Sep 29, 2009

Baby Irony Advisory

Among the things that's tripping me out the most about being a new father is that a new consciousness is forming next to my wife and myself--at just shy of three months, he's just starting to really see us and respond, but he has yet to learn to love his first song, see his first movie or play, read his first book.

Not that we haven't been reading and singing to him, and, of course, making mix CDs for his crib CD player (yes, he's got one, because I hate the thought of leaving his lullaby playlist to the discretion of the fine folks who make those shaky seats with an "on" switch for "music"). I confess I'd given a thought or two to whether I need to slightly baby-proof my vast iTunes library--maybe de-select songs with gratuitous swearing, shotgun effects, heavy breathing, and/or an overly aggressive sound/tone? But then recently three songs in a row came up on random shuffle that really gave me pause--not for their transgressive content, exactly, but for the fact that none could/should be taken at face value. All have a meta-meaning apart from their surface appeal, and I wonder what it would mean to have a small child's mind absorb them before he learns, well, other important things about life and the world. The songs were:

Randy Newman's "Rednecks." All right, this song liberally uses the "n" word, so on those grounds alone I shouldn't play this song for my son till he's old enough to know you don't say that--not unless you're an acerbic social critic with many layers of bitter irony at work.

"Tomorrow Belongs To Me" from Cabaret. Christ, I love this song, but I know that somehow I "shouldn't." It's not a real Nazi anthem but merely an incredible simulation, and it's as beautiful and seductive as intended; I remember Reza Abdoh employing the song with withering irony in Bogeyman (it was sung by a chorus of naked men, many of them pierced and shaved, if I recall correctly). In short, though there's nothing overtly objectionable about it, I would be a little queasy hearing my son sing it around the house.

"Lake of Fire" by the Meat Puppets. Another head-scratcher. It's a funny and chilling parody of backwoods fire-and-brimstone, but the details are a little too grisly to be laughed at too easily (that girl with the rabies is a particularly fine and disturbing touch). But not least because it's light years away from my own personal theology, I would hesitate to have a child learn anything about hell this way, even if the Pups are winking through the sulfur.

(I can't find a decent YouTube of my fellow Arizonans doing the song, so I've posted the most famous version below)

Now what do I do about "Welcome to the Terrordome"?

Linky Links

On Rereading Bentley on Brecht

I'm coming across lots of great quotes, but I found this one particularly arresting:
When one of the best judges of drama said that the more original playwrights of the twenties "start completely fresh," he listed only antirealists. The antirealists always get all the credit for originality. Actually the realists were just as much in revolt. In a sense they were twice as much in revolt, since they rejected not only the antirealistic styles--such as expressionism--but the established naturalistic styles of the nineties. They wanted to be more naturalistic still.

In this essay, "From Strindberg to Brecht," Bentley is positioning Brecht as a kind of realist, with his Epic theater standing athwart expressionism. What's stunning to me about this quote, too, is how relevant these debates still seem to us now (and how we're already looking back on our own "nineties," and will before long face our very own "twenties").

Down in Front

For the love of God, will someone please come up with some kind of cellphone-blocking force field in theaters? The video below, from a recent Steady Rain preview starring you-know-whos, is skin-crawling to watch (though, come to think of it, if you can use a camera in the theater...). (h/t Playgoer)

Sep 28, 2009

Tuesday Link-o-Rama

Idiots, All of Them

Willem Dafoe, Elina Löwensohn, and Alenka Kraigher; photo by Nella Vera

Some priceless shots of Richard Foreman's upcoming Idiot Savant in rehearsal. (And yes, there seem to be three actors and three skirts here, ladies and gents.)

Tagger Tagged

Shepard "Hope" Fairey's Echo Park studio is oh-so-wittily tagged. Why am I not surprised that Gary Leonard was there?

Sep 25, 2009

Friday Random Links

  • Joe Wilson as a black drag queen in Cabaret? (made you look--of course, it's not that Joe Wilson, or that one, but this one).

  • Working stiff in Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side.

  • Why Adorno hated protest songs. (Reminds me of a Eugene Chadbourne lyric: "Governments love anti-war songs / they say sing 'em loud, and we'll sing along / because it reminds them, in a musical way / that there's a war.")

  • Pace JP Shanley, how gossip can be good.

  • Baby on board.

What 99 Seats Said

For my money, the last word on the arts/service conference call brouhaha.

And one last depressing thought of my own: I share Mirror Up to Nature's fear: that if the right's partisan trolls are going to freak about something this innocuous, and so superficially connected to the endowment and not at all connected to its grant-giving, what will happen if they start "following the NEA grant money trails to find a connection to something salacious"? It's worth remembering that the last NEA funding controversy, in the mid- to late 1980s, came well before the age of YouTube and social media, let alone Fox News.)

UPDATE: I spoke too soon. The incomparable Ian David Moss has an uncharacteristically, and to my mind righteously hot-tempered summation of the cynical opportunism behind this "scandal."

Sep 24, 2009

Random Links II

  • E.L. Doctorow as rapper.

  • Time Out's (almost) all-rave theater review editon (and by the way, when did TONY drop the sixth star from its ratings?)

  • Getting site-specific on modes of transportation: a show on a boat, a show on a bus.

  • Will Humana's play fest get the Whole Foods treatment from lefty artists?

  • King Troll inexplicably gloats.

  • Isaac's right: This recipe, particularly the sauce, kicks ass.

Impact This

If you haven't checked it out already, Ian David Moss' Createquity blog, an essential source on arts funding issues, is so amazingly good it's almost in its own category of resource; "blog" hardly does it justice.

Really, this guy not only knows his stuff, he's also quite happy and prepared to share it--and share it in various formats. Case in point: He not only offers this exhaustive, 7,000-word analysis of Americans for the Arts landmark "Arts & Economic Prosperity" study, he also helpfully follows up with a "Cliff's Notes" version of the same post, hitting the highlights. You should read the whole thing, but to hone it down even further, his argument goes like this:
The study, which is for the most part constructed quite carefully and with admirable attention to detail, clearly shows that nonprofit arts organizations play a significant role in the nation’s economy, more significant than we are often led to believe...

At the same time, the study does not show in any real sense that the arts cause the economic activity with which they are associated. Many of the supposed impacts could be and probably are the result of substitution effects rather than newly generated value or wealth. For example, the meal that patrons had before the show was going to get eaten in some form or another regardless of whether there was an arts event involved that night...

As a result, while the study deserves to be taken seriously as an estimate of the size of the nonprofit arts and culture sector in the United States, other claims about its deeper significance have tended to be overblown. Foremost among these claims is the idea that because the arts return an amount in taxes to government that is greater than the amount that government puts in, the arts represent a good “return on investment” from a financial standpoint. This is simply not true.

Moss' take helps confirm my suspicion that the economic-impact case for government funding of the arts has never been a slam-dunk. When we point out the size and robustness of the nonprofit arts sector, which got where it is today with only a minimal amount of public funding, we risk looking like we're doing fine, no need for help, thanks; and as Moss painstakingly points out, when we start talking about the arts' economic impact in terms of return-on-investment, we've strayed from reality and left ourselves open to the completely common-sense response, articulated most forcefully by Bloomberg's Jeremy Gerard, that measured in ROI terms the arts don't begin to compete with other, particularly for-profit sectors.

Moss' analysis makes it clear that the economic-impact case is just one tool in the arts advocacy toolbox, and suggests that it may be more useful in terms of preserving the status quo--in bolstering the sense that arts organizations of all sizes are entirely respectable, grown-up professional businesses that make an integral contribution to the nation's economic health, not to mention its spiritual health--than in making the case for increased arts funding.

Sep 23, 2009

Talking Heads

Borrowing a page from the reasons to be pretty playbook, producers of the new Broadway production of Oleanna have scheduled post-show talkbacks with such gender-studies luminaries as former NYC mayor David Dinkins, NYC Deputy Mayor of Education and Community Development Dennis Walcott, FOX News Channel legal analyst Lis Wiehl (above), and Tisch School dean Mary Schmidt Campbell, among others.

Profiles in "Courage"

As a member of the press, I'm never sure what I should do about gala fund-raising benefits. I can sometimes swing a press comp or two, though that's often a sign that the benefit didn't sell enough tickets to (high-)paying customers. I doubt sales will be a problem for the upcoming "Courage in Concert," which will reconvene much of the cast of the Public's brilliant musicalization of Mother Courage, but it's one I'd actually like to try to see--or rather, hear, since Jeanine Tesori's underrated score has never been recorded or released.

Sep 21, 2009

Trifles Light as Air

Saw the Sellars Othello last night, and I must confess, it's dreadful--without music, as in his opera stagings, Sellars' stark, drained sub-naturalism just sits there, mostly minus shape or drama or rhythm. But I feel dutybound to report probably my favorite joint star sighting: Patti Smith hanging out with Ralph Fiennes at the interval. I don't know quite why, but there's something so-wrong-it's-right about that pairing.

Sep 18, 2009

Random Links

Last Joke of the Year

Courtesy of Jim Brochu:
Today begins the Jewish year of 5769. And it's the Chinese year of 4707. Which means for 1,062 years the Jews went without Chinese food.

Sep 17, 2009

Emilia, You're Breaking My Heart

Photo by Armin Bardel
I almost forgot to comment on this: In David Cote's Q&A with Peter Sellars re: his new Othello, now at the Skirball and starring those LAByrinth dudes, Sellars drops a rather big bombshell: He's spun a few lines of Iago's ("And it is thought abroad, that 'twixt my sheets/He has done my office", and "For that I do suspect the lusty Moor/Hath leap'd into my seat") into a real flesh-and-blood affair between Othello and Iago's wife, Emilia. So much for the enigma of Iago's motives. As Sellars puts it, with his signature breathlessness:
Suddenly, it’s totally human. It’s not abstract and celestial. And you see that Othello also mentions it, and that’s the shock. That’s Shakespeare’s point: Iago is not crazy, not paranoid, not insane. He’s human. And his best friend is having an affair with his wife. And so it creates this tension that is unbearable and finally, of course, explodes. Because violence is all about what can’t be talked about.

I can't find the reference he mentions, of Othello citing hanky-panky with Emilia. Can any Shakespeare scholars help me out here?

Not that the finer points of text would necessarily matter to Sellars. This is the guy who set Debussy's ethereal Pelleas et Melisande in a Malibu beach mansion and had a chorus of homeless men shuffle through (it was beautiful, actually); who set Figaro in Trump Tower and had Don Giovanni sing "Fin' chan al vino" while shooting up heroin. And of course the John Adams stuff, good (Nixon, El Nino) and bad (Dr. Atomic, Klinghoffer). In short, I've loved his work nearly as much as it's driven me crazy, and it's heartening to see that his often heedless, always heartfelt iconoclasm hasn't softened with age. No American director I admire walks the sometimes infuriating, often exhilarating line between genius and flake so well, and I wish we saw more of his work stateside.

And that distinctive flying-V hair only seems to have gotten more vertical as it's acquired more gray.

Bowie Meets Brecht, Part 1

I had long owned and enjoyed the LP soundtrack from the BBC's 1982 film of Brecht's Baal, not least because it interpolates a rendition of the Brecht-Weill "Drowned Girl" song alongside some sparkling Muldowney settings of vintage Brecht. Just today while chatting with a fellow Weill-head, I realized: Hey, maybe this stuff's on YouTube.

Sure enough, it is. Enjoy!

The Waters of Oblivion

I've got a soft spot for Peter, Paul & Mary. Yeah, I know now that they were a cobbled-together and commercialized facsimile of a "real" folk band, the kind of protest singers even Mitch Miller could love. And I don't care if I never hear "Puff the Magic Dragon" or "Lemon Tree" again--ugh. Still, ever since a hippie second cousin gave me his old LP of Album 1700, I've been more or less in. I later binged on PPM again during an obligatory high school folk phase (and you'd never guess whose record collection I plundered for its Leadbelly, Pete Seeger, etc.). I now like to think of vintage Mary Travers as the good-girl doppelganger of Nico, and though I'm not particularly into blondes, her vigorouos performance above is pretty savory. It also happens to be one of those timely/timeless, quasi-Biblical Dylan lyrics she's tearing into with her soulful soprano:
Too much of nothin' can make a man abuse a king
He can walk the streets and boast like most but he don't know a thing.
It's all been done before, it's all been written in the book.
But when it's too much of nothin', nobody should look.

Sep 16, 2009

TNC Keeps His Cool

Responding to righteous outrage at conservative race-baiting, the Atlantic's indispensable Ta-Nehisi Coates says he feels not rage or disgust. In fact, he says he feels "a little giddy":
Barack Obama, bourgeois in every way that bourgeois is right and just, will not dance. He tells kids to study--and they seethe. He accepts an apology for an immature act of rudeness--and they go hysterical. He takes his wife out for a date--and their veins bulge. His humanity, his ordinary blackness, is killing them. Dig the audio of his response to Kanye West--the way he says, "He's a jackass." He sounds like one of my brothers. And that's the point, because that's what he is. Barack Obama refuses to be their nigger. And it's driving them crazy.

It's about time.

Sep 15, 2009

But Will It Have Legs?

The LA Times has an eye-grabbing slide show from Berkeley Rep's preem of the American Idiot musical--sorry, "punk opera." (Pictured: Choreographer Steven Hoggett; photo by Lawrence K. Ho.)

Sep 14, 2009

The Color of Kitsch

This diverting LA Times profile of multi-hyphenate Allee Willis and her outsized kitsch collection, which has now become some kind of Internet social networking thingy to augment her "kitsch of the day" blog (of which the above is a choice sample), strangely fails to mention that this oddly cropped eccentric, whom one source memorably dubs "Martha Warhol," was also co-songwriter of the musical The Color Purple. Insert your own ultimate-kitsch joke here--except I happened to be one of the few critics who quite admired that underrated show (I was reviewing for, which has taken all its old reviews down).

The other thing the Times story made me think of is that kitsch and trinket collections are, if not a uniquely L.A. thing, then something greatly enabled by 1. more spacious living quarters and 2. the car. I can't tell you how many hours of impulsive yard-sale and used-record-store browsing I did in my salad days there (Aron's, we hardly knew ye!), nor how many irresistible car-hauled tchotchkes I shed before my cross-country move to NY in 2005. And it wasn't just the kitsch I happened to own that I remember fondly from L.A.: When I was a poor college grad, a visit here was nearly as good as a pass to LACMA.

Avenue $

Garrett Eisler of Playgoer notes an interesting facet of the just-announced Avenue Q re-transfer (its six-year run on Broadway will be followed by a move to Off-Broadway's New World Stages):

There is a little known clause in Actors Equity contracts that if a production "moves" to a smaller venue, actors must still be paid their original salaries. Broadway AEA salary-minimums are indeed higher than those Off-Broadway. So any of the actors who performed in the Broadway run (and I believe at any time in that run) are legally entitled to that same salary if the show transfers whole to New World Stages.

Note this would not be true in the case of a "revival", in other words a whole new production built from scratch. But if the "new" Avenue Q is judged by AEA to be the same production merely "transferred" then the rule should apply.

Of course, if the Q producers simply hire an all new cast...then I assume they can hire them at Off Broadway rates.

UPDATE: Well, whaddaya know: AEA bows to Avenue Q producers.

Sergant Moved to New Position at NEA

I didn't hear back from Yosi Sergant about the NEA/United We Serve conference call mini-controversy, and now I've learned why: He's been moved to a new position. As reported by Ryan Grim on HuffPo:
On August tenth, the National Endowment for the Arts participated in a call with arts organizations to inform them of the president's call to national service. The White House office of public engagement also participated in the call, which provided information on how the Corporation for National and Community Service can assist groups interested in sponsoring service projects or having their members volunteer on other projects. This call was not a means to promote any legislative agenda and any suggestions to that end are simply false. The NEA regularly does outreach to various organizations to inform of the work we are doing and the resources available to them.

...As regards Yosi Sergant, he has not left the National Endowment for the Arts. He remains with the agency, although not as director of communications.

I don't agree with Grim's spin--that after Van Jones, Sergant represents another scalp for the neo-McCarthyite Glenn Beck--but his report does indicate that NEA brass viewed the controversy, however thin its substance, as bad PR for the oft-besieged endowment ("Sources familiar with the situation say that the move represents a significant step down and was the result of the controversy," writes Grim), and since Sergant's job was PR, a personnel move makes some sense.

In other non-developments, another writer at Big Hollywood piles on to remind us that Kalpen Modi, director of the White House Office of Community Engagement, is an actor who has played a character who smokes drugs.

UPDATE: A grown-up has entered the discussion, and it is clarifying. The LA Times reports that Texas Republican John Cornyn has addressed an open letter to Obama on the matter. Since Cornyn is an elected official with some degree of accountability for what he says (as opposed to a TV hothead or a blogger), this is the best he can come up with (emphasis mine):
A reasonable observer would view the NEA's participation in the August 10 call as implying that NEA grant opportunities (i.e., taxpayer dollars) may be tied to artists' willingness to use their creative talents to advance your Administration's political agenda.

Well, no. It takes someone with an ax to grind to see it that way. Which is why I stand by the assertion that only a conspiracy theorist--not someone as unhinged from reality as a "birther" or a "truther," as my commenter Stage Right has suggested, just someone who reads beyond the obvious to intuit a dark, unspoken agenda--could see a few public conference calls for an innocuous public-service PR effort as akin to a talent search for the next Leni Riefenstahl. I'll concede here that it was ineffective PR, since the appearance of conflict of interest is finally indistinguishable in the court of public opinion from actual conflict of interest. But still, congressional hearings? Let me know when the stakes are this high.

A third earwitness to one of these nefarious conference calls comes forward, and thank Jesus it's the even-tempered Ian David Moss, who describes the Aug. 27 virtual huddle thus:
We were treated to highly charged partisan instructions like a reminder that any projects we upload should actually be uploaded twice — both on and on — so that community art endeavors would be visible within the larger pool of service projects and also collected in one place. Seriously, this is what the call was like. The closest it got to anything political was when a caller asked about the future of the Artist Corps initiative that was promised in Obama’s campaign platform (Modi responded that, while he “wanted to keep the call focused” on the United We Serve campaign, the Artist Corps concept is something that the administration still supports and wants to see happen).

That the wingnut right has jumped on this as further evidence of the new administration's alleged creeping statism is disgusting; as 99 Seats rightly notes, if fear of controversy effectively kills off the idea that artists, even publicly funded ones, should ever address current social issues and concerns, that would be deeply unfortunate. Indeed, if there's been any political direction at the NEA in my lifetime, it has been away from any hint of controversy.

And, to address my commenter Stage Right: To be clear, I don't accuse CultureGrrl herself of being a conspiracy theorist, since she only reported being "creeped out" by the phone call, and didn't see fit to make the Beckian leap into paranoid fantasyland. I did note, however, that nothing she reported has proven Courrielche's contention that the NEA is planning to depart from its charter and fund political art. In fact, CultureGrrl has helpfully clarified her position:
On that Aug. 27 conference call, the arts community was encouraged to participate in and promote good deeds that no one--left-wing or right-wing--could possibly have found objectionable or politically sensitive.

That said, I nevertheless object to the federal government's (and, especially, NEA's) trying to herd cats---the artistic community. NEA should not be involved in an attempt to get its constituents to participate in Presidential initiatives, no matter how laudable those public-service objectives may be. The agenda for the arts community should be generated from within the arts community and should not come down from the White House.

As for Glenn Beck's professed concern for "artistic freedom," we can only hope that extends to endorsing federal support--in the form of NEA grants--for unfettered artistic expression, with no political interference from the left or right in matters of content or manner of presentation.

I can't argue with that. I would only add my hope that "unfettered artistic expression" not only does not require but also doesn't preclude politically engaged art.

Oh, and yes: If you care about this, please write an actual snail-mail letter.

Sep 10, 2009

Better Late Than Never to Mad Men

It took us years to catch The Wire, and now our little household is finally immersing itself, Netflix-style, in Matthew Weiner's brilliant period series. (We're nearing the end of Season 1.) I have little to add to the widespread and deserved encomiums (encomia?) for the show, which is a pleasure to watch even when its narrative dawdles, except to offer some overdue praise for the letter-perfect taste of casting directors Laura Schiff and Carrie Audino. For a theater geek like me, one of the pleasures of watching well-cast TV shows is spotting favorite actors, and since Mad Men is shot in L.A. I've been pleasantly surprised to spot Bruno Oliver, Morgan Rusler, and, perhaps most satisfyingly, Allan Miller, who turned up as Rachel Menken's retail-mogul dad (above, with Maggie Siff as Rachel). (Not to mention, of course, that Sterling himself, John Slattery, was once a South Coast Rep stalwart, and starred there in the original Three Days of Rain.)

The casting fun goes both ways, of course, as Elisabeth Moss proved in her definitive turn in last year's Speed-the-Plow. And now it's been announced that the aforementioned Maggie Siff will star as Restoration dramatist Aphra Behn in Liz Duffy Adams' Or, for the Women's Project, opening Nov. 3 at the Julia Miles Theatre. (Bonus for me: erstwhile L.A. colleague and longtime Actors Theatre of Louisville staffer Wendy McClellan is directing). The Women's Project's other big announcement is next May's NY premiere of Sheila Callaghan's Lascivious Something (incidentally, commissioned but unlikely ever to be produced by South Coast Rep), which as yet boasts no TV stars (unless we count the playwright herself).

Sep 9, 2009

Walk This Way

Chris Wells always thinks big but I don't think he's ever gone this big: This coming Saturday, Sept. 14, the former Actors Gang star and founder of the secular "artist's church" Secret City (which I wrote about here) is hosting what he calls the Manhattan Wonderwalk--a day-long trek from the Cloisters to the Brooklyn Bridge, with lectures and performances and diversions along the way. I'm not sure where or when our stroller will be able meet up with the Wonderwalkers, but for $10 (to raise funds for the Secret City) this seems like a no-brainer.

Sep 8, 2009

Picture of the Day

Michele Mais, a.k.a. "Maisey," as Justice in Rock of Ages. I first saw her in Cornerstone's Magic Tricks, staged in an abandoned store in the Baldwin Hills/Crenshaw Plaza in 1998.

Sep 7, 2009

And So It Goes

Kurt Vonnegut explains drama:
Because we grew up surrounded by big dramatic story arcs in books and movies, we think our lives are supposed to be filled with huge ups and downs! So people pretend there is drama where there is none.

That's why people invent fights. That's why we're drawn to sports. That's why we act like everything that happens to us is such a big deal.

We're trying to make our life into a fairy tale.

RTWT. (h/t Mead)

Sep 5, 2009

"Abandoned Like the Bones at a Barbecue"

Terry Teachout looks back instructively to another media upheaval and its casualties: the radio-to-TV switch, which happened aguably more brutally and quickly than the print-to-web switch is shaking down today. His takeaway:
Network TV lost vast amounts of money in its early years. It was only because the existing ­radio networks were willing to subsidize TV that it survived—leaving CBS and NBC at the top of the heap in the '50s and '60s, just as they had been in the '30s and '40s. The old media of today have a similar chance to prosper tomorrow if they can survive the heavy financial losses that they're incurring while they develop workable new-media business models.

Established radio performers such as Benny and Hope, who embraced TV on its own visually oriented terms, flourished well into the '60s. Everyone else—­including Fred Allen—vanished into the dumpster of entertainment history. The same fate awaits contemporary old-media figures unwilling to grapple with the challenge of the new media, no matter how popular they may be today.

Americans of all ages ­embraced TV unhesitatingly. They felt no loyalty to network radio, the medium that had entertained and informed them for a quarter-century. When something came along that they deemed superior, they switched off their radios without a second thought. That's the biggest lesson taught by the new-media crisis of 1949. Nostalgia, like guilt, is a rope that wears thin.

The lessons for newspapers and established media companies (and writers and editors and producers, as well): adoption outpaces monetization, but it will catch up. Hang in, invest, and adapt or help yourself to the sour grapes.

Sep 4, 2009

Sep 3, 2009

"Heartbreak" in Queens

Pamela Segall and Laurel Green in Heartbreak Help, Cast Theatre, Hollywood, 1996. Photo by Ed Krieger.

Some of my happiest theatregoing days came in the mid-1990s at Hollywood's tiny Cast Theatre, watching the deft slacker comedies of Justin Tanner, which at their best--and they were seldom less than very good--played a bit like a poppier, less lugubrious, California-fried Mike Leigh. Zombie Attack and Pot Mom were his long-running hits (and no, I'm not the only who thinks the creators of Weeds owe Justin a percentage), but my favorites were Teen Girl and Happytime Xmas. The high point of Tanner-mania was an eight-play repertory extravaganza that ran for months in the fall of 1994. I saw nearly all of them at least twice. I later had the chance to work with and get to know him as part of the Evidence Room's late-night serial The Strip, and Tanner's uncomfortably autobiographical Oklahomo! was the last play I saw in L.A. before my move to NY in 2005 (it will return as a late-night offering at the Celebration this fall, I've heard).

The struggle of his fans in the 1990s--my internal struggle, at least--was to appreciate that what he was doing at the Cast was an end in itself, and thus worth wallowing in while it lasted, which is why I returned so frequently to that welcoming beer garden. But it was hard to resist the feeling that "success" meant productions elsewhere, and indeed Tanner has made some stabs outside his backyard. There have been a number of NY readings, and longtime fan and muse Laurie Metcalf did get Pot Mom done at Steppenwolf. But Tanner remains mostly unknown outside of L.A.

One sign that might be changing: On Sept. 24, the Astoria Performing Arts Center in Queens is doing a staged reading of Heartbreak Help, Tanner's warm four-hander about a women's spiritual retreat in Joshua Tree, which in its original production starred Pamela Segall (yes, the voice of Bobby Hill) along with longtime Tanner regulars Laurel Green and Ellen Ratner.

I'm going to try to make that reading. And it got me thinking: Which New York theater would be a good fit for Tanner? His sensibility falls somewhere roughly between Adam Rapp and Nicky Silver; he may not seem edgy enough for Rattlestick, but he may be too gritty for Second Stage. It would take a place like Playwrights Horizons or the Vineyard or the New Group to go out on a limb and produce him.

In an ideal world, of course, the Signature Theatre would be doing a season of his work. But a reading in Queens is a start.

And Now for Something Completely Different

I love that even a monosyllabic Neanderthal puppet can call out a bad pun.

The NEA/United We Serve Call, Ctd.

So another journalist, Arts Journal's CultureGrrl, reports that she was similarly creeped out by a recent United We Serve conference call--not the same one that Patrick Courrielche questioned last week, in a tendentious blog post on the right-wing Big Hollywood site, but with a similar tenor. She writes that the call was initiated and led by Kalpen Modi, associate director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, and that Modi "sought to rally the artworld troops behind President Obama's call for Americans to engage in public service." She goes on:
It's a worthwhile objective, to be sure. But government exhortations for artists to join the United We Serve brigade makes me more than a little uneasy. Many, if not most, of our most important and influential artists and cultural institutions are impelled by self-driven creative imperatives, not external political ones. That's the way it SHOULD be.

She reports on the call:
During last week's conference call (on which I was a lurker, after a waiting period rendered nearly unendurable by our being a captive audience for three clunkers from Kenny G's "Greatest [or Worst] Hits" album), there was much talk of finding ways to "get the arts community engaged in a sustainable way" and "leveraging federal dollars" to get artists and cultural organizations involved in social-service projects.

Americans for the Arts, whose president, Robert Lynch, played a leading role during the conference call, has launched a United We Serve arts website, where you can "share your story" on how "arts make change happen." Among the highlights: "The Ultimate Happy Hour at Gap, Inc." and the "United We Serve Arts Idea Kit."

Interestingly, she adds that Modi started the call by saying that his colleagues from the NEA and the NEH (the National Endowment for the Humanites) were "tied up in meetings and couldn't participate, as had been planned." She asks: "Could it be they were having second thoughts about commandeering their constituents for this political adventure? We can only hope so."

Please. While these conference calls do sound genuinely cringe-worthy and bone-crushingly boring, only a conspiracy theorist could believe that a public conference call with communications flacks from federal agencies talking about "raising awareness" of "social service" projects portends a freedom-crushing Dept. of Propaganda. Again, Courrielche has provided no evidence that the NEA plans to depart from its charter and fund anything political; a guy from the endowment inviting artists to participate in the United We Serve program is a separate thing.

Now you may, like a certain constituency on the right, feel that the White House's calls to civic service are an effort to indoctrinate a new Hitler Youth and/or to create some kind of civilian army to take away Granny's guns along with her Medicare. It makes perfect sense, then, that Courrielche has taken his case to the court of the half-wit moonbat Glenn Beck:

(My favorite quote is Courrielche's: "Big Hollywood is an art community." Well, that's one way to put it.) Not to get into the weeds here, but the excerpt of the conference call played in that clip, with its allegedly ominous talk of finding "safe" legal language in which to have this "brand-new conversation," seems to be about finding a legal framework for putting government initiatives on Facebook and Twitter--a portion of the conversation that Courrielche conveniently left out of his story, and which is arguably a different matter than the sort of sinister extra-legal conspiracy to subvert the NEA's charter he was implying.

That said, I still haven't heard back from Yosi Sergant at the NEA regarding this matter. I'll keep trying and let you know what I find out.

Sep 2, 2009

Race on Broadway

I don't just mean the new Mamet play with that title, coming in December. I've noticed something else about the upcoming Broadway season: A striking number of productions, culminating with Mamet's, deal with the specter of black-white racial tension. And all of them are written by white authors.


1. Tracy Letts' Superior Donuts, which follows a white donut-shop owner in a gentrifying black neighborhood in Chicago.

2. Ragtime, returning after only a dozen years off the Main Stem. As many have already noted of this Washington, D.C.-originated revival, this musical seems to resound even more strongly and bittersweetly in the age of Obama.

3. The musical Memphis, by Bon Jovi's David Bryan and Joe DiPietro (the Toxic Avenger team), which intertwines the town's landmark status as a civil rights hotbed and the cradle of early rock 'n' roll with an interracial love story.

4. Finian's Rainbow, whose main plot isn't about race per se but whose commercial prospects have always been a question mark in large part because of the weird subplot involving a white Southern Senator, a racist who is magically turned black—though the current production has cast two actors of each race to portray this transformation, in the past it was often done in blackface. And in any case, this subplot is part of the show's larger satire of backwards American attitudes.

5. And finally, Mamet's Race, which will be certain to put an exclamation point on this mini-trend.

Outliers and exceptions include Fela!, Bill T. Jones' show about the African musical icon, and the Dreamgirls revival, coming not to Broadway but to Harlem's Apollo Theatre. (And if the long-threatened White Noise, a musical about a white supremacist pop group, ever makes it to Broadway, this would only add to the count of shows about race from white authors*.)

This glut of shows-about-race comes amid a relatively good year for black theater artists overall, at least Off-Broadway: The show of the year has inarguably been Lynn Nottage's endlessly extending and Pulitzer-winning Manhattan Theatre Club hit Ruined. And such major upcoming productions as Lincoln Center's Brokeology and the Tarell Alvin McCraney Brother/Sister trilogy are nothing to sneeze at.

The larger backdrop is that a few months ago our first black president and his wife attended August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone on Broadway. More recently, though, the promise of a post-racial era wilted a bit, with the Skip Gates incident and with some of the more extreme criticisms of the president (the ridiculous Glenn Beck “racist” flap). Obviously race is a topic about which we’re still too easily worked up, and coincidentally—since none of these works, except perhaps Mamet’s, were written with the current political climate explicitly in mind—and quite improbably, the Great White Way is offering a through-the-looking-glass reflection of this odd, querulous racial moment.

*I originally wrote that White Noise has no black folks in it at all, which it didn't when I saw it a few years ago. A commenter has set me straight: It's been rewritten to include four black characters.

Signs of the Times

I'm not proud of feeling it--that familiar blend of paranoia and schadenfreude engendered by the spectacle of the so-called "Tea Parties" and the astroturfed town hall meetings on health care reform--but I troll Media Matters out of morbid interest as much as the next guy to get my occasional Fox-froth fix. (Speaking seriously, and optimistically, I think this carny-sideshow approach may have won Republicans a few news cycles but may end up costing them the larger battle.) But I couldn't resist this gallery by Jonathan Ligon (you have to log in to Facebook to see it), in which the recurring joke is that xenophobes and English-language-only advocates seem to have a self-discrediting habit of misspelling. The photo above, though, is something else entirely--proof that maybe there really is some creative thinking left on the right. UPDATE: Just as I posted this, I saw some serious Turing news. Amen to that. (h/t Daily Dish)

Sep 1, 2009

Up Is Down...

...when the Adorno-hugging George Hunka links approvingly to an article on the Limbavian fever swamp that is Big Hollywood.

I'm looking deeper into this as I write, but the facts so far are this: Filmmaker/marketer Patrick Courrielche was invited to participate in a conference call on Aug. 10 by Yosi Sergant, the NEA's communications director, to talk about involving artists in the United We Serve program, a volunteer initiative of the White House that seems pretty unimpeachably decent and civic-spirited, and whose agenda is described in pretty anodyne language: "to help lay a new foundation for growth, focusing on core areas of the recovery agenda - health care, energy and environment, safety and security, education, community renewal.” The email invite goes on to say: "It is time for us as artists, producers, promoters, organizers, influencers, marketers, tastemakers, leaders or just plain, cool people to join together and work together to promote a more civically engaged America and celebrate how the arts can be used for positive change!"

Though the email invite clearly came from Sergant's office, the NEA is mentioned only as a co-host of the call*, and Courrielche shows no proof that the NEA steered the discussion or plans in any way to direct resources to a specific policy agenda. At most, he shows that the p.r. guy for the NEA was part of a conversation about how artists can get involved with United We Serve, a program run by the Corporation for National and Community Service, and he accordingly invited artists to join him. That may sound a little too cozy, perhaps, but it's a far cry from demonstrating that the National Endowment for the Arts is planning to fund art to advance the government's agenda.

But, in a touch worthy of Glenn Beck, Courrielche closes by quoting, but not attributing, what he says is the call's wrap-up salutation (italics his), "This is just the beginning. This is the first telephone call of a brand new conversation. We are just now learning how to really bring this community together to speak with the government. What that looks like legally?…bare [sic] with us as we learn the language so that we can speak to each other safely…"

For the record, obviously the NEA shouldn't be in the business of funding art that advances the political agenda of its funders, and I would be opposed to any policy that did so, explicitly or tacitly. I do wonder, though, why Courrielche is the only participant in the conference call to have come forward to talk about it, and I further wonder why he produces just one apparently damning quote from the entire call.

There's more to find out here. I've put in a call to Yosi Sergant to ask about the NEA's involvement in United We Serve, and to find out what else was covered in the conference call. Stay tuned for more.

*Until Hunka's comment corrected me, I mistakenly wrote that the NEA wasn't referred to in the body of the email.

Photo Challenge

Name this couple. (Hint: It's a Shakespeare production at the Goodman some time in the last century.)