Wednesday, March 28, 2012

On Subverting Predictable Playwriting

“Where playwrights go wrong is writing a generic play. Most of these plays have a sofa from which the sofa speech is delivered which sums up the whole play. My play ‘The Left Glove’ had a sofa. The sofa comes out, with no one in it. It looks around and gets scared and one of the Something Nothing Dancers falls in love with the sofa and begins to stroke it. And the sofa gets very excited. And after a while the sofa goes away and there is no sofa speech. I can look at pictures of plays and know that they’re generic. One clear sign is the sofa.”

— Playwright Mac Wellman 

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

A Lie of the Mind, at the Boxcar

(Joe Estlack and Marissa Keltie in the Susannah Martin-directed production.)

I struggled with this review, turning in two completely different drafts, and I'm still not satisfied with it. What a shame! I loved both the play, one of Sam Shepard's "family plays," and the Boxcar's production of it. But in retrospect, I see that several things didn't work. My "take you into the moment" opener does not, after all, evoke or raise suspense. (Maybe this is something live bodies do much better than text does!)   The attempt at topicality feels just that -- an attempt. And the last paragraph sounds much more negative than I'd intended.

Ah, well. As I've written before, and will surely write again, ya can't win 'em all. At some point, I'll see if I can find a trend in all the reviews I haven't been happy with. For now: Shepard, you elude me yet again!

A Lie of the Mind continues through Apr. 14; info here.

Monday, March 26, 2012

indifference and MASTERWORK, at CounterPULSE

(Photo by Neelu Bhuman, Piro Patton, and Sabrina Wong.)

In attempting another dance theater review this weekend, I decided to just embrace how little I know about dance. I described images (I thought) I saw, my reactions to them and my guess as to what they were trying to accomplish. That's it. Booya!

Lisa Townsend's indifference and Mica Sigourney's MASTERWORK have already closed, but the two were artists in residence at CounterPULSE for the past few months. Go here for more information about the company and its programs.

Friday, March 23, 2012

On the Power of Performance

"Performance implicates the real through the presence of living bodies. In spectatorship there is an element of consumption: there are no left-overs, the gazing spectator must try to take everything in. Without a copy live performance plunges into visibility in a maniacally charged present and disappears into memory , into the realm of invisibility and unconscious where it eludes regulation and control."

 Peggy Phelan, Unmarked   

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A Bright Room Called Day, at Custom Made

(Xanadu Bruggers gets the big H down to a manageable size. Photo by Jay Yamada.)

I spent most of this review talking about the play instead of the production. I had a hard time describing what about Brian Katz's direction didn't work for me, so I instead tried to convey my opinion by voting with my word count: I expatiated on the enormity of Tony Kushner's play itself, but I devoted relatively little space to the Custom Made Theatre Co. artists. I hope that this approach gets my point across -- that the group didn't make the play come alive -- without making me a slacka.

A Bright Room Called Day continues through Apr. 8; info here.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

"It's not journalism. It's theater."

(Mike Daisey in The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. Photo by Sara Krulwich.)

As a theatergoer, a journalist, a regular "This American Life" listener, and a resident of the nonstop Mac party that is the Bay Area, I've been interested in the Mike Daisey debacle from a variety of standpoints. The monologist, whose show The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs just concluded a run at the Public, has come under fire for lying -- not just in theater, where by and large we embrace the practice, but also in a journalism, which tends not to look so kindly on artistic license.

The one-man show chronicles Daisey's transformation from a Mac fanatic to a Mac boycotter, as effected by his trip to the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, China, which manufactures parts of Apple products (and which in 2010 saw a series of worker suicides -- the impetus for Daisey's trip). In his monologue, Daisey describes meeting victims of atrocious labor practices: workers as young as twelve, a worker whose hand gets destroyed as a result of bad factory conditions and then gets fired as a result.

It's a moving piece, so much so that the NPR program "This American Life" wanted to broadcast it. As journalism. And Daisey did not alter it. He assured the radio station that the script met the standards of journalistic integrity, and while the radio show did some fact-checking, the team let certain questions slide based on Daisey's word.  

The show went on to become one of the most popular in the program's history, and it catapulted Daisey to greater fame. He was brought onto other news shows newly minted as an expert on factory labor in China.

But after the show came on the air, people who know about working conditions in China  -- notably Rob Schmitz, a China correspondent for the NPR program "Marketplace," immediately became suspicious. Many of Daisey's details -- like that the factory guards carried guns, which is illegal in China -- seemed dubious to him and other experts.

Last week, "This American Life" brought Daisey back to the studio for further questioning.  Though Daisey defended much of his story -- including the parts the only witness, his translator Cathy Lee, denied -- he did admit to fabricating parts of his tale. For instance, he now says he did not actually meet a factory worker who said she was twelve, as his show recounts. He does stand by the fact that he met one who was thirteen, but Lee denies even that.  

Daisey says that any dramatizing he did was part of a nobler effort: to make us care about the people who make the Apple products we love. And aside from the armed guards, most of his tales seem to be inspired by real events. If Foxconn didn't expose its workers to a toxic chemical, other factories certainly did; Daisey just didn't go to those other factories, so it's unlikely that he met people who'd been affected, as he claims he did in his show.

These conversations among Daisey, Schmitz, and "This American Life" host Ira Glass are captured in a special episode of the radio program that aired on Friday.  The episode's title is "Retraction," and the show did just that: it retracted its previous Mike Daisey story -- the first time the program has done that.  

The episode is excruciating. Not only is Ira Glass uncharacteristically confrontational in his righteous anger, saying flat-out things like, "I don't believe you"; he also does not afford Daisey any customary editing courtesies. Daisey often takes a long time to reply after Glass asks a question, and the producers left unaltered much of that dead air: You can't help but picture Daisey squirming and sweating as, for an impossibly long time, your radio or computer remains silent.  

But amidst all Daisey's hemming and hawing, there emerged for me one especially important statement:

I'm not going to say that I didn't take a few shortcuts in my passion to be heard. But I stand by the work. My mistake, the mistake I truly regret, is that I had it on your show as journalism. And it's not journalism. It's theater. It used the tools of theater and memoir to achieve its dramatic arc, and of that arc and that work I am very proud because I think it made you care, Ira.

In a further development, just today the Times reported that, in the wake of "Retraction," Daisey altered The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs for its last performances at the Public:

Daisey had decided on his own to change language, and to add a new prologue in which he acknowledged the controversy and said that he stood behind the content of the newly altered show.

The Public didn't have to react as strongly as "This American Life" did. In a statement, the theater said only, "Mike is an artist, not a journalist. Nevertheless, we wish he had been more precise with us and our audiences about what was and wasn’t his personal experience in the piece." 

And Berkeley Rep, where the show had previously run, has to my knowledge issued no statement at all. I did not see the show when it ran there last year. Its advertisements suggested unapologetic liberal guilt-mongering, which is not what I go to theater for -- it's what I listen to NPR for!  (My knowledge of the show comes only from the excerpts that were broadcast on the original "This American Life" episode, not from any live theatrical event.)

In fact, this new controversy, with all its additional layers,  seems like it would make a much better show than Daisey's. That play would raise lots of important questions: When does theater have to be nonfiction? Can a storyteller ever bend his facts to further a humanitarian aim--if not in journalism, then in theater? When do we know a story is made up, and when do we take an artist at his word? By what mechanisms does the theater create those two different contexts? More broadly, to what degree is an artist responsible for the interpretation of his or her work?

Charles Isherwood writes some well-reasoned answers to these questions:

The problem is Mr. Daisey’s particular brand of theater is experienced by the audience as direct and honest testimony to events that he witnessed. (His previous monologues include “The Last Cargo Cult,” about the financial system, and “How Theater Failed America.”) This is also known as reporting, which is journalism. The weight, authority, emotional power and — like it or not, theatricality — of “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” derive precisely from the assumption that Mr. Daisey is telling the truth about the events he describes. 
I certainly believed that the stories Mr. Daisey told — of seeing guards with guns at the Foxconn factory, of interviewing a 13-year-old girl who worked at the factory, of talking to an elderly former Foxconn worker whose hand had been destroyed — were true. According to Ms. Lee and the producers of “This American Life,” they were not. 
...[T]heater that aims to shape public opinion by exposing the world’s inequities has no less an obligation than journalism to construct its larger truths only from an accumulation of smaller ones.

I tend to agree with Isherwood, that Daisey's show is a special case. But the idea of an artist having to make a pre-show curtain speech explicating the context of his piece is anathema to me. If journalistically it feels right, theatrically it feels deeply wrong. It's not my aim to bar an artist from any subject matter, and indeed, Daisey's tale is a compelling one: It certainly made me rethink my relationship to Apple products. But to me this controversy illustrates why The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs in either of its incarnations might not be a story for either the newspaper or the theater. The only conventions it follows are those of its own shadowy, in-between genre. It's time for Daisey to make a decision about the kind of story he wants to tell, and then live fully within the constraints of that form.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

My Dream Writer-Editor Experience

"Mr. Mendelsohn remembers that once while on a cruise ship in the Aegean, he was summoned to the bridge for an urgent ship-to-shore communication. It was Mr. Silvers, calling to question his choice of the word 'compelling.'"

-- Charles McGrath in yesterday's Times on Robert Silvers, the longtime New York Review of Books editor

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Interview with 3Girls Theatre Co.


With this brand new theater company, whose inaugural theater festival begins this week, I had pretty much the ideal interview experience.  The three founders and I met in a cafe, and I found I barely had to talk at all.  I think I didn't even have to ask many of the questions I attribute to myself in this piece.

I don't opt to do interviews very often, but this company's mission -- to produce good plays by women -- is one I care deeply about.  Best of luck to them as they open.

3Girls' Women's Theatre Festival opens Friday and continues through Apr. 1; more info and full calendar here.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Waiting Period, at the Marsh

(The remarkable writer and solo performer.  Photo by Patti Meyer.)

In this week's print review, of Brian Copeland's The Waiting Period, I tried to include a broader context in effort to make the article more accessible to non-theater people, as well as build suspense: What will Lily's opinion really be?

To do that, I had to spend a little longer on the review that I've grown accustomed, but I think the extra effort paid off.

As for Brian Copeland, writer and performer of this solo show, I'd really like to see him do stand-up. I've spent the past week preparing to lecture on women in comedy, and I wonder to what extent I'd be qualified/prepared to review comedy shows.

On an even more unrelated note: I recently read this horrifying article and now must change the way I type so as to humiliate myself no further. Any tips on breaking ingrained keyboard habits?

The Waiting Period has been extended through Apr. 27; info here.

The Whole Megillah 2: Uncut, by the Hub and Killing My Lobster

(Danny Webber and Alex Hessler.)

I usually try to keep my writing from descending into pure fluff, but for this production, which features Purim-themed sketch comedy, bubblier prose just felt right.

7x7, here I come?


The Whole Megillah 2: Uncut continues through Mar. 10; info here.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Tontlawald, at the Cutting Ball

 (Photos by Annie Paladino.)

In this week's review podcast, Benjamin Wachs and I duked it out over Tontlawald, an ensemble-created experimental production of an Estonian fairytale, at the Cutting Ball.

Learning from our last podcast, I prepared a lot more: I organized my notes and even wrote out full sentences in advance.

But in editing our recording, Benjamin and I decided to delete a lot of my prepared material: it just didn't sound right when read aloud.  Listeners, evidently, are less patient with description than readers are.

This production was all about aesthetics, and they were absolutely stunning.  I only wish we could have found a way to convey them more fully.

Clearly, I still have a lot to learn about the two media's different conventions.

Tontlawald continues through Mar. 11; info here.