May 2009 Archives

Yesterday, I had a conversation with my editor about the practice of reading scripts ahead of a performance--a performance I'm supposed to review. Lately, I've been trying to make that a regular practice, but also lately I've discovered I'm having trouble bottling a sense of spontaneity in my reviews. Coincidence?

My editor mentioned that another of our critics reads scripts only after seeing the staged production, so as to preserve an audience-eye element of surprise and discovery. Other critics say they always read a script beforehand because, they assert, as critics we're paid to know more about a production than the general public, and part of our research includes some analysis of the playwright's themes and intentions as they appear on the page, as well as tipping us off to any relevant ahead-of-time research.

Hysteria.jpgToday's review, of the Wilma Theater's production of Terry Johnson's Hysteria, begins with a direct comparison between the script and its staged counterpart. In this case, I felt the comparison was absolutely fair. After all, if a play jumps off the page, it ought to similarly jump off the stage. I discussed the issue some more with my editor, who concluded that reading the script beforehand might have caused me to cut the production some extra slack. So what to do?

Obviously, take it to Facebook and Twitter.

I got plenty of responses, some from critics, others from artists and all running the gamut from angry to measured to undecided. The split fell on both sides, with good reasons for both approaches.

On Facebook, Philadelphia artist/director/playwright Robert Smythe begged for an end to text-based reviewing and said, "You are reviewing a production: the sum of its parts. Theater is not a sporting event, where the rules are set before the start and the players are judged as to how well they can play within those rules. It is not the reviewer's job to mine the text for more than the artist found themselves."

On Twitter, Ottowa-based playwright/actor/director @SterlingLynch said reading a script beforehand is "often a good idea, so long as one doesn't 'decide' how the show should work in advance." @subfab who describes himself on the site as a "poet, savior, village idiot," says, "What is the first and most important impression a show should have? Experience or a script? IMHO theatre's should be experience." [BTW, for the uninitiated, IMHO stands for "in my humble opinion." And BTW, for "by the way."]

But what of Romeo and Juliet? Clearly, if you're a critic going to see that for the fourth or seventh or hundredth time, you've not only lost the element of surprise, but ought to be fired if you haven't read it. Same goes for Ibsen, or Chekov, or Beckett and whomever else would fill the pages of your personal anthology of great dramatists. And what of the lesser plays and musicals that happen to have hit town more than once? Why do they get the benefit of extended pre-curtain analysis? Sure, in some cases, say movement-based or improv-based shows, or work that inherently allows some flexibility, a script-based reading is innapropriate. But other than that? 

I'd be inclined to say why not get comfy with a script--not the night before, but maybe a week or so ahead of time so it has a chance to sink in--if only it weren't for that spontaneity issue. Thorny. 

I'm still undecided. How about you?

May 21, 2009 12:15 PM | | Comments (6)
jamessugg.jpgHere's how talented last night's Obie Award winner James Sugg is: he got me a job as the Philadelphia Inquirer's theater critic without even knowing it. In fact, we've never even spoken face-to-face, but I should probably have thanked him a few years ago anyway. 

Sugg is a member of Philly's own polymorphous and occasionally perverse troupe Pig Iron Theatre Company. Pig Iron and its people have won much acclaim here and elsewhere, this, for Sugg's performance in Chekov Lizardbrain, being their second Obie (the first was for 2004's Hell Meets Henry Halfway), along with who knows how many other awards--Sugg already has 4 Barrymores of his own. The group's work is as eclectic as their multiple personalities. Dito Van Riegersberg often hosts cabarets as his much-beloved, hairy-Hedwigged, Bowie-channeling alter-ego, Martha Graham Cracker. Geoff Sobelle rocked both coasts with his critically hailed Buster Keaton homage All Wear Bowlers. As a collective, they've skewered Quinceaneras, turned Joan of Arc into a French clown, and revisited Measure for Measure in a morgue, with puppets. And if you're tempted to say, "Nice. Sounds pretentious," well, yeah, sometimes they are, but mostly they're not. Somehow they pull it off nearly every time and leave you basking in their awesomeness and ever-expanding potential. The company's dozen or so members come and go, and even when they're together don't always appear as expected. Sugg won his Obie as an actor, but he's just as comfortable behind an accordion, pen, or soundboard. 

GV1.jpg
Sugg first showed up on the local stage in 1998 and astonished audiences as a sort of one-man-band in Gentlemen Volunteers, (At right: Dito Van Riegersberg and Gabriel Quinn Beauriedel) a musical-ish examination of World War I ambulance drivers, Ernest Hemingway included. But the reason I'm thanking him here is because at the 2006 Philadelphia Live Arts/Fringe Festival, he premiered an original musical work called The Sea. It's the story of a drowned sea captain and his lost daughter, and watching it was like sucking down a saltwater Waits and Weill cocktail from deep below decks. 

I wasn't working at the time, which meant I actually had to pay for my tickets, and yet I was still disappointed he wasn't selling recordings of the show. As in, I would have gladly shelled out for that, too.  Anyway, upon reading the next day's Philadelphia Inquirer review, I was shocked--Shocked!--to find the assigned reviewer considerably less impressed. That week, I called up the paper, asked if they were short a critic, e-mailed some clips, and got myself a new job. I hadn't realized how much I missed being moved by a piece of theater, and having the privilege of telling the city about it, until I found myself powerless in the face of unfair, unenlightened criticism (ok, it was neither unfair nor unenlightened, but I totally didn't agree with it). And yes, I get the irony here, but that's another discussion for another time.

So I'm declaring my love openly, for all to read: thanks Mr. Sugg, for being the kind of artist whose performances inspire action, and thanks Pig Iron, for keeping your work in Philly and giving us first dibs on everything you do. 

For more on James Sugg, read this article by my colleague Howard Shapiro, from today's Philadelphia Inquirer.



May 19, 2009 8:14 PM | | Comments (2)
This, from today's New York Times: Michael Kimmelman's feature on The Producers' Berlin stage debut. The "Mr. Walter" in question is Falk Walter, director of the Admiralspalast, where the show is being produced, and where audience members can enjoy the proceedings from the comfort of the Fuhrer's own box seats. 

Tough times have hit theaters here. This German-language version of the show comes via Vienna, where the curtain fell on a planned yearlong run after only 10 months. One estimate put losses there at $26,000 a week. About 71 percent of seats were sold. Ticket sales here picked up a bit after the opening on Sunday but have been equally slow. And Mr. Walter can't count on a big, aging, suburban Jewish population to pad the parquet. [my italics]

Riiight. I'm guessing he probably can't count on a big, aging, urban Jewish population, either.
May 19, 2009 12:10 PM | | Comments (0)
Just got this comment from Arden Theatre Artistic Director Terry Nolen:

"Thanks for the entries about the ATCA conference. Good to hear what is
going on nationally. Surprised to read that Chris Rawson is now a
freelancer. Has that changed the amount of coverage in the
Post-Gazette? Perhaps the ATCA website should include links to
critics' blogs. I read Chris Jones and John Moore's blogs--useful to
stay connected to the work in their communities and their perspective
on the national scene. Curious to know what other critics have blogs."

And though I hope Nolen doesn't mind that I'm using it as the basis for this post American Theatre Critics Association wrap-up post, I'm glad he asked. 

First things first, yes, as I mentioned in an earlier post, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette critic Chris Rawson is indeed a freelancer now, having taken a buyout from the paper, which really should come as no surprise to anyone watching the decline of... everything. During a panel on the changing face of theater criticism, he said the Post-Gazette now uses four theater critics, all freelance. It doesn't seem to have changed the paper's coverage, but he would know more about the intricacies of that issue than I do.

As for ATCA's website including links to member blogs, well, funny thing. I was drafted onto a committee headed by ATCA's webmistress Gwen Orel, whose sole purpose is to improve that site. The big plan is to provide both public and private content, but yes, links to member work online, including blogs, Twitter feeds, whatever, will be available to the public, and we realize, the sooner the better. Ideas are welcome, and as soon as the pixels of progress start moving, you'll be among the first to hear.

But posting blog links is really only the portal to a much wider conversation. If most theater critics are bloggers, well, does that make most theater bloggers eligible to be critics? Way back when I first joined the organization and attended my first conference--as a freelancer (albeit the only theater critic) for Philadelphia Weekly--so lowly a thing was I, I barely made conversation with most of the daily news staffers who populated ATCA's member rolls.

Now? Of roughly 50 member critics attending the Sarasota conference, when Rawson asked, "Who in this room is a full-time staff reviewer?" one lonely hand went up. And mind you, that hand, belonging to the Miami Herald's Christine Dolen (the other Drama Queen) wasn't raised very far above her head. After all, who knows what will be happening at her newspaper this time next year? (That count doesn't include the conference's unflappable organizer, Sarasota Herald-Tribune's Jay Handelman, who was no doubt busy organizing at the time.)

So how to evaluate applicants without qualifying ATCA into extinction? One of the reasons New York Post theater columnist Michael Riedel was chosen to address the group (aside, of course, from his mad skills) was that his voice--insiderish, gossipy, brash--is now the rule rather than the exception in online theater coverage. But is he a critic? Well, no. And yet he writes about theater full-time, at a moment when most critics are unable to do so. 

What gives a theater writer credibility these days? Money? Insight? We theater writers would love to know.
May 5, 2009 8:19 AM | | Comments (0)

This being Sarasota, home of several Ringling Brothers and their circus' winter quarters, yesterday was steeped in the town's unique legacy. (At left, ATCA's esteemed leader, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Chris Rawson and several other highly credentialed colleagues get their clown on during a panel discussion about circus arts.) We toured Ca D'Zan (John and Mable Ringling's estate), visited the Ringling Museum of Art and settled in for a discussion at the Historic Asolo Theatre--not to be confused with Asolo Repertory Theatre (Long, confusing story)--before being wowed by Howard Tibbals' insanely detailed and extensive miniature circus. Blah, blah, blah, a swell time was had by all. 

But let's get back to that panel discussion, because its label, "John Ringling's Circus Legacy in Sarasota," is deceptive. We certainly learned about Ringling's philanthropic largesse and the circus' roots here. Mr. Ringling, it seems, is the font from which every Sarasota cultural institution springs. As Golden Apple Dinner Theater artistic director Robert Turoff noted during another panel discussion, "He is in everything we do, in our hearts and in our minds." Amen.  

However, we also heard about the schism between respect for the arts on Florida's "Cultural Coast" and circus somehow taking a backseat to that culture. There's irony for you.

Occasionally, as theater critics we're called on to review the circus. In Philadelphia, it's generally either for Ringling/Barnum/Bailey, Cirque de Soleil, or some circus-themed Fringe Festival event. Panelist Jim Ragona, managing director of Circus Sarasota, noted that circus arts seem to garner more respect in Europe than in the U.S., with 700 different circuses thriving in Italy alone (though I'd argue the form is maybe less prolific, but equally respected in Canada, Cirque's birthplace). Steven Smith, former dean of Ringling Brothers' Clown College and current guest director of the Big Apple Circus, who happens to have attended Chicago's Goodman School of Drama, also argues for Circus' parity with its stagebound cousin, and certainly Bill Irwin has crafted a solo career on the notion.

And yet despite all this on-site agitating for circus as an accepted, respected art form, the first Ringling International Arts Festival, a co-production of the Ringling Museum of Art and Florida State University, to be held October 7-11 2009, doesn't have a single circus-related act on its (nonetheless pretty compelling) roster. As a critic, I can't help but be critical of Ringling's decision (the institution, not the man). A circus legacy is the one thing Sarasota has to offer the national arts landscape that distinguishes it from every other metro area putting on a fringe-ish festival. Maybe this year the Ringling felt it had something to prove. Hopefully, next year they won't be too embarassed to put on the red nose and wear it with pride.

May 2, 2009 3:47 PM | | Comments (0)

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