Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Review - Waltz with Bashir

My last movie review of the season:

Waltz with Bashir
, the new Israeli film about the 1982 war in Lebannon, belongs to a relatively rare genre: the animated documentary. It claims to be the first in the genre, and it may be the only full length example, although there have been some notable predecessors, including Chris Landreth’s Oscar-winning short film Ryan, a touching portrait of animator Ryan Larkin, and the recent documentary film Chicago 10, a partially animated account of the protests during the 1968 Democratic Convention.

Folman uses the technique well, bringing to life the dreams and memories of his fellow soldiers, as told in recorded interviews. The film is a despairing account of very young men lost in the wilderness of battle, depicted in stark colors.

The focus event is a massacre in which thousands of Palestinians in West Beirut were murdered by the Lebanese Christian Phalangist forces, following the assassination of Bachir Gemayal, a Christian elected to be the next Lebanese President. Folman has lost his own memories of the massacre, and he is dependent on his fellows to answer the question: was he complicit? The implied question beyond that, of course, is whether Israel was complicit in an event that had disturbing parallels to the mass killings of the Holocaust.

By animating his documentary, Folman makes the soldiers’ memories both vivid and yet in some ways unreliable – we see the artifice, and that extra level of distance lets us wonder what is a real memory and what is a manufactured memory made to fill a hole created by trauma and guilt. Like many modern documentarians, Folman gives us truth shaded by fiction. Are these the actual soldiers whose voices we hear? In most cases yes, but a quick look at the credits reveals that actors were also used to create the voices for the more reluctant participants.
Does this make the truths of the film less valid? Perhaps, if the main purpose of the film had been to be an investigative report into the causes of the massacre. But Folman’s main story is his own, and whether we are seeing pure facts or those facts are shaded by fiction, the inner truth of a man struggling to reconcile himself with his past is the undeniable heart of this very personal film.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Thank you, Harold Pinter

Harold Pinter died yesterday.  He has been sick for a while, so it's not a shock, but it does make me sad to hear that perhaps the greatest living playwright has passed away.  The other contender, for me, is Tom Stoppard - or I guess the crown holder by default, now.

I never met Pinter in person, though I came close this September - he was supposed to attend the premiere of Havel's new play, Leaving, but he didn't make it.  I suspected it might be my only remaining chance to meet him.

Of course, if I met him, it's very possible I wouldn't have liked him much.  I have seen him interviewed many times, and unlike some of my other favorite playwrights (Ionesco, Stoppard, Havel), he always seemed to me to be, well, a bit of a bastard.  Of course, I'm judging from afar, based on watching and reading interviews.  But that was my strong impression.

His politics seemed simplistic.  I'm definitely left leaning, but the knee jerk anti-Americanism and his caustic dismissal of all opposing opinions seemed offensive to me in its lack of self-critical thought.  The great strength of his plays is the ambiguity that existed is all moments.  The great weakness in his personality seemed to be his impatience with any ambiguity about his own opinions.

Yet his plays were amazing.  His ability to fill his plays with a sense of hidden mystery that was always compelling, when well done, was transformative.  Every word seemed to be fraught with meaning.  And talking about the way that he transformed the pause has become cliche.

So does it matter whether he was a bastard or whether his politics were simplistic?  I'm not sure.  I just as strongly want to direct his work.  But I would not be as interested in producing a festival of it.  I am interested in playwrights whose personal essays are as compelling to me, in content, as their plays.

But in the end, if I never met him, how do I really know what he was like?  At a party yesterday evening, a woman was talking about a well known actor and how much of a bastard everyone said he was.

No, another woman at the party replied.  I've met him.  I was friends with him for years.  And he's a very kind man.

What I do know that his plays have enriched my life and my writing.  My play Strangers has a definite debt to him, though (I certainly hope) it is no imitation.  And I still remember the first time I saw a production of one of his plays onstage. It was The Birthday Party, produced by the Independent Theater Company (now defunct), at the House of Candles (now a Lower East Side bar).  The actors were very age inappropriate.  Some of them were very talented.  Some...were not.

But the director, or the company as a whole, understood the style.  And it was one of the most exciting plays I had seen.

Thank you, Independent Theater Company, wherever you are.  Thank you Harold Pinter.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Santa Claus vs. Judah Maccabee

I am taking a break from the serious business of theater to tackle an even more serious business that occupies all minds as we approach the day when Christmas and Hanukkah both fall.  Who would win, in a fight between Santa Claus and Judah Maccabee?

An article in Slate addressed the question of which Christmas specials were best for Jewish children.  The decision (the Grinch and Charlie Brown)  is something I can't help but agree with.  But she never addressed the core issue her child asked: who would win?

SC obviously has the weight on JM, but JM has the youth and the soldier's training.  Years of fighting the Seleucids can't help but leave JM in fighting trim.

But Santa has a backup band of vicious reindeers, not to mention a whole army of elves at his beck and call.  Once again, JM would be fighting against the odds while a bloated general called the shots for his massive army.

When I was young, my brother told me that Judah Maccabee came to every Jewish child's house and put presents under every child's pillow (it wasn't till I was an adult that I realized that putting presents under the pillow was a family tradition, not a universal one).    I envisioned a rather serious looking man, with a much lower budget than Santa was privy to.

Older, I envisioned Judah as a man I would not particularly want to meet on a street corner, a man good at fighting but not much else.  Now, probably thanks to my play (and Peter Brown's portrayal), my image has softened a little, to a reluctant warrior who perseveres.

And Santa may have the better presents and the better press, but I'm sorry, it's Judah Maccabee, hands down.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Can one make money in theater? A call for Hanukkah gelt...

Note: this post has become quite popular, so I wanted to mention that I tackle the questions of making money in theater and the arts much more in depth in my comparison of the salaries of artists vs. non-artists.  Actual statistics from a semi-scientific survey included!  Read it.

I've been so preoccupied with the readings of Rudolf II and Golem Stories (both of which went very well, I think), that there's been no time to blog. I wonder if there will be any time during the International Festival of Jewish Theater and Ideas. We'll see...

But for the moment, back to Playing Dreidel with Judah Maccabee, which is still going on. I have a few new photos: one of a scene from the play, one of Evolve Company's shadow puppets (which occur inside the ark you can see in the first photo). The shadow puppets are a peek inside the ancient temple in Jerusalem. The man on the left is the High Priest, wearing the breastplate described in the Old Testament (a little detail that I doubt anyone at the show quite registers, but makes me happy).

One thing writing and directing the play has made me realize is that the story of Hanukkah is really about perseverance. Which I would think would not be a revelation, after all this time, but somehow is. The fun for me was in the rituals, and there was this little story about light lasting for eight days. As a friend wondered the other day - so what? What's so special about extra light? The legend of the light, actually, existed well before the events with the Maccabees, and only later were the two things put together. Why that connection?

The obvious answer, though I'd never stopped to ponder it before, is perseverance. The Maccabees should never have survived their battles, lasted as long as they did, but nonetheless they did. And of course perseverance is a theme in Judaism in general. To keep surviving, despite impossible odds. "To always be on the edge of defeat, yet never to be defeated," as I have Judah Maccabee say.

Watching the shows, I started wondering how growing up with that philosophy might have influenced my going into theater. Because theater is truly a profession with impossible odds. My friend Henry has posed the question of whether it is actually possible to make a living as a director, in today's theater. Maybe. Maybe not. But it's almost impossible. The point was driven home to me the other day when another friend, an actor, turned to me and said, with surprise, "You never expected to make money doing theater, did you? I mean, it's possible, but the likelihood is so small..."

But I did expect it. I have always expected it. Even though I wonder, still, if it's possible. When in college, when people asked me what I would be, I said "A starving artist." It was a joke that was not quite a joke. Yet underneath there was a certainty that no matter how difficult, it was possible to persevere, and overcome those odds. Was that something that came from Jewish culture, from Hanukkah, or just my own hubris?

I ask this at a point when I have become concerned about my own finances and the affect they will have on my career. I need to make more money than I'm making, and yet the career I have thrown in my lot with doesn't necessarily offer much, especially in these times. But what to do if I don't have the finances to sustain what I'm doing? Sadly, running a theater company, writing, directing, etc, is more than a full time job. I am so busy day to day that I barely have time to do what I need. I make some money at it all, but small sums.

I feel simultaneously very optimistic about my projects and very worried about how much longer I will be able to sustain myself financially. Is perseverance enough? How many days can the light stay lit?

Friday, December 12, 2008

Review - Doubt

My latest review for NBR - shorter than usual, this time. Over on Playgoer, Garrett was commenting on how many more negative reviews he was seeing of the movie and specifically the character of Sister Aloysius, although few reviews of the play expressed that opinion. Is it Streep's portrayal? To me, it was sympathetic, or at least ambivalent in its sympathies. My personal theory is that film audiences are much more used to seeing a story about certainties, so that when a story is presented in which who is actually right and wrong remains in doubt, they have to assume a strong opinion one way or the other by the writer/director. Since Meryl Streep's character seems meaner, she must be wrong. Right? Wrong...

Anyway, here's my review:

“Certainty is just an emotion,” as Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) reminds Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep). And emotions can betray us. In John Patrick Shanley’s movie, Doubt, which he has adapted from his own Broadway play, everything is in doubt, even Hoffman’s statement. Is it a true insight, or a self-serving deflection of Sister Aloysius’ righteous anger?

Shanley deliberately leaves the answer open, as he poses a series of increasingly difficult questions about morality and religion throughout his idea rich film. He is aided on the journey by a trio of outstanding performances. Hoffman and Streep have shown again and again that they are two of the finest actors ever to be filmed. So the surprise here is Amy Adams as Sister Jenny, a young nun. Her intent eyes, filled with expression, peek out from her habit, and those eyes become a stand-in for the audience.

Shanley returned back to the neighborhood of his childhood in order to shoot the film. It is dedicated to the original Sister Jenny (she also served as a consultant to the film), and everything in the film feels authentic. The conflicts posed never condescend to the church, though they do pose tough questions about faith and Catholic practice. It is easy to see Shanley’s affection for the Catholic school that he grew up in even as he challenges it.

As a director, Shanley mostly stands back and lets his actors and his own words take charge. He does find a few visual themes, such as the swirling leaves in autumn which reflect the bits of paper in the wind Father Flynn speaks of in a sermon about gossip. But the visual power of the film is not in its sweep, but in its details. The faces of Streep, Hoffman, and Adams close up add a deeply emotional element to the intellectual brew.

It is a film worth seeing and worth pondering. Having just gone through a political season, during which the candidates were expected to express strong opinions, filled with certainty, it is good to have a movie which reminds us of the pains and the benefits of doubt.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Closing The Ohio Theater

I have been hearing the buzz for a few days that the Ohio Theater may be closing down.  Sadly, it is true.

You can read about it in this Village Voice article

I am stunned and saddened.  I have seen many theater spaces come and go in the city, and each closing is saddening.  But none more so than the Ohio.

Perhaps it is because of my many fond memories there.  I have been seeing shows at the Ohio for years, but I finally got a chance to work there in 2006 during the Havel Festival.  I couldn't have asked for a better experience - not a more enjoyable place to work, not people who were more pleasant to work with.  Robert Lyons (seen above with Havel and me in the theater and below with Havel right outside the theater) of Soho Think Tank not only hosted us but also produced/directed a show in the festival.  In all respects, he and Vanessa Sparling, who also works with Soho Think Tank, made our experience a great one.  I feel only warmth when I think of our five weeks there. 

The last thing I saw there, Chekhov Lizardbrain, was once again a triumph of downtown theater.  The theater was full and Vanessa jokingly told me of people who had offered her hundred dollar bills for a seat.  There were none to be had.

When I entered the theater, I felt a warmth and nostalgia.  God I miss this theater, I thought.  I like other theaters, but this one is special.  I must do something here again soon.

Sadly, it seems as if that might be impossible.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Review - Frost/Nixon

My latest review for the National Board of Review. I have a couple more this month:

“Let me tell you how bad things were today,” a horrified James Reston (Sam Rockwell) tells David Frost (Michael Sheen), after the first disastrous day of the Frost/Nixon interviews. “After the taping finished, I overheard two crew members say…they never voted for him when they had the chance. But if he ran for office today, he’d get their support.”

It is a laugh line, but it also has a certain resonance. For Frost/Nixon is a reminder that beyond the legacy of Watergate, Nixon was a man considered brilliant by his peers, with a particular skill in foreign affairs, Vietnam notwithstanding. His brand of Republicanism was from a time when intellectualism was valued in the party. At the time of Nixon’s first post-presidential interview, it was Frost, not Nixon, who was supposed to be the intellectual lightweight.

Of course, Frost is not simply the frivolous playboy he originally appears to be. Nixon (Frank Langella) is looking for a worthy adversary, and he finds it in Frost. And the blow by blow of their on-air bout forms the core of this film’s story.

Ron Howard his directed the film in his usual workmanlike way: Nothing flashy, but with an understanding of the issues underlying the story. He and screenwriter Peter Morgan, who also wrote the play on which the film is based, have added documentary style interviews as a stand-in for the narration in the play. The technique is reminiscent of Reds, and though it may not be as powerful here, for the most part it works. The script is smart and perhaps even better suited for screen than for the stage.

But it is the two lead actors, imported from the Broadway production, who give the film its true emotional resonance. They have finely honed their performances and deepen them even further for the movie. Langella uses no more make up to disguise himself than he did on the stage, it appears. And the first glimpse of him is disconcerting—we know Nixon’s face too well to be fooled. But by the time we arrive at the interview, it has become difficult to remember that Nixon didn’t look exactly like Langella. In his face, his gait, his shoulders, and his eyes, Langella has created a facsimile that feels, emotionally, absolutely authentic.

Sheen is able to portray Frost’s significant charisma with ease. It is reminiscent of the ease with which he portrayed Tony Blair’s charisma in The Queen (written by Morgan, as well). Charisma is essential for Frost, because his outward layer of charm covers the madness behind the scenes, allowing him to somehow succeed when by all rights it seems he should fail.

What’s remarkable about the movie is that it finds great sympathy in two iconic figures who seem, at first, to be entirely unsympathetic. Frost is the easier of the two, of course—we want him to win, and we route for him to find a way to finance his interview himself when it becomes clear no network will support it. But ultimately the heart of the story lies with Nixon, whom the movie finds deeply flawed, but just as deeply human.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Hanukkah theater

I have been seeking out Hanukkah plays, partly because I wanted to put them on the web site, partly because I was curious about what other Hanukkah plays there were out there besides my own.

There are almost none that I can find.

I did find three based on books by Eric Kimmel, who had made a bit of a specialty of writing books relating to Jewish holidays, especially Hanukkah.  In fact, if this was a posting on Hanukkah books, my focus would be on his books, a few interesting modern ones from Kar-Ben Publishing, and The Latke Who Couldn't Stop Screaming (the recent book from Lemony Snicket).

When growing up, I used to watch the Christmas specials and long for a Hanukkah special that was just as exciting as the Christmas offerings.  The fact that Irving Berlin had written the music for White Christmas (not the mention Easter Parade) seemed particularly unfair.  Of course, I enjoyed the occasional Saturday Night Live Hanukkah moment - Hanukkah Harry or Adam Sandler's song.  They follow the same spirit that I noticed hearing a clip of the Hanukkah song with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert in Colbert's Christmas special - a sort of self deprecating humor saying, well, it's OK, but it's not quite Christmas.  Which is all amusing enough.  But I wanted something that had some sincere...Hanukkah spirit.

When I was young, I was determined to write a Hanukkah special of my own.  Of course, as an adult, I never followed up.  But when I was asked to write a new Hanukkah play last summer, I got excited about the thought. Unfortunately, the theater that originally asked me changed their plans,  but by then I had already internally committed to the idea.  Thus Playing Dreidel with Judah Maccabee was born.

I realized pretty quickly that I no longer wanted to imitate Christmas tales.  I wanted to figure out what Hanukkah really meant, as a holiday.  And I was confronted with two realities - Hannukah as it is practiced, complete with dreidels, latkes, menorahs, and presents.  And then there was reality number two: the historical events on which Hanukkah is based.

I have always been fascinated with the transitional period between the old Temple in Jerusalem with its High Priest and animal sacrifices and the more contemporary (well, two thousand years old, but it's a relative thing) age of Rabbis, the Talmud, and prayer.  The Judaism I know barely resembles the ancient religion, which was closer in structure to the Catholic Church and closer in observance to paganism.  What would Judah Maccabee think of the modern day holiday supposedly based on him, I wondered. And what was it really, besides the presents, that seemed meaningful to me about the holiday growing up.

So that became the basis for my play.  I hope I have captured something authentically Hanukkah.  Looking at the selection of Hanukkah plays and fiction (or lack thereof), I don't think it is something that has been done very often, surprisingly.  

On board is the always reliable Peter Bean and Dmitri Friedenberg, who besides being a good actor is a cello virtuoso (he played the instrument in Hiroshima: Crucible of Light).  I've also drafted the folks at Evolve Company, as usual, for some puppetry.  They're doing a whole thing with a scroll and shadow puppets.  It should look beautiful.  And Cory Einbinder has done some neat looking fight choreography.  And Carla Gant, the costume designer, has been making a costume for Judah Maccabee much better than the one I improvised for the publicity shot.  (Barry Weil, who usually does our graphics, wasn't available, so I did the postcard above, as well as put together the publicity shot.  I was proud of the card, not because it was so beautiful, but because I managed it at all with my limited Photoshop powers.)

We open Sunday.  I'm curious to find out what people think.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Robert Lepage and Peter Brook

I've been attending theater nonstop recently - five shows in the last four days.  Three of them were shows I was scouting for the Festival of Jewish Theater and Ideas, in one way or another.  And two of them were directed by two masters of the avant garde: Peter Brook and Robert Lepage.

Peter Brook is known, of course, for his book The Empty Space, which I read in college.  It is a great book with deep insights.  Or so it seems when reading it.  Unfortunately I have now seen two of Brook's plays:  The Man Who..., and this most recent production (at the New York Theater Workshop), The Grand Inquisitor, and to say I have been underwhelmed is to exaggerate my enthusiasm.  They are both indeed done in an empty space, with minimal set, minimal lights, minimal costumes, and, sadly, minimal drama.

Both times they commit the worse crime a production can commit.  They were tedious.  I was particularly sad about The Man Who..., as I love the source material (Oliver Sacks' The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat) That suffered from Brook's desire to use a multinational cast who, unfortunately, didn't all have a good grasp of English.  In a play exploring neurology, especially neurological conditions that affect language, that's a major problem.

The Grand Inquisitor features Bruce Myers, whose command of English was impeccable.  But a one man recitation without theatrical affect demands work so riveting that it needs nothing else.  It wasn't.  And a production so spare demands that each gesture mean the world.  But the gestures were just motions.

Now, I have been told by those who have seen his Midsummer Night's Dream or King Lear (both before my time) that Brook is capable of greatness.  Perhaps he is.  Robert Lepage certainly is.  I have seen him direct The Far Side of the Moon, one of my favorite productions ever.  I even found his less acclaimed Elsinore amazing.

Unfortunately, this time he was directing The Damnation of Faust by Hector Belioz at the Metropolitan Opera.  It was an opera that was never really meant to be staged.  It was only staged in full once during Belioz's life.

Lepage has a whole new set of video toys at his disposal, now.  The Times did a whole feature on them, and they are impressive, as far as technology goes.  As far as theater goes, however, they have yet to prove themselves.

In fact, it seemed to me as if Lepage's toys got in the way of his inventiveness.  The most powerful moments I've seen Lepage direct are often the simplest.  I think often of the moment in The Far Side of the Moon where he invoked the full feeling of being in outer space just by sort of wiggling on the floor.  It sounds almost ridiculous, but in context it was amazing.  And though Elsinore seemed at times to be a series of magic tricks, they were incredible magic tricks that made you wonder how he could have possibly accomplished them.

The tech for this opera is amazing to tech geeks, I'm sure, but to to an average audience member it just looks like projection, and theatrically static projections at that.  Perhaps with a more dramatic opera Lepage will have more success.  Lepage is planning to use some of his new tricks with his Ring cycle, coming up at the Met, and I hope, I truly hope, that it will all pay off there.

Because each time I've walked in the theater over the last four days I've walked in hoping to be amazed.  To be transported.  To be reminded what I truly love about theater.  It hasn't happened recently.  To tell the truth, it rarely happens.

But Lepage is capable of it.  Perhaps Brook is as well.

Maybe next time.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Readings and stage directions

I have a friend who hates play readings.  He finds them a chore to sit through, and thinks that only those who are obligated agree to attend.

I am having two coming up (Golem Stories Dec 1 and Rudolf II Dec 15), as part of the Prague 1600 program with the Czech Center. Come on down!

I don't hate readings.  I do admit that I find many a chore to sit through.  But I must admit, for all that I love theater, many shows I go to because of obligation I find a chore to sit through.  I know many talented actors, directors, etc, but a truly well written, well directed, well performed play is a hard goal to accomplish, and just because I know one talented person involved doesn't mean the show as a whole will be enjoyable.

To me, a reading is no different.  Yes, it has less visuals and less flash.  But a well done reading can be enjoyable, just as a well done play is.

But a well done reading, to me, means that you must think of the reading as a performance.  Which is one reason I hate hearing stage directions.  I understand why some people feel they are necessary, but I never have.  Unless the reading of the stage directions is a performance in itself (and you do, on occasion, find a playwright who really writes clever stage directions), it is an unnecessary element.  It seems to me much simpler and much better to come up with simple staging solutions that convey the sense of what it happening clearly.  Most playwrights do not write stage directions as dialogue, so it should not be performed as dialogue.

Not that I haven't seen any good reading where the stage directions have been read.  I have.  I know it is an accepted convention.  But as a director, I don't like it much.

For the upcoming reading of Golem Stories (Monday, December 1 at the Bohemian National Hall, if you want to come!) Henry Akona has agreed to make some limited sound cues to get me through the more thorny stage direction issues.  Sound is always the most complicated, and the closest I've gotten to stage directions in  a reading is having someone vocally announce sound effects.  

Most actors who haven't worked with me seem surprised for a moment when I stand them up and start arranging them at music stands (or whatever seems appropriate), and have them move from place to place occasionally.  But they quickly get used to it.  And even having someone stand two music stands over versus at the music stand right next to the character they are speaking to does, I think, make a difference.

Another draw for those who might be thinking of coming to the readings:  Peter Demetz, the author of Prague in Black and Gold, will be there to talk afterwards.  I can think of no one more knowledgeable about the golem or about Rudolf II.  And his book is an amazing resource, for those who haven't read it.

So as I said, come on down!

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Times notices Off Off Broadway...in Chicago (a belated grouse)

I am not one to usually grouse at the New York Times or the current bete noir of theater blogs, Charles Isherwood. I feel like, though Isherwood and the Times have their problems, so does theater media in general in New York, and really, the reason that The New York Times is the only game in town is that it is the only daily that makes any credible effort towards covering theater.

But I would think that knowledge of the New York theater scene should be a prerequisite, and it does gall me that Isherwood seems totally ignorant of anything but the most high profile work. When I first came to New York, Mel Gussow was the second stringer, and I often fantasized during the first few years of having him come to my theater. He has, sadly, passed away now, though I was lucky enough to at least have him moderate a discussion on Ionesco during my Ionesco Festival. His reviews were always extremely smart, a lesson in theater as well as a review, and he found numerous artists off the beaten path whom he chose to highlight. After he retired from reviewing, he wrote books on Beckett, Miller, Stoppard and Pinter, among others (long form interviews with them, really). I miss him.

All this is said as a prelude to my belated grouse. I was looking at last Sunday's Arts and Leisure section, when I saw an article entitled Prolific Director Off Off Off Off Broadway. In some ways my hackles were raised immediately: I hate it when people add Off Off Off....to the Off-Off-Broadway term (One reason I prefer the term independent theater), trying to make a further hierarchy among the small, disenfranchised theaters of New York.

But in fact, the truth was much much worse. Or, to mirror the headline, it was Much Much Much Much Worse. For the director, David Cromer, who was supposedly obscure, was only obscure because he had done a few shows off the beaten path...in Chicago. Here, of course, he has recently directly the highly visible and successful Off-Broadway productions of The Adding Machine (won an Obie and a Lortel) , as well as the very successful Orson's Shadow which had its start at a tiny little theater in Chicago...called Steppenwolf.

My God, is that what passes for a find? This is "the most talented theater director that Americans have never heard of?" Is Isherwood even aware there actually is an Off-Off-Broadway scene, here in New York?

I wish Cromer success, and congratulations on his article in the Times. I saw both The Adding Machine and Orson's Shadow and enjoyed them. But this sort of coverage in the Times is why so many very talented directors in New York continue to be unheard of.

Perhaps we should move to Chicago so Isherwood can notice us.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

California Musical Theater AD resigns over Prop 8

I must say that I am conflicted over the recent news that Scott Eckern of California Musical Theater has resigned as Artistic Director.  Eckern was a proponent of Proposition 8 in California - more than proponent, he donated $1000, which is a sizable amount for anyone who makes theater their main business.  He is also a Mormon, and was following his religious beliefs.

When the donation came to light, he faced threats of a boycott of the theater.  He quickly responded by resigning, stating he never meant to hurt anybody, and offering to donate $1000 to a gay rights charity.

What to make of this?  According to the New York Times, nobody is happy, not even those who threatened to boycott the theater, such as Marc Shaiman.  Eckern, for his part, said "I honestly had no idea that this would be the reaction."

I have to wonder how someone who makes his living in musical theater could have been surprised that homosexuals feel strongly about achieving equal rights.  I almost feel bad for him, alone in a small section of society where almost everyone supports gay rights, while the majority of America still fights against them.

But would I feel bad for him if he had voted against a woman's right to vote, or for school segregation?  Would I feel bad for him if he had voted that Jews should not have the right to marry?

I don't think Mr. Eckern is a bad person.  But I cannot forgive his prejudice, either.

Yet let us also bear in mind that, publicly at least, our Democratic President-elect Obama and Vice President-elect Biden have stated that they do not believe in gay marriage, either.  Secretly, I was hoping that maybe they were lying when they said it.  After all, they did not want it to become the center of the campaign.  And they certainly didn't contribute money to the cause - that in itself puts Eckern in a totally different category.

And yet, how sad.  And how hopeless Eckern's battle was.  Because, for all the hubub about Proposition 8, those who are fighting against gay marriage have already lost.  Yes, there has been a setback.  But it is a only matter of time.  The ads for Prop 8 focused on the children.  The children will learn that being gay is acceptable, the ads implied.

They will already learn that, of course.  And soon those children will vote.  And someday they will look back at people such as Eckern and shake their heads in wonder, maybe even feeling a little melancholy for those caught in an old belief system, a belief system destined someday to die.

I hope soon.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Doctor Atomic and American renewal

On Wednesday, I saw Doctor Atomic at the Metropolitan Opera. I was interested in it not just because of the mixture of science and art but also, of course, because at UTC61 we produced a play called Hiroshima: Crucible of Light last year. Both pieces focus on Robert Oppenheimer and The Bomb.

Frankly, I was underwhelmed by the opera- by the design, by the direction, by the libretto, and even by the music, by John Adams. Doctor Atomic is all about waiting, specifically waiting for the first atomic bomb to be tested at Los Alamos. The final scene (after 3.5 hours of waiting) was quite literally a scene about waiting, waiting through a countdown in which two minutes somehow took ten. It takes a avant garde master like Beckett to dramatize waiting, and Doctor Atomic definitely didn't reach the level of Godot. We sat up in the cheap seats, which I do love at the Met - they aren't bad, even all the way up there. Thank goodness some seats are affordable, much more so than Broadway.

But one thing the opera did make me reflect on was a statement I read on the BBC news right after the Obama win - I can't find the exact article again, but what it said was almost identical to what U.N. President Kofi Anan stated: Obama's win once again demonstrates "America's extraordinary capacity to renew itself and adapt to a changing world."

I've seen sentiments like that often in the last few says, mostly on the international news sites, often enough to make me think that renewal and reinvention are virtues somewhat commonly attributed to us by the rest of the world.

How does this relate to Doctor Atomic? Well, the opera was of course a reminder that for all the great good the U. S. has done (and I do believe we have at times managed to do great good), we have also committed some terrible sins. My mind boggles at the idea that we were actually able to bring ourselves to drop that monstrosity on Japan. Everyone here talks of World War II in terms of Germany (and by implication Hitler and the Holocaust), because that way we can talk about WWII as the only morally justifiable war, but we forget the war, or at least our involvement in it, started and ended with Japan.

I think about that time in particular because it was on the heels of the New Deal and our emergence from the Depression. And of course the day Japan surrendered because of our atomic assaults, VJ day as it was called then, was a cause for jubilation at the time - and who can begrudge a nation sick of war celebrating its end? But in the midst of that celebration was the seeds of those problems that would shape the era to come, problems partly embodied by The Bomb.

Now, we are in celebration mode again, at least among the New Yorkers who comprise the majority of my associations. We have renewed ourselves in racial politics, but at the same time, Proposition 8 in California shows that we are having far less success in the area of homophobia. Will we someday renew ourselves again, get rid of our discriminatory laws, and maybe even elect a homosexual president? I hope so, but it will be a long time in coming.

And this time, unlike that moment at Los Alamos, we are heading into bad economic times, not out of them, and it will take a lot more renewal to find our way through. I'm glad that the international community is excited about Obama, and that in itself is an important renewal, regaining our status in the world. But we are not done.

The truth is, we will never be done.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Bohemian National Hall (aka the Czech National Building)

This weekend, the Bohemian National Hall in New York, alternatively known as the Czech National Building, finally reopened.

That probably doesn't mean that much to those who have not been following the saga of the BNH. But it means a lot to the the Czechs, who have been following its progress closely. And I hope that, in years to come, it will come to mean more to those of us in New York.

The BNH originally opened in 1896, and it was a gathering place for Czech and Slovak immigrants. The building is five stories high, and the spaces within it are vast and beautiful. After it fell out of disuse in the 1940's, it was rented to a number of groups. Perhaps most interestingly for the theater crowd, it was the original location of the Manhattan Theater Club, back when the MTC was a burgeoning Off-Off-Broadway company.

It then fell into total disrepair, occasionally attracting notice as a curiosity, but mainly a large, empty skeleton. However, the Bohemian Benevolent Literary Association continued to maintain ownership, and in 2001 the BBLA sold it to the Czech Republic for a dollar. There were grand plans. It was to become a theater, a cinema, an art gallery, a cafe, the home of the Czech Center and the home of the Czech consul general's office, all in one. The Czech government would do all the work on it, and the BBLA would then have a home and an office of its own.

Then the work began. Or rather, didn't begin.

I first encountered the Bohemian National Hall in 2006, right before the Havel Festival. One floor had been (almost) completed. But Halka Kaiserova, the Consul General at the time, was determined to have the space be functional. So she offered us the opportunity to have our opening there, a party in celebration of Vaclav Havel's 70th birthday.

It was exciting, and the event was highly successful. But a look into the old ballroom found a space in a sort of gorgeous decay, that made me feel like perhaps Peter Brook could take the space as is and make it into a functioning theater.

However, that wasn't the vision, although Gita Fuchsova, who came in to help make the BNH project function again, was able to use the raw space for a number of interesting cultural events.

But once again the space shut down for repairs, with the firm determination that this time, it must be finished - by the end of October, 2008, just in time for the 90th anniversary of Czech independence and the upcoming Czech presidency of the European Union.

It just made it. Almost. There is no cafe, still, that has to be built. But the rest is there.

The ballroom/theater is an incredible large, beautiful space, with a bar, a stage, and a huge area with high ceilings and a balcony all round that can serve multiple functions. How it works as a theater - well, that is to be seen, I suppose. I helped somewhat in the planning, but I was one of many voices, and much had already been set. And how a space functions in reality is always a little different than the theory. But New York has a new theater space, which is always good news (The elaborate curtained stage can be seen above).

And, as promised, there is a cinema on the ground floor, an art gallery on the second floor (with an exhibit about the BNH with pictures of it in development, an exhibit I recommend), the BBLA of the third floor, and even a beautiful roof terrace.

Untitled Theater Company #61 will have the honor of presenting one of the first programs there, Prague 1600, a look at the time of Rudolf II and the Golem. Our first event: A screening of the classic silent film The Golem, accompanied by live music from Gary Lucas. It will be in the main ballroom/theater, and it is worth attending just to see the space alone. But I can also say the Gary is an extremely skilled musician, and this is a rare chance to see his work absolutely free. Truly worth going to. Check out the clip on YouTube and see/hear his work.

After that, we will be having readings of Golem Stories (December 1) and Rudolf II (December 15). Go to all of them!

But even if you miss those programs (which you should not!), I recommend the visit to the BNH. It is a building truly worth seeing.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Illyria from Prospect Theater

This last weekend a friend had tickets to see Illyria, a new musical version of Twelfth Night being presented by Prospect Theater Company, an Off-Off-Broadway theater company.  It was the second Prospect production I have seen, the first being The Iron Curtain, which I judged for the NYITA.

Prospect put on shows I would never produce for Untitled Theater Company - old style musicals written today, done straight.  Watching Iron Curtain I felt like I was seeing a new musical from the 50's or early 60's, and  Illyria felt more like the 70's. 

That being said, it was good.  Really good.  Very, very good.  And this is not the first time - their Iron Curtain was also remarkably well done.  The performers were amazing - I particularly enjoyed Jimmy Ray Bennett as Malvolio and Jessica Grove as Viola, but they were incredible all around, skilled singers and actors all with impressive credentials.  The choreography (Christine O'Grady) was always well done, perhaps not as flashy as Iron Curtain (which had a full out tap number!), but always appropriate.  The direction (Cara Reichel) was on target, the music was enjoyable, and the lyrics were often clever (both music and lyrics were by Peter Mills).

Yes, I could have some dramaturgical qualms with it.  My friend pointed out some questions about the second act, and I agreed the ending could be improved upon.  And, as I said, it wasn't the style of theater I am usually drawn to creating myself.

But good work is good work, regardless of whether it is the same style in which I work in, and this was excellent.  I know how hard it is to put together a musical that holds together that well, and I was impressed.  So I just want to acknowledge my colleagues.  I know none of you personally. I don't know if you may stumble across this blog while googling yourself (something I would do), but if you do - well done.  I have happened into your theater twice, I have seen two shows, and I thoroughly enjoyed both.  Thanks.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Synecdoche, New York - review

I occasionally write film reviews for the National Board of Review
. I cross posted some when I had a myspace blog, and now that I have this blog I will be cross posting a few here as well.

There’s a children’s song that begins Charlie Kaufman’s new movie, Synecdoche, New York. The song is about the city of Schenectady, New York, and the city of Schenectady is a synecdoche for the movie, and the world, as a whole. Understand that? Then you are one step towards understanding the infinitely reflecting mirrors that make up Kaufman’s latest metaphysical reflection on life.

Kaufman is a rarity in Hollywood: a writer whose movies are identifiably his, no matter who is directing. From Being John Malkovitch to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, his films have been a unique combination of fantasy and philosophic reflection, with a touch of melancholy underneath it all. For his directorial debut, he has taken the melancholy and put it front and center. The children’s song that begins the movie seems to be light and carefree, until you realize it’s truly about death.

And of course, the song itself is a synecdoche: a part representing the whole, for those who have not recently attended a poetry class. For the whole movie is about death. Which is to say, it is about life, which has but one ending for us all. It’s also about a director (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman), creating a play about death. Both the movie and the play within the movie taps into the same existentialist gloom that inspired Beckett.

Beckett expressed his gloom through the sparseness of his plays. Kaufman, by contrast, is ornate, perhaps overly ornate. Kaufman prefers worlds within worlds within worlds, so that his own directing debut, which stars Hoffman a director, has that director then choose an actor (Tom Noonan) to play a director, who then chooses an actor playing an actor to play an actor playing a director, and so on, ad infinitum.

Hoffman once again shows why he is one of the most talented contemporary actors to somehow become a Hollywood star, portraying the depressed antihero pitch perfectly. He is surrounded by a bevy of talented women, especially Samantha Morton, who plays his soul mate, a woman who has bought a symbolically burning house.

Of course, the movie seems to say, don’t we all live in a burning house destined to collapse on us one day? And isn’t there beauty in the fire?

It takes a certain taste to respond to that sort of poetic reflection, but Kaufman is one of the few writers (and now a director) who has been bringing an introspective spirit to Hollywood. This film does not always succeed: there might be one too many layers of its sprawling, Russian doll of a story, but like life, the joy of the film is in the struggle.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Chekhov Lizardbrain

I saw Pig Iron's production of Chekhov Lizardbrain on Saturday. I enjoyed it, especially because of the neuro angle. To me, it shows once again what a rich theatrical field neurology is. Autism of course has become the cause of the day recently, especially in politics. For some reason McCain seems to feel that because Palin's son has Down Syndrome, that gives her a special window into autism. Of course, the two things are miles apart, and it takes more that a few months for even a parent of a child with autism to really understand it. But I digress...

One technique I particularly enjoyed in the production was the doubled scenes, first seen in their real form (the "film" version as they called it in the script) and then again from the lead character's perspective. James Sugg was impressive playing the lead, and seeing him transform from scene to scene as the character moved in and out of his own head was a definite joy of the production (the inner character was named Chekhov Lizardbrain).

The reviews of the play have been tremendous. The New York Times review focused on the Chekhovian loneliness that the autistic suffers from - reminding me that the Times review of Brains & Puppets focused on the loneliness of difference as well. For Chekhov Lizardbrain, I would agree that the emotional heart of the piece did lie in that loneliness. And perhaps also for Brains and Puppets, upon reflection.

Another interesting entry to the field of neurotheater.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Why is theater liberal?

A recent article in the Times talks about the political plays of today, almost all liberal. It's true: politically right wing theater is an almost non existent breed. But what the article fails to really address is why.

One answer, in modern times, is simple: the current spate of political plays have been reactive against the Bush administrative. When theater critiques society, it is critiquing power, and all the political power for the last eight years has been in the hands of the conservatives. The fact that the Bush administration has used their power as a bludgeon has certainly increased the desire (and the need) to fight it.

But even during the Clinton years political plays were not right wing. To a great extent, in New York, they were simply not; few plays bothered to address that administration. And even then, if a critique came, it was much more likely to come from the left of Clinton than from the right.

Of course, as I have been reflecting recently, choosing theater as a career is almost an act of insanity, and not the sort of insanity typical among right-wingers. It involves choosing to put more time and energy than most highly paid lawyers spend into a job that has few monetary rewards. The best theater is created by people who have, in some actively way, chosen not to earn the money they are fully capable of earning in favor of doing art.

This is a mindset that is definitely to the left of not just McCain, but of Obama, who recently stated:

"If I were watching Fox News, I wouldn’t vote for me, right? Because the way I’m portrayed 24/7 is as a freak! I am the latte-sipping, New York Times-reading, Volvo-driving, no-gun-owning, effete, politically correct, arrogant liberal. Who wants somebody like that?"
There must be something off when I look at that statement and say, I would want someone like that. I really would. Perhaps arrogance isn't the most positive characteristic, but if that's what it takes to openly admit the other horrors: reading The New York Times, sipping a latte, failing to own a gun, or being a liberal (and really, do I care what sort of car you drive or whether you are "effete," usually a code word for either cultured or gay), I'll take arrogance every time.

But really, aside from the fact no one here in New York can afford a car, doesn't that describe half the Artistic Directors I know? And how did Joe the Plumber become the person we should all want to be, while a liberal who reads The New York Times became someone even the Democratic candidate calls a "freak"?

But that is all part of a disdain for intellectuals that has become a standard part of political discourse here in America. And theater is an arena for intellectuals. Yes, it is also a place for emotions, and for beauty, but it is one of the few places where people are asked to think out loud in front of you so you can consider what they have to say. Theater like no other art form is about debate, and by that I don't mean televised debates meant to convince the public that you have the right demeanor and are capable of looking into the camera and sounding forceful, but actual debates of actual ideas.

Of course, neither candidate has said anything about arts funding during those televised debates, and I suspect any question about the issue would be met with surprise, and, at best, halting platitudes. However, there has been a web site that has tracked their positions, ArtsVote2008.

Frankly, I was surprised to see that either of them had public platforms on the matter. But Obama's is surprisingly detailed. Of course, I do know that Isaac Butler over at Parabasis has mentioned that he was helping create an arts policy for Obama, so I did know some work was being done.

McCain just put out his first statement of any kind on the issue, a brief memo endorsing education. I'm all for arts education, but it would be nice to believe those kids, once educated, had something to do with their learning that actually paid money.

But none of this is surprising either. Would Republicans be more apt to support the arts if theater were more conservative in bent? Perhaps, though public funding might still be seen as a sort of socialism.

However, of all the things that Obama did not want to be seen as, perhaps the one thing I am with him on is the "politically correct" issue. Of course, political correctism has been defined many ways by many people. One thing that theater does, and does well, is create an empathy for The Other, whomever that other is. And sometimes the attempt to understand other cultures alone can bring accusations of political correctism. But that is not how I would define it.

The truly negative connotation in political correctism is the adaptation of beliefs not because they have been examined but because they are held by those around you. By that definition, hatred of the cultural elite is a sort of political correctism of the right. But there are plenty of points of view we, the effete, latte-drinking theater community, tend to have, that are not often critically examined. And if we are devoted to understand The Other, doesn't that extend to those whose political views are different from our own. Maybe we might not wish to be Joe the Plumber, but it is important to understand where he's something from, or where Sarah Palin is coming from, or McCain, or even Bush.

We cannot change who we are. I would not want to. But if the power is going to be moving to the left in this country, as I suspect (and hope) it will be, it will be our duty to not stop our critical thinking, and to be ready to examine political issues from multiple perspectives. Perhaps that will not create a political play from the right, still. But at the least it will create far more interesting political plays from the left.

That's it for now. I'm off to buy a Venti and read the latest from Ben Brantley.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Attack at the Hungarian Jewish Theatre

We have been getting an increasing number of international submissions for the Festival of Jewish Theater and Ideas. Although many of the plays address politics, I don't think of the festival itself as a political statement, more as a celebration of culture. But I am reminded that, sadly, there are still moments when putting on Jewish theater can be dangerous.

Right before Rosh Hashana, there was an attack on the director of the new show at the Hungarian Jewish Theatre, using water guns filled with acid as well as buckets of pig feces. Six or seven neo-Nazis then beat the director and some bystanders who tried to help. At least one remains in the hospital.

Last year, Mark Vail, a Jewish theater director from Uzbekistan (who often also directed in Seattle), was murdered. Of course, he was also putting on plays that dealt with gay themes, so one can blame extreme homophobia as well.

Recently, a friend of mine mentioned that almost all theater in New York is gay or Jewish. An exageration, I think, but it does remind me how much we take for granted.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Belated London roundup: Merry Wives, Six Characters, and War Horse

I've been a little delinquent on posts here, but I did want to give a roundup of the plays I saw (beyond Havel's) during my trip to London.

The first was Merry Wives of Windsor, at the Globe. It is the first play I've ever seen at the Globe (Although I've visited, as you can see from the picture, left). I must admit that I got off the plane, dropped my stuff off at the hotel, and left directly for the show, which is not the ideal mode of seeing it. I felt perfectly awake while running as fast as I could from the tube station to the theater, remembering that in London, a 2pm start actually meant a 2pm start, not a 2:07 start (of course for me, it was an 8am start, with no sleep). But halfway through the first act I started nodding off, and it wasn't because of the play. Well, not completely.

The play itself was decent, and the performances were generally strong. I read a review that called the play the best version of Merry Wives seen, then compared it to a British sitcom. I agree with both of those comments...which really underlines what a poor play it is, at heart. But I always wonder why it is that, just because a play has Shakespeare's name attached, it must be performed again and again, when there are far better plays around on which one can spend one's energy. I would like to have back the hours sitting at productions like Henry VIII or Pericles (which I have somehow been obligated to see three times). Yes, Shakespeare has some great plays, and I am a bit of completist myself (I am not going to claim that every play Ionesco or Havel wrote was of equal quality), but it is one thing to present them all as an event, it is another to make a regular practice of it.

But perhaps I was just getting sleepy and testy. Nonetheless, a beautiful theater, and fun to see in action.

The next day was devoted to Leaving, but the day after I saw two more shows : first, Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author at the Gielgud. This production was directed by Rupert Goold, who brought his Macbeth starring Patrick Stewart here to New York recently. This is a teched up production, with the framing conceit that the producer is actually a documentary filmmaker, considering using actors to portray "reality." The six characters drop in and demand to be filmed, and the play begins in earnest.

The framing conceit is interesting at times, highlighting the reality vs. fiction themes of the play, and uses of projections and tech tricks are at times impressive, as we see the characters get filmed in a artificially created environment, but it loses itself at the end, as the last half of the last act strays further and further from the original in a series of gimmicks that become almost an end in itself.

That being said, the production looks beautiful, and the acting is tremendously good, making it a very enjoyable show to watch. Of particular note was the Father, played by Ian McDiarmid with a repressed sexual energy that some British actors excel at like no others. It transformed the lurid soap opera that the characters describe, always a problem for me when reading the play, into something fraught with tension. Also good was the filmmaker, Noma Dumezweni.

The final show I saw was War Horse, at the National Theatre. War Horse is an adaptation of a book by the name name, by Michael Morpurgo. The story is a somewhat sentimental tale of a horse and a boy, both of whom get pulled into the events of World War II. The amazing thing about War Horse is the puppetry, particularly of all the horses. From the movements of the horses, to the sounds they make (voiced by the puppeteers, three to a horse), to the incredible design which allows actors to leap up on their backs and ride them, every element was incredible well thought out and executed. A professional, well designed show throughout, with universally strong performances, but the puppets were the real stars.

You can see a bit (just a bit unfortunately) on YouTube

Of course, I love puppetry, and reacted with excitement when the man at the box office at Six Characters mentioned the play, which I'd already read about. "I heard about that one," I said, "incredible puppets, right?"

"Well, yes, there are puppets," he said, almost apologetically. "But really, the production is very good. It's not what you would think of when you think of a play with puppets."

Of course, it was exactly what I would think of. I would have hoped that there has been enough puppetry recently in prominent shows to let people realize that puppetry is a vast, incredible realm of possibilities, not just variations on Punch & Judy shows. Apparently not. That point was particularly brought home to me when I read the ever-snarky Michael Riedel's column attacking Julie Taymor's upcoming production of Spiderman.

"The reason she worked with puppets most of her life is because she never had much of a budget," a source says. "But then Disney came along and gave her $25 million to do 'The Lion King.' "

Yes, puppetry is a great way to incorporate deaign elements when there are some monetary constraints. It is also a great way to design shows that have the budget for some amazing creations - as the Lion King, among many other shows, has proved.

But Riedel's main criticism:

There's a set designer and a costume designer and a projections designer and a fight designer and an aerial designer and a graphic designer and a film designer. In short, if you're a designer of any kind, you've got to get on this gravy train.
After coming back from London, having seen two West End shows that used strong design elements to create really noteworthy shows, that sort of comment just makes me sad.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Leaving, by Václav Havel

Last Thursday I attended the English language premiere of Václav Havel’s newest play, Leaving. This is the play that Havel was writing during the Havel Festival and I flatter myself by saying that I see influences of the festival in his newest work. Havel flatters me in showing one clear bit of influence – I am in the play! I had read the play of course, but I had almost forgotten that my name is among those listed in the Gambacci firm (Gambacci is a villain, but I try not to take it too hard). Havel told me during the reception after the show that he wanted to include my name in order to acknowledge my work on the festival. Would I be exaggerating if I said it was worth doing the festival for that alone? A bit maybe, but not much. A tiny footnote worth of immortality.

Having said that, I can hardly be objective about the play, but I will say that I was impressed by Orange Tree Theatre’s production. I had not imagined the play in the way they presented it – a very British political satire – but it worked in a way that was different from any I expected. Havel mentioned to me that the production in Prague had been much different – more like a tragic opera. But different, he added, does not mean worse, and any good playwright must let go of his play and hope that it can sustain multiple interpretations.

I hardily agree.

As for the shades of the festival – perhaps it is that I see so many shades of HaveI’s earlier plays, as well as the very deliberate influences of The Cherry Orchard and King Lear (both quoted verbatim in the text). The play concerns a lifetime politician forced to leave his villa (surrounded by cherry trees) after he loses his position as Chancellor. As in many of Havel’s plays, there is an ambitious deputy working against him behind the scenes. In this piece, he is named Klein, thus encouraging the rumor that the character is a stand-in for Havel’s political rival and the current Czech President, Václav Klaus. Of course, he also resembles most of Havel’s antagonists. The protagonist, Rieger, is also similar to many of Havel’s protagonists. In particular, the play reminds me of Largo Desolato (in relation to women), The Memo (political machinations), Mountain Hotel (more in setting and feel) and Garden Party (it even deliberately recalls the chess metaphor used in that play). And it wouldn’t be a Havel play unless it had a "hubub" somewhere near the climax (a surrealistic point where the various characters appear and repeat characteristic lines) and ended (spoiler alert?) with a sincere speech that throws away every value the protagonist has.

I have to mention that the actors were all skilled and the theater (the only permanent theater in the round) was beautiful. Sam Walters, the director of Leaving and the Artistic Director of the Orange Tree, has been doing Havel’s work in London for 20 years, and will continue with a small Havel Festival of his own, producing the Vanek plays as well as a production of Mountain Hotel.

Scanning the internet, I see the British press has reacted favorably to the production, on the whole, though there are definitely some reservations. You can see some of the reviews at The Guardian, The Independent, and The Times. In Prague, the play received wholehearted raves--of course there it was also probably the most important theater event in over a decade, not to mention an important political event.

Even at the London production, I spotted some MPs among the other VIPs. It's exciting to have theater that engages politics so directly without ever becoming polemical. But then, that is one of Havel's fortés, and one reason why I am so enthusiastic about his work.

Monday, September 22, 2008

What is Jewish Theater? - an ongoing series

As the curator for the upcoming Festival of Jewish Theater and Ideas, I am confronted by an old question that often comes up at the Association of Jewish Theatre: what is Jewish theater?

I am tempted to answer in the way the Supreme Court once defined pornography: I know it when I see it. But that is of course subject to the question: is what I would call Jewish theater what someone else would define in the same way?

But perhaps that question is one reason for a festival. When I produced the Havel Festival, I didn't necessarily know what made a play essentially Havellian. Of course, the easy answer is that they are all written by the same man. But what makes gives one playwright's output a signature flavor? Is it something innate to Havel that comes out in his plays? Something innate to the time and place from which he writes? The more I watched the plays, the more I noticed similar themes, themes that spoke to each other across the plays, so that each play I saw deepened my appreciation of the next.

Will the same be true of Jewish theater? Is suspect so. In the next months, I am going to continue to try (and most assuredly fail) to define what exactly Jewish theater is, and in that quest I am interested in hearing from others who have thought about that question.

What is Jewish theater to you?

Thursday, September 18, 2008

An interview with Eric Shanower

Eric Shanower and I met through a mutual friend, when we both attended his experimental film festival, MIX--not a very Ozzy event, but we started to talk about Oz, and it led to my writing a short story for Oz-story 3. Fortunately David Maxine, the editor, liked it, Eric illustrated it, and our collaboration had begun. At the publishing party for the release of Oz Story 3 David and I started talking about a new Oz novel for the 100th anniversary, and soon after (OK, years later) my first published novel Paradox in Oz came out, with Eric's illustrations. It received some nice reviews and some nice reactions, but perhaps more importantly, Eric, David and I were all proud of it. Soon after that (OK, many years after) the sequel, The Living House of Oz came out. It received less press--just bad timing perhaps, because the same review journals who had like Paradox ignored The Living House. I'm still ridiculously proud of it.

Anyway, both books would feel completely different if it weren't for Eric's illustrations, which in some irrational way I always feel like I can take some slight credit for. Of course, Eric's other accomplishments, including his multiple Eisner Awards for his current comic series Age of Bronze, argue that perhaps Eric is a marvelous artist, whether or not he's illustrating my work.

Here are some questions I asked him:

1. You have done a lot of art relating to Oz, much of it before we began collaborating. Yet to my (perhaps prejudiced) eye, it always seems that there is a slightly different feeling to the work we do together than to your other Oz work, which I also love. Do you think the writing style of the author whose work you are illustrating affects your depictions of Oz?

That’s an interesting observation. No, I don’t think the style of the author usually affects my depictions of Oz. When I illustrate your stories, I certainly try to illustrate appropriately for the text, but I don’t change my thinking about Oz. I think it’s more my relationship to the story and characters that informs how I draw, rather than an author’s style. I don’t think that’s the same thing, although maybe it is.

2. You have knack for capturing the essence of the original books while injecting a real sense of yourself in your Oz work as well. How influential is John R. Neill to your style of illustration? Do you ever look back to Denslow, when working on Oz? Does Neill (or do other Oz influences) affect your style when, for example, working on Age of Bronze?

The first “real” Oz book I read was The Road to Oz. John R. Neill’s illustrations in that book are a high point in his career. They made quite an impression on me. Neill’s work is one of the things I love about Oz. Certainly Neill’s Oz illustrations have influenced my vision of Oz immensely. It’s obvious that his depictions of the characters are the starting points for my depictions of them.

Neill continues to be one of my favorite illustrators. It’s hard for me to determine how influential his work has been on my style, but I’m sure it’s there near the foundation. I remember when I was in about fourth grade going through a period of trying to draw eyes like John R. Neill. Even now, usually in quick sketches, I sometimes find myself mentally referencing Neill’s approach to drawing people smiling. But for the most part if there are influences from Neill in my style or approach to drawing, they’re so buried in my subconscious that I’m not aware of them. I’ll leave it to my critics and biographers to ferret out any stylistic comparisons.

In Age of Bronze I’m not consciously affected by Neill or any other Oz illustrator. Generally when I draw I try to eschew all outside influence in favor of putting my own vision on paper.

I do look at Denslow’s illustrations for The Wizard of Oz when I’m required to draw a character that he drew and Neill didn’t, like the Wicked Witch of the West, the Good Witch of the North, or the Winged Monkeys. Also there are times I’ve drawn flashbacks to events from The Wizard of Oz, so I’ve looked at Denslow’s work as a starting point.

In the endpaper illustration for the hardcover edition of Adventures in Oz several characters appear who were originally designed by Denslow. I drew them based on Denslow’s character design. In a review of the book, the reviewer credits them to Denslow. I thought that was funny.

3. How have your views of the original Oz books developed over the years? Is there one thing that you appreciate more now that you have done so much Oz work yourself?

My view of Oz definitely has become more specific as the number of Oz projects I’ve written or illustrated or both has grown. I don’t re-read the Oz books now in the way that I read them as a child. Then I lost myself in the world Baum created. Now I have a much more analytical eye. But now I read everything with an analytical eye—perhaps that’s just a function of growing up and expanding my intelligence. Or perhaps it’s just a result of being a writer—I look at all other writing with that analytical eye.

I can’t read the Oz books very objectively now. There’s so much baggage in the storeroom of my head that I can’t set aside. I don’t have the Oz books memorized word for word, but I know the stories and a lot of the niggling details, helped by years of preparing to take quizzes at Oz conventions. I find, though, that at this point I don’t know the niggling details as well as I used to. I guess that’s a good thing—I have other things in my life to pay attention to. Still, I did take the Oz quiz at the Winkie Convention this past summer—after years of not taking a quiz at an Oz convention—and I was surprised at how many answers I could dredge up.

When I was little I believed that Oz was real until the day I asked my dad and he told me it wasn’t. I was disappointed, but I knew he was right. I guess if one has to ask, one already knows the answer. But that was a long time ago. I can’t really think of a particular way my view of the Oz books has developed. They’ve been part of my life for so long, always there in the background, easily springing into the foreground when summoned.

My view of the Judy Garland motion picture adaptation of The Wizard of Oz certainly has gone through developments. I loved it as a child and watched it every year when it was on television. It was my favorite movie for a long time and my view of Oz included both the images from the books and from the movie. When I began to write and draw Oz comics professionally, however, I stopped watching the movie and tried to put it out of my head completely. To some extent I succeeded quite well. There’s a scene in The Ice King of Oz where the Cowardly Lion is having his hair done. When I wrote and drew that scene I never thought of the similar scene in the Judy Garland movie. People pointed out the similarity to me after the book was published and they won’t believe me when I say that the movie scene never crossed my mind. But it’s true—that scene in Ice King was based on Leo the Lion who’s always getting his hair done in the Freddy the Pig books by Walter R. Brooks. Anyone who knows those books will know exactly what I mean. I did finally watch the entire Judy Garland movie again in 2005 at the premiere screening of the then-latest dvd release. I have to say it was a good experience watching it in a crowded theater where everyone was having a ball. I’d turned my back on that movie for many years, but I’m glad to say I really do enjoy it. Still, it’s not my version of the “real” Oz—just one more of the myriad adaptations—but I just want to scream when someone starts talking about the “ruby red slippers.” I wish they’d get it right or shut up.

I recently wrote the script for a comics adaptation of The Wizard of Oz. It was fascinating to pick over the entire book, going through it scene by scene, line by line. I did find some things in it that hadn’t stood out for me before. And I had to consider the possible backgrounds of the characters—the Wizard, for example—in more detail than I ever had, so that was interesting. The old-fashioned-ness of the writing—old-fashioned even for 1900, in a way—stood out starkly, too, because I had to figure out how to deal with it in a version for an audience of today.

What I really appreciate now in others’ depictions of Oz, whether written or drawn—or on television or on stage or whatever—is when there’s a sense of fidelity to the essence of the Oz L. Frank Baum created. I can spot pretty quickly whether someone’s attempt at Oz is plastic and dead or whether it’s captured at least a bit of the Baum life. Unfortunately most of what I’m exposed to doesn’t get it. Every once in a while there’s a gem, and that’s a cause for great rejoicing.

When I stopped doing the Oz graphic novels in 1991, I thought that I would be leaving Oz behind. And for a little while, I really tried. But I kept being offered attractive Oz projects and I kept climbing on board the Oz train yet again. Finally I stopped trying run away and gave in. I think that I’ll be involved in an Oz project one way or another for the rest of my life. At one point I thought I had nothing new left to say about Oz, but interesting new Oz projects proved that untrue. My vision of Oz can always be refined. Yes, I can probably draw Ozma in my sleep, but, for instance, illustrating Paradox in Oz gave Ozma new dimension for me. Still, sometimes my resistance goes up strongly. Every time I think, okay, that’s it, that’ll be my last Oz project, I just can’t take it any more, another one comes along that sparks my enthusiasm and I’m off again. I’ve reached the point, I think, where I’m fine with that. It gives me a chance to visit my old Oz friends again, and I only take the projects that interest me.

4. Was the process of working on Paradox in Oz different for you than working on The Living House of Oz? I know I felt I had given you far more new characters to design for the Living House than for Paradox--do you prefer having more original characters more or do you prefer working on variations on the classic characters?

I liked Paradox in manuscript form early on. It took me a long while to warm up to Living House, and even while working on Living House, I kept thinking back fondly to Paradox and wishing Living House was more like that. Not that I wanted the Living House story or characters to be more like Paradox, but I wanted my attitude toward illustrating Living House to be more like my attitude toward illustrating Paradox.

I think part of the difference was that Paradox took a lot of the characters and situations in the Oz books and played with them in clever ways. That was really fun to illustrate, fun to figure out how I was going to try to match your cleverness. Living House didn’t have a lot of that—it wasn’t “clever” in the same way. It’s a much more character driven story, so I had to warm up to the new characters.

Now I really like Living House and am proud of a lot of my illustration work in it. I never thought I’d like Living House as much as I liked Paradox, but since Living House was published, I’d be hard pressed to say which book I think is better. Well, maybe Paradox would still win.

(EE reponse: in some ways, I prefer The Living House to
Paradox now -- perhaps because I've had to read both of them aloud from time to time, and I find myself wincing, just a little, at a turn of phrase or two in Paradox. But more importantly, The Living House feels like an evolution -- maybe because I had more of my own characters and the plot is actually very political, in some ways, so it was fun for me to play with those levels of discourse. But then again it was fun for me to play with all the logical conundrums in Paradox. So I waver...)

5. To me, seeing my book fully illustrated and in print feels something like seeing my play fully produced and onstage--an illustrated book, like a script, seems unfinished with just the text. The look and feeling of the book plays a part in that too, of course-- the layout, the endpapers, the cover, etc. Working with you and David (the editor and publisher) seems truly collaborative from start to finish. Yet most publishers don't work the way Hungry Tiger does. Most publishers (usually larger operations, of course) separate the illustrator and writer, and divorce both from the process of the actual production of the book. Do you think the collaborative process makes a difference? Have you worked in situations which were less collaborative, and how do you think it changes the work (if it does)?

Yes, I’ve worked less collaboratively. But it only made sense to me to work collaboratively with you on those books (and, I guess, to some extent on the short stories of yours I’ve illustrated). You are easy to work with, too, since you were neither too guarded or too dictatorial. I think we respect each other’s creativity enough to listen to each other for the benefit of the project as a whole. I think our respective backgrounds probably help. Your background, theater, is a collaborative process, and my background, comics, is very often a collaborative process.

To my knowledge, most publishers of illustrated books don’t want the writer giving the illustrator any advice, but a comics script usually has all sorts of directions for the artist. I’ve even worked from comics scripts that have been sketched out by the writer. Comics artists usually don’t have to stick to the writer’s stage directions if they have a better way to present something—that’s their job after all—but tons of input from the writer is perfectly usual in comics.

Of course I’ve illustrated books where I had zero contact with the author because the author was dead. No input beyond the text available, period. Does it change my work? Possibly. I don’t know. Each project is unique, so there are so many different variables it’s probably impossible to say. But I do know that I won’t be able to ask a dead author to clarify some obscure thing in the text. As you know, when I’ve illustrated your work we talk a good deal and I welcome your input, but I don’t depend on you for answers. When I have questions, it’s because I want to discuss something I’ve already considered, not because I’m too lazy to think about possibilities on my own. I approach other work the same way. It’s just that if the author is dead or otherwise inaccessible, I have to make my decisions without benefit of discussion.

6. What is the most difficult thing you've had to illustrate in one of my books? In any book?

Probably the most difficult thing I had to illustrate for your books was the dust jacket illustration for The Living House of Oz. I did two paintings. The first ended up as the endpapers because neither David, the editor, nor I thought it turned out to be strong enough for a cover. So I drew a duct jacket featuring the exterior of the Living House prominently. Designing the outside of the Living House was tricky because it needed to be balanced among several factors: the traditional Neill Oz house design, the needs of the story, and my own sense of a pleasing design. I’m satisfied with my final house design, but David still doesn’t like it. It’s the major focus of the final dust jacket, and I waver between thinking the final illustration is really strong and really weak. Part of it is having a character that looks so little like a human as the main image on the cover of the book. Was that a good idea and did it work? I still don’t know for sure. David thinks it’s a weak cover. But then the major art book seller, Bud Plant, notes in their catalog description how attractive the cover is. Aesthetically I’m happy with the cover and I think it looks “real Ozzy.” But I don’t know if it sells the book like the Paradox in Oz cover does.

(EE - I like the design of the house, and the Living House cover--but I also agree that the Paradox cover really sells the book in way that's hard to match. I absolutely love that cover, it just works in an indefinable way. )

It’s hard to think what the most difficult thing is that I’ve had to illustrate in any book. I recall one thing about illustrating a book of Bram Stoker short stories called Dracula’s Guest. I had to draw a picture of the Iron Maiden of Nuremburg for the story “The Squaw.” This was before I was on the internet. I looked hard for a reference picture of that Iron Maiden, but no luck. I couldn’t find anything, but deadlines are deadlines. So finally I designed the illustrations so that I wouldn’t have to draw the entire object, and I just faked it. I’m rather ashamed of the result. Of course, AFTER the book was published I went to a torture exhibit at a local museum and, what do you know, they had the Iron Maiden of Nuremburg on display! Fortunately I had my sketchbook and drew the thing from life. If those illustrations ever get reprinted, I’m redoing a few.

7. How have has look of the your Oz illustrations evolved over the years? Last year, a collection of your Oz graphic novels entitled Adventures in Oz was released. If you were to draw that comic today, would it look different?

Since I started drawing Oz illustrations when I was six years old, the evolution has been large. Basically it’s matched the evolution of my drawing ability. One conscious progression I’ve made is in the clothing Dorothy wears. This is on display front and center in Adventures in Oz. Over the forty years John R. Neill illustrated Oz books, he always dressed Dorothy in clothing of the time, so I believe it’s part of her character to dress that way. In my earliest professional Oz illustration, I didn’t want to make a radical break with the last of Neill’s Oz books in the 1940s, so I put Dorothy in dresses that could have been from the 1940s or from the 1980s. But as soon as I could, I found excuses to put her into pants. In Ice King she wears a parka and snow pants for most of the book. And in Forgotten Forest she’s in pajamas. I reverted to a skirt in Blue Witch, just because I still didn’t think anyone was ready for Dorothy in blue jeans, but since then I’ve illustrated entire books with Dorothy in shorts. I think shorts are visually close enough to skirts that it’s not jarring. But people still complain. I don’t know why they do. Dorothy always wears what girls in the Great Outside World wear. Not that girls don’t wear skirts and dresses today, but they don’t wear them to go off on adventures full of strenuous walking and climbing.

If I were to draw Adventures in Oz today, I don’t think it would look much different. The drawing would be a bit better, I think. I wouldn’t make Dorothy as skinny as I made her in Secret Island. And I’d design the architecture with a little more skill. But my concepts of the Land of Oz and the characters haven’t really changed since I wrote and drew those comics.

8. You have been working, as a writer, on a comic adaptation of the Wizard of Oz. Can you reveal anything more about it? How does the process of being purely the writer (and working with an illustrator) compare with the process of being the illustrator alone?

Beginning December 2008 Marvel Comics will be publishing an eight-issue comics adaptation of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. Skottie Young is the artist. His work on this project is really beautiful, although it’s nothing like my Oz comics or illustration.

I was glad that Marvel contracted me to write the series but not draw it. I would have had to turn it down if they’d asked me to draw it, since I don’t have time in my schedule. I did have to consciously make myself realize that the artwork would not be my vision of Oz, might look quite different than what I hoped or expected, that I might even intensely dislike it. Of course, I hoped I would like the art at least a little, but I was able to put up the firewall in my brain so that I could write the script and not be too concerned about what the artist did with it.

Fortunately, Skottie’s art is gorgeous and lively. The character design is certainly not what I’d have done. Skottie’s Oz isn’t based on any Oz anyone’s seen before. He started from scratch, basically. But it’s an authentic vision of Oz, true to the source material. I was happy to see the result. As of this writing, only the first two issues are drawn, so he’s got a way to go and many characters yet to depict. Skottie’s enthusiasm for the material is such that we’ll be going beyond the first Oz book with this series. I haven’t signed a contract yet beyond The Wizard of Oz, so I don’t want to be specific. But more Shanower/Young Oz comics are planned from Marvel.

Writing the scripts for Wizard was really enjoyable. I’ve read The Wizard of Oz many, many times, but I’d never been over it so closely or thoroughly before. One quirky detail that stands out to me from writing this adaptation—something I’d never paid attention to before—was that the Soldier with the Green Whiskers has Dorothy and her friends wipe their feet before they enter the Wizard’s palace. It’s so minor, but so characteristic of Baum’s writing. So of course it’s in my script. I was also writing the script with my knowledge of all the later Oz books, something that was impossible for Baum. That knowledge informed my script. I found myself having to suggest that Skottie not draw certain things or to draw things in a certain way so that our adaptation would be true to Baum’s Wizard text, but leave room for things from later Oz books. Consistency didn’t seem to concern Baum much from book to book. But I tried to pay attention so that nothing will jar readers who know the Oz books.

Another thing I did was to consult the several times Baum rewrote portions of Wizard or retold portions. Sometimes Baum was cleverer or clearer in the rewrite and I used that version in the script. He wrote another origin of the Scarecrow which differs radically in the details from the one in The Wizard of Oz. The second one is not better than the one in Wizard and I found that I couldn’t use any of it.

9. It's been a while since we worked on the last book, and though I have been (slowly) working on a book of short stories, I get distracted by projects that are more likely to be read by a wider market. The experience with The Living House was a little discouraging, because though I remain very proud of our work in it, it didn't get picked up by the major review journals and thus has had a much harder time selling than Paradox. Yet part of me misses working on Oz, and I would love to find time to finish the book. Are there any Oz stories that you are still itching to tell? Now that much of your time is taken with Age of Bronze, how do you feel about illustrating future Oz projects?

Well, as I said, after I finished the Oz graphic novel series I wanted to leave Oz behind, but I’ve become used to the idea that I never will. It’ll always be at least a dull roar in the background of my professional life, occasionally increasing to a trumpet blast. Age of Bronze has first place for my attention now and will for some time to come. The thought of taking on a book-length Oz manuscript to illustrate seems exhausting, frankly, and not something I’m at all anxious to do, especially if there isn’t much money attached. But if the manuscript arouses my enthusiasm, then it’s a different story. But there’s got to be some fresh angle, some challenge that I haven’t encountered before, something to hold my interest. Life’s boring if I’m just drawing the same Dorothy face over and over and over. And I don’t see any reason I should suffer boredom when I can choose something interesting. There are so many interesting things in life. And life’s too short to experience them all, so I can’t waste my time redoing what I’ve already done if it’s not going to somehow be new. (However, I do enjoy drawing the Scarecrow over and over.)

(EE - well, if I ever do finish the book, it will be a lot more than Oz stories...so hopefully something new, too.)

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