Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy New Year!

Thanks to Kevin I've been intermittently down a Youtube rabbit hole this month watching old Sandra Bernhard TV appearances. I found the below choice relic from a 1988 MTV New Year's special. Thought it good to ring in the new year on FWL. See you in '10!


Monday, December 28, 2009

In HSV!

That's Hot Springs Village to all you less retiring types. I'm recuperating from some strange illness and watching a lot of TV. Hope to venture back to the bustling metropolis of Little Rock in the near future, not to mention the great Hot Springs proper. See you in the new year, I hope!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

I said in the earlier post

about that LATimes article that I didn't have much to add to Morris' or Shirley's comments, but the more I think about this, I would like to add that I don't necessarily want L.A. theater journalism to champion L.A. theater, but I wouldn't mind if it would treat the scene as if it actually merits coverage, and then provide coverage that shows even a modicum of rigor.

When an evening of 10-minute plays gets an easy default description as "showcase fare," in a review that contains blatant inaccuracies about the production, I get cynical. When the LATimes theater editor champions a scene for work he doesn't show much evidence in print that he actually sees, I get cynical. Then there's that Variety piece, which might send me into orbit if I think about it much more. And don't get me started on James C. Taylor and Theatre Talk. I don't just want better coverage as a someone involved in the theater community. I want this as a theater-goer, as someone who cares about the medium.

Okay, so mainstream journalism's influence is slipping. Let's look to the blogosphere. There's LAStageBlog, which, outside of Don Shirley's column, seems more like boosterism than anything else, along with the majority of the other theater blogs on the scene, limited mostly to local theaters promoting their own work. There's Bitter Lemons, and LAWeekly's blog. Remind me who I'm forgetting or introduce me to new ones in the comments if you like.

Bitter Lemons has an attempt at a conversation on his blog -- "Does the 99-seat AEA Contract Hurt the National Reputation of Los Angeles Theater?" It's a valid question, but I'd like to see it rephrased a bit to ask, "Does the 99-seat AEA Contract Hurt Los Angeles Theater?" We know we take our work seriously, even if some of us want to break into film and TV and all the rest of it. How much do we really need to fret about our national reputation? Let's talk about the work.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

After that LATimes article

from Charles McNulty and the discussion that followed, there was a collection of letters to the editor that ran. I'm way behind on posting about it, but the collection led with the most hackneyed, and to my mind, inaccurate, written by someone named Philip Wissbeck (from Wisconsin, no less). It's below.
The problem with Los Angeles theater is that everybody who is involved with small theater is trying to get a job in TV or film and everybody who is big and successful in those media just uses theater as an exercise.

Someone once said that when you get on the stage you have to make it look like you have nowhere else you'd rather be that night. In L.A. theater productions everybody would rather be on TV or the big screen.
I think anyone who has any familiarity with L.A. theater knows that statement is false, and if they're like me they get really bored with hearing and reading it all the time. Of course there are plenty of people in small theater in L.A. who aren't trying to get a job in TV or film, and of course everybody who is big and successful in those media don't "just use theater as an exercise."

But so what if those statements were unequivocally true? Why is that a problem?

Why shouldn't people in small theater in L.A. want careers working in the industries that best suit their talents? Do you think actors in New York or Chicago don't want the same? Why should we begrudge people their ambitions? And how does it automatically lead to mediocre work? Should all struggling actors just give up? What would you have them do besides hone their craft? And how does it follow that they're ignoring the audiences that come to see their work as they hone it?

When someone writes a letter to the editor suggesting as much, it's easier to shrug off. But when someone like a Variety editor
says this --
Sometimes it becomes painfully clear the theater is not there for the audience.
-- Or this --
[T]here's a bottomless reservoir of film and TV actors here [in L.A.]or, at least, people who call themselves actors.
-- there's a clear suggestion that the journalist who's taken the time to cover the community walked into it in full condescension mode.

Bottom line, if someone calls him or herself an actor and one performs on a stage, one is an actor. He or she may not be a good actor, but if you're going to call one's vocation, even identity, into question, it's clear to me that you've no more interest in taking the work seriously than someone writing an easy letter to the editor, spouting out the same tired generalizations I've heard since before I even moved to L.A. and actually got to know the theater scene here.

I do think there are certain realities about L.A. small theater that contribute to its reputation as being unserious or insubstantial, but to treat an entire community that way because of some speculative lack of commitment by the people who make it up is what is truly insubstantial here, not to mention lazy.

That brings me to another post about L.A. theater journalism and the theater community. I promise it won't take me a week to get that one online.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

More on L.A. theater journalism

Playgoer turned me on to this article by Variety's Robert Hofler. He describes a visit to L.A.'s 99-seat world by describing a handful of jukebox musical world premieres and one edgy play called Extinction, then proclaims that L.A. has nothing on New York Off-Off in the 70s.

Good to know.

Now I don't consider it my duty to champion 99-seat L.A. theater. I've seen a lot of it in the past 7 years and I've seen some mediocre stuff. Some of the stuff I've been involved in has been really mediocre. But I also haven't been writing about it all as if it were some 3rd-world country after settling for whichever shows could afford to pay for a publicist, then describing the whole thing in print as a "tour."

Which shows did he even see? He only describes one show in any detail (Extinction), even though he says he saw more; one can only infer from his article that he saw some John Lennon show and one of those Roger Bean musicals, since he doesn't spend any time talking about them except in the vaguest and most condescending terms. And then at the end of the piece he suggests it was a month-long process? That's the best he can do?

I just spent about 5 minutes on LAStage's website and the LAWeekly and found the following 99-seat world premieres that are either still running or have just closed, presumably within the window of time that Hofler would've been available to catch a performance.

Hamlet Shut Up

Grace Kim and the Spiders from Mars

Blood and Thunder

Violators will be Violated

Tree

Perhaps none of these shows are exactly "New York in the 70s," but they're not jukebox musicals either. Maybe he even saw some of them, but I wouldn't know from his article. In fact he seems far more interested in name-dropping almost 40-year-old plays and productions from another city than actually writing about the beat he's slumming in.

There's also something bugging me lately about this preconception that all 99-seat theater in L.A. is automatically alienated from its own audience. He touches on it repeatedly, and it's been coming up in other writings lately. I can't help but take issue with that, but I'll save it for another post.

Monday, December 07, 2009

L.A. Times

There have been a couple of noteworthy theater posts about the nature of LATimes' theater coverage. To begin, Don Shirley wrote on LAStageBlog on Friday about Charles McNulty writing to defend the L.A. theater scene before proceeding to write about New York shows with moviestars in them. He closes with the below.
[W]henever I see a front page theater review from New York (or, for that matter, last Sunday’s theater reviews from London by former Times critic Laurie Winer), I can usually think of a dozen worthy local shows that are newsworthy enough for front page coverage - and how that coverage might have benefited theater-interested Times readers a lot more than those reports from afar.
I didn't see this until this morning, well after rolling my eyes at the review of the New York premiere of David Mamet's new play, Race, placed on the front page of today's Calendar section. Shirley's sentiment is, of course, appreciated.

Of course the thing that Shirley fails to point out about McNulty's championing of the L.A. theater scene is that the majority of shows he points to as evidence are either imports of whole productions from other cities and countries or 2nd productions of plays. I find this telling too, both about what the LAT values and about the LA scene in general. But maybe that's a subject for another post. That I probably won't write.

Steven Leigh Morris chimes in here, calling out the commenters on Shirley's post for putting too much stock in the Times in a post he calls "The Masochism of L.A. Theater."
Never mind the Times' out-of-town ownership, its blatant East Coast bias, its equally blatant contempt for the theater in its own back yard manifested not in hostile reviews but its long insistence on all-but ignoring the scene, I find some of the respondents' comments on Don's article - summed up as Wouldn't It Be Better if the Times Gave Us More Coverage -- disheartening.

[...]

Really now, if you're at a party, and somebody whose attention you seek keeps snubbing you, there are two core responses: You can say, "I must be a piece of crap because I'm being ignored -- no spurned -- by this Important Person; if only they would throw me a kind word or a hostile word, any word at all!" This is fundamentally neurotic and part of a spiral of self-destruction.

And, by contrast, there's, "To hell with them. This is humiliating. I'm going to find a better party." That, to me, is a healthy response. This also exists in the community, but not so much in the comments on Don's post.
I don't have much to add to these posts, except to say that I don't think it's exactly shocking to call out the Times' theater coverage as lackluster. And anyway, how many people still read the LATimes? Particularly the arts coverage.

I also wonder if mainstream print journalism in any major city could be viewed differently; the NYTimes does as much fawning over celebrities on its commercial stages as the LAT does while ignoring the scrappier Off-Off set; you see that pointed out time and again on New York blogs. Does Chicago or Seattle or Houston have a more attentive mainstream paper?

Although in regards to that, Morris is right when he says this:
Finally, it isn't really the purpose of media outlets to promote your show, but to discuss it. Sometimes the two can overlap, but criticism that has any value doesn't start with the aim of offering pullquotes and selling tickets. That's what publicists are for.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Oh! I saw

Love's Labour's Lost from London's Globe Theatre last weekend! I was going to write about that, wasn't I?

It was decent, although I think I've seen productions by Independent Shakespeare Company that were just as good. I enjoyed it mostly just to hear that fun text with such good diction. There's incredible rhyme, punning and wordplay in this text; it seems to me the play's greatest strength.

The most interesting thing to me about the play is the way the Princess of France is the female lead, but her romantic interest, King Ferdinand, is not the male lead. And how the Princess and her friends have a little fun with the boys, veiling their faces and pretending to be each other, the true male lead, Berowne, mistakes the Princess for his true love, Roseline. And the production seemed to make nothing of this in its performance.

As I was watching the play, I spent a lot of time wondering how I might direct it. I'm certainly no expert on this text, but this is my second time to see it on stage and I just think I might've made that the key to the whole piece. Made more of that moment, given it a bit more mystery, gravity, bewilderment.

I suppose their take was sound...it's all fun and games, fart jokes and food fights until the offstage King of France dies and mortality creeps in and whatnot. I just wasn't all that engaged.

Except for when the Spaniard came on. That guy was funny.

I was interested

to read in today's LATimes of the death of Rock Hudson's ex-lover, Marc Christian MacGinnis, who successfully sued the Hudson estate after claiming that Hudson knowingly exposed him to HIV. His obituary, written by Elaine Woo, is here. One quote stuck out; it's below.
[MacGinnis] was portrayed by Hudson estate lawyers as a gold-digging hustler and criticized in the gay community, which at the time had little understanding of the need for sexual responsibility.
That statement seems ridiculous on its face. I have no idea how her (specious, but we'll get to that in a minute) description of the gay community would require it to criticize MacGinnis. I also don't know how or why it criticized him. Is it because he was portrayed as a "gold-digging hustler?" Well I suppose if the gay community was a cabal of promiscuity it would support such behavior, would it not? What the hell is she talking about?

Going by the facts in the obituary, the lawsuit was filed in 1985. This is the same year that Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart was produced in New York. The same year that national condom promotion campaigns began in the U.S. Richard Berkowitz and Michael Callen were writing about safe sex as early as 1982. In 1984 San Francisco ordered its gay bathhouses closed. By the end of 1985, there were 20,470 reported cases of AIDS in the U.S. and 8,161 people had died.

Some of the above I kinda knew already, and some of it I found lickety split on the internet to help disprove such a blanket generalization. That statement adds nothing to the article and serves only to insult a community that, as much as it might have struggled to come to terms with what was happening, by mid-decade was in a pretty constant state of mourning.

In short, do a little research. I think by 1985 the gay community was starting to get it.