Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Improbable Story published in Korea

It's official! I've been published in Korea!

Here's a scan of the cover of the Korean version of A Very Improbable Story. Actually, just part of the cover. My scanner's a bit small.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Exit the King on Broadway!

I have to say, I never thought I'd see the day that Ionesco's Exit the King would be on Broadway. But apparent it's happening soon, with an all star cast: Geoffrey Rush, Susan Sarandon, Lauren Ambrose, and Andrea Martin. Wow. That's amazing.

The production is an import from Australia, in a version translated by Neil Armfield and Rush and directed by Armfield. Armfield, for those here who are unfamiliar with him, is considered the premiere director in Australia.

I have seen a surprising number of productions of Exit the King (five , I believe). Well, surprising only in that I'm often surprised it is produced. I'm a big fan of Ionesco, of course - I produced the Ionesco Festival in 2001 (follow the link to my terrible website...in retrospect I very much wish I had had a decent web designer - I didn't myself with not much knowledge/capability). I enjoy the play, but I wouldn't put it in my top tier of Ionesco plays, despite the fact that it very much inspired my play The Living Methuselah. In fact, I didn't even realize how much Ionesco's play had inspired mine until I looked at it in retrospect Hopefully still a very different script, but the similarities of a symbolically dying character, a doctor, and some of his relationships with the women around him...well, I'll call it a homage. Philosophically, Methuselah was sort of post-existentialist, so that's not too inaccurate, actually.

Looking at some of the reviews from Australia, it looks as if it's a good production. I have high hopes. And I am very fond of the actors. Can it match the last surprising appearance of Ionesco on Broadway - the Simon McBurney production of The Chairs? It would be difficult. That may qualify as the most satisfying production I've ever seen of Ionesco. And I have never yet seen a satisfying production of Exit the King. But, as I say, I have high hopes.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Avenue Q -where's my prize?

I noticed a press release from Avenue Q recently regarding the search for a new lyric for the play "For Now" (the old lyric was "George Bush," which got a huge laugh--there's really no substitute, but in proof of the message of the song, he's now gone).

There are four finalists: "Recession," "Prop 8," "This show," and "Your mother-in-law."

I submitted "This show" That was me! That was my submission!

They are being tried out one by one in the show...

Only one thing. No one's contacted me.

No authors are listed for the four. Perhaps multiple people submitted each.

But if "This show" wins, do I get the credit?

In any event, they are going to sing it at some point. My first words to be performed on Broadway!

And I'm only slightly embarrassed that I took the time to submit to the contest. Less so if I win...not that I need the junk that comes with the win. Just the eternal fame.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Is theater (or any art) a luxury?

Some of you may have seen a petition floating around for a new cabinet position - Secretary of the Arts. According to Rolling Stone, Quincy Jones has been lobbying for just that. The (relatively uninformative) petition was created by two musicians, and it has gathered over 16,000 signatures so far.

I also recently attended something called the Schmooze Festival, a festival of Jews working in the arts, as part of my preparation for the Festival of Jewish Theater & Ideas. There, I talked to a woman who was part of a lobbying group working on a bailout for theater. They are asking for $1 billion. She thought it was too little: if you consider that theater is a $60 billion + industry, and that we are losing, on average 10% of our workforce (these aren't numbers I've checked), $6 would be more in line with what we need.

What do I think we'll get? Bupkes. No bailout, no Secretary. Nada. Niente. Nicht.

Why is that? The arts in general, and theater in particular, is considered a luxury. You can live, theoretically, on bread alone. As long as there's enough money flowing around to bake the bread or pay the baker to do it for you.

I remember, in college (Johns Hopkins), I came in to see my academic advisor and she noticed how many theater classes I had. "Someone's getting away with something, isn't he?" she asked. I was sort of shocked. But she felt that they were just easy grades, not the necessary learning I had come to a prestigious college to absorb.

Is art a necessity? I consider myself a true believer in the power and importance of art. But in the teeth of the current financial crisis, can I make the argument that art is more than a luxury? When faced with the collapse of world banking, what is the health of a few theaters?

Well, let me consider the question from a purely financial point of view. There is a myth that artists are not very good with money. This myth comes from the fact that, for the most part, artists don't have money. If they were good with money, the money would just flow to them, like water to the ocean, I believe the thinking goes.

The fact is that most of the artists I know (and of course my crowd is mostly working in tiny, under financed theaters) do amazing things with amazingly little. All over the city there are incredible creations made with almost no budget. And not only that - the artists are the ones who invade the decrepit neighborhoods, find ways to build it, and then are eventually displaced by the crowd that wants to be part of the new, hip neighborhood. Every small theater generates more for each dollar than almost any other industry, and they generate money for the surrounding businesses in a way almost nothing else does. If they had the resources to pay people, really pay people for their work - the results would be amazing. Much more employment then any public works project.

Of course, the reason that other countries have a Secretary of Culture (as so many do), is not just about money. It is about the belief that art feeds society and that any society needs that art in order to progress. It also is a way of creating international goodwill. A traveling theater company is a representative of the country it comes from, and good art creates an appreciation for that country.

Of course, we export art all the time. Our films, television, and music fill the world. It is entertaining art, but since it is all driven by capital, it does not have international goodwill on its agenda - and in fact often creates the opposite. Hollywood blockbusters definitely give a skewed impression of our country.

But here's the thing about artists - they will continue on, without funding, without support, just out of the need to create. And if artists are driven by their own inner angels and demons, why give them money to do what they're doing already? Is that financially sound? Does that help our country in the way that saving a bank or building a road does?

Yes, many will labor in obscurity here, because there are no resources to bring them to light. But as I write this on the eve of Obama's inauguration, hearing all the problems we face - war, health care, economic collapse - should this even be on Obama's agenda? Does it address our main problems?

It does. It addresses all of them, in its own way. Give money to artists, and you will get so much back - including a lot more money.

But we can also live without it. It is not food. It is not shelter.

So is it a luxury, or a necessity? For those who are not artists, what would happen in a world without art? And if the world will never be without art, because artists themselves cannot help but create, is there any point in worrying about it or helping them? Practically speaking, I mean.

I want there to be. I feel there truly should be. I do feel the financial argument is strong. But even if Obama believed it, the pragmatist in him probably says that this is not a fight worth fighting right now. Giving money to the so-called intellectual elite is not the way towards bipartisanship. So I understand why he may shy away from any action.

And yet...will I blame him, if he does nothing to help the arts?

A little. Yes.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Is there such a thing as a good script?

In December, Henry Akona directed a reading of my play Rudolf II at the Bohemian National Hall.  It went really well, I felt.  I had directed another of play of mine, Golem Stories, a few weeks before, and done some staging.  Henry topped that staging by writing a full script, including stage directions he had created, for this particular reading.  The actors followed his stage directions (fortunately we has an extraordinarily talented cast), and everything came off very well.

I was a genius!

I was having a conversation with a man on the subway yesterday about Havel (he recognized me from a theater conference).  He had only seen one show, he told me.  He couldn't remember which one.  All he could remember was, it wasn't very good.  Which production?  I asked him.  What was the direction like, or the actors?  He couldn't remember.  But a good play shines through, he told me.

Havel is a hack!

Even Havel can't tell.  I was watching a Havel play (One I quite like) with Havel, a few years ago, and Havel turned to me and asked "Do you think this is a good play?"  It was, I told him.  But watching that production, it was hard to tell.

I have seen Ibsen's A Doll house more times than I can remember.  The first time was in college: I hated it.  The second time, soon after: I was confirmed, I hated it again.  Then  a few times more...a friend was in it, then another friend, then a social obligation...I felt like I was cursed by it.  One friend's show was surprising.  Leigh Armor (I haven't seen her for years) was in a production that didn't seem half bad at the tiny and now long defunct Westside Repertory Theater.  Not that bad, I told myself in surprise.  Maybe this isn't a totally awful play.  Maybe the productions have just been bad.

Then, I saw Mabou Mines' Dollhouse.  It was one of the most moving and intelligent pieces of theater that I've ever seen.  It will soon be revived at St. Ann's Warehouse.  See it, see it, see it.

Did Ibsen transform his play from dross into gold?

Scripts, I have often heard, are not written to be read, they are written to be performed.  If you read a Sarah Kane play, like, say, the much lauded Blasted, you won't see the dark poetry within, unless it is staged.  I saw it.  I wasn't so fond of the script, reading it, but what an impressive production.

Was I wrong about the script?  Or was a very talented director (Sarah Benson) responsible for selling a mediocre product?

I have seen more Shakespeare than I can possibly count.  Let's say 100 productions.  I have really enjoyed about five or six.  Is Shakespeare overrated?

I do think a great production can't exist without at least a very good script.  But a great script can lead to a horrible production.  And bad script can look halfway decent with a good production, just like halfway decent script can look very good.  So is there any way to judge?  Is good and bad a judgement that can be made in such a collaborative medium.

Theoretically, yes, though I have yet to see a critic or an audience member who is not at least somewhat influenced by the quality of the production.  With classics, it is easier to separate, because critics at least have seen may versions.  But for a new play - how does one judge?

Was my Rudolf II a good script, or did Henry just do a good job directing?  Was it just a good job directing, or did we have excellent actors?

All of the above, I hope, in this case.  But I don't know if there's any way to know, for sure.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Theater as commentary - the tradition of midrash

Irecently completed Playing Dreidel with Judah Maccabee (at least for now - there is some possibility of future productions), and I'm back to reading submissions for the upcoming International Festival of Jewish Theater and Ideas.

A few of the submissions I am reading fall clearly into the area of midrash - which Judah Maccabee did, as well. According to the Zohar (one of the main books of the kabala), The Torah was written with black fire upon white fire. The black fire is the written word. The white fire is midrash. The midrashim are commentaries, sometimes in the form of laws and interpretations, and very often in the form of aggadic midrash—stories that expand on the writings. For example, The Haggadah, as you can tell from the name, is one long aggadic midrash. It also is part of a long tradition that stretches into contemporary Jewish theater—exploring the world of ideas through storytelling.

The Hebrew word drash means, literally, to seek, so a midrash is a seeking of sorts. It is a seeking for answers, a seeking for insights, and ultimately a seeking for even more questions. Midrashim often don’t agree—they are there to inspire discussion, but never provide a final answer, because a new midrash can always be written that says the opposite of the last.

There is something pre-postmodern about a midrash. Postmodernism takes everything, from pop culture to ancient literature, and uses all these sources to comment on each other. Midrash is a commentary that makes the ancient stories relevant to contemporary life.

I work a lot with midrash, in my theater. Sometimes I comment directly on the Bible, or even on the midrashim that already exist in the Talmud. Sometimes I comment on the legends that exist in Judaism. Sometimes I comment on Shakespeare, or the Wizard of Oz, or whatever intrigues me about a noteworthy work of literature. It is not uncommon to do so, in theater nowadays. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is a midrash of sorts about Hamlet, and Wicked is a midrash on the Wizard of Oz.

Of course, these plays are not written exclusively by Jews (though interestingly, Tom Stoppard is of Jewish descent and so is Stephen Schwartz, one of the main creative voices behind the musical). But I find it a particular appealing and relevant approach to bring to Jewish subjects.

My book of plays, The Golem, Methuselah, and Shylock, contains four midrashim, of sorts. Golem Stories is not only a midrash on the ancient legend, but it also uses and comments on midrashim (which the Rebbetzin tells) throughout the text.

The Living Methuselah is a more straightforward midrash, riffing on the Biblical characters of Methuselah and Serach, the two longest lived people in the Bible. A Shylock comments, of course, on the Merchant of Venice, and One-Eyed Moses and the Churning Red Sea is a more traditional midrash again.

What they all try to do is examine an idea that lies buried within the original story. Theater is best when it challenges people’s ideas, and often those ideas come from the stories and traditions of the culture. What better way to examine the entrenched, almost unconscious assumptions that we all make, then to examine the stories that those assumptions originate from? What better way to both celebrate and question, two things that so near to the heart of both theater and Jewish thought?

When I was writing A Shylock, I realized that though what I wanted to say something about The Merchant of Venice might be original, the idea to write a midrash about it was far from new. I saw two productions based on the character, and read about many more. What better way to deal with such a thorny character, one that may not have been written by a Jew, but has been so intertwined with Jewish identity over the years? What better way to simultaneously acknowledge both the anti-Semitism and the oddly sympathetic speeches Shylock is given to say?

For Purim, the tradition is to write a satiric plays, "spiels," which are in essence dramatic midrashim about the Book of Esther. Taken in its original form, the Book of Esther can be disturbing at times. Without midrash, we would be left with a story in which, for one thing, a woman is punished for not dancing on her behest of their drunk, unreasonable husband. Midrash makes it possible to charge that portrayal, to comment on the portrayal, and yet to preserve what is interesting and relevant about the Megillah today.

In the end, I would argue, most theater has an element of midrash to it. No play can exist in a vacuum. Every play must in some way acknowledge the wealth of what has come before, and in acknowledging that, its story in some way comments on the stories that already exist, both ancient and modern.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

My lesson on probability

I drafted my cousin into helping me out by filming part of the lesson I do when I visit schools (part of my book promotion for A Very Improbable Story). Of course, there are a lot more students at the schools: between 30 and 300. But you get the idea...and maybe it will actually lead to tutoring work, as well.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Review - Man on Wire

My last review of the season (last season, that is...I'm a little behind, I suppose)

Is being a daredevil an art form? After seeing Man on Wire, I’m still not sure, but I’m ready to consider it. Phillipe Petit, the subject of James Marsh’s documentary, certainly seemed to believe it was when he made a career of his high-wire act, subversively bridging famous monuments from Notre Dame to the Sydney Harbour Bridge to his ultimate achievement, the Twin Towers. But what makes the argument for him is not his own cocky reminiscences but the emotion-laden memories of those who watched him.

What hangs heavy over the movie, of course, is the loss of the Towers today. It seems to make Petit’s journey on a fragile string a metaphor of our own journey into a time when one event has “changed everything,” forcing us to look down at the danger below and realize there’s no net.

Of course, Petit’s fragile string is a strong, thick wire up close, but the danger he faced was very real. And perhaps his determination, in the face of that danger, is a passion that only a true artist could feel. The movie unfolds suspensefully, although we cannot help but know its conclusion. Marsh is able to convey the thick anxiety of the moment when Petit stepped out into air, knowing the very real possibility that the wire might not hold. We follow him as he plans and hope that he will succeed, even knowing the future in its full bittersweet glory.

The images of New York in the 70’s, an older (more innocent?) time, elevate the movie from a well-told story into poetry. Nowadays, reality television seems to have stripped any possible magic from watching a man take a foolish risk for the sake of eternal fame. Everyone seems to have a performer hidden inside, if not always a very interesting one.

But of course Petit is not simply a daredevil, nor one of the modern millions willing to face humiliation for public acclaim. He is a circus performer, whose ancient art is based on the idea that a single act of daring can become a statement about life itself. To live is to dare. Every step is a risk. For those who can take those steps – bravo!

Monday, January 5, 2009

Translating Lysistrata, Iphigenia

I am translating ancient Greek again.

I first translated ancient Greek when writing my adaptation of Lysistrata. I originally intended to use an existing translation, but I couldn't find one that fit what I was looking for. Most of them did not seem to have the most important ingredient to me, a sense of humor. The translations seemed too stuck in a sort of formal speech that precluded easy humor. A couple did go contemporary, but to my taste were overly contemporary, using modern references that jolted.

Anyway, I decided to do for my own. I was deeply indebted to a web site called Perseus which has a link translating every word of the original text. It help augment my, um, less than perfect knowledge of the language.

I am using that same web site now for a new translation of Iphigenia at Aulis. Not much about this now, but it looks like Eric Shanower will do some illustration and we will turn it into a book. The published version of my adaptation of Lysistrata has done very well, especially in classrooms, so I'm hoping for good things.

I'm thinking of this partly because I found an interesting website comparing translations of Lysistrata. It's part of a well done classical studies guide. I would list my version of the passage here, but, I fear, it's a bit risque. Not surprising for Lysistrata, but since this blog also addresses children's books, I hesitate to include it.

However, if you wish to check, I do have an excerpt on the theater company website. Look for the line about halfway between the second and third photos. It's Lysistrata's, of course, and it begins "Of course it will. If we sit around in sexy see-through clothing..."

I've said enough. But I would be curious if anyone feels like spending the time: what do you think of the different translations? Of the other translations, I like Henderson best. But I have to admit, I'm feeling a slight bit smug about my own version, too.

Maybe soon I'll find a less raunchy passage to compare on the blog soon.

If there are any such passages...