The Playgoer: August 2006

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Thursday, August 31, 2006

Quote of the Day

" we take the critic’s (or media outlet’s) word that s/he is qualified to express an expert opinion? Or do we not see critics as “experts”, but simply as citizens like ourselves who have the good fortune to have a larger mouthpiece? Do we build trust with a critic over time – e.g., we see things about which they have written, and find ourselves agreeing with them – and how seriously do we take a “betrayal” of that trust? In the democratizing days of the internet, anyone can set themselves up a web-site, say “”, call themselves a critic, and issue their opinion to as many people as are willing to read it. How does this affect our notion of critics?"

-Steppenwolf Literary Manager Ed Sobel (on the neato Steppenwolf blog)

Have at it, "" people!

Hedy Weiss speaks NYT's Campbell Robertson.

And dare I say, she might have a point? Her controversial review of a workshop evening hardly came out of the blue, since she had been invited (and written more positive pieces) many times before.

[Ms. Weiss] and others have written features about Stages in the past, and in recent years Ms. Weiss has written reviews as well.

The reviews came as a surprise, said Joan Mazzonelli, the executive director of Theater Building Chicago. But no one objected, and Ms. Weiss was always invited back.

This year, Ms. Weiss’s review of Stages, which ran on Aug. 16, three days after the festival, was far more disapproving than in previous years.

So it was only when she wrote a bad review that there were objections. The theatre company itself seems to have been giving lots of mixed signals, and it wasn't even them who complained, but the Dramatists Guild, on behalf of the authors.

In a written response to the guild’s letter, Ms. Weiss said that she had reviewed the festival in the past without objection and no one had told her she could not review it this time. She also said the festival was a public event, with an advertising campaign and tickets. (A ticket to one performance cost $15.)

“If you are given a press kit and if you are given pictures,” she asked in a telephone interview yesterday, “what are you supposed to do with them?”

Good question. So what was Theatre Building Chicago thinking?
Theater Building Chicago sits quietly in the middle of this tempest. Ms. Mazzonelli has distanced herself from the Dramatists Guild, acknowledging that she had not made the festival’s policy clear to Ms. Weiss, whom she had encouraged to attend, along with other members of the press.
I'm all for the prinicple of enforcing a safe space for work to be developed without immediate criticism. But also without press or p.r. buzz of any sort. As nonprofit companies become more desperate about marketing, they may forget you can't expect to have one without the other.

Lots more on the Chicago blogs. (Including Weiss' full response.) Lots of stored up bile against Weiss anyway which this seems to have given vent to.

UPDATE: Rob Kozlowski does the homework of comparing Weiss' pieces on the same workshop from last year and persuasively illustrates that she has now crossed a line.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Philly Flap (Artist vs Critic II)

First Chicago, now Philadelphia is having a critic controversy of their own. A bunch of local theatre artists have started their own blog(!) as a check and watchdog over the self-proclaimed "bitch of broad street" Toby Zinman. Read about it in Philadelphia Magazine ("Your Guide To The Good Life," apparently.)

Funny no one here has done that for Mssrs. Brantley & Isherwood. Nobody full time, that is...

"A Streep Cart Named Desire"

The title of Michael Feingold's review, out on newstands today. Verdict: highly critical, yet certainly "fair and balanced," if you will, with lots of praise for Streep in principle, but stressing the big, big flaws here. Also, some thought provoking remarks on the American theatre's problems with Brecht.

But most eye-popping to me was this nuggest of information I had never heard before about BB:

Courage's hard eye for a bargain, her shifting allegiances, and her crafty ability to talk her way out of any situation are not merely conceptual: Brecht found these elements in himself, not in his historical sources. When he first drafted the play in 1939, he had three acknowledged children; his eldest son, Frank, was killed fighting for the Nazis on the Russian front in 1943—a fact surely as relevant to the play as any definition of "alienation effect."

As Feingold makes clear, Brecht the writer and Mother Courage the play have only gotten more compelling with time, not less. And anyone who suggests this production simply does the best it can with a creaky old political tract is doing a disservice to both.

Hard to remember the last time a major production divided critics so much. I'd say the trend has been negative among the heavy hitters, but the broader spectrum (including bloggers) includes significant praise. I also have a hunch (just a hunch) that it's the younger critics you have liked it more. (I'm thinking of NY Mag's McCarter and Time Out's Feldman, certainly smart guys.) Brantley, Feingold, McNulty, Jenkins, and Marks, are hardly old. But just old enough to have a stronger impression of what Brecht meant in the 60s and 70s in their minds.

I suppose at this moment it's appropriate to reveal that I'm 36. Just an old codger at heart, I guess.

Anyway, Rob Kendt has been keeping a full tally (here and here), including, imagine, a critique of my review!

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Downtown-Uptown Update

In case you're wondering how Kiki & Herb is actually doing on Broadway, the answer is: about 50% capacity. According to Playbill's most recent B'way grosses, the show enjoyed a good spike of 6% in business after only 46% last week, which still only takes it to 52%. Keep in mind that it's at the Helen Hayes Theatre, which is the absolute smallest Broadway house at 597 seats. (The minimum seats to qualify as "Broadway" is 500.)

So, to do the math, 50% of 600 seats is...300 people a night. That's SRO downtown, let alone the club venues Kiki & Herb started in. But on Broadway that cannot sustain a show. Even a no-set, no-director, one-piano, two-hander. Luckily, with a limited run like this they don't have to worry about sustaining. But the lesson of this--coupled with the fizzing of Well in the spring--will clearly be, there's not enough audience "uptown" for downtown material. Or at least when the advertised ticket price is $87.50, as it is for K & H. (Although, as I like to keep repeating, even the $25 balcony at Well was more than 2/3rds empty when I went.)

Is this lesson a shame? Depends on where you stand. Personally, I hope it makes even clearer how wide the aesthetic divide now is between commercial and downtown theatre, and how difficult the once dreamed of "crossover" has become. And "Kiki & Herb" is hardly the Wooster Group! It's a riff on a cabaret act, meant to be enormously entertaining.

(Defining "downtown" in an even broader sence--the Atlantic's production of McDonagh's "Lieutenant of Inishmore," which in a healthy theatre culture would be typical of commercial fare, is shutting down its Broadway transfer this Sunday after also struggling around 50%-60% for four months. This week it was at 48%, albeit in a much larger theatre.)

Kiki & Herb has been open for over two weeks now and was blessed with a rave from Ben Brantley the next day. It is August, when the audience is even a greater percentage of tourists than usual. But even so, the show got all the hype and good buzz it could hope for.

And as for the argument that Broadway ticket buyers just don't want to see a man in a dress, how do you explain Dame Edna? Oh right, (s)he's British. And straight.

(correction: while the character Dame Edna is British, Mr. Barry Humphries is an Aussie.)

Chicago Criticism Craziness

Chi-town theatre is abuzz with the scandal of old time Sun Times critic Hedy Weiss writing full--and cranky--reviews of a bunch of new musicals presented as a workshop. John Weidman of the Dramatists Guild has taken this on full force and made this national.

Says Weidman:

Your food critic would not judge a restaurant by bulling her way into the kitchen and tasting the dishes when they were half-cooked. Playwrights, composers, and lyricists deserve the same consideration.
Big name playwrights (Kushner, Albee) are lining up to vent their own outrage over the incident.

For the word on the street, close to the ground, go to the "Angry White Guy" Don Hall, here and here.

I don't sense this is a common problem. And Weiss was clearly in the wrong. Perhaps, as an older generation of critic, she just still doesn't get the idea of workshop. Whatever the reason, this sounds like irresponsible criticism, and these individual artists were betrayed.

Still, in the age of juggernaut development venues like Fringe NYC, I think this also should prompt workshop & play development folks to think again before they mega-market their "works in progress." Not that this was necessarily the case here, but when you hire press agents and rev up the media attention, are you sending a mixed message when you ask not to be reviewed?

Ashland Up Close

Kate Taylor continues her excellent reporting on the business of professional theatre in the NY Sun with an up-close look at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, particularly from the actor's perspective:

Ashland, Ore., the home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, is a small town with a population of around 20,000. The theaters are full, and the audiences — the majority of whom are from California, Oregon, and Washington — enthusiastic. But Ashland is definitely off the radar of New York casting agents. Working here isn't like doing a stint at the Williamstown or Berkshire Theatre Festivals, where well-known New York actors regularly do shows in the summer.

What Ashland offers, however, is significant: a warm, supportive community, a chance to play an unusual variety of roles, and, not least, a degree of job security almost unknown in the theater world. The festival runs between February and October. Depending on which shows he's in, an actor will get a six-, eight-, or ten-month contract. The starting Equity salary is $750 per week, and actors who have been in the company a long time make much more.

It's not easy to get in: Hundreds of actors audition each year for only a handful of Equity positions. But once you're accepted, you're basically part of a family, and, as long as things go well, you're asked back for each subsequent season. Several actors have been in the company for more than 15 seasons, and a few for more than 20.

Whatever hope there is for stability in professional theatre employment comes from nonprofit companies like this, which, in turn, depend on a healthy regional theatre climate across all 50 states.

Ashland is also notable in how successful it is. Some of this is grants. A lot of it, frankly, is very wealthy donors. And both the cause and effect of all this has been reportedly a very safe, conservative aesthetic. (They're our Stratford festival, our "Slings and Arrows.") But as Taylor's article shows, keeping good professional actors steadily employed is an important goal in any serious theatre culture.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Somebody Stop Him


The Daily Mail reported Andrew Lloyd Webber plans to write a musical based on the Russian novel, "The Master and Margarita," Mikhail Bulgakov's fantastical tale of the Devil, a talking cat, Christ and Pontius Pilate, a tormented writer named Master and a girlfriend named Margarita, who becomes a witch...

Lloyd Webber entered the following entry in his blog Aug. 25: "After six months of agonising about what I should write next I am going to attempt the impossible. I am going to see if I can turn Mikhail Bulgakov's extraordinary novel 'The Master and Margarita' into a stage musical or, more probably, an opera...

I am very aware that this will be almost certainly the most ambitious undertaking I have ever embarked upon. It will therefore almost certainly falter and will depend on who my collaborators are..."

Yes, and on whether Lord Webber can find a sense of humor. And some irony.

What's this blog, you say?

more "On the Road"

An interesting array of letters in Sunday's Times responding to last week's analysis of troubles with Broadway road tours. Kudos to these non-New Yorkers for standing up for their resident companies, our true "national theatre":

To the Editor:
Re “Lost in America” [Aug. 20]:

David Leonhardt’s article misses the most important reasons Broadway shows aren’t doing well on the road.

Much of what travels the country are the “tired revivals” he mentions — sometimes with stripped-down productions and lesser-known performers — and at Broadway-level ticket prices. It should come as no surprise that serious theater lovers are staying away.

Furthermore, many cities are home to exciting resident theater companies of their own. Some of the best theater in the country is being done at such companies in Boston, Chicago, Seattle and Minneapolis, and sophisticated theatergoers there are probably supporting those organizations rather than paying double the price for the uninspired fare coming out of Broadway.

Janet M. Bailey

"No Contest"
To the Editor:

In Minneapolis we are lucky to have (among many other attributes) a glittering new Guthrie Theater that more than matches Broadway glitz with strengths like moving performances from the actors originally cast. Why would I want to spend $80 seeing a recycled Broadway show from two seasons ago when I can spend $50 to see a higher-quality production made just for me, right here and right now?

Rob Goudy
Edina, Minn.

As for the "pro-" side...

"Hardly Broken"

To the Editor:

David Leonhardt’s article ignores the continuing impact of international hits like “Mamma Mia!” For the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, the 2006-7 Broadway season is likely to be our strongest. Far from being “broken,” touring Broadway continues to provide a solid base for most arts centers, including ours. There are many reasons certain hits might not work on tour, but ignoring successful productions presents a distorted picture.

Judith Lisi

Tampa, Fla.
The writer is president of the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center.

Personally, I don't think massive attendance at the regional LORT theatres accounts for the road troubles of "Hairspray," but any excuse to make this case.

Meanwhile, as the Times also reported Saturday, in Arts, Briefly, Vegas continues to be a big fizz and hardly adding new life to "life beyond Broadway". Even for "Phantom":
“Phantom” is going to bed earlier in Las Vegas now. Because of lagging ticket sales, the producers of “Phantom: The Las Vegas Spectacular,” a 95-minute version of Broadway’s “Phantom of the Opera,” are scaling back late-night shows and starting remaining weekend productions one hour early, The Associated Press reported. The 1,800-seat, $40 million theater at the Venetian hotel, which opened with the show in June, has been more than a quarter empty for its 10 p.m. shows for much of August. Producers are trimming the number of 10 p.m. weekday performances from four to two and bumping the Saturday shows to 6 and 9 p.m., instead of 7 and 10. Some Sunday shows will start at 5 and 8 p.m., instead of 7. There will be 10 shows a week.

Yeah, not my idea of a Vegas "late show," either.

Friday, August 25, 2006

REVIEW: Mother Courage

Mother Courage and Her Children
by Bertolt Brecht
translated by Tony Kushner, music by Jeanine Tesori
directed by George C. Wolfe
produced by The Public Theater
at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park
running through September 3
photo: Michal Daniel

My main problem with this "Mother Courage" is simply how bland it is. This is quite a disappointment coming from director George Wolfe, who (during his long reign at The Public) both reinvented classics (The Tempest, On The Town) and cultivated exciting new and multicultural work (Bring in Da Noise, Fires in the Mirror, and his own classic Colored Museum). The last thing I expected from Woolfe would be a "Mother Courage" that looked like a 2nd-company road tour of a very conservative European state theatre (if there are any).

Hiring a bold showman like Wolfe to helm a "Mother Courage" outdoors in the park, with Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori collaborating, strikes me as a wonderful opportunity to really play with the play. I'm as reverent a Brechtian as they come, but if ever there were a chance to do something different with a classic, this special summer slot is it. Save the boring rep productions aping the Brecht model-books for the regular season. Imagine if Wolfe & co. devised a 90-minute "riff" on "Courage"--fully updated to reference Iraq (instead of the safe, pussy-footing winks Kushner drops into the current scripts). Now that would have been an "event."

Ok, no point in reviewing what they didn't do. Still, it's Wolfe's lack of imagination here that I want to focus on. I'm interested in how much the word "tired" has come up in other reviews so far--how tired Streep looks at the end, how tired the audience gets. To me, "tired" is exactly the adjective to describe how the whole enterprise comes off. Tired and grey. Let's take Streep's costume, for starters. Not that anyone expects "colorful" in Brecht--but she looks like a mailman! I could see the impetus for the look--a sort of Soviet-era pastiche, bringing out a gender-bending "toughness" in the character. But one need only compare the above photo side by side with images of the original Courage, Helene Weigel (AKA Faru Brecht), to see what's missing. Weigel's rags may also have been grey, but they made a powerful statement about the character's social situation and struggle. Streep's outfit I found cute, frankly--and so did she, it seemed, from all the fun she had cocking her hat and puffing Cook's pipe like Popeye the Sailor Man. In short, what's missing from her characterization--and the whole vision of the show--is the direness of the stakes, the desperation of everyone involved.

Scenically, Riccardo Hernandez (also usually more creative) has laid out, once again, a textbook "Brecht 101" set of wooden planks and turntable stage. The famous "wagon" looks just like you expect it to look. (Again, browse around here.) Unfortunately, none of it seems to fit comfortably on the crowded Delacorte stage, which only adds to the obligatoriness of it all. There's nothing wrong, of course, with all these Brechtian trappings per se (after all, they're part of what made Brecht Brecht). But here they're not employed to any useful effect (alienation or otherwise). Something half-assed about "quoting" these qualities without activating them. I got excited when Wolfe suddenly had a modern jeep drive onstage to deliver the corpse of Eilif in a chillingly modern and mechanistic manner. That was because I could finally feel Wolfe was excited. Making a choice instead of following a playbook. But such refreshing choices were isolated and few and far between.

The period setting also raises some issues here. A proudly, eclectically anachronistic setting could have worked--borrowing freely, anarchically from wars present and past. But this was still 80% 17th century, with things like the mailman's hat and the jeep thrown in as afterthoughts. Again, lack of commitment.

Tesori's music certainly was working on the eclectic side. I'm surprised critics haven't picked up on the clear Sondheim touch in her "Song of Capitulation"--a fitting Broadway style equivalent to Brecht's "shrug" of a song. But the Broadwayness of the score throughout became a problem for me. As Peter Marks has argued, the songs become "numbers." I originally complained they didn't "fit"--but of course I realize Brecht didn't want the songs to "fit" in a classic Rogers & Hammerstein way. Still, they should conceptually fit what you're trying to say in the production. Wolfe and Tesori (and presumably Kushner, who wrote the English lyrics) have obviously agreed on an approach that casts each song as a different musical genre, alternating between Sondheim, blues, vaudeville, and then some classic "Brechtian" pastiche of Weill and Dessau for good measure. The result is an impressive versatility--but no unified vision. And more a comment on the history of American musical theatre than economic imperatives behind war.

Speaking of the blues, that's for the songs of the prostitute Yvette. Another rare Wolfe "stamp" in the production is the conception of the character and the casting of African-American actress Jennifer Lewis. Lewis does a terrific job. But are her blues numbers a bit too pleasing? Is her persona a bit too winning and crowd-pleasing? Yvette is not necessarily the raisonneur(se) and straight talker of the play--just another businessperson out for herself. But that gets lost if the audience is waiting for them to bring on more Yvette for an encore... However, this Yvette could have worked better if, again, the whole production were similarly updated and reconceived for a 21st century American idiom. That Yvette had so much attitude and the rest of the production was so grey (or, frankly, white) says it all.

Wolfe makes another stab at his own kind of theatricality in the climactic moment of Katrin's death. I suppose this is something of a "spoiler" since none of the reviews I've read go into detail. But when you see "Flying By Foy" in the program, you can already anticipate what's going to happen. In a moment that obviously seems to recall his most famous collaboration with Kushner, Katrin transforms into an "angel" when shot down from the roof--a nice enough idea if it didn't have to be executed so clumsily. I know Brecht liked us to see stage mechanics-- but watching a stagehand hook Katrin up pages before her big moment (so that she continues to play much of the scene in the harness), well that just doesn't fly in any aesthetic. Plus, again, there was no such "magic" anywhere else during the three-plus hours. In fact, it was a telling glimpse of Wolfe the romantic bursting through the faux-Brechtian facade he had been putting up all evening. And as ill-suited as his romantic temperament may be to Brecht--I would have welcomed it for its honesty if he had unleashed it more consistently throughout.

Again, had Wolfe really let loose, this could have been a wild, heretical, and thoroughly un-Brechtian "Mother Courage" but still exciting theatre. In this vein, I think back to Scott Elliott's scandalous "Threepenny Opera" at the Roundabout a few months back. On the one hand, you can look at these two mega-productions together and conclude that it's sad two of our premiere NYC theatre institutions--who have the best of everything at their disposal--can't get Brecht right. On the other--I'll still maintain Elliott's was certainly the more watchable, interesting, and brave of the two, even if it was totally wrong. I'll take strong and wrong over safe and lame.

I will say that the much-commented upon length of "Mother Courage" is not the problem. It's a long play, deal. While I would have been interested in a radical reimagining and recutting, if you're going to do the play as written, it will be this long, probably. But the fault for making the play feel long is Wolfe's. A more unifying vision (even if the elements are, by Brecht's design, disparate and disjointed) can help. And more prominent theatrical through-lines to take us through the evening--a greater visual focus on the imagery of goods, exchange; leaner storytelling in the translation; a less cluttered stage; a more consistent musical voice.

And ultimately a more seismic, compelling central performance. After this and The Seagull, I'm beginning to question Streep's suitability for the stage after all. I missed out on her early triumphs at Yale and in the Papp Public days. But in these two appearances, she still seems to be playing in close-up. Her voice and body are expressive, but the former thin and the latter cautious. She expresses Courage's cynicism in a half-hearted chuckle--but what she needs is a true Brechtian social gestus that comes out of her whole physical action. It's simply not a big enough performance. (My first thought at intermission was that Patti LuPone is doing this role much better in "Sweeney Todd." Heretical, I know.)

The show has its supporters, for sure. (Rob Kendt has documented, and stayed on top of the response better than I tried here and here.) And to be fair, I can see how if someone just loves the play and wants to hear it and see it done in a textbook, non-intrusive fashion (free of directorial concept) this could satisfy whatever conservative taste there possibly can be for Brecht anyway. (Hence, John Simon's rave!) But an opportunity was missed here to take ownership of this play in an American, 21st century idiom, to take advantage of the civic spectacle of a free performance in a public space and claim it for our unique moment in history, when a war is tearing us apart at home and quite possibly leading to the downfall of the American Empire. Instead we get a perfectly respectable Brecht--which I'm sure is the last thing he would have wanted right now.

What a Fringe is For?

"This is a wonderful chance for companies to really develop a show in front of an audience, but often it simply doesn't happen. Instead of saying, 'OK, what we've got is interesting, but it could be a whole lot better with some really hard graft,' once Edinburgh is over many people simply move onto the next project. At best, they take some of the skills learned with them, but this lack of attention to process means that potentially great shows never realise their promise. In the end we are all the losers."

- Guardian blogger Lyn Gardner, reminding us that Fringe fests are valuable for truly developing work, not just showcasing it.

Of course, true development would require low overhead cost and less public-eye exposure and hype.

ADDENDUM: According to a Jason Zinoman article in Saturday's Times, things at Fringe NYC are getting one more step further away from this ideal:

On Sept. 5, two producers who have presented at the Fringe will inaugurate a new series that provides audiences with a second chance to catch the most buzzed-about shows, which are often sold out (or gone) by the time you hear of them. Ten of the audiences’ and critics’ favorites from the current festival will run in repertory at two downtown theaters through Sept. 24 in what the organizers, Britt Lafield and John Pinckard, say will become an annual showcase called FringeNYC Encores. For the Fringe, this provides another opportunity for its shows to be noticed by producers and earn a possible commercial transfer.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Quote of the Day

"This is more like what a Fringe should be. There's no point having a Fringe Festival in which people only go to see acts who are already popular. That would be a mainstream festival, not a Fringe. At a Fringe people should be able to take risks. With the Free Fringe, they can."

-One Peter Buckley Hill, who has engineered a "Free Fringe" insurgency at Edinburgh this year. No admission price. No rental price. Read how he did it.

Light blogging today. Tune in tomorrow.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

"Problem Like Maria"

For those dying to know what's going on with Lord Lloyd Webber's grand TV experiment, "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria," Playbill is running dispatches from a tellly-watching correspondent in the UK.

Some eyebrow-raising excerpts:

Sparing no visible expense, the Lord's converted a 17th-century church into a compact, state-of-the-art theatre where the show's sacrificial lambs can strut their stuff. Predictably, nerves cripple many previously perfect high notes as surely as a shot of Mace. But if the singing, to be charitable, is scattershot, a vital, 30-second acting test proves even more of a lottery.

Mercifully, there is a Lord, besides the composer himself, and today, he's evidently stoking the seeds of human kindness. Film director Michael Winner ( ironically enough, of "Death Wish" fame) considers the whole premise "a great idea." Even more encouragingly, singer Cilla Black—a contemporary of the Beatles—draws parallels between how she and the Fab Four were head-hunted by Brian Epstein in a 60s take on Webber's quest. "You can't hide talent," she States. "If you've got it, it shows."

If it's already a freakshow over there, just imagine the NBC version!

More "Courage"

A commenter may be right that I was premature in declaring a "consensus" nay-vote in the Mother Courage reviews. According to said comment, some defenders include John Simon (behind firewall), USA Today (where do they hide their theatre reviews?), and Time Out (still not available online). A significant one that is linkable is David Rooney's in Variety:

Is Streep a perfect fit for the part? On the surface, no. She's too refined and delicate to be a natural for coarsened survivor Anna Fierling, nicknamed Courage after she drove her merchandise cart through the cannon fire at Riga. But from the moment she comes into view, yelling "Retail!" as she hawks her wagonload of wares in song, Streep's Mother Courage is riveting. This is a full-bodied, swaggering characterization, emboldened by fierce intelligence, quicksilver emotional shifts, inexhaustible physicality and, most of all, sly humor...

With its inorganic, vaudevillian songs and key action stated in advance of each sharply differentiated scene, the episodic play largely defies fluid presentation. Wolfe and Kushner have nevertheless fashioned the ambling narrative into a reasonably trenchant three hours, albeit with some sluggish patches.

Another positive comes from blogger Joshua James.

On the other side, Jeffrey Eric Jenkins--Mr "Best Plays" himself--in his Seattle P-I column, take his place with the contrarians, including faulting Kushner's work:

For all of its relevance and sharp humor, however, it seems as though neither Kushner nor Brecht have found the sharpest focus for their argument. In this regard, the two great playwrights are less than ideal collaborators. Brecht's construction of this work includes in each scene a transaction (some are personal, others financial) and a lesson. Although Kushner smoothes the bumps of the original German, he also might have trimmed 30 to 45 minutes from the play, making those lessons more stimulating to consider.

Indeed, while the political bond is clear and Kushner bears Brecht's influence in many ways, the former is a notorious overwriter and the latter a taciturn man of "blunt tactics."

And speaking of blunt, here's one more nix, from ex-Times man Peter Marks in the WaPo:
Direct satirical hits, however, are scored only very sporadically in this high-profile, low-impact production. As directed by George C. Wolfe, the theatrically adventurous Brecht comes across as surprisingly toothless. The wait for something to catch fire onstage proves as futile as hanging around the box office hoping for last-minute seats.
He also makes the fine point that Brecht's songs "overproduced" as "outright musical numbers," a point I hope to take up later.

I must say, I've noticed over the last week this site has been receiving an unually high number of hits, with yesterday a peak. I can only assume it's because this show has become topic-A in American theatre this slow August.

Let the debate rage on!

Broadway "Fucked"

From Michael Riedel today:

The League of American Theaters and Producers has nixed the song that the cast of the upcoming musical "Spring Awakening" wants to sing Sept. 10 at the "Broadway on Broadway" concert in Times Square.

The title: "Totally F - - - ed."

"It's our signature song," says producer Ira Pittelman. "The League debated about a week but then turned us down." So Pittelman's put forth another number: "The Bitch of Life."

No word yet on whether the League can stomach that one.

Remember, that's the league that's now run by this person.

Don't want to offend anyone staying at a Loews Hotel, do we...

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Unstoppable Hits (please stop them)

Time Out's Cote and Feldman ask the immortal question: So what is the deal with I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change? And other inexplicable perennial little hits that no one you know has seen yet run forever. Sadly, these oddities seem to be all that's left of commercial Off-Broadway.

Well, in case you were wondering how terrible they were, the TONY duo took a hit for us all and offer some capsules. "Blue Man" gets the highest rating of 4 out of 6 stars. "Naked Boys," "Stomp," and "Perfect Crime," don't fare as well.

Mother Courage reviews

The notices are in...and pretty much reflect the show I saw two weeks ago.

I'll try to follow up this week with a fuller review, but meanwhile, here are some links and quotables:

Brantley, NYT (predictably kind to the star and director, but can't give it a yes):

"Do these elements cohere into a fully integrated and affecting portrait? No. The performance becomes a seamless, astonishing whole only when Ms. Streep sings the Brechtian songs that have been newly (and effectively) scored by Jeanine Tesori....As for the rest of the production, well, you can see what the brilliant Mr. Wolfe is going for and speculate on what he might have achieved with more time."
Grode, NY Sun (telling it like it is):

"'Mother Courage and Her Children,' currently attracting daily hordes of ticket-seeking fans to Central Park, is indisputably an event. It is also a ramshackle, stomping gloss on Bertolt Brecht's 1949 anti-war masterwork, albeit one sprinkled with the occasional flash of stage poetry. It is a brainstorming session trying to pass itself off as a thoughtful production. It is, put simply, a damn mess and a damn shame...

"Rather than focus on these would-be coups de theatre, Mr. Wolfe's prodigious creative energies might have been better spent suggesting, as diplomatically as possible, that the leads spend a little extra time on memorization....Seeing this lack of preparedness with just one actor is a shock. When it happens with all three leading actors, all of whom have extensive classical experience, something is seriously wrong. Was Mr. Kushner thrusting new pages into their hands minutes before curtain? Was there not enough rehearsal time? (Mr. Kline was a late replacement.) Or did Mr. Wolfe just not have it in him to ask his glittery cast to learn their lines?"

So far, there's one thumbs-up, though, from Frank Scheck in the Post (just happy to be there?):

"Streep, fresh from her "Devil Wears Prada" turn, registers yet another triumph as Mother Courage. She isn't a natural fit for the hard-edged earthiness of the part: She has too much innate elegance to be fully convincing. Still, she gives a vibrant, powerful and highly entertaining performance that's compelling from start to finish -and even gets a chance to sing onstage again, for the first time in years.

As the cynical Cook, Kline delivers a relaxed natural turn that's highly appealing. His chemistry with his co-star, previously displayed in "Sophie's Choice" and the park production of "The Seagull" a few years back, is palpable. Among the standouts in the huge supporting cast are Austin Pendleton, wonderfully funny as the Chaplain (a physical bit involving his chopping wood becomes positively vaudevillian); Frederic Weller, impressively charismatic as the oldest son; and the strong-voiced Jennifer Lewis, who brings down the house with her solo number, "The Song of Fraternization."

Director Wolfe has delivered a powerful, fast-paced staging, which is of no small importance because of the play's three-hour running time (it ran even longer during its early preview days)."

Look out for more in the coming days. I'm especially looking forward to Feingold, McCarter, and Teachout. (Hopefully, Brustein in New Republic, too. Where is he?) So far, the trend is negative, but, as Scheck displays, people may be seeing very differerent shows.

Addendum: This just in from former Voice man Charles McNulty, filing a dispatch for his new LA Times readers. He echoes the already forming consensus, but in a different way, putting the problems in the context of the Public's growing commercialism:

Well, it's not the "Mother Courage" that our war-crazed moment calls for. But it just may be the one that our hasty, semi-committed, event-driven theater deserves.That may seem like an ungrateful thing to say considering the experience and good intentions that have gone into the offering.... [I]t would seem that the best and the brightest have been summoned.

But that is precisely the problem. These exceptional talents are expected to come together and smoothly operate in a theatrical idiom that, even modified for a sitcom sensibility, is at a remove from both the dogged realism and musical frivolity of our stages. Is it any wonder that the result is such a mishmash?

Monday, August 21, 2006

The Televised Open Call

Good for Mr Excitement for pursuing the union/AEA angle on the whole "Grease"/"Problem Like Maria" phenomenon of casting potentially non union actors as leads in a major professional production via a reality tv show.

He gets some answers from Equity. Which lead to more questions, of course.

The Public's Hard Sell

OK, I'm really, really trying hard not to sound like a conspiracy theorist on this. But bear with me.

Just yesterday I reported on the Times running a detailed article Sunday on what it's like to wait on line for Mother Courage tickets. Then, minutes, after I posted that, I heard the Times radio station digest the story, highlighting the frantic bidding for scalped tickets for CraigsList.

So imagine the eerie feeling I had opening my inbox this morning, when I get a message from the Times' "TicketWatch"--a recent internet advertising service by the paper, often offering ticket discounts via email--promoting what else but the Public's $150 Summer Sponsorships!

So whether coordinated or not, the message to NY Times readers, WQXR listeners, and TicketWatch subscribers (the perfect nexus of the well-to-do NYC cultural audience) is clearly: "You've heard about the massive lines. And the scalping. Now here's how you really get a ticket, and write it off!"

I understood that the Public was ramping up its promotion of the sponsorships this year. And it's appeared in some print ads for the Delacorte shows. But this email blast is the most aggressive I've seen. I was also surprised because the Public press office told me, when I asked how the sponsorships were selling that they had almost none left. That was two weeks ago.

It's possible then that the purpose of this campaign at this late date (the show end September 3) is not so much to raise money for this year as to plant this in the minds of those who can afford it for next year. In other words, this is becoming a fixture. And--to judge from the ad and from the fact yesterday's article didn't mention them--people still don't generally know about these sponsorships. Just what will happen when the demand for these gets high? Especially if the Public ratches up the star quotient and keeps raising the buzz profile of the productions even more. And, at this point, the have every incentive to do so. And so on, and so on.

On the one hand, you certainly can't accuse them of keeping this a secret. The transparency is there. But still, I still think there's a lot to question on the principles of the whole enterprise, even though I seem to still be out on a limb on this one.

Think about this, for instance: the drive to sell more sponsorships is a drive to raise more money for the shows. In other words, to raise the budget. Yes, the cost of doing any large cast professional show in NYC is getting higher and higher. But it's clear from watching the last few years of shows that we have more high-salaried stars on stage and more toys for directors to play with. (Both elements came together most memorably watching a miscast Julia Stilles negotiate her way down Brian Kulick's inexplicable "Twelfth Night" waterslide.)

Yes, good actors sometimes are famous and need to be paid well. Yes, I'm for directorial freedom. But have we forgotten the simple fact that Shakespeare's original outdoor theatre had no scenery? Has the irony totally escaped us of, in the present case, a fundraising frenzy over a work by the man who is one of the heroes of "poor theatre"? (Not to mention a dire foe of capitalism.) The Public has taken it as a given that the budget for the Delacorte shows must keep rising because of a programming decision--an artistic decision--to produce lavish commercial-worthy shows there. If they remembered Joe Papp's initial spirit of doing Shakespeare in the Park out of a truck, maybe they wouldn't have to hawk so many $150 "indulgences" by luring the wealthy with the promise of not having to sweat in line with the rest of us, and then an extra 200 or so people might be able to get in each night for free.

By the way, the show itself officially opens tonight. Which makes this confluence of marketing and hype building no coincidence. Funny how the reviews will matter now. In the past, the Public stood to make no profit anyway, so they had no financial impact. But you can bet that folks contemplating putting down $150 a seat will check them out. Fingers are crossed, no doubt, in the development office over there. (Worth pointing out here the price is only $100 for those who subscribe to the whole season.)

Meanwhile, here's the text of the TicketWatch ad. For space, I edited out some things like the credits, cast list, etc.

TicketWatch: Don't Miss Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline in Mother Courage!


Become a Summer Sponsor Today!*

Each Summer Sponsorship is a 100% tax-deductible donation to The Public Theater's Shakespeare in The Park and entitles you to one reserved seat to Mother Courage and Her Children!


By Bertolt Brecht
Translated by Tony Kushner
Original music by Jeanine Tesori
Directed by George C. Wolfe
FEATURING: Raul Aranas[etc. ...]

In Brecht's seminal work we follow Mother Courage over a period of 12 years as one by one her children Kattrin, Eilif and Swiss Cheese are taken away by a vicious war. As Mother Courage seeks to profit from the war that is killing her children, she questions the roles of honesty, virtue and family in the face of a bitter struggle for survival.

Tues - Sun at 8 at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park

3 EASY WAYS TO BECOME A SUMMER SPONSOR: BY PHONE: Call the box office at 212-260-2400

ONLINE: Order online by clicking here

IN PERSON: Visit The Public Theater box office, 425 Lafayette Street. Box office hours: Tues-Sat 1-7:30pm, Sun & Mon 1-6pm

Summer Sponsors provide support for one of New York's most beloved summer
traditions and help keep Shakespeare in the Park free for new generations. Summer Sponsors may reserve seats for select performances of Shakespeare in the Park for a contribution of $150 per seat. These reserved seats are available only as long as supplies last to assure that the highest number of free seats are available for the general public on the day of the show.

*Certain black out dates apply. Summer Sponsorships are subject to availability. For information on FREE tickets, visit

ABOUT TICKETWATCH TicketWatch is an insider advertising e-mail providing special offers to the hottest shows on Broadway and beyond. Buy your event tickets online and look up venue information and seating maps with Theater Directory from

HOW TO ADVERTISEFor information on advertising in e-mail newsletters or other creative advertising opportunities with The New York Times on the Web, please visit our online media kit at: 500 Seventh Avenue NewYork, NY 10018

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

I'm sure part of the rationale for the program is that people now spend upwards of $100 for theatre tickets all the time. Not only for Broadway, but for the Public's summer rival, as it were, the Lincoln Center Festival, which has become the totally unabashed rich arts snob destination, charging $100 and up for the Synge and Mnouchkine marathons this year and last respectively. Wealthy people (and even me!) increasingly demonstrate the willingness to pay that much for what they perceive as a special event. So from the development/marketing end, this is a no-brainer for the Public. But it still disturbs me this is exactly the same mentality with which Broadway producers justified the $00+ "Premium" tickets--which many agreed was a problem! In short: Just because you can, doesn't mean you should.

My advice: Go for the $45 tix on CraigsList. If you can still find some.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

NYT on "The Line"

"Nothing is free in New York. Not even free theater."

They said it. Otherwise, just another portrait of the Mother Courage line as wacky adventure, in the Sunday Times metro section. (But on the theatre page online.)

Interesting info on the current CraigsList trade in tickets. But no mention of the more legit black market-esque "Sponsor" deal offered by the Public itself.

UPDATE: This story just got picked up by the Times radio station, WQXR, on their 7pm headlines. Funny, all they mentioned was the Craigslist sales! (Expect massive trolling going on there tonight...)

A prediction is suddenly coming to me--the scalping will become the story of Mother Courage this summer, and the Public will, for the first time, have to address it. I'm sure it's always happened, but the 2001 "Seagull" was before the age of CraigsList. If there's some outcry against the unfairness of being beaten out on line by scalpers, the Public will have to respond and possibly change some policies, no?

The Bumpy Road

David Leonardt, normally a Times business columnist, has a big feature in Arts & Liesure today on the State of the Road, for touring Broadway shows. A good read.

One big point implied throughout is quite simply that the new B'way musicals may just be too gay or too Jewish to attract big "family" crowds in the heartland.

In New York, theatergoers — including some who are just visiting for a weekend from Rochester — are often excited to see something new and willing to be shocked just a little, producers and presenters say. A show of conceptual daring can succeed absent a compelling plot.

On the road the story matters more, spectacles play better, and the cultural boundaries are stricter. What might pass for normal on a movie screen can feel different when it is happening live. “The Full Monty” may have struggled because people assumed, incorrectly, that the show had full-frontal nudity. “Hairspray” revolves around a man playing a woman, while “The Producers” is heavy on jokes about Jews, Nazis and homosexuality.

“When you have a ‘Producers’ or a ‘Hairspray,’ even though it’s a very successful show, it’s not a family show,” said Mr. Nocciolino, the Rochester presenter, who also books theaters in Buffalo, Syracuse and a few other Northeastern cities. “It has appeal to the traditional theatergoer, but it doesn’t have as broad an appeal” as the 1980’s hits did.

“It’s not complicated,” he added. “Family shows play very well on the road.”

It's clear now that this was basically the problem with Avenue Q, even in "sin city" Vegas.

We have to qualify analyses like this by remembering that the audience that buys tickets to big touring musicals represents just a sliver of what we might consider a "theatre" audience in this country. (Especially since they are less likely to be interested in any other kind of drama.) But it's also clear from my experience, that such shows are what still inspire kids all over to dream of making it on Broadway, and so come to New York to train and audition, perhaps getting interest in other kinds of acting along the way. So in the sense of keeping Americans motivated to do theatre, then the road does matter.

Good Riddance to Press Screenings?

Seattle Post-Intelligencer's William Arnold has an original and valuable dissent from the current complaints over Hollywood's increasing avoidance of press screenings and circumvention of formal criticism:

Before the mid-'80s, films usually opened on Wednesday, and reviews were spread out through the following week. Press screenings were less common: neither "The Godfather" nor "Chinatown" had one.

Drive-in and other exploitation movies were never screened and rarely reviewed. Films were not faced with a make-or-break opening weekend, and a landmark film like "Bonnie & Clyde" could be saved by an outbreak of enthusiastic reviews well into its run.

Movies had a chance to breathe, and build. Critics saw most films with paying audiences, outside the influence of its publicist. The newspaper entertainment magazines were as likely to give their covers to a Frank Capra revival or a Truffaut film as whatever Hollywood threw at them that week.

It was a saner system.

The worst thing about the current model is that it allows the highest-profile movies, regardless of quality, to hog all the prime space in the entertainment pages. Thus we have such absurdities as a giant opening-day spread for a negative review of "Mission Impossible 3."

An end of the paradigm would end some of this tyranny. As we all know, critics have no impact on the success or failure of big Hollywood movies, so all the covers and
feature reviews we heap on the Harry Potters and Spider-Men are just a waste of

If Hollywood stops screening its tent-pole sequels, vacuous star vehicles and brainless thrillers for critics, maybe we can stop being a tool of the Hollywood publicity machine and start giving our attention to the movies that really need or warrant it.

So we may see Friday tab covers on "Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont" or Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth," while critically scorned biggies like "Pirates II" are relegated to brief reviews in the back of the Saturday papers, if reviewed at all.
Sounds good to me.

So I salute you, New Line Cinema, and your innovative decision to keep "Snakes on a Plane" from my sight until I can't give it the publicity it so clearly doesn't need. It surely wasn't your intention, but I suspect you've done the world of movies an enormous service.

For "Hollywood" read "Broadway"...? (For "MI:3" read "All Shook Up"?)

Saturday, August 19, 2006

New AD for Oregon Shakes

Bill Rauch has been named as the new Artistic Director of the mighty Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, OR.

Considering Rauch is one of the co-founders of the innovative community-based company Cornerstone Theater, this is quite an interesting move, and an encouraging (we hope) example of the cross-pollination of mainstream and edgier theatre. Ashland is a pretty "traditional" scene, so it will be interesting to see what Rauch brings.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Does the Fringe work?

From Variety:

Yet despite operating on an upstart's resources, the Fringe keeps growing. Even though it just got letterhead, the festival has seen ticket buyers increase at a rate of 10,000 per year since 2002. Season 10 should welcome almost 70,000 people.
Reader June has been speculating in Comments as to the appeal of the Fringe beyond diehard festival nuts. ("Nuts" being my word, not hers.) Perhaps the performance she went to suffered from underattendance because the nature of the event, where 200+ shows are spread very thin, and often at odd times of the day.

But if Variety is right (and of course they are) a lot of people are buying tickets to these shows. Many more than we expect at downtown theatre usually.

But my sense of the Fringe is that a big bulk of the crowd (the part that aren't regular theatre people) are personal friends of the performers, rangled into going. These audiences seem to have a nice time. But do they come back to these spaces during the year?

Fringe NYC has done a fantastic "brandnaming" themselves and becoming a "destination." (The Variety piece--worth reading--is a classic "success story.") For non-Broadway theatre they have extraordinary name recognition. Note how much easier it becomes to get someone to see your show in August when you say it's part of the Fringe. And all this with, frankly, a relatively low level of, shall we say, "quality control." (Fringe shows are selected by pitch, not on sight, remeber.)

So while I could lament that the Fringe hasn't "raised all boats," proving the audience is just fickle and fairweather--perhaps we should all focus on learning from the Fringe's success instead. Why not spread the perception of a "permanent Fringe." In London the term "fringe theatre" does not designate a month but, basically, their entire "Off-Off" scene. Imagine if the Times featured a regular section (just a banner, really) called "Fringe Theatre." I think young people might read that. They certainly help promote the August Fringe. Why limit it to a month when no one's in town?

(Answer: because it's such a slow month, the press will cover anything?)

Addendum: I should add that the most extensive Fringe NYC coverage remains Martin Denton's So if you want to check something out, there are more reviews there than anywhere else.

"Snakes on a Plane" joke of the day

"Nearly a year ago, when New Line Cinema announced it was developing a horror movie called "Pacific Air Flight 121," its star, Samuel L. Jackson, went medieval on them: He thought the original working title, "Snakes on a Plane," was far better. "That's the only reason I took the job," he said. He was right. "Pacific Air Flight 121" could be the title of a good movie or a bad movie. But "Snakes on a Plane" is a genuine, old school Bad Movie title - capital 'B,' capital 'M.' "

- Kyle Smith, in yesterday's NY Post

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Weirdest arts-philanthropy site ever.

Whither Print Criticism

LA Times' Patrick Goldstein has an interesting think piece on the continual dissing of critics, particularly print critics, and particularly print film critics. Still, lessons may be applicable.

Culprit of the month, of course, is bloggers.

The media have been full of stories questioning the relevance of print critics in an Internet era that has ushered in a new democratization of opinion. The prospect of babbling blogmeisters being the new kingpins of cinema has left many critics in a sour mood. Reviewing a collection of critical essays by the long-time Village Voice jazz critic Gary Giddins, Time film critic Richard Schickel contrasted Giddins' work with "history-free and sensibility-deprived" bloggers who regularly "blurb the latest Hollywood effulgence."

So on the one hand we have the old guard like Schickel lumping us all together with gossip mongers and personal diarists. On the other you have the new wave militants like Jeff Jarvis, encouraging total war.
Old-school critics get little sympathy from their Internet brethren. Entertainment Weekly founder Jeff Jarvis, who writes the provocative BuzzMachine media blog, recently suggested that newspapers get rid of their critics, allowing their readers to share their opinions instead. "If I launched Entertainment Weekly today, I hope I'd have the sense not to propose starting a magazine by hiring a bunch of critics."

How about forums at least moderated by critics, Jeff?

The lack of imagination out there in envisioning a smart web-friendly criticism is disturbing.
While it's been marginalizing critics, the Internet has also leveled the playing field. On the Web, old-school credentials carry little weight. We look for a sharp, distinctive voice, not the heft of a master's degree.

Can't we encourage both? Finally, Goldstein gets around to just that.

If I were king I would firmly plant our critics in the new media world with blogs and podcasts, allowing them not only to have more of a dialogue with readers, but extend their influence by addressing timely topics.

If Variety reports, as it did Friday, that "Batman Begins" director Christopher Nolan is near a deal to remake "The Prisoner," the ultra-cool '60s TV series — I'd love to know what our critics think...

We need to get our critics up to 'Net speed. If studio marketers can spend weeks bombarding moviegoers with 30-second spots to glamorize their product, why should our reviewer almost always hold fire until opening day, long after most of the audience has formed its opinion, not to mention after most bloggers have had their say?We never let studios tell us when to run news stories or schedule feature pieces, so why defer to their preferences when it comes to running reviews? If the studios squawk, we can always review their marketing campaign, which would probably be a treat for readers and, in all too many instances, allow us to write about something far more interesting than the movie itself.

Yes, it's that simple. Give our best critics a blog. The Times apparently has a "no blogging" policy, so they don't seem to agree. However, they have started, letting AO Scott (on film) and Anthony Thommasini (on classical music) file daily dispatches while at festivals only on the online version, in between the "proper" reviews of the print edition. Funny that Ben Brantley hasn't done, say, a London blog during his trips there.

But then again, not all mainstream critics may like the idea of blogging. Too much pressure, perhaps. Filing a review every few days is much less time consuming. But, as Goldstein here suggests, that may become a luxury. To be on the front lines of criticism may mean to be out there criticising all the time. Just like all reporting in the new-media age.

(Terry Teachout, of course, remains the model of a mainstream theatre critic who has adapted--and exemplified--the new format.)

So Goldstein is definitely worth a read. Definitely some valuable take-away facts along the way that might be applicable to theatre--specifically to the vexing question of young audiences. Such as:
According to New Line marketing chief Russell Schwartz, "younger moviegoers want the immediacy of text messages or voice mail. A review from one of their peers is more important than a printed review from a third party they don't know, which is how they would describe a critic."

Hence why rave reviews in the Times still won't bail out a hip new show like "Well" or get young folk out to see The Wooster Group who never have heard of them otherwise. Outside of theatre people, reviews may just not be on the hipster radar anymore.

Also, can't resist passing on this nugget:
To add insult to injury, studios have released a record number of films this year without any press screenings — two last weekend alone, with another, New Line's "Snakes on a Plane," due Friday. Warners also has a no-screening plan for Neil LaBute's "The Wicker Man," which arrives Sept. 1.

Poor Neil. Just a few years ago John Lahr was hailing him as the greatest playwright of his generation. Now he makes schlock horror films that studio is afraid to show to Roger Ebert.

15+ Hours

From today's "Arts, Briefly":

Waiting for ‘Mother Courage’

Since Bertolt Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children,” starring Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline, began performances on Aug. 8 at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, lines have begun forming the night before for free tickets, which are distributed on the day of the performance, beginning at 1 p.m. On Tuesday night the first hopeful turned up at 9:30, said a spokesman for Shakespeare in the Park, presented by the Public Theater; more often, ticket seekers begin to appear around midnight in the park and at the Public Theater on Astor Place, where tickets are also available. And with the show playing to capacity (1,880), a standby line gathers at the theater at show time in case of cancellations. The play runs through Sept. 3. Such extraordinary ticket demand was last seen in 2001, when Ms. Streep and Mr. Kline starred in Chekhov’s “Seagull.”

I remember at The Seagull when you went to see the show at 8pm, you could already see the line forming for the next day.

On the one hand printing this is a public service, vital information for anyone interested in seeing the show to know. On the other, it's also unavoidable that this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Once you hear of one person getting there at 9:30pm, you want to get there two. And you bring two friends. And so on...

The result? More buzz for the Public. More grief for the public.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Casting by Reality Show

In case you wondered just how much Andrew Lloyd Webber's fingerpints are all over the newly announced NBC show "You're the One We Want" the answer is...everywhere. So much so that Lord Lloyd Webber is taking legal action for not getting credit, having started and hosted the current BBC hit "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria."

To catch you up, the idea of "Maria" was to hold open auditions for the starring role in Lord Lloyd Webber's latest venture--a West End "Sound of Music" revival--in the form of an American Idol (or to give credit to the Brit original, Pop Idol) freakshow. Now NBC will do a similar show to cast the two leads for the upcoming Broadway revival of Grease.

According to Michael Riedel's sleuthing on this today, Lloyd Webber is claiming one of his associates went to NBC behind his back, even though they agreed to approach NBC together. Also, he claims it was he--Lloyd Webber--who suggested that the American spinoff specifically cast for a production of "Grease."

So, if true, isn't there something interesting about that? It seems to imply there was no projected Kathleen Marshall-directed Broadway revival of "Grease" before the show was hatched. Is this a production that exists only to set up the premise of an NBC reality show???

Of course, being a TV show contest, it will be the viewers, not the director, who choose the winners--thereby controlling that process we in the theatre biz call "casting." You know, that thing that 90% of a show is proverbially supposed to depend on? How does Kathleen Marshall, feel about the fact that, as NBC announces, "America will ultimately get to choose the two leads," and not her?

Another interesting question is that posed by Mr. Excitement about the union implications of all these, in effect, highly publicized open calls. Just how do AEA and AFTRA feel about this?

I know, it's just "Grease." And it's just Broadway, where nothing should surprise us anymore. But it's notable how many concessions are being made here, to accomodate what must be a huge expectation of profit. As well as, I'm sure, a sincere hope that such a high-profile stunt will bring theatre--musical theatre, that is--back into the pop culture mainstream.

Young Audiences follow-up

I'd like to piggyback on some of the many thought provoking comments so far on my post over the weekend on the problem of young people not being theatregoers.

I definitely agree with Contrapositive that seeing BAD theatre (or should I say, lame theatre) may be right up there as the number one cause of the current apathy. We're talking about how one's impression can be formed by clumsy amateur high school experiences--or stuffy professional shows you were bussed in from school to see with your class. But even in adulthood, without good inspiring examples and positive experiences, who blames people for not going out of their way to find more? Who knows what to do about that. There's always been bad theatre. But at least it raises the imperative to make the conditions all around more conducive to good theatre. (The hiring of good actors, good spaces, etc.)

This is where media comes in, too--in spreading the word when something really, really is good. So we know to take our apathetic friends to it.

Another problem in what makes for a bad theatre experience is bad seats. Uncomfortable seats, bad air conditioning in summer, sure. But I'm thinking of when all one can afford is the last row of a Broadway balcony for a very intimate play. No wonder that at even some of the finest shows (The Weir, for example) some still wonder what all the fuss was about.

Let me insert here a mantra of mine: Nothing will turn a theatre skeptic around faster than a good affordable front row seat in front of a great actor.

Speaking of...Carnieboy raises lots of interesting and valuable theoretical points about the power of acting. However, I honestly don't think poor training or lazy actors (actors who could be doing better work, that is) is really the problem. In New York, at least, there are many, many finely trained stage actors doing great work. Problem is, as many as there are, they're still spread too thin in this massive scene of ours. Plus, they need to eat, so they're not all working on showcase codes.

The result is, most of what you see downtown can't get access to enough of those actors to make that kind of magic Carnie speaks of happen often enough. The "bad acting" I see most often on our smaller stages does not reflect lack of training so much as lack of talent. That is, lack of such essential natural gifts as a strong presence, imaginative characterization, and intense engagement with stage action. Anyone who's done a non-equity casting call in NYC will probably agree you feel lucky to see just a few people who have those qualities, no matter how much or little formal training they may have.

As for uptown acting, I'll conceded the problem there is blandness, probably the result of a cookie-cutter, success driven ethic of our elite MFA programs, which results in lots of pretty people onstage looking pretty, but watchable only in that way. However--I don't think that's necessarily a turn off to our younger audiences. (Ah, but maybe they'll discover that on stage a pretty face does not a presence make. The voice and body become the source of charisma. This was most apparent in, to look at a Broadway opera, Baz Luhrmann's "La Boheme" whose stars looked hot on the poster, but oddly their thin voices made you realize how Pavoratti could ever become a sex symbol.)

So I don't think the answer is better acting schools. Again, it's how we create an economy that supports stage actors more consistently that lets them stay in NY (or work on regional stages) and pursue meaningful projects for scale pay without having to go west for pilot season every year.

There is something to the comment about the "feminine" associations of theatre. For young male audiences, at least. Hence all the hoopla in the NYT last year over "Glengarry" and "Spamalot," as well in those shows' own marketing. I'm not sure what the solution is. But I believe the kind of ignorant culturally illiterate he-man masculinity promoted by our current political leadership doesn't help much. It definitely has a ripple effect in the popular coverage--especially on TV--where you get the feeling theatre is for "fags." Hence the notorious outing of gay servicemen recently simply by associating them with "community theatre."

However, if this gender divide thing were true--why aren't the under-40 women saving the theatre, then?

As for Carnieboy's argument about theatre being too predictable (including plot, if I understand correctly), I'm not sure. Younger folks might fear a kind of blah-blah-blah, men-in-tights sameness to, say, classical theatre. (Yes "men in tights" brings up the gender thing again, doesn't it.) But I can say from experience that classic, famous plays do continue to draw. When I reflect on high profile (ok, Broadway) productions in recent years where I saw a noticeably younger and hipper audience, I think of Ralph Fiennes' Hamlet, Bernadette Peters in Gypsy, and Long Day's Journey. In each case I'm convinced that it was the "classic"/"classy" aspect of it all that was the draw. To see a classic musical or Shakespeare on the Great White Way with a big star is the Classic Broadway Experience, and they're willing to pay for that. At least once a year. (Or at least their parents paid for them, which I suspected in many cases.)

In other words--never underestimate the allure of the familiar.

If what the younger audience seeks is really unpredictability, nonlinear, trippy experiences--then they should go to the avant-garde, right? But they don't. They do go to Blue Man Group and De La Guardia for those reasons, yes. But what are we calling that.... No, I'm convinced that when it comes to theatre, even hippest of Gen X-ers and Y-ers--folks raised on a diet of David Lynch and Radiohead, even--are shockingly conservative. But maybe that's what happens when you grow up completely alienated from theatre and think it froze in the 50s.

Let me digress into a brief example--take a look at the marketing of The Lieutenant of Inishmore. LIke it or not, this is a young person's play if there ever was one. Violent, raucous, irreverent, both romantic and cynical. It features one of the greatest shoot 'em up sequences of stage violence ever choreographed (shout out to fight-man David Brimmer) that instantly invited comparison among early audiences to Tarrantino... So what became the official ad campaign when it transferred to Broadway? "Funny, Funny, Funny" say all the quotes. (Even "outrageous", which makes it sounds downright wacky.) That, and that there's a "surprise ending". Ooooh. But the violence comes up nowhere. Why? I'm sure it's because in the Broadway marketers minds, that would scare people away. Because--in their minds, at least--people who go to the theatre have been and will always be very middle of the road suburbanites. The radio ad I heard on WQXR for Lieutenant was very revealing: it featured a really grating very yuppie thirty-ish couple (because we all know it's wives who drag their husbands to the theatre) prattling on about how "funny" the show was. And, ooh, don't give away that ending. I imagined the kind of indie-film and indie-rock loving youngster we keep positing listening to this and wretching. And, thus, missing something he or she might actually have enjoyed if they heard it was "Kill Bill" meets "The Sopranos" by way of Ireland.

(Two caveats. Yes, a radio ad on the classical QXR is not aimed at a hip audience anyway. And the marketers would also counter--you have to aim at rich and middle aged yuppies because they're the only ones who can afford theatre tickets!...I will say it was a better ad than the first version I heard--of a guy literally doing a Lucky Charms impersonation while a straight man "translated" from the Irish.)

So here's our project--let's bring them our theatre hating friends up to date. Theatre doesn't have to be what they remember from high school, or what Broadway marketers tell them. Yes, take them to classic theatre when it's really well done. But also show them there are people their own age working for and writing in the theatre who are drawing on all the same rock and media references they are.

Fringe shout-out

If you're looking for stuff at the Fringe and have a deep nostalgia for Scandanavian 80s pop, then check out my friend Christine Simpson's moving one-woman memoir Take On Me: (adoption, addiction and a-ha).

It's A-Hoot! (Man, she should really make me her publicist.)

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Delacorte follow-up

Much thanks to the spirited comments on my complaints over the theory and practice of the Public's Free Shakespeare in the Park. I suppose I should offer some more constructive criticism, rather than just taking down what the Public does. And I also might as well state the "glass-half-full" sentiment that it is (in the abstract, at least) a good thing that over 30,000 people will see a major production of "Mother Courage" for free this summer. I readily acknowledge that fact.

But it is worth continuing to question how the Public handles this great responsibility the city has given it, in leasing to them the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park. Since this arrangement apparently necessitates that 75% of the tickets are distributed at no charge to the general population, then charging anything--even a more ultimately democratic $15 for everyone--is probably not a realistic alternative, at least not without a complete renegotiation of the lease. Still, for those of us unsatisfied with how the ticket distribution currently works, there's plenty of room for thought experiments and other tinkering suggestions.

Reader "Cashmere," for instance, suggested the following:

Why wouldn't it make sense for The Public to go to TicketWeb, TicketCentral and the other local ticketing companies and let them bid on the opportunity to handle ticketing for the Delacorte shows? The Public could include the following caveats (among others):

A) Tickets need to be available by phone; over the internet; and in-person in all five boroughs.

B) The service charge per ticket would have to be $1 or less, payable by cash or credit card.

C) Some sort of non-transferability screening process would have to be
implemented to avoid scalping.

As an enticement, The Public could offer to put the logo of the ticketing vendor on all the Shakespeare in the Park posters.Wouldn't one of these companies bite--if only for the press/publicity value? If they did, the upshot would be $1 tickets, without the lines.

I personally like the idea of "mixing & matching" more, offering a variety of ways of getting tickets. Some handed out "day of," some reservable over phone/online, some by lottery. I mean, with 1880 seats a night, seems like there's room for diverse approaches.

(Of course, one objection I anticipate to "reservations" is that people notoriously don't show up for them if it didn't cost them anything. From the Public's view, one good thing about the present system is that the odds of someone not showing up to the show that night after waiting twelve hours in line are very slim. It certainly does require commitment.)

I'm grateful to "Y.S." for reminding us what true "Shakespeare in the Park" is supposed to be like:
Commonwealth Shakespeare Company here in Boston draws thousands to its free performances on the Common, with nary a "star" name on the bill in its entire history. The best part is that no ticket is needed at all.
Yes, we all like to camp out in the park for a free performance. But we like to spontaneously congregate, settle in for a nice picnic dinner at 6pm, not am. The whole appeal of such a summer play concert is the informality, and the feeling of welcomeness. While--as I said earlier--the Public staff is as hospitable as they can be under the circumstances, those lining up at the Delacorte are quite frankly herded. Fine, escorted. If you're there overnight, for instance, did you know you're kicked out of the park at midnight, when Central Park officially closes, and then woken up at dawn to be walked back in? (So if you were planning on a nice rustic camping trip on the green, get ready to sleep on the sidewalk of Central Park West.) Then if you're lucky to get your ticket at 1pm, you then still have seven hours before the show starts, just enough time to catch a nap and a proper meal, to be well rested for a 3 1/2 hour Brecht play.

Here's another proposal: what if they handed out tickets at 5pm, not 1pm. Sure, some would still camp out overnight, but not as many. That would shift the line later, so you'd still have a shot if you showed up in daylight. As for missing a full day of work--well, the 1:00 schedule doesn't help much with that unless your job is an afternoon waiter shift, and a short one.... Or, fine, hand out the tickets at 9am, so people can go back to work. This question of timing should be an easy one to address and could make a real difference, at least for the more popular shows.

It should be said there is one population for whom the current system works fine--unemployed theatre artists! (Or those waiting tables.) And, no doubt, they make up most of the line. The Public is serving this constituency well, at least, and that's great.

But here again we see how the current system is tailored to everyone but the middle class. And forgive me for coming to the defense of those poor bourgeois, but shouldn't they be an important segment of the theatre audience, too? Not just the super "bo-bo" sponsors, but just folks with jobs (and kids) who happen to love the theatre, and can't afford to shell out $150 a pop.

Look, maybe nothing we say here will get the Public to change, and there are far worse things than 30,000 seeing Mother Courage for free. But I do think it's valuable to have some alternative voices heard amidst all the romanticizing about the Delacorte experience--mostly by people who don't have that experience first hand. (After all, if you're in the press and you're writing about this, chances are you have press tickets.) Has Oskar Eustis, for instance, waited on line himself lately?... So I'm happy to provide a forum for those who have a different perspective.

Commenter "D.B." claims I'm overreacting to basically an inconvenience, which is worth the sacrifice for a greater cause:
If we're concerned about the future of theater and its ability to develop an audience, shouldn't we be more concerned about that?
But I guess what keeps me kvetching this developing new audiences? Where are all these working class audiences of color at the Delacorte? I find myself surrounded there by all the same white folks I see at every play. (Usually just less informed.) Granted, they do trend younger. But are they also following up by buying tickets to other shows? Or is Shakespeare in the Park for them just another yearly ritual stunt? All I'll say is the audiences these days over at the Signature, where it's $15 a ticket across the board, are a much more diverse mix.

DB also argues:
...scraping together $200 for a pair of tickets to a Broadway show (or $120 for a pair of tickets to an off-Broadway play) is beyond what many people can do, and favors--as does almost every cultural event in New York--people who have money over people who have time.
We agree on that: those of us waiting on line are indeed paying, paying with our time. And as that time increases over the next week from a mere five hours to twelve, I think we're right to ask what our time is worth.

(Especially if the performance itself does not deliver. But that's for another time...)

About that Nick Lemann piece...

I thought it was plain asinine, myself. But Terry Teachout has the goods on him, so over to About Last Night:

[A.J. Liebling] certainly wouldn’t have made the mistake of publishing anything as embarrassingly supererogatory as “Amateur Hour,” the recent New Yorker essay about Web-based journalism in which poor Nicholas Lemann spent a couple of thousand words belaboring the obvious, mere days before he applied an axe to the budget for CJR Daily, the Columbia Journalism Review’s online edition, simultaneously (1) demonstrating that he’s determined to miss the new-media boat and (2) causing the two top editors of CJR Daily to quit in protest. One of Lemann’s
ex-employees, Steve Lovelady, laid it on the line in an interview with the New York Times: “Nick has decided to spend the money on a direct-mail campaign for the magazine, in hopes of saving subscription revenue. To me, that sounds like something out of the 19th century. He’s taking the one fresh, smart thing he has and gutting it.”
Remember, that's the same Columbia Journalism School that scaled down its arts journalism fellowships.

Brecht commemorations

I hope this (from today's "Arts, Briefly") is not the only Times coverage we'll see of the Brecht 50th anniversary going on in Germany:

Germany Remembers Bertolt Brecht

Fifty years after his death at 58 on Aug. 14, 1956, Bertolt Brecht was honored yesterday in Germany with productions of his works in theaters across the country, Agence France-Presse reported yesterday. The outpouring gave evidence that Germany was prepared to forgive Brecht for going to his grave a Communist and embrace him. A playwright, poet and theatrical reformer, Brecht wrote works including “Mother Courage and Her Children,” “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui” and, with Kurt Weill, “The Threepenny Opera.”

In short: Die, Commie, Die.

Brooklyn "Renaissance"?

Two sides to the arts-, theatre-, and sports-related development going on in and around Brooklyn's Fort Greene area (aka BAM-land): The Times, bullish. The Voice, cautious.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

That Elusive Young Audience

Isaac Butler had a terrific and very important post the other day using a friend of his as a case study in a very vexing phenomenon: the highly educated, culturally curious, financially able population of young folk that just don't care about theatre.

Isaac's subject is "Zack," a Boston resident. There's some debate among Isaac's readers whether Boston makes for a good "sample." I say yes. Even though the volume of theatre is not the same as NYC, there certainly is much serious professional and fringe activity there, plus that perfect demographic of culturally aware, and employed, college grads.

Isaac takes away three general points/lessons from his interview of Zack:

1) Media coverage matters:

Zack told me first that theater doesn't really penetrate his consciousness. Now, Zack lives in Boston, not New York, but Boston has a fairly vibrant theater scene. He said he doesn't really hear about plays that appeal to him. Movies and television invade his space constantly through the Hollywood Hype Machine (print and TV ads, for example, the rumor mill &c.) and such mechanisms don't exist for theater. It's not just about Masscult creating desire (as advertising often does) it's just on some level the information that a show he might be interested in never reaches him in the first place.

2) The liveness of theatre is actually a problem.
There's something about watching the living 3-dimensional person, instead of a flickering 2-dimensional image that is uncomfortable and difficult. Especially in watching them pretend to be someone else with mixed results.

3) Ticket price is not necessarily the problem.
He said, "Well, high ticket price would explain why I don't go the theater more often, but I'm willing to plunk down $40-60 for the occasional Beck concert. So why not plunk it down for the occasional play? If plays were cheaper, I'd still have the other problem of not really knowing they were happenning."

I must say these all confirm feelings I've had for quite a while. But I've yet to try to collect the kind of evidence that would show this. So bravo to Isaac for taking the first step, even if it is a sample of one. A project I have in mind would be to do some wider focus- grouping of college grads 22-40, living in NYC who regularly subscribe/go to other arts events, but not theatre.

Isaac's point #2--that not everyone likes the liveness of theatre--reminded me of something I had written up myself in a journal entry a few years ago. So I'll share it here in its raw form, just to help further the conversation perhaps. It's from summer, 2003--as the references to "Long Day's Journey" and the Playwrights Horizons premiere of "I Am My Own Wife" attest.
New York is crawling—as it ever has been—with Ivy-educated, super cultured, and moneyed elitists who used to form the backbone of the theatre audience. (The types that used to constitute that white-tie-and-tails opening night crowd one sees in screwball comedies, or—perfect example—"Dinner at Eight.") Their taste in novels, food, and film is nothing less than the top-bracket, “art-house”, and most expensive marketing can devise. And yet—ask them what was the last play they went to? They’ll probably say “Aida” or “The Lion King.” Or maybe, for the truly adventurous, “Long Days Journey.”

It all comes down to—are the days past when an average cultural elitist will pick up The New York Times one day, read a rave review of some little drama by someone never heard of, starring unknown actors, and think “Hm, maybe I’ll go check this out.” That’s all I’m asking. It’s unrealistic to wait for “the masses” to just start coming out to the theatre expecting the unexpected just for the love of it. My question is more basic: why does the intended target audience still ignore the signposts of its own culture industry? Again, only when that industry really drums it in with a unified all-fronts campaign that amasses not just critics, but gossip columnists, features editors, radio, tv, and fashion (again, a la “Long Days Journey”) will the latent, sleeping theatre audience arouse and follow its master. Otherwise, the elite now pleads total ignorance of the theatre scene. They go to “Aida” because they’ve heard of it—seen it blazoned across buses, heard ads on pop radio. You ask them about the new hit play at Atlantic and they don’t know it exists.

So—why doesn’t Joe Ivy feel motivated enough to drop, say, $30 on some Off-Broadway “hit” like “I Am My Own Wife” after reading his New York Times one morning telling him how amazing it is. (Ok, Bruce Weber didn’t quite do that in that case, but it will have to do for now.) (Note how this play still sold out and may not have needed Joe Ivy, sustaining on the patronage of theatre people alone. So the crisis I’m talking about is not solely financial. The hermetic “theatre people” audience CAN sustain many plays. But the need for the broader elitist market is necessary for other, more long term cultural reasons, I would argue…)
Hmm. Did the eventual success of "Wife" on Broadway prove me wrong in this particular case?

Joe Ivy doesn’t get on the phone (or even online!) after reading that review to buy tickets because he just doesn’t—at heart—like going to theatre. It’s not just that for twenty bucks less he could go to a movie. (He’ll gladly spend that $20 on a burger, a CD, or sports paraphanalia.) (“He” is a misleading pronoun, of course. “She” would be even more interesting—but raises its own questions—since as marketers will tell you educated women are even more the target audience for cultural elite product. I have no evidence, but I can only imagine—more women go to foreign films, subscribe to the New Yorker, attend classical music or dance… I’m sure more go to the theatre as a whole, because you’ll see them go together more often than men in groups…And yet young yuppie women aren’t saving the theatre either, due to the same syndrome, I believe. So read on!)

Theatre can’t beat the movies for the “impulse buy” because people just don’t get the same experience. Young people today (under 40, say) like the movie going experience more than the theatre equivalent. Yes, there’s the popcorn & soda. Yes, there’s the going-as-you-are and putting your sneakered foot up on the seat in front of you. But, if that were the only problem, the solution would be so easy! Sell beer in the aisles, incentivize grungy dress with ticket discounts (or encourage it with slacker ushers), and charge $10. I guarantee if you started a theatre company like that you’d have a flash-in-the-pan 2-week pr sensation that would produce nothing but improv comedy. No one would want to perform (or see!) Ibsen under these conditions.

OK, so why do we prefer the moviegoing experience? If not just for the physical comfort and release from societal codes of behavior. Think of why we go to the ovies. What do we really mean when we say, to our friends, or our other, at a random dull moment, “Hey, let’s go to the movies!” Or, alone, in our room, trying to find a reason to get out of bed, “Maybe I’ll go to a movie or something.” Interesting, and important, that we all can have the impulse to “go to the movies” regardless of the content of the movie itself. It’s the experience we want. Implicitly, we are willing to put up with a certain amount of mediocrity of product, provided it gives us The Moviegoing Experience—sitting in the dark, alone (even if among others) watching projected images of life (preferably featuring known faces and/or viscerally stimulating situations) on a screen. When we bemoan the lack of interest in the theatre, we acknowledge “our” inability to compete with this.

People—even Joe Ivy people—don’t “impulse buy” the theatre because it implies too many limits. Not just “I have to dress up” or “I can’t bring snacks in”. It carries too many social pressures. Somehow, I sense, we are less aware of a crowded audience of anonymous moviegoers than even the sparsest of Theatre Patrons. (Maybe a
vestige of the great theatregoing tradition of “going to be seen”?) More than the perceived pressure imposed by those around you, though, is the confrontation with the real-life people on stage! Yes, the very immediacy, the thrill of the actors in the room with you, which good theatre people like myself crave and what it’s supposed to be all about—that may just be the turn off for some. “How can I sit back in my t-shirt munching munchies with this woman crying right in front of me!” It’s funny how so many theatre hipsters preach more “audience participation” as the cure for all ills—when even the 4th wall implies too much participation for most young urban bourgeois I know…

(Ask the educated elite, ages 20-35 what they think of “theatre” and I guarantee the following phrases will surface—“Why do they have to talk like that?” “It’s so phony” “The seats are so small” “All those old people in the audience”)

Could this be the real lasting impact of television on the theatre? Not the shrinking of content or mumbling of acting, but the inducing of expectations of passive entertainment. Remember, the audiences born after 1950 were the first to be raised on TV. Their parents may have watched, and even went to the movies often, but still had an appetite for theatre. So at least they still took their children in the
50’s and 60’s and helped form some habits that still last. But would everyone agree (whose business it is to know) that 50 is exactly the age of the crisis? That the audience numbers really fall off below 50? And, exponentially, below 30? (the generation raised by the first tv-generation.) As old fashioned as it sounds, TV has spoiled us by providing drama-entertainment at our convenience, enabling total
passivity. I sense moviegoing, too, must have changed after the
50’s. Just look at the demise of the Movie Palaces and the rise of the

The simple fact we have to absorb—and get past?—is that for the over-50 generation, the theatre “impulse buy” was possible… and frequent! Why? Because those people liked going to the theatre. They liked, and still like, The Theatre Going Experience—just the way we like the moviegoing experience. Thank god for the senior citizens, because only those who like the theatergoing experience that much would take a chance on unheard of plays and actors. As any regional theatre or New York non-profit will tell you—only senior citizens become “subscribers.”