Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Opposite

Guy Ritchie is the worst screenwriter in the world, but, to be fair, he is not the worst director. He is only the worst director of the people who actually get to make movies. As we speak, there are human beings walking the Earth -- perhaps as many as a half dozen of them -- with less directorial talent, but they've been safely diverted into other activities.

Perhaps the best use of "to be fair" I've ever come across. Burn a candle for never having your name in that sentence.

(Hat Tip: Andrew Sullivan)

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Getting Hit, Cont'd

New Leaf looks to a renaissance financial and creative model. So why does it feel like a revolution?


Getting Hit

This is fun read, not for its long wander down a sort of unproductive analytical path, but as an example of getting hit hard by whatever the power of a remarkable aesthetic experience is.

There isn't really any explaining it. I got hit pretty hard a couple months ago here and I was no less restrained in my catalogue of overblown language. There's just something about great art that gets us, both exhausts and excites us. It's what keeps us going back to the theater or the movies or whatever. We want to be so struck.

Crouch does bring up another interesting point about theater today: it bleeds. A lot of theater works to incorporate every medium available, to incorporate into it every technology, but when it comes down to it, the difference is life and blood. Whenever people talk about 3-D movies I always say, "Like a play?" This rarely gets a laugh. Oh well.

(Hat tip: LRN)

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Non-profit Accounting...Fun (Updated)

(updated: I changed the earlier title of this post in an effort to reduce the hilarious amount of profoundly disappointed web-surfers. - bn)


(Hat Tip: The Wizard)

Note that The New Leaf, producers of one of my favorite shows of the season, has the smallest operating budget by a rather significant margin (WNEP comes in second).

It's how you use it.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


Caught the closing of The Mystery of Irma Vep the other night at the Court in honor of my friend Jack's birthday. What a fantastic show.

I always like Closing nights in general - much more than opening - because they tend to feel like a party, rather than an audition. In fact, in the past year, three of my four or five favorite shows I caught on closing night. But, anyway...

Two really interesting things struck me about Irma Vep. First, for all the talk about making theater more like a Rock Concert, this show made it pretty clear: make it great. Really good theater, theater that grabs you by the neck, has the same visceral effect as rock music. That's it. You can toss in a lot of other nonsense that happens to be at rock concerts, but that won't do anything. Make the show exciting, unpredictable, fantastic, and most importantly: share your virtuosity. What makes Rock music or the Blues so accessible and so immediate is how evident their excellence is. When the form is simple, it's easy to shine. How do you know a great runner? He's the one you can't catch. How do you know a great golfer? I don't know: they all seem to be doing the same thing to me.

Theater is a remarkably complicated medium. There's hundreds of hours put into all kinds of things that in the best case, audiences will never notice, but highlighting specific, approachable excellences is what excites audiences.

The other intriguing thing about Irma Vep is its position as a classic. To a surprising degree, the director's art is really most evident when working with a classic text. This is why I suppose, a lot of serious directors spend most of their time working with classics, I imagine, though I doubt they'd admit it. If you already know Our Town, you'll be amazed when there's new life there. This is, by the way, the same reason that even in their own time writers like Euripides and Shakespeare were so astonishing. They were telling stories - we only thought we knew.

The funny thing about this is that the Court's production of Irma Vep situates it as a classic even though all that that entails - being widely known - is lacking. So Graney's astonishing work with the final scene is not received as directorial virtuosity. It should still seem like a tremendous coup, but Graney's a lot less likely to get the credit.

Well here it is, absurdly belated, and completely irrelavent: well done, sir. And to the cast and crew of and all of the unseen hours (you minding the ropes in act two), thanks for your virtuosity.

Monday, December 14, 2009


New Full Storefrontal up on WNEP. Also, if you don't, you should check out Don Hall's blog.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Minstrel Show

After a play this weekend I turned to the person next to me and was forced to ask, "who's going to be the last person to do a minstrel show?" I meant it as a rhetorical question, but her answer was simple: "Do you really think that will happen?"

Oh. Well. No. But why the hell not? On one level I suppose it will always be an underbelly of cultural differences for members of one culture to find it satisfying or entertaining to see members of their own culture "act like" members of another culture. I can see how maybe that's just a human instinct. And maybe even in the way it's "funny" for football players to act like nerds it's "funny" for a white person to "act black." The juxtaposition of cultures, a person will argue, is the entertainment, not actually the ridicule of a single group.

But, life is a lot more complicated than that. In fact, the very idea of "acting black" is a vicious cultural virus, and the even more fundamental idea of interpreting action as color is a remarkably perverse and destructive synesthesia.

So: stop it. Stop assuming you can make racist jokes to me and it will be acceptible because "we're not racist." Don't you understand that you are assuming a white audience? That's bad. Stop expecting a laugh after every time you say "Shaniqua." You will not get one from me. The next time I see a white guy "act black" even to illustrate how hopelessly uncool he is, I walk out. That's the deal.

Now let me complicate this further by saying: cultural differences are funny.

Part of the genius of this bit is that not only does Dave Chappelle have a "white" voice - like every black comic in America - he also has a "black" voice - like every white person in America - and his play with the two stereotypes is what keeps the grape drink joke so dynamic. He is not interacting with a strawman he is pitting two strawmen against each other. So he explores differences from a more complicated way even as he overtly identifies with the black character ("us"/"you"). Interestingly, Chappelle also assumes a white audience (watch his pronouns throughout), a receptive but foreign other, who can't understand him. His use of the n-word too is pretty remarkable: upperclass, yankee, liberals address him with the n-word all the time in his bits.

So, if you have something to say about race, let's hear it. Sober, comic, challenging? Bring it on. "Post-racial"? Bullshit. Stop assuming I won't hate your show for making me complicit in perpetuating the worst and most aggravating self-righteousness of our time, the ludicrously pious pride of your comfortably snide, snickering racism.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Mabby Helps People

In the old days, the first son would take over the farm, the second son would go to war and the third son would go to the church. Times have changed, surely, and so my family sent one child to fix the world and the other to play dress up.

Mabby runs a Planned Parenthood clinic in Eagle Rock, California. Regardless of politics, this is an organization dedicated to public health and education, and one brave enough to dive into unpopular topics. Mabby helps people every day. When she goes to work, at the end of the day the world is better. Every day. We talk about the healing power of theater, we talk about its artistic position and its drive to shake the consciousness or change the world, but this isn’t an anxiety of Mabby’s: for her it’s as inevitable as her cup of afternoon tea or the throaty guffaw from her little, be-cardiganed body.

When we’re together, I spend a lot of time teasing her. And believe me, she’s strange, so she makes it easy. But the truth is, I love her and I’m proud of her every day. And no matter what she does next, I know it will involve helping people, because that’s who she is. She came out for Thanksgiving and bought me shampoo. Seriously. And conditioner. Who does that?

Today is her birthday and I hope someone does something nice for her.

Thickening Plot (Seeking Younger Audiences cont'd)

Still, who would have really thought this would be news? I mean if you landed your ship on earth and someone said to you, "As people get older they start paying $80 a night to see this other kind of music," wouldn't you be flabbergasted? Wouldn't you ask why?

(Hat Tip: Thomas Cott)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

A Cold Shower

From Thomas Cott.
· The [Newest NEA] report shows that since 1982, the number of 18-24-year-olds who said they had any music education in their lives has declined by more than a third.
· For visual arts education, the number has decreased by a half.
· One of the most surprising findings in the report was that people ages 45 to 54 -- who have historically been a significant component of arts audiences -- showed the steepest declines in attendance for arts events. Only 36% of those in this age group attended an arts event in 2008, versus 46% in 2002.

Whole article here.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Fugard Chicago, Cont'd

An answer to this question, from Stephanie Kulke of Remy Bumppo:
We actually came up with FugardChicago2010.org after our companies announced our 09/10 seasons and we had all programmed Fugard in same season. This being a very cooperative theater community, in huge part to the League of Chicago Theaters, we quickly got together to brainstorm how to collectively market the productions and share our resources. The League kindly offered to sponsor design of our FugardChicago2010 website - so that it can be used by other theater companies in the future. Thanks for helping get the word out: Fugard and these 3 daring plays definitely merit the attention of theatergoers from Chicagoland and beyond.

I still love this idea. After all the talk about season planning and collectivity after the Macbeth smorgasbord of last year, these companies and the League have actually made steps to do something about it that still grants them artistic autonomy. I can't wait to see how this develops.

Monday, December 7, 2009


I've got a new Podcast up on TheatreInChicago.com. Basically I crashed The Plagiarists' auditions for The Wreck of The Medussa and talked to the producers and a few actors about the audition process. It's a really interesting talk with some surprising bits thrown in. Check it out here, and for a complete picture of auditioning check out Anne Nicholson Weber's podcast from a while back with Casting Directors.

Fugard Chicago

This is a fantastically smart idea. Kudos to TimeLine, Remy Bumppo, and Court for this inspired collaboration. I wonder if this was the idea all along or, if upon realizing that all three companies were producing Fugard they decided to chip in and cooperate. Either way, I love it.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


I have to say, I'm excited by this show, if for no other reason than I think, of all the shows on Broadway, this is the most likely to get the response "awesome" from a person on the street. Here's how it goes down:

You know that movie In Bruges?


The guy that wrote that? He's this crazy Irish dude who writes all these violent-ass plays - he wrote a new play, and CHRISTOPHER WALKEN is in it.

No shit?

Yeah. He's a guy with no hand. And Sam Rockwell!


Seeking Young Audiences

My spies tell me that this has been the abstract desire of theater administrators for at least thirty years. As a palpable fissure in generational interests and activities emerged so too did the anxiety that what we so long believed an inherent and unshakable good - the theater - would slip like nickelodeons into a background of irrelevance. Indeed, since the advent of cinema a certain kind of person has dreaded the whole-scale collapse of live theater.

The condition is famous. Theater audiences are old. They will keep getting older and then die, and if the storybooks are right, there's nothing we can do to stop them from dying. When they die, no one will take their place, the theaters will be empty and then close, and all that money will be spent on video games.

But, what is a young audience? Is it children? Is it twenty-three year-olds? Thirty-three? Forty-three? As a member of at least one of these groups I sometimes wonder, what's so great about us? Sure, I'd love to see more plays that I like, but who would have thought that every artistic director in the country also wants to do more plays that I like? I don't have any money. (n.b. we could solve both of these problems if you hire me to do your "youth programming," whatever that would mean.)

But children, to a certain extent, are covered. Children's Theatre is an incredibly potent idea and one that everyone should take seriously. We have companies dedicated to performing plays for children all over the city, and I imagine that there could be more. Moreover, though there should always be more money for arts education, there is some, and the institution of the high school play and (I suppose) the high school musical is strong enough that we need never fear its disappearance. So everyone knows that the theater exists. That's a starting place.

Then, the issue is not awareness, we might say, but something more like, "Remember theater? You're invited, it's for you!" And then, the game is making that true. And if we can convince the twenty and thirty year-olds that the theater is for them, and have that be true, and then they come, and they like it, and they come back, and bring their friends, and if we can do that every year for a good percent of these young people, we'll never have to worry again.

But if the question is only about awareness that the theater is for them, we could, on the other hand, wait until they're fifty.

Before people die, if all goes according to plan, they turn fifty. Think about it. If you could get enough fifty year olds to keep your company above water, would you still care if I come? Is what you mean Audience Development and age just seems the most easily conquered subset? Do you want me or my money? I don't have any money.

So if you wanted, you could just make your case to people - "Hey, remember theater? You're invited, it's for you!" - once they turn fifty. And the work, or the exercise or the game or whatever, of getting twenty and thirty year-olds into the theater could be "left" to groups like The Neo-Futurists or any of several other companies that do it really well, like theater for children is "left" to companies formed for that exact purpose. As they age and see theater they will look for theater speaking to their interests and then, perhaps, walk into your house.

My friend Gerald is a jazz pianist who talks about his desire to play for people his own age. I think there's something in that for theater-makers too. Also, new plays are likely to appeal to newer audiences (ex. Chad Diety), and so as a facet of new play development a theater is perhaps wise to cultivate a younger crowd.

So there are reasons you might want me in your theater, some of you. And I know I'm playing devil's advocate, but do all of you? Do you all need me? This strikes me as Last Theater on Earth thinking: a kind of theater that is endemic to arts organizations even at this moment of great collaborative energy.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Silent Theatre

New Full Storefrontal up, this one is on Silent Theatre Company. It was a fun challenge to write this article both because John Beer already did a great piece on the company for TimeOut, and the Artistic Director Tonika Todorova dared me, implicitly, to write a piece on the company without any puns on silence, noise, etc. Enjoy.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


This weekend I saw two amazing shows at New Leaf Theatre. The first was the overwhelmingly excellent The Man Who Was Thursday. Bilal Dardai, Jessica Hutchinson, and the whole creative crew have here created, from a slick and delirious novel that jumps in time and space across Europe's secret underground rooms and open fields, an eminently theatrical force of nature. It's the kind of play so deliciously entertaining, I neither knew nor wondered what the "point" of it was until the final electrifying moments when it hit me like a truck. And then, I was so invigorated by its perfect relevance and execution, I could not sigh or roll my eyes at an obvious moral or a sudden swerve, but I gasped for air and sighed finally with wonder and delight. This is a night out at the theater.

It was funny, fun, fast and moving; it created a universe of its own while eschewing the currently requisite tedium of arguing with itself about its own rules. Also, truly, the design was amazing. This is the thing about adaptation: the piece lives necessarily in two times. As the text did, so did the costumes and - perfectly - the sound design. The ensemble exuded a kind of fearless fun in sharing the story with us: I was completely impressed with this show. Fantastic.

THEN. I came back the next day to attend one of the New Leaf's Treehouse reading series, this one Leocadia by Jean Anouilh, directed by my friend Jack Tamburri and featuring a great ensemble including members of The Plagiarists, New Leaf, and Strawdog. This play is amazing, I had never heard of it but it is hilarious and strange and brilliant. Every character is presented with utmost sympathy and yet blatantly mocked with his/her every word and gesture. Tamburri and the cast did a fantastic job balancing the comic and the tragic, the absurd and the true, and I can't wait for a full production of this play.

A great weekend.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Back for More

Nick's got the news on the next Summit. Here's the facebook page, too.

yes I said yes you should Yes

An imperfect article but the sentiment is right on the money.

(hat tip: Thomas Cott)

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Country, Musicals, Movement

When you watch The House's new All the Fame of Lofty Deeds – and you probably will – you might be struck by the surprising perfection of Country Music for Musical Theater. It is narrative, rangy, soulful, showy, familiar, easy to sing, and ripe for virtuosity. Moreover, it’s unburdened by rock music’s essence of rebellious posturing. Country is populist without needing to be new, and it’s strong and gutsy without rock’s pretense of counter culture.

The problem with the Rock Musical is that the idea—to incorporate contemporary music—is inspired and necessary, but the institution of this idea is necessarily lacking the very appeal of Rock Music. The Rock Musical has only ever the shadow of Rock, the reminder of Rock. The flaw germane to a High Fidelity musical as such—regardless of the production—is that Rob Gordon would hate it, that he couldn’t sing those songs. The secret lie of the Rock recording is that, by some accident, someone captured an amazing moment of bravado, performance, and expression, and then someone else sold it. The institution of the American Musical is too inescapably commercial for even this lie, ridiculous and remote, to ever exist.

The Rock Musical, then, must be a kind of meta-musical to be successful, either deliberately performative (Million Dollar Quartet) or aware of its artifice (Urinetown). The Pop Musical, on the other hand, is what musicals have always been. The genre of this music is unmarked, invisible, and ever-expanding, allowing for the characters, their voices and their words, to have full effect. Pajama Game or Rent, this is their promise.

Country, though, is an inspired choice. Its genre is still evident and so carries the weight of its every association, but it needn’t be necessarily a watered-down image of itself (like those asinine and frustratingly popular jazz covers of Radiohead). Also, and this I think is desperately important to The House, it can be actually hip. Hip in a way that Rock can’t be because it can’t ever quite be right and hip in a way that pop can’t be because it’s, well, pop.

And why make a musical at all? Famously, James Joyce refused a career in music despite his concert-worthy voice because he feared the non-intellectual, emotional, irrational power of music. Plato’s Republic is almost entirely without music except for patriotic and heroic historical songs. And the incomparable Greg Allen, in his rules for theater, suggests you use music whenever possible because it resonates so strongly with audiences. This year in Chicago, ATC, Northlight, and in fact The House are all producing seasons either entirely or almost entirely musical. The New Colony's First and Second Seasons will be 2/3 Musical each. Chicago is at this moment playing both morgue and maternity ward for nearly half a dozen Broadway Musicals.

Music has the power to move: a statement as obvious and untenable as tomorrow. My high school drama teacher insisted that the only worthy question at the end of a play is “Was I moved?” If this is indeed the only question, it’s certain that Musicals are a potent inroad to effective theater.

But, there are other ways to move people. A ridiculous example of this is in the new sitcom Community (watch until about 40 seconds in), or Eisentstein’s baby carriage. It would be very easy at any important moment in a play to drop a baby from the flyspace and have an actor catch him. Would this be a great play? Maybe the first time, but it’s difficult to imagine this spawning a whole genre of its own.

Is All The Fame of Lofty Deeds a great play? Not really. Though there are a few truly powerful moments (the end of Act One, for instance), but in general, not much happens, there’s a lot of arguing about the play’s own world, and the characters are remarkably two-dimensional (though the acting is not always), and there's a healthy ration of the stupid fad of "ironic" racism. It is compelling stylistically (the arrows are great, the headlights are miraculous, the dancing is lovely, the puppetry charming), the music is fantastic, and it looks and sounds expensive.

So, I suppose what I’m wondering is, what makes this show different from Mamma Mia or Jersey Boys or Legally Blonde: The Musical? What makes it non-profit? What makes it new? Is it Country Music? Because the most familiar criticism of musicals as a genre is that they affect us in a way that permits them to be silly, campy, or simple, and All The Fame of Lofty Deeds certainly takes advantage of the same strength and certainly suffers from the same weakness.

Literally then, what is the purpose of art? What is entertainment? This show will be a hit. A lot of cool people are going to like it a lot (I've never read a program with the word "cool" in it so many times, by the way) and they're not wrong. How can an honest person point at this show and say "bad" if he or she is moved by it? And how can an honest person point at this show and say "great" when it falls short? What are the lessons of this play? People die, corporate suits want money, cowboys talk like a sunset in a june-bug's eye and boy howdy that's a good Jack Daniels? Is the whole form - not just musical theater, but theater in general, art as a thing - a game of manipulation? What's the difference between manipulation and movement? In what way is Cordelia's death less manipulative than "It's Not Enough" in Lofty Deeds?

I don't know, exactly, and these are a lot of questions to ask of one show, but they seem desperately important to ask not just "in general" or to strive toward the good, or because it's good to ask, and not because this show wants us to ask, but because the American position toward contemporary art is deeply steeped in an anxiety about substance. Why don't people go to modern art museums? Why is the most common comment "I don't get it?" It's because the whole things smells to us like the emperor's new clothes. In a world of naturalism it's easy to evaluate who's good and who's bad, what's it a picture of, etc. In an abstracted era these rules are gone and two paths are left: I like it/don't like it, or this is 'important'/'unimportant' for blah blah blah reason.

But the theater is different because a lack of substance can still easily be overcome by a song, a good performance, a beautiful set, a million things. This is why there's no danger of the death of theater that everyone likes to whisper about. And there's no risk of an end to substantive theater either, because it's better and because someone will always reach higher than the rest, and because audiences are looking for excellence (if you don't believe that, quit now). More finally also, if there's no end to one, there's no end to the other. I don't, I guess, have the vocabulary to distinguish them, and I'm not sure it's be worthwhile.

And yet.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Your Fundraising is Irritating

This report might hurt, but it'll hurt good.

(Hat Tip: Thomas Cott)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

New Leaf

I think these folks are so smart. Check this out. I have been cynical about the value of online video for publicizing theater, but the trailer for The Man Who Was Thursday is completely awesome. It's smart, it's independent of the theater - it is not a filmed clip of theater, which is always awful - but it looks like theater. If I miss this show, and I only have five more chances to see it, then I'm not a serious person.

Also, I think the trailer for Calls To Blood is really great.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Long Road Ahead

Fifteen months ago, a great friend asked me what I'd be doing if I could do anything I wanted. I told him I wanted to be assistant directing a show and writing reviews for TimeOut Chicago. Check. Check.

So fifteen months from now I'd like to be able to pay the rent. Kidding. Kidding.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Stare

When you have a handlebar mustache, you quickly come to accept a certain amount of staring. This could be unsettling, I imagine, but it can't be surprising. I have in fact, found it a great boost in confidence to be able to attribute any sideways glance, any uneasy interaction to the presence of an absurd hirsute appendage on my upper lip.

But always I end up cutting it. And then, that confidence is gone and the unsettling power of the stranger's stare is redoubled with my armor gone. I wonder if my fly is down, or my hair is crazy, or why my plain face would merit even a sideways glance.

Onstage, we are over-easy with staring. In real life the slightest glance is powerful and strange. You can feel it without knowing it. People don't stare at each other in an unmarked way. A flirting couple on the street will look in each others' eyes for mere seconds in ten minutes of conversation. Onstage this whole scene would easily be done without the actors ever breaking their gaze.

There are a few reasons why we might indulge in this eye-contact so frequently. First, actors look at each other like skydivers or trapeze artists look at each other: there's a lot on the line and they need to know their partner is on the same page. Second, I wonder if there's something in replicating the gaze that the actors' are feeling from the audience. Perhaps in a room where fifty people are staring at you, it feels less strange to stare at someone else, and directing your focus in this over-concentrated way helps distract you from the stares you are receiving. Lastly, and most likely, we have been intending to exploit the power of the stare as a means to heighten the action onstage, but, by overdoing it, it's become a genre-marker rather than a site for increased meaning. Let's reclaim the power of looking onstage by using it less and using it purposefully.

The Mammals

The newest Full Storefrontal is up, this one focusing on another company interested in horror, The Mammals. Hopefully a worthy article for a cool company.

Friday, October 23, 2009

This is All True

Nice post about "attracting young audiences" here (Hat Tip: Jack Tamburri). Everything he says is also true, of course, of any demographic group. The biggest marketing decision your company makes is what shows it produces, everything after that is advertising. There's a difference.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Conducting and Directing

It’s my impression that a lot of the newest ideas about directing theater come from dance and a kind of choreographer’s aesthetic and book of tricks. A lot of good has come from this and I have a lot of respect for much of the dramatically visual work onstage today. I want to offer an addition, not because I think it will be revolutionary or in an attempt to replace any work that exists now, but to complicate our relationship with the strange and nebulous function of the theater director.

To get to it: I suggest the analogy of the Orchestra Conductor. The job of the director is to guide the disparate instruments into a complete work. Could an excellent orchestra play without a conductor? Of course, and so could a bad one. But art is not economics, and though the violinist can do what’s best for her, and the timpanist what’s best for him, this might not be the best for the music.

The genius of Bop is the squeak of the saxophone. Suddenly, this sound that was an unfortunate accident of the construction of a given instrument – something to be avoided as it didn’t exist in any other instrument – was seen for what it is: an inherent aspect of that instrument, an opportunity to exploit, a virtue. This was Brecht’s genius too. Suddenly the false teleology toward naturalism was called into question. We don’t need to pretend a stage is not a stage, that actors aren’t actors. Let them be entirely exactly what they are.

We say an actor’s body is his instrument, but we’ve not, I think, really realized how accurate this term is, and we’ve failed to extend this term to its most necessary point. An enterprising conductor, under constraints of budget or time or by virtue of a grand idea, can assign written parts to different instruments. Casting is the finding of the instruments to play parts. And, importantly, every actor is a different instrument. The Leading Man, The Ingénue. These have value like Treble and Bass. But whether it will be a cello or an oboe, these are the more interesting questions.

The effects of this analogy are not complicated. First: an end to the infantilization of actors. They are not clay to be shaped, models to be positioned, but artists. The conductor is an example of another guide of performers who each entirely inhabit their own creative space. Second, and this is the key point really: the choreographer in dance is the playwright for theater. Directors who behave like choreographers are forgetting that much of this job has already been done. The conductor interprets the music – even in a drastic way—but doesn’t feel a need to re-write Beethoven’s Fifth every time he does it. Let’s lean into the facts of the trade and exploit its inherent challenges and liberties.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Opening Night

Tonight's the press opening for The New Colony's Calls to Blood that I assistant directed. I'm looking forward to seeing it officially on its feet and I'm really curious to see how it's received. The role of assistant director is sort of strange, because despite being there every night for rehearsal, I have essentially zero accountability for the show. Can you imagine a review mentioning the assistant director? Or a person walking out of a show saying to her companion, "The show was great, but it was so poorly assistant-directed!"

Nevertheless, I enjoy the job, even though in my experience it's never actually the same job twice, and I learned a good deal from the experience. Tonight's sold out, but you can buy tickets here, and check out the e-playbill here.

I'll be leading some talk-backs later in the run, so I hope to see you there. Cross your fingers tonight.


Check out the new Full Storefrontal on WildClaw Theatre. I'm hoping to snag another horror company for October too. And for November, does any theater company only do plays about pilgrims? Oh! The Crucible...Interesting...interesting...

Also, WildClaw has the most significant number of Twitter Followers I've ever seen for a Chicago Theater company. Cool, right?

Thursday, October 8, 2009


On Monday night, my friends at The Plagiarists invited me to their new show American Stage Sessions (A.S.S.) at The Viaduct. It's a really fun show, peppered with the kind of joyously low-fi stage magic that should be synonymous with Storefront Theater (wait for the scene in the desert).

Switching gears, the premise is a failing regional theater holds a telethon to raise money, hosted by its artistic director and a TV Star who cut his teeth with the company. In between, the kids from the company perform scenes from incredibly important (and utterly fictional) playwrights.

In the press materials, director Steve Wilson wonders if the show is too insider-y. If it can appeal to the man off the street. This is, I think, an admirable concern, but I wonder if it's necessary. I mean, in general. Would someone come who wouldn't have access to laugh at a kind of über-pretentious love-child of Tennessee Williams and Eugene O'Neill? The weird truth is, I hope so, but I'm not sure. And then, is the show still funny? I think so, but I don't know. The Plagiarists' concern is, I think, something for THE THEATER to ponder. But I'm not sure it's fair or necessary for The Plagiarists to worry about it tonight.

More, certainly, to come.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Why I Think Court Theatre is So Smart

Court Theatre has a special place in my heart. One reason worth getting out of the way is that it's in Hyde Park, where in my experience a boy, if he's trying very hard, can become a man.

More importantly, they have made two decisions which, combined, are the smartest acts of self-awareness and future-building that I've ever seen an established arts organization undertake.

1) Their firm commitment to African American theater. As a purveyor of "classic plays" by their own branding, their reliable inclusion of the classics of African American playwrights proves they're not using "classic" to mean by dead white men, but to mean "really good." The right choice. Also, let's be honest, Chicago is still a segregated city and the Court is the most prominent theater as far on the South Side as it is. Actively including plays by African American authors is an honest representation of its community - something we're always claiming theater can do without knowing how to do it.

2) Their use of the MCA. Again, as a South Side theater, the Court may feel a million miles away from a lot of the tiny storefronts peppering the North Side. By doing shows at the MCA they trim away a possible excuse for audiences to not see what the Court has to offer, banking on the fact that when people see a Court show, they'll want to see more. Also the MCA just has amazing programming and becoming a part of that was an insanely good idea. We're talking about a company that HAS A SPACE. How many theater companies in Chicago spend their whole sputtering existences dreaming of a space? The Court has one, and still takes up residence somewhere else when the opportunity is great. That's thinking big.

I've teased Court productions before, and I'll do it again. My admiration of their big ideas won't cloud my reception of an individual piece. But what I think we can really learn from the Court is how important it is, as a theater, to know: who you are, who you're talking to, who you want to be, and who you want to talk to. What these two decisions really come down to is inclusion. Inclusion in an artistic way - diversifying the canon, experimenting with space - and inclusion in an institutional way - actively seeking new audiences. The unification of these creative and administrative goals is what, hopefully, can keep the arts in business.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Marketing Scheme

I hate to bring up the old Macbeth issue from last year, but there a couple of shows this season that are dupiclates or highly similar. Two Frankensteins (here, here), three Fausts (here, here, here), two Scientology Pagents (here, here)...

So, what about offering heavily discounted tickets to come to your production to anyone bringing a ticket stub from the other one? If the two companies worked together they could share the cost/benefit of this program, but how gutsy would it be if it were one-sided? Thougts?

I'd still like to see it

But the phrase "relevance-making gimmickry as usual" is going to be bouncing around in my head for a long time.

Monday, September 28, 2009


New Full Storefrontal (Caffeine Theatre) and Podcast (Lifeline's Treasure Island) up at TheatreInChicago. The Podcast features advice on how to look like you're strangling a cat. You know, everyday kind of info.

Very Cool

From Vire. In The Guardian. Nice.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


First: The Ever-Linkable Kris Vire.

Now. I'm not really sure this is a "Chicago Theater" problem. This strikes me as a contemporary problem. Who likes the band with a number one song, anymore? What's hilarious about this kind of "elitism," is that it has the privilege of parading as populism, making it harder to criticize. But certainly: it's elitism. And certainly: it's silly.

Commercial Theater, I think, is a euphemism for at different times any of the following four things: Broadway, Broadway in Chicago, For-Profit theater of any kind, and large non-profit theater like The Goodman. Are any of these bad for Chicago Theater? Nope. Not one, not at all.

There are though, I agree, two dangers hidden in here to the Chicago storefront theaters. The first is forcing the (I hate this word, but) paradigm of Broadway (and Off-Broadway) on Chicago. This is colonialism, it's irritating, and it's fundamentally flawed. Our theater scene doesn't work like that. You don't move to Chicago hoping to be in the next production of Wicked at the Oriental. You don't dream of sweet sweet Randolph Avenue all night with your tap shoes still on. You just don't. You wonder how you're going to con your way into the Neo-Futurists and if the boss at your temp job notices you're blogging (ahem). As I commented on Rob Kozlowski's post on the new Chicago Now thing, you can call Storefront theater "Off-Broadway in Chicago (tm)" as soon as you invest millions in building theaters and shopping districts down on Chicago's 42nd St. Until then, we are our own beast. How delightful. Worse? Better? Neither? Who cares? It doesn't matter. What matters is: different.

The second danger is that in attaching too much importance to the commercial theater that we all recognize as good for Chicago, good for Theater, we lose what makes Chicago unique - not by an invading force, but by our own entropy. I've heard rumblings from my favorite unbridled genius of the storefront about creating Chicago theater tours that make it easy for people coming from out of town to see storefront and commercial shows in an approachable way. The problem with "3oo etc." theater companies is that it makes a completely dizzying marketplace. So a family visits Chicago, aware of its repuation as a great place to see theater but can't make any goddamn sense out of all the plays and companies sprawled out in every inaccessible corner of the city. So, still in all good faith, they go see Jersey Boys downtown near their hotel, and believe they've done the Chicago Theater Thing.

Then, the powers that be see that people are coming to Chicago to go to Jersey Boys, and that's when the cycle starts to crush us. Because then it becomes more and more important to advertise, support, and replicate Jersey Boys rather than give people what they want which is excellence and authentic experiences for audiences, and audiences for artists.

So an anxiety about "commercial theater" makes sense, but what this should do is inspire creative solutions for competing rather than a vague sense of superiority and entitlement. If it works the other way, that people come to Chicago to see Jersey Boys and stick around to see The Man Who Was Thursday everyone wins. We play different games, but, we're somehow on the same team.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


There is something wrong with this brochure copy for Broadway In Chicago. This is the blurb for August: Osage County:

Steppenwolf's AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY is a grand, gripping new play that tells the story of the Westons, a large extended clan that comes together at their rural Oklahoma homestead when the alcoholic patriarch disappears. Forced to confront unspoken truths and astonishing secrets, the family must also contend with violet (played by Academy Award-winner Estelle Parsons), a pill-popping, deeply unsettled woman at the center of this storm. AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY is a rare theatrical event - a large-scale work filled with unforgettable characters, a powerful tale told with unflinching honesty. The New York Times cheers, "AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY is flat-out, without qualification, the most exciting new American play Broadway has seen in years," and Time Magazine named AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY the "#1 Show of the Year!"

Would it really have been so bad to include its Chicago Origins, other than the fleeting "Steppenwolf" at the beginning? They couldn't even quote the Trib? Weird, right? I mean for marketing reasons, isn't it as much of a draw to be a hometown hero as to be a razzle dazzle from the East?

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Plagiarists

New Full Storefrontal up on Theatre In Chicago. This week is about the Plagiarists, a really interesting company. Also check out the article that inspired their company here, it's completely amazing, fascinating, and exciting. I wrote it.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Harry Potter and the Media Theorists

I've been reading the Harry Potter books (slowly, if you ask Miranda) and I really do enjoy them. I've also seen a few of the movies. What strikes me about Harry Potter most of all is the tremendous opportunity it is giving a whole generation of people to understand innately the process of adaptation. This generation will have read the books, loved the books, and then have watched the films and - this is the best part - loved the films. The films are profoundly different from the books, encourage the aesthetic assertions of a rotating cadre of auteurs, and cut out and sneak in all kinds of plot development and characterization. But by being shared so widely and in two separate media, and by being successful in both, The Harry Potter stories can, I think, shed a lot of light on what is the difference between Novels and Films. It will be exciting to see what difference this makes going forward.

I am especially interested in the responsibility of adaptations and the management of expectations in adaptation. The phrase "The book is always better than the movie" can, I think, be one day responsibly replaced by the truism, "the book is always different from the movie." This is the essence of the matter. The movie, the play, it will be different from the book. Abandon any notion otherwise, but, of course, still come see it.

Monday, August 31, 2009

You're Welcome

The Equity Jeff nominations are up and I want you to know, loyal readers, that I called two of them way in advance.

Lance Baker is nominated for his work on Mauritius, which I drooled over here.

And Matthew Gawryk is nominated his lighting design of The Unseen, a small sliver of which I drooled over here.

Also, mad genius Steve Tolin got a nomination for the special effects on Lieutenant of Inishmore, was it because of the perfectly life-like cat puppetry? Well, who's to say...

But, really, congratulations to all the nominees.

Back with a Bang

Two new items up at TheatreInChicago. The first is a podcast about interning in theater, it features Kirsten Fitzgerald, artistic director of A Red Orchid Theatre, Josh Sobel (a new intern at AROT), and Jason Gerace, artistic associate of American Theater Company. It a really interesting conversation about the role of interns in organizations and the role of interning in building a career in theater. Enjoy.

The second is the newest Full Storefrontal article, this one's on New Leaf. Enjoy it, too.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

More Fodder in Thinking about Criticism

Regular Guy reviews movies for WXRT. Neil Cumpston reviews 300 for Aint It Cool News (Very NSFW).

Both of these are instances of criticism with two additional, arguably even alternative, functions to what we might call "mainstream criticism." That is, these reviews consciously construct a character separate from the reviewer's personality and they function as entertainment in their own right.

But. They still are works of criticism, right? Similarly, Dan Neil is a wonderful critic and has been honored with a Pulitzer Prize. I read his columns as often as I can. What's the problem? He's a car critic. I don't know anything about cars, I don't particularly care about them, and I'm not looking to buy one. His reviews are really for me just essays, entertainment. Could a literary critic review them? Could a critic review Chris Jones' reviews? I suppose that I have, actually, done that, but obviously not in a serious way.

As a reminder, I like to think of art as a skill developed beyond any practical use. Can art function as a guide to art?


And what can these artful reviews teach us about criticism in the mainstream?

Red Tape

The new Full Storefrontal is up at Theatre In Chicago. Delight!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009


I've now noticed ATC refer to itself as Chicago's Public Theater two times. This is really interesting to me for a couple of reasons. I wonder what specifically they think that means both for themselves and for their audience. Artistic Director PJ Paparelli worked there early in his career, so perhaps it is simply a matter of institutional admiration, but I still find it intriguing that they would make this alignment so specific without driving home its significance.

I think a lot of Chicagoans might balk at the evident New Yorkishness of this. The east coast looms strangely for us. Some turn their backs entirely and focus on deliberately making Chicago work. Some, when working in Chicago, constantly have their eyes on New York as "making it." I think there are definitely things to be learned from theater in New York, and it is easy to forget how simple a claim that is in the complicated relationship we have with that city. Nevertheless, I can't help but view this institutional kinship (between ATC and the Public) skeptically if it goes unspecified. Does the Public know its name is being used for marketing? And is ATC striving for the success of the Public, its profile, or some tangible aspect of its aesthetic?


Monday, August 3, 2009

A Face For Internet...Radio

A new Talk Theatre podcast is up at Theatre In Chicago, this one hosted by yours truly. I'm talking to three actors currently in First Folio's Macbeth with me, but who also were in the Macbeth at Chicago Shakespeare last year. We talk about Macbeth, Acting, and what comes from repeating shows. Includes such earth-shattering journalism as, "Yeah...what about you?" But it's a fun conversation.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Universal Health Care

The health care debate just got personal: my insurance is trying to get me to go see Jersey Boys...

Wednesday, July 29, 2009


TheatreinChicago has been providing this great resource for some time, allowing potential audience members to quickly look at a broad spectrum of reviews. The New Colony is jumping into the game with this interesting point-by-point comparison of different reviews of Tupperware. More to come.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009


I've got an essay brewing on criticism. In the meantime this great post on the TOC blog by Critic John Beer, is a good prelude to what I want to discuss.


Ok. I'm trying ads. I'm not allowed to encourage anyone to click them or to click them myself, though that would increase my revenue. I hope they aren't weird or pornographic or anything. I'm under the impression that they will be generated from the content on this blog, so they'll probably end up being a lot of vest outlet stores or Aeschylus translations or audition workshops. Could be worse. I'm trying them out for a bit, partly because I love the neologism "monetize" and partly because I'm excited by what that word represents. If we hate them, we'll destroy them. For now, an adventure in capitalism. Comments welcome.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Friday, July 24, 2009

Changed my Mind

After a spiel lamenting what I saw as a kind of weak-minded hero worship of Shakespeare, Jack Tamburri took me to school with his response:
This is the magic of Marvel Comics.
Bear with me.
A number of writers, many with little actual writing ability, have written the adventures of, say, Thor, over the past 50 years. The characters’ voices, motivations, and histories are remarkably inconsistent as a result.
The pleasure of reading Marvel comics over many years is the imaginative work the reader must do to reconcile those inconsistencies–to fill in the blanks between issues, between panels, between runs of writers. As a reader, I write like half the story, and end up much closer to the characters–more emotionally invested as a result.
This is the pleasure of the principle of perfect intention. Start from the assumption that every word, every comma is vital. Then you must do imaginative work to reconcile inconsistencies and give them reasons to exist “in-continuity”. In Marvel letters pages, this was called the “No-Prize”–a fan would write in with an in-story solution to what is blatantly a coloring error or an editing gaffe (Harry Osborn’s shirt changed color in two panels of the same scene because he’s actually a shape-shifting alien!). Directing (or acting in) Titus Andronicus is a series of No-Prizes.
This is also the thinking behind “ambiguity” or “emotional storytelling” or “dream logic.” Make the audience participate in telling the story. This is an extremely important – nay, vital – part of the power of theater.

Well, this is absolutely fantastic and certainly correct.

I'll still raise two caveats, however. First, an interesting difference with the Marvel comics example is that everyone understands that the "smoothing" creative act belongs to the audience. Makers' "errors" etc. are accepted, willfully, as true, and then worked through by the audience. Amazing.

Secondly, I don't think it's true exactly in the theater that we extend the same kind of license to every author that we extend to Shakespeare, and I think that's really what I was trying to treat. Excepting a text as complete is, I now am certain, a great creative act of reception. Privileging one dead genius is still hero worship.

Ooh lastly, the difference in theater is that this receptive act does not necessarily extend to the audience. In a comic book if a frame has a coloring error or something like that the audience takes it as it may. In theater if a script has a plothole or a complication, ostensibly the production team will smooth this out - before it ever gets to an audience.

All the same, a great response, and a wonderful example of audience activity. Thanks, Jack.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Benedictio mea Miranda est

I have today officially had the best year of my life. More to come. If you would like the key to happiness, I'm sorry, she's spoken for. (And is sure to correct my Latin.)

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Sincere Question II

What is self-expression? Does it matter?

Playing it Far from the Vest

I've somehow failed to point out that the production of Macbeth that I'm working on right now is vestless! As promised, I'm posting some pictures of the show in an ongoing effort to prove that Shakespeare's plays can be performed without the aid of vests. If you're involved in a Shakespeare play without vests, don't forget to send me some pictures and I promise I'll post them. We can break the cycle of this addiction.

Nathan Hosner and Patrice Egleston (above)

E.B. Smith and Nathan Hosner (below)

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Two Poems for Tuesday...and some muttering

Thinking about this poem today. An Eliot we often forget was cocky and a little mean. The word "Ladies" in an earlier draft read "Critics":

"The Triumph of Bullshit" by T. S. Eliot

Ladies, on whom my attentions have waited
If you consider my merits are small
Etiolated, alembicated,
Orotund, tasteless, fantastical,
Monotonous, crotchety, constipated,
Impotent galamatias
Affected, possibly imitated,
For Christ's sake stick it up your ass

Ladies, who find my intentions ridiculous
Awkward insipid and horribly gauche
Pompous, pretentious, ineptly meticulous
Dull as the heart of an unbaked brioche
Floundering versicles feebly versiculous
Often attenuate, frequently crass
Attempts at emotions that turn isiculous,
For Christ's sake stick it up your ass.

Ladies who think me unduly vociferous
Amiable cabotin making a noise
That people may cry out "this stuff is too stiff for us" -
Ingenuous child with a box of new toys
Toy lions carnivorous, cannons fumiferous
Engines vaporous - all this will pass;
Quite innocent - "he only wants to make shiver us."
For Christ's sake stick it up your ass.

And when thyself with silver foot shalt pass
Among the Theories scattered on the grass
Take up my good intentions with the rest
And then for Christ's sake stick them up your ass.

Also, I found this lovely poem this afternoon by Richard Wilbur:

"Piccola Commedia"

He is no one I really know,
The sun-charred, gaunt young man
By the highway's edge in Kansas
Thirty-odd years ago.

On a tourist-cabin verandah
Two middle-aged women sat;
One, in a white dress, fat,
With a rattling glass in her hand,

Called "Son, don't you feel the heat?
Get up here into the shade."
Like a good boy, I obeyed,
And was given a crate for a seat

And an Orange Crush and gin.
"This state," she said, "is hell."
Her thin friend crackled, "Well, dear,
You've gotta fight sin with sin."

"No harm in a drink; my stars!"
Said the fat one, jerking her head.
"And I'll take no lip from Ed,
Him with his damn cigars."

Laughter. A combine whined
On past, and dry grass bent
In the backwash; liquor went
Like an ice-pick in my mind.

Beneath her skirt I spied
Two sea sea-cows on a floe.
"Go talk to Mary Jo, son,
She's reading a book inside."

As I gangled in at the door
A pink girl, curled in a chair,
Looked up with an ingenue stare.
Screenland lay on the floor.

Amazed by her starlet's pout
And the way her eyebrows arched,
I felt both drowned and parched.
Desire leapt up like a trout.

"Hello," she said, and her gum
Gave a calculating crack.
At once from the lightless back
Of the room came the grumble

Of someone heaving from bed,
A Zippo's click and flare,
Then, more and more apparent,
The shuffling form of ED,

Who neither looked nor spoke
But moved in profile by,
Blinking one gelid eye
In his elected smoke.

This is something I've never told,
And some of it I forget.
But the heat! I can feel it yet,
And that conniving cold.

The point I'd like to make about the second poem is a small point, but really precisely to the heart of it. Wilbur's poem has a remarkably simple structure and a delicate, deliberate rhyme scheme. Yet, at no point is Wilbur constrained by it: the additional syllables of Kansas, and Verandah in even the first and second stanzas establish that the author's permission to exclude himself from his own rules. This permission is central to art.

In its very name we acknowledge art as something made by people, but we sometimes decide that the rules that govern media are inherited from the gods. I think if you are setting out to create good work it is important to have parameters etc., but knowing when they're in the way, and getting out of one's own way, is the real key to genius.

An example for me remains Greg Allen's Strange Interlude. At one point, an actor is reading a set description that calls for the stage to be more "cluttered" than it was in the previous scene. There has, up to this point, been no change in the set. At this moment, from the wings, a stage hand hurls an additional chair onstage. It lands sloppily, upside down, somewhere stage right. It was a great moment only possible through this kind of artistic permission to surprise and delight and subvert. Here I am, months later, still laughing.

Two Shade

Two Shade, the debut album by jazz pianist Gerald Clayton, is out now and is a Critic's Choice in the New York Times. From the review:

a wide-ranging, self-confident album, and a fluent, bobbing-and-weaving relationship with the bassist Joe Sanders and the drummer Justin Brown.

See the whole review here. Buy the album here.

Thursday, July 16, 2009


There's something really gross about this Teachout article.  First, I definitely believe that the term "artist" is an honorific, not a job description.  And, certainly there is a difference between writing plays and writing reviews of plays - the jobs are very different - but who knew an examination of the difference could feel so much like hot breath in the face?  Read it, maybe I'm crazy.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Continuity, cont'd

The point is: filmic discontinuity is invisible. This is despite/because of its position as the essence of the medium. Making a film seem discontinuous is almost a trick now because we are so quick to fill in the gaps.

On stage, discontinuity is essentially stunning because everything is out in the open. Consider for instance the blackout before the show begins. This is creating discontinuity. The lie it offers is that suddenly, you are no longer in the space you were just in. Fantastic.

Discontinuity within a play (real, black-out discontinuity, not actors running around with cubes discontinuity) works a little bit differently. We have created a world together, and then, in an instant, it is completely destroyed. There is no telling - absolutely no telling - what world we'll be in next. (Although, of course, if the last line of the previous scene is "Hooray, let's all go to the zoo!" we might expect the Zoo.) So theatrical discontinuity strikes me as the best way to present fantasy, delight, and possibility onstage. Especially if there really are changes to the set etc., a real blackout (no glowtape, no kidding around) that rises to reveal a real change will always surprise and delight an audience. Because there aren't any tricks. My friend Dash used to do this magic trick where he puts a condom up his nose and pulls it out of his mouth. People always asked him how he did it. Did he have a second condom in his mouth? Did he hide it up his sleeve? No: he just did it. That's the magic - confronted with remarkable reality, we will invent an impossibly complicated alternative.

I've heard complaints that blackouts break up a show's unity, but never an explanation as to why that's essentially bad. What if that is exactly what they do: break up unity. Imagine a living room drama in which the great secret is finally revealed. Then black. A moment. Then lights up again. Nothing has changed, everything has changed, what happened in between? Right? That's delightful.

We have so many tricks. So many tricks that litter our stages any-old-how. We use ming vases to hold paper flowers 8 times a week all across the country. Will the revolution come from something no one ever thought of over the last 2500 years? Maybe. But we could also try just thinking about all the jewels we're overlooking.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Small Victory

In my Cliché Watch on ambiguity some months back I described Stoppard's method in The Invention of Love:

A remarkable thing about this script is the way in which information is eked out over the course of the evening. It is very clear that an entire universe exists and that all its questions have answers, and the way Mr. Stoppard controls himself as he offers this information piecemeal is essentially the “plot” of the play.

Listen to how Stoppard himself describes the playwright's art in an episode of Charlie Rose:

Now if only I'd called it a bladder...

Route 66

The new Full Storefrontal is up at Theatre In Chicago, focusing on Route 66 Theatre Co.  Check it out

Thursday, July 9, 2009

If you have the opportunity to get donkey-kicked in the chest, Cont'd

My friend Zev asked why I was so interested in the "Word Of Mouth" review of Waiting for Godot.  There are quite a few reasons, and I'll try to touch on a few of them now...sketchily.

Three Preliminary Interests
1) "Average Joe's" I think this is really interesting because I just read this study on the excellent The Producer's Prospective blog and the absolute cheapest "Average" ticket price is $56.39.  I'm sure there are discount seats but these are people with a lot of money to spend on theater.

2) Broadway.  Like Hollywood and movies, it's important to acknowledge that Broadway is an entirely different thing to theater.  But it is representative of theater for a lot of people or, even, representative of THE EPITOME of theater.  

3) My impression is that the participants in these interviews got free tickets to the shows and I wonder if they would have gone to see Godot without this.  As soon as a person is geting paid to go to a show he wouldn't go to otherwise, he is actually a critic, not an Average Joe.  The selection of a show is a selection of a key demographic for an audience.  I don't think the producer had a fifteen year old from suburban Philadelphia in mind when finding backers for this show.  Which doesn't mean she isn't invited or that her opinion doesn't matter, but it complicates her inclusion in the show as an average person.  What the hell is an average person?

Institutional Interests
1)  Celebrity. Nathan Lane they loved,which is interesting to me because he's so Broadway.  John Goodman they loved from his film work.  This is fascinating because his familiarity worked against him.  He looked fat, but they didn't consider it a fat suit, they believed when he fell over that he couldn't get up, but they didn't identify this as good acting, they identified it as him doing poorly--in life.  In my black heart I wonder if this indicates a subliminal belief in theater work as evidence of lesser success than film work.  

2)  These quotes: "Kind of confused as to what the hell it meant but it was well written." "I went in kind of intimidated because you know it's Waiting For Godot it's very artsy and ritzy." "a classic kind of play" "an important piece of theater" "never-ending pain" "not sure all my friends would like it."  

I think that of the three Joe is the most convincing as giving us an honest impression of who he is and what he saw.  I mean, the only external influence on his experience that he belies is his desire to enjoy the show.  That's pretty much the platonic ideal of criticism.

Mary and Helen both indicate that they knew a lot about the show before going in (Mary had heard about it 1000 times, she says, and Helen was intimidated by it).  Their impressions of it seem deeply colored by this knowledge.  They seem to be wrestling with a cultural demand to like it or at least to be in on it, that Joe is unconcerned with.  In this way, Joe went to the theater to be entertained.  Mary and Helen went for something else.  If we could find out what that is and give it to them while satisfying Joe we'd be in great shape.  That was easy.   (I'm kidding.)

3) Theater as object.  This sounds silly but have you ever, ever heard anyone say "Sometimes movies can be boring?"  No.  Is it true?  God yes.  I've talked about this a little before here, but we have the very interesting burden of having a Medium that is itself the Attraction.  People think of theater as a thing.  As a single thing that can be easily characterized.  This means that the stakes are high in making it good.  No one is going to walk out of Transformers 2 thinking: I'm never going to a movie again.  It doesn't matter how bad it is.  That is not true with theater. Is this something we should fix?  Is this something we can fix?  Well, it's at least something we should know.  

For these reasons at least, and I wrote this quickly and poorly, I think the video is a profoundly interesting document.  

Adventures in Homophones

Macbeth Act 3, Scene 4

Jeez, Macbeth, why'd you have to drag them into it?

Wednesday, July 8, 2009


I've been thinking a lot about continuity recently. It's a line of thought ignited by helping a friend working on a TV pilot, and it's interesting because it highlights an important and often ignored difference between theater and cinema.  Cinema is essentially infinitely articulated.  In a single second, 24 individual images strike the eye.  These images are only ever implicitly connected, each could have a life of its own as an entirely different medium (photography). When strung together they become cinematic.  Even a strip of film comprised solely of 1,000 copies of the same image would be cinema when run through a projector.  

Our eyes and brains work together to smooth out the rough articulation of the form.  One thing so damn fantastic about Goddard is his jumpcuts; not really because they were "new," but because every cut is a jump cut.  The camera is choosey, or it can be, and all the fat that exists in cinematic forms (establishing shots, walking across rooms, zooms) all of this can be thrown out the window at anytime.  It's exhilarating.  It gives cinema the chance to be sort of effortlessly poetic, to insist on the utmost importance of every image to throw away every unnecessary flicker.

This is very different onstage.  If I enter stage right and want to be stage left, I'll be in full view at every point in between.  I'm not a ghost on a screen, I'm just a body and a brain in the light.

But, I've had a fascination with blackouts since seeing The Unseen at A Red Orchid Theatre last winter. On one hand the discontinuity that blackouts create is filmic, but it's particularly interesting since its object is a body rather than an image.  Let me be clearer, if I entered stage right and wanted to be stage left and there was a blackout in between - if you didn't see me cross - it would be kind of surprising.  An audience wouldn't necessarily know how to read it. Did something magical happen?  Did I transport?  Why didn't they see the middle?  The simple answer - that it wasn't interesting - probably would not occur.  Fantastic!

Theater is in this sense a continuous form.  Certain ridiculous persons with inordinate power at one time insisted that Theater be spatially unified, temporally unified.  Though these people are all dead, the amount of theater still produced that takes place in a single room over the time it takes to say the lines is pretty remarkable.  Conversely, movies like this (Rope for instance) are always notable.  

I think we should love the freedom to be discontinuous.  We actually have the technology to illuminate and disappear solid bodies onstage, to pop through time and space revealing only what is excellent.  So, let's do it.

Cliché Watch: Cliché Watch

Taking a break from Cliché Watch this week, but check out The New Colony for lots of info on Tupperware: An American Musical Fable opening next week.

Monday, July 6, 2009

If you have the opportunity to get donkey-kicked in the chest

I don't really have anything to say.  I think every artistic director in the country should need to watch this video, there's so much in there.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Sincere Question, Cont'd

A Loyal Reader writes:
I think you answered this quite well a couple of years ago when you defined art as an occasion or object wherein the excellence exceeds its utility. Therefore the entertainment vs. art is not a border but a continuum. For example Goodfellas and Scarface are good strong entertainment and The Godfather is probably art. Thomas Kinkaid landscapes are perfectly good decoration. Monet haystacks — art. 

I think this is an important point.  I do still think that's a great, broad definition of art, and one which, interestingly, also includes sports and academia.  Furthermore the above response insists that art is entertainment, some entertainment is art.  Art is an honorific for the best kind of entertainment.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Sincere Question

What is the difference between art and entertainment?

Theater People

A new Cliché Watch is up at The New Colony, this one's on the phrase "theater people."  What I'm really trying to get at in the post is that, as long as being a "theater person" means something sort of nebulous we hold out the possibility that when asked "are you a theater person?" a regular theatergoer, a subscriber, or a donor could feel forced to answer "no."  Our utopia, I believe, is for everyone to like theater, to attend theater, and putting up more barriers, adding more cliquishness to an already rarified event, will not help.

While you're at The New Colony, check out two songs from the upcoming musical Tupperware: "Just Two Hours" and "Everything I Wanted." 

Monday, June 29, 2009

Full Storefrontal: Theater Oobleck

The newest Full Storefrontal is up on TheatreInChicago.com, this one on Theater Oobleck. Also, check out Anne Nicholson Weber's interesting podcast with the composer and the lyricist of A Minister's Wife that deals with adaptation, style, and what goes into the creation of a musical.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Life of an American Fireman (1903)

This is the movie that obsessed me with media studies.   This is a completely amazing document. More to come.

Revival, Adaptation, and Creation

My friend Jack sent me a link to this article from the New York Times.  It treats, among other things, the preference (diverted to London, but certainly true in Chicago and probably everywhere) of adapting "classic" plays for modern audiences; of exploring and exploiting the fresh relevance of work from another time.  This practice is really a lot more complicated than it looks.

First, it begins with one of two foregone conclusions, either a) We're doing The Cherry Orchard, or b) It is good to do The Cherry Orchard.  It proceeds to a question, how will we sell tickets to The Cherry Orchard?  And it results in something like a modernization or an objectification of The Cherry Orchard (for instance).  

The problem, in light of the conversation of the last two Cliché Watches, is that those two foregone conclusions are troublesome right from the start.  Why exactly do we need to do The Cherry Orchard? True, it's a great play, and "an important play" (a Theater History Play), and it has a famous author.  What else?  

A problem with all the adapting that's going on is that it restricts the "need" for new plays. Plays from the past are abstracted to their themes and then reassembled to be about very specific contemporary situations.  If this continues, it will be easier to keep new work that is actually about contemporary situations off grand stages and we will continue to accumulate a solid and impenetrable bezoar of old work and a disparate fog of one-off new shows.

Perfect Intention

The newest Cliché Watch is up at The New Colony.  This one continues last week's general idea about why so many great plays aren't done more often, and continues to worry about why so many plays can't break through the barrier from good to classics.  

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Happy Fathers' Day

I remember specifically the day I knew my father was a good man.  It was a small thing and I don't need to tell the story here, but it's a feeling of pride that is unlike anything else I've ever felt.  We are all very aware of a parent's pride - almost as a cultural institution - we make jokes about chatty parents with their wallet photos or their tendency to name-drop universities attended or awards won, but I am proud of my father.

My dad likes to tell a story about walking me into the first theater I ever performed in.  My friend Tad had talked me into being in a production of Tom Sawyer; I played Joe Harper in a tiny community theater in Altadena, CA.  My dad remembers leading me in, watching me squint into the new darkness, see the empty seats, the actors rehearsing onstage, and the director wheezily spilling into at least two seats, and he thought to himself, "Dear God, don't let him love this too much."

As one who loves it too much himself, he knew what he was praying for, and though his prayer certainly was not answered, he still says he's proud of me.  And I can relate, because I'm so proud of him.  I love you, dad.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Very Cool

Check this link to underproduced plays.  Artistic Directors, take notes.


A new Cliché Watch is up, this one on Shakespeare's Macbeth. There's been a lot of coverage of the multiplicity of productions of this play going on right now.  And I think it raises a lot of interesting questions about the purpose of theater and of a "theater community."  Comments already!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Full Storefrontal: Strawdog

The second in my series profiling small companies at Theatre In Chicago is now online, this one about Strawdog. My warmest thanks to Anne Nicholson Weber for her invaluable and patient criticism, and to Miranda for coming up with the perfect name for the series.  

UPDATE: The link to Strawdog Theatre Company's website above has been fixed.  If you still want to visit Strawdog.com feel free.  It's not a particularly useful site, but as far as random websites go, it's mercifully unpornographic.  

Thursday, June 11, 2009

"Race-Conscious" Casting

A really interesting comment about the present and future of race and the stage from my friend Jack Tamburri who works at the Court Theatre. I wanted to be sure this came to light:

Color-blind casting is something Court Theatre has been exploring (and for which we were recently lauded by AEA). We have yet to (in my memory) cast a parent-child relationship without regard to race, but it's easily conceivable that we will at some point--sometimes the best actor for the role just makes a strong enough case for casting him/her in that kind of vacuum. After all, we don't spend a lot of time considering hair color or body type when casting related characters (we do consider it, but it's not a reason to cast an otherwise not-quite-right actor).

Personally, I think colorblind casting should be a mandate at any Equity theater. Most plays produced at that scale (especially at classics-based companies) are written by white men. If we want our productions to speak to modern audiences, shouldn't we make some effort to reflect that audience onstage?

I'm not saying "black audiences will only respond to plays with black actors in" or any other version of that silly canard. What I mean is, our world (the world of American cities, at least) is more diverse than ever, and it is the responsibility of theater artists to reflect and engage with that reality. That doesn't always mean "race-blind" casting so much as it means "race-conscious" casting--being aware of the valances and tensions you are injecting into your play when you cast across "traditional" racial expectations.

Interestingly, it is much harder to race-blind-cast plays that the playwright wrote with racial subtext or tension in mind, or that are set in a realistic period world (although the all-black Cat On A Hot Tin Roof worked marvelously due to the quality of the acting and actually added a fascinating layer of stakes for the family, when I expected going in that it would somehow feel preposterous in Williams's crumbling Southern aristocracy). Whereas a Latino Torvald or a South Asian Viola (with or without matching Sebastian) doesn't disrupt the dramaturgy of the play even a little bit.

The celebrity-casting issue is a whole nother thing. It is insidious and has basically destroyed Broadway as a place where interesting or surprising acting can be seen.

For a little more on Theater and Race check out the latest Cliché Watch. Also Check out Jack's upcoming show at the Neo-Futurists and his work with The Plagiarists.