Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Money Lab Survey: Salaries of artists vs. non-artists

Well, after a whole lot of number crunching (honestly, 6 hours or so...what's my hourly rate?) I finally have the survey results from Money Lab.

Many caveats here:  obviously, this is a self selecting lot.  You had to either fill out the survey at the show or online.  Also, many chose not to reveal their salary, despite the fact that it was an anonymous survey.  Our highest salary was $225,000, and I know of at least two audience members who make more.  On the other side, there were those who simply noted they were ashamed of how little they made and didn't want to share.  A number of them, actually, which I suspect would drive these averages down.  But I decided to only work with people who had provided numbers.

I also noticed that asking people whether they were (a) a professional artists and (b) made the majority of their money from their art caused really emotional reactions from some people.  I can't say I blame them.  I have my own emotions about those questions as well.  But for the purposes of the survey, I am defining part-time artists as professional artists who get the majority of their income elsewhere (though they may well spend more time on their art than on their day job).

I used census data as a sort of control.  I only have data for the five boroughs, so it's harder to compare out of New York, but I did do two types of comparisons:  Artists vs non-artists who answered the survey, artists vs. residents of NYC with similar demographics.

In all cases, I found the cost of being an artist to be significant.  At the least a difference in income of $24,000/year (part-time artists vs. NYC residents with similar demographics), at the most a difference of $45,000 (full-time artists vs. NYC residents with similar demographics).

Thinking of the subject in terms of a decade of work, an artist is giving up between $240,000 and $450,000 dollars per decade on average, in return for the emotional satisfaction of being able to do artwork.

I have been working for 20 years.  According to my subset (full-time artist living in NYC), I have given up about $900,000 in order to be an artist.

That was my choice, freely given.  I feel I have a life that is more fulfilled.  But damn.  Can I also have the money?

Here are the results:


Average salary (all) $74,000
Average salary (lives in NYC): $76,800
Median salary (all): $75,000
Median salary: (lives in NYC): $68,000
Average Salary compared to artists who completed survey: +32, 333
Salary compared to other residents in their borough in NYC, with similar demographics, according to census data: +13,000

Artists (combined) 

Average salary (all) $41,667
Average salary (lives in NYC): $39,400
Median salary (all):$40,000
Median salary: (lives in NYC): $30,000
Average Salary compared to non-artists who completed survey: -$32,333
Salary compared to other residents in their borough in NYC, with similar demographics, according to census data: -28,000

Artists who make majority of their income from art:

Average salary (all) $45,800*
Average salary (lives in NYC): $37,313
Median salary (all): $35,000
Median salary: (lives in NYC): $35,000
Average Salary compared to non-artists who completed survey: -$28,200
Salary compared to other residents in their borough in NYC, with similar demographics, according to census data: -45,000

*Note, one large salary (from a non-New York resident) may have skewed results for the Average salary (all)

Artists who DO NOT make majority of their income from art:

Average salary (all) $39,250
Average salary (lives in NYC): $40, 778
Median salary (all): $35,000
Median salary: (lives in NYC): $35,000
Average Salary compared to non-artists who completed survey: -$34,750
Salary compared to non-artists in their borough in NYC, with similar demographics, according to census data: -$24,000

104 replies
57 professional artists (36 part-time, 21 full-time)
47 non-artists

Types of Artists

39 Theater
6 Visual
4 Literature
1 Music
2 Dance
1 Film
4 Other

Average Age: 38

4 High School
8 Some College
39 College Degrees
53 Graduate Degrees


69 NYC residents
35 non NYC residents

Monday, August 12, 2013

Money Lab: Good Charity, Good Charity

A New York Times op-ed by Peter Singer ("Good Charity, Bad Charity") was just written that relates directly to the food vs. flowers debate that I previously write about on the blog, and which was one of the main focuses on Money Lab. So I took a pause in my Money Lab statistics evaluation (ongoing!) to write a few thoughts on it.

The article designates health causes as “good charities” and the arts as “bad charities” based on the most specious of analyses. There are so many gaping holes in the particular editorial it is hard to simply pick one, but I shall do my best.

First of all, in order to prove his point, Singer handpicks two examples that he chooses to be representative. To represent the arts, he chooses a museum that is building a new $50 million wing. To represent health, he chooses a theoretical charity seeking to reduce the eye disease, trachoma. This charity, apparently a never-before seen model of efficiency, is able to convert your donation immediately so that each $100 automatically saves someone from the disease.

How can you compare the morality, Mr Singer argues, of giving someone money to cure blindness, compared to the selfish interests of a few frivolous museum goers who want to see more pretty pictures? In fact, he goes so far as to posit a demon that blinds someone every time a certain number of people patronize that new museum wing.

Oh art lovers, know that you are sticking a hot poker into the eye of good health!

Of course, even if you credit his economics (which I will address in a moment), his examples are absurd. If he wants to see examples of companies that do a very lot with a very little, there is no better place to look than the arts. I have not done the totals yet, but I know that the Money Lab workshop cost under $5,000. And yet—every participant was paid for their work (some paid extra due to the patronage auction), and we produced a theater piece that played to sold out houses every performance.

But to think that the benefits end there is to not understand the nature of art. The discussions the show inspired will, I hope, shape the thinking of those who saw the work. That in turn will filter out into the world of ideas, and indeed, I do think that great social change often originates from the smallest of art. I am not trying to be grandiose when I say the intention of Money Lab is to change the world. To me, every art piece does, or should.

And then there is the benefit to the artists. Besides the relatively small monetary benefits, there is the opportunity to practice their craft, to develop, to ready themselves for the next piece of work. Every art piece is merely a gateway to then next ten, the next twenty.

And to me, and to the company—the benefit is incalculable. There is the benefit of spreading the work further, because of the press it has and will receive. But also the benefit of being able to shape and refine my own ideas, which once only resided in my head, and to make them tangible and real. To communicate to others. It is more than a desire that I have to do that, it is a need, for my own happiness. If you told me that I needed to give up my art or face a 1 in 1,000 chance of blindness, is there any question which I would choose?

And yet this workshop cost only $5,000, probably less. A $100,000 donation could fund up to 20 - 30 such workshops. Or a couple of fully realized productions, with all that entails.

Now look at a health foundation. The truth is, most health foundations are relatively inefficient. In a survey of charities, it was found that it was not unusual for 50% of the costs to go towards administration. The Autism Spectrum Disorder Foundation was found recently to spend almost all of its money on administration.

But beyond bureaucracy, much of the money is spent on research, and, inevitably, much of the research leads to dead ends. Solutions are in short supply, though when they are found, they can often pay for themselves; there is a reason that drug companies spend so much on research, and the reason is money. This is not to say that one should not give nonetheless, but it should be with the understanding that the $100,000 you give will disappear into a well of $50 million or $500 million, and that the results may be as little as identifying the fact the research should now be directed elsewhere.

Does that make, say, autism or cancer or trachoma a bad charity? Of course not (though perhaps the Autism Spectrum Disorder Foundation might not be your best bet). You give to what you believe, you help the world how you can. And yes, one of those ways could be towards a museum building a new wing.

It would be unusual for them to ask. Most such developments are actually spurred by one or two large funders. But if asked, maybe you do want your money to go towards that museum. Maybe that new wing will display a new artist, and that support will lead to a career. Maybe that artist will be one of the greats. Or maybe someone walking through the museum will stop, look at a painting, and be inspired. Maybe it will change her life.

Maybe, one day, should she ever grow ill, that memory, the memory of all the art she has seen and experienced, will be her comfort.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Money Lab: Detroit, bankruptcy, and the arts

A recent article in the New York Times about the Detroit bankruptcy and the Detroit Institute of Arts brings me back to a theme I wrote about in an earlier posting about food vs. flowers. As part of Money Lab, I am trying to examine how we value art, and this current crisis put that question into stark relief.

About 10 years ago I took some trips to Detroit in order to visit someone I was dating. Anyone who has been in Detroit knows that the contrast between the city center and the suburbs is a stark one. The city is abandoned and impoverished, and there are stunning border areas where one can follow a street past boarded up buildings and then suddenly find oneself surrounded by fancy houses with beautiful lawns, literally yards apart.

There were, however, two bright spots I remember in the inner city. One was an old Beaux Arts building, which houses the still thriving Detroit Institute of Arts. The other was the new Detroit Tigers’ baseball stadium, Comerica Park.

Both were built with city money of course, one at the end of the 19th century, one in at the end of the 20th. However, it is the art museum that has continued to be dependent on public money. After many years, with the help of the tax dollars of the surrounding counties, it is now relatively solvent. However, Detroit’s bankruptcy places the museum in another sort of alarming jeopardy; the pensioners, the ones who are so unfairly in jeopardy themselves because of the bankruptcy, see an asset. The art inside is worth $2 billion. And they want it sold.

That is a bit of a blanket statement, which ignores certain nuances. The pensioners are not the city’s only debtors. Nor are they a uniform block, I am sure plenty of pensioners might regard the virtual destruction of the museum to be a tragic event. But the question, in law, is clear: will Detroit be obligated to see off the art in the museum in order to help fund the pensions?

Putting aside that legal question, which no one has yet answered, I will pose two more: what is the more economically advantageous thing to do? And does either decision have more moral weight?

Economically, it would be a clear blow, I think. Getting rid of the museum’s collection would mean that one of the few remaining bright spots in the city has been doused. The museum would have to shut down, simply because of the logistics of museum funding.  Much of the art was given with the explicit caveat that it must not be sold, and selling it would have huge repercussions on private funding, partly because it would end any chance of future art donations.  Furthermore, the blowback from the Association of Art Museum Directors would be huge: their sanctions against the National Academy Museum were extremely painful, and the NAM's offenses amounted to just two paintings. And finally, and this is the nail in the coffin really, the museum is currently being funded by tax dollars from surrounding counties, which would end immediately.  They would complain (legitimately) that their tax dollars had been spent to sustain the museum, not to get Detroit out of debt. The downtown cultural district, or what remains of it, would be effectively demolished, and the peripheral effect on surrounding businesses and restaurants will be stark. There will be even less of a reason to go into the city itself, leaving it even more of a black hole around which more enticing suburbs circle, hoping not to get sucked in.

As a comparison, the baseball stadium cost $115 million in public funding. Because that public money was essentially given to a private owner, rather than holding the stadium as a city asset, the stadium is safe. The reason behind that expenditure was the purported economic benefits of the stadium. In actuality, studies show that the money cities spend on stadiums tends to be a loss, while the smaller expenditures on museums spur enough economic growth to be a gain. But since museums are non-profit while sports activities are definitely for profit, museums often are seen as leeches. If it is economically worthwhile, why doesn’t it make money? (as a side note, it seems that even the $500 million pledged to a new hockey stadium is safe)

Of course, there may be some relief provided for pensioners, and it is hard to deny the needs of the retired population, those who have worked hard in civil service or as teachers or policeman all their lives, only to see their promised benefits stripped away. How much relief will it afford? That, I think, is debatable. How will the money be used, through what filters will it be put, how widely does it need to be distributed….will it mean a substantive increase in pension, or in essence a one time payment of another couple of hundred dollars? And what economic penalties will they pay for the further decay of the city in which they live? I suspect the benefits may be more negligible, and the loss more acute, than people initially guess.

But let us say, for the sake of argument, the benefit is a significant one. In a case such as that, what moral right is there for us to demand the preservation of a museum’s art collection? That is a murkier question. Money was spent by taxpayers so that people would have a chance to look at pretty pictures. Selling the collection doesn’t mean destroying the pictures, it means removing access to them. Some would go to private collectors. Some might be bought by other museums. What it will definitely do is remove that opportunity in Detroit. To a pensioner who doesn’t care for art, the opportunity to eat a little better is clearly the preferred alternative. And even for those who do care for art…

Well, here is a scenario. I pose it to you. Guaranteed income for the rest of your life. In return, I ask one thing. I will destroy one painting by Vincent Van Gogh. It won’t be Starry Night. But it will be Van Gogh, and it will be beautiful.

What choice do you make?

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Money Lab: Excerpt from The Neurology of the Soul

The new play I've been working on, The Neurology of the Soul, addresses not only neurology, but some of these issue I'm exploring for Money Lab.  Mark, in the play, is a neuromarketer, someone who using neurology as a basis for his marketing.  In the course of the play, Amy starts making art basic on the images of her brain, and Mark becomes interested in marketing that art. This on the cost of being an artist:

Do you know why starving artists choose to starve?
It’s a choice?
Usually.  Because, let’s face it, plenty of artists are just as smart and capable as businessmen, wouldn’t you say?
I suppose.  Yes, of course.
But they put a value on something other than money, correct?
Let’s call that thing artistic fulfillment.  How much is artistic fulfillment worth, in terms of dollars and cents?
It don’t think it can be evaluated like that.
Nonsense.  Saying something can’t be evaluated simply means that you haven’t found the right formula, yet.  Let’s take a theoretical scenario.  Let’s say you compared what artists and businessmen of similar background and education make.  And say you found that, all things being equal, an average businessman makes $50,000 per year more than the average artist.  Does that seem plausible?
More than, unfortunately.  It’s probably more than that.
OK, but let’s be conservative, and say $50,000 per year.  Over 40 years, that’s two million dollars per lifetime.  Available, for you, for any artist.  Only thing is, you need to make that choice.
Some artists make good money.
No, of course not.
And you know that, going in.  Two million dollars, on average.  Maybe, less, if you’re a successful artist.  Maybe more, if you’re a successful businessman.  Two million dollars, and the choice is yours.  Business or art?
I’ve worked in offices, too.
To make ends meet, or as a career?
Does it matter why?
I think it does.  I think that makes a difference in salary.  You’re a smart woman, Amy.  You could be making a lot of money, if that was your major goal in life.  So, two million dollars, or artistic fulfillment?  Which do you choose?
If that were the choice, and I’m not sure I buy that it is, I choose artistic fulfillment.
Exactly.  As I said, everything has a definable value.  You just have to find the right formula.
What if you are artistic, and not fulfilled?  Have you just thrown away two million?
Do you feel unfulfilled by your art?
So let’s value your fulfillment at five hundred thousand.  Maybe we can fill in the rest of that value by making a few sales.
What are you after?
A commission, of course.  If my company is partial owner of the images, perhaps we should get a small percent of sales.  Or maybe I want some artistic fulfillment myself.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Money Lab: The cost of being an artist

One of the things I am interested in exploring in Money Lab is what is the personal economic cost of being an artist.  In other words, I want to compare people of similar education, age and background, and see how they compare to other (non-artists) from New York City.  I am limiting the current exploration to the boroughs of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx because--well, because I have some data that applies, and going further at this point seems a bit overwhelming.

This will obviously be a limited and unscientific survey (not having the skills to create a true one), but I am hoping it provokes some thought and consideration. Interestingly, Dance NYC had a somewhat corollary survey that is much more developed, specifically of dancers age 21-35.  You can find it here.

Their survey shows how New York dancers truly struggle economically.  Which of course confirms my personal bias, which is to suspect that being any sort of artist costs big wagons full of money.  That comes partly from being from a family of lawyers and comparing my income to theirs.  And Partly from seeing almost all the intelligent, accomplished, educated artists I know struggle for money.  And partly from...well, it must.  C'mon.

But how much?  Can we find a dollar amount per year?  And is that dollar amount the value of art?  I can claim, as I have, that I did not know the cost when I first decided to pursue theater.  But eventually it dawned on me.  And I made a conscious choice to continue.  So in a way I have decided to spend most on my potential income on the one thing that has meant the most to me.

Somehow, realizing that I made the decision makes me feel a bit better.   Would I make the decision again, in college, knowing what I know now?  I'm not sure.  But on the other hand, I can't image a life without theater.  So, maybe...

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Money Lab: Food or a flower, what is the value of art?

In honor of Money Lab, I will be posting a series of blog posts about economics and the arts.  Here is my first, examining the question of the basic value of art.

I was taking a cab the other day, and my cab driver asked me if I had any good ideas to help the world. He was collecting.

I work in theater, I said, so all my ideas are about theater. But I do think art can help the world.

He scoffed. If you were starving, he asked, what would you like? Food? Or a flower?

This reminded me of another incident. Some years ago, Soutine’s bakery on the Upper West Side had promised the theater company a free cake for a fundraiser. The day I came to pick it up, the owner reneged. I didn’t understand it was for a theater, she told me. I thought it was a non-profit.

It is a non-profit, I said.

No, she said. Something that does good. Like cancer research. I can’t just give a free cake to anyone who asks.

That conversation dwelled with me for a while. The nature of non-profit theater is that it depends on donations. Personal donations, foundation grants, and government grants, which are a sort of donation from everyone’s tax dollar. Why do we deserve it?

I can say that without it, the world would be lacking. Only the commercial work could survive. Difficult work that examines ideas or advances the art form wouldn’t exist. The world would be a much duller and less joyful place.

To me.  But then again I’m not starving.

This is how I responded to the cab driver: I just directed a play called The Last Cyclist, written in a concentration camp. The people, all the actors there were starving. The play criticized the Nazis, and some of them risked their lives by even rehearsing it. Most of them were murdered. But then, in that moment, they felt alive. Art is a need, a basic need, dating back to the cave drawings. It helped them feel human when they might have been reduced to pure animal needs.

He was not convinced. Yes, sure, it was a distraction. But they would have been better off with some bread.

He went driving off in search of someone with better ideas.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

20 years, 200 photos

A compilation of photos of our work over the last 20 years, made for our anniversary party.  Made the midnight before, which perhaps explains the misspelling of "anniversary"  The voiceover from a moment of our presentation in 365 plays at The Public, read by Henry Akona.

Friday, June 28, 2013

20th Anniversary Memories - Eddie Goes to Poetry City

An additional memory. Jenny Mercein was in a number of UTC61 shows in the late 1990's... Here are her memories of the first, Eddie Goes to Poetry City. George McGrath, pictured left, a veteran of many UTC61 productions, recently passed away.
George McGrath and Stephen Waldrup in Eddie Goes to Poetry City
There's a Picasso quote that goes something along the lines of, "I spent my childhood trying to paint like an adult and my adulthood trying to paint like a child." Or something like that... In any case, when I think back to doing Eddie Goes to Poetry City with Edward Einhorn and UTC61, that quote comes to mind. Oh my goodness, we were so young and SO FEARLESS! I had worked with Edward on one small ten minute play when he asked me to do this Richard Foreman play at NADA. I studied Foreman in one of my theater studies classes in college, so I jumped at the chance.When I learned of his concept that I would play both Marie and Estelle, I didn't bat an eye. Sure, I would have to get in a fight with myself and slap myself on stage. Sure I'd have to simulate sexual acts in a tiny basement theater with my parents in the audience. Why not!

Julia Martin and Jenny Mercein in another
UTC61 production, Sweeney Agonistes
Edward (and Ian Hill and so many other of those wonderful collaborators from the early days on the Lower East Side back when Ludlow Street and the surrounding areas were filled with theaters and not fancy restaurants) asked me to do all sorts of crazy things and I just did it. We all did. Maybe we were too young and inexperienced to question whether or not we "could" or "should" make such wild choices. We just went for the ride. Edward cast some wonderfully fearless actors, especially the late, great George McGrath, who taught me lessons that continue to resonate today. Now, when I get scared confronting a role, or I find myself in my head judging myself, I try to think back to those days in the (yes, rat-infested) basement at NADA with Edward and the crew and just go for it! Marie and Estelle would expect nothing less.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

20th Anniversary Memories - more Fairy Tales of the Absurd and a treat...

This is the final memory in the series. You can also read about this show in the blog post by Uma Incrocci. Please join us at the 20th anniversary party on Sunday! 

Ian Hill, Peter Bean, John Blaylock, Celia Montgomery, and Uma Incrocci
In 2004, I brought Fairy Tales of the Absurd Off-Broadway. The show consisted of three one-acts: To Prepare a Hard Boiled Egg, a monologue by Ionesco, translated by me, and performed by Peter Brown. Tales for Children, based on short stories by Ionesco, adapted by me, translated by Karen Ott, and performed by Celia Montgomery, John Blaylock, and Uma Incrocci. And finally One Head Too Many, written by me, and performed by all of the above plus Ian W. Hill. It was a children's play, with actors and puppets and an absurdist sensibility that appealed equally to adults. It originated in the Ionesco Festival, played the Fringe, and then moved Off-Broadway.

Every time I told theater veterans that UTC61 was going Off-Broadway, they had one piece of advice:

Uma Incrocci, John Blaylock, and "Josette"

The budget you have is unrealistic, they told me. I had raised over $60,000, but they told me it would take $200,000 at least. For a four week run, with five actors, in a 160 seat theater, with an Equity agreement. Not possible.

I would probably give someone the same advice myself, now. But at the time, I ignored it. The Pearl Theater was giving us a good deal on the theater. Since we had done the show in the Fringe, and before that we had done pieces in the Ionesco Festival, rehearsal time would be at a minimum. I had an almost free rehearsal space in my brother's building. My talented assistant, Glory, had found me a crack team of interns that would handle all the little stuff. I was going to ask every friend I knew to volunteer to help. And I myself was planning to take on as many jobs as possible: director of the whole evening, writer of one play, translator of a second, adapter for the third, producer, general manager, company manger, production manager, chief marketer, chief worrier.

John Blaylock. Uma Incrocci, and Celia Montgomery
When it was done, we had put up a full production that felt like Off-Broadway. We had done it on budget. We had received a rave from the Times (twice, actually, including the children's section review from Laurel Graeber), and nothing but good reviews all round.

We also often played to houses that were only a quarter full. And many publications waited till the last week to reserve, then realized there wasn't time to go to print. We lost a lot of money. I worked nonstop for months, and felt so exhausted I couldn't move.

I saw my show on the board of TKTS. I got some of my actors into Equity. I brought the people who I had been working with for years through the Off-Broadway process.

And it was a damn good show.

It was worth it.

Post script, of sorts: A special treat. When we were doing The Ionesco Festival, Peter Brown (he was Brown then, since he wasn't in Equity yet), traveled from theater to theater doing the monologue I translated, To Prepare a Hard Boiled Egg. It had never before been translated into English, and it remains one of my favorite little Ionesco bits. You can hear him here, in this audio recording:

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

20th Anniversary Memories - Unauthorized Magic in Oz

The houses from Unauthorized Magic
Rarely do I get to feel like a rock star.

However, with one small production, a toy theater piece called Unauthorized Magic in Oz, I did.

Unauthorized Magic was a rare instance where I crossed my children’s books with my theater.  It was created for Great Small Works’ Toy Theater Festival, at St. Ann’s Warehouse.  It existed in two small but beautiful houses, built by Barry Weil and Berit Johnson and based on Eric Shanower’s illustrations of my Oz books.  Unusually, I performed a role, along with fellow cast members Tanya Khordoc, Barry Weil, and Talaura Harms.

The experience with Great Small Works is a great one.  There is a new Toy Theater Festival coming soon (featuring frequent collaborators Tanya Khordoc and Barry Weil’s play, Secrets History Remembers), and I highly recommend it.  We were in an evening with Brian Selznik’s play about Christine Jorgensen, which I loved.

The audiences oohed and aahed appropriately at the puppetry flourishes, but the Oz references escaped many.  Then we were asked to bring the show to the Munchkin Convention, the East Coast gathering of Oz fans being held in Princeton, New Jersey.

An audience full of Oz fans, many of whom had read my books (Paradox in Oz and The Living House of Oz), was a very exciting event.  They were enthusiastic about and responsive to every reference.  Eric, and the publisher David Maxine, also had a chance to see the work.  If a play ever had its ideal audience, it was then.
Tempus fugit!  Tanya Khordoc puppeteers.

Later, we brought the show to the Looking Glass Theater, and it received a wonderful review from Laurel Graeber at The New York Times ("exquisitely ingenious!").  But having an Oz audience who knew my work so intimately was really my ideal experience.

You can see a performance on YouTube—not, I think, the same as in person (and that particular show had definite glitches), but still, worth checking out, especially if you are a fan of Oz!

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Tragedy of the Village Voice

The Village Voice introduced me to New York theater.

In 1990, when I was a college student, I saw the first show in New York that was somewhere other than Broadway. It was well beyond Broadway—in the Lower East Side, in a tiny venue called House of Candles, produced by the Independent Theater Company, one of the originals in what many of us now call indie theater. I went because I had read a short blurb in the Voice, and they were producing one of my favorite shows, Ionesco’s Rhinoceros.

The cab driver that picked me up at Penn Station refused to drive me all the way to the theater. “Why do you want to go into that neighborhood?” he asked. “I’m seeing a French absurdist play,” I told him. “Drugs,” he concluded. He let me out at the corner of Houston and 1st Avenue.

When I came to New York, the Voice was the one publication I was sure to read to know what was going on in downtown theater (and the downtown art scene in general) It was more important to me than the Times. I didn’t always agree with Michael Feingold, but I always respected and enjoyed his reviews and the fact that he valued deep critical analysis. But the Voice was not just Feingold, it was a host of reviewers engaged with downtown theater: Charles McNulty, Alissa Solomon, Alexis Soloski, Jorge Morales, and the many freelance reviewers (like my friend Trav SD) who covered the independent theater scene.  I am grateful to them all.

And of course there was the OBIES, the awards ceremony seemingly made to celebrate that scene. Thank goodness, I thought, we have an advocate. The OBIES championed the lesser known but valuable artists such as Richard Foreman, Vaclav Havel, Ellen Stewart, and all who struggled to create art without a giant budget. Foreman told me that the only reason he survived as an artist is because of one Voice reviewer who continued to believe in his work. This is for us, I believed.

The Voice was the first paper to review my work, back when I directed a show at Nada, just around the corner from House of Candles. The Lower East Side was slightly more respectable, by then—cab drivers would drive in, though the nightclubs and hipsters hadn’t yet arrived. It devoted a full page lead article to my first downtown festival, the Ionesco Festival, at a time when few other publications bothered to cover it.

In fact, thanks to Joe Holladay, the Voice sponsored the festival, as it did my next two festivals as well, providing advertising at a very discounted price because they believed in the importance of the work.

A few years ago, suddenly people started getting fired. It started with editors. Then freelancers. Then some prominent names, such as Hoberman in film. Dance was cut out altogether. The Voice stopped reviewing my shows. It stopped reviewing almost any small budget show. The one remaining working reviewer was Michael Feingold, and one man with one column can only review so much. He covered the major productions, but downtown was forgotten.

But I knew the rot had crept in earlier. Because, frankly, the Voice had lost its way. It had lost its identity. Even in the OBIES, which I attended at first enthusiastically, I realized that the ceremony had been transforming to one of glamour and big budget self-congratulation. Occasionally a true downtown artist would slip in, and the recognition would be well deserved and deeply needed. Metropolitan Theater, Peculiar, The Ice Factory. But rare was the show financed under $250,000, and the majority of the work came from theater institutions with multimillion dollar budgets: Manhattan Theater Club, The Public, Roundabout, Classic Stage Company, New York Theater Workshop. Soho Rep seemed small and scrappy by comparison. Movie stars gave out the rewards and often movie stars received them. It has become not so much a celebration of Off-Broadway as it was of Little Broadway.

I have been thinking for a while about talking about what’s wrong with the Voice, why it has lost its way, and what it can do about it. How it can regain its spirit. Its name. It is called The Village Voice. The voice of Greenwich Village, from the time when the village was the home to bohemian artists. What is it the paper now? What has it become?  Who do they expect the readers to be, when it has lost its identity?

I write now even though I suspect it is too late to have a rallying call. The Times reports two chief editors have quit rather than fire the five (of twenty) staff members demanded. On Michael Feingold’s page appeared a status report: “It looks like I may need a job.”

Am I writing an obituary for a once great paper? Perhaps. The OBIES are on May 20. I wasn’t planning to go, I had given up on the spectacle, and I’ll be busy in tech But maybe there’s one last chance for the voice of the village to be heard. Fellow theater artists, if you do go to the OBIES, if by some reason you know an uptown star that will be handed a piece of paper giving him or her downtown cred, it’s time to speak. It may be past time.

New York has too few reporters left that care about the smaller theaters. Recently, I wrote about the demise of Backstage. That was sad. This is a full on tragedy.

Friday, April 26, 2013

20th Anniversary Memories - Cat's Cradle, Brains & Puppets, & Hiroshima

Barry Weil in Brains and Puppets

Hi, Barry Weil of Evolve Company here. My creative partner Tanya Khordoc and I are puppeteers, and our company has been given some amazing opportunities (as well as some really weird challenges) through the work we’ve done with UTC61. When Edward asked me to write a reminiscence of the 2008 Walkerspace plays (Cat’s Cradle, Brains & Puppets and Hiroshima: Crucible of Light), I have to admit that it took me a while to actually come up with anything. Not because it was an uneventful experience – far from it. It’s just that Tanya and I were so involved in all three plays that our memories are a very tired blur.

At one point, while Cat’s Cradle was running, I remember ending an evening performance and heading uptown to Edward’s place to help Tanya cut out Brains & Puppets shadow figures for hours, catnapping on Edward’s couch briefly and then getting up to perform a matinee of Cat’s Cradle. Tanya’s schedule was similar, though she probably wins the crazy award for setting her model of the Trinity nuclear site watchtower on fire in her living room (not out of frustration, I should add, but for filming purposes).
One of many models from Cat's Cradle

Confused? It went down like this: Tanya and I designed and built two huge bakers’ racks full of puppet/models for Cat’s Cradle, which I puppeteered while also having an acting role in the production. Tanya created stop-motion models for Hiroshima, and we each directed, designed and performed one of Edward’s two single-person plays that made up Brains & Puppets. On top of that, I designed the brochure and graphic art for the entire endeavor. Now, when you’re in college, staying up all night is fun, and you can do that amount of work without breaking a sweat. When you’re forty and attempting it…well, you just want to lie down for a few minutes. Or a week.

So why would anyone in their right mind do things like this? Well, the plays were amazing, and we’d have to have been insane not to be a part of them. How often do you get to create a model airplane that mounts to a video camera and crashes into a sand castle, or a pair of elegant Leonardo da Vinci wings? A tiny period UNIVAC computer decorated for a Christmas party, or Matisse and Kandinsky paintings that come to life? A multicolored dragon with an East European growl, or a miniature Caribbean dictatorship with its own flag, buildings, hotels, shantytown and taxicabs?
Tanya Khordoc in Brains and Puppets

We’ve always loved the way UTC61 incorporates puppetry into its work, and appreciates its value as a unique form of theatre. And Edward has always shared our joy in getting to create and use cool things. That’s definitely worth a few days’ sleep. Over the years, Evolve has provided UTC #61 with living houses, electronic sheep and intricate temple arks that contain shadow puppet shows. And we always look forward to hearing a crazy idea and realizing there’s no way we can say no.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

20th Anniversary Memories - Lysistrata

Part of the cast of Lysistrata
Lysistrata was a huge and complicated endeavor. It was marked by difficulties with the co-producer and the publicist, difficulties that I won’t be exploring too deeply here but definitely colored my experience. It also had a directorial concept (my own) that proved difficult to fully realize, logistically. But more on that later.

On the positive side, the show included a number of talented actors and a very talented group of assistant directors, including my current Associate Artistic Director, Henry Akona. It also inspired a translation/adaptation I am quite proud of, now printed by Theater 61 Press. The translation has inspired a surprising number of productions, particularly university productions, including shows in Cambridge, Edinburgh, and Aachen, Germany.

I had had a brainstorm about performing Lysistrata with a cast of 100. It seemed doable. The amount of resumes I receive for each show is overwhelming, and it seemed to me that a huge company could be assembled. The chorus would become a huge environmental element that would immerse the audience in the Bacchanalia that was the play.

Part of the cast of Lysistrata
It was a good concept in many ways. I thought it would attract some press, and it did attract some press. And I do think I was right, it was doable. The fact that it didn’t happen as envisioned…well, there’s more to this particular story.

The space we used was actually the basement of a bar in DUMBO, Brooklyn, right next to St. Ann’s Warehouse. At the time it was a large, empty space, except for some distinctive architectural details, like its Ionic columns and two-story wrought iron stairway. It seemed ideal for an environmental production.

For the principal performers, we had a good and reliable bunch. Our trouble was the chorus. We were a non-Equity show, because we had signed on to an open ended run. But attracting enough actors for a non-Equity Brooklyn show to fill out a chorus of 100 turned out to be a logistical problem. Yes, they came. But yes, they went. The turnaround in chorus members was tremendous, and we were in constant state of casting and recasting.

Those we did keep were a mixed bunch. Some were terrific, stalwart cast members with talent. Some had never done a show before, and I remember receiving a call from one after a show saying “I got lost walking from the subway, and by the time I figured out I had walked the wrong way, I felt so upset that I decided to go home.”

Part of the cast of Lysistrata, with Corey Einbinder, chorus leader
By the time we were in opening week, we may (or may not) have had actors who had, at least briefly, called themselves members of the cast, but we certainly did not have 100 cast members onstage, more in the realm of 50. In truth, we needed only about 60 to make the cast seem full, but we were a bit short of that. The program listed all who had ever been part of our cast, and a few who hadn’t, with transparently absurd names like Caveman Coletti. And then the flu hit… On the night reviewers came, I think there were 35 people onstage, and our claims of a large cast had become increasingly questionable.

Still, those who were there did a game job, and a few nights later with the full cast onstage I felt proud a quite a few moments onstage. And I do think that those involved enjoyed their experience. We got some good reviews, mixed in with a scathing one written on the day of 35 actors. Many of the actors have continued to work on UTC61 productions. And the script, as I mentioned, has lived on in numerous productions.

Sometime I would love to do the play again and try to realize my original vision. I remain convinced it can be done...though I don't know when I would have the energy to try to achieve this particular vision, once more.

Monday, April 8, 2013

On Backstage's plan to end reviews, and why it matters

Backstage has announced to its reviewers that after April, there will be no more reviews printed. The reason given, by Executive Editor Daniel Halloway, is the following:
An analysis of metric data by our executive team led to the conclusion that too few readers are engaging our reviews for Backstage to continue to invest resources in producing them. We will be shifting those resources primarily to the creation of additional advice, news, and features content.”
This is why it matters:

Let us put aside the hollow thinking that is behind this “metric data.” Clearly, Backstage is struggling. It did not anticipate the internet age, and as a casting tool, it has been overtaken by Actor’s Access. Few people rely on Backstage for theater news.

It had, in fact, one remaining unique aspect. Its reviews. As a print publication, the breadth of its reviews was unmatched. The only two publications the came close in terms of breadth were The New York Times and Time Out, and even they were not able to cover the number of independent theater productions that Backstage covered. True, there are blogs that cover theater as well. One, nytheatre.com, does an incredible job in its breadth, which no other website or publication matches. But blogs and unpaid reviewers are still not given the same respect that a publication which pays its reviewers, like Backstage, receives.

Who was its audience? Theater people, almost exclusively. Other actors, writers, and directors. Perhaps a grantor or an agent who received a clipping. Other reviewers.  It could be quoted and the quote would be recognized and respected, not as much as the Times but more than a random blog, just because of the brand recognition.

But those reviews meant something. They could be sent to potential audience members, posted on Facebook, on Twitter, linked to on a website or in an email. They could help you a grant, or maybe help to get an agent. They could encourage other reviewers could come. And frankly, they meant something to those in the show. Somebody saw the show, thought about the show, wrote some words, and cared.

Theater may be thrown out like a curse word by in congress, it may be disrespected and underpaid, but at least we cared about ourselves. We were paying attention, we knew we were valuable and this publication, a publication made to be read by those in the industry, cared about the industry

Unlike other theater towns, we have only a few theater publications. The reason the Times is considered so powerful is there is so little competition. When I put up a show, when I am lucky at least, I expect to be in three print publications. The New York Times, Time Out, and Backstage. Once there was the Village Voice, but ironically the publication that still hosts the Obies gave up on reviewing independent theater years ago.

And when shows aren't reviewed, it isn't just artists who suffer, it's the community as a whole.  An artist who practices good work in obscurity is a loss to the art form.  And the documentation of our theater is something not to be taken for granted.  With an ephemeral art form, we need more than any art to be written about in order to be preserved,

I talk about reviews sometimes as if they a toss of the dice. I believe that good shows, that take risks, are not always loved by everyone. They have their adherents, they have their detractors. This is normal, it is that way with good movies and good books. The difference is, the gambling is so much more acute, when there are fewer times to throw the dice. Backstage, gone. Time Out—reviewer got ill, no replacement available. The New York Times—snake eyes.

Three months, six months, a year of work, done.

Next roller.

Friday, March 29, 2013

The Havel Collection: Ela, Hela, and the Hitch

Ela, Hela, and the Hitch is included in the Havel Collection as part of the book the contains The Pig

Ela, Hela, and the Hitch was, in a way, Václav Havel’s first play. It was written for the Artistic Director of the Theatre on the Balustrade, Ivan Vyskočil, as part of a longer evening, entitled Hitchhiking. Along with Ela, Hela, and the Hitch, Havel also wrote a sketch called Motormorphosis. Reportedly, Vyskočil altered Havel’s sketches for the performance, though this text is Havel’s original.

After Havel’s success with his first full length, The Garden Party, these earlier efforts were quickly forgotten. They were relatively recently rediscovered, through the detective work of a Czech theater scholar, Lenka Jungmannová. Motormorphosis was performed at the Havel Festival in 2006, a world premiere of the text as written. Ela, Hela, and the Hitch premiered in English translation following a revival of Motormorphosis at New York’s Bohemian National Hall in 2011.

What is particularly interesting about Ela, Hela, and the Hitch is the way it lays bare Ionesco’s influence on Havel. The rhythms of the play echo everything from The Bald Soprano to Salutations. Like Ionesco, Havel uses comic repetition that culminates in an explosion of language, during which words become meaningless, replaced only by the more visceral meaning one can attach to pure sound.

Another interesting side note is the societal conflict reflected in the main dilemma. Like many older members of the Czechoslovak upper middle class in 1961 (the year the play was written), Ela and Hela spoke German at school, and their behavior is definitely reflective of the German influence on their upbringing. They are separated from society not only because of their age, but because the younger generation had cut its ties with Germany.

So what Havel is doing is using Ionesco’s formal techniques, which Ionesco used primarily to critique humanity’s doomed attempts at communication, and applying those techniques to a societal critique. Which is, in fact, a prelude to what Havel would do throughout the rest of his playwriting career.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

20th Anniversary Memories: 24/7 Fest

Dave Hanson looking out at New York
Dave Hanson, a friend and playwright who actually was in attendance in at the first ever UTC61 show, Artist Descending a Staircase (and knows me long enough to call me "Ed"), tells about his experience in our 24/7 Fest, seven straight days of 24 hour plays on different themes.  Dave and I met as interns at New Dramatists.  Now Dave does theater in Kansas City, where I participated in a similar project last year.

Ok, I'll be honest when Ed called me up to participate as a playwright in something called 24/7 I didn't know exactly what to think. You see, I'm not an actor or director or a designer or any of those kinds of theater jobs that would have led me to cross paths with the idea of writing a short play in a night and then fully staging it the next day. I would find out later that lots of people do these things. But at that moment, waiting to get on a plane to go from Kansas City to New York to be in two rounds of the 24/7 festival what I was thinking was who the hell does this? Of course, Ed Einhorn does this. And thank god he does.

I attended the performances the night before my first round came out. I was part of the neuro night. Whatever our play was, it was to be about something in the brain. It also had to include the following: someone had to die, we had to think we were in one place but really be in another, somebody had to sit in a chair, and the last requirement (which was picked from a jar because again it's Ed) was that there had to be a talking animal.

So I go to my room at the YMCA - yes folks, I went to New York and stayed at the West Side YMCA because it was very affordable. I stayed up to like 2 AM that night writing my play - Theater of the Mind. I know the title kind of fit with the whole Neuro theme. I show up at 8 AM at the theater the next morning and that's when all kinds of wonderful and terrible began.

You see it's not just good enough to write a play in less than 12 hours. These puppies were going to be fully staged. You know memorized, blocked, lighting cues, and memorized. I met my director-- Alexander was his name--and my cast. It was a great cast and very, very honest. I'll admit that I wrote a drama and very well difficult scene for the actress who was assigned to my cast. I think it was Nancy Nagrant. She read my play, twice and then ... and I remember this clearly ... looked at the director and then me and said, "You bastard, I'm only doing this part twice. You get once in rehearsal and once in the performance."

Like I said, I'm not an actor but I did know this wasn't the moment to quibble over such things. I remember thinking, I've either written a really great scene or well... it really sucked. We were really too busy to think much about it. Well, to be fair, the director and the cast was too busy. I was floored by what these people could get done. I mean they were really doing it. Well, up to and including complete memorization of the lines. Honestly, the whole memorization thing... well, the cast never actually got through an entire run through of the play before curtain with all the lines memorized. But I liked what I saw and I took my customary seat to watch a play of mine... far back corner on the right with at least two seats between me and anybody else.

The energy in the theater was crazy as the curtain came up. My play wasn't first and it wasn't last, but I still remember when it happened. It truly was the magic of the theater. The performances sparkled. The big scene... memorable. One of those moments when the whole theater goes really, really quiet. Then... then it was over.

The cast and I went to drinks that night and it was clear we had all bonded a bit over the day. Not like I'd donate my kidney to you... although I would consider it - especially for Nancy because you owe something to someone who calls you a bastard. What I think we all realized around that table was there was a feeling that we didn't really want to let go.

Doing theater is one of the hardest things in the world to pull off. You can't fix it in editing. You don't get to redo a performance in front of an audience. Usually, you don't get to do it period. And we did it all in less than 24 hours. Now, it is interesting to note that for most plays the prevailing theory is that they must be developed for months and months before they are ready for the light of day. I participated in two rounds of the festival and can report that both plays received full productions later on in my writing career. Maybe there is something to the madness. A madness that really could only be pulled off by Ed Einhorn. So to Ed, I have only one thing to say...

You bastard. I know it's odd but it really worked out for me last time so it's my new term of endearment.

Thanks Ed for 20 years and thanks for 24/7.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Iphiegnia in Aulis: The lives of 10,000

Laura Hartle as Iphigenia
Photo by RIchard Termine
Every night in the theater, there is a moment which I know will get an audible reaction, sometimes a gasp, sometimes a snicker. After she has made the decision to let herself be sacrificed, Iphigenia proudly declares: "One man’s life is worth more than the lives of ten thousand women."

Of course, it sounds ridiculous to us. It sounded ridiculous to me, as I translated the play, and I briefly considered if there was a way to make it more...palatable.

There wasn't.

But in rehearsals, I became fond of the line, in a perverse way.

In order for Iphigenia to make the transition from sacrifice to willing martyr, she has to truly believe and buy into everything she has been taught by her father and her society. That the Trojans are barbarians. That war means freedom. That a human sacrifice is a heroic martyrdom. And that a man's life is worth ten thousand women.

Somehow, we accept the other statements, because they are closer to statements we hear in our own society. But when we hear a statement that is clearly from another era, another mindset, it is jarring. It should be jarring. But it is of a piece. Just because some propaganda is longer lasting than others doesn't mean it isn't equally propaganda. Snicker at it, perhaps, but then ask whether in a thousand years someone will be snickering at us.

Is Iphigenia in Aulis misogynist? Perhaps. It certainly is from a somewhat misogynist society, though there are aspects of the play, from Klytemnestra to the chorus, that have a more feminist outlook. The blaming and shaming of Helen has a sexist tinge, though it is of a piece of the societal shaming of adulterers; even Jason suffered for his betrayal of Medea.

But that one line, to me, isn't misogynist. That line is a wake up call. Clearly, we see before us a woman whose life is worth at least as much as any man, perhaps more than many. Yet she has been formed by the society she is in, and she believes what the society believes.

In a play about the power of the mob, this is in fact the mob's greatest power. It lies not in its strength of arms, but in its conventional wisdom, in the banal but dangerous things everyone accepts, without questioning. Unless, perhaps, one had two and a half thousand years in which to reflect.

Monday, February 18, 2013

20th Anniversary Memories: A Shylock

Uma Incrocci and John Blaylock in
Fairy Tales of the Absurd
John Blaylock, who first performed with us back in 1996, when he played the lead, Jacob Levy, in A Shylock, tells of his memory of his first day with UTC61.  In a side note:  I had been listening to actors read a monologue from the play all day, and I was feeling in despair by time he arrived, thinking perhaps it was the fault of the monologue, not the actors.  Then John came in and let me live longer in the delusion that I should be a writer...

Well, although I go back pretty far with UTC61, there are certainly folks who go back farther than I do, and also have done far more than I have with the company. Still, I guess it's best to start RIGHT at the beginning, and it's not a stretch for me to do so with, literally, my first day on the job…

I had been cast as Dr. Jacob Levy in the UTC61 production of A Shylock back in 1996. As fate, (or perhaps more accurately, my own particular reverse luck) would have it, I had only just recently moved to Brooklyn from the Upper West Side. The first rehearsal for A Shylock was to be held at a location on, you guessed it, the Upper West Side. Had I still lived on West 75th Street, I could have taken a leisurely stroll into the 90's for the rehearsal. Instead, on this Saturday morning, I had to hike it in from the Park Slope section of Brooklyn. Not that this is a big deal, but we all know what the subways can be like, particularly on the weekends. Good native New Yorker that I am, I allowed PLENTY of extra travel time but, needless to say, to no avail. At 5 minutes after the appointed time for our first reading, I'm fast-walking down the block to the rehearsal location. Just as I spy the correct address, I also notice a tall, chisel-featured gent dismounting from a motorcycle in front of the same address. He calls out to me when I turn onto the steps, asking if I'm there for the Shylock rehearsal. When I reply that I am, he introduces himself as Dan Leventritt, who will be playing the titular character. I introduce myself along with my own character name, and we enter the building together. Naturally, I'm silently pleased that while I still feel like an idiot for being late to the first rehearsal, at least I'm not alone. Once we're in the rehearsal room, Edward Einhorn greets us both pleasantly and it's clear that he and Dan have worked together before. I'm thinking this is more good luck, because Edward's not going to chastise me for being late when here I am walking in with someone who is clearly both friend and colleague. As we are settling ourselves down at the table with the rest of the cast -- no mention whatsoever having been made of our tardiness at this point -- and I am breathing a SERIOUS inner sigh of relief, Mr. Leventritt announces to the group, "Sorry we were a bit late, everyone. Actually, I would have been on time, but Blaylock over here was talking my ear off outside, like, forever and so, well, here we are." To this day I hope that the laughter that ensued masked the redness of my face, but that little episode set the tone for the work on that show and every one that I've done with Edward Einhorn and the UTC61 since that day. Namely, that it's always been that all-too-rare combination of some of the best fun and most rewarding theatrical work that I've had the pleasure to experience in my career.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

20th Anniversary Memories: Linguish

Jospehine Cashman, Max Zener, and Ken Simon in Linguish
Actor and Artistic Board member Josephine Cashman writes about Linguish:

My friends have often (and fairly) accused me of being a word nerd. It is fitting, therefore, that I was cast in Untitled Theater Company’s play about language and communication. I cheerfully told my friends that Linguish was like No Exit with a dash of The Outer Limits, but it’s core, I believe that this play is about the need for human communication. That need is so strong that in the absence of one language, humans will create another one.

In Linguish, (part of UTC’61s Neurofest), four people catch a contagious form of Aphasia and are quarantined together. I enjoyed investigating the precise and delicate text of Edward’s delicious word salad, and playing Beth became a very rewarding experience for me. Our characters may have been unwillingly forced to deal with each another, but I think it’s safe to say that the cast bonded quite happily. Onstage our characters tickled, kissed, fought, laughed and quibbled over Latin pronunciation (classical or medieval?). Offstage we had fiery conversations about the rules of our onstage card game “pinochle” (nothing like the actual game). Even though Edward told us there were no rules to the game, we made them up anyway. During one rehearsal, the “Linguish” language took on a life of its own as one day I mistakenly renamed our “Pinochle” game as “Neepocle.” Somehow, the nickname stuck and became a part of the show. It was a hilarious but telling moment about how fluid language can be, and how easily we took to the new name.

also had a second life, when we went to Chicago to perform for rooms full of neurologists. A heady experience indeed. Imagine performing the different forms of aphasia for a room full of experts, studying our every movement and the language we used. Happily, they not only understood what the play was about, but they enthusiastically participated in the discussions afterwards. I remember having a talk with a doctor after a performance, trying to explain the rules of our fictional; Neepocle/Pinochle game, simply because he thought it looked fun to play. From Mirroring Neurons to made-up card games, acting Linguish was an amazing experience; I got to work with actors I admired in a play full of delicious challenges. What more could an actor want?

Monday, February 11, 2013

20th Anniversary Memories: The Velvet Oratorio

Tony Torn and Peter Bean in The Velvet Oratorio
Tony Torn (soon appearing on Broadway in Breakfast at Tiffany's) tells his memory of The Velvet Oratorio, performed in honor of the 20th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution.  We had a performance at the Walter Bruno Theater at the Lincoln Center Library, then at the beautiful Bohemian National Hall, for a Czech audience.  We plan to revive the show for the 25th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution!

When we performed The Velvet Oratorio at the Bohemian National Hall, we were all very nervous to perform before a Czech audience, many of whom had lived through the events depicted. The show itself was full of gremlins that night. Lots of small things went wrong.  In my scene as a drunken police interrogator, I set down my glass of beer a little too hard and the entire table flipped over. Fortunately the glass was plastic and the smell of spilled beer gave the whole scene a atmospheric veracity. But later, in a climactic moment, the chorus in which I was part got confused and completely lost the choreography that Henry had so painstakingly mapped out. It was a hair raising night on stage for sure. But the ovation was so warm, and the gratitude of the crowd so overwhelming, that this performance became one of my most cherished experiences in the theater.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

20th Anniversary Memories: Ken Simon

Ken Simon in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Actor and Artistic Board Member Ken Simon shares his memories of Rhinoceros, Linguish, The Memo, and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

My association with Untitled Theater Company #61 began in 2001, with the production of Rhinoceros as part of UTC61's Ionesco Festival (my first of three UTC61 festivals [actually four, if you count the 24/7 Fest - EE]). From a carnival-looking Cafe Proprietor to an officious Office Manager to a green-skinned rhinoceros (don't ask), it was a very enjoyable show (as was the reading we did of translated French conversation lessons that Eugene Ionesco had written for a friend...when UTC61 festivals, it festivals) and the start of an important part of my performing career.

There was the production of Linguish in January 2006 written and directed by Edward Einhorn, Artistic Director of UTC61 (and for whom people have been mistaking me since I have known him) as part of UTC61's NeuroFest, a festival of original plays about neurological conditions. It was a play about four people quarantined with a virus (fictional) that caused various types of aphasia (real neurological disorder). I was cast as Michael, a lawyer so snarky and sarcastic that after one scene rehearsal, I told my other castmates that I didn't understand why they just didn't kill me and eat me. In fact, a castmate, Uma, told me that one of her friend's said, "That guy who played the lawyer, he must be a real jerk." To which Uma said that she told them, "No, he's really very nice." Which is an amazing things for an actor to hear...and maybe why non-actors have a hard time knowing how to compliment actors. And we were invited to perform the show again at the American Academy of Neurology's 60th Annual Meeting in 2008. You just never know where UTC61 will take you.

In the same year as Linguish, November 2006, I had the privilege of working on an original translation of The Memo by Vaclav Havel as part of UTC61's Havel Fest (did I mention we've done a number of festivals?) The Memo was my first introduction to President Havel's work and even more, to President Havel himself, as he was an audience member for one of our performances. I was at first confused why everyone else was running to the dressing room when the show was over...until I heard the former President of the Czech Republic had been in the audience and then I joined the running mob (it was a large cast) for him to sign my script as well. I've had the opportunity to meet Elie Wiesel (late '90s) and formed a theory then about truly great people; that theory was further cemented in meeting this playwright/world leader: a distinguishing characteristic of the truly great is their humility and appreciation of people. So not only do you not know where UTC61 will take you, but you don't know who will be brought to you by UTC61.

In December 2010, I was part of the Edward's original adaptation of the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (the basis for Ridley Scott's movie, Blade Runner) by Philip K. Dick. I played Isidore. A shorthand way I described him was as "a radiation-affected moron" (which is actually kinder than the nickname given to him throughout the script, ie, "chickenhead", which was used to great delight during rehearsal by one of my castmates, Alex, who played Deckard. But underneath this bantering, and possibly to offset the necessary approach, was a great affection I felt for my character. Part of his backstory that led to these terms was that he is a man degraded by the radiation of the Earth's last world war to the point that his cognitive abilities are weakening and likely to grow weaker. But what I loved about him, and the way Edward had written him that fed into portraying him, was a sense of ever-present courage that expressed itself in optimism and perseverance. Of all the characters I've portrayed, I think I care most about Isidore. And that may be why it was also easy, and maybe necessary, to joke about him, because getting too caught up in pathos for one's character actually detracts from it. I wanted to honor the character by making sure he stayed a human being, who lusted and eventually fell in love with the android using him; who experienced anger and despair when he found out the philosophy upon which he based his whole life and hopes was a lie; who with all his limitations and the pain he experiences, ends the play sadder but maybe a little wiser. Which is a pretty amazing thing when you're degrading from the radiation around you. It was an honor to play Isidore, a transcendent experience for me as a performer, and I will be forever grateful to Edward and UTC61 for the opportunity.

Happy 20th Anniversary, Untitled Theater Company #61. As my relatives would say, "May you live to be 120, and never know a day of suffering."

Friday, February 8, 2013

Agamemnon's Prologue from Iphigenia in Aulis

Michael Bertolini as Agamemnon
Lynn Berg as the Servant
Like many Greek dramas, Iphigenia in Aulis starts off with a monologue of exposition...sort of The Story So Far of the Trojan War.  However, in most translations, this exposition is stuck in the middle of Scene One.  Most scholars agree that this is an error of transcription, and many believe that the majority of Scene One was written by another author besides Euripides.  Later, those two sections, the prologue and the first scene, were awkwardly tied together.  Essentially, the Servant says to Agamemnon, "tell me what's wrong," and in response Agamemnon provides a lengthy narrative.

In my version, I bring the prologue to the top of the show, where I believe it began.  This did create a few logistical problems.  The first line(s) of the prologue are lost, and I needed to tie together the Servant's question and the next portion of the dialogue.  The latter section was a little tricky, but I accomplished it by preserving a few lines of the prologue in the scene, and then played a little with the wording of my translation to make it flow more smoothly.  And for the opening words...I added three.  "I am Agamemnon."  Thus do I improve on Euripides.

Here is the prologue, for those interested:

I am Agamemnon. My wife Klytemnestra was one of three daughters born to Leda, daughter of Thestius, the other two being Phoebe and Helen. As Helen was the most beautiful of the three, she had every young man of any distinction in Achaea vying for her hand. The competition frequently became so violent that some of her suitors came close to murdering each other. Helen’s father wasn’t sure how he could choose a suitor, and he began to wonder whether he should marry her off at all. Finally, a solution came to him. He made all of Helen’s suitors take an unbreakable oath. They joined hands, poured offerings of wine, and burned a sacrifice. “Whoever wins Helen as his wife,” they swore, “will have our allegiance. Should any man try to steal Helen away from her husband, we will all join as one to chase him down, whoever he is, whether Achaean or foreign, and we will make war upon his city until it is burned to the ground.” Once Helen’s father had cleverly engineered this oath, he told his daughter to go wherever love’s sweet breath might lead. It led her to my brother, Menelaus, though I dearly wish it hadn’t.

After some time, a Trojan man named Paris arrived in Sparta. It was said that Paris had once judged a beauty contest in which Aphrodite herself had taken part. He was dressed in elaborate barbarian robes, covered with jewels and flowers. He declared his love for Helen. She declared her love for him. So, while Menelaus was occupied elsewhere, Paris stole away with Helen, bringing her to Troy. Menelaus was beside himself in fury. He roared through Achaea and demanded that all of Helen’s onetime suitors should remember their oath and help him hunt down Paris. Soon all of Achaea was in arms.

And now here we are at the straits of Aulis, with our ships, our troops, our horses, and our armaments. Because Menelaus is my brother, I have been given the honor of being the general. It is an honor I would gladly give away, if I could.

But we cannot move from here. The wind thwarts us. We cannot sail. In despair, we turned to Kalchas, a great prophet, who told us there is only one hope, if we wished to ever leave this place. My daughter, Iphigenia, must be sacrificed to Artemis. Then, and only then, he said, would the wind blow us in the direction of Troy, which would fall beneath our might.

“Sound the trumpet,” I told my herald. “Our war is done. I will not kill my daughter.” But my brother overwhelmed me with his pleas and his demands until I agreed to commit this horror, this unspeakable act. I sent a message to my wife. It told her to bring our daughter here to Aulis. I wrote that Iphigenia would be wed to Achilles, our greatest soldier. I wrote that Achilles would not sail with us unless he was married to my own daughter, unless he could one day go home to her.It was a lie, a fake marriage, a base trick. Only Kalchas, Odysseus, Menelaus, and I know the truth. And now I realize that I have made a grave error, an error that must immediately be remedied.