Theatre Bay Area Chatterbox

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Claire's Book Club: The Inciting Incident

I have the same bad habit most book (and theatre) lovers have: I buy more plays than I can actually read. They teeter dangerously on my nightstand and crowd my shelves like rush hour MUNI commuters. Orphaned about my apartment, these scripts stare longingly at me as I ignore them in favor of lesser entertainments. Yet I still thrill at the hunt every time I enter a new or used bookstore. I make a beeline for the drama section and comb the shelves looking for the next play that will inspire or corrupt, enlighten or injure, entertain or enrage. But after a recent trip to the Friends of the Library Book Sale (where I bought literally pounds of new plays), I have decided that enough is enough. I must read what I own.

Why not write about it as I go? Readers, here's the mission: I intend to work my way through the pile of plays on my nightstand (and shelves, and coffee table) to relieve my buyer's guilt and, perhaps, inspire a little critical discussion along the way. Twice a month, I will write reviews of the plays I have read, as a way of keeping myself accountable and exposing you the reader to writers new and old.

The Reading List:
The Shipment by Young Jean Lee, TCG
The Revenger's Tragedy credited to Cyril Tourneur (or Thomas Middleton, depending on what day of the week it is), edited by Lawrence J. Ross, University of Nebraska Press

The Shipment by Young Jean Lee, TCG

"Ever hear the one about the white theater critic and the black identity-politics play by the Korean-American writer?"
- David Cote, writing in the New York Times about The Shipment in 2009.

This play requires five actors. Four male, one female. All African American. The costuming and props are specific and integral to the script. The set for the first half of the show doesn't have to be much more then acting blocks, but the second half requires realism. I would not recommend this play for actors looking for monologues or scene work for classes and auditions unless guided by a coach or teacher. This play is not for the faint of heart--it pushes buttons and experiments with structure and narrative.

The Shipment is the first play by Young Jean Lee I have had the privilege to read. I knew I was going to love it before I even cracked the binding. I fell in love with Lee at first New York Times online review sight. I love a creator with mendacity/audacity/tenacity...and the talent and wisdom to back it up.

The play is really a treatise on the depiction of race in the entertainment industry (and specifically in live theatre). Using clichés and caricatures as her broad strokes, Lee builds her story so the audience is unsure of who the joke is on until the last line. The Shipment contains one of the most powerful endings I've ever read. I can't get it out of my head. The play is often funny, but each punch line is really a set up for the conclusion.

The Revenger's Tragedy by Cyril Tourneur (or Thomas Middleton or someone else...)

Fourteen or more speaking parts. Numerous nobles and judges and rabble. Only three women's roles. There's plenty of opportunity for double casting, but I wouldn't recommend changing the genders of the characters unless there is a specific concept in mind. This is an English language Jacobean tragedy, and can be performed with a unit set and basic props and costuming. Weapons will be needed as the last scene is an utter and all-consuming bloodbath. Good monologues for men, and some really great scenes for two or three actors. The question is: Is it a tragedy, dark with gruesome horrors...or is it a dark comedy, gruesome for its satirical treatment of horror?

Gratiana: No, he was too wise to trust me with his thoughts.
Vindince: I'faith then, father, thou wast wise indeed;
"Wives are but made to go to bed and to feed."

Women suffer page after page of this sort of treatment. When a woman isn't being raped, she’s seducing or killing or worse…whining. There are only whores and virgins in the world of this play, except all the virgins are raped and turned into whores. When a rapist is brought before a judge he says of his crimes: "My fault being sport; let me but die in jest." What a guy.

So, this play was not funny "ha ha." But, the more I read, the more absurd the treatment of women became and I began to wonder at it's purpose. Tourneur seems to be about pushing buttons, not unlike Young Jean Lee. The scenarios are so ridiculous, the plots so confusing, the twists so twisty that I couldn't help but find in these pages true flashes of satiric subversion and a devilish eyebrow cocked toward a bloody patriarchy.

A closing tip for voracious readers:

My favorite place to hunt for new plays is a university book store. If you've ever wanted to break into the reading lists of the best theatre minds in the country, run to the universities where they teach and stand in the bookstore line. San Francisco State University is an excellent resource for new plays. Yes, I order plays from Samuel French, TCG and Amazon, but for those days when I just want to browse and don’t want to be once again disappointed by a Borders or some other big chain, the SFSU Bookstore is a great place to go.

So…what are you reading?

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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Perils of Free?

In Friday's You've Cott Mail, way down at the bottom, Thomas Cott includes a quick quote from Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis, given as part of a larger article in Crane's New York about how major New York arts organizations are engaging the younger generation. Eustis' quote hits pretty close to home in terms of innovative audience development, not because what he's talking about is revolutionary, but because he speaks about the shortcomings of one of the most-well-known free-ticketed events in the country, Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park. Here's the quote, with some extra context pulled from the article:

Oskar Eustis, artistic director of The Public Theater, said the arts need to be more accessible for everyone. Even the nonprofit theater's free Shakespeare in the Park creates barriers.

“By giving Shakespeare away for free, it has become inaccessible for many,” Mr. Eustis said. “Tell someone they have to wait six to 36 hours in line for a ticket and it erases 90% of population that would have considered going.”

In some ways, this is a quote that one can react strongly to without really being empathic about the Public's situation--after all, we're not all just sitting there with drastically popular, massively funded free programming where the demand highly exceeds the supply. But, here at Theatre Bay Area, we're in the enviable or unenviable position of having a similar issue. We've been grappling with this same (relative) issue in the context of our Free Night of Theater program, in which we annually distribute about 5,000 to 6,000 free theatre tickets, and also annually disappoint between 20,000 and 30,000 unlucky people who don't get tickets, don't get the tickets they want, or get overly frustrated by the (admittedly arduous, or at least not hoop-free) process of getting the tickets.

We've tried various ways to "share the wealth" of the program--we do targeted giveaways to businesses whose employees seem likely candidates to become repeat arts consumers while also setting up various roadblocks to dissuade repeat Free Nighters from being able to easily access the tickets. But it's hard, and so when I saw Eustis' quote it got me thinking.

How can we, as artists, arts administrators and (yes) businesspeople balance success with access? How can we make sure, in the case of Free Night, that we're continuing to make the arts available to new people while also ensuring, for the companies' sakes, that we're getting those tickets to audiences that are likely to return (and pay)? What does it say when the leader of one of the biggest free theatrical events in the world essentially says that the very "freeness" of the event "erases 90% of the population that would have considered going?"

In the case of the Public, they're addressing this inequity by creating a "mobile Shakespeare" unit, the goal of which is to take the art to some subset of those people who can't or won't wait in line. And in our case, we're looking at turning Free Night upside down over the course of the next year and seeing if there's a way to keep the success of the program while also improving some of the inherent problems we've tried and failed to solve in the last six years. We'll see how it goes...but we're open to suggestions.

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Friday, November 5, 2010

Live-Tweeting at the Playhouse

On October 21, I did something that made the arts marketer in me sing and the director in me cringe: I live-tweeted a performance of The Sunset Limited at SF Playhouse.

Before you throw tomatoes at me (or pat me on the back), allow me to qualify: I was participating in the Playhouse Pluggers night, which is a designated performance for tweeters to plug away on their little portable electronic devices. One performance of each SF Playhouse show is "set aside," as it were, for volunteer "pluggers" to take over the back row of the theatre (where they won't disrupt other patrons) and tweet to their hearts' content.

In spite of being somewhat of a Twitter outsider,* I decided to participate primarily as a follow-up to an article that my Theatre Bay Area colleague Clay Lord wrote about technology in theatre (or perhaps more accurately, theatre in technology). For those of you interested (and you should all be interested because this is a seriously brilliant article), you can read it here. In it, Clay brings up the topic of texting (or tweeting) during performances as one of the most controversial intersections of theatre and technology, citing that 93% of Bay Area theatregoers polled were against texting during a play. The reactions, according to Clay, "ranged from 'Awful, the height of rudeness,' to 'Obnoxious!' to 'Those people should be hung by their toenails and allowed to die in the town square.'" While I find public toenail hanging highly repulsive, I must admit that my first reaction to the idea of a "tweet night" at the theatre was not entirely positive. I'm all for creative marketing and artistic experimentation, but (as a relative Twitter outsider) the idea of live-tweeting a performance seemed lame or distracting at best and obnoxious or disrespectful at worst.

Nonetheless, I did my duty as a Theatre Bay Area representative, got dinner with my non-tweeting guest (every experiment needs a good "control" subject), and tweeted The Sunset Limited-inspired haikus in preparation for the tweet marathon that was to come. From the moment I arrived at the Playhouse, I felt like I was in some sort of VIP club. SF Playhouse is very conscientious about making its pluggers feel as welcome as possible by doing two things: telling us not to censor ourselves and giving us free wine.

The most exciting part of my experience as a live-tweeter (aside from the wine) was the community of pluggers of which I was a part. There was @anthoknees, a theatre aficionado and actor who learned of the program through a friend and jumped at the opportunity for free theatre tickets. There was comedian @aliciadattner, artistic director of The Illuminated Theatre @jonathanwbender, theatre afficionado and second-time plugger @n_a_k, and plugger veteran @scottragle who had participated in every plugger's night since its inception back in March. Though I was a bit intimidated by the experienced tweeters and their shiny new iPhones, I was immediately accepted by them (even with my sad little Blackberry that had been overhauled hours earlier so as to run a functional Twitter app).

"I just tweet my thoughts," said Anthony Williams (@anthoknees), sensing my hesitation during the last few minutes before the show started. "It's sort of like breathing. Things just come to you and you share them."

As a chronic over-thinker, as someone who likes to plan out everything I put down in writing, then re-read it a few dozen times before I publish it, this new way of viewing (and responding to) theatre is pretty radical. The lights went down in the theatre and I gave myself a little pep talk, something to the effect of "OK, brain, you've served me pretty well so far, but please please please find something more interesting to tweet about than 'actor 2 crosses stage left.'"

While I had many reservations going into the experience, these concerns were quickly alleviated. Because what happened almost immediately is that, when the lights came up on the show, we entered into a fast-paced, on-topic, continually evolving conversation about the play (all typed, of course). Since I was watching my co-conspirators twitter their musings on the show while I was watching the show, I picked up on quite a few details that I might have missed otherwise. It was surprisingly exciting to have the instant gratification of tweeting an observation of the play and having that observation validated instantly by a community of alert, insightful theatregoers. I bonded with this group of strangers more than I have ever done at a theatre performance, even during post-show schmoozy-type parties. With so many theatre companies touting mission statements that declare a desire to bring people together through art, this is a pretty significant accomplishment in itself. Though I am usually a very attentive theatergoer, I don't believe I have ever engaged so fully with a play. I was so mentally exhausted by the end of the play from 90 straight minutes of watching, analyzing, reading and responding to all aspects of the play that all I wanted to do was go home and go to sleep.

On the other hand, I must say that my experience of the art itself suffered. Because I was engaged with so many different forms, I missed some key plot points, pivotal shifts in the power dynamics and even a "happy accident"--when one of the actors (I'm assuming) mistakenly knocked over a glass of water, I found out about it first through the tweets of my peers and only looked up in time to see Carl Lumbly cleaning up the wreckage. In fact, I left the production feeling that I would need to see it again in order to get a complete sense of the artistic choices that were made by the actors, director and playwright.

Ultimately, it strikes me that the debate over Twitter in theatre is a symptom of larger conversation that theatres are either avoiding or jumping into head-first: how do we remain relevant when the ways in which people engage with art (and each other) are changing? I very much doubt that allowing people to text during a play is the ultimate solution (not that it's claiming to be, or that there is one be-all-end-all solution) and it certainly isn't right for all theatres. But it is an interesting tool to remind us to reexamine the ways in which we as artists and/or forward-thinking arts administrators can use technology to our advantage rather than avoiding it altogether.

What are you (either on the artistic or the marketing/admin side of things) doing to engage with this issue?

Information about the SF Playhouse Pluggers program can be found here. To read the pluggers' live-tweets of The Sunset Limited, visit here. To read my posts exclusively (eegads!) go here and scroll down to October 21.

*I never said I wasn't biased. I mean, I actually find the concept of Twitter to be pretty cool, but every time I try to use it (ok, the half-dozen-or-so times I've tried to use it), something goes awry and I get that horrible whale-being-held-up-by-birds-that-must-possess-superbird-strength-because-they're-really-tiny-and-that-whale-is-huge. And I want to hate the whale because it's telling me that I can't do what I want to do, but then I discover that it's called the "Fail Whale" which is so obnoxiously cute that I can't muster more than a vague sense of disapproval for the whale. And then I just end up feeling guilty for disapproving of a whale that is clearly being stolen by a flock of evil supergenius birds on steroids that are probably going to conduct painful scientific experiments on the poor, unsuspecting whale. I could really go on and on about the emotional turmoil caused by my encounters with that silly, complicated whale but I have a blog post to get back to.

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Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Arts Message Gets Through!

Did everyone hear Governor-Elect Jerry Brown's victory speech last night? It was an amazing win for the arts. First, Brown chose to hold his victory party in Oakland's beautifully refurbished Fox Theater, home to Oakland's public School for the Arts, which Brown helped create during his tenure as mayor.

In his speech, Brown referenced the theatre and the school as examples of the renewal he hopes to bring to the state. He went on to say that the school and the arts exemplify the "creativity and innovation" that California needs for the 21st century.

This is a huge win for the arts. Let it sink in that our new governor, unscripted, articulated the core value of the arts in his victory speech. This from the man who created the California Arts Council more than 30 years ago.

Congratulations to everyone involved in the nonpartisan Arts in the Governor's Race Campaign, and to all advocates of the arts who have been working for so long to get our message out. Last night's victory speech gives us all reason to celebrate.

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