The Playgoer: January 2011

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Friday, January 28, 2011

Sara Krulwich: The Best

Blood From a Stone (2010). Photo by Sara Krulwich for the New York Times.

One of the privileges of being the "paper of record," "arbiter of culture," etc. when it comes to New York theatre is getting the best news photographers on the scene. So I'm thankful for the New York Times' professionalism in this manner whenever they send out Sara Krulwich on assignment to photograph a play.

Yes, so mighty is the Times that they send their own photographers (usually) to cover performances, rather than relying on whatever jpg your press rep flashed on his or phone at dress rehearsal. The reason, of course, is when you're the Times you take no chances about the quality of the "art" on your pages. And you can afford to.

But the true beneficiary of Krulwich's work, I say, is for the theatre lover. Theatre photography is an often overlooked but vital participant in our theatre culture and in theatre history.  Think--just think--of how much our perceptions of our theatrical past are shaped by particular production photos. And now think about how often those photos might have been from "photo calls" or other "posed" publicity shots and, thus, don't represent anything that happened on stage at all?

(For a terrific scholarly--but accessible--essay on this topic see Barbara Hogdon's "Photography, Theater, Mnemonics or, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Still" in the book Theorizing Practice.)

Anyway, back to Sara Krulwich.Whenever I see a photo in the Times like the one above (which accompanied this month's review of the New Group play Blood from a Stone), one where the action of the play just pops out of the page and the actors come to life, I look down at the photo-credit and invariably it's a Krulwich.

At first I assumed she was just another of the city's many pr photographers. But then I couldn't find her photos anywhere else. I'd find the "official" shots from the press kits and, apologies, but they just weren't the same. (Nothing wrong with them, certainly professional, just not works of art unto themselves.)  After I started noticing this correlation between this name Krulwich and those kinds of photos, I started more actively looking for it in the paper--and saving pics, both from off the screen and using the old fashioned scissors. I now have my own private collection, but I hope one day she gets to publish her amazing documentation of the New York Theatre of the early 21st century.

I have no idea how she works to get her unique effects. Whether she does a separate photo call or is actually allowed to shoot during performances (or, if not, in rehearsal?).  But these photos never looked posed.  Even when they're not as obviously eye-catching as the milk-in-the-face shot above (which is just showing off, by her standards) there's always genuine organic motion in them. In other words, pure action photography photojournalism.

Sure enough it turns out her background at the Times originally was as photojournalist--including, not surprisingly, sports!  In a brief personal essay she wrote for the paper's website last year, she tells of how her childhood love for theatre (and need to stay in the city more for her children) motivated her to demand the assignment from the paper. Indeed she practically made up the position!

I began asking the photo editors in the culture department if they had any jobs I might do. They gave me dance and opera assignments, portraits of authors and playwrights, museum installations. After a few months, I was asked to shoot the arts full time as The Times’s first culture photographer. That’s when I started to question the way we relied on handout photos for theater stories and reviews. Many of these pictures had been touched up or set up, or both; practices that weren’t allowed in any news section of the paper. I felt that because the culture sections are news sections, handouts should be discouraged....

I set out to convince press agents and producers to allow me to shoot my own production pictures. And I definitely ran into resistance. Imagine asking someone who has spent millions of dollars on a show to give up control of the images that will run alongside reviews and news articles in The Times.

It took time. Off Broadway producers were a little more agreeable at first. Eventually, when it became clear that I was honestly documenting productions and not trying to embarrass or demean anyone, I was allowed into almost every play in New York, on or off Broadway.
Can you imagine these producers saying no to a seasoned professional New York Times photographer taking your shots--for free!?!  Of course, I guess maybe they're also thinking they don't get the rights to those photos...

But the obstacles she initially encountered reveal a lot about the showbiz pressures of the New York Theatre:
My goal has always been to provide our readers with an accurate representation of the show, which sounds simple enough, but was really quite revolutionary. You see, production photographers have to please everyone. Many actors have the right to approve all pictures. If they don’t like the way they look, they can make the producers use pictures from an older production. Through the miracle of Photoshop, actors can lose pounds. Sparkles can be added to their eyes. In group shots, if one person’s face isn’t quite up to par, it can be replaced with a more flattering version from a different frame. By the time everyone involved signs off, the photo is likely to have little to do with reality and a lot to do with marketing or vanity....
My feeling is: the picture in the paper should look pretty much like the performance you’re seeing and not some idealized version that’s simply meant to entice you to buy a ticket.
So these stunning photos are quite an achievement of art over commerce. And as time passes, Krulwich's artistry will only enhance and merge with that of the plays themselves that she documents--since those lucky enough to have her visit will have their play preserved like no other.

And what's more, it's a necessary service to the present. Sara Krulwich's photos make theatre look exciting. Even cool. We need that today in our major media outlets.

Her Times "Lens" blog essay features a fantastic slideshow.  But here are some of my own favorite Krulwiches from my personal collection that I've collected over the last few years.

Boeing, Boeing (2008). A visual definition of farce.
Photo by Sara Krulwich for The New York Times

Ruined (2009)
Photo by Sara Krulwich for The New York Times
(Of this photo, Krulwich writes: "The production shots only featured the rare happy-go-lucky moments of the play. Any other photos might have frightened away ticket buyers. In contrast, my pictures and those that ran in the paper captured the essential, disturbing focus of the play.")

Two photos better than the plays: Neil LaBute's
Reasons to be Pretty (2008) & In a Dark Dark Place (2007). 

As Krulwich captures, it was the actors' emotional liquidity that gave those productions whatever jolt they had.

photos by Sara Krulwich for The New York Times

 South Pacific (2008). The Cathartic Joy of Musical Theatre.

photo by Sara Krulwich for The New York Times
Yes, good photography (and good theatre photography) is about more than "action shots" and motion. But to capture the feelings behind those human movements and put you on stage with them...that's great art.

Let Sara Krulwich's work raise the bar for all who visually document performance--amateur or professional.  Posterity is counting on us.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Repeal the Job-Killing Arts Cuts!

Two useful posts on how cuts to the NEA and other "artsy-fartsy" agencies would only kill jobs and do nothing to trim the deficit.

(via ArtsJournal)

Yes, the economic case is not always the case we should make for arts funding.  But in this case...well it's just so obvious!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Stage Managing a Disaster

For all those who know what it's like to "call" a show, here's a glimpse (via Riedel) at the SM's report for a particularly tortured preview of the already cursed Dracula that recently crashed and burned Off Broadway.

7:15 p.m.: Willa Kim informed [producer] Michael Alden that those costumes that have not been paid for have been removed from the building. I informed Joe Tantalo [theater manager] that some of our actors would be performing in street clothes this evening. I asked Joe how large our house was this evening. He replied "180 . . . 120 of those being comps."

7:20 p.m.: Alexander Morr [producer] called on my cellphone asking to speak to Willa.

7:30 p.m.: I called the ½ hour explaining to the cast that Michel Altieri [Dracula] and Emily Bridges [Lucy] would be performing in street clothes. (The cast took this news more or less in stride.)

7:40 p.m.: Alex agreed to present Willa a check in the amount of $8,630.83 by tomorrow at 3 p.m.

8:08 p.m.: The red velvet curtain at The Little Shubert rose majestically on our handsomely costumed production of "Dracula."
Yes, it got to the point that actors, informed there are no costumes, apparently said, whatever.
What's your favorite ever Stage Manager's report--either that you read or wrote?

Friday, January 21, 2011

CT high school will NOT ban August Wilson after all...

In case you haven't been following this odd story, the school superintendent for Waterbury, CT tried to prevent a high school from staging August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone because of its dialogue's, um, liberal use of the word "nigger." 

Not quite a replay of the Huck Finn bruhaha down south, since in this case the would-be censor is an African American worried about kids going around using the word too much.

But kudos to Connecticut theatre bigwigs James Bundy (AD of Yale Rep) and Howard Sherman (formerly of the O'Neill Center and American Theatre Wing) for lobbying against the decision, and now the show will go on.

I guess I understand the concern as a "language" concern--about what's appropriate or not for children to be asked to perform on stage.  But this apparently is an arts "magnet" school for chrissakes.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Have you ever noticed...

When you sit in the balcony of a Broadway house, or many other older theaters, you can't see the apron of the stage without leaning over.

This creates all kinds of problems of course, not least of which is the annoying phenomenon of how one row leaning forwards leads every other row to do the same to see over those people's heads, until everyone is suffering back problems.

But in my more contemplative moods on such occasions I ponder this: This isn't an oversight in architecture. When these theaters were built no one performed in front of the proscenium. (That's what a proscenium is for--a barrier!) Plus, theater etiquette of the time would encourage proper posture among patrons. (i.e. no slouching!)

So these theater sightlines are relics of a time when as long as the actors stayed safely behind the proscenium, and audiences all sat back in their seats...everyone was just fine.

Yet another problem the theater has adjusting to the culture of today.

Caveat Emptor

Spidey agrees to put the word "Preview" on their ads...

On Jan. 5, Bill de Blasio, the public advocate, wrote to the Department of Consumer Affairs, saying that the Web site for the “Spider-Man” musical did not indicate that the show was in previews. “Theatergoers attending such a production are not necessarily aware that the show could stop at any time while changes are made, that the music and plot line are subject to constant change, or that the technology being used in the performance is still a work in progress,” Mr. de Blasio wrote. “Their theater-going experience can be one of confusion and frustration.”

Large block lettering on the “Spider-Man” Web site now says, “Now in previews on Broadway. Opens March 15,” and the Department of Consumer Affairs said the issue had been resolved.

Friday, January 14, 2011

"Only" the 100th Preview

Yep.  Spidey delays again.  To March 15.

Maybe because of this snafu:

Nuclear Bomb Detonates During Rehearsal For 'Spider-Man' Musical

New York- In yet another setback for the $65 million dollar Broadway musical Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark—a production plagued by multiple delays, poor early reviews, and severe injuries to its cast and crew—a thermonuclear device detonated during the first act of Tuesday night's preview performance. "The bomb should not have gone off at all," said lead producer Michael Cohl, adding that the explosion that vaporized most of Manhattan was "not that unusual" for a major Broadway show still in development....
Ok, that was The Onion.  But I don't blame you for believing it.  Read on.

The List of All Lists

The folks at StageGrade have saved you the trouble of consulting every New York critic's 2010 ten best list and created a mathematically challenging chimera:

We combed critics' Top 10 lists (sources listed below) and assigned points according to whether they ranked shows or not: i.e., a show in the No. 1 slot on a properly ranked Top 10 list received the maximum points, while shows on unranked lists all received equal median points.

Without further ado, the consensus on the best shows in New York in 2010:

Interestingly, quick click-throughs on these titles will reveal that these weren't necessarily the highest-graded [i.e. best reviewed] shows of the year.

Unfortunately, only Merchant, Angels, and La Cage are still running.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Ellen Stewart

Words just getting around this morning that Ellen Stewart, founder and eternal director of the legendary LaMama space, died last night at 91.

She had been not well for a long time, so it's not a shock.  But she could still be seen at LaMama openings and events frequently up to the end, even in her wheelchair.  More important than her valiant end, though, are her vitally important beginnings in, a) founding the space, b) nurturing the notable talent than came through it in the early days (Andrei Serban, Liz Swados, Sam Shepard), and c) keeping an Off-Off Broadway institution going--despite multiple changes in venue, despite a devastating economic landscape--for forty fifty years.

More tributes from others doubtlessly to come in the coming days...

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Peter Brook Moves On (Again)

At 85 Peter Brook is still going strong, but he is finally letting go the reins of his Paris Bouffes Du Nord company and handing it off to others.

On the occasion, one of his designers, Tom Piper, pays tribute:

Brook's pared style – with a stripped stage and minimal props – is so pervasive as to be mainstream now, but the director, says Piper, always worked at the Bouffes as if he were struggling in a start-up venture. "In my time he ran just a skeleton staff there. If you wanted to take anything anywhere, you had to hire a van. It was like working in a fringe theatre."
A good reminder to artistic directors--and managing directors--everywhere.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Sin of Lateness

"The problem with theatre, of course, is the inflexibility of its start time. Turn up five minutes late to a restaurant reservation and your table will be waiting, five minutes late to a film and you're still only up to the Volvo adverts, five minutes late to a gig and the band haven't even come on yet – but turn up even two minutes late to the theatre and you're greeted by the disappointed face of the usher which seems to say 'Where have you been? Look, the doors are shut – and behind those doors are literally HUNDREDS of people simply more competent at everyday life tasks than you.'"

-Guardian blogger, "Sans Taste" on the shame of late seating, as well as "the century-old battle between the performing arts and the human bladder."

Personally I always compare getting to the theatre to making a plane on time. Reminds us how unfun the whole playgoing experience must feel to the layman.

As for the human bladder, here's a tip.  Make sure you don't drink any liquids for at least two hours before your pre-show meal then make sure you hit the lav before your first drink at the restaurant.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

"60 Minutes" Spider-Man Preview

In case you missed it last month, here's the 60 Minutes piece on the making of Spider-Man.

Money quote: "Nobody wants to see the $20 million Spider-Man. They want to see the $60 million Spider-Man."

Likewise, nobody cares about just a small flop. They care about a big flop!

Bono, by the way, saw the show last night. For the first time.

"The Theatre is Necessary"

Sorry I've taken an extra long holidays/New Years break.  As I catch up to speed, I have some videos to share today, beginning with the footage of that Obama quote I posted last month, from his Kennedy Center Awards speech. 

Too bad the AP here snipped out the original Oliver Wendel Holmes quote the prez cites. For the record it's: "To many people the superfluous is necessary."  And yes, due to that split lip he got playing hoops, Obama has some trouble with Holme's eloquent verbiage.