The Playgoer: September 2010

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Thursday, September 30, 2010


-Yes, Billie Joe Armstrong is currently (briefly) stepping into a supporting role in American Idiot to boost flagging (i.e. 65%) sales. Will the fans come? I guess B'way is still cheaper than a Green Day concert...

-The Trib's Chris Jones has the Chicago angle on local "genius" David Cromer. (Who's also going to direct, we learn today, a B'way revival of House of Blue Leaves?)

-The LA Theatre Alliance consortium pilots a free-ticket lottery program for local companies, to encourage first-time playgoers.  I wouldn't mind seeing the NYC nonprofits trying that--if they could agree or cooperate on anything.

-Philip Seymour Hoffman as Willy Loman?  Not a movie, but on stage???  Riedel teases us with the rumors...

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Welcome to New York, Starving Artists: Part 1

Today I begin a new Playgoer feature, intended for those many young theatre artists who have just descended on our fair city in search of a career in the theatre. Some of you may be just out of undergrad or grad school, or are just beginning your studies at one of our fine local universities. While I can't give you all advice on how to get a job, I can help you get to know the New York theatre scene at least as an audience and observer.  And that's at least an essential step towards working here successfully.

I also hope this will interest any readers out there in the 99% of the country that isn't Manhattan island, as well as curious internationals who don't already know the New York theatre scene too intimately and would like to know more.

So today we start with some of the basics, beginning with: What the hell's the difference between Broadway and Off Broadway?

Good question!  And I'll begin by's the wrong question!  Your parents and grandparents (and apparently most of our current theatre journalists) might have told you that Broadway was the "main stem" of American theatre, the crowning achievement that marks the pinnacle of the artform, and that Off Broadway was, well, somewhat "off." You know, different.  Weirder plays with cheaper budgets and cheaper tickets.

Well all that may have been true in the 1950s, but no longer.  The proper dividing line I believe, to make today is not Off Broadway vs. On. It's for profit vs. non.

Today, we look at the for.

The best way to think of Broadway now is as the most high-profile venue for American commercial theatre.  Commercial theatre happens everywhere in this great land of ours, of course--on tour, on cruises, in Vegas casinos. But a Broadway show only happens is when a commercial producer (or anyone with the cash) rents one of the 39 pre-ordained theater buildings in the Times Square area. (plus Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont space--more on Lincoln Center exceptions later) and presents an entertainment there with professional performers in accordance with Actors Equity and other union contracts.  All this happens under the auspices of said unions and the Broadway League, the Broadway producers' trade/lobbying organization.

Commercial theatre can also happen elsewhere in New York outside of the Broadway geography and rules.  ("Chitlin Circuit" tours often play the Upper West Side Beacon Theatre, for instance.) And, yes, there is also some theatre produced commercially Off Broadway.

So what makes one for-profit enterprise a "Broadway" production and another "Off Broadway"?  Well, again, a Broadway show is in a Broadway theater.  But part of what makes those theater buildings Broadway-worthy is size.  They're all--by law, as it were--500 seats or over.  Most are way over. (Only 6 of the official Broadway theaters hold fewer than 1000.)  The reason is not just "bigger is better"; it's about ticket sales.  The Broadway business model is founded on the assumption that you'll have the potential to sell at least 500--and preferably 1000--tickets (your "product") for sale each performance.

By definition, then, a venue with fewer than 500 seats is eligible to be produced under an "Off Broadway" contract--under which unions allow lower salaries and other concessions Broadway productions don't get. There's no law saying Off Broadway shows can't charge the same price for tickets as Broadway (as proven by many advertising upwards of an $80 top) most producers try to make their produce seem more like a bargain to the consumer.  Slightly lower ticket prices (current commercial Off Broadway tix usually run anywhere from $40-$75) are also a gesture of admitting there will usually not be the same level of celebrity and/or production values consumers expect from Broadway.

While back in the day of its origins (basically the 1950s) "Off Broadway" referred to "downtown." The term "Off Broadway" was basically a default neologism.  (i.e. not Broadway)  That use is outdated.  First, as we've seen, the term now has a specific contractual meaning in many contexts that it didn't have back then.  And now an Off Broadway venue can be anywhere in the city.  There even used to be a few in the residential neighborhoods of the Upper East and West Sides before rising rents and challenging commercial Off B'way economics shuttered them.  The most thriving ones now, though, do tend to orbit the Times Square Broadway district--such as the New World Stages complex and the utterly capitalistically named Snapple Theater Center. Location, location, location certainly contributes to their success and survival because of the easy access to the Broadway tourist audience--who are already in the neighborhood and might not recognize the  difference between Broadway and Off.  (And so, Lesson One: not everything you see in Times Square is a Broadway Show.)

The predicament for commercial Off Broadway over the last decade has been how to compete with Broadway for that same audience market while you have a much smaller potential for profit (due to fewer seats at lower prices) and yet still pay many of the same expenses--like marketing and advertising costs, which do not distinguish between Broadway and Off.

I should add at this point for all those young actors out there that you basically have to be Equity to perform in either Commercial Broadway or Commercial Off Broadway productions.  It's in the union contracts for each. (Part of what makes them expensive to produce.)  Your best bet to perform Off or Off-Off (more on that in future installments) is to focus on the nonprofit theaters (more on that, too, of course).

However, there is one form of non-union Commercial Off-Off Broadway, and that's what I'd call the Tony & Tina's Wedding classification.  These are basically "events" that may advertise as (and alongside) professional theatrical productions, but in truth operate outside of the real NY theatre world altogether--including using nonunion labor. 

My advice to young actors who are serious about making a career is not to do these kinds of shows.  But maybe some more experiences actors out there can add more.

So much for the commercial/for-profit sector.  Next time: nonprofit.  The real theatre!  Oops, did I just say that? sorry...

Up For Grabs

Interesting contests...

-Free Space!  The Brooklyn Lyceum--a cool venue in our coolest borough--is offering a contest for a free run of your show in their space. But to win you have to play by the rules of their "Beer and Whisky League Marketplace" and vote on Facebook.  More here.

-Kennedy Center will honor Stephen Sondheim by awarding, in his name, $10K grants for arts teachers. So if you ever had a favorite drama teacher (even as far back as Kindergarten!) and never knew how to say thank you, go nominate them.

Play Title of the Day

That Hopey Changey Thing
by Richard Nelson

Premiering at The Public Lab series (October 26 – November 14)

(For those not glued to cable news and/or Jon Stewart, source quote here.)

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

David Cromer: Official "Genius"

As nauseatingly elite as the MacArthur "Genius" grants are, I still am glad to see one bestowed on the inestimable stage director, David Cromer.  Other theatre artists have been awarded in the past (Mary Zimmerman and Anna Deavere Smith come to mind), but to recognize Cromer--a director whose only outing on Broadway was such a commercial failure it closed before opening night--happily indicates that at least someone at the foundation is paying attention to the wider theatrical world.

(Yes, yes, the next step would be to give the award to a theatre artist never in NYC at all!)

The citation certainly gets this right about Cromer:

David Cromer is a theater director and actor who is reinvigorating classic American plays and illuminating their relationship to the present....[e]schewing nostalgia and period kitsch.
It goes onto discuss his Our Town production in detail, indicating that this would never have happened without the phenomenal success of that show, proving how important long runs are for non-Broadway shows to get noticed by the cognoscenti. 

Here's the awardee himself:

What does $100K a year for 5 years mean to him? What it would mean to any artist, of course: "It 
provides a freedom from worry about having to do something that was absolutely going to generate enough money to live."  Then again he did still take that directing-Nicole-Kidman-on-B'way gig.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Unveiling the New Arena Stage

Big multimedia coverage in Friday's Washington Post of the new Arena Stage complex. So if you don't live there, take the virtual tour!

Here's their new blackbox:

WaPo describes this space as a "reinvention" of the blackbox form:
The most innovative and daring feature of architect Bing Thom's complex may be the new 200-seat theater, which helps support the roof while reinventing the small theater space. Inspired by the sculpture of Richard Serra, the Cradle is approached through a narrow, semi-circular passage that takes audiences on a journey away from the everyday world. Inside, woven wooden slats compensate for acoustical problems, and make the audience feel like it is sitting in a giant wicker basket.
Hmm, do I want to sit in a wicker basket? Still, pretty cool looking.

And get a load of the AD's "fishbowl" office:

That's right. Just take a walk down Maine Avenue and toss Molly Smith your script!

Friday, September 24, 2010

"There's Something Sacred About Naming a Theatre"

"Don't take this the wrong way, but this is so much more moving, to christen a theatre the 'Stephen Sondheim,' as opposed to the British Petroleum Playhouse, or the McNugget, if you know what I'm saying. Not that we don't love our corporate sponsors, and we love their money. But there's something sacred about naming a theatre. And there's something about this that is right and just."

-Nathan Lane, unveiling the new marquis for the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, formerly the site of Henry Miller's Theatre, now part of the Roundabout Theatre Company.

Is the "don't take this the wrong way" apology directed at the company itself, who infamously gave us the American Airlines Theatre?

I do hope the sentiment is taken the right way, though, over at Lincoln Center, home of the David H. Koch Theatre.

Amen, Nathan. Amen.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Is it OK to Notice when Actors are Hot?

In the Guardian, Matt Trueman muses over the laws of attraction in the theatre, and delves into ethical debates over the role physical beauty plays in some audiences' reception of a performance.  His conclusion gets to the heart of the matter.

Isn't theatre always somehow underpinned by – though, of course, not limited to – the erotic? Live performance involves watching people, bodies moving in space and personalities transmitted. We cannot expect that to be a categorically puritan experience. But, equally, it's not simply a matter of lusting with the house lights down. In theatre, unlike in life, attraction is not aspirational. It needn't involve desire; it's less possessive than it is appreciative.

Put simply, though, attraction happens and shouldn't be dismissed as wicked. It is a part of theatre's appeal and can be used accordingly. Assuming they are handled with maturity and dignity, then, judgments based on attraction aren't fatal.
Indeed, it's part of the package, if you will, of performance.  Live bodies on stage attract our attention in many ways.  Only the most dull of literary purists would say the actor's only function is in reciting memorized dialogue.  And costuming budgets are devoted in large part to enhancing actors' attractiveness. 

Of course, no one has this debate about movies, right?  The cinema has long been embraced as essentially an erotic dream of a medium, where the beautiful faces of stars are not only projected on screen as much as possible but also on our magazine covers and billboards to make them icons of beauty and sexuality.

But what I cherish most about the erotics of actor-audience relations in the theatre is how different it is from film.  To be "sexy" on stage, a theatre actor need not be classically or conventionally beautiful at all.  Because on stage it's not about the face.  There's the body, the voice.... in a word, the presence.  (In his "art & mechanical reproduction" essay, Walter Benjamin argues that the reason movie stars' images are plastered everywhere is to supply them with the missing "aura" they lose from not being actually present for the audience.)

This is why many beautiful film stars fail to attract us on stage.  (Sometimes talent is sexy, too.)  If you saw Julia Roberts or Julianne Moore on Broadway you saw just wispy women with small voices and no presence--not the otherworldly faces you're used to seeing in highly enhanced and lit close-ups.

Conversely, some theatre actors are incredibly attractive on stage, but not especially so in movies.  At the risk of offending them or their fans, let me say I find this to be the case with two of my favorite New York actors, Liev Schreiber and Elizabeth Marvel.  They look fine on camera, don't get me wrong, and they've still given great performances in films and television.  But in close-up you're missing all the physical and vocal features that makes them such compelling--and just plain hot-- figures to watch (and listen to) on stage.

With Schreiber it's his intense stillness and reserves of inner power you always sense.  (Which excels in his work with reticent authors like Pinter and Mamet.)  With Marvel it's her no holds barred physical dangerousness.  As you will see in her current Little Foxes performance, she uses her long limbs to fling herself across the stage at a moment's notice, her speaking always deeply connected to what her body is doing.

(If Schreiber's most exciting film performance to date has been that X-Men movie, it's because it was such a physical role--albeit cgi-enhanced.)

We should remember, too, that the whole history of stage acting involves men and women playing romantic leads when they were, one might think, to old or too, um, large to be credible in such roles.  (Much like in opera.)  But audiences weren't stupid for buying Bernhardt or Booth in their late years as sex objects.  Their success in romantic roles well into their late years was a testament to just how charismatic they were on stage.  And of course to how well the distance between the actor and the theatre audience can hide such incidental attributes of age and physique.

So how do you think is hot?  C'mon it's ok to admit it...

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Elevator Repair Service makes The New Yorker!

Talk about Downtown moves Uptown...

In this week's New Yorker, Rebecca Mead (subscription required, sorry) takes us behind the scenes of Gatz, ERS' now-legendary marathon staging of The Great Gatsby.  It has finally (after a long rights dispute that seemed to "beat on against the current," it were....) arrived in NYC at the Public.

I went to see Gatz back in September 2008 at the Philadelphia Festival of the Arts, and you can read my review here (with a postscript here).

Wow, NY Mag Hired a Theatre Critic!

After two years of rotating limbo, New York Magazine has finally committed to continuing its tradition of full time theatre criticism by naming Scott Brown to the post.

Brown has been one of the rotating fill-ins lately, and has also been with Entertainment Weekly and (wait for it...) Wired.  Also a practitioner, he co-wrote the Off Broadway hit Gutenberg: The Musical. He introduces himself on the magazine's Vulture blog, and you can follow him on the theatre page here.

Welcome to a dying profession, Scott!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Philanthropy as "Image Laundering"

Frances Perraudin, in Time, reports on London arts lovers fighting back against morally questionable corporate sponsors:

The cozy relationship between the arts and major corporations has often proved a controversial issue. But now, thanks to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, protesters — already angered by oil’s role in climate change and human rights abuses — are focusing their crosshairs on BP…“It’s so galling to see every single cultural attraction in London that I care about stained with this horrible, horrible sponsorship,” says Liberate Tate member Tom Costello…Critics accuse BP of using blockbuster exhibitions and arts awards (the highlight of the National Portrait Gallery’s year is the “BP Portrait Award”) to direct attention away from their environmental and ethical crimes. “These sponsorship deals give companies like BP the social license to operate,” says Dan Gretton, co-founder of Platform, an arts and research charity that puts pressure on arts organizations to dump their oil partners. “Having these links with cultural organizations is a way for them to launder their image.”
And, yes, London theatre has been equally compromised:
How can you take a moral standpoint if you're being sponsored by companies many consider to be immoral? As an example, protester Costello points to a new play showing at the National Theatre. "Earthquakes in London," Costello says, "is an incredible piece of theatre." He feels its climate-change message is somewhat compromised, though, by the fact that the National Theatre has both BP and Shell as sponsors. "At one point a character turns to the audience and asks, 'Are you embarrassed? Well, you should be,'" says Costello. "Oh the irony!"
Then again, 
"If they can get money from Satan himself," wrote art critic Jonathan Jones in The Guardian, "they should take it."
Must be referring to David Koch.
My general feeling these days--after mulling over the Koch story--is that unless it's for feeding the poor or curing the sick, I would hope arts orgs in these desperate times do start thinking more about who they get into bed with financially.  Since they're basically serving as tools in the donor's p.r. campaign to whitewash their image.

(Hat tip: Salmon, who thinks the Tate et al deserve a break.)

Monday, September 20, 2010

Top 10 Produced Playwrights

From TCG, here's a peek at their annual list of most produced plays & playwrights. 

The ten playwrights receiving the most productions in the US in the coming 2010-2011 season (excluding Shakespeare) are...

Patrick Barlow: 26 productions
Tracy Letts: 20
Sarah Ruhl: 19
Lynn Nottage: 17
August Wilson: 17
Annie Baker: 17
Tennessee Williams: 15
Steven Dietz: 15
Edward Albee: 15
George Bernard Shaw: 13 
Of course your first response will be...Who's Patrick Barlow?  Answer: 39 Steps.

(Real answer: four-actor reduction of popular Alfred Hitchcock movie.)

My second response is once again to tip my hat to Steven Dietz--once again America's least-known most-produced dramatist.

Other things we learn from the list: lots of productions of Ruined (Nottage); Americans still love Shaw; and that Annie Baker joins Letts and Ruhl with not just one but multiple popular titles in the ether now.

And, for further context, note that Shakespeare still blows all these royalty-earning artists away with 115 productions.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Micro-Donors & Crowd-Funding: Coming to a Theatre Near You?

I have been mulling for a while if what could save nonprofit theatre from the clutches of corporate and plutocrat philanthropy would be to copy the Obama-campaign model of massive internet-fueled "micro" donations.

Well, looks like B'way may get there first!  Thanks to young maverick producer Ken ("Altar Boyz") Davenport, who announced he will take just such an approach to the financing of his projected B'way Godspell revival.  As he announces on his blog this week:
Thanks to entrepreneurs like Guillaume Colboc and Benjamin Pommeraud, as well as my bloggin' hero Seth Godin and his book Tribes, the guys at and, of course, the King of Crowd-Funding himself, Barack Obama, a new era in bringing people with a common vision together has been born.

We've even talked about it on this blog on several occasions . . . and we've even wondered, "Can we apply this to Broadway?"

Well, guess what?  We can.  It just took a few extra lawyers and a few extra hours to figure out a new way of doing things.  (I even had to pass a Series 63 Exam to become a Securities Agent!)

So, it is with great pleasure that I officially announce to all of you first, that my upcoming Broadway revival of Godspell will be the first-ever Crowd-Funded, or as I like to call it, "Community-Funded," Broadway musical. 
True, as incentive he promises billing for each and every donor as "producer," threatening to only exacerbate the current "above-the-title" producer clusterfucks that already mar every Playbill and Tony night.  But still, small price to pay, I think, for a worthy experiment.

And I hope the nonprofits are watching.  Davenport is simply creating a very large "limited liability company."  But imagine a small 501C3 company truly owned and financed by a community of theatregoers.  I'm worried philanthropy (as evidenced at Lincoln Center now) only encourages and lionizes immense concentration of wealth in few hands--and inevitably gives undue influence to such individuals.

I've already seen promising signs.  Last December--at that desperate end-of-year fundraising time--I was glad that a few theatres started soliciting just $10 donations.  How much more included I felt in such a mailing when being asked only for that--as opposed to being huckstered into thinking I'm getting some great value of perks for becoming "only" a $50 of $75 "Friend of..."  Note to development dept's: You ask me for "only" $50 and you immediately alienate me.  I know people of my income level are not your target audience...but then why am I on your mailing list?  Presumably as a frequent ticket-buyer and theatregoer, I may potentially be supportive of your endeavor.  So why tell me right off the bat my money doesn't matter?

Upshot is: I gave $10 to any company that explicitly welcomed that amount. All others I tore up.

Now I'm not promising the same this year, folks.  But I bet there are others out there who might be similarly inclined to help if you humbled yourself to ask for their help on terms possible for them.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Two Musicals You Don't Want to Miss!

Move over Spidey.  Here's two international shows that will give you a run for your money on the action-adventure geek set:

First, from Down Under:

A musical version of King Kong could be roaring onto a Broadway stage in a few years if its producers get their way. Officials at Global Creatures, the Australian company behind the hit arena show "Walking With Dinosaurs," are hoping their still-unfinished production of the classic ape story can find a theater on the Great White Way as early as 2013....The project, in development for the past two years, will be directed by Daniel Kramer and written by Tony nominee Craig Lucas[!!!] with new music by Grammy Award nominee Marius de Vries. It will feature a cast of more than 40 onstage actors, singers, dancers and puppeteers.

And next, from even farther beyond...
Die-hard "Star Trek" fans may want to dust off their Klingon dictionaries and take a transporter to Europe for the debut of the first opera ever to be completely sung in the invented science fiction language.  The opera, called "u," kicks off a three-day run at the Zeebelt Theater today in The Hague, Netherlands. The title "u" is the Klingon word for "universe" or "universal."
At least one has to admire their ambitious P.R.

In April, the show's producers sent a message out into the cosmos inviting the "real" Klingon community to attend the upcoming performances.The invitation was sent by a radio telescope to the Klingon home star, Arcturus. 
Match that, Boneau Bryan Brown!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The I-Prompt?

In the course of dishing about  the "going-up" shenanigans of certain stage stars, Michael Riedel posits a new use for new technology:

Producers foresee a time when actors will be able to hold a little something in the palm of their hand that will flash their lines. Or perhaps they can steal a glance at their watches, in character of course, and get the line.
Finally, something useful the theatre can do with these gadgets!

Israeli Actors Say No to Playing Settlements

As already referenced in a recent roundup, about a month ago, several state-employed Israeli theatre artists made a stir by refusing to participate in any road-tour stops at the new West Bank settlements--particularly the Ariel settlement, where the Netanyahu government has erected a huge cultural center venue.  (Interesting use of culture to stake a claim to contested territory.)

Alisa Solomon and Tony Kushner have an informative and hard-hitting editorial in this week's Nation.

Some of Israel’s most prominent authors and cultural personalities quickly responded to the protest with statements of support; a letter from 150 professors and scholars vowing not to participate in academic events in the settlements soon followed. So, too, did denunciations from the highest offices of the government. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the artists’ declaration an attack on the state from within. The finance minister threatened to cut off funding to any cultural institution that boycotted settlements.Critics of the protesting artists, among them the culture minister Limor Livnat, argue that settlers have as much right to see the theater productions their taxes pay for as their compatriots in Israel proper. But the artists aren’t unwilling to play for settlers. They’re unwilling to play in a settlement.
Joining Solomon and Kushner in signing a letter of protest by the US-based Jewish Voice for Peace are noted Jewish-American artists Mandy Patinkin and Theodore Bikel--as well as some noted American artists not usually known as Jewish: Wallace Shawn, Hal Prince and Steven Sondheim. More here.

Says Shawn:
“Most of us, including actors, just want to lead a quiet life. And most of us go through our entire lives without doing anything really courageous, without risking anything important to us. But when asked to perform in an illegal settlement for an all-Jewish audience, as if this were one more ordinary theater, they had the guts to say no.

“To do a play in that new theater helps to make the settlement seem like a permanent part of the landscape, but the settlements are obstacles to peace and morally unjustifiable on top of that,” Shawn said.

“We Americans are involved in crimes every time we pay our taxes, in my opinion, and we can very definitely benefit from the inspiring example of these Israeli actors as we try to figure out what we ourselves can do and should do to extricate ourselves from our own swamp of evil.”
Then again, few American actors have the luxury of turning down a state-sponsored paycheck!  Still, point taken, Wally.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Quote of the Day

"Those of us who have been in this field for decades are just as threatened this year as we were 10 years ago. Our organizations don't build large cushions since we don't earn large surpluses and we don't earn huge bonuses even if the work we produce is wonderful and our budgets are balanced. No wonder our board members do not appreciate our elevated stress levels at the start of a season. I have been told more times than I can count, 'Why are you scared? After all, you have been so successful for years.' And no wonder so many great arts executives leave the field prematurely."

-Michael Kaiser on one of the many differences between profit and non.

Monday, September 13, 2010


-Glutton for Punishment?  CBS commits to carrying the Tonys for three more years.

-LA Times gives overdue attention to one of the American Theatre's most accomplished artists: lighting designer Jennifer Tipton. ("Actors don't do what you tell them, but lights do.")

-David Hare provides an interesting outsider's perspective (and tribute) to Mad Men. ("Mad Men, at its most basic, plugs into the theme of class which powers so much great American art. Like Some Came Running, The Godfather, or A Place in the Sun, it features aspirational characters who think they want to move up through society, but who are then haunted by the feeling that gain is loss.")

-Chicago Trib's Chris Jones says of outgoing mayor Rich Daley: "It's hard to think of another American government official who has stepped out so far, and so often, in support of the arts as the lynchpin of a vibrant, modern city." 

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Flagship of Theatre Booksellers about to Sink?

In case you were otherwise occupied at the end of August, you might have noticed Barnes and Noble's announcement that they were closing their huge Lincoln Center-area megastore. In January.

How does this affect the theatre world?  Well aside from the regular in-store events devoted to theatre-themed readings and performances, it also had the biggest stock of theatre books of any branch in the entire chain--anywhere.  Not only that, but I once heard (by way of someone who heard it from someone in the publishing industry) that more theatre books were sold here at this one location than at any other store of any kind in the entire US. That's anecdotal, I know.  But plausible when you think purely in terms of volume.  Sure a specialty store like Drama Books will stock more and be more of a mecca to those in the know.  But for "general readership," the random tourist or flaneur who wants to browse books...those were a lot of eyeballs on The Product, if you know what I mean.

B&N says it will look for another (ahem, cheaper) Upper West Side location.  But meanwhile, mark it as another blow to the already shaky field of theatrical publishing.

Then again, on the bright side...

Count on some BIG SALES!!!  When they start marking down, go stock up.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Scenes from the Summer

What the hell was that?

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Hey Fall Season, What's Up?

Yes, Playgoer is back.  I want to heartily thank all my August guest bloggers: Matt (aka Cantrell) Roberson and regular pinch-hitter Dr. Cashmere, as well as my CUNY colleagues: Peter Zazzali, Kevin Byrne, and Joe Heissan.  Their "Scholars' Corner" is now a tag so you can speedily find a link to their entries any time in the lower right margin.

So what am I looking forward to seeing this month, now that "fall season" is upon us?  Let's see...

First, something old:  Tomorrow I revisit David Cromer's Our Town before it closes this weekend.  This is one of those rare cases of a show deserving all the hype around it.  (Although it arrived in town from Chicago quite modestly, let's remember.)  I hope to write more at length about it next week, but for now I'm just really, really looking forward to it.  I was especially interested in seeing it again with Cromer as the Stage Manager, which seems the ideal way to see his concept at work.  But did anyone see any of the other recent replacements--Michael Shannon, Michael McKeon, or Helen Hunt?

And speaking of innovative revivals of old American plays...Definitely will catch Ivo Van Hove's take on Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes, at New York Theatre Workshop, starring Liz Marvel in a role she was born to play.  I'm a big Hellman fan, and this is still a play with great potential on stage, despite often being written off as a chestnut.  (I caught a rare revival of her later "prequel" to Foxes, Another Part of the Forest, this summer. Production was meh, but still good enough to show how interesting Hellman's storytelling and characterizations are.)  True, I think what New York needs now is Liz Marvel playing Foxes in a more "realist" production directed by, say, Daniel Sullivan.  But I usually enjoy van Hove's experimental playfulness, and he's nothing if not textually rigorous.  (This is sure to be a hot ticket, by the way.)

Something new?  I plan on seeing the Soho Rep opener, Gregory Moss' Orange, Hat & Grace.  And then, of course, there's the new Albee.

Something borrowed: Yes, I know Brief Encounter is just another chance for Roundabout to cash in on its core audience's love for old British films (they preem'd 39 Steps on B'way, too).  But I do love that movie, and I hear this Kneehigh production from London was stellar at St. Ann's last year....Another British import I'm looking forward to is Lee Hall's Pitmen Painters at MTC, where Hall returns to his Billy Elliot northern England mining-town roots to tell the real-life story of some good ol' proletarian artists.

And something blue? Hm... Well how about the Blue Coyote Theatre Group and their new play, Nance O'Neil, about Lizzie Borden's intriguing relationship with a turn of the last century stage actress. With $10 Wednesdays, may be worth it!

That's my, admittedly, limited view going into September.  What's on your radar for the coming weeks?

(Yes, feel free to plug, but keep it short, please, and only about shows playing now or very soon. And please, just honestly mean it. No spam!)

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Photo of the Day

Dresden Dolls' Amanda Palmer, as the Emcee in Cabaret, currently running at A.R.T. in Cambridge, MA.    More photos, info, and video here.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Scholars Corner: The Gospel at Colonus, II

by Matt Roberson

Between 1981 and 83, Gospel was produced for audiences in various stages of development along a route of small theatres and performing arts centers, described at the time as "avant-garde institutions." This tour took the show to Europe, where Gospel was presented, albeit still in a small form, at the Edinburgh International Festival.  There, it was seen by a critic from Britain named James Fenton, who enjoyed the show so much that he began working to get Breuer and company a featured profile on The South Bank Show, an arts program on BBC.  This profile, according to Breuer, was the support needed to move Gospel forward.  Following South Bank, this odd combination of black gospel and Greek poetry was added to the 1983 Next Wave Festival, which in turn led to the additions of the Blind Boys of Alabama and Morgan Freeman to the cast for that production.

The response to the work was almost unbelievable.  The audience demand was such that following the closing of the fest, Gospel was brought back for two more additional weeks of performance.  In the papers, the the critics couldn't have sung higher praises.  The Voice's Michael Feingold, in his review of Gospel, wrote, "it does something so basic to theatre, and so foreign to the culture and thought of our century, that putting it into words is a shock: Gospel at Colonus makes you feel good about being human."

The next five years found the show touring the US as well as appearing in a couple European festivals. In Atlanta, Gospel broke box office records at The Alliance. There was also an original cast album, of which Steely Dan's Donald Fagan is credited as a producer (talk about mixing the wine with the holy water).  In 1985, PBS aired a production from Philadelphia as part of its Great Performances series (the DVD is available today, and captures the energy of the show well).  Finally, in 1988, Gospel returned to New York for a Broadway run at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. 

Though I'm still trying to figure out why, if it's even possible, the response to Gospel on Broadway had none of the awe and magnetism of 1983.  The production closed after only two months, and garnered tepid reviews.  Even Mel Gussow, who raved about the show in 1983, felt something had been lost by 1988.  Most notably was the review of Frank Rich, who prior to this had developed a poisonous relationship with Lee Breuer and his work.  Rich was positive about the singing, but separated it from the overall play, calling Breuer's efforts "glib intellectualism."  Breuer responded by telling an interviewer with Bomb Magazine that Rich was the reason the director was never able to make money in his profession.  But Rich's loaded assessment aside, the hard truth is that Gospel was no longer the beloved piece of art it had been five years prior, at least not amongst Broadway audiences and theatre writers.

The Gospel at Colonus continues to be performed, with at least some of the original cast intact.  This year, the work played at Minnesota's Ordway Center and, after almost thirty years, at the Edinburgh International Festival.  I can only dream that this resurgence will lead to a New York performance in the coming years, though with a big, expensive cast of 60+, I'm not hopeful.  I guess, as they say, it's in the hands of the gods now.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

In Unrelated News

by Dr. Cashmere

--Ken Davenport catches Ticketmaster launching a new blog, apparently in an effort to demystify its wholesome, not-at-all nefarious business model.

There are a few gems in the first post, but I enjoyed this one:

We are the leader in the industry, and so we are accountable for taking the initiative to drive industry change.
Hmm. Do industry leaders typically drive change? Or do some of them, instead, leverage their market position and corporate clout to stave off competition?

--John Jay College of Criminal Justice's fall theatre season (!?!) includes RECKONING WITH TORTURE, a one-night-only evening of readings culled by PEN American Center and the ACLU from the so-called "torture memos." It's free, no tickets required.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Scholars Corner: The Gospel at Colonus

by Matt Roberson

Currently, I am in the final stage of the M.A. program at Hunter College, which requires all students to complete a thesis.  The topic can be of the student's choosing, which is great on one hand, but with much freedom comes great indecision.  I knew I needed to write about something that could keep my interest peeked throughout the process, which for me is asking a lot of any subject.  One certainty was that I wasn't going to be one of the folks who devotes their entire research to one play.  A semester long course on Hamlet had steered me clear of that road.

Then, noted African American theatre scholar Dr. Jim Hatch introduced me The Gospel at Colonus.  Since that time, I have been researching and writing what I hope will be the most thorough survey of the show to date.  Like it or not, because of Gospel, I have become one of those academics.  For those who don't know the show, here is a clip, put together by Minnesota's Ordway Center to promote their recent production of Gospel. (note: this is taken from an outdoor amphitheater.  The giant stones are not part of Gospel's normal set)

In the early 1980s, Lee Breuer and collaborator Bob Telson were touring and developing a 30 minute piece called Sister Suzie Cinema.  In the work, Breuer used an R&B singing group, 14 Karat Soul, to sing the text he had written - sort of a poetic celebration of his affection for movie houses and cinema.  As the play was very short, the two began thinking about creating a companion piece.  Breuer had been thinking a lot about the religious nature of ancient Greek drama, and how it had to have been a much more spiritual experience than most productions of Greek drama he had seen.  Most important to him was the idea of catharsis.  Breuer wanted to create something that brought audiences beyond "pity and fear", and into a more positive, ecstatic state.  His partner, Bob Telson, was playing lots of gospel music for various groups in Harlem and elsewhere.  Telson had also been very moved and impressed by the ability of gospel music to create ecstasy and outpourings of joy in audiences.  From this marriage of Breuer and Telson's personal interest came The Gospel at Colonus.  In 1983, after two gestational years of workshops, Gospel premiered in it's full scale at BAM's Next Wave Festival.  It was the hit of year, and was brought back for two more weeks following the festival's end. 

The work, which I'll get into more in a later post, tells the Sophoclean story of Oedipus' exile through the lens of an African American Christian worship service.  A minister, originally played by Morgan Freeman, enters and with the words, "I take as my text today the Book of Oedipus," the play begins.  While the Preacher does narrate at different moments, and some lines of text are spoken, the story is primarily told via song, all of which are of the gospel genre. For me, Gospel is not only an exciting piece of theatre to watch, but puts me in a state unlike any other show.  In that, it is a truly unique experience, which is why Breuer has been able to take the show across the world, for almost thirty years. 

Coming soon, I'll delve into some juicy bits regarding the play's history, as well as it critical reception. Spoiler alert: Michael Feingold good, Frank Rich bad......