Monday, April 26, 2010

Joining Forces

Isaac's not the only one making changes these days. Or, more precisely, he's not doing it alone.

You may have noticed things have been a bit quiet here at 99 Seats Central of late. I've been doing some thinking about this blog, about theatre and blogging in general and trying to decide what my next move is. Because, to be honest with y'all, I'm kind of tired of talking about theatre. I know I've only been kicking it for a couple of years and a lot of cats have been at it a lot longer than I have, but there's kind of only so much you can say. I've said it before, but it bears saying again: doing is way better than talking. I've got some things cooking on various fires, with announcements soon to come, in the doing column. And so, maybe it's time for less talking. About theatre anyway.

'Cause, in case you didn't notice, I got stuff to say about other stuff. About other forms of dramatic writing, about other important matters of great importance. But at maybe less of a clip. At the same time, Isaac has been expanding the focus of Parabasis to involve some other super-interesting writers. He approached me about joining forces. I thought about it for a while...and decided to jump in.

Isaac's a friend, a colleague and an all-around good guy. We tend to see eye-t0-eye on a lot of things and even the things we don't, we're able to talk to each other reasonably and with respect. I dig on that.

So...this isn't the end of 99 Seats or anything. Just...a new stage. Come visit me over at Isaac's.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Happy Birthday, Will

This should make you feel young again.

No matter our differences, or the outbursts of snark, we're all Friends of Will.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Quote of the Day

The always awesome Ken Lin, as interviewed by Adam Szymkowicz:
Theater really reminds me of an organic food store that just closed in my neighborhood. When I first moved here, I thought, "Wow, there's an organic food store here. This is a great neighborhood." But I never shopped there because everything was so expensive. They are liquidating now and everything is 50% off and I went to buy some things. I went to a counter with all these boxes that were covered in dust and when all was said and done, I still thought that it was too expensive. I think theater is similar. Who wouldn't want a theater to open up in their neighborhood? But, can a community afford to sustain these theaters under the current models? The answer is clearly -- no. Too often, we are in the business of catering to wealthy people, while leaving everyone else sitting in front of the tvs with their microwave dinners. What are we left with? Over-priced, dusty boxes of well-intentioned food. If I could change one thing to change this system, I'd do it, but I don't know what that one thing is.
And also, congrats, Ken!

Through The Looking-Glass

This is where we are now. Republican candidate says off-hand dumb thing. Republican candidate actually repeats dumb thing. Today, Republican candidate goes even further and continues to repeat dumb thing.

This is the leading Republican candidate to replace Harry Reid. And I'll bet you a chicken that she will continue to be. Because this is what we're dealing with.

I'd like to think that we're coming to the bottom of the barrel of crazy. But somehow...I doubt it.

It's going to be a long year.

The Single Most Important Question of All Time!

Answer away!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Yes, Stop The Madness

Aggh. Aggh. Aggh. Aggh. I've been feeling a bit ornery and cranky lately, which is one of the reasons I've been running silent lately. I don't think there's much to be gained from being a public nuisance. But. Well. This kind of pisses me off. The whole thing that went on with Tom a couple of weeks back has stuck in my craw for a bit and I've been wiggling it around and around to try to figure out what it bugs me about it and it's taken me until now to get a better handle on it.

To refresh everyone's memory, Tom wrote this. I responded thus. In the comments, Tom said this (largely without edit):
In the first place, I'd like to say that many of my writings have little in common with what I actually do in my day-to-day teaching. They are things I think about, toss over in my head, muse about. I share them in my blogs partly as a way to clear my head, partly as a way to think things through, and partly as a way to make other artists think about these things. These are not necessarily things I say in class, but when I do say them, I always preface them with a caution that these are my personal opinions and observations, that they are not gospel, and they can take them or leave them. I even offer them the possibility of considering that my opinions are, as has been suggested here, the rantings of a bitter old man - I do not hide that possibility from them. What I actually do - every single day - is my best to prepare them for the careers they aspire to - every facet of those careers that I can think of. Obviously, you have only my word for that as well, but if you'd like to investigate it, please do. There are many Fredonia alums in NYC.

For the record, it is absolutely and unequivocally my practice every single day in my classroom to do whatever is in my power to help my students succeed in reaching whatever goals they set for themselves. In the particular case I quoted in my TACT blog, the young man in question was in my office just yesterday where I had a 30-minute discussion with him talking about his talent, his potential for success, and what he needed to do to make his dream come true. We also talked about the scene he had just done, which was in fact pretty good. Never once did I say to him, "You're untalented and foolish and you should think about digging ditches." I made sure he understood how difficult it was, that the odds were not in his favor, and that he would have to have no small amount of pure luck, but he was bringing some good qualities to the table. Never did I express to him I thought he was being unrealistic. Frankly, that's none of my business, and he is paying me to help him succeed. You'll have to take my word that I did that as well.

In other words, the portrait about my teaching practices being painted here have no foundation in reality to them. They are assumptions readers and commentators have made; none of them have actually seen me teach. These assertions and assumptions have been drawn from the private ramblings that go on in my head, the various things I think about and write about. I would encourage the readers of my writings to assume the opposite - that I keep my private thoughts and my classroom practices largely separate, and generally I offer my own private thoughts to my students only when pressed. You, as a reader, are actually getting to read things going on in my head that my students almost never hear (unless they are reading my blogs as well, which could be possible, but I am not aware that is happening). I teach in a pre-professional program, and that's what I train my actors for, but I make sure they understand every single aspect of that career, its warts as well as its rewards. I am working to change that, working to be able to offer alternatives, and working to find those kinds of students interested in a different approach to doing theatre in this country. I don't like the waste of talent I see in this country - it's not sustainable. When I have the kinds of students interested in sustainable, community-grounded theatre, I will leave the pre-professional training to others, and I will switch my practices and focus on giving those students the kind of education they want.
And now this from Scott. This is normally the part where I profess my respect and affection for Scott and my support, though qualified for his positions. But...I'm feeling ornery, so not this time. I think this whole line of...whatever is crap. And, before you start in (and by "you," I mean Scott) with this being about me defending NYLACHI's evil, evil ways, I think it's crap because it's an impossibly, ridiculously and utterly out of touch way of looking at the business of acting and the ways actors make money and live in places like New York. In fact, I think it shows an odd fixation with NYLACHI (and essentially Broadway) as being the way Scott and Tom measure success.

First off, I will say this: I was wrong to imply or even state that Tom's post was or should be taken as a reflection of his teaching style or attitude. I don't know how he teaches or the way he conducts himself in front of his students and I shouldn't imply anything about that. And, yes, I do understand that a blog post can be a good way to blow off steam or give voice to the things you don't think you can say in other situations. That said, I do think it's naive to think that, if you're blogging under your own name, that your students don't know about it. Playing the "I don't know if they ever read it" card is just abdicating responsibility. So, apologies, Tom.

But Tom's teaching isn't the actual question. The question is the attitude underneath it.

So Scott and Tom think it's nuts for 1,000 people to line up for an open call for Hair on Broadway. It's a sign of NYC being bloated and over-run with young actors who are just wasting their talent at auditions for a limited number of roles that they're pursuing, at least in part, because of a TV-fed desire to get famous. The numbers, odds and systemic barriers to they're ever appearing on Broadway make it just ridiculous for them to try, so we need to re-think our entire system, which is based on actors dreaming of appearing on Broadway.

Okay. Where do we start? I guess, I start with Dennis' video. Yep, that's a lot of people! And yep, Equity open calls have a lot of people there! And yep, an actor needs to take all day sometimes to go to one. I've known people who couldn't, people who had to leave, people who got screwed over by it. I'm not saying it's the fairest way of doing things, but you know, job interviews for any position rarely are. We also don't get a sense of who got seen, what the experience was like, what happened next for any of them. Did any of them get cast? How many? How many parts were they looking to fill? The full cast of Hair is 32 people. Not great odds, no, but not the worst in the world. One three minute video of a lot of people doesn't actually tell a story, other than there are a lot of people who want to be in a Broadway show. We don't even know what kind of training, if any, these folks have. We know nothing about them except they want to be in a show. We don't know if any of them are already in shows or have other arts jobs or

My issue here, though, is with Scott and Tom's very, very narrow definition of success and waste. Not being on Broadway, not winning an Academy Award is a waste, is talent thrown away. Scott fixates narrowly on the unemployment rate for Actors Equity as the definition of success. As far as Scott's concerned, New York theatre begins at 40th St and ends at 53rd, in a way that, as a New York theatre artist (and a native New Yorker) is not what's it like here.

This isn't the part where I say how great the talent is here. That's not what it's about. It's about the path of an artist and the path of an actor and that there are lots of ways and roads to satisfying work. From outside of NY, maybe it looks like making it to Broadway is the goal of everyone, but from here, you know what? It's not. I'm not saying the city is swimming in lucrative acting jobs, but there are other paths and options. And some of them don't involve the stage at all. And I don't see it as a waste.

It can be a struggle and there are trade-offs and hard choices involved. And, yeah, some people wind up leaving the field. But that's going to happen, no matter what. And some do go back to small communities and form theatres. And you know what? Some get jobs in television. Some make commercials. There are a whole raft of things between not acting and being famous, a whole lot of other ways of being successful. I think that Scott and Tom get that, but instead focus entirely on the narrowest bandwidth as "successful" and want that bandwidth to stay just as narrow, but move a few spots down the dial.

I really don't understand the whole attitude. I actually I do understand it. It's bitterness. When people say, "no one owes you a career in the arts," it's that bitterness that they're responding to. We're all familiar with the stereotypical acting teacher who couldn't make it and pushes his or her students to succeed. This feels to me like the flip side of the same coin. I'm sorry to say it, but it does.

I think CRADLE's a grand thing, I do. And necessary. But if these guys want to stop the madness...well, stop the madness. Let it go. The kids will be all right.

Quote of the Day

Steve Benen edition:

What's the point of even having a public discourse when the leadership of a political party treats the truth like a punch-line?

Now would be a terrific time for a real debate. Republicans could -- get this -- raise legitimate objections to the legislation, and raise concerns that -- believe it or not -- are entirely sensible.

But, no. We can't have real debates because we're too busy suffering through idiotic mendacity.

Note to Republican leaders: liars become pathological when the truth works just as well, but you actually prefer dishonesty.

Well...When You Put It Like THAT...

A lot of what we do sounds really, really bad in black and white. And in terms of things like, you know, the law. As the folks of the New York State Theater Institute apparently just found out.
An obscure upstate theater group that receives far more state aid than any of New York’s world-renowned cultural institutions is rife with corruption, mismanagement, nepotism and possibly illegal conduct, according to a scathing report released on Tuesday by the state inspector general’s office.
The report alleges that the artistic director, Patricia Snyder, treated the group as a personal fiefdom, routinely doling out acting roles, directing jobs, production work and other benefits to herself and her family members. Ms. Snyder steered a total of more than $700,000 in payments to her husband, her two sons, her two daughters-in-law and to herself, the report said.
The big-ticket items? Patricia Snyder hired herself as a director and double-dipped on her pension fund through the SSDC (which the article makes sound like some fly-by-night outfit run by either the Chicago Combine or gypsies). She produced an audiobook written by her daughter-in-law, composed by her son and co-produced by her husband. There's some implied stuff about an apartment in the city supposedly for the company but used by her family...which appears to include a number of the artists involved. That's pretty much it.

Now, I don't know these folks or the particulars of this case and there may be real actual shenanigans afoot. If not shenanigans, sketchy business practices with state money, which is, obviously, bad. the same time...where's the line between nepotism and what's essentially a small family business? (Again, I'm not saying they should be enriching themselves off of the public teat or not serving their community; but the entire article treats all of this like a RICO indictment and these "jobs" making "theatre" were essentially no-show or no-work jobs that Tony gave to Chris.) Where's the line between building and becoming a part of a community and being a flim-flam artist who's soaking them for their hard-earned dough. I've heard that Diane Paulus has run into some of the same questions up at Harvard with her production of The Donkey Show and when I read the Globe article a few weeks ago, I had some similar reservations. Certainly there are some questionable aspects to it...but part of it is...well, it's the business of show. We marry people we work with. Sometimes we work with people so that we them. We raise our kids in the theatre, teaching them the trade. (Yeah. Let's put it that way.) Our work is often underfunded, undersupported and, because artists are at the shallow end of the payment pool, underpaid. So we figure out ways, sometimes sketchy ways, sometimes less than totally above-board ways, to get paid. When the hammer comes down, though, it's always on the chiseling individual who's betrayed our trust, never on the system that makes it possible...and sometimes necessary.

But when you look at it in cold, black-and-white letters in the paper of record...yeah, it does sound more like Tony Soprano than William Shakespeare. But how do we fix it without making doing theatre an onerous thing that separates families rather than brings them together?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Quote of the Day

Lisa Timmel edition:
So, why new plays? Because the world changes and perspectives shift. Because American theatre, in all its forms, thrives on the new, it always has. Our theatre history is full of the degenerate melding of forms: immigrant melodramas, minstrelsy, vaudeville and musicals all of them bubbling up into the mainstream one way or another and getting whitewashed along the way. There simply is no other way to tell the story of this country and our selves without including new work.

Incidentally, the answer to the question “Why classic plays?” is exactly the same: Because the world changes and perspectives shift. There simply is no other way to tell the story of this country and our selves without including plays from other places and other eras.
H/T, as per usual.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Mike Huckabee's a Pig

I used to have some measure of respect for Mike Huckabee, I really did. He seemed like a genuinely good guy, despite being someone I disagree with completely. I actually used to think he was a real electoral threat, since he was so nice and reasonable and personable.

Yeah. Not any more.

"I think this is not about trying to create statements for people who want to change the basic fundamental definitions of family," Huckabee said. "And always we should act in the best interest of the children, not in the seeming interest of the adults."

"Children are not puppies," he continued. "This is not a time to see if we can experiment and find out, how does this work?"

Even after box turtles, man on dog, the end of marriage as we know it, that's is still one of the more disgusting, wrong-headed and bigoted statements I've ever heard. In any right and reasonable country, this would end his aspirations to higher office. Someday I hope to live in a right and reasonable country.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Fame...I Wanna Live Forever!

A friend of mine linked to this post from Tom Loughlin at TACT today. Tom recounts an e-mail sent to him by a student in his Acting for Non-Actors class and it started him thinking about the need for fame. Some key bits:
The young person who wrote this email is a very nice and very engaging student. But he is not thinking rationally. He is a victim of what I have come to call the “fame factor” in theatre education. It exists not only in theatre, of course, but across the culture. Created almost entirely by the pervasiveness of mass media, young people no longer pursue success; they pursue fame as well. The writer of this email simply believes he will be famous someday and win the Academy Award, and he needs nothing but the simple fact of his belief in that idea to make it come true for him (except maybe a little more help from me with his acting, as if I could make such a difference – another illusion).
And this:
This widespread drive to be famous is a relatively recent phenomenon in our society. Before the complete domination of mass media on our thought processes, becoming famous was not a concept held by every average person. Most people expected to lead average, normal lives such as they saw around them on a daily basis. Most people people prior to the 20th century lived and died within a 50-mile radius of where they were born. Today’s mass media, however, makes the idea of fame a possibility accessible to everyone. Every movie, television show, reality show, hit song – you name it, and people see it, see it’s famous, and want a slice of that pie. More people today can name movie stars than can name scientists or government policy makers. Because of the fact of its continued and overwhelming presence in our culture, people come to believe that fame is possible for anyone. Shows like American Idol in fact count on it.
And his finale:
The sad truth is that, for all their dreaming of fame, the statistics say that most of our students will not achieve their dreams. Perhaps for 15 minutes, maybe. If we want to be honest educators, we need to start telling students the truth, and build better options for them for their theatrical futures. It can be done if we have the will, and perhaps if we are willing to re-think our own dreams of fame.
For good measure, he links to this Onion article.

I like Tom a lot, but I disagree with just about every single part of his post. I really, really do. I think it's horrible, horrible advice for a young person, even though it comes from a good-ish place. I certainly feel Tom's frustration with the elevated expectations of young men and women, and we should certainly could do more to expand their ideas of success and possible life choices. But other than's just kind of mean and bitter.

Let's think about it this way. A student in a history seminar takes a liking to the course work, even though she's not a major and writes the professor a message saying, "I know my last paper's haven't been great, but I'm really excited by this material and the coursework and I want to be the best student I can be. And, who knows, maybe I'll wind up as President and can invite you to the inauguration! I hope so!" Do you think the professor should respond with, "Well, since no women and only 43 people have ever been President of the US, it's not a very realistic or conceivable goal. You should think about your other options right now!"? Is that going to further this student's career? Their growth? Honestly, we wouldn't even expect a teacher to say that. And way more folks have won Academy Awards in acting (nearly 300) than have won the presidency.

Listen, I get that it's an unrealistic goal if this kid thinks one class is going to turn him into an award-winning actor. But, from my read and Tom's description, this is a young guy, trying it out, and trying to work hard. Why shouldn't he aim high? Say what you want about the politics or whatever about it, but it's basically the highest award an actor can win and it generally goes to a pretty accomplished or skilled actor. Yes, yes, advantages and unfairness and blah blah blah, but really, it's not just given out to anyone. And this kid is willing to do the work. He's not asking for a pass or a easy ride. He's offering to come in and do extra work to feel satisfaction. Why would you want to discourage that?

What's worse about this is making the connection between this kid, who again is looking to work harder, and the likes of the odious reality-TV "stars." When these things come up, there's always this current of, well, sneering at awards and success as the product of a selfish desire for attention. An artist should want to achieve at high level, they should push themselves to be the best they can be, and, in a lot of ways, accolades are proof of that. And they come with a pretty big stage and the opportunity to affect lives. I'm not saying that everyone has noble goals and intents, but not everyone has shallow, self-serving goals, either.

The kid isn't thinking rationally...but what kid is? He's a college student and trying out the things that fall in his path. Today, it's Oscar-winner. Tomorrow, it may be brain surgeon. Or astronaut. But right now he is thinking, if he wants to win an Oscar, he has to work harder and hold himself to a higher standard. All of that is the first step in the right direction. And along that path...who knows? This kid may want to be a big acting star now, but if he pursues it, he may find he doesn't like it and wants to do something else, write, design, direct, or teach. He may decide that he wants to head back to his hometown and found a community theatre. Who knows where his path goes. But to start him off telling him to give up on his dreams...that's a dead end.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Who's Better Than You?

This post has a whole lot of truth rattling around in it. So go read it.

I have many thoughts on internships and such, but the day job was a bear today. So you have to wait until tomorrow. Sorry.

But seriously, go check this out.

Via via.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Once In A Blue Moon...

...I disagree with Isaac. It does actually happen. Hold onto your hats.

Isaac highlights this article from the NY Times on unpaid internships in the for-profit world. Scott Walters has dug in deep on the elitist aspect of unpaid internships here and further here. Like Isaac, I have no issues with Scott's take on the elitist aspect and the geographical advantage (While I was intern, I worked a full-time job, but I did have the advantage of living at home). I'm unconvinced, though, by Isaac's claims of exploitation. Or at least that most theatre internships fail to meet the six requirements of an internship, as set out by federal government. Isaac lists them as such:

  1. The training, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to that which would be given in a vocational school;
  2. The training is for the benefit of the trainees;
  3. The trainees do no displace regular employees, but work under their close observation;
  4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees and, on occasion, the employer’s operations might actually be impeded;
  5. The trainees are not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the training period; and
  6. The employer and the trainees understand that the trainees are not entitled to wages for the time training. (Note that as an exception to this criterion, tuition assistance and nominal stipends for students are not considered wages).
He says:
The issue is that the Department of Labor does not want internships to be used to skirt minimum wage laws. We all know the nonprofit sector (or at least theatre) is rife with these programs. Yet we also live in a world where many theaters can barely afford the staff they do have. What is to be done?

And what of programs that aren't illegal but are clearly exploitative? I can think of at least one festival where you pay them to build their sets as an acting apprentice. Now, that's not illegal, but it certainly feels wrong in my book.
Internships come in all sizes and flavors, with, honestly, all kinds of names: intern, apprentice, associate, what-have-you. I've done my fair share, as well as my fair share of low-paid entry-level work. First off, it's all pretty exploitative. I have my doubts that any producing theatre organization in this country really pays minimum wage or pays any attention at all to work rules on overtime, comp time, breaks or just about anything. You show up when they ask you to show up and you leave when there's nothing left to do. And there's always something else to do. I'm not arguing it's a healthy thing; it leads to burnout, turnover and brain-drain. We would do well to reform our work practices. But that, alone, in my mind, doesn't equal exploitation.

And, yes, a lot of theatres, including some I've worked at, certainly use interns to skirt paying for support staff. Interns are receptionists, messengers, janitors, sometimes exterminators. They are given crap work to do and told it's building them as an artist and a theatre professional.

And it is. I'm sorry. It just is. Being an intern makes a theatre person a better theatre person. It's an integral part of an education in theatre. Which is why it should be paid (or at least funded), it should be more open and equal access, and maybe a little bit formalized. But it is very much a reciprocal thing.

In a way, you can't have it both ways. An intern program can't be something available only to the elites, giving them an invaluable leg-up in the industry that less fortunate people can't get AND an exploitative "slavery" that benefits the institution to the detriment of the individual. It's one or the other.

I'm talking from my experience, now, so I don't have the charts and figures to back me up and maybe my experience is singular, but I've also seen this at work in practice. When you're an intern, you're learning the ropes, especially in small theatres. Everyone does a lot of different things and, even though you're mostly doing menial labor, there's also the opportunity to be involved in larger efforts, to understand how a theatre functions from the ground up. It's a ground-eye (and sometimes toilet-eye) view, but it's an important one.

Again, this is anecdote, not data, but data is sometimes...incomplete, isn't it? I did my internship at the Ensemble Studio Theatre and basically walked in off the street. Other people in my intern "class" had studied with members of the theatre or met them here or there, but there were also a few of us who'd basically picked the joint out of the phone book. My internship was spent answering phones, stuffing envelopes and serving as a house manager, precisely because I had a full-time job and could only convince my boss to let me out for one morning (the interns were supposed to do 8 hours at the theatre over the course of the week). But we were also given a workshop, a showcase and the opportunity to be involved in productions as assistant stage managers, production assistant, audition readers, god knows all what else. After my internship, I joined a writers' group at the theatre and four years later, I was on staff. Precisely because I knew how the theatre worked, I was part of the community, part of the family.

A lot of the other people I interned followed a similar path and I've worked with several of them since. Others went to work in other theatres. Interns who worked under me as a staff person had similar trajectories. At one point, more than half of the paid full and part-time staff of the theatre were former interns. This is one of the things that often gets left out of the equation. For a lot of theatres and organizations, at least in NYC, these entry-level volunteer positions are your foot in the door.

If we want to move away from specialists with narrow focus, internships are a key part of that path. I worked for a summer theatre with a large crew of interns and apprentices, who paid to be there, take acting classes and work in our scene lab. The students who did saw a 360 degree world of theatre, not just acting or directing or whatever their focus, but all of the parts that go into making a theatre work. Why shouldn't they? How would they build good, strong theatres if they don't?

I don't see any of this as exploitative. Maybe I don't because, you know, I participated in it. Maybe. But I think "exploitation" is not the right word for it. A lot of internships are abusive, that's for damn sure. But then again, pretty much all theatre jobs are abusive. Our entire staffing structure is based on the idea that, for the artistic staffing jobs certainly, people would be there for free, so paying them a small amount is almost a bonus. We work insane hours, for not nearly the compensation we deserve, under ridiculous pressures. My years at E.S.T. I worked roughly the same hours as my lawyer friend. He was taking home twice what I made before taxes. It's totally and completely abusive, sure. But it doesn't stop with interns. It may start there, but it doesn't stop.

By all means, let's try to reform the system, standardize it. Add some protections against abuse. But the intern system is the closest you get to a real apprenticeship in the theatre. Let's not lose sight of that.

Quote of the Day

Get the customers who already want to love you but can't. There are vast swaths of this city, basically un-covered because they are poor and black. In those neighborhoods and suburbs you can't find the paper sold, and if you don't know about it already you won't see it marketed. "Nobody reads us there," was the refrain I always heard, which ... okay, that's a problem as has a solution: GO GET READERS THERE THEN. Sell as hard there as you do in Lincoln Park. Well, sell harder. And for God's sake, at least pretend the neighborhood ain't a foreign country when you do show up to cover it. Quit condescending and start working.
- Athenae at First Draft

Behold! The Dark Continent!

Via Ta-Nehisi Coates, this piece from Granta gives the lowdown on how to REALLY write about Africa:
Broad brushstrokes throughout are good. Avoid having the African characters laugh, or struggle to educate their kids, or just make do in mundane circumstances. Have them illuminate something about Europe or America in Africa. African characters should be colourful, exotic, larger than life—but empty inside, with no dialogue, no conflicts or resolutions in their stories, no depth or quirks to confuse the cause.
Pretty sage advice.

Snark aside, it does highlight something I'm currently wrestling with, as I continue to work on this: how do you write about Africa? Do you write about it at all or just tell the story you're telling? How do you approach the complicated legacy and tangled connections we have to that place? It's one of the things I want to unravel in my work, because I want to unravel it in my life. Figuring out where to start is key. And, to be honest, the piece in Granta helps. It helps to remember that it's a large, complex, complicated place and there is no one story of Africa, no one legacy to wrestle with. I can pick at my little part of it and see where it takes me.

Just as long as I leave out the monkey brains.

Monday, April 5, 2010

A Whole New Ballgame*

The Playgoer brings us this awesome nugget for a Monday morning:
As part of an effort to increase the impact of its giving, the Ford Foundation is to announce a plan on Monday to dedicate $100 million to the development of arts spaces nationwide over the next decade. The plan is by far the largest commitment the foundation has ever made to the construction, maintenance and enhancement of arts facilities.

The plan, called the Supporting Diverse Art Spaces Initiative, is one of several large financing projects that have resulted from a strategic overhaul of the foundation’s operations since its president, Luis A. UbiƱas, took over in 2008. He has moved the foundation in the direction of bundling its hundreds of millions of dollars in grants — which have traditionally varied widely in their focus — into large programs oriented toward specific issues. Other recent commitments include $80 million to bolster public programs for the unemployed and underpaid, $100 million for secondary education in seven cities and $50 million to help cities buy foreclosed properties.
Yeah, that's pretty much unqualified good news. I know there's a lot of talk of the edifice complex and places that spend money on space over artists. I know because I've talked it. And I believe it, to boot. But there's also a need for more space, hopefully cheaper spaces, more multi-use spaces. The quote at the end of the NY Times article sounds the right note:
Judilee Reed, executive director of LINC, said the foundation’s initiative is particularly well timed.

“I think people are beginning to understand that spaces for artists and art are more than just buildings, structures,” she said. “The way these spaces animate their communities and the relationships they have to their communities is ripe for development.”

Right on. More like that, please.

*In honor of this (we're just pretending last night didn't happen) and because "game changer" is, well, pretty over-used these days.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Good Questions...And Bad.

David Cote asked a question in the Guardian:
Anyone leafing through the London Review of Books will see the bylines of published novelists or non-fiction authors. So why don't we read Stoppard on Hare? Ravenhill on Prebble? Churchill on Butterworth? You would enjoy a whole new level of technical perception and aesthetic empathy, not more middle-of-the-road consumer reporting which is virtually indistinguishable from telly or film reviewing. Of course, this raises a perennial question: must theatre critics have firsthand knowledge of the craft?
Wicked Stage Rob follows up at the spiffy TCGBlog:
Of course, the biggest objection to reviewing a field you work in is, as Cote succinctly concludes, “politics.” Another way to put that is: Theatre is a small world and you shouldn’t poop where you eat. With the advent of social media, it can be an even smaller world, as Alexis Soloski, a critic for Village Voice, noted in a blog post last year that tracked her evolving views. She says she used to think there was “no reason theatremakers and critics shouldn’t fraternise. We went to the same parties. We took the same drugs. We even dated one another. And most of my journalist colleagues were also aspiring actors, directors, playwrights or dramaturges; for models, we looked to Shaw or Tynan. We knew the heartache and toil that went into theatrical productions, even bad ones: surely, we were uniquely qualified to critique them.”
The Alexis Soloski piece he quotes is here. The thing is, back in November, Isaac and I went around on this very subject. I said this then and still stand by it:
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?
Since doing this blog, I've had my integrity questioned on more than one occasion. I know Isaac has, too, a lot more, even. And it keeps me from writing reviews, from talking about the work. I don't want to talk smack about my friends, even if I didn't like their work, for fear that A) they'll take it personally and B) that it might, somehow, hurt their career (not that this blog is all that, but it is Google-able). I'm happy to talk about things I like, but things I don't...I keep to myself a bit.

When I was in grad school, one of my teachers made a big deal to my class about how hard the life of the playwright is, how much work it is, and how, really, no one else can fully understand it. His point was that, as playwrights, we were all in the same foxhole, all in this together. That made quite the impression on me. I've been in one playwrights' group or another since 1997. I love the company of playwrights and it feels like writing a review is somehow a betrayal of that. I know that's just me; I'm certain there are other playwrights who don't share that same feeling. But that's how I feel.

There's a part in this, too, about the feeling of scarcity. We exist in a field that's perpetually starving and it can feel like you're taking food from someone else if you write a bad review. You're hurting their play, hurting their career and, the assumption is, angling to help your own. We don't have a culture of confidence and safety, where I can say my piece about your work and it won't matter because you have your resources and audience and I have mine. It just feels...personal.

I'm not saying this is healthy or good for the field. In fact, I think it's patently bad and connected to a whole host of pathologies that stunt our field and our artists. Absolutely artists should be able to speak about each other's work critically and honestly, in print or wherever. Of course having the perspective of someone who's been in the rehearsal room recently (or even currently) would shape criticism to the better, give a fuller view. If we want theatre criticism to rise above consumer reporting, we need practicing artists to tell us what they think of the art. However we can encourage that, let's! I'm just saying that it might take some convincing to get playwrights in the right head-space. Myself included.

A few years back, in David's own magazine, I received a pretty rotten review, written by another young playwright. We weren't friends, but we knew a lot of the same folks. His criticism was actually pretty spot-on, if snarkier than I would have liked. Still, I nursed a grudge against that guy for years. Years! I would see his name in press releases and e-mail blasts and give it a dirty look. Finally, at some event or other, we wound up at a bar, next to each other. I'd had a couple of beers, so I didn't mind turning to him and saying, "I owe you a pop in the nose!" At first, he was, of course, confused and mildly concerned (I'm not really the "pop in the nose" kind of fella), but when I mentioned the review, he covered his face with his hands and let out a moan. It was the only review he ever wrote, he felt terrible about all that time and tried to retract it. I told him that I was kidding about the pop in the nose (only sorta) and that his review was actually pretty right. We hugged it out, and kept drinking. A nice ending to the tale, but there is why playwrights don't do more criticism: the way things are right now, it doesn't do anybody much good.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Quote of the Day

Marion McClinton, in The Chicago Tribune:
Aggressively announce your presence and vitality to the world, not apologize for it. Demand a new house built on the foundation of the 21st Century, not ask meekly for just a seat at the table, busing dishes quietly until everybody else is done eating and accepting their leftovers as the best you can do for now. To do whatever is necessary to succeed, instead of accepting the brass ring remains out of your reach until someone deems it time for you to hold it.
(H/T Isaac)