Drama Queen: June 2008 Archives

I must comment on this ridiculous Canadian study that discovered the more money and education a Canadian has, the more likely they are to attend a cultural event. A related finding showed that once people have children, they're less likely to go out to these events. Now I'm no sociologist, but I'm going to take a leap here and assume the same results hold true here in the U.S. 

(Pictured is Canadian Robert LePage's The Andersen Project.)

Here's how much an evening at the theater will cost my husband and me on a Saturday night:
Two tickets to a show at a major Avenue of the Arts house will cost, well, technically, nothing, since I get my tickets for free, but play along with me and let's figure on $80 for two. Except we've reserved the tickets online, so there's also a $5 processing fee.
There's babysitting at $10/hr., which is really only if I can get this one fairly un-savvy sitter, who's new to the country and not much for bargaining. Otherwise it's $12-$15/hr. Luckily, on this night, she's available for five hours.
Gas, which normally wouldn't even figure into the equation, is now an issue, so for a 40 minute drive to the city from our house and back, we'll burn roughly $7 worth of fuel.
Parking on Saturday nights is around $20, but I know a great lot not too far from the theater that's $13. Don't ask where, because I'm not telling.
Dinner, with salads, entrees, drinks, and a tip, but no dessert, is $74 (if we're out, we're going to a decent restaurant).
We're both thirsty during intermission, so that's another $4 in bottled water.
Grand total: $233, and that's without a post-show stop at the gelato place to discuss the production.

However, this evening has already required so much advance planning and juggling of schedules that I'm exhausted before I leave the house and wonder why I didn't just order up a movie on HBO since I'm already paying for it.

There are cheaper ways to go about this, like skipping dinner (or being a theater critic), but the fact remains that even if you only shell out $80 for that pair of tickets, attending the theater is an elite endeavor. It also doesn't help that so many companies emerged from the real estate building boom saddled with their own new houses and massive operating costs. The bills must be paid, which means ticket prices, already high before, will remain so no matter how much artistic directors want to share their vision with a larger audience. 

I'll bet it's part of what brought Theatre de la Jeune Lune to its knees, even though they deny it. All that borrowing against a mortgage ultimately leaves you bankrupt and homeless. It's a nonprofit version of all those McMansions currently up for foreclosure, except you'd think show folk would know a little more about the downside of hubris than the general population.

So how to get more people besides those wealthy, highly-educated professionals inside the theater? Well, once again, part of the answer is arts education in grade school. Why do the college-educated fill theater seats? Because they've been exposed to the arts for free (sort of) at their colleges and universities. They've been invited to experience theater in a comfortable and familiar environment that also happens to occur right where they live and involve people they may know. 

Get kids used to seeing shows in childhood, or creating it during their teenage years, and it's not so foreign when they're adults. Also, once kids start asking to see theater, their parents might start getting out again and taking them to professional productions, thus bucking the Canadian stay-at-home trend. (I also recently heard about a theater that offers babysitting during certain productions. Brilliant!) It's an obvious answer, yes, but as I've said before, many times, this fall's election pits a man with multiple arts and education plans against a man with none, and the winner gets to control our public education and the NEA.

Another answer is for municipalities to keep funding and presenting public arts opportunities like New York's Waterfalls, and closer to my home, Philly's free Shakespeare in Clark Park, or its myriad free Fringe Festival events. Once the arts become part of the landscape, you can't help but notice when they've gone missing.

Anyway, greater minds than mine can come up with better answers. I just want to know how much it cost Canada to fund that study, and how many opportunities to fund public performances could have been underwritten instead.


June 30, 2008 8:07 PM | | Comments (1)
life_feat.jpgAs news of Minneapolis' Theatre de la Jeune Lune's closing spread, almost simultaneously word came of the closing here in Philly of one of our best-loved houses, Mum Puppettheatre. Though Mum was a theater devoted strictly to puppets, it wasn't by any means child's play. Mum's work over the last 23 years has bred new respect for puppetry here and nationally. Their innovations--puppet productions of Equus, The Fantasticks, and this season's adaptation of Animal Farm, as well as original works such as the stirring When the War is Over--are legendary around these parts. Like Jeune Lune, Mum offered a unique artistic vision, and was rewarded with critical accolades and shelves straining under the weight of all their awards. Also like Jeune Lune, the company closes after several decades, sunken by debt and leaving a gaping hole in its hometown topography. 

Sure, they say in journalism that two of anything is a trend, but I'm hoping in this case it's not true. Could it be that the economy is currently touching off a theatrical survival of the fittest, and in this case, only the dinosaurs--houses mounting revivals and proven entities--will emerge unscathed? We have several producers of new work here hanging in the balance, and though mismanagement might well play a part in their teetering, I'm guessing that when money gets tight, audiences don't want to take chances with their hard-earned dollars.

Both cases are a real loss for the reputation of American regional theater, and for their immediate communities. Here is my Inquirer feature on Mum, which includes some of founder Robert Smythe's theories on the demise of small companies.

June 26, 2008 2:36 PM |
I was unable to attend this year's American Theatre Critics' Conference in Washington, D.C. last week (had to review five shows in five nights), and would really like to hear from those who attended. Was there much formal discussion about the state of employment for critics? Discussion of unions? What were the pressing issues and highlights of the event? Lowlights? 

Please report here about what went on and what was missing. I'm eagerly awaiting the news. 
Thanks, and I'll definitely be there next year in Sarasota.
June 24, 2008 9:39 PM | | Comments (2)
Now here's something you don't see every day, an arts community rallying behind a laid-off critic. 

There have been so many layoffs lately it seems as though these things are becoming, if not unnoticed, then at least unremarkable. And really, you have to wonder who, besides other critics and desperate arts editors, would stand up for a critic anyway? Every enthusiast believes themselves capable of the job, hence the proliferation of user reviews and, of course, blogs. And the reviewed? They don't seem too fond of us either.

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But at least in beautiful Kansas City they understand the importance of informed critical opinion on the cultural climate and aren't willing to accept anything less than full-time attention. And brava/o to them. 

I'm certainly one of those to whom the job has been farmed out, and though I love what I do as much as any full-timer, it's not exactly a living. If I didn't have a husband whose profession makes it possible for me to indulge my passion part-time while still taking extended vacations, I'd probably be copy editing Gardasil pamphlets for Merck and availing myself of their excellent dental plan (though lately, even they have been laying people off). Getting rid of full-time positions narrows the field of reference inestimably, and if people are fine with having opinions fed to them through a very narrow and privileged straw, I can at least attempt to make up for some of that lost flavor, even if it makes me feel somewhat like a scab. After all, if no one fills in the gap, then what? 

Right. So praise the lord and pass the ammunition. 

Still, it's awfully gratifying to see that people outside the newsroom also care about critics' thinning ranks. I hope creative communities across the country take Kansas City as an example and rise up to resist the disappearance of their reflection in the aesthetic mirror. 

Maybe it's because in this desperate economy, things like this are also starting to occur, and arts professionals realize that as goes the critical voice and its commitment to making art a relevant topic of contemporary conversation, so goes art. Take a cue from Kansas City (who knew?) and demand that your media outlets--print, television, radio, online--consider arts news as important as sports and business news. I wish all those dancers, singers and musicians, as well as Paul Horsley, the best outcome for their "formal protest," and encourage them to see it through to fruition. The nation's arts writers could really use that backup right about now.
June 24, 2008 6:22 PM | | Comments (5)
Generally, I'm not a Tony watcher. Yeah, that's a kicker of a confession from a theater critic, particularly one who lives an hour and a half from the Lincoln Tunnel's dirty mouth, but I have my reasons. I'm alright with checking the next-day results, and religiously read NYTimes reviews, but as far as taking the time to plant myself in front of a tv for three hours to cheer on (or grumble about) productions I'll almost certainly never see, forget it. Though the Inquirer reviews Broadway, I don't (please, Howie, give my regards...), and as a parent, I have neither the free time nor the spare change. However, when my city's Barrymore Awards roll around, I'm chewing my fingernails down to the skin until the winners are announced. It's not that I don't care about the Tonys, it's just that generally, for my purposes, they're irrelevant.

But this year was different. Aside from looking forward to next season's Philly productions of The Seafarer and Rock and Roll, I was, for once, fully engaged.

There's change in the Broadway winds, and though I've seen exactly none of the contenders, couldn't wait for this year's ceremony. It was outsiders' night, and just the right tone for Broadway to drum up some outside-the boroughs excitement. 

Unfortunately, the Tony Awards' producers weren't in on the vibe. With Whoopi helming an abominable series of skits, the Tonys tried to prove their mass market viability rather than B-Way's rising credibility. The addition of Mario Lopez, the Little Mermaid's ridiculous costume--with its humiliating, scene-hogging tail--or Megan Mullaly's limited effort to divine some of Madeline Kahn's je ne sais quoi, it's little wonder this year's broadcast attracted its lowest audience ever. The Disneyfication of Broadway is what earned it its current lame reputation in the first place.

And yet. Things could have so easily gone the other way, with more of irreverent left-field contender Passing Strange (Stew tried, he really did, with those Groucho glasses and that how-did-I-get-here demeanor); Lin-Manuel Miranda's freestyling and and loose cannon ebullience; scenes from the Fringe-esque 39 Steps. 

And how about some acknowledgement that this was the year regional theater flexed its considerable muscle. Chicago graciously bestowed upon us a new, improved David Mamet by way of Edward Albee in the form of Tracy Letts, and when Letts swaggered up to the stage and thanked his producers because "they decided to produce an American play on Broadway with theater actors," it was a swoon-worthy moment. Yeah, he crossed over to film, but he came back, didn't he? 

Why wait until the thing was half over to break out Lily Tomlin, Xanadu and Liza? What were they thinking?  Still, the array of entertainment was a welcome peek into the tug-of-war for Broadway's soul, and the ephemeral nature of theater being what it is, it's awfully nice to get a taste of what's been going on all season. Since most viewers won't ever get to see Patti LuPone in Gypsy, at least we've been provided with a sample. And since most will never get to the current production of Grease, at least they'll know they're not missing anything. 

I don't get the Tonys' Hollywood inferiority complex, and hope that after this season's rejuvenating batch of productions, next year's ceremony won't feel so much like an also-ran to the Oscars. Let "theater actors" (cough, Patti LuPone, cough) host the show. Ditch the crap and bring even more of that stage magic to the stage. This was an exciting year, and it deserved a more exciting framework than this broadcast. Come on, Broadway, you've got a whole lot of writers working for you; next year, use them.
June 16, 2008 10:28 AM | | Comments (1)
In honor of all the drama-loving daddies out there, here's a list of my top five favorite stage fathers. (Note: they were not necessarily chosen for their parenting skills.)

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5.: Max, The Homecoming. The kind of father that could make you wish your grandmother had an abortion.

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4.: Daddy Warbucks, Annie. The dad every little girl in the 1970s wished she had... Even if her real dad bought her the tickets. And the original cast recording. And took her to Broadway to see the show. In a limo. And to Tavern on the Green for dinner afterward. Sorry, dad.

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3: Tevye, Fiddler on the Roof. A father whose ability to irritate his daughters (and still make them feel guilty about it) transcends both time and race.

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2.: Willy Loman, Death of a Salesman. Of course. This was the character that--if you hadn't yet realized your parents weren't ever going to change--brought some very bad news.

1.: Lear, King Lear. See, it's not just your kids; they've been ungrateful for centuries.

It's actually not so easy to find meaty dramatic daddy roles. Mothers are a piece of (usually dried out, tragic) cake. Medea, Gypsy, Grey Gardens, The Glass Menagerie, Hamlet, that's 10 seconds of thought, and the very tip of the frigid maternal iceberg. Unless you count absent, dead or theoretical dads, or uncles in a paternal role, there are precious few of them from which to choose--although come to think of it, Eurydice's Father in Sarah Ruhl's version of the myth might have to take the unofficial sixth position, dead or not. 

Anyway if you have a different top 5, by all means, send it in, and happy father's day!

June 14, 2008 12:55 PM | | Comments (1)
No, it hasn't happened yet, it's just a suggestion. Think how many supremely talented elderly actors would jump--well, maybe hop--at the chance to perform in this production, since other than Lear and the odd production of Having Our Say, opportunities are few and far between. There's drama, and hey, you could always insert some romance. That's my pitch. Anyone with me?

June 12, 2008 5:37 PM | | Comments (1)
user927.jpgLast night I saw User 927, a new play commissioned by Philly's Brat Productions, that before its opening garnered quite a bit of national press. Its central conceit derives from a 2006 news story about AOL's release of 650,000 of its members' search logs. The most notorious of these, its searcher anonymously coded as User 927, tracks three months of steadily escalating perversions that start innocently enough with "Yoko Ono" and end somewhere around "F*** Her Throat" (my asterisks). 

The actual production, which I review in Friday's Inquirer, didn't go so well, at least according to me. But Brat artistic director Michael Alltop was onto something. Unfortunately, playwright Katharine Clark Gray chose to couch the subject in a fairly conventional murder-mystery, a choice which quickly waters down the topic's potency, and leads me to wonder why Alltop didn't choose a more tech-savvy and unconventional writer. 

In any case, there's a bit in the play about AOLStalker.com, a website that allows you to search all those released records for better or for worse (here's 927's actual log, but I warn you to give it a pass, because it's a real bummer of a read). Through AOL's records, the New York Times was able to sleuth out the names of two of the company's actual human members. Creepy. What have you searched for in the last three months that you might not want the New York Times to know about?

I know I'm a couple of years late to the site--even 927 knew about Numa Numa before me--but I'm guessing I'm not the only one.

What's so interesting about these logs is that some tell horror stories, some are dramas, others read like parody. They are, as Gray's characters explain, bits of "time travel," but they're more than that. User 927 is the most prurient example, but each seeker in their turn creates a deeply affecting portrait of their individual struggles, neuroses, passions, hobbies and defects. 

Once you start AOLStalking, just try to resist assigning features to a log's creator. User 30011 has light brown skin, is pretty, young, harried, with long layered black hair, a pink tank top and cut-off jean shorts, worrying about her kids and fanning herself in the Miami heat. User 1366195 is white but tan, athletic, with short black gelled hair, wearing a white t-shirt at the wooden desk in his bedroom, trying desperately to stay focused on finishing an Abraham Lincoln term paper. AOLStalkers even rate the users' records, from "Masterpiece" on down. There's probably enough material for a comedy--or tragedy--in that fact alone.

It's a digital version of Our Town, and all those voices unwittingly and unwillingly pulled through the ether are still waiting to have their proper say onstage. It was a great idea; maybe eventually it will also make great theater.

June 12, 2008 2:05 PM | | Comments (4)
Today I was invited to be the--let me get this right--Guest Critic at the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II Festival in January of '09. (The invitation was accepted.) Region II includes college productions and aspiring critics from schools in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Washington, D.C. I mention this not because I love blowing my own horn (though I do), and not to convince anyone (okay, maybe myself) of my own legitimacy as a critic, but because of the reason I was chosen. 

It's almost all about the blogging. 

Each year, the festival picks a handful of students who express interest in reviewing theater, and after an intensive several days of playgoing and review-writing, submit a final critique to be judged by the guest critic (Me!). The winner attends the Kennedy Center's big national event, and hopefully, a new batch of arts writers is hooked. 

However, with the future of print media a bit less rosy these days, the festival sought me out precisely because I work both online and on paper. Of course, "working" doesn't necessarily equal "getting paid." Though print, via the Philadelphia Inquirer, generously supplies my paycheck and ample opportunity to practice my favorite sport--reviewing theater--blogging supplies me with hope for the future.

Perhaps in that spirit, the guest critic spot is an unpaid honor (hey, at least they cover expenses), but one that may someday pay off in employment offers. In that future--and I'm guessing it will be the near future, if gas prices continue their heavenward trajectory, making home delivery a losing proposition--most media will go wholly online. It's anyone's guess whether information will arrive in specialized chunks through individual feeds, if there will still be room for centralized content providers (i.e., online versions of old-fashioned news organizations), if the most successful efforts will come from devoted individuals toiling away at home on their own sites, or some combination of the above. All I know for sure is willful ignorance of online journalism's free-form possibilities is anything but bliss, unless your version of bliss is monastic poverty and a Sysiphean sense of accomplishment. 

You don't hear Perez Hilton complaining about the decline in Page Six readership. In fact, he's even starting to encroach on my territory by publicizing the recent Tricia Walsh-Smith YouTube freakshow and the Cubby Bernstein webisodes. Soon, he'll even be the subject of an off-Broadway musical. As a wise person once said, don't hate the player, hate the game

Obviously, the guy's not doing extended features or reviews, or, well, anything resembling journalism, but he's sure making a living, which is, unfortunately, more than many of my brilliant, worthy, formerly full-time colleagues can say for themselves. All those readers who used to open their newspapers every morning over breakfast and coffee, are now carrying that coffee to their computers, logging on and looking for the same in-depth information. It's up to us as journalists to keep providing it or other, savvier, and perhaps lesser voices will be happy to fill in the gap. 

Initiate podcasts, critics' roundtables, and multimedia stories at your paper. If your paper won't do it, get together with other critics and do it on your own, on a blog (hmmm... good idea...). It's not all that complicated and well worth the investment. The goal is to keep critiquing Willy Loman, not become him.

June 10, 2008 4:11 PM |
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Spent all day yesterday baking in 10 hours of scorching 96 degree heat at The Roots Picnic here in Philly (Illadelph to Roots fans). For some, the Picnic was this summer's must-see music festival, with a bill featuring, of course, The Roots, and headlined by Gnarls Barkley, as well as newer acts like The Dap-Kings (Amy Winehouse's backup band) with Sharon Jones, Santogold, Deerhoof, The Cool Kids, and DJ Diplo, among others. 

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Extreme conditions are believed to trigger transcendence, and while at the concert, I had an epiphany. Before arriving, I expected one sort of crowd, and was surprised to find a completely different audience. Let me insert here that I based my assumptions upon many years of fairly segregated concertgoing. Diversity in live music, to my generation, was the inclusion of a token rapper like Ice-T on an early Lollapalooza tour. (However, he was included not as a rapper, but as "Body Count," his cringe-worthy attempt at a hardcore punk rock band.) 

I assumed this crowd would split maybe 80-20 along racial lines, with, for this hip-hop heavy bill, 80% being African-American, and 20% white/other. Well, it wasn't. In fact, it was flipped in the opposite direction. 

But white kids co-opting a black music scene is nothing new. So, while I was surprised, I wasn't shocked. What really set off my epiphany was that the co-opting of musical forms was now mutual. The Cool Kids, backed by DJ Jazzy Jeff, unabashedly expressed their Beastie Boys idolatry. Santogold (who scratched at the last minute, but was listed on the bill) mixes her M.I.A. galang with Missing Persons-style new wave. The Roots' guitarist indulged in a full-on old-school guitar solo (FYI, their new album, Rising Down, was heavily influenced by a damn near inaccessible William T. Vollman treatise). Gnarls Barkley's odd mix matches hip-hop with a groovy '60s Mellotron aesthetic and soul crooning (lest we forget, the silent half of Gnarls, Danger Mouse, made his name by mashing up Jay-Z's Black album with The Beatles' White Album to create The Grey Album). And for most of the groups onstage, with this interracial mix of influences came an interracial mix of band members. It's also important to note that no one's politics got watered down; they instead became part of the mix.

It's a generational shift that, judging by the crowd's demographics, is probably fairly superficial, but shows a cultural give-and-take that bodes well. As we perch on the cusp of a possible Obama presidency, I'm guessing that shift has the potential to go deep.

So what does this have to do with theater? Well, attention must be paid, in programming, in outreach, in funding. There's a whole new aesthetic growing out there that should be nurtured from every angle. The repertory canon ought to include August Wilson right alongside Arthur Miller, and often does. But a whole generation of kids who grew up used to interracial families and international adoptions, celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. day and reading Toni Morrison in English class, aren't seeing their experiences reflected in the larger culture. Theaters are, for the most part, still operating under segregationist assumptions, sometimes alternating a "black" play with a "white" play, but not seeking out work that fills the spaces in between, let alone ventures into "Asian," or "Latino" territory. It's up to producers to find the next Passing Strange, plays and musicals that take racial, cultural and artistic cross-pollination as a given and run with it. 

Theater, with its ephemeral nature, might just be the medium to draw younger audiences away from their computers. You can't Netflix a play or find it on YouTube, at least not in the same way, which makes the old-fashioned theater, ironically, one of the few creative industries that doesn't have to suffer because of the internet. Build an exciting, relevant and un-self consciously inclusive ethos, and they will come.

Oh, and for the record, the concert was great.

June 8, 2008 8:27 PM | | Comments (2)
I'm just gonna say here that finally, it all got me down. After hearing about the death of criticism, the death of books, the death of theater (actually, this book isn't about the death of theater, but its clarion call for an acknowledgment of theater's sociological significance seems awfully desperate), the death of severance packages, the news from a colleague that her new assignment to her paper's arts beat ended before it began, and the actual death of a laid-off theater critic, I started to wonder what's the point? I mean, I can blog all I want, but isn't that part of the problem? Why buy the cow?...

Anyway, after a couple of days where I sunk so low I ended up going running with my IPod set to a wrist-slitting all-Radiohead shuffle (try clearing your thoughts with that going on), it occurred to me that Radiohead gave away their last album. Why? Because the dying old model wasn't serving them any longer, and they decided that rather than wait around for the machine to fix itself, they'd make a better, stronger one. And so they did.

Here's what I think: 

  1. We must demand arts education in our schools. You can check my old posts about this issue to see how crucial it is for the future of arts journalism, and for the state of the arts in general.
  2. Cross your fingers and hope we get Obama in the White House come November. Better yet, let everyone you know in on his support for the arts and arts education (this is a blog entry from the days when I was still undecided) and on John McCain's utter disdain for both. If you think things are bad now, wait and see what happens when McCain eliminates funding for the NEA.
  3. Encourage the next generation of arts journalists. Rather than discouraging them, as Eric Bentley suggests, send them to J-schools by the score. These kids never knew a world without the internet, and they will be the ones to re-shape journalism as we know it. We might as well do everything we can to ensure that future has a heavy artistic bias. If you discourage students from becoming arts journalists, then yes, the field will die, it will be your fault, and you will be haunted by Oscar Wilde's ghost for the rest of your days. 
  4. Unionize. Been laid off and re-hired as a freelancer? Join the Freelancer's Union. It's lonely out there scarfing donuts in front of your computer all day, and will only get lonelier. You don't have to form a coven and meet in basements every week with charts and hot coffee (although if you've got that going, then good for you). Get connected and still maintain your computer/donut schedule by signing up for listservs and online discussions.
  5.  Join every relevant organization you can. There's power in numbers, and right now arts journalists are feeling completely powerless. Join NAJP, join your national critics' organization (for theater critics, it's ATCA). You are not the only one freaking out--repeat after me, "I am not the only one freaking out."--but if you're doing it alone, you're wasting your energy; use it instead to create a better, stronger machine.
Take off your headphones (and turn off Radiohead, for God's sake, they'll only make things worse), raise that glazed cruller, and refuse to accept defeat. For arts journalists (unlike Hillary), there is no better option; we do our job, or our civilization loses a record of its contemporary cultural significance. 

Now get to work and let me know what you've come up with.

June 5, 2008 12:43 AM | | Comments (4)

Me Elsewhere


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