Jul 31, 2012

My Three Uncles

Blanchett and McElhinny in the Sydney Theatre Company production; photo by Lisa Tomasetti

So I've now seen three Uncle Vanyas in as many months. Which takes the gold? If you count length of run as a measure of success, Soho Rep's Annie Baker/Sam Gold version, which has been extended through the end of August, is the clear winner. On the other hand, if you count how far a production has traveled, then the Sydney Theatre Company production, recently in town as part of the Lincoln Center Festival, clearly takes the prize. Target Margin's odd meta-take, which I saw in May, would win only in the first-out-of-the-gate category.

I should preface remarks about my own response to this triptych by saying that while Chekhov's rueful comedy may be my favorite play, as I've mentioned before, and though I've aired my dissatisfaction with the Soho Rep production, I honestly don't feel like I have a dog in the how-Chekhov-should-be-done derby: I get what my colleagues David Cote and Jason Zinoman are saying—roughly speaking, the argument is whether Chekhov's plays are nuanced, layered dramas of everyday disappointment or rip-roaring Russian comedies of passion and excess—but at the risk of copping out of the argument, I'll just say that I've seen enough productions of his plays to be an agnostic on the question. If I take anything away from these three wildly various Vanyas, not to mention the furious, punk-rock Seagull I saw in Moscow in April (which would give purists of any camp conniptions), it is that Chekhov's plays are not fragile, delicate hothouse flowers; they can take, and deserve, a wide range of interpretations.

In fact, what I think has been overlooked in the discussion of this recent spate of Vanyas, and in particular, in comparisons between the Baker/Gold version and the Sydney version (directed by Tamás Ascher from an adaptation by Andrew Upton), is that neither of these two is a stuffy, traditional samovar-and-cravats approach. Both strive for a kind of faithfulness to the text, certainly, but one is set at a vaguely 1940s, possibly-Australian outpost, while the other is set in a kind of casual-contemporary attic limbo. Neither is "traditional," as was the one I was part of in L.A. years ago.

But yes, these two can stand in as case studies for either side of the century-old argument about whether Chekhov's plays are primarily comedies or dramas, ruminative or raucous (while Target Margin's made its own modest case for deconstruction/experimentation). Again, that we have this debate at all signifies to me that the answer is, of course, they are both. They are capacious plays with both grand architecture and fine filigrees; they can be played broad and played tiny. I can think of no better argument for remaining open to interpretation than the Malle/Gregory film of the Mamet adaptation, Vanya on 42nd Street, which makes a quiet, no-frills case for both the humor and the pathos; it gets the rumination and fine-grained behavioral observation without losing the larger shape of the piece.

And that's, finally, what I responded to most in the Ascher/Upton production, apart from some of its undeniable pleasures (which would include, yes, Cate Blanchett's deliberate yet disarmingly messy take on Yelena, as well as Richard Roxburgh's angry-turned-catatonic-clown Vanya): that it revealed the shape of the play as much as its component parts. I can imagine, in theory, the value of being so immersed in the play that you can't see or feel its edges, and I think that's what the Baker/Gold version aspired to (and seemed to achieve, I should hasten to add, for the large majority of critics); and it's possible that some of the problems I had with the Baker/Gold version were simply a matter of the technical difficulties I alluded to here.

But I do think that discerning or guessing at a play's larger shape and movement while remaining alive to each moment as it happens is not only part of the satisfaction of theater, which is both a performative and literary art; it is also very close to life as it's experienced. We don't invariably live in the moment, and we don't experience life as simply a series of events, unless we have a serious dissociative disorder; we make narrative, we infer and/or impose meanings on events, we plan and perform rituals and routines, we daydream. One of the joys of a play is that it reflects these experiences within a dramatic shape, and the unique joy of Chekhov is that he seems to have found ways to conjure these experiences more directly, without shaping his plays into rigid plot forms. But they do have shapes and rhythms, and it was clear from the moment Sandy Gore's Maria Vasilyevna blew in to pick a fight with any takers (Roxburgh's Vanya being only her most obvious target) that Ascher's production crucially understood the play as a series of arguments between bored, dissatisfied people—arguments some were spoiling for, some were at pains to avoid, and still others didn't even realize they were in.

This conflict-driven interpretation fired the whole evening, even the scenes of ostensible comity, as in the risky choice to play the Sonya/Yelena reconciliation as a giggly, vodka-fueled slumber party (a bridge too far for me, actually, and a bad sign for Hayley McElhinney's Sonya, who was far too much the needy, grabby child for my taste; if you wanted to point to a casualty of Ascher's high-pitched approach, it would be his Sonya, though she rallied by the end).

Ultimately, my reaction to the Sydney Vanya was closest to Scott Brown's: bracing but not definitive, with occasional and forgivable lapses of taste. I liked Zinoman's tart observation that "an Uncle Vanya with no trace of vulgarity betrays the work," though this is hardly a deficiency of the Baker/Gold version, which envisions the Vanya/Astrov drunk scene as a fratty, pants-optional romp; that production's problem isn't too much reverence or decorum, by any stretch. And though I ended up responding more to the Upton/Ascher version than to those of Baker/Gold and Target Margin, I'm heartened enough by this outbreak of diverging Chekhovs in New York to suggest that, far from feeling glutted, my appetite is only whetted for more, and not just merrier, productions.

Jul 27, 2012

Friday on the Links

Jul 23, 2012

Doers Vs. Watchers

On HowlRound today, Sherri Kronfeld brings fresh passion and (seeming) common sense to an age-old debate (or at least one that's been raging as long I've been in the arts journalism racket). Essentially:
Why aren’t there more theater practitioners among theater critics? Why is ours one of the rare fields—unlike sports, books, economics, etc—where esteemed practitioners can’t comment on each other’s work? In fact aren’t they the best people to do this?...Why should theater practitioners only write about theater in the most oblique ways, and on blogs? I want Adam Rapp to review the next Stephen Adly Guirgis play, and in the damn New York Times (if he wants to). I want a busily working lighting designer (too many to name) to review plays in Lighting and Sound America. And no, I do not think it’s a conflict of interest. I think it would be a celebration of the art form we’ve dedicated our lives to. Why, in theater only, is enthusiastic advocacy and lifelong experience viewed as a conflict of interest?
In response I could cite my own previous thoughts about sometime practitioner/critic John Lahr, roughly to the effect that this line of thinking hugely undervalues the role of the seasoned aficionado (and Matthew Freeman's related thoughts); I could mention my colleague David Cote at Time Out, who's been a practitioner before and is dipping back into it; or WSJ's Terry Teachout, former jazz bassist, now part-time playwright. I stand by all that (and I'll use this opportunity, again, to plug my favorite piece ever on the purpose of criticism). I can add that I agree in part with Kronfeld's point; I'd like to see the conflict-of-interest canard challenged more vigorously, and I for one would like to read more intra-theatrical dialogue, something we definitely encourage at American Theatre, where we frequently publish practitioner/journalists. I'd like to do my part to break down the wall on the editorial side of this impasse, and pieces like Kronfeld's serve as good reminders that we have further to go on that score.

But the resistance of editors and publishers is not the whole story here; artists also have an aversion to practicing criticism in the public square. Some of that is for entirely self-interested and political reasons, the old don't-shit-where-you-eat conundrum. But I would argue that it goes deeper than that, and that there are practical and personal reasons you don't see more crossover. In my own experience as a full-time arts journalist/critic and sometime theater composer/musician, I can say that the cliché about the "inner critic" is entirely true; it is surpassingly hard to shut off one's evaluative, analytical mind at will when trying to be creative, and vice versa. It's a switch that most artists worth their salt don't flip back and forth lightly, and I can say that putting an emphasis on one over the other, in my own case, has had its costs.

And these costs aren't just internal; they're also eminently practical. Arts journalism is a trade and a craft (if increasingly a tough career), and not only are there are only so many brain compartments into which one can file critical and creative thoughts; there are only so many hours in a day. Kronfeld alludes to this issue but I don't think she quite gives it the weight it deserves. She quotes playwright Jason Grote, who used to do a fair amount of theater journalism and blogging, as to why he doesn't do that anymore:
“I never had a problem with writing for The Brooklyn Rail or American Theater—but everyone else seemed to. I’d just ignore stuff I didn’t like or wasn’t interested in, and offer something closer to analysis than criticism. But I stopped, mostly because of burnout, but also because many people didn’t seem to understand ‛what I was’—I felt forced to choose between thinker and artist.”
To the extent that Grote means he felt external pressure to fit into one career box or another, that's lamentable; I think that kind of prejudice about job description should be set aside as much as possible. But I think Kronfeld underestimates the extent to which that choice between thinking and doing, reflecting and creating, is a genuine artistic crossroads. The folks who can keep straddling those two roads without strain are few; heck, the list of folks who can do either playwriting or criticism well is short enough.

Speaking as an editor, I'd love nothing more than to publish eminent playwrights' writing about their peers; who wouldn't? But I understand why I get vastly more pitches from people who've dedicated themselves to writing about theater than from people who are busy doing it.

Most Revelatory Bloggingheads Ever?

This frank diavlog between self-confessed media manipulator Ryan Holiday and Fark.com's Drew Curtis about how the media business really works in the age of HuffPo and Gawker is alternately depressing and hopeful, cynical and bracingly clear-minded. Bottom line: It's going to get worse before it gets better, but it will (probably) get better. If you look at the Internet at all, the whole thing is worth watching, but I was particularly struck by this back-and-forth about the mark of the worst kind of link-baiting, faux-provocative bad journalism: the question-mark headline.

Jul 20, 2012

Quote for the Day

"Solitude seems to oppress me. And so does the company of other people." -Berenger in Ionesco's Rhinoceros

Jul 18, 2012

Who Makes a Play?

Maybe because it was the first speech at the opening plenary of the recent TCG conference, maybe because it was more sobering nuts-and-bolts than rousing stump speech, maybe even because it offered a somewhat challenging if nuanced point of view to a field that had many other topics and agendas pressing on its mind for the week—whatever the reason, Woolly Mammoth a.d. Howard Shalwitz's speech, "Theatrical Innovation: Whose Job Is It?", hasn't yet gotten the wide play and discussion I think it deserves. Now that the full text is up on the TCG blog, I hope it does. To me it reads as a patient, clear-minded, and quietly urgent wake-up call for American theaters seeking ways to be at once aesthetically daring and beloved by audiences, both humane and rigorous in their process, both artist-centered and institutionally sound.

Shalwitz starts with European theater as a jumping-off point of comparison, but not before getting past the familiar they-have-funding-and-long-traditions-of-respect-for-artists-and-we-don't refrain:
At first I was tempted to dismiss the work I saw in Poland—and later in Bulgaria, Hungary, and Russia—by saying to myself that their tradition is more Brechtian while ours is Aristotelian, they have a director-driven culture while ours is playwright-driven, they get more government funding so they can rehearse longer and aren’t so dependent on the box office, they sustain whole companies of artists while we have more of a freelance culture.

But the more work I saw, the more it became impossible not to be envious of a few things: first, that the variety of different kinds of work on their stages seemed wider; second, that it all felt like new theatre whether the script was new or old; third, that every play felt like an exuberant civic event because of the way the actors owned the material and seemed to be sharing it as an ensemble with the audience; and finally, that the audiences were noticeably younger than American audiences.
I won't steal all his thunder, but what Shalwitz goes on to explore is a way America's institutional theaters can strive toward these goals without becoming European state-run theaters, in part by becoming production developers as much as play developers, and by extending responsibility for and ownership of the art on the stage beyond the playwright's silo to everyone in the company (and to somehow do so without turning the creative process into a free-falling free-for-all).

It's not a silver bullet or a universally applicable program, and Shalwitz does pause to acknowledge that many small ensembles in the U.S. have been and are doing just the kind of European-style innovating and young-audience-building he covets (Nature Theater of Oklahoma, Rude Mechs, Pig Iron, Neo-Futurists are just a few names that come to my mind). But I remain extremely impressed by the way Shalwitz manages to tie together so many of the daunting challenges theaters face in the 21st century: audience engagement and retention, new play development, the divide between artists' and institutions' priorities and needs, the ongoing search for theater's purpose and relevance in a digital age.

These are not easy topics; indeed, they're so big that each one could practically spawn a conference all its own. Credit to Shalwitz, then, for seeing a practitioners' way through some of these thistly questions, and for teasing out their fundamental interdependence.

Jul 16, 2012

Celeste Holm, R.I.P.

On Masterpieces and Magellan

How can you tell a masterpiece? It may be harder to recognize or even make them now, in an age of single-song downloads, longform episodic TV narrative, and multi-year film franchises; we seem to live in a time in which we expect to prolong good things, if not quite great things, in dribs and drabs over months and years, and for our art and entertainment to accumulate the lived-in familiarity of beloved friends rather than the life-shattering impact of a brilliant stranger whose arrival makes us quit our job, move across the country, or otherwise rearrange our lives around what's left after the shattering.

Apart from its aesthetic and experiential qualities, this doling out of cultural product can be a fine way to create economies of scale and amortize production costs, not to mention employ artists in an ongoing way (more or less) doing the work they love (more or or less) without the pressure of making The Best Thing That's Ever Been Made. And it's not a bad bargain for audiences, either: It's a lot easier, and in many ways more sane and humane, to live in a world where we all manage to find our groove, our tastes, and go on about curating our Netflix queue and our Spotify playlists (and, if we're of a certain age, order our subscription seasons of theater and the symphony). I mean, how many life-changing, conversion-level experiences do we have space and time for our in our lives? Maybe no more than we have for falling in love.

These thoughts have been stirred by the arrival this past week of the new Dirty Projectors album, Swing Lo Magellan, which has hit me with a force I wasn't prepared for, despite my having loved their last two records, Rise Above and Bitte Orca. Those records felt like tangible, irreversible leaps forward for art pop; lead Projector Dave Longstreth essentially uses the standard rock quartet, plus an indispensable complement of harmony singers for which the term "backup" is entirely inadequate, to compose music as dense but delightful as the best music ever written for bands, from Mozart to Ellington to Zeppelin.

Now, if one measure of great art is that it not only seduces us at first acquaintance but holds up to further, even seemingly infinite examination, the trick with a clever, almost freakishly talented artist like Longstreth has been to strike the balance between immediate appeal and embedded intricacy; we won't stick around to tease out the layers of a complicated work if it doesn't tease us a little into loving it first. These are matters of taste, but for me that balance was struck beautifully on Rise Above and in particular on the sweeping Bitte Orca, which included both a faux R&B single, "Stillness Is the Move," that could be danced to without a sprain, as well as the abstruse but uncannily exuberant time-signature clusterfuck "Temecula Sunrise":

I was prepared for more unsettling brilliance of that sort with the new record, and for the slight but entirely pleasing effort of appreciation that goes with it—more brain-tickling, and occasional booty-shaking; more nourishing headphone snacks for my commute. Instead, what floors me about Swing Lo Magellan is that Longstreth has somehow managed to make a record that's both instantly lovable, light and smiling as a summer breeze, and deeply, inexhaustibly beautiful. He's broken that delicate balancing act in half like a twig; he's turned the dial way up on both the treble of pop sweetness and the bass of compositional complexity and met us in the mid-range. The center holds, and at the moment it feels to me like the center of the universe.

Apologies for the hyperbole, but this is why I started this post with thoughts on masterpieces and their rarity; I haven't fallen for a record this hard for decades, I don't think. Individual songs, yes (cf. Tom Waits' "Hell Broke Luce"), and more recently much of the output of certain artists (Rufus Wainwright, Midlake, Janelle Monae, Alabama Shakes, Fleet Foxes). Indeed, I can't even recall the last work in any medium that's knocked me out like this; since I barely see movies or read books anymore, I have little to say there, but obviously I see plenty of theater, and the last plays I felt could be called masterpieces were probably August: Osage County and Circle Mirror Transformation. Obviously, on the small screen The Wire is an inarguable gold standard, though its greatness is attenuated by some thin narrative strands in ways that make it hard for me to consider it—or any great series, even Buffy the Vampire Slayer—a masterpiece in toto.

I have no such misgivings about Swing Lo Magellan, not a note of which is out of place. I would love to take apart several songs and demonstrate its world-shaking significance, and perhaps I will in future blog posts. For now I simply want to leave you with three choice tunes that I hope give an indication what I'm so excited about.

1. "Gun Has No Trigger" is the closest the record may have to a pop single, mainly because it's got an uninterrupted 4/4 drum track and a standard pop structure; that it's catchy as hell is another bonus (although one step Longstreth mostly hasn't made as a songwriter, for all his growth as a melodist, is to deliver great, full choruses; instead, as before, he largely tends to write long, verse-like structures that climax with a "chorus" that's simply the title line repeated). I would just point out a few things that send me over the moon about the song, apart from the way its ominous minor key gives way to a soaring major, and then to the surging one-line chorus.

First, there's the way Longstreth fills the first two phrases of the verse differently each time, not randomly or sloppily but in a way that makes each version haunt the other with unsung notes and dials up the song's insinuating, eerie tone. The first time he sings (at :21), "If you had looked, you might have just seen them/Stretched in the background," and then there's just a lacuna of unfilled-in beats. Next time he fills them in (at 1:21), "If you had looked, you'd be no one's coward/Distance, justice, power," and those two extra syllables of "power" have, well, a lot of power, because there were no notes in that space before. Finally, third time around, amping up a conversational, even confrontational tone (at 2:20): "If you had looked, you might reconsider/Or just maybe you already have." Chills.

That's worth listening for, as is the tiny but significant two-note slip Longstreth includes twice in every verse, in which for a passing moment he changes the chord from major to minor; it happens on "background" at :33, "colors" at :53, on "justice" at 1:32, "master" at 1:52...You'll get the idea. These tiny details shouldn't matter on first listen, and they certainly won't mean anything if you don't find this song as immediately compelling as I did, but they are there and they are very satisfying:

2. Then there's the title tune, which is just heartbreakingly beautiful and which seems to owe a lot, both in writing and arrangement, to Dylan's not-quite-fully-electric sound on "Bringing It All Back Home." It's there in the skittering drums, the bright alternating chords on guitar, in Longstreth's relaxedly leaping vocal; there are even ghosts of Dylan melodies here (just listen to the words "to the naked eye" and tell me you don't hear a faint jingle-jangle following you).

3. God, there are so many more songs worth mentioning: Amber Coffman's breakout vocal solo on "The Socialites," which is 20 times the faux R&B single that "Stillness" was; the unspeakably gorgeous, Kid A-meets-Graceland ode "See What She Seeing"; the Elvis-at-Sun-Records-reverb beauty of the album's perfect closer, "Irresponsible Tune"; the lovely dance between chiming, spraying guitar and angelic vocals on "Just From Chevron"; the cathartic whipsaw turns of the opening track, "Offspring Are Blank"; the sprawling, free-timed "Maybe That Was It"; the disarmingly, earnestly goofy "Dance for You"; the openhearted sweetness of "Impregnable Question."

But I'll leave you with "About To Die," which may be most typical song on an album that manages to be both stylistically diverse and unified in sound. This is the sound of Swing Lo Magellan in a bright, glittering nutshell: a melody line with a sneaky but catching shifting meter, in counterpoint with bright, jewel-like guitar chords, while Brian McOmber's percussion clatters and chatters ahead to the ecstatic chorus, where Longstreth's stretchy, soulful melisma is met with the celestial, limber harmonies of Amber Coffman and Haley Dekle. There's even a short surf over some low strings that evokes "Village Ghettoland" (at 2:27).

In short, it's the "Fixing a Hole" of Swing Lo Magellan, which, as you may be unsurprised to learn, I'm quite ready to include my personal pantheon with Sgt. Pepper's (actually, can I change that to Rubber Soul?), Imperial Bedroom, and John Wesley Harding (whose cover, by the way, I kind of think Swing Lo's may be obliquely riffing on). I'm meeting this masterpiece head on.

(cross-posted from Train My Ear)

Jul 9, 2012

Monday Out of the Gate

A few unrelated links and observations to start the week:
  • Wisdom from the august Gus Schulenburg on how not to be a dick on the Intertubes (some warnings of which I could heed better).
  • The actual class struggle worth talking about in re: TCG's recent conference.
  • Drollest line in Charles McNulty's great round table with L.A.'s small theater machers: "Note was made of the passage from Gordon Davidson to Michael Ritchie at Center Theatre Group and the effect this has had on L.A.'s theatrical ecology." Indeed.
  • Nothing became this New York native like the leaving of it. (Seriously, great post, J.— do my old hometown proud.)
  • The wife and I are belatedly catching up with the first season of Louie. I haven't read widely on it, but am I the only one who vastly prefers the scripted scenes to his standup?
  • I'm a mild Sleep No More skeptic but I still found this feature and slide show on interactive theater relatively thrilling, even heartening.

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.