The Playgoer: October 2009

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Saturday, October 31, 2009

Best American Play on Broadway to Close After One Week

I thought nothing could shock me about the state of Broadway anymore.

We all know the Rialto is not a safe space for dramatic plays--at least those lacking celebrities.

But not only did the current Brighton Beach Memoirs revival get very strong reviews...but I can attest personally that the production is also a wonderful, wonderful thing to behold. A beautifully acted and masterly directed (by David Cromer) mounting of, yes, what would normally be a so-so play but here is delivered as a very satisfying confection of tasteful and tearful family drama. (Notice I'm not saying "laugh riot." The laughs are there, but they're not the selling point. And it says a lot that the role of the wisecracking teenage narrator, Eugene--made so central by Matthew Broderick's original performance--now fades into the sepia-toned woodwork, giving way to much more satisfying characters.)

So, no masterpiece. But I left feeling there will always be a market on Broadway for a really well done middlebrow bourgeois family drama. In short, I thought it would be a hit.

Not so, apparently. The producing team just announced it's closing tomorrow. Just one week after opening.

Yesterday, Playbill was reporting the notice was "provisional," leaving open the possibility that the move was an attempt to suddenly boost sales. According to the initial release:"The notice can be taken down at any time and no final decision on closing will be made until Monday, Nov. 2, when a statement will be issued."

But this morning, NY Times' ArtsBeat reports it as a done deal.

Ok, ok, you're saying. Don't get so worked up about the closing of an old Neil Simon play.

I wish I could have gotten together some kind of review sooner to make my case for the show in more detail. However, with it closing tomorrow, I say if you had any interest in seeing this--or any interest in seeing Cromer's work--definitely go.

Meanwhile, if nothing else, this certainly provides a tantalizing case, from a producing standpoint, of what went wrong? And it forces the question: is the state of serious drama on Broadway much, much worse on Broadway than we even thought?

That there were problems behind the scenes was clear back on October 20, when lead veteran producer (and Neil Simon's perennial producer) Manny Azenberg was frank with the Times, in an article about how much indeed the Broadway biz is relying on marquee names this season:

Ticket sales have been so slow for “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” a Neil Simon play that originally ran for more than three years on Broadway, that some theater insiders are skeptical that its producers will have the financial means to open its companion piece — Mr. Simon’s follow-up play “Broadway Bound” — as scheduled in December, unless grosses improve for “Brighton Beach.” Emanuel Azenberg, the lead producer of both “Brighton Beach” and “Broadway Bound,” said on Tuesday that since the two revivals lack major stars to help sell tickets, “honestly, we need a blessing from the critics.” He added, “With a blessing from the critics, we can go forward full steam.”
Despite this obvious wink/plea to the Times' Ben Brantley--the one critic whose "blessing" seems to matter--Brantley only like it, not loved it (Critic-O-Meter sums up his notice as a "B+") but most of the other major dailies gave it outright A's.

But of course it's ticket sales that matter, not reviews in newspapers that no one reads anymore. And after slogging through a preview period averaging only 60% capacity (in a 1200-seat house), Azenberg & co. staked everything on a huge jump in advance sales the moment the reviews came out. Apparently that did not happen. (Box Office figures since October 26 not yet publicly available.)

The advance was, literally, doubly important in this case because Brighton Beach was only one of the plays in Azenberg's project. His whole idea was to pair it with Simon's later sequel, Broadway Bound. I guess he figured--same set, most of the same characters, why not. Two for one! And after all, folks just couldn't get enough of those three Tom Stoppard plays about frickin' Russia, for crying out loud. So a Neil Simon play about Brooklyn should be a synch. (Maybe he thought it would attract Brighton Beach's more recent Russian immigrants?) The fact that the also-British Norman Conquests trilogy struggled to lure three-peat ticket buyers this summer seemed not to deter him.

Fatal flaw number one--both Coast of Utopia and Norman were not only British (and hence front-loaded with snob appeal for the affluent, i.e. those who can afford tickets) but were also produced by nonprofits: respectively, Lincoln Center Theatre and London's Old Vic, who created Norman before its commercial tour to NYC.

So here's Manny Azenberg thinking he can create a rep-production from scratch in a commercial venue in 2009, and actually make money. The last time such a thing was tried I believe was the Broadway Angels in America back in 1993 But I'm not sure how that did overall, and the second part, Perestroika opened six months (and one Tony Award sweep) after Millenium Approaches. Plenty of time to build an advance. Plus, it benefited from the buzz (in the still-influential print media of the time) of being the hottest new American play in a long while.

Broadway Bound, on the other hand, was set to begin previews in just three weeks, November 18. (I assume they were already in rehearsal?)

So Azenberg was looking at a massive, massive bill, huge weekly operating expenses, and very little income. And he was surprised???

Of course, the whole plan was premised on the belief that Neil Simon's name alone would attract the sales. But even that hasn't been true in a long time.

The postmortems on this one will be interesting, to say the least. Many will undoubtedly ask if Brighton Beach would have survived ok if it had not been yoked to this crazy rep idea. It seems that the financial burden of Broadway Bound is what really sunk the first play.

I must say, leaving the Nederlander Theatre that night, I was so satisfied with what I had seen that, rather than whetting my appetite for more, I really didn't need to see a sequel. I had seen just enough of those characters and it was perfect for what it was. Simon's convoluted plotting was not the highlight, and that's all that would change in the next play.

It's all a terrible shame, because the work on stage in Brighton Beach is so fine. Laurie Metcalf gives a brave, scary performance as the matriarch, Jessica Hecht is unrecognizable as the wallflower aunt (you can hear her talk about the role in a nice NYT "slideshow"). The two of them engage in some naked emotion and outright ugliness you're not used to seeing in a Neil Simon play. Young Noah Robbins as Eugene is actually the weak link in the cast; he's probably too young as an actor to carry the play. (Broderick was 21 at the time. Robbins is 19 but seems genuinely on the brink of puberty.) But I was happy to focus instead on Santino Fontana, who is very strong as the older brother (as he was as the older brother in Billy Elliot) and, most of all, Dennis Boutsikaris as the father. Boutsikaris gives such an understated and dignified portrayal he somehow moved me to tears constantly. (No, I don't normally cry at the theatre, and hardly at Neil Simon!) I don't know what it was, but he somehow endowed the character with that noble suffering that the immigrant generation went through to give their children a better life. A simple line like, "I never finished the eighth grade," in his delivery, floored me; a poignant reminder of when we didn't take education for granted and that is really wrong to judge someone for lack of one.

So that's just a snippet of what I found worthy. With this on top of Our Town, David Cromer claims the mantle of Master of American Naturalism (successor to Daniel Sullivan, one could say) and gives American (noncelebrity) actors a chance to do on stage the kind of thing they do best.
Too bad so few will get to see his work.

I guess you can thank Broadway and the increasingly clueless producers who still believe in it as a venue of quality.

Friday, October 30, 2009

The Philadelphia Experiment

Promising news from Philly, via Davenport:

The Philadelphia Theatre Company and The Wilma Theater activated their wonder-twin powers yesterday when they announced a "Best Of Broad Street" subscription package (the theatres are across the street from each other) that allows Philadelphians to create a season subscription by choosing two plays from one theatre and two plays from the other.
Let's see what happens. I bet it will still be a while before we see something similar tried in the larger and even more competitive market of NYC nonprofits. But I think it would be ideal here for a coterie of smaller companies--especially those who only put up one or two shows a season, and especially if they rent space in the same venue, like Theatre Row or 59E59. Or for a larger company to share subscribers with a smaller co. renting space from them (like MTC and the Pearl.)

Details on the "Best of Broad Street" package here.

Stop Treating Foreign Artists as Terrorists

Ask any US arts institution today what it's like to try to host touring theatre troupes in the Age of Terror, and they'll tell you it's a nightmare, rife with last minute cancellations and even detentions of foreign artists at our airports.

Time Out's Helen Shaw makes an eloquent case to the Obama administration for relaxing travel restrictions on foreign artists touring the US.

One of the reasons we didn’t get the Olympics? Our stringent, expensive visa process that sends the message: Foreigners, stay put. And now, despite the pleadings of a slew of artist organizations, the long-standing policy that allows a single venue to apply for a touring company’s multiple locations has been wiped out. It doesn’t sound that bad, right? Wrong. Each theater the company goes to must now fill out piles of paperwork and incur costs, just enough in these troubled times to make those theaters say “pass.” And that’s what we can’t afford. Art is ambassadorship, and this is the administration that was supposed to be putting out the international welcome mat.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Diversifying the Big NonProfits: Lost Cause?

A curious proposal by Michael Kaiser regarding the ever-struggling efforts of big arts institutions (that is, big white arts institutions) to diversify programming and audiences. What's surprising is he suggests throwing in the towel.

What's even more surprising is the fact that Michael Kaiser is the chief of a little nonprofit arts org known as the Kennedy Center. And that's he's posting this very visibly on Huffington Post.

Over the past 30 years, we were encouraged, primarily by foundation and government agencies, to become more diverse in every respect: we were asked to do works by minority artists, to bring diverse audiences to our theaters, and to diversify our staffs and boards. To justify funding, the argument went, we had to demonstrate our commitment to our entire community.

Having spent a great deal of my career working with arts organizations of color, I am as committed as anyone to the diversity of our arts ecology. I do not believe that we can have a truly great artistic community if all segments of our society are not represented well.

But I do not think I believe anymore in forcing Eurocentric arts organizations to do diverse works or to put one minority on a board.

When large, white organizations produce minority works they typically select the "low hanging fruit," the most popular works by diverse artists featuring the most famous minority performers and directors. This almost invariably hurts the minority arts organizations in the neighborhood, most of which are small and underfunded, and cannot afford to match the marketing clout or the casting glamor of their larger white counterparts. How else to explain the reduced strength of American black theater companies over the past twenty years?

I do appreciate the honesty and the willingness to reject the routine assumptions and think from scratch. He makes good points about the value of coproductions and collaborations between companies of different sizes, strengths and ethnic backgrounds. And it's a good question to ask what has happened to black theatre companies over the past twenty years. But did, say, Lincoln Center producing Joe Turner's Come and Gone really ruin the chances of any smaller African American troupes showing their work and getting audiences? I'm inclined to think that in a case like that, the exposure of that play to a wider Broadway audiences might well have increased curiosity and enthusiasm for the work of August Wilson and other writers of color.

So is Kaiser really saying something as fatalistic as, look: we're white, ok and white stuff is all we know how to do?

What is he saying? And what's prompting this?

The Theatre Will be Digitized

The revolution to make top-rank live professional theatrical performance accessible to millions via digital technology is happening. And it's happening in the UK.

First there was "NT Live" the Royal National Theatre's broadcasting of select performances into cinemas around the world. (Similar to the Metropolitan Opera's program here in NY.) Having now seen an NT Live showing--of a fetching All's Well That Ends Well) I'm convinced the future is here.

Not a future without live performance or where video substitutes for that. But where easy-access digital video exists as a second-choice alternative to at least get a sense of performances one is not able to see firsthand--not just due to cost or scheduling, but because the performance might have been halfway around the world!

One of the pleasures of watching the National's All's Well is that I really felt an amazing approximation of experiences I've had at that theatre myself. Having been there I could imagine myself in the space watching that performance. And all from the comfort of my corner art-house movie theatre in Queens. For $20.

No, it wasn't better than seeing the real thing. But honestly I wasn't going to get to London anyway this fall. And it was definitely better than watching it on television from my couch. At least I was in a proper seat and couldn't just go to the kitchen or answer the phone. (Thus it demanded the same kind of attention live performance does.)

Speaking of television, there's another key function this innovation could play today--filling the gap left by the abandonment of live theatre by television networks. With not even PBS any longer committed to an "American Playhouse" preserving great dramas (not just musicals) done by great actors, can new media step in to provide that service.

So enter yet another British company, a two-bloke startup, simply called Digital Theater that has begun offering, for a modest rental fee, "high definition, downloadable theatre productions filmed in front of live audiences" straight to your laptop.

So yes, this would return us to the diminished screen of the tv. But still. Pretty neat, I say. And aside from the simple pleasure of peeking in on interesting productions from the UK--and soon, hopefully, elsewhere--just think of the value to history and future research.

I tell you, the first major US theatre company that pulls an NT live or Met Opera and goes ahead and gets a grant and puts their entire season online...that'll be a trailblazer. (I'm looking at you, Guthrie. Goodman. Anyone?)

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Theatre 80 Lives

Following up on a previous post, the owner of Theatre 80 St. Marks himself--Locan Ottway--writes in to say reports of the space's demise are greatly exaggerated.

We have a web page which soon will have the schedule for Theatre 80, I believe it is Theatre80SaintMarks.com … it will be up soon. We don’t publish the schedule until there is a deposit check in hand, but we are in final negotiations for two operas, a musical, and several other works, including dance… and the big (you heard it first here…) news, is that we are installing high definition projection with a 12 by 28 foot retractable screen, set far back on the stage, so that the sight lines and image will be a great improvement from my father’s day. We will have film on occasion, though our primary focus will be live theater.

Continued best wishes from the Otway family to those dear patrons who have shown us such love for the past 44 years.

All the best
Lorcan Otway
Thank you, sir. We need spaces! So we're pulling for you.

It's a nice website--and it includes rental info.

Say What?

The Broadway musical Memphis is about a white guy? Worse, a white DJ who brings black music to the whiteys?

And it's written by the I Love You, You're Perfect guy and someone from Bon Jovi?

Oy.

(Roma Torre calls the lead "a rough-hewn cracker--make that firecracker!")

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

On B'way, The Party's Over

Variety's Robert Hofler laments the diminished status of the once mighty Broadway opening night party ritual.

Nowadays, there isn't even a few thousand dollars' worth of publicity, much less a million, to be had from a Broadway opening-night party, most of which feature only two reporters (Variety's and Playbill.com's), three video cams (NY-1, Broadway.com, Broadway Beat) and a gaggle of photogs. The New York Times dropped its Bold Faces column years ago, and the New York Post and the Daily News rarely send reporters to legit events anymore.

"Over the years there's been a diminishment in the press exposure that an opening-night party generates," says producer Jeffrey Richards, who has two new shows ("Superior Donuts," "Race") on Broadway this fall. "It's hardly commensurate with the increased cost of some of these parties."

A sitdown dinner at Tavern on the Green or a big hotel ballroom can easily run $75,000 and up. Most fetes these days feature a sampling of canapes at a cost of about $25,000. (For his recent "Donuts" fete, Richards served sushi in memory of his Jeremy Piven-"Speed-the-Plow" contretemps from the previous season.)

Unless there's a major movie star present onstage or on the red carpet, producers can't count on national coverage. But there's the rub. Movie people don't do press. Not on Broadway. Not anymore. Although there was a full dinner at the glitzy Gotham Hall for the recent "Hamlet" preem party, Jude Law eschewed all interviews.

Even Carrie Fisher--Carrie Fisher!--refused interviews and photographers!

Most pithy sign of the times?

"Now you look around at a party and no one is looking up," says uberpublicist Chris Boneau. "They're all staring at their handheld device when they should be drinking. Reading the reviews in a newspaper was actually more fun. Reading it off a BlackBerry is work."

Heck, why wait for the party. I've seen publicists and creative team alike skimming the reviews mid-show from their seats.

Supply Outpacing Demand?

“[T]here are fewer people patronizing the arts but more arts organizations.”

-NEA chair, Rocco Landesman, as interviewed in New York last week by the ubiquitous Frank Rich.

Talk amongst yourselves...

The Actor's Life

When I saw Terri White in the Encores concert presentation of Finian's Rainbow last spring, I knew she was a wonderful performer. Naturally, I did not know that just a year previously her acting/singing career had put her literally in the streets.

Susan Dominus in today's Times tells her remarkable story:

In the summer of 2008, Ms. White, 61, could not make rent. She was evicted from her apartment of 14 years, after a breakup with a longtime girlfriend. She could not work. She also could not find a way to ask for help. For three months, when she was not crashing on a friend’s couch, she slept in Washington Square Park. The daughter of traveling performers, Ms. White has been performing in musicals since she was 8....

Between gigs on Broadway and singing with Liza Minnelli, Ms. White had always worked for tips in piano bars around the West Village. She was a regular at 88’s until it closed, then found a new home at Rose’s Turn on Grove Street — until it, too, closed. She struggled to get a perch at the few surviving piano bars around town. Heartfelt if campy renditions of American songbook classics were out. Spoofy if campy versions of ’80s pop were in. “They want to bring in the younger crowd,” Ms. White said. “And I’m old.” She still played one night a week at the Duplex, on Christopher Street, earning enough to keep her phone on and get by on Ramen noodles, and kept some clothing there after losing her apartment. In the park, Ms. White slept on a bench near the bathroom because it made her feel more civilized.

[...]

Ms. White never mentioned to the others who slept in the park that she had been nominated for a Tony award* [see note] when she performed, alongside Glenn Close, in “Barnum,” in 1980....
Thanks to a sympathetic cop, a loving partner, and a knockout audition for Encores audition, she's now on Broadway, in Finian's big transfer. (Singing the apropos anthem "Necessity.")

So, a happy ending. And perhaps an exceptional case. But perhaps many show people this morning will read with chills down their spines.

Is this today's actor's nightmare?

(Here's a quick clip of White singing "Necessity." Great song.)

*Wow. Commenter Tom catches this, um, untruth. A little internet research would have prevented this reporting error.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Packin' 'Em In

Dan Savage interviews Frank Rich about many weighty issues--both theatrical (Sondheim) and political (gay rights)--but their digression about the size of "road houses" is perhaps the most important take-away:

[O]ur two big houses [in Seattle] are no Broadway houses. They're movie palaces that were built to accommodate some vaudeville, but they are lousy places to see musicals in. The seats are all too close together—they did a good job rehabbing it, but still. It's too large. People here don't realize how small most Broadway theaters really are [i.e. 800-1200 seats].

You're absolutely right, and I would say that Seattle's experience is typical of almost every out-of-town city. The whole arrival of performing-arts centers in Tampa, Cleveland, and so on changed it all. So now every Broadway show plays these huge barns out of town, and they don't want a smaller theater like the old Shubert in Chicago—by small, I mean still 1,800 seats. They don't want it. They want the 3,500- or 4,000-seat auditorium.

Which is too bad, because those theaters weren't designed for live performances.

Oh, it's ridiculous, and you have a show like Avenue Q, which is what everyone thinks of it—it's an intimate show with puppets, played in one of the smaller Broadway houses. It played in a theater with about 800 seats in New York. That's been playing around the country in places like the Fox in Atlanta, which is 4,000 seats.

Yeah, I saw that here for the first time at the Paramount. I called and made sure I could get tickets in the first 10 rows, and there were people in the last row in the balcony.

It's shocking. My guess is that the first maybe 12 rows of the orchestra or 15 rows of the Paramount equal the entire capacity of the Golden Theatre, which it played on Broadway in New York.

The erecting of these huge barns and the shuttering of the older, smaller venues is no coincidence. It's pure math: pack more asses into your seats in less time. In a Broadway-size house, selling, say, 20,000 tickets takes 20 days. At the Atlanta Fox--five. (Or, in other words, one long weekend, before you're onto the next town.)

So what if the suckers in the balcony are paying top dollar for the equivalent of the bleachers at Yankee Stadium. They still get to see their Wicked, don't they!

And don't think these dynamics are not having an affect on the mic-ing and over-amplification of Broadway.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

NYT finally Spells Dramaturg Right

They must have been happy at LMDA yesterday upon finding, buried toward the end of a Times promo on Berkeley Rep's "Tiny Kushner" anthology, a change in an odd and dreaded house copyediting policy that has been a dramaturgical pet peeve for many years.

See if you catch it:

Their partnership began more than 25 years ago, when Mr. Taccone was artistic director of the Eureka Theater in San Francisco, now defunct, and Mr. Kushner, a struggling playwright, was recommended to him by a Stanford professor who had once taught him. The Eureka’s dramaturg, Oskar Eustis (now artistic director of the Public Theater in Manhattan), found him in New York, and brought back a script, “A Bright Room Called Day,” Mr. Kushner’s first produced play.
That's right--they dropped the 'e'! No more "dramaturges"!

Congratulations, NYT, on finally becoming more theatre-literate.

Or, rather: theater-literate. Out of appreciation I will make my own compromise.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Ginsburg & Scalia: Live on Stage!

If you hurry to the Kennedy Center tonight you can catch that dynamic duo as Justices Scalia and Ginsburg appearing in...an opera?

Luckily they're not singing:

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia will have nonspeaking roles Saturday night in a production by the Washington National Opera. They'll be dressed in black-tie attire and remain on stage for nearly 90 minutes during the opening performance of "Ariadne auf Naxos".

The opera depicts a serious opera company and a comedic troupe performing at the same time during a dinner party. The justices will play party guests.

Event organizers say Ginsburg and Scalia are opera lovers and have appeared in previous productions.

Seriously, guys, I know the government is in budget-cutting crisis, but now you're taking work as extras?

Here's a good weekend parlor game--what would you cast them as?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

$66.50

"Tickets as low as $65.50"

So boasts a print ad for the new Off Broadway Avenue Q.

Ponder that pitch for a second.

As low as $66.50??? Talk about power of suggestion. (As if I'm supposed to go into a hypnotic trance and nod, "Wow. That's a bargain.") Are they aware what's been going on in the news the last year, something about the economy? Well I guess they are since that's why they moved. Maybe they feel it only affected them.

Also notice: as low as $66.50. That's the lowest price. Which seats are they? Not the $89.50 seats, that we know.

And certainly not the $101.50 they are already charging for performances over the holidays, between Christmas and New Years.

Lastly...it's OFF Broadway for chrissakes. Smaller theatres, lower budgets. Am I wrong, or this the first ever 3-figure ticket price for an Off Broadway show?

Defining Off Broadway has always been difficult. But at least we could always say, "cheaper tickets." Now...

I mean, how many folks actually paid $66.50 to see Avenue Q on Broadway???

$400,000

That's how much the Pearl Theatre Co. has budgeted for each production this year. (A factoid buried in last weekend's NYT profile of the group.)

I cite it as probably a good measuring stick of just how much it costs to mount a modest full production in an Off Broadway nonprofit theatre these days. Keep in mind that Pearl is working on the lower end of the LORT contract scale, with no "name" stars and modest publicity. They produce classics--which often demand period costumes and what by today's standards are relatively large casts (i.e. more than four). But their productions are hardly lavish.

So if it costs even the little Peal four hundred grand to put on a show...what does that mean for everyone else?

I remember--back in the 70s & early 80s--when folks talked of spending $1 million on a Broadway show as folly.

Four hundred grand is basically half a million. Yes there's been inflation and all, but...gulp.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Think-Piece on Neil Simon?

Yes, David Edelstein has written one.

An unusually compliemntary one, too. It's true, though, that the fame and success Simon achieved on stage is one of those phenomenons of a bygone era worth noting. I remember how back in 1990 or so the news that Jake's Women would be the first Neil Simon play close on the road before coming to Broadway was greeted as a sign of the apocalypse for the commercial future of not just this but any playwright Broadway. The meaning was that no longer could a play count on selling tickets based on the name of the playwright alone. Well, Jake's Women did finally make it to Broadway in 1992, and it wasn't that great. But the prophecy kind of came true anyway and 1990 seems as good a turning point in retrospect as any.

Personally I think the strengths Simon's legacy is not only his prolificness but his sheer craft. (The two go hand in hand when you think of it.) Of course, the downside of obsessive craft is formula, something he arguably fell into.

Edelstein is more fond of the oeuvre than am I (though I did muster a fitting tribute for the Columbia Encyclopedia of Modern Drama), but his concluding paragraphs are poignant:

Neil Simon embodies a different age, when you tried out a play at the Shubert in New Haven, in Boston, in Philly, in Wilmington, and fiddled and handed the actors new lines as they were going onstage and tossed out whole acts if you needed to. ... The most entertaining stories in his memoirs are the ones in which he’s working on those plays out of town, stressed but in his element, measuring laughs and watching his audience watch his work.

But there’s a price to pay for watching an audience so attentively, for striving to find a too-harmonious balance between bathos and clownishness, for flattering and spoon-feeding instead of leading people somewhere they haven’t been. When that audience moves on (or dies out), the works don’t evolve. They remain a product of their era and place—forever of their time instead of perpetually new.
Seems like the price for any commercial artist, no?

Review: Emperor Jones at Irish Rep

Yes, it is indeed, as Brantley says, all that. So say I in Time Out this week.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

What I've Been Seeeing

To confirm that Playgoer indeed still does go to plays, I've decided to discipline myself better about writing them up. When sitting down to write a whole "review" seems to daunting, though, I may resort to this new feature, "What I've Been Seeing"--a way to take the pressure off myself and simply unload what I most remember about notable productions.

And so, here's what I've been seeing lately. I'll get to Broadway another time, but here are two prominent Non-Broadway productions I saw last month that deserve some reflecting upon--even though they are, alas, now closed.


Aftermath (New York Theatre Workshop). Exonerated's Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen interview Iraqi refugees and put their words on stage. (closed)

First, wonderful cast. The company of nine Arab and South Asian actors, most of whom I had never seen before, was very impressive. The stories they had to tell (taken from the words of the actual Iraqis interviewed) were powerful, especially in reminding us of yet another horrific blunder of our misadventure in that country: ruining the lives of so many of the people we were supposedly trying to save.

So that combination of gripping stories powerfully told and embodied was basically worth it. However, as with Exonerated, I find myself bothered by Blank and Jensen's approach. First, something about the staging (by Blank) and structure of Aftermath seemed really awkward and plodding. In interspersing the stories of two couples and four individuals, Blank made the actors keep moving into spotlights from upstage--resulting in a new "cutaway" and transition every ten minutes or so. Theatrically this just became inevitably tiresome and ended up sucking some of the power out of the fine material. Also, the creators' decision to have one actor behave as "translator" had a number of odd effects. One, for the first twenty minutes or so the storytellers began talking in Arabic, with the translator "translating," and then--magically!--letting these Iraqis morph suddenly into English-speakers. It's a convention well known from the movies and here seemed entirely unnecessary. Sure, I guess it foregrounded the very nature of translation and lent some "authenticity" to the proceedings. But problems of translation didn't really figure in the rest of the play, when this convention was soon dropped. Moreover, while the storytellers mostly addressed the audience directly, that "translator" was always there mediating, and often lessening our direct connection with the characters. This ended up actually softening the blow, I felt, when certain characters directly accused the U.S. (i.e. us) of ruining their lives.

All in all, this had the ingredients of good documentary political theatre, but suffered from a little too much meddling from its non-Iraqi creative team.


Othello directed by Peter Sellars, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman (LABrynth & Public Theatres, at NYU)

You may have gathered many folks didn't much care for this production. Let's just say there was a lot to scratch your head about.

While I too questioned the costuming of Mr. Hoffman (an ill-fitting merino sweater of the ugliest green--to signified some green-bellied monster?), I actually liked his performance. Sure, this was not an Iago that would have made sense in any realistic staging of the play--playing his sadistic subtext for all to see, hulking around the stage like a crybaby about to go postal--but, hey, this was hardly a realistic production. As he did in Long Day's Journey and The Seagull Hoffman once again reminded us of his fine stage chops--he's one of our few major movie stars who can project the exact same quiet intensity on stage as he does on screen. His line readings were, well, weird sometimes--but never boring. He illuminated the knotty text powerfully and completely inhabited it. So whether or not it was a "proper" Iago...I was riveted whenever he was on stage.

Unfortunately, Iago isn't in every scene. And the rest of the LABrynth ensemble--while shown to good effect in other, more contemporary and naturalistic plays--just were not up to Hoffman's level natural skills and engagement with the text. And in the case of John Ortiz (who's shone in other LABrynth productions and in supporting roles for Michael Mann films), here was an actor who never would be cast as Othello were he not co-running the company. Whether it was Ortiz's relatively slight build, his thin voice, his unfortunate resemblance (from the balcony at least) to SNL's Fred Armisen...he was so overpowered by Hoffman from the get-go, and so unconvincing as the swashbuckling slayer of Turks, that the character dynamics of this monumental tragedy were thrown fatally off balance.

As for Sellars' vision, perhaps I'm one of the few who wishes he futzed more with the play, not less. I enjoyed his reimagining of the play's opening intrigues and backroom dealings as a series of furtive (sometimes simultaneous) cell phone conferences, manipulated by Iago. I was genuinely creeped out by the exaggerated horror-movie style of Iago and Othello's plotting against Cassio (played face out, into microphones, with campfire from-below lighting and spooky underscoring). Meanwhile, Sellars' stated intentions of creating an Othello for the Obama age never really materialized on stage. Dressing soldiers in formal navy blues and plopping a bed of tv screens center stage don't exactly do the directing for you. Deciding to go with pretty much the full four-hour(!) text in this context seemed senseless since Sellars' concept only came through in brief spurts, leaving lots of longueurs of unsteadily spoken blank verse in between.

So for me what was most wrong with this Othello was an odd schizoid quality that I've not seen anyone else point out. It was like two productions going on at once, and colliding. On the one hand you have Peter Sellars doing the full regietheater, using actors as symbols to make bold ironic intellectual statements on a big industrial stage (in this case NYU's Skirball Center). And then you have the LABrynth ensemble: a bunch of gritty naturalists who perform best in small blackboxes with contemporary material. Given the set's mostly bare stage (outside of the much-maligned "TV-bed") and contemporary clothing, what unfolded often looked, comically, like a group of very inward looking method actors who had broken into Wooster Group headquarters to do a four-hour runthrough on their stage.

National Arts & Humanities Month

Who knew--there's a "month" for us.

From the Prez himself, here's the White House's designation of October 2009 as "National Arts and Humanities Month."

As with "Black History Month" and the like, we of course must wonder: and what about the rest of the year?

Still, nice to have the head honcho actually saying things like "we recommit ourselves to ensuring all Americans can access and enjoy" the arts, for a change.

Here's the full proclamation. I've pointed out other highlights in bold.

THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release
October 2, 2009
NATIONAL ARTS AND HUMANITIES MONTH, 2009
- - - - - - -
BY THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA A PROCLAMATION

Throughout our Nation's history, the power of the arts and humanities to move people has built bridges and enriched lives, bringing individuals and communities together through the resonance of creative expression. It is the painter, the author, the musician, and the historian whose work inspires us to action, drives us to contemplation, stirs joy in our hearts, and calls upon us to consider our world anew. The arts and humanities contribute to the vibrancy of our society and the strength of our democracy, and during National Arts and Humanities Month, we recommit ourselves to ensuring all Americans can access and enjoy them.

Our Nation's cultural assets tell the story of America's diversity and reveal our common humanity. Countless American artists develop unique styles by infusing their work with cultural elements from across the country and the world, and in turn, have an impact on the global arts community. Through history and philosophy, we learn the heritage of fellow Americans and appreciate the arc of their narrative as an integral part of our own. Cultural exchanges, collaborative projects, and continuing education programs help us to share and preserve a mosaic of rich traditions and provide future generations with opportunities for artistic expression.

The arts and humanities also bring our economy untold benefits. Millions of Americans take part in the non-profit and for-profit arts industries. Cultural and arts activities not only contribute tens of billions of dollars to our economy, but also inspire innovation. In neighborhoods and communities across the Nation, the arts and humanities lie at the center of revitalization, inspiring creativity, ideas, and new hope in areas that have gone too long without it.

Every American deserves an opportunity to study, understand, and contribute to the arts and humanities. This must begin in our schools, where children may have their first and most important exposure to these disciplines. Working on their own masterpieces and finding inspiration in the work of others, young people are opened to new means of expression that sharpen their creative faculties. An education in music, dance, drama, design, and fine art reinforces skills in fields like math and science, and it can help students reach their full potential. In an ever-changing world, we must prepare our students with the knowledge, creative skills, and an ability to innovate so they can compete and succeed on a global stage.

As a people, we have an unlimited capacity for selfexpression and personal interpretation. While we may not always agree with what we see or hear, it is our open-mindedness that commends the artistic struggle behind the creation and our curiosity that pursues its vision. This month, we honor this artistic spirit that lives and breathes within every American. Creativity and a thirst for understanding are the fuel that has fed our Nation's success for centuries, and they will continue to be well into our future.

NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim October 2009 as National Arts and Humanities Month. I call upon the people of the United States to join together in observing this month with appropriate ceremonies, activities, and programs to celebrate the arts and humanities in America.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this second day of October, in the year of our Lord two thousand nine, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-fourth.

BARACK OBAMA

Sorry I only discovered this now, with October nearly gone. Better act fast to celebrate those arts--while we can!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Foreman in Rehearsal

Every wanted to be a fly on the wall in a Richard Foreman rehearsal? Well thanks to Time Out's Helen Shaw, you are there!

Go read her moment to moment diary of her two hours watching Foreman and Willem DaFoe work on the upcoming Idiot Savant at the Public Theater.

Amidst all the funny incidentals, take note of the basic fact that Foreman rehearses his actors in costume, and on the set.

Foreman does not see a big difference between “rehearsal” and “tech rehearsal”—from Day One, he has had full costume, sets, lights and the sounds of buzzes and crashes cuing servant-actors to bustle in with weird pictures of fruit. This has the odd effect of making things seem far more finished than they are. While I watched, nearly every line came in for a tweak (whenever there’s a moment, the stage manager calls a “Stop and Write” so everyone can mark scripts).
A great example of someone breaking those "rules" that don't have to be rules.
We're led to believe rehearsals must be conducted in street clothes for 3-4 weeks and then just a few days in "tech" and in the space--which are the actual performance conditions. It's strictly budget planning that has brought this to be. Yet when you stand back, it sure does seem to privilege spoken dialogue and blocking over all other production elements, as if they're not as essential--or at least nothing that can't be thrown together in a few days before first preview.

A true gesamtkunskwerk-auteur like Foreman could have it no other way. Which is why he is rarely engaged by theatres other than his own little Ontological Hysteric in the East Village where he can build his own sets and have total control from day one. But most directors--no matter how visual and integrated their vision--have to follow the standard playbook of design meetings months in advance, followed by rehearsal with actors separate from design elements, and then throw it all together at the end.

Some directors complain of having to make crucial design decisions before they've had a chance to organically develop the performance in rehearsal. But how ironic that the design process is forced upon the creative team too early, but they still don't get to work with it until the last minute.

No wonder so many productions seem so inharmonious.


More goodies on Idiot Savant, by the way, on the Public's own You Tube channel. (How about that!)

Cell Phone Announcements: Too Subtle?

One could devote a whole blog to funny stories posted on All That Chat, of course, but in light of increased cell-phone consciousness these days I could not resist this one, from chatter "rainbow carnage":

My new favourite switch-off-your-phone announcement

It was at Terror 2009 at the Southwark Playhouse in London. As the lights went down, a phone rang. A man in the audience answered and proceeded to have a conversation. An usher pulled him from his seat onto the stage and pretended to beat the shit out of him before throwing him out of the theatre. The audience loved it. Not a single phone went off for the rest of the show.
I must say--I think that whole Hugh Jackman viral video may be for the good. At two Broadway shows now I have heard audience members talking about it as they--yes--turn off their phones! As in: "I don't want that to happen to me..."

Has the ringing stopped? No. But maybe the painful visual of that episode was what was needed to make the abstract a painfully embarrassing reality for folks. (You don't want Wolverine mad at you, do you?)

So while I agree with 99 Seats that the secret filming of a Broadway performance also constitutes an offense--maybe there's a greater good here that justifies the means? Let's hope. For God's sake, man, let's hope.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Weekend Viewing

The always thought-provoking and sometimes contrarian Gregory Mosher (former AD of the Goodman & Lincoln Center Theatre), speaking at Columbia last week.

Among the topics? "Why major performing arts institutions may be headed for deep trouble – and why young people should be running them." Enjoy.

Gregory Mosher at CafeArts from CUarts on Vimeo.

Weekend Reading

-D.C. gets serious (and gets serious money) for Musical Theatre (WaPo)

-Inside the Second City empire (4-part series in Variety)

-David Cote on "the Ophelia problem"--i.e. what the hell do you do with her? (Time Out Upstaged)

Enjoy!

(Feel free to add further suggestions and links in Comments.)

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Fake NEA "Whistleblower"

It shouldn't surprise us that the source of the whole NEA faux-outrage ruckus last month is himself severely tarnished by biased political associations. ArtNet's Ben Davis digs up the goods on one Patrick Courrielche, the "whistleblower" featured by Fox News who somehow was in on the infamous NEA conference call that sought partnership with various artists in some community-building programs.

So who is this guy?

Invariably when Courrielche gets introduced, he is described as a "filmmaker." I am not sure what his filmmaking credentials are. He runs a small viral marketing firm, Inform Ventures, which stages artistic events -- contests, festivals and the like -- to promote various international corporations and their products. Perhaps he is referring to Stomping Grounds, a 2007 clip featuring Biz Markie, which Inform Ventures put together to promote Toyota’s Scion brand. I don’t know about you, but I call that a "commercial." In other words, all Courrielche’s platitudes about protecting the arts from outside manipulation are so much hot air. This guy manipulates artists for a living. Yoking artistic communities to inscrutable institutions is his bread and butter.

[...]

With regard to Courrielche’s mingling of politics and marketing, it is also worth noting the fact that his first major intervention as a conservative art commentator was an essay titled "The Artist Formerly Known as Dissident," in which he championed the anonymous "Obama / Joker / Socialism" posters that appeared around Los Angeles earlier this year. Somewhat improbably, Courrielche defended the posters as an example of speaking truth to power, dismissing claims that the image was racially provocative and claiming that the artist remained anonymous because he was intimidated by the intolerance of the liberal art establishment.
Even worse, Courrielche seems to have a biased and very personal grievance against the NEA's Yosi Sergant, who he basically got ousted from his post in NEA communications.
[T]he two men worked together. Sergant’s LinkedIn page even still lists his job as "Marketing Manager" at Inform Ventures. It’s a small company, consisting of, at any given time, Courrielche, his wife and one or two assistants. Did it just slip Courrielche’s mind during his many media appearances that the man he was demonizing was a former co-worker?

According to an acquaintance of Sergant’s, Robert Greene, when he met Sergant in 2006, his story was that he had left the Scion campaign because of his increasing commitment to environmentalism and bike culture (Sergant’s strong commitment to biking is almost the first thing mentioned about him in a 2008 L.A. Weekly profile.) On the other hand, the word on the street in L.A. is that the break was bitter, and involved Courrielche accusing Sergant of stealing information from him. Sergant went on to work for a rival lifestyle marketing firm, Evolutionary Media Group, which consulted for the Obama campaign early on.

Whether the break was ideological or personal, this kind of baggage lends Courrielche’s whole ongoing crusade the ugly aura of a personal vendetta. To be sure, he’s moved on from Sergant now, but the background is important because Courrielche’s initial account of the conference call -- arguably what made it a big deal -- involved deliberately distorting quotes from Sergant to make it sound as if he were knowingly organizing something illegal. (Courrielche didn’t respond to an email requesting that he comment on the relationship.)

This guy kind of reminds me of those FBI plants who would infiltrate civil rights org's, hippies, and campus radical groups in the 60s. Not to sound paranoid, but--who knows what "art narcs" may be out there now?

(Hat tip: Kendt)

Photo of the Day

photo: Iwan Baan

The Dee and Charles Wyly Theater in Dallas, TX. Brand new home of the Dallas Theater Center.

NYT architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussof gives an assessment (and full slideshow!) of this and the new nearby opera house as well:

Situated a short walk from the Nasher Sculpture Center, the Wyly Theater’s tall, blocky form is wrapped in a skin of vertical aluminum rods, with only a few windows cut through to suggest the life inside. The architects placed the stage at ground level with windows on three sides so that when the blackout curtains are raised, passers-by can catch glimpses of it.

To get to their seats, audience members will first descend along a vast outdoor ramp, 167 feet at its widest point, down to the lobby, which is one level below ground. The lobby is a generic concrete space — a social mixing chamber designed to build anticipation for the main event above. From there, narrow staircases set in the lobby’s back corners lead up to the theater.

This sequence — down into the earth and back up again — is an effective architectural trick, an inversion of the neo-Classical grand staircase. The idea is to create a sense of slight disorientation, of leaving the outside world behind, and in doing so preparing the mind for the more intimate experience of the performance. Emerging from one of the dark little staircases, you feel the full force of the theater’s height, and of the unfolding experience — the sense of mystery, anxiety and then sudden release — you’ve just been through.

But it is the theater hall itself and the machinery that supports it that are the main event. The proscenium wall, like the scenery, can be raised and lowered electronically. Stage floors can drop away and reappear. Several tiers of balconies can be mechanically rearranged in any number of configurations, surrounding the stage on three sides one night, drawing together in a more traditional arrangement the next.

The purpose of all this engineering is not just to facilitate quick set changes; it also allows the director to manipulate and fine-tune the relationship between actors and audience. If the machinery is used as intended, patrons will find that the emotional distance between them and the actors will change in unexpected ways with each performance.

The design feels like a cheeky take on the idea of the megalomaniac star architect. “You want a monumental, ‘iconic’ building?” it seems to ask. “Well, here’s a big, generic-looking box whose interior changes every time you think you have a fix on it.” And as if in response to the notion of the architect as control freak, it leaves the manipulation of interior spaces, and of the people who inhabit them, to the building’s tenants.

What a nice playground for new A.D. Kevin Moriarty.

(Of course, Ouroussoff never mentions Dallas Theater Center in his review. I suppose these "tenants" remain a mystery to him. Or does the idea of a permanent resident nonprofit theater company still mystify even the most cultured of our journalists?)

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Iraq National Theatre

Yup, they have one. And it has just reopened, for the first time since the US invasion.

From a moving story in the London Telegraph:

The play, To enjoy the sweetness you must taste the bitterness, produced, written, directed and acted by Iraqis, is the first evening stage show in Baghdad since the war that toppled Saddam Hussein six and a half years ago.

Although it is a comedy, the title and story have an obvious and serious resonance for people who long for better times. The 1,000 seat theatre, built during the Iran-Iraq war and which in its heyday hosted sell-out foreign productions of Shakespeare and Chekhov, is, once again, full.

As nervous ushers handed out white plastic garden chairs to customers who had paid 10,000 dinars (£5.50) for seats only to be left standing, the significance of the night-time performance was not lost amid the hubbub.

At $10 a seat, not bad. Of all measures of Iraqui recovery, the life of the arts ain't a bad measure. And, yes, even under Sadaam it was better.

"We used to go to the theatre and cinemas all the time before the war," says Elaf Mohammed, a 29-year-old civil engineer accompanied by her husband Usama and three-year-old daughter. "It is so good that we can do so again."

I can hear Fox News now: Whaddaya expect from people who go to the theatre and are named Osama!

Of course, there are still problems...

Culture Minister Maher Ibrahim al-Hadithi admitted in June that his $85 million (£53.9 milion) budget was "miserable" and that the ministry's infrastructure and resources had all been looted or destroyed in recent years.

I know, right? Only $85 mil. I mean, how can they keep up with our NEA with its mighty...$155 million budget. (Which was only $99 mil back in '96.)

Yes, even Iraq--the barely viable state of freakin' Iraq--puts our arts budget to shame. Probably more per capita, if you factor in how much smaller a country is. Congressmen wail about how our economy won't allow more--but Iraq doesn't even have an economy!

And to think, somewhere in that messed up, ethnically fractioned government of theirs...even they managed to agree on having a "culture minister."

Review: Playboy of the Western World (Pearl Theatre)

In Time Out today, my review of the Pearl's revival of Playboy of the Western World.

I must admit I went in wary, given the Pearl's history of taking on classics above their heads. Plus, there have already, in recent years, been two Irish productions that have come through town, plus another at Irish Rep. Did we need another one? especially if it was not going to be stellar. But, despite being not stellar, and a bit too pretty and surface, and almost ruined by a sexist sappiness at the end....it's not too bad. And perhaps augurs well for the new leadership of the company.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The B'way Talkback Craze

Of all the things for Broadway to pilfer from the nonprofit theatre, why have they resorted to the dreaded "talkback"?

Patrick Healy, in yesterday's Times, documents its emergence over the past year on the Rialto--as sort of a "desperate to try anything" approach of producers looking for yet more angles to sell the theatrical "experience."

And it ain't just the classy shows:

This fall, commercial shows like “Chicago,” “Shrek the Musical” and “Burn the Floor” are joining “Oleanna” in holding talk-backs. Other productions that encourage audience participation include the musical “Rock of Ages,” which is holding an online contest for audience.
Yes, quite a disparate array. Which means: whether or not there's something to actually, you know, talk about, we want you to stay anyway. Or as producer Jed Bernstein tells Healy: "when people connect to a show, they want to prolong that experience as much as they can."

Hm. When was the last time you were interested in prolonging your Broadway experience?

Then again, it takes so darned long to exit a Broadway house theses days that I often end up staying put in my seat for a good 10-15 minutes anyway, post-performance. So might as well entertain me, I guess.

But Healy puts his finger on the real motivation:
Talk-backs are especially, though not exclusively, common at plays that are struggling to sell tickets or are slow in building audiences.

[...]

For last spring’s “Irena’s Vow,” not even the frequent talk-backs with the real-life daughter of the main character, Irena Gut Opdyke — who hid several Jews during World War II — yielded much in the way of ticket sales, though many audience members remarked about the pleasure of hearing from the daughter, the show’s publicist, Rick Miramontez, said.

Another Broadway play with uneven ticket sales last spring, Neil LaBute’s “Reasons to Be Pretty,” also added a series of talk-backs that featured popular actors like Paul Rudd, who had worked with Mr. LaBute before.
"Come for the drama--stay for the bullshit!"

Truth is, if folks don't like the show, they're not going to be that interested in "experiencing" a minute more than they have to.

And what better way to ruin whatever fun there is in a Neil LaBute play by trying to seriously analyze its "issues" or, worse, engage other celebrities to pile on the hero-worship.

Long story short: the talkbacks failed to salvage Pretty or other duds that pinned their hopes on them, like Irina's Vow.

The most unsettling example today, though, has to be the Oleanna campaign--called "Take a Side." What the hell does that mean, take a side? Yes, I'd like to support the misogynist college professor against the dumb broad he physically abuses...

This misguided effort to ennoble the play invites not show people, but "serious" legal & civic minds like ex-mayor David Dinkins(!), NYC Cultural Affairs Commissioner Kate Levin, and "FOX News Channel legal analyst Lis Wiehl." Okay and some show people, like Montel Williams (who I guess is seen by some as a public servant) and Mark freakin' Kudisch! (I guess because he just played a sexual harasser in 9 to 5???)

But enough from me. Over to Oleanna's own star Bill Pullman: "
The talkbacks don’t provide any conclusion or consensus. There is a side of me that dislikes that announcement at the start of each show: 'Take a side! Afterwards, a post-production discussion.' It’s really not about taking a side."

Indeed I also heard director Doug Hughes say explicitly that the goal of this production was to take a new look at the play outside of the original early-90's context of the Clarence Thomas and "political correctness" controversies.

But hey, artists, get with the program! You're off message: hyped up buzzword-context sells!

Kennedy Center Pushing Arts Education

From Backstage:

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts is starting a new program that could reinvent arts education for schools struggling with budget cuts and fewer art teachers, organizers said Friday.

The pilot "Any Given Child" project announced Friday for schools in Sacramento, Calif., could be expanded to as many as three cities each year, the center said. Under the strategy, the Kennedy Center will link local arts groups with schools to help teach students in grades K-8.

The groups will draft long-range plans specific to each city to ensure all students have access to music, theater and the visual arts. The Kennedy Center is devoting about $500,000 to begin the program and expects to keep costs low for local schools.
I don't see where the rest of the cash is coming from. (Half a mil doesn't go far these days.) But hey, it's a start.

Most promising, to me, is the direct involvement of artists themselves doing some of the teaching:
The center said artistic groups could create specialized lessons to meet the needs of schools' curriculums. A local ballet company, for example, could teach third graders about movement while a local symphony works with fifth graders on music appreciation.

[...]

Over the next few months, the Kennedy Center will conduct an audit of the local arts scene and existing arts programs in the Sacramento City Unified School District and Twin Rivers Unified School District. The audit will help map out an affordable way for school districts and local arts groups to provide arts education together.
Not only is it good for education, but it's programs like this that we'll need to keep the arts alive. Increasingly, it will have be as "teaching artists" that a lot of our artists make their livings.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Whither Theatre 80?

"Theatre 80 St. Marks, September 20 2009"
by Melanie, East Village Corner.

Seeing the Pearl Theatre Co's Playboy of the Western World last night (review forthcoming next week) reminded me to catch up on a story I missed last spring.

The Pearl announced back in May that they were leaving their home of 15 years, the old revival movie house, Theatre 80 St. Marks. AND that for this season they were leasing Manhattan Theatre Club's "Stage II" at City Center.

First: interesting news about MTC, that they were renting out one of their three spaces for the entire season. That they gave up their smallest space and one of the original two--and not the continually cursed Biltmore/Friedman Broadway venue--is a sign of how much that organization has changed. I guess they'd still rather gamble on the ticket income of 650 seats at Broadway prices rather than return to their original mission of small new plays in a 150-seater.

But I digress.

It's good news for the Pearl, for sure. A midtown theatre district venue, and a space more conducive to their cozy classics than the oddly shaped Theatre 80 stage, situated in hipster East Village.

But what about Theatre 80? What's its future as a performance venue? Especially at a time when we need smaller (but not too small) performance venues.

The blog Lost City--dedicated to documenting and fighting "the vestiges of Old New York as they are steamrolled under or threatened by the currently ruthless real estate market"--asked that very question at the time and got this response from the longtime owner of the space:
Be assured that the Otway family still owns and runs Theater 80. My mother is well and sends her dearest regards to all.

When we came to Saint Marks Place in 1964, there was not a tree on the block. My father planted the first three trees on this now tree lined promenade. At the age of eleven, I dug out the auditorium with my father and helped pour the concrete. We are not going anywhere. We helped to build this neighborhood one business at a time, and it can be lost one building at a time. We have held out against times when those who are tearing down the neighborhood seem to be winning. But, like many others, we intend to keep the East Village a vibrant arts community.

I am at a loss to understand the quote from Shepard Sobel that he is “… disappointed the East Village is losing a theatrical venue to commercial enterprise..." Theatre 80 has been the jewel of the off-broadway theaters since my father built it, and we opened in the mid 1960s.

Our theater saw the opening of "You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown", was the home of the Manhattan Festival Ballet, and was the first full time film revival house. For many years Noche Flamenca has performed to sold out audiences.

I have no idea the meaning or source of this information. As managing agent for the Otway family, owners of Theatre 80, I state categorically, we intend to remain a theater. We have turned down offers for other uses of this theater which would destroy the auditorium.

Please be assured that we welcome offers from theater companies to lease this theater. I can be reached by email at LorcanOtway@Gmail.com

Best regards
Lorcan Otway
Theatre 80

So, how's that working out?

Well there was indeed a play in there last month, the aptly titled Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side. (Yes the infamous "erection" play.) But it just closed last weekend.

Who's next? Anyone know?

Better yet--anyone want it?

The Piven Papers

NYT gets a hold of the complete Speed-the-Plow v Piven arbitration report.

Buried in Patrick Healy's summary is the wackiest he said/he said I've come upon in a while.

The players are mega-producer Jeffrey Richards and Dr. Carlon M. Colker, Jeremy Piven's personal physician:

Mr. Richards and Dr. Colker had a heated phone conversation, which ended when Dr. Colker abruptly hung up. According to Dr. Colker’s testimony, Mr. Richards called back to say he had secretly recorded their first phone call — then hung up himself. A bit later, Dr. Colker testified, he received a call from a person identifying himself as a USA Today reporter and claiming to have the tape recording. Dr. Colker said he believed the caller was Mr. Richards, disguising his voice. Mr. Richards denied that, and said he had in fact not taped the first call.
Hmm, does a certain Broadway producer wish he had an acting career?

Got a lot of time to kill this weekend? Read the whole official 44-page document!

Thursday, October 08, 2009

The Phantom of...Coney Island???

Yes, Lord Lloyd Webber will not rest:

The Phantom of the Opera is coming back - but this time, he'll be haunting the amusement park at New York's Coney Island.

Star composer Andrew Lloyd Webber announced Thursday a long-awaited sequel to his massively successful The Phantom of the Opera, one of the world's best-loved and longest-running musicals.

[...]

He said he wanted to set the piece at Coney Island because, at its turn-of-the-century heyday, it was "the eighth wonder of the world." "Think of Vegas and then triple it," he said.

Mr. Webber sketched out an outline of the plot, saying the Phantom made his way to Coney Island after losing Christine. The Phantom rises from one of the attractions at a freak show to control the entire complex, without ever losing his love for Christine.

Freakshow indeed.

The Arts Journalism Limits of a "Family Newspaper"

From a Q & A on NYT.com with culture reporter Robin Pogebrin:

Q. American culture has had — and currently has — naked opera divas, actors and musicians and other degrading aspects of "culture" that a decent person cannot even mention. Does The Times have any policy about reporting these aspects of American culture?

A. The New York Times tries to make its cultural coverage as comprehensive as possible, all the while keeping in mind matters of taste and what makes for appropriate family reading at the breakfast table.

Not an insignificant issue, when you think about where the cultural sensibilities of the contemporary theatre are compared to those of the NY Times, which--based on the evidence of this questioner at least--date from about 1964.

Small case in point: the Times would not print the full titles of important plays like Suzan-Lori Parks' Fuckin' A and Mark Ravenhill's Shopping and Fucking even while reviewing and reporting on them.

Now I'm not saying they have to report on the Off-Off actor who's currently sporting a live erection on stage--but I say that only because the play has not proved itself otherwise newsworthy. What if it had? What if David Mamet or Caryl Churchill wrote it and it was staged at the Public?

Far be it from me to tell NYT to start sullying their pages with...what was the word? oh, "degrading" words and subjects. I'm just saying--they're probably the only newspaper or magazine dedicated to "serious" arts coverage (i.e. maintaining a "standard" for arts coverage) that still censors themselves in this way. So while, for instance, the New Yorker, New York, Time Out, and American Theatre are cursing up a storm and relating to both the culture and the readers by 2009 measures of propriety--the Times will inevitably seem stodgy in comparison to the younger readers of today, who in turn will be the majority readers of tomorrow.

In short they may be imposing on their arts department a significant handicap in dealing with the arts of today. Such are the dilemmas of any news organization striving for "general readership" (i.e. mondo profits). Maybe it's time, for their sake, for some offshoot website, at least???

Photo of the Day

Who the hell's this old coot?


Oh, Kevin Spacey. In Inherit the Wind at the Old Vic, directed by Trevor Nunn.

Nice to run your own theatre, ain't it.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Quote of the Day

"This is exactly the time, when things are falling apart, when the economy is bad, it's the time to drop ticket prices, it's the time to create free nights, it's the time to figure out how to produce even though the economics say 'don't produce.'"

-Tim Robbins.

Amen, brother.

When he's not busy being "Tim Robbins" he also runs the Actors' Gang theatre in LA, currently presenting something they're calling the "WTF?! Festival."

(I don't know what they're planning, but I certainly have wanted to apply that title to some festivals I've been to that shall remain nameless...)

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

America's Favorite Plays

Or, at least, our "most produced" plays announced in the current 2009-2010 season at professional nonprofit theatres across the country--according to American Theatre Magazine.

boom (9)* by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb
The Seafarer (8)by Conor McPherson
Speech & Debate (8)by Stephen Karam
Dead Man's Cell Phone (8)by Sarah Ruhl
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (7)by Rachel Sheinkin & William Finn

Around the World in 8o Days (7)adapted by Mark Brown from Jules Verne
The Glass Menagerie (7)by Tennessee Williams
Opus (7)by Michael Hollinger
Our Town (6)by Thornton Wilder
Shipwrecked! An Entertainment (6)by Donald Margulies
Souvenir (6)by Stephen Temperley
Yankee Tavern (6)by Steven Dietz
Black Pearl Sings! (6)by Frank Higgins
Boeing-Boeing (6)translated by Beverly Cross from Marc Camoletti

(*=number of announced productions this season, presumably including co-productions?)

Some off the cuff observations:

-What is boom??? I have to admit I'm ashamed I never heard of the most produced play in America!

-Note that David Cromer's hit Off Broadway revival of "Our Town" is not one of the 6 productions indidcated, since it is a commercial mounting in a non-TCG member theatre. (The production's debut in Chicago last season could have counted--but Our Town didn't even make the list last year.) So, aside from this always being a popular play, did Cromer's production spur even more (perhaps less creative) revivals?

-American Artistic Directors really like Sarah Ruhl; Eurydice had 11 productions last season.

-Is Steven Dietz America's most popular playwright never produced in New York?

-Subscription audiences will never, never get tired of Glass Menagerie. (9 productions last season.) And theatre companies will never tire of its 4 characters and one set.

-Glass Menagerie, 4 characters; Opus, 4 characters; Seafarer, 5 characters; Speech & Debate, 4 characters; Souvenir, 2 characters; Shipwrecked, multiple characters, 3 actors. Playwrights, do the math.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Roundabout Woes

Todd Haimes is being up front about his company's financial insecurities:

The Roundabout Theater Co., which operates four venues, including the American Airlines Theater in Times Square, reported at a Crain's New York Business arts conference on Wednesday that its 10-year sponsorship contract with the airline expires in six months and may not be renewed. This comes as it deals with other funding woes.

“We are hoping they'll renew. We need the money,” said Todd Haimes, artistic director of Roundabout. “It's been a good relationship, but their business is terrible right now and we don't know what they'll decide.”

Well if there's one good thing that could come out of this recession theatrically speaking, it would be the relief of no longer having to say the words "American Airlines Theatre."

(It's hardly a good thing for the Roundabout when the mere mention of the name gets laughs from all quarters. I remember Kyle McLaughlin going on The Daily Show to promote The Caretaker, and before he could say anything about Pinter's bleak comic masterpiece, Jon Stewart wouldn't let get him past "...at the American Airlines Theatre" so amused was he.)

As for their specific money problems:

Roundabout is simultaneously dealing with a drop in its annual membership subscriptions, which cost between $300 and $400 a year, and individual donations. Over the past year, Mr. Haimes has been forced to reduce the size of his staff, cut salaries and pension contributions.

Um, you know what may be causing that drop in your subscriptions? The fact that they're "between $300 and $400 a year"!

NEA Grumbling Continues

Chairman Rocco makes nice with GOP sentaors, still feigning outrage over imagined "propaganda" motives in the NEA's inviting artists to promote volunteerism.

Landesman's response today noted that all NEA staffers get annual ethics training, including warnings against prohibited political activities. But in light of the teleconference controversy, he said, training efforts are being stepped up in a way that dovetails with a memo that special counsels to Obama issued to White House employees because of the brouhaha over the teleconference. That memo outlined the need to "avoid even the appearance of impropriety" when addressing the public about government programs.

Landesman said that the NEA is also reviewing whether "to reinforce" its existing directives to staff members on complying with the laws and conduct standards governing federal agency employees, and whether to stiffen the consequences for violating them.

"Thank you for the opportunity to clarify this matter and assure you of my commitment" to a nonpartisan NEA, Landesman concluded. "I look forward to working with you going forward."

Meanwhile, Rep. Louise Slaughter tells it like it is:
"This is no different than what we went through before, with [the NEA] as a convenient whipping boy, always accusing them of some nefarious thing they haven't done."
Let's hope Rocco gets some darned good charm-dividends out of this unnecessary self-flagellation.

Photo of the Day

"Aerial view of the curved wall of the amphitheatre"

Behold the 1900-year-old remains of Emperor Trajan's personal theatre.

From The Independent:

British archaeologists have unearthed a Roman amphitheatre the size of the Pantheon at the site of a port which once supplied Rome and its legions.

In the 2nd century, Portus was a gateway to the Mediterranean. Twice the size of Southampton, it now lies two miles inland, close to the runway at Fiumicino airport.

[...]

The site was first excavated in the 1860s, but after two years of digging, an elliptical theatre has been found which held up to 2,000 people. Its design suggests it was used by a high-status official, possibly the emperor himself.
More photos from BBC here.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Indie Theatre Rep?

No, not Indiana Rep.

Playwright/Blogger August Schulenburg floats a thought provoking proposal, that's been getting some play on the web.

One of the greatest challenges facing the indie theatre field (and so the whole NYC theatre field) is the ability of Equity Showcase productions to transfer to longer runs. The focus of this challenge has been primarily directed towards Equity and the showcase code itself, but there may be something we as field can do (preferably) with or without code reform.

An Indie Theatre Repertory company: the best of indie theatre given a longer life through production in repertory.[...] The structural model could be like the FringeNYC Encore series in miniature. A 7:00 weekday showtime of one production would allow you a 9:00 performance of another, with three show days on the weekend (similar to our Trilogy production schedule, only a little more so). A production could see anywhere from 3-5 shows a week. As one show in rep was ready to end, a new show would be brought in to keep the rep fresh.
Hmm.

I do like the idea of a new singular venue, identified with the Off Off scene, that one could reliably go to and see notable new shows. (Of course, HERE and PS122 already think they're doing that, I'm sure.) Part of Off-Off's problem in reaching out to new audiences, I believe, is people simply not knowing where plays are happening.

August doesn't focus much on the where's and how's of a new space--and indeed space is pretty hard to come by these days. (I suggest such a "Rep" set up camp in one of the more affordable areas of Brooklyn or Queens, and thus offer a real alternative to regular Broadway & Off Broadway.)

But his main goal is an even more urgent one--how to extend runs of good Off Off shows without violating the showcase code and/or going broke on space rentals.
Not only would worthy Indie theatre productions gain an extended life, but supported by the other shows, they would not need to prove immediately profitable. They would get the time they need to grow the audience they deserve. The premiere-itis of our major non-profits would be countered. Audiences previously made of friends and family would overlap, and over time, a legitimate following for the best of Indie theatre would develop. Plays that did especially well could transfer into commercial Off-Broadway runs, and/or gain an increased publicity that could lead to regional productions.

Everyone might benefit: commercial Off-Broadway would be revitalized with an in-town try-out for daring new work; artists who commit to an Equity Showcase would stay with the project long enough to reap the financial rewards of their efforts; audiences would be exposed to the work of the best new Indie companies; and the producing theatre(s)/producer(s) would have a thriving hub of new work.

The plays could be chosen by savvy producers; or the NYITA could provide a forum for audiences to vote their favorite work into a longer run, giving the audience a greater sense of ownership; maybe a little of both.
That last point about exactly how and which shows would be granted such a privilege is no small point. Competition for slots in such a venue would be fierce--and would risk corrupting some projects right from day one of rehearsal with the ambition to "transfer." Audience voting can always be rigged. And while it's tempting to put some impressario curator (say, Mark Russell?) in charge--that person would be so incessantly stalked, flattered, and propositioned would the job even be worth it?

But wait--here I am nitpicking details of something barely a dream yet. For now, let's just ponder the idea and tell August what you think.