Extra! Extra! Extra!

The Interwebs might be fun, but for a writer, there’s nothing like a good old fashioned print edition––hence my excitement at the January’s American Theatre magazine, which ran a feature article I wrote on assisting in the theatre. The story is excerpted below, but you can download a full PDF HERE, or read a (sadly picture-free) web version HERE.

Or you could, you know, read the print edition. But why be all 1999 about it?


I Get a Sidekick Out of You

It’s 10:30 on a wet October morning in New York City, and the south rehearsal room at Playwrights Horizons is starting to hum. Trickling into the windowless hall are actors, designers and administrators who shake off the rain, graze at the festive snack table—it’s almost Halloween—and exchange familiar “hellos.” Today is the first rehearsal of Jordan Harrison’s Maple and Vine, initially seen at last year’s Humana Festival and now making its New York premiere under the direction of the prolific Anne Kauffman (Stunning, This Wide Night, God’s Ear).

By the time Ilana Becker rolls in, the room’s almost full. Goofy, quick to laugh, alternately focused and irreverent, Becker is Kauffman’s petite, brown-haired assistant. Becker has already attended some prep meetings for Maple and Vine, but as she notes her spot at the rehearsal table—close to Kauffman, naturally—it’s impossible not to sense her first-day excitement.

As an assistant, 28-year-old Becker belongs to a breed of unknown yet well-connected young directors, adjuncts to some of the theatre’s most important figures. An assistant director’s work can be mundane (buying salads) or creatively significant (suggesting cuts), but it always involves some interpersonal sixth sense, a faculty for knowing what directors need or don’t need, preferably before they do. Ideally, assisting is a chance to observe and help a master at work. Practically, it’s the clearest way for a young director to get her foot in the door….

Finish the article HERE (PDF) or HERE (web).

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A Clearer Day

1965's "Daisy" begets 2011's "Davey"

Many were the unsung virtues of this season’s criminally short-lived On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, but chief among them was the compelling characterization at the musical’s sweet center. Back in 1965, when Clear Day first appeared and first flopped on Broadway, that core was “Daisy,” a loopy woman with psychic powers, but in the recent revival, it became “Davey,” a gay man with an equally unconventional inner life. (This gender reassignment was director Michael Mayer’s stab at injecting drama into a notoriously flawed original script.)

This revision is an “unsung virtue” because, as a character, Davey represents a notable moment for Broadway storytelling. Clear Day’s creators have deemed his persona—weak-willed, insecure, gay—worthy of driving a musical, a pantheon usually reserved for more conventionally amenable or inoffensive types. This may seem a small distinction, but it actually means a great deal. Just as Death of a Salesman told us that the common man’s troubles were equal to the likes of Greek tragedians, so too does this Clear Day argue that Davey is every bit the viable Broadway hero as, say, Harold Hill.

[Read more...]

Real Rebels Don’t Take Corporate Cash

The Guggenheim recently closed a fun retrospective of the Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan. In it, hundreds of odd sculptural items hung from the museum’s ceiling at varying heights, gradually revealing themselves on the trek up the Guggenheim’s classic spiral ramp. From the child-size Hitler to the fake pigeons and animal skeletons, it was a kooky, enjoyable exhibit largely for its silly strangeness.

The artist and the Guggenheim didn’t see it that way, though. Their vision of the work was “bolder” and more “political:” “Cattelan creates unsettlingly veristic sculptures that reveal contradictions at the core of today’s society,” wrote the show’s curators. “While bold and irreverent, the work is also deadly serious in its scathing critique of authority and the abuse of power.”

All brought to you by Citibank, Xerox and dozens of other season sponsors.

How exactly is one supposed to take a “scathing critique of authority” seriously when it’s sponsored by cash from global banks and multinational corporations? It’s not that there isn’t an appropriate way to handle sponsorship—artists have had patrons for centuries—but the overwhelmingly vague petulance with which contemporary visual artists shroud their work always positions The Man as the winner, especially when artists call their work political. Nipping the hand that feeds them only highlights who is really calling the shots.

In The Road to Mecca, Roundabout’s Broadway revival of the 1988 Athol Fugard play, Rosemary Harris plays an eccentric South African artist whose bizarre, concrete sculptures have earned her the disdain and irritation of her neighbors. [Read more...]

Richard and Porgy: A Tale of Two Legbraces

Kevin Spacey (“Richard III”) and Norm Lewis (“Porgy and Bess”) must need some killer massage therapy this season…

Photos: Joan Marcus and Michael J. Lutch

Mike Daisey Goes Viral

“The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” was hands down one of last year’s best and most provocative plays–in it, solo performer Mike Daisey tracked his visit to a Chinese factory that produces Apple products. It was a damning, complicated and funny saga, one that lingered long after the curtain.

I joined Daisy’s  mailing list after the show, and have been getting period emails since. Yesterday’s update, below, is seriously exciting and worth reading. Yes, theater matters!

Hello All,

I can’t tell you how excited I am to send this email to you.

First, if you haven’t heard, during this break in the run at the Public we spent a month collaborating with Ira Glass and THIS AMERICAN LIFE to adapt THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY OF STEVE JOBS for the radio.

It aired the weekend of January 6th in a special episode of THIS AMERICAN LIFE where the only story was our excerpt of the monologue adapted for the radio, followed by a discussion featuring TAL doing extensive fact checking, interviews with Chinese labor activists, and a debate between myself and Nicholas Kristoff.

You can listen to the show here:

http://tinyurl.com/8aypq8a

Apple was asked to be on the show or to respond in any way. They refused.

In its first week the episode was the most downloaded in THIS AMERICAN LIFE’s history. The internet exploded, and the story went everywhere—I received over a thousand emails in just a few days; the response was overwhelming.

That same week news broke that hundreds of Foxconn workers had a stand-off that lasted two days, where they were all threatening mass suicide by throwing themselves off the roof of the plant over their working conditions.

[Read more...]

“Smash:” An Outsider’s Take

Uh oh! Debra Messing’s character “hates everyone who writes theater blogs” on “Smash,” a new NBC series about the creation of  a Broadway musical. Here at theater-words, though, we’ve decided not to take that personally—after all, it’s none too often that our fabulous invalid hits network primetime, and with a parade of New York stage talent to boot. So: anti-blog sentiment and all, we loved the show.

But what about the world beyond Times Square? What will it make of “Smash” and Broadway? To find out, I recently watched the pilot (a free download on iTunes) with a theatrically disinclined friend. What was the reaction? Here’s what I found on the outside…

Q: Did you enjoy “Smash?”

A: Well, at first I thought it was going to be another “Will & Grace” rehash because the first scene is Grace [Debra Messing] in the kitchen with a Will look-alike [Christian Borle]. But then that sort of shifted when they were followed by a fierce Anjelica Huston and some catchy tunes!

Q: Catchy tunes?

A: Yes, the most memorable part of the show was the last song. To be honest, I was a little bored with the understory, namely the work that goes into a Broadway show.

Q: Um, you do know that that’s the entire premise of the show, right?

A: Yes, but you really just want to get to that final song with the passion and the glamour and the culmination!

Q: Right. So in the show two women are vying for a big Broadway role. There’s a chorus veteran and a newbie—

A: Yes, this voluptuous sexy blonde woman [Megan Hilty] and a frumpy no-name [Katharine McPhee].

Q: Katharine McPhee was a runner up on “American Idol.”

A: Well she doesn’t look like it!

Q: So she’s not going to win?

A: Obviously she’s going to win because she’s the underdog. You don’t want her to win, but she’s going to.

Q: What do you mean you don’t want her to win?

A: Well, she’s cast on the show to look like a trainwreck! Her parents make fun of her, she’s struggling to make it as a waitress… though, when she meets with the director at his apartment, she does show her true colors and reveal that she has some talent behind all those sad layers.

Q: You really don’t like her outfits, do you?

A:She was clearly shopping at the Salvation Army in Williamsburg.

[Read more...]

#censorship@youngjeanlee

Happy censorship day! The poster for Young Jean Lee’s just-opened Untitled Feminist Show has a little something in common with Google, Wikipedia and many other major sites that are protesting two anti-piracy bills: the censor’s little black rectangle. Gender norms and Internet freedom might not have much in common, but today they’re sharing some pretty arresting imagery.

Untitled Feminist Show, part of PS122’s COIL Festival, advertises itself thusly…

… as do these protesting websites:

Google

Wordpress

Wikipedia

Seems there’s been a run on virtual, wedge sharpies, eh?

Susan and Wendy, in Their Own Words

Sontag Reborn, at the Public/ Under the Radar. Photo by James Gibbs

It’s all about the sources in “Wendy and the Lost Boys” and Sontag Reborn, two wholly different cultural artifacts that hold microscopes to egoistic, road-paving women. For “Lost Boys,” a biography by Julie Salamon, that giggly specimen is playwright Wendy Wasserstein; for the new play Sontag Reborn it’s writer and uber-critic Susan Sontag. Each piece features valuable contributions from biographer or adaptor—Salomon’s chronicle of Wasserstein’s untimely death is literally tear-jerking, and actress Moe Angelos gives Sontag’s glittering words, drawn verbatim from her journals, some human pettiness and petulance.

But it’s fundamentally the voice of the first person, independent of interpretation or commentary, that is most powerful in both works. For “Lost Boys,” that’s quotes and letters from Wasserstein and contemporaries. For Sontag Reborn, it’s the original, Sontag journal. The book and the play are valuable insofar as they give us a chance to hear the clear voices of these women—individual, insecure, ambitious—one more time. Here’s a very small sampling of  some unadulterated, straight from the source gems.

“WENDY AND THE LOST BOYS”

Letter to Caroline Aaron

When Aaron, an actress in the out-of-town tryout of The Heidi Chronicles, was replaced in the New York production, Wasserstein started out an apology note with typically funny, food-related self-deprecating humor.

Dearest Caroline;

Oy Gavlat!! I’ve had a baguette, a Saga Blue Cheese, and a nice bag of Reese pieces [sic] before I sat down to write this note. I can’t tell you how difficult this is, or how very fond of I am of you…

Of that letter, Aaron later said,  “It was a lesson everybody in show business could learn. Good manners go a long way. But even people in the mafia have better manners than in show business.”

[Read more...]

Dear Alice,

“Elective Affinities” was the fall’s toughest and most unique ticket, so naturally theater-words was there. The brilliantly eerie site-specific work saw Zoe Caldwell “hosting” 30 “guests” for “teatime” at an Upper East Side townhouse, where she performed a distinctive and precise monologue by David Adjmi. Caldwell played the steely Alice Hauptmann, an old world dame dripping with wealth and class whose conversation gracefully lilted from torture and art to travel and money.

Invitations and thank you letters from Mrs. Hauptmann were part of the remarkable and immersive experience, so I thought it only natural to follow up with my own note of appreciation.

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