Results tagged “Philly” from Drama Queen

Ok, back to business. 

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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).
July 20, 2008 8:55 AM |
life_feat.jpgAs 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.

June 26, 2008 2:36 PM |
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.


Thumbnail image for images.jpegBill 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.



May 24, 2008 8:17 AM |
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!
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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. 

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(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.

May 20, 2008 8:36 AM | | Comments (3)
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...

January 27, 2008 4:33 PM |
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