Jul 5, 2012

Reports From the Not-Unrelated Day Job

It was a busy spring and I feel like I'm only just caught up before the late-summer crunch begins, but I thought I should point out a few things that have made it into print at the publication I work for by day (and often by night, given its subject). The July/August edition of American Theatre contains two meaty features, one of which I'll claim a little credit for: Wendy Smith's sweeping, fine-grained essay about the enduring legacy of Eugene O'Neill is all her own work, but I'm proud to boast that I did bring in Wendy into the AT fold after catching an excellent review by her in the Kurt Weill Foundation newsletter, of all places. (She's also the author of a book about the Group Theatre, Real-Life Drama, which sounds like a must-read when I get a chance.) Key graf:
Ranging from the first script of O'Neill's to be publicly performed (Bound East for Cardiff, included in Early Plays) through the last one completed before failing health forced him to stop writing (A Moon for the Misbegotten), the spring flurry of productions made palpable the continuity of his ambition and vision, even as his craft grew and his style shifted. "This sailor life ain't much to cry about leavin'," says Yank, the dying seaman in Cardiff, a judgment echoed in Josie Hogan's benediction for James Tyrone Jr. in Moon: "May you have your wish and die in your sleep soon, Jim, darling." O'Neill was the first great American playwright in large part because he was the first to challenge audiences with a genuinely tragic vision of the human condition—a vision that consistently presents death as the only lasting peace achievable.
The other large feature has none of my fingerprints on it, but it may be one of my favorite AT features ever, one of the kind we seem uniquely set up to do: Stuart Miller's extensively reported examination of the playwright/designer relationship, and the ways that influences the plays we see and the designs that frame them. Sound esoteric? It's not:
The process differs greatly from playwright to playwright, in part because some think more visually than others, and in part because some are more actively engaged as the play moves from page to stage. Playwright David Henry Hwang belongs at one extreme—he admits, "I never see anything in my mind and have no idea what a show I'm writing will look like. Usually when I see the set design I go, 'Wow, this world is coming to life.' It's startling and delightful." Indeed, according to David Korins, who recently designed the Goodman's production of Hwang's Chinglish that subsequently moved to Broadway, "The greatest compliment I can get from a playwright is 'You helped me see my play.'"

At the other end of the spectrum are playwrights like Edward Albee, whose writerly approach is as visual as it is literary: "You can't create people unless you know where they are," Albee says without equivocation. "From the very beginning, I have ideas about what the set of a play looks like." Jon Robin Baitz says that as a young playwright at the Padua Hills Playwright Festival in California, he spent so much time writing stage descriptions that Maria Irene Fornés, one of his teachers there, chastised him, saying, "You are too nervous to write the play!" But that turned into a pivotal moment for Baitz when he realized that Fornés's criticism wasn't applicable—his needs were in fact different than hers, "and I needed that description to invoke the spirit of the play."
It's like that at every turn; it's the kind of brilliantly written piece that both seems to answer all the questions we might have as we go along (like, where's the director in this picture?) and manages to introduce new complications and wrinkles along the way (like how set design is in many ways more front-loaded and unalterable than the script itself). In short, a great read.

Neither of these two features, though, give this issue its beautiful cover, though: The man with the horn is John Douglas Thompson as Louis Armstrong in Satchmo at the Waldorf, a new play brewed up by WSJ theater critic Terry Teachout, which premieres at Shakespeare and Co. in August and at Long Wharf in the fall. For my relatively short preview piece in the magazine (in the print edition only), Teachout told me that the play was born from previous research:
"This is not what [director Gordon Edelstein] calls a 'taxidermy play,' where someone sits around and talks about what a great guy he is," says Teachout, who wrote an acclaimed 2009 biography of Louis Armstrong, Pops. It was a reader of that book who suggested to Teachout via e-mail that "there might be a play in it. That had never occurred to me. No writing of plays had ever occurred to me, in fact."
There's a lot of other good stuff in the magazine, but I'd be remiss if I didn't mention my report on the Golden Mask Festival, an annual theater festival in Moscow that's a bit like a citywide Lincoln Center Festival, except with exclusively in-country entries. I was there for a full week in April and I saw a lot of great theater, some of it translated, a certain amount of it not; in the case of Yury Butusov's fierce Seagull, this wasn't a barrier to entry. And in the case of a number of bracing garage-theater productions, the language gap was bridged by an unmistakable affinity: While Russia still has a pretty robust state theater system even decades after the end of the Soviet Union, the real energy and movement there is coming from young, independent, matter-of-factly free-ranging and open-minded small companies like Teatr.doc and Praktika—little Rude Mechs-type companies doing devised and documentary work, among other things, in small spaces a lot like HERE and PS 122. Though it couldn't quite be called a full-on dissident theater movement, the shift of theatrical energy does have a lot to do with the darkening political climate in Russia, and with the fact that "state-run" now implicitly means "Putin-approved." Teatr.doc founder Elena Gremina explained the dynamic to me (the piece is also only in the print edition):
Gremina, who staged her first plays after the fall of the Soviet Union, didn’t start out with an oppositional agenda. “I never thought I would write a political play. We built Teatr.doc first of all because we wanted to have a place to do theatre which is interesting to us from the artistic perspective. Later, step by step, those very important political projects started knocking at our doors. We didn’t want them. It’s like Six Characters in Search of the Author—reality is searching for the author. Now that reality knows the way and the door to knock on, people actually send us letters now and they say, ‘Here is a horrible story,’ or, ‘Here is a wonderful story.’”
Last but not least, there was the recent TCG Conference in Boston, where I mostly worked as a garden-variety TCG staffer (which meant that no, I didn't participate in the Q&As, in case anyone is wondering) but I also had the chance to help put together a breakout session on "work/life balance" with La Jolla Playhouse associate producer Dana Harrel; essentially this was a discussion about how to be, even whether it's possible to be, a working parent and/or a fully functioning human being in the American theater as currently constituted (the answer, roughly speaking: yes, it's fucking hard to do it, but so's making the art in the first place). Boston playwright Kirsten Greenidge and new Hartford Stage artistic director Darko Tresnjak were among the panelists for our own theater-centric mini-version of the Anne-Marie Slaughter debate.

While in Boston I also got to catch most of Mike Daisey's new monologue, meet Daisey and his director/wife Jean-Michele Gregory for the first time, and talk with Polly Carl for an upcoming feature on HowlRound and the Center for the Theater Commons.

I will add, finally, that I was especially struck by Howard Shalwitz's keynote speech at the opening plenary, and I hope we get the chance to read/hear more about it (his basic point: We've concentrated too much responsibility for theatrical "innovation" in the playwright's silo, more artists should take responsibility for making the art on the stage great, and that will entail getting plays off the theatrical production assembly line and investing in "production development" as much as "play development"). The great, or at least the good, work continues.

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