The Playgoer: May 2009

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Thursday, May 28, 2009

Texas Update: Lighting Design still Legal!

A day of valiant lobbying by the Texas theatre & dance community, the United Scenic Designers, and the International Association of Lighting Designers seems to have finally convinced the Texas State legislature of their error in not including stage lighting among their allowed categories in a new bill addressing "lighting design services." So the bill has, for now, thankfully stalled.

For a recap see earlier. Since then all I've been able to find out some websurfing (barely any published stories so far) and asking around is that this comically inept legislation seems to have begun as some kind of "consumer protection" measure primarily meant to serve property owners with elaborate lighting fixtures in their houses, businesses and estates. Some say the bill meant to protect them from improper installation subject not just to natural disasters but--you guessed it--con-man lighting designers! One privately circulated email I read reported on a conversation with a state senator's office where the staffer argued for the need to allow legal redress against the menace of "crooks passing themselves off as lighting designers." Who knew! I'm sure many Broadway producers feel the same way...

(One source claims this hitherto unknown problem was brought to the attention of a legislator by one angry rich Texan who got swindled for a lawn party gig or something.)

Anyway, after the house passed the original version of the bill unanimously the Senate now acknowledges their omission of stage lighting from the protected/licensed categories and is revoking the relevant amendment and going back to committee. Or something like that. (Forgive me for not being up on my Texas legislature rules of procedure.)

But dare we infer something from this purportedly involunary omission? UT Dance professor Danielle Georgiou--blogging on the local NPR (KERA) website--gets to the big point:

[T]he underlying context of this bill could be construed as meaning that lighting design is not a valid craft. The current verbiage talks about lighting for structures, which includes what many lighting designers have formed their careers around. One main question raised from this legislation is: why has lighting design not even been taken into consideration in a bill that dictates the qualifications of a lighting designer? Part of the problems stems from the fact that the legislation was drafted without any input from lighting designers themselves.
Reminds me of the time I took part in a tour of a major regional theatre through the backstage tech shops and one visitor expressed surprise that actors didn't just bring their own costumes from home. (You know, like in many community theaters still, I'm sure.) I don't think people are confused about this on Broadway. But in much of the country, I bet audiences would be surprised to know how much professional labor goes into seemingly basic things like lighting, set construction, props and even makeup.

So it was a funny day in Texas, I guess, that seems to have passed. But don't underestimate the seriousness of the 24-hour shock it sent through the community--a sign of how plausible such anti-arts legislation has become in this country. Just read the blogger-practioners who have been following the story most passionately. And then there's my friend Kevin Moriarty, Artistic Director of Dallas Theater Center, who wrote me: "All of my lighting designer friends and colleagues called me to either ask if they could still work at DTC - or to give me grief about the perceived hostility of TX to lighting designers!" Adding:
I absolutely love working in Texas and have already made many close friends and am working with great colleagues here. But last month I had out of town artists calling to ask me if they would need a passport to get into Texas from the rest of the country, after our Governor threatened that Texas might secede from the union. Then yesterday I had lighting designers calling asking why they were being outlawed from working. Making me wonder: what next?
Yes, surely Texas doesn't get all its revenue from oil? A big state means big arts income!

DTC's Production Director Jeff Gifford had a more understanding take:
I did (humorously) explain to several of our regular lighting designers that the State of Texas has determined that it is indeed Lighting Designers that have caused most of the problems we are having in our country today (economy, housing, auto industry, etc.) and that we just don’t want “their kind” in our fair State further messing things up.
The message I myself take away from this is: concealed weapons? Go ahead! Put up some fresnels? Not without a license, partner!

"Impulse to Suck"

That's the title of Karen Finley's new piece. About Eliot Spitzer.

Controversial performance artist Karen Finley was in Albany on March 10, 2008 to hear a speech from Governor Eliot Spitzer on Reproductive Health. Instead, Spitzer performed a public apology for his involvement in a prostitution ring. IMPULSE TO SUCK uses the confession, the sexual encounter, the apology to his wife, and many other facets of the scandal to examine the repercussions of knowing the intimate lives of our political leaders.
I had the pleasure and privilege of seeing Finley perform an early excerpt from this a while back, shortly after the events. Highlight was definitely the black tube socks. If you get what I mean...

License to Light

We know some strange things go on legally in the Lone Star state... but did the state of Texas just accidentally outlaw theatrical lighting designers?

So argues Jim on Light, a Denver-based designer and blogger who's up in arms, warning: "If Texas House Bill 2649 becomes law, the implications for Lighting Designers could spread beyond the Texas borders"

What could a state legislature bill do to make that happen? Here's the IALD's official statement of protest. ("That's International Association of Lighting Designers," of course.)

The Texas State Legislature has passed legislation that will have the unintended consequence of outlawing an entire profession—lighting design.

[...]

On May 27, 2009, the Texas State Legislature passed legislation drafted without any input from lighting designers, restricting the practice of lighting design to members of other professions and trades, such as architects, engineers and electricians. There are no provisions in the legislation for establishing a licensing standard for lighting designers.
All of which, again, raises the question: how the hell does this happen?

In short the bill limits the practice of lighting in the state only to specific licensed professions--and theatre designers aren't one of them. Hence, Jim on Light's fear that, "this bill is going to make it impossible for lighting designers who work in Texas to work on projects without being licensed as either an electrician, architect, engineer, landscape architect, or interior designer."

I can only assume this resulted from politicians cozying up to certain unions (such as the mighty architects and interior decorators!) at the expense of others, like United Scenic Artists, who, I suppose, might now want a stronger chapter in Texas! Or is there a "Big Lighting" behind this? i.e. the makers of the actual equipment trying to control its distribution?

Seriously, can anyone explain what the hell is going on down there?

(Hat tip to BackstageJobs, who has more details here and here. And for more hardcore, here's the facts of the bill itself on Texas Legislature Online.)

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

New Kushner

Michael Cristofer, right, joins Kushner regulars (from l. to r.) Kathleen Chalfant, Stephen Spinella
and Linda Emond in "Intelligent Homosexual's Guide," etc... (
Photo: Michal Daniel)

Early reviews of Tony Kushner's new play--premiering at the Guthrie--are split but give an intriguing glimpse of a new direction in the playwright's work.

Quinton Skinner, Variety:
The action is all naturalistic, with long scenes that play out as family drama, roaring emotion clashing with decades of unspoken resentment; the feints, parries and misdirection of contemporary communication are rendered in lavish detail.

To say Kushner is working at a high level is an understatement. Every passion in these characters' lives is a contradiction, each pleasure arriving with thorny conditions. And in fusing the thunderclaps of intense family life with the politics of labor (including the biological kind), the writer connects the mundane and the lofty with a scope that suggests an affectionate nod to English-language naturalists such as Arthur Miller.

[...]

Ultimately, Kushner leaves himself open to charges of overreaching, unfocused ambition, perhaps even hubris. But that's to be expected when aiming for this kind of scope. Kushner's great themes are here: change, work and the understanding that every element of life shifts when held up at a slightly different angle.

Performed by lesser talents, the work would likely be an unbearable mess. But this premiere production (the centerpiece of the Guthrie's Kushner Celebration) aptly uncovers the play's restlessness, striving and unapologetic requirement to work through the circles of its own mad but hauntingly real complexities.

Graydon Royce, Minneapolis Star Trib:

Director Michael Greif has given Kushner a good look at what he's written. The lines sound great in the actors' mouths, their performances are excellent and Greif dances this show across the Guthrie stage with humor and muscular strokes -- fighting the script's occasional exhausted ennui. Now the playwright can set his hands to clarifying his irresolute intentions, for Kushner has not yet discovered his own purpose in writing this play.

It is a very American work -- a dense rush of ideas and diatribes about the working man, wealth, spiritual unease and meaningful purpose. Gus finds his exaltation in union wages and justice rather than sales commissions, but he lives only a subway ride away from Willy Loman.

The similarity, however, points up an important distinction. Arthur Miller and his American realist cohorts -- Tennessee Williams and Eugene O'Neill for example -- used dialogue as a scalpel to cut their characters open. Kushner's strength always has been proclamation -- bold and at times preachy in its ambition, epic in its spectacle and sprawl. In this milieu, his operatic cacophony at times skates precipitously close to the razor's edge of incoherence. The wash of recitative becomes more of an irritant than a revelatory acid.

The play's title, by the way, The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism & Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, constitutes Kushner's second knock-off--sorry, homage--to George Bernard Shaw.

(See here and here.)

You can even watch audience postshow reactions here.

Philip Seymour Hoffman as Iago

Okay, Public Theater, you have my attention.

Next season will include a co-production with LABrynth of Othello with Philip Seymour Hoffman and LABrynth colleague John Ortiz as The Moor. And the director is Peter Sellars of all people, who not only hasn't worked in NYC in ages, but whose staging antice, I fear, might also prevent me from actually seeing Philip Seymour Hoffman's Iago.

Also of note: a new Richard Foreman piece starring Willem Dafoe, which presumably will be a larger-scale production than we get from him in his claustrophobic* Ontological Theatre home base.

And a return of the highly praised The Brothers Size, as part of a now-larger work by feted new playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney. (The piece is also playing right now at Princeton's McCarter.)

And new work by Suza-Lori Parks and Mike Daisey.

*correction: apologies for initially describing the 2nd-floor Ontological as "subterranean." Just feels that way, I guess.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Typical

February 3, 2009:
"[G]rim-faced Broadway industry leaders pleaded bluntly and plainly with New York legislative budget writers on Tuesday to reject Gov. David A. Paterson’s proposed tax on theater tickets, which would raise prices about 8 percent....The four industry leaders — representing theater owners, producers, actors and union members — argued that the tax would hurt Broadway ticket sales and ultimately lead to layoffs and closings. They warned that the tax would set off a chain reaction that would deplete tourist business for restaurants and hotels and work for scenery carpenters, costume-makers, dry cleaners and others who contribute to theater productions."

May 21, 2009:
"Broadway theater owners and producers fought vigorously and successfully this winter to block a new state tax on theater tickets, saying such a levy would anger theater-goers and damage business during the recession. Yet at the same time, they were quietly imposing a new fee of their own on patrons of Broadway. Since November, the Broadway League — the trade association of owners and producers — has been charging a $1 'league fee' on most tickets bought at the TKTS discount booths in New York.....

"In an interview Thursday, Ms. St. Martin said that the league’s board 'thought long and hard and hesitated before approving this fee.' She said that producers and owners were sensitive to the high price of tickets — and to the incongruity of adding a fee specifically on people who are seeking discounts at TKTS to go to the theater. The league has not imposed the fee on people who pay the full face value of tickets.....'It’s not ideal, I know, but the fee helps pay for things that have added value for theatergoers,' Ms. St. Martin said...'We don’t consider it a hidden fee, and anyone who asks about it, we’re happy to explain it.'"


Among those "added value" benefits for theatergoers, by the way, the League includes "marketing"--which, I take to mean more selfless public service initiatives like this.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Even the Agents are Getting Laid Off!

Yet another outpost of the theatre industry hit by the recession: the William Morris Agency.

Peter Franklin, the longtime head of WMA's theater department, was among the 100-plus WMA staffers to get a pink slip earlier this week.

A fixture at the agency, Franklin worked with a list of firmly established legit creatives including Edward Albee, Arthur Laurents and Terrence McNally.

News of Franklin's departure amid the consolidation of WMA and Endeavor operations sounds like confirmation of long-swirling rumors that the WMA theater department would be shut down in the merger with Endeavor. However, a rep for WME said there are no plans to scuttle the division. Franklin was the only member of the legit team to go, leaving a roster of agents that includes David Kalodner, Susan Weaving, Val Day, Derek Zasky, Jonathan Lomma and Biff Liff.

Last time I checked, Laurents, Albee, and McNally all seem to still be working pretty regularly and, therefore, bringing in some dough to WMA. So what gives?

Oh yeah, that merger....

Who IS Tommy???

My review of Tommy--I mean The Who's Tommy, but not by The Who but by Des McAnuff, and not with The Who, but the Gallery Players of Park Slope--is now online at VillageVoice.com.

Pace my editor's tag line, let's just say the only "magic journey" involved was getting there on the 'F' train on a Sunday.

While this may not be a definitive production, it did get me thinking that, under other circumstances, this might be a viable piece of musical theatre that maybe should be done more often. (I didn't see the original McAnuff production with Michael Cerveris back in '93.) A really creative director could do something with this.

Meanwhile, speaking of rock bands going all B'way: you do know about the Michael Mayer-Green Day musical going up at Berkeley Rep, don't you?

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Royal National Theatre Coming Soon to a Theatre Near You?

I missed this back in January, but the UK's Royal National Theatre is making a go at Met Opera style live screenings, bringing live performance to cinemas.

NT Live is an exciting new initiative to broadcast live performances of plays onto cinema screens worldwide. The four show pilot season will launch with Phèdre, with Helen Mirren, Margaret Tyzack and Dominic Cooper.On 25 June the performance of Phèdre will be filmed in high definition and broadcast via satellite to approximately 50 cinemas and arts centres, reaching a widespread audience live across the UK. Tickets will cost £10. Over 100 venues around the world will also screen the production.
And one of those 100 venues? Washington DC's Shakespeare Theatre! Where admission to Phèdre will be $20. More than a movie, alas.

Ok, maybe not the savior of theatre, but I'm certainly to see what happens. And I gotta hand it to them that, Helen Mirren aside, Phèdre is hardly the crowd pleasing choice for an opener. (I mean, we're talkin' about Racine here, people.)

And naturally we have to wonder if the practice will spread here. If it ever does happen here the pilot project will no doubt be a Broadway show and the venuture strictly not not-for-profit. (In fact, I believe the final B'way performance of Rent was already broadcast in similar fashion.)

Where it would have the biggest impact, though, is not on Broadway but on "the road." Watch for road presenters to start looking into this as a cheaper alternative to live touring productions. I mean, why put up millions for the a show's B-team to come to town when you can just show the video "live from Broadway" with the original celebrity star intact?

Other than that, though, it'll be hard for American nonprofit theatre to get in on this act without major celebrity actors (or maybe writers) to draw attention. Lincoln Center Theater has benefitted from PBS' "Live From Lincoln Center" telecasts and aired some shows on tv. (Roundabout also had a PBS contract for a while.) Frankly, I'd like to see non-New York companies take part in this, so we can all see--on a national platform- what, say, the Guthrie and the Goodman are doing for a change.

Meanwhile, "NT Live," being in Britain, is thoroughly subsidized of course. And tied in with a mission to spread culture across the nation:
NT Live fits in with the government's determination to get more culture outside of London. The culture secretary, Andy Burnham, has been involved in moves to create a Manchester base for the Royal Opera House and recently advocated having a different city as British capital of culture every four years, allowing events such as the Brits, the Baftas and the Turner Prize to decamp out of London.
See, that's why you have a "culture secretary." National Endowment for the Arts could never get something that big done.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Bart Sher: On the Move?

NYT's Patrick Healy tries to get a rumor going about NY director of the moment Bartlett Sher finally packing up and leaving Seattle's Intiman, where he is still nominally Artistic Director, to settle into some role as "heir apparent" at Lincoln Center Theater. I don't see Andre Bishop stepping down any time soon, and both he and Sher deny it, of course. But it wouldn't surprise anyone to know there may be some "grooming" going on.

(Sher is already "resident director" at LCT. And as Healy confirms, Intiman plans to announce soon some "power sharing" arrangement with a new appointment.)

Gossip aside, though, there is a larger question: what do we make of jetsetting regional theater Artistic Directors who spend more time in NYC than in their "home" town? Lord knows, there have been several. Jack O'Brien ran a veritable Broadway empire for years out of the Old Globe. Ditto Des McAnuff at LaJolla. (And now at Canada's Stratford Festival.)

Kind of reminds me of Mike Daisey's image in "How Theater Failed America" of NY actors being freeze-dried and flown into random cities for their six weeks before being sent back to NY. If our "regionals" need to build stronger bonds with their local communities, shouldn't it start at the top? With Artistic Directors truly living and working there year-round?

I ask this, knowing full well that, like actors, a theater artist in American usually must be NY-based to maximize employment opportunities. (Opportunities not just in NYC but all the companies that cast & hire out of here.) Still, boards should keep in mind when hiring what do they want: a marquee name to attract funders? or an artist who will serve the community full time?

Scenes from the Crunch: or, Art as "Intangible Investment"

What Business Week is calling the "Creative" category of jobs--"designers, actors, artists, athletes, dancers, musicians, reporters, editors, writers, photographers, and everyone else that goes along with that"--has taken an 11.5% dip in the last 8 months. That's bigger than the overall employment averages.

Interestingly, we're in this boat along with some real techies, like software engineers and computer scientists. Why?

What unites all of these groups is that they are all producers of “intangible investments.” That is, engineers, scientists, computer software engineers, artists, designers, and so forth all create long-lived intellectual property which has the potential to contribute to the economy. This includes new software programs, new products, new pieces of art and so forth. Writers produce written works of various degrees of usefulness, but in the aggregate are beneficial.

With the exception of software, the government statistics for GDP pick up very little of these intangible investments. That is, they pick up the part of spending which supports current consumption, but not the part which benefits the future.

Nothing new about actors out of work, I know. But important to have it reaffirmed that this is not business (or even lack of business) as usual.

And nice to know "the future" is among the first casualties of our economic system.

(Hat tip, Richard Florida.)

Heil Bialystock!

Berlin's Admiralspalast Theatre. Site of the German stage premiere of Mel Brooks' The Producers.

Ok, interesting marketing choice...

Be funny to be strolling down the street in Berlin in 2009 and suddenly see that.

But yes, let us indeed note that those are pretzels.

The Times' man in Berlin, art critic Michael Kimmelman gives the rundown on how the show's playing there. As to the inevitable question asked "Can the Germans laugh at Hitler?" --seems to me they've been doing that for a long time already. Arturo Ui, anyone?

Monday, May 18, 2009

Obies tonight

Tonight's the Obies and you can apparently watch them in some kinda chatroom setup here. These kids today.

I'll be there in person, but blogging in spirit.

Show starts at 8:00. To cut to the chase and find out the winners, try logging on here around 10:00pm.

Rocco Roundup

Still lots of good buzz out there for the rumored Rocco Landesman nomination for NEA.

Oskar Eustis (quoted in WaPo) calls it "for the theater community...the most concrete evidence of Obama's brilliance."

LA Times' Christopher Knight first was "startled ...that the NEA was making any news at all. I’d pretty much forgotten the place exists." And praises the pick out of the belief that: "The NEA cannot be successful, whatever its format, unless successful people working full-time in the arts are addressing the powerful work of their most talented peers."

Elsewhere in LAT, Steven Lavine, CalArts president and an Obama arts advisor during the campaign, is optimistic Landesman can finally restore the NEA individual artists grants that were revoked back in the early 90s culture wars over the infamous cases of the "NEA 4."

“Just to have somebody who has produced Tony Kushner and August Wilson — he knows that it starts with the individual artistic voice, and if it’s not offending somebody ... it’s not doing its job,” Lavine said.
In same article Actors Equity head John Connolly also gets on board.
Connolly, the Actors’ Equity director, thinks that Landesman’s record of working on shows that began in nonprofit theaters, then transferred to commercial houses on Broadway, bodes well for his ability to bridge gaps between commercial and art-first sensibilities. Landesman has enjoyed noting in interviews that he’s championed not only shows such as the dramas of August Wilson and “Caroline, or Change,” Tony Kushner’s musical about race relations, that stood little chance of earning a profit but embodied the artistic quality Broadway needed to support, but also mass-audience crowd-pleasers such as “The Who’s Tommy,” “Jersey Boys” and “The Producers,” which he also helped produce.
This point is perhaps the most persuasive to me. The main challenge of any NEA administration is to shake off the "elitist" label without compromising good artistic tastes. And while we had a passionate theatre artist and advocates in the job before with actress Jane Alexander, Landesman brings the added virture of being a real showman. And, as Knight implies, it would be a victory in itself just to remind the public that the NEA exists. (Remind them in a positive way, that is.)

Meanwhile fellow blogger Isaac Butler--who also served on the Obama campaign Arts committee--reminds us of Rocco's downtown cred. I mean, the guy actually appeared on a Mike Daisey panel(!) where Isaac quotes him as saying:
"I realized when we were doing Caroline or Change on Broadway as a commercial production and a non-profit was doing Barefoot in the Park* that something was deeply wrong."
*While I applaud the sentiment, perhaps Rocco or Isaac's memory fails them. The Scott Elliot-directed Barefoot that played on Broadway in 2006 was, contrary to appearances not produced by the Roundabout Theatre Company, a frequent employer of both Elliot and frothy revivals. Perhaps he meant The Pajama Game.

As for Daisey himself, he approves, too, writing on his blog, "he's a tremendous choice, and his nomination is the highest-profile political moment for American theater in living memory."

Finally, for more on the man see this Playbill.com profile, a recent interview for the NYT.com "Freakonomics" blog(!), and an extended essay Rocco himself published in the Times back in 2000 railing against, among other things, the fuzzy nonprofit/commercial divide.

(Hat tip to commenter "Aria" for the link to that last one. I noticed it was basically unloadable the day after the rumors of the nomination was reported. High web traffic, perhaps? Seems like some folk are already starting to search the paper trail...)

"Variable Pricing" hits B'way?

Ken Davenport is not only a blogger but an actual living commercial Off Broadway producer. (Thought they were extinct, didn't ya.)

Last week he offered some inside dope from a Broadway League conference that at least one Broadway box office is experimenting with a more flexible pricing strategy akin to airlines and hotels--presumably leading to some highly inflated "peak" ticket prices but, hopefully, bigger blocks of affordable seats as well.

That's a computer screen . . . on the wall of the box office at Chicago! On that screen are the digitally displayed price for each performance that week, as well as the price for future performances. Obviously that screen and those prices can be changed with a few key strokes, depending on demand.

Chicago is the guinea pig in this program but I'll make a prediction that you'll see screens in all the box offices in twelve months time. Kudos to the producers of Chicago and the Shubes for giving this a go.

I spoke to Ken (his real name), one of the box office staffers and a proud 751 member, about the screen and its effectiveness. He said he thought it was definitely helping, and was another tool in his toil to "never let a person walk away without a ticket." He explained his strategy of using the spread on prices to help close every sale at the highest level possible.
The question remains, though: what is the theatrical seat equivalent to the 6am flight?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

DOA TV Awards Show Picks Host

Riedel was praying for Will Ferrell. The Tony folks wooed James Gandolfini. Others lobbied for Dolly Parton.

But no, the host of this year's Tony Awards broadcast will be what must have been everyone's 3rd default: Neil Patrick Harris.

Hey no offense to the guy. Good performer. But "Doogie Hauser" isn't quite a current show. You gotta wonder whether he actually draws any higher ratings than no host at all.

Unless they're aiming for the Joss Weedhon/ Dr. Horrible crowd...

Now THAT's Some Color Blind Casting

Phylicia Rashad joins August: Osage County.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Review: The Temperamentals

I know calling a play a "history lesson" is usually not a compliment. But you know what? I like learning things at the theatre. And I learned some interesting history at Jon Marans' The Temperamentals, as recounted in this week's Voice.

NEA Surprise

Well I didn't see this coming.

Rocco Landesman is going to run the NEA. Rocco Landesman, Broadway producer, head of Jujamcyn Theater chain, and noted outsize personality.

Then again, he also happens to be Rocco Landesman, DFA from Yale Drama!

What to say? That Obama, he's a mischievous one. The first phrase that comes to my mind is "so crazy it might work." At least we know Rocco will not be some career bureaucrat trained to adjust to political "reality" and thus roll over at every Republican phony anti-arts outrage. He seems less likely to just accept that the NEA must be marginal because some congressional blowhards say it is. At the very least the man's a fighter.

Now, will he fight for nonprofits as hard (or as well) as he fought for Jujamcyn's dividends? Commercial producing is a really different branch of the arts world. And as the Times article reminds us, he was the guy who gave us the "Premium" ticket price on Broadway and has gone on record many times criticizing nonprofit theatre companies for their stealth commercial practices. (Hmm, then again, so have I...)

Here's another asset though the article neglects to raise--the man sure knows how to raise money. So whatever he can't get from Congress, expect him to hit up his many rich private sector sources. (I mean, if he can get them to invest in Tale of Two Cities, he can get them to cough up for anything!)

So, to our President I say, hats off, sir. All in all, plusses and minuses considered, well played. You took "the enemy" by surprise by giving them a real businessman to contend with. And you signalled you're serious about the NEA making some noise for a change.

Let's just hope the man makes it through the confirmation process.


PS. It is interesting to read in the article that Rocco also just happened to be a major Obama donor during the campaign...

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Spader on Broadway

David Mamet's mysterious upcoming new play, debuting on Broadway in the Fall, just got even stranger: it will star James Spader.

I mean that as strange in a good way! At least I hope. Has Spader ever acted on stage before?

Tony Reality Check

Critic Dominic Papatola, writing from the Twin Cities, challenges the conventional wisdom on the value of a Tony-win outside of the NY/Broadway cocoon. As he says, Wicked lost the Tony to Avenue Q and has dominated "the road" ever since. (While the puppet show now only survives on the Rialto.) "Put simply," Papatola writes, "the aesthetic glow of the Tonys doesn't shine very far out and barely reaches markets where both audiences and producers are less likely to use awards as a tool in their theater-making and theatergoing decisions."

As for non-musicals:

And regardless of who wins next month, you're likely to see more productions of "[God of] Carnage" and "[Reasons to be] Pretty" than "[Dividing the] Estate" and "[33] Variations." The reasons have infinitely more to do with economics than aesthetics: Those first two shows each have a cast of four, while the cast list for the latter two runs into double digits.
Indeed.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Quote of the Day

"In the history of Tonys, has there ever been a weirder combo than the "special theatrical event" category that mixes Liza Minnelli, George Bush, Shaolin jumpers and Russian clowns?"

-Gordon Cox, Variety.

"Special" events indeed.

For the record, only one of the above figures was played by Will Ferrell.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Whither Manhattan Theatre Club

In reviewing Manhattan Theatre Club's latest offering in their Broadway mainstage house, a revival of a forgotten 1934 comedy Accent on Youth, Time Out's Adam Feldman doesn't waste time in getting right to the heart of the question on the minds of many obersevers of the NYC nonprofit scene:

What is happening at MTC? The company’s website bills it as “one of the only institutions in the U.S. solely dedicated to producing new plays and musicals.” But its Samuel J. Friedman Theatre began the season with the new-in-name-only To Be or Not to Be, adapted from the 1942 film; then came a revival of 1990’s The American Plan; and now this. When did the MTC’s mission become a nostalgia trip? Are its captains asleep on the job? With productions like this one, no one could blame them.
The Post's Elizabeth Vincentelli (on her new NY Post blog!) puts it even less "charitably," so to speak:

To say I didn't like the Manhattan Theatre Club's production of "Accent on Youth" is the understatement of the year. Adding insult to injury are a couple of innocuous lines about two thirds of the way down the cast page in the Playbill: "Manhattan Theatre Club productions are made possible in part with public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and the New York State Council on the Arts, a state agency."
You know, if our tax dollars are going to help MTC mount this type of production, we should ask for some accountability in return. After all, if it's required of the auto industry, why not of our local not-for-profit theater institutions?
Myself I don't think Accent on Youth is that much a crime against the theatre. David Hyde Pierce is in top form, Byron Jennings and Charles Kimbrough are wonderful, and, at its best, the scipt plays like a perfectly charming Molnar farce or Lubitsch film. (Its author Samson Raphaelson was one Lubitsch's screenwriters of choice.) But for $100 a seat???

The truth is, Accent would be a perfectly fine choice in a rep theatre's second (or third) space. But MTC--despite the fact that, as Feldman points out, they're decidedly not a rep company--made an oddly fateful decision. They programmed this brittle trifle in their high visibility (and Tony-eligible) Broadway venue, while the play they imported from Chicago that would eventually win the Pulitzer--Ruined--got stuck in their Off Broadway "Stage 1". And there it remains, even after its sixth(!) extension.

In short, despite incredible buzz coming out of Chicago's Goodman, where the premiere was a box office phenomenon, MTC didn't know what they had.

Of course, we can ask whether Ruined--a sober drama by a nonfamous playwright about abuse of women in the Congo and with no star--would be well served on Broadway, its commercial potential so limited. But at least it would have been eligible for a Tony! Plus, at just 650 seats, MTC's "Samuel J. Freedman" (formerly The Biltmore) is only about twice as big as the 299-er Stage 1.

And, by the way, average attendance capacity for Accent at the Freedman last week? 49.3%. That's right, about 300 seats. So at least it seems Ruined couldn't do much worse.

(Even at Broadway prices, I would bet. Even Off Broadway, MTC is charging $75 for Ruined. With a $96.50 top, Accent is only $20 more, and with a $56.50 balcony option.)

I usually don't care a whit about a theatre's mission statement, but in this case it is indeed odd that a company so professly devoted to new plays and new writers would use their prime venue this season to dig up antiques. When they opened The Biltmore five years ago (at a great expense that plummeted the company into dire financial straits even before the recession), their justification was to bring the serious new American dramatic play back to Broadway. In other words, that's where those public funds were supposed to be going.

Everyone's allowed to fail. But I just can't help asking: wouldn't producing Ruined on Broadway have finally been the fulfillment of that stated mission?

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Get a Room

Michael Musto goes to Waiting for Godot on Broadway:

The bedraggled stars—Nathan Lane and Bill Irwin—hit their stride in Act Two, with a heartbreaking display of brilliant chemistry and timing. But the night I went, a couple in the second row weirdly started making out in full view... So all that nihilism and despair made them hot? They'd probably be fornicating over at [Ionesco's] Exit the King.
Reminds of Denver Post's John Moore rule #4 in the regrettably increasing list of audience etiquette breaches in the 21st century:
Shut up with your coochy-coo already: You may be in love, but that life force does not ensconce you two in a soundproof hyperbaric chamber. We can hear you!
Personally, I'm short. So the second the couple in front of me touch heads or one leans on the other's shoulder... I can't see!

Of course, the locus classicus of this "primal scene" is here:


Wednesday, May 06, 2009

NY Drama Critics Circle

Sure it's just another award. But the fun of the NY Drama Critics Circle is they actually publish who voted for what, on all the different ballots, no less.

I suppose this is the only awards show where Wooster Group's La Didone gets some nominations for Best Musical!

And who knew John Simon had a soft spot for Neil LaBute?

But disappointing to me is reading how the amazing Blasted got squeezed out by technicalities for Best Foreign Play by the much inferior pseudo-political patchwork piece Blackwatch:

Blasted received the most votes, with seven, while National Theatre of Scotland's Black Watch—a holdover from last year—received five. A second vote was then taken to determine whether an award would be given at all. Having agreed that one should, the Circle moved to a weighted third ballot, which Black Watch squeaked out a victory with 30 points, versus 27 each for Blasted and God of Carnage.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Tony Noms 09

It explodes with more of a whimper every year...

NYT's Patrick Healy live-blogged the nomination announcements this morning. Playgoer, of course, will be live-blogging the award show itself, as per tradition. (Let's see if Mr. Healy does the same. Will Playgoer have some competition this year? Hm...)

Healy's page is all full of who missed out. I for one am kinda glad some folks missed out for a change and we actually had enough strong openings to not have to nominate everyone just to fill the categories! And for every celebrity that didn't get nominated there's three or four hardworking pavement pounding stage actors who didn't either.

On the other hand, let's hear it for downtown darling Marin Ireland! (Who lucked out in replacing the otherwise busy Allison Pill in Reasons to be Pretty.)

I do think it's interesting Desire Under the Elms got completely shafted, just because the sheer presence of such an insane piece of directors' theatre (of a god-awful O'Neill play) on Broadway amuses me. At the very least the direction and production elements deserved some recognition but I guess the Tony voters just didn't know what to make of it all.

In other news...can you just imagine hearing the phrase "Tony Award Winning Actor Constantine Maroulis"???? As far as fame goes, though, it's quite a comedown from American Idol.

And, finally, the most gossippy story is the dissing of 9 to 5 despite a very clear and desperate attempt to take the Tonys by storm at the last minute. Tonys instead gave the nod to the little rock musical that could Rock of Ages, which at least is a refreshing contrast to that market-tested behemoth posing as a musical.

On the other hand, there is Shrek...

See y'all on June 7.

Not the Pulitzer, but...

Thankfully the US branch of the international writers' group PEN still includes drama in its award offerings.

The PEN/Laura Pels Foundation Awards for Drama recognize a master American dramatist and an American playwright in mid-career, both of whose literary achievements are vividly apparent in the rich and striking language of their work. The former receives a rare first edition of dramatic literature, the latter a $7,500 stipend. The awards are made possible by a grant from the Laura Pels Foundation and were developed to reflect Laura Pels’ dedication to supporting excellence in American theater, as well as PEN’s commitment to recognizing and rewarding the literary accomplishments of playwrights. The award is made possible by a contribution from Bauman Rare Books. The judges for this year’s awards were Richard Nelson, Theresa Rebeck, and Sarah Ruhl.

This year’s Master playwright award goes to Sam Shepard, best known for his plays Buried Child, Curse of the Starving Class, True West, Fool for Love, and A Lie of the Mind. The mid-career award goes to Nilo Cruz, whose works include Anna in the Tropics, Beauty of the Father, Lorca in a Green Dress, Two Sisters and a Piano, A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings, Dancing on Her Knees, and A Park in Our House.

Rare first editions??? That's gotta be the strangest playwriting award out there.

Perhaps Sam will emblazon a sign on his shelf: I wrote Buried Child and True West and all I got were these old books.

On the one hand we can file this under Playwriting Awards for Playwrights Who Don't Need Them. But then again, at least Nilo Cruz has had only one hit play and could probably use $7500 to tide him over for the two or three months that lasts in NY nowadays.

I notice the PEN awards actually give $10,000 prizes to novelists and nonfiction books, then $7500 to playwrights, then $5000 to poetry. As if the amount were tied to the cultural cachet (or just plain financial intake) of the genre. When in fact, shouldn't the scale be the direct inverse? Big novelists get advances way more than $10,000. And poets are lucky to ever see four figures for their work at all.


Monday, May 04, 2009

Ode to the Orchestrator

Terry Teachout pens a love letter to some of the unsung heroes of the American Musical.

At least they have a Tony category now.

Scenes from the Crunch

From yesterday's Washington Post:

The unemployment rate for artists is lower than that of the general population, but it's growing at a faster pace. The National Endowment for the Arts reported that the unemployment rate for artists shot up 2.4 percentage points in the fourth quarter of 2008 compared with the same quarter a year before. (In the overall workforce during the same period, unemployment was up 1.9 percentage points.) Sunil Iyengar, the NEA's chief researcher, says 74,000 artists -- from dancers to actors to musicians -- left the workforce during the quarter.

[...]

The trick in cutting, several organizations say, is to do so without diminishing the quality of the performances and the productions. The Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington cut $1 million of its $18.9 million budget in November, in part by dropping five administrative employees; it's reluctant to cut more. Deeper reductions might produce "a downward spiral" that jeopardizes the loyalty of its core audience, said Chris Jennings, the troupe's managing director.
Yes, that's a nearly $19 million budget for Shakespeare DC. They're one of the biggies, and they're laying off staff.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Augusto Boal

One of the leading international figures in modern political theatre, Augusto Boal, died yesterday at his home in Rio de Janeiro. Boal developed his theories of agitprop street performance and guerilla theatre into his "Theatre of the Oppressed," which you can read more about here and here.

He was able to return to his native Brazil only when the military dictatorship there dissolved twenty years ago. But he remained a large presence on the international alternative-theatre scene.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Tonys a-comin'

If you can't wait till Tuesday's Tony noms, Riedel has some prognostication for you.

Probably the most newsworthy of his hunches, from a biz perspective: "there's very little support for 'Shrek.'"