Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A Bouquet of Additional Thoughts on "The Lily's Revenge"

Unquestionably, the major event of May 2011 for me was The Lily's Revenge. First, as I said in my earlier blog post, I couldn't stop thinking about it, and it led me to ask myself many questions about what I want to do with my art, what theater can and should accomplish, why I tend to write realistic narrative plays if that's not necessarily the kind of theater that moves me the most, etc. In short, Lily's twined itself around my insides and gave me what I call, partly but not really in jest, "an artistic crisis." Which, I figure, is only healthy; at my age, I ought to have artistic crises. Though I feel humbled and confused, I also feel awed, moved, and inspired. It's funny, I think of myself as a sensitive aesthete, but rarely am I ever so in thrall to a work of art that I see. It happened more often when I was still in school.

Meanwhile, the Lily's cast and crew discovered my blog post and passed it around, and Taylor Mac himself linked to it on Twitter, which completely made my day, and the Magic Theatre invited me to the cast party! So I ended up seeing the show again, at its closing matinée, and dining and drinking and dancing with the cast afterward. I am so grateful to the good and generous Magic staff and Lily's cast. At the party I did not feel like a poser or an interloper, even though I am just an enthusiastic audience member and they had been collaborating on this massive project for 2 months. But then, The Lily's Revenge is the kind of show where you can get randomly hugged by a cast member before you take your seat, where the audience shouldn't feel like they are "just" spectators, where it's all about building connections and spreading the love. The closing-day audience was so supportive -- the show ran about 15 minutes over because we kept interrupting it to applaud -- and the party was so warm and loving. It expanded my faith in humanity.

And I'm glad, too, that I got over my petty fears of "will people think I'm weird if I see the show a second time? Is my having gone nuts for this show a sign of weakness?" Loving something, being enthusiastic, is so often seen as uncool. It is so easy to be jaded. Thus, one of the many points of The Lily's Revenge is that love and commitment are acts of courage, not of weakness. It is an un-jaded piece of theater, and the least we can do is to be un-jaded in return.

OK, by this point you probably think that I have joined some hippie cult, and I admit that The Lily's Revenge is the very definition of cult theater. (if that's not a tautology -- didn't theater evolve out of religious rites and cult ceremonies?) It's something I didn't know I needed until I experienced it, and it resonated very deeply with themes that are preoccupying me.

My blog post about Lily's, therefore, led to some amazing things for me. But I do wonder if it helped to sell any tickets. In contrast to its New York production, The Lily's Revenge wasn't a sellout success here in San Francisco; when I bought my ticket for the closing performance, there were still plenty of seats left. Well, in New York the show got rave reviews in the New York Times, Time Out New York, etc; here, the show got a polite, but hardly enthusiastic review in the Chron and a very snarky headline ("Five-Hour Play Is Five Hours Too Long") in SF Weekly.

Even more strange, to my mind, was the fact that the theater community wasn't as excited about The Lily's Revenge as I expected. Several friends told me that the only reason they wanted to see it is that they knew some of the performers. OK, thanks to that 35-person cast, every theater person in San Francisco knew someone in Lily's (let's praise the Magic, again, for staging the show with local actors and directors) and it's laudable to support your friends' endeavors. But still -- I was amazed that that was the only reason people wanted to see it. If you love theater, why wouldn't you want to see a big, ambitious, wacky and entertaining 4+ hour epic that roared into town in a cloud of literal and figurative glitter? Why wasn't that enough of a selling point?

I can speak only for myself, but I was excited about The Lily's Revenge from the day the Magic Theatre announced it -- long before I knew that friends of mine would be acting in/directing/hanging lights for the show. In fact, my first thought was "SUCK IT, NEW YORK" (my internal monologue can be surprisingly vulgar). I had read the New York reviews and also heard that many New Yorkers who wanted to see this play had been unable to get tickets. But now it was coming to San Francisco, and I'd get to see it! And probably without having to stand in a line! Sometimes there are advantages to living in a smaller, less theater-crazed town. But then, somehow, it went from "Yay, I can get a ticket" to "Hell, I could buy twenty tickets to closing day if I could afford them! What's the matter with San Francisco?"

Is it that we resent the Magic for devoting its resources to a New York-based artist, in a season where they did not produce any Bay Area playwrights? There seem to be two competing schools of thought on this matter: one says "theater should be local, support local artists and stories, don't let New York City dominate the national theatrical conversation, don't be in thrall to the latest New York hit." The other school of thought says, "Isn't it awful that most new plays get only one production and have a very hard time getting produced again? Stop the premiere-itis!" On the one hand, we're supposed to condemn the Magic for producing a "New York hit"; on the other hand, we're supposed to praise it for giving a second production to a challenging and complex play! This kind of thinking can really tie you up in knots -- and take your attention away from the value of the work itself.

And when it comes to the work itself, did The Lily's Revenge affect me so deeply because I was already favorably disposed to it, because I'd looked forward to it for a year? I realize that's a possibility; but it doesn't make my reaction any less true or valid.

Besides, I went to Lily's expecting to have a good time at a crazy and ambitious piece of theater; I was not expecting to have an artistic crisis! And I wrote my earlier blog post about the show in the hopes of encouraging others to go see it, not in the hopes of getting invited to the cast party and meeting Taylor Mac!
I really could not have predicted any of this. And I feel very lucky.

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