Thursday, July 31, 2008

Bad Americans?

Michael Billington has had enough with a certain ritual that has been exported by American audiences:

I am all for spontaneous enthusiasm but the standing ovation is a filthy American habit that I think should be discouraged.

In New York the standing ovation is now a meaningless nightly ritual. Unless the show is a real stinker a Broadway audience will leap to its feet almost before the curtain has fallen. I've always assumed this had two explanations. One is that, if you've paid 100 bucks or more for a ticket, you have to justify to yourself the worth of your investment.

The other is that Americans like to feel they themselves are all in showbusiness. And what better way to advertise one's enthusiasm than by shooting out of one's stall, as if an electric current has passed up one's bum, and letting out those peculiar war-whoops that in the States betoken excitement.

I really do try to fight the masses on this. I will stay seated if I don't think it was that good a performance. I don't really agree with Billington that the Standing Ovation is about the audience membet being seen doing it.

From my experience, the audience members who start the standing ovation really do seem to be carried away by something about the show.

The one constant about the phenomena of the obligatory standing ovation is that it never starts from the back. It is always a few people in the first six rows that standup. From there, it can spread backwards like a growing wave. Or, sometimes these first standing ovators will replicate someplace else, and then the groups begin to multiply until a majority of the audience is consumed.

But the start of the wave, the "electric bum shock" is most often a true enthusiasm. Maybe enough of the American public doesn't see live theatrical performances enough to really have a perspective on what is exceptional as opposed to what is excellent, what is fair, and what is serviceable.

In other words, if enough people in the first few rows haven't seen a stage show since that touring Shakespeare production in 6th grade, then I can forgive them for being out of their minds with enthusiasm when the realize: "that actual live person just made me cry with grief and tragedy, I want to thank them."

As for the rest of the audience, I can't imagine what is happening in their heads. Reading the body language it is clear that they do not want to rise, they don't feel that enthusiasm. However, they do it just the same.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Morality Bites

Over at Arts Journal, Wendy Rosenfield is having a bit of a dilemma. She could possibly assigned to review a certain show at the Philadelphia Live Arts festival:

This performance, written and performed by Garcia, a former butcher, involves a duet between man and lobster, which as you might imagine, ends badly for the crustacean. The trouble is, I'm a vegan and recently wrote a feature for the Inquirer's food section about this gustatory transformation (but for some reason only the sidebar is still available online. Sorry.), and I just can't abide a performance that intentionally causes the death of another living creature in order to make its point.

She struggles over this because, well, she is intrigued and agrees with the themes of Garcia's piece as described in the pre-show materials.

She ends her piece this way: "But that, of course, is a moral judgement, isn't it? The question here is really this: do a critic's personal morals or ethical code have any place in a review? And conversely, humans being the way they are, how can one possibly pretend they don't?"

I remember at the time Paula Vogel's How I Learned to Drive was gathering rave reviews on its way to getting the Pulitzer, John Heilpern penned a review that I think was headlined, "Come and See the Safe Pedophilia!" It really threw a harsh moral light onto the proceedings and took the playwright up on her comparisons to Nabokov.

I am paraphrasing, but I think Heilpern said something along the lines of "Aren't some things just black and white, right and wrong." I'll dig out my copy of Heilpern's collection of reviews: "How Good is David Mamet Anyway?"

Louise Kennedy, the lead theatre critic for the Globe, has often expressed her skepticism and weariness in approaching plays that treat mental illness as metaphor.

Here in Boston, the Sondheim musical Assasins is playing at Company One. In one of the pre-show publicity pieces, an actor told of how his mother, (who happens to be Boston news celebrity, Liz Walker,) upon hearing that he was cast in the production expressed concern about the "energy" that the show would put out.

Liz Walker felt the production's timing exploited the real fears of many Obama voters, particularly in the black community, that harm could befall the candidate, she explained. Throughout his campaign, Obama's charisma and political style have been compared with those of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Abraham Lincoln, all transforming figures in American history and all targets of assassination. Obama has received death threats, so Liz Walker disliked raising the specter of assassination through a musical.

As audience we are not, (when we approach a work of art,) a tabula rasa. We approach the stage, which is the most interpersonallly focused of the dramatic arts, with the anticipation of the artist bringing his or her full being into the conversation. How strange to think the same thing should not be expected of the audience, right?

Now, there are those who would argue that a moral thesis in a review says more about the critic than it does the object of the review. I am not so sure.

The fear, in taking such things into consideration, is that all of this smells of a kind of censorship. How are artists to push the envelope? How are they to truly examine and push the boundaries if critics have moral defenses up? But if nobody is watching the watchmen, what can art become?

There is a group of delightful sculptures in the 14th Street Subway in New York City. They were created by the artist Tom Otterness, who collects commissions for his fun designs all over the country.

In talking about an New Museum of Arts show about the East Village, critic Gary Indiana, who had spent a few years in the mid-eighties covering the East Village scene for the Village Voice, expressed the following:

But I’m repulsed by this show’s inclusion of Tom Otterness, a sculptor of limitless nonentity despite his demonstrated skill at conning public-art commissions and taste-impaired collectors into making him rich. Mr. Otterness, once upon a time, adopted a dog and then shot it to death for the fun of recording his infantile, sadistic depravity on film. I’d like the New Museum’s visitors to keep that in mind while looking at this creep’s work. Mr. Otterness isn’t one of those special exceptions deserving the adage “Lousy person, terrific artist.” Lousy both.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Theatre Choices

Christopher Wallenberg writes the pre-show piece for the new Theresa Rebeck play opening in Williamstown. The play's title is The Understudy, and Wallenberg writes about how the careers of the real actors mirror those of the actors in the play.

For instance, real life actor Reg Rogers, who plays the eponymous character in Rebeck's play, has never really got his big break in the world of show business, but....

While Rogers's costar, Bradley Cooper, may not command $2.3 million per picture like his character in the play, the 33-year-old is a hunky young rising star, having appeared in films like "Wedding Crashers" and "Failure to Launch," in addition to several seasons on the hit TV series "Alias." He also has a slew of high-profile films lined up in the next two years.

While Cooper is reluctant to draw explicit parallels with his character, he says that he can identify with at least one aspect of the play - the ways that actors can become overly preoccupied with their careers.

"My character has set his sights on getting this one movie role," Cooper says. "But he's making all these wonderful discoveries [during the rehearsal with Harry] about things that are ultimately going to be more important in his life. Yet the minute that other light starts blinking - which is the other potential role - that's where all his focus goes. Which I find funny, but also just relatable."

In a twist that underlines the unpredictable nature of show business, Tony award winner Julie White ("The Little Dog Laughed") was originally slated to play Roxanne, but was forced to drop out when she took a part in the "Transformers" sequel.

Bolds are mine.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Got the Fever

Hey, summer in Boston isn't only Mosquito Shakespeare and Charles River Chekhov anymore.

Have an avant garde itch that needs scratching and musical revues just ain't providing the cure? You can head on over the Cambridge Multicultural Arts Center this weekend for this year's installment of Whistler in the Dark's Fever Fest.

Some of Boston's most innovative companies and artists participate every year. So if you read my write up of Imaginary Beasts a few weeks ago, and said to yourself, "Man, that sounds interesting. I wish I could see that company!"

Well, the beasts are performing Gertrude Stein's Three Sisters Who Are Not Sisters.

For a sample of what you can expect, here is the description of one show:

Inspired by mythology, silent film, Supreme Court precedences, and Sesame Street, Shh! is an ensemble-created piece that will explore these questions and the complexities of freedom and repression.

Bring it on!

You can check out the details at the Whistler's Website.

Playwriting - "It's Die Hard, But...In a Building!"

There is an anecdote told by the original creator of Die Hard, the 1980's action movie starring Bruce Willis as an off duty cop who must fight terrorists who have taken over a high-rise building.

After the runaway success of that film many imitations began to pop up in story meetings all over Hollywood. For the next decade, hopeful creators would give their best high concept pitches: "It's Die Hard on a boat." "It's Die Hard on a train." "It's Die Hard on an island."

The original producer of the movie jokes that he knew the concept had played itself out when he was sitting in a meeting and heard a pitch that started this way, "What we've got is Die Hard in a building, a really tall building!"

Roland Teco, writing on the blog ExtraCriticum, talks about how he sees the "high concept of Hollywood having an effect on playwriting:

I think the Hollywood addiction to "high concept" stories has slowly infected the new writing being produced on the stages of American theatres and the result is that our theatre is dying a slow death by asphyxiation.

First of all, it may be helpful for me to define my terms. By "high concept" I mean those stories that are easily summed up into a two-sentence promo. "High concept" generally means there will be some unusual take on a ubiquitous storyline. For example: "A former Mosad agent fulfills his life dream of becoming a hairdresser" or "A group of heads of state have to dress as women in order to save the world" etc. etc. "High concept" is Hollywood shorthand for two characteristics:

1. easily summarized

2. provocative or unusual—offering up some new take on an old formula

Personally, I don't much care for this sort of thing anywhere—in movies or television either. In fact, I'd argue that if we were to assemble a list of the movies from the past 25 years with the longest shelf lives, few, if any, would be "High Concept" stories.

The problem with this for playwrights is that, perhaps like no other form of storytelling, the play lives or dies by the authenticity of its characters. If the dialogue coming out of the character's mouths rings false, the play fails. And one of the surest ways for a playwright to get in the way of letting his/her character's authentic voices emerge is by a rigorous adherence to a "high concept" in the birth of a new play.

I am of two minds on this. On the one hand, I agree with Roland about high concept and playwriting.

I call it the NPR effect. I don't know how many fellow playwrights tell me, “I have an idea for a play!” They tell me the idea, but the "idea" is actually one of two things:

1. An inciting incident or catalyst
2. A concept that is very archetypal.

For instance:

1. "I had an idea for play: This uptight business woman is on a sales conference and she meets her sister there. Turns out her sister, whom the family hasn't seen for years, actually went undercover as a drug informant years ago is now hiding out."

2. "I had this idea for a play: Our country is so paralyzed with our need to consume that we don't realize our liberties are slowly being taken away."

Now, I am not saying that a good, or even a great play cannot be written out of those thoughts. Sure they can. But I would argue that those thoughts are not yet "ideas" for plays.

In my experience, when playwrights then rush to their keyboard and write these plays, they almost always turn out this way:

1. The Two Sisters Play: We spend the first ten minutes of the play getting loads of exposition about the business woman. Then we meet the mysterious sister about ten minutes later. Then we spend about 90 more minutes with the two sisters talking it out in a hotel room until we finally get the revelation from their childhood that unlocks the mystery. There may be a few other characters thrown in here and there, but basically we progress with no incremental incidents, beats or even wit.

2. The Consumer Culture Play: Unfolds just as Roland points out. The play has no structure at all and the characters don't seem to want anything and make no choices that come from any type of organic place. They serve as a mouthpiece for the thesis that the playwright wants to present to us, and their dialogue sounds like it. As an added treat, the theme is usually telegraphed in the first ten minutes, so we don't even have any suspense of wondering why they took the time to write it.

So, to that extent I agree with Roland. There is this expectation that the logline or the kernel will allow the play to write itself. It is as if the playwright, in their mind, can already see the listing in the subscription brochure. Why spend a lot of time writing the play when it is already sold?!

However, I attend many play reading festivals also, and I sometimes find myself DYING to see something with a concept or story like the ones Roland mentions.

Oh that just a few more playwrights could have some FUN, for goodness sake!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

When All You Have are Secrets

My friend, Noveleye, was playfully musing about applying Aristotle's criteria to television shows. She observes how some programs work with the progression of events in their their universes and how some some shows, (which are actually structured for a very contained broadcast life,) can be thwarted by a popularity that keeps them on the air long past the expiration date inherent in their DNA:

If Lost were a book I'd have skipped ahead already. I'm watching only to find out the answers and every Thursday this season I'd think--is this really worth it?


The success of the X-Files kept propelling it on, so that answers could never really be given and as a result the last seasons are feeble floggings of dead horses. (Can he possibly have resurrected it for this new movie?)

If you know you have a timeline, then you can progress, from A to B, B to C etc. You don't have to keep coming back to A so that you don't run out of story before your popularity wanes.

Actually, as I think about Melody, the further along a show is, the more it can play with it's own rhythms. CSI could have a season finale about a member being buried, or a background story of the miniature killer because so much has already been established. They can go from A to E in a story and need only return to C in the next episode. The Simpsons too can play more freely with the shape of a story--stories change direction all the time from what it seemed it was going to be about (sometimes successfully, others less so). The Simpsons (and indeed most cartoons) can go from A-Z in an episode and return to A at the beginning of the next without the blink of an eye. Homer has been famous too many times to count. Lisa has tried every sport out there. And each week Homer is back to his job at the plant and Lisa is back to being unpopular and Maggie never speaks. And we don't care because it's a cartoon.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

48 Hour Film Fun - Ghost Stories

Team Playomatic participated in the 48 Hour Film Project in Providence this past weekend.

We drew the genre of Ghost Story and we set to work on Friday Night hashing out the story.

Amanda and I then worked until the wee hours of Saturday morning on refining a script.

We shot it at a beautiful house on the North Shore complete with a swimming pool.

Above is a photo of Director Steven Stuart and Director of Photography Brad Kelly giving some last minute direction to the actress playing a ghostly young lady who rises eerily from a pool during the night.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Happy Sad at Zero Arrow

Ken Urban is having a reading of his play The Happy Sad at the Zero Arrow space on Monday July 14th at 8:00PM.

Urban's play recently ran in New York City, sponsored by The Flea, and it comes to the Boston reading with the original cast.

There will be a post show discussion moderated by Illana Brownstein.

The reading is Free and open to the public.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Boston Theatre - Artists Versus Affordables

Union Square in Somerville, MA is a neighbordhood in flux. And it is about to get more flexible with the extension of the MBTA's Green Line from Lechmere.

The neighborhood has always been a vibrant mix of ethnicities. My friend Heather Townsend was commissioned to create a bench to be placed on the plaza in Union Square, and her finished work represents the cultural mix and the changing landscape.

Using her unique method of writing on glass, she composed a narrative of the Square's history in the shape of a river, (one used to run through the area,) and she used 16 different languages that have been spoken by the families and residents over the years. (To get an idea of Heather's work you can go here.)

Artists have been an institution in Union Square and many art projects, sponsored by the Somerville Arts Council and other organizations, have taken aim at revitalizing the area.

With the prospect of a main subway line on the horizon, major redevelopment of the neighborhood has shot past desireable and gone right into inevitable. The City of Somerville seems to want to keep it the type of neighborhood that will draw the creative economy's main drivers. But, as Richard Florida points out in his studies about the Creative Class, keeping the balance of a creatively rich region involves many moving parts. The danger of inequality and class separation is always right in the center of the churning mixture.

Case in point: a zoning meeting that recently took place in Somerville regarding Union Square. The Somerville News covered it:

The proposal was presented by Monica Lamboy, Madeleine Masters and Rob May of the city's planning and development office, who explained the new zoning will create six distinct districts to manage development in different ways, according to the character of the areas.

In one of the districts, the Arts Overlay District, the city will offer incentives to developers for building arts-related businesses and live and work spaces available only to Somerville-certified artists.

But the arts-centric approach was not enough for some advocates who are asking the city to designate at least 15 percent of the rezoned area as affordable. “Please do what you can to make Somerville affordable,” said 16-year-old Anthony Soto.

The Somerville Community Corporation and Save Our Somerville have both asked the city to increase the affordable housing allotment in anticipation of the Green Line's arrival in the neighborhood.

Arists, Gentrification, Affordable Housing and Diversity. It's a tough storm to weather. Can communities work proactively to maintain the balance that is needed to keep the Boston region competitive in the global landscape of the new creative economy?

For instance, Davis Square in Somerville is undergoing a rapid change and recent news is that that a Hotel is being proposed. Yet, the Jimmy Tingle Theater in the heart of that Square still remains vacant to the best of my knowledge. Performing arts that take place at small and eclectic venues are a crucial piece of an urban neighborhood's makeup and for a thriving cultural scene. But are artists or the arts to be given incentives or benefits over anybody else who must struggle to compete in the market of today's urban redevelopment plans?

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The End of Theatre

John Heilpren checks out Macbeth 2000 and tries to explain some of its cinematic references for those not versed in indie cinema.

As the fanciable bald witch rants overhead, an actor appears suddenly as a white rabbit, projected onto a massive video screen. A bunny wabbit is wunning wild. Scholarly research has enabled me to crack its mysterious appearance:

In my opinion, it all goes back to Harvey (1950), but it’s also clear
that Grzegorz Jarzyna is influenced by more recent American pop culture. For example, Richard Kelly’s cult movie Donnie Darko (2001) has a large manipulative bunny who encourages a hallucinating troubled teen to commit crimes. Mr. Jarzyna’s big hero, though, is David Lynch.

The cry of “Silencio!” in Macbeth 2008 is his tribute to
Mulholland Drive. More to the point, Inland Empire (2006), which Mr. Lynch shot mostly in Lódz, Poland, involves a disturbed Polish woman watching a TV sitcom about three rabbit people, which is actually an extract from Mr. Lynch’s lesser-known Rabbits (2002).

So now you know.

The important thing is the giant rabbit in Macbeth 2008 is plain
silliness (unless, that is, you’re a David Lynch fan). Among other movie references: the helicopter sequence and rescue that brings Macbeth’s reign of terror to an end is an inevitably unimpressive mini-version of an action movie such as Black Hawk Down.

It’s cool for avant-garde theater directors to keep borrowing from
movies, I guess. Any old film will do. Mr. Goold’s acclaimed Macbeth tried to duplicate the visual effects of Kubrick movies and cheap slasher flicks. Mr. Jarzyna’s Macbeth 2008 is in the same imitative spirit.

This is the way theater will end—not with a bang, but with a movie
onstage and a video game.

Art Enthusiasts Run Wild

A mural in the South End prompts enthusiastic art supporters to litter the neighborhood with fliers.

The police get complaints. One of them from an arts institution:

The mural depicts Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama as a merged image. Photo below is courtesy of the Globe:

Monday, July 07, 2008

Looking for Your Big Break?

Roland Tec, writing at the Extracriticum blog, explains just how insidious the Big Opportunity mindset can be for the theatre:

There's a destructive myth floating around out there and it affects
actors, writers, directors... pretty much every creative artist working in this business. I call it the "big break" syndrome.

The myth goes something like this:

If I can just bide my time doing this "small time" work until I get
my "big break" I'll someday have a "real" career. The problem with this thinking is it's an obvious psychological trap. Because this belief system puts all current work—the production one is currently rehearsing or writing or whatnot—into a 2nd class category, while reserving the stamp of "significant" for some future dream job.
By buying into this "if only someday" mentality, the artist cheats whatever work he or she is currently involved in and by so
doing, cheats him or herself of a successful career.

Why? Because one job leads to another and another and so on. We are living and working on career paths. The quality of your work today will directly influence how you are viewed by your colleagues today, many of whom may be in a position to hire you tomorrow for that "dream job." By cheating the present for an imaginary future, we cheat ourselves of both.

Saving Old Theatres

Even with vision, passion and a little government money, restoration projects can often be a long struggle.

Meghan Irons in the Globe reports on efforts to save and restore the Everett Theater in Hyde Park:

But Donald Hussey and Pat Tierney can see beyond the dust and debris inside this former vaudeville house. They envision something majestic on Fairmount Avenue: a grand stage, live performances, 500 people filling the seats - all spilling into the neighborhood's downtown, breathing new life into a community that so badly needs it.

For more than two decades the owners - Tierney, Hussey, and their two business partners Jacqueline Stanton and Dorothy White - have struggled to make their dream of restoring the Everett into reality. But despite their efforts - they've rallied volunteers, held meat raffles, even summoned a "ghostologist" to check for demons - the restoration has never really gotten off the ground because of lack of funds and waning community interest.

"We've never had people that believed in it as much as we did," said Tierney, who said the Everett will need about $7 million to restore.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

EW Classics for the Stage

Entertainment Weekly stakes its critical reputation on its list of the New Classics! They have chosen entertainment from 1983-2008 that they believe will stand the test of time!

Yes, they have a list of the 50 New Classics of the Stage.

It pretty much reads like they took the Pulitzer Prize winners and combined them with the Tony Award Winners and filled in the blanks here and there.

Interesting choices: Three Days of Rain and Chess. Was the first because Julia Roberts recentley did a Broadway production? Did the second sneak in because it is related to Abba in some way?

Boston Theatre - Weekend Roundup

4th of July Edition!

Just because it is a Holiday, doesn't mean you can't catch a show!

Orfeo Group's Look Back in Anger continues through this weekend at The Factory Theatre in Boston.

The Publick Theatre opens its summer repertory with The Seagull, Anton Chekhov's brilliant masterpiece about art, artists, longing and love. The outdoor stage at the Publick is the perfect set for the first act of the play, which takes place on a rustic outdoor theatre by a lake.

You can get down to a Cole Porter review at the Zero Arrow space as the ART revives When It's Hot, Its COLE!

If you're up by the seaside in Gloucester, you can check out The Enigma Variations.

If you are a fan of politics or the old TV show, The White Shadow, you can see Ken Howard portraying Tip O'Neill in the New Rep production of According to Tip!

Makeshift Theatre Company closes their production of one acts, Laundry and Bourbon and Lone Star, at the YMCA in Cambridge.

And, of course, you can check out the Western, MA and the Cape and Islands' offerings as well.

Happy Fourth!

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Changes Coming Soon?

Just a note that I am thinking of changing the template for this blog in the near future.

So, loyal readers, if things suddenly go to heck in a handbasket, please be patient.

Any tips for people who have changed their templates would be helpful.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Tips for Running a Small Theatre Company

If you are going to have a live person deliver your curtain speech make sure he or she is a people person.

The House Manager, the Stage Manager or even the volunteer usher could be an alternative to a stressed out AD or Director who fixes his or her gaze on a point above the last row, and who can't get off the stage fast enough. Find the person who gives off an inviting energy, speaks comfortably in front of the crowd, makes eye contact and speaks clearly.

The live curtain speech, if you choose to have one, cannot be looked at as a formality.

It is an opportunity to let people know that what they are about to watch was not manufactured and put together on a soundstage in Los Angeles, and it was not animated by second and third teams in South Korea.

And it communicates an appreciation that they came to you. Don't underestimate the sacrifice the audience made to arrive a specified location, at a specified time, to watch what you have done for a defined period with no interruptions.

Because let's face it, in this day and age they really didn't have to..