Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Political Stage

Reading The Political Stage by Malcolm Goldstein and already familiar names and titles jump out at me. Can You Hear Their Voices? is right there. The Communists among us despised it ... and for reasons which were part of an intermittent discussion I was having with Leah this weekend, wandering among the parading gayboys and girls of the Village.

Where you sit, as they say, depends on where you stand. The young person sees so much to do, making them anxious, impatient. Yearning for change, for that golden age on the distant horizon. Possibly angry, leaning towards hopelessness.

An older person looks at things and is relieved that things are as good as they are, has lived through progress in action, seen it made through incremental steps, and have hope for the future through such progress.

For example, today we watch helplessly as the Gulf of Mexico is polluted for generations ... but isn’t gay marriage a certainty within the next ten years? Are we not celebrating the World Cup in South Africa, of all places?

The next age is for bitterness or benign passive acceptance (and bitterness.)

The radical drama Melissa and I witnessed on Saturday night portrayed not some imaginary, future calamity, but a representation of the honest truth of that moment in time. People were starving, desperate. It might turn a person to collective farming.

And that is what offended the far Left. Communism shouldn’t be the last resort if Capitalism fails to work. Capitalism, they will tell you, fails to work, period. Communism is the only choice, not merely the choice for pathetic, desperate loser people.

Theater Arts Monthly, November, 1938
“The Technique of the Living Newspaper” by Arthur Arent

I wish I could have spent more time in the performing arts library at Lincoln Center. There are plays by Arent I can read which I can’t find anywhere else. Later. Soon. If necessary. This article was a helpful description of the Living Newspaper process, or at least his defense of his version of it.

Arent claims that while there is now (then) copious evidence of staging current events as reported through newspapers as drama in many world communities prior to its foothold as part of the Federal Theatre Project, he was unaware of all of them. He’d thought they’d made the idea up.

"The first thing to consider is not style, which is the manner of doing a thing, but content, which is the thing itself."

The Living Newspaper should be the dramatization of a problem, not of an event. They represented a series of events, bearing on one issue. They may begin with dry record (dramatized Congressional hearings) but then move to the ‘human element’.

I learned through this article that a number of the elements created by the Peculiar Works Project for Can You Hear Their Voices? were either authentic - as in the case of the live music playing between scenes - or offering modern examples of what they wanted to do, had they had the technology. Arent reports they wanted a teletype across the proscenium to provide factual information, but found that too distracting. Our modern audiences wouldn’t, surely, we eat that shit up, and the PWP featured text rolling as part of the videos they showed between scenes - which was something they did back in the day with still photos, between the acts to set the scene, and as the backdrop for the scene itself, keeping the set simple.

As for the ticker captions, instead they incorporated the character of the “Loud Speaker” who (in addition to speaking loud) would act as a narrator for the production, even interacting with the characters.

Arent was proud of productions like Ethiopia and Triple-A Plowed Under. One elements of these works include taking verbatim quotations from the newspaper, and dramatizing them but breaking them up into scenes where the person speaking after the fact is commenting on what they are doing, as they are doing.

For example, a woman sentence for the murder of her infant child because she couldn’t bear to see it starve made a long statement during her trial, reported in the paper, which was spoken in part by the actress playing her as she contemplated the act, performed the act, was grilled by the police officer and then in the trial. Dialogue was created for the police and lawyer, usually in the form of questions which she answers with her statements.

Injunction Granted! (which has been criticized elsewhere) was not a favorite of Arents (he didn’t write it) and uses it as an example of how not to create a Living Newspaper. The “montage” style of writing, where the action jumps back and forth repeated to numerous different places in space and time confuses the office, and is repetitious. The style he prefers builds from scene to scene, until there is an explosion of action.

Hmn. Just looked at the edge of The Political Stage. It’s from the library of Dorothy and Reuben.

The Living Newspaper

Variety, April 8, 1936

Living Newspaper (Cleveland)
Edward Reveaux & staff

Dramatized news events, staged by Federal Theatre Project Players at Public Little Theatre, Cleveland, March 27, 1936.
'March of Time' technique is followed throughout play, simple sets being used for each sketch and spotlights picking out the actors in the fashion of blackouts. Effect is staccato and vivid.

Too controversial in a few cases, lacking in general appeal to go over before a sympathetic audience.
The article makes particular note of a debate between Alf Landon and Governor Talmadge. The actor playing Landon emphasized his accent and bad grammar, while Talmadge came across as earnest and eloquent.

Source material included the Cooper-Hewitt Sterilization Case (a courtroom drama) and the Siliosis Tragedies at Gauley Bridge West Virginia scene "has a lot of bit in it."
For a closer, troupe puts on an original one-acter called "Steady Company" dealing with a Depression-hit family.
The editor notes how the material for these productions reportedly go stale during the rehearsal, and have to conitually be updated.

A high-point was a skit about a young man who phones Jean Harlow long-distance.

Variety Magazine
The New York Public Library, Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center

Monday, June 28, 2010

Our Town

Presented at the Barrow Street Theatre
Directed by David Cromer

This Pulitzer Prize-winning drama (comedy?) by Thornton Wilder debuted in 1938, and has been beaten to death by every college and high school in the intermittent 70 odd years of its existence. I had never seen it, but from the description I was not sure I ever wanted to. I do regret not having seen Raymond Bobgan's production at CPT in 2007. In addition to admiring Raymond's work, many had recommended it to me.

My date for the evening says she saw it at a local high school and has never wanted to see the show ever since. I can understand why it could come off as maudlin, stilted, dated, mawkish, or just plain boring.

When I announced my visit to friends and asked for ideas for plays to see, Seth strongly suggested David Cromer's version, now playing at the Barrow Street Theatre. That was good enough for me, and though it post-dates the time I am concentrating on by two years, I thought it was certainly a worthwhile addition to my studies.

I did not expect to see Michael McKean step onstage in the role of the Stage Manager (for those who do not know the play, the "Stage Manager" acts a guide and narrator for the audience, which means he's not really anything like a stage manager at all) while was in itself pretty freaking awesome. It gets better.


WIlder worked to strip away the artifice of theater for the production, instructing the use of limited sets and to "mime" the use of various props. The young lovers Emily and George speak to each other from their respective next-door windows by standing on ladders - in most productions. In this one they are seated at chairs on top of tables. Small tables. It made me nervous. But as I was saying, limited "theatricality." In this production, that meant modern dress. They dress in character, but as though these people from 1901 were living now. That doesn't mean they are living now, we are told this play takes place beginning in 1901, only instead of having little set, and no props, they also have no costumes. Just clothes.

In the final scene, when the dead Emily realizes she can relive a day from her life, a curtain is stripped back at one end of the stage - right next to me, as this is a very small space and we were seated right on the floor of the playing area - to reveal a hyper-realistic home from the late 19th century, with bacon frying and steaming hot coffee (we had previously seen actors mining making coffee not once but twice) and Emily's mother and father in period dress.

It was startling. It was so theatrical! And as the point is that living people never notice the details, the little things that made life worth living, we the audience were struck suddenly with so many interesting things to look at, and hear, and smell! The modern clothes we had been watching for the entire play were so ordinary, but this shining moment was so vibrant and full of intricate detail. For a moment. And then it was gone again.

But it was also fake. In that it was a set for a play. So instead of being drawn into the scene, we were all very aware of its not-realness. Which made the performances we had been seeing so much more honest. I was being pulled back and forth. And I liked it.

This would have had no significant effect were not the rest of the way so well-executed, by the director and his performers. Moving, upsetting, downright scary in places. And everywhere, humor. And you know what else? The actor who usually plays George (pictured) was absent this evening. His understudy went on, and he was replaced by his, and so on in a chain of five performers playing what they usually do not. And if they hadn't told us, I would not have known. That's great company.

The person I saw the show with just texted to thank me for making her no longer hate Our Town.

I caught Michael McKean outside the theater, thanked him for his performance and shook his hand. I did not make any Clue references.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

... A Play Of Our Time

Can You Hear Their Voices?
A Peculiar Works Project

Yes, a Depression-era drama, based on true events, performed in an empty storefront near the NYU campus. Forty seats on knock-together risers, struggling air-conditioning, the actors had to jostle for position to use the single bathroom with the patrons just prior to the performance.

I have read agitprop theater from this era and was expecting a very dry piece of work. They were all so obvious - and polite - back in those days.
Farmer: How can we eat when the drought has destroyed all of our crops?
Senator: The American people will never agree to a dole.
I mean, how can you have interesting political discourse when no one can refer to Nazis?

Well, first of all, I was wrong about the play, in places it really is funny, and moving. And though you are led to the expectation that there really will be some kind of minor revolution at the end, the ending is much more realistic, personal, and leaves you wondering what will happen? As if to say to the audience, here we are, where do we go from here?

Modern technology has made it possible for small companies like this one to project video images on the wall to cover for what in the olden days were long and awkward to watch set changes. And the videos were of great period film, sometimes with captions. Even better, the trio playing live (piano, clarinet and bass) were a real swell ensemble, I would have been happy to hear them continue after the 60-minute show was over.

The Times made a bit of a stink over the use of cross-gendered and other forms of non-traditional casting. At the beginning I had to agree ... during the serious opening segments portraying the farmers and workers in their crisis, it was confusing to see a much older man with a salt and pepper mustache playing a kid (is he retarded?) and a young woman playing his brother. Women in suits playing men without any irony suggests high school productions where you just can't get enough boys to audition.

However, as the play went on, and moved into high gear with these hilarious scenes of high society girls and men being their decadent selves - doing period dances (oh! those early 30s dance moves!) with women in tuxedos and tall, bald guys in dressed, "necking" on the stairs (I found the repeated use of the word "neck" to be scandalous) these decisions made more sense. My date for the evening remarked how it really made the ensemble feel like a company that works together and takes on all responsibilities together. And I'm all for that.

Red (play)

RED by John Logan at the Golden Theatre

Chronicling two years in the life of abstract expressionist Mark Rothko and the continuing discussion about the meaning and/or uses of art with his assistant, a young man named Ken. Two actors, one set, 90 minutes, a lot of very large black and red paintings and an awful lot of chewed scenery. Did your local playhouse produce Art ten years ago? They have already put Red into next year's season and the rights aren't available yet.

I did enjoy Alfred Molina, a lot. Looking for a cheap place to eat off Times Square, I passed him walking toward the theater around noon. He was wearing shorts, on his way to work.

The major crisis is this play, the conflict, is within Rothko himself. Ken gets a little, troubled backstory, but he's not really a character, rather a sounding board for the famous person. Rothko has been commissioned to paint four enormous murals for a new restaurant in the recently built Seagram's Building. The restaurant in question is named The Four Seasons.

Much is made of people in relationship to art. Even from the very beginning, when Rothko is ordering the young man, who has just met, to stand here, or there, in relation to his latest work, pressing him to lean in, get close, make the canvas take up your entire peripheral vision. Light changes the painting. It is meant to pulse. If there is no viewer, does the painting still exist the way it was intended to exist? Is it still what it is?

Much is also made of philistines of all stripes. Those who want art that will match the place settings. Art that will fit over the mantle. Art that is valuable, that will become valuable. Or art that is like that other more famous art ... but less expensive. And those with the very deep pockets who will ask a notable painter at the height of his game to create murals for an expensive restaurant so people can eat and talk loudly and ignore it.

There is also the question of whether art must be serious to be meaningful (see: the dawn of Pop Art.) Or whether it is justifiable, in the act of taking pay from one you deem unworthy, that your creation is really in it's own way saying "fuck you" to the buyer, the audience, to everyone.

Now. Let us apply these questions to my experience this afternoon. On Broadway. Between the revival of Hair and the five thousandth matinee of The Lion King. The streets near Times Square jostling with confused a sun blind tourists, some of whom bought a ticket to see this afternoon's performance of a play they hadn't heard of before it won the Tony for Best Play just a few weeks ago. And it closes tomorrow!

The audience I shared this experience with was not offended by the main character's disdain for arts snobs - this is America, all Americans hate snobs! They all thought the descriptions of art-buying cretins were hilarious. People spending lots of money for artwork they cannot understand and do not appreciate.

By my count, I heard seven cellphones ring during this ninety minute performance. Those were the ones loud enough to be heard. It is no longer a matter of an actor worrying if a cellphone will go off during today's performance, but when and how many times.

Once it was at a seriously emotional high point, and Molina went on a rampage at the other actor, Eddie Redmayne. It was hard not to imagine this outburst was taken to a new level by the interruption. But then people around me were whispering loudly, shocked that someone would leave their cellphone on during a performance.

Or whisper loudly during a performance.

Is a painting relevant when it is necessary for the viewer to understand it? Is a play relevant when, for all of its treatises about the meaning and uses of art, it is itself an overpriced commodity, sold to an audience that wants it to fit neatly between a trip to Madame Tussaud's and dinner at Planet Hollywood?

When You Reach Me (book)

A fifteen-minute layover in Philadelphia became a two-hour layover, so it is a good thing I had a book with me. A good book, a book of fiction, and a short book which was also fortunate as I could imagine finishing it and thus my potentially "wasted" hours could instead be thought of as well-spent pursuit.

The book in question is When You Reach Meby Rebecca Stead, a YA novel that has popped up in conversations a number of times recently, for its references to A Wrinkle In Time and also an article I read in The New Yorker about modern dystopian fantasy for younger readers.

This is not a "fantasy" book per se, though it does have fantastic elements. Stead is quoted in the linked piece there as having chosen to set her story of a twelve year-old girl in the late 70s because she wanted “to show a world of kids with a great deal of autonomy."

Recently I began reading my children From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler Precocious older sister, younger brother with a thing about money, conspiring the run away from home ... I must be insane. "Who gave the gun to the baby?" But I want them to have imaginations that allow them to go anywhere, even dangerous places.

That book is dated in a number of ways, what happens in it could not possibly happen today. Maybe even then the idea of hiding out for a week in the Metropolitan Museum of Art would be tricky to pull off, but I bet you could if you really set your mind to it the way Claudia does. But not today. The events of When You Reach Me are at once more mundane and suspenseful than those in Ms. Konigsburg's novel. There is much more at stake for everyone involved.

I have returned to my YA play, From the Seriously Messed Up Stash of Mr. James Henke. The problem for me is that so much of the humor in that play crosses the boundaries of good taste, or has the potential to. But what was missing was a clear lack of what the characters wanted. I think that's what impressed me most about Ms. Stead's book, is how no one was perfect, but everyone was worthy of attention and respect.

My hiatus has begun. I am off work for four weeks, to dedicate to research, reading and writing. I am in New York City to see some important or relevant plays, to visit the library ... and to take a break.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Can You Hear Their Voices?

Produced by the Peculiar Works Project

Depression-Era Woes, Echoing in the Present
- NY Times, June 11, 2010

There’s nothing for sale in the vacant store where “Can You Hear Their Voices?” is being performed. No shelves, registers or clerks, either. Yet there’s constant talk of money, of business, of labor. The play, a nifty piece of agitprop from the Depression, isn’t shy when voicing ideas about the American economy, and this production, as heavy-handed as it sometimes turns, doesn’t have to stretch too far to find parallels to current events.

First staged in 1931, “Voices” was adapted by Hallie Flanagan and Margaret Ellen Clifford from a short story by Whittaker Chambers, who was then an avowed communist. The tale, based on real incidents, documents a group of Dust Bowl farmers and their growing frustration over the lack of a government response to their plight.

Throughout the play, scenes of the farmers’ suffering alternate with episodes of the decadent rich enjoying lavish lives. One group debates socialism. The other denounces state-run aid. While there is never a question where your sympathies should lie, the script features a few powerful moments, including a final scene that stirs plenty of passion.

Recently I have been hitting a number of mental and emotional blocks to continuing my study of this period, and was considering abandoning it entirely. This morning, reading this review, it was like I was sitting on an atomic bomb, waiting for it to go off.

Sorry - saw THE ROOM for the first time last weekend.

My recent impulse has been to throw over the 1936 project, for which I still had not solidified a plot and resume work on a piece about Cleveland in the 1950s. And I have suddenly realized that the to are not mutually exclusive.

My wife, apparently, figured this out a long time ago, but neglected to tell me.