Recently by FlyOver

Given the size of our community, we have a wealth of theater critics.

The daily newspaper that I write for has three freelance critics who share most of the reviewing duties plus a staff writer who occasionally writes a theater review. The alternative newspaper in town rotates its reviews among six freelance critics. A local television broadcaster makes it to nearly every single show and posts reviews on his Website as well as on the air. Depending on the semester, the college newspaper will have a critic. Then the Detroit papers send critics to town for the professional shows. An alternative newspaper has three critics that come to town and the Free Press usually sends someone.

We are also blessed that it is a fairly collegial community and we enjoy good relations with each other.

Last fall, Don Calamia, the critic from Between the Lines, a Detroit weekly newspaper, and I were discussing how Patrick Shanley's Doubt was dominating the 2007-2008 professional season. Three groups were performing it in a four month span, with two of the shows opening within a week of each other. The first was in Lansing, the second in Detroit, and the third in Ann Arbor. While these are somewhat spread apart in distance, they are all within an hour of each other and there is some overlap in audience between the three groups.

During this discussion, we agreed that we would each see all three shows and then do some sort of joint discussion comparing the three productions. We didn't know what form that would take when we started, but we eventually turned to our respective blogs: Don's Confessions of a Cranky Critic and my Front Row Lansing.

This week--on April Fool's Day to be specific--we began a week-long blogfest comparing the three productions. On Tuesday, we independently created our own all-star casts drawn from the three productions. On Wednesday, we revealed which of the three productions we thought was the best. On Thursday, we discussed whether the priest was guilty or innocent--and came up with different answers for each of the three productions. Finally, today, we arranged to have a live chat free-for-all and post the transcript on our blog.

We didn't come up with the idea for a live chat until the last minute, so our invitation for our readers to join us didn't get out until less than 24 hours before the lunchtime chat--not really enough time to give people notice. However, both the director of the BoarsHead show and the BoarsHead artistic director was able to join us.

It was a fun way to look at theater in a larger context than an individual show and we had a lot of fun discussing our different takes on the show. It's something we're both planning to do again, though we're still brainstorming what the next topic will be.
April 4, 2008 12:29 PM | | Comments (4)
Last spring, Williamston Theatre, then the newest professional theater in mid-Michigan, had to cut short the run of one of their shows. There were a number of factors contributing to this, the biggest one being that Michigan had frozen all of its promised grant money, leaving many organizations in the lurch without the money they had budgeted for.

This past week, Williamston announced the extension of their current show: Hate Mail. They're keeping it open for an additional two weeks and 10 performances, something that is rarely done in this neck of the woods.

To quote their press release:

"Due to the rave reviews from both critics and audiences, we decided it just wasn't time to close this show," said Executive Director, John Lepard. "We are thrilled to be able to give the public ten more opportunities to see this wonderful production, and to give this talented cast and crew a few more weeks of work."

March 27, 2008 8:16 AM | | Comments (0)

Joe has raised an interesting issue--one that I would love to do further research on. In fact, I'd love to find a graduate student willing to do some in-depth quantitative research about theater as a career in flyover communities.

For a long time, all I ever heard was that if you wanted to make money in theater, you had to go to Chicago or New York. Lately, I've been wondering if that still holds true. Granted, you're unlikely to become rich or famous working in Michigan. Yet, there has been plenty of interesting anecdotal evidence in which people are moving back to Michigan to pursue theater and arts-related careers because this is where they want to live.

This despite the fact that we've had some pretty rough years as far as arts funding from the government goes. In fact, "pretty rough" is an understatement.

That said, in the past few years, two new Equity houses have opened in the state and I've talked to many performers who are choosing to stay here to make their living. Most of those people are those who can also teach--either at schools or in studio settings. They're also people who are versatile and willing to do commercial and industrial work.

My curiosity is aroused now: What does it take to make a livable career in theater and what sacrifices to you make to do so?

February 29, 2008 7:58 AM | | Comments (1)

Yesterday afternoon, I saw a production of Miss Evers' Boys.

It was one of those plays that gives you a lot to think about afterward. One of the things that most struck me was this: While the play portrayed Miss Evers in a highly sympathetic manner and helped me to understand why should would make the choices that she made, it didn't change my feeling that her choices were wrong.

In many ways, this was the beauty of the play. It provided all the shadings of gray to help us see beyond the easy outrage that gives people easy deniability ("I would never do such a thing!"). However, even while offering an explanation, it didn't try to justify. Yes, there were lots of shades of gray, but using people as guinea pigs and denying them access to the penicillin that would cure them is still wrong.

February 25, 2008 1:42 PM | | Comments (0)

Typically, I'm a fairly quick writer. Once the research for my column is done and I've done my pre-writing thinking, I'll spend about a half hour to 45 minutes writing the piece.

However, I've lately felt like I'd fallen into a rut, so I've been taking my Sunday evenings and trying to spend more time with each story.

This past Sunday night, I'd worked on the one half of my column for a couple of hours, writing and rewriting until I finally had something that I was happy with. My husband came downstairs from a nap and I proudly read my lead aloud to him and asked for his opinion.

His reply was short: "It's turgid and heavy handed."

I sighed, re-read it and had to agree that he was right. I thought back to Dominic Papatola's admonition at last year's Institute that if we're in love with a sentence, then we need to cut it because we're too captivated with our own voice.

So back I went and rewrote some more. By the time I finished, the copy was much cleaner and far more focused on the dance concert rather than on how cleverly I could turn a phrase.

It made me realize how fortunate I was to have in my home a critic who would be honest with me rather than simply telling me what I wanted to hear. He said what needed to be said for me to improve my craft rather than to stroke my ego.

Isn't that what we do as critics as well? Don't we serve a far better purpose for theater (or any other art) when we are painfully honest rather than gently reassuring? It's something I have to remind myself of frequently.

February 19, 2008 8:02 AM | | Comments (0)

Pretend for a moment that I'm the owner of a fine-dining establishment.

I've experienced a success that few would complain about. I have a very loyal customer base, including those who pay me weekly visits. I've enjoyed great profit margins, outperforming most other restaurants in the area.

My chefs have won awards for the quality and creativity of the dishes they create. One review even said that we've helped to change the culinary environment of our region because of our chef's artistry.

Food costs are high and it isn't cheap to produce and serve our food, but that's been more than made up for in profit and customer loyalty.

One day, I look about the food and beverage environment and read about the success of McDonald's. They have far more customers than I do and they make more money. Changes have to be made!

I call a staff meeting and tell my executive chef that he's going to have to start offering chicken fingers and fried burger patties. Also, he needs to reduce the amount of time it takes to prepare orders by pre-preparing the most popular dishes and getting rid of any dishes that take too long to prepare. I skillfully ignore the look of horror that comes across his face and hand him the statistics that point out people want fast food--it's obvious by how many people are buying it.

What will happen to my audience? Even if my chef doesn't immediately quit in a huff, it's pretty certain that I'll quickly drive away all of my loyal customer base. I'll lose the customers I have and will likely find myself unable to compete with the resources and processes of a McDonalds.

The story seems pretty foolish, and yet, sometimes it feels that it is precisely how newspapers today are being run. Rather than work at appealing to the readers that they have, they're chasing after television viewers, Internet junkies, and non-readers. The loyal readers are treated with almost contempt as editors and writers state with conviction that everything needs to be written in bullets and short little bites because, "No one reads anymore."

Newspapers slavishly cover pop culture in a pale imitation of entertainment networks while ignoring those readers who really want substance--those readers who have been the bread and butter of subscribers. Newspapers rabidly pursue the masses, seemingly blissfully ignorant of the Long Tail concept that reminds us that today's economy is swinging toward selling more for less rather than less for more.

It's almost a mantra in corporate America that it is more expensive to get a new customer than it is to keep and please a loyal customer--and loyal customers will earn you more revenue than new ones. They're also more likely to become advocates for you, doing some of your marketing work for you.

So why is it that newspapers have little interest in readers? Yes, growth is important, but there needs to be growth among people who want your product. It's an uphill battle to constantly remake yourself in an attempt to sell yourself to someone who really doesn't want you--especially if in the process you stop being what your loyal customers wanted from you.

What sparks this rant today? In part, it is this article. The vast majority of the article talks about the health of theater in Detroit--the creation of new companies, the expanded seasons, and the fact that despite financial hardships, not a single company shut its doors. Then in the final paragraph, Don Calamia reports that Marty Cohn retired from the Free Press--leaving not a single full-time arts critic at any of the dailies in the greater Detroit area.

It would be one thing if this were just a single incident. Yet, while the arts community continues to grow, flourish, and expand in surprising new directions, the coverage gets smaller and smaller. I've talked to far too many people in both the academic and arts community who say they don't bother to read the paper anymore because there is no longer anything compelling in its pages. There is no longer a reason to convince them to plop down their two quarters. They don't want something they can read in a 30-second glance. They want to read something that will provoke them, get them to think, evoke an emotion, or inspire them to do something.

How can you accomplish those things with three printed bullets?

January 31, 2008 9:43 AM | | Comments (2)

I made a few New Year's resolutions this year. (One wasn't writing more here, but that's definitely on the agenda!)

How about you? Have you made any arts-related resolutions? As January draws to a close--have you made progress on them? My start has been slow.

January 28, 2008 9:46 AM | | Comments (0)

Joe asked last week about organizations that were doing a particularly good job of catering to their local community. I immediately thought of Williamston Theatre, in part because I'd just done a story on them.

Williamston Theatre is a fairly young group founded last year by four artists who had spent many years working with Jeff Daniels at the Purple Rose Theatre. Jeff Daniels is an actor who, after achieving success in New York and Los Angeles, returned to his small town of Chelsea, Michigan. There's a beautiful quote on his theater's Website:

Years later, after moving back home to Michigan, I bought an old bus garage in the small town of Chelsea with the dream of creating a Midwestern answer to Circle Rep. I wanted a professional theatre company, featuring Midwestern actors, directors, designers and playwrights, situated in the middle of America, producing plays about the middle of America. People, of course, thought I was an idiot. From the local critics who wanted the latest shows from New York starring my "movie star friends" to the townspeople who thought Art was someone who lived out by the highway, no one could understand what I was trying to do. It made no sense. Except to all those local actors, directors, designers, and especially playwrights, who call the Midwest their home.

In case you haven't noticed, the New American Play can't get a cup of coffee in New York. It seems to me that if the American Theatre is to remain vital it must produce American plays, and it can only do that by supporting, nurturing, and developing American playwrights. Period. Just like Circle Rep did.

That's what we do here at The Purple Rose and we love it.

The statement represents a philosophy that the founders of Williamston Theatre took with them when they opened up a theater in the small town of Williamston. Now in their second season, the founders wanted to create a long-term project which would be unique to their theater and would be an expression of that philosophy.

They came up with the Voices from the Midwest project. The first installment is "Maidens, Mothers, and Crones: The Women of the Midwest." They're collecting questionnaires form Midwestern women of all ages (if you hail from the Midwest and want to participate--the deadline is Dec. 1 and they're particularly looking for younger women as that category has had the smallest response so far. You can download a questionnaire here. ).

Next year they'll do men and the following year they'll do families.

It's a wonderful project that really does focus on a mission that is important to them: Doing theater that speaks to the people in the communities where they live. It's fine to explore stories that happen elsewhere, but there are also stories to be told at home about the people and events at home.

I think that's why their musical "Guys on Ice" has been so enormously successful and has played to packed houses: It's about people that their audiences can relate to. It's about a subject that their audiences can relate to. It's theater that is meaningful because it is local. It gives people a chance to connect with each other and with the art in a compelling manner.

I'm looking forward to seeing what comes of the Voices from the Midwest project. In the mean time, I applaud their undertaking and am grateful that they're investing so much time and energy into creating something that serves its local community so well.

November 9, 2007 8:27 AM | | Comments (2)

Critics are trained to think of themselves as objective observers of shows. While we strive to be receptive to what we see, we are also constantly analyzing and setting aside our personal feelings and any potential baggage.

It was that need for emotional distance that had me questioning a few weeks ago whether I should ask my editor to reassign the review I was scheduled to do. It wasn't a matter of my having any sort of personal connection with the show or anyone in it. Rather, my grandfather was in the late stages of cancer and we had been told he would likely die within the week. Would I be able to properly review a musical farce about two Wisconsin ice fishermen if I had to go the day my grandfather died? After discussing it with my editor, we decided that I would go ahead with the previous plans to attend the show and write the review.

The show was superbly done--which didn't surprise me as so far everything Williamston Theatre has done in the two years of their existence has been superb--and I found myself deeply drawn into the show. Some of this was because one of the two main actors reminded me a great deal of my grandfather, a man who loved his fishing. When the musical turned serious and started talking about how short our life is here on earth and how unexpectedly it could end, I cried through the entire song.

A few hours after getting home from the musical, I learned that my grandfather had died. Almost immediately I blogged about both the musical and his death. It's one of the wonderful things about blogs, you can write personal things that would likely never be appropriate for a newspaper. This is especially true given that my blog isn't associated with the newspaper in any way.

As I mourned for the next few days, I found myself faced with writing the review. I had to do a fair amount of soul-searching. Should I disqualify myself from writing the review because I had such a deep, emotional connection based on personal events? Could I honestly saying that I was being objective and unbiased?

Eventually, the answer that I came up with was that as a theater critic, I'm not required to put my humanity into deep freeze. The reader loses no value in a review simply because I am able to connect with a play. On the contrary, how useful can we as critics be to our readers if we never allow ourselves to feel anything or to emotionally connect with a show the way that our readers will?

So, I wrote the review, being careful to sort out in my own mind what was personal and what was valid material for evaluation (and given our 300-word limit, it certainly helped with identifying material to cut).

That was my answer. I'm curious what other critics might have done in the same situation--or even whether you'd even consider the situation a potential conflict.

October 25, 2007 11:45 AM | | Comments (6)

Given the recent posts about state money and Jennifer's post on sports, I was intrigued by this blog entry by a Michigan blogger, dedicated arts lover, and talented critic.

He points out that every theater person ought to be writing thank-you letters to the owners of the Detroit Pistons and the Detroit Red Wings. It was due to their lobbying efforts that the expanded sales tax on services was not extended to entertainment services such as athletic games and the theater.

Given a recent comment that theater belonged to the wealthy elite (despite the fact that a ticket to an athletic event is typically far more expensive than a theater ticket), I found this paragraph interesting:

State House officials tried to paint their efforts to expand the sales tax as an effort to tax "luxuries." But since when is attending a theater performance or a sporting event a luxury? I don't know how often our state elected policitians attend a professional theater performance, but looking at the audiences last Friday night at The Zeitgeist and Saturday night at the Marygrove Theatre, I saw primarily working class people, young people and members of the sought-after creative class. (In fact, the leader of a large group of students from Wayne County Community College Saturday night explained to me that he chose that show in part because of the affordable ticket price.)

Nowhere did I see the snooty rich, the people who fit the image our politicians were trying to create in order to get the public to buy in to their budget plan.

October 5, 2007 5:46 AM | | Comments (0)

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