Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Murky Boundaries

(Lily and her co-playwright letting their creative sides loose during December's San Francisco Olympians Festival. Photo by Charles Lewis III.)

I've been thinking lately about the uneasy relationship between theater critics and the rest of the theater community. The Bay Area has a notoriously lovey dovey theater scene. Everyone loves and supports everyone else's work -- everyone except for those mean critics.

To some extent, this suits me. I'm a loner, and I don't always trust that I'd be able to be honest were I reviewing a close pal's show.

Yet at the same time, I'm convinced that a critic only does better work the richer her relationship with theater is, the more that she talks with the artists she reviews, the more she participates in theater outside from being a critic.

And I haven't just been thinking about this idea -- For once, I've been putting my thoughts into practice, and in a few different ways as of late:

(On the other side of the footlights. Photo by Charles Lewis III.)

In December I did something artistic in public, by golly, for the first time in many years. I wrote a play called Die, oh! Nice, us!, and the San Francisco Olympians Festival produced a staged reading of it. I applied to write in the festival because -- surprise! -- I'm not just a critic; I also have a flaming artistic streak, though I usually share it with only a few. I write short scenes and silly poems and sillier songs. I sing and play the piano. And those of you who visit this site often know I think of my criticism as my art. So it was thrilling to me to hear my morbid, juvenile jokes performed by actors and (occasionally) laughed at by audiences. But another reason I was excited about this festival was that I wanted to remember what it was like to be a theater artist and how much bravery and passion it takes so that I'd be better able to connect to and understand subjects of future reviews.

(Mark Bedard and Mark Anderson Phillips wait for he who never comes. Photo by Kevin Berne.)

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I got to work with Marin Theatre Company and review them at the same time. I've written before that I have a big ol' soft spot for the company -- I started assistant directing for them within twelve hours of first moving to California, and a connection I made there got me my first theater criticism gig. For years now, I've been reviewing their work. Then recently, I was asked to speak as a "critic and a scholar" at a talkback for their production of Waiting for Godot (which just closed). I'm no Beckett scholar, by any means -- my scholarly interests, if I can be said to have any, are in contemporary theater -- so I prepared (a little). But I was surprised at how easily the guest speaking came to me. I never had to lecture. The other guest, the audience, and I just responded to questions the moderator posed. Still, I was surprised to find how calm I felt, which I think comes from my teaching. It feels the most natural thing to me to address a crowd -- perhaps more natural than one-on-one conversations! I was also surprised that I didn't feel I had a conflict of interest in serving a show (albeit in a small way) and reviewing it. Some pieces of the review could have been copied and pasted from what I said in the talkback; other pieces might even seem opposed to what I said that afternoon. While that might suggest disingenuousness, I think it's important to be able to talk about a show in different registers. Just because I'm reviewing a show doesn't mean I need to launch into an unflinching critical diatribe every time I talk about it.

Finally, most recently of all, I reviewed a show created by and starring friends of mine -- people I want to keep being friends with, so I knew I wouldn't be going Bernard Shaw on them. Breach Once More Theatre was recently founded by folks I know from S.F. State, and they just produced their first show, Danny and the Deep Blue Sea. In reviewing it, I thought about advice Mark Jackson gave me (in a comment on this site!): Never write something in a review that you couldn't say to an artist's face. I didn't write a word of this review without giving it the Mark Jackson test, and I think the review came out the better for it. I had to justify each one of my assertions as if I were a lawyer, and my discussion of the acting got pretty wonky, but in a good way. I sound much more reasoned and fair than I usually do. In fact, I think this and my Godot review are some of my best pieces in the last few months.

The longer I stay in the Bay Area, the more multidimensional my relationship with theater will be; less and less often will I be the isolated, shadowy figure scribbling away in an aisle seat, only to flee at curtain call without making eye contact with anyone (though I'm sure there will still be plenty of that). This is a good thing. Theater critics shouldn't be lovey-dovey; the theater scene needs us to put a check on that. But we are all better off when we see each other as human beings. That's what theater is about for so many of us: seeing the world from someone else's point of view.

Danny and the Deep Blue Sea continues through Feb. 23; info here.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Interview with Gary Soto

(Poet, short story writer, novelist, and playwright Gary Soto.)

Interviewing, dangerously, is starting to become my favorite part of my job. I don't have to sit around for hours waiting for creativity to strike; I just have to research and write a list of questions. In fact, writing a Q&A (my paper's preferred form of interviews) involves very little writing at all. It's mostly just editing -- cutting and rearranging a transcript.

One thing I love about interviewing is that we freelance writers don't always get a lot of opportunity to, well, be around other people. Or even talk to them. So it's refreshing to get to sit down with an artist and ask him or her probing questions.

I was proud of this interview of Gary Soto, whose In and Out of Shadows is now at the Marsh, because, in contrast to my last interview, I was alert enough in the moment to press my subject on a comment that needed pressing.

I always tell my students that interviewing does not come naturally to me, that I was surprised to discover that my paper seemed to think that, because I'm a critic, I must also be a journalist. That certainly wasn't true at first, but now I think I'm slowly becoming one.

In and Out of Shadows continues through Feb. 17; info here.

Friday, February 1, 2013

A Pre-Manifesto

(I was so happy to find, after writing my review of 4000 Miles, that this image exists. Read the article to see why. Photo by Kevin Berne.)

I've been doubting the quality of my writing more than usual lately. This review, of A.C.T.'s 4000 Miles, feels too oblique, like it's always just winking at you, circling around its main point instead of coming out and saying it. In another review, of Af-Am Shakes's production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, I talk about the play itself for so long that my discussion of the production feels like an afterthought. And in still another review, of Manic Pixie Dream Girl at The Costume Shop and Why Torture Is Wrong and the People Who Love Them by Custom Made, my thoughts look choppy when pared down to meet the daunting constraints of print journalism. (My online articles give me more freedom, but not much incentive; the pay, I like to joke, is milk money.) 

I think I'm chafing at the form of a theater review. The system under which I write is not conducive to thoughtfulness, complexity, or, heaven forbid, research. It does not encourage diligent but slow pursuits of the right word or exquisitely crafted phrases. It's geared toward "producing" a specific "amount of content" on a "quick turnaround." (William Zinsser just had a heart attack.)

Lately, I've been turning over and over in my head an idea for a new system. I've been talking about it with people who I think might be interested, both to mine them for ideas and to create social pressure so that I don't give up on the project. (I like to think of myself as a master in the art of manipulating myself.)

As I said to someone at a show last night, "nascent" would be a generous term for the state of this idea. All I have for now is desire and energy. 

I'm on the hunt for other alternative models of arts criticism, to expand my narrow horizons (and to further plunder others' ideas). Readers, have you any directions in which to point me?

4000 Miles continues through Feb. 10; info here.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof continues through Feb. 17; info here.

Manic Pixie Dream Girl continues through Feb. 10; info here.

Why Torture Is Wrong and the People Who Love Them continues through Feb. 17; info here.