Monday, November 21, 2011

Sondheim On Critics

Stephen Sondheim isn't as terrified of the internet as Michael Kaiser.

Heck, Mr. Sondheim finds a certain optimism in the passion of the online exchanges about theater, even in internet theater chatrooms.

This from an excerpt, (in the Guardian,) of his upcoming book:

For me, a good critic is a good writer. A good critic is someone who recognises and acknowledges the artist's intentions and the work's aspirations, and judges the work by them, not by what his own objectives would have been. A good critic is so impassioned about his subject that he can persuade you to attend something you'd never have imagined going to. A good critic is an entertaining read. A good critic is hard to find.

Then again, to a certain degree, good critics are no longer necessary to find. The phrase "Everybody's a critic" has taken on a universal cast. The internet encourages people to share their opinions with the world. In the theatre, the buzz created by chatroom chatters has become increasingly important to a show's reputation before it opens. There are thousands of critics tapping away their opinions to whoever will listen – so who needs a paid pontificator to tell you what your opinion should be?

Showbusiness chatrooms reveal that the need to criticise is insatiable. They also reveal that there are still people who are enthusiastic about the theatre, who want not only to go, but to talk about what they've gone to. The diffidence and short attention spans that pervade so much of our culture were nowhere evident in the lively chatrooms I looked at, although I soon learned not to keep logging on for the same reason I learned not to read my reviews: every group of compliments about my work that started me preening was soon peppered with potshots that unpreened me. And for every piece of thoughtful observation about other people's work, there was a piece of mean-spirited snottiness – some of which, I regret to say, made me laugh and wish I were young enough again to participate in those kinds of exchanges.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Is There a Theatrical 1%?

Theater Costs

Scott Walters, over on his Theatre Ideas blog, publishes the first in what he is promising to be a multi-post series called "Occupy Lincoln Center."

His first post is a comparison of the income inequality issues raised by the Occupy Wall Street movement to the disparity of contributions and grants in the nonprofit arts arena:
At the end of October, the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy issued a report entitled Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change. Holly Sidford, who wrote the report, researched philanthropic giving to arts organization across the US. What she discovered is as disturbing as the Occupy Wall Street facts about income disparity. Sidofrd found that nonprofits in the arts with budgets over $5M, which she says represents just 2% of all arts nonprofits, receive 55% of contributions, gifts and grants. Let's break this out in the way we did with national income above.

If there were 100 nonprofit arts organizations dividing a million dollars, it would look like this:
2 organizations would split $550,000 ($275,000 each)
The remaining 98 organizations would each get $4591
The ratio is a about 60:1
In other words, the income disparity between nonprofit arts institutions is nearly twice as bad as the income disparity in the economy as a whole. If the arts are supposed to hold the mirror up to nature, it is a magnifying glass.
You can read the whole post here, and add your comments if you like.

Back in 2006, I wrote about a similar thing here on this blog. I looked at the sizable gap between the top and bottom of the Mass Cultural Council's grantees in the Theatre category.

The three top recipients:
Huntington Theatre Company $52,000
North Shore Music Center $52,000
American Repertory Theatre $42,330 Things drop off precipitously after this.
The Western Mass summer companies get a nice change, (Williamstown-$31,790.00 Shakespeare and Company $25, 120.) but then we start going down almost completely into the 4 digit territory.
I understand spending has been cut drasctically, but consider the ratios:
The combined grants to New Repertory, Lyric, Merrimack Rep,Company One, Speakeasy Stage, Sugan, Theatre Offensive, and Stoneham Theatre company.... $35,350.00!
All those 8 companies combined, get far less Mass State cultural money for theatre than the Huntington, ART and NSMT get individually.
Just to make things little more concrete, the $2000.00 grant Company One gets would not even pay the rent for one of their runs as Resident Company of the Boston Center for the Arts.

I had written about a very similar thing back in 2006. I looked at the sizable gap between the top and bottom of the Massachusetts Cultural Council grantees in the Theatre category: I went to see how things are stacking up today, but it might take a bit more digging. The Mass Cultural Council's website makes finding the data a bit harder now. They don't archive it there and the info for the current year is listed by county rather than statewide by category.However, it looks like most of these numbers hold very much where they were five years ago. Company One now gets $3000 instead of $2000, etc. And Sugan and few others no longer exist. Now, as then, I'm not really sure what to do with those numbers.

The Flavor Graveyard

The Flavor Graveyard by arthennessey
The Flavor Graveyard, a photo by arthennessey on Flickr.

On the tour of the Ben and Jerry's Factory they told us that the worst flavor disaster might be Sugar Plum, which was so bad that distributors sent it back by the truckload.

In fact, pigs wouldn't eat it and most of the stock had to be incinerated.

I took this photo in the Flavor Graveyard, which is the final resting place of beloved and little known retired flavors.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Michael Kaiser's Grandfather is Scared of the Internet

Today in the Huffington post we find another lost column by Michael Kaiser's grandfather. It is nice of Mr. Kaiser to type these up for us, as they were probably handwritten before word processors.

Kidding aside, this time the screed is about the scariness of online critics. I'm not kidding, he uses that word.

In theater circles alone one can visit,,, and numerous other sites. Many arts institutions even allow their audience members to write their own critiques on the organizational website.

This is a scary trend.

While I have had my differences with one critic or another, I have great respect for the field as a whole. Most serious arts critics know a great deal about the field they cover and can evaluate a given work or production based on many years of serious study and experience. These critics have been vetted by their employers.

Anyone can write a blog or leave a review in a chat room. The fact that someone writes about theater or ballet or music does not mean they have expert judgment.

The problem here, and one that I've talked about for almost ten years on this blog, is that Kaiser conflates EVERYTHING out there into one big scary Internet monster. And then, unsurprisingly, can't even fully articulate what makes it so scary.

Meanwhile, the Pulitzer Prize winning play Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris is making the regional rounds. Its New York run garnered it a solid A- on Stagegrade, and most regional critics have pretty much confirmed that grade. The play also looks to be going to Broadway.

But if you are interested in two interesting regional dissents you can find them only online.

Don Hall, The Angry White Guy in Chicago, saw the Steppenwolf production:

The result is that none of the second act characters have anything to say. They're all very two dimensional and the tension is non-existent. If Act One was Norman Lear, Act Two was like ZOOM meets a bad SNL sketch. Each character is assigned a position and then shrilly pontificates it throughout. There are virtually no class distinctions (everyone in Act Two is affluent upper middle class) and the issue of race is forced. Further, one of the games in this act is a volley of competing racial jokes (might've worked if any of them had been genuinely funny because then the indictment travels to those in the audience laughing at them - but they weren't funny, just blunt).

With the first act so smart and pointed, the second act deficiencies make the play feel a bit like a squandered opportunity. Sure, the message that "The More Things Change, The More They Stay the Same" is fine but we know that already.

And Boston's own Tom Garvey at The Hub Review recommends the Trinity Rep production, but also finds problems with the disparate halves of the play:

What bothers me about the exercise here is that it's simply beside the point; there's interesting cultural work to be done, based on Norris's premise, but the playwright refuses to do it. That the white family knows a nasty joke about black people, and the black family knows one about white people, doesn't really tell us all that much about life in the millennium.


Clearly there's a lot there to unpack, but Norris can't be bothered - and why? Well, I imagine because it might make his play truly controversial. And he doesn't want that - we're all supposed to agree in the theatre, remember? The playwright is expected to pour his scorn onto somebody else, somebody who isn't actually in the audience. So Norris diverts his action into shared laughter over outrageous dirty jokes. He parodies "hysteria" a second time, but refuses to dig beneath it, into its actual causes.

Just don't tell Michael Kaiser's grandfather. It's scary out there.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Blurring of Criticism and Publicity

What is an arts journalist anyway?

Many news outlets have critics who double as arts reporters, but most daily newspapers separate the duties of reviewing and reporting.

Of course, the arts beat isn't the same as the city desk or the Middle East bureau, and so it isn't as if lives are at stake. However, sometimes tax dollars, city planning and policy direction are affected by institutions falling under the jurisdiction of the arts editor. These are the cases for which numbers must be dialed, documents must be examined and shoe leather must be applied.

Then there is a large expanse of column space that is shared, sometimes equally, by reviews and publicity.

What functions do the Arts pages of a newspaper provide if not to tell readers:

A.) What is going on.
B.) Whether or not what is going on is worth their money and time.

It is usually easy to distinguish between and aesthetic assessment and a publicity piece, but sometimes it is trickier.

Take, for instance, the opening paragraph of this New York Times piece from last week about the new Theresa Rebeck play Seminar opening on Broadway next week. The play stars the actor Alan Rickman.

ARTISTS in general, and writers in particular, as everybody knows, tend to be sensitive creatures who receive criticism like body blows. So there’s considerable theater-of-cruelty entertainment in watching four fledgling novelists cringe beneath the blistering stares, scornful dismissals and disdainfully curled lips of Alan Rickman.

It reads very much like a lede for a rave review, no? Read on into the second paragraph, and you are told more about the plot. Then it is revealed that the play is in previews, and only after that do you finally get a quote from the playwright, Ms. Rebeck. In what follows there are other review-like sentences as well.

What a score for the Seminar P.R. team!

In all seriousness though, it did make me think about the blurring of the lines between marketing and aesthetic assessment.

As the online presences of arts organizations grow, will in-house created content slowly evolve to sound more like objective reviews?

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Our Kickstarter Campaign is So Close To Success!

The film I co-wrote screened at the Houston Comedy Film Festival last night and is on at the the Red Rock Film Festival later this month.

Our Kickstarter campaign to raise money to offset the costs of the festival circuit has been underway for a few weeks. Thanks the the generosity of people we are getting close to our goal.

We are entering the final days and any amount will help. Thanks to loyal Mirror Up To Nature readers who have already contributed!