Monday, May 18, 2009

Drs. Jane & Alexander - bloggers go for free!


My newest show, Doctors Jane and Alexander, is opening this Saturday, in the Festival of Jewish Theater and Ideas. Details below (or follow the links to our exciting new website!)

All bloggers who want to drop by and write about the show are invited for free!

Doctors Jane and Alexander
written and directed by Edward Einhorn
Music by Alexander S. Wiener and Henry Akona
Untitled Theater Co. #61, New York
at Theater Three, 311 W. 43rd St, 3rd Floor

with: Timothy Babcock*, Peter Bean*, Talaura Harms*, Jason Liebman*, Josh Mertz, Phoebe Silva*, Alyssa Simon*, and Maxwell Zener* on May 23

WORLD PREMIERE

Sat 5/23 @6:00, Mon 5/25 @7:30 (followed by a discussion), Thu May 28@9:00, Sun 5/31@5:00, Sat 6/6 @8:30, Sun 6/7 @7:30, Mon 6/8 @7:30, Fri 6/12 @9:00, Sat 6/13 @6:00, Sun 6/14 @1:00

Tickets $18

BUY NOW ONLINE!

or call 212-352-3101

Using found, fabricated, and occasionally finagled text, the playwright explores the life of his grandfather Alexander S. Wiener, the co-discoverer of the Rh factor in blood, through interviews with his mother, a psychologist who recently retired due to a debilitating stroke. An examination of art, science, ambition, and achievement, told with humor and song.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Directing my own play (about me)

I've started rehearsals on Doctors Jane and Alexander, a play about my Mom and my grandfather going up in the Festival of Jewish Theater & Ideas. As I often do with my own work, I am directing it myself.

I have often heard people debate whether a playwright should direct his own play. My approach, when directing my own work, had always been to somewhat detach myself from the role of writer and to become a director. To stop thinking of it as my writing and just think of it as a play. But of course I have a certain freedom I wouldn't have with someone else's play - I can say, that line is just horribly written, it doesn't work at all, let's change it. Often I find I go there more quickly than my actors, who at time protest, no, I can make this work. Which may be true. A good actor can often disguise bad writing. But I try to avoid the bad writing altogether.

The one nice thing I find when someone else directs a play of mine is that I can really concentrate on rewriting during rehearsals - and I do mean during rehearsals. During Golem Stories, I would rewrite the play as they rehearsed, so that the new lines would come by the end of rehearsal, and I could hear them. And having a director with strong opinions (Glory Bowen in that case) is very helpful - unless I completely disagree, I suppose. I occasionally disagreed with Glory, but the play came out much better by the end of rehearsals, thanks in good part to her feedback.

Doctors Jane and Alexander has gone through many iterations. It was a ten-minute piece, written in 24 hours, for my 24/7 Festival. Alex Roe (of the Metropolitan Playhouse) did a fabulous job with that little piece, and staged it in ways I didn't expect and found very moving. Then it became a one act in NEUROfest, and Ian W. Hill directed it, once again doing a fabulous job with it. Both times, I was grateful to have an outside director, because the play is so personal - I'm a character, my Mom is a character, my grandfather as well, and in the latest incarnations, my brother too. It was interesting to have an outside eye who didn't have all the inside information.

When Ensemble Studio Theater gave me a Sloan Grant to develop the piece into a full length (and present it as a reading) I decided to direct it myself. It's partly because I enjoy directing, and it was a piece I thought would be fun to direct. But it was also because, having seen other directors work with it, I felt I was ready to direct - and even more, at the time, there were some actors I really wanted to cast in the reading, and I had the luxury of determining the casting as the director.

Now I have reached the fully staged version, and I am directing again. I have to say, it has been an unusual process for me, in the early rehearsals. Before we began, I urged the actors not to worry about the reality of who I am, who my mother is, etc, but just to perform the play (much of which is found text, from actual conversation) and interperet them. And I still urge them to do so. But as a director, my instinct is to insert my own experience. And my own experience, of course, come from the reality of my experiences with my Mom and others.

At first I resisted injecting that reality into the play, but the actors had questions from day one, and really, the answers that I can give are just based on my own life. So I find myself selectively injecting a little more reality into the show.

I do simultaneously have some strong feedback about the show. Henry Akona, who is composing music for the play, or rather taking my grandfathers relatively simple compositions and filling them with ornate, complex, and clever harmonies, has been giving me feedback since the reading at Ensemble Studio Theater, and with such a personal piece, it's particularly good to have an outside eye. Henry's also a director (he has been workshopping another play of mine, Rudolf II, for years) and someone whose opinions I greatly respect.

But the difference, in the end, between directing one of my own plays myself and having someone else direct is this: when I direct, I know that everything that's really important to me will happen on stage. All the reasons I was inspired to write the play will be directly in front of the audience. I feel relatively confident about my directing, so the chance are good I will like the end result. And I will have the enjoyment (as well as the work) of putting it together.

When someone else directs, something or other that I found important in the text will inevitably missed. But with a good director, some things I didn't even realize were there will be found. Which is exciting. And I get to focus on honing the script all the more. And that is also enjoyable.

ButI won't get to discover the play as a director. And that, for me, is the real joy of directing my own script. When I write, I deliberately only include minimal stage directions. First, I don't enjoy writing them. Second, I feel like it is up to the director to fill those moments in, while it's up to me, as a writer, to give the director dialogue, with only the occasionally comment, to make the meaning clearer. And the staging that works in one theater, with one set of actors, won't necessarily work in another.

But now, as the director, I get to discover daily what staging works and doesn't work with my particular actors, discovering the transitions, the flow of the piece, etc. And it's fun. Frustrating, sometimes, when I feel the flow isn't working. But almost an extention of writing, like I have taken a work half finished and now I'm providing the other half. Because there's only so much one can express in words. And I'm not always good at explaining I mean. But showing what I mean, by moving actors in space - that, I'm good at

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Shows announced for Festival of Jewish Theater and Ideas!

We are working hard on the website, but for those who read my blog, here's a preview! Here are all the shows in Untitled Theater Company #61's upcoming Festival of Jewish Theater and Ideas!

The Burning Bush
by Tracey Erin Smith
directed by Anita La Selva
Burning Bush Productions, Toronto, Canada
at Theater Three, 311 W. 43rd St, near 8th Ave.

Tickets online or at 212-352-3101

Wed 6/3 @9:00, Fri 6/5 @8:30, Sat 6/6 @11:00, Thu 6/11 @10:00

Yentl meets Showgirls in this award winning one-woman traveling spiritual roadshow. Rabbinical student Barbara Baumowitz teams up with exotic dancers to spread their religion in this new version of an old-time revival. Critics Pick in Backstage, Audience Choice Award in Frigid NYC and Best of the Toronto Fringe Festival.

Burning Bush Productions has produced award-winning theatre in New York City and across Canada. BBP also delivers workshops across North America in creating solo theatre based on personal life experience for both professional artists and lay people. We are currently developing our first feature film, based on ‘The Burning Bush!’ with Mr. Jackie Mason on board to play himself.

Cities of Light
assembled by Rebecca Joy Fletcher
directed by John Richard Thompson
Open Hart Productions, New York
at 92Y Tribeca and the Center for Jewish History
WORLD PREMIERE

Wed 5/20 @7:00 at 92Y Tribeca, 200 Hudson St Tickets online or at 212-415-5500

Tue 5/26 @7:00 & Sat 5/30 @8:30, Don’t Tell Mama, 343 West 46th Street Tickets online or at 212-757-0788

Wed 6/10 @6:30 at Center for Jewish History. 15 W. 16th St Tickets online or at 212-352-3101

Light and dark in 1930’s Berlin, Yiddish Warsaw, Paris & Tel Aviv. Blinding lights, brazen comedy, cabarets of yearning and bite. An astounding era; a time of Jewish artists on the move. No need to brush up on your languages; these songs are mostly in English!

Open Hart Productions is the brainchild of playwright, performer, cantor, and scholar Rebecca Joy Fletcher. Founded in 2007, Open Hart is dedicated to researching and reviving the lost art of International Jewish cabaret. Currently focusing on Warsaw's and pre-state Tel Aviv’s cabarets, Open Hart also presents lectures and workshops. Fiscal Sponsorship: The Field. .

The Dig: Death, Genesis & the Double Helix
by Stacie Chaiken
What’s the Story?, Los Angeles
at Theater Three, 311 W. 43rd St, near 8th Ave
WORLD PREMIERE

Tickets online or at 212-352-3101

Wed 6/3 @7pm, Fri 6/5 @10:30, Mon 6/8 @10:00, Thu 6/11 @3:00

An American archaeologist is summoned to a dig in the ancient Arab-Hebrew town of Jaffa. They've found something big—something that could change everything—and she's the only one who can tell them what it is. And her mother just died. And there's a lizard in her bathtub. The Middle East. Matriarchs. Cruelty. It's a comedy.

What's the Story? was founded in 2001 as a workshop for writers and performers who are struggling with personal story for the stage, the page and the screen. The workshop produces a biennial festival of new solo plays, regular public showings of works-in-progress. As of April 2009, What's the Story? is in residence at the Odyssey Theatre is Los Angeles.

Doctors Jane & Alexander
written and directed by Edward Einhorn
Music by Alexander S. Wiener and Henry Akona
Untitled Theater Co. #61, New York
at Theater Three, 311 W. 43rd St, near 8th Ave
WORLD PREMIERE

Tickets online
or at 212-352-3101

Sat 5/23 @6:00, Mon 5/25 @7:30, Thu May 28@9:00, Sun 5/31@5:00, Sat 6/6 @8:30, Sun 6/7 @7:30, Mon 6/8 @7:30, Fri 6/12 @9:00, Sat 6/13 @6:00, Sun 6/14 @1:00

Using found, fabricated, and occasionally finagled text, the playwright explores the life of his grandfather Alexander S. Wiener, the co-discoverer of the Rh factor in blood, through interviews with his mother, a psychologist who recently retired due to a debilitating stroke. An examination of art, science, ambition, and achievement, told with humor and song.

Untitled Theater Company #61 is a Theater of Ideas: scientific, political, philosophical, and above all theatrical. Past projects include the Ionesco Festival, the NEUROfest, the Havel Festival, and the Off-Broadway production of Fairy Tales of the Absurd. Most recently, they produced a calypso musical version of Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle.

Emma
by Howard Zinn
directed by Martina Plag
stadium-praxis, Philadelphia
at Theater Three, 311 W. 43rd St, near 8th Ave
NEW YORK PREMIERE

Tickets online or at 212-352-3101

Thu 6/4 @7:00, Sat 6/6 @3:30, 6/7 @5:00

This toy-theatre adaptation uses wit and humor to illuminate history from below. Through innovative storytelling and theatrical devices everyday objects transform to reveal and celebrate the life of the remarkable “Emma” Goldman; the anarchist, feminist, and free-spirited thinker who was exiled from the United States because of her outspoken views.

stadium-praxis Strives to explore the point where theory and practice intersect to [in]form action. We create puppet artistry for adult audiences. As an art rich in ancient, folk and popular theater techniques, we use puppetry to address contemporary issues and advocate social change and awareness. We approach the puppet as metaphor.

Hard Love
by Motti Lerner
directed by Susan Reid
Genesis Stage, Atlanta
at Theater Three, 311 W. 43rd St, near 8th Ave

NEW YORK PREMIERE

Tickets online or at 212-352-3101

Fri 6/5 @6:00, Sat 6/6 @5:30, Wed 6/10 @3:00, Thu 6/11 @7:30

In this fiercely romantic drama, Hannah and Zvi are reunited after divorcing twenty years earlier. Raised in Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim, the couple ended their marriage when Zvi turned his back on Judaism and Hannah did not. Now the teenage children from their second marriages have become romantically involved, forcing Hannah and Zvi back into each others’ lives The first-ever full staging in New York of the work of noted Israeli playwright Motti Lerner.

Genesis Stage produces works of theater which are relative to the Jewish experience and reflective of the universal human condition. Genesis strives to challenge, enlighten, and entertain Atlanta audiences with world and regional premieres, as well as seldom-seen plays, which investigate the past, reflect on the present and envision the future.

The Jewbird
Created by the Northwoods Company
based on the story by Bernard Malamud
directed by Annie Levy
Northwoods Theater, Conover, Wisconsin
at Theater Three, 311 W. 43rd St, near 8th Ave

Tickets online or at 212-352-3101

Fri 5/29 @5:30, Sat 5/30 @5:00, Sun 5/31 @2:00

In this modern fable originally penned by Malamud, an unexpected visitor flies through the fifth floor Lower East Side apartment window of Harry and Edie Cohen and their young son Maurie. The small, scrawny bird plops down on the kitchen table in the middle of dinner, and begins to speak. What follows exposes the family’s uneasy tension between Jewish identity, past and present.

Northwoods Theatre Company is an ensemble group dedicated to creating and developing new work relevant to the Jewish experience of all ages. By treating source texts as it would sacred texts and working them into the script, Northwoods Ramah Theatre Company aims to make the connection between the story and Jewish teachings more apparent and accessible.

Jolly Good Fellows
by Steve Feffer and Tucker Refferty
directed by Mark Liermann
Whole Art Theater, Kalamazoo, MI
at Theater Three, 311 W. 43rd St, near 8th Ave
WORLD PREMIERE

Tickets online or at 212-352-3101

Fri 5/29 @7:00, Sat 5/30 @11:00, Sun 5/31 @3:30, 6/1 @7:30

A dark comedy about two immigrant actors from New York in the 1890’s who make their living performing a stereotypical “Jew” and “Irishman” in the grotesque styles of the variety stage. They enter into a contract of convenience to keep up with the changing times, despite the personal costs of such performances. Songs and sketches from the period are included.

The Whole Art Theatre Company offers unique theatrical experiences, including the fostering of new work, that brings socially significant issues to the forefront. In 2007, they received a Foundation of Jewish Culture grant for Steve Feffer’s new play Ain’t Got No Home, the true story of the legendary Chess Records.

Laughing Fools
“Laughing at the Speed of Light”
written, illustrated and performed by: Flash Rosenberg
“Village of Fools”
adapted, directed and performed by: Stephen Ringold and the Grand Falloons
From stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer
at JCC Manhattan, 334 Amsterdam Avenue, near 76th St

Tickets online or at 505-5708

Mon 6/8 @8:00, Tue 6/9 @8:00

Flash Rosenberg and Stephen Ringold mingle their two distinct shows into one tasty evening. By the same unlikely logic that landed smoked fish in a bagel, Ringold’s vaudeville puppet theater “Village of Fools” will suddenly be served in the middle of Rosenberg’s comic slide romp “Laughing at the Speed of Light” to create a posh nosh and frolic of Jewish culture.

The Grand Falloons is an ensemble of theatre, vaudeville, and design professionals who have all worked with the Big Apple Circus for 20 years, as well as on the New York stage, on national television, and in opera houses, schools, museums and theaters across the country.

The Legacy Project: Echoes
Featuring the WORLD PREMIERE of Tikkun with choreography by Carolyn Dorfman and music by Greg Wall
Carolyn Dorfman Dance Company and Bente Kahan, New York
at NYU Tisch, 111 2nd Ave, 5th floor

Tickets online or at 1-800-838-3006

Fri 5/29 @7:30, Sat 5/30 @7:30

The Carolyn Dorfman Dance Company and actress/vocalist Bente Kahan present The Legacy Project: Echoes, an evening of dance, theater and live music incorporating the best of the artists’ individual repertoires, their collaborative piece Silent Echoes and featuring the world premiere of Tikkun with commissioned score by renowned jazz and Klezmer musician Greg Wall.

Since 1983, Carolyn Dorfman Dance Company’s high-energy and technically demanding repertory uses movement as metaphor to take audiences on “intellectual and emotional journeys” (Observer Tribune). Led by artistic director Carolyn Dorfman and her creative drive to communicate human experiences, interactions perceptions, and truths, CDDC’s twelve dancers display extraordinary physical, technical and dramatic range.

Mentshn
by Sholem Aleichem
Translated by Ellen Perecman & Yermiyahu Ahron Taub
Adapted by Ellen Perecman & Clay McLeod Chapman
Directed by Marc Geller
New Worlds Theatre Project, New York
at Theater Three, 311 W. 43rd St, near 8th Ave
ENGLISH-LANGUAGE PREMIERE

Tickets online or at 212-352-3101

Sat 5/23 @8:30, Tue 5/26 @7:30. Fri 5/29 @9:00, Wed 6/3 @5:00, Sat 6/6 @2:00, Wed 6/10 @10:00, Fri 6/12 @7:00, Sat 6/13 @2:00

On playwright Sholem Aleichem’s 150th birthday, the first English translation of an old play: Jobs are hard to come by, so Madame Gold’s servants have limited options. To keep their jobs, they have to be willing to maintain the status quo by relinquishing their self-respect and free will. But how much abuse can they be expected to tolerate? Servants are people too, aren't they?

New Worlds Theatre Project is dedicated to bringing imagination and artistic excellence to English adaptations of Yiddish plays, and in so doing, to bringing dignity to the literary legacy of Yiddish culture.

The Most Radiant Beauty
written and directed by Tanya Khordoc & Barry Weil
Evolve Company, New York
at Theater Three, 311 W. 43rd St, near 8th Ave
WORLD PREMIERE

Tickets online or at 212-352-3101

Sun 5/24 @3:00, Wed 5/27 @7:00, Thu 5/28 @7:00, Sat 5/30 @8:30, Thu 6/4 @9:00, Sun 6/7 @3:00, Wed 6/10 @ 8:00, Sat 6/13 @10:30

A one-act to be performed with Six Scenes from a Misunderstanding (below).

God said “Let there be light.” Einstein showed us what it could do. In this multimedia collage, puppeteers Khordoc and Weil use found text to explore Einstein, Genesis, the Atomic Bomb and the life-altering power of knowledge.

Evolve Company has been playing with puppets very seriously since 1996. Productions include Evolution, Brains & Puppets and Secrets History Remembers. They were also given the honor of creating the world premiere production of Motormorphosis, a play by former Czech President Václav Havel, as part of UTC #61's Havel Festival in NYC.

Rat Bastards
by Julia Pearlstein
directed by Eureka
Dixon Place, New York
Theater THE, associate producer
at Dixon Place, 161 Chrystie St., near Delancey

Tickets online or at 212-219-0736

Wed 6/3 @8:00, Thu 6/4 @8:00, Fri 6/5 @8:00, Sat 6/6 @2:00 & 8:00, Sun 6/7 @5:00

Venice, 1630. First it was the Jews, now the Muslims are moving in—and they're threatening to interbreed! If the Inquisition won’t stop them, Arlecchino will. When plague breaks out, holy hell breaks loose. A new Commedia on an old theme … because some things never change. With scene design by artist Philip Pearlstein.

Dixon Place is a home for performing and literary artists, is dedicated to supporting the creative process by presenting original works of theater, dance and literature at various stages of development. An artistic laboratory with an audience, we serve as a safety net, enabling artists to present challenging and questioning work that pushes the limits of artistic expression.

Scenes from a Misunderstanding
by Carey Harrison
directed by Henry Akona
WalkingShadow, New York
at Theater Three, 311 W. 43rd St, near 8th Ave
WORLD PREMIERE


Tickets online or at 212-352-3101

Sun 5/24 @3:00, Wed 5/27 @7:00, Thu 5/28 @7:00, Sat 5/30 @8:30, Thu 6/4 @9:00, Sun 6/7 @3:00, Wed 6/10 @ 8:00, Sat 6/13 @10:30

A one-act to be performed with Most Radiant Beauty (above)

The simmering differences between two professors come to a head: has one of them delayed replying to a letter on the subject of religion, or did the original letter-writer delay posting it? What would such delays signify? From humble beginnings, titanic quarrels are born - especially when the aggravated parties are Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.

10 Imaginings of Sarah & Hagar
by Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer
music by Juliet I. Spitzer
directed by Deborah Baer-Mozes
Theater Ariel, Philadelphia
at Theater Three, 311 W. 43rd St, near 8th Ave
WORLD PREMIERE

Tickets online or at 212-352-3101

Sun 5/24 @7:00, Sat 5/30 @6:30, Tue 6/2 @7:00, Tue 6/9 @7:30, Wed 6/10 @6:00, Sat 6/13 @4:00

A theatrical interpretation in ten scenes (“imaginings”,) of the story of the mothers of two great nations. Sarah and Hagar. 10 Imaginings is journey through the complex relationship between these two women, their man and their sons, exploring themes that continue to take center stage in the world today.

Theatre Ariel is dedicated to illuminating the rich social, cultural, and spiritual heritage of the Jewish people. Theatre Ariel produces work that serves as a prism through which we can view the varied colors of the American Jewish experience and new work that draws its inspiration from classic Jewish texts or contemporary Jewish literature: reflecting on the past, examining the present and envisioning the future.

To Pay The Price
by Peter-Adrian Cohen
Directed by Robert Kalfin
Theatre Or, Durham, North Carolina
at Theater Three, 311 W. 43rd St, near 8th Ave
WORLD PREMIERE

Tickets online or at 212-352-3101

Sat 5/23 @10:00, Sun 5/24 @5:00, Wed 5/27 @9:00, Sat 5/30 @2:00, Sat 6/6 @Noon, Tue 6/9 @9:30, Sat 6/13 @8:30, Sun 6/14 @3:30

Based on the life of Yoni Netanyahu, killed in action at age 30, the play illuminates the toll to a nation of a never-ending war.

Theatre Or (“or” means “light” in Hebrew) is a North Carolina-based professional theatre company developing a niche for producing American premieres of Israeli plays. Chicago's Tony Award recipient Victory Gardens Theater hosted Theatre Or's North Carolina English language premiere of Motti Lerner's Hard Love in 2006 as well as their OnStageIsrael Festival of staged readings of Israeli plays in 2008.

Readings:

Golem Stories
written and directed by Edward Einhorn
at the Center for Jewish History, 15 W. 16th St, near 5th Ave

RSVP online or at 212-352-3101

Wed 5/27 @7:00

A retelling of the legend of a clay man in 16th century Prague. Rabbi Loew creates a Golem to defend the Jews, but this Golem seems more interested in listening to the Rebbetsin's stories and falling in love with the Rabbi's daughter. Is he the reincarnated spirit of her murdered lover? Or does his childlike façade hide the face of a demon?

Pangs of the Messiah
by Motti Lerner
at Theater Three, 311 W. 43rd St, near 8th Ave

RSVP online or at 212-352-3101

Sun 5/31 @7:30

Set in 2012 amidst the signing of a peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians, this is an apocalyptic yet fiercely humane drama about eight West Bank Jewish settlers pitted against an Israel they feel betrayed by.

Playwright’s Forum
Various playwrights and directors
at Marymount Manhattan, 221 E 71st, near 3rd Ave

RSVP online or at 212-352-3101

Sun 6/7 @ 7:00
Seven minute excerpts of plays by member playwrights of the Association of Jewish Theater

Talk:

How Some Jews in Chicago Re-Invented Comedy in Time For the Sixties
Presented by Jeffrey Sweet
at Theater Three, 311 W. 43rd St, near 8th Ave

RSVP online or at 212-352-3101

Tue 6/9 @6:00

Jeffrey Sweet (author of SOMETHING WONDERFUL RIGHT AWAY, an oral history of the Compass Players and Second City) gives a funny talk about how and why Paul Sills and some other young iconoclasts who hung out in Hyde Park (Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Barbara Harris, and Shelley Berman among them) created modern improvisational theater and changed the look of American comedy.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Review - Every Little Step

This is my latest review for the National Board of Review

I have a very personal connection with this one, actually. When I was a senior in college, I went to see A Chorus Line. I was just contemplating the idea of changing my focus towards theater, and was deciding whether I would go to grad school. I was in tears by the end. I called my cousin, whom I was (and still am) very close with.

"It seems like such a hard business," I said. "What if, twenty years from now, I'm still struggling, still trying to be seen among the thousands other talented people who want the exact same thing. I've been joking about being a starving artist. Do I really want to be one?"

She comforted me. I decided to do what I loved. After all, it was just a musical, not reality...

Unfortunately, it turns out the essence of it was also completely, 100% true. I'm still not sure I made the right choice. But make it I did. And I would again. Perhaps.

Anyway, here's the review:
Every Little Step, the new documentary focusing on A Chorus Line, and in particular on the 2006 Broadway revival of the musical A Chorus Line, tells one part of a very large story. The saga behind A Chorus Line could fill many documentaries – from its start, when director/ choreographer Michael Bennett and the dancers Michon Peacock and Tony Stephens first interviewed a room full of dancers about their lives; to the months of workshops as Bennett, composer Marvin Hamlisch, lyricist Edward Kleban, and playwrights James Kirkwood and Nicolas Dante shaped the piece; to its triumphant first run; to the subsequent controversies about who owned the rights to the dancers’ stories; to its recent revival.

This documentary is a love song to Bennett, in part, and many of his huge cadre of collaborators are mentioned very little or not at all. It is also a love song to Broadway performers and would be Broadway performers, the sort of people who inspired the original musical. The documentary cleverly takes the subject of A Chorus Line—the audition process—and makes it the subject of the film. We witness the triumph of achievement alongside the disappointment of the hundreds or thousands of the talented who “really need this job” just as much, but aren’t lucky enough get it.

The movie is about the making of art, a messy, complicated process that defies formula. Ironically, the movie achieves what the revival, according to most reviewers, did not achieve: it captures the soul of the musical. The musical itself was a one of the first of a genre that is currently in vogue among the downtown crowd—documentary theater. In the original run of A Chorus Line, the actors onstage were telling their own stories, speaking and singing their own words. In this current documentary, a whole new set of stories is told, about performers trying to make it on Broadway by fitting inside the skin of those dancers who told their stories thirty years before.

The hidden truth about the musical is that it has a very dark core. A line of desperate dancers stands in front of an unseen, dictatorial director, who makes them bare every inch of their soul so that he can judge whether they are fit to be in the chorus of his upcoming musical. They submit to the process because they are so hungry to work, because jobs are so scarce and all around them there are others just as talented waiting to take their place in line.

Yet revealed in the process are the joys in working in theater, the reasons that they are so desperate to do this work and no other. And in this documentary, that joy is there. It is there in the moment one young man (Jason Tam) moves director Bob Avian to tears with a monologue he has heard hundreds of times, from hundreds of actors. The joy is there in all the dancers’ bodies, as they come to life onstage, trying to “eat nails” as choreographer (and original performer) Baayork Lee commands them.

The desperation is there as well. It is no coincidence that eating nails is the masochistic metaphor Lee has for the opening dance, the first audition.

Recently, television has offered a few watered down versions of the audition process, with shows like You’re The One That I Want. These flimsy recreations attempt to manufacture the same experience this documentary chronicles. It is so much more moving to see a set of performers who have spent their life honing their talent, performers whose personal dramas belong in the real world, not The Real World.

Yet what defines artistic success? It doesn’t end when one gets the job. The reviews of the revival indicate that what works in the audition room doesn’t necessarily work onstage, in front of an audience. One of the many ironies of A Chorus Line is that it was a musical about an audition that was created without an audition. It was created by the company as whole, in a long workshop that would be impossible today – the rules of Actors’ Equity would certainly not allow it. I suspect that the reason the revival was a critical failure was that these performers were asked to tell other people’s stories, not their own.

In this movie, we get to hear those stories, mixed with the stories from the past. And for that reason, just for capturing the spirit of those dancers past and present, it succeeds.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Facebook and theater (or the critic's paradox)

There are lots of reasons I like Facebook - it allows me to keep in touch with friends all over the world very easily, for one. It also allows me to list my events and invite everyone - though with diminishing effectiveness I find. For our fundraiser, I have 30+ yeses on Facebook and nearly 100 maybes. Actual count of Facebookers - maybe 20. Plus others, of course, who didn't respond to my Facebook invite. But it makes the count seem pretty unreliable.

Still, it allowed me to remind everyone that the Festival of Jewish Theater & Ideas was upcoming. And it reminded not just my friends - it reminded colleagues in theaters acroos New York and the world, and it also reminded a very special class of Facebook friend - journalists.

I write this on the heels of a few blog posts by jounalists on the subject. One post was by Alexis Soloski. She contended that, if she were to accept friend invitations from those in the theater, she would lose her objectivity. This news came as some relief to me personally - of all the journalists that I know and have sent a friend invitation to, Alexis is only one of two who have never responded. It's good to know it's a general policy.

But of course, as that last statement implies, Alexis' view doesn't seem to be shared by most of her colleagues. One colleague, Leaonard Jacobs, blogged about it. I would say that I have about 25 journalists among my friends, maybe more. And it helps. When I run into them, as I do occasionally, they know exactly what I and my theater company have been up to. We're Facebook friends, one explained recently to a puzzled third party. "There's no friend as close as a Facebook friend," I joked.

I joked, because I barely knew the journalist I was speaking with. We had interacted maybe once or twice, and then I had sent a friend invitation. As I often do in those cases. Because it's good for a journalist to know what I'm up to.

Now, would it affect that journalist's objectivity, should he/she be called upon to review my work? I don't think so. However, just so not as to impugn anyone's journalistic integrity, I have kept this jounalist's identity anonymous on my blog. I certainly would want to imply that the journalist friended any Tom, Dick or Harry that comes along.

Not that I think it would be a big deal if he/she did.

But really, is it any different than if he/she read my blog? Or if we chatted at a party (as we did)? Or if he/she was told something nice about me by a third party, or read something positive about me in a newspaper? When Ben Brantley goes to review a play on Broadway, how many of the people involved in the play has he met personally or interacted with? Many, I suspect. Some he likes, personally. Some he doesn't like. Is he completely objective? Of course not. You can't work in the theater and be objective. Nor can you have an informed opinion if you don't spend time interacting with others involved in theater. It's the critic's paradox.

Becoming Facebook friend cuts into one's objectivity in no greater way than that, however. It is just another way of keeping informed. Yes, at times the journalist is informed of where I went for brunch. But really, I have read feautures in the New York Times that informed everyone of just that sort of news about one star or another. I don't think every reviewer in town avoids those articles in order to maintain objectivity. Maybe for other reasons...

There is one journalist who came to review some shows of mine who recently informed me he/she (yes, still keeping things anonymous) would no longer be reviewing my work. We had gone for drinks, chatted a few times, and in his/her opinion a review would no longer be appropriate.

Damn, I thought, for a moment. I should have kept it on Facebook.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Fundraiser for Festival of Jewish Theater & Ideas!

Come out tomorrow night to 45 Bleecker for our pre-Passover bash to raise money for the Festival of Jewish Theater & Ideas!

Starting at 7pm and going until 10:30ish...

Music of:

Randy Stern
d00d
Little Bear and The Bad Touch.

Food

Sandwiches from Crosby Sandwiches
Brownies from Little Muse
Assorted other homemade items

OPEN BAR!

$25

Only $20 if you buy in advance with the code "Chametz"!

Buy tickets here!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Several responses to Seven Jewish Children

The debate about Seven Jewish Children rages on...I am not going to dwell on it too much longer. I keep getting sucked into debate about, partly because I feel like I am the only one providing an even somewhat contrarian view, on the blogosphere.

I was tempted to enter the sub-genre of those who parody the play with their own versions - Seven British Children came to mind, which would trace the British relationship with Jews to modern day. Or Seven Jewish Children I know, which would contrast the reactions among Jews I have met with the assumed reactions expressed by the play.

The play is easy to parody, because of its form. But in the end I chose not to, because - well, I have enough projects to do. And the play is rapidly losing interest for me.

But the one thing that gets me upset is the bullying that goes on against those who express doubts about the piece. And I must again talk about how that bullying is particularly ominous in England, where a word said against the work or even in perceived defense of Israel can be met with a torrent of anger, and where being Jewish has never been a simple thing, in the way, I would argue, it can be in New York.

I bring this up because I was once again contacted by someone who works at a University in England (someone we would term a professor, they would term a lecturer), who has written a response of her own. She has asked me to publish it for her, because she is afraid of the backlash if she should publish it on her own.

I just feel like I should do my best to allow her not to be "censored" (if Rachel Corrie can be called censorship, I can be a little slippery about the term here). Or maybe I mean bullied. This is not someone I've met or know personally. Just someone who noticed my comments on a few blogs. She calls it The More Things Change. It goes a little through the history of theater and how it has interacted with Jews.



THE MORE THINGS CHANGE

After Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza

No Jews appear in the play. The speakers are actors, and if you like, writers, directors, literary managers and focus groups. The lines can be shared out any way you like, once the directors, literary managers, and focus groups come into existence. The characters are different in each small scene as the time, thespians, and audiences are different. They may be played by any number of actors.

1.

Tell them it's a game
Tell them it's serious
But don't frighten them
Don't tell them we'll kill the Persians.
Tell them the gods will.
Tell them it's important to be quiet.
Tell them they'll have dance, if they're good.
Tell them to sit quietly as if they're in the temple on the Akropolis
But not to sing.
Tell them not to stand up.
Tell them not to interrupt, even if they hear shouting
From the place behind the back wall
Don't frighten them.
Tell them not to interrupt even if they know a secret that Oedipus needs to know.
Tell them the gods will be watching.
Tell them something about the Persians.
Tell them they're bad
In the eyes of the gods.
Tell them it's history.
Tell them the Persians will be our slaves.
Don’t tell them that.
Tell them the Persians will make us their slaves
Unless we enslave them first.
Tell them it's magic.
Tell them not to sing.

2.

Tell them this Scaena will show The Massacre of the Innocents
Tell them they died
Tell them they were killed
Like this, exactly
But without the gold paint nor the Cartwrights’ Guild’s wagon.
Tell them Kyng Herod was a Jewe
Like the ones in Lincoln who killed little Saint Hugh.
Frighten them.
Tell them we acted as Christians.
Don't tell them what we did.
Tell them we were brave.
Tell them that Jewes teach their children to make cakes
Of the blood of English children
But don't tell them English:
This Play’s about the Holy Land, not here.
Tell them how many children Kyng Herod slewe.
Tell them the Jewes are danger.
Tell them there's no danger
If they accept Christ as their Saviour
And good King Edward
And this our Playe.

3.

Tell them it's about Venice.
Tell them it's a Comedy.
Tell them Mirror up to Nature: Jewes covet blood.
Tell them: "The Quality of Mercy is not Strained...”
Don't tell them Religion.
Don’t tell them that Jessica's great great lots of greats grandfather lived in Europe too, in Spain.
Don't tell them he was driven out.
Don’t frighten them:
Tell them there are no Jewes in England.
Don’t tell them Old King Edward drove them out.
Tell them the Spaniards would drive us into the sea
if they could.
Don’t tell them that.
Tell them it's a Comedy.
Tell them to laugh.

4.
Tell them something.
Tell them he's an anomaly. The rest of us are decent men.
Tell them a Jewess hid him in her house
In the days before his trial
From the anger of the mob
Which explains a lot, really.
Tell them we never liked him anyway.
Tell them he criticized the Liberal Unionists
And they didn’t even get it!
Don’t tell them we got it.
Tell them he was foreign, like Ibsen
And Madame Sarah, his Princess of Judea.
Don’t tell them that.
Tell them we'd never have guessed:
He sounded English. He’s a father of two.
Tell them it’s an illness, so we advocate mercy
And hospitalisation.
Don’t tell them that!
Tell them we’ve closed both his comedies.
Tell them we’re rehearsing a new one
About the Suffragette Hysteria.
And the Censor found it decent
And the Queen is amused.

5.

Tell them to use allegory and metaphor and fantasy
So the Censor won’t get it.
Tell them to use slogans
And keep it simple
So The People will get it.
Don’t tell them that!
Tell them that art is the lie that reveals the truth
And theatre must fling together different perspectives
And cause people to be uncertain
And turn themselves inside out by their eyeballs.
Tell them the writers do this to themselves
If they’re brave.
Don’t tell them that.
Tell them the brave writers are steadfast in belief:
Men for All Seasons
And, once or twice a season,
A woman
If she’s good.
Tell them that the theatre must tell the news
Because The People don’t read.
Don’t tell them that the people who don’t read
Don’t go to the theatre either.
Tell them we know how The People think.
Tell them we concede we’re not The People:
We’re not that stupid.

6.

Tell them not to use allegory nor metaphor nor fantasy
Because the people won’t get it
And Censorship is ancient history.
Tell them there can be no art after the Holocaust.
Don’t tell them that!
Tell them the theatre must tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but.
Tell them about the Holocaust.
Tell them: Jews covet blood because they have been bled.
Don’t tell them that.
Tell them the Jews think the Arabs are Nazis
Because Nazis are all Jews can think about.
Tell them this Jewish hysterical fixation with Nazis is not a crime, nor a sin, but an unfortunate and probably incurable illness, so we advocate pity and prescribe a grain of salt.

7.

Tell them the Jew deals in slogans
And simplified history
And talks in tongues
And thinks she is Special
As did the Nazis.
Don’t tell them Nazis.
Tell them the Jew tells lies
That do not reveal the truth
To her own children
To herself
And the world.
Tell it in ten minutes.
Tell it For Gaza, but show just The Jews.
Keep it minimal, using no names
Because The Jews are really all the same.
Not people, but A Noble Ancient People,
Just like The Palestinians.
Don’t tell them that!
Tell them the new Censor is The Jew
And the theatre exists To Articulate Moral Outrage.
Tell them it’s magic.
Tell them not to laugh.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Are there too many theater companies in New York?

Last week, I attended a League of Independent Theater meeting, in which Leonard Jacobs interviewed Robert Zimmerman of NYSCA. It was a very impressive interview - Zimmerman is a great and inspiring advocate for the arts, and has a way with words (his training as an actor came in handy, too). But as I sat and listened, I found myself increasingly stressed out. One reason was the obvious - there is less and less money available. The other side of the coin is also something anyone who has been paying attention in New York is aware of as well - while the budgets shrink, the number of theater companies grow.

There was once a time when entrepeneurs like Lynne Meadow could form a small Off-Off-Broadway company called Manhattan Theater Club, receive steady reviews for their work, a $10,000 grant from NYSCA (more like $50,000 or more in today's dollars), and soon be off and running towards being a major New York company.

Not to diminish her accomplishment, but if Lynne Meadow were to try to start up MTC today, she would be in competition with about 800 registered non-profits (excluding the many unregistered companies around the city). Receiving a a major review would be a matter of a way to present her work that popped through the thousands of press releases that go out to the diminishing number of publications around the city. If she were lucky enough to receive a review in the Times, it would be buried on page 8 where even a rave would bring it, at best, a slight bump in prestige, maybe 100 extra audience members, and just enough to push her to scrounge for the money to present her next show....and hope it does as well. Which would be a long shot.

In maybe 10 or 20 years she would have put on enough good work that among her fellows (those being the other 800 companies), her work would be respected. Those colleagues would sincerely pledge to come to her next thing, a few would manage to make it, others would be in production for their own show, others would be at one of the other hundreds of productions around the city like hers, and others would be sitting at home, watching tv or reading a book, recovering from burn out.

Meanwhile NYSCA may have paid enough attention to give her maybe $2,500 to start, maybe $5,000 if she is doing continuously well. This will pay for 1 - 2 weeks in an inexpensive theater space.

What will become of her? I don't know. Becuase she is like me, of course - and all my colleagues who are strruggling to create theater here in New York. Our generation, lacking entrance into theater institutions, has gone the entrepeneurial route. But so many of us have done so that it is almost impossible, even for the most devoted, to keep up with it all. Martin Denton at nytheatre.com does the best - God bless him. He would estimate the number of companies to be over 1,000.

Zimmerman has said he has never seen so much good, interesting work as he sees right now in New York. It is not surprising. I was do a show with 22 actors (Cat's Cradle) all of whom all had to sing and play an instrument, and then added a bunch of requirements on top of that - a mixture of ethnicities, a tall woman who could play the clarinet, a little person, etc etc. And I cast it. On an Equity Showcase contact, which meant all they were paid were expenses.

The human resources and talent in this city are tremendous. I love the fact that I know some of the most talented people I have seen anywhere, in any situation, and I work with them constantly. I hate the fact that none of us get paid a significant amount for our work.

Why are there so many companies, so many people here? It's true that if a show is succesful here it gets national attention. But I constantly wonder of the wisdom of working in a city where there is so much else competeing for funding and attention.

But is it better nationally? There are more books written every year, yet fewer books read. When I send a book into a publisher, I am praying it gets beyond the thousands they constantly receieve. Is this a function of a greater population? Of a greater need to express ourselves? If the world were filled with nothing but artists, how would we find people to listen to our art?

And yet...if the world is filled with artists, if this nation has more artists each year, why does the fact that the NEA gave us $50 million out of a $700 billion stimulus bill become a matter for such controversy?

My stress level is rising again...

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Seven Jewish Children at NYTW

I was in attendance last night at an invitation only premiere of Caryl Churchill's latest show at New York Theater Workshop...unfortunately, that play was Seven Jewish Children.

For those of you not up to date on the hubub about this 10 minute play, Churchill wrote this piece in response to the recent events at Gaza. It's written as just lines, with no assignment to character, but the implication is that the character or characters are Jews speaking to their children at different points in history, spanning from the Holocaust to the recent Israeli conflict. The play may be done for free by anyone, as long as they also raise funds for a Gazan charity at the same point.

My feeling about the play, which I have written about on other blogs, is that the play implicitly tries to stereotype and even demonize Jews as a whole because of Churchill's anger about Israel. It has the "Jew" who is talking to his/her child say things like "Tell her we're the chosen people" and gleefully talk about Palestinian "dead babies" and "children covered in blood". By calling it seven Jewish children, not seven Israeli children, Churchill has chosen a dangerous tactic. Not that the title is inappropriate for the play. Unfortunately.

When talking about the play with an Israeli playwright, interestingly, he told me that he thought the play should be played every day. Much of his work as a writer has protested the policies of the Israeli government, and I immediately understood why in that context he might feel that the play was important to hear.

Churchill, however, wrote this play in England, where it first played at the Royal Court (it preceded a play about the Holocaust - a disturbing choice, I find). In England, she is not voicing an unheard opinion about Gaza. She is reinforcing the prejudices of the great majority of the audience. It is no act of bravery to tell the audience exactly what they want to believe. And at a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise in England (never a comfortable place to be Jewish), I would argue that that these are unfortunate passions to flame.

After writing about my thoughts about the piece on some blogs, I got a couple of emails from Jewish theater practitioners in England. One was a professor. They thanked me for daring to criticize the piece, which they were afraid to openly speak out against in England, because of the wave of anger their objections would be met with. Churchill's play stokes that anger, making it harder for anyone to listen to a dissenting voice.

New York is a wholly different place altogether. The number of Jews here makes the city very complex in its attitudes about Israel, although if there is any place where there is a large number of critics of Israeli policy, it is in the theater. The Rachel Corrie incident demonstrated that the New York theater community is just as capable of knee jerk reactions on the subject as people are anywhere else.

Those critics were definitely the majority in the theater last night, though there was a vocal minority expressing support for Israel, and I'm sure a less vocal minority that are somewhere in the middle (as I feel I am). The program was accompanied by two interesting documents: one a letter from Churchill in response to a letter from Ari Roth from Theater J (which is also producing a reading of the play), and the other a letter from Kenneth Stern, Director of Anti-Semitism and Extremism for the American Jewish Committee.

The reading are going on for three straight nights at NYTW - last night was just the first of them. Each night has a different moderator, who is supposedly moderating the audience in a discussion. Tonight the moderators will be Tony Kushner and Alisa Solomon, a very interesting pair.

Unfortunately, last night's moderator was Lauren Flanders, the host of GRITtv on Free Speech TV, as well as the host of RadioNation. Flanders had a very clear point of view on the piece (that it would finally make people think about the crimes in Israel and the U. S. complicity in those crimes), and she had brought in people in the audience as authorities to support her point of view. She called on them to speak about what she termed the facts around the conflict, in order to educate the audience, and called on them to rebut dissenters.

Which was the main problem with the discussion. It was not about listening and conversation. It was not a discussion at all. Flanders was trying to educate (and bully a little) those in the audience that didn't see things her way. But she was doing it in the guise of a moderator, and of course that sort of "moderation" is both transparent and, in the end, even more polarizing.

But perhaps that is a problem inherent in Churchill's play, which in the end, is a polemic, written in anger. A piece that truly was meant to create empathy for the Palestinians would have Palestinians onstage, true characters with their assets and their faults, struggling in a conflict with no easy answers. This play has generic "Jews" onstage, or what Churchill imagines a "Jew" to be.

I spoke briefly yesterday about the lack of empathy in the play. I felt empathy when they were talking about the Holocaust, Flanders responded. It's true, the play does use the existing empathy about the Holocaust. But it's a ploy, saying, yes, we feel bad about the Holocaust, but you're just as bad, so now we're justified in feeling anger.

In the end, the play creates anger at Jews and anger at those promoting anger against Jews. The Palestinians, as human beings, never exist in that theater at all.

Does that get us any closer to peace?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Why I love (hate) theater festivals

The festival is beginning to really come together, which is exciting.

I am already exhausted.

So much to do - get enough information so that I can set up the web site (almost there).  Put together the fundraiser for April 7 (much left to do, finding food, entertainment, putting online reservations up, etc, etc,).   Work on my own show (haven't started rehearsing, but did script revision).  Schedule rehearsal locations (soon, before they get booked).  Reschedule first read through because of actor conflict (ASAP).  Find interns (some found, others to come).  Put all the box office info online (not yet).  Start scheduling the panels/talkbacks (barely).  Fill in the holes in the conference schedule (75% of the way, but the last 25% is really difficult).  Schedule the dinners/lunches (so much more to do there).  Contact Equity regarding the shows (need to do that soon).  Production meeting about Mint Theater, aka Theater Three (almost scheduled, need one more confirmation).  Send blurb to Museum of the City of New York (have to get on that)  Make contact sheet for all participants (have to get on that too).  Push for more funding (working on it).  Finished revised registration form for conference (75% done, will do by weekend).  Send out notice reminding people to come to conference (not ready for that yet, but soon).  Answer all emails (ongoing).  Talk to stressed out festival participants about schedule/tech times/New York logistics/possibilities of press coming/misc. (ongoing)  Set up two reading for the festival (should have already been done).

Sleep (not an option).

But it's looking good.  Sorry I haven't been blogging much (blog again soon).

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Fiddler on the Roof - political theater?

A few weeks ago, I heard Alisa Solomon give an interesting talk at the Jewish Theological Seminary about productions of Fiddler on the Roof in Poland. Shockingly to me, the play was banned for many years there, into the 80's. Almost all Jewish theater was banned in Poland, partly because of Communist anti-religious sentiment, and partly because of general anti-Semitism in the government.

Then recently I read the news that a production in Venezuela has run into trouble - the orchestra has been forbidden to participate in anything Jewish, because one of the bureaucrats involved are afraid of the government reaction.

Anti-Semitism has been on the rise in Venezuela for a while: a synagogue was recently attacked and Chavez (who has sadly been working more successfully towards his dream of being president for life) has a long history, like many totalitarian leaders and totalitarian wannabes, of using old lies and stereotypes about Jews to help him gain power.

But this is about politics and Jewish theater. As I have been working of the Festival of Jewish Theater and Ideas, on a few occasions I have given Fiddler as an example of a stereotype I want to break - it has been so associated with Jewish theater in this country that many assume it is all Jewish theater. I enjoy the show, but I want things I consider more challenging or unexpected. It is one of the last pieces I would think of as political theater.

Yet political theater is all about context. I remember speaking to some Romanian directors who described political theater during the Communist years. Everything was censored, but somehow it slipped through. In one play, for example, they chose to cook eggs live onstage. The smell of those eggs cooking in the theater was a reminder of the deprivation everyone felt and the difficulty there was in even buying something as simple as an egg. So that moment in an otherwise unobtrusive play was transformed and suddenly became political.

It is because Fiddler has become such an icon that it has become political in Venezuela and was political years ago in Poland. When people are deprived of connection to their culture or religion, any connection becomes subvesive. When the government wants to demonize a people, anything that portrays them onstage sympathetically becomes immediately political.

When Fiddler was finally shown in Poland, Solomon reported, the audience was in tears. The irony of repression is that sometimes it makes theater so much more vital than it ever could be. I am thankful that when I see Fiddler, I smile and enjoy it but leave it with a shrug. It is a privledge to be able to say--just another Fiddler.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Watchmen - review

My latest review for NBR:

A little over 20 years ago, the comics industry was revolutionized by two graphic novels: Dark Knight and Watchmen. Hollywood has taken a while to catch up, but now the film version of Watchmen has arrived, just a little after Dark Knight hit the screens to much critical acclaim. In the comics industry, Watchmen, written by Alan Moore, is generally considered to be the cream of the crop. I suspect that, for moviegoers, Dark Knight will remain the pinnacle among superhero films for a while. But director Zack Snyder has made Watchmen into an intriguing addition to the genre, providing enough visual flair to help bring the original novel convincingly to life.

Let me start with the most impressive moment: the opening credits. Snyder uses freeze frames and slow motion to go through the history of the Watchmen from the 40’s through the 80’s, the decade in which this alternate history is placed. It is a brilliant use of film that gives a tip of the hat to the comics medium, while quickly and clearly telling a story. It is also a sequence that is not at all dependent on good acting, of course, an area the film gets mired in once it begins in earnest.

The intro leads to a dark story about a superhero, The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who is brutally murdered and an old companion, Rorschach (played by Jackie Earle Hailey behind an ever shifting inkblot mask), who is trying to track down his killer. Rorschach becomes convinced that somebody is out to kill former superheroes, who for the most part have been outlawed as vigilantes by something called the Kaine Act. He decides to track down his old companions and warn them. Among those companions are Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), a Batman lookalike; Doctor Manhattan (Billy Crudup), a human embodiment of quantum mechanics; Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), a genius; and Silk Spectre (Malin Ackerman) a—well, in the context of the film, a love interest.

Snyder clearly loves the original text and references the original artist Dave Gibbons on more than one occasion. In fact, one can spot among the graffiti on the walls the occasional “G,” Dave Gibbons’ signature and seal of approval. Moore is less approving – he has declared he will not see the movie, at all. But Snyder’s affection is unabated, and the screenplay by David Hayter and Alex Tse does a convincing job of boiling down the original while remaining true to it.

What was revolutionary about the graphic novel is that it looked at these superheroes and imagined who these people really would be—flawed humans all, except perhaps Doctor Manhattan, who has left most of his humanity behind. The movie does the same, though sometimes the balance between self-referential humor and drama skews the message a little, making for a movie that can be inconsistent in tone. The music often works as ironic commentary, sometimes referencing other movies—as when the “Ride of the Valkyries” plays while a 10 foot tall Doctor Manhattan vaporizes terrified Vietnamese men.

Much worse than the inconsistencies in tone are the inconsistencies in acting style and talent. The actors ranged from fairly good (Morgan and Hailey) to outright bad (Goode). With the huge budget and the willingness to look outside of big names for the actors, there is no reason that every one of the actors cast should not have been incredible, or at least competent. They all look right – Snyder clearly took some time to look at headshots. But when it came to acting, he seems to have lost interest.

That is where this movie really fails, especially when compared to Dark Knight. There will be no Oscar nominations here. There are sure to be those who blame the shortcomings of the movie of too much fidelity to the original or not enough fidelity, but it is often forgotten that it is the actors who need to really sell the emotions of the work, and without strong performances material that could have real depth seems a little – well, like a movie about some comic book heroes. Not people.

Yet the story is there, the visuals are there, and occasionally there is a burst of light among the performances. The movie is good. It’s just a shame it couldn’t have been great.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Seeing Dollhouse again at St. Ann's

This weekend I visit St. Ann's Warehouse to see Mabou Mines' Dollhouse. I'd seen it once before, when it was first at the theater. I I had been working on a show in the neighborhood myself, Lysistrata, and the actors often came by the bar where Lysistrata was performing. The men were all little people, so I noticed them. And I had absolutely loved Peter & Wendy, which Mabou Mines had produced year before.

I brought someone with me who hadn't seen Mabou Mines' work, so I was nervous that the premise of having little people in the men's roles would turn out to be gimmicky or offensive. It turned out to be profound. The whole production was highly stylized, starting with Maude Mitchell's performance as Nora, full of odd vocalizations. Yet it was an incredible characterization, and everything, I felt at the time, served to illuminate the text. When the end came both of us were in tears.

I went again this last weekend with some friends, including the woman who had seen it with me the first time. We both talked up the play as one of our most incredible theater experiences ever. As it happened, Lee Breuer, the director (whom I know slightly) came and sat next to us right before the play began. Right before the lights went down, Lee mentioned "There are a lot of changes since you saw it last."

He was right. There were.

It's been five years, so I'm not sure what the changes were, exactly. And I didn't want to ask Lee afterwards. Because I missed the last production so much.

If you happen to read this, Lee, I want you to know that you've given me some of the most profound theater experiences I've ever had, and I'm grateful for that. But I have to be honest - for me, seeing it a second time, the magic had gone. And my friend felt the same way.

What had happened? Was it simply that the second time could not match the first? Did familiarity lessen the effect? Was it an off night? Possibly.

But I can say what seemed to happen, for me. The jokiness suddenly outweighed the profundity. There were too many winks to the audience, too many breaks in the fourth wall, too much shtick. I felt as if during the five years the production was traveling across the world, you and the actors got bored, and kept adding stuff. It is a hard temptation to resist, I am sure. Each moment seems so funny or clever when you think of it. You know the stagehands, so you want to give them their own bit. And the stage manager. And..and...and...

The ending, too, was lacking in a moment I seem to recall so clearly from last time. The moment Nora changes, the first one, where she spoke downstage, or maybe slightly offstage, in a tone like we'd never heard before. It was then that I cried. But that moment now seemed to be subsumed inside the next. Maybe you had decided, seeing it again and again, that it was cleaner to cut the moment altogether. But for me, as an audience member, it was needed.

I've never lived with a show in the way you must have lived with Dollhouse. But I wonder, is it possible to keep a show running that long while maintaining a director's eye? Or is there simply a point where one knows a show too well, where it becomes impossible to see it the way someone would see it on their first (or in my case second) time.

One friend who had never seen it before said he liked it nonetheless. And I'm glad. There's a lot to be said for the production, even with alterations.

But I still long for the show that lives in my memory, the one that I love.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Jewish Theater and Israel

As I work on the Festival of Jewish Theater and Ideas, I have been struggling to define Israel's role in it.  It looms over the festival in more ways than I would have thought, as my intention is not to do a festival about Israel or Israeli theater.  But as I work, I find the question has come up multiple times.

It has come up in small ways, at times.  People asking, does this festival have a political agenda, by which they mean an agenda about Israel.  It does not, I assure them.  I rarely speak about my own convictions about Israel, partly because they are complex, partly because I feel convinced that hard-liners on all sides would be offended by aspects of what I think.  But mostly because I don't want to make people feel that my own political agenda is going to infuse this festival.

But of course, it is.  It is inescapable.  I am not excluding Israeli artists, which is a political statement.  I am also not interested in excluding critical points of view about Israel, which is another political statement.  I think good art is good art, as long as it is honest, and of course that's another political point of view.

I must admit that I am worried - there is little in the festival that is truly critical of Israel.  Yet there are things that are celebratory of Israel - a cabaret about Tel Aviv before Israel was formed, which despite being pre-Israel and neutral politically, is still, by implication of celebrating the city, pro-Israel.  A play about the raid in Entebbe.

I may have a reading of a play more critical of Israel.  But I am sad that I was unable to find a full production with that point of view.  The Jewish community includes a multiplicity of voices, and since Israel is such a major issue, I would like to include all the points of view.  There is a very mistaken impression among some non-Jews that a Jewish theater festival will, by definition, endorse every Israeli political position, which is of course false.

One of the Israelis involved is Motti Lerner, a well known Israeli playwright who play, Hard Love, will be produced by a theater company called Genesis, from Atlanta Georgia.  Motti's play is set in Israel, but unlike many of his other plays, it is not about Israeli politics.  It is about a romance between someone from the ultra-orthodox community and an atheist.  I am excited to have Moti involved - his plays have been produced around the country, but this will be his first fully staged production in New York.

The possible reading would be of one of Motti's more politically charged plays, Pangs of the Messiah.  It is set in the future, in the West Bank settlements, at a time when Israel has decided to withdraw from the West Bank.  The settlers, of course, resist.  It is a both highly critical and simultaneously empathetic piece.

Of course, Israeli playwrights are often critical of Israeli policy.  Like most artists, they tend to speak from the left.  Motti wrote an interesting essay on Israeli theater and politics, which I recommend.

The Israeli consulate may help bring him here for the festival.  Of course, that has a small political implication as well...

I have more to say about this, and possibly about Caryl Churhill's Seven Jewish Children, which I have written about on other blogs.  I will return to it..

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Conference on Jewish Theater



The Association of Jewish Theater has announced its annual conference, which will be happening during the time of Untitled Theater Co. #61's Festival of Jewish Theater and Ideas. UTC61 will be hosting.

For those interested, the registration forms and tentative schedule are online. I include the letter from the AJT below:

We are extremely excited about this year’s conference, "Jewish Theater of Ideas and Beyond," which will be held June 6 – 10, 2009, in one of the hearts of Jewish theater and the world of theater: New York City. Untitled Theater Company #61 will be hosting us. They are presenting their Festival of Jewish Theater and Ideas from May 23 – June 14, parallel to the conference. The festival will include over 100 performances of over 15 productions originating from across the United States and the world, at numerous venues throughout the city.

This year’s conference takes advantage of New York City, highlighting Jewish theatre and culture each day:
• Sunday at Marymount Manhattan College, the college whose Jewish theater festival, in 1980, inspired the creation of AJT.
• Monday at 92Y Tribeca, the new hip downtown venue for Jewish arts.
• Tuesday at the stately Museum of the City of New York where, with other conference activities, we will get a private tour of the theatre archives, the largest collection of its kind in the world, including Jewish and American theater in the United States.
• Wednesday will be at the Center for Jewish History, which houses six different major Jewish organizations, including YIVO with its Yiddish Theater collection.

Conference Fees and Registration Information:
Being in New York, we expect more registrants than usual, and there are space limitations. Early-bird registrants receive a $50 discount. The conference fee is $350 for early-bird members and $400 for non-members. After April 20th the fee will be $400 and $450 respectively, so book early. There will also be day passes for guests and others wishing to attend for single days.

Registration includes three kosher meals from great New York dining venues, free tickets to UTC61’s production of Doctors Jane and Alexander, five other plays of your choice at the Festival, and of course workshops and panel discussions.

Playwrights and Solo Performers:
Playwrights will once again have the very popular Playwrights’ Forum, where we will present seven-minute excerpts of your plays, performed by professional actors and staged by professional directors. Playwrights please note - if you are interested in participating in this forum we can only accept the first 15 scripts submitted. The deadline is April 20. So please be sure to get your play in early.

Solo performers will once again have a solo showcase. You must be registered for the full conference to participate in either program. Please refer to the registration forms for more instructions

Housing:
Two housing options are available now for those who require New York accommodations: The Muse, our main hotel, is an elegant and trendy boutique venue in the heart of midtown with a rate of $259/room or $130/night if you plan on sharing (a very low rate for a 4* hotel in New York). For those on a budget, we have an amazing deal through a partnership with NYU/Tisch School of the Arts; and have arranged for NYU dormitory room, at $60/single and $40/double per night. If you are interested in booking or sharing a room, contact Kayla as soon as possible: kayla@afjt.com and she will add you to the rooming lists. Don’t delay: we have guaranteed only a small number of booked rooms. We are in the process of reaching out to donors for subsidies for students. We will keep you posted.


Join us and celebrate a new year for Jewish theatre!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

NEA update

Much to my (happy) surprise, the NEA funding survived.

As I said in my (more despairing) earlier posts, I don't think the NEA is the ideal institution for funding the arts, because it can be so easily politicized.  And the benefit my own theater company will get from this is pretty much nil, I suspect.

But still...a ray of hope for arts funding.

House and Senate negotiators on the bill dropped the language prohibiting stimulus funds from going to museums, theatres, and arts centers introduced by Senator Coburn.

Arguing for the $50 million in arts money on the House floor on Friday, Representative David R. Obey, Democrat of Wisconsin, said: “You know what? There are five million people who work in the arts industry. And right now they have 12.5 percent unemployment — or are you suggesting that somehow if you work in that field, it isn’t real when you lose your job, your mortgage or your health insurance? We’re trying to treat people who work in the arts the same way as anybody else.”

12.5% unemployment is a gross underestimation...but then again I don't suppose those who have been unemployed for years because of the lack of arts funding in this country count in the statistics.  In any event, it was a bold and principled stand for Representative Obey - there's not much to be gained politically from  supporting the arts.

Thank you.

The Taste of Blue

Here's a video of a short play/monologue I wrote about synesthesia, as performed last February, as part of Brains & Puppets, a show co-produced by Evolve Company and performed by Tanya Khordoc.





Monday, February 9, 2009

An Open Letter to John McCain

I don't know what's gotten into me. Maybe it's the facebook group Dear John, encouraging people to send John McCain letters about NEA funding. I of course, predicted that any funding of the NEA would be squashed. It has been. At the time, I debated whether art was a luxury. I suppose I have come down clearly on one side of that issue now.

A few years ago, I wrote an open letter to President Bush on matters of civil rights, while working on the Havel Festival. This is on a matter that affects me much more directly of course. Perhaps it's working of the Festival of Jewish Theater and Ideas: "If I am not for myself, who will be. If I am for myself alone, what am I." (Hillel)

Dear Senator McCain:

I am not from Arizona, but I am an American, and as an American, I feel you and I both have a cause in common - the health and well being of our country. As a senator, I think it is your responsibility to nurture our country, to see beyond partisan rhetoric to the overall good of our country. There have been times I felt you have been able to do just that.

Which is why my heart broke to hear you, like so many, hold the NEA and what it does in such disrespect.

Senator, I have worked in theater all my adult life. It has never been easy. Like so many with a passion for the arts, I at times had to work a second job. One job was to work as a temp worker in a series of investment banks. There I saw the rampant greed that has brought about the current crises, as bankers slowly lowered the wages of the temp workers while raising their own bonuses, at a time when the economy was its most robust.

Most of the temp workers were in the arts. Many of us went on to make our living, small though it might be, in our chosen field, but it took years of toiling to achieve that honor.

Most of the bankers were puzzled by us. They assumed, if we had been able to make the money they made, we would be. What value, one banker wondered to me aloud, does theater have, if one gets paid so little to do it? Try banking, he advised. Or at least the movies.

At the time, I was mostly working in a downtown theater called NADA. It was a tiny theater, of sixty seats, much like the hundred of tiny theaters scattered across Manhattan. The permanent staff at NADA consisted of three people, all of whom lived at or near the poverty line, but still managed to survive. Every month 100 different people - actors, directors, playwrights, and technicians - used it as their temporary home.

The businesses around NADA loved it. The Lower East Side was then known more for drug dealing than art - but NADA began an influx of artists that have now transformed that sketchy neighborhood into a very desirable one. Every night, actors and audience members flooded nearby establishments, bringing business where there had never been any. With less money per year than the average bank spends in an hour, that tiny theater was able to create more jobs and more economic stimulus for a neighborhood than anyone had been able to provide for decades.

NADA was not alone. The theaters grew, the neighborhood with it, eventually the rents rose - and NADA disappeared. No one valued it enough give it the money to survive in a better economic climate.

Senator, I have not been a temp worker for years. Instead, I have been running my theater, where I have tried again and again the magic trick of taking one dollar and making it into five. I put on theater festivals with hundreds of performances. When people ask me my budget, I lie. I lie because I am embarrassed how small it is, how little I am able to pay anyone, and because I know they would not believe me if I told them. But for fifteen years, I have been able to keep the theater running. Our last festival was in honor of the former Czech President and playwright, Vaclav Havel. At times, when he would introduce me, he would say “This is a very important man in New York theater.” I would have to laugh. Who in America would call someone who earns what I earn very important?

But we are important, Senator McCain. You say that everyone loves the arts, but I don’t know that you believe it. I think it means to you that we all have been told we should love the arts. And I think we should. The arts ennoble a society and helps to form its moral core. In the theater, people without a voice can step onstage and suddenly be heard. It is a boon during dark times and can be a caution when times are better. I don’t know that everyone loves the arts, but I do believe we need the arts.

But you asked another question. Do the arts create jobs? Let me tell you what I think is behind that question – can someone who earns so much less than a CEO really be that important?

Senator McCain, I am ashamed of you for even asking.

Edward Einhorn

Friday, February 6, 2009

The NEA - once again, a political football

I'm angry.

Here we are, in the midst of a huge economic crisis, talking about a $900 billion stimulus bill, and what has been a major focus of the attacks against the stimulus bill? The $50 million for the NEA.

Today's quote: "$50 million in funding for the National Endowment for the Arts — all of us are for the arts,” McCain said. “Tell me how that creates any significant number of jobs?"

Well, I can tell you: in fact, being an artist, whether in theater, or a writer, or a painter, or a composer - those are actually jobs. In theater alone, paying jobs, already scarce, are plummeting. Many artists who are unemployed don't even fall within the unemployment statistics, they are (like me) freelancers who are now receiving almost no money freelancing. But they need the money just as much as the construction workers or the bankers.

The NEA is arguably not the best institution to disseminate those funds. I think state governments, in the U. S., are much less likely to be caught in the ridiculous way that the arts is grabbed onto by any politician trying to demonstrate "wasteful" spending.

Why are the arts so hated? I think it has something to do with the sneer used when people talk about "the elite" and elevate "Joe the Plumber." What makes the statement "we all like the arts" so hollow in that it is such a clear stand-in for "We all know we should like the arts. And part of us deeply resents that."

I know that the arts may get the shaft. But Senator McCain, by picking out that tiny percentage of the bill and making it one of your main talking points on the irrational belief that helping the arts cannot possibly help the economy, you show that, while you say you like the arts, in your heart you can't stand the artists.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Disfarmer

I saw Dan Hurlin's Disfarmer at St. Ann's Warehouse on Saturday night.  Dan Hurlin is extremely talented at puppet theater, and as I would have expected the puppetry in the show was beautiful, clever, and even moving at times.  I had qualms with the show: it seemed overly long, and it wasn't clear to me what some of the symbolism was supposed to mean.  And I did wonder, after seeing the whole show, what drew Hurlin to that particular subject.

Mike Disfarmer himself was a portrait photographer who grew up in Arkansas, taking pictures for 25 cents each.  He was a loner and probably had some psychological problems: he believed he had been delivered, by tornado, to his parents door, while the tornado took away the real child.  For the last year of his life, it appears, he lived on nothing but ice cream and beer.

When he died (in 1959), his estate was sold for five dollars.  It included 3000 photographs.  As it happened, the man who bought his estate was a photography buff and kept the glass negatives.  In 1974, the Arkansas Sun asked people to send in some old family portraits.  The man who had purchased Disfarmer's work send in a few photos.  As it happened (once again) the newspaper editor was a photography buff, and noticed something about the photos.  He bought all the negatives and printed them every week for a year.

The editor showed some of the photos to Julia Scully, editor of Modern Photography.  She liked them enough to put together a book of the photos.  The book got good reviews, Disfarmer's reputation started growing, and now (to condense the story) his prints sell for between $10,000 and $30,000 each.

There is a current genre of work known as vernacular photography, which, in essence, takes photographs taken as snapshots by amateurs and elevates them to art, by virtue of the fact that they capture, either deliberately or inadvertently, something essential about a time and place. Disfarmer's work is slightly different: he was a professional, taking portraits. Like the found photographs of vernacular photography, his photos were discovered almost by chance, but in many ways they say more about him then about his subjects.

Some critics refer to his photos as precursors of Diane Arbus, because of the alienated feel of the photos.  The reason for that alienation is clear.  Disfarmer barely greeted the people paying his 25 cents per photo.  He just told them to stare at the camera and not move.  He used old equipment, partly because he lacked money to by more modern equipment, partly out of obsessive compulsion.  But he was a very skilled technician with that equipment.  What resulted was photographs that reflected his own alienation in the faces of his subjects.

Does that make Disfarmer a great photographer?  Arbus deliberately chose her subjects and was trying to make a statement with her work.  Disfarmer was making portraits as best he knew, just for the sake of making the portraits.  He was not trying to speak to alienation.  His subjects might have been happier with somewhat less disturbing photographs, though people did seek him out, partly because of his oddity.  Does mental illness plus technical skill mean art?

I don't know.  The play never really addresses that.  The play itself is more a portrait of isolation.  Disfarmer gets smaller day by day, diminishing into nothing.  In the notes, it says the production deliberately tried to add nothing to Disfarmer's biography, just showing him as he was.  Which is did, and the technical skill of the puppet makers and puppet performers was impressive.   But I did have to wonder, was there anything that the piece said in the end, besides that there are people out there that are a little crazy and a little lonely.

What fascinates me is the randomness of Disfarmer's success (if the classic story of an artist recognized well after his death can be called success).  Disfarmer's photos happened to end up in the right hands, who, by promoting his work, have managed to make a great deal of money themselves.  What does that say about the nature of what we consider great art?  I am an amateur photographer myself, and so often go to photography exhibits.  At times, I look at a photo and I am very impressed.  But at times, I am baffled.  At times, I think, I have taken snapshots no better and thrown them away.  Should I, instead, have blown them up to half the size of the room and hung them on the wall?  Am I missing something about the photo that others see?  Or is the acting of blowing it up and putting it on the wall enough to convince most anyone that it, in fact, deserves to be on that wall.  And how many Disfarmers are there in the world, whose work can be taken and displayed, if only anyone thought to take them and display them?  

I am reminded of the book the Drunkards Walk, which I blogged about some while ago.  It talks about how success and failure in the arts can all be looked at through the lens of probability, that the best indicator of success is not talent but persistence.  Disfarmer rolled the dice poorly during his life.  But after he died someone kept rolling and hit the jackpot.