The Playgoer: July 2008

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Thursday, July 31, 2008

Poster of the Day

To bring back a popular feature of the blog...

Here's a nice curiosity item:

You may not be familiar with this Rodgers and Hammerstein title. That's because it only became a hit after it dropped "Away We Go!" and became..."Oklahoma!" So this is a poster from the tryouts.

It was this incarnation of the show--today widely considered the seminal modern American musical--that was dubbed by dismissively described by one critic as: "No legs, no jokes, no chance."

This and happily many more theatre poster images can actually be found at, where, of course, they're for sale!

Happy hunting...

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

What's a "Season"?

In addition to giving their space a snazzy renovation and technical upgrade, LA's Mark Taper Forum is going to try out a year-round schedule. As in, adjusting to a post-farming economy ,when no one needs to go take care of the harvest. You know?

Taper will then switch to a season based on the calendar year. CTG's [Center Theater Group] two other venues, the Ahmanson and Kirk Douglas Theater, will continue to operate on a September-to-summer schedule. The challenge will be attracting a theater crowd downtown at a time of year when the Music Center is generally desolate.

"It creates breathing room for the staff," [AD Michael Richie] told Daily Variety, "and will take some of the burden off scheduling of openings. It will require some balancing artistically, and if a formula existed we would have found it by now. The focus is on the quality of a show, and people will go through anything to see a quality show."

Ok, I know in some towns there's a good reason not to produce shows in the summer, if your population is just all at the beach or something.

But, for the sake of the profession at least, isn't this an idea whose time has come? Probably helps create more year-round employment for theatre folk. Plus expands the programming possibilities potentially (a "summer slot" could be a very different kind of show, for instance).

Hey, if the TV networks are breaking from the old "season" model, then what are we doing on it???

A New "Buffalo"

Riedel tells us today that the upcoming Broadway "American Buffalo" revival is taking a decidedly interracial approach to casting. Joining the already announced John Leguizamo as Teach is...Cedric the Entertainer!

Now don't laugh, but I'm actually excited to see this. Leguizamo is terrific, as anyone who's seen him on stage can attest. And as long as Cedric doesn't ad-lib his way through Mamet, he is also a formidable stage presence, I'm sure. Whether you call them comedians or solo-performance artists, both have long-developed stage chops as live performers. It's not like casting pristine movie stars who've never gone live without the protection of a close-up.

Plus, that consummate theatre man Robert Falls is directing. So I'm curious what he'll draw out of these performers.

Double plus--you can't ignore the huge marketing potential. If Cedric brings in half of what Diddy did in black audiences, and if Leguizamo reaches out to Latino markets...this could be quite a seller. Especially if these audiences actually enjoy the play, and why would they not! It's a completely appropriate vehicle for these charismatic performers' talents.

And finally, it could shake things up, in a good way, to so ethnically re-cast a modern canonical show like "Buffalo"--perhaps still haunted by Pacino's famous performance in the 70s. Good move to recapture the play's minority-ethnic sensibility (whether Mamet's Jewishness, or Pacino's Little Italy) rather than go the safe white way of Broadway. As the recent "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" seemed to do for audiences (if not for critics) giving the old warhorse a new and different American sensibility can breathe new life into the familiar.

As for Riedel's dismissal of the competing Speed the Plow also coming this season, I take issue with how harsh he is on poor Neil Pepe! (Who, I admit, is a friend.) Riedel criticizes the casting--because it pales against the star-vehicle Kevin Spacey and Jeff Goldblum turned it into in London. But I for one welcome the bold decision to cast good actors like Raul Esparza, Elizabeth Moss, and, yes, Jeremy Piven. By dismissing him as just some TV actor from "Entourage", Riedel ignores that the man has theatre in his blood--as son of a legendary Chicago teacher and Off-Loop impressario.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Theatre: Elitist, or just Culturally Useless?

"What we seem to have nowadays is more of a hierarchy of media...whereby, for example, dance, classical music, opera, and even theater and books, all of which commanded their own sections in Time magazine only a generation ago, are now regarded as lofty and remote subjects for only a handful of connoisseurs." Those pages, he said, are "given over now to a Britney watch or extended investigations into the new iPhone."
-Pico Iyer, quoted in Scott Timberg's LA Times "thinkpiece" on the current tectonic shifts in "high vs low" in our cultural tastes.

Iyer (one of many interviewed) goes on:
Instead of feeling guilty about reading pulp novels, he said, we worry that we've become "elitist" if we go see chamber music or jazz. "The culture as a whole seems to have decided which arts are elitist and which ones popular, and so made some people feel guilty to be watching European movies [otherwise known as art-house stuff] or to be reading novels not likely to be turned into screenplays."
Is this essentially theatre's problem in the current hip scene? Just too damn "elitist" to admit to?

I think the giveaway is in what Iyer says about the "IPhone" coverage. If it's not a commodity, it doesn't get covered. A movie, remember, is not a performance--it's a DVD, or will be shortly, packaged for your consumption. So is a music album, even if now in the form of downloadable tunes.

But aside from "Phantom"-style concession-stand merchandising, theatre has nothing much to sell beyond the tickets, does it? If consumers can't buy a piece of it to take home, and (more important) if investors can't buy a piece of it...then what use is it to the editorial staffs and readership of our mainstream media?

It's not really about "elitist" vs "popular", I would argue. It's about profitable vs...well, nonprofit!

A Pseudo State Theatre?

You may recall the ill fortunes of New Jersey's musical theatre mecca, Paper Mill Playhouse a couple of seasons ago--namely, that they were broke and could barely even get a bank loan.

Well the prospects for a bank loan, obviously, are no more feasible today. But the town of Milburn itself has now stepped in to the rescue, by buying the company's property and effectively leasing it to them for a...well, I guess for a song!

The township will now lease the property back to Paper Mill Playhouse for up to 75 years. The theatre will have an option to repurchase the land and buildings in year 11....

Millburn Mayor Sandra Haimoff stated, "This is a win-win situation for the Township of Millburn and Paper Mill Playhouse…Millburn will purchase a valuable piece of real estate while supporting the arts organization that economically drives our downtown."
Sounds like the town is taking a strictly business approach to the deal. But, hey, it's as close to a "state theatre" as we're likely to get these days, huh?

Although I guess you could argue we have our own examples in NYC, with downtown spaces like the Public, LaMama, and New York Theatre Workshop which were basically leased by the city to those companies for, like, a dollar back in the day. Weren't they?

You don't see that happening any more, do you? Too bad, it's probably the only way a new theatre in Manhattan could afford space now.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Headline of the Day

In case you're wondering what Robert Wilson's up to, Page Six informs us...

Kim Cattrall, Howard Stern and Beth Ostrosky will attend Robert Wilson's Watermill Arts Center benefit tonight with their interior decorators Tony Ingrao and Randy Kemper
Oh to be a fly on the wall...

(If you had to google Beth Ostrovsky, don't worry. I did, too. Been a while since I listened to Howard.)

Culture Project Homeless--Again

It's on the road again time for the beleaguered Culture Project--formerly of 45 Bleecker, and soon-to-be formerly of Soho's Manhattan Ensemble Theatre space.

So even when you've produced the acclaimed Lortel-winning hit Iraq play Betrayed, space remains as unwinnable a war as any.

Friday, July 25, 2008

"Broadway": meaningless?

A must-read from David Cote in this week's Time Out on why Broadway is no longer a realistic measure of "success" in the theatre--and to theatre artists.

What healthy tonic to a small NY Times piece last month that profiled a bunch of folks from LA trying to put on an Off-Off Showcase-Code show here. (Having pledged a personal moratorium on Times-bashing I refrained at the time. But now it can be told!) Though otherwise fine in its accounting of the struggles required to put up work in this city, a couple of lines still gave away how much the only point of comparison in the horizons of the Times reporter (and, more importantly, reader) is the commercial world of Big B'way. For instance, you can't see it online, but in print, I swear, there was an inserted header that read something like: what young artists will do to get to Broadway. And the financial context also consists of a simple Broadway/amateur binary, such as:

Under the rules of Actors Equity, the union, the maximum amount that can be spent on a showcase is $20,000, a pittance compared with the millions it costs to stage a full-blown Broadway production.
Of course, nothing about anything in between--like the mere six figures a mid-level nonprofit theatre like the Atlantic or Playwrights Horizons might budget per production?

In case this seems like a petty distinction, consider this: an audience coming to your $20,000
showcase production only used to Broadway budgets is indeed going to laugh off your production values as "ratty." But many Off-Off shows we see these days are remarkably close in level of design and stagecraft to the smaller nonprofits--and thus, totally up to par, professionally. But you wouldn't know that if your standard of "production" is only flying helicopters.

But anyway, back to Cote. (More about what is right, not what is wrong.) Aside from the fine overall analysis, there are three personal anecdotes recounted I would draw special to. One is the fact that Anne Kauffman--by all measures one of the most gifted and successful downtown directors (The Thugs, God's Ear)--has never and probably will never direct on Broadway. (And indeed why should she, if not for the paycheck.) Second is this revelation from Adam Rapp on the rationale behind his independent Off Broadway run of his Red Light Winter:
“There was an offer to do it through the Roundabout, produce it at the Walter Kerr and sell preview performances to the subscribers,” Rapp recalls. “I just felt that I’d formed a bit of a following that was used to paying $20 to $40, and if I did a show with $100 tickets, I’d lose my audience.” So Rapp and his producer, Scott Rudin, opted for a commercial Off Broadway run at the Barrow Street Theatre, where it played for six months and lost money.
I'm sure such "victims" of Broadway transfers as Stew, Lisa Kron, and (potentially) the [title of show] guys would now concur. And that phrase: "an audience used to paying $20-$40"--Artistic Directors take note.

And lastly, John Clancy blows the cover on what really sustains alternative American theatre artists: Europe. It ain't just for the Wooster Group anymore.
Clancy is a veteran of the Edinburgh Fringe and has brought productions to London and Australia. He savors the international profile…not that he would turn down a job at a more established venue. “I’m an American artist and I want to work here,” he insists. “[Urinetown book writer] Greg Kotis once asked me, ‘This is what you want to do, be like a jazz artist—big in Europe?’ And I said, ‘God, no. But that’s who’s been paying the bills for the last six, seven years.’”
Wait till the Europeans realize they can have our best artists for the right price--and then take them away from us.

Or better yet...let's not wait.

I leave you with one special plea. Reading this and contemplating the issue, you may shrug your shoulders and sigh: "what can you do about it." Well even if you don't have the deep pockets of a foundation, or don't have the goods to blackmail NEA chief Dana Gioia for more can still help change the conversation, by changing the language.

The American theatre is plagued by a constant, often involuntary conflation of the terms "theatre" and "Broadway." In most people's minds, the term "Broadway" stands for all American theatre--whether it's literally Tony-eligible or not. As that Times piece demonstrates, in the popular imaginary, all theatre is either "on Broadway" or "dying to get to Broadway." Hence any gifted artist putting on a successful show is immediately barraged with the faint praise: "this deserves to be on Broadway!" Followed by the question: "are you taking this to Broadway?" The result is often tragic implosions like Glory Days.

This also, of course, feeds the mentality behind the commercial "enhancement" of nonprofit productions--sought out by commercial and noncommercial producers alike.

So here's what you can do. Just catch people when they slip into that language, when they use the word "Broadway" describe anything happening outside of a 500+ seat house in the greater Times Square area. (Or outside of a national tour of product originating there.) Or when they respond to your impassioned praise of a show only by asking "Is it on Broadway?" or "When will it come to Broadway?"--remind them that is not the definition of success any longer.

Also, journalists must stop asking every single "little show that could" when they are going to Broadway, or speculating in print or on air whether the next downtown hit "could make it" there.

Yes, this will make you annoying--very annoying--to your non-theatre friends. But bit by bit, person by person, maybe we can change things, and change the equation by which our theatre artists have to calculate their lives.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Inside Pulitzers '08

In case you didn't notice, that big Arts & Leisure profile of Dennis Letts in the last Sunday's Times had a nice little scoop in it hinting at the backroom debates over the awarding of August: Osage County. Turns out it wasn't as much of a shoo-in as we all assumed:

This winter a panel of Pulitzer judges considered more than 150 works for best drama and recommended three finalists to the Pulitzer board. Lisa Portes, a Chicago director who was one of the Pulitzer judges making the first cut, said the panel was blown away by scenes in which most of the characters are in collective meltdown.

“The second-act family dinner scene alone could win the Pulitzer,” Ms. Portes said. There were other opinions. Hilton Als, in The New Yorker, compared that dinner scene to the silliness of Carol Burnett’s sketch “Mama’s Place.” (He also called Mr. Letts a provincial writer; “Oh man, my dad about went through the roof at that one,” Mr. Letts said.)

Peter Marks, the chairman of the Pulitzer jury for drama, actually gave “August” a lacerating review last December in The Washington Post, calling it a “disappointingly hollow experience” that lacked a “shattering payoff.” Mr. Marks said by e-mail that “my misgivings about the play are in print” and declined to comment further.

The story was written, by the way, not by one of the usual arts-entertainment beat crew, but ace political reporter Patrick Healy. Way to get folks on the record, Pat!

(Perhaps unrelated, but that "Miller's Pub" where the interview takes place? Stone's throw away from Obama campaign HQ.)

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Gonzo Criticism?

I like this term music critic Molly Sheridan has coined over on her blog--more to describe something nascent and/or possible than currently practiced.

She asks:

Is the concert review, the cd review, [in theatre, we may add, the play review] and the once-in-a-while profile piece really all there is? What would gonzo arts reporting be and what might it do for the place?
Anyone out there wanna answer that one, from a theatre perspective?

REVIEW: Yellow Electras

In what I can only assume is a ploy to claim an "online only exclusive"(!) the Voice has not published my latest review in this week's print edition. Luckily you, dear reader, can still see what I thought of "Yellow Electras" at the Ontological's Incubator

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Acting: Endangered Profession?

Philly critic Wendy Rosenfield muses on the implications of a Forbes magazine study for one of the world's "oldest professions":

The good news is that demand for producers and directors is on the rise, with almost 9,000 positions added nationwide since 2006 (this includes radio, tv and film, as well as stage numbers). But strangely, demand for actors has dropped by around 7,000 spots, and looks as though it's not bottoming out any time soon. Added to another category, a random catchall titled, "Entertainers and Performers, Sports and Related Workers, Miscellaneous" (judging by [a] photo from the piece, I guess the "miscellaneous" jobs belonged to David Blaine and Criss Angel), the number drops precipitously by an additional 27,000.

Not sure what it all means for theater people, since so many different industries are represented under each section. Other than maybe a glut of two-handers emerging from playwriting workshops last year, I can't figure out the reason for the actor/director imbalance. Maybe animation's success, combined with the proliferation of reality tv and the strength of documentaries are to blame. At least onstage, you can't call it a show without directors, producers and actors.
Worth pondering: A) The downsizing of theatrical production prompts playwrights to write smaller-cast plays. B) Proliferation of smaller cast plays (plus ever-wackier ways of "doubling") leads to fewer jobs for actors.

We can only hope that C) will be: producers and theatre companies apply savings from smaller productions toward a whole season of massive casts! Right?

Monday, July 21, 2008

Save 50 Bucks clicking on this "audio slide show"* and getting two free minutes of the Gate Theatre's "Eh, Joe," currently at Lincoln Center Festival for $50-90.

Not doing justice to Beckett, obviously. And at two minutes, this is already about 7% of the total running time.

I kid, I kid. But still, here's what gets me riled again the more I think about this Lincoln Center Festival ripoff. (And for a festival known for yearly ripoffs this takes the cake.) The problem is they seem to be going out of their way to exploit this 30-minute star encounter with Liam Neeson--plus, the 60-minute one with Ralph Fiennes in "First Love"--for much intake as possible.

For instance, would you have guessed that when this same production (with Michael Gambon) played the West End (yes, the commercial West End) in 2006 the top price was only £20? Don't know what the exchange rate was two years ago, but today that would only be about $40--and the dollar was probably better then!

Yes, you probably would have guessed such, wouldn't you by now.

So now Lincoln Center packages it with two other short Beckett pieces as a pseudo-series ("Gate Beckett," since all three officially come from Dublin's Gate Theatre). But to what point? Certainly not to save the ticketbuyer any cost. Only to enhance their marketing.

They certainly didn't program them as a cohesive series. (The reviews are trickling out separately, you'll notice.) They chose only two days to present all three plays on and then have the gall to call it a "marathon", even though you're essentially buying all three tickets at full price and only seeing 3 hours of theatre. But obviously it didn't have to be this way.

So why don't you just come out and say what you mean, Festival Director Nigel Redden: Fuck you, we're Lincoln Center Festival.

Anyway, again this has nothing to do with dismissing Beckett's minimalism as somehow not worthy of "full" price.

BUT--have we come to that point in theatre where we really do need to reconsider what "an evening" of theatre means any more? Everything still seems packaged around the old 2-3hr play model. But clearly the 90-minute intermissionless form is here to stay, and is arguably even dominating amongst the younger writers.

No, you can't put a price on good theatre. (Though certainly many producers/presenters do!) But think of it this way: if movies suddenly shrunk to 45 minute running times, do you think studios and exhibitors could ever get away with still charging the current $11-12? Perhaps they'd return to the old-style movie programming--shorts, newsreels, A-picture, B-picture....Bring it on, I say! Sure beats the deafening uber-commercials we sit through now.

My point is: of course they couldn't get away with that. But somehow, I sense theatre managers still think they can. Both the Public and NYTW charged full price for Caryl Churchill's latest 45-50 minute pieces.

I welcome the more flexible forms/lengths of modern dramaturgy. But how about some flexible prices?

*So sorry about the original bad link. Now fixed. Hopefully some of you found the feature on your own.

New Brooklyn Venue

As the economy keeps tanking and Manhattan real estate only, oddly, get pricier, keep a look out for nice new performance venues in the "outer" boroughs.

Such as:

Two major Brooklyn cultural organizations are planning to spend millions of dollars to expand a historic theater. The $17.3 million renovation of the Strand Theatre on Fulton Street will create about 20,000-square feet of space for the organizations, BRIC Arts Media Bklyn and UrbanGlass.

Officials with the two organizations — a visual and performing arts group and a glassmaking studio — say that construction is expected to begin in 2009 and finish in 2010. The theater was constructed in 1918 for vaudeville acts in what is now known as the Brooklyn Academy of Music Cultural District.
Glass blowing? Well you know what they say: theatre renovation makes strange bedfellows.

Being that BRIC Arts is not a resident company but a presenter--one devoted to promoting Brooklyn artists in particular (they produce the annual summer fest "Celebrate Brooklyn--this might be good news for that borough's theatre companies.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Inside the RNT

Nice little 2-minute interview with the National's Nick Hytner embedded into Michael Riedel's column today.

Money quotes:

Asked if the RNT's £10 ticket initiative was meant as a youth recruiting tool:
It wasn't even just young people. A lot of people had been priced out of the market. We wanted people to come more than once or twice a year, and to be able to afford to come more than once or twice a year.
On Brits vs Yanks:
There's no shortage of talent in the American theatre, of course there isn't! Imagine! Giving the equivalent amount [as the RNT government subsidy] to those people in the American theatre, there would be an explosion. Nobody would come shopping [i.e. for talent & product] here.
For the record: that RNT subsidy? If I'm reading their most recent Annual Report (2007) correctly: £18,029,000

Translation: a little over 36 million bucks.

Other notable stats:
-That subsidy consists of only 40% of all income (for instance, they raked in over £14 million at the box office, almost equal)
-they ended 2007 decently in the black; a £187,000 surplus

Yeah, yeah Mike Daisey, I know we can't wait around for the US to become more like the UK (or "Sweden!" as I believe you put it) and "shit money into our mouths." But still, one can dream.

Plus, it may just be that our nonprofits could learn something just from how the RNT runs a business!

And to see what they're up to at RNT these days, check out their site:

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Nonprofit Takeover of Broadway, cont.

Looks like second best won't do for the so-called Second Stage any longer. They want to play with the big boys on Broadway.

So, like the Roundabout and Manhattan Theatre Club before them (two somewhat larger institutions) they've bought themselves a Broadway house. The 596-seat Helen Hayes.

For their sake I hope they've carefully studied and learned from MTC's brief but already tumultuous history in the larger Biltmore theatre--which so far has proved inhospitable to new writing (even revivals of modern classics by established authors like Caryl Churchill).

But they're smart at least in nabbing the smallest theatre on the Rialto, the one most conducive to the work they already do. (The Hayes, in fact, just barely breaks the official 500-seat threshold to even count as "Broadway.") I'm actually not surprised the owner (a maverick outside of the Shubert-Nederlander-Jujamcyn syndicates) was willing to sell. With only 596 seats to sell, it's pretty hard these days to make a "profit" anyway--considering you're spending the same Broadway-level expenses on production, marketing, etc. So maybe only an owner with a non-profit risk factor can make a go at it.

What worries me on their behalf, though, is just how quickly and how hugely the little Second Stage is aiming to expand. They're not moving out of their current space (the very nice 2nd-floor Off Broadway 296-seater a few blocks away) and so they plan to fully program that along with the work they present at the uptown McGinn/Cazale space in addition to a full Broadway season. This seems dangerously close to the MTC plan.

The company's Executive Director Ellen Richard--formerly of the, ahem, Roundabout--puts the risks refreshingly bluntly:

“As you get bigger and more successful, the stakes go up, and everybody wants more from you,” said Ellen Richard, Second Stage’s executive director. “The artists want more — bigger shows — it’s harder. If you have a 10 percent loss on a $1 million budget, it’s $100,000. If you have it on a $15 million budget, it’s lot more.” The company’s annual budget, which is expected to double, is currently about $7.5 million.
And, as the article reports, the purchase of the Hayes itself will require a $35 million fundraising campaign.

Talk about that corporate-influenced "grow or die" mentality, eh? Something that's received a lot of attention lately, through Mike Daisey's "How Theatre Failed America" as well as some recent articles reporting the "edifice complex" of our more "successful" regional theatres. I believe, in his show, Daisey even characterizes the philosophy as something like, "Nothing proves your success to the world more than building a new building." As opposed to actually producing good work, that is.

Well luckily for Second Stage, I guess, the building has already been built. And it'll be there's for just 35 mil.

Good luck, guys!

PS. The Times article gets one little fact wrong: The Roundabout owns not one, but TWO Broadway houses. Don't forget Studio 54...

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Ripoff of the Year?

Lincoln Center (summer) Festival is certainly not known for bargains. Offering practically no discounts outside of 10% occasionally for students (10%!), their excuse is they import expensive arts events from Europe and so the ticketbuyer shares the burden.

In the past I have shelled out $150 for such marathons as Mnouchkine's Dernier Caravanserail and the Druid Theatre's complete JM Synge cycle. But, hey, it was a whole day of theatre.

This year the bar has certainly been raised, to put it one way.

You may have heard about the enticing line up--playing now--of three Beckett monologues: Eh, Joe performed by Liam Neeson; Barry McGovern's I'll Go On, taken from the Beckett novels; and First Love with Ralph Fiennes.

Now there are $50 seats on the sides in both balcony and orchestra, which is, I guess, reasonable these days. But here's something to ponder: First Love runs one hour. Eh, Joe runs 30 minutes. 30 minutes!

At least I'll Go On is an epic hour and a half. But Barry McGovern, who he??? (Other than an Irish actor who's devoted his whole career just to playing Beckett.)

Now these are ticketed as three separate events. Which means the high-rollers are paying $90 each to see Liam Neeson for 30 minutes. And I do mean "see" him, since, as they may not know, Eh, Joe is a duet for a silent actor with an offstage voice.

Here's the kicker: Lincoln Center Festival is indeed offering the chance to see all three in "marathon" sessions. For no discount. So that means even for the $50 tickets you'd pay $150 for all three plays.

And of course the running time for this "marathon": 3 hours.

With some leisurely "dinner breaks" of course, it runs from 5:00-10:30, making you feel you got your money's worth.

Now, of course, how can you quantify the value of a theatrical experience. Especially in the case of a defiant minimalist like Beckett. And I suppose some Beckett purists pay any price to see the right actor sit motionless during Eh, Joe.

But, still, would even old Sam have wanted his plays to remain the extravagances of luxury tourism and chic culture vultures?

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Screen Boosts Stage?

Who says movies and tv take a bite out of theatre sales?

"Mamma Mia!" ($982,823), benefiting from a big-budget ad campaign for the movie adaptation that opens Friday, and "Legally Blonde" ($772,920), the focus of a reality casting skein currently airing on MTV, each rose by more than $70,000 at box office.
It's the same trend we've seen with Phantom, Chicago, and Hairspray. They see the movie, now they want to see the "live" version.

Kinda like going to the Applebee's in New York just to compare it to the one at home.

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Regional Actor's Lot

Teresa Eyring, the Executive Director of the Theatre Communications Group (TCG) actually takes on Mike Daisey in the current issue of American Theatre. Or at least goes after one of the gripes Daisey gave voice to in his recent monologue-show "How Theatre Failed America": namely that our nonprofit resident theatre institutions around the country do a disservice to the acting profession in the US by continuing to "job in" talent from NYC instead of cultivating/sustaining/ housing a full time Equity-level pool at home.In an editorial not subtly titled "How Theatre Saved America," Eyring defends the record of the LORT (league of resident theatres) membership basically by saying there are TOO permanent companies. Her point:

the fact remains that in these [larger] cities, the regional theatre movement’s larger goal of making it possible for theatre professionals to make a living in their own communities has in many cases been achieved.
Her examples, though, seem to be picked mostly from the very low end of the Equity ladder (the Lort D level for instance, which allows for semi-pro contracts). So oddly I find her piece reinforces what Daisey was saying.

Obviously, Daisey things so, too, and has responded already on his blog.

One thing I would remind Daisey, though, before he actually makes the effort to challenge the argument on the merits (imagine!), is to remember just who Teresa Eyring is, what TCG is, and what American Theatre is. American Theatre the magazine is not the voice of American theatre itself, but rather of TCG. And TCG is, to put it simply, a trade and lobbying association. In other words, it is Eyring's express job to advocate--again, not necessarily for American theatre as a whole, but the LORT membership.

Those two things don't have to be mutually exclusive, of course. But they're not always the same either.

So when someone like Daisey comes along clearly criticizing the current state of LORT specifically (moreover, the high-end, well-funded LORT theatres) it's her job to defend them and their image.

Ok, now having said that, here's another article that's well worth reading beside these two: the Denver Post's John Moore surveying just how tough it is to support yourself as an actor in the greater Denver area these days. For instance:
Only about 150 people can claim to make full-time salaries in the theater here. [NB: By "here" Moore refers not to Denver but to the entire state of Colorado.] And what they make varies greatly. The Denver Center for the Performing Arts employs 80 year-round theater workers [and] hires about 50 seasonal actors, but they get paid only for the weeks they work. And only about eight of them get full seasons of work, which is about 36 weeks of pay.....

The Denver Center pays its actors minimums that range from $555 to $816 a week, as dictated by its contract with Actors Equity. Some make more. If they work enough weeks, they qualify for health insurance. That makes for a living wage, but hardly an extravagant one....

Smaller union theaters don't offer as many performances, so their minimums are lower. Curious Theatre must pay actors at least $250 a week; the Aurora Fox, $187. No union theater runs 52 weeks a year, but say the Aurora Fox did. If one actor managed to get cast in every show, he still wouldn't clear $10,000 for the year.

It's a remarkable portrait--partially for being so unremarkable in mirroring what many stage actors (professional, experienced stage actors, mind you) go through around the country.

There's a lot more surprising (and sadly unsurprising) details I'm leaving out, so read Moore's full piece. His kicker: "
They used to say most actors in Colorado perform for gas money. But with the cost of fuel these days, not even that's true anymore."

Indie Theatre Convocation

As a nonpractitioner I chose not to to go the Indie Theatre "Convocation" hosted Saturday by's Martin Denton. But I'm interested in this burgeoning this movement, and if you are, too (for reasons selfish or not) he has posted the introductory remarks, and folks have started give feedback in his comments section.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

How Not the Steal A Folio

From the Times:

A 17th-century Shakespeare volume valued at $30 million, stolen from a university a decade ago, has been recovered, The Associated Press reported. On Tuesday police officers in England arrested a man in connection with the theft. The arrest followed an incident two weeks ago when a man brought the book, a First Folio from 1623, the first collection of Shakespeare’s plays, to the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington to have it authenticated. Members of the library staff alerted the F.B.I.
That's like stealing the Mona Lisa and trying to sell it to the Met.

Update from the UK press: Despite telling the Folger he was "an international businessman who had acquired the volume in Cuba," turns out the guy is just "an eccentric loner who lived alone with his elderly mother, Hannah."

What fools these mortals be....

The Brooklyn TKTS Booth

Use it! While business is still slow:

The Brooklyn booth, which opened Thursday at 1 MetroTech Center at Jay Street and Myrtle Avenue, sold around 150 tickets during its first day....TKTS, hopes the Brooklyn spot will be selling 2,500 to 3,000 tickets a week by the end of the year. The South Street Seaport location sells around 5,000 tickets a week, depending on time of year and weather. The main TKTS booth in Times Square, known for its long lines of impulsive tourists, sells between 18,000 and 30,000 tickets a week.

Though the Brooklyn booth is unlikely to command that level of foot traffic, the Theatre Development Fund is promoting its newest location as a spot for New Yorkers who have what Ms. Bailey calls a “love/hate relationship with the volume of activity in Times Square.”....

[O]nly 13% of outer borough residents attended a Broadway show during the 2006-07 season, accounting for just 6.7% of the Broadway audience, according to The Broadway League. Manhattanites bought 9.8% of tickets, while tourists accounted for 65%.
Of course, I guess I'm not helping keep the secret by posting this here, am I? Oh well, it's Saturday. No one's reading.

Question is: what's on Broadway that you should even consider seeing? Well, you only have one more week to catch Passing Strange. I also recommend November which closes tomorrow (Sunday). And I do count myself a fan of In The Heights--but good luck getting a ticket.

More good news about the Brooklyn booth: discounted BAM tickets will also be a feature come the fall.

More info here.

Friday, July 11, 2008

"Passing Strange" Passes On

Yes, it was not meant to be. The forced marriage of Passing Strange and Broadway, that is.

The closing notice is up: final performance, Sunday July 20. So that gives me--and everyone else who hasn't seen it (most NYC playgoers, apparently)--only one more week to catch it. And that I will.

Things were tough enough before the Tonys. Now, this past week, attendance barely exceeded one-third capacity.

The good news is that Spike Lee is hastily assembling a concert-style film for future release, so Stew will live on. In addition to some closed sessions, Lee is filming the live performances at the matinee and evening shows of Saturday, July 19--"thereby," as Variety's Gordon Cox gracefully puts it, "answering the question of whether the production would hang on long enough to reap any potential marketing benefits from the release of the movie."

We've told this story oh so many times. And once again, we can rest assured that the show has found its audience already (downtown) and didn't need the glitz of Broadway to be good. But unfortunately--since Broadway is still, sadly the only venue of record in our commercial culture, and it is Broadway (just like the victors in all wars) who writes the history--"Passing Strange" will probably still be tainted by the moniker of "failure" from now on.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

NYC "Indie Theatre" Gets Organized

Martin Denton over at is hosting a "Convocation" Saturday afternoon to rally the "Indie Theatre" community and discuss future plans for advocacy and organization. For an overview of objectives, check out his podcast interview with co-founders John Clancy and Paul Bargetto.

Meanwhile, here's a preliminary agenda on his blog:

(we're expecting John Clancy, who was one of the founders of FringeNYC; Shay Gines of the New York Innovative Theatre Awards; Erez Ziv of Horse Trade Theatre Group; Paul Bargetto of East River Commedia; independent producer John Pinckard; and hopefully some other folks who have been involved in getting this new organization off the ground).

The presentation starts at 2:00pm. There are really two main focuses of the Convocation -- first, to talk about some initiatives and programs that I believe will be genuinely valuable to the NYC indie theater community; and second, to provide a forum for folks involved with indie theater to share their ideas and feedback with us and with each other.
This will also be a chance to become a "charter member" of the League of Independent Theater and to discuss in general what such an umbrella organization might reasonably accomplish to benefit you--the typical NYC downtown/Off-Off theatre artist/company.

So if that indeed is you, you might want to show up at the Barrow Street Saturday at 1:30.

Off-Off's getting it's act together, baby. Watch out!

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Mamet's "November"

I must say, after his apparent rightist epiphany, and after being bombarded with the lamest jokes from the show, I actually enjoyed David Mamet's November much more than I expected.

The key to appreciating it is to acknowledge it has nothing to do with satirizing the current President or political practice and/or policies. The politicians in Mamet's world (or at the least the one on-stage politician, the president) are less out of The Daily Show than old Harper's cartoons of the pigs at the trough. I would classify the character Charles H.P. Smith as more Boss Tweed than George W.--except that he's a pathetic failed Tweed. Especially as embodied by Nathan Lane as a cranky nebbish, Smith is all graft--and still can't get re-elected.

(I must say, to my mind, Lane has never been funnier. His absolute assurance in the role and combination of jaded ennui and charming cynicism I don't think could be matched by any other actor right now.)

So much of the fun of November is just relishing Mamet's piling on of vicious corrupt-politician tropes, and the volleys of super-speed guttural utterances tossed back and forth by Lane and the sly Dylan Baker, playing his dispassionately criminal Chief of Staff. (Joe Mantello's spitfire pacing is right on the money.) Anachronistic dramaturgically, perhaps. (Like something out of George S. Kaufman, in fact.) But dated subject matter? Of course, not. Corruption never goes out of style.

In short and unsurprisingly, for Mamet, the White House is simply the biggest con in town. And reelection here is the heist. That the circumstances of the plot are patently ridiculous and contrived are kinda the point by the end. Rather than ideological political satire, November is a classical farce, using the raw material of our sacred democratic institutions as fodder for a portrait of the sleazy side of the American spirit.

As any Mamet fan knows, the writer is capable of denouncing ruthless business practices while simultaneously admiring the gumption of the hucksters who excel at them. (See Glengary Glenn Ross, obviously.) But it's worth pointing out here something that wasn't pointed out by a lot of the play's negative reviews--the heist here completely flops. The crooks are hapless and doomed. Could this be the end the Mamet con-man's confident reign of machismo?

Let me now shift to another take on the play in the online HOTReview by my friend and sometime academic mentor, Robert Vorlicky, of NYU. He's written the most insightful and surprising take to date on November that is a must-read for Mamet fans. And even Mamet-haters.

In short, Bob has blown the cover of David Mamet's secret gay agenda. Stay with me, I'm serious. An authority on modern American drama, particularly Mamet, as well as "queer studies," he links November to a fascinating trend running through the last three new Mamet plays--the others being Romance and the brand new Keep Your Pantheon, just now premiering in LA. This trend is the gradual displacement in the plays of the white hetero Mamet-man by the homosexual other.

As Bob persuasively argues, for all of Mamet's recent chest-thumping "conservative" cheerleading, he has simultaneously been working out in the his plays a complex reevaluation of his depiction of gender roles and sexual preference. (Note: Keep Your Pantheon is about a troupe of gay actors in Ancient Rome.)

This all relates back, of course, to the role played in November by Laurie Metcalf, as Clarice Bernstein the lesbian (and somehow liberal) speechwriter working for the bigoted and seemingly rightist President Smith. I think no experienced Mamet-watcher expects such a character to hold their own in one of his plays (without being savagely ridiculed perhaps). But between Metcalf's compellingly dignified performance and the sheer power dynamics in the writing itself, her character clearly comes out on top--that is, if you're bothering to follow the plot, which perhaps the play's detractors gave up on.

Naturally, the coinciding of the play with the infamous Village Voice essay has complicated reception of it, to say the least. Given his stated exasperation with "brain dead liberals"--plus his increasingly ultra-conservative Judaism and apologias for Israeli militancy--we were all ready for Mamet's coming out as a Republican in all but name. But is it possible he's throwing us a curve?

As Vorlicky speculates: "At times, while reading 'Why I Am No Longer a 'Brain-Dead Liberal,' I wondered if Mamet's pseudo-polemics, his 'eye opening' confession were a bit of a 'con' -- a beautifully crafted piece that challenged the reader to think for herself or himself." Well, maybe; maybe not. Maybe he's not even fully conscious of the self-negating contradictions emerging in his later work. But, still, the triumph of the liberal in November over the dinosaurs of white-male-hetero power is pretty indisputable.

Vorlicky continues:

If the reader of his essay espouses liberal politics, Mamet suggests, then she or he needs to confront the degree to which this position is fraught with contradictions. At sixty, Mamet finds himself defining liberalism, or the "synthesis of this worldview," as a politics of "everything is always wrong." Clarice Bernstein, the liberal lesbian speech-writer in November, sees the world this way, and her view, the playwright implies, is exactly why today's liberal is "brain dead." Clarice's sort of "brain deadness" is what Mamet now claims to have escaped.
However, clever Clarice is really not brain dead. In fact, her brain is alive and well; it guides her in being actively successful in getting what she wants. Her world is not as black and white as Mamet theorizes. Against all odds--that is, against the playwright's conception of the rigid polarization he claims to have created in November--she materializes her "utopic" vision and thereby makes it real. She outsmarts the man in power and gets power, forcing him to officiate at her legal wedding to her lesbian partner.
This is what happens in the play, but the playwright argues otherwise in his Village Voice essay. The play and the essay are at odds. It's as if the genres of dramatic writing and the personal essay clash at this moment in Mamet's hands: the visibility of Clarice in the play versus the presence (or visibility) of Mamet in the essay (which renders Clarice invisible). In order to claim the death of liberalism for himself, Mamet--at least in his essay--erases the success of his liberal character in November. The play doesn't support the theory of his fall from liberal political sympathies after forty years.

Anyway, I'll let Prof. Vorlicky make the case. (Again, full essay here.) But I'll just add it's gone remarkably unnoticed that November is probably the first play on Broadway to explicitly sanction gay marriage-- especially notable at a political moment when the issue is reaching a boiling point. No need to embrace Mamet as the poster-child for gay equality now, I know. But notable nonetheless the first such statement on the Broadway stage comes from him of all people.
So in short, there may more to this play than at first met the critical eye. There's still time to see for yourself, if you haven't. But not much. November closes this Sunday, July 13th.

PS. The McNulty LA Times review of Keep Your Parthenon Vorlicky references is here.

Teasing "Relevance"

SF critic/blogger Chloe Veltman makes the valuable point that the mere fact that a play might seems to be "about" politics does not make it a "political play." A common mistake in finding excuses to program the same old classic chestnuts.

It's an election year, and theatre companies are tripping over themselves to put on plays with political content.

One such play, Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband, is currently receiving a revival at the California Shakespeare Theater. Wilde's potent 1895 social comedy is, at least on the surface, an ideal kind of election year play. Telling the story of a politically-ambitious woman's attempt to bring down an up-and-coming statesman by exposing a dirty secret from his past, the work satirizes the sordid deals that underpin many political careers, showing us that life in Victorian England isn't so very different from American culture today.

...It leaves us thoroughly entertained and not a little bemused. There are no great and worthy truths about the democratic process to take home from the production. Only a sense of cleverly-crafted confusion about the way the world works, of which both Wilde and Lord Goring would have approved.
Then again, maybe a more daring production might work against Wilde and bring out political resonances he never could have imagine?

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

No Smoking in this Boys Room

The theatrical smoking ban hits Chicago--and targets one of the biggest shows of them all: the touring production of megahit Jersey Boys.

Reports the Trib's Chris Jones:

Most people inside our city's government, I think, see the absurdity of this situation. And thus enforcement has, to say the least, been less than enthusiastic. There are numerous shows in town, right now, wherein the characters smoke. I won't name them. Wouldn't want to alert the police.

But when a patron complains—as someone did in the case of "Jersey Boys"—the Chicago police have no choice but to issue a warning. And thus there was no choice but to rid the smoke from the show. A spokesman said that "it took about a week" to figure out how to remove all the smoking from the Chicago production.

My god, who complained? I'm sorry, but you ain't getting no second-hand nothin' from inhaling herbal-substitute fake-nicotine puffed by one guy on a stage platform 100 yards away from you.

And I sure hope Chris didn't blow the cover of those other little storefront shows!

B'way Raising the Roof

No, not another rock musical. It's real estate developers that are gettin' their groove on now on the rialto.

Anyone catch this interesting story in last Saturday's Times? Apparently the "air space" above certain theatres is up for sale and, for the right price, you too could bestride a Broadway house like a colossus.

In the past two years, Broadway theater operators have begun taking advantage of the zoning law that allows them to sell their unused air rights. That provision was drawn up in the 1990s, when Broadway was in a slump and theater advocates feared that serious drama might disappear from the city’s big stages.
So now enter Tishman Realty, eyeing the corner of 8th & 44th--which is currently vacant, but due to byzantine municipal agreements over the years will now involve the Shuberts and their Majestic Theatre:
The zoning at the site when Tishman bought it would have allowed for a hotel no taller than 28 stories, a Tishman spokesman said. But the company struck a deal to expand the size of the hotel by as much as 48,000 square feet — about six floors — by buying some of the unused development rights from the Majestic.

The spokesman, Richard Kielar, said the hotel would be run by a “four-and-a-half-star international” operator, but he declined to identify the company.

But if Tishman completes its purchase of those air rights, so called because they represent development space above the theaters, it must somehow enhance the theater community, according to the zoning law.
So the good news for the rest of us, those who won't be staying in the "four-and-a-half-star" hotel (and a half???), is Tishman must actually humble themselves to...get ready...provide artist housing and workspace!
To satisfy those demands, Tishman has proposed constructing a low-rise building adjacent to the hotel that would contain the mix of housing and studio space for performing artists, both of which would rent at a discount....a lower-income apartment house with two floors of studio space for small theater troupes.
Artists: let the stampede begin.

(Obviously, though, this is at least 3-4 years away. And hasn't even been approved yet. And the proposal includes only nine "affordable" apartments.)

A sad--and, frankly, hilarious--wrinkle in all this is the history of the 8th & 44th site itself and how it became vacant. According to Anna Levin, of the Hell's Kitchen Community Board:
It was formerly home to the Globe Hotel, a flophouse that was a notorious haven of drug sellers and prostitutes, Ms. Levin said. As the neighborhood’s fortunes began to improve in the late 1980s, the Globe’s tenants were subjected to harassment aimed at driving them out, according to a ruling by the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development. Under the rules that govern development in the Clinton neighborhood west of Eighth Avenue, any future developer of the Globe Hotel site must provide low- to moderate-income housing to make up for that past harassment, Ms. Levin said.
Ha, take that Disneyfiers and gentrifiers! The ghosts of Time Square past have come back to haunt you....

Actually, I'm not saying this is all necessarily an evil thing. And, hey, genuinely affordable space is never a bad thing. But I do balk at the vision of a future Times Square, where our showcase theatres are dwarfed underneath towering ugly corporate behemoths.

What am I saying--haven't you seen the Mariott Marquis? It's here already!

(FYI, that's the hotel complex "with theatre" responsible back in '82 for the demolition of the Morosco and a handful of other smaller houses.)

Monday, July 07, 2008

The Blogosphere Up North

New to the blogroll: J. Kelly Nestruck, critic for the Toronto Globe & Mail and formerly of the Guardian. "I'm eager to expand the presence of Canadian theatre on the Internet," he says in launching the site (an official Globe blog), to which I say, hear hear.

When the NYC presenters of the acclaimed Judith Thompson play Palace to the End recently complained in a widely circulated email/advertisement that the NY Times' failure to list the play in the weekend section was out of fear of its anti-war message, one of my fellow bloggers joked offline, "I actually think it's far more likely that it's because Thompson is Canadian." Certainly a more plausible theory.

And, yes, Nestruck tips the hat to me, so right back at you, sir.

REVIEW: Brunch at the Luthers

In case you didn't pick up your Village Voice before the July 4th weekend, here's my review of Misha Shulman's Brunch with the Luthers at Theatre for the New City. Short version: forgettable.

PS: The headline isn't mine. But oh I wish it were!

For the record...

This "Cirque Dreams" thing on Broadway?

Nothing to do with Cirque du Soleil. Nothing.

"Ragtime" & "Urinetown" dispute updates

Two stories out of the midwest today on Playbill.

1) That Urinetown "director's copyright" lawsuit was finally officially settled last Wednesday. An Akron, OH dinner theatre allegedly modeled their production so closely on the Broadway staging and design that they have now fessed up in this statement:

"The Carousel Dinner Theatre ... acknowledge[s] that there were similarities in creative, original elements between the Akron production of Urinetown: The Musical and the Broadway production of director John Rando, choreographer John Carrafa, lighting designer Brian MacDevitt, costume designer Gregory Gale, and scenic and environmental designer Scott Pask (the 'Broadway Production Team'). The Akron Production Team also acknowledges creative contributions from the Akron cast."
According to Playbill, the agreement also stipulates that Carousel will now pay a licensing fee ("an undisclosed sum") to the "Broadway Production Team."

This certainly is a victory for the original artists, and that's good in principle. But I sense the greater value of this precedent will be for commercial producers in the touring market. They will have the greatest financial interest in protecting the look of the original Broadway product, when they take it to cities around the country.

2) Looks like Wilmette, IL might finally get to see (or hear) some version of the Ragtime concert version originally planned for the outdoor Gibson Park venue--which was hastily canceled at the last minute when the presenters read the script and found the word "nigger" there. (And because the production would not alter Terence McNally's libretto, canceled it was.)

Now the local 198-seat Wilmette Theatre (an old movie house) has stepped in and offered their more modest space. Usually just "a multi-disciplinary venue that offers movies, children's theatre, lectures, comedy, plays and more," it's a heartening gesture, showing how meaningful genuine "community theatre" can still be.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Happy 4th

Some Founding Fathers/Presidential/Americana by way of the Broadway Musical. (By way of recent Tony broadcast excerpts.)

First, the beloved 1776.

Then, for the flip side, here's a little Assassins....

See you Monday.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Rain Man: The Musical?

Ok, no. The Play! Bad enough.

Opening in London this summer. With Josh Hartnett! (In the Tom Cruise role.) Is this the worst screen to stage adaptation idea ever? Perhaps it will be redeemed by British director David Grindley, of the fine Journey's End and the pretty good Roundabout Pygmalian. And Adam Godley, who I hear is a very good actor, takes on the savant role.

What's the point of playing a loveable autistic manchild if you can't even win an Oscar for it?

Memo to Michael Riedel: you mention in today's column Cruise is considering Broadway as desperate career resuscitation. Do we have here the perfect vanity vehicle?

Oh Judge Wapner where are you when we need you....

Yes, There Will Be No Actors Strike

Looks like the League and AEA have come to agreement on a new contract, sparing us a surprise summer strike on Broadway. Not that anyone was worrying about that, apparently...

Contract details forthcoming later today, they say.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Jeune Lune postmortem

Jeune Lune's "Figaro"
photo: Michal Daniel

A comprehensive one, in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

It remains a complex story, with people even divided over whether the company's folding is a good or bad thing.

Or, as co-AD Robert Rosen says, "It was never meant to be an institution...It was never meant to be a regular, regional theater. And there was great resistance to becoming that."