The Playgoer: January 2012

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Monday, January 30, 2012

Surprisingly Decent Theatrical Satire

Normally I find any pop culture take on theatre to be oddly distorted.  But, catching up with a recent SNL rerun this weekend, I was pleasantly surprised to find not one, but two very funny playgoing sketches.

Yes, the one-man show has been parodied to death, but I just can't resist Fred Armisen's riff on the old cliches. ("Tommy Palmese tells his life story through characters!")

(apologies for the ads)

And while this send-up of War Horse (the play, not movie) may be off target about the play, it certainly is spot on about Lincoln Center audiences...

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Venues for the Short Play

Steve Waters in the Guardian sings the praises of the short play:

So what is a short play, exactly? Is it simply defined by its length? I ask because as a form it's under-discussed and under-valued. . . a fugitive form, lacking a permanent home, rarely available on the page. Yet for all that it seems to me a very good way into any writer's work – released from the armature of plot, the playwright is compelled to invest the moment with intense theatrical energy. In those precious minutes the dramatist's toolkit of rhythm, voice and image is ruthlessly exposed. It's a place for encounters not journeys, epiphanies not ideologies. Describing the short story of which he was a master, VS Pritchett characterizes it usefully as a "glancing form of fiction (…) right for the restlessness and nervousness of contemporary life".
For the writer too, there's a different pleasure in the short form which is well caught by the American novelist Russell Banks, who speaks of the stamina necessary to pull off full-length work necessitating a kind of "bourgeois" commitment; whereas the short story or play, is a place to experiment with form and defect from territory, where writing can be enjoyed for its own sake.
The comparison to the short story is instructive. Imagine what contemporary fiction writers would do if they could not avail themselves of the form of the short-story--which gets them in magazines and allows them to published "collected stories" as first books. One-acts hardly give playwrights the same advantage.

The problem with one-acts, as Walker illustrates, is the current practice of theatergoing has no suitable forum for them:
So why is the fragment so rarely seen and, like the short story, deemed commercial poison? Well, I would be the first to admit that I wouldn't venture out simply for Come and Go by Beckett – my bourgeois need for an uneven evening's entertainment rather than ten minutes of perfection is probably not uncommon. Yes, you can round up a miscellany of works under the umbrella of one event. But as a mode of theatre-going the sheer effort required in investing in multiple disconnected narratives can take its toll – not least because intensity is integral to the form and back-to-back intensity can pall.
Indeed, "omnibus" evenings can be hard to sit through. (And hard to sell: Come pay full price to sit through one really good one-act,  preceded by one awful one and a few so-so's. And, no, you can't sneak in at intermission.)

I've mused about various options before here. But Walker reminds us that theatre festivals--where audiences hop from one show to another over the course of a day or more--offer a prime opportunity.  At the Shaw Festival in Ontario, for instance, one one-act is always programmed each season that runs on its own as a "lunchtime matinee" (12 noon) for a reduced price. (It's always sold out.) And in the New York Fringe Fest, many shows are certainly, um, short.  But rather than charge one standard price and schedule every show in the same fashion, how about a separate venue for shorts that audiences can just pop in and out of on a kind of rotating basis, where the performers do the show on a continuous loop?  Or something like that.

In the age of ITunes for songs and movies (and even Funny or Die) and Kindle Singles for fiction, theatre must simply keep up.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

That Tony Lure

Something interesting happening on the Rialto right now: a number of recent Off Broadway successes will be descending upon available theatres this spring just in time for Tony Time. (That time being recently confirmed to as June 10.) Today we have definite announcements from Clybourne Park and Peter and the Starcatcher. They will join there other previously announced Off Broadway transfers, Venus in Fur and Once.

Now you'd think all these available playhouses might be a bad omen for these plucky upstarts, since they are vacant due to fizzling out of so many other unasked-for Broadway runs of small, star-less shows this season: Lysistrata Jones, Private Lives (proving Kim Cattrall is not a "star"), and Chinglish (playing to only 40% capacity last week). Not to mention the short-lived, open-and-shut case (if you will) of Michael Mayer's high-concept On a Clear Day You Can See Forever revival.

This means a lot--a lot--of capital is being raised purely to garner Tony Awards (or at least nominations) for shows that will almost surely lose money during their runs. Once has already underwhelmed critics in its downtown run at New York Theatre Workshop, making its pre-announced Broadway transfer plans seem like downright hubris. NYTW was also behind Peter and the Starcatcher--which by the way, unlike Peter Pan (recently revived over the holidays with, yes, Cathy Rigby!) is not a musical. So good luck with that.

Venus in Fur played CSC downtown last season, but the ever-gambling Manhattan Theatre Club (do not trust them with your stock portfolio) has invested mightily in its Tony-potential. Not only did they open its Broadway-venue season with this, but so hungry for more dividends off the show they are opening an extended run next month at the Lyceum. So starlet Nina Arianda must have the most powerful agent in New York, since a lot of money is going into keeping her on Broadway long enough to get that Tony that she was supposed to get for last season's short-lived, ill-advised vehicle Born Yesterday.

Clybourne Park, last year's Pulitzer-winner will certainly get some buzz. I, for one, am looking forward to finally getting in to see it after its sold-out Playwrights Horizons back in 2010. But if the producers think its provocative, discomforting exploration of racial issues is going to spur as much box office as op-eds, they just haven't been on Broadway in a while. Racial themes that are non-confrontational can still do ok; Stick Fly still unbelievably running at just 60% capacity, and Porgy and Bess just opened to strong sales and unenthused but strong-enough reviews. And while the MLK-drama The Mountaintop received bemused, head-scratching critical response, having Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett in it (and no one else) was enough to make back its investment this week with big sales and low overhead. Clybourne Park doesn't have any of that going for it.

In comparison, Lisa D'Amour's Detroit seems like it made the right call last month in foregoing initial Broadway plans and settling for a safer run at Playwrights Horizons instead. You see, it only was a Pulitzer runner-up. And, as Clybourne Park will probably show, not even the first prize counts as marquee value these days.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Arts vs "Austerity"

English playwright David Edgar has a good, long essay in the Guardian on the UK's arts funding crisis and especially the crisis in how to argue for the arts in a time of official, imposed "austerity."  While his persepctive is exclusively Brit-based, analogies are not hard to find here.

He begins with some helpful history of shifting justifications for arts funding over time, reminding us how conservative elitists used to be the arts' best friends:

When it was founded in 1946, the Arts Council could justify its activities in its own terms: it was there to widen access to the arts throughout the country, as well as to maintain and develop national arts institutions in the capital. Behind the latter policy lay a theory of artistic value that you could call patrician: art's purpose as ennobling, its realm the nation, its organisational form the institution, its repertoire the established canon and works aspiring to join it. In this the council was seeking to reverse a rising tide of populism (art's role as entertainment, its realm the marketplace, its form the business, its audience mass), a goal summed up in the founding chairman John Maynard Keynes's ringing declaration: "Death to Hollywood."

Over the following 30 years, this view of the value of the arts came under attack, not from the market place but from artists who were artistically and often politically oppositional. In the theatre in the late 1950s, on the BBC in the early to mid 1960s, and pretty much everywhere from 1968, patrician arts institutions were challenged and in many cases transformed by those who believed the arts weren't there to elevate or divert, but to provoke.

What both the patrician and the provocative shared was a primary concern for the people making the art. During the 80s, in the arts as in so many other spheres of life, Margaret Thatcher sought to shift power from the producer to the consumer, using the market to disempower the provocative (from political theatre groups to the high avant garde) in favour of the populist. This was seen most clearly in the cluster of forms that defined the cultural 80s.[Playgoer note: think mega-musicals.] Popular in form and patrician in content, the heritage industry was cultural Thatcherism, promoting (as the then secretary of state for national heritage, Virginia Bottomley, put it in May 1996) "our country, our cultural heritage and our tourist trade".

In this context, the major justification for government arts funding became its contribution both to that trade and to trade in general, a case based on the mounting evidence of the economic value of the arts to the so-called leisure industries
I think that pretty neatly sums up the polar forces most artists and arts supporters are caught between: some ideal of "excellence" or "artistic integrity" versus the marketplace and popularity/populism.While we don't think of a "heritage industry" per se in America, it is in fact a major component of our tourist industry--especially in New York City.  Broadway (especially The Broadway Musical) is a big part of this city's cultural heritage.  Which is why, for instance, the city had no problem rushing to the economic aid of Broadway producers in the slow months following 9/11. And now Broadway's economic bondage to The Tourism Industry appears to be its main raison d'etre.

But that kind of populism is very different from --and now fiercely competes with--a different kind of populism, a theatre "for the people"--expanding/diversifying the audience, theatre for action, community outreach, etc. This too attracts funding.

The real crisis is in the realm of...well, for lack of a better term, art for art's sake. At least in the theatre. Museums are doing well, true. But the thought that we should encourage and promote live theatre because it just might be an intense, spiritually uplifting experience is a hard sell these days. Especially if we ever dare link that kind of experience to social change, as Edgar incisively observes:
One frequent argument for funding the arts is their role in promoting continuity with the past, community cohesion and a sense of national pride. In fact, of course, British theatre in particular has been subverting such notions ever since the emergence of John Osborne, Arnold Wesker and Joan Littlewood nearly 60 years ago. It is this provocative mission that sets the arts apart from the other creative industries with which they are too easily lumped (by government and opposition alike). It is not the role of advertisers, architects, antique sellers, computer game manufacturers or fashion designers to challenge the way society is run. But the arts do it all the time. As David Lan puts it, dissent is necessary to democracy, and democratic governments should have an interest in preserving sites in which that dissent can be expressed.
"Support Sites of Dissent!"  Now that's a rallying cry in today's congress. (Maybe if you're pitching a "Tea Party Theatre"? "Birthers' Playhouse"?)

Anyway, I'll leave the rest to Mr. Edgar. Go read him.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Another Critic Bites the Dust

Not theatre thankfully.  But longtime (as in: long time, 28 years) Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman gets the boot. To me, he has been indispensable and, aside from Feingold, one of the few reasons to keep reading the now-gutted Voice.

How does Feingold hold on?  Let's hope they just really, really like him.

IFC's Matt Singer pays tribute to Hoberman by recalling some good advice he gave students in his perennial NYU film class. Just substitute stage for screen and this is still pertinent:

On the fundamentals:
“Ask yourself the question, ‘What do people want to know about a movie that they’ve never seen?’”
On plot:
“Plot synopses automatically ruin a review.”
On brevity:
“Watch for excess words. If there’s a shorter word, use it.”
On editors:
“Work with them for the good of the piece. Don’t have ego. Don’t compete.”
On interviewing filmmakers:
“If you’re thinking about it, ask them about it.”
On digressions:
“The longer the em dash, the weaker its impact.”
On taste:
“Always ask yourself why you like what you like.”
On bad movies:
“Vent your spleen. In criticism, it’s better to be angry than depressed.”
On the competition:
“Never read other critics’ reviews. They cloud your judgment.”
On deadlines:
Never miss a deadline.”
Okay, I do read others' reviews. Can't help it. I'm a blogger!

But about plot summaries? Oh yeah. Preach it!

(Complete Hoberman Voice online archive here.)

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

"Close Up Space"... or just Myopia?

Something about MTC's new debut Close Up Space has prompted some incisive commentary from critics on the state of new plays. While I haven't seen this particular show, I certainly find myself nodding with recognition at these notices.

Cote, Time Out:

Close Up Space is the sort of self-consciously zany dramedy in which characters are whipped into a frenzy of quirk that frees them and their actions from any burden of plausibility.
Feingold, Village Voice:
I'm sad, but not from Seasonal Affective Disorder. The fall season ended with Manhattan Theatre Club's opening Molly Smith Metzler's Close Up Space (City Center Stage I), a work neatly encapsulating everything new plays do that has been making me sad for months. I bear Metzler no ill will. As with too many other recent plays, hers has some distinct virtues, but its faults outnumber them so heavily as to make theatergoing burdensome: Instead of engaging creatively with the event onstage, you expend all your energy looking for little things within it to like in compensation for its generally dismaying nature.

I can't blame Metzler for repeating the pattern. Like all playwrights, she wants to get produced. Naturally, she has turned out the sort of play our would-be serious theaters increasingly tend to produce. They, too, strive to imitate previous successes; everybody's following the Ruhls. [Heh] The result, in Close Up Space, is a viscous mixture of sitcom and after-school special. It opens with patent absurdity, in an ostensibly naturalistic context, and ends in a glop of would-be tragic ironies. Reality, heightened or everyday, is the one thing it virtually never touches.
Full StageGrade roundup here, where this seems to be the critical consensus--including the two most prominent female reviewers, Vincentelli and Weiner, in case you suspect mere male anti-whimsy bias.