Thursday, January 31, 2008

On Isaac's Post On Enhancement

Isaac wrote a good post on enhancement money a few days ago and tackles the question of its ethics, necessity, and effect on the nonprofit (and commercial) business models.

A few things on this.

Campbell Robertson's reporting aside, I have to report that this is hardly new. When I was sort of actively producing showcases in the mid- to late-1990s, I was after enhancement money all the time. And let me assure you that I was far from running the sort of (comparatively) well-heeled institutional nonprofit that commercial producers who provide enhancement money tend to work with. Though the trend is obviously growing.

Second, while I agree enhancement money is a symptom of a dysfunctional market (and "games the system"), I don't think there's anything wrong with it IF the theatre was going to produce the show in any event, IF it needed the cash infusion to make the piece happen, and IF the nonprofit in question is able to negotiate the kind of deal that monetizes its contributions to the process fairly and equitably. That is to say that if nonprofits, as Isaac suggests, negotiate crappy deals, that's wrong. There ought to be best practices, perhaps even publicly available, for those nonprofits that engage in accepting enhancement money -- maybe there already are. I don't know. That would require some research.

Third, I don't think it violates the nonprofit spirit if -- again -- the ifs above are addressed. The problem is, it's impossible to know an artistic director's motivation. I don't want to name names, but I can't tell you how many artistic directors I've interviewed and asked about programming choices, and how many have never copped to what Isaac is suggesting. Nor will they, and why would they? Some companies may have their backs to the wall; some may be opportunists. Some may be genuinely desirious of getting the piece in question on its feet. It's so hard to tell.

Fourth, Isaac's point about how enhancement money explodes budgets is right on. I think the League of Independent Theatres should probably take up this point because inappropriate compensation for artists is probably rampant.

Anyway, good post.

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On Rat Sass's Post on Preview Reviewing

Here's Nick's piece on preview reviewing at Rat Sass. In some ways, the less said, the better.

For the record:

Calling me Justice Jacobs is childish. Just as John Clancy asked Nick for them to stop sniping at each other on my blog, I would have hoped Nick would do the same. Truth is, we were supposed to have lunch last week, and the morning of, I received an email letting me know that he'd been offered tickets as a blogger/reviewer to some OB show and that we were now enemies or whatever word he used. Interesting that when I asked what show, he said he had to "protect his sources." What's next, Dungeons and Dragons?

Anyway, I do look excellent in a black robe and I know my way around a gavel, but cut the crap. He wanted to start a fight and -- like John -- I'm not going to fight him.

And Adam Szymkowicz's piece on Hunting and Gathering, which I am reviewing tonight, struck me as a reaction, not a formal, Variety-style review that Hunka wrote regarding 100 Saints and which I objected to. And for which I offer no apology whatsoever. And never will.

Nyeh.

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On UK Arts Funding, Toby Young Makes Me Sad

Toby Young's piece in the Guardian makes me mourn and wail and sigh. Headlined "Culture: Why Small Theatres Shouldn't Get Handouts," this is the kind of ignorant claptrap that gives arts-funding policy a bad name. Maybe Young thinks the world is flat, too.

I would ordinarily not quote so liberally -- pardon the pun -- quote from a story, but the first five of the seven-graph think piece stunned me:

Britain's luvvies are up in arms at the Arts Council's proposed funding cuts to various regional theatres. They are concerned that many of the venues that depend on Arts Council subsidies – such as the Bristol Old Vic, the Northcott Theatre in Exeter and the Bush — will be forced to close if their annual grants are cut.

I'm sceptical about this. Surely the theatres in question will only go out of business if they continue to put on plays that fail to capture the public's imagination. It is only because they don't sell enough tickets that they're forced to depend on hand-outs. If their artistic directors were a little more in touch with the taste of ordinary theatre-goers, their survival wouldn't be in jeopardy.

The standard reply to this argument is that adopting such a commercial approach would lead to the end of the risk-taking that is a necessary condition of creative vitality.

In this light, subsidised theatres are the laboratories in which young writers and innovative directors are free to experiment. The vast majority of these productions will fail to put bums on seats, but some will be such artistic successes that they will go on to play to packed houses in the West End. A case in point is Jerry Springer: The Opera (pictured), which opened at the heavily subsidised Battersea Arts Centre.

I'm not convinced by this. Take the Menier Chocolate Factory. This 200-seat venue, which opened in 2004, is among the most successful fringe theatres in the UK, yet it has never received a penny of public funding. The production of Dealer's Choice currently playing at Trafalgar Studios began life at the Menier, as did the production of Sunday in the Park With George set to open on Broadway. It's latest production – a revival of La Cage aux Folles – has received glowing reviews and will almost certainly transfer to the West End later this year.
My first problem is the idea that, on the priority list for the theatre's accomplishments, capturing the public's imagination must rank first, second, third and fourth, all the way down to last. I'm a capitalist, yes, but these are the rambling of capitalistic swine. In a more healthy artistic atmosphere, theatre captures the public's imagination, yes, but it also leads and teaches; it rankles and it challenges; it swaggers and it defies; it sets standards and bends them and destroys them; it makes demands and it makes compromises; it wrestles and pins you down or, alternatively, it yelps and screams "uncle." As Young sees it, the only theatre of artistic value is the theatre that has literal value. And yet, Young writes,

"The standard reply...is that adopting such a commercial approach would lead to the end of the risk-taking that is a necessary condition of creative vitality."
Well, that's rather black and white, don't you think? Young goes on to talk about how the Menier Chocolate Factory in London has gotten along quite well without public subsidy, thank you, from its revival of Sunday in the Park with George (now transferring to Broadway following a very successful West End run) to its revival of La Cage aux Folles (about to segue to a West End run as well). But for every Menier Chocolate Factory -- oh, by the way, I was unaware that reviving preexisting works counted as risk-taking -- that triumphs, how many fail? The parallels with the nonprofit institutional theatre situation in the US are quite obvious, at least to me.

What really hurt me is this statement:

"It is only because they don't sell enough tickets that they're forced to depend on hand-outs."
Do I detect a note of hostility? Obviously ticket-selling is important, but if that's the most important thing, are we not, indeed, talking about a strict, unyielding commercial producing model? Consider now the final two graphs of Young piece:

"While the Menier's success can partly be chalked up to the entrepreneurial zeal of its founders, David Babani and Danielle Tarento, it also finds space for new work. In 2005, a play by Ryan Craig called What We Did to Weinstein was shortlisted for the Evening Standard's "Most Promising Playwright" award. Would the Menier have been so artistically successful had its directors had the safety net of a grant?

The real dispute here isn't between commercially minded philistines and high-minded theatre-lovers. Rather, the issue turns on who you consider the best judges of artistic merit: the theatre-going public or a bunch of Government-appointed apparatchiks. The Menier's success suggests it should be the former."
Again, bravo for the Menier Chocolate Factory. But how many companies never, owing to the Ayn Rand-worshipping slavishness of the conservative ultra-right (even in the UK), have the opportunity to present such work?

I, for one, do happen to believe that the dispute is between those who favor commerical theatre versus those who favor subsidized work, although, if we all agree that we want the best possible theatre we can get, then we should want those two seemingly opposed philosophies to find ways to work together. (The trend toward enhancement money is a good example.) Personally, I fail to understand why the reigning philosophy must be all of one or all of the other.

Further, if the idea that we must reflexively let the market decided all matters of theatrical art, why stop there? Why not, for example, compel museums to submit ideas for curated exhibits to a public referendum? Or force symphonies to submit concert selections to the same? Why not have the general public indicate, by vote, what dance companies ought to dance?

In something that resembles an enlightened society, "government-appointed apparatchiks," in fact, would not be nameless, faceless, blameless, wan-colored ghosts, but experts in their field and representative of a vast range of disciplines, aesthetics and beliefs. Maybe, in the world of UK public arts subsidy, that's the problem. But let's not slam those companies that depend on arts subsidies, and let's not attempt to con free-thinking people with blather about the fortunes of one company symbolizing the paradigm by which all theatres must model themselves.

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A Thought for The Playgoer on "Passing Strange" and Mark Blankenship's Variety Piece

Like I said, I'm catching up on blogging.

I caught this post on The Playgoer about Passing Strange and the "unusual non-white presence on Broadway." First, let me say that Mark Blankenship is a friend, and a good one at that.

What I felt was missing in his piece, however, was a little bit of historical perspective. True, the number of Broadway productions featuring performers of color is high at the moment, but the piece seems to imply some sort of anomaly, which I think is unintentionally misleading. The precedent for the color-blind casting of Little Sheba, one could argue, is stuff like the all-black (and very successful) Hello, Dolly!, starring Pearl Bailey and Cab Calloway, back in the 1960s; Dolly! producer David Merrick revisited the concept some 30 years later when he revived (very unsuccessfully) the Gershwin musical Oh, Kay!

There was also a time -- a long time -- when plays about people of color or featuring people of color didn't do well at the box office at all. Notice that I'm distinguishing here between plays and musicals -- I feel the real story here is the idea that people are more and more eager to pay to see people of color in plays as opposed to musicals, where the sell is always easier. There were a bunch of straight plays in the 1980s featuring black and latino actors that didn't do well at all; if I were at home and could dig out my Best Plays volumes right now, I know I'd find a bunch of examples from the 1990s as well. Mark's piece speaks to the here and now, as a Variety piece should -- nor am I questioning his research or his angle, really. But I think there's a historical perspective to consider -- the idea that actors of color are more mainstream, more inherently "box office" today than in the past.

So in that sense, I agree with The Playgoer that "this has less to do with any 'enlightened' trend among producers and audiences than with a long overdue acknowledgement that some of our best and most popular stage performers are African American and need some good roles to play!" It has everything to do with changing audience tastes, and it's high time.

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Needing Some Love

Of course, I wish Isaac had included me on his list of favorite bloggers, but I suppose when there's that much hatred, you can't ask to be loved.

I guess I'm really fisking my life here, hm? Yep.

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A Thought for Ludlow Lad On "Sunday in the Park with George"

I'm catching up on blogging, even though I'm drowning in tsuris for the book. All I can say is my publisher -- all of them working there -- are kind, decent people. Can hardly say the same for a few folks over at the other party in this endeavor.

Anyway. I was rather disheartened to read Ludlow Lad's thoughts about Sunday the Park with George. Meaning...I might as well come out: Sunday is my favorite musical. It opened when I was 16. I remember the first time I saw it -- front mezz, row D of the Booth. My friend Mel Richards was the doorman at the Booth -- he had been the doorman at the Golden prior to that, which all goes back to my 'night, Mother story. I used to spend my Saturday afternoons hanging with Mel in the little doorman area just off the stage door of the Booth, and as the Booth has not much wing space at all, I'd be sitting there watching, say, Bernadette waiting to go on. They may or may not have known my name, but they knew my face. And I have a bunch of playbills with Sondheim's autograph on it. And for reasons that are too complicated to get into but relate in part to the fact that I was an intern at Playwrights Horizons in the summer of 1985, I was invited to be in the audience when Sunday was taped for PBS in the fall of 1985. If you watch the DVD, watch the very end, as the credits are scrolling. The cast is taking its bows and there's a cut back to the audience which is giving the (now customary) standing O. And you'll see two people getting up, somewhere around the third or fourth row of the orchestra, on the aisle, I think. That's me and my mother. I was 17.

Anyway, I have a lot of critical thoughts on Sunday. Not that I expect to sway Ludlow Lad, and I would love to be able to link to a 3,000-word analysis I just had published in The Sondheim Review, but that's not available on the website.

What bothers me is the idea that Sunday is "poorly executed." I think it's anything but. I mean, the Menier production and/or the Broadway transfer may be poorly executed -- I don't know, I'm seeing it on the 15th, so we'll see. (No, I'm not reviewing it. I just interviewed the stars of the show, which I'll be linking to shortly.)

I will say that I've listened to the cast recording and, much as I think the voices are sumptuous, Michael Starobin's orchestration were very nervy for their time, especially during Act 2. At the time of the original production, a modest orchestra was perceived as a net minus, and yet it was understood that the bleak economic necessities of the mid-1980s -- remember, Broadway houses were regularly empty for months at a time then -- were the root cause of it. And I think Starobin's orchestrations had the "shimmering" quality Sondheim wanted -- music as a metaphorical reflection of pointillism, which I can't imagine anyone not understanding.

Ludlow Lad says the production's big problem is "it's use of video projections in act one, which undercuts the impact of the new media art that turns up in act two." This is fair -- again, I can't agree or not agree until I see it -- and it seems an astute observation: If you introduce high technology, however subtly, into a 19th century setting, there's no smack of modernity when the 20th century arrives. I understand that the projection quality is similar to The Women in White, which I did review and loathed much as everyone else did. It never occurred to me, frankly, that there could be something jarring, an intellectual discord, between high technology and a long-ago period. I wish I'd thought of that. I'll just have to see how I feel about it. I may be too busy having a good cry.

As for the use of British accents in Act 1 and American accent in Act 2, Daniel and Jenna talked about this when I interviewed them. I wasn't able to include their thoughts on this -- obviously the director, Sam Buntrock, has had some influence over the decision. Daniel did say, though, that in Britain nobody knows they're speaking in a British accent, which I thought was fair.

Personally, I think Act 2 is abundantly necessary. The release of tension signified by the tableau at the end of Act 1 is one thing, but it surface tension -- it's not the gut-churning tension of the artistic impulse. Ugh, I wrote 3,000 words about this for the Sondheim Review and I'm not making any sense.

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Quote of the Day: Leo Tolstoy

I had hoped to do a full month of these daily quotes, but time is pressing, so they will appear, um, whenever. I do like this one, though:

One ought to write only when one leaves a piece of one's flesh in the inkpot each time one dips one's pen.

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Arts Advocacy Update XXVII

Apologies for being so late with this edition of the Arts Advocacy Update. My book is causing me more drama than the history of Broadway I am supposedly delivering in pictorial form. I can't say much more, but I like single malt.

Anyway...

The content below is from Americans for the Arts' Cultural Policy Listserv.

Arts seen as vital to economy
Florida Today , 1/16/2008
"The arts play a vital role to help recruit companies and top employees to come to Brevard County. That's one of the findings the Brevard Cultural Alliance and the Economic Development Commission of Florida's Space Coast will present, as the two entities join forces for a presentation called 'The Economics of Creativity' on Friday night." Lynda Weatherman, president and chief executive officer of the Economic Development Commission, says that says that "when there is support of the arts, more business comes. When more business comes, there is more support for the arts."
Reading the article, some graphs blew my mind. For example:

The Tourist Development Council is financed through an occupancy or "bed" tax paid by visitors who stay in local hotels. The tourism tax is 5 percent -- 5 cents on the dollar.

"The Tourist Development Council gives us $125,000 to promote the arts," Williams said. "That includes listings, some co-op advertising. We're also doing a new publication that will be in the hotels. So, when you look at what the TDC gives us, and then include the $150,000 it gives to the various festivals, it comes to about $275,000 that's spent on the arts."

Williams said, for every dollar spent on that marketing, it's estimated that $27 is brought into the county.

Here's a follow-up piece...


Arts worth $64 million to Brevard
Florida Today , 1/19/2008
"The arts are good for business. That notion, put forth for years by arts organizations and supporters, was confirmed Friday at the Brevard Cultural Alliance and Economic Development Commission's 'Economics of Creativity' joint event in Cocoa Village. Nonprofit arts and culture contributed more than $42 million to the Brevard County economy in fiscal 2007, according to a report released Friday. And they boosted the local economy by another $22 million when considering indirect benefits enjoyed by other businesses, while also generating about 625 full- and part-time jobs."
Of course, too many of those jobs are going to Repuglicans, but that's just my prejudice...


City plans for new arts district
Annapolis Capital (MD), 1/21/2008
In Annapolis, MD, "Mayor Ellen O. Moyer plans to introduce legislation next month to help create the city's first arts and entertainment district. . . . The special zoning district is designed to draw artists into the area, spur the creation of new performance venues and further brand the city as a cultural center for the arts, she said. Annapolis will apply for the district "through the state's nationally acclaimed Arts and Entertainment Districts program. The program is administered by the Maryland State Arts Council and helps local jurisdictions organize arts communities with tax credits at the state and local level."
Great stuff...


Culture Club
Time, 1/17/2008
Richard Lacayo says that New York City's culture sector -- which helps make the city "attractive to the well-educated professionals who give a place a competitive advantage," employs "more than 8% of the New York City work force," and "drives another of its largest economic sectors: tourism" -- is threatened by the city's "breathtaking real estate prices." Lacoya warns that as creative types are forced to move away, an "art-world diaspora causes a more subtle disruption to the fabric of the creative economy." Will the Bloomberg administration's efforts to help artists and arts organizations save the city's cultural sector?
Of course, what's odd here is how too little, too late it seems. I mean, Bloomberg has been brilliant but not so brilliant as to ever understand how the ballooning real estate situation is picking off artists one by one, encouraging them to leave or stop working on their art or whatever it is. Lacayo makes a good case but a stronger, more sustained, more pointed and aggressive case still needs to be made. Good of Time to cover this, though. Here's a particularly salient graph:
When folks try to place New York in the global economy, they immediately think of Wall Street. But that's not the whole story. In 2005 the Center for an Urban Future, a Manhattan-based think tank, issued a study of the city's cultural sector, which it defined broadly to include art, design, music, theater and dance, as well as TV and film production, architecture, publishing, fashion and even advertising. It found that taken together those professions were second only to financial services as an economic force, employing 309,000 people, or more than 8% of the New York City work force.


Region's creative industries flourishing, a study finds
Philadelphia Daily News, 1/23/2008
"The Philadelphia region is doing surprisingly well in industry that requires a creative flair, a new report has found. Philadelphia ranked first in earnings at $98.6 billion in 2005 in areas such as architecture, engineering and software design, and came in second in employment with 306,000 jobs among its six chief competitors: Boston, Denver, Phoenix, Seattle, Tampa and Austin, Texas. Only Boston did better in employment, with 360,000 jobs, according to an executive summary of 'Creative Footprint: The Economic Impact of the Philadelphia Region's For-Profit Creative Economy,' released yesterday. 'Creative-industry employment within the Philadelphia region generates an estimated total annual economic impact of nearly $60 billion in total output [spending]. This includes $32.5 billion in total annual earnings and supports 766,000 jobs,' the study found."
So when will the creative economy help the most blighted areas of that city. I was there not long ago and blown away by the gentrification. But there's a long way to go, especially if you know the crime figures there. Anyway, move it, groove it.


MPAA Admits Mistake on Downloading Study
Washington Post - AP, 1/23/2008
"Hollywood laid much of the blame for illegal movie downloading on college students. Now, it says its math was wrong. In a 2005 study it commissioned, the Motion Picture Association of America claimed that 44 percent of the industry's domestic losses came from illegal downloading of movies by college students, who often have access to high-bandwidth networks on campus. The MPAA has used the study to pressure colleges to take tougher steps to prevent illegal file-sharing and to back legislation currently before the House of Representatives that would force them to do so. But now the MPAA, which represents the U.S. motion picture industry, has told education groups a 'human error' in that survey caused it to get the number wrong. It now blames college students for about 15 percent of revenue loss."
And then they said Kirby Dick's "This Film Is Not Yet Rated" is right about just about everything, ended the ratings system, and proclaimed their devotion to the First Amendment. And then I awakened.


Bill Could Bring Movies to Nebraska
Houston Chronicle - AP, 1/18/2008
In Nebraska, a Senate bill "provides for a cash rebate of up to 25 percent of production costs for films, commercials and television programs. Senators gave first-round approval Friday to the measure from Sen. Danielle Nantkes of Lincoln, with a couple voicing concerns about the financial effects. . . . Nantkes and others said the return on the investment would be worth it, citing other states where incentives have yielded huge returns."
Of course, there's a joke here somewhere, but this is so enlightened I just hate to make fun of those people.


City seat tax refunds will help update arts complex
Rocky Mountain News (Denver, CO), 1/17/2008
"The Denver Center for the Performing Arts will save hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, beginning this month, with relief from the city's seat tax. The center already has been refunded $317,000, a figure that DCPA President Randy Weeks said was chosen to fund urgent repairs. All future money will go to deferred maintenance on buildings in the Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex, said DCPA Chief Executive Officer Daniel L. Ritchie."
I really do think Denver has one of the most intriguing arts funding situations in the country. Really pioneering and really proud of it, and rightly so.


Lights, camera, action...
Michigan Detroit Free-Press (MI), 1/22/2008
An editorial in the Detroit Free-Press writes in favor of a proposal to make Michigan much more attractive to filmmakers with tax rebates up to 40%, "the best deal in the country. . . . This seems like the proverbial no-brainer. It brings new business and jobs into Michigan, even if only for as long as the filmmaking lasts, so whatever revenue the state gets is new money; 60% of something is better than 100% of nothing."
And everyone knows that Michigan, economically, is getting 100% of nothing at the moment.


Marcus arrangement, tax break aimed at luring filmmakers
On Milwaukee, 1/21/2008
"Marcus Theatres announced Friday that it will guarantee screenings of feature films made in [Wisconsin] in its cinemas. The arrangement, along with a new 25 percent state tax incentive for film, TV and video producers that took effect on Jan. 1, is aimed at encouraging filmmakers and producers to shoot in Wisconsin."
But will those films star my friend Jonathan West?


The Sound Of Money
Hartford Business Journal (CT), 1/20/2008
In Connecticut, "[m]oney — in the form of grants and state funding — is critical for arts groups. That is why the state’s museums and art entities are increasingly turning to lobbyists to help them promote their causes with legislators and foundation officials. The lobbyists representing arts organizations are selling the point-of-view that an investment in the state’s museums is an investment in the state’s economy. . . . Museum and arts organizations have at least one very important ally in Gov. M. Jodi Rell, recognized by the arts community as a friend for her push to increase funding. Though Rell’s proposal to take a portion of the state’s cable tax and dedicate it to the arts failed, state lawmakers have been more receptive towards funding nonprofit arts organizations than they have in the past."
Or tap the Yale endowment...


A Taxing Matter
Chronicle of Philanthropy, 1/18/2008
"Nonprofit organizations make billions of dollars in income from activities unrelated to their core missions, but roughly half of the groups raising such funds pay little or nothing in federal taxes on the income. The pattern holds true for the very largest charities, according to a Chronicle review of the organizations’ most recent 990-T tax forms, which were made available to the public for the first time thanks to a change in federal law."
I did not realize that some of a nonprofit's ancillary, revenue-generating activities are taxable as income. Great article.


Charity Begins in Washington
New York Times, 1/22/2006
"The flip side of American private largess is the stinginess of the public sector. Philanthropic contributions in the United States — about $300 billion in 2006 — probably exceed those of any other country. By contrast, America’s tax take is nearly the lowest in the industrial world. . . . As a result, the United States spends less on social programs than virtually every other rich industrial country, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. . . . Critics of government spending argue that America’s private sector does a better job making socially necessary investments. But it doesn’t," says this New York Times editorial.
Um, because we're cheap?

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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Monday, January 28, 2008

Are You a Whore? New York Press Wants to Know

No, no, no. New York Press doesn't want to know if you're a whore. Well, not really, anyway. My favorite NYC alt-weekly is running a contest to find a sex columnist who doesn't crib from other people's writing, isn't a virgin, and, if he/she is, in fact, a whore, at least chooses with some faint semblance of wisdom. No poopy jokes, please.

Anyway, here's the 411, you hormonal trollops.

ALWAYS WANTED TO WRITE A SEX COLUMN? HERE’S YOUR CHANCE…

THE NEW YORK PRESS 20TH ANNIVERSARY SEX COLUMN COMPETITION BEGINS TODAY!


If we’ve learned anything in the last year, it’s that a vast number of New Yorkers believe they have what it takes to be a sex columnist. And so, rather than picking one from the surprisingly large pool of potential weekly contributors, we’ve chosen instead to open up the process – and, in the end, let the readers decide.

Beginning today and continuing for the next three months, the New York Press will be accepting unsolicited submissions for its weekly sex column. There are no restrictions on the content, and submissions should be between 800 and 1,200 words. Each week, the editors will select one piece for publication in that week’s edition. Those weekly winners will become finalists in the competition, which will culminate in the awarding of a weekly sex column – to be launched in our 20th anniversary edition on April 23, 2008. The finalists will be chosen by the editors, and the winner selected by reader votes.

The contest begins now: to enter, email editorial@nypress.com.

Submissions between now and Monday, January 28th at noon will be considered for publication in next week’s New York Press. Please note: anyone whose work is published will be paid according to our regular rates.

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New Review: November

Actually, this review of the new Mamet play isn't so new -- it's been on the New York Press website for a little while now and I've been a little too wrapped up in odds and ends for my book to remember to post this.

Apologies all around.

Yes, yes, that's right: I'm alluding to my book. All is well after a bit of a bumpy period that I'll probably write about after the thing is published. (Can't tempt fate, can we?) Long story longer: just a LOT of last minute odds and ends. Probably about another two weeks of this and then we move into production, as it were.

Anyway, here's what I thought of November.

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League of Independent Theater Update

Not from me, but from John Clancy as of a few days ago. Been meaning to link everyone over to John's blog, as I'm suddenly getting a lot of questions like:

1) What's happening with the League?
2) What's not happening with the League?
3) Why can't I be involved? Why can't I be obstructionistic?
4) Why am I out of the loop?
5) Why can't I raise enough money for a showcase? (Ooops, wrong subject.)

Anyway, go visit Clancy's recent posting here. And stop whining.

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Friday, January 25, 2008

Romney's Favorite Song: "If I Only Had a Brain" -- Was He Being Coached at the Debate?

Or so it would seem. Who is whispering??

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I Have Not Decided, Even If You Have



No man, no madness
Though their sad power may prevail
Can possess, conquer, my country's heart
They rise to fail
She is eternal
Long before nations' lines were drawn
When no flags flew, when no armies stood
My land was born.

And you ask me why I love her
Through wars, death and despair.
She is the constant, we who don't care
And you wonder will I leave her -- but how?
I cross over borders but I'm still there now.

How can I leave her?
Where would I start?
Let man's petty nations tear themselves apart
My land's only borders lie around my heart.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

New Review: Almost an Evening


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New Review: 2.5 Minute Ride



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Tony Wolf Becomes Tom Cruise

Seriously, he does! Tony's been a friend for years. Remarkable what he does here. I laughed my ass off.

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Heath Ledger, 28, Dead



Farewell, dear cowboy.

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Theatre Critic Richard Zoglin is Not -- We Repeat, Not -- A Drag Queen



He comes out about this, if you will, in his review of The Little Mermaid in Time.

Frankly, it is quite possibly the strangest example of quasi-criticism I've ever read.

I also understand that when Zoglin was completely done gazing lovingly at his navel, he found lint and glitter. Not a drag queen, huh. Yeah, sure. Harrrumph.

What really bothers me, though, is not that Zoglin reveals how enamored he is with Disney's musicals, beginning with The Lion King, which I will agree is probably the best of the lot by far, mostly due to Julie Taymor understanding something about narrative as well as what is visually arresting. Zoglin whines that

The complaints have become as predictable as the patter for the villain's henchmen in a Disney cartoon: Disney shows are too big, too commercial, too over-marketed — not real theater so much as bloated "theme park" extravaganzas that only children and undiscriminating tourists could love (though the criticism of Disney's last show, Mary Poppins, was somewhat different; the critics found it too heavy, not theme-parky enough.)

but I don't recall the main criticisms of Aida, Tarzan, or that spoon-spinning enterprise Beauty and the Beast being about spectacle, per se, but about spectacle at the total expense of a well-textured narrative; of something approaching literary-mindedness; of intelligent, plot-driven lyrics; of whole characters, not easily digestible archetypes. Zoglin's stark criticism of the critics' criticisms reminds me of what used to go on back in the 1980s and 90s, when the defenders of The Phantom of the Opera, Starlight Express and their like used to whine about the reviews those shows received. Here's the thing: sets don't act, and neither do costumes. Hyper-amplified sound systems do not convey story, they just broadcast it. Libretti with short-cuts designed to keep storylines to an absolute minimum so as to get the audience back to the songs they already know (and, arguably, have paid to hear) does not make a good work of musical drama or musical comedy or theatre in any manner, shape or form. OK, nice, so Zoglin likes all the pretty pictures and he's angrily that the critics call out crap as crap, if they think it's crap.

What gets me is that Zoglin attacks the world's favorite whipping boy, Ben Brantley. I mean, I'm not saying Brantley is the second coming of Aristotle, but how much must it suck to be him, hm? Zoglin first calls him "the Scar of the grump brigade" and writes about how, in reference to The Little Mermaid, Brantley "loathed the whole wretched thing"

including even the one aspect of Disney shows that usually wins a grudging cheer, its scenic design. "The whole enterprise," the Times critic sniffed, "is soaked in that sparkly garishness that only a very young child — or possibly a tackiness-worshiping drag queen — might find pretty."

OK, OK, so it isn't the first time Brantley has injected a note of camp into his funeral dirge for a not-so-great production. Then Zoglin writes:

That sort of thing makes me wonder whether the critics are actually sitting in the same theater I am. In fact, the show is notably lacking in sparkles, and garish is just about the last word I would use to describe the subtle and airy visual design. A gorgeous color palette of pastel blues, oranges and pinks. Translucent, lighter-than-air panels, billowing plastic waves, scepter-like deep-sea sculptures, which manage to convey not just one undersea world but a host of neighborhoods within that world. Costumes that manage to be both lush and witty — the exaggerated, bunched-crinoline hoop skirts on the court ladies, for example, made me laugh out loud. All in all, it was one of the most ravishing things I have ever seen on a Broadway stage. For the record, I am not a drag queen.

What the hell is that? "I am not a drag queen." First Zoglin catapults Brantley's sensibilities far into the pejorative, then uses Brantley's vernacular to strike a blow for...what? Metrosexuality?

After Zoglin extols the production as you know he will -- it's as if it never occurred to him to just lop off the first part of his review as being petty, self-serving, unprofessional and ultimately a bit irrelevant -- he finishes his review by asking, "Or am I still trapped in a fairy tale?" No, friends, he's definitely not a drag queen. If he were, he'd know.

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Quote of the Day: Somerset Maugham


A good rule for writers: Do not explain overmuch.

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Monday, January 21, 2008

GLAAD Nominations are Out

....and here are the nominations as they pertain to theatre. My predictions are in bold.

Los Angeles Theater
Act A Lady, by Jordan Harrison
Anything, by Tim McNeil
Avenue Q, book by Jeff Whitty, music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx
Havana Bourgeois, by Carlos Lacamara
The Long Christmas Ride Home, by Paula Vogel

New York Theater – Broadway & Off–Broadway
100 Saints You Should Know by Kate Fodor
All That I Will Ever Be by Alan Ball
The Beebo Brinker Chronicles by Kate Moira Ryan and Linda S. Chapman
Some Men by Terrence McNally (but it should be All That I Will Ever Be)
Speech & Debate by Stephen Karam

New York Theater – Off–Off Broadway
1001 Beds by Tim Miller
BASH'd: A Gay Rap Opera by Chris Craddock and Nathan Cuckow, music by Aaron Macri
I Google Myself by Jason Schafer
Yank! book and lyrics by David Zellnik, music by Joseph Zellnik
The Young Ladies Of by Taylor Mac

If Taylor Mac doesn't win, I'm turning in my gay card.

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Quote of the Day: William Faulkner


Facts and truth really don't have much to do with each other.

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Sunday, January 20, 2008

Questioning the Showcase Code Reforms

In a recent post, Isaac questions the prospect and/or likelihood of Showcase Code reform. I think it's good to question it, provided one asks the right questions. For example, he writes,

1) I asked earlier what the artistic impact of the showcase code was, and the answer seems to be largely that there isn't one. I doubt this is true. If the Showcase Code is truly bad for the work we're making it must then have some negative impact on that work. I understand that we probably don't want to say Yes, my work is not as good as it could be because of our business model or whatever, but I don't think we can have it both ways. Either it affects our work or it doesn't. If it doesn't affect the artistic quality of the work we produce, then I think that saps the argument for reform of some of its strength because....
This strikes me as strange. What does "impact" mean? If you define "impact" by the fact of work getting done at all -- before we even arrive at the quality question -- the Code has clearly had one for more than 40 years; the entire history of Off-Off-Broadway has been predicated on it. And the kind of work that virtually everyone in the theatrosphere says they want more of would, in large part, not exist without it.

Second, both union and nonunion Off-Off-Broadway work has succeeded and failed, historically, for reasons that include the Code, but not solely because of the Code or in spite of the Code. The purpose of the Code -- and what I think is both the philosophical and the practical purpose of Off-Off-Broadway -- is to be the laboratory for the theatre, the underground, the proving ground, the training ground. Does anyone quesiton that without a place to fail, one cannot succeed? Is that not one of many definitons of "impact." To me, it's not a matter of "either it affects our work or it doesn't" because the question is not "either/or" so much as "and."

2) Ultimately, I question who showcase code reform is going to benefit. And in order for Equity to be interested in it, it has to benefit actors.

Here's why I question it. Let's take the 16 performance limit for a second. A lot of people would like to see that changed. I get that to some extent. But who (in general, I'm leaving out box office split venues here and I know that) can afford to extend their shows for extra weeks in the current market with overinflated theater rentals being the norm?

Let's then take the budgetary cap for productions. Who can afford a show with a $25K budget? A $30K budget?

Of course Showcase Code reform is going to benefit actors. But this also leads into a completely different aspects of the discussion that no one ever addresses in a meaningful way: Why is the Dramatist Guild completely unrepresented, like a neglectful, absentee parent, on the subject of playwrights working in the OOB arena? Certainly the Dramatists Guild derives as much financial benefit (that is to say none) from this work as Equity does. And why, while we're at it, is the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers (SSDC) completely unrepresented, like a neglected, absentee parent, from this discussion too?

I have never understood why this whole debate is forever predicated on what Equity says and thinks and does (or doesn't do). Why, indeed, is it the Equity code? Why is it all right with playwrights, directors, or any other theatre practitioner for the actors' union to serve as the powerbroker, the gatekeeper? True, actors are the ones who are going to force their union to make changes, but why are playwrights and directors contented or thrilled with the fact that the organization that should be their natural representative in this discussion utterly uninterested in them? And they are -- I mean, for god's sake, everyone knows that as a result of Joe Mantello's lawsuit a few years ago, the DG and the SSDC regard each other as natural enemies, not allies.

The greater point here is Showcase Code reform will, should, and must benefit everyone. And we've got to make sure that non-actor practitioners understand what their stake in this is as well, instead of worrying about the actors. The actors can deal with the fact that their union couldn't give a flying fuck about them. What about all the other practitioners' representatives not giving a flying fuck about them?

Isaac's point about budgetary caps is also very well taken, but frankly I think it's really sort of secondary. Many young but so-called institutional nonprofit OOB companies -- companies that produce whole seasons year after year -- operate under the Code (usually ignoring the caps, as everyone knows) and learn how to find the money because they're constantly fundraising and constantly producing. It's murderously hard, but it's that much harder if you're only doing one show a year or whatnot.
Now there are all sorts of other things in the showcase code that I would love change (limits on rehearsal hours/weeks, the no-remounting-within-a-year policy etc.) but I think making those changes in a way that wouldn't lead to a lot of extra exploitation and abuse is tricky.
Actually, I don't. I think the model already exists for all this, and that's the 99-seat contract that some of the people writing comments on Isaac's blog have referred to. And the 18 or so of us that are sitting on the steering committee of the League of Independent Theater have been getting up to speed on the provisions of this agreement and why it really is probably the best alternative to the Code. It isn't reinventing the wheel. What everyone must demand -- and making the case for the actors to demand -- that New York City be treated like anywhere else in the nation.

NOTE: Here's something from the nytheatre i on the same subject. I say, email Martin and get involved!

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Arts Advocacy Update XXVI

The content below is from Americans for the Arts' Cultural Policy Listserv.

Community Arts Organizations Call On City For More Funding
NY1 News, 1/16/2008
In New York City, "[a]rtists and leaders of community arts organizations say they are the faces that make up the neighborhoods of the city. But, they say their artistic voices are being silenced by a lack of city funding." Members of a coalition called the Cultural Equity Group aim "to fight for a larger share of the city arts budget, even as the city faces rough economic times."
It's always been my view that part of the problem, which this article doesn't really address (and is, perhaps, somewhat off-topic) is that the organizations in the CIG -- the Cultural Institutions Group, which are mandated by law to receive certain kinds of funding -- eat up resources for more grassroots groups like those being referred to in this piece. The new methodology which the department of cultural affairs is determining arts funding will help, but this article strikes me as a symptom of ongoing concerns.


Artistic renaissance
New Orleans City Business, 1/14/2008
"Two and a half years later, the [New Orleans’] creative community is making an unexpectedly strong rebound from Katrina....The creative sector has historically played a vital role in the New Orleans economy. In 2003, art centers, museums and other nonprofit arts groups and institutions generated 10,000 jobs, $32 million in city and state tax revenue and $300.5 million in wider economic impact, according to a report published in 2006 by the Bring Back New Orleans Commission Cultural Committee. Film studios, commercial theaters and galleries generated another $353 million in wages and sales. Katrina struck a mighty blow, costing 11,000 jobs and $80 million in uninsured damages, according to the Bring Back New Orleans Commission report. . . . By 2006, however, many arts businesses were beginning to regain lost ground thanks to national trends pushing up prices at galleries and auctions as well as increased interest in New Orleans."
I'm shocked and thrilled. But let's not stop there. Let's keep it going.


Thinking right in a left-brain environment
Kansas City Star (MO), 1/12/2008
"MFA is a master of fine arts degree. Yet Lori Diffendaffer says the degree and her musical background prepared her well to handle marketing at Grant Thornton LLP in Kansas City. . . . Douglas G. Viehland, executive director of the Association of Collegiate Business Schools and Programs, based in Overland Park, also has observed increasing demand for right-brain or soft skills to balance the left-brain or hard skills taught in business schools."
The question, though, is to what degree the wider provinces of the business community will really embrace this idea. Great story.


Scrapping funding for culture 'beyond belief'
The Australian, 1/17/2008
"Just as other countries, those in our region included, are ramping up programs designed to project soft power, the Rudd Government has decided to scrap Australia's. A program aimed at enhancing Australia's cultural image internationally has taken the brunt of cuts to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's budget. Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner announced this week that more than $20 million would be saved by scrapping the Australia on the World Stage initiative, and 'through reductions in other cultural relations funding.'"
Sigh. Welcome to the US, on the other side of the world. So stupid.


Canada restricts media ownership
Agence France-Presse, 1/15/2008
"Canada's broadcasting regulator announced new rules Tuesday limiting the number of conventional television and radio stations a person may control in the same market, to ensure a diversity of voices. . . . The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) said in a statement a person or company will only be permitted to control two media outlets such as newspapers, radio and television stations in the same market. As well, limits were imposed on ownership of broadcasting licences to ensure that one party does not control more than 45 percent of the total television audience share as a result of a merger or acquisition."
Good thing I only control 44% of the market up there, or else I'd be screwed. On a more serious note, how interesting that the Canadians are taking these actions at the same time we seem to be doing the opposite. Oh, Canada.


After the Art Wars
Commentary/ January 2008
Michael J. Lewis reflects on the past and possible future of the National Endowment for the Arts. "In brief, the NEA has withered in a matter of decades from a self-styled instrument of world peace to a cautious dispenser of largesse whose one inflexible principle is that no grant must ever redound to the administration’s embarrassment. Whether it can regain its early ambition—or whether it should try to—is an open question." Rather than fund contemporary artists again, Lewis suggests that NEA might do better to "steward America’s artistic patrimony by supporting museums, exhibitions, and performances of works validated by the cumulative consensus of time."
From the "flagship of neoconservatism" comes this piece, which isn't bad, really, but it is full of rhetoric and historical glossiness and a bit muddled. Fundamentally, I believe the NEA -- which is not, in fact, an endowment -- should be reconstituted as one, thus removing it from both Congressional appropriations and, in so doing, politics. Tony Brown at the Cleveland Plain Dealer raised this a long time ago -- I think in 2002 or 2003 -- and sooner or later it's going to come up again. It's the only way to address some of the long-term questions, concerns and issues raised in this piece. And let's be honest: is there a neoconservative attitude toward the arts? Beyond piling up unapproved books and lighting a match, no, I don't think so.


Blunt to boast of tax cuts, higher spending in tonight's State of State address
Kansas City Star (MO), 1/15/2008
"Gov. Matt Blunt will lay out his vision for Missouri tonight in a State of the State address filled with promises of tax cuts and new social programs." With strong revenues projected over the next 18 months, Blunt is "likely to tout his proposal to boost funding for the Missouri Arts Council and other cultural programs such as public broadcasting and historic preservation by 11.3 million."
Another Republican governor looking for ways to do something seemingly positive in order to bolster his numbers. Pack your bags, dirtbag.


Governor Schwarzenegger Unveils 2008/09 Budget
Arts for LA website, 1/13/2008
"On Thursday, January 11, Governor Schwarzenegger released his much anticipated 2008/09 Budget. As expected, it reveals a 10% across the board cut in many line item allocations. Of particular interest to the arts field is the Arts Education Block Grants, which, aside from the 10%, reduction, remains intact."
Yet California will remain having the lowest spending on the arts, per capita, in the nation. Sigh. I wish Arnie got the economic impact argument, but he doesn't.


Lawmakers tune out pleas to fund the arts
Des Moines Register (IA), 1/13/2008
"The Iowa Arts Council still hasn't recovered from the drastic cuts it took in 2001, when its budget shrank by nearly 40 percent. The Department of Cultural Affairs, which oversees the council, lost nearly one-third of its staff. Arts agencies in other states faced similar financial problems due to widespread cutbacks following the dot-com bust in the national economy. But while other states' arts agencies are bouncing back - Missouri jumped in the ranks to 33rd from 49th last year - the arts council still struggles with funding."
I think the only presidential candidate who addressed this meaningfully during the caucus process was Huckabee. It was apparently the will of Jesus, you know.


Nutter Hedges On Culture Funding Pledge
Evening Bulletin (Philadelphia, PA), 1/11/2008
"As Mayor Michael Nutter's first week in office draws to a close, culture patrons and employees in the sector may be wondering what happened to his pledge to re-open the Office of Arts and Culture 'between inauguration and the first lunch,' as promised during his mayoral campaign. . . . While Mr. Nutter's pronouncement was seemingly made half in jest while joking with Republican mayoral candidate Al Taubenberger, his aggressive 'Plan to Promote Arts and Culture in Philadelphia' statement, released last March, leaves Mr. Nutter with a set of clearly defined promises to keep with the cultural community."
What a sad thing that politics has reached a point where a week into someone's term it's time for the "gotcha." Granted, Nutter's promise was, um, nutty, but to what degree should we take these things seriously. Sigh.


Plans for annual week of free theatre and opera get Government's backing
Daily Mail (UK), 1/11/2008
In the UK, a new report, "Supporting Excellence in the Arts - From Measurement to Judgment," offers a plan to "give artists stronger influence over British cultural life" and "encourage creative people to stay in the UK." Proposals are to "make all publicly funded arts - from theatre to opera - free for a week each year"; to "end the 'burdensome' targets which stifle artists' creativity"; to have at least two artists or practitioners on the board of every cultural organization; and to offer to "the ten most 'innovative cultural companies' . . . long-term ten-year funding packages to encourage them to take risks."
Reminds me of TCG's Free Night of Theatre program. Would be nifty for that to be expanded, but I think it's unlikely for fiscal and other reasons. Very good story, though.


Tax, transportation accord far away
Star-Tribune (Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN), 1/10/2008
Looking the 2008 Minnesota legislative which convenes in February, state Democratic leaders predict a "quick passage of a bill that would put on the 2008 general-election ballot an amendment to the state Constitution that would dedicate a portion of the state sales tax to the outdoors and arts."
Will it pass? I have hope for the good people of Minnesota.

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New Review: The 39 Steps

Yeah, bitches, that's right: I respectfully dissent with regard to The 39 Steps (here is my review in the New York Press).

Was it chuckle-worthy? Well, all right, yes, it was chuckle-worthy and yes, I chuckled.

But for the major-critic community to have experienced something close to a collective orgasm over this trifle doesn't bode well for the very survival of the human race.

When something like this makes the major-critic community bathe in post-coital afterglow, you just know Armageddon is approaching.

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New Review: The Mandrake


Here is my review of The Mandrake at the Pearl Theatre Company.

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American Theatre Wing Announces Podcast

A press release I received the other day:

Interview with Frances Sternhagen to Air on American Theatre Wing & XM Radio’s “Downstage Center”

Weekly show airs on XM’s On Broadway Channel 28 and on ATW Website

The American Theatre Wing and XM Satellite Radio proudly present an interview with Tony Award winning actress, Frances Sternhagen, on their weekly theatrical interview show, “Downstage Center,” on XM’s On Broadway (XM Channel 28).

Sternhagen will appear as the special guest on Friday, January 18 at 6 p.m. The show will repeat on Saturday January 19 at noon, Sunday January 20 at 7 p.m., and Wednesday, January 23 at midnight. The program becomes available as streaming audio and podcast from January 21.

Two-time Tony-winner Frances Sternhagen surveys her six-decade career in the theatre, ranging from her decision to stop teaching "dramatics" to schoolchildren to her most recent Broadway appearance in Edward Albee's Seascape. In between she talks about her time in such illustrious theatre companies as Washington DC's Arena Stage and New York's APA; her Broadway debut in a revival of The Skin of our Teeth with Mary Martin, Helen Hayes and George Abbott; the wonderful experience of performing Chekhov by way of Neil Simon in The Good Doctor; her efforts to be cast in the U.S. production of Equus based solely on having read a review of the play's London debut; why she thinks Terrence McNally's A Perfect Ganesh is due for a revival; how she came to create the role of Ethel Thayer in On Golden Pond while she was still in her 40s; and why she works so steadily, at theatres large and small, after all these years.

Frances Sternhagen has performed on stage, in films and on television for more than five decades. She is best known today for her motherly roles on The Closer, ER, Sex and the City and Cheers, the latter two earning her Emmy nominations. She was recently seen in The Mist, Frank Darabont's adaptation of the Stephen King chiller, released this past November. Sternhagen's countless stage performances include her Tony-winning turns in The Good Doctor and The Heiress and Tony-nominated roles in The Sign in Sid Brustein's Window, Angel, Equus and as Ethel Thayer in the original Broadway production of On Golden Pond. Her off-Broadway performances include Obie-winning roles in The Pinter Plays and The Admirable Bashville, as well as a two-year run in Driving Miss Daisy.

Each new “Downstage Center” is regularly broadcast at 6 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays at noon, Sundays at 7 p.m. and Wednesdays at 12 a.m. (all times EST). Following the initial run on XM, each program is made available for free, on-demand, internationally as both streaming audio and podcast on ATW’s website.

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Saturday, January 19, 2008

Quote of the Day: William Trevor Cox

I wrote about old people long before I was anything like as old as that, because I didn't know about them. I still write out of an enormous sense of curiosity. As I get older, I write more about children, because I've forgotten what it's like to be a child.

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Explaining My Absence

Got absolutely slammed this week with stuff going on with my book. More details later, but I had little choice but to spend copious amounts of time dealing with that.

And now I'm headed to 42nd Street to find an image of the New Amsterdam Theatre. People, please pray. And tell me, why the hell did I get involved in this book project in the first place?

Will put up some stuff, though, so you don't think I've vanished from the earth.

And like I said, please pray.

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Sunday, January 13, 2008

50 Thoughts on Theatrical Criticism 11-15

11. As Theodore Roosevelt once wrote:

It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.

12. As James Huneker wrote in A Word on the Dramatic Opinions and Essays of Bernard Shaw, the preface to the anthology of Shaw's theatre criticism:

We decry impressionistic criticism, and lift reverent eyes before them that pace academic groves. But the different is largely a fanciful one -- not as real as Stendhal's wicked definition of Classic and Romantic. Dr. William Barry wisely says that "the whole art of judgment is faithful impression." All criticism is personal, and neither academic nor impressionistic criticism should be taken too seriously. Anatole France has proved that one may be both wise and witty while sailing his soul in quest of masterpieces. A man's ponderous learning is of no more value than the superficial skating of some merry emotional blade over the dramatic ice. The main point is -- particularly in dramatic criticism -- whether the writer holds our attention. Otherwise his work has no excuse for existence. Be as profound as you please -- but be pleasing. Nature abhors an absolute; and there is no absolute is dramatic criticism. It is an exotic growth and as inutile as politics. Now Shaw always holds one's attention, nay, grips it, and at times rudely chokes it into submission. His utterances are male, forceful and modern.

13. As George Bernard Shaw wrote in his essay, "The Case for the Critic-Dramatist":

A discussion has arisen recently as to whether a dramatic critic can also be a dramatic author without injury to his integrity and impartiality. The feebleness with which the point has been debated may be guessed from the fact that the favorite opinion seems to be that a critic is either an honest man or he is not. If honest, then dramatic authorship can make no difference to him. If not, he will be dishonest whether he writes plays or not. This childish evasion cannot, for the honor of the craft, be allowed to stand. If I wanted to ascertain the melting-point of a certain metal, and how far it would be altered by an alloy of some other metal, and an expert were to tell me that a metal is either fusible or it is not -- that, if not, no temperature will melt it; and if so, it melt anyhow -- I am afraid I should ask that expert whether he was a fool himself or took me for one. Absolute honesty is as absurd an abstraction as absolute temperature or absolute value. A dramatic critic who would die rather than read an American pirated edition of a copyright English book might be considered an absolutely honest man for all practical purposes on that one particular subject -- I say on that one, because very few men have more than one point of honor; but as far as I am aware, no such dramatic critic exists. If he did, I should regard him as a highly dangerous monomaniac.

14. Here's another snippet from the same Shaw piece:

The advantage of having a play criticized by a critic who is also a playwright is as obvious as the advantage of having a ship criticized by a critic who is also a master shipwright.

15. And here's one from Edward Albee:

If Attila the Hun were alive today, he'd be a drama critic.

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Quote of the Day: Calvin Coolidge



I have noticed that nothing I never said ever did me any harm.

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Saturday, January 12, 2008

Quote of the Day: Dion Boucicault



Men talk of killing time, while time quietly kills them.

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Friday, January 11, 2008

Is Sweeney Todd the First Musical to Transfer Successfully to the Big Screen?



According to this article, not only does Stephen Sondheim think so, but so, ultimately, does Norman Lebrecht, writing in La Scena Musicale. My problem with his piece is not so much, after much debate, hemming and hawing, and musing, his conclusion that not only is the master composer-lyricist correct that Sweeney Todd is the first musical to transferr successfully to the screen, but

I cannot recall any modern theatre play - Pinter, Miller, O'Neill, Albee, Neil Simon, whoever - that has made the leap to screen carrying so little of its stage baggage while its character remains intact. Sweeney Todd is a gripping, skilful, troubling, ineradicable masterpiece of a 21st century movie. All that came before is gaslight.
Wow. I mean, wow. Seriously, I absolutely loved the film version of Sweeney, and while I missed certain songs and musical sequences, I thought the choices in that regard were really spot on -- and I'd be happy to go on and on about the film because I really do think it's that good. But the idea of making such a sweeping statement strikes me as, well, intellectually disingenuous -- for Lebrecht, among other things, never actually defines, in Sondheim's terms or better yet his own, what the elements of a "successful" screen transfer ought to be in his view. I mean, how about a little empiricism?

Sure, sure, if Lebrecht were responding to this post, he might cite snippets from his story -- the fact that Sweeney is not as "stagy" as West Side Story; that the "wide open beaches of South Pacific" and the "mountain peaks" in The Sound of Music "cannot disguise the suspensions" of those musicals' plots; that Sweeney does not give way "to crowd-pleasing showstoppers" (this is debatable); that it is "pure movie" (which is?); that Sacha Baron Cohen's performance is "freshly created for the screen" (and?); and that Mike Higham's underscoring "deepens and darkens the orchestral sound more lavishly than is possible in a tight theatre pit." Is this, though, the criteria? Really?

No one worships at the altar of Sondheim more than I do. No one. I'll bitch-slap anyone to the curb and into the gutter and into the sewage system and out into the Atlantic Ocean if I must to prove it. But Lebrecht's article is has a little touch of fannishness to it that he is trying to pass off as formidable intellectualism. Bah, humbag. More hot pies.

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Quote of the Day: Frank Capra

I made mistakes in drama. I thought drama was when actors cried. But drama is when the audience cries.

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New Review: Amazons and Their Men

From this week's New York Press.

Having worked on and cared so deeply for The Imaginary, All-True Leni Riefenstahl Show for so long, I simply had to write about this play.

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New Review: Happy Days



Here's my Back Stage review. And how utterly self-affirming that Ben Brantley seems to have written, in essence, the same review. We saw two rows apart.

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Thursday, January 10, 2008

Quote of the Day: Gloria Steinem

Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don't feel I should be doing something else.

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Announcing The Leonard Jacobs Show

As promised, I'm now taping monthly podcasts for Martin and Rochelle Denton. Right now, in a nod to legendary folks like Dick Cavett and Virginia Graham, it's called "The Leonard Jacobs Show," but we want a snappy name. Please send suggestions to admin@nytheatrecast.com.


My first guest was none other than the amazing John Clancy. You can visit my corner of the sun on the nytheatrecast blog, leading you to the podcast, here. You can download the podcast by clicking here.

We had a rollicking good time, Clancy and I. And yes, we're taking our act on the road, baby. Chillicothe, here we come.

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Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Arts Advocacy Update XXV

The content below is from Americans for the Arts' Cultural Policy Listserv.

Culture Track 2007
LaPlaca Cohen, 2007
A survey on U.S. participation in culture, defined to include traditional arts, pop culture, historic attractions and national parks. 74% of respondents said they attended at least one cultural activity each month. Overall, younger audiences (18-29), college graduates, and those with incomes over $75,000 participated at a higher rate than other groups. The survey also explored motivations for participation, barriers to participation, and implications for cultural organizations.
This is an interesting study, but one might argue that the sample -- 3,815 total respondents, including 1,093 "frequent attendees" (29%, meaning once a month or more) and 2,722 "infrequent attendees" (71%, meaning less than once a month) is too small. Still, some findings:

  • Younger audiences (ages 18-29) average 2.6 cultural activities per month
  • College graduates average 2.5 cultural activities per month
  • Those with an income over $75,000 average 2.4 cultural activities per month
  • Consistently, "Particular Exhibitions/Performances" are the leading motivators to participate in specific cultural activities (68% overall)
  • Four out of Respondents’ top five motivators are related to content (specific subject or genre) and convenience (time, location, and cost)
  • Infrequent Attendees are more price-sensitive than Frequent Attendees


Bohemian Rhapsody
New City Chicago, 1/8/2008
Dan Silver, Lawrence Rothfield and Terry Nichols Clark of the University of Chicago "have recently completed a groundbreaking study on just what it takes to create a 'scene,' whether it be bohemian or otherwise. The enterprise, termed the Cultural Amenities Project, is a product of the UofC’s Cultural Policy Center. . . The three men hoped that a crude count of amenities could be used to help guide policies with the aim of augmenting a neighborhood’s cultural strengths in ways that could help stabilize communities, attract businesses and spur economic growth. What the three ultimately ended up with, however, was a much more complicated quantitative rubric by which they could judge a neighborhood or city based on a number of categories, which, when compiled and averaged, could then be compared to other cities and to ideal neighborhood types, such as 'cosmopolitan,' 'urban' and, yes, 'bohemian.'"
Here is the salient quote from the above article:
"The bohemian scene exhibits resistance to traditional legitimacy, affirms individual self-expression, eschews utilitarianism, values charisma, promotes (slightly) a form of elitism, encourages members to keep their distance, promotes transforming oneself into an exhibition, values fighting the mainstream, affirms attending to the local, encourages identification with primordial ethnic roots, attacks the abstract state, discourages corporate culture, and attacks the authenticity of reason."


Pricey city drives out artists
amNewYork, 1/4/2008
"It's a common refrain among those who work in the creative industries and follow the cultural scene closely: New York City, which has incubated a century of the world's leading artists, musicians, and performers, will cease to be a place where art is made....New York's cultural primacy isn't simply a matter of self-image. Arts and culture account for a huge part of the city's economy -- nearly $21 billion and as many as 160,000 jobs, according to a recent report by the Alliance for the Arts, an advocacy group. Kate Levin, the commissioner of the city's Department of Cultural Affairs, says the city is aware of the problem."
Come on, people! Geez, Louise. It's real estate, real estate, real estate. And the reporter on this story is effectively hamstrung by space. After Levin notes that the city is aware of the problem, there's another paragraph:

"Everybody has an issue with affordable housing, and government can't legally build housing just for artists in the city of New York," Levin said.
Really? How much better would the article have been if the reporter had the ability to write about what should have been his follow-up question: Where in the legal code is artist-specific, government-built housing banned? And why does Levin automatically, as if programmed by aliens, assume that the one and only solution is to legally build housing for artists? Does she honestly mean to suggest that the city of New York can provide tax breaks for corporations to stay in New York but cannot provide economic incentives to landlords for subsidizing artists' rents? This. Is. Bullshit.

Calif. Advocates Push Arts Funding Bill
BackStage, 1/4/2008
"According to the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies' March 2007 report, California currently ranks 50th in the nation for state arts funding. A new bill -- Assembly Bill 1365 -- is designed to boost that amount to a whopping $1 per person per year....Introduced by California State Assemblymember Betty Karnette in February 2007, A.B. 1365 will provide $35 million in annual arts funding by redirecting 20 percent of existing sales tax from retail sales of works of art from places like ceramics and musical-instrument stores to the California Arts Council....The bill currently sits in the California State Assembly Committee on Appropriations and needs to go to the Assembly floor by Jan. 31, or it will die."
Great work by my Back Stage colleague Nicole Kristal on this story.

Can Foundations Take the Long View Again?
New York Times, 1/6/2008
The shift from unrestricted to project-specific foundation funding in the 1980's and 1990's has "forced grantees to sacrifice long-term effectiveness for short-term efficiency," starved grantees for operating funds, and even knocked "many promising nonprofits out of business." Three recent reports conclude that "to maximize the impact on grant recipients, foundations 'should make larger, longer-term operating grants' of unrestricted funds that can be used to support the organization and its overall mission, not just specific projects or programs."
Right on, baby. Now who is going to make the first move?

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The New York City Council Proclaims "Live Theatre Week"

....and good golly, the proclamation isn't all about Broadway. It's about Off-Broadway. Yes, Miss Molly, good golly. Here's the release:

THE LEAGUE OF OFF-BROADWAY THEATRES AND PRODUCERS
CELEBRATES
THE FIRST EVER "LIVE THEATRE WEEK"
AS PROCLAIMED BY THE NEW YORK CITY COUNCIL
JANUARY 21ST – 27TH, 2008


Get 2 for 1* Tickets for New York City's Hottest Off-Broadway Shows

By proclamation of the City Council, New York City has named January 21st to the 27th, 2008 “Live Theatre Week,” in celebration of the on-going contribution live theater brings to New York City’s cultural landscape. In honor of the event, many of New York’s most popular Off-Broadway shows are offering a rare Buy-One-Get-One-Free offer for tickets. Visit www.OffBroadway.org for more information. A complete list of participating shows is below.

League President George Forbes said “We are honored that the City Council is recognizing the importance of Live Theater in New York City, and we are pleased to be able to give back to our audiences, in the form of this special promotion. We hope New Yorkers and tourists will take advantage of this offer which enables them to purchase half-price tickets in advance.”

Sponsored by the League of Off-Broadway Theatres and Producers.

Participating shows include:
Altar Boyz
The Awesome 80’s Prom
Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
Celia: The Life & Music of Celia Cruz
Dai (enough)
The Fantasticks
Forbidden Broadway
Fuerzabruta
Gazillion Bubble Show
Grace
Hunting and Gathering
I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change
My First Time
My Mother's Italian, My Father's Jewish & I'm in Therapy!
Naked Boys Signing!
New Jerusalem
The Rise of Dorothy Hale
Stomp
Two Thousand Years

For details, click here.

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The Downtown 3 is Announced

I received this press release today:

3LD Art and Technology Center, Dance New Amsterdam (DNA) & HERE Arts Center launch
THE DOWNTOWN 3
a new initiative to promote alternative downtown performance

3 LD Art and Technology Center, Dance New Amsterdam (DNA) and HERE Arts Center proudly announce THE DOWNTOWN 3, a partnership offering audiences an affordable way to experience cutting-edge performance in Lower Manhattan's alternative arts scene. These three leading Lower Manhattan institutions are united by a shared aesthetic and artistic philosophy, which merges dance, theatre, and technology to create new and innovative modes of expression. By purchasing The Downtown 3 Punchcard, audience members receive deeply discounted admission to all three venues, offering audiences an affordable way to experience risk-taking performance in Lower Manhattan's alternative arts scene.

Purchased online or at any of the three venues' box offices for only $33, The Downtown 3 Punchcard is used to reserve one ticket at each venue for select performances. With discounts averaging 60% off the full ticket price, Punchcard holders pay only $11 per ticket. An additional savings is available for purchasing two Punchcards, $30 per Punchcard, or $10 per ticket. The Downtown 3 Punchcard will be available on January 1, 2008 and is valid for select performances for all of 2008. To purchase The Downtown 3 Punchcard, participants call 212-352-3101 or visit www.downtown3.org.

Purchasers of the Downtown 3 Punchcard can use them at many offerings from the upcoming seasons at 3 LD Art and Technology Center, Dance New Amsterdam and HERE Arts Center. For example, for only $11 each, audience members can enjoy performances of 3-Legged Dog's hotly anticipated upcoming premiere of Charles L. Mee's FIRE ISLAND (regular ticket price $30); ; DNA's OB·ject.ob·JECT, highlighting women choreographers and featuring Vanessa Justice, Nicole Wolcott and The Doorknob Company (regular ticket price $20); and HERE's production of Oph3lia, a new work by HERE's Resident Artist Aya Ogawa, which will open their newly renovated facility in June 2008 (regular ticket price $18).

In a joint statement, 3LD Producing Artistic Director Kevin Cunningham, HERE's Executive Director Kristin Marting and DNA's Executive Director Michelle Audet said: "We are incredibly excited to join forces in promoting our community of artists. Together, we form the bedrock for inspiring, engaging and cutting-edge performances happening in Lower Manhattan. This partnership creates more ways for our audiences to make art a part of their everyday life."

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Quote of the Day: Jack London

You can't wait for inspiration.
You have to go after it with a club.

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Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Are You a Univore?

There is an excellent story about a new report coming out of Oxford. I'll quote from the headline and dek -- and remember, this relates to the British, not Americans, although I'd love a smart university to fund a similar study.

Arts study a culture shock
Oxford University reports idea of upper class forming cultural elite no longer valid

In short:

Divide culture consumers into four new groups, says an international study Oxford University researchers released late last month that will have far-reaching results for arts support everywhere.

"Univores," "Omnivores," "Paucivores" and "Inactives" are the new categories we can all find ourselves in. Which one depends on whether we believe Britney is a huge tabloid star or an area in northwestern France where Impressionist painters spent their summers.


Here's a press release for the study.

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Acting Questions

I love the recent posts on various blogs about acting. Isaac on Parabasis, for example, recently posted:

One of the challenges in contemporary directing is dealing with actors from all sorts of different disciplines and techniques and school in the rehearsal room. we have a number of ways of dealing with this. One is to have a company that creates its own technique. Another is to simply talk about what you want as an end result and trust the actor's various methods for getting there. The problem with the first is that it is impractical in a lot of ways for most artists, the problem with the second is that it doesn't leave a lot of room for exploration. The real challenge is really discovering together and creating together even when you have very very different ways to go about doing it.

Having directed more than 40 plays (before I was full-time journalist, before Back Stage, before I was the founding editor of Theatermania.com), I came upon this challenge all the time. I remember once directing a new play at the Metropolitan Playhouse back in 1998 or so, and there were five actors, each with a different approach, if not outright ideology. Fortunately, all five of those actors were smart and well-versed in many different approaches to the craft, so one actor could use, in the course of a rehearsal, a particular piece of terminology that another actor might choose not to subscribe to, for it would not work for them, but would understand and be respectful of. What you need when casting, quite frankly, are actors who are secure in their process. Many actors are not.

Much of this challenge, in addition, really relates not to the director so much as to other actors: If actors are able and willing to speak each other in different "languages," it doesn't matter who uses what (small-m) method. The greater challenge is when directors have to mediate -- when Actor A wants to come at a particular moment a certain way, but actor B refuses to work that way and a standoff arises. I also feel it's foolhardy for directors to be dogmatic about acting styles -- in rehearsals, it can generate the opposite of an atmosphere of tolerance and mutual understanding.

But to Isaac's point -- that you either need to create a company in which everyone subscribes to one ideology or "trust the actor's various methods for getting there" -- it's up to the director in the first place to have a working knowledge of what those various approaches are, especially to understand their inevitable pluses and their minuses (and all approaches have both). I should add that rehearsals need not be a forum for debating acting styles.

The problem with everyone subscribing to a singular ideology is not, as Isaac says, impractical; many companies do fine and sometimes even glorious work all working off the same approach. If anything, having one ideological is, ironically, rather practical; there's nothing more freeing than a common aesthetic shorthand. That said, it's difficult to take hard-headed (cap-m) Method actors and put them in a room with Anne Bogart or the Tectonic Theater Company.

The problem with everyone not subscribing to a singular ideology is not that there's not enough room for exploration but, rather, too much room -- a danger that there will be no structure, no linearity, no one to regulate the flow of expressions, experiments and ideas. But I submit that's precisely why the director is there. In this sense, the director plays stylistic traffic cop. True, sometimes you see a play and think to yourself, "Gee, they're not all in the same play" (a good example is Norbert Leo Butz in Isn't He Dead?, which is what I wrote in my review.) But often, you can have lots of actors coming from different places and you'd never know. Truly brilliant actors understand the endgame is about their role, their character, their interpretation, their me, me, me-ness; they understand the endgame must be we, we, we. If it's not, they're not the kind of actors one should be working with.

Just to be clear, I'm not attacking what Isaac is saying. I'm just saying that, in my experience, there's another way to look at the conundrum.

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Another Problem with Theatre Criticism

I've noticed some of the other bloggers link to this Michael Billington profile in the Guardian of playwright Edward Bond. It's a great piece, particularly the way Billington relates Bond to a whole class of British playwrights who don't seem to fit particular molds; his reference to William Blake in the lede is just dynamite.

The piece, moreover, is more than 2,000 words -- and that's another problem with theatre criticism: We lack print or even Web venues that will pay for and publish profiles of such a length. No, this is not to lend credence to George Hunka's ignorant trashing of American theatre critics a few weeks ago, and I only raise the memory of that horribly ugly column (written in the Guardian's blog, where he paid fealty to Billington) because his attack was on American theatre critics and their ability, not on the venues that publish and support their work.

Ironically, the profiles I wrote for Back Stage run about 1,350 words, but sometimes, oh, what I wouldn't give for more room. I also know of several online theatre publications that don't believe that people will actually read 2,000-word profiles. I'd be curious to know how much traffic the Billington piece got, especially vs. being published in print.

There are exceptions, of course, such as John Lahr's recent (and appropriately praised to the sky) profile of Harold Pinter. I'm just saying such venues are fewer than they should be.

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