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The Heart of Failure and Promise

By Nick Fracaro at 10:01 am on Wednesday, March 19, 2008

OUR FAILURE

Theatre has become as stale as our language, our lives. We use the word “seasons” in theater in the same fashion we use the word holiday as replacement for Holy Day.

Christmas is now the Xmas season. We acquiesce unknowingly. X-ing out the abstinent Christ with the Santa bag of toys. That merry, merry tidings-of-comfort-and-joy time that produces more suicides than any other.

Once was the earlier pagan ritual celebrating the winter solstice. Theatre was born within such a place and time. Newborn hope and promise of the renewing cycle sheltered within a manger, surrounded only by witnessing nature and a few select wise men. Theatre would be such a pilgrimage of wise men following their star into the night of a distant land.

Bah-humbug! It’s time to pay the rent. So theatre “seasons” are built around the adaptation of Dickens’ Christmas Carol. No surprise that this cash cow has insidiously become a kind of sacred cow to the bottom line of most regional theatres. And all the Brave New Works that the pandering Christmas Carol was meant to support are instead proving themselves true bastard offspring. Playwrights’ texts also acquiesce unknowingly. X-ing out all but the bag of toys, adapting to the market in a perpetual workshop of their text into a product ready to be launched.

Nowadays the King’s Men need only to cater to the groundlings for sustenance at Broadway and other venues. The regional theatres are incorporated as not-for-profit, yet their true king is related to the same bottom line and commodity exchange as that of commercial producers. So the theatres find themselves in a compromising position to their missions, all of which emphasize service to artistic health of the region and “the community.”

Regional theatre choses productions to keep and build the subscriber audience who buys the season ticket. Neither truly box office nor community, this audience is an odd breed of groundling who has taken on the airs of patron. Aging out of existence but still catered to as if he were king, Pantolone, his money pouch hanging limpless beside his genitals, waddles into his box seat at Geezer Theatre.

commedia carol Geezer: an old fart-some harmless, toothless, witless, pointless guy the world passed by a long, long time ago; and who knows it, and who has kind of stopped trying. Except that Old Fart is a solitary condition, while Geezer is a group identity. Where there is one, there will be many. Geezers gaggle in geezer groups, gabbing the geezer credo that the world is out of step, and that the geezer is its lost and proper center. For every geezer is at heart the Old Pretender-feckless and vengeful, nostalgic, deceitful and vain.

Now it is surely no surprise that a theatre which has sold itself almost exclusively to geezers should have become a Geezer Theatre. Each year, as TCG balefully notes, the Geezer Theatre’s subscription audience gets another year older. But the looming actuarial crisis is nothing next to the soul death of a theatre which, in pandering to the geezer, has itself become a geezer. Impotent, truculent, and profoundly self-satisfied, the Geezer Theatre doesn’t really mind that at this point it is talking largely to itself.

OUR PROMISE

We strive to make our audience synonymous with community. Yet for a community of limited means, roles become reversible within the partnership, and theatre in a real sense becomes the patron. Theatre is first and foremost a gift. The theatre citizen has chosen a life in theatre over a career in theatre.

Fellow peers engaged in the creation of theatre become the truest audience, like the spouse who witnesses in personal detail the struggles of our life. We are an ethical as much as an aesthetic enterprise. We rehearse our “to be or not to be” not in order to better act on stage, but to better live within our community.

We summon our audience one by one in the same way we invite our friends, family, and neighbors to a barbecue. We cook and prepare our theater in the same manner as we host and share our homemade meals.

We are the Potlatch gathering of an ageless tribe.

OUR HEART

Audience is this creative accident of one’s life and time on earth. As I age my significant others begin to die off. Yet my dead parents and others remain my primary audience, full subscribers, partners in the attempted articulations of this flesh.

As I climb onto the stage as priest/victim up the side of the pyramid, the rehearsed breath readies its speak. Wet word poised as deed on the lusty lip. I seek the tongue-tied Word as Flesh. I wish not to be understood, but known. I meet my four peers at the summit where we become one with the fifth. The fifth is always there, never there. As element, as god, as the theatre of our making.

Carved from its captivity, the still beating heart is raised high. The groundlings stand in awe. But they are not the audience. My parents’ parents have risen up within the blood of my raised heart. And the Seventh Generation has gathered just beyond the living to witness Deeds, the Doer, and Words, the Speaker.

I am here for you, my love, as always.

***********************************************

This post is part of a Theatre Think Tank initiative. Please read the related posts by other participants in today’s effort. I’ll list below the other blogs posts on “the value of theatre” as I read them:

Theatreforté
An Angry White Guy in Chicago
Theatre Ideas
Theatre Is Territory
The Next Stage
Bite and Smile by Joe Janes
A Rhinestone World
That Sounds Cool
On Theatre and Politics – Matthew Freeman
Never Trust Your Pet With the Devil Vet
Theatre For The Future
Jamespeak
Mike Daisey
steve on broadway
Jay Raskolnikov — half hillbilly, Demi-Culture
The Mission Paradox Blog
Parabasis
GreyZelda Land
Que j’ai rêvé
Midnight Honesty at Noon
Carmi Neighborhood Watch 

Filed under: Audience,Theatre and Culture2 Comments »

Awake From Your Slumber!

By Nick Fracaro at 1:31 pm on Saturday, March 15, 2008

Our current project with Theater Rampe Stuttgart in Germany commissioned a new script from Austrian author Andreas Jungwirth. Outside Inn examines how capitalism has infiltrated into the most personal parts of our lives. In the passage below the character Paul, inheritor of the “family’s” business, relates a conversation in which his father-in-law, the legendary corporate CEO known as “the German,” explains where “we” are going next.

“Kalowski has been silent the entire time. Suddenly he asks me to listen. Kalowski explains how wars make it possible to make a lot of money. Iraq, Afghanistan. But that it was also possible to make very large sums of money. We’re going into Iran. Iran – ? That’s impossible. Kalowski says nothing’s impossible. That I should remember that from here on out. After our return to Germany, it would be my job to develop a strategy for circumventing EU guidelines.”

I was thinking about this when watching a new music video now available at youtube and a growing number of sites. It appears to be a kind of video trailer for a DVD documentary that Ralph Nader and Patti Smith teamed up to make from their Democracy Rising Peace Tour (see description below). As Michael Lithgow at Art Threat points out.

This seems to be increasingly an integral part of U.S. politics, no doubt in part because of the phenomenal success of will-i.am’s Barack Obama video “Yes we can” which has been downloaded over 6 million times and links the Obama campaign with a who’s who of cultural literati.

Patti and Ralph look good together. They are the dream team for El Presidente and Veep of the always present and disruptive alternative rebel nation in this country. Ralph words “The way to respect the troops is to get them out of there and bring them to safety” are intercut with Patti’s rock drone at microphone “Awake from your slumber. And get ’em with the numbers.”

“Awake From Your Slumber” brings together two visionaries: citizen-activist Ralph Nader and punk poet Patti Smith, in a powerful dialogue of war and peace. Touring together as the Democracy Rising Peace Tour, Ralph and Patti make the case against the Iraq war and the corporate takeover of our democracy. Produced by the Hudson Mohawk Independent Media Center, AWAKE mixes image, music and spoken word to strip away the facade of political lies and reveal the annihilation of civilization, war profiteering, the unseen dead, and the unheard cries of motherhood. “Awake From Your Slumber” is history lesson, poetry reading and rock concert. Above all, it is an inspiring, mesmerizing, and deeply moving call to action, showing the power of the people to make change.

(Crossposted at International Culture Lab blog.)

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Theatre Kultur

By Nick Fracaro at 11:00 pm on Wednesday, March 12, 2008

In the early ’80’s we were living in the alternative theatre and punk scene in Toronto. Headquarters was at the Cameron. Paul Sannella was both bartender and owner. He managed and ran the place (not) exactly as the tribe model Scott at Theatre Ideas has been proposing. Michael Hollingsworth and his theatre Video Cabaret lived upstairs.

cameron

Odd duck waiter at the Cameron was artist Andy Paterson. Something Andy said still haunts and hunts me now some 25 years later. Our Marat Sade crew were primo punk distrupters back then and Andy got so pissed at my shenanegans one night he said, “Nick, why don’t you do everyone a favor, and just commit suicide.”

So Andy had called my bluff of punk nihilism and shut me up for one night, forcing me into deep thoughts on the meaning of my life and art. Both in terms of money and rowdyness, Paul always allowed our ragtag Marat Sade tribe and others to run an open tab at the Cameron. We ran an after hours place a block down on Queen Street and after 1 a.m. we gave the Cameron House tribe the same open tab. Mike Nightmare and the Wild Things along with Zero provided the music for the Marat Sades. At the Cameron House one of the music staples was Handsome Ned.handsome ned

Ned built his legend with his Cameron solo shows. He’d roll downstairs from the tiny room he lived in over the bar, first holding court in the Cameron’s front room and then sliding to the back for his shows. The upper three floors housed an impossible artists’ community in the 18 or so rooms that were “rented,” actually traded, to visual artists and musicians whose artwork or songs filled the dilapidated public house below.

Molly Johnson, Holly Cole, Big Sugar’s Gordie Johnson, visual artist Tim Jocelyn, playwrights Deanne Taylor and Michael Hollingsworth were just some who benefited from the creative landlording of Cameron owners Herb Tookey, Paul Sannella and Anne-Marie Ferraro, who also lived in the rooms among their tenants.

Molly Johnson performed her own reisdency-for-rent, the Blue Mondays shows, which launched the then art-rocker into her jazz career, at Tookey’s suggestion.

“We all shared one bathroom, and the bath tub was up over the back room stage,” says Johnson. “I’d have my bubble bath while Ned did his matinees, and I could just see him through a hole in the floor for the drain pipe.”

Unlike at the recent reincarnations of the Drake and the Gladstone further along Queen, the old-time drinkers who inhabited the Cameron before the artists arrived weren’t booted out. Crusty types like Cameron regular Carl Johnson just became part of the mix, and when Ned sang classic Hank Williams or Tex Ritter songs in the back, what was new to the young crowd was familiar fare to the bar’s senior citizens, who were often Ned’s biggest fans and harshest critics.

The story Paul relates about the “ten ants” happened after our theatre had already moved to New York. Of course this type of tribe could only live on the fringe or underground of a large urban center like Toronto. Likewise our Marat Sade tribe which produced its theatre and life style out of the patronage of the after-hour scene of a large city. Such a lifestyle and theatre model is probably much different than the one Scott envisions in Independence, Missouri. For those interested I have written about the model and lifestyle of the Marat Sade tribe in an essay Theatre Pas Muraille. It was a fun and famous time for all of us. But fame within the punk ethic is the perfect counter to Nylachi’s notion of fame and fortune. Culture all looks like Kultur from the punk perspective. Although there can never be a revolution, there can be a constant rebellion against the values that the dominant culture promotes.

When people describe Queen Street at the time, words like “community,” “village” and even “oasis” come up. There was a freedom in being so off the radar, and bands weren’t competitive with each other. They were all striving, but not fighting, for a piece of the pie, because there was no pie on offer.

In preparing to write this post I was googling for that famous quote from that famous artist who had famously examined the nature of fame in all his work when I found a press release which contained the quote.

The collection is designed to pay homage to the collective iconography of both the Levi’s® brand and Andy Warhol’s famed pop-culture art. The collection leverages Levi’s® great fit in jeans and jackets and is embellished with imagery reflective of Andy Warhol’s more famous artwork and sayings such as: “Fashion wasn’t what you wore someplace anymore; it was the whole reason for going.” The collection will be available at super-premium retailers and will debut in spring 2006.

levi jacket

Warhol Factory X Levi’s® Marilyn Jean Jacket

COLOR: DARK BLUE – $400.00

The classic trucker with Warhol Factory X Levi’s® collection details — a Marilyn patch topstitched on the front and the same famous image painted on the center back panel. Shoulders have a retro-look wash and wear; all edges are lightly abraded. A subtle pattern is screen printed inside. Styled with handwarmer pockets and side tabs. Closes with signature Warhol buttons. Country Of Origin: Imported.

I would feel stupid wearing above jacket, slightly “gift wrapped” myself, even though I had worn a similar beat-up trucker vest jacket back in the Toronto days. More than that though, the $400 price tag of the above jacket represents a week salary at my primary day job. I am in the league with all those Chicago theatre bloggers (Don, GreyZelda, Bob, Tony, Nick) who have their day job as the chief patron of their art. In working with rat theatres I found the day job to be the primary patronage system of most of the independent theatre produced in this country. Most often box office, grants, and other forms of patronage are able to cover the production costs of theatre and perhaps a small stipend to the artists, but little else. Members of the ensembles all have day jobs and often it is this interconnection with the “real” world of commerce that the theatre finds its true support.

The “retro-look” is a way of packaging and selling something that no longer really exists. I was thinking about this in relationship to the recent article in the Times that examined the trend of regional theatres toward spending millions on building gargantuan new facilities. This is money being spent, regardless of denials, not in support of local artists but in the house meant to attract national talent.

And it’s true that the building boom, particularly among the aging lions of the regional movement, is partly about creating whiz-bang “destination” theaters that will attract national talent. (Also, younger audiences.) But the companies say they are doing this to enhance or recapture their mission, not discard it.

At the same time they seem to be making pre-emptive statements about their centrality to the culture. In the last two years alone the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis moved into its new $125 millionJean Nouvel home overlooking the Mississippi River; Arena Stage in Washington broke ground on the $120 million Mead Center, designed by Bing Thom; and the Dallas Theater Center, in the city where the regional movement arguably began, started buildingRem Koolhaas’s Wyly Theater, part of a cultural complex pegged at a Texas-size $338 million.

“You either grow or you die,” said Joe Dowling, the Guthrie’s artistic director.

Quotes from Mike Daisey’s How Theatre Failed America are used throughout this excellent article. Mike’s observations pulled out of the Us/Them framework serve well to show how not just the regional theatres have lost their direction but theatre culture itself has.

Fandom is different than audience is different than community. Theatre can function as a counter to the Dominant Culture as it searches for its audience and community. Or not. The whole of theatre culture seems content to relax now into its new design model that Kultur is prepared to offer it. The Destination where aging baby boomers squeezing their fat asses into “relaxed fit” Levis can mingle with hip new youngsters in retro-look jackets. And “all edges are lightly abraded” to give illusion of something that has actually been worn and lived in.

designer  jean man

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Contextualizing, Editing, Censoring

By Nick Fracaro at 7:24 am on Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Playgoer is worried that “Rachel Corrie” Buffered in Beantown may be pointing to a troublesome trend developing in theatre.

He his talking about the “contextualization” of the play My Name Is Rachel Corrie by the New Repertory Theatre in a preview report on the production in the Boston Globe.

[New Rep] had originally planned to pair “My Name Is Rachel Corrie” with the one-act “To Pay the Price,” about the late Israeli Army hero Jonathan “Yoni” Netanyahu. But after the Netanyahu family heard of the plans, it asked that “To Pay the Price” be pulled from the lineup, deeming the two plays incompatible.

Forging ahead, New Rep replaced “Price” with the solo show “Pieces,” written and performed by an Israeli-American, Zohar Tirosh, about her experience serving in the Israeli military in the mid-1990s, when peace seemed like a real possibility. The company is also surrounding the two works – staged in its 90-seat black-box space – with related panel discussions,talkbacks, readings, and films, including the Oscar-nominated documentary “Promises.”

The New Rep’s producing artistic director, Rick Lombardo, says that this mini-festival on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not part of an effort to deflect criticism of “Rachel Corrie,” but is instead the result of nine months of planning and dialogue that he and his staff engaged in with various communities, from the Arab Anti-Defamation League to the American Civil Liberties Union to the Jewish Community Relations Council.

Of course this was very similar to the approach that New York Theater Workshop’s artictic director Jim Nicola had wanted to take in presenting the piece. He was roundly criticized and unjustly accused of censorship for postponing the production to accomplish that goal.

Garrett is right-on in his observation that, “Isn’t it funny that this approach has not been advocated for plays on any other issue?” But I think he is off in his concluding observation and fears of a new trend.

But look: we don’t see this approach taken with plays of any other subject, do we? (Or so far, of any other plays!) So obviously we don’t need to worry about this becoming a trend, right? Or do we…

As Jeremy Gerard reported at the time of the controversy, “Rachel Corrie” was not the first play on this issue that was postponed to await “contextalization.” There was nothing new or trend setting in the approach that NYTW was attempting and what is scheduled to happen now in Boston.

In the U.S. this season, an off-Broadway company, the New York Theatre Workshop — probably best known as the group that developed “Rent” as well as TonyKushner’s “Homebody/Kabul” — was to have presented “Rachel Corrie.” But artistic director James Nicola announced last week that the production was being “delayed” while the group considered the best way to “contextualize” the play. Translation: People are complaining that presenting this work gives a bullhorn to Israel’s enemies, and that makes us very nervous. So we’re going to see if we can render “My Name Is Rachel Corrie” toothless or, barring that, postpone it and pray really hard that the problem eventually just goes away.

Papp’s `Storytellers’

That’s what Joe Papp also may have hoped when something similar happened to the founder of the New York Shakespeare Festival and overseer of the Public Theater. In the summer of 1989,Papp abruptly canceled an appearance by a touring Palestinian theater troupe. El-Hakawati (“The Storytellers”) was slated to perform “The Story of Kufur Shamma ,” the tale of a Palestinian refugee’s return to his long-deserted village 40 years after the birth of the modern state of Israel.

As with “Rachel Corrie,” protests erupted. Somewhat more transparent than Nicola, Papp simply announced that he’d had second thoughts. Since he had never presented a pro-Israeli play, he told the press, “it just seemed inappropriate” to produce “Kufur Shamma” as his first statement on such a hand grenade of an issue. Thinking he could buy time as well as support, he promised to present the play within a year. In fact,Papp, already dying from cancer, never did produce “Kufur Shamma.”

`Contextualizing’ the Play

When it opened later that summer under a different producer’s banner, no protests ensued, and the review by a third-string New York Times critic referred only obliquely to the earlier controversy, thoughtfully leaving Papp’s name, and that of his theater, completely out of it.

Interesting that Garrett points to Wally Shawn’s Aunt Dan and Lemon, a controversial play which premiered at The Public also in the late ’80’s, as evidence of a play that didn’t need to run for cover when confronting the unpleasant.

So by running for cover behind as many “diverse views” as possible, we deprive the theatre of that special frisson that can only come from confronting the unpleasant. Even if it is “wrong.” Think of that ending from Wallace Shawn’s Aunt Dan and Lemon, for instance, where the heroine leaves us with an atrocious monologue justifying Kissingerian ethics on warcrimes, assassination, and such. Now imagine someone coming out after the show having to explain to you, “Now boys and girls, that was justa play. We don’t really think that.”

However, as Jeff Jones points out in his smart essay On Geezer Theatre, although Aunt Dan and Lemon did not exactly run for cover, its author Wallace Shawn did invent his own special species of buffering or contextalizing to frame the play.

The really curious thing about Shawn’s play-and the best evidence of the theatre’s provinciality in these matters-is that the author felt it necessary to add both prologue and epilogue explaining at length how one could write (and read) a play which didn’t unambiguously reflect the beliefs of the playwright.

The epilogue that Jeff Jones references is an essay that Wally Shawn wrote as addendum to the published text of the play. The prologue refers to a peculiar act of contextalization by the playwright who was also an actor in the original ensemble.

At the original production of this play at The Public in 1986, there was reportedly such a vocal and disturbed response from some in the audience that Shawn wrote an essay “Notes in Justification of Putting the Audience Through a Difficult Night at the Theater,” and handed it out to the audience.

Garrett found it a preposterous notion that someone would need to explain Aunt Dan and Lemon with a statement like “Now boys and girls, that was just a play. We don’t really think that.” But in reading the “written prologue” passed out to the audience, the playwright Shawn seems to be accentuating exactly that very simple reality of “it’s just a play” to his audience, so as to guide them into the correct reception of the play and afterthoughts of the experience.

A play represents a self-enclosed little world for the audience to examine. It’s an opportunity to look objectively at a group of people, to assess them, to react to them, and to measure oneself against them, to ask, “Am I like that?”

The politics of reception are complicated. Both playwright Shawn and artistic director Nicola were similarly attempting to manipulate audience reception. Nicola’s action like Shawn’s should be labeled production dramaturgy, or perhaps even public relations, but not censorship. To do so trivializes the fact that real and dangerous forces of censorship do exist in the world. Jeremy Gerard does exactly that when he suggests that even threats of violence should not give producers pause.

Another person Nicola might turn to for guidance is Lynne Meadow, artistic director of the Manhattan Theatre Club. When Meadow announced plans to offer “Corpus Christi,” a TerrenceMcNally play suggesting that Jesus might have been gay, she faced demonstrations and threats of violence. So she and executive producer Barry Grove canceled the production, briefly suffering the very public indignity of an artists’ boycott of her theater. Ultimately the play went up, uncontextualized. The protests and threats came and left, life went on, Christendom endured.

The more apropos play and production which Jeremy Gerard doesn’t cite in his article is one with which both he and I had an unique relationship. He was working for the theatre section of the New York Times in 1987 when our theatre sent out our press release on Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Trash, The City and Death. Jeremy Gerard was the first journalist to contact us. He then called and talked to me as director probably every third day in the final weeks of our rehearsal. He insisted up until the production opening that he was writing an article for the Times. The last word I heard from him was laden with the frustration of a writer suffering under censorship or self-censorship in some way and yet still emphatically insisting, “I will write something. I don’t know what. But I promise that I will write something.”

Fassbinder’s Trash, The City and Death had a history of failed attempts at productions as well as volumes of critical debate on its merits. Branded anti-Semitic by some, consensus was that the play was unproduceable for that reason. Fassbinder’s piece was speaking to real estate speculation exploiting the city of Frankfurt; our production found parallels in mid ‘80’s Lower East Side on New York. (Fassbinder had stipulated that the play’s premiere had to be in either Frankfurt or New York.) After rehearsing the play for nine months with an ensemble of twenty-five, we produced its premiere in the celebrated artists’ squat ABC No Rio.

Happenstance had one third of the ensemble members Jewish, which would be odd in any American city other than New York. At the time, and probably still true today, there were more Jews in NYC than any other city in the world, including TelAviv. The issue that this play scrutinized was our issue. The issue of our ensemble and our city. Whatever bravado the ensemble assumed or projected in the face of the censorship and threats was eclipsed by the mostly unacknowledged grace that the art form itself provided us. Theatre is still that near sanctified space where we come face to face with the vulnerability of our humanness.

As someone who was in constant contact with me, Jeremy Gerard was well aware of the layers of covert and overt censorship surrounding our production. Ten days prior to our opening, the Anti-Defamation League of the influential Jewish B’nai B’rith organization spread warnings on the play, calling it a “catalyst for antisemitic and racist reactions.” A few days later we received a tacit death threat on our phone machine, this at a time when the violent Jewish Defense League was still active in the city.

This world premiere production of Trash, The City and Death was an international news story. Press from four different countries in Europe came to film the opening. This “uncontextualized” controversial play and production received every type of press coverage imaginable, locally in New York and throughout Europe, but Jeremy Gerard’s promised story never appeared. I never asked him why and he never told me. Most of us in the ensemble assumed his editors at The Times had nixed it. If I asked Jeremy Gerard now, he might not even remember the story he was trying write. I know that my own two-decade old memory of facts is as they say, convenient, so I would imagine his memory to be the same. It’s a memory that edits and contextualizes. It’s a memory that censors the story until it fits into the truth we want to believe and recite.

CORRECTION: I had not talked to Jeremy Gerard in twenty years or followed his journalism in that time. Turns out that he has been a longtime advocate for artistic freedom. He pointed me to this feature in New York magazine that gives a fuller look at his journalism on the Manhattan Theatre Club controversy ten years ago. As this excerpt proves Jeremy obviously never minimized the threats of violence or any other attempts at censorship against the producers. The article shows his sincere attempt to differentiate the various concerns involved in this complex issue. I had suggested something different above. My bad.

In fact, they had good reason to be fearful. After reports about the play appeared in the New York Post, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights called on elected officials to cut off the company’s public funding and attacked the play — or at least the idea of the play, since clearly no one at the league had read it — as “despicable” and “sick beyond words.” And lest anyone not share that view, the league promised to “wage a war that no one will forget” against anyone foolhardy enough to present Corpus Christi.

Suddenly, the theater was getting telephone threats addressed to “Jew guilty homosexual Terrence McNally. Because of you, we will exterminate every member of the theater and burn the place to the ground . . . Death to the Jews worldwide.” Those threats, Meadow and Grove insisted, led to their decision to delay the production until they could ensure adequate security

(Crossposted at International Culture Lab blog.)

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Chicago Storefront Theatre Model

By Nick Fracaro at 8:15 pm on Sunday, March 2, 2008

If even Slay is not up to the task of summarizing the proposals and calls for change that has had the theatrosphere vibrating over the last few weeks, you know that the conversation is as complex he claims it is.

A couple of times in the past few days I’ve started to write a big summary post of the drama that is currently engulfing most of the theatrenet. For those who don’t know, here are some relevant bits and pieces. Visible Soul, The Mirror Up to Nature, Theatre Ideas, Theatre Ideas, Marsha Norman, An Angry White Guy in Chicago, Rat Sass, Mike Daisey, DevilVet, Jonathan West, The Clyde Fitch Report, Mike Daisey

I often consider it my niche to condense discussions like this for those who haven’t the time or energy to read everything that encompasses such an impassioned, complex look at the state of our art. But, I’m not doing that this time. It seems that what’s needed most here, from us as writers, and you as readers, is engagement. So, please, pick a few of the above, read them throughly and get involved.

Slay’s current post was going to be a follow-up; instead, he found that Don Hall’s inspiring current post with its call for action beat him to the punch on the couple points he had wished to address.

In early December I was visiting family in Chicago so I decided to meet Don Hall in person. I appreciate his built-in bullshit barometer with which he guages observations on theatre and culture at his An Angry White Guy in Chicago site. He also describes his own theatre’s aesthetic and practice there, which parallels much of my history in Chicago back in the early ‘80’s. The original seven founding members of my theatre had all recently graduated from the Chicago Circle Campus of U of I and one was a professor of theatre design there. We followed the model our immediate theatre predecessors in Chicago had established.

The mushrooming growth of homegrown, homemade theater reached its climax in the mid-1970s, with the opening of several small companies that proved training grounds and taking-off points for young directors, actors, designers, and playwrights. These troupes included Victory Gardens, Northlight, Wisdom Bridge, the Body Politic, St. Nicholas (founded by playwright David Mamet), Remains, Organic, and Steppenwolf theaters.

However different their productions, these theaters shared certain key elements. They were founded and staffed by young persons just out of school and eager to find recognition. They were housed in 150- to 250-seat auditoriums in buildings that had never been designed as theater spaces. Warehouses, bowling alleys, ballrooms, church halls, and retail shops were all converted to theater use by the youthful companies who established these revamped spaces as their bases of operations.

Patterns of growth also were similar. Often started with amateur talent and focused on the work of a particular director or writer, the theaters edged into professional status as their audiences and revenue grew. Unlike their counterparts in other cities, however, these companies stayed out of the high-rent downtown districts. Instead of a large theater company in a center-city cluster of high-profile edifices, Chicago offered a swarm of small, enterprising “off-Loop” theaters, many of them in North Side neighborhoods on the fringes of downtown.

impossible dream

From Chicago our theatre moved to Toronto, where the alternative theatre scene was not only thriving in many ways similar to Chicago’s, but was also funded in some part by government grants and actively covered by the mainstream press.We then found another alternative community on NYC’s Lower East Side when we became the first theatre to produce at ABC No Rio. At one point we had members from all three cities’ alternative art communities working together. No Rio of course epitomized the “storefront rebellion” aesthetic in theatre and art that continues today, and although No Rio is probably slightly more radical than most, it intersects with the “tribe model” now being proposed by Scott Walters and others.

ABC No Rio is a collectively-run center for art and activism. We are known internationally as a venue for oppositional culture. ABC No Rio was founded in 1980 by artists committed to political and social engagement and we retain these values to the present.We seek to facilitate cross-pollination between artists and activists. ABC No Rio is a place where people share resources and ideas to impact society, culture, and community. We believe that art and activism should be for everyone, not just the professionals, experts, and cognoscenti. Our dream is a cadres of actively aware artists and artfully aware activists.

Our community is defined by a set of shared values and convictions. It is both a local and international community. It is a community committed to social justice, equality, anti-authoritarianism, autonomous action, collective processes, and to nurturing alternative structures and institutions operating on such principles. Our community includes artists and activists whose work promotes critical analysis and an expanded vision of possibility for our lives and the lives of our neighborhoods, cities, and societies. It includes punks who embrace the Do-It-Yourself ethos, express positive outrage, and reject corporate commercialism. It includes nomads, squatters, fringe dwellers, and those among society’s disenfrachised who find at ABC No Rio a place to be heard and valued.

When I met Don in Chicago last December, he offered me the opportunity to attend the reading of a new play by Bob Fisher and a discussion that his wife Jen was leading. When we arrived at the reading room, I think it was Dan Granata who joked that we should be alert to the fact that some secret conspiratorial cabal might have had a hand in bringing our little section of the theatrical blogosphere into such close physical proximity with one another. Don, Dan, and Bob are each attempting to lead the discussion on theatre models, so I feel very much part of a new national confederacy of theatres that is trying to articulate and manifest itself.

happy home

Don’s recent call for a local Chicago rally over The Off Loop Freedom Charter I think should be supported by the kindred community of artists nationally. I have said in the numerous arguments with Scott over his Us/Them rants and identity, often in the comment sections at Theatre Ideas, that most artists inhabit a split identity — half “tribe” and half “Nylachi.”Don has articulated the tribe half of the theatre community, much of which rings true to my experience with organizing theatres in The Rat Conference for ten years.

The fact is, even if you are a theater artist lucky enough to actually make a full-time living wage performing or directing or writing (yeah – the freaking six of you out there), you are still a part of a small, fragmented gypsy tribe. Fringe Dwellers. Squatters. Nomads.

Don also points out a core problem that many of us at rat addressed. We had proposed the radical notion of No More Box Office as a way of de-commodifying our work and our theatre lead in the practice of the “potlatch model” of hosting conferences and producing theatre collectively. Don now calls for the same paradigm shift.

The model that nearly everyone works under treats theater as a thing to be bought and sold. And as we labor under this paradigm, countless talents are buried under the weight of creating communication and art while being burdened with the economics of a commodity that, due to the very nature of the paradigm, is increasingly becoming unsellable except under the most superficial methods.

We’ve all read it. We all know that change is in the air. What the fuck are we going to do about it?

The “do” should be the beginning and end of all our talk. Leonard Jacobs is absolutely right in telling us all to shut up and act. The argument over theatre models needs to function as a galvanizing issue that unites us as the national theatre and tribe that we already are; i.e., as artist bloggers, idea and action should be tied together. So if we propose an idea to peers, we need to be willing to carry it into practice ourselves. We need to keep our dreams grounded in what is achievable.

I am in full support of what Don is organizing in Chicago. I am excited by the lead the theatrosphere in that city is taking in building a rat-like confederacy. And, back to the future, I feel the same hope for theatre as an art form I felt thirty years ago when we first imagined our ensemble into existence.

bip

(Crossposted at International Culture Lab blog.)

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Ubu Speaks the Truth on How Theater Failed America

By Nick Fracaro at 9:48 am on Saturday, March 1, 2008

ubu speaks the truth 2

ubu speaks the truth 1

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