Friday, May 30, 2014

SNEAK PEEK: Baby No More Times



This isn't a review, because it was a work in progress, but I also saw Baby No More Times at the Jam On Toast festival from New Georges, playing at Dixon Place,

It's a feminist pop music cabaret -- engaging, fun, it zips along poking fun at all those experiences women share, but which aren't reflected in our popular culture. To spoil the content of the show would be to spoil some great joke reveals, but suffice it to say that this is a night of music and fun that you'll genuinely enjoy, and feel good about attending.

And you can see it at ANT Fest later this summer. And you should see it at ANT Fest later this summer.

REVIEW: Jane the Plain


It's a typical story. Girl meets boy. Girl and boy get together. Boy distributes girl's sext all over school. Mirror-man and glowing girl fight an unearthly battle across the surface of the earth.

Nobody Does It Better
At this point, Gus Schulenberg and Flux Theater Ensemble have a lot of my faith when I come to see their productions. I know I can expect a primal story about the nature of love and innocence, with beautiful but subtle language, sharply defined characters, that can take the most universal turns of human experience and expand them to the scale of Greek Mythology. Flux's production of Adam Szymkowicz' Hearts Like Fists (my review here),

It's a question of style, and of skillfulness. The plot, on paper, might look like a stage adaptation of Mean Girls -- Jane the Plain (Alisha Spielmann), is "the plain girl", and she has a big crush on Scotty the Hottie (Chinaza Uche). At first, he seems out of her league, but she happens to be on hand when he throws the a great ball during the big game. When they get together, everyone seems hell-bent on putting Jane back in her place -- the viper-like Betty the Pretty (Becky Byers) in particular plots her destruction, and scorned best friend Leonard the Awkward (Isiah Tanenbaum) is none to happy either. Even Leeson the Decent (Chester Poon)

But something else is going on under the surface. Scottie is haunted by a memory that seems much larger than this world, and Jane has a vision that night that transforms her from Jane the Plain into a powerful force -- perhaps too powerful for her own good, as Lexi the Sexy (Sol Crespo) tries to warn her.

That Extra Oomph
It's not just the plot that has something else going on under the surface -- it's every part of the production. The writing, for instance, puts words into the mouths of these confused youths that evoke the deep pools of magic that every naive young high schooler secretly sees in the world. When Scottie talks about throwing the ball on the field -- even when he's just alone, working through his fields -- it has all the majesty of tales from past Olympics, World Cups -- tales of Hercules. When a character opens their mouth and describes what's happening inside of them, every word is a beautifully crafted image that you haven't heard before.

And the extra oomph is the performers. In my previous review of Hearts like Fists, and of Obskene, I highlighted Chinaza Uche's ability to put such passion and deep sincerity that he can sell even the most outlandish or overblown writing. The same applies to every single member of this talented cast. In the crucial early stages of the play, when the mythical undertones first begin to rear their heads, any fakeness or theatricality could have undercut the quality of the performance. But each of the cast members navigates those treacherous waters to turn the performance into something more powerful than any of its parts.

Sorry We Missed You!
I  write all of this knowing that you won't go and see this, namely because the show has closed -- I saw it on closing night -- but mostly to provide a record, and to laud the excellent work on all involved, and to hope that we'll see more of this production, and new productions that push the line of how big and bold our genuine selves can be.

REVIEW: Party Play

Copyright Sasha Arutyunova 2014


Some plays are big, on the grand scale of an epic. Other plays are tiny, occupying the infinite and narrow space between two people. Party Play, an original production by Valerie Work and directed by Molly Marinik, is in the latter category -- placing the microscope on a small circle of friends, in a microcosmic world, for a narrow sliver of time. Playing at the Brick through tomorrow, it's a simple story of loss, quiet suffering, and human beings drifting apart.

Now Is The Party Of Our Discontent
As you might expect with a play of such specific focus, the plot is quite simple in scope. Two friends, Paul (Joe Gregori) and Carl (William Barnet) (pictured above), have shared a popular party apartment somewhere in Brooklyn. Now, the party is over in a larger sense -- Carl has run out of money and is going to move in with his parents in Rochester, NY. Paul is staying in Brooklyn, but moving to a small apartment where, sadly, the party will no longer be continuing. Their mutual friend Dustin (Greg Carere) has been handed "the party baton", but there are serious doubts as to whether he can live up to their raucous past.

The play takes place over the night of a single party, the last party, unfolding from end to beginning (Memento-style, if you prefer). The two are going through the motions, welcoming their usual cast of friends -- Kiki (Caitlin Goldie) and Janalyn (Charlotte Arnoux). And, talk of the evening, Tamar (Sarah Poleshuck) is making an appearance, having fallen by the wayside during her marriage... which has just ended in an uncomfortable divorce.

Tiny Tragedy Writ Large
Tamar, Paul, and Carl are each in transition to new homes, both literally (Tamar is also experiencing the stereotypical pains of NY real estate) as well as metaphorically (Janalyn candidly let's slip that when people are away for months it's like they've disappeared for years).

The experience is extremely laser-focused: it's a specific moment in history (it could only be this Millennial moment in Brooklyn, layered over with the pop music and references of our time), in time (unfolding backwards over one night, with the narrative focus almost solely on that night's experience), and in space (the only recognizable outside world referenced is the mythical Rochester, NY). It's told through a theatre-verite, moment to moment the conversations have an effortless unforced realness which, when they are not overburdened with forced meaning, feel like reality.

Unlike your typical, twentieth century "realist" play, this doesn't culminate in explosive monologues -- Tamar never explodes with rage or collapses in tears at the tiny, paper-cut-like slights that her awkward friends send her way, nor does anyone on stage truly speak aloud their fears or pains at any point. We assume that still waters run deep, although in fact all we are seeing are, well, still waters.

At Least We Had Fun
You may be distracted from the stillness of the waters by innovative use of direction, music, and design that keeps the play moving as its story unfolds. Lee Kinney's sound design keeps the flow moving, tying into the on-going party pulse that drives the narrative forward. Molly Marinik's direction finds new ways to use space to keep the play's low-key, realist dialogue from falling into a repetitive lull.

But most of all, Pei-Wen Huang's set design knocks it out of the park -- the set (large moveable stacks of cardboard boxes) provides a flexible, easily transformed use for the space -- rearranging to become the patio, or the dance floor, or the kitchen. It stayed within the realism of the space, while still giving the full theatrical flexibility for Marinik and the performers to work wthin. (And, to my producer's eye, a pretty effective use of budget...)

Distant Party People
This is where I caveat for a moment my relationship to a play called "Party Play" when I'm not someone who particularly likes parties or alcohol. So from where I sat, Party Play seemed like a dispassionate, almost anthropological assessment of the white American party culture in Brooklyn today.

If so, I would say that both the form and the content point towards something severe that's missing in these aimless youth's lives. (Boy howdy I'm about to get all old man up on this review). The big problem for Carl, for Paul, and for Tamar is that they've built a social circle around "having fun." Thus, when some non-fun things happen - Tamar's divorce, for example - the friends at hand can't seem to find any way to provide comfort, or to truly connect with this pain. Instead, it becomes a source of quiet shame. 

The real doubt, hanging over the play, is whether any of the people we're watching are going to be in touch after the party ends. It's difficult to see what they have in common aside from shared memories of wedding parties and after parties, waterslide parties, pool parties. Once the party is gone, what will be left? Certainly, nobody wants to talk about it. And while the party is going, nobody has to.

Tellingly, the two moments when someone addresses the elephant in the room are both Carl, at the beginning and end at the play -- expressions of longing for the past, and fear of the future. A mournful goodbye to a pleasant adolescence.

UPDATE: The original post of this article failed to make the FCC required disclosure: as a reviewer, I was given a complimentary ticket to this production.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Promotion and Relegation: A Soccer Fan's Indie Theater Manifesto

I woke up this morning and decided that I really wanted to see the Leyton Orient - Rotherham United game today. If you haven't heard of these clubs, I can't blame you -- they're third-tier teams in England, right now battling for the right to move into the second tier -- a move valued at 120 million pounds.

A Quick Primer (you can skip if you know English soccer)
For the non-fans, part of the amazing power that English soccer has over the nation has to do with the soccer pyramid. 

The Premier League has the biggest teams, which compete on an international scale and provide players to compete in the world cup. The Premier League has the big names: Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal.

But it also has some not-so-big names: this upcoming season, Burnley, Leicester City, Queens Park Rangers.

The reason is because the league is at the top of a pyramid; below the Premier League is the Championship, and below that is League One, etc... on a sliding scale of leagues from Professional, through semi-professional, down to amateur. If you look on the Wikipedia article, there's actually 24 tiers on this pyramid... the bottom being the glorious Mid-Sussex Football League, Division 11.

So those not-so-big names (Burnley, Leicester City, QPR), make it to the Premier league by winning the Championship. Every year, three teams get promoted to the Premier League, and three get relegated out.

The Power of Promotion and Relegation
In the US, our soccer doesn't have promotion and relegation; nor do any of our sports leagues. And the difference is the quality of the dream.

In England, there's a significant chance that if you play well enough to play on a mid-tier team, you and that team could advance to the next tier up. Or you could be traded to a team on the next tier. In theory, if you're Leyton Orient, and you're in League Two, all it takes is a few great seasons and you could -- theoretically, be playing against Liverpool and Manchester City in the top tiers of English football.

In practice, it still takes a lot of money and the odds are extremely long, but -- you have the dream.

And I think that the people who benefit the most are not the people in the pyramid, but the people at the top. It keeps people engaged and constantly fighting to prove themselves, and if you really do stand out -- well, the deep pockets of Liverpool or Manchester United or Real Madrid can catapult you onto that big stage -- and those teams win for having picked you.

Theater's Promotion Dream
We do theater for a lot of reasons -- for our own community, for our own edification. For the love of the game, in other words. But we would all love to reach a broader audience with our work, and we'd love to get it out there.

In a way, we have our own promotion system -- Alex Timbers can write a musical which starts at the Williamstown Theater Festival, and workshops at New 42nd Street Studios, it gets "promoted" to the Public Theater, and from there "promoted" up to Broadway.

And it's Broadway that profits the most by this. They get work developed by others, with the risk picked up by others, and they get to elevate it to its peak product.

Indie Theater Now
So what happens if this pyramid erodes? The answer is that the talent pool that the top of pyramid has to pull from erodes. They'll have to spend more of their own money scouting for and developing the talent themselves.

Worse yet, as the pyramid erodes, so do the dreams of people who think they might get to the top of the pyramid. If they don't get there day 1, they realize there's no way to get into the pyramid, no way to get started. So they'll move on and do something else.

So it behooves the people at the top of the pyramid -- the big touring companies, Broadway, Hollywood -- to tend to and care for the rest of the pyramid. Otherwise, they'll find themselves sinking into the sands.

Friday, May 23, 2014

LOCAL: LITNY News and Updates

If you're reading this, you're interested in the intersection of arts and policy. (If you're not reading this... woah.)

As the new webmaster of the League of Independent Theater (amongst many, many other things), I'd like to point you towards the fact that the League's website now also features a subscribable blog!

Two recent posts: one updating on the League's planned first bill (getting artists access to city-owned property), another one highlighting San Francsisco's "Working Group on Nonprofit Displacement."

Thursday, May 22, 2014

TECHNOLOGY: The Upcoming Politics of User Design

I may look like a cultural pundit to you, but in my day job I work as a consultant in the Information Technology space. (I know, thrilling). As a result, I've spent the last five years working with IT departments on how to deliver service to their consumers. 

The biggest thing I've noticed in those five years is what I thought would be a conversation about technology (i.e. is my software better than your software) was actually a political discussion -- what do you want to do for your constituents, and how.

Data Must Be Free
The original thoughts about politics and technology had to do with data, and the freedom thereof.

The infinite ability to copy digital media (music, movies, etc.) and to distribute such media quickly led to political battles around commercial control. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act was an initial push against the idea that data must be free. On the other side, Richard Stallman pushed for free exchange of data. Organizations like the Sunlight Foundation sprung up around the idea of using this new opportunity as a tool. 

Current City Council freshman Ben Kallos went to Albany, demanded that the state voting records be put online. Even though the law required these votes to be publicly accessible, they could only be accessed in person. When his requests fell on deaf ears, he brought a hand scanner to their offices and began scanning them himself.

User Interface: The Next Battle
You'll notice that in the Kallos story, the data was already (theoretically) available, but the ability to access it in an easier way was what the state resisted.

The West Wing had an episode called "Take Out The Trash Day" based around the government practice of dumping all its unpleasant stories on the same Friday afternoon, in hopes of flooding the bad news on a day when people already don't like reading the paper. 

A great example of this was the release of John McCain's 1200 pages of medical records were dumped right before Memorial Day weekend.


Usability is every bit as political as access. In my work, we sometimes call this "Security through Obscurity" -- keeping things out of public by making access unusable.

Currently, the League of Independent Theater is working with Councilman Kallos and several other Councilmembers to provide access for community organizations to short and long term rentals of city-owned spaces. Access already, technically, theoretically exists. I'll give you a hundred dollars if you know how, when, or what you need to do to get it.

Healthcare.gov is probably the biggest battle we've had to date around just this issue: user interface. At the end of the day, access to health care got reduced to literally, the usability of health care. How do you sign up, and how do you get it?

The difference between usable and unusable is the difference between Google and Yahoo; the difference between the iPad and the Palm Pilot. It's this millennium's version of "the medium is the message".

Friday, January 24, 2014

OPPORTUNITY: Cheap Space

I know you need cheap space. There's two opportunities for it, courtesy of the League of Independent Theater.

From the website -- first, the Charter Barter Program:
The League’s Real Estate Committee is creating a new initiative with several NYC Public Schools. We are piloting this program in one school in the first and second quarter of 2014 in Long Island City.  We are looking for one company that is in need of rehearsal space in the first two quarters and that has an interest (and preferably some experience) in education and working with students. In exchange for up to 25 hours of rehearsal space per week for two months, we are asking the company to offer either a one day per week workshop or a two week workshop at the close of the rehearsal process.  We need a partner to help us build this program that we are hoping to replicate throughout the city.  If we can make this one work we can say goodbye to the rehearsal space shortage in NYC. 
You must be a member of the League to participate. Preference is given to member companies and artists in good standing who have demonstrated a commitment to the League in the past or a willingness to assist the League with upcoming initiatives. Members of companies using the space will be requested to join the League as well. By applying for the space, you acknowledge these conditions.

Secondly, the Subsidized Space Program:

In 2013, the League initiated a program to offer member companies and artists heavily-subsidized rehearsal space. It is approximately 5,000 square feet of commercial real estate located in Midtown. Since its inception over 20 companies have used the space. 
This is an opportunity to have a month (or more or less) of exclusive use of the space.  You are able to leave props and costumes (neatly) in the space. There is only a small upfront cost of $200 to offset the cost of insurance, plus perform 5 service hours.  (One person, 5 hours within 3 months of the closing of your show. Gleefully and competently.) We will be asking for a deposit on your first day of rehearsal as well, but that will be fully refunded as soon as the space is vacated in great condition. 
You must be a member of the League to participate. Preference is given to member companies and artists in good standing who have demonstrated a commitment to the League in the past or a willingness to assist the League with upcoming initiatives. Members of companies using the space will be requested to join the League as well. By applying for the space, you acknowledge these conditions.
Membership in the League is FREE and easy to join. Just sign up here, and you can get involved with advocating on behalf of artists and helping to conquer the problems we face.