Thursday, November 29, 2012

ARTS NEWS: Freelancer Medical Center

Fractured Atlas is one option for health insurance, but another option is the Freelancer's Union. I actually have a day job that provides me with health insurance, but for those who don't, those are two options. I haven't done any compare/contrast between the two -- I'd love to hear from recipients of both.

Here in New York, the Freelancer's Union has kicked their healthcare up a notch, via Only The Blog Knows Brooklyn:

Thanks to Horowitz’s vision, Freelancers Medical is open to FIC enrollees, offering primary care as well as preventative and personal wellness programs (guided meditation, yoga, mental health services, and nutrition counseling). 
Very smart to have preventative health and wellness programs 
“I’m thrilled to launch Freelancers Medical, our new cutting-edge healthcare program with a dedicated primary care practice in the heart of Brooklyn,” said Horowitz and quoted in a recent press release. 
“Forty-two million of the nation’s most innovative, entrepreneurial workers struggle to cover their basic healthcare needs because they’re freelancers, and don’t have the luxury of work-sponsored health insurance. That’s why we’re harnessing the growing market power of the independent workforce and re-imagining what healthcare can and should be for new economy workers.” 
At Freelancers Medical’s primary care practice, patients can expect:
–No co-pay
–Free Wi-Fi
–Access to doctors and health coaches by phone, text, email, and Skype
–Free workshops onsite focused on health, wellness, and prevention, including healthy cooking classes, smoking cessation programs, meditation, yoga, acupuncture, and ergonomics.

PLUG: Createquity Office Hours/

If you read my blog, chances are you read Ian Moss + co.'s fantastic art policy blog Createquity. (If not -- what's wrong with your life! Go fix it!). So I probably don't have to tell you again that Createquity has office hours on December 6th. I will just say that I have RSVP'd for it, so -- yeah, come chat.

ALSO. If you click the RSVP link, you will see one of the slickest RSVP/order interfaces I have ever seen! That's, which is a service for not only selling tickets / managing reservations, but also managing your audience. Check it out!

(It's a project of Fractured Atlas, so it's yet another good thing Adam Huttler's team has brought into the world... and another reason he should be NEA chair! I don't care what you say about your chances, Adam!)

Sunday, November 25, 2012

POLITICS: The Next NEA Chair

Barry Hessenius has some good questions for selecting the next NEA chair. He also has some names for possibilities for the next chair. I want to loudly second one of his endorsements:

Adam Huttler - an innovator’s voice - his of the next generation of arts leaders and his appointment would signal a new era at the agency.
Absolutely, absolutely, absolutely, seconded and thirded.

I've talked at length about how one of the ways we can reform the NEA to answer its critics is to shift its focus away from direct subsidy and towards arts infrastructure. Read that post if you want to follow my logic, but I really strongly, strongly believe it. And the big inspiration for that thinking is Fractured Atlas. One organization does far, far more to support thousands of arts organizations across the country -- by providing tangible infrastructure for many smaller arts organizations to exist.
Putting forward someone who can make the argument that the government can help artists without making them dependent, who can multiply the value of the dollar of the government, and can find new models of support -- I really believe it would change the framing of this zero-sum argument we've been struggling with for so long.

PRAGMATIC: On The Need for Communal Experiences

As the need for communal experience increases in our increasingly ala carte world, it is worth noting that the play is no longer the thing. The thing, as it were, is the experiencing of the play with other people.
Although I agree that we've created a theatrical culture that does not foster communal experiences, and I agree that live performance is exactly the sort of forum for that communal experience that people are hungering for, and I even agree that the experience of the play with other people is an important part of that -- I don't think we should give up on live performance.

But we would need to change it.

I think I've said this before, but if you want your arts to be communal, you need to think about the different ways people participate in the arts. I think the future of theater is interactivity.

Américana Passover, the show I recently closed, represents the second of my theater company's productions committed to this principle. And the results are striking. One of my audience members told me, "I was trying to imagine what a piece of theater would be that needed its audience, and this was it.

From one review
The dinner table is an intimate, comfortable place. However, be prepared for some fearless questions that demand fearless, honest answers.
Among the most captivating of the night’s events were the topics of conversation I found myself discussing with my seat mate. As a New Yorker, I often keep my walls up and avoid interactions with strangers at all costs. Sharing deep, personal details with a random stranger that circumvented all polite chitchat felt like a cathartic way to spend an evening.
Our approach is to create a space, within which there is a performance, and simultaneously within which there is the ability to share the experience around (and through) the performance.

I will try to break down some specifics from within Américana Passover over a few upcoming posts, but for now let me just say -- performance can still be that communal focus points. But we can't turn out the lights and tell everyone to shut up and expect that to happen.

Friday, November 23, 2012

RESPONSE: On The Appropriate Use of German in Children's Theater Reviews

The centrality of the holiday to the childhood Weltanschauung is neatly encapsulated in the synthetic holiday jingle concocted for the musical by Mr. Pasek and Mr. Paul, which is remorselessly reprised: “It All Comes Down to Christmas.”
-- Charles Isherwood, review of A Christmas Story. I hope the harried mothers looking for something to do this holiday seasons took Philosophy 201...

Sunday, November 18, 2012

RESPONSE: The Killing Joke

Not to horn in on Parabasis territory, but having never been a comic/graphic novel person in my youth, and now having a sister who is amongst other things a comic writer and illustrator, I decided that it was time for me to start giving myself a rudimentary education.

I started with the Alan Moore/Brian Bolland collaboration Batman: The Killing Joke. The image of the Joker as presented is interesting, although the flashbacks to Joker's past don't quite add up to what I was hoping it would get into -- the philosophical sketch that Alan Moore places at the center, that a madman is only separated from a normal man by "one bad day" is interesting but not the meatiest.

What struck me, however, is really Brian Bolland's treatment of the Joker's face. The Carrot-Top-like young comedian, and the manic, brutal face of the murderer-rapist Joker are fantastic opposites -- but the moments where they blur between the two are just visually interesting. Seeing as The Killing Joke really is, more than anything, a portrait, I feel like Bolland really delivered the visual equivalent of that.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

HUMOR: The Musical, Gangam Style

James Fallows uncovers the true roots of Gangam Style: Agnes De Mille and Aaron Copland.

PRAGMATIC: Can Getrude Stein be Staged?

I went and saw a show adapted from Gertrude Stein's Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights recently. And a few years ago I saw another staged piece adapted from Gertrude Stein (I can't remember the source work on that one, but I know that the latter wasn't adapted for the stage). In both cases, I was led to ask -- can Gertrude Stein be successfully staged?

It may very well be able to, as a sample size of 2 is not enough for me to make a bold pronouncement. But both of the Gertrude Stein staged works made me question whether it's possible, or at least advisable.

Gertrude Stein's text in Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights is repetitive and circular, ad nauseum. The sentences explore sound and language, and the patterning of words, but the play is so abstract as to leave the performer at a loss. As poetry -- even performed poetry -- it makes absolute sense, but the attempt to overlay character on top of it rebels against the language's deconstruction.

Living human beings don't say the sort of things that Gertrude Stein imagines. It's the language of thought, the language of logic, but it's not tied to the physical realm of language. It reminds me of the passage in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy where the computer Deep Thought deduces the existence of everything from rice pudding to income tax before even being plugged in to its data banks. The ideas spin around and around each other, trying to develop, all the while exhibiting a language structure on the level of an esoteric Dr. Seuss.

So, I open it up to the mob: have you seen Gertrude Stein performed as a theatrical production in a way that has conquered the language?

REVIEW: Obskene

HERE Arts Center
Talking Band
November 1-17th

The intellectual crux of Obskene is in the title: Ob-skene, the Greek term for off-stage, is where the worst parts of Greek Drama happened - the blood, the guts, the sex, and everything else. Because cooking children and feeding them to their parents is not the sort of thing you would put on-stage (for practical and puritanical reasons), those events -- which were often the most crucial parts of the story -- would happen off-stage. Somehow, that word also became "obscene", describing the sort of content that happens off-stage.

Obskene is not an obscene performance. You might forget that, though, as your stomach turns and you cringe away from what you're hearing. It's also theatrical-and-not-theatrical, an interesting balance as it probes the relationship between the seen and the unseen.

Obskene is really two performances, linked through their relation to the whole, but otherwise self-sufficient moments. It's not like two one-act plays; both of them are meditations on the theme, mostly in the form of monologues.

(photo: Discovering Oz)
The first part is a series of adapted monologues from the great Greek tragedies: Medea, Bacchae, Suppliant Women, Hyppolytus, Clytemnestra, and the Roman Thyestes. The selection from each work follows the same format: a Messenger (Paul Zimet), runs into the a sparsly laid out scene (one table, one chair, and a background of stars), and declaims a horrible event which he has witnessed off-stage -- Clytemnestra butchering her husband and having sex amongst the blood, Hippolytus dragged into a bloody mess by his wild horses, the Bacchants tearing apart Pentheus' body piece by piece, etc.

The form of the original tragedies is that these monologues by the Messengers would come at the climax of the play, surrounded by a drama of characters and politics. Here, the monologues come as climax after climax, becoming a sustained anti-climax; a rush of words that strain to shock and disgust but can sometimes blur into an undifferentiated stream of violence.

Between the moments of monologue, however, the other Messenger (Ellen Maddow) is preparing some sort of stew, mostly by sawing through raw meat with a knife. And it's here that the actual obscenity strikes; when Ellen Maddow's Messenger tells the story of Atreus slaughtering and cooking his twin brother's children, and feeding it to them, she reaches a point where Atreus delights in his crime and only wishes that his brother knew what it was that he was eating. Then, here eyes alight down, and we see the meat -- which has been horrifically torn at until this point, and you can't help but have your stomach turn.

(photo: Discovering Oz)

The second part, also a series of monologues, takes the format of a bustling news room, with people on the phone and on radios trying to get detail about a dizzying myriad of stories, which are presented through monologues to the audience. Most of these monologues take the format of news stories, written by Marcus Gardley, John Jesurun, Ellen Maddow, Deb Margolin, Lizzie Olesker, and Paul Zimet.

Most of these news stories are on the level of serious Onion News Stories, falling flat the way many hypothetical future news broadcasts seem to -- making a joke out of today's controversial issues by proposing a future that doesn't make sense from today's current state. For example, John Jesurun's monologues "Mexican States" brings broadcasts from four Mexican states on the US border that have given up in the face of drug violence and chaos, and have demanded annexation by the United States.

The real achilles heel of these stories is their abstract notion, and it's here that a few of the monologues break out. Particularly, the monologue written by Paul Zimet, "It's Hot Out There", paints a horrifying and devastating picture of New York after rising world temperatures have made the US almost impossible to inhabit. On the abstract level, it's just as full of implausibilities -- birds that fall out of the sky fully cooked -- but the focus is on tangible imagery, vibrantly rendered by the Reporter (Chinaza Uche).

The difference between those stories is best illustrated by Ellen Maddow's monologues "Special Zone", which begins as a matter of fact story about a "Special Zone", separate but equal, being established in a Supreme Court ruling authored by Justice Antonin Scalia (haw haw is there nothing he won't do) where those who wish to marry animals are consigned. As the monologues progress, however, it transforms from a reporter's dry and abstract story, to an up-close view of a woman whose love for her boa constrictor will never be returned, and will eventually lead to her being swallowed up. The Reporter (Anastasia Olowin) follows that arc, and becomes just as wrapped up in it all -- and the results are heartbreaking.

Lastly, another fine example is David Greenspan's haunting "AVery Exciting Study", which aptly closes the evening, telling the story of a scientific advance from the perspective of the lab animals whose spines were cut to facilitiate the testing. (Perhaps for me it was made more poignant by recent events). Again, the focus is not on the abstraction of the events, but on their tangible outcomes, rendered simply and rivetingly by John Kurzynowski.

In the end, the performance is not about any of the horrifying stories we hear, or the stories which fall short of being horrifying. It's a reflection on the act of telling the story.

It's a very important problem to crack right now, because as our world population gets larger and larger, and our fates get increasingly interconnected, the suffering out there. In the weeks after Hurricane Sandy, and the big gaps in people's experience of the same event, it seems more crucial than ever that we figure out how to actually transmit tragedy. 

And we do it through tangible descriptions. That's what the loss of international reporting creates -- a lack of on-the-ground, tangible reporting. Take, for example, Edward R. Murrow's visceral reporting from Buchenwald at the end of World War Two:

In another part of the camp they showed me the children, hundreds of them. Some were only 6 years old. One rolled up his sleeves, showed me his number. It was tattooed on his arm. B-6030, it was. The others showed me their numbers. They will carry them till they die. An elderly man standing beside me said: “The children — enemies of the state!” I could see their ribs through their thin shirts....
(I chose one of the least visceral passages, and yet you can still feel it.) This is the visceral power that the Greco-Roman tragedy has:
When with the victims he has satisfied himself, he is now free to prepare his brother’s banquet. With his own hands he cuts the body into parts, severs the broad shoulders at the trunk, an the retarding arms, heartlessly strips off the flesh and severs the bones; the heads only he saves, and the hands that had been given to him in pledge of faith. 
And is absent from most modern reporting:
CAIRO — The Egyptian transportation minister resigned Saturday after 49 children were killed on their way to school in southern Egypt in a collision between their bus and a train.
The state-run news agency said a total of 51 people died in all in the accident near Mandara village in Assiut province. Another 16 were injured. 

There is an undeniable down-side to the visceral, tangible reportage: the allure of sensationalism, blowing thing out of proportion. But if a train tragedy is reduced to a math problem, it can dull our ability to feel and connect to them.

So what, then, is obscene? It's a tired trope to point out that it's not words. It's not the seven words you can't say on television and it's not saying the word vagina in a state house.

But if Obskene proves anything, it's that words can be obscene: they can carry the tangible, present weight of obscene acts; they can conjure them and make them real and bring a power of violence into being that is, in fact, difficult to stomach. It does not mean that we cannot say them, but they can bring that violence into a space. (See also: CK, Louis).

The form of the production, as directed and arranged by Tina Shepard, is adept at highlighting this -- through the moments of failure as well as the moments of success. For there are definitely times where performers fail to get across a tangible, reified understanding of tragedy or pain. And then there are moments where you can hear the snap of a rat's spinal cord, and where you can sit with the pain as it tries and fails to understand why.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

PRODUCING: On The Virtues of Good Data

Every year, I have to file a report for Fractured Atlas on how my company spends its money. The difficulty is that, up until now, the labels for our expenses don't necessarily align with how Fractured Atlas categorizes expenditures. So my previous process for putting this together was a long, multi-step process of going through the various budgets (which at the time were per-show) and hacking them together to calculate what Fractured Atlas needed to know.

Frankly, I was sick of being frustrated and annoyed by the reporting process (and the tax filing process), so I decided to re-design all of my data. Instead of all these different spreadsheets, I created one big spreadsheet that included all of the raw data for expense with the appropriate FA and Tax codes, across all of my different shows and administrative.

Then, I uploaded it to a cool web-based analytic tool called Explore Analytics, and used it to put together charts like the one above.

  1. Rather than having to put together Excel formulas for each purpose, or copying-pasting from among a number of different spreadsheets, I just create one spreadsheet and use an easy, web-based interface to put it together.
  2. Because it's a web-based tool, it's really easy for me to publish charts like the one above -- including embedding it in this blog.
  3. If I suddenly want to look at the same data in another way, it's very quick for me to do:

Now that my latest show is done, I'm leveraging this for our internal show reports, but this time I am going to share some of that data (the kind that I can share) here.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

POLITICS: Election 2012

Not going to tell you to vote, or who to vote for: if you're anywhere on the internet, you'll already have heard that roughly once per second every second you've been online.

I will, however, say that while I was waiting in line to vote (a two hour process) I did some research on my local candidates, and the only thing that was particularly interesting was this video, of a local Civil Court judge running for re-election:

Please vote. it makes a difference in peoples' lives.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

PRODUCING: The Show Must Go On, II

The New York Innovative Theater Foundation has put together a list of cancellations and postponements, as well as statuses on a few venues that need help.

PRODUCING: The Ethics of "The Show Must Go On"

It's been a week now since the MTA shut down the subway system in preparation for Hurricane Sandy, and the events of the last week have led me to wonder the wisdom and ethics of the phrase, "The Show Must Go On."

Here's why.

CASE ONE - The Show Must Go On. Get There?

I have a friend who is working on a show. (I'm not going to call them out -- in fact I know multiple sets of people on different shows for whom this applies). Because they were going to perform the week after Hurricane Sandy, they decided they still needed the rehearsals. Despite the fact that, for most of the week, there were no trains in or out of Brooklyn.

So they held them, and some of the actresses had to walk the Manhattan Bridge to get home.

(another, non-theater anecdote: a friend of mine with a restaurant job was told in no uncertain terms that she was expected to be at work the day after the hurricane (at which point it wasn't even clear that the horrifying replacement buses would be available). Cabs would be reimbursed for groups of two or more employees, but other employees would have to pay for their own.)

Now, my heart warms that performers are so game that if their director says, "Hey, you know what, you need to get to rehearsal," they go. But how fair is it for the director to put them in that position?

My approach was to cancel the performances I was running that week, and to keep canceling them until  such time as there was a subway that ran to the venue. And when that subway was announced (the beautiful, beautiful, 4/5 line) I rode it myself to see whether it really was running along its schedule, or whether it had delays.

CASE TWO - The Show Must Go On. With or Without You?

Stickier, unfortunately, was the fact that once travel was restored within Manhattan/Brooklyn, it was not yet restored between Manhattan/Jersey. Now, most of our audience were within the New York City area, and thus were able to get access, but one of our cast was stuck in Jersey. 

Since our work is largely improvised and interactive, it was technically feasible to resume the show. Because of limitations on the space (and other limitations: see below), we decided we'd have to move forward without the actress.

It seems bizarre and unpleasant to continue the show without a person integral to the performance. But in this case, I had to weigh that against not having those performances at all, and in the end it seemed like the smaller price to pay.

CASE THREE - The Show Must Go On. Indefinitely?

Of course, I had another option, which was to keep scheduling shows further and further into the month. But I decided that I couldn't do it. The performers that work with me were working from early August through early November, and their contracts said that they were done working with me on November 4th. For me to take even another week would mean rescheduling, fighting between different commitments (work, other projects, schooling) that weren't planned around.

After talking with the cast, it seemed that one week would be manageable, though not easy. And although at the end of the day I wouldn't be able to make up for every performance I lost, it felt to me that was all I could reasonably ask to them.


I felt like I was navigating in the dark on each of these decisions. Some theaters were dark, simply because of power. Others continued having performances. (One even sent out an email which said "The L Is Running" which, when you clicked on it, told you that they were just kidding... but that their own shows were running. I was not amused.)

Through all of this, though, I kept hearing that phrase, "The Show Must Go On." I guess that phrase is supposed to refer to one person. Like, the show must go on, even if I am upset/in trouble. But on the flip side -- does theater, does performance, have the right to override the people who participate in it?

PLUG: Américana Passover Resumes... with a Review!

My company, Organs of State, has announced the make-up schedule for Américana Passover. Only two nights still have availability: Tuesday the 6th and Thursday the 8th.

Just in time for these pick-up performances, a review:
Organs of State have devised a project that blurs the line between performance and reality so deeply that you may find yourself unaware of which is which. Set in a small room off of the Two Moon Art House & Café in Park Slope, Brooklyn, distractions are limited and ideas are boundless. With performances taking place during the three weekends leading up to the 2012 Presidential Election, I arrived with a drilled-in apathy and left with a desire to break out of it, and a want to include myself in our America. The ritual is guaranteed to evoke something different in each person who takes part, and is truly an immersive experience rather than a spectator’s event. 
Unfortunately, seating is extremely limited (since there are only nine seats per night) so if you want to get in on the action, email me.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

LEGAL COMMENTARY: Bullshit IP Lawsuit #23001

The suit was filed on Thursday in Federal District Court in Oxford, Miss., against Sony Pictures Classics, which released “Midnight in Paris,” and reported by Variety (registration required). It hinges on a single scene in the film, when its time-traveling protagonist, played by Owen Wilson, states: “The past is not dead. Actually, it’s not even past. You know who said that? Faulkner. And he was right. And I met him, too. I ran into him at a dinner party.”  
Faulkner’s original formulation of the line in “Requiem for a Nun,” which was published in 1950, is: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Even so, Faulkner Literary Rights says that the film, for which Mr. Allen won the Academy Award for original screenplay, is violating its copyrights.
Yes, that's right, it's a lawsuit over TWO SENTENCES. In a movie, where the movie is clearly quoting the source material. With attribution.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

CRITICISM: How To Talk To Artists About Their Work

Prerequisite reading:

  1. Jason Robert Brown, on how Sondheim told him never to tell an artist what you really think of their work. At least, not immediately.
  2. 99Seats, very validly hoping that Brown is joking.
  3. Bob Bullen, with a little radio play that demonstrates how post-show feedback usually goes.
My three cents:


The radio play that Bob Bullen wrote is pretty illustrative, and it gets to why I, as an artist, never ask people how they liked my show directly afterwards. I don't expect them to answer me immediately. It's stressful. I thank them for coming and let them stay or not stay or whatever.

I'm in a particular place of burden; I am not only the artist, but the producer -- I'm the one biting at my fingernails hoping that the play is a success because it's my pocket book that will hurt. And I'm the one who invested my heart and soul into a work that I really do believe will get out there.

So if, two minutes after I just went through it, and in the middle of several more weeks of working on this, someone tells me what they think, like really what they think, there's nothing I can do about it. At that moment. It just hurts. And you have to go out there and continue to represent the work for what it is. It's hard.

(And guess what -- I bet your feedback is going to be a lot more useful after you've had a chance to think about it and figure out why it worked or didn't work).

So I am sympathetic to the idea that immediately after a show it might be painful to say that the work is a failure.



I don't think that means that you should just blow smoke up an artist's ass and tell him everything was wonderful. I know that it smacks of evasion when people told you that they're "interested" or that they're "thankful for your work" but hey you know what? Very little productive is going to be exchanged thirty seconds after the work goes up. 

My approach -- even for shows I liked -- is to thank the artists for having put the work together, and -- if I'm interested in discussing it, good or bad -- offer to catch up with them after the show wraps up completely to talk about it. I guarantee you you can have a more productive conversation in this format.

But they do have to hear it.

They do have to hear it.

Saying that you love it when you didn't, that's some useless shit.


A lot of people have asked me to give feedback on their work during the process of putting it together, some of which is work that I've found to be pretty bad. If someone asks me for my input and my feedback, my goal is to figure out what they want to do, and to push them towards the decisions that make it more effective for that. 

I try (in my very best way, and probably usually fail) to approach it with as much humility as I can, as though it was something I've written -- lord knows I've written some awful things consigned to bottom shelves.

(Unless I really disagree with what they want to do, in which case I weigh in on that question; or unless they aren't clear on what they do, in which case I push to refine it). Unless the premise of the piece is irretrievable ("I wrote a play about paint drying, is it exciting enough?"), there's usually a way to drive them to help them out.

It's not my job to tell them that they suck or they should quit or get out of the circus. That job's for best friends and spouses. You focus on the ways that the work can be more effective.

Also, one more bonus point:


Seriously, whether it's my younger sister or Stephen Sondheim, they're just a person. Reading through the comments section of Jason Robert Brown's post with talk about "The Master" and everything... everyone is a person! Talk to each other like people! People are respectful of each other's feelings, but also don't lie to each other.