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February 27, 2008

Newsflash: You Don't Get Rich in the Theater

Joe Nickell

About a month ago, Orange County Register blogger Paul Hodgins wrote a post about his conversations with various theater professionals around the Los Angeles area.

His findings are no real surprise:

Those who bemoan the state of American theater should consider this sobering fact: even for its most successful playwrights and directors, it's a world without money or security.

Of course, Hodgins bases what he says on the anecdotal evidence he sees around Orange County and L.A.

Which makes me wonder: Is it better, or worse, in smaller cities around the country? My gut tells me worse; there's certainly no-one in my town of Missoula making a living as a freelance theater professional. In fact, even here -- more than 1,000 miles from Los Angeles -- the only folks I know making a living by writing scripts or acting do pretty much all their business in Hollywood.

But I also know that life in Missoula is a lot less expensive than in L.A. (just ask the scads of transplants who come here every year to get away from the big city, pushing up local housing prices....Not that I'm BITTER or anything...grrrr).

And as a journalist, I had an eye-opening conversation with a senior Chicago Tribune reporter a year ago in which it became clear that my standard of living here is actually no worse and in some ways infinitely better than his.

Journalists aren't theatricals, of course. But I do wonder, can people make a decent living acting, directing, and/or writing plays outside the major metro hubs in America?

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February 25, 2008

Miss Evers' Boys

Bridgette Redman

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.

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November 9, 2007

Making Theater About the Midwest

Bridgette Redman

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.

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October 25, 2007

Is grief a conflict?

Bridgette Redman

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.

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June 21, 2007

Why awards?

Bridgette Redman

Last week was the week for theater awards in Lansing. Both the traditional daily, The Lansing State Journal, and the alternative weekly, the City Pulse, came out with its theater awards.

The City Pulse awarded Pulsars to any of 10 organizations that their judges felt represented the "best" in a 9-month period. They assigned three judges to attend each show and then tallied point totals from their judging forms. It's judges included their critics and readers from the community who responded to a call for participation. The awards were given out in a dinner ceremony which was open to the entire theater community for the low price of $5 if bought in advance, $10 at the door--a bargain even for starving actors. It was their second time giving out full season Pulsars (they'd given out two summer awards and been bullied into not handing them out last year).

The Lansing State Journal awarded Thespies for the 39th straight year. These awards are open to anyone doing theater in the Greater Lansing area and include "special" awards to recognize theatrical achievements in any area. These awards are decided by a committee that includes all of the staff's critics, arts writers, and a few recruited individuals--one who directs and the other whose background is only that of theater attendee. Committee members nominate, discuss, arm wrestle, and vote on each category individually.

Every year, the awards end up being controversial.

Continue reading "Why awards?"

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June 17, 2007

Critical Relativism

Joe Nickell

Every day in my work as an arts journalist in Montana, I think about the standards by which I should assess the art that I confront here. Montana theater is not the same as New York theater, for reasons not only of scale but of culture. While in Los Angeles for this year's NEA arts journalism institute in theater, listening to big-city theater journalists and critics talk about the particular challenges of their jobs, this became an even more poignant issue for me. My job is not like their jobs, because our theater is not like their theater and my culture is not their culture.

When I returned to Montana, I was asked to write an essay about my experiences at the institute for Montana Journalism Review, a publication of the University of Montana's journalism school.

I chose to use that soapbox as an opportunity to dive into the issue of what I now refer to as critical relativism. The essay was just published this week. Rather than rehash what I wrote, I thought I'd share the whole thing.

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May 1, 2007

Home at Madison Rep

Jennifer A. Smith


In this neck of the woods, Madison Repertory Theatre is currently staging Samm-Art Williams' "Home," about a rural African-American man in tiny Cross Roads, North Carolina. Much of what happens in "Home" is outside my own personal experience: I'm white, do not practice a religion and live in the North, whereas Cephus, the show's protagonist, is black, a man of deep faith and lives in the South. I'm also of a different generation than Cephus. It's a simplistic point, but part of the reason theater (or any art form) is worthwhile is to give us a taste of lives other than our own. Yet it's also refreshing to see's one's own experiences on stage now and again--something I'm not sure local audience members of color get enough of.


The audience at "Home" on a recent Sunday was more diverse than I usually see at Madison Rep, both in terms of age and ethnicity. The crowd felt a little more alive, thanks to a large contingent of teens. "Home" is being presented as part of the "African-American Artist Series," which I have mixed feelings about. On the one hand, it's obviously worthy to have a regular, ongoing commitment to working with playwrights, actors and directors of color. Yet on the other hand, why must this be set aside in a special series? Shouldn't this be happening more frequently, as a matter of course?


My review of this show appears later this week in Isthmus, Madison's alt weekly. I'll come back later and add a link.


In the meantime, here's some coverage of the play from Capital City Hues, a local multicultural paper (including an interview with actor Patrick Sims, who is also a professor at the University of Wisconsin).


UPDATE:¬ Here's my review of "Home" from the May 4 edition of Isthmus.

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April 4, 2007

Triple Tag-Team Theater Criticism

Joe Nickell

Hesitant to trust a professional critic? Maybe you'd prefer what the critic's mom and dad have to say. This week in the Burlington Free Press, staff writer Victoria Welch reviewed a performance of "Parenting 101: A Musical Guide to Raising Parents." She also enlisted her parents to review the performance. The result is a truly fun read, and a clever way of bringing new voices into the paper.

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April 2, 2007

The devil went down to Billings

Joe Nickell

Jaci Webb of the Billings Gazette reviews a production of "La Mano del Diablo," an original one-act play by two Billings locals. Webb says the play "dregs up issues about Manifest Destiny, war and ethnic discrimination. It's almost too much to take in during one evening, and it's bound to leave you wondering about the seeds of discrimination and mankind's lust for land." Heady stuff.

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March 28, 2007

What makes a classic a classic?

Bridgette Redman

There are as many answers to that question as there are classics themselves. However, a textbook answer is that it has themes that are universal and endure beyond the moment of the play's first staging. Arthur Miller's The Crucible falls into the category, even when it is sometimes pigeonholed into being "about" the Salem Witch Trials or McCarthyism.

Mike Hughes of the Lansing State Journal asked the performers in Lansing Community College's production of the show why it is relevant today--making for an interesting read about a well-known play.

The director of The Crucible is also Artistic Director for the Peppermint Creek Players, a group that also opened Hedwig and the Angry Inch last weekend. It was a show that also had new relevancy for area theater-goers. In recent weeks, Michigan has had a hate crime killing of a gay man, a business that supported the LBGT community forced to close down, and a transsexual professor fired from Spring Arbor College.¬ Perhaps sometimes we could wish that art didn't need to be so relevant.

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March 19, 2007

Savannah Actor's Theatre

John Stoehr

I wanted to add this clip of a local theater troupe, because I could. Technology is wonderful. Seriously, this is a case in which young actors newly graduated from an art school taking the risk of creating theater that's challenging and sometimes downright weird. And it's working. High schoolers are being drawn to the theater. High schoolers! Something is right.

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March 16, 2007

Recent Reviews from 2007 NEA Fellows

Bridgette Redman

Dreams & Blue Eyes

Byron Woods of The Indy captures the emotions of two separate performances in his reviews of Midsummer Night's Dream and The Bluest Eye.

Putting Classical Literature on Stage

Sherry Deatrick reviews a recent production of The Scarlet Pimpernel for the Louisville Eccentric Observer. "Given the rather restricted space (the MeX is the smallest of the Kentucky Center's venues), the cast manages to be quite kinetic and keep the proceedings action-packed. You won't miss a beat in this intimate setting. The only distraction was the cheesy synthesizer playing over the loudspeaker to accompany the actors' singing. At times, the music was louder than the vocalists, and I'd much rather hear them."

She also reviewed adaptations of Chaim Potok's The Chosen and Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.

Inheriting Talent

This week, Darcie Flansburg reviewed David Auburn's Proof, ""Proof" is a testament to the struggle of genius and the burden of good genes, and Crafton Hills College's production presented the story with strength and conviction." and See How They Run.

Spread too Thin

Michael Howley questions in the Montgomery Advertiser whether Ghost of a Chance would have been better had the director had more technical assistance.

Artful Constriction

In very few words, Marty Hughley gets at the heart of a production of Mix Up. Equally beautiful is his review of the dance concert Stories of Us.

Cats Still Worth Seeing

Kyle Minor reviews a non-Equity performance of Cats that is filled with energy and strong performances. He also liked Man of La Mancha.

Review Roundup for Oregon Shakespeare Festival

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival opened four plays, which Richard Moeschal compares in the second part of a round-up.

That gets us partway through the list of fellows. More soon.

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March 2, 2007

After the Storm

Bridgette Redman

In one of the NEA Arts Journalism Insitute sessions, Ben Cameron expounded on how the original vision for theater non-profits is that shows would begin on Broadway and then make their way out to the non-profits. Instead, the opposite has happened. Shows are now being created in regional theaters and then make their way to Broadway, a place where only the safe, money-makers appear.

So it's not too surprising that people who for many years made their careers in New York are heading back to their hometowns. Mark Ruhala, an artist who choreographed some of NEA Chairman Dan Gioia's poetry has returned to his hometown where he is bringing experimental dance and minimalist theater to young people. This weekend they open the critically acclaimed Once On This Island, a musical the town has yet to see.

Earlier this week, the composers Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty hosted a benefit for Katrina victims and the documentary "After the Storm," a film version about how Katrina survivors produced their musical one year after the hurricane:

After The Storm is a non-profit Film/Theater project designed to bring hope and financial aid to children and young adults of New Orleans. A feature documentary follows a company of young, non-professional actors from New Orleans as they stage a musical play one year after the levees broke and changed their lives. The film will then be used as a springboard to launch a nationwide program encouraging high school drama clubs and community theaters to raise money for the established 501(c)3. All proceeds from both the play and the film will go to After The Storm Foundation.

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February 28, 2007

"Critical Relativism"

John Stoehr

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.

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February 27, 2007

Nilo Cruz's "Life Is a Dream"

John Stoehr

"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)

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February 23, 2007

Hamsters and the Internet

Bridgette Redman

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.

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February 22, 2007

Arts as Community Dialogue

John Stoehr

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.

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February 19, 2007

Good reads

Joe Nickell

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!

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February 16, 2007

Bad News from Owosso

mclennan

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.

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February 15, 2007

37 Roles? Tiny budget? Easy: hire only one actor.

Joe Nickell

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.

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The LA theater scene from a Vermont perspective

John Stoehr

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."

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February 14, 2007

"Critiquing the Critics"

John Stoehr

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.

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Theatre News - Criticism Archive



February 13, 2007

On the boards, between floors

Joe Nickell

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.

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Theatre News - Criticism Archive



Super theater

Joe Nickell

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)

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