The Playgoer: September 2009

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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

About that Mamet "Anne Frank"...

After initial reports, it's apparently now not happening.

In August Variety had reported that Disney had recently acquired the rights to the film, which would be produced by Andrew Braunsberg (”Being There”) and writer-director Mamet. The Oleanna and Race playwright, it was then reported, had based his film’s script on the famed diary and the original Albert Hackett-Frances Goodrich play.

According to a Sept. 23 article on TheWrap.com, Mamet’s version — “a pro-Israel exploration of anti-Semitism movie set in contemporary times” — has been deemed “too dark” by Disney, and it is unlikely the film will be made. “It’s very intense, and dark and scary,” a Disney executive told TheWrap.com. “It’s not a film version of ‘The Diary of Anne Frank.’ The story evolved into something more intense.”

Intense? Dark? Scary? What does he think this is, a Holocaust story?

Actually, to be fair, Mamet does seem to have left behind the Anne Frank story, per se. That thewrap.com story claims:
the screenplay is not a retelling of the famous Holocaust drama taken from the diaries of Frank, but about a contemporary Jewish girl who goes to Israel and learns about the traumas of suicide bombing.
Curious if he goes ahead and makes the film anyway on his own. Or else it will probably just end up as an episode on his pro-War on Terror series, The Unit.

Meanwhile, his new play about gay actors in ancient Rome starts previews at the Atlantic tonight!

Some of you may recall a great old Phil Hartman SNL sketch positing the idea of a "Gay Communist Gun Club" as the most unlikely of political parties. Well I'm not saying David Mamet is gay, or a communist. But if anyone could write a story with a hero who would join such a group, it would be this politically eclectic oddball.

Bloomberg Courts Artists for ReElection

NYC Dept of Cultural Affairs today unveils some outreach to the struggling artist community:

The new programs will give visual artists a chance to display their work in various city-owned properties, including the Brooklyn Army Terminal and St. George Ferry Terminal; provide free outdoor performance space in the city’s parks; train 50 out-of-work entrepreneurial professionals to apply their skill sets to the nonprofit cultural world; help artists develop business plans and provide them with low-cost studio space; and provide $25,000 grants to each of two neighborhood “arts clusters” to help organizations draw audiences.
Interesting timing for this announcement as Mayor Mike goes for his broken-promise third term in a matter of weeks. But since he seems a shoo-in*, let's hope (nay, let's make sure) he follows through.

*see fascinating etymological comments below!

Prelude 2009

Here in NYC, tonight begins the annual Prelude festival at CUNY's Martin Segal Center, celebrating the current avant-garde scene. Over the next three days you can see performances and presentations (for free, btw) by The Living Theatre, Theater of a Two-Headed Calf, Radiohole, John Jesurun, Chocolate Factory--and my old buddy David Levine, talking about his installation/exhibition Hopeful:

"Hopeful" explores headshots—photographs of actors looking for work rather than publicity portraits of stars—both as genre and as material artifact. First appearing in the 1950s, these peculiar images routinely disregard conventions of portraiture: the intended viewer, who is in a position to hire the actor, is offered no environment, professional emblems, or trace of social context.

Today, New York City agents alone receive an estimated ten thousand headshots weekly, ninety-nine percent of which are routinely thrown out. What is the ecological impact of this rejected material? And how much waste—not only trashed photographs but also image CDs, demo tapes, slides, and manuscripts—does the culture industry need to generate in order to maintain its supposedly meritocratic reputation?
That's right, actors. Your headshot is an artifact!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Steady "Ring"

Another actor-cellphone confrontation caught live on YouTube. (Or in this case TMZ)

Hugh Jackman on Broadway in "A Steady Rain" chides someone in the audience either too clueless or too scared to actually find their ringing phone and shut it off. For over two minutes!

He may break the fourth wall, but apparently not his character, or his Chicago accent!











Yes, that is a Chicago accent both British thespians are using. Did you know this much-anticipated star-fucking showcase is NOT an English play? And that it's basically monologues, and that Wolverine and James Bond almost never play a scene with each other but sit on those stools all night?

No, I don't think most folks know that. But I'm sure they've already bought their tix.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Matthew Modine Saves Himself! (from the critics)

You may have heard of a certain LA premiere called Matthew Modine saves the Alpacas, in which the actor--following in the footsteps of ("Being...") John Malkovich and Paul ("Cold Souls") Giamatti--plays a version of himself in a show business/celebrity spoof.

Well the critics weren't amused, it seems. But Matthew (and Westwood's Geffen Playhouse) soldiers on! In the name of the Alpacas, of course. Welcome to the latest in "contextectomy":


Hey, if you can turn a phrase like "close encounter with alpaca poop" into something positive, hats off!

Second thought, keep the hat on. With all that poop, y'know.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Royal Seat

From the AP:

The Broadway theater seats the president and first lady sat in last spring are being auctioned.

A theater-based charity, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, will auction the seats Sunday in Manhattan.

The starting bid is $500.

President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama saw Joe Turner's Come and Gone, August Wilson's Tony Award-winning play, at the Belasco Theatre in May. They were on a "date night" in the Big Apple.

VIP seats K101 and K102 each have a plaque on the back noting the occasion.

Now that's a fundraiser.

Bidding starts tomorrow!

Friday, September 25, 2009

Advertising the Running Time

A milestone in theatre ads?

The radio ad for the Roundabout's After Miss Julie proudly boasts, in a British accent, no less:

"Don't miss this provocative 90-minute premiere."
You can listen here.

Hmm, so is it provocative because it's only 90 minutes? Or is it 90 minutes because it's just so provocative?

Yosi Sergant update

Even more thorough analysis from Ian David Moss of the famed/"infamous" conference call that lost an NEA staffer his job. (Actually, he was reassigned.)

Plus, at least, Rocco speaks! Turns out the conference call happened the day before he arrived on the job. Still he supports Sergant's disciplining on grounds he acted without authorization. He also vigorously defends, though, the NEA on every count.

While it sucks for Sergant, I can see how Rocco sees a good chance to position himself politically from the outset as someone who will stick to principles yet get distractions out of the way to prevent political firestorms. Kinda like his boss the Prez, no?

(hat tip: Isaac)

Off B'way "Q" Casting

For the record, the "re-transfer" of Avenue Q down to Off Broadway has finally announced casting. Three of the seven actors will be from the most recent Broadway company, thus taking the paycut. The other four will be actors from either earlier in the Broadway run and/or the national tour.

Again I think it's a shame that any of the Broadway actors had to settle for the salary reduction, and note that four of them did not. (Perhaps they had lined up other more lucrative work already.) But the union has spoken.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

NYIT Awards

Congratulations to all the nominees--and, as of Monday night, winners, of the New York Innovative Theatre Awards.

Aaron Riccio live-blogged it. And even the Times covered it! Or at least NYT.com.

Humana: Friend of the Arts or Just Another Insurance Company?

I don't want to tell Actors Theatre of Louisville what their politics should be, but...

As we all know the name Humana is forever associated with the ATL's prestigious new play festival. I don't know how it happened, frankly, but for some reason, theatre folk and critics who never even travel outside of the NY, New England (or maybe Chicago) areas descend upon Louisville, KY to see a handpicked few new plays that immediately garner national attention for their authors. And it's all sponsored by the Humana insurance company.

Well I know it's tough times for retaining corporate sponsorship at all. And I suppose we should be grateful to Humana for all this support over the years.

But then I read this at Huffington Post:

Many elderly Las Vegas residents were alarmed and confused Wednesday after receiving a mailer with an enclosed letter signed by the Chief Medical Officer of Humana Medicare, Philip Painter, claiming that Congress and the President are considering proposals to cut "important benefits and services" of Medicare.

The letter enclosed in the mailer tries to convince Medicare recipients that their benefits could be cut if the current health insurance reform plans are enacted.

[...]

To ensure Humana customers read the packet, it arrives in an envelope claiming to contain "IMPORTANT INFORMATION about your Medicare Advantage plan" and imparts urgency upon the recipients to "OPEN TODAY!" But the mailer contains no information about the recipients' medicare plans. Rather, upon opening Humana's "Guidance when you need it most" envelope, recipients find a recruitment packet asking them to join Humana's Partner Program to "show Congress the importance of Medicare Advantage."

Humana's Partner Program is Humana's community corporate organizing arm. Using scare tactics (convincing Grandma that her Medicare benefits could be cut), an enclosed Humana Partner Program flyer asks Medicare recipients to sign up (and to sign up their friends and family) to:

  • receive policy propaganda Congressional updates
  • view member profiles of other Partner members
  • learn how to use your voice for Humana profits reform
  • receive quarterly disinformation newsletters
  • learn about local tea bagger parties Humana Partner opportunities
Boldface mine. Sarcastic cross-outs by HuffPo correspondent Dawn Teo.

Hey look: maybe the folks at Actors Theatre of Louisville don't support healthcare reform. Or maybe just not enough to endanger the company's flagship program and its benefits to American playwrights. Finding another corporate sponsor in times like these would indeed be a tall order.

But I would hope they might at least consider expressing, publicly or privately, their disapproval of cheap lying scare tactics like these.

And if they don't, maybe individual playwrights and theatre artists can make their beliefs known--beliefs about access to affordable insurance and medical care for their many, many unemployed and under-employed artist/colleagues--by refusing to participate in anything festival with the name "Humana" in it.

Nonprofit Debt Crisis

No theatre companies mentioned in this NYT article today about how so many nonprofit institutions gambled and lost on the market before the crash last fall. And such gambles included taking advantage of unusual loan practices that has now left many in super, super debt.

Much of the nonprofits’ debt is in the form of tax-exempt bonds. The number of charities issuing such bonds more than doubled from 1993 to 2006, according to figures compiled by the Internal Revenue Service, and the amount of debt linked to those bonds rose to $311 billion from $98 billion (adjusted for inflation to 2006 dollars).

In many cases, charities used the money from bonds to buy real estate and build facilities. Prep schools added golf courses, pools and observatories. Colleges bought entire neighborhoods and put up labs and sports facilities. Museums erected new wings, and symphonies added thousands of seats to their concert halls.

These nonprofits gambled that income from donations and investments would more than cover their debt service. But the recession turned that logic inside out.
Let's hope this isn't how our friends around the country built some of those shiny new theatre buildings in the last few years.

Or else:

Norman I. Silber, a law professor at Hofstra University who has done extensive research on the problem, calls the rising debt of nonprofits a “calamity.” “If my analysis is correct,” said Professor Silber, who is also a member of several nonprofit boards, “over the next several years nonprofits across the country will have to renegotiate bond covenants, reduce services, cut staff or actually default and face foreclosures, repossessions, and in some cases, even bankruptcy.”

Gulp. Actually, I can't recall any theatre company declaring bankruptcy. In this profession, they just fold.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

NEA Phony Outrage Update

Super bloggers Sullivan and Anonymous Liberal weigh in on the stupid right-wing NEA-Obama "propaganda" meme.

AL explains it all to you:

Though I have better things to do, I actually read through the transcript of the call [the disputed conference call between NEA rep's and a volunteer group of artists] just now to see if there was really anything "explosive" inside. There wasn't.

The post claims, as Beck did previously, that this call proves that the Obama administration is using the NEA for partisan political purposes, and strongly implies (without actually saying so) that NEA money is somehow being funneled to progressives causes.

But the call is actually far more benign. It appears to have been organized by a group of progressive artists who want to, through their art, raise public awareness about various issues they care about. Invited to participate on the call were a low-level staffer from the White House Office of Public Engagement and the former Communications Director at the NEA (he was apparently transferred to another position at the NEA after this story broke).

When asked to speak, the White House staffer gives some boilerplate talking points about how the art community can really make a difference politically if they put their minds to it. The NEA communications guy is then given a similar chance to talk and says much of the same things, indicating how happy he is to be working at the NEA and encouraging the artists on the call to get involved.

In terms of optics, it was certainly not a good idea for the NEA communications director to participate in such a call (which is probably why he is not the communications director anymore). That organization is not supposed to be involved in political advocacy.

But unless [conservative blogger Andrew] Breitbart's got a lot more, this is the political equivalent of jaywalking. Neither the NEA nor the White House organized this call and the staffers on the call basically gave boilerplate cheerleading remarks. There is nothing in the call that suggests that NEA money or grants were being funneled to progressive artists or anything of the sort. And the White House is of course free to participate on calls with supporters and encourage them to be pro-active. That's what the Office of Public Engagement does.
You can just see Breitbart and Beck salivating at the thought of some sort of Mapplethorpe-redux hitjob on the NEA. The good ol' days of the culture wars.

So far, thankfully, all it's provoked is a collective yawn in the rest of the country. However, do remember that said NEA communications director (Yosi Sergant) did take a bullet for this--consistent with the Obama strategy of diffusing culture-way fights by getting the lightening rod in question out of the spotlight asap.

Still no comment from Chairman Rocco, as far as I know.

PS. Even better/funnier take here. Yep, Sergant's been "Becked" alright.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

What's Up in Philly?

Two interesting stories out of the Philadelphia Inquirer this week, from arts-beat reporter Stephan Salisbury.

First the bad news: the Pennsylvania legislature has just voted to extend, for the first time the state's 6% sales tax to cultural institutions and entertainment venues. Worried about these mandated increases to ticket prices and the effect on already strapped audiences, arts groups are not mollified by the state's plan to increase arts funding in return and are also protesting the fact that "The tax would not be imposed on movies or sports events." Hmm.

The good news?

People of color are far more likely to participate in some cultural activity during the course of a year than are white people.

Ditto families with children over childless couples.

Yet people who attend a performance or a museum are not likely to return within a year, or maybe even longer.

These conclusions, drawn from a report scheduled for release today at the annual meeting of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, represent a particular challenge for the region's arts organizations, alliance officials suggest... Some findings, such as the greater cultural participation of families with children, contradict prevailing conventional wisdom. And the higher "cultural engagement" - as alliance officials call it - of African American and Hispanic communities is of enormous significance to arts groups, particularly in the context of the rapid growth of those already large populations in the area.

The alliance's 73-page report, Research Into Action: Pathways to New Opportunities, mines the data from five other studies and concludes, in the words of alliance president Peggy Amsterdam, that opportunities are out there "despite the economic challenges" now confronting cultural organizations.

Find those silver linings where you can, Philadelphians...

Monday, September 21, 2009

Shakespeare on B'way

Is Shakespeare in America destined to be the province of the nonprofits, regionals, and summer festivals? Or does the coming of Jude Law to Broadway signal the Bard may be Boffo again after all?

I'm not sure I care whether Shakespeare can make it on Broadway or not. (They don't deserve him, I say.) But Variety's Robert Hofler does a great job explaining the many economic factors working against classical drama in today's commercial theatre:

Art aside, 20-actor ensembles represent a key challenge of mounting Shakespeare productions. On Broadway, that’s a weekly minimum nut of $32,000. And with 12 weeks being the usual performance sked, recoupment doesn’t allow for the usual snags of illness, strikes, winter storms, etc. The 1943 Paul Robeson "Othello," which clocked 296 perfs, remains the longest-running production of Shakespeare in Broadway history.
Yes, that's 1943, sixty-six years ago. And 296 "perfs" is not quite one year.

So there's the cast sizes, sure. But you're not just paying those actors to perform, but also to rehearse, right?

Oh rehearsal schmearsal:
The [Denzel] Washington "Julius Caesar" went with a lean four-week rehearsal followed by a four-week preview before the crix arrived.

But some artistic directors in the nonprofit sector say that’s generally not enough time. "We usually do an extra week of rehearsal on Shakespeare. We will do five to six weeks, where four to five is normal," says the Public Theater’s Oskar Eustis. The extra time paid off this summer with the org’s staging of "Twelfth Night," starring Anne Hathaway, which the crix adored.

For the much-acclaimed "Henry IV" double-header, starring Kevin Kline in 2003, Lincoln Center Theater’s Andre Bishop recalls the schedule being "six weeks in the rehearsal room, two weeks of tech and a month of previews."

But commercial productions of limited engagements just can’t afford that kind of rehearsal time. Hence the penchant to transfer, a la the Law "Hamlet."

Homegrown productions of Shakespeare simply may need more time."The sad thing about the American theater is that most actors, outside of the Shakespeare Festival, just don’t get a chance to do Shakespeare that often," says Eustis, "and they aren’t as at ease with their Shakespeare lyrics as our British colleagues." To that end, Eustis made vocal coaches available to his "Twelfth Night" actors as soon as they were cast, in some cases six months before rehearsals commenced.

And while having great actors is nice, they also have to be stars if any commercial producer is going to mount a Shakespeare play around them on Broadway. Otherwise, "why would you want to?" says Carole Shorenstein Hays, lead producer of "Julius Caesar." "Art and commerce have to wed. It’s why it’s called showbiz."
Interesting how the box-office draw of the actor seems inversely proportional to the time of rehearsal they might need to actually be ready to perform!

Friday, September 18, 2009

Sam & Václav

Beckett and Havel have been paired many times in analyses of their writing. But did you know each wrote a play for the other?

The Guardian has a moving story this week (longer version here) on the relationship between the two titanic playwrights--alas, one that had to remain long-distance, due to one of the men's long term imprisonment. In 1982, upon hearing of Havel's political persecution, Beckett wrote his short one-act Catastrophe as a tribute to the survival of the artist under dictatorship. With typical Beckettian precision, the play presents the image of a mute actor being manipulated by a controlling director and staff. Beckett himself was known as a rather...um, demanding director, so perhaps it's no surprise he seized on the apparatus of the theatre as a disarming metaphor for control.

One year later, Havel was released from prison and expressed his gratitude to his new pen-pal by dedicating Mistake--in which "a group of prisoners intimidate a newcomer, who has failed to observe the rituals of their incarceration"--to Beckett. The two pieces have shared double-bills occasionally in the past, but this week the Index on Censorship, which first published them side by side back in 1984, is commemorating them with a performance at London's Free Word Festival, to commemorate the Velvet Revolution and the end of the Eastern European dictatorships.

Speaking of that revolution, another touching link between Havel & Beckett:

Beckett’s most famous play, Waiting for Godot, came to symbolise the agony of the Czech opposition and when the communist government fell in 1989, protestors took to the streets of Prague with posters saying “Godot is Here”. The waiting was over. Beckett died that December – he lived long enough to see the fall of the communist government, but just missed Havel’s election as president.
How did that not make it into Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll? (or did it?)

Luckily, Catastrophe is viewable in a wonderful film made for the Channel 4's Beckett on Film series. Fitting that a play that in itself is a tribute to another playwright is here paid tribute by two other major dramatists: David Mamet (who directs) and Harold Pinter (who stars). To watch Mamet direct Pinter acting Beckett is to see (in reverse, I suppose) a torch passed down from one writer to the next in a direct line of influence. (In this circle of "dedications" remember Mamet inscribed his Glengarry Glenn Ross "to Harold.")

The film, I believe, also records the final performance, albeit wordless, by John Gielgud.

Enjoy.

President's Committee on the Arts & Humanities

Well he still may not have an Arts "Czar"--and probably won't until certain media outlets concede the Czars and the Bolsheviks were actually not the same--but Obama has apparently launched a Committee on the Arts and Humanities, with Broadway producer Margot Lion as co-chair.

Is Obama the best thing that's happened to the Broadway producers since "Premium Seats" or what!

The First Lady will remain the more visible the "Honorary Chair."

The Committee itself is nothing new; it's been around since 1982 under Republican and Democrats alike. The question is: what will Obama do with it?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

"Emerging Playwrights" Award Committee Can't Agree on "Emerging"

Well, duh.

Any playwright (or any artist for that matter) who has ever been called "emerging" or tried to call themselves that for the purpose of some grant application has ultimately been frustrated by this term. Or frustrated at least by the inconsistency with which it is used, particularly by the people who count, Artistic Directors, Literary Managers and funders.

You may recall the new Steinberg playwriting awards--the ones who gave Tony Kushner its inaugural big lifetime achievement prize last year at this time. Well that's only one of the awards, the others being for...you guessed it... two "emerging" writers.

So, according to NYT, here's what's happened:

Some [judges] thought the prize, created by the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust, was geared towards writers just a year out of school, while others considered “emerging” to refer to a playwright in mid-career. So when the panel members could not tailor their views to fit the award, they appealed to the board of trustees to alter the award to fit their views. The result was that three playwrights — Bruce Norris, Tarell Alvin McCraney and David Adjmi — instead of two were named the first recipients of the Steinberg Playwright Award, nicknamed the Mimi, on Thursday; Mr. Norris, who is “between emerging and mid-career,” will receive $50,000 while Mr. McCraney and Mr. Adjmi will receive $25,000 each as “emerging, early-career playwrights.”

[...]

Defining “emerging playwright” turned out to be like grasping a handful of Jello. Committee members settled on the idea that a writer was still emerging five years after a first production, only to soon note that someone could still be emerging 10 years out, Ms. Carl.
Another debate, reportedly, was effectively whether the point of the award should be to jumpstart some unknown's career or just give further economic sustenance to a "proven" writer who still cannot live off theatre royalties alone.

Now, doesn't that latter category kind of include pretty much every living American playwright other than: David Mamet, Tony Kushner, Terence McNally, Edward Albee, and Neil Simon?

Also, I can't help noticing each of the three winners here all seem to be on a real roll lately, some with clear other sources of funding. In addition to having a big production at the Public this season and appearing on the cover of American Theatre, McCraney, the article notes, is also currently an "International Writer in Residence" for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Norris has had a string of stagings at Steppenwolf and Playwrights Horizons in just the last few seasons. Adjmi indeed has the shortest resume of the three, but LCT3's presentation of his Stunning this summer seemed to give the guy a lot of momentum. While it may seem churlish to consider any playwright over-supported in times like these, isn't there at least something to be said for, you know, spreading the wealth a bit?

I guess this would be unworkable and controversial, but would it be so wrong to have one award for which one of the criteria were "not currently recipient of any other monetary award/grant/commission"? At least consider it a thought experiment.

My point is--as so many playwrights will tell you--that certain "hot" playwrights (at no fault of their own) tend to take up all the oxygen. And that it may not help the profession if all the glories are showered on a select few at once.

No, we should not encourage playwright-envy and resentment of the more successful in the field. But such award-practices don't help.

NT Live continues

After what appears to have been a rip-roaring success with Phedre, their first foray into broadcasting live theatre into cinemas, London's Royal National Theatre continues the experiment with an All's Well That Ends Well.

According to Stage Directions:

NT Live performances are filmed live at the National Theatre in high definition and broadcast via satellite to over 330 cinemas and performing arts centers around the world, live in Europe and some U.S. cities, and time-delayed in countries further afield. The performances at the National are nominated in advance to allow cameras greater freedom in the auditorium. NT Live screenings in international venues, including the USA, Canada, Australia, South Africa, Scandinavia and Europe, are supported by Travelex, the world’s foreign exchange and business payments specialist.
That Travelex sure is a nice sponsor--they're also behind the National's "10-pound ticket" initiative. (Pound as in sterling, not tickets printed on metal plates.)

Says AD Nick Hytner:
“The hugely enthusiastic reaction of audiences around the world to the NT Live broadcast of Phèdre was thrilling,” says NT Director Nicholas Hytner. “I’m confident that we have pioneered a new genre: not quite live theatre, certainly not cinema, but an exciting approximation of the real thing whose potential reach is limitless. It means we can reach tens of thousands of people in addition to our work in London and on tour.”
Hm, not live theatre but an incredible simulation......Let's call it, Theatre-Mania??? (Sorry, that name is taken.)

I unfortunately missed the NYC screenings of the NT's Phedre. Any of you catch it?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

NEA Caves to Glenn Beck?

I'm only just catching up with this story and I still don't understand it. I don't even understand the typical childlike logic of Beck's argument as to what exactly National Endowment of the Arts Communications Director Yosi Sergant did to incur the wrath of yet another phony outrage campaign.

Something to do with the NEA actually supporting Obama's community service initiative? And this is bad because...? Oh, I see, Glenn, because it's going to indoctrinate our children through all that art they see. Well you should be glad they don't see much of that anyway--thanks to the likes of you.

The good news is the NEA just announced Sergant has not been fired from the agency in response to the protest. The bad news is they did indeed remove him from the post of Communications Director, thus appeasing the Fox "News" loudmouth and his reactionary, know-nothing minions.

What was that Chairman Rocco said upon taking office? about standing up to the demonizing of the NEA and calling Republicans out on their bullshit? Here's a good opportunity to start doing that, Rocco. Or else, next thing you know, they'll start accusing you of funding "death panel" poetry slams.

(hat tip: 99 Seats, Parabasis, and Rob, who's done a little follow-up reporting of his own)

Sarah Palin: The Opera

Speaking of whacky musicals...

“Say It Ain’t So, Joe,” a presentation by Guerilla Opera, opens Saturday at Boston Conservatory’s Zack Box Theater. The work is composer Curtis Hughes’ musical take on America’s favorite moose-hunting winker, you betcha. It focuses on that contentious - and sometimes comical - debate from October 2008 between Palin and Joe Biden, though the show also includes cameos from Hillary Clinton, Gwen Ifill, Diane Sawyer and, of course, the right-wing’s favorite Everyman, Joe the Plumber.

[...]

Hughes describes “Say It Ain’t So, Joe” as a light tragedy. “It is a tragedy about Palin,” he said. “Both characters view themselves as saviors of America. And even though I’m not trying to hammer people on the head with a single interpretation, you know that Biden will triumph in the end. But the central figure certainly is Sarah Palin. I found myself having this odd pathos for her, a pathos I would not have felt if I were not writing music for her.”
Not to be confused with Albert Gonzales: The Opera.


Gotta say this about the Bush years: it's given artists lots of frighteningly hilarious "found text."

Kotis & Hollmann Get Silly Again

Chris Jones previews "Yeast Nation"--Greg Kotis and Mark Hollman's follow-up to Urinetown.

[I]f you thought the title was strange, consider the premise.

“Yeast Nation” is set 4 billion years ago. All of the characters are single-cell organisms—or, if you prefer, yeasts. They all live at the bottom of the sea. They all eat only salt. And they are all named Jan.

With no interest from New York so far, the show is premiering in the artists' original artistic home of Chicago, at the American Theater Company.

Urinetown itself of course was a quite unlikely Broadway success, thanks to many who misinterpreted it as either a genuine environmental rallying cry or just a musical theatre parody--as opposed to the mock-agitprop masterpiece of silliness it truly was. So in a way, I don't wish a Broadway run for this piece.

Zakes Mokae

The wonderful South African actor Zakes Mokae has died, prompting a welcome reflection on both his long career with playwright Athol Fugard and just the heroic political nature of being a black actor under apartheid.

Bruce Weber's NYT obit relates an amazing story:

After “The Blood Knot” [Fugard's 1960 play] opened in London, Mr. Mokae was barred from returning to South Africa. He did not return until 1982, when he learned his brother James was to be hanged for murders committed during a robbery, though it was unclear whether James was present during the killings. Mr. Mokae, who learned of the death sentence on the night he won his Tony Award [for the Broadway Master Harold and the Boys], returned to Johannesburg in time to witness his brother’s execution.
Mokae's moving performance as Sam in Master Harold--one of many roles written for him by Fugard--is thankfully recorded on video in the 1985 HBO version--if you can still get a copy on VHS. This definitely deserves a DVD release--if for no other reason to remind folks he did more than play voodoo men in Hollywood movies. (Including, yes, Vampire in Brooklyn.)

But hey, glad he made some money. And glad he finally made it home to a free South Africa, shortly before he succumbed to Alzheimer's:
Mrs. Mokae said they moved back to South Africa in 2005, while his mind was still mostly intact, “so he could live under freedom there and have some memory of it.”
Another playwright admirer of Mokae's was August Wilson, who wrote the role of the vengeful shaman Hedley in Seven Guitars for him--and Mokae actually originated the role in the Boston pre-Broadway staging. Unfortunately, he was not well and struggled through the tryout and was replaced before the show came to New York. I was privileged to see him in it in Boston at the time, my only chance to see him live.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Don't Mess With Piven

Page Six reports today that the Joe's Pub show The Piven Monologues--a send-up of the actor's bailing-from-Broadway episode--has been temporarily shut down by...The Piven!

SELF-proclaimed sushi sufferer Jeremy Piven has slapped the Public Theater with a "cease and desist" letter over "The Piven Monologues," a comic look at the star's case of mercury poisoning and subsequent pullout from Broadway's "Speed-the-Plow." The show was staged last night and another performance is set for next month. Says Piven attorney Marty Singer, "We didn't say you cannot do the play, we said you can't make defamatory statements about our client."
Next performance is slated for October 2 (Joe's Pub has a busy rotating cabaret schedule), so we'll see if the spoofers can make their case by then. Will the Public Theatre get involved?

Avenue Q gets AEA Dispensation

Well those clever Avenue Q bastards...

NYT's Dave Itzkoff today reveals that the producers will indeed be able to lower actor salaries for their unusual reverse-transfer of the show from Broadway to "Off":

Salaries for the performers could come down too. Mr. McCollum said the minimum weekly salary for an Off Broadway performer was about $1,100, compared with $1,600 for a Broadway performer. A spokeswoman for Actors’ Equity Association said that the producers had been given permission to close the show and reopen it under a new contract. Mr. McCollum said offers had gone out for the Off Broadway production, but no casting was ready to be announced.
I imagine one reason announcement of casting info is delayed might be that current Broadway cast members would be pretty torn about taking the same gig at what effectively is a pay cut.

To get the actors' union to consider the new Off Broadway "Q" basically a revival (just like a revival of an old classic like, say, South Pacific), as opposed to an extension (which is what it is), is a big, big break for those producers.

There's a reason for that clause in the AEA contract. It's meant to prevent just this kind of thing from happening, to prevent a producer (or even nonprofit theatre company) to cut actor salaries during an ongoing run by moving to a smaller venue and lower contract status. The rule is basically that during the course of a run, actor salaries can only go up, not down. Even if moving to a smaller venue allows the production to operate at a lower contract level in all other areas, actors are supposed to maintain their previous salaries. The reason for this is obvious: without that protection, productions might routinely "transfer down" as a way to cut actors' pay.

As regional theatre veterans know, this often comes up in co-productions when one of the partners is smaller (budget-wise) than the other. Such co-productions usually try to run at the smaller theatre first so that salaries can start lower and then increase only for the 2nd staging--rather than paying actors at the higher rate even in the smaller theatre. (Make sense?)

But Avenue Q has cleverly just redefined the concept of the "revival" to include something that's basically an extension. The scenario the rule was meant to prevent, just happened. I guess AEA figures work is hard to get at all these days, so might as well. But let's hope this doesn't set a dangerous precedent for an already suffering profession.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Movin' on Down?

Avenue Q next month becomes the first ever show to transfer from Broadway to Off Broadway.

Or, to be more precise, from Off Broadway to Broadway and back again--having started life at the nonprofit Vineyard Theatre downtown (in a co-production with The New Group.)

As you may recall, earlier this summer the show had posted a September 13 closing notice, after a very successful 6-year run. Well, close it did last night--but then:

At the final B'way performance of the long-running tuner, producer Kevin McCollum took the stage after the curtain call and announced that the show would transfer to New World Stages, where it would begin performances Oct. 9.

"It's a smaller theater, so the tickets will be $1000 each," McCollum quipped.

Joking aside, Kevin, it seems you will indeed be offering your new "Off Broadway" show at Rialto prices: $66.50 to $86.50! Which is probably more than anyone really paid for the show on Broadway after the 3rd or 4th year of the run...

New World Stages is one of our Off Broadway "multiplexes." But unlike Theatre Row and 59E59 (who both serve the nonprofit community) New World caters to commercial producers with "sit-down," sometimes open-ended, productions. Avenue Q will play in its flagship 499-seat venue.

And in case you don't immediately spot the significance of that 499 number, it is one seat short of the magical dividing line between Off Broadway and "On"...

So this will be a very interesting experiment in producing, to see if Off Broadway is once again commercially viable--after a decade that has seen many smaller venues shutter as well as production & marketing costs rise while income potential fell. The conventional wisdom in producing lately has been that since it costs almost as much to open on Broadway than "Off" these days, why not reap the potential of 1000 seats at $75-$100 rather than 300 seats at $50-$75. Especially when you consider that New York Times advertising rates don't charge any less for Off Broadway product and a Broadway opening already comes with so much free publicity (much of it from, ahem, the New York Times.)

Avenue Q is uniquely positioned to make this work, though, since it already has name recognition and therefore can keep the marketing budget low.

My big question, though, is about casting, about which the announcements say nothing so far. There is a little known clause in Actors Equity contracts that if a production "moves" to a smaller venue, actors must still be paid their original salaries. Broadway AEA salary-minimums are indeed higher than those Off-Broadway. So any of the actors who performed in the Broadway run (and I believe at any time in that run) are legally entitled to that same salary if the show transfers whole to New World Stages.

Note this would not be true in the case of a "revival", in other words a whole new production built from scratch. But if the "new" Avenue Q is judged by AEA to be the same production merely "transferred" then the rule should apply.

Of course, if the Q producers simply hire an all new cast...then I assume they can hire them at Off Broadway rates.

Let's see what they do.

Arts Journal: Happy 10th!

On his own blog, Douglas McLennan announces the 10th anniversary of his invaluable site, ArtsJournal, the best out aggregator out there for arts stories around the country and the world.

Perhaps it's not fair to call it an "aggregator" though since it is thoughtfully curated by McLennan (currently the acting director of the National Arts Journalism Program) and his staff and also hosts many indispensable arts/culture bloggers, like theatre critics Terry Teachout (of WSJ), San Francisco's Chloe Veltman, and Philly's Wendy Rosenfeld.

I know I pilfer from ArtsJournal all the time for good story-links, and I'm sure many other arts bloggers do, too. (It's made easy by subscribing to their daily newsfeed.) Basically, such sites as this make a vibrant arts-journalism presence on the web possible.

So on behalf of arts bloggers--yea, arts journalists--everywhere, I thank you Doug McLennan, and god speed into the next phase.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Fuck You, You Nazi Fucks

It is indeed true that David Mamet is directing a new film of "The Diary of Anne Frank."

Although when I first read about it in The Onion last month, it seemed too good to be true.

Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright David Mamet is writing and directing a new film version of The Diary Of Anne Frank. Here are some highlights from his adaptation:

  • When confronted for stealing food, Joe Mantegna's Putti Van Daan claims not to "give two goddamn fucks in a pig's ass"
  • Fantastic scene in which Anne Frank denies her dad coffee and tells her family that only those with brass balls can survive the Nazis
  • Anne's diary is the only place she is able to finish a sentence
  • The lead is recast as Angelo, a 54-year-old longshoreman for whom the attic is a metaphor for sexual repression
  • Rebecca Pidgeon is shoehorned into the plot, ruining movie at last minute
  • As the Nazis approach, Anne orders the crying baby to "can it"
  • The bookcase that covers the entrance to the secret annex is played by Alec Baldwin
  • Anne's death is ultimately less about "Nazis" and more about "the American dream"
Actually this is just one of many online parodies already out there. He just makes it so easy sometimes, don't he.

Interesting that Mamet's film still claims to be an adaptation not just of the diary itself, but of the Hacket/Goodrich dramatization--the 1955 play that became the classic 1959 film. When director James Lapine wanted to do a "new" Anne Frank on Broadway in 1997 (the one with Natalie Portman) he also brought on a playwright, Wendy Kesselman, to revise/supplement the script.

So I wonder, is the Hacket/Goodrich script somehow legally the "authorized" version with sole dramatization rights? Because clearly these other writers seem to want to take their own crack at it.

Reminds me of Lawrence Graver's fascinating book An Obsession With Anne Frank, about the original race for those dramatization rights--a book, by the way, that seems to be the inspiration for Rinne Groff's latest play.


UPDATE 9/30/09: looks like the Mamet project isn't happening after all.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Heilpern leaves Observer

Another NYC critic is off the beat.

But this time, not because of cuts. John Heilpern is just apparently sick of writing for the weekly New York Observer.

Reported Riedel this week:

My hunch is that Heilpern, an elegant, erudite and delightfully WASPish critic, wasn't too pleased that his reviews were being cut down to make room for short, punchy showbiz items.
Perhaps because of the paper's low circulation or Heilpern's less-regular-column, he rarely made an impact. But I for one usually enjoyed his brazen fisticuffs-criticism, especially when it came to lambasting timid nonprofit theatres.

And speaking of his combative tone:
"I wish the paper all the best," says Heilpern. "I don't want to be too negative about the 12-year-old owner, Jared Kushner, but as my ma and pa from Manchester, England, used to say, 'That boy couldn't run a chip shop.' "
For the record Kushner is 28.

According to Riedel, the Observer will thankfully not eliminate the position: "Heilpern's being replaced by two critics. One will be Jesse Oxfeld, a former Gawker editor who has written about theater for New York magazine. The other has yet to be named."

Unemployed theatre critics...start your engines.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

"Money-Back Guarantees" Catching On?

Following an apparently successful experiment in Chicago*, it looks like more theatres may offer some kind of "money-back guarantee" for unhappy playgoers, no questions asked. Now Syracuse Stage is offering a kind of opt-out clause for subscribers:

At Syracuse Stage artistic director Tim Bond wants audiences to go home happy. In an unprecedented guarantee of artistic satisfaction, Bond promises season ticket-holders a refund on the remainder of their subscription if they’re dissatisfied with a single show.
Now I only assume this was "successful" in Goodman in that the company, it seems, did not go broke handing out refunds. But you gotta wonder...are such offers really made in good faith? Not that they wouldn't honor the promise, of course. But surely (consistent with the whole business philosophy of the "or your money back" tactic) they're counting on folks not doing this. Whether out of politeness, laziness, whatever. It's a gimmick to instill confidence in the product, of course.

But what if, eh? What if just one of the shows at Syracuse is so lame--or so offensive, or just so long, or what if a guy and his wife just have a bad parking experience?--that, say, 20-30 subscribers bail mid-season. After all, these are unstable economic times. A family shells out $200-$300 bucks on a year's worth of theatre tix, then someone loses a job or incurs unexpected health expenses, and round about January, Mr. and Mrs. look at each other at intermission of yet another tired classic or bland new 2-character play and say, "do we really need this?"

Just sayin'.


*P.S. Boldface section emended in light of Patrick's comments below--which offer valuable clarification on the Chicago production happening at the Goodman, not produced by it. More on that project here.

Renew Your Subscription...or else

Humorist Polly Frost offers some mischievous--and yes, fictional--examples of the art of the desperate solicitation letter. Such as:

As a Founding Member of the West Broadway Group, I'm reaching out to remind you about your annual donation which did not yet arrive this year.

The West Broadway Group knows that you've been transformed by the way we always challenge the traditional director/actor relationship, and by our never-ending commitment to the ensemble.

That's why I'm proud to announce that the West Broadway Group --in a provocative gesture responding to the unprecedented economic climate -- is presenting a solo show for the first time in its thirty-year history. Instead of multiple video screens and sonic feedback blasting apart traditional theater space , "Slow/Dissolve" will feature me at home in my SoHo loft.

Oh wait, I think I actually got that one in today's mail.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Playgoer on the Twitter

And the Kindle!

Yes, we're crawling into the 21st century here. As you'll see in the upper right margin, if RSS feeds or just plain Google searches aren't instant enough for you, you can now follow the blog on Twitter or even have it delivered to your Kindle. (Because of course you have one.)

On Kindle it is indeed a paid subscription and the good folk at Amazon have valued Playgoer at just 99 cents* a month. Considering you get it in black and white and probably limited graphics, little to know link-following and forget about video... one might very well ask, what benefit you get from that? Well, nothing. But I myself will get a whopping 30%! So if you're using the damned device anyway, please consider it charity.

Meanwhile, Playgoer will also stay right here at this good old fashioned and free url, for those luddites among you who probably just print it on your dot-matrixes. I know I do.


*update 9/12/09: Amazon just lowered my Kindle price. Don't know if that's a good or bad sign. But, hey, take advantage! Under $12 a year for every post delivered to you Kindle machine!

Quote of the Day

"The Internet has been blamed for destabilizing...reader-critic relationships, but the destabilizing started decades ago, as newspapers folded and magazines began cutting down or dropping their theater coverage. The Web has given back, virtually, all of that lost space. Anyone can now publish theater criticism. But—to update Agate ["Anyone can write drama criticism. It takes a very clever fellow to get it published"]—it will now take a very clever writer to give it value, and an even cleverer one to get paid for it."

-Michael Feingold, part two of a thought provoking essay on the changing role--or at least perceived role--of the critic. (Part One here.)

Photo of the Day

The 1805 Theatre Royal Bath.

In... well, Bath, of course. Of Jane Austen fame.

This, "one of the few remaining theatres dating from the early 19th century that is still serving its original purpose," has just applied for a civic-funded restoration.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

The Ascendancy of Jordan Roth

The 33 year old producer/rich-kid has made his move in the wake of Rocco Landesman's elevation to the NEA. Jordan Roth has taken over Jujamcyn, Broadway's 3rd largest theatre-chain/producing-outfit.

Notes the Times, Landesman and Roth "will have equal ownership shares of Jujamcyn, although government rules forbid Mr. Landesman to discuss the business with Mr. Roth." Say wha???

Well at least it's new blood. Maybe Roth can revive the tradition of the tasteful creative commercial producer.

Once More Unto the Breach

And so begins Season 5 of Playgoer...

Welcome back all, and let me thank once again the gifted and generous individuals who kept the blog running in my absence. And by name: Abigail Katz, Suzy Evans, Steven Leigh Morris, and the good Doctor Cashmere. I hope all will continue to be part of the Playgoer Community, if there is one.

So... what's happening in theatre these days? I've been out of it.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

The Non-Broadway Season: The Big 4

In the spirit of all the season previews I've been soliciting from around the country this past month, I might as well do the same for NYC. But with Broadway openings "always already" over-exposed, I'd like to focus just on the most prominent nonprofit theatre companies.

So to begin with, here are the links and rundowns for the four biggies, our large nonprofit institutions.

Public Theater: Beginning with the hot ticket of Philip Seymour Hoffman starring in Peter Sellars' Othello, a very limited run off-site at NYU. Also much anticipated, a full presentation of Tarell Alvin MacCraney's series of "Brother/Sister" plays: The Brothers Size, previously seen at the Public, now joined by Marcus;or the Secret of Sweet and In the Red and Brown Water. (For more on what all the fuss about MacCraney is about, see this month's American Theatre.) The spring brings a new Suzan-Lori Parks play, directed by young Brit James (A Number, Dying City) MacDonald. Personally I'm looking forward most to Richard Foreman returning to the Public, breaking out of his Ontological basement space to bring us something called Idiot Savant, starring no less than Willem Dafoe. And to round out their season, Mike Daisey returns with his latest monologue, The Last Cargo Cult, "the true-life story of his time on a remote South Pacific island whose inhabitants worship America."

Roundabout Theatre Company: Well we've all heard enough about Bye Bye Birdie by now--of which perhaps the most notable feature is its launching of the company's fourth(!) space, the renovated Henry Miller's Theatre. (Of the four, note that three are now Broadway venues.) What follows at Roundabout is predictably safe and predictably imported: Judith Ivey's revival of Glass Menagerie that premiered at Long Wharf this summer; from London, Patrick Marber's Strindberg-inspired After Miss Julie (though with a new cast); Victor Garber in Noel Coward's Present Laughter; a new Theresa Rebeck play, The Understudy; then last and probably least, the Carrie Fisher vanity solo-show Wishful Drinking, also imported (from LA). The Marber is probably the most interesting of the lot, and I'm happy for Victor Garber's return to the stage. But overall, looks pretty humdrum.

Lincoln Center Theatre: South Pacific sings on into its third year, with no sign of vacating the flagship Beaumont space. So LCT will rent out the Broadway Lyceum for their big opening, Sarah Ruhl's new "vibrator" play--or, as she calls it: In the Next Room; or, The Vibrator Play. (I do wish playwrights would stop using the word "play" or "project" in their titles. It's enough to make even a fan of meta-theatricality like me cranky.) In their smaller Newhouse space Off Broadway will be, first, the lesser known author Nathan Louis Jackson with his Broke-ology and, in February, Australian Andrew Bovell's When the Rain Stops Falling, the directed by the fine David Cromer. And in their new, even smaller "LCT3" venue will feature What Once We Felt, a big break for 13P writer Anne Marie Healy (of Have You Seen Steve Steven). Worth noting that here, too, none of these plays, except for Healy's, are world premieres.

Manhattan Theatre Club: While last season's Accent on Youth, MTC's first foray into "classic Broadway" revival (as opposed to their professed new plays/new writers mission) fizzled, I actually hold out hope for their well-cast revival of Kaufman and Ferber's old Barrymore-spoof, The Royal Family. Doug Hughes will direct*. As with Accent, the big MTC Broadway-size house (formerly Biltmore, now the "Friedman") will finally seem suited to the plays they produce. While no one has lately demanded a Donald Margulies festival, MTC will give us both a revival of the pretty recent Collected Stories (with Linda Lavin reprising her role from the TV version) and, on the Broadway mainstage, his latest, Time Stands Still, about Iraq war correspondents....Meanwhile, with all the expense lavished on their season opener, MTC is cutting back to two stages from their usual three. So the smaller City Center theatre will welcome Gary Hines directing a fictionalization of Shakespeare meets the Gunpowder Plot (Equivocation) and another new English play, That Face. The obligatory pseudo-celeb solo-show slot goes to Lynn Redgrave with Nightingale.


All in all, there's definitely stuff listed above I want to see. But here's a question: would you shell out $200-$300 to any one of these theatres for their whole slate? And: if you did, could you still afford to go to any of the other offerings?

*Correction: I wrongly believed Daniel Sullivan was directing The Royal Family, so these sentences have now been slightly rewritten. Apologies.

The Soul of Paul


Cold Souls may be an original (and yet frustrating) movie in its own right, but the chief pleasure it offers theatre lovers is a wee glimpse of what Paul Giamatti's Vanya might be like.

I hear tell Vanya was his big role back in his Yale Drama days in the early 90's. Now he's the right age for it, and his affinity for the part clearly shows in the movie's extended scenes of his character (and actor named, um, "Paul Giamatti") rehearsing the play. And despite the spin that's put on Chekhov and his performance by the movie's complicated plot, let's just say it's enough to whet at least this playgoer's appetite.

So even though we may be suffering from Chekhov fatigue lately in New York after a spate of lame stagings, someone please give this man a stage. And Paul--it's time you came home.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Happy September

With Labor Day so late this year, I'm not sure I'm fully ready to stop the blog-cation, but I thought I might "ramp up" a bit till Tuesday, with the assistance of my fantastic guest bloggers, who may overlap with me for a few days here.

Plus, it's September and I said I'd be back, so here I am.

So just to start things off, I'll share with you some of the more interesting reading that's come my way in recent weeks:

-Michael Feingold's must-read piece in the Voice on why critics should be glad they're no longer Tony voters. (I kinda agree.)

-Of course, everyone's reaction to the big Disney takeover of Marvel Comics has been: how will this affect Spider Man the Musical! Well, as Variety's Gordon Cox explains, it probably won't. Which is too bad for the show, which could use a bailout these days. Then again, if anyone can convince Disney to get involved, it would be Spidey director Julie "Lion King" Taymor.

-It's been great reading all the Season Preview-ing here on the site from around the country, so let me add one of the more surprising regional announcements out there: Moises Kaufman directing Into the Woods at Kansas City Rep? Believe it.

-If you ever wondered (or mocked) why certain unions, like the musicians and the stagehands, insist on certain minimum numbers of employment regardless of a particular show's requirements...well take a look at what's happening to the acting pool in Seattle, where "this season the [Seattle] Rep will offer locals only 20 roles (compared to 40 last season), and some shorter gigs for play readings." Indeed there's nothing more sobering for a theatre lover than to sit in on budget planning meeting (as I have) where the number of actors to be employed are decided in advance--and then the plays chosen. And once all the professional companies in your region programming only solo shows and 2- or 3-handers, watch out.

-Finally, not that we are all not better off with Henry Louis Gates-Gate behind us, but I couldn't resist entering into the record the Boston Globe's delightful one-page, three-act Shakespearean spoof of the whole tragicomedy.