Thursday, June 4, 2015

Spalding Gray: Stages of Life

Another post from elsewhere in my blogosphere that ought to be here as well, prompted by this recent New Yorker article by Oliver Sacks on Spalding Gray's brain injury, referenced in my review of Steven Soderbergh's film on Gray, as follows...

And Everything is Going Fine
 Directed by Steven Soderbergh 
 Criterion Collection

 I last talked with Spalding Gray at Wildberries Marketplace in Arcata,  on the afternoon of his last Center Arts performance here. I’d had dinner with him in Pittsburgh (along with six or eight others) several years before, where the general conversation was high-spirited—at least until he quietly observed that he couldn’t laugh anymore. He didn’t know why. He just couldn’t.

 But when I ran into him at Wildberries he smiled broadly and spoke with enthusiasm about the Humboldt landscape. It was January 2001, just months before he suffered major injuries in a car accident, including brain damage.

In this film about his life, Spalding Gray says that the years leading up to the 2001 accident were the happiest of his life. Three years later he was dead, presumably by suicide.

 Spalding Gray virtually invented the autobiographical monologue, although he preferred to call what he did “poetic journalism.” Several of his monologues became feature films, including Swimming to Cambodia (directed by Jonathan Demme in 1987) and Gray’s Anatomy (directed by Steven Soderbergh in 1996.) Soderbergh and his team assembled pieces of video—monologues, interviews, reflections—into a kind of posthumous autobiography, with the help of Kathie Russo, Gray’s widow.

 There are gaps (notably in the years of his greatest celebrity) and the portrait that emerges may or may not be accurate (there’s emphasis on death and suicide throughout.) But the contours of his life and career are here, from childhood obsessions to the fatherhood that started those happy years. Between them were the yearnings and penchant for seeking extremes, and then the need to construct monologues about the resulting experiences.

 In the film he says that at a certain point he got tired of talking about himself, and sought ways to talk about other people. I witnessed him one sunny afternoon in PPG Plaza in Pittsburgh, soliciting stories from an assembled audience. He was a careful, caring, enthusiastic listener, and people responded. In a performance later that evening he told some of these stories with as much pith and power as he told his own.

 What seemed to brighten his life in the happy years he described was fatherhood. It happened as chaotically and neurotically as all the disasters he describes in his monologues. But this one turned out for the best. He enjoyed being a father, a family man, and apparently was good at it. His son wrote music for this film.

 This DVD includes an informative “making of” extra, in which Soderbergh owns up to his cowardice in avoiding Gray after his accident. It also includes Gray’s first monologue, “Sex and Death to Age 14.” Although chaotic, it had his signature emphasis on details as well as the humor and honesty (and the poetic inventions) that he would learn to structure in his later, more mesmerizing works.

 The film’s title comes from a monologue in which Gray talks about his father’s attempt to create the perfect suburban home, but even though “everything is going fine,” there was always one more thing to buy or do to create the completely protected life.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The O'Neill

I posted this review on another site some time ago.  As I wind down new posts on this site, I thought I'd bring it over here, where it belongs.

The O'Neill: The Transformation of Modern Theater
 By Jeffrey Sweet
Yale University Press

 This coffee-table sized book is a solid history of an important institution in 20th century dramatic arts, even if it doesn't quite merit the grandiose subtitle (embarrassingly common these days, and I sympathize. The writer probably isn't responsible for it.)

 It's a 50th anniversary account of an institution--the Eugene O'Neill Center-- that began inventing itself in the late 1960s, in Waterford, Connecticut. The O'Neill began with the intention of nurturing new playwrights and new plays, which was not then the formal function of any other institution outside of a few university classes. This evolved into the National Playwrights Conference, held for a month every summer. Other programs were added over the years, and this book chronicles them.

 The proximity of New York and also of Yale Drama were crucial, as some of the best young actors in the country came up to be an intimate part of the process. (Two of the earliest, Michael Douglas and Meryl Streep, provide prefaces.) The O'Neill is young enough that many present at the creation, including its founder George White, were available to be interviewed for this volume.

 Sweet reports the story, and includes theatre lore to satisfy that appetite as well. Under the leadership of Lloyd Richards, the playwrights conference evolved into both a model and a unique experience. Many new playwrights thrived there, including its most famous alum, August Wilson.

 I attended two weeks of the 1991 conference for a Smithsonian Magazine article and saw how well it worked, and felt the personal bonds that it made and that nourished its success. For actors who went there every year (like John Seitz, who I interviewed and who is mentioned in this volume as having his ashes scattered there) it was a holy place, and participating was (as Seitz said to me) like "renewing my vows."

 Since this was the first of the O'Neill programs and the most influential, Sweet begins with it. He punctuates this narrative with chapters on other programs (National Theatre for the Deaf, the critics institute, etc.) though following the death of August Wilson with the Cabaret and Performance Conference is more than a little jarring.

 When I was there in 1991, the O'Neill and the Playwrights Conference specifically were already encountering financial problems, and a certain anxiety accompanied that summer's activities. There was a particularly strong feeling of appreciation for what it was, since it seemed it might not last.

 In fact the conference did undergo changes after Lloyd Richards left, many of them for reasons related to money. One year there wasn't enough to fund the open submission policy that was the heart if not the soul of the conference, but loud clamors of opposition to the change brought it back. Thanks to a fund set up by former O'Neill employee and playwright Wendy Wasserstein, and initially financed largely by Meryl Streep, the resources necessary to continue that process are safe, this book says, for a long time to come.

 But it does seem that the power has shifted towards the commercial theatre, particularly musical theatre, even within the O'Neill. This reflects a long trend in American theatre as much as the growth of university playwriting programs. Dramatists are now more likely to find creative homes as well as financial support in television, as was even the case among the 1991 playwrights I met and followed.

 I hope this book inspires more books and different books (with additional photographs that exist) that delve into the history and the magic of the O'Neill, and such extraordinary figures as Lloyd Richards, George White and Edith Oliver. My two weeks there were among the most memorable of my life. Just the theatrical stories told by participants and visitors in the Blue Genes cafe would fill volumes. In the meantime this book is a very good start.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

A Great American Playwright

American Masters series recently broadcast a 90 minute documentary on playwright August Wilson and his unsurpassed 10-play cycle about African Americans in every decade of the 20th century. It can now be viewed on the program's website here.  There are some segments there also that didn't make the broadcast film.

The film a good introduction and summary for its length, occasionally powerful, especially when August is talking, though it maybe could have done with less of Christopher Rawson, the Pittsburgh critic.  There are lots of other stories out there, and much more to know about the plays.  There's more to be explored for future filmmakers and writers.

It does put August Wilson's accomplishments in some historical perspective, especially for younger generations. His ten play cycle is unique, providing good grounds for calling him the American Shakespeare.  He treated large themes with specific characters and situations, and he brought something to theatre that has been much lacking since: a voice.

 I just read part of a Dramatist magazine discussion of  "devised theatre."  Its confusion convinced me that "devised theatre" is just another new marketing category, like "creative nonfiction."  There's always been a place for experimental and highly collaborative work.  But devised theatre has become fashionable, possibly because it's easier, on every level.  It can make contributions, but it's not by any means the only way to make plays.

Above all what devised theatre often lacks is a voice.  That's what Lloyd Richards always said the O'Neill was looking for: not a polished play or commercial potential--but a voice.  August Wilson was the greatest example.

The O'Neill fostered a kind of collaboration, but the playwright decided.  Did that line an actor suggested belong in the play?  The playwright decided (and August decided yes at least once.)  Devised?  Take a look at all the scraps of paper he assembled, culled, made cohere.  The voices came to him, and he gave them theatrical voice.

Easily the best example of an excellent play that began in collaboration that I know of is Arthur Giron's Becoming Memories.  It began with his students telling stories.  But it ended with Giron writing--arranging, structuring, and giving the play a voice.  It's a wonderful theatrical experience.  I've seen at least three productions, all different, all luminous: one in Vancouver, BC; one at a university in Pittsburgh and the best one at a central Pennsylvania college with untrained student actors, directed by Margaret Kelso.

The film on August Wilson included a monologue from Gem of the Ocean, performed by Phylicia Rachad, who played this role of Aunt Ester in the Broadway production.  (I saw the Oregon Shakespeare production, which featured Greta Oglesby, who originated the role in pre-Broadway productions.) Rachad tells the story of how Aunt Ester came to be.  August heard his characters talking--sometimes he didn't know who they were when he wrote down what he heard.  Sometimes he did.  So he knew who Aunt Ester was--the ancestor of everyone in the last 9 plays--because other characters had talked about her. But she had never spoken.

This is true. I sat at a table after dinner at the O'Neill with a few others, listening to August tell stories for his next play, and one was about Aunt Ester--perhaps the first mention of her.

Then one day she spoke to him, Rachad said.  He scribbled down what she said on some napkins.  Then afraid he would lose them, he called his answering service and read the dialogue so it would be recorded.  Then afraid it hadn't all been recorded, he went to a pay phone and called his cell phone, and read it again as a recorded message.

August Wilson and I grew up at about the same time, some thirty miles apart.  But our lives were very different.  There were points in common--the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1960, for instance--and I think I did recognize things in him that seemed common to western PA kids of our generation.

So I don't know if this business of mistrusting chance and technology with something valuable is a Pittsburgh thing, or just a character trait we had in common.  Because when I sat down to interview him for the first time--at a picnic table on the O'Neill grounds--I turned on my tape recorder.  And then I turned on my other tape recorder.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Traffic Circle Purpose Revealed

Two crop circle investigators from England arrived in Arcata this week, but they weren’t on the lookout for bent corn.

 "We've gone right off crop circles," Nigel confirmed. "We're onto something new."

 "Something big," Bruce whispered.

 "Very big," Nigel agreed.

 Bruce looked both ways before he talked. "Traffic circles," he breathed. "That's why we're here."

 Attracted by Arcata’s new circle, euphemistically dubbed the Bicycle Hub, the Brit duo revealed that they’ve had their eye on our local traffic circles for some time.

 “As you know, crop circles are navigational aids for alien space craft,” Nigel said. “That’s okay if you want to land in like Iowa and so on, but what about other places? Urban areas, for instance? Maybe starting with small towns where aliens could blend in.”

 But do they really believe traffic circles are the work of aliens?

 "They don't make much sense otherwise, do they?" Nigel said. " They’re purposeless and confusing. I mean, what kind of intelligence would think up traffic circles?"

 "Not human," Bruce said. "Clearly."

 But these traffic circles don’t just appear, our reporter objected. They are designed, engineered, built. They have slogans and marketing campaigns.

 “But not very good ones,” Nigel pointed out.

 “The aliens behind all this just haven’t gotten it all down yet,” Bruce said. “But they’re learning.”

 So is this the prelude to a huge alien invasion?

 “I guess we’ll have to wait for the new X-Files series to know for sure,” Nigel said slowly. “But we think so.”

 “But I wouldn’t be too worried,” Bruce added reassuringly.

 Why is that?

 “Just remember what these aliens are creating as navigational aids,” Nigel noted. “Like this traffic circle. Confusing. Disorienting. Nearly impossible to navigate.”

 "If traffic circles are an indication of how they think," Bruce concluded, "it's entirely possible they'll never get here."

 "Think of it. Thousands of huge space ships circling around each other, nobody knowing who is supposed to stop for who, and where to get on or off the orbital path."

 "They'll be there forever." Nigel and Bruce smiled at each other. Nigel bent his gaze to the circle. “Then we can get rid of these things, once and for all.”

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Acting Lesson

Tom Stoppard is a very verbal playwright, especially his early work, so the plays read well.  But they are a challenge to act.  Here's Benedict Cumberbatch doing about three minutes in Rosencrantz and Gildenstern Are Dead.  He's renowned lately for his facility with lots of words (Sherlock being a major instance) but I think this three minutes demonstrates how to act all those words. He reveals their humor, but he also makes them the expression of the character's thoughts and feelings.  It's a very impressive three minutes, illuminating what makes Stoppard's words theatrical,  but especially it seems to me a clinic for actors, period.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

The Internet of Forever (and Everywhere)

Among visitors to this site in the past month or so were these:

Searchers from Burnham-on-Sea, Somerset, UK; St. Leonard, Maryland and Cincinnati, Ohio found Neil Simon and several of his plays.

A post about past productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream enchanted folks in Mechanisburg, PA, Jakarta, Indonesia; Wolverhampton, UK; Dubai, Beaverton, Oregon; Lexington, Kentucky; and Qatar.

Othello on Film was viewed from London, Washington, DC; Naperville, Illinois; Suffolk in England; Waldorf, Maryland; Argentina, and Kirksville, Missouri.  Readers in Crowley, Texas and Berkeley, California leered at famous productions of King Lear.

The Tempest and the Time Lord, plus historic productions of The Tempest caught the attention of browsers in Oklahoma City, Milwaukee, Brussels, Belgium; Calicut, India and Aiea, Hawaii. Someone in Anderson, South Carolina checked out Much Ado About Nothing.  Twice.

Aukland, New Zealand studied Greeks.

The perennially popular To Kill A Mockingbird got looks from Hong Kong, London, Toronto, Chatham, England; Jenks, Oklahoma and Sherwood, Arkansas, among others.

The surprisingly robust attention to "Chekhovania" (about the Christopher Durang play) came from Moscow, Chicago Heights, Hazlet, New Jersey; Dillon, Colorado; New York City, Tallahassee and Wakefield, Rhode Island.

Folks from Wallsend (Sting's birthplace) and Bromley (H.G. Wells' birthplace) in England dug The Pit Men Painters.  Bluffington, South Carolina embraced Our Town.

Athens and South Africa chose Look Back in Anger.  Georgia hearted Mark Twain.  Dakar, Senegal and Ankeny, Iowa looked Beyond the Fringe.

St. Ignatius, Montana bid Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter.  Kent, Washington explored posts on the Federal Theatre Project.  Ligonier, PA and Conway, Arkansas met G.W. Shaw and My Fair Lady.  Shakuntala attracted someone in Sulpher, Louisiana.

Inquiring minds in Koln, Germany and Rosny-sous-bois, Ile-de-France wanted to know more about August Wilson.

St. John's of Antigua and Barbuda were curious about Requiem in Arcata. Amsterdam traveled to Korbel V. Portugal accessed Babes in Toyland.  

Readers in Finland, Japan and Buffalo, New York were among those who paid their respects to Leonard Nimoy here.  Syosset, New York viewed "Print is the new vinyl," among those who selected recent posts.

So some of posts specifically selected were as recent as a few days ago, and some were posts from as long ago as 2007 (at least of the dates I noticed.)

I've said it before, I'll say it once more: This is the Internet I believe in: access to a backlist forever, from anywhere, at any time. An Internet for individuals as well as the swarm of the moment.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Lions in Winter

Here's a treat, though a long one.  Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart talk about important moments in their stage careers and their lives, as well as their feelings about their film/TV stardom.  It's a fascinating 90 minutes.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

R.I.P. Leonard Nimoy

Leonard Nimoy started on the stage in Boston, and returned to the stage in the 1970s, appearing in Equus on Broadway.  His best-known role of course was Mr. Spock in Star Trek on television and in eight of the twelve feature films, as well as on several episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation.   His attention to creating that role, protecting its integrity, and developing it over four decades is unique in modern acting, with multiple lessons for actors in all media.  The character he created transcended entertainment to become a contemporary archetype, one of the few mythological figures of our age.

Leonard Nimoy was buried today in Los Angeles.  May he rest in peace.  His work lives on, into the future.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

When They Were The Top

There's a review in a right-wing magazine of a new book on American musicals that makes a couple of interesting factual assertions.  I believe the first one: the last song from a musical to become "an enduring popular hit" was "Send in the Clowns," written in 1973.

I believe it because I remember when songs from musicals were a much more important part of popular culture, and were regularly among the hit songs of a given year.  This phenomenon even survived the early years of rock & roll, into the early 1960s.  "Send in the Clowns" might well have been the last of these, especially to be recorded by artists not associated with the musical itself.  Judy Collins for example famously recorded this Sondheim song.  And it became such a part of the culture that nearly 20 years later a Star Trek Next Generation episode could have a 24th century character quip, "send in the clones."

The second assertion however is this: "But big-budget musical comedy has been in increasingly steep decline since the 1970s, and 10 long years have gone by since The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, the last homegrown musical to be wholeheartedly embraced by audiences and critics alike, made it to Broadway."

The writer, Terry Teachout, does mention the trend to what he calls "commodity musicals" based on movies etc. as well as small-scale musicals.  Since many of these are proclaimed "hits" I had assumed they were comparatively successful in an historical sense.  So if that was the most recent big hit, I'm surprised.  On the other hand, if it is true, I'm surprised only that I have a lot of company in preferring some of the older musicals to most of the newer ones.  Then again, I enjoy musical comedy movies most of all--which Teachout suggests persuasively is an entirely different form.

In any case, the book under review sounds interesting: American Musicals is simply a two volume collection of the scripts of 16 musicals between 1927 and 1969--from the beginning through the golden age.

Moreover these are the scripts of shows as audiences saw them on opening night--which in many cases are not the same as the versions seen today on the North Coast and elsewhere.  These unabridged scripts contain, for example, racially charged dialogue by today's standards, but Teachout claims that they also contain writing that suggests why these shows worked so well on stage.

Scripts are sometimes changed to substitute contemporary references for obsolete ones, but also in dumbed down touring versions, for schools and non-urban audiences etc.  It's a reminder that shows hereabouts may not be lacking just the lavish Broadway staging of the originals.

Teachout mentions that the classic American musicals were almost always "sunny in tone" and had happy endings.  That certainly was one of the changes from Sondheim on, an apparent reaction against the artificiality of the musical comedy.  While the form may have been expanded, it may also have become something else.  Maybe there are no musical comedies anymore.  As for their relation to real life,  I think increasingly of what British TV writer Russell T Davies remarked, that only the arts can give us comedy.  If we want tragedy, we've got real life for that.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Classic Problem

Tom Stoppard, whose new play The Hard Problem is onstage at the National Theatre in London, made some waves by claiming in a public forum that he had to dumb down a scene because preview audiences weren't getting a literary allusion.

He noted as well that a reference in one of his earlier plays to Goneril was recognized with the appropriate laugh in its first production in 1974, but when the play was revived in 1990, about half the audience was clueless.

The allusion, by the way, is in Travesties, a play so intellectually energetic and hilarious that it is almost never done (and certainly never on the North Coast.)  Henry Carr, a minor British official in Zurich, is being offered a part in The Importance of Being Earnest by its producer, James Joyce.  He asks why Joyce could possibly believe he is qualified.  Carr's younger sister Gwendolen says she recommended him. "You were a wonderful Goneril at Eton."  It seems that knowing Goneril is one of the sisters in King Lear is less essential to the joke than simply knowing it is a woman's part, and that Eton is (or was) all male.  Though like many jokes the humor is in the sound of the specific words.

Coincidentally, the play's director Nicholas Hytner said something perhaps pertinent to this point in an exit interview as he left his position running the National Theatre.  While giving him full marks for staging new plays of social and political import, the interviewer (veteran Guardian critic Michael Billington) noted a decline in productions from the classical repertoire.  Hytner accepted this observation, and said "I think there's been a general retreat from the classic repertory" but added "I also believe things will change and that the classic rep will be rediscovered by a new generation of directors."

This may be true, though especially in the UK--in the US I'd guess that such revivals as the new New York production of Albee's A Delicate Balance owe their existence to actors with clout (usually from the movies) who want challenging roles in a time-tested play once in awhile.

 But this overall point that the classic rep is not being done extends beyond Britain, though perhaps for different reasons.  My guess is that universities are also doing fewer classic plays, even modern American classics, unless they happen to be musicals.  It seems true of HSU for instance.

So what? Here's what.  Classic plays aren't classic just because they're old.  They may challenge successive generations of actors and directors as well as audiences, but they are worth that exploration.  And they are embedded in our common culture, for more than (but also including) punch lines of new jokes.

Some of this is an unfortunate byproduct of a healthy change--plays from cultures not much represented on common stages before.  There are only so many production slots, at the National or anywhere.

But it seems some and possibly quite a lot of it is not only because theatre audiences have dumbed down, but so has theatre education, leaving young theatre artists unequipped for the hard problems of the classics.

And it's a situation that feeds on itself, as the Hytner and Stoppard observations taken together suggest.  With fewer productions, fewer theatre artists as well as audience members get to experience classic plays.  They may all then comfortably believe that splashy musicals, identity dramas and warmed-over sitcoms are all there is.  Until very soon they are right.

Meanwhile, Stoppard's The Hard Problem (which is about consciousness, not--as the playwright points out--erectile dysfunction) is meeting with mixed reviews, often pointing out that it's not as good as his earlier plays.  If you read the reviews online and follow the algorthimically generated links, you may soon run into a review that says exactly the same thing about The Coast of Utopia, Stoppard's now "classic" trilogy.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Los Pajaros and More on This North Coast Weekend

Update: It's the final weekend (Feb. 12-14) for Los Pajaros.  With Mother Teresa as Harpo, Dick Nixon as Groucho, it's the Marx Brothers meet Firesign Theatre, with a Latino edge.  The cast of 11 seems even bigger at times, so it's fascinating to recall that before this HSU production, the only performances were by the three members of Culture Clash. 

HSU Theatre is opening its major production for this school year on Thursday (Feb. 5) and it's something different for the North Coast.  It's Los Pajaros, a contemporary musical satire adapted by the Chicano American performance troupe Culture Clash from the play The Birds by Aristophanes, directed by Del Arte's Michael Fields, and featuring a Tim Randles band playing salsa, blues, gospel and rock & roll.

What's different is the Latino voice and perspective, in the Culture Clash script and as carried out by a largely bilingual HSU student cast.  The production recognizes the growing Latino population in Humboldt County and within the HSU student body, while adopting and adapting a comedic approach that's as old as theatre in western civilization.  That's pretty exciting.

So even if local media is waiting a week to review this play, it's worth saying that it opens this weekend and runs for only one more: Thursdays through Saturdays, February 5-7 and 12-14 at 7:30 p.m. with a 2 p.m. matinee on Saturday February 14 in the Van Duzer Theatre.

  There's a lot more information at HSU Stage & Screen.  I usually have my complete say there, as production publicist.  But once in awhile I need to add a little emphasis when it may not be getting through otherwise.  (If you read the Journal you won't even get that link to information.  In what looks very much like deliberate pettiness, they've excised every mention of a web page link to this weekend's HSU theatre and music productions.)

Not that this is going to be a regular thing here anymore, but here's a couple of other events this weekend:

Arcata Playhouse hosts The Uncomfortables Tour, a spoken word event featuring Billy Tuggle (aka Karma Threesixty, from Chicago) and Wil Gibson from Maine, plus special guests. It's happening Thursday (Feb. 5) at 7 p.m.  There's a free workshop earlier that afternoon at 4 p.m. 707-822-1575.

First years at the Dell'Arte School present their annual Commedia dell'Arte Show  Thursday, Friday and Saturday Feb. 5-7 at 8 p.m. in the Carlo.

Thursday, January 29, 2015


It seems that Lost Coast Outpost, which suddenly began linking to this site after the first 8 years of its existence, suddenly stopped this month.  Unless it was a one post glitch.

Maybe they didn't think that pointing out a show business connection to President Obama's State of the Union was sufficiently local.  Not as local as say, Shakespeare.  Whatever.  I do wish they'd waited one more post, for Retro Retro, which says something I feel is important about this blog and the Internet in general that doesn't get said very often.

Of course if they link to this post, as Emily used to say--never mind!

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Retro Retro

A little retrospective on my Stage Matters retrospective: I mentioned that the posts on theatre that make up the bulk of this site often get readers far from the North Coast, and long after the date of the post.  Here are some examples from just this past few weeks of January 2015:

A reader in the UK was interested in "I Hate Hamlet: Additional Notes," readers in France and Kingston, New Jersey in "A Midsummer Night's Dream: Other Versions."  Readers in South Korea and Manchester, England sought posts on "The Tempest," Edmonton, Canada on movies of "As You Like It" and somewhere in the US, somebody looked at "Equivocation: Notes and Spoilers." Readers in Midland, Texas, New Zealand and Brisbane, Australia were interested in various posts on Othello.

Australia and San Gabriel, CA accessed HLOC's "Thoroughly Modern Millie," somebody in Oregon dove into the "Titanic" musical.  Readers in Petersborough, UK; Jenks, Oklahoma; Memphis, Tenn.; Canoga Park and San Rafael, CA; Mechanisburg, PA and Atamonte Springs, FLA looked at posts on "To Kill A Mockingbird."  At certain times of the year (Term papers? High school productions?) this is a very popular subject.

Someone in Qatar looked at "Sweeney Todd," someone in the UK at "Brigadoon." Somebody in Marshfield, Wisconsin looked at "Spinning Into Butter," and an Internet machine in Beaver Falls, PA focused on "The Pitmen Painters."

Powell, Ohio and Winnipeg, Canada were into "Chekhovania."  New York City and Arlington, Virginia looked up posts on the Federal Theatre Project.  Aquitane, France related to Uncle Vanya.  Buenos Aires headed for "The Time Machine."

Some of the accessed posts were intriguingly local. France found "Jason in Eureka." India was into "Freaks & Greeks." Oakland, Tenn. and someone in Japan accessed "Requiem." Orlando, FLA read the Lauren Wilson interview. Storm Lake, Iowa checked out "Elisabeth's Book."

This is the Internet I believe in: access to a backlist forever, from anywhere, at any time.   An Internet for individuals as well as the swarm of the moment.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Pick Yourself Up

"My fellow Americans, we too are a strong, tight-knit family. We, too, have made it through some hard times. Fifteen years into this new century, we have picked ourselves up, dusted ourselves off, and begun again the work of remaking America." --President Obama, his "defiant" State of the Union 2015 last night.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Print is the New Vinyl?

Before we move on beyond this accidental series on digital domination, one interesting and perhaps delightful (if true) countertrend. However, first let's restate the trend, with the eloquent opening to Leon Wieseltier's New York Times Book Review essay (with my emphases), in your Sunday Times today and online:

 "Amid the bacchanal of disruption, let us pause to honor the disrupted. The streets of American cities are haunted by the ghosts of bookstores and record stores, which have been destroyed by the greatest thugs in the history of the culture industry. Writers hover between a decent poverty and an indecent one; they are expected to render the fruits of their labors for little and even for nothing, and all the miracles of electronic dissemination somehow do not suffice for compensation, either of the fiscal or the spiritual kind. 

Everybody talks frantically about media, a second-order subject if ever there was one, as content disappears into “content.” What does the understanding of media contribute to the understanding of life? Journalistic institutions slowly transform themselves into silent sweatshops in which words cannot wait for thoughts, and first responses are promoted into best responses, and patience is a professional liability. As the frequency of expression grows, the force of expression diminishes: Digital expectations of alacrity and terseness confer the highest prestige upon the twittering cacophony of one-liners and promotional announcements. It was always the case that all things must pass, but this is ridiculous." 

 The death knell for non-digital reading and writing is often sounded, sometimes with lived alarm, sometimes with complacent (I've made my money and reputation thanks) acceptance. But leave it to my favorite newspaper columnist, Jon Carroll at the San Francisco Chronicle, to find (or maybe make up, just a little) a somewhat countervailing trend: "Print is the new vinyl."

 These words were uttered, he writes, by a tech savvy entrepreneur, suggesting a trend that combines retro with realization (that analogue records offer better sound than digital.) Together they fantasized a sweet (if likely brief, or if ever) future:

 "So perhaps the latest bunch of tech billionaires want quality too. They want long-form journalism, say, that can be reproduced in a portable and well-designed format. They want editing and fact-checking. Perhaps they want fiction, poetry, excerpts from the classics.

 Nothing like old media to add that sheen of prestige. The guy I was with suggested that writers might once again make actual money, that the sight of someone carrying a book would be like seeing someone toting around a dulcimer — it indicates that they have hidden depths. We’re talking about a covert desire to follow the dream of the Enlightenment." 

 A last ditch dream? Probably. But I do recall that on several visits to a fashionable cafe in Menlo Park not far from Stanford--close enough to ground zero for the tech world--I saw more people reading books, newspapers and magazines than were starring at laptops and tablets, or even conspicuously glued to their smartphones etc. A definite counter-trend to, for instance, the HSU campus.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Keyless Cars, Brainless Humans

Phones and other electronic devices may be smarter, but people seem to be heading the other way into a brainless stupor.

 It's not just the kids who literally cannot be separated from their phones without psychological and even physical trauma. There's an even more serious form of dependency, and it is becoming less and less avoidable, even for those who reject it.

 For instance the keyless car. An item in Consumer Reports recently affirmed that new cars in all price ranges are coming equipped with this technology. What is this electronic marvel? It allows you to start your car without sticking a physical key into a physical slot. You just push a button on your device, known as the key fob (even though there is no key attached to it.)

 What a miracle! You can start your car with your hands full of something else--your smartphone probably. Although you've had to push a button on the fob to get into the car, and then you still have to push another button in the car. But you don't need that damn inconvenient key.

 So let's start with the basic rule of electronic wonders in and on your car, which is that, for all their benefits, they are each something else that can go wrong. Usually more than one something else. And almost always nothing you can fix yourself.

 So there are things that can go wrong with your fob, such as the batteries, and if you don't have a backup system (electronic or key), you're screwed. You ain't moving. It may mean a tow, and it definitely means time and money.

 But that's minor compared to the much more likely possibility--you misplace or lose the fob. Then without a mechanical key system, you are really really screwed. And CR says replacing the fob could cost hundreds of dollars, and who knows how much time and trouble.

 Think about it. When somebody swiped my jacket with my car keys in the pocket, I got someone to drive me home, wait a minute while I got my duplicate key, then he drove me back to my car. Duplicate keys cost a few bucks, and you can make as many as you want and stow them in as many convenient places as you wish, so losing your car keys is not a catastrophe.  Many people attach a duplicate to the car itself.

 But for the dubious benefits of a "keyless" ignition, you still have to have that fob (although eventually there will be an ap on your phone device, which will make losing that even more catastrophic), and the cost of losing it is much much greater than losing that terrible old fashioned key.

 Behind this is the survival principle of redundancy, along with hedging your bets with alternatives (a gas stove that operates even when the electricity is off, etc.) Everybody loses stuff, so you cut down the consequences with redundancy (i.e. duplicate keys.) That is, while you can still buy a car that allows you to start it with a key.

 And that's the most brainless part of it. An entire society so dazzled with new toys that they never bother to think ahead to what could go wrong, and what the comparative consequences might be. It's great for the car companies etc. who sucker you into this, and then charge you hundreds of dollars for a fob, and thousands for extra electronic toys that may or may not improve the operation of your vehicle, but certainly make it harder and more expensive to repair. When something goes wrong. And something always does.

 But you might have paid tens of thousands of dollars for no alternative. How smart is that?

Monday, January 5, 2015

One Amazing Old Trick to Make Millions!

Shocking Top Ten Made Easy!
photo credit
Andrew Marantz in the New Yorker recently profiled young Emerson Spartz, crowning him King of Clickbait. The Spartz new-media company made millions in ad revenue last year, and attracted even more millions in venture capital. At 27, Spartz is widely admired, the article says, he's "inspiring," "awesome," "impressive." One of his investors is quoted as calling him "a Steve Jobs kind of guy...I think his stuff is indicative of where digital media is heading."

If that's true it's heading in the direction of manipulation on the order of Orwellian cubed. And theft. Theft is very old news, and apparently very new media. For that seems to be how the Spartz sites make money. They steal the work of others.

 It's not just that Spartz is a self-righteous Philistine whose idea of how to make a great song is to get 40 people to record vocals, ask thousands of people to pick their favorite, then use the winner. "To me, that’s a trickle in an ocean of possible ways you could improve every song on the radio, he says. "Art is that which science has not yet explained.”

 Or even that his model for success is relentless cynicism, which is admittedly widely shared among those trying to get attention through the Internet. His websites are all about attracting traffic, and learning what content and packaging attracts the most traffic at a given moment.

 It's the same sort of technique that fills my inbox with email appeals for political donations that vary mostly by the subject line and the purported sender. (At least I hope President Obama isn't spending a lot of time drawing boxes for me to check beside the amount of my donation.) The idea is to throw a lot of subject lines out there, see which ones succeed the best, take the top five or so and use them, throw out the rest, and invent another five to test tomorrow. Or more likely, later today.

 Similar techniques are used to test and select photos and copy, including the kind that appear as ads on just about every web site, and contribute to making otherwise substantive sites look and feel like the back pages of tabloid papers and cheap magazines.

 But moron bait (and there's a moron lurking in all of us) is only part of it. There's the content, and where it comes from. One of Spartz Inc.'s sites, called Dose, publishes lists. (Lots of sites do that these days, because as Spartz proclaims, "Lists just hijack the brain's neural circuitry." This is your brain.  This is your brain on the Internet.)

 For example, “23 Photos of People from All Over the World Next to How Much Food They Eat Per Day.” But all Spartz did was slightly repackage this information (as other similar sites had already done.) They didn't do the research, and didn't even link to the guys who did, let alone pay them a fee or a cut of their winnings.

 On Dose, the list got 200,000 page views, very good for advertisers, and very good for Dose. The New Yorker:

 'The Dose post, which received more Facebook shares than its precursors, briefly mentioned D’Aluisio and Menzel (though D’Aluisio’s name was misspelled). But their book, “What I Eat,” went unmentioned, and they certainly did not share in the advertising revenue. “This took us four years and almost a million dollars, all self-funded,” Menzel told me. “We are trying to make that money back by selling the book and licensing the images. But these viral sites—the gee-whiz types that are just trying to attract eyeballs—they don’t pay for licensing. They just grab stuff and hope they don’t get caught."' 

 But when you have no respect at all for content or for authorship, theft is probably not how you think about it. Spartz admits that content is of no interest to him: "We considered making Dose more mission-driven,” he said. “Then I thought, rather than facing that dilemma every day—what’s going to get views versus what’s going to create positive social impact?—it would be simpler to just focus on traffic.” 

 As someone who creates "content" (i.e. writes stuff) on the Internet, I'm waiting for the argument that convinces me that making millions from somebody else's work isn't theft. Sure seems like it to me. Maybe it doesn't occur to them that real people have worked to gather information, judge its value, see patterns, check it, find where it fits in larger contexts, craft it into a story etc. or even a damn list. Because most of their work is done by mindless algorithms.

 But not even that charitable excuse will wash. Spartz himself says why. On earlier sites they featured novel combinations of images, with text that reflected at least a few minutes of online research—but with Dose “we’ve stopped doing that as much because more original lists take more time to put together, and we’ve found that people are no more likely to click on them.” 

 Right--stealing is so quick and easy! Let other people do the creative and actual work. It's been the secret of success for generations of robber barons. How inspiring!

What's really amazing is that Spartz got started at the age of 12 by creating a Harry Potter fan site. He got to meet J.K. Rowling. Does he now think that the way to create a Harry Potter saga is to propose alternative plot points, and choose what happens by vote? Not that plot is the only factor in the saga's success--there's characters and their characteristics, descriptions, inventions, pacing, chapter order, chapter content, sentence rhythms, right down to the individual words. Not to mention the values, morality and emotion within it all. Got algorithms for that? And if you did, do you really think the whole Potter thing would have happened, including inspiring a 12 year old in Chicago to create a fan site?

 And how do you suppose Jo Rowling feels about somebody appropriating somebody else's creative work--say, Harry Potter? Maybe let her lawyers answer that for you, although she's been known to show up in court herself to defend her intellectual property.

 The New Yorker article mentions an internal study at the New York Times lamenting that their Internet site isn't creating these viral blizzards. What's scary about this memo is that journalism in its various forms and functions is talked about only in the argot that Spartz and his ilk own. When you define what you are doing by the premises and terminology of those whose mission sees yours as irrelevant, and they're out to destroy you or just suck you dry, you've pretty much lost already.

 The New Yorker article ends with Spartz' ultimate solution: “The lines between advertising and content are blurring,” he said. “Right now, if you go to any Web site, it will know where you live, your shopping history, and it will use that to give you the best ad. I can’t wait to start doing that with content. It could take a few months, a few years—but I am motivated to get started on it right now, because I know I’ll kill it.”

 I'm guessing that Marantz, with some old media skills, didn't end the piece with "kill it" by accident.

 Spartz begins his canned speeches by proclaiming that he wants to change the world. Apparently he is doing so. He's helping to make it worse.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Postscript and Re-Dedication

A postscript to 2014: My thanks to Joan Schirle and everyone who responded to (or "liked") her thread about Stage Matters on the Humboldt Theater Commmunity Group on Facebook.  And thanks as well to Michael Fields who pointed it out to me in an email. (It also allows me to post this photo of Joan, which I couldn't fit into previous posts.)

Re-dedication in 2015 is suggested in the form of a paragraph from literary and cultural critic Northrop Frye that he published in 1970:

"...[G]enuine society preserves the continuity of the dead, the living and the unborn, the memory of the past, the reality of the present, and the anticipation of the future which is the one unbreakable social contract. Continuity and consistency are the only sources of human dignity, and they cannot be attained in the dissolving phantasmagoria of the newspaper world, where we have constantly to focus on an immediate crisis, where a long-term memory is almost a handicap."

Happy New Year everyone!

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Exit Stage

Our revels and revelations now are ended. On this last day of 2014, I’m completing my retrospective. I've already filled in the many missing pieces within this site and made it more easily searchable. (Although I should have anticipated all the plays starting with “The.” Anyway, that’s where they’re indexed—under the T’s.)

 Now I’m done with observing North Coast theatre, and it seems that North Coast theatre is done with me. Of all the people and theatrical organizations I wrote about in these retrospective posts, none have responded publicly or privately.  I knew that was likely when I started this fairly arduous process of the past several months. But I console myself with one last theatrical gesture, quoting the last lines of Cyrano which I re-read in my review of the Northcoast Prep production: “But who fights ever hoping for success? I fought for lost cause, and for fruitless quest!…I know you now, old enemies of mine! Falsehood!..and Compromise! Prejudice! Treachery!…Folly—you? I know that you will lay me low at last!…Yet I fall fighting, fighting still!” 

 Yes, clearly in the end this was folly. But robbed of any sense of completion in the external world, I needed to complete it for myself.

 This post brings down the curtain on this site’s concentration on North Coast theatre. I expect to be transitioning to other projects early in 2015, including online, and so I may continue to post here on other topics for awhile.

 And when I move on I’ll be sure to leave some bread crumbs here. That’s mostly because, oddly, this site has gotten a number of new readers in the past couple of months, due to being linked in the “Elsewhere” column at Lost Coast Outpost for the first time. So onward, and maybe the links will follow.

 This site will remain accessible, of course, as a resource for past writing on plays and productions. That’s how some visitors have been using it all along. There were days that more hits came from Europe than the North Coast.

 I do have a piece of unfinished business, a postscript to my last post, on Shakespeare productions.  Back several years, one of my Journal reviews was given a subhead I found objectionable. I hadn’t written it and hadn’t seen it before publication (so I subsequently added writing my subheads to my chores. And then selecting photos and writing their captions.)

 The reference in question was to “trailer trash.” I objected to the term, in a letter to the editor (since that’s all that was open to me immediately) and here on this site. A letter to the editor complaining about something in my own column may have been a journalism first, but I was told that the letter was subsequently posted on at least one classroom bulletin board.

I expanded on my letter by quoting an anecdote about August Wilson: his gentle objection to a young playwright referring to her own background as "white trash." It is a very powerful point when made by the premier black playwright in American history, who had heard his share of demeaning names.  Had he identified with them, his magnificent ten play cycle never would have even begun.

I know very well about those voices that get into your head.  Coming from the white working class culture, the often-asked question--out loud as well as inside--of  "who do you think you are?" echoes even if seemingly unheard.

 Some may have found that criticizing a particular Shakespeare production for being set in a trailer park, and objecting to this term, were somehow contradictory. To believe that would be to misunderstand my review and point of view, reflexively ascribing it to some brand of snobbery.  I mention this incident now because, first of all, the point of it remains important to me, and secondly, it may clarify a little more my particular brand of seriousness in doing this job.

 My last retro reproduction is the column I wrote in early 2006, after my first predominately negative review of a show (see last post below.)   It states my intentions and some background, and I don’t have many revisions to make on either.

 My editors at the time requested this column because the paper published a passionate letter to the editor response to my negative review, written by one of the principals in the production (although not identified as such.)  I don’t know for certain, but I sense that some people in the theatre community never forgave me for that review. I suppose it’s human nature to remember the bad reviews and not the positive ones, or the positive comments in a mixed review. Certainly the responses in letters to the editor etc. were almost always complaints.  But I do believe that I at least reached a rapprochement with the person who wrote the letter, which even at the time I thought was witty.

A Life in the Theatre  2006

In my sixth column (with hardly a negative word in the previous five) and after glowing notices of four shows, last week I wrote what I frankly dreaded: a negative review.

I wasn't bothered by the prospect of letters to the editor (though I recall none for the "positive" pieces). I had my say here, and others have theirs in the letters section. The dialogue is part of the point.

But I know how hard people work to create theatre. I've been involved in it since my third grade class put on the first play I wrote. In fourth grade I had my first and only rep company, when I wrote scripts for my Cub Scout den, and we blew away the other dens and their knot-tying demonstrations for the Pack prize every month.

I wrote, acted and directed in college, and I've seen my scripts produced occasionally since. I've been a dramaturge and otherwise involved as a participant or close observer of professional, college and community productions. I love the process. So I wasn't looking forward to the inevitable hurt feelings. Besides, [film reviewer]Charlie can say anything he wants about films in his column, but Steve Martin doesn't live here.  They're unlikely to meet in Wildberries.

I also know that producers, directors and actors on the North Coast, as elsewhere, themselves make qualitative judgments, which can be quite harsh. They just don't often make them in public, and sign their names. Judgments are part of the process. Dealing with them is part of the job.

 Some may feel that community theatre should essentially be immune from criticism, but those theatres still charge admission and ask for contributions. Evaluation is a reasonable element, as it is for the artistic growth of the theatres themselves. Producers know that they are competing for audience with other entertainment, including available versions of the plays they're producing, just as theatre artists learn from excellent productions, and are inspired by them.

As for my credentials, I offer this additional information: Like a lot of small town working class or lower-middle class kids, I didn't see live theatre as a child, but I've since seen hundreds of plays in at least 15 different cities and towns, from the back of New York restaurants to Broadway, and from the Guthrie in Minneapolis to summer barn theatre in central Pennsylvania, and at the Changing Scene in Denver, which was down an alley past a dumpster and an old washing machine. That's in addition to plays at all North Coast venues in the past nine years.

Although I've written on theatre for three newspapers and several national magazines, most of the time nobody was paying me to go. These gigs did provide the opportunity to talk at length with Jason Robards Jr., August Wilson and many younger theatre professionals. But that doesn't mean I'm the expert, or I can't be wrong.

 Responses are individual. What I say doesn't prevent anyone from going to a show, nor should it deter anyone from feeling justified in enjoying it. But if I'm not honest about my own responses, what's the point?

Other things being equal, I'd rather not write about something I don't like. That's not always possible, and in last week's case I felt strongly about the play itself. I've seen Shakespeare's plays at every level and every sort of venue they're performed, up to and including Kevin Kline as Hamlet, and Glenda Jackson as Lady Macbeth. I don't expect New York or regional theater gloss at a community theatre. I am also dismayed by seeing a production there I'd expect to see in a high school, where the purpose is quite different.

I don't believe, as some do, that community theatres aren't capable of doing decent Shakespeare. But these plays probably require more time, attention and directed energies than other productions, and the best actors and directors in the community. The community deserves this. Great plays are great opportunities.

 In my columns here so far, I've deliberately highlighted the particular pleasures of live performance, and of the process of creating it. My subtext has been that in addition to movies, music and other forms of art and entertainment, stage matters. My hope is to encourage a thriving theatre community. But healthy theatre requires self-criticism and self-analysis, and ever-greater aspiration. My contribution is to add information and context, and describe my responses.

All I'm finally doing is adding to the discussion, while providing something I hope is worth reading. I feel a responsibility to the community and to the participants, but also (and primarily) to readers, and to the plays themselves, and the life and future of the theatre. I try to balance those responsibilities.

Monday, December 29, 2014

As I Did and Didn't Like It

The "Shakespeare" label on this site suggests that in my time reviewing theatre here, I've written about a total of 14 plays by William Shakespeare, at least four of them more than once.  (That's including North Coast Prep's editing of several Henry history plays into Mortal Men, Mortal Men, but does not include productions of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) [Revised], Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, I Hate Hamlet or Equivocation.

I wrote about some Oregon Shakespeare Festival productions, but coincidentally, not about Shakespeare plays that didn't also have North Coast productions at some point.  These were played at HSU, Dell'Arte, Shake the Bard at Arcata Playhouse, and Plays in the Park, but mostly at North Coast Repertory Theatre, which has the courage and commitment to produce a Shakespeare play nearly every season.

I enjoyed the opportunity to research these plays--to read them again, to read about them, to look at filmed or taped productions or actual movies made from them, and to recall productions I'd seen before.  This informed my viewing and reviewing, and gave me plenty more to write about on this site.  I am pleased to leave that for others to find on the Internet.

But I was often reminded that the audience for any given production would include at least some people who had never seen this particular Shakespeare play before, and may never have seen any.  This included adults as well as children and students.  More than once I've heard someone announce this fact in the North Coast Rep lobby.

After one show I was walking on the sidewalk in front of the theatre when a police car stopped, and the police officer inside asked me a question that I wasn't expecting: how was it?  Meaning the play--I don't remember which, but it was Shakespeare.  I stammered something to the effect of "good."  "Maybe I'll see it," he said, in a way that suggested to me that it's something he'd thought about before, but had not yet done.

People do go to see Shakespeare plays they've seen before, perhaps several times.  Why?  I don't think people go again for the same reason that producers and directors seem to feel they do--to see what new way this production has contrived to do the play.  Will it be a gender-flipped Hamlet on the Moon?  Or (as I suggested in an April Fool's piece) Othello set in the 2001 Los Angeles Lakers locker room, (retitled Shaqthello)  or a Macbeth recounting bloody competition among burl sculptors in Orick in the 1980s, with music by Devo, Cyndi Lauper and the Cars?

I think people go again and again, not for novelty, but because there is so much to see and hear.  The language is both more elaborate and compacted than we are used to, and there is a lot of it.  You notice something and you've already missed something else.  That's one of many reasons that clarity--vocal clarity especially--is crucial.  You never know which lines are going to jump out at individual audience members.

Appreciation is partly cumulative.  You look for different things, you hear different things. Different productions also emphasize different aspects of the play.  Actors offer different interpretations.  Sometimes (and the Shakespeare playgoer lives for this) the production and/or the actors make discoveries, that they make clear to you.

But as long as the words and actions are clear, you don't absolutely need that.  You make your own discoveries.  This happens in the moment.  But it can happen with some preparation--recalling prior productions, or having read about the play and other productions.  You might see how something is done differently this time, how some problem is solved.  So in many ways, every production--and to some extent, every performance--is new.

I've even written in this space about plays I haven't seen here, notably Hamlet and Macbeth.  I missed the Hamlet James Floss directed at NCRT, which was a year or two before I started writing Stage Matters.  I've mentioned  the first Hamlet I saw, which was the first Shakespeare I ever saw on stage, a few months after I started college.  It's a theatrical truism that your first Hamlet remains your favorite, and that's certainly true in my case.  But I've recently re-read the director's essay on it, and I can see why I loved it.

The first Shakespeare I saw in any medium I'm pretty sure was a Studio One television production of Julius Caesar when I was 11.  It helped that it's a fairly simple plot that I could follow, but I was otherwise enchanted by the language, even if I couldn't understand a lot of it.  That enchantment remains.

By the time I went to college I probably had also seen Olivier's Henry V on black and white TV.  Still, I was bowled over by it when I saw it years later in color, screened one Sunday afternoon at a small town art museum.  These experiences began an eagerness to see Shakespeare on film and television.  Apart from seeing some great actors, the verse is at least audible--and at home there's rewind.  But you do lose the sense of the whole stage, and the whole theatre, including the audience.  That particular sense of presence.

I've also written here on Macbeth-- that tragedy of rash decisions in which the action turns on the key character of the Thane of Ross.  And I'm not saying that just because I happened to play the Thane of Ross in a college production.  (Duncan was played by Richard Hoover, whose later fame came as a set designer for Twin Peaks and other Hollywood productions.)

Okay, that is why I said it, and it's probably not true.  But oddly,  for a play that is produced so often, I have seen Macbeth mostly on film. I've only encountered one stage production other than the one I was in (it starred Christopher Plummer and Glenda Jackson, and it wasn't very good).  Of course, you can learn a lot about a play that way.

Macbeth is scheduled to be produced at NCRT in early 2015, and so it will be the first North Coast Shakespeare production in nine years I won't have the opportunity to review. The participants may not be lamenting this.  My point of view on producing Shakespeare is that with great plays comes great responsibility.  I've been harder on Shakespeare productions than the rest, although (like Shakespeare himself perhaps) I became more generous towards the end.

My first real pan came fairly early, of the first Shakespeare I reviewed.  Because it was my favorite of the comedies, and because I had seen a stage production and a few on film that were wonderful in part, and I knew the play so well, I was looking forward to this show.  Perhaps too much.

 Anyway that review caused a mild kerfuffle, which both scared and delighted my editors.  It was then that somebody told me that previous reviewers in town had been unceremoniously sacked if a theatre (I think the expression was "community theatre") complained about a review.  (I was later assured privately that  the community theatre in which this production appeared had no problem with my review.)

So at the risk of opening old wounds, I am reproducing that review here.  Consider it in the abstract (made easier by the fact that even at the time I didn't name any names), as a point of view on the perils and opportunities of producing Shakespeare, or of going to see a Shakespeare play.

Next time--and for this retrospective, it will be the last time--I will include the Stage Matters column I wrote after this one, responding to the response.

As I Didn't Like It    2006

In Truth and the Comedic Art, Michael Gelven calls As You Like It “one of the rarest few of the greatest comedies ever written.” A Midsummer Night’s Dream is funnier, he believes, and Much Ado About Nothing is wittier. But As You Like It “seems to fuse love with comedy almost to perfection.”

That’s how I feel about it. It’s my favorite of the comedies.

 Shakespeare wrote for a particular group of actors and the audience of the time. Romances were in style and the cross-town rivals of Shakespeare’s company had a recent success with a Robin Hood play. So he adapted a popular romance, and created a band of exiles in the Forest of Arden, infusing the conventional story with a wide and wonderful humanity.

 This is one of Shakespeare’s most performed plays. Rosalind, the woman who pretends to be a man, who then pretends to be a woman so that Orlando (the man she loves) can practice wooing the woman she actually is by pretending he is she, is perhaps the greatest woman’s part in the comedies. Famous actors have therefore pined to play her, from Dame Edith Evans to Katharine Hepburn, Maggie Smith and Gwyneth Paltrow, with Vanessa Redgrave’s 1961 Royal Shakespeare Company performance among the most lauded.

 It’s been done for television several times, with the 1978 BBC version of the full play (starring Helen Mirren) available on DVD. A 1936 movie abridgement can be found on video, notable for a young and dazzling Lawrence Olivier as Orlando, and some creative film editing by the young David Lean. Elizabeth Bergner, an accomplished Central European actress, plays a spirited Rosalind, though her accent sounds disconcertingly like Bela Lugosi.

 Later this year, As You Like It will get the Kenneth Branagh film treatment, starring two young actors with strong theatre credentials who are becoming movie stars: Bryce Dallas Howard as Rosalind, and Adrian Lester as Orlando.

 This is a rich and accessible history, for those who make and those who go to new productions. Every local company that does a well-known play has to compete to some degree with the best stage productions as well as existing films and videos. It’s unfair, but a reality, as is the justice of being judged.  Even when the players aren’t paid, they are often asking audiences to spend their money as well as several hours of their lives.

 Sometimes, as in the case of North Coast Rep’s last production, Once Upon A Mattress, they create something that’s better than the pros. Mostly they offer other virtues, the most basic of which is the privilege of seeing a good or a great play up close, when it’s done competently, with at least a few intriguing or pleasingly surprising elements.

 This in my view is unfortunately not the case with NCRT’s current production of As You Like It. Some directors have played it strictly for laughs, even as farce, which seems to be the intended direction of this attempt. Even when done reasonably well, this approach tramples on the play’s greatest virtues. As Michael Gelven observes (and I heartily agree), the central characteristic of this play and its characters is grace.

 But even on its own terms, I didn’t find this production anywhere near a minimal standard of watchability. On a nearly bare stage, it is set in a confused and unappealing version of the 1960s, with Beatles songs replacing those in the text, inflicting only slightly less damage on the Beatles than on Shakespeare.

 The acting style is apparently meant to be broadly funny, somewhere between sitcom and camp. It doesn’t work, as the lack of laughter from Friday’s audience made terribly clear. The only Shakespearian element of the acting is from Hamlet’s advice to the players on what not to do: mug the words and saw the air too much with the hands. Those who didn’t mumble went to elaborate lengths to act out their lines with stock gestures and motiveless moves that were likely antique in Shakespeare’s day.

 At times it all came across as laboriously condescending, both to the play and to the audience. The blocking was awkward, the costumes seemed deliberately ugly (likely somebody’s idea of a hoot), and the almost non-existent set was perfunctory at best.

 I wish there was an element of the production I could single out for praise, apart from the assumed sincere effort. I hold out for you the possibility that everything changed for the better in the second half, for I was long gone by then.

 It’s especially unfortunate, if my view has merit, because this comedy should have special appeal to Humboldt, particularly in the multiple contrasts of country and city. Think of it set in the Forest of Arcata. And be grateful that your happy memories (if such they be) of “The Long and Winding Road” remain intact.