Theatre News - Criticism: February 2007 Archives
One of the concepts inspired by the NEA Arts Journalism Institute was the idea of "critical relativism." Joe Nickell came up with the idea after hearing John Lahr's talk. Joe was concerned that the same standards of criticism could not be brought to a production in Missoula, Mont., where he is the arts and entertainment reporter for the Missoulian, that Lahr brings to any number of shows in any number of cities around the world.
I had this in mind when I saw an original play recently by a start-up group here called the Savannah Actor's Theatre. The group was the subject of a previous post of mine called "Arts as Community Dialogue" in which a reader of the Savannah Morning News responded angrily to the attention I paid to the Savannah Actor's Theatre but not to her group (typical professional envy; no big deal).
The piece I wrote about Savannah Actor's Theatre was influenced by Joe's "critical relativism." I didn't want to write a staight-ahead review, because the play, called "Fiction, or Wild Stories," wasn't really good. It was poorly executed, though it had potential, as I say in the piece, but it wasn't good enough to recommend to a ticket-buying readership.
I could have written a thumbs-down review, but I realized the play had a larger - and more interesting - meaning that a conventional review could not capture. So I wrote a kind of critic's notebook (I call it an "arts notebook" for reasons that will make for a future post). And I set the play in the larger context of theater in Savannah, its tourist trade and the need in the arts to attract younger audiences (the theater group for some reason is getting lots of high schoolers to come to their shows).
In this way, I think I was able to assess the play relatively speaking and to extrapolate its larger meaning. Or at least begin a conversation that will hopefully evolve.
Which leads me to a theory I developed at the NEA Institute that may be an extention of Joe's "critical relatavism" theory: that we critics need to not only examine the quality of theatrical productions; we have to examine their meaning to the community.
Those of us who are not John Lahr likely work in communities where there are many who do not understand, appreciate or participate in the arts. These people may not understand mise-en-scène, but they do understand concepts like education, economic impact and quality of life.
Therefore, it's up to us as professional communicators to bridge those gaps in understanding. Not as educators, as I mention in this post. But as journalists who know what's important in the communities we live and work in.
Just as Joe suggests we deploy a relativistic approach to our qualitative assessments of local theater, I'm suggesting we endeavor to relate what's critical about the arts to our communities. We have to do more than review. We have to be cultural journalists, too.
"There are no angels in Los Angeles"
Our good friend Mia Leonin, one of the fellows of the 2007 NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater, wrote this piece about a new translation by Miami-based playwright Nilo Cruz, whose "Life Is a Dream" was playing at South Coast Repertory while we were in Los Angeles.
"It would be easy to reduce 'Life Is a Dream' to its fatalism versus free will paradox, but Cruz's translation strikes the chord of an even more reverberant and often-ignored theme: in the spiritual battle between destiny and self-determination, forgiveness, not willfulness or witchery, is man's only hope. Cruz's translation lays bare this subtlety . . ."
(Thanks to Mia Leonin, drama critic for the Miami Herald and Category305.com)
There are so many ways to create art and artists are constantly exploring in every medium.
Two Lansing, Michigan playwrights are premiering a show this evening that grew out of an e-mail conversation. They began riffing on the banalities of overheard office conversation and from there, a play grew. What it has to do with tormented hamsters remains to be seen. When asked what he'd like the audience to leave with, Playwright and Icarus Falling Artistic Director Jeff Croff responded with, "I would like them to leave with less money ... er, actually, I'd prefer they leave with the need to talk about the show with friends over coffee. I'd like them to leave with a bit of exhaustion and wonder. I'd like them to leave that poor little hamster alone."
On another related note, the interview for this story ended up being a lot of fun. Since the play had its genesis in e-mail, we decided to do the interview as a three-way chat between myself and the two playwrights. It was a medium we were all comfortable with and it fostered a great deal of banter and perhaps more spontaneity than we might have had in a more traditional format. As a journalist, it also helped to have all their responses typed and saved and be able to concentrate during the interview on asking questions and talking with both people.
One of the talking points of the NEA Arts Journalism Institute concerned criticism not just as a mode of assessement but a mode of engagement with the community. With this in mind, I posted an angry email to my blog on the Savannah Morning News website.
The email was in response to a think piece I wrote on Feb. 19 regarding Savannah's lack of a thriving theater scene. It was also about how I detected the possibility of change after seeing a new original play. I then posted a response to her letter, keeping in mind the idea of engagement with the community.
As I say in the preface to my response: "I consider this exchange to be part of a conversation about the arts that every community ought to have. We should get angry about the arts. We get upset about football. We get emotionally attached to baseball teams. Why not theater? We should fight. We ought to disagree. That way there's no mistake this is important to our lives."
Let me know if you think I should have handled this differently, in terms of tone and phrasing. Otherwise, I hope this serves as at least a passable example of a concept that will likely preoccupy all of us in the future, as the print medium shrinks and online forums grow.
Call it the curse of topicality. The week that North Carolina's Council of State is forced to vote on changes in lethal injection protocols, a regional company stages Dead Man Walking. Read about how this all came together, here.
There's a fun interview with poet Andrei Codrescu at the Idaho Statesman site; check it out here.
Apparently Monet plays well in the outback: the Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors bureau announced that "the Monet in Normandy exhibition at the North Carolina Museum of Art injected almost $24.3 million dollars in tourism revenue into the Wake County economy - more than double the initial projection." Just think....with all that money, maybe they could buy a Monet of their own! Anyway, read about it here.
Arts advocates in Kansas were relieved to learn that Gov. Matt Blunt has included money for the arts -- a little over $8 million -- in his annual budget recommendation. Though it's a pitance, some had feared the gov was going to stiff the arts completely. Read more here.
Floridians, apparently, love Florida -- Richard Florida, that is: "The Miami-based John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has picked Tallahassee and two other communities where the Knight brothers owned newspapers, Charlotte, N.C., and Duluth, Minn./Superior, Wisc., as the launch sites of the new Knight Creative Communities Initiative. It's a partnership with social theorist Richard Florida, author of 'The Rise of the Creative Class,' and Leon County's business, education and government leaders to enhance the area's economic base beyond government and education." Read more about it here.
Finally, at risk of self-promo, here is a review I wrote of the most recent performance by the Missoula Symphony Orchestra. I've gotten notes of thanks and praise from members of the chorus and the audience; I've also gotten angry letters telling me I need to show "fealty" (!?!?) to the orchestra and that reviews like this "will shut down this valued institution." So I guess a mixed-bag performance inspired a mixed-bag review which resulted in mixed responses!
From Bridgette Redman:
Theater people talk a lot about how theater builds community and makes their home a better place to live. It's that sense of community that is felt viscerally when tragedy strikes.
I'd skipped over the front page of the newspaper this morning on my way to work to get to the arts section. So it wasn't until an e-mail arrived pleading for sets, costumes, and volunteers that I heard the news that was on the front cover.
Owosso is a town of 16,000 people. Its downtown has many cultural landmarks including a castle built by a famous novelist. But the community's heart is found in the spotlights of the Lebowsky Theater, a historic building where the Owosso Community Players draw huge crowds every year with their musicals. The building was erected in 1926 and Players purchased it in 1991, making them one of the few local groups to own their own performance space.
At least, that was true until fire ripped through it Wednesday, destroying the auditorium, the stage, their equipment, and all of the sets and costumes for "Beauty and the Beast", the musical that was to open next Friday.
It's difficult to describe the death of an arts space. No matter what happens with rebuilding or insurance, there is a loss that can't be replaced. All the hopes and dreams poured into the space, all the work, all the laughter can now be sought only in memory and ashes.
When I last made the hour drive out there it was in 2005 to see Motown's Martha Reeves perform in a Motown Revue alongside singers from the community. My father tells a story of his childhood how his first trip to a "big city" was to Owosso and what was then the movie theater. Each year, the Owosso Players have put on more and bigger musicals and shows, making themselves a source of pride to their entire community. Now they are homeless.
The Owosso Community Players plan to open their musical next week on schedule. They don't know where and they don't know how, they just know that they're not going to let tragedy stop them from doing what art does best: bring people together.
More from Bridgette Redman in Lansing:
One-hander plays are becoming increasingly common. Partly this is because theater budgets are shrinking and the payroll strain is lightened when they have to pay only one actor rather than multiple ones.
I'm still undecided on what I think of the genre. When done well, they can be immensely entertaining to watch. While I didn't care for the script's conclusion (though perhaps it was meant to be more satirical than it came across), Michigan's Williamston Theatre's production of Fully Committed was highly entertaining (click here for a full review).
It was a show that did underline a characteristic of one-hander shows: They're often more about the skill and technique of the actor than they are about the story. They're fun to watch because of what the actor is pulling off. They rent a low-budget space on the plane of spectacle theater.
Our colleague Victoria Welch, a staff writer for the Burlington (Vermont) Free Press, writes in this morning's paper in the spirit of Art.Rox, offering a snowy New England point-of-view of the vibrant and somewhat unexpected theater scene in sunny Southern California.
This article contains reviews of three plays seen by the 25 fellows, one of whom was the vicacious Victoria, of the 2007 NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater hosted by the University of Southern California: David Mamet's "Speed-the-Plow," the world premiere of Jason Robert Brown's musical "13," and Stephen Sachs' adaptation of August Strindberg's classic "Miss Julie."
Curt Holman, a 2005 fellow of the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at the University of Southern California and writer for Creative Loafing in Atlanta, has thoughtfully pointed out a cover story, published in Time Out New York in December, that turns the tables on Big Apple critics. Anyone who reads Art.Rox ought to check it out. The book critics section is particularly interesting.
What's also interesting is the thinking expressed in the introduction. Writer Nathan Huang cleverly notes that critics give readers a lot to talk about, even if readers have no intention of experiencing the theater, concert or performance in question. One purpose of criticism, in other words, is providing readers with information with which to take action. But isn't another purpose to contribute to the ongoing dialogue of a community?
As Huang writes: "We live in a city that churns out massive amounts of art and entertainment, then proceeds to talk about it endlessly. At times it doesn't even matter if you haven't seen, read or heard something, as long as you can gab about it--and our local critics provide the handiest cheat sheets."
Even if a city doesn't churn out as much culture as New York (and let's face it, name one that does), culture still plays an important role in the lives of everyday people, even if they themselves don't know it. Here in Savannah, where I'm the arts and culture reporter for the Savannah Morning News, people love -- and I mean love -- high school and college football.
There is an Southern adage worth remembering -- you don't get married in the fall, you don't die in the fall, you don't do anything in the fall except watch football. The result is people are gabbing about football endlessly come autumn. But why can't they also gab about the arts? Their children are involved in all sorts of cultural activities, in school and in other organizations. I suspect parents don't talk about the arts at least in part because such talk would be considered haughty and highfalutin.
Case in point, I was reading the New York Times while waiting for my lunch yesterday. The waitress came by with my order and patiently waited while I moved by newspaper. She said: "I don't want to put this on your New York Times," with a tone of voice that suggested I was some fancy-pants Yankee doing something regular folk, like her, don't do.
But when it comes to the arts, people in reality are very engaged; they just don't talk about it. In my view, that's where we as arts journalists can play a critical role -- by normalizing what they already experience and giving them the vocabulary to use in talking about it. Perhaps someday even a place like Savannah will talk about the arts as endlessly as we do about sports.
And you thought there was nothing new in the theater...Just look what's happening in Louisville:
"While site-specific performances have become more prevalent, no company, as far as Louisville's Specific Gravity Ensemble can tell, has staged plays in elevators. Friday, the company premiered Elevator Plays: Ascent-Descent/Assent-Dissent."
Read all about it in Sherry Deatrick's review from the Louisville Eccentric Observer.
Several of the presenters at the recent NEA institute on theater journalism riffed on the importance of painting vivid detail in critiques of theater. Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune told us he has a note posted on his computer that says: "Be Specific. Be Brave." Dominic Papatola of the St. Paul Pioneer Press asserted, "what we should try to articulate is the relative humidity in the room." Several others echoed that theme.
Perhaps it's illuminating to look outside of what we normally call theater criticism to find examples of such in-the-scene writing. Imagine, if you will, how a theater review would read if it took an approach more like this blog post, by Juan Carlos Rodriguez, about preparations for the Super Bowl in Miami. You can almost smell the pavement, the tensions...and the beer.
(Thanks to Mia Leonin for pointing us to Rodriguez's post)