Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Backwards and on ice skates

Congratulations to Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, the young Canadians who won the gold medal in ice-dancing on Monday night...

I think they're just adorable--classy and elegant in a sport that is not necessarily known for those qualities, with a beautiful rapport while skating. The commentators made a big deal about this being the first time that a North American team has won the gold medal in ice-dancing, but the funny thing is that Virtue and Moir's skating seems to epitomize old-world European romanticism. I mean, they look like they should be gliding on the frozen Neva River through old St. Petersburg... meanwhile, the actual Russian team, who won the bronze medal, were the tackiest skaters in the competition!

I even found myself thinking of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers while watching Virtue and Moir skate. Partly because Tessa Virtue's costume reminded me of the gown Ginger wore for the "Never Gonna Dance" number in Swing Time: white, backless, with a low v-neck, criss-cross rhinestone straps, and floaty skirt.

I think this is my all-time favorite Rogers costume... and "Never Gonna Dance" is definitely my favorite Astaire-Rogers dance number. In fact, I semi-facetiously say that I am ill-equipped to deal with real life because I watched Swing Time too often at an impressionable age. I was obsessed with it when I was three, four, five years old. And somehow it made me believe that that was what adult life would be like: nightclubs with sparkling lacquer floors, gorgeous evening gowns every night of the week, gentlemen in tuxedos confessing that they loved me--sometimes with the easy grace of "Just the Way You Look Tonight," sometimes with the heartbreaking pathos of "Never Gonna Dance." And it's been a long, slow process to divest myself of those childish illusions.

And now, I bet that all across North America, little girls are forming unrealistic ideals of romance and beauty and grace after watching Virtue and Moir's ice-dancing performance. Lord love 'em for it.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Humiliation no more

Have you ever heard of a game called "Humiliation"? Evidently, the author David Lodge invented it in his novel Changing Places. It's a party game to be played at gatherings of the snobbish and overeducated: everyone goes around the room naming the title of the book they are most embarrassed that they have never read. The person with the most humiliating admission is declared the winner.

Thinking that I might one day find myself a participant in a game of Humiliation, I got my answer ready: I would say that, to my great chagrin, I had neither seen nor read Chekhov's Three Sisters.

But now I'll have to think of a new answer, because I finally corrected this embarrassing gap in my knowledge, and I'm so glad I did. I don't know what took me this long. I mean, it would be one thing if I didn't like Chekhov. (Yes, there are people who have that opinion... even if I find it inexplicable.) But I love his three other plays! I wrote a research paper on him and Stanislavski and the Moscow Art Theater when I was in high school! And yet I had never read Three Sisters. Perhaps I was unconsciously trying to preserve it, knowing that Chekhov wrote so few plays, and that once I read Three Sisters I would never again experience the thrill of reading a major Chekhov play for the first time.

So, this probably isn't news to any of you, but Three Sisters is a gorgeous play, and the passage where Tuzenbach and Vershinin debate what life will be like in 200 years might be my favorite thing Chekhov ever wrote. The play so perfectly balances joy and despair... where The Seagull is all about unrequited love, the sadness of Three Sisters is offset by our knowledge that no matter what happens to them, the sisters will always love and support each other. It's the kind of play where the characters declare that they're happy, and it breaks your heart.

And yet, it's funny, too. I made a friend of mine read the Tuzenbach/Vershinin dialogue I mentioned above, and her first reaction was "It's funny," and I could have kissed her for that, because so many people don't see the humor in Chekhov, and she did, right off the bat. Then she said "But you realize that people these days don't care about this kind of thing. They all want to see, like, The Matrix."

Maybe. But I remain hopeful that, as Tuzenbach says, "Life won't change. It will still be hard and happy and mysterious. Three hundred years from now, people will still go around complaining 'Oh, life is so hard,' and they will still be afraid to die, the same as they are now." And if that holds true, then there will always be a place for Chekhov.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Seneca = The Roman Tarantino

After Medea vs. Medea a few weeks ago, I was chatting with one of the actors. Like me, he definitely preferred Euripides' version to Seneca's.

I said, "I got the feeling that Seneca was less concerned with moving the action forward, and more with writing speeches that made allusions to all of these other myths, so that he could show off how smart he was."

"Yeah, he was basically the Quentin Tarantino of Ancient Rome," said my friend. "Sorry, I don't like Tarantino."

"Oh, I don't know, I really enjoyed Inglourious Basterds," I said. My friend hadn't seen it, but maybe he should check it out. It seems that what he objects to is Tarantino's random riffs about pop-culture oddities, but Tarantino naturally had to tone that down for Basterds, because it takes place in the '40s. (And I thought that the riff on King Kong was brilliant!)

But anyway, my friend's comparison of Seneca and Tarantino was especially apt because not only are they both known for elaborate, rhetorical, allusion-filled dialogue... they are also really fond of outrageous bloody violence. In Euripides' play (as is typical of Greek tragedy) Medea kills her children offstage, but in Seneca's, she does it right in front of the audience. Seneca, not the Greek playwrights, was the inspiration for Elizabethan and Jacobean revenge tragedy. And after Cutting Ball's staged reading of the Jacobean revenge tragedy Women Beware Women, in the finale of which nearly every character dies in a bizarrely violent way, the post-show discussion compared it to...Quentin Tarantino! It's like there's a direct through-line from the ancient Roman dramatist to the Italian-American auteur.

I always used to have trouble remembering why I should care about Seneca or what his stylistic hallmarks were, but now that I know to think of him as "the Roman Tarantino," I won't forget!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Euripides Was Pretty Awesome

I never used to be one of those playwrights who got a lot out of Greek tragedy. I respected it, sure, but it didn't speak to me. However, a few things I've seen in 2010 have caused me to reevaluate my former judgment and gain a new appreciation for one of the three major tragedians--Euripides!

(And next weekend I'm going to see a new play called Oedipus El Rey, which everyone says is excellent, so maybe I'll find myself reevaluating Sophocles too...)

First, at the inaugural San Francisco Theater Pub, I saw a reading of my friend Ben's new translation of Euripides' Cyclops--the only surviving satyr play. Of course, it is a fluke that it was Euripides' satyr play that survived, and not one by Aeschylus or Sophocles or some other writer. Still, I enjoyed learning that Euripides had a very silly, bawdy, irreverent sense of humor; he wasn't only about choral lamentations and horrific messenger-speeches.

But then, Euripides' humor does come through in his tragedies, too. Odysseus, in Cyclops, is a total egomaniac, a burlesque of the conventional hero--but then, so is Jason in Medea. I learned this when I attended Cutting Ball Theater's Medea vs. Medea--back-to-back staged readings of Euripides' and Seneca's plays about the woman who killed her children for revenge. At the end of it, there was a discussion, followed by a vote on which play we preferred. Euripides beat Seneca by about 2 to 1! And I was firmly on Euripides' side. It seems to me that he was a dramatist, while Seneca was a poet. Euripides' version moves swiftly, integrates the Chorus into the action, and the dialogue arises out of the characters' wants and needs. Seneca is more concerned with writing lengthy choral odes that allude to other myths and legends (as though he's trying to show off how smart he is), and long philosophical speeches. Euripides' heroine is far more complex and sympathetic than Seneca's, and his play is shot through with the laughter of dramatic irony. Seneca was perhaps the underdog in this fight, because his Medea is much more rarely performed than Euripides'... but you know, it seems like there's a good reason he's the underdog.

Then, a few days later, I went to see Racine's Phèdre at ACT. I am very familiar with the myth of Phaedra and her love for her stepson Hippolytus, because in college, I was a member of the Chorus in a student production of Euripides' Hippolytus. And I have to say that, again, in my opinion, Euripides comes out the winner.

Part of might just be a problem with translation and with how little contemporary audience preferences have in common with Racine's style. OK, I can't read Euripides in the original, but I can read Racine's French, and understand how so much of what he has to offer is the way that he writes in balanced alexandrine couplets. But the translation that ACT used, by Timberlake Wertenbaker (who, when she's not translating, is a really terrific playwright), was in blank verse that sounded like prose, and lacked both modern vigor and classical lyricism. Greek tragedy, I think, is more translatable; at least, it has been successful all over the world, while Racine has never really been successful outside of France (unlike, say, Molière).

But I also think that Euripides' conception of character and incident was more interesting than Racine's. Racine's classicism, his "decorum," meant that he sanded the rough edges off of his characters. His Hippolytus is instantly sympathetic, because he is a handsome young lover. In his first scene, he tells us that he has fallen in love with Princess Aricie, but is forbidden to marry her. We are glad when Hippolytus fends off the incestuous advances of Phèdre, and we hope he can be united with the much more age-appropriate Aricie.

Conversely, Euripides' Hippolytus is really unsympathetic for about the first half of the play, and there is no Aricie character. Euripides' Hippolytus is proud and haughty; he has never been in love and appears disgusted by the idea of it. We almost hope that he will succumb to Phaedra's pleading, because we see how pained she is, and we think that it would be good for his heart to melt, for him to feel love and understand its torments. And yet, by the end of the play, Euripides has made us feel sympathy for Hippolytus: he is an unjustly accused innocent, his death is a tragedy. Only a very skillful dramatist can cause the audience to shift its opinion of a character like that; it's a challenging effect to achieve, and grants the play a greater complexity. Racine's characters may express themselves more eloquently than Euripides' do, but it turns out that as a dramatist, Racine had less to say.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Because It Is My Name

BTW: Because I'm getting more involved in the theater community here and more people are discovering my blog, I'm finally putting my last name under the "About Me" section. It's pronounced "skood-LAHR-ik." It's Czech... I think. Anyway, goodbye to semi-anonymity and all that.

Two Metaphors about the "Outrageous Fortune" Convening

Still processing yesterday's Outrageous Fortune community discussion (hosted by Theater Bay Area, who liveblogged it here). So there'll be more from me on this topic, but to start it off, I just wanted to post two thoughts/metaphors I had about the book and the conversation it has inspired:

God is dead: As a theater artist, reading Outrageous Fortune is like learning that God is dead. (if God = the regional theater system.) And that thought can be really horrifying, or it can be really liberating. In a weird way, it goes back to what I was saying about Angels & Insects last week: when Darwin's theories came out, they provoked a crisis of faith in many Victorian people... and some people responded to this crisis by saying "Darwin can't be right" and developing cockamamie spiritualist ideas, and others said "Wow, so everything on this earth evolved from something else, according to natural selection? That's really COOL!" And I suppose that people chose their position on this depending on how much it hurt them to give up their old beliefs.

So, as I've said, I was lucky to be young and to read Outrageous Fortune before I got completely invested in the old system, and therefore I can be "tacitly optimistic" about it... I can find it weirdly liberating. It's funny, I thought the lesson I was going to take from Outrageous Fortune and the surrounding discussion was "it doesn't have to be a rat race, you don't have to hustle, that mentality is unhealthy and perpetuates a broken system, it's OK you're taking a breather." But just when I came to that conclusion, I've suddenly started working harder and getting more involved in the theater scene here than ever. I think it's because I am no longer afraid. No longer afraid I might anger people, or worried that I have to conceal parts of myself because "if I make one false move, then every grad school will reject me." In my youthful hubris, I used to think that if I just played the game with more smarts and stealth than anyone else did, I'd succeed. I was going to game the system, and that requires you to lay low and wait for an opportunity to pounce. But now I see that the system can't be gamed. And, moreover, it isn't worth gaming--God is dead! Therefore my fears are baseless and should die too... and why shouldn't I put myself out there and learn by doing and trying and failing? Much better than laying low and making a move only when you think that success is guaranteed--because, in the American theater, success is never guaranteed, so all I did for the last year was wait, and for what? For Godot!

The blind men and the elephant: We can agree that discussion is a wonderful thing--and it was mostly playwrights in the room yesterday, so you are not likely to find a group of people more predisposed to "discussion and dialogue" anywhere! But discussing Outrageous Fortune can be difficult because the book covers so much ground, and points out so many things that are wrong with the American theater, but also points out that many of them are connected. There is no logical point to begin the discussion--which means that everyone winds up approaching it from their own starting point, according to the issues that personally inspire them the most. At least, that's how I felt during yesterday's conversation--everybody had their own issues that they wanted to be heard, but it was harder to advance the dialogue beyond the point of airing grievances, proposing our own personal opinions on how to fix theater, and nodding assent to the best suggestions or the most commonly held complaints.

This is human nature, I know--I just kind of got a feeling that we were the blind men and the elephant, each of us seeing the problem through our own particularized lens, and not fully acknowledging that it was an elephant--an elephant in the room!

And maybe a way to start solving problems is for everyone to just jump in and tackle the issues that resonate most with them, because concerning oneself with the big picture can get too overwhelming... but my worry is that that will lead to a diffusion of energy, that everyone will be working on separate but parallel tracks. We might need to figure out what the biggest problems are and then join our voices together to solve them; theater is marginalized enough as it is, that putting up a united-front consensus might be helpful.

Then again: when your art form is all about letting different voices speak and be heard, perhaps you have a natural aversion to consensus and unanimity...

Thursday, February 4, 2010

"Angels & Insects," Victorians and Us

Over the weekend I finished reading A.S. Byatt's novella-collection Angels & Insects and then finished reading the January 25 issue of The New Yorker. What's weird is that a couple of articles in the magazine strongly reminded me of the book I'd just finished.

First, there was the short story, which is one of the more bizarre pieces of fiction that the magazine has published recently. It's called "Trailhead," it's by distinguished entomologist E.O. Wilson, and is more like a creative-nonfiction article about an ant colony, than like a literary short story. You can learn an awful lot about ants from it: their mating habits, the social structure of their colonies, how different colonies fight each other...

But I had just learned many of these same facts from Angels & Insects! One of Byatt's protagonists is William Adamson, a naturalist who is writing a popular-science book based on his observations of a local ant colony. As is her habit, Byatt embeds excerpts of Adamson's writing into the text of the novella... and it's very similar to "Trailhead." Adamson is like a fictional, Victorian-era E.O. Wilson!

Then, at the back of the magazine, Anthony Lane reviews the new movie Creation, the Charles Darwin biopic. Evidently, the movie shows Darwin struggling to write The Origin of Species while anguished by the death of his daughter Annie and holding imagined conversations with her. Lane writes, "The movie, with its complicated time jumps, does give fresh energy to another Victorian obsession—namely, the ghost story. The epoch that, with Darwin’s assistance, came to nourish profound doubts about the hereafter was also, by a pleasing paradox, the heyday of interest in the spirit world."

Well, it wasn't intended as such, but that just happens to be a precise description of what Angels & Insects is all about. It's made up of two novellas: "Morpho Eugenia," about William Adamson, who is an early follower of Darwin, and clashes with his religious father-in-law because of it; and "The Conjugial Angel," about a group of Victorian spiritualists, holding seances to try to contact dead loved ones. So, the spiritual and the earthly, angels and insects. What I got from it is that we think of the Victorian era as being cozy and repressed, but it was during this time that ideas like "God is dead" first came into the culture, and people were really frightened and confused, and sought solace. But did solace lie in Darwin's scientific rationalism, or in the metaphysical spirit world? Which system should one follow?

"The Conjugial Angel" is not entirely successful, at times reading more like Byatt's meditation on Alfred Tennyson and his poem "In Memoriam" than like a piece of fiction with a strong plot and characters... in contrast to "Morpho Eugenia," which, for all its digressions on ant life, has an interesting story to tell. It's extremely "Byatt-y" (it might make a good introduction to her work for someone who's unwilling to tackle Possession), and because you know that I have a bias for Byatt, that's just fine with me.

Monday, February 1, 2010

A Possibly Outrageous Proposal Inspired by "Outrageous Fortune"

Among many other topics, Outrageous Fortune discusses how it is often easier for playwrights to earn money by teaching, rather than by having their plays produced. As the study says, "the ranks of university playwriting programs have exploded in recent decades," and the opportunity for student writers to learn from professional playwrights "has been a boon to the field, in terms of creative mentorship."

Agreed... but isn't there also something kind of messed up about this? If the system is breaking down--and part of the broken-ness is that more people are receiving playwriting degrees than the American theater has money/space/willingness to sustain young writers' careers--then to become a teacher of playwriting is somehow to be complicit in a malfunctioning system... to be part of the problem and not the solution. MFA programs succeed because they make their students think that this diploma is the key to success, but now Outrageous Fortune proves that success, for a playwright, is a rare and fragile thing. Cf. 99 Seats' post last week about how grad school is built on delusion and on denying that there is an alternative path:
I love young playwrights and have worked with them over and over again. And they're running into a meat grinder. If we shrug our collective shoulders and say, "Well, that's just the price of the business we do," we don't help them. We don't let them know there are other paths, other ways. When I got out of college, I moved to New York because it seemed to be the thing to do. I interned at a small theatre because it seemed to be the thing to do. I went to grad school because other writers I knew and I liked went to grad school. I worked with small theatre companies, run by grad school and college friends. Always the sense was, this is just the first step, my apprenticeship, before moving onto a place where there was more work, more artistic challenges, and more support. Now I see that that place doesn't exist, despite the way it's sold.
Now, I am not trying to decry the importance of educating and learning from more experienced writers. But all of the work that goes into developing "new voices" is meaningless if there is no one to hear these new writers--if audiences do not expand, if theater attendance does not increase. Because, also, when playwrights teach other playwrights who then beget other playwrights--mightn't that make for a very insular system? And contribute to the impression that we playwrights are congregated in ivory towers, increasingly marginalized from the culture at large?

So, too, Outrageous Fortune talks the need for audience education and development, and the idea of a "gulf between [aesthetically conservative] audiences and adventuresome writers." Which is another thing that might be killing the American theater: because arts education in this country has declined, even as much of the most interesting playwriting is formally experimental, audiences just don't have the tools to understand these new works.

(This really hit home for me when my parents went to see a production of Peter Sinn Nachtrieb's boom in Portland a few weeks ago and completely failed to catch onto the twist ending. Now, my parents are intelligent people--they are pretty much the epitome of the "educated bourgeois middle-aged theatergoer"--and the ending of boom isn't even that experimental or ambiguous or tricky. Nonetheless, they somehow lacked the tools they needed to understand the play. They were not watching it the way Nachtrieb would want it to be watched.)

And then, too, I have several friends who tell me that they'd love to go to the theater more, it's just hard to know what's good, or what's playing (unless it's playing at a theater with a big marketing budget), or to find people to go with...

So, with all that as preamble, I've come up with a scheme that I think might kill multiple birds with one stone:

Instead of MFA playwriting grads teaching playwriting for a living, what if they taught "laypeople" how to watch a play and appreciate theater?

The program I envision works as follows: During a time of year when a lot of good/interesting plays are on the boards in a given area, but maybe they're taking place at lesser-known theater companies that don't get a lot of press attention, a playwright* gets together a group of people, say 10 or 12, who want to see some plays and learn more about theater from an expert in the field.

*Obviously it could also be a director, an actor, or any other underemployed theater professional who can talk engagingly and intelligently about the plays that are on the "syllabus."

The participants will pay a fee that covers the cost of theater tickets, as well as something to compensate the instructor. The instructor chooses 4 or 6 plays, one per week, all on the same night (Thursday night?), and buys a block of tickets to each show. Maybe then some theaters would offer a discount rate on the tickets? And then that could be a selling point for this program: "see 4 plays at 4 theaters, save money, and learn about theater from an award-winning playwright!"

Anyway, the instructor and the "class" attend the plays together. But beforehand, the instructor gives the other theatergoers some guidance about why he or she thinks that this is a worthy/interesting play, and some suggestions for how to watch and appreciate it. Nothing that reeks of homework or of the dully educational, just some information offered in a spirit of friendliness: "you might like this play anyway, but you'll like it even better if you know this going in!" And afterward, instructor and students all go to the nearest bar and discuss their impressions of what they saw!

I realize this isn't a perfect program. It'll work only in cities that already have enough interesting theater going on at one time to support this 4- or 6-week program. And with the whole "in this economy" thing, how much are people willing to spend on theater tickets at this time? Therefore the program would be only accessible to the middle-class and above... people with discretionary income. And it will only work if it's kept cheap enough that people are willing to take a chance on it even if they don't know much about theater... rather than all the slots filling up with people who already love the theater and attend it regularly.

But, if it works, it'll make theater companies happy because they'll be selling blocks of tickets--a new source of group sales! And the writers and other theater artists who lead the seminars will get some income (probably not enough to live on, I admit...) and have the satisfaction of introducing some awesome theater to people who might not otherwise have seen it, and get to step out of the somewhat insular theater world and connect with audience members, which will be so valuable to their other work as artists.

In addition to cultivating the next generation of theater artists, let's cultivate a more aware and engaged audience! Let's prime people to enjoy great art, and then expose them to it! That's our ultimate goal, after all, isn't it?