Thursday, January 28, 2010

Salinger's Legacy Will Linger

I gave a little gasp this morning when I read the news that J.D. Salinger had died. Not least because a month ago when I was home for Christmas, my mom and I were discussing how old Salinger was getting, and whether we believed the rumors that he had manuscripts stashed away in his New Hampshire house to be published upon the event of his death. I guess we'll find out soon...

A few years ago I wrote a play in which The Catcher in the Rye functioned as kind of a leitmotif; as a tribute to Salinger, I here post a bit of dialogue from the first scene. The characters are two college students--freshman roommates who are both aspiring writers.
JULIANNE: I hate The Catcher in the Rye.


JULIANNE: Sorry. I just could never stand it. I mean, it’s just poor little Holden bitching about how he’s so misunderstood and everyone else is a phony, but he’s the real phony, and he doesn’t even realize it.

ANJALI: How can you write about teenagers and not like Salinger?

JULIANNE: I don’t know. I don’t go for all that angsty stuff.

ANJALI: When I was fifteen, I thought what Holden says—“Even if you had a million years, that wouldn’t be enough time to rub out all the ‘Fuck you’ signs in the world”—I thought that was the most profound thing ever. I guess it sounds kind of silly now.

JULIANNE: Over-the-top, yeah.

ANJALI: Mmhm. Still, though, that’s how it feels when you’re fifteen…or even eighteen, still, sometimes…

JULIANNE: You think you’re Holden Caulfield! That’s just great.

ANJALI: I’m not saying I want to be Holden, it’s just that sometimes, without intending to, I can relate to him. That’s all.

JULIANNE: (Beat) Figures.


JULIANNE: You’re the kind of girl who stayed home from prom and read The Catcher in the Rye and bragged about it in homeroom on Monday morning.

ANJALI: You have no idea what I was like in high school.

JULIANNE: Well, it was only three months ago!

ANJALI: (Beat) Well, I’m not saying you got all the details right, but yeah! Okay? I did feel like an outsider sometimes! I did call my parents phonies! I had a crush on Holden when I was fifteen, does that make you happy?

JULIANNE: (Laughs) That’s such a cliché!

ANJALI: I agree. A real cliché. And yes, I brought it with me to college, but hopefully I won’t need it here.
This is fairly autobiographical--it's true that when I was fourteen or so, I thought that Holden's line "Even if you had a million years, that wouldn’t be enough time to rub out all the ‘Fuck you’ signs in the world" was the most beautiful and poignant thing I had ever read; and also, one time during high school I skipped a dance (though not prom) and stayed home reading The Catcher in the Rye and wore that like a perverse badge of pride. And I brought the book with me to college and wound up with a roommate who couldn't stand Salinger.

I now realize that reading The Catcher in the Rye as a signifier of rebellion is a total cliché--and that it's dangerous to idealize Holden Caulfield's worldview. Nonetheless, I would not hesitate to call The Catcher in the Rye a great novel--because it is so accurate about the way adolescence feels, because it has managed to speak to so many young people. And as an adult, if you can read it as a character study and not a how-to book, it's still great literature.

And the summer after I graduated from college and was back at home, somewhat aimless and mixed-up, my life in stasis, I did not hesitate to describe it as "a Franny and Zooey kind of month."

And maybe my fondness for italicizing words when I write dialogue (just look at the scene above!) owes something to Salinger's inimitable style?

Rest in peace.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

What We're Up Against

I finished reading Outrageous Fortune yesterday and will probably have lots of things to say in response to it, and to the discussion that has sprung up around it. Especially because two weeks from now, Todd London, the author of the study, will be coming to speak in the Bay Area, and I've already made plans to take the day off from work and attend!

But for now I just want to get down my initial impression. Which, surprisingly, is one of relief. I had been worried that Outrageous Fortune was going to depress the hell out of me. Before reading it, I'd seen its most shocking statistics quoted on theater blogs, and had heard about how the book has the power to demoralize and infuriate... and that made me all anxious and stressed-out. Nevertheless, I thought, "I have to read it. It's always better to know what you are up against."

And thus--because knowledge is power--I actually feel a lot better now that I have read it. It is a relief to see a formal study that tells you what you are up against, rather than having to rely on piecemeal anecdotal evidence. It is a relief to know that things that you've privately thought, experiences you've had, are also shared by other people in the American theater. It is a relief to have this all down on paper, where it seems more substantial than when it was floating around the internet. Because, frankly, not a lot of its findings are new--it has new evidence for them, and a new way of fitting all the pieces together, but it mostly confirms things that people have been thinking and wondering.

So, for instance, when I was 18 years old and the literary intern at PCS, I had the best summer of my life and was convinced that the LORT system was the most wonderful and vital part of the American theater. But then, gradually, I started feeling more and more dubious. Like, if I wanted to earn any money from my summer internship, I'd have to intern in the Marketing department, not the Literary one--and why should that be the case? Or, I learned a lot about playwriting do's and don'ts from sorting through the slush pile... but why did I feel that even the greatest slush-pile scripts would never, seriously, get produced at PCS? Or, three years ago, when my friend Rachel was planning her senior-thesis project (which turned into the Dynamo Theater Lab), didn't she say "New plays in this country seem to get a lot of workshops, but they never get performed... But this project is devoted to finding a new way to produce new plays"?

Well, Outrageous Fortune is all about that--the precarious position of LORT theaters' literary departments, the way that new plays get workshopped but hardly ever produced, and how even the plays that are workshopped are rarely the ones from the slush pile... It lays it all out. Gets it into the open. Clears the air--I hope!

And also, Outrageous Fortune has made me feel better about some of the choices I've made. I know what you're thinking: "Marissa, you just read a study that says that most playwrights make under $40,000 a year even when they're middle-aged, and that makes you feel good about your choices?" Well... what I mean is that I feel better now about taking this playwriting thing slowly. Frankly, a lot of my stress since graduating from college has been centered around the issue of what I "should" be doing if I want to be a writer. My mindset was always "you gotta hustle, you gotta work three times as hard as everyone else, because there is always someone younger, smarter, and better than you nipping at your heels." And so I would totally beat myself up for not working hard enough to get in the game and stay there. I thought I should be going to the theater four nights a week, I should be writing five pages a day, I should be sending my scripts to theaters all over the country and trying to get them developed, perhaps I should have moved to NYC?

But Outrageous Fortune implies--and other people, smarter people than I, have outright stated--that "the only way to win is not to play." If I were out there hustling, I'd be perpetuating a broken system, perpetuating the idea that it's all a rat race and that we playwrights are a desperate breed. So therefore--it's OK that I'm not as "ambitious" as I thought I was. It's OK that I'm writing some shorter pieces and trying to form connections with small local theaters, rather than trying to break into the LORT crowd. It's OK that I moved to San Francisco. (actually, I now feel smug that this is the region that Outrageous Fortune singles out for having a healthy and supportive playwriting community!) It's OK that I'm not doing what my résumé would seem to suit me for. I am trying to figure out how to do things on my own terms, and that's OK.

The Mission Paradox Blog says it today, "save yourself, save the industry." Now, the part of me that says I "should this" and "should that" is hard to shut up... but at least now I know what I "should not" do, which is to perpetuate the status quo and play into the hands of a system that is barely functioning.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Highly-Anticipated Movie Reviews: "Me and Orson Welles"

Title of movie: Me and Orson Welles

Reasons for anticipation:
Zac Efron is sooo dreamy!

Kidding! No... my reasons for anticipating this have nothing to do with teen heartthrobs, and everything to do with the fact that I am totally obsessed with backstage dramas, and the 1930s, and the American theater of that time, and the portrayal of theater on film... So this movie, being the story of Orson Welles' 1937 production of Julius Caesar, would surely be amazing--wouldn't it?

My verdict: Unfortunately, Me and Orson Welles is not as awesome as I'd hoped. It plays like a fairly generic backstage drama/coming-of-age story, rather than pinpointing what is specifically interesting about Welles and his Caesar.

It's a charming movie, but very lightweight, and at two hours, a bit too long. (It's supposed to deal with the frantic final week before the opening of Caesar, but is not paced very urgently.) What it has to say about the theater--actors can be needy and insecure and vain and petty, making art involves a lot of bluster and bullshit, there is always a crisis but the show always manages to go on--has all been said many times before. The idea of the "genius artist who is also a pain in the ass to work with" is also a cliché, even if Orson Welles was a pretty stellar real-life example of the type.

But then, the movie never explains why Welles was a genius or what made his Caesar so revolutionary. You see, in 1937, it was mindblowing to update Julius Caesar to the present day and stage it as an anti-Fascist polemic, as Welles did. But because the movie focuses on the shenanigans of the last week of rehearsal, and is told through the perspective of naive teenager Richard (Zac Efron), it never reveals the social/political/philosophical implications of Welles' production.

The other mindblowing thing is that Welles was only 22 when he produced, directed, and starred in Caesar; in other words, he was the same age as Zac Efron is now. But good luck finding an actor who resembles the baby-faced 22-year-old Welles (at left), and can imitate his famous voice, and convey the immensity of his character--his genius, his hubris, his desires. Faced with such a challenge, Me and Orson Welles decided that the best it can score is two out of three, and cast unknown British actor Christian McKay in the role. In terms of his acting and his voice, McKay is excellent--charismatic, powerful, and a showman through and through. But he is also 36 years old, and looks it; he comes across as a paterfamilias, not an arrogant youth just striking out on his own. Welles is supposed to be just 5 years older than Richard--think how much more complicated and interesting the movie would be if McKay and Efron seemed to be only 5 years apart in age!

Zac Efron annoyed me less than I thought he would, though his performance is nothing more than serviceable and I have no desire to see him in any role that is darker or more complicated than that of Richard Samuels. But Richard is a 1930s male ingenue, so the role suits Efron.

Claire Danes plays Sonja, the theater's secretary/production assistant. (I was tickled that Sonja is a Vassar alumna--no doubt one of Hallie Flanagan's protegees!) She's smart, efficient, and ambitious; and because being smart and efficient was not enough for a woman to get ahead in the 1930s, she's willing to sleep her way to the top. However, her character is confusingly written. It's unclear what the "top" is for her (is her goal to be an actress? a writer? a producer?) and it's also unclear why, if most of her sexual encounters are mercenary, she chooses to sleep with Richard. Sure, Richard's got chutzpah and a nice profile, but why would a pretty twenty-something woman go after this high-school kid? It feels like the screenwriters thought, "This is a coming-of-age story, so Richard needs to lose his virginity and have his heart broken," without considering why Sonja would acquiesce to this.

It seems that one of the assumptions behind Me and Orson Welles is that the 1930s were "a more innocent time" and that the people who go see this movie just want to be transported back to an era when the theater was "the thea-tuh," and bright-eyed teenage boys could luck into show business, and people sat around and talked about how sad it is that George Gershwin died. (This reference, and others, will go completely over the heads of any teenage Efron fangirls who go to see the movie--which is kind of a shame.) That's why the movie's main character is the bland and inoffensive Richard instead of the complex titan Orson Welles. That's why it neglects to explore things like the fallout of the Great Depression, or the implications of Welles' anti-fascist take on Caesar, or anything else that would be too gritty and depressing. But, see, why I love the 1930s is that it wasn't a more innocent time. It was passionate and scary and keyed-up, just as much as the 1960s were, just as much as our current era. And that's what's missing from Me and Orson Welles.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

C'était chez moi

As I predicted, tonight's episode of the French cooking show was filmed in Thierry's apartment, where I lived when studying in France 3 years ago! In it, a young woman named Nadia shows my host father Thierry how to make spaghetti with olive oil, garlic and chilis.

That's the apartment, the blue door, the tiny but cheerful kitchen, the bowls and colanders, that I remember! I have to say, it's a bit surreal to see all of that on TV (or on web video, whatever).

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

See My French Host Father Make Ginger Chicken!

This is amazing! My French host father Thierry was featured on a TV show called La prochaine fois c'est chez moi (meaning "Next time, it's at my house") cooking one of his many fantastic recipes--a dish that I remember him making when I lived with him and his wife Catherine three years ago!

The premise of the show is that an amateur chef goes to somebody else's house and cooks a dish for them; then in the next episode, the person who was the chef is now the host, and somebody new comes to their house and prepares a meal. Each recipe also gets posted on the show's website.

Here, Thierry cooks ginger-soy chicken for a woman named Carine. I assume the next show will feature a guest cooking something for Thierry in the apartment that I know so well--I'll link to that video if it's online tomorrow!

Of course the video is only in French, but you get to see Thierry put on his favorite apron and demonstrate his techniques for chopping onions and crushing ginger!

Thierry loves to travel and, while he excels at French dishes like raclette and blanquette de veau, he's accumulated recipes from all over the world. This one comes from a Chinese friend. As he explains in the video: "I had a doctor, an acupuncturist, who loved food, and he told me about this recipe of chicken with ginger sauce, so now I call it Doctor Wang's Chicken."

And if you want to make it for yourself, I've translated the recipe:

Doctor Wang's Chicken
from the kitchen of Thierry C.
  • 4 chicken legs (or 4 thighs and 4 drumsticks)
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped
  • 1 fresh ginger root, peeled and crushed
  • 4 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1 cup dry white wine or lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup black soy sauce
  • Salt & pepper to taste
Remove skin from chicken and discard. Cut each leg into two pieces, if the thighs and drumsticks are not already separated.

Heat 1 Tbsp olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat, then sauté the chicken until it is browned on all sides. Set the meat aside.

Turn down the heat to low and add the rest of the oil, the chopped onion, the garlic and the ginger. Cook until the onions are very soft and everything melts together.

Use the white wine (or the lemon juice, if you prefer) to deglaze the pan, then add the soy sauce and the chicken. If using lemon juice, also add 1 cup water. Season with pepper to taste.

Let the chicken stew over low heat for 35 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings accordingly.

Serve with Thai or Basmati rice.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Cinema's New Favorite Plot Twist

SPOILERS ahead for the movie Fish Tank, as well as two other movies that I probably shouldn't even name in this paragraph, because just reading their titles might alert you to the spoiler/plot twist that I am alluding to, and then if you haven't seen Fish Tank, its plot will be ruined for you. Suffice it to say that the other two movies got some of the best reviews of 2009 and will probably both be nominated for Adapted Screenplay at the Oscars...


Are you still with me, after that convoluted spoiler warning?

OK, here's what I want to talk about. In the last three months, I have seen three new movies that all employ the same plot twist: An Education, Up in the Air, and Fish Tank.

To spell it out: the twist is that the protagonist's lover turns out to be leading a double life--he or she is secretly married, and a parent. Furthermore, each of the movies reveals this twist at about the same time (approx. 3/4 of the way through) and includes a powerful scene where the protagonist visits his/her lover's home and meets his/her secret family.

An Education: 17-year-old Jenny is engaged to the much older David, when she discovers some incriminating letters that reveal that he is married. A heartbroken Jenny later visits his house (which is not too far from her own), trying to get a glimpse of his wife and child.

Up in the Air: Frequent-flyers Ryan and Alex have been hooking up whenever they manage to be in the same city. Ryan finally realizes that he loves Alex and pays a surprise visit to her brownstone in Chicago, only to see her children running around and hear her husband's voice.

Fish Tank:
15-year-old Mia has really ill-advised drunken sex with her mom's boyfriend Connor one night; the next morning, he has fled. Mia tracks Connor down at his house in the suburbs, discovers that he has a wife and daughter, and tries to get revenge.

Because of their similar plots and their teenage British heroines, some reviews of Fish Tank have called it the lower-class, social-realist version of An Education. But I'm surprised that nobody is talking about how An Education and Up in the Air share the same plot twist--even though they are both fairly prominent contenders for awards this season! And, though Up in the Air is a polished Hollywood dramedy and Fish Tank is a gritty British indie film, they reveal the plot twist in the same way. Both have a moment where the audience goes "oh no!" as we see Alex's or Connor's dwelling for the first time, and realize it's much bigger/nicer/more expensive than we expected. We know that single businesswomen don't tend to own big townhouses and single blue-collar guys don't tend to live on suburban cul-de-sacs... so this can only mean that these people aren't single!

I'd like to believe that when three movies that share the same plot twist come out within three months of each other, it says something about the culture at large--our collective fears or anxieties. So, does it mean anything special that 2009 brought three movies where the protagonist's lover is secretly married? Are we all suddenly worried that our loved ones are duplicitous?

I'm also trying to recall older movies that employ this same twist, but off the top of my head, I can't think of any.* If you've thought of some, please post them in the comments!

Maybe it's hard to think of similar movies, though, because there is something very "un-Hollywood" about this plot twist. For 100 years, mainstream cinema has beguiled us with stories of ideal romances between lovers who are just too good to be true. But the moral of the "my lover is secretly married" plot is that if someone seems too good to be true, they probably are. Jenny, Ryan, and Mia lose their illusions by the end of their respective movies. And that's more realistic, but also more downbeat, than the message that movies usually deliver.

*Well, there's a secretly married character in Casablanca: when I watched it last month with a friend who had never seen it, she gasped when Ilsa told Rick, "Victor is my husband, and was, even when I knew you in Paris"! Still, Ilsa's marriage is different; unlike David, Alex, or Connor, Ilsa does not come across as scheming and deceitful.

Monday, January 18, 2010

"Fish Tank" and the Contradictions of Being 15

This weekend I had the opportunity to see a free preview screening of a movie called Fish Tank. (It opened to excellent reviews in NYC on Friday, but won't officially open in SF for another few weeks.) Mostly I went because last month I vowed to follow the career of Michael Fassbender, who plays the male lead, and deserves for big things to come his way. OK, I've got a bit of a crush on him. Very attractive man, and it's fair to point that out, because Fish Tank absolutely would not work if he were any less seductive--or any less skilled at playing a flawed and ambiguous character. First he allows the camera to objectify him, then he allows our feelings toward him to grow increasingly complex and uneasy. Another great interpretation.

Katie Jarvis, a first-time actress, plays the lead role of Mia, a teenager living in a housing project with her single mum and little sis. Jarvis' performance in this tricky role is strikingly powerful and direct. Mia is angry at the world, a troublemaker, a candidate for reform school, but she's also curious and tenacious. If someone just encouraged her to put those qualities to constructive use, she could really accomplish a lot. Too bad her mother is immature and spiteful, and she has no adult role models.

Enter Connor (Fassbender), Mum's latest boyfriend, and the first person to encourage Mia's passion for hip-hop dancing and treat her with solicitousness. But, as you can probably guess, there is a thin line between friendly solicitousness and something else that is all kinds of wrong--at least when the people involved are a neglected 15-year-old girl and a charming Irishman about twice her age. This section of the film moves at a slow burn; every little moment of physical contact, such as Mia's putting her hand on Connor's shoulder to steady herself while he bandages her injured ankle, is heightened with sexual tension.

Even though I had a very different upbringing than Mia, I think that Fish Tank gets at something universal about being a 15-year-old girl and receiving contradictory messages about sexuality. Girls mature faster than boys, so at 15, they tend not to be attracted to boys their own age--older guys are where it's at. And the media encourages this tendency, teaching us to think that handsome men get better with age, pairing forty-something leading men with twenty-something starlets. But, the media also tells us that if a teenage girl acts on her attraction to an older man, there's something wrong with her, she's a tramp, she's disturbed. We are taught to measure our worth by the quality and quantity of guys we can attract, then taught that if we attract too many guys, we're sluts.

For instance, I remember when I was in high school, a lot of my girlfriends became obsessed with Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean. We were 16 or 17 years old, and Depp was 40, but we thought he was hot, and the media encouraged us to think he was hot. (And we didn't feel anything for Orlando Bloom, a somewhat more age-appropriate choice among the Pirates cast.) Yet, if, in real life, any of us had been attracted to a 40-year-old man, it would have been a Very Bad Thing. Heck, most of our parents would have freaked out if we'd wanted to date a 21-year-old.

These kinds of double standards can get a girl so mixed up that she makes some very bad choices. It's even worse for Mia, who has probably never seen a healthy adult relationship in real life, and whose ideas about beauty and love and sex have been shaped by too much TV. So, she's 15, she thinks she's tough, she doesn't know how naive she is, and her mum brings home a guy who looks like Michael Fassbender...

Basically, I love how Fish Tank doesn't shy away from the contradictions of being a 15-year-old girl. Given the plot, given Mia's floozy mum and her addiction to music videos, the temptation would be to make Mia a precociously sexual nymphet. But she's not: she wears gray sweatpants and wifebeater tank tops, and she's never had a boyfriend. Though she wants to be a hip-hop dancer, it's not because she associates dancing with sexuality--indeed, she is shocked when she finally makes that connection. The first scene of the film shows Mia cursing and head-butting another girl, then retreating to her room, which is decorated in demure, girlish pastel colors (it actually reminded me of my own teenage bedroom). So underneath her enraged, tough-talking exterior, Mia begins the movie as an innocent. And that's why what happens to her is so devastating.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Flashes in the Pan

Last week Terry Teachout published a column examining the most-produced plays in the United States over the last 10 years, using these TCG lists. I was going to write a post quibbling with his methodology, and therefore with the conclusions that he drew, but other bloggers are already doing that. (See for instance this post on Parabasis noting that according to Terry's methodology, "a play has to have cracked the top 10 in a particular year of the last decade to have its productions count. A compiling of top ten lists will ignore the 11th-15th most produced plays of that particular year. And if those stay relatively the same, the more trendy plays might end up being overrepresented." I was going to raise the same issue.)

This is spiraling out into a larger conversation about what counts as a "classic," whether it is more valid to look at most-produced plays or most-produced playwrights, whether the data shows a preponderance of new work or a preponderance of old chestnuts, whether it varies by theater/region, etc. Everyone agrees that we need more data, but that is taking a while to mine.

I don't have much to contribute to this conversation, except for a thought brought on by reading Terry's article in conjunction with The Play That Changed My Life. And unfortunately I don't have any data to support this opinion, just a gut feeling. But it seems to me that the plays that are really going unproduced are the ones that are neither new scripts nor bona fide classics like Chekhov, Wilde, or Williams. Instead, the hit plays of the '70s, '80s and early '90s are overlooked... not old enough to be "classics," not new enough to be trendy, and perhaps over-produced back in the day, when they were trendy. So maybe audiences and artistic directors got sick of these plays; maybe nobody would buy tickets for them nowadays.

But I would--because I was too young to see these plays when they were trendy, but I've been hearing about them for years from theater artists who are one generation above me! For instance, it seems like every playwright who is 10 or 15 years older than I am has a story of being profoundly moved and influenced by Angels in America... probably the greatest American play of the 1990s, but one that I have never had the opportunity to see a live production of (thank God for the HBO miniseries!). Or, I love the script of M. Butterfly, but can you imagine any theater company programming it these days? In The Play That Changed My Life, Sarah Ruhl touts The Baltimore Waltz, Jon Robin Baitz touts Plenty, David Auburn touts The House of Blue Leaves... all plays that won awards and acclaim in their time, but would, as of 2010, be incredibly unusual choices for an American regional theater to produce. Much easier to imagine them producing Uncle Vanya, Hedda Gabler and Long Day's Journey into Night, despite Terry's claim that the classics are going unstaged.

Every year the American theater seems to have a different favorite play (2009-10 is actually less lopsided than many seasons, because the most-produced play, boom, has only 9 productions; compare that to a season like 2002-3, when Proof had 29 productions). And I'm starting to think that this is doing actual harm to our theater in the long term. In 10 or 15 years, no one will be producing Proof or Intimate Apparel or Rabbit Hole--they will be the 2020s equivalent of M. Butterfly, Amadeus and Plenty. They will have been flashes in the pan, in other words; and even if these plays are brilliant, they will eventually be ignored because, when they were new, they got too trendy for their own good. And the theater cannot grow, or survive, if it is made up of flashes in the pan.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Solace from Foote and Sondheim

I wrote last week that all this theater-blogosphere activity was making me feel panicky and impotent, but I'm getting over that. Indeed, would I prefer that everyone kept silent? I'm grateful that such impassioned conversations are taking place... even if these conversations move so quickly that it's hard to keep up at times!

And a few quotes from grand old men of the American theater have recently come to my attention and given me a measure of solace. They prove that it has never been easy to be an artist--now, you might say that that is even more reason to despair, but it comforts me to know that people in other eras have gone through the same things that I'm going through now.

First, from Horton Foote's autobiography (excerpted in The Play That Changed My Life), describing how he came to New York in the '30s after studying acting in Pasadena:
I began to learn lessons about a part of theater the Pasadena Playhouse had not prepared me for: how to survive in an economically depressed city where the phenomenon of talking pictures, having decimated both vaudeville and winter stock companies, was now beginning to make inroads on Broadway itself. There were losses, losses everywhere.

The first thing I did when I got to New York was to make a pilgrimage to [Eva] Le Gallienne's Civic Repertory Theatre in 14th Street. When I got there, I found it occupied by a left-wing theater group called "Theater Union." The Theater Union, I was to soon learn, claimed to be part of "the new theater movement." How often have I heard through the years, "This is the new theater?" This also is a truism about theater; suddenly there appears from nowhere a new concept, a new approach to acting, to directing, to producing.

It all meant little to me at the time. I wanted to be a part of the "old theater," the theater of Belasco, Frohman, Sam Harris, Winthrop Ames, and Arthur Hopkins. I wanted to be an acclaimed actor-manager, have a New York season, and then tour the country; or I wanted to be idealistic like Miss Le Gallienne and be part of a repertory company. It seemed to my young mind that the "old theater" was invincible.
Swap out these 1930s names for their contemporary equivalents, and doesn't this sound like it could have been written yesterday? After all, Foote is talking about how to make one's way in the theater when it is under assault from the threat of "new media" and the country is economically depressed. Also, I relate to what Foote says about having wanted to be part of the "old theater" (which for me I guess is the LORT system), attracted to the romance and the history of it... then gradually realizing that the "old theater" is much more diseased than the general public is aware of, and that one is going to have to make some compromises, get involved with little "new theaters" with shoestring budgets, because that is the only place where renewal ever happens.

Then, a few days ago while I listened to my iPod on Shuffle, "Putting It Together" from Sunday in the Park with George came on. I must've listened to this song dozens of times, but it's so dense and wordy that I always seem to hear it afresh. I wish I could link to it, but there's no good video of it on YouTube. Anyway, it's sung by George, a young artist in the 1980s (he builds things with sound, light and lasers) as he rushes around a museum cocktail party, trying to schmooze with patrons, vaguely hating himself for needing institutional approval, but realizing that the only way to get ahead is to play the game and chase the money:
Link by link
Making the connections
Drink by drink
Fixing and perfecting the design
Adding just a dab of politician
Always knowing where to draw the line
Lining up the funds but in addition
Lining up a prominent commission,
Otherwise your perfect composition
Isn't going to get much exhibition.
The song gets very busy at the end, as the other people at the cocktail party join in with their own chatter--so much so that, until this week, I'm not sure I ever heard George's line toward the end of the song:
Everything depends on preparation
Even if you do have the suspicion
That it's taking all your concentration
In other words, George has gotten so caught up in the game, schmoozing and laying the groundwork for his career, that he worries that he's no longer able to just make art anymore. And sometimes I worry that that's happening to me, that my head is spinning with so many people's opinions about what's wrong with theater in this country that I no longer know what I should do next, with my own art, in order to try to fix these multifarious problems.

In which case I should struggle to follow that advice from Anne Bogart that Megan posted recently: "Do Not wait for maturity or insight or wisdom. Do Not wait until you have enough technique. What you do now, what you make of your present circumstances, will determine the quality and scope of your future endeavors. And at the same time, be patient."

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Sick of Realism?

Did I overstate the case, last week, when I agreed with the sentiment that I was "sick of plays"? I'm beginning to think that I did. After all, what I mean is that I am sick of mediocre and unimaginative plays, but, as my father likes to say, "90% of everything is crap." Anybody who plans to devote his or her life to any artform must accept this, correct?

If 90% of everything is crap, that means that 90% of talky, realistic, suburban family dramas are crap--but also that 90% of experimental, po-mo performance pieces are crap. But somehow, a lousy realistic play seems worse than a lousy experimental play. I suppose it's because, with experimental theater, one can always make the excuse "Maybe I just didn't get it." But with a realistic play--i.e., a play that tries to follow the general rules you learn in Playwriting 101--that excuse is impossible. Experimental plays also tend to wear their vision, ambition, or originality on their sleeve; but with realistic plays, it often takes more of an effort to figure out what makes them unique and original. So, in a sense, it is easier to love the experimental theater than it is to love the realist theater.

But there are exceptions, of course--the 10% that isn't crap--and I can love a good "conventional realistic play," or family drama... honestly and wholeheartedly. But in that case, I find myself making excuses for why that play isn't really conventional or talky or old-fashioned. Instead of accepting that it can be those things and also be great drama.

This reminds me of when I was a kid, and disparaged any book that was labeled "realistic fiction." In my mind, "realistic fiction" books were always about an average suburban kid dealing with some problem like moving to a new town or having his parents get divorced, and were written for the benefit of young readers who themselves were moving to a new town, or dealing with a family crisis, or whatever. Such books were serious, earnest, and "instructive." "Realistic fiction," I thought, was so rooted in the real world that "there was no scope for imagination in it," as Anne of Green Gables would say.

But the crazy thing is, a lot of my favorite books were realistic fiction, I just didn't think of them that way. For instance, Anne of Green Gables. (I had been taught that "historical fiction" or "classics" were a totally separate genre from "realistic fiction," not realizing that when the Anne books were published, they were contemporary and realistic.) Or, an even better example, Harriet the Spy. Even though I professed to hate any book that I felt had been written with a morally instructive purpose in mind, I loved Harriet the Spy, not realizing how strong its moral message is and how applicable it was to me, as a budding writer. Somehow, I avoided lumping it in with the "realistic fiction" books that I hated, because it took place in NYC, and it's full of interesting characters, and Harriet is a strange and flawed person with a unique voice, not a boring Everygirl.

When I said I hated "realistic fiction," I meant I hated the 90% of realistic fiction that, honestly, was probably pretty crappy. And I think the same qualification applies to my statement that I am "sick of plays."

Monday, January 11, 2010

"January 10, 1610. Galileo Galilei abolishes Heaven."

Exactly 400 years ago, Galileo Galilei trained his new telescope on the heavens, and discovered the four largest moons of Jupiter: Europa, Io, Ganymede and Callisto.

Or, as Bertolt Brecht put it in his play Life of Galileo, "January 10, 1610. Galileo Galilei abolishes Heaven."

Here is one of Galileo's early diagrams recording his observations of how the moons orbited the planet.

Four hundred years later, perhaps it's easy to forget that these four moons were the first new celestial bodies ever discovered. That's why, as Brecht says, the discovery "abolished Heaven." In the Aristotelian system, the heavens were perfect and rarefied, with each planet embedded in a crystal sphere. The spheres rotated around the Earth, but other than that, everything else in Heaven was fixed. But if Jupiter had moons rotating around it, that meant that it couldn't be stuck in a crystal sphere. And outer space was mutable. And thus, the idea of "the heavens" (outer space) had to diverge from the idea of "Heaven" (the dwelling place of God, an unreachable place of limitless perfection).

Scene Three of Life of Galileo takes place on 1/10/1610 and depicts Galileo showing his new discoveries to his friend Sagredo: the four moons of Jupiter, the mountains and craters on Earth's moon, the densely packed stars that make up the Milky Way. It is a beautiful scene, capturing the romance and danger and mystery of science. When Galileo says, "What you are seeing has been seen by no mortal except myself. You are the second," I got chills. Can you imagine what that would be like -- to be the second person in the world to apprehend these truths about the nature of the solar system?

I have always been the type of person who gets greedy, information-hungry obsessions. Perhaps the first of these, which took place when I was about 2½ years old, was an obsession with astronomy and the solar system. Therefore, I literally can't ever remember a time when I didn't know that Jupiter had dozens of moons. Because I learned this when I was a tiny child, I accepted it at once; but Galileo was in his forties when he discovered the moons of Jupiter, and this discovery directly contradicted the teachings of his Church and of the most respected philosophers and scientists, even as it helped confirm his secret suspicion that Copernicus was right and the sun did not go round the earth. How would it feel to learn that?

This scene in Life of Galileo is beautiful and inspirational because it draws our attention to Galileo's awesome discoveries. But Brecht hasn't forgotten that he is writing a human-scale drama, so there is also a somber, rueful undercurrent to the scene. Sagredo tries to warn Galileo that his discoveries may lead him to be condemned for heresy and burned at the stake. But Brecht's Galileo has a tragic flaw: his arrogance, his blind faith in science and reason. He does not understand why people may cling to old superstitions even when they are confronted with logical proofs:
I believe in Humanity, which means to say I believe in human reason. If it weren't for that belief each morning I wouldn't have the power to get out of bed. [...] Nobody who isn't dead can fail to be convinced by proof. [...] Yes, I believe in reason's gentle tyranny over people. Sooner or later they have to give in to it. No one can go on indefinitely watching me drop a pebble, then say it doesn't fall. No human being is capable of that. The lure of a proof is too great. Nearly everyone succumbs to it; sooner or later we all do. Thinking is one of the chief pleasures of the human race.
It is enough to make you cry when you recall how much more we know about astronomy and biology and chemistry and physics than Galileo did; and yet, 400 years later, huge numbers of people remain as recalcitrant as ever, rejecting scientific proof and clinging to the belief that the earth is 6000 years old and the climate is not changing...

note: I meant to write and post this on Jan. 10, but I was laboring under the misapprehension that yesterday was the 9th. Apologies!

Another Sign that the American Theater Is Too New York-Centric

I just went on TDF's website and ordered my copy of Outrageous Fortune. And when it came time to enter in my billing/shipping address, this is the screen that popped up:

Notice how the website automatically assumes that I live in New York State?

Sometimes the little details are the most telling ones...

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Elitist Issue

Did anyone else think that the January 4 issue of The New Yorker could have been subtitled "The Elitist Issue," the Stuff White People Like issue? OK, the general POV of The New Yorker shouldn't be news to me, or to anyone, but reading this issue, it was like I suddenly understood why the Bill O'Reillys of this world deride "liberal coastal elitists" in the way that they do.

Here are the contents of the January 4 issue:
  • an article about the broken California university system, something that affects Californians of all income levels, but the article focuses on the protests and strikes at Berkeley--the system's most elite university. It shows that even though the situation is urgent, Berkeley easily gets bogged down in political-correctness-run-amok stuff: I laughed aloud when I read that the student activists had spent hours debating whether a strike is "a European tactic unsuited to students of color, who challenge the status quo simply by going to class."
  • an article about Vampire Weekend, the indie rock band that has, as the magazine puts it, polarized and offended people with their "effete, collegiate image," "the incongruity of four upper-middle-class boys channeling Third World musical traditions."
  • an article about Whole Foods, the pricey organic grocery chain that looks at "the number of college graduates in the area" to decide where to open new stores. Many paragraphs are devoted to the anguish that some liberals feel when they discover that the Whole Foods CEO is a libertarian who doesn't believe in universal health care.
  • some pieces about Dead European Males: an article about Van Gogh, Gauguin, and the modernist mindset, which comes to a rather airily philosophic conclusion; and a review of a recent theater/music piece that juxtaposes Schubert and Beckett
  • an article about Grace Kelly, the beautiful and patrician movie star who actually became a princess
True pop culture finally makes its way into the magazine only on the last two pages, with reviews of blockbuster movies Avatar and Sherlock Holmes. And even though David Denby genuinely enjoys Avatar's beauty and exhilaration, there's still a hint of elitism in his review. He writes, "Actually, life among the Na'vi, for all its physical glories, looks a little dull. True, there's no reality TV or fast food, but there's no tennis or Raymond Chandler or Ella Fitzgerald, either." Um, Mr. Denby, if you want to list good things about American culture... could you maybe try to include some things that became popular after 1950?

The short story in this issue, "Baptizing the Gun" by Nigerian writer Uwem Akpan, would seem to disprove my thesis--it adds racial diversity and focuses on a gritty subject, the corruption and danger and poverty in Lagos. But because the story is not really distinguished in an artistic sense (there's a cheap twist ending that would have been hokey in a magazine story 100 years ago), there is something unsavory about publishing it... as though The New Yorker feels we should overlook the flaws in Akpan's writing because he is saying something "important" about Africa, even though, in that case, a news article or autobiographical essay would be much more satisfactory than fiction. So it seems to have been published because it adds diversity to the issue, which is certainly a "liberal elitist" thing to do.

Still, far more unsavory is one of the poems in this issue, "The Things" by Donald Hall, which I am tempted to call the worst poem I have ever read.
When I walk in my house I see pictures,
bought long ago, framed and hanging
--de Kooning, Arp, Laurencin, Henry Moore--
that I've cherished and stared at for years,
yet my eyes keep returning to the masters
of the trivial: a white stone perfectly round,
tiny lead models of baseball players, a cowbell,
a broken great-grandmother's rocker,
a dead dog's toy--valueless, unforgettable
detritus that my children will throw away
as I did my mother's souvenirs of trips
with my dead father, Kodaks of kittens,
and bundles of cards from her mother Kate.
I just can't shake the feeling that the only reason Hall wrote this poem is because he wanted to brag about his art collection. And then he tries to convince us that he's not bragging, that he's really a sentimental guy who takes pleasure from the little things in life, and tries to make us feel upset that his children will throw these things away. But really, how upset can one get? These kids are lucky, they're inheriting De Koonings! It all leaves an extremely bad taste in my mouth.

I rather liked the other poem in the issue, though, "Only So Much" by Rachel Hadas, so go read it if you want a palate-cleanser.

Now, though the Jan. 4 issue made me more conscious of why some people in this country despise the "liberal coastal elite," that doesn't mean I agree with that. (To quote Metropolitan, my favorite self-consciously elitist movie: "I could hardly despise them, could I? That would be self-hatred.") I like Vampire Weekend, I enjoyed the Grace Kelly and Whole Foods articles, and am now convinced I should listen to Schubert's "Winterreise." But I think The New Yorker is stronger when it provides a more wide-ranging view of the world, with an article on something like politics or science thrown into the mix. It's funny: I don't always find the articles about international crises enjoyable to read, but I miss them when they're gone.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Highly-Anticipated Movie Reviews: "Nine"

...the next in my occasional series...

Title of movie: Nine

Reasons for anticipation: Musical theater! All-star cast! Beautiful, talented, lauded performers! Singing and dancing! Cool Italian style! Etc.

Seen at: Castro Theater

Songs played on the Castro Theater organ beforehand: "From This Moment On" (Cole Porter), "Torna a Surriento," and some other melodies that I didn't recognize. Frankly, this was one of the best parts of the event, which leads me to...

My verdict: Critical opinion on Nine is remarkably unvaried, and I'm afraid I'm going to be boring and agree with the consensus: it doesn't really work, it seems kind of flat and pointless, and while none of the performers embarrass themselves, only Marion Cotillard stands out.

Elaboration: OK, Nine has kind of a strange premise: based on a 1980s Broadway musical (one that was praised and had a decent run, but never permeated the popular culture), which was in turn based on a renowned '60s art-house film. I was familiar with Nine's pedigree, having heard some of the songs and seen , so I accepted it for what it was... but otherwise, the movie doesn't do a good job of justifying its own existence. If I weren't familiar with , I'd be asking a lot of questions: "Why does this movie take place in the '60s? Why is Daniel Day-Lewis talking with an Italian accent? Why tell this story at all?" I imagine that many audience members who aren't foreign-cinema buffs asked themselves the same things.

Incidentally, it's surprising to realize that Nine is set in the same year as An Education and the latest season of Mad Men. Those works feel like a detailed firsthand experience of the early 1960s, but Nine doesn't, it seems too modern.

Then Nine has other problems, like staging all the musical numbers as fantasies of the protagonist, Guido Contini (Day-Lewis). First, this robs the songs of urgency, because they can only comment on the story, not drive it forward. It also makes the movie really choppy, because the songs do not blossom naturally out of the action, but are wedged into it. It feels like each famous actress comes on, has a song and a scene with Guido, then disappears from the movie.

The exception is Marion Cotillard--she gets two songs, and steals the movie with them. Playing Guido's long-suffering wife Luisa, she looks beautiful, has a good voice, and knows how to infuse it with real feeling. Most of the musical numbers in Nine are edited to death, but for Cotillard's first song, "My Husband Makes Movies," the movie slows down and just lets her sing. And through her performance, you see all the facets of Luisa's character: she is proud of Guido's talent, she deplores his weaknesses, she loves him, she hates him, she hates herself for putting up with him, she knows she is the only woman who can put up with him, etc. You understand Luisa better than you understand any other character... because even though the musical numbers ostensibly allow us into Guido's head, he remains kind of opaque.

(N.B.: on re-listening to "My Husband Makes Movies," it struck me as similar, emotion-wise, to "Something Wonderful" from The King and I, which used to be my audition song. Maybe I have a weakness for these kinds of songs/characters.)

And then, that's another problem with the songs taking place in Guido's head: it's the male gaze, robbing the women of their agency. Luisa expresses her emotions so powerfully that it's depressing to realize that according to the rules of Nine, she's not actually expressing them... instead, Guido is imagining that she feels that way. This undercuts the scenes that do attempt to show a strong female perspective, such as when Guido's favorite actress, Claudia (Nicole Kidman), rejects his plan to cast her in the role of a muse who inspires a great male artist, saying "I'd rather be the man." (I liked Kidman's performance, though I wonder how much of this was residual affection from Moulin Rouge making me happy to hear her sing in a movie again.)

Even though Guido's situation is serious, has a rich and bizarre sense of humor (according to Wikipedia, Fellini's motto when filming it was "Remember, this is a comedy"). But Nine doesn't find much humor, even when the situation calls for it. Penélope Cruz plays Guido's mistress, Carla, and in her big song, she phones him and coos about all the things she'd like to do to him. Guido, not wanting to reveal to the other people in the room that he has a mistress, pretends that it is "A Call from the Vatican" (the title of the song). So while Carla is making love to the telephone, Guido can only say "Yes, Monsignor," and struggle to hide how turned on he is. A classic farce situation, but Nine completely downplays the joke.

The blame for Nine should rest much more with the writing and direction than with the actors. No one makes a fool out of themselves, and maybe if the editing wasn't so hectic, some of the other actors could make the impression that Cotillard does. As it stands, performers like Sophia Loren and Judi Dench are basically wasted. Oh well, at least the movie looks nice: I loved a shot where Guido is hunched over in front of a movie that's being projected in his screening room, and it briefly fools you into thinking that Daniel Day-Lewis is in your movie theater, in front of your screen, having emerged in Purple Rose of Cairo fashion. (Who needs 3-D glasses?)

A while back, I mentioned , Nine, Synecdoche New York, etc., as falling into a sub-genre of works called "The Artist and His Women." Now, I didn't think that Synecdoche worked as a film, but it was an interesting failure: afterwards, you wanted to discuss what it was trying to say and whether or not it succeeded at getting the message across. You can also appreciate for what it says about the way that artists relate to the world. But with Nine, the only thing to discuss is which performances you liked best and which musical numbers did and didn't succeed. And that is not a very interesting way to talk about the movies.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

My Favorite Plays of 2009, And Related Anxieties

The theater blogs I read are going full tilt these days and it's enough to make a young artist's head swim, and exacerbate the vague sense of panic that I feel when I wake up some mornings (other source of panic: new decade beginning at the same time that I realize I am now one-quarter of the way through my twenties. chronology can mess with your head). I suppose I'd better read Outrageous Fortune, huh? Instead, I'm in the middle of reading The Play That Changed My Life (h/t Mead Hunter), which is very pleasant and inspirational, but is also working overtime to give the impression that everything is fine with the American theater, and that American playwrights are like one big happy family... it tries to stanch the bleeding, whereas I get the impression that Outrageous Fortune does the opposite--it tears away the bandages and the blindfolds.

And so I think, obviously the system needs fixing, and because I'm young and not yet enmeshed in the system, I can, and should, be part of the generation that helps fix it. Trouble is, what's needed are revolutionaries, and my natural temperament is not that of a revolutionary. I think "I signed up to make art... I didn't sign up for all of this!"

I guess that's what happens when you decide at the age of 16 that you are going to be a playwright, despite never having met any real-life playwrights who could tell it like it is.

And then of course, the other problem is, I can talk all I want to about "signing up to make art," but if the art goes unmade and the theater goes unfixed, then I'm really just getting in the way and creating a lot of hot air! (Which makes me the equivalent of a dirty-coal-burning power plant spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, doesn't it?)

Anyway, all of this is just a preamble to link to/discuss a post on surplus that resonated with me and, it seems, a lot of other bloggers. The post is called "On the Intentional Lack of a 'Top Plays of 2009' Post in These Parts." And the highlight is Jaime proclaiming "I am sick to death of plays... Middle-class white people talking about their problems, having babies and getting divorced and dying and falling in love and talking about it for two hours. Tell me please why that needs to be on a stage?"

I've been asking myself a lot of the big questions lately, trying to formulate an aesthetic philosophy, wondering about the value or the why behind my art... and behind the art I admire... and even behind the very idea of artistic creation! And the question of theatricality, or what makes theater unique as an art form, is tied in with that... so I think I understand where Jaime is coming from.

And more specifically--I realized in 2009 that the theater I enjoyed the most tended not to be the kind of plays that I tend to write. Which creates an obvious conundrum for me. To plagiarize Jaime's format, my favorite theater experiences of 2009 were:
I look at that list and think--so if the kind of plays that excite me most when I see them produced aren't the kind of plays that I am naturally drawn to write--where should I go from here?

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Elementary, my dear Borges

Over the holidays, my dad and I went to see Sherlock Holmes--we have kind of a tradition of going to blockbuster movies together, generally because I am more persuadable/tractable than my mother is. Sometimes these movies are lots of fun (Iron Man); sometimes they're dreadful (Star Wars: Phantom Menace).

Sherlock Holmes falls somewhere in the middle. Robert Downey Jr. is always fun to watch, and none of it is on a Phantom Menace level of awfulness, but I still wouldn't really call it a good movie. For one thing, the plot is needlessly convoluted, and seems even more hokum-y than the typical Hollywood action film. The story has Holmes trying to prevent the evil Lord Blackwood and his mystical secret society from taking over the world--so basically, it's a Dan Brown ripoff.

But it also seems to have ripped off Jorge Luis Borges...

Spoilers ahead for Sherlock Holmes and Borges' story "Death and the Compass."

Sherlock Holmes has a Connect the Deaths plot: Holmes cracks the case when he realizes that three crimes committed by Blackwood follow a pattern, related to the occult symbols of the secret society. And because this society reveres the number 4, Holmes realizes that a fourth crime must take place and complete the pattern. He plots the locations of the three crimes on a map of London and sees that they form a nicely shaped triangle, which enables him to deduce the location of the fourth crime--English Parliament! Armed with this knowledge, Holmes races over to Parliament and save the day.

But as soon as I saw Holmes and his marked-up map, I couldn't help but think of Borges' short story "Death and the Compass," which revolves around the same kind of map. A famous detective named Lonnröt investigates a series of murders that seem to follow a mystical/occult pattern: in this case, they revolve around the four letters of the Jewish name of God, YHWH. When three murders have taken place, Lonnröt plots their locations on a map and deduces where the fourth murder is due to occur.

There's an extra twist to "Death and the Compass," though, which Sherlock Holmes lacks. At the end of the story, we learn that the villain had staged these murders specifically in order to trap Lonnröt, and that he will be the fourth victim. It's a cautionary tale, in other words: Lonnröt thinks he has it all figured out, but really he's been set up. His intelligence, his arrogance, will be what kills him.

Sherlock Holmes lacks this twist, and because of that, the story makes no sense when you stop to think about it. We learn at the end of the movie that Blackwood didn't even believe in the occult at all--he just knew that he could exploit people's fear of it in order to seem more powerful and terrifying. So, if he knew that his crimes had nothing to do with supernatural forces, why did he feel compelled to commit them according to an occult pattern? After all, because he followed a pattern, Holmes was able to figure him out and foil his plans! But if he had just committed crimes randomly, Holmes would have been stymied and Blackwood would have easily triumphed!

Furthermore, Holmes appears to be the only person in the entire movie who figures out that the crimes were based on occult symbols. So if Blackwood was trying to terrorize the citizens of London by making them think that supernatural forces were at work, he's failed at that, too... And, while Blackwood wants to get rid of Holmes, he doesn't seem to have figured out that he can use Borges' method and trap the detective in his own logic.

This made me realize that Borges' twist isn't a cheap trick: it's really the only logical way to resolve the plot. But as it stands, Blackwood is just a sorry excuse for a villain!