Wednesday, November 18, 2009
A couple of years ago, I was seriously involved in a theatre that was marked by tons of strife and lots of factions, some aligned with the leader, others against. The leader of that theatre died suddenly and left a lot of us in the lurch. Recently, I was at an evening of short plays and one of the plays, it turns out, was about that leader, written by someone close to him. Watching that play, I had a lot of complicated emotions, but it was more complicated by the fact that, sitting a couple of seats away from me, was someone who was a key part of a faction that fought with the leader a lot. I found myself wondering what that person thought, what they thought the point of the play was, how they were reacting to it. That's what I mean about questioning motives. Maybe it's just my exposure to that theatre's culture, which amplifies a lot of this. Maybe it's just more of my fall blahs coming on. Who knows. But right now I'm just wishing there were more taking things at face value, as they are, for what they are, right or wrong, and less augury.
Tuesday, November 17, 2009
In an e-mail exchange a while back, Isaac posed the whole "why don't playwrights review plays" question and my response was that it had a lot to do with profit motive: a review from a playwright couldn't be trusted because either they were trying to curry favor with the theatre or they were trying to drag down a rival. Since most reviews are primarily a tool for generating sales (as you can see, I may not have the best feelings about the state of criticism in this country right now), who would want a rival doing the reviewing?
That sense of mistrust is at the heart of some of my frustration with blogging and theatre in general. It's hard to avoid, even for me. When Theresa Rebeck writes about the lack of solid structure she sees in young playwrights, the conversation revolves around how it's really about why her plays aren't being well-received or something. When Roland Tec(o) accuses the O'Neill of being a rigged game, it's really about jealousy and sour grapes. When the O'Neill responds, it's really about covering their ass. When I write about the representation of black playwrights, it's really just a plea for more attention. Everyone's motives are questionable and we basically believe the absolute worst of each other. I'd say it's just out here in the blogosphere, but we all know how it is when we meet in the lobby, at the bar after the show, three blocks away from the theatre. (And that's even more gossip, isn't it?) The default is to not take anyone at face value. How do we build communities like that?
We talk about the external pressures that we face, but there are the internal things that we do to ourselves. The vicious cycle of secrecy, gossip and mistrust is one of them. It stunts our work and our communities, in no small part, because it perpetuates the zero-sum game we play. In order for me to win, you have to lose. So I have to hold my cards close to my vest, make sure you don't know who I'm talking to or dealing with, what opportunities I have coming my way. I can neither confirm nor deny anything. It all stays in the realm of gossip and rumor.
I know this is probably pretty ironic coming from an anonymous blogger. Funny that. But there it is. It affects other fields, too, I know, and even things that aren't in the arts, but somehow it seems more pernicious in theatre. Gossip, rumor and innuendo pass for information and not just about projects or who's sleeping with who, but artistic intentions and career motivations. Everything is suspect and everything is fair game. Sometimes working in this field feels like one long, unending circular firing squad.
I've been calling this summer the Summer of Bad Vibes. Between the parade of celebrity deaths (and the hits just keep on coming), the rising tide of lunacy in our politics, the vast and growing economic downturn, it felt like there's been a general funk of bad feelings, a miasma, if you will, hanging around us all. The blogosphere lends itself to ranting and raving and sniping, but this summer, and into this fall, it started to feel really, really nasty. And, worse than that, utterly unproductive. I keep hoping a page will turn and something good will happen, like a guy landing a plane on the Hudson or something, but instead we get more people like this taking up our airwaves. Maybe 2010 will be better. Who knows? I hope so.
Anyway. I'm just gonna chill for a minute. Catch you on the flip.
Thursday, November 12, 2009
This kind of thing just doesn't help. And it makes it even worse that Rolando and Gary, the people promulgating this hold positions of power at the Dramatists Guild. Not good.
or, most importantly, this...
That last one is one of my favorite love songs ever.
I try to think of myself as many things other than a writer, not wanting to be hemmed in by any one definition and music is a massively important thing for me. I never learned to play any instruments (for reasons that passeth understanding), but it's always been a part of my life. The realization, though, that the bands I love the most are bands with the best lyrics, even more than the music, knocked me for a loop a bit. No matter how I run from it, a writer is what I am and writing is what I admire.
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
And let me just add this: it's a self-defeating search. You need whales to fund your theatre, so you cater to the whales, who are (more likely than not) going to be more conservative than the audience you want to get. So you wind up with an audience that reflects your whales not your community. Which means you have less support and need your whales more, and more of them. So you do more theatre that reflects the taste of your whale. And then wonder why the audiences are shrinking.
I've been going to the gym early in the mornings, hopping on the stationary bike and trying to work off my gut. Usually, by the time I hit the gym, TBS has started in on what seems like a full morning of Saved by the Bell re-runs. I bring my own MP3 player, so I never plug in and listen, but I watch the pretty pictures go by. Saved by the Bell holds an odd place in pop culture. It's a good demarcation for the line between Gen X and Gen Y (or whatever you want to call them). For people my age and older, we were way past it. It was what little kids watched. For people a couple of years younger, it was, amongst certain demographics, a touchstone. Yeah, the jokes are corny and the characters are lame, but they're beloved. It was always a bit of a mystery to me, especially since I didn't have younger siblings around during its prime years. After watching it, mute, in snips and pieces over the last month or so, it's...still a bit of a mystery. But there's something there I noticed that speaks to theatre's diversity issues and its young audiences issues.
For those out of touch with pop culture, Saved by the Bell revolves around a group of friends at high school in California. This group is all solidly middle-class, suburban and pretty generic as a bunch of teenagers in the late 80s/early 90s. It's also pretty multicultural, for 1989: the shopaholic is black, the jock is Latino, though neither has stereotypical names nor is it ever particularly referenced. They're just a bunch of high school kids doing high school kid things, really. And that's part of what makes it so interesting.
I have a friend who, whenever one of those lists of the 50 most beautiful people comes out, used to remark about how there was always just one black or Latino or Asian person on there, or one of each. A token. A way of the magazine saying, "Yeah, we know these people exist and some of them are beautiful, but if we didn't include one, we'd get shit for it, but if we include more than one, we'd get shit for it. So be happy with what you got." The casting of Saved by the Bell feels like that. Like they went out and found an appealing black actress and an appealing Latino and shoehorned them into roles for the sake of diversity. It worked out fine, sure, but that wasn't the point.
I realized, sweating away on the exercise bike, that Hollywood's been doing that for years now. You can't have an ensemble cast on a TV show without some diversity. Sitcoms are the last realm where a group of friends is always only one race. Hell, now we've got mixed race families on the air. The expectation is: group of people? Multicultural tokens.
Now, don't get me wrong. I don't think TV executives do this because they're all good affirmative action loving progressives. They do it to sell soap. People are more inclined to watch a show when they see themselves on it. Plus it does keep people from complaining about the lack of diversity. At this point, though, I think it's mostly reflexive. Group of people = get some tokens to fill it out.
(An interesting side note, though, is the utter failure to build an ensemble show around a person of color. Many have tried, all have failed. Some barriers left to get over, huh?)
Theatre, though, doesn't do this. We do use tokens, but in a big picture way. That's what the Black Play slot or the Women's Play slot is. Tokenism. But we huddle all of the minority actors and playwrights and directors into one slot, and then no one sees them on the stage again until next year. The world we present on a regular basis is a world where there are only white people. Our default tokenism is in programming, not casting. But in trying to connect to younger audiences, especially audiences raised on shows like Saved by the Bell where race never rears its head, but they get the United Colors of Bennetton, presenting them lily-white worlds is a barrier. Or maybe just a liability.
Maybe, rather than focusing our energy on artistic directors and literary managers to increase diversity on our stages, we should be looking to the casting directors, moving to a place where, when races aren't specified, casting an all-white play is ridiculous. Why not just throw some color up in there, mix it up a bit. Let's move to another easy, superficial solution, so we don't have to really ask the tough questions about diversity and inclusion. We don't really want to answer those anyway.
I know. I know. Trust me. I know. Hear me out.
So Bye Bye Birdie opens. That, shall we say, does not go well. Not at all. And, all over town, little sighs of glee can be heard. The Roundabout hasn't done much to ingratiate itself in the NYC theatre community of late with, to be honest, largely good reasons. The Off-Broadway community resents that it's basically a Broadway producing company, but reaps the benefits (and the breaks in fees) for being a "non-profit." The Broadway producers feel...well, the same way. It's one of the big symbols of star-fuckery, crass selling out, and corporate theatre making on the scene.
And I'm gonna say: good on 'em. No, really. Because I think they're doing what every producer says they want to do but never actually do, because it's too risky: using the sell-outs to finance the art.
I've become a fan and a regular reader of Ken Davenport's Producer's Perspective blog. Very good stuff. And weekly, he posts the B'way grosses. I've been following them and I noticed something. Bye Bye Birdie is one of the most successful shows on Broadway right now. I know. Week in and week out, it's playing to 95% capacity, and at a lower ticket price than most. There are probably a ton of structural reasons that, as a non-producer, I'm unfamiliar with. But...the numbers look pretty good. It's a B-rate show with a C-rate cast (apparently) and D-rated reviews. It's a symbol of all that's wrong with the great holy halls of Broadway, and yet...it's finding an audience and keeping it. I do wonder how much, if any money, it's making the Roundabout, but unless they're total idiots (which I doubt) it must be turning them something. Which allows them to do this. To take some chances on unheralded plays and playwrights. Isn't that what we should be applauding?
As I mentioned earlier, I'm a huge fan of Joe Papp. One of the things about him that I always find fascinating was his willingness to make money and then burn through it. When money came in from A Chorus Line, rather than hoard it, or even turn it into architecture, he used it to put plays like Dennis Reardon's The Leaf People on Broadway. For all of six days. It's crazy, maybe short-sighted and probably deeply self-destructive, but that's theatre.
Okay, the Roundabout isn't exactly doing that, but it does seem like they're selling out for a purpose. If somehow, John Stamos is putting butts in the seats in a mediocre musical, then at least the people who are reaping the benefits are putting them to good use, in production. When was the last time a commercial producer did that? I don't mean to single them out like that, but the needs of the business are set up against it. There's never enough money made, always something that needs more than you have, always a scramble. The Roundabout is lucky in that they have the cushion of being a "non-profit" theatre to fall back on, to take advantage of in order to do more. Yes, it's a bit unseemly and probably unfair. But it's show business, not show fair, right?
So, I say: cut 'em a little slack. And, no, they're not considering a play of mine and no, I wasn't hired by them. Like I said, my contrarian hat is on.
Now, Wishful Drinking? Being produced by a non-profit on Broadway? That's indefensible.
I had a reading a couple of weeks ago of a play I've been working on for a while. I invited a young playwright I'd met around town (well, to be honest, in a bar), who hadn't read my work (or vice versa), but who I liked. This playwright had even, sight unseen, invited me to a new writers' group. This was her first experience with my writing, though. And, to be honest, I was a bit nervous. My Young Playwright Friend (YPF) is, well, young, both in terms of age and in terms of playwriting, and funny and edgy. She's affiliated with a fairly major, particularly edgy company and the other people in the group are from the same company. Not necessarily the most accomplished members of the company, but still, a good crowd. I wanted her to like this play, to like my writing. That was...not necessarily a given. This particular play is...odd.
It's old-fashioned. Unabashedly, unreservedly old-school. It's a big-hearted, ensemble comedy in the mold of The Philadelphia Story or, more correctly, Holiday. It's also a bit, shall we say, commercial. It's got a "ripped from the headlines" vibe to it, with meaty roles for older actors. Staying true to the form, it's about upper-class folks in a way (though class is very much an issue in it), but with a nice, sellable multicultural spin. And all of that is on purpose.
So I'm standing there, as the audience files out, people stopping to say "congrats" or whatnot and I look to my YPF and she is...stoic. I watched her during the reading and didn't catch many laughs at the jokes, so I was already worried. Now the blank expression? Ugh. She does smile, but it's one of those too-big ones. She flips me a thumbs-up and hightails it for the door.
Now, as one often does, I have a conversation with her in my head about it. It's easier than actually talking.
YPF: Um. Yeah. Didn't really like it. Sorry, dude.
Me: What? Why?
YPF: Didn't really see the point. Gotta go!
Walking away from the theatre that night, I thought about that idea. What was the point? Here I am, railing often against just this kind of play. It could be seen as safe, or easy. It's about the problems of wealthy white folk. It's even about a media figure and has a couple of jokes about the low quality of people you find working in TV (the theatre equivalent of lawyer jokes). Why the hell did I write it? How could I explain it to anyone?
There are two whys for me with this play, and most of my plays. There's the personal Why and the professional Why. The personal Why for me is...I like this kind of theatre. I like Phillip Barry. I love Holiday. I think we could use a really good, high-quality revival of The Philadelphia Story. Yes, they're about the wealthy at play, but they always know they are. That's the point. In both plays, the central female figure is trying to survive in that upper-crust world as a genuine person and has to deal with the pressures "society" puts on her. In the end, in both, she shrugs them off and pursues happiness (in the form of Cary Grant, natch). It may not be Fornes, but it's not exactly reactionary.
I like the challenge of updating it to our world, our times. What does upper-class mean in a world where a 22 year can be a multi-billionaire overnight? I think these stories still have merit; I just don't think they should be the only thing on our stages. Or even the only thing I write. This play is this play, this particular story that engages me. It is its own thing. The next play will be about something completely different, in a completely different style. Because that's how I roll.
There always comes a point, when I'm working on a script, where something clicks in and I realize what I'm really talking about. It can come early on in the process or late. This one really hit me late. The central relationship of this play is about a mother and her daughter. You'd be surprised to know how long it took me to realize how much of this play was about my mother and my relationship to her and, honestly, about making up for another play I wrote that put her in a bad light (we didn't speak for a long time after that one). Playwrights have agendas, the most complicated, mysterious, both self-serving and selfless agendas known to man. A teacher I had once said that he was a mystery to himself when he wrote. When it comes to my agendas, I know I am.
But there's also a professional Why, and that's the calculating part. This play is produceable. When I had the idea, riffing on the life and legal troubles of a major pop culture figure, I thought, Well, this is a gold mine right here, as long as I can get it on stage before someone else does. It's been a couple of years, but so far, no one else has. The cast is a little big, but it's got a single set, like I said, it's mostly older characters, so blue-haired matinee audiences can relate, it's about the foibles of highly educated people, so the critics can relate, the jokes may be a shade on the sitcom-y side, but a laugh's a laugh. It's pitched at the world of the mid-major theatres, maybe even at the major. I'd like to say it's all about the art and the story that's compelling, but daddy needs to eat and wants to get out of his day job. Art is gonna happen and this play, well, it may not be Beckett, but it's not...normally, I'd say Neil Simon here, but that seems a bit unfair these days. It's not Norman Lear. If anyone remembers who he is. It's a play. When I saw the Off-Broadway production of Proof, lo those many years ago, at the end, I thought, "I've just seen a play." I had that good, full feeling you have when you get comfort food. Maybe not exactly nourished or expanded, but full. That's what I'm aiming for with this.
How do I explain all of that to a YPF, fresh off a first play, full of piss and vinegar, ready to set shit on fire on stage? Maybe I just lay it out there. Maybe I try to win the case. Maybe I just let it go. But I was glad to have even the imaginary question of Why. Because I needed to know the answer for myself at least.
Oh, and FYI: since I'm a neurotic basket case, I e-mailed my friend for notes and she said she liked it and sent back some good thoughts. So...maybe it was just neuroses. Maybe.
I admit that I have very, very little objectivity about Joe Papp and the Public Theater. Shakespeare in the Park looms large in my childhood and Joe Papp is one of my theatrical heroes. I read someone basically saying he wasn't all that and my hackles go up and I'm ready to rumble. But I take a deep breath and count to ten and don't just start swinging. Still, at the risk of angering the Great Prof, I think there's an argument to be made that Joe Papp and the Public Theater did indeed make theatre "accessible and essential" on a national scale.
We're not talking about some 99-seat black box on the West Side here. The New York Shakespeare Festival was and is a major player, a major institution that set a standard. And not the least of it was an idea that was pretty uncommon in 1959: free Shakespeare in public parks. This is now a summer staple for a lot of cities and while Joe Papp didn't invent the concept, he was its most high-profile champion. He used it to build the whole theatre. This alone goes a long way to making him one of the seminal figures in post-war American theatre.
But Papp did more than that, by building a theatre that was passionately political, intensely progressive, endlessly supportive of artists and, at the same time, extremely successful. Bringing the world Hair is almost a major achievement in itself, but to follow it up with about fifteen years of similarly important productions and discovering and supporting a string of significant artists, that's pretty much unheard of. The Public's place in the pantheon is pretty secure and more than of just local interest.
A third thing that I think can get laid at his feet is something less than great: he's the model for an entire generation of artistic directors, not always in the best way. He was a passionate, committed man who was also a megalomaniac, more than a bit paranoid and controlling. The theatre survived on the force of his personality as much as anything else and rose and fell with his passion and vision. That model, the charismatic leader model, is one of the things that's gotten us into the messes we're in now.
All of that being said, I can see what Don and Rob are complaining about. The history of American theatre in the '60s and '70s has a lot of big names, big figures and important people. Joe Papp didn't make theatre accessible and essential all by himself or in a vacuum. But he did, indeed, make theatre essential and accessible and for more than just New York City.
In summation, Joe Papp never took crap.
Monday, November 9, 2009
- I know that Isaac declared a moratorium on discussions of the Great Brighton Beach Memoirs Fiasco and Tragedy of 2009, but this long, excellent post by The Playgoer is basically required reading. And the closing line? Awesome.
- We all know that I love sports and theatre comparisons and Rob Kozlowski has a good one up about the pitiful Bears and the gathering storm that is Spider-Man on Broadway.
- Via Chris Wilkinson at The Guardian, here's Arlene Goldbard's good fisking of Michael Kaiser's Huffington Post diversity piece.
- I'm not entirely sure what any of this actually means (I'm surprisingly tech illiterate), but I think I like it. Or I'm slightly discomfited by it. 129 of you?
- Obviously, I don't agree with most of this. I particularly like the first comment. What can you say? De gustibus...
- And lastly, via The Mirror Up To Nature, cutting the middleman out of Critic-O-Meter?
Tuesday, November 3, 2009
Monday, November 2, 2009
Via The Playgoer, Howard Kissel at the NY Daily News weighs in on the closing of Brighton Beach Memoirs:
"Narrow minded, smug, provincial," eh? Condescended to, you say? Unlike the current audience, right, Howard?
This news has been attributed in some quarters to the death of The Neil Simon Audience.There is some truth to that, but I fear the problem is much larger. It has to do with the death of The Broadway Audience, which disappeared some time ago.
The Broadway audience, which highbrows condescended to, especially when it was at its height, in the decades after World War II, was certainly centered in New York. It was middle class (with significant exceptions both higher and lower on the social ladder.) It had a higher percentage of Jews than the population at large.(...snip...)
The tourists who come to New York have, I'm afraid, are not really an audience. Their idea of entertainment is more likely a rock concert than an evening of theater. Seeing a Broadway show is one of the things they're supposed to do while they're here, like visiting the Statue of Liberty or riding the subway.
The Broadway Audience was thought to be narrow minded, smug, provincial. On a number of occasions I have heard Edward Albee rail against them in such a way.
The New Theater Audience consists of Trendies, people who have to be up on The Latest Thing, people who derive status from being able to say they saw a play The Paper of Record praised highly. It's not really an audience. But I'm afraid that's what we have.I see. So Broadway never fails, it is only failed. Like conservative philosophy. And Steely Dan.
The Playgoer goes easy on Howard, but I think it's pretty awful. More easy, simply snobbery about the degradation of audience tastes and nothing about the structural changes in the way Broadway works. He even throws in a little dig about some future non-profit hosting a Neil Simon revival, as though it were such a come-down. Yep, getting a big show at a non-profit is just a terrible thing for a playwright.
I'd love to go to the Broadway that Howard is going to, where Trendies and hipsters are lined up to be seen at the new play that got a great review in the Times. It must be in some other city. Some magical land where ham, bacon and pork chops come from the same mythical animal.
An article like this is just indicative of the disconnect between the older segments of the theatre "intelligentsia" who lament that plays are turning into rock concerts and the younger segments who are actively trying to turn plays into rock concerts. Kissel laments that the middle-class audiences of his youth have fled Broadway and instead slum it at the non-profits, while we're all trying to figure out how to get the blue-hairs out of the matinees. That kind of tension doesn't bode well.
As I said, I didn't see it, but enough people I trust have said this was a great production. It should have had a longer life. Despite what some might think, I don't want good shows to close, especially not prematurely. This is a bad outcome for theatre and for Broadway, but it's not the audience that's to blame here. To act like it is makes the problem worse.
It's hard for me to take the naked classism of a piece like Kissel's, not to mention ageism and whiffs of "It was better when the theatres were full of Jews." The world, the city, and the audiences have changed. As long as producers, for- or non-profit, refuse to acknowledge that, the more bad outcomes we'll have.
Update: Accidentally made half of this post invisible. Thanks to Ian for speaking up!
- Via the Prof, this piece about studying writing with Annie Dillard is pretty interesting.
- On the diversity follies going around, David Dower has important things to say.
- I am a avid karaoke-er. Honest to God, I am. So this piece by Amanda Marcotte struck my fancy in many ways. I think there's something to this, though, that connects with this. If I weren't a little bit over blogging this week, I'd write something cogent about it. Maybe you can. (The Pandagon link via.)
- I'm digging on The Playgoer right now because of this and this.
- All I can say about this is...heh, indeed.
- Art at The Mirror Up To Nature is right about this: it's a feel-good story, but the flip side tells us a lot of what's wrong with our industry.
And, okay, a little original writing: I have a friend, a young playwright, who is dating someone from the "real world." This guy has a real knack for storytelling, though, so my friend has roped him into a project we're both working on. The other day, we had a read-through and asked a bunch of mutual friends and acquaintances to read in for us. It was a pretty motley crew, but the reading went well. After there was talk about taking the next steps and which actors would come with. In describing one performer, my playwright friend said, "They're really great, really strong, they went to Yale." The boyfriend bristled at that description and pressed my friend, pretty relentlessly, on using a grad school as an automatic indication of acting skill. It's the kind of conversation we all have regularly in the field, but it was interesting to hear someone not connected have the same resistance. It was also interesting since this guy's a novice himself with no background, no pedigree, no real desire to get one, but a real nervousness about being around "real" writers, ones with all of those pedigrees. I don't know, it just struck me as another subtle way we reinforce the notion that all of this, all that we do, is high-level, well-educated, rarefied stuff and non-professionals need not apply. Is that a good thing?
Okay, back to the various grindstones that rule my life...