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The Contra-Review and the New TheatreTalk

By Nick Fracaro at 9:53 am on Tuesday, November 28, 2006

As difficult as it is today to differentiate the alternative from the mainstream in theatre culture, so too is the difficulty in attempting to classify the various modes of writing being used to represent theatre now that the blogosphere has brought the internet into a new age.

George Hunka misdirected his fellow theatre bloggers with the abstract he selected from Eric Bentley’s Thalia Prize speech in his post titled “No Critics, No Directors Either”. As a result Isaac Butler, MattJ, and the other theatre bloggers who posted comments on the subject have either not read, are deliberately ignoring, or are totally dismissing Bentley’s main premise and question:

Let’s simply agree that consumer guiding is not proper drama criticism. What is?

I am with Bentley in classifying the “theatre review” model as a worthless vehicle for drama criticism.contra

Of course theatre bloggers can disregard Bentley’s premise if they do not consider their theatre-talk as a species of drama criticism. And in fact the current trend does appear to be devolving the review model even further away from drama criticism. The blogosphere even seems to be inventing its own bizarre theatre-talk model: the contra-review.

Consider both the motivation and subject of “blogger’s night” as conceived by Isaac Butler at Parabasis.

I want to use the bloggers nights to create an alternate constiuency to subscribers and mainstream critics…. The first one of these we did was for Greg Kotis’ Pig Farm at The Roundabout, and was specifically done as an answer to Charles Isherwood’s dismissive (and, I felt, unfair) take down.

Obscene Jester, Jason Grote, Playgoer, Adam Szymkowicz, Mr. Excitement News, and MattJ all show up in varying degrees of advocacy for Anne Washburn’s The Internationalist and in varying degrees of protest or agreement to Charles Isherwood’s review. When Isaac then reviews these reviews of the mainstream review it becomes obvious how far away from drama criticism this theatre-talk has moved.

Similarly Alison Croggon at her blog theatre notes is not writing drama criticism but is writing a contra-review in her theatre-talk about Melbourne’s “paper of record” review of a local theatre production. Interestingly, unlike the “blogger’s night” attempt to counter a mainstream reviewer’s dismissiveness, Alison Croggon is trying here to counter a mainstream reviewer’s rave.

Eric Bentley restates his main premise and question later in his speech:

If the purpose of daily theater journalism is to guide the consumer toward or away from a show, what is the purpose of the broader theater criticism I respect and try to emulate?

The most directly Bentley answers his own question is in the “distinguished names” of criticism he provides: Stark Young, George Jean Nathan, Irving Wardle, Kenneth Tynan, Robert Brustein, Gordon Rogoff, Richard Gilman. And he does partially withdraw his earlier dismissal of theatre reviews, his own and by extension others’, by suggesting that they are also part and parcel of a “living theatrical culture in a living general culture.”

Although in this speech he is accepting an award for criticism, Eric Bentley sees himself not as a critic but more generally as a “theatre person” (reviewer, essayist, translator, adapter, playwright). His more “sacred pronouncements” on theatre were not in his reviews or essays but were saved for his plays. Most of the “cybercritics” creating the new theatre-talk in the blogosphere also probably reserve their more sacred pronouncements on theatre for artistic ambitions outside their blogs. Many like Bentley also realize that the theatre work they wish to pursue “would have no place in a totally commercialized culture–as Broadway and Hollywood often seem to be.” These contra-reviews of the mainstream and status quo by artists can be seen as first attempts at finding the theatre-talk that will be needed to represent their work and that of their peers.

So although these contra-reviews should not be considered drama criticism per se, the various new species of theatre-talk by theatre people with blogs will likely become a very significant part of the discussion within the “living theatrical culture in a living general culture.” And if a new species of drama criticism is to emerge expect it to be born from among similar artist/critics who practice art as well as write about it.

If an artist has a practice, he has an aesthetic stake to defend or explain or propagandize. His criticism of others’ work will necessarily have both the bias and the integrity of this practice as its foundation. He is able to speak from this specific base of aesthetic knowledge– to define and delineate borders between his practice and others’. This kind of criticism creates a venue for an exchange of ideas outside the market, a discourse about the art form itself. This is exactly the discourse that the artist/critic Eric Bentley and others have defined as drama criticism.

Filed under: Artist/Critic4 Comments »

It’s Thursday, right?

By Nick Fracaro at 2:27 pm on Thursday, November 23, 2006

Some friends, including the chef, for our Thanksgiving dinner tonight are vegetarian.

Rocky: Listen, I don’t want no turkey anyway, ya know.
Adrian: But it was Thanksgiving.
Rocky: It was what?
Adrian: It was Thanksgiving.
Rocky: Yeah, to you, but to me, it’s Thursday, right?
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American Idolatry

By Nick Fracaro at 6:26 am on Tuesday, November 21, 2006

heart pen page drawing
Drawing for The Heart, The Pen, And The Page – (c) 2004 Charles Vincent

The plan was that no matter what I did, how busy I was, what other commitments I had, I would write a play a day, every single day for a year. It would be about being present and being committed to the artistic process every single day, regardless of the “weather.” It became a daily meditation, a daily prayer celebrating the rich and strange process of a writing life.–Suzan-Lori Parks

In defense of playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and in reaction to a recent Guardian article skeptical of the 365 Plays/365 Days aesthetic, some dramaturgs on the discussion list sponsored by Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas are evoking an old partisan argument — that turf war that catalogs poor old Shakespeare with the “conventional” or “patriarchal” and places him on the wrong side of any upstart revolution in theatre. We Americans often feign the King’s English when we play-act an arrogant and pretentious manner or speech. The americano dramaturg of this particular comment sums up the essence of the argument but also shows how the British affectation is not absolutely necessary when talking down your nose to a nation of people.

“The Brits, bless ‘em, have a problem accepting the new.”

This straw-man argument is unhelpful toward exploring any aesthetic that might be at work in 365 Days/365 Plays. Suzan-Lori Parks has always resisted such simplistic approaches to discussions about her work, especially that talk which would so easily classify her as a “woman writer of color.” Any discussion on the dramaturgy should be put into context of her previous work and what she has already said and written about it. This Play-a-Day serial represents a significant departure for a playwright who before this time has always labored heavily within the writing process, most plays taking a minimum of three years to complete. So we should assume that the real grand inquisitor on the aesthetics of 365 Days/365 Plays to be the playwright herself.

Likely, a playwright of her rigor was found many a day laden in self-criticism and writer’s block. Consider the long day’s journey into night that produced the play in this series titled This Is Shit. Stage directions have an audience gather to watch a play. The character Program Thrower utters a single line. (No need to speculate on the line. Title says it all. Suzan-Lori Parks ends her short play where Alfred Jarry so famously began his.)
american theatre cover

Although the title 365 Days/365 Plays doesn’t quite say it all, coupled with cover art for the paperback publication, it does say a great deal. The full glossy cover of this month’s American Theatre resembles any celebrity pop magazine. The cute black chick with dreadlocks and tattoos is cruising the American Theatre landscape in her red convertible. Blondie’s riding shotgun.

Theatre Communications Group (TCG) not only publishes the magazine but also the paperback of 365 Days/365 Plays to be released next month. The same “snapshot” is being used in each, except shotgun Blondie has been photoshopped out of the image used for the book cover.

Shotgun Blondie is Bonnie Metzgar, the former associate producer at New York’s Public Theater, and co-conspiritor with Parks and producer of the 365 Festival, destined to be “the largest shared world premiere in the history of the American Theater.” And if she and Parks can keep the PR engine of the red convertiable humming, this “festival” will also become the most expansive book tour in American Theatre publisher TCG’s history.

cover 365Mostly we have been judging this book by its cover. Cover in the extended definition of the word. Once the hype of the nation-wide festival of 365 Days/365 Plays is no longer riding shotgun, providing cover and camouflage, the actual text will need to step out into the limelight of the American Idol challenge that has been manufactured for its debut. Expect the same polarization of opinion that the TV reality shows all generate. Hopefully the playwright had the prudence or “genius” in one of her 365 days to write the contra to her This Is Shit play.

The term “snapshot aesthetic” refers to a trend that began to influence fine art photography in America in the early 1960’s. The style featured careless compositions and banal everyday subjects, often presented as eccentrically juxtaposed sequences of photographs. Snapshots were taken by “artists” and hence deemed acceptable within certain sections of the fine art gallery system.

Pre-order 365 Days/365 Plays by Suzan-Lori Parks at Amazon.
“This Is Genius” –John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur

Filed under: Dramaturgy1 Comment »

WordPlays:365 Days/365 Ways to No Box Office

By Nick Fracaro at 3:39 pm on Friday, November 17, 2006

The NO BOX OFFICE is the most radical notion in the 365 Days/365 Plays project. In NYC and LA, Actors Equity allows token payments to actors in showcase and 99 seat production contracts. So actors can work in similar spirit to the dollar a day token royalty the playwright receives. I’m interested in how theaters are paying Equity actors working elsewhere in the country on this project. I expect circumvention. Likewise on the NO BOX OFFICE restriction.bacchus

The Foundry Theatre has hit the right note in their circumvention with this Thanksgiving potlatch invitation.

ADMISSION: A bottle of New York State wine, Seriously.

The potlatch model for theatre is better than any market model, Seriously. All of us in our heart of hearts know this, but unfortunately all of us are also swimming in a culture that does not honor it. This is the root of our ambivalence and struggle.

The dominant culture gives prestige to money and celebrity. This project debases money but embraces the double-edged sword of celebrity. The Emperor’s New Clothes and PR stunt comments are apropos as long as it’s understood that not just Suzan-Lori but everyone involved is attempting to exploit the playwright’s current celebrity.

By most serious yardsticks in theatre or any art form, celebrity does not equal quality. So the hope is that most productions will be more rigorous in their rehearsals than the writer was with her Play-a-Day words. Dramaturgically, this inequity is interesting, pointing toward a dynamic at the heart of many of the current aesthetic, ethical, and legal arguments about “authorship” in theatre. The genius of theatre arises from the interplay of many different elements within the collaboration. Artaud’s No More Masterpieces does not disgrace text but attempts to reposition it as another living entity within the performance. Words belong to the lusty lip.

We ask theatre to examine the difference between an audience and fandom. In this examination the Potlatch is at odds with Celebrity. The gift that will be celebrated so famously in the accolades of the press or in the careers of the Foundry Theatre and Suzan-Lori Parks is the lesser god. The real host of the Potlatch, the performance stripped of all wealth and identity except its presence, disappears within the communal wine the witness brought as gift.

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Cap’n Beady Eyes in the Blogosphere

By Nick Fracaro at 1:11 am on Friday, November 10, 2006

criticThe patronizing advice that Lyn Gardner dispenses to young theatre companies in her Guardian post could be better applied as a directive to her own writing. She needs to “think harder and be more self-critical” about her writing as it moves from print into the blogosphere.

Apparently oblivious even of the venue in which she is writing, she totes out that old print publishing truism that “reviewing space comes at a premium” when cautioning young theatre companies from inviting her “beady eyes” and her possible ire.

“Shiver me timbers! Stand fast me hearties! The ire of the reviewer is upon us!”

The Guardian in promoting its recent move into the blogosphere says that it’s

shiny new Arts & Entertainment blog is a new space for debate on, um, everything in arts and entertainment…. it’ll feature a host of Guardian writers and critics, plus, we hope, a range of new voices.

Even the words, um, and phrasing, um, of this promotion suggests the level of debate the Guardian expects from this “range of new voices.” Of course there is no obligation for the esteemed writers and critics of the Guardian to engage the vulgar herd in this debate, so they won’t. Their duty is merely to initiate the arguments with their posts.

So far comments are rare; the debate non-existent. But the Guardian Theatre Blog has certainly increased “the talk” about theatre from writers and critics, if by talk we mean that one way broadcast typical of print publication. Its theatre blog webfeed will send the reader on average two of these articles every day. Actually the Guardian is classifying these blog entries as “posts” but displays them as articles complete with “Editors’ picks”, leaving it to the reader to classify the actual nature and quality of “the talk” contained within them.

Dave Cote announced yesterday that TimeOut New York has also launched a magazine-wide blog this week. Cote is reviewer and editor of the theatre section of the magazine and only a few months ago launched his own personal blog Histriomastix. His initial entries indicate that he will probably direct the TONY theatre blog in the manner of his personal blog. The chatty and newsy content connects well with a common denominator of other theater blogs already on the scene. Unlike the Guardian’s blog there are no comments allowed at the TONY theatre blog so there are also no pretenses about creating a forum for a “range of new voices.”critic finger

Reviewers with a history of writing for print have been schooled within a certain mode of production. The strict time demands and space constraints necessary for print publication have induced an overall condition of abridged thinking in the field. Concision is a desired trait and brevity is sometimes a critical choice but the “theatre review” model has evolved (devolved) effectively into this “thumbs up/thumbs down” consumer report. The theatre audience reduced to just one more target audience within the horde of harried shoppers out there.

The role of the reviewer has steadily been condensed to that of market arbiter of What-To-See and What-Not-To-See. Although the reviewer may afford some small talk about the art form, his main function is to provide clear directions to the reader through the good, the bad, and the ugly to that holy land. The best bang for the buck.

These slick superficial renderings often say more about the writer than about the subject being reviewed. In this way the review has become its own genre of writing, as much entertainment as criticism. If the writer finds a production he cannot recommend (most often the case) he still needs to talk about it, which is to say, entertain. The partisan crowd might even grow to enjoy the laudations less than the witty ridicule and humiliations of enemy camps. In history, the obit of the reviewer may read:

“Who didn’t know that he became a circus act, really? But the real question is this: Sometimes I wondered what it might have been like if he’d actually become a force for good; coercive as Ken Tynan or inspirational like Clurman or rigorous like Rich…… I guess I thought that it’s gotta be a grueling job, and there’s so much falsity and meretricious bullshit you have to see, that it would finally take a saint not to turn into a bit of a brittle vulgarian, as he did. The theatre needs geniuses to criticize it; it needs passionate advocates and firebrands, not to mention writers of gorgeous prose. He, instead, opted for parlor tricks and reruns.”

Now that the critics can review at any length anything they wish and publish it whenever they wish in blogs (their own personal ones or the more official “Guardian” blogs of cultural taste), it is due time they reassess both their subject and audience as well as the mode and manner in which they write, post, critique, review, small talk, gossip… and make some discerning choices.

One choice might be to attempt to elevate the discourse in the realm of ChatNews instead of further propagating it. But then again, what’s the fun in that? And besides, isn’t John Simon and ilk, even with their sometimes vicious appraisals of performers’ physical appearances, also part of “the talk”, also part of that rough beast slouching?

“Arrrgh !! I be Cap’n Beady Eyes Lyn Gardner! Be that a peg leg, or arrr ye just happy to cast yer eyes upon me?”

digital media
Filed under: Artist/Critic,Audience1 Comment »

Vote For Me

By Nick Fracaro at 6:01 pm on Tuesday, November 7, 2006

vote door hangerI have never voted in my life so today is a day where I need to stay away from many of my friends. The sentiment and non-action known as “Get out the vote” annoys me but maybe it’s a sign of my maturity that I no longer pick fights with my friends over it.

Unlike me, many of the theatre bloggers seem to be voting today. Angry White Guy’s message is short but sweet “No fucking around. Find the time and go vote.” The YouTube thing “King George II” he linked to is a nice piece of anti-Bush propaganda. On similar note Matthew Freeman also wants you to consider George Bush’s resume in today’s election. Chris Durang thinks someone will be Hacking Democracy. James “Rabble-Rouser” Comtois is rousing rabbles with his alliterations. Parabasis adds an expletive to the single word command “vote, damnit.” Jason Grote is not a crime but Jason Grote is a vote. Mr. Excitement links to Mr. Schwartz and The Couch Potato’s Guide to Election Night. Someday Obscene Jester wants to be in a band named Offending Loo so he might ROCK THE VOTE. George Hunka wants to somehow vote for art today while Ian Hill is still dreaming at the voting booth this morning about his hobnob with that famous Statesman Artist from overseas. TheaterBoy likes it when Cheney makes faces.

Actually Lucas’ suggestion “Vote Early, Vote Often” intrigued me as a plan for a second but the map he puts up says Fuggeddaboudit! We are way beyond the Red/Blue state thing now; it’s even too late for exile to Canada.

On Election Day I usually reread Thoreau’s essay so that the different drummer in my head finds at least some harmony in thought with my brother man on this day.

All voting is a sort of gaming, like checkers or backgammon, with a slight moral tinge to it, a playing with right and wrong, with moral questions; and betting naturally accompanies it. The character of the voters is not staked. I cast my vote, perchance, as I think right; but I am not vitally concerned that that right should prevail. I am willing to leave it to the majority. Its obligation, therefore, never exceeds that of expediency. Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail. A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority. There is but little virtue in the action of masses of men. –from Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau

Not that I do not venture out into the field on Election Day. I hated fascist Giuliani’s first term Zero Tolerance bullshit so much that Election Day in 1997 I didn’t vote but I did campaign for his opponent Ruth Messinger. She’s a decent person so I campaigned for her only because I knew she couldn’t win. I knew my help wouldn’t hurt her.

I was working the lines of cars stopped at the foot of the Manhattan Bridge costumed as Squeegee Elvis (second cousin of Homeless Elvis) passing out homemade “Ruth the Truth” stickers and such. All the other squeegee guys had been jailed during the Mayor’s first term, but I was fairly sure this was the one day the cops wouldn’t arrest me.

Just a couple months before this election the Mayor’s jackboots had stuck a toliet plunger handle up citizen Abner Louima’s rectum. The subsequent civil suit against the city resulted in a settlement of $8.75 million, the largest police brutality settlement in New York City history. So of course I was afraid to be arrested for my squeegee routine but I figured it would have been bad PR for newly re-elected Rudy to have had some of his goon squad arrest an opponent’s campaign worker on Election Day.

But I wasn’t just afraid of the cop’s brutality; I didn’t really want to go to jail either. It’s hard enough being one of the only white guys locked in that shithole Tombs (in 1991 I was illegally kept there 36 hours without arraingment) but to be dressed as Elvis on top of that would have really been fucked.

Elvis’ cousins are legion and I’ve lived many of their lives. I had a megaphone so I would often attack the public as Incumbent Elvis at election time shouting lines from Dick Zigun‘s The Three-Minute Manifesto for an Uncle Sam on Stilts. And after I learned to walk on stilts my favorite of Elvis’ cousins soon became the country gangsta rapper Long Tall Elvis performing a version of Blue Suede Shoes. “I’m Long Tall Elvis and I walk like I talk.”

I eventually did Dick’s piece the way he wrote it as The Three-Minute Manifesto for an Uncle Sam on Stilts as part of Thieves Theatre’s production Say Uncle. Here’s a version I recorded today in my attempt to help GetOutTheVote.

say uncle
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