Friday, February 25, 2011

Starstruck and Starry-Eyed

Image: Jacket designed by Yves Saint Laurent in 1980 as a homage to Jean Cocteau.

I've been in a good mood all day ever since I woke up to an email informing me that the Comité Jean Cocteau has granted me the rights to do an English translation of Orphée!

The head of the Comité Jean Cocteau and the keeper of the moral rights to his work is Pierre Bergé, who was a friend of Cocteau's in the '50s and is best known as the personal and professional partner of Yves Saint Laurent. The email this morning mentioned him by name, saying that he is "tout à fait d'accord" (entirely in agreement) with my plans. I am very grateful and more than a little starstruck!

Starstruck... I guess that's an appropriate word, considering that Jean Cocteau loved star imagery and incorporated it into his signature.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Riling Up a Modern Audience, part 2 - "Clybourne Park" at ACT

As I said in my earlier post, I was very curious to see Bruce Norris' play Clybourne Park at ACT, because I wanted to see how the San Francisco audience would react to this intentionally provocative play, which explicitly takes race and gentrification as its themes.

Act I of Clybourne Park takes place in 1959. A black family is about to move into a white middle-class Chicago neighborhood, and the neighbors are "concerned," in that patronizing 1950s way. (The black family happens to be the Youngers from A Raisin in the Sun, but I'm not going to go into that aspect of the play here.) The racial dynamics of this act will be familiar to fans of Mad Men and other contemporary works that take place in the 1950s and 1960s. It allows the audience to feel superior to the white characters, who are so paternalistic, and sympathize with the black maid and her husband, who clearly can't stand being around these people.

Norris lulls us into a false sense of security in Act I ("wow, haven't things gotten so much better since 1959?" we say) in order to play the provocateur in Act II, which takes place 50 years later. After the Younger family moved into Clybourne Park, more and more black families followed them. In the 1970s and 1980s, the neighborhood was seriously troubled with poverty and violence. Since that time, it has slowly gentrified, to the point where white families are starting to move back into what is now a "historical" black neighborhood. Act II depicts a young white couple who have just bought a house in Clybourne Park (the same house as in Act I), and want to expand it. A black couple from the neighborhood has engaged a lawyer to try to stop them from renovating the house and disrupting the historic character of the neighborhood. But obviously, there is more to this dispute than just architecture.

In Act I, three of the characters were straight, white, middle-class men -- the archetypes of privilege. In Act II, just one of them is: Steve, the yuppie who bought the house. Everyone else is an "Other": two white women, a black woman, a working-class white man, a gay man, and a black man. We are used to being asked to sympathize with characters like Steve, because, as we know, pop culture teaches us that the default human being is straight, white, male, and bourgeois, and anything else is a deviation from the norm.

And at first, Steve is not hard to sympathize with. He is the first person in the room to say "Look, isn't this really about race?", and when he does that, the audience thinks "Finally!" Clearly, the conversation we have been witnessing is all about race and class, but no one wants to admit that. (Some of the characters, hilariously, are blinded by their own political correctness. Steve's wife Lindsey is shocked, shocked, that anyone would even think this was about race.) Wasn't it good of Steve to get that out in the open!

But it soon becomes clear that, while Steve was right that there are racial tensions underlying the conversation, it was incredibly stupid of him to mention them. Because, once he brings them out into the open, the gloves come off, and Act II culminates in an exchange of offensive racist jokes. And the more Steve talks, the more he keeps putting his foot in his mouth. He's the first character to tell a racist joke, which manages to offend the women and the gay man in addition to the black couple. Obviously, Norris does not intend for us to sympathize with Steve's point of view -- this, despite the fact that Norris himself is a straight, white, middle-class man. I'm not sure who we are supposed to sympathize with, but it's not Steve.

After the exchange of racist jokes, Steve puffs himself up, in all of his privilege, and basically says that it's impossible for him to get offended by such jokes, because he is a straight white man. In fact, Steve says, what really offends him are those assholes who drive around in their S.U.V.s with yellow ribbon magnets saying "Support the Troops," when what they really mean is "Support George Bush's phony war and the right-wing Republican agenda"...

And the San Francisco audience applauded. Applauded.

Despite the fact that by this point, Steve has shown himself to be an idiot. Despite the fact that Bush has been out of office for two years. (Indeed, if this scene takes place in 2009, in the happy early days of the Obama administration, Steve's continued obsession with the Iraq War just adds to the impression that he is an idiot.) But somehow, any time a character says something "liberal" onstage -- even if the playwright is trying to critique that attitude -- a San Franciscan feels compelled to applaud. Never play a game of "more liberal than thou," with a San Franciscan, for you will surely lose. This is what I mean when I say that the smugness of this city can be a wonder to behold.

Of course, Norris immediately has the black character, Kevin, take Steve to task for his statement -- asking him why he considers people "assholes" if they have a Support the Troops magnet, and revealing that his own car has three such magnets, for the three members of his family who are serving in Iraq.

There was a smattering of applause after Kevin's response -- from me and people like me who were uncomfortable with all the applause that Steve got -- but it was far more subdued. I'd like to think that the people who applauded Steve felt chagrined, but did they really? And I also wish that the actor who played Kevin had held the moment a beat longer, encouraged more applause, made it even more uncomfortable. It was the most interesting moment of an interesting and provocative play. It was a moment that, with a little more encouragement, might have started a riot in the theater.

Image: Act II of Clybourne Park at ACT. Left to right: Emily Kitchens as Lindsey, Richard Thieriot as Steve, Manoel Felciano as Tom, Gregory Wallace as Kevin, and Omozé Idehenre as Lena.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Theater History from The Guardian

OK, so I'm not going to get around to writing the second part of my "what could make an audience riot?" post tonight. In the meantime, how about something I discovered when I was writing the first part of the post?

Looking for information about the first production of Playboy of the Western World, I found and linked to an article from The Guardian. Turns out, it was part of a fascinating series of articles. In the mid-2000s, journalist Samantha Ellis had a column called "Curtain Up," describing the opening nights of memorable theatrical productions, drawing upon reviews and eyewitness accounts.

There doesn't seem to be an index for this series on the Guardian website, so I've taken the liberty of making my own, using the Guardian's index of every article that Samantha Ellis has written for them. Here are all the productions that you can read about in the "Curtain Up" column:

Of course it is exciting to read about plays that have gone on to become classics, like Pygmalion or Look Back in Anger, but I also find it interesting to read about plays that are probably too minor and too dated to ever be produced again, but epitomize something about the theater and culture of their era -- like Black Chiffon or Ben-Hur.

I also think it's fascinating how many now-classic plays were flops in their first productions!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Riling Up A Modern Audience, part 1

My friends and I, being nerds, like to sit around, drink wine, and read classic plays out loud. (Our group, the No Nude Men salon, got a nice shout-out on the Bay Guardian blog last week!) A few weeks ago, the play we read was J. M. Synge's The Playboy of the Western World. After we had stumbled through the play in our horrible mock-Irish accents -- and our Irish friend, who read the role of Pegeen, tried not to make fun of us -- we discussed the play, and in particular the "Playboy Riots," that occurred after its premiere in 1907.

Then someone asked if we could ever imagine theatergoers in 2011, in San Francisco, rioting in response to a play. What kind of play would it have to be, to get them so riled up?

It was hard to imagine a play that could provoke a genuine riot in the theater. A sufficiently violent, disgusting, or disturbing play might provoke an audience to walk out en masse, but is unlikely to start a riot.

San Francisco audiences are notoriously left-wing, so would we riot if a conservative play was produced here in town? (I mean a play that explicitly promoted right-wing talking points. Of course many "classic" plays are conservative in their outlook in a more general sense.) Well, I can easily picture San Franciscans getting all huffy and protesting outside the theater where the conservative play was being performed. But that is still somewhat different than spontaneously rising up in the theater and starting a riot. We would be offended that someone was trying to produce a conservative play in San Francisco, but we would not feel personally indicted by the play.

After all, for an audience to riot, it must be touchy. Insecure. On the defensive. Whereas San Franciscans are a largely contented (some would say "smug") bunch of people.

Again, consider the example of The Playboy of the Western World. In 1907, the Irish were extremely touchy and insecure. After hundreds of years of subjugation, they were finally beginning to take pride in their cultural heritage, and to see it as a fit subject for playwrights and artists. But rather than glorifying Ireland and its people, Synge wrote a hilarious black comedy that portrays the rural Irish as gossipy, libidinous, and completely amoral. Coming from an English author, such insults would have been tolerated. Coming from an Irish author at the Abbey Theatre, it was seen as high treason. Synge was becoming famous, and the good citizens of Dublin worried that his play would present a skewed idea of Ireland to the rest of the world. So, they rioted.

Therefore, I think that in order to riot in the theater, the audience must feel that the play has personally insulted them as a group, and must be an insult that they cannot easily dismiss. For instance, if a right-wing play were produced in San Francisco that told us we were a bunch of sodomizing, fornicating coastal-elitist heathens who would go straight to hell, we wouldn't take it seriously. We know that that is how half of the country thinks of us, and we accept that -- we even take pride in it. In order to cause us to riot, a playwright would have to discover a way to truly get under our skin and make us feel uncomfortable -- to condemn us in subtle ways, to damn us with the truth, rather than with caricature.

In light of this, I was extremely curious to see how the S.F. audience reacted to Bruce Norris' Clybourne Park, currently being staged at A.C.T. Norris has a reputation as a provocateur who enjoys making fun of the hypocrisies, the coded language, the white privilege and white guilt of city-dwelling liberals. If any play could get a San Francisco audience to riot, I thought, it would be something like that -- an insult lobbed at us by one who knows our kind too well, produced by the city's most prominent theater company.

Tomorrow: my experience seeing Clybourne Park, and proof that the smugness of San Franciscans is really a wonder to behold.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Theater, the Gender Imbalance, and Economics

If you go to opening-night parties at mid-sized theater companies, certain things are bound to happen. The show's director, or the theater's artistic director (often these are one and the same person) will make a toast. The members of the board of directors will schmooze with one another and make you feel like a bit of an interloper. A bevy of earnest young women in black cocktail dresses will serve the drinks, set up and break down the folding tables, and generally make sure that everything runs smoothly.

I say this affectionately, because sometimes I am one of those earnest young women. Several of my friends are on staff at the Cutting Ball Theater and because of this, when I attend their opening night galas, I feel somewhat like an honorary "Cutting Ball Girl." (Well, I am on their literary committee.) At the end of the Bone to Pick/Diadem party a few weeks ago, I ended up taking a photo of the cast and crew, because I was the only person there who didn't work on the show.

Here's the picture--I love how well it came out, with the deep rich colors. But, note the preponderance of females. All women, except for Rob there in the middle!

Similarly, last night, a friend of mine hooked me up with a gig volunteering at the opening night party of What We're Up Against, the latest play at the Magic Theatre. There were probably ten or twelve people working to make this party come off, and only two were male -- the rest were young women, volunteers or interns or staffers at the Magic.

In short, there is a heavy gender imbalance in the staff of nonprofit theater companies. You can also see this gender imbalance among actors: more women compete for fewer female roles.

Probably the most common explanation for this is that boys don't think it's cool to enjoy theater. Theater is "gay"; creative pursuits are not manly -- you've heard all of that before.

But today I found myself wondering if there is another explanation. It's still rooted in the different cultural expectations that our society has for different genders, but this time with an economic component. Namely, that women are more willing to work for low pay than men are, or that it is more socially acceptible for women to work for low pay.

The data bear this out. On OKCupid's fascinating statistics-based blog, they prove that a man who says he earns less than $40,000 a year gets next to no messages. Unfortunately, OKCupid didn't provide a similar chart for women, but they implied that women are much more reluctant to contact a low-earning man than men are to contact a low-earning woman.

Even though we live in a society where women are often more educated than men, and are encouraged to seek out interesting and well-paid careers, I feel that there is still a sense that it's OK for a woman's career to be less remunerative than a man's. After all, a woman who "marries well" still has the option of quitting work forever and pursuing those things that non-working women have always pursued -- art, volunteering, philanthropy. Last night I met one of the Magic Theater interns, and her husband who works in finance. I must admit I was rather jealous that she could pursue the arts full-time because she had a husband who could support her.

A man's career, though -- that's got to be lucrative. For him, money is a way of displaying status -- proving to the world just how much of a hard-working man he is -- in a way that it is not a status symbol for women.

One could also say that the arts are often thought of as frivolous, and society finds frivolity more acceptible in women than in men. A woman who, in order to pursue her artistic ambitions, scrapes together odd jobs and is always close to being broke, is an artistic free spirit. A man who does the same thing, in order to pursue his artistic ambitions, is a lazy slacker.

(This, despite the fact that it might actually be more expensive to be a woman than to be a man -- we're expected to have bigger wardrobes, to buy a wider range of cosmetics and beauty supplies, to pay for birth control pills each month...)

And, face it, we all know that nobody gets rich working as an entry-level staffer at a nonprofit theater -- and that's what really drives the men away. Even if a boy has managed to avoid falling for the "theater is gay" message, even if he loves the theater and was the star of his high school or college drama club, he will not consider theater as a viable career. He knows -- society has told him -- that he must "man up and get a real job."

And sometimes I wonder if the men were right. (Indeed, if you've noticed, I'm not doing internships or odd jobs in the theater -- I've had a regular nine-to-five office job ever since I left school.) I mean, yes, we want to work in the theater, but why should we be willing to accept such low pay?

Despite living in an era of feminism, we women are still trained to be polite, compliant, and service-oriented. We do make great staffers at opening-night parties -- we're smart, we work hard, we're capable of discussing Brecht or pouring a bottle of wine with equal aplomb. We put up with the low pay because we want to work in theater, and because our well-meaning liberal parents told us that we should follow our bliss and not let our gender hold us back. Well, that's what we're doing. Except that as other careers become more diverse and egalitarian and gender-balanced, theater is becoming less gender-balanced.

You see that these thoughts about gender inequality were provoked by my volunteering at the opening night party of What We're Up Against -- a world premiere play by Theresa Rebeck about sexism in the American workplace. I will be seeing the play in a few weeks, using the free ticket I received for helping out last night. The irony of all of this is not lost on me.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

My Favorite Moment from "Downton Abbey"

I definitely became a fan of Masterpiece Theater's broadcasts of Downton Abbey over the past four Sundays. While the beginning of the first episode drew me in with its amazing tracking shot through the rooms of Downton, the moment that really hooked me was a scene early in the second episode, after the characters and their relationships had been set up. As a writer, I must say that once you've gotten the exposition out of the way, everything becomes so much more fun!

This isn't one of the big, dramatic (sometimes melodramatic) moments of Downton Abbey, but it is a great example of one of my favorite things about period dramas: people finding clever ways to insult one another in polite company.

So, the set-up: Matthew Crawley, a young lawyer from Manchester, has recently learned that (for reasons too complicated to get into here), he will inherit the estate of Downton Abbey and the title of Earl of Grantham from a distant relative. The present Earl, a middle-aged man with three daughters, welcomes Matthew to Downton. However, other members of the family wish to alter the law so that the Earl's eldest daughter, Lady Mary, can inherit the estate.

If Mary cannot inherit, some people think that the next best thing would be for her to marry Matthew. But Mary is an aristocratic snob who has taken an instant dislike to this middle-class interloper. At a family dinner, she strikes up the following conversation:
MARY: I've been studying the story of Andromeda; do you know it?

MATTHEW: (suspiciously) Why?

MARY: Her father was King Cepheus, whose country was being ravaged by storms. And, in the end, he decided the only way to appease the gods was to sacrifice his eldest daughter to a hideous sea monster. So they chained her, naked, to a rock--

DOWAGER COUNTESS: (nervously laughs) Really! Mary! We'll all need our smelling salts in a minute!

MATTHEW: But the sea monster didn't get her, did he?

MARY: No. Just when it seemed he was the only solution to her father's problems, she was rescued.

MATTHEW: By Perseus.

MARY: That's right. Perseus. Son of a god. Rather more fitting, wouldn't you say?

MATTHEW: That depends. I'd have to know more about the princess and the sea monster in question.
As the scene ended and I laughed with delight, I knew I'd be telling several of my friends about it. All right, so I hang out with people who are inordinately fond of British period pieces, people being bitchy to each other in polite company, and allusions to Greek mythology. This kind of thing is catnip to us. (As a bonus, the Dowager Countess is played by Maggie Smith, and she is awesome.)

You can watch Downton Abbey for free on the Masterpiece Theatre website until February 22, which is how I re-watched and transcribed the above scene. If you're like me and my friends, and this excerpt has piqued your interest, go check it out.

Image: Publicity shot of Matthew (Dan Stevens) and Mary (Michelle Dockery).

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Introducing... "Pleiades"!

We are already in the thick of preparations for the 2011 S.F. Olympians Festival (coming in October) and the website is getting better every day, with a page devoted to each play and playwright in the upcoming festival.

Including my very own Pleiades!

Click on over for some background information on the myth of the seven sisters, some ideas about about how my play will reinterpret their story, plus my author bio and photo. And mark your calendars for October 22!