The Playgoer: July 2006

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Monday, July 31, 2006

SPF Panel #2 notes

Some delayed reaction to another panel last Monday presented by the Summer Play Festival, featuring some pretty smart and engaging personnel:Long Wharf's Gordon Edelstein, agent Morgan Jeness, director Kenny Leon, producer Robyn Goodman, and the Public's Oskar Eustis.

The conversation veered far from the panel's stated charge to discuss "Is New York Where It's At? (And, if not, where?)". But moderator David Cote (from Time Out) took advantage of the time to put some tough questions to individual panelists. For instance, asking Eustis to comment on the "Rachel Corrie" story and how he would have handled it. Eustis, in response, finally confirmed for the record (I believe for the first time) that he had indeed been pitched "Rachel Corrie" initially but claimed he "couldn't work out a deal" and so Alan Rickman & co. went to New York Theatre Workshop. Eustis reiterated previous comments in supporting NYTW and Jim Nicola's body of work and contribution to the theatre, but also that with "Corrie" he made a "mistake." The real news flash here was actually Eustis' annoucement that the Public and other theatres--including NYTW!--are planning "supporting activities" around the October commercial run of the play to "deepen the discussion" about Mideast issues and political theatre. So stay tuned for more on that, I suppose...

Eustis was also compelling in his concern for the increasingly "blurred line" between the commercial and nonprofit elements in theatre. "What's the 'not' in not-for-profit?" is the question we need to keep in front of us, he admonished. ("The public library doesn't have to make a profit," he added. Unfortunately, I could think of some local governments that disagree!)... He also made an interesting point in defense of producing "Stuff Happens" against grumbling about importing well-established Brits over homegrown work. While asserting we have no shortage of great living American dramatists, he also claimed David Hare's advantage was the "35 years of institutional support [i.e. at Britain's subsidized theatres] for large-cast public-issue plays" that could lead to a "Stuff Happens", when US writers are encouraged to writer smaller and smaller. Food for thought. When a European visitor in the audience expressed surprise that all the Artistic Directors were not heavily subsidized, Eustis shocked the crowd (insiders and outsiders alike, I think) in revealing that "three-quarters of one-percent of our Budget is government funded."

Robyn Goodman, as a consultant to the Roundabout, gave us a window onto what's going on over there with new plays, ever since they opened their new space, the Laura Pels, a smaller Off-Broadway venue (formerly the American Place Theatre) where they premiered "Mr. Marmelade" and "Pig Farm" this season--younger-spirited plays they might not normally take on. The Roundabout audience--accustomed to "classics with stars"--has apparently been giving Artistic Director Todd Haimes a tough time, to which they try to respond about the importance of investing in and nurturing new talent, or "seeing Feydeau at the beginning of his career." Which I took to be the first acknowledged difficulty in how the farcical "Pig Farm" is going over.

Some blame was passed around to critics (or to the power of critics) in stifling the chances of new work. Eustis claimed as evidence that the all-powerful seat of judgment at the Times is still that powerful that the greatest obstacle to producing "Stuff Happens" in New York was not its political content but the more influential commercial risk in producing a play Ben Brantley went on record as not liking in his London review. (And it helped decisively that Brantley changed his mind and gave thumbs-up to the Public's version.) Eustis took the critic-bashing occasion to continue prostletizing for free tickets, saying, "If you give the tickets away, nobody cares what the critics say." However, his theory seems contradicted by his very own "Macbeth" this summer, which got mixed notices and where it was apparently easy to get a ticket in line. I would counter that it's celebrity, not free tickets, that trumps bad reviews every time.

Cote--naturally poised to defend the critics!--made the more original and urgent point that the problem is more in Times coverage than the criticism itself, especially when it comes to Downtown theatre. As an example, he cited the Times overlooking of a buzz-worthy underground venture like "The Sewers" at the Ontological, but still sending someone to review a seemingly negligible Frankenstein musical at the less serious Wings company. Cote is really onto something here that I've noticed in the Times lately. I will hand it to them that they've stepped up their downtown coverage, and are reviewing more shows than they used to. But I also notice that they're not always reviewing the best downtown shows. Which leads me to conclude they must be giving into whoever has the loudest p.r. rather than their own nose for what's interesting.

Kenny Leon was asked a lot about the experience and success of his "Raisin in the Sun" on Broadway with black audiences. On the question of ticket prices, it was refreshing to hear him speak some sense: "Economics does play a part. At $100 you might see one play, but not six... Sometimes money is a problem. But people also have to know what we're offering. These kids spend $110 on some tennis shoes."... By the way, Cote did not pass on asking Leon how he really felt about working with P. Diddy. Leon gave an emphatic defense of the casting choice, arguing he auditioned personally for him, multiple times. But then he also provided a surreal narrative of how, as director, he entered into an unusally intense personal (and dependent) relationship with his star, where Diddy would take him around in his limo all night, going over the script in fine restaurants, going to church together on Sundays. Leon's message was all about how hard the man worked. The story was entertaining, though, because the dazzling details of a director enthralled by his far more famous star.

Those are all the notes I have. Anyone else there care to comment?

To Equity or Not to Equity

John Moore of the Denver Post offers a revealing economic analysis of a common dilemma for the professional actor (and theatre company) in the heartland. I think we want a professionally paid and union-protected corps of actors across the country. And we want communities to be able to sustain such a pool of actors by offering more than one Equity mega-company, encouraging more Lort D's and "Letter-of-Agreement" theatres if they have to, to supplement the job opportunities.

But are the obstacles still outweighing the incentives for actors and theatres to join? The fact that Moore is talking about Denver, a big city, is not good news.

Middle East plays reading

From today's "Arts, Briefly" word of some interesting writers responding fresh to the current crsis:

The playwrights Kia Corthron (“Force Continuum”), Israel Horovitz (“Line”) and Anne Nelson (“Savages”) will participate in “The Middle East, in Pieces,” a reading of six short plays that respond to the ongoing violence in the Middle East. The free evening of theater, directed by Thomas Caruso, is scheduled for Aug. 17 at 8 p.m. at the Cherry Lane Theater in the West Village(www.cherrylanetheatre.org). The event was the idea of the New York playwright Beau Willimon, whose girlfriend’s father was living in Beirut when the current conflict began. Mr. Willimon approached the nonprofit theater company Back House Productions with the idea of a reading series in mind, and the company agreed to produce it. “Our goal is to offer a diverse spectrum of responses,” Mr. Willimon said in a statement. “By engaging in a dialogue with the audience, we hope, in our own small way, to raise awareness.” Several of the playwrights and the director will join the audience in a discussion after the reading.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

New Rickman Interview

The Scotsman--in promotion of the Edinburgh Fringe appearance of My Name is Rachel Corrie--gets Alan Rickman on the record about the show for the first time in months.

With a commercial production finally happening Off-Broadway this October, Rickman is naturally playing "above the fray," but still revisits the past a bit and makes an eloquent case for the play.

Most pertinent quotes:

On the morning we meet, the headlines are dominated by the crisis in the Middle East, so the issues raised by this passionate, poignant piece of theatre could not be more timely. "This terrible situation simply proves that the play needs to be seen, and to go on being seen," [Rickman] says quietly, "because it comes from a very human perspective and it's not about taking sides at all."

Does he not find it ironic, then, that the original production, at New York Theater Workshop, was "postponed" by artistic director James Nicola, "because of the edgy situation", citing the fact that the prime minister, Ariel Sharon, had recently slipped into a coma and Hamas had been elected? Surely, ironically, the theatre was taking sides? "I don't think so," replies Rickman, who makes no secret of the fact that he is politically involved, a Labour party supporter.

"The real irony for me was that we had a situation where two independent theatres were in some kind of conflict, which, given the world we are living in, was a great pity. I hope that it's resolved now." Nonetheless, when the play goes back to New York, it will be to another theatre, with new producers.

Rickman was quoted as saying that the cancellation of the production was due to "censorship born out of fear", after Nicola revealed the vehement response of Jewish friends and advisers to the play, some of whom regarded it as "a piece of anti-Israeli agit-prop". "Well, I had to say that about censorship, didn't I?" replies Rickman in measured tones, circumflexing an eyebrow. "We can only guess at the sort of political pressure they were under. I don't feel anything but understanding of their problems. In any case, one of the new producers, Dena Hammerstein, is Jewish herself. Who knows? More rocks may still be thrown in our path, because the subject-matter is a hot potato."

Nicola's decision was condemned by Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard and Vanessa
Redgrave, a longtime supporter of Palestinian rights. Now Rickman only wants the play to be seen by as many people as possible. "There are times when a piece of work attaches itself to you in a very deep way. For this important play to be turned into a personality thing would be inappropriate; that's why it's not about me."

[...]

When I saw the production, I veered between wanting to shake Rachel for her naivety and wanting to embrace this "scattered and deviant and loud" young woman for her intelligence, spirit, honesty and courage.

"I'm so glad you felt that, because that's exactly how I hope audiences will feel," responds Rickman. "This isn't a play about Palestine or Israel, it's about being a citizen of the world."

[...]

"The crucial thing for me about the play is that it corrects the slanders on the internet about Rachel and the way she has been demonised - such as, 'Did you know she was a member of Hamas?'..."


Indeed, the argument that Corrie needed to be postponed because of the maelstrom of Sharon's coma and Hamas' election, seems quaint, and even more foolish, by the measure of today's crisis. Political theatre that does not sieze the moment is irrelevant theatre.

By the way, I never noticed Stoppard taking a stand on this before. Anyone else? Welcome, yes, but surprising considering this odd diatribe from around that time. (He is a conservative at heart, after all...)

Saturday, July 29, 2006

more Comédie-Française

The (Murdoch-owned) Times of London gives the Bozonnet side of the Comédie-Française story, claiming the Minister of Culture caved to pc pressures and slighted a good man, causing wealthy donors to be concerned and pull funding.

Meanwhile a translation from Paris-based Ben Ellis of a Bozonnet interview where he claims unfair firing. Bozonnet does come off as a complex figure of generally interesting tastes, who just drew a line at Peter Handke's politics. But it's a decision he has rightly had to answer for.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Harry Potter and the Miscast Play

Hot off the press from Playbill.com:

"Harry Potter"' actor Daniel Radcliffe is to take on his first leading role in the West End next year in a revival of Peter Shaffer’s Equus. No venue for the Thea Sharrock-directed production has been confirmed, but previews are reportedly due to start Feb. 16, 2007. opening Feb. 27. Joining Radcliffe in the production will be the Tony-winning star of The History Boys, Richard Griffiths, who also appeared with Radcliffe in one of the "Harry Potter" movies.

A marketer's dream? Perhaps. But how will those little Harry-ites react to their hero masturbating while blinding cute horsies?

Or as Playbill more diplomatically puts it: "Shaffer’s play will make new demands of the 17-year-old actor. As Strang, Radcliffe will perform a sexual act while riding naked on a horse."

Griffiths seems wrong for the part, too, come to think of it. As good as he is.

PBS v FCC

"[It's] important for public broadcasting not to just roll over, but to be very clear that in order to tell some stories, we may need to use language that, at the moment, the FCC is not sure that they feel is appropriate for broadcast television."

-PBS President Paula Kerger, declaring the network's determination to air Ken Burns's WWII documentary uncensored, even if it means our children might be exposed to the horrible sight of old people cursing.

Of course, the FCC, and those in power currently appointing them, have all kinds of reasons for blocking out the profanity of war these days.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Novelist-Playwrights

Philip Hensher, in the Guardian, takes the opportunity of a new production of James Joyce's rare Exiles at the Royal National to expostulate on: why do great novelists make such bad playwrights? Okay, unsuccessful, or "problematic" playwrights. And vice-versa.

Personally I don't feel this is destiny and I'd like to see more "cross-polination" of good writers working in many media. But it's possible that geniuses find their one form, and have trouble expressing it in others.

Culture Project Impact Festival

Something noteworthy going on this fall at Allan Buchman's Culture Project, one of the only explicitly political theatre venues in New York.

Their Impact Festival, the premiere of what is hoped to be a yearly event, will feature multiple productions on multiple stages (in partnership with some other theatres and institutions) addressing political and social issues both in the US and around the world. They've announced some of the highlights via the Times' "Arts, Briefly" today:

The festival starts on Sept. 12 with the premiere of a new Eve Ensler play, “The Treatment,” starring Dylan McDermott and directed by Leigh Silverman. Other theater projects include the American premiere of “6 Actors in Search of a Plot,” by the Palestinian writer Mohammed El-Thayer; the premiere of “A Political Cabaret” by Elizabeth Swados; a stage adaptation of Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove’s “Voices of a People’s History of the United States”; and a stage adaptation by Ariel Dorfman of “Speak Truth to Power: Voices From Beyond the Dark,” a book of interviews.

Look for updates to follow on the Culture Project website.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

REVIEW: Pig Farm


Cooke and O'Hare
in "Pig Farm"
Pig Farm
by Greg Kotis
at the Roundabout Theatre Company
discount code: PFINTE

I'm proud to say I've been a Greg Kotis fan since long before Urinetown. 1990, to be precise. It was then that a fellow University of Chicago student took me to some industrial space downtown (Off-Loop, when it was still quite unfashionable and even dangerous) to check out a comedy group called Cardiff Giant. They were not only an amazing improv group frequenting campus hangouts like Jimmy's Woodlawn Tap, but they also developed more ambitious collective full-length plays through extended improvisations. The one that night was called Rancho Obscuro. In typical Cardiff Giant style it mixed popular genre parody (in this case, a Western) with hyperbolic intellectual digressions, all performed with the troupe's razor-sharp sense of caricature and grounded silliness. As I remember it (which is much more impressionistic than factual) Kotis played the mayor of the town, a corrupt power-crazed business magnate with a scary flash in his eyes and a rapid-fire delivery of the gospel of success. (A kind of warm up to Urinetown's Mr Cladwell.) In both his performance and his writing of the character there was that mix of possessed zaniness and clear-focused intellectual satire that I associated with Monty Python. And like Python, Kotis and the C.G. troupe proudly bore the imprint of their classical education.

One other thing about that Off-Loop night: there were maybe two other people in the audience.

Flash forward ten years: Kotis teams up with a fellow Chicago alum, composer-lyricist Mark Hollmann, on a classic Cardiff Giant kind of project--a Brechtian musical about a corrupt industrial city where you can't freely go to the bathroom. Urinetown succeeded ultimately on Broadway because it could be received in so many ways--homage to Great American Musicals, environmental warning--but to me the lineage was clear back to those twin Chicago influences--the overducated wonkiness of the university and the shamelessly gross hijinx of Second City. It was first and foremost a genre parody of Labor romanticism--from Upton Sinclair to Brecht/Weill to "Cradle Will Rock." But once it moved from the Fringe to Uptown, that didn't matter so much as the toe-tapping tunes and the energetic production by director John Rando and his cast. How revolutionary on Broadway seeemed Kotis's theatrically self-referencing jokes on his own title, on clunky exposition, and in throwaway lyrics like "Your ticket, it says Urinetown!" But to anyone familiar with the comedy scene from which Kotis sprang, this was delightfully familiar.

Now, five years later, Kotis' Pig Farm at the Roundabout could be seen as his "graduation," in the eyes of the professional theatre world, into a bona fide "establishment" playwright. (Yes, he already won a pair of Tonys for Urinetown's book and lyrics, but that was a musical.) But that would be absolutely the wrong frame of mine to enter Pig Farm with. Because the truth is, those who describe the play as an extended sophomoric sketch... are right! That needn't be a grave flaw, however.

Pig Farm is, again, a Kotis parody, but of no one target. Yes, the Shepard world of Buried Child might come to mind, and director Rando has claimed to have emulated the "Steppenwolf style"--but I don't think that's where the play comes from. There's none of the signature Shepard symbolism and mysticism (not to mention alcoholism). No, I think the fun is being had more at the expense of those old "save the farm" movies. (A genre I particularly associate with 80s Hollywood; remember when "Places in the Heart," "The River," and yet a third one(?) all came out in the same year?) The mistake to make with Kotis' work is to force him into a strictly theatrical context as opposed to a broader swath of the popular culture of the past. For instance, the bloodletting at the end of Pig Farm has inspired some critics to assume Martin McDonagh is being sent up. As if we hadn't seen bloodpacks before "Lieutenant of Inishmore"... What's been overlooked in such misleading references is the real point of Pig Farm's finale--a delightfully bad-taste dare to push the "Fatal Attraction" trick ("whew, he's dead--wait, no he isn't!") past all point of endurance. It's a Hollywood thing, not something from Theatre History 101.

The other element in the mix of Pig Farm's travesties is simply the whole school of the "hard boiled." The tough talk of "regular folk" and "G-men" under pressing circumstances. Once you hear farmer Tom tell his farmhand, "The moment you count my pigs, that's the moment you become a man," you get the picture. The application of weighty intonations to flat-out funny words: "I'm talking sludge. Fecal sludge." And the obligatory insertion of the gutteral "Goddamn" into every sentence: "Godamnit, it's a goddamn pig run!" And so on...

The chief pleasure of Pig Farm is to watch a cast of four terrific comedy actors (Dennis O'Hare, Katie Finneran, Logan Marshall-Green, and John Ellison Cooke) play this style to the hilt. And no wonder--Kotis is at heart a performer, and writes wonderfully for them. While there's a bit of an imbalance between the more unhinged lunacy of O'Hare and Marshall-Greene as the plot's foils and the more sober Cooke and Finneran as the heroic married couple, the latter two's super-serious commitment to the insanity is just as funny.

As an extended parodic sketch, it would be nice if the play were tighter. The establishing of the premise and of the relationships takes a good thirty minutes. Also the character of the G-Man from the EPA (O'Hare) begins to wander a bit through the proceedings, as opposed to changing the equation of everything with his entrance. Ideally the whole play would be a 90-minute ride instead six scenes across two separate one-hour acts.

But even more ideally it would be at 10pm in the East Village with an open bar. Not at the Roundabout's "experimental" yet definitely posh second space, the Laura Pels. (Where, even though it's "Off-Broadway," tickets range from all the way from $66.25 to...$55.25.) It's hard to begrudge Kotis his chance to hit it big with the Roundabout. But is it really the best thing for the play in this case? First you have the diehard subscribers, who still expect theatre to not have changed since 1945. Then, single ticket buyers who are shelling out that money to see a brilliant "new play" are just set up for disappointment. Finally, as for the younger demographic of folk--those who grew up with the likes of Second City and Kids in the Hall and might actually appreciate Kotis' humor--are they even going to think about paying those prices? Even more daunting to them might be the prospect of them doing so, only to be surrounded by a much older audience not laughing along with them...

(BTW, I know I have preached here before that not all "young people" are strapped for cash. But it is hard to get anyone to pay those prices for something by relatively unknown artists and that has low "cultural capital"--i.e. there's no prestige/bragging rights in silly comedy.)

I certainly enjoyed Pig Farm. Even saw it twice. (Once for the bloggers' night, but also on my own the week before.) I do believe, though, that Kotis can make us laugh even harder and sustain an even stronger parody premise. It's a modest play, excellently done--but I can't get around the fact that its setting in the wealthy environs of the Roundabout makes it seem even more modest than it is. It deserves a better venue--by which I mean, of course, a "poorer" one. Anything to remind you of what it's like to go a club like Second City, pull up a stool, get a beer, and be ready to laugh at something not very serious at all.

Check out the other bloggers' reactions: Isaac Butler, Mark Armstrong, Matt Freeman, Dan Trujillo, Joshua James, Ian Hill, and James Comtois.

ATA

Any of you who have actually worked in the misleadingly named "American Theatre of Actors" on West 54th St. will take some satisfaction in Lisa Jo Sagolla's complaints on the Backstage blog.

The shame is, as Sagolla points out, it is a beautiful big building at a time when we so desperately need performance spaces. But obviously the owners don't have the money to renovate. Or even maintain it decently.

Be nice if someone not too corporate took it over.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Pig Farm

My apologies to my fellow bloggers in not being able to get together a posting on Pig Farm by today, which we were all invited to at the Roundabout this weekend as part of a blogger's night orchestrated by Isaac B. We all agreed to post together in an effort at blog synergy. Tomorrow, I promise, guys!

Meanwhile check out his response, as well as those of Mr Excitement, Joshua James, Matt Freeman, Dan Trujillo, Ian Hill, and James Comtois. The thinking was the blogosphere might provide an alternative perspective on this Gen X-er comedy than the MSM. So let's see...

Warnings

I second George Hunka's recommendation of English playwright David Edgar's playful rant against pre-show "warnings" (smoking, gun shots, etc.).

Lots of funny incidents. But also a serious point with other applications:

But behind all warnings - whether about content or sensation - lie presumptions that go beyond health and safety into more contestable areas of consumer protection. Chiefly, the assumption that seeing a film or a play is like eating a meal, in which you must have sight of the ingredients before sitting down to eat; that, above all else, the audience should be protected from surprise.

His conclusion?
Yes, of course, draw attention to effects that might have harmful medical consequences. But retain the impetus that led an American theatre director, wearied of warnings, to post a notice promising (or threatening) that: "Something May Happen".

Personally, my favorite these days appears on before lots of TV and on DVD boxes: "This film may contain language."

Web Design and the Single Theatre Company

Terry Teachout offers some blunt but definitely helpful hints on web design for theatre companies.

His examples are instructive. You'll be surprised to see who has sucky sites!

Monday, July 24, 2006

Playgoer makes London Times

Thanks to Clive Davis for including Playgoer in his op-ed in praise of arts blogging for the Times of London.

Davis, a Conservative-leaning arts critic, is also a pretty hip blogger. (And, yes, the Times is a Murdoch-owned venture. But typical of Davis's fairness is his interest in the free speech debate surrounding "Rachel Corrie" while totally objecting to that play's politics.)

More notable than his Playgoer plug, though, is Davis' eloquent case for the value of an alternative criticism.

Arts centres roll out their latest, best-ever autumn season, publicists prime journalists with advance copies of the latest Great American Novel, press junkets give reporters ten minutes each with Ewan McGregor. At its best, the system helps the informed reader to sort the gold from the dross. At its worst, it degenerates into an exercise in log-rolling. And as newspapers expand into ever larger, multi-section entities, critical voices grow more and more diffuse. Blogs, at least in these early, innocent days, add a nonconformist voice to the conversation. While some of the more messianic members of the online “community” talk of overthrowing the “dead tree” media, the real function of blogging is that it supplements mainstream output (without which most blogs, whether they admit to it or not, would wither away overnight).

As someone who regularly criticizes the NY Times, for instance, I couldn't agree more about this relationship between the "real" media and the "supplementary" conversation that has grown around it in the blogosphere. Moreover, I agree that the A-list media as Davis describes it here, is so in need of supplement. For serious arts readers, at least.

In that spirit, let me say something positive about the NY Times. I think the reporting Campbell Robertson has been doing lately (here and here) on the corporatization of Broadway has been terrific. Only thing is, because it's the NY Times and Robertson is a "reporter", nothing can be said about this phenomenon after it has been so lucidly laid out. There seems to be no space in the Times arts pages for someone to cry out, "Shouldn't we be concerned about the effect of this on the New York, nay the American theatre?" So if there's any readership interest at all in amateur, part-time websites, it's because readers want to have that conversation. (And not just in the chaotic hatespeech zoo that is the Times.com messageboards.)

Comédie-Française Shakedown

From today's Arts, Briefly:

France’s culture minister, Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, has named a woman to run the Comédie-Française for the first time since it was founded in 1680. Next month, the actress and stage director Muriel Mayette, 42, will succeed Marcel Bozonnet, who is said to have hoped to remain in the job until 2009. Mr. Bozonnet, 62, has won plaudits as general manager of the company, France’s national theater. But this spring he provoked a storm of criticism when he abruptly canceled a scheduled new play by the Austrian writer Peter Handke after Mr. Handke attended the funeral of the former Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic. In an interview with Le Monde, Mr. Donnedieu de Vabres denied that the Handke affair had influenced his decision to replace Mr. Bozonnet. He said he named Ms. Mayette to seek “a generational change.”
(Byline: Alan Riding)

Blogger-Playwright Ben Ellis, as ever, is on the job in Paris and has more. He maintains the local coverage there makes clear Bozonnet was "sacked." If so, this means the French government itself has dismissed an appointee for not producing the work of a politically controversial writer.
But even if the minister of culture is not a free speech hero, it's interesting that the government does not want to be tainted by even the hint of censorship. L'Affaire Handke turned out to be pretty bad press for them. So if there was any doubt originally over whether Bozonnet's original decision to cancel Handke's play implied state censorship per se, note how the state has now taken a big step to distance itself from that decision, so as to exonerate themselves from that logical judgment. (As opposed to saying something like, "Bozonnet is a free agent, he does not represent the French government.")
Whatever the pressures were to bring this about, it's still good to see the whiff of censorship being perceived as bad for business, and not being rewarded.

Arts/TV

A thought provoking survey by Cary Darling of the Dallas Star-Telegram on what's happened to tv arts programming on stations we once used to rely on such as A & E and Bravo. (Remember when they were highbrow?)

Implicit here is an argument to counter Chris Anderson's "Long Tail" theory that the new media favors "niches." Well, not so on Cable, it seems, where the arts were better off when the big networks ruled and there was less "choice."

"It's funny," says Timothy Mangan, classical-music critic for The Orange County Register. "Classical music had a toehold in the popular media until cable along. Johnny Carson would have [violinist] Itzhak Perlman or an opera singer on. Perlman ended up on Hollywood Squares. You could hardly imagine a classical-music person on a game show now."

On the face of it, fine-arts' TV failure is counterintuitive. The audience may be comparatively small, but it's monied and loyal, seemingly a desirable market.
Bravo hit the air in 1980 with programming aimed squarely at this audience, and CBS Cable followed in the fall of 1981 with an ambitious lineup that sprinted the gamut from a biography of James Joyce to a musical based on the poetry of William Blake. A&E came along three years later.

But it soon was clear that not all would survive. CBS Cable succumbed after one year. As The New York Times said in a 1982 piece on the channel's death: "Quality programming is expensive."


Of course the shift that's occured over this time period is also generational. For one thing, I'd say those born after the 60s feel less of that impulse of cultural aspiration toward "high art" that used to make even average folks feel good watching Itzhak Perleman on Carson. (Note the article's editors' decision to insert some ID for Perlman, btw.) High art used to be a significant part of the popular culture. (Cf. Toscanini's celbrity; Looney Toons' classical soundscapes) But the evolution of the "youth culture" the "counter culture" have counteracted that. All mediated by the corporate forces that actually define this "popular culture," of course.

And speaking of "yutes" here's what Bravo says:
"You could argue that a lot of the [fine arts] performance doesn't translate well to television," says Frances Berwick, Bravo's executive vice president of programming. "Our viewers spoke loudly that few people wanted to engage in that media on TV."

Just contemplate that: "fine arts performance doesn't translate well to television."

Well, thank god, at least, for Ovation and Sundance. Oh, and PBS. Sometimes. (Alas poor Trio. At least it's on Broadband now.)

Sunday, July 23, 2006

The Regional Sideshow

I'm glad the NY Times gives some space today to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival at Ashland, OR, one of the nation's major professional theatre venues and one particularly respected for its quality of work.

Of course, it's only 100 words, and devoted solely to the logistics of changing scenery from one of their rep shows to the next. In brief: Wow, look at how stagehands move big thingees.

Not to take anything away from Ashland, or from stagehands. But ambitious rep companies with multiple stages featuring the latest state-of-the-art design technology is not just something for the boondocks. Such an institution is a fixture in most European cultural capitals. It's as if the New York cultural elite never dreamed such a place was possible. Ashland is second to none, I'm sure. And should be praised as such, not as some "Backpage" sideshow.

The only other piece I recall NYT doing on Ashland was a love letter to one of its donors. I hope one day they actually go see a play there.

Blog-Theatre Nexus

The UK Observer reports no less than three shows at this year's Edinburgh Fringe consist of staging blog entries:

In recent years, news bulletins have been the first stop for dramatists in search of inspiration, with Stephen Lawrence, David Blunkett, David Kelly and Rachel Corrie all becoming subjects of plays. It was only a matter of time before someone turned to blogs as a source of inspiration: three shows at this year's Fringe take their scripts straight from someone's internet diary. Bloggers - Real Internet Diaries, at Smirnoff University, was culled from thousands of UK blogs by creator Oliver Mann. Five actors will play 11 characters in monologues that use only the bloggers' original words and feature intimate confessions from, among others, a sex chat-line operator, a nymphomaniac mum and a bisexual businessman. Girl Blog From Iraq: Baghdad
Burning at Pleasance Courtyard sees an international cast recreating a young girl's journal of the invasion. This journal, by 'Riverbend', has already been published in book form, was long-listed for this year's Samuel Johnson Prize, and is still an active blog. Finally, Janey Godley takes onstage at the Underbelly the world of her hugely popular blog in Janey Godley's Blog: Live!

Saturday, July 22, 2006

London highlights

I gotta hand this to Ben Brantley: Few can describe an onstage moment as well as he. Particularly the landscape of an actor's face.
In his London dispatch from last week, he provides many compelling snapshots of Michael Gambon, Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, Fiona Shaw, and others.

Friday, July 21, 2006

The B'way/Tourism axis

From today's Arts Briefly...

Charlotte St. Martin, a hospitality industry executive, has been named executive director of the League of American Theaters and Producers, the trade association. She succeeds Jed Bernstein, who had led the organization since 1995 and stepped down on June 30 to pursue producing. In an interview yesterday, Ms. St. Martin, a 60-year-old Dallas native, said it was probably her knowledge of and passion for tourism that attracted the attention of the league, which began talks with her last spring. Formerly an executive vice president of marketing and sales for Loews Hotels, and more recently a consultant, Ms. St. Martin oversaw branding, marketing and operations for 20 hotels and resorts across the country, including the Regency Hotel on Park Avenue in Manhattan. Among the programs she implemented were “Loews Loves Pets” and “Loews Loves Kids.” She has also served on the boards of the Vineyard Theater and the New York Convention and Visitors Bureau. She said she attends about 26 Broadway shows a year, and lists among her favorites “Phantom of the Opera,” which she said she had seen seven times, “A Chorus Line” (six) and “Jersey Boys” (three). Ms. St. Martin said she hopes to inaugurate frequency programs, in which a person might attend, say, four performances and earn free tickets to a fifth.

(byline: Kathryn Shattuck)
Obviously Broadway can't be compromised any more, so not much to protest here. But still, this shows you where the collective Broadway thinking is right now. The "League" is the offiicial Broadway producer trade association, which means they're the one who lobby politicians, coordinate media strategies, and negotiate with unions. (Oh, and administer the Tonys.) So they have a lot of influence on both the backstage and onstage life of what most people (and media) perceive as the American thatre.

What I'm saying is, this is an important job. And it's just been handed to a hotel executive who has seen Phantom seven times.

UPDATE: Much thanks to June in Comments for reminding of a Michael Riedel column I missed giving more behind-the-scenes on this.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

"The Long Tail"

From the Times coverage of the recent Pew Blogosphere study:

Chris Anderson, the editor in chief of Wired, a magazine about technology and culture, said the Pew report was accurate. “The finding that jumped out at me was the recognition that people are talking about the subjects that matter in their personal lives,” he said.

Mr. Anderson, the author of the book “The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More” (Hyperion), said that the Pew report shows how the blogosphere is unlike traditional media. “It’s narrow, niche subjects,” he said. “It’s a granularity of media that we in the commercial media could not scale down to. Niche media is ‘me’ media, and the blogosphere is the ultimate manifestation of that.”

If Anderson is right, maybe there's hope. What's more "niche" than theatre?

It's clear that as mainstream media has turned away from the arts outside of an "entertainment" context--and theatre outside of a Broadway context--those who care have increasingly looked for information and exchange online. The internet may well save classical music and has given a boon to indie film (Ifilm and the like), not just as a delivery system, but as a gathering place and vortex. The serious arts audience may be small in some cities and regions, but when they band together online, they create a viable "niche." Hence... theatre blogs!

Anderson's book seems mostly business-oriented. But I wonder what are the cultural implications.

I was intrigued by this blurb on the book from Publishers Weekly (quoted at BN.com)
Wired editor Anderson declares the death of "common culture" and insists that it's for the best. Why don't we all watch the same TV shows, like we used to? Because not long ago, "we had fewer alternatives to compete for our screen attention," he writes. Smash hits have existed largely because of scarcity: with a finite number of bookstore shelves and theaters and Wal-Mart CD racks, "it's only sensible to fill them with the titles that will sell best." Today, Web sites and online retailers offer seemingly infinite inventory, and the result is the "shattering of the mainstream into a zillion different cultural shards." These "countless niches" are market opportunities for those who cast a wide net and de-emphasize the search for blockbusters.

When you look at the current "blockbusters", the "death of common culture" sure doesn't sound like a bad thing.

While I haven't read the book, I do recommend Anderson's own blog, which gives a taste of his take, a welcome wet blanket on the continuing "hit mentality." Again, purely business. But this man knows the new media business as well as anyone.

Quote of the Day

"The oddity of the general intransigence of the posthumous representatives of Brecht and Beckett has always been that both dramatists were radicals who overturned theatrical convention. Yet subsequently their executors have sought to seal these free-thinking pieces in an artistic formaldehyde at least as strong as the conservatism that the authors originally stripped away."

- the Guardian's Mark Lawson, on some chatter surrounding the liberties taken in current stagings of Galileo and Eh Joe.

We should have such problems.

More SPF Panels, Monday

Courtesy of the "Summer Play Festival." I hope to attend, and report on, the second one.

On July 24th the Summer Play Festival and the Mayor's Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting will present two free panels addressing theatre in New York City, including an exciting line up of theatre professionals. All panels are free, and open to the public.

About the Panels:

July 24, 2pm to 3:30pm - Looking For A Perfect Match: A practical dialogue between artists and industry This practical panel will address the relationship between producers and producing organizations, and artists. It will offer practical advice and suggestions to artists on finding the "perfect match" to get a play read, developed, and produced.

Panelists include: Adam Rapp (Playwright, Red Light Winter)Theresa Rebeck(Playwright, Omnium Gatherum; The Water's Edge); Jenny Gersten (Artistic Director, Naked Angels); Tim Sanford (Artistic Director, Playwrights Horizons); Kenny Leon (Director, Gem of the Ocean; A Raisin in the Sun)

July 24, 4pm to 5:30pm - Is New York Where It's At? (And, if not, where?) This panel will address the role that New York City plays as a hub of creativity in the theatre.

Panelists include: David Cote (Moderator) Theatre Editor and Critic, Time Out New YorkGordon Edelstein (Artistic Director, Long Wharf Theater); Morgan Jeness (Agent, Abrams Artists Agency); Kenny Leon (Director, Gem of the Ocean; A Raisin in the Sun); Robyn Goodman (Producer, Avenue Q, Barefoot in the Park, Altar Boyz)Oskar Eustis (Artistic Director, The Public Theater).

Please note that panels and panelists are subject to change. Each panel is scheduled for 90 minutes and will take place at the Little Shubert Theatre (422 West 42nd St). Please RSVP to [click for email] . All seats are complimentary on a first come, first serve basis.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

American Theatre's "Conversations in the Field"

The current summer issue of "American Theatre" magazine features a 10-page Special Report by Ben Pesner culled from multiple (and anonymous) focus groups of theatre professionals around the country on the general state of things in the art, the business, and the profession. Worth reading, but not online, so you'll have to get it at your newsstand.

Or, if you want to save some time, here's a digest of the most standout points:

-A passing reference to the impact on regional theatres of touring Broadway shows, or as Pesner puts it: "a resurgent touring Broadway system that values nationally standardized product." Indeed audiences in smaller theatres might prefer to spend their limited theatre ticket dollars on "the real thing" of a Broadway show than their local Lort B's attempt at a pseudo-Broadway show. The tour producers are even selling mini-subscriptions now, which leads folks to opt for a season of Phantom, Mama Mia, and Hairspray, rather than the nonprofit's more well meaning line-up of 4-character dramas and one-person shows. Not gone into in the article, but I bet this is a big deal in some cities.... The solution, of course, can't be to ban Broadway touring. Because that won't happen. But maybe regional nonprofits need to dare to distinguish themselves from B'way even more. (Instead I fear they'll start hosting the tours.)

One irony some regional theatres don't get, I think, is that local audiences don't see them as any more homegrown than the tours. With their jobbed-in Equity actors and journeymen directors, many are basically transplanted New York nonprofits. When local audiences want to feel proud of their home institutions, they just as likely to go to community theatre.

So I think a bigger challenge all these theatres face is how to really belong to their community. While retaining "professional" standards.

-"Disappearance of arts coverage": Given all the complaining we do on this site about the NY Times et al, you can imagine the state of things in less theatre-driven cities. Worth noting are the laments among the professionals polled for the decline in "serious criticism" even when it's positive. Says one: "The level of criticism in newspapers is really low. We get pretty nice reviews, but I don't always recognize the work we do in those reviews." An insipid 200-word consumer-ized review in the town's one local newspaper, sandwiched between the jumble and the classifieds--even if a "4 stars!--does not help promote an appreciation for theatre as an artform.

-One would think that a benefit of the subscription season model is that not every show needs to be a known quantity. But the "hit mantality" is still tangible at such theatres, leading one panelists to bemoan the "tyranny of the known title."

- On Boards: An encouraging sign of more theatres insisting that their Boards consist of at least some artists. On boards, one insider says: "It's a bit of a bargain with the devil. They love the arts, but their orientation is business, where you cut, you shrink, you consolidate. That has changed the atmosphere dramatically."

- Some quoted remarks on the politics of funding:
"I am struck by how easily things are taken away from us. If we don't think about political advocacy, we're just going to be spinning our wheels."
"In essence we're subsidizing the theatre on the backs of those who are creating it."

- An encouraging model for how one regional company is enabling theatre people to make a living outside of NYC:
"We started a resident company program where we are paying artists a stipend to live and work in our community. They don't have to work with us exclusively but they have to be involved in every single one our productions in some capacity. That could be as an artist , or helping to stick labels on postcards. We're encouraging them to work at other companies to make more money. All of the four residents have been able to quit their day jobs."

- The MFA-glut: Yes, we need to ask: are there too many Theatre MFA's? Both students and programs. Okay, no one seems to be advocating gutting them. (I'll save that for another time.) But it's a problem. Recounts author Pesner: "As they looked to the future, participants warned that the supply-and-demand equation betweeb theatre practitioners and job opportunities is out of whack...[Says one,] 'We are generating so many young people in our various training programs, with no idea where they are going to go.' "
Personally, I think we need to start thinking more on the old "apprenticeship" model, whereby young theatre artists could be "placed" at various theatres. Maybe some subsidizing grant could pay a decent stipend, and some needy small theatres get good labor/talent effectively for free? (or at shared cost, at least)

-Co-Productions: It should be noted that regional theatres are relying more and more on co-productions with colleagues to shoulder costs for one or two shows a season. The plusses (collaboration, pooling resources) and minuses (the "road house" syndrome) are duly reflected here.

-" 'You have so many African-American theatres that are closing,' one artist said, because they cannot surpass the budget threshold necessary for foundational support." Budget threshold??? So foundations will fund you, as long as you already have funding. That helps.

-Young audiences:
"I have heard young people say, 'I don't like theatre, but I like what you do.' I proposed to my company that we take should take the word 'theatre' out of our name." Ouch. I get the point, though. But what do you call it, then? "Def Poetry Jam" didn't work on Broadway either, remember...

Another testimonial:

"There is a young audience, but it's not in the traditional form. They're not into theatre spaces. I'm working with a group of young people that does cabaret work in bars. They are hugely popular, with a following. But the minute they do it inside a theatre, ticket sales plummet. It's not just the barrier of price [!], but some kind of conceptual barrier of what's my space, what's my scene."

All this is very familiar. I don't think we need to gut "theatres" entirely, though. Yes, maybe the plush velvet seats and oldstyle prosceniums have stuffy associations for youngsters. (Especially young guys, let's face it.) But how about just some new sleek black-boxes? More interesting converted spaces? Unlike the older ticketbuyers, new audiences are open to anything being a theatre. That's a good thing.

That's enough to digest for now. More to come. Look for Part 2, soon...

Quote of the Day

"A Broadway play is a branding opportunity."

-Lon Olejniczak, chief distribution officer for Transamerica Capital Inc. Also known as lead producer's of that "Earth, Wind, and Fire" meets Hans Christian Andersen musical dud, Hot Feet, soon to close.

He's quoted in a revealing case study by Campbell Robertson in today's Times about this latest venture in corporate-Broadway. You'd think this outing would deter others. But, as some other, fabled producers once said... "You can make more money with a flop than with a hit!"

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

On Criticism

Two worthy meditations on criticism in other arts: New Republic's Ruth Franklin (books), and NYT's A.O. Scott (movies).

The gist of both-- being a snob sometimes is doing your job.

Can't say I disagree.

Quote of the Day

"Producing a play by a first-time writer in the West End was always going to be a fascinating challenge, which is why I agreed to participate. Plays produced in smaller subsidized theatres which run for six weeks and are seen by smaller audiences than the ones enjoyed by On The Third Day are routinely seen as a success. That is why I believe that a seven-week run for a production of a new play by a first-time writer in the West End playing to audiences of 51% should be seen as an achievement."
- London Mega-Producer Sonia Friedman eulogizing her baby On the Third Day, aka The "Play's the Thing" Play. The reality-tv-sponsored experiment to see if an unknown drama can still succeed in commercial theatre has now posted its closing notice.

I appreciate Friedman's spin. But considering this whole venture was her attempt to prove the naysayers wrong, I hope someone asks her a follow-up about how she now feels about the possibilities for serious theatre in the commercial realm.... Her rationalization is worth , something, though, if it makes us rethink what is an appropriate "run" for a "straight" play. After all, she's right, the standard engagement of a new play at, say, Playwrights Horizons or Second Stage is just 3-4 weeks. Yet when Anna and the Tropics opened directly on Broadway a few years ago and ran longer than that, it was still considered a fizzle. It lost money, because despite playing to a nightly crowd more than enough to fill the Atlantic, it played to only 50% at best of a 1,000-seat house.

The "hit mentality" persists and it ain't helping. But why invite it, then.

Monday, July 17, 2006

So much for NPR

What's more disheartening than Public Radio giving up on the arts? Public Radio in Boston giving up on the arts. Boston!

I admit some partiality to Bill Marx on WBUR since he was nice enough to feature me on a podcast interview (along with George Hunka) a few months ago. YS, on Mirror up to Nature, has the story of his forced retirement.

If you're a WBUR listener, tell them what you think.

NYT Illiteracy (or, The Empty Space and The Extra S)

A new low in sloppiness at NY Times theatre.

From Saturday's review of NJ Shakespeare's Cherry Orchard:

While the talented Mr. Howard’s Lopakhin seems at first too genteel, lacking the rough-hewn “son of a peasant” manner that Brian Dennehy perfected during the 1988 “Cherry Orchard,” directed by Peter Brooks at the Brooklyn Academy...
Whether it's the critic or the copyeditor's fault, a decent theatre section should be able to safeguard against this kind of embarassment. And here it is online still three days later. Let's see if they correct it. (Anyone still have the print edition?)

Negligible error? Or a subtle sign of decline of the Grey Lady's authority in such matters?... Yes, typos happen. And increasingly frequently at NYT, it seems, ever since they apparently moved to spellcheck. But this is not a spellcheck-mistake. Someone had to willfully add that 's'.

("Brooklyn Academy" is also weird and not really correct. It's Brooklyn Academy of Music, of course. Or else, "BAM.")

Hey, at first I was impressed by the reference at all. Be nice to know the director had nothing to do with The Producers, though...

POSTSCRIPT: Thanks to Contrapositive for noticing, in Comments, that the review actually seems to have appeared in the Times Metro (or "The Region") section, being that the production is in New Jersey. (How's that for covering regional theatre?) The name of the reviewer, Naomi Siegel, was indeed new to me. So the Arts editors are off the hook... Still, online, the review is linked from the Theatre page, so the distinction will not be immediately apparent to a web reader.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Gatsby v Gatsby

A terrific read in Arts & Leisure today from Jason Zinoman on yet another area where Broadway's stranglehold stifles downtown theatre: the issue of performance rights to still-copyrighted classics. The case here is Elevator Repair Service's much praised but little scene experimental epic staging of The Great Gatsby (called Gatz) which can't go on in New York (even at the almighty Public Theater) as long as the novel remains the property of a commercial producer who hopes to import the more conventional Broadway-bound version premiering at the Guthrie this fall....All this over the rights of something that isn't even a play!

An interesting twist on the uptown vs. downtown story--where "uptown" involves a nonprofit behemoth in Minnesota! And a lesson in the current landscape of literary adaptation.

Friday, July 14, 2006

SPF Panel follow-up

Thanks to those who posted the stimulating comments to my notes on Monday's Summer Play Festival panel. Interesting volleys on such questions as:


  • what are the parallels (or potential parallels) between sports and theatre?
  • was Well really all that, after all?
  • am I revealing my elitism again by insisting we remember some theatregoers are young and rich?
Also, check out "Mr. Excitement" who offers his riposte, to which I responded, and to which he has responded.

And finally, if you have the print edition of American Theatre, you can see their take on a basically similar "big question," but in a national context in their "Conversations in the Field." Too bad they're not linking, but I'll try to put up some excerpts and annotations this weekend.

Conservative Hollywood

"After the New York Theater Workshop had the good taste to back away from staging 'My Name is Rachel Corrie' a few months ago..."

So begins a predictably distorting screed by Republican stand-up Julia Gorin ("among the most recognized names in conservative comedy," according to her bio) on CaliforniaRepublic.org ("on the ramparts of conservative Hollywood"). Aside from referring to Corrie as a " 'human rights' campaigner (i.e. terrorist rights campaigner)," Gorin doesn't see the need for anyone to be concerned for the bulldozing of homes, since even her dog knows how to run away from one.

Hey, but at least she's honest. NYTW should be glad they have a supporter!

And I'm certainly all for "conservative Hollywood" speaking out. Let's have more, so "liberal Hollywood" doesn't have to keep apologizing for their beliefs. Let's give them a good bleeding- heart helping hand out of self-martyrdom and welcome them to the debate.

Spam email of the day

So much for what I thought might have been an invitation to see Stanley Tucci as Charles Bukowski! Or would that be more nonsensical...

Brikowski (Stanley Tucci) as well as the infamous

Austin Skaggs to playgirl1970

Are you spening too much on your RX#sDedicated Licensed Pharmaci^stssave#up to 69 http://nqwu>klgo.valel.com/ 62813575Austin Skaggssuch as pausing events or which grossed about $50 million constant surveillance by relentless Detective them while finding a place The hospital priest presents Thorn with another he opens up a world she With the help of their best friends Superman Returns The idea behind "The Da Vinci Codeif you ask him, a result of his terrible ingredients Stealth and The Island How far would you go to live your dreams

Thursday, July 13, 2006

REVIEW: Susan and God

Susan and God
by Rachel Crothers
Mint Theater (through July 30)

To say that the Mint Theatre performs a service to us all by unearthing neglected plays of the past is a bit too condescending for my taste. The truth is their filling a shameful gap in our theatre culture--a sense of a true repertory, especially an American repertory. This to me is the saddest casualty of our not having a "National Theatre"--not having a guaranteed laboratory for the constant re-exploration , re-invention, and re-formation of our own canon. Instead our notion of American theatre history is limited to a group of ten or so plays that dominate high school syllabi, regional theatre seasons, and constitute the small list of "name-recognition" titles that Broadway producers feel safe reviving and pitching to stars.

So no wonder a playwright like Rachel Crothers can disappear from our stages for so long. Her constant presence on Broadway throughout the first four decades of the 20th Century was notable not just as a woman, but, even rarer, as a woman who directed her own plays. The success in 1910 of her A Man's World is particularly impressive, being a play that indicted society's double standard for women and men, at a time when the federal government still had not granted women the right to vote! With a career spanning almost forty years and 24 plays, this seems like too significant a career to overlook any longer.

The importance of seeing Crothers' work at the Mint is to prove something even more important: that she really was a good writer. Susan and God, her last play, achieves the lighthearted yet heartfelt examination of the tension between privilege and pain that Richard Greenberg, for instance, keeps straining to reach today. The difference is that Crothers doesn't have to work to be ironic and erudite, since it was built into her culture already. That means she can get on with the genuine feelings of her characters.

On one level Susan is a poke at sham religions and the way, at moments of crisis, the elites hide their guilt and anxiety beneath poses of piety and charity. The year of the play being 1937, the offstage crisis and malaise leading to such behavior would have been all too tangible to the original audience. Crothers' Susan is a charming but gratingly self-involved society woman who falls under the spell of some questionable matronly English guru who preaches the need for everyone to confess their sins to each other to expiate them--and then get on with their lives as usual, of course. The target is supposed to be the missionary-style "Oxford Group", a precursor to A.A. and basically the culture of therapy through "sharing" we live with today. So, yes, Crothers was onto Oprah and Dr. Phil before they existed.

But, surprisingly, this is not the aspect of Susan and God that stands up as either the most "relevant" or affecting. Instead what's striking is what an unromantic and clinically stark look at marriage it is. As a smart woman, Crothers has no patience for the traditional dramatic cliches. Men had written for years about wronged wives. But Crothers give us a much more adult view of how two partners have poisoned each other. Susan's estranged husband, Barrie, is a pathetic alcoholic (not a charming drunk) and Susan has never stopped making him suffer for it. Crothers lets us judge both equally harshly, and shows how Susan's attempts to exploit Barrie to showcase her new calling only reveal her own shallowness and fear of facing more complex truths. Only their teenage daughter, alternately ignored or patronized by poth parents (Crothers specialized in honest depictions of mother-daughter relationships), works to keep them together.

Although the world crisis of the 30s goes unreferenced, it's clear the characters' pathologies are contrasting reactions to the impotency induced by Depression, fascism, and immanent war. Barrie is a harrowing portrait of wounded masculinity, something made endemic by the massive unemployment and failed businesses of the time. Timothy Deenihan's performance at the Mint may be a bit too inward and "method" (considering everyone else around him is performing much more presentationally) but I found his brooding sensitive guy pretty affecting. While he and Leslie Hendrix's brash Susan seem at times to be in different plays (imagine a Katherine Hepburn-John Malkovich scene study class), their stylistic clash also emphasizes the cold distance Crothers is writing about in a marriage gone wrong, one where the romance has completely dissipated and the social function barely relevant anymore.

Hendrix's performance is definitely over the top, but somehow works, due to her truthful specificity and total commitment to Susan's mania. The play was practically written for Gertrude Lawrence (and filmed with Joan Crawford) and so the role does demand some kind of star quality, and that's what Hendrix provides. Her Susan is the self-deluded star of her own tragedy, which she thinks is a sunny comedy, of course.

As you can tell so far, Crothers may have been successful for Broadway domestic comedies, but there's a very dark streak here that she feels no need to repress of smooth over (like so many of her counterparts today). As usual, the Mint house style has trouble reconciling to this. Nathan Heverin's blue sky-painted flats and wicker furniture at first make you dread just the kind of "tennis anyone" affair Crothers is avoiding. The supporting cast (outside of Katie Firth's wry sideline commentator) also have trouble mining the emotional complexity of their dialogue and play like they're in an Agatha Christie summer stock play. While I have found these to be frequent shortcomings of Mint artistic director Jonathan Bank, I also have to say in this case he ultimately transcends them in the performances of his two leads and his willingness to push the tension between them often beyond what is comfortable. The last scene I found particularly intriguing in how ambivalent and unresolved Bank was able to make it, despite the script's essentially forced "happy ending" resolution.

So call it a "service" if you want, but I considered "Susan and God" a lesson. No, that's still too condescending. How about, an invitation to explore more of what seemingly "conventional" playwrights of the past have to show us about the darker secrets of the fabled "good old days."

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

SPF Panel

Some delayed reactions to the Summer Play Festival panel I attended Monday, "Where Have All The Audiences Gone? The evolving world of Off-Broadway."

Congrats to moderator Adam Feldman (from Time Out) on assembling a smart mix of smart theatre folk. It was good to see this topic finally bubble to the surface after much discussion on this blog and other "backchannels." (And after pieces in such unlikely theatre sources as "Crain's New York Business.") So even though Feldman began by admitting the question was a "pre-supposition" it was immediately clear that the panelists--and many in the audience--have already been grinding their teeth about the viability of commercial off Broadway, and the potential to sustain the audience that there is for nonprofits.

Jim Houghton from Signature Theatre (and now head of Juilliard Drama) was especially valuable to the panel in explaining how Signature's new $15 ticket policy came about. (An idea I'm much more excited about than the Public's dreams of more "free" theatre.) Yes, Signature will now be beholden to Time Warner, their main sponsor for this. But who knows. Maybe in future seasons some other corporation or billionaire will want to take the credit. Houghton explained the significance of this to his company as "taking that piece [the economics of ticket sales] out of the puzzle" so that they can concentrate more on other things. The relief in him was evident. He claimed that when top ticket there rose to $65 (now an Off-Broadway nonprofit standard), even a full house "only gets you 60% there" in terms of recouping costs. So having most of that covered up front by Time Warner makes things less insane.... Houghton was rightly proud that "We're not giving anything away free. All tickets are $15." Which I took to mean, no other discounts or variants. Or giveaways to donors beyond their subscription? Signature will now actually be the one company where subscribing costs you more. (The $15 per show plus a fee.) Houghton also remarked that this more democratic approach was especially appropriate for his upcoming August Wilson season. Indeed, Wilson lamented--in his controversial "Ground on Which I Stand" speech--that when his plays were scheduled as the one "black play slot" at a subscription theatre, it made his ideal audience of low-to-middle class African Americans have to either buy expensive single tickets, or even more expensive subscription packages to see his work.

(The Signature policy, it's worth pointing out, is explicitly only for initial run, allowing the company to hike the price in the case of a "by popular demand" extension.)

Houghton's most pungent comment on the contrast between the healthy nonprofits and the atrophying commercial Off-Broadway scene was to take a poke at the Shuberts, in whose "Little Shubert" we were sitting in. Signature's big hit last season--Trip to Bountiful with Obie-winner Lois Smith--wanted badly to transfer, and looked at the Little S., but it would've cost $1.2 million. "That's why this theatre is still empty," Houghton added.

Houghton also suggested what might be an unpleasant truth about the Off-Broadway biz, profit or non. There may be too much of it. Too many theatres, too many shows competing for a fixed (if not diminishing) audience pool. I'm not sure Houghton was right when he ventured there may be more activity going on now than, say, in the 50's. (Yes for downtown. But remember B'way seasons used to feature hundreds of shows a year.) But you gotta ask the question at some point: How many theatre subscriptions can someone buy in a year? God knows what's the solution to that one...

Lisa Kron--still clearly burned from her experience transferring the downtown Well to Broadway--passionately warned us all of a "broken paradigm" in the commercial theatre, at least for non-musicals. "We keep working at something that's become totally economically unworkable." As a symptom she stressed the reliance on celebrities (any kind of celebrity) to sell tickets. Nothing really new there, of course, but she argued it's now so obligatory and desperate as to be prohibitive. She claims that Well (a more woman-centered play than any out there) could not get an interview on even "The View" since no one involved had done TV or movies. "Theatre is just considered 'local interest' " by the national media now, says explained. Meanwhile, she said she knows of many good shows currently stuck in commercial theatre "turnaround" as their producers frantically court name (or face) actors to sell the product.

Kron hushed the house with an impassioned assessment of theatre's growing irrelevancy, mainly because of how much we have to go out of our way (whether geographically or financially) to see it. If I may paraphrase: "It's understandable that when people pay $60 to see theatre they're less forgiving if they don't like it. It would be nice if they could take away one great scene, for instance, and appreciate at least that. Because theatre can't always be perfect... But you know, most TV shows aren't perfect, aren't that thing. Most movies aren't that thing. But movies and TV happen to always be on our path in life. Theatre, unfortunately, is not on our path. The infrastructure of theatre is not on our path in life."

The purely commercial perspective was represented by Beverley MacKeen, a Canadian producer who now runs the "New World Stages" complex on West 50th St. (formerly Dodger Stages) She pointed out that for the for-profit, taxable sector, the killer is the classic New York overhead issues--real estate, taxes, even air conditioning. For an Off-Broadway commercial run at just the 350-seater at New World, a $900,000 capitalization is required, apparently. And that's not including the intimidating marketing capital one has to put out there to compete with the "Tarzans" (i.e. the shows the suck but sell because they're on B'way and they're everywhere). Off-Broadway, in short, "can't afford to market what they're doing." As another panelists, director Bartlett Sher, pointed out: "You might as well raise $1.5 million and go to Broadway" and reap all the benefits. Hence why we see so many great small shows (yes, like Well) move into huge houses they have no business being in.

MacKeen got some laughs and nods when she railed against the propaganda coming out of the Broadway machine, like always reminding people (on the Tonys, for instance) to "Go see a Broadway show!" As opposed to "Go see a show." "Broadway doesn't mean hit," she suggested. Plus, it doesn't help that the very phrase Off-Broadway "sounds like sour milk. It's 'off.' "

Will Frears was another journeyman director there, and could speak to the issue of the generation gap, being a thirtysomething hipster himself. And a Brit, who admitted that at home, even when he goes to the stodgy National he's comforted be among "my people" in the audience. Not the alien territory of older subscribers you see at the resident theatres here. In response to prohibitive costs of print-ad space in "Arts & Leisure", he rightly retorted, "Do we even want the people who read the New York Times to come anymore?" He didn't mean we want uninformed spectators. He meant most younger people read it online.

I especially welcomed the Atlantic's Neil Pepe for putting a damper on the ticket-price cure-all approach by reminding everyone that New Yorkers today seem to have no problem dropping $80 for a Knicks game if they care enough about going. He suggested "what do we have to say" is the more pertinent question we need to ask ourselves, as opposed to just "what does it cost." (I do give TCG's Ben Cameron for always stressing the value issue over price.) ...I'm getting tired of the way we keep insisting that it's pricey tickets that's keeping away "the young" from theatre. As if there are no rich young people???

What does it mean if even the rich elites don't come to theatre?

So given that commercial Off-Broadway is unsustainable, given that even the head of the League of American Theatres and Producers admits "the straight play" is endangered on Broadway...what do we learn?

Suprisingly, I guess the nonprofits look in pretty good shape these days. But then again, so many are probably just one or two unrenewed grants, or dying donors, away from extinction.

New Alan Rickman Interview

My Name is Rachel Corrie is now touring at the Galway Arts Festival in Ireland, and so co-dramatits Alan Rickman and Katherine Viner have given what seems like a new interview to the Galway Independent. No breaking news, no mention of the controversy. But if you're following this, worth checking out.

A sample from Rickman:
We were never going to paint Rachel as a golden saint or sentimentalise her, but we also needed to face the fact that she'd been demonised. We wanted to present a balanced portrait. We hoped to find out what made Rachel Corrie different from the stereotype of today's consumerist, depoliticised youth.

Correction: Maybe not enitrely new interview, as someone claims down in Comments...

Theatre Blog Payola?

About Jesse Green's Sunday Arts & Leisure piece on commercial theatre marketers exploiting the web...

Actually a lot to be hopeful about, in my opinion. If it can help good shows survive by helping them reach the right audiences, offer more ticket discounts, and finally undermine the stranglehold of impossibly priced print advertising like... the NY Times Arts & Leisure section!

But here's another inevitable outcome of the strategy that gave me some pause:

Like several other productions, "The Wedding Singer" offered free seats to the authors of various New York City-based blogs, hoping they would write about the experience if they liked it (or leave it alone if not). "I wouldn't go as far to say that 'The Wedding Singer' is the new 'Hairspray'," the blog Just Jared reported, "but it comes close." So it isn't Walter Winchell, but items like this (which often include photos and MP3 downloads provided by the producers) have driven thousands of new visitors to various shows' Web sites, and thence to the shows, for the cost of a few orchestra seats.

Now I have no beef against "Jared." He does openly bills the site as a "Celebrity news, pictures, gossip, and fashion blog." (Here's his original "Drowsy" post by the way, so you can examine for yourself.) I don't expect aesethetic dramatic reviewing from him, or any kind of critical objective distance. He's a gossip columnist doing what gossip columnists do, I guess. (Hence Green's Winchell reference.) So, more power to him.

But as a theatre blogger, I'm a little concerned Green did not more clearly distinguish "Jared" as a gossip page, not a theatre criticism outlet. With a vague sense of the theatre blogosphere starting to catch on, how many readers might have taken Jared to be... well, one of us? And if so, does that taint our enterprise of independent criticism?

I know I'm not alone in already being approached by shows (albeit much smaller than "Drowsy") expecting similar quid pro quo. For instance, while I will say "Red Light Winter" made no stipulation, implicit or explicit, about what they wanted me to write, I was a little turned off by the invitation to "Pizza Bar," as well as a request that I encourage my readers to enter a tie-in sweepstakes for a real-life Red-Light Amsterdam trip. (Pseudo French hooker included?) I'm not sure the publicist understood why I was not playing ball. Such confusion may also have had something to do with Adam Rapp writing me an angry note over my review, where I referred (critically) to something he said in the special Bloggers Night "talkback"--a forum clearly meant for fawning over the stars and star-playwright and collecting your bracelet for entry to the after-party. Kind of a low-rent downtown version of a Hollywood junket. Silly me for thinking I was there as a critic.

So to publicists I say, god speed on your attempts to revolutionize the biz through reaching out to new media and beyond the MSM. By all means keep us on your mailing lists--but please try to understand if some of us have the hubris to model ourselves after professional critics, not Ryan Seacrest.

And to my cyber-peers I say: Bloggers beware!

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Opera on Tap

An interesting profile in the NY Sun today about the success a Brooklyn bar has had with opera nights in its backroom. These "Opera on Tap" are giving young singers a chance to connect with crowds their own age for a change, and in a context that celebrates just talent and music...not ossified--and, of course, classist--ideas of "culture."

In the words of a 31-yr-old singer and co-founder of the events:

"We didn't realize that there was this whole group of people who had never heard classical music or an operatic voice — and not this close up, in this kind of atmosphere," which she describes as noisy, un-elitist, imperfect, and fun...
What catches me is the "this close up." That intimacy is what we've lost in the arts in general, especially theatre. I've always believed what would change anyone's mind who thought they hated theatre would be to put them in a great front-row seat in front of a great actor. Our huge institutional houses have put as at so many removes from the performer that we've become numbed to the charge of the live artist-audience exchange. On Broadway, for instance, audiences are led to expect actors' voices and bodies to be miked and buried under layers of computerized scenery. The result, I fear, is we've lost some appreciation of the immediate, of the live exchange.

Many of the great revolutions in the theatre have involved redefining the nature of the playing space. This doesn't just mean we need to do more theatre in bars.... although that wouldn't be a bad start. (It's flourished in London and Chicago, for instance.) But what we should take from that model is the tangibility of a community. It's no accident that cabarets have been a fulcrum of so much important political theatre over the years.

It's not the only kind of theatre. But audiences--and performers--need to be reminded that it's still an option.

Porject Gutenberg

Wanna hear a computer read Midsummer Night's Dream?

Well that's probably not the best use of the impressive Project Gutenberg free e-book downloads. But I couldn't resist finding out what "computer-generated audio books" is all about. ("His" verse speaking isn't bad, by the way.) Just one of the many different features there beyond just the usual texts--there's non-fiction, as well as sheet music, too.

Of note: among the actual "books" drama is pretty well represented, but, as with most of what's here, mainly public doman stuff. But a great central portal for getting playtexts before 1900, and not just in English!

Monday, July 10, 2006

Photo of the Day (the Constanze Mozart hoax)


CORRECTION: Playgoer duped! How embarassing.... Or rather it should be the BBC who's embarassed. Thanks to George for directing us in Comments to this site that exposes the misattribution, or, outright fraud of this claim. In short, the woman on the left apparent did NOT fuck Mozart after all.

A quoted musicologist (and apparently amateur photographer) sets things straight:

For decades it has been known as a hoax among Mozart experts. There are no outdoor photographs of groups of people dating from 1840, because the lenses invented by Joseph Petzval, which were to make such portraits possible, were not available yet. It was simply not possible in 1840 to take sharp outdoor pictures of people as long as the necessary exposure time still amounted to about three minutes. The first outdoor portraits of human beings originate from the 1850s and the picture in question definitely looks like an amateur snapshot from the 1870s.
Anyway, I'll leave the post up. Because Playgoer doesn't do cover-ups. And because maybe this would be a valid reaction if this was a photo of someone who was intimate with Mozart. Constanze did indeed live until 1842, so she could've been snapped. The image would just have been of lesser quality.
As I always say, never believe anything you read on the internet.

The BBC reports on this incredible find of an 1840 photo of Constanze Mozart--yes, Mozart's widow.

To appreciate the coolness of this, just remember Mozart died in 1791. (He was only 35, so had he survived his reckless lifestyle, who knows, he might have been in the picture, too.) So Constanze, here 78, lived long enough to have her photo taken. She must have been a remarkable bridge back to a wig-and-powder world already vanished. A link to a distant cultural past, one we today only see though paintings, largely monarchial and pre-industrial.

Or to put it another way--My God, this woman fucked Mozart!

A Blow Against Censorship

Remember hearing about the underground practice of movie "scrubbing"? That is, when local video rental businesses decided their more wholesome patrons would disapprove of the tasteless and corrupting nudity and bad words in trashy film like...oh, Schindler's List, they decided to digitally just edit the naught bits out. Without telling Steven Spielberg, the studio, or anyone else who actually owns the rights to the film.

These cottage industry censors--calling themselves entrepeneurs in family-friendly entertainment--have rightly been taken to court, and have lost. As Arts Briefly today relates:

Declaring the editing of films to delete objectionable language, sex and violence to be an "illegitimate business," Judge Richard P. Matsch of United States District Court in Denver ordered several companies engaged in such work to turn over their inventory to Hollywood studios. He said that the scrubbing of films hurts studios and directors who own the rights and does "irreparable injury to the creative artistic expression in the copyrighted movies." He ordered three companies named in the suit to stop "producing, manufacturing, creating" and renting the edited movies. Ray Lines, the chief executive of CleanFlicks, one of the companies, said, "We're going to continue the fight." It burns edited movies onto blank discs and sells them over the Internet and to video stories. As many as 90 stores nationwide, about half of them in Utah, buy the CleanFlicks versions, Mr. Lines said.
That's right. These blatant, shameless copywright infringers are "continuing the fight" even though they obviously have no case. I wonder if they're getting some coordinated right-wing/evangelical funding to stir up controversy and get the cause in the papers.

I found a more lengthy treatment over at Canada's CBC (yes, of a US legal story). Apparently Spielberg, Reford, and Scorcese all joined as signatories to the lawsuit.

(Contrapositive was also on this, over the weekend, elucidating further.)

Meanwhile, steer clear of the following video/movie outlets or cable/internet channels: CleanFlicks, Play It Clean Video, CleanFilms.

I leave you with this, from CleanFlicks.com:

What content do you edit out?

We edit out:

Profanity
This includes the B-words, H-word when not referring to the place, D-word, S-
word, F-word, etc. It also includes references to deity (G-word and JC-words
etc.), only when these words are used in a non-religious context.

Graphic Violence
This does not mean all violence, only the graphic depictions of
decapitation, impalements, dismemberment, excessive blood, gore etc.

Nudity

This refers to male and female front and back nudity.

Sexual Content

This includes language which refers to sexual activity or has sexual connotation. It also includes visual content of a graphic or stimulating nature.


"Visual content of a graphic or stimulating nature." Yup, gotta avoid that in the arts.

Major Panels Today

Short notice, I know. But many of you might be interested (if you haven't heard already) about two panels today linked to the upcoming Summer Play Festival at Theatre Row. The panels are at the Little Shubert up the block.

Of special note: New York Theatre Workshop's Jim Nicola on "the relationship between producers and producing organizations, and artists."

I'm going to try to go to the 4pm panel, but please write in some dispatches if you make it to either. (Or maybe our readers at Time Out will share some post-show reflections?)

On July 10th the Summer Play Festival and the Mayor's Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting will present two free panels addressing theatre in New York City, including an exciting line up of theatre professionals. All panels are free, and open to the public.

About the Panels:

July 10, 2pm to 3:30pm – Looking For A Perfect Match: A practical dialogue between artists and industry

This practical panel will address the relationship between producers and producing organizations, and artists. It will offer practical advice and suggestions to artists on finding the "perfect match" to get a play read, developed, and produced. Panelists include: Vallejo Gantner (Artistic Director, PS122); Daniella Topol (Director, Dead City); Bartlett Sher (Director, Awake and Sing!; The Light In The Piazza); Jim Nicola (Artistic Director, New York Theatre Workshop); Kristin Caskey (Associate Producer, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Death of a Salesman)

July 10, 4pm to 5:30pm – Where Have All The Audiences Gone? The evolving world of off- Broadway This panel will focus on the changing audience and future direction of off-Broadway theatre. Panelists include: Adam Feldman (Moderator) Theatre Critic, Time Out New York; Beverley MacKeen (Executive Director, New World Stages) Neil Pepe (Artistic Director, Atlantic Theatre Company) Lisa Kron (Playwright / Actor, Well); Michael Hurst (Managing Director, The Public Theater); Will Frears (Director, Omnium Gatherum; The Water’s Edge); James Houghton (Artistic Director, Signature Theatre Company).

Please note that panels and panelists are subject to change. Each panel is scheduled for 90 minutes and will take\nplace at the Little Shubert Theatre (422 West 42nd St). RSVP to message@film.nyc.gov. All seats are complimentary on a first come, first serve basis.

Please note that panels and panelists are subject to change. Each panel is scheduled for 90 minutes and will take place at the Little Shubert Theatre (422 West 42nd St). Please RSVP to message@film.nyc.gov. All seats are complimentary on a first come, first serve basis.

Theatre Blogging milestone?

On a "Theatre Talk" critics roundtable last week, Clive Barnes--as MSM a critic as they come--mentioned "blog critics"! Of course the context was how newspapers still rule and no one writing on the internet has "established" him/herself. Still, I was impressed to hear the veteran NY Post (formerly NYT) reviewer even reference this world, on a PBS talk show.

So is the theatre blogosphere is real now?

The show is available here on streaming video, which the site now offers every week. A fun resource, though definitely slanted toward catering to the commercial theatre.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Guilty Pleasure Time

Now before you accuse Playgoer of being a Neil Simon fan, hear me out. The tv series of The Odd Couple remains one of the best shows ever, and Tony Randall's sustained performance over five seasons a masterpiece of silliness. Jack Klugman ain't bad either.

Fans of the show have been waiting years for an official DVD release. (It was never even available on VHS--except on my own disintegrating EP-speed tapes!) Well now that moment has come. Or will come on August 14, the release of the first season, but you can pre-order here.

Now I'll be straight with you: Season One is the weakest one. It's on film with a laugh-track, the actors are still finding their roles, and the whole thing is just apeing the Lemmon-Matthau movie more or less, without the same results.... So you may want to wait till Season Two, when Exec. Prod. Garry Marshall (yes, that Garry Marshall, but pre-"Happy Days," and pre-"Pretty Woman") switched to a 3-camera/live audience format and let his stars really run with it.

Yes, at best, it's boulevard comedy. But by today's standards, its finely observed theatre. And the acting (and some of the writing) truly elevates the material to satisfying social comedy. (Not to mention delicious satire of early-70s cosmopolitan life.) And what show since has taken two mature protagonists (the actors were in their 50s by the end) in an urban setting, with jobs, no less.

In short, the quintessential New York show, pre-Seinfeld. (Of course, both were filmed in LA, but...)

Hey, it's Sunday.