Monday, March 30, 2009

Theresa Rebeck On Structure

Here's an interestingly defensive and cunningly argued article that Theresa Rebeck (author of Mauritius) wrote in the LA  Times about story, structure, and the cultural position of plot in the theater today.  I think of theater as storytelling, essentially, and it is kind of gross for me to think about someone rushing to the defense of narrative, championing Story.  Story is not going anywhere, and the Straw Man of the pompous and elitist (and alcoholic?) story-hater is, I think, silly.  

No one denies that King Lear has a plot.  No one really holds that against Shakespeare.  If too many contemporary plays are being written with a disregard for storytelling that's too bad for us and for them.  Exploring the possibilities of the stage is hard for me to look down on, until that becomes as institutionalized as whatever commercial form is ignoring those possibilities. If this has happened of plotlessness, it happened when I wasn't looking.

Hat Tip: LRN

Saturday, March 28, 2009

I've been called 'flexible'...

But, oh my god.  

The internet is magical.

Audience Participation, Cont'd

Allow me to be one of the last to link to this.  It's been posted in the green room at Mauritius for a few weeks.  From the Onion.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Cliché Watch?

As you might have noticed there's no Cliché Watch this week. We're gearing up for turning them into debates with guests in different positions in the theater world.  Should be a lot of fun!  

Friday, March 20, 2009

Every Day A Phone Rings In Act Two

I think this is a serious functional and, actually, aesthetic issue that should be approached a little more creatively than it has been approached so far.  The piped announcements before shows certainly do something to remind people to turn off their phones, although they should probably stop advising people to turn off their beepers since Clinton is no longer in office.  I have noticed also announcements cropping up after intermission is over, at the Northlight this even includes the sound of a ringing phone before the message, which I think helps.  

Nevertheless, every day a phone rings in act two.  I remember when I lost one of my front teeth in a swimming accident, I got a fake tooth put in and the dentist taught me the new way I needed to brush my teeth to take care of the fake one.  I asked him how long I would have to do this.  He answered: Forever.  It's a trivial example but one of the first times I really understood permanence.  We have no reason to believe that at some point in the future everyone will always remember to keep their phones off and that no phones will never ring. This is a new problem - people have always coughed, always fallen asleep, always spoken during performances -  but we can believe phones ringing during the show to be at least a semi-permanent condition of the theater.  What will we do?

Sometimes a live announcement helps, I've even watched people from the stage ask everyone to pull out their phones and turn them off together.  This is kind of cute and pretty effective, I imagine, even if it does feel like summer camp.  I think there is something to that reinforcement of the community, a ringing phone affects everyone.  

But what I'm really wondering is if there's a way to manage this from the stage, I'm not sure what form this would take, but I think it's worth investigating.  

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Multimedia Announcement The Second

Probably one of the best Jazz pianists of our generation is Gerald Clayton.  He is also my big brother and I wrote the new bio for his website.  Check it out here.  (It's under the "Press" heading.) And buy his upcoming album "Two Shade" here.  And no, I do not know what that thing is on his head.

Multimedia Announcement The First

Anne Nicholson Weber's latest podcast at Theatre In Chicago is all about the O'Neill Festival.  It features Robert Falls and Greg Allen talking with Anne about the festival in general and Strange Interlude.  Very good stuff (and it includes a generous reference to my reactions at the end). Check it out.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Making Space

Lance Baker is a really great actor, a company member of A Red Orchid, and in the cast of Mauritius at the Northlight right now (in which, for full disclosure, I'm an understudy and doing tech work).  He has probably the most fun role in the show; he plays a shady Mametian gangster type who for some reason really loves stamps.  Lance gives a dynamic and detailed performance which you really shouldn't miss, a lot of fun: a big role with room for nuance and Lance has, seemingly, a great time sharing this guy with the audience.

But, what I really want to talk about is this one little trick he uses that I think is amazing.  His character is in a stamp shop examining very carefully two incredibly rare stamps.  First he shines a special stamp lamp over them and looks through a magnifying glass.  Then he puts these away and looks at the stamps for a moment just under the regular light "in the store" (just stage lights, not practical lamps).  He looks at them like this for a moment, then he looks up at the "ceiling," finds exactly where the "light fixture' is shining, and moves the stamps slightly to be more directly in this light.

If we follow his eyes while he goes through this little bit we will trace the stage walls to where they end, then the fifteen feet or so of fly space until we get to the lighting grid cold and functional from which hang dozens of stage lights of all sizes and colors pointed meticulously at all parts of the stage.  But we know for Sterling (Lance's character), that there is simply a light fixture some four or five feet above his head.

In this bit Lance draws our attention to the patent theatricality of the moment while casually insisting that we are mistaken and that he is simply a stamp enthusiast in a dingy little shop trying to get the best view.  It is completely fantastic.

New Cliché Watch

I've got a new one on what I call Half-Abstraction up this week.  I'm not sure though that I ever really spell out what I mean, which is naturalist plays with abstract sets.  The recent Desire Under The Elms at the Goodman for instance, or last year's Uncle Vanya by the Court Theatre are good examples.  

There are going to be some exciting changes to my column over at the New Colony in the coming weeks: we're going to have guest dissenters and debaters to open up the conversation more, should be a lot of fun.  I'll keep you posted on the developments.  Till then, enjoy this post.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Conspiracy and Theatricality

Anne Nicholson Weber reminded me of this great excerpt from her interview with the great Nicholas Hytner in Upstaged.  

Throughout the history of the theatre, theatre artists have wanted to provoke their audience using alienating devices such as masks, boys playing girls, dance, verse dialogue -- devices which quite plainly do not produce a literal image of the world outside. They say, “This isn’t the real world, this is a poetic image of the real world through which we can agree to discover stuff about the real world” -- exactly the same way as if I am a Shakespeare heroine, I have to put on man’s clothes, to be not myself, in order to discover who I am and where I fit in the world. What we’re doing here is conspiring together: let’s make our world not the real world in order to discover what the real world is like.

I don’t think this is a feature of film as a form, but it is of the stage. And over and over again, you see theatre artists pushing this as hard as they can. What flashes in my mind is an example from the play I’m working on at the moment, The Winter’s Tale. I’ve not counted them, but seven or eight times in the last act, in preparation for his final coup when the statue of Hermione comes to life, Shakespeare has someone say, “This is like an old tale”, “This is a mouldy old tale”, “This is like an old tale still”, “If this were shown you on the stage you’d hoot at it.” He keeps insisting, “What I’m showing doesn’t make any sense, it’s not real,” drawing attention to the unreality of it, because he’s written 35 plays by now and he knows that we will believe, and in fact that the more that he tells us that we won’t believe, the bigger the shock and the huger and more resonant the thrill when we do. And at the end of an evening, the more you feel that you’ve achieved something -- that something has been required of your imagination and you’ve given it -- the better you feel.


It's interesting to me that he uses the terms "alienation" and "conspiracy" in such close proximity and in some sense to refer to the same thing.  What gets alienated in this context is the story, the actors reinforce their relationship with the audience at the expense of their relationship with the narrative.  Fantastic. 

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Strange Interlude, Cont'd: Sharing

Ecstasy aside. What was it about the Neo-Futurist Strange Interlude that I loved so much? First, it was a production that shared. When people talk or, I guess, write about Neo-Futurism, something they like to say is that it is “meta.” This is stupid.  And “metatheater” or the “metatheatrical” are two of the stupidest words in the world. Even worse than blogosphere. These words presuppose that theater in some sort of pure form is ignorant of itself, which is absurd. Anyone who has ever paused for the laugh to die down, or watched an actor do this, knows this deeply. So the idea that we would even need to differentiate something like “straight” theater that presents a pure narrative disinterested in its spectators, from a “metatheater” that acknowledges itself is a sort of dizzying, reactionary madness.

So what I mean by sharing is that the whole production of Strange Interlude invited the audience to actively witness theater production in an honest way. Sharing the stage directions, those amazing character descriptions, even O’Neill’s novelistic instructions on how each line should be read (“protesting feebly”) — these are all worth sharing. When Joe Dempsey, for example, walks onstage and Jeremy Sher reads his character description, the audience watches Joe build his character from the ground up. As Joe. As Joe pretending to be Marsden. You must know this is in fact what is happening. And Joe is having a good time. Mugging, preening, advocating, apologizing even for the person he is constructing. The person we are all accepting him to embody, to present, and to represent.

But that isn’t enough obviously. It would not really be remarkable to watch Mr. Dempsey walk around onstage for 6 hours rolling his eyes and ironically insisting he is so totally Charles Marsden. That is high school theater, college theater at its worst. Look at him, the popular guy, pretending to be Rapunzel’s Prince. Who but his teammates could possibly care? What is there to learn from that? What does that say about being alive?

Rather, in the Neo-Futurists’ hands this becomes a real monument to brilliant acting, because although we watch Joe and all the actors pretend to be their roles, “see” how they get where they get in terms of their embodiment of their roles, see them turn it on and off whenever they want, see them bring out certain characteristics to evident absurdities for the sake of a laugh, we are also utterly moved when they mean us to be. Because their craft is so precise and our attention is so acute. A friend of mine who saw the play with me kept remarking how surprised he was at how moving the sixth act was when the preceding had been so funny. But really, why would that be remarkable, except that it is so rare? In their utter control, the performers fluctuated freely between comedy and tragedy and the active audience was never behind.

This sharing, then, is a profound honesty about the theatrical experience that is partly moving because it is tied so directly into another brilliant aspect of the production: virtuosity. Everyone involved in the production was simply brilliant, brilliant in that way that makes the evidently difficult apparently easy. This smooth, storefront comfort with such grandiose material humanized, owned, and shared the text perfectly.

This is the first of what is likely to be several installments thinking about the excellence of the Neo-Futurists' Strange Interlude at the Goodman Theatre.  For my original response see here.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Like clockwork...

Another Cliché Watch at The New Colony.  Also, their new play FRAT, a world premiere, is now running at the Dank Haus.  Check out their website for more info.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Strange Interlude

This was the best production I've ever seen of anything.  It was 5 hours of performance and it was totally flawless. The perfect conspiracy of storytelling: acted with meticulous alchemy, and embodied with such big-hearted, open-armed precision that if it weren't so utterly, gleefully earth-bound, its soaring comic genius would have embraced the whole audience and lifted us into the sky.  

This is what happens when artists give themselves permission to be better than you ever thought possible. When a whole room sings together, when a whole room wills a doll to life, wills a man to femininity, wills adverbs into arguments, wills comedy into tragedy, wills silence among chaos, wills structure into freedom and pure joy.  

Every performance was pitch-perfect.  Every emotion utterly felt, every flicker shared.  Imagine a magician explaining the trick to you while doing it and still being flabbergasted.  This is the essence of the theater.  Congratulations to Greg Allen, Joe Dempsey, Dean Evans, Merrie Greenfield, Jeremy Sher, Brennan Buhl and everyone involved in this perfect production: Thank you.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Crossing Downstage

The Cliché Watch this week is a good one.  I like it because it's directorly.  It recently took the concerted and combined efforts of Miranda and Anne Nicholson Weber to talk me out of rejecting directing altogether for politico-aesthetic (i.e. benno-is-a-high-falutin-jerk-head) reasons. Directing really is an art and it is a field that is separate from acting.  

However, one of the reasons (aside from mere excellence) that I like Theater Oobleck so much is that they are asserting the primacy of the actor.  Too much is too frequently taken from actors and given to directors and I really think this is, as I say in the post, a waste of resources.  

This week also offers a brief respite of harping on the role of the audience, which perhaps might come as a relief to loyal readers.

Monday, March 2, 2009

A Good Sign

At the previews of Mauritius last week: loud intermissions.  It's like the most beautiful music. Lights out, applause, lights up, explosion of chatter.  Exciting.

Ambiguity, Cont'd

Nick Keenan, the mad genius behind this, this, this, this, and somehow also this, pointed me to a counterpoint to my Cliché Watch about Ambiguity.  In the interest of discourse I'd like to share it here.  An interesting view on advantages of ambiguity.