Saturday, January 31, 2009

Tragic Juices

Read Chris Jones' review of the Goodman's Desire Under The Elms here.   Excerpt:
A translucent curtain toward the rear suggests a landscape underwater—a nod, perhaps, to O’Neill’s fervent nautical obsessions but also a reference to man drowning in his own tragic juices.
Gross.  My emphasis.  We will not be having a contest looking for tragic juices.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Cliché Watch on the move!

Starting today my Cliché Watch feature has been moved over to the blog for The New Colony, a new theater company in Chicago dedicated to performing  world premieres.  Check it out here every Wednesday at 8:00 am! 

Monday, January 26, 2009

If you're a morning person...

...Check out "Miranda and The Shark" tomorrow from 6-8am on WHPK 88.5 fm. Probably the strangest two hours of drive-time radio in the city, but good music.  You can also stream it online.


It's an excellent trick.  Lights up: two prison cells, one man in each cell sitting alone on his bed.  Lights down.  Lights up: one man lying on his bed, one man standing doing a calculation on a wall.  Lights down.  Lights up: the man in the left cell stands facing out, he looks focused and frightened, the right cell is empty.  Oh my God: what has happened?

This is the opening to The Unseen at A Red Orchid, and I highly recommend it. The production on the whole is powerfully acted and intimately, nimbly staged.  But I can't stop thinking about those opening seconds.

When the audience enters the house the two actors are already on the set, each prisoner in his cell, trying to sleep.  We know they are prison cells because 1) the walls are of big blocks of stone and the stage is split into two small spaces, 2) the beds are thin boards nailed to the walls, 3) the actors are dressed in rags and look gaunt and filthy, 4) we hear an insistent drip and maybe some distant machinery, 5) the only things in the cells with the actors are a bowl, a bucket, and a spoon.   Notice anything missing?  Bars: what may be the preeminent signifier of incarceration is absent, but we don't really mind.  It could be simply because we are sufficiently accustomed to the "Fourth Wall" convention that it doesn't particularly matter what the wall is.  

At any rate, already, some cognitive work has been necessary for the audience--before the play has even really started.  We have worked to create the space suggested, and what is evidently permeable--an empty space--seems like an insurmountable obstacle.  The play then begins with the sequence I just described (or something like it).  It is, in some ways, a cinematic trick.  Lights up and lights down to indicate the passage of time and create distinct tableaus is the theater's best approximation of jump cuts (Stoppard calls them 'Smash Cuts' in Rock 'n' Roll).  But the miracle of this trick in the theater is that, unlike in a film, we have to negotiate the physical presence of the actor.  So when the figure on the right disappears, we 'know' that the character (whose name we don't yet even know) is being interrogated or beaten or something terrible, but we don't know what happened to the actor.  How did he disappear?  In a film nothing could be more pedestrian, but on stage disappearing remains one of the most incredible tricks imaginable.  

Brilliantly then, I think, this production simultaneously evokes and exceeds a cinematic commonplace toward a remarkable theatrical moment.   We have created the bars ourselves, we have imprisoned the actors with the strength of our imaginations to such an extent that what is almost certainly true--that the actor escaped simply by walking out and down the steps--seems impossible, and our hearts freeze.  When the actor reappears just as instantly, and we can see something terrible happened it's the same shock again, but now the play begins and we have no more time to think.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A New Era of Responsibility

Happy Inauguration!  Let's hope that this truly is a new era of responsibility and accountability: this means for arts organizations too.  Check GuideStar and know how we're doing.  We're in it for good art, but we can only stay in it with good business.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

A Sad Day

I have officially today given up on finding my copy of Towards a Poor Theatre. As a much as a few months ago I think I must have mislaid it and I’ve kept burning a hope that I would find it, but I think it’s time to give it up. A fairly cursory skimming of my thinking here, particularly “The Miraculous Medium,” will illustrate the depth of my debt to Grotowski’s work. His emphasis on what he called ‘the encounter’ (i.e. the encounter between the actor and the audience), I find particularly important to a vital theater existing in a technological world.

An actor I respect very much saw me reading my Grotowski a few months back and sighed thoughtfully as he said, “Ah, Grotowski: reminds us why we do what we do.” Well, maybe. But I think this would rightly have infuriated the man himself. Grotowski doesn’t merely remind us why we make theater, in fact, this was never his goal. Grotowski teaches us how to make theater. His experimentation isn’t the cute esoteric ramblings of a madman, but a program from which we can learn. He gives vocal exercises for god’s sake! Theoretical, sure, metaphysical even, but also physical, muscular, chthonic.

In an essay on Artaud, Susan Sontag described Grotowski as being disinterested in the presence of the audience. I think this is a misreading of the Laboratory’s work. Grotowski’s main interest was certainly in the actor—his process, his body, his soul I suppose—but he strikes me as aware that the actor’s art exists in the encounter. Indeed, as I remember (and admittedly, it’s been a while since I got to read it) Grotowski even describes the audience he seeks: an active audience that wants to participate in the aesthetic work.

I’ll get another copy soon. I can’t wait to read it again.

To the luckiest Red Line passenger of all time, I hope you give it a good home.

Desire Under the Crystal Skull

Ok, I'll stop soon. But...

Also, don't you wish Harrison Ford was looking down at Shia LaBeouf holding the sword?  

Friday, January 16, 2009

Twilight Under The Elms

Suggested by Miranda.  The contest rages on...

Monday, January 12, 2009

It Must Be Monday

But can we talk about this poster for 'Desire Under the Elms' at the Goodman?

Doesn't it look like it must be for a movie with explosions? Big points for anyone who can find the silliest movie with the poster most closely resembling the Goodman's. Till then, enjoy this one:


Over at The New Colony there's a new post about the importance of competition.  I agree that permission to leave stacks of fliers in each other's lobbies isn't exactly the same as fostering an artistic community.   I've offered live trailers as one possibility for more engaging cross-promotion.  But they might be a bit of a logistical nightmare.  In addition to helping each other, however, I'm also a big fan of feuds.  I guess it goes along with my love of manifestoes, but I'm entirely in support of different theater companies around town really competing for audiences by having strong artistic points of view and the necessary and productive result: disagreements.  Let's keep them nonviolent, though, sometimes feuds go too far. Start at 0:35.

'Color-Blind' Casting, Cont'd

Thanks to James Bohnen for his response to my post on The Voysey Inheritance.  I think he states the crux of the matter quite precisely: 
If we wait and wait for the right time for Non-traditional casting (achieved by some intuitive feeling of the county's pulse on race perhaps?) it seems like a way of puting off what should be a natural expression of talent winning the job without other constraints.
The way to incorporate 'color-blind' casting as a fixture of theatrical conventions is to, well, make it conventional.  Almost certainly, what Mr. Bohnen is really arguing for is a kind of casting that has nothing at all to do with race, but is purely a matter of talent and appropriateness for a role.  This is an honorable tack and a valuable one, and I think only a very stupid person would argue for the categorical exclusion of persons of color from 'classical' European dramatic productions.  Finally, the more I think about this the more confidant I am that the rise of the conventionality of 'color-blind' casting will pose no immediate threat to deliberate and thematic/artistic/aesthetic impact of non-traditional casting.


The comments' section of this blog is a murky and uncertain place, but I really do appreciate them. I'm going to do a better job of bringing them into the light.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Cliché Watch: Woefully Miscast

Reviewers love this phrase and use it enough that it has become fixed and thoughtless. Aside from that, which is bad enough, I'm interested in the value of casting as an object of thoughtful criticism. In a perfect world, a theoretical theater fantasia, such a comment would be a laughable impossibility. Not because there would always be a "perfect" actor for every role, but because we would understand that the actor's craft means that any actor can play any part. The ideal actor is as good a Falstaff as a Hamlet as an Othello etc. I guess we know we don't live in such a world and so casting exists and casting directors have a real job and an important one and there is, I guess such a thing as a person who is "bad at comedy" or "not a leading man" or something like that. The problem is, the criticism "woefully miscast" I think, diffuses criticism and turns an active accusation into a passive. What the reviewer must mean is that the actor gave a bad performance, but for some reason is uncomfortable making this claim. People involved in the production of plays understand a bad performance can be the result of a lot of things: bad directing, bad writing, bad acting, an uncomfortable sweater, a cold, a break-up, maybe bad casting. What I don't like about the de facto criticism of casting is that it insinuates the critic as an insider on the process, it highlights the artifice, and undermines the actor's art.

Imagine the insult. Not "Actor did a bad job as Iago", but "Actor--no matter what--could never possibly succeed at this role. Anyone who thinks so is wrong, and they all wasted their time." That is woeful, and I think it is a much more difficult problem to diagnose than a bad performance. And much more difficult than one would guess by the frequency of its assertion.

Sunday, January 4, 2009


Tech Weekend. I miss you.