May 28, 2009

Good for Business

Way off topic, and way out of my area of expertise--my eyes glaze over at the mere words "health care reform"--but this article, about how universal access to health insurance would actually be great for self-employed people and small businesses (via the indispensible Yglesias), is worth a look. Nut grafs:

Some of tomorrow’s potential entrepreneurs are today’s employees at firms that provide health insurance. They may have powerful new ideas that will build the firms of tomorrow. But if they leave their current job to work on those ideas they may find themselves without access to reliable health insurance. If they are very young and healthy, this may not be a major impediment. But for older entrepreneurs who have developed ideas through years of working for others, the fear of losing health insurance when they go out on their own can be a barrier to taking that leap.

...The most convincing research, by Alison Wellington, mirrors the findings of other job mobility studies: Americans who have an alternative source of health insurance, such as a spouse’s coverage, are much more likely to be self-employed than those who don’t. Wellington estimates that universal health care would therefore likely increase the share of workers who are self-employed (currently about 10 percent of the workforce) by another 2 percent or more. A system that provides universal access to health insurance coverage, then, is far more likely to promote entrepreneurship than one in which would-be innovators remain tied to corporate cubicles for fear of losing their family’s access to affordable health care. Indeed, even the Galtians among us should be celebrating the expanded potential for individual enterprise once the chains tying them to a job that provides insurance have been broken.

The story doesn't directly address this, but I should add that as a one-time manager at a small, leanly budgeted startup newspaper owned by a large but relatively miserly corporation, I regularly faced the dilemma of either hiring one qualified person full-time with benefits or getting that person's workload done by a stable of freelancers or part-timers. This was not an uncommon dilemma, even in the "boom" years, and it seemed plunkingly obvious to me that whether or not the company I worked for could afford more full-time-with-benefits employees (they probably could and eventually did), the burden of providing insurance functioned as a powerful disincentive for any employer to hire people full-time when they could get the same work done with odd jobbers, particularly in a buyer's market like journalism (and a then-labor-lukewarm state like California). I've never understood why the business lobby and/or its shills in the Republican and Democratic parties haven't seen or made this point--that our current ad hoc, jury-rigged health insurance "system"--basically a half-assed hold-over of long-ago, post-WWII union contracts that have outlived their sell-by date--is a distorting burden on business that would better be shouldered by the government.

Add the problem of "job lock" to the moral and medical running sore that vast numbers of uninsured Americans create, and I don't see why universal access of some kind is not a relative no-brainer for even pro-business types.

May 27, 2009

Times (Square) a'Changing


Hadn't been back to the TKTS booth for months; met a friend there today. I think this new blocked-off street thing is all to the good, but it does make for some odd sights.

King of America II?


Weird old Declan returns to the producer, if not quite the scene, of his best album, for his new one. Count me excited.

May 26, 2009

"Lost" in Texas

The redoubtable Terry Teachout has a striking dispatch from Texas about a pair of seemingly unlikely must-sees: an apparently excellent Awake and Sing! in Houston and a reportedly fine revival of Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson's extremely seldom-revived Lost in the Stars. I second Teachout's ardent wishes to see this musicalization of Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country make it to New York, and would upgrade his rating of the score to the best thing Weill wrote for Broadway. It's the sort of thing Encores was made for (and hey, Paton's novel was even endorsed by you-know-who).

99 Seats

Within months of arriving in L.A. for college in the late 1980s, my campus pastor took me to a tiny theater on Santa Monica Blvd. to see some Tennessee Williams one-acts. But it wasn't until I started Back Stage West in the early '90s that I really discovered L.A.'s small theater scene, as thriving (or moreso) than NY's Off-Off-Broadway, with troupes from the Actors' Gang to Open Fist to Theatre of NOTE to Company of Angels to the Matrix to Pacific Resident Theatre to City Garage to the Odyssey, etc. Not only did I love a lot of what I saw (nearly as much as I didn't, which is a pretty good ratio), and admire the irrepressible vitality of the scene, but I became aware that it was unique in the nation; I learned that the stage actors' union, Equity, had for some reason essentially "waived" its jurisdiction over theaters under 100 seats in L.A. County.

Oh, but I couldn't call it "Equity Waiver"; that apparently was an old, politically incorrect term; it was now the "Equity 99-Seat Theatre Plan." I heard vague murmurs of something called the "Waiver Wars," and I figured they had something to do with the common argument in which I often found myself, over whether the Plan made it too easy to put on too much bad theater in L.A., and whether the glut had driven down the overall quality of the work, and whether actors would ever make more than $5-14 a performance, and whether it was just inevitable in a town crammed with actors looking to get on a stage no matter what.

Well, the "Waiver Wars" had something to do with all of that, but not until I was recently asked to write a history of the 99-Seat Plan by LA Stage (now an online-only magazine) did I realize what a tangled and fascinating story it is, and how many of its players I first got to know in the near-aftermath of battle. Part One of my history is here; Part Two should be coming soon. I won't say this new knowledge changes everything, but it does shed a new light on much of the work I saw and many of the discussions I had over my years on the L.A. scene--and I think for non-L.A. theater folks it may bring a new perspective, at least, to questions about their own work and how it's valued in their respective communities.

May 19, 2009

The New Gig

Dear readers, today is my last day as Editorial Content Manager for Theatre Development Fund, where I've spent nearly three happy years writing about New York theater and about the ways TDF serves it. It's been a great, generous, collegial place to work, but tomorrow I begin my new job as Associate Editor at American Theatre magazine, a publication I've written for a few times over the years. With all due thanks to TDF, the American Theatre gig is precisely the sort of career journalism opportunity I moved to New York for in the summer of 2005.

Looking back over my work at TDF, there's a lot I recall fondly, not least the opening of the red steps and the new TKTS booth...

My main job, in addition to covering TDF's pathbreaking service and outreach programs, was to talk to artists about their stage work and write features about them. Nice work if you can get it. My first interview was with producer Tom Hulce before the opening of Spring Awakening, and my last was with Condola Rashad of Ruined--not a bad pair of bookends, I'd say. In between I've relished speaking to such legendary figures as Paul Taylor, Edward Albee, and Charles Strouse, as well as...

playwrights Theresa Rebeck, Sarah Ruhl, Douglas Carter Beane, Danny Hoch, Adam Bock, J.T. Rogers, David Henry Hwang, Vern Thiessen, Darrell Dennis, Rinne Groff, Lenelle Moises, Jeff Bowen,
Rajiv Joseph, Steven Levenson, Ronan Noone, Lee Blessing, Mike Birbiglia, David Greenspan, Donald Margulies, Itamar Moses, and Dick Scanlan;

composers William Finn, Heidi Rodewald, Mark Mulcahy, Tom Kitt, and Michael Friedman;

directors Bob Falls, Steven Cosson, Neil Pepe, Leigh Silverman, Pippin Parker, David Cromer, Trip Cullman, John Collins, Henry Wishcamper, Douglas C. Wager, Daniel Aukin, Ciaran O'Reilly, Nicholas Martin, and Colman Domingo;

designers Anna Louizos, Martin Pakledinaz, and William Ivey Long;

producers Thomas Schumacher and Jeffrey Richards, and Richards' colleague, press agent Irene Gandy;

and actors Denis O'Hare, John Glover, Pablo Schreiber, Michael Cerveris, Charlotte D'Amboise, Harriet Harris, Marian Seldes, Capathia Jenkins, Karen Ziemba, Allison Fraser, Kate Mulgrew, Xanthe Elbrick, George Andrews, Carole Shelley, Cheryl Freeman, Gerald McRaney, Debra Monk, Kathleen Chalfant, Jonathan Hadary, Shuler Hensley, Chuck Mee, Sarah Stiles, Norbert Leo Butz, Arnie Burton, Jimmi Simpson, Laurie Metcalf, Lily Rabe, S. Epatha Merkerson, Michael McKean, Ciaran Hinds, Austin Pendleton, Javier Munoz, Marylouise Burke, Jane Alexander, Joanna Gleason, Danny Burstein, Boyd Gaines, Julie White, Gideon Banner, Mary Beth Hurt, Rondi Reed, Tom Wopat, Jeremy Lawrence, Amy Warren, de'Adre Aziza, Christopher Evan Welch, Jim True-Frost, Anna Camp, Daniel Jenkins and Robert Stanton, Clay Aiken, Donna Lynne Champlin, Ivan Hernandez, Christopher Sieber, Paul Sparks, David Wilson Barnes, Richard Kind, Aaron Monaghan, Gregory Jbara, Zach Grenier, and Tovah Feldshuh.

Onward and upward!

May 18, 2009

Basket Case

I was not by any means the jock of our family (that would have been my sister), but the one sport I was remotely decent at and/or drawn to was basketball. I had two native advantages: I was fairly tall at a young age, and my dad had been a college player in Indiana. And though I don't watch sports now (my last "team" was the Westphal-era "Sunderellas," who I followed avidly until the infamous Celtics standoff of 1976), I've yearned to get back on the court somehow. But, as I find New York's public pickup games intimidating and am vaguely allergic to gym membership, I've sighingly deferred this dream...

Until now. My local bookstore, Word, just started a new basketball league, and though I'm still recovering from a couple of bruising pre-season games last week--turns out this is not by and large a league of bookish, wispy nerds--I am inordinately excited to be back in play. The only thing that's really geekily literary about this league is the team names (mine is the Virginia Wolves).

Keep It Classy, AZ

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I spent some happy hours on the ASU campus at debate tournaments, summer classes, performances at Grady Gammage, and stealth raids of the music library; and my mom got a graduate degree there back in the '60s (not to mention, my birth parents met there, if memory serves). But to put its recent snub of Obama in context, it's worth recalling that my home state is also the place where, in 1986, Gov. Ev Mecham's first act in office was to rescind the federal Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. And so, yet again, I feel the Arizona heat--of shame.

May 15, 2009

Nine + 9



Which fall release excites you more, dear reader: Daniel Day-Lewis cavorting with an international babe sampler (above) or another endearing/disturbing computer-animated dystopia (below)? Choose your Nine (or your 9) wisely.

May 13, 2009

Worth Two in the Bush



Corner of Norman & McGuinness, Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

May 12, 2009

May 11, 2009

Juggling Hats

Which critic do we most want to read on Godot? The son of Estragon's American originator, natch. Lahr fils:
I remember running the lines with my father. (I was fourteen then and often dragooned into this tense task.) I also recall the curious contradiction between his colossal insecurity about the meaning of the words that he struggled to learn and his adamant conviction of the emotional truth of the comedy contained in those perplexing words. If Dad was mystified by the play’s idiom, he understood all too well its psychological terrain: waiting, anguish, bewilderment. In Florida, he was at war with the audience, with Tom Ewell, who played Vladimir, and, most of all, with the director, Alan Schneider, whose name was forever banned from our dinner-table conversation. I also remember the thrill of the re-staged Broadway production later that year (directed by Herbert Berghoff, with E. G. Marshall as Vladimir, Kurt Kasznar as Pozzo, and Alvin Epstein as Lucky), and Dad’s profound satisfaction at his succès d’estime in New York. That fabled Broadway début, which lasted only ten weeks, was the highlight of my father’s half century on the American stage.

Ten years later, when I was teaching “Waiting for Godot” at Hunter College night school, I smuggled Dad into class and asked him to give us his interpretation of Estragon. A quizzical, almost irritated look came over his face, his eyes darted around the room, his nostrils flared. “Belly,” he said finally, touching his stomach.

For the record, Lahr likes Anthony Page's production, though he gives Nathan Lane's Estragon a few judicious knocks. No one could accuse Lahr of objectivity in this case, but his elegant review--which, among other things, makes the link and debts owed between Beckett and vaudeville-trained comics as plain as the nose on the Great Schnozzle's face--is a case study in the value of a carefully cultivated and circumspect critical subjectivity, the sort of thing Lahr memorably stumped for here. If he sounded defensive then, he need not have been. This review proves that his experience was not wasted on him, nor did it spoil him for the criticism of the art, and the artists, that formed him.

May 7, 2009

Shaw on Beckett

Not that Shaw, of course, but Time Out's reliably prickly Helen Shaw, with a piece knocking grumpy old Sam down a few pegs--four, to be exact, that being the number of things she "hates" about Beckett. The point about his estate's deadening grip on the style of all productions until 2059 (!) is extremely well-taken, and I embrace her bottom line:
I hate how his enshrinement as a saint of the theater has distanced his work from us. He wrote in Worstward Ho: "Try again. Fail again. Fail better." And yet this poet of failure is treated as infallible, his minor works (not to be confused with lovely miniatures like Not I) murdered by overpraise. At the end of his novel Watt, he made a note: "No symbols where none intended." We have to treat him with the same lightness that he reserved for death, betrayal, emotional impotence and that old favorite, existential despair. Don't go to him on your knees, making him your god; in Beckett's world, gods have a tendency not to show up. Instead, meet him cheerfully on the road with this bit of Buddhist wisdom: Some things are far too serious to be taken seriously.

Tell it.

May 6, 2009

What He Said

I don't find myself linking to George Hunka very often; though I have found his theater blog indispensible, and consider him personally a mensch, his and my tastes have diverged over the years to a sufficient extent that when each of us talks about theater I feel we're almost talking about two different media.

So I was glad to find a post by George I can mostly endorse. The gist:
If an art form is to thrive it must feed a spiritual hunger...All of the marketing in the world, viral or otherwise, will not serve to generate spectators if the spectators find nothing there, nothing in the YouTube trailers or the Facebook "events" invitations or the postcard, that suggests that the theatre offers them something that the rest of the culture industry does not, and for much less money. If they see a theatre they want, they will pay for it, as they pay for luxury items of greater or lesser price.

That seems to me inarguable, though I would differ from the larger point George is making--that our contemporary theater seems to offer no such sustenance. This past year in particular has been a spiritual banquet, at least to my palate, especially in the play department: Port Authority, Seagull, Becky Shaw, Our Town, Ruined, The Cripple of Inishmaan, Godot, Our Town, Joe Turner, Norman Conquests--these are plays that in some cases satisfied yens I didn't even know I had.

So: agreed on the terms, George, if not the particulars.

May 5, 2009

Vanities


A diverting preview of Vanity Fair’s upcoming starfuck lesson in theatre appreciation.

May 2, 2009

From the Mouths of Babes

Two young kids in Greenpoint, shouting down the street, on my way home from the fine new revival of Waiting for Godot:

Kid 1:
A hobo knows his way around better than you.

Kid 2:
I'm not from around here!

Kid 1:
Neither are the hoboes! They live everywhere. Next thing you know, you're going to find them under the cars.

If one measure of the impact of a piece of theater, or any work of art, is the way it resharpens our senses, or seems even to generate its own synchronicities, well, then, chalk one up for this new Godot.

May 1, 2009

Stopped

On SITI's group blog, Anne Bogart recalls moments that stopped her dead in her tracks, and tries to tease out what that sensation can mean:
I am interested in the latent potential within the silence that follows a powerful or novel experience. When I am stopped by a fresh assault upon my senses, I am also wildly alive within that break and the repercussions can be physical, psychic and transformative. In this gap, this stop, this shake-up, this silence, a seed is planted.

...The paradox of theater, which is an art form that takes place within the confines of time and space, is the necessity for stillness and silence within the rush and onslaught of time. You have to ram a stake through the motion and find the stops in order to speak intimately about the eternal within the fleeting moment.

Shades of Lee Breuer's eloquent "The Theatre and Its Trouble," with its case for the "neutral gear" of poetic moments in the theatre, which I just read in the indispensible American Theatre Reader.

And that brings me, roundabout, to an announcement of moment: I've just accepted the position of Associate Editor at American Theatre magazine. I'm extremely grateful for the opportunity I've had here at TDF, a fine and venerable theater nonprofit whose mission I support, but the AT job is a welcome step back for me onto the journalism track. There will be more to say about this in time, but for now, I'm (relatively) speechless, and content to sit in this liminal space and feel the stop before it starts again.

"Devotional Irreverence"


Another reminder why the New Yorker's Alex Ross is so invaluable. In the midst of a beautiful, measured but glowing farewell to the LA Phil's boy wonder Esa-Pekka Salonen (whose bracing, inspiring tenure I had the pleasure to witness firsthand through many of its years), Ross nails this insight:
[Peter] Sellars seldom goes wrong when he addresses religious subjects; he approaches them with a kind of devotional irreverence, jettisoning dogma and exposing the spiritual core. In “Oedipus,” he set aside the arch narration that Jean Cocteau created for Stravinsky’s score and replaced it with recitations after Sophocles. The “Symphony of Psalms,” in Sellars’s conception, becomes a redemptive epilogue to Sophocles’ tragedy, the musical ritual accompanying Oedipus’ quasi-mystical death at Colonus. There was an intriguingly seamless transition from Greek-pagan to Latin-Christian imagery: the common link was the power of humility in the face of destruction.

Like the best criticism, that feels so right, naming an impression I hadn't put into those terms, even as it makes me rethink the non-religiously themed Sellars work I've seen (Nixon in China, Pelleas et Melisande, The Persians, Dr. Atomic) through a new lens.

Pig's Feet and Cheese


For fellow Sound of Music haters (and the rest of you, too), here's a handy antidote.

Royal Flush


My take on a couple of Broadway's notable crowned heads, written for the fine Catholic weekly America, is here.