The Playgoer: April 2007

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Monday, April 30, 2007

Another School Walkout?

Walking out on Shylock seems an even more incendiary scenario than the Mike Daisey fracas!

Ah, but wait. This one has a happy ending...

A couple of months ago, the sixth graders at Middle School 443 in Park Slope were prematurely ushered out of a production of “The Merchant of Venice” at the Duke Theater on West 42nd Street because of bad weather and scheduling problems with the cheese buses — so called, a student named Taneice Williams explained, because “they’re yellow, and they smell.”

When word of their disappointment got back to the show’s star, F. Murray Abraham, he decided, with the encouragement of the show’s producers, the Theater for a New Audience, to do the next best thing, and take Shylock’s infamous courtroom scene to their school.

Read on for a nice theatre related human interest story, courtesy of NYTimes Sunday "City" section.

In Full Metal Jacket, you may remember the "Stars and Stripes" editor instructs his reporters to always tag on a "weenie" at the end of their stories--like soldiers giving kids chocolate, or better, scoring a kill. The weeine here? F. Murray's Oscar.

EU [not] OK With Misquoting Critics!

You think the NY Times is pissed at Scott Rudin for pulling quotes out of context? Well the European Union is apparently even more powerful. And in case you think there oughta be a law against such hucksterism in advertising shows, they've got one!

The legislation, which will come into force in December, will make it illegal to extract a positive word or phrase from a theatre review if that paints a misleading picture of the article as a whole. Lawyers are already warning that producers will have to be more careful in the future when using selective quotes in publicity material....

The law bars any advert that contains "false information" or any claim that "deceives or is likely to deceive the consumer" so that it "causes or is likely to cause him to take a transactional decision that he would not have taken otherwise".

Hmm. Of all the "transactional decisions" I've made in my theatre purchases that I "would not have taken otherwise" I'm not sure how many are due to misleading pull quotes.

The Stage's Mark Shenton offers a London perspective. Over to you, Mr. Rudin?

Hat Tip: Clive D.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

REVIEW: Journey's End

Journey's End
by R.C. Sherriff
directed by David Grindley
On Broadway, at the Belasco Theatre
(photo: Paul Kolnik)
From what I pick up in comments here and all over the web, "Journey's End" has already won the uncoveted award for "Best Show You Haven't Seen." An unfortunate honor?

I was already a fan of the play from my introduction to it at the Shaw Festival two summers ago. Maybe I'm loyal to my first time, but I have to say I slightly preferred that production to the current Broadway incarnation, if only for the claustrophobia. The original trench play, "Journey's End" really benefited at the Shaw from the intimate in-the-round staging in their smallest (300-seat) venue, on a minimal set of sandbags, box crates, and dirt that didn't even look like a set.

That said, director David Grindley's new production at the Belasco (a recast remount of his West End success from a few seasons back) is still pretty impressive, and moving. It's not his fault, after all, he's stuck in a 1,000-seat house with a "dugout" even bigger than the New York Yankees'. The casualty of playing to such a size is felt mostly in the quiet first act, I found, where you really have to listen and focus, especially from far back, to pick up on all the subtle character interactions. But once you get to know these characters, the pressures put upon them in Act Two will probably get under your skin soon enough.

It is also very well cast, with almost all American actors. The least impressive to me, funny enough--considering he's British--is Hugh Dancy as the achololic, embittered Captain Stanhope. Dancy basically hits the right notes, but the part seems to call for someone more obviously worn and almost past his prime as a star school athlete. (Part of the point of Stanhope's character is to show how a whole generation of Britain's potential future leaders--its "best and brightest"--were wasted and ruined by this war.) The youthful and slightly built Dancy has some trouble overcoming his preshow publicity as an up-and-coming Brit pretty boy. But he does have some stage chops, and does show the necessary hard edge by evening's end.

A lot has been written about how familiar this old play seems, perhaps as a template for all corny old war movies. But what strikes me is how uncinematic it is. The battles, after all, are completely off stage. In movies--even "anti-war" movies--the sheer sight and thrills of battle can overtake the message. But in "Journey's End" the playwright, R.C. Sherriff (a real life vet), leaves us only with the scars. And mostly the psychological scars, at that. One death is marked only by an eerie disappearance. The other--see photo--is enacted, but briefly, and upstage in the dark. I'm tired of hearing this play described as "neither pro nor anti war" (usually by the pr-coached cast!). Because there is a clear and deliberate absence here of the one element that "redeems" war stories, even at their most bleak, and that is glory.

There is no glory in "Journey's End." Like in the haunting poems of Sherriff's fellow disillusioned serviceman Wilfred Owen, it is hardly "Dulce et Decorum" to die for one's country here. People die randomly, not only without deserving it, but without cause. And the one man most miserable, who probably wants to die--the captain, no less--is doomed to live on and fight another day. There are no speeches about God and country. No reminder of the evils of the enemy. When one of the "Huns" is brought on captive, he's a scared clueless boy. Meanwhile, the superior officer seems irked at leaving his better outfitted tent to hand down certain-death orders to his middle-managers, and doubtful himself of the chances of ultimate victory--and he knows he'll likely get home in one piece either way.

It's easy to lighten "Journey's End" by noting the absence of more obvious "propaganda." But it's the absence of the pro-war propaganda, and of the reflex of easy "heroism", that stand out to me. The quiet cynicism of real experience comes through loud and clear. Cynicism about the war itself, that is. For the men Sherriff clearly has pity and shares their terror with naked emotion. We admire their bravery--not for the fierceness of their battle, but for the everyday humanity with which they face it. One fakes illness to get out of it all, one drinks from dawn to dusk. The company cook (a remarkably self-effacing Jefferson Mays) goes about his job like any diner busboy--even though he too is called into combat when needed. (Though he's called back early to make sure the officers have a hot lunch waiting afterwards.)

My favorite scene in the play features my favorite performance--Boyd Gaines as "Uncle," a decent middle-aged chap on what must be his 4th tour. Once, you can tell, he saw himself as a citizen-soldier in some grand imperial tradition. Now he sees the dead end, but is trapped by his own code into silence. On the eve of--no, minutes before the first big battle, he finds himself in an awkward silence with a newbie officer, a young idealist just out of college, whose beaming smile is just now receding, as he anticipates the unromantic reality of combat for the first time. He reaches out to Uncle for some reassurance, or at least a pep talk. Instead, the old vet lights up his pipe and talks about rugby, his hometown, and long walks in the country. The kid presses his concern as if Uncle didn't hear him, but with a just look and a pause, Gaines perfectly--benevolent but chillingly--communicates no, this is how the game is played. Death is dealt with by not talking about it. It's certainly the most unsettling tea party conversation you'll ever hear. At once a bitter commentary on both war and British stiff-upper-lipness. (Not to mention the male ego's embarrassment over fear in general.)

Committed mostly to a loving and faithful staging of the play, Grindley's most active, and activist, directorial choice is saved for the end. (Here beginneth the spoiler alert...) With a real war going on outside the fiction of the theatre, it wouldn't take much, you would think, to remind us of the play's "relevance". Grindley meets this responsibility head on and drives it home, though not in a way that can be accused of as "presentist" or updating. The play ends with a battle, the onstage death of a major character, and the exit of Captain Stanhope out into the shelling and machine gun fire. Grindley brings down the curtain in a slow fade as the script seems to call for. But just when you think the play's over and some even begin to applaud, the sound effects of the bombing get louder, and louder, and louder, until the safe old Belasco is shaking. It's a good minute of wordless though noisy darkness in the house, pretty long in stage time. Grindley is basically letting our minds wander to, ahem, whatever the sounds of explosions make us think about. Finally, at the point we're begging for relief, the bombs cross fade into birds chirping. Daylight. The nightmare over? Yes, until the curtain rises on a tableaux of the full cast, in full uniform, frozen like statues. Behind them is a wall of names. Freeze tableau for thirty seconds. Silence. That's the curtain call. No one moves.

I've heard this move derided already (in comments on this blog, in fact) as pretentious, intrusive, or just "hitting over the head." But I was glued. First, Grindley manipulates the audience brilliantly in how he and his sound designer score the sequence. What really makes it effective, though, as political theatre, is how it's almost a Rorschach test. While I imagine the "wall" is based on an actual UK WWI monument, a US audience cannot not think of the Vietnam memorial. The moment both visualizes and enacts a war "memorial" to these men. (It also implies none of the characters escape the war alive.) It shows once again--as if we had to be reminded--that it is only an anti-war story that can truly "support the troops" then, or now.

Friday, April 27, 2007

The New "Patrons"

Variety claims the straight play is far from dead on Broadway--even commercial Broadway--thanks to that handful of maverick producers who seem to have figured out how to make it work for them.

A few years ago, when Roundabout and the MTC increased their Broadway presence, conventional wisdom had it that new plays would soon be the province of the nonprofits. So far, the taxpaying theater hasn't brought down the curtain....

"Right now there are a large number of investors who want to be associated with quality product and are not investing because it's a great return on their money," says [Bob]Boyett.

He recalls what veteran producer Emanuel Azenberg recently said about such check-writers, calling them "patrons of the arts," in the New York Times. "That was amusing," Boyett says of Azenberg's sly riff on well-heeled producers. "But also it's a little bit true."

Or as [Scott] Rudin puts it, "Because plays are not my only business, I have the luxury of doing plays that I like and believe in."

Of course, when you look at the more successful output of these producers, their strategy may be simple: go British. Or, to use the preferred code: "quality product."

In a related story, Cara Joy mourns the fading of the visionary and committed producers of yore and calls for a new crop.

Not Over till the Ewok Sings?

This lede from review of Grady Hendrix's "Spider-Man 3" review in the NY Sun might bring a smile of painful nostalgia to anyone who grew up with bad 80s blockbusters:

The third part of a movie trilogy is always a tough nut to crack, and the pressure has driven many directors insane. "Superman 3" featured a drunk Superman battling Richard Pryor; "Return of the Jedi" was infested with Ewoks singing a musical number entitled "Yub Nub."
What's that? George Lukas wants a piece of the Disney Broadway franchise? "Ewok! The Musical!"???

Thursday, April 26, 2007

"Menopause" as Metaphor?

"Menopause the Musical is a version of Springtime for Hitler, the show that shouldn't have been a hit. I'm thinking of a moneyspinner called Prostate Pandemonium... Wouldn't it be empowering to see ageing men living their urinary chaos out loud, being upfront and honest about their humiliations, dressing in purple, high-kicking and wetting themselves?"

- One Brit's bemused take on one of our lesser US theatrical exports. (Warning: do turn your "mute" on before clicking.)

Must admit I had never read so much detail about the show. The horror, the horror.

Niederkorn...He's Baaaaaack

I can't believe the New York Times still allows William Niederkorn to write about anything Shakespearean. After finally being exposed as a dedicated "Oxfordian" with an agenda to bring fringe conspiracy theories of Shakespeare's authorship into the "paper of record" it looked like the Times had finally come to its senses and relegated him to other areas. (He's employed full time as an editor, but occasionally contributes.)

Well, thank god the Arts section no longer legitimizes his fantasies. But just in time for the Bard's birthday, someone found room for him in last weekend's Education section. Frankly I don't know what's worse! Trying to lay seeds of doubt in arts lovers or those actually educating our youth.

What news, you wonder, merits yet another platform for Shakespeare-Denial views without any peer-reviewed credence? A poll! Who, you ask, has decided to canvas "265 professors [who] teach Shakespeare in the English departments of public and private four-year colleges and universities, which were selected randomly"? Why, the New York Time Education Life section. I wonder who suggested such a poll.

Now don't be fooled by the headline: "Shakespeare Reaffirmed." Nor by those pesky "results": "82 percent said there is no good reason to question whether William Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon was the principal author of the poems and plays in the canon." Because the kicker of the story is...well, its existence. Once again, Mr. Niederkorn has managed to slip into the nation's most looked-to self-appointed "arbiter of culture" (in the words of its managing editor) suggestions that his own totally amateur fringe views have a place at the table.

Take a look at the lede, for instance: "Here's good news for Stratfordians as they celebrate the Bard’s birth, on April 23: Professors believe in him." Gee well...whew! A bit of a grudging admission, no? The very term "Stratfordian" gives him away, too, of course. In Niederkorn's universe, equal time must always be divided evenly between "Oxfordians" and "Stratfordians" (like pro- and anti-abortion or gun control) because "authorship" of the plays is to him an open question.... As real-life Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt once said: Do we still call those of who believe in a sun-centered planetary system "Copernicans"?

If Niederkorn had been hoping to score a victory with this poll, then the results are clearly embarrassing to him, wouldn't you think? But lest he wants to gloat about the 18% who didn't answer a flat-out no to the question: "Do you think that there is good reason to question whether William Shakespeare of Stratford is the principal author of the plays and poems in the canon?" Well, take a look at the breakdown in the full results: 6% Yes, 11% Possibly, 1% Don't Know.

The stated methods and population of the poll also reveal how ultimately meaningless it is. for instance, 58% percent of the respondents say (in question 21) they "Don't teach at graduate level"--which is where you'd expect to find the most accomplished Shakespeare scholars. Also,

"Of the 1,340 institutions in the College Board data set, a random sample of 637 was drawn. Shakespeare professors were identified at 556, and 265 completed the questionnaire."
So if I read that right, over half of those contacted just blew it off? I suspect those are not the professors who would have helped Niederkorn's case...

Finally, notice the desperate lengths Niederkorn goes to to salvage a good narrative for his side out of this.
The professors were better versed in writings by advocates for the Earl of Oxford, the most prominent alternative candidate, than by Shakespeare defenders. The Oxfordians J. Thomas Looney, Charlton Ogburn and Mark Anderson had been read
by 29 percent, 26 percent and 17 percent respectively; the Stratfordians Scott
McCrea and Irvin Matus had been read by 11 and 10 percent.

Who else but an amateur zealot would even ask such bullshit questions? The poll breakdown shows that Niederkorn only asked the professors if they had read the following authors: Mark Anderson, Delia Bacon, Alden Brooks, G. George Greenwood, Abel Lefranc, J. Thomas Looney, Irvin Matus, Scott McCrea, Charlton Ogburn, Diana Price, John H. Stotsenburg, A.W. Titherley.
I'm a PhD student in theatre history, and quite a Shakespeare buff, and I've never heard of any of these people. Except Looney because a) he has a funny name, and b) he is only known as the eccentric scholar back in the 20s who first advanced the Edward DeVere, Earl of Oxford as a candidate for the authorship, even though the Earl died in 1604. (Naturally it is tempting to link points (a) and (b).)... Not surprisingly, many of these names--except Looney--get recognition responses in the single digits.

Yet, look what Niederkorn proclaims from this in his summary:

The professors were better versed in writings by advocates for the Earl of Oxford, the most prominent alternative candidate, than by Shakespeare defenders. The Oxfordians J. Thomas Looney, Charlton Ogburn and Mark Anderson had been read by 29 percent, 26 percent and 17 percent respectively; the Stratfordians Scott McCrea and Irvin Matus had been read by 11 and 10 percent.

So these guys McCrea and Matus are the representatives of "Stratfordianism"??? No Steven Greenblatt? No James Shapiro? No David Bevington?....No Harold fucking Bloom, even???

Ok, I guess his point is to stick to names of people who only write about "authorship." But notice how he spins the unimpressive results to say, "Ha! Our fringe scholars are read by one-fourth of this sample (of the half who responded) while these guys who actually bother spending time refuting us--as opposed to their more famous and sane "Stratfordian" colleagues--get only one-tenth!" Proving....?

Just look at the poll questions and ask yourselves: if you were a regular journalist and you actually did conduct a poll on this questions...would these be the questions you would ask???

Before I waste any more of my morning on this joke-journalism, I'll simply refer you my previous rants on the matter, on Niederkorn's past offenses.

But let me just repeat that the scandal is not really why this one individual thinks what he does --but why the New York Times continues to legitimize his unsubstantiated insinuations against, effectively, the entire community of professional literary scholars, critics, and historians.

I don't wish personal ill against the man or the losing of his livelihood. Just please, NYT, either reassign the guy or actually edit his stories to conform with some basic standards of journalism.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

REVIEW: "Giants" (Village Voice)

photo: Luke Stoffel

And now for something completely different...

My Village Voice review of a play at HERE by a young writer, Laura von Holt, called "Giants."

And believe it or not, I liked it!

So click for a much needed dose of Playgoer positivity...

Daisey Responds to Me

Mike Daisey has recently posted two Comments, but in case they get lost amidst all the others, let me feature them here to make sure they get heard.

Comment on my first post yesterday:

Tuesday, April 24, 2007 5:53:00 PM

I probably shouldn't even engage in this--my blood pressure is shot enough as it is--but I do want to clarify something.

"(Daisey has been performing "Invincible Summer" for months, but apparently still works from a handwritten outline within which he improvises. To each his own, when it comes to working methods, I say. I just sure hope, for his sake, he's at least made a xerox by now, if not actually typed it on a disk.)"

I am an extemporaneous monologuist--I perform exclusively without a script, and the handwritten notes are meticulously created for that purpose. There was a profile about exactly how this process works in the New York Times in January--here is a link:

http://mikedaisey.com/print/gen/profileNYT.jpg

This blog is a fairly well-read theatre blog, and the writer spends a lot of time writing very long posts about this incident. I do not understand why you would not spend a small amount of time with Google and other resources and inform yourself about the work I perform--it is not obscure or difficult. It's really tiresome. I find it insulting, your use of the term "still" in reference to my notes, and it tells me you don't understand my work in the least--you've never seen it, and you apparently don't read about it either.

As for the rest, it's a free world (for now) and you have your opinion. You think I didn't react well--fair enough. I certainly would have preferred to react even better than I did. I do find it contrarian and bizarre that you're as concerned as you are for my behavior, when I'd posit there is other behavoir that is much more chilling, but hey--I love contrarians.

Brief response: while it's true I didn't know much about the specifics of Daisey's work beyond his reputation when I started commenting on this Monday, I have since then read the Times article he links to, his Wikipedia entry, and other assorted reviews and appreciations. I do admit I hadn't fully understood the extent of his "extemporaneous" process, and for that I apologize. However, nothing I've read about him or his work in the last few days substantively changes my mind about anything else I've said about the incident.

Comment on yesterday's second post:
Two clarifications:

1) Yes, David apologized--that is clear in the writing, I believe, and let me just say it again. He said he could never ask for my forgiveness, and then I gave it to him.

2) I am not a therapist, and I would never engage in therapy with this person--that is repulsive to me. I spoke with him, I listened to him, and I responded. I did my job as a human being--it is not rocket science.
Factual clarifications are certainly welcome. As are Daisey's comments in general.

Updated Addendum (12:15pm): To say something I recognize I outght to have made clear at the outset--I do respect Mike Daisey as an artist and do feel bad for what happened to him on stage that night. Anyone who has performed (and I have) knows that it takes a certain amount of bravery to act on stage at all, given how exposed and vulnerable you are to a live audience.

Since I don't know Daisey personally and don't know his work very well, this automatic sympathy soon gave way to a more distanced and critical perspective, based on what struck me as personally interesting about the encounter. I recognize I've said things and made judgements about Daisey that might be hurtful to him. I can't apologize for them, since such is what critics risk doing every time they write. But I do understand why there has been such outpouring of support for him, especially from fellow theatre artists.

"Cellular Sodomy"

If anyone should have the last word on the Daisey-Chain of invective the last few days, it's actor/blogger James Urbaniak with this hilarious "Harball" sendup.

I'm all for more news exposure for theatre. But this is a sobering warning of be careful what you wish for.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

School & Daisey Respond to Each Other

Two updates:

1) Some real-life journalism(!) about the Mike Daisey incident. Boston Globe's Geoff Edgers blogs his reportage tracking down the principal of Norco High School itself.

Breaking news on the whole "are they Christians" front, says Edgers: "The school group has no religious affiliation."

They also renounce the water torture:

As for the chaperone who poured water on Daisey’s notes… [Principal] Johnson flat out apologizes.
"I agree with Mike Daisey," says Johnson. "With everything that's going on in the world today, to have somebody come up on stage and take the water and pour it on his script was very inappropriate. I want to make this very clear, I apologize for that happening."
The principal confirms that the offender was an adult chaperone.
Interesting that the school now disputes ART's claim that they were warned by Group Sales about the content. The principal stands by his chaperones' claim that they were told yes, it's fine for 15-17 year olds and that the presence of another HS group that night (true) was cited as support. So is this CYA on the school's part? Or will ART have another response?

Also interesting is that, as I expected, the walkout was not triggered by the "fucking Paris Hilton" bit alone. Apparently Daisey's own pre-show "turn off your phones" announcement let them know from the get-go what they were in for.

They were sitting there, there was an announcement made. Something like this. 'Turn your [f-ing] cell phones off or we're going to shove it up your [expletive]. At that point, our teacher got real nervous that this may not be the place for our kids. He approached the house manager and said, something to the effect, 'this may not be the place for us. Can you hold off with the monologue so we could leave?'
The school people claim ART wouldn't delay the show to let the group leave. Sounds like not a smart move on ART's part, if true. But maybe again, it's CYA.

hat tip: Jason

2) Daisey's blog.

Daisey himself recounts his efforts to seek closure and/or apologies from said school and relates a different story...
I did speak with an administrator from the school, and with the individual who ruined my work. I think it's important to note that *I* found and called *them*--it is clear to me that I never would have heard from any of them again had I not hunted them down. In fact, they were surprised to hear from me, which I think speaks to the lack of understanding and civility on their part. My work had been assaulted, and I had a clear vision of this man standing above me, destroying my work, with hatred in his eyes. I refused to be a victim twice--first by being assaulted, and second by committing the sin of silence. So I knew I had to find them, and speak with the man who did this.

The first person I managed to reach was an administrator with the group, a woman who started the conversation repeating the same statement time and again, which undercut her apology: she insisted it was a "safety issue", and that "we had to get our students out of there." There was no discussion of language or appropriateness--it had become a safety issue, as though the students were in danger of being physically assaulted.
I see now why the principal had to step in and give a more adult statement to the Globe. "Security"? Pretty pathetic.

(Daisey's calls seem to have been made the very next day. I assume the Globe story is more recent.)

Point taken, by the way, on Daisey having to call them for an apology. Seems like they would not have made a statement--either publicly or privately--without prompting.

Daisey actually disputes two central defenses by the school in the Globe statement. First, while they may be officially a public school, he claims they at least presented themselves as denominational:
The group responsible for the incident is from a public high school, though they identified themselves to me as a Christian group as they fled the theater--it's barely audible on the YouTube clip, as an adult tells me they are a Christian group, then flees for the door, refusing to engage with me. Then in the lobby of the theater and on the phone to the box office they identified themselves again and again as a Christian group--I don't know what that says about the division of church and state in Norco, California. As a group, the people in charge freely identified themselves as a Christian group, until reporters call and they remember they are from a public high school.
Second, as to the advance warning about naughty content, he claims, "There are multiple corroborating witnesses to this phone conversation" between the school and the Group Sales rep, and that he's satisfied ART said all the right things.

And then there's his marathon phone session with the water-thrower, which I must say is a fascinating read. I won't quote excerpts just because it's all of a piece and well told. So just read it. In brief, the guy comes off as...well, not a nice guy (anger management issues, racism, religious bigotry, and worse, dislike of "liberals"!). And if I read it right, Daisey "forgives" "David." Even though David never really apologizes, apparently.

I'm impressed by Daisey's persistence and follow-through in making these personal connections. I feel I understand--and, yes, sympathize with his side of the story much better now. I still cringe when I watch the video, and am a little turned off by how easily during the phone call (in his description, at least) he slips into therapist model, treating "David" as his patient. But maybe my aversion to some of his responses has been more a personal thing. Clearly I'm in the minority.

And, as I've said, a lot of my response was in reaction to what I perceived as an overwrought campaign of his initially. If Daisey's satisfied he has closure on this now, then so am I. So I'll lay it to rest, barring any other reported developments in the blogs or MSM.


PS--note the remark in the Globe story about the YouTube video getting over 70,000 views. True! More spectators than your average theatre piece, that's for sure...

Daisey Denouement

I'm glad there has been so much exchange and debate here over what happened to Mike Daisey's show in Boston, and now over what I said about it. I can see most of the reaction to me has been anti, and to Daisey, pro. But I'll take one more crack at defending my views, knowing full well I probably won't make any more friends in the process.

Here's a simple narrative of my response, just to show where I'm coming from.

I started hearing about this incident at ART over the weekend. Daisey himself sent out an email to his mailing list (which I've always assumed I was on automatically as a fellow blogger, though I'd never corresponded with him). I took notice in the email where he said of the incident, "it's a sobering reminder that speech is never free unless it is defended ardently." That definitely definitely got my attention. A free speech case at ART? That could be news! I didn't have time over the weekend to delve further, but I did see other bloggers picking up the story, by basically relaying Daisey's own account and expressing support for him and outrage at his offended/offending audience. As I've said before, I know of Daisey by reputation and what I've read in profiles, but not seen any of his work in person. And not to redeem myself with "I tried," but I definitely wanted to see "Invincible Summer" during its brief run at the Public's Under the Radar, but it was so popular it was sold out.

By Monday I was really, really curious to find out more about what happened. When I finally read Daisey's blog and watched the video, though, I must say I came away feeling this controversy had been overblown. Mainly because I could see no evidence of some coordinated institutional protest or disruption of the play. I just saw people walking out. And one particularly rude guy dousing Daisey's script with water. And I was not aware the piece of paper was his only copy. I felt bad for Daisey personally. But I was also struck, critically, by the difference between what I saw and what I was led to believe. Plus some of Daisey's reactions--however justified emotionally, perhaps--honestly made me cringe.

I realize I could have pursued my questions with Daisey himself, but his account was already clear from his blog. And frankly I was interested in just getting some objective facts first, and Daisey (understandably) seemed still deeply subjectively affected by the confrontation. So from what the ART press office was happy to confirm for me, the story struck me as an isolated incident due in part to particularly misguided chaperoning. And ART also said they believed the man who spilled the water had apologized personally to Daisey once Daisey called him.

If Daisey wants to challenge any aspect of the ART official story, I am eager to hear it. Daisey indeed has left one comment here, to which I responded both there and directly by private email, inviting him to further conversation on or offline. As of yet I have heard no further response.

So again, a story that started out circulating as a free speech frenzy just struck me as something different, and less alarming. Less alarming to me , at least. Obviously not to Daisey.

But this blog is about my opinion, not his, so I make no apologies for that.

I can see why some think I'm "blaming the victim". But honestly I did not set out to pick on Mike Daisey. Only when I felt he himself was trying to whip up support for himself as a free speech martyr-- did I feel I just had to say I wasn't totally buying it.

I also have to admit that after the "Rachel Corrie" debate I'm particularly sensitive to defining censorship and free speech in the theatre. I got challenged many times last year that New York Theatre Workshop's actions could not be censorship because they're not the government, they have free choice, etc. So I feel a responsibility to call these cases as I see them, and to use some very clear criteria--mainly to look for institutional caving or mass-coordinated campaigns instead of isolated prejudiced reactions from individuals.

Much of the outrage being expressed focuses on the one spectator who damaged Daisey's script--or more accurately "outline." And I've been accused of missing this as The Main Point. (Daisey has been performing "Invincible Summer" for months, but apparently still works from a handwritten outline within which he improvises. To each his own, when it comes to working methods, I say. I just sure hope, for his sake, he's at least made a xerox by now, if not actually typed it on a disk.) This is indeed an ugly act. On the video you can see the man (definitely one of the group's adults--Urbaniak, who disagrees with me, amusingly dubs him "Hoodie John the Baptist") very deliberately approaching Daisey's onstage desk and pouring his own Evian bottle over the two pieces of paper, then spitefully dumping the rest of the bottle in Daisey's drinking glass before leaving. Just ugly.

But what else can we say about it? Yes, I guess it's "vandalism". But there are laws against that. Why doesn't Daisey sue him for damages if the papers are irreplaceable? I've been asked what my reaction would be if intolerant bigots stormed a more elaborate designed production and vandalized the set. I'd say... get security. That's what they're there for. (ART is on the Harvard campus, after all.)

If the only source of disagreement here is whether or not vandalism is serious or not, then I say, yes, vandalism is serious. And should be punished. But I don't feel compelled--in this case at least--to read much more into it.

Were Daisey's free speech rights violated? My first question to those who say yes is--do you not support the right of those Columbia students to storm the stage against those "Minutemen" speakers a few months ago? Do you not cheer on Cindy Sheehan and others when they try to shout down Donald Rumsfeld at a congressional hearing?

I don't think Mike Daisey is evil at all, and nowhere near the moral equivalent of those targets. But are our free speech and demonstration standards only based on who we like and who we don't?

If the violator knowingly sought to destroy Daisey's only copy of his text and thereby disable him from ever performing it again...ok, maybe there'd be a case. But is that what this guy thought? Most people who go to the theatre expect lines to be memorized, or scripts to at least be copies. And yes, in principle the man was "vandalizing the set"--but given Daisey's show consists of him sitting on a bare stage at a table with a water glass, did this man think this was a "set" at all? Or did it look to him like some weird liberal lecture? (Reader "David M." makes this point even more cogently in Comments, for which I'm thankful.) Again, I'm afraid just a little elitism may be creeping into this. Not everyone has been to a Spalding Gray show and recognizes that kind of form as "art." (I have to admit I cringed at Daisey accusing the offenders of "pouring water on my art.")

(But yes, I do. Despite my stated aversion to more conventional fictional monologue plays, I admire many solo performers. More on that another time.)

Now about the video. (Btw, I am told Daisey videos many of his performances for himself, so that's where the YouTube came from in case you're wondering.) It's a humiliating moment to have caught on camera, but he himself put it out there so I feel it's fair game to have a critical response. And my response, honestly, was that I cringed at the point when he starts calling the people leaving "cowards." (Just past the 8:00 minutes and counting mark.) Upon watching it again, I would like to retract what I said about Daisey "shouting." When he raises his voice, it's clearly in order to be heard by those walking into the lobby. But I still feel there's something kinda "whiny" about it, which is what made me cringe. Say what you want, call me insensitive. Call it "too soon." But that's my honest response.

For instance, Daisey claims he was simply inviting them to have a dialogue. But please note the choice he offers them:

"Hey do any of you people who are leaving want to stay and talk about this or do you want to run out like cowards?.... [inaudible response. Daisey repeats, louder, calling after them:] Do you want to stay and talk about this like adults that you came to my show to see [sic?], or do you want to walk out like cowards?"
A bit taunting, I think. Now, he was hurt, I understand. But I just can't go along with those who are calling this a "classy" response. I agree, though, that after the exodus, Daisey settles down and bonds graciously with those supportive ticketbuyers left and goes on with the show admirably.

I also was struck by this line in Daisey's blog about his assailant:
It is a face I have seen in Riefenstahl's work, and in my dreams, but never on another human face, never an arm's length from me--never directed at me, hating me, hating my words and the story that I've chosen to tell.

Yes, that’s Riefenstahl as in “Triumph of the Will” Riefenstahl. Is that “civil discourse”? Especially since, again, the Obergruppenf├╝hrer has reportedly apologized.

Look, I think the parents and teachers of this group were silly and stupid to overreact like this to some obscene language. I’m sure they also rent movies from those family-friendly companies that edit out—illegally—all the naughty bits so that even "Schindler’s List" doesn't titillate with its jiggling old jews. But I'm more mad at the company that enables and panders to this narrow-mindedness than I am at the fearful consumers.

And they’re stupid for getting so offended by a dirty word (whether that be “fuck”or "Paris Hilton") instead of actual beliefs of Daisey’s. I mean, the kids were in High School, not Preschool! However--we shouldn't’t underestimate, that to some people, Daisey’s very use of words like “fuck” in public certainly does communicate to them a belief, and one they don’t like. To "us" casual bad language used in public before minors is no biggee. To "them" it reflects an abhorrent belief system and lifestyle. I don't feel "we" have to validate or give into that reality. But let's accept it as a reality and either take ownership of our offensiveness or put the topic of obscenity on the table if we're going to reach out for "dialogue."

(Apropos of nothing, I also want to air my theory as to why this group still came to the show even after being warned. Where else but a nonprofit university theatre's second space can you find a decent group rate for a party of 87! Not at any of the downtown Boston touring houses.)

Before it’s implied again that I’m too eager to come to the evil Christian right’s defense against a poor downtown theatre artist, let me make clear what I stand for. Free speech. On both sides. If someone or some organization truly prevents Mike Daisey from performing due to his views, I will stand with him. But I can’t get excited about someone (or 87 people) telling him essentially to fuck off. Or as this particular party might say, flip off.

Boston blogger YS says,
I wonder if Garret[sic] will be as casual, and consider it such a "non-scandal," if a group of the audience at a performance of Rachel Corrie were to walk out then throws water on, or otherwise VANDALIZE the set while making their exit.
Well basically, yes, I think that’s fair game! And a risk one has to accept in producing that particular show. Remember that's the kind of thing New York Theatre Workshop really feared in that case. They were scared to let that show go on with any risks of confrontation. Excuse the comparison, but Daisey's pleading for “dialogue” with his disgruntled audience when all they want to do is leave or boo, is pretty much what New York Theatre Workshop was pleading for. Their total fear of walkouts, demonstrations, vandalism whatever, is exactly what led to the cancellation of “Corrie”—the fear that people would be pissed no matter how much you “dialogued” with them. And no matter how wrong you thought they were.

I know Daisey would never cancel his own show over this, so I don't see a natural comparison with Nicola. Just a hint of an overlap. I wish we could agree upon a sphere of discourse in the theatre that can allow for objection—even “uncivil” objection—while it’s still nonviolent and noncensorial.

I entitled my recent revisiting of the "Corrie" controversy for New York Theatre Review (soon to be available online) “In Praise of Controversy.” Taking my cue from Tony Kushner’s point that Nicola was too fearful of a "brawl," I basically say that we need more brawling not less in the theatre. And like it or not, we shall get it in this post-9/11, Red vs Blue culture-war world.

Finally, I see now that I did not express myself clearly enough in talking about the “bubble” of liberals doing shows for other liberals. I appreciate what Daisey says about reaching out, and about how “Invincible Summer” actually details his conflicted responses to 9/11, including initial support for the Iraq war. And by proposing my own counter response of “fuck it” and going on with your show, I realize that isn’t promoting much cross-culture bonding either.

But that actually wasn’t my point. Red and Blue will always hate each other, no matter how much “dialogue.” By all means let’s call out censorship when we see it—when institutions and funders pull the plug or back down from bullying orchestrated campaigns. But when private citizens simply express their disapproval (even hate), who can we cry to? I say let’s simply stand up for what we believe, try not to waste time denouncing the other for who they are, and go on with the show.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Daisey, cont.

Not surprisingly, I've already received a lot of feedback (and criticism) for my views on the Mike Daisey incident at ART. I'll take the time to offer a thoughtful response tomorrow--since it does merit thought. And my comments so far have indeed been from the hip.

But, meanwhile, please do watch the footage, read Daisey's account, read YS's rebuttal to me, and other comments to the post. And go ahead and weigh in. Whatever my views, I hope I've provided enough information for anyone to make up their own mind.

Also--a few more facts that may not change anything, but do make the case more interesting.

- ART theatre is not only a prominent regional nonprofit rep company. It is the official resident professional company of Harvard University. What a field day the right would have with that if they want to rush to the "choir school's" defense! Let alone, the spectre of "taxpayer dollars" via any federal and state grants ART gets. In which case, no fear, I would definitely take Mike's side. I trust ART would, as well--and that would be the real free speech test here, I think.

- In case you were wondering, Daisey's "Invincible Summer" is performing not on the sizeable ART mainstage, but the 300-seat Zero Arrow second space. (Swanky!) 87 people walking out en masse will always rattle a performer. But especially when it's basically a third of the house. So I wouldn't claim the incident wasn't a big deal to all who were there that night.

- In case it hasn't been clear from previous accounts (and if you haven't watched the footage) the key moment prompting the walk out does seem to have been the relatively innocuous bit where Daisey narrates himself imagining "fucking Paris Hilton." Just barely graphic, but hardly. Does Mike or anyone else familiar with the show know if there was any other material in the show up until that point that might have offended the Christian school crowd as well? Or was everything fine until then?

- ART told me they believe the guy who poured water over Daisey's papers later apologized. True, Mike?

And last, a question. For people who are outraged...who are you outraged against? One jerk from Norco, California?

Yale: "No Bang Bang on Stage"

Just after praising the spirit of university theatre this morning, I'm saddened to learn that a college no less prestigious than Yale has taken the lame high ground of banning weapons from all student productions. That's right, prop-weapons. Unless they're obviously fake.

Undergrad Sarah Holdren was all set to open her production of Peter Barnes' "Red Noses"--about the middles ages!--when she was told she'd have to make do with big wooden play-swords, instead of the already fake-metal ones.

Says young director: “I understand the university’s need to react to Virginia Tech and display sensitivity, but dealing with it this way is ineffective.”

Or to put it another way: lame.

Who needs Nazi choir school teachers to oppress theatre artists when "well-intentioned" ivy-league administrators will do it for them?

More on Daisey

Okay, a quick response from ART public relations has cleared up a few things about l'Affaire Daisey.

First, I apologize for my last headline. Mike Daisey is in no manner on his way to being "banned in Boston." Just one of those irresistible showbiz phrases.

According to ART, a class from a Norco, California public high school was in Boston for a choir competition. I guess in search of "cultural experience" they called ART group sales and booked a party of 87 for the Thursday night show of Daisey's highly praised Spalding Gray-esque solo-show "Invincible Summer" (described as "an intensely personal story of a family in crisis against the backdrop of massive social upheaval"). Daisey is basically in residence at ART all spring, after previously doing the show in NY (at the Public's Under the Radar, I believe.)

ART claims the group sales rep was explicit with the school rep about the...well, explicitness of the show. Only during the walkout did one of the teachers identify the school, to an usher, as "Christian." (Notwithstanding that it's still a public school?)

ART says it has received no other protests about "Invincible Summer", from this group or any other.

I'm relieved at this, since the description and the footage at first suggested to me the kind of perfectly coordinated "walk-out" recognizable from more "staged" protests. But that seems not to be the case. Instead, it's just another case of clueless teachers and/or parents not seriously looking into what they're taking their children to. And assuming all "theatre" is Rodgers & Hammerstein wholesome.

After all... it's ART for chrissake! (As Daisey amusingly explains toward the end of the clip.)

Now having written a lot about censorship myself on this blog over the last year, I have to say I'm not as concerned about this incident as some people. Even if it were a staged protest (which it's not) audience protest is very different than an institution shutting down a show. (So, if ART , say, suddenly pulled the plug on Daisey--which they're not--he'd have a much more grounded complaint.

I don't know Daisey and, regrettably, have not caught his work. I know him as a presence in the blogosphere, too. But I have to say, granted the man was under the pressure of an extraordinarily weird and confrontational moment... I don't think he comes off well in that footage. I can understand the shock of half your audience leaving, of one of them literally defacing your work. But his yelling after them should warn liberals of the senselessness of whining in the face of red-state rigidity.

People have the right to walk out of a show. God knows we all have. Usually out of boredom. But I bet many of us have out of some sense of "offense" as well. Just turn the tables for a sec and imagine if you found yourself at a solo show by someone you never heard of who turned out to be an Ann Coulter clone. If you find such a worldview offensive, wouldn't you want to walk out? Or even throw something?

Now, granted, what's more disturbing about this case is the forced nature of the walkout, where a handful of "responsible adults" dragged 80 kids out of there who--according to ART--were mostly having a fine time. I hope those students protest that!

But what I sense in Daisey's initial (albeit, gut) response is that insularity that has so neutered our chummy liberal theatre circles. Check out these fears from his blog:

It's common to think things will never happen where you are--never in Cambridge, never in New York, never in Seattle--that sort of thing, whatever it is, never happens here, not in our community. Then it happens, right in front of you, and you realize you were blind to it, that you forgot that intolerance and zealotry and viciousness are human currency everywhere, and it takes your breath away.
Yes, there are people who disagree with us! Maybe even in our home town! We usually enjoy the luxury of not seeing them at our edgy little downtown shows (they're too busy waiting on line for Mamma Mia) but when they come, don't be surprised if they don't like the naughty words. I mean, there is a culture war going on.

Daisey's first response was to chastise the anklers for not staying and "talking". He accuses them of immaturity for just walking away. But I have to say he sounds awfully immature saying so. I kinda wish he'd have turned to his fellow blue-staters and Harvard hipsters left in the crowd and just said "fuck 'em."

Instead, his reaction is a bubble popping. The illusion that we just do theatre for our like-minded friends--and that anyone who might have different values will be happy to "dialogue" with us godless evildoers--just falls apart instantaneously. Telling.

I know it may not be fair to criticize a very private moment for Daisey. And I can't be so sure I would be so heroic either in such a surprise situation. But he does post it on his website for all to see. And he was filming it in the first place.

Anyway, I hope this non-scandal settles down into the revealing anecdote that it is, and that we all take it as a reminder to try to get out of the bubble more often.

Correction: I previously misspelled the Mamma in Mamma Mia with one 'm'. Yes, I'm an idiot.

Mike Daisey, Banned in Boston?


Blogs are atwitter today over a disruption last Thursday night of Mike Daisey's one-man show at the normally sedate ART in Cambridge.

I still don't know why it was being filmed anyway, but here it is on YouTube already.

More to follow. I've actually have some questions into ART. Hopefully they'll have some response and clarifications soon.

The "event" happens just shy of one minute into this. Just after some choice words about a Miss Paris Hilton. Basically, it seems like a large group--reportedly 87 in all, reportedly from a Christian school--took offense to the language (or something?) and walked out en masse.
Don't miss the water-bit.
I'm actually not sure if Daisey is justified in crying "censorship" over this. But the moment--and his reaction--sure makes for good theatre.

Daisey's own account is available on his blog.
As I said, more to follow...

Quote of the Day

"Here undergraduate director David Gerson, who brought the play over after seeing it at London's Soho Theatre, demonstrates that universities can get a show on its feet, never mind the niceties. Without a board, or a subscriber base, or the ugly realities of financing, students can get the exchange started — before a slower moving pro could get his programs to the printers. Brecht's shows went up in American schools long before Broadway; the establishment was still laughing at Gertrude Stein when her work appeared in an Oxford newspaper."

- Helen Shaw in today's Sun on how an interesting UK theatre piece getting its New York premiere at Columbia University.

To cities outside of New York, it won't be news that campuses can be the main hotbed of groundbreaking or just exciting new theatre. So we Gothamites should not neglect the student-subset either.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

The New Scalping--ahem, "Broker"--Laws

Expert theatre reporter Robert Simonson has an excellent comprehensive overview for Playbill of the imminent changes to the New York State ticket scalping laws--which will effectively lift caps on "resales."

Two especially interesting predictions towards the end:

[Playbill development staffer Mike] Rafael thinks some tickets prices might go down, but does not see admissions to shows plummeting across the board. "I do not think the market is going to work in favor of customers getting a better deal. I think the reality is Jersey Boys and Wicked tickets [which are hot sellers at the moment] will cost a lot more and tickets to some other shows will cost a lot less."
And then this intriguing consequence:
The altered market may also lead to that unthinkable notion: producers and scalpers working hand in hand.

A marriage made in heaven?

Saturday, April 21, 2007

REVIEW: The Dark at the Top of the Stairs

photo: CAROL ROSEGG

The Dark at the Top of the Stairs
by William Inge
directed by Jack Cummings III
presented by Transport Group
at The Connelly Theatre



I'm very glad I had a chance to check out the much-praised revival of Inge's The Dark at the Top of the Stairs before it closes Saturday (tonight!). This is exactly the kind of rigorously reimagined yet respectful staging of an old repertory classic that is common in Europe, but is all too rare on the New York stage. That the Off-Off B'way Transport Group manages to mount this ambitious project so lovingly with a minimum of resources (as opposed to a generous budget of an official state theatre, or even a decently-subsidized one) is all the more impressive.

We rely on these intrepid companies like the Transport, and the Mint, and the Keen (and, lately, the Pearl) to remind us what our national repertory is. That is, what it could be, beyond star-driven $100-a-pop spectacles of overblown nostalgia affairs on Broadway. (Which are invariably woefully misguided and miscast, or just pathetically lame and phoned-in.) Rather than treating the work of past American dramatists as "chestnuts" from a "simpler time," the best of these revivals remind us that these too were adventurous and brutally honest playwrights every bit as much as today's crop. Sure, in some plays you have to get past the dramaturgical conventions of an era (like forced happy endings or schematically plotted three-act structures). Just like future audiences--if there are any--will have to get past our conventions and trends. (The wisecracking gay friend? the extended monologue? zigzag chronologies?) But when well-acted and intelligently directed (by which I simply mean taking the play seriously, not reverentially, and treating the playwright as a contemporary not as an icon) those "dated" qualities are much easier to forget about than you might think.

Now I admit many of the productions at the above mentioned companies don't always get the best actors, or the sets they try to cram into their tiny spaces don't help take the play seriously. Sometimes the direction errs too much on the side of respectful (and just saying the words) without being bold enough to reimagine and bring out themes and conflicts beneath the surface. That's why Jack Cummings' staging of "Stairs" is especially admirable and revelatory. Though Inge may today be thought of as Mr. "Chestnut" himself (Picnic, Bus Stop) this is not a naturalistic production. It carefully employs naturalistic acting but in stylized relief against a spare, cold, and lonely landscape of the play's small-town 1920s world. By allowing the characters to frequently play to the audience, for instance, Cummings' exposes their deepest vulnerabilities, letting us see through the veneers they present to their scene partners.

Sandra Goldmark's practically empty yet elegant set is perfectly complementary. I kept thinking throughout how, say, the Roundabout would ruin this play with one of those sets "you want to live in." Lots of antique knick-knacks, evoking some paradise ideal of middle America. Instead, here you are greeted with white screens bordered with unfinished wood. The screens are used well, allowing a distancing and defamiliarizing of certain scenes which take place behind them. For a play so much about quiet inner suffering, about deceit and hiding, this is very appropriately a lonely place to live.

Then there's the play. While it was first performed in 1957, Inge wrote it about ten years earlier. So, far from an "Eisenhower-era" salute to can-do happiness, it's riddled with that disaffection and disillusionment that marks so many later statements of brooding 1940s postwar art. (Film noir, for example.) Largely considered an autobiographical play, "Stairs" is the story of a "typical" American middle class family...falling apart. The father loses his job, hits his wife, and leaves. The daughter, just coming of age, has massive anxiety about sexual awakening, and we watch her very first date go tragically wrong. Faced with the prospect of being a single mom and abandoned wife (in an era and place where divorce is still not talked about), Mrs. Flood begs her sister and brother and law to take her in, but they resist, as if fearful that the taint of one marriage's failure will prove contagious for their own. (Jay Potter's performance, by the way, of the brother-in-law is a masterpiece of pre-modern manic depression. Only a stylized approach could bring it out, yet it is utterly truthful and recognizable.) Her sister does eventually bond with her, long enough to reveal how her husband hasn't "touched" her for three years and she's never experienced an orgasm. (The laugh the formidable Michele Pawk gets as the character obviously symbolically rips off her corset to, finally, breathe, is well earned.)

Making the play even more unusual all this is effectively told through the perspective of the young boy Sonny. Or at least, Cummings' staging manages to suggest Sonny's point of view throughout. With considerable stage time and complex scenes the actor Jack Tartaglia (obviously no teenager passing, but a real 8-10 year old) is quite impressive and succeeds in holding the stage. The tableaux Cummings creates for him help. Such as the quite frightening face off between little Sonny, in a mini-suit, staring down his tall, tall father when he finally returns in shame. It's the American drama's iconic "father-son" conflict from O'Neill to Shepard in a flash.

Such deliberate, even if at times a bit stilted and awkward, tableaux are frequent, yet totally organic and enhancing of something in the text. When the daughter's date arrives (a charming Jewish cadet!) bedecked in his heroic uniform, he launches into a long monologue that soon takes him from pleasantries and boasting into his greatest doubts and anxieties. It's an extraordinary dramatic gamble on Inge's part, to have this character "open up" so fast. But Cummings avoids any stretching of credibility by embracing how...well, weird the moment is. He has the whole family fan out in a carefully composed portrait, the lighting (freely and expressively designed by R. Lee Kennedy) softens and dims to highlight the speaker's own contrast of dark sentiments and light delivery. The formal intimacy of the moment communicates that everyone is falling in love with the dashing young man. But you also just know something bad is going to happen. And it eventually does, of course.

I sense from some audience reaction and some reviews, that many have found the direction just too odd for their tastes. But I maintain it's thoroughly in tune with the play. It's just a very personal vision of it. One that truly raises the text and enhances it with the sensibility of someone from our own time showing us what's still vital and compelling in this old play.

Even though some of my fellow bloggers might say (in this case amusingly) good riddance to the old, and focus more on the new American classics-to-be, I do feel strongly that the strengthening (and broadening and revisiting) of a national repertory is in the interest of all of us. We have a theatrical tradition in this country. Or, to be more accurate, several of them. We need to take care of those traditions to preserve them, learn from them, and celebrate the role of theatre in our culture. All that will help new playwrights too, one way or another.

Transport Group's work in this particular, largely forgotten, old play is exemplary in pointing the way in how to make the best works of our heritage not just (to use a tired term) "relevant", but something even more important--personal.

Friday, April 20, 2007

McNulty & Cote on Pultizer

Charles McNulty weighs in, in the Sunday LA Times (online now), on the Pulitzer puzzlement. Not to dis Rabbit Hole, but to remind readers how badly the less commercial plays need the attention. Right on the money.

A panel of informed theater critics and professionals found excellence where there was little fanfare....We were being urged to pay attention to work that has more difficulty than ever of getting noticed. "Rabbit Hole" is worthy of the Pulitzer. And one can be grateful that the board didn't skip the drama award, as it did last year (not for the first time). But the unsung badly need a lift right now.

Patronage of adventurous programming is the only answer to skittish, market-centered leadership. Let's be sure to attend when and if the unheralded finalists make it here.
For those keeping score, by the way...
Articles so far on the Pulitzer Drama award in LA Times? 2. NY Times? Zero.

(Is Brantley's involvement--not to mention possibly even Tom Friedman's--enforcing "conflict of interest" rules?)

And another MSM critic, Time Out NY's David Cote goes blog-ballistic. Some may remember his lonely dissent on "Rabbit Hole" back when it first opened last year. At the time he was not necessarily just faulting the play, but using it as an example of supra-criticism to point the finger at the kind of regime of safeness that has taken over the larger nonprofit theatres (in this case, Manhattan Theatre Club). Not that David didn't believe these things before, but it was almost, dare I say, a great "Road to Damascus" moment for a critic, that I feel has defined his mission ever since. It was gutsy of him to put it in print back then, and presaged all the disturbing things about the Pulitzer board's decision now.

Personally, I see nothing cynical in MTC's programming of a play like "Rabbit Hole"--as well as similar "old fashioned" backward-looking Pulitzer-winning plays "Doubt" and "Proof" before it. I only think they are just perfectly in sync with the middlebrow arts tastes of the Journalistic Establishment. (The Ornette Coleman award aside.)

Which is why both subscription-based theatre and respectable print journalism are dying.

The Plays That Would Be Pulitzers

Everything you ever wanted to know about the passed-over nominees for the Drama Pulitzer this year (the playwrights and their plays) is covered in a nice Playbill feature. I have seen none of the three plays. But for what it's worth, I must say from the descriptions I'm much more interested in seeing any of them than I am in seeing Rabbit Hole.

Interesting tidbit, btw: "One striking similarity among the three finalists is that they're all musicians and performers as well as writers." Yes, theatre ain't just literature on legs no more. But that "does not compute" with the Pulitzers.

Everyone's a (Times) Critic!

Well, you simply must read Michael Riedel's extended excerpts today from the Scott Rudin-NYT flap. I've been hearing all week about the Times being mad that the mega-producer's "Year of Magical Theatre"--after getting less than a money review from Mr. Brantley--decided to lift some pull quotes from some other "critics" at the paper. Namely, readers who posted comments on NYTimes.com.

Sounds pretty shifty, eh? David Merrick must be smiling somewhere, I say.

For as deceptive as this seems at first, it brings up all kinds of hypocritical idiosyncrasies of how the Times regards the Web.

For instance, as Rudin points out in his defense, the Times theatre page has for a while solicited not just reader comments but "Reader Reviews". How is the general "reader" to interpret that word here, "reviews" as different from the paid critics' reviews? Open to question?

Consider the following exchange. Times's ethics & standards point man Craig Whitney complains:

We think that when you attribute a quote to "The New York Times Online" . . . readers are entitled to trust that the appraisal came from someone actually employed by the New York Times - not from a letter from a reader. The New York Times Online did not describe your play as "An evening of magical theater."

A reader, not vouched for in any way by the New York Times, said that.

Rudin replies:
You refer to these online reviews as "letters from a reader." They are not letters from any reader. They are reviews. You - the paper - label them reviews.
Now Scott Rudin may be a wackjob tyrannical asshole (as is often alleged of him) but he is pretty unimpeachable about this. The word "review" seems to be reinforced about 150 times on the pretty specific nytimes.com guidelines for said feature....Also, as for reader-reviewers "not vouched for in any way," well there is this:
Why do I have to register for Readers’ Reviews?
We want you to enjoy writing reviews, and reading reviews written by your counterparts in our outstanding audience. We ask you to complete the simple Readers’ Reviews registration to ensure that you are a “real” person (have a valid e-mail account) and that you accept our review terms and conditions. The registration process serves to facilitate the development of our online community, and ensure that members take responsibility for their writings.
No, not quite a degree from RADA. But clearly there's some kind of "vouching" process going on.

Rudin's other beef is that nytimes.com enabled (nay, encouraged) readers to post reviews of "Magical Thinking" before the official press opening--i.e. during previews. Now web gossip on pre-op shows has been common for over a decade on silly amateurish blogs. But I agree that is notable to point out that such scuttlebutt now can and does appear on the paper's official website.

All in all, I think Rudin has a case that to the web-surfing public at large, the distinction between a paid "official" critic and a posted reader comment may just be a distinction without a difference, functionally at least. (It all shows up on Google after all...) So his case is he is simply capitalizing on what the Times enables.

I also have to hand it to Rudin for turning in what may be a brilliant piece of subversive "theatre" himself. I mean, think back to that recent "arbiter of culture" remark hurled by Times Managing Editor Jill Abramson in response to David Hare's protestations to the contrary. Isn't pulling a quote from John Q. Times-Reader the ultimate travesty of the Grey Lady's Imprimatur? (Like Merrick's legendary search through the phone book to find citizens with the same names as leading critics.)

Now consider this, too: think back to earlier this week and the Times' official inhouse annual report, where the reading public's supposedly slipping standards for mistaking blog rantings for quality journalism was blamed for the paper of record's slipping revenues. Who's ranting now, eh?

(This is also an opportune moment to ask: have you ever seen a more crude form of "civil discourse" than the nytimes.com online reader forums? Typical of the cynicism of big media outlets who just want to increase their hit counts for ad campaigns, they couldn't care less what's said on their digital property. At least crazy bloggers generally read most of their comments, sometimes respond, and step in to police the more outlandish racism and crayon-worthy tirades.)

This raises some interesting web-criticism questions. Should media continue to delineate hierarchies of employed critics and then everyone else? Or is nothing going to stop cyberspace from continuing to level the playing field--so that Ben Brantley eventually has little more cultural capital than a guy with no more qualification than a browser and a working email address (which is all that's required to "register" as a "reader reviewer"). Let alone perhaps some learned and experienced albeit unemployed bloggers?... Or, to look at another angle: can big media outlets maintain those hierarchies and still go through the motions of "empowering" readers to provide "content"--which of course is the modus operandi of all web-commerce?

By the way, here's what seems a late breaking development. I would happily link you the page where you can post "reader reviews." But, hark, what's this?

Notice to Forums Participants:

The majority of forums are no longer active, with the exception of the following discussions:
• All Crosswords Forums
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• Books Reading Groups
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We invite you to express your views on our blogs, answer our daily question and submit questions for Times editors in our 'Talk to the Newsroom' feature.

Soon we will be introducing more ways for you to express your views on NYTimes.com. We value the participation of our readers and hope that you will explore these new features when they are introduced.

Thank you for your continued participation on NYTimes.com.

"New Features!" Such as, perhaps, signing off all reader comments with: "I am not a critic and do not authorize Scott Rudin to quote me."

May you live in interesting times, Mr. Times...

PS. The Daily News' gossip man Ben Widdicombe first broke the controversy here on Monday, with more on the quote itself. (Hat tip: Mark)

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Times v Web

"The proliferation of nontraditional media, largely available at no cost, challenges the traditional media model, in which quality journalism has primarily been supported by print advertising revenues. If consumers fail to differentiate our content from other content providers, on the Internet or otherwise, we may experience a decline in revenues."

- The New York Times' annual shareholder report. For dissection see Gawker.

Something to bear in mind, perhaps, when reading anything they write about blogs?

(Hat tip: Moxie.)

More (objective?) glossing of the report also in Crain's (subscription).

Some Stats

The latest B'way box office stats (specifically, capacity figures) for some shows I've been tracking. Namely, some of the more "quality" titles: e.g. serious musicals, straight plays. Figures reflect week of April 9-15, compared to week before.

Company: 47% (down 14% from previous week)
Grey Gardens: 68% (up 6%)
Journey's End: 44% (up 9%)
Prelude to a Kiss: 68% (no change)
Spring Awakening: 78% (down 10%)
Talk Radio: 47% (down 5%)

By the way, Legally Blonde is already at 97%. In previews.

(Note: all percentages rounded off to whole numbers)

What Makes a Season? (Regional Theatre Edition)

Backstage has a good read today: a survey of the coming season at 7 of the biggie LORT theatre companies across the country: Arena, Goodman, Guthrie, Wilma, Alley, ACT, Oregon Shakes. Including soundbytes from their Artistic Directors. (And advice from their casting directors. This is "Backstage," remember.)

Is it just me, or do you also come away from this tour feeling the national repertory seems somewhat...limited?

Also some prime A.D.-BS.

Molly Smith on why she has to program a musical every season: "because that's the seminal American art form." Well, it's a seminal art form. But isn't it also because your Washington, DC old coot subscribers demand it?

Alley's Gregory Boyd explains how a brand new play by an unknown writer ends up in the smaller second space: "because it's a play that has a kind of dense language to it, so you want the audience to be closer." Not because yould never fill your 824-seat mainstage with it? (Or lose some of those mainstage subscribers?)

In other news... James Houghton is now "artistic advisor" at the Guthrie, too??? Between still running Signature and about to take over Juilliard, doesn't the man have enough jobs? (And do I sense some Guthrie-grooming in the works...?)

CORRECTION: As a commenter here has pointed out, Houghton already is running Juilliard. And has been with Guthrie for a long time. Just can't keep up with that man!

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

REVIEW: Rearviewmirror (Time Out)

photo: Colin D. Young

My review of Rearviewmirror at 59E59 Theatres. In Time Out New York.

Re-reading this, it comes across that I just don't like monologue-plays. Well I don't. And for good reason, I think. Sure, being in the presence of a great actor telling a great story can be good theatre. But that just didn't happen in this case. And for me, good theatre has to be something other than words being said on stage. Call me biased that way. But there you have it.

Rearviewmirror, for the record, is not a one-person show, but three intertwining, simulatneous monologues with actors mostly face out. But for me the essential problem of the monologue play persists. As all our writing teachers always admonished us: show, don't tell. For me, great drama shows. (Or demonstrates. Enacts.) Telling is the easy part.

Brian Friel--who I reference in the review (and who I know has not only written monologue plays)--can get away with it due to the sheer beauty of his language. And he's been helped by some great actors over the years. But have you ever sat through an amateur production of Molly Sweeney?

There's lots that can be said about why the monologue play as a form is exploding now. Is it the economics? General resurgence of "spoken word" culture? A topic for another time.

Meanwhile, I only state this bias so you may keep it in mind while reading the review, and hopefully I've communicated enough about the play so you can decide if there are other things about that interest you.

"Runaway Jury"

"To me, it seems like a case of the board trying to correct what they felt was a renegade or runaway jury by choosing a play that had a Broadway production."

-Pulitzer-nominated playwright/performer Eisa Davis.

Good article on this from Mike Boehm in the LA Times today. No one else has broken any news yet. Still nothing from NYT. I hope Riedel will come through with some scoop for his Friday column.

No real news from Boehm either. Other than he tries to get Ben Brantley on the record but he "said through a representative of his paper that he couldn't comment on deliberations." (Further feeding Grey Lady's silence so far?) But one interesting point is how unusual this really, really is for the Pulitzers:

[T]he awarding of a Pulitzer to a play that was not one of the finalists appears to be unprecedented, Gissler said, at least since finalists were disclosed starting in 1983. In 1992, Robert Schenkkan's "The Kentucky Cycle" was chosen over four finalists, but Gissler said that was a case in which the jury nominated all five plays. Nowadays, he added, jurors are under strict orders to name only three.
What accounts for such a sharp break with "precedent"?

One factor seems to be the embarrassment last year over awarding no prize at all. (Something that wasn't unprecedented, but seemed especially churlish at a time when we all want to encourage new writing.) One former Pulitzer winner--a writer of pretty safe plays and hardly a rebel--offers some impressively critical analysis:
Donald Margulies, who won the Pulitzer in 2000 for "Dinner With Friends" but was a bridesmaid both in 1992 (to Schenkkan) and when no drama prize was awarded in 1997, speculated Tuesday that the Pulitzer board didn't want to give the prize to an unknown but, "for fear of losing credibility," could not brook two years in a row with no prize for drama. "They chose a play that had been talked about as an award-worthy play by a well-known writer," Margulies said. The real problem, he added, is the refusal to award prizes some years. "I've never heard, 'Gee, there was no editorial cartooning deserving of a Pulitzer this year.' There is something patronizing about the attitude toward the drama prize, that it is something that can be withheld."
Indeed, how many other Pulitzer categories have ever been given "no award." A quick perusal of the past lists on the official site reveals that while it was not uncommon for some awards to be "ungiven" in the early years, last years Drama-snub was the only such instance in the last ten years. The only one, that is except for 1997, when no award was given in .... yes, Drama. So some weird exceptionalism going on there lately indeed.

Margulies is also onto something in pointing to the Pulitzer folk's anxiety over "credibility," and how that would supposedly be shattered by awarding an "unknown." (Remember, even the thoroughly accessible "Anna in the Tropics" raised some eyebrows because it had not yet--egads--played in New York.) It's a shame that in a pluralistic age when the old-establishment cred of such an august and outdated body as the Pulitzers matters less and less, that they'd be so squeamish about actually using what little power they have to lift up new writers and expose otherwise ignored work to the light of day. Rather than give yet another $10,000 to the bookwriter for High Fidelity and Shrek The Musical.

It's hard for me to resist pointing out also that in at least in the case of one nominee might there have been some political squeamishness? Eisa Davis happens to be the niece of Marxist black-power activist Angela Davis. (Her previous show "Angela's Mix Tape" was about her.) Hey, the 60s were a long time ago, I know. And maybe the P-Board just didn't like her play. But if they read her bio, that probably didn't help either.

The article also foregrounds what I pointed to yesterday about the composition of the overseeing 17-member Pulitzer Board--namely that there are no artists or arts critics on it. The official defense? "They feel they have the basic sophistication and understanding to discharge their role...They're an intelligent cross section of America." Cross section of America? Look at the list again and have a good laugh.

Look--we don't have to kid ourselves. There's nothing highbrow about the Pulitzers anymore. Yes, it's nice for a playwright to get $10,000 and a virtual "title" to their name in perpetuity ("Pulitzer Prize Winning Playwright ______" is up there with "Academy Award Nominee" in movie trailers.) But the last two years have illuminated just how out of touch the most elite circles of news media (which the Pulitzers both enshrine and embody) is with the current art of American theatre.

Maybe the day isn't far off that they drop the category entirely. And somehow I'm not sure that would be a bad thing anymore.