Friday, September 26, 2008

Best of Recovery to Nicky Martin

Dan Bourque, a Boston Director, just brought this Playbill online story to my attention:

Nicholas Martin, the artistic director of the Williamstown Theatre Festival who has most recently been in rehearsals for the Lincoln Center Theater production of Noah Haidle's Saturn Returns, suffered a minor stroke Sept. 25.

A Lincoln Center Theater spokesperson told that the director is "resting comfortably and after rehab is expected to make a full recovery."

I hope Mr. Martin makes a speedy recovery and send my sincerest best wishes.

A Good Line But It's for the Wrong Sarah

On the other side of the country, Seattle is experiencing its regional premiere of Sarah Ruhl's Eurydice at the ACT. (Boston is getting the New Rep production currently.)

The Stranger leads the review with the following:

Sarah Ruhl writes fairy tales which, like all fairy tales, are light and colloquial until you run across their jarring moments of truth. The effect is akin to picking up a My Little Pony and discovering that it's anatomically correct.

A great line, but Ruhl's work has never struck me that way at all. (And I think the toy is called "My Pretty Pony."*) Thomas Garvey's comparison Sarah Ruhl's ubiquity on the regional theatre circuit and Sarah Palin's invasion of our mass media consciousness, is apt on another level as well.

To put is succinctly: (best to do that since this is not a political blog,) if Sarah Palin, the Republican Vice Presidential Nominee was exactly who the Republicans presented her as, the Democrats would have already lost the race. She isn't and so the race is still close.

On the theatrical side, like a Republican who must be seeing the downward trending poll numbers, I often find myself wishing...if only Sarah Ruhl's work succeeded in doing what her most vociferous critical supporters claim it does.

Case in point is the above quote from the Stranger. I have never found Ruhl's plays to have any such shock, and I don't feel it is in her to be truly transgressive. Sarah Ruhl is PBS transgressive, NPR trangsressive.

Yet, the Stranger line about a My Little Pony with a realistic unit would be fitting for a different Sarah: Sarah Silverman, the weirdly engaging and sometimes riotously funny comedienne/performing artist who, in an alternative universe, should probably receive a different type of Macarthur Genius Award. (Compare the aphorisms that Ruhl deploys with those of Silverman.) Perhaps some theatre company could take a chance and give Silverman a commission?

Thomas Garvey has covered much of the critical fauning of Euryidice here in Boston, but I don't think even Louise Kennedy's words-fail-me praise can compare to the Seattle Post Intelligencer's claim that Eurydice "carries the weight of a sacrament..."

Now, I have always said that I think Ruhl is very talented, and there is no doubt that people who like Eurydice, really like it. (They are genuinely moved.) However, I am starting to feel not only like the party is down the block, but that somebody gave me the wrong address and my GPS led me two towns over.

And I'd love to be at that party, I really would.

It just seems like the center section of Eurydice, (the middle 40 minutes or so,) splits audience experience down the middle. Some seem to be emotionally enthralled, while others seemed to be bored. I have yet to see the New Rep production, but I have seen Eurydice before, and what I am hearing from New Rep audiences confirms this dichotomy.

*I have been informed that it is, indeed, My Little Pony.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Print Critics Have Lots of Worries

Not only is print distribution severely shrinking, now the ink-stained wretches on the Arts beat can't be critical either. Has the readership of arts pages shrunk so much that it only includes advertisers and board members?

This from the New York Times today:

For years the classical music critic at The Plain Dealer of Cleveland has taken shots at the conductor of his hometown orchestra, saying he lacks musical ideas and brings little life to many of the works he conducts. Supporters of the orchestra, one of the world’s best, and even some players have long complained about his opinions regarding the maestro, Franz Welser-Möst.

Now some people fear those opinions have been heard. The critic, Donald Rosenberg, has been removed from the symphony beat.

At the blog Extracriticum, Roland Tec points out the following:

Of course, newspapers caving to pressure regarding their Arts coverage is nothing new. Hell, the Grey Lady even polled readers when it decided to completely overhaul its calendar format last year.

And in Boston, few people are old enough to remember how former Globe Music Critic Richard Dyer got his job. As an undergraduate at Harvard, he used to write letters excoriating the "inept" music criticism on its pages. He wrote so many of these poison pen missives that shortly after his graduation, the Globe fired the man who'd been the brunt of Mr. Dyer's rants and hired Dyer to replace him.

Reaching Too Far Back

Michael Feingold thinks many of today's theatre artists and producers are too enamored of the significant accomplishments of their forerunners :

Instead of setting their minds to work in the here and now, they're always trying to relive what somebody else already did. At least, that's how things seem to be in the theater these days: Shows that aren't overt attempts to reanimate old movies all strive, covertly or unconsciously, to re-enact other artists' old theater events. Just in time for our grim new economic condition, we're facing an era of lowered aesthetic expectations, too.

That lowering doesn't include attempting to give a classic story fresh life, something artists have always done. The problem with the new Broadway musical of A Tale of Two Cities isn't its devotion to Charles Dickens, but its awareness that others made millions from a musical based on Victor Hugo.

Feingold also talks about several new Off-Broadway works in this column.

The Best Things in Life are Free?

Across the pond, something interesting is happening. The government is offering a different kind of entitlement program: Free Tickets:

18- to 26-year-olds will be able to take advantage of free tickets from next February for two years. They will be available on a first come, first served basis for at least one performance on the same day each week.

In a briefing at the Labour conference in Manchester, culture secretary Andy Burnham announced that £2.5m of public money will be made available for the scheme, which will operate at up to 95 publicly funded venues including Birmingham Rep, the Young Vic and the National Theatre. Dance, music and other art forms are to follow, it is expected.

Is this basically a Hail Mary pass in the ongoing skirmish between younger generations and theatrical enlightenment?

There have been a variety of responses.

Critic Lyn Gardener posts at the Guardian blog:

Now I'm not great at maths, but even I can work out that means that a theatre will only be getting £2.50 for each seat it gives away. This is less than the £5 that the National currently gets from its Entrypass scheme for teenagers, and could be less than schemes that other theatres have in place including pay-what-you-can nights. Of course £2.50 is better than nothing if your theatre is half-empty, but will more successful or smaller venues be keen to sign up to a scheme in which they must make the same number of tickets available on a weekly basis over a two-year period? Or will it be only less popular theatres, or those doing substandard work, who jump on board?

Of course I'm in favour of anything that encourages young people to become independent theatregoers. Theatre is very much a habit, and one that many lose as soon as they leave school and the annual trip to the local panto and Stomp! behind.

And a Community Project Manager for the Young Vic Theatre writes about her experiences with free ticket programs.

10% of Young Vic tickets are given away free to Lambeth and Southwark schools and colleges, young people and to our local community through our Two Boroughs project. Why? Simply because we want to. There is no catch. Going to the theatre is a risk for lots of people: it's expensive, has an elitist reputation, some theatre buildings intimidate.

We try to eliminate the risks and break down the barriers. From the moment we tell people about a project (and reassure them they don't have to dress up…) we encourage them to think of the Young Vic as theirs. If they don't like what they see, they can get up and go. Nothing lost.


So-called "audience development" is often tagged onto marketing. We try to make it different. Most people who attend through our Two Boroughs programme will never be able to afford a full-price ticket. The point of them attending is not to turn them into ticket buyers.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Friday, September 19, 2008

Hi Ho! Hi Ho?

Yes, that's Boston Actress Eliza Lay, (about whom Thom Garvey and I have sung the praises many times,) in a photo in the New York Times Dance section. She is currently part of the Snow White Project in New York City. (Click the picture for the review of the performance.)

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Take The T

If you are a Boston Fringe theatergoer the following names should be familiar to you:

Irene Daly, George Saulnier, Rick Park, Patrick Gabridge, William Donnely, Meg Taintor, Andrew Winson, Dan Milstien...

These are just a few of the the writers, actors and directors who will be participating in The T Plays at the Factory Theatre starting tonight.

From the press release:

"Over our first two weeks we’ll present 10 World Premieres. EachSaturday five playwrights will board the subway knowing only the number of characters and the setting (the very subway they are on). At the end of the round trip they turn their freshly written script over to the director and actors. Three days later the shows go up!"

The Factory Theatre doesn't have many seats so I would recommend that if you would like to attend, you should get tickets early.

Herald Opens Up To the World Wide Web

The Herald allows comments on their articles and reviews, and for the longest time nobody really took them up on it.

Lately there has been a little more activity. For instance, there is a little review of How Shakespeare Won the West attached to Jenna Scherer's review of the same production.

And a Herals pre-show piece about The T Plays, which Mill 6 will be putting on this weekend has a concise comment from a Mr. or Mrs. VoxPopuli:

Sounds complicated, confusing, expensive and a waste of time - just
like the T - perfect!! Can't wait to see it

The Globe is getting more into the blogging game with other departments and you can comment on Geoff Edgers' Exhibitionist blog, but the reviews themselves are still off limits. I can only assume that the Globe will eventually add a Performing Arts Weblog or a Theater Blog.

Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune runs The Theater Loop weblog, which has played host to some memorable controversies and discussions about everything from Awards to Equity to theater real estate. You can also watch video scenes from current running productions. True, most posts are simply Jones' regular reviews and features, but at least they are in the swing of things.

The Guardian in London runs an arts blog in which critics, artistic directors, playwrights, actors and many more have contributed posts. Most recently, Theresa Rebeck posted about how women playwrights were being underrepresented on Broadway. This post started a flurry of response and activity across the internet.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

File Under - Did They See the Same Show?

Louise Kennedy in the Boston Globe:

Engaging, energetic, amusing, and clearly in love with the art of
telling stories onstage, Richard Nelson's "How Shakespeare Won the West" makes an auspicious opening for the Huntington Theatre Company's first season under its new artistic director, Peter DuBois.

Jenna Scherer in the Boston Herald:

I’m not sure what is playing at the BU Theatre - but whatever it is
isn’t a play. Storytime at Ol’ Cracky’s Saloon, maybe - but not a play. When I try to wrap my head around the fact that Richard Nelson, a guy who’s won myriad awards - including a Tony - for his playwriting, could roll out a junk heap in line with “How Shakespeare Won the West,” reasoning fails me.

The Difficulty of Liveness

Psychological factors also come into play when the music is set in
front of a crowd. Looking at a painting in a gallery is fundamentally different from listenting to a new work in a concert hall. Picture yourself in a room with, say, Kandinsky's
Impression III (Concert), painted in 1911. Kandinsky and Schoenberg knew each other, and shared common aims; Impression III was inspired by one of Schoenberg's concerts. If visual abstraction and musical dissonance were precisely equivalent, Impression III and the third of the Five Pieces for Orchestra would present the same degree of difficulty. But the Kandinsky is a different experience for the uninitiated. If at first you have trouble understanding it, you
can walk on and return to it later, or step back to give it another glance, or lean in for a close look (is that a piano in the foreground?). At a performance, listeners experience a new work collectively, at the same rate and approximately from the same distance. They cannot stop to consider the implications of a half-lovely chord or concealed waltz rythym. They are a a crowd, and crowds tend to align themselves as one mind.

- Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise; Listening to the Twentieth Century

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Snark of the Day

It sometimes seems almost a cliche to joke about the ART's aesthetic, but Larry Stark gets off a good line here:

Seen in the best light, the A.R.T. could be called a "theatrical
laboratory" in which even the most outlandishly silly concepts can be experimented upon, because most of their most famous imported directors are never allowed to see the work as failed. Most of their experiments have been bewilderingly opaque and have had no relation whatever to whether the audience learns anything from watching some "arteest" masturbate publically. The Loeb Drama Center --- where I spent many happy years working backstage before these Sothron carpetbaggers came to town --- has looked to me like the Kennedy Compound out in Hyannis, where locals can watch helicopters fly Important People in to do Something Important, nationally or internationally, but who the hell knows what?

This is part of a 50-year lookback that Larry takes on his time living and seeing theater here in Boston.

Needed - Good Watchers

“A strong example of the personal way of dodging engagement with the theater is the response of King Claudius. Remember the play Hamlet sets like a trap to catch the conscience of the king? Stung by the opening of The Murder of Gonzago, King Claudius rises, calls for lights, douses the performance and goes off to pray. You may want your life to be affected by the play about Hecuba as deeply as The Murder of Gonzago affected Claudius, but you surely do not want to stop the play in mid-course. Claudius would be the audience from hell, far worse than the audience that is merely bored. Good watchers watch the play to the end and they pay primary attention, the whole time, to what is on stage.” - From The Necessity of Theater; The Art of Watching and Being Watched

Paul Woodruff, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin, has written a book with an intriguing title. The Necessity of Theater is a kind of philosophical treatise in which he attempts to parse, diagram and define the art of theatre. Using a Socratic method, Woodruff hypothesizes a definition of theatre and then sets out to test it from several different angles.

The one sentence definition he presents:

“Theatre is the art by which human beings make human action worth watching, in a measured time and space.”

The ensuing examination takes us from college sports stadiums to how Brecht’s theories triumphed in spite of himself. This is philosophy and so it reads much more methodically, and with less colorful examples than books written by such critics as Eric Bentley, Robert Brustein and even Brooks Atkinson. And it does not have the urgency of Brecht or Artaud’s rallying cries. However, by giving equal time to both sides of the sacred space, “watchers and the watched”, Woodruff opens up some new avenues into exploring theater’s continued relevance and survival.

His emphasis on the art of "watching" is unexpected, welcome, and refreshing. While we often focus our attention, and rightly so, on what is being practiced on stage, we rarely examine, beyond declining attendances and the graying of hair, what is happening on the other side of the lights.

If we really are to pursue the value of theatre as a human connection, then we have to start defining what makes a “good watcher.” Who is the ideal watcher? When are the times when we are at our best as theatre audiences? It is a complex investigation, and sometimes a counterintuitive one.

In the seventh grade we spent a whole music class learning how to watch a classical music performance. The teacher taught us the major movements and how we would be expected to react, applaud, etc. ( This was in a public school, by the way.) Woodruff’s book does not deal with this sort of instruction, as he is looking at the difficult elements of empathy, knowledge and wisdom. But he is interested in the question of transgression of the “sacred space” by both audience and actors. He tracks the tenuous line that transgressive theatre walks, and notes that the real boundary lies at the moment the transgression has interrupted the performance.

Skilled improv performers, working within a fluid, audience-inclusive format can effectively “absorb” a transgressing audience member, and still maintain the space of a show. However, if I am watching a straightforward, proscenium production of the Cherry Orchard at the Huntington and an audience member starts to yell about how the characters are making bad choices, almost immediately the performance has ended. Woodruff would liken this to the fan jumping on the football field to tackle an opposing tailback. This does not make the football game more interesting, Woodruff points out. Why? Because the moment the fan steps onto the field, it is no longer a football game.

Boundaries have just as much to do with the watchers as the watched. In Seattle there is an interesting monthly performance which forbids any audience members. In fact, the actors perform inside a box and the producer mails out postcards asking people NOT to attend. In one case, an audience member transgressed the boundaries by not only attending, but by attacking the box. Is this, secretly, the desired outcome of the creators?

In some ways, I think it would be radical to declare that it is not the watched, but rather the watchers that need to improve in order for theater to regain a larger role in the cultural conversation. But I think such a call will help to improve us all around. Are there ways that theatre artists can help audiences become better watchers? Or is such a proposition too individually focused for any type of instruction; do we risk being seen as the elementary school teacher instructing: “When the conductor enters, you clap.”

Being a good watcher means being deeply engaged, but not participating; caring, but not getting too emotional; thinking, but not drifting away in your thoughts; identifying, but avoiding transference. This is not easy, and it is certainly not passive. The best theatre does not simply invite the best watchers, it DEMANDS them. But, conversely, these demanding spectators are just what gives the art its juice.. Theatre is smart, and it thinks deeper on subjects than many other art forms do. Why? Because the audience is so damned tough.

To illustrate, Woodruff points out the almost impossible artistic achievements of some of our greatest works for the stage. Here he talks of the Greeks:

And so, in Oedipus at Colonus, the play of Sophocles’ that brings us closest to the actions of the gods, we are shown one human choice after another: Oedipus’s determination to sit in the sacred place, his refusal to return to Thebes, his curse against his sons, his plan for his own death, Theseus’s decision to assist him. And whatever the Gods may be doing to consummate Oedipus’s marvelous death, no action of theirs is shown or even described on stage. The messenger from offstage is not allowed to see the death which he reports, and the one man who observes it is forbidden to speak of it.

Sophocles has made Oedipus’s last day worth watching by filling it with action arising from choice, yet if any event is beyond human choice, it should be this one, in which Oedipus is claimed by his destiny. Sophocles seems to have done the impossible, to have conjured choice out of a close web of fate.

Think of the intellectual and emotional demands a play like that makes on the watchers as well as the watched.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Piece of Lighting History Needs Good Home

The Huntington is looking for a home for an old Carbon Arc Spotlight.

Collectors can inquire here.

Looking Outside The Known

Michael Feingold in the Village Voice:

Today, when most Broadway producers, nervous for their investment, see their artistic future almost wholly in terms of hit shows from the past and hit movies that can be revamped into large musicals, I often wonder if that bygone audience's contempt for predictability might not itself be ripe for revival.


Digression has its virtues. One might say that today's producers, among their other failings, don't digress enough. And by "producers," I mean our nonprofit institutions as well as those vast phalanxes of backers whose names now make up a dense paragraph over the show's title on every Broadway playbill. Relying on what they think succeeded once to be successful again, they've become almost fixated on a very small number of play titles as salable. They don't see plays as a wildly varied assortment of choices, or authors as the creators of a substantial body of work. For them, the names to conjure with are the few that have been profitably conjured with before.

The result is a systematic de-education of New York's audiences. Not exactly a dumbing-down—you could hardly say audiences are being dumbed down when they're urged to see Mamet's Speed-the-Plow and American Buffalo, which will shortly be playing a few midtown blocks from each other. But these two excellent plays, though they happen to have been commercial successes, hardly constitute Mamet's entire artistic output. The management that dreams of expanding our audience's Mamet awareness by taking a risk on, say, The Cryptogram or The Shawl—plays that didn't get such rousing receptions the first time around—is an element our theater lacks.

The Stratford Rundown

Tom Garvey has quite an extensive rundown of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.

You can read all about it here.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Fo and the Church

Michael Paulson, the Globe's religion reporter, (and writer of the Globe blog Articles of Faith,) reminds us of the stir Fo's Nobel Prize caused among Catholics.

Paulson checked out the current Nora Production of We Won't Pay, We Won't Pay!, Fo's farce about Capitalism. :

"We Won't Pay!" is an anti-capitalist comedy about inflation and poverty with a touch of repression and revolution. Its satirical eye is focused on government, police and corporate indifference. But it offers a taste of Fo's willingness to mock Catholic devotional practices, with a fantastical (and funny) scene spinning out a zany story about the blessings and curses offered by one St. Eulalia, and also with an ongoing gag about a character's supposed decision to stop taking the pill because the pope has been appearing in her dreams.

The play (whose title is sometimes translated as "We Can't Pay? We Won't Pay!") is more than a bit unsubtle for my taste (and a bit of a predictable programming choice for Cambridge -- it was previously staged at the ART in 1999); you'll have to wait for the Globe's critic for an assessment of the production and the performances. But it certainly provides an opportunity to get the flavor of Fo's work, and more than a few laughs as well.

Paulson is right, there are certain plays through which Americans are familiar with Dario Fo, and they tend to be the less incendiary ones: Mistero Buffo, The Accidental Death of an Anarchist and We Won't Pay, We Won't Pay.

Probably the most recent Fo controversy was was when the University of Minnesota staged The Pope and the Witch a couple of years ago. Minnesota Public Radio has a nice roundup of the story. The following is my favorite part of the article, containing an honest quote from one of the participants:

In the midst of this maelstrom of controversy are a bunch of young, enthusiastic and talented theater students preparing to go on stage, including Brant Miller.

Miller plays the Pope in "The Pope and the Witch." He says he's excited to be in the play, not because of its views on abortion, drugs or religion, but because it's the first time he's landed the lead in a university play.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Boston Theatre - On Your Marks...

The theatre season begins this week and won't slow down until Christmas. There are so many changes happening in the Boston theatre community that perhaps we will not grasp their importance until the entire 2008-2009 seasons are complete.

Of course, there is always the chance of the old saw about "the more things change" holding true, but some things certainly will be noticeably prominent. For instance, the new Central Square theater will gain more visibility as the time goes on. (It has been surprising to me how many people in the theatre community itself aren't aware of its existence yet. )

I am starting to get more and more press releases in my e-mail. There are many interesting projects coming up and I will try to see as many as I can.
Also, I want to continue the exploration started at the Stagesource Conference this past August. The title of the conference was "Raising Our Standards," and there was much discussion about whether or not Boston was a theatre town. Of course, the definition of the term "theatre town" tends to be amorphous and very slippery, and chasing it can easily lead us further from the "standards" question.

There are several other projects I would like to introduce. But probably the most important for me is to get other theatre artists involved in the discussion. We need more Boston theatre blogging, especially from the practicioners. I am not talking about marketing blogs, or dramaturgy blogs. I am talking about weblogs or social media in which artistic directors, directors, playwrights and designers get involved and engage with each other, the press and the public.

In London it is not uncommon for Artsitic Directors of fringe, midsized, or larger theatres to contribute to pieces to the Guardian online, or to other websites. In Chicago, many theatre artists and artistic directors run spirited blogs. Of course, in that town, the Tribune, a major newspaper, runs a theatre blog in which comments are open to the public.