The Playgoer: August 2010

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Monday, August 30, 2010

The Monday News Roundup

by Matt Roberson

- From the "I Guess It's Never Too Late To Make a Musical Out of an 18 Yr. Old Movie" category comes news that producers have finally realized the untapped potential in Steve Martin's 1992 film Leap of Faith, about a circus tent revival preacher/con-man.  (R U still feeling the Spirit?  Then look out for a Scholars Corner posting from me this week regarding my thesis, which is focused on Lee Breuer's Gospel at Colonus).

- The Times has some wonderful pics of the newly refurbished Belasco Theater up right now.

- BIG STORY DEVELOPING: Politics and art are clashing in Israel.  What began as a protest by two Israeli actors, both of whom refused to perform in a new theatre space built in the West Bank settlement of Ariel, has now grown to include over 50 artists.  Adding another layer to this is that the companies are largely government funded. Netanyahu is responding by threatening to withholding government financing from those who participate in the protest. Thoughts on this? Lots of issues here worthy of vigorous blog-debate...

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Friday News Roundup

by Matt Roberson

- A Vermont edition of Death of a Salesman opens this week, and it features Christopher Lloyd as Willy Loman.  Lloyd playing a crazy old guy that no one wants to listen to?  I think I've seen this movie before...

- Writer Jason Zinoman begs the question, "When is a Broadway show 'a hit?'"  According to current definition, it has a lot to do with turning a profit, which even some long running shows fail to do.

- I recently had the pleasure of seeing the Mint Theatre's Wife to James Whelan for   The story behind the play is equally interesting, as the playwright, Terese Deevy, seems to have been the victim of an artistic shakeup at Dublin's Abbey Theatre in the early 1940s.  One minute Deevy was hot, the next
minute - not.  Questions remain as to why the play went unproduced for such a long time.  According to the Mint, Deevy herself went on to live a quiet life in a small Irish town, where she was known not as a beloved writer for one of the Western hemisphere's great theaters, but as the old woman who rode her bicycle in mismatched socks. 

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Lincoln Center OK With Creepy Tea Party Billionaire

Yes, they keep pulling me back in...

So I open my New Yorker and there's this big exposee about these wacky Koch brothers--billionaire fascists who basically fund the Tea Party movement.  And then I think, hm, David H. Koch, where have I heard that before...Oh yeah, that David H. Koch.

Been to the NYC Ballet in the last couple of years?  Or the NYC opera? Or some of the larger Lincoln Center Summer Festival events? (like even "A Disappearing Number" by this week's scholarly subject, Complicite?)  Well then, you were in this guy's house!

Two summers ago, Lincoln Center announced they were renaming what was formerly the New York State Theatre (home to the NYC Opera and Ballet) after the man the Times called "the wealthiest resident of New York City" after he "agreed to contribute $100 million toward the renovation of the New York State Theater."

Now we learn where that $100 million comes from:

In a study released this spring, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst’s Political Economy Research Institute named Koch Industries one of the top ten air polluters in the United States. And Greenpeace issued a report identifying the company as a “kingpin of climate science denial.”

And where it goes:

The report showed that, from 2005 to 2008, the Kochs vastly outdid ExxonMobil in giving money to organizations fighting legislation related to climate change, underwriting a huge network of foundations, think tanks, and political front groups. Indeed, the brothers have funded opposition campaigns against so many Obama Administration policies—from health-care reform to the economic-stimulus program—that, in political circles, their ideological network is known as the Kochtopus.
So what's a New York arts lover to do?  Do we cast Mr. Koch out of the temple, hand him back his check and say "right wing nuts are not welcome in the arts"?  I'm tempted to say yes, actually.  In times like these, anyone with Mr. Koch's plutocratic agenda is clearly working against the lives of artists, whether he knows it or not.  Anyone willfully spreading lies about death panels to prevent citizens from getting health insurance is not a "friend of the arts."  Anyone willing to poison our public discourse by demonizing a president--any president--as a crypto-terrorist birth-certificiate not a "friend of the arts."

No, the arts don't belong to "liberals."  In New York--nay, even more so in other American cities--rich Republican plutocratcs are a bigger doner pool for the arts than "we" probably realize.  (Ballet, for instance, seems to cross all ideological barriers.)  Conservatives already think there's a leftist conspiracy to keep them out of the arts--to not produce their plays, to poison their children's minds with prurient updatings of Shakespeare.  So I don't want to fan those fears.

But surely we can agree--no?--that we do not need to save a place at the table for men like this:

As their fortunes grew [in the 1970s], Charles and David Koch became the primary underwriters of hard-line libertarian politics in America. Charles’s goal, as Doherty described it, was to tear the government “out at the root.” The brothers’ first major public step came in 1979, when Charles persuaded David, then thirty-nine, to run for public office. They had become supporters of the Libertarian Party, and were backing its Presidential candidate, Ed Clark, who was running against Ronald Reagan from the right. Frustrated by the legal limits on campaign donations, they contrived to place David on the ticket, in the Vice-Presidential slot; upon becoming a candidate, he could lavish as much of his personal fortune as he wished on the campaign..... Many of the ideas propounded in the 1980 campaign presaged the Tea Party movement. Ed Clark told The Nation that libertarians were getting ready to stage “a very big tea party,” because people were “sick to death” of taxes. The Libertarian Party platform called for the abolition of the F.B.I. and the C.I.A., as well as of federal regulatory agencies, such as the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Department of Energy. The Party wanted to end Social Security, minimum-wage laws, gun control, and all personal and corporate income taxes; it proposed the legalization of prostitution, recreational drugs, and suicide. Government should be reduced to only one function: the protection of individual rights. William F. Buckley, Jr., a more traditional conservative, called the movement “Anarcho-Totalitarianism.”
Yes, Bill Buckley.  William F. Buckley called the Koch's too right wing.

And if that's not enough Koch is the moneyman behind "Americans for Prosperity."  Know what that is?  Enjoy:

More of their greatest hits here.

So I don't know what's worse--if Lincoln Center knew all about this guy before taking his money and glorifying him in perpertuity by naming their glistening golden concert hall after him, thus legitimating and redeeming his otherwise sleazy, slimy name....Or that they didn't.

The question of what they should do about it is moot since...yeah right they're going to hand back $100 mil!

Question is, what do we do?  Boycott NYC Opera and Ballet? Well, you might want to consider.  Nothing gets through to a nonprofit arts org louder and clearer than cancelling your subscription.

At the very least, those of us who care where our arts orgs get their money from should at least let Lincoln Center know how we feel. Somehow.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Complicite Up Close

by Joe Heissan

Playgoer readers,

The Playgoer is on vacation, so I’m filling in today. I am working currently on my dissertation, which focuses on Complicite (originally known as Théâtre de Complicité) and devised theatre in Great Britain. Deirdre Heddon and Jane Milling have described devising as the way of making a production “in which no script—neither written play-text nor performance score—exists prior to the work’s creation by the company.” Though devising is usually thought of as a group activity, it is possible for an individual to devise a performance.Here in the United States, devising is growing in popularity.In the UK devising was originally associated with alternative or fringe theatre, but increasingly it is being seen as just another way of making a performance.Devised productions have turned up at the National Theatre, in The West End, and at international theatre festivals. Companies in the that devise plays regularly receive support from the Arts Council England. There is no one way to devise. Some scholars and practitioners see devising as synonymous with “collaborative creation,” or “collective creation.” I don’t necessarily feel that these terms as interchangeable, and part of my dissertation research will be to tease out how accurate this might be.

Here in New York we had a chance recently to enjoy Complicite’s award-winning devised production of A Disappearing Number at the Lincoln Center Festival.(The New York Times review can be found here.) If you missed it, the production is traveling to London in October, or it can be viewed on 14 October 2010, at 2 p.m., as part of National Theatre of London Live in HD. This is an initiative to broadcast live performances from London of national theatre plays onto cinema screens around the world. I know, for example, that there will be a screening in at Fairfield University. If at all possible, Complicite productions certainly should be experience live. But if that’s not possible, this might be an acceptable alternative.

Complicite was founded in 1983, when performers Annabel Arden, Fiona Gordon, Marcello Magni, and Simon McBurney got together to devise a play called Put It On Your Head, a flight of fantasy about the English seaside and the social agonies of Englishness on the beach. Arden and McBurney had known each other while studying at Cambridge. Gordon, Magni and McBurney had studied together in Paris with Jacques Lecoq and Philippe Gaulier. Gordon moved on after this initial production. Arden and Magni have had active associations with Complicite for much of its existence, having worked with McBurney to create such memorable productions as A Minute Too Late; Please, Please, Please; The Visit; The Winter’s Tale; Anything for a Quiet Life; Out of a House Walked a Man…; Foodstuff; and The Street of Crocodiles, though in recent years both have gone off to work on projects mainly outside of the company. Arden, for example, recently co-directed Heldenplatz in London, and her 2007 production of L’elisir d’amore will be revived at Glyndebourne in 2011. Magni acted with Kathryn Hunter and Jos Houben in Peter Brook’s Fragments which toured through 2009.

McBurney is now Complicite’s artistic director. In addition to directing productions such as Mnemonic (also actor); The Elephant Vanishes; The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol (also actor); The Chairs; and Shun-kin for the company, he had appeared in films including The Last King of Scotland; The Manchurian Candidate; and Friends with Money, and on TV as Cecil the Choirmaster in The Vicar of Dibley on the BBC.(Hilarious!)Complicite’s network of collaborators has grown extensively over the years, with some working on only one specific production, while others have been involved in multiple projects.

In New York, we have enjoyed visits of Complicite productions every few years, including The Street of Crocodiles; The Noise of Time; The Chairs; The Elephant Vanishes and Mnemonic. If you are going to be in London in November 2010, Complicite’s production of Shun-kin will be playing at the Barbican Centre, and A Dog’s Heart will be playing at the English National Opera. If you’d like to see some work by Complicite collaborators here in New York, be on the lookout for Rae Smith’s set design for War Horse at Lincoln Center; Paule Constable’s lighting design for Phantom 2:Love Never Dies on Broadway; Kathryn Hunter in the RSC’s productions of King Lear (The Fool) and Antony and Cleopatra (Cleopatra) at the Park Avenue Armory in 2011; and Mark Rylance in La Bête (Valere). If you’re a Doctor Who fan like me, Marcello Magni recently guest-starred in episode #501, “The Eleventh Hour,” which I’m sure will be repeated soon on BBC America. Harry Potter fans should be listening for Simon McBurney, who will provide the voice of Kreacher the house-elf in the upcoming …and the Deathly Hallows movies.

Auburn The Director

by Dr. Cashmere
The playwright behind PROOF wins a rave for his production of A DELICATE BALANCE at Berkshire Theatre Festival.

Is this his directorial debut?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Is the Fringe a Fraud?

My blogcation was momentarily disrupted by these cutting words from Jason Zinoman in today's Times:

Does it matter that New York has a drearily mediocre Fringe Festival?
I have long thought not, since the annual August assembly line of toothless political parodies, dumb musicals, navel-gazing solo shows and occasional gems always seemed harmless. It gave hundreds of young artists a chance to shine and filled a niche for the press during the dead quiet of summer. As I have visited much more audience-friendly Fringes in Edinburgh and Philadelphia, however, the New York International Fringe Festival now appears needlessly bland and poorly organized. It also does no favors for the reputation of downtown theater. We deserve better.
Talk amongst yourselves...

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Monday News Roundup

by Matt Roberson

- A travel guide is the historical basis for a new play.  The guide was called "The Green Book", and it's purpose was to provide black road trippers in America with a list of places they could safely stop at for food, lodging, etc., during the Jim Crow era. 

- Sides are being drawn at ART in Cambridge over the start of  Diane Paulus' second season as Artistic Director.  In spite of this clash of cultures, Paulus is still best known as the award winning director of the recent production of Hair, and for The Donkey Show.  She's made some big changes and expectantly, some people are not happy. 

-  Broadway director/producer Hal Prince, who has been attached to many of the white way's greatest hits, has a few words on the state of the musical theatre in America.

-  For me, the Fringe is over.  In memory of my herculean efforts as a reviewer, why not take a moment and read my final Fringe '10 review, a two-hander entitled P.O. 

Cote vs The Ish

by Dr. Cashmere
I'm late getting to this, but I wanted to flag the wide range of critical responses to SECRETS OF THE TRADE by Jonathan Tolins at Primary Stages.

In the 'pro' camp you've got David Cote and Backstage calling the play things like, "rock-the-rafters funny" and "bracingly touching" and a "high mark" in the new season.

Charles Isherwood, meanwhile, dismisses the piece as a collision of cliches and Sam Thielman at Variety suggests that it's hard " to understand how this production survives its extraordinarily low stakes and thematic shallowness."

It's not the most polarized critical response we've ever seen. But it's a pretty puzzling set of notices.

What to make of the reaction? Is it tied to the subject matter? A couple of darker moments? Skewed expectations?

Anyone have any insights?

Friday, August 20, 2010

Friday News Roundup

by Matt Roberson

-  Ben Brantley attended the Public's outdoor presentation of Paul Simon's The Capeman, which fell short of expectations when it premiered on Broadway twelve years ago.  Brantley makes some interesting points about how a location can change the overall success of a show.  This idea is of special interest to me, as I'm currently doing my M.A. thesis on Lee Breuer's Gospel at Colonus, which also surprised many by faring poorly on Broadway, in spite of previous success in presentations here in America and abroad.  Location has been tossed around as one of the factors behind Gospel's Broadway shortfall. 

- Also in this week's Times is a piece looking at who is taking up the tradition of drawing Broadway now that Al Hirschfeld is gone.  The slide show of recent work is especially fun to see.

- The Chicago Tribune reports that things are looking up down under for the touring edition of Tracy Letts' August: Osage County.  The play is being produced by the Sydney Theatre Company, which under the artistic leadership of Cate Blanchett is, this season, focusing on American drama.  

- Lots of Fringe reporting out there to read.  At the Voice, Alexis Soloski writes about the "13 shows in 3 days" marathon she recently completed.  As part of's attempt to cover every show, I've also been writing about the work being done as part of the fest.  My first review is of Feed the Monster, and I can't exactly say I wanted seconds.  How has your FRINGE 2010 experience been?  What is the show we all need to see? 

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Minstrelsy in the US, now and then

by Kevin Byrne

My final posting, oh how the days do fly by, examines some contemporary productions in New York City that use blackface, mostly in an effort to challenge the racism of society and culture. Their aims are similar to the productions from fifty-years previous mentioned in yesterday's missive.

In addition to the shows mentioned in this post, I could include: The Dance: A History of American Minstrelsy, The Mammy Project, Disposable Men, Southern Promises, and Jump Jim Crow (2008). My list is not exhaustive.

Before delving into this type of production, I would like to detour into the Wooster Group's Emperor Jones, which featured a blackfaced Kate Valk in the title role. (The Wooster Group's tinkering with blackface and minstrel conventions stretches back to their controversial Our Town/Pigmeat Markham mash-up Route 1 & 9 of the early 1980s.) There are a lot of pitfalls in staging O'Neill's 1920 play about an African American dictator of a exotic island whose attempt at escape descends into a Jungian nightmare. The play is mostly a monologue by Jones, written in some incredibly stilted, minstrelized dialect. What I appreciated about the production is that it overemphasized the materiality and falsity of the language through melodic over-accentuation of each individual word (countervailing the supposed "naturalness" O'Neill strove for), just as it overemphasized the blackface of Valk-as-Jones. The production didn't engage in larger social issues, but it did undercut the scripts racialized precepts.

The problems I have with many contemporary shows which employ blackface and minstrelsy is that they do so for the sake of easy theatrical shocks, without acknowledging the complexities of the racisms they condemn nor referencing the elaborate, twisted history of the form. For example, The Lynch Play and Jump Jim Crow (2009) were painfully earnest productions that were ultimately frustrating and limiting. The shows were intended as cultural critiques that exposed the racism of US society; due to an over-reliance on blackface and minstrelsy as spectacle, they rarely advanced a message more sophisticated than Racism is Bad. The Lynch Play even enforced a segregated seating policy—it was a cheap tactic for raising issues of racial boundaries. Jump Jim Crow began with a group of African American actors embodying black stereotypes in a minstrel show-setting, only to have them reject their roles and be replaced by whites (from the audience!). The show relied on the mere use of blackface as a substitute for a social message. By de-historicizing minstrelsy—and even racism—these productions fail to address the complicated mixture of racism and pleasure that the money-making and product-generating minstrel show trafficked in. Through the lazy use of blackface as shock tactic and the simplistic message about racism being evil, the shows, paradoxically, endorsed a political quietude. These productions wanted to capture the rage of the 1960s shows by Baraka and Kennedy, but such fist shaking is not enough. Few of them really understood the history they were critiquing.

The two productions I want to end with are Neighbors and Scottsboro Boys, which were running at the same time this past spring in theatres a few blocks away from each other. Neighbors is about a family of minstrel stereotypes that moves into a suburban enclave next door to a mixed-race family, and the chaos which ensues when they interact. It was, indeed, a messy show, but also a provocative and challenging one, bursting with irresolvable ideas. Before seeing it, I worried about the dangers in humanizing stereotypes and giving them psychological motivations and familial biographies. But the show, in its most brilliant moments, allowed the characters to display the seductive, dangerous, and deeply angry allure of minstrelsy without making them easily pathetic or sympathetic. It recognized the dark history of the form, and let neither itself nor its audience off the hook through empathy or simplistic moralizing.

I'd like to finish with the musical Scottsboro Boys, which is headed to Broadway in a few months. The story is based on a series of actual court cases in the 1930s, in which a group of African Americans were falsely convicted of raping two white women on a train travelling through Alabama. The musical, with a predominantly African American male cast, presents this story through the format of the minstrel show, and it employed all the characteristics of minstrelsy that I discussed earlier: songs, dances, costumes, blackface makeup. I set the show in contrast to Neighbors to emphasize a particular, troubling dualism: whereas Neighbors brought stereotypes closer to real people, Scottsboro Boys flattened a collection of real individuals with awful histories into caricatures.

The production team seemed to pride themselves on their ability to shock their audience with the use of minstrel tropes, and patted themselves on the back for their bold stances. But the implicit message of the show, how it tries to be enjoyable for the audience, is incredibly smug to the point of offensiveness. The distancing of the audience from the action onstage says: isn't to great that they are not us, that we're not in the racist South of the 1930s. The show forces the audience to see the people, and the time, and the problems, as caricatures. I'm sure that it made sense to the creators to tell this story through a minstrel show; it seemed somehow "natural" to do so. But the connections are facile and cheap, and such a presentation does a disservice to these people and the horrific suffering they endured.

In her recent history In Search of the Blues, Marybeth Hamilton touches upon the Scottsboro case. Olen Montgomery, one of the defendants, wrote songs while in prison; the lyrics to his Lonesome Jailhouse Blues were published in a Popular Front newspaper. "If I live, I'm going to be the Blues King," he wrote to his lawyer. None of his individuality, artistry, or loneliness made it into the show.

OK, this scholar will be returning to his corner now.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Minstrelsy in the US, here and there

by Kevin Byrne

Building off of yesterday's posting, what I examine here are the instances of minstrelsy into the twentieth century. An interesting phenomena to examine and explore is the ways the minstrel show became useful to, was in fact foundational for, so many of the technologically mediated entertainment industries of the century. In the first two decades of the twentieth century, minstrelsy (like so many other popular forms, such as vaudeville) became less sustainable as a live form of professional entertainment. The increasingly cheap and ubiquitous media of film, phonograph, and later radio rendered them antiquated. But, of course, these were the same media that appropriated and utilized elements of minstrelsy: blackface caricatures, dialect songs, and so forth. To return to the points I was making in my last post, the minstrel show should be seen as a business: some companies tenaciously hung on, some performers moved to the new media, and most individuals found other lines of work.

These new media were mass produced very quickly and minstrelsy was ubiquitous within them. Because of the tangible, durable, material products from this time period, these are the images and sounds that are most readily called to mind when the word "minstrelsy" is used: a corked-up Al Jolson singing "Mammy" in The Jazz Singer, Andy and Amos scheming at the Open Air Taxi Company, Bert Williams in a chicken suit, Aunt Jemima with a plate of flapjacks. A cataloguing of all instances of black racial caricature in US popular and mass culture is obviously beyond the scope of this blog post, or of any individual work of history. But I can point readers to Marion Riggs's brilliant documentary Ethnic Notions, or in a related but different way, the montage sequence at the conclusion of Spike Lee's Bamboozled. Blackface and minstrelsy were foundational to these media forms; that they were a successful and continuing part of it.

I stress this because I want to move forward in time, to the era where theatre and film artists really began using minstrel show characteristics as a way of lashing out against such racist denigration. Throughout the twentieth century, of course, artists were challenging black stereotype by presenting alternative, dignified, human portraits of African Americans. But it was really during the Black Arts/Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and 70s that the accumulated images and effluvia of minstrelsy were taken from mass culture producers and thrown back at them. In the visual arts, Betye Saar put a machine gun in Aunt Jemima's hands; on Charles Mingus's Cumbia and Jazz Fusion, someone shouts that Aunt Jemima wants freedom!

In the New York theatre world of the 1960s, minstrel tropes were employed by Amiri Baraka, Ed Bullins, and Adrienne Kennedy. They were inverted by Douglas Turner Ward's Day of Absence, in which a town wakes up one morning to discover that all the African Americans have disappeared, and the townsfolk are unable to perform simple daily tasks (the show has a cast of black actors in whiteface). Some of these shows, and others of the time, can rightly be seen as reaffirming an essentializing difference between white and black, even in their defense and celebration of African American culture.

But what must also be kept in mind, when discussing or thinking about these shows and the power and rage they express, is that they weren't railing against ye olde timey minstrel show of T.D. Rice's Jim Crow and Steven Foster's Old Uncle Ned. The images and caricatures were very present in US culture at the time: in TV shows, films, advertisements, and so forth. The tradition of minstrelsy that was angrily critiqued had a complicated history and a very present place in US society.

Though the presence of racist African American imagery has somewhat abated in the twenty-first century, it still finds a way of making itself present: look no further than a box of Obama Waffles.

In my final post, I will look to those New York performances of the past few years which have overtly used blackface and minstrelsy to provoke, parody, or shock. The results have been uneven and sometimes troubling.

Live from Lincoln Center: South Pacific

by Matt Roberson

- For those who are interested, PBS will air the long-running production of South Pacific tonight as part of their Live From Lincoln Center series.  The hit revival ends its run at Lincoln Center this weekend.  If you have never seen a Live From Lincoln Center program, these are thoughtful, beautifully filmed productions. 

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Minstrelsy in the US, then and now

by Kevin Byrne

Greetings all Playgoer readers. I am filling in this week for The Playgoer, presenting you with illuminating and edifying information while he vacations on a beach and plays ukulele by moonlight. Different from the postings over the past week by Peter, I will be discussing some threads in the history of US minstrel performance, with an emphasis on black minstrelsy and with an eye toward current productions in New York City. It is an interesting story that has occupied much of my academic career, and certainly there are reverberations that are felt even today.

Minstrelsy is certainly a negative appellative these days, usually meant to castigate some cultural product for indulging in some general kind of racist caricature. (I recently ran across the word minstrelsy in article about Jersey Shore, labeling its self-parodying participants as amped-up Italian stereotypes.) The film Transformers 2—whose director, Michael Bay, frequently uses racial caricatures for comic relief—included a pair of mush-mouthed, slang-spewing robots whose ghettoized vernacular marked them for ridicule. And comedian/puppeteer Jeff Dunham has built his career around African American and Muslim stereotyping; both he (and his audience) can deflect accusations of racism by saying, "Hey, it's not me, something else is doing the talking." Two recent Broadway productions had critics referencing minstrelsy because of their use of African American signifiers: Lend Me a Tenor and A Behanding in Spokane. And a recent article in Theatre Journal, written by colleagues of mine, includes an analysis of the minstrel elements of the Donkey character in Shrek: The Musical.

Against this are those productions that have overtly appropriated the trappings and conventions of the minstrel show to criticize and challenge the racism in US culture. These efforts have had mixed success; I will be addressing them directly later in the week. Many of these productions on both sides of minstrelsy—those that employ stereotype for entertainment and those that utilize minstrelsy to subvert it—are only partially aware of its history. What I am proposing in my postings is a triptych of US minstrelsy: an incomplete portrait that hints at some of the depth and power of the form. Today, I will be touching upon the basic characteristics of the minstrel show; later I will be looking at minstrelsy in the twentieth century; and I will conclude with some words on recent uses of it in live performance.

The main thing to remember about the minstrel show is that it was meant to be an entertainment. The racism of the performances were intended not simply as hateful denigration, but in service of pleasurable comedy. The humor of the shows were delivered through jokes in dialect, songs employing working-class instrumentation, dances of grotesque abandonment, and costumes of either rural dilapidation or urban dandification. And, crucially, the shows, populated initially by white performers, used blackface makeup as metonym for blackness. It is this particular trope that became most important for later theatre and film artists in their efforts at critique.

What also must remain at the forefront of any discussion of minstrelsy is that these shows were intended to make money, were in fact hugely successful for nearly a hundred years (say, the 1830s to 1915). Indeed, the companies were not spreading racism for that end alone; these were entertainers looking to turn a profit. This fact begins to explain why it was that African American performers formed minstrel companies immediately after the Civil War, and flourished in the genre. It also points toward some of the other revenue streams that the companies used to capitalize on their fame: pamphlets and sheet music and joke books and eventually cylinder and phonograph recordings. The cumulative effect of these material byproducts is a subject I'll pursue later.

Finally, to counter the writings by some historians and novelists, I would like to remark that the cultural interactions which inspired the minstrel acts were never an equal exchange between black and white peoples. The social, legal, economic disparity between these groups was incalculably vast. And the minstrel show performed that gap.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Monday News Roundup

by Matt Roberson

- Sunday's Times featured an article from Ben Brantley, currently in London, in which he discusses a couple shows.  Both have been very successful at the box office, while also, he argues, offering a challenge to the notion of what it means to be a member of the audience. 

- Also in yesterday's Times, a piece covering an ambitious, and important, project happening at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.  Bill Rauch, Artistic Director, has begun enacting his plan for the commissioning of 37 new plays that deal with important moments in American history.  Thus far, only one play has been produced, but in the pipeline are works from some of theatre's heaviest hitters. 

- Producers from American Idiot are heading to court. It seems a former understudy's image was kept in the promo materials after she was NOT kept in the show's cast.  So she's suing.

- From the LA Times, there is coverage of a centuries old passion play, produced every decade by the members of a small town in Germany.  Open only to long time residents of the village, the analysis takes an fascinating look at the way the play has changed over time, especially with regards to how Jews are represented in the "greatest story ever told."

American Acting Training III

By Peter Zazzali

In my last post I addressed the professional differences between theatre and on-camera acting by examining the challenges facing those seeking work in the former. While finding employment in film and television is by no means easy, it is nearly impossible for actors to make a living in the American theatre today. This grim situation started when America's regional theatres disbanded their resident companies during the 1970s in favor of hiring talent on a show-by-show basis. This change came at an obvious cost to the actors whose livelihoods were turned upside down, but it also negatively impacted audiences, insofar as they had grown accustomed to the acting company to the point of associating it with the institution’s identity. Furthermore, breaking up an ensemble that is used to working together and replacing it with a group of strangers compromises the potential for creativity. If an actor is unfamiliar with how his colleagues work, he is likely to spend the beginning weeks of rehearsal making safe choices as part of getting to know everyone’s process. This reticent approach to one’s craft is reinforced by the hireling actor’s low status within the professional sphere. For example, if an actor is employed on a show-by-show basis he is probably grateful just to have a job and will dutifully follow direction to ensure the possibility of being hired again. There is little room for negotiating artistic choices, which is oftentimes necessary to rehearsing a play. This practice is comically addressed by the monologist Mike Daisy in his critically acclaimed piece How Theater Failed America, in which he describes “freeze-dried actors being shipped from New York” to begin the formulaic process of staging a production.

If the contemporary regional theatre functions as a largely mechanical industry devoid of artistic risk, there was a time when things were different. The case of Bill Ball and the American Conservatory Theatre exemplifies the U.S. not-for-profit theatre and actor training at its very best. Founded in Pittsburgh in 1965, A.C.T. moved a year later to San Francisco to embark on one of the most intriguing and energetic theatrical enterprises of the twentieth century. A company of more than forty actors produced a repertory of as many as twenty-seven plays a year for an audience that consisted of both local regulars and first-time tourists. When the acting company wasn’t rehearsing or performing, they were busy taking classes to improve their craft. Steeped in the Continental model of Jacques Copeau’s Vieux-Colombier, Ball stressed actor training as the foundation for his organization. He reasoned that stage acting required ongoing training and development and therefore Ball required his company to attend a wide range of classes that extended from the traditional (voice and speech) to the unconventional (African dance and “laughing class”). As company member Kitty Winn shared with me in a recent interview, “Your life was the theatre…There wasn’t time for anything else.” Demanding as this daily grind was for Winn and her colleagues, according to the accounts of numerous critics and theatre practitioners, the work produced by A.C.T. throughout the 1970s was second to none. Productions such as Ball’s Tartuffe and The Taming of the Shrew remain a lasting part of American theatre history, and moreover, are emblematic of what a company of likeminded artists can accomplish.

Friday, August 13, 2010

American Acting Training, Part II

By Peter Zazzali

In his seminal essay entitled, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” the German cultural critic Walter Benjamin argues that film acting will have a much more dominant role in modern society than stage acting. Although he was responding to developments during the 1930s, Benjamin accurately anticipated art’s evolution in the modern world, especially as it pertains to acting. Numerous studies support Benjamin’s theory, most notably William Baumol and William Bowen’s 1966 treatise on the economics of the performing arts in which they make a compelling case for the fiscal challenges facing American actors and the need for them to seek employment in the mediums of film, television, and commercials. Nine years later an NEA report entitled “Understanding the Employment of Actors” echoed Baumol and Bowen’s findings.

Today the profession has become even more competitive as an increasing number of actors are entering an unstable job market. When the League of Professional Theatre Training Programs began in 1972 there were only a handful of university-sponsored acting programs, currently there are nearly 300. At the time, regional theatres contracted actors on a yearly basis thereby providing them with professional stability. As I mentioned in my previous blog, this situation began to change during the middle-1970s when external sources of funding for these theatres decreased. Nevertheless, university acting programs have proliferated ever since. From Alaska and Hawaii to Florida and Maine, BFA and MFA programs have become ubiquitous at America’s colleges over the past twenty years despite the fact that the professional demand is simply not there.

Do our colleges and universities have a responsibility to prepare students for the limited employment opportunities awaiting them upon graduation? Furthermore, most of these programs function under the auspices of a “theatre” department in which the training will consist of a curriculum and pedagogy designed for the stage. Given the extraordinary professional challenges confronting theatre actors, how do these programs justify a steady diet of movement and voice classes in conjunction with departmental productions of the likes of Shakespeare and Chekhov, when in reality they’ll be competing for Crest commercials and a guest spot on Law and Order in several years?

Friday Roundup

by Matt Roberson

- A fascinating "critics roundtable" is happening on the Times' Arts Beat page regarding the developing cultural life of Governor's Island.  Charles Isherwood chimes in today regarding his experience seeing the marathon The Demons. (PS - the planned performance space referred to by Isherwood is known as The New Globe Theatre)

- That smell of low budget theatre in the air today can only mean one thing:  ITS FRINGE TIME!  This weekend marks the start of the 2010 FringeNYC Festival, and has you covered with a user friendly show guide.  I'm personally reviewing two shows for the site, so be on the lookout for those. 

- The train wreck previously known as the Spiderman musical has set an official opening date for this December.  Any bets on how much tickets will cost? 

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Top of the Heap

by Dr. Cashmere
The Voice publishes a handy chart with salaries of nonprofit theatre bigwigs.

PG has touched on this subject before. So I'll just add that at three Neil Pepes for the price of a Lynne Meadow...either he's a steal or she's overpriced!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

American Acting, Actor Training and the Not-For-Profit Theatre

by Peter Zazzali

Greetings fellow Bloggers. My name is Peter and I’m currently working on a dissertation that examines professional acting and actor training in the U.S. Some key questions I’m asking are: How do American actors prepare for a career? How does formal training serve them in this pursuit? How do the economic realities of professional acting inform their career choices? Finally, what do these decisions mean for the craft of acting itself?

To illustrate my topic I am using the history of the League of Professional Theatre Training Programs, a consortium of B.F.A. and M.F.A acting schools that existed from 1972-1987, as a case study to measure how the curriculum and pedagogy of America’s acting schools have trended in relationship to the profession.
The League came about in response to a need to train actors for the U.S. regional theatre, a movement underwritten by the Ford Foundation to bring professional theatre to America’s cities. Because regional theaters like the Guthrie and Seattle Rep produced a demanding repertory of classical and modern dramas, they needed actors that had the skills to execute a wide range of roles. League schools like Juilliard and Yale trained actors in a psychophysical manner for the purpose of providing what Jennifer Dunning coined “The New American Actor,” someone whose corporeal being was a consummate vessel of expressivity. The training regimen balanced some version of Stanislavsky’s system with a rigorous array of technical courses in subjects such as voice production, speaking with distinction, and a host of movement classes that included fencing and African dance. Contrarily, the strictly psychological approach practiced at New York’s numerous acting studios before the advent of the League (e.g., The Actors Studio, Stella Adler conservatory, the Neighborhood Playhouse) adequately prepared students for film and realistic works, but it did not provide them with the necessary technical skills to execute the classical repertoire. Thus, regional theatres looked to the League Schools for their casting pool.

Although the League disbanded in 1987, it provides unique insight to American actor training and the not-for-profit theatre. It was after all the latter that prompted M.F.A. acting schools to form. As the Ford Foundation significantly decreased its funding throughout the 1970s, regional theatres terminated their resident companies thereby altering the professional landscape for actors. Because they could no longer count on being permanently employed, actors were forced to look to other sectors of the entertainment industry for work. My next posting will discuss what these subfields are, how they have changed the public perception of the actor’s craft, and most crucially, what these developments have meant for American theatre and society.

(Jennifer Dunning's 1983 article, "The New American Actor," is viewable here.)

I Kid You Not

by Dr. Cashmere

Maybe this has drawn attention elsewhere, but I haven't seen it. Here's the "acknowledgments" page of David Mamet's new book, in its entirety:

I am very much indebted to the works of Thomas Sowell, Paul Johnson, Frederich Hayek and Milton Friedman, and to those of Richard Wright and Eric Hoffer.

Monday, August 09, 2010

The Monday Roundup

by Matt Roberson

- From the LA Times comes a very interesting discussion between critics Charles McNulty and Steven Leigh Morris about their town's small theatres.  I assume that McNulty's argument that theatre must distinguish itself from television and film is especially relevant in L.A. 

- In yesterday's Arts section of the Times, Alexis Soloski writes about the final moments of the soon to close Ohio Theatre in SoHo.  I recently paid my first visit to the Ohio Theatre, and probably like many others, fell immediately in love with the place.

- It may be something I ate, but I can't help but feel queasy reading that the Hilton Theatre will now be known as The Foxwoods Theatre, after the casino of the same name.   Even better?  The Foxwoods rep referring to the Spiderman play as "the most anticipated Broadway production of all time."  More anticipated than James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave's Driving Miss Daisy?  Pashaw!

- For some classical theatre done well, check out Redd Tale's The Triumph of Love, playing now in rep with Macbeth at the Spoon Theatre in Midtown.  I gave it a very positive review for 

Friday, August 06, 2010

Friday News Roundup

by Matt Roberson 

Here, in no particular order, is the theatre news and notes that everybody can't stop buzzin' about: 

- The Broadway League released its end of season statistics.  As is often the case when prices go up, revenue for Broadway shows are on the rise while audiences for said shows are on the down.  See for yourself here.

- The much heralded Our Town, which began its run in February of 2009, will finally close on September 12th.  It is by far the best thing I've seen here in New York, so if you haven't had a chance, now's the time.  Need an extra push?  Michael McKean (Lennie? In Grover's Corners?), has returned to the role for a short time.  After a few weeks in the top spot, he will step aside for the show's original director and SM, David Cromer.  Cromer will play the Stage Manager for the final weeks of Our Town's run.  Broadway World has all the details here.

- President Obama (who we applaud for even mentioning the word "theater") has, along with First Lady Michelle, been made an Honorary Chair for D.C.'s Arena Stage Theatre.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

The Season Ahead

by Dr. Cashmere
There will be plenty of time over the next few weeks to moan, to complain, to lament. But for now, a quick list of some productions I'm looking forward to in the coming season. In no particular order:

--GRUESOME PLAYGROUND INJURIES by Rajiv Joseph at Second Stage. I heard good things about ANIMALS OUT OF PAPER at Second Stage Uptown in 2008. But, if memory serves, by the time the strong reviews surfaced the run was nearly sold out--and there wasn't an affordable ticket to be had.

(That seems to happen repeatedly with well-reviewed Second Stage Uptown offering, including right now with BACHELORETTE, where all seats seem to be $63 after the inevitable service charge. Aren't these supposed to be the risky, offbeat plays that theatregoers are being invited to take a chance on? Look at that--managed to work in a complaint after all.)

--THREE WOMEN by Sylvia Plath at 59E59. I'm no Plathophile, still I was surprised that I'd never heard about this play. The London production appears to have garnered mixed reviews.

--THREE PIANOS by Rick Burkhardt, Alec Duffy and Dave Malloy at New York Theatre Workshop. I saw the version of this production that went up at the Ontological-Hysteric Theatre a few months back. So this is really just a recommendation of a superb ensemble-created work.

The play is a meditation on creativity, biography and the work of Franz Schubert. But it's more playful and accessible than that sounds--and intermittently hilarious.

--THE PEE WEE HERMAN SHOW by Paul Reubens at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre. Reading Charles McNulty's LA Times review, this production seems to be as much about camp and nostalgia as anything else. But I've got a soft spot for Mr. Herman, so this will have to do until the Judd Apatow film surfaces.

Also BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON and THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, both of which I missed the first time around.

What are other people looking forward to?

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

If it's August, it's Guest Blogger time!

Like any good shrink, Playgoer has to take August off.

Actually I'll be spending most of it trying to make progress on my dissertation. And in fact, part of that work takes me to Los Angeles this week to present at the annual ATHE (Association for Theatre in Higher Ed) conference. So for any "educators" out there who will also be there, find me and say hi! I'll be part of two different panels. One, funny enough, on "Cybercriticism" and the relation of Broadway to the internet. The other will part of some thematically linked papers examples of political theatre from history, for which I will give a sneak preview of some of my dissertation.

What, pray, is my dissertation topic? Well, tune in in September and maybe I"ll tell you about it.

(For more info on the conference or the panels feel free to email me directly at playgoer[at]gmail[dot]com. Unfortunately, while technically open to the public, there is a registration/admission fee.)

So, as usual, I will draw on some very generous and talented guest bloggers to keep the site alive the next few weeks. Keeping you up to date on the scuttlebut throughout the month will be Playgoer regular, the elusive Dr. Cashmere, and a welcome newcomer, Cantrell Roberson.

Then, starting next week a new Playgoer feature, Scholars Corner--in which I've asked some of my CUNY colleagues and fellow dissertators to fill us all in on what they're working on these days. I think you'll be especially interested in their topics--which include the history of Blackface Minstrelsy, Theatre de Complicite, and the historical development of the country's major MFA acting programs.

So stay tuned for more on all that, and more about our guest bloggers.  Meanwhile, have a restful August yourself, if you can.

Monday, August 02, 2010

All Audiences are Equal, but Some are More Equal than Others.

The Trib's Chris Jones gives us a good "textbook example of what can happen when an arts venue worries too much about food and drink for its big donors and forgets its real business of fulfilling the artistic souls of the regular folks."

Place: Ravinia Summer Festival, outside of Chicago
Event: Much ballyhooed all-star Sondheim gala.

Saturday night’s celebration of Sondheim’s 80th birthday, featuring the incomparable cast of Patti LuPone, Audra McDonald, Michael Cerveris and George Hearn, accompanied by no less than the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, was all over by 8:20 p.m., just when we should have all been enjoying a brief intermission as part of a perfect evening. When you take away the self-congratulatory speechifying and a slightly delayed curtain, that made for about 65 minutes of show. There were no encores — just some embarrassed bows from the performers and awkward glances from the members of the CSO who clearly understood they’d just upset the people at the back. The show ended a good 15 minutes sooner than the sign at the door. I don’t recall ever seeing a show like this without an encore — or two, or three. 


The issue here was that this was a benefit for the festival — and someone had decided that dinner should be served after the show for those 800 guests. If you were at the benefit, that might have been fine. Often such events feature brief entertainment. But Ravinia also sold most of the show-only seats to the general public — $125 pavilion tickets that were purchased by arts lovers out of their own pockets. The lawn was packed. I wandered around afterwards. Many of those people were justifiably furious. Ravinia owes them an apology and a refund — and it should do some internal soul-seaching as to where its priorities lie. Raise money by all means, but not at the expense of your regular supporters. The only clock that should matter is an artistic clock.
Doesn't paying $125 a ticket make you kind of a "donor" too?