lies like truth: September 2008 Archives

There's an art to knowing how to tackle a museum. The massive civic institutions that grace most major cities around the world, from The Prado to The Met, are overwhelming and exhausting to many visitors.

If you happen to live in a city with a big museum, you can buy a membership and enjoy seeing the institution bit by bit. You can pop in and out in a lunch-break. You never have to wear out your soles by attempting to "do" the whole museum in one visit.

But if you're a tourist and feel like you have to get around the museum in one day, you're likely to experience burn out. In an effort to create a manageable experience, you might choose to ignore the permanent collection and simply take in the traveling show. This is a shame as it's the permanent collection that defines an institution, not the celebrity exhibit that flirts with several organizations on its way around the world.

With the above in mind, it's gratifying, on occasion, to spend time in a small museum. I was reminded of this only yesterday when I visited Santa Cruz's tiny Surfing Museum. In only 30 minutes, I'd pretty much covered the whole place and walked out into the sunshine feeling like I'd learned many new and wonderful things about the local surf culture. Set in an old lighthouse on a cliff overlooking one of the laid-back California coastline's legendary surfing areas, "Steamer Lane", the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum traces around 100 years of Santa Cruz surfing history and provides some background on the genesis of the sport from 15th century Hawaii to the California shoreline.

The museum is housed in a tiny single room, about the size of a generous stall in a public bathroom. Not an inch of space is wasted. Photographs of famous local surfers adorn the walls. Massive, old fashioned wooden boards (some weighing 100 lbs or more) tower over us like totem poles. There's a video featuring interviews with members of the surfing community and an elaborate faux-beach display created to show off an innovative wetsuit designed by Jack O'Neill (the founder of the O'Neill surf gear company.) The museum even houses a gift shop.

Other surf museums such as the International Surfing Museum at Huntington Beach, might have more extensive collections. But there's something rather wonderful about walking out of a museum without feeling frazzled. In this way, the museum perfectly embodies the zenful surfing spirit.
September 30, 2008 9:58 AM | | Comments (0)
Enjoyed a fabulous private backstage tour at San Francisco Opera House on Saturday evening courtesy of my vocal instructor and SF Opera chorus member, Kathy McKee. Prior to our attending a performance of Verdi's Simon Boccanegra, Kathy took my friend Alice and I into the bowels of the venue, where we wandered around a maze of corridors, and popped in and out of rooms where a motley assortment of singers, musicians, janitors, administrative staff and others were going about their business.

It was particularly fascinating going into the chorus members' lounge. Singers in various states of costume gobbled take-out food, read books, or sat in huddles chatting. The room even had a blackjack table in the corner, though no one was engaging in a game at that point.

The room in which the singers lined up to get their faces done and wigs put on by the opera's face and hair staff also provided a wonderful snapshot of the performers' pre-show lives. The place was packed. Having already applied their own makeup bases to their faces, singers waited patiently in a row of chairs for a space in front of a mirror to open up. Once seated, the makeup artists went to work on the singers.

I enjoyed being in front of the proscenium almost as much as the experience of being behind it. Verdi isn't my favorite composer. The stuffy mise-en-scene with its Medieval Italian costumes also left me rather cold. But Dmitri Hvorostovsky (pictured) made for such a believable, empathetic title character, that I was completely taken in by the production. And I really enjoyed the crowd scenes, packed as they were with thundering hordes of chorus members and supernumaries.

For me, the most powerful aspect of the opera lies in its probing of the word "democracy." The opera begins by epitomizing the idea of "people power" with the Genovese masses deciding to elect a "commoner", Boccanegra, to be their doge. The chorus in SF Opera's raises the roof onstage. And Verdi never lets us forget the presence of the people: Even when we're not looking at them, we hear their voices ringing out from off-stage.

But the opera does nothing if not satirize and question the democratic process. Political conniving and backstabbing constantly threaten to undermine Genoa's fragile structure and by the end of the work, a huge shift has taken place. Boccanegra dies on stage and the next doge is declared not by the people but by the dying man himself as he breathes his dying breath.
September 29, 2008 5:50 PM | | Comments (0)
By the end of the sublime choral concert I experienced on Thursday in Berkeley by Chanticleer, I was convinced of two things: One -- that the all-male a cappella vocal ensemble deserves every bit of praise it gets from the classical music press, and two -- that the ensemble needs an image overhaul.

Let's start with point one, with which most people would agree. The opening concert of the group's 31st anniversary tour brought together songs from many different parts of the American choral tradition, from the simple, spun-gold lines of the traditional Appalachian shape-note song, "Guide Me, O Though Great Jehovah" to the mesmerizing, primal soundscape of Mohican composer Brent Michael Davies' "Night Chant." At various different points in the two-hour-long program, the music took us up, brought us down, made us laugh, made us cry, cradled us in waves of softness and jolted our systems to the core. When I came to my senses after the experience was over, I was struck by the diversity of the group's repertoire and the spine-tingling beauty of its sound.

Now to point two: The only thing remiss with the performance was the presentation. I know that Chanticleer gets a lot of marketing mileage out of the preppy-pristine squeakiness exuded by its singers on stage. For some weird reason, many people, especially in this country, get off on the choirboy thing. But no one in the ensemble looks comfortable in a stiff tuxedo. The stiffness of the singers' garb is worsened further by the little speeches that they give between songs. I don't have a problem with the introductions per se -- most of the content in Thursday's concert was interesting and the pontificating never went on for more than a minute or two. But the delivery seemed so canned and rehearsed. I can't understand how singers who sing so organically together, who seem to move, vocalize and breathe in such perfect harmony, can be so robotic on stage when they're not singing.

Interestingly, when I was out in the lobby after the concert talking to a couple of the ensemble members, I got a completely different impression of them. Something of the naturalness that comes across in their singing was also present in their warm way of meeting and chatting with audience members after their gig. All the formality vanished in the post-show environment. Which made the pompous dress and speechifying seem all the more absurd.

While it's true that for some concert series, the group eschews the tuxedos for, say, black pants and shirts, or, at Christmas, preppy sweaters and slacks. But regardless, the vibe is still decidedly old-fashioned. Grandmothers and elderly gay men might like the stuffy aesthetic, but I imagine it leaves almost everyone else cold.

It seems sad to me that a group whose members are so young (most of the singers are in their mid-20s) should attract such an aging audience. There were quite a few zimmer frames in the house on Thursday and my friend and I were probably the youngest people there by about 20 years. The church in which Chanticleer performed was right next door to the Berkeley campus, but I don't recall seeing anyone who looked like a student.

Something needs to be done to rectify the issue and the solution might just be to do something about the group's presentation. Chanticleer deserves and needs to find a broader, younger audience. We should regard these guys as rock stars. Doing away with the penguin suits and the rehearsed speeches might be a good start.
September 28, 2008 1:52 PM | | Comments (1)
Like dairy products, theatre critics come with sell-by dates. At some point after you've been in the game for a while and have covered shows on similar subjects by the same companies over and over again, you wake up one day and realize that you've said just about all you have to say about these plays and players. You find yourself repeating yourself. The word choices, sentence constructions and themes that once seemed so fresh now seem stale by dint of endless repetition. You've gotten to know people in the business, making the job of being honest about their work more of a challenge. You continue to walk the straight and narrow anyway because your first priority is to tell it how it is. But you don't revel in your unflinching honesty as much as you once did because the director whose show you just trashed has long been a keen reader of your blog.

It takes a brave critic to admit all this to themselves and an even braver one to take action. For those lucky few with staff jobs, the possibility of moving on to another beat makes the prospect of hanging up their reviewers' notebooks and pen-lights more palatable. Those staffers with a strong attachment to the theatre can always kid themselves that they're taking a sabbatical rather than moving on for good.

But for freelancers (and most theatre critics these days aren't on the payroll) the idea of giving up writing about a performing arts community they've come to know and love, the career-building power of a regular platform, and a steady paycheck seems particularly daunting.

Getting a similar gig at another media outlet probably isn't the solution for people who are enough in tune with themselves to face the reality of their predicament. For you'll still be writing about the same shows and producers, albeit for a different editor and maybe a different core audience. Moving elsewhere is a possibility, but getting in on the tiny number of available jobs usually takes living in that place for months first if not years. Theatre is an intensely local genre, so unless you're one of those very few reviewers who manages to snag a job in another market in spite of having no prior knowledge of that city's specific arts environment, you're kind of stuffed.

There are few things worse for the health of a theatre community (and I'm including audiences in my definition of the word) than stale, jaded journalism. Knowing this is one thing. Doing something about it, however, is quite another.
September 25, 2008 1:27 PM | | Comments (0)
The quest for so-called "authenticity" in the early music movement is one of those crusty topics that never goes away. Research into Medieval music practices serves an academic purpose, sure, in as much as finding out how music may have been performed in the distant past enriches our experience of it. But to what extent are all the academic tracts useful when it comes to the practical business of performing? My mixed feelings about this topic crystalized last week when I attended the Anonymous 4 "Chant Camp" which I initially blogged about yesterday.

Susan Hellauer, co-founder of the famous American early music ensemble (pictured) argued passionately in favor of bringing early music to life in a way that makes sense to the performers, even if that means turning one's back on scholarly thought. Anonymous 4 focuses on capturing the flow of words, phrases and musical lines in the repertoire it sings. It doesn't prescribe to the more academic "solemnes" method of reconstructing early music which produces a cooler and less emotional effect.

Knowledge about ancient performance practices is mostly based on conjecture: We can't know for certain how things were done back then. Who's to say where authenticity lies when a source for a piece of chant might be Roman, but the text, Franco-Flemish? "You have to do the best you can. You read what the scholars say and then do something that means something to you," Hellauer said. "You can theorize yourself into silence and never sing a note."
September 24, 2008 8:21 AM | | Comments (0)
One of the many fascinating things I learned last week while attending an afternoon-long "Chant Camp" in Silicon Valley led by two members of the great New York-based early music collective, Anonymous 4, was that it is in fact possible to learn a piece of music quickly and easily without having to refer to a score.

When I had previously tried to pick up some of Hildegard von Bingen's chants while preparing for a production of Ordo Virtutum by Hildegard von Bingen alongside fellow singers in San Francisco Renaissance Voices, I found the score indispensable. We tried a couple of times to learn chants by repeating phrases back to our director, but we didn't get very far. Now I realize that this might have been because I was scared.

To most classically-trained western musicians, the idea of learning music by ear is completely foreign. We use our eyes first to read the notes on the page, learn the music, and, eventually, if we're skilled, get to the point where we can play or sing the notes off by heart.

But this way of getting to grips with a composition isn't the only way to do it, as workshop leaders Martha Genensky and Susan Hellauer (two members of Anonymous 4) proved to us. They encourage workshop participants to learn music by listening, which is how most chant would have been learned in Medieval Times as the monks and nuns generally couldn't read musical notation.

Over the course of a mere half hour or so at the workshop, we surprisingly managed to absorb several winding lines of chant by memory. Some of us were tempted to look at the music we had been given, but I did what I was told and put my manuscript paper down. Instead I concentrated on listening to Hellauer and Genensky singing short phrases of the chants to the group and repeating them back. It helped that a lot of the words were simple and well known (mostly standard liturgical lines like "Benedicamus Domino"). I found that after about two repetitions, I was able to get the flow of the phrase pretty well. After five, I more or less had the line down. The tricky part was remembering how to string all the little blocks together -- remembering which little phrase to tack on to the previous one to create the whole piece.

It was strangely liberating to learn music in this way. I might try to apply what I learned in the Chant Camp to other kinds of music. In terms of getting the all-important flow of the line in plainchant though, this ears-only method is indispensable because it makes all the singers in the group tune into each others' energy right from the first note of the first hearing. It's a pretty powerful method.
September 23, 2008 7:51 AM | | Comments (0)
Last night, around 35 Bay Area theatre community members gathered at Last Planet Theatre in San Francisco for the latest in an ongoing program of "theatre salons" hosted by a group of six local performing arts people, myself among them.

The theme was "what is fringe?" and we spent the evening eating, drinking, and hotly discussing issues surrounding notions of fringe theatre. Wide-ranging ideas came up during the conversation, but we essentially kept returning to one issue: Whether fringe is a type of theatre (ie something that can be defined by its content and other associated factors) or the name given to a particular arts experience, usually a festival.

To some, the fringe specifically denotes a festival of uncurated theatrical work such as The Edinburgh Fringe. Any use of the term beyond that is meaningless. Others, meanwhile, think that there is such a thing as "fringe theatre" and more or less define the concept along the same lines as one would "alternative", "experimental" "outre" and other similar terms.

For me personally, the most interesting talking point of the evening stemmed from the beginnings of a discussion we had about the distance that local artists feel between the fringe and the mainstream. In the Bay Area -- and I suspect it's the case all over the U.S. -- there exists a wide gulf between the small, alternative world of theatre-making and the relatively-moneyed, mass market world. The gulf exists not just in terms of the size of the budgets, but also in terms of the content as well as the artists and the types of venues involved.

We didn't get a chance to explore issues of the relationship between fringe and mainstream theatre as much as I'd have liked to last night. But the ideas have been pinging around my brain ever since. It was particularly interesting in light of yesterday evening's event to come across Nicholas Hytner's (pictured) article in from yesterday's edition of the UK Times this morning. I'm pretty tired of British newspapers publishing articles with self-important headlines like "British theatre is the envy of the world." But a paragraph in Hytner's article about the fringe caught my attention:

"Maybe the biggest change in the British theatre since the foundation of the National in 1963 has been, if not the assimilation of the fringe into the mainstream, then at least the blurring of the line between the two," Hytner writes. "It's a mark of the health of our theatre that artists and audiences now travel happily between the two, and that the discoveries of the new wave are hungrily coopted on behalf of the wider audience. The fraternal dialogue between fringe and mainstream means an artist like Emma Rice can base her company, Kneehigh Theatre, in Cornwall, work at both Battersea Arts Centre and the NT, and collaborate cheerfully with an enterprising commercial producer to draw the crowds to the West End. And if you go to Edinburgh now, you can't really tell whether the Fringe or the official Festival represents the establishment."

It's been a while since I lived in the UK and worked in its theatre community, but if what Hytner says is really true, then the British theatre is indeed enviable for this very reason. Artists working in the theatre on this side of the pond just don't get to move as freely between the fringe and the mainstream. Why? Just as the literary mid-list has dwindled to close to nothing in the book publishing world, so mid-sized theatres are a rarity in this country today. As a result, artists find it hard to transition from making work on a small scale to a larger scale. Plus, there's the need for artists to sustain themselves with better paying jobs in the industry that make the economics of performing on the fringe untenable. (You can put on a sold-out, critically-acclaimed show at the fringe, but if you can only charge $9 a ticket perform just six times in a 50-seat house, you're not going to make enough to keep a roof over your head.)

In the rare case that an artist does manage somehow to score that breakout hit enabling them to leap from the off-off-Broadway scene to Broadway (or at least the fringe scene to more mainstream venues), then it's usually a one-way journey. People over here "graduate" from the fringe. They don't hop freely between the margins and the mainstream several times in any given year.
September 22, 2008 9:25 AM | | Comments (0)
On the way through the tiny hamlet of Olema, California on Friday, my eye caught a sign at the edge of the village which looked just like the kind of sign you'd find at any city limit in America, except instead of "Olema, California (Pop 55, Elev 60)", it read, "Obama, California (Pop 55, Elev 60)." My friend and I drove onwards towards the coast, thinking, "what a terrific trompe-d'oeil."

We weren't the only people to notice the sign. The next day, the local paper, The Marin Independent Journal, ran an article about the sign.

"Olema resident Kelly Emery's sign of the times is stirring up a bit of small-town political excitement," wrote reporter Jim Staats. "The 48-year-old Emery - a supporter of Sen. Barack Obama for president - installed a road sign outside her Olema Cottages bed and breakfast on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard this week that mimics other town limit signs, except that it renames the area "Obama.""

According to the article, the sign served, at least in the mind of its creator, as much an artistic purpose as a political one. ""It's really just an artistic expression," Emery is quoted as saying in the article. "There's something about his name that plays tricks on you. I love our Olema sign and it would make me think graphically of Obama and I just thought it'd be fun to make a sign that would hopefully make people do a double-take."

This morning, as my friend and I headed back from the coast following a weekend of camping, we were dismayed to see that the Obama sign had disappeared. We wondered whether an angry Republican had taken it down, or whether a selfish tourist or Obama wonk had stolen it.

We talked about its merits as an art project versus a political statement and decided that its cheekily precise mimicking of a typical U.S. city sign made it function on both artistic and political terms -- political, because it trumpeted the name of the presidential candidate to passersby; artistic, because it did it in such an unusual, eye-catching and humorous way that it both made fun of election season over-the-top political campaigning methods while contrastingly claiming Obama as an inherent part of the tiny tourist town.

I called the B&B when I got home to find out what became of the sign. The reality was more prosaic than we'd thought: "I had to take it down because it was in the county right of way," Emery told me in a resigned voice. Emery has no plans to reinstall the sign on her property because she says no one will see it there, though she might erect it elsewhere in the town of Olema if her fellow citizens allow it. I asked Emery what made her put the sign up in the first place. She responded: "My intention was just to make people smile."

I wonder if anyone in a place like Kansas City will attempt the same on behalf of Senator John McCain? McCainsas City (Pop 146,866 Elev 740), anyone?
September 21, 2008 2:01 PM | | Comments (0)
What is it about all these arts organizations now stampeding onto the information super highway with such enthusiasm? Have all the marketing directors suddenly woken up to the fact that there are audiences to be found out there on the Web? Or have they just been taking their time about reaching out to be people through online channels?

San Francisco Ballet is the latest in a long line of arts companies to announce the launch of the holy triumvirate of blog, Facebook page and YouTube channel. The only thing that's missing from this offering is a presence on MySpace. The blog so far contains three entries. They make for pretty fun reading. It's interesting to see what the dancers are getting up to in their spare time -- one writes about performing in Kazakhstan and another chronicles her hurricane relief efforts in New Orleans. And the holiday snapshots make the dancers seem approachable and friendly. A third entry, written by corp de ballet member Lily Rogers (pictured), recounts the dancer's trajectory from taking her first steps as a dancer to what it's like working for SF Ballet on a day-to-day basis.

What's not clear to me from the blog, nor indeed from the company's YouTube and FaceBook pages, is what purpose such online conduits really serve for the ballet company beyond vaguely "reaching out" to people -- specifically "young" people. The "About" section of the blog doesn't give much away:

"There's much more to San Francisco Ballet beyond the beautiful displays of artistry that the Company presents onstage. Here's a chance for Ballet followers to learn a little more about what goes into those world-class performances. Dancers, ballet masters, choreographers, and other key players in Ballet productions will contribute their perspectives, and members of the community are encouraged to lend their voices to the dialog as well."

This all sounds rather wishy-washy and over-general, as if someone at SF Ballet woke up one morning and thought, "I know what, we should start a blog! After all, everyone else is doing it!"

But without a more strongly articulated mission, it can be difficult for a busy organization to maintain its blogging momentum. The reality is that blogs created by major arts organizations which aren't kept up regularly with eye-catching, fascinating content reflect badly on those organizations. It'll be interesting to see how the blog works out for SF Ballet. Here's hoping there's a constant stream of invested dancers, choreographers and other company personnel to keep the beast fed.
September 18, 2008 12:25 PM | | Comments (0)
The Climate Theater in San Francisco seems to have created a niche for itself as the place to go to experience popular TV and Web-based entertainment on stage.

Just under a year ago, I blogged about YouTubed, the Climate's whacky and wonderful series of live skits based on people's favorite You Tube videos.

I'd heard about the Climate's intermittent stagings of the old ABC television seriesThe Dating Game soirees a while ago and thought they'd probably be more embarrassing than make for interesting theatre. But having experienced the live stage version at the Climate last weekend, I've changed my mind: The Dating Game is my new guilty theatrical pleasure.

The formula and set-up for the Climate's version of the Game is very similar to how it works on TV, albeit in a no-frills, lo-fi version. A tatty curtain separates two halves of the Climate's tiny stage. On one side of the curtain sit three eligible bachelors; on the other, a keen bachelorette. The bachelorette asks a series of questions of the bachelors and eventually picks one of them with whom to go on a date. The whole thing is masterminded by an effervescent MC.

The Climate's version of the Game is so much more compelling than the TV version because it amplifies the ridiculous and the dramatic.

For one thing, the contestants put on really strong personas. The night I saw the show, one bachelor (Bachelor Number 3) acted completely bored throughout the entire production. He sat on stage with his shot of whiskey (another thing you could never do on TV) and stared blankly upwards as if the answers to the questions were somehow inscribed on the lighting grid. But having an incredible natural flair for comedy, he managed to come up with the most brilliant off-the-cuff answers to the bachelorette's questions -- unlike the TV show, the contestants require genuine improvisation skills. For example, when asked "If you were to make a perfume for me, what would be the main ingredient?" Bachelor Number 3 responded "Bachelor Number 1" without skipping a beat. The audience fell in love with all the contestants that night, but unsurprisingly, Bachelor Number 3 was the winner.

For another, audience participation is so energetic that it borders on frenzy. People yell at the stage and laugh and become completely involved in what's going on. It's rare to see such complete investment in an audience for a TV show without the aid of production assistants telling people to clap and laugh on cue. And theatre audiences aren't generally known for making noise beyond forgetting to turn off their cellphones, coughing and unwrapping candies.

Needless to say, I had a lot of fun. The pleasure came from the sheer bombast of it all.Theatre and mass culture can exist in wonderful symbiosis, especially when the theatre takes pop products, exaggerates them, spins them around and turns them on their heads.
September 17, 2008 7:58 AM | | Comments (0)
By the end of this week, San Francisco culture vultures will have their own special mode of transportation to help them get around the city.

Starting on September 20, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency's CultureBus will transport people to and from many of the city's main cultural institutions. For a flat fare of $7 for adults and $5 for seniors, youths and people with disabilities, the entirely new bus route (route 74X) gives customers unlimited access to CultureBus for the day.

The bus runs between downtown San Francisco to Golden Gate Park, stopping near various cultural institutions along the way, including the Asian Art Museum, the Contemporary Jewish Museum, the de Young Museum, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Yerba Buena Neighborhood and the California Academy of Sciences, which reopens in Golden Gate Park on September 27.

The Culture Bus represents the first collaboration between the City and County of San Francisco, the SFMTA, the San Francisco Convention Visitors Bureau, the Yerba Buena Alliance and various cultural institutions.

I think the bus service is a terrific idea. Not only does it make ecological sense, but it also helps people save money that might otherwise be spent on expensive taxi cabs. Plus, being on a bus with fellow arts lovers is bound to inspire interesting arts-related conversations along the journey.

The only thing that disappoints me slightly about the service is its currently very limited hours. Excluding certain holidays, CultureBus will run approximately every 20 minutes, from 8:40 a.m. to 5:50 p.m. daily. This is fine for museum-goers, but what about people who want to take the bus to the opera, ballet or theater in the evening?

Of course, it's early days yet and the service is no doubt in embryonic stage. "At this time, CultureBus is designed to take locals and visitors to the various museums throughout the city," CultureBus' public relations manager, Kevin Kopjak, informed me when I quizzed him about the limited hours yesterday via email. "At the end of the first year, the results will be evaluated and plans to expand the program will be investigated. This would include looking into adding other cultural institutions, CultureBus stops and extended hours to the program." Hopefully CultureBus will take off and become the way to travel to all kinds of arts events in the not too distant future.
September 16, 2008 8:11 AM | | Comments (2)
As I strolled through downtown San Francisco yesterday afternoon, I couldn't help but wonder if all the tower blocks, traffic, stores, roads and other signs of "civilized" life would exist if we didn't have clocks -- if we didn't have a system for regulating this slippery notion known as time. If human beings had only nature's cycles upon which to count to figure out what to do when, would the economy as we know it not exist? Maybe so, because without clocks, the concepts of past and future would cease to be meaningful in the same way. Maybe people would live more in the present, and the present is less concerned with shoring up future wealth, getting people to meetings on time, and otherwise endlessly driving towards some fictitious notion of progress.

The elusive nature of "now", the slipperiness of memory, and human beings' unsettling hopes and fears about what lies ahead form the backbone of Erika Chong Shuch Performance Project's mesmerizing new production, After All, Part 1. I caught the show yesterday afternoon during its way-too-short run at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco and spent the rest of the day wandering around the city feeling like I was walking through a completely unfamiliar world.

Shuch's 80-minute piece marries whimsical songs and earth-bound choreography with short plays by Octavio Solis, Michelle Carter and Philip Kan Gotanda. Shuch performs theatrical alchemy by seamlessly fusing the seemingly very different texts -- about such things as the world as viewed through the eyes of a goldfish (their memories are not as short as people popularly think), a man's experience on a beach, and a charismatic preacher's delivery of something he calls "the last psalm" -- into a dreamlike, engrossing, bleakly humorous whole.

The brilliance of Shuch's work is that it manages to convey several complex ideas about the world we live in without once being didactic. The aesthetics of her productions are simple yet always visually stunning. In this one, hoards of dancing "extras" memorably plod across the stage dragging each other by the ankles in assorted white outfits, and appear in several scenes bopping maniacally like they're at a 1950s high school hop. Thus Shuch creates a humorous version of heaven that is equally,and less funnily, reminiscent of a lunatic asylum.

Shuch also has a brilliant way of working with artists whose talents lie in more than one area. In this production, the versatile choreographer Joe Goode demonstrates his skills as an actor in the role of the deadpan 'Man at the Sea' character. Matthias Bossi's preacher plays a mean percussion. Beth Wilmurt's goldfish is as adept at delivering Carter's goldfish text as she captures, through a perfect symbiosis of observation and fantasy, the watery creature's way of moving and singing. Dwayne Calizo's sinister Santa Claus brings tears to our eyes with his soulful renditions of originally-composed songs and standards by the likes of Simon & Garfunkel. Similarly, the corps of four dancers turn out to be adept with language: at one point, the dancers perform an aggressive, almost tribal-feeling dance while percussively chanting the mantra "fuck, no!" over and over again in different rhythms and groupings.

Shuch deserves wider exposure. Having experienced many of her shows over the past few years, I've come to see her as one of the most thoughtful, playful and complete performance-oriented artists working in this country today. After All, Part 1 makes me want to develop a different relationship with time. But I'll still be counting the weeks until Shuch unveils the sequel to this production, After All, Part 2.
September 15, 2008 11:34 AM | | Comments (0)
Caught a trio of shows at the San Francisco Fringe Festival the other night. All of them very different, all of them with their hearts in the right place, and all of them, despite being only an hour or less in length, leaving me feeling like they could have been 15 minutes shorter.

The first was a moving and often compelling musical by Carrie Baum entitled Exit Sign: A Rock Opera. The production deals with Baum's relationship with her father and how she copes with his untimely death. From a musicianship perspective, Exit Sign is wonderful: Great, punchy rock numbers played by a tight four-piece band led by Baum on lead guitar who all seem very much engaged with the action on stage without being gratuitously involved; soulful singing from the two main cast members -- Jamie Ben-Azay as the Baum character and Steffanos X as her father; and simple yet eloquent philosophical messages about the confusing nature of life, love and death. Despite Baum's interesting mix of fast-paced punk songs and lyrical ballads, the pacing of the production feels a little monotonous and ponderous owing to the slow delivery of lines and general elegiac atmosphere of the work. Also, Baum fails to fully integrate the queer undercurrent into the main story line. Plus, the overall conceit about a father and daughter being prompted by a voice from the television set during a re-run of the movie It's A Wonderful Life to go on journey together to find the meaning of life seems a bit daft and inconsequential. Still, I thoroughly enjoyed myself throughout most of the show.

Next up was iScan, a play by local dramatist Peggy Powell and directed by Dan Wilson. Wilson's musical Sweetie Tanya really impressed me when I saw it at San Francisco's Dark Room theatre earlier this year. iScan is a very different kind of project. The play looks at what the world would be like if we could all predict our futures. When an impressionable graduating high school student, Edward, has his blood "scanned" by a sinister "gene analysis" company called iScan, he finds out more about his future than he'd like. Anger and fear about his parents' alcoholism and violence lead Edward down a regrettable path as a result of iScan's diagnosis. The play poses some fascinating, Minority Report-like questions and a couple of the performances (from Brianne Kostielney as Sarah, a young iScan employee who falls for Edward, and Christine Rodgers' as Edward's soused mother) are well-balanced. But the writing isn't incredibly sophisticated and some of the acting is a little heavy-handed. Wilson's direction could use more rhythmic variety and flow too.

The final show of the evening, On Second Thought, was a solo show by a Canadian performer by the name of Paul Hutcheson (pictured left -- he's much more handsome than this in real life.) Hutcheson is a lovely performer with an expressive face and lithe physicality. He's a terrific storyteller too. But the David Sedarisesque vignettes about dealing with his brother and teaching school kids seem a bit stale, like the performer's been doing them for too long (he's performed this show to acclaim at a bunch of different fringe festivals from Orlando to Winnipeg) and the gay themes star to feel repetitive after a while too (especially if, like me, you're subjected to dozens of solo shows about gayness every year.)

All in all, though, it wasn't a bad night at the fringe. I really enjoyed the conversations and snacks I had in the Exit Theatre Cafe in between the shows too. Lots of people, delicious cheese, fruit and wine. I wish more theatres had cafes as good as the Exit's.
September 12, 2008 10:25 AM | | Comments (0)
When I see my name on a press release, it's usually at the tail-end of a quote that a theatre company has pulled from one of my reviews about its work. I'll come across lines like "'Very Good!' -- Chloe Veltman, SF Weekly" and sigh, knowing full well that the phrase pulled from my review is missing the word "not" at the front of it.

Yesterday, however, my name appeared on the publicity materials advertising a company's new show in an entirely different context: For the first time in my life -- at least to my knowledge -- a piece of my writing has inspired the creation of a theatrical production.

Here's what the press release for Sleepwalkers Theatre's upcoming production about the elections, March to November, says:

"Inspired by SF Weekly theatre critic Chloe Veltman's January 9th article "Election Stage Left," which challenged Bay Area playwrights and theatre companies to create more "political" works, Sleepwalkers answers the call to arms with a classic hero story that assess the relevance of overtly political theatre. With the upcoming election as a backdrop, March to November, by Sleepwalkers co-founder Tore Ingersoll-Thorp, is an examination of one artist's search to find political responsibility in her work."

I'm not sure whether to feel flattered or alarmed by this news. I'm happy that people are doing something with my work other than using it to line the cat box. Then again, the article (and its author) may end up being the butt of some elaborate theatrical joke. Which I guess wouldn't be so bad.

Whatever the intention and the outcome, I'm looking forward to seeing and maybe reviewing the show. As as I said in the concluding line of my essay, if a local theatre company manages to put on a smart and beautiful play about election season that makes me question my generally lazy liberal beliefs, then "I'll be happier than a Republican congressman handing out buttons at a high-school abstinence drive."
September 11, 2008 3:24 PM | | Comments (0)
Playwright Itamar Moses' new drama, Yellowjackets is unusual: It's a piece of issues-based educational theatre with a cast of young actors that breaks out of the high school drama or ethics class mould and finds a home on the professional stage.

The issues that the play deals with -- racial and class tensions within an American high school, specifically the playwright's alma mater, Berkeley High -- would seem like perfect fodder for a high school drama or ethics class. One can imagine students working with their teachers in the classroom to create in-school productions of the play and use it as a launching pad for the discussion of key issues facing the high school community today.

But within the context of a world premiere commission by Berkeley Repertory Theatre, the play effectively pulls the issues out of the insular, school environment and attempts to make them resonate with the general public.

The quality of Moses' writing, with its cleverly interweaving themes, plots and characters, the punch and pace of director Tony Taccone's blocking and the liveliness of the performances manage to a degree turn what might otherwise be an educational exercise into something capable of reaching beyond the confines of the high school drama workshop.

Intellectually, I can see why the play could be powerful within the Berkeley community: It's a local story; it deals with important issues facing Berkeley residents; it grapples with the problems at stake from all angles and asks more questions than offers tidy answers; it addresses young people directly -- because the narrative is about their lives -- and indirectly asks them to take ownership of the issues. After all, moving forwards with trying to find practical solutions to racial and social tensions both within American schools and the country at large, is the work of the next generation. Planting the seeds of thought now is key.

And yet, for all that, I personally didn't connect with the production when I saw it last night. From a purely theatrical perspective, the "de-ghettoization" of what is essentially a piece of educational theatre through taking it out of the classroom and putting it onto a major public stage doesn't really work for me. Rather than dealing in metaphors and letting us make subtle connections between what's happening before our eyes and the realities of the world at large, the drama bludgeons us over the head with its political content. Also, if you're not from Berkeley, have never attended an American high school and feel a bit baffled by this country's relentless obsession with race, the theme and story-line seem entirely remote. Most of the time during the show, I felt like I was watching a group of aliens describe life on their distant planet. Whereas I wanted to feel as connected to the characters and their concerns as I do when I see, for example, great productions of plays by the likes of August Wilson or Athol Fugard.

Still, commissioning and staging Moses' drama is a bold move on Berkeley Rep's part. If nothing else, it's an intriguing experiment and a laudable piece of community service.
September 10, 2008 8:59 AM | | Comments (0)
When most people think of China's Ming Dynasty, priceless vases come to mind. There are certainly plenty of gorgeous ceramics on display at San Francisco's Asian Art Museum right now. But it wasn't the display cases full of beautifully preserved, very old china that caught my eye when I visited the museum's Power & Glory: Court Arts of China's Ming Dynasty exhibition last week. I was most knocked out by a couple of hanging scrolls.

What I loved most about these two works of art is the relationship between the image and the story behind each one. The first image, "Boating on a Snowy Night," was created by court artist Zhong Qinli (active 1465 -1505) using ink on silk and comes to San Francisco from the Palace Museum in Beijing. Upon first glance to an eye untutored in Chinese art and fable like my own, the image depicted on the silk, though delicately crafted and full of lovely textures, doesn't give much away. We simply see a boat making its way up a river. But the picture suddenly communicates a rich and wonderful inner life when viewed again after reading the back story in the exhibition catalogue.

Zhong took a 4th century story as his source for the scroll. The scroll depicts the thinker Wang Huizhi (died 386) traveling up river to visit his mentor, the renowned scholar-artist Dai Kui (died 395).

As the story goes, Wang, suddenly struck by a desire to venture into the inclement winter weather to see Dai, boated along the river to his mentor's house. But just before reaching his destination, Wang decided to return home. Why? Because the impulse that had sparked the visit had passed.

What a strange and wonderful story not to mention subject for a painting. When viewed with the narrative in mind, Wang's journey takes on a new meaning. The air looks chilly, the traveler frigid, and the boat tiny in comparison to the rocks and trees and water around it. Nature seems to engulf Wang's winningly random act. "Wang's subsequent saying,'going impromptu and returning at heart's content' is regarded as a romantic metaphor of high virtue," the catalogue tells us. "His boating on a snowy night has remained a popular subject in art for over a thousand years."

The second scroll that resonated particularly strongly with me depicts "A Monk Enjoying a Moon Painting." The ink on silk scroll was created by the Ming period artist Wu Wei (1459 -1508) and also comes to the exhibition from the Palace Museum in Beijing.

What I love best about this painting is the monk's carefree, almost lunatic expression. He seems so happy in his world. And there's something so surreal about him bumbling about in the hills looking at a picture of the moon on paper rather than up at the real thing in the sky. Rene Magritte would have loved this picture I think.

The catalogue includes a vivid description of the artist which I'd like to include by way of conclusion as the image in the scroll kind of conveys something of the spirit of the man who created it:

"The image certainly reflects [Wu's] itinerant lifestyle. Traveling from one town to another in pursuit of freedom, wine, and entertainment, Wu chose to base himself in Nanjing most of the time. He was honored by two emperors with prestigious titles, including "Number One Painter," and was twice appointed to paint for the imperial court. Nevertheless, the position could not keep him in Beijing nor subdue his dissolute temperament, which he indulged by drinking with geishas. When drunk, his vigorous brushstrokes and bold splashes were far removed from the highly controlled techniques of many of his associates. Just as Wu himself dep arted from the main current, so did his art, which according to his contemporaries, expressed "insolence" or a "fighting spirit like the soldiers." "
September 9, 2008 10:53 AM | | Comments (0)
Over the past couple of days in Los Angeles, I was reminded once again of just how completely different the business of telling stories on stage is to attempting the same on screen.

LA Opera gave two first-time opera directors -- Woody Allen and David Cronenberg -- the chance to apply their seasoned filmmaking skills to a pair of opera productions, both of which opened over the weekend at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in downtown Los Angeles. Allen mostly got away unscathed with his staging of Puccini's Gianni Schicchi, but Cronenberg's adaptation of his 1986 horror flick, The Fly, made me wonder if the director had ever been to see a stage production in his life before.

Allen's staging of the most well-known of the three one-act operas that make up Puccini's Il Tritticoin some ways resembles a typical Allen movie. The noisy Italian family at the heart of Puccini's farce could be one of Allen's Jewish clans. The characters might have stepped out of Radio Days or Manhattan. In familiar territory, Allen seems to understand the people in Puccini's story and creates boisterous, visually and physically dense scenes in which there is so much action that one feels like one is watching a Hieronymus Bosch painting come to life. Despite the humor of the production, there are a couple of aspects of Allen's opera debut that bother me. The first is to do with the fact that the director plays safe -- he basically plunks a scenario from one of his vintage films on stage. The second is to do with his weird approach to curtain calls. This sounds insignificant, but it left a bitter taste in my mouth as I left the opera house. Seemingly -- and somewhat pointlessly -- attempting to subvert traditions, Allen had each member of his sizable cast bow individually not once, not twice, but three times. By the time the performers were taking their third set of bows, the audience had gotten fed up with clapping and was starting to wonder what was going on. Meanwhile, the great man himself never bothered showing up on stage. I felt sorry for the singers having to go through this bizarre routine. Instead of leaving the stage on a wave of applause (as was the case for the first two acts of Il Trittico directed by William Friedkin) they left under a cloud of disgruntlement and confusion. Not a great way to end an otherwise pretty great night out at the opera. What was Allen trying to prove?

Cronenberg showed a similar lack of understanding of theatrical mores with his production of The Fly. I have to admit that I feel a bit sorry for the movie director, whose work on screen I have long admired. Cronenberg is rather out of his element on stage. He fails to find elegant solutions to problems like how to get people and furniture on and off in between scenes. The piece lacks strong visual and dramatic metaphors. The storytelling system is so literal, from scientist Seth Brundle's latex fright suits to journalist Veronica Quaife's refusal to smoke because she's pregnant to the copious amounts of bad simulated sex, that it's hard to take the piece seriously at any level. Audience members kept giggling during the opening matinee at parts that weren't -- as far as I could tell -- meant to be funny. The literal approach works fine on screen, but it doesn't fly on stage. Cronenberg at least has the benefit of working with terrific actors -- Canadian baritone Daniel Okulitch is particularly striking and conflicted as world-changing scientist/mad genius Brundle. The Fly's problems are not all Cronenberg's fault: Howard Shore's music is terribly weak -- I don't think I've heard a more monotonous and forgettable operatic score in years. And David Henry Hwang's repetitive libretto, with its constant doomsday refrain of "all hail the new flesh!" is more embarrassing than revealing of some important message about the nature of scientific discovery.

Ultimately, the prize for best director over the weekend shouldn't go to either novice. It must go to Friedkin, a veteran filmmaker (The Exorcist, The French Connection) whose opera career extends back a decade to a Florentine production of Wozzeck. I was particularly won over by Friedkin's take on the second part of Il Trittico, Suor Angelica. Having never experienced the opera live on stage, I had no idea that Puccini's convent-based tear-jerker about a bunch of nuns could be so overwhelmingly moving. Thanks to soprano Sondra Radvanovsky's stomach-convulsing turn in the title role and Friedkin's sensitive use of light, bold approach to iconography and meditative, almost sculptural blocking framework, this kitschy one-act stole my heart on a balmy Los Angeles Saturday night.
September 8, 2008 5:08 PM | | Comments (0)
Yesterday evening at the San Francisco Fringe, I saw two theatre productions on a boy-meets-girl theme. But despite the similarity of the shows' subject matter, I've rarely had two more extreme experiences in a single evening's theatre-going to date.

The first show, Moon Fable, was a sweet and ardently sincere homage to young love produced by a company called SideCar Theatre. The second, Peg-Ass-Us, created by the New York company Pack of Others, was a graphic, no-holes-barred panegyric to heterosexual anal sex.

Moon Fable tells the story of a harried young office worker whose girlfriend disappears to Paris, leaving him in a dead-end job. In the youth's dreams, however, the moon and her consort of nutty sidekicks help him understand the importance of love. The production evolves in a surreal, dream-like fashion and includes some lovely visual moments such as when the young man's briefcase stuffed with papers opens in a dream to reveal a model of a tiny paper figure standing on top of a ladder trying to reach the moon. At the same time, the man himself is standing on top of a real-life ladder doing the same. If the show had been more expertly acted, its overall effect may well have been more tantalizing. But even though the production plodded along, it had its heart in the right place.

Peg-Ass-Us, on the other hand, told a completely different kind of romantic tale. The show, fittingly performed at San Francisco's Center for Sex and Culture, was part burlesque, part personal memoir and part how-to guide. The how-to was related to a sexual practice known as "pegging" which basically involves a man, a woman, a strap-on dildo and oodles of lubricant. I'll leave the rest to your imaginations. John Leo and Sophie Nimmannit make a winning couple. He's all reserved and highly strung; she's brash and aggressively sexual. There are some game little songs in the piece, including a clever ode to the mythical beast after which the show takes its name. But the central conceit about two people discovering the joys of anal sex gets a little boring after a while. By the time Nimmannit and Leo whip off their clothes, get out their sex toys and set about providing us with a live demonstration of pegging (from which we are thankfully actually spared at the 11th hour) we've pretty much had enough. Talk about flogging a dead unicorn.

In any event, it was amazing to see quite how different two interpretations of basically the same experience -- falling in love -- can be. And if it weren't for the Fringe, coming across this kind of theatre-going mix would be unlikely. 
September 5, 2008 10:34 AM | | Comments (0)
I stopped taking Woody Allen seriously as a film director around 1995. After Mighty Aphrodite, Allen's films seemed to taper off, becoming mawkish parodies of themselves.

So it was against my better judgment that I found myself sitting in my local movie theater the other evening watching the director's latest film, Vicky Christina Barcelona. I decided to see VCB on the basis of several personal recommendations and a handful of positive reviews. I'm really glad I went.

Romantic relationships have been a central theme in Allen's work throughout the decades, but while previous films like Annie Hall and Hannah and her Sisters painted love affairs in broad strokes, Allen flecks his canvas in VCB with subtle, shifting notes.

Not only does he mine the nature of human passions in an unflinching yet human way, but he also achieves this with humor and grace. I found myself as intoxicated by the Spanish landscapes as I was by all the performances.

Riding high on the success of VCB, the question now is, how will Allen's operatic career kick-off? This weekend I'm heading to Los Angeles to experience, among other things, Allen's first ever stab as a director of opera. He's staging Puccini's "Gianni Schicchi" from Il Trittico for LA Opera. The opening night is this Saturday. Watch this space for the verdict next week. Let's hope that the director manages to tell a love story as well on stage as he's managed to this time around on screen.
September 4, 2008 2:36 PM | | Comments (1)
The San Francisco Fringe festival starts today. Every year, when it comes to Fringe time here in this city, I spend hours trying to figure out what shows to see. I never had this problem in Edinburgh: The Scotsman would simply give me a list of shows to review which pretty much kept me busy from 9am till 2am every day for a month. If I managed to find an hour to go and see a production which wasn't on my roster, I was lucky.

The San Francisco Fringe isn't nearly as big as its Edinburgh equivalent, but here, I'm my own boss: I can see whatever I want. This is both a blessing and a curse. How to choose from the myriad offerings? What selection criteria to adopt?

One approach, which I would probably favor if I had all the time in the world to potter around from show to show for the entire two-week span of the festival, would be to leave things to chance. I could draw show titles out of a hat or shut my eyes, turn to a random page in the festival brochure and pick productions according to where my index finger lands on the page. Another method, though a boring one, would be to wait until the last few days of the festival and only go and see those shows that have been earning raves from audiences and critics.

But what if you're faced with having to go at the start of the festival and only have the chance to see a few productions on one or two days? It's impossible to come up with a set of fool-proof criteria for figuring out which productions to choose from the slew of offerings. But, for what it's worth, here are a few notions that pass through my head when I'm trying to work out what to see:

1. The Fringe is packed with solo shows. It's harder to bring a show with a cast to a fringe festival, so I'm interested in seeing ensemble productions.
2. There are many interesting site-specific productions in this year's festival. I like seeing productions that take place in non-traditional venues, as this seems very much in keeping with the ad hoc spirit of the Fringe.
3. I admire companies that trek over here from faraway places to participate in the festival. It's fun to check out theatre from other cities in the US and abroad.
4. If a local company whose work I admire or hear is great but haven't gotten around to experiencing yet has a show on, I'll try to get there.
5. In terms of content, I'm generally less attracted to self-revelatory auto-biographical solo shows about a writer-performer's struggle to recognize his homosexuality with his religious faith than I am to, say, a kamikaze take on a classic or a physical-theatre piece about dog racing that blends original storytelling with clog dancing. It is the fringe after all, and I'm on a hunt for the deranged and different.
September 3, 2008 8:46 AM | | Comments (0)
The high ratings of television shows in the UK and US like Last Choir Standing (BBC) and Clash of the Choirs (NBC) together with a slew of articles in recent times about everything from how the French are embracing choral singing to how "choirs are becoming cool" has inspired me think about what it is that turns me on about singing in a chorus. Here's my initial, off-the-cuff list of reasons, not in any particular order:

The feeling of being part of a team
Creating beautiful music
The physical benefits e.g. improves breathing and posture
Clears my head; helps me connect my head with my body
Keeps me focused on the "now" rather than cogitating over the past or future
Social aspect e.g. meeting new people; going for a drink after rehearsal
Sharing great music with an audience
Pre-concert adrenalin rush
The challenge of learning tricky music
The sensation of hearing really unusual melodies and harmonies
The pleasure of performing in unusual spaces or spaces with lovely acoustics
The theatricality of dressing up for concerts
The idea of lots of different voices and personalities all coming together and creating harmony
Developing musical expertise
The sense of feeling both connected to myself and people around me.

I'm sure there are are more reasons I could come up with if I put my mind to it. If you have anything to add to the list, feel free to get in touch.

Finally, here are a few reasons that music critic Norman Lebrecht states in the piece he wrote in 2005 (see "embracing" link above) about why people love choral singing: "Choral singing is one of the last frontiers of human freedom," writes Lebrecht. "It is pretty much the only art you can perform without someone taxing, regulating or funding it, and it is certainly the only music that delivers an instant uplift to all participants."
September 2, 2008 8:01 AM | | Comments (3)
It's fascinating to see how an artist's involvement in a project can mutate over its development process.

While working on an article for the Los Angeles Times about San Francisco Opera's upcoming world premiere of The Bonesetter's Daughter, I've been curious to discover how Amy Tan's role vis-a-vis the creation of the new opera has evolved over time.

When composer Stewart Wallace (Harvey Milk) approached Tan, whom he'd been friends with since meeting the novelist at the Yaddo artists' colony in 1994, about adapting her 2001 novel The Bonesetter's Daughter into an opera, the novelist at first declined. Then she changed her mind when she realized she wouldn't have to recreate the novel on stage but could fashion something different based on the source material. (At least, that's the story that Tan and her cohorts involved in the project give out. I wouldn't be surprised if one of the main reasons the novelist decided to allow her book to be turned into an opera was because a Hollywood film deal fell through.)

Then, when Wallace's regular librettist became unavailable to work on the project with the composer owing to schedule conflicts (though again, who knows what really went on there) Tan took over the libretto-writing -- her first -- with Wallace.

Ultimately, however, Tan's involvement with the opera has gone way beyond writing the libretto. The novelist is playing an active role in the rehearsal process. She's coaching some of the singers to help them connect with the autobiographical elements of her narrative about three generations of Chinese women. She's even going as far as to tell one performer -- Zheng Cao, who plays Ruth, the main, quasi-Tan character in the story -- how to dress and wear her hair. "When Amy's around, I always have to dress up," Zheng told me last week when I visited the opera house to conduct interviews and watch rehearsals. She'd just been to the salon and had her hair straightened, also upon Tan's advice. "When she's not around, I can wear jeans."

The Bonesetter's Daughter has its premiere on September 13. My piece about the opera appears in the LA Times next weekend on September 7.
September 1, 2008 10:41 AM | | Comments (0)

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