anthologies and reviews. Then he plots the results against more data. Here is an outline of what he has found about genius:

it comes in two very different forms, embodied by two very different types of people. “Conceptual innovators,” as Galenson calls them, make bold, dramatic leaps in their disciplines. They do their breakthrough work when they are young. Think Edvard Munch, Herman Melville, and Orson Welles. They make the rest of us feel like also-rans. Then there’s a second character type, someone who’s just as significant but trudging by comparison. Galenson calls this group “experimental innovators.” Geniuses like Auguste Rodin, Mark Twain, and Alfred Hitchcock
proceed by a lifetime of trial and error and thus do their important work much later in their careers.

The prime examples the article presents to delineate the two categories are Picasso and Cezanne. Picasso's most anthologized and collected pieces fall in the age range before he is 30. Cezanne's most admired works are some of the ones painted "the year he died at 67."

Picasso and Cézanne represent radically different approaches to creation. Picasso thought through his works carefully before he put brush to paper. Like most conceptualists, he figured out in advance what he was trying to create. The underlying idea was what mattered; the rest was mere execution. The hallmark of conceptualists is certainty. They know what they want. And they know when they’ve created it. Cézanne was different. He rarely preconceived a work. He figured out what he was painting by actually painting it. “Picasso signed virtually everything he ever did immediately,” Galenson says. “Cézanne signed less than 10 percent.”Experimentalists never know when their work is finished. As one critic wrote of Cézanne, the realization of his goal “was an asymptote toward which he was forever approaching without ever quite reaching.”

It is a fascinating article about creative process and it also brings up notable exceptions. Picasso, a conceptualist, peaked early, but then returned with Guernica later in life.

Michael Feingold in his review of All That Intimacy talks about the encouragement of artists as almost too mollycoddling. However as the article in Wired points out, we need to support, to some degree, talented artists who are experimenting, because some of them may not do their best work till later. However, Galenson is clear that his theory regards creative genius and does not support laziness:

Nobody would have heard of Jackson Pollock had he died at 31. But the same would be true had Pollock given up at 31. He didn’t. He kept at it. We need to look at that more halting, less certain fellow and perhaps not write him off too early, give him a chance to ride the upward curve of middle age.

Of course, not every unaccomplished 65-year-old is some undiscovered experimental innovator. This is a universal theory of creativity, not a Viagra for sagging baby boomer self-esteem. It’s no justification for laziness or procrastination or indifference. But it might bolster the resolve of the relentlessly curious, the constantly tinkering, the dedicated tortoises undaunted by the blur of the hares.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The Whole Story...

The first time I read the dictionary, I thought it was a long poem about everything.
- Stephen Wright

George Hunka links to a great post on the Encore Theatre Blog about the gushing reception Tom Stoppard's Rock n' Roll is receiving from critics worldwide.

Encore begs to differ from the critics, and the post lists all the things that are wrong with the play, but I wanted to focus on the first one:

"The play is NOT about lots of things. lots of things are mentioned (cancer, Czechoslovakia, the mind versus the soul, rock 'n' roll as a more powerful instrument of revolution than communism, etc.) but mentioning something does not mean that is what a play is about. Also, nothing said by anyone is any richer or more spiritually nourishing than reading the back of a self-help book or an encyclopedia of cod philosophy. (That's right. Philosophy written by fish.) The conversations and observations are banal beyond reason. "

There is a worse experience than seeing a Tom Stoppard play like this. Seeing a lesser talent try to imitate Tom Stoppard. Yesterday, in my review of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, I noted that "ideas," seem to be the commodity on which the playwright is judged these days. It only seems appropriate for our information age that people feel that filling plays with various ideas increases the "value." By the way, Alan Bennett is no exception with The History Boys. And I have been guilty of it myself.

Nor, actually, are even the greatest artists immune. Shakespeare's fling with the purely literary, Love's Labour's Lost, provides endless enjoyment as a linguistic carnival, but, being purely literary it cannot be counted as a major work. Mark Van Doren said of the play:

It has no story to tell, or if it has one, it tells it artificially. It
counts on contemporary occupations with style, - occupations now generally forgotten- to keep it interesting.

But Shakespeare learned, as Van Doren points out when he speaks of Biron's eventual reincarnations as Hamlet and Hotspur:

When he (Biron) returns he will have been trimmed, like Shakespeare himself of certain literary excesses, certain spruce affectations and figures pedantical.

Shakespeare, in this instance, gave up his juggling of nature, (which Emerson found so valuable,) for his love of language and ideas. The structure was secondary and the play suffered for it.

Michael Feingold has an absolutely stinging corrective lesson in the Village Voice regarding a new play at Second Stage. The whole thing is worth a wincing read, and I can only offer some sort of weird gratitude to the playwright and the theatre company for their sacrifice.

If development programs in the non-profit theatre world are the sugar, then this is the medicine. We need both.

Joseph's play is a specimen of the contemporary genre of seriocomedy in which, whenever anything tolerably serious starts to happen, the playwright dodges it by either ending the scene, freezing the scene while somebody steps outside of it and talks to the audience, or making the whole thing suddenly lurch into sitcom mode.

...But then tenability—the notion that the parts of a play
all belong together and support each other in making a complete statement—seems very far from the minds of the playwrights favored by our nonprofit theaters these days...

...a play must be all of a piece, whatever shocks of cognitive dissonance its components offer, and that its characters, however streamlined or two-dimensionalized, must convey that their life extends beyond the bounds of what we see. Without these elements, there's hardly any point in writing a play at all. But our theater seems largely indifferent to them. If it doesn't collapse of its own inanition first, expect a return to the basic
elements of playwriting soon.

Jose Rivera wrote an excellent essay called 36 Assumptions about Writing Plays that my wife and I refer to often when writing. Here are a few of the 36 that pertain to some of what Fiengold and Encore are saying:

6. Each line of dialogue is like a piece of DNA; potentially containing the entire play and its thesis; potentially telling us the beginning, middle, and end of the play.

15. Write from your organs. Write from your eyes, your
heart, your liver, your ass -- write from your brain last of all.

20. Form follows function. Strive to reflect the content of the play in the form of the play.

21. Theatre is the explanation of life to the living. Try to
tease apart the conflicting noises of living, and make some kind of pattern and order. It's not so much an explanation of life as much as it is a recipe for understanding, a blueprint for navigation, a confidante with some answers, enough to guide you and encourage you, but not to dictate to you.

26. A play must be organized. This is another word for structure. You organize a meal, your closet, your time -- why not your play?

27. Strive to be mysterious, not confusing.

28. Think of information in a play like an IV drip -- dispense just enough to keep the body alive, but not too much too soon.


I know, I know, we hate this. We hate this as artists. We hate anything that tries to simplify our process. Some of us even hate the word "process." But still, we know that many of the great artists sketched outlines on the blank canvas of their masterpieces. James Joyce wrote the monumental stream of conciousness that is Ulysses, but he started with a structure on which to hang it.

I think I have quoted this Eric Bentley comment about Brecht before:

"So Brecht got himself a theory to establish the importance of his plays. And I think that's what it was. In other words, it was part of public relations on a high intellectual level, but still just that. And not really significant. Brecht, in his theoretical vein, would like to have it that you can only understand his plays by taking a completely new view of the drama, which he will expound to you. I'm always suspicious of any artist who won't let you judge by your own standards. Because it's clear the new standards Brecht wishes you to have were created in order to show his work in the best light. If you're going to defend abstract art by a principal that says art should be abstract, that's easy and it's good the minute it's abstract. And that's how I think Brecht's theories are. So I'm very opposed to people in the graduate schools who take them up as if they're Aristotle and Plato, as if they're important philosophy in the history of Western culture. I don't see that at all, and I don't think his
plays need that. I think, you know, the Mother Courage structure is certainly unorthodox according to Ibsen or Arthur Miller, but it's not that far from Elizabethan. You know, Brecht would say you don't need climaxes, that they're a bourgeois illusion. But the terrific climax in Mother Courage-- in the scene of the drumbeat-- It's the orthodox place for dramatic climax, namely about 2/3 of the way through the plot. It reaches a high point, or low point according to your point of view, of tragedy. And such is the case with the other things that he's supposed not to have, like emotion. There's a lot of it. So I think a perfectly orthodox approach, critically speaking, is valid."