Monday, December 28, 2009

Best Sets? Lighting?

Time Out Chicago takes their "top" lists a step further, including Best Sets of the Decade.

Do any Mirror readers have suggestions for Best Sets in the last decade of Hub theatre?

What about lighting?

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Curtain Creep - A Growing Problem?

Don Aucoin, in his year end wrap up for the Boston Globe:

Let me close with a harrumph: During this four-month stint in the critic’s chair, I’ve been surprised by how often plays begin 10 to 15 minutes late. Really, what’s the deal, people? You are doing the on-time audience members a disservice by making them wait till the latecomers finally stroll down the aisle.

Tardy starts have become such a routine part of the Boston theatergoing experience that when I went to Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven earlier this month to see Athol Fugard’s “Have You Seen Us?,’’ I was startled when it actually . . . started on time. What a concept!

And Leonard Jacobs at The Clyde Fitch Report registers a very similar complaint:

No, I didn’t expect Love’s Labour’s to begin precisely at 8pm, given the fact that New York theater has been suffering more and more from a chronic case of CST — let’s actually dub it TST, or Theater Standard Time, given how widespread 8:12pm or even 8:15pm curtains are on Broadway of late. However, I did expect the performance to be underway no later than 8:10pm or so, given that the running time of this particular production is slightly less than three hours.

‘Twasn’t to be. First 8:05pm passed. Then 8:10pm. An announcement was made that, due to a sold-out house, the curtain would be held until 8:15pm. I don’t know what clock the house management at the Schimmel Center was going by, but my perfectly accurate Kenneth Cole watch zipped past 8:20pm and was heading right for 8:25pm when the play finally began.

Adaptations of Films for Theatre

A.O. Scott is an essay in today's New York Times looks at the differences between Bergman's source material, Sondheim's original production, and the current revival of A Little Night Music.

My own sense is that too many layers of prestige and nostalgia have been laid on to the story, like coats of bright paint. Bergman’s film, though set a half-century before it was made, nonetheless has a present-tense feeling to it, partly because Bergman’s sexual candor remains, at least to Americans, bracing and perhaps a little unsettling. “Smiles of a Summer Night” was his international breakthrough, winning him a prize at Cannes and a worldwide following after an early career of frustration and failure. It was also a touchstone for Americans discovering the worldly pleasures of foreign film.

“A Little Night Music,” when it was first performed on Broadway in 1973, partook of those pleasures and extended them into a new domain. Mr. Sondheim’s worldliness, his skepticism of romantic ideals he nonetheless refuses to abandon entirely, is not exactly congruent with Bergman’s fatalism. But they play off each other nicely, and the show uses period elements as both a distancing mechanism — how odd those people were, with their servants and their linen suits — and a sly way of connecting the past to the present, in how recognizable they are with their neuroses and indecision.

But the past evoked in the revived “Night Music” is less vivid and less specific. It is an era when a story like this, whether glimpsed at the movies or onstage, might have seemed invigorating and revelatory rather than a cultural duty. Which is not to deny its entertainment value, only to note that any other value it might have had is hard to locate.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Top Ten Time!

The year is ending, and so is the decade. Though most of the big guns have weighed in already, you can still dash off a top ten list that will have people tweeting their blue-feathered bottoms off !

Here are the Top Ten Tips for Creating a Kick-Ass Top Ten List:

1. No Apologies. Only wimps open with a paragraph about how these lists are really impossible to make with any fairness. But, of course, they then go on to demonstrate just how ruthlessly unfair they can be. Perhaps this type of apology is required if you have lots of writer friends who are slipping into irrelevance and depression. However, if you are a nobody, and you know nobody, be strong and remember that readers are looking for Christmas presents in crowded shopping malls and fairness is the last thing on their minds.

2. Title It Correctly. Don’t ever, ever use the title My Favorite ___________ of 200_. Please, leave that to the Facebook pages of 12 year olds and the blogs of unemployed English majors who are still wondering where the Dead Poet’s Society meets. Good Options: Most Important, Worst, Most Overrated, Most Underrated. But Best is still the ballsiest, and drives people bats**t crazy, especially if you rank the entries.

3. Don’t Worry If You Didn’t See, Read, or Attend That Much. If you only have read ten books since 2000, make them your Ten Best Books of the Decade. It will be a far more interesting list than most of those out there.

4. Include Celebrities and Harry Potter. You can easily do this if you title the list Most Important, (see number 2.) For instance, anybody not putting Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue on their list of Ten Most Important Books of 2009 would probably be happy tucking that list into a grade school report card and just delight in knowing it is sitting in the basement beside paycheck stubs from a first job at the hardware store. Harry Potter is not only a worldwide franchise, but is now taught in the literature departments of some colleges. The best part of including Potter on your list is that you get to be middlebrow and highbrow, and the very best part is that you don't have to do it by attending those ridiculous colleges.

5. Stay away from Live Performances. Nobody goes out of their house anymore, except to the mall, but in this economy even that is curtailed. In fact, people may geographically be out, but they have actually secreted their house away with them. Their abode fits in the palm of their hand, enabling frat boys to text with the boys back at the house while a woman is naked in front of them at a strip bar, and loopy teenage girls to chat with BFF’s while the Jonas Brothers existentially contort themselves into peach-fuzzed Peter Pans, inches from their eyes.

6. Visual is Best. People love to comment on things that don’t take a lot of their time to grasp. The best lists rank images - The 20 Best Movie Posters of the Last Decade. The 10 Best Book Covers is an excellent topic, especially during the Christmas season; everybody is at Border’s or Barnes and Noble, looking for crappy last minute gifts. This list has a two-fold effect: Your readers will experience the delightful freedom to finally judge a book by its cover AND they can feel like they know the first thing about graphic design. Avoid ranking viral videos until they start being taught at many colleges - probably next year.

7. Put a Surprise on the List. The best way to do this is to surprise yourself by including something you haven’t read, seen or heard! As a bonus, make it something nobody else has, or will, experience either. For a movie, you could scroll through the online programs of film festivals and just pick one.

8. Don’t Be Afraid to Kiss Up. For instance, in 2008 no reviewers or editors actually took the time to read all of Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering, but many reviewers and editors do have children they believe should go to Harvard. So, should a Boston theatre blogger put Shakespeare Exploded on their Top Ten List? TRICK QUESTION! See Number 6.

9. Collage It Sexy. For your header image, find a hip, visual way to arrange your selections. The New York Times Book review always finds ways to photograph their top ten books of the year so that their bibliophile readers will immediately want to go to the bathroom. If you don’t have enough flesh on your list as it is, you could, say, put the top ten book covers onto t-shirts and then photoshop those shirts onto ten of Tiger Woods’ mistresses.

10. You Are Not As Smart or As Dumb as You Think. Don’t try to engage in actual criticism – you just aren’t that brilliant. Accepting this will be a great advantage in getting your list seen. Even some paid critics flinch when making a Best list, (see number one); this disability is brought on by the distracting voice in their head that reminds them that their sister or brother, who is a genetic scientist on a grant in Oslo, has always had more perceptive and frequent critical insights. However, you are far smarter than most of the celebrities and writers typing away on Open Salon and The Huffington Post.

11. Don’t Add a Bonus Slot. No ties, and no add-ons to the list. They aren't clever and they aren't necessary. Nobody will believe that anywhere in the landscape of a fully-functioning human mind could Up in the Air be tied with The Hurt Locker. Lists that are too long are annoying. Manohla Dargis's year-end movie wrap-up in the New York Times reads like a mind-numbing 5 year-old, in the back seat on a family Holiday sojourn, listing all the things she likes in the world. And the title Honorable Mention should be used only for contests where money is involved; this is an old capitalist trick used to rip the scales from the eyes of artists and make them want the prize money rather than the “honor.”

Hope these tips will help you create a great top ten list! Happy Holidays!

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Theatre of Dickens

From Adam Thirwell's New Republic review of the new Dicken's biography by Michael Slater:

Around 1843, when he was writing A Christmas Carol, Dickens changed the way he wrote. He developed a more performative system of punctuation: a musical notation of semicolons. And it was also in A Christmas Carol that Dickens allowed his prose to become an electric message between the novelist and the absent reader: “Scrooge, starting up into a half-recumbent attitude, found himself face to face with the unearthly visitor who drew them: as close to it as I am now to you, and I am standing in the spirit at your elbow.” When he came to give his famous performed readings, he chose to begin with A Christmas Carol--but he cut that passage, because at last there was no need to remind the absent reader of the absent novelist’s presence.

Before he became a novelist, Dickens had considered becoming an actor. With his assiduous precision, he had practiced “even such things as walking in and out, and sitting down in a chair.” His hero was Charles Matthews, who would come on stage as himself, in evening dress--and then play all the parts, culminating in a final bravura “monopolylogue.” It was an early form of stand-up. And this solo performance of multiple imitations formed the nucleus of Dickens’s style: a new form of prose, based on mimicry.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

A Blizzard of Santa Letters

100_6472, originally uploaded by arthennessey.

My Wife was in New York and took this photo of the Macy's window displays.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

How's It Going?

Playwright Paul Mullin from Seattle issued a challenge to the audience when he accepted the Stranger's Genius Award in 2008. As Mullin writes on his blog, at least one person is keeping score:

I began my acceptance by magnanimously allowing that Seattle was a pretty good theatre town. The crowd approved. Then I lofted my caveat: we were good, but we weren’t great. The crowd grew quiet, restless. I said I believed we had everything it takes to be great, but we weren’t great; and worse, we didn’t even seem to be moving in the right direction. More awkward noises. Then I said I believed we could be a world class theatre city within 5 years, but only if we wanted to. We had to want it. The crowd liked this. They clapped, they hollered. It felt great. Lots of toasts and backslaps afterwards. I made a self-congratulatory moment into a community-wide challenge. And every one seemed to slurp it with a spoon. Success, by any definition.

Since then, however, not many people have mentioned my acceptance speech, though there is one particularly notable exception. A month after that night I got an email from my sister Margaret. It said simply: “Just in case you were wondering. 9/13/13. Make it so!” Since odds are about even that you do not know my sister, allow me to unpack her cryptic note and translate it plainly into the words I know she intended. “Dear Brother, in case you were thinking that you could make that challenge publicly solely in order to arbitrarily raise stakes and thus add empty entertainment calories to your speech, hoping no one will remember, please think again. I will remember. I will hold you to it. I will publicly mock you if you fail. So deliver me a world class theatre town by the Fall of 2013, or prepare to face my undying scorn.” You see, I come from a very loving and supportive family.

Which kind of reminds me... How much do we hear anybody in Boston talking about the questions raised by the Stagesource conference two summers ago?

(H/T) naplwrimo

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

More on the BAM Streetcar

Jonathan Kalb makes four observations over at HotReview, below is one of them:

2. In all previous productions of Streetcar I'm aware of, the action as a whole was treated as a quasi-Darwinian struggle for survival between two opposing natures, a quietly epic showdown between rough and crude Stanley and refined and delicate Blanche that ended in a sort of sexual death-clutch. This is the legacy of Marlon Brando, who twisted Tennessee Williams's intentions by stealing the limelight for Stanley when the play was conceived as a portrait of Blanche, an exploration of her uniquely fascinating and fantastic nature.Blanchett restores that original profile to the play, playing a character whose complexity transcends description as a polar opposite of anyone or anything. There is nothing weak or unduly subordinate about Joel Edgerton's Stanley, mind you. Edgerton gives a marvelous performance, but it's clear at all times that his character is an instrument of the killing environment, not a co-equal antagonist to Blanche. This is her story, just as exclusively as if Williams had written it as an Expressionist drama with only one real character.

Any Mirror readers see this production? Is Kalb on the right track here?

Just A Comparison

Jason Robards was originally cast as the title character in Herzog's Fitzcarraldo. Here is footage of Robards, followed closely by Klaus Kinski, who went on to make this role one of the most indelible performances in screen history. (Yes, that is Mick Jagger - his role as Fitzcarraldo's assistant was completely cut from the story.)

File Under...Some Directors Should Just Write Their Own Play

From John Lahr's review of the much-lauded Streetcar Named Desire directed by Liv Ullman. It is playing at BAM and stars Cate Blanchette as Blanche DuBois.

Ullmann’s direction delivers so much pleasure that it’s a shame that, at the finale, she doesn’t deliver the play’s meaning. In her staging of the rape scene that drives Blanche over the edge, Blanche collapses on the bed, only to have her degradation prettified by an invented postcoital dumb show. When, some weeks later, the demented Blanche is taken to a sanitarium, she doesn’t, contrary to Williams’s stage directions, get herself up in the regalia of normalcy, a performance of dignity that, in other stagings, gives genuine pathos to her exit. Instead, still in her slip and bare feet, clutching the doctor with both hands, Blanche is led into the bright light of day like a loony Daisy Mae from “Li’l Abner” ’s Dogpatch. Ullmann’s reductive decisions build to vulgar sentimentality, with Blanche isolated in a spotlight and lost in her own internal music as the curtain falls. Although this doesn’t spoil the evening, it’s a woeful miscalculation. Williams’s play ends not with Blanche but with the Kowalskis’ sexual reconciliation. The final image—unseen on Ullmann’s stage—has, in a sort of Renaissance pictorial grouping, Stella holding her baby, while Stanley kneels at her feet. She sobs as he undoes the buttons of her blouse and murmurs, “Now, now, love.” Blanche has been sacrificed to the Kowalskis’ desire and collusion. The play ends with a line never heard in this production. “This game is seven-card stud,” one of Stanley’s poker-playing buddies says, dealing a new hand. The game of life, Williams is telling us, goes on at all costs.

Back to the Future?

Ray Bradbury wrote a futuristic musical for Richard Laughton in the 1950's. It is receiving its premiere this January in California.

The original plan in the mid-1950s was for Laughton and his wife, Lanchester, to perform the show, then titled "Happy Anniversary, 2116," as part of an evening of one-act musicals staged in London.

James Whale, who had directed Lanchester and Boris Karloff in the movie "The Bride of Frankenstein" (after making its precursor, "Frankenstein") and Laughton in " The Old Dark House," was going to stage the production. ( Ian McKellen portrayed the director in the 1998 film "Gods and Monsters.")

Veteran Tin Pan Alley songwriter Ray Henderson ("Bye, Bye Blackbird") was engaged to set Bradbury's lyrics to music.

But Whale's suicide in 1957 sidetracked those plans and Laughton's death in 1962 seemingly finished them.

Until, that is, Bradbury dusted the script off early this year as a potential project for his own stage troupe, Pandemonium Theatre Company, which last year offered a long-running, non-musical version of "Fahrenheit 451" at the Fremont Centre.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Thanks a lot...

The New York Times talks about Steppenwolf's penchant for creating their own stars with Broadway transfers, rather than replacing casts with Hollywood A or B listers.

The Chicago-born play A Steady Rain went on to box office success by casting megastars Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig for the New York production.

But what about Randy Steinmeyer and Peter DeFaria, the Chicago actors who originated the two roles in Keith Huff's play?

They both said they were pleased for Mr. Huff, whom Mr. DeFaria calls “the most down-to-earth guy you’ll ever meet,” and that neither held a grudge against their megastar substitutes. They don’t mince words, however, in discussing how they were replaced.


Mr. DeFaria said he and Mr. Steinmeyer were aware that the producers wanted to get huge movie stars into the roles: “They were very upfront about it. I guess I just didn’t think it was a real possibility.”

Neither actor saw the play in New York. They might have, they said, if someone had invited them or sent them tickets. Instead, “They offered us house seats,” Mr. Steinmeyer said. “For $120 apiece.”

Increasing Accessibility

At a Stagesource Town Meeting a few years back, a representative from the Blind and Deaf community took to the microphone and told the theatre community, very politely: "We don't need free tickets, (we can pay for our own,) we need accessibility!"

Wheelock Family Theater here in Boston has been a pioneer in this area.

In this morning, the Globe's Joan Anderman has a piece about Broadway Across America increasing its accessibility for the blind with describers:

Enter Ruth Kahn and Willis. As the pre-show describer for “Fiddler,’’ Kahn, the former access coordinator for the Museum of Fine Arts who now works at Wheelock Family Theatre, began her work 20 minutes before the curtain went up.

Seated at a microphone on a platform at the back of the theater, she painted a vivid portrait in words of the theater - scantily-clad nymphs frolicking in the ceiling mural, mirrored panels lining the walls - as well as the show’s characters, their costumes, and each scene’s setting and set pieces.

“For a lot of people this will be their very first theatrical experience,’’ says Kahn, “so I’ll describe the fiddle: what it does, what it looks like, how the fiddler holds the fiddle. Some theaters are able to have tactile elements of the show incorporated into the pre-show, where we hand around props.’’

A critical part of a describer’s job is to withhold judgment, to not tell the visually-impaired audience how to think about something - but rather choose language that allows them to form their own opinions.

“Instead of calling someone ugly, I’ll talk about his wrinkled, jagged face,’’ says Willis, who started five years ago at WGBH creating descriptive narration for such projects as “Masterpiece Theatre,’’ the “Harry Potter’’ home videos, and two presidential inaugurations.

In the theater, describers must also be able to finesse the timing of their interjections, responding to the shifting rhythms of dialogue and songs so as not to speak over the actors.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

NEA Survey

The NEA's 2008 Public Participation in the Arts Survey is out.

You can read the whole thing here.

Percentage of US adults attending at least one non-musical play in 2008 - 9.4%. In 2002 the number was 12.3%. (Page 18.)

They have an interesting section on Participation of the Arts through Electronic Media.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Speaking of Critical Sobriety...

Timberlake Wertenbaker's latest, The Line, opened in London to mixed reviews. But there was the air...and in the blood at this particular opening:

Wertenbaker believes that the actors were not given a fair crack of the whip because many of the critics had spent the day being liberally wined and dined at the Evening Standard theatre awards – a four-hour affair at the Royal Opera House that involved a champagne reception followed by lunch and as much wine as they wanted to drink. She said some critics had had the grace to say they would come on a different night, but most came after the lunch.

Wertenbaker told the Guardian: "I've had bad press nights and bad reviews but I've never had the sense that the critics were too tired to engage. It is a complicated play, it's difficult, you have to pay attention to it.

"I just felt that the play didn't have a chance. The actors said they had a great night the previous evening and the atmosphere was very different. They did feel they were wading through something quite heavy. They weren't all drunk but it's hard to get through something like that [a long awards ceremony] without being tired. It was very unfortunate that our press night was after it."

Fill Every Seat!

The Globe tells us about the almost miraclous recovery of the Reagle Players in Waltham:

The problems began early this year, when a promised $100,000 state grant for the Reagle Players was slashed to $25,000 by budget cuts. Other donations and private grants also fell in the wake of the credit crisis. And while ticket sales for last season were up, receipts were down due to lowered prices.

By the end of the summer, Reagle, which has a $1.7 million annual budget, was carrying $100,000 in new debt, as well as a $150,000 long-term loan.
Along with a flood of donations from the community, another initiative is starting to turn things around:

Another good sign can be seen in the big red paper thermometer that hangs in the troupe’s Lexington Street offices, where it tracks ticket sales for Reagle’s annual holiday spectacular, “It’s Christmas Time,’’ which opens Friday in Waltham High School’s Robinson Theatre. The mercury is on the rise.

A push is on to fill every seat at all 10 shows - 10,820 tickets in all. Area businesses, including IKON Office Solutions, Johnson Compounding and Wellness Center, and Waltham Services Inc., are aiding the effort by offering discount tickets to employees. With more than a week to go before opening night, more than 7,000 tickets had been sold, and the goal was inching into reach.

What Standards, Intellectually, Should We Hold Critics To?

Don Hall takes in a production of The Mystery of Irma Vep, and it prompts some questions about its current incarnations as compared to its origins. He concludes this way:

There are those that will say that I'm taking a silly piece of theater, played for the laughs, too seriously.

Chris Jones, of the Chicago Tribune, wrote: "Despite all those portentous doctoral dissertations on the subversiveness of the Theatre of the Ridiculous, this is not dramatic profundity. Not any more. There is really one criteria upon which 'Irma Vep' now need be judged. Is it funny? Oh, yes. You will laugh your face off."

On the other hand, the origins of the play and the period in history that it came from are, I think, too important to simply dismiss. All those portentous doctoral dissertations, Chris? Gosh, and one would think that after eight years of a dumbed down government, theater critics would've kept a touch of intellectual integrity...

On a slightly similar note, Tom Garvey recently pointed out, as politely as he could, that Ed Siegel, the former lead drama critic for our own Boston Globe, had trouble identifying characters and dramatic elements in the ART's production of Punchdrunk's Sleep No More. This is Tom in the comments section:

This only makes hapless Ed's review all the more ridiculous - he was actually talking to someone from Rebecca, not Macbeth; he'd wandered into the "Hitchcock" side of Sleep No More without knowing it (or perceiving it). In that a central concern of "hypertheatre" is mimicking the interpenetrations of "hypertext," this is rather a large critical gaffe.

Then again, none of the Boston critics pondering Sleep No More seems to have considered its hyper-textual aspects - although btw, Siegel may have missed a secondary piece of hyper-script in the performance he witnessed. While he was wondering about whether or not poor Poornima Kirby was going to take her clothes off, she was whispering to him a tale that sounds a lot like a scene from Büchner's Woyzeck. Not that Ed should have recognized that, after all he's only a professional drama critic . . .

(Emphasis Mine in Both Quotes.)

Of course, Tom and Don are talking about slightly different things. Siegel seems to not be able to tell the players without a program, and Jones seems to be thumbing his nose at pretentious academia.