lies like truth: March 2009 Archives

Off to Germany and the UK for two weeks. I may post on occasion while I'm traveling, depending on the availability of wi-fi Internet access and time to catch my breath. In any case, I'll be back at my desk and posting five days a week again as usual starting Monday April 13. Until then, be well.
March 27, 2009 7:56 AM | | Comments (0)
I always find it interesting to see how particular performers jibe with particular playwrights, composers or directors. Think Fiona Shaw and Deborah Warner. Think Helene Weigel and Bertolt Brecht. Equally intimate relationships sometimes exist between two artists even when they are divided by hundreds of years and thousands of miles in time and space.

Such is the case for the American countertenor David Daniels with regards to the composer Handel. The passion that Daniels feels for Handel's music was strongly in evidence last night at Herbst Theatre when the countertenor performed a program of works by J. S. Bach and Handel alongside Great Britain's English Concert Baroque music ensemble.

The concert, produced by San Francisco Performances, was a game of two halves. The first was devoted to Bach, the second to Handel. One half will remain in my memory for a long time. You can probably guess which half I'm talking about.

Daniels brought great musicality to his interpretations of such Bach works as "Vernugte Ruh', beliebte Seelenlust" (BWV 170), "Qui Sedes" from the Mass in B Minor, "Schlummert ein" (BWV 82) and the famous "Erbame dich" from the Saint Matthew Passion. The last of these was sung sensitively, Daniels' voice interweaving with the solo violin line like the two were extensions of one another. But the English Concert tooks such a machine-like approach to Bach that all the life was drained from the tidy rhythmic lines. Not even Daniels could squeeze a lyrical quality back into the music. There's also something funny about the way in which the singer enunciates the German language. He's all lips and teeth. The vowels sound ungainly in his mouth. "Schlummert" is an odd word at the best of times. Daniels made it sound positively absurd.

Everything changed when the program shifted from German to Italian after intermission. Much more at ease with Handel's Italian arias and a whole lot less mouthy, Daniels let rip. When the countertenor performed the sweet-spiteful aria "Ombra Cara" from Radamisto, the word "vendetta" (revenge) sent chills down my spine. As the program progressed, the music became increasingly showy. Daniels approached the Partenope aria "Furibondo" like a Baroque Elvis, with low-slung knees, gyrating hips and euphoric little circles of his head while reeling through the skittering passagios. And in the "Mad Scene" from Orlando, he swung between manic glee and introverted sadness. Some of the ends of his lines in the quiet sections were barely audible. But the performance overall was riveting.

Daniels' predilection for Handel was such that even the staid English Concert came to life, playing the non-vocal Passacaglia from Radamistowith a warmth of feeling that finally did justice to the group's technical perfection.

The friend who joined me for the concert described Daniels as a "Handel Man." But what I didn't know until last night was the countertenor's particular passion for Italian Handel. "You won't hear him do German or English Handel," my friend, a huge fan of the singer's, told me. "When it comes to Handel, he's very specific about his tastes."
March 27, 2009 7:18 AM | | Comments (0)
One of the things an actor dreads the most in his or her career besides not being cast is being constantly typecast. It's very hard for performers to move away from playing thugs, upper-class twits and heroes if that's what gets them a paycheck.

With this in mind, I'd like to voice my concern about Michael Sheen. Sheen is one of the best actors working on stage and screen today. Until a few years ago, his diversity and flexibility were what set him apart from other actors of his generation. I was completely won over by his turn as Amadeus on Broadway opposite David Suchet's Salieri in 2000. I also caught his lithe Henry V for the Royal Shakespeare Company and his slick David Frost both on stage and screen in Frost/Nixon. On screen, I also enjoyed his role as Robbie Ross in Wilde with Stephen Fry. Sheen's embodiment of Tony Blair in The Queen was one of the most captivating aspects of that film.

And now I fear this fine actor might get stuck playing this particular politician forever. So it's no surprise to hear that the actor will reprise the PM in The Special Relationship, a new movie written and directed by Peter Morgan about the relationship between Blair and Bill Clinton. Dennis Quaid and Julianne Moore have been cast as the Clintons.

Perhaps I shouldn't be getting myself all worked up about an actor playing the same character twice in his career. Surely two turns as Blair isn't so bad? Some actors do nothing but play the same character (or type of character) over and over again for years. But Sheen's embodiment of Blair has so far been so complete and engrossing that I fear for his future. In The Queen, his ability to show the British Prime Minister's political expediency and vulnerability was remarkable. I hated and loved the character at the same time. In short, he played the role a little too well.

Let's hope he doesn't end up standing in for the PM's waxwork at Madame Tussaud's when the original has to be sent to the shop for touch-ups.
March 26, 2009 7:22 AM | | Comments (0)
What does it mean to be intimately acquainted with the culture of a city? How can a single person, even one that has lived in one place all his or her life, possibly understand how a metropolis functions on a cultural level when most of our cities are so densely populated and infinitely diverse?

Questions along these lines came up yesterday evening during a conversation with a friend regarding the cultural awareness of the editor of a local news and culture publication here in San Francisco. My friend claimed that this editor was very much up on San Francisco culture because he knows a lot about restaurants and is very outdoorsy. It's true that San Francisco's world-class culinary output and dizzying topographical beauty are two of the area's key assets. (Though I'm not sure if opportunities for hiking, sailing and biking provided by the natural landscape can really be classified as part of a city's cultural scene). But the editor's near-complete lack of interest in / knowledge of the city's arts scene surely stands as an enormous strike against any claim that he can be considered familiar with San Francisco culture?

Herb Caen, the late great columnist, has probably come closer than anyone to getting under the mad-tattooed skin of this city. Decades of covering San Francisco's literary, theatrical and pop music scenes alongside championing various civic causes like the removal of the waterfront eyesore of a freeway made him a true of San Francisco cultural maven. He was someone who had a multi-perspective view on what this metropolis' culture means.

But Caen, who died more than a decade ago, worked in arguably less complex and diffuse times than our own. The city has become much more international since his day. Technology has had a huge impact on the cultural scene. The ups and downs of the local economy have also led to further fracturing. As a result, no one in this city today comes close to grasping San Francisco culture as intimately as Caen once did. And yet if he were still alive and working today, he probably would not have as thorough an understanding of local cultural life as was possible a few decades ago.

To truly gain intimacy with the culture of a city, you have to know the culture inside out. You have to spend your life experiencing local arts events across all the genres and various ethnic and social dividing lines. But this can't be a passive activity: active participation is key. And arts are just a part of the puzzle. Each piece of culture, from a building to a song, must be understood within the greater context of its creation -- you have to understand how it springs from and fits into (or doesn't) the framework of the city in which it came to exist. Doing this requires a deep knowledge of local political and social issues. These in turn require a deep knowledge of national and international issues. The task is impossibly huge in other words. 

The best we can do to understand our local culture, is get out and about as much as we can without sacrificing time for quiet reflection. Keeping an open mind and exploring the cultural scene in the broadest sense of the word is important. Eating out at fancy restaurants and cycling in the hills are wonderful pursuits. But maybe it's time for this particular editor to check out the local theatre, break-dance, or recycled sculpture scenes once in a while. Doing so might make him better at his job.
March 25, 2009 7:30 AM | | Comments (4)
Doing blood and guts on stage convincingly is extremely difficult. There are basically two ways you can go with it: Realistic and Anti-Realistic.

Anti-realism is a common choice among theatre companies. Theatre is not a naturalistic medium, so the thicker and more radioactive-colored the fake blood looks and the more hammy or overwrought the death scene, the better. In San Francisco, the local grand guignol theatre company Thrillpeddlers, does this variety of blood-letting extremely well, often eliciting laughs, jeers and the occasional convulsion of disgust for their efforts.

Many companies eschew doing blood realistically because it's so hard to do. But in recent months, I've seen several examples on Bay Area stages that have impressed me a great deal and had a much more visceral impact on me than I've ever experienced in a live performance. SF Playhouse's production of Tracy Letts' Bug, Mark Jackson's production of Shakespeare's Macbeth under the auspices of Shotgun Players, and, most recently, Killing My Lobster's production of Matt Pelfrey's Pure Shock Value all delivered pure shock value.

I think the result must be due to a combination of very careful blocking, an in-depth study of cinematic techniques cleverly honed for live performance and good quality fake blood.

In Killing My Lobster's production, which closed over the weekend at The Exit Theatre following a critically-acclaimed run, the splattered brains against a wall at one point resembled a scene from a Quentin Tarantino film, which makes perfect sense because the play draws thematic inspiration from -- and, to an extent, sends up -- the iconic movie director.

It's interesting to note that in all three cases mentioned above, the theatres were small. I don't think any house in which these shows took place seats more than 200 people. The directors and actors, not to mention the design, fight director, stage management and props people, all deserve huge amounts of credit for pulling off the horror at such close quarters. The effect is almost breath-taking. And it's puzzling too. For the result isn't naturalistic at all, even though it's very realistic. Even when done absolutely convincingly, the gore feels completely different from watching similar bloodshed on screen. It sort of bored right into you in a way that cinematic horror fails to. We've become anesthetized to this sort of thing in the movies because it's so run of the mill. But on stage, serious bloodletting manages to make the blood in our veins run simultaneously hot and cold.
March 24, 2009 7:39 AM | | Comments (0)
Arts organizations -- especially ones commonly viewed as being harbingers of "high art" (whatever that means) -- have been tackling the problem of how to "stay relevant" (whatever that means) in the face of aging audiences, dwindling ticket sales and disappearing media coverage for some time now.

New York's Metropolitan Opera is renovating the operatic artform by bringing in top-tier theatre directors like Mary Zimmerman and the late Anthony Minghella with visionary approaches to staging, and drawing crowds from all over the country with high definition screenings of opera productions.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic and San Francisco Symphony are going for innovative programming to revamp the classical concert format. Last week, I blogged about the LA Phil's collaboration with French electronica artist M83. Though I had reservations about the concert from a musical perspective, I was impressed by how full Disney Hall was on the night of the event and how young the concert goers looked.

On Friday, I got a chance to sample one of San Francisco Symphony's strategies for giving classical concertgoing a new lease of life. Davies After Hours, a new, free program by SF Symphony, is basically a musical after-party following a mainstage concert event. After a memorable performance conducted by Nicola Luisotti of Kodaly's Dances of Galanta, Bloch's cello concerto, Schelomo (Michael Grebanier, soloist) and Brahm'sSymphony No. 4 in the main auditorium of Davies Concert Hall, hundreds of audience members flowed up to the Second Tier Lobby for the After Hours event.

At first, I felt a bit overwhelmed by the crowds. I couldn't hear the music, getting anywhere near the bar seemed out of the question and people were jammed into what seemed to be an extremely small space, like the neck of a bottle. It felt very claustrophobic and I wondered whether the organization had thought the event through properly from a logistics perspective.

But once I managed to get past the initial clump of After Party-ers, things became much more manageable. I found a spot right in front of a small stage at the far end of the lobby and plunked myself down on the carpet cross-legged just as cellist Alex Kelly (pictured above) was starting up his set. Kelly is an extremely versatile player whose unusual repertoire is perfect for an intimate setting like the one proffered by the Symphony on Friday night. The cellist played several of his own compositions which varied from pieces that sounded like whalesong to muscular, rhythmic works with a driving blues bassline. Kelly creates dense textures by using loop pedals, a keyboard and a laptop. His repertoire was particularly interesting because it featured several pieces composed directly in response to works we had heard in the concert hall earlier on in the evening. As a result, he had a captive audience of at least a hundred people. And many more stood back or on the sidelines, half-listening and half-chatting, as at a music club.

Following the solo set, Kelly was joined by the Mark Growden Sextet. The ensemble's eclectic output of spiraling blues, folk-rock and klezmer numbers, many of them love songs, included everything from a solo played by blowing through a set of bicycle handlebars (which created a surprisingly sweet, flute-like sound not unlike an ocarina) to a medley featuring a bellicose baritone saxophone melody, assorted percussion, and the chance for the audience to join in with singing the chorus.

By the time Growden, Kelly and co had finished playing, it was about midnight. The crowd had thinned out, but at least 50 people probably stayed to the end of the proceedings. One thing that impressed me was the age range of the concert goers who made their way to the second tier lobby following Brahms. The After Hours event attracted young hipster types in jeans, old couples in suits and smart dresses and pearls and everything in between. The crowd wasn't particularly diverse from an ethnic standpoint -- I think I only spotted one African-American punter that night. But maybe this will change if the events gather traction in the coming months.

In terms of opening itself up to new audiences, I think that the After Hours event is a great idea. The concept certainly appeals to me more than the Symphony's 6.5 program. The 6.5 series is built on concerts that start earlier than usual, at 6.30pm, with the idea that people can pop in to hear some music for a bit before bustling off to dinner at 8. To my mind, 6.5 sends out the wrong message to concert goers. It suggests that they might want to "cram in a spot of culture" before going on to relax and enjoy the rest of their evening at a restaurant or bar. It pushes people out. After Hours sends out a different and altogether more positive message, I think. Because it invites us to linger after a concert to enjoy more music in an intimate setting, it makes Davies our home for the evening -- a place we want to hang out at rather than leave.

Here is a list of upcoming After Hours events:

Friday 24 April following Poulenc's Organ Concerto:
SFS Orchestra members Bill Ritchen (electric bass and synthesizer), Christina King (electric violin and synthesizer), and Raymond Froehlich (drums and percussion) are joined by Neal Walter on guitar and vocals to perform in their power rock group NTL.

Friday 22 May following the world premiere of B-Sides by Mason Bates:
SFS Resident Conductor Benjamin Shwartz and DJ Masonic, the alter-ego of composer Mason Bates, present a spinoff of their club events where classical music meets electronica.
March 23, 2009 8:50 AM | | Comments (2)
For millions of people around the world, Google is the go-to site for everything from online shopping to project research. Almost everyone I know uses Google as their homepage.

One thing that I've never until now given the site credit for is its subtle and artful way of reminding me about important or at least intriguing calendar dates.

Today, for instance, the letters of the site's logo have been transformed to look like Eric Carle's iconic Very Hungry Caterpillar illustration. The artwork of the logo -- by in-house graphic artist and Google logo maven Dennis Hwang -- is delightfully chunky, colorful and imaginative (see above). It's the 40th anniversary of Carle's legendary children's book, so Google's gentle reminder about the date and tribute to the book's creator is very fitting.

It's interesting to see how Google's logo art has become the subject of such curiosity in recent years. Articles about Hwang and his work on the logos have appeared on both the BBC and CNN websites. Hwang has his own Wikipedia page. The impact of Google's artwork has become so great, infact, that media outlets are even publishing articles relating particular logo designs to the events they're highlighting. For example, today's UK Telegraph newspaper is running a story entitled "Google celebrates Eric Carle's Very Hungry Caterpillar".

My favorite Google logo in recent times is Hwang's whimsical-idyllic landscape created for Darwin's 200th anniversary (see above.) I love this illustration because of the way in which Hwang approaches each letter in the logo so creatively and seems to dream up an entire world through manipulating those letters. It refers to the subject only obliquely, forcing us to click on the logo to find out more. And the painterly, almost old-fashioned style of the artwork stands out because it's so different from the simple, bold primary colors and clean lines of the standard Google logo.

Not all of Hwang's artistic efforts are as lovely as the Hungry Caterpillar logo, though. The logo Hwang designed to celebrate Jackson Pollock's 97th birthday in January is a bit of a let-down. It's very predictable, leaves little to the imagination and doesn't really do anything truly creative with the Google letters. The word "Google" is practically invisible under the Pollock-style melee of colorful drips and drops, which isn't a great thing from a branding/marketing standpoint (not that Google need worry about brand recognition at this point). We can identify the subject of the design straight away as Pollock, but the art isn't particularly clever.

Still, the logo obviously made an impression on some people. One viewer even made a YouTube video about deciphering Google's Pollock logo.
March 20, 2009 7:31 AM | | Comments (2)
These days, if any city outside of New York has traction inside New York theatre-wise, it's Chicago. But Berkeley has also been holding its own in terms of transplants to both Broadway and Off-Broadway of late.

Berkeley Repertory Theatre's 50th world premiere, Sarah Ruhl's In The Next Room (Or, The Vibrator Play) will open at one of the Shubert houses in Manhattan this fall, The Lincoln Center just announced. The show, which, like the world premiere, will be directed by Berkeley Rep associate director Les Waters, begins previews on October 22 and opens November 19. Read my review of the show here.

While Ruhl and Waters have often worked off Broadway - including bringing Eurydice to Second Stage Theatre after producing it in Berkeley - both celebrate their Broadway debuts with this play. I hear that Waters, who hails from the UK, responded to the news in his usual self-effacing way, saying: "Well, really, if you want to know, I'm utterly chuffed."

The Vibrator Play represents the eighth show in eight years that Berkeley Rep has helped develop and send to New York. In addition to the recent Broadway run of Passing Strange, these plays include Danny Hoch's Taking Over (2008), Ruhl's Eurydice (2007), Sarah Jones' Bridge & Tunnel (2006), Tony Kushner and Maurice Sendak's Brundibar (2006), Naomi Iizuka's 36 Views (2002), and Mary Zimmerman's Metamorphoses (2001). Overall, Berkeley Rep has delivered 17 shows to Manhattan in the last 22 years.

The Rep isn't the only Berkeley-based theatre to send a show to New York this year. In a couple of weeks' time, the Berkeley company Shotgun Players will bring its spellbinding rock musical (or "songplay") Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage (a collaboration with the San Francisco-New York performance Collective Banana, Bag & Bodice) to the Abrons Arts Centre in Manhattan. This show, which runs from March 31 - April 18, is pretty ingenious. Read my review of the show, which had its world premiere at Shotgun Players' Ashby Stage theatre in Berkeley last year before going on to win the Will Glickman Award for Best New Play of 2008, here. Go Berkeley!
March 19, 2009 7:40 AM | | Comments (0)
Contemporary composers can't seem to get enough of working with Chanticleer. The multiple Grammy Award-winning, all male vocal ensemble might have originally established its international reputation with incandescent interpretations of Renaissance and Medieval works and gone on to earn a mass following through catchy Christmas carol and gospel arrangements. But these days, it's the group's partnerships with cutting-edge composers such as Douglas Cuomo, Shulamit Ran and Chen Yi that are setting the music world alight. "The biggest challenge is writing a piece that's worthy of the group's greatness," longstanding Chanticleer collaborator Augusta Read Thomas recently said.

To celebrate entering its third decade, the 31-year-old ensemble has commissioned three emerging artists in their early thirties to create new works for Chanticleer's upcoming Composers/Our Age concert series. Also known on the club scene as DJ Masonic, the Virginia-raised, Berkeley-based composer Mason Bates' first major choral work Sirens explores the magnetic call of the ancient Greek mythical seductresses through setting of poems about sirens from several different traditions. Samuel Beckett's abyss-staring 1983 monograph, Worstward Ho, serves as inspiration for No Matter by the Grammy-nominated, London-born Tarik O'Regan. Meanwhile, the poetry of Iraq war veteran Brian Turner and the 13th century Persian bard Rumi come together in New York composer Shawn Crouch's The Garden of Paradise.

The highlight of the group's first concert of these works which I saw last night in Berkeley, was undoubtedly Bates' Sirens. It was only during this piece, which took up the entire second half of the program, that Chanticleer's singers hit their stride. The first half of the program, though less memorable, possesses some beautiful moments. No Matter entombs Beckett's nihilistic poetry in whispering-undulating phrases and stark fifths. The Garden of Paradise features wild contrasts between the flighty, bird-like upper lines and the constantly shifting, belly-rumbling lower voices. The piece also includes some memorable word painting -- such as on the word "maut" (meaning death) which stands out like a car wreck from the preceding texture. The piece makes for a powerful war requiem with its contrast between Rumi's ancient words and Turner's contemporary reflections on life in a war zone. ("Akbar stirs the chai, the carries his sleeping four-year-old, Habib, to bed under glow-in-the-dark stars arranged on the ceiliing" is a line, sung heartacheingly simply by the tenors, that I won't easily forget.) But No Matter suffers from a thinness to the sound -- the piece comes across as anemic and there were some intonation problems in the challenging soprano lines in last night's performance. And the group's articulation of Beckett's and Turner's texts wasn't as clear as it ought to have been.

Chanticleer's talent crystallized in Sirens, however. I felt like I was being taken on a journey through space and time with this piece, which mixes together passages in Ancient Greek from Book XII of The Odyssey, Heinrich Heine's poem "Die Lorelei", Pietro Aretino's lovely sonnet from the 16th century, "Stelle, Vostra Merce L'Eccelse Sfere", a poem of the native Quechua (a South American tribe) entitled "Sirinu Nuqa Rikuni A", a section from the Book of Matthew "The Calling of the First Disciples", and, finally, a return to the The Odyssey at the close.

The piece glitters with mesmerizing textures throughout, luring the audience, like the unfortunate sailor in Heine's poem, to temptation and ultimate doom. The piece is an essay in the art of seduction, in fact. Shakers and heavy vocal whispers lace the Quecha poem with mystery. The hyperbolic dynamic contrasts in the section from Matthew (the singers go from quiet to loud and back again in the space of a single bar at times) create extreme intensity -- suggesting the meeting point of beauty and danger. Bates' setting of Heine rolls forward like waves crashing over rocks while exuding a sparse, despairing quality. And reflecting Bates' interest in electronic music with its ambient throbbing lines and parts almost reminiscent of hip-hop scratching, Sirens brings to mind a slightly sinister courtship dance between ancient and modern sensibilties.

I was tossed from shore to shore by Chanticleer's performance. The linguistic capabilities of the group are astounding. I didn't hear a vowel out of place, despite the complexity of the changing tongues in which the movements of the work are set. There is a lively flow to Bates' music, and the vocalists seemed as much swept along by the sounds, seduced by them, as the audience was.

Chanticleer's Composers/Our Age concerts continue this week at the following venues:

Mission Santa Clara, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, Wednesday, March 18 at 8 p.m.

San Francisco Conservatory of Music, 50 Oak Street, San Francisco, Friday, March 20 at 8 p.m., Saturday, March 21 at 8 p.m., Sunday, March 22 at 5 p.m.
March 18, 2009 7:31 AM | | Comments (1)
In Charlie Varon's new play, Rabbi Sam, a progressive rabbi sparks controversy among his congregants when he declares that an anonymous donor is giving the synagogue $2 million to pay for a congregational trip to Jerusalem and $18 dollar annual memberships for new families interested in joining the synagogue. The donor, according to the rabbi, insists on maintaining anonymity. Some congregants respect this and are simply excited about the prospect of seeing the numbers of the congregation swell and getting a free trip to the Promised Land. Others, however, are very skeptical. Rumors fly around Jewish homes in the small town of Semanitas, California where the synagogue is based. Is the new rabbi for real or is he a charlatan? And what kind of "sugar daddy" doesn't want recognition for such generosity? The fights over the secret donation almost cost Sam his job.

The squabble over donorship in Varon's play feeds into a broader discussion that I've been having with myself and a few others over the past few days on the theme of anonymous donorship to the arts. It's very common for large donors to have their names prominently on display within an arts organization -- not just in the pages of a theatre program, but in gold leaf on the walls of a new museum. Some, especially corporate donors, have their names announced at the beginning of a performance.

I read with great interest Andy Horwitz's essay in Culturebot entitled "Culture, Corporations, Politics and the Interconnectedness of all Things", which offers a rather cynical take on the impetus behind large donations.:
I was having a chat with a Republican acquaintance of mine the other day who said, "Well, if Obama taxes the rich and eliminates all these tax deductions for charitable giving, there won't be any arts!" Setting aside the argument over whether art requires subsidy to exist at all, I asked her, "So if the wealthy didn't get tax breaks they wouldn't give to charity?" This was after a cordial but impassioned exchange over the state of popular culture, the failures of the education system, the decline of civility and other social ills which this person lamented yet felt no compulsion to solve.

And isn't that the heart of the problem? That the societal values promulgated by passionate Bush-style free-marketers are such that the more fortunate would stop giving if they didn't get tax breaks? For all the talk of values, morals and "culture wars" there has been a fundamental breakdown of the idea of the civil society. Surely this rapacious "me-first"-ism is a product not only of 30 years of rampant, unsupervised free-market philosophy but of the institutions that educate the leaders of corporate America. Maybe it is time for a change?
This kind of mentality does make the idea of anonymous donor particularly open to skepticism. But if tax breaks really are the main reason for donating to the arts as a private individual or corporation, then maybe anonymity makes sense. Why would you want people to know about your ulterior motives as a donor? Might make more sense to keep stum about who you are and go about saving yourself those all-important dollars at tax-time by quietly putting your money behind the arts. Perhaps that's what Rabbi Sam is up to himself...
March 17, 2009 7:47 AM | | Comments (0)
Goat Hall Productions, a Bay Area company that specializes in producing new operas, just finished a run of one of the genre's biggest chestnuts, The Marriage of Figaro. The 1786 Mozart/Da Ponte opera's broad social satire, fluid plot and hummable music make it a constant presence on big and small stages alike. It's been -- or is in the process of being -- produced by no less than four different Bay Area companies in recent weeks including Sacramento Opera (February 27 - March 3), Santa Clara Mission City Opera (February 20 - March 1) and Livermore Valley Opera (March 14 - 22).

Goat Hall's instincts for producing the opera are, in a way, atypical (or at least, few companies would admit to this rationale for staging a work): According to Goat Hall's artistic director Harriet March Page, the opera was included in the company's present season as a reward to Goat Hall's hard-working corps of singers, who've been dying to take a crack at singing Mozart's arias in front of an audience.

There's nothing wrong with this impulse per se, especially for a company whose singers spend most of their time wrapping their bodies and minds around the more atonal modern repertoire. Certainly, the production makes the most of the many chatty, fourth-wall-eschewing asides in Figaro's plot by staging the work in an intimate cabaret setting complete with ringside tables and chairs and aisle-hopping cast members clad in eighteenth century brocade and wigs serving fizzy wine and plates of sweet treats.

But though I had fun the night I saw the show in Berkeley, pink champagne and enthusiastic performers do not necessarily a compelling production make. I would have liked to have seen Page, as director of the show, focus more strongly on creating a more imaginative mise-en-scene and push for coherent vocal and dramatic performances. Some of the performers, such as Letitia Page in the role of the Countess and Elizabeth Henry as Cherubino, did a great job of meeting the technical and emotional demands inherent in communicating Mozart's arias. But the singing from some of their fellow cast members was at times tuneless and grating.

On the directorial and acting front, the stage was always very busy, with people scurrying backwards and forwards or jumping off the stage and scuttling around the back and up the side aisle. Mugging and indicating abounded. As a result, this Figaro was exhausting to watch.

Finally, from a sets and costumes perspective, there's something to be said for a director choosing to use their possibly minimal budget with maximum creativity. Basically, unless you have quite a bit of money to have tailor-made eighteenth century costumes and sets built, you're probably better off finding a simpler look for the designs. Modern costumes, or plain matching "background" clothes embellished by one beautifully crafted ornament for each performer to suggest the period in question e.g. a gorgeous bodice or ornate shoe buckles, would make a bold, visually arresting and stylish statement. The same principle goes for the set. But Goat Hall's mish-mash of half-well- half-ill-fitting bodices, skirts, wigs and stockings gave off an amateurish air.

Though the cast members obviously enjoyed themselves up on stage, the production didn't really do this usually innovative company justice. Responding to singers' wishes is a generous impulse on the part of Goat Hall's leaders. But the creative execution has to be on a par with the fairy godmother-like impulse in order to make for an artistically satisfying experience.
March 16, 2009 8:02 AM | | Comments (0)
A long stroll along the water from Santa Monica to Venice Beach in Los Angeles is the perfect way to catch a bit of recession-worthy theatre. Last weekend, impressive jugglers and break dancers were out in the sun showing passers by and lingerers their skills, all for the price of whatever people felt like tossing into a hat.

Elsewhere on the waterfront, a different sort of "performance" was going on, undertaken by people with no interest in passing a hat, but equal amounts of exhibitionism.

It was fascinating to see how the Los Angeles gymnasts and acrobats, doing their stuff by the sea ostensibly just to get a bit of exercise and meet with friends who share the same tastes, attracted similarly enthusiastic crowds. And it was also interesting to see how the crowds reacted to the gymnasts' "performances".

I stood for a long time on the beach near the Santa Monica pier by a giant metal frame from which chains with hoops at the end dangled. I watched entranced as a group of strapping young men and women wearing wrist guards and gloves swung like monkeys from one hoop to another, ornamenting each graceful leap along the line of chains with corkscrew spins and jubilant high kicks of the sort one sometimes sees in martial arts movies.

Eventually five of these people performed a routine on the hoops together, swinging in the air in tandem and performing somersaults before throwing themselves forward onto the sand. Bystanders, including myself applauded wildly.

Was this a performance? It's hard to say. If what they were doing had been billed as something worthy of public spectacle through, say, an announcement by a barker and the passing around of a hat (as was the case with other more officially theatrical acts I saw on the beach that day) I might have been disappointed by the dire lack of synchronicity between the gymnasts. What they were doing was primarily for themselves. They weren't interested in getting it perfect for an audience, at least not that day.

On the other hand, people did stop and clap and laugh with delight as they do at a circus. And there was something boldly exhibitionistic about all the gymnastics going on at the beach that day. If there had been no audience of curious passersby, would the acrobats have enjoyed what they were doing as much?
March 13, 2009 8:34 AM | | Comments (0)
The Los Angeles Philharmonic's drive to bring in new audiences through a series of concerts involving artists from different musical backgrounds appears to be paying off. At least, if last Saturday evening's soiree at Disney Hall devoted to the music of the French electronica artist, M83 (real name: Anthony Gonzalez, pictured) is anything to go by, Los Angeles concert goers are thrilled at the unusual collaborations and are packing the concert hall in droves.

The venue was almost completely full with young hipster types -- skinny men sporting drainpipe jeans, spiky hairdos, pertly buttoned-down shirts, jackets and neckties, and women in thick hose, 80s-style dresses and high heels. I've never encountered such an audience at a classical concert before. The closest I've come, I think, was San Francisco Performances' Philip Glass Ensemble gig a few weeks ago at Davies Symphony Hall -- and that audience was much more eclectic, being split between Glass' old fans and his new followers.

While I applaud the orchestra's outreach efforts, M83's appearance with the LA Phil left much to be desired. If nothing else, the orchestra, led by Julian Kuerti, did a wonderful -- albeit unintended -- job of showing up the weaknesses of M83's abilities as a musician.

Though by no means an expert on the genre, I've long enjoyed the work of many electronic artists from Depeche Mode and Goldfrapp to Amon Tobin and Underworld. But by far the best parts of last weekend's concert were the pieces performed by the orchestra alone. Arvo Part's Fratres and Debussy's La Mer strike me as two works that not only perfectly complement the electronic music of M83 because of their wide ranging, shifting timbres and rhythms, but also hint at the diversity and beauty of the classical music terrain for the benefit of the many people sitting in the audience that evening who might have thought that classical music was nothing but Beethoven, Mozart and Bach.

La Mer could at times be mistaken for an ambient track by a French electronica artist, in fact. And the rumbling-sinister bassline and percussion accents in Fratres is reminiscent of a drum n bass song. The orchestra drew out smooth, spiraling renditions of both pieces and the crowd deservedly went wild.

They also went wild -- though in my opinion less deservedly so -- for the opening set which M83 did solo and the finale, in which the orchestra, a small, amplified women's choir and two of M83's close colleagues (drummer Loic Maurin and a female vocalist whose name isn't listed on the program) joined the DJ in performing arrangements of five of his songs. I didn't share the rest of the crowd's enthusiasm for these sections of the program, unfortunately.

For one thing, M83 isn't very interesting to watch. The program describes him as playing "keyboards, guitars, vocals and electronics." But as far as I could tell, all that the artist did on stage that night was "play" the final "instrument" on the list. He more or less ignores the audience. He stands before his laptops and bleeping lights and keyboards, and barring the couple of occasions when he gets so involved with the music that he practically starts humping one of his sound consoles, he looks for all the world like he's checking his email or updating his Facebook profile.

For another, M83's music isn't very interesting to listen to in a concert hall (though it's pretty atmospheric via headphones on an iPod). Sean O'Loughlin's orchestral arrangements of the M83 numbers are, in the main, pedantic. With its sostenuto strings and assorted helicopter noises, the song In the Cold Standing sounds like the sort of music that might be composed for the tragic finale of a cheesy Hollywood Vietnam war movie. Meanwhile, anthem-like numbers like The Pioneers, featuring a solo female vocalist who can barely be heard despite the amplification, and Highest Journey, with its rock-style drums and ambient, breathy choral lines, are repetitive to the point of numbness.

I guess I remain to be impressed by M83, who looked as bored by the proceedings as I did by the end of the concert. The LA Phil's musicians didn't exactly register bliss on their faces at the end of the gig either. Taking their bows on cue to rapturous applause, they all gave the impression that it had been a very, very long night.
March 12, 2009 4:32 PM | | Comments (0)
The Berkeley-based theatre company Central Works has an unusual way of creating new productions. By the time the season brochure comes out, the plays on the roster generally haven't been written yet. I asked Christopher Chen (pictured left) author of the company's current show, The Window Age (which I discussed here last week) to contribute today's blog post about his experiences of the Central Works Method. He kindly agreed to share his thoughts with us today. Take it away Chris...

At first glance, there is nothing about Central Works or their plays that particularly indicates the use of a collaborative process. Unlike more prototypical collaborative ensembles, they don't have a core acting group, the plays themselves seem to reflect a single playwright's voice, and tone-wise, their plays tend to have a more classical, stately feel about them. In fact, the main indication that there is something very unconventional about this theater company is the caveat they always add to the announcement of their season. To paraphrase: "... incidentally, none of these plays have been written yet." This is a theater company that takes the concept of "new work" to the next level, for each announced play is created collaboratively from scratch as the season progresses, and each is created with incredible speed. For my project with them, The Window Age, the time between putting a single word to the page and opening night was a scant four months.

I was first approached by Central Works after co-artistic directors Gary Graves and Jan Zvaifler saw my play Into the Numbers at the Bay Area Playwrights Festival in 2007. They asked me to pitch them ideas that might be suitable for their method of collaboratively developed scripts. They wanted ideas broad enough to spark dialogue within the ensemble, and specific enough to provide a suitable roadmap for the process. They were also partial to ideas suitable for their atmospheric space in the Berkeley City Club. In May of 2008 they agreed to my idea about the intersections of Modernism, studies of the Unconscious, and the First World War. I provided them with a skeleton of an outline, and brief character descriptions. With these in hand, they set about creating the ensemble, which ultimately consisted of three precast actors (including Jan Zvaifler), the director (Gary Graves), the sound designer, and myself.

Because each Central Works ensemble is created from scratch for every project, their process is necessarily accommodating to different working styles. They commit to an idea and they commit to a production, but what happens in between is a continuously negotiated process. Our first workshops consisted of discussions and research about the subject matter. But very quickly I started bringing in material to be read. Due to scheduling issues, our first workshop had to be pushed to mid-October, 2008. And with a mid-January deadline for our first rehearsal coupled with a late February opening, I was itching to get writing- I had heeded the Central Works rule demanding not a word be written before the first workshop.

More often than not, feedback on the material I brought in fell into categories specific to its sources. From the actors I got character feedback, and from the director I got feedback on the action of the scene. Before this experience, I was very much entrenched in the normal process of the playwright writing a first draft in isolation, then having the script undergo dramaturgical and director/actor work in different phases. With the Central Works method, it was as if all these phases were occurring simultaneously from the very beginning.

If this prospect sounds overwhelming, it was- at least at first. A solitary writer by nature, I was caught off guard by feedback and discussion from the script's inception. However, it soon became apparent that hearing multiple voices at this early stage offered a truly unique perspective. Having actors ask questions about their characters from the first pages of the first draft instantaneously provided valuable information to move forward with. Potential character problems and inconsistencies were nipped in the bud before they hardened into larger script problems. Of course, reaping the benefits of all this information was contingent on a diligent filtering process, as well as a strong core vision of the play as a whole- a solid foundation from which to take or leave feedback.

Intense time pressure brought out both the adventurous and the hyper-rational sides in me. I was inclined to run with more bold ideas than usual, but I was also prepared to more quickly hack away parts that didn't work for the actors on first read. Going into our five week rehearsal schedule in January, we still had a vastly overwritten script on our hands. I would edit and rewrite constantly as we went along, making a development workshop out of the actual rehearsal process. Everyone pitched in, offering keen insights and suggestions for the script as it was blocked out. This circulation of input was possible because we had developed over the months a strong sense of mutual trust. We had truly become an ensemble.

The final draft of the script was probably finished around two weeks before opening. By tech, the actors were still on book. And yet, as if by a miracle, it all came together beautifully by opening night. Or was it a miracle? Perhaps it was the very nature of the intensity of the process that heightened all of our senses, made us hyperaware of each other and what needed to be done collectively to bring this piece of theater to life. And what an appropriate process this turned out to be for a play whose very subject matter concerned the birth of a Modernist, multi-perspective view of reality.

Central Works is a gutsy theater company with a gutsy process. Certainly it took guts to give this unproduced, twenty-six year old playwright his first world premiere. Especially given that the play was, four months before opening night, still just an idea in his head.
March 11, 2009 11:05 AM | | Comments (1)
In other news, I am heading down south for a few days to check out the M83 / Los Angeles Philharmonic concert at Disney Hall among other things. As a result, lies like truth will probably be on hiatus until next Thursday. Until then...
March 7, 2009 3:06 PM | | Comments (0)
Christopher Chen's new play The Window Age, which I caught last night under the auspices of Central Works Theatre Company at the hallowed Berkeley City Club, takes the viewer into the inner reaches of the human psyche. Inspired by members of the Bloomsbury Group like Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey as well as other fin-de-siecle luminaries of art and the subconscious such as Pablo Picasso and Sigmund Freud, the drama offers us an unusual view of the many layers that underpin so-called concrete reality.

The drama tells the story of a downbeat Modernist writer -- a dead ringer for Virginia Woolf by the name of Valerie Fox (earnestly played by Jan Zvaifler in baggy Woolfian skirt, equally shapeless cardigan and unkempt chignon) -- and her bookish, First World War veteran husband Jeremy (a pursed Joel Mullenix.) When a famous psychoanalyst and friend of Valerie's, Simon Floyd (Richard Frederick, who resembles Sigmund Freud only in name and vocation) arrives at the Fox's home for a supposedly innocent drink and chat, the threesome find their thoughts and feelings spiraling inwards.

The playwright builds a fascinating wormhole-ridden world of competing realities. Daily life merges with dreams; dreams rub shoulders with memories; and memories tickle the shadows of half-remembered truths. But like other Woolf-inspired stream-of-consciousness works for the stage such as Jocelyn Clarke's Room and Adel Edling Shank's adaptation of To The Lighthouse (seen at Berkeley Rep a couple of years ago)  The Window Age feels at times less like a full-blown drama than it does a precocious MFA theatre studies thesis in Modernist structuring and thought. Chen's ideas don't quite coalesce. The idea of creating characters that stand-in for real life historical celebrities such as Freud and Woolf is startling. But the concept of the stand-in or doppelganger doesn't feel germane to the storytelling. It sometimes feels superimposed and gimmicky.

Designed by Julia Morgan in the 1920s, the Berkeley City Club provides the ideal environment for this play which takes place in the early years of the 20th century in England. The olde worlde charm of the space with its patio doors, high ceilings, grand fireplace and ornate plasterwork easily brings the world of the Bloomsbury Set to mind. The three-dimensionality afforded by performing in-the-round further suggests Picasso and Woolf's multi-perspective works.

But the labored, slightly arrythmic feel of director Gary Graves staging and the plummy affectation of the actors' British accents unfortunately bogs the play down. I wonder whether Chen and his collaborators at Central Works could have more naturally explored the same ideas and material in a U.S. setting with Gertrude Stein and her entourage standing in for Woolf & Co's?

March 6, 2009 9:09 AM | | Comments (0)
With the arts being a tough sell to funders and policymakers of late, it's been gratifying to hear that the NEA is now hard at work soliciting grant applications. Only a few weeks ago, things looked extremely hazardous for the national arts funding body, what with the Coburn amendment threatening $50 million in federal stimulus package funds from going to the arts.

If the Coburn amendment was finally defeated, it was largely thanks to the efforts of arts advocates across the country in making a strong case for the social impact that the arts have on people's lives and writing countless letters and emails to persuade policymakers to stop this catastrophic amendment from passing.

At a free, three-hour seminar held by California Arts Advocates (CAA) and Arts Forum SF (AFSF) yesterday evening, I got an extremely important basic education in the art of arts advocacy.

Until I attended the seminar, led by Brad Erickson, president of CAA and co-founder of AFSF, Deborah Cullinan, co-founder of AFSF and CAA board member, and Karen Ames, communications consultant and arts advocate, I had thought of the term "advocacy" as something scary to do with knocking at politicians' doors and camping out on the front porches of their homes.

The seminar taught me some important things I didn't know about advocacy. I learned that there are many different ways to be an advocate, some of which I already do in my daily life -- like writing this blog for example. Knowing what you want to achieve and figuring out the wide range of people / organizations to advocate to was another revelation I learned from the seminar. For example, policymakers aren't the only people to lobby -- local businesses, heads of granting agencies, local labor and arts leaders and political aides are other people to reach out to.

I also discovered that advocacy is a two-way/reciprocal thing. It's not simply about asking for something; it's also about seeing how the goal that you want to achieve as an advocate lends a hand to / stands in solidarity with the advocacy goals of other individuals and organizations.

The two biggest revelations of the seminar were to do with letter-writing and talking to politicians on both sides of the fence. I've been rather skeptical about the efficacy of writing letters to politicians in the past, even though I do it on occasion. I just can't believe that they actually pay attention to what I'm saying. But the workshop leaders insisted that the correspondence that policymakers receive from constituents really does make a difference. The volume of letters and emails counts as much as the messages contained within them.

In terms of the second revelation of the evening, I was interested to hear that advocating to politicians who don't support your wishes is a good thing to do. Never assume that just because someone doesn't share your opinion about, say, the importance of art in getting crime off the streets, that they can't be persuaded to support your proposal. Similarly, it's bad to assume that a politician who usually comes out in support of the arts will automatically get behind your advocacy goals. Both sides of the fence need to be treated with equal respect and persuasion.

Finally, here's the oddest bit of information I heard at the seminar: Even in these technological times, the best way to get a policymaker to pay attention to your request is by writing a hand-written letter and sending it via snail mail to his or her office.

I hope Brad, Karen and Deborah will run more workshops like this one in the future. This sort of training should be mandatory for anyone working or hoping to pursue a career in the arts. In fact, MFA arts programs should offer it as part of their core curricula.
March 5, 2009 11:55 AM | | Comments (1)
An American writer friend of mine based in Berlin runs what he calls a "Stammtisch". This German term isn't easily translated into English, but what it literally means is "regular's table" or "regular get-together" or "standing agreement to get together at the same table on regular occasions."

In the most traditional sense, a Stammtisch is a table in a bar or restaurant which is reserved for the same guests at the same time every day or every week. There is usually a sign on the table saying "Stammtisch". In the most traditional German beer halls there is a large brass plaque above the table with the word Stammtisch printed on it in bold lettering. There can be all kinds of Stammtisch. There are those simply for friends to drink together. Or those for specific interest groups - say a "philosophy discussion Stammtisch" or a "stamp collectors Stammtisch". My friend in Berlin hosts a group of mostly expat journalists, writers and other creative types.

I think what the Bay Area performing arts community needs is its own Stammtisch. I've been banging on about this for quite a while to the cohorts with whom I organize theatre salons in San Francisco. A salon is a kind of stammtisch. But so far, our model hasn't fit the bill because we only run salons sporadically and so far have a pretty random approach to inviting people. We also carefully plan out what topic we're going to speak about each time and usually go to quite a bit of effort to organize food, drinks and even entertainment for each salon.

Judging by the emails I've received over the past few months in response to our salons (or news about our salons) Bay Area theatre artists are hungry for a stronger sense of community. I feel that this hunger is growing by the month. People want to get together to connect intellectually and spiritually. I'm not sure that the salon model, as it currently stands, is really maximizing its community-building, arts discussion-propagating potential. Plus the salons are often labor- and cost-intensive to organize.

Moving the theatre salon to a Stammtisch model would come with several advantages:

1. The regularity of the meeting would mean that ideas get discussed in more depth, over many weeks and months, rather than just as a one-off where we invariably only skim the surface of ideas.

2. The guest list could be as big or small as it wants to be. In other words, it wouldn't need to be carefully curated. As long as at least one core Stammtisch/Salon organizer were present each time, anyone could come. Or not. As they please.

3. Building community takes time. Having a standing agreement to meet will help fuel a sense of community and engagement over the long haul.

4. The get togethers would feel more casual and less elitist if they were run in a friendly bar or restaurant and anyone within the performing arts community (including audience members) could come.

5. We'd bring steady business to the aformentioned friendly bar or restaurant and the organizing committee would save itself the considerable time and money involved in cooking/buying food and drink to feed upwards of 40 people etc.

The plan isn't without its challenges though, as some of my salon colleagues have pointed out. But I think these challenges can be overcome:

1. A theatre director friend of mine and salon organizer doesn't think that the Bay Area theatre community is big enough to keep a Stammtisch going. I don't agree with this, however. There are thousands of people involved in the performing arts in this part of the world and a sturdy proportion of them, I imagine, would enjoy coming to at least one Stammtisch meeting to try it out. Some of these guinea pigs would come back. Time and time again, I bet. As such, I should think that getting a core group of attendees would be pretty easy.

2. Someone from the core organizing group would need to be present at every single get together. But with six people on the salon committee, I shouldn't think it would be too hard for one or two of us to make it to meetings.

3. People might suffer from burn-out leading the event to fizzle after a few months. I think we've been getting some good momentum going on our salons. We should leverage this and keep the interest going by picking a lively spot to meet, putting together a mailing list to remind people that the weekly/bi-weekly/monthly Stammtisch is coming up, and helping to keep conversations going.

4. Choosing the right place to meet could be tricky. The location is extremely important. We would need a place that's cozy yet big enough to accommodate large groups; lively, yet quiet enough for a discussion; friendly to theatre people; close to public transportation; in the vicinity of at least a few performance venues; open late enough so people can join the fray after seeing or being in a show; and offers good yet not-too-pricey food and drink -- a late-night kitchen would be ideal.

5. Deciding how often to meet presents a challenge. Meeting every week could be too much, but meeting once a month could be too little. Trial and error will help us to figure out how often to get together. But too much trial and error might confuse people and potentially put them off coming altogether.

I don't know if the Stammtisch idea will take off. But I think we could make it work if we go for it.
March 4, 2009 7:52 AM | | Comments (1)
We've all been to those dreaded events -- you know what I'm talking about. The evenings where you stand around in a gallery or theatre with a glass of cheap wine in your hands and a cube of rubbery, orange cheese, smiling and trying to look interested as some old windbag rambles on at you about their appreciation for Avant Garde Theatre or the summer they spent doing life drawing classes in Florence.

Things need not be that way. I attended a reception for a group of theatre artists over the weekend that for me pretty much epitomizes the right way to run this sort of event. The reception, held at the well-appointed though cozy home of a couple of Bay Area arts patrons, was held in honor of the winners of The Glickman Award -- a prize given out each year by a group of theatre critics to the best new play to have received its world premiere in the Bay Area in the preceding calendar year. I've been to a few of these events in the past, but this time around, the event was particularly wonderful. Here are the elements that I think go into making an arts reception work:

1. Copious amounts of good things to drink and eat: You don't have to spend a ton of money, but the soggy cheese plate is to be avoided. Our hosts got their finger food from Trader Joes and, being wine connoisseurs, opened their cellar to us all.

2. Short, lively speeches: There were a few speeches, but they were short, passionate and delivered off the cuff (as opposed to read aloud from written notes with accompanying Powerpoint slides.)

3. Entertainment people care about: An arts gathering should have some form of art involved, preferably performance-based and maybe with an interactive element thrown in for fun. In the case of the event I attended, the winners of the award got up and performed a few songs from their show. We all joined in on a chorus in the last song.

4. Unstuffy, relaxed hosting: Organizers should make people feel at home. They shouldn't shoo people out at the end (unless it's very late and guests are truly outstaying their welcome.) The hosts of our event were very gracious and generous. They didn't make us feel like we had to get out when the official part of the proceedings were over.

5. A feeling of community: This last point is very important and largely explains why the Glickman party was such a success. It's to do with getting the right combination of people in a room -- people who know why they are there, want to contribute to the event, can move discussions in interesting directions and make newbies feel included and welcome. 
March 3, 2009 8:01 AM | | Comments (0)
Last night, a group of about 25 Bay Area theatre community people got together at the Exit Theatre in San Francisco for the latest in an ongoing series of Theatre Salons. Organized by theatre director Mark Jackson, actress Beth Wilmurt, director John Wilkins, producer Kimball Wilkins, theatre critic Rob Avila and yours truly, the Salons aim to bring folks from disparate corners of the local performing arts landscape for wine, food and discussion on a topic of pressing cultural interest of the founding committee's choice.

On this occasion, we decided to talk about the current elephant in the room -- "theatre in the new, new, new economy" -- seeing the deluge of stories of financial struggle bouncing around our community of late e.g. the recent death threats sent out by The Magic Theatre (artistic director, Loretta Greco, pictured above) and Shakespeare Santa Cruz, the broader issue of dwindling theatre coverage in the press etc, as a jumping off point for a wider discussion about what is happening to our little eco-system. We specifically wanted to mull over a few questions such as: Do these close-to-the-point-of-no-return theatre companies and newspapers matter? What if some of them vanish? Is our community truly essential to the cultural life of the Bay Area? Is there a difference between a vital organization and the vitality of the general scene? Or are we in need of some loss, the cultural equivalent of a controlled burn?

The fittingly downsized format of this recession-time Salon (fewer participants, smaller room, snacks for purchase from the Exit Cafe bar rather than a buffet/sit-down meal catered by the organizers) meant that the discussion was more focused than usual. We didn't end up digging as deeply as I would have liked -- to do this would require more regular meetings with similar participants showing up every time, I think. But we covered quite a lot of ground from a breath perspective. I was especially impressed with peoples' openness, strong sense of engagement and willingness to say what they felt without worrying about tarnished egos.

What was interesting in particular was the passion with which participants approached the topic of The Magic Theatre. With the exception of a few dissenting voices, nearly everyone in the room had said that they hadn't seen anything at the flagship new play theatre in around a decade that they thought was any good. Yet despite the negative attitudes surrounding the theatre's artistic output, most Salonites believed that the disappearance of the Magic -- if it were to go under for good as threatened a couple of months ago -- would be extremely detrimental to the local ecosystem in terms of such things as lost jobs and even fewer mid-sized houses.

This attitude extended to feelings about other local arts bastions such as ACT and the Datebook section of the beleaguered San Francisco Chronicle. Somehow, there's a deep attachment to these institutions, despite questions surrounding the strength of the services they provide.
March 2, 2009 8:56 AM | | Comments (3)

Me Elsewhere


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