May all your artistic endeavors be as awesome as David Byrne and Brian Eno's creative partnership:UPDATE: I didn't realize the widget autoplayed. A thousand apologies.
H/t to my dad, who sent this to me via e-mail!
While sending off a package, you hear the sound of drumming come from above the book store. You used to work at that book store, you know it's the owners' youngest son playing upstairs in his room.
When you worked there, you'd hear him playing every time you left work. This was years ago, you'd hear him lose time as he tried out a Ringo-style fill, you'd hear him struggling to do a double-stroke roll. Now he plays with confidence. He's no Keith Moon, but he'll do.
Odd, isn't it. That you can mark your time in the neighborhood by how well he can mark time on his kit.
I wrote that Favorite Books post and time delayed it before I picked up and read Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion and whoo boy is that ever on my top books of the year list. It's kind of incredible to have started the year with something as verbose and agile as Infinite Jest and end it with something as stripped away, minimal and blunt-force as Play It As It Lays. Man is it good. And terrifying. And almost kind of traumatic to read. Anyone who likes Mary Gaitskill's Veronica should read it. It's a very different kind of book, but it explores similar themes. And really, Didion's minimalism is a force to be reckoned with.
To give just one example... there's a scene where a character's ex-boyfriend breaks into her house while she's away and when she gets back, he's there smoking a cigar in her living room. The scene ends like this:
She could see he was drunk. "I'm going out."
"You aren't going anywhere. Don't tell me no."
"All right," he said. "Fight me. You'll like it better that way anyway."
"What did you come here for." she said at three or four in the morning.
"What I got."
"What did you come here for," she repeated.
"I didn't come here to hurt you, if that's what you mean."
She said nothing.
What makes the scene so startling is that most of what would in a normal novel be the important germane information is contained in a lacuna, in the gap between the two scenes. Most of what you might want to know-- like the level of consent in the sexual encounter between the two characters-- is left out. Much like how a film will tightly frame a shot so as to deny you pertinent information, Didion's prose constantly makes you work to flesh out the scene (in a good way) and is suffused with little mysteries, each more chilling than the last.
Didion had already written two films with her husband at the point, and the above passage in a film would be a jump-cut. What Didion does so skillfully here is translate cinematic techniques into a literary vocabulary. Play It As It Lays doesn't feel like a movie, yet its writing style takes from cinematic form as a way of reexaming how prose can work.
I feel like a similar thing is happening in many new plays with regard to both naturalism and television. Many playwrights (I think of Anne Washburn as a prime example, and Jenny Schwartz of course takes it to an extreme) write in a way that either mimics or is taken from every day speech so exactly that the writing becomes experimental. They're playing with language on stage in a really interesting way because it's totally foreign to the context of theatre for people to actually talk in verbatim everyday speech but with the heightened specificity, attention and intensity of actors.
Similarly, as this Time Out Chicago interview with Sarah Ruhl discusses, many stage gestures that feel cutting edge are adapting gestures generally reserved for television (the author lists "quick scene-cuts, interior fantasy sequences [and] breezy dialogue". But in a way, adapting those gestures to a theatrical vocabulary has resulted in some really interesting, seriously theatrical, impossible to reproduce in another medium type work, while work that actually is a lot less like television-- plays that take place in one location with long extended scenes, naturalistically acted like much of Teresa Rebeck's work, for example-- ends up feeling far more beholden to the TV set.
Elevator Repair Service finally has the Fitzgerald estate's permission to perform Gatz in New York. Thank you, Copyright Gods!
For some background on all of this, perhaps you might want to read my two part interview with ERS' artistic director John Collins. I did it in 2006, back when ERS was going public about their difficulties security an NYC production.
Part one is here.
Part two is here.
Okay, I am not going to post a list of all the books i read this year. Why? Because I forgot to maintain the spreadsheet until it was too late. Crapballs. What I will do instead is list my favorite books I read this year, in no particular order. Here they are:
(1) Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. I was planning on re-reading IJ before DFW took his own life in September of last year, something I realized recently I still feel heartbroken about. I liked the book when I first read it a little over a decade ago. I fucking love it now. Honestly, the second time through the book unfolds in so many interesting ways, and you see a lot more of the extremely clever architecture of the thing. I highly recommend reading it twice, separated by several years. Can't wait for time # 3.
(2) Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem. A kind of comedic response to DeLillo's Underworld, CC finds Lethem exploring the thorny and complicated friendship between Perkus Tooth, a has-been cultural critic and Chase Insteadman, a has-been child TV actor who has found new fame through being engaged to a doomed astronaut who orbits the Earth in a broken space station. A word of warning: This novel moves at the pace and structure of a friendship, it more ebbs and flows than it has a plot or forward narrative drive. It really comes together in the end though, and is so deeply funny and so beautiful on a sentence by sentence level that I found it impossible to put down.
(3) The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch. In his twilight years, a theatre director retires to a cottage by the sea in England to cook, swim and write his memoirs, free of human entanglements. Then, after an initial 85 pages in which nothing much happens, one by one, all of his major ex-lovers show up. TSTS is a difficult book to describe, but hot damn is it beautiful, funny and harrowing in its depiction of man's struggle for both control and something resembling redemption.
(4) Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky. If you want to understand the internet, read Here Comes Everybody, I really don't know what else to say beyond that.
(5) The Gift by Lewis Hyde. Okay, it's true that the chapter on Whitman is bunk, but the first part and the section on Ezra Pound are great. Are you a creative losing hope amidst an economic crisis? The Gift will give you strength.
(6) The Florist's Daughter by Patricia Hampl. A sneaky one, this. Patricia Hampl's memoir about her parents starts with her at her mother's death bed and then flashes cinematically through moments and themes of her upbringing. At first it feels disjointed and almost aimless, a collection of little moments of portraiture rather than a cohesive work. In the last fifty pages though, it coalesces with one devastating-yet-everyday moment after another. And hot damn can Hampl put a sentence together. Her other life as a poet probably don't hurt.
(7) Super Spy by Matt Kindt. I make no excuses for the title of Matt Kindt's beautiful and moving graphic novel peak into the psychology of spycraft during WWII. Following several spies in a kaleidoscopic, out of chronological order narrative, Kindt lets us see the sacrifices made and the oddly unglamorous lives of spies. And there's a section in the middle that might be the best riff on Arabian Nights since Jason Grote's 1001.
(8) Berlin: City of Stones (book one) by Jason Lutes. The first part of an as-yet-incomplete trilogy, Jason Lutes takes a wide-angle lens look into life in the Weimar republic. Following around everyone from an art student to a burgeoning Brown Shirt, the book is beautifully drawn and deep in its characterizations. It's weird to read a book where you know that basically nothing is going to end well, but Lutes' attention to detail draws you in and keeps you attached.
(9) Rip It Up And Start Again by Simon Reynolds. A history of Post Punk (1977-1985) drawn largely from interviews and original criticism by Reynolds, this is a fascinating look into a movement in culture that didn't consider itself a movement. Reynolds starts from the assertion that Post Punk was as important a creative moment in rock music as the late sixties, and proves it (and then some!). I was surprised by how dense the book is, and having a Brit's perspective on artists who are considered one-hit wonders here in the states is quite edifying. You'll discover a few great bands and learn a thing or two along the way.
(10) Brighton Rock by Graham Greene. One of Greene's darkest novels, BR is about the cover-up of a murder that leads (as you might imagine) nowhere good. A relentless and bleak portrait of evil, with one of the greatest last paragraphs I've ever read.
Honorable Mention: 2666 by Roberto Bolano, The Political Brain by Drew Westen, Alias: Book One by Brian Michael Bendis et al, Who Is Teddy Villanova by Thomas Berger, Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays by Zadie Smith.
It seems to me the freak out over Barack Obama's refusal to freak out over a failed terror attack on a plane is a sign of something deeply wrong in our discourse. If we totally freak out over a failed attack, in incentivizes future attacks, as we show that they don't even have to be successful for us to be terrorized.
Frankly, I've been impressed at Obama over this (except for the draft TSA security recommendations, those are ridiculous). He's admitted to failure. He wants accountability. He's refused to politicize it even in ways that make obvious sense. Like, he could use this to really pummel the GOP over their nominee obstructionism (the nominee to head the TSA currently hasn't been confirmed by the Senate).
But the media and the Republicans seem to be outraged that Obama isn't wetting his pants and treating us like babies with night terrors. Blerg.
However this mess ends up, my thoughts are that maybe it’s time to rethink all this museum, opera and symphony funding — and I refer mainly to state funding. A bunch of LA museums just got a bailout from LA real estate king Eli Broad, and that’s great, but I suspect there will be county money involved there somewhere too. I think maybe it’s time to stop, or more reasonably, curtail somewhat, state investment in the past — in a bunch of dead guys (and they are mostly guys, and mostly dead, when we look at opera halls) — and invest in our future. Take that money, that $14 million from the city, for example, let some of those palaces, ring cycles and temples close — forgo some of those $32M operas — and fund music and art in our schools. Support ongoing creativity in the arts, and not the ongoing glorification and rehashing of the work of those dead guys. Not that works of the past aren’t inspirational, important and relevant to future creativity — plenty of dead people’s work is endlessly inspiring — but funding for arts in schools has been cut to zero in many places. Maybe the balance and perspective has to be redressed and restored just a little. Plus, there are plenty of CDs and DVDs of the dead guys out there already, should one be curious.RTWT here. Your thoughts?
Over the holiday, I saw a play called Greetings in Richmond, Va at the area's only commercial theater, Swift Creek Mill Theatre.
It's not a good play, but watching it was a really fascinating experience, one that both reinforces and complicates calls for a more regionally specific and diverse American Theater.
Here's the set up: Andy is returning home to Pittsburgh to visit his Catholic parents and his severely developmentally disabled younger brother Mickey. He's bringing home with his Atheist Jew New Yorker Fiancee, whom his parents have never met and don't know much about. Halfway through an awkward (and eventually explosive) Christmas Eve dinner, Mickey begins talking quite eloquently in a British accent. Antics ensue.
The Artistic Director described it as Neil Simon Meets "Science Fiction" Meets Frank Capra but that's not exactly accurate. It's more like white Tyler Perry meets Defending Your Life meets Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Basically, it has four central characters who exist on some spectrum of faith, from the extremist secularism of the Randi the Atheist Jew to the superstitious Polish Catholicsm of Andy's father. No character has more than about a dimension and a half, because they're there to actually discuss the role of faith in America.
It turns out that Mickey is possessed by a soul named Lucius, and that the assembled characters are all souls that have encountered each other time and again over the generations. Lucius has graduated on to the next level of existence, and has come back because he loves these other souls and wants to teach them a thing or two so they can progress as well. The lessons are fairly simple: be tolerant, middle-of-the-road, don't let fear control you. Both of the fundamnetalists in the show (The atheist and the polish catholic father) are shown to be equally ignorant and at fault etc. etc. and so forth.
When I watched it, I found it both lame and in its portrait of the atheist character, downright offensive. Randi conforms to pretty much every negative stereotypes about atheists you can imagine. She's pushy and intolerant of religious people, refuses to accept a miracle when its obviously happening before her eyes, etc. etc. and so forth. After the show though, I talked with the light designer who is a friend, and he mentioned that they had had frequent walk-outs. Why? Because Lucius says at one point that the Bible has been completely diluted and distorted due to man's desire to control his fellow man. And that the play is a plea for religious tolerance and acceptance of people who think differently than you.
And that got me to thinking about the play... and what I realized is that the play actually goes to quite some lengths to rather sneakily undermine western religion. Lucius, after all, preaches reincarnation, and always dodges questions about God's existence. Fear is the enemy, not unbelief. And what I realized is that within the context of that audience at that show (a pre-Christmas, largely christian, entirely white and mostly middle aged crowd) in that conservative of an environment, doing a show that says the Bible is largely distorted and that God might not exist around the highest of Christian holidays was actually rather radical, even if it came wrapped in a sappy pap package.
At the end of the day, I was not the intended audience for this piece. The Artistic Director found a play that I'm guessing he quite liked (they had done it before at the theater a decade or so ago), but that also speaks in the language of his audience. A language that doesn't really interest or appeal to me, but that's okay. I was not the intended audience for this play (or this theatre), I was a guest, a tourist.
It's rare for me to feel this way in the theatre. I live in New York, I have some money, I'm culturally literate etc. Most plays are made with audiences like me in mind. Greetings decidedly was not. It got a standing ovation the night I saw it. This doesn't abrogate concerns about its quality, a standing ovation doesn't mean that I have to think the play is good, but it worked for that audience, it worked in the specific context of those people in that place at that time. And while that's not the whole picture (it doesn't include, amongst other things, the pushy New York atheist jew in the audience who was repelled by it), it still counts for something.
One of the results of the drive to make theatre more local, more regionally specific, more diverse is going to be that people who are used to being in the "in crowd" in a theatre are going to feel on the outs more often. Not all the time, but more often. I can't say that it's the most enjoyable experience in the universe. That shouldn't stop that drive, but we should at least recognize that that's going to happen.
NPR had a story this morning about how cable TV is fracturing America that was quite fascinating, particularly with regard to our recent conversations about diversity. You can read a summary and.or listen to it here. (The summary presents the story as far more one-sided than the audio is, so I recommend you listen to it.)
The jumping off point is, of course, Seinfeld, with the question being, essentially, without all of these common catchphrases (not that there's anything wrong with it, yadda yadda yadda, and so on) will our ability to communicate, to find common ground, to unibus out of our plurum fade?
It seems that, basically, what's going on here (and has been documented all over the place for awhile) is that technology and the cheap dissemination of information have created a reality where majority culture is, well, not that much in the majority anymore. Just as demographic changes will ensure that whites are a plurality in this nation (and eventually, perhaps, not even that) our hundred gajillion channels of cable ensure that there's plenty of people walking around who (gasp!) don't even know who won American Idol this year. (which reminds me: who won American Idol this year?)
Here's the thing tho: This is happening now, as a maybe inevitable result of advances we've made, and, as with any large cultural shift, it's going to have consequences, some positive and some negative. And to the people who that monoculture catered to (people who look like me, let's be frank) the demise of monoculture is going to feel particularly negative as we'll no longer be in control. But lamenting it seems about as sane as lamenting the tides.
So obviously, the intersections between this and our diversity conversations are many. But let me just say that part of what makes this fracturing possible is that technology is making it easier and cheaper to produce and disseminate cultural products. Cable shows cost much less to develop than network shows. Web shows even less. Viral videos cost nothing. Digital technology makes creating movies and recording music far far easier and cheaper. We're beginning as a culture to feel the impact of all of this. It will only get more dramatic as time goes on.
But you know what none of this affects? The cost of making theatre. YouTube doesn't make renting a theatre any cheaper. Putting up a play, in fact, seems to cost more and more and the barriers to getting work produced by someone else feel thicker and thicker.
This is part of why I feel like there's an urgency that people feel w/r/t diversity in the performing arts. We experience (To some extent) this sea change going on all over the place and wonder why the art form we love the most, that we are the most dedicated to, isn't changing at the pace of everything else. It's frustrating. And meanwhile, those who do not care about or are actively opposed, particularly those who define "good" as "coming out of the aesthetics of white male majoritarian culture" feel particularly threatened. With everything else changing, there's something comforting about institutional theater to those attached to that monoculture.
is how it functions as both a condemnation of and simultaneous advertisement for shallow markers of class status.
Ultimately, part of what makes the movie interesting is how conflicted it is about its subject matter, even as it tries to present a unified front.
The Guardian Online calls Parabasis the second best theatre blog of the year. Not too shabby:
Butler's blog is something of an institution amongst bloggers across the pond, not least because he's hugely prolific. He often posts several times a day on all manner of subjects, while also holding down a career as a director, writer and sometime lighting designer. If there's a debate raging he's likely to be at the centre of it (if, that is, he didn't start it in the first place).
I might have to replace "Lively!" Seriously tho... I feel like in many ways its been kind of a complex year for this blog. I've struggled quite a bit with how I want to continue being in the world, and what theatre's place in that is going to be (I have some thoughts on that that I'll be sharing eventually), this blog has been under attack from many quarters with some frequency. A lot of times, that shit doesn't bother me, but it reached a level of vitriol this year that I was initially unprepared for. I mean, a theatre critic committed the fairly obvious no-no of attacking my work without ever seeing it simply because he and I disagree regularly on our websites. That's pretty absurd.
At the same time, I feel like the community of readers of this blog has expanded, the comment threads are often quite (Dare I say it?) lively, and I got a number of great opportunities as a result of my writing here, including the convening at Arena (And they've just invited me back for another one in January!), going to the TCG conference etc. And I really do love keeping this blog, and I really enjoy my readers' input (even the ones I disagree with) and I love the cross-blog conversations. And I love the colleagues I've met and the friends I've made.
So it's gratifying, after a tumultuous year personally and professionally, to have another reason to focus on the good. Thanks, Guardian. It's greatly appreciated. And to all of you: thanks for making this blog what it is. I started it because I wanted to keep a journal, but since I work in theatre I couldn't comprehend doing something without an audience. And you all are much, much more than audience to me. Thanks for sticking around, participating and being your awesome selves.
Did anyone else out there think it was a little strange that at the last moment Up In The Air tried to make us feel like the people who got fired were doing just great, but we should feel bad for George Clooney? I really, really liked the movie, but the last two minutes struck me as shockingly dishonest and vaguely... dare I say it... immoral.
(I'm talking very specifically about the final set of interviews with the talking heads and the last monologue, I think they were trying to kind of soften the blow and focus the tragedy of the film more sharply on Cloons, but they so overshot the mark that it almost became an apologia for corporate america at the end... did anyone else feel that way or am I out of my f*ing head?)
So I'm just going to link to it and say the following few things:
(1) It's a bit weird to have this blog linked to twice in the course of his post. I'm someone who is all for diversifying individual theaters and the landscape of American theater in general. There's a lot in Tom's post that I'm sympathetic to. That being said, he seems to pissed that we're even discussing Sarah Ruhl in a comments thread, which seems... frankly... odd. Nothing about discussing Sarah Ruhl in a comments thread on Parabasis is going to get in the way of having more theatre outside of Tom's "five major urban areas". Surely if the eventual goal is a "big tent", that tent can include people from New York, Chicago and Boston who want to argue about the second most produced playwright in America.
(2) Tom's "big five" cities thing is flat out wrong. There are many smaller urban areas that have vibrant theatre communities. Portland Oregon, for example, has over 100 theater companies in it. It's the 30th largest city in America, with a population of under 600K. What it does not have very many of are theater companies that exist within the framework of institutional theater in America. it has a quite small handful of those. Washington, D.C., including the Metropolitan area (to be fair) is the 9th largest Metropolitan Area in America, and has the second most equity companies in the country next to New York. San Francisco is the 12th most populous city with a population of 808K and has an active theatre scene etc. etc. and so forth.Minneapolis has a really exciting theatre scene and has a population of under 400K. Philadelphia(6th most populous in the country) has a vibrant theatre scene. Austin, Texas has a vibrant theatre scene with under 800K in population These scenes deserve more recognition than they currently have, but as someone who agrees with Tom that more money should be spent on theatre outside of New York, it dismays me to see that his view of what theatre in America is is clouded by the very institutional system he seeks to disrupt.
(3) I have to just pause and take some serious issue with the last sentence of his post: "Why, that might mean getting theatre out into America, and having more artists live out in America, and meet everyday Americans of all sorts of backgrounds and income levels and ethnic backgrounds and political persuasions – and what an inconvenience that would be! I mean, you just can’t get a good bagel and a smear out there! " It's rich for someone to argue for diversity on the one hand, and slam New York theatre because it's too full of pushy, entitled, condescending urban Jews with the other. I know that the association was accidental, but let's be frank here: Historically, anti-urban and in particular anti-New York sentiment has done a little do see do with anti-Semitism, and its reflected in this final sentence, because Tom's post seems to be coming from a place of knee-jerk anti-New York sentiment rather than any kind of sincere wish to try to contribute to a dialogue about how to make theatre in America better.
That Ruhl thread got me revisiting Rob Kendt's list of the most produced playwrights. Just some food for thought... if you weed out the dead playwrights, the most produced living playwrights of last year were (in order):
#8: Michael Hollinger & Rachel Sheinkin (8 Prods e/)
#7: Conor McPherson & Peter Sinn Nachtreib (9 Prods e/)
#6: Donald Marguiles (10 Prods)
#5: Jeffrey Hatcher (12 prods)
#4: Terrence McNally (14 prods)
#3: Neil Simon (14 Prods)
#2: Sarah Ruhl & Steven Deitz (17 prods e/)
#1: David Mamet (19 prods)
Now, of course, what this list doesn't include is what level these plays were produced on. Both Ruhl and Mamet had plays on Broadway this year (Mamet had several, and all of his were commercial productions while Ruhl's was done through Lincoln Center). Also, if you eliminate book writing for musicals, the list changes a little bit, as Terence McNally loses one point for Ragtime and Rachel Sheinkin wouldn't be on the list at all.
So the list includes two women, no people of color, two Brown MFA grads, and at least two playwrights whose work isn't seen in New York. Also, three Pulitzer Prize winners.