Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Importance of Theater

The importance of theater varies. As a whole, I think it's pretty important -- that's why I'm still doing it -- but honestly the amount of characters spilled over Spiderman the Musical makes me feel that today, in that realm, theater is utterly useless.

Should reviews have been published? Should they not have? Who, really, cares? This isn't WikiLeaks here. Reporters did the thing they try to do, and in doing so they kind of betrayed the producers who were kind of stupid to think that they wouldn't do the thing they try to do.

One hundred convincing words or less on why this makes the world a better or worse place, or will be a memorable moment in our lives, gets a prize.

Play Development

Mariah MacCarthy asks some questions about the utility of play development. As both a Playwright and an Artistic Director, I answer them here.

1. Playwrights: have you ever had a play produced as a result of submitting it to a theater with an “open submission” policy? (And if you submitted it to Theater A, and Theater A did a reading of it, to which a rep from Theater B came, and Theater B produced the play, that doesn’t count.)

Sort of. I was a member of CAPPIES, a program that enlists high school students to review each other's plays. They had a playwriting contest, I submitted, and I won, which meant I got a production at the Kennedy Center in D.C. that I did not get to see. This is, of course, in the world of student-written theater, through an educational organization, so I don't know if you'd call it a "real" production.

As to my post-graduation professional work, no. There were a few years that I tried submitting -- got a subscription to Writer's Market and things like that -- but pretty soon I realized I was putting plenty of time into something that had little chance of succeeding, so I devoted my full time to self-producing.

2. Theaters: has your theater ever produced a play that was sent to you unsolicited? How often does that happen?

We've had plays submitted to us without request by people we know, although over time they're becoming less and less direct acquaintances. We'll see going forward in the future how it goes.

3. Theaters: if you cut your literary department today, completely, what would happen to your theater and the way it functions? What would change? How would you decide what plays to do, and how is that different than how you decide what plays to do now?

As a small, new company, we don't have a literary department. I read everything. That means when I read it, I read it simultaneously as someone trying to develop the company's artistic vision, someone trying to figure out how we're going to raise money for a play, someone trying to imagine it in the venue logistically, and someone who is interested in finding good plays.

4. Are there any theaters out there that have a purely blind submission policy – not just for one contest, but for all your season, all the time? If so, what are the pros/cons of that policy for you?

Definitely don't solicit blind submissions. When I take on a playwright, I am not taking a play out of their hands: I am hiring someone to work with. Therefore, I'm as much interviewing the creator as I am examining the creation. Even if I read an amazing play, if it was in the hands of someone onerous, I would probably pass, unless it was so completely done that we would not deal with them in any way. And they'd sign away all control.

5. Playwrights: how vital do you consider readings and workshops to your process? Do you feel it actually improves your play? When it works, why does it work? When it doesn’t, why doesn’t it?

Reading is good. Workshop is better. Performance is best. You need to see what sounds good aloud, but also visually how it works in the space. In a Reading you can hear it, in a Workshop you can visualize it, and in Performance you can actually see it.

6. Theaters: of the plays of which you’ve done readings and workshops, how many of them have you ended up giving a full production? (Rough percentage.)

When we develop a play, we always develop it into production. That being said, two of our plays over the last year began as being read/developed through other organizations.

7. Playwrights: do you agree with Itamar Moses that it’s more productive to get artistic directors, rather than literary managers, to see your work? Or have literary managers/departments actually been responsible for your work getting produced? Or have both been the case at different times?

I've never gotten to the point that either a literary department or an artistic director has ever gotten into contact with me regarding my submitted play.

8. Theaters: does your literary manager/department contribute significantly toward deciding what plays get produced? Or do those decisions mostly come from the artistic director?

See above. It's all me.

9. Theaters: do you rely on grants that go specifically toward play development, rather than production? Do you receive funding that you can use for readings and workshops but CANNOT use for a fully mounted production?

Nope. If there was such a grant, I doubt we'd accept it.

10. Playwrights: do you find that doing rewrites in rehearsal/preparation for a reading or workshop is preferable/more productive to doing rewrites in rehearsal for a production?

No. I prefer rehearsals for a production. Everyone is more invested in it, treating it more real, and they have a specific audience/venue in mind.

It's Okay, Freeze Our Pay pt. 2

Isaac responds:

Instead, we have a Right Wing party that exploded the deficit and wrecked our economy teaming up with the "centrists" who have made it more and more unfair and deregulated over the last twenty years to call on the most vulnerable members of our society to "Sacrifice." And indeed, the fetishization of "sacrifice," as some kind of inherently Good and Noble thing is in the air (et tu, Culturefuture? A GS-1 federal government employee makes under $20,000 a year unless they live in one of a handful of cities.)
Let's see what I said. Do I think that it's a good thing that people are being asked to make this sacrifice?
I was not hugely happy to hear about the federal pay freeze this week, because I'm not convinced that it would have much of an impact, nor do I think that it's particularly just. After all, the people who made the poor decisions are voters, and the people who are losing out are federal employees.
Yup, it's a bad idea to freeze their pay. GS-1 government employees and many of their higher-paid colleagues should not have their pay frozen. It's a bad idea, and a disservice to them.

However, I went on to say:
If we can't get those who should make sacrifices to make them, let's start by having those who are willing. Hopefully shame is contagious.
Let's take a trip in the wayback machine to 2008, when the crisis was going on. The banks were in trouble. They needed money. We decided to give them money in a huge way, through the TARP Bail-out.

I think we all knew at the time that it wouldn't be the Banks who would pay for the bail-out, nor would it be the Fortune 500 or America's crop of billionaires. It was going to be precisely those people who were least culpable. And there was a damn lot of anger, and we did it anyway, and it saved our country.

Now, the budget is an important thing. I think I may be in the over-emphasizing-the-budget crowd because I come from California, where I saw that if you don't make steps to trim the budget, not only are those GS-1 employees not making $20,000 a year, they're getting IOU's from the government, or having needed services slashed. We went from one of the strongest economies in the world to having rolling black-outs, like Kabul.

That's a bit of a doomsday scenario. But as Ireland as shown, the only thing that prevents doomsday scenarios is that people don't let them happen. They balance the budget. They either do that by punting the problem ahead a generation, or they make sacrifices now.

Maybe I've got a fetish for sacrifice. Or maybe it turns out sacrifice means doing things that are unfair or painful because they're the only thing that will happen. Like Isaac, I think there are plenty of progressive approaches to handling the deficit. And Isaac is skeptical about Simpson-Bowles, as I am.

But you know what? Nobody is talking about Simpson-Bowles. It's not going to happen. Certainly I have little faith in any of those progressive approaches getting through. The most significant budget-balancing measure was already put into place: Pay-Go.

So to return to my point: if the right people aren't going to make the sacrifice, we're going to have to start with the willing. Because really, if someone forces you to sacrifice, it's not a sacrifice: it's just a punishment.

In fact, what would be more to my taste is that instead of making a mandatory pay freeze, there should be a voluntary pay freeze. Say, "We're not going to make you sacrifice. We're going to ask those of you who can to help the country."

For instance: we're in two wars. We need soldiers. We don't have a draft, because forcing people to go to war isn't a sacrifice, it's just senseless. Instead, we ask. And those people who rise to the challenge: we honor them and respect them.

So let's start creating the invitation and the space for people to contribute to solving the country's problems. And if some Federal Workers think that's embracing onerous pay freezes, then I respect them for that.

Monday, November 29, 2010

It's Okay, Freeze My Pay

I was not hugely happy to hear about the federal pay freeze this week, because I'm not convinced that it would have much of an impact, nor do I think that it's particularly just. After all, the people who made the poor decisions are voters, and the people who are losing out are federal employees.

That being said, my father did talk with me about how, during World War Two, people were willing to make all sorts of sacrifice, and if the sacrifices were spread around, people would be more than happy to pitch in. So I guess I am really happy to see this: a Facebook Group called It's Okay, Freeze My Pay. Their pitch is pitch-perfect:
I don't work for government for the money. I do it to make a difference. Will freezing my pay hurt my family a bit? It sure will...but that's a sacrifice I'm willing to make for my country. It's a sacrifice I've always made.
Good. If we can't get those who should make sacrifices to make them, let's start by having those who are willing. Hopefully shame is contagious.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Mental Health Break

I was posting-while-grumpy today. If Tom Delay facing a life sentence doesn't cheer you up, here's Chris Ashworth putting a smile on your face:

Silly Saturday Project from Figure 53 on Vimeo.

Tropes II: Wish Fulfillment pt.2

Having wondered aloud on when "wish fulfillment" as a trope is acceptable (re: Isaac's post), one of the people I knew would have some weigh-in (RVCBard) does exactly that:
Rather than talk about male fantasy wish fulfillment blah blah blah, I'm going to lay out a scenario that would have me leave the theatre feeling like I saw something truly worthwhile. James would see where this is going.

For about the first half, the movie will be this trope. But just at the moment when the female lead would fall for the male lead's roguish charm, things will take a different turn and start going wrong. Horribly, horribly wrong.
What follows are a series of movie clips that basically back up the point. Trope-reversal is a good way to cut against a trope. To reverse this "wish fulfillment" trope probably still gets a lot of mileage, because the weight is pretty pro-trope.

For instance, one of the things I like about the movie Once is that it cuts pretty strongly against the "running at the airport" "I decided not to get on the plane" romantic climax that somehow is deeply embedded in our culture.

But many tropes are pretty strongly represented in both ways. I think the "man using power judiciously for good (Iron Man)" and "man using power but is corrupted absolutely (basically any villain in Iron Man)" are both out there in the air-waves.

So how do you handle an alluring, wish-fulfilling trope in a critical way?

Seth Godin Talks Out His Ass

His post "Where Do Ideas Come From?" is amusing in its lack of depth.
1. Ideas don't come from watching television.
Really? Why not? I've been inspired by CNN's coverage of Lebanon, by The Daily Show, by Babylon 5 and by Star Trek. I wouldn't be surprised if someone over at Parabasis right now is being inspired by The Walking Dead. (they'd better be, for all the ink they're spilling over it!)
20. Ideas don't need a passport, and often cross borders (of all kinds) with impunity.
What does that even mean? Yes, ideas can go wherever they want. If you tweet an idea, it can get re-tweeted infinitely. So?

Anyways, I could do that for the whole list, but you get the picture. The one thing that I like about Seth Godin and Seth Godin-like writers (I'm thinking of Mission Paradox), is when they break down the vast swathes of managerial science into short, actionable advice. It's very mantra-like and you can use or discard whatever you want, and often it's empty vessels for you to fill with your own experience.

But you look at a list like that one, and you wonder -- do any of the bullets on the list actually tell me anything about the nature of ideas? Or do they just make me feel better? Small business owners don't need a theraputic "mantra-a-day" calendar.

If you want to actually learn something about ideas, I suggest looking it up on Ted.com. Where, by the way, Seth Godin gives a pretty good talk about tribes, and another one about standing out. But where you can also find out where ideas actually come from, not as mysticism but as science:

Wish Fulfillment I: When?

Blerg. I am not sure I can put into words how fed up I am by the whole "the guy's an asshole, but the woman sees something in him and through fucking him a lot, redeems him" thing. And furthermore, I'm a bit fed up by male critics not realizing that this is blatant wish-fulfillment for male audiences . At least reviewers seem to have figured out that Anne Hathaway's character (a terminally-ill redeemer who likes to fuck a lot but might not want to be in love who changes Jake Gyllenhaal for the better) is a cardboard construct.

Back when the second Twilight film came out, there was a lot of talk about the fantasy that those movies sell young women. Bella is, essentially, a character without qualities, entirely passive, uninteresting and devoid of personality who men throw themselves at because it turns out she has some kind of secret power that fascinates them. This is the man-child equivalent of that fantasy, and I'm sick of watching it. It's perfectly possible to construct a romantic comedy (or weepy, for that matter) without it. Furthermore, while I think this is meant to be an exaggeration of something many of us feel-- that we are improved, and to some extent redeemed, by our successful relationships-- this trope lacks even the vaguest whiff of actual truthful perceptiveness about relationships, or life, or men and women.

Here's my question: a lot of drama, art, entertainment, etc. is based on wish fulfillment. A specific genre that I would point to as being heavily influenced by wish fulfillment is comic books. The very notion of a "super-hero" is, in some sense, wish fulfillment. That's what we want: someone big and strong and better than everyone who will save us. And we'd like to be that person.

I could go into specific examples, like the X-Men as a gay community wish fulfillment, or Spiderman as a puberty wish fulfillment, but I'm not huge enough of a comic book reader to answer that. Even The Walking Dead trades on the "If there was a zombie apocalypse, I'd like to think I'd kick some ass" wish in all of us, that if the chips come down we'll turn out to be a PC, not an NPC.

So when dealing with fantasy in culture, what qualifies fantasy/wish fulfillment that is acceptable and good, or fantasy that's tiresome and should be gotten rid of?

I think I'm clear on why the male fantasy above is bad: because it encourages ways of relating towards women that are not only selfish (all fantasy is selfish, I would argue). It perpetuates the idea that guys don't really have to try to be good -- we can just be big kids, and some mother-like woman is going to clean up after us.

But what about the power fantasy, that shows up not only in Superman but also in 24, and in Mitt Romney's foreign policy speeches? When can you get a fun action movie out of it, and when can you just get something loathesome?

I'm going to think about the question myself for a few days, and take it to the realm I know: science fiction. Stay tuned.

The Narrowing Scope of American Theater

Shows are getting shorter. When we were kids and big serious plays ran two hours with an intermission, this was a good thing, but now we've got shows that run an hour and a half without an intermission.

At any rate, that's a piece of conventional wisdom I'm seeing around. It definitely comes up whenever there's a good show that's longer (Gatz, say, or The Lily's Revenge, both of which were five hours or more).

It's definitely true that plays are getting shorter. Is it a bad thing? A good thing? Probably, it's just one of those things that happen that are on the whole neither bad nor good, but are either bad or good in specific cases.

I do have to say this: I've just started writing for StageGrade (which you should follow!) and it means I'm reading more reviews of shows than I used to, and if I have a nickel for every time I read a review that boils down to "It was a good premise/trifle, but at two hours it starts to wear..." and "The second act lagged" I could retire.

Here's the thing: whether or not a play should or shouldn't be two hours, or one hour, is irrelevant. The point is what percentage of that show is necessary. If it's not 100%, there's a mistake in the editing pen.

When my friend John Kurzynowski (who just started his own company after putting up a show with us last year) directed Doll House (that's how he titled it), he started by handing the cast an editing pen and saying, "Let's cut every line we don't care about." And they did. And they wound up with an incredibly lean but incredibly passionate hour and fifteen minutes of Doll House.

So if your play is longer (The Lily's Revenge, Gatz, Architecting, etc.) you're basically saying, "This show is really, really important to us. There's a lot here that's important." If you live up to that, people will sit for five hours and come back a second time (like I did for The Lily's Revenge, despite the financial toll it took on my wallet).

On the other hand, if your show is empty, you can make even an hour and fifteen minutes feel like a lifetime.

The reason I write this is because I have friends who are just starting in playwrighting who have, for some reason been told:
  1. One page = one minute (which is a good rule of thumb)
  2. One play = one hundred and twenty minutes with an act break (wrong.)
I keep getting plays on my desk that are one hundred and twenty one pages, or one hundred and twenty three. And many of them are really great, but not all of the pages in them are great.

I don't think it's a bad idea for early drafts of a play to be that long, by the way -- I just think the next step is to go through and viciously expunge everything that you don't think is vital.

In fact, I did that once with a play of mine called St. Vitus' Dance. I started with 90 pages and I ended with fifteen. That was a wake-up call to me that I had written a bad play. Consequently, you have not seen it onstage.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

TSA Observation

There's been push-back on this TSA uproar by saying that the objection is coming from predominantly white privileged males who somehow were exempt from wiretapping, shoe-removing, etc. and are only now realizing that the government is doing something ownerous.

I don't know about that, but I do have to say, that here in my office in Southern California, the people who are predominantly concerned are women. This is a very informal poll of basically just listening to who has been bringing up the TSA and how they've been talking about it, but there was a cluster of women very intently discussing what they would do next time they would fly, whereas the men have largely been talking about how the phrase "Don't Touch My Junk" is great to use at parties.

Monday, November 22, 2010


Well well well, what do we have here?

Looks like my pre-ordered copy of 20UNDER40 has just arrived!

As I have a bit more time in my life, my plan is to read it and respond to it, chapter by chapter.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Sondheimania and Other Composers

Elisabeth Vincentelli, the New York Post's reviewer, wrote a quick blog post about her frustration with Stephen Sondheim:
I've had it with Sondheim -- or rather with Sondheimania. There's been so many events celebrating his 80th birthday this year that the cumulative effect is now the opposite of the desired one. Next in the 80th-bash line: The New York Pops' concert tomorrow evening at Carnegie Hall. This may be the last for the year, but I'm not holding my breath.


Personally I'll be happy if I don't hear or read the name "Sondheim" for the next year at least.
By the way, her musical criticism of him is here:

Meanwhile, perhaps it's also time to say that he may be a better lyricist than a composer and that he's benefited from working with brilliant arrangers. I would even go as far as saying that he (unwittingly) contributed to the decline of the musical by making his emulators think all songs must be "integrated" in the book. No more catchy stand-alone numbers for us rubes! Unfortunately, 99% of said emulators aren't as gifted as their hero -- not to mention that Sondheim has written quite a few stand-alone standards himself.
Firstly, I'm not particularly sympathetic to the argument that an artist has any responsibility for the shittiness of their emulators. It's pretty clear that if you get one clear success (e.g. Lion King on Broadway), you're going to get hundreds of people thinking that they know exactly how it worked and think they can do it themselves, and they are usually wrong.

For instance, I happen to like (WHITE BOY ALERT) what T-Pain does with auto-tune. I feel like he uses auto-tune to do with his voice what electric guitars do with the sound of the guitar. There's also a lot -- and I mean a lot -- of shitty auto-tune out there. But there's also good auto-tune. You might as well blame the Beatles for Oasis.

Me, I think that there does need to be more integration of music and book. Nine times out of time, if someone stops the action to break out in song, I get a feeling of dread. And I think that feeling of dread is the reason I haven't plunked out

Secondly, I'm not sympathetic to the argument that Sondheim is somehow lessened because he needs to work with good arrangers. I don't think it reflects poorly on Paul McCarthy that he made much better music when he was still working with John Lennon; nor do I think that John Lennon should be blamed that he needed Paul McCartney. Artists should be reminded that they are only as good as the people they need to translate it into reality.

But here's the reason I'm writing about it this morning.

Last night, I went to an NYU event called New Songs Now, where new composers wrote new songs to be performed in a cabaret setting at Joe's Pub. I went, and by sheer coincidence, twenty minutes into the show, I wound up passing a note to the person sitting next to me, "Imagine if there was just one Sondheim song here." Whatever those points above may have, I was watching people who were emulating much, much worse stuff than Sondheim. I really wanted his touch to bring me out of this evening.

For instance: 90% of the song were about a boy and a girl either singing to each other, or about each other. And then a song sung by a jealous trio about a girl who's good with boys. But basically the same: almost every song was about that. Not that I'm against it, but come on there has to be something else worth singing about.

I couldn't tell who wrote what song, because almost every song was in the same musical style. They could have all been thrown into one musical, a musical equivalent of He's Just Not That Into You. Except a genuinely funny (albeit incredibly silly) song called "Wilson" about a guy who does either acid or pot or crack (the song kind of conflates every drug possible into one joint) and robs a gas station.

I was kind of hoping to see an abundance of style, of eccentricity. I wanted a Sondheim song in there somewhere because Sondheim was weird. That's what first drew me toward him. He had weird characters, singing about weird things, with musical weirdness.

Now, obviously if you're a professional critic for the New York Post or a highly plugged-in blogger like Rob at The Wicked Stage (whose response is worth reading, here), you might be starting to tire of the man. I think, however, the audience at large isn't seeing nearly as much Sondheim as the mavens are. This flurry of activity is just increasing the chance that they'll see one.

I haven't seen any Sondheim yet this year. I kind of would like to see Assassins again.

But really, what I'd like to see is more composers striking as boldly out as Sondheim did. And, probably, flopping as hugely as Assassins did, twice. Those few shows that have broken through the mold have not yet created composers with full bodies of work, at least that I know of. And I don't see younger composers eager to strike out and create their own styles, their own approaches to musical theater.

Unless, of course, you start talking about independent theater, far from Broadway, where things like Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Passing Strange are being born, and most of them are not being seen by whoever that mystical board is that decides what the "canon" would be.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Chart-Porn: What A Mortgage Looks Like

A great answer to the world's shittiest chart.

Thursday, November 18, 2010


This chart is great, simply because it is quite a fantastic array of personal failings.

Other notes:
  • Man people over 65 hate "Darwinists."
  • Who are these people who disagree with this sentence: "If your party nominated a generally well-qualified person would you consider voting for this person if you learned that they are competent"?
  • People would prefer someone be violent than improperly claim government hand-outs. Okay.
  • Atheist = Muslim = Scientologist. Great.

Alcohol III: Punchdrunk's Gig pt. 2

Chris Wilkinson at The Guardian raises a glass to me, and collects some of the favorable coverage of Punchdrunk's collaboration. It's worth remembering that this was a follow up to a more skeptical post by Jo Caird that raised questions about Punchdrunk's independence, and whether or not Punchdrunk was diluting their brand with the association.

George Hunka also raises a word of warning:
I’m not sure that it’s a good idea to blithely accept Punchdrunk’s formal or informal relationship with Stella Artois as an example of new funding sources. Stella Artois is a corporation, and a too-easy acceptance of an artistic endeavor’s partnership with a corporation is a dangerous thing, though of course many theatres in both the UK and the US already maintain these partnerships (Travelex’s relationship with the NT and Roundabout’s relationship with American Airlines are just two examples).

One needs to be careful whom one beds down with. The ethics of corporations specifically seem to be at loggerheads with the ethics of those who create theatre, and though it’s nice to have the money one must look at the source.
Absolutely on key. I'm not 100% comfortable with the nature of that relationship with an Alcohol company. But really, I have a deeper concern than just doing a commissioned show -- I really have actual concerns about our relationship with alcohol itself.

Hunka says that corporate ethics are not in line with artistic ethics, and he quotes from Chris Hedges' Culture of Illusion:
We have a right, in the cult of the self, to get whatever we desire. We can do anything, even belittle and destroy those around us, including our friends, to make money, to be happy and to become famous.
For Hunka, that's the corporate ethic (I happen to think it's a corporate ethic, but I've seen corporations with other ethics). But for me, I worry that's become a social ethic. The ethic around alcohol.

When I say that often the only way I can get people to attend certain events is with the promise of alcohol, I actually am genuinely concerned that people are really only responding with the idea of indulging that urge, and theater is only an excuse. Could art survive without alcohol? Or are we just part of that experience?

I'm aware that this concern of mine is why I've been called a Puritan by many, many people. (I have also been called a fascist, despite the fact that I'm okay with trains being slightly late). But people are far more interested in interrogating art's relationship to money then they are interested in interrogating art's relationship to drinks.

Exxon Agrees to Pay for Greenpoint Spill

Here's the story:
Exxon Mobile, which has spilled at least 17 million gallons of oil from its refinery in and around Newtown Creek over the years, agreed to pay $25 million to settle a long-standing environmental suit; the settlement follows the creek's recent addition to the list of Superfund sites, a process that could last up to ten years and cost as much as $500 million. $19.5 million of the settlement will pay for projects to benefit the Greenpoint community, selected through community input.
Two questions:
  1. If the damage is $500 million, why do we only get $25 million?
  2. If the damage is $500 million, why is only $5.5 million going to the spill itself?

Legal Commentary: NYTimes on the Roberts Court

The New York Times takes an excellent look today at the Roberts court:

The Supreme Court under the leadership of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. is often criticized for issuing sweeping and politically polarized decisions. But there is an emerging parallel critique as well, this one concerned with the quality of the court’s judicial craftsmanship.

In decisions on questions great and small, the court often provides only limited or ambiguous guidance to lower courts.

And it increasingly does so at enormous length.

I think if you look at the universally most disliked rulings of the last decade (Citizens United and Gonzales v. Raich) you'll notice that both of them had huge down-wind effects that the Court did not seem interested in. Of course, you could argue that if a Supreme Court ruling is controversial, it's almost always because it had huge down-wind effects that the Court either didn't expect or didn't care to delve into.

But in those cases, little thought seems to have been put into the world post-decision. Particularly Gonzales v. Raich, where the Court ruled that marijuana could be illegal federally but legal on a state or local level, was inconsistent to the point of incoherence.

The point of all this is that moderate is not the same as consensus, and both are not the same as good jurisprudence. The ability of the Court to communicate the impact of its decisions, and create guidelines for the world after the ruling is crucial.

McBrooklyn Sums Up My Irritation With Bloomberg

Yeah, I'm peeved about this Cathy Black thing, and McBrooklyn sums it up pretty well.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Chairman of Credit Suisse

The Chairman of Credit Suisse has passed away. Didn't realize that the chairman was a Brooklyn native, didn't realize he was so young, didn't realize he had cancer, but this was the part that really stuck out to me:
Mr. Calello also helped devise a novel plan of paying bankers’ bonuses with the firm’s toxic assets that were clogging the bank’s balance sheet. The plan, which was controversial when it was announced, has been largely successful as assets, like mortgage-backed securities and corporate loans, have increased in value.

World's Shittiest Charts, v. 3


Tuesday, November 16, 2010


So, if you don't know, the Wasserstein Award goes to emerging female playwrights for outstanding work. It's a big hefty prize. One problem: this year, they decided not to award it to anyone.

I find it completely plausible that the panel were faced with four finalists that they didn't really feel enthused about, and decided not to award it to any of them.

At that point in the decision-making process, I could agree with them not awarding the prize. But what they missed was a chance to ask why they didn't have good candidates in front of them.

Clearly, it's practically inconceivable that in the United States today there is not a single female playwright who's emerging who's worth the prize. I think the general wide-spread outcry shows that most people agree with that fact.

So if we can agree that probably someone out there should have gotten the prize, then the question is, why weren't they in the finalists?

That's the question that the Wasserstein Award people should be asking themselves. How have they failed the community so badly that with a $25k award, they still couldn't give it to anyone?

I did a report for Createquity on "The Search for Shining Eyes", a report about the Knight Foundation's Magic of Music Symphony Orchestra Initiative. They were looking for some orchestras to honor with massive amounts of money. After the first round, they looked at their applicants, and realized they didn't have the applications they wanted.

What did they do? They started over. They basically said, "If we don't feel good about these applicants, it's because we screwed up our process. Let's fix this." And they did. And then they got applicants they liked much better."

So, Wasserstein: it seems to me that the worst thing you could do right now is just give that money to one of the four finalists you previously rejected. It will just read, "Oh, well, we think she's crap, but you all were angry so we gave her the cash anyways." For my money, you should figure out what the problem was, and take a stab and fixing it -- even if that means starting over. Those same finalists should be given the opportunity to prove that they were actually worth it, but you should keep re-doing the process until you find that person who you actually feel is worthy of the prize.

They're out there, I know. I've worked with them.

"Pop" Language

That's the word cloud of the lyrics of Beatles song.

Almost instantly you can see one of the keys of their success: universally recognizable English. Seriously, if you look at the lyrics of many of their songs ("Come Together"?), they use very simple English with words that can carry a lot of emotional freight.

And look at those pronouns! I have had many a Shakespeare teacher talking about how you never emphasize the personal pronouns; here, the Beatles are basically singing about the listener, singing about themselves, and singing about that relationship ("Want" "Tell" "Do" etc.).

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Quote of the Day

As for its sensuality,–& it may turn out to be less sensual than it appeared–I do not so much wish that those parts were not written, as that men & women were so pure that they could read them without harm, that is, without understanding them. ...Of course Walt Whitman can communicate to us no experience, and if we are shocked, whose experience is it that we are reminded of?

Friday, November 12, 2010

Punchdrunk's Stella Artois Gig

Here's the scoop: England is facing massive, massive budget cuts across the board, including to the arts. In this atmosphere, Punchdrunk (a British theater company) is doing a performance commissioned by Stella Artois to promote a new beer:

Here's the surprise. The project has been put together by none other than Punchdrunk, the theatre company famous for – among much else – 2007's The Masque of the Red Death and this summer's ENOcollaboration, The Duchess of Malfi. The company has done this sort of work before – most recently at the glitzy launch of Louis Vuitton's Bond Street shop earlier this year – but the blatantly commercial nature of this Stella project throws up questions about whether it's right for theatre companies to do such corporate gigs at all.

But, then, The Night Chauffeur isn't claiming to be a Punchdrunkproduction – the company's name isn't on the marketing material for the lager launch and there's no mention of the event on the theatre company's website. In fact it wasn't easy to track down someone from the company to clarify what their contribution to the project actually was – I was initially told they weren't doing any interviews at all – but when I did, executive director Colin Marsh was keen to stress that The Night Chauffeur is not a Punchdrunk show, but a piece of work the company has created in collaboration with Stella and the advertising agency, Mother. This is Stella's event, not Punchdrunk's, he argued – even though the same creative team is involved. It's intriguing if slightly baffling explanation, especially given that they have previously spoken out in favour of doing commercial work.

The sad part is that my first response was jealousy: the British have always had more public funding than we've had -- now they're doing better than us at corporate support?

But really, this is just a symbol of the relationship the arts have today with alcohol. I've joked about it before, but the young theater companies I know are basically in the debt of the alcohol industry. We get people to come to our fundraisers through the lure of alcohol, among other things.

Right now, one of my company's projects is to try and build a relationship with an alcohol distributor, to see if we can get discounts on alcohol for fundraising purposes. And this is not an uncommon thing. One of my favorite art groups, Fresh Ground Pepper, has kept its commitment to not charging tickets largely through its sale of alcohol -- and here I am jealous that they've got the hook-up!

So in a way, it's refreshing to see Punchdrunk dive full in to alcohol patronage. If Stella Artois or Sixpoint Brewery want to patronize the arts, let them! It's nice to hear a company think that art could benefit them. Most companies wouldn't want to be associated with theater if it was dead. Stella Artois might be getting some brand association with Punchdrunk, but Punchdrunk is getting some brand association from Stella Artois as well.

And what has a better brand, theater or alcohol?

Legal Commentary: Twitter Joke Trial

News from England: young man who made a joke on Twitter about blowing up a small airport while flirting with a young lady has lost his appeal.

Here's a run-down on why the joke, though dumb, should not have been considered "menacing" and therefore an offense.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Review: The Magic Flute

at the Brick
upcoming performances:
Thursday through Saturday at 8PM
Sunday at 7 PM

I've already sung Kate Marvin's paean's once, but it's time for me to do it again. As part of Target Margin Theater's Laboratory, Kate has directed (I believe for the first time?) Mozart's Magic Flute. And you should go see it.

Ah jeez. Usually this is the easy part where I reduce the show I've seen to some easily followed description. Really, what this Magic Flute was was a lot of genius put in a box and shaken up. Like a crash box. Was it an operatic sketch show, with a series of musical gags and dance comedy performances? Was it a free-association dream of what Mozart's opera could be if you did it today?

I really don't have any idea. Which brings me to my next point:

The great thing about this Magic Flute is that it is so damn entertaining and moving that you're free to not know. Particularly for me, with my "Pragmatism" and my "Critical Analysis" and my needing to know things about theater, I've gotten used to understanding everything. It's incredible hubris, and I'm incredibly thankful that I was given the opportunity to let go.

John Kurzynowski carries the comedic show on his back. Whether he's hamming up a German accent or silently and seriously riding It's A Small World with Disney Land ears, you can just watch him pour every bit of his soul into making you laugh. Whether it's an over-the-top hilarious sketch, or just a tiny detail -- someone "tuning" a bottle full of water at the top of the show -- the hilarity is heightened because there's no warning, it side-swipes you when you're not looking for it.

But the hilarity was there really to buy your presence, to set up a world so that it could be stripped away. By the end, the theater itself is drained away and it only leaves the beauty of Kate Marvin and Diana Konopka's musico-auditory experience, and the simple and stunning visual lighting design of Natalie Robin.

I should probably be writing a more coherent review, but honestly I don't know how coherent my experience was. Somewhere towards the end, when there was nothing but a beautiful sea of lights and the musico-auditory experience, I nearly burst into tears. I have no idea why or how. It was a beautiful dream of music, and I followed it and lived it wholly. It broke me on a level I don't understand.

You need to go see it and hear it for yourself. I was left more than speechless, I was wordless. I had nothing but pure experience. And it may be the first time that I understood what Opera used to mean.

(Disclaimer: Hey, guess what FCC? I paid for my own damn tickets this time!)

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Sharpie Economics

Having inflicted many a complex but beautiful chart on you, here's a very beautiful explanation of economics:

Tuesday, November 9, 2010


I always follow the tech world with interest, because I feel like they're about as far from us in terms of what sort of creativity they're working on, but still so close to us as being in the creative field.

1. Your first try will be wrong. Budget and design for it.
2. Aim to finish a usable artifact in a day. This helps you focus and scope.
3. You are making a touchable sketch. Do not fill in all the lines.
4. You are iterating your solution as well as your understanding of the problem.
5. Treat your code as throw-away, but be ready to refactor.
6. Borrow liberally
7. Tell a story with your prototype. It isn't just a set of features.
I admit some jealousy at the notion of, for instance, budgeting for a failed first try. What does that mean, in the realm of theater?

What's the reasonable time-frame of a usable artifact in theater creation?

If you've got time, here's the 30 minute video:

Rapid Prototyping with Aza Raskin from Dan Braghis on Vimeo.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Arts Subsidies: Film pt 2

Okay, so, in my post about different methods of subsidies (comparing the US and UK methods of funding film), I said this:

I wonder how these two approaches stack up in their effectiveness. I do know one thing: when you give money in a grant, you almost always have to justify the work you're investing in. But when you couch it as a tax subsidy, you have to give everyone equal access to it, and therefore you're more likely to focus on the labor and purchasing that comes out of it.

I do need to approach this with a little bit more nuance. Butts In Seats reports that apparently UK theaters had a certain level of subsidy that was No Application Required (and also reports that it is over). It was, however, still somewhat exclusive:
According to BBC arts editor Will Gompertz,“If you were in the club, you tended to stay in the club; if you weren’t, there was no obvious way of joining.” Apparently this was the way the Council was set up when it was established during the Second World War. Funding was solely based on the council members’ judgment that an art organization had a reasonable chance of success.
What I meant to say was that historically, in the United States, tax subsidies are given across the board to an entire industry, whereas grants to be more exclusive, only given to compelling projects.

It is, however, possible to imagine a system in which the government holds a contest/submission process by which the end result is a tax credit, rather than a bucket of cash. It's also possible to imagine cash prizes that require no artistic review possible.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Blue Dogs Down.

The Blue Dog pack was cut by more than half Tuesday night, as at least 28 of the 54 members of the coalition of moderate House Democrats were defeated.

Their numbers could be reduced further, as a handful of Blue Dogs are still awaiting the official outcome of their re-election bids.
The 79 member Progressive Caucus in the House lost only 4 races last night while the Blue Dogs lost 23 races. In addition, another 6 Blue Dogs retired and were replaced by Republicans. The Blue Dogs now only make up 13% of the Democratic Caucus, compared to the 21% previously.
Quick reminder: the Blue Dog Democrats were the pack of Democrats with Conservative social values, mostly elected in districts that are very Republican or Conservative. They threw up a fight against abortion and the Public Option in the Health Care bill, and voted with Republicans to allow guns to be carried into National Parks.

In other words, they were vulnerable at the start, and everyone knew it. Progressives didn't like them because they threw up stumbling blocks in front of Progressive measures, and Conservatives didn't like them because, well, they were suspicious of their Conservatism. Obama gave some of them a pass on the Health Care bill, but in the end many of them had to vote with things that screwed them at home.


New York Gubernatorial Factoid of the Day

From NYTimes:

On the basis of unofficial returns, the 62 percent of the vote that Mr. Cuomo received on Tuesday was the third highest of any New York candidate for governor in nearly two centuries. Eliot Spitzer, who garnered 69 percent four years ago, tops the list, followed by Mr. Cuomo’s father, Mario M. Cuomo, who was re-elected with 65 percent of the vote in 1986.

I don't know whether to go with a "Eliot Spitzer got 69%, eh?" or a "And everything worked out fine after that" joke.

Obama Sums Up His Greatest Failure

“We were in such a hurry to get things done that we didn’t change how things got done.”

Other Good News

If your home was damaged by the Brooklyn Tornado, Obama will let you claim for damages.

Local Election Reactions


California: Seems to have rejected Proposition 19 in almost exactly the same disappointing come down as the Proposition 8 narrative. Between medicinal marijuana and decriminalization of marijuana, it was kind of hard to keep up the momentum for such a big change. And no guarantee that it would actually be legal; since, of course, it's still a Federal crime.

More worrying than that, though, is the fact that Steve Cooley, the Republican candidate for Attorney General, appears to have won -- his history is in being one of the biggest-names in anti-marijuana forces around Los Angeles that consider dispensaries illegal.

Ah well. Enjoy your slow collapse into decrepitude with Jerry Brown.

New York: Cuomo, meh. Democrats everywhere. The only Democrat I opposed, Vito Lopez (of threatening-old-ladies and building-a-clubhouse fame) was re-elected too. Term limits are probably restored, hopefully the tightening of conflict-of-interest laws passed too. Not much to care about, overall.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Federal Election Reactions

Looking at the big map, I have to say, although the big-picture loss for the Democrats is tough, I really can't find a lot of names I'm sad to see go. In the House, we lost Democratic seats like Bart Stupak's (of "Health Care Bill will not go to abortion" fame); in the Senate we lost Feingold (which is upsetting), but mostly it was open seats that went Republican.

Does this mean bad things will happen in the next two years, if you're a liberal? No. With a divided Congress and a liberal-leaning President, no, not really. This isn't 2004-2006, with Republicans running wild across the hill-tops. It just isn't 2008-2010, where Democrats had (mostly) unfettered access to the halls of power.

So what's going to happen? Nothing. A lot, a lot of nothing. Obama will continue to use his executive power cautiously but positively, Republicans will basically shut down Congress, and Americans will get roundly sick of both of them.

I'm kind of strangely zen about that option.

It isn't as though our government as a whole will be shutting down. We still have an independent executive with some powers. Particularly, if we want more economic aid, the Federal Reserve has been more active than the Obama Administration even before the coming freeze. We just won't be seeing some of the changes in law that we want/need. But then, were we seeing it before the election?

That's coming in an upcoming post.

Arts Subsidies: Film

So, if you've been reading deficit hawk's economics over the last two years (and really you probably shouldn't be, if you want to remain sane and healthy), you'd know that tax breaks and monetary support are two different ways to subsidize things, with their own pros and cons.

Lately, Republicans have become the party of tax breaks, and the Democrats have become the party of monetary support, and the American people on both sides have become very frigid towards monetary support, while not treating tax breaks as equivalent.

I was thinking about this in the context of the end of the U.K. Film Council. It's the body, in the UK, which (up until this current Comprehensive Spending Review) gave out monetary awards to filmmakers through a variety of funds and lotteries. In other words, it's a cash grant machine, like Welfare or Social Security or take your pick: it gives money for you to make films.

Here in the United States, we support film differently. We do it in state-by-state tax breaks; for instance, New York gives a 30% refundable tax credit. States compete to offer the biggest tax incentive; when I took "Producing for Film" we were taught that it was one of the most important considerations in selecting a place to film.

Interesting to reflect on. In the theater community, I've largely focused on monetary grants (like those given by NYSCA or the NEA), but one of our (potentially) bigger subsidies, though, comes to not-for-profits (or Fiscally Sponsored projects) in terms of sales tax relief.

I wonder how these two approaches stack up in their effectiveness. I do know one thing: when you give money in a grant, you almost always have to justify the work you're investing in. But when you couch it as a tax subsidy, you have to give everyone equal access to it, and therefore you're more likely to focus on the labor and purchasing that comes out of it.

In other words, it's easier to get a shitty film project a tax break than to get it a grant. I don't even know if policy-makers care whether or not the film makes it to the screen -- so long as it is hiring local laborers and buying local surprised.

Just a rumination about subsidies.