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.)