Friday, December 17, 2010

Ask Not For Whom The Phone Tolls

A cellphone went off during the final minute of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at Steppenwolf, at the press performance. The end of Virginia Woolf is about as intense a moment as the modern theatre has, and I can only imagine how awful and jarring it must have been for the audience and cast. And of course, since it was the press performance, it got into the papers--Hedy Weiss, in the Sun-Times, called for the offender to be tarred and feathered, and Chris Jones wrote and entire piece on the interruption and others he has suffered. (Not to mention the one he has perpetrated.) He ended with a call for forgiveness, though many of the commenters were not so charitable.

I was among the commenters, and shared my worst cellphone memory:

In 2005, I was at the Shaw Festival, in Canada, watching a production of R. C. Sherriff's Journey's End. The play is set in the trenches in World War One, and it was being produced in the Court House Theatre. The theatre has 340-some seats, but it's a very intimate space, and the design was particularly immersive. It was a wonderful production, and the audience was rapt in attention for most of the show. During one scene, the characters were discussing the worst part of living in the trenches: the awful quiet, and the attendant uncertainty. You can guess the rest--that's when the endless cellphone ringing started. To the infinite credit of the actors, they never broke character, and avoided the temptation to make a cheap joke. (I would not have been so virtuous.)

Audience rudeness, of course, extends beyond phones: Dobama Theatre in Cleveland once did a production of Sam Shepard's The Late Henry Moss. The theatre was a smallish thrust space, so you could always see the set before the show started. This particular set included a body under a blanket--the title character. At a performance I ushered, a curious audience member wandered on to the stage and pulled back the blanket, curious as to whether it was a real body. I was taking tickets, so I wasn't able to stop them--it never occured to me we'd need stage guards as well.

So what are the worst instances of audience rudeness that you've ever witnessed, with phones or otherwise? Have you ever accidentally been a perpetrator yourself?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Dismantling of the DCA

Now this is disturbing: according to this article, this past Friday saw 20 employees of the City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs laid off, raising to 29 the total number laid off since October. This was apparently a result of both budget cuts and an upcoming merger with the Mayor's Office of Special Events. Jim DeRogatis, the author's article, noted that while Lois Weisberg, the city's legendary Cultural Commissioner, will lead the newly-merged department, the Mayor's Office of Special Events lost only one staff member (who was reassigned to another city department) to the DCA's 29.

There's a lot more political backstory to all of this that I won't go into here, and I highly recommend you read the story I linked and the four preceding it for a look at it all.

DeRogatis is a music writer, so perhaps it's no surprise that one very important question to Chicago theatregoers is being left unanswered: what will become of the DCA's theatre programs? They operate the Storefront and Claudia Cassidy Theatres, right in the Loop, and give some of the best companies in town a wonderful space in which to work. They consistently present really strong work--this year alone saw The Hypocrites' stunning Cabaret, one of the year's best shows. It's a beautiful space and a consistently excellent slate of shows, and it would be a serious loss to the community to have it go away. A press release indicates that shows are scheduled through July, but will these still happen with such a diminished staff? And will there be anything happening in the fall of 2011 and beyond?

Please post in the comments any thoughts you have, and especially if you know any more information.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Another Quote on the NY Times Theatre Blog

And now for a moment of shameless bragging:

The New York Times periodically offers the chance to ask questions of a theatre-related figure, some of which get answered. I was fortunate to get a question answered by Charles Isherwood back in February, and I've been fortunate enough to do so again. It was one of three questions answered yesterday after the three he answered Tuesday. 

You can read the whole piece over at the site, but here's the question I asked:

Is there any figure — writer, performer, director, designer — who you feel has not been given enough credit for his or her influence on musical theater, or the quality of his or her work? Similarly, is there anyone you think gets too much credit? — Zev Valancy, Oak Park, Ill.

He answered as follows:

Too little credit? Yes, but may I call attention to a category of show contributors rather than to any one figure? I speak of the musicians who create the sound of Broadway. These are the more or less unknown men and women who take the work of a show’s songwriter(s), usually written at a keyboard, and flesh it out instrumentally (and sometimes even compositionally) to arrive at the way we hear it in the theater.

Among orchestrators I’d single out for starters Hans Spialek, Don Walker, and Jonathan Tunick; among arrangers, Genevieve Pitot and, above all, Trude Rittmann. Leonard Bernstein once referred to such musicians admiringly as the “subcomposers who turn a series of songs into a unified score.”

He's completely on-target in the assertion that orchestrators and arrangers are wildly underappreciated. It's easy to give the composer all of the credit for the way a show sounds, but listen to different versions of the same song to realize how untrue this is. Jonathan Tunick's huge orchestral arrangement for the original cast of Sweeney Todd gives a powerfully different impression from Sarah Travis' lean chamber version in the 2005 revival. The different sounds are one aspect of powerfully different experiences. (The contrast of Tunick's gorgeously varied orchestrations for the original production of Nine with the painfully generic ones by Doug Besterman for the misbegotten film version are a more unpleasant example of the same principle.)

I find Stempel's phrasing a little awkward and unclear (which doesn't bode well for the book itself), and would certainly add many names to his list, but it's a wonderful thing that he's helping orchestrators and arrangers get the attention they so richly deserve.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Dimond Steps Down

Here's a pretty major piece of news for the Chicago Storefront scene: Nic Dimond is stepping down as Artistic Director at Strawdog Theatre. He's been in the ensemble there since 1995, and has been Artistic Director since 2003. There's an excellent interview with him up at "Reviews You Can Iews," which details the reasons, including his impending marriage (Mazel Tov!) and the growing company's need for an AD with somewhat different skills. He'll continue to be involved with the theatre, which is good news.

Strawdog, which has been producing since 1988, has made itself into one of the most reliable storefront companies in town: they have a lot of exceptionally talented people in their ensemble, a fun and welcoming 70-seat theatre that has the grit of a classic storefront while still being a comfortable place to see a show and a place where some really spectacular productions can occur, and a consistently audacious selection of shows that work more often than not. They're unafraid to do difficult plays, and frequently ones with very large casts, which is thrilling to behold. Two of my favorite shows of the year--The Good Soul of Szechuan and Red Noses--were at Strawdog, and while I missed their fall production of State of the Union (damn you, overscheduled October-November!), I'm going to do my best to see The Master and Margarita and The Conquest of the South Pole in 2011.

So congratulations to Nic and everyone at Strawdog for the work you've done so far, and I hope you all will continue to make great shows.