lies like truth: May 2008 Archives

The sight of people walking down the street yakking into cellphones via wireless headsets used to unnerve me. If it wasn't bad enough that they were talking loudly and not paying attention to their immediate environment, the fact that they appeared to be talking to themselves owing to the absence of a phone clamped to their ears made their behavior seem all the more freakish.

So many people use wireless headsets these days that the "she's not deranged, she's just talking on her cellphone" phenomenon has become commonplace. And I'm happy to report that ever since I started taking singing lessons, I've found a way to turn the public's gradual acceptance of the wireless racket to my advantage.

Whenever I walk down a street, I take the opportunity to practice my scales, arpeggios and songs. If I sing quietly enough, I just look like someone talking via a Bluetooth headset. A great way to squeeze in a bit of vocal practice without worrying that whether I look like a weirdo, it's an ingenious ruse.

On another note, I'm skipping town for a conference in North Carolina on Sunday and may not have time to blog until I return to the office at the end of next week. Needless to say, I'll be leaving my wireless headset at home. 
May 29, 2008 2:48 PM | | Comments (0)
When I first heard that Ray Winstone had been cast in the role of Beowulf in Robert Zemeckis' digitally-enhanced movie adaptation of the famous Nordic legend, I was confused. I couldn't quite see how the balding, middle-aged English actor with a pronounced paunch and history of playing thugs in terse British gangster flicks, could convincingly play the role of the sexy Scandinavian superhero.

It was only after watching the "special features" section about the making of the film on the DVD that I understood just how far the physical transformation of an actor can go in contemporary movie-making without entering the realm of cartoon animation one hundred percent.

For anyone who isn't familiar with the movie (which came out last year and starred, alongside Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, John Malkovich, Crispin Glover and Angelina Jolie) Zemeckis employs an unusal hybrid filming technique. The director and his team create a cross between a fully-animated film and a live-action feature by employing computers to capture and manipulate performances by real actors via the use of tiny electronic nodes attached to many parts of the actors' bodies and faces.

The half-real, half-cartoon look gives the film an otherworldly aesthetic, which works rather well in the context of Beowulf's larger-than-life story.

What's interesting is to see the extent to which different actors are transformed on screen. While Angelina Jolie and Anthony Hopkins are very recognizably Angelina Jolie and Anthony Hopkins, Crispin Glover and John Malkovich look a lot less like their real selves. But even though Glover actually undergoes the greatest physical transformation of any actor in the movie in the role of the monster Grendel (his gnarled trunk is reminiscent of a Giacometti sculpture that's been melted in an oven) Winstone's Beowulf provides, for me personally, the biggest shock.

I think this is because of the unsettling relationship between the character's appearance and the actor's voice. The film mutates both Glover's body and voice. But Winstone, though transformed from a pudgy middle-aged actor into a studly, 6-foot-five legend with flowing blond hair and a six-pack, retains his own purposeful-gritty voice. The combination is unnerving.

I like the idea of an actor getting to embody a character so vastly different to his usual physical "type" in a Hollywood movie. This happens rather more frequently on stage than it does on screen. For example, one of the best performances I ever saw in the theatre was the hefty actor Simon Russell-Beale take on the role of Ariel, the light-as-air spirit in a production of The Tempest directed by Sam Mendes at The Barbican in London about 15 years ago.

It's a shame that the movie industry doesn't take the risk of casting against type more often. It would be great, for instance, to see Zemeckis cast Winstone in a future production of Beowulf without feeling the need to enhance the actor digitally with the aid of a computer. I don't suppose that'll happen any time soon though.
May 28, 2008 7:26 PM | | Comments (0)
As a theatre critic, I count myself lucky that I don't often find phrases lifted from my reviews and splattered across theatre marquees, press releases and ads for shows around town. This could of course be because my views are deemed unimportant by the producers. But I like to think that it's because my prose makes for lousy advertising copy.

In any case, I was gratified to learn from Variety yesterday that the U.K. has passed legislation banning theatre producers from using out-of-context quotes from theatre critics' reviews. According to the story, British theatres will no longer be able to use lines from reviews which, taken out of the context of the broader article, make potential audiences think a show is a triumph, when the review actually conveys a different opinion. Starting next Monday, misinforming the public in this way will become a criminal offense when the biggest overhaul of consumer protection law in the UK for decades takes effect. Producers could be fined up to £5,000 ($9,900) and/or face a maximum of two years in prison if prosecutors can prove that theatregoers were misled.

In the States, misquoting critics in ads is not as common a practice as it once was. But the tactic still appeals to some producers, especially to those looking for a way to fatten a turkey. Two notable examples culled from an old piece on the subject by ex-New York Times theatre critic Frank Rich are:

1. ''Marlowe,'' a musical which ran ads claiming that one of Rich's colleagues at the New York Times had deemed the work ''more fun than Laurel and Hardy.'' What the critic had actually written, according to Rich, was that ''Marlowe'' was a disaster akin to Laurel and Hardy sending a piano crashing down a flight of stairs.

2. The 1984 play ''Alone Together'' posted ads boasting that the critics had ''compared" the play to such ''smash hit comedies'' as ''Mary, Mary,'' ''Never Too Late'' and ''Any Wednesday.'' Technically, this was accurate, said Rich, but the ads failed to note that the comparisons were all unflattering to ''Alone Together.'' Apparently, the city's Department of Consumer Affairs fined the show's producers $800 for the misdeed. I'm not sure if actual laws exist in the US -- like the ones about to take effect in the UK -- banning the practice of misquoting. But it's good to hear that at least local governments have been paying attention on occasion.

So why do I bring up this bit of theatrical arcana, when the modern world seems to be saying 'who cares what professional critics think anyway now that we can get as many views about a show as we like from all over the Internet'? I bring it up because professional theatre criticism, at its best, is an artform and deserves more respect. And critics are fighting enough important battles on other fronts -- e.g. for the health of the theatre scene, to persuade readers to try new things etc. -- without having to deal with being made to look like cheerleaders, especially for productions they loathe.
May 27, 2008 2:51 PM | | Comments (1)
A few months ago, I wrote a blog entry about being asked by local theatre company, Killing My Lobster, to participate in a fundraiser. The company's plan, which sounded bizarre albeit intriguing to me, was to auction off "en evening at the theatre with Chloe Veltman."

I didn't think anyone would plunk down their hard-earned cash for the item, but much to my surprise and bafflement it started a bit of a bidding war.

As a result of the auction, I ended up spending a delightful evening with a few local theatre buffs who wanted to catch a show and thereafter, over cocktails, discuss its contents as well as what goes on in the mind of a theatre critic. All good clean fun. Or was it?

In the weeks that elapsed between blogging about being asked to undertake this task for KML and going out on the theatre date with the winners, I encountered some contentious responses to my involvement with the auction. Basically, people who got in touch with me in response to my blog post -- mostly arts journalists -- thought it strange and even unprincipled for a critic to participate in a fundraiser for a theatre company. I'm glad that those people raised their concerns as it forced me to think about why I believe going ahead with the auction was a good idea.

Here is my rationale for allowing myself to be auctioned off by KML:

1. Objectivity is a facade behind which media organizations hide. Maintaining an artificial distance from artists e.g. by refusing to have conversations with them, doesn't necessarily make a critic's view of their work less open to bias. In my experience, it is possible to be on speaking terms with an artist and still express an honest opinion about his or her work. This may sound hopelessly idealistic or self-deluded but I've been in this game for long enough now to have an inkling that it's possible to operate in the real world and be true with one's writing without paying lipservice to this untenable notion of "objectvity." In my experience, artists value honesty and the critic's task is to write first and foremost from a place deep in the gut -- and only afterwards employ the services of the heart and head. Plus I don't mind getting into a good fight over what I write. In general, I have found that worthwhile relationships with people I know in the arts world have remained cordial even when my responses to the work haven't always been positive. And it's important to bare in mind that even soured relationships don't generally stay sour forever.

2. What are the arts for if they're not about engendering discussion and exchanging ideas? If an individual or organization offers me a forum to get people talking about art, I cannot help but embrace it.

3. The critical process process shouldn't be shrouded in mystery. We should take every opportunity we can to be open and talk about what we do. Critics' livelihoods depend upon it -- and, by extension, the health of the cultural conversation.

4. The Bay Area theatre community is a tight-knit entity. It's ludicrous for a critic to think that he or she can maintain total distance from artists. We're all in this together, I think. But, by the same token, this doesn't by any stretch of the imagination mean that I see myself as a cheerleader. It's my job to get ideas spinning in response to a work of art. Offering my opinion, positive, negative or mixed, is just part of a broader mandate. Like G B Shaw, I'm a gadfly; a necessary scourge.

5. Life's too short not to try new concepts and see if they work. I went into this in the spirit of experimentation. So far so good, I think. We'll see how things transpire in the future. As for my relationship with KML? Nothing changes. Why should it?
May 26, 2008 7:03 PM | | Comments (2)
Should audiences for performances be more vocal about how they feel about their experiences? Or should they keep their thoughts to themselves or the people with whom they attended the show?

I ask these questions in response to a conversation I had just a couple of hours ago with a few theatregoers following a trip to see a production of a new rock opera in Berkeley. I attended the theatre tonight with three articulate, brilliant people who see a lot of live performance and have strong opinions about what they experience on stage. One member of my party, a theatre producer with an eye for detail, mentioned that some of the lighting cues had distracted her from what was otherwise a terrific evening's entertainment. "Some of the actors were standing there doing things in the dark," she said. "I would have liked to see what they were doing."

The point she raised was a good one. And it was the sort of thing that few people without practical experience in making theatre are able to articulate. But when I asked if she -- or indeed any of the other people in my party -- had ever taken it upon themselves to write to a director or producer to let them know their feelings about a show, I was met with a chorus of decisive no's.

They explained to me that they don't see it as their place to offer such feedback. Out of respect for the director's vision and the production team's hard work, they keep their thoughts to themselves. "I see it as my role to go to a play, pay attention, clap and leave," my producer friend said.

Somehow, this seems all wrong to me. What is theatre if it isn't a conversation between the stage and the stalls? I don't think audiences should shy away from offering their thoughts, especially if those thoughts are well-thought-out, succinctly articulated and come from the heart. Audiences shouldn't feel that the only place to give an opinion or ask a question about a production is during sanctioned forums like post-show talkback sessions with playwrights, directors and casts. These sessions are generally a waste of time in my opinion as they tend to breed nothing but sychophantic praise. Very few people are willing to stick their necks out and offer constructive criticism in public.

I'm not suggesting that a director should change his or her vision in response to what one audience member's misgivings about the lighting design. And I think that theatre makers always have a right to ignore audience comments if they wish.

But the channels of communication should be open to the extent that members of the public should feel empowered to air their views. And under the best circumtances, artists should take the time to respond to the comments, if possible on an individual basis. Unlike fixed artforms such as movies, music recordings and oil paintings, live performances are mutable things. If enough audience members are bothered by the fact that they can't see the actors in particular scenes and these shadowy moments can't be justified by the overall aesthetic or theme of the production, then maybe, just maybe, there's a case to be made for incorporating the feedback to make a better show before the end of the run.

The theatre never used to be a polite artform. Audiences in Shakespeare's day threw rotten vegetables at actors if they didn't like what was happening on stage, after all. Down with politess, I say, and up with vocal audiences.
May 25, 2008 10:21 PM | | Comments (6)
"Uh Oh" I thought to myself as Dana Gioia stepped on stage at The Merchants Exchange in San Francisco yesterday evening: The National Endowment for the Arts Chairman and former poet laureate was wearing a custard yellow knitted tie with a square end.

Turns out the tie was more than a fashion faux-pas. Startling in its guarish originality against the backdrop of a dullish tweed jacket, nothingy shirt and sensible slacks, it served as a metaphor for Gioia's current situation as, in his owns words, "the chairman of an arts agency in a country that isn't sure that it wants one."

Inspite of myself, I found myself very much taken in by Gioia's talk about "why art matters." Like his poetry, Gioia's approach to public speaking is refreshingly old-fashioned. He quotes liberally from literature to undersore his points. Shakespeare, Kafka and Tennyson, among others, all appeared during his deep-feeling half-hour lecture. He speaks without notes in a mellifluous voice. There's earnestness in his words but he's also very casual in his delivery, wanderning about the stage as he does, and stopping every now and again to loaf against a nearby podium.

What's more, he's passionate about his subject matter. Gioia didn't say anything particularly revolutionary. But what he said needs to be restated time and time again so that people who don't understand the value of art to society start to get it, and to remind even the most stalwart arts fans why they do what they do.

Gioia's discussion about truth and beauty was like something Robin Williams' character would have intoned in Peter Weir's movie Dead Poets' Society. I felt like an impressionable teen listening to him speak. Gioia's desire to reconnect people with their culture and enable them to understand that art is an essential part of human life rather than a pretty luxury for those who can afford made a lot of sense.

But, oh, how I pity him! How often must his idealistic words fall on deaf ears in the White House? "Oh look," the bureaucrats must say as they pass him in the corridor. "There goes the poet in the custard yellow tie."
May 23, 2008 8:12 AM | | Comments (0)
The funny thing about waiting for a few weeks before getting around to transcribing an interview from voice recorder to page, is that it's easy to forget what the conversation with the subject was like in the first place.

I interviewed Mike Leigh in mid-April for a piece I am writing about the brilliant British film director for The Believer Magazine. For one reason or another, I've only just got around to listening to the recording I made of our morning together. It was quite a lively interview. The first few minutes in particular got things off to a rollicking start.

It all began with Mr. Leigh, who was wearing a baggy beige suit, exclaiming that his braces (that's "suspenders" to all you Americans out there) had come undone.

"There are two kinds of men in the world," I said, trying to be suave as we walked into the interview room together and the director fiddled with his trousers (or "pants" if you're tuning in from the U.S.) "The ones who wear belts and the ones who wear braces."

Leigh said, "I wear both."

"I know how it feels to lose your braces," I continued, clearly on a roll. "Women are always worrying about their breasts falling out of their strapless dresses."

Leigh then launched into a bizarre little story which went like this:

"One day a waiter I know at The Savoy Hotel was serving a woman when one of her tits suddenly fell out of her dress. So he very discretely popped it back in again with a spoon. When he was done, he went back to the kitchen where he was greeted by the head waiter. "I saw what you did. Bravo," said the head waiter to his subordinate. "But remember this: Here at The Savoy we use warm spoons."

On the recording, there was a barely perceptible moment of silence while my mind raced to process the anecdote. Then I started laughing perhaps a little too hard. "That's a good story," I said. My enthusiasm evidently knew no bounds.

"It's what we call a joke," replied Leigh, dryly, dippping his beard into a cup of tea.
May 21, 2008 6:41 PM | | Comments (0)
I wonder if people have always been fascinated with bad art or whether it's elevation to rockstar status is a symptom of our own particular post-ironic times?

My question is prompted by recent articles in the media on both sides of the Atlantic about the Scottish weaver-turned-poet, William MacGonagall.

"MacGonagall has long been celebrated as Britain's worst poet, inspiring satirical tributes to his doggerel awfulness from Spike Milligan, Monty Python and even the Muppets," writes Esther Addley in The Guardian.

Now, it seems that the poet who was once pelted with fruit during a reading and who his own appreciation society call "without talent", is in demand. A collection of MacGonagall's poems, on A3 newspaper-style leaflets the poet is believed to have printed, was auctioned yesterday at an Edinburgh saleroom for £6,600 (about $13,000).

This is hardly a vast amount of money in manuscript auction terms when you consider that J K Rowling's limited edition handwritten The Tales of Beedle Bard sold for $3.98 million in 2007 and an original copy of the Magna Carta sold for $21.3 million. But it's still quite a sum for the work of an artist who is universally pilloried.

MacGonagall's cultural notoriety today isn't by any means an anomaly. For some reason, human beings love bad art. You only have to look at the sold-out performances of such music ensembles as the UK's Really Terrible Orchestra and the Bay Area's Porn Orchestra (that performs its ear-splitting works to projections of equally inept old porn movies -- yay! two bad artforms for the price of one!) not to mention the cult status of the films of Ed Wood to see just how passionate people can be about bad art.

Awful music, films, paintings etc inspire us because they make art feel less remote and high falutin'. Bad art puts artists on the same playing field as everyone else. And that seems to be comforting, in a perverse kind of way, to many people.

But I'm not sure how I feel about the hype surrounding mediocrity. I must admit that there's a special place in my heart for MacGonagall's terrible "Bridge of Tay" ode, mostly because my father used to recite it at the top of his voice in a hammy Scots accent every now and again when I was a kid.

But while reciting bad poetry is good for the soul in the sense that it makes us giggle, it's not great for culture as a whole. If we continue to make a big fuss of bad artists, then discerning quality from crap might become quite challenging for many people.The war against mediocrity must continue on all fronts.
May 20, 2008 7:44 PM | | Comments (1)
In general, the theatre doesn't do blood well. It's somehow pretty hard for live audiences to suspend their disbelief at the sight of a guy sticking a retractable plastic knife or blunt-tipped sword into the gap between an adversary's left side and his arm and watching a load of radioactive-looking ketchup spurt out from the fake wound. The cinema does gore so much more believably.

That's why the most engrossing plays and compelling productions so often use language to describe bloody scenes of violence and death or use sound and or/visuals in an artful way to convey grizzly actions. The Greeks understood this and kept fratricide, matricide and all other kinds of -cide in the wings, leaving the horror to our imaginations.

Every now and again, though, I come across a theatre production which manages to cause the bile to rise in our throats by finding a way to make gore work on stage. But even when these effects succeed, more often than not, they make us laugh as much as they shock us. This is frequently the case with the sheep's eyeballs and severed rubber heads used by San Francisco's grand guignol company, Thrillpeddlers.

At the weekend, however, I caught a production of Tracy Letts' Bug at San Francisco Playhouse which not only managed to put blood center stage, but also made it truly stomach-churning.

The drama pretty much reads like a knock off of every classic thriller in the movie cannon from The Fly to Psycho. The play tells the story of Agnes, a down-and-out junkie alcaholic who takes in a tortured young man Peter, who says he's on the run from the military. The two of them spend their days holed up in a seedy midwestern motel room. In between trying to keep Agnes' abusive ex-husband at bay, the two of them develop a crazy phobia about tiny insects invading their bodies.

When Gabriel Marin as Peter suddenly takes off his shirt to reveal a chest lacerated with wounds like he's some kind of latterday St Sebastian, responses from the audience range from sharp intakes of breath to uncomfortable laughter to cries. It's quite an effect. Marin's completely off-kielter (without going over the top) behavior makes us believe that he's suffering from some terrible inner torment. The wounds are a manifestation of the turmoil he's experiencing inside. It's truly frightening.

It's so rare to see blood done well on stage. Now at least I know it's not impossible. This clever marriage of taut writing, compelling stage makeup and brilliant acting may is very hard to achieve though. As the saying goes, kids: don't try this at home.
May 20, 2008 7:25 AM | | Comments (0)
Some pilgrimages must be made. I spent Thursday night three and a half hours down the California coast in San Luis Obispo listening to Chanticleer, the renowned San Francisco-based a capella male vocal ensemble, perform music from the Mission period.

Over the next couple of weeks, the Grammy-winning group is undertaking a tour of eight of the 21 missions on the California coast's legendary Camino Real, including two concerts in San Francisco's Mission Dolores, where it made its inaugural public appearance in 1978. I'll be witnessing the first of those concerts tomorrow evening. If it's as mesmerizing as the San Luis Obispo soiree, then I'm in for a treat.

Hearing the group perform songs by such 18th century west coast musical luminaries as Juan Bautisto Sancho and Manuel de Sumaya in the very buildings in which this music was originally played is what makes the concerts truly special. Chanticleer's clarity of tone and gentle expressionism probably has something to do with the magic too.

For the story behind the tour, check out my article in last Sunday's Los Angeles Times.
May 18, 2008 10:53 PM | | Comments (0)
Last weekend, American conceptual artist Spencer Tunick photographed around 1,800 naked people lying prostrate on the bleachers at the Viennese soccer stadium that will host the Euro 2008 soccer final on June 29.

Tunick's body of work comprises many projects involving large numbers of naked people posing together in unlikely surroundings. One of the artist's latest endeavors took place on a glacier in Switzerland, where 600 people stripped off in temperatures of about 10 Celsius (50 F) last August. His biggest project to date involved 18,000 people in Mexico City last year. In the coming months, he'll be shooting hundreds of nudes in Ireland. So much for Catholic schoolgirl modesty.

It's remarkable that so many people flock to participate in Tunick's massive projects when you consider the uncompromising demands he makes on his "models." Yet people must find the process of stripping off en masse so wonderfully life-affirming, communal-spirited and plain bonkers that they leap in. I know I would if the artist ever came to the Bay Area to undertake a project. Seems like that won't be happening anytime soon though. According to a Reuters story about the artist's soccer stadium session the other day, Tunick has trouble persuading U.S. authorities to go along with his plans for photo shoots (Down with Puritans.) As a result, he works much more frequently in other parts of the world than over here. Though, it seems to me that San Francisco would be them perfect place for a Tunick installation. The city is renowned for its nude bicycle brigade and naked fun run competitors. It would be great to see him bring thousands of people together for a shoot on Golden Gate Bridge.

Until that day arrives, I guess I'll have to make do with his photographs. There's something so arresting about the end-product of Tunick's work -- all those frail, flushed bodies facing off against the elements; against something much bigger than themselves.
May 15, 2008 9:23 PM | | Comments (0)
Somehow inbetween launching a production company, performing his latest monologue Citizen Josh all over the country, planning a new TV/Internet program and starting work on his next solo show, Josh Kornbluth has managed to find the time to revamp his website and join the blogosphere.

I don't know how the man does it.

Most people know the Bay Area-based performer for his politically-charged solo shows and the Sony Pictures Classics feature Haiku Tunnel which caused a stir at The Sundance Festival in 2001. But beyond all these worthy achievements, Kornbluth will always have a special place in my heart for his enthusiastic and quite lovely oboe playing. I had the pleasure of playing klezmer oboe duets with him a few months ago on the opening night of Citizen Josh at Berkley Repertory Theatre. It's not an experience I'll forget in a hurry.

At any rate, a warm welcome to a fellow blogger.
May 14, 2008 9:57 PM | | Comments (0)
One of the loveliest aspects of being an arts & culture -- as opposed to entertainment -- journalist is that I don't often have to pursue famous people for interviews. I reserve only the highest admiration for writers who not only manage to secure meetings and phonecalls with celebrities but then also somehow go on to write articles and books that don't merely repeat the dull stuff about these "A" listers that the public has read a thousand times. Doing these things requires amazing skills and creativity and very few people are up to the job in my opinion.

Every now and again, though, even in my blissfully celeb-free line of work, I'll be forced to put myself through the charade of writing flattering emails to press agents, managers, producers, label reps and a whole host of other flunkies in order to request an interview with someone who is either mildly or very well known.

The process is frequently painful. One often ends up making inumerable phone calls and sending countless emails before tracking down the right contact person. ("Oh, you should have said you were a reporter for a British magazine when you called three weeks ago -- we only handle Mr. Z's U.S. media requests...") And even when I've zoned in on the correct target, I'll either never hear from them again, or be turned down flat. ("Mr. Z isn't doing press right now.") It's particularly frustrating when the PR agent or whomever decides that they'll "pass" because the client in question doesn't have anything in particular to promote at the time of calling. ("Mr. Z won't be touring again until 2009 following the release of his next movie/album/book. Why don't you try again then?") This is annoying because more often than not, my request for an interview has nothing to do with whatever the person has to promote.

On some occasions, though, I have been pleasantly surprised by how easy the process of obtaing phone- or face-time with luminaries can be. OK, I've never tried to obtain interviews with the likes of Madonna or Gwyneth Paltrow. But getting to speak to several other famous -- albeit slightly less starry -- individuals in recent years like movie director Mike Leigh, the late author Douglas Adams and musician Tricky simply required the exchange of one or two emails. And only this morning, I had uncharacteristically friendly and responsive conversations with the PR agent and personal manager of a pop music icon whose name I shan't reveal here for fear of jinxing the possibility of this person agreeing to a phone conversation for a story I'm writing about singing for The Guardian newspaper.

I guess the celebrity system does have its loopholes after all.
May 13, 2008 2:20 PM | | Comments (3)
Why are human beings so obsessed with completing unfinished artworks? The world's desk drawers must sequester untold numbers of semi-developed plays, novels, paintings and string quartets. Yet for some reason, the idea of the unfinished artwork is a source of unbridled fascination for many of us.

Some of these artistic fragments are masterpieces in their own right. The two existing movements of Franz Schubert's famous 1822 Symphony No. 8 in B minor (popularly known as The Unfinished Symphony) are a case in point, as is Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. But more often than not, we're unwilling to accept unfinished works for what they are. We want completion. Luckily for humankind, there's always someone desperate for the chance to add the finishing touches to an unfinished work. But whether these efforts do anything positive for the original creator's posthumous reputation is up for debate.

At their best, these acts of completion capture the spirit of the original fragment while making a special feature of the missing content. A great example is the 1985 musical adaptation of Charles Dickens' unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. The Broadway production ran for more than 600 performances, won five Tony Awards including Best Musical and has received many subsequent regional revivals. As cheesy as it sounds, the show's popularity stems from its interactive ending, in which audience members can vote on which of the characters is the murderer.

But some attempts to finish unfinished works are more apt to make us wish that the original material had been left untouched in that desk drawer. More often than not, the fault isn't the founding artist's but the well-intentioned efforts of the people hell-bent on rehabilitating an abandoned artwork. If not handled with utmost sensitivity and creative wizardry, the end result can look as preposterous as Stonehenge might were the ancient monument to be topped off with a shiny red tile roof.

Just before Franz Kafka died in 1924, the author sent his literary executor, Max Brod, the following instructions: "Dearest Max, my last request: Everything I leave behind the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others'), sketches, and so on, [is] to be burned unread." Brod famously ignored his client's wishes, choosing instead to publish as much of Kafka's unfinished writings as he could lay his hands on. The world is grateful to Brod for going against Kafka's desires - if he hadn't, Kafka's great unfinished novel The Castle would have been lost forever.

However, it's possible in a way to speculate why the author may not have wanted his literary fragments sent off to the printers: Doing so would inevitably increase the chances of misrepresentation. In fact, Brod made such extensive changes to Kafka's texts, altering punctuation, word order and chapter divisions, that scholars are no longer willing to accept his version as authentic.

This goes to show that the little control artists have over completed works of art once those artifacts enter the public domain diminishes considerably when the works in question are incomplete. This is particularly the case for artists whose work predates our own era's tight copyright laws.

I'm all for bringing previously hidden, half-finished works into the light. But sometimes it's better to let these creative fragments remain as unfinished sentences rather than making them grind exhausted to a period/full stop.
May 12, 2008 8:57 PM | | Comments (1)
Often when I receive responses to posts I write, people refer to the texts as "articles." Which leads me to wonder whether the word "blog post" and "article" means the same same thing to most people who read material on the Internet. To me, there's a huge difference between what I post to ArtsJournal / and the content that magazines and newspapers commission me to write. For one thing, it usually takes me an hour or less to create and publish a blog post, whereas an article can take weeks or even months to research and write. For another, I'm the only "editor" involved in the blogging process, whereas whenever I write a piece for a magazine or newspaper, a whole team of editors, sub-editors and other media people often gets involved. For a third, I pretty much write whatever I want on my blog, whereas to have something published elsewhere involves getting past various gatekeepers.

All of the above differences affect both the content and style of what I write. As such, it feels a bit strange when people writing to me about my blog posts refer to them as "articles." To play devil's advocate for a moment: If readers are genuinely unable to distininguish between a quick, visceral response to the world, and something more detailed and well-thought-out, then is it worth spending all the time and effort writing articles at all?

I'm pretty sure I'm over-intellectualizing this. It's probably just a matter of semantics. Perhaps it's too much to expect readers outside the journalistic process to separate the term "article" from "blog post." The line between the two concepts is blurred after all -- some bloggers do undertake lots of research for their blog postings and agonize over every word. Equally, newspapers and magazines publish many articles that are poorly written and researched.

To me, however, the terms are far from interchangeable. A blog post is all about getting new ideas and news out there in a timely or spontaneous fashion to kick-start conversations. The writing should be as clear and stylish as possible under the the quick turnaround timeframe that goes hand in hand with posting five days a week. And of course facts should be accurate. But beyond a perfuctory breaking news report, an an article is something that one could think of as growing out of a blog post -- a piece of work that involves more long, hard thinking, in-depth and/or wide-ranging interviews and perspectives, and a refined style.

Perhaps one day when blogs become the absolute heart of cultural journalism -- and, dare I say it, when economics make it possible for bloggers to devote themselves 100% to creating content for their blogs -- it may be possible to conflate the terms. For now however, the two terms remain separated in my practice and mind.
May 11, 2008 12:28 PM | | Comments (4)
I don't keep up with the world of musicals as closely as some other arts scenes. But the news that the Broadway musical Glory Days was shutting down after only one performance made me feel sad. Penned by 23-year-old composer-lyricist Nick Blaemire and 24-year-old librettist James Gardiner, the 90-minute, pop-driven musical deals with four friends sorting out their differences a year after high school.

My feelings don't have much to do with the work itself, which I didn't see during its preview run or on opening night. When I was in New York a couple of weeks ago, however, I was struck by the avalanche of publicity that the show was getting in advance of its official opening at Circle in the Square Theatre. There were posters everywhere. Every time I turned on the local news, I heard the show mentioned. All the friends I saw during my stay talked about the fast rise to fame of the production's creators.

The amount of hype alone raised warning bells for me, though I didn't think that the musical's producers would open and close the show on the very same night in response to poor advance sales and weak reviews.

As an article about the show's brief rise and fall in The Washington Post explains: "But while the novelty of two extremely young talents crashing Broadway created considerable publicity, the online chatter ran from befuddled to venomous, and the box office was dismal. During last week's previews, the show grossed just under $47,000 and played to about 22 percent capacity."

What makes me upset about this story is the system. It provides yet another example of the damaging effects of society's obsession with youth and speed. The caffeinated journey of this modestly-scaled show from Arlington's Signature Theatre in January to the Circle in the Square follows similar lines to, say, the trajectory of Britney Spears. I just hope to god that Blaemire and Gardiner have the good sense not to let this setback push them into rehab, or worse.

I'm sure the producers had sound financial reasons for pulling the plug on Glory Days. But why so soon? Couldn't they have let the show run on for a few more weeks? Even if the critics hated it, I'm pretty sure the musical would have done swift business among high school and college groups.
May 9, 2008 9:47 AM | | Comments (0)
Lately, tea drinking seems to have reached epidemic heights in the U.S. Only a few years ago, tea drinkers in this country were lucky to find anything other than crappy Lipton's brand black tea in grocery stores and restaurants. These days, tea emporiums are flourishing, run-of-the-mill corner cafes stock a wide selection of brews from standard black teas to more adventurous greens, whites and reds, and Americans all over the country are exchanging their cafetieres for teapots. The other day, I was even able to obtain a cup of camomile tea in my local bar.

What's behind the new popularity of this seemingly least American of beverages? Certainly, tea isn't a new commodity in the U.S. It's hardly Kombucha, the fermented mushroom-based drink that seems to be all the rage right now.

According to the fascinating history page on the Stash tea company website, the American tea revolution has its roots in the 17th century. Apparently, settlers were confirmed tea drinkers. Peter Stuyvesant brought the first tea to America to the colonists in the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam around the 1650s. Tea became popular in the 18th century, particularly among genteel women. But the war of Independence scuppered the relationship between America and the beverage when the British raised taxes on tea, which led to the Boston Tea Party of 1773.

Coffee may have since far overtaken tea as the brewed beverage of choice in the U.S., but tea is obviously now making a comeback. Why? Doctors' orders probably have something to do with it -- a cup of black tea has far less caffeine than the average cup of coffee, and many Americans are switching to tea for health reasons.

I'm guessing that the rise of Starbucks and other similar beverage outlets may have also helped to reunite the American public with tea, as has the growing popularity of yoga, Chinese medicine and various other practices brought to the U.S. by Eastern tea-drinking nations in recent decades.

Turning tea into a "luxury" item through skillful marketing and fancy packaging etc has also helped to raise the profile of the beverage in the media.

As much hype as there is about tea right now, I don't think tea drinking is a fad. It's here to stay. Let's not forget, after all, that the U.S. is responsible for two of the most enduring tea traditions. It was an American tea plantation owner, Richard Blechynden, who invented iced tea in 1904. And his fellow countryman, Thomas Sullivan, who came up with the concept of "bagged tea" four years later.
May 7, 2008 3:07 PM | | Comments (2)
There's something daunting about putting the word "national" on the front of the name of an arts organization. Being a ballet company or orchestra is one thing; being a national ballet company or national orchestra is quite another. Somehow the term carries an awesome amount of baggage with it.

The sheer size of this country and its fragmented legislative system which favors private support of the arts has prevented an American National Theatre from taking root, even though the idea has had -- and continues to have -- many supporters from within the arts world. I'm not sure where the latest plans to bring a national theatre to downtown Manhattan have got to (the movement's website doesn't seem to have been updated in quite some time.) Looking into history, Lincoln Center Theater's Vivian Beaumont stage was established with a national theatre mission in mind, and the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. has long considered itself to be the nation's cultural center (even though it doesn't at all fulfill that role in reality.)

But while Americans continue to struggle with the possibility of establishing a national homebase for theatre, the Brits are making new inroads onto U.S. soil. Not content with UK-oriented drama festivals like New York's Brits Off Broadway, a group of English theatrical entrepreneurs is in the process of setting up something called The British National Theatre of America. And -- intriguingly -- they're doing it about as far away from the Great White Way as it's possible to be: in Las Vegas.

Vegas' cultural life hasn't fared well of late, what with The Las Vegas Guggenheim closing its doors and The Wynn Las Vegas casino bidding its resident show, Spamalot, farewell. The city hasn't done much to nurture a non-profit theatre scene over the years.

Whether The British National Theatre of America brings new vigor to the local arts environment remains to be seen. But in the meantime, locals can look forward to the company's probable inaugural show, Cinderella the Pantomime, and people around the country and abroad can keep track of the group's endeavors via their MySpace and FaceBook pages.

"A large part of what we're trying to do is to build a theatre community in Las Vegas," says  BNTA co-founder, British playwright and Vegas resident, Jo Cattell. I'm all for broadening the Las Vegas arts scene beyond Celine Dion and Cirque du Soleil. But I can't help worrying that The British National Theatre of America is doing itself a disservice by making the term "national" part of its name. For one thing it's confusing. Does the troupe intend to recreate -- rather like the Venetian casino with respects to Venice -- the British National Theatre in London? Or is the goal to create a Las Vegas-based American theatre on a national scale albeit with British input? For another, the fact that so many attempts to create a so-called national theatre have run aground has made people rather skeptical of the term. In short, I don't suppose the endeavor would lose any credibility by dropping the grandiose n-word.
May 6, 2008 8:37 PM | | Comments (0)
One of the worst things about spending an evening at an a cocktail party in England is having to answer the question, "what do you do?" This is a phrase I don't hear that much in the U.S. Americans may ask "what do you do for a living?" but that's not quite the same as "what do you do?" because it doesn't allow that little "do" word to run amok and come to represent the sum total of a person's existence.

While in the U.K., people are only allowed to apply the "do" word to the activity they undertake everyday to keep a roof over their head, in the U.S. the qualifier "for a living" has to be added because there's a general acceptance of the idea that peoples' lives are composed of many key activities that extend beyond the remit of a day-to-day job. For example, in the U.S., a person can say that he or she is an artist even if it's not something he or she makes a living at. Do this in England, and you'll get nothing more than a furrowed look.

The British tend to be suspicious of people who answer the "what do you do?" question by claiming to be writers of graphic novels, yodelers, morris dancers or sitar players. When misappropriators of the "to do" verb later let slip that they happen to work in a restaurant or as an accountant to make rent, a cold front automatically descends upon the room. They are pitied for thinking of themselves as artists, when really what they "do" has nothing to "do" with making art. Poor fools, they're living in a deluded dream. For how can they possibly call themselves artists if don't have a Top 10 hit, a place on the bestseller lists or aren't at the very least capable of making a full-time living from their art?

This attitude is crippling to British culture -- not to mention cocktail party conversation. In the U.S., people don't seem to have a problem with talking about what the British would call "hobbies" with a level of devotion and enthusiasm that their compatriots across the Atlantic only reserve for discussing their jobs. For this reason alone, I have to admit that I like cocktail parties in America a great deal more than back home in England.

But it's an odd phenomenon -- one that I think about on occasion but still don't understand. The U.S. boasts the biggest work ethic of any nation in the world. People take their jobs incredibly seriously and, if statistics are to be believed, have little time inbetween working and sleeping to engage in anything of an artistic nature. Yet somehow, there's more "give" at the heart of the culture; a tolerance for people trying on phrases like "I'm a singer-songwriter" or "I design theatre sets" to see how they fit even if they've never signed a deal with a record company or created the scenery for a Broadway show.

This is ultimately very liberating. It allows people to articulate and acknowledge that there's more to life than clocking in and clocking out. The British could learn a thing or two from the American attitude to "to do."
May 5, 2008 10:13 PM | | Comments (3)
Some children's stories aren't just written for children. They're for adults too. From Aesop's Fables to Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland to the Dr. Seuss classic, Oh, The Places You'll Go! kids books are packed with important life lessons for grown-ups.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's 1943 novella The Little Prince is no exception. Inspired by the author's career as an aviator, the book tells the story of a an airplane pilot who meets The Little Prince, an intense young man with a crown of golden hair, after his plane crashes in the Sahara Desert. The two become friends. From spending time with the Prince and hearing the boy's stories, the aviator learns to value what's important in life - and that adults have a lot to learn from children. The book has made a profound impression on many adults in the 65 years since it was published. James Dean could recite entire passages from the book. Morrissey is seen reading a copy in the "Suedehead" video. Saint-Exupéry's narrative has even become the subject of three operas - an artform that isn't exactly known for attracting minors.

Composer Rachel Portman and librettist Nicholas Wright's playful, family-friendly opera adaptation of The Little Prince recently arrived at U.C. Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall under the auspices of San Francisco Opera and Cal Performances. The production has enjoyed a great deal of popularity to date, having received its premiere at the Houston Grand Opera in 2003 and subsequent productions in New York (New York City Opera), Tulsa, Milwaukee and Boston, among other cities.

This retelling of Saint-Exupery's story is not hugely memorable from a musical perspective. Portman is best known as a composer of scores for such movies as The Cider House Rules, Chocolat, The Joy Luck Club and Emma (for which she won an Academy Award in 1997). Her music for The Little Prince sounds in many ways like a fillm score -- it plays a supporting role rather than takes center stage. Portman's music includes one strikingly humorous, short aria for the tenor playing the role of The Vain Man (Thomas Glenn in the case of this production). The scoring is sometimes playful. At one point, Portman employs the sound of a typewriter's clack-clacking keys. At another, a character on stage plays a kazoo (a whimsical glance back to Mozart's The Magic Flute perhaps?) The composer also spins fine, gauzelike textures for strings and gives the winds some lovely, mournful solos.

But though pleasant on the ear, the music otherwise more or less slides by unnoticed.

What makes this Little Prince such a wonderful experience, however, is the collaboration between all the artists involved. Portman's music blends seamlessly with Wright's cheeky libretto, written in rhyming couplets. Director Francesca Zambello's staging is nothing short of magical, making use of the entire breadth, height and depth of the stage and plenty of trapdoors. Designer Maria Bjornson's storybook desert setting with its cartoonlike dunes provides a simple yet striking canvas upon which Rick Fisher's lights powerfully evoke the rising and setting Sahara sun.

Best of all, the cast -- which features a chorus of 24 children and a 12-year old boy in the role of the Little Prince -- sings with sensitivity and passion without once veering into saccharine terrain.

No wonder this opera has received so many stagings over the past five years: It brings out the inner child in anyone who goes.
May 4, 2008 4:58 PM | | Comments (0)
I've been thinking quite a bit lately about what happens to people when they stop being children to their parents and unwittingly become parents to their parents. For some people coping with a father or mother suddenly falling ill or having trouble facing retirement, this reversal of roles happens more-or-less overnight. For others, it's a gradual process, a transformation that happens over years of evolution.

A new drama by Stephen Adly Guirgis currently playing at New York's Public Theater brilliantly examines what happens when a couple of siblings go from being dependent on their mother to finding that she's dependent on them.

Directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman and starring Ellen Burstyn, Guirgis' The Little Flower of East Orange delves into the psychological and emotional problems that come with the territory of dealing with elderly parents who need constant mothering and fathering.

The play focuses on the relationship between writer-junkie Danny (a pognantly disheveled Michael Shannon) and his relationship with his mother, Therese Marie (played by a bed-ridden Burstyn.) The two characters never fully understand each other though they come close. I rarely cry at the theatre, but the final showdown between Danny and his mother pretty much did me in. Guirgis does many things very well, but his ability to make characters seem utterly dependent upon one another and simultaneously completely at odds is probably his greatest strength.

The Little Flower is not as strong a piece as Guirgis' Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train in terms of what the play reveals about society. It's also a lot less funny. But this new play is in some ways much more personal.
May 1, 2008 8:41 PM | | Comments (0)

Me Elsewhere


About this Archive

This page is a archive of recent entries written by lies like truth in May 2008.

lies like truth: April 2008 is the previous archive.

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About Last Night
Terry Teachout on the arts in New York City
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Andrew Taylor on the business of arts & culture
blog riley
rock culture approximately
critical difference
Laura Collins-Hughes on arts, culture and coverage
Richard Kessler on arts education
Douglas McLennan's blog
Dog Days
Dalouge Smith advocates for the Arts
Art from the American Outback
Life's a Pitch
For immediate release: the arts are marketable
Mind the Gap
No genre is the new genre
Performance Monkey
David Jays on theatre and dance
Plain English
Paul Levy measures the Angles
Real Clear Arts
Judith H. Dobrzynski on Culture
Rockwell Matters
John Rockwell on the arts
Straight Up |
Jan Herman - arts, media & culture with 'tude

Foot in Mouth
Apollinaire Scherr talks about dance
Seeing Things
Tobi Tobias on dance et al...

Jazz Beyond Jazz
Howard Mandel's freelance Urban Improvisation
Focus on New Orleans. Jazz and Other Sounds
Doug Ramsey on Jazz and other matters...

Out There
Jeff Weinstein's Cultural Mixology
Serious Popcorn
Martha Bayles on Film...

classical music
Creative Destruction
Fresh ideas on building arts communities
The Future of Classical Music?
Greg Sandow performs a book-in-progress
On the Record
Exploring Orchestras w/ Henry Fogel
Harvey Sachs on music, and various digressions
Bruce Brubaker on all things Piano
Kyle Gann on music after the fact
Greg Sandow on the future of Classical Music
Slipped Disc
Norman Lebrecht on Shifting Sound Worlds

Jerome Weeks on Books
Quick Study
Scott McLemee on books, ideas & trash-culture ephemera

Drama Queen
Wendy Rosenfield: covering drama, onstage and off
lies like truth
Chloe Veltman on how culture will save the world

Aesthetic Grounds
Public Art, Public Space
Another Bouncing Ball
Regina Hackett takes her Art To Go
John Perreault's art diary
Lee Rosenbaum's Cultural Commentary
Modern Art Notes
Tyler Green's modern & contemporary art blog
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