Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Young Theatrical America

I got an email yesterday from a colleague named Zev Valancy, who is based in Chicago. Back in the halcyon days of Back Stage covering regional theatre (after the invention of the wheel, before the invention of Prozac), Zev was one of my two main critics in Chicago. He's an incredibly bright and well-educated young writer, and though he was, back then, finishing up his undergrad work at Northwestern, I was always pleased to get his copy and ultimately thrilled to take a chance on him. In fact, I deliberately used to send him to tons and tons of different stuff -- stuff, if possible, outside the norm, outside the mainstream -- because I think one of the best ways to create good critics is to expose them to as much varied work as possible. That's how you develop critics, as opposed to whoring reviewers. And the more you can challenge a critic by what you expose them to, the better critic you can ultimately make out of them. It takes years. I don't think I've gotten to be very good until the last few.

By way of a gauzy memory, when I was an intern at the long-defunct TheaterWeek magazine 18 years ago (oh my friggin' God), the editor, John Harris, sent me to unbelievable things, things I didn't know existed or could exist beyond some very vague notions (I was 21). There was one week when I had to review two one-acts at a Tribeca venue, Home for Contemporary Theatre and Art, that sort of morphed some years later into HERE. If I remember it correctly, David Greenspan's II Samuel 11 had a masturbation scene (I didn't know jack about that), and the second piece, Reef and Particle, was by Eve Ensler. It was about a woman who simply could not be satisfied sexually by her husband no matter how hard he tried. Finally, he resorted to various and sundry vegetables, with the climax of the play (pardon the pun) coming (pardon the pun) with the husband arriving on stage with a rather large eggplant. (These are my memories. Time hasn't been kind to my brain.) Another week: a new Bob Merrill musical Off-Broadway at the Vineyard, Hannah...1939, starring Julie Wilson. Another week: Spiderwoman Theater at Theater of the New City. Another week: Capitol Cakewalk, a musical directed by Hair legend Tom O'Horgan. And who knows what else.

I'm saying all of this because of the contents of Zev's email. Zev and I have gone back and forth a bit as to whether he would (or should) post the contents as a comment, or whether I should (or would) post the contents simply as a post from me. With Zev's permission, I'm posting it because here's a fellow who is active in the Chicago theatre as a practitioner and as a critic, and he has been piqued, for good or ill, by this fric-a-frac about new models.

Zev writes:

Man, next time I'm wasting time at work, remind me that your blog is a danger. First because it's well written and extremely readable, which is always a problem when you should be working. Second because it lets me in to the seething world of worried theatre people. I think your response to Mike Daisey was mostly on point (though I believe that living in a yurt is a bit extreme), but what's most discouraging to me is the idea that theatre is broken, broken, broken, and nothing but junking the current model will be of any help. This simply doesn't track with what I see--there is so much that seems worth excitement, so much great work. There's a lot to be improved--more government and private funding, drastically slashed ticket prices, more adventurous and interesting work, bigger casts, to start--but a lot that's really exciting. And for those who say new work isn't getting done, come on. It's EVERYWHERE these days. Few regionals in America fail to produce at least one world premiere per season, along with a number of plays getting early productions. Sure, some playwrights are done a whole lot, and some of the plays seem like we've already seen them, but once in a while an Itamar Moses or a Jordan Harrison can come out of nowhere and be just galvanizing....

And any of those artistic directors desperate to retire? Call me. I'll take your job in a heartbeat.So basically, explain to me why I'm getting into this field, and why it's not a terrible idea.
Zev represents the next generation that will benefit from meaningful change, however we define it. Being in Chicago, where the theatre scene is perhaps healthier, hotter, and more fertile than anywhere else in the country at the moment, how interesting that there isn't quite so strong a feeling, apparently, that the nonprofit system is, in absolute terms, terrible -- that everything is awful -- so let's blow it all up, let's march on the Winter Palace, let's shoot Mussolini in the public square, let's burn all the books, let's sacrifice all the animals, let's hide in a cave and let's blow up the cave while we're at it. It's not that he's naive. He simply understands that throwing the baby out with the bathwater is the equivalent of assuming that all Baathists must be terrorists and so let's disband the entirety of the Iraqi army. We all know what flowed from that decision.

And I'm not posting this because Zev said nice things about my blog. It's because Zev, slightly more than half my terrifying age, is for whom all this chatter, all this hope, all this dreaming, all this idealism, all this change -- change, change, change -- is meant. I want a theatre for him 25 times better than any I've ever seen or will ever see.

To get there, it means we have to start doing something. NOW.

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3 comments:

Mike said...

You know what's interesting?

"but what's most discouraging to me is the idea that theatre is broken, broken, broken, and nothing but junking the current model will be of any help. This simply doesn't track with what I see--there is so much that seems worth excitement, so much great work. There's a lot to be improved--more government and private funding, drastically slashed ticket prices, more adventurous and interesting work, bigger casts, to start--but a lot that's really exciting."

I would agree with much of this.

Tony Adams said...

I think in many ways, Chicago represents the best and worst of American Theatre.

Zev said...

I'd be interested in followup from both of you.

Mike--what do you and don't you agree with about what I said? And how do you think we've ended up with apparently opposed conclusions?

Tony--how is Chicago the best and worst? I'm still pretty new to the scene, so I'd love to hear the perspective of someone who's been in it longer.