Saturday, December 20, 2008

Color-Blind Directing?

Terry Teachout weighs in on the controversy at Lincoln Center Theater.  I wrote on 'color-blind' casting a few weeks ago, here.  Interestingly, I'm currently at work on a production of a new play, Po Boy Tango by Kenneth Lin that features two Taiwanese characters.  In the Northlight Theater's production both Taiwanese characters are played by Japanese American actors, and the show is directed by Singaporean playwright and director Chay Yew.  This is profoundly unlikely to draw any kind of controversy, and though I know exactly what the difference is, I wonder what the difference is.  

Perhaps because of the phenomenon of "school plays" and the relative abundance of girls interested in theater at a young age, I feel like our eyes may be more accustomed to women playing men or boys--as audiences of an earlier time accepted the opposite.  What is instructive about this analog is how it was at once--one assumes--used purely as a generic necessity and as a signifier.  A boy played Juliet, ah well, we understand.  A man played the nurse--hilarious.  This is a bit like the program I tried to suggest in my earlier post.  "Color-blind" casting can also open avenues for what is really "post-racial" casting, and then the opposite: casting that draws attention to or exploits the significance of an actor's or a character's race.  What does it mean to have a black Ariel in a white Tempest, or the opposite?  I look forward to watching this worked through, and I'm sure I'll continue to chew it over.

Directing, because it is invisible, is very different from acting as far as race is concerned.  Because it is creative and we live in a diverse society the largest possible spectrum of talented voices should be heard at all times.  Interesting to me, is that with the rise of the dramaturg, it is insignificant for a Director to be an expert on the subject matter.  Research will be done, packets will be compiled, copies will by made.  Depending on the production and the ambition of the Director, his/her role can be remarkably malleable.  McClinton is right that he understands better the African-American experience better than Sher.  It's unclear to me whether that's a substantive claim to be a better director.  More to come, almost certainly.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


Allow me to be the last person in Chicago to point out that 'Ruined' (just closed at the Goodman and opening soon in New York) is fantastic.  One of the most fulfilling nights at the theater I've had in a while.  See it.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


The Telegraph is reporting bad news for Broadway ticket sales.  Foreboding?

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Active Audience

I spent a pleasant afternoon at the MCA on Tuesday with my friend Stephen (Tuesdays are free!).  There was a lot of great stuff there and it's a beautiful space, but because I seem to be developing an obsessive one-track mind, I was particularly drawn to Little Face, a mobile sculpture by Alexander Calder.  The photo I linked to isn't that great, but the important thing is that it is clearly the form of a face composed of recognizable objects.  The mouth is the broken half of a reflector, like the kind found on the back of a bicycle.  This strikes me as really the greatest aesthetic trick of the human brain.  I can altogether at once appreciate the red object hanging by a string as a mouth and a reflector.  It's an important part of my thinking right now that while watching a play we never forget that we're in a theater.  An audience will be as active as you let it be.  A real possibility:  hold a gun onstage and call it an ice cream cone.  

Sure, there may be limits to human imagination, but my real point is that I think in producing plays we far too often confuse what an audience needs or doesn't need to be real.  In Grey Gardens, for instance, a scene begins with a golf ball tossed onstage and a group of golfers following after it.  We understand that we are to believe the golf ball was hit.  The caddy takes the ball from the child who picked it up and "sets up" the next hit.  What he really does is dramatically hold the golf ball then place it down on the ground and then take it away with the same stroke.  Then the golfer stands before where the ball had been placed (where we imagine the ball still is) and swings at nothing, at which point we hear a sound effect through the speakers of a swinging club and a struck ball.  It's strikes me that this is an inelegant moment in the production, precisely because it is unclear on what we need or don't need to see or hear.  Does the trick have an ideal spectator?  Someone that would watch the ball being placed and then look away until the swing only then to see that the ball is gone?  This is foolish and unlikely.  

The truth is, if we don't need to see him actually hit a ball, then we don't need to see the ball be placed anywhere--it is a solution that creates its own problem.  This doesn't mean we need to do away with all props, I don't really mean to incite everyone to theatrical puritanism, but what we should constantly recognize is that we have the freedom to be abstract, the freedom to be bare.  We should always build theater from nothingness, from a bare stage--because that's all we need.  When we start from a picture (moving or mental) we get confused as to what the theatrical experience really demands.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Revival and Responsibility online

My first post on this blog was a re-titled version of my original essay "The Aesthetics of Revival" which was published by the Midway Review and is now available as a pdf from their website along with the rest of the issue.  Check it out here.  (Sorry, it's a little slow.)

Friday, November 28, 2008

A word more on musicals

And art in general, from the great David Mamet.

Beauty as a Choice

I've written about my preference for extradiegetic singing in musicals--songs that exist outside the 'reality' of the piece but express something  heightened or special.  These do seem to be the essential trait of musical theater as an independent genre.  As long as characters are singing ostensibly 'known' songs within the context of the narrative--even if these are new songs composed for the play--there is nothing in the musical that we wouldn't expect from theater in general.  But when we accept the added conceit of songs expressing unspoken (unspeakable) emotions or conditions, we enter the realm of The Musical.  

Grey Gardens offers an interesting example of this.  When Ms. Resnik plays Little Edie in the second act she employs two modes of singing.  When Edie is singing diegetically (to Jerry in "The House We Live In", or to the Maysles Brothers/Audience in "The Revolutionary Costume for Today"), she sings employing her thick New England accent.  She brilliantly sacrifices the 'beauty' in the song for the sake of her character.  But, when she sings extradiegetically in "Another Winter in a Summer Town" she sings it beautifully (in fact, really beautifully), and we can presume her voice is now unencumbered by her neuroses or her region and she sings from the soul.  

This is an amazingly effective choice and the kind of choice that shows the potential and the power (if, still, the sentimentality) of musical theater, and the rewards granted by taking the additional leap its genre demands of the audience.  To make beauty and ugliness an aesthetic choice is an uncommon position in this more conventional world, but it pays off for the performance and for the form.

It is convenient, perhaps, that we are to understand her soul's voice as beautiful.  Taking this line of argument to its extreme it would be interesting to hear what Polpot's voice (for instance) would sound like in an extradiegetic context (or how this would be applied to Sondheim's Assassins).   The real case may be that Ms. Resnik is simply singing 'neutrally' (luckily, this means beautifully) when her character is exempt from narrative demands.  Either way, I do think it is important in Musicals to differentiate these separate modes of singing as a means to examine their significance to the character, the narrative, and (of course) the audience.

Hat Tip

Thanks to Nick Keenan at for the hat tip to my Miraculous Medium post.  Thanks for all your good work, Nick, keep it up!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Miraculous Medium

When the cinema was young, it was, with the peephole and the x-ray, part of a group of new mechanical attractions marvelous simply as technological feats. So at first, it was of little moment what was depicted onscreen, the remarkable thing was really its essential trick: to make a picture move. Any picture would do—the Lumières’ children playing on the lawn, a man on a bicycle, a train pulling into a station. It was the medium itself that was the star, and the material it used was only good inasmuch as it highlighted the possibilities of the medium.

Eventually the novelty wore off, and the enterprising projectionist looked to narrative to capture and hold an audience’s attention. He began by sequencing his random clips in such a way as to tell a vague kind of story, supplying himself a spoken narration. Finally he began looking for complete stories told on film. Because they were constructing narratives by means of actors portraying roles, the cinema found a guide in the theater. This older brother had two millennia worth of material to use and a bevy of willing talents and techniques that quickly were devoured by film.

Film was economical. With a projector, a screen, and a train ticket, a single film could generate profits for years. Movie tickets were then, as now, cheaper than theater and a film could be shown a dozen times a day without the actors keeling over from exhaustion. Furthermore, the cinema was quick to discover its unique abilities—the cross cut, the close-up, temporal (over spatial) continuity—and it became not a mere mechanical attraction, no more a simple sleight of hand, but an art.

As an art it began to distance itself from the theater. The critic André Bazin, for example, argued carefully for preserving the distinction of the two, even and especially when used in conjunction. German Expressionism of the 1920s to this day remains criticized primarily for its theatricality—its use of unnatural sets and makeup. As the cinema rose to the foreground of culture and imagination, the theater lost its seat as the popular art and retreated to itself, to its private harem of enthusiasts and educators.

But today the next phase is beginning, and it is a bone-achingly exciting time because the ground under the theater is shaking. You’ll laugh, but on the buses and subway trains of Chicago there’s an ad for the new stage musical at the Cadillac Palace theater—an adaptation from the film Dirty Dancing. The ads read: The Classic Story Onstage. Onstage. The ad campaign consists of an assertion of a miraculous medium. The theater has become an attraction for its own sake.

What does that mean for us in the theater, we who are so proud of our content? How could it be good news? It will be good news if we can succeed in identifying the attraction, capitalize on it, and then maintain the new audiences it brings as we head into the next inevitable step. Well, what does compose the theatrical attraction? Considering that Dirty Dancing is a musical perhaps it offers song, dance, and a certain kind of spectacle. It would be easy to think that what the theater needs to survive, then, is to dedicate itself solely to musical productions. This isn’t quite right, because the film of Dirty Dancing has music and dance—of a different sort surely, but it’s difficult to believe that the entire reason someone would be willing to pay $40 for a show they could rent for $4 is just to finally hear Baby sing. What the theater offers is the living encounter. And since it really is this simple, inherent aspect of the theater that promises to save it, then it truly can be saved.

The cinema’s inherent attraction was technological and so, like all technologies, this attraction faded. Indeed cinema has become so pervasive in our culture that its miracle is entirely invisible and the medium exists only for its content and its position as a cultural commonplace. The attraction of the theater, however, is not technological and can be experienced afresh at every performance. At any performance the actor could stare you in the eyes and call you out by name, or you in the audience could rise out of your seat and embrace the crying orphan onstage. It is only a communal will to complete a story that keeps these things from happening.

Rather than scoff and gag at the money being spent on the ‘theatricalizations’ of cinema which have so suddenly flooded the marketplace, we need to convert this event attendance into habitual attendance, focus the theatrical experience on the encounter, and scale back inessential features that drive up ticket prices and distract from this essential attraction. Overdressed theater is like a film of a still photograph—it misses the whole point.

This isn’t to say we have nothing to learn from the cinema. We need to try new methods to advertise theater to new audiences. Filmed clips of plays online will never work. Never. We should try ‘trailers,’ bits and scenes performed live at other shows around town. We should emphasize ‘local’ before that grows stale (if its not too late). But most of all we should never think of audiences as nuisances, rabble, or masters, but as partners. I don’t think we need to fear that theater will disappear completely, but if we don’t capitalize on this fresh moment and the attraction evidenced by these new adaptations, the theater will continue to slink unnoticed in the purgatory of ‘high art’ with jazz and contemporary painting as its lonely neighbors. The theater can decide today to be vital: let’s.

A Working Definition

Theater is humans being alone together in a room, creating a world complete and distinct from the earth we inherited, and everyone in the room is integral and everyone in the world is invited.

Grey Gardens

I'm currently working as a spotlight operator for the Northlight Theatre's production of Grey Gardens.  Without saying anything about this particular production (which just seems like bad form), I do think that the script is immoral.  It is, however, selling well and the reviews are very positive, which is nice.  See Sun-Times, particularly.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

I'm Also in Pictures

Here's a Teaser Trailer for my friend Jim Plank's short film The Rehearsal:

Thinking about 'Color-Blind' Casting

About two weeks ago now I saw a remarkable production of The Voysey Inheritance at Remy Bumppo (see under 'Allies' at right). Much good has rightly been said about the production, though perhaps too much of this praise has focused on the 'timeliness' of a show about money managers, managing poorly, and I hope to put up a more complete review of this play shortly. However, I'd like to think first about an incidental aspect of this production and abstract it to its most useful. The play is about late 19th Century London aristocrats and the role of the youngest daughter of the large Voysey family was ebulliently played by Sharina Martin, a fine young actress who happens to be of African descent.

Now I think any educated theater-goer (and sadly all theater-goers are educated theater-goers) is familiar with this most fundamental convention of the stage—that those onstage are pretending to be persons they are not. So realizing that Ms. Martin’s character is white, though she herself is black, should not necessarily be anymore difficult. Quite the contrary, the reluctance I have about color-blind casting is that it may draw attention away from the play and toward the production, toward the recognition of the casting process at work—not as an irreconcilable obstacle to comprehension but as an overly instructive illustration of offstage work.

More importantly, there are so many things a ‘post-racial’ casting decision could ‘mean.’ Is it that this one character ought to stand out in our minds in some way? Are we to identify this person as incongruous, as privileged or oppressed as some snap-judgment reflection of our social system might allow? Or, are we to ignore it?

The deepest way in which ‘color-blind’ casting becomes problematic is in the following pair of observations. First, we are not color-blind (yet?): we will notice. Second, color-blind casting is not, like so many other incidental aspects and conventions of the theater, immediately interpretable. We know how to ‘read’ a stage-hand all in black walking on to move a chair—even in the middle of a scene—we ignore him. Conversely, if the tree onstage is green and leafy in Act One and brown and sparse in Act Two, we know how to read that—time has passed—even though this is not necessarily clear. Why should we ignore a person making some necessary action? We should time necessarily go forward and why would a tree signify that? But these conventions we accept.

Could it be then, that ‘color-blind’ casting is merely too young a convention to have become truly conventional? I suppose that is my argument. The trouble is, how will it be conventionalized and when, and what shall we do in the meantime?

My inclination is that it will be conventionalized as meaningless rather than as meaningful, and I think that has a few reasons. First, the largest group of theater-goers in this country right now would prefer to think of race as a non-issue, regardless of the truth of that claim. They would prefer to see race as a matter as superficial as the color of one’s hair, again despite the several stumbling blocks to such a belief—an actor for instance cannot walk out of a store-front salon forty-bucks later and be temporarily Asian. Furthermore, if ‘post-racial’ casting were to be meaningful the varieties of its possible meanings would probably be too complicated to control and may again bring out an unwelcome conversation.

It’s probably evident that I am not certain that this is the best use of resources. I am glad it will shake up casting departments enough that the classic plays by Dead White Men need not perpetuate necessarily an unfair distribution of roles along racial lines, and that it may allow the best actors—regardless of race—be given the proper roles.  

A lingering difficulty will be in dealing with those plays in which jagged racial relations are central to the actual theme. In a trivial example, in a future of truly color-blind casting will the opening scenes of Steve Martin’s The Jerk not be funny? I think there will be a danger in rendering race meaningless onstage. But, perhaps in doing so we will light extra fire to those times in which suddenly, sharply, race is meaningful. Like a stage-hand who comes on to fix a prop, then turns to the audience and screams. Conventions are not (obviously) made to be broken, and will not be, but when made they might be, and what happens then? 

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Cliché Watch: Stomping

This will be a recurring feature.  Clichés are dangerous only when we're not aware of them; they come into our brains easily and let us believe we are excellent because--and I think this is really the vital bit--we think we are inventing them.  When a white person on TV uses rap slang ironically he really thinks it will be funny or fresh.  He's terribly wrong.  So I'll use this feature to point out clichés as I see them, this is not the same as saying that the things I list are bad, they are just henceforth unusable.

So, Stomping.  I don't really know why, but it's very important to march and/or stomp in place in abstract or "avant garde" theater.  This is not nice to watch, let's stop it.  Yes, even in Harolds.  It's just a little bit stupid.  Maybe marching makes for a good warm-up...listen, I'm not really trying to say there's no place for stomping, just not onstage.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008


I forgot to mention the most important review of all.  Last week I went through a big stack of the Audience Responses from the preview performances.  My part in this play is largely providing extra bodies in "crowd scenes" that really just mean that the other intern and I walk out and form a little couple on the catwalk upstage.  Well, the majority of the responses were very positive but no less than TWO remarked that the couple upstage was "Confusing and Pointless!"  So I've earned the nickname CP...and secretly hope it sticks.    

...And a few more

TimeOut Chicago,  Tribune, Chicago Stage Review.  I'm unlikely to keep up with them from now on, and 10 is more than enough.  This would be a really appropriate time for me to give a real review myself, but I think I'll excuse myself out of a conflict of interest.   

Monday, September 29, 2008

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Significant News

Harry Potter...naked!  Didn't the theater used to be the avant garde?  Doesn't liberalism and scandal abound?  Aren't we tired of hearing that the word actress is the equivalent of prostitute in some convenient number of languages?  Why then, for god's sake, is it so important to report that Daniel Radcliff is naked in a play?  Are we so desperate for puns?  Here, here, you can look up the rest.

A Return to the Theater of My Mind

So I've been a bit busy at the Northlight Theatre where I am working on their current production of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher. Here are some reviews: Sun-TimesPioneer Local, and  The reviews are sort of all over the place, which is interesting.  It took me so long to believe in aesthetic absolutism (which is obviously remarkably unpopular) it is surprising how quickly I'm reminded of the subjectivity of art's impression on individuals.  

By aesthetic absolutism what I guess I mean is the belief in an objective gauge of excellence in aesthetic matters.  I do truly believe that this exists.  I believe a person can say, unapologetically, that Life as a House is a bad movie.  Or that King Lear is a great play.  This matters.  

Often people ask in dressing rooms or on barstools what gives a critic the right to judge art.  The answer is simple, the critic has seen the show.  Everyone who sees the show is the critic and everyone has a right to an opinion.  But in the same way that a person's opinion on cats doesn't change whether or not cats exist, or one's opinion of a single cat doesn't change whether it is male or female, calico or black, one's opinion of a production will be influenced but not necessarily defined by the production's excellence.  Down Periscope is a film I enjoy, but it is not a great film.  The Homecoming is a good play, but I don't really care for it.  The ability to distinguish these makes a good critic, the harmony of them, perhaps, makes an excellent one.

At any rate, enjoy these reviews if you can.  I'll post more as they crop up.  Also here's a link to buy tickets to the show to see if these clowns are right.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Quick Update

So, Pericles closed on Friday and went off pretty well.  I still don't think it's Shakespeare's greatest play, or anything like that, but it is complicated and ambitious.  The topoi of familial relationships, nationality, and sanctity I think are a particularly interesting backdrop in a sort of whirlwind adventure.  I also really admire the time Shakespeare takes to color some of the smallest characters.  One of the workers at the brothel in Mytilene gets a wonderful little moment when Marina asks to be put "amongst honest women," and he responds, "Faith, madam my acquaintance lies little amongst them" with a kind of honest self-deprecation.  All in all, a solid show.

Now I'm helping out with a rock opera entitled Dead Superheroes, music and lyrics by Mark Winston and book by Jack Tamburri.  We're preparing for a scaled-down performance of the first act at the Abbie Hoffman Theatre Festival.  Here are some links to check it out, let me know what you think.  The Dead Superheroes (the music), Abbie Hoffman Theatre Festival.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Getting Off Book

More on the essence of theater being alive onstage.  As I've mentioned I've been working on a production of Shakespeare's Pericles for the past month and there's one joke that has completely baffled me this whole time.
Well, call forth, call forth.

For flesh and blood, sir, white and red, you shall
see a rose; and she were a rose indeed, if she had but--

What, prithee?

O, sir, I can be modest.
So, on paper this joke didn't make any damn sense this whole month.  IF SHE HAD BUT WHAT??  But today I read the joke aloud for the first time, the joke isn't really in what he doesn't say, it's in what he does say "a rose" "arose" -- aroused.  If only you could get her aroused.  Because Marina is beautiful but sworn to chastity.  Perhaps this is the most trivial example of the importance of living theater, but seriously it's going to improve the hell out of the scene for this to be an intelligible joke.  If any one else has any other ideas about this joke feel free to email or post them, it's from Act IV, Scene 6.  Maybe I'm still overlooking something.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Carol vs. Carrel

Serves me right for making fun of libraries.  An intrepid reader points out "carrel" is the more common spelling for little reading cubicles.  Although I swear I looked it up first.  My apologies.  (Entries from the OED).

The Will to Submission

Unremarkably, I suppose, I really love food.  I especially like it if it comes off a truck, wagon, or small hole in a wall, but I can settle for having to sit down occasionally as well.  Something I've noticed about a lot of my favorite places to eat and drink, however, is how many rules and restrictions they have and how willingly the hungry will submit to any manner of impositions.

Highly limited offerings are essential.  At some of the best places you can only get one thing (usually tacos), but limited menus in general tend to promise imminent delight.  Hot Doug's is an obvious example as is Kuma's Corner (you could get something besides a burger, but you'd be stupid) and Johnny's Tavern has a full bar, but you'll never see anyone with anything besides whatever Czech beer Johnny is handing out that night.  Other important factors are difficulty of access and odd hours.  We love to be abused!

The rules function in a few different ways.  Most important of these may be the way in which they immediately highlight regulars: anyone who already knows all the rules belongs there, and tourists or first-timers stick out strongly. I also just like the ceremony of it all.  Surmounting the hassle makes it all just taste a little sweeter.  Importantly though, and I hope this isn't too much of a stretch, the place has to deliver on its own terms.  Like "Hamlet on Mars," if the only thing you can say about a place is all the hoops you have to jump through once you get there, no one is going to go.  The food has to be worth it.  The adventure of a place like Johnny's might be enough to get a few new people in the door every weekend but if that Czech beer weren't great, or Johnny so charming no one would go back a second time.  

The narrative of attendance, then, that is so important to marketing-- "what is going there?," "why should I go there?," "who else goes there?" -- fails if the art fails.  We are just so desperate for that product that we are willing to submit to the precedence of these minutia in our search.

I guess I'd be stupid if I didn't link to some Soup Nazi, enjoy.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Justify my Show?

There really is a commonly held belief that a new production of an old show has somehow to justify its existence and while I have covered this a little bit before, I think I want to tackle it again.  On one level I like the discipline of such a belief, and I think having producers and directors deeply ask themselves before embarking on a new production, "why do I get to do this?"  might aid in the avoidance of some bad work.  But the troubling thing about this tendency is that it misunderstands the theatrical experience (and excellence) to a rather stunning degree.  That is, it understands scripts as the fundamental unit of theater and theater, then, as a principally literary form--something to be read in a high-school class, or puzzled over in a library carol--defined by direct discourse immediately delivered by characters taking opposing sides in a struggle.  This misses the whole point!  Theater is something that happens on a stage with actors and an audience, and a script, while helpful, has long been proven inessential to a play.  An author has written a script.  Great.  But it isn't theater until it is recited onstage.  The real thing to justify is reading it in a classroom.  

Moreover, I fear the present necessity of justifying revivals has actually led to an unfortunate anxiety about them, an anxiety which has forced people instead of making excellent productions to resort to elaborate ideas.  These ideas distinguish shows and sell them, make a narrative about why a new production is relevant or necessary but distract from the truth.  The truth is that the play--not the production--is relevant and necessary; if it weren't it wouldn't be worth doing again.  The "idea production" will only be a game of smoke and mirrors to distract from the play itself unless the decisions are motivated and excellent.  One should only ever need to say, "I saw an excellent production of Hamlet last night," not "I saw a Hamlet set on Mars last night."  Could a great Hamlet be done on Mars? Well, yes, of course.  But Mars won't make it great.  Good acting, good direction, good design, and by god, a damn fine script will make it a good show.  Whatever gets in the way of these things will be deadly.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Plays and Movies

A funny thing happened today that really reminded me how fundamentally different movies are from the theater.  I'm going to be acting in my friend Jim Plank's new movie (currently titled The Rehearsal) and we had a meeting today to discuss it.  Jim mentioned to me that if I came across a gold watch I should buy it because we need it for a prop.  I pointed out to him that it didn't really matter because I have silver and gold spray paint in the prop closet and I could just spray any watch to be what he wants.  He stopped for a while and then pointed out that the film was going to start with a close-up on the watch and that it would probably be pretty obvious if it had been spray-painted.

I think one of the things I really like about theater is the partiality of its artifice: as soon as you're backstage--even onstage--it's evident where all the secrets come from.  That book you're saying is the bible is really a math textbook from the '20s, those cigarettes have jelly in the center, and none of the windows open in the palace.  Film doesn't get away with that kind of thing.  There is a high premium on "realism" because, on one level, it really is necessary. 

I've been worrying about the contemporary relationship between film and theater for a while now, and I'll post the results as soon as there are any.  Until then, here's Jerzy Grotowski on the stakes of the debate: "In our age when all languages are confused as in the Tower of Babel, when all aesthetical genres intermingle, death threatens the theater as film and television encroach upon its domain.  This makes us examine the nature of theater, how it differs from the other art forms, and what it is that makes it irreplaceable." (From "The Theatre's New Testament" in Towards a Poor Theatre)

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Pericles Update

My friend Rose wrote a little piece on the Pericles we've been working on.  Here's the link.  Also, points to UChiBLOGo for being the best/worst portmanteau of all time.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Unpacking Sighs, cont'd.

Since I posted "Funeral Blues" yesterday I can't stop thinking about another of my favorite Auden poems, "O Tell Me the Truth About Love." Also, probably the most common example of what I was talking about, in fact, is the Broadway Musical.  Isn't that what's great about musicals after all? Everything stops and someone expresses something so strong she just has to belt it out. I think Brook's point still holds, for a serious actor the decision lies in choosing if you suspend your acting work for those three minutes to indulge in what is at its core a sort of silly reiteration of a generic requirement, or if you rather understand your character as a person who really sings to express himself.  For a director the matter hinges upon understanding what the difference is from the house.  I'm not sure yet.  In the meantime here's the poem and a clip from one of my favorite sighs unpacked in a song, from My Fair Lady.

Tell Me the Truth About Love, by W. H. Auden

Some say that love's little boy,
And some say it's a bird,
Some say it makes the world go round,
And some say that's absurd,
And when I asked the man next-door,
Who looked as if he knew,
His wife got very cross indeed,
And said it wouldn't do.

Does it look like a pair of pyjamas,
Or the ham in the temperance hotel?
Does its odour remind one of llamas,
Or has it a comforting smell?
Is it prickly to touch as a hedge is,
Or soft as eiderdown fluff?
Is it sharp or quite smooth at the edges?
O tell me the truth about love.

Our history books refer to it
In cryptic little notes,
It's quite a common topic on
The Transatlantic boats;
I've found the subject mentioned in
Accounts of suicides,
And even seen it scribbled on
The backs of railway-guides.

Does it howl like a hungry Alsatian,
Or boom like a military band?
Could one give a first rate imitation
On a saw or Steinway Grand?
Is its singing at parties a riot?
Does it only like classical stuff?
Will it stop when one wants to be quiet?
O tell me the truth about love.

I looked inside the summer-house;
It wasn't ever there:
I tried the Thames at Maidenhead,
And Brighton's bracing air.
I don't know what the blackbird sang,
Or what thye tulip said;
But it wasn't in the chicken-run,
Or underneath the bed.

Can it pull extraordinary faces?
Is it usually sick on a swing?
Does it spend all its times at the races,
Or fiddling with pieces of string?
Has it views of its own about money?
Does it think patriotism enough?
Are its stories vulgar but funny?
O tell me the truth about love.

When it comes, will it come without warning
Just as I'm picking my nose?
Will it knock on my door in the morning,
Or tread in the bus on my toes?
Will it come like a change in the weather?
Will its greeting be courteous ror rough?
Will it alter my life altogether?
O tell me the truth about love?

Here's the song (jump to about 2:03):

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Pericles and Poetry

So I'm currently at work on a (vest-less!) production of Shakespeare's Pericles.  I've divided the production into four episodes and we're performing it serially on Wednesdays until the middle of August.  One of the challenges of the play is its shifting tone--at one moment it's undeniably comic, the next it's profoundly sad or even desperate--and informing this its multiplicity of styles.  The narrator of the play is Gower (a 14th century author) who speaks in highly wrought archaisms, his narrations are punctuated by little mimed scenes that move the action through time and space, the beginning of the play is heavy with rhymed couplets and relentlessly perfect iambs, and the latter half moves briskly through verse and prose sometimes seemingly too lightly for its subject matter.

Peter Brook, in his concise and delightful Evoking and Forgetting Shakespeare speaks of the need to avoid dwelling on authorial concerns in the creation of characters in a Shakespearian production.  He writes of the necessity of believing that one has the precise transcript of a real person's thoughts and words, to believe that this poetry is an accurate depiction of the speech of a remarkable person.  Many authors have a notable style, perhaps the most evident modern example is David Mamet, and necessarily these styles bring to mind certain characteristics. As Mamets men are swift-speaking and ferocious eking out telegraphic retorts, Shakespeare's expound and waver, and take the time to see through their immediate concerns to universal complexities and themes.  It is a grand depiction of humanity but suppose I must agree that  we must shoulder this kind of honesty when doing these plays.  To allow actors to concern themselves with authorial intention and error is to insure a two-dimensional, if functional, portrayal.  Thus the difficulty for us has been in consistently and creatively motivating these dramatic changes in tone as the continued unmediated expression of real persons' state.

My favorite aspect of the challenge of honestly inhabiting poetry is that what we might indicate simply on film as a single glance, a tightened lip, or a wry smile is spelled out broadly and without apology over the course of an entire soliloquy.  Although we are more accustomed to the opposite (searching the text for clues to elaborate backstories and motivations not actually present), it is sometimes helpful for an actor to think about that simple human moment that this wealth of poetry describes--how to distill it to a second--before we dwell in it for minutes  

A more modern example is Auden's famous "Funeral Blues" which I think is perfect in the same way, in that it explicates with powerful precision what I know I could only say in an swallowed sigh:

"Funeral Blues" by W.H. Auden

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone.
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling in the sky the message He is Dead,
Put crêpe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever, I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun.
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

I have wondered if it's the more evident artificiality of the theater that lets us explore these emotions in a "non-naturalistic" way, but what Brook admonishes us to do is insist on the naturalism and exceptionalism of this manner of expression, to be in awe of the characters as characters, precisely not as the creations of a genius working in  art to express his themes.  It is a surprising challenge and I hope we can succeed at it.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Manifestos, cont'd.

By the way, the costumers have a manifesto too.

Shakespeare and Vests

Spent all afternoon cleaning out the costume room and I reminded myself of my current soapbox.  In contemporary productions of Shakespeare--particularly but by no means exclusively amateur--it's very important everyone wears vests.  I'm sure you've noticed it, how dapper Richard III looks in his trenchcoat and vest, how jolly Falstaff is with his round paunch peeking over his little red vest.  Even fairies get to wear vests--best of all, without shirts!  Anyway, any submitted pictures of Shakespeare productions without vests will get posted here, and any production in Chicago I promise to go see.   (note: Togas don't count)

Thursday, July 10, 2008


But what I really want to do is direct.  Here are clips of and links to a recent production of Bach's Coffee Cantata that I was involved in -- a one-act opera about the love for coffee...and men.  I was the theatrical director, my friend Stephen Raskauskas was the Musical Director and Overall Architect,  Laura Burkhauser did the new translation, and Mieka Van Der Ploeg did the amazing costumes.  

Here is one of my favorite arias from the piece all about how delicious coffee is (perhaps the first evidence for this theory):


I mentioned my love for manifestos.  Here are some real ones: Artaud, Dada, Surrealism, and of course the obvious one.

Revival and Responsibility

Here's an article I wrote a few months ago about theatrical revivals. It seems as good an introduction as any and is the closest thing I have so far to a manifesto.

Last winter’s production at the Court Theatre of Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw raised for me many questions about the means and merits of revivals. In the theatrical landscape of Chicago, revivals are everywhere. The Court, for instance, has dedicated itself exclusively to “classic theatre” and it is by no means alone. On any given night of theater one is more likely to see an old play than a new one. (For the sake of full disclosure, in the past four years I have been involved in the production of 14 plays, the most modern of which dates to about 1734.) It is necessary, then, to understand what it means to produce an old play, and how it must be treated. The views expressed in this article will be dismissed by many as conservative, but I reject the pejorative connotations of the label. My program is rigorous and insistent on the widest diversity of theatrical experiences and the continued creation of new and vibrant plays.

The production of What the Butler Saw and its director Sean Graney received varied but generally positive reviews from the major arts and news sources of Chicago. In fact, one of the few negative reviews centered mostly on the author’s personal distaste for Joe Orton rather than on any feature of the production itself. Overall, the design was inspired: the antiseptic façade of clinical calm provided the perfect canvas on which insanity could splatter itself, jolting to life with the satisfaction of anticipation well-rewarded at every flower cut and every table overturned. The acting was evenly exceptional, particularly the ecstatic madness of Joe Foust and the doe-eyed desperation of Mechelle Moe. For all this though, the show, which was enjoyable, failed to reach its potential.

Sean Graney’s direction, while laudable in providing the environment necessary for a cohesive and glittery production, seemed ultimately antagonistic to the play. Setting it in the modern day, rather than the play’s contemporary 1960s England, allowed Graney to indulge in unmotivated and overwrought excursions through the Ridalin-addled subconscious of the immediate present. Dr. Rance’s fetish (?) for robot masks and spaceships (wholly absent from the text) was unveiled as Elton John’s “Rocketman” blasted from the speakers; the policeman, stripped, revealed an unmotivated and exhausting cat fixation—these additions obscured with bold brush the more pointed sexual revelations of principal characters Dr. and Mrs. Prentice. Graney seemed unconcerned also with the tireless pace and dazzling wit of Orton’s style. He slowed to an accentuated crawl dialogue written for the snap of a wit and the quick sting of the rebuttal to follow.

All this, I am confident, was undertaken nobly with an eye toward “modernizing” the play, and making it more palatable to an American audience of our present day. Unfortunately, ever intent on wrestling from it some new meaning or hip relevance that the play itself is entirely unconcerned with, Graney missed its native excellence. What the Butler Saw is still dirty, still smart, still fast and funny, as when it was written. Barely forty years old, it deals with themes that the avant-garde of every generation for over a hundred years has taken credit for—it is accessible.

When we revive classic plays, we universally strive for the least interference toward the greatest intelligibility. If the play is foreign, we need to get it into English. Other aspects of the dramatic environment we leave uninterrupted because they are either essential to the piece, or at least convenient and delightful. We don’t need to translate Shakespeare but we acknowledge his language offers many barriers to immediate comprehension. This is one of the better reasons we have to defend the contemporary necessity of transplanting Shakespeare’s plays to any number of times and settings, or for forgiving the much worse habit of the winking, bucking, over-expression of every possible sexual pun. And even when such unmistakable linguistic barriers drop, there are always others—subtler and discreetly located but still challenging. Throw-away lines about obscure pop-culture figures, should these be changed, cut, or left to fall to a twitter? And how can we wrestle with impertinent themes or outdated styles?

It is appealing for these reasons to think of every revival as a kind of translation, but this flirts with missing the point of revivals in the first place. Indeed, why insist that a revival is a translation when it could be rather a journey into the realities and concerns of a different time? How marvelous, when there, to learn that these concerns are still my concerns, that I am not alone in the universe! Why, in theater, do we feel the need to bend the texts to us? We do not ask this of books or of films. We never ask why the Joads didn’t take a plane to California. We can watch Dr. Strangelove and not lament its foreign Cold War paranoia. We don’t remake it to our current tastes. Art worth revisiting is worth revisiting honestly and worth acknowledging for the author’s intents and concerns. If these are seen as too foreign, or if anyone has an idea to position the piece in some entirely new way to render it more fresh and exciting for a new generation, he is welcome to write a new play. We should take as an example the recent Merchant On Venice produced at The Silk Road Theatre Company. The play has its own imperfections, certainly, but it strikes me at least as more honest about its deviation from its Shakespearean kernel then, say, Court’s more recent Titus Andronicus. Theater has an illustrious history of telling stories everyone already knows, why pretend homosexuality or Indian-Pakistani relations into Shakespeare’s play when we can rather endow new circumstances with the weight and brilliance of the well-known tale?

By avoiding the analog of translation, we can also escape the translator’s traumas. When translating Plautus or Molière for production, we must determine whether we are asking ourselves if he were alive today in our country, what would he write? or are we acknowledging the singularity and concrete existence of a piece of work and allowing it to live for its time again on stage—an ancient voice in present tense? This is not a simple question. In his production, Graney was insistent on the former. He wanted to put on the What the Butler Saw that Orton would have written had he been alive in the early Chicago winter of 2007. But he didn’t succeed for the simplest reason: it wasn’t good enough. The textual changes were poor and noticeable—“Aunt Jemima Dolls,” for instance, loses all the rhythm of “golliwog”—and the unscripted additions were meandering or asinine.

We have an incredible inheritance in the masterpieces of the past. But, let’s never forget that iO is free at midnight, that the Neo-Futurists are on Ashland: options exist for an audience that wants well-written comedy tuned precisely for the contemporary ear and the same is true for tragedy. Not least of all, sublimating the native desires of the expressions of past generations, while insisting on the necessity of dwelling on them, injures the present as mortally as the past. As long as we consider it legitimate to inject any contemporary theme or point of reference into weathered masterpieces we rob ourselves the chance of letting a new play do that talking.

Theater is activity in time, it is fleeting and to some degree impossible to recreate. When we do a revival we insist that the two dimensional map of the drama is so excellent or so popular that it is worth walking through again. Certainly, we are not bound to produce the show exactly as it was originally done, this would be never fun and rarely interesting. We must produce shows that speak to our current circumstances as they honor their origin. We must draw out themes, arguments, characters, and ideas overlooked but extant in the dramas. But there must be something in the text sufficiently excellent to merit revisiting on its own terms: characters, language, themes, plot, or comedy; the list is long. In Orton’s case it is plot and comedy. The play is funny enough to warrant seeing again, and sufficiently unique in its comedy to merit being singled out and revived. Let then, the comedy, alone. In every case it is the justification for revival that must be preserved. If the comedy is not funny enough as written, why produce it? Let it fade into obscurity. We are not required to perform old plays. The academics can have them to ruminate and footnote. But if it is worth producing again—and What the Butler Saw is, Titus Andronicus is—let it be worth producing honestly.