Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Odyssey, by the We Players

(Ross Travis in the maritime production. Photo by Mark Kitaoka.)

My first print review for SF Weekly, of the We Players' adaptation of The Odyssey, hit the newsstands this morning. Check it out here.

I'm very proud of some parts of the review, but there's definitely room for improvement. As I adjust to SF Weekly's style and this length of article, I'd love to know your suggestions.

In the meantime, this very worthwhile production continues through Nov. 18. Info here.

Theater Audiences vs. Baseball Crowds

I saw the Giants play the Rockies at AT&T Park Monday night—my first Giants game ever, and my first live pro game in about 15 years. I never watch sports of any kind anymore, but, having been a spirited, if not gifted, athlete in my childhood, I wasn’t expecting to feel like such an outsider. So, made even more self-conscious than I usually am, I started to pay less attention to the game itself and (surprise!) think about its performance implications instead. Baseball, I decided, is a brilliantly engineered, multilateral system of crowd engagement—one that perhaps theater could learn from.

The dominant feature of AT&T Park is its jumbo-sized scoreboard/television that towers over center field. Throughout games, it shows movie clips, commercials and live shots of the crowd (I just wrote “audience”; old habits die hard). On Monday, fans spent as much time watching the screen as they did the game—even where I was sitting, which was right below the screen. My neighbors had to turn completely around—away from the game, which was unfolding live before them—in order to watch it. But these physical constraints proved scant deterrent from the lures of digital glow.

The screen, coupled with so many other features of the stadium—its music, its food and drink vendors, its mobility-encouraging seating, its various crowd norms—creates a participatory system that, compared to watching theater, boasts considerable virtues. Watching a baseball game, you can choose to engage or disengage at any time from the official event. It doesn’t matter if you leave your seat to buy food and have stand in line so long to wait that you miss a whole inning. You can check your phone, or watch the giant television, or talk to your friends, or gulp down a beer, or join an impromptu cheer (or jeer). You can always tune back in at a crucial moment, or a boring one, to catch up on what you’ve missed. Nobody faults you for not being enraptured by the proceedings for the entire game, which would be a pretty difficult feat anyway.

In baseball, all of these “non-game” aspects are considered an important part of the experience—not so in theatre with an “r-e,” which by comparison is draconian in the way it treats its audiences. So I wonder if there could be successful theatre that looks a little more like a baseball game. You wouldn’t need a huge stadium—but you might need something that’s as easy to understand as a sport is. Maybe it could be structured like a pub crawl, with theater at each stop. Some SF theater companies are already inching in this direction—like the We Players, whose site-specific theater keeps audiences constantly on-the-go, while also giving them time to talk, take photos, and just space out and enjoy the scenery; or the Impact Theatre, whose motto is “Pizza. Beer. Plays.” (They’re housed in the basement of college pizza joint.) But there remains much untapped potential—especially in the digital way people like to “engage.” I’m excited to see how these and other adventurous companies continue to democratize the form.

The Giants won 3-1, if you’re wondering—not exactly a recovery from their previous 2-15, playoffs-disqualifying loss, but still an acceptable game for an outsider like me.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Why We Have a Body, at the Magic

(Lauren English and Rebecca Dines in the Magic Theatre's production. Photo by Jennifer Reiley.)

This week's review, of Claire Chafee's Why We Have a Body, is decidedly mixed—not because of anything the play did, but because of what the play is not. Suffice it to say, it was a beautiful production whose politics felt subtly dated.

In one sense, it's a little unfair to hold a production to these standards: How can I criticize a play for failing to be something other than what it is? But I feel the very choice to produce a play is often a bolder artistic statement than a new interpretation of it, an experimental design or an unusual casting decision. There is no clearer statement of a theater's priorities than list of works it decides to produce.

Kenneth Tynan once wrote, "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." It's too rare that I even attempt to comment on the latter, so writing this review was a valuable critical exercise. I guess I just wish I hadn't feel compelled to make such demands on a production that I otherwise very much liked.

Why We Have a Body continues through Oct. 2. Info here.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Maritime Criticism: A Photo Journal

This weekend, I saw the We Players' adaptation of The Odyssey, which was staged on the deck of the Alma, a historic schooner that's normally moored at the Hyde Street Pier -- but the company got special permission to sail the San Francisco Bay with it as the play was performed. I won't write much here -- I'm saving that for my first print review at SF Weekly, available September 28 -- but these photos (Imagine! Audiences were allowed to use cameras during a play!) are worthy of their own post.

(All aboard, notebook and pen already poised for action!)

(A few of the "exhibits" on display at the Hyde Street Pier's Maritime Museum.)

(A chorus of Odysseuses greeted us from the deck of another vessel.)

(Awaiting castoff on the Alma.)

(Note the wooden rings that are hoisting the sail. That's how they built 'em in 1891!)

(Anchors aweigh! You knew this shot was coming.)

(And this one. At this moment, Odysseus was battling the Cyclops near the craft's stern, but my trusty photographer somehow managed not to get so distracted by the dramatic action as to miss this glamour shot.)

All in all, it was a very unusual theatrical experience. I'll share more thoughts on September 28!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Madogs of Diego, at the SF Fringe

(Aarti Tacouri, Marsel Poinen, Christopher Ratsizaonen and Gaston Valayden in the play that, after two years of campaigning, came to the Fringe all the way from Mauritius. Photo by Marsel Poinen.)

Political science and theater studies intersect in this week's review (of The Madogs of Diego, at the Fringe), with Brian's first scholarly contribution to one of my articles!

The historical context, I confess, waxes a little ponderous. As my editor noted, I would have done well to make my background information more clearly serve a critical argument. But the history of the Chagos Islands, of which this 80-minute play chronicles only one moment, is very much worth the read.

Thank you, Brian!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Severe Words and the People Who Read Them

Jason Zinoman’s recent—dare I call it a think-piece?—about harsh theater criticism covers mostly familiar ground: the notion of an impartial critic is a “fantasy,” so the best a reviewer can do is be explicit about his or her prejudices; passionate words, even if they’re critical, stem from a deep faith in the importance of art, a zeal we need to amplify more than mute. Etc.

But it also offered one point I hadn’t much dwelt on before:

Social networking has made critics more accessible and increasingly allowed artists and those who cover them to exchange ideas, while retaining necessary distance. With the explosion of new media, being a critic today also means you know what it’s like to be harshly attacked. The sting fades.

Critics, in other words, are now getting a taste of their own medicine: reviews of reviews. But like the artists they criticize, critics can choose what to do with that criticism—to read, or to ignore?

More than a few times, I’ve succumbed to reading. Maybe by joining the facebook group of the theater that I’m reviewing, so that I can see whether it posts a link to my article, how it frames that link, and whether people comment. Or perhaps by following the playwright’s blog, to determine if s/he affirmed that I “got” the play.

But reading the criticism^2 always feels like a mistake afterward. I can’t even find a way to describe it that doesn’t sound pathetic and obsessive. More crucially, I don’t think it ever helps me do the most important thing a reviewer should do, which is to be honest. Even if it gets me to question my analysis—which should be a good thing—I do so in a defensive, insecure frame of mind, after which I get the urge to write in such a way that will please those theaters in the future, which is precisely the opposite of what I want to feel.

After all, I can’t expect theater people to appraise my reviews objectively any more than they can expect me to appraise their comments objectively. Even if, as they read my work, they’re not just looking for a pull quote, they can't help but have a subjective interest in the review—so clearly, I shouldn’t take their thoughts personally. (Would I share an masterfully composed but eviscerating article about a show I'd worked on?) Ideally, I would seek responses from regular audience members, editors and other critics, but those are in short supply. If I want to feel as though my writing is being read, often the only responses come from the artists themselves.

So why not just ignore what they write? Get over my juvenile need for validation? I worry that such an attitude delegitimizes the whole project of criticism. If I’m not reading criticism of myself, then why should artists read my criticism of them? Which is just another way of asking my eternal question: What—or, who—is a review for?

At my SF Weekly interview the other day, there was general agreement that the average reader should be the first audience a reviewer thinks of. But I also believe that every review should be grounded in the (however unrealistic) faith that its content could and should impact the artistic community. Reviews lacking that conviction feel shallow, amateur, empty and bored. Not even the most gorgeous prose can elevate them above the solipsism of a yelp review.

In the end, while I respect those artists and writers who really feel that reading reviews only cripples their craft (and who can actually resist the temptation to read), for the rest of us, I think the best plan is to just not take lightly the decision to read others’ thoughts about your work. It should not be an impulse or a default. Instead, you should ask yourself if you’re really ready for it, in the right frame of mind—which often just means being honest with yourself and developing your own opinion of your work before reading someone else’s.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Exit, Pursued by a Bear

(Andrea Snow, Reggie D. White, Erin Gilley and Patrick Jones in Crowded Fire's rolling world premiere. Photo by Dave Nowakowski.)

My review of Exit, Pursued by a Bear, by Lauren Gunderson, appears here. The show runs only through September 17, and it's a mighty fun one, so get your tickets soon.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

All Atheists Are Muslim

(Photo by Andria Lo.)

My review of Zahra Noorbakhsh's solo show, at Stage Werx, is available here.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Good News

I’ve just been hired as SF Weekly’s theater critic, and I could hardly ask for a more ideal gig. The paper, a part of Village Voice Media, will be paying me to do what, for the past two years, I’ve been doing for free: writing theater reviews in an alternative weekly.

But it will also be giving me a chance to do much more: To write both longer print reviews (800 words) and shorter online ones; to be read by a larger audience; to have the cache of national media organization.

Of course, I couldn’t have got here without the Bay Times. I’m very grateful to everyone there, especially the three editors I’ve had, each of whom has taught me much: To respect my craft; to avoid gratuitous snarkiness; to comment on the worth of a show’s mission in addition to saying what that mission is and whether the show fulfills it.

My first thoughts upon getting the offer were fearful ones—and not just the usual new job jitters. For better or for worse, I have always defined my life by my next ambition. Constitutionally unable to celebrate an accomplishment, I instead look for the next one. But in terms of working as a theater critic in San Francisco, I’m not sure I can imagine something else I want to work toward. SF Weekly might just be it (for now, at least). I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m complaining; I’m just wondering what it will be like to immerse myself in my existing position instead of keeping one eye on the prowl—and if I’ll even be able to do so.

I’m also wondering what form this blog will take. Lately, it’s been a criticism of my criticism, and I hope I can continue that in some form, though I do think that writing for SF Weekly will be more time-consuming.

In beginning to make this transition, I’ve been thinking about the different “voices” I use for my different publications: The Bay Times, SF Weekly, Bay Stages and this blog. I use scare quotes because what each paper requires feels bigger than a shift from one register to another. Each has its own areas of concern and audiences—even its own critical criteria.

One thing I have loved about this blog is that, aside from a few concessions I (attempt to) make to a modicum of professional decorum, its subject is no more than my own interest, its audience is myself and people I care about, and its “critical criteria” can be as nonsensical and whimsical as my caprices dictate. So however I choose to use this space (and I do look forward to an evolution!), I don’t think it’s going to go away.

In the meantime, my first review for the paper (actually, for its blog, The Exhibitionist) is available here. Enjoy!