Thursday, March 31, 2011

WTF Is Devised Theater, pt. 3

A look at how playwrights fit into devised theater:

So, why do I, as a playwright, do devised theatre?

You see, I have a box. It’s made up of my experience, my preconceived notions, my talent, my skill. It’s made up of my limits. I work in it, I live in it, I think in it. A few years ago, I began to make a concerted effort to expand my box. For my MFA thesis, I wrote a play that included music, dancing, a drag show, and a slew of Erik Ehn-inspired impossible stage directions–all things that I loved seeing on stage, but had never attempted to put there myself. Afterwards, my box was a lot roomier. But like a goldfish, my ambitions grew to fill their environment.


So, would I ever give up writing plays on my own to do devised work full time? Probably not. I have too many stories to tell, and our devising process is a slow burn. But because of working in that process, my box is constantly expanding and the stories I tell are the richer for it.

Devised theater isn't just about firing the playwrights.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Oops Bloody Bloody Oops

I'm pretty proud of this Orange Hats video that I edited. More than just an audience response, it's a conversation between two audiences: the audience of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and a particular audience of BBAJ that was so incensed it created it's own musical, Oops Bloody Bloody Oops.

The question of who the audience member is, what is expected of them, and how that's tied in to responses to work that some consider offensive was really interesting. There should be a part 2 coming on this video.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Aaron Landsman on Participatory Democracy and Theater

You don't need to know anything more than that. RTWT:
For the last ten years my shows have been presented in places where people perform their daily lives. This has so far included offices, homes, the sidewalk, and barrooms. I’m most excited by situations that are inherently performative: a real estate sales pitch, a therapy session, Happy Hour. Some recent pieces include: Open House, commissioned and produced by The Foundry Theatre in 24 New York City apartments; What You’ve Done, in a Houston row house; Desk, in an office atrium; and Appointment, a series of one-on-one performances in offices in five cities and counting.

Now I am taking what I’ve learned by working outside of traditional performance spaces and using it to bring a specific kind of interaction and participation into a theater. My new project City Council Meeting is a provocation to the form, a way to engage audiences differently, an invitation to sort through and question the ways we govern ourselves. I call it “Performed Participatory Democracy.”

You Think It's Bad Nowadays...

"In January 1923, the Democratic minority in the Rhode Island Senate began a low-intensity filibuster against all major legislation in an effort to force the Republican majority to call for a new constitutional convention. They were aided by a Democratic Lieutenant Governor presiding over the Senate, Felix Toupin, who refused to recognize any Republicans seeking to make motions, except a motion to call for a convention. This conflict reached a peak in June, 1924 when the Rhode Island Senate stayed in continuous session for 22 hours until the Republican majority simply got up and left. Three days later they returned for a 42-hour day-and-night session which began with a mass fistfight over control of the gavel and ended when Republican operatives placed a poison-soaked rag behind Toupin to gas him out of the presiding officer's chair. No one was permanently harmed, but the Republican majority relocated to Rutland, Massachusetts for six months until Republican victories in the 1924 elections put an end to the struggle."

How We Make Our Case X: In Summary

I said it before, but I think Scott states it succinctly:
Recommendation: The NEA ought to confine itself to providing seed money for theatres in underserved communities.
My hunch is that when you get down to the nuts and bolts of it, Scott and I would disagree on what constitutes "underserved communities" in some cases but not in others, even with that disagreement at times it's still a good framework.

I'm not sure I necessarily agree with Scott that it should limit itself to only seed money. There may be some underserved communities that may require continuing support to remain served. At the very least, such an organization should be able to make a strong case as to why they couldn't be self-sufficient after 5 years, rather than just assuming that grant money is perpetual money.


Finally saw Inception. Shows you where I am in the world's cultural history. I can see all of the flaws that people have pointed out to me, but I still love it. If I had seen it in something remotely approximating when it was new, I would probably write at length about it, but I'm late to this party so my punishment is that I'll have to ruminate about it to myself.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Public's Losses

File this under "things I didn't know":Why were such popular shows a loss?
“Members of the board were determined not to again gamble on a Broadway production, and were not informed that they were gambling with the Public Theater’s budget to produce these plays,” said someone close to the Public.
What happened next?
On Feb. 2 the theater announced that [Executive Director Andrew] Hamingson had resigned after only two and a half years in the job because of “personal reasons.” The Public Theater has refused to elaborate on the reasons for Mr. Hamingson’s departure.
A bit baffling, and quite upsetting.

Review: The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G

Vampire Cowboy's
The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G

There's no better way to answer the question "What Was This Show?" than to quote the character of the playwright in the play: "This is a Vampire Cowboy show, bitch." I may never have seen a Vampire Cowboys production before, but I think I have a pretty good idea of what that means now, and I think I'm in love.

The primary form of Vampire Cowboys is through faithful and hysterical parody. Not just one genre of parody -- parody of every possible relevant or irrelevant genre. The opening sequence is a Vietnam war scene pulled straight out of Rambo but within a few minutes we could be lurching into a perfect recreation of the snow sword fight from Kill Bill or a pretty inappropriate sequence of Sesame Street mixed with early-90s educational hip-hop.

This show, however, transcends parody as geek fun by becoming self aware. The ostensible plot of The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G is the completion of the Gook Story Trilogy, a cycle of plays detailing how Qui Nguyen's cousin Hung (Paco Tolson) escaped from Vietnam on a refugee boat (during which his parents and brother die) and comes to resettle in Alabama with his new family.

But the real story is the the struggle between Qui and the play itself. Qui himself appears in the story, played by William Jackson Harper (not played by Qui himself, who sat in the audience the night I was there). As the play progresses, the characters within the play force Qui to confront the story, and to do his best to tell it right.

Meta? Definitely. But it's beyond simply meta -- it's what happens when parody swallows itself whole. Parody involves flattening a genre into its recognizable elements. In this play, Qui presents himself in flattened form -- as a parody -- in order to struggle back towards three dimensionality.

By parodying himself and Vampire Cowboys as a whole, he covers in an engaging way a subject which can be pretty tired: how hard it is for a minority playwright to tell a story in a simple and honest way while feeling the pressure of a thousand expectations.

The expectations placed on Qui Nguyen enter the story are represented by the accusations of his baby's momma (Bonnie Sherman), the cast, and eventually the representation of David Henry Hwang (Jon Hoche), as well as former mentors and audience members.

Parody is the perfect form for exploring this dilemma -- not just because it provides the kind of light fun that makes the issue fun, but because it has something interesting to say about people's expectations on a writer. When Qui Nguyen tries to match the expectations, he becomes an imitation -- which is basically an unaware parody, a parody drained of power and fun.

The whole play, in fact, slowly reveals itself to be a parody of Yellow Face. But it's a parody of a parody of a parody -- turtles all the way down.

When all of the parody collapses and Qui Nguyen is left with the story, it's a rewarding culmination of neurosis, and a worthy resolution to Hung's story.

In a broader way, Qui Nguyen is full of tricks regarding representations of race onstage. I don't want to spoil any of it, but I'm going to say that it was handled in the most conscious and yet fun way I've seen yet in New York.

All of this intellectualism aside, the reason you'll be glued to your seat will be the sheer fun of it all. It's energetic, rolls forward, and gives you a fun time along the way.

Particularly, your life will be enriched by watching the slapstick and energetic character performances of Jon Hoche. I could probably simply watch him for the rest of my life. Once you get ten minutes into the play, any time his face appears onstage you're already primed to laugh.

If you want to have something that's deep, belly-laugh fun while still being emotionally grounded and food for thought, you can't come up with a much better combination than Agent G. This is a play for a single moment and a single community, so if you don't catch it now, you probably will never catch up to it again.

(Disclaimer: I was in attendance with an un-paid for ticket; not in exchange for this review, but on assignment forThe Orange Hats.)

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Review: Feeder: A Love Story pt.2

I had my 2 cents in on Feeder: A Love Story. But I was there as an Orange Hat! And here's what the audience had to say about the show:

Largely in line with my experience, other than the fact that they seemed to like the design elements more than I did, and also a great clip of a nutritional health person responding to the notion of Feederism.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Professionalism pt.2

And why is this true?
Is there not equal access to internet across genders? Typically, when there's a huge disparity between men and women, gatekeepers are blamed as the culprit. Are there gatekeepers between women and the internet?

(That's a genuine question).


There's a conversation going on right now about professionalism that I'm too apathetic take on. You know what that conversation could use right now, though? This graphic:

Monday, March 21, 2011

Review: Feeder: A Love Story

terraNOVA Collective's

If you don't have any particular emotional response to the words "feeder" or "gain," you should probably go see this show. It's an instructive experience looking at an aspect of humanity that we have fallen out of talking about: that good old deadly sin of Gluttony.

The protagonists of Feeder: A Love Story are Jesse (Jennifer Conley Darling) and Noel (Pierre-Marc Diennet), a married couple who mix the cute straightforward romance of yesteryear with the complications of today's online dating world -- through the particular fetish of feederism.

What's feederism (as you're probably asking, like I would have if I'd known that's what the play was about)? It's a sexual fetish where both parties obtain sexual pleasure through the gaining of weight. Noel feeds Jesse, and feeds her, and feeds her... on the way to a mythical goal of 1,000 pounds.

But at the opening of the play, things have gone awry. A talk-show host named Judith Angel has burst into their apartment and taken Jesse (who used to work for her before gaining enough wait to "go immobile," as they say) to a weight-loss clinic. Noel, sobbing and alone, is trying to figure out what has happened; the play unfolds as Noel and Jesse alternate between telling the story of their relationship to various cameras (there were at least four on set) and enacting the memories as they lived them.

There's a lot of different ways that the play could have tried to communicate Feederism to us. They (perhaps fortunately) did not really try to communicate what the sexual experience of feederism is. It wasn't about diving into the sexual fetish itself, per se. Instead, the play decided to confront us with the lifestyle of feederism. What did it mean to have to live with Feederism.

In this way, playwright James Carter chose to tackle what is a fairly taboo realm even by "downtown theater" standards in what is the most conventional way possible: through a love story. As the title suggests, it really is a love story. Two characters, deeply in love, try to navigate a difficult set of circumstances and keep their love intact. They struggle with the typical relationship woes (how do I deal with being dependent on my partner? how can I connect with a sister who won't accept me?), and the atypical ones (I am sick to death of having to be winched up on a hydraulic lift, and I am no longer able to see my friends), and in this way a door is opened onto lives you may never have imagined.

Because of the more conventional focus of the relationship, there are some things which are left unexplored -- I for one was deeply curious about whether the post-weight-loss Jesse would be able to adjust her sexual life to a new identity, among other things -- but I am not uncomfortable with being left hungry for more.

Although not everything about the production was a hit -- I wasn't wild about Alex Koch's projection design, which didn't seem very integrated into the rest of the piece's conception, and some aspects of Peter Ksander's set design seemed overly fanciful without adding much (I'm thinking mostly of a gaping hole at the side of the set that I kept expecting to be referenced directly).

The show worked when it was at its simplest: the climax of the piece, where Jesse and Noel are finally reunited at their favorite pizza parlor, face to face for the first time in the work in a scene that is not a recording or a memory, but finally is real. There's nothing important in the scene except a square table, a piece of pizza, and two characters whose deep and abiding love I had come to be deeply invested in.

All of the talk about the difficulties of feederism was powerfully made tangible by the scene where Jesse actually is lifted on the hydraulic lift. It's simple, but it speaks volumes to those who may never have actually ever seen before what daily life is like in these conditions.

Simple is good. This production is simply built, but carries in it worlds of complexities, and is certainly worth an evening of your time.

(Disclaimer: I was in attendance with an un-paid for ticket; not in exchange for this review, but on assignment for The Orange Hats.)

A History of the World

A timeline of the world using geotags of historical events on Wikipedia:

A History of the World in 100 Seconds from Gareth Lloyd on Vimeo.

The Euro-centrism is thoroughly unsurprising, particularly because of the fact that the dataset is ENGLISH Wikipedias, not all the wikipedias.

Today In Arts Subsidy News...

"California film tax credit program has generated $2.2 billion in spending, state says":
"This expenditure of limited tax dollars has brought back billions to the California economy and the public needs to know it," said Assembly member Anthony Portantino (D-La Canada-Flintridge), who held the hearing at Pasadena City Hall and has co-authored a bill to extend the film tax credits.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Radiation Levels

Randall Munroe of XKCD once again proves his worth to humanity by providing a GINORMOUS chart that puts different levels of radiation in perspective.

The Quaint History of Retouching pt.2

Wondermark's Malki continues the fascinating look at retouching:

The beauty of this work is not in the subject, but in the work itself. The sublime divinity that artists never could touch by rendering Christ or the saints or anybody else as a wax mannequin, unblemished by any earthly vulgarity, is warmly embraced when creating, as Lee says, “a beautiful picture out of an ugly man.”

Libya Update

If you want to really know what's going on in Libya, I highly suggest this interactive map. It really puts the vote on Friday to allow international military intervention into context.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Caucasian Chalk Circle Revisited

I reviewed Pipeline's Caucasian Chalk Circle here. The Orange Hats archived some response here:

(In case you don't know me, I'm the weak-voiced guy with the goatee and the trench-coat).

It's the last day of the show tomorrow, with two shows (that's six hours of Brecht!) that you should go see.

I saw it again on Thursday, and I don't have much to add to the review (they give a really consistent performance, so my review stands, although some elements were more solid and others were less so). But I do have some more things to say about my favorite play from my favorite playwright.


Every once in a while, people ask why nobody can write an overtly political play anymore. There's handwringing and it doesn't amount to much. But Brecht, when he was successful, understood how to write a political play. Here's my understanding of how he does it.

The initial main plot arc of Caucasian Chalk Circle is not set up to be a political arc: it's set up to be a boy-meets-girl plot arc. At each step in the way, the plot is progressed by a political event: The Governor is murdered, the city falls into chaos, he goes to war and she leaves with the baby.

At no point are these two political characters: they don't have political motives (he explicitly states that he has no idea why he has to go to war; she simply falls in love with the helpless babe). But at each point in the story, they are forced to deal with the ramifications of the chaos around them.

The second main plot arc (that of the rascal-judge Azdak) progresses in the same way -- person goes about their business, collides on the street with history, and is forced to make a decision in the face of it.

It's something that's relatable to those who don't live politics. Me, I read the news all over the internet, but I know plenty of people who don't really observe or live much beyond their own communities.

Now, what that might suggest is something like the political drama, where we watch a political life (e.g. Frost/Nixon, etc.), where politics unfolds but as an emotional study of the players involved.

Brecht takes a different tack. He keeps the players playing their lives, getting increasingly wrapped up in the greater political struggle -- but, separately, he keeps the plot arc of history running in the background. And the audience experiences the history in the same way that they experience the news -- either sporadic announcements when a huge change has happened, or characters stumbling across changes in history that have happened without them noticing.

Some characters don't get news updates. Some characters gossip about it during a funeral. At one point, the rascal Azdak makes a big scene on the assumption that one group of people are in charge, only to discover afterwards that he is completely wrong about the political situation. You don't need to have a political ideology to understand what politics means to the character onstage.

When characters make judgments on politics, it's less pronouncements of theory and more carping at the pub. Azdak, for instance, puts the entire political system on (mock) trial during his act; but it's as a joke, to impress soldiers and humiliate a pompous jackass and his rich Prince Uncle.

Hell, Brecht even manages to sneak in the economics of chaos during the play. What's inflation? It's when you want to buy a drop of milk, and it costs 3 piasters instead of half a piaster.


This time around, I couldn't stop thinking about Libya. You see, both Caucasian Chalk Circle and the news story around Libya is about what happens when a dictatorship pops. In both cases, people assume that there is a simple, two-sided battle for power.

In Caucasian Chalk Circle, it becomes very clear that once a country's organization falters, it is very easy for chaos to set in (as Azdak puts it, "If you don't treat the law with respect, it just disappears on you.") The Prince sets out to kill the Governor. He succeeds. Then the people go mad with power and kill a city judge. He has them punished and tries to put his nephew in place of the judge, but the soldiers put up their own judge instead. The Grand Duke reappears and has the Judge killed.

"Status Quo" is a situation wherein all of the powerful interests of a country are aligned, at least enough to preserve the overall structure of the country. In Caucasian Chalk Circle, the war in Persia strains the nation to the point that the Governor's selfish oblivion and the Grand Duke's mismanagement of the war takes those interests out of alignment. The course of the play starts with that moment, and ends about where the interests land on a new status quo.

People who try to take a side on all of the chaos are pretty much destroyed quickly enough. Every person who takes to the stage tries to align themselves with "the people" but as the play progresses, it becomes increasingly unclear who "the people" are, except for those who are too poor to be involved. When Azdak appeals to the soldiers, calling them "comrade" and hailing the achievement of "the people," he quickly discovers that it was not to be -- no matter what changes happened, "the people" would not be in charge.

How does it apply to Libya? I don't know, fully. I have a feeling that if we asked Brecht about the situation, he would shake his head sadly with a smile at the idea of a "No Fly Zone" or a limited intervention. Chaos is chaos, and with a complicated tribal system such as the one in Libya is difficult to reduce to a "Madman-vs.-the-people" narrative.

And next door, in Egypt, and in Tunisia; the people rose up, they drove out the men they disliked. Was it then a government of "The People"? Not exactly. In Egypt, a 40 year dictatorship has passed into an unelected military Junta. I'm not closing the door on a path to a democracy, I'm just observing that life gets complicated. It's complicated.

A brief note; me, my personal artistic aesthetic is to look for moments when something intangible (a political ideology, an emotion, a philosophy, a poem) becomes tangible and real on a gut level. I think that's the moment when theater really hits its audience, like electricity arcing through the air to form a connection.

In my last post on Caucasian Chalk Circle, I talked about how the scene by the river made the gulf between the soldier and the civillian tangible. This second viewing made me realize how the public hanging serves to make revolution tangible.

Anya Saffir's interpretation of the play included at a few crucial moments the hoisting of a stuffed puppet of the person most recently executed political figure. At one point, Azdak asks where the judge is, and the soldiers direct his attention to the judge, hanging upstage from the gallows. Azdak comments on the fact that a revolution is the only time a peasant can say, "Why, here is the judge! Here is the prince!" Because they are buried or hanged close at hand.

The public hanging is a ritual that we no longer really partake in. But there's one notable example: the bungled hanging of Saddam Hussein. It's a really chilling and tangible moment in the mess that is the Iraq War.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Quaint History of Retouching

David Malki of the fantastic comic Wondermark meditates on the history of retouching:
My own experience of professional retouchers has been most unsatisfactory. No matter how much I instruct them that all I want done is the removal of technical blemishes, they seem to think that unless they put a new skin on the sitter they have not earned their money. To me this is simply maddening, for I am simple enough to hold the opinion that the one thing in which photography excels is the rendering of texture, and that the man does not live who can come within a thousand miles of the camera in that respect. Now, the human skin is a wonderful bit of work, and the greatest painters spend a lifetime in a vain effort to be able merely to suggest it. So when I see a man priding himself on being a first-class retoucher, because in a few minutes he can simply annihilate the marvelous work of the lens, I feel he is so small mentally that I ought to consider him as nonexistent.

I think I have said enough to impress on the reader the idea that every stroke of the pencil on a negative is more apt to be productive of evil than good, and that the only legitimate occasion for retouching is to correct such technical defects as pin holes caused by dust or airbells, or to remove such natural blemishes as freckles, which are often invisible to the eye, but are rendered very distinct in the photograph, on account of photography being a defective art so far as the rendering of colors is concerned.


Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting from SomeofmyWork™ on Vimeo.

By the way, I always notice when I get a bit of arts news or arts something from a non-art source. This is from The Big Picture, a noted Economics blog.

Adam Symkowicz

Adam interviews playwrights. He's interviewed 325. He has noticed a problem:
Women are not getting back to me with their interviews in the same numbers men are. I understand that playwrights are a busy people. If you didn't get back to me this is not me chastising you. It's just something I noticed. Also, when people approach me to suggest playwrights to interview, I get two male playwright suggestions for every one woman.
And he has a simple solution:
This is all I ask--try to give me two women for every one man you give me. Just try. And just in general, make a conscious effort to advocate for women. Thanks.

Europe Keeps Pissing On Our Standards

The EU is apparently strongly discouraging magnetic strips on credit cards and bans unauthorized cookies.

The title of this post is more the histrionic view that I would take if I were a Daily Mail reader, but seriously -- at a certain point, the US and EU are going to have to coordinate on standards. I'm already pissed about GSM and CDMA.

Women Characters

The discussion they have here is not just pertinent to video games:

Social Network 2.0

A really fascinating presentation from a former Google and now Facebook developer who's thinking about the failures and weaknesses of the current social network model, and dreaming about how to improve it.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Information in the Noisiest System pt. 2

Bottom line:
So Psychology Wiki is corrected, he has a new Wikipedia entry, and the Penguin dictionary is... still floating around with its misinformation. Can't blame "the internet" any more.

The Saga Continues

What's leaving Spiderman?
The producers also want to cut “Deeply Furious,” which has been widely denounced by theater critics.
What else is replacing it?
Additional flying sequences are being considered...
Well, at least it's clear that they're reading their reviews.


CNBC's Larry Kudlow really hits the take-away of this Japan crisis:
“The human toll here looks to be much worse than the economic toll, and we can be grateful for that.”
(h/t Officials Say The Darndest Things)

Friday, March 11, 2011

Arts Subsidies: Film pt 3

Not worth subsidizing: NPR.

Worth subsidizing: Battle: Los Angeles.

So sayeth American Conventional Wisdom.

Video of the Day III

Somehow I have a feeling that this empassioned plea on behalf of the National Endowment of the Humanities is falling on deaf ears:

Video of the Day II

Trey Parker and Matt Stone on The Book Of Mormon:

Some interesting points:
  1. Jon Stewart points out that this is the first time he's been able to hold up a Playbill as the promo item. Although Mary Poppins was on Conan's Tonight Show, and Fela was on Stephen Colbert, it's interesting to note.
  2. Trey Parker & Matt Stone note resistance to the musical in film (which is odd, considering the increasing success of musical movies).
  3. Trey Parker & Matt Stone also say they were treated with suspicion -- particularly because of the expectation that it wouldn't uphold "real musicals". Must not have seen Cannibal! The Musical.

Video of the Day I

First video of the day: the original reporting of the Ronald Reagan shooting in 1981:

What I find interesting about the way they're talking about the shooting is that although "more could have been done," the former Secret Service agent seems alright admitting that it wouldn't be practical.

After the Kennedy shooting, after the Reagan shooting, after the Giffords shooting, the question is raised, "Could we do more?" But where Politicians are involved, we also ask, "Should we do more?"

Not the same way we respond to other national security incidents.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Phrase of the Day

Pyrrhic Victory; a victory with a devastating cost to the victor. Carries the implication that another such victory will cause defeat.

Ex: "The Washington Post says that Governor Walker 'won' the battle over collective bargaining rights, but I have a suspicion that it will be a pyrrhic victory."

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Kansas State Senate Bails Out Arts...Temporarily

Hey, remember Sam Brownback? It turns how he's a governor now, and it turns out he's after the arts:
TOPEKA — Senate leaders say Gov. Sam Brownback’s order to abolish the Kansas Arts Commission may have been hastily made and there may be enough votes in the Senate to reject it.

“His intentions were good,” Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, said of Brownback’s proposal.
Well, that's reassuring.

Another Bite For Spidey ctd.

Julie Taymor, maybe gone, maybe gone, maybe gone. And the show is bumped again.


Monday, March 7, 2011

Melissa Lusk!

I need to give a well-earned shout-out to Melissa Lusk, the talented and beautiful songstress who played at our company's fundraiser. Check this out:

You might recognize the tall gentleman who I featured before with his band Teen Girl Scientist Monthly.

Another Bite For Spidey

Man, of all the publications I thought I'd be reading about Spiderman's misfortunes, I didn't expect to be reading about it in Fedblog, the unofficial blog for federal employees.

Still, since the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is doling out a $12,000 fine for workplace safety violations, it seems appropriate.

(UPDATE: Okay, somehow I got it into my head that Fedblog - and its parent enterprise, Government Executive Magazine - was an official venture of a federal employee's union. Ian Thal corrected me, and I have corrected this.)

Review: Caucasian Chalk Circle

March 5-19
Wednesday through Saturday at 8pm
Sundays at 3pm
Saturday March 19th at 2pm & 8pm
photo: ahron foster

Brecht is my hero. Although I find him very difficult to pull off, I think the epic scope of his best works can be put alongside William Shakespeare any day. And I'm gratified that Pipeline Theatre has put on a thoroughly ambitious production -- a production with serious balls.

Caucasian Chalk Circle is one of Brecht's most broadly-scoped works. The vast majority is a play-within-a-play; the story is a folk song being performed upon the evening of the resolution of a communist dispute in Russia, where one clan has ceded their precious home to another clan who have incredible futurist plans for the valley -- a seemingly straightforward Communist morality tale about giving up the old ways for the new advances heralded by the people.

The ballad itself tells the story of Grusha Vashnadze (Maura Hooper), a young maid in the court of Governor Georgi Abashvili (Alex Mills) and his wife (Jacquelyn Landgraf). When Governor Georgi Abashvili is killed by the Fat Prince (Matthew Hanson) and a coup begins, everything descends into chaos -- during which, the Governor's Wife forgets her child, the heir to her estate. Grusha takes the child, and flees the city, pursued by the military, nearly dying in the process of getting the child to safety. She is engaged to Simon Shashava (Ronald Peet), but in the process of trying to get a home for her child, winds up married to an invalid days away from death. But she can't stay in hiding with the baby for long...

Theater for the New City affords a massive space for the production, and they stretch to fill the space. The set by Eric Southern and the original music by composer Cormac Bluestone (played by a very capable live band that includes some of the actors) creates a big playing space for the actors to fill with this huge performance.

Sometimes, some of the cast struggle to fill that vast container; usually, however, the performance is seamless -- it affords the most dynamic actors room to be performative and wild without seeming out-of-place. This is particularly true of the incidental parts such as Alex Mills as the Invalid, or John Early and Brian Maxsween as a constantly recurring comic duo who are a joy to see onstage together.

What makes the production a success, however, is not the broad strokes of the ambitious and epic design -- although the challenge that the three hour time-span, important and known work, and large design provides is quite a boost -- but it's a genuine adherence to the humanity of the characters involved.

Now, that might sound like an insult when talking about a piece of Brecht. After all, the great man supposedly spurned 'emotion' in favor of 'intellect'.

But late in Brecht's life, he recanted on the so-called "Epic" theater for which he is known in favor of a "Dialectic" theater that he said would unite the "Epic" and "Aristotelian" elements of theater in a stronger unity. Unfortunately, that's just about when he died, so what exactly the "dialectic" theater was supposed to be is left to people like me to speculate about wildly.

Yet, if you look at Brecht's existing works (like Caucasian Chalk Circle, for instance) the bridging of those two worlds -- one rejecting empathy in favor of intellect and artifice, the other embracing emotion and a more visceral engagement -- is possible. And this is where Pipeline's production succeeds, particularly in two strong moments that are carried on the back of their excellent actors.

The first is a key scene where Simon Shashava has returned from the war, only to find out that Grusha is already married. During the scene, they are separated by a river; rather than attempting to explain to each other what has passed, Brecht chooses to have the Singer (Michael R. Piazza) sing the song of what they wanted to say but couldn't, directly to the audience.

In Maura and Ronald's performance, there's no denying how incredibly moving the scene is. Even with the theatrical gimmick of songs directed at the audience, it's still an empathetic moment. At the same time, the clear global dimension of the song struck me with crystal clarity: it's not just about a soldier and his betrothed, it's a song between those who saw the horrors of war and cannot understand civilian life, and those who stayed behind who cannot explain the travails of being alone at home. Brecht can't resist the visual pun -- an actual gulf between them, rather than just the metaphorical one -- and somehow that brings together the universal and the personal in one moment.

The other moment that the play highlights, particularly through Cormac Bluestone's score, is the insanity that is Azdak (Gil Zabarsky). Azdak is an intelligent rascal, a rogue with a sense of humor and a lightning fast wit, who in the chaos surrounding the coup manages to get himself appointed city judge. During the vacuum of power and chaos, Azdak creates his own rules, but rather than you'd expect, he uses corruption, bribery, and a loose interpretation of the law to pass an imperfect, ad hoc, drunk justice to the people. It isn't the justice we're used to cheering -- it is every bit as fallible and capricious as corrupt and greedy justice -- and yet he is undeniably a true saint.

Azdak is compelling because it's impossible to separate his good qualities from his bad qualities; watching Gil Zabarsky navigate that from moment to moment is a real joy.

Sometimes the play is too big for its own britches; the beginning, for instance, could use some relaxing, as it is full of poignant pauses and dramatic weight far beyond its importance to the plot. But it's much more exhilarating to watch a company aim high and succeed as much as they do. For $15, where else are you going to get a faithful, intelligent, and ballsy performance of Caucasian Chalk Circle?

(Disclaimer: The FCC requires me to disclose that my ticket was provided for free. As usual, however, I don't have to say anything about how I would let just about anyone on this cast bear my children. Such is life.)

How You Get Found

What I love about Ken Davenport's blog is that it really is delightfully honest about how things work uptown. For instance, he recounts today about how he found himself in the audience of an off-off-Broadway show.

Here's the thought process:
  1. What a great title and presentation! Sounds interesting. Not going to see it.
  2. Someone whose opinion I really trust is big on this show. Not going to see it.
  3. The show was a big financial success in Seattle and has great reviews. Not going to see it.
  4. The Edge went to see it. Now you have my attention.
So, there's the lesson for you kids: it's not about how good your work is, it's about your ability to get The Edge to buy tickets.

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Danger of #winning

I decide to leave ESPN, start my own blog and charge $10 per year for anyone to read my column. Just for fun -- again, it's hypothetical! -- let's say one million readers sign up, guaranteeing me $10 million for that first year (2007). And let's say I sign advertising deals with three sponsors for another $2 million apiece, raising my total haul to $16 million for Year 1. I spend the next 12 months writing and pinching myself for my good fortune. Life is good.

Fast-forward to December 2007. I just learned something about myself. I don't like it. I know it's wrong. I can't shake it. I can't deny it. See, I really, really like money. Even if I never imagined making $16 million in my lifetime, much less for a single year, I now find myself smitten by those dollar signs. How much more can I make? How high can this go? Someday, I want my financial adviser to cackle and say, "Good Lord, I don't even know what to do with all this cash flow." That's what I want.

Hence, I need to raise the total value of my "franchise." I build a more sophisticated website, pay for designers and extra bandwidth, then hire a team of writers and editors to work for me. That creates $2 million in expenses for Year 2, which I pay off by finding a fourth sponsor. In order to cover these additional expenses, I'm "forced" to raise the 2008 subscription fee to $25. (That's what I tell my idiot readers.) This time around, only 700,000 readers sign up. Between sponsors and subscribers, I am still guaranteed a total haul of $23.5 million for Year 2. Profit. This is good. I am showing "growth." Even as I slowly antagonize my audience.

By the end of Year 2, I have the hottest sports website on the Internet. Everyone wants to work for me for the visibility and prestige, and also because I share revenue with employees (they get salaries plus a small piece of everything I am pulling in). An overload of potential sponsors allows me to jack my rates and pocket $30 million in ad revenue for Year 3. But you know what? I love the smell of money. I can't get enough of it. Sometimes I go to the bank, withdraw a wad of $100 bills, throw it on my desk, lean my face over it and smell the pile like cookies baking in an oven. I can't get enough. I am insatiable. I need more.

For Year 3, I limit subscriptions to 300,000, then sell "personal subscription licenses." For an upfront fee of $200, a reader would purchase the right to subscribe for 10 years -- a decade-long contract of sorts -- at whatever price I charge. Did you catch those last five words? At whatever price I charge. How stupid are these people?

Here's the thing -- it's comforting to imagine that this is greed because of self-interested money. But imagine falling into exactly this cyclical trap because you wanted to grow?

The same thing can happen to non-profits, or to any form of business. You want to grow, grow, grow. What are you willing to do to grow?

What am I willing to do to grow?

Subconscious Headline: Military Values the Arts

Nicholas Kent writes in the Guardian about putting on The Great Game for US Central Command.

Go read it yourself, but it is an inspiring story of the arts having a valued place in the US Military.

(h/t Playgoer)

Helen Mirren Wants to Play Hamlet

So says she to the Guardian.

You know, our female Hamlet could be a very young Helen Mirren... anyways, if Helen Mirren would like to play Hamlet, let Organs of State be the first company to offer her the role.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Sanity Watch: No One Has Died In The Air

No airline fatalities in three straight years. Oh, and would you believe that might have something to do with capable airline regulators?

Mike Daisey's Gambit

Performance artist Mike Daisey's show at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, "The Last Cargo Cult," started with the attendees being handed US currency (notes ranging from $1 to $100) as they came into the theatre. As Daisey's show drew to a close, he revealed that the money the audience had been given was the entire sum that the theatre was paying him to perform that night. He then asked the audience to give back some or all of the money based on their impression of the show -- and if they liked it enough, they were invited to give even more money back. At the end of the show, Daisey had not only made back all the money he'd given away, he'd also cleared $1,169.005 (yes, someone gave him half a penny!).
Not only is that gambit pretty fucking baller, but the source I read this in was, the so-called "Directory of Wonderful Things." It's basically as internet as internet comes -- the sort of tech geekery hub that is populated by people who'd rather be watching machinima steampunk short films on YouTube than go to the theater.

Sanity Watch: Federal Employees

Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) resurrects an old tradition:

When we take a big dump on the concept of Federal Government, we discourage those who actually try to do a good job. Like any good employer, we should be acknowledging those who do well.

How We Make Our Case IX: Class

Joshua Conkel's post about class in theater gets a round-up treatment at the Guardian.

Is the problem gatekeepers, though?
The next great playwrights aren't necessarily in Yale's MFA program right now. Sure, they might be. But you know what else? They're just as likely to be self-producing a play at The Brick. Or at Dixon Place. Or not even in New York at all.
The class problem, in my mind, has more to do with the economics of playwrighting and theater.

I'm going to level with you: you're not going to find a lot of working class people at The Brick either. Or at Dixon Place. I have a theater company, and I can only do it because I have a white-collar job right now and I come from a white collar family. I live as though I was working class because I sink so much of my money into the deep, dark hole that is theater, but I am by no means working class. The people who I know who are working class are not self-producing. I don't even know if they have enough time to submit their plays, they're working so hard.

Still, everything that Joshua writes stands.

How We Make Our Case VIII: Infrastructure

I've mentioned before that I think that direct government subsidy for the arts should take the role of investing in arts infrastructure, rather than individual arts groups -- much of which is already the case. I usually use the example of Fractured Atlas, who provide services that keep many arts groups in business in a much easier way than if they were on their own.

Launched five years ago, CLP has been supported by ACE, the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council and Creative and Cultural Skills. The programme’s aim has been to develop new leaders for the arts and culture sector, offering training courses and fellowships for promising individuals.

However, today CLP announced that “in consideration of today’s rapidly changing environment, where the arts council is operating with an overall cut to grant in aid of 29.6% and arts organisations are looking to extend their roles and responsibilities within the wider cultural landscape, it has been decided that the Cultural Leadership Programme will close in March 2011.”
In America, we want to support the helpless, but seem to not want to subsidize losers. That belief isn't just in the Rick Santellis of the world but even amongst our progressives.

Kevin Drum's criticism of arts funding, for instance, asked:
[H]ow do you know that the market for this kind of art has broken down? The fact that something is expensive and losing popularity doesn't, by itself, indicate a market breakdown. Just the opposite, in fact: we usually think of market breakdowns in areas where there's a lot of demand but, for some reason, the market isn't meeting it.
Often, our agitation for more arts funding is based on the idea that the market has broken down for the arts -- which it has, in a number of ways.

But supposing you didn't believe the market has broken down. In such an environment, spending money training talented entrepreneurs would still be a good investment. I don't think arts entrepreneurs are a special case, but I do think they might need arts-specific training. And it makes sense for that to be handled by an arts-specific agency.

In this ideal world I'm envisaging, young artists (maybe specifically those from backgrounds where they wouldn't have access to expensive college programs or internships at Lincoln Center, whether that be because of background or geography, or maybe equal access) could be trained to increase the odds that they'll be successful at running arts programs.

It sidesteps all the issues of censorship, the idea of subsidizing "things people don't want," etc.

It's an investment in human capital, which is the real infrastructure of the arts.

Spiderman Hathos Continues

The Spiderman hathos rolls on, following Julie Taymor to the TED Conference:
“Anyone who creates knows — when it’s not quite there,” Ms. Taymor, a Tony Award winner for the blockbuster musical “The Lion King,” said. “Where it hasn’t quite become the phoenix or the burnt char. And I am right there.” The producers of “Spider-Man,” along with Ms. Taymor and her co-creators, U2’s Bono and the Edge, are now deciding whether to open the musical as scheduled on March 15, or delay the opening for a sixth time to continue making changes to the script, music, direction, and other elements of the show. Bono attended Tuesday night’s performance of “Spider-Man,” his first viewing since mid-January, to inform his opinion about opening or delaying. Ms. Taymor is to fly back to New York shortly. The production is expected to announce this week that opening night is confirmed for March 15 or will be delayed.
A few things.

Firstly, anyone else think it's weird to have Julie Taymor talking at the TED Conference while she's in the middle of figuring out how big a disaster her current disaster is? She addressed TED earlier, in happier times... I guess they just don't rescind membership in that elite club.

Secondly, delaying opening again? Sometimes I have this horrible daydream where Spiderman breaks Phantom of the Opera's record for performances, without ever opening.

Alcohol pt. IV: Pints for Pints

It turns out not everyone is comfortable with the monetizing value of alcohol:
A Clinton Hill brewer who was set to generate gallons in blood donations by giving away pints of his beer as an incentive was snubbed at the last minute by blood bureaucrats who questioned the “taste” of his alcohol-fueled initiative.

For the second time in as many years, the New York Blood Center pulled out of a much-hyped Kelso of Brooklyn blood drive, citing a policy that forbids using “alcohol as a donor incentive.”

“It’s so puritanical,” said Kelly Taylor, the brewmaster who hatched the plan, but now must leave Brooklyn do-gooders high and dry. “It’s not like I’m trading blood for crack.”

The March 4 drive was simple enough: Give a pint of your blood; get a coupon for a pint of Taylor’s craft brew. But that concept was apparently too edgy for honchos at the blood center, who told Taylor in a last-minute phone call on Monday that the exchange is “in bad taste” and “a liability.”

“We have to be careful about what kind of ‘thank-yous’ can be given,” said Jim Fox, a spokesperson for the center. “There’s some sensitivity surrounding alcohol because 25 percent of our donations come from high schools.”

The trouble started during a “blood emergency” two years ago, when Taylor launched the “Beer Helps” promo. The Blood Center signed on, but backed down after a prominent local paper made — gasp! — a joke about how easy it was to get a beer buzz with depleted veins.
Ah yes. I forgot that some organizations aren't so desperate for cash that they can turn aside the lure to charge full throated into the promotion of alcohol. (Previous thoughts here, here, here, and here)

Tobacco Warehouse pt. 3

St. Anne's vs. the local community continues in court:
BROOKLYN — The New York Landmarks Conservancy, the Brooklyn Heights Association (BHA), and the Fulton Ferry Landing Association went back to court Tuesday on the Tobacco Warehouse issue.

They filed an amended complaint to their federal lawsuit challenging the recent decision by the National Park Service to allow the state Parks Department to remove the 19th century Tobacco Warehouse from federal park protection, allowing for the now-roofless warehouse’s development into a theater by the performing arts group St. Ann’s Warehouse.

The warehouse, whose roof was removed after it was destabilized by fire, is a popular venue for parties, performances and concerts during the warmer months. St. Ann’s Warehouse’s plans would put a roof on the structure, an idea that the BHA opposes.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Kurt Weill's 111th

Rob thinks the "obvious" choice of a YouTube video to embed to celebrate Kurt Weill's 111th Birthday is Rise & Fall of the City of Mahagonny.

Au contraire: the more obvious choice is "Mack the Knife":

Kurt Weill + Bertold Brecht + Lotte Lenya = Gold.

For those of you who want to understand the lyrics, Louis Armstrong:

That being said, Rise & Fall of the City of Mahagonny is probably the better choice.