The Playgoer: November 2010

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Monday, November 29, 2010

NYT goes all "All That Chat" on Spidey

Expect to hear more about Patrick Healy's NY Times article covering last night's first preview of Spider-Man. (Posted online now, but not in today's print edition. Will it run? and, in print, on page A21 of the Metro section--probably because it's one of the last sections to go to press.)  Read it, and tell me if you don't think it comes awfully close to breaking the Preview Taboo that the respectable press is supposed to observe.

Still, no denying it's an irresistible read, reminiscent of really oldschool journalism--like The Tatler.

All $65 million of the new Broadway musical “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” took flight on Sunday night at its first preview performance, but not without bumps. The show stopped five times, mostly to fix technical problems, and Act I ended prematurely, with Spider-Man stuck dangling 10 feet above audience members, while Act II was marred by a nasty catcall during one of the midperformance pauses....The fourth and final pause at the end of Act I was the worst glitch of the night by far. Spider-Man had just flown and landed onstage with the musical’s heroine, Mary Jane Watson (played by Jennifer Damiano), in his arms. He was then supposed to zoom off toward the balcony seating area, a few hundred feet away. Instead, a harness and cables lifted Spider-Man several yards up and over the audience, then stopped. A production stage manager, C. Randall White, called for a halt to the show over the sound system, apparently in hopes of fixing and re-doing the stunt. Crew members, standing on the stage, spent 45 seconds trying to grab Spider-Man by the foot, as the audience laughed and oohed. When they finally caught him, Mr. White announced intermission, and the house lights came on. 
Some Act One curtain!

So as much I enjoy this, I do think the Times should answer to the charge of "reviewing" previews, even if they're technically not.  This is especially important at a time when "The Internet" and "Bloggers" are constantly blamed for ruining the practice of criticism by doing such things.

The truth is, what you see here is a blatant move by the Times to get in on the action. The action of All That Chat, specifically.  Notice how they have their gossipy story online already, probably just a few hours after the firstSpidey chatroom post. No doubt the Times also assumed that Riedel would have a story in the Post--and he does.

The Times has certainly done stories about "troubled" productions in previews before.  But that's always been after there were a series of troubled previews to report about, and days/weeks of buzz.  In this case, Healy clearly went to the show himself last night with the express intention of writing about it.  And while he doesn't express an "opinion" or critical judgment about the show being good or, he sure doesn't make last night sound like a good night of theatre.  And he quotes several audience members for their responses--a virtual "chat room" of opinions, as it were.

I don't know if I'm really outraged or not at this point, frankly.  But with moves like this I do think it's time for major print media to finally get off it's high horse about what was once known as critical "ethics," especially when criticizing (so sue me) bloggers or anyone who writes online.

In other words...welcome to the club, Grey Lady!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Photo/Video of the Day

In case you need 5 minutes away from your family...

Presenting the new Royal Shakespeare Company mainstage in Stratford Upon Avon.  After over three years' renovation, the space is no longer a proscenium but a "1,040-seat thrust-stage theater that will bring audiences closer to the actors."

Some behind the scenes video here.

See you Monday!

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Logic of Censorship

John Heilpern reminds us what life in the British theatre was like under the censorious rule of the Lord Chamberlain's Office:

The Gilbert and Sullivan madhouse of the Lord Chamberlain's office within St. James's Palace was mostly comprised of lordly aristocrats and showbiz-inclined army colonels who'd been censoring any play that was remotely sexual since the Theatres Act of 1737. Homosexuality frightened the horses most. Thus, the lordly Lord Chamberlain could rule that in Tennessee Williams's Suddenly Last Summer, the cannibalism was OK, but not the implication that the cannibalized man could be gay.
And this was the law of the land until the 1960s!

All this by way of profiling the rediscovered early John Osborne play, Personal Enemy, which also fell victim to this regime.

Good book on the history of the Lord Chamberlain's office, and the damage it did, here.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Day Jobs for the 21st Century

Forget waiting tables. I got one word for you about the actor's day job of the future.


Ever since the city began suffering from a widespread infestation of the pernicious bugs last year, demand has soared for people to get rid of them. Actors, it turns out, make the perfect bug busters.

"Actors have great personalities and follow directions well," says Janet Friedman, owner of Bed Bug Busters NY, who employs many people from the theater world to clean up the vermin. She favors entertainers, she says, because they can improvise, work quickly and are used to the drama of a stressful situation. 
There's a joke somewhere here about agents, but I'll spare you...

Actually, the piece surveys the overall trends and changes in how New York actors make their real living in this day and age:
To be sure, bedbug hunting is not the main alternative career for New York's unemployed actors. Some are tour-bus guides, and others are seasonal greeters at Tiffany & Co., according to the Actors Fund Work Program, a New York-based nonprofit that helps entertainment industry professionals land supplemental gigs.This summer, some actors worked for the Census Bureau, and some posed as would-be renters or buyers for the nonprofit Fair Housing Justice Center, to ensure that federal, state and local laws are followed. The most common jobs for struggling entertainers in New York remain temporary administrative work, catering and waiting tables. But "because of the economy, catering and waiter work has been way down," says Kathy Schrier, director of the Actors Fund Work Program.
Any other suggestions (or crazy anecdotes) about good jobs for actors?  Or bad ones?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Photo of the Day

 photo: Marcus Yam

Mark Rylance warms up with the cast of La BĂȘte before curtain.

Yes, that's David Hyde-Pierce and Joanna Lumley on the right.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Nobody Good Enough for the Wasserstein Award?

Hardcore playwrights out there might already have spent all weekend following the ruckus going on over the Wendy Wasserstein Prize--meant for an emerging female dramatist under 32 years old. And by emerging they mean truly not emergent yet--no previous NYC productions beyond 199-seaters, or on regional mainstages, and no prior previous national media exposure or tv/film success.

The committee basically was going to pass on awarding anyone this year claiming no acceptable entry met the requirements. Apparently all the good young female playwrights are already working!

This led to a playwright's angry blogpost, a petition, and now an apparent reconsideration.  Time Out's Adam Feldman unpacks it all.

Personally, I feel most sympathetic to the argument that if someone sets aside $25,000 every year for a playwright, then the profession is better served by someone getting that money, as opposed to it just sitting there.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Tonys at the Beacon

So it looks like the Tony Awards have had second thoughts about relocating to Harlem?

Although it's nowhere mentioned in this NY Times story, the first announcement after the awards show got bumped from Radio City Music Hall (for Cirque du Soleil, no less) was the old United Palace Theatre at Broadway and 175th St. But now:

On Wednesday, the American Theater Wing, which presents the Tony Awards with the Broadway League, announced that the ceremony will be housed at the Beacon Theater on the Upper West Side. Though it’s far from the theater district, it is actually on Broadway. (Radio City is on Sixth Avenue.) However, the art deco Beacon has roughly 2,900 seats, less than half as many as the bigger hall.That is bound to create some keen competition for seats to the June 12, 2011 ceremony among the increasing number of investors and producers it takes to finance a Broadway show. 
Note that the United Palace has a 3,293 seat capacity. But did I mention, it's in Harlem?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Seattle Theatre Rumblings

Leadership shakeups and talk of mergers are what's being whispered about in the Seattle theatre scene.

Backstage at Seattle's major three theaters there have been many discussions about merger, collaboration, or other cost-saving steps. At one point, the Rep and Intiman talked about combining, with [Bartlett] Sher as the artistic director of the merged entity's three stages. Sher was not interested, having outgrown Seattle, and because the Rep has so many seats to fill that it makes it harder for an experimental director like Sher to spread his wings with risky productions. (Intiman, with a small house and a very large stage, is far better for him.) ACT had lengthy, ultimately abortive discussions with Seattle Theater Group (Paramount and the Moore) whereby the latter would take over one of the two ACT stages. Seattle Children's Theater has also been part of some of these talks.

In the end, all that came of the discussions (not surprisingly) was an agreement to combine on some educational programs; the theaters already swap costumes and props and they agreed jointly on a ticket-management system. One reason for the failed talks, aside from pride and the threat to jobs, is that the three main theaters have distinct approaches. The Rep concentrates on production values, ACT on acting, and Intiman on its edgy directors.
Gee, I would think all three would like to think they have good acting!

But seriously, mergers have got to be in the offing amongst some of our suffering nonprofits, no?  Personally the idea appeals to me, but not the inevitable layoffs, of course.  Maybe the logistics of nonprofit make it more complicated than it seems?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Havel's "The Memorandum"

In this week's Time Out, my review of Vaclav Havel's 1960s Czech comedy The Memorandum, in a rare revival by the TACT company.

My reaction to the production is, as you'll see, mixed.  But for the Havel-curious, it's pretty much a must-see. Just not a guaranteed night of entertainment.  And I wish I had space in print to single out some very fine performances by Joel Leffert (pictured) as the stern indoctrinator, Mark Alhadeff as the icy antagonist, and Jeffrey C. Hawkins' mime-like corporate tool.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Humana Fest 2011

Some familiar names--Rapp, Washburn. Jordan Harris--but other lesser-knowns are featured in the upcoming slate for what is, arguably, America's biggest new play festival.

The hometown Louisville paper gives an overview of this year and the program's 35 year history.

Not that this has anything to do with Louisville, Kentucky of course.  The host, Actors Theatre of Louisville once upon a time had a high profile thanks to AD Jon Jory.  What happened?

Monday, November 08, 2010

Oscar Brockett: The Man Who Wrote the Book

News out of Austin yesterday that longtime UT professor Oscar Brockett died.  Or, as anyone who ever took a theatre history survey knows him, the guy who wrote your textbook!

He will surely be missed. Maybe he stopped teaching a while ago, but he was still issuing updated editions of the book as recently as 2007--the 10th and "40th Anniversary" edition, no less. What will they call it now?

For those feeling especially moved and have cash on hand, "the family requests donations be sent to the Oscar G. Brockett Theatre Endowment, Department of Theatre and Dance, University of Texas at Austin, 1 University Station-D3900, Austin, TX 78712-0362."

Deep Thought

On the true nature of theatre:

Hours of rehearsal can go into the most sublime, subtle, and sensitive acting moment on stage.Then, at any given performance, some guy with too much phlegm can just cough right over it...and no one will notice your work.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Audition from Hell

From the Onion, but no doubt based on a true story:

You know what? I'm really sorry, but I'm still not a hundred percent on exactly what's supposed to be taking place here in regard to the acting, etc. Let's kind of break things down and start with what I know. You're sitting down there, and I'm up here. That makes sense. Okay, now: I have a piece of paper with lines on it that I'm supposed to read. No, I'm asking you. Do I? Is that what this paper is for? Right, great, I figured. And so all of you are…actors? No, I'm the actor. Right. So actors and acting are all part of the same thing. Gotcha.
One thing that's sort of tripping me up is, I'm looking at this piece of paper and it says these lines are supposed to be read by a Sgt. Michaelson. Yeah. See, that's not my name, though. My name is Cliff Baum. I mean, I can absolutely read Sgt. Michaelson's lines for you anyway, but I just want us all on the same page with that. Also, and this is more of a heads up for you guys, really, but were you aware that the lines here are things I've never said before? And, totally not a big deal, but it says I'm a soldier, and I'm not. Not at this point, at least. Just so you're aware.
Which reminds me: If I start reading this piece of paper now, do I actually become Sgt. Michaelson? Like, will I still be him when I leave this room? Because I'd really rather be able to go back to being myself when the acting is over. 
Actually the guy sounds like he's ready for a Performance Studies class!

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Quote of the Day II

“By giving Shakespeare away for free, it has become inaccessible for many...Tell someone they have to wait six to 36 hours in line for a ticket and it erases 90% of population that would have considered going.”

-Oskar Eustis, Public Theatre, on the cunundrum of "free" Shakespeare in the Park.

Glad you've seen the light Mr. E!

Quote of the Day

“I think we have a very British problem here. The British don’t like confessing that they do anything well. But I go to the theatre three times a week, and there is not a capital in the world that offers as much good theatre as London. If something is not paying its way and is second-rate, I can see a point in cutting it. But it makes me mad to think of cutting first-rate work. The theatre makes a lot of money for the Treasury, provides a lot of employment and seems very central to our society.”

-Peter Hall, on the latest UK "austerity measures."

Hall--the director who founded the Royal Shakespeare company over 50 years ago and then ruled the National for 15 peak years in the 70s and 80s--marks his 80th birthday this week and, as Charles Spencer notes, to mark the occasion, "he will be made a freeman of the City of London, which gives him the right to drive his sheep over London Bridge."

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Need a Rush?

Nonprofit Off Broadway is offering slightly more rush ticket options these days, and Playbill has the breakdown.

Unfortunately most are still limited to students and/or "under 30" folks.

I tell ya--I don't care what my accountant would tell me about the finances, but if I ran a theatre right now I would try automatically, no questions asked, offering $25 day-of cash-only tickets. To anyone. 

Would we fall short in sales? Very likely.  But at least we'd have a shot at filling the house. And if the show was really good, that would translate into more advance sales.

The nonprofit business model so desperately needs subscriptions and advance sales that it misses out on what the younger generations of playgoers value most--the spontaneity and convenience of walking up to a box office and buying a ticket...without having to show any friggin ID!

You'll always do well with advance sales when you have a hot property--a name playwright or star actor, for instance.  But for the other 80% of your season offerings, why am I paying you $45 a seat a priori???

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Bizarro World Steppenwolf

Yay for Chris Jones for calling out mass media on yet another dumbing down of professional theatre:

Despite its Chicago setting, the CBS political drama "The Good Wife" films in New York. Just as well. After Tuesday night's snobby and dazzlingly ignorant slam of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, the local arts and cultural community would have run the show out of town.
The first scene of Tuesday's episode, penned by Robert and Michelle King, was set at a fundraiser in a hotel ballroom. "And now as dinner is served," says the hostess, "Steppenwolf Theatre will entertain us with scenes from their hit play, 'The Cow With No Country.'"

Yeah, that's credible. Steppenwolf does bits of its shows in hotel ballrooms all the time. Just as the beef is served.

And with that introduction, a motley and pathetic little group of ragamuffin actors popped out, replete with their crude puppet-cow and all, and do some kind of whacked-out performance that lands somewhere between moronic Medieval drama, pantomime, Bertolt Brecht, "War Horse" and "Jack and the Beanstalk." English accents and all. We kid you not. What has that got to do with Steppenwolf?
Indeed the fact that the show isn't really a Chicago show despite ostensibly being set there might explain it.  Have any of the writers actually been to Steppenwolf? Or is it just the only name they could think of? Anyone hip to the company at all would know that the right way to spoof it would be two guys in t-shirts and jeans throwing each other against rubber walls and screaming obscenities!

But the insult is not just to Steppenwolf, of course, but all professional theatre.  Yet again what we get has nothing to do with the artform as currently practiced, but instead is all about college theatre, really.  Obviously the Good Wife writers need to get over whatever grudges they still bear against those pretentious "drama fags" in school who gave them the cold shoulder.

It makes the other recent theatrical tribute on The Office seem downright sophisticated. Which it was, kinda.  And at least that explicitly was about Community Theatre.

Of course neither hold a candle to Slings and Arrows--now streaming on Netflix!  But of course, that was Canadian TV...

Monday, November 01, 2010

Quote of the Day

"One of the things people most dislike about critics is that we traditionally occupy the best seats. Only recently, I got a letter suggesting that my intense enjoyment of the RSC Romeo and Juliet was dictated by where I sat. Had I been in the back row of the balcony of Stratford's Courtyard theatre, I was told, I'd have had difficulty hearing the actors....What we need, of course, are theatres where the gulf between good and bad seats is radically diminished: that will be the ultimate test of the redesigned Royal Shakespeare theatre where they have suspended a fake seat in the circle bar to show how far from the action the back wall once was. But the spaces I really warm to are those such as London's Young Vic or Hampstead theatre, where the quality of the experience doesn't depend on where you sit. Only when we create more democratically designed theatres will we share the same experience and erode the detested notion of critical privilege."

 -Michael Billington, The Guardian.