Theatre Matters

Contemplations on the dramatic arts from a national perspective


Steven Oxman has contributed to such publications as the Los Angeles Times, American Theatre, Stagebill, and, most frequently, Variety, for which he has written over 300 television and theatre reviews.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Sheridan Serendipity

Why does it always happen that theatres produce similar plays around the same time? A couple of years ago, everyone was doing the Greeks. That was followed by articles about how Greek tragedies reflected on something very post-9/11. OK, maybe that's true.

So how to explain the sudden serendipity of Richard Brinsley Sheridan revivals on both coasts? "The Rivals" has just opened at Lincoln Center in NY, directed by former Hartford Stage artistic director Mark Lamos, while at the Mark Taper in Los Angeles, Brian Bedford stages "The School for Scandal." That latter is getting better reviews, but I must admit to great fondness for "The Rivals" having played a small role in a college production many moons ago.

Sheridan wrote in the last quarter of the 18th Century, and his plays fall directly in between the Restoration comedies of manners from folks like William Congreve (a hundred years earlier) and the Victorian comedies of manners from Oscar Wilde (a hundred years later).

They're wonderful plays, and aside from some dusty language, they're really quite contemporary in tone. I've always thought today's Americans could recognize themselves more in Sheridan than in Moliere.

Still, it would be completely pretentious to suggest that I have any insight into why, or whether, now is a particularly Sheridanian moment. Let's just chalk it up to coincidence, enjoy, and hope we don't have to wait too long for some more.

The Role Theatre Plays

Playbill has an article about a panel discussion with big-name playwrights on the topic of race and politics in the theatre. Not the most interesting piece in the world, but it stirs my mind on the subject.

As a minority art form -- in the sense that in our society it is a tiny dramatic form compared to the popularity of film and television -- theatre has taken on an essential role in providing a place for minority artists. Since so much of it is subsidized, often with public money, it has taken its responsibility seriously to serve the under-served (I suppose here that I really mean under-served actors as opposed to audiences).

But there's another reason. Unlike the great mass of mass entertainment, theatre is local. And urban. Looking for an outlet, the talented African American and Latino and now Arab and Persian artists can't really look to Hollywood for a whole lot. There just aren't anywhere near the jobs available as there are for white actors. And, boy, are there some talented folks in these communities. Look at any cast for an August Wilson play, and how easily these plays are re-cast, and you get a sense of the depth of the African American acting pool. (The NY Times had an article about this group of actors -- you can read it here.)

Many of these actors have turned to playwriting when they weren't finding roles they wanted to play. Just as an aside, Eugene Lee, in a supporting role on Broadway in "Gem of the Ocean," has written at least one good play (I worked with him on his first television movie script, too, although it didn't get produced).

Point, while everyone may simply consider this diversity "political correctness," it really is true that theatre can and must give voice to those who are not given voice by mass media. It's an area where theatre CAN do better than film.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Termination in Tacoma

Did you know Tacoma, WA had a professional theatre? I didn't either. Alas, had is the operative word. Article here.

What Happened in 2004

Playbill On-line has selected its top theatre news stories of 2004, and the article is a pretty good summary of the commercial theatrical year.

My own quick rundown of their rundown:

1. Playwrights on politics -- the electorate was engaged, as were playwrights. I still can't wait to see (or heck, even read) Tony Kushner's play featuring Laura Bush.

2. Avenue Q's campaigning -- successfully -- for the Best Musical Tony Award. My question: is it that they campaigned -- which every show does to some degree -- or that they did it so darn well? More imortant long term, and a point which the article mentions, is Q's decision to head to Vegas rather than going on the road. Also not mentioned, the NY Times Ombudsman's tirade against the Tonys, a stinging, and I thought thoughtful, rebuke about these awards; its sting though was made quite harmless by the claim that, since the Tonys were controlled by the road producers, there was no way anything but "Wicked" would win.

3. The continued reign of the Jukebox Musical -- great term for the shows that are more excuses for the soundtrack than anything else. I didn't know about all of these:

"In the works are projects built on the greatest hits of John Lennon (Lennon), Bob Dylan (a new venture by director choreographer Twyla Tharp), Chicago (a book musical called Colour My World) Pink Floyd's Roger Waters (a stage version of the concept album The Wall) and Earth, Wind & Fire (Hott Feett)."

4. The continued reign of the one-person show.

5. The selection of Oskar Eustis to head the public. I've said it before -- there's a transition going on, folks, and the new generation of artistic leadership is coming mostly from outside NYC.

6. Changes in theatre coverage at the NY Times.

7. The impending return to Broadway of Cameron Mackintosh and Andrew Lloyd Webber.

8. The "banner year" for artists Sondheim, John Patrick Shanley, Craig Lucas, and director Doug Hughes. More interesting topic: Next year, who will it be? (Last year the star was Richard Greenberg.)

9. The rising importance of Vegas as a theatrical city. See: Avenue Q.

10. The new contract between road producers and Equity. Most useful summary:

"Bottom line, actors on the road will probably make less money more often. But then, producers, now compelled to use union actors, will also probably make less money more often."

11. The death of Cy Coleman and Fred Ebb.

As I said, it's a pretty good list, but I'm shocked that the "Gem of the Ocean" melodrama didn't get a mention.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

More on the Puniness of Plays

Jesse McKinley, who exposed the unprofitability of plays in last week's NY Times, had an article this past Sunday in the Times' Week in Review that returned to the subject.

"As the fall Broadway season comes to an end this week - with the opening of a 229-year-old comedy, "The Rivals," on Thursday - it is a good time to consider all the new, culturally significant American drama produced there this year.

Anyone? Don't hold back. Just shout out a title. Any title will do.

If nothing jumped to mind, you shouldn't think you're a philistine. The original American Broadway play has long been consigned to second-class status in an industry dominated by musicals, but this fall it reached a low-water mark. Other than one-person shows, only one new American play - comedy or drama - made it to the stage, August Wilson's 'Gem of the Ocean,' which opened Monday. And the producers and Mr. Wilson, the nation's premier African-American playwright, had to beg, plead and call in a favor ($1 million worth) from a wealthy producer in San Francisco."

He then laments the fact that plays simply can't generate the kind of buzz -- let alone the audience -- that movies and TV shows can.

He asks the essential question. Does theatre still matter, at least as more than an incubator of television writing talent? The analysis he provides, though, is pure cliche:

"'I suppose TV and a movie can get there, but when a play is working, that communion is different,' said Warren Leight, a Broadway playwright ('Side Man') and a 'Law and Order' producer. 'An audience moved by a play is moved in a different way. It lingers longer.'"

Theatre is not superior to film or television. It's just different. If we can't understand and articulate that difference, then we're doomed to pale imitation of media with far greater means and popular support.

I agree, though, with the fundamental proposition of the article: even if Broadway is not, and need not, be the artistic mountaintop for non-musical theatre in America, theatre still needs to find a way to tap the zeitgeist. The article assumes that's about subject matter alone, which I'm unsure of. We need some genuinely imaginitive playwriting, and we need it soon.

Plays of Humana-ty

Louisville's Humana Festival of new American plays has announced its core productions for 2005. They include plays by John Bellusso, Kathleen Tolan, Carlyle Brown, Kia Corthron, Adam Bock, and Allison Moore.

I've never been to Humana, but it's a festival I've always wanted to attend. For a bit of time each year, Kentucky becomes the center of the American theatrical scene.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Warms Your Heart

Another article in The Denver Post about Kent Thompson's becoming artistic director of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts.

There really is something exciting about fresh starts, and Thompson's un-jaded optimism warms your heart in the interview, which includes lots of talk aboutnew play development at DCPA. Looks like Bruce Sevey's appointment as his associate (see my previous post) is not yet a done deal.

"Lone Star Love" review

My "Variety" review of "Lone Star Love," an off-Broadway musical adapted from "Merry Wives of Windsor," is here.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

New Denver Directors

And now for the feel-good story of the year.

In 2001, in the midst of seeing its budget slashed, The Denver Center for the Performing Arts did what all theatres do in that situation: they cut their literary office. It's an understandable choice, but one that basically strips a theatre of its ability to discover new work that it might want to produce.

Several years later, the person who headed the office at the time, Bruce Sevey, is returning to the institution, this time as the new associate artistic director. He's accompanying his boss at Alabama Shakespeare, Kent Thompson, who will be the Denver Center's new leader. He's only the 3rd artistic director in the company's history, yet another example of the transitional phase I genuinely believe our regional theatre is in.

I know next-to-nothing about them, but they say all the right things in this Denver Post article.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

The Cat Is Out of the Bag, and Maybe Dead

Strangely enough, I haven't been reading the NY Times while I've been in New York the last few days. Too busy. But several people told me I had to read this article from Monday's paper.

It reports that in the last 2 years, only one commercially produced play in New York has turned a profit. This does not include one-person plays. The lone re-couper was a surprise to me -- Yasmina Reza's "Life X 3," which did not get stellar notices but did star big names (Helen Hunt, John Turturro).

New business model, anyone? Or is non-musical theatre really only feasible as a subsidized form?

Souvenir review

I've been in New York since this past Friday. Saw the play "Souvenir" Saturday night to review for "Variety." It was actually a tough review to write, since it had serious extremes of strengths and weaknesses. Judy Kaye plays Florence Foster Jenkins, the worst singer in history -- it's based on the true story of her strange stardom. Kaye is wonderful, but the other actor in the two-person play, Jack Lee, is a musician and not an actor. Seeing a brilliant performance next to a terrible one is a rather strange experience.

Anyway, you can read the review here.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Profiles of the Theatrical Future?

American Theatre writes up 12 theatre companies to watch:

Bedlam Theatre in Minneapolis
Black Dahlia in Los Angeles
BlueForms Theatre Group in Columbus, Ohio
Charter Theatre in Washington, D.C.
The Civilians in New York City
Defunkt in Portland, Ore.
The Dirigo Group in Austin
Flaneur Productions in Minneapolis
Mad Dog in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Out of Hand Theatre in Atlanta
Silk Road Theatre Project in Chicago
Son of Semele Ensemble in Los Angeles

Censorship and A Sense of Humor

We seem quite plainly to be in the midst of a fit of Victorian prudishness, which as a country we tend to engage in on occasion. It all got a nice little push at the Super Bowl by Janet Jackson baring her breast -- or, worse, having it bared -- in a truly tacky halftime show. Congress increased significantly the maximum fine the FCC could levy against broadcasters, and the regulator, lead by Colin's son Michael Powell, has zealously embraced its new power with multi-million dollar fines, including some for small, suggestive bits on shows long cancelled.

Jeff Jarvis at BuzzMachine, one of three or four blogs I read with regularity, has been documenting the furor with a nice dose of fury. Particularly entertaining was his blog on how complaining has become a virtual industry, so that the complaints of one or two pissed-off prisses can be magnified by a politically-driven, letter-writing machine. If interested, check his archives for his November 15th entry on his Freedom of Information request regarding a fine against Fox.

Since bloggers -- I guess that's me, huh? -- are supposed to have opinions, I'll shock you with mine: I'm against censorship. I think it's bad.

Then why am I amused by all this? Plenty of contemporary politics really pisses me off, but this I mostly just find silly. Does the FCC really think they can distinguish between artistic smut and non-artistic smut? Their betters have tried before and failed.

Of course, it's not happy funny, but stupid funny, depressing funny, "they're not really doing this, are they?" funny. I thought affiliate stations that decided not to air "Saving Private Ryan" for fear of fines were just doing so to make a point. (They fucking curse in that war movie and contractually, they couldn't edit it.) It turns out the FCC may decide to give them a minimal fine. If they allowed cursing for good movies, they'd have to allow it for bad movies too. (And by the way, let's not forget that Oklahoma just elected Tom Coburn to the Senate; as a Congressman, he railed against the airing of "Schindler's List" as a disgusting display of gratuitious nudity.)

Anyway, I'm sure we'll return to the subject, but I wanted to draw your attention to a timely publication for a bit of context, and perspective, on the issue. It's a book called "Lord Chamberlain regrets..." by the English English Professor Dominic Shellard. It chronicles the sordid history of the chief censor of the British Stage. Read a news story on the book here. My favorite quote from the article deals with one of my favorite plays, and nicely sums up the silliness:

"Samuel Beckett's 'Waiting for Godot' was labeled 'an interminable verbal labyrinth' by censors who demanded that the Nobel prizewinning playwright replace one 'fart' with a 'belch.'"

I think Michael Powell would be well advised to read this book. I plan to. I also think it might inspire quite a good television movie. Of course, it would have to be on cable.