10.15.2009

You Can’t Tell Me What to Think

Or, The American Autocratic Experiment.

We like to think of it as the “democratic” experiment. After all, we elect representatives to run our government. We don’t have any royalty. Winston Churchill, apparently quoting someone else noted, “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”

I had it stuck in my head that Alexis de Tocqueville had said this, and looking through his lines on BrainyQuote, found all kinds of observations that are still remarkably accurate in the 21st century. I assumed it was him because of his book, Democracy in America. This is going back on my reading list.

In addition to whatever organized religion we do (or do not) ascribe to in this country, we also share in the secular religion of democracy, and our sacred texts are, of course, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Sure, some smart person might bring up the separation of powers, or more particularly “checks and balances,” when arguing for or against the idea of an imperial presidency. But then someone else counters that the Constitution says nothing about checks and balances and that you have to go to personal letters of the framers, and those are practically apocrypha.

I digress. The bit that I’ve been stuck on is the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness, plus the purely proverbial “a man’s home is his castle.” Taken together, sacrament and proverb, they push toward an interpretation of “you can’t tell me what to do.” The Roberts Court, our current Supreme Court, continues the Rehnquist trend of pushing back federal rights in favor of states’ rights. The Bill of Rights continues a line toward the individual and away from the federal government.

I can practice any religion, or none. I can carry a gun. I don’t have to incriminate myself (the “fifth,” your honor). The extension of this is that while I elect someone to govern my country, I don’t elect anyone to govern me. It’s not that I’m not necessarily responsible for my actions, but I’m not necessarily responsible to anyone for them.

I’m bringing this up because at the moment, culturally, we seem to be on a collision course between these impulses, fostered, I would argue, by scaremongers like Glenn Beck. YOU are threatened, yes, YOU. What are YOU going to do? Because it’s within YOUR power. YOU are responsible to NO ONE. We do have royalty, it turns out. It's Us. The Constitution says so, and it’s our most holy document.

10.11.2009

The Impediment of Infrastructure

When I was in grad school, Alan Burdette, for whom I was a TA, joked about the radial Catholic E.F. Schumacher and recommended his book, Small is Beautiful (note there are three hyperlinks here). I haven’t read it, I’m sorry to say, even though it’s been on my reading list since then.

There’s a popular meme regarding governments and lemonade stands, many in reference to shutting down kids’ entrepreneurial spirit, some in reference to “I wouldn’t trust X to run Y.” The scorn that I hear when I read this statement makes me wonder what it is about government that suddenly drives people toward incompetence. It’s not like our first MBA president did a bang-up job at regulating or nurturing the economy.

John Steele Gordon summarizes the problem succinctly as: Politicians need headlines. He spends more time on it broadly (that’s just item #2) in this article.

I’m adding a second category of problem, because I think Mr. Gordon is a dyed-in-the-wool ideologue of the “free market is everything” school, and myself, I rather like Jonathan Tasini’s turn of phrase: “the ‘free market’ is just a marketing term.”

It’s not that business is inherently good and government is inherently bad, respectively, at running businesses. Part of their problem is size. We trumpet the idea of “economy of scale,” because it means that we can make expensive things more cheaply. It makes things more accessible. To make this work, we have to develop infrastructure.

Infrastructure is the reason we can all drive cars and trucks all over the country – all over almost any country for that matter. In this case, infrastructure includes roads, bridges, gas stations, not to mention the folks who manufacture those vehicles, the smaller companies that create the widgets that go inside them, that fix them, that exist to counter known problems.

Infrastructure is the reason why developing a non-gas-powered car is going to be a nightmare. Every related interest group is going to line up against new fuel types under all kinds of logic – it’s too expensive, it’ll put gas station owners out of business, it’s impractical.

The bigger the business, the greater the infrastructure – as a rule. There are ways to be flexible, such as sourcing out your R&D. But just to be clear – when we’re talking about how great the market is, we’re talking about how successful a big company is and how nimble a small company is. The problem is that we tend to think those companies are the same thing.

9.20.2009

Common sense, Tea Parties, and Taxes

There’s a photo series running around on Facebook right now, and presumably elsewhere on the ‘net, “Morons holding signs.” It shows hand-made signs with things like “Obama half-breed muslin,” “No Amensty,” and “Descent: the highest form of Patriotic.” As a former grader of student papers, I like my correct spelling and grammar as much or more than most folks I know, but there’s a certain amount of point-missing going on here.

Instead of looking at the substance of the complaints, the comments and forwarding focuses on the fact that some people can’t spell (although it is hard to argue with the slams on the dude holding the sign that says “Get a brain! Morans”). Laughing at someone for calling Obama a half-breed muslin (what’s the other half – tweed?) ignores the birther angle. Maybe that deserves ignoring, but ignore it for what it is, not for n over m. Don't be distracted. Don't be arrogant - it's too easy. It's the wrong argument. It wins you no friends.

So today, Frank Rich wrote a thoughtful and not GOP-bashing piece in the New York Times (I know, no way). He’s talking about Glenn Beck, the 9/12 Project, and the general populist rage going on. Fair enough. Glenn Beck rails against corporate corruption (even though many call him a corporate stooge), against government corruption (even though his fans want to draft him into government), and against wasteful spending. The thing that I really liked about reading this piece by Rich was getting a broader sense of Beck without having to suffer through him personally.

Incidentally, Beck is trying to position himself as a latter day Thomas Paine, with his own version of Common Sense (two links here, by the way). Boy, those old-timers really had an angle on good behavior, didn’t they?

What’s been nagging at me for a couple of days is the combination of left and right wing anger.

Last autumn, I had the pleasure and good fortune to meet Jonathan Tasini, former head of the National Writer’s Union, blogger, state senate candidate (vote!), and all-around tilter-at-windmills with whom I do not always agree. Jonathan thinks everyone should be in a union. He thinks so because he believes in the power of collective bargaining, and he believes that corporations need a counterweight. He’s a got a minutely detailed argument about how U.S. worker productivity has been rising consistently (if not steadily) since at least the 1970s, while wages have remained stagnant (it might be in this book, but I’m not sure).

One of the arguments against the teabaggers’ railing “no more taxes” is that a) we’re paying less taxes now than we were under Reagan. Lots less. And b) more than 90% of us got a tax cut under Obama’s stimulus plan (as represented in less money being taken out of our paychecks). But they’re REALLY angry about something.

What if those arguments were both right? Less taxes but less income? Our paychecks don’t go as far not because the government is taking out more, but because we’re still arguing about the negative effect of, say, raising the minimum wage?

Is this just misplaced anger? Why is it so much more palatable to hate the government than to hate the corporations? What if it wasn't just the government that was the problem?

9.14.2009

On Social Priorities

Or, let the market decide.

About a week ago, Paul Krugman wrote an interesting (and rather lengthy) article about what economists got wrong regarding pretty much everything over the past twenty years, and why they still argue about it. On a side note, one of the reasons I liked reading Levitt and Dubner’s Freakonomics is their assertion that economics is great at measuring – notably, they do not say at predicting.)

This morning Howard Kurtz has a column initially about Glenn Beck and Van Jones, and by the time he gets to the rambling end, about the Obama administration’s attempts to crowdsource policy initiatives. “The people rule – sometimes badly.”

We’re okay accepting that people make mistakes, but there remains a strong and vital belief particularly in the U.S. in the power of the market economy to work itself and everything else out. The theory is that collectively we’re pretty good at figuring things out, even if we’re bad at it individually (RadioLab also did a good piece on this, but I can’t remember which one. Just listen, it’s a good show).

This summer I worked for 6 weeks as the construction coordinator on an independent feature film using a low-budget union agreement, even though we began as a non-union film. I had no “qualifications” per se, in terms of a degree or anything, but I have years of experience in theater and carpentry, and a shop, and between one and the other, plus an experienced boss who figured I’d be a good bet, I got the job.

For four and a half I taught university classes. Last spring I was adjuncting again, but for the two years previous to that, I was salaried. I spent six years getting my Ph.D., so I’m qualified (minimally) to do that.

I made more money on an indie film in a comparable period of time than I did teaching full time at the university. Taking my benefits into account, I probably made about the same amount of money. When I taught adjunct last spring, I calculated that I was making a little above minimum wage, in the 7.50/hour range.

The “market” may have determined what my wages were within each job scheme, i.e. how much I make as a university instructor, but it doesn’t weight that job against another, say construction coordinator.

“Society” has made that determination. Just like the market, society is us, of course.

Sometimes I feel like watching democracy in action is simply an exercise in watching an id-driven puberty-wracked teen trying to curb his worst impulses. Only the worst ones, though. The bad ones are too much fun.

8.09.2009

Comments and dialogue

something is preventing me from commenting on my own comments and letting me have more dialogue.

clearly, I'm too stupid and tired to figure this out right now, so: apologies.

critics on criticism

I've been working on a feature film in a minor capacity at a minimum of 72 hours a week. It ends next Saturday and I'll get back to writing. In the meantime, links.

http://blogs.thestage.co.uk/shenton/2009/08/whats-the-point-of-professional-critics/

http://articles.latimes.com/2008/apr/08/entertainment/et-goldstein8

http://www.minyanville.com/articles//7/1/2009/index/a/23376

http://www.altfg.com/blog/film-movies/roger-ebert-film-criticism/

and the one I was trying to find while running into all of these others:

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/07/18/movies/18crit.html?_r=1&oref=slogin

8.02.2009

I Want to Believe

One of the particularly brilliant things about the 1990s sci-fi espionage thriller The X-Files is how it rewarded faith. Only in the world of Fox Mulder could his suspicions – “I don’t know, Scully, sometimes human evolution does take a great leap forward” – voiced somewhere in the second act, actually be one hundred percent true. Of course, they had to be true – there wasn’t enough time in a single episode (especially the monster-of-the-week episodes) for Mulder to develop a theory. No, his theories had the weight of exposition. They didn’t just describe the world of The X-Files, they defined the world of The X-Files (insert whistling theme music here).

I believe a lot of things, some of them more far-fetched than other. Par for the course. I believe in gravity (I can test it). I believe in evolution (also test-able, though not on so large a scale as required for it to be accepted as “law”). I believe some traditionally “conservative” things: the government is only mediocre at best at solving problems; that liberal social policies will be abused by people who take advantage of the letter of the law; that people tend to care more about things they own than about things to which they have access; that the second amendment to the Constitution is a good thing. I believe some traditionally “liberal” things: it is smart to minimize the wage gap; racism in particular and discrimination in general are social ills that need constant addressing; that the first amendment to the Constitution is a good thing.

Big deal, so what.

The problem is that when I say “believe” there is a suggestion – somewhere buried between my words – that I believe in facts. Because I'm a reasonable person, and you're a reasonable person, and you also believe in facts. It doesn't always shake out this way, though, and there are a couple of consequences.

When we dispute somthing (is there such a thing as global warming, should the Skylight have fired Bill Theisen, can there ever be a moral justification for abortion), we marshal facts as well as opinions that have the weight of facts. In other words, our opinions start to feel like reality. Our being gets tied up into the argument. Am I smart or dumb to believe what I do? I believe in facts – according to me. According to you, I believe in fanciful superstition. Suddenly what I believe becomes a marker for what kind of person I am. Barack Obama can never satisfactorily defend the fact of his birth in Hawai’i, because to Birthers this is only a “fact,” a statement without defense. What Birthers want to believe is that Obama was not born in the U.S., and therefore, constitutionally, not eligible to be president. No amount of facts (or “facts”) will ever be enough to convince them, because their belief is an article of faith.

I want to believe, and by wanting to believe, I deny any other options.

When we argue, we like to think that we rely on logic. We use causality, deduction, induction – but we also argue from a particular perspective that helps to define our facts. What the Greeks knew, what politicians and the media know, is that argumentation or persuasion is only partially about logic and facts. Logic and facts are simply tools in my persuasive arsenal. The real clincher is emotion, which connects to faith.

The summer before my senior year of university I went with three other friends to Ohio to try and start up a theater enterprise. Logic told us that it would be difficult to land jobs, but we wanted to believe that we were skilled enough, resourceful enough, to find something. Logic told us that we were fighting an uphill battle for audiences, for ability, for talent, but we wanted to believe that we could pull it off. Our rendition of The Mystery of Irma Vep, was, I believe, fairly awful – but I have trouble remembering because my left wrist was in a cast for the fracture I’d received several days before when I slipped climbing through a trap door. It came as a relief when our second show, Mississippi Nude was censored because we’d wanted to use some Robert Mapplethorpe photos that were, at the time, controversial (hard to believe now). It was ill-fated from the start, but we wanted to believe, we wanted our dream to be true, to be successful.

I want to believe, and because I want to believe, I will fly in the face of many things I know to be true, to be good ideas, to be smart.

What do you want to believe?

7.16.2009

"Ignorance," gut reactions, and credentials

Or, who gets to say what sucks.

This past spring, local mom Emily posted to her family blog about her experience at the Milwaukee Art Museum (by the way, why is there no "Yes, MAM" campaign? It's right there!). Lots of people linked to her blog, lots of people in the art world mourned her ignorance, pitied her, patronized her, she became the subject of some debate - stop me if you've heard this one.

Anyway, same song, different tune just happened at the Walker in Minneapolis (thanks to Lisa for passing this on).

Things I thought were interesting:
It's just one guy's opinion.
People still go after his credentials.
The tone of the debate-conversation is a lot more civil than what I remember happening here.

Here's the link to the site as I first saw it.

7.06.2009

Art versus Critics

I don't know that any of this posting is true, or accurate, but it feels right. Here goes.

Let’s assume for the moment that I am not particularly thin-skinned. Also, I can take criticism. Granted, those are two big Ifs, let’s just take it as a thought problem for the moment. Now add to the mix: I am a working artist (insert any number of jokes here). I might do any kind of art – theater, creative non-fiction, visual art, music, or I could be the kind of guy who makes a living not out of doing anything, but for being who I am in an exceptionally entertaining way. If all this is true (not thin-skinned, take crit, working artist), I probably still don’t like critics. Well, maybe I like just that one guy, just to show how open-minded I can be, but that’s just tokenism. The exception that proves the rule.

Part of the problem is that I don’t know what the critic’s job is. I mean, I can go on and on about what the job should be, but I don’t really know. I haven’t gone to the critic’s boss to find out what her job description is, but I state with confidence that I don’t need to. See, knowing the should gives me power. Really it doesn’t give me anything more than an opinion. I'm an idealist trapped in a realistic world. I know that my Ideal Critic doesn’t obey my Shoulds, but I don’t let it bother me in the abstract, because I know the Real World doesn’t operate that way. I can’t help let it bother me in the concrete, though, which is why I don’t like Critics, except that one guy. No, he doesn’t like all my shows, I’m not a shill for him anymore than he is for me. We’re above that kind of thing, that’s how cool we are.

I wrote about some of the job factors that theater critics might have, outlined not from my own belief system but from what I’ve heard people talk about or comment on. And then there’s the whole sales issue – you know, a critic can make or break a play, a gallery show, a film (except anything by George Lucas, who seems to be critic-proof). Separately I wrote about their audiences, and the fact that one of their audiences is their reading public, not the artists’ viewing (or listening) public.

This next bit is just supposition, but it sounds right to me so I’m writing it down. I think one of the big reasons that artists generally don’t like critics is that they remind us of commerce.

That’s badly phrased.

They remind us that we sell our art or that we sell access to our art. That there is a wholly commercial element to our sacred work.

We justify our own participation – gotta make mortgage, gotta buy groceries, I worked hard on this, there’s the materials to take into account, doesn’t my craft count for anything, how can you put a price on expression. Oh, wait, I just did – I charged you twenty dollars to come to my show. Ahem. Well. It’s a bargain.

It’s not like critics shove this fact down our throats. But just by doing their jobs, just by being, they remind us on some level that we are dependent on sales.

What a bunch of jerks.

p.s. here’s a former critic turned playwright on the subject of critics writing about new plays.

Next Criticism: Solution one, professional peers.

7.03.2009

Credentials

Okay, so True Artists generally don’t like critics. We've got that covered. What we frequently say (whether we are True Artists or just plain artists), is that it’s just one person’s opinion. Why does that one opinion bother us so much then? Because I’m here to tell you, we doth protest too much, doncha know.

I’m going to start off with qualifications, because that’s generally our first line of attack. I’m starting with my list of things that critics do. And with no commentary from anyone out there, I’m forced to conclude that my preliminary list is Okay. Here is a recap:
1. To comment on the show (or to the art generally speaking).
2. To speak and/or recommend to a potential audience
3. To speak to the artists.
4. To advance the art form.
5. To advance the community.
6. To educate the audience regarding the play and the art alike.

What are the necessary qualifications for commenting on the show? I know, someone’s going to protest that none are, that all emotional reactions to the artwork are valid (isn’t that what art is supposed to do, after all, arouse some emotion?), or maybe any reaction at all, or any interpretation at all, is valid. To a certain extent, I’d agree, save one thing: the critic gets paid. We’re holding her to a higher standard.

That higher standard suggests education. The critic doesn’t have to know the show in advance (how on earth could she review a new work, were that the case?), but does need to know the art form. For theater, because that’s my specialty – I'd say she ought to know some history – classical theater, 20th century theater, and contemporary are the big three/four. Sure, you can know all about Restoration and Symbolism, but honestly, those don’t get produced a lot. If you know classical (Greeks and Renaissance alike, in different senses of the “classical” word) plus the recent past, you can brush up on Symbolism the next time someone produces Maeterlinck. Trust me, it’s not going to happen often.

Why am I advocating shortcuts? Because there’s too much that’s happened. Theater historians don’t know it all, and we’re not even talking about them, we’re talking about a different job entirely. So: know the big points and that’ll give you a sense of how to connect the dots when you need to do so.

On that note, connecting the dots, the critic might want to have a handle on the period culture as well – what theater meant then, for example. I don’t mean what it Meant in terms of Art, but how theater and audiences understood one another. Shakepeare may be High Art now, but he was Steven Spielberg back then, just as capable of writing something thoughtful as he was of writing something crowd-pleasingly craptacular. There’s a reason why MacBeth and Titus Andronicus were his best sellers, and it’s got a lot to do with blood and guts to my mind. Shakespeare was no fool - he was looking for butts in seats.

And she should be a decent writer.

To summarize: Know the art form, both what goes into it and what it’s been historically. Know the relationship between the art form and the audience. Can write.

I think this has been mostly straightforward up until now. But there’s always got to be a wrinkle.

What are the differences between credentials and qualifications? I have a Ph.D., which are the credentials I need to teach at the university level. However, there is nothing in most programs that requires a Ph.D. to know how to teach. In other words, credentials trump qualifications. For that matter, at research institutions (University of Wisconsin – Madison, University of Indiana – Bloomington, Harvard University, etc.), professors are rewarded more for publications (books and articles) than they are for teaching. I bring this up to make the point: credentials do not necessarily establish qualifications.

The fact that I re-built my porch last year, passing all city inspections, suggests that I am qualified to build a porch for you, but I don’t have a degree in carpentry. Our résumés distinguish education and training (credentials in the forms of degrees, certificates) from our history (qualifications in the list of relevant stuff we have done). Credentials are official; qualifications may be official, but they are no guarantee of quality. Example: how many bad drivers do you know with a license? The state has granted us the credentials to drive, but that doesn’t mean we’re any good at it.

By the way, I don’t want to build you a porch. Let's just get that straight.

The reason I make the distinction between credentials and qualifications is because we all know credentialed people who are total, unqualified boobs. Yet, we may not be able to hire some superbly qualified people because of whatever protocol we might be following. So: credentials are no guarantee. I’m not saying anything surprising here.

But it has bearing. People who dismiss Damien Jaques at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel assert that he’s not qualified. What they mean is that he’s not credentialed. Jaques has been reviewing since the early 1980s, I believe (correct me if I’m wrong, anybody). A carpenter without a license who’s been working for nearly 30 years, hire him, he’s going to have a bunch of tricks. A theater critic who’s been writing for nearly 30 years, no way, can’t be qualified.

This sounds to me like: “I don’t like Jaques’ reviews,” which is an emotional response, but not a particularly logical one. That’s certainly how people responded to Steffen Silvis and to Christopher Piatt as well.

I’m not saying that people can’t be bad reviewers. I am saying that we need to get our words straight. I don’t know how long Silvis and Piatt have been writing criticism, but Jaques has seen more theater in a year than I have in the past five years. Seems pretty on-the-job qualified to me. We can call any of them dumb, we can accuse them of bad writing (this argument has actual merit as an argument), we can accuse them of being failed artists. And we do – we accuse them of all this and more.

And it makes us sound just a little petty.

It’s a distortion of the truth to say that a reviewer is just one person’s opinion. It is true, of course, but what it distorts is the fact that that their opinion counts more. Jaques’ opinion matters more than Bickerstaff’s – the Journal Sentinel (a daily paper) has more readers than the Shepherd Express (a weekly). Both of their opinions matter more than mine does, given that I don’t work at any kind of paper at all.

They have a platform from which to speak, a megaphone if you will. Their voices are louder.

Which raises a question: do we not like critics because they criticize, or because they’re louder than we are? Do we not like them for who they are, or because of where they work? Because I guarantee you, if we put in another reviewer at the Journal Sentinel, we’re not going to like her either. It’s a thankless job, after all.

And yet – it’s a bellwether. We lament the loss of a critic when the job is eliminated as newspapers decline. It makes me think of lovingly abusive siblings: no one beats up my little brother but me.

Next Criticism: A guess this time why we don’t like critics, but it’s just a guess

6.27.2009

What Are We Doing?

You can take this question a couple of ways. Literally: what is the action? Consequentially: what is the result of my action? Purposefully: why am I doing this? None of them addresses the how, and none of them addresses the Law of Unintended Consequences.

What are we doing?

I’m asking this question right now in the wake of the Arts Advocacy Breakfast on Friday morning in Milwaukee, which I missed, being en route to San Francisco (nice city – lots of hills and fog). I’m also in the middle of Anne Basting’s Forget Memory, which is about people with dementia and how using art can reach them in a different way. I’ve just begun reading John Carey’s What Good are the Arts, which is very interesting, and it’s great to have Anne’s thoughts as a counter to his. While I was in Prague I read Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s Freakonomics, so these are the books that are informing my language and my ideas at the moment.

Advocacy: here, influencing behavior, making a change. Levitt and Dubner’s point of attack is incentive. We have an incentive – we want to make the world a better place. That’s a nice and innocuous phrasing. More concretely: we want to make the Skylight a better place – that’s no longer nice or innocuous. It’s concrete, and the subtext if not overt phrasing includes (for many people) getting rid of Eric Dillner and the Executive Committee. Okay, past innocuous, right into contentious.

Who can make this decision? Well, Mr. Dillner and the Executive Committee can choose to step down. The other possibility is that the rest of the board bands together to force them to step down. Let me know if I’m missing anyone here, but it seems to me that those two options are all that are on the table. And that brings me back to Levitt and Dubner: what’s their incentive?

They seem to be calculating that “the rancor” will pass. Personally, I think they're making a solid bet. They don’t hold all of the cards, but they’ve got a lot of them. The challenge of the grassroots organization is wielding power. “Grassroots” suggests that we’re all ordinary people, we don’t have special influence – and influence is exactly what advocacy needs if it’s going to be anything but making noise. The board’s job – precisely – is to take care of the institution. They are responsible to no one but themselves (as far as I know). This suggests that the incentive necessary to encourage them to change their collective approach is to threaten the institution. Gather people to pull subscriptions; gather donors to pull money. Make the board see that their continuing actions are so displeasing so as to cause their community to withdraw its support. Do we really want to do this?

See: Pyrrhic Victory; also, “cut off one’s nose to spite one’s face.”

What are we doing?

Another option, suggested to me and a couple of others by Jessica St. John (formerly of Milwaukee, now of New York City) is to go ahead and start another company – this one with Bill Thiesen, Jamie Johns, and for all I know Diane, Kelley, Jason, and Ralph. I have to think that Bill and Jamie have good rolodexes. Isn’t this part of the community’s concern, that these people (good people and good artists) aren’t working anymore?

To the statement, “we shouldn’t have to do this,” I answer: maybe we shouldn’t. So what? Maybe we have to.

One of the other questions that’s embedded in “what are we doing” is “what do we want.” What a lot of people want is for things to Go Back to the Way Things Were – with Bill at the helm, with Jamie at the piano, with the Skylight the way “we’ve always known it.” That’s not going to happen. Even if Eric steps down and Bill steps up, all of this has happened. Nothing is going to be the same. We are never going back to the way things were.

Okay, now someone is going to tell me that all of this was productively covered at the breakfast that I missed. Oops.

And incidentally, while Jamie Johns has been vocal about his position, what about Bill Thiesen? I’ve seen him quoted (or paraphrased) as considering coming back next year, but otherwise he’s keeping a low profile. And that’s his business, of course – I don’t mean to drag him where he doesn’t want to be. I do mean to ask about all of this advocacy on his-and-the-Skylight’s behalf. Does he want to go back – now? With this Board of Directors? Just a thought.

6.25.2009

The Marketplace of Ideas

This doesn’t look like an arts-related post, but it is. This will become more clear with the follow-up later next week.

My sophomore year of university I studied abroad – 1989-1990 in Spain, at the University of Seville. True to age, nineteen, I was fairly convinced of my sophistication and in this case, fairly liberal. I listened to “Dream of the Blue Turtles” and thought, that’s right, Sting, Russians are people, just like us. Don’t get me wrong, I still believe this, but I’ve got a little more nuance to my views. Nineteen years old, I wasn’t so big on nuance. The American administrator who ran the program I was on, CIEE, was conservative – or at least that’s how I placed him. We didn’t talk U.S. politics, so I’ve no idea if he’d been for Bush (41) or Dukakis, but we did talk European politics. Now, not knowing his politics, I’d say he was a pragmatist back then. He was against Communism (when there was still a Communism to be against) because, “Communism doesn’t work because it wants everyone to be equal. No one wants to be equal. We all want to be better than the next guy. I believe in capitalism because its functioning relies on human nature.”

Market conservatives in the U.S. (by the way, this is not intended to be an overtly political post – when I say “conservative,” I do not necessarily mean “Republican”) support the market because it’s effective at coming up with new and effective ideas. They are against government programs because the “the government gets it wrong.” The nuanced view of this is that government generally has one chance to get it right. There are too many layers of bureaucracy and entrenched interests to allow for easy change. What are the odds of getting something right the first time, even with all of the drafting that goes into it? Maybe especially all of the drafting that’s done by committee.

The “market” has the advantage of creative destruction – which isn’t quite synonymous with a redundancy of approach, but isn’t necessarily that far from it either. If two or three or four people (or groups) have the same idea – say, to form a theater company – maybe not all of them survive. By approaching the idea in parallel, everyone going together at the same time, they’re able to sort out their approaches and their audiences are able to sort out what they way. I’m disregarding for the moment a number of seemingly critical factors, like whether or not the administration of one group is more or less effective, or whether one starts off with money and another doesn’t.

The fact is, hardly anyone conservative – in this regard – wants to be first. Being first at something requires a particular, particularly entrepreneurial spirit. A conservative approach to money (or to capital generally speaking), which is to say a careful approach to money or capital, means that you want to be a close second. Sure, here in the U.S. everyone talks about winning winning winning, second place is only the first loser, and all that other competitive stuff. And most of us believe it, or act like we believe it even when we profess our disdain. What we’re not sure about is whether this particular race is the right one. Who wants to place first in the wrong race?

I work occasionally in commercials, sometimes in the art department, sometimes in grip-electric. When we started a non-profit a couple of years ago, Bad Soviet Habits, we asked an advertising agency we’d done work for, Kohnke-Hanneken (now defunct) to design a logo and a look for us. Agencies like doing free work more than you’d think. The reason is that they have much freer creative rein. They can be daring and inventive, and they submitted our whole look for some award thingy or another. Then these daring looks become part of their portfolio, what they use to shop themselves to clients who might hire them, say Manpower (I'm using them because I’ve never worked on one of their spots, don’t know who’s got their account, and mean them just to be the neutral representative of a Client). Manpower looks at this really daring portfolio, hires K-H (or another agency) to do the work because they’re “edgy,” and promptly asks them to do the safest, most boring, tamest design they can come up with. No one’s going to phrase it that way, they’re going to talk about being Careful. Can’t offend anyone.

When Seth Stevenson of Slate.com asks Larry Bloomenkranz of Progressive Insurance if the two guys in their insurance commercial are supposed to be gay, Bloomenkranz demures. "The ad was not written specifically to be gay. But if people interpret it that way, it's fine with us." I’m telling you: that is a lie. That crew discussed and discussed and figured out every nuance. What clothing will they wear? How close will they stand together? Okay, let me backtrack. Maybe it wasn’t written for them to be gay, but it was directed so that the ambiguity would be there.

Progressive is remarkable because they are at the front of this. No one puts gay characters in commercials. Don’t want to offend anyone, and I know everyone likes how much money gay couples with no kids are reputed to have, but then there’s all of “middle America,” and we can’t offend them either. An ad in a gay-oriented magazine? No problem, because “middle America” probably won’t look at it – targeted marketing. Television is too accessible to everyone.

So think about that – this coy, coy commercial – that’s the vanguard. That’s what counts as daring. Impressive, no?

Entrepreneurs are the ones looking at the box and trying to make it work for them. It’s a mindset more than a personality. Anyone can do it. It’s understandably easier when you’ve got less to lose. Conservators (think about the relationship between conserve, conservative, conservator, conservation) have to be careful. They’re going to look at the entrepreneurs and see who survives, who’s got staying power. They’re not just investing in an idea, or a theater company when it gets to patronage, after all. They’re investing in a person.

6.22.2009

Criticism and Critics: Who’s the audience?

To whom is the reviewer speaking? There are two obvious constituencies, and one not so obvious.

In decreasing degrees of obvious-ness, the first group to which the critic talks is the potential theater audience. This fact highlights the tension inherent between the theater community (or the arts community? Please – someone in another arts field let me know how the facts shake out differently) and critics. They are essentially doing advertising – only some of the times the billboards read: SHOW SUCKS! AVOID AT ALL COSTS! Naturally, the theater community’s inclination is to fire this particular marketing director.

From the theater community’s perspective, the critic has one particular incentive that is all too-often ignored: to advance the community – in this case, the community of theater audiences. After all, doesn’t the critic’s very job depend on this community? If there is no audience, so the logic goes, then there is no theater. No theater means no reviews, which is to say, no critics. From a purely self-interested perspective, shouldn’t critics be doing more to shore up, to develop this community? Shouldn’t they be as much of a development director as a marketing director? Why don't you say better things?

There is not exactly a consensus on how to approach the idea of “development.” One reviewer I knew in Indiana took the cheerleader approach, and was very forthright about trying to get people out to see theater, any theater. He wouldn’t lie in his reviews, but he would (to my mind) misrepresent the whole experience of any show he saw by writing only about its positive aspects. Does the “analytically critical cheerleader” exist? Clearly, cheerleading will only go so far – and if the critic only supports shows, their judgment will be called into question. This person has to be an honest broker, as the saying goes. Presumably, this is what we mean when we talk about journalism – it’s not necessarily objective, but it is intellectually and emotionally honest.

There is a second group to whom the critic is speaking in this regard, however, and one that the theater community tends to ignore – not because we’re dumb, but either because it’s not our audience, or because it should be our audience, and we’re that solipsistic. That second group comprises the potential readers – of the newspaper, the online journal, the blog. Damien Jaques at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is quite articulate about his audience: they are the readers of the paper. Although I haven’t spoken to him about this since he instituted his blog, I expect that his limitation of space (expressed in column inches) doesn’t impact what he can write about on the virtual geography of his blogspace.

In other words, the electronic form of the medium allows for both greater depth and greater breadth. The question is, and I don’t know the answer, how many people read him in the print edition, how many the online, and how many easily access both? How overlapping are these two reading populations?

When speaking to the Potential Theater Audience, the critic is of course commenting on the show, and also recommending to go or not to go (items 1 and 2 from last week's Criticism post). If acting in the “development” capacity, she might also choose to add advancing the community (potentially item 4, certainly item 5).

Keep in mind, I’ve only been talking so far about the Most Obvious Audience for reviewers. Two to go.

The second audience with whom the critic can interact is the theater community (item 3 from the list). Suddenly she is no longer presuming to act as a filter, but is speaking directly to the artists, typically in a critical capacity more than in a praising one. While this is an entirely reasonable perspective for a critic to write from, for theater artists it is nothing but problematic.

In the first place, the critic still has same more-or-less stable body of audiences (viewing population, reading population, artists). In other words, this more personal critique still functions as a negative filter, and a more personal one at that. It’s not that we don’t want constructive criticism – we do – but this kind of communiqué comes at our expense, we suspect.

Secondly, this personal communication is inconsistent. It is difficult to frame a response when it seems to come at the critics’ whims. I hasten to add that this is not always the case. When I directed John Leicht and Michael Neville’s script CAFÉ DES BON TEMPS several years ago, Shepherd Express then-critic Jason Powell wrote me privately in advance to give warning that he wouldn’t be giving us a good review (apparently no longer available online). Based on conversations I’d had with Jaques, I knew that space would be an issue, probably more so in the free weekly that is the Shepherd, so I asked him if he would consider sending me a more detailed criticism personally. He did, which was above and beyond the letter of his job. It took some of the sting out of his review, which is really just a perk, and gave us something more concrete to think about.

There is an obvious reason why Jason emailed me ahead of time. I was about to direct him in my next show, ROUNDING THIRD at the Boulevard. Which is to say two things: Jason regularly writes and acts, and he had a stake in not creating a bad working relationship before we started having a working relationship. This is, of course, pure self-interest – but it led to the most productive, professional exchange I’ve ever had with a critic.

The third, and least obvious, population that the critic has to speak to is her journalistic peers – people at the same paper, or other critics generally speaking. I can’t address this very clearly, not being a critic and not having this issue, but I can imagine it from an artist’s perspective. If I were to program and direct a season that consisted of Edward Albee’s The American Dream, Caryl Churchill’s Far Away, Nicky Silver’s Fat Men in Skirts, and Sarah Kane’s Blasted, and they were all done well, I could reasonably assume that everyone would think I had mastered elements of absurdism, expressionism, and grotesque. Why would I follow this season up with a freelance job directing Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream? Rightly or wrongly, Shakespeare is one of theater’s gold standards, just as many canonical 20th century plays are. Great, you can do stylized theater – but can you handle heightened, poetic language? Can you handle American Realism?

I imagine that theater journalists have similar issues – what they see, what they like, how they write. Just because they’re in print doesn’t mean that self-presentation doesn’t matter. What’s the written equivalent to ripped jeans versus pressed, pleated pants?

Next week: Credentials and Platform (or, why we listen to “one person’s opinion”)

6.20.2009

Das (Kultural) Kapital

Or: Why the non-profit model is ancient but not obsolete (part I).

It’s conventional wisdom that there’s two sides to a story and that there’s more than one way to skin a cat. Fine and good. But how many ways are there to count? One, two, three, four… Okay, them’s the “integers,” if we want to use a fancy word. Pi is a number, too, though. So is the imaginary number (I kid you not, that’s what it’s called), which is the square root of -1. There are a lot of ways to count. Just ask an accountant.

Counting matters because how you count determines how much you keep – particularly when we’re talking about the tax code, withholdings, and what we pay to federal, state, and local governments. Two big ways of counting are “for profit” and “not for profit.” In the for-profit case, the owners get to walk away with extra money, though this is for small business owners typically not as impressive as it sounds. In the not for profit case, there are no owners; instead there is the responsible authority, the Board. In both cases, employees can do very well. Joe Dowling, artistic director at the Guthrie Theatre, reputedly makes just shy of $700,000, not unlike the disparity between pay at a for-profit corporation between a CEO and an assembly line worker.

Not for profit doesn’t mean “don’t make a lot of money.” It just means the owners, the responsible party, the Board, doesn’t take any money home. In fact, at some bigger institutions, the Board is required to pony up. That’s right – for the privilege of giving us your time, sitting on committees, maybe even going to see plays you don’t like or music you don’t care for, or charities you could give a rat’s ass about, you are asked to contribute to the bottom line. Maybe it’s only $1,000 a year. Maybe it’s more. Maybe you’re cajoled into a pyramid-like scheme in which every year you’re to bring in more subscribers, or more donors. Only it’s not really a pyramid scheme because you’re not promising any money back.

Why the hell would you give your time and money away like that? I work freelance freelance freelance and occasionally teach at the university level, and as much as we struggle to balance books, my time is much more valuable to me, because I have so much less of it. This seems to me to be a crazy calculus.

Why indeed. How many ways can you count?

Maybe your law firm does pro bono work – because it’s good “corporate citizenship,” and they want to raise their profile in the community. As an associate or a partner, you might be required to serve so many hours on so many boards. There’s the time part of the equation. And the money? Well, it’s tax deductible on your federal 1040, so it’s not a total wash. This part of the tax code allows us as citizens to direct where our “tax” dollars go, to some degree, if we have enough money that we beat the standard deduction. In other words, if you’ve got a lot of money coming in, you can direct it toward books-not-bombs, if that’s how you feel.

This doesn’t apply to most of us, but honestly, who thinks that the tax code was written for most of us? Back to counting.

Let’s say you’re an up and coming doctor. One way of getting people to know you, to trust you, and thereby to believe in you and ultimately to give you their business, is to join a board. Okay, you’ve got some interests. You like music, contemporary music. Choices! You could join the board for WMSE or for Radio Milwaukee – they’re both non-profit! A wealth of opportunities at your hands. Are the listeners of either station ever going to meet you, and thereby trust you, et cetera et cetera? No. But you’ll meet other people on the board, who are up and coming like you. Or maybe they’re established. You think just any lawyer or accountant can get a seat on the board of the Symphony, or the Ballet, or the Art Museum?

I’m making it sound like there are no altruistic people out there, and that’s simply not the case. There are, and a lot of people serve on boards selflessly. Not only that, a lot of non-profits take advantage of their board members and chew them up. It’s a relationship, and abuse can run both ways.

All I mean to say with these examples is that there are financial incentives for boards to exist. There are financial incentives for people to join them, and as I implied with the Symphony and company (and I don’t mean to single them out – they’re just big), there are different payoffs at different levels.

But not for profit versus for profit are just two different ways of counting, and there are a lot more than two sides to any given story.

Let me hit a couple of stereotypes about artists right away. We’re divas. We’re babies. We don’t know how to manage money. We’re selfish, self-centered, self-important. I’m sure I’ve missed a couple of hundred, but you get the point. The other thing about artists, the thing that trumps all of our bad features? We’re cool. Not all of us (me, for instance: dork central), but enough of us. Cool diva: Tom Cruise. Cool baby: anyone who asks to have the green M&Ms taken out. Cool bigot: Mel Gibson. Cool guy who mismanages money: Donald Trump (really? You’re still going bankrupt?). Cool self-important: Madonna. And yes, I consider Trump to be more of an artistic personality than I do a financier, so there. Another post for another day.

Now “cool” is relative. You might not think any of them are cool. Maybe you think Britney Spears is cool, or Bono, or Jeff Koonz, or Mary Zimmerman. What I’m saying is this: whomever you think is cool, someone is already sick of their shit. But you – or me – we’d hang with Franka Potente, or Frances McDormand, or Joel and Ethan Coen (heck, I’m not greedy, either one will do). Why would we do this? Because we relish the awkward conversation?

ME: (gushing) I’m a big fan of your work.
FRANCES MCDORMAND: You know I’m married, right?

No, with any luck and a lot of self-control, we will have an only-reasonably awkward conversation, the kind that happens between two people who have nothing in common at all, and maybe we exchange some real information. Maybe we even have a Real Connection.

But no matter what, I have a story. I met someone important. Cool brushes off, and now I can tell my friends about the cool person I met. Yes, it’s shallow, but we all do it. My wife – an excellent film producer, but hardly anyone who’s name will ever grace a marquee – was doing an apartment sublet in Chicago a few years ago while working on a film. Said apartment’s owner was a dentist. A very good dentist. And she reveled in having someone who had an exciting career IN HER HOUSE!!! It didn’t matter that my wife came back at 11pm on a good night, and got up between 5 and 6am. She was working on a MOVIE! And it’s not like my wife and I are any better. We talk about the people we’ve run into, or worked with (Bernie Mac, of course, and a peach of a man he was, too), or know through someone else (I have it on good authority that George Clooney has back problems – thanks for the story, Sarah Price!). Or we exchange war stories. Remember the time we had to work all night? Remember when the personnel lift fell over and no one got hurt? Remember when the super-conscientious technical director broke his own nose while de-burring a steel pipe?

This is called “cultural capital,” and it’s a different kind of money. Unlike regular money, you can spread it around easily through experience – it’s contagious. But just the same as regular money, there’s inflation. How cool can you be? I only talked with Bernie Mac, I wasn’t the person he flirted with, but I was part of the (very, very, very) brief conversation. But that’s her story, not mine.

At least five reasons to be on a board, not in the order I’ve presented them. Altruism – you really believe in what you’re doing. Financial incentives that help you re-direct your wealth. Civic mindedness towards the community generally speaking. You get to hang out with cool people. Lastly – you get to meet other people in your sphere, or in a sphere just above you, you make connections with people who share your cultural capital.

The big question: is it worth it?

That’s an individual question. I’ve had friends who’ve served on boards simply as a favor. They do everything that’s asked, but they don’t relish it. They view it as a responsibility. I’ve had friends who throw themselves heart and soul into projects. And then there are the stories about boards that take over (thanks to Megan Powell for this recent story). Maybe they decided they’re cooler than the people they boss around.

There aren’t hard and fast rules, and these five reasons aren’t the end of the list – they’re just the ones that are easy to observe. Climb aboard.

6.18.2009

Institutionalized

About 15 years ago – maybe more – I worked at the Theatre de la Jeune Lune in Minneapolis, at first as a board op, eventually as their master electrician. The going joke amongst the staff was that everyone in the Twin Cities who hadn’t worked at the Jeune Lune wanted to; everyone who had worked there never wanted to again; as staff, we were just in the cocoon phase between times.

Their producing director, a very smart guy named Steve Richardson, was working on a pamphlet for audience development. It showed a picture of their new (new-ish by then) building, a converted, beautifully flexible space in the Warehouse District, with a caption that read: This is not the Jeune Lune. There was a picture of audience seating: This is not the Jeune Lune. There was a picture of the company: We are the Jeune Lune. I might have some of the details wrong here, but what he was focusing on was the non-institutional nature of the company. The artistic vision that we the artists put forward, that is what makes this company what it is. We were a company before our building, after all.

Contrast that with the Guthrie Theater, which was about to lose abstract visionary Garland Wright for populist Joe Dowling. Garland was all about formal experimentation. Joe produced Blithe Spirit. Some of the artistically inclined and satisfied staff under Garland were bored at best, outraged at worst, by the new direction. Some of them left. And Joe has succeeded in many places where Garland failed, not least of which was turning around a steady decline in ticket sales that had begun long before Garland had even taken over. Under Joe, there is a new building, a huge public building that is at least partly owned by the Minnesota taxpayer – and therefore, parts of it are open all hours.

Here’s the thing: Joe is replaceable. Garland was replaceable. Garland was the face of the institution, just as Joe is the face now. Institutions are susceptible to personalities, but they are designed to be resistant to them at the same time. An institution should outlast its leaders – how else would governments survive? The best these leaders can do is point new directions.

The trick is that the leaders are not the bosses. The boards are the bosses.

The timing of Bill Thiesen’s firing is – besides being rude and ham-handed – anthropologically interesting. As a country, we are outraged, outraged at the sums of money paid to CEOs of major corporations while their boards do nothing. Now we are outraged, outraged when the board of a major arts organization does something. It could be that Thiesen was terrible at his job of Artistic Director while being brilliant as his job as stage director, and it could be that it was the only responsible thing for the board to do was to fire him. It could be that Erik Dillner did not stage a coup, but that the board brought him in a year ago with the intention of making this transition. It could be that they are acting completely appropriately, even while being total and complete boneheads about implementing their completely appropriate actions.

It is the board’s responsibility to ensure the life of the institution. It is not their responsibility to care for the individuals. We are, after all, replaceable – components in Henry Ford’s system of interchangeable parts.

I disagree that this system is “increasingly obsolete,” as Ben Turk writes. I do agree that it is dangerous, that it divorces us from the meanings of our actions, that it makes decisions that are “not personal.” What is more personal than disregarding each other as persons? I may work an interchangeable job, but I am the only me, just as all of Bill’s friends know that he is the only Bill – or the only Jason, Kelley, Ralph, Diana.

Here is the quandary. We want our friends to succeed, all those named above. We want the Skylight to succeed. The board has said that these can’t both happen at the same time. We are okay when a person leaves the institution: when Christopher Libby left the Skylight, he was moving on. We understand on that level. When the institution leaves the person, we don’t. It’s an insult.

No one in the local debate seems to understand this as clearly as Jonathan West – I suspect this is due to his former position as the artistic director of a now-gone theater company, Bialystock & Bloom, and to his current position as the managing director of a community theater, the Sunset Playhouse. He understands what boards do and what boards have to do, and the underlying tone of his posts recognize this.

The system is partly to blame: interchangeable parts. But the board made its own choices that have exacerbated the problem. We are not interchangeable people. Was it too much to ask that you treat us as neighbors, as partners, friends?

It is ironic that “to institutionalize” means both “to make or to turn into an institution” and “to place or confine in an institution, esp. one for the care of mental illness, alcoholism, etc.”

Welcome to the nuthouse that is the corporation.

Citation:
http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/institutionalize

The Grim Reality

I should start off by saying that I don't know Bill Thiesen and that I've never worked at the Skylight. I've never even been considered by the Skylight for work, not even as a scenic carpenter, so I don't have a dog in this fight.

When I lived in Bloomington, Indiana, the director of performance operations, a wholly genuine and generous man named Ron Dye was unceremoniously ousted from his position. He returned from a hernia repair operation - hernias he received given some of the necessarily physical work that he had to do - to orders to clean out his desk in less than a day. I don't know if Ron was a good man for the organization, but he supported me personally, he supported the community personally. He wasn't just the general face of the organization, the John Waldron Arts Center, for many people he WAS the place. Rightly or wrongly, many of us saw JWAC and thought of Ron. I imagine, given these letters about Bill, that the experience for many people in Milwaukee is similar.

After Ron was forced out, the community came forward in huge numbers, but when we tried to oust the board president at the following board election - Maureen someone, I no longer remember her last name - we discovered that you don't get to vote "no" to someone - you only get to vote "yes" for alternates. This should not have been terribly surprising, but we wanted something, we couldn't get it, we were shocked.

And the result was... that many of us, many many of us, continued to work at JWAC. Ron and I have fallen out of touch, and I have little doubt that part of that lack of connection is lingering anger or bitterness on his part at my betrayal - because I certainly kept working there. I did so in part for selfish reasons, I wanted to direct. I took a position on a volunteer committee to be one of the people who might make a difference from the inside. I didn't make much of a difference.

What I suspect is going to happen at the Skylight is that many of the artists whose sincere anger, fear, and outrage I do not at all question are going to work at the Skylight next year. Eric Dillner, or Bill Thiesen if he ends up directing, or another director, is going to offer an actor a part. And he's going to take it. And there will be grumbling and rationalizations. And in all likelihood, this will be a slump in the organization's revenue. But I suspect that the board is calculating that that this too shall pass.

The thing is, they're probably right. The Skylight is an institution - it IS bigger than any one person. Probably.

If the artistic community wants to punish the board, the can opt to not work there. But most people aren't going to do that. In the comments to Tom Strini's blog posting at the Journal Sentinel, many (most?) of the posts are anonymous, and some self-naming commenters are calling out the anonymous people on their perceived cowardice. I believe that they are anonymous for two reasons - to be able to say what's in their hearts now, and to be able to distance themselves from their now-hearts when their later-career calls on them to take a job. It is the dissidents like Jamie Johns who bravely put their name to their face publicly while continuing to work there that deserve our praise and support, regardless of your position on the issue. He is acting with openness and integrity. Even if the Board is acting with integrity, their lack of openness smacks of arrogance and rudeness. We love the Skylight - we thought we was pals. Why are you treating us like this?

The question that we will be faced with, that is bubbling under the surface but that I haven't seen in print yet:

Would we rather live without a JWAC we love, or with a JWAC we don't? Can art happen at an institution that no longer exists? Of course not, so the answer was, we will compromise.

I'm sorry - that's what happened in Indiana. Substitute "Skylight" for JWAC.

We made a deal with the devil - counting on the fact that what got rid of Ron would eventually get rid of his persecutors. The people we loathe will someday be gone, and a person we love, maybe not the same one, will someday come back to lead. It is an institution, and this too shall pass.

Right?

6.15.2009

Criticism and Critics: The problem (or not)

The problem is the reviewer. He can’t write. She’s got no credentials. He’s a failed artist. She didn’t even want the job in the first place, just slumming.

These aren’t abstract statements. Related to Chicago’s Christopher Piatt: “Time Out is filled with snarkiness and factual inaccuracies.” Regarding Prague’s Steffen Silvis: “Throughout this pessimistic, spiteful, know-it-all, opinionated, and exceedingly dull review, Steffen Silvis makes one thing clear- he's worse at his craft as a critic then any actor, director, or technician involved in Katatonica.” And from the same comment, “Apparently he has neither the creative talent to write theater, nor the practical skills to produce it, so he turns to criticism.” In Milwaukee, conventional wisdom has it that the Journal Sentinel’s Damien Jaques never wanted to review theater, and has somehow managed to suffer through his job like a career IRS agent who had failed the CPA exam.

Swap reviewers and you get the same issues. Silvis has had three plays produced in London and is the recipient of an NEA Fellowship in theater journalism. Neither a failed artist nor lacking credentials. I don’t know enough about Piatt or Jaques to speak to their history, but having worked in four markets and five cities, I’m comfortable generalizing. It’s not just the reviewer – many theater artists will speak poorly of most reviewers.

What is the reviewer’s job? What is it that they’re so uniformly bad at?

1. To comment on the show (or to the art generally speaking).
2. To speak and/or recommend to a potential audience
3. To speak to the artists.

These are the obvious ones, but there are others that occasionally arise.

4. To advance the art form.
5. To advance the community.
6. To educate the audience regarding the play and the art alike.

To this end, there are three obvious roles that the reviewer can hold (there might be others, of course).
1. The “professional” audience member
2. The filter
3. The artistic peer.

The problem, then, isn’t just the reviewer. It’s identifying what the reviewer’s job is.

Next week: who are Reviewers talking to?

Citations:

http://leisureblogs.chicagotribune.com/the_theater_loop/2009/04/theater-critic-christopher-piatt-leaving-time-out-chicago.html

http://praguepost.com/night-and-day/comments/1360-the-prague-fringe-festival-day-1-may-22.html

6.13.2009

What good is art?

This is a lecture by a British critic, John Carey, which would seem to summarize his book WHAT GOOD ARE THE ARTS, or perhaps only address the criticism of said book.

http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/files/20060616_John_CareygEaUDg.mp3

6.08.2009

Honesty and Truth

I was going to post on Criticism, but that writing is taking a bit longer than I'd anticipated, so on to a stream-of-consciousness I've been mulling.

Mia and Sean flew over from Dublin to catch me in Prague (yay! yay for friends!). When Mia'd read the early draft of DECAF back in Dec or Jan, she liked it for how "honest" it was. And that got me thinking about the difference between Honesty and Truth.

It's a gut feeling that sent me off on this thought, but I think there are actual differences in the way we use these words in relation to art (or at least in relation to theater). Truth is what it is: there is an implication of objectivity, in other words, a distance. Honesty has an emotional, a personal connotation. "Honesty" is a word people use for texts they like and admire. Rarely do you hear, "that was so truthful."

I'm inclined to think that more intellectual or more abstract works strive for Truth, and that realistic works tend to strive for Honesty. They're both difficult to write, and they're both easy to abuse. Overly "honest" becomes cheaply emotional, or manipulatively emotional. Overly "truthful" is boring or pedantic. Time for a lecture.

It's not so much splitting the difference as it is blending the two. Personal, connected, accessible: "honest" ; uncompromising, objective, exploratory: "true."

IN A THOUSAND PIECES was a great union of these for me. And while she liked the show a lot, Mia's reaction was much more measured than mine. I'm paraphrasing here, but she didn't feel like they needed to hit the pathos quite so hard. "We're on your side already, we're with you. Give us something different."

Are outside eyes the difference?

6.01.2009

Day 10, part II of II, The Crying Cherry

This is a tricky show for me, very mixed feelings. First, a summary of the action.

A woman is raped by her husband or an itinerant-yet-handsome soldier. She has twins, one dark and one light. The dark one is kicked out, perhaps, and grows up to be a mighty samurai. He is told that the white samurai killed his brother. He encounters the white samurai who IS is brother, they fight, the black samurai triumphs. He realizes he's killed his own brother as the white samurai lays dying, and commits seppuku, and they are happy in heaven together.

That is, that is roughly what happens.

Second, a description of the style.

It's a mix of a Zatoichi film (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0363226/) and a Chinese kung fu film. Lots of physicality, barely any language. They've created what I expect someone will "Sino-ese" or maybe "Chin-esper-apanese". It's just a soundscape of noises that approximate what someone who doesn't speak the language might think it sounds like. They make a point of using specific words that are identifiable: sake, samurai, katana. They break into English only for two plot points, and for two jokes, when the samurai finally begin their epic battle. Having fought to a mutually injured standstill, they abandon their swords and engage first in "pinkie style" kung fu (the white samurai), countered eventually by the black samurai's "gay man style" (imagine Jackie Chan doing Drunken Fist but with limp wrists and you get the idea).

Here's their blurb from the program:
Genre: Theatre, Comedy, Physical Theatre / Non verbal

Since the fifth dynasty of the Fuonghua family, the legend of the Crying Cherry has been performed by the Tukurimastas; an artistic guild of thieves who engaged in the martial arts, circus skills, theatre and robbing. Maarten and Ian take the roles of these ancient performers and will tell you a legend so beautiful you'll turn into a Crying Cherry yourself.

International Theatreschool Award 2007
Dioraphte Amsteram Fringe Award 2008


Language: Non verbal (gibberish Japanese / Chinese)

Age accessibility: Suitable for all ages

Visual language, fantastic. Not as plastic as Jonno Katz, but that's I think a product of their respective physical bodies. In terms of execution, their miming is second to none and their various triumphs, defeats, and particularly their progressively grotesque wounds are all immaculately clean.

I'm doing my best to make this sound amazing, because it was, but the thing is I didn't really care for it. It was an hourlong joke that could have been wrapped up in a much shorter time. Not that it felt drawn out - the narrative took care of that, and it was very well put together. It looks from their 2007 like it was a student developed show, and that's how it felt, content-wise. Empty, an exercise. An incredibly well-executed exercise. There's a reason they went beyond sold-out at this final show (I was one of several people relegated to sitting in the aisles, and, had there been a fire, I would have been one of the people preventing us from fleeing to safety).

It was more imaginative than Backward Glance, it was more physically challenging than Cactus, it was more clearly virtuosic than Canarsie Suite, it was (for most of the audience) funnier than Dr. Brown.

It's a matter of taste, I can't think of anything else. I want content and form, these guys just had content. This is clearly the show to "let it be what it is," and I can recognize that, but I can't feel it. The performers were nothing short of brilliant. I want to see them do something that'll hit me, not just wow me. It doesn't have to be as heavy as In a Thousand Pieces - you can only take so much of that. But something. Give me something.

But that's my issue. More on reviews another day.

Day 10, I of II, Decaf

okay, so this is a little late.

I think this was the best show - finally had a couple of Michelle's notes really make sense in the context of performance, lightened up a lot, overall a great note on which to end the Fringe.

Things that helped: good house numbers, friends in the audience (Silvie and Jirka made it, as did Mia and Sean from Dublin).

Things that didn't matter: oddly enough, having Vilem accidentally turn the lights off of me during the show wasn't a problem. The singular advantage of the conversational performance personality is that it feels like a (scripted) conversation. The lights came back on, and no problem.

Things that didn't help: the guy at the end who kindly offered me some constructive feedback, "for an international audience, you might want to slow down a bit." My mental note back to him: for any audience, you might not want to talk to your friend, and all three of you can put away your cellphones and stop texting. However, I'm not nearly clever, funny, or confrontational enough to think of that on the spur of the moment.

Oh, well, no big deal, show's over. Clean up, send M&S to see WAITING FOR ANDRE, get stuff packed in bags so I can get everything out (except the trunk and the hotplate), talk with Giles (TD and master of the Hong Kong Microfest at http://www.microfest.hk/), make my way through the rain to see CRYING CHERRY.

I didn't see ANDRE, but Mia and Sean really liked it, and Silvis' review does a fair bit of comparison to mine.`

http://praguepost.com/night-and-day/stage/1414-the-prague-fringe-festival-day-7-may-28.html

House count: 21.

5.29.2009

Day 9, part II of II, Canarsie Suite

Grabbed dinner with D&F, Dorte, and their friend Milan, then scooted away at 8:45 to see Canarsie Suite, at the Edge of Vaudeville, playing at Inspirace. The show is framed as a traveling vaudeville show by the sister act Gladys and Birdie LeRoy. Gladys wants nothing more than to look on the bright side, whereas Birdie feels suffocated and miserable. They both do their damnedest to keep the show on its axis for as long as they can, which means a series of skits, all of which are pretty funny. Both of the performers have mighty resumes - training at LeCoq, commedia. The schtick is that the LeRoy sisters aren't that great, but making a good performance of appearing to be a bad performer is a nasty trick that generally I'd go against. The line's too thin. They are firmly on the right side, and what makes it more impressive is that you have to think about it. Their dancing is always in sync on the numbers, they move together, but they're not crisp. Their characterizations, their gestures, are always tight. In a way, I think, they undersell themselves. It's a virtuosic performance that doesn't look like a virtuosic performance. Which is pretty brave on its merits, for that matter.

Off now for the last batch of cheesecakes. I don't need them, but I've got batter left over and it makes the Fringe staff happy, 'cause they're the ones who get to eat it. I think Fede (photographer) and Alberto (lighting supervisor) plowed through 6 or 7 yesterday afternoon in short order.

Day 9, part I of II, Decaf

Slow, rainy day, alternating between drizzling and pouring. I've got hardly any packing I can start on yet, the bulk of my stuff is all in the trunk, and strike becomes complicated in that I can't get to the theater on Sunday, don't get my trunk until Monday night, and I fly out on Tuesday. Don recommends trying to cab it back to the flat after the show tonight, before Crying Cherry.

I'm getting ahead of myself, but that's sort of indicative of what yesterday was like.

Walked to Žizkov in the afternoon and had tea with Leah (check out www.puppetsinprague.eu). Black tea, because that's what I drink mostly now. The second cup probably should have been herbal. I was still wound up by the time the show started. Don made it, after his own harrowing day the day before trying to show Robert Wilson's costume designer around (yes to theater people: that Robert Wilson, aka "Bob"). He came to see the show with Dorte, a friend of D&F's and who was the deus ex machina in the story "The Day Kurt Left His Passport in Prague When He Was In Augsburg and Was Supposed to Fly Out of Munich the Next Day."

Note to readers: Lisa didn't like this story very much, and I'm not sure if she does now, so if you're going to bring it up to her, make sure you include questions about her mother reading the story out loud to Homeland Security in Chicago. They love a good story.

Unsurprisingly, being a deus ex machina, Dorte is super nice.

Back to the show, and to me being wired. I asked Michelle about this quality of the performance, that my brain can race around thinking all kinds of things while I'm up there performing. She said that in her experience this is normalish in this kind of show. You can keep that awareness - but in a realistic drama, there are different psychological demands that occupy your head. My brain certainly rattled around during Who I Was Yesterday, but that wasn't exactly psychological realism, so I still don't have a bar to measure to.

Don's got some notes for me (which I'll get once he gets up, not everyone wakes up here at 5:30am, it's a habit now, I guess), but one thing he noted immediately last night was that the show was Slow. Which is funny, because the caffeine from the tea made me more wired than I normally am, and I felt like I was talking too fast, and deliberately slowed down. Chemicals = lack of perspective.

Also, all this self-awareness business is bad for performance without someone (hi Michelle!) to keep me in check - good thing D's here. My speech patterns aren't different enough between "me" and "Jen." Back to work.

House count: 9.

Day 8 - part III of III - In a Thousand Pieces

Finally got to see The Paper Birds' performance of In a Thousand Pieces. Here's their website: http://thepaperbirds.com/home.php

This show is being touted as the number one show to see at the Fringe this year. I was expecting, based on all the press, to see some really fantastic physical theater, which I didn't get, so some initial disappointment.

That said - this show was fucking amazing. I wish you could see it right now.

Raises a lot of questions for me. I'll get to that.

The show is about sexual enslavement - mostly of Eastern European women who are looking to emigrate and are promised (by whomever) a modeling career, or an education, or something. There are three British women who do this performance - they wear identical blue dresses, identical jackets, and carry varying luggage, old school suitcases, many others of which are placed around the space. Sometimes they move in concert, then one breaks off for a new action while the other two maintain the chorus (if you will) - or harmony/melody? Here's the thing - it's not that their physicality itself was so brilliant, they're not in Jonno Katz's league for sheer plasticity. What was amazing was their understanding of HOW to develop a physical language particular to this show that made sense. Do an action. Do it again. Keep doing it. It doesn't make sense right now, but they keep doing it. Eat an ice cream cone. Keep eating ice cream cones. Eat it innocently, famished-ly. Nothing else in your mind. It'll come back.

In addition to their simple blue costumes, they've got very simple granny-panties on - on top of their normal "show" underwear. This is relevant for the first moment when their "everygirl" is raped. The sound system plays her screams over and over and over and it just doesn't end. If one woman were on the ground, writhing around and trying to defend herself from an invisible attacker with these white panties that have fallen down around her ankles - becoming as much shackles on her legs as they indicate the lack of defense she has - if that happened and went on and on, it might get, I suspect, all good intentions aside, a little laughable. I'm not sure why there's a difference, theoretically, in my head, but all three of them were on the ground, bumping into each other, and that made "everygirl" seem more like "every girl" and they just wouldn't stop. They pushed this bit of staging far longer than I would have, far past uncomfortable, right into disgust and horror.

There's more to the show. They break up the terror with bits of goofy stage business. They did a lot of research for this performance, including a stint with the Goat Song Theater in Poland (why does no one mention "tragedy" in the same breath when I see that in print? hello? goat song? tragedy? anybody? Bueller? Forget it). They seem to have carried out a number of interviews as well, asking people in the UK what they think of (il)legal immigrants. The answers are played over the sound system and while one woman (playing everygirl) is downstage, the two others are upstage, lip-sync acting (a la Creature Comforts) to the voices - and this is both heart-breaking and funny at the same time, much as you'd suspect, as they satirize the easy opinions that otherwise privileged people have. "They should just get a real job. It's not that hard." "I work with Amnesty, and I don't really know anything about it." It's a relief to have stuff like this, of course.

Toward the end, one of the actresses begins doing math on the side of a suitcase. Everygirl is raped on her first day she's brought to a house, where she thinks she's going to be an underwear model. Then she's raped five more times. Then the numbers go up for the following week. Then she's moved to another city, where she's raped on average 8 times a day for 7 weeks, so 7 times 7 times eight is five hundred some. She flips the suitcase over - that's about 1500 rapes. About as much as she was paid for. One euro a rape. One pound ten. A dollar fifty. About the price of an ice cream cone.

They don't bow. They hold a tableau until everyone leaves, and they smartly plant a shill in the audience to let us know that that's what we should do.

If you were here and you didn't see this, I don't think I'd think very much of you afterwards.

Okay, so obviously, it affected me. Deeply personal, the actresses are themselves when they're not Everygirl, and their responses to what they don't know about their subject and about what they've chosen to do onstage forms a part of their text. Artistically, this is stunning work, and on that level, its effect is clear - it's inspirational. I want to be that good. I want to be that smart and that affecting and that fucking brave.

BUT. And I don't know the answer to this, it's just gnawing at me. What now? What do I do now, with this show, besides tell you about it? Yes, I can Get Involved. And I don't even have to get involved with the subject of sexual enslavement, I could tackle mines, or child abuse, or I could save the whales. There's so much that's WRONG, it doesn't take a lot of effort to find a cause to suppport, to believe in, to act on.

Neil Simon is easy. The answer to Neil Simon is entertainment. He's just trying to tell a funny story and take you away for a little while. Brecht wanted to change the world, but he still wanted to be in charge, so you have to take him with more than a grain of salt. What do you do with a play that is essentially an open wound, when they tell you over and over that that wound is invisible? You don't know where this girl is, where these girls are. They don't know. They just know that they're there.

What do you do? And if you don't do anything, what is the point?

I'm already inclined to question and have been struggling with what theater DOES anyway, but this performance really brings it into high relief.

Which is another reason why it was so great.

Day 8 - part II of III - La Ronde

I'm just going to say now that the dizziness didn't go away all night, not even when I lay down to go to sleep. My strategies for today: eat more, sleep more (i.e. take a nap today).

The next two shows were in the theater downstairs at na Pradle, so once done with clean up I can leave all of my stuff in the dressing room, buy my tickets, and head downstairs.

La Ronde is a play written in 1900 about sex and class. It was performed by a young Norwegian company who did the whole damn thing in English (curse those northern Europeans and their modern language training!!! Curses!!!). So that was impressive on a technical level. But the play itself? There wasn't enough of a focus on class, and even had there been, I'm not sure I would've escaped a "so what" in the end.

Plus I felt dizzy and crappy, and that sort of sucked.

Day 8 - part I of III - Decaf

Yesterday started off normal and got progressively odder. I made another batch of cheesecake (for yesterday and today; I've just finished today's batch for tomorrow. I look forward to never cooking cheesecake again). On six hours of sleep, didn't think I needed a nap, wasn't nearly as tired as I had been when I was jetlagged - so. Fine. Rain starts to pour down, but by the time I'm leaving for my now 5:45 curtain, it's mostly cleared up.

Metro, tram, get to the theater. In the wake of the rain and yesterday's cancellation of Red Peter, though, I figure it's best to ask the kids at the door. "Any tickets sold?" "Just two for Red Peter." "That means none for Decaffeinated Tragedy?" "Oh, ah, no, not yet."

Almost immediately I'm hit with a wave of dizziness, which I attribute to purely psychosomatic causes and simultaneously find deeply disappointing, because I didn't think I'd react like that to adverse news. I go and do my prep anyway, because who knows, and about 10 minutes before curtain some people trickle in. When Vilem, the board op and Fringe tech, comes in to tell me that we're ready, I let him know that I'm feeling dizzy still. Worst case scenario, as I haul this steamer trunk in, is that I fall over. But that doesn't happen, and the show goes fine. Vilem gives me a "dobry!" afterwards, which in Czech is the lexical equivalent of a thumbs-up. I should add that, when I serve coffee during the show, I make sure that Vilem gets a cup of espresso and cheesecake. Every day. End of the show, he comes in today and gives me a KILO of coffee beans, sealed. Super nice. Super, super nice.

I can't tell him - in Czech - that I don't drink leaded. I say it every day in English. I say thanks, I'm enthusiastic, because it was an incredibly nice thing to do. We're not tight or anything, but I like Vilem. Good guy.

House count: 10.

5.28.2009

Pictures

These are courtesy of the Fringe photography, Federica Anchieri, who sent them to me this morning.



Day 7, part I of I - Decaf

Today (yesterday, technically) was a bit of a dud. Got only about 4.5 hrs of sleep, up at 6am, and completely unable to take a nap. The British Ambassador is the official Fringe Sponsor, and hosted a garden party at the embassy yesterday afternoon, 12:30-2:00. I even brought not-jeans to wear. But I'd had 4.5 hrs of sleep, and I was going to HAVE to take a nap. Cut losses, skip reception with HM Ambassador, work on some writing, finally fall asleep, got a solid hour and half in before my alarm went of at 3pm. Oof.

Almost walk out the door without cheesecake, but I don't have the time to be dumb this time, not like the day before, so right, re-pack, re-check, all's well. To the theater, pack the trunk, even have time for dinner, and actually sit down to have it. Good good good.

Come back from dinner to an ill omen. The lights are on in the kavarna. Hmm. 7:30pm. Red Peter should be 15 minutes into the show. One of the young British volunteers explains that no one came - so they cancelled the show. "I think they were a bit relieved, actually." Um. Maybe.

So, sit in the kavarna, which I never get to do, and run lines.

Funny note about pre-show music. Here's my "playlist," such as it is, as I put together before opening last Friday upon being told that I really should have pre-show music. My apologies should I be violating any copyright here, but we are in a bar and in the States at least, folks pay a licensing fee. Let's just assume that the same thing happens in Prague, shall we?

On to the list:
Coldplay - Death and All His Friends
Blondie - Call Me
Annie Lennox - Ghosts in My Machine
Pony Up! - The Truth about Cats and Dogs (is that they die)
Thievery Corporation - The Heart's a Lonely Hunter
Coldplay - Life in Technicolor
David Byrne - Samara

This last song was filler, to bleed past the final couple of minutes so that if Vilem (my tech) started the music about 27 minutes before my curtain, he could turn it off on a quiet number (it's from the album THE FOREST, by the way, part of an operatic thing Byrne did about the epic of Gilgamesh). Apparently my music selection is a hit, because the staff has taken to putting my 29 minute CD on repeat. As I'm sitting and running lines, a number of Czechs - a couple of tech, a couple of patrons - all starting bopping around to Pony Up!.

Hilarious.

If you don't know the song, here's a youtube link for the video:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rZ5PRjVe3dw&feature=PlayList&p=0BB9A44C73DD35CC&playnext=1&playnext_from=PL&index=38

I worked with the director, Toben Seymour, on another puppet-y video, You Don't Know Her Name (by Maps). It's not as good as this one.

On with the show. I don't have to cancel, but I have a rollicking small house, and like the previous performance, wholly unresponsive. Not as hard tonight, though, as I just did what I concluded last night, and adjusted a couple line deliveries here and there. Two of the audience were from Red Peter, and those guys did me no favors. Gentlemen, you're in the light. I can see you looking at your program, I can see you not looking at me - a lot - and I can see you cleaning your glasses for the third time. It's okay that it's not your cup of tea. It doesn't have to be. But could you at least pretend to pay attention if you're going to be visible? I'm not asking for much beyond professional courtesy, here.

Jerkfaces.

House count: 7

Today I switch to afternoon slot, 17:45-18:45. Weather's markedly cooler. Cross yer fingers for better houses.