Wednesday, September 30, 2015

September on the Theater Pub blog

Two more columns this month!

In "Male and Female, I Created Them," I continued my inquiry into issues of gender and feminism and theater and what we "should" or "shouldn't" be writing. I talk about the first time I wrote a male character that I felt really proud of, and push back against the notion that ideological concerns should govern art. I also describe one of my favorite scenes in the movie Mistress America, which has probably come and gone from theaters by now, but which you should put on your queue because it's super funny and smart.

In my other piece, I wrote a little about Dada and Surrealism, and interviewed actor-director Steven Westdahl about Zurich Plays, his Dada-themed SF Fringe Festival show. (It was a hit and won Best of Fringe!) This also continues my mini-theme of writing pieces for the Theater Pub blog about European avant-garde movements of the 20th century -- earlier this year, I wrote about Parisian bohemia and about Oulipo/Outrapo.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Self-Dramatizers: "The Rehearsal" by Eleanor Catton

I had a good feeling about The Rehearsal from the moment I purchased it from the sale table of Folio Books in Noe Valley. And when the bookstore cashier struck up a conversation about it with me, I discovered that he's a playwright who has read my blog!

And this book is really so good, you guys. So good.

The Rehearsal: A NovelThe Rehearsal: A Novel by Eleanor Catton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I do theater, so I’m pretty much a sucker for any novel (or play, or movie) that tells a backstage story. As its title suggests, The Rehearsal is one of those, though it’s more complex than the typical narrative of a production from auditions to opening night. As the novel begins, we learn that the jazz-band teacher at a girls’ high school has been caught having an affair with one of his students. The book then shows how two different groups of artsy teenagers are affected by this news: the girls who go to the high school, especially the ones in the jazz band; and the first-year class at a local acting conservatory, who create a devised theater piece based on the sex scandal.

The Rehearsal has a lot to say about adolescent sexuality, but it’s not a romance. The jazz-band teacher and the girl he slept with remain peripheral characters. But it’s about a whole lot of other stuff: two art forms, jazz and theater, both of which involve a good deal of lore about how, in order to succeed, you have to use your own suffering and pain in your art. It’s about how sweet, middle-class, suburban teenagers decide that they want to do theater or play jazz, but they haven’t suffered enough to be great. It’s about how the adults in these teenagers’ lives alternate between wanting to preserve their innocence and wanting to educate them in the pain and cruelty of the world. It’s about the differences between the way teenage girls and teenage boys present themselves, and whether we (as an acting teacher puts it) wear “masks or faces.” It’s about how teenage girls are incorrigibly self-dramatizing.

All this is conveyed in prose that flirts with grandiloquence; the characters constantly deliver speeches that sound like monologues from some contemporary play. It’s stylized and heightened in the same way that theater can be, and you probably either love it or you hate it. Me, I’m thrilled to see a novelist taking inspiration from theater, and evoking the extreme emotional highs and lows of adolescence.

Eleanor Catton was just 23 when she wrote The Rehearsal, and it shows signs of being a young author’s work. The aforementioned grandiloquence, the sense that Catton is trying to cram everything she knows about human relationships into this one book, the ambition, the postmodern stylistic gimmicks, the prose that is self-consciously quotable and perceptive, are all hallmarks of a very bright but very young author. Still, it’s amazing that such a wise and self-assured book, with so much to say about the process of how we gain wisdom, should be written by someone so young. Like her characters, she’s curious, burning with ambition, fascinated by sex and psychology and hypocrisy, and too young to know any better.

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Saturday, August 29, 2015

It's The Little Things, or Why I Don't Like Modernized Productions of "Company"

There’s an Onion article, frequently passed around by theater people, called “Unconventional Director Sets Shakespeare Play in Time, Place Shakespeare Intended.” Well, I have an idea for a similar man-bites-dog headline: it would say “Production of Company Set in 1970.”

"You Could Drive A Person Crazy" in the San Francisco Playhouse production. Morgan Dayley as April, Michelle Drexler as Kathy, Teresa Attridge as Marta. Photo by Jessica Palopoli.
I’ve seen Company three times: a student production at my college ten years ago; the PBS broadcast of John Doyle’s Broadway revival; and the production that’s currently running at San Francisco Playhouse. None of these productions made an effort to evoke 1970, the year the musical originally premiered; instead, all of them set the show in the present day. And there are plenty of other recent Company productions that feature cell phones and other 21st-century trappings (Terry Teachout reviewed one in Bucks County this summer), but not so many that acknowledge the show’s original time period. (One exception might be the 2011 New York Philharmonic production -- I didn't see it, but production photos show Stephen Colbert wearing a very '70s turtleneck.)

Certainly, this story of a 35-year-old commitment-phobic man, the five married couples he befriends, and the three women he half-heartedly dates, is still relevant for contemporary audiences. If anything, articles like "The Real Reason Women Freeze Their Eggs" suggest that commitment-phobic bachelors are even more of a problem now than they were in 1970. It’s easy to make arguments for why we should continue to stage and discuss Company. But that’s not the same thing as saying that we should set it in the present day.

Sondheim writes in Finishing the Hat, “God is in the details.” Or, to quote Company itself, “it’s the little little little things.” While the big-picture themes of Company are still relevant, dozens of little details in the dialogue and lyrics make clear that Sondheim and Furth are writing about a very specific milieu with specific cultural markers. And this is why I think it’s so hard to convincingly modernize Company.

It’s jarring to see characters wearing contemporary clothes and using cell phones, and then saying things that no thirty-something New Yorker in 2015 would ever say. Nobody these days drinks vodka stingers, or talks about being “square.” Marijuana is no longer an exotic drug, and we call it “pot” or maybe “weed,” but never “grass.” Marta would be crazy about some obscure pocket of hipster Brooklyn, not about 14th Street – and she wouldn’t say “I’ll call you in the morning or my service will explain.” Et cetera.

Over the years, Sondheim and Furth have made a few updates to the book and lyrics to keep them feeling contemporary. The “I could understand a person / if a person was a fag” line has been rewritten, and the dialogue now name-checks some post-1970 celebrities like Madonna and Oprah. But it would take a much more thoroughgoing rewrite to make Company seem like it’s truly a product of 2015. Chloe Veltman spends several paragraphs of her review of the Playhouse production arguing that the musical feels dated because all of the characters are heterosexual – and I agree that if someone in 2015 wrote a musical about modern marriage, they’d probably be sure to include a gay or lesbian couple in the cast. But since the rights holders of Company don’t allow you to change the characters’ genders, or any of the myriad references that sound odd in a 2015 context – why not just set it in 1970 already?

If Company is staged with 1970s costumes and emotionally honest performances, contemporary audiences will relate to it – they will see how what it has to say about marriage and commitment are universal, and they will accept the dated chatter about “optical art” and “telephoning my analyst” and all the rest. But if it’s staged with cell phones and contemporary fashions, the 1970s references can make it hard for an audience to suspend its disbelief.

Bobby (Keith Pinto) and Joanne (Stephanie Prentice) in the San Francisco Playhouse production. Photo by Jessica Palopoli.
Oddly, I can’t think of any other play or musical from Company’s era that gets updated to the present day with such frequency; most other ‘60s and ‘70s shows are now staged as period pieces. This might be because, in its time, Company was considered groundbreaking and progressive. It’s kind of amazing to think that it premiered just two years after Promises, Promises – which the Playhouse revived this past winter, and whose whole story is predicated upon ‘60s sexism. I do think that Company’s portrayal of ditsy flight attendant April is kind of sexist, but most of the other female characters are smart, interesting, and sharply drawn. And because Company’s characters still feel modern and relatable, people think it makes sense to set Company in modern times.

But times change, and 2015 is not 1970. It seems ludicrous to suggest that the life of a man born in 1935 (Bobby’s birth year, if the show takes place in 1970) would be similar to the life of a man born in 1980 (Bobby’s birth year, if it takes place now). Or, since I'm a fan of Mad Men, I try to remind myself that when Company premiered, Bobby and his friends were basically of the same age and background as the younger Mad Men characters: Pete, Trudy, Ken, Peggy.

And that’s the thing: most people who go to see Company at San Francisco Playhouse will have watched Mad Men or other historical-fiction TV shows; or read novels that were published more than 10 years ago; or otherwise discovered that they can relate to works of art that take place in the past. The Playhouse’s slogan is that the theater is an “empathy gym,” where we go to “practice the power of compassion.” But their decision to set Company in 2015 suggests that they think people can’t feel empathy or compassion for these characters unless the story takes place in modern times. Have some faith in your audiences, San Francisco Playhouse. We can handle a slightly more challenging workout in the empathy gym.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

August on the Theater Pub blog

Another month, another two columns.

In "A Monologue of One's Own," I wrote about the whirlwind experience of preparing to play Virginia Woolf in a monologue by playwright Jeremy Cole, part of an evening of pro-choice theater honoring NARAL. I was a replacement for an actress who'd had to drop out a week before the show, so there I was, still not really accustomed to thinking of myself as an actor, opening the show with an 8-minute monologue, portraying a real-life famous person with an accent not my own.

My performance was captured on video (credit: Paul Anderson) -- how do you think I did?

Then, this week, I wrote a something called "An Introvert's Guide to Theater" -- maybe the title is a little far-reaching for what it is, which is a piece about how I'm not anti-social, but I do get run-down after too much socialization. Which can be a disadvantage when you're a theater artist. There are probably more introverted theater people out there than anyone realizes, though, and it's a topic I'd like to explore more in future.

And (if you're reading this in time) come see the Pint-Sized Plays at Theater Pub! I didn't write or direct any of the shows this year, but I produced the whole evening: read all the submissions, selected the plays and directors, sent innumerable emails and put out a fair few fires. The result is a lot of fun and it's been drawing packed houses. We have 2 more performances, August 24 and 25.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Theater Pub Posts, May through July, 2015

Yes, I've been having a busy summer. Yes, I feel bad for neglecting this blog. Yes, I've kept writing my twice-monthly column for the San Francisco Theater Pub site. Here's a link roundup of my pieces from May through July.

May 14, How Theater Became a Good-Girl Pursuit: an attempt to figure out how "theater went from being considered on par with prostitution, to being considered on par with the chess club," as my editor put it.

May 28, Forewarned is Forearmed: by popular demand (i.e., I asked my Facebook friends what I should write about, and they suggested this topic), I wrote about the contentious subject of trigger warnings, and what place they might have in theater.

June 11, She Submits to Conquer: as part of the ongoing conversation about gender parity in theater, I revealed the inspiring submission statistics for the Pint-Sized Plays, the short-play festival I'm producing this month. The gender breakdown of submissions was 60% female, 40% male, and the festival lineup also reflects that ratio. I also offered some ideas for "best practices" that will encourage women to submit. (Also of note, American Theatre magazine linked to this article on their Facebook page!)

June 25, Give Him A Great Big Kiss: about taking on my first acting role in seven years, sexy secretary Elsa in The Desk Set, rehearsing my first stage kiss, and playing a sexpot when I tend to consider myself a nerdy late bloomer.

July 9, The Tech Set: a brief column listing all of the seemingly ridiculous things that people discuss at tech rehearsal, especially when it's a show with as many props as The Desk Set! As a side note, this was a conscious attempt to write a column in the style of Allison Page, my smart and hilarious fellow blogger (and The Desk Set's leading lady).

July 23, My Dance Card Is Full: I basically took the week off from writing my column, though I did submit a picture of me in costume for my minor role as a business journalist in The Desk Set.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Will the Burqa Be Banned in Berlin? Some Limericks

Today, The New York Times published an op-ed piece by Anna Sauerbrey titled "Will the Burqa be Banned in Berlin"?

This is a bad headline for two reasons:
  1. The article isn't talking about burqas (full-body garments, covering the whole face and eyes), it's talking about headscarves (covering the hair and neck).
  2. With its alliteration and its anapestic rhythm, it sounds more like a Dr. Seuss poem or the opening line of a limerick than like a serious newspaper headline.
So, naturally, I had to write some limericks "On German Anti-Headscarf Laws."

Will the burqa be banned in Berlin?
Will Deutsch xenophobia win?
Through secular bias,
Must girls who are pious
Uncover their necks and their chins?

Do Hamburgers hate the hijab?
Will Nuremberg nix the niqab?
Chanting atheist sermons,
Will these good Germans
Turn into a bigoted mob?

Monday, May 11, 2015

"Eros the Bittersweet" by Anne Carson: The Greeks Had a Word for It

A couple of weeks ago, I was in my local curry joint rereading Tom Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll, and had just come to the passage where two characters discuss Sappho's invention of the word "bittersweet," when "Bittersweet Symphony" came on the restaurant stereo. Then I went home and saw that one of my Goodreads friends had put a book by Anne Carson called Eros the Bittersweet on her to-read list. What a collision of serendipity! I took it as a sign that I should read that book too.

Eros the BittersweetEros the Bittersweet by Anne Carson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Anne Carson’s Eros the Bittersweet begins as an examination of what classical Greek poets had to say about eros (romantic desire), but expands into a meditation on time, metaphor, imagination, the distance between self and other, and what makes life worth living. In modern times, we think of romantic love as the emotion that makes you want to settle down and create a family with somebody, but the Greeks felt very differently. To them, eros was overwhelming, disruptive, and more to be feared than welcomed. And yet, they kept desiring, and reflecting on their desire, and writing about it in poetry and prose.

Carson provides English translations of all of the Greek passages she quotes, but she also prints the original Ancient Greek text. I therefore decided to take the opportunity to teach myself how to sound out Ancient Greek. I found a chart of the Greek alphabet online, printed it out, and taped it into the back cover of the book for reference; eventually, I got to the point where I could sound out the Greek without referring to my alphabet cheat-sheet. As for the words I was sounding out, many of them remained incomprehensible, yet it was worth it for the times when I recognized Greek roots that are also used in English, and had a holy-shit-I’m-reading-and-understanding-something-that-was-written-two-millennia-ago moment. Reading a line of Aeschylus (the first playwright!) that goes “eumorphon de kolossoi,” and understanding how it means “well-shaped statues” – well, that’s an amazing feeling.

Indeed, there’s a lot of stuff in Eros the Bittersweet about the connections between eros, learning, reading, and writing. Our imaginations, and our reach that exceeds our grasp, spur us to fall in love and also to pursue academic interests. This idea really resonates with me – after all, two of my favorite authors are Tom Stoppard and A.S. Byatt, whose plays and novels often focus on the connections between eros and education. But if you don’t get a quasi-sexual pleasure out of learning and knowledge, Eros the Bittersweet is probably not the book for you.

My biggest complaint about Eros the Bittersweet is that it doesn’t devote enough attention to Greek drama. Carson extensively considers the formal qualities of ancient Greek lyric poetry, novels, and philosophical dialogues, but she does not analyze Greek theater in the same way. For a work so concerned with paradoxes and the relationship of eros to time, this seems like a major oversight. After all, theater has an inherently paradoxical relation to time: a script can endure for millennia, but a performance is ephemeral. At one point, Carson analyzes a passage of Sophocles (calling it “Sophocles’ poem,” ignoring the fact that it comes from a stage play) that compares desire to “ice-crystal in the hands / […] you can’t put the melting mass down / you can’t keep holding it.” Isn’t the ephemeral pleasure of theater similar to the ephemeral pleasure of melting ice?

It is to Carson’s credit, however, that her book inspired me to want to learn more, to forge new connections, to exercise my imagination and have new thoughts of my own. Which means that – by Carson’s own definition – it’s a book that inspires love.

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