April 19, 2010

Or a contender, anyway. It's in the subway at 14th Street and Eighth Avenue, disguised as an official Metropolitan Transportation Authority notice -- except that the MTA generally doesn't do numbered screen prints. Artist Jason Shelowitz does.

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On this poster, evidently part of a campaign he's waging (of which I knew nothing until I saw the sign this evening and burst out laughing), Shelowitz has replaced the customary MTA logo, in the lower right-hand corner, with one for the MEA; the "E," of course, stands for "etiquette."

His etiquette rant may not be in the official style of the MTA, but it's definitely in the style of a conductor or two. It will have a lot of people who've been creeped out by their fellow subway riders saying, "Hear, hear." Or, as someone's already scrawled on this poster: "Yes!"

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April 19, 2010 8:56 PM | | Comments (12)
April 1, 2010

It was the kind of spring day, sun-kissed and warm, when frigid winter seemed vanquished, yet the fetid New York City summer felt safely far off. Flowers were bursting out, early, all over town.

Jefferson Market Garden 3.jpg Jefferson Market Garden 1.jpg

Jefferson Market Garden 4.jpg Jackson Square tree.jpg

As frequently happens when hibernation comes to an end, a craving to eat something healthy and green developed. Off I went then, down West 13th Street to Integral Yoga Natural Foods, with no suspicion that poetry was waiting to ambush me.

But there beneath the strawberries, just above the honey tangerines, dangled a text as romantic as the day: William Blake's "The Tyger," printed and laminated like the signs around it, and spattered with water droplets from the automatic misters.

Tyger tangerines.jpg

Verse, lurking amid the greenery! As a spirit-lifting surprise, it was astonishingly potent. Curious and smiling, I accosted the first employee I saw, in a neighboring aisle, to ask what it was doing there. The man said he didn't know; he hadn't seen it yet, but he guessed his boss had put it up: a variation on the cartoon characters that sometimes decorate notices there. A couple of minutes later, he walked over to read it. "William Blake," he murmured, though the sign didn't say so.

I wandered off, cheerful, and burbled to the cashier that there was poetry in the produce section. "Does it have something to do with produce?" she asked. A reasonable question. That the answer is no -- that the poem is simply there, not there to sell us blueberries -- has nearly everything to do with its power to jolt us gently into joy.

April 1, 2010 9:55 PM | | Comments (3)

"I don't want to sound self-important on behalf of my colleagues, but we feel that in the scheme of things -- coverage of the arts in the UK -- we are doing something of genuine value. We are aiming to provide overnight reviews which people can read before anything they'll find in any of the print media. And those reviews will almost always be longer and more in-depth. And in the case of one or two of the online counterparts of rival newspapers, they will be better subbed and edited and have way fewer typos. (Which sort of matters to us.)"

That's Jasper Rees of The Arts Desk, a new, "professionally produced arts critical website" launched by a London collective of accomplished arts journalists after the Daily Telegraph halved its arts budget. In a Q&A with me on ARTicles, Rees discusses the site and how a non-hierarchical arts publication works.

April 1, 2010 12:55 PM |
March 24, 2010

The best lede I've read in a long time is from Christopher Borrelli's brainy, completely charming, strangely touching feature in today's Chicago Tribune:

Quinn Dombrowski went to the University of Chicago because Quinn Dombrowski is a great big giant nerd. She is cheerfully geeky, insistently nerdy. Quinn Dombrowski is such a huge nerd she frets that the University of Chicago is becoming too social -- that the university has been gently cultivating a more well-adjusted, outgoing student body, which clashes with its famously studious reputation, which is why she went there to begin with. She has been worrying a lot about this lately. For the past two years she has made a quiet project of studying graffiti at the Regenstein Library, the school's largest library, and during that time she has noticed an increase in fraternity and sorority letters scrawled into its pale walls and wooden carrels.
March 24, 2010 1:07 PM |
Over on ARTicles, I have an interview with Anne Bothwell, director of the Art&Seek initiative in Dallas, which combines radio, television and online cultural coverage at KERA public media. The nearly two-year-old project began in the wake of significant staffing cuts at The Dallas Morning News. Bothwell and some of her team are Morning News veterans, transferring their skills to new media. She talks about that and more:

The biggest challenge: shifting from telling a story that's read to one that's heard or watched. Radio is a much more intimate and conversational form of storytelling, a voice in your ear. With radio and television and our Web videos, we're learning to resist the urge to "explain" and let the visuals and audio do the talking. Sounds simple enough but to folks who've been writing for the page for years, it can sometimes feel like putting your pants on inside out.
March 24, 2010 12:48 PM |
March 17, 2010

Over on ARTicles, I have a Q&A with design editor Julie Lasky, late of I.D. She's now helming the nonprofit, online publication Change Observer, which is, as she explains, "exclusively interested in design for the improvement of society." Lasky talks about the need for stringent reporting, the peculiar beauties of the online audience, the uncertain future of design publishing and more.
March 17, 2010 1:09 PM |
March 14, 2010

The relentlessly changing metropolis is a story as old as New York, and the basic narrative of the Ohio Theatre drama -- about how gentrification makes it difficult for artists to remain in once-seedy neighborhoods that they helped to make safer and more attractive -- plays out in cities across the country. Still, it's worth pausing to consider, in the theater's final six months, what will be lost with its passing.

That's from my ARTicles piece on the soon-to-close Ohio Theatre and Soho Think Tank, the company that's run it as a presenting (mostly) and producing house since 1995. Soho Think Tank's artistic director, Robert Lyons, talks about the effect of the closure on the many companies and artists that have counted on the Ohio Theatre as a place to do their work downtown, and about the future of his company.
March 14, 2010 10:38 AM | | Comments (1)
March 9, 2010

If you listen to NPR's "Morning Edition" in a loop, catching the end of the show before you hear the beginning, today's program would have brought you a story on Andrew Lloyd Webber's sequel to "The Phantom of the Opera," complete with comments from its West End director, Jack O'Brien.

A while later, at the top of the show, you'd have been forgiven for thinking -- if your attention had wandered, or you'd been multitasking -- that they were already rerunning the same story, or another one on the same subject. "Standing near the back of the audience, Jack O'Brien would occasionally shout out his disapproval," reporter Don Gonyea intoned, and you might have imagined the three-time Tony Award winner at a tech, getting boisterous with his team.

Then Gonyea finished his sentence -- "once even causing the president to pause, briefly" -- and you might have thought, distractedly, "What's this? Obama's at a tech rehearsal?" But, no, this Jack O'Brien turns out to be a self-employed electrician who opposes the Democrats' health care legislation "because he believes it will use federal dollars to help cover abortions," and because he thinks the country can't afford the price tag. And Obama was at a university in Pennsylvania, not a theater in London.

Ah. That explains it.

March 9, 2010 2:29 PM |
March 1, 2010

ARTicles, the recently dormant blog of the National Arts Journalism Program, comes back to life today with an excellent, much-expanded group of bloggers: Sasha Anawalt, MJ Andersen, Alicia Anstead, Laura Bleiberg, Larry Blumenfeld, Jeanne Carstensen, Robert Christgau, Thomas Conner, Lily Tung Crystal, Richard Goldstein, Patti Hartigan, Glenn Kenny, Wendy Lesser, Joe Levy, Ruth Lopez, Nancy Malitz, Douglas McLennan, Tom Moon, Abe Peck, Peter Plagens, John Rockwell, Patrick J. Smith, Werner Trieschmann, Lesley Valdes, Douglas Wolk and me.

Already up today are posts by Robert Christgau (on Robert Forster's criticism and on sportswriting as cultural journalism), Wendy Lesser (on the beauty of small music venues), and me. It's worth taking a look.

Update: There are fresh posts, too, by Larry Blumenfeld (on the morphing of "alternative" spaces), Richard Goldstein (on jazz manouche in Paris) and Peter Plagens (on the link between Holden Caulfield and Andy Warhol).

March 1, 2010 12:08 PM |
February 18, 2010

Play That Changed cover.jpgTalking lima beans turned Lynn Nottage into a playwright -- or they helped, anyway. Without "Succotash on Ice," the children's play she saw as a small girl the very first time she remembers going to the theater, there might not have been a "Ruined."

"I remember turning to my mother, with my mouth wide open, speechless -- I didn't even have language to ask her what was going [on] or express my wonder," she tells interviewer Ben Hodges in "The Play That Changed My Life: America's Foremost Playwrights on the Plays That Influenced Them" (Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, 173 pp., $18.99). "I was just like, 'Do you see what I'm seeing? Talking lima beans?'"

More cerebral plays, such as "Mother Courage and Her Children" and "A Raisin in the Sun," would significantly affect Nottage later on, but that kids' show on the stage of a Brooklyn community college "really transformed me," she says, "because it opened up a whole new creative universe for me. It is where I really feel that I understood how magical and special theatre could be."

Nottage's lima bean rhapsody is one of many illuminating moments in the American Theatre Wing's frequently funny, surprisingly charming, occasionally heartbreaking new collection of essays and interviews. Edited by Hodges, with a foreword by Paula Vogel, the book assembles 19 of the theater's usual suspects, many of them Pulitzer Prize winners, to explain what lured them into their line of work. A distinguished 20th, Edward Albee, opens the proceedings with a sparkling curtain raiser.

Not all of the playwrights directly answer the title's implicit question, but many of them, Albee included, trace their love of theater back to childhood or adolescence. There is 8-year-old Christopher Durang, already writing plays in New Jersey; there's kindergartner Beth Henley, catastrophically disappointed by the miscast princess in "Jack and the Beanstalk"; there's Sarah Ruhl, at 7 or 8, weeping on the living room floor because she's being left at home on closing night of her mom's production of "Enter Laughing."

All three of them credit their early interest in theater to their mothers: Durang's loved to go to the theater, and to read plays as well; Henley's mom was an actress in Jackson, Miss., and Ruhl's was an actress and director in suburban Chicago -- as well as a very good sport, apparently, about the notes her little girl gave on her rehearsals.

David Ives, growing up in blue-collar South Chicago, was seldom taken to the theater, but his dad supplied necessary knowledge by other means. "My father spent my childhood sitting in his armchair puffing on Pall Malls and reciting to me the bit players and supporting actors of old movies as they ghosted across our tiny black-and-white television screen," Ives writes. In Brooklyn, Donald Margulies' father was teaching him the same thing -- and quizzing him on it.

Nothing in "The Play That Changed My Life" is ancient history, of course, which makes it all the more striking as a reminder of the mutability of theater's presence in the culture. Ives recalls being riveted as he listened to plays on the radio as a boy; so does A.R. Gurney, who suspects those broadcasts are responsible for his learning "subliminally how to tell a story primarily through dialogue." Horton Foote, whose posthumous contribution combines excerpts from his "Genesis of an American Playwright," provides serendipitously timely perspective on the Pasadena Playhouse and mentions, instructively, that New York theater during the Great Depression seldom attempted more than superficial social commentary.

What, then, of the life-changing plays? David Auburn saw his on PBS. He writes of the shock he experienced at 17 upon discovering, in John Guare's "The House of Blue Leaves," a play utterly unlike "the thoughtful, well-tailored contemporary classics" he was accustomed to seeing at the Arkansas Rep. "I still have the tape I made of the broadcast," he notes. (So much for the argument that theater loses its power on TV.)

For Diana Son, it was "Hamlet." Deeply enamored of the play during her senior year of high school in Delaware, she was confused and wary when she heard that a woman would play the title role in the production her AP English class was traveling to New York to see. Then Diane Venora walked onstage at the Public Theater, and Son felt herself "being worked on alchemically."

The essays, almost all of them written for this collection, almost all of them lovely, fare better than the handful of interviews conducted by Hodges. In theory, the Q&A's are an excellent compromise for playwrights who didn't want to contribute essays; in reality, Hodges seems more intent on shaping the narratives than on listening to what his subjects are saying. John Patrick Shanley, trying to draw a parallel between theater and church -- not an original thought, but one that surprised him as a Catholic high schooler in the Bronx, watching "Cyrano de Bergerac" from the wings -- has to drag Hodges back to the topic.

It appears as well that there was no copy editor for the book, which is riddled with stop-you-in-your-tracks typos. Margulies' beautiful 1992 essay, "A Playwright's Search for the Spiritual Father," which has been published in The New York Times and in Margulies' own collection, "Sight Unseen and Other Plays," manages to show up here with brand-new typos. When the playwrights entrusted their work to this project, they deserved to be taken care of better than that.

One of them, in fact, would have been better served -- as would the book -- if her essay had been rejected. Regina Taylor's "Crowns" may be hugely popular, but her piece extolling Adrienne Kennedy's "Funnyhouse of a Negro" is abysmal: proof that writing prose and writing drama demand very different skills.

Because the playwrights are deployed in alphabetical order, from David Auburn to Doug Wright, Taylor's dreadful contribution is where an 11 o'clock number might have been. But Wright's essay on Charles Ludlam and the Ridiculous Theatrical Company -- the book's gorgeous, full-hearted finale -- is note-perfect from its opening line: "For most of my childhood, I was in love with my best friend, Bruce." That was back in Texas. Years later, as young gay men in 1980s New York, they would discover Ludlam together, becoming deliriously devoted "scholars of the Ridiculous" only shortly before the playwright-actor died of AIDS.

Given the carnage AIDS has wrought in the theater, it feels not only fitting but essential that the collection ends with Wright's sweet elegy to Ludlam, his young self, and his own best friend. The essay nicely underscores the point of the book, too, with an anecdote connecting Ludlam's work to Wright's Marquis de Sade play, "Quills."

"Quills was widely reviewed by the New York press when it opened at the New York Theater Workshop in 1995," Wright recalls, "but to my astonishment, not one critic cited its obvious debt to Ludlam." Fast-forward several years to the set of the film adaptation, starring Geoffrey Rush. Steeping himself in Sade's writing and dousing himself in patchouli oil, the actor was still trying "to nail the precise tone for the role."

At last, in Wright's playscript, Rush stumbled across the key.

"'It's Ludlam, isn't it?' he whispered to me fervently. 'I reread the play last night. It's pure Theatre of the Ridiculous!'"

With that discovery, Rush understood the ancestry of Wright's work.

Such is the purpose, and the pleasure, of "The Play That Changed My Life": mapping the genealogy of contemporary American drama, delineating which fresh green shoots sprouted from which branches of the family tree. And watching what happens when you plant talking lima beans in a little girl's mind.

February 18, 2010 2:57 PM |
January 31, 2010

We know now that J.D Salinger was no recluse, despite what the headlines say. He shut the larger world out, but he did it with help from his neighbors: the people of his tiny New Hampshire town, who closed ranks around him to keep outsiders at bay.

There's a story to that effect in tomorrow's New York Times, and The Boston Globe had one yesterday. But it's a local paper that deserves the credit for the scoop. The Valley News broke the story on Friday, two days after Salinger's death, in an utterly charming piece by Susan J. Boutwell and Alex Hanson. It's the kind of story that only local journalists would realize was there to be reported. It probably couldn't have been broken by the big guys even if they had known, because who among the famous author's neighbors would have opened up to them?
January 31, 2010 9:15 PM |
January 28, 2010

Last weekend, I was book browsing in Chelsea when an excited young man -- a friend of the shop, I gathered -- came in and said to the clerks at the front, "Guess who I just passed on the street." He paused for one dramatic beat, then announced his celebrity haul: "Colin Firth." Colin Firth, the BBC incarnation of Mr. Darcy; Colin Firth, whose face on the cover of the new edition is selling copies of Christopher Isherwood's 1964 novel, "A Single Man."

Hearing this news, both female clerks deflated as instantly as I did, all of us slouching with envy. Then one of them dashed out the door, coatless, to try to spot him, too.
January 28, 2010 12:35 PM | | Comments (1)
January 23, 2010

In the stories we tell about ourselves, the temptation to lie -- to ourselves, to each other -- triumphs more often than it ought to. It happens in public life (see John Edwards), in pulp fiction masquerading as memoir (see James Frey), and in the cultural myths we accept as true (see New Yorkers' entrenched and baseless insistence that they're tougher than the average bear). This is nothing new.

And yet: Is it getting worse? Is a devolution in our use of language helping to blur the distinction between truth and untruth?

"Reality itself is a term that is rapidly being devalued," Daniel Mendelsohn writes in The New Yorker. Pondering the mendacity that has long been entrenched in the memoir genre, he points to the dominance of reality TV as emblematic of this cultural moment, when the degree of "blurring between reality and fiction" seems especially high.

Reality's root, too, is taking a beating. A lot of us don't even know what "real" means anymore, and the confusion is polluting our politics. The 2008 presidential campaign pitted a place called "real America," populated by "real Americans," against ... well, against a bunch of fake Americans living in fake America, apparently. Who knew that the simple act of opposing a Republican could invalidate a passport, a birth certificate, the results of a citizenship test?

Last Sunday, when President Obama flew to Massachusetts to try to salvage Martha Coakley's Senate run, Scott Brown's supporters flocked to a rally of their own. "The president may be in Boston," read a block-lettered sign in the crowd, "but the real people of Mass. are here with Scott Brown in Worcester." The phrase "real people" was, predictably, written in red.

The sign laid out a clear dichotomy, and a false one, casting Obama and his supporters as fake people (cyborgs? foreigners? carpetbaggers? all of the above?) and those on Brown's side -- the Right's side -- as authentic.

"Authentic": another word whose meaning seems now to elude us.

A few years ago, a young artist I know put up a website to sell the clothes she'd designed. Outlining her personal narrative in her bio, she strained to establish blue-collar cred: not an easy task, given her upper-middle-class upbringing, but reality didn't make as good a story. So, instead of crediting her love of design to her mother's creative passion for sewing, she twisted the truth to suggest that her mom (who was, in fact, a doctor's wife) was a seamstress. It sounded, you know, more authentic, what with the struggle and all.

When the drama that makes a compelling story is missing from lived experience, we're only too eager to fabricate it, or have it fabricated for us. But, as Mendelsohn writes, "an immoderate yearning for stories that end satisfyingly -- what William Dean Howells once described to Edith Wharton as the American taste for 'a tragedy with a happy ending' -- makes us vulnerable to frauds and con men peddling pat uplift."

Here's the thing: We can tell whatever tales we want to, but make-believe is still make-believe, illusions are still illusions, and lies are still lies. In failing to insist on those distinctions, we engineer our own continuing gullibility.

When we lose control of a simple word like "real," when we accept its widespread dishonest misuse, we lose sight of what's genuine. If there's no true north, how are we supposed to find our way?

January 23, 2010 1:39 PM |
January 20, 2010

Producing real journalism, good journalism, costs real money. Charging for frequent online access, as The New York Times plans to do beginning next year, is a step away from the cliff -- or, perhaps, a step toward scrambling back up it.

Why in the world should we be getting all this for free?






















And that's just today's arts coverage -- so far.

January 20, 2010 12:30 PM | | Comments (1)
January 19, 2010

The drama in Massachusetts at the moment is all about the Senate race, but it's an unhappy day for Boston popular fiction as well: Erich Segal, the creator of Oliver Barrett IV and Jennifer Cavilleri, and Robert B. Parker, the creator of Spenser, have both died.

I think of Jenny Cavilleri every time I drive past Cranston, R.I., on I-95, even though she never really lived there -- even though she never really lived. A little farther north, whole swaths of Boston and Cambridge are inhabited, if only in imagination, by Oliver and Jenny, Spenser and Susan.

In my 20s, when I was especially fond of detective novels and happened to be living in Massachusetts, I dipped into the Spenser books. As a teenager, I read and reread Segal's "Love Story." But, just as it was the TV series that introduced me to Spenser (Trinity Church, consequently, has faint echoes of the private eye for me), it was the movie "Love Story," also written by Segal, that led me to the novel.

One night in the '80s, I was babysitting for a family I barely knew when "Love Story" came on the TV. I'd already put the kids to bed, so I watched it, and by the end I was a sodden, tear-stained mess. Right after the credits rolled, the parents walked in the door. I remember the alarm in their faces as they looked at me, assuming some disaster had befallen their children. Still sniffling, I explained about Jenny's demise. The mom got it immediately.

January 19, 2010 3:04 PM |


Critical Difference If I were following the template, this would be the place where you could read the Critical Difference manifesto. Trouble is, I don't have a manifesto, and I'm not terribly fond of following templates. What I do have is a point of view. more

Laura Collins-Hughes I've been an arts journalist since 1993. Until it folded as a print publication, I was deputy cultural editor of The New York Sun, where I wrote about the two areas of the arts closest to my heart: theater and books. more

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