Thursday, May 21, 2015

On The Arts Fuse: I Review Bridge Repertory Theater's "Julius Caesar"

On The Arts Fuse, I reviewed Bridge Repertory Theater of Boston's production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. While I admire the visual style and the sonic rawness of this interpretation, I feel much of the story and political subtext is buried in the breakneck pacing.

Julius Caesar has long been the best known of Shakespeare’s Roman plays: its plot and the historical events that inspired it are common knowledge, and Marc Antony’s funeral oration has long been used as an object lesson in the rhetorical use of irony and sarcasm. Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and Coriolanus are beginning to generate some more productions and interest, but for the time being, Caesar still reigns.

The Bridge Repertory Theater of Boston is currently offering a stripped-down, modern dress production that clocks in at about 100 minutes without an intermission. Director Olivia D’Ambrosio is due some praise for helming a visually distinctive minimalist presentation, but her breakneck ‘fast and furious” pacing ends up leaving the Bard’s poetry and the subtleties of the realpolitik narrative in the dust.

I was entertained by the roughly twenty-minute set of improv by Fine Line Comedy that followed in which they lampooned the play and production.

Read the full review on The Arts Fuse!

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

On The Arts Fuse: Matthew Spangler and Benjamin Evett's "Albatross"

Back in February I reviewed Albatross, a theatrical adaptation of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's narrative poem, Rime of the Ancient Mariner. I judged the play, written by Matthew Spangler and Benjamin Evett, performed by Evett, directed by Rick Lombardo and produced by The Poets' Theater quite highly, noting its all around excellence, and I expressed hope that it could be remounted (preferably elsewhere, as a representation of what Boston's theater scene can offer.)

My hope has born some fruit, and Albatross is bing remounted at New Repertory Theater, May 21-24.


Read my review on The Arts Fuse!

Monday, May 18, 2015

On The Arts Fuse: I Review Jeff Talbott's “The Submission”

On The Arts Fuse I review Zeitgeist Stage Company's current production of Jeff Talbott's play, The Submission a dark and transgressive comedy directed by David J. Miller about a playwright who hires an actress to hide the fact that his play about an alcoholic African-American woman and her card-shark son was actually written by a middle-class gay white man:

Today, many dramatists feel under pressure to represent a more diverse cast of characters, while questioning whether they (or others) have the right to write about people whose experiences are unlike their own. And if they do attempt to jump into other shoes, will it be seen as legitimate or will it be condemned as exploitation? In this script, playwright Jeff Talbott argues that “some guy [sitting] in his middle-class apartment” is capable of imagining other lives, even if there are questions (political, artistic) about whether he has that right.

However, while I admire Talbott's sense of dialogue and the dynamic performance of the actors in this production, I find it flounders on a rather substantial plot hole:

The catch is that The Submission is saddled with too many implausibilities that go well beyond what can be tolerated in either a farce or a satire. It’s one thing to turn a reasonably protective dramatist into a bullying control freak. But Danny is so incurious and dismissive of other people’s experiences, so unaware of the racial coding of the language he uses, that it is hard to imagine he could write anything credible about working-class African-American families. Indeed, all the listicles and YouTube videos with such titles as “Ten Things White People Need To Stop Saying To Their Black Friends” are written for people just like him. How could Emilie, the literary office at Humana, or anyone working on the production possibly conclude that a play written by Danny was an “authentic” portrait of African-American life? Is everybody in the theater world brainwashed to the point that their notion of ‘the real” is rooted in the same pop culture cliches and political correctness strictures absorbed by Danny and Trevor? If that’s the case, Talbott’s script never considers a possibility that darkly and daringly comic. Is Danny really that much of an emotional idiot savant, or does Talbott imagine that the staff of the Humana Festival is haplessly gullible?

Read the rest on The Arts Fuse.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Kilroys Were There: Playwrights, Gender, and Class: At the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas Conference, Boston 2014, Part V

Note to the Reader: The following account of the June 26-29, 2014 Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas conference in Boston was originally written for The Arts Fuse, to which I am a senior contributor but were for various reasons, not used.

-I.T.

The Kilroys, a collective of female playwrights formed in 2014 and based in Los Angeles, had made a splash in online discussions of the new play sector in the week or so before the conference, and was on the tip of the tongue at many. On one front, The Kilroys are a production group modeled upon 13P. 13P had been founded by playwrights whose own experiences with the submission and development process had left them feeling disenfranchised and with plays unproduced. Their mission was to produce one play by each of the member playwrights and then implode (their website continues to exist primarily as a public archive of the project.) In the wake of 13P's deliberate expiration, other 13P-style groups have come into existence, such as Boston's Boston Public Works (see a recent interview with four of BPW's members here), and Washington, D.C.'s The Welders.

That The Kilroys were yet another 13P group, or that they were centered on producing work by female playwrights (one of a number of underrepresented groups among writers in contemporary theater) attracted little controversy. While parts of of Emily Glassberg Sands' 2009 study on gender bias in American theater have been disputed in terms of her methodology and the conclusions she drew, the broader conclusion that female playwrights are less likely to have their plays produced did seem to be supported (a more recent but less formal study by Donna Hoke suggests that a major cause of under representation is that female playwrights simply make fewer submissions). So while The Kilroys' primary mission to produce work by their member playwrights was widely lauded, their decision to publish “The List” attracted far more attention. The List was of 46 plays by 42 female playwrights that had had thus far only one production at most. The plays were selected from over three-hundred plays recommended by 127 “influential new play leaders” invited to participate by The Kilroys themselves.

One of the few published criticisms of The Kilroys' List was in an essay in The Clyde Fitch Report credited to CFR Staff (note, that while I am a sometime contributor to CFR, I was not one of the contributors consulted in the writing of the piece, and I do not agree with all the opinions voiced in that essay) several issues of privilege were raised -- most importantly that of the 46 plays, only one was by a playwright who was not identified as already having an agent and a publisher. The geographical pipeline that privileges New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and London stages in determining what gets produced in “the regions” was evident when one considers, as Jessie Baxter, Literary Director of Fresh Ink Theatre Company did. While participating in a panel discussion Baxter, in the midst of discussing her company's mission to develop New England playwrights, noted that “No one was offering both development and production opportunities for new work in Boston,” in part because, “New England writers tend not to have agents.”

Of the over three-hundred plays that were nominated for the Kilroys' List, all but one of the 46 that made the final cut were, by most standards, institutionally privileged playwrights. Recent works by well established playwrights such as Theresa Rebeck, Paula Vogel, and Timberlake Wertenbaker, all of which are likely to be produced widely in the next several years without help from The Kilroys, made the list. Most of the 42 authors whose work made the List of 46 were already well-connected. Looking only at residencies, fellowships, and productions since 2000, I found that twelve of the playwrights had been playwriting fellows at The Eugene O'Neill Theater Center; another twelve had been in residence at The Lark Play Development Center; Seven had been affiliated with Page 73 Productions; Six had had plays produced by Playwrights Horizons; Another six are currently resident playwrights at New Dramatists; and three were alumnae of WordBRIDGE Playwrights' Laboratory (a program designed for playwriting students.) The playwrights whose work made the final 46 were also generally alumnae of the seven playwriting programs whose graduates dominate the new play sector, which Todd London, Ben Pesner, and Zannie Giraud Voss identified as Columbia University, Yale University, New York University, University of Texas/Austin, University of Iowa, Brown University, and the non-degree granting program at Juilliard in their book Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of the New American Play

Indeed, of the approximately 250 plays that were nominated and did not make the same cut, most of the playwrights were of these similar cohorts, albeit with fewer honors, or with a less fortunate geographical situation.

In short, the list was not “46 plays by playwrights theater people don't already know but should” but “46 plays by 42 playwrights that theater people likely already know” (indeed, I'm a fan of a few of the dramatists on the list – notably Jenny Schwartz, and the aforementioned Wertenbaker.) There were even two Pulitzer Prize finalists in the mix! (Most Pulitzer finalists were probably too successful to make “The List”.)

The playwrights whose work made the list who already had successful careers and received institutional approval that few playwrights, male or female, critically acclaimed or not, ever achieve. By any standards, these were insiders who had already been vetted by other insiders and being selected for further honors by another set of insiders. Many of the insiders involved in the selection process, as dramaturgs, literary managers, and artistic directors, were already professionally attached to the plays that were nominated. It does not take a cynic to note that an artistic director can nominate one of next season's plays for The Kilroys' List and then include The Kilroys' List in their promotional materials.

The ironies are manifold: a group whose own mission is to get work past the gatekeepers and onto stages, issuing a list that normalizes the authority of the gatekeepers (albeit a group of gatekeepers considered to be sympathetic); a list that aims to increase awareness of women playwrights and advance gender parity, promotes the careers of already successful playwrights and ensures that the overlooked continue to be overlooked. Furthermore, the way that The Kilroys' List became a rallying cry and mantra on both social media and the LMDA conference allowed literary managers and artistic directors to pretend that they were not institutional gatekeepers and that it is their aggregate decisions that contribute to a lack of gender parity (indeed, a curious finding of the Glassberg-Sands study was that female literary managers were more likely to discriminate against female playwrights than male literary managers.)

Finally, all the attention on the list, and the reluctance to engage with the attendant contradictions critically ignored the most radical thing that The Kilroys and other 13P-style groups are doing, which is bypassing the gatekeepers and empowering playwrights in a new play sector in which playwrights are often disempowered.

Not addressing the privileges of class and geography that run rampant in American theater is going to limit any strides towards gender parity to an elite class of playwrights who went to the right schools, made the right connections while still at school, live in the right metropolitan areas, and received the right fellowships at the right time of their careers, and continues to normalize a system that priviliages personalities over plays.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Dramaturgical Black Box: A Playwright's Perspective: At the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas Conference, Boston 2014, Part IV

Note to the Reader: The following account of the June 26-29, 2014 Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas conference in Boston was originally written for The Arts Fuse, to which I am a senior contributor but were for various reasons, not used.

-I.T.

For the playwrights, the world of literary managers and dramaturgs is a black box: plays or ten-page excerpts are sent in with a brief cover letter and possibly some supporting materials, and anywhere between three weeks and three years later, there is usually (but not always) a response. Oft times it's a simple form letter, and other times it's a surprisingly human piece of correspondence from someone who wants to make a genuine connection with playwright. What happens in that intervening period is mysterious to the playwright and is subject to much speculation when playwrights speak amongst themselves.

Occasionally, once a playwright has submitted their work, they are invited to meet with a dramaturg or literary manager either as part of a development workshop or as a one-on-one consult about the script. Some of these encounters are rewarding, but some are at times immensely frustrating. Companies and dramaturgs often enter with preconceptions of the working relationship with the playwright. The playwright simply wants to have their play produced, and depending on the situation, the dramaturg can be either an ally and collaborator, or an obstacle and opponent. As Sarah Lunnie, Associate Literary Manager at Playwrights Horizons observed during a discussion of dramaturgically driven companies, using a dating analogy,
“You don't want to keep going on dates with someone who doesn't like you.” Some playwrights don't want to or need to work with dramaturgs, but are placed in a circumstance where a dramaturg is preordained. Meanwhile, dramaturgs have skill sets that can more be more fruitfully applied elsewhere. It becomes unrewarding for both the dramaturg and playwright to have the relationship forced on them.

Attendees were able to witness the playwright/dramaturg relationship up close in a Friday, June 27, 2014 playwriting workshop chaired by Rebecca Kastleman (Harvard University.)

Several weeks before the conference, a call was made to Boston area playwrights. Playwrights were asked when submitting their scripts, to identify their plays as problems that needed to be solved through consultation with the dramaturgs, rather than simply express a desire to have a second pair of eyes on the script. It's certainly reasonable to expect a dramaturg to identify problems with a script, but does it not border on infantilizing to ask the playwright to identify their own work as a problem that someone else needs to solve? Lunnie's quip about dating is quite applicable; adults should not feel pressured into relationships that infantilize.

If the writers' plays were selected, they would be paired with an early career dramaturgs with whom they would consult over a period of weeks. At the session, the playwrights and dramaturgs reported on their collaborations.

Since these plays are still in development, and I only know them from the summaries given at the session, I will not comment on the specific plays, but only give impressions of the processes. Some of the plays, as described, seemed to be so well developed that I found myself questioning whether the dramaturgical consult was necessary, and whether or not the play would have been better served with a workshop with actors and director. Other times, it seemed to me that the play was in such an early stage that the playwright still had to resolve important issues of narrative structure or character motivation, that I had to wonder if the consultation was not premature.

Premature dramaturgy, unfortunately, is not always just a pedagogical exercise. In 2013, I was made privy to communications from a member of the production staff at one of the nation's most well-known regional theaters. The theater had made a commitment to produce a new play before it had actually been rendered as a performable draft. Despite a round of workshops the year before, when the script was finally brought to the rehearsal room, the consensus in the room was that the play did not make sense. Rehearsals were suspended so that the director, dramaturg, and playwright could be sequester themselves somewhere to salvage the script in time for curtain call.

Not surprisingly, the play received consistently negative reviews. This however, was not a unique, freak occurance: Recently, I reviewed the premiere of Ronan Noone's Scenes From An Adultery, at New Repertory Theatre. The play was developed in-house as part of New Rep's Next Voices Fellowship Program – and clearly New Rep had committed itself to producing it before Noone had finished writing it, or even before there was a promising draft.

The idea that playwrights are not obligated to resolve obvious problems with their scripts before a dramaturg is brought in is itself a problem, especially with the limited amount of time a dramaturg has to work on a script. Some of the plays presented in the Friday workshop seemed to be symptomatic of this problem. In a time of economic crisis it seems misguided for a theater to devote resources, including the valuable time a dramaturg could have been devoting elsewhere, to a play that is clearly not ready -- and of course, the biggest loser is the audience that had to pay the ticket prices that are the norm at major regional theaters. Certainly if plays are getting fast-tracked to production when even the director recognizes that the play is not ready (and when there are likely many plays out there that are ready, yet are not being produced), then the current model of new play development is broken – in part because the paradigm is not about finding the best previously undiscovered plays and getting them on their feet, but inserting unfinished work into a development process.

While some of these tensions are often in evidence when playwrights grouse amongst themselves about less-than-satisfactory dealings with dramaturgs, some dramaturgs, as Lunnie's use of the dating analogy indicates, are also quite aware of them. In some informal conversations I had with the conference, I was asked what playwrights need. I noted that in the books I have read on dramaturgical practice, notably Lenora Inez Brown's The Art of Active Dramaturgy best standards and practices are already spelled out. Unfortunately, between the limited resources and the mandates given by their employers, dramaturgs do not always have the freedom to engage in best practices.

Playing It Safe With Film Critic Wesley Morris: At the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas Conference, Boston 2014, Part III

Note to the Reader: The following account of the June 26-29, 2014 Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas conference in Boston was originally written for The Arts Fuse, to which I am a senior contributor but were for various reasons, not used.

-I.T.

newplay on livestream.com. Broadcast Live Free

As one of only four film critics to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize, former Boston Globe contributor, Wesley Morris, now a staff writer for Grantland, might have seemed to be equally an inspired and odd choice as a keynote speaker, given his minimal involvement with theater. Perhaps this would be for the best, a theater critic might have expressed a strong opinions on plays that at least some of the attendees had worked on and anybody of similar or greater stature in the theater world (say, an elder statesman like Robert Brustein who was conspicuous by his absence) would have likely been divisive in a room filled with theater professionals.

Morris walked a fine line between his own expertise as a critic of popular culture, and a guest who needed to flatter his hosts, “I feel like you are the conduit between those two experiences: the creative act, and the one where I am on my sofa weeping.” The result was that he alternately described his role of a critic as a “glorified civilian movie-goer” who “[likes] to think I want the same thing from my plays and movies as anyone wants,” while also saying that, “objectively speaking, I see [what I do as] crime reporting” elaborating that with regard to race and gender, “sometimes movies do crazy things that don't make sense.”

During the question and answer session after his address, Morris was asked about changing roles of criticism on both the web and in print -- a question that placed his address into context. He affirmed that the web might be the last refuge for long form criticism written for a general audience, noting that on Grantland, he can publish a 3,300 word article addressing a single topic, something that would be impossible with a daily, or even weekly, newspaper. Given the decreased page space given to criticism in print publications, and how much of our cultural discourse has been reduced to sound bites, slogans, and tweets (tweeting was in great evidence at the LMDA conference) – a phenomenon that websites like The Arts Fuse (for which this essay was originally intended) exist, in part, to counter.

Morris mostly stayed away from discussing theater in depth. The topics that garnered the greatest attention, were his praise for the Netflix-produced television series, Orange is the New Black, (which, judging by reactions from the audience, and the number of mentions it received in plenary sessions, appears to be very popular with LMDA members) and his 2011 review of The Help which was informed by his own encounter with a “mammy” doorstop in a west Texas restaurant as the only African-American among a predominantly white group of friends which underlined to him just how ambiguous the symbols of America's racial (and gendered) history can be, and the cognitive dissonance they continue to cause. Quite simply, Morris discovered that while he and his liberal white friends saw Mammy as a racist stereotype, the white proprietor viewed Mammy as an homage to the black woman who raised her.

When he did speak about theater, Morris was appreciative but far less profound, often contrasting the medium with television. In discussing gender, he stated that, “The thing I love about the theater[is that] there is such a dearth of interesting women on TV [and] the theater is much more women-oriented or open to women's experience.” While at the same time, noting the moral simplicity in most television, which he described as currently wallowing under “misinterpretation of what it is to be an antihero,” Morris praised theater's sophistication, stating that, “theater is much more open to the fluidity of morality.”

Most of the attention that Morris was able to directly address towards theater was with regard to theater on television and film. Referring to PBS's longsrunning series, Great Performances, he noted, “They have nine cameras. You just need one camera.” Arguing that there is an essential difference between being seated in the auditorium and having one's eyes guided by camera work, made timely now that major theaters present high-definition footage of their performances to cinema screens for paying audiences, he commented, “I don't know why you have to cut [...] Just put a camera in the best seat in the house.” Morris concluded that, “For twenty-five dollars I want to see the fucking stage. I don't need to see the close up; she's not acting for the close up.”

I would suggest that the problem is not necessarily the number of cameras, or number of edits, but as I have noted elsewhere, the often poor quality of the camera work and editing. Strong directors and actors are very skilled at drawing audience members' eyeballs to various points on the stage or upon the actor's own body – mimes like Marcel Marceau and Dario Fo were absolute masters of this. The issue isn't a matter of one camera in the best seat of the house versus nine cameras scattered around the theater, but of whether or not the camera (and the editing) is guided by the visual dramaturgy of a given performance -- and quite often, it is not. Filmed theater is simply a different medium from both film and theater. Cameras are not eyeballs – the human eye is attached to a sophisticated complex of cerebral wiring that has evolved over hundreds of millions of years.

Perhaps this is a problem with Morris being a film critic and only a casual (yet articulate) theater-goer. He stated his appreciation for many of the plays that have been circulating on the main stages of America's regional theaters in recent years, but his own comments missed the subtleties -- so when he decried the use of stage plays being adapted to feature films, using the example of Roman Polanski's 2011 adaption of Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage, he complained that Polanski's signature style changed the meaning of the play. What Morris missed is that while film-goers are accustomed to there being a “definitive” take on a story, the strength of some plays is that they can admit any number of strong, but contradictory productions -- and this is why many audience members and critics will flock to see multiple productions of a favorite play: to experience the differences.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

When a Conference Comes To Town... At the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas Conference, Boston 2014, Part II

Note to the Reader: The following account of the June 26-29, 2014 Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas conference in Boston was originally written for The Arts Fuse, to which I am a senior contributor but were for various reasons, not used.

-I.T.

The last time I had attended a major national theater conference was in June of 2012, when Theatre Communications Group (TCG) came to Boston. I had noted at the time, that TCG had repeatedly demonstrated contempt for local volunteers and showed little interest in the local theater community. TCG's behavior was sufficient for me to create an #OccupyTCG hashtag to use on twitter.

Because of the low bar set by TCG, I was obligated, as embarrassing as it might seem, to inquire and observe how LMDA, as an organization, conducted itself as a guest in Boston. Happily, perhaps, in large part because much of the conference was organized by Magda Romanska (both professor of theatre and dramaturgy at Emerson College, and dramaturg at Boston Lyric Opera) I can report that whereas TCG as an organization, demonstrated arrogance and callousness, LMDA, by contrast, demonstrated decency and graciousness.

Where TCG volunteers were informed that they were not to participate in any discussion session except as silent observers, LMDA volunteers were full participants (some were even presenters.) Where TCG volunteers were not permitted to approach the buffet tables, and bartenders were instructed not to serve them drinks at any of the evening events, LMDA volunteers were invited to both the opening night party, and the closing night banquet. Where TCG only issued a thank-you email after they became aware that both volunteers and members of the host community were upset by their behavior, LMDA volunteers were thanked by name at the banquet and applauded by the diners present.

Meanwhile, where TCG's only recognition of Boston's theater community was a fashion show featuring costumes from recent productions, LMDA featured local artists as presenters in several sessions, and even set aside an evening where conference attendees were encouraged to see local productions.