Sunday, October 31, 2010

Tennessee Williams, on the state of Broadway in 1944

"That the most exalted of the arts should have fallen into the receivership of businessmen and gamblers is a situation parallel in absurdity to the conduct of worship becoming the responsibility of a herd of water-buffaloes."

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Welles on Tynan

Dedicated to Javier Botero
Puzzler, Polymath and Strongman

From Orson Welles' introduction to He That Plays the King: A View of the Theatre, Kenneth Tynan's first book, published in 1950. Tynan was twenty-three years old at the time.

As Welles himself explains, Tynan and he were strangers at the time Tynan requested this introduction.

-- --

"Dear Mr. Tynan,

Why, you will ask, do I address this introduction directly to you? After all, we are scarcely acquainted. I must tell you that I am adopting the pretty fiction of a personal letter in the fear that like me your readers tend to skip introductions and in the hope that they are as tempted as I am by other people's mail.

Dear Mr. Tynan then,—by the way, what are you? Besides being the author of this book, I mean.


since I seem to be criticizing your criticisms—let me say that from my viewpoint you have also some inflated enthusiasms which beg for pricking. I'm not the man for that job, I just thought I'd mention it.


Whatever you are, Mr. Tynan, there is no doubt that you are some sort of magician. You materialized out of a puff of Paris fog, handed me the manuscript of this book and before vanishing somehow bamboozled me into reading it and writing this.

A neat trick it was because as I tried to tell you I never read or write about the theatre, this being a matter of the strictest principle. No, I save myself for other subjects concerning which I enjoy a more amiable ignorance.


Also this heated nonsense about being alone in a theatre... Do you really feel that?

Alone is what you must be in a movie palace where something all finished and wrapped up is delivered to large numbers of people at once for the simple reason that, to date, this is the cheapest form of distribution. But how can you be alone in a living theatre? In the big moments there is, to be sure, an almost mystical effacement of self but this is part of the mystery of becoming one with the congregation..."

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Spasms of the Macrocosmos

I decided to go with two:

  • A variety of major Bay Area theaters—the Magic, ACT, Marin Theatre Company, the Aurora, San Jose Rep, and SF Playhouse—have opened their 2010-2011 seasons with plays that either prominently feature an African-American performer, or, more likely, center on a part of the African-American experience. What does this trend say? Why are these shows at the beginning of the season? Do any of these theaters make African-Americans a focus later in the season? And why, in a city in which Hispanics outnumber African-Americans by two to one and Asians outnumber African-Americans by almost five to one, are no other racial and ethnic minorities getting plays produced about their experiences?
  • Last month, when departing the Magic Theatre after a show, I was approached by a woman with a video camera about giving an “audience testimonial.” I declined because I was reviewing the production, but it seemed she was taking comments from anyone leaving the theater. Later, I received an email from the Magic touting the success of opening night—with filmed audience testimonials to prove it! But how do audience members feel about being used for marketing purposes in this manner? Are there certain pressures inherent in it that make for less-than-honest responses? Why do some theaters use it? Why do others refrain?

If American Theatre isn't interested, maybe I'll solicit another publication!

Monday, October 18, 2010

To read, or not to read?

The Players of the We Players' Hamlet: Ali Hanson, Cara Zeisloft, Rebecca Longworth, Caroline Rebecca Parsons, and Sallie Romer
(Photo by Peter Merts)

In working on my review of the We Players' production of Hamlet, I have been, I'm only slightly sorry to say, influenced by exogenous forces.

Because I write for a weekly, other critics' reviews of a play often appear days before mine do. Nonetheless, I usually avoid reading their work. My articles are supposed to be about the play itself, not about the conversation surrounding it.

But when I quasi-accidentally catch a glimpse of those articles, my work, I feel, improves. Rather than trying to assess the work generally, I am then primed to focus on points of inquiry others have already singled out as worthy of discussion. Those writers have done the dirty work; I get to capitalize on it.

My review of Hamlet this week falls into that category: I skimmed someone else's article before writing my own. (The height of sin!)

But partly due to my inadvertent engagement and partly due to the unique nature of the We Players' site-specific production, I'm writing what I consider one of my most honest reviews in a while. I was even able to get away from the format I've felt trapped in: catchy intro/overall assessment, plot summary, acting evaluation, design evaluation, suggestions for future productions.

It's counterintuitive that by reading someone else's work I should be able to become more original, and despite this week's success I will try to avoid the habit, lest I should start to feel the pressure to say something new, instead of just saying what I want to say.

Or should I just suck it up and be as informed as possible?

Stay tuned: The hemming and hawing continues.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

My New Source for Critical Pith; A Challenge

(Or, just to overwhelm this site with images of dead white guys.)

"A good drama critic is one who perceives what is happening in the theatre of his time. A great drama critic also perceives what is not happening."

-- Kenneth Tynan

Over the next couple weeks, I'll be brainstorming "pitch ideas" that this grant, which would allow me to write two articles for American Theatre (the biggest theatre magazine in the country), requires as part of its application. So far I have only written about individual productions. Trends, currents, or even spasms of the macrocosmos -- these things that require longitudinal analysis, conclusions drawn from often anecdotal evidence (which requires actually talking to people) -- have not yet entered my journalistic purview. But never fear: I shall find ye, "topics related to the Bay Area theatre scene," even if at first my short-sighted means can find little more than ripples and twitches!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

A Brief Indulgence in Pessimism

"As a spokesman for newspaper drama critics, Winter defended his coterie against attacks levied by Dion Boucicault in 1889. Boucicault accused critics of being both corrupt and detrimental to the theater. He said they were generally incompetent and biased. Newspapers, said Boucicault, had usurped the public's rightful role as drama's judges. Winter conceded that neither the press nor the public showed very good judgment in evaluating plays, but he argued that newspapers were not corrupting public taste since they had little influence upon their readers."

-- Charles W. Meister, Dramatic Criticism: A History