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.”

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Tweet This! I'm on a Panel on Tweeting in the Theater

Monday night I'll be on a panel about the recent phenomenon of Tweet Seats.

The panel is sponsored by Arts in America and will be held at the Central Square Theater in Cambridge.

Other panelists will include:

Julie Hennrikus (StageSource)
Robin Abrahams (Boston Globe's "Miss Conduct")
Matt Heck (Boston Symphony Orchestra)
Nick Peterson (Central Square Theater)

Thom Dunn (Huntington Theater, Musician and Playwright)

As a bonus, my lovely wife Amanda and several others will be performing in brief, humorous sketches that attempt to dramatize tweets.

The event is free and open to the public, but seating is limited.  Go here for more information.

Hope to see some of you there.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

My Twitter Play - Inspired By Recent Events

The Neofuturists sponsor a Twitter Play assignment every week. This week's assignment was "Write a one-tweet play that features an Apple."

Monday, January 23, 2012

Don't Mourn The Loss of Mainstream Critics

After all, in this Internet age of the citizen critic, for every loss of a voice like the Village Voice's J. Hoberman, we have the rise of a whole chorus of folks like The Reply Girl!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Movies About Money

As promised, at my film blog Gate Dimension, I've listed nine hit films from the last 30 years that look at money in more than a cursory way.  Most all of them are flawed, some are even middling, but all were popular.

Let me know what you think.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

More Statistics That Are Useful for the Race and Theater Discussion

When Tom Loughlin first posted a lament over the latest Broadway League numbers at his Poor Player blog, I doubt he realized the firestorm he was kindling.

Indeed, the comments on that original post are cresting over 60, and several other blogs, most notably Parabasis, have been quick to really lay into Professor Loughlin.   His post has been called "offensive" and he has been declared an "enemy" and "disavowed" by some.. Yikes.

Today, 99 Seats (Playwright J. Holtham), one of the most vigorous critics of Loughlin's argument, laid out a post on Parabasis entitled OK Then, Lets Really Talk About It.  In this post he points out the trouble with the original premise of trying to extrapolate a whole lot about the culture of races and their attitudes towards theater attendance and participation from Broadway League numbers.

Indeed, this has been a common thread through the discussion up to this point.

I'm sure others have been doing this as well, but my first instinct, even before the whole thing blew up, was to take a look at the National Endowment for the Arts research - specifically their periodic Survey of Participation in the Arts.  Most all of their reports are available for free in PDF form.

However, the most interesting report, (and relevant to this discussion) is the report entitled:  Beyond Attendance; A Multi Modal Understanding of Arts Participation:

As far at the attendance figures go, all the reports pretty much confirm the Broadway League statistics that Tom Loughlin cites.  

Here is a graph from the latest Survey of Participation in the Arts in 2008:

Next is a graph from the Beyond Attendance report, looking at the Rate of Attendance based on demographics.  Which gets a little more specific.  

And, lastly, (I thought this was an interesting one,) This graph looks at the participation by demographic in the Creation of art.

In this graph, African Americans actually participate more in performing in non-musical plays.  

Interestingly enough, the NEA reports talk very frankly about differences in attendance rates by race.  Here is an example:

Generally, significant differences were observed across the demographic cohorts for arts-creation activities, as reported in Table 7. In other words, different arts-creation activities appeal to different groups of people. Although seemingly obvious, this general fact reveals interesting sub-results.
Some arts-creation activities seem highly correlated with race/ethnicity and might be part of cultural traditions and heritage. The highest rate of participation for African Americans across the creation activities encompassing the performing and visual arts is 10.3% — for “singing with a chorale, choir, or glee club or other type of vocal group.”Although the survey’s sample size for American Indians is too small to determine whether their participation rates are different from those of other racial/ethnic groups, they do appear to have the highest rates of participation for painting, drawing, and sculpture, for pottery and jewelry-making, and for weaving and sewing. If one subscribes to a philosophy of equitable access, and if one accepts that certain forms of arts creation are more likely to engage certain ethnic groups, then one can reasonably infer from the SPPA that investments in specific types of activities among distinct communities (e.g., supporting vocal music activities in predominantly African American communities) are likely to improve cultural equity. 

Anyway, just thought I would throw this out there.  As I said, the reports are readily available and very interesting reading.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

David Wheeler RIP

The Boston Globe confirms that David Wheeler, long-time director at the American Repertory Theater and founder of  The Theatre Company of Boston, has died.

David was a great fixture on the Boston theater scene and directed many memorable productions at the ART, and his tenure at the Theatre Company of Boston from 1960-1975 reads like a who's who of 70's acting talent. Stockard Channing, Al Pacino, James Wood, Paul Benedict, Blythe Danner and many more luminaries acted in his productions at the Charles Playhouse.  Some productions later moved to New York.

His production of David Rabe's The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel starred Al Pacino and played on Broadway.

On a personal note, David was my directing teacher and his wife Bronia was my first acting teacher.  Through their classes I met the people with whom I would start my theater company and David encouraged us.

This meant a lot to me. I was less than a year out of the Army, with no real theater background. His wealth of experience in the American theater was almost inconceivable, and, yet, he treated every student or member of the Boston theater scene that he came in contact with as a colleague.  

I remember him asking me about the Army and I told him what it was like, he said, "you should write a play!" And so I did. (Here's a review.) A few years later I got my first IRNE nomination for Best New Play.

The video is from the first rehearsal of David's production of No Man's Land at the A.R.T. in 2007.

A Poor Player Takes a Hard Look At Perennial Numbers

Tom Loughlin, who blogs at A Poor Player, throws out a stark post after reviewing the latest Broadway League and NEA numbers.  (83% of Broadway tickets to plays were purchased by Caucasians.)

After years of reading these statistics he comes to the following conclusion:  "Theatre is primarily for white people, as both audience members and practitioners."

It is a more thoughtful post than that declaration might make it sound, (if you know Tom's blog you'll know what I mean,) and remember that his thoughts come after looking at the same data in report after report.

For instance, he points out that Buffalo is 38% African American, but out of the 20 theater companies listed in the area, only 2 are African American companies, and one barely produces.

Theater, Loughlin suggests, as practiced in the mainstream today, might not really appeal to other racial demographics in significant numbers. Heck, it barely appeals to Caucasians in significant numbers.

This is not to say that other races or ethnic groups do not have theatre or do not enjoy it. But the particular form of the scripted written work as interpreted by actors in a linear story-telling fashion seems to be one that has interested western Caucasians for a long time, and apparently continues to do so for a certain demographic slice of white people as a whole. 
Now am I not arguing that non-whites do not enjoy theatre and participate in it. Of course they do. But statistically speaking, on the whole, non-whites simply do not appear interested in the art form as defined above. No other race or ethnic group charts in double digit percentages either as audience members or practitioners of “legit” theatre. The question that really needs to be asked to probe these numbers more carefully is whether or not these low numbers are the result of institutional discrimination, or simply general disinterest in the art form. I suspect many people will want to believe the former, but the numbers seem to indicate that perhaps the latter is closer to reality. One aspect of this question that needs serious consideration is the economic inequality question, but even that may reveal that whites are more willing to sacrifice economic hardship to see and do theatre.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

A Brief History of John Lahr and All-Black Productions of American Classics

Terrence Howard & Anika Noni Rose in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

John Lahr, theater critic for The New Yorker, just posted a roundup of the Best Theater of the Year on that publication's Culture Desk blog.

He begins with a wish list for Santa:

Santa, baby, next year please: can we get Arthur Kopit’s brilliant “Discovery of America” on the boards? Will you deliver—I’ve been asking for years now—a few good sets of lyrics in musical shows which aren’t movie retreads and which carry appropriate intellectual weight? And no more infernal all-black productions of Tennessee Williams plays unless we can have their equal in folly: all-white productions of August Wilson. And, since I’ve been a good boy, could I get more bravery from producers and from playwrights to take the theatre beyond sexual politics to the soiled workings of the public realm? Is more thought, more visual excitement, more joy too much to ask?

It seemed strange to me that he would single out the race reversing of Williams' plays into his end of the year wrap-up for a year that didn't include a high profile all-black Tennessee Williams production. Although there is the upcoming Broadway-bound production of A Streetcar Named Desire with Blair Underwood and Daphne Rubin-Vega, which I guess he is trying to trip out of the gate.

Lahr didn't even review the 2008 Broadway revival of Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof , which starred James Earl Jones and other famous African American actors. Hilton Als covered the production for the Magazine, and wrote only a few sentences dealing with the color-blind casting, summing it up with: "Race plays as much or as little a role in this revival as you want it to." Ben Brantley in his New York Times review was even more dismissive of any problems the race reversal might present. And he pointed out that the director, Debbie Allen, had nudged the period feel of the production enough to leap frog it past the era of Jim Crow.

However, John Lahr did review Yale Rep's 2009 all-black staging of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman for the New Yorker. He opened that notice with black playwright August Wilson's 1996 condemnation of the "folly" of presenting just such a production.

Lahr based his criticism of the casting on the larger themes related to the time period in which the play is set:

Loman is a monument to envy and its hate-filled agitations—all pluck and no luck. His outraged bewilderment—“What’s the mystery?,” “What’s the secret?,” “What happened?”—is predicated on the notion that abundance is there for the taking. This sense of expectation and entitlement was simply not shared by African-Americans in 1949. “You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity . . . that you were a worthless human being,” James Baldwin wrote in 1962, in an open letter to his nephew. “You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity.” 

And the specific time period is apparently what also got Lahr's goat about that all-black Cat on a Hot Tin Roof production from the previous year.

On CUNY TV's Theater Talk, Lahr appeared with Elizabeth Ashley to discuss the production, which he admitted he had not seen, yet.

Here is his opening gambit concerning the casting (at about 17:00 into the video):   

The "mendacity" of the play...  Big Daddy, this is a man who has 28,000 acres of the most fertile land west of the Nile. Now, okay, those 28,000 acres of fertile delta land - that wealth - that was built on the backs of slavery.  That is the omnipresent, unspoken central sin under which this whole elaborate structure of society, manners, wealth has been built.  It's all been built to cut out, to block out, to not see...to actually alibi this unspoken, but omnipresent thing.  

His contention is that an all black production actually robs the play of this layer of meaning and that there is a trickle down effect.   Elizabeth Ashley actually argued for the production in a way that intrigued Lahr into promising he would see it.  Her point was that black family structures and white family structures in the deep South of that time were intertwined "psychologically" and mirrored each other in some respects.

Monday, January 02, 2012

7 Small Films of 2011 That Stayed With Me

1. The Trip

"Everything's exhausting when you're past 40."

Two British stars take a trip to the North of England together in this Michael Winterbottom project that  was edited down from a BBC series. 

The Trip is a long form improvisation with a spine created around the imagined (or real)  middle-career and middle-aged malaise of the actor Steve Coogan.  Divorced, in the middle of a break-up with his American girlfriend, Coogan calls his friend Rob Brydon, a comedian and impressionist, to accompany him on an all-expense paid trip to visit restaurants in the North of England for a magazine piece he has been commissioned to write by the Observer.

Their talents are on full display with Coogan playing broody and barely amused to Brydon's optimistic, playful needling.  Several of the movie's centerpieces involve the two men dueling with their impressions of iconic stars such as Michael Caine or Sean Connery. These can go on for a bit, but one of them will always hit on something deeper in their own relationship as friends or the other's career. 

The pair travel through the desolate, but beautiful moors and end up in the Lake Country, while the deeper themes of time passing us by and the desperation to make some type of mark on the world start to present themselves more clearly.  Finally, the two are walking in the footsteps of immortal poets like Coleridge and Wordsworth, but rather than things getting burdened with too much pretension, the biting humor of Coogan and Brydon constructs a sturdy engine fueled with just enough gallows humor to keep us moving along.

2. Bellflower

I wasn't sure what to think of this film once it finished, but I was feeling many things.  Bellflower is a rambling interestingly-shot trip through depression, jealousy and anger as could only be properly filmed by the twenty- something renegade filmmakers who made it.

Evan Glodell, the director and writer, puts himself in the lead as the slacker Woodrow who spends his time fixing up a muscle car named Medusa.  He also tries to build the perfect flamethrower with his friend Aiden.  Their shared buddy fantasy is that they will be prepared for an imagined Road Warrior-type apocalypse.  However, after Woodrow gets mixed up with a new girl, he and Aiden's lives become very difficult, very fast.

Flawed, but with a raw artistry and vision, there is no doubt that these guys have something here, but what it is, I'm afraid I  or any critics I have read elsewhere can't describe fully.

3. Another Earth

Yes, the science fiction elements are shaky of course.   If you have seen the ads or the poster for Another Earth, you would know that an identical planet to the size of the Earth would create all sorts of gravity issues if we could see it looming in the sky like that. Best seen closer to the fantasy end of science fiction (think Twilight Zone) Mike Cahill's film is really about coming to terms with ourselves as we are, with all of our history and finding a way to move forward.

Earth's citizens become aware of another planet, one that seems remarkably similar to their own, drifting closer to them This unleashes the  imagination  of woman who caused a fatal car accident that derailed her promising young life, (she was on her way to an MIT scholarship) and wrecked the family of another man.  She tries to find a way to somehow make retribution. 

One can easily forgive some of the science flubs, but the credibility issues with the young woman's strange plan to make amends seems a bit more outlandish than the huge doppleganger planet that hangs in the sky.  However, the haunting tone and the camera's love of the beautiful Brit Marling, (also a co-writer on the film,) makes for a hypnotic experience.

And the first contact of  our NASA with the sister organization of that other Earth is a spine-tingling sequence matched only by the finale, which is closest thing to the chills I received when I first saw some of the classic Rod Serling masterpieces.

4. Senna

Know nothing about NASCAR and even less about Formula One racing? Then you actually might want to check out this documentary about Senna, Brazil's legendary Formula One racing champion.  

An aggressive driver on the track, Senna is portrayed as a gentler and more contemplative man out of the car.  Though the film doesn't hide that he was an intense character,  he comes across as humble and self-aware.  While he obviously dated some of the world's most beautiful women, the filmmakers seem uninterested in his romantic life and only fleetingly feature his family.  The politics and rules of the international governing body of Formula One racing provide the obstacles and Senna emerges as a pure competitor who must somehow negotiate his way through this thicket to the championship, despite sometimes being the best driver. Unfortunately, the movie becomes a little bit of a hagiography in this area, with only a hint of Senna's own infractions.

With the high decibel roar of the exclusive Formula One footage to serve as a pillar, the story eschews the static documentary convention of the talking head, and Senna instead uses actual period interview audio and a few voiceovers to thrillingly recreate the fast rise and short life of this athlete dying young.  Senna was killed in an accident at the age of 34 and the footage taken from his racing car allows us to be right next to him until the very moment of his fatal collision. 

5. Buck

A kind of serene twin to Senna, the documentary Buck shows us another man was born to be the best at what he does. Rather than Senna's high octane pace, this film ambles along and waits until its last moments to throw you.

Buck Brannaman travels the country running training camps and seminars for horse owners. He is a protege of a famous horse trainer who was the inspiration for the novel The Horse Whisperer, which was made into a movie with Robert Redford.  Buck himself served as a consultant on that film, and his own horse was used for many of the stunts.

With beautiful sunsets and mountain vistas as a backdrop, director Cindy Meehl gradually reveals Buck's past.  His brother and he were young prodigies who performed rope tricks around the country, managed by their increasingly abusive father. Buck's gentleness and understanding of horses is almost magical, but the film has an ace up its sleeve that leaves the sage cowboy and the audience off-balance.

6. Five Days Gone

Playwright Anna Kerrigan made her first feature film by scraping together 60,000 dollars and securing an interesting location - a large estate out in Western Massachusetts.  Five Days Gone starts in a New York City bar as two sisters, who never knew each other existed, meet for the first time after their successful father has recently died. 

While one sister, Camden, grew up with her father and all the money that that entailed, Alice, played by the writer Kerrigan, grew up poor, never really knew her absentee Dad and doesn't seem to really care. Camden and her reluctant husband, invite Alice and her boyfriend to stay for a weekend at the family estate, recently inherited..

A few days on the grounds of  the house, and a slow tension builds, with hints of Chekhov or Turgnev (Kerrigan admits these are her influences.) The sparks come a little too slowly and there are some inconsistencies in the characters that seem engineered to create some needed conflict.   However, the performances of Kerrigan as the skeptical Alice and Brooke Bloom as the nervous Camden, keep moving the film into the territory where it is at its most interesting: as a tentative coming of age story about family and class.

Five Days Gone Trailer from Anna Kerrigan on Vimeo.

 7. God Willing

Remember that 60 Minutes piece years ago about the Jim Roberts cult? You know, the sketchy church that seduces away bright young college students into a Spartan, separatist lifestyle that prohibits them from ever talking to the their families again and has them riding bicycles and eating out of garbage cans?  

Well, that cult still exists and is as active as ever.  Only now, bereaved family members who have had children seduced into the organization can connect with each other over the internet.  As a network, the families can run surveillance on the nomadic cult if they suddenly pop up in a metro area.  They share photos online so that families can see if their sons or daughters are hiding out in the houses the cult members rent.

Filmmaker Angeline Griego followed this group of family members closely, and her film, God Willing, documents the attempt of one woman in particular to make contact with her daughter.   It is as suspenseful as any Hollywood thriller - the cult has been known to completely blow town at the slightest hint they are being watched.

As they circle their target, the family members talk about what they know about the cult and about their loved ones, some of whom have been out of touch for decades

God Willing - Trailer from About Time Productions on Vimeo.