Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Bloomberg Continues his Philanthropy Shake-Up

According to the NYTimes City Room blog, Bloomberg appears to be powering up the Bloomberg Foundation in the wake of his cuts (which Createquity pointed us towards) to his contributions through the Carnegie Foundation.

From the article:

In a move without precedent in New York City government, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has appointed a sitting deputy mayor in his administration to simultaneously run his charitable foundation.

As he seeks to ramp up the work of his charity, he named Patricia E. Harris, the second-most powerful official at City Hall, to be the chief executive and chairwoman of the multibillion-dollar Bloomberg Family Foundation.


Among those appointed to the board of the foundation on Wednesday were Ms. Harris; Henry M. Paulson Jr., the former treasury secretary; Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida; Manny Diaz, the mayor of Miami; Cory A. Booker, the mayor of Newark; Maya Lin, the architect; and David L. Boren, a former United States senator and the president of the University of Oklahoma; and Kenneth I. Chenault, the chief executive of American Express.

Mr. Bloomberg also appointed his two daughters, Emma and Georgina Bloomberg, to the board.


Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Softening the Political Landscape

A Brief History of Obama Being Forced to Look At Mundane Things. My favorite is #8, where John Kerry wishes he had been forced to look at mundane things four years ago.

Seriously, we need this sort of thing right now. I'm just damned tired of hard racism and right-wing militias.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Incredible Transparency of our Government

Sometimes, our government has some incredible transparency. Not always, of course. But I've spent this morning reading through declassified CIA documents regarding the use of torture that make it really, really clear that the CIA's abusive policies began in the 1960s in the School of the Americas, and eventually were brought to the desk of Richard Cheney (exactly 8 years ago yesterday). You can read the manual yourself -- and you can see where someone tried to edit the manual at some point to be in line with international law, and you can see where not only did Cheney agree that these methods should be corrected, but so did his chief of staff Addington. The paper trail is incredible, and all of these documents are in the sunlight.

Collaboration IV: Writing Bible

I just caught up and read the Batman: The Animated Series writer's bible that Isaac tossed up. (Yeah, anything that's more than one or two pages I email to myself to catch up on later). And I have to say, I find it infinitely superior to the Screenwriter's memo that prompted it.

Mamet's memo is a pretty useful "Don't do that, dumbass" memo that probably every first-year film student should tack onto their writing desk, but the writer's bible goes beyond that in scope: the writer's bible captures, in a direct and powerful way, to set up the metrics by which the show will be measured. To say, "This is what we want the show to do, and this is how you do it."

Especially with a source material as juicy and personal as Batman is (at least, to the sorts of people who would wind up collaborating on Batman: The Animated Series), it is important to define what you want to do. And you could literally do anything with it -- hence the enduring appeal.

Take on page 4:

"Our stories will be hard-edged crime dramas with villains who play for keeps. Yes, many of them will come from Batman's well-known Rogues Gallery, but they will be as wild, dark, and sinister as we can make them. Each episode will also feature a big SET PIECE, an incredible visual action visual that will be a looked-forward-to element in each show. This will be the climax, centerpiece, or show-stopper in each episode."

And the rationale is laid out on page 5:

"We hope to encourage our writers to take advantage of the almost limitless visual possibilities allowed by animation. With our animated Batman, we can "build" gigantic sets and create special effects that could never be realized with live action. Use this advantage!


We wish to pay special attention to the "arena" or setting of each episode. Stories which have a unified sense of place will always work better. This is not to say that Batman can't 'move around' in his adventures, but the locations (especially the climax) should be adequately established and foreshadowed."
Mamet's memo is good generic advice for any drama (although I can think of plenty of shows that I love that violate it up the wazoo). But this writer's bible is a very clear declaration of purpose for this project. In fact, the first quote reads like a mission statement for a single project.

I think I need to create a document like this for collaborative works. To say, "This is the kind of work we're working on, these are the tactics we're using to build it." Our last collaboratively devised work, based around the works of Kafka, came out well (especially since we created it from scratch in 9 rehearsals), but it could have used a unity of tactic/form a little more (one day we'll revisit it, I think, from the perspective of sound and silence). It would have been refreshing to know -- "This is what I find effective about the work of Kafka. This is how we can make that effective on stage. Now let's find out how we make that work."

Thursday, March 25, 2010


Go read about creativity, childhood, and the brain.

Our First Week of National Health Care


Leads to this:
Glass doors at the Monroe County Democratic Committee in Rochester, N.Y., were also broken by a brick. An attached note read, "Extremism in defense of liberty is not a vice," a quote by the late Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, known for his libertarian views.
Foretold by this:

Rightwing Extremism -

A Lesson In Smack-downs

1) Exhibit A.

2) Exhibit B:

(h/t Fragments)

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Two Things On My Mind In Union Square

1) You can really tell Obama's approval ratings by the woman selling Obama Condoms on the street.

2) I was talking with my mother, who lives in the suburbs of Orange County where I'm from, about the show I recently produced at the Paradise Factory, and I was talking about my obligations to the city (mostly providing a fire-guard, really), and I happened to mention that we had to put out the garbage three times a week. My mother was incensed. "You mean they take out the garbage three times a week and there are still those huge piles of trash?"

On the block where I grew up, trash was picked up once a week. Once a month, there was street sweeping. And that's all it took to keep the place clean because there were, at most, 100 people living on the street (probably a lot less -- 20 houses with probably on average 3-4 people). But here in New York, the sheer population density means that we have to take out a lot of garbage.

But not only do we have to take out the garbage a lot, but we have to have people pick up after us in our squares. Specifically, I was watching one of the Union Square Partnership guys picking up trash off the floor. After all, we leave a lot of trash.

And I wondered -- how much of that trash do we tolerate letting out into the world simply because it all gets picked up. It's the same logic that people were using on the health care bill - the fact that people don't pay the cost of their care directly, and therefore the end user doesn't care about the cost. That's why the Free Market doesn't apply -- This American Life did a very good comparison by looking at Animal Health Insurance, which includes a stop-payment level after-which people prefer to let their pet die. The same thought was on Isaac's mind recently about the cost-shifting of publicly funded or ad-supported arts. It's the same thinking behind Cap-and-Trade's "true cost of carbon" idea.

So, are we hidden from the true cost of our garbage? Measures like charging for plastic bags are one way of tackling it, but I remember when I was in the Czech Republic I visited a little (gorgeous) tourist town called Cesky Krumlov, where there was no McDonald's and vendors were not allowed to sell foods with disposable plates, cups, etc. because the city wanted to keep it pristine. Now, that's clearly not going to happen. But I wonder what would happen if the city stopped picking up after us, just to let us see.

Oh wait, it already has happened in Italy.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Star Trek News

Alright, I have some serious news to discuss.

1) The Borg are responsible for Health Care.

2) Kirstie Alley was Lieutenant Saavik? I mean, Lieutenant Saavik? I just lost a piece of my childhood.

Organs of State: Audience Review

My friend Ben Lundberg runs a little group called The Orange Hats (website on its way) who record audience responses after performances both in the United States and Johannesburg. The idea is to create an archive of audience response, so that shows will be able to look back at how they were received. Obviously, the audience is at the center of the work, and therefore it is interesting to see what they thought.

With that in mind, The Orange Hats just put out the video for our production of Hamlet. A couple of you readers (including someone who said they read it obsessively! music to my ears) can compare the video to your own personal recollection of the show -- the rest of you will be able to get a taste of what you missed.

(Bonus: I appear in the background of one of the interviews wearing an argyle sweater and a backpack).

The Orange Hats: NYC - Organs of State presents HAMLET from Ben Lundberg on Vimeo.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Forecasting! Woo!

Every once in a while I check in with the future and try to lay down tabs on what I think the future is going to be like... I have about a 50% success rate (oh Secretary of State Richard Clarke...). It's the political equivalent of brackets.

Since January, my "2012 election bracket" had Scott Brown in the nominee slot for the Republicans. He has one major advantage: plausible deniability from the Bush Era. Don't forget how much of a boon Obama got from not being part of the US Senate that approved the PATRIOT Act (which only Russ Feingold refused to vote for) and declared war on Iraq. So Scott Brown has enough credentials to run against Barack Obama (although he won't have spent quite as much time in the Senate), and he has the opportunity to craft a new message. And hailing from Massachusetts gives himself the latitude to reach out to Independents without really stepping on the toes of people from back home.

That's, I think, the background to this story, which is about Scott Brown's refusal to say he's joining the 'Repeal the Bill' crowd. Mitt Romney, the de-facto voice of the GOP Establishment (which is kind of how he positioned himself from the start of the '08 Campaign) has come out against it, which is all kinds of stupid. But Romney's problem is Brown's problem too; Brown has said he is not against Massachusetts' Health Care system.

So Brown is at a fork. If in 2012 he wants to run for the nomination, he's going to have to run against Health Care. But if in 2012 he wants to run for re-election, he's going to have to run in favor of Health Care. So there we have the story that posits that Brown hasn't read the Reconciliation Bill yet. Bullfeathers, Mr. Brown. If you haven't had at least a point-by-point summary of what the bill means, you should fire your staff, since you've had five days.

So I guess what I'm saying is, I'm erasing Brown from my 2012 bracket and waiting to see what happens next amongst the GOP. I'm certain it won't be Palin, or Romney (unless really nobody else emerges), or Pawlenty. If Brown can't untangle himself from Health Care, I'd add him to that list.

To The Disaffected

Tea Party Protestors -- unhappy about how America is shaping up?

Environmentalists -- think this world is on its way out?


The headline says "GOP lawmaker apologizes to Stupak for 'baby killer' outburst". Judge for yourself:
Neugebauer insisted in a statement that he was not referring directly to Stupak but to the agreement that the Michigan Democrat helped work out with the White House. That 11th-hour deal, under which President Obama said he would issue an executive order pledging that no federal funds be used for abortions, helped seal the last votes Democrats needed to pass the bill.

Neugebauer said his exact words, referring to that agreement, were "it's a baby killer."

"While I remain heartbroken over the passage of this bill and the tragic consequences it will have for the unborn, I deeply regret that my actions were mistakenly interpreted as a direct reference to Congressman Stupak himself," he said.
What a shit apology. To quote a great philosopher: This city deserves a better class of criminal.

Local Arts News

I've given plenty of shout-outs to Createquity as being a fine blog (and not just because I've contributed to it), and one of the top reasons is its excellent coverage of local arts issues. But of course, the best reporters of local news are people who are local. Luckily, there's now a way to bring those two forces together -- Createquity tipster! If you spot an important local arts news story (like this one), you can toss them along to him, and it'll probably wind up in one of his excellent Around the Horn segments. I still like my method, but let's all be sure to give those local arts stories the attention they deserve.

Health Care Passes

"We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win..."

Thursday, March 18, 2010

American Citizen Terrorists

It feels like there's a lot of them lately. Is that why the no-fly list doubled since Christmas?

Ian Moss Bait

Adolfo Guzman-Lopez for NPR's local affiliate 89.3 reported:
Almost half the department’s full-time positions — 33 out of 70 — will be gone through layoffs, early retirement, or unfilled vacancies, Garay said. Fifteen people who work for Cultural Affairs will lose their jobs - some in two weeks, others in July.


The layoffs, Garay said, are part of budget cuts that include transferring the administration of city-owned theaters and art centers to other organizations. Under the plan, outside groups would assume control of the Madrid Theater in Canoga Park, the Vision Theater in Leimert Park, the Warner Theater in San Pedro, and the Watts Towers Art Center. The city will issue requests for proposals.

Last month, supporters of the cultural affairs department jammed an L.A. City Council meeting to oppose a proposal that would gut the department’s $10 million budget. Council members shelved the plan.

I don't know what the impact of the city getting rid of the arts buildings, but it was gratifying to see that there are a lot of "supporters of the cultural affairs department" (don't they just mean "supporters of the arts"?) in Los Angeles.

Collaboration III: Stage Directions pt. 3

Isaac, apparently separately, starts thinking along the same lines as I was thinking:
Let me make what I'm going to assume is a somewhat controversial assertion about non-experimental theatre: The way we think about the plays we see and do is too writer/text focused.
And he doesn't use Derrida to back himself up. RVCBard has a good laugh at his expense, before stating:

Anyway, part of what I like about theatre (as opposed to film) is that it's more democratic than other art forms. There isn't (or rather, doesn't have to be) a central authority figure who makes all the "important" decisions about the play. I like not having complete control over the process. I like the unpredictability of it, how the story and characters in my head can be given a life I never imagined while still using the same base ingredients (my words on the page - whether dialogue or stage directions).


As a writer, I've never understood the "need" to create "actor-proof" or "director-immune" scripts. As far as I'm concerned, I'm just there to get the damn story on paper. My duties are pretty simple. Let my collaborators know who is doing what onstage. That's it. Whether that takes the form of a coherent narrative with more-or-less natural dialogue or is a shifting series of images and/or sounds is anybody's guess. But as far as I'm concerned, that's all I'm there to do.
I agree with RVCBard that there's something different here than what goes on in Film... after all, when I saw Alice in Wonderland, I was seeing Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, and nobody seemed to care about poor ol' Linda Woolverton who only wrote the screenplay. It was her screenplay that bugged me -- I think they took a very beautiful story about a girl exploring a world of wordplay and logic puzzles and turned it into something between The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe and Shrek. But I don't think anyone particularly cared -- the whole movie was really just there to support Tim Burton's visual sensibility.

I'm getting carried away.

99 Seats says something similar in the comments section of Isaac's blog:
I never really understand why we need to parse it out so much, to what end. I was just talking to Matt Freeman about this the other day and he quoted the old saw about being a playwright and how, if everyone loves the play, they'll credit you, but if no one loves the play, they'll blame you. Every play changes in rehearsal, in performance, has limitations that are fixed by the actors or directors, sometimes in the actual words on the page, sometimes in the performing. We all know this, we've all gone through production, but the attitude is still it's all about the playwright. Which, I think, puts undue pressure on playwrights and adds to the frenzy for The Right Play.
If I understand right, RVCBard has her chuckle at Isaac's expense because this idea -- that the playwright isn't the star quarterback, he's just another team player -- isn't really so controversial as it may have once been.

Obviously, take anything I say about "before my time" with a grain of salt, but it seems to me that if this theater industry that we've not a part of used to work, then back when it was working playwrights would have probably been a lot more likely to get up in arms and scream and shout about directors trampling over "their vision." At the time, their agent would have been there to fight for precisely that thing. But in today's reality, I don't think a playwright can afford to be that controlling over a script.

When a playwright works with a small independent or local company, they're not just putting together one play -- they're building a relationship. They don't want to be a failure. They also don't want that company not to say "Screw that chump, let's not work with her/him anymore." David Mamet can say things like "Actors keep getting in the way of the play I've written," but if I tried to say that, I'd find myself without actors. That's the reality of it.

Small companies don't want to license a play that comes with hundreds of strings attached. Why do you think they love Shakespeare so much? It's the only thing that they have both wide latitude with but also established audience recognition -- although apparently you can get some mileage out of Jacobean drama, if you love it enough. If you want a company to work with you, you have to be willing to work with them.

So in the face of that, the shift in norm becomes apparent. Critics (that is to say, writers) still find the written word to be important, unduly, for a number of reasons; they can still appreciate a play in which the words are deliberately not the mode of communication. And big Broadway musical writers can still sue NYU students not to do an all-male production of Company because it wasn't their original vision. Sure. But I think, overwhelmingly, the idea is now that it's a playwright's decision to determine how much control they want to exert, and how they relate to the other parts of the pie.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Collaboration II: Stage Directions Pt. 2

The responses I got to my Stage Directions post revealed to me the philosophical differences that underly the whole "how much change is too much change?" question that I posited. Here's the first comment, from Dinah:
This makes me think of a talk Sarah Ruhl gave recently, where she was asked for words of advice for actors handling her stylized, poetic language. She said that she prefers that actors speak her words "non-adverbially." That is, that the text itself is the point and contains everything that needs to be conveyed in that moment, and the actor's job is basically not to let all that "action" and "emotion" business get in the way of the words. That the actor's job is to make the words audible and understandable, but not to interpret them, because that's the audience's job. This obviously rules out the paraphrase, except when she's involved in the production.
Ruhl is very much in the same camp as David Mamet on this score. And I think there's a recent history, starting from just after Shakespeare and onward, that posits nearly the same idea, although usually not to the same extreme. To lay out the idea I will, much to my own horror and disbelief, quote something I was just reading in Jaques Derrida's Writing and Difference. (It's my damn thesis, I'm sorry).
The stage is theological for as long as it is dominated by speech, by a will to speech, by the layout of a primary logos which does not belong to the theatrical site and governs it from a distance. The stage is theological for as long as its structure, following the entirety of tradition, comports the following elements: an author-creator who, absent and from afar, is armed with a text and keeps watch over, assembles, regulates the time or the meaning of representation, letting this latter represent him as concerns what is called the content of his thoughts, his intentions, his ideas. He lets representation represent him through representatives, directors or actors, enslaved interpreters who represent characters who, primarily through what they say, more or less directly represent the thought of the 'creator'.

He continues:
There is here a confusion over terms, stemming from the fact that, for us, and according to the sense generally attributed to the word director, this man is merely an artisan, an adapter, a kind of translator eternally devoted to making a dramatic work pass from one language into another; this confusion will be possible and the director will be forced to play second fiddle to the author only so long as there is a tacit agreement that the language of words is superior to others and that the theater admits none other than one language.
Oh, the avant garde and hyperbole. Anyways, over-the-top language aside, I think this is the more interesting division. After all, why is futsing with staging and actions--and even the intentions of the lines--allowed, but paraphrasing is not? To say that the answer is because the staging probably came from the first director in Samuel French editions and not the playwright only underlines the structure laid out above--the director's work is not a form to be followed strictly.

In today's world, if we wanted to, we could videotape the first performance, and we could emulate it perfectly, down to the lights and the sets and the props. We could demand royalties on all of it, and pay each set of royalties to each designer, director, writer, and actor. After all, why shouldn't actors have their work protected from being copied?

My point is that there's a strange double standard, where actors and directors and playwrights make their own interpretation on how to say the lines, and actors and directors and playwrights get to make their own interpretation on where to say the lines, but the words themselves have a strange inflexibility, born of the perception that the words on the page are the play.

I think I've mentioned that, in producing/playwriting terms, part of what drove me to the independent theater realm is the ability to control the means of production of my own work (uh oh, Derrida and Marx in one blog post...). But I think part of what drove me away from being an actor in what is aptly termed the "industry" (cheap labor and all) was this philosophy that as an actor, you're there to fulfill someone else's play. When a company gets together to make a show, it's the company's show: and nothing, not the words, the acting, the director's vision, is worth more than the success of the production as a whole body. Leastways, that's how I hope it goes.

God, I hope I don't have to quote Derrida again to make a point for a while.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Quote of the Day

“Architecture is a synthesis of logic and emotion. When carried to its logical conclusion, a traditional design approach produces very imaginative structures. It is only a question of how much of an artist we architects choose to be.”

The Military-Industrial Complex

I found it.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Collaboration: Stage Directions

I went and saw last night's baffling and amazing performance of Radiohole's Whatever, Heaven Allows at PS 122. It had in it, among other things, a hysterical reference for instructions on stage kissing. I googled it this morning, and instead found this great screed on stage directions:
Ignore stage directions?

That’s like putting on a blindfold to drive on the interstate.

Do you want to be a passenger, in that car or on the stage, with someone blindfolded?
I had a good laugh, considering as almost every show I've ever worked on that started with a script has had, as step one, crossing out all the stage directions -- if not actively crossing out, then basically ignoring them whenever the director felt like it. Of course, plot-important stage directions (Exit, pursued by a bear) can't be ignored ("No, I don't think Hamlet should stab Claudius."), but most stage directions are unnecessary or pithy, like "Turns away, crying." And the director or actor will decide whether or not she is actually going to turn away, crying.

To drop my actor hat and put on my playwright hat, I must confess that I rarely write in stage directions for precisely this reason. Having been an actor, I know that they're going to figure out the physical actions to justify whatever is going on. I put in the stage directions that, like Hamlet stabbing Claudius, are important to the plot, but otherwise I leave that up to the actors.

On the other hand, as a playwright I am also not particularly moved by a director who is taking on my work taking different interpretations, changing a few lines, etc. I cannot understand the kind of mentality that breeds a Samuel Beckett, who (even though dead) still won't allow his work to be produced unless it looks exactly like he intended it. Which means that ever since I saw the Gate Theatre performing the definitive Waiting for Godot (one of my favorite plays; they still use some of the original performers, if I'm not mistaken), I have not had any impetus to see it again. I didn't leap up to see Nathan Lane and Bill Irwin; however great their personal flair, it will be choked by the restrictions placed upon them to represent the work "accurately."

But I wonder about the rest of you. How do you feel about a director tossing out your stage directions? How do you feel about an actor rewording some of your dialogue so that it sounds more natural (I'm a terrible paraphraser, and that's probably why I do a lot less acting than I used to...)? Where's the line between other collaborators taking on the work and making it their own, exercising their rights as de-facto editors of the work, and pissing on your play?

This problem is unique to the current division-of-labor model of theater, after all. Collaborational models, where the playwright is in the room working with the actors -- or where the actors and directors are devising the script together -- can simply talk about it. The playwright/creator can say "This is why I did it this way," and the others can say, "Well, this is why we want to tweak it." But if the playwright isn't in the room, they're not going to call him every time a "Turns away, crying" turns into "Turns away, fighting back tears" or "Faces him, defiantly" (because the director doesn't feel like the actor should break in this moment).

I worked on a play in Southern California that was from a playwright in New York. He would get revisions to the script regularly. And once or twice, something that was changed in rehearsal would, four days later, be changed back, because the director had thought a minor cut was minor but the playwright felt it was not as minor as the director thought. It ultimately was not a major drag on the production, but I can see in other contexts, with higher stakes, it might have been.

Anyways, I kick it over to you. Thoughts?

Conversation III: Beautiful Words

I drew some fire a while back for focusing on the tenor of a debate rather than tackling the debate itself (in the context of a debate about race), to which I responded that the thesis statement of this blog is that culture is a conversation, and the ways we have our cultural conversation about deeply important issues has gone deeply awry.

So, here's something via Andrew Sullivan:

(By the way, my favorite thing about this video is the out-of-context thumbs-up that YouTube uses as its still frame)

Three points about this video:
  1. This conversation prompts not only a frank discussion about homosexuality and natural law, but actually a beautiful discussion of homosexuality and natural law. The quality of Andrew Sullivan's response is tender, and rendered beautifully. Beyond that, it is also insightful -- even though I agreed with Andrew Sullivan about homosexuality being equal to heterosexuality, its relationship to Catholicism is not one I could previously appreciate. Now, obviously, as an Athiest (but not a New Athiest, defined at as "Intolerance of ignorance, myth and superstition; disregard for the tolerance of religion."), I disagree with a lot of Andrew Sullivan's interpretations of Catholicism, and he still creates a lot of contradiction and tension within his beliefs, but at the same time, everyone is full of contradiction and tension. It isn't always a bad thing.
  2. The question, as posited by the questioner, is insulting. He tries to diffuse it as an insult, but at the end of the day, "I love my husband = I love the Golden Gate Bridge" is precisely the ignorant insult that refuses to accept homosexuality as being, at nature, no different from heterosexuality--that demands homosexuality be different, in some way, from heterosexuality. Somewhere behind it is lurking the whole "If homosexuality, why not beastiality? Why not polygamy?" canard--so in a way, the Golden Gate Bridge analogy is only insultingly silly, not insultingly foul. But the point is, by taking the question in good faith even though it is offensive, Andrew Sullivan gets the opportunity to really, truly provide an answer, and I think we're all richer by it. Now, this doesn't mean that all homophobia should be treated with politeness and acceptance -- some people can be comfortably told to fuck off and die -- but if a question is put forward in a forum that provides for a meaningful response, we all profit by that meaningful response. The questioner may not be budged in his thinking; but the listener may be.
  3. Lastly, this sort of exchange is precisely the sort of exchange that cable news and print media both, for different reasons, completely fail to capture. YouTube is, perversely, the perfect forum for spreading this kind of well-reasoned argument. In Cable News, you could see all of the factors and really hear the conversation... except these days, CNN and MSNBC couldn't possibly sit quietly for seven minutes to hear an entire conversation out without talking over both participants to shout their objections and talking points. And FOX News would clearly not even begin to engage. Print articles rarely provide transcripts -- they'd just pick out what they feel are the "right" quotations. Which would destroy the entire flow and the question and answer, the tone, and everything else that makes it impressive. I think the only other venue I get to hear a topic this well discussed would be on National Public Radio.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Screw You, NYT

I went to go see an article, and what I got was this. No close button, no way to move it, and no way to view the article without it. And the Times expects me to pay for that privilege?

I'm Speechless

Holy christ.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Why I Liked The Filegate Ruling

So, apparently, a while back there was a "scandal" in the Clinton White House about FBI background files being inappropriately taken. I happened to glance at the article, and it made me happy. Not because of the ruling itself (which I don't really care about), but because... well, here's the key paragraph in the ruling (via Politico)
After years of litigation, endless depositions, the fictionalized portrayal of this lawsuit and its litigants on television, and innumerable histrionics, this Court is left to conclude that with this lawsuit, to quote Gertrude Stein, 'there's no there there.' While this Court seriously entertained the plaintiffs' allegations that their privacy had been violated--and indeed it was, even if not in the sense contemplated by the Privacy Act--after ample opportunity, they have not produced any evidence of the far-reaching conspiracy that sought to use intimate details from FBI files for political assassinations that they alleged. The only thing that they have demonstrated is that this unfortunate episode--about which they do have cause to complain--was exactly what the defendants claimed: a bureaucratic snafu.
Emphasis mine. Alright, fine, so I get needlessly excited whenever someone puts a damn good quotation in an official text. After all, why not take a moment to quote some artistic work that touches the subject?

For instance, one of the great moments of arts in public documents is described in this CBO blog post from a while back by now-OMB director Peter Orszag:
In addition, attentive readers will note that in what I believe to be a first for CBO, the testimony includes a few lines of poetry (see footnote 47). These lines appear in response to a comment from David Brooks of the New York Times at a public forum that CBO reports don’t have enough “romance” in them; when I asked him what he possibly meant by that comment, he suggested that CBO documents could include some poetry. Footnote 47 was the best we could do for now.
If you don't want to read the report, the footnote reads:
The longer a capital asset is assumed to last, the lower the depreciation cost that would be included in the budget in any given year. Besides the assumed lifetimes, the depreciation schedules for such assets would also reflect assumptions about how quickly or gradually the assets’ performance declined over time. The extreme case would be what economists have sometimes called "one-hoss shay" performance. The phrase derives from Oliver Wendell Holmes’s poem "The Deacon’s Masterpiece or, the Wonderful ‘One-hoss Shay,’" which depicts a vehicle that worked perfectly throughout its lifetime but then "went to pieces all at once,/ All at once, and nothing first,/ Just as bubbles do when they burst."
That's right, everyone. If you want to understand the depreciation of infrastructure's value over time, read a poem.

(UPDATE: Commenter Dinah alerts me to the following use of Lewis Carroll by the Supreme Court in a GitMo case. Here's a recap via WSJ:
As for the reliability of the evidence, the court writes, “The government insists that the statements made in the documents are reliable because the State and Defense Departments would not have put them in intelligence documents were that not the case,” the court wrote. “This comes perilously close to suggesting that whatever the government says must be treated as true.”

The judges compared the argument to the Bellman’s nonsense in “The Hunting of the Snark,” in which a crew hunts for a creature that is never defined. The Bellman, the ship’s leader, led his men across the ocean, guided by a map that was just a blank piece of paper. He rallied and reassured his crew simply by repeating himself. “I have said it thrice: What I tell you three times is true,” the Bellman says.

“Lewis Carroll notwithstanding,” the court wrote, “the fact that the government has ’said it thrice’ does not make an allegation true.”

Beautiful! If anyone knows of any others, send them in.)

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

To Rick Lazio

To Rick Lazio: Okay, maybe a few people still like Rudy Giuliani (you can still donate to his 2008 Presidential Election Campaign, btw). But really? A "ringing endorsement" from Governor Pataki?

Back from Hiatus

Hi ladies and gentlemen! I am back from hiatus right now, still recovering slightly from the success that was Hamlet! We sold out for four different nights, got almost 400 people to see our show, and generally generated what seemed like fantastic word of mouth.

If you read Isaac Butler's blog (which you absolutely should, as it is both the keystone and the lynch pin of the theater blogging community), you may have noticed that I have my first guest blog up right now. There was a technical glitch that has kept me from starting my duties at the beginning of the week, but it is settled, so you'll hopefully be seeing more content there.

Meanwhile, I also intend to be cross-posting here from my theater company's blog my thoughts on Hamlet, as fleshed out by our work on the production.

Glad to be back!

Thursday, March 4, 2010


It looks like we have a new system in place for accountability: if you do something inethical, you can still be a politician, you just can't run for a higher office or chair a powerful committee. In fact, if you're planning on violating a law, you should start a campaign just so that you have something to give up when people come after you, otherwise you might have to resign politics altogether. Boy, must Spitzer feel stupid now!

Regarding Formal Exclusion

Scott (who is just leaving now for Lexington and may not be available to spot this) wrote a great post on Monday entitled Formal Exclusion that argued that formal experimentation keeps away older, blue-collar audiences:
I'm tired of inwardly blanching when one of the housekeeping staff in our building asks what the play is about and whether they would like it. I don't like seeing the expressions of bafflement and disappointment on the faces of so many who leave a performance. I don't like the way these plays seem to tacitly filter out all but the educated. I want to find ways to reach everybody, not just the educated, not just the wealthy, and not just the city dwellers. I seek a profound theatre that enriches everybody, not just people who have as much education as I have. Wallace's play took the working class experience seriously, the small town experience seriously, but she couldn't write for them -- she had to signal that, while she was on their side, she is still a member of the intelligentsia, the artist-specialist class. And this seems sad to me. With so few people who can write from experience of these issues, it seems a lost opportunity and a shame.
Matt Freeman responded by throwing down the gauntlet:
If you don't see something to enjoy in the plays being written today, that doesn't mean you are excluded. It just means that today's playwrights don't speak to you. There are lots and lots of plays that will, or have, I'm sure. Be patient, read the things you love, and stop prescribing your taste to other people.Plays aren't written to order. I read the frustration in posts like these, and I understand it. But there's only really one solution if you feel that a certain play that should exist that does not already. Write it.
Mac Rogers and Don Hall respond in similar vein, rounded up in an excellent and thoughtful post by Scott where he does something very hard -- he listens to his critics and hears the truth in what they're saying.

I do want to point out that what Scott originally said was not necessarily directed at playwrights (although responses such as 99 Seats' seem to have interpreted it as such). To the degree that Scott's post was directed at playwrights, yes, the response should be "just write." But I don't think that was the whole lesson. I think there was something to be said for the people who select work for production, more than for the people who write work.

Now, I don't know enough to generalize whole-sale, so let me just talk from my personal perspective for a moment.

Even at a very small, new company like mine, there is a flood of ideas coming along. They range from someone wanted to adapt Kipling's stories for children to a devised-work idea for dealing with the implications of Dick Cheney's authorization of torture. Ideas are competing for our time and resources.

If a play is written in a traditional structure, it often becomes compared to the works that precede it. A play I've written that features two men after the apocalypse of the world, one of whom is gay and in love with the other, inevitably draws comparison with Waiting for Godot (occasionally, it will earn Endgame or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead both of which are slightly less obvious but slightly more accurate). In a way, the play suffers some degree of disadvantage of seeming like a clone of a more popular work.

In other words, to some extent, there is a bias towards formal exclusion because it gives you a better handle on the originality of the work, which is something that is absolutely key both in marketing the production externally, and generating excitement for the production internally (which are, by the way, largely the same process).

I am still in the process of putting up Hamlet. (Tickets are still available, but we had a full house last night so it will get harder to get tickets at the door) In a different way, I had a sort of "inward blanch" like the one Scott talks about, only in this case it was when I tried to explain to theater people why we chose Hamlet. I still believe strongly in our production (which examines grief through the inability to express grief, features one of the most stunning performances by the girl who plays Hamlet and an Ophelia who solves the Ophelia Problem), but I could see skepticism on the faces I spoke to.

If you say "We're just going to do a good Hamlet," people are not going to give a shit (generally). If you say "We're going to do a good Hamlet with Patrick Stewart as Claudius and Robert Pattinson as Hamlet," you have their attention. But if you're a small company with a lack of star actors, then formal experimentation may be the hook you need.

This isn't to say that formal experimentation is just a marketing ploy. It is also about the excitement. It may be hard to rally a group of independent actors around a flag like "Let's do a play about two people who fall in love!" You may be able to if the script is genius enough, but it will be harder.

Also, plays that experiment formally have a tendency to pop off the page more when I read them -- this might be a personal thing, but I know that sometimes when it comes to dramatic realism, I can't tell if it is actually good until I see actors inhabit the scenes for weeks, and wear it like a good cloak. Is it two-dimensional, or obscuring a deeper sinister vibe? Is the dialogue stilted, or is it a unique voice? (The movie Serenity, for instance, has dialogue that feels really jerky and stilted for the first ten minutes and then suddenly becomes an irreplacable part of the movie).

This is almost certainly a personal preference, and reveals (avowedly), a weakness of mine, but it is this: as a director, I find it much easier to direct formally then to direct emotionally. I don't know if it is a function of my youth and inexperience, or if it is a function of my personal tastes for Brecht over Aristotle, but I find it easier to work visually and physically with actors than emotionally. That's part of the reason (listed above) that I'm drawn more to plays that have formal innovations over ones that have compelling emotional struggles. I may recognize that play is great on an emotional plane, but simply be uninterested in it.

(This reminds me of accounts of Bertold Brecht, rehearsing Galileo, cutting viciously from his own monologues shouting, "Who the hell is this incompetent, long-winded playwright?" much to the amusement of his cast.)

If other directors feel this way, it explains the ever-presence of the "Director's Interpretation." Sometimes the "Director's Interpretation" is a smash-hit, and other times it is roundly panned. I myself was in a Romeo and Juliet when I was in high school that was set in Kashmir, so that the Montagues where Muslim and the Capulets were Hindi. Friar Lawrence was still Catholic, which had an unintended subtext that wherever Westerners attempt to bring peace, they only bring death. The full extent of this interpretation was Indian costumes, and a Bollywood-style dance sequence at the party scene.

I guess what I'm saying is in the last two sections is that it is very possible that playwrights are writing plenty of non-formally-exclusive works (even young playwrights), and are not getting produced. And I know this because, well, I write non-formally-experimental works sometimes. And it doesn't get produced. Not even by me.

It is weird to talk about, but my tastes as a playwright and my tastes as a director/producer are now so far diverged that I will quite often write a play that I will not want to direct. Part of this has to do with the ol' "artist judging their own work" curmudgeon, but sometimes it simply is this: sometimes my work as a playwright stimulates a muscle that doesn't interest my directing brain. Which is fine. Maybe other people want to take them on.

But there's another facet from my experience as a playwright, which actually goes back to something that came up during the Outrageous Fortune debate. Isaac Butler talked about how we need to produce Playwrights' okay-to-good plays if we want to see more masterpieces. In a way, what he's talking about is being okay with the playwright as they develop from young artists to old established hands.

The example that got tossed around a lot was Tennessee Williams. And I think in this context he works pretty well. After all, the stuff we know him for is very powerful, but often it is very much mid-Twentieth Century realism. Not so for his younger plays. They are often quite odd, quite disturbing in a way that many of his later plays don't quite feel. Ditto for Sam Shepard, who wrote much weirder stuff than Fool for Love and True West.

If I look back on my history as a writer -- look back to the very beginning, it looks much like this:

At the age of 12, I began writing, and the first thing I tried to write was a novel, because that's what I was reading. The novels were set in video-games, and were basically my attempts to dramatize the hero I imagined that I was when I played video games. That's the story that was in my head.

At the age of 16, I first wrote a one-act play for our school's one-act festival. It was, for some perverse reason, a Commedia dell'Arte (which we had just learned about in class the week before) piece, set in an Office. It reads like a set of Dilbert strips, since that is basically my familiarity with offices at the time, being a huge Dilbert fan.

My next full length play was completed when I was 18. It was a realist piece set in the South, and beyond that I refuse to say another word because it was bad. Miserably bad. Miserably, miserably bad. "I hope copies never resurface in the inevitable anthologies of my life's work but secretly I know independent companies in Chicago will try to put it on in sixty years time and the reviews will all say 'Now we knew why Guy wanted it burned'" bad.

I stopped writing for a time. Then I went to a Beirut concert, and suddenly it made sense to me that you could create something beautiful without any words. I gave myself the formal experiment of trying to use absolutely no words. I failed in that experiment, but the failure of that experiment became the point of the piece. (This, by the way, is one of the few things I've ever written that I was excited to direct myself)

Since then, I have continued writing, lurching between plays that are classical naturalism and strangely broken experiments in form, or somewhere (either comfortably or uncomfortably) living in the middle.

I have no illusions that I am a great playwright. But I have a feeling that there's something about the development of a playwright that starts with imitation, then suddenly lurches to "How-do-I-prove-myself-different-from-everyone" experimentation.

Yet here may be the problem that Scott is noting. Because we right now have a system that burns out playwrights quickly. We produce a lot of young playwrights, but we often don't continue the support and development as maturity sets in over the length of a life-time. Even Bertold Brecht, right at the end of his life, conceded that the Epic Theater was youthful and one-sided, and began trying to work out what a dialectical theater that united so-called "Brechtian" methods with so-called "Aristotilian" methods.

So, my response to Scott's original post is basically that, indeed, telling playwrights not to exclude audiences by experimenting formally may be a lost cause. But there is some grain of truth to be extracted that there may be an over-emphasis on formal experimentation in programming of independent companies (almost over-compensating for the lack of experimentation in traditional venues).

And of course, let's not forget that what is considered "Formal experimentation" for one generation's blue-collar diverse audience may be the main-stream entertainment for the next generation. I believe you can draw a straight line from Theater of the Absurd to Monty Python to The Hangover.