Jun 30, 2011

Shepperd's Hook

The first big piece I wrote for American Theatre after I started full-time here was an in-depth profile of L.A.'s Celebration Theatre and its artistic director Michael Shepperd. There was no budget to actually fly me back to the City of Angels, so I had to rely on my extensive memory of seeing shows there, on phone interviews, and on the eerie semi-immersive experience of Google street-view maps. I must say I was happy with the result, which I presume to say may be a definitive study of a major but too-little-honored gay theater whose work has spanned, embodied, and borne witness to the huge generational shift that has taken gay culture, very roughly speaking, from bathhouses to play spaces (one of Shepperd's initiatives at Celebration was to create programming for kids and families, as he himself is of the married-with-children cohort).

It's sad that Michael's leaving the top post there, but I'm glad to see that he's going out with a bang, or rather, with Bash'd, a truly unlikely and utterly winning concoction I raved about for the Voice and which recently crossed my mind, as it deals with the violent backlash against the prospect of legal gay marriage in Canada. With great changes come great upheavals. Here's hoping that the changing of the guard at the Celebration (Shepperd's successor is John Michael Beck) is not cause for too wrenching an upheaval. Even in a supposedly post-gay world, we need the Celebration.

Jun 29, 2011

What Do These Have in Common?

Good Person of Szechuan by Bertolt Brecht
The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams
Unforgettable Elephants PBS Nature Series
Whistler’s Mother” Season 1 Episode 20 Arrested Development

  • a man in uniform
  • tobacco
  • a song
  • a crappy job
  • a body part that doesn’t work right
  • a home with too many inhabitants
  • an epilogue
  • price tags


The above (Joan Baez’s 1968 recording of “Tears of Rage”) and the photo below.

Give up? These are disparate "ingredients" of a Paula Vogelian bake-off centered on the theme of "the Matriarch" that Clubbed Thumb has concocted for its Biennial Commission.

Deadline is Sept. 1. Playwrights, start your engines!

Quote for the Day

“Regardless of the medium, rewriting and more rewriting is still necessary. No one gets anything right the first time, and since I don't write with a hammer and chisel, it's relatively easy for me to change. It's just words on paper. Words are free. You don't go to the store and order a pound of words, or five hundred words, and pay your three dollars. They're free.” - August Wilson
Obviously, he never worked as a journalist.

What's Right With Ohio

The Ohio Theatre's untimely departure from Soho last year was bad news, but this summer brings great news upon already good news. The Ohio's annual Ice Factory new-works festival is now up at 3LD, and this fall the Ohio will reopen in a new location in the West Village's Archive Building (famous for, among other things, its "666 Greenwich" address, though the new Ohio West's actual address will be 154 Christopher St.). I remember the space, which was until recently the Wings Theatre, because the Times sent me to review a show there some years ago. No, it's not the raw barn that the old Ohio was, but it has promise, and the neighborhood—by my lights, anyway—is far more appealing.

I had a chance to sit down recently with Ohio impresario Robert Lyons to talk about this crop of good-and-great news for his scrappy downtown company, in this week's Time Out.

Jun 27, 2011


photo by I.C. Rapoport

So Lydia Diamond's much-lauded family comedy/drama Stick Fly will hit Broadway later this year. That's great news for Diamond, and great news for a play that's been gathering steam since its 2006 debut at Chicago Congo Square Theatre. It's also good news for the 99-seat Matrix Theatre in L.A. It was from the Matrix's feisty producer, Joe Stern, that I first heard about the play; I was doing interviews for this two-part series for LA Stage Times, and Joe, a veteran of the so-called "Waiver wars," was talking it up because he was about to produce it there (and with much of the same cast and the same director as the McCarter production).

I mention this just to clear up any misconception that Center Theatre Group and Pasadena Playhouse are the only L.A. theaters that stage major national work (Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Baby It's You, Sister Act, respectively), and to remind those who need reminding (you probably don't know who you are) that some of L.A.'s 99-seaters are as or more forward-thinking than the big LORT houses (Boston Court, here's looking at you, too).

Jun 23, 2011

Quotes of the Week

From around the theatre net:
  • "Hasa Diga Convention!" One of seven things The Book of Mormon (the show, not the scripture) can teach producers, from Ken Davenport's blog.
  • "Are we [critics] too gentle?...Or is Los Angeles simply one of the finest venues in the English speaking world for live theater?" From an admirably self-critical post on the Bitter Lemons site.
  • "We now pay strangers to tell us stories about strangers. But when do we use the symbolic language of theatre, dance, etc., to tell our own stories about our collective selves?" A bracing David Diamond excerpt on Scott Walter's blog.
  • "Allow the love of the good ghost," my favorite line from a shattering Pinter quote on George Hunka's site.
  • I liked this defensive but incisive quote from Sarah Ruhl, in Lahr's Stage Kiss rave: "Lightness is not stupidity. It's actually a philosophical and aesthetic viewpoint, deeply serious, and has a kind of wisdom—stepping back to be able to laugh at the horrible things even as you're experiencing them."

The Shaggy Muse

I probably should stop apologizing for my lack of time to properly blog. But in response to seeing The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World last night, I essentially wrote a fan letter to its creators (songwriter Gunnar Madsen, bookwriter and co-lyricist Joy Gregory, and director John Langs). Rather than reshape it for the blog, I'll just reprint it here.
Dear Joy, Gunnar, and John:

I was in L.A. for the TCG conference last week, so I didn't get to see The Shaggs until last night. I was semi-dreading it after the mixed reviews and my fear that I had hyped the show with my Times piece, and what if I'd steered people wrong?

I shouldn't have worried: It's the most exciting, moving, intelligent, and freakishly good new musical I've seen in a long time (and yeah, I liked that Mormon show a lot, too, but I don't consider that especially groundbreaking, and both Scottsboro and Bloody Bloody were drastically overrated, in my opinion). The first act I more or less recognized from L.A., but that second act—wow, it's a whole other show, and what a revelatory one it is. I love Annie's new song; the "empty birdcage" tune sounded brand new to my ears; Charlie D's rap hits the right note of outsider appreciation; and the car rant, with the keening sisters' vocals, is one of my favorite musical-theater moments in the theater in years.

It's been my experience that in a form as encrusted by routine as musical theater, it's really easy to spot when a show is going through the motions, falling back on old tricks, when it's essentially "vamping." What I loved about The Shaggs is that not a moment felt that way; all of it felt alive and pulsing with weird energy and subtext. As my musical-writing colleague put it, on both the "macro and micro level" (set, vocal direction, staging, pacing), everything has been shaped with such care and attention to the story's unique needs.
In short, I think you three pulled off the big trick of telling this odd, haunting but life- and even joy-filled story in a correspondingly odd, haunting, joyful way, and for that you have my extreme admiration and praise (and envy! The aforementioned musical-theater colleague and I are working on a musical about Ed Wood and Bela Lugosi, and facing similar issues of tone).

Congratulations! And thanks for following the Shaggs muse all the way.
Alas, the lukewarm reviews mean the show hasn't been extended past its announced July 3 closing, and there is unlikely to be a cast album (c'mon, Sh-K-Boom! I'd pay full price). Ultimately, the Shaggs musical may be as much of a cult piece as the Shaggs' original album has been, and though on one level that seems entirely fitting, it would be a shame if the show doesn't find a wider audience. But, to slightly rephrase Dot Wiggin's famous lyric, you can never please everybody in this world.

Jun 22, 2011

Cheap "Tiger" Tix

This may be an unconventional use of my blog, but it's come to my attention that a friend has a block of good orchestra seats for this coming Saturday night's performance (June 25 at 8 pm) of Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. He paid full price but is willing to unload them for $50 a pop. Anyone who's interested, please contact me at my gmail account (username robkendt).

I've meant to blog about the play for a while, incidentally; I happened to see an early reading at the Lark in 2007 because Rajiv Joseph was then a teaching colleague of my wife's, and I must confess I was a bit underwhelmed; there was promising writing but I didn't see the play. Shows you how much I know; the play that made it to Broadway, I'm happy to report, is surprisingly strong, supple, pungent, and haunting. Disarmingly funny, too. Definitely worth (at least) 50 smackers.

Theater Stuntz

There's a lot of Shakespeare coming our way this summer--more than the usual Central Park fare, what with Lincoln Center importing the Royal Shakes for a four-show rep next month.

But a quick browse through my in-tray proves that summer is still the silly season. To wit:Hope summers eternal!

Jun 21, 2011

Tuesday Quick Hits

Still not up for a ton of post-conference blogging (yet). Here are some bits and pieces:Oh, and someone turned me on to R. Stevie Moore today...enjoy but beware the timesuck hole!

Jun 20, 2011

Place Holder

I've got much to blog about, after a week in my old L.A. stomping grounds and four days of the TCG conference...but while I catch up with a week's worth of emails and StageGrade etc., please enjoy this amazing 1960 Beatnik jam from the creator of the Muppets.

Jun 10, 2011

Hoodoo Voodoo

I'll be traveling next week, mostly for this conference you may have heard about. I leave you with the strong recommendation to catch Tanya Saracho's Enfrascada, a Clubbed Thumb production, which plays tonight and Sat. night at HERE. Isherwood was, I think, way too dismissive; I found myself amused and moved by the play, about the lengths to which the lovelorn will go to patch up a relationship, often at the cost of their other relationships. It's also noteworthy as the New York almost-debut (technically she made her first appearance with this) of a Chicago playwright I've been following for awhile (in fact, since last year's TCG conference, to bring this post full circle).

Enjoy this rambling video featuring Tanya along with Clubbed Thumb's Maria Striar and Jessica Taylor. Topics include cooking, code-switching, and curanderismo.

Jun 8, 2011

Closer To Home

This should be interesting: The LA Times will host a panel discussion on my pet subject next week:
Is Los Angeles a “theater town”?

New York. Chicago. Seattle. San Francisco. For many, those cities come to mind when people mention “theater town.” But where does L.A. fit in?

That’s the topic of our upcoming theater roundtable. On June 14 at 6 p.m., Culture Monster will host a conversation about the city’s place in the national theater scene -– and in the shadow of Hollywood.

Los Angeles Times theater critic Charles McNulty will moderate a panel that features Michael Ritchie, artistic director of Center Theatre Group; Tim Robbins, Oscar-winning actor and artistic director of the Actors' Gang; Broadway producer Marc Platt (“Wicked,” “Three Days of Rain,” “Pal Joey”); Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Beth Henley; and Sheldon Epps, artistic director of Pasadena Playhouse and Broadway director (“Baby It’s You!”).

It's being put on to coincide with the Theatre Communications Group conference, in which, alas, I may be too immersed to attend this colloquy. I just remembered that the very first ActorFest event I helped stage (as editor of Back Stage West) in the mid-'90s at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel featured a panel on exactly the same topic (the panelists, if memory serves, included Josh Schiowitz, John Rubinstein, Ellen Geer, and the Cast Theatre's Diana Gibson). That the L.A. Times still considers this a relevant question is an answer in itself, alas.

UPDATE: This panel, staged the following Monday after the conference and moderated by KPCC's Steve Julian, looks like a serious contender:
This month, Los Angeles will host at least five national and international theatre gatherings aimed at celebrating the progress and innovations of the art form through a variety of interactive and presentational offerings. While many consider L.A. to be a “film” or “T.V.” town, it is clear that this summer we are the go-to destination for theatre makers…but why?


Terence McFarland, Executive Director, LA Stage Alliance

Kappy Kilburn, Founder/Co-Producer, Director's Lab West

Ben Hill, Festival Director, Hollywood Fringe Festival

Mark Murphy, Executive Director, REDCAT/Co-Curator RADAR L.A.

Diane Rodriguez, Associate Producer/Director of New Play Production, Center Theatre Group/TCG Board Member and National Conference Co-chair, co-curator for RADAR L.A.

Wish I'd planned to be there for that one!

Jun 6, 2011

Way Off-Broadway

I can't be objective about LA Times theater critic Charles McNulty. He's one of the nation's finest theater critics; I think that was clear well before he won the Nathan. But I did campaign for the job he's got, and I still have complicated feelings about the LA Times' appetite for New York theater coverage (even as I've personally benefited from it). And I've beat this drum before, so I promise not to go on about this too much here. But McNulty's recent essay, in which he casts a critical eye across the ups and downs of the Broadway season just past, made me wonder, rhetorically, again: Is there a comparable think piece about the state of theater in Los Angeles over the past year that I've missed? And where should a theater lover look for such a piece, if not in the LA Times? (The Weekly's Steven Leigh Morris provides an obvious answer.)

It's true that Peter Marks at WaPo and Chris Jones at the Trib do their share of New York coverage, too. But when they do their year-end "best of" lists, or reflect on the state of theater, it's generally understood that they're talking about their hometown beat, that their views are firmly grounded in theater in their respective area. Not to give Los Angeles theater similar due because it's seen as a lesser market only fuels a vicious cycle of insignificance. Theater can literally exist without the nurturing and pruning of critics, but this ephemeral and public art form demands and deserves attention, commentary, a paper of record. Theater in L.A. too often languishes in a self-reinforcing desert of neglect. After all, I'm proof; even I abandoned it. I would rest easier, though, if I knew someone besides Morris were on the beat.

Jun 3, 2011

Quote for the Day

"I once saw Stephen Sondheim, at the press opening of a Coleman show, nearly fall out of his seat with delight at an unexpected modulation."
-Michael Feingold, writing about the Cy Coleman revue The Best Is Yet To Come

Jun 2, 2011

Thursday Catch-Up

Been buried. Two links to explain why, and still more for your reading pleasure: