The Playgoer: August 2007

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Friday, August 31, 2007

Disney Losing Touch?

"They're hiring serious artists to direct basically cartoons," says a veteran theater producer. "It worked with 'The Lion King.' It hasn't worked since."

-Quoted by Michael Riedel, in his Denver dispatch on the impending disaster that is the Francesco Zambello-George Tsypin Little Mermaid.

After seeing a few of those cumbersome grey slabs of Tsypin's on stages lately, you gotta wonder how Zambello went into that Disney meeting pitching him with a straight face for a happy family musical!

Meanwhile, Riedel also takes us inside what's changing at Disney Theatrical and their overall place in the scene: "When "Beauty and the Beast" opened in 1994, there were very few family shows on Broadway. Today, the street's full of shows that appeal to families - "Wicked," "Hairspray," "Legally Blonde," "The Grinch," "Mary Poppins," "The Lion King." "

He also tells how Disney's backup move here after the bad reviews in Denver was to fly out NY group sales agents to motivate them to talk it up to their clients. "I might have liked the show a little better if I'd been in first-class," Riedel quotes one as saying.

I must say a couple of bloggers have already pounced on the Mermaid story before Riedel could go to press: Cara Joy and Moxie.

Pinter rewrites Sleuth???

...for Kenneth Branagh's new film, if you can believe it.

Make no mistake: Kenneth Branagh's ''Sleuth'' is not a remake of the 1972 film....Inside Branagh's charming English manor is a starkly modern, technology-enhanced interior against which [Michael] Caine, playing a successful detective novel writer, and Jude Law, as a struggling actor having an affair with the older man's wife, escalate their power struggle....

Branagh said the difference lies in the sparsely written screenplay by British playwright Harold Pinter, which he described as a ''testosterone-fueled gladiatorial combat.''
Wouldn't that be like hiring Edward Albee to rewrite, say, Plaza Suite?

Not that there's anything wrong with that!

And yes, Caine also starred in the original Sleuth film, based, of course, on Anthony Schaffer's (yes, twin brother of Peter) play... Now I don't want to be a "spoiler," but all I'll say are the words "surprise ending" and "Michael Caine's make-up," add a question mark, and leave it at that.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Spring Awakening and Success

Well, any doubts I ever had about Spring Awakening's chances on Broadway can now be officially laid to rest: it recouped. But it was no sure thing. In previews it reportedly lost $700,000 of its initial $6 mil investment. What saved it? Apparently, says Riedel, the "yutes":

For one thing, "Spring Awakening" really did manage to tap into an audience that's much younger than the typical Broadway crowd. And it did so largely through the Internet.

A clip of the show on YouTube, illegally swiped from the Tony Awards in June, has received more than 100,000 hits. And there are video and audio clips from the show all over MySpace.

MTV, which pays scant attention to Broadway, did a major piece on "Spring Awakening" that, says Pittelman, sent the box office soaring.

And even through the ups and downs of the doldrums of summer, it's been playing strong to full houses.

So there you have it. Instead of infantilizing geezers with cotton candy, we have young audiences flocking to challenging 19th century German source material to a rock beat.... Is Broadway growing up, as it were?

Well, not so fast, if you remember what had to be done to Wedekind's original Frühlings Erwachen to make it play on the Rialto. And who else should come along and remind us about that than... Jonathan Franzen?

It's true, Jonathan Franzen has just published his own translation of the original play (yes, he apparently knows German, it's not a lazy "adapt" job) and writes a very insightful introduction to the play. Including a number of zingers calling out the musical. At length. Such as:
One example of the ongoing danger and vitality of Spring Awakening was the insipid rock-musical version of it that opened on Broadway in 2006, a hundred years after the play's world premiere, and was instantly overpraised. The script that Wedekind had finished in 1891 was far too frank sexually to be producible on any late-Victorian stage....And yet even the cruelest bowdlerizations of a century ago [i.e., the early censored versions] were milder than the maiming a dangerous play now undergoes in becoming a contemporary hit.

The hand-wringing young Moritz Stiefel, whom Wedekind had kill himself over a bad report card, is transformed, in the musical version, into a punk rocker of such talent and charisma that it's unimaginable that a report card could depress him. The casual rape of Wendla Bergmann by the play's central character, Melchior Gabor, becomes a thunderous spectacle of ecstasy and consent. And where Wedekind showed the young sensualist Hansy Rilow resisting masturbation--reluctantly destroying a piece of pornography that threatens to "eat away" his brain--we in the twenty-first century are treated to a choreographed orgy of penis-pumping, semen-slinging exultation....As for the working-class girl Martha Bessel, who in the original play is beaten by her father and ardently envied for these beatings by the bourgeois masochist Wendla Bergmann: what else could she become in 2006 but a saintly young emblem of sexual abuse? Her supportive, sisterly friends join her in singing "The Dark I Know Well," an anthem to the sorrow of being carnally interesting to grown-ups. Instead of Martha's appalling matter-of-factness about her home life...there is now a dense modern fog of sentimentality and bad faith.

and then...
A team of grown-ups creates a musical whose main selling point is teen sex (the first Broadway posters showed the male lead mounting the female lead) and whose female teen characters, shortly after wailing to their largely grown-up audience that they are bad-girl love-junkies, come forward to sing of how terribly, unfairly painful it is to possess a teen sexuality that fascinates grown-ups. If the path from Bratz dolls through Britneywear finally leaves a girl feeling like somebody else's piece of meat, it obviously can't be commercial culture's fault, because commercial culture has such a rockin' great sound track and nobody understands teenagers better than commercial culture does, nobody admires them more than it does, nobody works harder to make them feel authentic, nobody insists more strenuously that young consumers are always right, whether as moral heroes or as moral victims.... In the end, the only thing that really matters to teenagers is that they be taken very seriously. And here, among all the ways in which Spring Awakening would seem to be unsuitable material for a commercial rock musical, is Frank Wedekind's most grievous offense: he makes fun of teenagers--flat-out laughs at them--to the same degree that he takes them seriously. And so now, more than ever, he must be censored.
First of all, I think this is first lengthy serious analytical response to the musical "Spring Awakening" I've seen in print. And since it's a notable phenomenon on B'way, it's worth paying this much attention to. That it's by a famous literary fiction author is also heartening, since we need more of this "crossover" and conversation between artists of all media and genres. We need the arts to pay attention to each other, in other words.

Franzen's views on Wedekind and the musical are highly personal, of course. While I tend to agree with most of his diagnosis of the musical's watering down the play, I actually don't for a moment think these changes were made purely for commercial reasons. I mean, no one would even start writing a musical of Spring Awakening if they wanted to make millions. I really think that for the personnel most responsible--Duncan Sheik, Steven Sater, and director Michael Mayer--they genuinely like their version better.

(True, the act one finale, the rape/non-rape scene, seems to have been tinkered with extensively between the first staging and Broadway previews. Perhaps some commercial pressure was brought to bear on that.)

I don't think has to do not with conscious "selling out" so much as the current sensibility of American theatre artists as opposed to a German rebel from a hundred years ago. As Americans are we so inculcated with the cultural and narrative values sanctioned "family entertainment" that we crave more. And when faced with a radically different vision from another time, we rush to assimilate it to the more familiar, and less threatening.

One thing I agree with Franzen about is that the current version may be explicit but it is not disturbing. A great production of the real Spring Awakening would fascinate teenagers, but also challenge, not flatter them.

As opposed to:

Walk by the stage door after any performance, and you'll see hordes of kids waiting to meet the cast. Once upon a time, they would have thrust out their Playbills for an autograph. Now, they whip out their cellphones and take picture of themselves with the actors.

I haven't read Franzen's translation yet, by the way. But I'm curious. He claims it's the first "complete" English version that restores all the parts cut by censors over the years...

9 to 5

It's true. It's here. "9 to 5: The Musical!"

Just when you thought it was safe to go back to Broadway...

Ok, at least that's what Ms. Parton says:

"People ask if I'm gonna be in the play. I say, 'No, I think I'm a bit over the age of wantin' to be a secretary,'" Parton said in her radio chat. "But they asked me to write all the music for it, so I have written all the music. And it's supposed to open on Broadway in the spring of 2009. I believe they're gonna be doin' a workshop out here at the Shubert in the fall of next year."

Welcome to development hell, Dolly. Broadway style...

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Poster of the Day

From Eric Grode...

Sondheim's Assassins. London, Donmar Warehouse, 1992.

Showcase Showdown

My very first proper "feature" article is out today, in the Voice.

Subject: that ol' Equity Showcase code. You may have already been reading about it here, and here, and here, here, and assorted other blogs and chatrooms. And this article may admittedly seem nothing new to you if you have. But at 600-odd words, I hope it can at least serve as a primer of sorts to give the issue itself wider exposure and explain to more theatre loving folk the basics of what's going on.

So many issues didn't make it into the final cut--AEA members' concerns about health insurance, the role of fringe festivals, to name just a couple--and there are also some different proposed remedies than the ones I cite from ART/NY. But if you're really interested in getting into it, just follow those links above.

I also want to express gratitude here for all those actors, directors, producers, playwrights that put aside time to talk or email with me who didn't get metioned or quoted explicitly. (You know who you are. I'll preserve your anonymity.) All these conversations helped enormously in my understanding of the issue, even if the final edit may smooth over some of the complexities a bit.

I also would like to encourage lots of comments, corrections, challenges and general feedback to the article. Even better--please comment on! (Click on "Write a Comment" at the bottom of the screen.) It would be great if the editors there saw how strongly people felt both about this issue and just the presence of more theatre reportage in the paper, something I credit my arts editor Brian Parks with seeking out.

Finally, if you're wondering just what the Showcase code is? Well, happy reading.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

"Is He Dead": DOA?

Talk about unfortunate titles...

Look--I haven't read the recently discovered/published Mark Twain stage comedy, Is He Dead? (And as a collector of such American theatre curiosities I'm dying to.) But what producer in his/her right mind would actually hold out hope for an obscure non-musical period piece farce on today's Broadway?

Notwithstanding a master farceur-director (Michael Blakemore) and the knockout cast he's assembled--Norbert Leo Butz, Byron Jennings, David Pittu, John McMartin--my only response so far to Is He Dead is...Are They Nuts?

PS. This kind of show is exactly what National Theatres are for...

Ranking Goodness

David Cote has some thought provoking invective against NYT's Charles Isherwood's faint praise of the Tracy Letts/Steppenwolf juggernaut August: Osage County on its way to B'way--namely for faulting it as not "possess[ing] the penetrating truth or the revelatory originality of a fully achieved work of art" and the author as "more a skillful entertainer than a true visionary or a dramatic poet." Saith David of such "high standards":

I wonder how often Isherwood’s Tony-named colleagues—Scott and Tommasini—review a new movie or symphony and go out of their way to assure the reader: Well it’s no Citizen Kane or Beethoven’s Ninth, but pretty good! Do reviewers in other fields even bother with this sort of hierarchizing humbug?
Good point. Do critics in other media have a greater appreciation of genre, that is an acceptance of appreciating a work within the context of its genre. Obviously, reviews do this all the time with, say, musicals--which are largely evaluated on how well they entertain regardless of how thin the spoken drama parts of them are. But when it comes to "straight" plays that are not yuk-fest comedies, must they all be Ibsen? Have we lost our love for the "potboiler"? (Which is Letts' genre of choice, at which he excels--see Bug.) Under the name "Melodrama" it has become an automatic death sentence--but it used to be a dominant and viable theatrical form when theatre was still a popular theatre.

David's point about film is illuminating because there we have seen a whole generation of stylists --aka "entertainers"--practically canonized by the critical establishment--such as Tarantino, David Fincher, heck the entire Hong Kong school. And indeed, no one apologizes for "Seven" not being Citizen Kane--itself arguably best appreciated as a genre film.

Poster of the Day

From Alison Croggon down under...

Five Men by Daniel Keene, production of Compagnie du Passage-Neuchâtel, Le Poche-Genève et Neuchàtoi, 2006.

(Deisgn by Garance of Logox)

Monday, August 27, 2007

"Wait, Sweeney Todd is about WHAT???"

Warner Brothers is getting a little MPAA-anxiety over the rushes of Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd film, at least according to Page Six.

The suits at Warner Bros. "became a tad squeamish when they viewed grisly footage of blood splashing across the set as Depp slits the throats of his customers," London's Daily Mail reports. In another scene that has the studio on edge, a 10-year-old boy feeds human body parts into a meat grinder to make meat pies.
Uh, isn't that what the show is about???

The Working Actor

In case you missed it in Sunday's Times, Campbell Robertson asks the question we asked here lo many months ago: How much does an actor make?

A good cross section of up close & personals--ranging from $20,000 a year to almost $50,000! It gets higher if you go on tour with The Lion King, though...

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Poster(s) of the Day

Apparently the most beloved poster designer of many, many of you is Paul Davis, for years the image-maker for the Public Theatre.

Some Davis faves above, all of Public productions: (from l to r) Threepenny Opera, Streamers, and Caroline, or Change.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

The Playwright and le Président

Check out French-Iranian playwright-célèbre Yazmina Reza (the hit "Art," the less auspicious "A Spanish Play"), allowed up close & personal with the Sarkozy campagin, leading now to a campaign-journal book. (NYT even has excerpts, too.) Sarko does seem like one of Reza's hyper neurotic little bourgeois men characters.

Just imagine, say, Tony Kushner going on the trail with "the opposition"--my pick would be Rudy!

Friday, August 24, 2007

anti-Poster of the Day

Thanks to Commenter "Michael" for the link to the infamous "One That I Want" Grease ad. (Covered earlier.)

What think you? Deceptive? Or just mind-numbing?

Poster of the Day

Thanks to Rob Kendt for this pretty jarring Polish film poster (by artist Gorka) for the movie of Cabaret.

Would work just as well for the play, no? (If not for the Joel Grey face. Or is that Liza...?)

Selective Quoting, or: "The...[o]ne" [that] I..."Want"

Daily News' Joe Dziemianowicz and other critics feel violated by the Grease team for performing some new-low alchemy on their scathing reviews. Apparently--in a print ad that has now been pulled but someone please send it to me if you have it--the mere words "You're the One that I Want" are pulled and plastered all over it, attributed to various seemingly enthusiastic critics.

The ad folks are, of course, unrepentant.

The $10,000 ad was created by theater ad agency Serino-Coyne, "Grease" producers and theater publicity agency Barlow-Hartman.

Serino-Coyne account executive Cara Christman says the phrase "the one that I want!" didn't necessarily come from a review. "We pull from both features and reviews," she says.

Dziemianowicz finds a more upstanding adman to agree this is a gross misrepresentation: "Quotes are always considered an endorsement from the publication and its theater critic." In other words--when you say "'Terrific!'- NYTimes" even when the word comes from a neutral blurb in the weekend guide, it's reasonable to assume the average reader thinks you mean Ben Brantley. (And thus Brantley has a right to take umbrage.) Let alone, when you pull from readers' web-comments...

Kudos, btw, to AP's Michael Kuchwara for getting AP to demand the removal of its name from the ad. As I said, it's history now.

Hat tip,

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Theatre as Alibi

For those of you following it, an amusing theatrical turn in the pathetic Roger Stone/Spitzer's dad nasty phone call saga:

Mr. Stone also said in his statement that he had attended a performance of the Broadway play “Frost/Nixon” on the night of the alleged call and could “highly recommend it to Governor Spitzer.” He added, “It shows you what hubris and lying brings you.”

But a blogger for New York magazine pointed out that the play had no Monday night performances.

“Well, then I’m mistaken,” Mr. Stone said later. “My wife already reminded me I actually saw the play on a Wednesday. I still recommend the play to the governor.”

Monday or Wednesday, Roger, it was still a loser alibi. Everyone knows nobody goes to the theatre anymore. At least not to a straight play!

By the way, even if there was a Monday show, there's another hole in the story: the intermissionless Frost/Nixon is a shortee and comes down before 10pm, the time of the call.

Oh and if you haven't heard it yet, here it is. A doozy. Can anyone corroborate my theory that Stone is drunk? I swear he slurs the word "senate" at some point...

Poster of the Day

Another personal pick of mine.

Ok, here's a very recent production in NY, that I didnt see, but I've kept the Smarttix email just for this image. I have no idea who did the poster, or the show, or whether the show was any good. If you know, go ahead and let us know.

I just dig how it gives a completely fresh spin to a very familiar classic, yet stays utterly true to its particulars. (And yes I mean the "garters.")

Five Twelfths (an adaptation of Twelfth Night). Played at the Producers Club, NYC, June 2007.

Faint Praise Indeed

...but in this case I fear Time's theatre "critic" Richard Zoglin (who knew they still had one) may be in earnest. He liked Grease!

Of the two young stars drawn by lot:

they perform all the dance moves required, don't have any trouble with the lines, and (unlike some others in the cast) actually are convincing as high school students. You could do a lot worse.

How much you wanna bet they put that on the marquee?

(By the way, I personally would never start a paragraph in a review with the sentence: "Well, a couple of days after seeing Grease, I happened to be sitting around a breakfast-room table with a half-dozen 13-year-old girls." Then again, I'm childless. And not 100 years old, as apparently Zoglin is.)

Hat tip, Jason--who's been sending this 'round the 'sphere after he mysteriously found the review in his inbox!

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Seattle ♥ Esbjornson

A glowing tribute from Seattle Weekly to David Esbjornson's first year at the helm of Seattle Rep--despite acknowledged critical and audience detractions from some shows.

this subdued, gray-haired Minnesotan, for all his politeness, has a passion for experimental work, and is quietly introducing some of the most radical and challenging pieces that the Rep has seen in more than a decade.
Read on for a story of that rare story of a New York director who is well matched with as AD of a regional theatre in "America."

Poster of the Day

Thanks to Kelly from the UK for this.

Potestad by Argentine playwright Eduardo Pavlovsky. Toronto's Tarragon Theatre, 1989. Designer, Theo Dimson.

Edinburgh 411

In case you've been missing it, two local print correspondents have been providing excellent and thorough dispatches on the Edinburgh Festival (Fringe and otherwise), making it all comprehensible to we yanks: Jason Zinoman in the Times, and Lucy Hughes-Hallet in the Sun.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Poster of the Day

Berg's Wozzeck, Teatr Wielki, Polish National Opera, 1964. Designed by Jan Lenica.

Sent in by pianist Marilyn Nonken.

Yes, it's an opera--but based on a play!

The Secret Event of the Fall Season?

Peter Stein's Orestia, 1994.

You may have seen a notice in yesterday's Times' "Arts Briefly" about the National Theatre of Greece paying their annual visit in October with Sophocles' Electra. But apparently neither they or Playbill seem to get that the director "Peter Stein"who they credit as some guy who won an Olivier and directed the two-hander "Blackbird" in London is actually the Peter Stein! (From Germany, that is not just another Brit.) Whose work is almost never seen in the US!

Get your tickets now. Before the secret is out.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Poster of the Day

Senaca's Oedipus, by way of the Akropolis Performance Lab, Seattle, 2006.

Says the Akropolis member who sent it to me:

Many businesses either declined to hang it, or would only display it if the
photo was edited so that the woman's cleavage was hidden. Other establishments
loved it and couldn't keep it on the walls because patrons kept taking it home.

I take it this doesn't mean Senaca's is any racier than Sophocles'?

Headline of the Day

"'Idol'-Inspired Musical Voted Off After One Night"
Yes, the Clay Aiken musical is no more...says BackStage.

Critic Proof?

Crumm & Osnes: Trained Grease Monkeys?

So is a $15 million advance enough to withstand reviews like this? and this? and this?
Sum it up, Mr. Brantley, why don't you: "Changing the channel is not an option."
And that's just his lede.
The surprise today is how much the production (by that Broadway pro Kathleen Marshall) is
criticized. The two newbies don't seem worth the critics' ire and don't get as much ink as you'd expect. While the expectation all along has been that Marshall would mask her stars' inadequacies with a knockout supporting cast and dazzling stagecraft, now everything being called lame, lame, lame.
Or maybe Grease is just a dumb, dumb show?
If the advance and the scattered fans who still remember the tv show can't save them, then at least we can be thankful if the experiment in casting-by-reality-show be deemed a failure not worth repeating.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Poster of the Day

Ok, not an unfamiliar one this time. But worth having at least one from the ubiquitous James McMullan, Lincoln Center Theatre's resident poster-man for the last umpteen years.

I agree with reader Brian that this is one of McMullan's best--for Nicholas Hytner's revisionist staging of Rodgers and Hamerstein's "Carousel," at the Vivian Beaumont, 1994.

Says Brian:

In a sense it's a traditional American musical image, but it conveys the sense of underlying darkness and menace that Hytner's direction brought out in this great great musical. Like the production itself...I think it cuts through a lot of the accumulatedcultural baggage of how Rodgers and Hammerstein have come to seem to contemporary audiences and returns us to the primal (and youthful) energies and passions that drive this show.

Must be that campfire-like, low front-lighting effect, eh? And those out of control horses. Which I just realize recall that classic Platonic image (from the Phaedrus?) of the passions as an unruly chariot, don't they?

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Poster of the Day

From reader Scott:

The Odyssey, Willow Cabin Theatre (NYC), 2002. Design by Fraver.

What's your favorite theatre poster? Email it to me at playgoer [at] gmail [dot] com. Thanks to all who have emailed already!

Tip: I'm especially interested in non-Broadway and just the generally unfamiliar/underexposed.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Your Favorite Posters

From George Hunka:

Caspar Neher, Threepenny Opera (1928), the original Berlin premiere.

Thanks for your emails. Keep 'em coming!

For more on our "Poster of the Day" feature, read here.

Spring Awakening, or Fall Asleep?

Riedel may think he has a scoop on the "new" musical from Spring Awakening team Stephen Sater/Duncan Sheik--Nero--but for once in my life I can say I've scooped Riedel!

As one of the probably few New Yorkers who saw premiere of Nero: Another Golden Rome at San Francisco's Magic Theatre in February '06, I can say it was positively awful. Now to be fair, it was first preview of a very technically demanding, sprawling production, in a small space probably not used to such challenges. So it did feel like more of a stumble-through. Still, let's just say I found it three hours of meandering arcana about a story nobody cares about anymore, and no one in the house cared more about afterwards. Frankly, if I'm going to see a boring play about Nero, I'd rather sit through Racine's Brittanicus. In French! (Which tells basically the same story.)

Ok, to be even fairer... I'm sure extensive rewriting has gone on. The Nero I saw (which was pre-Spring Awakening, btw, which was just about to open Off B'way) was barely a musical, really more of an obscure verse play "with music by Duncan Sheik." So potential investors should take note this is not a crowd pleaser. Riedel quotes Sheik as saying Nero "makes 'Spring Awakening' look like 'The Wedding Singer.' " He's got that right, alright. Just maybe not in the way he meant.

Sorry, I'm really not trying to sabotage Sater and Sheik's careers. I admired and enjoyed Spring Awakening, despite some caveats about the alterations to Wedekind's original. (Probably not a frequent complaint from the crowds on Broadway, I'll grant.) But what alarms me is how, according to Riedel at least, this is Broadway bound! Or at least the leaking to Riedel's column aims at buzz to that effect. Staging Nero at, say, the Public (where the recent workshop was held) would probably be an interesting event, at an appropriate venue. But Broadway does not need such an idiosyncratic historical indulgence, and Sater & Sheik certainly don't need the whopping, flopping snorefest that would ensue in a 1000-seat house with millions of dollars at stake.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Poster of the Day

I know I posed this earlier, but I'm bumping it up again just to encourage more submissions. Thanks to those who have emailed already!

How's this for a new Playgoer feature: show us your favorite theatre posters! Email me--at playgoer_[at]_gmail_[dot]_com--a jpg of a poster for a theatrical production--a real-life production--that you just think is really, really cool, whether or not the production itself was, or whether or not you even saw it. I'll post the highlights as they come in. Tell me just what the show was, where, and when. (If you have the poster design credits, too, great.)

I'll go first. Here is an image I've never forgotten from the BAM lobby in 1992 when I saw Richard Eyre's original stage version of Ian McKellan's "fascist" Richard III on tour. It was, of course, later adapted to a successful film. But, as much as I enjoyed both incarnations, nothing in either captured the concept as eloquently and elegantly (and chillingly) as this almost minimalist collage of black, white and smoke. It's all there--the time period, the royalty, the menacing cynicism. McKellen's blank averted gaze and implied crouching posture help, too, of course.

I've actually sought this poster from one end of civilization to the other ever since. (I even shelled out on eBay for a poster from the movie--similar pose but in color and too cluttered.) But a happy ending to the quest came when I stumbled upon this site--the near-complete inventory of Royal National Theatre posters for sale! So it's mine now. Not cheap, given the exchange rate and the shipping. But mine.

Royal National Theatre, Richard III, 1991. Poster designed by Michael Mayhew, photograph by John Haynes.

Israel on Stage: Still no Peace

Two interesting articles on Israel-themed plays from small Jewish-American papers.

  • Frin the Jewish Review: "Rachel Corrie" the play in trouble again, this time at a local Ashland, OR theatre (not the Shakes Fest).

  • From The Jewish Week: An overview of reception to two current NYC titles: the Israeli play Masked and Betty Shamieh's The Black Eyed at...New York Theatre Workshop. That both shows are doing relatively well despite mixed to poor reviews is credited to: "A mix of carefully crafted marketing strategies, and, perhaps more importantly, scripts that avoid simplistic political judgments." Or is that, no political judgment?

Our "Patrons" of the Arts

Kate Taylor in the Sun really shows us how the sausages are made in the "cultivating" of mid-level "patrons" by our beloved large arts orgs. As we all know, development staffs get bigger and bigger, as programming and content budgets get smaller and smaller. All in the name of upgrading that ideal small donor to the honorific "patron"--or, to put it in numbers, $1500-$2500 a year.

The theatre example is worth quoting at length:

The specific perks vary, but at performing arts organizations, they include better seats and sometimes complimentary tickets, as well as close personal assistance from the patron office with ticket purchases, and, at higher levels, invitations to events such as opening night cast parties, or private concerts at the home of a board member. At museums, they may include curator talks, invitations to openings, and receptions with artists.

Patron offices are managed by a staff of usually two or more extremely courteous people, who help with ticket orders and in general provide a sense of personal attention and service. The vice president for planning and executive director of special campaigns at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Lynn Stirrup, said that every time she has added staff to the patron desk-- which has gone to four full-time employees from one since 1994-- she has seen returns in increased contributions.

In addition to the staff, patron groups are generally overseen by a couple of very social board members, who draw on their large networks of friends and acquaintances to bring people into the program. The Lincoln Center Theater patrons program, for instance, which last year raised $2 million, or 20% of LCT's total donations, was run from the mid-1980s until her death in 2004 by Joan Cullman, a board member with many connections in the theater world and beyond. One of the two board members who currently runs the program, Ellen Katz, said that she originally joined the patrons group because of Cullman, whom she and her husband socialized with in East Hampton.

"She always had this cocktail party, and one thing led to the next and you got an invitation in the mail [to join the patron group], and lo and behold you joined," Ms. Katz said. "You pretty much couldn't get through her grasp." Now Ms. Katz has perfected her own way of pitching the program, casually bringing it up in a variety of contexts, from dinner parties to rounds of golf, to conversations with other parents at school. "Whenever the subject of culture or activities in New York comes up, I always try to weave in my love of the theater and then say, 'Oh, have you seen this latest production at Lincoln Center?'" she said. "If they seem interested -- because I don't like to push-- I say, 'Let me send you an invitation'... On occasion, I've had dinners at my home for 20 people and then taken them all to the theater."

The other LCT board member who manages the program, Daryl Roth, said the services of the patron office take the hassle out of coming to the theater. "It's the ease, the hassle-free ability to get good seats, and have a real person helping you," she said. "We have the most terrific patron staff. It's small, but they are as gracious and helpful as you can imagine."

Now I know this is how one has to make the sausage in this day and age. We have now been permanently weaned off the NEA. Or any concept of a truly democratic approach to supporting culture or our non-commercial theatre.

These vast resources that go into catering to the Patron Class--to making sure they're "hassle free"--how can they not further a perception of theatre as not for everyone. How can that not rub off on the average theatre lover who doesn't have $2500--to give to all 5 or 6 of the companies he regularly attends--and arrives at the theatre feeling the conspicuous gap between those who have a "patrons desk" and those who don't. (Like the Admiral's Club at the airport.)

Once again, it's time for some company to take what I'll call the "Obama-Dean" approach--small bore donations. There could be something invigorating and pride-filling of the "$10-20 patron"--and good for the institution if there are thousands of them.

Think of it this way: If the BAM Patrons desk has gone from 1 to 4 in the last big do you think it will be ten years from now? Not smaller.

And do you think the non-patron--including their aesthetic tastes & preferences--is going to get increasingly more attention, or less?

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Bergman: "Sensualist & Philosopher"

Yet one more eulogy to Bergman the stage director--a must-read from Michael Feingold, who gloriously catalogues many of the highlights from the BAM tours of the last twenty years. He also graciously points us to an official Bergman website!

Charles McNulty, in his earlier tribute, already pointed to the ending of the freely "adapted" Ghosts as an instant classic. Here's Feingold, fleshing it out for us:

Deleting the giant closing speech in which Ibsen's Mrs. Alving vacillates over whether to give her syphilitic son, his diseased brain collapsing in dementia, the poison that will end his life, Bergman guided Pernilla August, who had embodied so many heroines for him, into creating a strong, decisive, 21st-century Mrs. Alving, her deep-red dress like a spill of blood or wine against the deep-green carpet as she knelt to feed her now naked, infantilized son the fatal pills—helping him wash them down, ironically, with a flute of champagne left over from a toast the two characters had drunk earlier in the act. This was Bergman's bleak goodbye, to his life in the theater and to the era of modern drama that Ibsen had fathered. It was a true Bergman moment, a summing-up that both rebuked and quintessentialized the play from which he drew it—a moment without hope, but so densely packed with beauty, mystery, and tragic power that its existence was itself a sign of hope.

Other salient points:

1) that while Bergman's reputation amongst film critics may seem in jeopardy over the last week, it may be his theatrical legacy that holds up the longest (ephemeral as the form is.)

2) Bergman's stage oeuvre is a testament to the European state (and state- subsidized) repertory model--building over decades an intimate relationship with the great plays and with a company of highly skilled actors who could embody his ideas. (Not surprisingly many of these actors ended up mesmerizing us in his films, as well.)

As Feingold says, "no one achieves such things alone."

Playwrights on a Fiver

As if answering our call... Playwrights Horizons just annoucned they're replacing their "Pay What You Can" policy for first preview night with an online lottery for $5 instead.

Unfortunately it's not all seats but only 50 on the mainstage (out of 198) and 25 in the smaller space (out of 96). I guess to leave room for subscribers?

The process reads as a little cumbersome, but, hey, it's a start. On the one hand, the lottery aspect is annoying (looks like you have to wait up to a week to hear if you "won"). But on the other hand, maybe it's fairer?

If this is a success (and who knows on what grounds they'll judge it so) hopefully Playwrights--and other theatres--might expand it. Maybe more than one performance? Maybe more than 1/4 of the house?

Whenever you go to a performance when all the seats are drastically marked down, you know there's a very different ambiance in the room. And an especially hospitable one to new plays.

All in all, an encouraging development, I say. Especially the use of the web.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Following the Money (& Real Estate)

Just want to point out two excellent pieces of arts reporting in NYT recently. (Nice to say when you read something there informative!)

You probably have read both by now, but if not, here's...

-Robin Pogrebin's analysis Monday of how the new City Hall arts funding guidelines are working out for the artists. (Apparently good, for anyone not in a city-owned building.)

-And, from last week, Campbell Robertson's overview on just what is happening to Off Broadway in the wake of disappearances like this.

Corporatization of Arts, cont.

From the Times today, on the new head of the Ford Foundation:

Increasingly, however, high-profile nonprofit jobs are going to people who have done well in the business world or in politics, a reflection on the pressure on charities and foundations to become more accountable.

Or--to put it in English--to coddle even more up to the values and priorities of corporate America or, worse, Bush-era Washington.

Bill Rauch @ Ashland

What's it like to transition from running a small guerilla theatre outfit like Cornerstone to taking over as AD for "a 10-month repertory company, with three theaters, a resident acting company of over 90 people, and an annual attendance of almost 400,000"? Kate Taylor goes inside Bill Rauch's first season at Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Fringe Pro & Con

Two more meaty Fringe previews. Here's Mark Blankenship in the Times. But check out Alexis Soloski's Voice piece casting a much overdue critical eye on the true value of the Fringe to nyc theatre, with the help of some commentary from other (albeit rival) downtown impressarios.

The key question I agree with is: what role does quality play in the selection of Fringe shows? It's news to me that Edinburgh doesn't apply any quality standard to their fringe--but then again, they also feature as a counterweight a series of A-list international productions in their larger venues.

I have no problem in theory with a free-for-all fringe, awarding not much more than the gumption and moxie to get there. But that needs to be clearly indicated in press materials and publicity. I fear too many patrons go to Fringe NYC expecting "New York Theatre" (or at least downtown theatre) quality and come away disappointed.

Thursday, August 09, 2007


Jeremy Gerard's excellent analysis, for Bloomberg, of the impending stagehand strike contains this illuminating digression on the true business of Broadway--i.e., real estate--worth quoting at length:

Every time a producer mounts a Broadway show, he or she has to rent a theater and then start from scratch: Renting lights, building the sets and the equipment that controls them. Some of these are unique to a show, but others an outsider might think ought to be part of the theater package.

The practice is called ``four-walling,'' and it means that the producer is renting a theater as if it had been stripped bare. The producer also pays for the theater's box office personnel and front-of-house employees, among a host of other costs. Half a show's weekly running expenses are related to paying for the house, not the production.

It's been this way ever since the three Shubert brothers wrested control of the commercial theater from the Theatrical Syndicate at the turn of the last century and gained iron-clad control over more than 1,000 theaters nationwide and the shows that went into them. (In London's commercial theater, where union costs are considerably lower, the same rules apply.)

This setup is a gift not only to those 350 stagehands, but to theater owners, who don't have to invest in equipment and who get producers to pay the salaries of their employees. Another wrinkle: Sometimes the theater owners also are the producers or co-producers, in which case they're more likely to give themselves and their partners a break on, say, rent. Other times, they're just landlords, looking, not unjustifiably, to generate the most income from their property, no matter how much pain that causes.

If you are an independent producer struggling to keep your show alive, the weekly rent is a lot more daunting than the cost of your stagehands. That's the chief reason why the current makeup of Broadway management, which includes both independent producers and theater-owners-slash-sometime-producers, is so completely dysfunctional. There's so much hollering between them it's clear they hate each other nearly as much as they hate the unions.

By the way, note that "union costs considerably lower in the UK" bit. The welfare state sure can help out in that regard. In this country, the unions pick up the slack and become their own welfare state. So Americans are adamant about not paying for other peoples health care and such in their taxes--but if only they knew they were paying it in their 3-figure "Jersey Boys" tickets instead!

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Boston's Wang Wanker

Boston Globe's Geoff Edgers has an incisive follow-up to his recent exposé on the crumbling of the Boston Commons outdoor summer Shakespeare programming--namely that the CEO of the corporate-styled host org, the Citi Performing Arts Center (formerly the Wang Center), just engineered for himself a million dollar bonus.

But hey, he deserved it, right?

Spaulding has presided over five straight years of budget deficits, cuts to programming, and a dramatic drop in performances at the Wang and Shubert theaters, which the Citi Center operates.
Um, ok.
The decision to slash the Shakespeare production that ended on Sunday -- the budget was sliced in half, to $481,027, and the free production's run from three weeks to one -- has brought renewed criticism of Spaulding and the Citi Center.
Hm. $481,000 is almost half a million....Half a million cut from performance budget, 1.2 million deposited in CEO's account...

Wait, it gets worse. By which, of course, I mean funnier:
Along with details about Spaulding's compensation, the examination [by the Globe] found that the organization has installed Spaulding's wife as its website manager, and employed companies either owned by or managed by some of the group's trustees.
And sere's some additional interesting context
There are other performing arts center leaders who are paid more than Spaulding. But they preside over centers with operations, in some cases, nearly 20 times larger than that of the Citi Center. According to the most recent records on file, Michael Kaiser of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., earns $1,029,691 a year. The Kennedy Center has a $141 million budget, meaning Kaiser's salary is 0.7 percent of the organization's budget.

The Citi Center's budget for fiscal year 2006 was $6.3 million. That makes Spaulding's salary 6.5 percent of the organization's budget. Spaulding is also paid a higher percentage of his organization's operating budget than leaders of the premiere performing arts centers in Los Angeles, New York, Minneapolis, Chicago, New Jersey, and Cleveland.

This seems an important rejoinder to those who preach more corporat-style management practices for arts org's. I mean, these folks are following the corporate playbook to a T! Spaulding is, after all, "The son of a former Republican State Committee chairman."

Chuck Mee

A NY Sun profile/preview by Kate Taylor in anticipation of the new Signature Theatre season devoted to three new plays by Charles Mee.

Then again, the man writes so much, so often, that when you take into account all the little productions by downtown ensembles, students, and professional productions around the country every season ends up being a Season of Mee these days.

I find my own reactions to Mee's work downright mercurial. I loved True Love, especially in Daniel Fish's original production, but not a big fan of Big Love, where I feel Mee's natural logorrhea gets the better of him. I respected the recent Gone--in print, no less--but that was a typical example of what Kate Taylor's title calls "The Collage Artist" aspect of his work--which in the end limits my excitement over his plays.

Still, I'm struck by how much of an icon Mee has become to downtown artists everywhere. Dare I say we have a new "Mee Generation" rising in the ranks?

In a related story, Signature Theatre has four years to find a new home.

UPDATE: For the Mee-Maniacs, here's another one, from David Cote.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

C Theatre Now

From Variety's Frank Rizzo:

Five major Connecticut theater organizations have united for the first time to create a statewide system to offer reduced-priced tickets.

Hartford Stage, Westport Country Playhouse, Long Wharf and Yale Repertory in New Haven, Goodspeed Musical's Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam and Norma Terris theater in Chester have created the website ("See Theater Now"), which offers 25 and 50 percent discounts on tickets the day of performance only.

The website, created by the theaters' marketing departments in association with, provides a listing of shows at the theaters and indicates if discounted tickets are available that day.

Imagine if, say, Playwrights Horizons, the Public, Atlantic, and MTC ever got together on a similar venture? True, they already send their xtra tix to TKTS...but I, for one, would much rather go online than wait on that line...

And, besides, how many people on average at TKTS are seeking seats for Off-Broadway nonprofit shows by new writers they've never heard of? I bet they would sell more this way.

I myself am going to bookmark this site since a lot of these theatres are not too far away from NYC. One could log on in the morning then hop on MetroNorth!

Fringe Glut?

Helen Shaw's preview in the Sun seems as good a way as any to sort out the mind-boggling array of more than 200 viewing choices at the New York International Fringe Fest. At least as a start.

Barnard "Corrie" Panel Transcripts

Barnard College, April 7, 2006. From l. to r: Barnard's Shawn-Marie Garrett (moderator), Christopher Shinn, Kellt Stuart, Alisa Solomon, Prof. Marvin Carlson, Gregory Mosher, John Heilpern.

Under "better late the never"...

The Yale Drama journal, Theatre, has finally published the transcript of the April, 2006 Barnard College panel discussion of the New York Theatre Workshop "Rachel Corrie" controversy. (Yes, when we were right in the thick of it.) For a more raw account see my original post. These are basically the opening statements, edited and presumably revised by all the participants--except, unfortunately, Gregory Mosher who had a lot of sharp things to say and riled up the crowd, but opted not to let his remarks be reprinted here. A shame.

In any case, not to rehash, but if interested, try accessing the online version via Duke Journals.

And while we're rehashing I will go ahead and make available here my own essay on the "Corrie" mess that I wrote for the recently published New York Theatre Review, which very much complements the Barnard statements. Since there's no online link to the NYTR contents, I'll just cut & paste it into a hidden blog post, here, for your reading leisure. (Still, do buy the book, please!)

From the Barnard panel, let me just quote for now a few lines that stand out as especially timeless and not just rooted to that particular argument. They're from Paula Vogel, as relayed at the panel by her friend, Professor Marvin Carlson:
“It is simply not true that American writers are not writing political plays; we simply know that they will not be produced in New York at not-for-profits with visibility and budgets. We hear in the Times how only the British writers (such as [David] Hare, [Martin] McDonagh, etc.) write politically. They write politically, yes, but they write inside a system that still subsidizes theater and new work and so their work is visible. And we import our political work, which lets the producers and board members feel virtuous. And now, with the Corrie incident, I fear we have to import political outrage, too, from Britain.”
As true now as it was then.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Playwrights & Playwriting

Since the question has come up in Comments, let's clear up this playwright/playwriting confusion once and for all.

The term playwright bears this wonderful anachronistic notion of the dramatist as "handicraftsman." (Hence "wright" as in shipwright.) It's very much in the same vein as dramaturgy, which, as Michael Feingold once helpfully pointed out in a column, is an etymological cousin of metalurgy.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "Playwright" dates from 1616--yes, the very year of Shakespeare's death. But it was his rival Ben Jonson who is credited with coining the term (or at least authoring its first extant appearance):

1616 B. JONSON Epigr. xlix, in Wks. I. 781 Play-wright me reades, and still my verses damnes, He sayes, I want the tongue of Epigrammes; I haue no salt: no bawdrie he doth meane. For wittie, in his language, is obscene. Play-wright, I loath to haue thy manners knowne In my chast booke: professe them in thine owne.
I'll leave it to the more adventurous antiquarians out there to unpack that.

Note the hyphenation. It also appears as such in OED's next historical example...
a1677 M. CLIFFORD Notes Dryden's Poems (1687) iv. 16 Wherein you may..thrive better, than at this damn'd Trade of a Play-wright
...where apparently this guy Clifford is telling Dryden to avoid the profession, even back then!

My off-the-cuff historical diagnosis is that we see here the growth of the theatre business in 17th century England, after such hitmakers as Shakespeare and Jonson proved one could make a profession out of poetry for the stage. Concurrently in this period you also will see dramatists referred to flat out as "poets," in Restoration prologues, for instance. ("Our poets," etc) But that fell by the wayside once plays turned pretty consistently to prose by 1800. And so "playwright" was all that was left, I guess. And so it remains.

Notice also how the hardwiring into the word of menial craftsmanship--as opposed to ethereal poetry and high art--coincides with that ol' anti-theatrical prejudice. While many a dramatist to this day would be proud to be deemed a good craftsman, they don't share that honor with would-be "novelwrights" and "symphonywrights." Come to think of it, "Dramatic Composer" doesn't sound all that bad, does it?

As for the verb form, "Playwriting" is totally legit since it's actually a different word, not "playwright" modified--that is, "writing plays" as opposed to being a "wright" of plays. OED does recognize "playwrighting" but only dates it from 1892--which is puzzling since "wright" as a verb seems to have gone out of style around...oh, 1616. "Playwriting" actually appears to predate "Playwrighting" which shows it's not some corruption. Maybe putting that hyphen back in would help: play-writing?

We also might be interested in reviving what Carlyle in 1831 termed the "playwrightess."

NonProfit Actors get Raise

From Variety:

Thesp union Actors' Equity and the Assn. of Non-Profit Theater Companies have struck a new three-year deal that ups both salaries and health insurance payments for actors.

Effective today, the deal raises minimum weekly salaries (currently pegged between $265 and $441, depending on a theater's category) by 4% in year one and by 3% each year over the subsequent two years. Stage managers and their assistants will receive the same increases.

Weekly payments made by producers into the Equity-League Health Trust Fund also will increase incrementally, from the current $155 to $193 by the end of the third year.

Meanwhile, average weekly box office ranges, which determine a theater's category for the agreement, were raised by 5%.

Off Broadway orgs that use the ANTC agreement include the Atlantic, Classic Stage, MCC, the New Group, Primary Stages, Signature, the Vineyard and the Women's Project. The York Theater also has recently been approved for the agreement.

Of course, the actual amounts actors will get will still depend so much on the theatre's LORT tier (the "category" referred to) which, as you can see, are now being adjusted to give smaller theatres a break, acknowledging that, say, $100,000 in annual box office intake ain't what it used to be.

It would take more number crunching and contract consulting than I have time for right now to sort out what this really means. But if any experts out there see some immediate significance, please share!

Sorry, I stand corrected. Actually has nothing to do with LORT. (See COMMENTS)

No Tony for Patti

Cara Joy asks a neat, mischievous question: is this summer's hit Gypsy revival eligible for Tonys? And of course we mean one Tony in particular.

After all, it played in a way-over 500 seat house at City Center. Try 2700.

Then again...

The production is a "legitimate theatrical production" (which is wording in the rulebook that I've never understood) and it is officially opening.

City Center is not currently on the list of Tony eligible theaters. However things at the theater used to be eligible. Doesn't everyone remember Bob Fosse playing Joey in Pal Joey at City Center in 1963? No?[.... ] Fosse was nominated for a Tony Award for that production.[...]

It would seem that what was once Tony eligible can be Tony eligible again. There is one sticking point--technically to be an eligible theater, the theater must "be used principally for the presentation of legitimate theatrical productions." City Center is home to a lot of dance--I'm not sure that dance events would be counted as "legitimate theatrical productions," but it's arguable. There is a discussion to be had there.

Tony eligible shows must perform on a "reasonably conventional playing schedule." This is very vague and there is some petitioning that can be done here. [...] In the case of Gypsy, the show is playing eight performances a week, which is perfectly normal. The run is limited, but that shouldn't be a big problem.

Now, here is the key, they have to invite all Tony voters in a "timely manner." They haven't. And I doubt they could fit in all the Tony voters now. However, if a little time was added, I suppose it would be possible. (There is some sub-rule about the production having to give voters like eight performances to choose from or something, but I'm not an expert on that one.)
But now that the show is closed, I don't think that ever happened.

(Another question I'd have is what kind of Equity contract Encores performs under. Presumably, they did this one under a different one than their usual "concert readings," but they're still a nonprofit.)

So there you have it. The most talked about performance of the summer--and what might well be the Performance of the Year in many theatre fans lists, will not be eligible for a measly Best Actress statue. And in all probability will lose to the Xanadu girl.

(I know, I hear she's good, too. But some competition would be nice.)

PS. Don't miss Isherwood's two cents on Sunday, registering his disappointment with the performance. Implicitly, I feel, he's coming to his NYT colleague Ben Brantley's defense, but this is a more thoughtful critique, at least.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Guirgis vs Blum

Okay, well some interesting comments on that David Blum NY Sun Public Theatre piece. Including one in the Sun itself (as anyone who goes to the original now will see) from LABrynth playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis:

While I share Mr. Blum's enthusiasm for the coming season at the Public and his support for Oskar Eustis (whom I genuinely adore, believe in, and am grateful to), his dismissal of George Wolfe's tenure at The Public reads like a hastily-argued joke -- and his attempt to encapsulate George's career there by his less than riveting production of "This Is How It Goes" would be equally laughable if it wasn't so transprently incorrect and downright insulting. I don't have the time or the inclination to defend George's tenure at The Public here. I was there with my theater company, LAByrinth, for the last four years on a daily basis so I know the score. George gave us a home and helped foster my playwrighting career, so perhaps I'm predjudiced. Furthermore, I'm quite sure a host of other artists would be "George prejudiced" as well -- starting with Suzan Lori-Parks, Liev Shreiber, Jeffrey Wright, Tony Kushner, Tonya Pinkins, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Richard Greenberg, Savion Glover, and every band, artist, and cabaret act that ever played at Joe's Pub. The question that lingers and disturbs me most is this: why does Mr. Blum feel the need to tear George Wolfe down in order to write what is essentially a promo piece on The Public's upcoming season? If nothing else, the vivisection of George's career, legacy, and reputation merits far more than eight ill-considered paragraphs. Any semi-cultured New Yorker without an axe to grind could tell you that in his/her sleep. Oversimplified generalizations are tolerable at a bar after a couple of martinis. Mr. Blum does himself -- and your readers-- a disservice.

Respectfully, Stephen Adly Guirgis

The Sun is as white a paper as they get. And while it may be provocative for Blum to assert that Eustis has brought more "diversity" than Wolfe, it's surprisingly tone deaf from someone once, albeit briefly, the editor of the Village Voice! (Then again, as that link indicates, such reactions to his views seem to have played a role in his termination.)

I'd say Wolfe's tenure was marked by various excesses and, yes, a fair share of starfucking--but no more than our other nonprofits. But with shows like Noise/Funk, TopDog/Underdog, and the LABrynth partnerships he did get some of that Papp spirit back in the house and successfully distinguished the Public "brand" from his theatrical competitors. No one has yet made the lobby at Lafayette jumpin' again, but Wolfe did bring a tangible energy and made the Public matter as a generator of new work, good or bad.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Public on a Roll?

As perhaps a counterweight to the sudden crisis over the Delacorte...the Sun's David Blum offers a downright encomium for Oskar Eustis for his past season at the Public, crediting particularly the recent summer offerings of Passing Strange and the R&J in the park with reviving hopes for the institution as a whole. I saw neither myself, but I did note how the buzz for both was unusually strong. And the upcoming season tempts me enough to click and subscribe myself for the first time.

Blum might rustle some feathers for his pointed criticisms of George Wolfe's tenure, blaming him for starfucking and even lack of "diversity"--that is, not "maintaining the diversity and cacophony of its offerings under Mr. Papp." Well, the Wolfe years were spotty and, of course, it'll always be hard for him to live down the ill-conceived On the Town and Wild Party B'way transfers (whatever the merits of those shows). But I do think he offered diversity in many ways.

However, Blum's account of an ill-fated Wolfe-LaBute collaboration hits the mark:

As I watched Mr. Wolfe's 2005 mounting of "This Is How It Goes," the star-studded production of Neil LaBute's then-latest mediocre meditation on the evils that men do, I wondered if its title stood more as metaphor than anything else. This is how it goes when theater companies get desperate: The Public Theater needed Ben Stiller and Amanda Peet to draw people in to its meager offering, and the movie stars needed the LaBute name to justify their presence on a tiny off-Broadway stage, even one as once celebrated as the Public's Anspacher Theater. The work of overrated playwrights wasn't going to turn things around for a company that had once so dominated the New York cultural scene. With productions like that, it seemed possible that the Public Theater might never recapture its original spirit, and would instead shovel the ill-considered work of Mr. LaBute — who, after a rousing start to his career, has lately taken to writing bad plays with alarming frequency — at subscribers too weary to complain.

Then again, the Eustis administration did bring us Wrecks.

Scoring "Points"

Riedel's column today is all about Mel Brooks almost Producers-like engineering of a contract that makes him lots and lots of money on Young Frankenstein not matter how good or bad it sells.

But what struck me most was this contextual paragraph showing how directors--at least the Broadway A-list directors--can get a piece of the action, too:

Susan Stroman, who is directing and choreographing "Young Frankenstein," is entitled to 4 percent of the profits, which puts her in league with Broadway's two richest directors: Hal Prince, who reportedly owns 7 percent of "The Phantom of the Opera," and Mike Nichols, who's said to have 5 percent of "Spamalot."
5% of profits may not seem very large numerically. But not bad if you actually invested zero! All gravy.

If you're Nichols, Prince, or, now, Stroman.

The point is--outside of a flat fee or weekly royalty/salary (which no doubt can be hefty for the heavy hitters) the "profits" are usually, most often not going to the artists on a Broadway show... But same with other commercial entertainments--movies, the music biz, tv networks. Hence the big deal when even a movie star can negotiate gross "points" in a contract.

Otherwise artists are bodies for hire, as usual.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Another One Bites the Dust

The Actors’ Playhouse, a 62-year-old Off Broadway theater that has been home to such productions as “Funhouse,” “Torch Song Trilogy” and “Naked Boys Singing!” and actors including Robert De Niro and Lily Tomlin, is closing. The theater’s rent, which had doubled in the last six years, was getting too expensive, said Peter Breger, who has operated the playhouse since 1995. “Basically, we just couldn’t make it,” Mr. Breger said yesterday. The Playhouse is the latest in a string of Off Broadway theaters to close in the last few years; others include the Promenade, the Perry Street Theater and the Variety Arts theater. The owner of the property, Duell Management, did not respond to a message seeking comment; Mr. Breger said his understanding was that Duell was “in negotiations with people to turn it into something other than a theater.”

Campbell Robertson, NYT

Something other than a theatre. Indeed.

I have a feeling those DeNiro and Tomlin appearances were a long, long time ago...

Brantley London Blog

Ben Brantley's 2-week London theatre blog is now (I assume) complete. Fun reading.

Again, here's hoping the Times critics (and their editors) make a habit of it. Send Isherwood to Chicago? (for more than a weekend) Cover Minneapolis? Williamstown or Ashland in the summer?

As for my own road-blogging tradition at Ontario's Shaw Fest, hate to let my fellow fuddy-duds down this year but I'm taking a pass this year. It's one expensive festival!

Director Breaks Leg For a Change

Or a rib or two, at least.

Helmer Daniel Sullivan suffered four fractured ribs and a collapsed lung Tuesday after falling through the trap door on the stage of the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, where he is directing the Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Fest production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
Wish him well.

Man, directing at the Delacorte has always been considered a risk, but this...

UPDATE: Public has now canceled next week's first preview (August 7).

Nat'l Arts Journalism Prog lives again!

Remember how Columbia J-School [ceased hosting]* its National Arts Journalism Program--a fellowship supporting eminent critics and promoting arts coverage in the media--lo, two long years ago? Well it's back, albeit in different form.

The National Arts Journalism Program, which in 2005 ceased operating after 11 years for lack of funds, has re-emerged in a different guise. Rather than being a fellowship for mid-career arts journalists, it will now be a membership organization for mid-career arts journalists, advocating for the increased quality – and quantity – of arts reporting and criticism in all media. Arts Journal Editor Doug McLennan is serving as acting director, while retired New York Times performing arts critic and editor John Rockwell is its chairman.

“Every week comes word that another news organization is cutting its arts staff,” said McLennan in his comments, “and the erosion of arts coverage will have a profound impact on the arts in America. But as access to culture and the arts continues to expand, a new culture of arts journalism is coming into focus. Historically, critics have made their most important contributions during times of great cultural change….The new NAJP will be arguing for a vigorous renewal of critical discourse in America.”
I am already indebted to McLennan on an almost daily basis for his ArtsJournal site (and its link-abundant email bulletins) and so god speed, Doug, on bringing something back to life here.

*CORRECTION UPDATE: Sorry, it's been brought to my attention that I've mischaracterized Columbia's role in NAJP's departure, and that the main issue was the program's loss of its independent source of funding, while the J-School was just playing host.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

New O'Neill Head....Again

Meet Preston Whiteway, the boy wonder who, at 25 years old, has been named the new Exec Dir of the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center.


Maybe the older timers out there can fill us in, but was it always "news" when a Broadway show recouped it's investment? Nowadays it seems the moment some patron clicks to purchase that magic ticket, the producers issue a press release announcing, "No, we are not a failure!" Playbill runs it online, and within minutes we all know it.

To me this hints that the occurrence has become rare enough to indeed be newsworthy.

Our latest "winner" is Frost/Nixon, making back its investment after just 14 weeks plus previews. So 3-4 moths. Not bad by today's standards.

Then again, it's a cast of ten (two of which I believe are nonspeaking?) led by a famous but not 6-figures-a-week star, on a unit set--albeit one with multiple tv's.

The stats show it's been filling the house at 80-90% ever since Tony season, after hovering in the 60s and 70s beforehand.

Perhaps this is good news ultimately for, of all things, dramas on Broadway. Since musicals are known to take well over a year to recoup (even seemingly successful ones), I hope producers see the "straight play" business model can work. Kevin Spacey's "Moon for the Misbegotten" also turned a profit--alas another small cast/unit set play. Oh well, as long as the nonprofits can step up to doing more epic plays (if, if...) we can leave the 2 and 4-handers to the Rialto.