Drama Queen: 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.
Today'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?
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.
"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 and '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."
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.