Wednesday, January 31, 2007

A Revival for Yum-Yum?

Two articles in the last couple of weeks have referenced the Broadway Play, Under the Yum Yum Tree.

The Village Voice's Michael Feingold, in a nasty takedown of Theresa Rebeck's latest, mentions how her dramas belong in the pantheon of light and breezy fare that used to blow in and out of broadway barns regularly:

Such comedies were a staple of commercial-theater life in that ancient time, usually bearing twinkly titles that flashed the audience a hint of spicy doings to come: The Tunnel of Love, The Marriage-Go-Round, Champagne Complex, Under the Yum-Yum Tree—they werelegion. Audiences giggled in delight at their lukewarm double entendres and comically interrupted tête-à-têtes; critics usually groaned through them. (One critic wrote about Under the Yum-Yum Tree, "I longed for somebody to get to bed with somebody so I could go home.")

Then Geoff Edgers' article about the recent exodus of Robert Woodruff from the ART has this quote from a board member:

"I'm not interested in writing checks for a theater that nobody comes to," says Weisman. "I'm not asking them to do 'Under the Yum Yum Tree.' If I go to six or seven shows a season, it's OK to do 'Orpheus X' -- which I happened to love -- but you can't make a season of a 'Romeo and Juliet' that's inaccessible and shows like 'Dido, Queen of Carthage' [productions from 2005 and 2006] unless you have some kind of sugar daddy."

Under the Yum Yum Tree opened in 1960 and starred Dean Jones. Its original production only ran about 173 performances, but it was enough to spawn a movie version. The playwright, Lawrence Roman, also penned P.S. I Love You.

If I were the next Artistic Director of the ART, I would immediatley slate a weird updating of this play.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Sugar Daddy Wanted

Geoff Edgers has a soup-to-nuts explanation of the behind-the-scenes financial picture that may have led to Robert Woodruff's departure at the American Repertory Theatre.

I believe this is more of a harbinger of a different era starting for non-profit theatre. Subscribers are dropping off and single ticket buyers are increasing. There seems to be frustration with board members, some of whom Edgers interviews. Basically, like many people I speak with, (and like me a few years ago,) some subscribers and fans just grow tired of being slammed with gorgeous opacity again and again. Here is board member Sam Weisman:

"I'm not interested in writing checks for a theater that nobody comes to," says Weisman. "I'm not asking them to do 'Under the Yum Yum Tree.' If I go to six or seven shows a season, it's OK to do 'Orpheus X' -- which I happened to love -- but you can't make a season of a 'Romeo and Juliet' that's inaccessible and shows like 'Dido, Queen of Carthage' [productions from 2005 and 2006] unless you have some kind of sugar daddy."

This is true. But in defense of the ART, having a sugar daddy to foster creative license and experimentation is an inherently good thing. What Weisman is outlining above is the achetypal blueprint for the subscriber based regional theatre: 1 Shakespeare, 2 Warhorses , 1 Chestnut (preferably with a television or film star,) 1 World Premiere by a "hot" newcomer, 1 "experimental play." This contributes to the zombification of the theatre-going audience.

Weisman seems to be wanting to support only art that a lot of people come to. This is troublesome, because even relatively conservative theatres will continue to see subscriber bases decline in the future.

Rinde Eckhart best sums it up this way:

"The energy in that building was incredible, and he was doing things that nobody else was doing," says Rinde Eckert , who wrote and performed in "Highway Ulysses" and the ART's 2006 "Orpheus X." "I thought it was perfect. Harvard has a long tradition of iconoclasm and being at the forefront and taking risks. And the ART, that was the one place you could say, 'At least this theater's not caving. At least this theater's not running scared.' "

Highway Ulysses was one of the high points of the last few years, as was Orpheus X, and where else would these productions have gone up, where else would have given these pieces the support they needed?

I will take issue with Mr. Eckert though. The ART was always on the knife's edge , but their seasons were not full, wall-to-wall, with iconoclastic, opaque experimentation. The productions were, to be sure, inventive and innovative and that primed the pump for the audience to occasionally take a plunge into a few shows a year that were really out there.

It seems as if this calculus has been reversed one hundred eighty degrees. When this started happening is around the time I stopped being a regular attender.

The type of season that is currently regular fare at the ART has the drawback of veering off the already rugged path of adventurous theatregoing onto impassible service roads for which one needs an industrial strength, industry certified vehicle, a GPS, and a skilled guide. Unfortunately for the ART, it seems as if some people, who were having a great time off-roading, are finding themselves stranded on the service roads while the sound of the artistic staff's vehicle that was leading the way grows fainter and fainter.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Ancient Art Forms

According to the Boston Globe this morning, City Councilman James Tobin is proposing Boston appoint a Poet Laureate for the City.

I was listening to WRKO this morning and Scott Alan Miller was talking to Tobin. WRKO is definitely a conservative audience, or at least the majority of callers are conservative. Hence, Miller and Tobin were constantly reminding the audience that this effort would "cost the city no money."

However, in the Globe article, Tobin says he is unsure of whether or not there will be a stipend. Maybe Tobin is thinking the stipend would come from a private foundation. Although Miller, on his blog and on the show, is very supportive of the idea, he keeps qualifying it by saying that it is a good idea as long as it doesn't cost the city anything.

This is the tension, I guess, with arts and public support. The conservative side of my brain agrees with Miller, but the conservative side also says, "So this artist is supposed have all these responsibilities with no remuneration?" From the decription::

Saying it is time to update the extensive but somewhat musty canon of poetry about Boston, a city councilor is proposing that a poet laureate be appointed to record in verse the ins and outs of local life.

In addition to composing works about Boston, according to a proposal by Councilor John Tobin, the city's poet laureate would be charged with educating the public about the ancient art form. He or she would also compose poems for functions such as the State of the City address, swearing in municipal officials, and high school graduations.

Even Celebrities doing charity events for their own charities sometimes charge a fee for their appearances at the events.

The entrepeneurial argument would track along the line that there would be increased exposure, branding and advertising for the poet.

It is a good article that brings up a number of sides to the argument. Apparently there is also a bill in the works to establish a State Poet Laureate.

The Article lists a bunch of poems by Bostonians and about Boston. Here are links to the ones I could find:

Oliver Wedell Holmes - Old Ironsides
Walt Whitman - A Boston Ballad
T.S. Eliot - The Boston Evening Transcript
Robert Lowell - For The Union Dead

Monday, January 22, 2007

Works are Dead Rock

"Works" are dead rock, sprung from resounding chisel,
When the master is at work, chipping away at his living self.
Works announce the mind as pupas announce the butterfly:
"Look, it left me behind – lifeless – and fluttered away."
Works are like reeds, Midas' whispering reeds,
Spreading secrets long after having ceased to be true.

-Hugo Von Hofmannsthal

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Think Positive

Citizen's Bank has been a great supporter of Trinity Repertory Company in Rhode Island for years, including the donation of a building at one time.

From the press office of Trinity Rep comes news of a new program underwritten by Citizen's.

Trinity Rep is proud to introduce the Citizens Bank Open Access Theater program, generously underwritten by the Citizens Bank Foundation. Trinity Rep's Citizens Bank Open Access Theater will offer non-profit social services and community organizations in Rhode Island free tickets to attend dress rehearsal performances during the 2006-2007 Season. The goal of the program is to facilitate access to live theater for those who might not have the financial means to come to Trinity Rep.

You can read the rest of the release here.

Artistic Director Curt Columbus:

"Through their generosity, thousands of Rhode Islanders who might not have the means to attend our shows will have the opportunity to share in the excitement that only live theater can bring."
The Cherry Orchard

The Imagination may be defined to be, the use which the Reason makes of the material world. Shakspeare possesses the power of subordinating nature for the purposes of expression, beyond all poets. His imperial muse tosses the creation like a bauble from hand to hand, and uses it to embody any caprice of thought that is upper-most in his mind. The remotest spaces of nature are visited, and the farthest sundered things are brought together, by a subtle spiritual connection.

-Ralph Waldo Emerson - Nature

Ralph Waldo Emerson famously characterized Shakespeare's and his wondrous ability to engage with nature as a skilled juggler who uses images of nature as his juggling apparatus.

Chekhov's intricate knowledge of melodrama allowed him to juggle and turn over its cliches and its powers as if he were a magician. In his Cherry Orchard, Carlotta, a governess, does a few slieght of hand and conjuring tricks, but her technique is unpolished and amateurish. Chekhov, on the other hand, is so sly in his subversion that we tend not to notice we have been fooled.

His influence on us today is likewise scarcely detected, but it runs incredibly deep. Mountings of his plays are events in the theatre community, and star turns in high profile productions are awaited with held breath. Why is this?

Harold Bloom places Chekhov's genius close to Shakespeare's ability to "Invent the Human." Indeed, some Chekhovian characters are probably as close to flesh and blood inhabitants of this earth as we can get in drama. Their complexities seem almost delightfully simple, and rather than express confusion at their sometimes incongruous choices, we wonder at their folly or their triumph.

His plays are populated with Hamlets, and like the deep-feeling prince who finds himself in potboiler, Chekhov's feeling people find themselves locked in a melodrama in which they are dependent upon the author to set them free. Chekhov does much to oblige, and his genius has kept characters like Lopahkin, Nina, and even Ivanov breathing for over 100 years.

In the last quarter century productions have turned more conceptual, and there have been productions that have garnered much critical praise. More recentley, the focus has been more on Chekhov's insistence that plays like the Cherry Orchard were farcical. This seems to have led to broader comic and physical productions which I personally cannot stomach very much of. However, the seeds planted by the vangaurd of these experimental productions may bear much fruit in what will hopefully be a next generation of Chekhov performance.

Nicholas Martin's production of The Cherry Orchard at the Huntington is a hopeful harbinger. I will admit that I was starting to cringe when the ever-clumsy Yephikhodov executes many stunts in just the first few minutes, but eventually the play settles into a balancing act, (though a little to unsteadily,) between the farcical and the dramatic. The broad nature of the portrayals does seem to overwhelm the humanity of the relationships, and the yin and yang of the comic and the serious flit back and forth with such intensity that it loses focus.

However, Martin treads close enough to the line that the infamous proposal scene between Lopahkin and Varya maintains Chekhov's suspense, comedy and heartbreak in the air like the skilled juggler he was. I only wish that such tensions were maintained more often in this production. I may return to the production later in the run, because my suspicion is that the cast needs more time to relax into things.

The critical reception has been generally positive. The Times was all about Burton, Louise Kennedy of the Globe enjoyed it, Thomas Garvey of Hubreview was satisfied with many aspects, Carl Rossi has an interesting take, and Will Stackman perhaps sums it up best at the conclusion of his review by saying that the definitive production remains elusive.

Maybe not for long.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Theatre Company Blogs

I have been following the Huntington Theatre Company's blog on and off for a little bit. I have found that it is pretty good for following the details of and linking to the media for a certain production. It runs sort of like an expansion of the "News" tab on websites. It is run by Todd Williams who claims that he is not told what to write, and he has a good feel for what an informational blog should be. And he posts frequently.

I know from my business life that the corporate zeitgeist woefully misunderstands blogs and many will start a blog that quickly reads like it was assigned to somebody at the end of a marketing meeting.

Individual theatre artists have been blogging for a while, and institutions have joined the fray in recent years. Some of these take the form of guest actors blogging about their experiences in town, some of them take the form of many company members contributing to the process, and some can just be clueless as to what a blog is.

Here are some links to local theatre company blogs:

Huntington Theatre Company

Actors Shakespeare Project

American Repertory Theatre

North Shore Music Theatre

Trinity Repertory Company

If people know of anymore please let me know.
It Was Just a Matter of Time...

Seattle's Stranger reports on the O'Reilly Tapes as theatre:

Olbermann should come to Seattle this weekend, because a new oratorio, or vocal-and-orchestral work, called Mackris v. O'Reilly, will premiere at Meany Hall. (Olbermann knows this is happening; he has interviewed the Seattle composer, Igor Keller, for his TV show.) It is true that nothing could be as good—and as permanently-leg-crossingly bad—as hearing phrases such as "spectacular boobs" pass over the conservative lips of O'Reilly himself. But it should provide some consolatory amusement to hear them sung in a neo-baroque form written in the general style of Bach's St. Matthew Passion.

"The most difficult words to set to music are 'sexually' and 'approximately,'" Keller says. "Singers want to overpronounce everything. I'm trying to get the singers to err on the side of American pronunciation, so it's not, 'vi-bra-torr,' it's 'vi-bra-ter.'" This is crucial. "O'Reilly has a whole song about vibrators. That's his love song."

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

In The Crosshairs

Well, the Herald greets us with a fantastic headline this morning. Their target is the Mass Cultural Council which has been starved to death over the last decade or so and is just now starting to get back some of its dough.

Yesterday the MCC released news that Governor Patrick has restored $700,000 in funding.

Not if the Herald and reporter David Wedge can do anything about it.

The cultural council, which received $13.4 million in taxpayer dollars this year in addition to a small amount from national endowments, had its budget cut by 65 percent in 2002 but arts funding has been on the rise in recent years. Romney tried to slash some arts spending as part of a $400 million budget cut package but most of those cuts have been reinstated by Patrick.

These conflicts are maddening. Some people see the value of the arts and civic engagement, (like the Education Commissioner of Rhode Island who is mandating arts education in the schools.) Some people don't. Then again, to be fair, some people do see the value, but aren't all that hot on some of their paycheck going to support it.

I have always looked at it this way: Believe me, if we don't decide to spend money to expose our children to traditional dance music and theatre, then there are plenty of people out there who will spend infinitely more to expose them their commercial entertainments which masquerade as art.

Sony, Hollywood, MTV, etc. They have no problem sinking billions into every medium possible so that they can shape cultural opinion and tastes.

Don Hall, the Angry Guy in Chicago talked about things the arts community needs to enact to at least put up some sort of struggle against the coming asphyxiation. Part of his solution has to do with education:

This is up to us, boys and girls. If we're cutting property taxes to help us with venues, we'll be cutting funding for education, so we need to fill the gap. Each artist, whether or not they receive benefit from the G, should create smart, creative programming and perform it at schools for free - these schools have little enough dough as it is and most kids haven't a clue about living art. If we throw up our hands and cry "It' not my problem!" then we're fucked and we deserve to be.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Living for Design

"In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity is the
important thing." -Oscar Wilde

One of my copies of Noel Coward's plays includes an introduction by Edward Albee, and the connection between the two dramatists came to my mind while watching the Publick Theatre's indoor production of Design for Living.

Last year, Design's director, Spiro Veludos, treated us to Albee's institution smashing "comedy" The Goat at his home theatre The Lyric. The centerpiece of The Goat was a literal livingroom-shattering rampage by a betrayed wife.

Interestingly enough, (though the text of Design for Living has plenty of hurt feelings which are conveyed intensely by both Diego Arciniegas and Gabriel Kuttner,) Noel Coward's centerpiece is the comical destruction of the senses of two men as we watch them swill an entire bottle of brandy.

The result is both hilarious and liberating. Their humourous musings are accurate drunk speak, but their intimacy and their capacity for forgiveness are an interesting flip side of this obliteration of the world's sensical norms. "Many words become funny and make no sense if you stare at them long enough," points out Otto.

Albee and Coward are dramatists using comedy to skewer social institutions and accepted practices. To me, they are effective because their work keeps the bar out in front of the debate, and they are consistent craftsmen, who know well the structural integrity of their work.

I believe that performing and directing these works takes a special talent, wrong moves cause the constructions to tumble down. If we start to take some of the characters and situations too seriously, the whole thing can look foolish, (and not in a good way,) or worse...we start to get different ideas from what the author intended.

What a fine line it is between keeping it light and keeping the stakes high . Mike Nichols famously instructed Elizabeth Ashley and Robert Redford that Barefoot in the Park is King Lear to characters of Paul and Corrie, the young newlyweds who are finding out their considerable differences.

Comedy is dangerous territory for the theatre artist. We can theorize all we want, but at the end of the day, we know what we have to do. You can't fall back into analysis or cerebral rationalization. To quote Oscar Wilde again: "All bad poetry is sincere."

Friday, January 05, 2007

History Boys

I haven't seen the film version of The History Boys, but apparently the ending is changed slightly for one of the characters.

The writer Andrew Sullivan has an interesting discussion of Bennett's film and play going on at his blog, the Daily Dish. He posted his reactions to the film and that has been followed by a couple of reader reactions here and here.

I agree with the readers's sentiments; I found Bennett's coda to his play, (which portrays the gay student as almost condemned to a life of reclusive isolation and possible mental illness,) extremely bleak, if not slightly confusing.

Sullivan's reaction to History Boys reminded of something I thought of the play:

So, my primary thought after reading The History Boys? Exactly
what is "the Test" to which we are or are not teaching? Is it life? Career? The character of Irwin, in his life seems genuinely asking those questions, all the way through. The ending codas of the students are what drive home these feelings.

Interestingly, Sullivan includes the following sentence when discussing how much of himself he saw in the play:

Except, of course, my life was beginning to be torn apart by the issue of my homosexuality, which is, in another exquisite touch, the central plot of the play. The mixture of being totally accepted and yet not accepted, the peculiar experience of homosexual displacement, is hard to convey to outsiders, but Bennett does it brilliantly and funnily. It's strange to see one's own life filtered through another lens, scrambled and reimagined by the genius of Bennett's empathy and wit, and thrown at the screen with such scary precision and insight.

Sullivan's identification of the central theme as the closeted life kind of reminded me of Daniel Mendelsohn's review of Brokeback Mountain in the New York Review of Books(Subscriber Only, sorry.) in which he basically said, "People, this is not simply a love story. It is about the cruelty, self destruction, and hurt relationships that are the fallout of life in the closet."

Mendelsohn's thesis included the charge that the film's marketing campaign, which sought to downplay the gay aspects of the film, actually hurt the film.

The review lead to testy letter exchange (not firewalled and definitely worth a read,) between Mendelsohn and one of the producers of the film. Here is Mendelsohn's response to the producer's charge that the film's story is universal:

Because I am a critic (not an activist) the emphasis on the film's
homosexual themes seemed necessary; as I wrote, it is impossible to appreciate the film's aesthetic attainments—a superior performance by an actor playing a closeted gay man, the elaborate and carefully considered details that underscore the theme of the closet—without acknowledging the specificity of its gay subject matter. That the film can appeal to a universal audience—rather a different point—is something that I not only don't deny, but stated quite flatly in my
piece. ("Any feeling person can be moved by it.") Simply because a narrative has universal appeal, however, doesn't mean that the story it tells is universal—a distinction that sorely needs to be made in the current cultural climate, one in which everyone wants to lay claim to everyone else's pain. To say that the story of Brokeback Mountain is universal because in some general way it concerns "love" is to say nothing at all; it's like saying Schindler's List is a universal story because we all know what it's like to lose a family member. (And
imagine the response if critics were to claim that the Holocaust were incidental to that movie, or slavery to Beloved.)
Make it a Small Theatre Weekend

Before the larger stages get really humming this new year, you can slip into two small theatres this weekend.

At the Devanaugh Theatre AYTB will present Still Life; A Documentary by Emily Mann. The play was an Obie Award Winner from the early 1980's about the Vietnam war and is written by the playwright who brought us Having Our Say and similar documentary-style plays about the Holocaust and the Greensboro murders.

While we wait for this current war to produce a dramatist like David Rabe, it seems we will have to be content with revivals of dramas of other wars, (The Persians, The Caine Mutiny Court Martial, Streamers,) documentary style collages, (Boots on the Ground, Stuff Happens,Talking to Terrorists, Nine Parts of Desire,) or protest, agit prop style theatre, (Embedded, Lysistrata.)

Meanwhile, at the Boston Center for the Arts, Alarm Clock Theatre Company presents a new play titled Bombs and Manifestoes by Somerville playwright Brian Polak. I saw a slimmed down version of the play at Whistler in the Dark's FeverFest over the summer.

In reading a recent article on the play I noticed the following:

The piece was first introduced in an abbreviated version as part of FeverFest 2006.
“In preparing ‘Bombs’ for FeverFest we had to make several cuts in the text because it was too long, which was good in a way because it forced us to find weaknesses in the script,” said Polak. “What we ended up with was a slicker, slimmed down version of the fuller piece. Now we can return to the full piece and determine which of the cuts should remain out and which can be worked back in.”

“Staging the play an audience five months in advance of the full production allowed us to fully conceptualize the piece,” said Jami Brandli, producer and Alarm Clock Theatre literary manager. “It’s one thing to read and workshop the
script, but it is eye-opening to be able to watch it performed in order for us to fully realize its potential.”

It is very encouraging to see this kind of development of a new work and I think, from my experience of watching the piece, that they seem to have made good decisions.

The production at the BCA will use film and it is always interesting to see how people use multimedia.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Let There Be Arts!

The Providence Journal reported in December that Rhode Island is mandating that the schools start giving full access to arts and music.

In a strongly-worded letter, Commissioner Peter McWalters wrote, “It is clear that many students in the Providence public schools have no access to music instruction as a separate subject of study. This is particularly unacceptable given the regulation’s emphasis on access to music instruction for students with disabilities, students who are English language learners and students who are otherwise disadvantaged.”

The commissioner made a similar charge about art instruction, saying the schools don’t provide a comprehensive program of art instruction, including separate facilities for the creation, storage and display of works of arts, supplies and materials. There is no evidence, he said, that Providence high school students have access to the kinds of courses that provide in-depth work in art history, criticism and career education as is required by the basic education plan, which outlines the state’s education requirements.

McWalters did acknowledge that the Providence schools have sustained several years of budget cutbacks that resulted in the loss of numerous art and music teachers. He said, however, that budget constraints were no excuse for not meeting the state’s basic education plan.

This is where it will start. Perhaps our new Governor in Mass can work to effect some type of change like this.
The Long Slow Roll of Economics

The Seattle Weekly starts off this year with a sobering and nostalgic article charting the course from the rainy city's theatrical beginnings, through its explosion in the 80's and 90's and finishing with the current struggles it faces.

The Empty Space Theatre and its recent closing haunts the article and its memory is evoked for both celebratory reminiscence and evidence of harsh economic realities.

Of course, a certain amount of opening and closing is expected in every industry. It's even healthy, up to a point—thank the god of Rational Cuisine that there are fewer fusion restaurants open today than 10 years ago, for example. And the dot-com crash and post-9/11 whammy was tough for all sorts of businesses that depend on people with extra cash and leisure time.

In the case of theaters, they sometimes close for the best of reasons,
like artists leaving to try their luck on the stages of New York or the
soundstages of L.A., or admitting to themselves that their work is uneven, or just because they aren't having fun any more. When these things happen, you might feel a tug of melancholy as you walk past a former theater that's now a hair salon or vacant lot awaiting condos, but that's all.

The death of the Empty Space stung. It was different.

The author of the piece, John Logenbaugh, really nails the importance of the midsized theatre:

For many directors looking to cast local productions, the Space was an invaluable link between the unsalaried work of the fringe theaters and the paying professional work of the mainstages. "The Space worked under the conditions of a professional theater. If a younger actor had worked there, you knew that they knew the drill," says Beattie. "Young talented actors had a way to achieve vocation, a mentoring through their work. When the midsized theaters go, casting for us is so much more of a total leap of faith....."

Logenbaugh's coda is that Seattle should not feel secure about its prominence thriving place for theatre. Instead, he sees troubling portents in the loss of the middle ground between fringe and Lort-B.