Monday, October 27, 2008

Looking Ahead to 2009

I've become pretty much obsessed with the election; I'm trying to be proactive and use that obsession to think clearly about what will happen after the election. Specifically, what kind of job am I going to have here at nytheatre.com in 2009? What is the New York theatre scene going to look like?

There will be changes, and the most significant catalyst for those changes will not be the election--it will be the economy. The commercial sector of theatre is already taking hits: several long-running Broadway shows have closed or posted closing notices, and I suspect others will join them in the near future. More ominously, several of the new shows announced for this Broadway season failed to materialize due to funding shortfalls. And I'm hearing about fewer new projects aiming for Broadway.

Tourism is likely to become a less lucrative industry in New York City in the near-term. The high-end local market may be in danger of drying up as well, what with upcoming Wall Street layoffs predicted to be in the hundreds of thousands. There are simply going to be fewer dollars available for EVERYTHING, and luxuries like Broadway shows are going to be cut out of people's personal budgets as a result.

Similarly, because entertainment and service industries (and financial industries!) provide daytime employment to many of the folks who make theatre at every level in New York City--and those jobs may become more scarce--there's a risk that we are going to lose artists to other locations. We are all--the Culture Wars notwithstanding--inextricably interconnected.

All that said, the theatre isn't going to croak this time around, any more than it did during the Great Depression. There's a real opportunity for savvy producers to promote commercial theatre so that it's again affordable for mainstream audiences; and there's a real opportunity for smart indie theater producers to offer their lower-priced shows as a viable alternative to mainstream audiences in search of excellent, interesting, provocative entertainment. Readers of nytheatre.com and indietheater.org already know that there's lots of wonderful theatre in NYC that costs $20 instead of $120. Awareness of that information needs to spread, because there's going to be an increasing market for good theatre at a reasonable price.

The new economic realities mean that if NEA still exists in 2010 and 2011 (for example) there will be less money available to grantees; government funding is certain to be smaller across the board in the next few years. What will we fund? I am hopeful that funders and nonprofit theatres alike will place their focus on development of local American artists (as opposed to importing successful productions from established companies, either from overseas or elsewhere in the USA). The indie theater sector in New York is the largest concentration of theatre talent in this country, and the work they create continues a long tradition of standards-setting and ground-breaking that goes back to the 1920s. Indie theater is one of America's most important cultural laboratories. We must not lose sight of that when funding becomes scarce, as it will.

Turning back to the election, now: in eight days, we will (hopefully) know who the next president of the United States is going to be. What will that choice mean to the kind of work that American playwrights create in 2009?

It is my hope that a new direction in this country's government will lead to a new direction in our theatre--new inclusiveness, more attention to diversity, and a greater willingness to hear many new voices different from our own. Exploration of forms and genres that challenge the status quo--development, for example, of an American physical theatre aesthetic that rivals the kind of work being created in Europe and Asia, so that instead of booking a martial arts comedy from Korea, an off-Broadway theatre could plausibly book a home-grown Vampire Cowboys Theatre Company production instead.

It is my hope that a renewed emphasis on innovation will find application in the theatre, so that the many new enabling technologies won't just be available to well-funded groups but to the full spectrum of indie theater companies who have ideas about how to use them to make their art more accessible, more meaningful, and more exciting.

No matter who wins the White House, the Culture Wars in this country are not going to disappear, and we need to think about what that means for theatre. It is my hope that a renewal of vigor in this country will be felt in our theatres, where serious and intellectually rigorous work that challenges audience's assumptions about a variety of social and political issues will once again take root and blossom. Artists may be hard-pressed to keep on fighting the good fight if Obama loses this election. But they must!

I want to conclude with a final point about the media. A fundamental shift in how people acquire information about their world has been occuring during the past decade, thanks to the Internet and all the new forms it has engendered. The economic situation is going to affect this in further, important ways: some mainstream outlets will cease to exist; others will cut back their coverage of theatre, an art form they view as marginalized. We need to ensure that responsible and articulate forums thrive, to provide support for theatre, at all levels. That's certainly one of the main things I think about as I ponder--as I mentioned at the beginning of this post--what my job is going to look like in 2009.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Glass Ceiling in American Theatre

There's an article in today's New York Times about the upcoming meeting between a group of women playwrights and heads of major nonprofit NYC theatres, the purpose of which is to raise awareness about the glass ceiling that America's female playwrights are experiencing.

This is also the subject of a two-part podcast that NYTE just produced. There's info about the podcasts here and here; and you can download and listen to part 1 and part 2. You should listen to these--the nine panelists offer a great deal of insight into this situation and even point toward some possible actions to help resolve this long-standing issue.

The nine women we invited to talk about the topic are:
  • Playwright/reviewer Jo Ann Rosen, who moderates the discussion
  • Playwright/director/performer/educator Lenora Champagne
  • Playwright/actor/creator Maggie Cino
  • Playwright/educator Andrea Lepcio
  • Playwright/director/producer Bryn Manion
  • Producer/dramaturg/reviewer Loren Noveck
  • Director Cat Parker
  • Playwright Crystal Skillman
  • Playwright/actor Janet Zarecor

Here are some of the issues that surfaced during their hour+ discussion:

  • Women may not be produced as often as men because they have different negotiating styles and may not have learned the same kinds of negotiating skills
  • There seems to be a perception that women produce/write about "women's issues" and also that there's a stigma to producing/creating this kind of material
  • There's disagreement among our panel about whether women artists are adequately supportive of one another
  • There's a sense that prejudice against women is deeply engrained and systemic

The discussion concluded with overriding consensus that everyone (women and men) needs to maintain awareness of and focus on this issue, and that the place to begin doing that is "at home" -- i.e., in making choices about the theatre each of us sees, supports, and participates in.

Please listen to the podcasts because this problem is real and shameful.

I'd like to suggest an underlying cause that I've not read anything about anywhere thus far: the fact that almost none of the leading theatre critics in NYC (America) are women. For example, when Time Out-New York did a poll/feature in 2006 about the 15 most influential theater critics in NYC, only one of those 15 was a woman--that woman, Linda Winer (of Newsday), along with Elysa Gardner of USA Today are the only female lead theater critics for major print publications that I can think of. (Someone please correct me if I am wrong.) There are other women who regularly review theatre in NYC, such as Alexis Soloski, Helen Shaw, and Anita Gates, but none of them is the "first-string" critic for her paper/magazine.

nytheatre.com has 40 women reviewers on staff right now, compared to 57 men reviewers.

Would it make a difference, regarding the glass ceiling, if there were more women reviewing more theatre out there?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Out to Lunch with the American Badass

Last night was great: I attended the kickoff of No. 11's Productions' Plays and Playwrights reading series at Under St. Marks. What a terrific night!

The centerpiece of the evening was a staged reading of Joseph Langham's edgy satire Out to Lunch. Julie Congress directed a fine cast that included Mitchell Conway, Ryan Emmons, Samantha Hooper-Hamersly, Adam Lerman, Sarah Stephens, Zachary Fithian, and Joel Bovev. Kudos to all for bringing Langham's hilarious play to life.

After the reading, I got to moderate a talkback with Joseph, which was a true pleasure. I haven't seen this play since its premiere at the 2002 New York International Fringe Festival, and unfortunately I haven't seen Joseph that many times since then either (because he spent several years touring the country doing Shakespeare). Joseph talked to the audience about his inspiration for this play--working as a waiter at a restaurant in Texas, in particular. He also noted that a university in Frostburg, Maryland produced Out to Lunch after it was published, and how interesting it had been for him to see a production that he was not personally involved with.

Joseph told me that he's written a 36-character Western (in verse) -- so all you quixotic producers out there, here's your chance to premiere the next Langham classic.

We ended the evening by introducing one of the playwrights who will be featured in the next volume of the Plays and Playwrights series (that would be Plays and Playwrights 2009, due out next February). The playwright is Chris Harcum, and his play is called American Badass, or 12 Characters in Search of a National Identity. Chris is a very talented solo artist (he premiered American Badass at FRIGID New York last February); he's also a contributor to nytheatre.com.

Plays and Playwrights 2004 alumnus Tom X. Chao (Cats Can See the Devil) was also in the house. So I had three playwrights in the room with me, which always makes me happy.

Speaking of Plays and Playwrights 2009, by the way, lucky folks in Williamstown, Massachusetts will have a chance to see another of the plays that will be included in that volume: Tim Collins's excellent solo play A Fire as Bright as Heaven is part of the Dialogue One Theatre Festival on November 22 at the Centre for Theatre and Dance at Williams College. All the info is here. Just before Tim's show is a performance of John Clancy & Matt Oberg's The Event (hear a podcast about that show) --so this sounds like a terrific afternoon of amazing theatre (and it proves that those folks at Williams College have excellent taste).

No. 11's next reading events will be on November 17th at The Chocolate Factory in Long Island City -- Margie Stokley's Elephant from Plays and Playwrights 2005; followed the very next night by a reading of Daniel Reitz's Fall Forward from Plays and Playwrights 2008 at Metropolitan Playhouse. Can't wait! (Here's No. 11 Productions' website.)

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Plays and Playwrights Anthologies -- Big Sale!

I want to make sure that readers of the nytheatre i know about the big sale that NYTE is running on the Plays and Playwrights anthologies from now through the end of January.

It's part of our Plays and Playwrights Mega Celebration which I told you about last week.

Each month between now and January, NYTE is offering two of our anthologies on sale at half price. This is a super opportunity for you to fill in the volumes that are missing from your personal library...and also to give some great inexpensive gifts to theatre lovers this holiday season.

The volumes on sale in October are Plays and Playwrights 2003 ($7.50) and Plays and Playwrights 2005 ($8.00).

Let me tell you a little about Plays and Playwrights 2003 today. I'll write about the 2005 volume in a future post.

Plays and Playwrights 2003 contains the FringeNYC hits Out to Lunch by Joe Langham (which is being read by No. 11 Productions on Monday, October 20 at Under St. Marks) and Last Call, the first full-length by the award-winning dramatist Kelly McAllister. It also includes the amazing and prophetic dark tragedy The Ninth Circle by Ed Musto; Ato Essandoh's insightful and witty look at interracial romance, Black Thang; Nat Colley's sequel to The Merchant of Venice (called The Doctor of Rome); one of the very first-ever 9/11 plays, Pumpkins for Smallpox by Catherine Gillet; and Leon Chase's remarkable family drama The Last Carburetor. Also in PP03: the one-act version of Andrea Lepcio's comedy about two sisters coping with breast cancer and death (yes, it really is a comedy!), Looking for the Pony -- a full-length version of this play is coming to Vital Theatre Company later this season. And Maggie Cino's extraordinarily wise one-woman physical theatre piece, Ascending Bodily. And Marc Morales's pop culture extravaganza Galaxy Video. And one of the most frequently performed plays from any of our books, Joe Godfrey's glorious take on Dickens, A Queer Carol.

All of these plays deserve to be as popular as A Queer Carol has become. Check out Plays and Playwrights 2003 asap. At $7.50 a copy (that's about 65 cents per play!!) it's a huge bargain.

Take advantage of the sale, and by the way, here's another reason to buy your copy of Plays and Playwrights 2003 now: it is actually about to go out of print. We have just 2 cartons of books left in inventory. Once they're gone... the only place you'll be able to find Plays and Playwrights 2003 will be in a used bookstore, or on eBay.

One last thing--you may be wondering why we're offering such deep discounts on our books right now. NYTE Small Press is part of The New York Theatre Experience, Inc., which as you may know is a nonprofit corporation whose mission is to use new and traditional media to support the work of theatre artists. Our small press is not about making money--it's about getting the works of talented but possibly unheralded playwrights into the hands of people who will read them, perform them, and produce them. We want people who care about American drama to be able to afford to own these plays.

Click here to visit shop.nyte.org, where the books are on sale.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

No Conservative Playwrights?

I just finished reading this article from today's NY Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/15/theater/15thea.html

The jist of the piece is that, in America, only plays with a liberal perspective seem to get written; a whole bunch of artistic directors are asked to name a playwright who writes conservative political theatre and they can't come up with a single one.

I suspect they're not looking in the right place. Here are a couple of suggestions: the authors of The Lion King and Legally Blonde. The theme of the first of these is that stronger and bigger creatures are entitled to power at the expense of smaller and weaker ones. The theme of the second is that privileged white people can get what they want whenever they want it as long as they have money and look good. If these aren't the sentiments of the ruling party, I don't know what are.

Who'd a thought that the good old American musical is the place to look for non-liberal ideas?

Expensive Candy

I saw the Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of A Man for All Seasons on Saturday afternoon. I was disappointed in the show (here's my review). But the real shocker came during intermission, when I thought I'd buy a bag of M&M's to share with my companion.

The price tag: four dollars.

Shocking. (I didn't buy them.)

Possible Loss of 4 More Greenwich Village Theatres?

A quick post to alert folks to this article in today's Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/14/nyregion/14archives.html?ref=nyregion

Rents could go up as much as 500% (!) in the building that houses Wings Theatre, TFANA, and 2 other theatre groups.

Addendum on October 16th: I've just been told about a website where you can find information about a grassroots movement opposing this rent increase: http://www.gvshp.org/theaterloss.htm

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Plays and Playwrights Mega Celebration

Not long ago, I announced the eleven plays that are going to be included in Plays and Playwrights 2009. I am so excited about this book. It's the tenth one in our annual series of anthologies of new plays by never-before-published playwrights.

We're actually -- perhaps a bit uncharacteristically -- making a bit of a fuss about this particularly milestone. To mark the 10th Plays and Playwrights book, we're having a MEGA CELEBRATION, in fact. And it starts right now. And it continues until February 2009, when the new book is published.

From now until then, we're hoping to remind readers of the amazing artists that we've published and their even more amazing work.

One way we're doing this is a reading series. No. 11 Productions, a new and very enthusiastic theatre troupe made up of 4 Skidmore College grads, is presenting readings from each of the Plays and Playwrights books, from 2001 through 2008. There will be eight evenings, each devoted to one anthology. These evenings are going to be great: there will be a staged reading of one or more of the plays in that particular book, followed by a talkback discussion (moderated by yours truly) with the featured playwright(s) and members of the cast. Each evening will conclude with a giveaway: we'll give four lucky audience members a copy of the book. And there will also be a surprise guest at each of the readings -- someone who will be able to tell you more about what's coming up at NYTE Small Press.

One of the truly cool things about the reading series is that each evening will be at a different indie venue. We're going to be at eight terrific venues all over the city (three different boroughs are represented!) and I hope you will take advantage of this opportunity to not only hear some wonderful plays but visit some excellent theatre spaces you may never have been to before.

The first reading is scheduled for Monday, October 20, at 7:30pm at Under St. Marks. I am so excited that we are starting at this downtown landmark, which is one of Horse Trade Theater Group's three venues. (Thanks to Erez and everyone at Horse Trade for supporting this project!)

The play being read is Out to Lunch by Joseph Langham, which is one of the pieces in Plays and Playwrights 2003. Joseph will be on hand for the talkback after the show. If you've never met Joseph, you should: he's a very smart and funny guy. Perhaps you know him better as a performer -- his creations Harburg Harrisbrandt and Gilligan Stump brought him a good deal of acclaim in NYC's indie theater scene during the last decade.

I hope we'll see many of you at the reading on October 20th!

I'll have more to say about the Plays and Playwrights Mega Celebration in upcoming blog posts!

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Talking about Twelfth Night

This morning, we recorded a podcast with three women who are directing versions of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night in NYC in October and November. The directors are: Cat Parker, whose steampunk-influenced production opens at T. Schreiber Studio this week; Cara Reichel, whose musical Illyria (co-written with Peter Mills, presented by Prospect Theater Company) begins performances on Oct 18; and Rebecca Patterson, whose all-female production for The Queens Company starts in November.

We had a fascinating conversation! It's the mark of the play's brilliance that each of these talented directors can find so much that's different to focus on in their respective productions. You'll be able to hear what they have to say when the podcast goes live, this coming Sunday night (October 12).

I myself will be talking about Twelfth Night on Thursday, October 16 -- I'll be moderating a talkback after the 8:00pm performance that evening at T. Schreiber Studio. Cat and members of her cast will join me to discuss their work with the audience.

I have done several talkbacks at Schreiber -- How I Learned to Drive, You Can't Take It With You, Sister Cities, and Picasso at the Lapin Agile are some of the other shows where I've moderated discussions following the show. I love doing these, because the actors and directors always have such interesting insights to offer, and because audience members are so engaged and involved and come up with amazing questions and comments.

You can learn more about Twelfth Night at Schreiber here. I hope some of you will attend the performance on October 16 and participate in our talkback!

One other piece of T. Schreiber Studio news: Sister Cities, which had its NYC premiere at the Studio last fall, will be included in Plays and Playwrights 2009. We've just posted a photo gallery about the new anthology; check it out.

Monday, October 6, 2008

About The Seagull

If Playbill's weekly roundup is correct (and I'm sure it is), then I'm apparently pretty much alone among professional reviewers in my disappointment in the new production of The Seagull at the Walter Kerr Theatre. (Here's my review.)

But not entirely alone. I got this email from a young actor named Scott Witebsky, who wrote:

Thank you so much for an honest review of The Seagull. I saw the production the same night that a veteran theatre professional saw it. Afterwards we discussed that we both thought it was one of the worst Chekhov productions we have ever seen (a common opinion amongst many whom i've spoken to). Then Ben Brantley came out with his review...a review has never made me upset before in my life, even when unkind things have been said about me, but his review made me furious. I wrote an audience response to the NY Times, and unfortunately it did not get published online in the audience reviews. I felt like Brantley along with almost every other reviewer felt obligated to rave over the production since it did so well in London, and for the sake of "art" or something. I had to search to find a reason why they'd give it such glowing reviews.

Another detail to ponder over. Why did Konstantin put the chair in front of the door when it did nothing at the end of the play? First he locked the door, then he put an extremely light chair in front of it...and did not wedge it in the door handle. What was its purpose other than making Konstanin look like a dunce! For a production in which the details are being applauded, they sure overlooked way too many!

One last thing, this is what i've been telling everyone: You know a production of The Seagull is in bad shape when Yakov is one of the only interesting people to watch on stage.

Thanks for letting me rant.


Other opinions?

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Lee Dobson

I have only just learned of the passing of actor Lee Dobson (he died on September 26). I got to know Mr. Dobson's work mostly at Metropolitan Playhouse, where I saw him in Secret Service, The Octoroon, and other plays. His was an elegant, impressive, understated presence.

My most vivid recollection of him was at a talkback after a performance of The Octoroon. I remember posing the question, to him and four other African American actors in the cast, of how it felt to play slaves -- and to portray them in a play whose entire context suggests that slavery is "normal." His reflections on how a black man in the 21st century tries to get into the head of a black man of two centuries ago -- and the value of doing that -- were wise and valuable.

Mr. Dobson will be missed.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Best is Not the Same as Most Expensive

I just read a fluffy article on MSNBC about the "10 Best Hotels in the United States."

What irked me was the fact that the cheapest room rate at any of the 10 is $420. All of them have rooms in the $1,000-$2,000+ range.

Does "best" really mean "most expensive"?

Sure, if you pay a company a whole lot of money, you expect to get a whole lot back in return. But shouldn't the notion of "best" factor in the concept of price? Shouldn't items like value per dollar be taken into account when rating things that cost money?

Or is the "best" only available to the wealthiest?

Lorenz Hart's lyric for "Too Good for the Average Man" (from On Your Toes, 1936) comes to mind:
Finer things are for the finer folk,
Thus society began.
Caviar for peasants is a joke.
It's too good for the average man.

On nytheatre.com, we never say anything is "best" but we do have a Reviewers' Picks page -- and we're careful to ensure that theatre at all price ranges is included. The most extravagant and spectacular shows are on Broadway, but the most stimulating ones with the most bang for the buck are almost always somewhere else!

McCain vs. Obama: Impact on NYC Theatre

Yesterday, John McCain finally released his "arts platform" to the media. It is four sentences long:
"John McCain believes that arts education can play a vital role fostering creativity and expression. He is a strong believer in empowering local school districts to establish priorities based on the needs of local schools and school districts. Schools receiving federal funds for education must be held accountable for providing a quality education in basic subjects critical to ensuring students are prepared to compete and succeed in the global economy. Where these local priorities allow, he believes investing in arts education can play a role in nurturing the creativity of expression so vital to the health of our cultural life and providing a means of creative expression for young people."

(I found this in the Salt Lake Tribune; I can't find anything about this is in the NY Times).

Obama's arts policy has been online since February, here. Obama's Arts Policy Committee is co-chaired by NYC theatrical producer Margo Lion and includes Disney Theatrical head Thomas Schumacher. So at least the commercial sector of NYC theatre has some representation in Obama's policy creation.

The issues of arts education and arts funding are obviously not the ones that will decide the 2008 presidential election, but they're vital to the New York theatre community and, I would argue, to the continued strength and creativity of the United States. Read the positions of the two candidates and judge for yourself.