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 hubbub 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.