The Playgoer: November 2006

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Thursday, November 30, 2006

Shaming the Voice

Quite an interesting bit of journalistic schadenfreude over at the Times at the expense of my beloved Village Voice in this piece about a new web-challenge to the Voice's perennial "Pazz & Jop" poll, a cornerstone of modern pop music criticism and intellectual fandom. The status of the feature was thrown into question by the abrupt laying off by the new Voice corporate HQ of rock-crit god Robert Christgau, who had been running the thing for some 30-40 years.

Now Gawker has spawned its own music blog Idolator, which will be emulating the Christgau tradition in its new "Jackin' Pop" poll this year, and has gone about recruiting the hippest and best critics in the field.

Says Idolator:

“For those who had long turned to The Voice to help guide them through the realm of pop, rock and hip-hop,” the announcement read, “the 51-year-old alt-weekly now had about as much musical credibility as, say, a three-month-old blog.”
I must say, as a blogger, I can't wondering if this isn't a good thing? Or at least acknowledging the inevitable--namely that as serious arts criticism becomes increasingly endangered in print, it can now only thrive on the web. And thrive it does. At least, as long as it remains free content...

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Mamet & Shepard abroad

Jonathan Pryce
photo: Cambridge Jones

Variety's Gordon Cox brings news of two interesting production from our eminent US playwrights in other English-speaking lands.

A West End "Glengarry" with the always original Jonathan Pryce as The Machine Levene.

And Shepard is going all the way to Dublin to premiere his latest at the Abbey.

Title? "Kicking a Dead Horse."

And Best Carbon Copy goes to...

So Riedel reports today on what's already emerging as this (next?) year's Tony awards fracas, further proving the senselessness of the award categories if not the awards themselves.

A decade or so ago, of course, the Tony folks came up with the Best Revival category, basically to acknowledge that Broadway had become a themepark museum, generating little interesting new and original work and profiting off of nostalgia alone. But at least, in the case of a vastly different new production of a known quantity, you can argue, why not reward a great production that is essentially new. Like John Doyle's radical rethinking of Sweeney Todd. (Which, of course, lost the category last year to The Pajama Game.)

But what to do when your revivals skip the rethinking part and just cash in on the whole original production, top to bottom? What if you're reviving a show that just won best "new" musical yesterday? In short, wouldn't it be more apt to refer to the current incarnations of Chorus Line and Les Miz not as revivals but remounts?

Well that's what the Tony committee is debating. Essentially--what should be counted in a sub-category of a sub-category? And it's not just an issue of the show itself but the direction, design, and choreography being resurrected. Are those artists eligible to compete alongside more fresh work?

While indeed, it just doesn't seem right to let Trevor Nunn, for instances, get nominated for directing Les Miz again (if he even did this time), it's hard to take a principled stand on this since it all exposes just what's so ridiculous about the Tonys itself. Obviously, Nunn would most likely not win a Tony. Unless voters are just bribed by Cameron Mackintosh and Disney, they'll know it's a re-do job and can vote accordingly. But what's being fought over is--can he be nominated. Because you never know if there won't be four other decently directed musicals out there and you'll have to fill the category!

Of course the issues of the shows themselves is crucial to the producers in each case--especially the Chorus Line people who probably could win that category of Best Musical Revival. (Especially if the competition is Les Miz lite, The Apple Tree, and 110 in the Shade.) Remember, the Tonys are primarily about helping producers promote their shows.

Ultimately, having said that, I do believe if you're going to have silly awards, then you might as well reward good work when you see it. Being roped into a crazy nominating process and outdated categories just doesn't help.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Stoppard: Thanks, But No Thanks

"My blood ran cold when I saw your informed and kindly meant roundup of sources for my trilogy, 'The Coast of Utopia.' The headline on the list of titles, 'Required Pretheater Reading,' should be interpreted as 'Recommended Post-Theater Reading.'
What kind of madman would write a play that requires the audience to read a dozen books in advance? Come as you are; you’ll be fine."

-Tom Stoppard, stating the obvious, in a letter to the Times.

Making the Call

Chicago Trib crit Chris Jones has a quizzical little piece reflecting on one of a critic's worst nightmares--getting it "wrong" in the view of history. Especially when you're the one who fails to recognize work that everyone later accepts as "genius."

Jones has fun with that word "genius" in particular as he quotes some of his early pans of Sarah Ruhl, when her work was only being done in Chi-town. Likewise Neil Labute. But, hey, don't despair, Chris. I know many here in NY that would hail you as prescient about both writers and appreciate the value of evaluating someone's work before the hype of success sets in.

It's worth noting the overall context of the article, which seems to be one in a series the Trib is running of critics second-guessing themselves. But I'm not entirely sure Jones really is disavowing his first responses. Is he?

Quote of the Day

"Elton John ran offstage before a rendition of 'Crocodile Rock' rather than vomit on his Australian audience, Agence France-Presse reported."

-Seth Gilmore, Arts, Briefly

Insert Lestat joke here.

MTC woes, continued

Buried midway through Michael Riedel's last column was this update--and confirmation--that Manhattan Theatre Club is scrambling to salvage its Biltmore Theatre financial fiasco:

Manhattan Theater Club, one of New York's premiere non-profit theaters, is going through a financial crunch, according to several theater sources. To ease matters, the company is considering selling the name of its flagship Biltmore Theatre to the highest corporate bidder. Word is that Pepsi-Cola may grab the naming rights. The Roundabout Theatre Co. did this a few years ago, thus its flagship theater in Times Square is called the American Airlines. Next door is the Hilton Theatre. A few blocks north is the Cadillac Winter Garden.

All of which brings to mind the late producer Alex Cohen's prediction that one day Broadway will see "The Campbell's Pork 'n' Bean Palace."

I suppose now that we've gotten used to "American Airlines Theatre," then Pepsi Cola won't make much difference.

Personally I think they should just rent out the joint. I suppose the nonprofit status limits who they could let in there...But why not open it up to other nonprofits--with actually successful shows--looking to transfer? In the scramble for available Great White Way real estate, a nonprofit-originated project like Grey Gardens or Spring Awakening could have really benefitted from the relatively small Biltmore space (650 seats) at possibly reduced not-for-profit prices? Yes, that would mean sharing the credit, glory, and income with other companies. But can that be any worse for them than the 45% capacity for Losing Louie?

(Am I the only one wondering why they didn't open the Biltmore season with the Paul Rudnick play (Regrets Only) instead? Sure that didn't get great reviews either--but it has an actual star in Christine Baranski and Paul Rudnick makes people laugh. Unlike Losing Louie.)

Monday, November 27, 2006

Privilege To Pee

Rocco gets down and dirty with the real scandal Off Broadway. By which I mean, the bathrooms. Go take his poll.

Urinetown indeed!

I must say I too was surprised at the Public's new mens room attendant. But I had the feeling it was more a Joe's Pub thing, since the 1st floor bathroom is closer to that side of the building. Either way, pretty laughable.

Lost O'Neill

Not a play, though, so don't get too excited. But an interesting sounding short story, from his very early days.

"The Screenews of War," a story about a cast of Hollywood newsreel makers who were filming the Mexican revolution for American audiences.
Gee, how did Larry Gelbart rip this off for his HBO movie without even reading it!

Print Criticism: End is Nigh?

"Reviewers, in general, are canaries in the print journalism coal mine, the first to go. Classical music, books, visual arts and dance are dispensed with, or free-lanced off the bottom-line."

So writes Orlanda Sentinel film critic Roger Moore (on his Sentinel blog), sounding the alarm we are hearing all too much of these days in the frantic downsizing going on in the print media world.

Here's some other depressing highlights from Moore's informative survey of the field. Moore's primary concern, of course, is film criticism, but he also notes the pattern across the board.

An old friend whom I ushered into the business commented on this blog a few days ago about my now "warning" aspiring high school and college movie reviewers away from this profession. Movie reviewing at daily newspapers has always been a job on the thinnest of ice, a luxury item, many publishers decide, when they're shuffling deck chairs during newspapering's periodic bursts of down-sizing.

Then, came news that the guy who replaced me at The Winston-Salem Journal, Mark Burger, was laid off...

In Winston-Salem, a city loses an arts advocate. Mark Burger's job included covering a very lively theater scene, a prestigious drama program at a state school for the arts (Parker Posey, Mary Louise Parker,Tom Hulce, Jada Pinkett Smith are alumni), a film school, plus the The National Black Theatre Festival, a regional Shakespeare Festival, and ongoing efforts to attract film production there. You can cover some of this with freelancers, but not much of it. And there's no consistent voice there. Critics are like baseball umpires, and readers can't judge the strike zone if you don't have the same person making the calls, week in and week out...

The big thing in almost all these layoffs is the loss of warm bodies to go out and watchdog this part of our local world--the closing of this beloved landmark theater, possible misuse of that stage company's funds, cash problems at this arts group or that one, unethical efforts to use state property for private film production...

To me this last point is key. The difference between a mere reviewer and a critic is that the latter has a real beat that he or she can cover widely on a regular basis. A critic's voice is not just contained to 200 words on one particular event, but can provide the kind of regular, consistent coverage readers rely on in other areas--sports fans know how important that is, for instance. Same with, say, a political journalist like David Sanger in the Times.

But also, as Moore stresses, a critic with a real job (never totally secure of course, but better than a freelancer) can flex some muscle and speak out, speak to the local community, spotlight something behind the scenes that's really affecting the performances and exhibits that the readers go see. To cover the arts with just a thumbs-up/thumbs-down is like having a sports section made up only of box scores.

And just when you think Moore can't get more pessimistic, how's this for a send-off:
It's a great job, as anybody who meets you is quick to tell you. But as professional movie reviewing fades away and we all think long and hard about our fallback careers (or live in denial), my advice to every kid who emails from high school, or calls from college, or who angles into doing unpaid reviews for this website or that college paper, is the same.

Don't even start. Don't try this at home. It'll break your heart.

Yikes. Thanks for telling me now, Roger...

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Coast of huh???

Michael Riedel relates a very funny, apparently well-sourced, account of Tom Stoppard confronting the disgruntled patrons walking out on Coast of Utopia, Part 1, at intermission.

Stoppard, who ducks out of Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater for a smoke after the first act, keeps an informal tally of the people leaving his play. Lately, he's started asking them why.

The dialogue goes something like this:

Stoppard: "Excuse me. Why are you leaving this play?"
Lincoln Center Theater subscriber (age, about 97): "Who are you?"
Stoppard: "I'm the playwright."
Subscriber (fidgeting with infrared hearing device): "We can't tell you!"
Stoppard: "Please. I really want to know. Are you leaving because it's boring?"
Subscriber (crinkling a cough-drop wrapper): "Well, yes."
Stoppard: "Why is it boring?"
Subscriber: "Too much philosophy!"

Indeed, I know many respectable theatre folk who would agree that the play is somewhat inert. But I say in this case, the joke is on those who shell out $100 a ticket just because the New York Times told them it is simply the must-see event of the season. Perhaps, because of Stoppard's name, they expect hours of delightful Anglophilia. Instead they get Slavic seminars.

I suppose the Times tried to preempt such disappointment by properly preparing its readers with this lavish spread on the front of their Weekend section Friday. (Not to be confused with this in the magazine section today. How many more ways can NYT come up with to market this play?) Hey, I'm all for context and dramaturgy, and William Grimes gives a nice little primer on the 19th century Russian intelligentsia. But while I assume there's some tongue-in-cheek to the "homework" tone of it all ("That should do it. You are now ready to see the plays," concludes Grimes) and to the list of "Required Pretheater Reading"...what conclusions does one draw from this? To take the article at its word, for instance, if one were to actually purchase all the books on said "required" list (in the specified editions at their listed prices) it would set you back a total, I calculate, of $337.70. Add that, of course, to the $300 it already costs for one ticket to see all three plays.

In short, despite my enthusiasm for the play and its heady subject matter, I find myself recoiling at the presentation of theatre here as a leisure pursuit of the leisure class. When you factor in the clear pricing strategy by Lincoln Center Theatre (which I already inveighed against here), the demographic for this show has been clearly agreed upon by LCT and NYT. The rest of us can either save up the money or watch from the sidelines.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

REVIEW: "La TempĂȘte”

Another assignment for the Voice, so read it there. This was the French-Canadian multi-media Tempest that visited BAM last week.

Cool photo, eh? Well, don't get your hopes up.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Broadway in the Schools

According to Campbell Robertson in today's Times, some producers have gotten some big corporate sponsorship to give public school kids a big exposure to theatre. But by framing all the activities around Broadway they're really just promoting their product in the schools.

Other organizations, like Theater Development Fund, have programs to involve students in Broadway theater, but this one, which started last month at 10 high schools and junior high schools in the city, aspires to be the most comprehensive. It is a seven-month course involving big-name theater professionals, trips to Broadway shows, playwriting and play producing classes and, for 10 students, a Broadway stage on which their plays will be performed.
I have three questions:

1) What can these students possibly learn about writing plays from going to Broadway, where, as we all know, there are no plays?

2) Yes, the children are our future, and the future of the theatre, but what's the point of whetting their appetite for something they will not be able to afford. By the time they grow up, a $250 ticket will be the norm, the way things are going.

3) Wouldn't it make a whole lot more sense for the profession and for the art of theatre for concerned corporations to conceive a similar program built around our nonprofit Off Broadway theatres? You know, the ones actually doing plays?

Playwrights on TV, continued

An interesting and smart conversation over at the Dallas Morning News between their theatre and TV critics over the phenomenon of playwrights working in television. Among the topics addressed are why the small screen is better suited to dramatists than the silver one, and what is it about cop shows that seems to thrive on stage talent!

RSC: Home of New Writing?

While they may be in the midst of a mega Shakespeare marathon now, Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company is going somewhat cold turkey after that and committing half their schedule to new work. This marks a new direction for the company by AD Michael Boyd, as reported by the Guardian.

The playwrights Marina Carr, Leo Butler and Roy Williams have all been recently commissioned by the RSC. But in a more far-reaching move, writers will be "embedded" within the company. The first of these, Adriano Shaplin, will be working with the actors who are preparing Shakespeare's history plays, all eight of which will be in the repertoire by spring 2008. The idea is for authors to write plays with a specific ensemble in mind, just as Shakespeare did. "It's a radical idea; but it is also our heritage," Mr Boyd said.

He hopes that the New Works festival, which is the present chief conduit for new plays staged by the RSC, will eventually "be rendered redundant as new work is sewn firmly into our repertoire".

Mr Boyd also said that his aim of reviving the notion of an old-fashioned ensemble company - rather than employing actors on short-term contracts as has become common practice in recent years - was becoming a reality.

"Our company of actors have committed to us for 2½ years," he said. "The received wisdom is that actors don't want to do that. I think that's tosh."

Shakespeare and the Chamberlain's Men, Chekhov and the Moscow Art Theatre, Odets and The Group, Lanford Wilson and Circle Rep, Mamet and the Goodman, even Pinter and the old RSC...a pretty good track record for this model. Yet another argument for rep companies. Or at least for institutions to support and sustain collaboration of like-minded artists over time.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The Coast of Affordable WNYC's Leonard Lopate. A half-hour of Coast of Utopia talk, which will probably be as close as many of us get to seeing the show.

I've just found my actual tickets stubs from the original Royal National Theatre premiere of Utopia, almost exactly 4 years ago. I flew to London that November for basically a weekend to see all three plays in one day. I hope soon to type up some of the notes I took back then on that production--as my way around not being able to see and review this production.

But meanwhile, I just want to pass on this observation. Sure, I spent some money flying over there, but note the prices of my three tickets to the trilogy: Voyage (11am matinee) £13; Shipwreck (3:15 matinee) £19; Salvage (7:30pm) £14. Total: £46. The exchange rate then was basically 2-to-1, so let's call that $90. A pretty awesome deal for what were pretty decent seats. (Shipwreck was the splurge.) And that was not a student rate or any special discount.

At Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont, $90 will just about cover a $65 seat in the balcony. To one of the plays. And only the last two rows of the balcony. The overwhelming majority of seats are $100. So to see all three--which really is essential to appreciating any one of them--will run you anywhere between (not including fees) $235 for sucky seats and $300. Per person.

Who's up for that?

Answer: wealthy people.

For the record, Lincoln Center Theatre does run a Student Discount program, but it's tightly regulated, requiring people to sign up way in advance, and so membership is currently closed.

By the way, my cheap-deal airfare to London 4 years ago? About $250. So in other words, for just a little more than the price of three downtstairs seats at the Beaumont, I got the same show and a trip abroad.

And there in a nutshell is the difference between a true state theatre and an American nonprofit theatre. I have no doubt Lincoln Center's hands are tied. To mount this enormous show at all requires a certain ticket income to not totally lose money. But I would have almost preferred to see them sell, say, the first 5 rows of the orchestra for $250 a pop, in exchange for more at $65 or less. How about a discount to those serious enough to see all three? (A mini-subscription.) I'm sure such ideas were considered and rejected for various "sound" reasons. But my point is, where there's a will there's a way. If you truly want a wide swath of people to see this, if you care most about the next generation of theatre artists possibly being inspired by seeing the most ambitious work of a major world dramatist, then you work out a price scheme and appropriate fundraising with that goal in mind.

Otherwise, you're just playing the snob card.

Election Day voters say Yes to Arts Funding

Election Day not only riased hopes for the arts in congress, but perhaps more significantly on the local level, there were 11 pro-arts funding referenda on various ballots. And they all passed.

Most were tax measures, but many different approaches, from sin to property taxes. My only concern if these end up basically eating into lower-bracket income (i.e. that of most artists) more than that of the "philanthropy" class. For instance--who pays most in cigarette taxes, do you think. Aside from bohemians, it's unfortunately those who don't "patronize" the arts at all.

How about a new arts-friendly Yacht tax, eh? I'd call it "philanthropy in advance." Then again, I guess that spoils the whole point of philanthropy--which is to dodge taxes not pay more of them.

Thanks to Americans for the Arts for their reporting on this and their efforts to get out the vote. A summary and link to their full report is here.

Or for a quicker summary see this article.

Culture Project lives!

Isaac scooped us all yesterday. Even the Times, who runs their story today.

In short, they're moving to something cheaper and much smaller. One space, not two. Campbell Robertson does the math:

At its current site at 45 Bleecker Street in the East Village, the Culture Project had two leases: one on the fourth-floor offices and living quarters of Allan Buchman, the project’s founder and artistic director, and another on two performance spaces, a 199-seat theater on the first floor and a 99-seater in the basement.

The company pays $50,000 a month for both theaters and office space...

In its new building [Soho's Manhattan Ensemble Theatre] the Culture Project space will be cut to one 140-seat theater from its two existing theaters, but the savings, which Mr. Buchman estimated at $300,000 the first year alone, were worth it. Also, as part of the deal, the company is buying the Manhattan Ensemble Theater’s lighting and sound equipment, gear that it generally rents.

“I want our money to be going onstage rather than into real estate,” Mr. Buchman said.

And so the battle between art and real estate--perhaps the most distinguishing feature of theatre-making in New York in the 21st century so far--goes on.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Quote of the Day

'The straight play is a very endangered thing on Broadway,' Hare says. 'But what I have found, with Plenty and with Via Dolorosa, is that if you are the one serious play on Broadway you get a fantastic audience because there are so many clever people in New York. They mostly don't go to the theatre - but they'll go once a year. And once you get that audience, they're the best audience in the world.'

- David Hare, profiled in the Guardian, promoting his new play over there even though it's opening here.

Some truth in that statement. About this elusive "smart" audience not going to the theatre in New York. He's right their "one play a year" this year will be his, if not the Stoppard. Last year it was "History Boys." In short--they're anglophiles.

(I do recommend the whole article, fine work by the Guardian's Gaby Wood. A meaty read--as in, a good few thousand words--taking us behind the scenes of the whole production with not just Hare, but Mendes, Julianne Moore, and the great Bill Nighy.)

The Urinetown Dispute

The directorial and designer dispute over who owns the Urinetown staging...uh, trickles on.

Here's a Chicago perspective from the Trib's Chris Jones, whose lede nicely points up what might really be at stake here:

A bitter battle is brewing that may completely change the long-established ground-rules for producing -- or reproducing -- Broadway musicals all across the country. Companies such as the Theater Under the Stars in Houston or the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire have long been known for giving their loyal audiences a diet of recent Broadway hits at more reasonable prices and in their own back yard.

In the future, they may be deterred by the growing chill of potential lawsuits.

Jones' piece is the most thorough reporting on this episode so far, and it raises a lot of good points, including a substantive defense from the accused plagarists. So if you're at all interested in this story, read it.

My own perspective is that directors and designers do have a right to own their work, and hopefully the relevant unions can find a way for that to be at least licensed at a non-prohibitive expense.

But this kind of story must unsettle those whose business it is to sell Broadway shows around the country. Notice how we've now had many union disputes in this very arena, usually the result of desperate cost-cutting measures for cheaper road shows--e.g. the spate of non-equity tours. Even the "official" tours are increasingly scaled down. (For an example of this, see the current New York incarnation of "Les Miz," which is basically the touring show repackaged for a quick Broadway buck.)

In the Urinetown case, the issues may be different since these are just small local companies. But the central question still is over how a Broadway "property" like Urinetown (whatever its Fringe origins) continues to have a life post-B'way--for not only its creators, but all of its copyright-owners, including producers and publishers. And that life depends upon companies being able to advertise to their local audiences--to paraphrase the infamous Beatlemania--not Broadway but an incredible simulation.

Again, I hope the solution lies in working out affordable ways for the entire team to be included in royalty payments (when they have made especially significant/unique contributions.) But the other solution, of course, is for local companies to dare to be creative and reinvent the show!

Then again, as Jones points out...
And there's another rub. The writers of musicals don't want to see their work violated or changed -- indeed, licensing contracts typically prohibit the changing of gender, say, or the notes in the score or the lines in the script. Subsequent directors thus find themselves between a rock and a hard place -- in trouble with the writer or the composer if they change so much as a note or a lyric, and in trouble with the original directors and choreographers if they stick too closely to the original production.

By the way, this episode must be particularly awkward and/or painful for Urinetown's creators Kotis & Hollman since both were nurtured in the Chicago off-Loop improv and small theatre scene in the 1980s & 90s. In other words, they benefitted from the relative autonomy and isolation of that world from the professional theatre industry. Not that they ever infringed anyone's copyright, but they gotta know what it feels like to be the little guy in this situation.

And, finally, for the real inside baseball on this, see original Urinetown star Hunter Foster's defense of his wife, who happens to be the director of one of the "offending" revivals!

Power of Blogging

“I’ve heard people joke that when TVNewser is dormant, the kid had a final or a big family dinner that he couldn’t get out of,” said Brian Williams, the NBC news anchor and a TVNewser devotee. “People from entry level to high and mighty check in on it.”

-From a Times Media piece today on a 21-year-old college kid who has suddenly become the authority on broadcast news. Thanks to his blog.

When his postings dropped off last month after his girlfriend dumped him, Mr. Stelter found himself fielding complaints from powerful network executives about when he was going to get over his romantic travails and get back on track. “I was dealing with drama,” he said.

I think all of us who blog--even lacking this guy's unusual success--can relate to this. Bloggers have a life!

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Culture Project in Trouble

Culturebot reports a rumor that things are in meltdown over at 45Bleecker, home of Allan Buchman's Culture Project theatre. Just a rumor, he's stressing, but an all too credible one.

Rumor has it that the The Culture Project's IMPACT Festival was a financial disaster and that, after too long living off of the revenues from The Exonerated and Bridge and Tunnel that the financials have reached critical mass and the place is shutting down. Culturebot hears that the artistic director is selling off -or at least vacating - both spaces as of early december, leaving many artists, projects and producers in the lurch. Employees are either being asked to leave or jumping ship as soon as possible. And while it has been said that Culture Project will stay operational by keeping an office and possibly find a smaller space with less overhead, the impression we get from our sources is that it is unlikely to survive.
I pass this on not out of gossip-mongering glee, but real concern. And to join Culturebot in alerting us to the imminent crisis of adventurous nonprofits paying their rent, even when backed by wealthy individuals like Buchman.

Buchman seems a passionate man, but perhaps an amateur when it comes to running a theatre. If there were only a smart Managing Director out there who could make the operation run without compromising the mission... Or does it just come down to real estate in the end?

Friday, November 17, 2006


According to Situation Marketing, who seem to stay on top of all the latest trends in theatre marketing, You Tube no-likee those old B'way clips showing up and being passed around with such fun lately.

Hey, I'm all for the union guidelines being honored here. But I do hope they can work in a You Tube rider on future negotiations. Only good for the Biz.

The Vertical Hour

Michael Riedel interviews David Hare on his latest, premiering on Broadway in a Sam Mendes production.

I'm still waiting for someone to explain the title! No doubt there'll be some wistful Act II speech that includes the phrase...

Thursday, November 16, 2006

365 Days/365 Plays

I went to the Public Monday night to check out the launch of Suzan-Lori Parks' year-long mini-play project.

I have trouble working up much enthusiasm for this whole thing, despite my admiration for Parks as a playwright. It's kind of weird to get worked up over the mere fact the plays exist rather than more basic questions like what's in them? and are they any good?

Basically all the publicity surrounding them (and quite a lot has been drummed up in our little world) treats it as a stunt. How does someone write a play a day for a year! Indeed, as the playwrights out there would know, it's no small feat. And having seen seven of them now, I can attest to admiration for the dilligence and creativity it takes to come up with a totally new and distinct 10 minute play every day. Even writing one such scene well can be challenging. Writing 365 of them without stop is very impressive stamina, if nothing else.

But at some point we have to get around to--what are these plays? If we are to take them seriously, that is. And Parks is a writer we should be taking seriously.

Also, the excitement at the Public Monday seemed to be all about how so many theatre companies are collaborating to present the whole cycle. And good for them. But is that going to make for any more enriching experience for the audience watching these sketches?

The hype over the stunt of it all will inevitably drown out any criticism or meaningful discussion of the work, simply because it will be impossible to take in the work. Folks will catch a snippet here, a snippet there, maybe and say they saw some of it. But what will they have seen?

So how do we assess such a project? Are we to consider these finished works? I find it hard to believe Parks spent much time laboring over revisions of all 365 scripts, since she was probably done to be with one and onto the next. In which case, I guess it's brave of her to put such "journal work" in front of an audience.

The format of the whole presentation of this saga will be that each theatre company will present 7 playlets over a week. Which allows you, I guess, to view each theatre's contribution as its own mini-production. What makes the Public's installment successful, I felt, was that they hired an accomplished director, Michael Greif, who played up the roughness of the whole thing. Staged basically as a cabaret evening, with a piano at the side, the seven bits whooshed by, aided by the barest of props and drawn curtains, achieving an informality that doesn't come naturally to the Newman Theatre, the Public's larger venue.

What were the plays like? Some were allegorical, like "Window of Opportunity" which began with the comically mundane image of a red & white checker-curtained window out of Mayberry, and a sentry standing at attention beside it. He draws the curtains. Stands guard. Then closes them. A young man comes running to look at the window, but alas it is shut. The End.

Some were more comical and chatty. "Veuve Cliquot" featured the terrific veteran actor Reg E. Cathey as the most snobbish death row inmate since Hannibal Lecter, intentionally pushing the prison kitchen staff to the edge in meeting his exorbitant last meal order. Some were just silly revue sketches, like "Fine Animal" which sets marital relations back in the middle ages to show that men always would have preferred porn to their wives.

The best thing I could say about the whole presentation, though, is that it was fun! Greif was smart enough to realize that only in a cabaret/revue setting (and for free!) could you get away with presenting such deliberately slight and fragmented work.

So if you can get in, I do recommend it. Details for the remainder of Week 1 at the Publc are here. Again, it's free, with RSVP. And hence worth catching some great actors like Cathey and Joan Macintosh clown it up.

As for the whole "365" hype, though, let the proof be in the pudding.

Alisa Solomon

For a cogent analysis of the threat posed to all art deemed "controversial" see Alisa Solomon's excellent piece in the current Forward. The main focus is portrayals of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

It’s important to note that most of these works did get seen. Back in 1989, Dance Theater Workshop stepped in to present El Hakawati’s “The Story of Kufur Shamma”; “Made in Palestine” enjoyed a successful showing last March at a gallery in New York City’s Chelsea area. And “My Name Is Rachel Corrie” recently opened in a commercial off-Broadway production, amid a range of critical responses,garnering especially favorable reviews in The New Yorker, USA Today, Variety, Jewish Week and elsewhere. What, then, is the problem? First, merely the perception that hawkish Israel supporters will raise a fuss produces a chilling effect and deters other work from being considered: Too many (and too often gutless) theater and gallery directors conclude it’s not worth the hassle to take on projects that might provoke a brouhaha. That, indeed, is the intent of organized protests, bellicose letters to would-be producers, and calumnious Web postings about, say, Tony Judt or Rachel Corrie that presenters find when, in response to a complaint, they Google these figures.

But the problem, of course, spreads wider than this one issue. This statement of principles is particularly close to my heart:
Amid increasingly polarized political wrangling, the arts can offer nuance, texture, individual felt experience and — even when the work may challenge our own views — a sanctuary from the vituperative din of polemics. Entering a gallery or a theater, even if it is to see a politically engaged show, is a way of hitting the pause button. We don’t leave behind critical understanding or contextual knowledge, but we do enter a space of contemplation, one where we might confront responses to violence or suffering — or to exuberance or discovery — that we otherwise wouldn’t know. And as we cross the threshold into an exhibit, or at the moment the houselights begin to fade, we make a tacit contract with the artwork we are about to behold: We open ourselves to someone else’s vision.

The "pause button" here, of course, does not refer to shutting the outside world out. Which is what James Nicola wanted to do when he first canceled "Rachel Corrie" pleading for more time so the work could be seen separate from the politics of the moment somehow. No, to me this means art must be a free zone to say the unsayable. Not just to speak truth to power, but even lies, since fiction itself is, to paraphrase Picasso, a lie that may lead us to the truth.

A work of art (like a play, or even a "documentary play") is not The New York Times or the Nightly News. And we need both in a free society, and we need to know how to tell the difference between them. If the two arenas have become so conflated as to make the difference indistinguishable, then we've got other problems.

Sarah Kane

Maxie from the Guardian brings us up to date on the late playwright Sarah Kane's growing legacy in England and Europe. Focus on the work, not the hype, says she.

Blogger on Blogger action

George has now posted a podcast of last night's Playgoer-less theatre bloggers panel.

I look forward to catching up on what I missed.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

REVIEW(s): The Thugs & The Internationalist

The Internationalist
by Anne Washburn
at the Vineyard Theatre

The Thugs
by Adam Bock
at Soho Rep

I found much to admire in these two new plays. For starters, neither is about a playwright, nor indeed are any of the characters artists of any sort. Both playwrights attempt to use stage language for purposes other than showing off how articulate and overeducated they themselves are. Instead their dialogue dramatizes, in different ways, how fractured communication between human beings can be. In both plays, meaning is not spelled out ad nauseum by telling us just what their characters are thinking. In fact, if one only read the "lines" of each script, one would miss most of the "meaning" entirely.

Perhaps most refreshingly, both plays center around a place of work, not an impossibly expensive loft or a Hamptons estate. The design team of The Thugs (they're worth naming: David Korins, Michelle Phillips, Ben Stanton, Mary Vorrasi, Robert Kaplowitz, Jeremy J. Lee) achieved new heights of mundaneness, crafting the downright ugliest, most offputting, and most recognizable office I've ever seen on a stage. We've all had a bad summer or temp job in this place--bare walls, cheap folding tables (3 workers to a table), even filing cabinets would be an extravagance so boxes pile in the corner. The play's advertising refers to the location a "major city"--and the neat "working" elevator implies an office building of many floors--but to me this evoked (wonderfully) a makeshift outpost in a stripmall outside of some midsize metropolis like Phoenix.

My point in focusing so much on the setting of Thugs is only to emphasize how part of the premise of the work is that it is the kind of place the moiety of Americans spend their lives in every day. With its diverse cast of excellent actors, The Thugs looks like America in every way. All the more disturbing, then, are its stop-and-go cryptic and seemingly empty verbal exchanges, as well as the violence that creeps into this bland world, bit by bit, from unnamed outside forces. While I admit I did not know what was "going on" on stage half the time, I've seen few plays lately that have generated more tension and suspense. As reports circulate of dead bodies found in other offices, you know something bad is going to happen. When it finally does, like everything else in the play it's random and obscure--and yet you're still creeped out. The true horror of The Thugs is the hell its petty paralegals are trapped in day in day out, rendered by director Anne Kaufman and her quirky yet highly controlled cast in all its numbing and suffocating routine. Highlighters and coffee makers have never seemed so threatening.

The office in The Internationalist is quite different. It's much more sleek and upscale--but then again the exchange rate in the nameless, fictitious Eastern European country of its setting may be so low, who knows how much it is in dollar value. It's a small company, but important enough to attract a visit by an American businessman to cultivate some entrepreneurial globalizing partnership. The plot of The Internationalist ostensibly centers on the troubled would-be romance between the businessman and the office assistant. But I found myself most drawn to the life Washburn creates around this enigmatic little start-up and its cadre of oddball Euro-supervisors. They are welcoming to the American but not warm, friendly but formal. One is nerdy (the hilarious Liam Craig), one is slimy, and the boss is a turtlenecked pipe smoking ex-hippie who turns ruthless on a dime. The tension between them all is heightened by Washburn's most conspicuous (and, no doubt, most argued over) device in the play--the invention of a foreign language. Personally, I loved this. Sure, some passages of the gibberish go on too long. But I also got a kick out of how long Washburn is committed to keeping up the joke, as it were. And however annoying it gets to the audience, it does achieve that singularly creepy and unsettling feeling of truly being the foreigner in a foreign land. Washburn's invented language is effective because it is impossible to describe; it sounds like no other European language and, if anything, sounds like some cross-pollination of Klingon and Borat. The actors also deliver it (quite deliberately, I believe) with no discernible accent. So the humor here is not at the expense of the "funny foreigners" but of the American, of us.

What keeps The Internationalist watchable is the looming menace and uncertainty of this world, and Zak Orth's winning performance as a mediocre over-polite yuppie getting in over his head. Washburn teases us with the romantic relationship, but smartly doesn't let the play get highjacked by it. (Her weak ending, though, relies too much on it.) In some plays, an endless string of nameless walk-on characters (all played by the same three or four actors) can get tiresome, but here the eccentric cavalcade is part of the fun, and skillfully underplayed by director Ken Rus Schmoll's expertly cast ensemble. There is a nice subdued ironic tone to the play and the staging which--again--is a welcome relief to the smug intellectualism and pandering sentimentality so common in the new plays that get produced. The Internationalist may not give you much to "take away" (though there is an ideological current of a parallel US/male hubris) but I was fully engaged moment to moment by its original and idiosyncratic vision and, yes, language.

As productions, both shows arguably show off downtown theatre at its most accomplished. Kaplowitz and Lee's Thugs sound design alone deserves an immediate Obie, for instance. And the tiny Soho Rep shows you don't need Roundabout-size resources to fully and magnificently realize a good script. The Vineyard is already in a slightly higher class of budget than Soho, but even so the team of Andromache Chalfant, Jeff Croiter, and again(!) Kaplowitz and Philips bring the impossible world of Washburn's play to intriguing life.

In short, if I haven't been writing an extensive literary analysis of these plays or if I haven't been cataloguing their classic dramaturgical flaws, that's because in the end I was impressed with how each rewrote the rules, and how each playwright collaborated with fine actors, directors, designers on putting something new and honest on stage. If that's not theatrical success I don't know what is.

Internationlist was a Bloggers Night event, so you can check out what the other cybercritics are saying, too. Start with Isaac, then you can follow his links round the horn.

Quote of the Day

"The play, culled from Corrie's cursory attempt at understanding politics well beyond her capabilities, is a desert storm aswirl in sand that blinds and badgers but can't be grasped substantively. Rachel Corrie herself is the theatrical equivalent of a blogger bloated with self-righteousness, saturated with solipsistic sentiment logged on to lies and half-truths."

-Michael Elkin, of the Jewish Exponent, hitting multiple targets with one shot. His article--on "Jew as the 'fall guy' in the arts this autumn"--even tries to compare Corrie to Borat, somehow.

"Urinetown" people--pissed off!

Creative copyright battles continue.

Campbell Robertson reports today on director John Rando and his original designers on the Broadway Urinetown taking action against what they charge is flagrant copying of their work in productions of the show mounted by Chicago's Mercury Theatre and (get this) one Carousel Dinner Theatre in Akron, OH.

Insert dinner theatre joke here. (Bonus points for combining with Urinetown joke.)

Theatre Bloggers Panel, encore

George Hunka will be hosting a theatre blogging panel of his own tonight at 6:30, at the CUNY Graduate Center's Martin Siegel Theatre, 365 5th Avenue. Blogging Panel Whore that I am, I actually am indisposed tonight. But thanks to George for inviting me.

But go ahead and hear what he, Culturebot's Andy Horwitz, Matt Johnston, and--live from down under!--Alison Croggon have to say about "the burgeoning digital realm and the exciting cross-pollination between criticism and blogging."

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Fun with YouTube

Rocco hits the real jackpot there: old Broadway commercials! Of straight plays, no less. Hard to believe such confidence was once possible in such non-musicals as "Speed the Plow" and "M. Butterfly."

Terry Teachout has also been amassing an alluring array of YouTube clips of the rare and artsy sort, but mostly music-related. (Scroll down to his bottom right margin.)

An Arts Sin-Tax?

Cleveland seems to have a much better idea than Denver about what to do with cigarettes and theatre. Tax 'em! That is, tax one to serve the other.

Some might sneer, though, that taxing smoking is just another scheme to get artists to fund themselves!

Pinter meets Deadwood?

The upcoming "Homecoming" revival just got more interesting.

Meet the new patriarch of the cockney family from hell.

The Mouse

Orange County Register's Paul Hodgins offers some meaty reportage on the Disney Theatrical empire in its second decade.

Their secret? Think beyond Broadway:

Elton John and Tim Rice's "Aida" is generally considered the least successful Disney musical. It endured a troubled design period marked by extended rewriting and high-level firings, and the critics were not kind. Yet it ran for more than four years on Broadway, it's still going strong in Germany and Japan, and a popular eight-month run recently closed in Korea.

" 'Aida' wasn't a bust," Schrader said. "What makes things work for us is the long term, the big picture. Whereas another (producer) would be counting on a show running at peak for as long as possible on Broadway, we're also involving our international partners from the early days on." Smaller countries with strong markets such as Holland, which are out of reach for most producers, are a regular stop for Disney musicals.

Yes, Holland.

Also South Africa, where they plan a permanent, "sit down" run of "Lion King."

"We've had South Africans in every 'Lion King' wherever it's played," says David Schrader, the CFO. "It just sounds so authentic with South African performers."

Huh? Authentically what???

Monday, November 13, 2006

Caryl Churchill

A wonderful appraisal by the London Times' Benedict Nightingale.

Her new play?

Actually, her next play is called Drunk Enough to Say I Love You? and is in preview at the Royal Court, the theatre that first staged most of her plays. The word is that it involves a particular British leader’s obsequious affection for aparticular transatlantic leader, but the playhouse insists that it is far less specific and limited than that.

Hmm. The softporn version of Stuff Happens? Or, knowing Churchill, hardcore.

Empty Space, RIP

Seattle Times' Misha Berson offers a colorful post-mortem on the beloved alternative company.

But here's her scary bigger picture:

Midsize arts groups like the Empty Space are in an increasingly perilous position. And if the cultural climate doesn't change in the next few years, few will survive into the next decade.

Here's where the "midsize theater" problem kicks in.

Do the math. Any art-driven troupe in this town with fewer than 300 or so seats to sell per night, and a professional payroll to meet, cannot rely on ticket sales

Civic funding (the kind European countries dole out routinely to their best troupes) and other grants are essential for survival. Moreover, theaters should be viewed as cultural amenities worth supporting, if they enrich this community and serve as its cultural ambassadors.

It's a cliché and true: Our society places less and less value on providing literate, thoughtful alternatives to the 24/7 barrage of canned, empty-calorie commercial

We expect nonprofit arts groups to be "business-like." That doesn't just mean being sensible about money. But also, implicitly, picking material that guarantees an audience (anything by Andrew Lloyd Webber, for instance), and taking few of the aesthetic risks Empty Space was founded to take.

The roll call of midsize theaters Seattle has lost since the mid-1990s is a grim one, headed by the Group Theatre, the Alice B. Theatre, the Bathhouse Theatre company. And it's no accident that these organizations folded as Seattle boomed and shed some of its own unique civic character.

Some midsize companies (Book-It Repertory Theatre, Taproot Theatre, et al) are hanging in there, along with the bigger theaters and an evolving array of fringe troupes funded largely by free labor.

Underlining mine, of course. Those points, I'm sure, resonate with many, many companies in cities of all sizes across this nation. If Berson is right about the ticking clock on such companies ("few will survive into the next decade") so much for our national theatre.

Cell Phones

Will the person who's been calling people during the climactic silences of all the plays I'm seeing, please wait 10 more minutes? You've been following me around all weekend.

Either that or make sure your friends never go to the theatre.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Playgoer in NYT, Part 2

Arts & Leisure today has published my letter contextualizing my quoted comments in last week's big Cameron Mackintosh article. The serious version, that is. See here for the funny version.

Eric Bentley

Jonathan Kalb offer's one critic's tribute to another in his fine Times profile today of the fascinating and important theatrical life of Eric Bentley, beyond just Brecht.

Saturday, November 11, 2006


You may have noticed to the right some new advertising blocks. They are "Blogads" ads. My hope is they can generate some small income for the site. As in--Playgoer needs a new pair of theatre tickets!

So if you have any wares to peddle, especially if they are theatrical in nature, please click on the "Advertise Here" line in any of these boxes and check out the reasonable rates. Short term or long term, big or small, text or fancy graphics, there are lots of options.

I get final approval of all ads, but so far I've only vetoed some odd baldness cure. But, hey, happy to send that one on to anyone who's game.

PS. If you want to know more about Playgoer's readers and general site activity, check out the Stats link anytime in the righthand margin. (Statcounter rules! And it's free.)

Is Tim Rice the "Root of All Evil"?

So suggests Guardian theatre blogger Alfred Hickling. Rice seems to have invited such attacks by recently railing against the lack of new musical theatre talent--to compare with his, presumably.

As for the corporatisation of the modern musical which Rice so deplores, it is worth bearing in mind that he was part of the team behind Disney's Lion King and Beauty and the Beast: the first of which featured dancing baboons and the second a chorus of singing tableware, which gives Rice a unique perspective on the art of pots calling the kettles black.

Note what I presume is the original title of Hickling's piece in the url: "Throw the book musical at him."

Friday, November 10, 2006

Playgoer on the Road

In my non-blogging time, I've carved out a little niche lately as a Clifford Odets expert, just in time for his centenary.

This has gotten me an invite on a post-show panel Sunday at New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre for their production of Odets' Rocket to the Moon, a beautiful 1938 drama of loneliness and empty love in the Depression. It's actually a remount by director Daniel Fish of his much acclaimed staging for the Bard summer festival last year, which I missed.

Obviously I won't review the show, but perhaps I'll write up some observations on it and Odets in general, if any strike me.

Meanwhile, if you're a Yalie or just in that part of Connecticut, come on by! It'll be me and Ellen Adler (daughter of Stella) after the 2pm matinee. Obviously you'll have to buy a ticket to stay for the talk.

UPDATE (11/11): Check out Charles Isherwood's mostly thumbs-up review of the production today. The Times has really been sending him around these days. Nice to see more regional coverage.

The New Musicals

Michael Riedel documents the panic over at High Fidelity: The Musical. A great example of deluded producers who just don't get the demographics of Broadway at all.

According to production sources, "High Fidelity" so far has sold about $600,000 worth of tickets, an appallingly low figure for a $10 million show.

In Boston, where the show recently wrapped up its out-of-town tryout, the box office was a disaster. The owner of Colonial Theater is said to have taken a $1 million bath.

The problem, sources say, is that the show's target audience - straight males in their 20s and 30s - would rather be caught in a gay bar than at a Broadway musical.

Uh, ok Michael. But point well taken.

And then, let's not forget about the music itself!

The John Cusack-Jack Black movie of "High Fidelity" made great use of classic songs by the Velvet Underground, the Rolling Stones and Stevie Wonder (early Stevie Wonder!) to tell the story of a lonely slacker... who's obsessed with his record collection....But the musical doesn't use any famous songs. It has an original score by Amanda Green and Tom Kitt.

And that may be another problem, since anybody who loves the Velvet Underground isn't going to rush out to see a show written by the daughter of the man who wrote "Subways Are For Sleeping" (Adolph Green) and the musical director of "An Evening with Mario Cantone."

Yes, let's face it: John Cusack, Jack Black and the Stones over here--cheezy soft-pop musicals over there. And ne'er the twain shall meet. (Or, to quote an old Adam Sandler skit: "Who are the ad wizards who came up with this one!") Of course this might be fine if the B'way "High Fidelity" managed to reinvent itself to appeal to a different audience. But: "women - who buy the vast majority of tickets to Broadway shows - appear to be shunning 'High Fidelity,' even though it's being billed as a 'romantic comedy.' "

The problem is, not even women can save you on Broadway. It's old people. Period. Old rich people, and tourists who just want singing and dancing and a familiar, inoffensive, easy to understand storyline. And, for $75-$100 (or three-four hundred for the family) even entertainment isn't good enough. They want to be wow'd.

This is especially bad news, I'm afraid, for the more adventurous (and probably better) new musicals trying to transfer from Off-B'way nonprofit houses to the Great White Way of Tonyland. I'm speaking of Spring Awakening and Grey Gardens, of course. And even the Company revival (which originated at Cincinatti Playhouse in the Park, albeit in an implicitly pre-B'way tryout). These are all quality pieces with some great artistry on display. I'm glad if they reach a wider audience. But look, the only wider audiences they're going to get are likely to be disappointed fun-seekers.

Prediction: All three of these shows will get great reviews (already the case for Gardens) and generate great excitement among the theatre community and even the cherished younger audiences. But this audience will soon exhaust itself (if they can even afford the tickets, that is) within a few months. That is not long enough to recoup the investment of a musical on Broadway today. A true commercial success (i.e. profitable returns) depends on well over a year of continued business, which means pleasing not the critics, not the insiders but the average US consumer who sees Broadway as part of a Vegas-like "entertainment package." You have to fill your theatre with at least 800-900 of those folks every night, and they have to enjoy it so much they tell 800-900 more folks that it's worth $75.

In this context, a recommendation like, "Eh, it was interesting" or "very arty" doesn't cut it any more.

So my prediction--and I know I'm going out on a limb here--is that none of these shows will still be running by, say, Valentine's Day. Does that mean they shouldn't have been done? Not necessarily. I'm glad the actors are getting good paychecks. If the Tonys acknolwedge the better aspects of these shows, then great. If they enlighten just a few audience members on what theatre could be as opposed to what it is, excellent. And hey, what's wrong with a three-month run? Probably as long as a really, really good show has in it.

I'm just saying, there will be a lot of needlessly unhappy investors next spring. Producers being bold and adventurous is a good thing. But I'm sensing there's a fine line in this case between bold and deluded.

Have you noticed...

...that Stephen Sondheim's name appears nowhere on the print or radio ads for the new Company on Broadway?

What does that say? Other than the guy's gotta get some new representation.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Corporate Funding

We commonly assume the NEA is our closest equivalent to a European Ministry of Culture. But could the real analogue be Time Warner? Certainly they provide more dollars!

Kate Taylor has a great piece in today's Sun on our de facto Arts Council.

Time Warner, of course, is behind the Signature's super-successful $15 August Wilson season. But as Signature chief James Houghton tells Taylor, it's still no cure-all to the deeper malady.

"The economic equation of theater is impossible, especially in the nonprofit world," he said."It costs so much to produce it that, even if we were to sell out every single seat, we barely get to 50% of what it cost to make it. We're stuck in this ridiculous equation, which forces the ticket prices up and up and up. And there's a fundamental issue with that equation that is contradictory to engaging people in the theater."

Still, he said, the $15 season is "not about trying to lure people in, and we'll charge them more later." After all, lots of people, even if they really enjoy a $15 play, still can't afford a $55 one (the Signature's regular price). "It's trying to deal with the condition itself," Mr. Houghton said, "to say, ‘Wait a minute, this system is incredibly broken.'"

Incredibly broken. I'm glad someone is saying it.

In other news, you may have missed in the Times business pages this little feature on something called "Stage Vision." No, it's not a tribute to Peter Brook or Robert Wilson, but a celebration of corporate-sponsored LCD screens popping up in certain LORT theatre lobbies, beaming advertising and other "content" into audiences' field of vision. And guess what--the NEA has pitched in for this! Is this where we want our scant tax dollars for the arts going? Funding for "funding opportunities"? Helping people help themselves, I guess. (In the article, NEA justifies their support by saying some videos are educational.)

Such intensified and slick efforts to nab more business bucks seems a direct consequence of both sliding subscription bases and declines in individual giving. (Dying donors?)

While philanthropy is still a crucial source of money, donations have flattened out over the years. Theater subscriptions — which supply guaranteed income — account for less than 50 percent of nonprofit theater audiences, he said. But marketing costs to reach potential subscribers continue to increase.
There it is--the era of the subscription audience is fading before our eyes.

And there are potentially good things in that? But hopefully not corporate domination in place of the phone call from the cranky subscriber. Get this from Bruce Whitacre, head of the "National Corporate Theatre Fund":

“Regional theater in the current climate is doing fairly well, but they are very thinly capitalized and dependent often on ticket sales,” Mr. Whitacre said. “The whole point is to expand beyond philanthropy to promotional marketing relationships.”
Aghh! I honestly don't mind the TV's in the lobby. But what further "promotional marketing relationships" may this be building up to?

This NCTF, by the way, is news to me. But seems like a pretty big deal. "[A]n association of ten of America`s finest not-for-profit theatres dedicated to increasing the participation of corporations and their employees in support of theatre across the country and in New York," says their mission statement. So kind of like a lobbying association--but for Wall St. in stead of Washington. (I guess congressional lobbying for the arts has failed so badly that this has become a better use of energy.)

Who are the heavy hitters, the big 10? Louisville, ACT, ART, Center Theatre Group(LA), Cleveland Playhouse, Guthrie, Long Wharf, Old Globe, Seattle Rep, and Trinity Rep (Providence, RI). There are also 9 "Affiliate" members: the Alley, the Alliance (Atlanta), Arena Stage, Arizona Theatre Company, Chicago Shakespeare, Dallas Theatre Center, Denver Theatre Center, North Shore, Walnut Street. My point is not to single these companies out for admonition. My point is these are good, serious companies who, it seems, have gotten very, very serious now about not just corporate funding, but nationwide corporate funding.

Finally, for the most condescending quote of the day, here's Mario Garcia Durham, "director of presenting" from the NEA itself:

“We recognize that with younger people, the idea of a TV screen is probably something they would process, and it could help interest them in the genre,” Mr.
Durham said.
Or, as Chauncey Gardner said: "I like to watch TV."

Maybe, just maybe, the way turn young people back onto theatre, is to show them an alternative to tv?

"I like to watch TV"

The wisdom of Chauncey Gardner...

Cate Comes Home

Cate Blanchett is returning to her roots in the theatre, in a big way. She and hubby/playwright Andrew Upton are taking over the Sydney Theatre Company! As was clear from her performance in the otherwise problematic STC "Hedda" last spring, this is one movie star who can act on stage, so let's hope this means more from her.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Big "Corrie" Talkback

I'm glad Mr. Excitement went to the A-List talkback at "Rachel Corrie" last night and took some excellent and extensive notes. Read all of it, sounds like a fascinating evening.

Of particular interest to me is how Tony Kushner seems to have gone on the record in much more detail about his (presumably well-informed) perceptions about what went down behind the scenes at New York Theatre Workshop in the spring:

"A case of panic" is what he called it. "They freaked out and panicked" from "internal stimuli" he said. "There was no evidence that crazy right-wing groups had any intention of attacking them. They got some very bad advice from public-relations firms"--which Kushner declared should be banished from the theater altogether.
And an important contrast he made to the Corpus Christi case:
Kushner noted, "when the attack comes from crazy right-wing fundamentalist nutbags" opposing them is an easy call. In New York, the progressive community and the Jewish community overlap and it's "terrifying to people that they're going to be attacked as anti-Semites" said Kushner.
In short, the theatre community has no problem bashing red-staters, but little stomach for criticizing its own. In public, at least.

David Hare, also on the panel had this to say from his outsider's view of the whole nonprofit scene here (Public Theatre excepted, of course):
Hare launched in, saying that counter to his original understanding that the American non-profit was meant to be an alternative to the commercial theater, the "not-for-profit appears to be a training ground for the commercial theater."
Both Hare and fellow Brit Alan Rickman stressed the differences between the kind subsidized envrionment "Rachel Corrie" originally came out of at the Royal Court, and the bizarro-world distortion of it they find here.

Again, a good read. The debate goes on.

Chicago Theatre will debut "Springer"

Believe it or not, the UK hit "Jerry Springer: The Opera" has been deemed too hot to handle by Broadway producers. Previous announcements of Broadway plans, and even a San Francisco run, have just dissipated. The show has already been protested by religious-right groups in Britain. After all, there is a scene with Jesus in hell. And plenty of rousing obscenity-filled choruses.

I'm surprised none of our larget nonprofits have landed it. Maybe the original creators and producers are still holding out for Broadway. But what, then, do we make of the news today that they have settled on the modest Bailiwick Theatre in Chicago for their US premiere. Perhaps a successful "safe" tryout there--Chicago, after all, is the home base of the real Springer show--is their best chance for a transfer?

Read about the deal in Playbill. And if you're a Chicago actor--send in your headshot! They're having an open call: "The show features 11 soloists, a chorus of 12, and two non-singing roles — Jerry Springer and his bouncer Steve."

Quote Whores from the Grave

Talk about contextomy...

Have you seen thuis ad? For the off-broadway commercial venture "Duse's Fever":

"Duse...was the finest thing I have seen on stage"
-Charlie Chaplin

"Duse produces the illusion of being infinite in variety of pose and motion...She is ambidexturous and supple, like a Gymnist or a Panther."
-George Bernard Shaw

"The first time I saw Duse, I knew I was in the presence of a master who had achieved absolute perfection."
-Eva Le Gallienne

Uh, aren't these folks...dead?

I guess I can't say it insults our intellgence, since obviously they're talking about the real Duse (who died in 1924). Obviously, right? But why the format? Is it a joke? And Duse may have been "supple and ambdexturous"... but who's to say this actress is!

Anyway, whoever this Shaw guy is, he's got to learn how to write more bite-sized Gene Shalit-esque copy if he wants a future as a quote whore. Let alone make a living off of 200-word reviews....

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

REVIEW: Bhutan

My review of Daisy Foote's Bhutan. Under my non-Playgoer alias, that is.

I suppose readers should now factor this into anything I may say about the Voice these days. So be it.

Busy week!

Theatre Muzak

I wholeheartedly concur with David Cote's spirited rant against the kind of cheezy incidental music that keeps showing up in productions of new plays at our more respected theatres. Hard to describe, and specific examples aren't coming to mind, but Cote gets it right with "tinkling" and pointlessly "upbeat." I'd say just, Lame.

Not to disparage individual composers. (Although Isaac makes a case in comments that it's the fault of sound designers composing on the cheap.) Clearly there's an overall "lite" aesethetic at work, that shows up in the writing and directing, too.

The Mystery of the Daylight Savings Curse

Did you know that Broadway insiders have long noted a conspicuous drop in sales in the week after our clocks "Fall Back"?

And, as Variety's Gordon Cox reports, no one knows why.

"Corrie" talkback

If you're at all still interested in seeing "My Name is Rachel Corrie" but just haven't gotten around to it, you may want to think about going tonight, since you'll also get to see Tony Kushner, David Hare and Robert ("Insurrection") O'Hara on a post-show panel moderated by Gregory Mosher.

As for those $45-65 tickets, if you can produce a student ID at the box office it's $25 (on, code is SID25).

If you go--please tell us about the panel here, in Comments!

On the other hand, if you're staying home watching election results, then definitely consult comrade Contrapositive's "cheat sheeet." No premature celebrations, now!

Monday, November 06, 2006

Denver theatres still piping hot over smoking

Now a Denver Post critic is getting involved, with this excoriating--dare I say, inflammatory--editorial against the recent judicial ruling denying an exemption for theatres to local public smoking ordances.

Says John Moore:

So all you actors who thought you were conveying meaning through body language or a gesture, guess what? A small group of bureaucrats, none of whom have likely set foot in a theater but have full authority to set public policy, don't get that. As a result, the individual constitutional freedoms the government has been chipping away at for the past five years just lost another chip.
Ok, I don't find myself getting quite as fired up about this. For instance, I can't quite sign onto Paragon Theatre co-founder Michael Stricker's dire prediction that "many of the greatest plays in the world simply won't get done locally anymore because they include smoking." Hm, I'm trying to imagine what titles a World's Greatest Plays anthology edited by Stricker would include? (Intro by Dennis Leary, no doubt.)

Still, it all brings up interesting (to some, silly) questions of what we mean by "realism" in the theatre. Is Moore right on target when he says: "When Hedda Gabler shoots herself in the head, if the audience believes they have heard a real gunshot, they will gasp. If they believe they have heard a cap gun, they will snicker"? I suppose once one commits to the realist aesthetic, then yes. But it's revealing how much these companies' legal defense depends on a strict adherence to that one particular aesthetic.

Arts Funding in the UK

The Guardian asked around the London arts scene about the state of public vs private funding these days. Two very different takes from the theatre world. The first, from the Royal National Theatre ("It receives £16m from the Arts Council and £1m from the private sector") and its AD Nicholas Hytner:

The stuff we do cannot exist on box-office alone. It is hugely labour-intensive and simply would not happen without state funding. It would be twice as expensive for audiences, so far less accessible. We spend a very large proportion of our grant on subsidised seats.

Sounds like they have their priorities straight. In addition to the state, their "Travelex-sponsored" £10 ticket season has been so successful in the big Olivier Theatre that they've expanded it to some shows in their midsize Littleton. Under this policy--which covers 4 shows in a rep season of some 14--two-thirds of the seats (yes, 67%) are sold to the public, for £10, no extra hassle, no questions asked. Given the consitently high quality of the National productions (aside from the relative wisdom of the direction/interpretation on a given day) that's quite a value.

For the other side, there's Dominic Dromgoole of the Shakespeare's Globe theatre, a relative newcomer on the scene that has had to make do without the usual state subsidy. Says the Guardian:
The Globe operates on an annual income of just under £10m, two-thirds of which comes from theatre and exhibition admissions, educational programmes and touring income. The rest comes courtesy of the Globe Shop, the Globe Cafe and Restaurant and gifts and donations. It receives no public subsidy.
Not surprisingly, Dromgoole is happy to sing the praises of philanthropy. And he envies us! I'd also love to increase the amount of private patronage we get. I've had some interesting conversations lately with the Public Theater in New York. That is a similar-sized organisation but it gets much more of its income from private patronage than we do. There is no history of private giving to the arts in this country. In the US, it is virtually a public duty. Look at the billions Warren Buffet gave away this year. People with money are meaner in the UK. That is a shame.

"Public duty"? I do hope Oskar Eustis has not been telling the Brits any tall tales!

I can hardly blame American theatre companies, in these dark times, for looking to enlightened billionaires to salvage them. In many instances, I'm sure you're more likely to find less intrusive "no strings attached" money from such genuine supporters than from foundations or politicians with a narrow agenda. But does each Travelex partnership--or its NYC equivalent between the much smaller Signature and Time Warner--just encourage the free-marketers to smile "I told you so," as they line-item us out of the public budget even more?

BTW- The Public is venturing a Signature-like step for at least one of its shows this season. For Julia Cho's Durango, all seats will be $10. But just for Thursdays. And just when you buy day of. Unless you're a subscriber.

I guess when you truly buy into a culture of philanthropy, then you have the givers and the beggars. And beggars, of course, can't be choosers.

Brazilians and Japanese

Dear Nations of Brazil & Japan:

No doubt you all pored over this Sunday's Arts & Leisure article on mega-musical producer Cameron Mackintosh and wondered: "Who is this no-credential 'blogger' guy dissing our respective countries?" But I assure you, when I said to journalist Philip Weiss that Mackintosh's boffo shows of the 80s and 90s succeeded expressly because "Brazilians and Japanese were taken in by the spectacle,” obviously what I meant to say was...

Well, I should have just added the word "tourists." Because that's who I meant. Rest assured, I know full well that the culture that has given us the great dramas of Noh and Kabuki, and the land of Augusto Boal, are far more sophisticated than to be dazzled like mere children at a Sir Cameron smoke-and-mirrors show. The issue I was addressing was solely that of the English language. Now I imagine that when "Phantom" and "Les Miz" tour your countries, they are translated into your indiginous languages. But again, the issue was that small number travelling from your countries to ours who may not be fluent in English--or at least the kind of English subset heard in the lyrics that accompany Andrew Lloyd Webber songs. (And, frankly, who does understand that?)

Why single out your two nations above all others? Surely there are countries more childish and artistically challenged to appropriate, you say? Well it just so happens that Broadway producers--and the marketers paid to study the demographics of their audiences--are obsessed with you. This is a moment I wish I kept better records of all the interesting articles I read, so I don't have the hard data in front of me. But since yesterday, I've done a little ex-post-facto fact-checking of my own to see what put such crazy ideas into my head. How's this, from a NY Times article from 1997, just at the crest of Sir Cameron's success:

Then there's the source material. Eliot's "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats" has enough literary quality to hold the attention of adults and enough whimsy and fantasy to charm children. "You must remember, we are dealing with fabulous pieces of verse," Lord Lloyd Webber said.

Mr. Nunn said: "It's very visual with some intellectual ingredient for those that want it. It's a very literate set of lyrics with all sorts of classical references, but it's immediately understandable."

Understandability is perhaps the most important reason of all. Mr. Wachtel said that his audience surveys had shown that about 80 percent of the "Cats" audience came from out of town, and 40 percent from outside the United States, with visitors from Brazil, Germany and Japan predominating. Even those who speak no English can enjoy the show.

Oh, and earlier the same year, Edgar Dobie, then the president of Sir Andrew's Really Useful Company told the Times this: "English is almost a second language at 'Cats.'"

So you see, it's not my fault, associating your great nations with the musicals this man hath wrought. But as to why your citizens who come to my land demand such entertainment...well you'll have to ask them, I suppose.

Humbly yours,

The Playgoer

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Playgoer in NYT

Philip Weiss, who penned the Nation's big muckraking piece on "Rachel Corrie" last spring, has a big profile of Cameron Mackintosh in Arts & Leisure today.

I recommend it because a) it's a great read about a big figure, and b) I'm quoted in it!

Thanks to Weiss for interviewing me and--more importantly--for getting the name and url of any theatre blog into print there.

Friday, November 03, 2006

NEA on Young Audiences

The NEA has issued its report on "The Arts and Civic Engagement," focusing especially on the "young adult" demographic (for NEA that's 18-34, not teenagers.)

This header from page six sums things up: "Young Adult Participation: A 20-Year Decline."

Their stats actually just show very gradual shrinkage--from little participation in the 80s to even less now. Still, a trend's a trend:

Performing Arts Attendance (Ages 18-34)

1982 / 1992 / 2002 / 1982-2002 / 1992-2002
18.5% / 15.9% / 15.1% / -3.4 pp / -0.8 pp* (Musicals)

11.5% / 12.5% / 10.9% / -0.6 pp* / -1.6 pp* (Plays)

Percentage points (pp)

* No statistically significant change

And here's the report's stirring conclusion:
These declines merit attention because they are the first signals of arts participation patterns by Generation Y, the second largest generation in U.S. history. With 68 million people born between 1977 and 1994, this cohort’s current and future engagement levels will determine the viability of our arts and our communities.

Note the falloff in attendance at musicals over twenty years (between those born 1948-1964 and today's counterparts) is greater than plays. When even musicals are losing popularity...well ya got trouble, my friends.

However, the "statistically insignificant" decline overall in the last decade suggests to me that "Generation Y" is no more or less apathetic than my fellow Gen X'ers. Not necessarily encouraging, but a hint that this is not all the sudden result of the internet or X-Boxes.

Overall, what I take away is that non-musical theatre (and I'll assume even non-Broadway theatre, even though the study doesn't account for this) is clearly now a regular activity for only 10% of the population under 40.

Again, the short 8-page pdf of the report is here. Otherwise, the LA Times has an even shorter summary.

"American Girl"??? or..."American Scab"!

Campbell Robertson reports on the ongoing union dispute over at the NYC branch of the American Girl Place megastore. Namely, that The Girl won't let the actors for its little instore show join Equity.

They better settle fast, unless they want Scabby the Inflatable Rat to show up for tea at their next Bitty Bears Matinee.

The Bitty Bears demonstrate some innovative strike busting techniques...

Thursday, November 02, 2006

The Long Commute

I have belatedly stumbled on a very good arts blog (hosted by ArtsJournal) by one Andrew Taylor, who, among other things, runs an Arts Admin program at Madison Wisconsin. Here's an interesting post of his on that recent study about America's increasing commute time.

What does this mean for cultural institutions? If your facility is in the downtown core, it means your potential audience has a longer drive home, and may not even be coming downtown anymore. If your facility is in the suburbs, your audience may be coming home tired and ready to cocoon. But if you're creative about when and how you connect with an audience, there are lots of interesting ideas awaiting (podcast interviews with your artists for listening in the car, short and early commuter concerts to keep audiences downtown just long enough for the roads to clear, and on and on).

I have a bad reflexive reaction against the podcast idea--but perhaps it would be an interesting way to extend program notes?

Aside from that, though, he's absolutely right about the problem now theatres and concert halls still being downtown when no one lives there. I used to get excited about those plans to build more arts institutions in the cities to bring folks downtown. But I'm not sure that's working. So many of our cities are just ghost towns at night and their nighttime/weekend business all stolen by the malls.

So bring the art to the people, I say! Bring it to where they live. Even if that means the "exurbs."

Development Hell follow-up

Or should we be calling it Development Purgatory...?

Some interesting blog chatter on Lyn Gardner's Guardian polemic against the over-incubation of new plays (in both London and NY). Mr. Excitement got to the article before me. And I vigorously second David Cote's eloquent formulation of the "cultural limbo of perpetual apprenticehood."

Lonergan lags

Kenneth Lonergan's much anticipated Broadway-bound The Starry Messenger (starring Matthew Broderick) isn't even making it into the Old Globe slot for its premiere (aka tryout) in January. The stated reason is, he's too busy with his next movie. Variety has the story.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

The Smoking Ruling

For those of you following this, a set-back for that onstage smoking case in Denver, as a judge refused to allow an exemption for theatre performances in the city's comprehensive public ban.

[Judge] Martinez ruled the act of smoking, even in performance, "is not inherently an expressive behavior," and therefore does not qualify for free-speech protections under the U.S. constitution.

Well I think we all know a few actors who would disagree. But I digress...

I couldn't resist chuckling over this bit of courtroom "drama":
Things grew equally dramatic when the plaintiffs chose to demonstrate for the judge the inadequacy of fake cigarette alternatives. But this strategy backfired when Theatre 13's Judson Webb puffed into a simulated plastic cigarette, shooting a brief blue burst of talcum into the air. Webb said such devices lack believability, in part because the devices cannot depict a continual burn, and create a "massive distraction" for audiences.

Yet in his ruling, Martinez said Webb's simulated act looked real enough for him.

Indeed, need not all modern commercial theatre simply "look real enough" to satisfy...

Acocela on Tharp

Finally, the kind of review "Times Are A-Changin'" needs: a Dance review. Even if it still is very, very negative.

From the stunning visuals I've seen, it's clear to me that if this bomb is to be appreciated at all, it is as a dance piece--and one that, unlike Tharp's "Moving Out", may have trouble "crossing over" to Broadway terms. So, whatever disaster it brings on by trying to be Broadway, I'm much more interested in reading reviews that go beyond just "the story doesn't make sense."

Development Hell comes to the UK

Sometimes it takes an outsider's eyes to show us our own problems. The Guardian's Lyn Gardner does some truth telling about what's happening to new plays and playwrights, now that the once flourishing London new-writing scene has been infected.

Over the last 10 years a new play development culture - based on American models - has taken root in British theatres and it is now so firmly embedded that it has become an industry in itself. These schemes are not always hungry for new talent and there is little evidence that they are producing better plays. Those who have jobs in this growing industry have a vested interest in the schemes continued growth, as do the theatres who have squeezed money from public or private sources to fund such schemes often in the name of access. But, if playwrighting schemes worked, every new play you saw would be outstanding. They are not....

...Play development should be about enabling writers, not tying up their talent in a queue of unproduced plays. It is often a mirage, a substitute for real action and commitment by a theatre to a writer and his or her play. It provides the theatres with an opportunity to tick all the right funding boxes while offering playwrights very little at all - except misplaced hope.

I sense another problem between the lines here. About those "funding boxes"... Could what we're witnessing be the result of a gradual de-funding of the arts on both sides of the pond? Even in Britain, where a comparatively healthy Arts Council subsidy persists, the trend has been privatization and corporatization. (And according to this, the Arts Council ain't what it used to be, either.) As grants get smaller, so does a theatre's goals. Okay, you won't give us enough for a production, how about a reading? And then when the reading is deemed a success, everyone gladly settles for less.

Gardner also offers a great aphorism: "It's like teaching people to swim but then denying them access to swimming pools."