The Playgoer: January 2008

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Thursday, January 31, 2008

REVIEW: Jerry Springer The Opera (at Chicago's Bailiwick, 2007)

Having missed the 2-night only concert version of Jerry Springer: The Opera at Carnegie Hall (lauded by Brantley today), I might as well finally share some notes and reflections on the show as I saw it at Chicago's Bailiwick Rep last summer--which was actually the US premiere, if you can believe it. Perhaps because it's essentially a non-Equity company, the creators felt comfortable giving them the rights while reserving "professional" rights for NYC.

In any case, count me a fan of this show. And here's why:

It took a nonequity company way “off-Loop” on the north side of Chicago to give American audiences a chance to see “Jerry Springer: The Opera.” A hit London musical on an (obviously) American subject, written by an American/British team, it is mysteriously not coming soon to a theatre near New York. After persistent protests in the UK by Christian groups to both the stage production and tv broadcasts (apparently the most US-style coordinated religious-right boycott action yet seen there) it’s hard not to wonder if the cloud of such controversy is keeping American producers and theatre companies away from the piece.

Well we’ve been robbed. “Springer” is certainly the most entertaining and even the cleverest and most insightful piece of popular theatre I’ve seen all year. As well as the most accessible piece of elitist theatre. Either way, there is nothing “guilty” about its pleasures.

Let’s start with the “opera” part. (And in Chicago--where the real Springer tapes his tv show-- you better! Just saying you’re seeing “Springer” here can get you a variety of responses.) Without getting into meaningless debates over “is it an opera or is it a musical”, the important thing is it’s operatic in its mode. Or, I should say, classical, even Baroque. Far from well-worn mock-opera territory of Verdi or Wagner (no “Kill da wabbit” stuff here), he aims straight at the core of the canon of sacred vocal scores—Handel and Bach. Which means, don’t try Richard Thomas’ score at home, it’s not for beginners. All the more reason the Bailiwick Theatre’s production is so impressive, enlisting a cast of over twenty young trained voices.

To give you a further idea, the show might as well be called something like “The Passion of the Jerry” since—as a mock-oratorio—its biggest joke is not trailer-trash confrontations but out and out theology. The running chorus of “Jerry Eleison”—as in Krie Eleison, of course—being the tip-off. (And yes, that translates as “Jerry Have Mercy.” Love it.) Putting Dante in reverse, Jerry starts out in heaven (i.e. TV star of his own show) and descends into hell. Arriving below, he is summoned to host the ultimate standoff: Jesus vs. Satan. (In this and many ways, the show is a super-literate South Park episode.) After a heavy dose of Milton-esque tropes, the episode degerates (or, in fact, culminates) in a 10-minute volley of “Fuck you’s” all sung as some “dueling appoggiaturas” contest between the two mighty forces. (Imagine “Fuuu-ahhhh-uhhh-ahhh-k…Yew-ewewewewew” as set by Moteverdi.)

Again, the thrill of “Springer” (and for some its turn-ff) is the constant juxtaposition of such musical and theological vocabulary against songs like, “Mommy give me smack on the asshole!” (Sung about a Springer guest’s spank-fetish.) Or watching a grown man in a diaper relish in his fecophiliac sexual fantasies. But of course, this is the material of the real “Jerry Springer” itself. My favorite such number is “I Just Want to Fucking Dance” sung by a zaftig housewife, whose husband derides her for being too fat to strip. When she bursts into this triumphant anthem (a delicious parody and celebration of the classic musical’s “I Want” song) it does so many wonderful things. It satirizes musicals as well as trash tv, as well as strip clubs—all prominent elements in our current popular entertainment. And it also frankly and quite unironically elevates the dream of the common man/woman for self-expression. Replete with Gilbert & Sullivan choral cadences (“SHE just wants to fucking dance….”) it’s a rousing and, when sung well, even moving(!) song.

So far from some elitist sneer at pop culture, “Springer the Opera” is ultimately a truly democratic piece. If anything it’s the exploitation of common people (by Jerry, by his handlers) that is put on trial. For the guests, they only long for their “Jerry Springer Moment”—a phrase introduced in a lovely lilting melody almost out of a Jerome Kern Princess-Musical. (“This is/ my Jerry Springer moment/….) Such brilliant pastiche, of course, is another delight of the show for the musically inclined.

I must say I don’t really consider this a “musical” since it does not work within any established form of the American Musical. It’s too fantastical and jaded for Rodgers and Hammerstein, too thematically cohesive for a “revue.” Musically it’s more classically grounded than Broadway, though there are some soul, country, and R&B numbers.

If I had to classify it I’d call it an extended operatic--or operetta--parody.

Now what could be controversial about a such a fun heathenish show? Interesting that Brantley references protesters even outside this Carnegie Hall concert version. The show started getting picketed in the UK when Christian groups heard about the irreverent Jesus parts and smelled a political football (if you can excuse the unsavory mixed metaphor). So you can bet word has crossed the Atlantic to the “faithful” here, who will be out in force against any future incarnation. Although, I’m happy to report that at the performance in Chicago I saw at least…nothing. And Chicago is a kinda Catholic town, if you haven’t heard. Maybe it was ignored for being, in their context, Off Broadway. (No cameras, no protests.)

Yes, a show that has a chorus greet the arrival of the Virgin Mary on the Jerry Springer show with the cry “Raped By An Angel!” (as in the “titles” that typically appear below victim-guests’ names) is going to piss some people off. But I doubt there is a popular theatre piece more deeply versed in the scriptures and belief than “Jerry Springer The Opera.” As always with these phony-controversies, the artwork in question is far more articulate and knowledgeable about religion than the so-called pious protesters.

Correction: Stupid Me, I forgot when writing so much about how "operatic" this is, that it's actually called "Jerry Springer The Opera!" not "The Musical." Apologies. So this post has now been emended.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Who Will be the Next ART AD?

In case you're wondering who's going to succeed Robert Woodruff at American Repertory Theatre, Tribune's Chris Jones whispers that it's down to CSC's Brian Kulick or Steppenwolf's Anna Shapiro, the latter hot off of directing August: Osage County.


I say, let them debate!

Todd Haimes in the Hot Seat

I was watching an old Theatre Talk episode on my DVR last night and was shocked to see an actually testy and non-chummy god honest debate! No nostalgic anecdotes, no book plugs this time. Just Michael Riedel and Susan Haskins grilling Todd Haimes on his stewardship of the Roundabout.

I'm telling you, there is squirming, there are evil looks, and there is substance!

I've noticed Haimes going on something of a "charm offensive" since the Fall. He appeared also on NY1's On Stage. Such appearances in themselves wouldn't be so unusual--except that he's Todd Haimes. He's not a colorful personality, not an artist, not a director. So if Roundabout's booking him on the theatre chat shows, there's some serious agenda at work, as if the negative chatter about the company in the theatre community has just driven them crazy--or even taken a bite out of their sales. Perhaps "humanizing" Todd Haimes--evil wizard of the American Airlines Theatre--is the point. Or maybe he just personally wants to answer his critics finally in a very public way.

I have to say, while hardly overtly "charming" Haimes does strike me as a straight shooter, and comes off rather sympathetically in the interview, I think. On some points, I feel he's absolutely right--such as Riedel's questioning the desire for more than one space. (Aren't "second spaces" the only possibility for new work? It's good enough for the Royal National.) And I support him on the much derided Threepenny Opera--which if nothing else was at least "risk taking."

I've actually always held little ire for Haimes. He's a businessman running a business company. Yes, he's a little knee-jerk reliant on the latest British directors. But some of them are good directors. (Sometimes just not matched with the right show.) Basically he gives his subscribers what they want.

On the other hand, because he's ultimately just a shrewd producer with decent middlebrow taste, he falters on the more difficult artistic choices--like whether a certain director is right for a certain show. Or whether a certain TV star is really right for that particular role. So he isn't who I would like to see head up our own de facto National Theatre. If we had one.

Then again, as he himself points out in the interview, Roundabout receives "less than one percent" of its budget from government funding(!). So we can't quite accuse him of violating public trust.

Anyway, watch it. Trust me, you won't be bored.

REVIEW: "Last Jew in Europe"

My take in Time Out on "Last Jew in Europe" at the Triad cabaret space on the Upper West Side.

Forever Plaid this ain't.

That's all I'll say here.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

From Urine to Yeast

At last, Kotis and Hollman follow up with a veritable "Urinetown" sequel. Or is that prequel?

"The year is 3,000,458,000 B.C., and the Earth's first life forms, salt-eating yeasts (yes, yeasts), float in the brine of the primordial soup, under the rule of a dim-witted tyrant. As resources deplete and fear prevails, the faith of one single-celled dreamer changes their society forever, and out of chaos and destruction a new world emerges. Combining '80s rock with a touch of disco, Yeast Nation can't help but be one of most non-political and slightly amusing evenings of musical theatre in America. Here come the Yeasts!"
Classic Kotis.

Not on Broadway yet. Or even Off. But unveiling at Chicago's American Theater Company next season. (After preeming at Alaska's Perseverance last Fall.)

Monday, January 28, 2008

The New 125th St

Interesting report from Kate Taylor in the Sun on the ambitious plans for heavy arts funding and institution building in the gentrification--sorry, "revitalization"--of Harlem, and 125th street in particular. New homes and rehearsal spaces for Bill T. Jones, Classical Theatre of Harlem, and others.

So far so good, I say. When they start building luxury high-rises for 7-figure apartments, watch out.

Oh, wait:

The Classical Theater of Harlem, the Jazz Museum, and the Harlem Arts Alliance will all have homes in the Victoria Theater, which is being redeveloped into a combination cultural destination, hotel, and condominium. And the proposed rezoning of 125th Street to allow greater building heights will likely result in more mixed-used developments like the Victoria.

Uh oh. Well, let's hope those artists make the most of it while Harlem remains Harlem.

Too Black for Broadway?

"Passing Strange" has no celebrities, nor is writer-composer-star Stew convinced it will fly with the same demo flocking to "Color Purple." " 'Passing Strange' is like the black, gay, rock 'n' roll cousin of that kind of play," he says.

Yes, despite all this, Passing Strange--a hit downtown at the Public last year--is coming to Broadway. I'm personally glad, since I missed it before. So as long as Broadway doesn't make it unaffordable, I look forward to seeing it.

But notice how the contrast between Stew's words and those of his producer, Liz McCann: "I want people to see a new American musical, because 'Passing Strange' is quintessentially an American story."

Not that all good stories don't speak to all people. But is it really too much to ask of theatre audiences to see a play about someone different from them?

All this, by the way, is by way of Mark Blankenship's interesting piece in Variety today pointing out the unusual non-white presence on Broadway, whether in projects coming out of non-white communities (Passing Strange, In the Heights) or in prominent "color-blind casting" choices, like the all-black Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or S. Epatha Merkerson's turn in Come Back Little Sheba. (A triumphant one, I hear.)

Personally, I think this has less to do with any "enlightened" trend among producers and audiences than with a long overdue acknowledgement that some of our best and most popular stage performers are African American and need some good roles to play! If they can be found in drama written by African Americans all the better. But meanwhile, why not Tennesee Williams, William Inge, and (in the case of Morgan Freeman's Country Girl) Clifford Odets. Merkerson and James Earl Jones (playing Big Daddy in Cat) are deservedly beloved figures from film and tv, and it only makes sense mass audiences want to see them. In anything--but if in good plays, all the better.

A sobering thought though on the possibilities for more diverse audiences, though, comes from Heights producer Jeffrey Seller. Faced with the prospect of filling a more or less 1,000-seat house, you can imagine his predicament.
"The Latino community will find 'In the Heights,' " Seller says, "but they will never be more than 25% of our audience. If this show is going to work, it has to reach everyone."

At Broadway prices, attracting even 250 non-white ticket buyers a night--eight times a week--will indeed be a challenge.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Enhanced Performance

No, not spam. Not steroids. Just a question about the integrity of our regional theatres.

And Isaac Butler does a nice job getting to the bottom of it and reminding us why it does indeed pose a problem.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Quote of the Day

"Bloggers have a wider range, from the too stupid to ever see in print, to the too expert and specialized to ever see in print."

-Roger Ebert

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Hot Ink @ NYU

Here in NYC this weekend, the Tisch Drama department at NYU begins its HotInk festival of new play readings. FREE readings, that is. The very best kind.

Including new work by Mac Wellman, Eduardo Machado, Jason Grote and others both local and international.

Reservations suggested.

Shrekking Ball

Undeterred by the, uh, large reception for Little Mermaid, Dreamworks is going full speed ahead with pre-production for Shrek The Musical. A fall tryout in Seattle is set.

The team: Jeanine Tesori and David Lindsay-Abaire. Between the artsy composer of Caroline or Change and the Pulitzer-winner of the weepy Rabbit Hole...does this sounds like a fun musical to you?

I'll give them talent. I just wish they were spending their time on something else.

But who am I kidding.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

REVIEW: The Mandrake

My review of Machiavelli's La Mandragola at The Pearl in this week's Time Out.

And to all you Machiavellians out there--yes I know about the Discourses on Livy and all that crap. So when I imply he's most famous for this and Il Principe, I'm just keeping it concise, okay? Fanculo!

Legally Blonde to become Grease 2?

Michael Riedel reports:

The producers of "Legally Blonde" are so desperate to keep their show alive, they're prostituting Elle Wood to MTV.

The cable network, which broadcast "Legally Blonde" last year, will conduct a search for an unknown actress to play Elle when the accomplished Laura Bell Bundy leaves the show later this year.

[...]

MTV's passing out flyers on college campuses all over town, urging young women to audition. The flyer says: "No theatrical experience necessary."

That's right, this casting-by-reality-show ordeal will be on MTV.

Let's at least hope this one will be better produced, then.

(Also in Riedel today...his ongoing feud with Mel Brooks.)

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Exit Nelson, Enter Vogel

Mark Armstrong raises some provocative questions about the mysterious departure of Richard Nelson as Playwriting chair at Yale Drama, and his replacement with Paula Vogel.

RNT

Anglophiles rejoice! The new Royal National Theatre season is announced! And it does seem yummy.

Among the new plays, how's this for theatre history geek heaven: Michael Frayn's latest is about Max Reinhardt! Directed by Michael Blakemore, of course.

Also: Nick Hytner put in the awkward position of having to echo criticisms of the UK Arts Council theatre cuts, while remaining grateful for RNT's own increases.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Denver Preems 3 New Commissions

Kent Thompson, the relatively new AD of Denver Theatre Center has revved up new play commissions and productions, er, dramatically in his short tenure so far. Giving Louisville's Humana fest a run for their money, he's putting on a New Play "Summit" next month with three, plus ancillary readings.

True, compared to many playwrights, Theresa Rebeck does just fine and is already a staple of at Louisville. And it would be nice to have an alternative to Louisville that doesn't draw upon the same pool of writers.

But, hey, it's a start. And check out the funding Thompson's been getting for this.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Honesty Dept.

You also directed a Ford commercial. Why?

I did it for the money. Why do you think I did it?


-David Mamet, interviewed by New York Mag.

Good for him.

The commercial in question I covered here.

Friday, January 18, 2008

LaBute to US Playwrights: Stop Being "Pussies"

"We are small writers in America these days, writing tiny plays about tiny ideas with two to four characters, so that we get produced and nobody loses any money. American playwrights have been workshopped and "staged-readinged" to death, and we are now a fearful bunch who add sitcom lines to our dramas and tie things up at the end so that folks can walk out of theatres smiling."

-Neil LaBute, writing in the Guardian.

I definitely find myself nodding at these words. The diagnoses is right on--but not necessarily about our playwrights, but our theatres. As always with such complaints as "where are the new great American playwrights," or "where are the political playwrights," we shouldn't assume that just because they're not being produced they're not out there.

The more pertinent question is: why aren't theatres producing them.

I imagine the theatre companies would plead they're just not receiving them. Or that some submissions may be intensely politically charged, but "lack" other aesthetic values. Hmm, perhaps it's time to question some of those well-worn "aesthetics"? (And I do think LaBute is onto that here.)

Anyway, George Hunka proudly represents for US dramatists, on the very same site.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Mike Leigh

My preview of Mike Leigh's Two Thousand Years (now in previews at the New Group) is in this week's Time Out.

I did a lot of research for the piece, most of which, of course, couldn't fit into 750 words. So here's some rambling summing up of some things I found interesting but couldn't fit in.

I must say it was a rush to talk to the man (over the phone, alas), having been a devoted fan of his films since 1988's High Hopes--which it turns out was his first US release. Through the New Group's previous four stagings of his work (starting with 1995's Ecstasy, which I saw) we in New York have been able to discover some of his theatre oeuvre, as well. All the plays the New Group has done before this (Ecstasy, Goose Pimples, Smelling a Rat, and Abigail's Party) all date from his residence at London's Hampstead Theatre from the late 70s to late 80s. But he actually has been creating plays since 1965 and basically kept at it until the international success of his early feature films (especially Naked and Secrets and Lies) took over by the early 90s. Two Thousand Years, then, is his first new work for the theatre since then. It was commissioned by the National Theatre back in 2001. Nicholas Hytner, who had just taken over there, sought Leigh out and coaxed him out of theatrical retirement.

Of course, "commission" is a funny word to use in this case. Especially given the way Leigh works. Hytner knew full well he was never going to see a script in advance. And because of Leigh's film schedule (Vera Drake kind of got in the way) he did not even commit himself until 2005. But even when he did, he insisted on a total news blackout about his development process and even an off-site rehearsal location to work with his actors in total isolation from the National. My understanding is that not even Hytner had a clue what the play was going to be like before seeing a dress rehearsal, or even 1st preview.

Leigh is famously cagey with journalists about his process--which he told me, not without a chuckle, is a "trade secret." And he is as secretive with every project really, whether stage or film. But as good as it may be for publicity--the mystery of Two Thousand Years stirred up
the London press pretty good--it's also honestly a necessity given neither he nor his actors know what the script will end up being about for a very long time.

From my research and talking to him, I gather it's something like this: Leigh does begin with some sense of a theme, historical period, or specific event. (Obviously films like the Gilbert & Sullivan docudrama Topsy-Turvy and the WWII-era Vera Drake didn't just materialize out of nothing.) He casts actors not so much for specific roles, but for their temperamental openness to his methods, their facility with improvisation, and what they might personally bring to the project.

With Two Thousand Years, for instance, he told (finally) the London press he had set out to something about his Jewish background, but wanted to engage modern London Jews with each other arguing about the world. He then deliberately set out to only cast Jewish actors. ("I auditioned or at least considered every Jewish actor in London," he told me.) His bluntness about this struck me as unusual, by the way. Hard to imagine someone saying that here. (Yet he did instruct New Group director Scott Elliott to do the same.) For Leigh, the play had to come from a group effort of Jewish people reflecting upon themselves and their families.

Including his own--Leigh himself did a teenage pilgrimage to a kibbutz with the Habonim movement referenced in the play, and his parents had previously met under such circumstances a generation earlier. Talking of the play, he frequently discusses his own "Zionist Socialist" background, even though he seems to have been brought up--in what was a large Jewish community in Manchester--rather secularly. (Emphasis on the Socialist more than the Zionist, perhaps?) This secular, political experience of Judaism (or Jewishness) is exactly what the play is about, though--and the conflicts it comes into both against pious faith and political realities in contemporary Israel.

But back to his casting process...Leigh also mentioned that a separate "secret agenda" of the project was to reclaim Jewish roles for Jewish actors. At least in England, where he believes there is far too much "blacking up" of gentiles in major Jewish roles. He has even served on a committee of British Equity formed to represent the interests of black, asian, and Jewish actors
in not being passed over for roles matching their race or ethnicity.

Needless to say, such essentialist insistence on "authenticity" might be more controversial in the cultural climate here today. (Even David Henry Hwang questions it in his Yellow Face, which dissects the controversy that arguably, with his help, started the debate: the Miss Saigon affair.) I'll let others comment on that for now. But I was definitely struck by how adamantly Leigh insisted on this ideal for this play. In much the way August Wilson insisted on black directors for his work.

However, if we consider the "devised" element in Leigh's work, and the collaborative , ensemble-based creative effort, then his a different stance than merely "identity politics." After all, if you decided to gather Jewish actors in a room to tell their stories and then staged it as a "documentary" (or as the English say, "verbatim") play, then few would question the practice.

Make no mistake, though, Leigh's plays and films eventually are scripted, and scripted by Leigh himself. He says he does not "write" in a traditional lone-man-at-a-desk way. But rather he selects, shapes, and structures from what emerges in the rehearsal improvisations. There is never any improvisation on stage before an audience or in front of the camera. By that time everything has been "set."

Leigh spent four months "rehearsing" Two Thousand Years this way. Typically, the beginning of this--according to other accounts--consists of extended one-on-one discussions with each actor, exploring themselves and people they know, searching for interesting hooks for a character. The actor then goes out and researches on his or her own extensively before coming back into the room to work with the others. "Research" is a big deal to Leigh, whatever the project, and for Two Thousand Years he designated an assistant, a young Israeli filmmaker,
a resource for all things Israel. (One of the play's characters is Israeli.)

When actors begin improv-ing together, they may know their characters, but there's still no settled plot. Leigh may develop a storyline with some actors but not tell others. In Vera Drake for example, he was careful to keep all information about Vera's illegal abortionist work secret from those playing her family until they first improvised the scene when police come to arrest her: the points was to create the dramatic reaction of her family to the shock in as emotionally authentic a way as possible. (Again what you see on film is not the improv itself, but sort of a reenactment of it, presumably.)

So you can see why he insists on secrecy all around the project and to the press, if he's even keeping secrets on set. In London, this pissed off the press to no end on Two Thousand Years. The National was patient, and settled for advertising the play in their season brochure as merely "A New Play by Mike Leigh." The run sold out in advance anyway. The mere release of a poster--bearing the enigmatic image of a palm tree amidst sand--set off fevered speculation. "It could be about the Iraq war," someone in the Guardian wrote. "It could be about a desert island, or it could even be about coconuts."

When the play was finally unveiled, most were pleased with what they found. Having read the script, I don't want to "review" the play before seeing it at the New Group, but I will say I found it very engaging and very like a Mike Leigh film--except more contained, in its unit set and tight nuclear family. It's also relatively plotless and rather Shavian in its self-conscious staging of debate. But given the debate is about the issues facing Jews today (assimilation vs tradition, belief vs modernity, Israel right-or-wrong vs leftist solidarity with Palestinians) it's one automatically engaging. And since it's all really about how we all live as civilized people in a world where terrorism has ratcheted up the challenges to freedom and tolerance, then I imagine it should be of interest to non-jews, too.

One last thought about Mike Leigh as a theatre artist: I learned he's a major one in Britain, actually. Abigail's Party (I believe never done in the US until the New Group did it here in 2005) is a bona fide modern classic in the UK, constantly revived, imitated, and quoted. (Leigh also filmed it in a 70s TV version, which he now dismisses as a crude video of the stage production.) One senses his heart has been in film all along, though, at least that's what he says about his youthful ambitions. He began doing theatre, he says, as a way to develop this technique which he started applying to filmmaking as early as 1971 with his first feature. Then followed a series of highly regarded television films over the next two decades, which were never released here, but constituted an important oeuvre of largely working class drama on their own. (Some of these early films are now finally becoming available here on DVD.)

But it's interesting that the whole Mike Leigh Process really did originate in the theatre, and back in 1965. And it's, I hope, inspirational for young theatre artists today to consider what it must have been like for him, at 22--dropped out of a more traditional stage acting training at RADA in favor of art school and film school stints--to just gather together a group of actor friends and create together a play over a period of months. Little did they know, actors and director alike, that this was the beginning of a process that would catapult its leader into a career of now over four decades, doing exactly the same thing, except usually on bigger scales. With the spare simplicity of Two Thousand Years, though, he pretty much returns to his roots.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Mike Daisey: "Theatre Failed America"

I'm sorry I had to miss Mike Daisey's one-time-only showing at the Public's Under The Radar of his latest solo think-piece: "How Theatre Failed America." (I'm just glad he doesn't appear to have blamed me!) But luckily Isaac Butler went and wrote about it.

First on Daisey's list... The Outsourcing of Artistic Talent, Particularly Actors. [...] So what Daisey essentially says (And I agree) that the original regional theater model of rep companies has basically devolved into a system in which theaters import all of their artists from other places (mainly New York) and put on shows. And what they don't get about this is that although they think the quality of the show will be "better" and although it's cheaper because they don't have to pay a rep company's salaries etc... No one in the communities they perform for has any real connection to the work they're doing because the casts and crews are these anonymous interchangeable people who rarely come back and with whom you have no connection.
My own experience working for regional theatre bears this out. I was amazed when I first noticde more local audience (and even press!) enthusiasm for the "amateur" community theatre across the street from us. But then I realized how important the "community" in "community theatre" is in that case. And we had none.

Think how much the New York audience benefits from seeing various actors and directors grow and stretch from project to project. We compare them to each other, dream up "fantasy casts" for great revivals. At most regional theatres, the subscribers know each other a lot more than the people on stage. Here it's often the opposite!

Of course, there are economic obstacles to the sustaining of permanent acting pools in various cities. A Chicago actor can eek it out. Probably many in DC and Minneapolis, too. But if there isn't a sit-down rep company, or enough companies & local activity to provide steady employment, then you're looking at part-time actors. This is why anyone serious about pursuing a full-time stage acting career has to set up camp in NY, since that's where the jobs are. And if the jobs bring the actors here, then that's where everyone else, including the regionals, will have to come to see them. So it's where the auditions are, as well, for every imaginable regional production, road company, and cruise gig.

Anyway, it seems like just one of many important issues in Daisey's show, which I look forward to catching in its next appearance. Meanwhile Isaac actually already hosted a dialogue about the regional/acting pool question, so I heartily recommend revisiting that (both here and here) for more perspectives. And here's a West Coast take from my friends at Theatre Bay Area.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Mamet Blogs His Own Play

Say what?

The Web site [for November], which like the timing of the production capitalizes on primary-season excitement, resembles a campaign site, with stars and stripes and clickable icons to “contribute” (purchase tickets) or “meet his staff” (read actors’ biographies). Chris Powers, director for strategic marketing at Situation Marketing, which also created Web sites for current productions like “Spring Awakening” and “The Homecoming,” said the firm was at first not optimistic about enlisting Mr. Mamet, a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, Hollywood writer and director, and novelist.

“We came up with the idea but thought, ‘David Mamet will never write it,’ ” Mr. Powers said.

But Jeffrey Richards, one of the play’s producers, said he barely had to ask.

“I was talking about the Web site to David and I said, ‘Would you be willing — ’ and he finished the sentence for me,” Mr. Richards said. “He said, ‘I know where you’re going: you want me to write a blog as Charles H. P. Smith. Let’s do it.’”

Through the play’s producers, Mr. Mamet declined to comment, either as himself or one of his characters. He will blog for the duration of the play, an unlimited engagement at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.

Of course, Charles Smith is the name of the play's fictional president. And, caveat lector, it's in his voice the author is blogging. Though with some statements, it may be hard to tell the difference. ("It should be recognized that information can be extracted only from those people possessing information; and that no one likes to give up their possessions without a little waterboarding.")

Hey, what do you expect a Hollywood writer to do with his time when there's a strike?

Nevertheless, welcome to the blogosphere, you fucking fuck.

(Or, welcome back. Looks like he's no longer active at Huffington.)

Monday, January 14, 2008

Long Wharf moves Inland

Anyone who has been to Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven can agree on one thing. Unless you're driving, it's a bitch to get to.

So I'm very happy for them that they're on the cusp of getting new digs, more centrally located the heart of the city. (About 4 years from now, that is.) Interestingly, this was not considered an advantage when the theatre was built back in the days of "urban flight," "urban blight" and the rise of the gated community. Funny how things come back around.

"Geography is almost destiny," [A.D. Gordon Edelstein] says, pointing to the theater's longtime location away from New Haven's urban center. For decades, that base attracted upscale, older auds from the state's affluent Gold Coast, who may not have been so inclined to hit the city's then-perceived mean streets.

But with New Haven on the development upswing, Long Wharf could now benefit in its proposed location, adjacent to hip restaurants, upscale retail shops, a renovated train station, several colleges (including Yale) and desirable neighborhoods.

Clearly, with one of the oldest audience bases in the state (55% of subscribers are over age 65; only 16% of single ticketbuyers are under45), the theater had to do something. Its own internal study warns that an oversaturated market will be stretched thin if Long Wharf doesn't present more diverse options.

[...]

"It's a different time from when you could just put on a Shakespeare, Moliere or Arthur Miller and call it a day," Edelstein says. "We ignore that at our own peril."

Indeed.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Toronto Theatre's Political Season

Toronto Star reports on the back-to-back openings of three Iraq and Middle-Eastern themed plays. Including Rachel Corrie,previously cancelled by Canadian Stage, but finally getting its Toronto debut. As is Stuff Happens.

But less known is the world premiere of Canadian playwright Judith Thompson's Palace of the End.

Thompson has picked three people whose lives were destroyed by the war in Iraq and given them a chance to speak their minds. Lynndie England is the U.S. soldier who was convicted of abusing detainees at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison, David Kelly was the British weapons expert who allegedly committed suicide after being involved in a government scandal, and Nehrjas Al Saffarh was a member of the Communist party of Iraq who suffered under Saddam Hussein's regime and died when Americans bombed her home during the initial Gulf War.

It's about time Canadian playwrights got more exposure--and productions!--in the States. Maybe this is a place to start?

Attention Culture Project....

Friday, January 11, 2008

Anne Cattaneo

A tribute to one of the very few full time institutional Dramaturgs in the New York theatre.

And as the mastermind and hostess of the Lincoln Center Directors Lab, she has brought so many, many young theatre artists together. Since 1995.

The UK Arts Council Tiff

From the dissed artists' point of view, it's an issue of cutting loose the small fish to save the biggies.

Where will the new renaissance come from in the theatre if we kick away all the opportunities for actors, writers, directors, designers, stage managers, to practise their craft?

Without the opportunity to start small at the Bush or the Gate, how do you progress to writing for the National? Cut funding to our smaller spaces, and you will eventually starve our larger ones to death.

While we here can only dream of an "Arts Council," this general principle strikes me as pretty applicable. We've seen big donors and granting agencies flock toward the already successful ("challenge grants," etc.). As with the Calvinist "Elect" it seems the surest way to show you deserve more money is to make more money yourself. Their success simply manifests their deservedness.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Site-Specific at (?) The Public

This year's Under the Radar festival at the Public Theatre will include three site-specific works, imported from overseas: the English company Rotozaza's Etiquette (a big hit at the Edinburgh last summer). Also from the UK Stan's Café's Of All the People in the World: U.S.A., and the Small Metal Objects by Aussies Back to Back.

Alexis surveys them all in the Voice:

Many site-specific performances rely on unused or abandoned venues, but [Mark Russell, Under the Radar curator] has bucked that trend, deliberately seeking locations with high visibility and plenty of passerby traffic. The goal: to attract as many people as possible, especially non-theatergoers. "The theater that I'm interested in," says Russell, "is always trying to shake people's perceptions . . . about what is a theater. People who'd not be caught dead at the Public Theater—because it's not a great use of their money, they wouldn't know how to act, whatever—suddenly they're in a place where theater confronts them."
Etiquette, in which two audience members play the "roles" of a couple at a restaurant, will be at my beloved Veselka. If nothing else, an excuse for blintzes & borscht.

UK Theatre Funding Bruhaha

The Arts Council may have pulled a fast one on some English theatre companies, including London's lauded Bush theatre.

A surprise round of proposed grant cuts to regularly funded theaters is causing upset throughout the U.K. legit world.

In its spending proposals for 2008-09, the government had told Arts Council England, the funding body for the arts, to budget for cuts of up to 7%. Yet in the sums announced on Oct. 12, the council actually received an unexpected uplift in funds.

Two months later, however, 195 companies received letters announcing either reductions to or total elimination of their grants.

Read on, in Variety...

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Peter Hall's New Digs

Get a load of this beaut.

No, not the Globe. The Rose. Another pseudo-Elizabethan reconstruction, and it's the new home of Peter Hall, 20 minutes outside of London, in Kingston-on-Thames.

The 900-seat £11 million Rose, modelled on the Elizabethan original where Shakespeare played, has been 23 years in the birthing...

"When the original Rose was excavated 10 or 12 years ago I stood on its stage and felt where the audience had been, and they were all in my eyeline. I went to see the new building in its scaffolding state and it seemed to me to answer so many problems that we have in terms of the actor-audience relationship."

The new Rose seats, as Hall puts it, "almost 1,000 people in extraordinary intimacy" in three horseshoe-shaped tiers of seats around a pit where groundlings can sit on cushions for £5 a pop. The projecting stage emulates the lozenge shape that theatre historians now believe the Rose's original owner, Philip Henslowe, arrived at, rather than the thrust stage traditionally imagined.

This "intimacy" of the Elizabethan stage is such a marvel, isn't it? When I visited the new "Globe" in London I was startled how small it felt. And yet the seating capacity (+ standing "groundlings," of course) is roughly the equivalent to a Broadway house. And yet sitting in, say, Balcony Row Z here you feel you might as well be across the Atlantic!

Those guys sure knew what they were doing, eh?

Hall's venture ain't coming cheap:

what he really needs is benefactors. The Rose receives no core funding and needs £600,000 to get through its first year: Hall's grander plans, for a postgraduate theatre course at the university that would work with and feed into two small resident companies performing in repertory at the theatre - and doing two plays a day from Thursday to Sunday - are on hold.
Sounds like if you've got some dough, I'm sure he'll let you put up your show there!

That is, if the dollar weren't worth shit.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

The Wilson Decalogue

The Kennedy Center prepares for a month of staged readings of all 10 of August Wilson's plays, in "order. Beginning March 4.

Great idea. But man--$65 is a lot for a reading! Not quite in the spirit of Wilson, is it?

Even if Charles Dutton is in it.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Theatre Palace Porn

Photo: Michael Falco

Lovely feature in the Times "Escapes" section last Friday on all the old-time playhouses still operating in nearby Pennsylvania--such as Lancaster's Fulton, above.

Far from being cobwebby vestiges of gilded glory days, the Fulton and other historic theaters in neighboring towns are vital, thriving performance-arts centers. They have undergone multimillion-dollar restorations and now offer full seasons of touring Broadway shows, pop concerts and local theater. State-of-the-art audio, lighting and projection systems have been added, and backstages and fly spaces have been expanded to better accommodate elaborate show sets.
Nice to see folks taking care of these places.

The article comes with a slideshow of beautiful shots from NYT photographer Michael Falco (see above).

And an interesting sidebar, for theatre history geeks like myself on the "barnstorming" days:

[T]rain tracks once ran past the stage door of the Fulton Opera House.

A century ago, the Fulton was known as the “queen of the roadhouses,” and trains hauled traveling shows of enormous size right up to that stage door.

A 1907 production of “Ben-Hur” featured a cast of 300 and had elaborate sets that were loaded in from boxcars behind the theater. The show’s high point, according to news accounts from the time, was a chariot race. For this scene, four horses pulling two full-size chariots were led onto a massive treadmill at centerstage. The horses galloped at full speed, while a painted panorama of stadium spectators was reeled on an “endless belt” in the opposite direction to create the illusion of motion.

Once the breathtaking scene was finished, the set — along with the livestock — went back onto the train, which served as a rolling backstage for the entire show, and the next set was brought in

Kinda gives a whole new meaning to the idea of the "bus & truck show," eh?

Here's a trivia question, btw. And one I don't know the answer to!....What is the oldest operational theatre building in NYC?

If not one of the Broadway houses, I'm tempted to guess the "New" Victory Theatre?

Friday, January 04, 2008

Edward Bond

He is venerated in France and his plays, from 1965's "Saved" onwards, are studied and performed all over the world. Yet in Britain, although he now writes for community and youth groups, he is estranged from the theatrical establishment - which makes it all the more astonishing that, at the age of 73, he is about to enjoy his West End debut with Jonathan Kent's revival of The Sea, starring Eileen Atkins and David Haig, at the Theatre Royal Haymarket.
-Michael Billington, profiling one-time badboy of the British stage, Edward Bond, and what he's been up to lately, after burning his bridges with just about every major English theatre institution.

An Actor Prepares (to Strike!)

Riedel today offers some interesting informed predictions on this year's B'way labor negotiations--this time with Actors Equity.

As if emboldened by Iowa populism, AEA head John Connelly has a radical new idea whose time, I say, has come: profit sharing.

They also may try for a share of the profits of hit shows, arguing that their contribution to the original production is crucial to its success.

Says an Actors Equity source: "A show gets branded in New York with the help of the original cast. It then spawns productions around the world. Why shouldn't the actor community share in that?"

Pie in the sky? Sure. But about time someone said it. It's the talent of the NYC acting pool that ultimately keeps people coming back to Broadway. (Now if they only realized much of the same talent is appearing beyond Broadway, at even lower prices....)

Of course, profit sharing is doomed in the commercial arena. But how about as a model for an upstart non-nonprofit theatre company/collective...?

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Plays on Broadway: How Are They Really Doing?

2007 has already been hailed in many 10-Best lists as The Year of the Play, or The Straight Play is Back, or some such variant.

But let's look over at the Playbill stats and see how they're really doing in terms of Broadway Box Office Biz.

For the week ending December 30, we see...

August: Osage County actually doing very well: 75% capacity in a very large theatre (the Imperial, at 1439 seats--so about a thousand people a night).

The Cyrano revival ends its limited run this week, but finishing strong in the high 80s and low 90s over the holidays. I suppose some of that must be due to Jennifer Garner as well.

The Seafarer has been hovering in the 70s, but at the 780-seat Booth. (So about half as many seats as "August.") Similar stats for Stoppard's "Rock and Roll."

And David Mamet's "November" starring Nathan Lane may only be at 65% now. But it's only just begun previews.

So far so good. Now to the others.

"The Homecoming"--perhaps even more unreservedly praised critically than any of the above--has been barely breaking 50% over the holidays. (Peaking at 56% by New Years.) The good news is you'll be seeing more discount offers going around soon.

"The Farnsworth Invention" may not be a great play. But it's entertaining, accessible, written by that rare playwright who counts as a celebrity (Aaron Sorkin), and is also hovering in the 50s.

And "Is He Dead" which has defied expectations and been heralded as the best "new" American comedy in years, has also dropped down to 50% after Christmas. (Don't say I didn't warn those producers...)

What does it all mean? That the triumphant return of The Drama to Broadway may be grossly exaggerated. Not that people aren't enjoying them and that they aren't doing "well" in some abstract sense. Packing in 500 people a night ain't bad--until you realize it's in a 1000-seat theatre. It's clear to me that 500 mark represents the maxing out point for the "serious" audience on Broadway. That means that's how many you can hope will turn out, on average, given the right combination of strong reviews and highbrow names.

Recall that Journey's End peaked at 50% and ended up at half that.

Now we also learn something from the exceptions here. First, that "August" has really taken off. Something about the specific buzz here has attracted more than the usual dramatic ticket buyer. Perhaps that the onstage characters resemble our tourist audiences! And that the plot (yes, all 3+ hours of it) can reportedly be enjoyed simply as soap opera, even if expertly rendered.

I would also attribute the "August" phenomenon to a hunger for hardcore Americana on our stages once again. But look at its lead competitors.

"Rock and Roll" and "Seafarer," I would argue, are fueled purely by (respectively) Anglophilic snobbery and Hibernian nostalgia. I'm not saying the plays aren't worthy of attention. But without bona fide stars (I'm sorry, Rufus Sewell & Brian Cox don't count yet in America) something else has to explain sales like this. And it works heavily in both plays favor that they carry full Masterpiece Theatre and Roddy Doyle/Clancy Brothers credentials. After all, "Rock and Roll" is set mostly not Czechoslovakia but in an idyllic Cambridge house of a British professor. And "Seafarer" is about a bunch of Irish guys telling stories and...well, drinking!

You'd think that the whiff of prostitution and femme fatales at least would save "The Homecoming." But unfortunately Sir Harold cared enough to nix the original tag line for the "sexy legs" ad you may have seen around town. It originally read: "There are some things fathers and sons should never share." Yeah, like that's the message of the play.

Now it reads: "Harold Pinter's Masterwork of Lust and Deception Returns to Seduce a New Generation." No need to get boring guys! Although they do get "lust" and "seduce" in there.

And that "new generation" part? Pretty hopeful, eh?

Lahr podcast

"The John Lahr recipe for telling whether a play is good or bad is if you can shut your eyes when you're in the theatre and get all the meaning--it's a bad play. You didn't have to be there."

-John Lahr, on a New Yorker podcast, elaborating on his Pinter profile.

Well put.

In related news: New Yorker's other critic, Hilton Als has a blog! But so far he doesn't seem to want to write about theatre on it.

NYTheatre.com's "People of the Year"

Martin Denton & co. have picked 15 people and/or companies to spotlight in their nice "Theatre People of the Year" feature, which always gives some much needed attention to some artists on the fringes.

I'm happy to see Metropolitan Theatre and playwright/blogger Mac Rogers recognized. But the appeal of the eager yet underwhelming Storm Theatre I just don't get...

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

One Problem with Broadway

Many...questions, answered in The Homecoming's startling last scenes, will be old news to those familiar with the work. But today's Broadway audience, largely reared on musicals and nearly two-thirds made up of out-of-towners looking for a good time, doesn't contain a lot of cognoscenti. The more knowledgeable may derive a good deal of fun from listening to the yelps of surprise around them, or to the abruptly suppressed giggles and sniggers of those who find some of the startling events funny and then firmly decide they shouldn't: The tourist audience has grown up largely sheltered from Pinter's unsugared view of family values, as well as from his slash-and-fold modernist way of conveying it.


A compelling aside in Michael Feingold's review of The Homecoming on Broadway.

So, remind me again why it's a good thing this masterpiece is on Broadway? At ticket prices too high for many Pinter lovers to afford yet not high enough to deter the clueless?

Readers here have been right to caution me against painting "tourists" with too broad a brush. After all, there are a lot of genuine theatre lovers out in the rest of the country, so bless them for coming back to check out the offerings. But obviously something is broken here with the current demographics of the Broadway business: selling increasingly to Americans who don't identify themselves as theatre lovers, at ever higher prices, yet clinging to dreams of Tonys and "prestige."