lies like truth: February 2009 Archives

I'm often amazed at the stealthiness and cutthroat efficiency of dead artists' estates. Even the most little-known entertainers seem to have incredibly efficient spy networks working for them beyond the grave and even elementary schools and fringe theatres aren't safe from the eagle eyes of lawyers.

In the latest news from the world of cease and desist orders, Matzoball Entertainment LLC of West Hollywood, California, has sent San Francisco's fringey Exit Theatre a letter banning local playwright-performer Sean Owens (pictured in drag, left) from performing a staged reading of his new solo show about the late comedian Paul Lynde. Lynde, (pictured above, right) an American character actor who died in the early 1980s, was best known for his roles and appearances in such television shows as Bewitched, Bye Bye Birdie and Hollywood Squares.

Matzoball, the current licensee of The Estate of Paul Lynde, controls and owns the rights, image and likeness of the late actor. The estate, the letter states, does not give permission of the trademarked and copyrighted name Paul Lynde to anyone other than Matzoball Entertainment. "The family is adamant about the portrayal of Mr. Lynde and asks that you cease and desist from performing any and all performances and using the name Paul Lynde in any and all Advertising immediately," the letter concludes.

Owens' now-verboten play Stealth Diva was to have received a staged reading on April 11 and 25 at the Exit Theatre as part of the company's annual DIVAfest festival of plays by women dramatists, performers and directors. (Owens, though male, is a flamboyant staple of the festival each year.)

The Exit's artistic director Christina Augello says the EXIT has not yet picked a replacement for the Owens show.
February 27, 2009 10:19 AM | | Comments (3)
The San Francisco Symphony is at the end of a ten-day celebration of the music of the Tatar-Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina. Last night's concert, which featured the North American premiere of Gubaidulina's Violin Concerto No. 2 ("In Tempus Praesens"), a work dedicated to and performed by soloist Anne-Sophie Mutter, displayed the composer's skill at building tension through the manipulation of opposing forces in her work.

The extraordinary 33-minute piece is structured in a single movement. The composer pits Mutter's ethereal solo violin against the dramatic strength of a large, bottom-heavy orchestra which includes four-strong woodwind sections bolstered by bass clarinet and contrabassoon, extra brass (including three Wagner tubas and a bass tuba) and a battalion of percussion instruments such as chimes, whip and timpani. The score also includes two harps, a celesta, a piano and an amplified harpsichord. A massive string section adds to the basso profundo sound with its lack of violins.

The piece constantly contrasts light, wispy textures with heavy and dark timbres. Shimmering passages for piccolo, harps, celesta and glockenspiel offset bars of blaring brass and angry, booming timpani and swarming strings. Humorous little twittering outbursts of sound offset serious emotional melodic lines. Strictly metrical passages battle against arhythmic and sometimes exaggeratedly rubato sections.

Old and new musical traditions chafe fitfully against each other throughout the piece. Nuances of Beethoven, Bach and Berg all emerged from Gubaidulina's dense-delicate texture. The piece swerved between traditional major-minor tonality and spiraling over- and under-tones. All of these opposites, the soloist and orchestra under the baton of Michael Tilson Thomas, pulled off with fitful aplomb.

"In Tempus Praesens" means "in the present time" and this work creates a collision between so many different opposing worlds that the experience of listening seems like it can only exist in a moment's breath. The concept of tension, so audibly at work in this violin concerto (the premiere of which Mutter performed at the Lucerne Festival in 2007) can also be heard in some of Gubaidulina's other works. I didn't hear her orchestral piece, The Light of the End conducted by Kurt Masur last week, but in his review entitled "Exciting Struggle in 'Light'", San Francisco Chronicle classical music critic, Joshua Kosman, seems to have felt similarly about that work. "The Light of the End, written in 2003, outlines a 20-minute struggle between two musical worlds: the acoustical world produced by the natural properties of sound, and the system of equal temperament that evolved during the Baroque era to tame and regularize those properties," Kosman writes. It's hard to imagine not being taken in by the sheer drama of this composer's music.
February 27, 2009 8:54 AM | | Comments (0)
Yesterday, I posted a blog entry about the inclusion of what seems to be a corporate presentation in the San Francisco Fringe Festival's lineup this September. Ian Woodall, a British, Andorra-based mountaineer and motivational speaker with quite a controversial background, is coming to this year's festival with his presentation The Tao of Everest -- a talk he gives predominantly to executives at companies like Microsoft and Ernst & Young.

With its supposedly impartial lottery system for selecting shows, the openness of the fringe format is what makes the festival so much fun. But I wonder if there should somehow be some limitations imposed on the kinds of productions that are eligible to apply? I mean, unless it's somehow an ironic, twisted or otherwise theatrical take on the corporate presentation genre, surely a straight corporate presentation should be excluded from the lottery for inclusion in a fringe theatre festival?

Obviously, attempting to narrow definitions of what is and what isn't fringe theatre can become thorny and possibly counter-productive. The debate would necessarily extend beyond a discussion of whether to censor particular formats (e.g. is it OK to include presentations / political speeches / some random person reading aloud from their self-published volume of love poetry etc ??) to considering whether content can also be censored (e.g is it OK to include a play by a neo-Nazi theatre troupe celebrating the Holocaust? Or a gay-bashing dance piece? etc)

On the other hand, when I think of the many potentially more "theatrical" theatre productions that didn't make it through the lottery for the San Francisco fringe, Woodall's lucky break seems somewhat perplexing.

But enough from me. Gary Carr, the publicist for the San Francisco Fringe Festival, sent me a couple of interesting responses to yesterday's blog entry in defense of Andorra's appearance on the festival roster. Gary kindly agreed to let me post his thoughts:

"The Tao of Everest (whether truly Andorranean or not) will be in the 2009 San Francisco Fringe Festival because it was one of 30 shows (out of more than 150) that was drawn out of a hat (actually a large Tupperware container). True Fringe Festivals are non-juried. Lines cannot be drawn, and pre-selection is not part of the game. It's all the luck of the draw as to who gets in.However, just because a show gets into a Fringe Festival does not guarantee that it will SUCCEED in that Festival. The audience decides which shows will pack 'em in and which will be lightly attended. As the 12-day Festival builds, so does the buzz about "must-see" shows. At the San Francisco Fringe, audience members can post their comments on the Fringe web site at Sometimes the posts give high praise; other times, scathing commentary. Great efforts usually win; things that miss the mark are ignored. The only jury is the audience and - hats off to them for their perseverance - the professional critics. The only lines the Fringe can draw are those leading to each show's box office."

In a later email, responding to a point I raised in an email to Gary about the extent to which the anything-goes model works if productions drawn out of the hat (or Tupperware) are contentious from a content perspective (as in the neo-Nazi and gay-bashing examples I mentioned above, Gary said:

"My examples would have been a one-person show by a Holocaust-denier, or a Pro-Prop 8 homophobic show, or Dick Cheney explaining why Iraq was a good idea. My initial reaction is that these reprehensible ideas SHOULD be presented to a general audience, not just to one made up of knuckle-dragging true believers, Skinheads, etc. If a bright light is shone on stupidity, my feeling is it will shrivel up and lose most of its power. I wonder if, in the 50+ year history of Fringes, such a diatribe-filled performance as you postulate has turned up. I doubt it, but it would be fun to investigate. There is a legal antidote to things getting out of hand and rising to the level of crying "fire!" in a crowded theatre (bad metaphor?): there are laws against hate speech and treason. So a line has already been drawn. It's at the level of enforcement where it gets tricky."
February 26, 2009 11:35 AM | | Comments (0)
I don't remember much about my visit to Andorra, the postage stamp-sized, landlocked principality located in the eastern Pyrenees mountains and bordered by Spain and France. My family drove through the place one day when I was a teenager on our way to somewhere else. We stopped for about an hour. There were a lot of stores selling tax-free gold jewelry. And there was snow on the ground. About Andorra I can't recall much else.

This September, though, Bay Area theatre audiences have been told that they will get to sample a taste of Andorrean fringe theatre when the 18th annual San Francisco Fringe Festival welcomes a production entitled The Tao of Everest from La Massana, Andorra.

It's a bit of a stretch to call this production Andorrean, frankly, though mentioning the country does make good press release copy. Furthermore, it's a bit of a stretch to call The Tao of Everest fringe theatre at all.

Ian Woodall (pictured far right with Nelson Mandela and others), the person behind the production, is a British citizen, though he currently resides in Andorra. A mountaineer and motivational speaker, Woodall was the leader of the first South African Mount Everest expedition in 1996, an expedition which resulted in a great deal of controversy. U.S. journalist Jon Krakauer has been particularly critical of Woodall's personality and conduct on Everest, which resulted in the death of five team members near the summit and various other misfortunes.

A quick glance at Woodall's website suggests that his Tao is more corporate keynote address than fringe theatre material. Subtitled "The Gentle Art of Personal Inspiration and Practical Leadership", The Tao of Everest has been presented before many corporate audiences. "Excellent, entertaining, fun and meaningful. Your presentation felt like a movie," writes an Ernst & Young employee on one of the testimonials about the Tao on Woodall's website.

Hmm. I wonder how San Francisco Fringe Festival audiences will respond to Woodall's presentation? More importantly, I wonder what place a straight-up motivational speaker has in a fringe festival at all? Fringe festivals are often free-for-alls. Part of the joy of attending them is that you never know what you're going to get. But surely a line has to be drawn somewhere.
February 25, 2009 9:03 AM | | Comments (4)
Cecilia Bartoli sang so scrumptiously on Sunday afternoon at Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall that she made me cry.

It happened in the middle of a Bellini aria, "L'abbandono." The Italian mezzo massaged so much pain and regret into each bittersweet line that I completely lost control of my emotions. I was speechless afterwards. I sat there frozen in my seat and couldn't even clap. I don't think that's ever happened to me at a solo recital before.

The interesting thing about Bartoli is that as much as she's a brilliant technician and a gripping actress and possesses great vocal warmth and lyricism, some of her vocalizing isn't strictly lovely. Her trills are frequently more reminiscent of machine-gun fire than birdsong. She sounds like she's hyperventilating when she gets going on some of the particularly fast-moving, high passages. There's a brassiness to the way she gesticulates overtly with her eyes and mouth -- she's no sweet little choir girl that's for sure. Yet the ugliness of these moments somehow renders her performance even more beautiful overall.

As I watched Bartoli sing that afternoon, she often pointed her right index finger to the ground while extending the fingers of her cupped left hand upwards to the sky. This physical "tic" seems, to my mind, to embody the spirit in which she approaches her art. Even as she soars into the stratosphere, she keeps part of herself firmly rooted to the ground.
February 24, 2009 11:58 AM | | Comments (0)
One commonly held belief about classic productions of classic works for the stage is that after a while, they start to feel like museum pieces. Sets and costumes look mothballed and acting and choreography appear outmoded. The productions might be sacred cows of sorts, but eventually, most artistic directors recognize that if they don't do something to revamp the work, it will start to resemble a carcass.

With this in mind, Helgi Tomasson's decision to create a new production of that most hoary of classical ballets, Swan Lake, for San Francisco's Ballet's 2009 season, makes perfect sense.

If any U.S. dance company has a right to lay claim to the Tchaikovsky/Petipa/Ivanov masterpiece, it's SF Ballet. The organization has a long and distinguished history with the work, having been the first American company to present the a full-length version of the ballet in 1940. Tomasson created a new production in 1988, retaining much of Petipa's choreography.

Unveiled on Saturday night with Yuan Yuan Tan as Odette/Odile and Tiit Helimets as Prince Siegfried, SF Ballet's latest production again aims to retain the spirit and much of the choreography of the landmark 19th century Russian version. The most radical change from a choreographic point of view comes in the form of a short introductory scene in which we see the evil Von Rothbart transform the innocent, young Odette into a swan for the first time. SF Ballet didn't come up with this idea -- the 2000 American Ballet Theatre production used Tchaikovsky's prologue music in a similar fashion. But the inclusion of the scene does help to provide something of a back story before we launch into the main action, so it's a welcome addition.

The other main way in which Tomasson has refreshed Swan Lake is in his collaboration with scenery and costume designer Jonathan Fensom. Fensom's designs are imposing yet leave the stage feeling uncluttered. The lakeside scenes (Acts II and IV) are staged in front of and on a foreboding, black craggy promontory with a huge, white full moon hanging low in the sky. The moon makes a reappearance in the ballroom scene (Act III), framed by the two sweeping wings of a grand curving staircase down which the ball guests enter. The moon motif helps to link all these scenes and provides a constant reminder of the snow-white Odette's presence when she's offstage.

Less successful from a design perspective is the opening act, which takes place outside the palace. Even though, once again, Fensom's design features only one main stage element -- a huge early 19th century-style gate -- the stage feels as stuffy, anachronistic and as cluttered as a knock-off Gainsborough painting. If only the moon could be present in this scene to create a stylish visual link between it and what is to follow. If only the costumes could be less pastoral. If only there could be fewer extras loafing around in peasant garb trying to create an olde worlde atmosphere. The first act looks so anachronistic, in fact, that it makes me wonder why Tomasson has bothered revamping Swan Lake at all.

On the other hand, all the dancers execute their steps with such emotional warmth and technical perfection and the orchestra performs Tchaikovsky's mesmerizing score with such eloquence, that one feels for the most part like one has stepped out of time.

That being said, I have a sneaking suspicion that I might have felt the same way about an SF Ballet version of Swan Lake without the benefit of Fensom's new designs and some slight tweaks to the choreography. I doubt that the introduction of a few cosmetic changes have much of an effect on the overall brilliance of the dancing and music. Which begs the question: Despite the sagacity of Tomasson's impulse to plume the ballet with new feathers, is it really worth the effort after all?
February 23, 2009 8:25 AM | | Comments (0)
The Irish band The Chieftans performed a rollicking concert in in San Francisco last night. As befits a group that's been around since 1962 and has over the decades performed all over the world, collaborated with all kinds of artists from many different musical traditions, put out close to 40 albums and earned six Grammy Awards, The Chieftans have pretty much become cultural diplomats.

At Davies Symphony Hall, three of the main band members -- Paddy Moloney (uilleann pipes, tin whistle, button accordion, bodhrán), Matt Molloy (flute, tin whistle), Kevin Conneff (bodhrán, vocals) -- surrounded themselves with a deluge of guest artists. (The fourth main Chieftan, fiddler Sean Keane was unable join with the group on its current tour dates.) The guest artists on stage last night included everything from a Gaelic singer from an island off the coast of Scotland, to two different Irish dance troupes to the entire Bushmills pipe and drum band that came on stage and played a number dressed in kilts.

Similarly diverse was the program. Some of the music was traditional Irish, but a great deal borrowed from and merged with other traditions. There were bluegrass songs (helmed by a couple of Nashville musicians who played with The Chieftans throughout their set) and numbers from Mexico and everything in between.

The Chieftans have done a great deal of worthy work by bringing people together from different traditions to play together. The wide variety of timbres and moods made for an eclectic and constantly engaging evening.

But I wonder how often these days the original band members get together just between themselves to jam? The enormous, spectacular Chieftans roadshow is a lot of fun. And if you're going to play symphony halls and the like, you might as well make use of the space and wheel on a battalion of pipers, dancers and, what the heck, mariachi bands if you please. But I think I'd like to hear the band doing their thing in the back of a Dublin pub someday, just quietly playing some old Irish songs like they did back in the 1960s.
February 20, 2009 9:06 AM | | Comments (0)
In the world of classical music, showmanship is often frowned upon. People tend to think that artists who spend a lot of time working on their presentation are ones who need to make up for less talent on the musical side of things.

While it's true that many classical artists and groups these days have gotten good at matching brilliant musicianship with presentation flair, I still attend some concerts where the presentation is so mediocre that it affects my appreciation of the music.

Such, sadly, was the case a couple of evenings ago when I went to the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco to catch a program of sad love songs performed by the great English a cappella consort, The Hilliard Ensemble.

I have never before seen this vocal group live, though I have long appreciated its fine, balanced sound and peerless facility for singing very old and very new material. Officium, Hilliard's 1994 collaboration with saxophonist Jan Gabarek is one of the best and most listened to recordings in my music collection.

From a musical perspective, I still got a lot out of the program. The group has such a good blend and they captured just the right balance between sadness and rapture in such pieces as Jean Courtois' "Si Par Souffrir" and Clement Janequin's "O Mal D'Aimer". I would have rather heard the four movements of the modern Swiss composer Rudolf Kelterborn's rich yet desolate Four Sonnets for Four Voices sung in immediate succession rather than spliced between various airs by the 15th century French composer Philipppe Caron. The effect of bouncing backwards and forwards through time rather disrupted the flow and mood of the Kelterborn. But in general, the music was beautiful.

The group's members were a lot less successful, however, in presenting themselves. Part of the problem was the look of the stage. For acoustic reasons (I imagine) the singers were forced to sing in front of a set of ugly plasterboard panels which blocked the audience's view of the Herbst Theatre's handsome proscenium stage. The fact that the singers stood behind music stands also presented difficulties. They appeared partly masked and removed from us as a result. I would have thought that a group of this caliber would know its music from memory, quite frankly.

The singers' dress sense was all wrong too -- dour grey suits with an assortment of uninspiring charcoal colored shirts (as pictured above). They looked like a bunch of undertakers. The final straw was that the performers hardly ever cracked a smile and rarely seemed to glance at the people who'd come out in the rain and paid quite a bit of money to see them. Unsurprisingly, the applause between numbers was at best lukewarm. Sometimes, no one clapped at all.
February 19, 2009 2:29 PM | | Comments (3)
When you write a preview piece for a newspaper or magazine about a performance event, you play a kind of guessing game about what the event is going to be like. No two performances are alike, so even if you're familiar with the work being presented, you really have no idea how it will play out and how audiences will respond.

With this is mind, it was interesting to attend the west coast premiere on Monday of Philip Glass' Music in Twelve Parts at Davies Symphony Hall. Here's what I wrote up about the concert for this week's issue of SF Weekly:

From his operas like Einstein on the Beach and Appomattox to his film scores for Koyaanisqatsi and Notes on a Scandal, the American composer Philip Glass is known for spinning minimal musical notes and rhythms into maximal structures. Written between 1971 and 1974, Glass' chamber music masterpiece is nothing short of epic. An extended cycle of music involving keyboards, woodwinds, a vocalist and an onstage audio engineer and normally requiring three live concerts to perform in its entirety, the piece tests the limits of the ensemble players' physical and psychological endurance - not to mention the audience's ability to sit still for several hours. On President's Day, the nine-member Philip Glass Ensemble featuring the composer on keyboards will perform the entire work in one marathon sitting (box dinners will be provided during the half-time break) at Davies Symphony Hall. Today, the sheer length of Glass' era-defining three hour and twenty-six minute work makes experiencing it seem more like a religious ritual than a concert. Back in the early 1970s, though, listeners had a more forgiving relationship to time. As Glass fondly recalls: "It was easy to find people to listen to this music every Thursday night because nobody had anything else to do anyway."

The piece feels like much more of an assault on the senses performed live than it does on a recording. At the start of each of the 12 movements, you feel like you're being air-lifted into the middle of an unfamiliar and extremely wild landscape and simply dropped right in. Then, at the end of each movement, the imaginary helicopter swings by, just as quickly, to pull you out.

Over the course of the evening, I swung between many different emotional states. At times, the music carried me along as if on clouds. The feeling was blissful. It almost rocked me to sleep with its spiraling undulations of sound. At other times, the music swarmed like an angry beehive. I was screaming inside for it to stop. At one point during Part 5, I came very close to running out of the concert hall.

On various occasions, the texture alternately called to mind Bach fugues, cathedral organs and fairground music. On other occasions, I heard scratched records, casino slot machines and traffic jams. Wild stuff. The experience was sort of religious in the sense that listening requires surrendering oneself completely to the sound. It also takes quite a devotee to sit still for that long.

On that note, it was fascinating to see how the people sitting around me reacted to the event. Some people fell asleep or at least shut their eyes. Others jiggled their feet and looked at their watches impatiently. A bald, plump-bellied man sitting across the aisle twitched spasmodically to the music, moving his hands up and down an invisible wind instrument. He looked at one with the world playing his air saxophone. Somewhere up in the balcony behind the stage early on in the program, an elderly person appeared to go into some kind of seizure. An army of paramedics arrived to cart them off.

Glass isn't my favorite minimalist composer. I generally feel more engaged by the music of, say, Steve Reich. Still, I had a great time and managed, mostly, to stay awake. I only wish that I'd taken a lead from some of my fellow concert goers and smoked a little pot before I went.
February 18, 2009 8:29 AM | | Comments (0)
Every now and again someone in the media writes an article about how advances in digital technologies like motion capture will make real, live actors a thing of the past on screen.

This morning, as I read the latest of these, an NPR piece about the latest Brad Pitt vehicle, The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, I started to wonder what impact a world free of actors on film would have on the theatre scene.

Would it suddenly increase the attention paid to live performance? If people know they won't get "the real Brad Pitt" (pictured in digital form, above) when they go to a movie, a premium might be placed on getting to see him live on stage.

Of course, there is currently something of a premium on celebrity actors when they occasionally pop up in shows on Broadway and in the West End, though judging by the dismal ticket sales at the moment, it seems like even the biggest movie icons (eg Jane Fonda) aren't making people flock to the theatre.

But putting celebrities aside for a moment, I wonder if the disappearance of actors from films will actually change the face of theatre and audiences as we know it? Actors of all stripes may suddenly truly aspire to working on stage (as opposed as seeing it, as many do, as a mere stepping stone for television and film careers). Bored of sitting in front of zombies made of bits and bytes, audiences might start flocking to see plays, musicals, comedy shows and operas. Wow. Imagine that. The mind boggles.

Honestly, though, I can't see this future coming to pass, at least not anytime soon. Which is probably a good thing, even though I do like to fantasize about how it might revolutionize theatre. The disappearance of live actors from movie screens would be a terrible thing for film art. On balance, I don't think I'd like to see technology take over, even if it does go some way towards increasing the kudos of the stage.
February 17, 2009 7:55 AM | | Comments (4)
Arts organizations and individual artists employ a variety of different techniques for soliciting audience feedback about their work. The most commonly and innocuous method involves giving out audience surveys during a show or at an exhibition or asking people to complete questionnaires online, sometimes in return for entry into a draw for free tickets or a backstage tour or somesuch.

On occasion, particularly in a live performance or movie test-screening scenario, groups and artists will ask audiences if they'd like to participate in a post-show discussion about the work. I don't generally find these sorts of conversations to be very effective, particularly in the U.S., as audiences tend to be very polite here and only seem to say flattering things -- at least to the artists' faces.

Over the weekend, an artist whose solo show I experienced went a stage further: He put the entire audience on the spot immediately after his performance. Providing feedback was apparently required of everyone who turned up to see the show.

It wasn't a comfortable experience and I kind of felt hijacked. For one thing, I didn't know until I arrived at the theatre that evening that I would be experiencing a preview rather than a full performance of the show. The fact certainly wasn't stated in any of the press materials or on the theatre company's website. For another, it wasn't until after the applause at the end that the artist strode back on immediately and insisted on having a pow-wow with everyone in the room about his work. Leaving wasn't an option.

While soliciting feedback in this way seems to me to alienate audiences more than draw them to you, I'm not sure this approach was useful for the artist either. No one in the room had time to collect their thoughts. And those that did weren't about to say anything constructive. What happened was that we all sat there for about ten tense minutes with the artist sitting before us in a chair. He asked a few questions and got mumbled responses. A couple of audience members made platitudinous comments. Then, when it seemed like the conversation wasn't going to take off in any meaningful way, the artist thankfully excused us and let us out.

I'm hard-pressed to think of a more ineffective way of getting feedback from an audience. Surveys seem much more productive in comparison. If I had been the artist, I would have a) warned people properly in advance that they would be attending a preview and that I would be soliciting their feedback, and b) simply left a pile of business cards on a table after the show with a quick announcement asking people to send an email or call with comments in the coming days. I certainly wouldn't have tried to engage theatregoers in a critical conversation immediately after the show without giving them the option to leave.
February 16, 2009 7:21 AM | | Comments (3)
In the first of a series of posts about public relations for the performing arts a couple of weeks ago, I laid out a set of guidelines for writers of press releases. Today, I'd like to devote my attention to discussing what makes an effective performing arts public relations manager from the perspective of an arts journalist.

PR is a subtle art, but many of the people who practice it are not subtle people. Those less adept at their job tend to rampage around repeatedly bludgeoning editors and reporters with information. They speak in loud, bland voices and lack the guts to provide the arts organizations with whom they work advice on how best to approach the media, instead often allowing the artists to dictate how they should run their campaigns.

Every now and again, though, I come across a public relations manager who's terrific. I'd like to share some pointers regarding what I think makes these individuals such a pleasure to work with.

1. Competence: The best PR people know the work of the artists with whom they collaborate intimately and can answer most questions straight away. They can get answers to those questions for which they don't have an immediate answer quickly. They are familiar with the layouts/set ups/business models etc of all the local media from radio, TV, newspapers and magazines to Internet publications, blogs, podcasts and vodcasts. They have a strong network of connections both in the media and the arts world and they know how best to match ideas with people. They keep their press lists up to date.

2. Responsiveness: Effective PR managers only need to be asked once for something e.g. press tickets, a playscript, the answer to a question about the artist, and they get back to journalists as fast as they can. They don't need to be asked twice. They keep on top of their email and voicemail and always provide a means of communication e.g. cellphone when they're out of the office.

3. Understanding of the Journalist's Job: My favorite PR managers understand what a deadline is and don't drag their heels. They also know that journalists are inundated with press releases and don't keep pestering them by repeatedly sending out the same information more than two or three times or hassling reporters on the phone to find out if they received a press release and will be coming to review the show.

4. Appreciation for all media formats: Many PR people still cling to old media -- newspapers, magazines, TV, radio -- as being if not the sole means of communication, at least the most important. But the (arts) media landscape is changing and the best PR people are up on the latest new media formats and actively court those journalists working in the arts field whose blogs/podcasts/vlogs etc are serious and well-created.

5. Ability to Rectify Mistakes: Sometimes things go wrong. Requests for press tickets go missing; a misprint appears in a magazine. Effective PR managers always keep tickets back at the box office so journalists with bona fide press ticket reservations don't get turned away. They gently contact editors to ask for the copy to be amended online / an error message to be published in next day's issue etc.

6. Good press release writing skills: I went into detail about this in my recent blog post on the subject.

7. Ability to stand up to their clients: This is a tricky one as it's the client who's paying the bills. But effective PR managers need to take charge when it comes to media relations matters and persuade the artists for whom they work to follow their guidance on publicity campaign issues in order to keep messaging targeted, elegant and intelligible.

8. Openness: PR managers who don't always put their guard up around journalists and view them with suspicion and are willing to be relaxed, friendly and, wherever possible, open, are much more fun to work with. PR managers who don't always talk in bland "PR speak" but can provide a positive yet frank view on things are more likely to get a fair shakeout for their arts organizations from the media than those who play things too close to their chests.
February 13, 2009 7:35 AM | | Comments (1)
The artistic directors of theatre companies have a very difficult job. Trying to program work that is not only artistically stimulating (I use this term in the broadest sense) but also delivers the goods within ever tightening budgetary constraints while pleasing or at least galvanizing the company's very many stakeholders from audiences to board members to critics is far from easy. ADs are constantly coming under fire for everything from pandering to the crowds to failing to program shows that represent the local community and its concerns.

As such, common wisdom suggests that because it's practically impossible to please all stakeholders at once, at the end of the day, ADs can really only trust one thing when it comes to figuring out what shows to produce: their instincts. Yet gut feelings aren't always reliable when it comes to programing.

I recently heard that the AD of a major San Francisco theatre went ahead and programmed a show even though she personally disliked it. Her decision was understandable in a sense -- the production brought with it well-known television actors, dealt with some big life issues in a not-too-strenuous way and did good box office. Many of the company's core subscriber base of middle-aged females loved the production as it covered territory with which they were familiar. So, in a sense, the programing decision was a success. Then again, many people I've spoken to about the play in question loathed it with a passion. And those few within that group that happen to know that the AD had staged the play in spite of her own misgivings about it, have subsequently lost what little respect they formerly had both for this AD and her theatre company.

A contrasting example, though, shows that when an AD has a strong gut feeling about a particular play, things can also sometimes go wrong. I recently saw a production at another well-known San Francisco theatre which had the AD's stamp of approval written all over it. The themes in the play seemed very much in line with this particular person's religious and political interests. The problem was that the play lacked theatrical merit. It felt like something that might have been staged in an ethics or women's studies class at a high school. In this case, the AD's personal instincts came so strongly into play that she lost sight of her audience and forgot her sense of dramaturgy.

What I suppose I'm driving at is that instincts alone are not to be trusted, but they're still about the best tool ADs have with which to feel their way through the programing jungle. To ignore them is to betray your vision, your theatre and your community. To give into them fully, however, isn't always the wisest choice.
February 12, 2009 7:27 AM | | Comments (3)
On Christmas day 2007, I wrote a blog entry about Oakland's then-unfinished Catholic Cathedral, The Cathedral of Christ the Light. At the end of the post, I mentioned that I was particularly interested to find out about the church's acoustic, hoping that it might serve as an excellent venue for concerts following its official opening in September 2008.

Sadly the acoustic seems to be the one thing that the people responsible for developing this otherwise glorious new building seem to have messed up. I cannot fault Craig Hartman of Skidmore Owings and Merrill's airy, wood-and-glass-framed architecture. Entering the vast, womb-like space makes you feel like you're walking on clouds.

But the sound produced in the church is a horrible mush. On the several occasions that I've heard vocal and instrumental music performed at the Cathedral, I've felt like my ears were stuffed full of cotton wool. Song lyrics were unintelligible and bass and percussion instruments consistently overwhelmed higher pitch-producing instruments. At first I thought maybe it was my hearing that was off. But people who've joined me at the church for events have agreed that there's something badly wrong with the acoustic

How could the people behind such a gorgeous edifice allow such a thing to happen? If any buildings beyond dedicated concert halls deserve high quality sound, it's places of worship.

I recently brought up this issue with one of the architects (a friend of mine) who worked with Hartman on the project. It turns out that my ears weren't deceiving me. The reason behind the problem comes as no surprise: The project ended up costing too much money and some tough decisions had to be made about where to put the dwindling reserves of cash. Apparently more pressing concerns overrode original plans to perfect the Cathedral's acoustic.

I suppose the church's custodians thought that people wouldn't be able to tell the difference between clear-ringing bells and mud-thick goulash. They were wrong and it's a terrible pity. I asked my architect friend if it might be possible to "retrofit" the church for acoustics at a later date once more money could be raised. My question received a negative response. I guess that explains why the church's website doesn't list any information about upcoming concerts.
February 11, 2009 8:47 AM | | Comments (0)
As more and more conventional media outlets oust their staff arts writers and reduce the fees paid to / number of articles commissioned of freelance contributors, I've been starting to wonder how one might turn an arts blog into an income-generating opportunity.

So far, I haven't thought of my blogging activities as a way to make money: I mainly blog to get the juices flowing in the morning and share thoughts and ideas about culture that I think might be of interest to other arts-savvy readers. As such, I've been cheerfully contributing posts on a variety of cultural topics for free for over two years. I have yet to see a cent generated directly from my posts, though money has emerged from peripheral activities along the way such as giving talks about blogging, being assigned paid articles on the basis of blog posts etc, which is lovely. I didn't give the idea of making money from my blog serious thought until last month, soon after my editor at the alt weekly where I serve as chief theatre critic called to announce that my weekly theatre column would, as of the start of February, only appear in the paper every other week. That sure got the cogs turning.

I've long imagined that arts blogs could provide a steady, albeit probably small, source of income at some point down the line. Though I'm hard-pressed to come up with an example of an arts blog that currently earns anything near the income of some of the big political and news blogs such as Daily Kos. Four ways of generating income for an arts blog spring immediately to mind, though none of them provide really satisfactory solutions in the current climate.

1. Paid Advertising: This may provide an income stream in the future and I admire ArtsJournal for pioneering the concept for culture blogs. But for now, with arts organizations -- the most likely sponsors -- in dire financial straits themselves, it doesn't look like advertising will provide much, if any, revenue in the coming months. It could in fact be a couple of years before ads start to turn a profit for arts bloggers. Plus, there's an aesthetic issue to posting ads on blogs. Google ads just don't look very good on the page. Until someone comes up with a better looking way of presenting ads on blogs, aesthetically-minded bloggers such as myself may think twice about posting ads. Of course, if I thought I could get some decent cash out of ads, I would probably overcome my aesthetic scruples :)

2. Donations: Some bloggers set up Paypal accounts and solicit donations from regular readers. Usually, this takes the form of a small note posted on the site along the "Enjoy this Post? Donate Now!" variety with a link to the blogger's Paypal account page. This is probably quite effective for bloggers that have loyal readerships no matter how small. But I'm not quite at the point where I feel comfortable about begging for financial assistance. If I were a non-profit or collective of some sort, it might make more sense. There's something slightly icky about doing this as an individual though.

3. Subscriptions: Unless you have a massive track record and huge brand-name recognition as an arts journalist -- and I'm not sure any arts writer working in this country today, save perhaps Ben Brantley and Alex Ross, can claim this sort of level of fame within their specific fields -- I don't think subscriptions will fly as a revenue generating model for the foreseeable future. Even brand name recognition isn't enough: You would also need to be able to churn out brilliant posts five days a week in order to solicit and make any real money from reader subscriptions.

4. Grant and Foundation Money: I've heard that a few bloggers are securing fairly sizable grants ($30,000) to fund the service they provide by writing their arts blogs. In the short term, applying for grant money could be a good way to float a blog, particularly if you've been in the game for a while and have strong user comments and good statistics. But it's a bit of a crapshoot, as arts blogs cover very niche areas and most foundations and grant givers, if they're set up to help individuals at all, are often more interested in underwriting artists than journalists who write about the arts. Plus, with endowments going down the tubes, even foundations are tightening their belts these days.

I don't mean to sound so pessimistic: The above thoughts represent early musings on the theme. Hopefully viable solutions will emerge from thinking in more depth about these four ideas and scoping out new ones. I've no doubt that arts blogging represents the future of arts journalism. Sooner or later, more people in the field will find themselves able to support their writing through direct funding rather than by working at other (writing) jobs.

But for now, we're in a bit of a grey area, with conventional modes of support (ie traditional journalism activities such as writing for newspapers and magazines) dwindling and new modes not yet being viable. As such, it's high time to think carefully about what opportunities might open up now or down the line.
February 10, 2009 7:43 AM | | Comments (3)
Lately, I've been on a campaign to educate myself on many of the big musical theatre and opera works that I haven't yet experienced live on stage. A couple of months ago, I wrote a blog post about walking out of the Phantom of the Opera at half-time. I was not proud of this decision. But under the circumstances, I felt I would have done myself and possibly the audience sitting around me a greater disservice by staying put for Act Two.

Contrastingly, over the weekend, I was so riveted by Wicked (seen on tour at San Francisco's Orpheum Theatre) that I was worried that my enthusiasm for this Wizard of Oz-inspired mega hit would cause me to rush the stage. I felt a twinge of envy for the performers. At times, I even wanted to be be up there under the lights in Susan Hilferty's staggeringly beautiful costumes belting out Stephen Schwartz's hummable songs -- a wholly unnatural sensation for someone who rarely feels inspired by musicals as an audience member and, as a singer, has repeatedly shunned opportunities to perform numbers from the musical repertoire.

Based on Gregory Maguire's novel, Wicked cleverly and flamboyantly weaves together several important themes, including how reputations are made and destroyed, how things are rarely what they seem and how societies don't seem to be able to function without scapegoats. From a political perspective, the musical's subplot concerning the re-writing of history and the tightening of rules surrounding education brings the current worsening situation in Afghanistan sharply to mind.

Featuring a few truly memorable numbers -- eg "Popular" and "A Sentimental Man" -- the musical makes for a ripping good time too. There's tons of spectacle of course from dazzling couture to intricate sets, but it's all very much in service of the story.

The current production is also skillfully cast, with the perky, blonde Kendra Kassebaum as Glinda the "Good" witch acting as the perfect emotional and physical foil to Teal Wicks' angular, tortured and sensitive Elphaba the "Wicked" Witch of the East.

My regret at not having clicked with Wicked years ago is much more acute than my misgivings about walking out at intermission during Phantom. Given that the musical had its world premiere in San Francisco in 2003, I feel rather foolish going into paroxysms about Wicked six years on. It reminds me of going to a dinner party at a friend's house the other evening and laughing when the host, in all seriousness, declared that he had recently discovered a terrific new flavor of ice cream before producing, with a flourish, a delicious, albeit hardly innovative, tub of plain vanilla from his freezer.
February 9, 2009 8:35 AM | | Comments (0)
Last night at the theatre I was almost knocked out by a bread roll.

In the middle of the Mexican theatre company Teatro de Ciertos Habitantes' Monsters and Prodigies: A History of the Castrati, the actors started a food fight on stage, pelting the audience with projectile baked goods. I took a mighty hit, square in my left eye. It's still throbbing, some 12 hours after the fact. I'm quite surprised that I don't have a bruise to illustrate the sensation.

Despite making me feeling slightly worse for wear this morning, the offending bread roll (which is sitting on my desk as I write as a reminder of last night's performance) performed a valuable service: It sure put the concept of suffering for one's art into context.

In a gloriously madcap theatrical production exploring the fine line between the grotesque and sublime via a romp through the history of castrati on the opera stage, the small physical shock I experienced is of course nothing compared to the pain that pre-pubescent Italian boys of the 18th and 19th centuries must have felt going under the knife in order to have their virginal vocal chords preserved.

With its clinical depiction of a castration procedure performed by the hideous Siamese-twin barber-surgeon Jean-Ambroise Pare, the production makes much of the contrast between the heights of vocal purity and the lows of carnal messiness. Even performed without the live horse on stage (in contrast to some iterations of this show since its premiere in Spain in 2000) Monsters and Prodigies still bristles with anarchic, animal energy.

I'm no sports expert, but I'm certain that at least one of the cast members has a bright alternative future ahead of him as a pitcher for the New York Yankees.
February 6, 2009 9:29 AM | | Comments (0)
The arrival of opera production simulcasts (and re-runs of simulcasts) on cinema screens across the country and abroad is one of the most exciting advances for the operatic art form.

Last night, as I settled into my cushy, armchair-like seat at a movie theater in Emeryville, California to watch a re-run of the Metropolitan Opera's Orfeo ed Euridice simulcast starring Stephanie Blythe as Orfeo and Danielle de Niese as Euridice in a production by Mark Morris, a feeling of comfortable solitude came over me. I rarely experience this feeling in the opera house where I'm usually with a friend (or group of friends), wearing fancy clothes, have a lot less leg-room and no armchair holder in which to place a cup of tea.

There's also something marvelous about getting all those close-ups from the camera angles. For example, if I had experienced Morris' production live, I wouldn't have been able to see all the different costumes worn by the chorus. Decked out to represent a variety of famous personages from history such as Queen Elizabeth I, Jimi Hendrix and Gandhi and Abraham Lincoln, the chorus members' regalia would have been hard to see even from the best seats in the house. But cinema audiences were able to examine many of these beautiful costumes up close. I felt at these times like I had one of the best seats in the house -- and it only cost me $19.

On the other hand, some directors of simulcasts still have a lot to learn about how best to capture the art form on camera. Last night, the camera was so busy -- it never stayed in one place for more than five seconds -- that I started to feel nauseous from the near-constant movement on screen. The obsession with close-ups over wide-angle shots was equally irritating. Sometimes I wanted the camera to pull back and let me see the entire stage for a while so I could take in the vista in its entirety. But I was rarely given the chance to do this. More often than not, the camera would swoop in for a close-up of Blythe's face, then pan to give us a quick (and completely unnecessary) shot of the area behind the main set, then move in again to capture the dancers' feet, then head upwards for a shot of part of the chorus etc. etc. A lot of this stuff was gimmicky and irritating and made me feel giddy.

The experience did, however, leave me with a vision for the potential future of opera simulcasts: Imagine being able to experience a simulcast of an opera production on a personal screen with complete control over where the camera flies around the set. The viewer could decide when to take in the entire stage, when to swoop in for close-ups and when to take a closer look at what's going on in the orchestra pit. The experience would then more closely resemble that of going to see a live production in an opera house in the sense that audience members looking at the stage would be able to choose, albeit in a limited way, which elements of the mise-en-scene to focus on at any given moment.
February 5, 2009 10:13 AM | | Comments (4)
One of my favorite ways to procrastinate these days is to flip through the deliciously arcane items posted on the Weird News section of the visual arts-oriented Art News blog.

The blog is the place to go to find out about everything from artists making paintings out of toothpicks and post-it notes, to the sale of an Andy Warhol wig for $10,800 at a Christie's auction.
February 4, 2009 8:57 AM | | Comments (0)
Many arts institutions are launching blogs these days. In some ways, the advent of institutional blogging makes perfect sense: Blogs provide an easy, interactive and cheap way to reach out to audiences and provide them with more detailed insights into such areas as the artistic process, the latest ticket deals and how an organization runs on a day-to-day basis.

But in the process of figuring out what content to put on their blogs, the tone and style of entries, whom should be responsible for authoring them and with what regularity posts should be added, arts organizations frequently come unstuck. Lately, I've heard several slightly worrying stories concerning issues that have arisen as a result of institutional blogging which highlights the differences between blogging as an outsider (like me) and blogging as the spokesperson for an institution.

The most alarming tale I've heard was of a young staffer at a theatre company who was given the job of blogging about the process of rehearsing a production of a play by a famous playwright. The playwright was closely involved in the rehearsal process and the blog focused quite significantly on his presence in the rehearsal room. The blogger did what most outside bloggers do: He gave his opinions. Unfortunately, these opinions weren't altogether positive. When the playwright saw the blog entries on the theatre company's website, he demanded an apology from the theatre company. The young blogger got his fingers burned and the incident put a strain on the company's relationship with the playwright.

Clearly, blogging as an insider doesn't give the author carte blanche to write whatever he or she wants. There are particular limitations imposed upon the voice one can adopt online when it's coming from inside an institution. But because blog entries are very easy to publish and don't often involve the middleman in the form of an editor, there's little to prevent this kind of problem from happening.

On the other hand, though, the restrictions that arts organizations feel that they need to put on themselves in order to stay within the boundaries of institutional priority can make for some pretty dull blogging. Employees are not sure how much editorializing they're allowed to do without risking writing something untoward. All too often, they end up regurgitating canned public statements that have already been published by their organization in grant applications, press releases and programs, which hardly makes the blog a place to go for interesting nuggets of extra information that you wouldn't find anywhere else. Plus, beleaguered employees, trying to do their already very busy jobs, often find blogging a chore.

That being said, many arts organization insiders love to blog and are very good at it. For example, I always enjoy reading California Shakespeare Theatre's blogs -- the actors and other production personnel that take it upon themselves to write the blog during the rehearsal process often provide me with information about their way of working which I wouldn't be able to get anywhere else. Sometimes, the writers are extremely eloquent and have a good sense of humor.

In order for organizations to get the most out of their blogging efforts and avoid getting their employees into trouble, they should think more carefully about what it is they want to convey with their blogs, who should be responsible for writing them and what checks and balances they might put in place to ensure that the information that ends up appearing on these blogs is fresh and interesting but not likely to incur the wrath of important stakeholders.
February 3, 2009 7:35 AM | | Comments (8)
What is it with all these modern war plays written by journalists? Why do some journalists feel compelled to make dramas out of their articles? And what is it that makes them think that they can write well for the stage?

I've been thinking about these questions over the last couple of days quite a bit since seeing journalist George Packer's play, Betrayed. The drama, which is currently receiving its west coast premiere at Berkeley's Aurora Theatre, can pretty much be summarized by a couple of lines from the March 26, 2007 essay that Packer wrote for The New Yorker: "The arc from hope to betrayal that traverses the Iraq war is nowhere more vivid than in the lives of these Iraqis. America's failure to understand, trust, and protect its closest friends in Iraq is a small drama that contains the larger history of defeat."

It's easy to see why Packer thought his essay entitled "Betrayed: The Iraqis Who Trusted America The Most" would make a good basis for a play. The arc of the story -- from the initial jubilation of many pro-American Iraqi's about their country's bright future in the wake of the U.S. defeat of Saddam Hussein, to their eventual disillusionment and fear as their lives become more at risk and the American occupation falls apart -- is strong. The essay is full of emotional dialogue and pithy storytelling. There's plenty of confrontation. It's possible to visualize many of the scenes clearly in the mind's eye. The characters, particularly the Iraqi translators who put their lives on the line to help U.S. forces in their country, are vividly drawn.

For a novice playwright, Packer certainly understands how to tell a story through dialogue and how, at least in the case of the three main Iraqi characters in his play drawn from real people he met during his many visits to Iraq, to create full-fledged characters.

Thanks to the efforts of director Robin Stanton and Aurora's sensitive cast, Betrayed makes for a moving and informative experience. It's a shocking revelation or reminder -- for those who either hadn't heard or had forgotten about the U.S. forces' treatment of its Iraqi workforce -- of American colonialist naivete, ineptitude, bureaucracy and callousness.

But for all the play's merits, it doesn't fully work as theatre. Packer, alongside such authors of recent war plays as Gillian Slovo and Victoria Brittain (Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom), have a journalist's eye for storytelling and ear for dialogue. But what these writers lack is a true sense of theatre as an art form. Neither Betrayed nor Guantanamo has a strong sense of visual metaphor or dramatic irony. The language in both plays isn't particularly rich, unusual or interesting. No matter how compelling their plots and characters and strong their messages, the memory of these works fades fast.

Compare these journalist-written war plays with the likes of Gregory Burke's Black Watch and David Hare's Stuff Happens. Crafted by writers steeped in the theatre, these plays are full of powerful visual images and haunting language that stand out in the mind long after the final curtain descends.

As the most intimate of performance mediums, the theatre is an ideal format for the telling of war stories. The stage, more than any other medium, has the power to take a huge, abstract concept such as global conflict and make it personal. Through spending time on the front lines and asking difficult questions, journalists have important insights to share. But they need to immerse themselves in the study of stagecraft before putting pen to paper. Perhaps it's time for professional media training organizations like Mediabistro, the Columbia Journalism School or one of the country's top playwriting programs e.g. Brown University, to run a workshop or series of classes on the art of theatre for journalists?

Betrayed plays at the Aurora Theatre through March 1.
February 2, 2009 7:50 AM | | Comments (1)

Me Elsewhere


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