Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Emperor's Clothes

Really just a question today. It's remarkably easy to think that 'the problem' or at least 'a problem' with 'American Theatrical Criticism' is that it is too conservative. That it represses artists seeking to explore new avenues et cetera. And I'm sure that happens. But I wonder if a more accurate concern is the fear of being on the wrong side of history. If there is, in fact, a desperate desire to be right about the next big thing, to be the critic or the artist that creates or defends the new method or maker that changes theatrical history. And if this anxiety is responsible for the pop and fizzle of new companies and ideas, brought to attention before they're ripe or remarkable for their alterity rather than their excellence.

That is all.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

CO2 Pressurized

Meta is a word that people like to use a lot these days. I remember the first time I heard the word "metatheater" it was in a Shakespeare class in college and a grad student was throwing that thing around like it was going out of style. I cannot, for the life of me, remember what play we were talking about. The best part was when another grad student, clearly not one to be left out, asked in the most pretentious way possible, "What are we meaning when we say 'metatheater'?" Clearly what she meant was, "What the hell are you talking about?" But I think obfuscation is the first rule of an English Ph.D. program and she was flexing her muscles.

Anyway, when we use 'meta' to mean a thing that comments on itself I like that onstage. It's such great gymnastics to see it work well: to demand disbelief and belief at the same time. Fantastic. This is good also, because unlike a lot of uses of 'meta' this is one that engages the audience rather than celebrates the makers.

I don't blog about blogging, and I don't like movies about moviemaking (with the exception of State and Main, which is so joyously spiteful it just makes me ecstatic). I hate poetry about poets, I'm always disappointed when the main character in something is a writer. There are, of course, an awful lot of plays about playmaking. And my gut reaction is to dismiss them, but I think I might be crazy.

Why do I think this? I heard an ad on the radio today for the new Miller Lite Home Draft system. This is a keg for your fridge that is "CO2 Pressurized" to keep your beer tasting fresh etc. etc.

Why don't they just say 'pressurized'? I don't know how CO2 works. Isn't CO2 poisonous? A little bit? But Miller Lite's millionaire ad executives decided it was worth pointing out to me. Why?

I think it's because now I feel like an expert. I admit that when I first heard the ad on the radio I thought, "well how does this stay fresh?" Now I know. I guess. What they've done is commodified the process. What I imagine is a pretty mundane scientific technique has been turned into a selling point. The logic goes, one of the neat things about this is the way that it's done.

I suppose this is what the appeal is - to an audience - of musicals like Kiss Me Kate, Chorus Line, 42nd Street, etc. The argument is inclusiveness, shedding light on the way a beloved thing is made. Extending an opportunity to "be an expert" on Broadway musicals in the way that I'm an expert in CO2 Pressurizing or, frankly, Broadway musicals. Now when someone who has seen 42nd Street goes to see another play they'll be doing so with an understanding - fictional as it may be - of how it came to the stage. That's actually meaningful, I think.

I still don't like these plays, and I don't think this realization will change my opinion. I just find them so sickeningly self-glorifying. Perversely, in High School I was in three plays like this. Kiss Me Kate, 42nd Street, and Moon Over Buffalo. Isn't that odd? But the thing is, doing those plays made us feel like we were a part of the action, the big-town big-budget action. That self-glorification was, perhaps, exactly the point.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Plays and Routines

I'm currently helping to develop two new projects, the first is a solo piece with my friend Ethan and the second is an as-of-yet unannounced project with The New Colony. In both of these, a struggle I've been having is balancing an intellectual interest in presence and performative reality with engaging storytelling. Here's the conundrum. Saying, "Hi I'm Benno, welcome to my show," strikes me as fun and honest. But what then? On TV, (Malcolm in the Middle for instance) you can do this and then ignore the camera when the demonstrative storytelling starts (his mom enters and they have dialogue). On stage, this seems really weird to me. Sure there are plenty of examples of plays with disappearing narrators (The Glass Menagerie maybe), but when I sit down to write something like this it's difficult for me. The difference, I think, is in the nature of recorded versus presented activity. A recording has an inherent interest. Like watching an old home video or stumbling across an old photograph in a used book, even if you can't remember the event recorded, that it was recorded and here is the proof seems like a sufficient source of interest. Why was this recorded? What does it say about the subject and the documentarian? Etc. But onstage, things aren't recorded, they're occurring at that moment "for the first time" and, ostensibly too "for the last time." And, this is most important, the telling matters. Unlike a recording whose interest is inherent, when you're presented with a play you must know why.

For me these two points are essential in differentiating plays from what I'll call routines. Let me say that I in no way mean to assign a greater aesthetic merit to one or the other I'm just trying to work out my task because recently I've been charged to create plays (as in the past I've made various routines: choral concerts, vaudevilles, magic shows, stand-up comedy, etc.).

Consider a magic show. How is magic show like the thing we tend to call a play? There's a character (the magician's persona) even multiple characters (assistants etc.); it's onstage; there's an audience. Some superficial differences are easily discarded: a lack of a coherent narrative is trivial since it either does have one implicitly (I will show you a bunch of tricks), or it doesn't but it has local punctuated narratives (I will guess your card even though I haven't seen it, I will saw this woman in half but she will not die, etc.) like an evening of short plays (The Shipment for example), or narrative doesn't matter (Waiting for Godot, perhaps); it lacks an antagonist (but what about the audience in a Harry Anderson show?); it lacks emotional stakes (but every trick might go wrong!).

And yet I think it's true that a magic show is importantly, intuitively distinct from a play for two reasons. The first is that it lacks a plays pretension of singularity. A magician will do his routine 300 nights a year. We see a routine for example rather than simply seeing it. In this way a routine's audience is a witness where as a play's audience is a participant. I know this might seem insane or naive, inasmuch as a play is performed more than once, but I feel that this is an economic rather than a generic feature of the form, and that we are encouraged to believe the play is only happening this once, unlike a routine. (The rock band I was in in High School always claimed that the show we were playing was going to be our last, but this was really just shtick and we only did do two shows anyway.) So, to be a play I think we need to understand why tonight is unlike any other night. If, for example, in the course of the magician's routine a kidnapper came onstage and tied him up and the magician had to get out of those ropes this would inch it over into play territory, whereas if he invites an audience member up to tie him up it's a better trick (we know there's no funny business in the tying) but the night stays the same.

Another way that occurs to me to turn a routine into a play is to involve the audience in concrete emotional stakes for the curator. Is the magician showing us tricks as a profession or is there something special about the telling that matters to him (and so to us) tonight? For instance the mediator of his divorce is onstage or in the audience tonight (unlike other nights) to determine from the routine if he is fit to get custody of his children. Now, since we are invited into these emotional stakes, unlike the any-old-how stakes of being a good magician, we leave audience time and enter "performance time" which seems to me an important aspect of plays.

I feel like summing up to make sure I get it straight. Unlike routines, plays claim singularity of the experience in time and establish a performance time distinct from their duration, and perhaps most importantly are responsible to answer why the activity onstage matters for at least one of its participants.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

That Sordid Little Story

I know I've been a little quiet here on the blog, and I still promise I'll never blog about blogging, but it seems worth mentioning the reason why. I've been working on That Sordid Little Story with The New Colony. I'm a co-writer on the project and it's been incredibly rewarding. For a while what I thought what was great about The New Colony process (kind of a modified Mike Leigh situation), was how it empowered actors to be an active part of writing, drawing on their strongest skills and challenging them to grow into uncharted territory. As a writer now, officially, The New Colony really feels like a writer's dream company. Because of the participatory, improvisational nature of the creative process, there have been rehearsals where I've been able to hear two even three drafts of the same scene performed by the actors in the room instantly. It's been amazing. Also the music is phenomenal.

I'll try not to ruin any plot points or be overly effusive, it just gets more and more exciting the closer we get to opening night on July 8th.

The trailer just got finished, check it out.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

High Drama

Pretty ridiculous goings-on at the TimeOut review for The Taming of the Shrew. The central flaw in thinking about criticism is treating the critic as anything other than an audience member. Anyone can fall into this trap - critics especially - but what matters is that they're audience members, it's their whole claim to legitimacy and the whole point of reading their opinions.

Improv, Brevity, and Brecht

I recently took an improv class at Second City. It was great getting to do some comedy again and I haven't performed in a long time so it was a really fun class. A lot of people told me it would be great for my writing and for a while I didn't know what they meant. I learned an important lesson eventually, but Brecht got there first.

In The Good Soul of Szechuan (opening Sunday at Strawdog) there's a great scene where two characters decide to sell a tobacco shop. At that exact moment another character enters who wants to buy it. It's funny when you read it because it's so precise, but it's theatrically necessary since it moves the story along. On TV, there would be a cut-scene, then an establishing shot, then a conversation about selling it. Brecht cuts to the quick.

This is true in improv too. My teacher Rob made us do an exercise where in three lines we got all of the exposition of the scene done. Who we were, where we were, and what our relationship was. This makes for a lot of hilariously to the point opening exchanges, "This is the worst carnival ever, Mom", "You're a hell of a best man, Carl", etc. Less information tends to feel more natural-

A: Hi.
B: Hi.
A: How are you?
B: Fine.
A: Did you sleep well?
B: Ok.

-But way better is:

A: You look tired, honey.

This says volumes more about their relationship in less time and moves the scene forward. Peter Brook writes about the danger of the "any-old-how", meaning that onstage we're looking for something more than life. I'm biased, but I'm inclined to agree. We don't have a lot of time, and we know how people talk. You're free to get to the point. You want to tell a story. You are not bound by anything. Why would you be required to do anything other than what you need to do? One of the most deadly things onstage is describing the immediate future and then delaying it. If a character says, "Let's get some ice cream" you can have stage crew hand them ice cream. You can have them mime it. You don't need to blackout, strike the set, set up the ice cream shop, and then have the characters waiting in line, selecting a flavor, paying, waiting, getting it. We know.

In a world of waiting, brevity is magical.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A Plus

Looking for a female actor of Inuit descent who can play and look in their mid to late teens. Can speak Inuit or Eskimo-Aleut is a plus.

I sincerely want to know how many people show up at this audition. This has something to do with a post from a while back on ethnic authenticity for play-making. It's a complicated issue because, of course, on the one hand I have little doubt that this actress exists and while color-blind casting is still (absurdly) a controversial issue it's important that she has the chance to play this part. On the other hand, could she really not be played by a Yup'ik? Fundamentally this comes down to a really simple tension: we still call them shows but we're obsessed with being.

Eric Clapton kind of looks like my dad, but K. Todd Freeman could play him a million times better because he's a goddamn brilliant actor. He doesn't have to actually be my dad or look like my dad to play my dad. He doesn't need to convince himself that he's my dad, he needs to encourage an audience to accept he's representing my dad. We don't paint the back of the set.