Jun 30, 2009

Deadly vs. Alive

I have to second Isaac on today's "must read": Gus Schulenberg's post at Flux on quality, values, and criticism, triggered by the recent National Summit for Ensemble Theatres. Isaac focuses on Gus's last point, about better ways to share criticism among artists, but having a critical mind myself, I responded most to Gus's first item, in which he wades into the thorny thickets of arguments over objective "quality" and value and keeps his wits about him:
I think the primary reason we have trouble talking about quality is we so often confuse it with value. Artistic quality is excellence in an established cultural tradition. That tradition has a form with a set of rules and expectations, a unique physics of engagement, a shared language; and from that tradition, excellence is expressed.

You do not need to like or value that tradition to recognize when its expression has quality.

An example: I don't know much about the tradition of ballet. However, I know enough to recognize excellent ballet dancers from merely competent ones because I have had enough exposure to the form. Some cultural traditions have very simple rules: others are more complex. It may be that complex cultural traditions require more but give more in return because their complexity provides a greater range of expression. But whether that is true or not, if you have enough exposure to a tradition, you are able to discern, even without being able to articulate exactly why, variations in quality.

This is a clarifying insight, and I feel it's a distinction missing not only from most published criticism but from much discussion of criticism. Instead, many critics, and many critics of critics (pretty much everyone else), traffic much more, often unconsciously, in the next kind of judgment:
Which brings us to value, which is a moral judgement, not an aesthetic one. Value judges what kind of work is important - theatre of social justice, devised work, Broadway, Indie theatre - and in doing so, also judges what kind of work is not important.

This is where the best critics and a lot of their readers part ways, because while a truly open-minded critic tries, as best they can, to embrace and understand as many traditions and sub-traditions as possible, and to evaluate them on their own terms, their audience is often most interested in what kind of experience they're going to get:
An audience that loves the tradition of experimental theatre begin with a set of values, and when experimental theatre validates those values, that audience is far more likely to believe the work is quality. An audience that believes theatre for social justice is more important than the classics immediately turns off when the curtain rises on a traditional production of Shakespeare. And so on.

When theatre does not conform to our values, it is very difficult for us to assess its quality. Why? I think in part because questions of value are so deeply connected with self-identity. Broadway theatre isn't just bad, it's everything wrong with theatre today! Theatres should only produce works by playwrights under 35! We should ban Shakespeare! Behind those firey calls for revolution is often, I think, a real fear that the work we're doing isn't valued, and so we must devalue work from other traditions.

And of course we should advocate for the kind of work we value, but in doing so, we should never confuse that advocacy with a clear-headed analysis of quality. The mediocre play with the beautiful process of international collaborators concerned with peace is just as deadly to experience as the millionth production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. So while I think it is worthwhile for us to talk about what kind of theatre we need to see, a cooler-headed look at how to make better work across all traditions is increasingly important.

I have to say, Good luck with that last aspiration, though the generalist critic in me applauds the principal. After decades logging time in front of all shapes and sizes of theater, I get pretty impatient with work that's not excellent, or doesn't at least possess some kind of excellence or original spark, and I find that I honestly care much less what kind of show I'm seeing--big honking musical, tiny site-specific solo show, whatever--than if it's any good.

The Wonders of Understatement

Totally off-topic, but I've been devouring David Blight's Yale course on the Civil War and Reconstruction (downloadable here for free), and I heard him read from Jourdon Anderson's famous letter of 1865 today. Jourdon was a former Tennessee slave who was about a year into a newly free life in Ohio when his old master, Col. P.H. Anderson, wrote to him to ask him to return to work. His response is devastating--fascinating, wickedly ironic, stunning, ultimately moving. Jourdon begins with a polite ambivalence:
I got your letter and was glad to find you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than anybody else can. I have often felt uneasy about you. I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this for harboring Rebs they found at your house. I suppose they never heard about your going to Col. Martin's to kill the Union soldier that was left by his company in their stable. Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living.

He then hones in on his main argument, starting by describing the simple but considerable virtues of his newly free life in Ohio:
I am doing tolerably well here; I get $25 a month, with victuals and clothing; have a comfortable home for Mandy (the folks here call her Mrs. Anderson), and the children, Milly, Jane and Grundy, go to school and are learning well; the teacher says grundy has a head for a preacher. They go to Sunday- School, and Mandy and me attend church regularly. We are kindly treated; sometimes we overhear others saying, "The colored people were slaves" down in Tennessee. The children feel hurt when they hear such remarks, but I tell them it was no disgrace in Tennessee to belong to Col. Anderson. Many darkies would have been proud, as I used to was, to call you master.

That's a brilliant rope-a-dope, given his next sentence:
Now, if you will write and say what wages you will give me, I will be better able to decide whether it would be to my advantage to move back again.

Jourdon's final twist of the knife is too good to describe--read it yourself, if you haven't already. It's a masterful piece of writing, and it's irresistible to imagine the state of mind of its writer as he wrote it--he must have laughed himself silly, cried with horror, and burned with quiet fury. Apart from the speeches and letters of Lincoln himself, I can think of few more devastating uses of matter-of-fact understatement and sweetly worded harsh truths than this letter.

It's all here.

Jun 29, 2009

Play of the Year

I saw Lynn Nottage's Ruined several months ago, but apart from this piece for TDF, I hadn't had the chance to write about it. That is, until my friend at the Jesuit weekly America asked me to reflect on it here.

(Speaking of the TDF site, I was delighted to see some colleagues' work turn up there: There's Eric Grode on John Glover's Lucky here, Mark Blankenship on the Mary Stuart queens here, Isaac Butler on Stunning's Anne Kauffman here, and Linda Buchwald on Groundswell's Orin Wolf here.)

Group of Rivals

One of the first controversies I covered at Back Stage West was the fraternal squabble among L.A.-based acolytes of Sanford Meisner for his coveted mantle. Everyone who ever trained with him at New York's Neighborhood Playhouse, it seemed, was in L.A. claiming to teach the authentic "Meisner technique." I remember hearing convincing cases from William Alderson, John Ruskin, and Paul Kent, among others, that they were Sandy's true heirs--a claim complicated by the existence of Playhouse West, which had been founded by Neighborhood Playhouse grads, and then by the founding of the Sanford Meisner Theatre Center, featuring classes initially overseen, at least in part, by Meisner himself in his final years.

Along those lines, David Ng has an interesting update in the LA Times on a similar contretemps that has broken out between the East and West coast branches of the Stella Adler schools. Back when I used to write for Back Stage West, I would put a juicy story like this in the why-didn't-we-write-this file.

It's Too Easy?

I appreciate David Cote playing the role of provocateur, particularly if he's casting himself in that part opposite one of my less favorite would-be provocateurs, Neil LaBute, but I have to say that his recent Guardian piece, registering his approval at the apparent LaBute/MCC Theatre Company divorce, seems off the mark. He's got two basic points that are self-contradicting on their face. He begins by noting the tiresome regularity of MCC's near-annual LaBute preems:
Each year like clockwork, the nonprofit MCC trots out a LaBute – six of them in the last seven seasons. Such a cosy relationship is unheard of in the nomadic and shifting world of New York theatre, where playwrights have to cobble together a living out of grants, commissions, teaching gigs and the rare production.

Cote makes some reasonable points in questioning whether this relationship really benefitted LaBute's work, and though he's on shakier ground in speculating as to why the marriage may be ending, this is all fair-game critical musing. But then Cote zooms out and stumbles into a generalization:
Blind loyalty to playwrights is a problem among New York nonprofits, leading to dismal programming, not to mention stagnation for writers themselves.

To bolster his case, he cites John Patrick Shanley's dreadful Romantic Poetry, and mentions that "Richard Greenberg and Terrence McNally have very little trouble getting new work on, even if neither has had a critical hit in years." I'm unconvinced by those examples: true, Greenberg is practically house writer at South Coast Rep, but I actually don't think McNally has all that many doors open to him lately. And agreed, there's a certain inevitable clubbish herd mentality that seems to happen among theaters as a bloc--Theresa Rebeck, Adam Rapp, and Craig Lucas, to cite three very different examples, don't have single artistic homes, but you certainly get the feeling that artistic directors at various nonprofits are on the same page about which playwrights are produceable. But I think even "name" playwrights have to hustle to get a show on and to stay on theater companies' ever-changing, never-published "hot" list. And so in general I would have to agree more with Cote's first point: that New York's nonprofit theaters are generally not unduly loyal to pet writers, and that what LaBute had going with MCC was an exception.

(Don't miss the lively comments on Cote's column, including a series of acid rebukes from LaBute himself.)

War Stories

As I mentioned when I posted the first part of my history of the L.A. Equity 99-Seat Theatre Plan for the LA Stage blog, I came up as a theater journalist in L.A. starting roughly in 1990, which meant that I just missed the raging of what its veterans call the "Waiver wars." Here's Part Two of the two-part series.

Jun 26, 2009


Have we overlooked a cause for celebration? David Rooney, pausing near the top of today's rave for Twelfth Night:
A case could be made that this is becoming a golden age for dramatic revivals on the New York stage. The Public's latest return to a Shakespeare in the Park staple comes on the heels of a season that has seen emotionally resonant investigations of works by Chekhov and Beckett, invigorating new looks at Schiller and Ionesco, adventurous if controversial takes on Eugene O'Neill and Arthur Miller, a blissful reassessment of Alan Ayckbourn, a biting reappraisal of a formerly mishandled Martin McDonagh play and a transcendent interpretation of August Wilson's richest work.

Point taken. Now what about the new plays?

(I will admit that Twelfth Night sounds pretty sweet, not least because Hem's in it.)

Jun 25, 2009

Stop Kiss' L.A. Stop

Remember Diana Son's lovely, moving little mystery play about a pair of Manhattanites falling in love in the midst of, and in spite of, a violent attack? I didn't see its NY premiere in 1998, with Jessica Hecht and Sandra Oh, but I caught a marvelous production at Oregon Shakespeare Festival (believe it or not) in 2000. I expected that it would appear in Los Angeles any day after that, particularly since Son herself was in L.A. writing for TV. No such luck.

Now, at last, a little company called Rogue Machine will put it up in July at their space in West L.A. Both the company and the space post-date my time on the L.A. beat, but I know the director, Elina de Santos, an acclaimed veteran of the small theater scene there. Though there's no chance I'll see it, I'm glad Son's play is getting its long-overdue bow in L.A. And though it had a fair jaunt around a few regional theaters at the turn of the century, it's precisely the sort of play that deserves some of the regional theater ubiquity enjoyed by DoubtWitProof.

1989 the Number

I can't quite believe it's been 20 years since Do the Right Thing came out. I must have seen it in the theater, like, 10 times. I used to own the VHS tape, the two soundtracks, the T-shirt. It led me to what was my slightly-embarrassing-to-recall white-college-boy black nationalist phase: I read Malcolm's biography, got deep into It Takes a Nation of Millions, grew a reddish goatee (I wish I were kidding). I also followed Spike's career sympathetically for a while--I think I'm the only person I know who liked Mo Better Blues, and I half-heartedly defended the rather lame Jungle Fever. Of course, by the time Spike made his own mediocre movie about Malcolm, I had moved on, though I still listen to Bill Lee's lovely, mournful jazz-orchestral score for DTRT pretty frequently.

All of which is to say that while this interview with Henry Louis Gates Jr. may barely skim the surface, it comes as a welcome bit of nostalgia for me.

Jun 24, 2009

A Mir to Nature

Another reason to support Iran's green revolution: Mir Hossein Mousavi and his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, are artists. Quoth the opposition leader: "Art can provide a vision for a way of living in an alternative future." Yes it can. (h/t Tyler Cowen)

Jun 23, 2009

Church Chat

It's been a while since I plugged the rather extraordinary Greenpoint Reformed Church, where I play and lead a choir most Sunday morns. But this past weekend merits a special mention: We had as our guest the remarkable countertenor (Reginald) M Lamar, who performed the offertory, sitting at the piano and stretching one remarkable chorus of "Sometimes I feel like a motherless child" over a timeless few minutes in his inimitable, powerful yet intimate soprano, striking a few notes that were beyond blue. It was awe-inspiring, as was his postlude, a gospel song I didn't recognize which memorably joined lynching and crucifixion imagery. I don't think I'll ever look at our church's modest cross the same way again.

Chatting with Reginald after the service, I told him I'd seen him in Justin Bond's Lustre at PS 122 (reviewed the show, actually), and he told me about his next effort: a limited run at Long Island City's Chocolate Factory of his solo show The Black Death, billed as a song cycle "exploring the bonds of pornography, colonialism, and capitalism," tracing "landscapes of longing caused by extreme dehumanization." It's at 8 p.m., July 16-18, offered as part of the Ferocious Spectacular series at the Chocolate Factory. As no less a personage than Diamanda Galas has said of Lamar: “This bitch can sing."

Amen to that.

(More about Lamar, resident of nearby Bushwick, here.)

St. Vincentelli

Gotta say, I hate the NY Post's politics but I heart its new theater critic, Elisabeth Vincentelli. She's fresh, direct, opinionated, impassioned, informed, idiosyncratic. And her tastes are wide-ranging. Which other daily critic used a slow theater week to check in on John Kelly's Joni Mitchell show?

No small part of my enthusiasm for Vincentelli is her blog cred: She's got her own, she keeps up one at the Post, and she seems pretty comfortable with the free exchange of ideas afforded by the Interwebs.

Bets, Anyone?

Leonard Jacobs, reporting the news of North Shore shuttering and Long Wharf slashing its budget by $1 million, weighs in:

Among other things, I ask this question — if [North Shore] didn’t raise the $2 million it needed to, fine, but what will become of the $500,000 that it did raise? If someone gave money thinking they were helping the theater to survive, and the theater didn’t survive, to what degree is this a false pretenses case? Anyone?

False pretenses? As in, a scam? You wanna back that up with anything, Leonard? Nah. Just assume that when a theater closes it has no debts to settle or bills to pay and should just give back all those tax-deductible donations. On the other hand, maybe North Shore overlooked a great alternative revenue stream: They could run a betting pool on which theater will go next.
Now, I’m not suggesting that Long Wharf is about to go the way of North Shore — far from it, or so it seems. But it does raise a more, or at least equally, salient question: What theater will be the next to go the way of North Shore and that of so many others? Should we take bets?

Sounds like a blast! Anyone? Anyone?

Leonard's closer, taking a knock at my employer, is a bit of a non-sequitur:
Or should we call the situation what it is — a dire emergency — and wonder to what extent organizations like Theatre Communications Group should or could be put into action. A far more dynamic URL might be a great way to start, assuming administrative resistance to the idea can be assuaged.

We'll get right on that.

Jun 22, 2009

Brave Lucy

Cool things are happening over at my old employer, not least this new YouTube channel for the teen-focused Play by Play magazine. Sometimes the simplest ideas can be the most potent, like having dramaturgs and playwrights and general managers just explain what they do.

Jun 19, 2009

More From the New Atlantic

In the new issue of what's quickly becoming my favorite magazine, there's a faux-provocative but nevertheless diverting package called "15 Ways to Fix the World," which includes some off-the-chart crank notions (like this one from conservative savant Reihan Salam) alongside some common-sensical ideas that should deserve more mainstream circulation, like this one from Felix Salmon, short enough to reprint in its entirety:
We’re living in a newly frugal world. But the rediscovered values of thrift and moderation should apply to the government as much as they do to households. No more trillion-dollar misadventures abroad: we need to spend money at home, and we need to get the maximum bang for our buck. If the Obama administration is serious about stimulating the economy and creating as many new jobs as possible, one choice is clear: it should announce a massive increase in federal arts funding. Artists are among the very poorest citizens. When they get cash, they spend it both quickly and carefully. That’s not what most recipients of federal largesse do, but it happens to be exactly what economists look for in any stimulus package. Arts spending is fantastic at creating employment: for every $30,000 or so spent on the arts, one more person gets a job, compared with about $1 million if you’re building a road or hospital. And such spending has a truly lasting benefit: the Works Progress Administration didn’t just create murals, it subsidized enormous leaps in graphic design, in theater (including America’s first all-black production of Macbeth), and in fine art. One painter lived off the WPA’s Federal Art Project for eight years before finally getting his first solo show in 1943. Maybe a similar program today could produce America’s next Jackson Pollock.

We're getting there, but it's great to hear someone in the Beltway sound the alarm for more.

A Tragi-Noble Art

Warning: This blog of cringe-worthy theater production photo cheese may be habit-forming. Mission statement here:
Why-oh-why do I love an amateur publicity shot from an undergrad production, or a regional theatre, or a high school play?

It's got to be in the faces. Everyone's pushing sincerity real hard--you have to be, 110%--everyone's hitting a peak while standing frozen in hyper "stagey" ways to fit in frame, forced into melodrama, posing in ways never seen in the show. It's nothing like the smooth passive glossy movie stills we know. This type of photograph stands proudly alone, in a noble ageless tradition of pure Theatricality.

I've been in a few of these and when you're there in that hyper-character pose, confronting other characters, right-in-their-faces, holding, holding, waiting for the camera click, emoting just as hard as your little actor-heart can emote...You're clickin so real you're givin off Drama Radiation.

Moses Proposes

It's apparently a great time to see playwrights develop their work onstage; Suzan-Lori Parks' Father Came Home From the Wars, as I've noted, is at the Public through the end of the month, it's only $10, and it reportedly includes Parks herself playing guitar and singing an original opening song.

Now Itamar Moses is flinging himself onto a local stage. To wit, a beguiling email that just flew in:
As some of you may know, about a million years ago, when I first came to New York, I was in a sketch comedy group. Then I left the world of sketch for the equally perplexing workd of non-profit off-broadway theatre. But, apparently, I kept writing sketches every now and then, and, when fused with some sketches by my friend Gene, they accidentally formed this show.

He goes on to say that he and Gene Perelson may run their new show, titled Insecurity Guards, longer in the fall if it goes well. It's at the Tank June 24-25. And it's $5.

Theater of Resistance

One measure of the place I work at now is the diversity of visitors who pass through the office: So far I've met theater professionals from Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, and, most strikingly today, Iran. Mohammad Hassan Madjooni, co-founder of Tehran's Leev Theater Group, breezed through a minute ago and said that while the theater remains open for the moment, it doesn't have an audience--they're all out on the streets.

I was heartened to see this as an item on Leev's mission statement:
4. Considering ‘woman’ as a commanding theme in its works.

Peace be upon that.

Jun 18, 2009

A Loh Moment

One of my favorite writers on any subject but in particular on gender and contemporary family life, Sandra Tsing Loh, drops a bomb in the newest Atlantic: She's divorcing after 20 years. Though she mercifully doesn't spell it all out, she does allude to her own infidelity, to her husband (a touring musician, if memory serves, in Bette Midler's band) putting all her belongings out of the house (that's not in the essay but in this scarifying video, in which I was stunned to note the framed Back Stage West/Drama-Logue cover I commissioned in some twilight year of the last millennium), and, in an uncharacteristically vulnerable conclusion, to breaking up her longtime marriage for "something as demonstrably fleeting as love."

As usual, the details of her own personal life aren't really the point of the piece (though oh how they fascinate). Loh still somehow manages, as she always has, to mine her own personal tumult, and that of her (slightly fictionalized) friends, for funny, penetrating insight, though I must say that in this case her willingness to follow her life where its meanings lead her, which has in the past made her politics delightfully particular and idiosyncratic, takes on a curiously moving intimacy and, dare I say it for a writer so dizzily multi-claused, a kind of gravity.

Jun 16, 2009

Pro-Am Open

I've been following Isaac's self-revealing soul-searching blogs about how the heck he will ever make a living doing theater--if you haven't read them, they're here and here (with related posts here and here)--and I can't imagine a better commentary on them than Ian David Moss' brilliant post on the arts and sustainability. After a detailed preamble , Moss gets to the nub of it: While the arts have always had well-defended clubhouses, if not quite closed shops, the massive leveling and democratization of media crystallized by the Internet has had the painfully ironic effect not of increasing opportunity for careers in the arts but of increasing competition to the point that only the toughest and/or well-funded can survive. This should strike a chord with anyone who's tried, failed, or half-tried and half-failed, at an actual career in the arts. Nut graf:
There's nothing new about this - income inequality is a big issue throughout society, not just in the arts. However, the cash-starved nature of the arts makes the problem more acute. If the only way to earn money is through exposure, and the only way to get exposure is to spend thousands of hours making (and marketing) art that you could otherwise spend earning money, the people who need to earn money now are at a major, perhaps definitive, disadvantage. As a result, over time, you would expect to see more and more people who were lucky enough to have a cushion early in their careers (if not on an ongoing basis) persist to become professional artists, and fewer and fewer who have had to do it completely on their own.

Seriously, Doug McLennan should bring this guy on, posthaste.

Jun 12, 2009

The Skinny on Father

Just heard from a colleague about Suzan-Lori Parks' new work in progress in the Public/Lab series, Father Comes Home From the Wars. If my wife's bed rest lets up, this sounds like a good night out:
It is a beautiful folk chamber play, unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. It is running through the end of the month. It is worth seeing now and then later as more is added. It is a wonderful way to see this masterwork develop...It certainly draws from Suzan-Lori’s previous work, but it is something altogether new.

When it is completed, it will be nine parts, with connective narrative, songs and improv-ed bits (Suzan-Lori plays the role of narrator, much like Thornton Wilder, when he took on the role of Stage Manager). You will be able to see two of those parts with connective tissue by the end of the month. Currently Part 1 plus some extras are in the mix. Jo Bonney is doing a brilliant job in the direction and the cast is superb. It runs only one hour at this time.

It is epic, Shakespearean to a degree, and draws from Wilder’s style and Suzan-Lori’s own. I wouldn’t miss it.

Pay $10 to watch a master develop a new work in public? Duly noted.

A Glance Back

Not sure exactly why, but the Voice this week has plucked a review from its archives: Michael Smith's 1967 take on the Broadway arrival of The Homecoming. It's more or less a rave, but with qualifications. The turn comes about halfway in:
It is a stunning play, and yet halfway through the second act it lost me, I stopped caring. I found myself numb to surprise or shock, tired of it, dulled. Apparently Pinter’s technique is self-limiting. Once you realize that anything can happen, you’re immunized against it when it does. If anything can happen, everything is the same—and sameness is death to drama. Still I wouldn’t have missed it.

I'm not sure I agree--with his point about surprise, I do, less so with his missing it in this particular play--but it's bracing to register a note of dissent about a playwright who even before his death suffered from over-sanctification as much as he did from a more general misunderstanding.

Jun 11, 2009

Unkind Cuts

Just got the bad news that L.A.'s Center Theatre Group has layed off 11 staff members, including beloved longtime press rep Ken Werther (pictured above) and marketing maven C. Raul Espinoza, both of whom I know well and whose leaving constitutes a crushing loss.

Not a lot I can say except that, in Kenny's case, I will miss kibitzing with a press rep who talks freely and frankly, almost but not quite to the point of dish, about the shows he's flogging. A press rep with that kind of savvy and a sense of humor, and who "gets" what critics and editors want (and don't want), is a rare commodity in my experience, though it's true of the best in the business. Kenny is one of the best, and I hope to work with him again.

UPDATE: I guess the number of staff members is 12.

Criticism, Honestly

A nice shout-out from LA Times' Charles McNulty on the new American Theatre Reader, in which he aptly describes some of the internal contradictions and contending forces at my new place of employment, and goes on to smartly highlight Julius Novick's superlative piece "The Critical Instinct." Setting up and quoting Novick:
Good criticism, Novick argues, isn’t anonymous, with the writer’s identity bleached out or subsumed into a newspaper masthead. It’s an encounter--an interaction, really--between an individual sensibility and a unique manifestation of the art form.

“To be truly honest,” Novick writes, “is to be engaged in a never-ending fight against a never-ending human capacity for self-deception. Nobody wins that fight all the time, but a good critic is constantly pressing himself to discover what he really thinks and feels, what’s really going on.”

Novick's piece echoes my favorite piece on the true nature and value of the critic, Fintan O'Toole's dozen-year-old piece for the Economist (I've posted it here), in which O'Toole makes a similar point in slightly narrower terms:

Critics should be honest enough to accept that they represent nobody but themselves--not the art form, not even in any real sense the newspapers that employ them. Their job is not to report on how a work was received by an audience. It is not to sell books or tickets. It is not to reform or mould the practice of theatre or music or poetry. And it is not to maintain, as arbiters of taste and value, the authority of the institutions who print their opinions.

The job of the critic is to try to ignore the magnifying effect of print and hyperbole, to preserve a sense of proportion, and to give a genuinely individual opinion. It is a modest but by no means a contemptible task. And it is one that is inextricable from the artistic process itself.

Jun 10, 2009


I've been told it takes five years here before you can officially call yourself a New Yorker. I'm coming up on four years this summer, but according to Time Out's "Do you belong in New York?" quiz, I'm just passing through anyway (my total score was 57). Hey, I can't say there's not some truth to this diagnosis, but surely it counts for something that my first child will be able to say he was born here.

Jun 7, 2009

Tony Scramble

I pretty much hate awards shows, so I only have the damn show on because my very pregnant wife is on bed rest. But the show is 20 minutes in on my Time Warner cable, and all I'm seeing is digital scramble. It looks like Roger Robinson might have won an award for Joe Turner but I can't see much else amid the frozen digibytes. Another excuse not to slog through the show. Back to the NY Times crossword!

Jun 3, 2009

From Broadway Back to the Hill

Like Garrett and just about anyone without an axe to grind, I was charmed by last week's presidential night at the theater, not least because Joe Turner's Come and Gone is among the best things on Broadway in many a moon, and also because it nicely picks up a thread from Obama's public career in Chicago (namely, occasional theatergoing, particularly to plays with African-American themes). So I was mildly disappointed that the estimable right-of-center critic Terry Teachout chose to carp, albeit somewhat gently, about the Obamas' Broadway visit; even if it was partly a brief for Teachout's perennial hobbyhorse, the underrecognized value of regional theaters (which the Obamas apparently recognized while they lived in Chicago), it also had the faint but unmistakeable whiff of conservative talking points.

I was not, however, as riled up over this tiny wrist-slap as were David Cote and Leonard Jacobs, who used the occasion as a pretext to level some wildly presumptive ad hominem attacks at Teachout and his putative politics. I think I can associate myself most closely with Isaac's ambivalence, and in particular with his slight frustration that Teachout doesn't show his political hand more overtly (though really, how much more overt can you get than this?).

I'll be out of town for a few weeks and unlikely to be blogging much if at all, so I leave you with a few images of August Wilson's Pittsburgh, which I happened to visit a few weeks back.

Here's his birthplace at 1727 Bedford St.

The photo doesn't quite convey the sad state it's in, or the group of young men sitting on the stoop across the street, who may have sprung from a latter-day Wilson play. I also wanted to check out the state of Aunt Ester's house, listed in Gem of the Ocean and in King Hedley II as 1839 Wylie; in these plays, Ester embodies a mythical repository of 300 years of African-American folk wisdom (though Wilson once gave me a perfectly reasonable explanation for Ester's superhuman age). I found this on the legendary site:

And moved closer...

Though this site, too, looked shuttered and disused, I vaguely thought (hoped?) that the name Ozanam might have an African origin. Apparently not. In fact, the cultural center's address is actually 1833, and is the former site of St. Brigid's, a Catholic church and school that was razed in 1961. I guess this is called poetic license.

Happily, Pittsburgh will get a proper Wilson center in September. Perhaps a presidential ribbon cutting is in order?

P.S.: Obviously I'm not the first to make the Bedford/Wylie pilgrimage.

P.P.S.: While I'm linking to Rashads, my final article for TDF is up.

Mr. Dirt

When Obama tapped former Broadway producer Rocco Landesman to be head of the NEA last month, I had a number of thoughts, all of them essentially fond: Landesman's hilarious bluntness in the priceless backstage doc Moon Over Broadway; legendary tales of his battles to bring Angels in America to Broadway and of his having to basically lock his idol Roger Miller in a room to get the songwriter to finish the Big River score.

There was one anecdote about Landesman that surfaced in my mind, which I knew had recently been related to me in person by an unlikely source--I just couldn't place who. Then it hit me: L.A.-based playwright Oliver Mayer, who I profiled for the LA Times early this year, recalled his brief theater apprenticeship in New York when he was in his 20s. From the raw transcript of my chat with Mayer, who now teaches playwriting at USC:
Jujamcyn Theatres was the bastard child of Broadway. We did M Butterfly, and that changed everything. We did Carrie the Musical, and oh, it was bad. They were so much fun to be with, because Rocco is an inveterate gambler—horses, particularly, and he would have his bookies come in. There was a guy who came in called Mr. Dirt.

I'm having Kaufman-and-Hart visions of wiseguys crossing hairs with presidential aides. And who says this administration is all buttoned-up?

Jun 2, 2009

Coraline or Change

Critic-O-Meter is abuzz today with a spirited back-and-forth in the Comments section over the mixed reviews of the new Coraline at MCC. The interlocutors are Aaron Riccio of the fine review blog That Sounds Cool and none other than the Post's Elisabeth Vincentelli (a blogger herself), who gave the show its harshest review yet. It's a fine tete-a-tete by itself, but it's also a heartening and disarming sign of the times to witness a major daily critic get called on her review, then answer back about it freely and undefensively. This is a long-overdue development, I'd say.

Crude Mechanicals

A curiosity from the rich, rolling fields of YouTube: The lads mug gamely through the Pyramus and Thisbe scene from Midsummer, to the deafening accompaniment of some giddy groundlings. Reminds of another road not taken.

Dispatch From Chicago

Just heard from a former L.A. journalism/music colleague who happens to be dating an up-and-coming Chicago playwright, Ellen Fairey, whose new play Graceland just opened at the Profiles Theatre. How hot is she? The Tribune's Chris Jones:
Fairey's drama is a must-see for anyone who follows important new plays from and about Chicago. This young Chicago writer, whose earlier play "Girl, 20," seduced me with similar intensity in 2006, is right on the cusp of being the next Chicago playwright to hit the big time in the fashion of Tracy Letts or Keith Huff. This latest play could well be the one. It is a touching and beautifully crafted piece of Chicago theater.

I would argue that Fairey's work here has some notable similarities to the great Chicago North Side writing tradition from "Sexual Perversity in Chicago" to "Superior Donuts." But Fairey also is a kinder, gentler writer with a lean and wholly unforced style that only emphasizes the pain, sadness and fortitude of her middle-class characters.

With Letts' Donuts and Mamet's Race hitting B'way in the fall, here's hoping NY gets a Fairey shake sooner than later.

Jun 1, 2009

The LAByrinth Connection

I'm at least as intrigued by the new Othello as is Garrett, and the return-of-Peter Sellars angle is among my favorites. Not least because I had the mixed blessing of first seeing John Ortiz, who will play the Moor opposite Philip Seymour Hoffman's Iago, in Sellars' deeply odd, stark Taper production of The Persians back in 1994; Ortiz made a fierce impression as a supremely pissed-off, Guevara-esque Xerxes. Today's announcement that Ortiz and Hoffman are ceding artistic directorship of their LAByrinth Theatre to Stephen Adly Guirgis, Yul Vazquez, and Mimi O'Donnell, reminded me of another connection: appearing in both that Persians and in Guirgis' last play at the Public, Little Flower of East Orange was deaf actor Howie Seago, a powerful bear of a man with an unnerving blur of a stage voice. I wouldn't have been at all surprised to see Sellars finding a place for Seago in his Othello, except that Seago is occupied with another Shakespeare gig at the moment.