Friday, January 27, 2012

On Interviewing

Recently interviewing two theater directors—The Thrillpeddlers’ Russell Blackwood and Tides Theatre’s Jennifer Welch—got me thinking about what I’ve still got to learn about the fine art of asking questions.

For me, the most important, and perhaps the hardest, part is simply shutting up.  Chiming in with my own faux-insights rarely helps move the conversation along.  It can be awkward, or domineering.  If I really can’t repress the urge to interrupt, I should at least phrase my remark as a question.  But better still is to bite my tongue and simply say, “Oh, really?”  Open-ended, approving questions like this one invite the interviewee to say whatever is on his or her mind, which will probably be more interesting than my own preconceived notion of what we should be talking about.  Sometimes I try to mix it up with a “Tell me more” or a “Can you talk a little more about that?” but those sound forced, formal, and maybe even demanding and critical—as though what the interviewee already said weren’t good enough.

When I’ve succeeded thus far, it’s always been due to particular interviewees—forthcoming, expansive types who clearly have a lot of experience chatting with the press.  Now I need to figure out how to put the less voluble types in the mood to share.  It might be time to reread the interviewing chapter in William Zinsser’s On Writing Well.  But I’d also love to know your suggestions!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

New Fire, at Brava

(One of the goddesses in the ritual-based production.  Photo by Charlie Villyard.)

...But this one came out much better, I think because I simply focused on trying to describe the event, which is by no means a traditional theatrical performance.

In some ways, the shows that defy ready classification or summary can be the most exciting to write about.

It was also fun to write about Cherrie Moraga, who wrote and directed the production, because I studied her earlier work for a class last spring.  From the little I've read, I feel I can see an evolution in the form of her plays but a consistent goal: finding an authentic dramatic language for marginalized communities and groups.

New Fire continues through Jan. 29; info here.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Food Stories, at ZSpace

(Soren Oliver and Molly Benson in T.C. Boyle's Sorry Fugu, the first of two short plays on the evening's bill.  Photo by Mark Leialoha.)

I had fun with this review, of two one-acts tailor-made for SF and its ridiculous food snobbery.  Actually, maybe a little too much fun: I had so many details I wanted to share that I practically just threw them all in there instead of culling and summarizing.  It starts on a strong note, I think, descends into a muddle, then changes subjects in attempt to recover.

Ah well, can't nail 'em all!

Food Stories continues through Feb. 5; info here.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Ghost Light at Berkeley Rep, and a new medium

(Robynn Rodriguez and Christopher Liam Moore in the Berkeley Rep production.  Photo by Jenny Graham.)

This week I explored a whole new mode of theater criticism: the podcast!  I’ve never recorded one before, and I believe SF Weekly has never done a theater review podcast before.  Luckily, I had Benjamin Wachs, fellow SF Weekly writer and theater aficionado, to help me out, as co-critic and producer.  (When you listen, it’s not hard to tell who’s more experienced in radio!)  The two of us saw Ghost Light, the Berkeley Rep play directed by Jonathan Moscone that’s loosely based on his own reckoning with his father’s assassination.  (His father is George Moscone, the major of San Francisco who, along with Harvey Milk, was shot in 1978 and whose legacy has been somewhat overshadowed by Milk’s.)

The only part we planned was the introduction; the rest emerged naturally.  We spent about 15 minutes recording and then two hours cutting and editing.  I know Benjamin did more work on it than I did, but for me the whole process took about as long as, or maybe slightly less long than, it does to write a review. I think we could have been even more efficient had I prepared for the podcast in the way I do for an article: re-reading all my notes and culling usable observations into a single page.  Benjamin said that flubs are par for the course no matter how experienced you are, but it was naïve to think I magically wouldn’t need to do much prep work at all.

Editing was a revealing experience.  When you have to listen to something you’ve said over and over again, to delete all your false starts and overused expressions (I’m evidently a big fan of “right!”), you start to pay attention to your speech almost as though it’s a musical score.  I was surprised by how often I spoke in an artificially deep voice and how long I tended to pause before every single word.  When I did vary my tone, however, the result was much, much more effective than I thought it would be.  It made me wonder if there’s any way I could write my reviews more like the way I speak.  I probably could to some degree, but it’s also possible that it wouldn’t work as well on the page; line readings and lines themselves are two different animals!

Benjamin and I had similar opinions of the show, so the transition from monologue to dialogue brought less debate than different ways of saying the same thing.  We often finished each other’s thoughts; it was like having a relief critic.  I look forward to seeing how the dynamic changes on shows about which we disagree.  (I wimp out in debates, though, so we’ll have to see…)

One aspect I’m concerned about is how much easier it is to be snarky when I talk than it is when I write.  In-print Lily would have deemed much of what I said unprofessional.  My instinct is that different media have different standards, but I don’t know how to articulate exactly how or why.  Is it acceptable to have separate personas for print and radio?  I’m not sure.  But maybe this is another area in which more prep work could help.

All qualms aside, I do have reason to believe this won’t be the only podcast.  I’d love to make it a regular item, maybe once a month.  As I look into which show would work well for the form next, I’d love to hear your thoughts on how we could improve.

Ghost Light continues through Feb. 18; info here.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Future Motive Power, by Mugwumpin

My review of Mugwumpin's Future Motive Power, about the life and ideas of inventor Nikola Tesla, is now available here.

(The ensemble.  Photo by Pak Han.)

The show, which is staged at the vault level of San Francisco's historic Old Mint, continues through Jan. 29.  Info here.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

How Long Must We Pay Our Dues?

(By Mike Twohy, 12/5/11 New Yorker)

Annah Feinberg's recent post in HowlRound, a theater blog I've started following, aptly articulates one of the main reasons why I decided not to pursue work in a theater: the plight of the "serial intern."  I haven't done as many internships as Feinberg has, but it doesn't take much experience in that world to learn that it's often a professional dead-end and an emotional quagmire.  As Feinberg puts it:

...the “dark side” of the internship has taught me not to speak up or make independent decisions, and demanded my gratitude for the privilege of having my intelligence and labor exploited. I’ve learned to accept whatever breadcrumbs I’m given. I’ve learned to apologize incessantly or, even better, shut my trap. I’ve become accustomed to working outside of the U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act, and gotten used to sucking up sexism. Internships have been responsible for eroding my sense of my own value.

Without any real data (who'd care enough about arts interns to study them?), she also makes an educated guess that most interns are young and relatively privileged.  It's problematic enough that young people are exploited, but only some young people are lucky enough to be exploited.  As she puts it, "My relatively comfortable circumstances made choosing the poverty of internships possible."  Does this mean that the next generation of theater staffers will all come from the same affluence?  How will that affect the art we make?

Feinberg proposes a bold change.  "If a budget is the reflection of the priorities of an institution, it is time for a shift in priorities": fair (or some) compensation.  But at the same time, few artists, Feinberg and myself included, enter the field expecting to become millionaires, and every successful theater company was fledgling once, many of them started by frustrated young people like us.  It's probably only recently that theater companies started offering many steady jobs anyway.  Still, most theaters don't have the same slush fund as the examples she cites (though theaters that do have "official" internship programs tend to have bigger budgets).  And this recent post on Berkeley Rep's facebook page got me thinking that "throwing money at the problem" (to use one of those delightful Republican phrases) might not be the answer either:

Obviously, only a portionsometimes a small portionof a theater's income goes to the artists.  But Cole raises an interesting question: When does an administrative staff become a bloated bureaucracy?  Is that better than having lots of unpaid interns?  

Probably.  But I don't see the situation changing anytime soon.  It's a classic Catch-22: As soon as someone has the power to help young interns, s/he no longer has the incentive.

Monday, January 9, 2012

So You Want to Be a Theater Critic

I’ve been asked more than once recently for advice about getting started as a theater critic.  Though I feel I’m still getting started as a theater critic (and am also in need of advice!  so please respond with it!), I came up with a few suggestions, which I thought I’d share here:

The way you write should presuppose that both your review and the show matter.  Because they do.  Most artists will care deeply no matter what you write; it’s your job to make everyone else care just as much.  I heard some praise recently of Bernie Weiner, a former SF Chronicle theater critic, who, though he didn’t have gorgeous prose or an extensive theatrical background, could get you excited about theater in every review he wrote.  Often that would mean finding one aspect of a show that transcended the others, but it could also just mean writing with such passion that he got people to talk about it.

Some wonkier tips:
  • If you’re still applying for jobs, have sample clips ready.  If you don't have any reviews already written, go see a couple of shows and write a 400-500-word piece about each; pretty much any editor will want to see clips before s/he lets you write.  Also, be realistic about your financial prospects.  You might have to write many unpaid pieces at first; if you’re making lunch money, you’re doing great.
  • Think carefully about how many big-, medium- and small-budget shows you should cover.  Keep in mind that it's the small-budget shows to whom your reviews matter most; thus it's those artists who may be most likely to respond or comment.  I don’t know how often I succeed, but I try to cover an even mix of the three.  I know other critics, though, who make it a mission to bring attention to as many small-budget shows as possible.  It’s a difficult and personal decision, one that concerns your agenda and aesthetics—and your publication’s.
  • Take the high road in responding to comments.  If the commenter seems to have no interest in being civil, or s/he just thoughtlessly scribbles a one-line, "this review sux!" you probably shouldn't respond.
  • Publicists remember small courtesies like your telling them in advance (as opposed to at the door) if your +1 is bailing, and having a publicist on your side can make a big difference later.  
  • Do what you need to do to make sure that seeing plays doesn’t become a drag.  A burned out reviewer tends to write snarkier (or more boring) reviews.  If you push yourself, you can hit the majority of your month’s quota in one week.
  • Be jealous of your own time.  If you only get paid to write a certain number of reviews in a certain amount of time, place severe limits on the "pro bono" reviews you let yourself write... Otherwise, the exception you make one month, even for some company who "really deserves" coverage, might become the new normal the next, without your getting extra compensation for it.  In other words, learn to say no to publicists!  I’ve found that the less explanation offered, the better.  It's a publicist's job to be a little annoying and bombard you with what-ifs: "Could you come on another night instead?" "Oh, we wouldn't mind getting a smaller article, or even no article at all!"  So often a simple "Sorry, my month is booked," or, "Can't make this one, but very much looking forward to your next," will do the trick.
  • On snark, you might encounter two conflicting imperatives:  Your paper might want more of it—it's funnier, it gets more readers.  But the artists you're covering will definitely want less of it—they’ll find it unnecessarily hurtful.  Yet you have to build long-term relationships with both these groups of people!  Though I feel the average reader (as opposed to the artist) is my most important reader, I try to strike a balance by taking each potential quip on a case-by-case basis:  Is this remark gratuitous?  Unduly personal?  Do I really feel so strongly about a show, or is it possible I’m being affected by something else in my life?  Am I holding the theater to unfair standards—i.e., does the company lack the financial resources to correct the problem I’m noting?  If i'm waffling, I'll sleep on it.  But in the end, I try to remember that some artists will complain about any negative review, no matter how much work I put into being fair and balanced.  So when you get your first review-of-a-review, think of it as being held accountable for what you write, but also keep in mind that artists can't be objective judges of their own shows.  If you and your editor(s) thought a remark didn't go too far, then it's your job to let the artist know his opinion is heard, and to cede legitimate points if you want to, but to explicitly or implicitly stand by your right to your own opinion.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Wild Bride, at Berkeley Rep

(There's nothing like a dangling naked bulb.  Éva Magyar in the Kneehigh Theatre 
production.  Photo by Steve Tanner.)

My review of The Wild Bride, a magical Kneehigh Theatre production at Berkeley Rep, entered the fray only this morning—a little late to be considered "news."

By virtue of writing for a weekly, as opposed to a daily or a site, I'm used to the luxury of reflection time, up to a week's worth, and in turn never writing those exciting first reviews.  But this time, my article appeared almost a whole month after other critics'.  What a slowpoke!

Reading their glowing reviews was what made me want to see the production, but it was a little difficult to justify the free tickets I was requesting.  I felt like an opportunist.  The production had already been extended by three weeks (which is almost as successful as you can get in the Bay Area), and the night I wanted to attend was practically sold-out.  Did the show really "need" another review?  Economically, was it smart for Berkeley Rep to give me two free seats when somebody else would readily have bought them?  And if all the other reviews were so glowing, would mine really contribute anything new and valuable?

My justification for my seats is not entirely selfish.  If a show is successful enough to be important to the entire theater community, as this one might well be, a professional critic ought to see it, if only to be able to use it as a reference point.  Also, theaters give out free tickets all the time—at least, much more than pre-critic Lily imagined they could afford to.  I don't know exactly what the balance sheet looks like, but it's quite possible that my press seats weren't too high a marginal cost for Berkeley Rep.

On the other hand, I've also heard that a review that appears after the others—mid-way through the run, but still published significantly before the show closes—can be helpful.  Essentially, it reminds potential audiences that the show exists, perhaps providing a small spike in ticket sales.

For me, of course, the more important function of later reviews is the sense of perspective they bring.  I imagine it's rewarding to provide the first critical opinion anyone reads.  But it's also fulfilling to track your opinion of a show as it evolves from a walking-out-of-the-theater kneejerk reaction to a balanced, thoughtful and contextualized piece of criticism.

My article did lodge a small concern, which was important to me because it was part of my honest reaction.  But in the end, mostly it just emphasized slightly different aspects of the show than other writers did—precisely what a review usually does.

The Wild Bride continues through Jan. 22.  Info here.