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Who couldn't use a little good news these days?  With that in mind, here's a smattering of positive arts news from Wisconsin, albeit an incomplete one.  Feel free to share your own good news in the comments area below.

  • The Milwaukee Ballet recently received a $1 million gift from the Dohmen Family Foundation, and its school has become fully accredited by the National Association of Schools of Dance.
  • Spring Green's American Players Theatre, a classical repertory company, opened its second stage this year.  The 200-seat, indoor Touchstone Theatre now complements APT's main stage, a 1,148-seat outdoor amphitheater.  Ticket income for the 2009 season was up 1% over the previous year, despite a smaller patron base of just over 101,000 attendees.  Some Touchstone shows were so successful (like Jim DeVita's one-man show, an adaptation of Ian McKellen's Acting Shakespeare) that extra performances were added.
  • The Wisconsin Book Festival, which took place in Madison Oct. 7 to 11, was once again a splendid event.  Presenting authors ranged from Wisconsin residents with national profiles (Jane Hamilton, Lorrie Moore) to comix legends Harvey Pekar and Lynda Barry to thinkers like Wendell Berry.  Events are typically packed by grateful audiences--all events are offered to the public free of charge by our state humanities council.
  • While the Madison Repertory Theatre folded earlier this year--very sadly, in the midst of its fortieth anniversary season--new professional companies are starting up in an attempt to fill the void.  (While Madison has dozens of community theater companies, the Rep's closing left a hole in the professional sphere.)  One I'm excited about is Forward Theater Company, which will stage the first production of Christopher Durang's Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them outside of New York.  As Jennifer Uphoff Gray, Forward's artistic director, told me in a story for Isthmus, "We reached out to Chris Durang directly. He actually responded the next day and was really supportive. He said, 'Oh, I had heard about the [closing of the] Rep,' and he was really upset about it."  We need timely, provocative, professional theater here, and I'm glad there are people willing to fill that need.
October 29, 2009 10:53 AM | | Comments (3)

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Reality TV isn't really real. Maybe you've noticed. It's more like an enormous vetting process that demands, if not humiliation, then a deep and abiding display of humility before the eyes of God, America, and Simon Cowell.

If you can endure that, and game the rules a bit, too, you might be a star.

Ironically, those rules can have little to do with the task at hand. Judges for So You Think You Can Dance, for instance, have shown less interest in a contestant's dancing ability than in his or her willingness to mug and preen and be subjected to all manner of invasive interrogation: Show us your dirty laundry or pay the price.

This was brought into sharp relief in 2007 when Danny Tidwell, an elite dancer and former member of New York's American Ballet Theater, was ridiculed by judges for appearing to be, as he awaited their decision, "God's gift to the world." He flew in the face of television storytelling convention -- arrogance is always a thin veil for deep-seated insecurity. If you don't show your true self -- the self that is ostensibly, in Tidwell's case, a vulnerable little boy -- you're not being true to yourself or to the rest of America.

And that, my friend, is bad TV.

Such is the power of television that it makes even elite dancers like Tidwell behave in ways inconceivable before his appearance on the show. And it's this power to manipulate people into pretending to be something they are not that fascinates Liesbeth Gritter.

Gritter is a founding member of Kassys, a Dutch theater company based in Amsterdam. She and partner Mette van der Sijs are making their American debut during Spoleto with the premiere of Good Cop Bad Cop.

They travel around the world creating abstract works for the stage, using live acting and lots of film to exploit the bizarro world between the authentic self and the invented self.

Their production, called Good Cop Bad Cop, was inspired by reality TV, which, while commonplace in the U.S., is still somewhat novel in the Netherlands. Gritter, being relatively new to its perverse appetite for humiliating otherwise proud individuals, believes TV encourages fear of being normal. Good Cop Bad Cop therefore examines what ordinary people do in extraordinary situations, like a reality TV show.

"People are asked all the time to comment in news stories about things they know nothing about," Gritter says. "But because they are on TV, they feel compelled to talk about something, even when what they are saying is actually saying nothing at all."

Whole story ...

June 7, 2009 9:48 AM | | Comments (0)

mrfabulous3.jpgWhat does Gisli Orn Gardarsson got that other guys ain’t got?

OK, so he has a face like Clive Owen. OK, so he has a physique like Matthew McConaughey. OK, so he’s also a gymnast — limber, strong, durable.

OK, OK, OK. Enough, already. And by the way, so what? Some of us know how to type. Really, really, really, really fast.

Who does Mr. Fabulous think he is? Don Juan?

Well, yes. In fact, he does.

Gardarsson originated the lead in the American premiere of Don John. The play is the contemporary update of the classic myth of Don Juan, the original ladykiller, the first international playboy, the proto-womanizer, the Ur-man of mystery.

“Every man has wanted to be Don Juan and love 1,000 women at some point in his life.” Gardarsson says by phone from London. “It’s really interesting to play a devil like that.”

Sheesh, Señor Gisli. You don’t have to rub it in.

Director Emma Rice adapted the story from Mozart’s operatic version, Don Giovanni. But she set the story in the context of a carnival to suggest the uninhibited and unleashed sexuality of the hero. In fact, the staging is extremely physical. Much of what’s communicated between characters happens with the body.

But the master is Don John. He’s a real 60-minute man. He prowls and then he comes over. But never too soon. He smokes, he drinks. He takes pleasure in not just his women but in seeing other men looking at him looking at women who are looking at him.

And no one stops him. Why? Because he behaves badly, and it rubs off easily. Others follow in his wake, like sloppy seconds. Yet he’s convinced he’s not such a bad guy, Gardarsson says, trying to explain some of the tangled up psychology at work inside Don John’s head. He knows he’s breaking hearts, but he’s lost. He’s looking for something, but he doesn’t know what it is.

And — in the hope that we hate him an eensy-weensy bit less — it turns out he’s in pain.

Whole story …

June 5, 2009 4:03 PM | | Comments (0)

It’s so tough to get new plays on the stage, especially in a small town like Charleston. Even tougher when they originate from Charleston. Fortunately, we have a courageous theater company that doesn’t wait for new work to trickle down from New York. The ensemble is called PURE Theatre and the new play is called Sheep’s Clothing by local playwright Spencer Deering. The occasion brought to mind Mike Daisey’s controversial one-man play about How Theater Failed America.

About a year ago, Mike Daisey staged a one-man show in New York called How Theater Failed America. The acclaimed monologuist made the case that regional theater sucks, because it aims for business more than art.

Regional theater typically obsesses over growth, Daisey claimed, focusing on building bigger buildings more than developing better actors. It caters to the wealthy, marketing itself like a luxury item. And it relies too much on importing actors from New York.

Daisey, who is a 2005 Spoleto Festival alum, wasn’t saying anything really new, except this: that the usual problems regional theaters cite as their main obstacles — such as competition from movies and television, drained government subsidies, strained philanthropic communities, and audiences that just don’t get it — are basically hokum.

None of that would matter, Daisey argued in his play, if the focus were on actors and playwriting, not business. In How Theater Failed America, Daisey calls for a return to the repertory model in which a dedicated group of actors hones its skills and creates new work. That means an acting troupe that’s smaller, leaner, and more aggressive artistically. If that sounds like a description of PURE Theatre, that’s because it is.

the whole story here

And you can read City Paper’s review here.

May 10, 2009 7:35 AM | | Comments (0)
There's a pretty thorny mess sprouting in Montana these days, concerning the way the state expects venue managers and promoters to deal with musicians and other performers. Some say the issue could literally shut down live music and other types of performing arts across the state, if not rectified. You can read about it here
March 27, 2009 12:56 PM | | Comments (0)
Wow. It's hard to get back into blogging after an unexpectedly long hiatus. But, since fall is a time of renewal (at least for me), I thought I'd jump back in. The first leaves are starting to turn red and gold here in the Great Lakes region and I'll admit it's hard to truly focus on the arts with the looming election and global economic crisis. But I'll give it a shot...

One of the biggest cultural happenings is the opening of a new George Segal exhibition at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA). The show, organized by MMoCA, heads to Dallas, Kansas City, Mo., and West Palm Beach, Fla., after its run here ends in December. The show represents quite a coup for MMoCA in that a cast of "Depression Bread Line," which Segal did for the FDR Memorial in Washington, will head back to Madison and join the museum's permanent collection after the show is over. For preview coverage, see Isthmus, 77 Square or the Wisconsin State Journal. My review will appear in Isthmus later this week. I've been told the show will also be covered by the Wall Street Journal and Art in America, but I'm not sure when those articles will appear.

Madison's only professional theater company, Madison Repertory Theatre, opens its season this week with Becky Mode's "Fully Committed." The Chicago actress Amy J. Carle, who has performed with Madison Rep before, stars. I'm looking forward to seeing her again, since she was one of the best things about Madison Rep's production of "The Diary of Anne Frank" this past January. "Fully Committed" looks like fluffy fun, but we'll see.

This 40th anniversary year is an important one for Madison Rep. Former artistic director Richard Corley's contract was not renewed near the end of last season. While it sounds as though he and the board made a mutual decision to part ways, I can't help but wonder--and this is my own personal musing here--if he was blamed for not getting enough butts in seats. Which begs the question, who really is getting enough audience members in these tough economic times? And how will Madison Rep's direction change under its interim artistic director? The season's choices seem pretty safe (including well-known fare like "Bus Stop," "True West" and "My Fair Lady"), but of course the proof will be in the pudding.

Under Corley's tenure, I saw a few shows that I'd file in my "all-time most memorable" category, such as "I Am My Own Wife" starring David Adkins and "Permanent Collection" with a more local cast, including UW-Madison professor Patrick Sims.

About 45 minutes west of Madison in Spring Green, classical repertory theater American Players Theatre is winding down its season. I had a chance to catch a Sunday evening show of George Bernard Shaw's "Widowers' Houses," which didn't knock my socks off but was still enjoyable (as far as Shaw goes, I preferred APT's production of "Misalliance" two summers ago). APT is an outdoor theater in the woods and, when the weather cooperates, it's fabulous. Other times, it's, um, challenging--as it was Sunday. Light rain started almost as soon as the show did and got heavier throughout the play. Luckily, I had a tacky-but-useful plastic poncho so the rain didn't faze me too much, but it did halt the show temporarily at one point. That, coupled with two intermissions, broke up the flow of the play, but there was a sort of camaraderie between the audience members who stuck it out and the actors. In its own weird way, it was a fitting and fun end-of-summer experience--rain, swooping bats and all.
September 16, 2008 3:10 PM | | Comments (0)

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You see it all the time as an arts journalist in Flyoverville meeting with people trying to form a new performing arts group — the worry on their faces.

Bright, talented, and clearly energized actors and singers fret about where they’re going to perform in a city that’s increasingly facing a paucity of venues, like Charleston, S.C.

One such group here is the Little City Musical Theatre Company. It’s concerned about being homeless, about being unable to market the theater’s quality work, about being unable to cultivate an audience, because, you know, the audience wouldn’t know where to find them for lack of a permanent venue.

It’s a reasonable concern. Having a theater is probably better than not. But I wonder if a group like Little City might have an advantage. I wonder if being smaller, nimbler, more mobile, and more media-savvier might be just the traits needed to survive, and perhaps thrive, in the 21st century, as we witness the rise of what arts administrators are calling the “active audience.”

[…]

Fifty years ago, you went to the theater, sat down in the dark, watched a play, clapped, and went home. You didn’t interact. You didn’t engage. You were passive. And that was fine. Now, more than two decades into the digital era, active participation is the paradigm of the age. To quietly receive a performance, as if it were a church sermon, seems almost antiquated.

That’s because we are otherwise engaged in the act of making more than ever before, privately (knitting circles, book groups, community choirs) and publicly (YouTube, Wordpress, Make Magazine). Viral video, instant communications, and social networking have fueled this urge. The orthodoxy of DIY marginalized in the 1980s is now the center of the 21st century.

Culture used to be controlled by its producers — in particular, mass media culture like broadcast television, Hollywood movies, daily newspapers — but increasingly it’s controlled by consumers. New technologies promulgated a shift in power, and with that shift has come a change of behavior: Instead of waiting for Katie Couric to read the news, we’re now getting it for ourselves.

In other words, we are searching.

Read the whole post at Charleston City Paper.

August 11, 2008 6:50 AM | | Comments (0)

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K. Brian Neel was running a fever the entire time he was performing Vaud Rats on Wednesday night (during the Piccolo Spoleto Festival, the sister event to Spoleto in Charleston, S.C.). I found this out afterward while we talked about his interest in the rich history of vaudeville.

As we talked about the play within the play aspect of his show, he asked me what I thought of the ending (don’t worry, there’s no spoiler here). He asked if it were buoyant and hopeful. I had to be honest. No, it wasn’t. Fatalistic is more like it. He agreed that there might be something to that reading, but that’s not what he normally does. Vaud Rats usually ends on an up note. It must have been the fever, we thought.

Perhaps it was a happy accident. The note of fatalism gave Vaud Rats a level of gravitas that hadn’t been apparent to Neel before, he said. The end of vaudeville was a brutal time for stage performers, most of whom were left out of work and impoverished after the rise of mass entertainments like film and radio.

There’s an alternate theory about the death of vaudeville, Neel said. Performers couldn’t adapt. They couldn’t come up with new material week after week, a pattern that’s standard and expected these days. Neel said that vaudevillians would come up with a shtick and just do it over and over again.

July 10, 2008 10:28 PM | | Comments (0)
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Actor Michelle Hurst and writer and director Ain Gordon  in Lexington's Downtown Arts Center where they are presenting In This Place . . . , a play inspired by the "alternative history" of Lexington. Copyrighted Lexington Herald-Leader photo by David Perry.

Jim Clark, the president and CEO of LexArts, invited stage writer and director Ain Gordon to come to Lexington to find a story in the city's history to tell.

It is the sort of thing Gordon has done in New York and New Jersey, and Clark has seen how it generated interest and dialogue in the communities where Gordon worked.

"I started walking around downtown and saw all of those historic plaques," said Gordon. "My first reaction was, it's all been taken care of. There's nothing for me to do. This town is covering its history."

But then he started to think about the plaques and how in most cases they couldn't possibly tell the whole story of what happened at each site. He also spotted a place that curiously did not have a marker: 245 South Limestone.

"It was as old or older than many of the houses that had markers, and it wasn't marked," Gordon said. "I thought, 'Why is that? Whose house is this?'"

Through his investigations, Gordon found the 1830s-era house was originally the home of Samuel Oldham, the first free African-American man in Lexington to own his own land and build his own house.

Now, Gordon is giving two unique markers to the house -- which was bought in 2006 by Coleman Callaway III and is being renovated.

First, there's a play, In This Place ..., which opened Thursday for a three-night run at the Downtown Arts Center. The one-woman play uses traditional theatrical techniques and multimedia to tell the story of the Oldham House through the owner's wife, Daphney.

Later this summer, a new-concept historic marker will be unveiled at the house. Rather than try to encapsulate the history into a paragraph like the familiar bronzed signs dotting downtown do, the new marker will direct viewers to a Web site full of research Gordon did while writing In This Place .... The site will also showcase video from and for the play's production shot by Lexington documentary filmmaker Joan Brannon.

May 23, 2008 10:08 AM | | Comments (0)

My apologies for underrepresenting the Lone Star State of late, Flyover friends. (Everything's bigger in Texas ... except arts coverage, wink.) The combination of late-onset NEA Institute exhaustion, health troubles, copious antihistamines, and the formidable "Best Of" of issue (love-hated by altweekly staffers everywhere) on the horizon have prevented me from accomplishing much more than washing my hair every (other) day. I've even developed an immunity to coffee, believe it or not. (Why do I get the feeling that when I tell my friends I'm just drinking it for the flavor, they look as if I'd just told them I read Playboy for the articles. Sigh.)

But things are happening hereabouts. The Marfa Film Fest is near (May 1-5), and I for one cannot wait to watch There Will Be Blood on the Alamo Drafthouse's giant inflatable screen in the film's still-standing set. Definitely wasn't my favorite P.T. Anderson film; in fact, the more distance I get the more reservations I have (or the more I'm able to put my finger on them). But I'll watch anything Robert Elswit shoots.

SA film/makers should be in abundance, too, and apparently Dennis Hopper's coming also. (How long will I be able to I refrain from "Pop quiz, hotshot" jokes? Your guess is as good as mine.) 

Now, closer to home, something's has been on my mind since I reviewed San Pedro Playhouse's production of Crowns (Regina Taylor's musical adaptation of Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry's coffee-table book, Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats; not fantastically written, but extremely well performed here).

Anyway, if my snarky ass was in charge of the San Antonio theater scene, programming would be a lot different. All together now: Duh! But I've gotta say, though I may not love San Pedro Playhouse's every show (I lean edgier), I honor its decision to regularly produce plays that showcase local African-American talent. (According to information from the U.S. Census Bureau, only 6.8% of San Antonians identified as black or African American.) Aida, Dreamgirls, and now, Crowns, have all graced the stage of San Antonio's oldest public theater recently.

I haven't attended all of the Playhouse's shows, so I can't say with any certainty how multi-racially cast its other productions are. It's one of my dearest hopes that people don't feel boxed into casting "the canon" with Caucasians all the time, that performers of color aren't ghettoized into plays written specifically about the African-American or Latino experience; the Cat on a Hot Tin Roof  revival would suggest we're moving in that direction, anyway.

That's something I'll be keeping my eyes open for here, friends, and I'll be sure to report back. Happy Weekend. 

April 18, 2008 3:35 PM | | Comments (0)

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