Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Endless Pleasures of Pull Quote Litigation

This time from the West End theatre production of The Shawshank Redemption:

It seemed the perfect way to draw in theatregoers: a sign outside Wyndham's containing a reviewer's quote, describing The Shawshank Redemption as "a superbly gripping, genuinely uplifting drama."

Unfortunately, the phrase was about the Hollywood film, not the West End stage production. And it turns out the reviewer didn't even like the play that much.

Westminster Trading Standards is now looking at whether Wyndham's, in Charing Cross Road, has broken consumer protection legislation by using a "misleading" quote.

Back from the Dead?

Geoff Edgers has more on North Shore Music Theater's lifeline:

William Hanney, who owns Theatre By the Sea in Rhode Island as well as the chain of 10 New England multiplexes known as Entertainment Cinemas, has reached a purchase agreement with Citizens Bank, which acquired the Beverly theater last month.

“This theater is literally ready to reopen,’’ said Hanney, 40, who lives in Brewster. “The phone lines are still there, the computers are still humming.’’

Of course, the interesting questions are still to come. What will the management look like? What did they learn?

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year!

It seems everybody is under pressure these days. In London, Actor Ian Hart leapt from the stage to apparently attack an audience member:

According to a witness, Hart, 45, best-known for playing Professor Quirrell in the Harry Potter films, "exploded with anger" during the curtain call of Speaking in Tongues at the Duke of York's theatre in the West End. The focus of his ire was Gerard Earley, a 38-year-old web developer from south London, whom Hart believed had been talking through his performance.

Exactly what happened is difficult to work out. Earley, who went to see the play with his girlfriend and denies disruptive behaviour, told the Daily Mail that "a wild-looking" Hart definitely jumped from the stage – but he wasn't quite sure if he had been physically attacked. "He lost it and lunged forward. I don't think he hit me," Earley said. "One of the members of staff grabbed him and stopped him attacking me."

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Quote of the Day- On Writing by Committee

"One man wrote War and Peace. It took 25 screenwriters to come up with The Flintstones' movie."

- Joe Esterhas, The Devil's Guide to Hollywood

Broadway After Dark

After the closing of the rather traditional Neil Simon repertory of Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound, all eyes will be watching Broadway's latest experiment, coming to us from the folks at Lincoln Center.

Ladies and Gentlemen, put the kids to bed, because things get a little blue in Times Square when you tune into Broadway After Dark!

Just look what the pre-show piece from AP promises about Sarah Ruhl's lates play In the Next Room (or the vibrator play.)

And so Catherine is finely dressed as a bored, ball of energy with inadequate breast milk for her infant. She's married to the zipped-up Dr. Givings (Michael Cerveris) who won't stop yammering about the potential of electricity -- a technology not at all lost on Catherine as she revels in her new lamps, befriends a couple of her husband's artistically bent patients and hires a wet nurse.

Drawn by noises coming from the office during treatment of one Mrs. Daldry (Maria Dizzia), Catherine allows curiosity to get the best of her and picks the lock on the magical door. Catherine and Mrs. Daldry use the machine on each other while Dr. Givings is out at his club one night.

I do admit, I was amused by this small snippet of the article:

Ruhl says she wasn't out to shock audiences with her play, including
the final act that leaves Dr. Givings completely without clothes as he gives
himself over to his wife.

Shocking! - know, we never see men naked on stage these days.

Poor Neil Simon, how could he ever compete when the advertising for his show looked like this:

Monday, November 16, 2009

People Flower, Boston, MA

People Flower, Boston, MA, originally uploaded by BradKellyPhoto.

My friend, photographer Brad Kelly, can even make the Hynes Convention Center interesting.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Boston Theatre - Friday Roundup

In case you were wondering if there is anything to see at the theater this weekend, the answer is yes!

Opening :

Paula Vogel's latest, A Civil War Christmas opens at the Huntington Theatre this weekend. The Globe's pre-show piece is here.

Speakeasy Stage Company opens Craig Lucas's Reckless, billing it as their Christmas show.

A band called the Hot Protestants is performing as The Angry Inch in Blue Spruce's production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch at the Arsenal Center for the Arts.

Last Chance:

Dead Man's Cell Phone powers down at the Lyric Stage.

Theatre Offensive will be wrapping up the Out on the Edge Festival this weekend at the Boston Center for the Arts.

At the Factory Theatre, Holland Productions will close the curtain on Kid Simple: a radio play in the flesh.

Maureen McGovern's A Long and Winding Road comes to an end on Sunday at the Calderwood Pavillion.

Petruchio and Kate fight their last round this weekend over at Actor's Shakespeare Project's Taming of the Shrew.


Zeitgeist's political parable Lady keeps hunting.

Geopolitics and genocidal madness continue with Company One's The Overwhelming.

Apollinaire Theatre Company in Chelsea continues taking audiences into The Wonderful World of Dissocia. (Photo Above: Philana Mia in the Apollinaire production.)

Homer's Odyssey gets the theatrical treatment at the Charlestown Working Theater.

At the Boston Playwright's Theatre, John Kuntz takes to the stage, by himself. His one man play, The Salt Girl is in its premiere run.

The American Repertory Theatre keeps running with Punchdrunk's Sleep No More and their roller-disco Donkey Show.

Ryan Landry and his Gold Dust Orphans are onstage at Machine with the latest sendup: Valet of the Dolls.

"It is the best of times..." at Wheelock Family Theater for a few more weeks as their production of Dicken's A Tale of Two Cities continues.

Trinity Rep's production of Steven Dietz's Shooting Star continues burning across the Providence sky for a few weeks.


Thursday, November 12, 2009

Beware the TalkWrite Gossip!

Back in September I posted a link to Rolando Teco's Extracriticum post on the open submission process at the O'Neill.

Nick at RatSass posts today about how, it would appear, these allegations have not had any journalism to back them up, and, yet, somehow made their way around very quickly. Even to the point of the O'Neill Center having to respond.

Nick sees a creeping danger in this:

Rejecting 800 playwrights each year will always create a rich environment for rumors about how the open submission at the National Playwrights Conference is administered. So transparency and facts alone will never completely counter rumor/opinion-based blog and e-newsletter posts. But this type of conversation once belonged almost exclusively to the informal chat of dinner parties. Now it has thoroughly permeated our written, public record. From the early theatre listservs to the blogosphere, our digital correspondence is ushering in a new generation of TalkWrite, and with it a new ethic of behavior in theatre as well.

But Nick's real question is: How do we treat gossip in the age of the internet?

Throughout history society has devised various ways for individuals to correct or atone for their wrong words. Sometimes the price has been stiff. Wrong words in the form of heresy or treason might even demand a death sentence. Our American founding fathers fought duels over the dishonor wrought by wrong words.

Today, wrong words about another individual generally demand no more than an apology. Or if the wrong words are placed in the public realm, then a public retraction or apology is offered. But is it now acceptable behavior to simply “de-publish” false words without assuming any responsibility for their wrongdoing?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Theatre's Responsibility

Matt Trueman, writing in the Guardian blog, talks about seeing an esoteric piece of theatre involving Gone with the Wind and Hurricane Katrina. He felt a little lost:

Even as I felt adrift in the piece, I was aware of the scalpel's presence, dissecting American history, culture and politics and holding up the innards for scrutiny. I knew it was saying something intelligent, but I couldn't find an entry point. It was like reading a doctoral thesis in a subject I stopped studying at 13: frustrating, baffling and, eventually, isolating.

My incomprehension led me to question how much theatre can expect of us, its audience. Ought it to presume nothing and explain everything? Should it treat us like idiots by playing to the lowest common denominator? Of course not. To insist on such mollycoddling would be to outlaw anything that does more than scratch the surface. However, theatre has a responsibility to be accessible. It is, after all, as much about the communication of ideas as it is about the ideas themselves. The best theatre allows us to share in the artist's unusual perspective and see the world differently.

One commenter on the article has this response:

"However, theatre has a responsibility to be accessible."

Does it? Accessible to whom? This sounds like the argument that Abba are better than Mozart because more people like them. Do Chinese opera and Japanese Noh theatre have a responsibility to be accessible to a Western audience? Does contemporary dance have a responsibility to be accessible to people who've never seen any dance before? Does sculpture have a responsibility to be accessible to people who've never visited an art gallery?

Some works assume a higher degree of cultural capital in their audience than others; that doesn't make it better or worse, just different.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

A New Way of Reviewing?

Bill Marx at the ArtsFuse is trying a new type of reviewing system for Theatre:

He is calling the new feature: The Judicial Review:

The inspiration for the Judicial Review is the U.S. Supreme Court. Arts events will be evaluated by a local panels of “judges” who will post majority and dissenting opinions in the form of written reviews or via video- or podcasts. The panel will be made up of a combination of professional critics and non-professional observers.

Our goal is to introduce a supervised space for educational, passionate, and incisive conversation about the arts that draws on the strengths of various levels of expertise. By doing so, it is hoped that the judges will learn from each other as well as offer a variety of perspectives that will invite responses that will deepen readers understanding of the arts and the craft of criticism.

In any trial there is a place for a “Friend of the Court” brief. The Judicial Review will include a space for the artists themselves to have their say, to contribute to the respectful exchange. The arts organization under review will be invited to file opinions.

This idea is my response to the considerable challenges and opportunities that the web poses for criticism of the arts, as well as my belief, after 30 years of writing and reading arts criticism, that the verdict of a review, while essential, is not the most important part of a review. Criticism is at its most vital when it foster spirited dialogue, when critics help us take the arts seriously by connecting creativity with our thinking and feeling selves.

The first review, for Company One's The Overhelming is up now.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

What Type of Play Are You Writing? Part 4

Continuing to think about the types of plays we see on our stages.

Up to now, I think I am have been talking about generally recognizable types of plays and the comments have already included some excellent questions.

After laying out the categories of Actual People - Actual World, Boundary Breaker and Monologue, it is time to present the most difficult category.

5. Experimental

Some playwrights aren't satisfied to simply play with conventions and twist reality a bit. Some artists want to twist, re-define, or, in some cases, destroy the very idea of a "play."

Richard Foreman, Samuel Beckett, Young Jean Lee, Robert Wilson and many more have contributed to this genre. Some have remained in this realm for their entire careers.

This is a very slippery category. Ian Thal, in a comment on my post about Boundary Breaker plays, brought up the point that what are boundaries to one generation might not be boundaries to another. Similarly, what was experimental to one generation, may not be to another.

Here we also start reaching the blurred border between play and theatrical event or play and poetry. This is a ruthless no man's land where audiences, critics and artists watch with skepticism from the far foothills of either side, while bold, or crazy, adventurers try to chart a course through the middle.

What plays fall into this category? I'll admit, it is tough to say, but I know it when I read it, (to steal a phrase.)

There is usually no conventional structure to grab onto into the experimental play - I start to feel, more and more, that I am simply at the mercy of the playwright. When reading the text I find that my interest intensifies even though I am somewhat at sea, but a persistent thought keeps turning over in my mind: "I think I need to see this to get what is going on here." This is not really confusion as much as intrigue.

These types of plays that should never be subjected to the typical playwriting group or reading. Playwrights venturing in this direction desperately need fellow travellers - collaborators, patrons, mentors. I have trouble, for instance, imagining a young playwright creating a Richard Foreman-style play and submitting it for consideration at many of the "development" programs in our regional theaters.

An important thing to note: Many playwrights who work primarily in the Actual World -Actual People and Boundary Breaker genres will, from time to time, poach from the Experimental camp. This is why we will sometimes oberve a strange movement piece with found text inserted into a rather realistic play. Which is a good place to proceed to some new thoughts.

Tomorrow: When Types Collide!

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Brother Blue, Rest In Peace

Sad news. Brother Blue, a fixture here in Boston, and just a genuine, positive presence, has passed on.

CCTV has a post.

He will be missed.

What Type of Play Are You Writing? Part 3

The last couple of days I have been thinking/writing out loud about the "types" of plays that we see on our stages.

The first two types, Actual People - Actual World and Boundary Breaker, are most often created with multiple characters.

This does not have to be the case though. For instance, Krapp's Last Tape by Samuel Beckett is about an older man sitting alone in his flat on the evening of his birthday. He has a birthday tradition of recording himself on a reel to reel and also listening to a choice recording from an earlier time in his life. During the play, we hear a recording of Krapp at thirty nine and we hear Krapp recording his current installment.

There are no other characters - just Krapp and the recording of himself at thirty nine, and there are no boundaries broken. Although there is a bit of stage direction about Krapp kicking a banana peel into the pit.

The next type of play I would like to discuss is distinct from a play like Krapp, and it is a very popular type. Most regional theaters contain at least one of these plays a season.

3. Monologue Plays

One person, speaking a single monologue to the audience. One person telling the story, one person acting all the characters in the story, one person interacting with video projections, etc.

One person.

This is a very wide category and includes the monologues of Mike Daisey and Spalding Gray; works like The Good Thief and Saint Nicholas by Conor McPherson as well as Will Eno's Thom Pain (based on nothing). We also have autobiographical plays like Wishful Drinking or Confessions of Mormon Boy. Even Will Ferrell's on man show You're Welcome America, is in this category.

The main distinction in the category, I am thinking, is the awareness of the monologist/character/actor that he or she is telling a story to an audience, to a group of people.

While thinking about this category, some guestions arose.

Would the work of Spalding Gray or Mike Daisey be considered a play? These types of artsist work somewhat extemporaneously, but they do have a very sound structure.

What about, for instance, a play like Ronan Noone's The Atheist, in which the actor seems to be addressing the audience, but really the device Ronan uses is to have the character speaking into a camcorder, as if he is giving us his last "confession." This is a very popular way to present a monologue play as seeming more "real."

There are also "One Man/One Woman ____________" projects. For example, The One Man Star Wars, The One Man Gospel of Luke. A recent regional favorite is the one man It's a Wonderful Life.

The Monologue Play type has a twin:

4. The Multiple Monologue Play

Several characters tell distinct monologues that may or may not intersect dramatically, but usually at least follow a similar theme or sometimes track a story from different angles. The monologues can be in succession or interwoven. These monologues can be delivered by one person.

Most of Eric Bogosian's work and Anna Deveare Smith's plays are in this category, as are most documentary theatre projects like The Exonerated. This category also includes Molly Sweeney, Bash; the latter day plays, This Lime Tree Bower,Crave and Love Letters.

In some instances, separate characters may interact in a dramatic way on a limited basis. For example, A Steady Rain does this a little bit.

Tomorrow: "This Is A Play?"

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

What Type of Play Are You Writing? Part 2

Yesterday, I posted on plays which are populated by Actual People in the Actual World and which obey laws of time, space and emotion as we pretty much know and observe them to be in everyday life.

Today, I want to talk about plays that twist that type of play a bit.

2. Boundary Breaker Plays

These are plays in which characters and settings "break boundaries" between fantasy and reality; present, past and future; audience and actors, etc. In a Boundary Breaker play an element which violates our "realistic" understanding and expectation of how our world and universe works is put into the dramatic mix.

However, the important distinction here is that these boundary violations have a DIRECT IMPACT on the drama. (More on this a little later.)

Before you jump to the conclusion that I am only addressing some type of contemporary movement towards "magical realism", let me point out the following titles I would include in this genre: Medea, The Tempest, Endgame, Angels in America, Midsummer Night's Dream, Seascape, Eurydice, Six Characters in Search of An Author, Our Town, Copenhagen,Blasted, and meta-plays like The Four of Us.

As I said yesterday, simply fracturing or playing with narrative does not automatically make a play a Boundary Breaker. However, if this time-play becomes the point of the play, or something the characters become aware of or have to deal with, then the boundary has been broken.

Let's take Michael Frayn's Copenhagen as an example. The play deals with actual people, (they even really existed ,) and gives us a recognizable event in which these people seem to act and react in understandable ways. So far, this is an Actual People - Actual World Play. Next, Frayn plays with the narrative a bit, he shows us the same event, several times with slight changes, but we are still in Actual People - Actual World territory.

Frayn decided to set the play in a kind of limbo, or afterlife. It is a strange place which allows the characters to question each other in ways they would not have been able to in "real" life. In other words, Frayn breaks the boundaries of time and place. This bold choice allows the characters to have a strange, almost omniscient existence, yet they retain gaps in their understandings of each other's motivations.

Another example of a Boundary Breaker would be the meta play. For example, a play where the characters suddenly become aware of the audience, or they become aware that they are characters in a play or watching a play.

This is not to be confused with the convention of "play-within-a-play," which goes something like this: We, the audience, watch a scene onstage between several actors, and just as we are getting involved we hear a voice from behind yell, "Cut!" We suddenly become aware that we have watching actors performing in a play. Throughout the evening we return to watching that original play, but we also follow the "real" actors and their drama.

I also talked a little about the chatty narrator yesterday. Many plays have a narrator, or even multiple characters that occasionally address the audience directly. This may appear to break the boundary, but it is often momentary and has no dramatic consequence with regards to the conflict. This technique can enrich the the drama or, more often, weaken it.

One last thing to expand upon from yesterday's post: Imaginary characters appearing in an otherwise Actual World-Actual People Play. Ghosts are a common example of this, but recently, historical characters have been all the rage.

When does this introduction of an imaginary character actually break the boundaries?

I'll use two plays as examples:

In the play Memory of Waterby Shelagh Stephenson, three Yorkshire sisters gather at their childhood home for the funeral of their mother, who has just passed away. The ghost of their mother appears to one of the daughters throughout the play. They converse, have conversations, and the daughter asks questions which the mother answers vaguely. Nobody else in the play sees this ghost, and, primarily, this device is used to deepen the emotional bond and layer the stakes for one character. The decisions revelations and actions of the characters are not particularly influenced by the appearance of this spectre, and there is a question if it is just a memory or a dream.

In Paul Rudnick's play I Hate Hamlet, a television actor, who has been cast to play Hamlet in Central Park, moves into John Barrymore's old apartment. The ghost of the eccentric and dashing Barrymore appears on the scene and proceeds to mentor, aggravate, motivate and complicate the actor's life. The swaggering spectre even appears to another character and dances with her.

In Memory of Water, the ghost is simply a device, but in I Hate Hamlet the ghost IS the play, and he is breaking boundaries and affecting outcomes all over the place.

Tomorrow, we will look at another distinct "type" of play.

Monday, November 02, 2009

What Type of Play Are You Writing? Part 1

Blogger 99 Seats wrote a post a bit ago that talks about "tricks" and conventions that go in and out of fashion with playwriting.

Others bloggers have brought up the topic of genres.

Screenwriters work within genres. Mastering or having knowledge of various genres is a very important part of their development. These categories are broken down like you would expect: Horror, Thriller, Detective, Comedy, etc.

Then, as discussion goes longer and deeper, sub-genres emerge. Screenwriting "guru" John Truby is often attributed this quote: "When people tell me they are writing a Comedy, my first reaction is to ask what kind?" In Hollywood and independent film the fusion of genres is still a popular way to present a story.

These particular genres, so important to the world of film, aren't all that helpful to playwrights. The film genres like Thriller and Detective have "story beats" that act as principles to help writers structure their action. However, writing for the stage is not as tied to action as the screen is.

David Mamet has said that a primary difference between film and stage is that film is mostly about what happens next whereas the theatre is more about how people deal with what has happened, is about to happen, or is happening.

In the world of playwriting, there are the arch genres of Comedy and Tragedy, then there are their respective lesser twins, Farce and Melodrama.

Important as it is to for a writer to understand those categories, I wonder if they really represent clearly the types of plays we see represented on our stages today? To go further, can we really break what we see into any type of categories?

I see a lot of productions, sometimes close to 150, and I read a good amount as well.
Of course, styles are very disparate when looking at the plays produced and premiered around the country every year, but, if you really think about it, certain "types" start to sort themselves out.

I'll start with the first category today, and then continue over the next couple of days. I am still thinking about all of this though.

1. Actual People - Actual World

Here are recognizable human beings acting in the physical world as we know it. Characters, motivations and actions can certainly be mysterious, but the consequences that loom are sensible and understandable. (Some may use the word causal.) In this type of play, if somebody is stabbed, they bleed, and if they don't get medical attention they will die. The characters generally understand this type of thing.

If a character is threatened in an Actual People - Actual World play, Joan of Arc doesn't pop out of the Frigidaire to whisk him or her away to 17th Century China.

This type of play does not have to take place in the contemporary world. Historical dramas and comedies can qualify, as well as plays set in the future.

There are a couple of sub genres here that end up being mixed and tweaked:

a. Limited Location, Limited Scenes

Usually this is the standard two act or three act, multiple character, one set or two set play. August Wilson and most of David Mamet for example. These plays usually unfold in longer time segments. For instance, two acts, each with two half hour scenes.

b. Multiple Scenes across Multiple Locations

One scene is in an apartment, the next scene is two days later in a Starbucks and the next scene is the next morning at an airport terminal. Usually this is played on a unit set that can stand in for multiple places or, depending on the budget, the sets can slide on and off. These plays can sometimes have 13,14 20 or more scenes.

c. Linear Narrative

Time unfolds in a straight line.

d. Fractured Narrative Or Parallel Narratives

Scenes take place out of order or cover two different time periods intermittently. (Stoppard's Arcadia or Pinter's Betrayal.)

Things to Note:

Actual People - Actual World plays can have imaginary characters in them. These characters and their actions just can't spill over into major dramatic conflict or consequences. Many of these types of plays feature ghosts, tangible memories, or limited effects -expressionistic or otherwise.

Here are some examples:

1. Hamlet is an Actual People - Actual World play. The ghost of Hamlet's father, while providing a catalyst for the story, does not really break boundaries to effect a dramatic change in the actual world. However, if the the ghost jumped in and killed Polonius in Gertrude's chamber we would talking about something completely different.

2. Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller wrote expressionistic sequences and imaginary characters into Streetcar and Salesman respectively. However, Ben, (Willy Loman's brother,) doesn't break the boundaries into the real world, and Blanche's visions are all internal - the other character's don't hear the music in her head.

Chatty Narrators Can Populate Actual World - Actual People Plays. Just because your protagonist, or another character, occasionally turns to address the audience does not mean your play is not still functioning primarily in the real world. This convention has become very, very common. (I'll be posting about this soon.) However, if this convention tips too far over into meta-territory, or starts to affect the drama then we are into another category. (Stay tuned.)

Tomorrow: Boundary Breaker Plays

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Back to the Future - Salem, MA

I got to sit in this DeLorean yesterday in Salem, MA. A couple is driving it cross country to raise Parkinson's awareness.

A Hollywood Ending for Stephanie Umoh

The Globe did a three part series on Boston Conservatory student Stephanie Umoh a few years ago. It was a great series, and now it appears to have to be a happy ending!

Today's Globe story begins with Umoh breaking down in tears at the meet and greet for the Broadway production of Ragtime.

There was a lot behind those tears - disbelief, elation, pride that her Broadway debut will not be just any role, but this one - Sarah, the martyred black girl at the emotional center of the show - the part she’d performed to acclaim at New Repertory Theatre in 2006. The part that made Audra McDonald, her idol, famous in the original 1998 Broadway production and earned her a Tony Award.

She was also feeling relief.

When Umoh entered the Conservatory six years ago, she was the long-shot hopeful from Texas in the school’s competitive musical-theater program. She didn’t know how to read music. She had so little formal vocal training her voice teacher described her as “clueless.’’ She’d never even seen a Broadway show.

Now, she has her own private dressing room with a window facing West 52d Street, prime Broadway real estate across from the “Jersey Boys’’ marquee.

Here, for me though, is the interesting part of the story:

Principals on Broadway get anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000 a week, says her agent; Umoh calculates that if the show runs for three years, she’ll be able to pay off her whole student loan.

How many conservatory students, and MFA graduates across the country will ever come close to earning 100K plus for three years straight? This happy ending is a little bittersweet if you think of it broadly.

You can read the whole series: The Education of Stephanie Umoh.