Sunday, August 28, 2011

On "On Keeping a Notebook"

(The untouchably cool Joan Didion.)

The other day, I wrote about taking notes during shows, but I didn’t say why I did so. At face value, they certainly don’t seem helpful, or even terribly coherent. And when I make that awful transition from notes to article, it is rare that I use any notes verbatim (thank heavens). Sometimes I don’t even look at them after I write them. Yet the impulse to record these nonsensical observations remains. In truth, I couldn’t imagine writing a review without having taken them. So what role do they play?

Reading Joan Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook” has helped me start to answer that question:

The point of my keeping a notebook has never been, nor is it now, to have an accurate factual record of what I have been doing or thinking…Remember what it was to be me: that is always the point. It is a difficult point to admit. We are brought up in the ethic that others, any others, all others, are by definition more interesting than ourselves; taught to be diffident, just this side of self-effacing…But our notebooks give us away, for however dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable “I.”

But from the moment it is written, she goes on, any “I” becomes a person from the past:

…I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.

Didion’s concern is observing the real, be that a family member or a sign she passes on the street. But I find her remarks applicable to criticism as well. A critic, more than anything else, endeavors to document who s/he was during a performance, and how that evolved over time. Without a notebook, s/he might not remember anyone other than the scamp who sneaked out during curtain call—and that would make for a sorry review indeed.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Reduction in Force, at Central Works

(John Patrick Moore and Jan Zvaifler in the Central Works production. Photo by Jay Yamada.)

My review is available here.

Show info here.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Future

More than occasionally, you’re going to want to smack the leads in The Future, the new film written and directed by and starring Miranda July. Sophie (July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater) are the kind of thirty-five-year-olds for whom turning off the internet and quitting their day jobs does everything and nothing, for whom the prospect of failure and envy of more successful peers is debilitating, infantilizing. They’ve never been smacked by life before because they’re too self-conscious, self-absorbed to live, to confront dreams, sometimes to even have them. They’d rather just sit around and take themselves seriously.

The film opens with a too-symmetrical shot of the couple sprawled across a couch, their legs tangled together, their faces illuminated by their matching macs. Already, you feel as though you’ve been watching the couple sit for a very long time. This, in other words, is the abyss. “I’m not getting up,” Jason says when Sophie asks for a glass of water. “I’m just shifting my position.”

(Hamish Linklater and Miranda July in July's unflattering portrait of a generation.)

The first section of the film is full of such delightful little lines: “I always thought I’d be smarter,” Jason reminisces. Or, Sophie says her work (teaching dance to pre-schoolers) gets cancelled “on account of my being overqualified.” The actors’ delivery is spot-on: their characters are fully immersed in their self-absorption, but not so much that the film can’t show its awareness of how silly they sound.

Sophie and Jason even share physical qualities: a dark, tousled, almost muppet-like mop of hair atop a gangling, slouching, lumbering frame. But where Jason exudes harmlessness, Sophie remains ever-alert to imaginary harms. Wide-eyed and with lips slightly parted, she is always simultaneously shocked by the world and bored with it. Her inability or unwillingness to emote beyond this comatose gaze is but another symptom of her total self-absorption; so unimportant is the outside world to her that it doesn’t even garner a reaction.

July eschews grand transformational narratives—or any transformation at all, really—but she does endow her wimpy characters with grand cosmological powers along the way. Jason can stop time. Sophie can cheat and hurt. Perhaps this is part of what rubs so many the wrong way about July: her insistence on the importance, the dignity, of eminently unimportant people, even the unlikable ones.

By the end of The Future, life has dealt each of July’s characters a thorough smacking. But true to form, the characters refuse to take it, to even register it, really. The way they idle around their apartment in the last shot eerily echoes the film’s first. It is up to the audience to absorb the hurt. Unsurprisingly, Sophie and Jason don’t lift a finger to help.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Deadest Part of Hawaii

Just got back from Hawaii's Big Island, where the prevalence of abandoned movie theaters reminded me of a post from earlier this year.




If you want to see a movie in Hawaii, you'd better head to a mall.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Analysis as Reportage

In Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf calls our little thoughts—barely registered, barely conscious—the “drip, drip, of one impression after another down into that cellar where they stood, deep dark, and no one would ever know.”

Lately, I’ve been wondering what to do about my own leaky faucet when I’m watching a show. What happens to those reactions that one just doesn’t have time to catch? In Analyzing Performance: Theater, Dance, and Film, Patrice Pavis champions the drips, distinguishing between analysis as reconstruction, the typical mode of criticism, whereby the critic collects and shapes his thoughts after the performance itself, and analysis as reportage, where virtually no drip is left behind:

Analysis as reportage could have live radio sports reporting as its model; such an analysis would comment on the developments of a performance as it unfolds…This would entail dealing with the performance from within, in the heat of the action: reproducing the detail and impact of events, directly experiencing everything that moves the spectator at the actual moment of performance…Ideally, reportage-analysis of this kind should be carried out during the performance; the spectator-analyst would react immediately, only becoming conscious of her reactions just after they have been expressed…Most traces of these reactions are lost, however; for in Western culture, theater spectators,… particularly with text-based theater, are barely authorized to express impressions, reactions, and perceptions openly; they are expected to wait until the end of the performance to express them. Therefore an important part of these immediate impressions is lost forever, at least buried away beneath memories and rationalizations of past emotions a posteriori.

In taking notes as I watch performances, I try to capture my reactions in the moment, but those usually fail to translate directly into reviews for a number of reasons. First, my notes don’t always make sense after the fact, even when my handwriting is legible and I’m not writing on top of another note I already made. I have so many reactions, many of them unconscious, to each individual moment that before I can even begin to record one of them in my nonsense-shorthand, the next moment is already over, and I’ve missed it.

(A page of my highly intelligible performance notes. I've often wondered if these babies secretly belong in a poem—or a play!)

But I’m also not sure that pure reportage would make for compelling criticism. Much of what we value in any kind of good writing is synthesis and analysis. Stream-of-consciousness would be too easy to write and too frustrating to read.

Hilton Als, in a (fairly) recent review of Master Class, a revival of Terrence McNally’s play about opera singer and teacher Maria Callas, starring Tyne Daly, achieves an exemplary balance of the two modes. He shares the way his thoughts developed over the course of the performance, while still crafting them into a narrative:

During the intermission, I found myself wondering how Daly and her excellent director, Stephen Wadsworth, would keep all this intellectual and emotional splendor aloft. Though they’d captured my heart with the first half, there was the worry that exhaustion or lack of imagination would cause the acting or the directing to topple…

What Daly understands about her role as Maria Callas is that Callas can’t put herself on: she doesn’t distinguish between her life and her performance. Her life is a career, and her career is her life—a fact that becomes even clearer in the second act, when she must deal with a strong-willed diva-in-training, Sharon Graham (the appropriately haughty Sierra Boggess).

So much criticism omits the critic’s story of being at the performance. A writer (and most of the time I, too) presents a review as though he’d been an unmoved blank slate during the course of the performance, only to have his thoughts arrive at curtain call exactly as they’d appear in his article: inexorable, self-evident sentences and paragraphs, signed, sealed and delivered.

Approaching the process as Als does requires more personal sharing: In this article, he mentions not only another show he’d seen recently but also how his interpretation of the performance was heavily influenced by a number of his gay, opera aficionado friends who’d died of AIDS in the 80s.

But where it’s thoughtful and space allows, the inclusion of personal material makes a review more honest. Criticism, after all, is inherently subjective, and it’s never the writers who discuss their own relationship to a work who make the galling mistake of sounding like theirs is the final word.

I’m considering a few ways of attempting to tell my own audience member narrative in my upcoming review of Exit, Pursued by a Bear (at Crowded Fire). We’ll see if it works—Stay tuned!

Friday, August 19, 2011

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Performance Artisans

Charles Isherwood’s review in today’s Times marks an exciting point of departure for the paper’s theater criticism. In it, Isherwood, one of the paper’s two main theater critics, reviews a restaurant, Aldea, purely in terms its theatrics—what he calls “another kind of restaurant theater, the newly public drama of creating the meal itself”—rather than its cuisine. (Diners at Aldea are seated as audience to the kitchen, and “not even a sliver of glass separates you from the action.”) Creation, not consumption, is indeed the focus of the article; Isherwood’s only comment on the food is that it’s “sublime.”

(We invited diners into the kitchen back when I was pancake-chef-extraordinaire at St. Anthony Hall—a performance event many described as "sublime.")

His chief subject is chef George Mendes, a leading man of “cool, unflappable demeanor.” He “brood[s] Hamlet-like on the composition of a dish” while still “presid[ing] over his cast of 10 assistant chefs with a respectful authority that was almost wordless.”

Isherwood’s article introduces a new kind of a drama, one he describes as less about conflict than about “the accretion of detail,” one that’s about the creative process as much as it’s about the finished product. It’s less performance art than performance artisan, less esoteric and avant-garde than new-bourgeois. But because it’s live, urgent, immediate and, in Isherwood’s words, occasionally “sensational”—O, how things can go wrong!—it’s still, in a sense, theater. It’s also staged: There are distinct audience members and performers, a clear dynamic of looking and being-looked-at. Most importantly, unlike traditional theater, it has no shortage of audience members—and young ones at that. Today’s yuppies spend their discretionary income on artisanal experiences rather than on art. Customized bicycles, pop-up gourmet eateries, wine tastings, street food festivals—these are the experiences, the expenses, the status symbols of the young and affluent. And when artisans invite these audiences into the process of creation, further blurring the creator/spectator divide, the good/service/experience becomes all the more haute.

(Saturday's Mission Street Food Festival drew crowds that no theater could dream of—surprise, surprise.)

(When I mentioned to a fellow spectator how much fun it was to watch this griller at work, he replied, "It's like looking at fire.")

I’m not one to lament this trend, or Isherwood’s coverage of it. I do think the article sounds silly at times—“Shivers of suspense traveled up and down my spine as I watched the shucking of oysters”—but not because I find the sentiments contrived. Who’s not mesmerized by the nimble handwork of a professional chef? Rather, I think the review would be improved by a discussion of the finished product—the food—itself, melding types of criticism (art and fine dining) the way the restaurant melds different types of experience.

Traditional performance venues could learn from places like Aldea. Brad Erickson, Executive Director of Theatre Bay Area, tells us how they might do so in the magazine’s August issue:

People are fascinated with how things get made and watching highly skilled people engaged in their craft…They love watching the quick movements of the expert’s hands as she wields the knife, casually tosses ingredients into the pot, fends off flames, whisks, prods, sips, tastes and finally presents the gorgeously finished concoction before the camera…The fun is in the process and watching it proceed, step-by-step, before your eyes. Theatres would do well to tap into the public’s desire to observe their sausages being made. Why couldn’t we set aside certain rehearsals that are open for viewing at different points all the way through the process? It would take some audience education and some management from the theatre staff…But…Audiences would find a new appreciation for the art and craft of theatre, and theatres would find a new way of engaging the public and deepening the relationship with their patrons.

Theater is indeed too rarefied. It could be the junction of performance art and performance artisanship, but it chooses not to be. I love Erickson’s proposal. I think it would cause an explosion in the way we do art.

But I’m less optimistic about it than he is. I think theaters have too big a vested interest in doing art the way they’ve always done it—until finances necessitate total restructuring. Until then, Isherwood will have to forego covering theater in favor of writing restaurant reviews that don't talk about the food.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

On Interviewing and Getting Paid to Do It

I hail from the first generation of journalists for whom not getting paid is the default. My peers and I enter our field with zero expectation that society will value our work—called “content generation” just as often as it is “writing.” Getting lunch money isn’t what you start out with; it’s a career goal.

So when I embarked on my first paid piece this month (after two years of writing), I was expecting it to feel different—more legitimate. Naively, I hoped for a transformational moment: Now, I’m a real critic. Now, what I do means something.

And it did feel different. Not because I got paid, but because the article was a preview rather than a review, an enthusiastic feature rather than a detached piece criticism. It was 300 words instead of 500. I had to describe a show without seeing it myself.

And I had to talk to people, instead of hiding in the dark and slithering away as soon as the curtain fell. I had never interviewed before, and I made the usual rookie mistakes: diving in with extremely intense questions, keeping it rigid instead of allowing it to be conversational. We did, however, communicate enough ideas for me to cobble together a half-page article. (It’s available here; scroll to page 21.)

Of course, maybe I’ll have different feelings about the experience once my check actually arrives. As they say, a stipend in hand is worth two in the bush.