Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Boston Theater in the Blogosphere

Zakim Sunflowers 2
The Hub's theater scene is the subject of chatter on the Internet these days.

HowlRound, the playwright-centered blog of Theater Commons, is focusing on Boston this week.  There are guest posts so far by Ilana Brownstein, current dramaturg for Company One, and Meg Taintor, Founder and Artistic Director of Whistler in the Dark.

This is one of the key paragraphs, to my mind, of Brownstein's overview of the logistics of the Boston theatrical landscape:

So, while it’s safe to say that in the past decade Boston has seen an explosion of new spaces of all sizes, for many fringe companies, truly affordable and regularly available space is still a challenge. Unlike other metropolitan centers whose downtowns suffered economic downturns in the 1970s and ’80s, Boston has never had significant tracts of blighted urban property awaiting an influx of artists. Or if we did, they were in areas artists refused to go. It’s an historical challenge for us, how we might follow the lead of storefront-heavy theater cities like Chicago. I hear a yearning from our community for this kind of space, that there’s a real hole in the spectrum for scrappy producing organizations. But we’re a small-footprint city, and too expensive; the developers are too hungry for spaces that in other cities are transformed by the creative class.

Meanwhile over at The Hub Review, Critics Thomas Garvey and Beverly Creasey are discussing race on Boston's stages.

BC: Well, this past year I've noticed something disturbing recurring several times. (I see about 200 small and large theater productions a year). I've seen repeated instances of the casting of white actors in parts either specified for, or originated by, actors of color, like the “Brother” role in Songs for a New World.
TG: So in an ironic twist, you began to see casting of white people in those few roles that had long been reserved for actors of color.
BC: Exactly. Even though it's absurd to hear a white man singing/talking about being black. Which by the way, has happened twice to Jason Robert Brown's Songs. Two different productions in less than a year!
TG: Maybe we should re-title that one Songs for a White World . . .
BC: What are these people thinking? They didn't even have the sense to change the lines and take out the ethnic references! It also happened to A Chorus Line this summer, at a big Equity company that has often cast nationally - a white actress played the role of the Asian-American dancer (who even talks about being stereotyped!!). I asked why this was the case and was told they “couldn't find anyone." Now this has been quite a year for Asian-American women on the stage and just off the top of my head (without consulting StageSource) I can name four local actresses. So the real answer is they didn't try very hard. 

Thursday, July 26, 2012

12 Theater Articles You Should Read This Week

A scene from 3C,  David Adjmi's new play which is being sued by Three's Company.
1. Playwright David Adjmi's new play 3C just closed in New York, but it may not see a revival anytime soon. The Wall Street Journal talks to the parties representing the television sit-com Three's Company, who sent Adjmi a cease-and-desist letter, saying he has infringed on the show's copyright.

2. On the Howlround Sherri Kronfeld wonders if we couldn't use more theater artists in the ranks of theater critics.

3. On that note, a Broadway actor got a little blowback from the Twitterverse after tweeting a harsh reaction to another show.

4. The LaJolla Playhouse in San Diego hosted a forum about their decision-making process in casting very few Asians in their latest musical, which takes place in China.

5. Mike Daisey is back at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company with his infamous monologue The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. The Washington City Paper has a detailed cover story about the remount of the controversial show.

6. And on the Woolly Mammoth blog, Mike Daisey answers a question he claims nobody has asked him.

7. Ian Thal, a Boston-based theater artist, posts an article at the Clyde Fitch Report about his experiences volunteering at the recent Theatre Communications Group conference.

8. Boston's own Akiba Abaka writes about the challenges and the hopes for the Hub's black theater community.

9. Timeout New York does a "postmortem" on the now famous 13P, which began as a mission to produce thirteen plays by thirteen playwrights and is now coming to a successful conclusion. "We had to avoid the situation of becoming an institution that wanted to survive." 

10. Lyn Gardener, writing in the Guardian, suggests Shakespeare productions are crowding new works off London stages.

11. At his Superfluities Redux blog, George Hunka discusses the drama criticism of H.L. Mencken.

12. The Broadway jackpot as an aspiration for regional playwrights is not entirely a mirage, or so suggests Duane Kelly at the ExtraCriticum blog.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Are Shakespeare Conceptual Gambits Getting Out of Control?

Peter Marks, writing in the Washington Post, thinks about the reasons we are seeing so many of the Bard's plays updated to 20th and 21st century settings.  

And he wonders about the cost of all this "tinkering."

The fussing with the cosmetics of Shakespeare has become so routine that it is a shock to more devoted patrons of the Bard when any of his plays are performed these days in both the time and place the author intended them. Has a belief taken hold that only by placing Shakespeare’s characters in elaborate disguise can a contemporary theatergoer view them as relevant? The compulsive tinkering yields distressing side effects. Distracted audiences can not only lose touch with the pleasure of listening to Shakespeare’s language but also may become less able to distinguish clearly the worthier attempts at innovation.
My sneaking suspicion is that the mania for transporting a Rosalind or a Richard III to a newfangled forest or kingdom may sometimes be an anxious reflex, a product of a general unease in contemporary theater over the rigors of speaking the verse and fully illuminating character. What better way to take some of the pressure off a cast’s uneven vocal skills than to plop actors into realms in which the flatness of speech more easily echoes that of our own?
You can read the whole thing here.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Theatre and the University in Boston - A Closer Examination

Robert Brustein served as the moderator of a panel at the recent Theatre Communications Guild convention here in Boston.  His opening remarks were published on The Huffington Post this week.

The subject was "Theatre and the University".  Here are some his thoughts about his own grand project which started with the founding of Yale Rep and continued through his founding and leadership of the American Repertory Theater, (associated with Harvard.)

As for audiences, they were a union of engaged participants paying ticket prices affordable to every income group, rather than a coterie of expense account tourists, pouring out the equivalent of a three day vacation in Barbados for a single Broadway show. And one never had to make the work "accessible" through awkward, condescending popularizing. If it was immediate and engaged, they got it.
The country never fully embraced this concept because it has not yet fully grown up as a culture. And America's continuing adolescence in regard to support for the arts helps explain why the so-called not-for-profit theater is now sometimes serving not as an alternative to the Broadway system, but rather as a tryout house for commercial interests. I'm certainly not suggesting that these two systems shouldn't have relations with each other, or even intermarry at times. Rather, I am criticizing a process in which commercial interest is aroused before the opening of a not-for-profit production and thereby has a hand in raising the baby. 

On Twitter, there have been some comments traded back and forth about Brustein and his remarks.

I would really suggest people take a look at two parts of a series written by Tom Garvey for his blog The Hub Review.  (As a note, these articles were written in 2008, just as Diane Paulus and Peter DuBois were taking the reins at the two theaters he profiled.)

What Should An Academic Theater Be?, Part II  is a critical summary and analysis of the American Repertory Theatre, which Brustein founded here in Boston.

The company seemed to see itself as a kind of intervention in its art form, openly injecting critical theory into its process in an attempt to revivify, if not revolutionize, the fabulous invalid ...The problem for the ART, of course, was what theory, exactly, should be injected into the drama to make it flower in an appropriately revolutionary way. And while Brustein had long proved himself an incisive writer and analyst, once it came time to prove himself as a practitioner, he resorted, as so many had before him, to pastiche. The ART became known for a cool, almost clinical, presentation in an empty, Brechtian space. But within that notionally "epic" theatre frame, just about anything went, as long as it seemed somehow opposed to bourgeois convention in an orgiastic, Artaudian kind of way.
What Should An Academic Theater Be? Part III is an examination of the Huntington Theatre Company which is another university supported theatrical entity here in the Hub.

(When Nicholas Martin took over) he began to hire local actors, and the company's participation in the expansion of the Boston Center for the Arts was probably instrumental in the opening of two new theatres there - a huge boon to both the South End, which became the "new Theatre District," and the city's smaller theatre companies. (What it did for the Huntington itself - which hasn't really been able to figure out what to do with its gorgeous new theatre, the Wimberley - is less clear.) The company also began to invest directly in playwrights by sponsoring fellowships and producing staged readings - and even took the landmark step of producing a locally-developed play on its new Wimberley Stage (Melinda Lopez's Sonia Flew - above left - which has gone on to several other regional productions).
But there were still a few flies in the ointment of all this success. Note that the roster of stand-out productions above includes not a single new play - and indeed, despite the fact that Martin had re-oriented his theatre from the classic and toward the contemporary, the Huntington seemed unable to strike artistic gold there. It was hard not to feel this might be partly due to Martin's own networking - just as the ART had been stifled by its own boho clique, so the "development mill" that the Huntington had become a part of was simply ignoring great new work done by already-established playwrights.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Is One Review Just Like Another?

Marshmallow Sheep

Recently, Harvard Business School published a report entitled What Makes a Critic Tick!

The purpose of the report,  in the words of the authors, was to "investigate the determinants of expert reviews in the book industry."

The report analyzes the 100 top-rated, non-fiction book reviews from over 40 publications ("expert reviews") during the years 2004-2007.  The findings are then compared to an analysis of "consumer reviews",  represented by Amazon user reviews.

The Executive Summary of the report lists the following key concepts:

  • The data suggest that media outlets do not simply seek to isolate high-quality books, but also to find books that are a good fit for their readers. This is a potential advantage for professional critics, one that cannot be easily replicated by consumer reviews.
  • Expert ratings are correlated with Amazon ratings, suggesting that experts and consumers tend to agree in aggregate about the quality of a book. However, there are systematic differences between these sets of reviews.
  • Relative to consumer reviews, professional critics are less favorable to first-time authors. This suggests that one potential advantage of consumer reviews is that they are quicker to identify new and unknown books.
  • Relative to consumer reviews, professional critics are more favorable to authors who have garnered other attention in the press (as measured by number of media mentions outside of the review) and who have won book prizes.

Bill Marx, writing in The Arts Fuse, is aghast that people are taking this study seriously. He is especially dismayed at the editors of The Guardian, who published a short column in which their non-fiction book review editor assures us that she ranges far and wide to find books to assign to reviewers, (though she adds that she does look for books that would be of interest to Guardian readers.)

However, Marx reserves most of his ire for point number two in the Executive Summary:

I have read the HBS study (by Loretti I. Dobrescu, Michael Luca, and Alberto Motta), and it is clueless on so many levels about the craft and mechanics of reviewing...
Criticism should be fair, but it is never unbiased or objective, as if reviews were a form of scientific experiment. Readers want to hear the critic’s personal judgement —negative, positive, or mixed —as shaped by his or her sensibility and depth of knowledge. Critics are individuals, not measuring sticks. The authors of the study have no idea of what a book review is supposed to do: they supply judgments with reasons. They do not summarize quality, whatever in the world that means. Predictably,the bibliography of the HBS report doesn’t list a single publication that deals with the crafts of reviewing—to them, a sentence long “thumbs up” on Amazon is the same as a review in The New York Times. Because it does not discriminate between substantial reviews and guttural opinions, sensible considerations and hit jobs, the study proves nothing.
I wondered if, based on the sort of definitions that Bill puts forward in his column, how much of a difference one could find between Amazon reviews and those in major publications.

Since the study by HBS focused on non-fiction, I decided to look at the reviews of a recently published non-fiction book in which I was interested, but had not yet read.

Robert Caro just published his latest installment of his massive biography of Lyndon Johnson, The Passage To Power; The Years of Lyndon Johnson.   It has been reviewed extensively in major media outlets and also has a healthy number of reviews on Amazon.com.

First, I read through the many "expert reviews" from newspapers, magazines and other online sites, starting with The New York Times.

The Times review, strangely enough, was by William Jefferson Clinton. Yes, that Bill Clinton.

As far as biased judgments, (and I don't mean that in a perjorative sense,) this is as good an example as any. Clinton is upfront about the lens through which he read Caro's account of LBJ:

Even as Barry Goldwater was midwifing the antigovernment movement that would grow to such dominance decades later, L.B.J., Shriver and other giants of the civil rights and anti­poverty movements seemed to rise all around me as I was beginning my political involvement. They believed government had an essential part to play in expanding civil rights and reducing poverty and inequality. It soon became clear that hearts needed to be changed, along with laws. Not just Congress, but the American people themselves needed to be got to.
L.B.J. got to me, and after all these years, he still does. With this fascinating and meticulous account of how and why he did it, Robert Caro has once again done America a great service.
Aside from Clinton's personal reminiscence and political thoughts, his review takes the same structure as most "expert reviews" I read.

Almost each and every review outlines Caro's vast project and then relates the way in which Passage to Power covers this particular time in Johnson's career.  Most all of the reviews give an idea of the way Caro posits and contextualizes LBJ's story within certain themes. For example, this is from the Los Angeles Times review:

 Johnson had been urged to back off the civil rights bill by advisors who deemed it impossible to overcome the implacable opposition of the Senate's powerful Southern Democrats. "A President shouldn't waste his power on lost causes," one of them said. "Well, what the hell's the presidency for?" Johnson replied. In the past, ambition had always trumped his compassion for the poor and persecuted; now his superb political skills could be dedicated to something other than his personal advancement, and they were.
"The cliché says that power always corrupts," Caro writes, "but what is equally true is that power always reveals." The unswerving commitment to civil rights and the eradication of poverty revealed in "The Passage of Power" give it a different tone from its predecessors. Its tone of sympathy and admiration for a man who "not only had held the country steady during a difficult time but had set it on a new course, a course toward social justice." To do that, Johnson wrought astonishing changes within himself. His brutal arrogance, lachrymose self-pity, cruelty to subordinates, gloating boastfulness, penchant for secrecy and deception — qualities Caro has unsparingly depicted elsewhere and catalogs again in the last chapter — were suppressed as Johnson assumed command with an air of "disciplined calmness" that suggested he was fulfilled at last.

Very few reviews go further than this.

What do I mean by "further?"

While most reviewers have a firm handle on Caro's views, (varied as they are,) of LBJ, very few seem to contextualize these. In other words, very few provide a lens through which we can view Caro.

One of the exceptions is this review in the Washington Post:

Caro’s ability to show these many sides of Johnson — good, bad, ugly — rebuts the rap that he paints his characters only in black and white. But if Caro’s personalities are multidimensional, they’re nonetheless overdrawn in a way that sows a nagging distrust. At any moment, he showcases only one element of Johnson (or of RFK, or of other characters); typically, it is a portrait of an extreme. The young Bobby Kennedy is not portrayed just as ruthless; one instance of ruthlessness after another is recounted, amid countless repetitions of the word “ruthless.”
In the end, the thought occurs that Caro, in all these volumes, is at some level writing about himself — working out on the canvas of Johnson’s life the questions and themes of power, greatness and tragedy that have long occupied him. The LBJ that Caro gives us is not an inaccurate portrait, but it’s certainly a subjective one — an idiosyncratic expression of Caro’s own sensibility. The Rabelaisian Johnson, the man of extremes and excess, finds his correlative in the biographer who works in a torrential style, capturing as few writers can the richness and magnitude of his subject but also sliding at times into melodrama and belabored points.
Caro’s sprawling, sparkling, theatrical opus, rather, calls to mind a work such as Carl Sandburg’s six-volume life of Abraham Lincoln, which also took years of prodigious labor and displayed, as the historian James G. Randall wrote, “a poet’s sense of language . . . and an ability to combine realistic detail with emotional appreciation.” Today, Sandburg’s work is read more for literary pleasure than historical authority. 

In this review, David Greenberg tries to position this biography within the genre as whole, and to make an informed judgement on the craftsmanship.  I found very few mainstream reviewers who even attempted this.  Although, I will say Greenberg seemed to be allowed more space for his assessment than others.

Another interesting exception is Tom Carson writing in GQ.  Carson's review is almost the flipside of most other reviews in that he is very Caro-heavy:

(Caro) would have benefited from keeping Vladimir Nabokov's dandy advice to anyone writing about America—"Nothing is more exhilarating than philistine vulgarity"—tacked above his desk. Yet as the great Garry Wills may have been the first to point out, Caro also seemed to hate the whole concept of power. Not just its misuse, understand—its use, along with the psychologies of those drawn to seek it.
This was a fairly standard attitude among liberal intellectuals in the 1950s, the era Caro was formed by. They loved Adlai Stevenson because he was so gosh darn noble he didn't even act like he wanted to be president. And they quickly forgot that Franklin D. Roosevelt, the most successful Democratic POTUS of the 20th century—and young Congressman Johnson's patron and role model in the 1930s—was not only as conniving and duplicitous a politician as any who ever lived, but enjoyed every second of it. In a much diminished and less consequential way, that was also true of Bill Clinton, whose own review of The Passage of Power in last Sunday's New York Times Book Review respected the rule of omerta about how this jazz really works with enough circumspection to make any Mafioso proud.

Both Carson and Greenberg are among the very few reviewers to even mention Robert Dallek's two volume biography of Johnson.  They both advocate it as authoritative and definitive.

I want to add that that a few of the other reviewers, most notably Erik Nelson writing in Salon, were critical of the book's length, and of Caro's habit of recounting large passages from earlier volumes in the series.

Now, looking at Amazon, I find something striking.   Most of the five star and four star user reviews, while not exactly as extensive or as well-written as some of the "expert reviews" cover most of the same ground. And, just as with the major media outlet reviews, very few these consumer reviews venture into criticism of Caro's narrative voice.

Here is one example that breaks out of a simple laudatory summary of the book:

The source material of The Passage of Power has been picked over at an order of magnitude far beyond that of the first three volumes. That presents Caro with certain difficulties he had not earlier had, as he more often relies on quotes. Because this is so much a story of Kennedy v. Johnson, the two warring camps have tended to give their conflicting versions and stuck to them, leaving no real way to nail down the truth. Many more call-backs to the previous books are also made. Caro's trademark style is left somewhat hobbled (and having recently read The Power Broker, it seems that Caro's style has become muted over the years). But Caro is still Caro, and his prose should remain the envy of his fellow popular historians.
Caro's feelings toward Johnson are understandably complex, and his treatment of Johnson has vacillated from volume to volume based on how he feels about Johnson's actions during that period. To Caro, the Johnson of The Passage of Power was Johnson at his best; it was "a moment not only masterful but, in its way, heroic." His leadership and liberal principles were on full display, and his abusiveness and deceit were (temporarily) held in check. Johnson comes off very well here, particularly to a reader who hasn't read the first three volumes. The great divide between the Kennedy and Johnson factions leaves a historian with little choice but to pick between the two, and Caro usually comes down on the side of the Johnson men. But he by no means gives Johnson a pass. He shows Johnson's nastier strong-arm tactics and makes a convincing case that Illinois wasn't the only state stolen in the 1960 election--Johnson helped Kennedy steal Texas too.
Here is another:
Caro dismisses other historians and journalists who agree with his assessments of LBJ's motives, but he doesn't back up his evidence. For example, Caro claims LBJ really believed in civil rights because during a meeting with civil rights leaders he emphasized his commitment to civil rights. While I don't necessarily doubt LBJ's commitment to the cause, his attempts to convince liberals and civil rights leaders could just as easily have been an attempt to shore up his base for the 1964 election - especially being the first southerner to become president in over a century. Especially given that LBJ was a master at modulating his sales pitch to different audiences, I'd have thought Caro would have been a bit more thoughtful in using this as evidence.
I'm not sure I came across one mention of the Dallek biography in the Amazon reviews.

However, I did notice that most every one of the one-star Amazon reviews (there are 11 at this writing) were very concerned with the Kennedy assassination and accused Caro of covering up Johnson's involvement.

So, I read about 20 "expert reviews" and 69 "consumer reviews."  My findings are not very surprising.

The "expert reviews" are better written and have much better style than Amazon reviews.  However, I would have to say that the content of the reviews is very similar in both the major outlet reviews and the better Amazon reviews.

There is nothing at all in the Amazon reviews approaching the combined content, style, reason and judgement displayed in the Greenberg review in the Washington Post or the Carson review in Esquire. But, then again, those reviews stood out among their expert company as well.

Of course, this is just one book and one set of reviews, so it is kind of hard to extrapolate a great deal.

By the way, if you are interested in what it is like for a writer to devote his entire existence to documenting one man, you can read a profile of Robert Caro in Esquire.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

I Guess "So You Think You Can Write" Wouldn't Stand a Chance

Thumb Culture

There's a lot of discussion of the role of the critic swirling in the fringes of the media these days.

A few weeks ago, A.O. Scott, the film critic for the New York Times, received a less than positive critique of his review of Marvel's The Avengers. Samuel L. Jackson, one of the movie's stars, suggested that Mr. Scott should find another profession. In the above video, A.O. Scott and David Carr discuss the episode.

The newly launched Shaw New York festival just hosted a Critics Symposium that promised to wrestle with the rather existential question, "Are Critics Necessary?"  Many well-known theater critics were in attendance.

Also, Bill Marx, at The Arts Fuse, brings our attention to a Harvard Business School study about book reviews:

Recent proof that ignorance reigns, not only at mainstream publications, many of which are downsizing their reviewing staff as quickly as possible, but even at the respected Harvard Business School, is supplied by a recent HBS report arguing that Amazon reviews are just as likely to give “an accurate summary” of a book’s quality as critiques in professional newspapers. In contrast to Amazon’s consumer reviews, “What Makes a Critic Tick?” concludes “experts tend to favor more established authors and the data suggests that media outlets cater reviews to their own audiences, who have a preference for books written by their own journalists and book-award winners, whereas consumers tend to favor first-time authors.”

The Harvard Business School Report is available here.

Who Reads Plays

In Slate, Jillian Goodman looks at the recent publication of two plays by Denis Johnson, who is a writer known more widely for his novels.

Goodman uses the occasion to examine the pros and cons of reading plays.  However,  the most interesting bit is revealed in just the first paragraph.

Of course, we know from the periodic NEA surveys of arts participation that just under 10 percent of our population even sees theatrical plays. But how many READ them?

Here is Goodman:

Every year, scores of plays are published in book form. Most come from specialized publishers like Samuel French or Playscripts, whose target audiences are mostly theater companies planning to produce the works. But a handful of important modern plays are published each year by academic and trade presses, and they’re intended for … whom? People, somewhere, who just enjoy reading drama. And the number of people for whom that is true is pitifully small: according to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks about 75 percent of print sales nationwide, the three Tony nominees for best play currently available—Clybourne ParkOther Desert Cities, and Venus in Fur, all in stores six months or more—have sold a total of 7,400 copies.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Critic Sees Signs of Life in American Playwriting

In the Los Angeles Times, Charles McNulty reads into the current Tony nominations for Best Play.

Earlier in the season I wrote a Critic's Notebook examining the difficulty dramatists were having in defining the terms of contemporary drama for an audience that seemed as uncertain about what constitutes a good play as they are. But I ended on an optimistic note, stressing that this uneven body of new American work will be a great aid in helping playwrights to reimagine the future.
One theater commentator mistook me for calling for a return to the well-made play. But my point was about the value of theatrical traditions, not dramatic formulas. Playwrights are their own legislators, yet they will never thrive working in a void in which every time they sit down before their computer screens they're charged with reinventing the wheel. The density of new work on Broadway in the last year goes a long way toward improving the long-term outlook.
This season may not have given us a masterpiece of the level of "A Streetcar Named Desire"or "Death of a Salesman," both of which are once again back on Broadway. "Clybourne Park" performs a cunning dissection of racial hypocrisy; "Other Desert Cities" uncovers the manifold ironies of our political self-righteousness. Will they be revived as often as these classics by Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller? Highly doubtful.

You can read the whole thing here. 

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Lots of Boston Theater Actors in Thriller Rubberneck

 I just got back from the Tribeca Film Festival, where I saw the world premiere of Rubberneck, an intense indie thriller set in the world of Boston science labs.

It's directed by and stars Alex Karpovsky as a scientist who has a one night fling with a co-worker, but can't seem to let it go. It is getting great press and reviews.

My wife, Amanda Good Hennessey, is in the film along with other actors that would be familiar to many who follow Boston Theater: Dakota Shepard, Mariana Bassham and Gabriel Kuttner.

 Rubberneck will be playing at the Independent Film Festival of Boston on Tuesday May 1st at 9:30PM.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Carrie Closes - But Could Be Coming to Boston?

The New York Times has a post-mortem on the closing of the recent MCC revival of the infamous musical Carrie, (which flopped on Broadway back in 1988.)

But if you didn't get down to New York to see it, you may get a chance soon.  This from the Times article:

Now the creators are ready to say yes to productions, and are already talking to one — SpeakEasy Stage Company in Boston — about doing “Carrie” next spring.
Paul Daigneault, the producing artistic director of SpeakEasy, said he found the Off Broadway production “haunting” as well as “a great time,” adding that the musical was a strong fit with his company’s mission of producing socially relevant and cutting-edge theater. (The Pulitzer Prize-winning musical “Next to Normal,” about a depressed mother who attempts suicide, is playing there now.) Mr. Daigneault, who would direct “Carrie,” said he wanted to give “three-dimensionality to all of the characters, even those who don’t have a lot of words, and to explore the vulnerabilities of the major and minor characters.” He said it was too soon to say if he would use liquid blood, but added that he liked Mr. Arima’s projections. (Mr. Daigneault emphasized that his ideas for “Carrie” should not be read as criticism of the Off Broadway run.)
Stay tuned.

By the way, if you have any interest in why the original  flopped so hard, there is video evidence taken from a pre-Broadway run at Stratford.  For instance, here is the famous finale:

 And as an added bonus, here is a round up of nightly news reviews of the Broadway opening. It is strange to think that television used to cover theater this way.


Sunday, April 08, 2012

Happy August Wilson Day! Governor Patrick's Proclamation

The Huntington Theatre Company announced that Governor Deval Patrick has proclaimed today to be August Wilson Day in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.  More here.

Friday, April 06, 2012

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Video of Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean

The latest tour of the megahit musical Les Miserables is here in Boston. Currently, a big screen version is being filmed.

Here is a video taken of Hugh Jackman as Valjean, tearing up his yellow ticket. The video gets closer as it goes on. Note the camera man quickly having to get on the lift, as the shot must soar up into the sky.


Sunday, March 25, 2012

Mike Daisey's Apology and Reflection

It seems Mike Daisey was also reflecting on the Chris Hayes piece I linked to this morning.

He has now posted some thoughts on his own website.  Here are just some of them:

And I would like to apologize to my colleagues in the theater, especially those who work in non-fiction and documentary fields. What you do is essential to our civic discourse. If I have made your path more difficult, or the truth of your work harder for audiences to discern, I am sorry.
I would also like to apologize to the journalists I gave interviews to in which I exaggerated my own experiences. In my drive to tell this story and have it be heard, I lost my grounding. Things came out of my mouth that just weren’t true, and over time, I couldn’t even hear the difference myself.
To human rights advocates and those who have been doing the hard work of bringing attention to these kinds of labor issues for years, if my failures have made your jobs harder, I apologize. If I had done my job properly, with the skills I have honed for years, I could have avoided this. Instead, I blinded myself, and lost sight of the people I wanted most to help.  

Read the whole thing here.

Another Game of Daisey or Glass?

Playbill from Mike Daisey's show
at The Public Theater
Photo by Esther at Gratuitous Violins
It has been over a week since the revelation that Mike Daisey fabricated and embellished some key incidents in his popular and successful monologue The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.  

The theater and journalism worlds went into reflection overdrive when the radio program This American Life posted an hour-long episode retracting a previous broadcast of excerpts from Daisey's show.

The centerpiece of the "Retraction" episode is a lengthy interview with Mike Daisey in which he is confronted by This American Life host Ira Glass about the fabrications. In the interview, Glass takes a journalistic, just-the-facts-ma'am stance, whereas Daisey retreats to a lies-in-the-service-of-a-greater-truth position.

I posted the other day about how it would appear that Ira Glass seems to have a flexible stance on the relationship of facts and story, and today I came across some pretty strong evidence that Mike Daisey does as well!

Last night Chris Hayes of MSNBC did a segment about the Daisey controversy.   For me, the most compelling part was when Hayes played audio from Seattle podcast host Luke Burbank's interview with Daisey last May, way before the This American Life retraction happened.

Burbank (at about 12:45 of the podcast) specifically asked Daisey about how a storyteller deals with reconciling facts with the the telling of a good story. (Emphasis is mine):

BURBANK: How do you reconcile the-telling of a good story with also trying to get the facts right? And when do you decide what is the more important goal? 
DAISEY: Oh, well, you know what I've found over the years is that the facts are your friends. Like, if there's ever a case where I'm telling a story and I find the facts are inconvenient, 9 times out of 10 it means I haven't thought about the story deeply enough.  I really believe in this because the world is more complex and more interesting than my imagination. So the world is full of really fascinating things, you have so many tools on stage as a storyteller.  Like, any time you want something to happen, you don't haveto pretend it happened and lie, you can use a flight of fancy, you can say, "I imagine what this must look like." You can say anything and you can go whatever direction you need to go, but be clear with the audience that you are, at one moment you're reporting the truth as literally it happened, and another case you're using hyperbole, and you just have to be really clear about when you're using each tool.  No, for me it's not actually, it's not actually that hard, if, and this is a big if--if you're pretty scrupulous about not believing, you know, the story before you see it.

Another new development, almost directly in line with Mike Daisey's statement above, is the posting of the official statement by Oskar Eustis, Artistic Director of the Public Theater, on the controversy:

Every performance creates a contract, implied or explicit, between the stage and the audience. That contract directs how the audience should view the performance, what the rules of engagement are. It covers everything from the physical relationship between actors and audience to the border between fiction and fact contained in the performance.

You can read the whole statement here.

Below is a clip from the segment on Chris Hayes.  Watch the whole clip, because Chris Hayes points out Daisey at his best, and why Daisey's monologue was so important.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Theater Company Deals With Mike Daisey Script

Shortly before last weekend's controversy involving Mike Daisey and This American Life, Daisey had released the text of his show The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs online under a Creative Commons license.  

This made other groups,or solo artists, able to perform the piece anywhere, anytime, for free.  It also gave anybody doing the show license to use the text in almost whatever way they wanted.

I was wondering what was going to happen to all of the people who were planning to perform the piece.  

Codey Daigle found himself in just that position, and he has a post about it on 2AMT:

We decided on a four-performance run as quickly as possible: opening night was set for March 17. Our thoughts: “Being current is part of the way we sell the show, so let’s stay as current as possible. Let’s open the thing before Daisey finished his run at the Public.” I’d perform it as a reading, the tech would be minimal, so we could compress the time from idea to opening without much worry.
And anyway, it was the script that was the event. We wanted people to focus on the script.
On March 16, the day before we opened, we got what we wanted. NPR retracted their “This American Life” airing, citing fabrications in the script as a cause. The firestorm that ensued (that’s still churning on in some corners) is known – no need to detail it here – but while the large part of the theatre world was spinning on its broader implications for the theatre and journalism and ethics and the truth, we had a very different problem.
What in the hell are we going to do with our show?

Monday, March 19, 2012

Trivia: Ira Glass or Mike Daisey?

I have a little trivia question for everybody in light of all the columns and blog posts being written about the Mike Daisey controversy.


Who said the following:
"It seemed best for the story if this were kept a little vague, I thought it would be lousy and undermining and killjoyish if—at the end of a story—a radio host came on and said 'that wasn't true.' Seemed nicer and more artful to simply raise the possibility that it might or might not be true. I figured: the audience is smart. A little goes a long way."

If you guessed Mike Daisey, you would be...wrong!

It was Ira Glass.

In 2008 Jack Shafer wrote a piece for Slate about a This American Life episode that aired a story originally told at the popular storytelling event The Moth.  The storyteller in this case was none other than Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers and other bestsellers.

The story Gladwell told was funny and witty, but also contained parts that were at best unverifiable, and at worst completely made-up.

Shafer's reporting is interesting as it is almost a miniature version of the controversy that has arisen over excerpts from Mike Daisey's theatrical performance of The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs that were also broadcast on This American Life.

However, unlike the tenor of the "Retraction" episode of This American Life, in which Ira Glass grills Daisey over fabrications and constantly assures listeners that TAL is journalism with the highest standards, the moods of Gladwell and Glass in the Shafer article seem to be the opposite of the positions of Glass and Daisey.

In the Shafer piece, Gladwell seemed hesitant to the idea of the story running on This American Life and says that he was assured it would be aired with a disclaimer clearly stating parts of it were made-up. Whereas, when contacted by Shafer, Glass offers the quote with which I started this post.

Yes, back then, Ira Glass chose being "artful" over being factual. This is almost precisely the ground that Mike Daisey is retreating to in this current controversy.

And if you want a double irony, the Moth story Gladwell told and Glass chose to broadcast, (apparently knowing there were fabrications in it,)  is about playing loose with journalistic standards.

Of course, Daisey's case is different in that his piece is alleging a corporation's unethical activity and he is specifically using it as a piece of advocacy.

I just wanted to point out that Ira Glass and This American Life do not appear to have a consistent policy or even a consistent attitude towards vetting and disclosure on their program.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Puddle Houses

Somerville Long Puddle  by arthennessey
Somerville Long Puddle , a photo by arthennessey on Flickr.

Theatre Critic as Referee in the Stage Direction Skirmish

It was only a few weeks ago that I posted about the question of loyalty to published stage directions

The subject was interesting enough to attract a number of comments to the post.

With this fresh in my mind, I happened upon Brendan Kiley's review of Seattle Repertory Theatre's production of John Logan's Red.  

It is not often that stage directions are quoted in a review, but neither is it uncommon, especially for a well-known play.  But Kiley, in just a couple of sentences, seems to encapsulate a large part of the argument about the obligation a director, or an actor, has to the playwright's written instructions:

Some moments painfully flatten Red's characters, as when Ken, an orphan, recounts the death of his parents. He kneels downstage and speaks his painful childhood memory with the hot, false anguish of television melodrama. The fault lies partly with the playwright, whose direction to Ken at the beginning of the scene says "reliving it." The rest of the fault lies with director Richard E. T. White for not ignoring the playwright. 

This brings up another interesting dimension to the discussion.  Namely, to what extent is the critic/reviewer obligated to referee this tug-of-war between director and playwright?

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Out For A Stroll

Lord Somerville Out For A Walk Out shooting another entry into Lord Somerville's Diary this past weekend.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Advice to the Young Actor - Warning To Playwrights

More funny acting advice here.  From the mind of Constantine Ersatz, working from his top secret acting studio in Manhattan.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Paula Vogel and Her Student Both Miss The Real Answer

The New York Times covered Paula Vogel's playwriting boot camp that was recently held at Second Stage Theatre.  She holds these informal training seminars around the country, "usually at theaters that are producing her work."

While I don't always agree with her, Vogel can often be a very invigorating champion of the craft and profession, and has also served as a voice against the tendency for theaters to over-develop plays.

Near the end of the article is this exchange with a theater director:.
She encouraged her writers, in their scripts, to consider leaving half a page blank to underscore the importance of wordlessness to directors and actors.
Such a heavy authorial hand drew heated complaints, however, from Nicholas Gray, a young theater director who had been invited by an associate. Mr. Gray railed against lengthy stage directions, saying he crossed them out in scripts before he would begin rehearsals with his actors.
“It’s the playwright being tyrannical over all of the other artists who will ever work on the play,” Mr. Gray said, adding that even “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” would not escape his pen.
His conviction drew out Ms. Vogel’s steely side for a moment — “that idea causes me a great deal of pain,” she said of his editing — before she regained her professorial posture. She said that Eugene O’Neill wrote “Long Day’s Journey” as “a valentine to his wife” and that pauses in the stage action were a way to “slow down the sensation of time.”
“Theater is one of the few places where the rush of time slows down,” she said.
Of course, they are both a "no go" on this boot camp task. I guess I'll sound overly pedantic, but Eugene O'Neill expressly instructed that the play never be produced at all.  I'm glad I get to see it, believe me, but let's remember that we're trampling on the old man's wishes.

He was asked about it by his publisher near the end, and he emphatically reiterated his wishes in a letter:
 "No, I do not want Long Day's Journey Into Night," [It was in a safe at the publisher's headquarters.] he wrote "That, as you know, is to be published twenty-five years after my death—but never produced as a play."
While I really respect the argument Vogel and the student are having, Eugene O'Neill presents some interesting tangents when used as an example, especially when talking about Long Day's Journey.

Maybe, though, it was brought up and just not reported.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Look Back (To 1989) in Anger

Sam Gold's production of John Osborne's angry young cry of a play, Look Back in Anger, has just opened in New York City at the Laura Pels Theater.

We got a look at the play when the Orfeo Group put it on at the Factory Theatre here in Boston back in 2008.  

Here is a video of Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson in the finale of  a 1989 production:

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Marty, We Have To Go Back and Get Franzen To Go On Oprah!

So, Hollywood is increasingly involved in the news of the theater recently.

Yesterday, word came that mega-producer Scott Rudin was suddenly pulling the plug on his financing of the Broadway production of Bruce Norris' Pulitzer Prize-winning play Clybourne Park, (recently seen at Trinity Rep in Providence.)

The Los Angeles Times had a take on the story.  It was the Mark Taper Forum production that would transferring to New York.

The New York Post reported Wednesday, and a source close to the production confirmed, that Norris, who is also an actor, had backed out of a commitment to star in a pilot for a Rudin-produced HBO adaptation of Jonathan Franzen's bestselling novel, "The Corrections." That prompted a tit-for-tat by Rudin, who pulled his money out of "Clybourne Park," which was to have featured the same seven-member cast that has won glowing reviews at the Taper.

But never fear! Hollywood to the rescue!  Who needs a Pulitzer when you can have a time travel musical!  Deadline New York reports:

I’m told that Zemeckis is in early talks with his co-writer Bob Gale and the film’s composer Alan Silvestri to explore a stage transfer. A stage musical would be an intriguing way to reintroduce a franchise which, over three films, grossed nearly $1 billion worldwide. Zemeckis’ ImageMovers would be involved if this goes forward.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Captive Audiences? What Is the Breaking Point?

Knees ache, bottoms numb up and watches flicker. 

When a theatrical performance, even an enjoyable one, has gone on too long at one clip, the audience members feel it.   And let's not forget about their bladders.

Isaac Butler recently wrote an open post to "theatermakers" in which he implores them to insert intermissions into lengthy projects.   

There is currently a crop of good, solid, intermission-free plays gracing the boards in Boston.  Red at Speakeasy Stage, God of Carnage at the Huntington Theater Company, A Number at Whistler in the Dark and 'Art' at New Repertory Theater all come in around the 90 minute mark.

 Red pushes the envelope just a bit.  Speakeasy lists the two-hander about painter Mark Rothko as running 1 hour and 40 minutes, about what it was when I saw it.

My opinion is that I don't see much need for a playwright, director or artistic director to confine an audience member to his or her chair for over 90 minutes. I'm willing to listen to arguments, but in all my years of theatergoing, acting, directing and playwriting, I have rarely seen anything but diminishing returns on audience attention and focus after about an hour and fifteen minute stretch.   And a two-hour, uninterrupted stretch of watching live theater can get pretty uncomfortable, if not unbearable.

Of course, it is not as easy as just inserting an intermission.  The play's structure and beats have everything to do with it.  A break should make sense dramatically and emotionally.  

There is also the fear of an audience leaving a difficult work if they get they the chance.  Famously, Margaret Edson's play W;t, (now receiving a Broadway production starring Cynthia Nixon,) played intermissionless because the production team believed audiences would not want to continue to watch to the suffering and death of a woman with late stage ovarian cancer. 

Here is Edson in an interview with Jim Lehrer in 1999:

JIM LEHRER: And it's produced without an intermission, correct?
MARGARET EDSON: That's right, because we feel if there were an intermission, people would leave and we want them to stay till the end.
JIM LEHRER: Why did you think they would leave?
MARGARET EDSON: Well, in the middle it's very hard to take. It's -- it has a lot of talk about language and punctuation and complicated words, and then the medical parts are very graphic also, very realistically presented.

Note: I believe I remember reading someplace that the original production of W;t did indeed have an intermission, and people did leave, prompting the playwright and director to nix the interval.  However, I can't find any reference to that story now.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The War over War Horse...Tax Credits As Ammo

Here in Massachusetts, many are acquainted with the idea of offering tax incentives for the production of motion pictures.

We currently offer pretty substantial breaks that have made it more amenable for some Hollywood features and major independent films to be created in the Commonwealth. (However, the current system is somewhat controversial.)

Last month, TimeOut Chicago wrote about how the Illinois legislature was applying the same ideas behind film tax credits to theater productions:

Buried in a tax-break package signed by Gov. Pat Quinn on December 16 that convinced Sears and CME Group to stay in Illinois was a victory for Chicago theater: the creation of the Live Theatre Production Tax Credit. It allows for up to $2 million in incentives to for-profit live-theater presenters that could give Illinois a competitive leg up on other states in attracting and keeping more pre-Broadway and long-run shows such as The Addams Family and Jersey Boys. The legislation also aims to create and retain theater jobs. Presenters can apply for the credit at the end of the tax year with the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, which may award credits worth up to 20 percent of their spending in Illinois.

Now, it seems, the city of Toronto is seeing this as direct competition.  The originating national touring production of War Horse, the hit West End/ Broadway show, is coveted by both cities.  The Globe and Mail reports:

The threat of losing in-demand shows to American competitors has motivated Toronto rivals Dancap and Mirvish Productions to put their differences aside and join forces with actor, stagehand and musician unions and associations to figure out how to lobby for a similar incentive either at the federal or provincial level.Earlier this month, the two producers also met with representatives from Tourism Toronto, the city’s Entertainment District Business Improvement Area and the Hotel Association to discuss how to persuade the Ontario government to adopt a similar, or perhaps even more attractive, tax credit.Or, in the words of producer David Mirvish, “laws that allow us to be competitive – a level-playing field.”“I have some concern that there will be some productions that will choose Chicago over Toronto – that this will make the difference in their choice,” Mirvish says. “If you lose one large, long-playing show, you’re going to take $600- to $800-million out of the economy of Toronto.”