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?