Tuesday, September 29, 2009

We Interrupt This Programming...

... For a blog treatise.  Of sorts.

It occurred to me recently that what I’m trying to do with this blog – besides record the shows I see in my Year of Plays – is to discover whether it’s possible to talk about art without reviewing it.  I’m not sure yet whether it is.  In my posts thus far, I’ve tried very hard not to engage in the kinds of criticism one typically finds in reviews, but I haven’t succeeded completely.  And yet I find myself still needing to try.

See, I have a compelling desire to talk about art.  To share what I think and hear what other’s think.  I love having conversations with friends about what movies and plays they’ve seen, what books they’ve read, what other art they’ve encountered.  In these conversations, we are replete with colorful opinions and thoughtful critique.  We are not concerned about sounding self-important, or worried about egos, because the conversation is private and we are among people trust.  So honesty and insight abound.

But the game changes once the conversation goes public.  Once you go public, those conversations become reviews, and the knowledge that other people are hearing this alters the very nature of what is said.  The folks who do the talking (reviewers) start trying to sound clever or wise, or they mince words and whitewash their true opinions.  The folks who get talked about (artists) are subjected to public appraisal, which monkeys with the ego and prevents them from hearing any valuable feedback.  The end result, at least for me, is that reviews are untrustworthy, potentially dangerous, and not very useful – except to get butts in seats.

But I want to talk about art!  With a lot of people!  I want to talk about art with everyone, and I want the conversation everywhere, in private and in public!  Art is important.  And it should be talked about.  I want artists to hear all sorts of opinions and thoughts about their work – because then they will make more art in response!  I want non-artists to hear conversations about art – because then they might make some art of their own!  We need more art!

So can we have a public conversation about art without the entanglements of reviews?  Can we have a thoughtful, critical, entertaining, and honest discourse, without stepping on toes or inflating egos?  If we can, what does that conversation look like?  What do we talk about?  Do we speak only positively or neutrally?  Do we avoid offering any opinions at all?  That seems nearly impossible, and the effort seems bound to produce conversation that is hopelessly bland and inert.  But maybe I’m wrong.  Or maybe the point is not to avoid making judgments, but to alter the way we make them.  Who knows?  I certainly don’t.  At least not yet.  But if it’s possible at all to thread this needle – to speak honestly and insightfully about art, while remaining impeccable with one’s word, while generating material that is still entertaining and useful – I’m determined to find out how to do it.  And this blog is where I’m taking my first stab.

(P.S. – Maybe I’m being to hard on reviews and reviewers.  I’m sure there are many dedicated critics out there who contribute positively to the public discourse about art.  Who manage to check their own egos at the door and who have the guts to stand by their opinions, regardless of how their opinions affect others.  I just know I’m not made out of that kind of cloth.  My ego is both too unruly and too sensitive for such affairs!)

The Harvard Project

Performance Date: 9.21.09
Classic Stage Company

Several weeks ago my friend Peter invited me to see him in a workshop of a play-in-development currently being called The Harvard Project.  He described it as the culmination of five and a half weeks of exploration, during which the artists involved focused very much on process, and not on product.  I believe he intended it as a disclaimer, but in fact it made me even more eager to go.

I love process.  I’m a process fiend.  To me, how a play got made – or a painting, or a vaccine, or a business strategy – is often more fascinating than the final product.  When the final product is amazing, my thirst to know how it was made is even greater.  And when the end result isn’t so great, knowing what went into the process, what someone was trying to accomplish and how, makes the whole experience much more satisfying overall.

As it turned out, seeing The Harvard Project was satisfying on both the product and process levels.  For a piece that purportedly had zero script at the beginning of the rehearsal period (save for transcripts from the historical event on which the play was based), the result was remarkably confident and clean.  There were good performances, beautiful images, funny and moving moments, and a set that had intention and character.  In many ways, it hardly seemed like a workshop version at all. 

And yet I felt like I got to see a good amount of process too.  I guess that sounds like a bad thing.  One imagines a well-meaning friend discreetly squeezing one’s hand at a party and whispering, “Your process is showing.”  But that’s not how I mean it at all.  For a play at this stage in development – with a script all of five and a half weeks old and minimal design elements – you expect to see some threads from the canvas peeking through the paint.  Some gears carefully turning behind the illusion.  To me that’s a good thing.  To me that’s the reason you go see a play in development.  Those are the goodies on the plate.

By way of example, there were two or three points in the play where the action broke from straightforward, narrative scenes into more deconstructed sections that included both abstract movement and text.  In one such moment, three men face forward, delivering simultaneous monologues which repeat in bits and snatches, and during which one man repeatedly crashes backward from his chair as if being punched.  In another such moment, the cast performs a wordless choreography of gesture, each at varying times brushing lint from his trousers, or painfully pulling a string from their throats out their mouths.  I found both these moments compelling because they felt very near to the kinds of improvisations I’ve partaken in as an actor during rehearsal, to the improvisations I imagine did take place in this cast’s rehearsals.  Maybe that makes them moments of your process in showing, but I enjoyed them all the same.  It made me feel near to the piece, gave me great affection for it.  Not unlike the way you might feel meeting an infant just days after its birth.  I don’t know if these process-originated moments will find their way into the eventual finished product of The Harvard Project, or even if they deserve to, but in this incarnation of the piece, they provided an immediacy that really stood out.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Memory of Water

Performance Date: 9.10.09
Dragon Productions, Palo Alto, CA

It's Week 3 in this Year of Plays and I'm already realizing how easy it would be to just see well-promoted, well-reviewed Broadway and Off-Broadway shows.  There are so many plays that get "buzz," well-deserved or not, and I am very susceptible to this kind of marketing.  Ooooh, shiny!!  So while visiting home in the Bay Area, I decided to mix it up and see some small-budget theater at Dragon Productions in Palo Alto.  The Memory of Water by Shelagh Stephenson was the evening's fare, a very nice family dramedy that won the Olivier award for best comedy in 2000.

First a word about Dragon Productions.  I remember my mom sending me a clipping from the Chronicle a couple years ago about a new theater company opening its doors in Palo Alto.  I'm glad I got the chance to check the operation out.  Apparently, the woman behind it all is an actor who has been directing and producing plays since 1991, has run Dragon for 8 seasons, and has successfully kept their permanent home (a converted storefront space downtown) operational for the past 4 years.   Color me impressed.  (Wow, did I just write that?  Embarrassing.  It sounds like something someone would say on "Golden Girls" or "Designing Women."  On second thought, maybe that makes me ironically cool.)

But really, keeping a small theater company with its own space running for four seasons in this economy?  That is no small feat!   A cursory look at the show's program (above, it doubled as my ticket) gives a clue of how she does it -- grants,  donors, corporate sponsors, advertising, space rental, wish list solicitation, the list goes on.  This woman knows how to hustle.  What's more, the motto at Dragon is, "If you want to do something amazing, do it yourself.  Don't wait for someone else to give you the opportunity."  And indeed, there she is playing the central character in the night's festivities.  Girlfriend wants to act in meaty roles?  She starts an Equity-approved theater company and does it herself.  Yes, yes, color me impressed.  And color me inspired too.

Lessons and observations from The Memory of Water:

  • A good actor does things one at a time.  She listens, she registers the information, she reacts.  Those three things can happen very quickly in succession, but they do happen one at a time.  It's not always as easy as it sounds.  In the HBO promo I'm in this summer, I recently noticed that I'm actually skipping a step.  I listen and then react -- skipping over the part where I let the info land.  The moment still works, but it's a little sloppy.  Oh well, I guess that's what can happen when you're acting with tennis balls instead of Jemaine and Bret themselves.  No, I will never get over the disappointment of that.
  • I so appreciate great comic delivery and dry, sardonic wit, both of which were nicely on display in this play.
  • I can start a theater company, get it funded, give it a permanent home, and produce great plays with good roles for women.  I know this because I saw someone else do it.  The point of apple trees is not to create apples, it's to create more apples trees.  That is not a non-sequitur.

Coming Attractions:

One more thing I've learned at Week 3 of a Year of Plays?  It's really hard to actually see a play a week, especially when you're traveling every weekend of the month.  So I am not seeing a play this week, which means no post next week.  However, I will make up for at the end of the month when I am doubled up with tickets to Our Town and Othello on back to back nights.   Not too shabby, I tell ya.  There are also several tasty Off-off shows running now that various friends and acquaintances are involved in, so I should be able to keep the nice mix of fare.  Haven't figured out which ones I'll get to see, depends mostly on schedule, but you will find out soon enough!

Friday, September 4, 2009


Performance Date: 9.2.09
Manhattan Theatre Club, NY City Center

All summer long I’d been hearing that Ruined was not to be missed.  So much so that when I finally sat down for the Wednesday matinee this week, I worried it might not stand up to built-up expectation.  I need not have worried.  Ruined did not disappoint.

As I left the theater, I tried to wrap my head around how they were able to pull it off.  The play is set in a brothel in the modern Democratic Republic of Congo, a country brutalized by years of civil war, and where a woman is said to be “ruined” when she is raped with bayonets, leaving her sexual organs mutilated and her ability to control her bowels compromised.  Not exactly light fare.  To put it glibly.  And yet the play still manages to realize the full spectrum of the human condition.  It is unflinching in its portrayal of the cruelty and tragedy these characters endure, and yet in the next breath, gives endless room for love, humor, and joy.  And it is equally unfailing at every subtle point in between.

How did they do it?  My best guess is that the folks behind this play must have been a very committed, supportive, and collaborative bunch.   I don't know how to achieve that kind of richness otherwise.  As an actor, I find it difficult to stay out of my own way.  It’s a challenge to not let myself off the hook, to stay open and courageous, to explore without knowing where I’m going, to reach for some place new rather than run to the familiar.  And while that’s my own particular baggage, if all actors, directors, designers, and dramatists have analogous six-piece luggage sets of their own – and the smart bet is that they do – then how can any of us get anywhere worth going without the help of our peers?  How can we create something sublime, without a fellow artist to lift us out of our usual patterns?   Yup, a true ensemble is the way to go in my book.

I’m thinking now of August: Osage County, which may have been the best example of ensemble theater I have ever seen (in a commercial setting at least).  I don’t think it’s any coincidence that both August and Ruined feature artists who worked closely together for long periods of time before their respective plays reached the public eye.

So what did I learn in addition to this reaffirmation of ensemble?  My bullets of the day:
  • There is nothing better than the moment you walk into a space and see a set for the first time.  A nighttime forest of tropical tree trunks, bathed in a warm and threatening red light -- a great first impression which made me eager in my seat.

  • You can slay an audience with a single line: “You will not fight your battles on my body anymore.”

  • A gesture is made powerful when it is married with clear intention and supported by high stakes.  The persistent strength of his hand clasping hers, arms straight above their heads.  The clean and firm beckoning of his other hand as he pulls her into a dancer’s embrace.  The length of time this takes telling the story of a strong and injured woman allowing a man inside.

  • I love me some African dance.  And drumming, yes please!  And a jubilant curtain call, yes!  That's the tops.
I wish all of you could see Ruined, those of you who haven't.  I'm sure there will be plenty of regional productions in the coming years and the strength of the script alone (from current superstar Lynn Nottage) will definitely make it worth your while.  With any luck, it will be built with the same supportive collaboration I suspect this production enjoyed.  Then again, who knows?  Maybe it was a hot, raging mess and it came together anyway.  Who am I to say?  I'm just a blogger.

Until next time.  Thanks for reading.