Results tagged “michael phillips” from Drama Queen

Inside the 2010 American Theatre Critics Association conference there was a lot of what's going on outside the conference: hand-wringing about the future of theater criticism. Back in 1999, when I attended my first ATCA confab--conveniently located in Philadelphia--the room was filled with full-time staffers who visibly bristled at the dirty, dirty f-word: freelancer. Just 11 conferences later, I can count the staffers who make their living as full-time theater critics on one hand, and even if I include this year's keynote speaker Michael Phillips, who's technically a film critic these days anyway (no offense, Michael), I'm still not certain that covers every finger. 

(Below: from left, Jay Handelman, Lauren Yarger, Andy Propst, Leonard Jacobs)

I sat on a panel titled "Critics in the New Age," moderated by Sarasota Herald-Tribune critic Jay Handelman, with founder Andy Propst, founder Leonard Jacobs (you may recall him from this Drama Queen-related debacle), Gail Burns, founder of, and Lauren Yarger, whose theater blog Reflections in the Light tackles Broadway reviews from a Christian perspective. Of all the panelists, only Yarger finds herself in the enviable position of having to turn away potential advertisers. The lesson: You gotta have a gimmick. I'm not saying Yarger is cynical or that she doesn't believe wholeheartedly in her mission. It just helps that her mission occupies a clearly-defined niche that appeals to a very specific (and populous) segment of the American theatergoing public. Amen to that, sister!

Andy Propst also suggested a useful idea: ATCA ought to start offering badges to approved theater blogs. Sounds snooty, I know, but here's the thing, in a filthy, crowded internet, it's nice to find a safe bedbug-free haven where you can try out critics' opinions and know they've been vetted for quality control. As Propst said, "it could be like a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval." Any idiot can tell readers what they thought of a play or musical, but it's the job of a qualified critic to provide context, do research and send you back to the review afterward to uncover additional insights. In theory, anyway. 

There's some disagreement about the specificity of those qualifications (blogger Jonathan Mandell discusses them in terms of ATCA membership, but I imagine the criteria would be pretty similar), but I think it's a great idea, and one that could possibly help generate some ad revenue too, since blogs with an imprimatur are--again, in theory--worth more than those without. 

So, are you more willing to read or lend credence to an officially sanctioned critic? And before you respond with a rant about democracy, please remember that official sanction used to come in the form of a paid position. These days, there are critics with 20 and 30 years of professional experience who have been laid off from their newspaper jobs and are now forced to jostle alongside the Yelpers, Tumblrs and Wordpressers. I say it's time to fumigate.  

July 21, 2010 2:05 PM | | Comments (9)
It's true the Museum of Modern Art's new film retrospective, Spike Jonze: The First 80 Years, opened on Thursday night, so I'm a little late getting to it. But don't mistake my tardiness for a lack of enthusiasm for either its subject or the event itself. (Really, it's a result of the American Theatre Critics Association's busy NYMF schedule, fodder for another even later post.)

Jonze is a personal favorite, though by the time I was introduced to him via the Beastie Boys' brilliantly appointed Sabotage video (Moustaches all around!), he was already a camera-strapped, guerilla skate-video-directing, gen X anti-hero. However, Jonze's mild demeanor and minimalist responses during curator Joshua Siegel's between-screening discussions reveal him to be less irony-soaked iconoclast than pensive and understated messenger of joy. Which sounds corny, I know, but seriously it's true.

The retrospective kicked off with an evening devoted to Jonze's and Maurice Sendak's close friendship, featuring three short films: a documentary about Sendak; a comic short-short Jonze and actor Catherine Keener made as a gift for Sendak's 80th birthday (they reenact an incident during which Sendak's sister ditched him at the New York World's Fair to sneak off with her boyfriend, and which served as the inspiration for In the Night Kitchen); and a scene from Jonze's upcoming full-length adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are

The most remarkable thing about the films is that watching Jonze's shorts is much like watching his excerpted Wild Things, except with Sendak cast as Max (Sendak disagreed with Jonze about Max's age anyway, saying "Who cares how old he is?") and Jonze as the monster. In a way, the whole enterprise seems geared to force Sendak into acknowledging that perhaps his life isn't quite the torment he'd like to believe. When Jonze asks Sendak to name just a few of the people and circumstances that have thus far made his stay here less of a burden, his list is long, lovely and sad: Eugene Glynn, his late partner of 50 years; his sister, who helped raise him; his brother, who helped him craft tiny toys out of wood. 

It's too bad the Sendak doc isn't being shown in multiplexes before its companion feature; they'd obviously make a great pairing. But it sounds like the main event will stand on its own just fine, traditional narrative or not. Chicago Tribune film critic and At the Movies host Michael Phillips says it's the best film he's seen all year (but don't tell, because he hasn't reviewed it yet), and he's already been to Sundance and Cannes. 

However, the real strength of the MoMA's retrospective isn't that it's an effective publicity machine for Jonze's newest film, although it is. Its strength is that it pays tribute to a director whose eclectic work is finally becoming a clear vision. Look no farther than the Torrance Community Dance Group's unaffected street theater and Christopher Walken's unexpected bouyancy for proof. Jonze's work is greater than the great Sendak, and the MoMA's collection serves to show that he's been singing an ode to joy all along. 
October 12, 2009 4:01 PM | | Comments (1)
Just read this post on Andrew Haydon's blog for The Guardian, and was thrilled to see its relevance to a thought that's been fermenting in my entry box for some time. What's more useful: reviewing a new work with no advance reading of the material, the better to judge its success as a piece of performance, or reviewing said work after a thorough read-through, the better to tease out author-director contributions and its success as a translation from written to staged?

Unfortunately, here in Philly, we almost never receive advance scripts, and I believe that's to the detriment of producing theaters. I recently learned that on Broadway, scripts for new or new-ish, and not readily available plays, or even older scripts that have been reworked, such as this season's Gypsy, are given to reviewers as a matter of course. How has this practice not made it past the island's bridges and tunnels? 

Apparently, London's critics also receive these privileged press packets, but the thought that they might choose not to plow through them before opening night is a total shock. (You mean, you get them and don't read them? Don't you know how lucky you are? I'm reviewing King Lear for the millionth time in a couple of weeks, and still feel compelled to give it a good going over before curtain.)

Obviously, I'm in the translation camp, and believe the more you know about a production, the better informed your review will be. There's something to be said for first impressions, but as Chicago Tribune film critic/writing teacher extraordinaire Michael Phillips pointed out in a NEA seminar this year, they're not paying us to be like everyone else, they're paying us for our expertise. After all, if every schmuck was qualified to be a critic... Well, never mind about that.

Another point Phillips made was that there's possibly no greater waste of a reviewer's time than copying lines during a play. And it's true. I can't recall how many times I've been scribbling away and a.) forgot what I was writing mid-sentence, or b.) heard gasps or sudden laughter while looking down, and by the time I looked up, missed the moment entirely.

Phillips also suggested asking for the scripts beforehand, but I don't know, it feels a bit unseemly. Isn't it enough that we get two prime seats for free on opening night just for the chance to shred all that hard work? So I'm issuing an urgent call to regional theaters, with plenty of time before the '08-'09 season. Please make it a regular practice to hand out scripts along with press packets, or even better, to attach PDFs containing them right along with early press releases. After all, why should Broadway and the West End (and their attendant interpreters) have an edge over the houses that feed them?

July 2, 2008 9:49 AM | | Comments (3)
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