Friday, May 16, 2014

The Wis-dumbness of Theatre Professionals

So Many Experts are Total Idiots

Young actors-

For a decade, I made a very nice living doing soaps, off-Broadway, and print ads - It was great money but for me, it was Hell. (Note - I don't look down on anyone who does the same.  I'd rather clean toilets where no one sees it than use my artistry to undermine my body of work. Pretentious? Not at all - it's great for some people, that's great by me.)

I studied with two of the main casting directors for major theatre companies in NY. 1.) Gave us a monologue from some (usually) awful play of the last season, and after the performance of said piece, told us that we needed to perform the beginning and the end of the play in that one scene. ??? First off, many of these plays were not yet in print, but how could I portray the first scene, an innocent first date that 3 hrs later turns out to be a killer in one 3 min scene.  First of all, it's WRONG! In his first scene, the character would never show his Act 3 development of a psycho on his first date. It's kills the storytelling and the arch. I understand the need to see both sides of the character - so give me an Act I scene and an Act III scene. I can play, but should not play, Act III at the start.

The MAIN, lifechanging example came from a huge off-Bway moneyhouse casting director who told me in class that I reminded her of Marlon Brando or Paul Newman. I was speechless. What better compliment could an actor be paid?  She proceeded with, "No one wants that anymore." Uh, uhh................   She asked me to redo the monologues as casual conversation. I could, of course, but it was wrong. Joe Bonaparte said, "If music shot bullets I'd like it better." as if he were saying, "Is there any more Mayo?" She raved over the adjustment, but it was WRONG! WRONG! WRONG! After she spoke with my manager, I was called in to her office and told "I know you think Brando and Newman are good actors, but people don't want that anymore. They have been SOPHISTICATED by reality TV." (Once sentence that is burnt into my memory.) I left and threw up on the street.

Yet, in a way, they're all right. People want what's familiar and doesn't push them to think. Shouldn't the arts lift people up instead of dumbing them down? That was a horrible, yet very important day in my life, and in the life of my theatre world. 

Arts vs Crafts

Pretending It's Art
(Or Justifying Throwing Ashtrays at Actors)

This site is meant to better the theatre, but sometimes, you have to focus on the problem to make an improvement.  It's not bitching, it's a diagnosis. If throwing rocks at false idols is what's necessary, I fully condone it.  Pointing out unhealthy behavior is what Doctor's do.

Waiting tables. Mopping Floors. Doing Shitty Plays about Marilyn Monroe or plays with gratuitous  male nudity - They're all a fact of life for a young person in the theatre. They're hopefully a harmless means to an end, but what if you start buying into the means, there's a danger. Believing your work as a waiter is of global importance is delusional; yet, I meet actors every day doing shitty plays, paying their dues, but proclaiming the work to be important. Quite quickly, they become convinced that it is high art.  They may be even doing some good work in it, but that doesn't mean it's art. (This is usually from a lack of education, not meaning classroom learning- but once it become truth, they become "Born Again" artists, speaking loudly and handing out postcards in the subway.)

By art, I don't mean something aristocratic, snobbish or even purely skilled. Look at paintings, Thomas Kinkaide was a very skilled painter, but I'd bite my tongue off before I called him an artist.  Craftmanship is different than artistry.  Skill isn't to be scoffed at, but it's confusing a rhinestone for a diamond. They both sparkle! Yet one is carefully manufactured and one is a tiny miracle that can take people's breath away.

Actors are tricky characters though. (Often, it's part of tricking themselves.) It's fine to do a shit show for experience, but losing sight of quality is a huge danger.  It gets even more dangerous when they try to convince the public that fool's gold is the real goods.  Even more damaging is taking a known  great piece of work, and having merely competent craftsmen go to work on it.   It's akin to having Mr. Kinkaide repaint Starry Night and try to pass it off as the real deal. With the sources of mass-publicity and lazy, horribly uneducated critics, this knock-off soon becomes what people know as the real thing. The next poor knock off will gain the same fortune. It's like a photocopy, where every version gets a little more blurred.  

WHERE ARE THE PEOPLE WITH SENSE AND KNOWLEDGE TO POINT THIS OUT?! There is a point where educated critics are needed  - when any asshole can blog (once again, point noted - I take the work very seriously, I don't take myself seriously).   We live in such a 'politically correct' world, where everyone receives a participation trophy, we lose signs of greatness. Call out rottenness and falseness (see our last post). And when critics pat themselves on the back for sharing the same ignorant response, while chastising those with real knowledge, it's a sad,sad world.  (And THOSE critics are usually the ones that sit and bitch about the theatre.) Don't bitch. Get educated. Create better.

The more I learn and see, the more I can understand the great teachers that berated you to the bone for your failings or threw ashtrays at your head, maybe there was something to it. They CARED about the work so much that they'd weed out anyone that was trying to adulterate it and wasn't totally committed AND for the right reasons - reasons bigger than ourselves. If you brought in a 3 week  prepared scene of Baby Want a Kiss to Stella Adler and she stopped you before you spoke a word and told you to start over, she was teaching you a very valuable lesson. If Sandy Meisner threw a glass ashtray at you while performing Willy Wax from Rocket to the Moon, he didn't do it out of meanness, but out of absolute love for the higher theatre. What do you want to be a part of? LCD (Lowest Common Denominator or revolutionary theatre?)

SO get educated, get experience, fall on your face and know when to throw ashtrays even though people will  crucify you.

“A Straightforward statement made without an ambiguous grimace may be considered dogmatic. As dogma it is an affront to your listener (who may not agree) or it will embarrass the speaker should he be proved wrong. To defend it, you may have to fight, perhaps shame, your adversary: and if you are not strong enough to defend it, you will be held either a boor or a fool yourself. Any belief set forth without an evasive or apologetic grin is both bad manners and bad salesmanship. Behind it all is the need to be free, to pick up or drop any notion according to conveniences, to avoid choice, lest one be caught in the rigidity of a definite position, for in that lies difficulty and even danger.” - Harold Clurman

Monday, May 12, 2014

Case 1: Quit Killing William Inge

Dried Roses Are Good For Sentiment Only

There's nothing I would like more than for certain playwrights to finally get their due.  One of them is William Inge.  It seems no one can do a good Inge production, so maybe it's best if we put a moratorium on him until a talented director comes to the boards.

"Nothing happens in his plays." "They're regional." etc etc etc.

Yet, if you've spent any time in the MidWest or the Plains, especially in Inge's time period, while not much seems to happen in Inge's plays, for his isolated characters, what does happen is ALL they have. A new, ugly paint job on the bank IS a major topic to these people - especially in a cut off world, with 2 radio stations and no TV or internet. It's their world, not ours. It still exists, and it's sad people don't see that. When played with NY City contemporary insight superimposed on the plays, they ARE dull. Few playwrights wrote so much subtext as Inge.

While we've been very careful to keep this blog universal, it's time to name names to make a point.  Inge's midwestern plays are about isolation - these characters might as well be on desert island - and the few people they encounter are the ONLY people in their world.  Claustrophobia is a main issue. When there are only 10 people in your world, they all have varying, clear places of importance.  Defying his script, the awful Broadway Sheba revival, had a huge set with tons of buildings right behind the main house (Read the most beautiful stage directions that start off Sheba - they are poetry and describe the characters through the furniture. Neglecting them is a shame.) Similarly, the sad revival of A Loss of Roses also has a cyclorama of wall to wall houses and businesses and a huge office building on the side, all contrary to the script. Even Inge's slightly more citified Bus Stop has the characters stranded in a small diner, while a potentially deadly snow storm brings them together. The setting and weather is a huge part of Inge and Midwestern life, and it is often overlooked.

Inge is ALL about the subtext. People in his reality can speak a line every 10 minutes, and they are fine. This still exists today. It's about connecting. What IS important is the behavior between the lines. As Meiner stated, "An ounce of behavior is worth a pound of words."It was never more true than in Inge plays.

Sadly, all the 'artist's' failures to make Inge soar only lead to the accepted legacy that he was a minor playwright. If you do Inge successfully, and as it reads to a Mid-Westerner, you have to put the play down at times as it is so volatile.  Like Wilder's Our Town, his plays are usually performed as syrupy Hallmark Hall of Fame Movies. They strip them off all their edge, and only play the words.

With the new revival of Inge's first flop, the brilliant A LOSS OF ROSES, produced by The Peccadillo Theatre - all the mistakes in producing Inge are glaringly on display.

From their outdated, childish finger-painting of a poster, it's clear the Peccadillo isn't taking the show seriously. They're clearly only doing this as a vanity project, along with lead Lichty's La Femme Prod.  Besides not having any understanding of Kansas or the Great Depression (The whirling Disney-ish purple and blue cyclorama brings Oz to 1930's Kansas - along with giant trees and rolling Irish hills! - I wish I were joking! And the sex scene brings more stars out than warp speed in the Star Wars. Glad they were visible through all that dust.). Also, all the characters are 10 - 25 years older than written, and look even older than the characters they play.  After Peccadillo's miscasting last year of a drag queen as the mother in Sidney Howard's The Silver Cord (billed as a comedy, though the play's literal title is "THE SILVER CORD: A DRAMA IN THREE ACTS") my date leaned over and whispered, "Did they cast a MAN again for the female lead?" After looking at the asexual name (Jean) in the program, she wasn't quite sure.'Jean' came across as either a man or a heavy female smoker, shouting and overacting as a crass city girl in a role WRITTEN for Marilyn Monroe, at her most naive. (Yes, Jean is a woman, as far as I know. Her production company helped fund the show. See our past few posts on 'benevolent' projects.)

The production, about a studly loser of a 21 year old man boy who has an unhealthy, unconsummated  Oedipal relationship with his mother, (due in part to the father's death saving the son from drowning and the son feeling the need to take his father's place). The duo have their lives interrupted by the sexy ingenue who babysat the son 15 years prior.  The former babysitter, now a failed stage actress, broken by the 'talkies', comes back to live with the family until she can get back on her feet. She's there as a woman, and it throws a wrench in the written Oedipal relationship -  which doesn't exist, at all, in this production. Lila is a little girl in a woman's body, the son, Kenny is a boy who has been forced into a role of man of the house way too soon.  As written, it makes for interesting, complex interaction, but all of this is thrown in the junk pil in exchange for one dimensional soap opera acting.

The line readings in the show are so misdirected, it makes for a campy evening. (If I were director, I'd tell the cast to say everything totally opposite of what they say. They PLAY the lines and nothing, nothing else.) In the mother's final speech about her hidden sins, ie. lusting after her son, are pointless, as the mother portrays none of that inner drama ever in the production - had I not read the play, like the average patron, all of this inner poetry would have escape me.

And then comes Lila, the Marilyn Monroe part. She's described as a beautiful girl in her 'early 30's' in the script. While beautiful, mid-50s yr old Lichty is laughable in the part. The unhidden varicose veins in her legs, the amount of makeup and harsh voice do make her seem crude and like a drag queen.

While the theatre building itself was nearly 100 degrees, and the script mentions 'it's too hot to work,' and the characters often lament the unbearable heat, they also stupidly wear fur coats and leather jackets.

This show will crucify Inge once again. It proves what all the skeptics say, as it gets his writing so, so incorrect.  As performed, it makes his writing seem trite.  Sadly, it's far from the case. Inge was a brilliant American playwright, it's just there are few productions of his work done, and seemingly always by hacks, that keep him a known as a dated flop.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

On Dirty Fingerprints (or Adding Boogers to the Mona Lisa)

Mainly found in our non-profit theatres are the sincerest narcissists.  They believe in the theatre and want to do _________  play because it is "so great, and ahead of its time, and misunderstood..." Oh. "And there's a great role for me!" Win/Win!

99% of the seeming benevolence in the theatre is actually a case of vanity. (Easiest case, see how many 'artistic directors' are ALWAYS the lead, even if horribly miscast, in EVERY show.) Their pleading claims of serving the theatre start with serving themselves.

Trying to claim fake importance by getting your hands on a rare title and milking it for all its worth is again quite understandable. There are many neglected works that deserve their due - but most of these cases seem to be an issue of graffiti or dirty fingerprints. Lots of people look at this bridge, so let me spraypaint my name all over it. Or a child sees something getting attention, so he smears his muddy fingers and boogers on it. He just one upped it, and became part of the pieces legacy. (Keep checking Wikipedia - sooner or later you will see, "_____ made a name for himself by scrawling his name on Michelangelo's David.") Take a look at the marquees, see how many directors' names precede the playwright.  And often, it's true, it's not the play they are doing, it's the Mona Lisa obscured by their greasy fingerprints.

It's easiest to smoke these 'artistes' out in their constant 'talk-backs', -"Watch us tell you how much we know and praise us." I've never been to a single talk-back where it wasn't a pure pissing contest.  Even the rare time the artists weren't showing off, someone in the audience feels the need to show off their own presumed literary prowess.  (And 9 times out of 10, they are wrong.) I wish I were naming names, only to make this more specific, but I'm trying to keep this as universal as possible, as I think you know the type I mean. 

Though I sat through a talk-back recently, where the director, a self-proclaimed "EXPERT" on ____, a neglected writer, announced that she was so dumbstruck with finding this extremely rare play. As an expert, she thought she knew everything on this playwright, until she happened to stumble across this very rare play. The audience cooed and applauded, unaware that copies have always been available to check-out at the NY Public Library, on the shelf at Drama Books and has never ever been out of print.

As this is to be a teaching/open discussion blog - what can we learn from these posts?

1) Do your own homework. If you are a part of the theatre, READ plays. While meant to be performed, all stories have a spine.  The story of Hansel & Gretel is very straightforward. Yet if you hadn't read/heard it before, and were told it was full of incest and nudity, as reprinted in the 'anniversary production'  you'd probably believe it. It's the same kind of thing when seeing a play. People can and often will, under the guise of benevolance, distort the story so far out of shape that it will become an abomination. This serves them, and sullies the play. Don't blame the author automatically - get informed.

2) When you do experience plays like this, PLEASE don't feel the need to be polite. The 'artist' surely weren't. David, Starry Night, My Funny Valentine all have concrete qualities to them. If you smear them with shit or change the words around, you are distorting the work. Though it's not easy to do - Those who bastardize work need to be called out. Speak up! Hold people responsible for molesting the artwork for commercial or vanity means. (Ok, sometimes, it's just out of plain stupidity, but ignorance of the law will still land you behind bars.)  If someone 'artiste' took a huge SHIT on the Last Supper, do you think people would be silent, and criticize Da Vinci? NO! They would rightfully attack the 'faux' artiste.  Where is our audiences power? The AUDIENCE makes the theatre.

3) BRING TOMATOES Don't EVER be a passive audience!

Friday, May 9, 2014

Pt 2: The Responsibility of Presenting A Rare Play

It's hard to shed criticism on a long lost relative, and like we often are afraid to speak ill of the dead, we do the same in the theatre.

1) Either we proclaim the play obsolete and a mere byproduct of its time or 2) We praise it because it has gained some classic status (and often makes us look estimable that we could see the Emperor's New Clothes.)

Case 1) "It's dated" Unless a play or movie or book is set in a vacuum, it will ALWAYS be 'dated.' Language changes, clothing changes, laws change - so what? It's a meaningless comment. Every piece is set in a time, but it's the ideas of the play that should be timeless. It's the crew and casts job to take you to that world. When the highest grossing film, Avatar, is about blue people, if the filmakers can make that world seem realistic, then theatre artists should be able to make the true depiction of the 1700's or 1920's come alive. Maybe the ideas in a play have become quaint, the laws of the play are outdated - but with a good play, there is always something to experience and learn.  It should transport us to that world, small as it gmay be- take us to that timeperiod.  It takes a skilled company to pull this off.  Anyone can create a National History Diorama, faded, ancient people- dressed in period clothes, standing in position, holding a dinosaur or rowing a skiff while covered with inches of dust. They are museum pieces - they don't speak to us when done as artifacts caught in amber. Recently, several NY theatres have presented great classics - little known Williams' plays, lost classics about artists without talent determined to make it in the world on ambition alone, or a Pulitzer Prize winning medical drama - they all have timely issues, but they were all were done to the detriment of the play. Old plays, covered in dust and amber, may have their place to the collector, but not in my world.  Art must be functional.  Again, "Rare", "first ever", "First professional" all littered these plays' press releases - and more often than not, factually incorrect.

Critics had one of two extreme knee jerk responses to these plays:

Crucify the material and the playwright. As these plays haven't been seen by most people, they trust the production is the gospel.  Sadly, it's so warped by not setting the play in it's time, of course it come across silly. (And, as few people actually invest the time in to doing their research aside from the propaganda filled press kit, this false knowledge gets passed on to the public.) It's funny that we play so politely with hack artist's feelings, yet we brutalize those, mainly the playwrights, who clearly have the goods.

OR, the experts proclaim, "We're just so thankful to getting the rare chance to see ____________." Like an exhibit of traveling gemstones, it gets praise just for being rare - despite all the flaws in the jewels.  It's like dusting off a rare, inferior Van Gogh and praising it because of its rarity.  This is also very dangerous. (See Lincoln Center's acclaimed Golden Boy. Few had the skill or nerve to call it out as a dud. Instead, the reviews blared "But it had 19 actors! That ALONE makes it a landmark." zzzzzzzzzzzz) Whether the play is new or 75 years old, it needs to live and breath and be of importance.

Yes, artists are certainly allowed to fail, it's vital, but don't bill yourself as something more than you are. For these 'event productions', proclaiming assumed importance can only be detrimental to the play. The play is bigger and should outlive you.

PART 3 - Dirty Finger Prints

Mis-Handling Precious Materials PT 1

On gaining importance through assumed association

There are so many companies, with little money and loud dreams, who are fighting the Goliaths of the commercial theatre. Not only do they, understandably, clutch onto any 'name' they can use to get an inch of press space, even though it's often 10 times removed -  see Michael Feingold's discussion of this on Theatermania - but the terms "First Ever Revival", "Only Major Production," "75th Anniversary Production" are thrown around in so many press releases, they need their own mention.

Again, I understand why companies do this, and have even used similar blurbs at times myself. But being the first revival in 25 years or a 93rd Anniversary Production SEEMS to carry some semi-official prestige with it. That's wonderful if the company can rise to the occasion and present a powerful production, but the 'special event' description is usually just a tool to cover up mediocre work and to sell a ticket. 
There's a great danger in this. Yes, you need to get people in to see the work, and it is HARD to get asses in seats, but if you really are going to do something rare, you have an extra responsibility. If you're doing the first production of something in 2000 goddam years, you OWE it to the piece to do it well. If not, it will get re-buried.  Don't touch a piece just to put your fingerprints on it and call it your claim to fame! Cat on a Hot Tin Roof will get revived in 18 months on Broadway, no matter how bad the previous production was, but a rare revival of They Knew What They Wanted, the mainly unseen 1925 Pulitzer Prize winning play doesn't have the same Teflon quality. 

We have unions to protect the actors and directors - but who protects the Theatre and the audience?

Stayed Tuned for Part 2 - The Need of Throwing Rocks at Loved Ones