Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Finding Text: Writing the Libretto for the Velvet Oratorio

 A note about my process of using found text in The Velvet Oratorio:

Anna Marie Sell (Aide) and
Andrea Gallo (Shirley Temple Black)
The first thing I knew when beginning this project was that I needed to do a lot of research. I knew a fair amount about Czechoslovakia and The Velvet Revolution, because I had done some research before putting together the Havel Festival in 2006, but I wanted more. I wanted to know what it felt like to be in Czechoslovakia in 1989.

I started interviewing Czechs and Slovaks who had been there, and simultaneously I started researching newspaper accounts from the time. One thing became quickly clear: many or most people attending the November 17 march did not suspect they would be participating in an event of great political significance at all. Other demonstrations had had little effect. Why would this one be different?

One reason was the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the changes in the Soviet Union. But of course the speed of the collapse of Communism in Czechoslovakia was something of an illusion. There had been a growing amount of pressure year by year, since the tanks invaded in 1968. Like a floor that suddenly collapses after years of seeming stability, the stress had been almost invisible, until one day the whole thing gave way.

For the found text, I used newspaper reports, especially those in the New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Baltimore Sun. And as one of the thank you gift for the Havel Festival, Václav Havel had given me a huge volume of correspondence from Shirley Temple Black and her aides at the U. S. Embassy in Prague. I had almost forgotten about it, as it seemed so imposing. It turned out to be a treasure trove.

For the scenes, I also used my interviews. One interviewee told me the story of being interrogated about The Berlin Wall, despite the fact that he had been held in detention and knew nothing of what had happened. Another told me about a former secret service officer who begged to speak in Wenceslas Square. And Havel himself told me a little about the person upon whom be based the original Staněk.

Terrence Stone and cast sing a chorus

My interviews inspired the choruses. I knew that Henry Akona is adept at capturing patterns of speech in his music, so I filled the choruses with quotes from my interviews, mixed with the chants of the protestors. I grabbed some quotes from Havel’s speeches and contrasted with the first-hand accounts of the listeners internal reactions when hearing him speak. I tried to include all the doubts, all the confusion, all the surprise. And for the second chorus, I used allusions to the famous 19th century Czech poem “May,” by Karel Hynek Mácha, to connect with Czech Nationalist and Romantic traditions.

All that went into the mix, along with the body of literature using Ferdinand Vaněk, Havel’s signature character and a symbol of the dissident movement. But perhaps most of all I wanted to bring out the feeling inherent in all of Havel’s work, captured in his first address as president. No matter how great the seeming triumph, there are no easy answers. The world is filled with more questions, and the greatest of all may be: what’s next?

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Money Lab: Call for performance proposals

Money Lab: An economic vaudeville is looking for performances for its March 20 – April 12 run at HERE theater.

The parameters are as follows:

- All performances must address an aspect of economic theory (Keynes, Marx, the gold standard, the meaning of the word free, etc etc)
- No performances can last more than 7 minutes.
- No performance can have more than 4 artists
- We are seeking music, dance, video, burlesque, clowning, comedy, puppetry, sketches, storytelling, and other unconventional forms of theater and performance.
- We are seeking fully realized performances, not scripts or ideas. However, if you have a five-minute monologue you would like to submit on the subject, we are separately considering those.
- Every show act will receive 2 – 6 performances during our run, the majority of which will be in one of the weeks of the run

Payment: Artists receive $50 each/performance Artists include performers, choreographers, writers, etc (in other words, if your performance has 2 performers, with one writer/director, all three of you will receive $50/performance.)

Please provide us with a work sample of some sort, as well as your idea. Acceptable work samples include scripts and videos. Also provide a few reviews of your work and a reference.

Please make your piece a serious attempt to tackle an economic issue in an entertaining manner. Entertainers with an academic background in economics are particularly welcome. HOWEVER, this is still an entertainment, not a lecture. We are looking for playfulness, and we prefer questions rather than answers.

This was originally produced as a workshop at the Brick Theater. To get a sense of the tone, please visit our website or read some of the original press:  from The Village Voice, Fanchild, and New York Theater

All artists will be eligible for an additional stipend, awarded to one person (in conjunction with an auction) at random every evening, as part of an auction/economic game.

Submissions will be accepted until December 20. Acts and schedule will be determined in January. Additional support, such as rehearsal space (beyond tech), etc, is possible depending on funding, but not guaranteed.

Email proposals and all information to:

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Concession curation and the Cel - Ray cocktail

I started curating the concession stand during the HavelFestival.

One thing that I always do when I travel is try the junk food.  The chocolate, the salty snacks, the sodas, whatever I can find.  Somehow, to me, that is where I really get a sense of what living in the country is like.  Restaurants are fine, I love tasting the local cuisine, but on a day to day basis, growing up…I would bet the junk food is at least as representative.  Because all the flavorings are there, in distilled chemical form, distributed on a processed potato product or other unhealthy conveyance method.

So when I was presenting the works of Havel, I thought, let’s bring the taste of the Czech Republic here as well.  Fortunately, there is a Czech and Slovak Variety Shop in Long Island City, Queens, which provided a full range of the treats.  My favorite is the Fidorka, which I had chosen through carefully judged eating in supermarkets and small groceries in Prague.

It proved wildly popular.  In fact all the snacks sold out quickly (as did our Pilsner Urquell).  Berit Johnson, who was running our concessions at the time, started out as a doubter, but over time became a believer.

I have been curating the concession stand ever since, culminating perhaps with The Pig, which included a full meal, provided by Korzo.  But the Fidorkas were not forgotten: they were dessert.

Besides adding a sense of fun, I do think there is something to actually being connected by taste to the theater.  Perhaps that is part of why dinner theater and experimental theater have been joining forces so actively recently.  It engages another part of the brain and really provides, in neurological terms, a new cognitive framework for the appreciation of the performance.

Which brings me to my Cel-Ray cocktail.

For the Festival of Jewish Theater and Ideas, one of the elements of our concession stand was Dr. Brown’s Celery Tonic, better known as Cel-Ray.  A staple of Jewish delis, I first enjoyed it as the perfect accompaniment to pastrami on rye. I don’t eat meat now, but still enjoy the occasional drink of it.

I did overestimate the popularity of the drink.  For the uninitiated, celery soda perhaps seemed a doubtful product.  With about 50 extra cans, I had only one choice: to make a Cel-Ray cocktail for the after party.  I mixed it with Jose Cuervos tequila and called it a Jose Rosenbaum.

Recently, I was approached for a cocktail recipe for a book of recipes by sci-fi authors.  I have now gone back and perfected it.  For the good of theater.  For the good of society.

Here is the secret formula:

The José Rosenbaum

5 parts Cel-Ray
2 part Jose Quervo tequila
1 Mean Bean (a pickled, spicy string bean)
1 Grape tomato
Kosher salt
Cayenne pepper
Celery salt

Rim the glass with a mixture of kosher salt, cayenne pepper, and celery salt (my taster, aka my wife Connie, recommends skipping the celery salt…too much celery).  Mix Cel – Ray and tequila with ice, stir gently.  Pour into an old fashioned glass.  Garnish with Mean Bean and tomato.

I’m serious about the Mean Bean.  It makes the drink.  And it’s delicious.  Get it here.


Friday, May 23, 2014

Obies Follow Up - Reflecting after the 2014 Awards

So the Obies were Monday night, and the trend that I discussed in my last blog post continues.  In general, approximately 90% of the work rewarded has budgets of $250,000 or more, though the calculations are a bit complicated this year for reasons I’ll get into.

Before I go into that, I do want to mention, as I did last time, that these posts are not meant to denigrate anyone involved, especially the award winners.  I saw and enjoyed a few of the shows honored, and they were all good shows created and performed by talented people.  I know a few people who were on the awards committee this year, and I know their hearts are in the right place.  And I am very fond of Obie chairman Michael Feingold as a critic, I think he did much good over the years.

Which in many ways is what is inspiring me to write.  I think that we all can become prone to a certain sort of narrowness of vision over time that leads us to lose sight of the broader picture.  In this case, many of those serving are frequently working with (or reviewing) the people being honored, and it may be hard to realize that a large and important part of the downtown theater scene is mostly being ignored.

Ironically, this is exactly the part of the downtown scene that most benefits from the awards.  To many receiving the awards on Monday, the award served as a bit of a (deserved) ego boost, but had little or any impact on their career.  But it is the lesser known shows with the smaller budgets that have the artists who truly need the recognition.  And of course, that was the purpose of the Obies to begin with: to recognize those who haven’t been seen and recognized by the mainstream.  In those days, the mainstream was simply Broadway, and the small budget shows were much fewer in number.  Now Off-Broadway exists mostly in the upper middle class of theater budgets, and yet it still persists in looking up at the upper upper class and saying, aren’t we poor?  Meanwhile, the lower class, or even the lower middle class is mostly ignored.

Do we really have to reflect American society that directly?

In regard to Monday’s Obies:  There were 20 awards given to shows, some with multiple recipients.  I face a problem with these calculations about how to group them.  The World Is Round received 3 awards, but they seem to be grouped together.  The Octoroon’s playwright, Brendan Brandon-Jacobs, won a playwriting award that also covered his work on Appropriate.  However, cast member Chris Meyers also received a separate award.

So if you group the awards as Playbill does, you find yourself with 20 awards.  However, the listing on the Village Voice website seems to indicate 26 awards.  The reason the difference creates very different calculations is that two shows, This Was The End and The World Is Round, fall under the $250,000 threshold.  So the result is that either 2 of 20 (10%, right on the average) or 4 or 26 (a surprising 15%) of Obies this year went to more moderately budgeted shows.

Close to the border, I suspect, is NAATCO’s production of Awake and Sing, for which Mia Katigbak won an award.  I am counting it as over $250,000, because of the size of the cast, but I could be wrong there.  Please feel free to correct me if you have contradictory information.

I will also mention $250,000 is a very high threshold.  I have never done a show with a budget over $100,000, the closest I’ve come is around $80,000, and that was officially Off-Broadway (astoundingly little for an Off-Broadway show, but nonetheless…).  With the in kind contributions my theater company has received from the venues/co-producers, that budget has reached a little over $100,000.  I know many, probably the majority working downtown who have never passed the $50,000 mark.  I actually assumed at first the budget for The World Is Round (a show I saw and loved) was over $250,000, but some investigation revealed otherwise.  Good job on their part.  I wasn’t able to discover what support BAM provided that wasn’t on that official budget, but it was a show that easily could have broken the $250,000 barrier regardless. [UPDATE: That includes BAM support]

So, using the more generous assessment, here are the updated totals for the Obies over the last 5 years:

The Public 18, Signature 10, Playwrights Horizons 9, Soho Rep 7, Manhattan Theater Club 6, New York Theater Workshop 5, Lincoln Center 4, Rattlestick 4, BAM 4 (3 of which are for World Is Round), Foundry 3, Ripe Time 3 (also credited for World Is Round), , Elevator Repair Service 2 (both times at The Public),  Classic Stage Company 2, HERE 2, Incubator Arts 2 (counting Three Pianos, on stage at NYTW at that point), Manhattan Class Company 2, St. Ann’s Warehouse 2, Theatre for a New Audience 2.

And those which have won a single OBIE in those years:  Alliance Francaise, Ars Nova (Natasha & Pierre, which had moved to a commercial production), Atlantic Theatre Company, Barrow Street, Baryshnikov Arts Center (Fela, which had moved to Broadway), Bushwick Star/The Debate Society , The Chocolate Factory, La MaMa (Good Woman of Setzuan, moved to The Public), NAATCO, Partial Comfort, Pig Iron, The Play Company, Primary Stages, PS 122, Second Stage, Punchdrunk, 3LD Art + Technology Center (as part of Under The Radar), Transport, Vineyard.

In terms of budget: out of 96 awards, 84 went to shows with budgets definitely over $250,000, 5 were definitely under (3 for World Is Round), and 8 were in the gray area for me (including Awake and Sing).  So the percentage of lower budget shows is between 5 – 13 %.

I would remiss to write all this without suggesting some solutions.  First, a larger Obie committee.  Quite frankly, I think it is unfair to ask to few people to see so much.  There are a number of qualified possibilities, and the number could be doubled, at least. And for those new Obie members: select people who are part of the true independent theater scene.  Second, a clear way to contact the committee and let them know about your show.  Yes, if you have the right press agent who knows the right people to contact, it can be done.  But the contact should be published on the website, and the committee should be announced, as early as possible.  Finally, and most importantly, there should be a commitment from all the judges and the Obies as a whole to seek out those smaller shows.  To see things that you may know nothing about.   I know it’s not all going to change overnight.  But a commitment that, say, 33% of the awards will go to lower budgets shows is not impossible, by any means.  And that commitment in itself will inspire the judges to seek out new work.

It’s not easy.  In response to my earlier post, I had a few people ask me privately, what should I go see?  Here’s my honest answer: Like everyone, I live in my little bubble.  I can tell you about my friend’s plays, some of which are very good.  And occasionally I am drawn to something outside of that bubble. I recently saw Then She Fell, which I thought was amazing (and never won an Obie), but that show has received a fair amount of recognition, which is why I knew about it to begin with.

I do know some of the places where you can find those shows.  Some of them have won an Obie (or two) over the last five years, but considering the number of Obies given and the number of shows at these theaters (which have much busier seasons than the large institutions), most of the shows never get seen at all.  I know, because I have worked at a lot of them (as I warned, of course, it is my friends I know about).

So go to The Ohio, HERE, 3LD, La MaMa, The Brick, Dixon Place, Abrons, The Secret Theatre, The Chocolate Factory, Metropolitan Playhouse, and all the other smaller theaters about town.  And not just when Taylor Mac or Black Eyed Susan or a downtown luminary is performing, do it when a possible future downtown luminary is performing as well.  For my part, I pledge to look beyond those theaters and really try to seek out interesting shows I would not know about, to look at the tiny reviews with only a paragraph or two devoted and think, could that be interesting?

New York is a busy place.  It is hard to see even my friends' work, plus those few shows that have received enough buzz to make them interesting to me.  To venture into the great beyond?  It takes time, and it takes effort.

So I am asking a lot, I know.  But I am asking it because I think it is important.  If you are in any way in a position to influence future awards, please consider it.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

How the OBIES are failing New York theater

Let me start by getting one thing out of the way.  I have never won an OBIE.  I doubt that I have ever been considered for an OBIE.  In my 20 years plus of working in downtown theater, I don’t believe anyone from the OBIE committee has stepped foot in the theater for any play I have written, directed, or produced.

So any screed against the current state of the OBIE Awards (and let me make no bones about it, that is what this is) should be read with the knowledge that I, of course, have a personal stake in it.  But if this were pure sour grapes (and I have at times eaten of that fruit), without any implications beyond myself, I would confine myself to my own private 3am anxieties about my life/career and leave it at that.  However, I do think my experience with the OBIES reflects a greater problem with the awards in general, and that is why I am choosing to address it.

I wouldn’t care, of course, if I didn’t think the OBIES were important.  This is the 58th anniversary of the award, which originally was created to offset the idea that Broadway was the only place interesting and valuable can happen.  That very important work was being done in smaller theaters, with smaller budgets, with fewer commercial interests.  That in fact this is where the heart of theater lay, where the greatest theater could bloom.  The OBIES were the first to embrace the Off-Off-Broadway movement and give an equal weight to those productions.  They have gained their status through good work and high ideals.

And like many esteemed institutions of over fifty years, they have gone to pot, borne down with the weight of their own success.  Somewhere in them is the kernel of that original ideal.  But it is buried, deeply buried.

That is not to say worthy work, inspiring work, does not get recognized.  It does.  I am friends with some OBIE winners, and well do they deserve it.  I would not wish to denigrate anyone’s achievement.  But the awards now have become largely about one thing:  celebrating the achievements of those in institutional theater, perhaps a step below Broadway in budget, but nonetheless work that is highly recognized and highly touted without the help of an additional award.  It has become about the status quo.

Let us examine the awards, by the numbers.  In the last four years (I chose four instead of five because the last four were easier to research, and with the OBIES coming up Monday, I’m hoping to fill out the roster), these are the theaters which have won multiple OBIES, from the most to the least:

The Public 13, Playwrights Horizons 8, Manhattan Theater Club 6, Lincoln Center 4, Signature 4, Soho Rep 4, Foundry 3, Rattlestick 3, Classic Stage Company 2, HERE 2, Incubator Arts 2 (counting Three Pianos, which was actually on stage at New York Theater Workshop at that point), Manhattan Class Company 2, New York Theater Workshop 2 (also counting Three Pianos), St. Ann’s Warehouse 2, Theatre for a New Audience 2.

And those which have won a single OBIE in those years:  Alliance Francaise, Ars Nova (Natasha & Pierre, which had moved on to a commercial production), Atlantic Theatre Company, Barrow Street, Baryshnikov Arts Center (Fela, which had moved to Broadway), Brooklyn Academy of Music, Bushwick Star/The Debate Society , Elevator Repair Service (at The Public),  La MaMa (Good Woman of Setzuan, moved to The Public), Partial Comfort, Pig Iron, The Play Company, Primary Stages, PS 122, Second Stage, Punchdrunk, 3LD Art + Technology Center (as part of Under The Radar…not sure who main funder was…), Transport, Vineyard

Perhaps more tellingly, of 72 productions, I would say 63 unquestionably had budgets over $250,000, 2 probably were under, and 7 fall into the gray area for me.  My guess is less than 10% regardless.  I base that calculation on my years of working as a producer and occasional GM for different levels of production.

So what does all that data tell us, besides that The Public has been winning an incredible number of OBIE Awards.    In the multiple awards category, there are two champions of the indie theater scene, HERE and Incubator Arts.  Wonderful.  Among the others, Bushwick Starr, La MaMa, 3LD, and PS 122 are all represented.  Very happy to see it.  And by implication The Ohio, where Pig Iron put on Chekhov Lizardbrain. One of my favorites.

But it is not enough.  Under 10% with a budget under $250,000 is not enough.  And that is a conservative estimate, for most of these institutions have multimillion dollar budgets to sustain them that don’t even get figured into the production cost.  These are not the productions that the OBIES once endeavored to honor, productions that would be overlooked without the scrappy little awards from a scrappy downtown rag called The Village Voice.  These are highly established theaters with the budget to have themselves be seen, regardless.  The OBIES may be an extra feather in the cap or a moment of downtown cred, but you can find those same productions at the Drama Desk or the Lortel awards.

What the OBIES have done on in the past and can do, could continue to do, is to recognize the small theater productions that it first purported to promote.  And I don’t mean via the $1,000 grants that do sometimes go to small, deserving companies.  I was extremely joyful when Metropolitan Theater, which does quality work on a tiny budget, won their award a few years.  But they have been working over 20 years themselves, and it is telling that they were given an award that should by right be given to the smaller, newer companies.  But since Metropolitan had never been recognized before, the award came, well overdue.

One main reason is that the awards are a closed system.  Only a few judges are chosen, often reviewers who are only being sent to the bigger productions to begin with.  There is no easy way to invite judges in advance, nor any indication that the judges are encouraged to seek out and find the smaller productions.  The awards themselves have become star studded, competing with the Tonys in the recognition value of its presenters.  Here is Anne Hathaway!  Here is Cyndi Lauper!  Here is Meryl Streep!  They too are participating, many of them are eligible for the very same award, by dint of the fact that they chose to perform in a play with a budget of $1,000,000 instead of $5,000,000.

But I will embrace the stars.  I will even pay the $20 I am now asked for as the OBIES turn more into a money making machine and less into a celebration of downtown theater.  I will do all that if I know the names and the money are also being put towards a good cause, finding the seeds of new exciting theater and promoting it.  And I don’t mean as the exception, almost by accident, when it stumbles across a show that has received just the right amount of buzz to draw in a judge or two.  I mean consistently, as a statement of purpose.

I still believe the OBIES are capable of it.  I want them to be capable of it, because frankly no other award has the name recognition to have the same clout.  So perhaps this is no more than a plea, a call in the wilderness.  Come see us in the wilds of indie theater.  There is good work.  There is also plenty of terrible work.  But every so often, there is life-changing work.  If only it could be seen and recognized.

UPDATE: Please read more thoughts (and possible solutions) in my follow up post