Being Clarence

Theatre critics sometimes pop up as characters in plays, and like dentist characters in movies, the portrayals are rarely if ever positive. Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound and Ira Levin’s Critic’s Choice are cases in point.

The other day, I had the unusual experience of seeing myself (or, rather a weird version of myself) portrayed on stage by an actor in a local theatre production. Even though Sleepwalkers Theatre‘s production of a new play March to November lambasted me, my writing and (predictably) the theatre critics profession in general, I rather relished the experience.

As a blog post I penned back in September testifies, I was completely baffled and very intrigued to hear that the San Francisco company had decided to create a play based on a column I had written about political theatre back in January for SF Weekly.

In the column, I urged theatre companies to create plays about politics that didn’t just preach to the choir and massage liberal theatre goer egos, but rather shook up lazy lefty thinking. Sleepwalkers’ co-founder Torre Ingersoll-Thorp responded in an unusual way to my article. Instead of just sending me an email like most of my readers do, he wrote a play about a young playwright caught between wanting to set the world on fire by creating politically incendiary work and grappling with the realities of her complicated personal life.

The play features a theatre critic by the name of Clarence who works for a San Francisco alternative weekly called the SF Standard. In a further thinly-disguised move, the Standard is embroiled in a lawsuit with its chief competitor over anti-competitive ad sales practices — a bit of trivia which echoes the current real-life situation between SF Weekly and The San Francisco Bay Guardian in real life. The main plot springs from the playwright’s feelings of annoyance at and admiration for a column written by Clarence about political theatre — which, according to Ingersoll-Thorp, mirrors his own mixed reaction upon reading my my article back in January. Furthermore, the play quotes freely from my text.

I immensely enjoyed and appreciated seeing the ways in which Ingersoll-Thorp grapples with the issues that arose from my article, even though sitting through the play was a bizarre experience. Even though the drama has its flaws (the themes need refining and drawing out and there’s a little too much navel-gazing going on) it makes some interesting points about the vexed role of art as a revolutionary tool and, most significantly, the relationship between the political and the personal.

I was also amused by the character of Clarence the critic, who is quite a sweet chap at heart even if he dresses in drag (a voluminous and ill-fitting wedding dress) in the final scene of the play, has a rather unprofessional relationship with the principle playwright character, and has to deal with disgruntled artists whose work he’s been less than complimentary about in the past saying things about him like “you hijack artists’ futures every week with your column,” and “critics should be lined up and shot in Union Square.”

I’m truly flattered by Sleepwalkers Theatre’s riff on my essay. Ingersoll-Thorp has taken the ideas and run with them. With a bit of refinement, he might actually have an unusual play about politics on his hands. My review of the production is out in this week’s issue of SF Weekly.

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