Friday, August 31, 2007

Moving On II

I'll be working on my book this weekend -- I'm off on vacation, mostly working at the library, for the next week, and won't everyone be so orgasmic not to have me posting too much.

I'm not dropping the critic-blogger brouhaha, but I am in conversations with press agents and other critics about it, and action is promised, and action will occur.

I want to say that my position is to bring certain blogger-critics into the fold, not to keep them out of it. If they're good enough to be comped, to publish reviews, to be used to generate buzz, they're surely good enough to play by the rules, whatever they might be.

And maybe the rules have to be changed, or maybe they don't. Separate but equal, however, is not going to stand. It's fair to no one and it's indefensible -- as indefensible as saying that all so-called "critics" are "backed up" by the "institutional MSM" and bloggers are mere writers who, upon receiving comps, have no ethical, artistic, community or moral responsibilities whatsoever. If 70-80% of the so called critics out there are freelancers, how, exactly, are they "backed up" by the "institutional MSM"? How are they not writers first? Indeed, as freelancers, aren't they, by definition, writers first? I think so. And as for those of us, a shrinking number, so fortunate as to have jobs in which we write for a living, how does that make us not writers first? Are people with professional journalist careers somehow different, better, or worse? I don't think so.

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Why Do Bloggers Endorse and Embrace "Separate But Unequal"?

That's the real question inherent in Aaron Riccio's recent post on the Hunka fracas. He writes,

"I'm not neutral on this subject; like Hunka, I was invited to attend 100 Saints You Should Know, and I accepted free tickets on the condition that I blog something about it after seeing the performance (good or bad), and was given a discount code to share with readers if I wanted to encourage others to see the performance more cheaply. I don't consider this to be using Playwrights Horizon publicity as a pimp, and I don't think I'm fucking a whore of a show (actually one of the lighter bits of hyperbolic metaphor Jacobs uses). I'm twenty-three, I work two jobs, and I love theater: if you give me a free ticket, and I am free, I will see your show. And, unless you ask me not to, I will probably review it, too.

I think an embargo is necessary for the mainstream media because they are businesses first and writers second: removing the prohibition forces critics to go to attend ever earlier previews so that they can get the first word while it's still relevant, much like movie critics are currently flying out to London to catch earlier and ever earlier premieres, chasing the scoop. But a blogger is a writer first, their reviews don't have an institution backing them up; if they happen to see an early preview, they're ethically off the hook so long as they acknowledge what they saw, and when. If a show has huge changes between previews and opening, then they've pretty much cheated their paying audiences, too, and a blogger, who speaks directly from that audience and not from a cultural arbiter, has the right to post a review as early as they like. Being formal isn't a crime, it's a blessing; a lucid blog is a treasure."
My responses are:

1) Just because you're offered free tickets and just because you know PH is looking to use you as an avenue for free PR doesn't give you -- whoever you are -- the right to review something before it's ready to be reviewed. The argument, flimsy and cavalier, that anything can be reviewed at any time is far too facile and, so help me, won't stand.

2) While some may not consider this "to be using Playwrights Horizon publicity as a pimp, and I don't think I'm fucking a whore of a show," that is indeed what it is. PH uses the blogosphere to generate buzz and did indeed invite the bloggers to write anything they liked, including a formal review. And what the blogosphere is saying is, "We're separate but equal" -- we're "ethically off the hook" -- that there are no standards, no expectations, no applied level of professionalism to be considered of them. What's that about "If the show has huge changes between previews and opening, then they're pretty much cheated their paying audiences, too?" That's the purpose of previews, and if you want to argue that preview ticket prices should always be lower, or even considerably lower, you've got my vote on that. But to justify what PH did by saying that it's cheating its audiences -- and therefore no ethical standards apply to bloggers -- well, that's just nuts. Sorry, but it is.

3) What does being 23 and/or working two jobs have to do with anything? The crux of the issue is in what Aaron wrote: "...if you give me a free ticket, and I am free, I will see your show. And, unless you ask me not to, I will probably review it, too." See, right there! He's saying, "Thanks, Playwrights Horizons -- by dint of giving me free tickets, you absolve me of any professional or ethical responsibility whatsoever; I owe the artists nothing."

4) I agree that an embargo is necessary for anyone who is going to write a review, period.

5) To say that critics are "businesses first and writers second" has some validity, but there are a lot of exceptions to this, and its dangerous and facile to lump all the critics and/or writers into a conveniently labeled bag of cats. People write for publications that may be institutions, but how does that make them institutions? It's called a job, two of which I understand Aaron holds. And what about Martin Denton? What's his institution? Oh, right, that's called a nonprofit -- what is the institution "backing him up" other than himself? Andy Propst's American Theatre Web is for-profit, but he's it, he's the guy, he's the one who does the work -- where is his institution? Or how about all the critics -- and this is the vast, vast majority -- that are freelancers: What is the institution backing them up? You're telling me that David Finkle at Theatermania, for example, who is a freelancer, is by definition an institution? To suggest that any critic, or anyone writing a review, is not a writer first is to smack them across the fact, insult them, and try to suggest that somehow bloggers are some separate but equal third-class that shouldn't be acknowledged. The blogosphere, in fact, should be insulted that PH doesn't consider it -- well, certain key bloggers, anyway -- to be equal to the rest. And participating in a subclass enables it to continue.

Why would anyone, in 2007, endorse and embrace the idea of separate but equal? Didn't we resolve that a long time ago? Maybe you're drinking out of different water fountains, too.

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Moving On

Fortunately most of the emails on the Hunka debacle have been favorable, if occasionally a little bit tetchy. I did receive one today, via a comment on a previous post, suggesting George "at least" saw a production that Playwrights Horizons had invited him to, versus me passing pre-judgement on the Spike Lee-directed Stalag 17. Of course, there was no pre-judgement in that original post, which read, in response to no one talking about the announcement of Lee in the first place...

"Why is no one posting about Spike Lee being announced to direct the first-ever revival of Stalag 17 on Broadway?Is there (with theoretical good reason) an automatic assumption that the show will be crap, or that Lee will crap out on the project?

Or is it summer doldrums?..."
Funny how people have a tenuous relationship to the truth, hm? I didn't realize that the posing of a rhetorical question (in response to no one discussing, good or bad or otherwise, the fact that Spike Lee is announced to direct Stalag 17) is the same thing as the making of a statement.

Or perhaps the rules of grammar and rhetoric do not apply to you, since other rules apparently do not apply, by your own decree, to the matchless, unassailable princes of the blogosphere.

Let me assure you that what happened here is not going to go away. If you can't handle the fact that what happened was wrong, please don't visit.

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Thursday, August 30, 2007

A Critic Beyond Reproach?

George Hunka has responded -- via a comment to one of my posts. My replies are below.

When I was the general manager of a small theatre in Philadelphia in the mid-1980s I shared my office with the artistic director. When a bad review of one of our shows was published in the Inquirer or the Daily News, the AD would often go into hysterics. "Ah, these reviews!" he would yell, stomping and screaming. "George, I want you to draft a letter to the editor! Tell them that all of their reviews should have a sentence in bold italics before each review -- 'The below is only the opinion of our reviewer and shouldn't be taken as fact!'

What struck me then about his response, and what strikes me now about yours to my review, Leonard, is the extraordinary condescension and lack of respect that you show not only to me, but to the artists who are responsible for "100 Saints" and to the potential audience for this show, which includes the readership of various critics, both you and me.
How extraordinary that you accuse me of disrespecting the artists when that is precisely what you are doing.
Artists are not children to be coddled and protected from criticism when they, or their producing organization, invite it from whatever source, and critics are not paternalistic playground monitors, to pat artists on the head when they do well or scold them when they do poorly. Artists are fully-grown mature adults, well aware that they conduct their professional lives in the public arena. Criticism, whether it's from a reviewer or from a friend over drinks after a show, is the risk one takes, consciously, when one chooses the profession.
No one, least of all yours truly, is advocating coddling and protecting, and I think neither of us have been busy patting anyone on the head. You are not the only person who gets to have an opinion about how artists should be treated, and in what manner. Artists have historically reserved the right to determine when their art should be unveiled and evaluated, and Playwrights Horizons—and your complicity in their scheme—wags a middle-finger at that, and rather happily as well, it seems.
Readers of both blogs and newspaper reviews, similarly, are not children. Despite what my AD used to believe, they are fully capable of reading, fairly and critically, the reviews we write and decide on the basis of that whether they want to see the show or not. They are aware that these are opinions, nothing more and nothing less. And the more familiar they are with an individual critic's prejudices and interests, the more they are fairly able to judge whether the play itself holds any interest for them or not. People who have been reading "Superfluities" for the past few years, as well as the reviews I've written for other publications, are well-aware of my own, and my fairness when it comes to reviewing shows which don't conform to the aesthetics I hold for my own creative work.
None of which is the point. I dare you, George, to point to the specific sentence in which I stated that artists are children, or that artists are not capable of reading reviews. This germane issue is not about familiarity. It is about ethics, and you still haven’t addressed the question, perhaps because you know you did something unethical: You participated in an unethical and, in my view, very damaging experiment.
To give Playwrights Horizons its due, they're aware that the nature of the critical, reviewing and marketing world is changing too. It's changed quite a bit in the four years since I've been writing "Superfluities." Among the things that have been changing is this very "industry practice" that you spend so much time defending. The blogosphere has wrested criticism and reportage from the traditional MSM that former elitist cadre of marketers, critics, editors and producers used to control.
The blogosphere hasn’t wrested crap, Jean Valjean. What you are complicit in is a controlled violation of industry practices that everyone—including ATPAM and the League of American Theatres and Producers, to say nothing of every nonprofit and commercial establishment in this city, and, indeed, in every city I can think of in these United States, regards as stare decisis. Let me also mention the writers and directors, and the actors as well, all of whom are doing their job or, more likely, learning how to do their job. What you’re really saying, too, is "Ha! Now I’m one of you elitists."
I don't need to be lectured on professional ethics by the likes of you. It's your own self-protective, paternalistic, moralistic attitude towards the art and the industry itself you're expressing. You're not defending artists here (they can adequately defend themselves in their own work), or the audience. You're defending your own sinecure as a paid reviewer firmly ensconced in the MSM.
Well, that's too bad, because I’m going to -- and the likes of me, hm? Snuggling up to good old Stewie, I see. Most charming. It's not because I’m self-protective (I’m seeing the show anyway, I’ve arranged for Lois Smith to be the national cover story of Back Stage, and I’ll still vote on it as a Drama Desk member, so there’s nothing to protect). And it's not because I’m paternalistic. I am, though, defending artists precisely because you, so as to pump yourself full of unethical and (evidently) pissy self-satisfaction, choose not to defend them, but rather to subject them to the worst possible atmosphere in which to evaluate their work—actually, half their work, since you didn’t have the professional courtesy, or courtesy to the entities that provided you with tickets, to stick around.
I don't know why PH invited me to write about "100 Saints" on the terms they offered me. I continue to receive invitations to shows, some of which I write about, some of which I don't. But I think I get these invitations because of the quality of my writing and the perceived value of my response, positive or negative -- a fully open, ethical response to the individual reviewing situation I find myself in. I'm very flattered that it's valued. Your own self-serving harangues, though, seem to presume that I have some kind of influence that I certainly wasn't looking for.
It doesn’t give you the right to be damaging and hurtful. Or do you think it does?
In the event Backstage does want to do a story like this (and in the even unlikelier event they want to talk to me about it), my email address is on the home page of my blog. I'd have written to you via email, Leonard. But apparently you don't want your readers to have that kind of access.
Your last sentence makes no sense. If I didn’t think you were absolutely 100% wrong I wouldn’t even bother. You’re completely wrong and I can assure you I'll continue to yell it and scream it and shout it.

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The Apologists Defend George Hunka

Now I'm receiving emails stating that because Playwrights Horizons offered George Hunka free tickets and invited him to write whatever he wants, he's utterly from ethics or responsibility for what he did. You. Are. Wrong.

No, I'm not blowing this out of proportion.
No, I'm not letting this go.
If you don't like it, ignore my blog. Bye.
Back Stage may be doing a story on this.
Meantime, a couple of thoughts:

1) One more time, just because there's a pimp doesn't mean you have to fuck everyone.

Yes, George was offered free tickets in exchange to write whatever he wanted, but that doesn't exonerate him from doing something unethical -- both writing a formal review and leaving at intermission. And I do think it harms the artists -- I think it harms artists immeasurably. What a cavalier, who-gives-a-fuck attitude to have, to say that it's ok to review the play in an early preview because one or some of the actors are "successful." What does that have to do with anything?

2) I've just gotten off the phone with a major press agent and learned that neither ATPAM (the Association of Theatrical Press Agents and Managers) nor the League of American Theatres and Producers, which jointly controls press lists, sanction inviting bloggers to review early previews. Both groups, the press agent added, do understand the changing nature of theatre press, and do understand the differences between print/Web and blogging. And yes, all PR people want buzz for their clients -- this, I might add, is additionally being offered as justification for Playwrights Horizons doing what it did, and for George's actions.

Do you believe to your core that PR people -- people who make their living generating buzz -- had no choice but to encourage formal reviews because it was the only, sole, singular way to get buzz? Are you saying there absolutely no other ways to work with bloggers to help a show get buzz -- negative or positive or otherwise? Could Playwrights Horizons not have invited bloggers to see a rehearsal, to attend a preview, and write a feature? Could they not have talked to the playwright, talked to the director, observed or talked to the actors or the artistic director? Or have the bloggers attend the same late-preview performance as the critics?

Again -- a formal review is the only option for a blogger? The only one? I don't think so.

Again, I'm not letting this go.
And I don't think I've blown anything out of proportion at all.

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Even More Hunka Fallout

I just read that Jay Raskolnikov is getting into the debate, and I thank him for the shout-out on his blog. I have a couple of comments, and already posted a comment on his site as well.

Jay writes,

I don't necessarily agree that critics must be held at bay until the "Press Opening." Hell, I've invited critics to a preview before. Working with a small company in a city with such a vast array of theatres, not every paper can make every opening. Given the choice between being reviewed at a final preview and not being reviewed at all--it's a pretty easy choice. (Almost) Any press is better than none. Most critics I know will take into account that it is a preview. There is a vast difference between a final preview and an early preview, and I know many shows that are completely different (usually for the better) by the time opening nears, as kinks are worked out. I don't necessarily agree that critics should not cover early previews, I do think they should not review a show that far before opening. In fact, writing about the process itself can make for a great story, keeping in mind that it is a process.
I say...

Inviting critics to a preview is standard practice, especially for first-string critics -- I'm talking Broadway, Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway. However, critics are usually invited near the end of the preview period and quite frankly the reasons for this should be obvious. However, if it isn't, let me explain: attending at the end of the preview period, not at the beginning, gives all the artists involved in the production -- the writer(s), the director, the actors, the designers, the backstage tech crew, and, yes, all the administrative personnel, no matter how large or small the production -- a fair opportunity to get everything together and to present the best possible piece for a (presumably) paying audience.

What Playwrights Horizons did by inviting bloggers to see the play and to post, in advance of all the critics, their thoughts about the play, is patently absurd, and I'm shocked and mystified as to why they chose to do this. I didn't even know about this until Aaron Riccio posted about it in the comments section of one of my posts on this issue. However, as I said in a more recent post, just because there's a pimp doesn't mean you have to fuck everybody that walks in the door. Hunka could have said no. Or he could have mentioned that he left at intermission right up top. Or he could have -- like most critics that command any respect -- stayed for the entire play. The tickets were free, after all. Was he losing money by staying?

Let me add that I quite agree, having directed more than 40 OOB productions from 1990 and 1999, and having produced and directed in the 2004 Fringe, that "not every paper can make every opening" and given "the choice between being reviewed at a final preview and not being reviewed at all" is a "pretty easy choice." We are not talking about a small company here. In terms of budget, longevity and industry leadership, Playwrights Horizons is one of the top five nonprofit theatres in New York City. Surely you're not suggesting that the Times and all the other publications, print and Web both, won't be releasing their reviews on the appointed day. That's not true, and you know it.

I do think critics should be able to see early previews, but they should not base their reviews on one; ideally, critics are invited multiple times. (I realize the economic problems inherent in this discussion.) More ideally -- and in what would be a throwback to the days of Elliott Norton and Brooks Atkinson -- critics would be regarded as part of the process, essential eyes and ears in the developmental experience.

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More Hunka Fallout

So Aaron Riccio posted a comment on my prior blog entry on George Hunka giving professional ethics the wagging middle-finger. My response is below.

Aaron writes,

Just a note of clarification, as Hunka got his tickets the same way I did, through an offer from Playwrights Horizon's publicity department. They asked for comments to be posted, regardless of content, in return for tickets. That's what they got: George just writes like a critic possessed. Think of it as a very lucid blog. When I accepted tickets, I asked very carefully if they wanted a REVIEW or a BLOG: they chose the latter, which as far as I'm concerned, pretty much frees me of any obligation (as a print/online critic) to wait for an embargo. So on that, I think George is off the hook. For the theaters, however, I do think it's dangerous to actively SEEK comments for preview performances if they're not able to handle negative, Deuce-like hype, as well as positive, audience building comments along the theatrosphere.
My thought is...

1) Just because there's a pimp doesn't mean you have to raise your legs and fuck everyone who walks through the door.

2) How about addressesing the grievous and savage, irredeemable wrong that a pre-review review does to the artists? This non-mea culpa -- "they offered us tickets, we're innocent" -- is like blaming conscription in the German army for mowing down a town of Jews.

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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

New Reviews

My review of Iphigenia 2.0 is out in the New York Press.

There is a word missing, by the way, an editing error (I think). Can you spot it?

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A Hunka Fallout

Well, the fallout is already beginning as a result of my most recent post on George Hunka and the balls-to-the-wall middle-fingering of the ethics of theatre criticism. (I repeat, Virginia, yes, there is such a thing.) To those that have emailed me, I thank you for your support, and no, I don't need the Witness Protection Program at this point. Though a tummy tuck, yes, that's ok, sure.

Meanwhile, a big shout out to CollisionWorks, which gave me such a nice shout-out over there with regard to my posting a YouTube video of "Someone in a Tree" from Pacific Overtures and about the Presidential Advance Manual that has probably already fattened my CIA file far more than I ever could have hoped. Thank you!

I saw the revival of Pacific Overtures at the Roundabout, of course (and wrote about it for the Roundabout's house magazine, Front & Center, here. I have always thought the show is vastly underrated, and yes, that includes the book. I mean, no, I don't think John Weidman is the best book writer ever, and frankly I think both Sondheim and Weidman (and probably the original director, Harold Prince) could have benefited from a gentle dramaturge, but I do think there is far more in that show than a thousand others. I also saw the revival at the now-shuttered Promenade Theatre back in 1985 (I was 17 at the time) and I vividly remember Kevin Gray's performance like it was yesterday.

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George Hunka Gives Ethics the Middle Finger, Then He Wags It

I have no opinion regarding the fact that George Hunka isn't exactly giving burnin' love to Kate Fodor's 100 Saints That You Should Know at Playwrights Horizons. But I do have an opinion about the fact that he published a formal review of the play on his blog, and the play doesn't open until September 18. Talk about breaking the embargo!

Yeah, I know, I know, he probably paid for his ticket, and thus, like all the other chuckleheads out there -- I'm talkin' about all those chatterers on All That Chat -- he can post whatever he likes. Hence the nature of blogging, one could suppose.

Yet I think his action raises some real ethical concerns -- and yes, Virginia, I do think there are ethics to blogging. Let me state that while I don't question George's formidable intellect and equally formidable prose, if you look at his review, it's clearly formatted so as to read just like, well, a formal review. Now, let's be clear: if a print and Web journalist like myself did that, oh my God, the walls of Jericho would come crashing down, Lucifer would be salivating to get his claws into me, Dick Cheney would be cackling monstrously and cranking up the burning fires of hell and everyone in the blogosphere would rake me over the coals and attack my ethics and call me names and wonder why my ancestors didn't burn in the Holocaust. But it's ok for a blogger to publish a formal review before the official opening? I mean, even when Newsday does it, it runs Linda Winer's reviews on the day of the opening, rather than the next morning.

I don't care how smart you are, how much you like or dislike something, or whether you paid for your ticket or not, to be perfectly frank. And I don't care if you think, well, it's a blog, and blah blah blah. Blah blah blah my ass. To write a formal review of a play in its third or fourth preview -- think about it, the play doesn't open for another three weeks -- strikes me as unfair. Perhaps Hunka -- and here I will carefully note I've had pleasant email exchanges with him, and when I say I respect what he writes and thinks, I mean it -- would argue that ca-ca is ca-ca, no matter whether the ca-ca in question is three weeks old or freshly dumped, pardon the pun, off the poo truck.

Surely it is unhelpful to artists (and I think, to Hunka) to expect one set of standards from one group (print/Web journalists) and a separate (but equal?) set of standards from another (the blogosphere). Blog-post opinion sharing in one thing, it seems to me, whereas the trappings of a formal review is another.

Hunka acknowledges leaving at intermission. He also lays blame for the play

"at the door of the playwright, Kate Fodor, a recipient of lots of prizes and commissions, but in a 'Playwright's Perspective' essay included in the program notes (which I wouldn't ordinarily cite as it's outside of the experience of the play itself, but its inclusion in the program -- also a part of the theatregoing experience -- makes it fair game), and to be fair, she denies responsibility for it. 'Plays often know things that playwrights don't know they know,' she concludes, urging that readers take the 250 interpretive words that come before 'with a grain of salt.' The essay itself is as tortured as the dialogue (not to mention a tedious pseudo-lyrical monologue delivered by the priest towards the end of the 75 minute first act); the play's self-conscious references to the definition of simile and metaphor, and the old Irishwoman's reference to 'allegory,' suggest that copies of Warriner's English Grammar and Composition, my old high-school grammar textbook, are as readily available as Gideon Bibles. Even in the Auld Sod, dontcha-know."
Fair game? It's fair game to attack Fodor's essay but ignore press nights? Fair is fair and fair is foul, hm? Please comment. I'm already wearing fireproof clothes.

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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Footage of Actor Joseph Jefferson in 1896

Wow. Just came across this while researching him for my book.

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If Everyone Wants to Continue Debating the Good and the Bad of the New York International Fringe Festival...

...there's always this intriguing and, in a weird way, disheartening article in the Philadelphia Inquirer to add fuel to the fire.

While Alexis Soloski was given two foul shots in the Village Voice to knock FringeNYC, she could have been writing about what the Inquirer focuses on. Oh well. Always next year, right?

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Kudos to Rob Kendt

Not only is my buddy Rob Kendt earning kudos for his new CD, I'm Not Sentimental (although that bullshit, Rob, we know you cry very easily and thankfully make me look quite butch in the process), but he's back in the reviewing game, as this piece in Newsday shows.

I have to say, though, that the first quote about the CD on Rob's website makes me laugh. Cole Porter in one sentence, Samuel Pepys in the next? If only Pepys' peeps were here to see that. Anyway, here's the text:

“Superb…Not since Cole Porter has there been so much eyebrow-arching commentary in a group of songs. Not since Dave Frishberg has an album contained so much delightful wordplay. Not since Samuel Pepys has an artist revealed so much of himself while scrutinizing his fellow human creatures…Kendt often seems to be
half confessor and half teller of tall tales that were once based on truth but have now taken on a life of their own.”

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Sunday, August 26, 2007

Presenting...Allison Janney!

My cover story interview with Allison Janney is now available for free at Here is a link to the story.

Photo by Kevin Sprague

And yes, she was fabulous, by the way. She made you feel like you've known her a hundred years and yet like you were just getting to know her at the same time. Fiercely smart, terribly funny, and nice as could be. Wish they were all winners like her.

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Watch the Demolition of a Theater

I'm currently writing about the Star Theatre, which was demantled in 1902, for the book. I just happened to stumble upon something today that indicated that a video of the demolition exists, and I thought, Hmmm, maybe it'll be on line. And, indeed, there is -- on YouTube, naturally.

On the site now is the movie theater on the northeast corner of 13th Street and Broadway.

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Friday, August 24, 2007

Violence and Aftermath

Has anyone read Michael Feingold's beautiful and brilliant essay in this week's Village Voice? This is precisely what Feingold, arguably our greatest living theatre critic, should be writing about -- and its better, even, than the kind of politics-as-theatre, theatre-as-politics screeds that Frank Rich has singlehandedly turned into a subgenre all his own. And it's certainly a lot more interesting, thoughtful, professional and instructive than Alexis Soloski's latest dubious and ill-conceived, violent slam against the New York International Fringe Festival.

Meanwhile, if you want to bear witness just how much blood, how much gore, how much life and American treasure George W. Bush has on his murderous hands, I heartily, wearily recommend that you read this article and especially visit this slideshow at the New York Times' website.

For now, I leave you with a quote from Mr. Feingold:

"We all have violent impulses. However much they may trouble us individually, they have a gratifying aspect that finds its way out when we mass together, either as imagery in entertainment or—when pushed to the edge by the urgings of extremism—in the commission of actual violent acts. However much I may dislike the violence in which certain playwrights have seemed to specialize lately (I tend to avoid their plays because the extreme gore gets on my frazzled nerves), I have to admit that its existence makes sense: A world full of violence will naturally spawn plays full of violent imagery, and it's better, surely, for the violence to appear onstage, via the sanguinary imagination of a Tracy Letts or Martin McDonagh, than to see it become all too real in the streets and schoolyards.

But the word 'imaginary' offers another of those mental irritants. I see plenty of violent acts in new plays. What I don't see, especially in recent work, is any imaginative effort to go beyond the violent act, to examine not only motives but causes and consequences, let alone solutions, of the kind that Newark is now exploring in the wake of the horrific killings there. Recently, not in a reviewable context, I saw a piece of theater, essentially a love story, in which a violent act committed on the hero's true love was repaid by his committing a violent act on somebody who had nothing to do with it. This was presented as a mark of virtue on his part, leading to a sort of happy ending in which absolutely no attempt was made to perceive the events in any larger moral context. It was simply 'You wrong me, I wrong somebody else.' Rather like the comedy of Jack Absolute, in The Rivals, striking his servant, who strikes the errand boy, who says, "I'll go downstairs and kick the cat." Only it's not funny when perceived as heroic."

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Thursday, August 23, 2007

New Reviews

My review of Tings Dey Happen at the Culture Project.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Blind Item, in Verse

Before the commencement of a play most raucous
A voice whispered to me, high above the caucus.
It was of a man unseen seven years, maybe more--
And of whom, one should add, the less said, the more.
Still, I was obliged enough to abide him--
Slick smile, yes, yes, that sick smell of skeevy,
Whereupon I espied beside him
A second man, festering and peevy.
"There he goes again," thought I
(Without the I-rony of Reagan),
He's with a boy, as ever, that he cannot buy
Or have
Or love
Or fuck.
A bit of Thespis, a bit of Fagin.

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Arts Advocacy Update XII

As always, the following, below, is courtesy of Americans for the Arts and its weekly email blast, the Cultural Policy Listserv.

Comcast denies monkeying with BitTorrent traffic
CNet, 8/21/2007
Comcast is accused of limiting traffic from BitTorrent -- "a peer-to-peer file sharing protocol used to distribute large data files such as video. . . . The issue of shaping traffic or blocking certain applications is a hot one and goes right to the heart of the Net Neutrality debate, which has been raging for more than a year. Broadband providers claim that their networks have finite resources and they must be allowed to identify traffic in some manner to set quality of service parameters to ensure users get certain levels of service. But consumer advocates say that the network ought to be neutral and traffic should flow freely to ensure that all applications are accessible."
Imagine that: a media conglomerate playing dirty pool with a competitor. But hey, let's have endless media consolidation so the U.S. can be an Orwellian paradise. Mmmm, where's that rat, Winston?

FCC Commissioner Connects Pearl Jam Censorship To Net Neutrality
InformationWeek, 8/20/2007
"A Federal Communications Commissioner said that the censoring of political speech during a recent Pearl Jam performance illustrates the need for network neutrality. . . . Copps said there is nothing to prevent AT&T or other companies from censoring material they distribute over the Internet, whether the censorship is deliberate or not."
Stuff about net neutrality usually isn't my bent, but I thought this story dovetailed nicely with the one above.

Survey Aims to Improve Economic Structures for Local Artists (North Adams, MA), 8/17/2007
"This month, the Berkshire Cultural Resource Center in North Adams, Pittsfield’s Office of Cultural Development and the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Arts unveiled a survey that they hope will shed some light on the needs of working artists. . . . Defined as people who derive 10 percent or more of their total income from their art, working artists are an integral part of the Berkshires’ growing creative economy. In understanding the financial situation, housing preferences and professional development needs of local artists, the partners expect to better encourage the artists community, mostly in the economic sector."
Great survey, but what about theatre? Williamstown is nothing?

The Warhol Economy: How Fashion, Art, and Music Drive New York City
Princeton University Press, 2007
Which is more important to New York City's economy, the gleaming corporate office--or the grungy rock club that launches the best new bands? If you said "office," think again. In The Warhol Economy, Elizabeth Currid argues that creative industries like fashion, art, and music drive the economy of New York as much as--if not more than--finance, real estate, and law. And these creative industries are fueled by the social life that whirls around the clubs, galleries, music venues, and fashion shows where creative people meet, network, exchange ideas, pass judgments, and set the trends that shape popular culture.
I'm sorry, this is news? I mean, great, glad to have it, but there's already a cacophony of this kind of evidence and argumentation out there. And theatre should have been a much more prominent element in the discussion. Also, how obnoxious: the link takes you to a site where you'll pay $27.95 to read the survey. I'm sorry again, artists have this money? Oh, wait, they interview Zac Posen and Diane von Furstenberg. Yeah, they have the money.

Theater Training Helps Doctors Enhance Patient Care with Clinical Empathy Skills
Newswise, 8/21/2007
"Doctors taught empathy techniques by theater professors show improved bedside manner, according to a pilot study by a Virginia Commonwealth University research team. The findings may help in the development of medical curriculum for clinical empathy training. . . . The study was published in the August issue of the Journal of General Internal Medicine."
Great story.

Brits to find Broadway work under threat from visa overhaul
The Stage (UK), 8/15/2007
"UK performers are in danger of missing out on lucrative opportunities to work in the US when new visa regulations come into force next year, Equity has warned. The changes, which are being introduced by the Home Office, also threaten to cause an influx of American performers, as it becomes easier for overseas talent to gain entry into Britain." A relaxation of visa regulations are planned for the UK but not for the US.
Nationalism...gotta love it.

IRS Posts Reactions to Proposed Tax-Form Revisions
Chronicle of Philanthropy, 8/17/2007
The Internal Revenue Service is preparing a new version of the Form 990, which must be filed annually by organizations with budgets more than $25,000. Proposed changes "would require organizations to disclose more information about their financial operations and is designed to make it easier for the IRS to enforce tax laws. The IRS is accepting comments from the public through September 14." The IRS has released "nearly 300 pages" of initial comments. Some wrote that "the new form is too unwieldly and would create administrative burdens for their organizations. Others wrote the tax agency to praise the changes."
Oh well, little nonprofits. No more rampant double dealing for you. (Huh?)

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Oh, Ye Liberal Dreamers

Over at Isaac Butler's ever-provoking Parabasis, Isaac's question of the day is:

Given the runaway rise in income disparity in this country, and the large amount of wealth based here, why shouldn't one of the government's goals be large redistribution of wealth via social programs?
Normally, given enough time and alcohol, I'd write a long rant-slash-answer about this, but since the "book" is taking up so much of my available brain matter, I'll respond this way:

Yes, but how? Collectivization, which is what your question is, well, possibly romanticizing, was the m.o. of the early USSR and almost universally acknowledged to have been a grand social experiment that resulted in a grand social failure. I'm not talking about 1987, but 1927: the manner in which wealth was being redistributed ultimately generated famine, death and fear in the populace; Marx didn't exactly provide a how-to module for his otherwise admirable (to me) theories, and then his theories were perverted irrevocably by that fatherly fellow Stalin. More fundamentally -- and please note that I say this having just had lunch with Isaac a week ago and still feel smitten with him (in a way that won't freak anyone out, people, please) -- I'd ask Isaac this question: Are you ready to part with your own wealth immediately. I can think of a lot of ways his wealth could quickly and rather fairly be redistributed.

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Information to Make Stalin, Mao, Hitler, Mussolini and Kim Jong Il Very Proud

Was cruising through today and came across a story about the federal government settling with two Texas demonstrators at a presidential rally, but more than that was the placing on the website of the ACLU a PDF document outlining how presidential rallies are to be handled and structured for maximum propagandist effect. I'm not saying that similar document did not or would not exist under a Democratic president, but under the current one, with his evil anti-democratic, autocratic tendencies, the meat and guts of the document are truly terrifying. Give it a read and tell me whether the document, even with so much redacted out of it, don't just make your heart sink. God help the US.

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Congrats to the Metropolitan Playhouse

Just got an emailed press release today announcing the Metropolitan Playhouse's season. As you may know, I've had a long on/off history with the company, and I'm always happy when a great play from the late 19th century has been placed on the docket. (Two years ago, you may recall, Metro did Fitch's The Truth; they did Fitch's The City the year before that.) So a hearty thank you and congratulations to my friend and colleague Alex Roe for keeping the hot flames of yore burning evermore.

Most exciting to me is a revival of James M. Herne's Margaret Fleming. I read it a long time ago and have never seen it performed. Oh, bestill what's left of my heart.

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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Someone in a Tree

Just stumbled upon this on YouTube -- "Someone in a Tree" from the original 1976 production of Sondheim-Weidman's Pacific Overtures. If you want to learn something about how to build a song -- forget that, how to build a scene -- watch this.

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Monday, August 20, 2007

The "Book" Progresses

Just as a reminder for everyone, I'm knee-deep -- some might say neck-deep -- in the infamous "book" right now, which is why posting has been so light of late. And it's August so who's really into paying that much attention? I'll be putting up some posts today, but thought I should clue you all in.

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Fringe Story vs. Fringe Story

The following essay, below, may be subject to revision. And, because I realize that I am picking apart Alexis Soloski's story, I'm probably further ensuring that I'll never, ever, ever, ever be selected for the Obie Awards committee, which I've heard would never happen anyway because, apparently, I'm a colossal failure at kissing the right asses. With nothing to lose, therefore, and because I feel Soloski's story in last week's Voice on the NYC Fringe leaves much to be desired, I'm plowing ahead with the following essay. OK, Village Voice, go ahead, hate my guts, which you do anyway. Nyah.

Anyway, this is what I wrote earlier today. A few paragraphs down is what wrote later on.

I know I'm a little behind the curve commenting on the twin Fringe stories that came out in the Voice and the Times last week (kudos to my buddy Mark Blankenship for once again smothering the august pages of the Grey Lady with his literary finery), but I didn't want a lot more time to pass without weighing in on the subject, and most especially on Soloski's article, with which I am having some very profound problems, concerns and thoughts.

Soloski writes,

The New York Fringe Festival—which starts it 11th year on Friday—doesn't exude that kind of excitement or buzz. It has largely failed to attract the range and quality of shows at other fringe festivals— Edinburgh, Dublin, Adelaide, even nearby Philadelphia. And with its venues so scattered across the East Village, West Village, and Lower East Side, it's possible to wander those neighborhoods and remain unaware that a Fringe is happening at all, a phenomenon difficult to imagine at any other festival. Even Clancy, a man who risked lockjaw starting it, would rather take his shows elsewhere. What, if anything, can the New York Fringe do to sex itself up, to attract innovative artists, to convince more experienced artists to return? A few weeks before the start of this year's festival, I spoke with Clancy, Philadelphia Fringe artistic director Nick Stuccio, and P.S.122's Vallejo Gantner, former artistic director of the Dublin Fringe, to see how they'd improve our Fringe. Clancy argues for expanding it, Stuccio for tying it to another festival, Gantner for limiting its scope.
In truth, though, the above paragraph, in my view, reeks of wild agenda-setting; it’s more of an injection of pure, unapologetic subjectivity into the debate over what's wrong with the Fringe (if you agree there's something wrong with the Fringe) than a cogent analysis of the Fringe at this moment in its history. To state that the Fringe doesn't "exude that kind of excitement or buzz" associated with other festivals, that it has "largely failed to attract the range and quality of shows at other fringe festivals," is to marginalize (some might say vaporize) the work of the many thousands of its local, national and international artists and participants since its inception. With the blithe, broad, Marie Antoinette-esque flick and smack of her dainty editorial hand, Soloski simply dismisses their combined product. How facile, how flimsy, how forlorn. If the product is so poor, if the buzz is so lacking, if the whole is so much less than the sum of its rusty parts, why are tens of thousands of people schlepping all over town in the muggy August heat to see theatre? Are they all just idiots?

For purposes of this not-quite-dialectic, however, let's assume Soloski's thesis -- skewed and unproven as it is; patronizing as it seems; founded on little more than that aforementioned flick and smack of her aforementioned hand -- is valid. Let's agree, too, for purposes of this analysis, that the Fringe is simply a limp dramaturgical dishrag smearing the American theatre, denuding it of all of its brio, sweep and sass. In that case, sure, ok, I think it's quite fine to talk to John Clancy about what the Fringe might do to "sex itself up, to attract innovative artists, to convince more experienced artists to return" -- clearly as one of the Fringe's co-founders, he's the perfect "get." (I also consider John a friendly colleague and a man for whom I have tremendous respect even when I disagree with him.) But, in my view, if one is going to suggest that something must be done "to convince more experienced artists to return" to the Fringe, surely actually naming two or three such individuals would be instructive, either by Soloski herself, or, ideally, by one or more of her sources, starting with Clancy. Three times in her piece Soloski cites Urinetown, which has become the well-dinged hockey puck in the debate over whether the Fringe has become simply a supermarket for commercialism, a victim of its own perceived or proven successes. How lame.

Meanwhile, I happen to have another problem with Soloski's story. Her definition of Fringe (not "the innovative or the outré" but "the sort of work that crops up on the fringes of a curated arts festival") is blitheringly reductive; her demand for "weirder, more outlandish work" goes, in essence, strictly undefined. Soloski suggests that, having seen "well over 100 shows," she can "claim with some confidence that since the mainstream success of Urinetown, the offerings have become distinctly less eccentric." This is not only highly subjective but ignorant, pedantic and wrongheaded. If Soloski has been unable since 2000 "when I saw Charlie Victor Romeo and Tiny Ninja Macbeth" to see work that "really surprised me," could it be that perhaps there's something seriously defective with her aesthetic? I mean, sure, Soloski really must espouse this view or else the raison d'etre of her story crumbles like so much jerrybuilt 19th century melodrama. But really, eight years and nothing at all, at all, at all, of value? Truly? Not a shred of anything remotely surprising in 100 shows? I never thought of the Fringe as perfect, but I never thought of it as so, well, grindingly vanilla, either.

Having declared the Fringe DOA, Soloski then begins to explore her source's ideas for remaking it. Clancy's idea is, as one might expect, the loopiest and most thoroughly audacious of them all. He suggests that the Fringe completely abandon its adjudication model (while I don't favor this, I do think the adjudication process, having been an adjudicator on and off since the beginning, is fatally flawed) in favor of an Anything Goes scheme that would have absolutely no checks on quality whatsoever. (As an interesting side note, the Community Dish recently asked me to speak at a meeting, and while I was there to talk about the insufficiency of press coverage of OOB, the one topic that kept coming up was the complete lack of OOB quality control, which struck me as a bizarre concept in the first place.) Clancy's view is "Any fucking show, anything—fine. You find your space and you're in the festival. It's a radical rethinking." Well, yes, that's all rather radical, but by opening up the entirety of New York City to the Fringe, its offerings would be become even more diffuse than they are now, which is one of Soloski's criticisms. After all, we don't live in a small city like Minneapolis or Philadelphia, where a Fringe festival could in effect dominate the urban zeitgeist, even if briefly, but in a hyper-warp-speed cesspool of media. And in any event, does the Morrisania section of the Bronx want or need a nude, self-immolating Kabuki Hamlet?

Clancy is also advocating for the abandonment of the Fringe's artist agreement, which, as Soloski writes, "requires authors, for seven years after the festival, to pay the Fringe 2 percent of all royalties over $20,000 for a play mounted at the festival." She further suggests this clause "probably contributes to the amateurishness of much Fringe playwriting," implying that world-recognized authors such as Terrence McNally or Horton Foote or Theresa Rebeck or Sarah Ruhl or Chuck Mee are currently tiptoeing around the idea of submitting their work to the Fringe due to their steadfast opposition to forking over 2% of whatever they might make on their product after earning $20,000 on it. Currently, I'm reading Rebeck's Free Fire Zone, a new (about to be published) memoir about writing for stage, film and TV. When you see what the numbers are for a play mounted Off-Broadway at a nonprofit house or even commercially, you'll quickly realize that, no, it’s hardly a matter of clutching onto everything she might make over $20,000 -- Christ, Rebeck would be thrilled just to make $20,000 on a play. Soloski knows perfectly well that the tax returns of the Present Company, which produces the Fringe, are a matter of public record. Surely she could pay a visit to the Foundation Center and discover just how many shows from the festival have achieved earnings above $20,000, at which point 2% of everything after that heads the Fringe's way.

Think about it this way: suppose I write a play, produce it in the Fringe, get orgasm-inducing reviews and make $20,000 on it in future productions. The Fringe gets nothing. Now let's say I make $1,000 more than that -- $21,000. The Fringe gets 2% of that $1,000, or $20. Now let's go crazy. Let's say I write the next Urinetown and I make $10,000,000 on it. The Fringe would be entitled to 2% of $9,950,000, or $199,000. Please tell me the last playwright to earn that much money on a play. Please, anyone?

Moreover, I'd wager $20,000 that the number of Fringe-produced plays that have ever cracked $20,000 in earnings is likely in the single digits -- and Soloski could have gotten a bead on that by investigating the Fringe's records. And more than any of this mathematical meandering, I've always felt Elena has a point: If the Fringe is going to provide any kind of platform, any platform whatsoever, for the presentation of new work (regardless of whatever you think of its quality), the Fringe surely is entitled to something in the way of modest compensation for having done so. Read the article: notice how Soloski leaves out the money New York Theatre Workshop has derived over the last ten years of Rent?

Stuccio, of the Philadelphia Fringe, has an interesting idea: split the difference, leave some elements of the NYC Fringe adjudicated, hand over the rest to the gods of populism. This idea intrigues the heck out of me, and you can already see it in action by taking a look at the New York Musical Theatre Festival, which has grown by leaps and bounds in three short years. However, Stuccio's suggestion to invite "companies like the Wooster Group or Pig Iron" is not only problematic because of the "Fringe's tight budget," but because the Wooster Group and/or Pig Iron haven't the need for the Fringe to help display its wares. Maybe Soloski thinks Fringe work is crap, and maybe she even thinks its crap because the Fringe's greedy goblins salivate over the prospect of incalculable riches resulting from that glorious 2% over $20,000, but the Fringe does provide more first-, second, and third-time opportunities for new work and new theatre artists than anywhere or anything else. Surely that alone has some value.

You have to read a bit further down in the story to come across two interesting points, both the handiwork of Vallejo Gantner of P.S. 122. (I know a lot of people think he's the second coming of Jesus Christ, but frankly, I've yet to understand just what he's doing programmatically so as to affirm his status as the dramaturgical savior with savior faire.) The list of questions he thinks should be asked of Fringe programming ("Is this innovative? Is it exciting? Why is it different? Why does it need to be presented during Fringe time and not a different time?"), though, seems fair, if not particularly insightful. Then he goes to something more germane -- to what I think the real upset with the Fringe really is.

"There's an aspect of interacting with the artists and making them feel supported that doesn't have to be expensive," Gantner says. "There are many companies I know that won't go back to the Fringe because they didn't feel supported. They'll go back to the Dublin Fringe, but not the New York Fringe."
Bingo. And I can speak from personal experience, having produced and directed The Leni Show in the Fringe in 2004 (winning several awards and plaudits, thank you). Much as I personally love Elena and share certain aspects of her vision with her, I'd wager $20,000 that most Fringe artists do not feel especially supported by the adminstrative infrastructure of the festival. I do understand that financially and otherwise that is something vaguely impossible (indeed, what does "supported" mean, anyway?), but when you're dealing with artists, particularly artists creating new work in the public sphere, that support, however you define it, is a crucial element of the process. So Gantner's suggestion of scaling back the Fringe to about 100 shows is smart, even if it would probably put the Fringe's break-even fiscal methodology in danger.

The second thing Gantner said addresses Soloski's greater point, which is unfortunately buried about 12,000 words into the 2,000-word story: "...each of these models evades the question of whether or not New York actually needs a Fringe." Most succinct. In fact, I think Soloski's best argument has to do with the proliferation of festivals, not that "New York doesn't lack for Off-Off-Broadway venues, some of them quite cheap": if she wasn't so busy blithely dismissing the work of Fringe artists, she might know that OOB spaces are hardly cheap, and that while venues like are doing a superlative job, it is unrealistic and healthy for an entire strate of the New York theatre to depend on a single source of criticism. (Perhaps that's why Soloski isn't lobbying Voice theatre editor Brian Parks to increase the OOB coverage in the paper even more than what he's already done.)

Gantner laments the Fringe's lack of a "central post-show hangout," but I don't think that's the primary issue. Unlike, say, Dublin, where Gantner ran that city's Fringe, we're too sprawled out to suggest that only one hub should exist. In a way, I think Clancy's point is most connected to the New York spirit -- that audiences should be talking about Fringe everywhere they can, that Fringe should be like a haze over this vast, uncontrollably creative city, not restricted like some summertime ghetto. "There's a truth to the fact that festivals work best in small cities" is how Gantner concludes; perhaps he's right. All I know is that fostering a real debate about the Fringe requires more selectively using quotes, positing unproven theses and demonstrating an open mind about what does and does not constitute the theatre of the Fringe.

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Arts Advocacy Update XI

Just as a reminder, if you visit the website for Americans for the Arts, you can receive the same weekly email blast I receive, from which the weekly Arts Advocacy Update is derived.

City may get arts district
Grand Rapids Press (MI), 8/9/2007
"A new [Michigan] state law that encourages redevelopment of neighborhood commercial corridors could help the city [of Holland] transform Columbia Avenue, between 15th and 24th streets, into an arts and cultural district."
Nine blocks in the middle of Grand Rapids devoted to the arts. Makes me want to yell, "Hey, Zach Mannheimer, have you checked out Michigan?"

Arts Groups Await Funding Impact as `Earmarking' Is Scrutinized
Bloomberg News, 8/9/2007
"President George W. Bush and some members of Congress argue that earmarks, which have been at the center of recent bribery scandals, should be eliminated. At a time when corporate support for the arts has been steadily shrinking, arts group are defending earmarks as an important, if a bit unseemly, way to get much-needed funding. Legislators steered more than $180 million to cultural organizations through earmarks in federal spending bills in 2005, according to Americans for the Arts, a Washington-based advocacy group."
Wow. Didn't know this. I'm all for eliminating government waste, but count me in when it comes to scamming the government coffers in the interest of the arts. Oh, well, we all have to tighten our belts if we want better government, right? Or at least a pro-American Democrat in the White House, instead of an anti-American liar and election-stealer.

BacPac hopes to influence public funding for arts and culture
Birmingham News (AL), 0/12/2007
"Efforts to convince public servants that the symphony, the ballet and the theater are as vital to a community's future as new streets and sewers can be frustrating to futile for arts marketers. That's where the Birmingham Arts and Culture Political Action Committee comes in. BacPac has been brewing for a few months, but was officially launched last week when a letter from organizers Jim Sokol and Rae Trimmier was sent to members of the cultural community. Like most political action committees, BacPac is focused on a single cause - in this case, to direct public officials' attention to the importance of arts and culture."
Seems to me that Off-Off-Broadway, among other things, could benefit from this kind of arrangement.

Mayor wants $700,000 to support arts in city
Indianapolis Star (IN), 8/3/2007
In Indianapolis, "[c]ity officials have begun to scrutinize the proposed budget for 2008, and perhaps no other subject will be caught in the cross hairs of debate more than funding for the arts. Roughly 1 percent of city expenditures has been dedicated to a Support for the Arts fund since 2004. . . . But in an eight-hour budget workshop earlier this week, some City Council members called for an end to the arts fund. . . . Brainard is asking for $700,000 for the 2008 budget, roughly 1 percent of the total of Carmel's $56 million general fund budget."
More idiocy from the heartland. Charming.

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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

And Now, Our Next President

Not really. But I did just finish reading the profile of Giuliani in this week's New Yorker and felt as if I ought to celebrate in some appropriate fashion. Therefore, I found this (along with half the other goonies out there, but it's still pretty funny).

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Crisis in the West End? Where New York's Michael Billington?

I'm finally catching up with some posts I've been meaning to put out there. Mind you, I should be working on the book, the whole book, and nothing but the book tonight, but even nose-to-the-grindstoners like me have to take a break now and then, and I really feel like my desk is just about overflowing with things I want to take care of, so...ugh, does that sound defensive? Yeah, guess it does.

Anyway, at the beginning of this month this article by Michael Billington in the Guardian really caught my eye. It's long but worth a read because, among other things, it's beautifully written and, in certain respects, terribly insightful, and it also, perhaps most important, permits those of us who are stateside an opportunity for a little bit of reflection on the state of our own West End and beyond.

You can get the upshot by skipping the needlessly alarmist headline ("Crisis in the West End") and focus instead on the uncommonly long dek ("Theatreland is in dire straits. Second-rate musicals rule, new drama is dying, and the venues are falling apart. The time has come for a revolution...").

I'm not going to (re)print the entire piece here, but there are a number of sentences and graphs that really stand out for me. For example, Billington writes, "Never in my lifetime has London's West End theatre looked so narrow in its range of choices or so out of touch with contemporary reality." When I first read this sentence, I thought, Gee, he could just as soon be referring to the commercial theatre in New York. Indeed, Billington's follow up sentence reads, "And it is high time the crisis was confronted and a debate launched abouot what we expect of commercial theatre." Among other things, it struck me as extraordinary that a critic, in this day and age, would presume that there are any expectations to be had of the commercial theatre, let alone the idea that we might choose to publicly assail them or debate them. It seems to me that here in New York we have become so utterly inured to the inevitability of commercial theatre's divorcement from assured quality (and often reality, though not if you're a Grease fan reality TV) that the whole notion of debating its usefulness is almost quaint.

From there, Billington lays out his argument, suggesting that while West End statistics are all happiness and light -- record attendance of 12 million, or roughly the same as Broadway; about $400 million in grossess and $800 million in economic benefits (adjusting pounds to dollars) -- it is without "any dynamic creative initiative."

If Billington's definition of "dynamic creative initiative" is one to be admired and one by which to measure our own (I'd say yes to both), it is also one quite capable of injecting a note of profound gloom into how we evaluate our own commercial scene. "At this moment," he writes, "there are 26 musicals in the West End but only seven straight plays and three comedies." In New York, the last time the genre of the straight play was viewed as something of an autonomous entity from the genre of the comedy I do believe Lunt and Fontanne, or maybe David Belasco, were still in their infancies.

It is curious to me that when Billington drills down further, when he examines "the provenance of the shows currently playing," he turns the default position of us Yankees -- that we're forever being overrun with British imports -- into a case study in agonizing irony: "...12 derive either from films or TV programmes or are compilation shows drawn from back catalogues. That leaves 14 shows that might loosely be described as 'original,' even if many of them are adapted from novels."

To get to my point, many of the musicals he cites originated outside of the West End -- Wicked and Avenue Q from the US; The Drowsy Chaperone from the US by way of Canada; The Lord of the Rings direct from its lame tryout last year in Toronto. In other words, we're fond of the argument that Broadway is full of British transfers, but Billington is saying that the West End is full of American transfers.

Later, a couple of paragraphs down, he warns that "if the West End musical relies parasitically on American imports, the straight play as a commercial proposition seems to be in an even more parlous state." Oh, irony, irony! I thought that Broadway as a whole was relying parasitically on the West End. Or is it? Or was it? Or will it be again?

Billington then writes about some things that I think we might well find wildly redolent to our own parlous (love the word) theatrical situation(s). After discussing the straight plays currently running and ruefully comparing the West End's fallow fare to the embarrassment of riches he encountered upon first becoming a critic in 1971, he writes, "The audience for plays basically goes to subsidized theatres. They will only pay West End prices if offered a bona fide star." I'd argue that not only is this true, but perhaps that it is just as well, frankly. Indeed, perhaps what our equivalent -- the nonprofit business model -- is ultimately the best at is the preservation, development and perpetuation of drama, including new drama; and engaging in this preserving, developing and perpetuating without, at least initially, the pressures of commoditization. I know, I know: nonprofits that enter into development deals and enhancement funds with for-profit commercial producers can be accused to putting the profitization cart before the aesthetic horse, but that's a subject for another day -- most nonprofits fostering new plays aren't operating with enhancement money for every project. In sum, I don't know that Billington's lament that plays are no longer viable or far less viable in the commercial sphere is necessarily a bad thing in the end. I almost think it could be seen as a necessary check on the crassness of commercialization.

Billington, I should add, discusses the physical plant of the West End skillfully and with smart detail; I don't know that Broadway theatres have quite the same issue, what with extra ticket charges supposedly going to renovation and preservation of the buildings themselves. I had to laugh, though, when I read that "60% of West End theatres had seats from which the stage was not fully visible, and that 48% had inadequate foyers and bars." What exactly, I wonder, constitutes "fully visible." And heaven knows an unstocked Broadway bar is reason to riot.

Much of this carping and winge-ing is not without suggestions for change. Billington refers to the "urgent need" for "dynamic young producers to succeed the senior generation" currently ruling the commercial roost; he fears "the relative scarcity of applicants who think in broad commercial terms: reared in the ethos of Fringe theatre, they largely come armed with small-scale projects." Here, again, I'm not so sure something has been lost...I think that to the extent that the fringe (and Fringe) mentality in New York has been fiscally unable to think in broad commercial terms for at least a generation, it seems to me that the work has, of necessity, been able to blossom beautifully in its diversity, intelligence, daring, wizardry, dynamism, hope and swagger. I think if you properly subsidized artists, if you considered producers of conscience and taste to be among them (and they're out there), you'd find no lack whatsoever of people thinking in terms of large-scale projects. The problem is one of accessibility, of practicality, not of vision. And I don't think, unlike Billington, that the commercial theatre is -- or should be -- the only or the primary forum from which large-scale projects might be tackled.

Finally, two things. First, I absolutely loved the fervor and ferment in Billington's final graph. Check this out:

"I'd like to see Sunday openings, lottery money for the rotting fabric, more imaginative use of the buildings themselves: in particular, pre-show talks, jazz and poetry recitals, stand-up comics in the dead hours before the 7:30pm opening. If the commercial theatre can't bear the subsidized sector, it should, in effect, join it: not only by adopting its practices but by employing its personnel. ...[W]hat it needs are director-managers, or even dramatist-impresarios, of proven vision."
There, for once, is something concrete to chew on, if you'll allow me to mix metaphors.

Meanwhile, the second thing actually takes me back to my discovery of the article itself, when Billington raged red-faced and waxed rhetorical about the disconnection between theatre of substance and meaning and what theatregoers are currently being presented with in the West End commercial marketplace. Being a story on the Web, the Guardian naturally runs ads smack in the middle of the story; in this case it was an advertisement that I think really sums up the whole problem. Here, direct from YouTube, is the ad:

Does that just say it all?

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New Formula for NYC Arts Funding

I hope everyone has had an opportunity to read and digest Robin Pogrebin's customarily good reporting in The New York Times on the new economic formula for nonprofit arts funding in New York City. This is absolutely a welcome -- and long overdue -- development. I'm pasting in the text of the piece below -- you should all read it and understand all of its implications and realize that, good as it is, it's no solution to the larger problem of arts funding and the various dysfunctional by-products of the nonprofit business model.

The one thing, however, that makes me wince/guffaw/roll my eyes is the subtextual wheezing and carping of Karen Brooks Hopkins of BAM. I mean, BAM has more money than most of the performing arts presenters and organizers in town, and it has all the prestige, board members, marquee names, connections, too, and what does she do? She grumbles, "The real question is, in this new world where we don’t have a budget dance, what can we do to not lose ground?"

Perhaps understand that your organization is not the center of the performing arts universe and that perhaps now your ability to hire lobbyists isn't going to be the one-trick pony that'll keep you fed and funded?

Perhaps understand that your organization was hitherto benefiting under a system that was punishing -- starving, ruining, torturing -- smaller organizations?

Anyway, here's Robin's story:

August 13, 2007
New Formula Means More Money for Arts Groups in New York

Correction Appended

The Mark Morris Dance Group got $80,000, up from $12,000 last year. The Flux Factory, an arts center in Long Island City, Queens, got $20,000, up from $3,000 last year. And the Mama Foundation for the Arts, which teaches gospel music, jazz and R&B in Harlem, got $12,500, up from $5,000.

These groups, which learned of their allotments on Aug. 3, are among the beneficiaries of the city’s new formula for allocating money to cultural organizations. The sums are appropriations for fiscal 2008, which actually started on July 1.

In the timeworn budget dance, the mayor made cuts to the city’s cultural budget and the City Council then restored various amounts. Some arts organizations received fixed allocations in the budget and lobbied City Council members for additional discretionary funds.

But this year, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and the City Council announced that they were breaking with that system. Arts groups that are not on city-owned land competed for $30 million in financing from the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs. And the 34 arts organizations on city-owned land, known as the Cultural Institutions Group, were allotted a total of $115.3 million, with an additional $4.4 million for “new needs.”

Last week arts organizations found out what those changes actually meant for them. It is the non-city-owned institutions — known collectively as the programs group — that saw the most striking improvement. These institutions used to compete for money from a $3.8 million fund established in 2003 by the Department of Cultural Affairs. Now that fund has been increased to $30 million, and it is allotted by peer-review panels. Between March and June these panels evaluated the applications on a range of criteria, from education programs to management and financial stability.

Three-Legged Dog, a media and theater group in downtown Manhattan, was one of the many groups large and small that reaped benefits from the new system. The organization received $28,500, its first operating stipend from the city.

Other non-city-owned institutions did similarly well. The Joyce Theater, which presents dance in Chelsea and SoHo, saw its city financing rise to $155,000 from $45,000 last year. The Queens County Farm Museum got $245,000, up from $76,000. The American Folk Art Museum received $225,000, compared with $6,000. The Noguchi Museum in Long Island City got $200,000, up from $140,000. The Roundabout Theater Company received $163,000, up from $134,000.

“On the program side we were really trying to reform a funding process — it was unclear, it was unpredictable, it was unfair,” said Kate D. Levin, the cultural affairs commissioner.

“In the past, dollar amounts were dependent on lobbying — people didn’t have equal access,” she added. “When you move to a merit-based process, you start being able to get more money to more organizations and reflect the strength and diversity of the field.”

The money going to the Mama Foundation, which has a school as well as performing programs, will enhance the organization’s efforts to teach gospel music and its history to teenagers, a program that now involves about 300 students, up from 70. “So much music has been taken out of the schools that we thought it was necessary to supplement it,” said Vy Higginsen, the foundation’s chief executive and executive director.

For the members of the so-called Cultural Institutions Group — including organizations like the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Queens Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art — the increases were not as large, and some were worried that their allocations were limited to one year. “We were generally pleased,” said Tom Finkelpearl, the chairman of the Cultural Institutions Group, but he added: “We’re concerned about the next fiscal year. A lot of funding was one-time funding.”

The Brooklyn Academy of Music received about $4 million, close to what it got last year. “We didn’t really gain, but we didn’t lose,” said Karen Brooks Hopkins, the academy’s president. “The real question is, in this new world where we don’t have a budget dance, what can we do to not lose ground?”

Starting in the 2009 fiscal year, which begins in July 2008, the 34 arts groups will be guaranteed 90 percent of their funds. The rest will be conditioned on their performance through a new evaluation and accountability process called CultureStat. City-owned arts groups will be reviewed in areas including board governance and financial management and may receive a portion of the 10 percent balance even if they do not qualify for the whole amount.

Because of the push and pull between the mayor and the council that was normal in the past, arts groups often did not learn how much they were getting until February. In the future, Ms. Levin said, 75 percent of organizations will receive word by July and will get payments by August. Elizabeth Egbert, the president and chief executive of the Staten Island Museum, said that this was a significant step. “This year, for the first time, we received word of the final budget number in time to include an accurate number in our own budget, which helped tremendously in planning,” she said. “Since our board votes on the museum budget in June each year, knowing the city allocation in advance, rather than in January, six months into the fiscal year, is obviously a better situation.”

In addition, groups with budgets of $250,000 or more will eventually be accorded three-year figures, so they can count on a certain level of funding. Organizations with smaller budgets will continue to receive annual appropriations.

Some 170 groups also used to get a fixed amount of money every year as “line items” that were written into the budget and have been frozen since 1989. Those have been eliminated.

Instead arts groups have to make a case for themselves based on the work that they do and the public service they provide. “We’ve been able to be more responsive to the needs of organizations that are extremely different,” Ms. Levin said.

She said the city was now essentially able to say: “We hear you. We hear you have this particular need at this particular moment.”

Correction: August 14, 2007

An article in The Arts yesterday about grants awarded to arts organizations by New York City under a new formula misstated part of the name of a dance company receiving a grant. It is the Mark Morris Dance Group, not Company.

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Even the BBC Overlooks OOB

So the BBC is reporting that "a Broadway show which was based on the hit reality TV programme American Idol has closed after its first official night on stage in New York." Except that Idol: The Musical is an Off-Broadway show (judging by its $60 top) and more like an Off-Off-Broadway show given its...well, that would be an insult to OOB.

And that's the show, by the by, that I posted about the other night. Curiously, NYPress is still running my review, which will be out tomorrow. Sad to kick a dog while its dead, but them's the breaks, ladies and germs.

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Introducing...Isaac Butler

Well, not really, since most of you already know him. But I just met him. And that gives me the upper hand, yo.

Seriously, what a great lunch I just had with Isaac. And best of all, I feel like I made a new friend. And no, there wasn't any liquor involved. Although the dude sitting a couple of tables away from us was certainly putting it away, judging by the 376 empty shot glasses strewn across his table.

More on my lunch with Mr. Parabasis anon.

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Congratulations to Punch 59!!


Performance to be held at the Laugh Factory NYC; Finals in Los Angeles, Sept. 25th

PUNCH 59 Sketch Comedy has been selected to compete in the annual International Sketch Comedy Competition™, which showcases some of the world’s best sketch comedy talent.

The first round will be held in New York City at 7pm, August 28th, 2007 at the Laugh Factory, 303 W. 42nd Street. Tickets are available by calling the Laugh Factory at 212-586-7829, x1. Industry comps are available.

Two more rounds will be held in both Chicago and LA in the coming weeks, and one troupe from each city will be selected to compete in the I.S.C.C. finals at the new 500-seat Laugh Factory in Los Angeles on September 25, 2007, with a celebrity judges’ panel and hosts (last year’s panel included Adam West). Winners receive a representation contract from a Los Angeles-based comedy booking agency and other prizes.

Past winners of the International Sketch Comedy Competition include Chicago’s Competitive Awesome and San Francisco’s 18 Mighty Mountain Warriors. This years’ I.S.C.C. will be taped for a reality-TV pilot and a portion of all proceeds will benefit charity.

“We are thrilled to be part of this festival,” says Jen Ryan, PUNCH 59’s Artistic Director. “The I.S.C.C. is a great opportunity for our amazing cast and writers, and we look forward to cleaning the floor with our competition.”

Performing with PUNCH 59 at the Laugh Factory show will be Jen Ryan (FringeNYC ’04 Outstanding Performance Award), Rik Sansone (Summer ’69), Amir Darvish (Mercury: Life and Times of a Rock God) Melanie Keegan and Erika Woods.

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Monday, August 13, 2007

Arts Advocacy Update X

Council, Grant Support Creative Economy (North Adams, MA), 8/2/2007

In Stockbridge, MA, "the simultaneous announcement of a $100,000 [Massachusetts Cultural Council] grant and the official formation of the Berkshire Creative Economy Council signals a commitment in the region to expanding and investing in the 'creative cluster' - which includes nonprofit institutions, individual artists and commercial businesses that produce and distribute creative products and services. Officials feel this investment in the Berkshires’ creative efforts will stimulate job creation and economic growth."
Having just been to the Williamstown Theatre Festival a week ago, I'd say this is a terrific move. Pretty as things were, with nothing but the theatre on one side of the block and Williams College on the other, it would seem to me that the whole area is ripe for further cultural development, with all the economic gains that might entail.

Book Tackles Old Debate: Role of Art in Schools
New York Times, 8/4/2007

"When two researchers published a study a few years ago concluding that arts classes do not improve students’ overall academic performance, the backlash was bitter. . . . In a new book due out this month, [the authors of that study] argue forcefully for the benefits of art education, while still defending their 2000 thesis. In their view art education should be championed for its own sake, not because of a wishful sentiment that classes in painting, dance and music improve pupils’ math and reading skills and standardized test scores."
I actually agree with this. Selling arts education as a cheap and easy way to improve test scores is just cynical and facile. I happen to believe that arts education, having received it, makes you a smarter person, more well-rounded, more curious about the world. But I don't think arts education necessary makes you more skilled at sine, cosines and tangents -- or parsing sentences.

Take action to protect arts education in public schools
Telegraph (Macon, GA), 8/3/2007

"Astonishing as it may sound, Georgia is about to take yet another step backward in arts education. According to an announcement from the Arts Leadership League of Georgia - distributed locally by Macon Arts - Georgia Superintendent of Schools Kathy Cox has recommended that fine arts be removed from the list of courses that will count toward graduation. Arts supporters are fearful this move will result in the disappearance of arts courses from public schools, since such courses will no longer fulfill the demands of the state's new basic curriculum - as if these programs aren't meager enough as is."
Georgia on my mind...not. So stupid. Such a shame. I wish they had been a success at seceding in the first place.

Corzine Considers Bill That May Lure Jobs to N.J.
New York Sun (NY), 7/27/2007

"New York City jobs could be lured away to New Jersey if a bill sitting on Governor Corzine's desk gets signed. The bill promises up to $30 million of incentives each year to digital media or film companies that move to or expand in the state."
Yeah yeah, he throw down, he throw down. Very savvy.

Cultural arts funding in need of overhaul
San Antonio Express-News (TX), 8/4/2007

"Few issues in city government have been more charged than San Antonio's cultural arts funding. The debate about who gets municipal dollars, and how much, landed the city in federal court in recent years. And a judge's ruling forced the city to pay monetary damages and abide by established criteria and procedures for arts funding. A new report from City Auditor Pete M. Gonzales Jr. suggests those criteria are malleable, and the Office of Cultural Arts isn't uniformly following the procedures."
But why? Why such fuming antipathy toward the arts?

Find a way to fully fund New Jersey arts
Herald News (NJ), 7/31/2007

An editorial in the Herald News calls for the New Jersey state government to stabilize yearly funding for the arts and culture. "The hotel and motel sales tax was supposed to provide permanent funding for the arts. But like every other pot of money in the state, it now gets tapped to close budget gaps. This should not happen. Music, dance and theater are important enough to New Jersey that they should have a regular revenue stream."
Hallelujah! It does seem like Corzine is listening, thankfully.

Redford's `Davos for the Arts' Pitches Ways to Boost Funding
Bloomberg News, 8/2/2007

Actor Robert Redford and Americans for the Arts "have teamed up to urge corporations, foundations and individuals to think of the arts as a way to address educational, health and environmental problems rather than as a competing philanthropic cause. Redford hosted a three-day conference of 29 executives from business, philanthropy and the arts last October to discuss the lack of arts funding. . . . The Sundance event will be held annually and could become 'a mini-Davos for the arts,' akin to the annual meeting of political and business leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Robert L. Lynch, president of Americans for the Arts, said in an interview. The next Sundance meeting in October will focus on the role of arts education in developing an innovative workforce."
Of course, discussing these things in abstract terms, and in such broad brush strokes, has some negatives as well. We've got to also be talking in terms of how such funding is to be directed -- do we fund nonprofits, individual artists, quasi-governmental agencies, or a combination? Do we target funding to spur economic growth? Are there limits, be they artistic or otherwise?

Tax break lure Hollywood east
Greenwich Time (CT), 8/6/2007

Connecticut's expanded tax credits for film production "has so far done its job in attracting dozens of movies to the area. But some analysts believe Connecticut and other states are placing too much faith in the film industry without fully weighing the downside of lost tax revenues." Darcy Rollins Sass, a policy analyst at the New England Public Policy Center in Boston "recently published a report that questions the value of film credits, saying that based on the experience of other states, the benefits have not been proven to outweigh the costs."
Buuuut they still tawwwwwwwwk like thiiiiiiiiiiis...

After Protests, City Agrees to Rewrite Proposed Rules on Photography Permits
New York Times, 8/4/2007

"Responding to an outcry that included a passionate Internet campaign and a satiric rap video, city officials yesterday backed off proposed new rules that could have forced tourists taking snapshots in Times Square and filmmakers capturing that only-in-New-York street scene to obtain permits and $1 million in liability insurance. In announcing the move, officials at the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theater and Broadcasting said they would redraft the rules, intended to apply to commercial film and photography productions, to address complaints that they could be too broadly applied."
How about leaving things as they are? Where's the crying need to meddle in constitutional issues?

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Sunday, August 12, 2007

Merv Griffin R.I.P.

I remember being a little kid and watching my parents utterly transfixed by Merv. He wasn't Johnny Carson (no one was Johnny Carson) and he wasn't a wacky weird one like Joe Franklin (no one is Joe Franklin), but Merv was blessed Merv.

A big shout out to Jen and Rik for letting me know about this clip.

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Saturday, August 11, 2007

Missing in Action

Sorry I haven't posted in five days...totally knee-deep in the book. For those of you who don't know what I'm referring to -- it's a book, with a deadline fast approaching. Spent most of today at the library...

And then I saw...

The worst show.

I've ever seen.

In my life.




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Monday, August 06, 2007

Arts Advocacy Update IX

I'm beginning this week's Arts Advocacy Update with an announcement:

Upcoming Event: Forum for New Ideas
September 20, 2007
Morgan Stanley Building
Learn how to think differently, explore non-traditional ways for business and the arts to work together, and network with some of today's visionaries at the Forum for New Ideas.
Tickets / Registration /Contact: 718-482-9900

Economic Impact of the Arts in Maryland
Maryland State Arts Council, 2006
"The arts generated $1.05 Billion in economic impact for Maryland in fiscal year 2006, according to a recent study released by the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development (DBED). The study, prepared for the Maryland State Arts Council (MSAC), also showed the arts generated an estimated $37.3 million in state and local taxes, up from $35.1 million In FY2005, and generated 13,762 full- and part-time jobs. In addition, for every dollar of direct spending by audiences attending arts events, another $2.10 was generated on other goods and services."
I mean, 13,000+ jobs in Maryland? Wow. Very interesting...I'd be interested to know just how, by genre/medium/profession, that breaks down.

Eugene council endorses report on state of the arts
Register-Guard (Eugene, OR), 7/26/2007
"To the applause of arts supporters, the Eugene City Council took a first step Wednesday toward playing a larger role in the city's arts and culture. Councilors voted 7-0 to accept a consultants' report that includes five priorities to help strengthen the city's many arts and cultural offerings. The city should play a broader role in arts and culture, including providing financial and staff support, the report said. The city also should help start an alliance for the arts, fund an endowment and conduct a 'thorough review' of the Hult Center for the Performing Arts, partly to halt its operating losses, the report urged.
Years ago I worked for the architectural firm that designed the Eugene Performing Arts Center. There's quite the infrastructure there...I guess the city's powerbrokers need to get on the proverbial stick.

Report: Tucson dreadful at nurturing its culture
Tucson Citizen (AZ), 7/26/2007
"The draft Pima Cultural Plan unveiled Wednesday pulls no punches in describing Tucson's innate reluctance to make the most of the 'immense and diverse range of arts and cultural resources.'" Plan author Bill Bulick says the area lags in both government funding and private contributions, and sorely lacks collaboration, "be it among arts and heritage groups, the arts with government, the arts with schools, or the arts and the greater community." Bulick's document "spells out exhaustive recommended strategies to overcome pitfalls in arts and cultural facilities, creative sector economy, government policy and arts education and to increase cultural resources." let's see them move forward...

Richardson tries to build on appeal
USA Today, 7/24/2007
An article on Democratic presidential hopeful Bill Richardson mentions that among his ideas are a "'massive federal program' for arts education."
Yeah...massive...we like that idea. Let's see anyone vote for him, though.

Arts council awards $21.5 million in grants
Courier-Post (Cherry Hill, NJ), 7/25/2007
"The New Jersey State Council on the Arts awarded $21,535,237 in grants to more than 800 organizations, programs and projects across the state Tuesday at its annual meeting in Trenton. Boosted by a larger appropriation from the New Jersey Legislature for fiscal year 2008, the council increased its funding by $2.8 million over fiscal year 2007."
Little known fact: New Jersey has traditionally been a huge supporter of the arts, and this is an example of such largesse.

Arts funding up 20 percent with grants of $1.36 million to groups
The Oregonian, 7/30/2007
"Oregon's biggest cultural scarcity, funding for the arts, got a boost Friday. . . . Gov. Ted Kulongoski announced more than $1.36 million in funding for various Oregon cultural institutions and programs. All of it comes courtesy of the Oregon Cultural Trust, a state-run trust for culture and the arts funded by three sources that sometimes elude the public's imagination: tax credits, the sale of cultural license plates and the sale of surplus state assets -- a third leg that remains on the books but has never actually been used."
And then there's the whole subject of dedicated taxes for the arts...something every state should investigate and, quite frankly, legislate.

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