The Playgoer: May 2006

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Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Only in Canada...

Theatre as the site of grassroots social protest? Check out what's in store for the opening night of the elite Stratford Festival up north...

The groups have said they are targetting Stratford's black tie event because the opening night gala usually draws both prominent government officials and business and community leaders, "a Who's Who of the rich and vile," according to a notice on the OCAP [Ontario Coalition Against Poverty] website.

They also picked the Shakespearean festival because it receives funding from the Ontario government. According to a festival spokesperson, government grants contributed four per cent of Stratford's 2006 budget, with 78 per cent coming from box office and ancillary revenues, 16 per cent from fundraising and two per cent from its endowment foundation.

While we in the US envy the kind of committed state subsidy that makes a such major repertory theatre enterprise possible, here's a glimpse of the dark side: protesting arts funding from the populist left. A new spin on the "elitism" rap, which we're used to hearing from the likes of Newt Gingrich.

Well at least it sounds like theatre matters there. I mean, it's Coriolanus!
According to a release posted on various websites, the demonstration aims to shut down or otherwise disrupt Monday's opening night performance of Coriolanus, which stars Colm Feore and Martha Henry.

Colm Fiore does rock, I must say, so I admit to feeling conflicted!

And what better play to serve as a backdrop to class conflict. Gunter Grass couldn't have written a better scenario.

Houghton to Juilliard

CORRECTION: Signature now confirms to me that Houghton remains the Artistic Director there. So disregard anything below to the contrary. And Playgoer apologizes for rushing to that conclusion.

Somehow I missed this last month, but if you were ever wondering what ever happened to James Houghton after his mysterious "temporary" leave from his Signature Theatre Company
and his even more mysterious departure from the O'Neill Playwrights Center... he's now going to run the Juilliard Drama Division. (More here and here.) He will succeed the ubiquitous Michael Kahn, who will now content himself with only running the Shakespeare Theatre in DC.

That Houghton's background has been primarily working with playwrights makes him a good fit for the Juilliard playwriting program I suppose--although that's already run by two actual writers, Chris Durang and Marsha Norman. That he hasn't been known as either a teacher of acting or as a man of the classics, though, makes him an odd choice for this particular institution whose main theatre reputation rests on the young Shakespearean thespians it puts out.

Maybe Juilliard cared less about pedagogic and stylistic appropriateness than the fundraising power of a big name. But they couldn't find a bigger name than Jim Houghton??? If even Juilliard has trouble finding the right people, what does it say about theatre training in this country?

Meanwhile, send those resumes to Signature Ttheatre attn: "Artistic Director Search"...

ADDENDUM: A reader rightfully points out that Houghton's departure from Signature is by no means certain. After all, if Michael Kahn could run a theatre hundreds of miles away, Houghton should be able to commute from Juilliard to midtown. I guess my assumption was fueled by the fact he has been "on leave" from Signature already and an interim person (whose name escapes me) was already in place for last season. So as far as I know Houghton never officially returned to the helm....For what it's worth he is listed on their site as "Fouding Artistic Director" which is not usually bestowed upon someone current.

I'll try to get to the bottom of it.

In Defense of Stars

Charles McNulty offers a more measured alternative to the anti-Julia Roberts pile-on. I agree that commercial Broadway is hardly corrupted by such "boldface names" and that the star trainwrecks we've observed of late have been particularly bad pieces of casting of actors who might under other circumstances do well.

And, for the record, I saw the "Frasier Macbeth" of which he speaks. The curse of the Scottish Play has never struck so mercilessly.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006


A good quick survey of the new Handke controversy--over his being awarded the Heinrich Heine prize in Dusseldorf--can be found by Canada's CBC.

If the Dusseldorf balked under pressure and withdrew the prize, I would actually not cry censorship, since freedom of speech, in my book, does not include the right to win snobby trophies glorifying you as an individual. Again, for me it's about the work, not the artist. Handke's play was pulled at the Comedie-Francaise, not his body banned from the premises. (Though that too seems to have followed.)

In any case, the prize, for what it's worth has only widened the debate around what he did or didn't say, and how much room artists have in Western society to express contrarian views in or outside of their work.

UPDATE, 5/31: NY Times "Arts Briefly" (scroll down) reports today--via Agence France-Presse--that the Dusseldorf council will revoke the prize. A Green party rep appears to be spearing the movement.

Let Tony's be the Tony's

NY Sun's David Blum agrees with me that the Tony's won't register more than a blip on the National TV radar until they return to their elite urban sophisticate roots and revert to the backslapping martini-sipping banquet setting of its origins. Let Broadway be Broadway, I say. By competing with the Oscars they've not only bottomed out in the ratings, but embarrassed theatre people everywhere.

Blum is wrong, of course, about the Pulitzer dis this year signifying that "the great new plays just don't turn up with the regularity they once did." If he peeked in at the other less millionaire-exclusive awards ceremonies of late, he'd see the interesting new plays cropping up everywhere else but in 500-plus-seat houses in Times Square.

Welcome Back

After a much needed break, Playgoer is up and running, but perhaps not up to full speed till later on this week. Too many shows to review over the last few weeks (some of them even still running!) and will get on that very soon.

I meant to sit down this morning and pen a tribute to fellow blogger George Hunka who shocked the theatrical blogosphere Sunday with his announced retirement! But alas, like a true blogger, he sees fit to write a clarifying post today. Like the old window cards used to say "Final Farewell Performance!"?

Actually, it looks like George took a moment to reflect and realize he wasn't really done but just needed to scale down his Superfluities. I'm glad, for his sake, remembered blogging can be many things. And daily posting is only one, quite taxing, form. The trouble is, many theatrelovers have come to depend on George being there each and every day with his cogent analysis and searching dialogues. So we'll all have to adjust. Meanwhile, this is a good opportunity to give him mad props on basically pioneering the form of a daily theatre blog, and for seamlessly blending theatre with other arts. Personally, I am grateful to him for his early support of this blog when I didn't even know him and only ten people I knew did. But, more importantly, I'm only one of several bloggers who could say the same thing. George has sometimes been called "dean of theatre bloggers" but I think of him--even more honorably--as "First Citizen." Not in the Napoleonic sense, of course. I mean that George has taught us all--by example, not lecture--how to be good blog citizens. Not just linking and open acknowledgment of his sources, but in his pro-active blogrolling and promotion of new blogs on his site. And as many of we theatre bloggers know, he has actively worked behind the scenes to create a more-than-virtual community through less-than-formal meetings, drinks, and theatregoing.

But, hey, I post truly to praise and not to bury. Since, gladly, there's still life in Superfluities yet. So to George I say: if you faked your blog's death just to attend the funeral and hear all the nice things we have to say to you... it worked! And you've earned it.

I'll also add how much I sympathize with the pressures of the daily blog. George writes about the dispiriting effect of the protracted debates and arguments such incessant posting inevitably gets one into. I've been in a few fights myself here. Superfluities, though, has been especially ambitious site, in both content and design (I mean literally, web design.) No simple Blogspot blogger he. I'm sure many of would love to run the kind of "cultural calendar" he's got over there, not to mention the huge blogroll and constant links. Providing a service, plus the soul of your own commentary, is indeed a recipe for burnout. As is apparent, I've kept my amitions modest out of just such concern.

And so once again we learn how the beauty of blogosphere is to each his or her own. Let a hundred flowers bloom. George has posted enough for a lifetime in three years, so if he wants to now do it once a week, that'll work, too. We'll enjoy it either way. I find blogging is best when bloggers follows their own drummer, their own pace, their own format. A newspaper must worry about "service to the readers." But in this (and perhaps only this) respect, I'm a pure Adam Smithean. Self-interest and happiness always leads to better product.

Luckily for Playgoer, summer is a grand time for blogging. So hopefully the pace here will only increase. Not to put any pressure on myself, of course.

Stay tuned.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

On Hiatus

Playgoer will be on hiatus until Tuesday, May 30.

Barring any truly headline-grabbing theatre news, of course.

Please come back after Memorial Day for a lot of catching up. Including belated reviews of: Well, Threepenny Opera, Stuff Happens, History Boys and the latest thinkingman's scuttlebut.

Meanwhile, feel free to use the Comments box here for tips, reviews, and good gossip.

And, since I missed the anniversary on May 4, thank you all for now one year of Playgoer! It has truly been a communal effort.

PS. And one more take on the Handke story, from the thoroughly francophonic Gilles d'Aymery at his "Swans" group blog.

Cheek by Jowl

If I were going to London soon, top of my list would be The Changeling directed by the great Declan Donnellan for his always astounding Cheek by Jowl company.

You can read what they're up to these days here, in the Telegraph.

Friday, May 19, 2006

TONY backlash

Well now we know why the great Jonathan Pryce bothered to be the replacement-star in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels: he was promised a Tony! Of course, the Tonys decided to dump that new pseudo-category at the last minute. And now Pryce is calling "shenanigans" on them.

Boo-hoo, I know. Here are all these worthy artists off-Broadway not being recognized the first time around, but a mega-successful stage actor like Pryce gets the ink.... Still, another window onto the haphazardness going on in TonyLand.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

The Lot of the Playwright

Two takes on being a playwright in the US today.

George Hunka offers some help sketicism on what we mean by "emerging" artists.

And Mark at "Mr. Excitement" tracks a growing rebellion amongst playwrights against development hell and toward more--imagine--production.

Bad Ideas for Musicals, Volumes XXII & XXIII

How about a blockbuster Oscar-winning Roman spectacular? Check.

A negligible fluff movie about wacky old guys that nobody saw? Check.

Who can begrudge artists their flighty notions. But when press releases are issued and producers shelling, let the mocking begin.

Read on and you'll see these are not dreamed up by songrwriters or playwrights desperate for good ideas--but by movie studios and producers desperate to be Disney. Pathetic.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Radio Drama

In case you missed it Friday, June Thomas rounded out her terrific weeklong Slate journal on London theatre with, among other highlights, a glimpse of the still-lively art of radio drama there.

Radio 4, the BBC's main spoken-word network, pumps out about 15 hours of drama every week—a 45-minute play every weekday, hourlong plays every Friday and Saturday, serial dramas and book serializations, and The Archers, a daily soap opera that has been on the air since 1950. The week that I listened to The Afternoon Play, I was astonished by the big-name actors who participated—Brian Cox, Patricia Routledge, Tom Courtenay, to name just a few.

What were these big stars doing on the wireless? "I think a lot of actors are really pleased to do radio," Jeremy Howe, Radio 4's commissioning editor for drama, told me when we met at Broadcasting House. "It's not like filming, which takes a long time and is a very tense-making process. Filming is very exposing, as is being on the stage. You rehearse a stage play for five weeks or so, and then you do it night in and night out—it's a big commitment." On the other hand, he noted, "Radio is a very easy medium for actors—and a great medium as long as you're a good reader. You don't have to learn your lines, and it's good fun." It takes a day or two to record a 45-minute play, and actors can schedule the work around theater, television, or other commitments.

I was also surprised by some of the subject matter. One play touched on abortion, prostitution, dysfunctional family relationships, and brain disease—all in just 45 minutes! It wouldn't have been shocking on stage or in a late-night spot on television, but at 2:15 in the afternoon on national radio? For Howe, it's just part of the BBC's mandate: "We're a public-service broadcaster. We like to tell stories. We like to challenge our audience. Our audience likes to be challenged."

"In the past, writers like Tom Stoppard and Harold Pinter made their debuts as writers on the radio," Howe continues, a mite boastfully. "What's exciting about radio is that you can't see anything, so it's all in the world of the imagination. To be a good radio writer, you need to be imaginative. If film is about structure, radio is about words. Production is quite minimal, so there's precious little between the writer's words and what the audience hears. There's an intimacy about radio drama: The audience have to bring a lot to it, so it lodges in the imagination."

June also calls our attention to some home grown theatre radio--but just interviews, not plays. And not radio, but podcasts. "Downstage Center" is available through American Theatre Wing's site or via iTunes, unbelievably.

TONYS backtrack

The only newsbreaking item in today's Times wrap-up of the Tony nominations is the last minute omission of what was to be a new category:

In most cases, the notable absences are within categories, not entire categories themselves. But an exception is the brand-new award for best performance by an actor or actress in a recreated role, which was expected to go to either Jonathan Pryce for stepping into "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," or Harvey Fierstein for recreating the role of Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof." To the surprise of many, no award will be given this year in this category.

Between this and the Julia snub, not a good day for high-powered agents.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Handke update

Alison Croggon had a couple of must - reads on the Handke affair over the weekend, with some excellent links, including a pretty balanced though definitely supportive statement by Handke's English-language translator, Michael Roloff, nicely distinguishing between the man and the work:

The play "DIE KUNST DES FRAGENS, oder die Reise in das sonore Land" happens to be a truly great play; it creates a profound and delicious sense of deep puzzlement in the audience, something that, ordinarily, is achieved only after years of psychoanalysis. I have known Herr Handke since 1966, personally feel some considerable justified ambivalence about him, little ambivalence if any about most of his work ... and have written extensively on various aspects of Handke, including his involvement in matters Yugo-Slavian. It appears Handke was following his grandfather's road in hoping for a continued federation, also as a counter model to the current European federation. Best as I can tell from this distant perspective that depends entirely on written texts and documentation, he is not guilty of denial of anything, but of not speaking in platitudes. Last year he published an essay in the German magazine LITERATUREN, in which he detailed why he would not appear as a defense withness at Slobodan Milosovic's trial, where I especially liked how he made fun of his own sense of self-righteousness....

Having disassociated himself from the defense of the more and more indefensible Slobodan Milosoviscs - as the trial proceeded and his entire history became available -- I don't think Handke needed to show up at the funeral, have his photo taken in front of a huge flag-like photo of Milosevics, or make any kind of funeral oration. Herr Handke can be as petit bourgeois, exhibitionistic and obnoxious - the German word is BORNIERT - as Bozonnet. THE ONLY THING THAT COUNTS in this instance is THE PLAY. I am glad that there is a controversy over a great play! [his caps, not mine]

The nature of Handke's statements does continue to be contested. As Alison points out, the French newspaper Nouvel Observateur has actually retracted its characterization of his words.

I won't contest that Handke expressed public sympathy for a tyrannical mass murderer. But so did Gore Vidal with Timothy McVeigh; granted, a smaller-scale murderer, but the attitude of the two writers seems compatible from what I sense. Both want to serve as gadflies in defending the indefensible against what they see as other evil forces at large.

Not Vidal's finest moment either, for my money. But I'm glad no one pulled his books from the shelves for this. (So, yay for the USA?)

ArtsJournal debate

"I’ve often wondered what would happen if arts journalists were allowed to write with the same level of authority as sports writers."

-Ruth Lopez, getting it absolutely right, over at the ArtsJournal arts journalism/blogging debate.

As print media (and even NPR and PBS) continues to dumb it down, it seems the only safe spaces to talk knowledgably are where it's free and no one is thought to be reading. Lopez argues,

Blogs just might be the best thing that could happen to us. Anyone who has had
to explain to an editor why, say, Duchamp is not an obscure reference in an art
review, knows how limited traditional print journalism can be as an environment
that promotes critical (let alone historical) thought. We, in printdom, have
some advantages in terms of quality control but our filtering system is
flawed...Is possible that in a quest to chase down the mythical “everyreader”
with bite-size bits of info we’ve actually ended up alienating them?

The forum concludes today, so catch up while you can.

Feingold OBIE essay

"The danger of Broadway is that its monolithic love of profit squeezes a little more density and vibrancy out of New York's idea of theater every year."

- Why did I even bother this morning with my Tony/Obie comparison, when Michael Feingold had already done it for me. Do read on.

Though issued before the nominations were announced, his indictment of the "uptown" season still stands. In short: Broadway's problem is not just profit. It's that it's not even any good at being "Broadway" (i.e. entertaining) any more.

For "equal time" you can go to, where the special Tony "Isn't Broadway Grand" page is already up.


A tale of two awards.

Within 12 hours of each other, the alternate (not even parallel) universes of B'way and "theatre" announced their season's honors. Granted the Tony "awards" proper are still to come. But Obies thankfully don't bother with the two-stage process, so their multiple nominations are in fact their awards.

To compare these lists is (as it is every year) an object lesson in the incredible gulf between theatre as experienced by those who practice and follow it devotedly, and those for whom it is well... tourism, frankly. Or hobby, or industry.

To fill their rigid, sometimes anachronistic categories, the Tonys end up honoring almost anyone who has the money to get to Broadway--and can stick it out long enough to get through awards season. This usually works out since these days usually not many more than four or five musicals or non-musicals can manage that anyway. Only 39 productions opened at all on Broadway this season. 16 of them were nominated across the categories of new and revived musicals and plays as well as "Special Theatrical Event."

This has already been called--by the Producing establishment--the most successful B'way season ever. Compare that 39, by the way, to the 67 from what now seem the halcyon days of 1980-1981. If you can stomach that contrast, now imagine the triple-digit figures that were routine before the 1960s and 70s....Although, here's a thought--it's possible that more productions open outside of Broadway now (whether officially "off-b'way" or not) and that the aggregate of professional NYC theatrical productions in a season might still be over 100? In which case the Tonys would be excluding 2/3rds of that total...

As for The Case of Well... it's surprising to look back in the Obie archives and see it didn't win one of those either! (Only actress Jane Houdyshell was cited--and she probably will win the only Tony for the show as well.) So what do Lisa Kron and, more importantly, producer Elizabeth McCann think this morning? It was McCann who pushed ahead against the odds to bring Well to B'way, in no small part to seek this very imprimatur. (The conventional thinking always is that since so few plays make it to B'way, anyone that opens has a shot!) Unfortunately she couldn't even keep the show running long enough to benefit from the nominations. To make the irony even more bitter, though, the closing of Well probably functioned as a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts: the Tony poobah's don't like to nominate shows that have closed. Remember, think like a producer: nominating a closed show sells no tickets to nothin'. It's better for your business to nominate something even not your show than something you liked better that's "failed." (After all what message does that send--the "Best Play" couldn't sell tickets??? Does not compute!)

That the committee saw fit to nominate Kron as Best Actress was a gesture, I suppose. (Especially in place of Julia Roberts.) But the fact that David Lindsay-Abaire's weeper "Rabbit Hole" was clearly selected as the token American to go up against the Brits & Micks seems clearly strategic. "Rabbit Hole" is running, has a couple of TV stars, and makes people cry. Better for the industry. But, as the man says in Chinatown, "bad for the grass."

[Okay, correction: As a reader quickly pointed out to me, Rabbit Hole has closed, too! MTC needed to make room in the Biltmore for their other nominee, Shining City. (Quite a comeback for MTC, btw. Nice mini-story there.)... So there goes my whole theory, I guess? Or does this make the Rabbit Hole selection even more questionable?]

One thing I love about the OBIE's is how it is so not stereotypically "experimental" and, thus, unpredictable. Where else could Fringe-maestro John Clancy share Directing honors with Mr Professional Daniel Sullivan? Sullivan may have lent his marketable sleekness to Rabbit Hole uptown, but also gave the Public's Brit-import of Stuff Happens a dose of the great American acting tradition.

Other notable OBIE's: Allen Moyer, the set designer bumped from Well in its pursuit of B'way gold; the electric Gary Wilmes of Red Light Winter; Michael Cumpsty's Hamlet; Dana Ivey in that downtown radical GB Shaw's Mrs Warren's Profession; and Peter Francis James and Byron Jennings as those pathetic heroes of Stuff Happens, Powell and Blair.

OBIE named two Best Plays ("Achievement in Playwriting"): The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow and The Lieutenant Of Inishmore. The runners-up ("Special Citation"): [title of show], In the Continuum, Ricky Ian Gordon's Orpheus and Eurydice...and Red Light Winter's Adam Rapp.

So I guess the OBIE and Pulitzer judges surprisingly saw eye to eye this year? At least they didn't feel obliged to genuflect for sub-par Durang. And at least they are able to include more worthy writers to balance out the overexposed Rapp and McDonagh.

TONY nom's

They're out.

Some headlines:

Rabbit Hole edges out Well for token U.S. play

In weird revenge, Lisa Kron edges out Julia Roberts for the last Best Actress nod

In desperation for actual stage drama, Awake and Sing does well

...But so does Drowsy Chaperone

Monday, May 15, 2006

Arts Critics/Arts Bloggers

George Hunka directs our attention to a great debate going on over at ArtsJournal among their regular critics over the value of arts blogs. Quite a bit of nastiness (or at least condescension)still detectable amongst the MSM-schooled journalists towards the upstarts. One exception is Terry Teacout, "representing" for theatre, who makes an eloquent case for their (ok, our) value. And, 'tis true, Terry has been a supporter of this and many other fledgling bloggers, so good on him.

Heartily recommended blog wonkery!

The Neutered NEA

WaPo art critic Philip Kennicott has an interesting review today of an NEA-sponsored exhibit in DC of current "political" art. (Called "Visual Politics: The Art of Engagement.") While he concedes some pieces have bite, he takes the opportunity to show up how tame and cowered the Endowment has become.

We've come a long way. Parallel to the art of engagement has been a politics of disengagement, at least when it comes to arts funding. The only reason the NEA could meet in the midst of this exhibition without a firestorm is that, politically, the NEA has disengaged not just from funding this kind of art, but from the people, artists, curators and audiences who are interested in it. The "art of engagement," most of it left-wing and left-coast (the current exhibition is drawn mostly from the San Jose Museum of Art), exists in a different world, utterly removed from the new NEA's focus on education, arts access, reading groups and promoting things like Shakespeare and poetry.

Will we ever recover from the "culture wars" of the 90s? Maplethorpe, what has thou wrought! Indeed, on "the hill" it is still all chalked up to fault of too many gay and/or blasphemous individual artists.

If ever politicians could play nicely with artists, it would be with this sort of subject [i.e. the "peace is good, violence bad" tone of the present exhibit], but, alas, the divorce seems absolute. Are both parties in this breakup equally guilty? Art, or at least overtly political art, is generally presumed to be the wayward partner, the one that took provocation to the limit, and forced the government (and most everyone else) to abandon the relationship. From a political and pragmatic point of view, that's probably true.

But throughout "The Art of Engagement," you sense a different emotional dynamic. The artists here don't consider the relationship over. They're still talking, if not with politicians, at least at them. They have more hope, when it comes to politics, than most politicians have when it comes to art.

I realize many will never understand why it is indeed reasonable to expect the government to sponsor art that may be critical of it. But without that openness and true freedom, a government is simply a royal patron--endowing flattery. Yes, Moliere made it work. But will we always be graced with enlightened despots...?

Friday, May 12, 2006

Tony Preview

Riedel has the backstage gossip leading up to Tuesday's nomination decision. Will they find a way to slip in Julia somehow? What are the odds the disastrous Tarzan and Lestat might actually be nominated for consideration as "Best Musical"? Read it and weep.

In another amusing sign, monologist Sarah Jones is already guaranteed a Special Tony since the committee could come up with no other candidates for "Special Theatrical Event". The category has already had a spotty, albeit short, history. As today's Times article unintentionally slips in its neglect of capitalized letters, "There were no eligible special theatrical events in the 2003-4 season, and, as was the case this season, no award was given." Indeed.

Spare your tears, though. Nice for Sarah Jones, sure, whose Bridge and Tunnel, of course, started downtown at the Culture Project, so she's in effect being honored for finding a producer who could amass the capital to move her. Otherwise the "Special" Tony has served to give yet more hype to the likes of Billy Crystal. (But harder to begrudge Def Poetry Jam, I admit.) ...When you consider, though, that the category is officially there to honor "a live theatrical production that is not a play or a musical," just think how many Broadway shows that describes!

I'd nominate Tarzan or Lestat. But then again there's that "Live" word.

Neither of today's articles breathes a word of Best Play. Except that Riedel already confirms that History Boys will win, end of story.

Lastly, it's worth our remembering now, before the nominations are announced, why there will never be "reform" of the Tonys. As long as its main sponsor is the League of American Theaters and Producers these "awards" will remain a veritable trade show for the Broadway industry. To these folks, no nomination is a bad nomination and what's good for Broadway is good for the American theatre.

However, the League's partner in this venture is the nonprofit American Theatre Wing, who founded the awards six decades ago. With a mission statement of "supporting excellence and education in theatre" we can only hope they realize how much has changed since they hatched their little Antoinette Perry Memorial banquet six decades ago, at the outset of Broadway's Golden Age. Those first winners in '46, by the way, included the Miller-Kazan All My Sons, Finian's Rainbow, Jose Ferrer's Cyrano, Kurt Weill for Street Scene, and Ingrid Bergman's Joan of Arc. Talk about Special Theatrical Events.

Yes, the "Wing" still does some more honorable educational outreach work. But I say the Tonys should now call their nonprofit status into question. It certainly no longer counts as any kind of "public service."

More: Playbill has more extensive summation of the Tony Committee's recent rulings. Apparently they've come to their senses to acknowledge the decade-old Three Days of Rain as a revival, even though it never played on Broadway. Then again, that might have been the only chance for Best Play to go to an American!

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Reform the Equity Showcase?

Downtown impressario John Clancy has now joined the theatre blogosphere. A welcome entry.

I'm interested in his campaign to reform the Equity "Showcase" code, which allows union actors to work in small "off-off" (decidedly not for profit) venues for free. This exemption is crucial in maintaining some minimal quality of acting in the more adventurous work being done on the fringes here in NYC. At least the plays that do require experienced and/or just older actors. Otherwise, off-off would just be community theatre. It also allows for directors to work on a high artistic level on a project outside of the instituitional system as long as they and a few good actors feel passionately enough to volunteer their time to.

With the unique perspective of a very active downtown producer, Clancy (who also founded the NYC Fringe Festival) offers constructive criticism of the code as it now works, and is drafting on his site an alternative. He's inviting feedback and collaboration, so take him up on it.

He also wants to change the language of how we classify such theatre ("Indie Theatre" does have a nice ring to it) and proposes a "League of Independent Producers" to pool resources and promote each others' work. Personally, I wonder if the idea of a league of fringe artists isn't a kind of oxymoron. One of the wonderful things of a strong fringe scene is you never know where the next great show will come from, and it might come from some loner just off the boat who never was in "league" with anyone.

Still, nothing wrong with building community and joining forces--especially for promotion and for lobbying for better conditions with Equity, building codes, city hall, etc.

A good discussion on this also at Matthew Freeman's blog, with comments by Clancy and others. Apparently limits on length of run is one of the Showcase's big problems.

Handke, continued

"The work of art may have a moral effect, but to demand moral purpose from the artist is to make him ruin his own work."

Which dangerous irresponsible radical said that? Try Goethe, as cited by Rachel Campbell-Johnston in a very cogent argument against the Comedie-Francaise in today's Times of London.

Imagine getting away with such a statement in grant application today? Luckily Goethe had more enlightened patrons.

Many interesting comments here yesterday on L'Affaire Handke. Once again we have the questions of is it censorship if the play isn't banned everywhere, or is it censorship just because it was pulled as opposed to never selected in the first place. Fair points, worthy of debate. But I return as I have before to the counter question that if "censorship" is only wholesale totalitarian prosecution and shutdown, then we're left with the unconvincing assertion that there is no censorship in the West at all now. We have to call it something when the official state theatre of France decides to pull a play due to a writer's political views.

And, again, pulling the play is the point. Maybe that seems unfair to go after those who reverse a decision to produce a controversial work over those who don't bother. But the distinction is important. I don't think every unproduced writer sitting alone, toiling over a play exposing the government is a victim of censorship when they get a rejection letter. The realm of censorship (ok, how's "censorship-relateactivitieses"?) is upon us when forces suddenly intervene into the normal artistic process. A theatre likes a play wants to do it... then stops, due to external circumstances or pressures. With both Handke and Rachel Corrie (our two "authors" here) their personal histories suddenly emerged as too controversial for these theatres to want to handle. This despite both theatres' strong initial commitment to the art itself.

By the way, Comedie-Francaise now has posted a whole page of damage control under "raisons", including official statements, press conference transcripts, etc. Google translator won't work on it for some reason. (Hm, might Google have already perfected the bullshit detector?) My French isn't good enough to summarize it, but have at it if you wish. Also here's a bio of M. Bozonnet. Looks like he's hardly the usual bureaucrat, but an actor!

As for the comment that it is ironic to go out of one's way to defend free speech rights of someone supporting a real censor, I can only say: I don't believe free speech should be reserved only for the free or freedom-loving. What else is freedom?

Addendum: Ben Ellis, again, has the latest. Including this vigorous defense by Handke himself.

"I did not place a red rose on the coffin of Slobodan Milosevic. I did not touch the coffin. I did not brandish the Serbian flag. And never did I approve of "the Srebrenican massacre and other crimes committed in the name of cleansing." Never did I consider the Serbs as "the real victims of the war".

See Ben to read more.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

more Slate London journal

June Thomas's terrific London theatre log continues all week. Day 1--with her review of "Rachel Corrie" is now available as a podcast as well.

Make sure you catch the line: "It says a lot about the British theater's appetite for political and controversial subject matter that a show that was too hot for a nonprofit off-Broadway company to handle is running in a West End house owned by the largest theater chain in the city." (June's links.)

In Tuesday's entry, her description of a new play at Royal Court sounds like an enviable night of theatre:

This trip, I had the ultimate Royal Court experience: attending the first public performance of a new work, Simon Stephens' Motortown. What's more, it hit the Royal Court trifecta: It contained scenes of senseless violence; the action constellated around a foul-mouthed psychopath; and it was shockingly powerful. (When you're sitting less than 100 yards from someone who seems to be on the point of setting fire to another human being, it's hard not to be excited, no matter how appalled you are.)

Motortown—a day in the life of Danny, a former soldier freshly returned from Basra, Iraq—focuses on the difficulty, perhaps the impossibility, of a trained killer returning to "normal" family life. It reveals the cruelty of sending soldiers into a war zone and then failing to talk with them about their experiences when they return. So many thrills, all of them guilt-inducing—the illicit frisson of violence, the squirminess of inappropriate sexual tension—and, for a New Yorker, the added shock of seeing eight excellent actors in a 100-minute play, many of them used in just one scene.

Next up at the Court: temporary ex-pat Christopher Shinn.

Handke vs Comedie, Week 2

"Many, in the theatre field, recognise in private that Bozonnet has made 'an enormous stupidity.' Yet, you can count on the fingers of one hand those who express themselves publicly, either to defend to contradict Bozonnet's decision. This silence, often worried, is embarrassing."
- Emmanuel de Roux and Brigitte Salino, in Le Monde. (Translation, Ben Ellis.)

Playwright/blogger Ben Ellis continues his excellent reporting, "live" from Paris, on the Comedie-Francais (the official national theatre of France) cancelling a play by Peter Handke (one of the formemost European playwrights of the last quarter century) over Handke's controversial support for Slobodon Milosevec. Today's post includes extended commentary from the Comedie, the French Press, and Ben's readers, so I strongly recommend.

George Hunka is right in pointing out the parallels to "Rachel Corrie" in NYC, despite important incidental differences (re: state funding, stated rationales, e.g.).

One clear difference in this tale of censorship in two cities is... the existence of this Le Monde column at all! Here is the kind of statement we never got on the NY Times op-ed page. Plus, it seems from Ben's updates, this story is in the major French papers almost every day. I guess that's what happens when theatre is still part of your national cultural discourse.

What seems to be emerging as the larger debate around this story is the question of, does a theatre producer have anyone else to answer to but him or herself? The defense of M. Bozonnet, and his defenders, is that he is allowed to express his views and act upon them in his own institution. Surprisingly this was not a case made by Jim Nicola at New York Theatre Workshop, even though he is in a better place to make it--compared to Bozonnet at the very official and state-run Comedie. Still, both theatres represent a kind of "public trust, " and "public service." (Such language is even written into the US taxcode for nonprofit organizations.) And even if you want to believe the producer should have this autonomy and be respected as an individual, we still know that's a fiction in the real world--whenever they are pressured or ousted by a Board of Directors, if not the State.

Still an interesting debate worth having. But you probably won't see many Artistic Directors here flout their boards and grants by declaring Le Theatre, C'est Moi!

Downtown Perry St Theatre closes

Yet another factor in the ill health of a viable Off Broadway is the shrinking availability of good performance spaces. One of the older holdouts downtown, the Perry Street looks like it will be demolished after the current owners have had to give it up.

The Perry is one of those lovely little exposed-brick theatres (like Minetta Lane) in those side streets of the village that evoke those early days of OB in the 50s, and even hark back to earlier in the century to the Provincetown (still standing) and the "little theatre" movement.

In more recent history the Perry served as the temporary home for New York Theatre Workshop. Currently playing: The JAP Chronicles. Somehow the economics of these prime spaces have not lent themselves recently to the kind of interesting programming that might keep them running. With real estate now what it is downtown--especially on such "charming" little streets like Perry--a theatre is probably the very least profitable use of a building. So no wonder it's apparently going to be more apartments for the rich now.

Off-B'way makes it to Jeopardy

Yes, the Tonys have now been outdone even by gameshow television, as Playbill reports.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

"Well" closing

Producer Liz McCann's gamble of bringing a small adventurous new play by a downtown artist to Broadway has not paid off. Lisa Kron's Well will close on May 14, not even lasting the two more days for the possibility of Tony nominations. Obviously McCann must have calculated that even a bevy of nods for the play and its cast--nay even winning the coveted Best Play award itself--would probably still not boost ticket sales anywhere near the profit margin. The sheer expenses of keeping the show running through the awards on June 11 must have been just too daunting. Not to mention the depressing thought that after going that deep into the red, they probably would still lose to an Irish or English playwright. Even those $300 "premium" tix--yes, even Well tried that--couldn't save them.

I certainly do not wag the finger at Broadway ticket buyers for not being "smart" enough to want to see Well. Having only paid $20 myself for a rush ticket to its first preview in San Francisco last year, I can say it was certainly worth it. But if it's my one Broadway show a year for $60 or $100? My endorsement would certainly have reservations.

Let's face it, a typical Broadway audience has certain expectations when they buy a ticket and enter the theatre. Well does not deliver those. Now we can all think of plays--some equally "experimental" that have fared better on Broadway. Such as I Am My Own Wife. But there, I would argue, it was the sheer virtuosity of Jefferson Mays's performance in a one-man show that became the hook. More importantly, it was the one thing audiences could take away and talk about after the show and tell their friends.

In a commercial environment (and that includes much of the nonprofit world, by the way), plays survive as commodities on the basis of their "cultural capital." The product needs to be of use to the the customer. So with Jefferson Mays, that audience was able to talk about and entertain themselves and others with tales of his acrobatic mimicry. In another kind of case, Doubt, what they talk about is "Did he or didn't he?" In Proof you had just enough of both those elements: a star performer and a "did she or didn't she" mystery. In Lieutenant of Inishmore I bet it will be, "how did they chop up all those bodies?" Or else, "how did they get a cat to do that?"

No doubt McCann and Kron are doing some soul searching. And so should the entire NYC theatre community. But hopefully not about, "Darn it, what do we have to do to put a good new American play on Broadway." Which only leads to more quixotic proposals of slashing union rates, demanding cheaper advertising in the Times, and then pathetically begging tourists to see something they don't want to see. What a waste of time, and we've been there so many times.

To save future Well's from the stigma of failure, we'd be better off asking how to engineer longer Off (or non)-Broadway runs that don't lose money; why we give so much attention to an award which only recognizes plays in theatres of 500-plus seats within five blocks of Times Square; and why we only consider a play worthy if people who don't care about theatre want to see it.

Slate on Corrie & London theatre

I happily direct you today to the beginning of a weeklong journal in Slate on London Theatre by Slate correspondent and (may I say?) Playgoer reader June Thomas, a Brit expat now [correction-- formerly!] based in the Pacific Northwest. Tune in here every day this week for more dispatches.

She started yesterday with a review of the West End showing of "Rachel Corrie," and yet again we have a testimony to this play's ability--in performance, mind you--to overcome people's initial hesitations, whether politically rightist or aesthetically leftist:

Until seeing My Name Is …, I'd dismissed the real Rachel Corrie as a naive kid who got mixed up in something she didn't really understand. The play convinced me I'd done her a disservice. The young woman who emerges in Californian actress Megan Dodds' almost painfully vulnerable portrayal is politically conscious in the best sense—aware of her privilege, conscious of her limitations, but unable to ignore the suffering of others. Perhaps it's because the text is drawn from unpolished writing in journals and e-mails that Corrie's openness seems so endearing...

Corrie's natural eloquence, combined with a very simple staging, makes this a very personal story about one American rather than a political play about the Middle East. (In the end, she spent less than two months in the region.) My Name Is Rachel Corrie may seem an unlikely exemplar of British theater, but it makes sense to me that it has succeeded there. Corrie was a diarist, not a polemicist, and her writing is persuasive because it's clear, not because it's clever. That's how it is with British actors—they're seldom gorgeous, but they're often utterly convincing.

And much thanks to June, of course, for the hat tip to Playgoer. If any of you Slate readers wish to catch up on the "Rachel Corrie" fracas you can scroll back through to February 28, or just type "Rachel Corrie" and/or "NYTW" in the Google box at the top of the page.

Meanwhile, still standing by for an announcement from Mr. Rickman this week...(?)

Monday, May 08, 2006

The Handke Story

Not much development over in Paris with the Peter Handke/Commedie-Francaise spat, but much thanks to those bloggers international Ben Ellis and Alison Croggon for keeping us all in the loop across the borders of space and lanaguage. Ellis offers his own translations of the local press accounts there, such as these disheartening statements from M. Bozonnet at the Commedie:

Didn't he know [already] of Handke's opinions? "Of course, but when Bruno Bayen proposed the play, Handke had not yet committed a decisive act of guilt."[...]

Is he a censor? At this, he revolted: "I didn't ban the producing of Peter Handke, but I'm refusing to invite to the Comedie-Francaise a man who doesn't respect essential values."

Question for discussion: does producing the man's work equal "inviting the man?"

It would be nice if a major media outlet in this country at this stage tried to offers some objective account of exactly what Handke's stated positions on Milosevec are, and also how his play does or does not relate to them. Apparently the play is over a decade old and predates Handke's current mess. So would this be like refusing to publish early work by noted anti-Semites like Pound and Eliot? Let alone the ol' Wagner problem...

My general take on those controversies--and it may apply to Handke as well--is that this is a consequence of venerating the artist over the work. In our culture of celebrity, what Handke says as a private citizen trumps whatever he does in his art. When St. John the Divine here in NYC debated a while ago over whether to include a bust of Pound in its "Poet's Corner," I argued the solution was simply to display an excerpt from the Cantos instead of the man's head.

Of course, the solution is to abolish the culture of celebrity. Failing that, well...

Following the Money

Two revealing readings today on the financing of the arts, both for profit and "non."

Every day I feel closer to agreeing with Shubert master-producer Gerry Schoenfeld who offers the alternative binary "taxed" and "nontaxed." One would have thought the one distinguishing feature of a "not for profit" venture is the right to lose money. While they've always been required to have Boards of Directors to oversee things and prevent rampant corruption and mismanagement, ask any arts administrator and you'll hear how the corporate-trained personnel on these Boards are just simply hardwired for zero tolerance of ever being "in the red." The result is that these institutions end up just as concerned with net gains as Broadway and Hollywood and Wall Street. The only difference with these "profits" is that they don't go into the pockets of the artists making the product, but must be reinvested into the company--as the Board sees fit, which will mean into the business side more than the artistic.

Look no further than the "business press" itself to explain all the complications of this. The Wall Street Journal has this from Saturday on "Merger Mania in the Arts"--a trend sparked by ever more "Arts Consultants" and "creatively thinking" funders.

But it isn't perfect harmony. These mergers often run into the typical problems that face companies that tie the knot, from falling short of lofty financial goals to accounting systems that don't talk to each other. There are unique challenges, too. Symphonies and other groups have passionate fans who see them not as businesses but as treasured institutions. Some of these deals also roil musicians who worry about their reputations being sullied by joining up with less-renowned institutions.

"You're dealing with a merger that's much more potentially problematic than a normal corporate merger, because it's about things people care about emotionally," says Keith Lockhart, music director of the Utah Symphony, which merged with the Utah Opera in 2002.

One factor behind the deals: The growing role of corporate executives on cultural organizations' boards. Groups have been recruiting veterans from the private sector to bring business acumen to their back offices. Another driver: a small cadre of consultants carving out a niche advising arts mergers. And increasingly, big foundations, with less money to spend, are giving money to groups only when a partnership is involved, to make sure their dollars are spent efficiently.

And how's this for creative solutions:
The increasingly business-oriented mind-set on boards has played out in a variety of ways in the cultural world...Minnesota's St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in the past few years began tying salary to the organization's financial performance for everyone from the executive director to the musicians.

Holy shit! Can you imagine actors' salaries being dependent on ticket sales? Think of the implication here for low "performance"; with the audience at Well at only one-third capacity, obviously Lisa Kron, Jane Houdyshell and company can't act.

Meanwhile, over at the Great White Way...

The Times looks at the growing acceptance on Broadway of (capitulation to?) high-end "Premium" priced (i.e. $250 and up) tickets for select orchestra seats. What originally was seen as a scam by the real life producers of The Producers worthy of that within the show, is now a business model. Imagine the climate in which one gladly claims public bragging rights for such practices:
"I'm not going to bother with 'I told you so' because I never imagined what a hit was like," said Mr. [Richard] Frankel, who endured the screaming when he and his fellow producers proposed the $480 ticket. "I am saying a little bit of thanks on our behalf for taking the heat for doing it when we did it."

The reporting here is valuable. But note how nobody is quoted as saying this might be a bad thing. In fact I wouldn't be surprised if the reaction among many NYT readers to the article's little consumer -guide of a sidebar is, "Gee, where do I get such tickets!"

The definitive take on this phenomenon on this is still Michael Feingold's raw response from four years ago "$480 A Seat, or Personal Reflections on American Values, The Theater, Money and the Life We Don't Lead: A Free Association." The Producers was stil the exception then. But he saw the trend coming, a trend now confirmed. And the question the Times doesn't ask is: okay maybe today this is just about ten or fifty select seats. But how many years off are we from the whole first ten rows being $500 a pop, especially if it's a hit show? Then the whole orchestra plus front mezzanine? What Roman-coliseum or Victorian era class divisions may then ensue--that is, if there are any affordable seats left at all.

Once ticket prices go up, they don't too easily come down...

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Sunday reading

In your Sunday Times make sure you don't miss the Magazine feature on Rip Torn, who, before his eccentric roles on film and tv, was once one of the powerhouse stage actors of the 50s. Oh what we have lost...

He was the kind of performer who won rave reviews for the convincing way he tore doors off hinges. The actress Sally Kirkland remembers one time when Torn, playing Richard III to her Lady Anne, spontaneously lifted her by her shoulder and dress to deliver an angry speech as he held her suspended in the air. By that time, James Dean had died, Brando had distanced himself from the Actors Studio and Torn, says Kirkland, "had totally inherited the throne of that combination — he was young and gorgeous, and he was that guy."

Offstage, Torn worked to racially integrate the theater world. He vehemently defended every line, no matter how shocking at the time, of James Baldwin's unsparingly violent play "Blues for Mr. Charlie" and helped coax Baldwin, who was procrastinating, into finishing it. According to "A Player's Place," David Garfield's authoritative history of the Actors Studio, Torn was ultimately dismissed from his role in a London production of the Baldwin play for his "corrosive attitude" after he insulted both Baldwin and the play's director for making changes to the script (including softening the language to appease British censors).

Okay, maybe the Baldwin story is a bit self-serving. But given the context of the times, man deserves some props for that, as well as his raw talent.

Personally my favorite Rip Torn performance is his insane Nixon (delivering lines straight from the tapes) in the 70s TV mini-series made of John Dean's "Blind Ambition." Not reissued on DVD, and good luck finding a copy.

Make sure you do miss, by the way, the new page in "Arts & Leisure" devoted to "Video Games." For the first time, this appears today in the printed section not in the back with the tv coverage, but right up front, oddly sandwiched between Theatre and Dance. Huh? There's the "Leisure" part, I guess.

Yes, I know Nintendo and Playstation are at the frontier of the new narrative arts. And I'm even curious, though not a player. But too soon, I say. Too soon!

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Making the Sausage

Jesse McKinley has a pretty good piece in tomorrow's Arts & Liesure (online now) giving a glimpse of the fundraising process at the big New York nonprofit theatres--especially the "up close and personal" sessions with artists that have become de rigeur.

I guess it's what you have to do when 26% of your income comes from "contributions"--and only 1% (yes, one) is "public." Then again, Roundabout's budget is $35 mil. So do the math.

The focus of the story is how artists have graciously gotten involved, giving a lot of face time and letting the money in on "the process."

"There's nothing like Christopher Plummer coming to someone's house and saying Roundabout is the answer to the national theater," said Jeffory Lawson, the company's director of development. "That's powerful."
Reading of all the time Plummer, Alan Cumming, and Stephen Sondheim are just happy to spend with the fattest of the fat cats--yes, all for the work to go on, I know--it can't not escape me that that's time not potentially spent with students and/or younger artists. Which would be part of what a real national theatre would be doing.

Friday, May 05, 2006

"Has the nonprofit business model outlived its usefulness?"

The provocative question posed--albeit from the "free-market" perspective--by a piece in the Seattle-based "Stranger."

Nonprofit America is serious business: There are currently over 1.3 million nonprofit corporations in America, employing 11 million people with 5.7 million more working as volunteers. One in 10 working Americans works for a nonprofit. Nonprofits account for roughly 10 percent of the GNP, with over 100 universities and colleges offering nonprofit-management degrees and certificates—University of Washington, Seattle University, and Seattle Central Community College to name a few locally.

However, the size of the nonprofit sector is no indication of its health. In fact, nonprofits are in trouble. The federal government is talking about how the system is broken; international funding agencies are talking about how it's broken. Nonprofit journals and the nonprofits themselves are talking about how it's broken. And because it's broken, but it's continuing to run like it isn't, the teeth are grinding off the gears and flying everywhere.

This is important because the nonprofit structure is the structure we've got for doing the type of work they do—nonprofits clothe the naked and feed the hungry, they heal the sick and protect the planet, they drive contemporary culture and preserve the past. Trouble for nonprofits directly equals trouble for the constituencies they serve. And if you believe that there should be organizations in the world doing this work and driven to do it by mission, not margin, then yes, this is important.

In the arts at least, it's clearer than ever that the "culture of philanthropy" in the US is essentially a band-aid. Give us a dose of art untainted (supposedly) by commercialism without the serious commitment and responsibility entailed by a true "Ministry of Culture." In the theatre we have ended up with something not quite showbiz and certainly not charity. Instead we're left with the worst of both worlds.

Talk among yourselves.

Thursday, May 04, 2006


The Tony Kushner-Brandeis tension seems to be resolved, in that he will indeed speak, despite isolated protests. He has released an open letter--eloquent, forthright, and, yes, of Kushneresque length--to the college's president in the lastest Forward.

Too bad he has to mount so vigorous a defense, but good that he does so, rather than back down or lay low.

Some highlights:

"I don't want to ruin anyone's graduation but on the other hand, the world's a big, scary mess, and there's no reason why graduation, which is when students leave academia and enter the world, ought to be stress-, dissent- or anger-free." [for academia, read theatre?]

"You haven't asked me to earn this degree by clearing my name or by doing a better job than I've done already articulating my opinions about Israel. It would be wrong to ask that of me, and foolish of me to agree to attempt it. I've already done my best in essays and lengthy interviews. I always try to do better, to advance my thinking and writing, not to defend it.
"If any among your students, faculty, parents or trustees decide that they disagree with what I have said about Israel, I hope first they'll take the time to read what I've said about Israel, read a whole complete word-for-word interview or essay from start to finish, read two or more of them, in fact, rather than a half-dozen tasty tidbits emailed to them by people looking only to provoke outrage."

"Those who have shopped through my interviews and essays looking for "proof¨ that I hate Jews, Israel, Zionism , have produced the single sheet of quotes you sent me. These have been passed around before, talismans of my wickedness."

"I've been willing to explain myself, not in defense or apology, but because I know that the world is not a safe place for Jews. Anti-Semitism is very real and very threatening, and we're all entitled -- wise in fact -- to be vigilant. So even though I think critical thinking is necessary, even in times of danger, I understand that my criticism of Israel raises alarms. I want to be understood -- not agreed with, but understood.
"In the past several months, since I wrote the screenplay for the film Munich, I've become exhaustively familiar with a small but energetic and strident group of people who have called me immoral, an anti-Semite, a self-loathing Jew. In the hysteria of their invective there's a discernible desire to establish an orthodoxy, dissension from which is heresy. I hope that the intellectual curiosity, skepticism and integrity of the Brandeis community will be proof against their tactics and their intentions, which are dishonorable and all too familiar.

"Brandeis teachers, trustees, alumni, students or their parents may still angrily disagree with me, even after giving me a fair hearing. I will arrive on campus at the time I was invited to arrive, confident in and appreciative of the Universitycommunity's adherence to the laudable norms of liberal arts institutions, which encompass and encourage vigorous, civil disagreement, which preclude only violence, the urge to punish, to silence, to excommunicate."

Again, we might substitute theatre for university here as well.

Once again, he asserts: "You haven't asked me to earn this degree by clearing my name or by doing a better job than I've done already articulating my opinions about Israel. It would be wrong to ask that of me, and foolish of me to agree to attempt it." Which I take to mean: no need to finesse, just put the words out there and let people respond as they will.


TheatreMania offers a handy, neutral, roundup of the basics on the plethora of theatre awards over the next few weeks. Especially handy for those outside of NYC who are wondering what these are all about.

In OBIE news, Eric Bentley will apparently be getting its lifetime achievement citation. Well deserved.

Chaperone Spin

The new "underdog" curiosity of a musical The Drowsy Chaperone has certainly grown up fast in the ways of p.r.

Their ads and website proudly display (on an banner, no less) the following endorsement from the almighty Ben Brantley:

"Ingenious! The sleeper of the season!"

Followed by:
"It lifts the audience into a helium paradise of pure pleasure."

Try searching Brantley's actual review for those statements, however, and you'll find much more entertaining reading:
"Without its ingenious narrative framework and two entrancing performances — by Bob Martin as a lonely, musical-loving schlemiel with a hyperactive fantasy life and Sutton Foster as the showgirl heroine of his dreams — "The Drowsy Chaperone" would feel at best like a festive entree at a high-end suburban dinner theater."

"Though this revved-up spoof of a 1920's song-and-dance frolic, as imagined by an obsessive 21st-century show queen, seems poised to become the sleeper of the Broadway season, it is not any kind of a masterpiece."

"A little number called "Show Off" the one song that, on its own, lifts the audience into a helium paradise of pure pleasure. (Over all the songs, while serviceably imitative of the 1920's, are forgettable.)"

It's an old tactic, of course. But I don't remember ever seeing quote-morphing this deceptive.

The original review was generally thumbs-up, but--as these excerpts show--quite begrudgingly. It's the marketing people's job to salvage, of course. But isn't this beyond the pale of what once might have been considered acceptable?

If you're Brantley here, how could you not want to threaten legal action?

How Congress does Censorship

Bill Frist is now fasttracking a Senate version of a bill already passed in the House cracking down on TV naughtiness by levying much greater fines.

Some salient details:

As defined by the FCC and the courts, material is indecent if it "in context, depicts or describes sexual or excretory activities or organs in a patently offensive manner as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium."

While obscene speech has no constitutional protection, indecent speech does. It can be aired from 10 p.m.-6 a.m., when few children are in the audience.

Broadcasters say they are forced to guess at what constitutes indecency because the statute is so blurry. Because of the confusion and the fear of fines, some have become extremely gun-shy over programming.

Do we care that mega-conglomerate media network corporations might have to shell out a few more millions? Maybe not. But the fact is, they're not happy to part with any millions, so count on them to back off anything remotely naughty.

And given some new interest in putting more plays and musicals on television, we theatrefolk better take notice, too.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Pulitzer reverb

"In the early years of the Pulitzers, the drama award was bedeviled by the requirement of 'uplift,' which meant that much of American theater's genius for social criticism and tragedy was beyond the pale. The New York Drama Critics Circle Award was founded in 1936 specifically to redress this balance. The uproar that greeted the Pulitzer Board's refusal to honor the 1963 jury's recommendation of 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' finally led to the removal of that moral test.
"But its influence has lingered. The 2006 board defends itself by saying this year's action is not unusual, noting that the drama award has been omitted 15 times since it was begun in 1918. But surely this disproportionate percentage of the 58 omissions in all categories just proves how historically uncomfortable the Pulitzer board has been with the unsettling nature of theater."

-Christopher Rawson of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, on what the Pulitzers got wrong this year. Interesting point about that "uplift" factor.

Theatre critics continue to weigh in nationwide. Reminds us that it is the Pulitzer, not the Tony, that is the theatre's (or at least the dramatic play's) highest profile national calling card. Rawson makes a case for even the three runners-up being better than no award at all. Especially given the awarding of even less deserving plays in the past.

Another interesting take from Dominic Papatola in the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

(My delayed reaction in linking to these folks, by the way, not theirs in writing.)

Tonys court Oprah

As if the Tony's weren't irrelevant enough, they're now bogged down with who's going to host the TV show! Hoping Oprah will get them into double-digit Nielsens? Riedel has the behind-the-scenes.

Also, some even more inside baseball on the Drama Critics Circle awards ...

Speaking of Boards...

Here's a peek inside board recruitment, at least one approach. Via Boston Business Journal.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Philip Weiss blog

Philip Weiss, who penned the Nation article on "Rachel Corrie," has now joined the blogosphere with MondoWeiss, hosted by the New York Oberserver.

As the Nation story indicated, Israel-Palestine/Middle East is a main beat of his, but his blog seems to be stretching out to other political areas, as well as the Red Sox.

Of note today is his report of Brandeis U. in the news again for freaking out about anti-Israel art. An exhibit of paintings by Palestinian children has been shut down. In a follow-up he gets a Brandeis spokesman on the record:

"The university had to make a decision. We were getting complaints from people that the exhibit was one-dimensional. There was no other context... It was as if someone was looking at this issue with one eye closed. People were upset and confused. Some people found the images disturbing. We had to make a decision."

Some would consider an audience "upset," "confused," and "disturbed" a sign of a successful artistic encounter. But in the world of money (profit or "nonprofit") such a response means one thing: pull the plug.

According to Weiss, Brandeis adds it "hopes to mount the exhibit after all, some day, but with context."

Weiss relates exactly what images and words in the paintings rubbed people the wrong way. But even if you don't like what the kids say about reclaiming Israeli land, what's so surprising that it becomes "disturbing" now?

And does it take a complete shutdown and months of conferencing to figure out that if you just put up a sign or handed out a flyer saying "we don't agree with everything these Arab children say but we thought you should see what they're drawing"...everything would probably be ok?

Unless of course the problem wasn't just "some people" in general, but a few special people who have clout at the university, of course.

Would anyone deny, by the way, that at least this case constitutes censorship? The exhibit had been up for a week, and then suddenly and bluntly closed. With gestures toward "delay" and "reopening" even vaguer than NYTW's. Can we agree on this one, Ben Cameron?

TCG to NYTW's defense

"But for now, lobbing charges of censorship against an organization that, earnestly and with the best of intentions for the sake of the artist, asks for reasonable delay, strikes me as incendiary, polarizing and, frankly, too easy. Let's reserve the charges of censorship for those places where they really belong, for those who seek to silence and to suppress, not for those who labor in all earnestness for voices to be heard. Especially if all they ask from us is a gift of time."

-Theatre Communications Group Executive Director Ben Cameron, in his monthly column in American Theatre.

Make no mistake, TCG is a lobbying and advocacy group explicitly for theatre institutions, and necessarily theatre artists. And American Theatre its trade publication. So Ben Cameron is basically doing his job by defending and supporting the beleaguered Jim Nicola of New York Theatre Workshop.

But supporting a member institution hardly requires the outright dismissal of criticism Cameron displays here. Of all people, Cameron is uniquely positioned to call for healing in this. Especially at this time (two months into the controversy). But that would entail recognizing dissent within the theatre community itself. Which he doesn't. Like NYTW, Cameron's stance is defending "theatre" itself from outside antagonists like the press and political interest groups. His post and platform position him to speak for the entire US nonprofit theatre community, yet he chooses to only take the side of the Artistic Director--not the playwrights (Kushner, Shanley) or directors (Gregory Mosher, Irene Lewis) who have characterized NYTW's actions as, if notcensorshipp, then at least gross insensitivity and irresponsibility.

As his very title shows--"Censorship or Delay?"--Cameron is weeks behind in this debate, and seems to not to have weighed all the complex arguments beyond the headlines. I wonder if he has genuinely weighed the different accounts of NYTW and the Royal Court. Or is he just admitting his job is simply to defend the former over the foreigners.

Not to spend too much time taking Cameron's defense apart, but... Again we have lauding of Nicola's (true) fine aesthetic record. But--c'mon!--the fortitude shown in rearranging the seating for Hedda Gabler and A Number is hardly relevant here, is it? And again we hear that premiering Homebody/Kabul weeks after 9/11 was politically controversial--when I still don't understand what threats this play about the evils of Taliban Afghanistan (starring a bunch of Brit characters) posed to anyone not named Bin Laden. Awkward tension seeing the play then? Yes. Political challenge? No. I'm tired of hearing arguments it's assumed I won't think about.

Again, as the head of an organization devoted primarily tonurturingg (and funding) theatre institutions, Cameron is right to give the perspective of the board- and corporate-dominated theatres we are forced to live with. By his rules, NYTW's actions, then, make total sense:

if productions of even the standard repertoire must sometimes be justified, tackling a play with the potential to incite community controversy demands even more time. There are meetings with funders to help them understand our decisions, in order to protect the theatre from inappropriate reaction when grant applications are reviewed. There are meetings with the press to convey motive and intent. There are meetings with community groups: Can we broker better understanding with people likely to oppose the play (on whatever grounds)? Can we galvanize goodwill around our choice to produce? Are there community partners to participate in audience discussions? Are there formats for opposing viewpoints to be heard? How will we think about program notes and ancillary materials, and more? At heart, how we can present the work in the most responsible way, preparing the community to be its most receptive, creating the environment for the artist to be heard in the most supportive, most responsible, most appropriate environment?
I'm struck by the tone of optimism here. No longer is the call, "Hey, kids, let's put on a show!" It's, "Hey, funders! Hey, community partners! Let's schedule a lot of meetings to see if it's ok to put on a show!"

What's also missing here is the artist. Yes, Cameron and Nicola say plenty about "serving" the artist. But notice how Cameron's scenarios here keep implying the artist's assent. He misses that a key part of this story is how the artists in question--Rickman, Viner, the Royal Court, even the Corries--resisted what NYTW was doing, even if it was supposedly in their name, supposedly. In fact, the tone coming from NYTW lately is that the artists were plain ungrateful for their efforts!

Does this consent of the artist not matter here? I remember a while ago someone drawing a comparison to how the Roundabout cancelled their big Assassins revival after 9/11. They did indeed reschedule it two years later to great acclaim. One reason this wasn't controversial was that Sondheim was ok with it! He wanted it to do well. And it was clearly fear of financial strife, not political (who would want to see a downer musical in Fall '01) that led to what appeared to be a mutual decision.

(Sondheim had learned this lesson back when Assassins premiered in '91--during the 1st Gulf War. They may not havetransferredd to B'way, but they still sold out little Playwrights Horizons for the run.)

Cameron has, I understand, done an excellent job at TCG for his members. A very informed and passionate theatre person, he also brought years of corporate savvy from Target. (Yes, the store.) He is now leaving TCG to run arts grants at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. Lord knows, theatre artists in this country are grateful for the dollars flowing from this place. (They have no choice but to be grateful, do they.) But it is essentially a corporation as well--just non-profit. Their product is philanthropy.

One of the more interesting legacies of this controversy is the fault line exposed between one American theatre that sees itself as corporate- and board-dependent, and another that sees its mission as putting on plays they want to do, period.

Monday, May 01, 2006

My Dinner with Solness?

If you liked Vanya on 42nd Street, then will you love Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn's similarly do-it-yourself Master Builder?

No announcement yet, nor plans for one. But Playbill teases us nonetheless...

Censorship at the Comedie-Francaise?

Thanks to you readers who kept the site active all weekend!

An intriguing parallel (though not exact) to our recent downtown institutional self-censorship debates over in crazy communist France--our liberal paradise, non?

As the Times reported Friday in their "Arts Briefly" column and followed up today, the Comedie-Francaise has outright cancelled (not even postponed) a production they planned of a new play by famed Austrian experimental playwright Peter Handke.

The problem, however, was not with the play, just with Handke's personal politics. True, he's a been a bit out there of late, as an apologist for--now how's this for controversial--Slobodan Milosevic. Once Handke was seen attending, nay speaking, at Milosevic's recent funeral, the show was off.

This begs much more reporting, and hopefully the Times will follow up in a proper article. But a couple of facts are worth pointing out to start with:

-This new play of Handke's--entitled "Voyage to the Sonorous Land, or the Art of Asking"--is described in NYT as an "inquiry into language" and so apparently does not explicitly address the issue of Milosevic at all. (Again, more reporting here would be valuable.) While all plays, granted, are political acts, Handke's legacy and importance to the (post)modern theatre has been as an abstract avant-gardist. Typified in his 60s classics "Kaspar" and "Offending the Audience" (both now practically canonical on European stages). Outside of the German-speaking world he is best known as a co-writer of the Wim Wenders film "Wings of Desire" a kind of political allegory about postwar Germany, but received mostly as a (post)romantic, postwar, disenchanted fable.

-Let's remember the Comedie-Francaise is an official state theatre. So while we may still debate whether such a cancellation by a private US nonprofit like New York Theatre Workshop can properly be called "censorship"...the Comedie (arguably the first ever National Theatre) is about as official as it gets.

So basically the Comedie is saying, blatantly, this guy Handke is a political outlaw, and we don't want to be associated with him. Fair enough, you might say. But when plays start getting cancelled we have indeed entered into the realm of that c-word. Note the statement from Friday's piece by Marcel Bozonnet, described as the "administrator" of the company:

Mr. Bozonnet told Le Monde, "The theater is a tribune; its effect goes far beyond the audience at a single performance." He went on to say that even if "Voyage to the Sonorous Land," originally scheduled for January, was not a piece of propaganda, a performance would lend the playwright visibility.

Where have we heard this before... it "goes far beyond the audience." Again, the experience the audience has, one-on-one with the work itself, is discounted. The play is not allowed to speak for itself, and must suffer the judgment of even those who won't bother to see it because they don't like what the author stands for.

Need I point out I do not support Slobodan Milosevic? Nor am I familiar with Handke's arguments in his defense. (Again worth following up for all of us. Is it possible Handke is more anti-Croatian than pro-Serbian, given Croatia's Nazi-checkered past? Not an excuse, granted, but some, yes, context does seem necessary here.) But it seems Handke has been exercising his free speech rights in the tradition of modern European civil discourse. Even if that means serving as an apologist for ethnic cleansing.

Gore Vidal defended Timothy McVeigh, remember. Not his finest moment, in my book. But we're not banning his books (yet) are we?

Today's follow-up relays one of the first major protests of the Comedie's decision, from Nobel-winning writer and fellow Austrian Elfriede Jelinek (The Piano Teacher).

In a statement made public by Olivier Le Ray, the French translator of her works, Ms. Jelinek said she was "horrified" that the Comédie-Française had acted like a "censor." "By not putting on this play," she said, "the Comédie-Française, with its rich past, is following in the worst tradition of cultural institutions under dictatorships, who throw out artists who cause trouble and condemn them to silence"....Referring to the decision to cancel Mr. Handke's play, Ms. Jelinek said, "Behavior like this is the worst possible way of doing justice to the victims of the Milosevic regime."

Let's see if others follow suit. I'm aware that the European left has always been accused of being soft on Milosevic. (A vestige of Soviet sympathies?) But free discourse is free discourse. And writers such as Jelinek--whose own confrontational depictions of sex and violence have been controversial--rightly recognize it could be them next.

If anyone out there has good French or German, I welcome any relays of press reports there. (I don't really trust Google translator.) Otherwise, I hope NYT has a reporter on the case and will soon bump this up from the "Arts Briefly" ghetto, where it sits alongside such other important news as their 50th piece on the travails of Pete Doherty!

UPDATE: Bloggers Alison Croggon and Ben Ellis beat me to the punch and have far more info than I. So please read them. Handke's politics do indeed seem...challenging to say the least. And I don't want to be naive about how repellant he might be. A veritable genocide-denier, according to Alison:

Handke's politics have literally caused riots since the early 1990s. In 1997 he released A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia, a short, hallucinatory book which argued that the Srebrenica massacres never happened...

Alison also has an interesting take on the Comedie still being more honorable than NYTW in their position, laying everything out straight from the beginning. Perhaps. Leave it to a state institution to show us how censorship is done by the pros.