The Playgoer: April 2009

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Thursday, April 30, 2009

Reasons to be Nauseous

What do you do when your show is averaging only 29.6% capacity?

Launch a pathetic and offensive gimicky promotional campaign!

Here's a press release making the email-rounds for Reasons to be Pretty


BROADWAY’S “ r e a s o n s t o b e p r e t t y ”

LAUNCHES UNPRECEDENTED INTERACTIVE IN THEATRE CAMPAIGN

RATE YOURSELF AND YOUR FELLOW AUDIENCE

AT THE BEST NEW BROADWAY PLAY* OF THE SEASON

New York, NY – Audiences at Neil LaBute’s smash hit, reasons to be pretty, now have an unprecedented way to interact with the best new Broadway play of the season. Running counter to conventional wisdom, audiences are encouraged to turn ON their cell phones prior to the performance to participate in a social experiment by texting ‘pretty’ to a special phone number.

They are then given the opportunity to rate themselves - and the person sitting next to them - on a scale of 1 to 10 (from Carrot Top to Angelina Jolie). Results from that performance’s participants are texted back at intermission and are posted online.

Check www.reasonstobepretty.com to find how last night’s audience rated themselves…and each other.
Which of the following "reasons" best explains why this is wrong:

A) A play purportedly cautioning against judging superficial appearance is encouraging audiences to...indulge in judging superficial appearance.

B) The belief that texting is so popular with "the kids" that they'll pay Broadway ticket prices to sit in a stuffy Broadway theatre to do so. Because it's just so much cooler that way.

C) That they've resorted to insulting Carrot Top.

D) That they're taunting us to wonder how the ratings might skew were the playwright himself in the audience that night.

E) That they're calling a play drawing 29.6% average capacity--even with such masterful marketing--a "smash hit."

F) That the gimmick of inviting audiences to text is unfortunately not "unprecedented."

or,

G) They're talking about freakin' TEXTING in the THEATRE!

Personally, my choice would be that the usefulness of such a "social experiment" and the data it produces make no sense! 27% one night rated themselves better than those sitting around them? And I thought Neil LaBute plays were full of worthless information.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Mel Gibson on a Smaller Budget?

Interesting Slate article taking us into the subculture of community church-produced Passion Plays. Scholar Patton Dodd reports on a magical mystery-play tour he took during the Easter holidays.

Many are tiny church pageants with casts of 12 disciples, a Jesus of Nazareth, and perhaps a couple of Roman centurions, all wearing bed sheets with nylon ropes tied around their waists. Others, such as the musical Tetelestai in Columbus, Ohio, and the Topeka Passion Play in Kansas, are semiprofessional events that hosting churches have perfected over the course of multiyear runs. But the most well-attended are Bible spectaculars that would make Cecil B. DeMille swoon, featuring immense casts and crews who pull off gritty depictions of first-century capital punishment and Vegas-y musical numbers.

Cleveland Playhouse's New Digs

Big news for Cleveland Playhouse, one of the nation's oldest "regionals." In 2011 they're moving out of their longtime building into an arts district downtown. But unlike other theatres' real estate "upgrades" this is a move that might actually save them money.

Play House managing director Kevin Moore...said the Play House can no longer afford high-quality productions while spending more than $1 million a year of its $6.5 million annual operating budget just to keep the doors of its huge but patched-together facility open.

"There is so much upside to this," said Michael Bloom, the Play House's artistic director. "It allows us to transfer a good portion of our large facility costs to the artistic product...."

Best of luck to them.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Canadian Gov't Offers Theatrical "Stimulus"

In our own recession emergency measures, we Yanks were lucky to get a few more pennies for our National "Endowment" for the Arts.

Our neighbors up north meanwhile just pumped extra millions directly into their two largest theatre institutions.

Sayeth Variety:

The Canuck government [really Variety? Canuck?] is pumping funds into attractions it considers significant tourist draws, with the Stratford Shakespeare Fest and the Shaw Fest, both in Ontario, receiving hefty sums. Stratford gets about $3 million Canadian (about $2.5 million in U.S. greenbacks) while the Shaw Fest receives around $2.1 million Canadian (US $1.7 million).
Unfortunately, if our representatives decide that only tourism makes theatre worth the investment, all the money would go directly into the coffers of the League of Broadway Producers.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Promptbook Porn

Promptbook for the original Mikado, by Gilbert & Sullivan.

London's Victoria & Albert Museum has a beautiful collection of original D'Oyly Carte promptbooks, now available for full perusal on their site.

Calm down, stage managers...

Theatre vs Theatre Companies

The often provocative Douglas McClennan draws some interesting inferences for the arts from the current troubles of large scale cultural institutions in general:

There's lots of debating to be done about whether we need large institutions to report news. But a similar question can also be asked about the arts. The 1990s was a decade of arts institutionalization in America. Smaller theatres became larger theatres. Mid-size museums became bigger museums. And symphony orchestras expanded.

The internet has decentralized the arts. People make art online, compose and record music and make movies in home studios, Massive online multiplayer games have changed the ways we think about narrative. Personal digital players have changed the ways audiences consume art.

Concurrently, the institutional arts are finding their business models eroding as corporate funding dissolves, foundation support erodes and endowments shrink. Perhaps things will bounce back when the economy improves. But maybe not. We increasingly distrust the institutional voice in favor of individual or community collaboration...
So in theatre, the question is: do we hitch the artform itself to the fortunes of a small group of nonprofit institutions?

Now more than ever, we need to make it easier for a lone director, or playwright, or actor to simply book a hall and put up his or her own work. (And, ideally, use the resources to get people to come see such work.) I'm not for storming the institutional theaters Bastille-style. But we need more alternative venues.

Why must every play be part of a "season"? Why must every audience be dominated by "subscribers"? I'm convinced that what's left of the core theatre audience today--especially those under 40--just don't care about all that anymore. When they hear something's good, they just want to be able to go buy a ticket and see it--wherever, whenever.

What this means in practical terms is the necessity for more easily rentable spaces, that are unaffiliated with theatre companies. New York's Theatre Row and 59E59 are good starts, but still too expensive for many. Still, that's a model that has been working, in that they get audiences.

It also may mean breaking away from the nonprofit model as the only way to produce "serious" theatre. It's that very funding apparatus that forces many artists to form unnecessary companies when all they really want is to put up some occasional work.

Any other suggestions?

Friday, April 24, 2009

Irena's (Broken) Vow

Adam Feldman exposes yet another Broadway show misleadingly passing off NYTimes.com "reader comments" as official critic reviews.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

WNYC Revives Radio Drama

We're in a Depression again, so why not bring back radio plays!

The local NPR, WNYC is launching a new program in a new studio for live broadcast performance that will feature, among its many programming offerings, something they're calling "A New Theater of Sound."

One of the planned initiatives of The Greene Space is "A New Theater of Sound," for which The Greene Space "will collaborate with theatre groups to re-imagine audio theatre for the 21st century."
So far, the programs are riffs on and/or revivals of radio classics (like "War of the Worlds"). But let's hope this leads to some new commissions for playwrights and gigs for actors!

Bart Sher: Honkey

Well I knew that white-man Bartlett Sher's direction of August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone would be a story. But NY Times front page caliber story???

Lincoln Center Theatre can't be too happy about this.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

To Slot or Not To Slot

Denver Post's John Moore takes on the messy question of "slots" that regional theatres set aside in schedules for plays by or addressing particular constituencies.

In other words:

They're called "slot plays": The Latino play, the black play, the woman play. And every season, the Denver Center Theatre Company opens up a slot — or more — to all of them. Nobody likes the term because it implies a quota system. Some might presume that a play has been staged just to appease one target audience rather than for its value to the community as a whole. That can burden a play with lowered expectations before the curtain even rises. But last year, no one was calling Octavio Solis' "Lydia" "the Latino play." Most were simply calling it the best play of the season.

"Slot plays" are a double-edged sword. They offer clear evidence of a company's ongoing commitment to underrepresented communities. They expose the mainstream audience to lesser-known writers and theatrical styles. But slot plays can be seen as condescending to the very people they aim to attract. It happens every February when companies slot annual Black History Month plays, then forget that African- Americans exist for the rest of the year.

Of course, the alternative to slot plays is no slot plays. And that has not worked out well in the past

Moore does a good job exploring both sides of the debate. Another argument against the "slot" mentality was voiced by August Wilson who complained that tickets for the "black play" might only be affordable to black audiences in a subscription package--in other words, even more expensive. Therefore combing the "slot" mentality with the commitment to subscription economics and programming may be fatally self-contradicting in many ways.

So: are slots a necessary form of "affirmative action" for plays and playwrights? Or an ineffectual gesture from what is still an overwhelmingly white male nonprofit industry?

Also, is it important to expose largely white subscription audiences to at least one play a year about people who don't look like them? Or are such plays not well served by being subjected to the judgment of possibly inhospitable audiences?

Read on. And have at it.

Personally, I think the answer is the miraculous sprouting of more theatre companies, each with their own specific agenda and constituency, without the burden of somehow representing or appeal to everyone.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Best of Times, Worst of Times

There have been many boffo hits in the Off Broadway/Nonprofit NY theatre this spring. Many titles (Good Negro at the Public, Cripple of Innishman at Atlantic, Theatre For A New Audience's Othello) have extended their limited runs, sometimes repeatedly. But apparently that doesn't help the big picture.

Who would have thought that in the worst recession in decades, off-Broadway would be having a banner year? Buoyed by an unusual number of rave reviews and great buzz, off-Broadway productions are bringing in new audiences and setting records at the box office.

Yet in a Shakespearean twist of fate, despite all the success stories, the financial position of many off-Broadway theaters couldn't be more precarious. The majority of the city's 60 or so theaters are nonprofits, and fundraising has taken a big hit because of the economy, with many expecting donations to shrivel even more next year.

The sad lesson of this may be that ticket revenue alone simply is not enough--nor may never be enough--to sustain our nonprofit theaters.

Tharon Musser

One of the pioneers in modern stage lighting design has died. Tharon Musser was a familiar name to Broadway Playbill readers for decades. But perhaps her greatest legacy will be her part in creating the look of the Michael Bennett musicals of the 70s & 80s like "Follies," "Chorus Line," and "Dreamgirls." The rapidly flashing precision-cues of these shows owed much, as her obit notes, to her introduction to Broadway of the computerized lighhting board for "Chorus Line" in 1975.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Pulitzer goes to "Ruined"

Pulitzers are out. And as many predicted...

For a distinguished play by an American author, preferably original in its source and dealing with American life, Ten thousand dollars ($10,000).

Awarded to “Ruined,” by Lynn Nottage, a searing drama set in chaotic Congo that compels audiences to face the horror of wartime rape and brutality while still finding affirmation of life and hope amid hopelessness.

The Runners Up?
Also nominated as finalists in this category were: “Becky Shaw,” by Gina Gionfriddo, a jarring comedy that examines family and romantic relationships with a lacerating wit while eschewing easy answers and pat resolutions; and “In The Heights,” by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes, a robust musical about struggling Latino immigrants in New York City today that celebrates the virtues of sacrifice, family solidarity and gritty optimism.
I never got to see "Becky Shaw" but it seemed to be a favorite as well. Perhaps "In The Heights" will catch some flack, but on the merits I'm all for it! (One day I hope to write about Quiara Alegria Hudes' subtle contributions to the texture of the book.) But on the other hand...wasn't that 2007???

Oh, and I thought Ruined was pretty good, too. And one day I hope to write about that.

Damn it, someone pay me to do this already!


PS. Pulitzer Drama Jury was:
  • Dominic Papatola, theater critic, St. Paul Pioneer Press (chair)
  • John M. Clum, chair, department of theater studies, Duke University
  • Jim Hebert, theater critic, San Diego (CA) Union-Tribune
  • David Henry Hwang, playwright, Brooklyn, NY
  • Linda Winer, theater critic, Newsday

Artists as Community Organizers

A new call to arms by Jeff Chang, in the Nation

Culture is not just something conservatives wage war on. The arts are not just something liberals dress up for on weekends. Creativity can be a powerful form of organizing communities from the bottom up.
In the same issue, D.D. Guttenplan reports on how the Brits are studying the New Deal's arts programs more than we are!

Deep Thought

Every time I see the warning, "Limited Seating" in an ad for a play, I wonder: what would unlimited seating look like?

Friday, April 17, 2009

Backstage at Guthrie

I belatedly caught up with an interesting episode of "Theater Talk" from last August, on location at the Guthrie in Minneapolis. A nice 25-minute tour of the lavish new building for those of us yet to make the pilgrimage. And, if nothing else, a reminder that the sites of advanced theatre facilities and physical production in the US are not in NYC, where venues are largely limited to outdated Times Square playhouses or else makeshift Off Broadway black boxes.

As Riedel points out at the end, they just barely got the funding in for this one under the wire, didn't they.

Warning: Directors of theatre companies with less than $10 million operating budgets and/or production staffs smaller than 85 may experience sever pangs of envy and/or bouts of sobbing.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

That's TheatER to you, pal

Among new A.R.T. Artistic Director Diane Paulus' first moves? Getting rid of that "re" in "theatre."

I guess it is an "American" Rep, damnit! I'm curious, though, whether Paulus will make it so in more than name. Perhaps no company has been so misnamed, as ever since Robert Brustein's days, followed by Robert Woodruff, the programming has been so heavily, heavily Euro. And European-Directors-TheatRE influenced.

As for the re/er thing...dare I open that can of worms? As for myself, I admit it: I'm an elitist. In academia, the "re" is still standard, while "er" seems on the rise amongst practitioners (cf. Paulus). Personally, I also find it useful to distinguish the art of the theatre from just a theater building. Just google either spelling and you'll see what I mean.

Okay, can open, worms attacking. Thoughts?

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Pulitzer Prognostication

Michael Riedel shares some buzz about this year's rumored Pulitzer finalists. The announcement is Monday.

Ruined, anyone?

Do the Math

Jeremy Gerard offers a pre-postmortem on the financial bust of putting up a less-than-successful play like Impressionism on Broadway.

In 1982, [Emanuel] Azenberg produced the first play in Simon’s semi- autobiographical trilogy, “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” for $500,000. The revival he’ll present next season, he said, will run $3 million.“Over the last 25 years, all the costs have spiraled with no constraints,” Azenberg told me. The physical production, he said, “cost $100,000 then; it will cost $500,000 now.”

“The director’s fee was $25,000 then,” he continued. “It will be $100,000 now. An ad in the Times was $20,000 then; it’s $110,000 now. With payments to the pension fund and health plans, the cost of union labor today is $100 an hour.”

That’s the reality facing “Impressionism” producer Haber.The show has a limited run of 16 weeks. The week of the opening, when “Impressionism” earned $289,057, ticket sales covered rent, advertising and payroll. The following week, sales bumped up to $325,000, attesting to the positive word of mouth I was talking about. Still, in order to recoup its $3 million cost, it will need to nearly double its box office income, which seems highly unlikely.

Then again, with Jack O'Brien helming and actors Joan Allen and Jeremy freakin' Irons, there's a good chunk of your $3 million right there, just in salaries!

(Because this is Bloomberg, the headline, naturally is: "Broadway’s $500,000 Sets, Unions Scare Investors." Unions: scarier than a half a million bucks worth of scenery dropped on your head.)

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A New Generation of Musicals

From a Frank Zappa curiosity to a tragic rock opera about porn martyr Linda Lovelace, Steven Leigh Morris gives a rundown on some interesting underground musicals going up in Los Angeles recently.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Actor's Lot: Recession Edition

In his ongoing "view from your recession" feature (i.e. letters from suffering readers) Andrew Sullivan includes a particularly moving one from an actor.

But one section should remind us that actors in America are always living as if in a recession, aren't they?

This week I caught a couple of breaks - I booked a radio spot, which helps a little, and I was hired by the US Census, which helps a lot. The work should be flexible enough to allow me to continue to audition, while paying well enough to allow us to breathe a little easier. Unfortunately the work is also temporary.
You think the census is a temp job? What do you call a four-week run?

Resolved: All actors are temps. Challenge or defend.

David Hare's "Wall"

Towards the end of my recent reflections upon Caryl Churchill's Seven Jewish Children I asked why it is that the only way we can address the Israeli/Palestinian conflict on the New York stage is by importing already-existing British plays to do it for us. (My Name is Rachel Corrie, of course, may have used the words of an American but was "edited"/conceived/directed by the team of Alan Rickman and Katherine Viner.)

Well right on cue, here comes David Hare! The Public just announced they will present (in a very short run) Hare's Berlin/Wall, a pair of two short docu-monologues. The first "wall" refers to post-wall Berlin; the second, the one now between Israel proper and the Palestinian West Bank. In a kind of sequel to Hare's 1999 Via Dolorosa, the playwright takes the stage himself to recount his return to Israel ten years later to find inhabitants on both side of the wall...guess what? Still divided!

Actually you can read most of the Wall monologue in the latest NY Review of Books. An interesting enough read. But it just begs the question--why will this play, itself plenty critical of Israel and plenty sympathetic with Palestinians, inevitably be less controversial than the Churchill and Rickman pieces?

Because unlike his London colleagues, Hare maximizes his status as objective observer. When we import the work of these secular Brit gentiles to teach us about Muslims vs Jews we like them to do that dignified British detachment thing they do oh so well. (And what we pay top dollar at the theatre for from Stoppard to Jeremy Irons.) So Hare will get away with a lot for being, well, British. Which will be only aided, of course, by his own professorial presence on stage, unlike Rickman speaking through the firebrand Corrie or, conversely, Churchill putting words in the mouth of her antagonist Israeli Jews.

It will be interesting to see if Hare's work is embraced as more theatrical and/or artistic for preferring a more objective posture. The old saw being that taking a political side leads to propaganda, not art. (As if propaganda can't be one artform and the leisurely theatre of concerned detachment another.)

But the question remains, why do we continue to get our Israel/Palestine drama only from Britain? If we're going overseas, what about the voices of those people directly? Or are the culturally soothing accents of the adored British theatre still required for mediation?

Friday, April 10, 2009

Dog Days of Criticism

The economic crisis seems to have only hastened the already apparent vanishing of print-media arts criticism. Here are three different views of what's happening.

First, here's Elaine Showalter addressing book reviewing, but her words apply equally to theatre, I believe.

I'm very, very sad about the closing of the Washington Post Book World and the redistribution of it, should we say, online. I spend almost half the year in London, where this hasn't happened to such a degree. All the daily newspapers have book reviews several times a week. And on Saturday there's the Guardian Review, which I think is the greatest stand-alone book review in the world. There's the TLS, the London Review of Books, magazines, radio programs, even TV programs where books are still so much at the center of culture and so much a part of people's conversation.

I don't understand why we can't do that in the United States. It's partly, obviously, an economic problem. I also think that book reviewing in London is more entrepreneurial and creative than it's been here. The inventiveness and humor and wit of something like the Guardian Review could really make a difference to book reviewing here, which is still a pretty serious--let's abandon all jokes, ye who enter here--straightforward and kind of elitist occupation. British reviewing: there are so many reviews of any given book that no one cares if the reviewer knows the person, is a former lover, a former enemy. Literary culture feeds literature. The disappearance of reviewing here is a very ominous note about what's going to happen in the culture.
Well one look at Ben Brantley or Charles Isherwood will tell you that lack of jokes is hardly the problem in mainstream US drama-crit. But I love her last points about the more the merrier, and the self-destructiveness of limiting criticism only to seemingly "unbiased" educators. In fact, nowhere in the media does "theatre culture feed theatre" better these days than the blogs. (If I do say so myself.)

Next, a case of what's gone wrong. Friend of Playgoer, and sometime guest-blogger, Steven Leigh Morris, used to be the theatre editor of LA Weekly. Until...

yesterday...the newspaper's corporate uberseers in Phoenix eliminated the position of Theater Editor at the paper. Over six years, the "transitions" at this and other papers in the chain have become the alt-weekly's answer to the French Revolution.

In 2002, the New Times alt-weekly chain "merged" with its rival Village Voice chain, of which the L.A. Weekly is a part, renaming the hybrid, "Village Voice Media." The merger was leveraged on insurmountable debt on the cusp of a global economic meltdown....

After almost 30 years, the Theater Editor position in a city with 2,000 professional plays opening every year was determined by Phoenix to be a fiscal extravagance.....Much earlier, Phoenix eliminated the Theater Editor position at their flagship New York paper, The Village Voice, in a city that's the theater capital of the world. So their latest, local beheading is hardly surprising.

Theatre as "extravagance" is indeed the problem pervasively in our society. (And indeed the New York Village Voice now only has one overseeing "Arts Editor" responsible for many sections.)

Finally, an utterly original and only slightly mischievous proposal from Douglas McLennan for mandated "Critics in Residence" at arts institutions. Economically, the premise is pretty sound:

Lots of arts organizations have blogs on their websites. Most aren't very good, and they're difficult to maintain well. There are many out-of-work critics. And less and less arts coverage in local press. So why not critics-in-residence?

Now once again, the kneejerk objection would be that old "objectivity" ideal. But is that worth actually decreasing the outlets for criticism in the modern world?

I fear the guardians of criticism--like the doomed US commanders at Khe Sanh--may end up destroying it in order to "save" it.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

NYC Loans for NonProf's

Bloomberg on Bloomberg:

New York City will expand loan opportunities and find ways to help the city’s 40,000 nonprofit organizations reduce costs and find new donors in the midst of the economic downturn, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said.

The program will focus on nonprofits that conduct job training, provide health services and promote the city’s arts and culture, all of which have experienced cash-flow problems and declines in operating support, said Bloomberg, a billionaire who has given away hundreds of millions of dollars. [Yes, all hail! --ed.]

The program would enable organizations to save money by group purchasing insurance, information technology and other goods and services. A city-run loan program for nonprofits will be expanded to $20 million from its current $8 million, Bloomberg said. Nonprofits employ more than 490,000 people, more than 15 percent of the city’s non-government workforce, the mayor said.

More at NYC.gov. (Although no applications to be seen!)

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

God of Cash

With the possible exception of the West Side Story revival, Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage is, believe it or not, the biggest hit on Broadway.

What's the secret of this European 4-hander with no flying scenery or songs? Over to Riedel:

1. Stars: James Gandolfini, Marcia Gay Harden, Jeff Daniels and Hope Davis collectively are a draw.

2. Running time: 90 minutes. Short and sweet, and you're in bed by 11 p.m.

3. Style: Sophisticated but not difficult. You feel smart while you're watching "Carnage," but you won't have a headache from thinking too hard.

And you can follow the plot even if you've had a couple of pre-theater martinis at Sardi's.

4. Audience: At a time when tourists (who until recently made up more than 60 percent of the customers) are in short supply, "Carnage" is drawing New Yorkers back to Shubert Alley.

"The area codes for ticket buyers are almost all Manhattan," says a production source.

The homegrown audience is indeed heartening. But as for any celebrity appeal, let's be honest. The non-Sopranos segment of the cast, fine actors though they are, are hardly box office catnip.

Still, I do hear Gandolfini is terrific. True?

Review: "A New Theory of Vision"

Once again, the Voice has relegated the quickie "Sightlines" reviews to online-only world. I hope it's not a harbinger of things to come from parent company New Times Media (sorry--recently renamed Village Voice Media.)

So my web-exclusive for this week: an odd little piece called "A New Theory of Vision" at the Kraine downtown. If you're really into enlightenment philosophy and/or virtual reality...maybe. Otherwise, eh.

BTW, the William Gibson referred to in the review is not the Miracle Worker guy.

Correction of the Day

From the Times:

Correction: March 25, 2009

An article on March 16 about readings of a new play by Caryl Churchill, “Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza,” at two theaters in Washington and the New York Theater Workshop, misstated the history of the New York theater’s plans for another play about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “My Name Is Rachel Corrie.” In 2006 the theater postponed transferring a production of the play from London; it was not canceled, although it ultimately ran at another theater in New York.

Hey, NYT, if you're going to take dictation from NYTW, could you at least exercise some extra fact-checking and insert the word "indefinitely" before "postponed"?

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Seven Jewish Children: The Reading

Some belated thoughts on the reading/discussion New York Theatre Workshop held a while back for Caryl Churchill's controversial little piece Seven Jewish Children.

First, there was the play. At the very least we got to hear it. Twice. To my mind, the first version
--directed by Sam Gold with a cast that included George Bartinieff, Michael Christopher, and playwright Jon Robin Baitz--faltered in an overly literal attempt at staging it as what struck me as, if you'll allow me, a Jewish Family Kvetch. (With each line psychologically justified and clearly said to other "characters.") But during the second rendition--which followed the discussion and ended the event--I suddenly felt the loss of not having this work truly produced in NY. The reason was simply Lisa Kron's heartbreaking solo-performance of it and the thought that New York audiences will not get to see it. It was that good a piece of theatre--all 10 minutes of it and probably the best thing I had seen in over a month.

Merely sitting a table, script in hand, clearly separating each of the seven "scenes" with a turn of the page, Kron let us finally hear in the play what most culture-war controversy-debate drowns out: complexity. Yes, I said this incendiary little text was heartbreaking in Kron's delivery because, rather than force a unitary "meaning" out of it, she gave into the massive mood swings and schizoid impulses Churchill is in fact depicting.

Or to put it another way, it became about our own unending struggle with the legacy of modern Israel.

Case in point: the most controversial lines in the play have been these, toward the end:

Tell her, tell her about the army, tell her to be proud of the army.
Tell her about the family of dead girls, tell her their names why not, tell her the whole world knows why shouldn't she know? tell her there's dead babies, did she see babies? tell her she's got nothing to be ashamed of.
Tell her they did it to themselves.
Tell her they want their children killed to make people sorry for them, tell her I'm not sorry for them, tell her not to be sorry for them, tell her we're the ones to be sorry for, tell her they can't talk suffering to us.
Tell her we're the iron fist now, tell her it's the fog of war, tell her we won't stop killing them till we're safe, tell her I laughed when I saw the dead policemen, tell her they're animals living in rubble now, tell her I wouldn't care if we wiped them out, the world would hate us is the only thing, tell her I don't care if the world hates us, tell her we're better haters, tell her we're chosen people, tell her I look at one of their children covered in blood and what do I feel? tell her all I feel is happy it's not her.
Without forcing the words in any way, Kron really made us hear the "Tell her" in this, and made us pay attention to it. It's certainly worth the attention since Churchill starts every sentence in the play with it! Yet it's significance has been largely ignored. For you see, in performance, that "tell her" acts as a kind of disavowal. Does the speaker(s) truly believe what he/she/they are saying? Are they just venting their spontaneous emotions--or crafting a response, a response to the questions they will inevitably have to face from their own children when they ask how to explain the brutality on their tv screens. Kron--nearly in tears, by the end--gave a vivid portrait of a woman, a mother, so determined to insure her daughter's survival that she consciously decides to preach hate of the other.

Powerful stuff. But does it let Caryl Churchill ("Fetid Jew Baiter," as columnist Jeffrey Goldberg has dubbed her) off the hook? Well I certainly don't think it makes her appear any less angry or outraged at the events in Gaza. (Events which prompted such a swift and compressed response as this piece, almost demanding a new form of theatre.) And Kron's performance is probably not enough to satisfy those concerned about the text's potential--for some--to echo pre-existing anti-Semitic tropes. (Laughing Jews gloating over the bodies of non-Jewish children, for instance.) But I feel that no matter what Caryl Churchill intended, her text allows for all kinds of complexity.

The night I attended, NYTW asked Tony Kushner and Alisa Solomon to lead/moderate the audience discussion, piggybacking on the essay they had just published in The Nation. (An essay which, among other insights, offers the most clear precis and exegesis of just what the play is and is not.) In the course of the discussion, Kushner rightly rejected the label of mere "propaganda" for this play, since there are countless other forms Churchill could have adopted to make a more direct and unambiguous attack on Israeli politics. If it's just propaganda, why veil everything behind "tell her"--and, worse, the constant bickering back and forth in the work between "tell her" and "don't tell her." If you want to send a message, they used to say, get Western Union. Well this play is like sending a message through a the multiple simultaneous "streams" of an online chatroom.

In their essay, Kushner and Solomon enhance this point by reminding us of how incomplete any theatre text is outside of performance. Yes, ok, we usually have some feeling of what's on, say, Arthur Miller's mind no matter who's acting it. But when you think of the vastly different effects actors have had on potentially controversial plays like Merchant of Venice and Othello, just imagine what the impact is in this case of extreme authorial minimalism:
All plays require that directors and actors make considered choices. Performance produces meaning. If an actor stresses "tell" in the line "Don't tell her that," it might suggest, That's true, but don't let her know. But if "that" is emphasized, it might mean, How can you even think such an outrageous thing? And much will depend on how the actor strikes the first word, "Don't"--collegially or adversarially.

Churchill ups the interpretive ante by leaving everything, beyond the lines themselves, to her interpreters. The monologue and the lines that follow it will carry different meanings if spoken, say, by a grandmother with a Yiddish accent or by a young man in an Israeli army uniform. Or by, say, a Korean-American man or a Chicana. Or, since the play is so short and could be watched three or four times in a row, with the lines spoken each time by different actors. Any director and company approaching the play will have to decide whether and how the audience will be made aware of the radical degree to which the written text has insisted, through its lack of character identification or stage action, on collaboration. Surely it's essential to understanding Seven Jewish Children that against the specifics of the script, the playwright, relinquishing nearly all traditional authorial control, engineers a far-greater-than-usual slippage among text and performance and audience reception, producing an unusually large amount of room for variant readings.

And it is perhaps only on stage that the central characters of the play come into their own: the eponymous seven Jewish children who are its heroines. We never see them. Our empathic imaginations are enlisted by the playwright. We have to conjure them.
Again, I think few people in the room doubted Churchill's opposition to Israeli actions in Gaza, her support of Palestinian rights, and her less than likely chance of being invited to many seder tables this week. But theatre, thankfully, can take on a life of its own.

All in all, the event was a sober and civil way to engage with the play. I myself was surprised at how un-heated things got and at the lack of any outbursts of argument. (Perhaps the play's most agitated opponents all went to the first night.) Solomon and Kushner offered welcomingly calm leadership and protection, and invited truly open comment from the floor (without any pre-screened note cards). But as they themselves write in their article, "Any play about the crisis in the Middle East that doesn't arouse anger and distress has missed the point." So I was just surprised there was not more anger and distress voiced. (The most angry was a self-professed Wall St Journal writer who took his time at the mic as an opportunity to grill Kushner on why he would support Arabs who are so bad to gays. I'm glad the WSJ suddenly cares about that issue.)

The prevalent sense in the room seemed that expressed by Todd Gitlin, who as a former SDS leader, considered Seven Jewish Children a compelling work of art, yet downright tame as agitprop. He basically was saying what many said about "Rachel Corrie" when people finally got to see that play: all this mishigas over this???

Another thing "Children" and "Corrie" have in common, of course, is that neither is actually written by a Palestinian nor does either take on even a Palestinian perspective. Imagine, just imagine, what the NY theatre would do with an Arab Amiri Baraka, working not through oblique Beckettian free verse, not through the amiable conventions of the autobiographical confessional monologue...but by dropping heated racial conflict directly into the audience's lap in order to discomfort the dominant and rile up the subordinate.

Would such a play even get a reading?

Finally, let me propose this as another solution to the problem of the unproducibly offensive play. Especially when in this case, the sheer form of a 10-minute work precludes normal avenues of production. If I were running a theatre and Seven Jewish Children landed on my desk, I'd immediately issue commissions to 5 or 6 other playwrights I admired and tell them to write me their own 10-minute play on any subject they wish as long as it's something so unbearable that you're convinced no theatre company would ever do it. So the result would be an evening, hopefully, of the most offensive, morally troubling, personally insulting theatre around. No talkbacks, no panels. Just buy a ticket and go see what some really interesting playwrights can do when there are truly no holds barred. I think the effect of entering such an extreme "free speech zone" for a night would be as exhilerating as it would be infuriating.

And it probably would sell a lot of tickets, too.

"America's Off Broadway"

Here's an idea that's been floated before and whose time perhaps has come again: providing a space in NYC for "regional" theatres to visit and show their work in. The 59E59 complex will be doing just that from May through July with something they're calling "America's Off Broadway." I have some problems with the title. First, an event working to counter NY-centrism probably shouldn't engage in its nomenclature. (And when you think of it, this is defining all productions outside the city as not just one but two steps removed from Broadway!) Second--and this is getting technical, I admit--there are many productions in LORT theatres around the country with larger budgets and larger seating capacities than the classification "Off Broadway" even allows! But as for the zoning requirement of being outside the Times Square theatre district...check.

The selected plays and companies don't strike me as the most high profile, but maybe they're all the more deserving. Among the visiting companies are Ithaca's Kitchen Theatre' Chester Theatre of Chester, MA; Minneapolis' Mixed Blood; and DC's Project Y.

It would be great to see more of our colleagues' work that plays in the rest of the country. And for the New York actors and directors employed regionally to finally get to show that fine work back home! We usually can count on seeing big theatres' big hits, usually from Chicago, either on Broadway (Steppenwolf's August:Osage County) or in nonprofit co-productions or remounts (the Goodman's Ruined, now at MTC). But the more the merrier.

And if we are indeed going to have some empty theatres during this recession, let's make opportunity out of crisis and make them attractive rental venues for out-of-towners, or start some nonprofit LORT partnership to run a space or two. After all--this is our National Theatre.

Monday, April 06, 2009

What's in a Name...or a Portrait?

Shakespeare Wars author Ron Rosenbaum weighs in on that latest portrait claim.

It has been odd to watch the media all aflutter when our supreme literary genius is revealed to be movie-star handsome and red-carpet ready. He's no longer the pudgy, balding figure we see in the so-called "Droeshout engraving" that appears on the cover of the First Folio, the engraving that most experts, drawing on quotations from those (like fellow poet Ben Jonson) who knew Shakespeare in the flesh, testify is his likeness.

What is remarkable about the fight over this "new" portrait—and it is, indeed, developing into a scholarly shootout—is that one of the leading eminences of British academic Shakespeare, Stanley Wells, general editor of the Oxford Shakespeare series, has lent his name to the venture.

[...]

Wells' unequivocal advocacy is surprising, but it's also easily explained: There is something about the trifecta of fame, sex, and Shakespeare that seems irresistible to scholars, even to someone of Stanley Wells' gravitas.

Friday, April 03, 2009

In a Nutshell

The best things on Broadway right now are the first act of Billy Elliot and the second act of Hair.

The worst? About 75% of Exit the King.

(No, I haven't seen Impressionism yet.)

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Warning: Gayness

Something cool about the new NYT.com "Global" edition (did you know the Times now has an online Global edition?) is more theatre coverage from overseas.

So the idea of an all-male "Importance of Being Earnest" may not be such news anymore in NYC... what about in Singapore?

Presenting Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” with an all-male cast dressed as men has raised a few eyebrows in conservative Singapore, leading the media regulator to request the company to prominently display an age advisory of “16 years and above” on all its publicity material, with the notice, “Re-interpretation, all-male cast.”
Actually, I can imagine many here supporting the idea of posting warnings just for directorial "reinterpretation." (Warning: jarring pop-culture costume references that may or may not be relevant to the text.)

But in a country where homosexuality is still actually criminal, the disclaimer takes on extra political dimensions.
Theater in Singapore usually gets a lot of leeway because of its limited reach [gee, thanks], but having an all-male cast in a tangled romantic comedy is proving a bit more controversial because of the penal code. Indeed, anything that may be considered as promoting homosexuality or even suggesting homosexuality is normal can be punishable.
As sad as this situation is, I can't help thinking a staging of Earnest there actually does give back to the play a little of that frisson from the original premiere, staged in a Britain that outlawed gay men as well. (And imprisoned its author on such offenses shortly afterward, while the play was still the hit of the West End.)

But this not so subtle "Rated R" label merely for the suggestion of homosexuality on stage, is no doubt just as likely for certain regions of this country as it is for Singapore. And certainly this bureaucratic dodge sounds familiar:
Amy Tsang, the deputy director of arts and publications at the Media Development Authority, explained that the parental advisory is not a restricted rating, but was recommended by the Arts Consultative Panel, made up of a cross-section of members of the public, because it felt that “younger audiences, who may not be familiar with the original play, are likely to be confused about its content and underlying messages.”

Ms. Tsang said that panel members felt that the play had “gay undertones” and “may be inappropriate for a young audience,” adding that some members of the public had written to MDA to share their concerns about it.

Ms. Tsang said the advisory was meant only to alert parents and teachers and gives them the discretion to decide whether they want their children or charges below that age to view the play. “It is not a mandatory rating,” she stressed.
Yeah, "not mandatory." Like those "voluntary" stickers for naughty CD lyrics, remember?

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

REVIEW: Inked Baby

My take on Inked Baby at Playwrights Horizons is an online exclusive(!) in this week's Voice.

The Critic-O-Meter round up on this one is interesting. Guess I'm in the minority.

Yes, I did see the Caryl Churchill reading at New York Theatre Workshop...

...but life & responsibilities won't slow down enough these days to give it proper attention. Plan to do so by the end of the week, definitely.

Meanwhile, here are some folks who thankfully have given it attention:

Washington's Theatre J has not only been doing their own presentation but features lots about the play on their own blog, including an interview with the playwright herself. Then the company's director Ari Roth had to sit through a grilling from the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg who, um, doesn't care for the play. (hint: his post's title is: "Caryl Churchill: Gaza's Shakespeare, or Fetid Jew-Baiter?")

Philip Weiss (who covered the NYTW/"Rachel Corrie" story for the Nation back in '06) went to the first night of NYTW's reading.

David Cote was there with me on the second.

Tony Kushner & Alisa Solomon not only moderated at NYTW the night I went but also have a cover story in the current Nation with their responses to the play. I'm waiting for time to sit down with this, too, and will respond. But go ahead and read it--not only because the authors are of note but any time we have theatre on the cover of a news magazine, it's a must-read!

And then there's...you? If you went, let us know what you thought.