Art in a Damaged World

When your chosen field is the arts – creating it, performing it, or writing about it – the entire pursuit can feel reduced to luxury or whim after an event as horrific as the elementary school shooting in Sandy Hook. Because the arts are so inextricably linked to observing the world and people’s experiences in it, because telling stories is a direct conduit to creating empathy, there is the collective notion that artists do it out of love and a sense of purpose. But experiencing the arts is essentially a luxury. Even when the work portrays people coping with poverty or violence or hardship, those in the audience usually aren’t. Besides the occasional free installment, the arts are available to ticket buyers; they appeal to individuals whose basic needs have more than been met. I’m not sure whether there is a different role for artists following disaster. Generally speaking, they should be good citizens like anyone else. They should find ways to donate, to comfort, to advocate for better policy. But artists also have a unique opportunity to sustain the relevance of troubling events though their work. To make it meaningful to people, to not let those events fade into history.

On the morning of December 14th, before learning the details of the Newtown shooting, I heard a news program about a proposition that governor Rick Scott has made for state universities in Florida. He advocates that Florida schools offer lower tuition for business-oriented majors and higher tuition for majors that are deemed less so: English, history, political science, philosophy, and theater. Though a student pursuing philosophy will likely have a lower paying job than, say, a student pursuing finance and would benefit from lower tuition, Scott asserts that individuals who do not directly improve Florida’s economy should pay the price, so to speak. Needless to say, the news was disappointing to hear, not only because it seems unfair to force students to pay higher tuition for fields that interest them, but also because the proposition suggests that understanding the world, its history, its sociological make up, how people function, and how we understand one another has little value.

We could use more empathy, a state of mind that naturally emerges from reading fiction, seeing theater, even studying political science in that it broadens our awareness of different communities and populations. The Public Theater’s artistic director Oscar Eustis has spoken about the importance of empathy, saying, “What is necessary in theater is also what is necessary in a functioning democracy.”

People have all sorts of solutions to the gun debate. My thoughts are that 1) a gun should be at least as hard to obtain as a driver’s license, and 2) that our health system should treat mental illness as seriously as it treats cancer. My choice for third is a more vague proposal and more wishful: that we create a more empathetic society where people recognize the dignity in others, even with whom they adamantly disagree. The economy may benefit from individuals with finance skills, but the world benefits from tolerance.

When I first began my MFA program in theater at Columbia, it was just a few weeks after Hurricane Katrina. At our orientation, the dean spoke to the incoming class, remarking that it can be hard to justify having a life in the arts when there are so many basic human needs that first need to be met. He then said something that has stuck with me. “The arts are the last essential thing we need as a society. But they are essential.” There needn’t be any delusion that art solves the ills of this world. But neither should we underestimate its potential to inspire compassion, to restore dignity, to heal, to heal.

From Experimental to Risky

Summer theater enjoys a certain freedom. The Tony awards season is long past, allowing a welcome remove from awards bidding and the politics that come with it. In other words, plays needn’t have a larger objective than to excite audiences. This is also the season of the theater festival. There are lots of them, the farther off Broadway, the better. In June there was ANT Fest at Ars Nova. In July, there’s the undergroundzero Festival; NYMF (dedicated specifically to musicals); and East to Edinburgh. August will bring the NYC Fringe, the largest festival of its kind in North America. All of these festivals celebrate art that is bold and risk-taking. Yet all seem to have a strange relationship with the word “experimental”, that oft-used, amorphous term that means anything from boundary-pushing to esoteric. Why are some artists, arts companies, and arts festivals reluctant to call themselves “experimental”, even when their work seems to fit the description? It may be that calling yourself “experimental” implies pretentiousness, but, more than that, I think it suggests that a work be known for its otherness. Paul Bargetto, the artistic director of the undergroundzero Festival, who admits to having a mixed relationship with the word, says that the term is used unnecessarily in American theater. In European countries, he says, what we call experimental theater is simply called “theater”. Or “theatre”.

Frequently, when we think of a work as experimental, what comes to mind are the ways in which its form diverges from the norm. Perhaps the show is performed in an unconventional, site-specific location; Or the performance blends multi-media like video or projections alongside the actors. Or the work eliminates the fourth wall between actor and audience, inviting the viewer to participate as a performer. But none of these are new inventions. The Wooster Group has incorporated video projection into its theatrical work for years. And the Living Theatre has embraced audience interaction since its founding in 1947. Are those experimental techniques still experimental?

I have found that “experimental” is as limiting a word as “risk-taking”, another term used frequently in the conversation about theater. Theater critics and bloggers often bemoan the state of American theater for not taking enough risks. If what they mean is that theater should be penetrative, not simply pleasant and entertaining, then I readily agree. Director, actor, and playwright Andre Gregory said this in an article in the Guardian last winter: “Passive theater doesn’t force you or seduce you or charm you into asking questions. [It] tells you what to look at onstage, and when you come out, you say, ‘Gee, that was good!’ or ‘Harry Sterns sang that song well!’ Active theater demands that you ask serious, challenging questions of your own life, the culture, and the society we live in.”

I would call that good, smart theater, which may or may not be “risk-taking”. The two best plays I saw this spring – 4000 Miles and Tribes – were thought-provoking and beautifully written and acted. The term “risk-taking” didn’t come to mind in either show, but I found both works to be transporting and powerful.   Tribes, in portraying a deaf man within a hearing family, explores the expansiveness and the limitations of sign language. It was incredibly evocative in a way I had never experienced onstage before. 4000 Miles examined an intergenerational relationship in a way that was poignant without ever once becoming saccharine.

I’ve always admired theater that assumes the audience is smart and perceptive. Ditto for TV shows and films. Maybe that’s the key, whether the show is a large Broadway production, or Tribes at the Barrow Street Theatre, or an undergroundzero show performed in a storefront space in Bushwick. Good theater assumes the viewer will be attentive enough to meet the work halfway, not simply sit back and receive.

Who Said “Girls” Aren’t Funny

Girls_HBO

If there’s one downside to the multitude of journalists and bloggers that saturate the cultural landscape, it’s the torrential downpour of declarations about new television shows that have barely gotten off the ground. Television, unlike film, can take its time, creating long and winding arcs for its characters that span seasons. But that doesn’t stop anyone from making sweeping statements about a new show after the first three episodes or even just the pilot. I present for you an abridged version of critics’ responses (and those who love posting in the comments section) about HBO’s “Girls”: “Its portrayal of sex is revolutionary!” “Who cares? It’s racist!” “It only portrays the privileged upper class.” “I know! It’s so true to my life.”

And it’s following this wave of praise and criticism that I deem this moment a good time to weigh in. While “Girls” aims to speak contemplatively about the self-searching of twenty-somethings, the show is first and foremost a comedy, one in which audiences will feel closer to the characters by laughing at them than by empathizing. I don’t think the show needs to assert how REAL it is. Those glimpses of real experience will peek through the comedic moments of Hannah, Marnie, Shoshanna, and Jessa who are naïve, entitled, clueless, and self-absorbed respectively. To the extent that we’ve been there, or if you’re twenty-four, maybe you ARE there, there’s the camaraderie of shared experience in the realm of guys, friends, and work. But the truisms portrayed in each episode only work if they don’t take themselves too dramatically. They only work if we know that Lena Dunham is laughing at the girls, and herself, along with us.

The show does have some great writing, and in the best scenes so far Dunham displays her knack for comedic rhythm. Taken from the scene where her character Hannah has an uncomfortable reunion with ex-boyfriend Elijah:

“I’m not going to let you have the last word.” “Nice to see you, your dad’s gay.”

As well as her penchant for witty observations like Marnie’s response to Hannah’s goth-like sexy outfit. “Is it some kind of solstice?”

But just as much – and particularly in Episode 5 this week – Dunham showcases raw dialogue and awkward guy/girl interactions that typify less scripted, less funny shows. When “Girls” comes across as trying to illuminate the experience of young women, it starts to blend in with any other show about girls making it in New York. But to be hilarious and incisive, it needs to be well crafted and deliberately funny, especially when we’ve seen Dunham do it so well.

Emily Nussbaum wrote a great piece in New York magazine that praised “Girls” as revolutionary, but it’s hard to think of it as such when the set up is so recognizable: a woman searches to find herself and love in the process in the city of New York. What feels actually revolutionary to me is Dunham herself. That she is the comedian who is willing to make herself the punch line. That she doesn’t fit most men’s and women’s perception of beautiful, but that’s no reason for her to play the comical best friend to the pretty star, like Rosie O’ Donnell to Meg Ryan in Sleepless in Seattle. No, Dunham is the star with a pretty best friend, and, she has every reason to believe that she deserves a great sex life and a purposeful career, even if she tends to embarrass herself in pursuit of both. Self-deprecation is, after all, a tenet of the comedian’s playbook. As Dunham says in a commentary segment on HBO’s site, Hannah has “a mix of complete self-confidence and no self worth: the trademark of most twenty-four year-old girls and most Jewish comedians.”

What I find refreshing about the creation of Girls” –  where Dunham is the writer, director, and star  –  is the conviction that women can make it happen, on their own, at whatever age, with whatever God-given talents they have. Like Tina Fey before her, Dunham has the smarts, self-awareness, and confidence to write and play a character so misguided. Yet unlike Fey, or Liz Lemon specifically, Dunham’s Hannah expects that a guy will want her sexually and wants it just as much herself.

Every week, I await the next episode, but I always hope to laugh more than to contemplate. Maybe that’s simply because I’m looking at twenty-four in retrospect. But I think more so because a well-tread genre needs to feel new.

The Ups and Downs of Smash

Smash

By now, nearly anyone who cares about the portrayal of theater on television has voiced an opinion on “Smash”. I keep thinking I’ll write it off – and the show has enough cringe-inducing elements to merit that action – but I have an impulse to watch week to week. The inner workings of the Broadway world – which “Smash” attempts to portray – has its inherent intrigue, and whenthe show isn’t forcing the overly earnest, Lifetime for Women subplots, there’s some good behind-the-scenes stuff of theater. How composers and writers craft a musical, how the director builds a cast, how producers seek investors. And then there’s the lower brow but juicier drama: rivalries between actresses, trysts between actors and directors, and feuds among the creative team. I love to see rehearsals in progress, directors conceptualizing a scene, and talented performers at work. Episode 4 of “Smash” brought a taste of that. But then it went in a totally weird direction when the cast members who had been ostracizing the newbie Karen (Katherine Mcphee) and disparagingly calling her “Iowa”, suddenly took her under their wing by teaching her dance steps to Adele’s “Rumour Has It” as a way to help her embrace the concept of an ensemble. Huh??? In every episode so far, there has been a scene (or scenes) that evokes a “What on earth?” reaction. Last episode it was the part where Karen heads home and performs a country karaoke number for her friends who call her “Broadway”, which I guess is the opposite of calling someone “Iowa”.

I think we choose to watch particular television shows because we see a world portrayed onscreen that is naturally captivating. At least that’s how I justify my sustained interest in the Real Housewives series. “Smash” doesn’t have to go for the treacly subplot – like the storyline about adopting a baby from China. And it doesn’t have to go for the faux-suspense – like the pointless arc of Ellis, the sartorially collegiate assistant with a conniving streak. Give me the good stuff of theater. Here’s hoping the team behind “Smash” (theater veterans among them) can deliver.

Unnatural Acts

Originally posted on TDF Stages. Read the full article HERE.  

Unnatural Acts

Harvard is one of America’s most prestigious institutions, so a story set there, especially a dark one, especially a scandal, can uniquely capture our attention. On Wednesday, Classic Stage Company rounds out its season with Unnatural Acts, a world premiere that portrays a group of gay Harvard students who were interrogated in 1920 because of their sexuality.

Based on true events, the play begins with the suicide of a Harvard sophomore, Cyril Wilcox. When word leaks that Cyril has been involved in an underground gay community on campus, Harvard’s administrators decide to rid the university of its problem with “homosexualism” and expose the other members of this social sphere. They establish a Secret Court, whose interrogations unleash a floodgate of new nightmares for unsuspecting students.

Director Tony Speciale conceived of the production in 2006 while studying in Columbia University’s MFA theatre program. After reading an article about the Harvard interrogations, he tracked down the 500-page transcript that the Secret Court had kept hidden for decades. These documents, which identify students believed to be of questionable sexuality and detail their supposed “acts of depravity,” only surfaced in 2002, and their disclosure prompted Harvard’s then-president Lawrence Summers to issue a public apology for the acts of his predecessors.

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Theater Post Bin Laden

War plays

Within a day of the announcement that Osama Bin Laden had been captured and killed came the first wave of articles predicting “what this means for America”. Almost a decade after 9/11, Bin Laden had become more an emblem of terrorism than an active practitioner of it, so the effect of his death may be more representational than actual. (The actual effect, if any, remains to be seen.) From the perspective of theater however, the question it raises is “what does this mean for war-related drama?” There have been numerous plays sparked by the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, including Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, running currently on Broadway. Many of the Iraq-based plays focus on the atrocities of war and point a well-aimed finger at the American government for entering in the first place. But what is the effect or resonance of these works when our exit from Iraq is now visible and the instigator of our fight against terrorism is dead? It doesn’t render the plays pointless; after all, the wars continue. But it does soften the portrayal. And it makes the artistic response less urgent.

A play like Stuff Happens (which had its world premiere in 2004 during the thick of the Iraq war) was so timely, it approximated a dramatic reenactment of news headlines. And the National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch poetically captured the pain, loss, and memories of soldiers in Iraq (though its first production at St. Ann’s Warehouse in 2007 arguably struck a more powerful chord than its third run in 2011). At this point, our escalation to war feels almost historical. And we view it with a certain distance, a critical acuity that comes with retrospection.

The strength of war plays (or films for that matter) depends largely on the time of their release. Our political and emotional responses to world events shapes the mindsets we bring into the theater. The Broadway production of Time Stands Still in 2010 was incredibly powerful not only due to its writing and actors but also due to its ability to look back on Iraq so far just as we in the audience were doing the same.

Regardless of one’s reaction to Bin Laden’s death, there’s a general acknowledgement that the chapter on Iraq is coming to a close. War plays that are situated in a precise political moment run the risk of becoming dated after the fact. (Stuff Happens would be almost cartoonish today.) But when a play captures that moment in the right time, it’s something extraordinary.

Why Work in Theater

On the blog NYC World Theatre Day, contributing writer Leonard Jacobs wrote this beautiful piece about why he pursued a life in theater.  Read an excerpt of his words below ...or view the original post HERE. I keep returning to the idea that my answer to this question is not unlike Shakespeare’s seven ages of man. I was a product of New York City public schools at a time when no one dared call arts education a frill—its importance, then as now, incontrovertible and obvious. Thanks to a particular teacher—and the original and adapted plays and musicals he produced—I came to know intimately the theatre’s intoxicating properties: laughter, gasps and applause; the air of achievement and collaboration; the sense of creating and belonging to something greater than ourselves.

I also believe there’s a self-actualization process that comes from working in theatre. Many, if not most, young practitioners are blissfully unaware of it. They're newly formed and buoyed by passion—but rare is the incipient artist able to identify with true, penetrating introspection, the roots of that passion. Its gut. You must do the work.

And so I reflect on my own early-passion years as a playwright/director/dramaturge type, forever traipsing around New York City at once carefree but adamant, with fondness and charity. For there is so much beauty in “I have to write this play,” in “I need to direct this play,” in “I must ensure that this work is seen.”

We work in theatre even when the self-actualization turns painful. Then I realized that if I truly believed in theatre’s power, if I honestly saw glory in fostering something greater than myself, if I really cherished the theatre’s addictive properties, then a new career path wasn’t failure, but evolution. Cynics scoff because they’re ignorant: phrases like “those who can’t do, teach” (or “those who can’t do, critique”) are for fools. Without growth, we die.

During my 20s, I was fortunate enough to enjoy, as one of my 37 jobs, freelance gigs as a critic and arts journalist; so, with my 30s, my shift in self-identification came organically. Entering my 40s, the self-actualization goes on. I see myself equally as an advocate and a person passionate about policy. I see theatre advocacy as a way to knit my personal and professional evolution toward higher goals.

Why work in theatre? If the 9-year-old on that grammar school stage could answer that question, he’d offer a peroration for the ages. What I will share, however, is a memory that I can articulate in two words:

Lights up.

Leonard Jacobs is a writer, editor, blogger and critic with roots in arts, entertainment and culture. He is founder and editor of The Clyde Fitch Report, a nationally recognized blog covering arts and politics; he is a former national editor at Back Stage and, before that, founding editor of the website Theatermania.com. He currently contributes to a mix of digital and print publications, including the Huffington Post.

Kushner and Religion

kushner

One of my favorite moments in Angels in America is the scene where Ethel Rosenberg and Louis say Kaddish for Roy Cohn.  In the midst of a play where anger or even disdain toward God metastasizes throughout the characters comes an act that is reverent, spiritual, and deeply tied to religion: the Jewish prayer for the dead.  And even more so, it is said in honor of a loathsome individual, both in the play and in American history.  As Belize notes after asking Louis to bless someone so detestable, “It doesn’t count if it’s easy.” Playwright Tony Kushner is quoted in the book Tony Kushner in Conversation as saying, “I feel in a certain sense that the theater is the closest that I come to a religion.“  That may be so, but in his work there is a recurrent grappling with God, an ongoing presence of religion between characters of all faiths from Islam to Mormonism, frequent allusions to the Bible, and the presence of supernatural forces which suggests a certain spirituality, religious or not.  What’s interesting about this, is that such material is created by a writer whose plays are more widely known for political content, historical context, and dialogue that leans toward rationalism.

I’m excited for the New York premieres of two Kushner plays coming this season:  The Illusionand The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures.  (The Illusion was first presented as a reading at NY Theater Workshop in ’88.)  While the two works, particularly the latter, will touch on social and political themes, I’ll look for a certain wink to the divine that I imagine will exist in both productions.

Chasing Spider-man

spider-man

This week, many of the leading theater critics attended and reviewed an unfinished performance of Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark on what was previously scheduled as the musical’s opening night.  Given that the show has postponed its opening multiple times over, the critics’ rationale for early reviews was that Spider-man’s producers circumvented the system, so it’s only fair that critics follow suit.  The whole situation raises an interesting topic.  Is it significant that critics weigh in on a show before too much time passes?  Or, put more simply, how much does Broadway need reviews? Broadway theater without reviews. In the world of live performance, it has an air of government without regulation.  When it opens on March 15th, Spider-man will have had nearly four months of previews.  And I’d argue that even the term “preview” is generous.  They’re ostensibly dress rehearsals given that the creative team is still determining such details as…how it ends.

Critics write reviews to give their readers and the arts world a smart perspective on new work.  In this case, they also do so to assert their value.  I imagine it was satisfying for the community of critics to publish largely negative reviews about Spider-man. “So you want to abandon all Broadway protocol?  Well, here’s what I thought of your show!”  The New York Times’ Ben Brantley panned nearly the entire production, while New York Magazine’s Scott Brown admitted to being “riveted” not by the plot or music but the sheer entertainment value, in part due to the fact that the audience is comprised of “sick fucks”, waiting for the next actor to fall out of his harness.

It’s undisputed that a glowing review can do wonders for a new show or a budding playwright.  In fact, the only shows that succeed in spite of bad reviews are large-scale, tourist-friendly musicals, like for example, Spider-man.

I think criticism has greatest value when it does more than laud or loathe a new show: when it offers a new insight about the art form and considers what the artists were trying to achieve.  After all, every artist strives to create something amazing.  Of course they do.  There’s too much money, time, and passion involved to do otherwise.

Regardless of what Spider-man’s reviews portend for the success of the show, isn’t it cause for celebration when the hottest topic in town is arts-related?  Even when it pertains to a musical where the greatest anticipation is for the next downfall.