The Playgoer: October 2008

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Friday, October 31, 2008

Gossip Item of the Day

From AM New York:

Terrence Howard, who performed on Broadway last season in CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, is being sued for $5 million for allegedly assaulting Andrew "Tex" Allen during the play's rehearsals. Specifically, the lawsuit accuses Howard of repeatedly punching the plaintiff in the face.
Maybe I've just spent too many hours in really boring rehearsal rooms, but I just find that a hilarious scene to imagine.

Print Critics Feel the Heat

"Some theater people are shivering with fear that their jobs are about to disappear. Unfortunately, they won't get much sympathy from anyone else on Broadway. That's because they're newspaper drama critics, those once all-powerful arbiters who, with a vicious turn of phrase, could close a show, humiliate an actor, bankrupt an investor. Now they're in danger of being shut down themselves, done in by declining circulation, shrinking arts coverage and that dreaded rival who's usurped their power, The Blogger."

Of course for Michael Riedel (author of the above, in case you couldn't tell) "The Blogger" amounts to some guys on All That Chat.

But sobering news indeed that such familiar names as the Star-Ledger's Michael Sommers and Peter Filichia, as well as our friend Eric Grode, formerly of the late NY Sun--are all out of jobs now. (Some voluntarily. Sommers, reports Riedel, took a buyout--as are so many journo's these days.)

Here's a wistful statement from Sommers that pretty much captures the changing times:

"We were all misled," says Sommers. "I thought I was going to be George Sanders. [i.e. Addison DeWitt in All About Eve.] Then I found out we don't get invited to the parties. There's no glamour anymore. During the stagehands strike, my editors had me standing on the sidewalk at 2 a.m. getting quotes."
Hey at least they had someone on the street covering the strike. But in the old days, the paper might have actually had a theatre reporter (or two!) in addition to the critic. It's now a one-man beat, if that.

Also newsworthy is this view of the changing landscape from the PR Firm view:
"A review is the only kind of editorial you're going to get for an off-Broadway play," the publicist says. "But for a big musical or a play with a star, the critics don't matter at all."
This confirms the obvious recent trend of "critic-proof" hits, like "Little Mermaid" and "Grease." In fact, given the concurrent rise of "praise-proof" flops on the drama side ("Journey's End," "Well," "[title of show]" and even, to an extent, "Passing Strange") dare we come to the conclusion that print critics are mattering less and less on Broadway in general?

If true, then that remark about the Off Broadway impact seems all the more salient, doesn't it.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Arts Advocacy Orgs Merge

The indispensable Americans for the Arts have just announced a merger with the Business Committee for the Arts. Together they will form what Crain's calls "the largest such group [arts advocacy] in the private sector."

I guess that's somewhat reassuring, going into a Recession.

Still, check out this stat referenced in the announcement:

“The private sector’s relationship with the arts has shifted dramatically in recent years,” said Robert Lynch, chief executive of Americans for the Arts. “Despite recent modest gains in overall giving, the market share of private funding for the arts is nearly one-third less than it was in the early 1990s....”
Remember when those NEA cuts started way back when and the justification was that the private sector would pick up the tab?

And when did those cuts start? The early 1990s.

Our Nonprofit-Theatre CEO's

"I receive a very handsome salary and worked 35 years to get it,'' said [Andre] Bishop of Lincoln Center Theater, who drew no salary when he began working at tiny nonprofits in the 1970s. "The idea that because we're nonprofit we shouldn't earn a decent living is ludicrous. We're the CEOs of a company with a budget of about $35 million."
Isaac thankfully points us to an detailed survey by Bloomberg's Philip Boroff of Artistic Director salaries. While Isaac's right that he and I and others in our beloved "theatresphere" were on this story months ago, it's still nice to see someone throwing their full journalistic resources at it.

I certainly don't begrudge Mr. Bishop his expectation to be compensated on a par with the CEO of any other huge nonprofit--like a museum or symphony orchestra. (And obviously no mere theatre AD will ever approach something like the Metropolitan Museum's Philipe De Montebello, for instance.) One could even argue that monetary respect for the theatre's institutional leaders translates into respect for the field as a whole.

One could argue that. But I still don't see that happening.

Still, the mere use of the term "CEO" does put the job in a new context, doesn't it. At least, those positions at the head of such huge theatres in this town as Lincoln Center, the Public, the Roundabout, and Manhattan Theatre Club--all of whose AD's, Boroff reports, make well into the 6 figures. In fact, poor Eustis is the only one of that club not making a half-mil! And, forget New York: Joe Dowling at the Guthrie is pulling in close to 700 G's.

Isaac, though, shifts the focus to the p.o.v. of the plebes working in the trenches of these institutions.
I have a friend who works for a theater.[...] He had to fight for a standard of living wage increase last year because the theater has run deficits for years. Okay, understandable, we have hard times, you care about your company, you make sacrifices. But... and I'm sure you've already guessed what the kicker is here... they're building a multimillion dollar new space. Even though they're arguing they can't afford to pay their staff a decent wage. And it's not like they're saying "hey, included in this capital campaign is a wage increase for you guys, so just hold on, its coming". They're saying "we can't give you this because times are tight".
This is yet another way that theater has become america. We expect those at the bottom to take huge sacrifices and remain in it for "the love of what you do" or because "it's a good cause" while people at the top make significantly more money. And in theater, that significantly more still pales in comparison to what they'd make managing companies of the same size outside of the art form.
The "theatre failed america reference" indeed refers to Mike Daisey's polemic against--among other things--the increased overvaluing of real estate over people, of management over artists.

This built-in expectation that the grunts will continue to watch the income gap between staffer and leadership grow is crucial to our problems. Because it's true--Andre Bishop, Todd Haimes, many of these folks did indeed work for nothing while they grew their original companies. And they do deserve some comfort, some security, and, sure, some "reward," after all that.

But the feeling many get from that generation so often now is: "Hey, I dealt with it back then. So can you." Not in a mean way. But actually as if it's "character building," and all that. Or it's just the sorry reality, and always will be, given how much our culture shits on the theatre.

Keep in mind, when this generation of producers started out in the 60s and 70s, one could still rent an apartment in NYC--even Manhattan--for $200 a month. Or less. When the subway was a quarter. And even Broadway tickets were on average were under $40.

How anyone breaks into the theatre in this town today on a $10,000-$20,000 a year stipend and survives for more than a few years--absent a trust fund--is a miracle.

So all I'll say is: if our theaters really want there be a future generation of artistic directors, producers, dramaturgs they better invest in them.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

REVIEW: The Pearl's "Oedipus Cycle"

How does the little Pearl Theatre mount all three Sophoclean Oedipus plays in one evening? How does your intrepid reviewer survive said evening, and live to tell about it? In 250 wds, no less?

Find out here. In this week's Time Out.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The "Free Night of Theatre" Experiment

Bay Area critic/blogger Chloe Veltman has been airing some worthy questions about TCG's annual "Free Night of Theatre" promotion, just recently passed. Here she interviews Theatre Bay Area's Brad Erikson about the impact on that scene. He's quite bullish, citing:

According to the online survey of 2007 Free Night patrons required when they made their ticket reservation, the program continues to attract a significant number of people who fall into non-traditional theatre participant categories, including infrequent theatre attendees, young people, less educated, non-white and those with lower household incomes.
--Specifically, 77% attended a theatre they had never been to before, 42% are under age 35, 26% have less than a college degree, 27% are non-white, and 33% have combined household incomes under $50,000.
I have yet to participate. What's y'all's sense of how it's going?

Monday, October 27, 2008

Soderbegh in the Park!

The Public's latest plan for spicing up the Delacorte next summer?

"The mission of Soderbergh in the Park has always been to bring Soderbergh to the masses," Fletcher said. "And that includes even his more inaccessible material. Those who are skeptical will be pleased to find that many of the traditional Soderberghian themes are present in Ocean's Twelve: anger, betrayal, despair, the travails of cool wealthy people who plan crime capers, and brotherhood."
Okay, fine it's The Onion. But almost fooled ya, huh?

They even have Kevin Kline weighing in:

"Soderbergh is never easy," Kline said. "I remember when I first saw Ocean's Twelve. I didn't get why the jokes were funny, it was way too long, and the plot was so incomprehensible that I nearly walked out of the theater."

"But since then, I have come to appreciate the scope of the piece," he added. "Though I admit that even after extensive study, the ending still remains a mystery to me."

I'm waiting for "Schizopolis: The Musical!" myself.

Christian Nationalists for the Arts!

Anchorage Daily News, in their continuing Palin muckraking, has delved deeper into the exact purported agenda and philosophy of the Governor's religious heroes, like Pastor "Witch Doctor" Muthee: a little something they call Christian Nationalism.

Extreme Christian Nationalists not only believe that the United States was founded as a Christian nation but that its institutions should be run entirely by fundamentalist or evangelical Christians. They believe they have a mandate to purge our institutions of "humanists" who believe that humans are in control of their own destiny, progressive Christians and non-Christians. They believe there are seven areas of society that must be controlled, the so-called Seven Mountains Strategy: church, family, education, government and law, media, arts and entertainment and business.
Well at least someone's got an arts policy.

Seriously, if it matters to better matter to us.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Take the Off-Off Demographics Survey

That is, if you're a New York City theatre artist who frequents the land of AEA Showcase Codes.

New York Innovative Theatre Awards conducts this study now every year. So if this is your community, be a part!

And show the rest of the city that you're not just gadabout amateur theatricals.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Mellon Grants, reconsidered

Looks like my initial enthusiasm for the new Mellon Foundation new-play grants may have been misplaced.

Check the well-argued comments to see why.

New Space for Signature

After hoping for a stand-alone building downtown, looks like Signature Theatre is finally sealing the deal on a complex of three spaces on the lower floors of an under-construction luxury Times Square hotel.

Oh the byzantine world of NYC real estate....

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

REVIEW: The Fourposter

In this week's Time Out I review the Keen Company's revival of The Fourposter.

I usually hate when people say this about old plays--but, I'm sorry, this one's a "chestnut."

At least in this production.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Playwright Funding We Can Believe In?

Right on the heels of the big Steinberg playwriting prize (subject of much debate here), turns out the Mellon Foundation has been spending the last three years studying the playwright's predicament and come up with a new program.

Their findings apparently were news to the funding community:

It turns out that developing plays is not the problem. Producing them is. New playwrights often get stuck in “workshop hell,” as Ms. Ragsdale put it. Supporting playwrights directly and creating long-term residencies at theaters were among the recommendations that emerged.
Well who could blame them. Since "play development" was probably all they were hearing about from theatres in the 90s.

Basically the Mellon grants will still go to theatre companies, but the shift is more toward investing in particular writers and in particular (full) productions. Also--funding future productions of premiered plays at other theatres.

The recipients so far are still mostly in New York, some Chicago, plus biggies like The Guthrie and Sundance. But here's a nice bit of good geographic affirmative action:
Roadside Theater, in Whitesburg, Ky., in the heart of the coal-mining region of the central Appalachian Mountains....which creates dramas based on the region’s people and history, received $1 million to develop new audiences for live theater, Dudley Cocke, its artistic director, said, and to bring stories about the working class to the stage. The group has gone to other cities to help local writers. A new musical, “Betsy,” on which it collaborated with Pregones Theater in the Bronx, is to open on Nov. 19.
Who knew?

Roadside's website is here.

I also give Oskar Eustis credit for proposing a joint grant for a playwright to serve as a visiting professor at NYU--where the teaching position would basically subsidize the writer to write plays (or, a play) for a year. Yes, many playwrights already earn their bread teaching, but by combining both a writing and a teaching gig, it sure would make the job search easier for those lucky enough to get it.

Yet another sign that the nonprofit theatre's future is destined to be with the universities system.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Provincetown Playhouse update

While NYU apparently gained all the approval it needed back in May for its compromise revised plan for developing the site of the historic Provincetown Playhouse, a protest was staged yet again today as the demolitions are about to begin.

The University's response:

John Beckman, a spokesman for N.Y.U., said the criticisms were unfair....“We are preserving the cultural significance of the site by preserving the four walls of the Provincetown Playhouse — which will continue to be a theater space when the project is complete — and building around them,” he said.

Mr. Beckman also said that Mr. Berman’s group was trying to inflame public opinion in a misleading way by distributing fliers that said the playhouse was going to be demolished. “It is simply untrue, which they must know,” he said.
Right. The theatre's not going to be demolished, just the building!

Oh right...wait, wha???

Small Blackboxes, Big Companies

This season Lincoln Center Theatre (with its "LCT3") is joining the Roundabout in running what is effectively an Off-Off Broadway blackbox for new plays. Huzzah.

This is definitely a promising development--especially when the tickets for these venues are kept separate from the subscriptions and limited to about $20 a pop. These are the kinds of conditions that allow, say London's Royal Court theatre, to premiere and nurture new writing in their famous "Theatre Upstairs."

But another necessary factor to make this work is devoting the company's best resources to even this smallest of productions on their slate. And picking plays that really benefit from the A-list talent only they can attract. Otherwise what's the point. We have plenty of independent producers and small companies renting cheap black boxes as it is.

Case in point: LCT3's debut show: "Clay." "Clay" is essentially a solo performance piece by a writer-actor (or writer-rapper? rapper-actor?), Matt Sax, who already performed it at two prominent Chicago companies, About Face and Lookingglass. I saw "Clay" and was very impressed with Sax as a performer. But I couldn't shake the question: did Lincoln Center Theatre really need to produce this? I imagine "Clay" would fare no better or worse in a two-week independent run at the Ohio Theatre, say, or on Theatre Row. Aside from the extra design-element frills LCT provides here, the show--again, at its core a show for one man and a mic--seems eminently producible on a low budget.

Ironically I ultimately found the LCT3 staging over-produced. At least, for the good of the material, which I don't believe supported the set's needlessly plush curtains and towering finely-detailed backdrop. All I really feel like saying about "Clay" is that the way to see it would be in an open space, at a 10pm show, with booze in the seats. Sax's whole frame for the piece, indeed, is a concert--and that's exactly what this production does not feel like. The sleek 42nd St. Duke theatre is a tidy blackbox with a rigid proscenium seating arrangement. So you don't really feel like putting "yo hands in da air" (as Sax beckons us to) when you're physically prevented from even seeing the audience around you.

If "Clay" were truly staged as a concert--with tight dramatic interludes bursting out of that form--then Sax would really impress us as a rapper with a rare playwriting sensibility. As it is, he seems more like a mediocre playwright who really does know how to bust some rhymes!

In sum, yes, I think "Clay" was not a great choice to launch this well intentioned series. But no so much because of its inherent quality. (Experimenting with new writers, after all, does entail some aesthetic risks.) The problem instead is that "Clay" does not uniquely benefit from a Lincoln Center production. Oh, there's the added publicity, of course. Which is considerable. (It's not just a better production budget LCT offers--it's the marketing budget.) But I guess I'm still enough of a purist and idealist to believe that when good work happens in this town, no matter where, word does get out.

No, the reason it doesn't really benefit from LCT's sponsorship is that it did not require any new actors, director, or, I assume, substantial re-writing. You had the playwright as the sole actor, the original director, and the piece had already been performed in two professional productions.

I don't think the best use of these new spaces is for remounts and imports.

Not having seen last season's "Speech and Debate" at the Roundabout's analogous wing (their "Underground" space) I can't verify if that was any better. But I was encouraged by some remarks about their vision for the program in a recent Variety piece about it by Sam Thielman.

Haimes [Roundabout AD Todd Haimes] and producer Robyn Goodman, who curates the series, launched Underground on the theory that promising young playwrights would have a better shot at success if they got an initial boost in the form of a low-profile, high-budget production. Name actors, professional designers, hot directors -- all the things you can't get if you're performing in a loft downtown.
Emphasis added. Yes, it's the combination of "low-profile" and "high budget" that a company like this can uniquely offer our emerging writers. And, yes, that does involve a willingness to lose money.

There's a reason few other companies can do this: The ratio of seats to production budget is a precise one, and most companies that produce in spaces the size of Underground (62 seats) have to choose between underfunding their productions or closing in the red.

However, Roundabout is a larger operation than most. Rather than run the theater on a shoestring, Haimes and Goodman decided to amp up production values, keep tickets under $20 and let the theater's operating budget absorb the cost -- but that cost is a deficit of at least $200,000, even if every seat for every perf is sold.

Hey, I'm not out to make saints of the Roundabout. No sir. But I do think this is the only way to go if you really want to make a "third space" (or for the Roundabout, 4th? I lose count) viable and truly valuable to the artform.

Because what so many promising playwrights is someone able to produce their work on the scale for which it was intended. Scale as in size, yes, as in more than three characters (imagine!). But also the scale of talent required to make the play work. If you dare to write a complex, demanding role for a middle-aged character, good luck getting a 50 yr old Equity professional to do it for just two weeks on a Showcase code for just a metrocard in return. And even if you are lucky to get such illustrative talent, do you really want to trust your inexperienced college-friend director to manage the ego's in the room?

So while "Speech and Debate" may have been fluffy (was it?) and we don't know about their next play ("The Language of Trees"), Roundabout so far does seem to be stepping up to these stated goals. After all, it's this ability to throw resources at emerging artists who really need them, that the British playwrights have always benefited from--at such major institutions like the Royal Court and even the National.

As for "Clay", good start, A-for-Effort and all that. But I'll be much more impressed when they begin with a young playwright's script from scratch, hand it over to Bartlett Sher and cast Elizabeth Marvel and really put it to the test under the best possible conditions.

Jeune Lune really, really closing now

The acclaimed Minneapolis troupe has now sold its space. Thankfully it's landmarked so the exterior should be preserved.

But, hey, Minnesota-area theatricals--come be vultures!

In preparation to vacate the building, Jeune Lune will hold a rummage sale Nov. 15-16 to sell costumes, set pieces and other items accumulated since 1978. About 300 theater seats will be sold too.
Given the company's eccentric clowning aesthetic, I bet there's some neat pieces in them trunks.

Friday, October 17, 2008

The new TKTS

The Times has a neat web-graphic feature on the new space-age TKTS complex in Duffy Square.

My question is, I still don't get what the stairs are for! Is the line really going to wrap around...and up???

Prizes for Playwrights

Also while I've been gone...

The arguments continue over why the new $200 Grand playwriting mega-prize from the Steinbergs went to someone who's already one of the most propserous American dramatists.

As you may recall, Tony Kushner was selected by the select committee to inaugurate this uber-Pulitzer--slash--lifetime achievement award explicitly because of his already "high profile" status, thus ensuring good pr for the prize itself.

Michael Riedel has devoted not one but two columns to fuming about the perceived insularity of this.

They could have given the $200,000 to a young, unknown playwright, one who might be even more hard-up than Kushner. But instead they made the bold decision to select a writer who has only two Tonys, a Pulitzer, an Emmy and an Olivier Award on his shelf in his Upper West Side co-op.

As Zabel said, "We wanted to make a splash!"

Did they ever! They got a stand-alone story in the Times, which hardly ever covers the playwright (only 56 mentions in 2008).

I am 74 percent certain that getting a plug in the Times wasn't a factor in selecting Kushner.

Buried in the Mimi press release is the news that in 2009 some "emerging" playwright will get $50,000.

That's a nice gesture, but let's be honest: You can't "make a splash!" if you give money only to obscure writers who really are struggling

Interesting point that about the Times coverage specifically. Perhaps. But I suppose even I have to give them enough credit to consider it newsworthy if an organization gave even an unknown writer that much money.

Riedel also draws an illuminating contrast with the much quieter yet perhaps more efficacious Kleban awards for lyricists which explicitly rules out anyone whose shows have cumulatively run longer than 2 years on Broadway. (Ok, granted, in this economy, that's a pretty safe limit for even the famous today.)

But what looks worst of all are the grotesque hypocrisies and needless excesses of professional philanthropy these days.

The Mimi [as the award is called], which hoped to "make a splash!" by enriching Kushner, is throwing a big party later this month at Rockefeller Center....If they can give Tony $200,000, think of how much they'll spend on hors d'oeuvres.

And remember, private philanthropy is all the assistance the theatre's going to get for a long while.

Full Disclosure

One reader asked me a fair question the other day about my plugging of my publications on Amazon:

I suspect you have a deal going with Amazon for every book referral and, though I appreciate the need to cover costs and make a buck, recommendations to such a destructive behemoth sit oddly with the tone of this blog. Perhaps you might include "and/or from your local independent bookstore" each time?
Duly humbled. Indeed, signing up as an "Amazon Associate" (as many blogs and websites do) does entitle me to up to 5% of proceeds from any sale of any item bought at Amazon when clicked through from the links posted here. Hence, yes, I am shamelessly hoping for that $10 gift certificate every 8 months or so that accrues. (I've gotten two so far. So thanks, readers!)

Seriously, though, I take the point about the unseemly appearance of endorsing corporate conglomerate destruction of small businesses. However--you'll notice now on Amazon there are many sellers who are in fact independent bookstores, so feel free to buy from them. And I don't even get a piece of any "3rd party" sales, so how's that for disinterestedness.

And, yes, I care more about people reading my work in these fine books (or my wife's poetry anthology--hint, hint) than the 5% so just get those books by any means necessary! Amazon fat-cats be damned.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Don't "Believe" in The Atheist

Hey, I love Campbell Scott. And he rarely, if ever, does theatre in NYC these days.

But I only wish The Atheist (at Culture Project) were a worthy vehicle for him. For those of you who've gone and seen it already, I'm sorry I couldn't warn you earlier.

You see I already reviewed it. In 2006! In a much lower-profile production.

Nevertheless NYT gave the (Irish) playwright the star treatment.

If you think Scott truly has redeemed this material, though, do pray tell! I just felt it was a perhaps talented foreign playwright cynically trying to "go American." And ending up with something tame and dated.

REVIEW: Oh What War

Also while I was away...

I did a quickie for Time Out on the now-closed Oh What War, at HERE.

I was interested going in. It was by many of the Banana Bag and Bodice people whose promising "Sewers" I had seen a couple of summers ago. But this was disappointing.

Again, show is gone, but you can check out some cool clips at least on the HERE site.

Ken Russell???

70s British badboy director Ken Russell is making his New York stage directing the Soho Playhouse? With this show???

Tony Award nominated actor Keith Carradine (The Will Rogers Follies, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Nashville, Dexter) returns to the New York stage in the premiere of Anthony Horowitz’s acclaimed thriller, MINDGAME.

Ken Russell, the celebrated director of the films Tommy, Women In Love and The Boy Friend, makes his New York stage directorial debut with MINDGAME.

When a writer of pulp crime novels gets an interview with a notorious serial killer he believes he has snared the coup of his career. But when he arrives at the asylum, he finds nothing can be trusted, not even his own eyes. Through a series of lies, manipulations and memories, dark secrets are revealed. Why is there a skeleton in the doctor’s office? Where did the raw meat in the fridge come from? What is the nurse so afraid of? And most importantly, how does one get out?

Thank god for those vanity projects--they're what's left of commercial Off Broadway.

No producer's name to be seen in these ads, oddly. Anywhere.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

While I've Been Gone...

I blog before you now a married man and an bonafide PhD "candidate." So, now that those milestones have passed, on with the blogging!

First, let me publicly and profusely thank all my fearless (and peerless) guest bloggers since August: Abigail Katz, Chris Mills, Brook Stowe, Steven Leigh Morris, and the good Dr. Cashmere. It was a pleasure to log onto the site as merely an observer and read so many different voices for a change. So thanks to all for keeping the conversation(s) going, on so many different fronts.

Now that I've returned, let me get the important business out of the way. Some plugs!

While my blogging life may have been dormant these past eight weeks, haply it's been a good period for me on other publishing fronts, seeing some long-gestating projects come to fruition.

-I'm proud to make my debut in the "Best Plays" series with an essay surveying the 2006-2007 Off-Off scene. So check it out if you want to revisit such golden oldies as Hellhouse, God's Ear, breakthrough work by Young Jean Lee and Thomas Bradshaw, the rise and fall of companies such as EST, Jean Cocteau Rep, and much, much, so much more. As it has since, oh, 1920, Best Plays also offers comprehensive stats on the season, production lists, and, in this edition, insightful essays on the actual best-play selections, including: David Cote on Blackbird; Michael Feingold on Spring Awakening; Charles Isherwood on Dying City; Charles McNulty on Frost/Nixon; and Alisa Solomon on Passing Strange.

(Much thanks to editor Jeffrey Eric Jenkins for the gig, and for asking me back for the next volume, wherein I'll be profiling Horton Foote's Dividing the Estate. So if you have any good resources on Foote or the play, please do send them my way!)

-Best Plays is a great buy at just $20-$40 on Amazon. I wish I could say that about my other recent hardbound publication, the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol 341: 20th Century American Dramatists. But, hey, for a 421-page reference book I say at $250 it's a steal! Such is academic publishing--which also accounts for how such a book could take a decade to produce! (I've been involved only for the last seven years.)

Basically it's an encyclopedic collection of lengthy essays I edited profiling various modern US playwrights: including biggies like Tennessee Williams, Sam Shepard, Lanford Wilson; relatively overlooked icons like Marie Irene Fornes and Adrienne Kennedy; historically though seldom revived writers like Theodore Ward and Mae West (yes, that Mae West); and more recent contemporaries like Anna Deavere Smith, John Patrick Shanley, Eric Bogosian, Suzan-Lori Parks, and Charles Busch. I myself wrote the introduction and contributed a big fat piece on Clifford Odets, which I hope is the most comprehensive succinct narrative of his life and work you can get in one sitting.

I forgive you if you'd rather spend the two-fitty on a "premium" seat to 13, but if you're on a campus that has a library, perhaps you'd be so kind as to request its reference section order a copy. (After all, that's who it's really for.)

-A little while ago I got to interview Civillians AD Steve Cosson for a profile in Stage-Directions magazine, which came out in September. This was during their "Paris Commune" at the Public, which I got to sit in on an early rehearsal for. The performance itself--more or less a workshop in the Public's Lab series--was very, very promising, so I hope someone has the guts to stage it for real. The piece descrives both that piece and their "Beautiful City" which finally comes to NYC at the Vineyard in January. (Meanwhile, guest-blogger Steven reviewed the LA production while I was away.)

For a blogger used to the instant gratification of the internet tubes, waiting for all that dead tree material to finally come out sure was a drag! But, hey, now it's for the ages, I guess.

Nice to "see" you again, readers. Back to regular blogging soon....

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Storytelling in Tough Times

by Steven Leigh Morris

As a kind of complement (and compliment) to Abigail Katz's lovely post on Wednesday, I point to the last show I saw in L.A. before spending the weekend in New York.

Jay Sefton wrote and performed in his one-man autobiographical show, “The Most Mediocre Story Never Told” at a small theater near Melrose and Fairfax called Meta Theatre.

It's the remarkable tale of an unremarkable young guy struggling to tell his life story in a one-man- show for reasons that he doesn't fully understand. But perhaps by telling of his youth in Philadelphia, and his humiliating performance as Christ in a Catholic school production of the Passion Play, he will discover the reason that he's on the stage recounting his adventures as a child actor, stooping in a “fairy robe” to wash the feet of Christ's disciples.

A personable and charming actor, Sefton flinches at the special effects – stage smoke and roving spotlights -- that open the show, as though he's the star of a rock concert. Sefton points out how these theatrics were suggested by some one-man-show expert who makes his rent by shaping the stories of would-be actors into a serviceable performance. The bells and whistles really aren't necessary, the actor demurs.

He tells of how, at age 13, he lifted the robes of his classmates for Christ's foot washing ceremony in the Passion Play, to discover messages written onto the feet of his peers: “Fuck you.” “Fag.” “Asshole.” and “Hey Jay, what's up?”

After this, he was tied to a cross while dressed in a diaper, during which the thoughts running through his mind included wishing he had some hair under his armpits, and his eagerness to fall in into the arms of Mary Magdalene because she's played by his voluptuous blond eighth grade classmate, Lisa Connor.

Among a small gallery of characters whom Sefton also plays are his alter-ego, Phillie Jay, who points out that his life is so dull, it would benefit both him and his audience to make stuff up, invent some drama. And, under Debra De Liso's direction, which nimbly guides the show along its magic carpet ride, this is where Sefton cuts to the heart of his tantalizing concept:
“I looked up 'story' in the thesaurus, just to see if I had one, and most of the words had something to do with not telling the truth. Fable, yarn, gossip, rumor, legend. There are other words there too. Anecdote, chronicle, but there is a whole subsection called lie. As an actor we hear, 'Just tell the story. What’s the story? I am just listening for the story. You are a storyteller.'”
“Where are these stories? Where do they really exist? And who am I without them?” Sefton asks in his show. The last question loops back to Abigail's implication that if you want to feel poverty, try living without art. The broader question that Sefton doesn't ask is, Who are we without stories? And an economic crisis does nothing to change the answer to that.

So far, Wall Street's crisis has had no tempering effect on the quantity of plays opening across Los Angeles, which is reeling with the same fears as in New York.

At the Abingdon Theatre Company, where I've been spending quite a bit of time for the production of my play, “Beachwood Drive” (which starts previews on Friday), the management is showing an uncharacteristic anxiety that Wall Street's woes may hammer their upcoming fund raiser, and they're eager to see the Dow Jones index at least stabilize before then.

In the rehearsal hall over the weekend, the volatile stock market was part of some distant echo. As rehearsal progressed, the sounds of wild applause from a performance of Richard Etichison's “Force Majeure” (presented by InViolet Repertory Theatre Company) bled through the walls from the Dorothy Streslin Theater across the hall.

This beehive of theatrical activity, in the Abingdon Complex, as well across both New York and L.A., is neither solipsism nor theater removed from reality. It is simply the reality of theater telling stories in hard times, and of some high regard for those stories being told.

This is my last post here for a while. Thanks to Garrett for the opportunity, and thanks to you for reading.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Katzeye Report

by Abigail Katz

Counting Down

We've got 22 days until the election. That's it. TWENTY-TWO DAYS! I know, I know, it feels as long as a really bad production of a Chekhov play (I hear THE SEAGULL is great though!) Anyway, for the two people out there who are still undecided and are reading this blog, you might be interested to check out the candidates' respective positions on the arts, posted on the Americans for the Arts website. Click here for a direct link to the breakdown. For those who have already decided on your candidate, this is good info (and ammo!) for you too.


Things have been quiet on the LIPSTICK ON A PIG: THE MUSICAL front. There's some buzz that the Great State of Alaska, rumored to be a silent backer for the show, may be getting cold feet. Not surprising in the current economic climate. Producers insist, however, that the show will go on, and have been looking for ways to reduce the tuner's inflated budget, now estimated to be pushing $30 million. Apparently there's an argument over the skating rink for the "Hockey Mom" number. Obviously the producers want it out due to the enormous cost, but the writers feel it's essential to understanding the central character. One writer has suggested replacing that number with a new one called "Maverick," which may be a solution both parties can live with. Still no word on whether or not Tina Fey will join the cast as the Governor of Alaska, which is only one more reason to make investors nervous, as she would be the main draw. Honestly, considering Julie Taymor's SPIDER-MAN reportedly has a budget of $40 million, these investors should know they're getting a bargain.

Support the Arts

One grande soy latte from Starbucks = $4.60. Ten grande soy lattes from Starbucks = $46.00. Cut ten grande soy lattes over the course of a month, that's a $46.00 contribution to an arts organization, or the price of certain Off-Broadway or Off-Off Broadway tickets, or even some Broadway tickets, or almost enough for TWO tickets on TDF. Priceless.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

The Case for Art in Challenging Economic Times

by Abigail Katz

We're all aware of the economic crisis our country is facing at this moment. People are scared, confused, and unsure of what the future holds or what to do. It's a huge dilemma for the theatre world, which was pointed out in a New York Times article a few days ago. So with the Dow plunging and people tightening their belts, how do we ask for support for the arts?

The first step is to ask what art means to people.  Whether it is in the form of theatre or visual arts or music or film, for some it is for entertainment and escape.  For others it is to satisfy an intellectual, emotional, or spiritual need. And still for others it is their life's work.  None of this ends when economic times are bad.  People still need diversion (perhaps even more right now), people still have needs that only art can answer, and people still need to work.   To take the question even further, imagine a world without art- dull, depressing, devoid of beauty created by artists, devoid of thought-provoking pieces created by artists that encourage dialogue and understanding.  And what about art in the schools?  It's no secret that studying various forms of art alongside the core subjects only enhances education and gives students additional capacity for comprehension and learning.  

I could go on and on arguing that art is not simply a luxury in our society, but essential.  I'm certainly not the first to make this argument, but in times like these we need people to keep making that statement, and of course the best way to that is to continue going to the theatre and museums and music performances and movies.  We can all spare a few lattes (I know I certainly can) in exchange for a theatre ticket.  For those who can do more, don't cancel your theatre membership, and if possible, give a little something extra to show what your theatre of choice means to you.  One of the rabbis of my synagogue said on Yom Kippur that it was hard for him to stand before the congregation during this crisis and ask for monetary pledges.  He recognized that many could not give as much as they gave before, and requested that for those who were thankfully in a better position to try and help make up the difference.  He asked us to stretch as much as we could.  I guess I'm asking the same thing- not to put yourself in jeopardy of course, but to really consider the role that art plays in your life and act accordingly.  We need art in times like these.

And just for you theatregoers, as Hillary would say, "KEEP GOING!" 

Chekhov and the Nuthouse

By Steven Leigh Morris

NPR had an interesting piece over the weekend on Christopher Hampton's adaptation of Chekhov's The Seagull – which opened last week on Broadway. The English playwright admits his knowledge of Russian derives from one-year's study in high school, which is why he feels unqualified to call his version a translation.

So in order to construct his play, based on and inspired by Chekhov's play, Hampton says he sat with a Russian who guided him through the piece.

"What we're looking for is to really try to fathom exactly what Chekhov's intentions were and to reproduce them," Hampton told NPR's Robert Siegel. "To make the audience laugh when he wanted them to laugh and to make them cry when he wanted them to cry."

Hampton goes on to explain how he listened to the Russian and counted “the number of words in a sentence in order to meter the language” for his English version.

There was a personal delight in reading this, after seeing the Sovremennik Theatre's taut, muscular production of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard in Moscow this past summer.

There's a line almost halfway through the play, when Madam Lubov Ranevskaya, co-proprietor of an almost bankrupt provincial estate, takes a hard look at the manservert, Fiers, who's been working in the household for many years.

“How old you've grown, Fiers!,” she observes. Fiers is deaf, which explains his line, “I beg your pardon.” Lopakhin – a merchant in-residence – pipes in, to Fiers, “She says you've grown very old!”

In Julius West's translation, Fiers replies, “I've been alive a long time.” Other translations have the line as, “That's because I've been living for a long time” Either way, the line gets a mildly amused laugh, or some smiles that enthusiasts can say reflect the essence of Chekhov's languid comedic “atmosphere.”

But in the Russian, Fiers replies with only two words, four syllables -- “Shivoo dolga.” In Moscow, the line elicited a roar of laughter, like a punch-line from a play by Neil LaBute. The line, and the production itself, were far closer to Chekhov's affection for vaudeville than to the kind of ruminative albeit humorous metaphysics that form the pervasive tone in most English-language productions of Chekhov's full-length plays.

In neurologist Oliver Sacks' collection of clinical essays, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, there's one short story called “The President's Speech” in which two groups of patients afflicted with brain disorders listen to a speech by Ronald Reagan.

One set of patients has a kind of aphasia that prevents them from comprehending the meanings of words, and the ligaments of logic that connects thoughts. Sacks observed in them, however, a compensatory, accelerated capacity to comprehend what people were saying through their visual and aural signals

The other set of patients suffered from a kind of agnosia that prevented them from reading any of those subtextual and contextual signs, yet they benefited instead from an advanced ability to cut to the meanings of the words, and to the lines of logic that connected them.

Both groups of patients complained that the speech made little sense. The aphasiacs remarked that the president's facial tics and speech patterns struck them as fakery, while the agnosiacs homed in on the fallacies of logic that peppered the president's economic policies. Meanwhile, much of the world beyond that clinic, a world containing people with fully functioning brains, was fooled into embracing the wisdom of economic policies that have been impoverishing us since since the early '80s, but only now are they fully crashing down around us. Those with brain deficiencies seemed to get the problem almost thirty years ago.

It's probably obvious by now that this recollection was spurred by yesterday's presidential debate, and the impediments that block us from easily recognizing the layers of deception that come with both performance and argumentation.

It makes a case for Ionesco and his Absurdist ilk, who argued that language was close to useless when it comes to comprehending core truths of who we are, what we're doing and what we need to do in order to improve our condition. Language, however, is pretty good for expressing when we're too cold, hot, hungry or horny. Then again, the chickens in my friend's back yard can do that too, with just a few cackles.

Maybe Christopher Hampton was really counting cackles on the page, and "adapting" them to the stage, in order to streamline the music of a playwright from across a sea and a century. Perhaps we, too, are only capable of receiving it as though a blanket of obfuscation. Perhaps it's not really a language barrier at all, but a more fundamental failure of intelligence and perception.

Monday, October 06, 2008

So, What is the Real Purpose of a Festival?

by Abigail Katz

I ask because it seems in the last few years that the answer to that question is a bit muddled.  Of course a festival should showcase the participating artists and hopefully advance their work in some way.  But there seems to be a growing expectation that festivals should be a stepping stone toward a larger production for a particular piece of work, aiming ultimately for a commercial run, perhaps even on Broadway.  This has been particularly true with the New York Musical Theatre Festival, which has grown impressively in its five year existence with many shows going on to have lives beyond the festival.  The two best known successes have of course been ALTAR BOYZ and [title of show], which recently posted its closing notice for Broadway.

While it's encouraging and satisfying to see shows have success beyond a festival, has it created an inflated sense for the participants of what the festival is for in the first place?  Is the bigger, better production the goal, or is the artistic development of the piece the goal? Or perhaps both?  NYMF's Executive Director Isaac Robert Hurwitz even said in a recent Variety article that the expectation of a direct transfer to Off-Broadway is unrealistic, and that four years is the more likely scenario.  There is nothing wrong with using the festival to draw the attention of industry who may be potential producing partners in a future production of the show.  But that should not result in an attempt at a pre-Broadway tryout.  The festival conditions simply don't allow for it.  The Equity contract (if one follows it to the letter) limits the budget, the rehearsal, tech and performance period is rather short, and by the time applicants know they've been accepted to the festival there's very little time for significant fundraising if they haven't been doing it all along.  

I guess what I'm really saying is that artists can get the most mileage out of a festival if they really focus on their productions as workshops rather than a backers audition.  Yes, of course get industry folks in there so they can see the potential of the piece.  But that should not pressure the artists to "razzle dazzle 'em" or to feel that it's now or never for their show. Festivals can actually be an essential part of artistic development, because it puts the production in front of an audience in a way that a reading can't.  It's a production, not the production, and it should be allowed to be just that.  This is merely my observation from my experience.  Feel free to disagree with me, I'm very interested to know how artists and industry folks feel about this issue.  

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Robert Wilson at USC

By Steven Leigh Morris

On the evening before his production of Madama Butterfly returned to L.A. (at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion), Robert Wilson addressed an assembly of students, faculty and a few invited guests at the Bing Theatre on the USC campus.

In rumpled black jacket and trousers and soft black shoes (over a white shirt), the designer-director walked onto the stage and stood still, and in silence, for about five minutes – eliciting a few awkward giggles, but mostly a kind of hypnosis.

When he eventually spoke, which he did for almost two hours, he sometimes stopped, mid-sentence, and froze, for longer than the standard attention span usually tolerates – either to gather his thoughts, or to make a point about the standard, diminishing attention span.

TV and even theater, he noted, contain a rhythm of stop-start-stop-start. Quick bursts and cessations of energy. “No no no no no no,” he squealed in a falsetto, chiding, as though speaking to children.

Because each movement of music, each motion of gesture is connected to the preceding movement or motion. Animals understand this. They remember through their muscles. For this reason, he, explained, beginning actors must first learn how to stand on a stage in silence, and then how to walk across a stage, like a cat.

“When we're aware of the movement, the line continues. . . Proust said he was writing the same novel. Cezanne said he was always painting the same still life.”

This is why in Wilson's marathon performances, he feels no qualms about audiences leaving after an hour or two and returning later, or not. Because unlike in Shakespeare, a missing act, or hour, doesn't render a Wilson event diminished or incomprehensible.

Nor does he start with words, he explained, complaining that American and British theater is burdened by a pathological dependence on words and sounds. He starts with silence. Only in silence can anything be understood. Sometimes he devotes entire scenes to the sculpting of light.

His presentation was part lecture, part autobiography. The history of Robert Wilson and his work has been well documented, but coming from the man himself exposed both the narcissism and brilliance that's led to alternate realities onstage – or, from Wilson's perspective, the reality of his designs that exposes the alternate reality of our lives and more traditional entertainments.

(So as not to ignore the stage design, the set included a projected image of a pair of old shoes, in duplicate, which yielded to Wilson's designs from epics ranging from The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin to Einstein on the Beach.

Wilson shares with neurologist Oliver Sacks an adulation for the penetrating insights coming from those with senses and brain function impaired – the deaf, the autistic, whose comprehension of the world is, by necessity, more animalistic and consequently more true, and therefore artful. Much of his presentation was an homage to two such men (one he met as child) who participated in the creation of his works and understood them innately. They were, for Wilson, a window onto the world of his art. When he recorded the utterances of one brain-damaged, autistic child, he discovered that the sounds, when inscribed onto paper, formed a sculpture that had the form of a perfect geometry, while the sounds we use to exchange what we think are lucid ideas are comparatively erratic.

“If I had gone through Yale and studied theater,” he said, “I would not be making the kind of theater I'm making.”

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

The Off-Broadway Question

by Abigail Katz

Newsday Theatre Critic Linda Winer asked the other day, "Where's Off-Broadway?"   This is not a new question, nor one with an easy answer. Commercial Off-Broadway seems to barely exist anymore, at least in the way we like to think of Off-Broadway as a "rebellion of theater as mere mass entertainment" to quote Winer.  Of course there are shows that are characterized as Off-Broadway, ranging anywhere from BLUE MAN GROUP, STOMP, and FUERZA BRUTA to ADDING MACHINE and GONE MISSING. But it has become harder and harder for a commercial Off-Broadway show to be viable in the current New York theatre landscape.

As Winer points out, one of the reasons is that many commercial houses in this category have closed in the last few years.  But another very important reason is simply the economics of a commercial Off-Broadway show.  If the cost of an Off-Broadway show can run in the neighborhood of $1 million, and the show is playing in a house with a capacity anywhere from 100-499 seats, and ticket prices are lower than Broadway (although not by much these days- some are as high as $80) how does such a production make back its money and continue running?  Advertising budgets for these productions don't approach those of a Broadway show, so in a competitive market it's even harder to get the word out. Even rave reviews and awards enjoyed by shows such as ADDING MACHINE (one of the best productions I've seen in years) didn't necessarily result in more audience.  Under these circumstances, how is the Off-Broadway that we long for to exist?

Another contributing factor to the situation is the rise of so many non-profit theatres in last couple of decades.  Their productions are for the most part also characterized as Off-Broadway, and because their structures as non-profit institutions differ from those of a commercial production, they are more able to take the risks that we associate with the Off-Broadway of yore.  The main difference of course is that the runs of these shows are limited, and if they get enough attention and audience the shows will transfer, but these days more likely to a Broadway production than an Off-Broadway one simply because it makes more economic sense. In many cases, productions in the non-profit theatres are "enhanced" by commercial producers with idea of a transfer beforehand, and the non-profit production is essentially a pre-Broadway tryout.

So what is the answer? Do we accept that the adventurous Off-Broadway is a dinosaur, and that the term now means mini-Broadway, non-profit limited runs, and entertaining performance art? Not necessarily.  There are producers, like Scott Morfee of Barrow Street Theatre who continue to produce and support interesting and excellent work.  The Cherry Lane and Minetta Lane Theatres still exist, as do the Daryl Roth and the DR2.  New World Stages may be a little bit more mainstream, but it is a home for shows that are appealing but wouldn't work well in a Broadway house.  Co-productions may also be a way to make the idea work, so there is shared risk.  The fact is Off-Broadway is hard to define, and that's not necessarily a bad thing.  Right now it is experiencing growing pains, and it will be a while before we know what the future holds for this important aspect of New York theatre.