Saturday, January 31, 2009


Leonard Jacobs takes on an article about the demise of the critic, written by Thomas Garry:

Note the assumptions in Garry's statement: that critics can and, in fact, must exist in traditional media only; that all blogger-critics are self-anointed and therefore, by definition, are untrained, unscrupulous, unwashed; that no blogger-critic can possess the credentials, the education, the wherewithal intellectually to write criticism worthy of the term.

As someone who has worked in print and Web journalism extensively, and as someone who is a committed blogger-critic and whose writing, I think, meets any fair standard of good or great criticism, I feel that Garry is rather obviously neglecting to acknowledge the long tradition of mediocre, willfully ignorant critics in print; that so many of them have lacked and continue to lack the academic background or the training as a practitioner to develop and deliver criticism that is both informed and constructive to the artists and audience. There is a difference between criticism that artists may disagree with, due to varying aesthetic judgments, and criticism that is inadequate because the critic possesses only some of the tools necessary to do the job effectively.

Bold is mine. Jacobs is right. I don't understand why so many who write about how the internet is diluting criticism fail to see that basic and very obvious point. Then again, maybe they have reasons for willfully ignoring it.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

And on the Other Hand...

Film critic Jim Emerson finally decided to watch Slumdog Millionaire. He registers a strong dissent:

I regretted my decision from the opening sequence, which intercuts an interrogation on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" with the eye-candy torture (beating, high-voltage toe-shocking) of a kid who's tied up and suspended from the ceiling -- all with thudding music (just like the TV game show!) and Dutch angles galore. (The television show is black and blue; the torture chamber is orange and red -- all glossy as can be.) This is Danny Boyle, slumming. Like its title, "Slumdog Millionaire" is so picturesquely "gritty" it's oleaginous. Even the cruelty is pristine. Casting is skin-deep: The good characters are pretty, the mean ones are distinguished by cosmetic irregularities, the slimy ones are... slimy-looking. At times it's like watching the reincarnation of Alan Parker.

Not since "Crash" -- or possibly "Mississippi Burning" -- has a movie packaged brutality in slicker, shinier, tighter shrink-wrap. It's asphyxiating. You will never have to worry about what you are supposed to feel and when you are supposed to feel it because the movie will always feed you the answers, then smack you when it's your cue to emote. You can "surrender" completely to the experience (it demands nothing less), and you needn't worry that you will be given an idle moment in which you will be left to feel, or breathe, on your own. This is the kind of mechanical spectacle people like to call an "audience picture," but that's simply because it doesn't allow any space for non-autonomic responses.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

New York, New York?

Adam Szymkowicz posted some really good "Advice to Playwrights Starting Out" on his blog a few days ago. But, within the post, some readers, (mostly from Chicago,) found the following section was giving them pause:

You need to know what other people are doing and you need to find your influences that you will eventually turn away from and the things you don’t like which will also define how you write. If you live in New York, you’ll have more chances to see plays than anywhere else. So if you can, live in New York at least for a while. You can usher to see plays for free or get discounts from TDF and other sources.

Initially, I was nodding my head to that statement. But then I have to ask: You may have more opportunity, but how much opportunity do you really need?

I don't mean to be a smart ass, but when I really think about it, I am not sure that Boston, while certainly a far cry from the surfeit of options in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, doesn't offer quite enough.

In the last month, just since January 1st, Boston playwrights will have had the opportunity to see:

The Cherry Orchard
The Seagull
Uncle Vanya
The Duchess of Malfi
A View of the Harbor - A New Play by Richard Dresser
The Year of Magical Thinking
Daughter of Venus by Howard Zinn
The New Century by Paul Rudnick
No Exit
Crying Deer - A Collaborative Production
Awake and Sing
ARTiculations - A Spoken Word Performance Piece
The Corn is Green

And those are just some of the professional productions. (It is short, I know, on new plays, but normally we have a bigger mix of those.)

My larger point is that we are at Day 29 of January and the abridged list above is 14 productions long. Those productions alone almost cover half of the days in the month. I haven't seen all of them, and I am fairly avid playgoer (about 100 or more a year on average.) And, best of all, you can see many of them at very good discounts, or even free, if you do the research.

By the way, I far from proclaiming that we are in some type of Golden Age, but I think it helpful to look at things this way. Or maybe I am just rationalizing?

While I was thinking about this, I also happened to see that Cary Tennis, a columnist at Salon dispenses the following advice to somebody seeking to pursue a career in acting:

You have to act. You have to make a living. Those two things are both true. But they are not mutually exclusive. Nor do they define each other. You do not have to make a living at acting. Nor do you have to stop acting to make a living. You just have to find room for both in your life.

Where can you most likely achieve both? New York. New York offers the most possibilities, but it may also offer the most hardships. If the preponderance of factors indicates that you must stay where you are, then you can stay where you are and continue acting and also make a living. That is for you to sort out.


Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Au Revoir, Great Line

I am working on a short play. I had begun it in hopes of submitting it for a certain festival.

The deadline passed for the festival, but theme of the festival, (which inspired the play,) intrigued me and I am continuing with it.

I wrote the best line for one of the characters the other night. As I wrote the line, I smiled. I thought, "what a clever line."

Reading it back to myself, silently, I suddenly chuckled. It was such a good line. Amazing, really.

I am sure that you would think so. Who wouldn't?

The next night I sat down to work again and read over what I had written up to that point. Ahhh, there it was... the Great Line. It was just as I left it - great and witty and encompassing many meanings. Yes.

It is gone now. It was deleted by my own hand - on purpose.

Goodbye, Great Line. Maybe we will meet again in another play. But for now... well, I didn't realize when we first met how much attention you drew to yourself.
It's not that you are not Great, you are... in all the ways I originally thought you were.

Au revoir, Great Line, you will always be clever in my memory.

Is the Great Line gone?

Yes? Good.

Now, between you and me, if you ever meet the Great Line, watch out. It's a real bore.

What's that? Yes, I know..."clever" blog posts can be annoying that way, too.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Pipe Dreams Bursting

Miller studied his Ibsen well. The "pipe dreams", as another American dramatist would call them, are not exorcised easily, and the process is painful and usually involves a death.

I am never really sure about Hoffman's performance, but I think Malkovich is the best Biff I've ever seen, on stage or screen.

A (warm) Room of One's Own

My friend, photographer Brad Kelly took this shot with his I Phone

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Quote - Bentley on Dialogue

"Actually, though some of the great modern playwrights have been classed as Naturalists, they have one and all been hostile to Naturalism. They have all rejected banality, and have demanded a larger dramatic world. What confuses us it that they were often quasi-Naturalistic. A person may open a volume of Ibsen and conclude: 'Well this is just ordinary conversation.' There is nothing in the individual sentence, or sometimes on the individual page, to give him the lie. The dialogue of Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov and Pirandello does start from both ordinary conversation and from the kind of dialogue most closely related to it. The unit remains the uttered remark, but the units are then related to each other with extreme sophistication. Actors who till then had noticed only the banality of each sentence in a Chekhov scene are suddenly amazed to find that the scene as a whole is a poem. Ibsen should be credited with the invention of an anti-poetry. He made a fine art of the understatement, the evasion, the unfinished sentence. In a sense, his writing undercuts poetry and reduces it triviality. This happens with Hedda Gabler's poetic phrase 'vine leaves in his hair,' and with Hilda Wangel's 'harps in the air.'"

-Eric Bentley, The Life of the Drama

Friday, January 16, 2009

What seems like ages ago, but might have only been one or two years ago, one of the more popular arguments against the rise of online criticism was that it would produce a chorus of saccharine, but dull gushings of praise.

The argument went that online critics would be unofficial, (or official,) boosters of everything they saw. I never believed that; From Amazon reviews, up to bloggers you can find thoughtful criticism and even some sharp barbss out there.

Here are three quotes from current Boston theatre reviews that you can only find online:

For The Duchess of Malfi:

I'm almost certain the original reaction to all this bombast was not "Oh the horror of it all!" but "Good show, but more blood! Give us more blood!"

I don't mean to insult the company --- still a favorite of mine in a crowded and bubbling Boston theater scene. They lurk and curse and scheme and avenge and double-cross one another as though the over-inflated emotions in the lines didn't cry out for comic timing and takes worthy of the Marx Brothers. It takes more than half a dozen bodies to make a tragedy, so I hope these serious actors get a chance, say at the final cast-party, to play it all for laughs and let it all hang out. And I'd love to be there if they do.

For The Corn is Green:

That said, the Huntington production soon vanishes from memory as they often do, the fault always being that blasted big barn of a stage: the set designers are obliged to fill it clear up to the flies, resulting in a puffed-up mise-en-scene with no mood or flavor to it; here, Mr. Williams’ humble living-room becomes James Noone’s ski lodge, complete with skylight and a sense of air-conditioning about the place.
When Kate Burton, still youngish, enters on wheels, the effect goes for nothing (though she gets her applause, all the same). Miss Moffat calls for a larger-than-life personality that can sweep all before her; Ms. Burton’s strength is an hostess-glow which in the evening’s quiet moments is compelling, even moving; otherwise, she is obliged to bustle about and her Moffat becomes a pest rather than a force of nature. (If only Mr. LeBow could tuck her into his pocket when he heads back to the A.R.T. --- think of the topsy-turvy, then!)

And for The Year of Magical Thinking:

But as that year of tragedy, and subsequent magical thinking, goes on, less-magical thoughts begin to cross our minds which simply don't seem to cross Didion's. Such as: what, in the end, was actually the matter with poor Quintana? And why is the dying young woman's own grief given such short shrift (she's actually having an even worse year than her mother)? And what, precisely, is the point of the many long evocations of all this superstitious behavior? Like a stand-up who only knows one joke, Didion keeps delivering the same bad news over and over, to diminishing returns, while one can sense the real life of her drama is elsewhere.

Boston Theatre - Friday Roundup


Speakeasy Stage presents Paul Rudnick's collection of 4 new comedies. The New Century opens this weekend at the Boston Center for the Arts. The video trailer is above.

This weekend only 7ASeries at the Footlight Club puts on an adaptation of Moliere's classic The Miser. Directed and adapted by Daniel Bourque.

Clifford Odet's Awake and Sing opens at the Gamm Theatre down in Providence.


John Kuntz plays the Emcee at the Cabaret in Watertown. New Rep produces the Kander and Ebb musical.

Chekhov is all over the stages in Boston: Uncle Vanya at the Boston Center for the Arts. The Cherry Orchard at the Central Square Theater and The Seagull at the American Repertory Theatre.

Over at Fort Point, John Webster's little staged Duchess of Malfi is being presented by Actors Shakespeare Project.

Company One's ARTiculation keeps on rhyming and rolling at the Boston Playwrights Theatre

The Grotowski inspired piece Crying Deer contiues at the Boston Center for Arts.

Joan Didion, in the the form of Boston Actress Nancy Carroll, holds court on death and the aftermath in the Lyric Stage production of Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking.

Nicholas Martin and Kate Burton return to the Huntington mainstage with a prodution of The Corn is Green.

The regional premiere of Richard Dresser's A View of the Harbor continues at Merrimack Repertory Theatre out in Lowell.

Chris Shinn's Dying City plays through the month at Hartford Stage.

"Do You Expect Me To Advertise Online?"

"No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die."

Chicago critic Kris Vire was participating in a panel about "The Incredible Shrinking Arts Media:"

...I was struck at tonight's discussion by the remarks of a gentleman representing another theater company, who seemed particularly frustrated by the panel's focus on the web. I'm paraphrasing here, but his question was something like, "What do you do when 90% of your audience is not online?"

Um…your organization dies?

I don't mean to seem glib, and I didn't get to answer this person's question as thoroughly as I'd hoped in the moment. But—and I'm assuming that since his audience is not online, I won't be offending them by writing this here on the intertubes—if you intend on remaining complacent with the audience you already have, and you're not attempting to attract new audiences: You. Will. Die.

Somerville Winter

Somerville Snow, originally uploaded by arthennessey.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Boston Theatre - Herald Freelance Stable

Jenna Scherer must be on vacation at the Herald, the last few reviews, (The Duchess of Malfi, The Cherry Orchard and ARTiculation,) have each been by different reviewers.

Online critics, Larry Stark and Thom Garvey, are the only ones who seem to be seeing the fringier fare: For instance,Crying Deer and Uncle Vanya at the Boston Center for the Arts.

On that note, you should probably check out Don Hall's post about how some storefront theaters in Chicago are starting to receive thanks-but-no-thanks RSVP's from print publications.

Here an an interesting quote from Don's post:

On the third hand, this is exactly why those traditionally known as the arbiters of theatrical taste have everything to fear from the Blogospheriums. When theatrical criticism has no teeth and is strictly there to act as a consumer report rather than a balls-to-the-walls discussion of craft and hard-nosed opinion, what'd they all expect?

And here's the second swing of that pendulum. An awful lot of theatrical journalism in the past ten years or so has been unfailingly polite. There's been little sense that theater matters enough to get up in peoples' faces and get scrappy about it. We all know one hard and fast rule of the work we do - PASSION MOTIVATES. With the advocacy of the arts in the hands of a timid and bloodless press, fearful of stepping on toes or calling bullshit when they see bullshit, is it any wonder their pages are less frequently read?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Felon Felines! Now Onsale

Felonous Felines, originally uploaded by arthennessey.

Yes, that's your humble author as the dimwitted henchman of a famous villainess (played by the talented Elizabeth Brunette.)

The Superheroine Monologues, directed by Greg Maraio and written by Boston's funnymen John Kuntz and Rick Park, is a parody of famous female crimefighters, and I will be playing some small roles in support of the wonderful cast of Boston actresses, including my lovely wife.

If seeing some of the most beautiful actresses in Boston as superheroes doesn't bring you out, well, you at least get the chance to see this blogger in tights.

Here is the link:

Not Sure About That...

I think, on this one, Seth Godin is just wrong.

He makes a good point, from a purely market-driven stance, but I fear he misses the forest through the un-pulped trees.

He posits that the most valuable thing that newspapers do, which is not consistently being done (sometimes) better online, is investigative journalism. True enough, in many cases, but I think Godin is grossly downplaying what goes into an investigative piece, or, indeed, even a standard piece of reporting.

As Thom Garvey and I have pointed out recently, even arts and culture stories like the investigation into the Citi Center for the Performing Arts, need some type of institutional power behind them. True, there are countless successful investigative pieces that have been written by freelance journalists, but the ones that really speak truth to power are often the product of news organizations putting their financial and institutional power behind them. (And that's before we even get into legal ramifications.)

Now, I know that Godin is more just speculating about what the inevitable future may be, but his tone betrays too much free market trust for my taste. For instance, here is one of his statements:

if we really care about the investigation and the analysis, we'll pay for it one way or another. Maybe it's a public good, a non profit function. Maybe a philanthropist puts up money for prizes. Maybe the Woodward and Bernstein of 2017 make so much money from breaking a story that it leads to a whole new generation of journalists.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Snark - A Defense

Film Critic David Denby's new book Snark has been getting quite a bit of press. In the book, Denby laments the rise of a snarky society and blames, of course, the internets.

Adam Sternbergh, a New York Magazine critic, points out how Denby, and those like him, seem to misunderstand the uses of snark:

When no one—from politicians to pundits—says what he actually means, irony becomes a logical self-inoculation. Similarly, snark, irony’s brat, flourishes in an age of doublespeak and idiocy that’s too rarely called out elsewhere. Snark is not a honk of blasé detachment; it’s a clarion call of frustrated outrage.

Take this small example from Denby’s book: In pining for the tough-talking wit of Rosalind Russell and her ilk, he writes, “Whatever its miseries, the country in the thirties and forties was at peace with itself spiritually: We were all in the same boat.” Now, you could calmly point out Denby’s lazy generalization as he reimagines a time of widespread inequality as an idyllic epoch of snappy-pattered togetherness. Or you could respond, “Denby, you dumbass, not only were we not all in the same boat, we weren’t even at the same water fountains.” Sometimes the snarky response is the correct response.

Don't Fear the Online Critic

Blogger Mission Paradox is counted among those who are going to miss all those print critics. He points out that Strong, credible critical voices can make somebody take a risk on a new work, or even a new art form. He goes on:

Plus, losing critical voices tends to hurt smaller arts organizations that need a good, widely read, review to build audience for their work.

If I were those smaller orgs, I would start reaching out and supporting a few of the good online art critics. I'd make sure they came to my shows, I would give them info to report, maybe even buy an ad or two on their site (if they are into that sort of thing).

Trust me, you need a few of those critics with a small audience to become critics with a large audience . . . so don't be afraid to help them on their way.

Friday, January 09, 2009

What Can You Do...But Donate

The blog 99 Seats has a very honest, from-the-gut reaction to the SOS calls from some regional theaters as of late:

Listen. I don't wish the Magic, their staff or anyone ill will. I've been there, seen some good shows, had a reading, met good people. This isn't just kneejerk bitterness or contrarianism. I do wonder what a business model based entirely on begging is doing for us as a community. I do wonder what a culture that says gross mismanagement is okay is doing for us. And I don't know what message it sends to the world. It would be a shame if the Magic failed. But it's also a shame if the Magic is saved and three months later we stop asking why it nearly failed.

Locally, North Shore Music Theater has made national news with its own fiscal death spiral. As Thom Garvey mentioned yesterday on his Hubreview, NSMT is making headway in its fundraising goal of $500,000. We donated what little we could to their effort, which seems Herculean, but I admit I had similar thoughts as Mr. 99 seats.

If you read Mr. 99 Seats' full post you will see that his reaction to some of these deficits is shock, followed closely by the suspicion that there is more going on than just an economic slowdown. Like the way most of us viewed the auto industry executives when they approached Congress, we can't help thinking that this kind of financial mess is the result of mismanagement by the hat holders themselves. And that is probably right in most cases.

To many in the Boston theatre community, North Shore Music Theater may as well be on another planet. They do strictly big musicals and cast at least most of the main roles outside of the area. But they do what they do very well. They bring a highly sophisticated production value, technical proficiency and, (with their in-the-round configuration,) imaginative staging to every production I have ever seen there.

I am not sure that a vacuum created by North Shore Music Theater could be filled so quickly; I can't imagine that we would see the Huntington or the American Repertory Theatre presenting a large-scale Bye Bye Birdie, and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers anytime soon. What about the Downtown show barns? Well, even the Broadway Across America production of Brigadoon has been put on hold.

But aside from those points, the reason I find I donate when these calls are sent out is the feeling that I can do something to effect a change.

In other words the difference is the difference I can make.

Right now, I have friends in various industries that are facing imminent layoffs. There is really nothing you can do to help it. I can't buy more product from their employer to stave it off, I can't purchase stock to shore up the ledgers and keep my friends on the payroll. I can help them out individually, but I can't secure their employment.

In the case of these theaters, remember that they do employ people, people who aren't really working for a tremendous amount of money. (I will save the discussion of the ridiculous disparity of wages in these institutions for another day.) The development assistant making 28K or the box office manager making 35K are working hard forlong hours and they will be out of work in a tough job climate.

Additionally, these theaters DO employ artists. We all have thoughts on how this could be better, and it COULD be better, but they do pay artists, playwrights, actors, musicians, designers, etc.

Unlike the corporate world, in these instance you can send a check and you CAN keep some people employed, at least for a time being. If North Shore Music Theatre receives the money it needs, it won't have to close. You can make a donation here.

Merrimack Repertory Theatre is another theater struggling with finances lately. You can donate here.

It could well be that these gestures are Pyrrhic.

By the way, this shouldn't, in any way, stop you from giving to theatres that are fiscally healthy as well.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Boston Theatre - The Year Begins With Magical Thinking

The stage incarnation of Joan Didion's play, The Year of Magical Thinking has opened at the Lyric Stage here in Boston.

And so the year's first stage reviews are coming out.

Thom Garvey, Louise Kennedy and Robert Nesti find the solo piece just a little too "cool" and detached, and are left wondering. Some had more patience than others.

While, Jenna Scherer seemed to be taken with the piece, at least emotionally.
And Carolyn Clay says, " the play balances a scalpel-worthy dissection of grief with a cautionary tale about the illusoriness of control." And she suggests a complexity for the piece, but she doesn't really outline either case. (She has to move quickly into a review of a new book about Spalding Gray.)

Speaking of shrinking column space, The Hub Review talks about the shrinking of local media and what that might mean for Arts reporting and reviewing...and for arts marketing and publicity.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Boston Theatre - January is Chekhov Month

Anton Chekhov influences the Hub with a couple of productions.

The American Repertory Theatre presents The Seagull starting next week.

In their new home at the Central Square Theater, Nora is putting on The Cherry Orchard.

And Boston Art Theatre presents an adaptation of Uncle Vanya, at the Boston Center for the Arts. The tickets are FREE!