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Casting Stars is Good for Theatre

I have had a crush on Sam Waterston ever since I had to write a paper on the film Much Ado About Nothing for a Shakespeare class in college.  He played Benedick in the film and it was the first time I realized that Shakespeare plays could be sexy.

Sam, er I mean Mr Waterson is appearing in Simon Gray’s premiere of Old Masters at the Long Wharf.

Old Masters seems a bit of a dry premise;  a meeting between art historian Bernard Berenson and an art dealer, Jospeh Duveen  (wake me up when the audience is out of its misery!)

It is premises like this that really stoke my bitterness at the overall male-centricity of theatre.  I believe if you are a good writer and write a play about two historical male characters in a room talking about their philosophies’  with some  female character in the wings ready to serve as additional objectified fodder, you will find a producer.  The resulting play is a hit because the audience, despite being bored silly, can’t admit to hating the experience for fear of looking like a low-brow cretin.

If it gets people in the seats, you might ask, what’s the harm?  Well, the harm is that the next time these people, traumatized by their previous mind-numbing theatrical tedium, have an opportunity to see play, they will instead  book that root canal procedure they’ve been putting off.

So, you’d have to pay me to go see “Old Masters”… that is, until you tell me Sam Waterston is in it.  Which is why I think putting famous people in a play is good for theatre.  I know most of us traditional theatre types feel a twist in our stomach at the notion of endorsing a star system. A star system seems so superficial, so commercial, so un-artisitic.  However,in my opinion, casting a person known in the community does exactly what theatre is supposed to do, encourage community participation.  Famous people are stand-ins for people we would informally appoint if we lived in small towns and villages.

It seems to me the feeling of knowing the actor on stage, no matter how fabricated,  adds invaluable layers to the theatrical experience .  I may listen closer, consider longer, be more amused, touched or amazed simply because it performed by someone I feel I know.

Seeing a familiar person on stage makes me feel excited, a part of the experience.  If I dislike the person, I may revel in how right I am to dislike them, if I like the person I may feel a full heart when they do well.  Whatever it is, I am much more likely to feel something.  Some might argue that it allows personalities to get in the way of the theatrical message and I would say “EXACTLY!”   See, I think the only real value of theatre today is that live people perform it.  I want theatre that accentuates the actor as a live and present being.  I want to believe the actors’ minds and hearts are involved in the play.  And I want my heart and mind to be engaged which is most likely if  I indentify with the actors. Personally, my experience is far more fun if I am lucky enough to bring preconceived opinions of the performers to the theatre.

Like it or not, knowing and identifying with famous personalities brings us together.  If two people know a third person, it brings those two people closer even if they have not met.  Websites like LinkedIn prove the strength of this phenomenon.  In general we like people we know better than strangers and we’re more likely to listen to them and care what they say.  Having recognizable and shared public figures gives us a feeling of community, safety, and commonality.  It is true we don’t really “know” a star but we think we do.  Unlike those close to us, we have no obligation to really know the real person behind the public figure.  Our interpretation says more about us than about them and, as long as we understand the distinction, stars give us a chance to know ourselves.

Unlike film, in theatre I am in relationship with all the participants, whether I am the artist or the audience, and this is the gift of the theatrical event, when it goes right.  So, the opportunity to enjoy the feeling of being in relationship with Sam Waterston trumps my negative reaction to the play’s description.  Furthermore, I am likely to enjoy the juxtaposition of my dislike of Gray’s premise with my admiration of Sam Waterston.  If “Old Masters” turns out to be just another emotionless intellectual wank, I will enjoy being angry at Sam.  If it turns out to give me an appreciation for Gray’s play, I will have Sam to thank.  Either way, I end up seeing a play and enjoying the feeling of being in relationship with someone I admire.

Art, theatre, culture revitalizes and rebuilds desolate beaten-down urban areas throughout the country

Do you have section of a city that has seen better days? Does it have old buildings that could be beautiful again? Is it empty, crime-ridden, seedy or scary? You might want to ask your local artisits to move in.

You wouldn’t think that the most cash strapped, under supported industry would be the one thing that can bring life back to the most forgotten part of a town but all across the country and the world, smart cities are asking artists to blaze a trail into derelict urban environments.

Media’s Arts Council, a member of Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, is the force bringing art, dance, music, and theater to Media Pennsylvania. Media’s 2nd Saturdays is a monthly event that offers free performances of music, theatre and arts presentations to the community.

I took a peek at Media’s crime stats and note that since 2002, property crime has dropped more than 300% in Media, while violent crime and aggravated assaults have dropped in half.

In England, where business are suffering as much from the hard economic times as here in the U.S and clsong their doors, government advisors are urging the British politicians to endorse conversion of empty commercial spaces into places where farmers, local tradesman and artists can ply their wears In an abandoned Woolworth’s in Stroud, Gloucestershire is about to be turned over to the artisits.

In London, the theatre company “Write by Numbers” has taken over a shop whose former tenants whose business, like so many others, have fallen victim to this recession. The company offers plays and a cup of tea for free of a small donation. And other arts projects, meant to breath life into semi-abadoned urban areas are happening thoughout England. In Dursely, artisits have taken over a line of empty shops to sell their crafts. There’s also the Brixton Project which features numerous adaptations of Ovid’s Metamorphose, an exhibition space in Hastings, the Noise Lab in Manchester, and a contemporary art gallery in a former Marks & Spencer retail store.

Many cities have learned that where artisits go, money follows. The Foundry made an area in East London so cool that the artisits who began it have found themselves evicted in order to build a big hotel. This happened in Toronto’s Queen Street area and likewise to the Berlin artisits who created such an edgy cool spot in the low rent struggling area of their city that the wealthier soon moved in and edged them to other areas.

I am seeking other stories where art and theatre brought life to abandoned areas. So please contribute to the discussion. Meanwhile, maybe someone can explain why The St. Francis Theatre – a neo-classical building that was a movie theater for approximately 90 years (1911-2001) in San Francisco remains vacant, closed, and boarded up?

Dads Taking Their Kids to the Theatre

Seattle Children’s Theatre has drafted their first lead quarterback, Brock Huard (Seattle Seahawks) , to lead their team to a victory.  The challenge is to attract more men, namely fathers and grandfathers, to the theater with their children.  Huard will be bringing his daughter Haley on February 19 to see “In the Northern Lands: Nordic Myths”.  Luckily the play’s description sounds better than the title.  The SCT News Release describes it as “intensely physical” using combat, swords and arial staging to tell epic stories of bravery, loyalty and courage.  Before the show, they’ll be serving “Dude Food”.  I don’t know what that is but it sounds fun.

Huard tells us, according to John Levesque in his blog, that we can credit his daughter Haley’s interest in theatre for being a part of Huard’s  participation.   She likes theatre and especially enjoyed the SCT’s production of Peter Pan over the holidays.

I hope this event is a stunning success and that the Seattle Children’s Theatre will find it useful to make this a regular event.  I imagine for men who share custody or are committed to developing a special relationship with their children,  it’s a challenge to come up with something special to do.  A night out at the theater might be a welcome addition to the repertoire, especially if the show can entertain Dad as well as the kids.

I look forward to reading more about how the event went.

Your thoughts and ideas are a welcome contribution to this and other discussions about popular theatre so please feel free to comment.

Is Diane Paulus our Savior?

I think she is, I really think our savior has come and her name is  Diane Paulus.

Okay, when I first heard of her I felt – I wish I could say exultant but  –  bitter envy.

Here is a woman who seems to be actually doing what I only hoped to do, make theatre live again.

Not only is she approaching theatre with the energy the theatre so desperately needs but she is creating theater people want to see.  I’ll say it again, creating theatre that people WANT to see!

And if that isn’t enough, she broken the barrier between the high-brow and the low.  I didn’t think it could be done.  I thought the powers that be (the intellectuals, the grant writers, the board members, the rich sponsors, the conservative money-men ) had such a stranglehold that there was no hope of real, long lasting life for the theatre.  But Diane Paulus has been appointed the new artistic director of the American Repertory Theater.

A.R.T.,  the bastion of avant garde,  I’ve never had anything against avant garde, I just lack what it takes to enjoy it -whether it is smarts, attention span, curiosity or something else – so I certainly didn’t have what it takes to create it.  The only comfort in this was knowing I am not alone, no one I know has ever said, ‘hey, let’s check out some avant garde theatre tonight, shall we?” (Okay, I admit, no one I know has ever actually suggested we check out any theatre at all.)

Diane Paulus is no snob – okay, she’s smart enough to be really really snobby – but she doesn’t produce snotty, high brow, dull as dirt theatre.  Instead, from what I hear, she produces the stuff you want to see, or rather, experience and even participate in.  From what I hear, she’s aiming for theatre that is better than a rock concert.

Damn her!  Why her and not me?  Why does she get to be smarter and more talented and more persuasive and… jealousy so sucks.  More precisely, this cloud of failure sucks.

What do I do when wrenched with jealousy?  Well I cry and…okay you don’t want to know the details but eventually I try to embrace the object of my jealousy and applaud and celebrate their success and I imagine they care.  And allow her success to motivate me.

All Hail Diane Paulus!

Good Critic – Steve Hunt

My friend, Jane Cawthorne, produced her play Abortion Monologues  in Calgary and sent a link to a review.   Now the review happens to be a great example of an honest approach to theatrical criticism.  No pretense at being objective or the biggest authority on theatre since Clive Barnes.  It was written by Steve Hunt (blog name “halfstep‘) and I think other reviewer could learn from his example.

Bad Reviewers

I had the luxury of producing my play  “Slut” several times in different venues and with two different actors. So I have lots of published reviews of the play and it reminds me how important it is to remember how differently people can react to the same work, and I believe strongly suggests that critics are not representative of the average person.  They don’t even talk like a normal person, instead they write as if they have some kind of theatrical authority that simply doesn’t exist.  I don’t know who they think they are talking for but I am certain it is not anyone I know.

I am really lucky to have a great example of differing opinions of two so-called impartial experts.  One critic, Jennifer Chung,  wrote that my play Slut was “an ultimately benign, if charming, light comedy”  while Tom Penkrath  from NY’s Backstage didn’t feel Matilda’s behavior was anything close to benign, he writes;  “To hear her [Matilda] tell it: “Sex is a gift [ from a generous and benevolent Universe and all we’ve got to do is figure out is] how to unwrap it.”  In reality, she’s acting out, and her aberrant behavior creates a conflict with an elderly neighbor, which leads to her arrest.”

Benign,  aberrant or neither?   I’ll choose neither.

I need to remember that people will see my work and review my work  who I wouldn’t want to be in the same room with.  For instance, I wouldn’t want to spend 5 minutes with Tom Penkrath who somehow managed to turn my play into a parable of the Slut being saved by the big, strong and moral man; “Only with the help of a sympathetic policeman” Penkrath writes “does she eventually achieve a modicum of self-awareness.”    I find this interpretation stunningly, and ironically, sexist, which wouldn’t surprise Mr Penkrath who accuses my character of justifying her deviant behavior with “feminist rhetoric or psychobabble.”  But for me, at least, his review says  a lot more about him than it does about my play.

Next time I get a negative review I’m going to remind myself  that a theatre critic is rarely a member of my target audience. I never write my play hoping to please the Brechtian Scholars, the PostModernist, the Conservative Traditionalist or the Intellectual Wanker.   I write plays for my peers, I write plays that I would really like to see, I write plays for people who didn’t get a graduate degree in theatre,  who may have never heard of Brecht, whose attention span may be as short as mine.  I especially write for women, becasue, hey, I am one.   Not everyone will like me, but I’d rather please the majority than the literati.


Why do we tolerate a reviewer who pretends objectivity about  a subjective art form?  Why is it that we allow reviewers to avoid taking personal responsibility for their opinion?  Why do we accept their right to decide the fate of a show when that decision is so much a matter of luck?    Reaction to a play is often influenced entirely by the mood of the audience member.  Critics are people, they get tired and cranky, they have pet peeves, they make snap judgments, they have biases and preferences.  Why don’t they admit to these in their reviews?  Frankly, I find the approach to reviewing often pretentious and disingenuous.

Except in the case where they think I am wonderful of course.