Thursday, June 28, 2012

Interviews and Reviews

I'm glad I don't usually have to interview and review the same artist re: the same show. Interviewing artists naturally makes me sympathize with them. I see all the work and thought and vulnerability they put into their art. They are no longer just professionals whose work I review at a distance; they become fully fleshed out human beings who could get stung or buoyed by every word I write.

Of course, the artists are real human beings before I interview them (unless I'm actually as important as I think I am). But when I write criticism, I'm not reviewing people; I'm reviewing artwork. Interviewing can make me confuse the two.

In the past month, I interviewed two artists before seeing their work -- Eve Ensler re: Emotional Creature, as I previously wrote about, and Alison Whittaker re: Vital Signs, her solo show about her work as a nurse, which is at the Marsh. I saw pieces of the writers in their shows -- Ensler with her unfaltering confidence, her free-flowing syntax, her penchant for listing three or four synonyms for one idea, Whittaker with her unabashed genuineness, her focused presence in whatever she's doing, her warmth and kindness. Both women see their art partly as activism, Ensler for girls around the world, Whittaker for victims of the healthcare system, both patients and employees. I couldn't do what they do. I have neither the confidence nor the passion to take myself and my misson that seriously. I deeply admire both artists in that respect.

(One of the many girl power-y moments in Emotional Creature. Photo by Kevin Berne.)

But I also saw flaws in both productions. Emotional Creature had a few stirring monologues. But they were about topics that, with a strong actress, couldn't help but stir: a raped and enslaved girl in the Congo who escapes and tells her story in the form of advice to the audience; a Barbie factory worker in China who sends mental messages of compassion to both Barbie and Barbie buyers and who only refers to her own plight after first lamenting everyone else's; an Eastern European girl who is forced into prostitution. The staging, the music, and the inter-monologue patter, however, were better suited to a middle school assembly than to a professional stage. One lyric goes, "I wanna touch you in real time, not poke you on facebook, face-book!"

(Doesn't this make you want Alison Whittaker to take your Vital Signs? Photo by David Allen.)

With Vital Signs, I was deeply impressed by Whittaker's writing, which was full of complex structures and astute observations, as well as her impressions of her patients and coworkers, which were brave and vivid. It's not easy, if you're a small-boned white nurse, to create a morbidly obese African-American drug addict, especially if you're relatively new to performing. But she lived so fully in her characterizations that I was able to picture an entire cast of characters that, a week later, have stuck with me. I see clearly one colleague's glistening gold tooth and another's bouncy shuffle, as if rather than working he were "cruising for dates in the Castro." In fact, the only character I didn't see was Alison herself, the narrator. She's meant to serve as a comic straight woman, the better to highlight her surrounding characters' eccentricities. But she's almost like a blank slate, reacting so neutrally to the events around her that not only did I not know who she was; I didn't like her enough to care about her story.

Had I been asked to write a "real" review (i.e., for the Weekly) of either of these shows, it would have been a struggle. I'm still at a stage of my criticism in which I must carefully manage how close I get to the artists I review, whether that means limiting how many interviews I do or how many artist acquaintances I have. One day, I hope to have the maturity and professionalism I see in other critics, who smile and chat with artists one moment and then go home to write trenchant reviews of them the next. But I'm not there yet. So for now, I'll be continuing my not-so-glorious theatergoing modus operandi: speaking to no one, making as little eye contact as possible, then, the moment the lights go down, scurrying into the night, trying to keep pure the laurels or the venom on my tongue.

Emotional Creature continues through July 15 at Berkeley Rep; info here.

Vital Signs continues through July 21 at the Marsh SF; info here.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

On Teaching

This week I started teaching a college seminar, "Writing about the Theatre," at SF State. I've never taught at the college level before, and I wasn't sure what to expect. I think I imagined that I would feel like I'd arrived—"Now I've begun my real career; now I'm a grown-up!" Lecturing sounds like a real profession, after all: I create a curriculum. I lead discussions. I (will) grade papers. Young adults listen to what I say and write it down. They're polite to me. And I'm not much older than they are.

But I don't feel much change in my life. Being a teacher is very similar to being a student: Preparing for a seminar is like doing homework or studying for a quiz. You still read books and take notes. You still go to school. For me, it's even the same trip, and not just to the same school, but to the very same classroom where I was a student. It's as if rather than having to write a paper once in a while, I simply have to give a presentation every week.

I've often thought I was born to teach. I've been an English tutor for the past three years, I've been leading study groups since I was in grade school, and all of my mom's relatives were or are teachers. Teaching is like getting paid to hang out with people in the best context ever: when it is incumbent on the group to dispense with fluff and bullshit, to discuss not gossip but ideas, and to challenge one another. I've long thought I would teach at a high school. I love how students at that age are figuring out who they are and are still open to new experiences in a way that adults are not. But every time I get close to considering it seriously, I encounter harrowing data about California public schools. Nothing could persuade me to teach an English class of forty students.

So when this SFSU opportunity emerged, I worried I would be in over my head. 9th-grade English this is not. I don't have a Ph.D., I haven't published anything, and I wouldn't even call myself a scholar or an expert. I'm a learner—but I think teaching is the best way to learn. That's probably why I always wanted to run so many study sessions when I was younger. Reading is so leisurely, and paper-writing, as one of my students on Monday so pithily put it, is "for teachers"—not for the writers. But to teach is to synthesize, to decide, to commit—it is to force yourself to be clear and explicit about what you know and what you value and what you do not. In short, it's active, personal, and ever-significant.

I hope that in teaching a class called "Writing about the Theatre," my own writing will improve. I hope my students will spur me to grow and I them. But most of all, I hope I can get rid of this idea that my real life, my real job, is always around the corner, ever receding into the future, something to be prepared for. I want to talk myself into believing that I'm already living the dream right now.

On Interviewing Eve Ensler

(The object of Lily's hero-worship. Photo by Brigitte Lacomb.)

It's funny that people expect theater critics to double as journalists/interviewers. The personalities the two different professions require are so different: Is a loner who takes inordinate joy in sitting in the dark and writing nasty things about artists really the best person to interview those same artists? How many such meanies can conjure the social skills to get their victims to share newsworthy anecdotes?

I recently interviewed Eve Ensler, who wrote The Vagina Monologues and, more recently, Emotional Creature, which is about to premiere at Berkeley Rep. It was one of the highlights of my career as a critic. Performing in The Vagina Monologues in college was revelatory for meas a thespian, as a woman, as a sexual being, as a human. (That sentence unintentionally turned out very Ensleresque. Read the interview to see what I mean.) I venerate Ensler—perhaps not the most professional feeling to have about an interview subject. I was so nervous in the days leading up to it that I scripted the entire thing (it was a phone interview), even writing out two different openers depending on whether she said, "Hi, this is Eve," or just, "Hi." That meant I was not as present in the conversation as I should have been, even as I had to ad lib toward the end when she had answered all my questions in far less time than I was allotted. I got answers that sounded very much like the press releases and other promotional materials for the show. I should have interrupted her when she launched into an easy sound bite. I should have pressed her more. In short, I should have been a journalist. Instead, all I could manage was to hide (or try to) the heart attack I was suffering the entire time.

I still have much to learn about interviewing, and not because I'm too mean to get artists to talk to me. I think I'm too nice to really dig for the story, to ask the questions subjects secretly want to talk about, to surprise them into disclosing news. I can be friendly enough, but then I don't use my friendliness to do my job.

Still, I'm glad to have interviewed Ensler and to see my article appear the same week that this happened (in my glorious home state, no less)—which reminds me that The Vagina Monologues isn't dated, that theater has real social and political power, and that I as a critic—or a journalist—am part of a movement that matters.

American Idiot, at the Orpheum

(Van Hughes and Joshua Kobak helm the touring production. Photo by Doug Hamilton.)

In my last post about podcasting, I said I wanted to become more comfortable being critical when I'm reviewing with my co-critic, Benjamin Wachs. That comfort was not hard to achieve with American Idiot, the Green Day musical whose national tour hit SF last week. Benjamin found the piece merely boring; I found it offensive and gruesome, and not just for the reasons I describe in our podcast. I also felt deep frustration that so many people will see this show and consider it good or representative of American theater just because it's a Broadway musical. There are so many more shows out there, some even with artistic integrity! But how many audiences will know that?

American Idiot continues through July 8 at the Orpheum Theatre; info here.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Bruja, at the Magic

(Sabina Zuniga Varela in the title role of the Magic Theatre's production. Photo by Jennifer Reiley.)

Well, after my Crowded Fire piece, which was more amateur close read than theater review, I've swung in the opposite direction for my article about Bruja, at the Magic. Pull quotes abound, as if I'd tailor-written it for the theater's publicity department.

I know some critics who pride themselves on avoiding praise that's easy for publicists to lift out of context and paste into an advertisement, and for good reason. Writing sentences like "Luis Alfaro and Loretta Greco have done it again" makes me feel a like a hack, as if I were simply giving the theater exactly what it wanted, rather an outside observer who writes to serve my readers.

At the same time, I did feel strongly about this show, and if pithy, ad-ready sentences draw audiences, then I might not have a problem with that. Ideally, every review I write would be a study in original diction and lively syntax, overflowing with deep critical insight. But I try not to expect full-time quality on freelance pay. 

After a slew of mediocre productions the past couple months, Bruja, which reimagines Euripides's Medea, and God of Carnage reminded me why I do what I do. Bruja's anagnorisis, or tragic revelation, gave me a feeling I'd only previously experienced watching Sunset Boulevard—specifically the scene in which Max (Erich von Stroheim) reveals that he's not just Norma's (Gloria Swanson's) butler; he's also her ex-husband. 

(Stroheim, William Holden and Swanson in the Billy Wilder classic.)

In each instance, the revelation made my stomach churn; in one sudden moment, I felt nauseated. Perhaps I'm a masochist—one friend even teased me recently for calling another play with horrific moments "a great night of theater"—but this is what I go to the theater for: to feel things deeply. I might have expressed those deep feelings in a trite way in my Bruja review, but I felt them all the same.

Bruja continues through June 24; info here.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Two DWMs in a row!

The respect inspired by a good criticism is permanent, whilst the irritation is causes is temporary... On the other hand, the pleasure given by a venal criticism is temporary, and the contempt it inspires permanent... The cardinal guarantee for a critic's integrity is simply the force of the critical instinct itself.

—Bernard Shaw, "The Case for the Critic-Dramatist"

Friday, June 8, 2012

Deadly Criticism and Vital Criticism

The critic who no longer enjoys the theatre is obviously a deadly critic, the critic who loves the theatre but is not critically clear what this means, is also a deadly critic: the vital critic is the critic who has clearly formulated for himself what the theatre could be—and who is bold enough to throw this formula into jeopardy each time he participates in a theatrical event.

— Peter Brook, The Empty Space

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Good Goods, by Crowded Fire

(Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in the Crowded Fire production. Photo by Pak Han.)

In writing this review, of Crowded Fire's West Coast premiere of Christina Anderson's Good Goods, I worried I went on too long talking about timelessness. By paragraph four, I was tempted to throw in a "if you'll bear with me." But if it seems a little contrived or college English paper-y, I really enjoyed structuring the review this way. It was a refreshing change of pace, and I felt like it gave me a way to make the criticism go both broader and deeper.

Good Goods continues through June 23; info here.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

God of Carnage, at Marin Theatre Company

(Rachel Harker, Warren David Keith, Stacy Ross and Remi Sandri in the MTC production of Yasmina Reza's play. Photo by Ed Smith.)

I think writing my last post, in which I confessed to shirking discussions of set designs, spurred me to discuss the set extensively in this review, of Marin Theatre Company's production of God of Carnage.

Thanks, blog, for helping be a little more for real.

God of Carnage has been extended through June 24; info here.