The Playgoer: July 2010

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Friday, July 30, 2010

Friday Roundup

...and weekend reading.

NYT Sunday Magazine tells us what it's like to work for years as a stage actress and finally get your own tv show: The Laura Linney Story.

-Conservative Critic hearts Conservative Playwright: Teachout on Mamet. Brace yourselves, "brain dead liberals"...

-The Royal National Theatre is no longer the only UK company to get into the live broadcast biz: the Donmar will beam Derek Jacobi's King Lear to cinemas worldwide.

-Actor Marc Wolf blogs compellingly about what it's like to perform his one-man gays-in-the-military show for audiences.

-And, finally, it's Fringe time in NYC.  Yes, our annual hit-or-miss blackboxapalooza is upon us, and you can get all the info at FringeCentral, opening today.

Thursday, July 29, 2010


Some rare cash flow making its way to arts orgs...

House Appropriations Committee has approved an extra (wait for it) $2.5 million for the NEA for next fiscal year.  FYI, that's enough for one season at a small LORT theatre company or one mid-size Broadway play.

One of George Soros' foundations is offering $11 million just to NYC "nonprofit music, dance, and theatre groups that are recognized for the quality of their artistic work, their strong educational programs for young people, their employment of artists and their other contributions to the vibrancy of New York City’s cultural life."

Meanwhile, some folks just can't throw enough money at Yale Rep.  First the Robina Foundation gives just shy of a million and now the Mellons outdo them. The rich get richer....

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Quote of the Day II

"To be frank, how could anyone who wasn’t born or raised in England, isn’t Christian, and never took a college Shakespeare course have written either 1599 or Contested Will? His biography suggests that James Shapiro seems to lack all the necessary background and experience. Isn’t it far more likely that 'James Shapiro' is a front, the name a pseudonym? The true author probably prefers to write in peace and is uncomfortable with the public face of publishing."

-Professor James Shapiro

Quote of the Day

"It’s silly to ask spectators to pony up as much as $400 for a show with a teatro povero aesthetic whose theme is toppling the pampered overclass."

-David Cote, reviewing the late departed Peter Stein Demons epic, as presented by the blue-chip Lincoln Center Festival.

(He adds that despite its flaws, "The Demons is an enriching experience—especially if you didn’t pay for it.")

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Caveat Emptor

Before you panic and run to Central Park this week to go wait on line for Al Pacino's last performances, know that his Merchant of Venice will indeed be performing on Broadway in the fall--at a more expensive, but at least more reliable price.

And before you shell out to see Helen Hunt in the hit revival of Our Town, know that you will still have one more chance to see it the way it should be seen--with director David Cromer playing the Stage Manager in September.  And then it closes.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Late James Gammon

More than Shepard himself, even, I would venture James Gammon is the face of Sam Shepard's plays.
The playwright offers a moving tribute to one of his standby actors, who passed away last week:

"This guy walked on stage, and it’s as if everybody else in the play disappeared, as if he had stumbled in from an alleyway and just was this character."

(He also says something about he and Joe Papp fighting so much they were "oil and water"!)

Gammon in Steppenwolf's 
1995 revival of Buried Child.

Quote of the Day

"To be a performance artist, you have to hate theatre. Theatre is fake: there is a black box, you pay for a ticket, and you sit in the dark and see somebody playing somebody else's life. The knife is not real, the blood is not real, and the emotions are not real. Performance is just the opposite: the knife is real, the blood is real, and the emotions are real. It's a very different concept. It's about true reality."

-Marina Abramovic, in polemical mode.

Yes it's fake.  And that's why I love it.

(hat tip: Noises Off.)

Friday, July 23, 2010

When the Industrials & Voiceovers Go Away

Sobering feature in the Minneapolis Star-Trib about the changing fortunes of local AEA actors in what we always assumed would continue to be a thriving theatre town.

The problem is not so much the stage work at the town's fine theatres drying up.  It's those little-known, unglamorous bread-and-butter jobs that get most actors through the year--like industrial films and voiceovers.  As one quoted actor says:

"The market for industrial films and corporate videos is bad. Commercial work is way down. All the things that we generally do to cobble together a living has been affected, so it's harder to live the same middle-class dream as other Americans."
Yes, who knew that actors would be among the greatest sufferers from the exodus of big corporations from mid-size American cities.
And from globalization!
Actors are facing some of the same challenges as Detroit autoworkers and widget-makers nationwide: The labor pool has been globalized. Technology has made it so that you can set up a recording session and do a voice patch with someone anywhere on Earth, said Carol McCormick, a film and TV agent at Moore Creative Talent with 30 years of experience. "So the actor who used to get voice jobs in the Twin Cities is competing against someone in L.A. or London or anywhere English is spoken."
How this potentially impact the Minneapolis theatre scene?  Well aside from being depressed, many actors in this situation might just leave.  And while a big institution like the Guthrie can always job in from New York, the smaller theaters depend on the local pool.  What will they do?
And I suspect this is bigger than just Minneapolis.  Are we going to see this in Seattle? even San Francisco?

Uh, have a nice weekend...

Bad Ideas for Musicals, #223

An old feature here at Playgoer, now brought back by an eye-catching headline:

Elton John and Lee Hall Working on a New Musical Based on Orwell's "Animal Farm"

Yes, ever read Orwell and feel all that was missing was...well, a little Elton John?

I actually like Billy Elliott quite a bit--not so much for John's somewhat generic score, but for its vitality as modern-day labor musical. (Not the reason for its success, perhaps.)  But still John helps it along because of his pop sensibility for what is, in the best sense, a populist story.

So, please, Sir Elton, stay away from cold war political allegories of anthropomorphised barnyard critters.

Unless, of course, it's a commission for Rush Limbaugh's next wedding.

Thursday, July 22, 2010


-Good news for companies who work a lot with foreign artists: US Immigration now promises to process artist visas within 14 days. Apparently it's been taking much longer lately.

-More politics: how good a job is Michelle Obama doing as national arts hostess?  Pretty good, according to WaPo, and not just ceremonial.

-Just when Herr Peter Stein finally made a big NY smash with his 9-hour Dostoyevsky play, you'd think he'd finally get something going here.  But now he's walking away from directing at the Metropolitan Opera this fall right before rehearsals start.  Was ist los, mein Herr?

-And the NY Innovative Theatre Award nominations are out, so go click and see who of your downtown peeps will be feted on September 20.

Quote of the Day

“Davies’ papers are in Sidcup because that’s where they are…Aston fiddles with his plugs because he likes doing it.”

-Harold Pinter, responding to student questions about The Caretaker.  A 1966 letter he wrote to respond to questions from a class of (optimistic) students has just been unearthed.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Broadway at the White House

In the words of emcee Nathan Lane, "We are here to sing show tunes for the president, and God help anyone who gets in our way."

And that they did.  Perhaps you heard about the free Live from the White House webcast last night (I didn't!) but if not you'll have to wait till October to watch it on PBS (probably with Elaine Stritch's, um, spontaneous rewriting of "I'm Still Here" touched up or edited out.)

Meanwhile, there's Nelson Pressley's colorful review in WaPo ("the East Room seemed to muffle dirty ol' Broadway") and the Prez's blah-blah opening remarks.  Nice of him at least to refer to musicals' historical "social consciousness."

And finally here's some related factoids:

a quick check of the White House Historical Assn. website yields the information that during the 1870s "President and Mrs. Rutherford Hayes inaugurated the musicale tradition that exists in the White House today." In addition, the site says, "during the four administrations of Franklin Roosevelt more than 300 concerts in the White House reached out to every corner of America," that the "Eisenhowers were the first to bring Broadway musical theater to the White House in an after-dinner program for Chief Justice Earl Warren in 1958," and, perhaps most on point, that "President and Mrs. Ronald Reagan joined composer Marvin Hamlisch, an alumni cast of `A Chorus Line,' entertainers Shirley Jones, Stubby Kaye, Lee Roy Reams, and the Marine Band at the taping of `In Performance at the White House,' August 10, 1988."

Monday, July 19, 2010

The B'way Export Business

Never mind how Broadway musicals do on Broadway.  According to Ellen Gamerman in this weekend's WSJ, that's not where the real action is.

The export of musical theater abroad has never been bigger. At least 13 major productions of American or British musicals are running in Japan. "Next to Normal" will hit Oslo in September. In Manila, an English-speaking Filipina in a honey wig sings "Omigod You Guys" at "Legally Blonde: The Musical" every night.  Foreign productions of "The Lion King" have grossed nearly $2.2 billion to date, Disney says, almost three times the show's Broadway haul....As producers discover that they can reap huge profits overseas—sometimes even turning a Broadway flop into a foreign hit—more American shows are enlisting foreign investors and granting international rights at premium prices. International presenters now may pay $200,000 in advance to stage a big U.S. production in a major foreign market,
Talk about Globalization...

Good line from the Disney folks, by the way, joking that Tarzan--a blip in New York, but a hit in Europe--only needed Broadway as an "out of town tryout."

It all actually reminds me of how American universities have also become increasingly dependent on foreign markets (both in foreign students and overseas campuses)--Americans are too broke now to afford their product!

Friday, July 16, 2010


-You may have heard of the Off Broadway debut of a first-time director named Jerry Seinfeld--helping out his comic pal, Colin Quinn's one-man show.  New York Mag, though can't help notice that any feigned modesty is belied by the awkwardly lopsided program bios of the two.

-This is why the Swiss released Roman Polanski--to make a film of God of Carnage, of course!

-The New York based political troupe Theatre of War gets an unlikely backer--The Pentagon!

-More Spiderman (The Musical!) troubles: their press reps of three years(!) have had enough.  Good luck to the new firm-- maybe they can finally explain to us what the hell "Turn Off the Dark" means.

-And just when I know you've had enough Mamet tv interviews, here he is on Charlie Rose last week, at his best (reflecting on Pinter) and his worst (man's politics just get weirder.)  As for Charlie...well not exactly at his best here....Also worth it for the nice Best of Mamet montage up front.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Dinner and a non-Movie?

Check out what Steppenwolf's trying, subscription-wise:

With the Dinner Theatre Subscription Series, each time you visit Steppenwolf you'll enjoy a 3-course dinner and a ticket to the show – a $100 value – for only $69! We take care of the reservations and you dine at some of Lincoln Park's best restaurants...You'll see all five plays of the 2010/2011 season and dine at five great restaurants (each dinner includes salad or appetizer, entreĆ©, glass of wine or beer and dessert). Each dinner starts at 5:30 pm and all the restaurants are within walking distance of the theatre.
Don't know if that would work in the restaurant scene of NYC.  (Yes, Steppenwolf is in Chicago, but hardly on "restaurant row.")  But for regional theatres in more suburban settings perhaps...something to think about? 

Of course, a coupon for 10% off or a free pepsi is done all the time.  But including in the subscription...gotta hand it to them, that's some fine "event value" marketing.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Et tu, Beeb?

It's not just American tv that's forgotten about serious stage drama.  Veteran Guardian critic Michael Billington laments the BBC's forfeiting of its own great legacy in that area.  Fortunately the mantle has been taken up by the commercial Sky network.

I don't want to lapse into BBC-bashing, but I find it astonishing that Sky Arts is currently occupying territory that once would have been claimed by public-service broadcasting. But, in recent years, the BBC has treated theatre-based drama with an indifference bordering on contempt. Aside from the superb RSC Hamlet last Christmas, I can't think of any stage play shown recently on BBC TV; and I suspect Hamlet only made it into the schedules because it starred David Tennant and Patrick Stewart. But the BBC's abject failure is Sky's opportunity.
The current Sky offering is the early Chekhov "vaudeviles" featuring, among others, the brilliant Steve Coogan.

So how do we get this in the States? Should be easy in the digital age, you'd think.

Obamas Still ♥ B'way

Just in from the White House:

Press representatives for Mrs. Obama said on Wednesday that the White House would continue its concert series with a performance at 7 p.m. on Monday by a lineup of prominent Broadway talents, including Nathan Lane, Idina Menzel, Audra McDonald, Brian d’Arcy James, Chad Kimball, Tonya Pinkins, Marvin Hamlisch, Karen Olivo and Assata Alston, which will be preceded by remarks from the president. Earlier in the day 20 dance students from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts and the Joy of Motion Dance Center will take part in an educational workshop and rehearse a scene from “Hairspray” that will be supervised by the choreographer Jerry Mitchell....PBS will broadcast the concert as “A Broadway Celebration: In Performance at the White House” on Oct. 20.
So I guess we're talking just musicals?

Oh well it's something.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Theatre Will be Tweeted!

Via ArtsJournal, we have a report from Australia that lets us see one future scenario for theatre's survival...and it's a nightmare.

Every night in theatres around Australia, audience members are tweeting: during interval, after the show and sometimes, mostly surreptitiously, during the show itself. Twitter is the new word of mouth and all the major arts companies are taking it seriously indeed.

"You tweet because you're excited to be seeing something live after hearing so much about it," says Suarez, who sought permission from the theatre to tweet during King Lear. She sat in the back row to avoid disturbing other patrons. "It's about sharing your emotions and your experience of the show. You might have a favourite scene or a line that you love and you want to share it instantly. I thought King Lear might be dry but it was really interesting and I wanted my friends to go and see it and be entertained."


For the performing arts, Twitter is shaping up to be revolutionary, as some of the world's oldest media forms are compelled to engage with the newest. Both are about groups coming together to share an experience. But now, through Twitter, the audience and the makers of art are getting closer and closer.
More like the makers of art and the marketers of art are getting closer--uncomfortably close.

Okay, okay.  I guess the urge to share comments with friends during a performance is natural.  We all whisper such things occasionally at the theatre--and in the cinema some of us don't even bother hiding it. (You know who you are.)  And we all need the occasional experience of watching tv and movies with friends in private to share such bon mots.

But at least in these circumstances we can keep our eyes on the screen/stage.  Because something, you know, important might be happening up there that you need to see, instead of staring at your thumbs half the time.

(I suppose that would be like me blogging a show while watching it--something that, yes, would be fun once in a while.)

So whatever the benefits and whatever the value in validating the communal experience...beware those who believe that anything with the word Twitter next to it.  If our last resort is simply to give the audience something else to do...we're in trouble.

Speaking of which, you can read this and other Playgoer posts on Twitter!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Quote of the Day

"To my ear, the orchestration of “West Side Story” towers above all others, a masterwork of complexity and beauty that still reveals marvels to my colleagues and me.The score’s eye-popping instrumental forces, too long to list here, involve everything from bass saxophone to slide whistle to three piccolos. Bernstein crafted 11 independent string parts to render his sublime love songs: 'Maria,' 'Tonight,' 'Somewhere' and 'One Hand, One Heart.'

"Soon, though, if all goes according to plan, these songs will be produced by a skeletal string section accompanied by an inert, artificial, electronic device, which an engineer will try to manipulate, hoping to deceive audiences into thinking it’s the real thing."

-Paul Woodiel, pit musician for the current West Side Story revival on Broadway.  To survive into the third year of its run, his producers are replacing 5 of the 10 string players with a machine.

The Plays Are Bad...And Such Small Seats!

WSJ takes a look at a thriving, dare I say "growth" area, in theater building planning.

A study to be released Monday by Theatre Projects Consultants, a theater-development firm, found that the average standard width of seats in performing-arts theaters has expanded from 21 to 22 inches over the last two decades, "primarily due" to the concurrent rise in obesity.
Or as one of TPC's clients, City Center, puts it, "We want to err a little bit on the roomier side, because over the last 50 years Americans have gotten a little plumper."

Hey I agree, in most venues the seats are too small.  But do the cramped rows in Broadway houses really mean folks were that much skinnier then?  I have a sneaking suspicion the seating has been drastically altered over the years to pack 'em in, and so that greed and dwindling profit margins, not fatness, is to blame.  Can anyone back me up on that?

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Why We Will Never Be Europe

As I read more and more about what the NEA is funding, I come to a sobering realization of exactly why neither that agency nor any other will ever be able to replicate the great culture ministries and Arts councils of Europe.  While Americans still seem ok with the idea of public money going something that is educational and/or socially useful...they'll never get beyond letting their tax dollars being used for something that is simply great art.

It seems that the real growth areas of arts funding are in "outreach," "arts in education," and small-community activities.  These are all important in themselves and necessary to a vibrant arts culture nationwide, I agree.  But when that becomes the primary activity of our public arts funding, then the definition of "public arts" really changes, doesn't it.

In the US, "public arts" is not associated with the top of the field, the height of professionalism and training--as it is in countries with a "royal academy" or "national theatre."  As with so much in our Social Darwinist economy, public funding is for losers.  Be it housing, transportation, or warehouse cheese, it is only there as pity/charity for those not able to make a buck in the marketplace on their own.  In this country a grant is a "handout," not an award or badge of pride.

So we are told, at least.

So while our larger professional nonprofit theatres still can count on some 10-20% from federal and state is unimaginable that we'll ever see, for instance, the Public Theatre's Shakespeare in the Park production of The Merchant of Venice with one of our nation's leading actors entirely "brought to you by" the National Endowment for the Arts.

And yet that's exactly how it would happen in another country.  There, the presentation of the best artists doing their best work in the repertoire they're world renown for is (again) a badge of honor, an act of diplomacy, a face to the world.  But if the NEA or even our local NYSCA (New York State) provided 100% (or even 75%) of the sponsorship for, say, a Lincoln Center Theatre production of an undisputed American Classic like Streetcar or Salesman or, better yet, something a commercial producer would never do, like the complete August Wilson cycle.  Just imagine the hollering from the media and politicians about "waste" of public funds.

Instead we have a Time Warner or a Citicorp become the virtual culture ministry and boast sole "sponsorship" of an event or a season.  Or we perform in theaters named American Airlines or after people who would be anonymous (Laura Pels? Peter Norton?) were it not for their superfluous millions.

Why splurge public funds upon artistic efforts that can get private funding on their own?  To free them from patronage.  At their best the European state theaters take advantage of public subsidy to be accountable to no one.  (Hence why so many of their productions piss audiences off.)

At least, that's the theory.  But it's one well worth chasing.

Friday, July 09, 2010

What's the Street Value on 12-hour Russo-Italian Epic Tix?

I'm quite an admirer of famed German director Peter Stein (and in fact had the privilege of interviewing him for Time Out).  But I must admit I did not succomb to the temptation of shelling out $175 (or more) to see his 12-hour adaptation of Dostoyevsky's The Demons...performed in Italian...on Governor's 100 degree heat.

Funny enough, with the two(!) performances approaching this weekend, those that did jump at the opportunity are already having a little buyers remorse, according to NYT's Dave Itzkoff:

The 700 or so tickets that went on sale in March – starting at $175 a seat – seemed to go quickly. But a few weeks into a relentlessly muggy summer that might have Dostoyevsky yearning for the cold comfort of Siberia, and with the two performances of  “The Demons” coming on Saturday and Sunday, how are those ticketholders feeling now?

On Craigslist, posts from people looking to unload their seats to “The Demons” have begun popping up, some containing phrases like “will take any reasonable offer.” And earlier this week, Lincoln Center Festival sent out an email message saying that “a limited number of tickets” for both performances were still available.
Maybe this will finally get Lincoln Center Festival consider just how far they can push this snob-appeal "event" theatre. In a sensible world, the greater the physical effort the lower the price.  (See "Shakespeare in the Park.")

For those game, at least, this is a chance at a bargain for a rare show.  So go for it!  Meanwhile, I will stay on land, in the AC, awaiting your review...

Photo of the Day

New York's United Palace Theater, at Broadway & 175th St.

Beautiful space, of course.  But hard to believe it may be next year's venue for the Tony Awards!  But that's what Riedel is reporting today.

Who knew we had such a gem in our midst?  Originally built as a Loews movie palace, it eventually became the church of the notorious Reverend Ike and now hosts rock concerts.

So by all means, let's get some theatre in there.  But the Tonys???

The Tonys always used to make due with one of the larger Broadway houses, before settling in at Radio City Music Hall (from which they're being bumped next year for Cirque du Soleil).  Do they really need 3,000-4,000 seats?  Do they really sell all those extra balcony tickets made available to the hoypolloy hoi polloi at exorbitant prices?  (And from which it's a terrible view to watch essentially a television broadcast.)

Riedel jests they do need the space " to hold all the people billed as producers above the title of a Jeffrey Richards show."  But joking aside, as the broadcasts get worse and worse, I keep feeling the ceremony needs to get smaller, more intimate, and more, well, live.

Meanwhile, I'll enjoy seeing how the Broadway League ferries everyone so far uptown.  Probably, indeed, by ferry, rather than driving their limos through the streets of Harlem.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Rylance Under the Microscope

A must read in the Independent for any fans of that indescribable stage actor Mark Rylance.  But describe him they do!  Especially the, um, odd bits.

Rylance is softly spoken and seems vulnerable; innocent, indeed. Received wisdom casts him as an eccentric, or even, in The Daily Telegraph's words, "as nutty as a fruitcake". Critics cite Rylance's habit of giving cryptic speeches at awards ceremonies. Receiving his 2008 Tony, he recited an obscure prose-poem by the Midwestern writer Louis Jenkins.
There's also his insistence that Shakespeare didn't write the plays of Shakespeare, which – given that Rylance was the founding director of Shakespeare's Globe theatre – raised a few eyebrows. Mention that he had Jane Horrocks pee live onstage in his Hare Krishna version of Macbeth, and you've got Rylance-as-weirdo bang to rights.
But what the Telegraph considers weird may simply be, in Rylance's case, unselfish, iconoclastic and left-wing. A champion of progressive causes, he is an ambassador for Survival International, which campaigns for indigenous peoples. His artistic tastes are esoteric: he talks about his own work with Phoebus' Cart, the company he set up with his wife, the musician/composer Claire van Kampen, as "experimental", and his Globe tenure was one ongoing investigation into Elizabethan and other elemental theatre practices. He has a hippie's distaste for matters financial, and left the Globe after a dispute over money. He laments how "the religion of today, consumerism, bombards our grosser appetites, and affects our sensitivity to the subtler things in life". Rylance's so-called eccentricity is his way of reactivating that sensitivity. 
He's currently teaming up with frequent director/enabler Matthew Warchus for an intriguing West End revival of David Hirson's cult-classic La Bete.  A hot ticket, I'm sure.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Chase Community Giving, Bah Humbug

I notice many of our smaller (and even larger) NYC nonprofit theatres capitalizing on the Chase Community Giving campaign--which doles out grants based on volume of Facebook votes.

A Win/Win, right?  Not so fast, says Chicago Trib's Chris Jones:

With so many cash-strapped corporations not supporting the arts or culture at all, it seems a tad churlish to [go] after those that do, however they go about spending their money. And I also see the argument from the givers’ point of view. Why not earn a little publicity as you give out your cash by associating yourself with a grass-roots effort (and maybe gain some new customers in the process)? Why not use popularity as a measure of the best place to put your philanthropic dollars? Isn’t that better than making those donations to groups that can’t (or won’t) muster that kind of community support?

Perhaps. But here are my beefs.

There is a noble tradition in Chicago and other cities of the corporate giving officer (or some such title). These hard-working, arts-loving men and women—many of whom I see regularly at openings and who attend many shows are on their time—are charged with separating the wheat from the chaff and ensuring that the worthy get the corporate bucks. Granted, it’s a subjective business, but these are accomplished professionals who know which groups have the stable management, which groups do work that relates to its community, which groups deserve support. The Chicago theater as we know it would not exist without such investments.

I don’t mean to imply that traditional corporate support — the grant application reviewed by philanthropic professionals—is without self-interest. Of course not. Public corporations have a fiduciary duty to serve the interests of their shareholders. But enlightened corporations know that supporting the arts helps make cities like Chicago more attractive to current and potential employees by boosting the quality of life. Decent businesses like to be involved in the fabric of their community — and when goodwill flows back from their arts sponsorship, then that’s a win-win situation.

But turning over that time-honored granting process — or even part of that time-honored process — to the popular vote can undermine that relationship. For one thing, it turns theaters into on-line hucksters, which lacks dignity and turns off many real artists. For another, it makes their genuine supporters worry that their “vote’ might land them in some corporate database, whatever protections may be in place. And let’s face it, the kind of democracy practiced at the likes of Facebook and American Idol makes Cook County look like small-town Vermont. That “voting” process is anything but a reflection of true affection or “popularity,” as all those emails prove.
Good luck, Chris, in stirring up sympathy for corporate giving officers.  But I do see his point--providing that that such viral campaigns really do poach from the more standard corporate sponsorships.  (Do they? Will they?)

I also agree with him that we should be on our guard whenever a mega-brand like Chase starts throwing around the words "grass roots."  Right, guys.

Still, you theatre companies out there know better than me.  Is this working for you?

Tuesday, July 06, 2010


Welcome back from your fireworks haze.  Here's some of what's happening:

-Post-Tony bounces evident at the Broadway box office in the last days of June. Best Musical-winner Memphis was at just over 90% capacity. The shunned, but much featured Promises, Promises outright killing at 98%. La Cage Aux Folles very impressive at 95%.  Respected but jilted American Idiot and Come Fly Away hovering around only 75% and 50% respectively.  (And we're talking Green Day and Frank Sinatra there--those are supposed to be the shows for people who hate theatre!)  Least attended show on Broadway?  The new cast of David Mamet's Race: 47%.

-NYC public school budget cuts are taking a big hit--i.e. bigger than usual--on arts education.

-A mainstay of the regional directing circuit--especially in the staging of African American plays--Israel Hicks has died.

-As if The Octoroon wasn't already a cursed play... what happens when you try to retool it and one of your actors goes viral denouncing it as, not racist, but just a mess.  What was going on there at PS122 last week?

Thursday, July 01, 2010

James Shapiro's "Contested Will"

Longtime readers of this blog may remember how arguing with Shakespeare authorship deniers used to be a common feature.  Luckily for you and me alike, that's now subsided. 

But I have been massively enjoying James Shapiro's definitive account of this whole mess in his latest book, Contested Will.  It is significant because it is the first time a bona fide Shakespeare scholar has really held forth on this topic, and not been afraid to engage--and calmly refute and decimate--longstanding rumors, myths, and flawed theories.

I've only just begun reading and skimming through it but let me share some highlights so far.  First, here's Shapiro explaining why legit academics can and should engage these fringe claims:

More than one fellow Shakespearean was disheartened to learn that I was committing my energies to it [the authorship controversy], as if somehow I was wasting my time and talent, or worse, at risk of going over to the dark side.  I became increasingly interested in why this subject remains virtually taboo in academic circles, as well as in the consequences of this collective silence.  One thing is certain: the decision by professor to all but ignore the authorship question hasn't made it disappear.  If anything, more people are drawn to it than ever.  And because prominent Shakespeareans...have all but surrendered the field, general readers curious about the subject typically learn about it through the books and websites of those convinced that Shakespeare could never have written the plays.
Or to put it another way: think of the "birthers."  Yes, it's risky to dignifiy them with a response...but do you really want their claims to be the only ones out there when someone Googles "obama + birth + certificate"?

What Shaprio proceeds to do, for about 300 highly readable pages, is simply narrate the history of all the various claims throughout the years and show how they were all founded on some combination of misinformation, faulty historical reasoning, outright forgery and fraud, if not all of the above.  In conclusion, he offers what seems a great primer on just what the basic facts of Shakespeare's life are, why it is we don't know more, and how that doesn't in anyway "disqualify" him from having authored the plays that have always born his name.

One misperception that fuels the fires of doubt is a kind of "presentist" assumption about obsession with private life and the celebrity of authors today applying to all times:
Shakespeare did not live, as we do, in an age of memoir.  Few at the time kept diaries or wrote personal essays (only thirty or so English diaries survive from Shakespeare's lifetime, and only a handful are in any sense personal; despite the circulation and then translation of Montainge's Essays in England, the genre attracted few followers and fizzled out by the early seventeenth century, not to be revived in any serious way for a hundred years).  Literary biography was still in its infancy; even the word "biography" hadn't yet entered the language and wouldn't until the 1660s.  By the time popular interest began to shirt from the works themselves to the life of the author, it was difficult to learn much about what Shakespeare was like.  Now that those who knew him were no longer alive, the only credible sources of information were letters, literary manuscripts, or official documents, and these either were lost or remained undiscovered.
(emphases added)
By laying out the historical circumstances so clearly--one of the benefits of reading a scholar actually trained in the study of the period, not some amateur professional from another discipline playing armchair Elizabethan, like most of the conspiracy theorists--Shapiro reminds us of basic facts that show there are very good reasons we know so little about Shakespeare's life, as opposed to some DaVinci-Code-esque conspiracy.

Take this issue of biographical interest in Shakespeare beginning only in the later 17th century, a full fifty years after the playwright's death.  Shapiro reminds us that a lot happened in those intervening decades to make the trail grow cold.
There may well have been bundles of letters, theatrical documents, and even a commonplace book or two that outlived Shakespeare, but...the extinction of the family line by the end of the seventeenth century and the sale and subsequent demolition of Shakespeare's home, New Place, helped ensure their disappearance.
Yes, there's something even I never realized--by 1700 the man had no heirs.  And it's pretty hard to perpetuate an estate and the survival of personal effects without them.  Not to mention the tearing down of the man's house!  (And let's not forget the burning down of his primary theatre, The Globe, in 1613.)

The later family history is indeed fascinating:
Shakespeare's sister Joan lived until 1646.  His elder daughter,Susanna, died in 1649 and his younger one, Judith, was still alive in 1662; a local vicar with an interest in Shakespeare made a note to seek her out and ask her about her father, but she died before this conversation took place.  Nobody thought to seek out Shakespeare's granddaughter, Elizabeth, who was eight years old when Shakespeare died; she was only one of his four grandchildren to live past the age of twenty-one or wed, but she bore no children in her two marriages and the family line ended with her death in 1670.
That vicar story, by the way, is only one of several d'oh! moments where we were maybe so close to preserving Shakespeare's life after all.  For instance, Shapiro also uncovers an obscure story of a country doctor who pays a visit to Susanna--not to ask about her playwright-father but her late doctor-husband, John Hall!  Turns out Hall had left behind some valuable medical research and so this visitor got to sit in the house reviewing those books while god knows what else sat on the shelf behind him.

Yep, it may have come down one asked.  Shapiro details several missed opportunities of these family and friends still living in Stratford till the 1670s. Or maybe they weren't missed.  Maybe someone did ask and never wrote it down.  Or they did write it down and--like 99% of all personal documents from the period--they got lost!

In short, history happens.

Another thing that happened in the decades immediately following Shakespeare's death was a little something called the English Civil War.  Remember that, under Cromwellian rule,all public theatres were shuttered from the 1640s until the "Restoration" of the monarchy in 1660.  This violently disrupted an entire Elizabethan/Jacobean theatrical tradition that could have provided a direct line back to Shakespeare, The Globe, and his company--and probably led to the further neglect, if not outright destruction, of countless records and papers.

So, in sum, there were very good historical reasons that the paper trail is thin.  Coincidental, bad-luck reasons, perhaps, but that's history.

Finally, before anyone writes off Shapiro as just another "bardologist," know that he actually blames Shakespeare cultists for all the authorship confusion as much as the deniers.  For it was they who tried to ascribe so much significance to the man over the plays in the first place.  Insisting that only a "Great Man" could write great plays, the bard-worshipers of the 18th and 19th centuries flat-out fabricated and invented biographical "facts" (and documents) of their own to fill the annoying gaps.  This only let the door open, of course, for the counter arguments that the "man from Stratford" could not be that same "great man."

What Shaprio ultimately preaches, then, is not Shakespeare-idolatry, but realism and honesty.  Let's simply admit what we don't know, acknowledge that it's natural and common not to know such facts about people who lived that long ago, and embrace the ambiguities and frustrations of history for what they are--rather than inventing our own.

Sounds like a good summer read, no?