Monday, June 29, 2009

Full Storefrontal: Theater Oobleck

The newest Full Storefrontal is up on, 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 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.

Cliché Watch Up

Due to a small technological snafu, the Cliché Watch for this week just got posted. Check it out here. The comments in the past few weeks have been really fantastic. So whether agreeing or disagreeing be sure to join the conversation over there.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Color Blind Casting, Alive Again

A letter to the NYT about Phylicia Rashad's performance in August: Osage County has been circling around, and it's worth reading largely because it is such a startling example of unreflective thinking.
I am offended that Phylicia Rashad is playing a white woman’s role in “August: Osage County.” It doesn’t make sense that she would have white siblings and children.

Offended? Nonsense. Frustrated, surprised, confused, irritated, exhausted, outraged even: maybe. But what would the offense be?  Your objection, is that it "doesn't make sense."  So you're not offended, you're confused.  But, there are some other things that don't make sense: people on a tall thing pretending to be people they are not, saying things they don't mean, wearing clothes that aren't theirs, pretending that you're not watching (except for that guy in the first scene, who talks right to you).

What is it about this particular convention that is offensive?  I've written before a few times about color-blind casting, and I still think that as a convention it is perhaps too young to have become conventional, but I think that it will. When was the last time someone was offended by a convention of the theater? Christian moralists decried acting as dishonest until they exploited it to share their faith.  Elizabethan nobility used costumers' demand to sell their once-used clothing to keep money and save face, and so turned a blind eye on the dangerous blurring of class distinction that the theater represented.  Today race is a central issue in our culture and one to which both social conscience and social structure are bound.  The topic here is an aesthetic issue that happens to deal with race so understandably then, the stakes are high. "Not making sense" works as an analysis of color-blind casting if you stay in the realm of aesthetics: this is an arguable position.  But outside of aesthetics, a rejection of Ms. Rashad's performance will fall flat and hard.

Unfortunately, the letter's author describes Ms. Rashad as "playing a white woman's role" rather than "playing a white woman," which makes his argument seem like it's much more about taking jobs than about aesthetic possibility or so-called suspension of disbelief. So, this isn't an aesthetic argument and this person is a fool.

If this were an aesthetic argument I would raise this question: aside from whether or not we can "forget" Ms. Rashad's race, can we "forget" Ms. Rashad?  The most powerful alienating factor in modern performing arts - and the one which no one talks about - is fame.  As far as suspension of disbelief goes, who the hell on Broadway knew who Deanna Dunagan was before this play?  Wasn't she just Violet Westin?  But Ms. Rashad is instantly recognizable from her TV work with Bill Cosby and from her previous Broadway successes, including last year's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.  At least as meaningful as whether we can accept her as playing a white character, is how it is that we accept her as anyone other than Phylicia Rashad.  I think the answer to both of them must be the same.

Monday, June 8, 2009

A Case of the Mondays

A bath, a bourbon, and bloodless.  And Miranda's fever is down. 
I love Mondays.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Buckets of Chicken

I find myself really conflicted about this kind of stupid article from the Wall Street Journal.  It offers two opposite justifications for the so-called "decline" in audience behavior in Broadway theaters.  Either it's because all sorts of chicken-eating out-of-towners are buying discounted tickets and acting like they're watching TV outside on their porches, or the ludicrously high ticket prices are breeding an intense feeling of entitlement in rude jet-setters.  And also, there might not actually be a decline in behavior at all.

So. What now? The most interesting aspect for me is the guy who asked an actress to "wait a second" while he got seated, and that she doesn't remember this and in fact, tends to hold anyway.  The wonder of this anecdote is that this person understands the genius of the theater - its humanity, its ephemerality - and doesn't understand that it is "inappropriate" to demand that of the theater, and is treated to it anyway.  I'll be thinking more about this I hope.  

Friday, June 5, 2009

Period Piece

My sister asked me for a definition of a Period Piece.  Here goes:
A period piece is a play, performance, or film with an historical setting (typically other than the present) that derives part of its attraction from its faithful and thorough recreation of that setting.

This is fun, maybe I'll do this more.  I'll take requests.  I've joked before that I'd like a son named Hobbes, who I would force to derive all nouns and concepts. For instance:
Hobbes: Daddy, can I have some soup?
Benno:  Some what?
Hobbes: When water meets meat?
Benno: Yes, Hobbes.  I love you.
Hobbes:  And I have a desire for your presence whilst in your presence.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Theater Companies

A new Cliché Watch on Theater Companies is up at The New Colony.  This doesn't mean, however, that we need to stop the conversation on Intermissions, which is still going strong.

A Crooked Road

An open mind and a critical mind. Too often in the arts these seem to be mutually exclusive traits. I'm reminding myself constantly that they are not.  Cliché Watch, for instance, is only fun as long as it isn't catty and criticism in general is only meaningful as long as it starts neither with crossed arms and a frown, nor absolute doe-eyed subjectivism. A man who succeeded in his day to be both open and critically minded was the genius of Russian Formalism, Viktor Shklovsky who writes this on the nature of art in Theory of Prose:
Every person who has ever examined art closely, apart from those led astray by a defective theory of rhythm as an organizational tool, understands this question. A crooked, laborious poetic speech, which makes the poet tongue-tied, or a strange, unusual vocabulary, an unusual arrangement of words - what's behind all this?

Why does King Lear fail to recognize Kent? Why do both Kent and Lear fail to recognize Edward? So asked Tolstoi in utter astonishment about the underlying laws of Shakespearean drama. This comes from a man who knew greatly how to see things and how to be surprised by them.

Why does the recognition scene in the plays of Menander, Plautus and Terence take place in the last act, when the spectators have already had a presentiment by then of the blood relationship binding the antagonists, and when the author himself often notifies us of it in advace in the prologue?

Why is it that, in fashioning an Art of Love out of love, Ovid counsels us not to rush into the arms of pleasure?

A crooked road, a road in which the foot fells acutely the stones beneath it, a road that turns back on itself - this is the road of art.

What Shklovsky is getting at in this passage is the essential otherness, the necessary difficulty of art as opposed to what Peter Brook calls "any-old-how," that is, real life. For art to work, you sort of have to know it's art.  A teacher gave me a great example once.  If you're sitting in your apartment and you look across the street into the window there, and you see a man smothering his wife with a pillow, you will not call your friends and say "Hey, you gotta come over, I'm watching this great tragedy."  But if Othello is playing somewhere nearby, you might make that call.

Can we acknowledge these formal demands of art and still be astonished?  Be at once open and critical?  Yes, yes, yes.  Well, my God, let's hope so.  

Also this. (Do ignore the study questions.)

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Out of Nothing

A great friend of mine has a short story up on a new online lit magazine Out of Nothing.  Check it out here.  Her name is Analisa Raya-Flores, the story is called "Ellebow," and the link is right in the middle of the head.  (that last bit will make sense when you follow the link.)  Congrats, Ani!

Monday, June 1, 2009

Dog & Pony

The first in a new series I'm writing for TheatreInChicago on small theater companies around town is now available online here.  Also, if you missed Anne Nicholson Weber's fantastic podcast on Sound Designers from last week, you should check that out here.