Thursday, January 31, 2008
The following are from the New York Times Readers Reviews of August:Osage County:
"It's a 3 hour episode of Mama's Family, scripted for Times readers."
"Sprawling, graceless, highly derivative, and even a little bit entertaining -- August: Osage County is all that and not much more."
Wednesday, January 30, 2008
My larger point: The ratio of risk to finances in theatre is amazingly
skewed towards the smaller, poorer, houses doing the R&D and the larger places then scooping the pool for commercial product. It wouldn’t fly in science or technology, where R&D is seen as essential to the future and ongoing life of the enterprise. Maybe that’s why we have such excellent bombs and such dismal theatre in this country. (Hang on, maybe there’s a connection between dinosaur theatre and lack of investment in experiment? )
Monday, January 28, 2008
Sunday, January 27, 2008
And even though scenes from my own life could fit nicely into a
Wasserstein script - I was reading these plays while trying to amuse my 10-year-old, home sick from school, and talking with my editor on the phone about Wasserstein's thoughts on balancing work and family life - I think it's terribly limited, and limiting, to pretend that her plays have a lot to say about Woman Today.
They do have a lot to say about one kind of woman
today: an educated, financially comfortable, liberal, now middle-aged woman who's trying to figure out how to get as much as she possibly can out of life. But even within that narrow sphere, the Wasserstein woman continues to think,
and talk, and obsess in ways that many of us no longer have the time or patience for. Has anyone you know uttered the phrase "having it all" with a straight face since, oh, 1975? As for the generation of women, now in their 20s and 30s, who are younger than both Wasserstein and me, it's hard to imagine that these plays address their concerns and questions in ways that really speak to them.
Thursday, January 24, 2008
Don't Confuse Some of Your Assignments With Actual Plays. People don't pay money or take time out of their evenings to watch pianists and violinists play scales. People don't pack stadiums and pay money to watch NFL players hit the sled or run patterns for three hours. They may take a tour to see spring training, or they may watch a master class where a young musician plays under the tutelage of mentor. But people expect a difference between the classroom and the concert hall, and between two-a-days and gamedays.
Tuesday, January 22, 2008
This from Todd Williams at the Huntington's Blog:
HUNTINGTON ANNOUNCES 2008 PLAYWRITING FELLOWS
Program helps four local artists develop new work for the
BOSTON – The Huntington Theatre Company announced today its choices for the 2008 Huntington Playwriting Fellows program, which provides a structured environment for theatre artists to explore and talk about their work while
providing significant access to the company’s artistic staff and resources. The current class includes Boston-area playwrights Kirsten Greenidge, Jacqui Parker, Ken Urban, and Joyce Van Dyke. This is the third class since the program began in 2004. The Fellows meet together with Brownstein twice monthly for one year to
discuss creative ideas, receive critical input on their works, and learn the process of getting plays read at theatres across the country. In year two, they receive individual support focused on specific theatrical pieces they are developing.
To date, the Huntington has produced five plays by its Fellows.
Emphasis is mine.
Core to the issue of sustainability is the creation of vibrant art. Without this understanding as a starting point, and as the goal for all artists, organisations and funding agencies, there is no future. Organisations can plan effectively only when they know what they are trying to achieve. Too often they fall into the trap of creating a vision in response to funding policies, and change course to attract program funding that is not core to what they do. The funding system therefore needs to be unambiguous in its expectations and fund only those willing to try to meet them.
Funding agencies also need to consider their support for the range of
legal and operating structures that artists may consider best for creating their work. The not-for-profit structure may not be always appropriate.
There are signs that some agencies are prepared to make difficult
decisions, to begin to fund fewer organisations at more appropriate levels, and to resist tying this funding to the same group forever. This is a positive step but one that needs to be considered across the ecology of provision for large as well as smaller enterprises.
The bold is mine. It is something that comes up now and then in discussions between theater people. (Specifically theater people who have started their own companies.)
The feeling that you must be a 501c3 so that donations to your theatre company will be tax deductible is a constant companion. But for a fringe company, with few resources, putting together the type of board that will be impressive for future funding efforts and putting together the legal paperwork can seem daunting. ("We barely have time to coordinate volunteer ushers!")
Others seem to navigate these waters just fine, thank you. It is, in a way, its own Darwinian marketplace. The "vibrant art" can still happen, but it becomes secondary to the goal of perpetuating the institution, the survival.
As I pointed out in a post about the TCG survey last year: Percentage allocation for administrative salaries increases while percentage allocation for artistic expenses decreases each year.
Scott Walters points out everything that is good and everything that is absurd about the Denver Center Theatre Company's explanation of how risky it is to present new works. He is right on every count.
I'm sorry, but this whole thing is a myth, an excuse for not having the artistic imagination to actually commit to reading new plays and evaluating them for their stage-worthiness. Instead, we rely on Oscar Brockett to make our first for us. If Brockett says it's good, it must be good.
I am interested in that quote. I would like to explore it a little bit if I have the time.
(By the way, with regards to DCT's staging of an adaptation of Kent Haruf's Plainsong, I'll point out that Book It Repertory in Seattle did a stage version Plainsong back in 2006.)
In exploring further, he finds more and more complications with the Amazon reviewing system:
To the extent that competitive energies drive Top Reviewers and their nemeses to generate content, and to spend time on and publicize Amazon.com, the chief beneficiary of misuse of Amazon's rankings system is Amazon itself.
This is not to say that a Top 10 ranking doesn't come with some sub
rosa incentives for the reviewer. Free books, first and foremost; in an e-mail, Grady Harp told me he was "inundated with books from new writers and from publishers who know I love to read first works." This fall, when it invited select Top Reviewers to join its Vine program—an initiative, still in beta-testing, to generate content about new and prerelease products—Amazon extended the range of perks. "Vine Voices" like Mitchell and Harp can elect to receive items ranging from electronics to appliances to laundry soap. As long as
they keep reviewing the products, Amazon's suppliers will keep sending them.
Monday, January 21, 2008
The financial risk is knee-wobbling. Thompson estimates it's one-third more expensive to produce a new play than an existing one. So last year, the Denver Center board expanded Thompson's budget by $1 million, to $11.9 million — and that's when he was staging only one new play, Jason Grote's thrilling "1001." This year, the figure will be $12.6 million.
"When you are working with unknown titles, your risk goes way up," said Denver Center chief financial officer Vicky Miles. "A few years ago, we wouldn't have been in a financial position to take that risk."
But a few years ago, Thompson wasn't artistic director, Daniel L. Ritchie wasn't chairman, and board member Jim Steinberg (of the Steinberg Trust) was not yet regarded as perhaps the single largest supporter of new-play development in America. He's personally committed $300,000 to the company over the past three years. And the Denver Center had not yet launched the Women's Voices Fund, which asked women to commit $5,000 each for new-play development. That initiative already has raised more than $650,000.
"We've been really lucky," said Thompson. "The support has been extraordinary."
The additional expenses only begin with paying writers to write. The playwright also must be present at design meetings, casting, rehearsals and performances. Marketing costs go up.
But no corners are being cut here. The DCTC has even taken on the extraordinary expense of bringing in (and putting up) two entire casts ("Lydia" and "Our House") that are new to the company.
But isn’t there something fishy about the Boston Foundation’s concern for the life or death of the city’s small artistic groups? Such troupes always flicker in and out of existence. It is not as if they ever received much grant money; frustrated tales of the impossibility of picking the correct socially responsible words for the BF applications are legion in the theater community. The bigger theaters have the staffs, focus group results, and political connections necessary to rake in whatever cash BF makes available to theaters. Small stages have always existed on the margins — presenting superb and sub-par work — without much support from the region’s fat cats or mainstream media.
As the Boston Foundation report admits, theaters large and small are finding it difficult to hang onto their audience and supporters in today’s competitive entertainment world. To be consistent, the BF should demand that theaters of all sizes innovate (translation — improve their marketing techniques), merge (the corporate word de jure), or sharpen the ceremonial sword. In truth, the Boston Foundation is not wringing its hands about the future of small theaters — it fears what the economic slow down and/or recession
will mean to the larger theaters that haven’t generated loyalty and/or excitement among the growing number of people who would rather sit home in front of their comfy home entertainment system than pay for increasingly expensive theater seats.
The irony is that BF and the governmental powers-that-be are handing out their biggest bucks to artistic institutions that specialize in cranking out bad or uninspired stage productions. For those who are discouraged by all the safe and conservative fare on our stages, you haven’t seen anything yet.
Friday, January 18, 2008
Q. How is it you can throw one star and a bedpan at a movie like "The Bucket List," and yet after reading your darn review, I wanna see it? Carl Finch, Medford, Ore.
Ebert: I have succeeded. Any review, whether positive or negative, should give the reader a fair idea of what it would be like to see it themselves. I refer you to an actual conversation I once had on the phone:
Caller: "We live near the Wilmette Theatre, which is showing 'Cries and Whispers.' What can you tell us about it?"
Self: "I think it is the best film of the year."
Caller: "Oh, that doesn't sound like anything we'd want to see!"
The Massachusetts Cultural Council voted this week to release a $60,400 grant to the Citi Performing Arts Center that had been tabled last year after questions were raised about the Citi Center's cutbacks to its free Shakespeare on the Common program and its decision to pay a $1.2 million bonus to its president and chief operating officer, Josiah Spaulding Jr., despite the organization's financial struggles.
Anita Walker, the MCC's executive director, said that the grant was freed up after the Citi Center presented additional information to the agency, including the results of a recent audit of its financial books and an outline of programs it hoped to present this year.
In December, the attorney general's office completed an inquiry of the Citi Center, stating that while there were a few "weaknesses and lapses" in the organization's procedures, the Citi Center's establishment of Spaulding's compensation was "generally consistent with what we would expect of our public charities."
Walker said that the report carried weight with the MCC.
"It was important," she said. "We decided to wait until there was a report out of the attorney general's office before we moved forward on this."
Part of the problem is that most theatres don't sell their subscriptions to customers under the idea of "buy this subscription because by doing so you allow us the freedom to take artistic risk". They sell subscriptions based on exclusive access to shows, ticket exchanges, free parking and that sort of thing.
If subscriptions were sold based on the idea that subscription =
artistic freedom for the theatre . . . then at least you would know that every subscriber left (even if that number was smaller then before) would understand their role in helping the company to do creative and innovative work.
Wednesday, January 16, 2008
But the creative imagination doesn't work by xerography. You can subsidize it and nurture it, but you can't buy it. Americans love buying things for their kids, and a lot of them will love taking their kids to The Little Mermaid, fooled by its look of gaudy expenditure, just as a lot of them love taking their kids to Vegas. Apparently, one of the American dreams of our time is to have your kids grow up to be compulsive gamblers or pricey hookers. It somehow doesn't feel accidental that the last Broadway musical this garish was that other disaster, The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public. Americans think they can buy anything, even a happy ending for a story that, in every version until Disney's, invariably ended tragically. E.T.A. Hoffmann, Vincent Wallace, Lortzing, Catalani, Dargomyzhky, and Dvorak couldn't make the marriage of man and mermaid work out. Neither could La Motte Fouqué, H.C. Andersen, Giraudoux, or Lampedusa. Only Disney insists. That piece of obstinate corporate wrongheadedness, present from the start, explains the outlook that gave rise to such miserable results: Nothing will ever really harm you, and everything's marketable.
Political events over the last five years have altered the audience's
appreciation of concepts of personal responsibility in times of war, of patriotism of distortion for political ends, and this receptvithas (sic) madey allowed a sympathetic connection to Heisenberg's motivation for all kinds of decisions he . Not only did the actor himself, John Kuntz, admirably convey vulnerability, deference, kindness and resolve, (more than brash arrogance borne out of ambition which tends to be one of the stereotypes out there) but Scott Zigler capitalized on the Zeitgeist most appropriately.
You can read the whole thing on the ART blog.
New Repertory opens Moliere's The Misanthrope this week, heads up on the Pay What You Can tonight!
You can then pair the adventures of Alceste with the manipulations of another Moliere creation: Tartuffe with a new adaptation by Dan Bourque at the Footlight Club in Jamaica Plain.
Tony Kushner's epic play, Angels in America, begins its descent upon the BCA this weekend with the Boston Theatre Works production. (Pay What You Can on this Friday Night.)
Blowing Whistles opens at the BCA this weekend. It is Zeitgeist's first show of the new year, and it is directed by Hubreview blogger Thomas Garvey.
Douglas Carter Beane's The Little Dog Laughed, which cemented Julie White's legendary status as off broadway comedienne supreme, starts at Speakeasy Friday Night.
Three different solo performance pieces are performed by three different women at The Factory Theater. Pieces stars Amy Goldfarb, Kate Nugent and Margie Zohn. (This weekend only.)
Under the Sailing Moon is preview performance of a two person show examining Odysseus and Penelope. This weekend only at the Charlestown Working Theatre.
Neil's Bohr and Werner Heisenberg argue uncertainty in purgatory over at the ART's production of Michael Frayn's Copenhagen.
Antoine Feval, the one man Sherlock Holmes spoof, continues out in Stoneham.
The cast is still Adrift in Macao at the Lyric Stage.
Actors Shakespeare runs Henry V at the Gargage. (Veterans Night is tomorrow!)
A conservative, undergraduate jock and a professor of Shakespeare continue to grapple in Third at the Huntington Theatre Company.
Jonathan Mirin's short and entertaining solo show, Riding the Wave.com plays its last weekend at the Boston Playwright's Theater. (My brief take is here.)
This Our Youth, Kenneth Lonergan's play about New York rich kids, closes up this weekend at the BCA. Thomas Garvey's review is here.
I'll be away this weekend, and behind in my theatergoing once I get back. But there's lots out there.
Tuesday, January 15, 2008
In addition, when theatre artists get in a lather about the narrow-minded people in those big states in the midwest and the west who don't think the federal government ought to support the arts, they should take a look at these maps and these figures and ask themselves: what's in it for them? For instance, why should Jesse Helms, whose state received no NEA funds despite being the 10th most populace state in the nation, feel committed to funding the NEA? None of
those artists do anything down south.
When 36% of the NEA funds go to the northeastern-most states in Zip Codes #1 and #2, and another 20%+ goes to the West Coast in Zip Code #9 -- well, what's a good southern politician to think? Might he think that there might be a little elitism going on? A little snobbery?But, you cry to this provincial hack, the grants are distributed by peer panels of artists who are focused on questions of merit. Right, says the politician, and where are those expert panelists from? Dollars to donuts there is an over-representation of zip codes 1, 2, and 9 -- with maybe a few Chicago and Minneapolis folk thrown in for "balance." Maybe.
As American literature entered the extravagant and vacuous 1980s,
exemplified in novels like Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities and Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho - which updates the Babbitt myth by turning him into a homicidal sociopath - the pinched lives of those doing means-to-end work best exemplified by Babbitt and Frank Wheeler became de rigueur: of course we all work deadening jobs, of course conformity carries the day. Now let's stop
complaining about it and make some money! The sweet, wholesome conclusions of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit appear quaint - conclusions to pin and label under a glass case. In the face of mergers and acquisitions, an orgy of scandals, powerful financial markets, the concentrated power of corporations and the rise of technology and the internet, the realist can't help but sink under the audacity of real life. The book-about-work becomes either a nostalgic paean
to the working class or, more often, a satirical send-up of greed or the evil corporation.
So what makes for a lasting work literature? If the rise-and-fall paradigm of the commercial novel tends to highlight the moneyed elite, if the novels of social commentary tend to age poorly even when displaying a high degree of prescience, if arch realism about dead-end jobs results in either hopelessness or pat reassurances, and if satire merely lampoons the capitalist enterprise and the characters caught up in it, what sticks?
Melville, Kafka and Saunders stand out because they don't yield to the familiar or the real. They create highly singular characters who play out idiosyncratic storylines that defy predictability and eschew the burden of Representative Man. Yet they don't fail to look means-to-end work squarely in the eye. There's just no preaching here, no dire warning, no condemnation or historical document. They don't give us merely something to nod along with; they give us something to marvel at. What they offer is invention, cruelty, humour, compassion, artfulness, rebuke, delight - the whole rounded ball of the world, set into orbit by the mechanics of the nine-to-five. Their labour is our reward.
Monday, January 14, 2008
In an entirely extemporaneous speech, I apologized for co-founding a mime troupe in the Boston area, when clearly, the art-form in question was ultimately unacceptable, as evidenced by the failures of Pocket Mime Theatre Company, Mirage Mime Theatre, and Cosmic Spelunker Theater to become major Boston institutions. I apologized for the fact that Cosmic Spelunker created Waltzing to War before criticism of the U.S. invasion of Iraq had become mainstream, I apologized for performing in just the sort of spaces that the Boston Foundation feels should "[exit] the market." I even apologized for confusing the audience by often performing mime while reciting poetry-- it's bad enough to work in a medium or genre that does not fit into the appropriate disciplinary pigeon-holes but to combine it with another genre in a manner that defies expectations?
Outstanding on the other end of the spectrum is the audience for Macbeth, of which 31% indicated that they were disapppointed with the perfomance. Despite this high level of disappointment, 60% of Macbeth respondents said that the program was worth their investment of their time and money. This compares to 80% on
average, for respondents at all other performances.
Among respondents who were disappointed with the performance (i.e. a response of 1 on a scale of 1 to 5), only 12% said that it was worth their investment of time and money. However among those whose level of disappointment with the performance was somewhat less acute(i.e. a response of 2 on a scale of 1 to 5 - still below the
mid-point of the scale), 59% said that it was still worth their investment. In other words one might argue that a healthy dose of dissatisfaction is tolerated before respondents feel that the experience was a bad investment.
This raises some important questions. Are respondents broad minded enough to understand, as one might hope, that arts experiences can be worthwhile even when you're disappointed with the performance? Or, are they biased in justifying their decision to attend, post facto? We hypothesize that an audience member's satisfaction level relates not only to his or her subjective beliefs about the quality of the performance, but also to a more subliminal need to validate the decision to attend and thereby justify the 'sunk costs' of attending (i.e. time and money already spent). Further research is necessary to determine if respondents believe the performance was a worthwhile investment because they were already confident that they'd enjoy it or if respondents were confident they'd enjoy the because they had already made the investment of time and money - in essence justifying their investment before experiencing the performance.
Perhaps they could partner with Hotel Pay Per View Porn networks for the "further research" into this question?
Hat tip to Andrew Taylor at the Artful Manager for the link to the study.
"The Bucket List" is a movie about two old codgers who are nothing like people, both suffering from cancer that is nothing like cancer, and setting off on adventures that are nothing like possible. I urgently advise hospitals: Do not make the DVD available to your patients; there may be an outbreak of bedpans thrown at TV screens.
The movie, directed by Rob Reiner was written by Justin Zackham, who must be very optimistic indeed if he doesn't know that there is nothing like a serious illness to bring you to the end of sitcom cliches. I've never had chemo, as Edward and Carter must endure, but I have had cancer, and believe me, during convalescence after surgery the
last item on your bucket list is climbing a Himalaya. Your list is more likely to be topped by keeping down a full meal, having a triumphant bowel movement, keeping your energy up in the afternoon, letting your loved ones know you love them, and convincing the doc your reports of pain are real and not merely
disguising your desire to become a drug addict.
Sunday, January 13, 2008
Dear Boston Foundation,
We are inspired by your recent report on Boston cultural groups, Vital Signs. Now we are calling on you to put your money where your mouth is.
You recommend that some small arts groups dissolve. Well, the fact is that funerals cost money. It can be expensive to turn off the lights. We would hate to think that you would issue a report saying some should die off without offering to help them put themselves out of their misery. Small arts groups that choose to go to the great beyond will be giving their lives so that
the arts scene of Boston will be stronger and our city will be seen as World-Class. Often when small arts groups die, there is little closure and bitterness prevails. Instead, they can be encouraged with financial support for final performances and/or paying the last phone bill. They can die with dignity. Perhaps, if the cause truly moves you, you could even fund an
artistic float on First Night memorializing the small arts groups that answered your call.
We, the undersigned, are putting an end to it all, considering it, or sympathizing with those who are doing so. Just think: If you gave a mere $10,000 in 20 $500 grants, 20 groups would be encouraged to die off, be it by grand farewell or neat demise. Other groups, idly thinking of the ultimate sacrifice, could be given the push they need. If that $10,000 does not work, then a new round of Encouragement Grants could be given until arts groups of all sizes have the right funding climate here in Boston.
Oh, and by the way, could you outline what your ideal innovative start-up is in case anyone wants to start a group that could justify your funding something small and new again?
For more information go to Citizens for Art that Responsibly Entertains
Press 1 to hear a quote.
Press 2 to buy.
Press 3 to sell.
This a recurring choice for Jonathan Mirin during Riding the Wave.com, his light-hearted, one-man show about his experience trying to stay afloat in the turbulent market of the late Nineties. The cheery, recorded voice on the other end of his brokerage line offers him options that could spell escape, success, or failure.
Nilaja Sun recently rolled into town with her solo piece, No Child, about teaching drama to kids in New York City. Well, Mr. Mirin's show has the the same genesis, (he also "taught word games to 12 year-old gangsters,") but his story's route finds him with Sudanese expatriates in Athens, sick on a train crossing India, and discussing share prices with a judge in court.
You see, Ms. Sun probably didn't meet Jerry, the history teacher down the hall, who gives Mr. Mirin the tip of a lifetime - "buy Wave Systems."
The walls of the theater are decorated with wildly varying quote prices, and in a very clever device, the bare stage becomes, literally, a quote sheet upon which Mr. Mirin can keep us tracking the roller coaster of his debt and fortunes lost, won, and lost again.
A likable actor, he dances around the stage nimbly in a very polished and sharp performance. The play really touches on deeper addictions and problems, but it is never overly sentimental and doesn't linger long enough on any episode to risk boredom. This is both a strength and weakness.
Like many solo performances the piece is still in search of an ending. Life doesn't tie itself up as satisfactorily as drama, and he could probably expand on some episodes a little bit. However, the simplicity of his tale lends itself to reflection on the larger story of our nation's experience during the go go 90's and the larger issues of the rise of the investor class.
It can be easy for us to laugh at Mr. Mirin's outright emotional reactions to his circumstances during a time when he went from an actor portraying an endangered species in an educational touring show to an almost millionaire.
But when he hears that siren call of the operator on the customer service line. we feel his dilemma, we wonder what we would have done in his situation. After all, Jerry, the history teacher, keeps calming him down, telling him the latest dip is just the market, "retracing."
The show is at the Boston Playwright's Theatre through Next Weekend.
For those loyal readers of the Mirror up to Nature who may not venture into other areas of the theatrical blogosphere, I would like to point you to an ongoing discussion about regional acting styles and the eternal argument of hiring local actors versus hiring out of town talent.
Isaac at Parabasis started the discussion with the following two posts:
The Necissity of Actors
Think Theatrically, Hire Locally?
Scott Walters followed up with his post:
Changing Direction of the Wind
Kris Vire a Chicago Blogger at Storefront Rebellion gave his thoughts:
Actors! We've got actors! No, really, we do.
Oh God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a
king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.
-Hamlet, Act II, scene 2
After seeing the American Repertory Theatre production of Copenhagen at the Loeb Drama Center I was struck by the references to Elsinore. Two of the characters bring up a visit they once made together to the famed setting of Shakespeare's famous play. One of the characters observes that Elsinore, the real place, was changed forever for Hamlet having been written about it. The playwright, Michael Frayn, aims for his play to have to the same effect on another setting.
Three large rings, each sending a pulsing blue light around its circumference, hover above the audience and the thrust stage. Set off on different angles, like the orbits of electrons around a nucleus, they mirror the three characters, Neils Bohr, Werner Heisenberg and Borh's wife Margerethe. In history, Bohr and Heisenberg, physicists of the early part of last century, not only witnessed, but actively revealed mysteries of the universe.
Neil's Bohr, referred to as the Pope of the physics world at the time, and his pupil, Werner Heisenberg, each planted stakes in the ground along the massive territorial rush into the landscape of physics. Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle and Bohr's Complimentarity are explained by Frayn in simple terms, using metaphors that the characters mouth in ways that seem unlikely, but not impossible. Making a fast decision while skiing downhill or watching somebody move in and out of city streetlights become examples that allow the physics to stretch into the larger moral universe to which Frayn is aiming.
The play takes place, not in the 1920's or the 1940's, but in a kind of limbo where, liberated from earthly constraints of time and physical deterioration of mental agility, these three beings are gathered to work on a discovery of a different kind.
On the dark stage, under a very dim light, the ghosts, dressed in grey, business-like attire, keep playing out the events of one night in 1941 when Heisenberg, then working for his home country of Germany, visited Neils Bohr, who was living in occupied Denmark. The meeting did happen, but the kernel, the "what if" that powers the genesis of Frayn's drama, is the elusivness of the recollection of that meeting. Bohr and Heisenberg, after World War II could not seem to come to agreement on the actual details or even the words spoken.
From the very first, there is a stricken and even ashen look to the characters. John Kuntz as Heisenberg, a wunderkind now on the other side of eternity, cuts a tentative figure of man now humbled after the defeat of his beloved Germany.
The first re-enactment of the visit to the Bohr's home in Copenhagen opens with Heisenberg awkwardly asking if Bohr has been sailing or skiing. Bohr's reply that the harbor is under control of the navy and that under occupation he, a half jew, could hardly travel to a ski resort underscores the obvious: Heisenberg's visit, under these circumstances, could harldy be social.
There is also the ever present idea of the Nazis listening in on the conversation. This feeling is intensified by the thrust configuration of the seating and would probably be more so in the round. The characters, weary from history, time, and the threats inherent in totalitarian surveillance, cannot openly discuss almost anything about the present situation during the thick of World War II.
So, they are left with physics and the past. Happier times are recounted, and the circumstances of their greatest contributions to physics are outlined. Margarethe (Karen Macdonald) is always there to act as the audience's guide and turns addressing all three sides of the audience.
As the science and recollections begin to energize the characters, the staging moves further from the static and seated center stage into the peripheries of the darkness. The characters are sometimes addressing each other across the expanse of the cold, grey floor of their purgatory, and brushing and colliding with each other. But every time the scenes or events begin to reach a climax, we are brought back to the central mystery, voiced in the opening question of Margarethe, "Why did he come to Copenhagen?"
Like the ghost, foretold by the opening question of Hamlet, Heisenberg's visit is the spectral voice of justice. Will Lebow's Bohr is man haunted by the idea that his life's work has resulted in oblivion, and his realization that things might have been different if he had handled the historic meeting differently. For Hamlet, the rest is silence, but for these men, there is no rest. When Bohr says that someday all of this will come to an end, there is a faltering hope in the tone. Though a crucial calculation for fission rests at the heart of Heisenberg's Nazi escorted visit to Copenhagen, for these characters, the solution to that equation is not sought for personal glory, military victory or the advancement of science. It for the ease of their restless souls.
When Bohr or Heisenberg are illuminating scientific principles they usually speak in terms of dualities. Schroedinger's cat is referenced multiple times for instance. And Frayn amplifies the principles with his dramatic dialouge. Margarethe speaks of Heisenberg as being two people at once. And Heisenberg talks of himself as the "invisible other," while asking others questions with negatives: "why didn't I give them the information?"
The somber, almost funereal feeling of this production succeeds in rendering the characters a bit more inscrutable, but the impact of the play's revelations gets away because Michael Frayn's philosophy is a little shakier than his skills as a playwright.
The scenes lack dramatic arcs in purposeful way. Like Bertolt Brecht's attempts to eschew climaxes, Copenhagen's dramatic events keep ending with anticipation and ideas, but no emotional release. The understated acting choices of Scott Zigler's production are simultaneously alienating on a personal level and engaging on larger more intellectual level. While the physics and metaphorical discussions fade into the black of the atmosphere, the central moral question comes to the fore with ever increasing dread. Will the purgatory end for these souls? Did Heisenberg vigorously pursue a bomb for Hitler? Did Bohr contribute significantly to the Los Alamos project?
In the world of dramatic psychological realism, which cocoons most all of us in our mainstream entertainment choices, the questions would be answered: Nazis and their sympathizers bad. Allies good. Frayn's larger indictment, however, includes Allies and Nazi's, Bohr and Heisenberg, and, to top it off, science, the world and the ever expanding darkness of the universe about it.
Frayn's recent philosophical work, The Human Touch, argues in essay what he attempts to dramatize in Copenhagen. The idea that WE create the universe. It is a sophisticated reversion to pre-Copernican world view and follows in the footsteps of other significant philosophers. Heisenberg's duality, a concept Frayn would go on to dramatize more starkly in Democracy, a play about German politics, relates to a sort of moral relativity that, (from best I can understand,) stems from our inability to ever know ourselves. Frayn argues that the Copernican view, which helps to absolve us of responsibility by placing us farther from the center of the universe, also enables us in our moral abdication as well - what's the use, right?
It is disappointing that the play's philosophy rests on several fallacies, because this production, which emphasises and underlines the heart of Frayn's argument almost topples the whole thing over.
Behind the circle of darkness that encompasses the playing area, the depths of the stage reveal the poisoned fruits of the technology of war just for a brief moment in the first act. The vision never returns, but we know it is there, hovering outside the consciousness of the three characters. Ominous and relevant, but ultimately unreachable on a gut level, because the play is not about moral dilemma, it is about categorical imperative.
The scientific talk is all just formula to support his philosophical ideology- Not empty padding as much as justification for his argument. When Margarethe, late in the second act, accuses Heisenberg of more selfish motives for coming to Copenhagen, Karen Macdonald reveals some of the passion beneath the suffering the Bohr family has seen. But those types of moments are few and far between in this production.
Interpretation of events is everything to Frayn's philosophy, he is not interested in the outcome as much as he is the arrival at the outcome. For instance, the Bohr's experiences are to be trumped by Heisenberg's description of his trek across Germany's lawless wasteland after the Reich began to fall. However, it requires a little sleight of hand to absolve Heisenberg's relationship with the Nazis.
Shakespeare's plays take many liberties with historical events, and modern plays do as well. Local playwright Russell Lees' Nixon's Nixon imagined the conversation between Nixon and Kissinger to great dramatic effect. Unlike many dramatists Frayn doesn't want to imagine and create a fiction which we can then contextualize into our own experiences. Instead, Frayn aema to want us to take life's empirical observations and contextualize them around his imagined universe.
After the play, the mind is invigorated with the possibilities of interpretation of events, but facts that exist outside the Loeb Drama Center and Frayn's imagined universe still remain facts. And so while it is true that the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, to which Bohr contributed, killed hundreds of thousands, (a point Frayn and the the production at the ART go a long way to emphasize,) it is equally true that the Nazis sytematically killed millions and Heisenberg was more than proud to lend an assist to the Reich.
Frayn's play is a masterpiece of drama, and the final moments succeed in creating a great anti-climax as our assumptions of guilt and innocence are reversed and shattered. However, in this portentuous production at the American Repertory Theatre the darkness seems more pressing, a bit more suffocating. As if the production has been built around the allusions to Elsinore, it resembles a modern dress interpretation of Hamlet, right down to the attire and the dark lighting.
Friday, January 11, 2008
If you are in the theatre mood this weekend, here are just some of the offerings.
Wendy Wasserstein's last play Third is at the Huntington Theatre Company. So far Louise Kennedy and Jenna Scherer have weighed in.
The American Repertory Theatre is putting on Michael Frayn's Copenhagen in their thrust stage configuration with three local actors playing Neils Bohr, Werner Heisenberg and Bohr's wife Margarethe.
Actors' Shakespeare Project is opening their Henry V with a streamlined cast of just a few actors playing over 30 roles. It is at the Garage in Cambridge.
John Simon, long the acid pen weilding critic for the New York Magazine, had a few soft spots in his heart. Last year I read through his massive collection of reviews, John Simon; On Theatre. As a theatre artist I walked away from the experience with the equivalent of the thousand yard stare that combat veterans display. However, he seemed to see salvation for theatre in the talent of a few playwrights and one of them was Kenneth Lonergan. Gurnet Theater project is producing Lonergan's early play, (and a Simon favorite,) This is Our Youth at the Boston Center for the Arts Plaza Theater.
The new Christopher Durang musical at the Lyric Stage on Clarendon Street sounds, well wacky. Adrift in Macao is a sendup of all those old hollywood noirish cliches.
At Boston Playwright's Theater is the story of young man who, after the dot.com crash, went on a mission to find his life. Riding the Wave.com is a solo performance that premiered at the New York Fringe Festival.
Another solo show, Antoine Feval, is about a man who becomes an assistant to a Sherlock Holmes type detective. Stoneham Theater is offering a pay what you want tomorrow, Saturday 12th at 4PM.
Merrimack Rep continues their run of 2 Pianos, 4 Hands out in Lowell.
If you would like to take a little drive, Hartford Stage is presenting the great American Actress Elizabeth Ashley in Zerline's Tale, an adaptation of Hermann Broch's novel The Guiltless. (There is a pay what you can next Saturday Jan 19th at the Matinee.)
Whew, and next week things really get going.
Wednesday, January 09, 2008
The Little Red Hen has invented a machine, creating a blueprint that
divides feed evenly among the chickens. All seems well as Chicken Little spreads the word and Wise Old Chicken narrates. However, when Wooster Rooster decides to oversee the building of the machine, things do not go as planned. The production of the machine is canceled, halting the Little Red Hen's hopes and forcing the coop to choose between the left wing and the right wing. Will the Little Red Hen’s idealistic dreams become a benefit to the coop, or will the ensuing standoff result in bad weather ahead?
Beware! This show contains fowl language.
PLEASE NOTE: This is NOT a children's play. It is satire using the elements of folk tales, fables and the comedies of Aristophanes.
Tuesday, January 08, 2008
He doesn't see the Internet as much of a substitute either.
Earlier 20th-century thinkers like Lewis Mumford and Edmund Wilson kept the university and its apparatus at arm's length. Indeed, they often disdained it. They oriented themselves toward an educated public, and, as a result, they developed a straightforward prose and gained a nonprofessional audience. As his reputation grew, Wilson printed up a postcard that he sent to those who requested his services. On it he checked the appropriate box: Edmund Wilson does not write articles or books on order; he does not write forewords or introductions, does not give interviews or appear on television, and does not participate in symposia.
Later intellectual generations, including, paradoxically, the rebellious 60s cohort, do give interviews; do write articles on demand; and most evidently do participate in symposia. They grew up in a much-expanded campus universe and never left its safety. Younger intellectuals became professors who geared their work toward their colleagues and specialized journals. If this generation — my generation! — advanced into postmodernism, post-Marxism, and postcolonialism, where the Daniel Bells and Lewis Mumfords never trod, it did so by surrendering a public profile. It neither wanted to nor, after a while, could write accessible prose. The new thinkers became academic — not public — intellectuals, with little purchase outside professional circles. While a book by Edmund Wilson could be read with pleasure by an educated citizen, a volume by an academic luminary such as Homi K. Bhabha or Fredric Jameson would give him or her a headache.
I regret every time I didn't call out shitty theater when I saw it—often because the artists were colleagues and peers. This only helps breed more shitty theater. The Blue Album at Long Wharf Theatre was so insipid, flabby, and shit-tacular that I can't believe I stood in the lobby afterward babbling with the creative team responsible, never mentioning that my eyes were bleeding from the show—I think I said it was "totally interesting." A life in the arts is a life of intense hypocrisy with occasional flashes of naked, startling honesty.
In 2008, I will rededicate myself to setting fire to my career whenever possible, and let the truth out. - MIKE DAISEY, SOLO PERFORMER
I regret accepting the last three shots of bourbon that people bought me after a show in Ballard, which led to the subsequent DUI charges that I will be fighting next year. - KEVIN HYDER, COMEDIAN
I think I'll keep mine to myself for now.
Monday, January 07, 2008
By coincidence, Dana, I read your latest post just after catching up with Tracy Letts' August: Osage County, which could be considered the There Will Be Blood of Broadway: It's three hours long, descends into madness at the end (complete with a ta-da! revelation about one character's parentage), and has, for the most part, been praised by critics as the Second Coming of a bygone type of classical American family drama. Whereas Anderson's film earns comparisons to
Griffith and Welles, Letts' play gets mentioned in the same breath as Eugene O'Neill, Arthur Miller, and Tennessee Williams—in other words, the biggies. And there's no question that Letts (whose paranoid, mordantly funny two-hander Bug was turned into a pretty terrific movie last year by William Friedkin) is driven by that sort of crazed, all-or-nothing ambition: He aspires to a place in the
canon. (There are even official August T-shirts with choice snatches of dialogue printed on them.)
And here's the thing: I think Letts has almost but not quite done
it—that his show is two-thirds brilliant and one-third a shapeless heap of half-formed Big Important Ideas about America and American families, most of which land like lead ballasts dropped from the top of the towering, three-story set. Particularly when the character of the eldest daughter arrives at her climactic monologue about why dissipation is more tragic than cataclysm (which serves roughly the same summary function as There Will Be Blood's "Draaainnnage/I drink your milkshake" scene), it feels as if Letts himself had walked out onto the stage to say, "Thanks for coming folks. Now, please stay in your seats while I explain to you the significance of what you've just
In the grand scheme of things, that's a minor quibble, especially
because August contains a central performance, by a Broadway neophyte named Deanna Dunagan, that will be talked about for many years to come in the same reverential tones that are being applied to Daniel Day-Lewis' work in Blood. My point is simply that third acts are tricky bits of business and—as we've already discussed in this year's Movie Club—the point at which a given book/play/movie either convinces an audience of its merit or loses them altogether.
Could there be another Long Day's Journey in somewhere in all this?
Top Photo: Palau de les Arts, Valencia.
Bottom Photo: Escalante Theater Valencia
Friday, January 04, 2008
Look at that carefully: 55.5% of the American premieres during the 2006-2007 season were produced in theatres with the smallest budgets. In fact, a single Category Six theatre produced nearly as many American premieres all of the theatres in Categories 1 through 5 combined: The Actors Theatre of Louisville (10 productions). Without the Actors Theatre of Louisville's commitment to the American playwright, there would have been a anemic 17 world premiere productions of American plays on LORT stages.
Scott has done an excellent job crunching the numbers, but there is another step that needs to be looked at. How many 2nd or third productions of new American plays were done at these theaters? In other words, there might be a regional theater that did not produce a World Premiere of an American play, but that theater may have produced two or three relatively new American plays. (For instance, new plays by established or emerging playwrights that were premiered by another Lort house a season before or so.) Not that this would take away from his point, but 2nd or 3rd productions can support playwrights as much a world premiere does.
Harold Pinter, who's fighting cancer, wasn't well enough to attend the revival of "The Homecoming," which opened Sunday night at the Cort. But his producer, Jeffrey Richards, phoned him in London at 4 a.m. New York time to read him the raves.
"How are you feeling?" Richards asked.
"All right. (Pause) Much better now, Jeffrey."
The 77-year-old Pinter kept tabs on the production from London, vetoing an ad that showed a pair of sexy legs under the tagline: "There are some things fathers and sons should never share."
"My play is sensual," said Pinter. "It is not vulgar."
Got to love the "(Pause.)"
Garret at Playgoer comments on the replacement tagline:
Now it reads: "Harold Pinter's Masterwork of Lust and Deception Returns to Seduce a New Generation." No need to get boring guys! Although they do get "lust" and "seduce" in there.And that "new generation" part? Pretty hopeful, eh?
But, Sir Harold, marketing is not about the actual experience, it is about the expectation of an experience.
Modernism has probably permanently positioned "themes" as the most important elements of drama, but scholars aren't the only ones buying tickets.
People don't tune into Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares because it shows that proper research and a relentless pursuit of excellence combined with discipline and focus can result in a transformative success.
Press releases and advertising from theaters rarely tell me what I can expect to happen in the theater the night I attend. Instead, they list the themes.
A typical description reads something like this:
"A heartwarming story that explores how family bonds can hide surprises, this play by an emerging young playwright looks at how our world can sometimes be smaller than we think and larger than we ever imagined."
Jeez, I can't wait!
Descriptions like these often make me think I could get the same exerience by reading a first person article in Salon.com, or maybe even by tuning into a segment of This American Life while running errands on a weekend. Worse, it makes me think I am going to see two actors on a stage just arguing and talking about things have been said a million times on talk radio, cable television and in bestselling non-fiction.
Then again, most of this output is from non-profits which are driven by their subscriber base and donations so the marketing emphasis must be placed on an overall branding of the institution itself.
While we are on the subject, I often think it would be neat to put a temporary ban on the following marketing buzz words. (They are used so much we all really know what they mean, right?)
DARK COMEDY (Unfunny.)
SEXY, (We have at least one attractive cast member, maybe even a nude or semi-nude scene, but the characters don't talk or interact like recognizable human beings in any way.)
EXPLOSIVE, (Characters suddenly start yelling in an agonized manner at about midway through the second act. Usually this is about something in the subtext that the audience figured out midway through the first act and had already gotten over by intermission.)
MAGICAL (We use warm tones and lighting and a mythical figure either shows up in a parallell universe or directly intervenes in the present day hijinks. And...guess what?! The mythical figure has a cynical sense of humor, just like us!!! And... we have puppets!)
HIP & QUIRKY (These seem to go together well and are an excellent way to describe this play that has a few funny lines but no discernible point. It was written by an young Ivy League grad who is working as a writer in Hollywood. We were promised a rewrite after the first reading but...well...our calls have been unreturned.)
Thursday, January 03, 2008
From the Radio Boston Website:
Nearly 46 years ago three Columbia University professors won a design contest that would launch their careers.
We sat down with one of the project designers, Michael McKinnell of Kallmann McKinnell & Wood, to talk about how their project went over back in 1962 and the criticism it’s received since.
I love headline on the news clipping from the 1960's, click through to see it.
The exhibit shows visual art created by a very long list of famous scribes. Below is Odet's Expressionist Landscape (watercolor.)
I couldn't help but think it looks like a young child trying to imitate Van Gogh's House at Auvers, (below,) which is in Boston's Museum of Fine Arts
The quote from the trucker:
Wednesday, January 02, 2008
In a letter from the 1960s addressed to Arnold Wesker, the young author of plays about working-class life such as The Kitchen, with whom Coward was to become unexpectedly close in an almost paternal way, the Master indignantly defended the value of the theater as he saw it:I, who have earned my living all my life by my creative talents, cannot ever agree with your rather high-flown contempt for "commercial art." In my experience, which is not inconsiderable, the ordinary run of human beings, regardless of social distinctions, infinitely prefer paying for their amusements and entertainments than having them handed out to them for nothing.... There is nothing disgraceful or contemptible in writing a successful play which a vast number of people are eager and willing to buy tickets for.... Personally I would rather play Bingo every night for a year than pay a return visit to Waiting for Godot.... This is not to say that I think all your cultural activities will inevitably bore the public, but, judging by the purple and black brochure you sent me, quite a number of them are bound to.
You mustn't be cross with me for holding these very definite views because, if you analyse them, you may find that they are based on common sense rather than cynicism.
The pride that resonates in that first sentence—the artisan's, as
it were, rather than the artist's; certainly middle- rather than upper-class—is hard to miss.
And yet, a fascinating 1965 exchange shows Coward reaching across the generations to the young Harold Pinter after reading The Homecoming—twice. "You cheerfully break every rule of the theatre that I was brought up to believe in," the sixty-five-year-old icon of sophistication wrote, "except the cardinal one of never boring for a split-second." Here again, the bottom line was entertainment; and after all, there may have been more of a connection between Coward and Pinter than meets the eye. As Day reminds us in his comment on this
exchange, Coward was the man who insisted that "suggestion is always more interesting than statement"; and a line from his own Shadow Play (1935) brings Pinter's work powerfully to mind: "Small talk, a lot of small talk with other thoughts going on behind."
Pinter's The Homecoming is on Broadway right now in a very well- received revival.
I am working for the country it-self and the ordinary people that belong to it. If you had been here during some of the bad blitzes and seen what I have seen and if you had been with the Navy as much as I have you would understand better what I mean. The reason that I didn't come back to America was that in this moment of crisis I wanted to be here experiencing what all the people I know and all the millions of people I don't know are experiencing. This is because I happen to be English and Scots and I happen to believe and know that, if I ran away and refused to have anything to do with the War and lived
comfortably in Hollywood, as so many of my actor friends have done, I should be ashamed to the end of my days. The qualities which have made me a success in life are entirely British.... Everything I've ever written could never have been written by anybody but an Englishman.
Envy is a gnawing pain which springs from the success and prosperity of another; and this is the reason why the envious are never exempt from trouble and vexation. If an abundant harvest fills the granaries of a neighbor, if success crowns his efforts, the envious man is chagrined and sad. If one man can boast of prudence, talent, and eloquence; if another is rich, and is very liberal to the poor, if good works are praised by all around, the envious man is shocked and grieved.
The envious, however, dare not speak; although envy makes them counterfeit gladness, their hearts are sore within. If you ask him what vexes him, he dare not tell the reason. It is not really the happiness of his friend that annoys him, neither is it his gaiety that makes him sad, nor is he sorry to see his friend prosper; but it is that he is persuaded that the prosperity of others is the cause of his misery.
This is what the envious would be forced to acknowledge, if they spoke the truth sincerely; but because they dare not confess so shameful a sin, they, in secret, feed a sore which tortures them and eats away their rest.
As the shadow ever accompanies the pedestrian when walking in the sun, so envy throws its shadow on those who are successful in the world.
-Saint Basil, De Invidia
And then the following:
Yet I am inclined to believe, that the great law of mutual benevolence is oftener violated by envy than by interest, and that most of the misery which the defamation of blameless actions, or the obstruction of honest endeavours, brings upon the world, is inflicted by men that propose no advantage to themselves but the satisfaction of poisoning the banquet which they cannot taste, and blasting the harvest which they have no right to reap.
It is above all other vices inconsistent with the character of a social being, because it sacrifices truth and kindness to very weak temptations. He that plunders a wealthy neighbour gains as much as he takes away, and may improve his own condition in the same proportion as he impairs another's; but he that blasts a flourishing reputation, must be content with a small dividend of additional fame, so small as can afford very little consolation to balance the guilt by which it is obtained.
I have hitherto avoided that dangerous and empirical morality, which cures one vice by means of another. But envy is so base and detestable, so vile in its original, and so pernicious in its effects, that the predominance of almost any other quality is to be preferred. It is one of those lawless enemies of society, against which poisoned arrows may honestly be used. Let it therefore be constantly remembered, that whoever envies another, confesses his superiority, and let those be reformed by their pride who have lost their virtue.
-Samuel Johnson, Rambler 183
Thomas Garvey has read it and doesn't like what he sees there:
But then there's a lot they haven't articulated to themselves - perhaps the central issue being their MBA-driven mindset. To the Boston Foundation, the art itself seems almost beside the point - instead, they're obsessed with the art "marketplace," a word authors Susan Nelson and Ann McQueen use repeatedly, and which is inherently deceptive. To be blunt, the arts don't operate in a "marketplace." Even though, yes, people buy tickets to the arts, said tickets can't pay all the bills (this is due to the fact that in the modern economy, profit is squeezed out of scale, industrialization, or digital innovation; if
only a hundred people could use Google at a time, trust me, they'd be in financial trouble too). Instead, arts organizations depend on philanthropy to survive; donations aren't a "nice-to-have," they're a "have-to-have," and usually in the arts world audiences follow the donors, rather than vice versa.
But with classic MBA tunnel vision, Nelson and McQueen's analysis
concentrates on the metrics consultants routinely apply to start-ups: price points, scale, capacity, unrestricted net assets, etc., as if a theatre company or gallery could simply "scale up" its offerings (in one unguarded moment, the report suddenly admits this is impossible), or charge lower price points when these are generally set by rental demands. Indeed, it's clear as you ponder this report that the BF thinks it's operating in the venture capital la-la-land of McKinsey and Bain, where you can toy with capital targets and net present values to your heart's content.