The moral dilemma lawyers in the situation Yoo (ex hypothesi) found himself in 2002 face is this: Suppose you believe it's legal to do something which is very immoral, and you're asked your professional opinion on whether it would be legal to do this very immoral thing, by people who are asking you precisely because they intend to do it. What do you do?And I just might use it. I'm always interested in plays that are about moral questions (I've been kicking around one for a while). In a way, that's why I follow politics, to find the stories, and even more importantly, the questions of our time. I think the dilemma described there is one of those questions from the last ten years that more plays could and should be exploring. As I've said before, I think the path to the Great Plays of our times runs through questions like that.
Sunday, February 28, 2010
Ripped From The Headlines
Friday, February 26, 2010
This is the poster for the upcoming Epic Theatre Ensemble's production of Sarah Ruhl's Passion Play (in case you couldn't, you know, read it) and it is, in a word, lovely. Seriously. I don't know this play, have no idea what it's about or what's going on, but this image makes me want to, you know. It's arty and cool and much more intriguing than what we normally see in theatre poster design. You can see it a little better here.
The NY Times did a little piece on the making of it here, which is where I saw it. My favorite part? This:
One of the many images Mr. Scalin ultimately rejected was inspired by Marilyn Monroe’s iconic stance in the film “The Seven Year Itch.”
“One idea was to have Jesus wearing a robe standing over a street vent and having the wind blow up his robe,” said Mr. Scalin. “It was an amazing image but we realized it would send the wrong message.”
For the record, I would also want to see the show with that poster. Honestly, maybe a little more.
Behind The Music
I just finished Colson Whitehead's lovely coming-of-age novel, Sag Harbor, and had a great time. One of the threads that holds the book together is music. He talks a lot about early rap, '80s punk and new wave, even sets a climatic scene to a lite-FM hit. That and Josh's post got me thinking about the music of my youth. Some of which I discovered well after my youth.
I had (well, still have, since I see them all the time) a pretty tight-knit group of friends when I was growing up. We lived in the same, small, boring bedroom community, rode our Huffy bikes through constructions sites around town, pretended to go exploring in the "woods" of a local nature preserve (we could always hear Route 80 in the background, so it wasn't really roughing it), spent one summer day chasing each other all over town with water pistols (back in the days when you could get water guns that look like real guns just about anywhere...I'm still shocked none of us got shot...though we did get stopped by the cops). And we all got into roughly the same music at the same time.
By a weird quirk of birth order and luck, there weren't a lot of older brothers to be had. I had one, and one of my friends had one, but all the rest were much older sisters or only children or the oldest themselves. So there wasn't a lot of inheriting of record collections, or trying to emulate cool older siblings. We were kind of on our own. And what did we get into? Doo wop. I kid you not.
Maybe it was the influence of Stand By Me. It probably was the influence of Stand By Me, which, when I was ten, was the single most important and honest movie ever made. Period. But from the time I was about 11 or 12, until into high school, I listened to a steady stream of The Inkspots, The Dells, The Orioles, the Chords. Basically my internal dial was tuned to WCBS-FM, all oldies, all the time.
Oh, some "modern" music crept in (taped live off the radio, of course). I liked my Madonna, Michael Jackson, Prince. I could get down with some good Top 40, Casey Kasem action. But underneath it all, I was a Drifters man. I loved Billy Joel's An Innocent Man almost more because it was all a tribute to doo wop.
In his play, Music from A Sparkling Planet, Douglas Carter Beane has a line that's stuck with me since I saw it: "There's nothing more comforting than the past's idea of the future." Doo wop is kind of like that: it was so full of a long-lost optimism and hope, even when singing about heartbreak. It's the sound of that place, that strange, beautiful place right before the raging hormones of your teenage years kick in, when you're still kind of a child, looking at the world as though it's new, but adulthood is coming around the bend and you think that it will just be awesome! Awesome to not have a bedtime, or to eat whatever you want, when you want. It's that age when being a grown-up seems like summer vacation all the time, when having a girlfriend (or boyfriend) means holding hands. You can't possibly see how anything could be wrong with growing up.
And, in 1984, the height of the Reagan years, despite the horrors that were being wrought on Central America, urban America, gay America, poor America, if you were a kid in a sleepy bedroom town in New Jersey, it was the sound of the life you wanted. Happy, clean-cut, obviously nice-smelling kids whose parents weren't divorced, whose older brothers weren't weird punk-rock art-freaks, who clearly weren't the only black kid in class, all singing in unison about the same thing. That, my friends, was the sound of my heart. This was the sound of my heart.
When I think about the music that made me, I think about that. Lord God, I was so uncool. In my middle school yearbook, I had them print, under my picture: Doo Wop Will Never Die! And I was surprised to discover that I didn't get laid until college.
But, for me, it won't. Underneath the punk rock, alt-rock, indie pop, hip-hop, showtunes and mash-ups that cover my soul in layers like a palimpsest, at the bottom of the well, there's a group of guys, all dressed alike, smiling, dancing in unison and singing in perfect harmony.
Thursday, February 25, 2010
Why Do They Keep Thinking They Can Show Him Up?
The ten-year old kid I tutor a couple of times a week asked me the other day to explain the phrase "you don't bring a knife to a gun fight." (City kids ask the most f'ed up things.) I think I'll just show him that clip.
Must See TV?
While I do love my political theater, I don't think it could possibly be as fun as this:
Wednesday, February 24, 2010
We started off talking about the 2011 RSC residence that everyone is talking about and that led into a general discussion of big ideas, big vision. I know we're super-sick of talking about Joe Papp, but he was undeniably a man of vision. The New York Shakespeare Festival was a Big Idea. Where are the new Big Ideas now?
One of the things Lonnie mentioned that I'd never thought of before is that we measure our theatres by their physical size, by the number of seats. That's how we draw our distinctions. Grant applications ask for budgets, production lists, but how do we think about vision? There's a gross national happiness index...what goes into a theatre's vision index?
Now I Just Have To Stay Alive Until May 4th
I haven't been able to convince Isaac of the righteousness of the Hold Steady, but that doesn't stop me from trying.
So, between preparing for this, the needs of the day job and preparing for a reading on March 16th (details to follow), plus a blizzard of theatre-going (some of which I'll actually be able to respond to!), I've got to put New Play Friday on a bit of a hiatus. I'm unhappy about it myself, but...guy's gotta have his priorities.
Come mid-March, the plate clears up and new scenes will start going up again. I know you're all waiting with bated breath.
In the meantime, come out and see me read on Thursday. You can see the line-up here (it's a good one) and RSVP, if you're all down with the social media.
Most Everything That's Wrong With American Journalism
Patrick Enright, Senior Articles EditorBecause those two things are mutually exclusive. And, this from Devin Gordon:
Yeah, maybe the distinction depends too on whom you're attacking — if it's the people you think wronged you (like the IRS), you're a protester/separatist/etc., and if it's indiscriminate killing of clearly innocent people, you're a terrorist.
Fundamentally, I'm with Dan: a Texan white guy named Joe Stack isn't as interesting / enraging / anxiety-inducing as a Nigerian Muslim named Abdulmutallab. I'm also with Eve: Stack's philosophy, unlike Abdulmutallab's, is pretty kosher with many — maybe even most — Americans. We're basically with him right up to the burn-down-your-house-and-fly-a-plane-into-a-building part of the story. Other than that part, right on, Joe Stack! (Heck, newly minted Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown all but said as much in a very clumsy TV appearance about this story the day after it happened.)The most galling thing about the whole back-and-forth is their total and complete abdication of any role or place in this discussion at all. It's all completely passive and separate from their lives. Just a nice, little platonic discourse on the concept of "terrorist." At no point do they seem to recognize that they're journalists and they actually have some influence on the narrative or even have some choice in what words they use. Like here, again, Devin Gordon (who doesn't exactly cover himself with glory here):
But I'm most intrigued by a couple of things Mike suggested. First, that Abdulmutallab's actions fit into a much larger terrorism narrative that has stretched out for years, resulted in ongoing wars and decided presidential elections. Isolated, Underpants Man's actions are surely milder than Stack's — it still amazes me that a man flying a plane into a building doesn't make us flinch much more — but Stack's actions are just that: isolated.
We've been having a discussion over here about the aversion so far to calling the Austin Tax Wacko a terrorist-or as the Wall St Journal called him "the tax protester." And I'm wondering if anyone has read yet - or would tackle themselves — a thorough comparison between our ho-hum reaction to a guy who successfully crashed a plane into a government building versus the media's full-throated insanity over the underpants bomber, who didn't hurt anyone but himself.Um. Aren't you the media? Don't you have some role in the ho-hum reaction vs. the "full-throated insanity"? But it seems like most of their energy went into coming up with clever nicknames for these guys.
The other thing that bothers me about it is the total lack of empathy or understanding for anyone involved in this situation at all. Joe Stack was an angry, disturbed person who did an unspeakable act and killed another human being. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is an alienated young man who attempted to do unspeakable acts and thankfully failed. These actions had real-world consequences for a lot of people. Our country's response to these acts will have far-reaching consequences. It's not just a game of semantics to be played by comfy journalists. It would be nice to know that the jounalists understood that.
H/T Glenn Greenwald via Atrios. Also, via RVCBard, an interesting, related thread.
UPDATE: And, as per usual, Ta-Nehisi Coates nails it and then some. RTWT.
Tuesday, February 23, 2010
Obligatory Community Post
Here's what I think about community:
A) You define it for yourself. If "community" for you has geographical limits, cool. if it has to do with lifestyle choices, background, race, fine by me. Whatever you feel connected to, whatever you want to connect to, whoever you're trying to reach, that's all fine by me.
B) But you don't get to define it for anyone else. You don't get to tell me that my community isn't a community because it's not defined by geographic bounds or it's too homogeneous or heterogeneous or whatever. If my community is theatre people, and that's the audience I want, that's my lookout. It doesn't mean my theatre is less valid than yours.
C) THEATRE IS A COMMUNITY ACTIVITY. Period. I can not stress this enough. It's made by community, it's produced by community, it's enjoyed by community. The big question is what community is it for? I firmly believe that theatre is an instructive art. It is meant to teach us something about life, about our life, about the way life should be, about the lives we are or should be leading. I don't mean this is the simplistic didactic sense of finger-wagging morality. I mean it in the big picture, "hold a mirror up to nature" sense. We reflect and amplify life. Why? To educate a community.
One of the plays I saw this weekend (and you can pretty easily guess which one) was very much about the inner workings and existence of wealthy, well-to-do, literate upper middle-class white people who live in Manhattan. In the end, it carried a message meant for that community, that segment of the population. It may not hit other populations in the bull's-eye and I don't think that the playwright cared particularly about that. He had something to say to those people. And he said it.
We have this way of talking about our community as though all we should be doing is venerating them. Sometimes we scold. Sometimes we mock. Sometimes we spew venom and say "how dare you live this way?" But we should always know who we're talking to. Some of the plays I write are meant for white audiences. Some of the plays I write are meant for black audiences. I don't speak to them the same way, about the same things. Some are meant for mixed audiences. Sometimes I know this going in. Sometimes I figure it out later. But that's part of the artist's intention. Not all messages are meant for everyone. There are dog-whistles, codewords, shibboleths a-plenty. That's okay. Writers have been doing that for centuries. Making work that's universal is never a matter of losing touch with yourself or your community. It's about connecting to the human places in you and in your community. And knowing who you're talking to.
Monday, February 22, 2010
Problems I Like To Have
Yeah, I'm bragging a little bit about seeing a couple of hot tickets around town. What of it?
Where the New Plays At?
But! There will be a New Play Friday before the next New Play Friday. It will just be on Tuesday. Honest. I swear.
Friday, February 19, 2010
Agreeing With The Critics
Perhaps this season of Brits invading off Broadway is a fluke, and a year from now our non-profit companies will go back to American plays of the dysfunctional-family and identity-politics variety. Then we'll all sigh and say that English drama is sharper and more relevant, and hope we can afford to fly to London to see what's on at the National or the Royal Court. And after that, we'll trudge over to the Park Avenue Armory and see Shakespeare "done right" – thanks to generous American donors.
- David Cote, in the Guardian Theatre Blog
We do seem to consume a lot of instant topical satire these days, something that used to be fodder for revues and even for full-length Gershwin musicals. And I think the theatrical machinery works today more slowly than it did in the 1930s, when the theater was a more bustling and robust industry. By the time a “topical” play has been developed and workshopped and tried out in a regional theater, say, the point it addresses may have gone stale. This may be why there are not a whole lot of prominent American playwrights writing dramas about, for example, the insane political stagnation in Washington these days. (Any takers?)H/T on that last link to Rob W-K.
- Charles Isherwood in the New York Times
In the talk about why there seem to be so many fewer Great Plays, we talk about limited access and about the quality of playwrights. Some insinuate that today's playwrights just ain't no damn good. Some whine that the theatres are too old, too stuffy for challenging work, that audiences aren't there with them. The studies show that there may be truth in all of that. But one factor that isn't given its due is the lead time.
I remember reading once about the news business, how radio and TV and, now the internet, are great for breaking news and constant updates, while the newspapers give you a little more distance and perspective and then finally, the news magazines give you the fullest view of the story, since they're the last to hit the street. In terms of entertainment, the same model seems to hold true. I can record a quick, YouTube video responding to the stories of the day, or write a blog post, or even write a quick ten-minute play and post it on this blog. If I want to write a ten-minute play about, say, Tiger and Elin Woods, talking before he makes his big apology speech, I can write that and have it out on the world on the internet in minutes. (Not a bad idea...except I'm pretty busy today.) But, if I submit that play to a theatre, I'll have to wait months to get a response, even longer to get a production. We're the magazines of the entertainment world.
In some ways, this works towards Great Plays and enduring works. A play about Tiger Woods' marital difficulties is going to have a pretty short shelf life, no matter what. We can't spend our time running after whatever is on the scrawl at the bottom of CNN or on TMZ right this second. It may be an important story. It may be Jon & Kate Plus 8. We can only really tell what's important with time and distance. Plays shouldn't be SNL sketches. Hell, most SNL sketches shouldn't be SNL sketches.
But, like everything, there's a flip side to waiting to see what's important: we lose a bit of relevance. And that bit can be important. We can miss out on stories, miss out on moments when the iron is hot to strike. By the time theatre gets around to a story, everybody's heard it, decided what they thought and moved on. We cede ground to Law & Order.
Part of what gave All My Sons its resonance, originally, was that it was about the current day, about the things that the country had just lived through. If Miller was writing All My Sons now, especially as a second play, coming right on the heels of a failure, chances are it wouldn't get produced right away. It would work its way through the bowels of play development hell, get tweaked, rewrite, get more notes, have reading upon reading and then finally emerge. Would All My Sons have the same resonance in 1950? Or 1955? Would, at some point, he have to consider "updating" it to the Korean War or even the Vietnam War? It's a terrific play, so it probably would have withstood that...but maybe not.
The long development and planning periods of institutional theatres and their risk-averse nature are both factors in the lack of topical plays. To be completely honest, playwrights are, too. I think too many of us live in an airy world of thinking about theatre and art as separate from the concerns of everyday life. In some ways, we're reaching for the universal, the Big Idea, but when we do that, we miss the small details that can make the Big Idea happen. Arthur Miller's mother-in-law shows him an article from an Ohio newspaper and he spins a classic out of that. I can't tell you the number of times I've talked to playwrights who profess to not reading the newspaper at all, to not following the stories of the day. I want to shake them vigorously.
We're not developing topical plays here in this country the way I think we should, and the blame for that goes around. But let's also remember that it's a trade-off. You want more topical plays about the issues of the day? You're going to get more bad plays, plays that are less polished and tested, plays that might be divisive and dangerous. You want polished, already Great Play material? You lose on the topical front. But if we can find that sweet spot, that place where the time and the play meet, hoo boy, we're in business. The question is how to get there. Isn't that always the question?
Wednesday, February 17, 2010
Ideas I Like
ACT has teamed up with everyone from dancers and musicians to smaller theater companies. It also started a new works series. Those initiatives helped the company increase artistic offerings from 12 shows in 2006 to 45 last year. Adding so many performances freed up ACT to try something new on the business side of the operation. In addition to its traditional season subscriptions and individual ticket sales, ACT launched a membership program. For $25 a month, members can see anything at ACT, as often as they like.I dig it, for reals. At E.S.T., there's one guy, just one guy who comes to literally EVERYTHING. He was coming to everything before I got there in 1996. He's still coming to everything now. I think people would take advantage of that kind of deal, especially now.
Scandiuzzi: "Like a gym membership. What it does, it appeals to a younger constituency that wants flexibility, doesn't want to be tied to let's say, I have to be here every other month. It frees them, they can call the day before, see a play, a dance, whatever."
It's like an all–you–can–eat art buffet. 350 people have become members since July 2009, when the program started. The company would like to bring in a total of 1,000 members by the end of 2010.
Let Me Nip This In The Bud Right Now
Like I said, it is intriguing. But in order for this to make sense to me, I would have to interpret what you are saying as follows:This is my response:
The top of the list, say, the first 50 entries, consists of everybody, (men and women,) just kind of paying lip service to what they know should be the right answers. However, as we go further down the rankings we start to see what men and women respondents actually like and/or think of as meaningful or good.
Is that about right?
I'm definitely NOT saying that. I'm saying that this is a list of what a group of men and women rank as the most important American plays and that we can extrapolate some things from where their rankings overlap and where they diverge. I personally don't believe that there is some standard of important play, so the whole thing is a bit subjective. Is A Raisin in the Sun less important than Death of A Saleman? On what points.Here are some quotes from the original post:
But, since this is, largely, a set of plays that most of us are familiar with, we can use our knowledge of these plays, their subject matter and their place in history (because some of the plays are indeed historic) to draw some conclusions about the way men and women view plays.
At the end of the post, I take that extrapolation and apply it to a real world situation.
That's it. I don't think anyone is paying lip service or holding back or anything. I can't know that. All I know is what's on the list. If the men in the survey rank American Buffalo as the 15th most important American play and the women rank it as 147th, that tells us something about how they each view that play. Then we can infer how they might view a play that's structurally or thematically similar. Or dissimilar.
Now, the caveats. A) The women in the survey ranked fewer plays, almost fifty. B) This group was largely pulled from theatre professionals. And most importantly, C) the question at hand wasn't "What plays do you like," but "What plays are important." Oh, and D) the men outnumbered the women (68% of the respondents were men.)Emphasis added, because I have a feeling that's the part that will get singled out to say that I'm saying "Men like the top plays on this list." Which isn't really what I'm saying. So I'll just clarify.
There's an implicit bias in that that, I think, this list makes plain: people want to see their lives on stage. Men, women, minorities, we want plays that reflect our lives. It's a natural human urge and we all share it. There shouldn't be any shame in that.
The problem comes when the numbers are out of whack. American Buffalo? Number 15 on the men's list. Number 148 on the women's. What is its final rank? 20. Because there are way more men in the survey than women.
Looking over this list, there is a trend that certain plays split the genders (this is also true of age, but that's another set of calculations). One common factor I noticed is that plays that have strong connections to men and to the male world have a tendency to rank higher among men than they do among women and plays that have strong connections to women and the female world rank higher among women. However, since there are more men in this survey than women, many of the plays that ranked particularly poorly with women, but not as poorly with men, rose to the top. Which gives a somewhat skewed perception of their overall importance to the society at large.
I drew two inferences from this, one I used in the post, one I'm making now: A) that leads the "general" list to be male drama heavy and give the impression that men write "better" plays or more important plays and B) that men are likely subject to a bias that's often attributed only to minorities, wanting to see their life on stage. And given B and the dominance of men in positions of power in industries like theatre and the film/television industry, that bias might be a reason for a lack of female writers and a lack of advocacy for female writers by other women.
I'm not saying that this list is skewed in any way, or that I have any insight into the hearts and minds of the people who took it. I'm basing all of this on my read of the list, the gaps that exist and how I see them correlate. If you want to talk about that, fine. If you want to say my expositions don't work or don't make sense to you, fine. But please don't say or ask me if I'm saying something I'm not saying.
I hope this keeps the conversation focused.
*Slight edit to remove a typo
Okay, Let's Talk Numbers A Bit
Arsenic and Old Lace
The Diary of Anne Frank
Fiddler on the Roof
I Never Promised You A Rose Garden
The Kentucky Cycle
The Time of Your Life
Not a whole hell of a lot, at first blush, really. But these are the plays that scored as significantly more important with the male participants in the Denver Post's survey than with the women, some of them, like American Buffalo, having a gap of more than 100 places. (American Buffalo is 15th on the male lists, 148th on the female.) All have a gap of at least 50 places.
Of these, two are all male casts, one is set in a male-dominated subculture (God's Country is about white supremacists, not known real well for their feminism), seven are set in the past, when patriarchy was much the norm. None revolve around women characters, though Arsenic and Old Lace have a pair of great parts. One, Bent, has real historical significance, as one of the first depictions of the treatment of homosexuals under the Nazis. (That one, incidentally, was 67th on the male lists, 148th on the female.)
And the reverse? The plays that scored high on the womens' list and low on the men's?
The American Dream (Albee)
Awake and Sing
The Children's Hour
Fool for Love
The Heidi Chronicles
I Am My Own Wife
Now, the caveats. A) The women in the survey ranked fewer plays, almost fifty. B) This group was largely pulled from theatre professionals. And most importantly, C) the question at hand wasn't "What plays do you like," but "What plays are important." Oh, and D) the men outnumbered the women (68% of the respondents were men.)
So what do we see here? The women tended to rank plays that featured, well, women, in central roles. A couple of wild cards thrown in there, like Oleanna, make it interesting. But it does seem like, largely, the men have as hard a time connecting to plays about women as the women do, connecting to plays about men. Of course, though, when you look at the top ten:
1. Death of a Salesman
2. Angels in America
3. Streetcar Named Desire
4. Long Day's Journey Into Night
5. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf
6. Our Town
7. A Raisin in the Sun
8. The Crucible
9. Glass Menagerie
All ranked about equally between men and women. 9 out of 10 by men (eight of 10 white men). So maybe the connection gap really only goes one way.
When looking at the list, it's pretty striking, the number of plays rated lower by the men than the women and the consistency of it: plays by women, minorities or that have women or minorities in central roles are generally rated lower for men than for women. The converse is much more rarely true; women seem to have less problem ranking plays with men as the central figures as important (the examples above are the extremes, but also make up the bulk of the list). There may be a slight variation, but by and large, men and women agree on those.
When we talk about encouraging diversity, we often put the full onus on the minority (or the disadvantaged, since women aren't actually a minority). I've even fallen into it, saying things like, "Minorities want to see their life reflected on stage." There's an implicit bias in that that, I think, this list makes plain: people want to see their lives on stage. Men, women, minorities, we want plays that reflect our lives. It's a natural human urge and we all share it. There shouldn't be any shame in that.
The problem comes when the numbers are out of whack. American Buffalo? Number 15 on the men's list. Number 148 on the women's. What is its final rank? 20. Because there are way more men in the survey than women.
Now. I want you to imagine you're a literary manager. Or a TV showrunner. And your boss, the artistic director, the studio executive, is most likely a man. A man who thinks that American Buffalo is close to the top ten, one of the best American plays ever written. You yourself are more interested in Machinal or Awake and Sing. You have a "muscular" script by a man and a "gentle, probing" script by a female? What are you going to bring him? Doesn't that help explain things like the gap in TV writers? Doesn't that explain a few other things?
These kind of biases are the hardest to discuss and see, because they're so inborn. It's our nature to seek out things that reflect the world to us. But when that nature is met by privilege and systemic discrimination, it can become something quite different.
*Very late in the day edit to correct some sloppy language
I got that from Kung Fu Monkey, the very awesome blog of writer John Rogers (et al.). It's also a great place if you want an inside glimpse at the writing of a TV show.
I love it for a couple of reasons. A) It is awesome. B) I makes me think about my approach to plays.
Despite the more serious nature two scenes I've posted in the New Play Project so far, I consider myself a comedic writer, essentially. It took me a long time to get there. Comedy is pretty debased in our current scene. While most good plays have elements of humor and good gag or two in 'em, the idea of calling something a "comedy" seems to conjure up images of bad sitcom jokes and strained farce and an easy, everything-is-resolved ending. Not the stuff of "real" drama, life-changing, earth-shattering stuff, where clothes are rent and hair is pulled.
Looking at the clip of Jake Shimabukuro playing the ukulele, it made me think about how limited our collective imaginations can be. The ukulele is having a bit of a resurgence these days, but in, essentially, a comic format, as my friend and rad lady in general, Megan Kingery shows here:
It's funny and sweet and light and airy. You're not going to say something serious with a ukulele, something heartfelt and meaningful. But...maybe you could...
Maybe it's just a different way of using it, mixing up those expectations. In the comments to my scene from AT HOME AND ABROAD, Anonymous said:
It feels a bit like a lot of thrillers - innocent, average guy forced to go undercover, a connection he'd rather forget, family member in trouble, etc. The Hollywood-style "familiar template with one new twist".Yep. And that's in there and intentional. A twist on something familiar is the basis of art, of innovation. Taking something that has only been used one way and tweaking it for another purpose is the backbone of theatre. It's the beauty of genre writing: some of the weight of the story is off your shoulders so you can delve into other areas, explore other parts of the world. One of the things that theatre's obsession with the new has cut us off from is more genre writing, more thrillers, more, yes, sci fi, or grand guinol, or even bodice-rippers. And more comedies. But, maybe, like the little ukulele, it can be rehabbed...
*Title Cf. One of my idols and one of the great comic writers.
Engagement vs. Debate
I don't want to drag her back into any of this, but RVCBard's decision to check out of the entire public conversation was a big factor getting me to think about what I expect out of it. Since it so often brings hurt feelings, hard words and doesn't seem to ever lead to better connection. In a private e-mail exchange a couple of weeks ago, a blogging colleague said to me, in essence, "How it works is you lay out your arguments, defend them and show that the other side's arguments are weaker." (I'm paraphrasing in the extreme, because I haven't asked for permission to quote this person.) Something about that dinged in me the wrong way. It wasn't an inspiration or a "go get 'em!" It made me never want to write about it again. It's taken me a couple of days to tease out why. It has a bit to do with my dad. (Yeah, it's one of those posts.)
My dad is a staunch, serious progressive (when I was younger, he bordered on black nationalism...despite being married to a white woman. Yeah, I know there's a play in that.). Yet he is addicted to watching Fox News. Addiction is really the only way to describe it. He can't seem to help himself. He already watches a ton of news, but during the commercials, he always flips over to see what the fine people of Fox News have to say. It's something that, invariably, he disagrees with vociferously and passionately, and often has him yelling at the screen.
My dad worked for a long time as a technician in a hospital on the Upper East Side. There he encountered a lot of conservatives and would fight with them the way he fights with Fox News. To just about the same effect: none. My dad tends to fight with conservatives that way: he brings his arguments, facts and figures, they bring theirs and round and round they go and sooner or later, someone says something insulting or upsetting or personal and the whole thing comes crashing to a halt. Seeing my dad lose friends over these kind of things definitely instilled in me a version of the John Mayer Rule, Ta-Nehisi Coates discusses here:
Frequently we'd have social gatherings, and I'd always skip them for A.) Fear of being the only black guy B.) Fear that someone would get smashed, say something ignorant and I'd do something that would get me fired. I feel bad about this, because I was really well liked and no one ever actually did anything to me. Indeed, race-wise, it was one of the most progressive workplaces I've ever been in. No P.C. bullshit, but no "I'm not P.C." ignorance either. But because of my own issues, I skipped everything from after work gatherings to Christmas parties.I've started to extend it to, well, here, which isn't good. After the last go-round, I just didn't want to bother anymore because it was like arguing with Fox News: nobody changed anyone's mind and all I got was hoarse. I realized that part of the problem was the matter of expectations.
What my colleague described above, to me, that's a debate. You have your position, I have mine, and we're locked in a zero-sum game where for my position to be valid and right, yours has to be wrong or flawed or less than. And vice versa. So we trot out our well-researched, unimpeachable sources (Statistics! Surveys! MLK! Brecht! Harold Pinter!) and if mine are better than yours, mine win and you're wrong. Or, as what happens in reality, you start telling me how my unimpeachable sources are actually totally impeachable and my argumentation techniques undermine my argument and therefore...slam! 1, 2, 3! I'm out. We retreat to our neutral corners, someone gets handed a belt and takes a victory lap.
And, at the end of the day, no one's mind is actually changed and all we are is hoarse.
What I'm seeking out here in the blogosphere, though, is engagement. I bring what I have, you bring what you have and we see what it is. Sometimes there is friction. Sometimes there is connection. Sometimes people shout and we do get hoarse, but there is the possibility of understanding, person to person, not idea to idea. I can still be absolutely right in my experience and you can be right in yours, and we can choose to move forward from that place. Or not. But it's not a zero-sum game.
I realized very long ago that, out in the world, there are people who don't believe the things I believe. More than that, there are people whose view of the world is fundamentally different from mine. I believe that the purpose of government is to make sure that justice is done for the people and to protect the people from their own worst urges and impulses. That's a bedrock belief for me and everything else I think in politics flows out of that. There are other people who believe, as a bedrock belief, that government is, at best, a necessary evil and that it's main function is to make sure that they personally can live the most comfortable life possible and the government shouldn't curtail that in any meaningful way. I can trot out as many facts, figures, quotes from founding fathers as I want, but I will not convince them of anything different. And they will not convince me of anything different. A debate will go nowhere. Engagement...that may go nowhere, too. But we may find the places in the middle, where we overlap. I may be able to share something that changes their perspective, just a little bit and vice versa.
That's what I believe theatre exists to do. That is another bedrock belief of mine. Theatre is a medium for engagement, not debate. No one wins a play. No one loses. We share an experience and out of that shared experience, we connect. Or not. Both are good.* I'm not normally such a hippie about this stuff, but right now, that's where I'm at.
So...I'm opting for more engagement. Less debate. If I feel like I need a graduate seminar under my belt or a course in rhetoric through the ages to communicate successfully with you, I'm not gonna. I'm gonna share my stories. I'm gonna listen to yours. If something moves me to respond, I will. If my mind changes, it will. If I change yours, cool.
Let's hippie this shit up, sit on the floor, cross-legged and rap like it's 1978 and we just got out of bad marriages.
*I kind of lifted this line from a play that I sincerely love and was very proud to work on: String Fever by Jackie Reingold. It's got the best Icelandic talk show host character in it, maybe ever. Someone should revive that one.
Tuesday, February 16, 2010
Making A List, Checking It Twice
So I call upon you, internet: say I'm the head of an organization who wants to ensure diversity in hiring practices. What would you have me put on my checklist?I've been thinking about it for a couple of days now. Part of what I've been thinking about has to do with RVCBard's comment on Guy's post:
I wish it were that simple, but the things I'd put on that checklist are cognitive, which presents a whole 'nother layer of problems - mostly the fact that people can justify anything.In the end, what needs to change are hearts and minds. Can some checklist of things really change that? I don't know. But what it can do is have an actual impact. Compare this, from 2002:
Rest assured, even if Cochran's misguided initiative ends up in court, it won't end up advancing the cause of minority hiring in the NFL. Any plan built around the notion that you can sue a private institution in an attempt to force it to adopt your notion of better judgment is deeply flawed. Even those whom Cochran's efforts are designed to help are skeptical.
Said one black NFL coordinator on Wednesday: "The NFL is not a public entity that can be forced to have equal representation. That's just not realistic. This just shows you that Johnnie Cochran has no idea of what he's talking about in this case.
With this, from 2009:
Of course, hiring practices in the NFL did get a big push forward by the establishment of the Rooney Rule in 2003, a rule that mandates that NFL teams interview minority candidates for head coaching positions or face stiff fines. However the process began, the fact is that today six of the NFL’s 32 head coaches are African-American, nearly 19 percent.
On the college front, two years ago the BCA was exploring possible litigation as a means of creating diversity in the college game, which seemed at times incapable of change. The percentage of coaches of color in the Football Bowl Subdivision hovered around 5 percent. Keith now gladly reports a significant step forward. Thirteen of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision head coaches are African-American, seven of whom were hired in past few months.
So...well, there's an effect, isn't there? And it's a positive step. Baby steps, but positive steps. It's funny, when folks mention lotteries and lawsuit-thought-experiments, they get laughed at as though those are just the most ridiculous things in the world. Except they actually work. Go figure.
So, to the question at hand: a checklist. As I thought about this all weekend, I thought about RVCBard's comment and about how hard it is to change a mind, really. But behavior is easier, isn't it? How does someone act when they want to increase diversity? What steps do they go through? I started there, thinking about what I've gone through when I was working at a majority white institution and needed a minority actor. You ask for help.
Okay, you run an arts organization and have decided that increasing diversity is important. I would say the first step is ask yourself how important is it? Basically, what else are you willing to sacrifice? On paper experience? Other kinds of diversity (we'll talk more about that in a second)? You can't have everything you value all the time, so you have to know what you're willing to overlook.
Second, you've got to know how you're doing already. I would recommend getting demographics for both your audience and the neighborhood your theatre is located in, or feel most connected to. Pair that up with your staff. (For the purposes of this thought experiment, I'm only dealing with staff diversity.) Where do you match up? Where do you not? If your theatre is located in a majority black or Latin or Asian neighborhood, but your audience is majority white and your staff is majority white...you probably have some work to do. You actually might be doing better than you think, but you should take into account what roles people are playing. If your minority staff members are all working on minority outreach, with limited purviews and exposure to the bulk of your audience, you're not really doing diversity. My personal ideal, in terms of a theatre, is a theatre where you can not tell, walking down the street, who is on their way to the theatre, where there is no clear line, when milling around the lobby between the staff, the audience, the people who just happen to be walking by and the artists working there. But if you don't have a baseline for where you are, lumps and all, how do you know where to do the work.
As I said before, make sure you're not just looking to minority staff members to work on minority projects. If you've built a little ghetto, where your minority staff members are doing outreach to minority communities to see work by minorities, you're doing diversity wrong. I know your intentions are good, but you can do better.
So when you're hiring for any job, ask culturally specific theatres for recommendations. If you're looking for qualified minority staff members, yeah, look at places where they've worked, can gain experience, cut their teeth. I don't mean to promote a brain drain, but you have to start somewhere. Connect with a culturally specific theatre and simply ask them to forward your job listing. That's a good start. But it's better to ask for recommendations and involve them in your job search. If you don't have any connection to a culturally specific theatre that feels comfortable enough to make that kind of request...well, that's a pretty good sign you might need some diversity, don't you think?
To steal the Rooney Rule from the NFL, interview at least one minority for all positions. Your job search isn't done until you've done that. Not just accepted an application, but held an actual interview. Even if you don't wind up hiring the person, giving them the opportunity to make their case is invaluable, for both of you. You make a new connection and so do they. And you never know where those things lead.
Finally, keep a short list of minority candidates handy and pass it along. Make recommendations to other theatres, when jobs open up, recommend minority candidates that weren't right for your organization. Diversity starts at home, but it ends on the road. If you talk up the good candidates you saw, other people will take another look. Part of the problem, when dealing with a segregated theatre system, is that a lack of exposure translates into insecurity. A minority candidate is an unknown quantity and unknown quantities are scary in our field. The right word of recommendation can do wonders.
So, in handy dandy list form:
- Decide how important it is.
- See where you can improve.
- Make sure you're utilizing the staff you have correctly.
- Make connections with culturally specific organizations.
- Interview at least one minority candidate for all positions.
- Talk up minority candidates to other organizations.
To underscore the first point, though: this only matters if diversity is important to you and your organization. It may not be. I have my thoughts on that, but, hey, it's your organization. If diversifying your staff isn't something you consider important or worth making sacrifices for, that's your lookout. There will always be nice, easy, white candidates available to you. Well, maybe not always. But that's your call.
Okay, Guy. You have your checklist. Anything to add?
Who Said We Were Done With Statistics?
The Sound of My Own Voice
Seriously, I'm a smidge nervous about the entire prospect, so having some friendly faces in the crowd would be nice. If you can, swing on by.
But wait! There's more!
On March 16th, the Ensemble Studio Theatre will be hosting a reading of my play, Manifesto, as a part of their regular Memberfest series. It should be a good time. I'll post details on that one, too.
Posting here might be a little light, due to the prep for these events. But, like I've been saying, doing is better than talking, right?
Monday, February 15, 2010
In many areas, there is barely the audience to support the current amount of theater. I've sat in enough houses where the number of paying customers was quite low to know that in New York, we produce a lot more theatre than there is demand to justify it*. And there aren't enough production opportunities out there. There just aren't. There will always be heartbreakingly underserved, underrecognized, undersupported and underproduced artists and writers. We can't fix that. We should try to come as close as possible, I really believe coming closer to that goal is quite worthy, but we should at least be humble enough to know that there are some limits.One of the knocks against the push for more new plays in more places is that it doesn't take into account the actual quality of the plays. Some (or many, as some think) new plays are actually no good, and that's the reason they aren't being produced. The playwrights who complain about lack of opportunity or access, the reasoning goes, are bad playwrights, whining because their plays are being overlooked.
Despite the obnoxious tone it often takes, that's a valid point. And the idea of supply and demand is part of it. There literally are only so many plays that any community can support. Even if every single theatre produced only new plays and play attendance was at 100%, there would still be plays not produced. Good plays, bad plays, even great plays get overlooked. It's the nature of the world. In his post, Isaac talks at some length about the work of Lynn Nottage and notes that she has a number of good plays that aren't as widely known as they deserve. Of course there are! Just like there are good plays by all sorts of writers that aren't seen as much as they should be. It's the nature of the beast.
Rejection, disappointment, failure, these are part of life and definitely part of art. As I spoke about here, it can be a powerful motivation. All of the fairness, affirmative action, access in the world can't avoid that. And I don't think many playwrights would want it to vanish. I certainly don't. And theatres shouldn't either.
One of the parts of Outrageous Fortune that I still don't think is talked about enough is the search for new Great Plays. The artistic directors want them. The audiences want them. And I think most playwrights want to write them. I know I do. But even if we do, there are no guarantees. They may not get produced. The real question I think we've been kicking around is how to get more Great Plays.
I know I'd be happy if blind submissions was the standard submission process. Let the plays stand on their own. It won't fix the supply and demand issue, but it would make the whole process more fair.
Get To Know Me!*
Sunday, February 14, 2010
If You Were A Pill...
Happy Valentine's Day, y'all...
Friday, February 12, 2010
New Play Project: AT HOME AND ABROAD
(MARTINSON’s non-descript office in Washington, D.C. (well, Foggy Bottom, to be precise). MARTINSON is white, serious-looking, conservatively dressed. His desk is covered with neat piles of paper. He has a file in front of him. There’s a knock on his door.)
(TERRY enters. He is black, early thirties, wearing a simple suit and tie.)
Is this office 304? There’s no sign. I was sent a message. Told to come here.
(indicates the chair in front of his desk, not unkindly, but not warmly)
(as he sits)
Is this / Room 304?
Do you love your country, son?
(TERRY freezes, mid-sit.)
Is this Room 304?
Do you love your country?
You sound unsure of that.
Of course I do. I work for the / State Department.
I’m aware of where you work.
Don’t you…work here, too?
(Slight beat. MARTINSON consults his file.)
Winston. Terrence M.
D.C. native. Technically.
Well. I moved here from New York when I was about one. What’s this about, sir?
Columbia, double B.A. in poli sci and American history. Master’s from Harvard Kennedy, Public Policy. Second Master’s, Georgetown. What? Got tired of the Ivies?
(TERRY opens his mouth to say something, but isn’t sure what he can say at this point. MARTINSON barrels on.)
Joined State, public relations department. Writing press releases and blog posts. Three years now. Still in the PR department. A little overqualified, aren’t you?
I…just wanted to help out. Wherever I could.
I see. Can’t pass a background check. Why would that be?
Is there some kind of problem? If something’s come up, something wrong with my work, with my…I can answer any question you have. Anything at all.
Okay. Tell me about your father.
Do I have to answer that question?
(MARTINSON says nothing in a way that says, “Yes. You do.”)
I didn’t know him. Ever. He died before I was born. My mother moved me here as soon as she could because she had family here.
Was his name Winston?
…No. It’s my stepfather’s name.
What was his name? Your father’s name.
…Makimba. His last name was Makimba.
Which is your middle name.
It’s an African name, yes?
The same last name, interestingly, of William Ade Makimba.
(Behind them, MAKIMBA appears. He is in his fifties, regal, dressed in military garb, fierce and powerful. He stands proudly.)
Ever thought you might be related? You two?
I thought so, too. So I checked. You are. He’s your uncle. The dictator of Okundi. The butcher of Amas Bay. One of America’s sworn enemies. Your uncle.
I’ve never met him. I’ve never talked to him. Jesus Christ, I’ve never set foot in Africa. In any part of Africa. My dad died and my mother cut off all ties.
Yes. Your father died. In a car accident. You were told.
It was a car accident. Don’t worry. His car crashed. When your uncle’s operatives ran it off the road.
Look…I don’t even know your name.
Call me Martinson.
Mr. Martinson. My mother was an American citizen. I’m an American citizen.
Your unborn child will be an American citizen.
(LAURA, white, 7 months pregnant, appears.)
Yes. You wanted to know if I love my country. I do. Absolutely. In every possible way. And, yes, I joined the State Department because I wanted to help. And you’re right. I knew about this thing with my uncle, so I set my sights low and didn’t want anyone poking around. The man is…a terror on earth. I don’t want to be associated with him.
And yet, you are.
Only in name. In blood. Do not fire me because of this. I should have disclosed it, I know. But…I don’t know the man.
I’m not here to fire you. I couldn’t, even if I wanted to. I don’t work for the State Department.
What do you know about the Right Honorable General Makimba?
Not much. To be honest. He’s not a very nice man. Or a good leader.
That’s not…strictly true. On either point.
(MAKIMBA steps forward. The sound of a crowd swells up. He gestures for quiet. They respond. He speaks with a rich, sonorous voice, with more than a hint of English education to it.)
My people! We have come so far! So far from the dark days of colonial oppression, foreign interference and abuse, corporate raiding and guerilla attacks. A new day is dawning in our country, a new era. And we must face it with courage, conviction and a belief in justice, justice made manifest. The old ways, the too few with too much, the too many with too little, this must end. And it will. Once we have forgotten the old ways, burned them out of our memory with passion and clarity, then we can turn our face towards a new sun, a new world, a new Okundi!
(The crowd cheers. MAKIMBA holds his hands up in triumph. Freeze.)
I don’t really watch the news or anything.
You do press releases for the State Department.
We kind of make the news. I just type it up, really. It gets exhausting, following all of it. Laura, my…partner. She’s better about it. She needs to be.
(LAURA is addressing her students. A map of Africa appears. She points to it vaguely.)
Did you know that once upon a time, they called Africa the Dark Continent? They did. It wasn’t a very nice thing to call it, was it? No, Jordan, it wasn’t because everyone this is black. Well, not just because. You see, it’s very, very big and there are lots of kinds of people there. It was a place of mystery and secrets. Adventure. But…that was a long time ago. Things are different there now. And right now, it’s very, very poor. For a lot of reasons, Dylan. No, we can’t go into all of them today. We’re going to start with one country. Okundi.
(She points at one country. Freeze.)
Maybe I should be talking to her.
But. I’m talking to you. What do you know about Okundi?
Not a lot.
Do you know they just had elections there? Free elections. First time in a couple of decades.
Only if the right guy wins. Then it’s good. My job is to make sure the right guy wins.
Can I just say…that doesn’t sound very democratic.
(MARTINSON looks at TERRY steadily.)
Aren’t we in the democracy business?
You were. When you worked at the State Department.
I work at the State Department.
No. You don’t.
I…didn’t sign up for this. I’m sorry. I work at the State Department. I like working at the State Department.
I’m sure you did.
You’re not listening to me, Martinson. If that’s your name. I don’t even know what you want from me.
No, you don’t. You haven’t even waited to hear what I have to say. You haven’t heard what I want from you. You don’t know. Don’t jump to conclusions.
We are. In the democracy business. We make democracy happen. Sometimes it needs a little help. Okundi hasn’t had an election in three decades. Makimba is…
(MAKIMBA speaks again.)
And I tell you this, my people: I lead us out of the dark days of colonialism and internal strife. I lead us out of chaos. And I promise you, I promise all of you, that I will lead us into the future!
Complicated. The U.N. wants the elections monitored. We’re good at that.
Democracy. With help. With your help. Your country is asking for your help.
We have a man on the ground there, in Okundi. But…he’s…compromised. We need some…
That’s cute. But yes. A face that they can trust. A face that they can understand.
You want me to go there, to Okundi and…
Observe. Report. Monitor.
That’s all. Listen. Terry. Come on. I’m not asking you for a lot here. You take a trip. A couple of weeks, tops. A tropic country. Get away from D.C. for a while. And while you’re there…
Throw an election.
No one asked you to do that.
Think about the upside.
For you. For your country. For your brother.
Leave him out of this.
He’s going to need your help. Isn’t he?
(CUBBY appears. He’s in a prison jumpsuit, talking on a payphone.)
I know you check this voicemail, bro. Sooner or later, you gotta get these messages. And sooner or later, you gonna have to talk to me. We got shit to settle. You know that. You can’t hide from me. You can’t hide from blood. I’m not going to be in here much longer. When I get out, we gonna have to talk.
You’re going to need help.
I can’t help you. I won’t.
You were right.
To think you wouldn’t pass a background check. You wouldn’t. You didn’t.
What background check?
The one I ordered. This one. Ties to a foreign government. A convict brother. That doesn’t sound like the kind of person we want with access to sensitive documents.
I write press releases.
You make the news. You just said so. Maybe you’ve done some unauthorized editing. Changed the news a little bit. I’m sure if we look at every single scrap of paper you’ve ever touched, talked to all of your colleagues, friends, neighbors, asked enough people enough questions, we can find something. In about a year. Maybe two.
You don’t have to threaten me.
I didn’t want to. Your country loves you, Terry. Your country needs you. So. Again. I ask. Do you love your country?
(MAKIMBA, LAURA and CUBBY all turn and look at TERRY.
Shift. TERRY and LAURA in their bedroom. He’s packing.)
A couple of weeks. Tops. Maybe less.
A couple of weeks.
I’ll be doing…good. Giving back.
To who? Who are you giving back to?
I don’t know. Africa. My people.
People you don’t know. People you’ve never met. People you have no connection to.
Just because I didn’t know my father…
And have never been there.
You’ve never been to Ireland. And yet, I remember a girl who really loved her green beer on St. Patty’s Day.
Yeah, but I didn’t pick up a gun to go shoot some Beefeaters, either.
No one’s shooting anyone.
It’s a war-torn country. That’s how they describe it. War-torn. Torn apart by war.
You know nothing about the country, nothing about the people, nothing at all.
Thanks for reminding me. Maybe that’s what I’m trying to change.
Read a book. Don’t get on a plane.
Honey. I have to go. My country is asking me. It’ll be a couple of weeks. I’ll be on the phone with you the whole time. You can take the phone to the birthing class. I’ll bring you back something for your class.
(LAURA is still sulking.)
There’s nothing you can say, anyway. I have to go.
(LAURA gets out of bed.)
I have to grade homework.
This isn’t my fault. I didn’t ask for this. I tried to get out of it.
But you didn’t.
(She goes. TERRY sits, holds his head in his hands.
TERRY is on the plane.)
More on the New Play Project
But this stage of the New Play Project is about planting seeds. So you'll be getting another first scene from another play today. Again, chime in with your feedback! I want to know what you think, what you like, what you respond to. I'm going to write a play this spring, that's for sure. But you get to help me choose which one. Isn't that neat?
So, if you're so inclined, join the group, post some scenes. What's the worst that could happen?
Thursday, February 11, 2010
Tony Weighs In
We all have different connections to the swirl of chaos and pain that is life. Most Americans have felt loss, have felt like an outsider, have been hurt and have felt anger and frustration at a system that is unfairly rigged so that a very few have benefited from the many. There is common ground that can be built on - if we look for it.RTWT.
Things I'm Thinking About Before Answering
The crux of the manifesto is this: every time a checklist is developed of things that you have to remember to avoid infection, and you force doctors to go through that checklist, rates of infection go down. The increase in positive medical outcomes is measurable, and at the end of the process, 80% of doctors say that the checklist improved outcomes and saved lives-- and 92% say that they want the doctor who's operating on them to use a checklist.<...snip...>
The case in which checklists were used were to prevent carelessness. But I think the checklist idea might be able to address diversity... if you can figure out what belongs on the checklist.So I call upon you, internet: say I'm the head of an organization who wants to ensure diversity in hiring practices. What would you have me put on my checklist?
Interesting stuff. And I like the practicality of it. Want more diversity? Great! What steps do you take? My modus operandi normally is to pop off, right from the top of my head, but this exercise actually requires some thought. So I'm going to give it some. But feel free to share your thoughts with Guy here.
I Stand Corrected
A festival would still be cool. I'm just sayin'.
Things I Really Enjoyed Reading
But the goal one should hope for is to inspire us here to do new things--not necessarily the same thing. The Moscow Art Theatre came to New York in 1924 for a similarly long "sit down" residency, performing many plays in rep. When some young eager New York theatre rebels saw it, their eyes were opened by a kind of acting they had never seen before so they went and made a new company--The Group Theatre--that would learn from that. But while inspired by Stanislavsky's example, they did no Russian plays nor anything written before 1930, and all by American playwrights. And it changed the American theatre forever.Very good stuff. You know what to do. RTWT.
The Guardian Asks A Good Question
Shouldn't there be more science fiction on stage?
Where new dramatic writing is concerned, however, science fiction is far thinner on the ground. A recurring joke in the sitcom Friends concerned Joey's occasional appearances in various awful off-Broadway productions; in one episode (The One With the Screamer), he concludes an emotionally wrought scene by climbing a ladder to a waiting mothership "to search for alternative fuels". Which is a roundabout way of saying that credibility may be more of an issue on stage than in other media. The fear of appearing silly is a real one.
Quite true. It's a very thin line to walk, but one I wish more playwrights would try. As has been well-established, I'm a bit of a sci-fi geek. Well, a lot of one. And I've even tried my hand at some sci-fi playwriting: one of the plays I wrote last year centers around time travel. It's thrilling, really, to use your theatrical imagination that way, to think outside of the box. If I learned anything from my many, many years of watching various flavors of Star Trek, science fiction can be an excellent way to talk about touchy subjects in a smart, subtle way. Or sometimes, maybe not so subtle. (It's got a "b" in it, Gene.)
But on stage...it's problematic, obviously. No special effects. It's hard to do the majestic sweep of galaxies in space in a 99-seat (name drop!) black box theatre. But there is a bit of an upside to the limitations. I've always been a fan of plays that have ghosts in them because of the delicious suspension of disbelief: we know there's a flesh-and-blood person there, but a good play, a good director, and a good actor can convince us otherwise. There's a power in that.
I agree wholeheartedly with Natasha at the Guardian: it's an untapped genre. Why not explore it? Any other genres you want to see on stage?
Things Worth Reading
Wednesday, February 10, 2010
People I'm A Little In Love With Right Now
Courtney B. Vance on FlashForward. I am a well-known sci-fi geek. So...a show about the whole planet passing out and having a two minute vision of their future in a few months? Sign me up. Except...it's kind of boring. And confusing. It's the kind of show where literally nothing happens for an entire episode, then BAM! CLIFFHANGER! In the last three minutes. It's a gimmick, but it works. It's also marred by some of the worst bits of over-acting out there. But then, in the midst of it, Mr. Angela Bassett shows up and brings a great complicated portrayal of FBI Assistant Director Wedeck. He usually winds up with the comic relief of the episode (his flash forward is a comic highlight and too good to be spoiled), but also brings real gravitas and passion. Just wait for him to show up on the screen and you won't be disappointed.
Regina King on Southland. I've only just started watching it, but I was hooked almost immediately and Regina King's performance as Detective Lydia Adams is huge part of that. When you have a female detective on a TV show, you wind up with either the "hard as a man" bitch type or the super-feminine uberwoman. Lydia Adams is both and neither. Smart, tough and compassionate, but still human. Southland is one of the best cop dramas I've seen, subtle and unsentimental and Regina's performance is right in there with it. The first two episodes she has to deal with cases involving children, which gave me a bit of a pause at first, but it pays off beautifully when she goes to her ex's house to say that she might have been wrong and does maybe want a child after all. It's a quiet scene, but carries a punch. I'm very excited that there will be more of Lydia Adams soon. Plus, bonus for Regina: she does voices for The Boondocks. Awesome.
Donald Glover on Community. This one isn't really a secret weapon. But, Jesus Christ, he is awesome. Donald Glover's Troy is quite possibly my single favorite character on television right now on my single favorite show. His work is funny, slick, slightly bizarre, and beautifully timed. It works better when you see him in action, so...
Vik Sahay on Chuck. Also not too much of a secret, but Vik's Lester Patel is an endless source of joy. The show has its own daffy, cartoony quality and yet maintains a beating heart. Lester is not that heart. He's more like the pancreas. Or the spleen. Always a little inappropriate, every fanboy has a friend like Lester. The guy who's a bigger geek, a bigger nerd and always makes a gathering just a little weird. So. Much. Fun. On television. He's two tons of awesome in a tiny little body.
And last, but never, ever least...
Chi McBride on Human Target. I'll be honest with you folks. This was all pretty much an excuse to gush over Chi McBride. Seriously, this guy is the shit. Always terrific, he takes Human Target up a level all by himself (though Jackie Earle Haley helps). Sure, it's a variant on his Emerson Cod from Pushing Daisies, but no one really can do that blend of tolerating the lead character's antics and wanting to throttle them at the same time quite the way Chi does. Plus he never forgets to bring the funny, or, as Christopher Chance's business partner and rational side, the constant threat to kick someone's ass just for looking at him funny. I remember the awful, monstrous spectacle of The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer years back and it's amazing that Chi survived that and has gone on to have such a great career. Maybe it's the still lingering stink of that that's kept him relegated to second bananas, I don't know. But his work is always watchable, always enjoyable and, when on a fun, breezy show like Human Target, hell, it's a good thing for a long, snowed-in night.
As you can probably guess, my tastes in TV aren't exactly PBS fare, or even the Discovery Channel. I've got a craving for pop in my entertainment. But smart, engaging pop that's doing something more than showing my pretty pictures. I'm not saying these are the deepest shows on the air, but, with the performances from the actors here, they're not just mindless pablum. You have your reasons to watch what you do. I have mine. These are some of them.