Theatre Bay Area Chatterbox

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Passing Strange, One Week Only

I hope everyone in the Bay Area has heard about Spike Lee's film of Passing Strange, Berkeley Repertory Theatre's production that went off-Broadway and then on Broadway for six months, picking up a number of Obie awards and others along the way.

Spike Lee filmed the final two live performances and also shot performances without an audience so the cameras had better access to the stage--and the film was won raves from Roger Ebert, the New York Times and Rolling Stone, among others.

Check out Passing Strange, playing for one week only from October 2 to October 8 at San Francisco's Embarcadero Center Cinema and Berkeley's Shattuck Cinemas (a couple of blocks from where the musical was born). It's also available on demand to Comcast subscribers.

Photo: Daniel Breaker as Youth in Sundance Selects' Passing Strange. Photo by David Lee/Sundance.

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Thursday, September 17, 2009

American Idiot Review

[Note: Minor spoiler alert.]
When I interviewed Michael Mayer, director and librettist for American Idiot, the epically hyped new Green Day musical that just premiered at Berkeley Rep, it seemed like his primary vision for the show was that of unrelenting action. It would be structured, shockingly enough, for a musical scored by a punk band, like a punk song—short, sweet and to the point, with nary a moment for the audience to take a breath, check their watches or think about what they want to have for dinner the next day (roasted pork loin with seared red chard and caramelized onions). In that respect, it would be an understatement to say that Mayer succeeded. In fact, the only time the show finds time to take a breath, about 15 minutes before the final curtain, everyone in the audience assumed it was over and gave a standing ovation before awkwardly returning to their seats as the next song began. From the show’s very first moment, the stage is so gleefully overstuffed with action you barely know what to focus on. People fly on wires, dance on beds, play guitar solos and hide in corners doing drugs. In a nod to Green Day’s late-'90s MTV ubiquity, a constant shifting of attention is required, but it’s a testament to choreographer Steven Hoggett that this over-caffeinated jumping around never feels especially disjointed. Even when the action hits a rare lull, the set itself, with every inch of its walls plastered over with concert posters, blown-up album covers and TVs constantly running clips is visually sumptuous enough on its own to more than hold your attention.

The show plays the band’s 2004 album American Idiot in its entirely with a couple B-sides from the European release and a song or two from 21st Century Breakdown, which was released earlier this year, thrown in for good measure. All of the songs received new arrangements courtesy of composer Tom Kitt, whose arrangement are generally improvements over the band’s originals. Kitt smartly foregrounds Bille Joe Armstrong’s effortlessly memorable vocal melodies, the singular aspect of the band’s sound that elevated them above their third-wave pop-punk peers (I mean, Rancid wrote some killers ones too but the odds of someone bringing Out Come the Wolves to Broadway are slim). While the new arrangements are smart and catchy, they lack diversity. Virtually every song fits into one of two categories: it’s either a bouncy, power-chord rocker or an acoustic ballad that gradually builds into a sing-along power ballad with nothing in between.

The plot, so much as it exists, tells the story of three friends reaching adulthood in the suburbs. One moves to the city, meets a girl, gets addicted to drugs, loses said girl, and then returns home. Another joins the army and is injured in Iraq. The last knocks up his girlfriend and spends the entire show sitting on a couch in a corner of the stage smoking pot and watching life pass him by. This description makes the plot seem more infinitely involved than it actually is. It’s nearly 20 minutes before anything really happens plot-wise and the most of the characters have about as much depth as a piece of construction paper, but that’s really beside the point. American Idiot, like a good punk song, isn’t really about story or character development. It’s about creating a mood, a particular sneeringly smirking aesthetic that’s immediate, urgent and, if all goes according to plan, as loud as is humanly possible.

In the interview, Mayer said he was nervous about what the band would think of the show. He was a huge fan and didn’t want to disappoint them. Sitting a couple rows in front of the band, I could see Armstrong silently mouthing the words to all of his songs as they were presented in a wildly different context from when he first recorded them. As the final curtain fell, a camera crew rushed to the band to catch them wiping away tears and applauding rapturously. At the end of the day, even though not performing, the show, and the circus surrounding it, is really all about them.

Photo of American Idiot courtesy of

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Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Donation Appeal or Ransom Note?

The Willows Theatre, which announced last week it must raise $350,000 by November or it will close its doors forever, has been called out by Backstage at, which was picked up by You've Cott Mail, as a ransom demand that must stop.

The only difference between Willows' appeal and, say, the Magic's, Foothill Theatre Company's and Shakespeare Santa Cruz's (and many other companies across the nation) is that Willows is late to the party, and so suffers from donor fatigue. While no one wants to see any theatre company fail--especially one that offers weeks--it appears these give-us-$300K-or-we'll-die appeals are now in danger of getting the wrong kind of publicity. (And, it's interesting to note that $300K-350K seems to be the most common numbers.) But when the situation is that dire, what other options are there? How should companies make these kinds of appeals?

In any case, if you'd like to help the Willows out, click here.

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Thursday, September 3, 2009

Thinking Outside the Jewel Box

On my bus ride this morning, I came across a talk by Natasha Tsakos, a performer from Miami who has created a one-woman multimedia show called Upwake. Upwake is an hour-long story of Zero, a modern day businessman going to work with his life in a briefcase, stuck between reality and fantasy. It’s told using one performer, four projectors and a constant array of video, audio, lights and images created by 19 collaborators, all working together to address that one theme, amplified all over the place: connection between reality (stage, performer, audience) and fantasy (in the form of multimedia). Decidedly not a new theme, especially here, where we have some of the most exciting multi-arts work being done of anywhere in the country. What was interesting, though (and the piece looks interesting, too) was that this talk allowed Tsakos to engage in the theory and goal of the work in a deep way, putting into words some of the more abstract concepts that I think float around our heads as theatre practitioners a lot, but which are sometimes less than coherent. The talk became a discussion of the intersection between what she terms “science” (I’d more accurately term it “technology”) and “art,” and the ability of this intersection, in the proper hands, to bridge the gap between theatre and new audiences.

In Natasha’s words, “It is as much about bringing new disciplines inside this box as it is about taking theatre out of its box.”

More below the video.

I think this resonates in multiple ways and directions as we continue as a field to grapple with an ever-shrinking traditional audience base. We must start looking outside the jewel box of theatre for not only new technologies (although those, too), but also new experiences, new stories and new ways to tell those stories. The truth is, the demographics of humanity are changing, more quickly here than almost anywhere else in the country. As a field (and understanding it is a field-wide issue and cannot be the single duty of a few nontraditional theatregoer-focused organizations), we must look outside the box and draw in (and on) new parts of the world. In a way, theatre has always been about reflection – reflecting our society, or our hope, or perhaps simply the experiences of the people who come through the doors. As Tsakos says, the reflection is changing, and it is happening whether we as organizations, individuals or the field are on board or not:

“There is a revolution. It’s a human and technological revolution. It’s motion and emotion. It’s information. It’s visual, it’s musical, it’s sensorial. It’s conceptual, it’s universal and it’s beyond words and numbers. It’s happening…There is a revolution in the way that we think, the way that we share, and in the way that we express our stories. Our evolution. This is a time of communication, connection and creative collaboration.”

As companies and individuals, much of your days (probably) are spent looking at today, tomorrow, next month, one year out. You rightly strategize about sustaining your current base, reviving flagging donations from various sources, keeping steady audiences, a stable reputation, etc. It seems to me that part of our role at Theatre Bay Area is to ask you as individual artists and companies to take a moment to look more broadly and more long-term, at the long-term viability of the field as a whole. Field-wide trends are just that, field-wide, and field-wide changes happen over five-, ten-, twenty-year spans, across as many companies as are there to be part of the trend. If the core of Theatre Bay Area’s mission is to unite, strengthen and promote the theatre community, then we must continuously ask ourselves how the world is changing over the mid- to long-term, while also of course providing services to help companies and individuals sustain and thrive today. Tsakos’ larger message, that remaining static as a field (in our form, our content, our way of presenting ourselves) is not really an option, must set in motion all sorts of conversation.

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