Results tagged “Philadelphia” from Drama Queen
Here's what I've noticed lately in Philadelphia theater, and you can tell me if you've seen the same thing in your town: children's theater rocks. I'm working on a feature on the subject, and can't really get too far into it without tipping my hand, but damn.
I remember the days when taking your kids to see a show meant some slapped together summary of a fairytale that usually ended in a bunch of people skipping through the aisles in plushie suits, singing something inane about love and friendship. I'm sure there are companies around Philly still milking that same cash cow, but in the past few years the bar for family theater has been raised so high that the shows are often worth seeing without going to the trouble of bearing/bringing a kid.
Today's review of Cinderella, this year's incarnation of People's Light and Theatre's annual holiday panto, takes notice of this new trend. Because not only wasn't the panto all that panto-like (it was structured more like a vaudeville show), it also engaged the talents of some of the area's most creative theater minds and brought in an unapologetic Fringe sensibility while simultaneously tipping a bowler to other successful and cutting-edge Philadelphia artists.
And what better audience for the avant-garde, for surrealism, for the marriage of drama and technology than children? Kids are completely non-linear thinkers (at least until their innate absurdism gets instructed out of them), and willing to swallow whatever they're given as long as it provides an interesting flavor--otherwise, they'll spit it right back out at you, and never taste what you're offering again. They're the roughest critics and the most loyal customers, and if you win them over, you're not only helping yourself, you're shaping the future of the arts.
The long-term result of companies throwing major resources behind family programming is a generation that grows up with a lifelong appreciation for challenging theater. The short term result is, of course, money in the bank during rough economic times, since--aside from the packed school, birthday and scout audiences--most parents will justify taking their kids to a play, if not themselves. But it's pretty sweet that in this genre at least, making money and making substantial, worthwhile art aren't at odds.
Can I have a do-over?
Last time I was on here, I was complaining about social media. Well now I have seen the light, and it's fueled by an alternative energy called democracy.
All night, during the election mayhem, I was glued to Twitter and Facebook, as news and opinions poured in from around the world. And not from pundits (or "pundints," as Sarah Palin--Godspeed--used to say when she wasn't saying "nucular") but from citizens taking part in the democratic process in real time. This time, while official commentators buzzed in the background or provided fodder for snark, the leveling power of Web 2.0 communication was so overwhelming I almost wept from the sheer enormity of its implications--and this was before Obama's acceptance speech.
On Twitter, the Election 2008 feed whipped by so fast you could hardly make it to anyone's 140th character, let alone the 100th. I was tipped off to businesses giving away everything from coffee and doughnuts to vibrators (that giveaway continues until 11/11), and got my schadenfreude on by reporting to my 125 followers that the Fox Newsroom needed a Prozac IV drip, stat. I learned when Tina Fey was readying her shot glass, but I also learned how complete strangers and non-celebrities were reacting to the excitement moment by moment; meanwhile, detached from our earthly cares, the Mars Phoenix sent out a poignant goodbye from its frozen planet. Back on Facebook, a friend messaged me from France to say Paris was burning with hope. It was crazy and beautiful, in an election that lit a clean-burning coalfire under the rump of the body politic.
And the arts? Where do they fit in? Well, I'll tell you this much, before the Phillies and politics took over the feeds, I was tweeting links to my reviews, features and blog posts, and every time I did, I'd see a big and immediate jump in traffic to those sites. Mind you, some of these visitors were from Philly, where they could easily find links to the Inquirer's website and current reviews on their own, but didn't... Until I mentioned it to them. And the out-of-towners, who wouldn't otherwise read Philly reviews? Well, they did.
While personal pr is a part of why I'm constantly working the updates, it only comprises about a third of my motivation.( I don't have a clue how to make money off this thing, though I'm sure there's a way--I'm taking recommendations, BTW--but the site is young enough that programmers are falling all over themselves to create accessories to enhance tweeters' experience.) No, the other two-thirds belong to the thrill of being a part of something nascent but already integral, a new, wired American presidency and populace, ready to receive data from the masses, and willing--no, hungry--to listen. Don't let the sneezing pandas and angry cats win, no matter how cute they are. Who better but artists and lovers of the arts to ensure that arts coverage remains a critical component of 21st century media?
One of the best things about being a reviewer is watching new talent grow. The worst? Losing them. Every once in a while an actor comes along who makes you think, "Okay, I'll be watching him/her a whole lot over the next few years--if they stay." As every regional theater hub besides, maybe, Chicago can attest (and probably Chicago too), that's the problem with not being New York or L.A.
If you ask some of the fine actors who have made Philly their home why they stayed, they all give the same reasons: there's enough quality work to be had, and they can buy a house and raise a family here on an actor's pay. Not too shabby.
But who can blame the ones that go? Actors don't get into this because they have dreams of becoming Philly-famous. There are some exciting new faces in Philadelphia theater this year--as local drama schools have been turning out top shelf talent at a rate I haven't seen before--but since raising a family and buying an affordable house probably isn't at the top of their list of priorities just yet, who knows if they plan to stick around?
I, for one, will cross my fingers and hope that if they leave, they don't drown in the CSI franchise's lower depths. And if they stay? Well, Fishtown and the Italian Market are a whole lot cheaper than Brooklyn, a Barrymore is a lot more accessible than a Tony, and If you take SEPTA to Trenton and pick up NJ Transit, it's like, what, 20 bucks total to get to Penn Station? I'm just saying.
This season, there have been a couple of young'uns who made my job really, really easy. Here's one of them in my review of Magnetic North from Monday's Inquirer.
Sarah Palin at Philly's Irish Pub last night doing her version of "Omigod You Guys!" Bailey was so much cuter.
Who nailed it better?
The 2008 Philadelphia Live Arts/Fringe Festival is over, but my extracurricular work--sorting out what I've seen and divining new ideas, trends and rising stars from the pack--continues. Rather than summarize the whole experience, click on the word cloud below. It's composed of all my festival reviews and is almost as chaotic as the fringing experience itself (who knew "balls," and "blood," would figure so prominently)?
Want more? Here are links to every review in the cloud (bonus: they're attached to reviews from my Philadelphia Inquirer colleagues).
If that's still not enough, well, fine, I'll summarize anyway.
For me, the most exciting moments at this year's Philly Live Arts/Fringe were those that took theater out of the theater. Viennese artists Matsune + Subal opened Store, a social experiment wherein two performance artists set up shop on South Street, a busy, exhaust-choked urban thoroughfare that was once where "all the hippies meet," (it's not nearly as nice as it sounds on this link, but you do get a bit of historical flavor and some Dead Milkmen trivia) and is now home to an array of condom stores, tattoo parlors, bars, and--considering those volatile ingredients--a heavy police presence. So it was nothing short of astonishing to watch as everyone from hoochies to hipsters fell under the Matsune + Subal spell, purchasing ridiculous mini performances from a menu and laughing out loud as the pair ran through traffic with a plastic sheet fluttering behind them a la Christo, or posed as a .75 cent "Cheap Copy" of a grinning Buddha.
England's Rotozaza brought Etiquette, a two-person event, in which you and a friend are the two people, and the table in front of you is the stage. This link shows a video of the project's New York incarnation, but here in Philly, the setting was vastly different. It took place at the Last Drop Cafe, a local java joint that's been cultivating an air of pretentiousness since grunge, and whose grimy interior was perfectly suited to the piece. While a woman's voice (via recorded message, played through a pair of headphones) directed me to perform tasks, a man directed my husband, who sat opposite me at a cafe table filled with tiny props--a ball of clay, piece of chalk, glass of water with an eyedropper perched on its rim. We performed bits from Godard and Ibsen, and though I announced loudly "I am a prostitute," no one around seemed to care. It was a somnambulistic experience, being inside this hyper-dramatic event complete with a thrashing storm, that appeared to have no impact on its surroundings.
Anyway, these, to me were examples of the essence of a perfect Fringe fest, productions that blurred the lines between performer and audience, performance and perception. There were several others equally exciting, but the real point here is that the Fringe is not the time to mount a conventional production of a standard old play. Unless you're adding a radical new spin (Oedipus at FDR's olly-popping skateboarders, for example), save yourself the agony, save it for your regular season and make room for artists whose work expands the form and offers us a reflection of our present and a glimpse into the future.
Jerome Bel says it best:
Just a reminder that I'll be Tweeting from the Philadelphia Live Arts Fest for the next two weeks. Last night's events included Israel Horovitz's The Widow's Blind Date--review to appear in tomorrow's Inquirer--and a battle of the official/unofficial festival bars.
Official bar: It's low-key, I'll give them that. Video animations by Lars Jan and ambient music by James Sugg (and Turkish food, apparently, though it was gone by 1 a.m.). Unofficial bar: Last night, a cabaret hosted by local arts impresario Scott Johnston, and featuring the band Black Landlord (picture, if you can, Run-DMC with a horn section and hipster backing band), Pig Iron's phenomenally talented Dito van Reigersberg as his alter ego Martha Graham Cracker, and the gals from the Peek-a-Boo Revue (winners of this year's Miss Exotic World "Best Troupe" category) shaking their artsy can-cans. Winner: the unofficial event, hands down, which is kind of fitting considering this whole thing started out as a fringe festival anyway.
The link to my Twitter page was supposed to be in today's paper, but wasn't. Go to www.twitter.com/wendyrosenfield. If you're not currently receiving Tweets from anyone, sign up. It's so easy you'll be embarrassed you waited so long.
Don't worry, I won't tell anyone.
Just joined Twitter and though I'm fashionably late to the party, that doesn't make it any less fun. Who wants polite introductions and a table full of appetizers when you can show up to a boozy, smoke-filled room packed to the walls with bodies and crazy talk?
My principal interest in the tweet was for Philadelphia Live Arts and Fringe Festival purposes. Initially, I wanted to live blog the fest, but why do that when Twittering is so much more immediate and accessible? It's like the journalistic equivalent of the SmartCar, both timely and frill-free, the shrinking newsroom taken to its logical extreme. So I've voluntarily added one more unpaid activity to my arts coverage. Why? I guess because it seemed like the thing to do. I figure I can use it as a teaser for my actual reviews and blog posts, or to supplement them. But the truth is that if the tech zeitgeist whizzes past your head and you don't grab hold, well, probably nothing will happen, but isn't that that also the problem?
Anyway, after you've been stuck in Facebook's quicksands for a while, Twitter, which is essentially a glorified status update, seems downright revolutionary in its sheer simplicity. Not only is it embarrassingly easy to join and use, it's pure communication, a haiku-length transmission that forces you to use your word count wisely. Of course there are those Twitterfiction cheaters who've expanded the service's 140-character limit into whole micronovels released two or three sentences at a time. But I think they've got it all wrong.
Getting it right are contributors to Twittories, literary versions of the surrealist game Exquisite Corpse. I mean, it's not like they're "getting it right" in the sense that they're creating great literature, but that they saw the thing whizzing past, grabbed it and forced it to veer off course. The beauty of Twitter, particularly for lovers of the arts, is its strict rules and the creative innovations that emerge from within those strictures.
Then there are the larger sociological implications in the medium, giant-sized extrapolations artists, journalists and ethnologists can all pull from something so very, very small. People complain about Twitter's glorification of the banal, but to them, I once again invoke Death of a Salesman, perhaps the modern theater's greatest glorification of the banal, and say, "Attention must be paid."
Think of Hemingway's shortest novel ever written, "For sale: baby shoes, never worn." Or Fredric Brown's sci-fi microtale, "The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door." It's the tweet in its most sublime form.
Actual tweets can be equally affecting. Check out the Twitter orphans that pop up when you conduct a search (pick a name, any name). Abandoned blogs just don't fill you with the same sense of wonder. In fact, it's sort of a relief when you find one; so much dreck, so little time. But abandoned Twitter streams are like the caves at Lascaux, cryptic relics of lives briefly revealed, then submerged again in mystery. One entry from a year ago belonged to someone making dinner for their flight test instructor. How ominous, and how compelling. I sure hope they ultimately passed that test, but fear their absence tells a different story.
So yes, I'll be tweeting my reports from the fringe fest here in Philly in what I expect will be a most traditional manner (at least traditional for Twitter, not so much for journalism). However, I'm really looking forward to the day when I'll have the micro-ironic privilege of tweeting about a Twittered performance. Any takers before the thing whizzes away again?
Enough already with trying to figure out whether or not newspaper theater criticism is still relevant, and on to imagining that it is, and that readers are interested in hearing about the process from the inside. I'm talking specifically about personal ethics emerging during the course of a review.
It's not that old question about letting an actor or director take you out for a few beers before his/her opening. You already know the answer to that one, and it's the same no matter how cool s/he seems. (Are you listening, you acting/directing sirens?) No, these days I'm worrying about a real, honest-to-goodness dilemma that involves the confluence of a reviewer, her ethical biases, and a production that violates those ethics.
I've got a show coming up that I'm not even sure will be assigned to me, but am already offended--I cringe just typing the word--by its mere presence on the roster. It's no fun feeling like Jesse Helms (R.I.P.), and coming from someone whose deep affection for performance art blossomed after seeing an '80s-era Karen Finley show, it's a bit of a contradiction. But there it is.
In short, this year's Philadelphia Live Arts Festival (check out the festival trailer for a brief peek at the show in question) features Argentinian Rodrigo Garcia's Accidens (matar para comer). This performance, written and performed by Garcia, a former butcher, involves a duet between man and lobster, which as you might imagine, ends badly for the crustacean. The trouble is, I'm a vegan and recently wrote a feature for the Inquirer's food section about this gustatory transformation (but for some reason only the sidebar is still available online. Sorry.), and I just can't abide a performance that intentionally causes the death of another living creature in order to make its point. It recalls the Habacuc controversy earlier this year, which also used an animal's suffering for its own ends. What is it with South America? First Amores Perros (well, really Pixote was first), and now this? You'd think life was brutal down there, or something.
So ok, without having seen it, I get it, and probably, on the whole, agree with Garcia. His point, at least as expressed by the Live Arts fest's p.r. folks, is really not too far off from Michael Pollan's. Food is packaged, sanitized and renamed so as to completely divorce it from the life that ended so we might feast--obviously, you can extend the metaphor as you wish. Here, Garcia and I are aligned. But when it comes to taking that next step, sacrificing a beating invertebrate heart on the altar of artistic license, well, to me, that's barbarism, and the very opposite of what art was created to combat.
But let's get away from the concept's logical extension and back to the actual creature. I'm not particularly sympathetic to lobsters. After all, they're cousin to the cockroach, a creature that just happens to be the source of a serious personal phobia. But Garcia's lobster is alive, that is, until it's not. David Foster Wallace didn't used to think much about the critters either, until Gourmet magazine sent him to cover a Maine festival whose monumental scale of lobster massacre was more decadent than anything Caligula could have dreamed up. (Most unintentionally hilarious part of the piece? A clueless little toque dingbat at the feature's end.) Still not convinced? Here's another article from the Daily Mail on the subject.
Still, it really, really pains me to recoil from a piece on principle, because dammit, I'm a theater critic, and it's my job to divine meaning from the cultural winds, be they foul or fair. However, I also know I'll be unable to judge the piece on its artistic merit alone, which is what every artist deserves, unless they're really, really depraved.
But that, of course, is a moral judgement, isn't it? The question here is really this: do a critic's personal morals or ethical code have any place in a review? And conversely, humans being the way they are, how can one possibly pretend they don't? Though it's an issue I've struggled with this season, I still don't have an answer.
Ok, back to business.
Exciting news from Philly's City Hall Friday, as Mayor Michael Nutter announced the opening of the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy (Henceforth, OACCE), a Frankenversion of the old Office of Arts and Culture (OAC). I've blogged about it before, recalling Nutter's campaign promise to re-animate the office somewhere between his inauguration and lunch of that afternoon. The closing of the OAC, shuttered by Former Mayor John Street four years ago, left Philly, as Inquirer writer Patrick Kerkstra noted "the biggest city in the country to lack a cultural affairs office."
Street's lack of faith in a scene just beginning to garner national attention put a real dent in everyone's confidence. So during the last mayoral primary and election, the city's arts community threw its support behind arts- and gay-friendly Nutter (you can't have one without the other, he wisely realized; Street, however, alienated both groups), hoping to rekindle some of the Ed Rendell-era fire that once lit up the Avenue of the Arts.
And, people figured, anyone in this town brave enough to call attention to the fact that the Phila. Muesum of Art's annual attendance is higher than attendance for birds games (Eagles games to you)--DURING his campaign!--might be crazy enough to make a difference. But six months into the new honcho's tenure, when the office remained closed, Philly's arts leaders were left wondering if they were suckered.
Well, now it looks like they weren't. What's promising about this new version of the OACCE is the addition to its title, an assertion that civic support for the arts is integral to the region's economic health. Heading up the office is Gary Steuer, former New York-based veep of Americans for the Arts. The organization advocates for public-private arts partnerships and tracks congressional activity and other public policy related to the arts. (Their weekly news digest also makes great companion reading with your daily ArtsJournal newsletter.)
Perhaps not coincidentally, Americans for the Arts held its national convention here last month, and it just so happens that their mandate appears pretty darn close to the mayor's promises, right on down to reinstating music and art education in the public schools.
But that's not all. Nutter also re-opened the city's Cultural Advisory Council, a group that advises the mayor and his administration on cultural and artistic issues, and said he hopes to make the OACCE a model for cities across the country. So good for him, and better for us. The economy's nosedive just might serve as the ideal petri dish to prove once and for all whether or not the arts--and its attendant "creative economy"--really can save us all.
Nutter's Delight: wherein the mayor rocks the inaugural mic (Obama, take note).
As news of Minneapolis' Theatre de la Jeune Lune's closing spread, almost simultaneously word came of the closing here in Philly of one of our best-loved houses, Mum Puppettheatre. Though Mum was a theater devoted strictly to puppets, it wasn't by any means child's play. Mum's work over the last 23 years has bred new respect for puppetry here and nationally. Their innovations--puppet productions of Equus, The Fantasticks, and this season's adaptation of Animal Farm, as well as original works such as the stirring When the War is Over--are legendary around these parts. Like Jeune Lune, Mum offered a unique artistic vision, and was rewarded with critical accolades and shelves straining under the weight of all their awards. Also like Jeune Lune, the company closes after several decades, sunken by debt and leaving a gaping hole in its hometown topography.
Sure, they say in journalism that two of anything is a trend, but I'm hoping in this case it's not true. Could it be that the economy is currently touching off a theatrical survival of the fittest, and in this case, only the dinosaurs--houses mounting revivals and proven entities--will emerge unscathed? We have several producers of new work here hanging in the balance, and though mismanagement might well play a part in their teetering, I'm guessing that when money gets tight, audiences don't want to take chances with their hard-earned dollars.
Both cases are a real loss for the reputation of American regional theater, and for their immediate communities. Here is my Inquirer feature on Mum, which includes some of founder Robert Smythe's theories on the demise of small companies.
I wouldn't normally post a review, but it is Bill Irwin, and it is a world premiere, and he did a solid for my beloved Philly, so here it is, with links to help you through the local (and other) references.
By Wendy Rosenfield
For The Inquirer
Bill Irwin is a very nervous clown. In The Happiness Lecture, his new production with Philadelphia Theatre Company (he previously won a Barrymore for Trumbo), Irwin tosses about in bed during the wee hours, stalked by a creepy team of black-hooded ninjas.
Bill Irwin stars in glorious guide to glee
By Wendy Rosenfield
For The Inquirer
Bill Irwin is a very nervous clown. In The Happiness Lecture, his new production with Philadelphia Theatre Company (he previously won a Barrymore for Trumbo), Irwin tosses about in bed during the wee hours, stalked by a creepy team of black-hooded ninjas.
Finally, he flicks on the television to watch its nerve-rackingly narcissistic lineup. There's Irwin vs. Irwin on a talk show; Irwin in a leotard and legwarmers doing aerobics; Irwin in his real-life role as Sesame Street's Mr. Noodle; and finally, weatherman Irwin gesticulating wildly while behind him a map of the United States explodes into flames. These days, it's not easy being funny.
The Happiness Lecture evolved from Irwin's reading, in 2006, of a John Lanchester review in the New Yorker of books analyzing the science and history of happiness. In the article, two prehistoric men - carefree Ig and high-strung Og - illustrate the Darwinian utility of worry. As Irwin explains during the show's sole extended narrative, "Joy is maladaptive."
As staged, Ig and Og make a clumsy metaphor for Irwin's otherwise glorious meditation on the nature of laughter and identity. After all, his point is apparent in a series of frantic vignettes - the addition of a literal happiness lecture is just too precious, and weakens the piece, particularly since some of its conclusions - the world's Ogs are more fruitful than its Igs? Does he know about Flavor Flav? - aren't quite so conclusive.
Ironically, Irwin is on far firmer ground when examining the fraught human psyche. Torn between his real and virtual selves (which also appear in the form of puppets), and struggling with technology, he says with a sigh, "I'm not familiar with this generation of equipment. We old-timers know the old stuff is most dependable."
He then steps into a steamer trunk and pretends to walk down a flight of stairs until he disappears, garnering, as predicted, a huge laugh.
Irwin alone is a national treasure (in addition to his Barrymore, he's been the subject of a PBS special, collected a Tony Award, and won Guggenheim, MacArthur and Fulbright fellowships), but his ode to old-fashioned joy is also a surprise homage to Philly's next generation of talent.
New Paradise Laboratories' Lee Ann Etzold is our docent on a tour of performance art, suggesting helpfully, "If you think you may be watching performance art, you probably are." Resident 1812 Productions funny woman Jennifer Childs dons a red nose and floppy shoes to demand a narrative. The guy tossing away his ninja hood to complain about Irwin's puppets is Aaron Cromie, one of the city's premier puppeteers. Soundman-about-town Jorge Cousineau's moody hip-hop audio contributes dimension to the production, while his video design adds magic.
The whole meta-enterprise plays like fringe theater for grown-ups, and that's a good thing. Whenever pretension rears its bloated head, it is immediately deflated with a good-natured wink. The fourth wall is consistently demolished. The issues Irwin tackles are universal, but have the pensive veneer of a few years' experience behind them.
And through it all, our rubber-kneed guide assumes the weight of the world, just so we can keep on laughing. There's plenty to worry about - always was, and always will be - but happily for both us and for Mr. Irwin, there also will always be people willing to sacrifice their security for the frivolity of laughter.
The Happiness Lecture
Through June 15 at Philadelphia Theatre Company, 480 S. Broad St. Tickets: $46 to $58. Information: 215-985-0420 or www.PhiladelphiaTheatreCompany.org.
This year seems to mark another breakout era for Philly theater. The last one I can recall happened somewhere around the middle of the Ed Rendell-mayored 1990s, with a burst of building along Broad Street, which was just beginning to cozy up to its new moniker, "The Avenue of the Arts." Now there's a second wave of theaters popping up, failing economy be damned. The newly opened Suzanne Roberts Theater will host Bill Irwin's The Happiness Lecture on Wed. night (click for a New York Times feature on the show; I'll post my review on Friday), the Kimmel Center is already looking to expand, the Live Arts Fringe festival turns nearly every crumbling edifice in the city into a venue for a couple of weeks, leaving a magical trail of condos wherever it lands, and there are even murmurings of new houses opening in a far-flung transitioning neighborhood called Fishtown.
In addition, two of the four theaters nominated by the American Theatre Critics' Association for this year's regional Tony award were Philly houses (the Arden and Philadelphia Theatre Company). My Inquirer colleague Howard Shapiro just wrote a great feature on the phenomenon that made the front page--and how glorious it is to see theater qualifying as news.
Mind you, I'm not even getting into the Philadelphia Museum of Art's recent and upcoming expansions, the Please Touch Museum's new home, or The Roots and Santogold, to name a couple of locally-bred musical spitfires burning up ITunes. Happy days are here again!
So, to what do we owe this cultural cornucopia? I posit it's all a result of the excellent public-private partnerships Philly enjoys, a perfect storm of arts-loving foundations, a network of cultural alliances willing to take the lead in fostering new initiatives instead of simply serving as figureheads, real-estate prices that allow artists to live and raise their children in a humane manner, and a new art-friendly mayor, Michael Nutter, who has lifted hopes that the city will restore its John Street-shuttered Office of Arts and Culture--a campaign promise he has yet to fulfill.
(Then-Mayor Street's priorities: setting up camp during a workday to be one of the first in line to receive an IPhone.)
This month, The Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance announced an $11.5 million effort to double audience participation in the area over the next four years, and judging by last year's report on the economic benefits of our robust arts scene, I'm guessing that despite our other civic woes, Philly is on the right track to become a model for the nation's cities. That's right, our fat, ugly asses are looking pretty good right about now.
In the middle of a national recession, Philly's arts are thriving and growing, which just goes to show their importance for the success of a city, and how crucial it is that government--local, state and federal--supports this growth and acknowledges the wide-ranging, quantifiable benefits the arts bestow directly upon its citizens.
I think it's appropriate, as Israel's 60th birthday--and the Palestinians' "Naqba" or "Catastrophe Day"--approaches (May 18th, if you're wondering), to weigh in on the discussion sparked by this month's American Theatre Magazine about cultural sanctions against Israel.
Just so you know, I am pro-Israel (though not blindly so) and anti-sanction (vehemently so). I also find it interesting that not a single Jewish or Israeli interwiewee, no matter their position on the occupation, was pro-sanction. Some of these Israelis are so far left they're practically knee-deep in the Mediterranean. And the fact that so many Palestinian artists (though a few were anti-sanction as well) think a boycott is a good idea and parallel to South African sanctions during apartheid, is pretty darn appalling. In Israel refugee battles refugee, each side with its own powerful international defenders. Don't think for a minute U.S. support of Israel is any more powerful than the support Palestinians receive from the rest of the Arab and Muslim world. The territories are not under apartheid, and to the detriment of all peaceful Palestinians, if their borders were wide open, Israelis would be dodging Hamas-, Al-Aqsa Martyr's Brigade-, Al Qaeda- and Hezbollah-funded bombs at every turn.
It's worthwhile noting that Israel is just about the only Middle Eastern nation where a cultural boycott would be effective... Because it's just about the only Middle Eastern country where culture isn't dictated by governmental or religious law. Sure you might ruffle the payess of some ultra-orthodox Jews by mounting West Side Story on shabbos, but try it in Saudi Arabia, or worse, if you're female, try attending that production on your own in a country where romantic liaisons are carried on like this, and see where it gets you. How about in Yemen? Or Turkey? Or Iran? Or Syria? Mount a pro-Palestinian production in Israel and you'll get protesters, but audiences too. Mount a pro-Israel production anywhere in the region besides Israel and you might end up with a fatwa on your head. Don't believe me? Does the resounding regional success of an Egyptian 30-part televised version of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion ring any bells?
Why shut out your allies, the Jewish left and Jewish artists, and shut down one of the only avenues for Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, one of the last true avenues for the exchange of ideas between two warring peoples? How counterproductive can you get? And to what end? The boycott calls for Israel to "end its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands." Which, to the Palestinians' elected government of Hamas at least, means an end to Israel. It also requires Israel to abide by UN Resolution 194, which gives the UN control over Jerusalem. Good luck with that.
The artistic boycott of Israel is a fool's errand not because it asserts the autonomy of Palestinians, but because it ignores the autonomy of Israelis. Art is about picking up the rocks and shining a light on what crawls beneath them, not smashing the rocks down to destroy what dares to breathe there. Both sides have made terrible, terrible mistakes during their 60-years of hostilities. Palestinians and Israelis ought to be calling not for a boycott of the arts, but an entrenchment, a continuous and devoted artistic effort that examines pluralism, separatism, nihilism, whatever, just so long as their creative borders, at least, are left wide open.
If you're just joining me for the first time, welcome. You've happened on a conversation already in progress, so here's the lowdown: I blogged on my former site, Philly Drama Queen, about Ann Hulbert's New York Times Magazine piece on arts education. Then, I blogged some more (please see previous entry) about the issue. I'll wait here until you've caught up.
Ok, now catch your breath, hold my hand, and prepare to be depressed...
After poking around a bit more on the NAEP's website, one thing quickly became clear: the government definitely considers the arts to be the country cousins of math, reading and science. Next year, the NAEP plans to
"administer the assessment to over 1,000,000 students in more than 19,000 public and private schools in each state and the nation."
This testing, whatever you think of it, has been and will be conducted in fourth and eighth grades annually, and in 12th grade for reading and math (this last on a volunteer basis).
In comparison, the arts were last assessed in 1997, with a sample of roughly 7,000 eighth graders, and covered music, theater and visual arts. Though a dance test was developed, it was dropped due to "the lack of a suitable national sample," a statement which speaks volumes.
The test was somehow revived this year, but seems to have lost its theater component in the intervening decade. Judging by the 1997 results of schools' own reporting--74% of students received no theater instruction--one can only assume that under No Child Left Behind, with its emphasis on funding the three R's at the expense of everything else, the situation has only worsened.
So though schools were tested on their ability to nurture creative thought about visual art and music, the NAEP only processes these results as national scores, leaving states to shrug off responsibility and continue allowing their arts programs to disappear. Remember in Truth or Dare, that Madonna documentary, where Warren Beatty asks her, "Why do anything if it's off-camera?"
Well it's sort of like that. Why bother teaching something if no one's testing it? It doesn't get you any more money even if your students enjoy it, and in fact, if they enjoy it too much, that might reduce their math and English scores, which will, in turn, reduce funding.
Wanna know the next time NAEP will test the arts? 2016. Maybe by then they can get rid of music, too.
Drama Queen: Wendy Rosenfield on theater, onstage and off...
Wendy Rosenfield is a freelance arts and lifestyle features writer and theater critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer. She was previously chief theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly...