The Playgoer: July 2009

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Thursday, July 30, 2009

Yeah, I'd See That

One of the theater's goals, according to its earliest theorists, is to incite fear. But rarely is that emotion provoked by a chainsaw-wielding maniac who chases you down a murky hallway—the climax of It Felt Like a Kiss, a promenade play by the British company Punchdrunk, and easily the most terrifying show I witnessed during a week of theatergoing in England....

Staged in a disused office building near the Manchester docks as part of the Manchester International Festival, It Felt Like a Kiss tells "the story of how America set out to remake the world" in the 1950s and '60s. Apparently, America did this in nice ways, like exporting pop music, and in nasty ones, like sponsoring coups. As in previous Punchdrunk shows, the audience navigates a series of meticulously decorated rooms—a suburban bungalow, a chamber for electroshock therapy, a high school gym. While music composed by Damon Albarn and performed by the Kronos Quartet plays, viewers are encouraged to lift blankets, open drawers, and otherwise attempt to uncover the world of the play.
-Alexis Soloski, reporting from London. (Also on Jude's Hamlet.)

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

What Happens to Unused Subscriptions When the Company Folds?

So say your local theatre company goes under--and takes your unfulfilled subscription with them. Can't believe it? Apparently it's happened with the defunct North Shore Music Theatre in MA.

Luckily, someone asked that the other day of a Boston Globe advice column.

In brief, call your credit card company asap.

As you have found, dealing with a defunct business can be enormously frustrating and present an often insurmountable challenge. In a bankruptcy, you’ll likely be pushed to the back of the pack - after creditors with more standing are paid. And, as is typical in these cases, at best you’ll receive a small fraction of what is owed.

After speaking with you, I found that you contacted the credit card company, which was the right action to take. But beware: The Fair Credit Billing Act gives consumers 60 days after the receipt of a credit card statement to object to a charge.

Now, you should lodge a formal complaint with the state attorney general’s office. The theater seemingly handled the money it collected differently when you paid than afterward. And there is some question about representations made to folks like yourself in its solicitation for ticket sales.

Um, good luck, citizen. For the rest of us, take the lesson to heart. These days, it could happen to you, too.

Even the Guthrie

...ran in the red last season.

And even Stratford is strapped.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Top Secret Mamet

Riedel breaks the embargo David Mamet has put on his new script, Race, bound for Broadway in the fall.

Who knows how accurate his account is, and, of course, even if he is recounting a genuine draft of the play, it sure can change between now and December(!). So I won't publish the possibly erroneous details here, but feel free to read his synopsis with a grain of salt.

In short, he quotes one source describing it as "Speed the Plow in blackface."

True, leaking details of a playwright's work in advance against their wishes may not be a good thing. (Think of all the damage unnecessarily done to Corpus Christi, a priori.) But then again--how many playwrights can even get away with such a news blackout? Only those who can sell a play based on their name alone.

Monday, July 27, 2009

B'way Family-Show Market:: "Overstated"

In case you were worried that Disney-esque behemoths were overtaking Broadway for good, there's hope. According to Variety's Robert Hofler, some corporate introspection has concluded that putting on a glut of mega-expensive "family entertainment" spectacles is turning out to be a no-win proposition.

How different the Broadway landscape looked on May Day 2006. Disney Theatricals was flush with its long-running behemoths "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Lion King," and it had two more movie-to-stage adaptations ready to launch that year -- "Tarzan" and "Mary Poppins" -- with a third, "The Little Mermaid," being readied for the Great White Way.

Other producers had tried to woo G-rated audiences, but all of them lost a lot of money on "Seussical," "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" and "Little Women." Only Disney knew how to take the formula of charging adult ticket prices to kiddie shows and making it work.

Until, of course, it didn't.

The House of Mouse admitted it took a loss on "Tarzan" (486 perfs), and will do the same with "The Little Mermaid" (677 perfs) when it closes Aug. 30.
In other words:
"The family market was overstated," says one Broadway producer. "And anyone rushing to do a family musical has to realize that if the best brand in the world (i.e., Disney) saw the limits, then how could anyone else succeed?"
Which means bad news for Dreamworks' Shrek, still hobbling along through the summer. With families probably shelling out for only one Broadway show a year, if that, they'll probably still go with Disney rather than the knockoff.

Hofler's interesting diagnosis of the problem is that the industry has relied only on overbudget product to lure families, taking no advantage of theatre's unique ability to enchant cheaply.
No producer has yet been able to create the kids' version of "Avenue Q," "Next to Normal" or "Rent" -- adult shows that operate between $250,000 and $350,000 a week.
Translation: it's the overhead, stupid.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Photo of the Day

Theatrical mask, probably from Ancient Rome. One of a set discovered in Pompeii two hundred years ago, considered lost--now found.

In case you're wondering how the actor spoke through it:

[S]ome of the masks have their mouth shut, a clear indication that they were used as models for a craftsman who then produced lighter masks for actors to wear.
And they're made of plaster. Heavy, man.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Theatre Upstairs

Michael Billington pays tribute to the legacy of the Royal Court's "Theatre Upstairs." Much more than just a "second space," it was the site of many of the famous premieres in the history of that institution.

A simple 99-seat blackbox, literally the upstairs attic, converted from a rehearsal studio in the early 1970s (and renovated again in 2000) this intimate space reminds us how little is needed in the way of real estate to put on great plays and make theatre exciting.

Billington:

It has provided a shop window for legions of new writers. It has allowed directors and designers to experiment with space. Above all, it has made risk possible, with its "right to fail" philosophy; this can provoke embarrassment in a big space, but seems perfectly acceptable in a small one.

Right from the start, the Upstairs felt – and smelled – different. From those early years, I recall a weird array of experiences. Howard Brenton's Christie in Love with its murderous hero in a chicken-wire pen full of tattered newspapers; Heathcote Williams's AC/DC, with its simulated trepanning of the skull of the late Victor Henry; the multi-authored Lay By, which graphically explored the details of a motorway rape. Not least there was Caryl Churchill's 1972 play, Owners, which dealt with landlord-tenant relationships and announced the arrival of a major talent I signally failed to recognise.

Playwright Joe Penhall--who saw his first plays premiere Upstairs in the early/mid nineties, then under the Stephen Daldry/Ian Rickson reign--sums up what made this venue so important to emerging writers:

[T]he Royal Court was the only place that realised a new generation of writers was doing something different. Other theatres thought our plays were a bit rough, a bit weird, a bit dark – but that's exactly what Stephen Daldry and Ian Rickson, the artistic and associate directors, were looking for. What really set the Upstairs apart was its much-vaunted right to fail. It embraced the possibility that a play could be a disaster and strapped itself in for the ride.

"Right to fail, right to fail, right to fail... Just keep repeating that. And then ask yourselves: what American theatre companies give playwrights that right now? (In full productions, that is, not readings & workshops.)

And when you consider that ticket prices Upstairs have still been kept to only £10 to £15 (i.e. under $30), it really is tempting to conclude there simply is no equivalent platform in New York at all.

From RSC to SD

Hoping for stability after much turnout recently, following the departure of Jack O'Brien, San Diego's Old Globe has reached out to former Royal Shakespeare Company AD Adrian Noble to run the place.

Talk about jobbing in. From the hometown paper:

Noble, speaking by phone from his home in England, joked that the closest he's ever come to San Diego is the Los Angeles airport.
He's due to visit next month, apparently. His tenure will begin with next year's summer season.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Bring on the Niche?

Conor Friedersdorf (blogging at the Atlantic for Sullivan) notes the splintering off of much sports journalism (and, hence, readership) from major newspapers. In other words: niche journalism foils the dailies once again. Many, many newspaper sales still depend on their sports sections to sell papers, so when readers turn to ESPN channels and websites (now tailoring to local media markets) it picks off eyeballs from dead-tree land.

Now I'm not saying there's any parallel with arts sections. On the contrary. "We" are depending on those sports fans, too, to subsidize theatre coverage. (No players, no plays.) But Friedersdorf's read on the "disaggregation of newspaper content" reveals some wide-reaching implications, I think.

The disaggregation of newspaper content is an inevitability. Was there civic utility in the fact that a guy going for the sports page happened to see what his local mayor was up to by virtue of flipping through the sections? Sure, but that is a rather small matter. As I see it, "important" news is going to have to stand on its own going forward, and the challenge for those who care about journalism is to nudge the culture toward valuing it properly once the "subsidies" -- the advertising and the sports section and style coverage and all the rest -- aren't available anymore.
I guess what I take away is that...maybe its time to embrace this "disaggregation" for arts coverage. We've already contemplated the bleak scenario of a theatre and theatre companies without newspapers to advertise, promote and cover them. But why wait until it's too late? It's time, maybe, for arts coverage--the kind of good, rigorous, analytical, and truly critical arts coverage featuring many different voices that's already been absent a long time from our "general interest" media--to go solo.

Over the last couple of decades, amidst the rise of the conglomerate media, we saw the theatre-only publication, for instance, vanish. (Remember Theater Week?) But now its time has come again, perhaps. It's only the medium of a print magazine that may be dead. But not the desire for the content.

Monday, July 20, 2009

NYT.com Introduces Cheap "Self Service" Ads--but not for the Arts

Producer Ken Davenport makes an interesting observation about a frustrating new ad policy over at the Times' website:

It seems that the NY Times has developed their own version of Google's web-changing AdWords program, which they call Self Serve, for clients with a budget under $10k (sounds perfect for Off-Broadway, doesn't it?).

It looks awesome! You can upload your own ad or if you don't have one, you can use one of their templates! You can set your own daily budget so you never spend more than you're comfy with! You can start with as little as $50/day! You get reporting, tracking and more! And you can pick exactly what section you want to advertise in! It's perfect!

Where do I sign up?

Where do I . . . where do I . . .

Oh. Wait a second. It looks like . . . yep . . . huh.

The NY Times does not allow self-serve advertising in the Theater section.

Let me say that a different way.

The NY Times Online allows you to advertise in all areas of the The Old Gray Biatch except for the Arts section (and Opinion & Politics).

I mean . . . wow . . . ok, ok, keep it up NY Times . . . keep pushing us further away, cuz you're doing oh so well in the meantime. What was it again? A loss of 61 million in the first quarter? That's like more than 4 Lestats.
Indeed, a clueless and harmful strategy.

Still--cause to hope? Would be a real boon to those theatre companies who can't shell out for those 5- or 6-figure Arts & Leisure print ads anymore...

Be Nice to Critics Day

Old-Schooler Jeremy Gerard over at Bloomberg adds his ire to the Tony Awards' "defriending" of the NY critics from the voting pool. "Kicking my colleagues and me out of the club wasn’t just dumb," says he. "Along with the other choices made, the Tonys edge ever closer to irrelevancy" Couldn't agree more.

Also, two reviewers document their current forays into theatre-making for a change. Oddly, both David Cote and Terry Teachout are both premiering opera librettos! Who knew.

Teachout quotes this admonition from John Lahr:

Lahr raised a ruckus when he tartly pointed out that most of his colleagues on the aisles of Broadway "have no working experience of the theater, have not written a professional play, a sketch, or even a joke; have never worked in a theater, taken an acting class, or published any extended piece of work. They are creative virgins; everything they know about theater is book-learned and second-hand."

Lahr then went on to claim that criticism is "a life without risk; the critic is risking his opinion, the maker is risking his life. It's a humbling thought but important for the critic to keep it in mind -- a thought he can only know if he's made something himself."
As Terry says, "That's putting it a bit too strongly." But point taken.

Then again, Lahr--like many artists and many readers--probably underestimate the degree to which most critics have at least experienced the process of making theatre (beyond the high school level) even if they never achieved great heights or no longer practice.

Teachout lists many great critic-artists from the past, and I would add from, both past and present: Eric Bentley, Robert Brustein and Michael Feingold. Among my younger contemporaries: Alexis Soloski and Helen Shaw have both dramaturged and continue to do so periodically; Stevel Leigh Morris out in LA is a playwright; and, before he started writing operas, David Cote acted for years downtown, for Richard Foreman, among others.

There are doubtlessly others, so excuse me if I don't know everyone's background well enough.

As for me, while we're at it, I got an MFA in Directing, though never ended up doing much with it professionally (surprise!), and worked as a full time Literary Manager for a regional theatre for a couple of seasons before turning to writing and criticism more. I still harbor hopes of penning some literary adaptations (yes, playwriting's poor relation) and maybe even translations.

Point is, most people who give a damn about theatre to begin with either got that way from participating in it, or their passion for spectating has led them at some point in their secret past, at least, to tread the boards or make some such stab. Whether it "succeeded" or not is beside the point if what matters is a first-hand experience.

And rather than scorn such former or part-time artists under the cliche of "those who can't do, criticize," I prefer to believe that that little part of our brains that holds us back (for whatever reason) from being stars in our own right, might just be the x-factor gene that makes a good critic.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Adventures in Stunt Casting

From NYT:

The television talk show host Jerry Springer, who just concluded a six-week run as Billy Flynn in the musical “Chicago” in London’s West End, is in talks to play the role on Broadway as early as next month, Mr. Springer said in a recent interview.
Meanwhile, the less-cynical endeavor Jerry Springer: The Opera remains unproduceable in NY.

Look, at its core, Chicago, a great show. But this road-company concert version posing as a full-price Broadway musical, with its interchangeable leading players week by week, has just become a joke, hasn't it? So much so that not even this casting "coup" can shock.

And Springer's character, Billy Flynn, actually has songs!

More here.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

"She of the Voice" review

From the Underground Zero festival at PS122, my review of She of the Voice--now closed. So I guess inconsequential now.

Still, here's the rest of the festival lineup, through July 26.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Theatre Marketing post-WQXR

Continuing to shed whatever poundage they can, NY Times is selling off their official radio station, WQXR, which they've run for six decades.

WQXR has been known mostly to New Yorkers as the city's last remaining all-classical music station. (Yes, even NYC only has one now.) Under its new management by the quasi-NPR (now just "listener-supported") WNYC, the station will reportedly keep the format.

But, as a "public radio" station, will it continue to be the haven for Broadway and Off Broadway advertising it always was? WQXR was the ideal "niche demographic" venue for those ad companies sorry enough to be stuck with "legit" accounts in the 21st century. It guaranteed an audience of folks just out of touch enough with the mainstream commercial culture--and with, on average, just enough disposable income--to actually go to plays.

And they sure milked it. As a regular listener, I counted at least two campaigns regularly running each week. (Usually in really, really annoying spots aimed either at the retirement-age or bridge & tunnel crowds. I don't know who produces them, but they usually feature two voices: one older man who delivers the hard sell, then an older woman supplying the emotional appeal of the play's storyline.)

Even WNYC promotes sponsors--discreet plugs by announcers, like PBS has--so it's not the end of the line. But imagine anyone who specializes in radio theatre ads in this town is making and receiving a lot of calls today...

(The official NYT story is here. Note the complex terms of the sale, whereby Univision actually buys most of the station in order to take over its prized 96.3 spot on the dial, moving QXR up into the FM stratosphere, to a new call-number that WNYC will administer.)

Tonys getting less "critical"?

Time Out's Adam Feldman shares some mail he just received:

“After careful consideration,” begins the letter from Tony Award Productions, “the Tony Awards Management Committee has determined that Tony-voting privileges will no longer be extended to members of the First Night Press List, commencing with the 2009–2010 season.” In other words: Critics are hereby purged from the Tony voting rolls. No official reasons for this decision are given, but the letter goes on to note that critics already get to have their say during the year, and that “certain publications and individual critics have historically pursued a policy of abstaining from voting on entertainment awards in general, to avoid any possible conflicts of interest in fulfilling their primary responsibilities as journalists.”
Yes, good thing those pesky critics' conflicts of interest are out of the way now, to make way for the purer judgments of the rest of the Tony Award electorate--mostly, producers!

Someone upset that Shrek didn't get better Tony treatment this year???

Well I suppose it's true that critics do get plenty of opportunities to judge already, including their own awards. But maybe this should heighten the importance (if awards are still "important" at all) of Drama Critics Circle, for instance, or Drama Desk (of which I confess I'm a voting member myself).

(The OBIES is in some ways critic-driven but the committee every year is comprised of different critics and artists--like Cannes! But it also excludes Broadway.)

While it is a shameless move by the Broadway League and American Theater Wing (who run the thing) to take the Tonys even one step further toward blatant infomercial, maybe such clarity puts the spectacle in proper perspective finally. And maybe we'll develop in theatre a "bicameral" awards season like with movies, where you have the Oscars (voted on by industry folks), then the numerous critics awards (National Board of Review, e.g.).

The question is, with a voting pool something like one-tenth the size of the Oscars' (and now getting even smaller!) what's to stop the Tonys from becoming a regular Politburo of Puffery?

Notice the coincidence that the Oscars just increased their number of Best Picture nominees from five to ten, no doubt a similar impulse that the Tonys have shown in finding some reason to at least telecast (if not nominated) scenes from every musical imaginable, good, bad, open, closed, or road tour.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Me Likee Mnouchkine

...but, alas, not enough this year to shell out the $150 and 7 hours for Les Ephemes (Ephemera) , the latest rare American appearance of her company, Theatre de Soleil.

But that's only because I made my pilgrimmage last time with Le Dernier Caravansereil, and frankly this more domestic epic sounds less interesting to me.

Still, if you've never seen her work (and never seen it live) you owe it to yourself to go to at least one part, if you can manage to get in and still afford to eat over the weekend.

Especially if you are interested in looking to models of theatre collectives that really commune and practially live together, (even if they are ruled by a dominant personality) Theatre de Soleil is a wonderful case study--as can be gleamed from Helen Shaw's nice profile of the queen of collaborative epic theatre. (Mnouchkine on Brook: “I admire Peter Brook immensely...[but] I am not one who can abandon pleasure. Theater has to be nourishing for your flesh: VoilĂ ! I think Peter has become monastic, but I am still too childish.”)

Leave it to the Lincoln Center Festival, of course, to import revolutionary theatre collectives from Europe and price them for only disposable-income Manhattanites to see.

(Time Out also links to some nifty slide shows of Mnouchkine's work.)

Showcase Code Reformed!

As someone who used to follow this story quite a bit, I was surprised to come across this news item that Actors Equity, back in May, finally did revise the Off Off Broadway showcase code.

Rejoice, downtowners!

The modifications made to the Codes reflect more flexibility in rehearsal time, an increase in budget caps for Basic Showcase to reflect today's economics, and create uniformity in rehearsal time for both Codes....

For the Seasonal Showcase, the annual gross income figure at which producers must use the Seasonal Showcase Code is increased to $60,000. Performances may now be held over six consecutive weeks for all tiers. Language has been added, clarifying the performance schedule of Seasonal Showcase Code productions. Maximum ticket prices for Seasonal Showcase productions have been increased to $25

For the Basic Showcase Code, the maximum budget amount is increased to $35,000. This budget amount now excludes the reimbursement stipends paid to Equity members.

New York Innovative Theatre Awards offers a helpful visual breakdown and summary.

And to recap, the point of the "Showcase" agreements is to allow professional Equity-memeber actors to forego salary under certain strictly regulated conditions in order to allow them to work in lower-budget theatre (like Off Off Broadway) and to allow innovative directors/producers/companies to still work with professional actors even if they can't pay them, or at least pay them Equity-level salaries. (Many of the larger showcase companies, though, do pay Equity actors at least a stipend.)

So, in short, if I understand all the changes correctly, if you're putting up shows individually under the Basic Code, your allowed budget limit just went up from $20,000 to $35,000 (75%). Not bad. But pretty essential given current Manhattan space rentals alone.

Also, under the Basic, you can still only rehearse 128 hours total, but can spread that out over 5 weeks instead of just 4. (Is that much of a help?) Ticket prices are still capped at $18 and performances limited to 16 over 4 weeks.

The Seasonal Code is for permanent companies who want to produce Showcase productions year-round, not just one-off's. Poorer companies can just do a series of Basic Code shows if they want, and now AEA has allowed more companies to do that by raising the income they're allowed to take in (to $60,000--I forget what it was earlier) before being forced to run on a Seasonal contract.

But that Seasonal Code itself now has added benefits, such as allowing you to charge $25 a ticket (instead of just $20) and to run 6 weeks in performance, not 5. (Total number of perf's still capped at 20 for smaller companies, 24 for larger.)

So is everyone happy? A "small but important step," says John Clancy, head of League of Independent Theater New York, "toward their recognition of Off-Off Broadway as a legitimate sector of New York City's cultural landscape."

Other reactions in the "indie" community, so far so good. (Hat tip to bloggers Matt Freeman and Zack Calhoon for getting there way ahead of me on this.) Nick Micozzi over at Innovative Theater Awards has continuing qualms about process and openness. (Indeed, this has taken a long times since the movement really gelled two years ago.) For the record, according to Stage Directions, "These changes were the result of the work conducted by the Equity Off-Off-Broadway Committee, which is comprised of AEA members in good standing who have worked under the code, some of whom have produced Code shows."

Still the arc of history is long, eh?

Details aside, it's a significant development just for reasserting that Showcase productions can continue at all! In the present economy, where making any income off of art just got a lot harder, these contractual concessions are all many theatre artists have in NYC. Let's just hope they find some money elsewhere to eat!

For those who care about this issue, congratulations are surely do to those who campaigned so vigorously over the last few years: John Clancy, Susan Bernfield, Shay Gines, Paul Bargetto, and countless others, I'm sure, who haven't left as much of a paper trail. We always knew that any change would have to come ultimately from within Equity, and that Off-Off producers basically had no leverage. But without the pressure and cogent, reasonable arguments applied by these folks, I doubt Equity would have revisited the matter at all, at least not at this time.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Barack & Rocco Go To...

According to Politico:

[F]or some in the art world, watching the Obama administration’s approach to the arts so far has been an exercise in keeping expectations in check and a game of wait and see.

They wanted a Cabinet-level “arts czar,” or at least a senior-level White House arts adviser.

What they got was Kal Penn, a 32-year-old actor best known for his role in the “Harold and Kumar” movie franchise about a pair of pot-smoking slackers.

Don't worry, Kumar is not exactly running arts policy. He just "started work Monday [July 6] as an associate director in the White House Office of Public Engagement, where he’ll work to connect Obama with arts groups, as well as the Asian-American and Pacific Islander communities."

Not that Kal Penn would be so bad! I mean, Americans--even young people--at least know who he is. And one must admit, those movies are funny.

As I've said before, I don't think some arts "czar" is the solution to our cultural problems. (I mean, look how well the Drug Czars have done.) More levels of bureaucracy and, worse, competing bureaucracies (Arts Czar vs NEA Chair) can only mean more potential skirmishes, politically.

The key, I believe, is to make the NEA--the only national thing we've got--a positive and major presence for once. And then to encourage/empower/fund the states as much as possible to foster arts communities at the local level.

That plus a President who expresses consistent interest in the work of artists living and dead and, you know, goes to things. Which is why I'm proud to have .000001 cents of my taxpayer dollars go to sending Barack and Michelle to Joe Turner's Come and Gone. We should consider that a veritable state visit, a diplomatic mission!

Speaking of the NEA, this Politico article is the first source I've seen reporting that Rocco Landesman's nomination as Chair is "virtually a done deal." So let's hurry up and get him in there, Mr Prez.

Murdoch's Makes a Play for NYT Arts Readers

Rupert Murdoch sees an opening. With only one New York newspaper appointing itself the "Arbiter of Culture"--and, surprisingly, many culture industry people believing it!--he wants his new Wall Street Journal to compete on that front as well as in industry and finance coverage.

New York Observer reports, according to inside WSJ sources,

He [Murdoch] said that The Times’ coverage was lightweight and uninteresting, according to two people present. Mr. Murdoch said if The Journal could strengthen its culture coverage, it would be easy to pluck off Times readers and advertisers.
Lightweight and uninteresting? Holy Cow, I agree with Rupert Murdoch about something!

The revamped WSJ Arts section is still in the works. (Hopefully it will publish on more days than Fridays!). Meanwhile, an indication might be found on their new "culture" blog (entertainment, really), Speakeasy.

While the WSJ may be a conservative paper run by a megalomaniac philistine, I actually hold out hopes for this. I actually hope it remains "conservative" as in old-fasioned and classy, since that inevitably means some theatre coverage! My fear that it will lean more toward the glossy Fox Network/tabloid side of Murdoch, as the Speakeasy blog already does.

Still, bottom line is I'm quite pro-capitalist about this. The monopoly the Times theatre coverage holds over our One-Paper State in this town has got to be broken. In arts coverage, competition is only a good thing.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Theatre Trade Pubs

My friend Karen McKevitt over at Theatre Bay Area has launched an interesting discussion surrounding some anxious letters-to-the-editor appearing in this month's American Theatre magazine. The question essentially is: can you have honest and open criticism of artists and productions in what is essentially a trade publication?

Karen edits the Theatre Bay Area magazine, which represents and advocates for that region's theatres, so she appreciates the mission of American Theatre (an official publication of the Theatre Communications Group, the trade association of the country's LORT theatre companies) and the fine line it must walk between "cheerleading and relevancy," as she puts it. So good for her for raising the question,
Even though most of us can admit that sometimes our work is not up to par for any number of legitimate reasons or that our risks sometimes fail, do we still think that the job of the industry magazines is to completely disregard these facts and cheerlead instead? Or should the industry magazines paint a more multidimensional picture of the production, the person, etc.?
To me, the issue goes beyond assessing the merits of a particular show, but also must include allowing critical views of the profession itself, of LORT theatre practices, and of the effectiveness and raison d'etre of an org like TCG itself.

Hey, nothing wrong with trade publications. And we hardly expect, say, Cigar Afficianado, to remind us smoking causes cancer, do we. And frankly, this wouldn't be such an urgent question if we had five or ten nation-wide magazines devoted to theatre, all offering different perspectives and missions. But--if the one major national publication (and, no I'm not forgetting you guys at Playbill and Stage Directions)--shies away from self-criticism, then I believe we have a problem.

Karen's initial post led to some fruitful comments, and SF Weekly critic Chloe Veltman follows up as well, so check them out.

The Furlough Option

One recession coping strategy for theatre companies is the furlough--otherwise known as "mandatory unpaid vacations." Shakespeare Theatre in DC is putting all staff on staggered furloughs this summer, including the boss! (AD Michael Kahn)

Any salary reduction sucks, of course. But might this be among the least bad measures out there? (Especially for companies without summer seasons.)

Punishment by Lecture Tour?

That's at least what disgraced producer and convicted criminal Garth Drabinsky is selflessly proposing as his punishment in a Canadian court.

Drabinsky would teach theater students “discipline in the craft,” talk about honesty and “avoidance of unethical conduct” in visits to 65 schools across the country, as part of a sentence in which he would avoid jail....

Drabinsky, 59, and [Myron] Gottlieb, 66, were charged by police in October 2002 with lying about finances for nine years at the defunct theater producer Livent Inc. as they raised about C$500 million ($431 million) to buy theaters in Toronto, Chicago and New York and paid for increasingly lavish productions, including “Fosse” and “Phantom of the Opera.” Ontario Superior Court Judge Mary Lou Benotto found both men guilty of two counts of fraud and one count of forging a document on March 25, more than 10 years after police began investigating what they called one of the biggest fraud cases in Canadian history. Each forgery count carries a maximum jail term of 14 years, and the maximum prison sentence for fraud is 10 years.

Wow he really is Max Bialistock, isn't he?

Doesn't look like the judge is buying it, by the way...

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Photo of the Day

See the little brown-brick cube in the middle there? With the four white dots between those Art Deco white beams? You might recognize that facade from this old downtown fixture:


Or, as it appeared in more recent years:


Yes, NYU's "renovation" of the Provincetown Playhouse building has begun. Well under way, in fact. I snapped the top pic myself when walking by the site last week. Yes, they're doing what they promised, alright: "We are preserving the cultural significance of the site by preserving the four walls of the Provincetown Playhouse." Still, coming across this empty pit on MacDougal St. was still pretty startling to see for oneself.

So I guess one should be...happy? After all, there's the proof. The four walls are indeed there. And the rest of the building, yes, was never part of the theatre itself and was in fact heavily redone in the 1940s, blah blah blah.

Still. For a theatre lover such a site still bears so much resonance. The onetime home of Eugene O'Neill and the other pioneers of the Provincetown Players, barely standing, in a pit of demolition, the wrecking ball still literally dangling.

In case you're wondering what the sign on the construction site says under "What's Going on Here?" (good question!)

"This project is being brought to you by New York University." Thanks, NYU!

(Brought to me??? Like some TV show for my enjoyment?)

And just to remind you of the NYU plan...



Bowery Boogie also had some snapshots and updates back in May.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Quote of the Day

“Dated does not necessarily mean bad,” he said. Whether a show is relevant to what is on the front page of newspapers is “completely meaningless,” he said; that’s not where the value of a show lies. “It’s relevant if it moves you...It’s worth reviving because it’s worth reviving.”
-Stephen Sondheim.

Indeed, it takes little skill or insight for a critic to automatically label some play "dated" just because it is old. "Dated" like a carton of stale milk. And conversely, it is equally facile to praise a play of the past for being "relevant" just because some surface detail happens to resemble something happening today. ("Hey, there's a war in this play. And there's a war on now! How prescient...")

Yes, plays that don't seem tailored to our current sensibilities in tone or language are often relegated as expired or extinct. And anything that does miraculously happen to engage us even if it was written before we were born is paid the backhanded compliment of being "ahead of its time."

On the contrary: when we encounter, say, late Victorian exposes of corrupt business practices (The Voysey Inheritance) or studies of mental illness in time of war (Woyzeck) is it not we who are behind their times? Perhaps if we were not so quick to dismiss old texts as "dated" we might learn more from the past and not repeat its mistakes.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Katherine Hepburn On Stage

Hepburn in the original 1939 play, The Philadelphia Story,
a year before the classic film was made. Playwright Philip Barry wrote the part of the spoiled socialite especially for her.
Photograph by Vandamm Studio. Billy Rose Theatre Division,The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

It's easy to forget that in addition to being one of the 20th centuries most iconic movie stars, Katherine Hepburn was also more than an occasional stage actress. Having started her career the conventional way in bit Broadway parts (beginning in the late 1920s) she continued to return to theatre after her 1932 big screen debut.

As is proudly displayed in the Lincoln Center performing arts library's current exhibit "Katherine Hepburn : In Her Own Files," featuring tons of theatre-related documents and photos from her archives there.

For instance: the part she reportedly got "discovered" for? 1932's The Warrior's Husband--title says it all--in which she entered hoisting a dead stag and fought with swords (see below).

Photograph by White Studio. Billy Rose Theatre Division,The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

That's her on the right, by the way.

If you can't make your way over to the West Side by October 10, then download a brochure or just peruse Judy Samelson's exhaustive summary of the exhibit and of Kate's extensive credits and lovely anecdotes.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Ohio Theatre Update

No, not the state. The downtown NYC alt-theatre fixture.

After facing near-foreclosure, looks like they're hanging on for at least another year. "Speaking for myself, notwithstanding everything that’s happened in the past year, I’m basically upbeat about things,," he tells Time Out, while also previewing this summer's installment of the always-anticipated Ice Factory festival.

What? A Panel About Theatre Blogging?

Wednesday, Wednesday, Wednesday!

Another panel discussion of blogging, theatre, and the interwebs. Featuring yours truly, Parabasis' Isaac Butler, and Time Out's Helen Shaw. Moderating us (though not to the point of moderation, I hope) will be the Times' Erik Piepenburg, who I must say has done an outstanding job giving the paper's theatre page a real web presence, with nifty features like the "slideshows."

So come to CUNY next Wednesday, July 8 at 6:30. And be ready to rumble.

Meanwhile, you can check out the latestissue of American Theatre for a transcript of a similarly-themed CUNY panel earlier this year about the future of theatre journalism ("Criticism in Flux"). Lots of talk about blogging. No bloggers on the panel. Hm.

Oh, and the transcipt isn't posted on their website. So you'll have to buy the mag. How apropos, in a way.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Karl Malden

Malden as Mitch. Definitive.

Not to make this Obituary Central here, but Karl Malden has now passed, and I find it amazing to think what a link he was, at 97, back to a great theatrical heritage. Known from movies, of course (and American Express commercials), remember too that he was the original Mitch in the play Streetcar (not just the film) and also had a brief role in the original 1937 Golden Boy in the Group Theatre, with which he apprenticed.

Rest in peace Mladen Sekulovich of Gary, Indiana...