Sunday, October 30, 2011

Richard III, at the Curran

(Photo by Alastair Muir.)

My review of Richard III, starring Kevin Spacey, hit the newsstands on Wednesday—my first review of a movie star in a stage performance. 

Before this show, I hadn’t known that Spacey had done at least as much work in theater as he has in film.  So it’s no wonder that he was natural—if not revelatory—in the role.

The production, which on the whole is not as strong as its lead, ended its San Francisco run yesterday.  Next stops include Athens, Hong Kong and Spain!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

A Rite of Passage

(Don Reed in his new solo show, The Kipling Hotel, at the Marsh.  Photo by Ric Omphroy.)

Someone posted a negative comment to the web copy of my review of Don Reed's The Kipling Hotel, at the Marsh -- a first for me.  I've been disagreed with before, of course, but this is the first time a stranger felt so strongly about what I wrote that s/he had to write a response.  

My editor gave me good advice about how to deal with this situation:  You don't have to respond at all, and if you do, wait an hour after writing before you click "submit."  And if the commenter responds to your response, let him/her have the last word unless you're arguing about facts.

Last year, the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, of which I'm a member, discussed a similar situation.  One member received a letter from a director of a show about which he'd written a negative review; the critic was wondering if and how he ought to respond.  The rest of the membership offered a range of possible actions.  Many suggested he simply ignore it; others said to respond only if the director's tone was civil; still others championed a simple response -- ask for clarification, or say, "Thank you for reading my review so carefully"; some even recommended meeting in person to hash things out.

A stranger on the internet and an artist who's discussed in a review are, of course, different situations and call for different responses.  As for my online commenter, I did decide to respond, for two main reasons: S/he put effort into it, and I thought the comment had some good points.  

I reject the flat-out "ignore it" philosophy because I think it's a little too easy.  And it's not just because of the age we live in, when an internet-fueled plurality of voices knocks would-be professional "arbitrators" off their high horses.  It's because, as I've said before, if critics want their own criticism taken seriously, they must take criticism of their criticism seriously.

But it's important to find a middle ground between refusing to "debase" yourself by acknowledging that the comment section exists and defending your writing in a petty back-and-forth.  For me, that middle ground will probably look something like standing by my writing much of the time, but ceding a point when the commenter makes a good one.  Conveying my honest reaction to a show is my chief aim in writing every review, but that's a lot harder than it sounds; some articles are less successful than others.  This comment about my Kipling review really made me question whether the article had the right balance, and for that I am indebted to the commenter.  

For now, I'm just glad I haven't received responses as nasty as those the Chronicle's theater critic, Rob Hurwitt, gets (the Chron's online comment section is a notorious free-for-all).  Such is the price of being as close to this town gets to a critical arbitrator!

Friday, October 21, 2011

Two One-Acts, at the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre

(Michael J. Asberry and Wilma Bonet in the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre production.)

My review of Day of Absence, by Douglas Turner Ward, and Almost Nothing, by Marcos Barbosa—two one-acts at the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre—just appeared on The Exhibitionist.

The show continues through Nov. 20.  Info here.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Interview with the Cutting Ball's Rob Melrose

(Joshua Schell and Caitlyn Louchard in the title roles.  Photo by Annie Paladino.)

I recently interviewed Rob Melrose about his upcoming production of Maurice Maeterlinck's Pelleas and Melisande, at the Cutting Ball.  My article is now available here.

Previews begin tomorrow; this one should be exquisite.  Show info here.

Wallflower, at SF State

(Cody Metzger and Stephen Frothingham in the university production. Photo by Clyde Sheets.)

Wayward graduate student that I am, it’s taken me over a year to get to my first SFSU theater production. But it’s no wonder that it was Wallflower, a movement-based exploration of being a wallflower at a high school dance held in a gym, that finally got me to head to campus on a weekend. Written and directed by Mark Jackson, who is an SFSU alum and often a professor, the play was sure to be interesting. Jackson is a rock star in the Bay Area theater scene right now; every month, it seems, another company commissions a piece from him. Thanks to his imaginative eye, his penchant for experimentation and his fondness for extremely physical staging, he consistently garners reviews that, while not always favorable, always show fascination with his work.

But my favorite part of the show actually had little to do with Jackson. Every other member of the cast and crew is a student, and it was fabulous to see professional-quality work by my classmates. Abe Lopez, who assistant-designed the lighting, not only lent a crucial modicum of structure to the proceedings with his clearly defined afternoon, evening, night and morning; he also established the possibility of the fantastical with his candy-bright colors. Ashley Rogers, who designed the costumes, created a look so consistent across the ensemble as to be just slightly unreal, further helping to ground us in Jackson’s fairytale world. (She also, incredibly, found a cut of dress that looked flattering on every single woman.) Both designers, I felt, could easily have been working with Jackson outside an academic context, such was the caliber of their work. I’m excited to see them complete the transition from school to practice.

As for the rest of the show, I was more ambivalent. I thought Jackson brilliantly captured the stupefying terror that these silly high school dances inspire—in the way his actors slid around the perimeter of the set, avoiding the dance floor as though it were made of lava, or the way they asked someone to dance in a manner that can only be described as violently retarded.

But it can be hard to know how to absorb a performance with little dialogue and even less story. I tried to just let feelings be evoked in me, but many of the more conventional dance interludes felt like filler, while some of the other ideas took too long to illustrate. (Yes, a line of people staggering a motion can create a wave; how many times do we need to see it undulate?) But I guess you can’t put a cast of thirteen pretty young people who are all decent dancers in a show about dancing without having them break out the sock hop moves at some point (nor, as contemporary mores dictate, without some gratuitous nudity).

Seeing this production and trying to write this post show me that I need to challenge myself to see more dance and movement-based performance. I need to get a sense of what I like and why, and develop the vocabulary to talk about it. It’s not in my background at all, but I can still have a strong response to it—I just need to work on explaining what that is.

Wallflower continues through October 23. Show info here.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

On the Editorial Process

(Daniel Bakken, Bonni Suval and Flynn de Marco in the Thrillpeddlers' annual extravaganza. Note that classic film noir lighting. Photo by David Allen.)

A few errors (which have since been fixed) that appeared late in the editing of my latest review, of the Thrillpeddlers’ Shocktoberfest 12: Fear over Frisco, got me thinking about the editorial process. I’m still quite new to it, but I’m guessing that most of the publications I’ve worked for would gladly have a more in-depth and team-oriented method of editing articles but just don’t have the time or the money.

Or the set-up. All my journalism work has been coordinated exclusively through e-mail. Never have I sat down in a newsroom to hash out, with a team, the evolution of an article from draft to finished product. Instead, we all sign off on a piece one by one, on our own time. I’m first, my editor’s next (and we usually have a back and forth before he passes it on, which has been a really satisfying part of working for SF Weekly), and then, I can only assume, copy editor(s) and/or online editor(s) have a go at it.

This system has its virtues. The hierarchy is clear-cut. It avoids costly meetings and minimizes quibbling. You always know when a piece is ready for posting, and the same person or group always has the final say, ensuring consistency.

But it also has its drawbacks. The system does not allow the most informed fact-checker, the writer, to make sure the finished product is accurate. (I’m assuming here that a publication can’t afford real fact checkers.) More generally, it means the writer doesn’t know what, exactly, his or her name will be on until a piece is published.

These concerns obviously come from the writer’s point of view. I’d love to know what editors think about the process.

And of course, some errors are inevitable. Every day the New York Times posts a whole column of corrections.

But I wonder if the system couldn’t be improved. What if, instead of never getting to see the draft again once you’ve passed it on, the draft remained accessible to all parties throughout the editing process, in the form of a wiki or a Google doc? Yes, that would make things messier, but it would also make all parties more accountable for their actions. And as long as there were some basic behavioral guidelines, you could still limit the bickering over revisions.

In the end, everyone involved in the editing wants the same thing: to publish the best work possible. So if there’s a chance another system would create fewer errors—even if it would depart radically from the status quo—it’s worth considering.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Pleasures and Perils of Length

It took me two attempts to make it all the way through Geoffrey O’Brien’s review, in the New York Review of Books, of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s summer season in New York (which included Julius Caesar, King Lear and The Winter’s Tale). I don’t think I’d previously seen a theatre article of this length that could still call itself a review, and I was excited to get out of my New Yorker/New York Times theater review rut. But the first time through, I gave up in impatience; at 3700+ words to my ~750, the piece seemed to dither, languish, belabor. Why was it taking so long to get to the point? But then a loyal reader encouraged me to give it a second try, by saying that piece reminded him of my writing. Eep! Could my writing be so rambling?

I’m so glad I took a second stab at it, though. I still feel the article suffers from a touch of listy-ness; after a while, devoting an entire paragraph to each actor in King Lear starts to feel formulaic, a matter more of obligation than of passion, essential as each surely was to the finished product. And at a low point in my self-justifying criticism, I wondered if it was indulgent to allow a writer so much space to sort out his thoughts. Does not the iron fist of a maximum word count impose critical and argumentative rigor? (She asked, hypocritically, as her blog entry stretched ever downward, plumbing the infinite bottom of a Word document.)

My second read showed me that rigor, while very much a part of this piece, need not be the chief end of all theater criticism. O’Brien aims more to let a production sit with him for a while (the review appeared over a month after the RSC’s season concluded), to contemplate it, and then to present his experience of it in fuller and richer detail than most other critics could ever dream of. This room, this freedom to think and grapple with an artistic experience, allows him the chance to coin gems normally stifled by word counts and deadlines. On the general difficulties of performing Shakespeare:

Actors must make glances and inflections serve for footnotes; directors must, or at least generally think they must, use design choreography, and music to make visible unimagined subtexts (whether historical or political or folkloric) and keep the audience from going astray in syntactic mazes. But if the text is not an unbroken skein—a continuous telling—the play has been lost among the bric-a-brac.

Or, on The Winter’s Tale’s Leontes:

Ezra Pound once summed up his understanding of Confucian philosophy in a single phrase: “Avoid twisty thoughts.” Leontes is a man with thoughts so twisty that they have looped around him and drawn him into himself without hope of extrication, so that Shakespeare must invent a new grammar to catch their whiplash bends and sudden cavernous gaps.

More practically, the temporal and physical space lets O’Brien criticize the criticism. He can survey everything else that’s been written about the production before typing a word. He can escape the pressure of providing a thumbs-up or thumbs-down, of furnishing a pull quote, of serving as critic cum recommender. Instead, he mediates between the reviewers and history, seizing the privileged final word on a show, predicting its and the critics’ legacies before the discourse on it at last gets archived.

Perhaps the most important thing I learned from this experience is that different theater essays demand a different kind of reading. I shouldn’t have dove into this NYRB article expecting a single, strong statement of opinion that gets gradually fleshed out, elaborated upon, restated, wrapped up. There are pleasures in that, in already knowing where an article will go and just enjoying the accretion of observations that prove the assertion. But that’s not the only way an article can satisfy. Some pieces can’t be read with one eye always on the last paragraph. They require a good long sit. The eye must feel free to glance out the window or turn inward, to veer in and out of the “task” at hand at the slightest provocation. In short, they demand you tap into a different mental space—one that I don’t inhabit often enough.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

A Delicate Balance, at the Aurora

(Ken Grantham, Jamie Jones, Anne Darragh, Charles Dean and Kimberly King in the Aurora's glowingly received revival of Edward Albee's masterpiece. Photo by David Allen.)

My last review for the San Francisco Bay Times appeared yesterday morning, and it turned out better than I'd remembered it.

One thing I'm proud of is that though every other review I'd read was resoundingly positive, I still registered my (trifling?) criticism. Take that, critical discourse! Enter, ye qualm, yonder fray!

It's been a great run with the Bay Times. I've always been proud to be a part of that paper. But now, onward!

A Delicate Balance has been extended (twice!) through October 23, and despite my one reservation, it's very worth your attention. Show info here.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Desdemona, at the Boxcar

(Karina Wolfe in the title role.)

My review of Paula Vogel’s Desdemona, at the Boxcar Theatre, is available here.

I hate that I’m giving all these plays about women content-based criticism. I hope this doesn’t mean I’m an errant feminist.

(The first google image search result for "errant feminist." No photo has ever so perfectly captured my shame.)

Desdemona continues through November 5. Show info here.