Thursday, February 23, 2012

Five Years of "From The Journals of Ian Thal"

Today marks the fifth anniversary of "From the Journals of Ian Thal" so named because I hadn't a name that could better summarize my diverse interests (I still have not.) The premiere entry being a response to a cartoon by George Tod Slone, editor and lead polemicist for The American Dissident:

It hadn't been my first foray into blogging: I had previously maintained one at Authors' Den but eventually realized that the platform was rapidly becoming technologically out of date and that the site was essentially an internet ghetto.

The Bread & Puppet Affair:

Though Slone and I tangled a few more times, I quickly moved on to more important targets. Only two months later, I posted the opening salvo of what would become the most sustained controversy to which I have ever been a party when I broke off relations with the Vermont-based "radical" puppetry troupe, Bread & Puppet theatre, when I noted that artistic director Peter Schumann's recent work on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was flirting with Holocaust trivialization and antisemitism. The controversy would blow up again later that year at an arts festival in Burlington, Vermont. In subsequent years both Schumann and I would be interviewed on the controversy, and as if to eliminate any ambiguity, Schumann would use these interviews as an opportunity to openly espouse anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and notions of post-WWII German victimhood that would demonstrate what at first seemed to me an odd confluence between his brand of leftism and European neo-fascism. Sadly, I discovered that such confluence was not odd at all. This controversy continues (sometimes in the pages of Wikipedia and in university class rooms)and I have addressed it as recently as last month in response to a piece in the Boston Herald.

As a friend of mine noted to me: "Peter's antisemitism has been something of an open secret in puppetry circles. You were just the first person to say it in public."


I would also frequently discuss my favorite playwright, William Shakespeare:

I blogged about the rehearsal process behind an aborted production of Macbeth, discussing that it was like to work with original pronunciation, playing multiple supporting characters, and even the "curse" that killed the production in mid-rehearsals.

I discussed the attempt by the local chapter of the Federalist Society to co-opt Henry V as justification for George W. Bush-era's torture policy.

My most sustained engagement with the Bard's works has been regarding The Merchant of Venice: addressing the racial, legal and theological themes, speculation regarding Launcelot Gobbo, and his father Old Gobbo. All of these matters have been reflected in my creative life both regarding what began as an off-the-cuff remark in my one-man-show Arlecchino Am Ravenous but more ambitiously in the play I am currently writing, The Conversos of Venice.

Criticism and Commentary:

From time to time, I've expounded on troubling themes in recent plays such as the odd World War II revisionism in Michael Frayn's Copenhagen or the deicide charge in Stephan Adly Guirgis' The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. I've also become a contributor to the online arts magazine The Arts Fuse, most recently scribing an essay about Israeli playwright, Motti Lerner's At Night's End.

Sometimes my commentary is leveled not at plays but at what goes on behind the scenes, such as last year's IRNE awards in which a handful of theatre companies exerted pressure to remove a critic from the awards panel, or my enthusiasm for such developments as the New Play Map.

Artistic Career:

Of course, I began blogging in order to document my career as an artist. Discussing my explorations of commedia dell'arte (with specific emphasis on Arlecchino) with i Sebastiani, or with my current troupe Teatro delle Maschere:

I've also featured a short history of old mime troupe, Cosmic Spelunker Theatre, and my solo mime work:

Of course, I've been tracking the long process of development for my play, Total War a process that has taken far longer than I ever imagined possible!


I've also taken the time to document some of my work teaching mime, commedia dell'arte, and puppetry at the Somerville youth circus, Open Air Circus, Wheelock Family Theatre, and other such places.


While I am busy celebrating myself, I also want to thank some of my more sustained interlocutors who have helped make this blog a particularly rewarding endeavor. While there are many I could name, I must single out Thomas Garvey, Art Hennessey, and Bill Marx (my editor at The Arts Fuse) whose arguments and encouragement have helped keep this Quixotic project going for five years!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Commentary: Motti Lerner's "At Night's End"

Israeli playwright, Motti Lerner

In The Arts Fuse I comment on Israeli playwright Motti Lerner's At Night's End which was presented last week at the Goethe Institut by Israeli Stage, a theatre company devoted to presenting Israeli plays in translation. The play is presents a family in Haifa during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War. Because of the subject matter, I could not help but recall another play about Israeli families during wartime that has been making the rounds in recent years, Caryl Chruchill's Seven Jewish Children:

Though this family portrait is less-than-flattering, it is a far cry from the crude caricatures presented by English playwright Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children: A Play For Gaza, a short play that has been received considerable international success in recent years. In Churchill’s play, Israelis are not subject to real threats like daily rocket attacks, invasions, and neighboring states that openly endorse Holocaust denial and genocidal fantasies. Lerner, a critic of Israeli military culture, faces these pressures. But he, unlike Churchill, wrestles with the conundrum of how to integrate traumatized warriors into civilian life.


In order to inflame hostility towards Israel, Churchill’s play largely portrays Israelis as European interlopers who have been left morally stunted and psychologically infantile because of their experience and understanding of the Holocaust. Lerner’s work exposes the trauma that war places on Israeli families and civil society, but for the purpose of opening up serious dialogue about how to make Israel a better land for his grandchildren. In short, while Lerner’s Israelis are struggling under genuine historical and social pressures, Churchill’s Israelis have no real world context beyond how the dramatist imagines Jews and their approach to childrearing.

Read the rest in The Arts Fuse!

I previously wrote about Israeli Stage's presentation of Savyon Liebrecht's The Banality of Love.

Nota Bene: Meron Langser, who was also in attendance, discusses the importance of presenting Israeli theatre to American audiences as well as the play's portrayal of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

"It’s the playwright being tyrannical"

The New York Times recently posted a story about Paula Vogel's "playwriting boot camp." I am not sufficiently familiar with Vogel's work to have an informed opinion on either her playwriting or pedagogy; what stuck me most were the opinions expressed by one of the participants:

[Vogel] encouraged her writers, in their scripts, to consider leaving half a page blank to underscore the importance of wordlessness to directors and actors.

Such a heavy authorial hand drew heated complaints, however, from Nicholas Gray, a young theater director who had been invited by an associate. Mr. Gray railed against lengthy stage directions, saying he crossed them out in scripts before he would begin rehearsals with his actors.

“It’s the playwright being tyrannical over all of the other artists who will ever work on the play,” Mr. Gray said, adding that even “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” would not escape his pen.

His conviction drew out Ms. Vogel’s steely side for a moment — “that idea causes me a great deal of pain,” she said of his editing — before she regained her professorial posture
This passage, which was brought to my attention by Art Hennessey (who notes that both Vogel and Gray misunderstand Eugene O'Neil's authorial intent) was particularly striking-- in particular, Nicholas Gray's notion that he could so cavalierly edit a playwright's work simply because he feels that the script is "tyrannical."

The standard Dramatists' Guild contract prevents a producing company from altering the script without explicit written permission from the playwright or, if deceased, the playwright's estate (public domain works are treated differently.) However, alongside issues of copyright and contracts there is also the matter of artistic integrity and the moral rights of artists over their own work: assuming that the playwright has sufficiently mastered the craft that one sees the script as worthy of production, one should also assume that the playwright wrote those stage directions for a good reason. If the script specifies costumes, props, manipulations, specific actions, offers background information, it is to add to the story. They may relate, in an unspoken manner, to the causal relations that bring the narrative to its end. They might symbolically relate to the themes of the play. They may signify the relationships amongst the characters. They may provide some meaningful context that could prove useful to an inquisitive cast or production staff member.

There is a dramaturgical fashion to say that today's theatre is about "collaboration" (when has it not been?) and that playwrights who incorporate detailed stage directions or notes on settings are working against collaboration. Certainly there can sometimes be a temptation to contain more specificity than the story demands, meaning that the playwright is directing from the written page. However, can one argue that Tennessee Williams was "being tyrannical" he specified props or even the music and sound design for A Streetcar Named Desire? Would Not I be as powerful a play had directors exercised the freedom to ignore Samuel Beckett's stage directions?
Where Gray sees tyranny, a stronger, more confident director sees a challenge. Earlier this season, I saw Whistler in the Dark's production of Tom Stoppard's Dogg's Hamlet/Cahoot's Macbeth. During an exchange following Thomas Garvey's review. Stoppard's stage directions are copiously detailed and are a necessary part of the action of the play. However, since Whistler has such a distinctive style and it had been years since I read the script, I mistakenly thought the physical actions of the final minutes had been crafted by director Meg Taintor as opposed to the her staging of Stoppard's directions because once staged it looked like her work. Similarly, when I saw Imaginary Beasts' production of Eugene Ionesco's Macbett the production was in the company's distinctive style, despite Director Matthew Wood mentioning in conversation after the show that his contract with the Ionosco estate strictly forbade him from making cuts to the text. Imagine that: being true to one's own artistic voice while following the script to the letter!

When directors do exercise the freedom to cut, reshuffle, or rearrange plays that are in the public domain (and thus no longer protected by the Guild contract or a playwright or playwright's estate) the play in question is sufficiently familiar that audience members are able to judge for themselves whether the production honored the authorial intent or whether it even matters. For instance, while visiting Washington, D.C. I caught Washington Shakespeare Company Avant Bard's The Mistorical Hystery of Henry (I)V. This production not only compressed Henry IV, Part 1 & 2 into a single two hour and thirty-five minute show (bookended with short excerpts from Richard II and Henry V but staged the scenes of political intrigue and battle as a burlesque show performed by the harlots at Mistress Quickly's Boar's Head Inn. The concept was fairly radical in that it explored the relationship between power and power's parodists in an era where political satire could get the satirists killed once those in power are no longer amused by their caricatures. Director Tom Malin's adaptation was not a reaction against "the playwright being tyrannical" but a reimagining that both stood on its own and gained additional levels of meaning because much of the audience was familiar with the more conventional stagings of the play and so recognized the figures being lampooned by the harlots of Eastcheap. It was easy to imagine that the goings on of the Mistorical Hystery were occuring in the same world as the events in a straight reading of Henry IV 1 & 2. The point is that while Malin had no legal obstacles preventing him from making radical cuts to the original, he also had a strong enough concept to make something new, and the intellectual honesty to not pretend that this adaptation was the same play first performed in the late sixteenth century.

In short, if Mr. Gray feels that he is, as a director, under the yoke of tyrannical playwrights he has a few options:

1.) Stick to plays in the public domain or recent work by playwrights who are not willing to defend the artistic integrity of their scripts should they be notified of alterations.

2.) Find a playwright who has a strong voice yet also has philosophical reasons to allow others to radically rework his or her plays, as is the case with Charles Mee.

3.) Write and direct his own plays.

4.) Switch to film, where directors usually get to decide upon the final cut.

5.) Simply find a playwright who is easily bullied by a director. After all no playwright who cares about the integrity of their work is going to let Nicholas Gray direct their plays after reading his comments in the New York Times.