Tuesday, March 29, 2011

And What Next?

As is its wont, the theatrical blogosphere is full of people getting angry. And that's okay--that's the purpose of theatre blogs: analyzing and decrying the failures of theatre as it is now, explaining how it should be, figuring out what areas need to be fixed, and warning of impending doom.

In this case, the furor has been over this piece by playwright Mat Smart. (I found it through Don Hall's sharp response.)

Both articles are worth reading, but in brief, Smart argues that playwrights fail because of:

our general laziness,
inability to commit,
defeatist attitude,
lack of talent,
and unwillingness to truly listen and change

He says, and Hall amplifies, this basic idea: "Stop complaining about the broken system and start making better work."

I'm not entirely in agreement with this attitude. After all, most systems that are in action today are flawed. I wouldn't say "stop being lazy" to the many victims of our desperately broken economic system, for instance. Laziness didn't sink the economy, boundless greed and nonexistent regulation did. (And while it's tempting to continue that particular rant, I'll stop here.)

So yes, I find that kind of pure "stop complaining and just do it" attitude to be limited, and often lacking in nuance and understanding of circumstances. But there's a whole lot of truth in it. Here's the attitude I'd like to see: After you've diagnosed the problems, focus on what the solutions are and how you can make them happen.

Everyone won't agree on the diagnosis, and everything isn't fixable. But there's certainly a lot you can do.

For example: Leonard Jacobs, of the fascinating, infuriating, and essential Clyde Fitch Report (whose current incarnation has ended due to his acceptance of a wonderful new job, but will hopefully continue under new management soon), was very fond of discusssing the unsustainability of the current arts funding model. Government arts funding is always a target and always shrinking, foundation support is unreliable (and in our current economic situation, also decreasing), and an attitude of entitlement and begging for huge checks won't be enough to keep arts organizations going. He made a good case, and I think a lot of what he says is true. (I haven't studied the issue enough to make a certain statement.)

But the conversation that was all too rare in discussions of the failures of funding models was a look at what a better model would look like, how we'd get from here to there, and what can be done to move that along. There was an awful lot of diagnosis, but very little treatment plan.

This is true of anything in theatre. Of course the rate of new play production is not as high as playwrights would wish it to be. Of course some playwrights get lots of attention and production while other equally good playwrights are comparatively ignored. Of course playwrights who are female and/or non-white don't have an equal playing field. Of course dramaturgs and other collaborators have their own opinions of what would make a play better, and share them. Of course critics don't always get what the play is going for, and don't always like it.

And that's just part of the litany for playwrights--actors, designers, administrators, critics, and audiences have their own long lists.

(By the way, to break my own rule, let me air this dramaturg's complaint: I am tired of people acting as if my profession is made up of uncreative hacks who bastardize precious, beautiful works of art in the pursuit of monetary gain. First off, dramaturgs have less power in the rehearsal room than assistant stage managers. We offer questions and suggestions, but not dictatorial instructions. Second of all, theatre is collaborative. If honest feedback from someone who is smart and cares deeply about the play will destroy the precious flower of your work, then the problem is with the work and/or the thin skin of its creator. Prose authors accept and appreciate editors, and welcome feedback. Why are a few people so very against the work that dramaturgs do? How can they sincerely believe that we're what's wrong with new plays in America? Alright, rant finished.)

To get back on track--the whole list above is accurate to a degree. Some of the items are serious problems, some are just the nature of how things work. (Yes, the primary consideration of a theatre is to do the best work for itself and its audience. The theatre company wouldn't be doing its job if it weren't focused on what's best for the theatre company.) But while there is a value in finding problems, there is more in finding solutions.

And solutions are being found. The National New Play Network has organized dozens of "rolling world premieres", allowing new plays to get multiple productions and avoid the problems of being unproduced after their world premieres. Victory Gardens' Ignition Festival, devoted to developing and producing new works by artists of color under the age of 40, produced The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, which proceeded to sell out, become a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and transfer to an Off-Broadway run.

To those who respond, reasonably, that these are institutions and not individuals that are making the changes, I present one more example: Caitlin Montanye Parrish and Erica Weiss. Caitlin is primarily a playwright (in addition to being a critic and more), Erica is primarily a director (in addition to being a dramaturg--who worked on Chad Deity, incidentally--and more). Both happen to be friends of mine. And last month, after years of working together and with others, they hit the jackpot. Caitlin's play A Twist of Water, co-created and directed by Erica, opened in a Route 66 Theatre Company production to excellent reviews, then got excellent publicity due to a visit from Rahm Emanuel. After a nearly sold-out run, it's transferring to an extended run at the Mercury Theatre. Lots of factors intervened to make it the success it has become (and it's wonderful, by the way--you should really check out the Mercury run if you haven't seen it yet), but at the core is two people, believing in their art, working tirelessly, taking advantage of a productive partnership and collaborating with a large group of talented people. There are no guarantees (and nobody can predict runaway hits like that), but it can be done.

I don't say this from a position of perfection--complaint and paralysis in the face of difficulty are long-time plagues of mine, in life and in art. But in the interest of making good art and being happier people, lets broaden our vision: once we've discuss the problems, let's discuss what we can do to solve them. And then let's do it.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Towards a Definition of Terms

What? A post? I'm as surprised as you, honestly. I could blame the wide variety of commitments that kept me away (day job, An Enemy of the People at Stage Left, planning LeapFest, the 2011-2012 season, and playwright residency at Stage Left), but the simple truth is that I haven't wanted to blog in the last several weeks. I'm trying to get back into it, though, so hopefully more will show up soon.

To start, here's a discussion question. What, exactly, is community theatre? I'm inspired to ask this question by an excellent post by Monica Reida just under a week ago. For those too lazy to read it, tsk tsk, but here's a brief summary: she attacked the reflexive disdain for "community theatre" among so many people in the industry. For some, the term has become a synonym for amateurish, cheap shows that are a trial to sit through. She responded that she's seen plenty of superb community theatre and plenty of awful professional stuff. It comes down to the question: what is the actual difference between community theatre and non-equity theatre that doesn't pay any of the artists?

This led to a huge conversation--54 comments, at the moment, which would be any blogger's dream. And since this is a valuable conversation, I thought it should be presented to more people.

Here's my provisional take on it: I don't entirely agree that the only criterion to distinguish among types of theatre should be pay. Community theatre does seem to have features that distinguish it from other forms.

First off, there is the obvious issue of pay: as a rule, community theatres do not pay their artists. They are of course not the only theatres of which this is true. I have only once in my career been paid to act, for instance, and I'm sure many artists have had valuable theatrical experiences for companies who are unable to afford even a token payment.

Then there is the question of season selection. As a general rule, community theatres produce less adventurous, more audience-pleasing theatre: musicals, comedies, mysteries, American classics. This is far from a constant thing. Monica gives many examples of community theatres in her home state of Iowa producing adventurous fare. To take another example, Akron, Ohio's Weathervane Playhouse has produced a wide variety of plays in recent years: in addition to standards like Pippin, The Nerd, and Children of Eden, recent seasons have seen productions of Love, Valour, Compassion, A Doll's House, The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia, and A Long Day's Journey Into Night. I have no idea how good the productions were, but that's beside the point: no theatre always succeeds, and ambition is always a laudable thing.

The question of "professionalism", while interesting, is ultimately a dead end. One could define it by the number of people involved who have training in theatre, but even the equity world is full of people who fell into theatre and made major careers of it without having a degree in it--and community theatres certainly have people with theatre degrees working there. Professionalism can be defined as a company and group of artists who have competence, class, and respect for those who work with them, but it would be foolish to say these qualities are missing from community theatre--or that they are always present in equity theatre. It's too slippery a quality to use as a good criterion.

An interesting point is one of geography: based on my observations, community theatre is most prevalent in locales that don't have paid theatre. They are usually seen in suburbs or smaller towns. When in large cities, they are often in neighborhoods underserved by larger arts organizations. It says something important about the human and societal need for art: even areas that can't support large theatres will usually make their own to serve their needs.

The difference to me seems to come down to mission. In general, community theatre's mission is right there in its name. It's for the community. What matters is involving local people in making art, having a worthwhile experience, and getting people in the community to come see it and have an experience together. This isn't to say that the excellence of the art isn't important. It is. But it's generally not a case of "great art at any cost". What matters is the community.

But I'm hardly an expert on community theatre, and as I said, this is just the definition that's running around in my head now. Does anyone have any thoughts to contribute?

Friday, January 14, 2011

Graney Steps Down

Well this is news: as first broken by Eric and Andy's Reviews You Can Iews, Sean Graney will be stepping down as artistic director of The Hypocrites, the Chicago theatre company that he founded in 1997. He'll be replaced by Halena Kays, a company member at The Hypocrites and the current artistic director founder of Barrel of Monkeys.

(Confidential to Anderson Lawfer and Eric Roach: screw you guys, with your scoops and your good journalism! You're making the rest of us bloggers look bad!)

I've previously stated my love of the work that Graney does, both with The Hypocrites and at other theatres. (I think I went from cautious admirer to full-on fan with the fall 2008 one-two punch of The Threepenny Opera with The Hypocrites and Edward II with Chicago Shakespeare.) The good news is that this work will continue--he's slated to direct two shows a season for at least the next two seasons with The Hypocrites, and I have no doubt at other theatres as well. It's a good thing--nobody explodes a classic play and picks up the pieces quite like him, and his success rate is astonishingly high. While I don't think I've ever seen Kays' work (or, shamefully, ever gone to a Barrel of Monkeys show), I've heard nothing but good things about her. (I'd be remiss if I didn't mention tireless managing director Megan Wildebour, who will continue to be awesome and make things happen in that way that managing directors of small companies do.)

So congratulations to everyone at the Hypocrites for arranging a smooth and artistically exciting way to continue the strong work that the company does. I look forward to seeing more shows there. (This isn't just me saying that--I'm seeing "The Pirates of Penzance" tomorrow night.) And Sean, if you ever leave Chicago, I'll be very angry. Finally, readers, I leave you with two pictures.

This is what the past looks like:

And this is what the future looks like:

Both photos by Sandro

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

News Roundup

Two pieces of good news and one very sad one:

Steppenwolf's praised production of Lisa D'Amour's Detroit is moving to Broadway in the fall. It's always good to see a new American play on Broadway, and I hope it does well. (I never got to see it, but heard great things.) Hopefully the original cast will be kept and a good play done well without stars will reach some level of Broadway success. I know, I'm an optimist.

Also in Steppenwolf news, Jon Michael Hill will appear in their production of The Hot L Baltimore. This is excellent news for two reasons: first, that Hill is a dynamic and exceptional performer, and any chance to see him onstage is a treat. Second, this indicates that, despite his role on ABC's Detroit 1-8-7, he's remaining committed to theatre and Chicago. I hope that his returns are frequent.

It's always sad to report a death, but particularly so when that death comes shockingly early. Allison Powell, an ensemble member at Filament Theatre died at the age of 28 from a sudden illness on January 2nd. There will be a memorial event for her on Friday, and Filament has announced that they are funding a gift in her memory. See the press release below for all of the details. Our profoundest thoughts and sympathies are with all of her family and friends.

***Allison Powell Memorial Event and Artist's Gift***

Allison Powell of the Filament Theatre Ensemble passed away from a sudden illness on January 2, 2011 at the age of 28. In addition to serving as the company's business manager, Allison adapted Filament's most recent production, Choose Thine Own Adventure – a Shakespearean choose-your-own-adventure play which enjoyed a very successful run at the Underground Lounge through December 11, 2010.

Allison attended elementary school in Lilburn, Georgia, then moved to Maui, Hawaii, where she graduated with honors from Seabury Hall. She graduated cum laude from Colgate University in New York, majoring in religion and philosophy. She also studied at St. Andrews University, Scotland and in Melbourne, Australia, where she spent a year as an independent researcher studying Aboriginal ceremony and performance. During her college years she was active in experimental theatre and after graduation worked in the San Francisco theater community. She moved to Chicago in 2009 and joined the executive staff of the Filament Theatre Ensemble shortly thereafter. She planned on attending graduate school to study religious ritual and performance in the fall.

The Filament Theatre Ensemble is profoundly grateful for her contributions to the company, and are continuing her legacy with an annual gift to Chicago-based artists in Allison's name. Allison recognized the challenges of the lifestyle of the artist, and believed firmly that artists should be monetarily compensated for their work. The Filament Theatre Ensemble is establishing “Allie's Gift” to provide individual Chicago artists with funds to grow and support their artistic careers. This gift will be offered annually on Allison's birthday, April 26. More details will be available on the Filament Theatre Ensemble website in the coming days.

A public celebration of Allison's life will be held at 7:00pm on Friday, January 14 at the Menomonee Club located at 1535 North Dayton Street. A broadcast of her celebration event held in Marietta, GA, will be shown and will begin at 7:30, with time to share stories and memories. If you plan to attend please RSVP by emailing info@filamenttheatre.org or calling (773) 270-1660.

For more information about the service, “Allie's Gift”, or to share memories, please visit www.filamenttheatre.org or call (773) 270-1660.


Peter Oyloe
Filament Theatre Ensemble // Marketing Director
Till the bridge you will need, be form’d–till the ductile anchor hold;
Till the gossamer thread you fling, catch somewhere, O my Soul.
-Walt Whitman

Friday, January 7, 2011

Discussing "The Tempest"

Welcome to the latest installment of the occasional collaboration between Tim Brayton, of the invaluable film blog Antagony and Ecstasy (no, I'm not exactly sure what the title means either) and myself, on the subject of film/theatre crossovers. Today's subject is Julie Taymor's film version of Shakespeare's The Tempest, with Helen Mirren, cast across gender lines as Prospera. The film has died a quick death at the box office--by its second week of release in Chicago, it was playing once a day at one movie theatre in the entire Chicagoland area, and now it seems to have disappeared entirely.

We'll explore in a little while whether it deserves this fate, but first, let's discuss the source material, William Shakespeare's play, for a bit. Tim, want to start us off there?

Tim: I know we don't agree, as I'm sure you'll point out, but I rather like the play. It's undoubtedly lesser Shakespeare, but I'd still rank it among the 24 or so of his 38 plays that I think are more excellent than not.

It's largely un-dramatic: a exiled duke/magician assembles all of the people who've wronged him on an island, toys with them, and then reveals himself and takes his title back. And that's part of what I like about it. It's a play largely about the joy of creating things for the sake of it. Four centuries of criticism have made it a cliche that the main character, Prospero, "is" William Shakespeare, but I think that's such a durable idea only because it fits so obviously well: The Tempest is about a man who controls the fates of everyone around him entirely, "writing" the events that happen to them (recall that this was one of the few Shakespearean plays with no known source for its story).

With Hamlet, King Lear, the Henriad, and so many other plays behind him, I like to suppose that the Shakespeare of 1610 didn't feel like he had anything left to prove with drama, and so set himself to a single piece of pure fancy. It's about magic and spectacle, and it is magical and spectacular, and that's it - a Jacobean precursor to a Michael Bay film, perhaps. But much more appealing than that.

Zev: I'll go on the record as saying that The Tempest is one of my least favorites of Shakespeare's plays. (I've never read Timon of Athens or The Two Gentlemen of Verona, so the bottom of my personal ranking is Cymbeline.) Even if it's not among Shakespeare's very worst, it certainly seems to command a critical respect and frequency of production way out of proportion to its quality. The Tempest may be better than something like Titus Andronicus, but as trashy as Titus is, at least it keeps the audience riveted. (Incidentally, Titus was Taymor's first film, and is one of the best filmed Shakespeares ever.) It's all too easy for an audience's attention to drift away from The Tempest.

I think our differing opinions on the play come down to something fundamental in our perspectives: narrative and storytelling are of much more importance to me than they are to you. And The Tempest's narrative is, frankly, a mess. Compare Twelfth Night, where the loss of a single scene would cause the whole plot to collapse, with the flabby storytelling on display in The Tempest, where whole swathes of the play could be cut without any effect.

The play also suffers from insipid lovers, unfunny clowns, and unthreatening villains. There are really only three characters of significant interest: Prospero, the sorcerer, Ariel, his androgynous sprite of a servant, and Caliban, the "savage" who was born on the island and is now kept by Prospero as another servant.

This isn't to say the play is a total loss. The language is among Shakespeare's most beautiful, there's an opportunity for some wondrous staging, and strong acting can make even the weaker material work. (And if Prospero is played by a beloved actor near the end of his career, as is often the case, little else matters.) It's certainly possible for The Tempest to be good. But has Taymor managed this?

Tim: Certainly, The Tempest has little enough concrete drama to it that it seems to attract all sorts of weird and experimental readings: without even glancing at its many stage versions in the last few decades, I can immediately point to the '50s sci-fi picture Forbidden Planet and Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books as two versions that do things very different from any "standard" version of the play. It was for this reason that I was especially excited for Taymor's vision: as you've mentioned, Titus was a masterpiece, largely because she took a fairly stupid piece of nastiness, and made it into one of the most fascinating commentaries on the impulse towards fascism that I think I've ever seen.

And since the first thing we all learned about Taymor's Tempest was the casting of Helen Mirren as Prospero - I'm sorry, Prospera - it seemed like something pretty great was in the offing. After all, one of the few things explicit about the play is its patriarchalism: Prospero is the very model of an Alpha Male, commanding Ariel, Caliban, and Miranda all about, and his treatment of the castaways has all the feeling, to me anyway, of a dick-measuring contest. So I was pretty darn excited to see what a female director (though not an appreciably feminist one) would do with a gender flip, still one of the boldest things you can do with Shakespeare.

It turns out, she doesn't do much. The biggest effect of the change seems to be that Mirren gets to play a part with a pretty awesome monologue that she wouldn't otherwise get to recite. But there's not a single thing that would have materially changed about this film if Prospera had been a guy, just like always.

And that, in essence, seems to be the big, monolithic fact about Taymor's adaptation: it doesn't really do anything. It’s flashy and full of crazy spectacle and huge over-elaborate costumes that make look Mirren like a raven constructed out of obsidian shards, and it’s all bent towards absolutely no coherent end whatsoever. Unless you've thought of something I missed?

Zev: I'd have to agree on that. No overarching principle or metaphor is apparent, and the many choices feel arbitrary. One could argue that it's a good thing that the cross-gender casting barely registers, but think of the missed opportunities! Mirrenís capable of extraordinary work, and an actress with her fierce intelligence could have explored the power and contradictions in the character to thrilling effect. But she doesn't do anything particularly exciting here. She has the strongest command of the verse of the cast, but by the end, I was left feeling "Yeah, that was pretty good." And for a Helen Mirren performance, that counts as a major disappointment. (I'll leave the question of her relative attractiveness to you, as you're the one with the raging crush on her.)

But the character who suffers most from Taymor's approach is Caliban. The character is immensely problematic: he was born on the island, but Prospera stole it from him when she was exiled there. She and her daughter, Miranda, kept him and raised him in their home, educating him, until he tried to rape Miranda. By the time the play starts, heís exiled to a hut outside of their home, and is used only for menial tasks--carrying logs, and the like. Obviously, the character of a "savage," who attempts to rape the virginal young woman who taught him language and is now constantly insulted and kept as a slave, is immensely troubling to modern audiences. It's hard not to read the whole character as a full-throated endorsement of colonialism and slavery, and contemporary interpretations need to take care to make the character palatable and non-racist.

Remarkably, Taymor seems completely unaware of this minefield. The film's representation of Caliban is...well, let's just call it remarkably insensitive. Djimon Honsou, who plays Caliban, is the only non-white actor on screen, aside from the Boatswain, who gets maybe a minute onscreen, which makes him the "other" from the start. His physical representation is even more disturbing--he has patches of skin that are bleached white, is covered with mud and scars, and wears only a raggedy loincloth. Often when he appears, the soundtrack helpfully adds in "tribal" drums and didgeridoos. Add in the way the camera caresses his partly-exposed buttocks for a little dash of sexual exoticism, and it makes for a profoundly troubling representation.

Were you bothered by this as well? And what other choices would you say worked or didn't?

Tim: Oh, man, don't make me think about Caliban. There are only two possibilities: one is that Taymor is an utter idiot, and the other is that she hates black people, and she's too clever to be an utter idiot.

"What other choices would you say worked or didn't?" Choices? What choices? All I saw were a lot of ideas pitched at the screen with no thought for what effect they had (of which Caliban is merely the most odious), the very opposite of a creative "choice". It's like the director had a bet that she couldn't make a complete movie out of changing tones with every single new scene.

Though I guess she, or somebody, did "choose" to put Ben Whishaw's Ariel (the second-best performance in the movie, by my lights) in those terrible fake boobs. She chose to introduce Prospera with a series of jump cuts to her screaming face, like she was the villain in a slasher movie. She chose to have Russell Brand and Alfred Molina humiliate themselves as the most foppish clowns in any Shakespeare adaptation. She chose to wildly miscast Chris Cooper and David Strathairn as the Duke of Milan and King of Naples. She probably didn't choose the dodgy-ass CGI that keeps cropping up, especially in the ghost hounds sequence; but it shouldn't have come to having that CGI absolutely ruin Prospera's big monologue, one of everybody's favorite bits in the whole thing.

If I were going to defend Taymor's vision - and oh how I wish I could! She has never before failed me - it might be along these lines: since the play was originally just one big spectacle as the Globe audience might have appreciated spectacle, all she's doing is stripping the play down from any kind of "reading", and just giving us the 2010 equivalent of spectacle: lots of effects, lots of famous people, big swooping camera. But that's doing too much work for her, and ignores the fact that so much of it doesn't work: most of the acting, most of the swooping, the execrable Elliot Goldenthal score. But I tire myself; what were your least favorite bits?

Zev: I'm entirely in agreement on that awful score, the completely inappropriate introduction of Prospera, the disturbing fake boobs, and everything else you mentioned. To that, I would only add the bizarre costumes (apparently Milan is the kingdom of zippers, as every Milanese character has several dozen per garment) and Reeve Carney's performance as Ferdinand. He seems to be going for a dreamy, laid-back romanticism, which is not necessarily a bad choice for a character who has virtually no personality beyond how smitten he is. But his line delivery is a disaster. Not only does he mangle the verse, he can't even manage the words very well. Rather than dreamy romance, his slurred deliveries indicate a state somewhere between stoned and developmentally disabled. It's hands-down the worst performance in the film--and nobody is exactly doing their best work on screen, though I agree that Mirren and Whishaw give the most interesting performances. One wonders what Taymor saw in him: she also cast him in the title role of the Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark on Broadway, which makes that already notorious project look even more dire.

I think we've pretty much gotten the point across, though we could inventory the film's failings for paragraphs more if we chose. But here's my closing thought, related to what you said above: even if the film is meant to be nothing but spectacle, it doesn't succeed. The problem isn't just that the special effects are generally blah and the CGI looks bush-league, or that they frequently detract from the play's best elements. It's that the film's entire visual aesthetic is...uninspired. Taymor's first three films, whatever their flaws, were stuffed with images and moments that made you drop your jaw in wonder. But I can only remember one such moment in The Tempest: a shot, early in the film, of four of Prospera's victims walking out of the water, unscathed by their wreck. It reminds you of what the movie could have been, if Taymor had had a better handle on the material and her actors. It's all the more frustrating that she's ended up with a film that's alternately misconceived and dull.

Any final thoughts on your end?

Tim: Final thoughts? I suppose "Julie Taymor owes me $12" would just be mean.

When all is said and done, the worst thing about The Tempest is that I don't even hate it. I just felt really let down and deflated by how boring it was, and disappointed by pretty much everything on screen. Disappointed that Taymor was making the first Tempest of the CGI age, and only dreamt up the most superficial fantasies. Disappointed that the once in a lifetime chance for Helen Mirren to play one of the great boys' roles was wasted, unless some unlikely brave director decides to give us Henry IV with Lady Jane Falstaff, or Queen Lear. Disappointed that it felt so rushed and disjointed, like a college paper you write over breakfast the day it's due. Like the play or not, you have to agree that The Tempest deserves better than this.

And dammit, Julie Taymor owes me $12.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Unpopular With The Populace

Happy New Year, everyone. There's a more extensive post coming later tonight, but for now, a quick thought:

In high school, I was a huge, obsessive fan of Stephen Sondheim. I bought every CD I could get my hands on. I obsessed over every song. I thought every single thing he ever touched was pure gold. I probably drove everyone I knew crazy with my obsession.

And I still love his music, but eventually, well, I had it pretty well memorized. Listening to a cast album hundreds of times pretty much ingrains it in your head. And as a result, I haven't listened to some of his shows in years. I still love his work, and will defend it to anyone, but I don't relate in nearly so obsessive a way. I'm even capable of recognizing that some of his songs aren't the greatest things ever written. It's probably a healthy development.

But as a result, that means that I haven't listened to some of his shows all the way through for literally years. They're still in my head somewhere, but I haven't actually experienced the music in a long time. Which is understandable, but still a shame.

But over my commutes last night and this morning, I listened to Anyone Can Whistle. And I had forgotten how stunning it is.

It's probably the most egregious example of a common occurence in Sondheim's career: books that undercut the score's brilliance at every turn. Arthur Laurents' book is, no question, a disaster zone: a terribly scattered satire that doesn't hit nearly enough targets, which clashes with the human love story being told within. And I'm not just saying this based on its reputation: I was lucky enough to see it when Pegasus Players produced it in 2004. While the production was variable in quality, it was still clear that no revival could make this show really work.

But the score...just wow. To choose just two moments in a string of brilliant pieces: in "Me and My Town," the opening number, the corrupt mayoress (Angela Lansbury in the original, brilliant as always) sings a jazzy lament over her town's dire situation. And then her backup singers come out, and it turns into a deranged dance number about a small town affected by economic depression. It's impossible to explain how demented the effect is, but I was walking down the street with a goofy smile plastered on my face at the sheer delightful audacious lunacy of it.

The first act ends with a sequence called "Simple". In brief, it centers on a doctor who claims that he can determine who in a mixed group is crazy and who isn't. He does so, perverting logic and confusing everyone around him, through 13 minutes of increasing musical and mental derangement. It's quite impressive as it goes along, building to a crescendo of lunacy. Then the music cuts out, the doctor tells everyone "You are all mad," and, in a burst of circus music, the entire cast appears onstage, wildly applauding and laughing at the audience. Even coming from a pair of earbuds, it sent chills up my spine.

So the moral, if there is one, is this: you know that CD you love, but haven't listened to in years? Pull it out and listen to it again. You'll remember why.

Also, you should really get a copy of Anyone Can Whistle.

And Stephen Sondheim is still God.

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.