The Playgoer: February 2011

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Monday, February 28, 2011

Intiman on Life Support for Years

Seattle Times' theatre critic Misha Berson says the Intiman's latest crisis is really nothing new and symptomatic of a bigger problem:

[L]urching from crisis to crisis is no way to maintain a theater over time. Intiman is now taking steps to get its house its financial order, by cutting its budget, bolstering its endowment, renegotiating its debt. It has a new managing director, Melaine Bennett, with a solid background in fundraising. That's a good start. But Intiman, especially its board, needs to take a hard look at the theater's mission and internal workings. Are the artistic plans commensurate with the funds available? Is the theater keeping its donors and the community well-informed about its fiscal condition?

And is the board examining its own part in the years of financial overreach and poor planning? Colburn [the Managing Director who took the fall for the current mess] was on staff for 20 months. Intiman has been oozing red ink for at least six years.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Outside the Bourgeois Box

"The next great playwrights aren't necessarily in Yale's MFA program right now. Sure, they might be. But you know what else? They're just as likely to be self-producing a play at The Brick. Or at Dixon Place. Or not even in New York at all."

-playwright Joshua Conkel.

The above may not be earth-shattering news to most of us. But in the context of Conkel's larger point (in an already much bandied about blogpost I am only now catching up with) about the increasing class-insularity of the professional theatre it reminds us of the pitfalls of over-relying on what I might call The MFA/University Complex as the primary source of our new writing. As the links between the regional nonprofit theatres and elite MFA playwriting programs become stronger, we can no longer pretend surprise at the narrowly bourgeois worldviews represented on our stages.

If we want to see a socially broader canvas of work than, say, Rabbit Hole, Mr. Marmelade, and Eurydice (to pick just three recent widely produced new plays that typify this insularity) then Conkel is right that the only solution is to proactively seek work from different sources--from writers less likely to be so mentored and shaped in their training by the same upperclass world as subscription audiences. (Whether these playwrights are born into that world or not is almost besides the point.)

But just to add to Conkel's point--and perhaps show how even more deep-seated the problem is--let's consider the link not just between class and subject matter, but class and aesthetics.  I actually don't believe those lit-manager "gate keepers" Conkel points to are all just clubby snobs looking out for their classmates. They are serving the mission of their employers--which in most cases is to produce new plays only when they kind of resemble popular old plays. (New wine in old bottles is how I'd sum up the preferred new-play product of most subscription theatres.) Writers who come up through the university system--and, perhaps, are reared on a diet of regional theatre and Broadway, too--are more likely to put out that kind of product. Historically, the realist "well made play" was very much a bourgeois cultural product, and remains so--which explains how new-oldish plays like Doubt will always find a healthy audience even if the hip theatre world thinks its style is way out of date. More playful modernist forms like Beckettian poetic drama or Absurdist farce (especially when recycled by popularizers like Durang) also appeal more to the aesthetes in the audience than to theatre neophytes.

Those dramaturgical aesthetics, I would argue, tend to be linked to class--the class of their origin and/or consumption. I say tend to--obviously this doesn't rule out the possibility of someone in rural Iowa picking up a copy of Endgame and enjoying it, nor the fact that a lot of "educated" people actually hate Beckett if not all theatre itself! So please don't accuse me of overgeneralizing and robbing all audiences of their individuality.  Yes, that is a factor, too, but for purposes of argument, just stay with me a sec. All I'm suggesting is to notice how certain kinds of cultural forms (genres of drama or music or visual art) seem to be favored by one class of audience or another. Or at least marketed to one class over others.

So I have no doubt that if an MFA program or a top LORT theatre would enthusiastically embrace a writer hailing from the projects, or the farmlands, or overseas refugees, if they wrote a play about those experiences that kind of resembled a Miller or Williams script. You know the drill: talented emerging "voice" comes along, and then is mentored into certain kinds of "story arcs" and "character journeys" and "character development" that somehow makes it resemble the kind of play professional theatres are more used to producing.

Which is why Conkel is so right about the need to go see young writers work in their element--even if in shoddy self-produced showcase venues, so that you hear that voice unfiltered first.

Think of this in terms of Hip Hop Theatre--one of the most promising challenges in recent years to the bourgeois hegemony of the theatrical scene. We don't really see a lot of it on today's professional stages, do we? And yet HipHop is one of the most dominant (even class-crossing) cultural forms of our era. Sure an artist like Will Power gets some grants and gigs--but one of his biggest was his play The Seven which benefited from being based on Aeschylus! (More like old wine in new bottles, I guess.) I actually consider In the Heights to be the most successful and widely seen example of the Hip Hop Theatre aesthetic--but it was nurtured as a commercial theatre product from inception and never had to go through the usual university/nonprofit theatre development process.

Kristoffer Diaz's The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Diety is another example that actually did successfully survive the bourgeois theatre process with its voice intact, beginning at Chicago Victory Gardens and then becoming a surprise success at New York's Second Stage. But try as some of the Pulitzer drama critics did to get it a prize, there was no way that august body was going to approve of it--instead they overruled in favor of that prototypically insular bourgeois dysfunctional family musical, Next to Normal. Diaz did make his way through the MFA mill (at NYU) but has notably nurtured his talent and skills in a number of hispanic fringe theatre groups and urban education settings.

Thomas Bradshaw I would not classify as a HipHop dramatist, but his deliberately and bluntly "bad taste" race drama/satires indicate another aesthetic break from the norm that has taken a while to slip into the mainstream theatre consciousness after several largely self-produced efforts. (He just had an opening at the Goodman!) He too is a private college alum (Bard) and got an MFA, but the latter from Mac Wellman's Brooklyn College program, which has indeed been a rare den of diversity in the MFA system, partly due to Wellman's still-bourgeois but at least truly loopy and iconoclastic aesthetic.

When it comes to non-bourgeois aesthetics like HipHop, though, many Artistic Directors (and Boards of Directors) are still petrified--in 2011--to put it in front of their subscription audiences. If Danny Hoch wrote a three-act family play, great!  But otherwise...

Which leads me to what I think is the most important point--the goal, if you really care about this issue, should not be to get more HipHop plays produced at tony subscription theatres across America. The goal should be to ensure that non-bourgeois institutions like the Brick, PS 122, the HipHop Theatre Festival, and whatever your local low-rent performance space is...survive! What we need is not more diverse seasonal programming at the top. (Let the bourgeois subscribers see the kinds of plays they're paying for.) What we need is a broader array of performance venues, not all operating under bourgeois business models that seem to reproduce the same kind of play, and the same kind of theatre-audience relationship, over and over again.

What we need is a truly alternative theatre--alternative not just in style or content of particular plays, but in the way it relates to its audience, its community and the world.  One that is more plugged into the local poetry slam scene than the latest Julliard showcase readings. One that meets diverse audiences where they live, not just invite them to the rich man's table. One that addresses audiences as workers, kids, the downtrodden and hungry, not just as patrons.

We are lucky to have many alternative theatres throughout this country, of course. But let's do what we can to give them the attention, publicity, and respect they deserve, if we feel the more privileged side is getting too much of that spotlight.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Austin Pendleton Gets His Due

Theatre veteran and recognizable character actor Austin Pendleton is finally getting something like his due at the age of 70 during quite a busy year. Between directing a major Off Broadway hit (Three Sisters at CSC) and a Steppenwolf hit (now bound-for-B'way), Lisa D'Amour's Detroit, in addition to currently starring in (and directing) a little showcase staging of Tennesee Williams' Small Craft Warnings. Then Lincoln Center is producing playwright-Pendleton's reworking of Shaw's Candida (called The Minister's Wife).

And as if this actor, playwright, director has not been ubiquitous enough in both New York and Chicago (where he's a Steppenwolf ensemble member), he also remains a popular teacher, as the NY Post attests in a class visit.

And as is evident in his recent Time Out feature interview, here is an artist who exemplifies the spirit necessary to keep the American Theatre going in such hard times--using your film and tv earnings to subsidize a very small-paying stage vocation, fueled by pure love for the artform, genuine boundless enthusiasm, and an incredible amount of energy for someone of any age.

And if you still can't get enough of the guy (and I know I can't) here's a nice A/V Club interview from last year, and a trailer for an upcoming documentary!

Where the Work Is: The Austin Pendleton Project - Teaser 1 from 4Hawk Productions on Vimeo.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Let Intiman Die?

Seattle playwright Paul Mullin is, to say the least, not moved by the Intiman Theatre's plight:

In a recent email to everyone in their database the Intiman made it clear that unless a half a million dollars is raised by the end of March, and then another half million by September, the theatre will cease operations.  In the business, we call this a “shoot-the-puppy” campaign: a deeply desperate move, fraught with risk, but also deeply arrogant....

“Without the Intiman, will we be as strong?” she [AD Kate Whoriskey] implores in closing.  And all I can think of is the Lone Ranger joke.  He and Tonto are surrounded by a band of Apaches.  He says, “Looks like we might die here, old friend.”  And Tonto replies, “What’s this “we” shit, Kemosabe?”

Seattle theatre is alive and thriving.  Buy me a beer and I will name you at least 100 theatre organizations in Western Washington more deserving of your donation than the Intiman.

And so he does...

Cranky? Yes. But not unreasoned. A good read and a warning to all "big" regional theatres about the perils of perceived arrogance towards your local theatre community.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


-The NEA (along with NEH, and NPR, and PBS) is still hanging by a thread at the mercy of Congress. You can follow the advocacy angle and get involved at Americans for the Arts. Meanwhile, Isaac Butler has been exploring all the issues in a massive yet essential 3-part post, engaging with the political blogosphere's not-always-arts-friendly discourses.

- Remember the travails of that downtown NY fixture, the Ohio Theatre? Well, a fairy godmother has come to the rescue and given them a new home in the Archive Building in the West Village. That fairy godmother being the mandating of space in that building "for nonprofit use at below market rates as part of an agreement made with the city during the commercial development of the building in 1988." Ah, the eighties...

-Meet the new AD of South Coast Rep, Mark Masterson, formerly of Actors Theater of Louisville. Playwrights, take note.

-Nice overview by Toby Zinman in this month's American Theatre mag on the enduring popularity of that darn Doll's House play and the multiple variations recently on display. Title: 50 Ways to Leave Your Torvald.

Friday, February 18, 2011

People Like Sports

The surprise success of the Broadway season has been Lombardi, a tepidly reviewed but loyally attended bio-play about the famous football coach or yore.

The reason? Men like sports!  Every now and then Broadway benefits from a title that the reliable female patrons can finally drag their male companions into going with to--thus virtually doubling ticket sales. Or, as the producers put it: "One of the things we learned from ‘Lombardi’ is that if you bring content to Broadway that will interest the consumer, maybe people who don’t go to Broadway will come."

And why stop at football! The producers are planning a quick follow up:

Like “Lombardi,” “Magic/Bird” will be written by Eric Simonson, based on interviews with the two players. It will be produced in association with the National Basketball Association, which will provide marketing help and video and film footage, the same role the N.F.L. played with “Lombardi.” And the theater lobby will be filled with memorabilia on display, as the Circle in the Square Theater’s is for “Lombardi.”
Pandering, you say?  Pandering like a fox!  First, I don't doubt these producers and author Simonson's genuine enthusiasm for the subject, and I'm sure the fans would sense otherwise.

Ultimately, this goes to the core question everyone asks about a play: what's it about? Other than to see a big star or great singing and dancing, folks buy tickets to shows about stuff they care about.  So kudos to these guys for finding that niche.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Mormon Musical is Here

Three previews of Parker and Stone's Book of Mormon, about to start previews on Broadway next week: the Times, Slate, and uber-blogger/South Park groupie Andrew Sullivan. (It will also be the feature theatre article in Sunday Times' Arts & Leisure.)

Personally I'm looking forward. Big fan of theirs. But all their "atheist's love letter to religion" pr aside, am I the only one expecting huge Fox News-fueled controversy?  Worse yet, I fear Mitt Romney will use this spoofing of his religion into a crusade to jump-start his zombie candidacy and turn himself into some culture warrior.

Not that I want to give these folks any ideas.  But you heard it here first...

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Quote of the Day

“Let the Light Come in From the Dark, Superman.”

-Vanessa Redgrave, misremembering the title of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.

I don't blame her.

Monday, February 14, 2011


Poor Kate Whoriskey--young director takes over a nice big Seattle theatre only to find out midyear in her first season that someone's been cooking the books!

The board of trustees, led by Kim Anderson, unearthed what the Intiman characterizes as a series of management failings, including inflated budget projections, unpaid bills and a lack of accounting oversight, which occurred during Brian Colburn's tenure as managing director. Former director of development Melaine Bennett has been named as acting managing director and the Intiman has enlisted Barbara Anderson to step in as acting CFO. The staff has also been reduced to a four-day workweek. Since November, the Intiman has raised $874,315 to keep its doors open and to repay some of its debts.
The Intiman noted that Colburn resigned for personal reasons last November just as the organization uncovered details of the financial failings. Among the details revealed were unauthorized transfers of restricted funds in the Intiman Foundation account (which  supports programming) into the theatre's operating account.
Also noted was a misrepresentation of the company's financial stability, financial recording inaccuracies, a backlog of bookkeeping, lack of cash flow oversight and a mismanagement of financial agreements with co-producing entities.
Times says this is a truly life-threatening emergency and the company could fold if it doesn't raise another $1 million in the next 6 months.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Myth of Spiderman's Success

Riedel pulls back the curtain on the real story behind Spider-Man's reputedly "critic-proof" invincibility. (Sounds like a super-power, doesn't it?)

“The show is dead,” says a source privy to its finances. The hard-cash advance is barely $10 million, not enough to prop up a $65 million production with a weekly overhead of $1.2 million.
You can buy acres of orchestra seats weeknights this month and next. The ticket brokers who drive business are sitting on stacks of unsold seats through April. If you know where to look, you can get discounts pretty much every night.
What's more, he reminds us of yet another sign that something was going really, really wrong in rehearsals for this show. They never got through a full run-through, with tech, in one stretch, until the first performance.

Isn't that something we associate with high school?

Riedel rightly lays the blame, though, at the feet of the novice producer: "She rehearsed 15 weeks and never got through the show. She had nearly three months of previews and fixed nothing. And nobody challenged her."

There's a question so glaringly obvious about Spider-Man that I'm surprised no one's asking it when the creative team whines about their "mere" 60 previews.  And that is... what the hell have you been doing all this time???

I mean, it's only Spider-Man for chrissakes.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

W.B. Yeats: Fundraiser?

William Butler Yeats cared so much about getting his Abbey Theatre off the ground 100 years ago that, when the company toured here, he personally came to Boston (not exactly a theatre-friendly city in those days) to milk some donors. A veritable one-man development office...
When Yeats came here a century ago, the Abbey was struggling to establish itself. Its first American tour in 1911, which kicked off in Boston, was crucial to surviving the tumultuous decade ahead that would see rebellion, a war of independence, and a bitter civil war — all of which would provide fodder for Irish playwrights over the next century.

Yeats was there on opening night at the spanking new Plymouth Theatre on Stuart Street, where the Transportation Building now sits. He was greeted warmly by the mayor, John “Honey Fitz’’ Fitzgerald, the future President Kennedy’s grandfather. The Boston and US premiere of “The Playboy of the Western World’’ drew catcalls from some in the audience who objected to the salty language and supposed attack on Irish womanhood. (That was a considerable improvement over the riots that greeted the play’s world premiere in Dublin four years earlier.)

A headline in the morning Boston Globe of Oct. 17, 1911, noted that “Representative Boston Men Criticise ‘The Playboy of the Western World.’ ’’ By that evening’s Globe, a more tolerant, less censorious headline appeared over a story about the play: “Doesn’t Need Expurgation.’’

Yeats did more than shake hands and pose for photographs at the Plymouth Theatre. Yeats climbed the stairs of brownstones in Back Bay and Beacon Hill, he lunched at the tony men’s clubs along Commonwealth Avenue, and he flattered every Boston dowager he met. Yeats, whose verse was priceless, put the arm on everybody worth something. He raised money like no one’s business.
I guess no Artistic Director can afford to be too lofty for fundraising.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Spidey, Your Time is Up

Yes, Ben Brantley went and reviewed Spider-Man.

And, yes, today the New York Times published it.

And yes it's still "in previews." 

Here's why they're right to do so.

First: February 7 was the previous opening night dates announced, and it is my understanding that at least some critics at the last NY Drama Critics Circle meeting advocated going ahead with plans to review it then regardless of the latest postponement to March 15. Enough is enough, they said, especially since critics have been the last people in the world somehow barred from discussing what is the most discussed show on Broadway. (So other critics will, I believe, be following suit soon.)

Second: Let us recall that all an official opening night is a "press opening." In the theatre this means when members of the press are invited to attend and write up the show. Critics and newspapers have long honored this convention, as part of the general agreement that critics do not pay for their own tickets and that they only come when asked. Many have questioned aspects of this relationship (including many commenters on this blog!) and so maybe this is a good time to reexamine the usual practices, and to ask what is actually helpful to our theatre and what is simply coddling of powerful money that's rich enough to "squat" in a Broadway theatre without paying the piper.

Spider-Man has now had 50 "previews" (by IBDB's count). We should ponder this number and ask whether any theatremakers--yes, even our beloved Julie Taymor--get to publicly perform on a professional stage, charging full price tickets to the public fifty times and not have their work assessed.

As many downtown theatre artists I know have said (some on this blog), how many good shows today even get fifty performances, period? It's even hard to eek that out on Broadway these days...

When I first responded to the Times' coverage of the very first preview (back in--wait for it--November) I admit I was a little taken aback. But only because it blurred the line between reportage and criticism by containing a lot of critical comments--from the audience, that is. And it was the very, very first preview, the first public performance ever, and I do think that's a bit premature for any heavy reporting, let alone criticism. (Of course, Off-Off Broadway shows who often open first performances to the press don't have the luxury of "tryouts.") My only carping, really, was not in defense of Spider-Man, but to point out the hypocrisy of the Times in claiming they were above the chatrooms and blogosphere of the Internet while indulging in the very same behavior, clearly out of fear of being scooped in this difficult competitive climate for print journalism.

Anyway, that was a long, long time ago. Since then we have had a Super Bowl, five snowstorms, and a couple of Middle Eastern dictatorships fall.  And yet, somehow, Spider-Man claims it is still not "ready" to be judged.

Yes, there are good reasons we consider a preview process sacred. But let's not romanticize and mythologize it out of proportion.  I'm still trying to research when exactly preview performances on Broadway even started, but I believe it wasn't until the 1960s. (If anyone knows for sure, feel free to fill us in.) Before that, opening night was...well, truly an opening night. The way most theatre folk experience it from High Schools to community theatre to most places south of 14th street. Instead, Broadway shows back then might have had a series of "invited" dress rehearsals, amounting to private previews, which were also, by the way, free previews. The big change in the 60s was to actually sell tickets to shows that hadn't opened. But that's why "reduced-price previews" were the norm till sometime in the last ten or twenty years.  I guess that was when Broadway producers realized most audiences (especially the increasing tourist portion of the audience) didn't know the difference any more.

Of course there has also traditionally been the "out of town tryout" route for Broadway shows, which served much the same purpose as extended preview processes today-- get the show in front of a random, paying audience to work out the kinks, out of view from the New York critics. But even though some shows have still gone out of town (Wicked, Addams Family, The Producers, many of the Disney shows) lots has happened to make it less workable--the expense, the dearth of vibrant metropolitan audiences in other cities, and, of course, the global village of the internet, where nothing is a secret no matter how far out of town you go. (In the good old days what happened in New Haven stayed in New Haven!)

By the way, some have cited the old tryout circuit as precedent for Spider-Man--i.e. that many classic musicals, for instance, had the benefit of fifty previews, they were just on the road. But--let us remember, there were still critics in those towns and they reviewed those shows. And while it took some effort for a New Yorker to get his hands on the Philly Inquirer or Boston Globe in those days, those who cared enough sure did. So going out of town hardly insulated you from any critical judgment at all.

Let us also consider this about previews-- can you think of any equivalent practice in another art form?  Can you imagine a big-name filmmaker, a James Cameron, for instance, releasing their latest movie into theaters, selling tickets, but re-editing it every night and still insisting on some critical embargo until they were done? No, of course not. In Hollywood, they do "test screenings" for that--and, again, they're freeyou!  I'd like to see Taymor and company offer that to their guinea pig audiences of the last few months.

Another example. Say Jonathan Franzen writes a new novel, it hits the bookstores, but his publishers don't send out review copies and even admonish the leading book reviews and lit-critics not to say a word until Jonathan's finished more rewrites and two more editions are published. Would The New Yorker stand for that?

So it's a quaint little practice we have here with these previews. Once the convention became accepted, producers, of course, tried to exploit it to their advantage. Even Joe Papp would sometimes put off "opening night" till the end of a four-week run to make sure a show would be "critic proof." And, yes, other Broadway shows have pushed the preview envelope long before Spidey. Nick and Nora managed 71 back in 1991. And as the Times recently reminded us, a forgotten farce by comedian Jackie Mason in 1969 set the still unbeaten record of 97. When Spidey opens on its new announced date of March 15, it will have passed 100 previews. Does Julie Taymor really want to achieve Jackie Mason status?

I should say here that I'm actually a great admirer of Taymor's. But that isn't from Lion King, which I've still never seen. No, she cast her spell on me with her 1994 Off-Broadway Titus Andronicus (at Theatre for a New Audience), which gleefully and chillingly combined comic-book violence, nightmare dreamscapes, and damn good acting--on a shoestring budget, no less. (Sounds like what Spider-Man should be, right?) Since then, I've enjoyed her films, mostly, but in stage work she seems increasingly to focus intensely on the design over all else. A good example was her recent opera Grendel, which was all moving set pieces and no drama. There, her chief collaborator was her non-husband, composer Elliot Goldenthal, so I get the sense that, in order to succeed, she really needs someone else in the room to complement, even work against, her visual strengths, with some good old dramaturgical fundamentals. (Or even just a lesser play by Shakespeare.) This clearly seems to be what's amiss with Spider-Man, where she's written the libretto herself--and she's no playwright--along with playwright Glenn Berger, whose main credits are a one-man play (Underneath the Lintel) and the small-screen kids' show Arthur. Not to knock Berger, who's been successful at what he's done and seems a decent enough scribe. But not the person I'd want to have in my corner giving shape and discipline to a $65 million, epic-comic-book-theatre mess.

It also hasn't helped Taymor that there's no seasoned theatrical producer on the show. The lead man now is Michael Cohl--concert promoter, former head of Live Nation, and all around rock impresario. In other words, just who you'd want to steer your U2 tour. But that's not what this is, is it?

And speaking of U2.... Remember when the involvement of Bono and The Edge was the main attraction of this project? Finally a rock musical from the best rockers?  Well they haven't exactly been the collaborators Taymor needs, either. They were absent from most of the early previews (due to prior tour commitments) and have never written anything not for themselves, let alone a Broadway musical. I haven't heard the score myself. But it doesn't seem a promising sign when their songs only get mentioned by Brantley in the very last paragraph of his review today. Even if Brantley were just an old fogey who didn't like anything on electric guitars (which I don't believe he is) what that omission tells me is that the score is not so much bad as negligible.

My right honorable friend from Time Out, Adam Feldman, made a case a few weeks ago for giving these valuable artists enough respect to work through their process on their own schedule. (Isherwood made a similar argument around the same time, too.) It's a nice thought, and I'm all for honoring fine artists and releasing them from the pressures of commercialism.  But not when they so embrace that commercialism itself. Julie Taymor is not developing Spider-Man on the island of Bali (where she once studied puppetry) or retreating, Peter Book-style, to some hermitage. She's right there on Broadway, using the public arena as her laboratory.

Aside from being foolhardy I have to say that's also quite luxurious. When Adam says the show "deserves" all the time it's been taking, I must disagree. The only reason it "deserves" several months of on-display development is because someone dropped 65 million bucks in Julie Taymor's lap. With that kind of cash to keep a show running, "desert" has nothing to do with it. We all know artists "deserving" of that time and patience but don't have that kind of carte blanche backing.

Which brings me back to how we must not forget how thoroughly commercial a product this has been from the inception and not confuse it with some magnum opus a great artist is rightfully devoting her life to. (Hell even Whitman, forever tinkering with his Leaves of Grass, kept publishing the new editions and subjecting it to review.) I mean, it's freakin' Spider-Man for chrissakes! And the show is so beholden to the trademark that the character even has to wear the same old cheesy spandex suit--whereas if Taymor were really "reinventing" the story she could surely come up with a more interesting look. And all the hot air she has been spouting in interviews of Spider-Man as on the level of Greek Myth and part of our collective unconscious... really? Even for a comic book characters he's hardly that iconic. (At least Superman has the whole Jewish golem thing going for him.)

So, trying to square the Spider-Man fiasco with my admiration for Taymor, I often find myself muttering that great line from A Man For All Seasons, when Thomas More realizes that his old friend Richard Rich has turned State's Evidence against him in exchange for some bureaucratic post in Wales and sighs: "It profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world ... but for Wales, Richard?"

But for Spider-Man, Julie?

Let us not forget that Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark would not exist without the initial backing of Marvel Comics (still a credited producing partner) whose interest was in doing a Disney and diversifying their brand. Otherwise, I don't believe any theatre artist would really get that excited about Spider-Man, certainly not these folks who never expressed an interest in the character previously. If they had, and they were all just closet comic book geeks bringing a whole new graphic novel sensibility to the stage, I'd respect that. But before you go calling Ben Brantley just too square to get it, man, check out self-professed comics fan Isaac Butler and his review on his blog a few weeks ago. I'm glad Isaac broke the "embargo" because not only is he better qualified than most critics to critique the show from this angle, but it also happens to the best, most thorough and rigorous pieces of dramatic criticism I've read so far this year.

What Isaac argues persuasively (as does Brantley today) is that the extended previews are not in fact making the show by any measure better. That's not to say that liking Spider-Man is not a matter of personal opinion. But it seems apparent right now that the ticket-buyers who are reportedly liking Spider-Man now, would have liked it last month and would like it about the same next month. While the critics aren't going to like it any more in March than they have so far. In other words, the previews are not changing the essentials of the show, just tinkering.

And what, by the way, is the reason for delayed openings?  Isherwood and Feldman seem disposed to cut the team some slack due to the immense technical difficulties. Fair enough, in theory. But Taymor has also freely admitted--nay, boasted--that the time has also been used to put in a new ending, and that other changes to the script have been made. (And, reading some of these early reviews, one would hope so!) So which is it? And do we owe them the same deference for simply not being able to tell a cohesive story as we would for problems with, um, gravity?

And even if the problems were only technical-- what does it say that there are still major glitches well past preview #60? (Brantley spends nearly the first half of the review describing one.) When even, presumably, the best people in the business are working on this problem day and night? Is god telling us something here, that Broadway actors were indeed not meant to fly? I admire Taymor's vision of a crazy kinetic "circus theatre." But she's clearly had a problem incorporating Cirque du Soleil stagecraft within standard Broadway operating procedures. There's a reason you go see Cirque du Soleil in some special-purposed tent with performers and stagehands trained specifically in rigging these high-wire acrobatics. It's not usually in the Broadway backstage job descriptions--nor that of the actor/dancers sacrificed on the great altar of Marvel Comics.

Yes, Taymor has indeed seemed to soar too close to the sun on this one, and got burned. Too bad it wasn't for a more noble cause.

Interesting--somewhat similar, somewhat different--thoughts on this from David Cote today and Charles McNulty a while back. Note that I have not tried to critically assess the contents of the show itself--and that's because, I admit, I have not seen it. Why have I not seen it? Because, quite simply, I refuse to play anything in the neighborhood of $100 for something that: a) I've heard from people I trust is awful, and b) is still in freakin' previews!

Friday, February 04, 2011

Supply, Demand, and New Plays

So, speaking of the NEA, what has Chairman Rocco gone and said now...

“You can either increase demand or decrease supply...Demand is not going to increase, so it is time to think about decreasing supply.”
“There is a disconnect that has to be taken seriously — our research shows that attendance has been decreasing while the number of the organizations have been proliferating,” he said. “That’s a discussion nobody wants to have.” Foundations and agencies like the endowment should perhaps reconsider re-allocating their resources, he said, perhaps giving larger grants to fewer institutions. “There might be too many resident theaters — it is possible,” he said. “At least we have to talk about it.”
This is of a piece with Rocco's earlier controversial pronouncement, early in his tenure, that maybe the NEA should be focusing--more like a European culture ministry, frankly--on the best art America has to offer and leave Peoria (literally) to the local level. Or to put it another war, in a time of such scarcity, an agency like this is going to have be more selective--so let's make sure the funds are going to A-List talent.

Well I do certainly bristle at the thought of local arts scenes being left out in the cold completely, especially considering many are in states and townships that will probably be axing their arts funding entirely soon.

But-- I do think his introduction of the terms "supply and demand" are worth mulling over--just not necessarily in the context he means.

First we need to remember the context of these remarks was about new plays. (They were delivered at the Arena Stage's big new play festival in DC.  Awwwk-ward...)  So while this will even further anger playwrights out there, it's not as if he's saying "eliminate half of all theatres."

I, for instance, have long wondered whether even such a mecca as New York City can sustain ten or more mid-size nonprofit subscription-based theatres devoted to new plays. There clearly is not enough audience "demand" (in numbers) to buy that many tickets and/or subscriptions a year for New Play X, up front, no questions asked. Maybe enough to fill 2 or 3 such theatres year-round.  Maybe enough to go to 10 or so scattered productions, buying single tickets along the way. But otherwise: I will go on the record saying that new play supply has outstripped ticket/subscription-buying demand in nonprofit Off Broadway land.

By qualifying this by stressing the ticket and subscription sales, I mean: " these prices."  I might as well also add: "... at these production expenses."

Notice no one talks of a supply/demand  problem for movies. Or bands.

That's because when the expenses are low and talent just keeps doing its thing, there is no such thing as "too much supply."  That only becomes a problem with millions of dollars are spent on supplying the supply.

Maybe this used to be a problem with movies. But what made Indie Cinema possible and flourish--especially in the last decade--is the sudden cheapness of the equipment and the viability of Digital Video. And Netflix. The monetary investment that goes into making a film does not dry up the moment of the first screening--as it kind of does on the stage.  The DVD copy of the film can be marketed and shown in perpetuity in a variety of venues and platforms.

Supply is only limited in an industry where the cost of supplying becomes prohibitively high.

Which leads to Rocco's follow up remarks in a (worth reading) blog post of his own:
There are 5.7 million arts workers in this country and two million artists. Do we need three administrators for every artist? Resident theaters in this country began as collectives of artists. They have become collectives of arts administrators. Do we need to consider becoming more lightly institutionalized in order to get more creativity to more audiences more often?
Now, not to scapegoat Arts Administrators once again. And, I'm sure there's every reason to question his figures there.  (How many "artists" don't necessarily identify as such on whatever census/poll he's citing?) But--worth thinking, again, about the expense of the supply.

In brief: how do we make the performance and "distribution" of new plays as (relatively) easy and inexpensive as shooting your own DV movie or circulating MP3's of your band?

In other words...eliminating the middleman?

I'll leave the rest to you. For a full account of the events at Arena check out their blog that recounts all the rowdy back and forth.

Oh, and by the way, NY Times? A statement posted on that official Arena Stage institutional blog by one of the session participants does not count as "the blogosphere" (let alone "reverberating through the blogosphere"),  especially when posted by "the public relations and publications manager at Portland Center Stage."

No, this is what the blogosphere looks like. (i.e. people with blogs!)

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Save (What's Left Of) The NEA!

Performing Arts Alliance has a very user-friendly petition site up for you to write your congresspeople and pressure them to stand up to the artsjob-killing Republican plans to kill the National Endowment for the Arts.

I especially urge anyone NOT in New York and/or anyone with a Republican congressman (ie House of Representatives) to consider signing this, since that might actually make a difference. Otherwise, you can at least make yourself feel good for a brief moment.

Digital Theatre Update

A little over a year ago I reported on the launching of the London-based website, Digital Theatre. How's it doing?  Well, you can now watch current productions there from such esteemed companies as the Almeida, the Young Vic, and even a little outfit called the RSC. True, to view will cost you anywhere from $10-$20 right now in US currency, so more than your usual downloads. But here's hoping that comes down as the site grows.

Plus, they're going global. For instance, do you figure it's time you saw some Arab theatre without flying to, say, Cairo? As the Guardian  reports, you're in luck!

For those of us unable to hop on a plane to research Arab theatre, Gulf Stage allows audiences around the world to access filmed recordings of six productions from young companies hailing from Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. All the productions have English subtitles and, unlike Digital Theatre's other productions, will be free to download for the first year.
So all in all, not a bad way to kill time on a freezing-rainy day like this, huh...

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Quote of the Day

"According to an alarming new study released Monday by the University of Chicago, children raised in households where alcoholism is present are at a significantly greater risk of writing and performing a one-man show than those who grow up in a more stable environment. The study found that males raised by alcoholic parents are 40 percent more likely to someday force their friends to attend a self-penned theatrical production about their life experiences, and the same painful behavior is eight times more prevalent in women over the age of 30 who have alcoholic fathers than those who do not.[...] A report released Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said that alcoholism is the third leading contributor to one-man shows, outpacing having immigrant parents, surviving cancer, and having an ex-girlfriend."

-The Onion