Monday, February 22, 2010

I've spent much

of today in a youtube spiral thanks to Qaadir Howard. See below for more. NSFW for language.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Here's another

L.A. theater blog for you. This one's by producer Rick Culbertson. Check it out here.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Bitter Lemons on The Black Rider

(See the two previous posts for more context.)

Actually, the more I work on these posts the more I sense a contradiction in what's being valued and expressed here.

Colin at Bitter Lemons tries to illuminate the importance of a compelling story; here's how he puts it in his post on the Avant-Garde--
One of the most essential – if not THE most essential – elements to emotionally engaging, cathartic storytelling is MEANING. If your art is simply titilation, simply experimentation, simply “art for art’s sake”, I’m not going to feel shit. I may THINK about it a little bit, and that’s not bad. But the stories that truly stay with us, that stay with me, that literally get into my bones, are those that make me FEEL something. That MOVE me. Those are the ones I’m still thinking about today. And those are the stories that have PURPOSE. That are attempting to SAY something. To TEACH us something. THAT MEAN SOMETHING.

Look, I enjoyed that Ginsberg [sic, as it's Burroughs' text, which is important to the show's meaning]-Waits-Wilson production of Dark Rider at the Ahmanson a few years back just like the rest of ya, but it didn’t affect me on any emotional level whatsoever. I almost left at halftime. I’m glad I didn’t. Because a lot of it stayed with me, the images, the music, the effort, but who gives a shit?
I mean this with all due respect, but the more I read and think about Colin's essay, the more I wonder how much he's actually talking about story.

Story is formal, structural, skeletal. It's action, complication, rising action, climax, resolution. What he talks about when he talks about story is actually meaning, intention, didacticism, emotionalism; those are in my experience (with the possible exception of didacticism) the most potent components of experimental theater. And I'm not convinced that well-made stories need contain any of those elements.

Perhaps what Colin values is all of those things in the context of a well-told story. All of that sounds like a great night at the theater to me.

But I also find it difficult to accept that The Black Rider is meaningless merely because it didn't affect him emotionally. The Black Rider is rich with meaning, enhanced by the autobiography just barely below the surface in William S. Burroughs' text. It's about death and addiction, but also about storytelling (and specifically allegory) itself, as an antique German folktale becomes intertwined with a very modern voice's narration about drug abuse.

Of course, none of this requires Colin to be moved on an emotional level. I just wonder if the real question is how does an author or performer (or audience member) learn to balance or distill the more demanding performative or innovative aspects of a work in order to better engage with its story or its meaning. That's hard to generalize about, and it'll always be hit and miss, I think. Whether or not the critics tell us what we're supposed to be doing first.

UPDATE: Bitter Lemons writes a little more here.

Avant-Garde and Story

(See this post for a little context. )

I actually owe my earliest interest in the avant-garde to Frank O'Hara and the New York School of Poets. I was turned on to them by a marvelous book called The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets, by David Lehman. It's a dense, fascinating read, equal parts social history and literary analysis. It educated me on modern art, specifically Abstract Expressionism, and loosened me up a great deal about how to approach a work of art as a viewer, a reader, an audience member.

Then I went to grad school in dramatic writing. And I got story shoved down my damn throat for two years. I don't regret that education, but it has had its positive and negative implications on how I read and go to the theater. I probably spent the first two years out of school analyzing the structure of every play and movie I sat in. Obvious flaws meant the work was suspect; an attempt to flout the rules was deemed immature or pretentious. Thank goodness I got over all that.

Interestingly enough, in the context of all this newfound insistence on craft, I always had a great deal of patience, interest, and curiosity about the avant-garde, in theater and elsewhere. And that's precisely because Lehman's book taught me an openness when engaging with this work -- work that typically is disinterested in the rules you're so keen to critique it for willfully breaking or ignoring altogether.

Of course the avant-garde and story aren't mutually exclusive. Frankly, of the work I've seen lately that would be considered avant-garde (Wooster Group, Big Art Group, Charles Mee (although I don't know that I would've lumped him in this category, but never mind), none of them lacked story. Not even Colin's example, The Black Rider, lacked story. It was full of it, in fact, as are all of the above works. Big Art Group is crazy with story; Wooster takes classic stories and either interrogates them or smashes them into other famous stories and tells them at the same time.

As for Mee, one of the things I admire about his writing is how he sneaks conventional story into seemingly wild territory. bobrauschenbergamerica certainly retains elements of collage, but it also depicts lovers meeting, fighting, breaking up, and making up. If that's not story I don't know what is. And it combines simple love stories with stories of ambition, terror, murder, and pop culture to tell a larger story about our nation. It's an ambitious play and it deserves serious consideration.

Whether or not these approaches to story are effective is debatable, I suppose, but an attempt to innovate in storytelling does not equal an absence of storytelling. Maybe it's because we live in Hollywood, but I feel like when people talk about story, they're talking about a very specific thing with very rigid parameters (quite possibly to be found in books by Syd Field and Robert McKee), and while I'll always admire a well-crafted execution of that very specific thing, it doesn't mean that someone going about it a different way should automatically be deemed unsuccessful.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Bitter Lemons on Avant-Garde Theater

Colin over at Bitter Lemons asks the question, "are avant-garde and a good story mutually exclusive?" This post caught my eye and spawned a number of responses from me. The first one is below, which has more to do with critics than avant-garde or story.

A lot of criticism is thrust at bobrauschenbergamerica, a show I liked very much. Colin quotes liberally from a review by a guy named Harvey Perr suggesting that critics tend to like this kind of show because it's a welcome change of pace to critics eager to see something new and distinctive, and that audiences lap it up because they're told to by said critics.

Here's Perr's text, quoted by Colin:
Critics, bored by the same old same old, search for novelty the way pigs root out truffles, and, finding it, wax ecstatic, for the sake of its novelty if nothing else. Audiences – and I’m talking about the smart ones here – are eager to go where the critics lead them, because they, too, want to be right where the wind is blowing, but are too often led astray by the world-weary critics who often mistake trickery for novelty. They are in it together, critics and audiences alike, and they stand up and cheer when the emperor appears in what looks to them like a coat of many colors, when, in fact, he is, you guessed it, buck naked.
It's an interesting idea, but it's both presumptuous of critics and insulting to audiences. I don't really care about critics getting their feelings hurt, so I'm not going to dwell on the former, but it's a little rich of Perr to suggest that audiences are incapable of responding in earnest to an evening of theater without the corrupting influence of bored or sycophantic reviewers. I liked bobrauschenbergamerica because I liked it, and although I don't need to justify myself to some critic who's all too quick to base a review on superior assumptions about my (and other critics') motives, just in case that's not enough of an explanation, click here to see how well Perr's assumptions add up.

If critics want to write manifestoes about what constitutes a good evening of theater, then by all means, I'll be happy to take that for exactly what it's worth. Want to start showing contempt for other critics? Have at it. Artists? That's nothing new. But the audience? We're not just the theater's audience; we're yours too.

And it's not just the tone that bothers me about Perr's review. The more I read these kinds of pieces that attempt to sum up attitudes about theater trends by generalizing about said trends and using one, two, or three very distinctive productions to make their point, the more tired I get. Is this theater criticism as collegiate comparison essay? Congrats on your tidy review and proving your arbitrary thesis, but did you ever think about writing about the ideas in the piece? Thematic resonance? What it might mean to us here in L.A. in 2010? Bob Rauschenberg? Charles Mee? The SpyAnts? The Ford? Bart DeLorenzo? In any more than passing detail?

Monday, February 08, 2010

I just found

a longish interview of Pavement on the eve of their big reunion tour. It's by playwright Will Eno. I've pasted my favorite bits below.
Trying to describe music in words may be something like trying to describe a car crash that happened in front of a beautiful sunset, just as someone started yelling the word “English,” a wild horse ran through the scene, in flames, and you have a stomach-ache or feel really good. It also may not be like this. Nonetheless, the attempt must be made.


For fun, let’s take a look at one, keeping in mind the car crash and your poor tummy and the horse on fire. The song is from the 1994 record, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, and the title is “Silence Kit.” With a cymbal crash, a guitar enters, hesitantly, almost like a character from “Peter and the Wolf,” and is joined, sort of, by drums that seem like they’re being played in another room on a different day. The bassist hits a string, maybe rolls his sleeve up or waves to someone. It’s either some teenagers in the basement or an Oxford don clearing his throat. You hear someone say, “Scott,” or maybe, “Apricot.” And then, in a way that seems like creation itself, the whole thing starts, all the elements coming together in a menacing groove, with a cowbell that actually reminds you of a cow, proceeding with a determined and mainly innocent gait. Then it all builds, inescapably, to real rock and roll. There is a very long Beach Boys-like “Ah,” which is either satisfaction or Sigmund-Fruedian-contemplation. Then comes the first line, “Silent kid, no one to remind you,” and the fun begins to multiply; the language is so unstable that the words from the verse denoting the main object of our attention—“Silent Kid”—have dripped, like a freshly and poorly painted sign, into the title “Silence Kit.”
Read the whole thing here.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Last night's

Green Umbrella concert at Disney Hall has me obsessing over Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. They performed his Eight Songs for a Mad King, which was the serious highlight of the evening. It sent me to Youtube this morning to see what I could find of it and then I started watching Davies interviews and now I'm in a most pleasing Youtube spiral.

Eight Songs is a wild cycle meant to be semi-staged, with George III in full madness mode throughout. This was very much a concert presentation, but it had all the requisite comedy and thrills of something more elaborate, primarily because of the stunning performance of baritone Thomas Meglioranza. Everyone in the audience lept to their feet after he finished, myself included. Much deserved!

Green Umbrella, I'm so glad you're back! You know how I love you, of course.

Check out this clip of excerpts from an Australian presentation of Eight Songs. There's a grown man in a diaper for much of it, so possibly NSFW.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

New theater blog

I just discovered that KPCC's Steve Julian is writing a new blog. He describes it as "Food. Theatre. Not necessarily in that order."

This is exciting to me, as I love both food and theatre. And Mr. Julian's voice keeps me company as I get ready for work and leave at the end of the day, so it'll be nice to read his writing as well. Looks like right now there are a lot of short posts with emphasis on discussion/comments; I like his interview with Taylor Coffman about her new play, Ditch.

Oscar day.

Go Kathryn Bigelow!

Monday, February 01, 2010

This is big

I've been reading for a few days about the possible elimination of the L.A. Department of Cultural Affairs; Steven Leigh Morris writes on Stage Raw about today's noon meeting of the L.A. City Council Budget and Finance Committee, where they considered--
proposals to fill a $200 million city budget shortfall by eliminating over 1,000 city jobs, gutting the city's mediation program to reduce ethnic violence in high schools, eliminating the agency that administrates the city's neighborhood councils, cutting the Department of Cultural affairs staff by 48%, and eliminating all city arts grants. Meanwhile, Department of Water and Power employees are receiving pay raises of 15% over five years, and Mayor Villaraigosa has authorized the hiring of more police.
My friend Danielle is rallying for action to protest the cuts at Arts for L.A. Consider writing an online letter at the website here.