July 2009 Archives

Life on Facebook can get pretty weird. Suddenly guys you dumped 20 years ago are commenting on your family vacation photos, while people you can't recall ever talking to when you saw them every day now give you the thumbs up several times a week. This summer, New Paradise Laboratories is making Facebook even weirder.

NPL will present Fatebook here in Philly at September's Live Arts Festival. But in keeping with the show's theme--the blurring of online and real life--characters who will populate the performance are now on Facebook and Twitter and available for friending or following. Actually, the process began about a year ago when NPL posted the cast's audition videos on YouTube. Me? I friended them all, the Mormon missionary, the Canadian Zamboni driver, the beauty queen. I also went from resenting the effort, to maintaining mild suspicion, to looking for their status updates, and yes, interacting just the slightest bit. Sure it's strange trading quips with a fictional character, but considering that some of my mellowest friends are deeply engaged in a Facebook game called Mafia Wars, which causes them to post sentences saying, "I need illegal transaction records and an untraceable cellphone," maybe a whole lot of us are fictional characters online. The fictional June Summer McCarthy's current update reads, "If you can pretend some aspect of yourself isn't real, then it's not real... Right?"" To which the equally fictional Julia Zelda Taylor responds, "What's real?" Indeed.

The real question though, isn't just whether or not social media has become a means of fictionalizing ourselves (though that's a good one), but whether NPL artistic director Whit McLaughlin is, with Fatebook, expanding the very definition of live performance. Most theater companies use sites such as Facebook and Twitter to promote their performances or show backstage videos. NPL uses these sites as the performance itself, and for some reason it seems more immediate, closer to the meaning of live performance than, for example, an opera simulcast live from the Met to your local cinema. Somehow--perhaps due to its interactive nature--with a Facebook-based performance, there are several less degrees of separation. 

If these are fictional characters posting in real time, is it live theater whether or not the whole thing culminates in an actual humans-congregating-in-one-place experience? Aren't humans already congregating in one place when all of the characters' "friends" read their status updates, watch their videos and respond to their messages?  

Thus far the cast averages around 100 friends each (the women are slightly more popular; read into that what you will) and I'm curious to see how many of their friends and followers will attend the festival performance and how many are along solely for the virtual ride. Are you following? Will you be at the show?... That is, in person... That is, physically in the same room and within touching distance of the performers? Weigh in.

Below: Darren Bobich, Zamboni jockey. Or not.
July 22, 2009 11:58 AM | | Comments (3)
Thumbnail image for prince_theatre_gwidman_U.jpg
Okay, I'm re-posting this entry that I originally posted before the story took a strange turn (strangeness, by the way, being fairly characteristic of the Prince Music Theater's operations of late), and began bubbling over with editorial opinion from within our theater community.

Here's the latest, a rebuttal claiming reports of the Prince's death were greatly exaggerated. However, considering the theater's complicated financial entanglements, next season is still a world away, and 2011, when Pig Iron's big plans are supposed to come to fruition (read on) is even farther. Either way, maintaining the house solely as a rental hall would be a darn shame, and a waste of one of the finest, newest and best-located theater spaces in this city.

The original post: 
I imagine there will be few muffled sobs among Philadelphia's dramascenti today with news of the Prince Music Theater's demise. Its shuttering was announced in a manner keeping with its confused identity of late; during closing ceremonies at last night's QFest--a gay and lesbian film festival--the crowd was told they were attending the house's final performance. Thus the curtain fell on an institution that has recently been behaving like it ought to be institutionalized. The company's past few seasons have been a schizoid scramble of children's theater, cabaret, David Brenner, and precious few new musicals... Or seasons, really. During one incident, a show was cancelled without explanation just before its premiere; the Prince's press agent resigned shortly thereafter.

All this is to say that no one is really too surprised about the Prince's apparent closing, although many feel it was overdue, the company having betrayed its birthright as the American Music Theater Festival years ago. (I reviewed the AMTF world premiere of Floyd Collins in 1994, and recall feeling a swell of pride at what seemed the maturation of Philly's theater scene. Little did I know that era was more like the junior prom compared to what we've got today.)

I'll leave it to other writers with more time to investigate what went wrong and how and when, and instead ponder the future of that big beautiful building on Chestnut street with its marquee, offices, mainstage and cabaret space. There's no shortage of itinerant companies in this city, and I'm guessing any of them would salivate--probably are salivating right this minute--at the opportunity to call the Prince their own.

But one of those, Pig Iron Theatre Company, is thinking big. Founding member Quinn Bauriedel has announced plans to open the Pig Iron School for Advanced Performance Training here in 2011. The company envisions a two-year, certificate-granting institution modeled on Paris' Ecole Jacques LeCoq, but steeped in Pig Iron's unique multi-disciplinary methods. This city, in league with its grant-funding institutions and major donors could do worse than to see that the company is able to continue to work its magic for years to come in a setting that rewards them locally for the damn-near-flawless reputation they've been garnering nationally. 

Of course, who knows if Pig Iron even wants the place? (Not me.) But wouldn't it be grand if rather than allowing the house to rot--as the city did in the years between its closing as the rundown Midtown movie theater and its rebirth as the Prince--it took this just-off-the-Avenue beauty and allowed it to reclaim its promise as a premiere showplace for innovative new work? Mayor Nutter just installed a fancy new Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy. The Prince Music Theater just handed them a perfect opportunity to show their stuff.

July 21, 2009 10:07 PM |
LaBute.jpgREZAYasmina_000.JPGI was supposed to review Theatre rEvolution's newest production, Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things, this week but unfortunately my space was cut. So in fairness to the kids--and they are kids, all theater students at or recent grads of Philly's University of the Arts--I'm posting yet another philosophical inquiry based on one of their shows. Oh, and if you're wondering, I really did like the production and hope to see Haley McCormick (she played Jenny, LaBute's idea of a nice, normal girl who, naturally, makes out with her boyfriend's best friend) all over Philly's stages next season. 

Last time, Theatre rEv's superb production of Kenneth Lonergan's disaffected This Is Our Youth got me in a comparing way (apologies, but it seems the Inquirer has archived the reviews linked on that entry). This time, it's bitch-slapping LaBute and a playwright whose work bitch-slapped LaBute's at this year's Tony Awards, Yasmina Reza. And no, they are not opposing forces. 

I've heard Reasons to Be Pretty and God of Carnage are departures for both playwrights, and amen to that, but for our purposes, I'm matching their older work, the LaBute with Reza's Art. Why? Well, it's pretty simple: I hated them both for the same reasons. I don't need to literally be told there's a debate about what makes art; I'd like to just go ahead and engage in it, thanks. 

In the LaBute, this debate arises several times; in the Reza, well, it is the play. In both, it's really, really dull. And didactic. And self-conscious. And, as I believe I've mentioned before, kind of a wank.

I get that the great art debate is a metaphor for something larger, but theater is also a metaphor for that same something, and honestly, it would be a lot less boring and pretentious if playwrights would just knock out the middle man and get on with making art, instead of discussing it.

Are you with me or against me?

July 15, 2009 12:09 PM |
twitter.gifI know I can't shut up about Twitter, I know it. Because I love it so. But this NPR feature challenging "Song of the Day" editor Stephen Thompson to tweet reviews of a bunch of new albums--thus using no more than 140 characters per album--seems an awful lot like asking a chicken to decide whether it would care to apply its own spice rub or barbecue sauce.

(At left: Thar she blows; Twitter's "Fail Whale.")

Of course a review can be distilled into one or two sentences. We critics do it all the time and call them capsule reviews, and sometimes they distil exactly what you, the critic, wanted them to say even better and with more precision than the full review. However, the point is that a full review, complete with (hopefully) in-depth analysis, relevant comparisons and maybe a little history, still exists, even if it only exists in a form that's about half the length that it was maybe a decade ago.

I'm not saying you can't tweet a review. You can, and plenty of people do. I'm saying that tweeting a review in its entirety misses out on one of Twitter's major strengths: turning people on to something cool. While self-contained tweets get retweeted--that is, repeated to one's own Twitter followers with credit given to the original tweeter--the tweets that spread like avian flu are those with a link attached, usually a link to a larger story, but also occasionally to a song, video, photo, anything that enhances one's content. Because people naturally want to know more about a subject that interests them, not less. 

Twitter, with its easy dissemination of information and brief, intriguing tweets-as-bait, offers a gateway to a larger discussion of the arts. Why turn it into a dead end?

July 6, 2009 8:57 PM | | Comments (2)

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