Saturday, January 28, 2023

The Replacement Theory of Playwriting

Isobel Thom as Joan
"I, Joan" by Charlie Josephine
(Shakespeare's Globe, 2022)
Photo: Tristram Kenton
There are a few social media organizations that focus on the world of American theater and, like a lot of social media sites, generate poorly sourced and written articles which are promoted with headlines designed to drive visitors to their site and most importantly to their advertising.

This is called clickbait. But you knew that.

One of the more egregious offenders recently posted an article with the headline, [Shakespeare’s Globe Artistic Director] Michelle Terry Fears for Actors' Safety in 'Woke' Plays.

This headline is misleading. It leads one to believe that Terry fears for actors' safety when working in the company of something called a "woke play." It conjures images of actors being harmed in the rehearsal or performance of such plays, whatever they may be.

However, nowhere in the article does Terry herself use the term "woke" nor does the article attempt to describe what that word means. Her concern is for the safety of artists who are members of productions that have been defined by others as "woke."

From the article: "Some of [the Globe’s] recent productions have been accused of being 'woke'."

Really? Some have said this. Who are they? And what did they mean when they used the term "woke"? It is important to be clear about this, because these people, those "some" who have said this, they are the people who Terry believes may threaten the safety of her company of performers, and not as the headline implies, their participation in such productions.

Headline would better read: Michelle Terry Fears for Actors' Safety From Those Who Define Certain Plays as 'Woke'

The writer of this article does provide two examples of so-called "wokeism" at the Globe. One is last fall's production of I, Joan by Charlie Josephine in which the main character, inspired by the person of Saint Joan, identifies as non-binary, and a production of Romeo and Juliet which included a content warning about suicide.

It is true that I, Joan received a great deal of online bullying prior to opening from people who were angry that Joan de Pucelle was to be presented as non-binary and using they/them pronouns. They accused the playwright of "erasing" a famous woman. As far as I can see, Joan of Arc’s place in history is unaffected by the production (Shakespeare depicted her as a demon, didn't stick) though the visibility of a trans non-binary character at the center of a professional production was by itself historic and important. 

My brother, who actually saw the production, unlike any of those who decided they hated it before it had even opened or really knew anything about it, said I, Joan was, " Excellent, fun, ALIVE." It started raining the day he saw it, he says nobody left.
"The play is first and foremost about the trans experience. All the soliloquies were about identity and inclusion in very personal ways. The historical part was the body of the play but it kept coming back to Joan's experience out of time. They pondered why men are so hung up on pronouns, toilets and Twitter." - Henrik H. (my brother)
And providing a content warning for R&J? Who cares? In what possible way does taking the subject of suicide seriously, and alerting anyone unfamiliar to the conclusion of this classic play (yes, they exist and that's okay) disrupt anyone's enjoyment in watching it? And anyway, how is that "woke"?

When the article in question was posted a little over a week ago, there was a great deal of back and forth about what a shitty article it was, and I mean from a journalistic standpoint. Really stupidly written, sloppy and by extension, offensive. Written expressly to provoke, not to inform.

Read it, it's good.
Leaping into the discussion midstream, one cishet, white, American guy on the thread (full disclosure, I am also a cis, white, American guy) attempted to define “woke” this way [brackets provided for clarity]:
"Woke people" are against a diversity of ideas and anything that questions their narcissism is deemed racist or ignorant. Actually, the majority of us don't identify as "woke" or even "anti-woke" 
We [which is to say people like this commenter, in comparison] focus on the individual responsibility of a persons (sic) instead of breaking everyone into groups based on religion, ethnicity, and whatever subgroups come out of that. We aren't interested in having a victimization contest. 
If you want a true diversity of ideas, it's best to be left of center. Reject ideology and become a complex vessel of ideas!
So many contradictions, it makes my head spin. He's true about one thing. The majority of us don't identify as "woke" because no one does that.

Further investigation (yes, I got creepy) revealed that this commenter is in fact a real-live, moderate, liberal Democrat, and not some bot or right-wing troll. It is because of him and people like him that my son is a complete Leftist.

It gets worse. Unlike some who have no particular interest but to thread-crash in order express their resentment and rage, this guy is an actual community theater director. Addressing me, specifically, he said this:
I happen to work in the performing arts as well. I can guarantee you [i.e. David Hansen] will have a harder time producing a play you've written in this climate. (Unless you live in an all-white area). Why should you give up your art to allow someone else to take your place? I think you should fight for what you've worked so hard to achieve and take a back seat to no one. Unless they prove that they have more skill.
Welp, he said the quiet part out loud. Take my place? What place is that? The assumption here is that white men remain the most-produced of playwrights because of their superior skill, that they have earned their position of supremacy, and that recent trends of centering marginalized voices are robbing these white men of their rightful place.

Here are a few reviews for the Globe Theatre production of I, Joan: 
"A rousing protest piece." - The Guardian

"A joyous celebration." - Time Out London

"Funny, fierce non-binary Joan of Arc proves sceptics wrong." - The Independent

"Joyful and unifying, this could be something of a game-changer." - Evening Standard
Does this not prove their skill? I think it doth. 

As I endeavor to get my own work produced, I am keenly aware that in a past era (maybe only five years ago) I would have had more opportunities for production. But not because my work was better.

Today’s emphasis on those whose voices have previously been ignored has inspired me to make my work more relevant, and hopefully to make me a better playwright. I want make work to be good enough and deserving enough to take my place with them.

Saturday, January 21, 2023

NYC NYE 2023 (part three)

"Room In New York"
Edward Hopper (1932)
The plan was to hit the TKTS booth and just see what they had to offer. But not all they had to offer, my wife has not been to the Whitney since they relocated, so we wanted an evening show, not a matinee, and on a Sunday those are few.

Times Square is absurd on the best of days, New Year’s Day most of all. I expected that, like the first of the year everywhere else, the streets would be empty and quiet. In fact, elsewhere in Manhattan, it was. But not Times Square, of course. It was crowded and messy. She got in line and I got coffee for us at the adjacent Starbucks. We both had a long wait.

None of the shows we had considered were having evening performances, but The Collaboration was. Written by Anthony McCarten, this new play about the brief and some might say contrived mid-80s artistic partnership between Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol had only recently opened to mixed reviews. But hey – Paul Bettany and Jeremy Pope, live on stage? Why not?

Tickets purchased, we headed downtown, and to the Whitney Museum of American Art. Toni had friends who worked for the museum when it was on the Upper East Side, but she hadn’t visited the new site, down by the High Line. I had, with our eldest, when they were visiting New York schools.

Blue skies over the Whitney
First thing we did was head to the Studio Bar on the eighth floor. My wife loves museum cafes, and we have spent much happy time in them from London to Cleveland. It was a clear afternoon and we ventured onto the terrace to witness the downtown skyline. We appraised the design of the new World Trade Center and decided it was good.

The main exhibit was Edward Hopper’s New York. I didn’t know much about Hopper. I know Nighthawks, we all know Nighthawks. It’s as iconic (and parodied) as American Gothic or La Grande Jatte. The gist of Hopper’s work, as I understood it prior to this experience, was that of alienation, that his work was existentialist. Experiencing so much of not only his paintings, but also his sketches and his commercial work, I don’t believe that’s correct.

My favorite piece from the exhibit was Room In New York (see above). A couple are in the sitting room of an apartment building. He is reading a paper, she sits apart at a piano. But she’s not playing the piano, she’s sitting sideways, idling plinking keys. The fact that these two are not in commune with each other might suggest detachment.

"A Theater Entrance"
(or "Man Explains Play
to a Female")
Edward Hopper (1906)
But! The image is defined – literally defined – by the window frame at the left and bottom of the image. This is not their moment, but ours, because we are viewing them through a window. We are capturing a moment which is not ours, one second in the city, a passing glimpse into someone else’s apartment. Hopper makes us complicit voyeurs, and he did this again and again with each painting we experienced.

And I thought, wow. He really loves cities! I really love cities! And now I really love Edward Hopper.

We spent so much time taking in his work, it’s really the only exhibit we saw there, and that was fine with us. Light was fading, and we walked up to the High Line to experience it at night, which was a little awkward. Nice, but very crowded. I suggested we take the last stairs down before we made it to Hudson Yards, but she wanted to see where it ended. She later agreed that was a big mistake.

We tried to get to the street by cutting through “The Shops” at Hudson Yards, which is a late-stage Capitalism hellscape. I won’t get into it. Don’t go there.

Jeremy Pope & Paul Bettany
"The Collaboration"
(Manhattan Theatre Club, 2022)
And so, onto the Manhattan Theatre Club and The Collaboration. I do like plays about artists, and the artistic impulse. But I am tired of “biopic” plays, plays that read like a Wikipedia page. Did you know Andy Warhol was shot by Valerie Solanas? Some do, some don’t. The challenge for a playwright is how to share this information with people who do not (it’s relevant) without putting expositional dialogue into the mouth of the man who was not only the victim of this violence but also deeply, deeply traumatized by it, and yet make it seem effortless.

I have enjoyed John Logan’s play Red, about the painter Mark Rothko, in spite of its somewhat clunky structure. Rothko is at a difficult juncture in his career and has as his sounding board a fictional assistant. In The Collaboration two artists, one a hot property, the other coasting on decades of iconic success, at least they are both based on real people and over the course of the evening, joust with their ideas of what art means, what it’s for, why it matters, if it even matters.

Warhol elevated corporate iconography, Basquiat marked it and claimed it. They were both keenly aware of public perception of the art itself, even as they had differing ideas of whether or not they cared what people had to say about their work. Or maybe they were more alike than they knew.

Washington Heights
apartment lobby tree
Anyway, we had second row seats. Thank you, TKTS booth. It was delightful to watch the performances, Bettany’s Warhol had this tightly-wound disaffection, Pope’s Basquiat a manufactured confidence which masked an immense underlying anxiety.

Pro Tip: Both Broadway houses we happened to attend that weekend offered the European tradition of ordering “interval” drinks before the show, and we were literally the only people who did this. Folks stood irritated in long lines at the bar during intermission while all we had to do was sweep in and pick up our two lonely sippy cups waiting for us on the drink rail and enjoy the break.

After the show we sought a neighborhood trattoria. The basic joy of sitting with my love, next to a window looking out over Ninth Avenue, consuming house red and a simple chicken parm.

The next morning we met an old friend over some seriously mediocre brunch, and left for home. See you next year!

Saturday, January 14, 2023

NYC NYE 2023 (part two)

Annunciation Triptych (Merode Altarpiece)
Robert Campinca. 1427-32

Here’s the great thing about visiting New York with my wife. We don’t feel compelled to do anything, we can just be. Sure, we make plans, but it’s not like going somewhere new and strange and you feel anxious about timing, getting from place to place, or even what and when you are going to eat.

Manga comic wallpaper at Tampopo.
We’d already visited the local grocery store the night before and got a few things for the morning; coffee, cream, yogurt, bananas, granola. I was so wrung out from the events of the previous week (remember that bomb cyclone?) that I got up, ate, took a shower, and had a nap. And that was glorious.

By the time we got out, it was lunchtime, and we stopped in at Tampopo Ramen, which I first visited with our eldest three years ago. The noodles were fresh, our bowls fat with tempura. Crazy good.

New Year’s weekend in Manhattan this year, while not very cold, was certainly damp. We walked through Fort Tryon Park in the rain and mist, taking our time, wandering down to the Hudson River overlook where I proposed to her almost twenty-five years ago. You couldn’t even see the river, let alone the GWB, it was so foggy.

The Cloisters are preferable in the summer, when the gardens are in bloom and you are able to walk through them. That just meant we took more time enjoying the architecture and artwork.

I was curious, in this era where Westerners are more self-critical of our collective history of pillage and appropriation, as to when the curators of the Cloisters found in necessary to make clear, on every medieval doorway, window frame and artifact, that they were only taken from monasteries, priories and covenants that had been crumbling and abandoned ruins. Nobody cared about this stuff, okay?

Ceci n'est pas un lion.
The thing that really struck me this time around was how important the lion figured in medieval symbolism but how apparently no medieval artisans had ever seen an actual lion.

Then back to the crib for a disco nap, water and ibuprofen. These are my primary pieces of advice when visiting the big city; do only one or two things a day, stay hydrated, rest when you can, have pain reliever, pee before you leave wherever it is you are.

Finally, we embarked on our New Year’s Eve plans. There was this bro on the subway who had his headphones on and he was not selling it. That’s the thing about headphones, you really learn who knows their bars and those who do not. He was like, “hummanah-mummunah-mum O’CLOCK, mummunah-hummunah-mum MY COCK.” Keep working those rhymes, my dude.

Our New Year’s Eve dinner reservation was at Chama Mama, a Georgian restaurant on the UWS. We had seats outside, in a heated shed attached to the building. The heated shed is still a thing In New York City. It was a glorious meal, we ordered far more than was necessary, but we wanted to taste so many things. I was surprised at how (relatively) inexpensive the meal was, considering how many small plates we ordered.

First up and most notably was the khachapuri, a cheese-filled bread. Fresh baked bread in the shape of a boat, filled with a soft cheese, served very hot with an egg cracked on top. The server stirred in the egg and a pat of butter and we tore off bits of bread and cheese. I could have just eaten three of those.

Dream Big!
Unfortunately, it was raining consistently as we walked the fourteen blocks to Lincoln Center, where the Big Apple Circus was presenting a special New Year’s Eve performance of their current show, Dream Big.

What was unique about this performance, at least to me, were the videos before every act, where the circus artist provided a brief candid interview where they were able to share a little about their life and career as a performer. When do we know anything about circus performers? I thought it was nice. Most were members of extended circus families, most notably the new owner of the Big Apple Circus, the legendary Nik Wallenda.

At midnight we toasted the new year right there in the big top, and we were all invited to dance on the stage.

Saturday, January 7, 2023

NYC NYE 2023 (part one)

Mural, American Airlines Theatre Penthouse Lounge

New Year’s is a big deal for us. Not that we have traditionally been extravagant at the turning of the calendar. In fact, we have been quite modest the past few years. Even before the pandemic, we chose to stay home, alone. We only ever need each other, anyway.

Auspicious subway find.
We met on the street the year we rang in the 90s, headed to the same gathering, and have spent every NYE together since, for better and for worse. And last year we decided we would go to New York, where we fell in love and shared so many early relationship memories. Omicron be damned, and it was awesome.

When I missed the American Repertory Theatre production of 1776 in Boston this summer due to health issues, and they announced a Broadway run, I suggested we do it again – spent NYE in NYC. Maybe this is going to be our New Year’s tradition, from here on out. We would both be very happy with that. My wife scored first class seats, and we enjoyed Bloody Marys and held hands at 10,000 feet.

The wife found us a sweet little Airbnb where Washington Heights meets Inwood, and just a short walk to Fort Tryon Park. The place had a really nice reclaimed wood aesthetic. We asked our contact where we could get lunch and she suggested Koko Seafood, a Dominican joint on Nagle.

The ghosts of Steve & Eydie
hath appeared to me —
at Sardi's once ...
The guy dropped two menus but he also suggested we could have whatever they already had prepared, so we said yeah, what do you have back there? She got the stewed chicken, I got the grilled chicken, we each got red beans and rice. We were made very, very happy.

It was such a good meal that, following a much-needed nap (I think I got four hours of sleep the night before) we decided to skip dinner and just get drinks somewhere in Times Square. She asked if I’d ever been to Sardi’s, I said that I had not. We enjoyed cocktails seated next to a festooned caricature of Steve Lawrence, which was only appropriate.

Then onto the American Airlines Theatre for the Roundabout production of 1776. Here’s the thing about 1776, the original score for this show (music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards, book by Peter Stone) is part of my earliest memories. My father enjoyed it a great deal, and why wouldn't he. A lively celebration of the origins of our nation, created in 1969, possibly the worst point in our history. The vinyl was on regular rotation in my house growing up, I still have it somewhere. And the 1972 film was a must-see whenever it came on the TV, usually around Independence Day.

Festive NYC streets.
However, it has not aged well, as it sands down the sins of “our forefathers'' even as it attempts to address them. Even Lin-Manuel Miranda did this in creating Hamilton, entirely omitting the fact that Alexander Hamilton himself was once a slaver.

In subsequent productions of 1776, in community theaters and colleges around the country, people of color and women have been cast as members of a company of historical figures who were all white men. After the success of Hamilton, I wondered how long it would take before someone attempted a diverse professional production. The A.R.T. production (produced on Broadway by the Roundabout Theatre) features an acting company composed entirely of people who identify as women or non-binary.

This has not been without controversy, which was to be expected. I loved the production, I really did. You could say it had been produced for me or someone exactly like me, a privileged, middle-aged, liberal, white person – and one who already enjoys the score. Attending a performance like this would naturally soothe my sensibilities, as it would ideally present an opportunity for those affected by these men's actions, but not present in their decision making, to interpret and hopefully to provide context for the founders limitations.

Sara Porkolob in "1776"
(Photo: Sara Krulwich)
Company member Sara Porkolob, who plays South Carolina Congressman Edward Rutledge, started a firestorm among the theater community last October in which they dared to answer questions about the production with candor and honesty. They did not agree with the suggestion that the production is artistically fulfilling – for them – and even more aggressive comments for saying they only give 75% to this show a night.

Much, much more interesting, however, are their comments about the frustration of being a multidisciplinary performance artist who takes a job as solely a performer in someone else’s work. The fact that, in their opinion, the show still does not go far enough in critiquing the so-called “American experiment. It is a rich and interesting interview with an amazing artist, and I strongly recommend reading the entire thing.

The best excuse for being controversial, however, is when you are also brilliant. The most emotionally disturbing song in the entire show, no matter where you are seeing it, and the only part of the show which comes even close to addressing the massive errors in the American experiment which are still with us today, is the the eleven o’clock number Molasses to Rum, led by Porkolob, for which they say they give 90% and which they entirely walk away with. If what I heard that night was 90% of what they have to offer, I am literally frightened to experience their talent at full bore. I hope that someday I will.

Photo: TRG Reality
My one personal regret was that I did not get to see Elizabeth A. Davis as Jefferson, though the family did last summer. We were in the company of The Merry Wives of Windsor at Great Lakes together in 2005 as she was completing her studies at Case, and she participated in an odd “Mr. Shakespeare” photo shoot in which we first recreate the famous V-J Day photograph and then I apparently drop her (right.)  Maintaining the role in Boston on then Broadway while visibly and increasingly pregnant over the course of the fall, Davis left the production as scheduled around Christmas.