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.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Dramatic Indigestion

Interesting article in the NY Times about the various efforts to create films about the events of 9/11. I'm not quite sure it gets to the heart of what we may or may not "be ready for."

For more on the TV mini-series in development and my thoughts about them, you can check out an old post of mine here, where I note that one of the primary purposes of drama is to take us into the minds of those with perspectives very different from our own.

I do find producer Brian Grazer's comments about the piece intriguing and promising, and potentially provocative.

"Brian Grazer, co-chairman of Imagine Television, which is producing the NBC mini-series - and which has hired The Times as a consultant - said he hoped it would do for Muslims what Wolfgang Petersen's film 'Das Boot' did for World War II-era Germans.

'Every approach prior to that was, the Germans were horrible,' he said. 'He humanized them, because they are human. That's what I'm hoping we do, that we don't demonize, that we humanize all the different sides, and so we see the seeds, and we get an understanding from each culture's point of view as to how they got to such a horrible place.'"

I don't think that any films that "indirectly" take on 9/11 will cause significant cultural ripples; those, for example, that deal with handling grief. And the feature films discussed in the article seem to be focused on acts of courage, an effort to find a typically Hollywood through-line, to focus on the uplifting in the horror. Predictable commercial formula, neither good nor bad in itself, but open to charges of exploitation nonetheless.

But if the NBC mini-series is really willing to take on the charge of drama and humanize the villainous, then they're onto something both dramatically challenging and politically explosive.

Unlike the author of the Times article, I don't think the issue is whether we're "ready" to see a filmic depiction of the planes crashing into the towers (although that decision is a key artistic choice). I think the real question is whether we're ready to see a terrorist -- not a generic "terrorist" but a depiction of one of the actual 9/11 participants -- who loves his family and who has reasons, no matter how distorted, for what he's doing.

If you're not interested in how drama digests our great national trauma, then you're not interested in drama.

By the way, if you haven't seen it, I highly, highly recommend the PBS documentary "Telling Nicholas," which followed a family forced to inform a boy of the death of his mother at the World Trade Center. It becomes about much more than that, though. Great film. You can read my "Variety" review of it at the film's website.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Obsolete Yet Essential

Terry Teachout, the drama critic for the Wall Street Journal and A+ blogger, intelligently ponders two fundamental truths: first, theatre is obsolete as an artistic technology; and second, that doesn't mean people shouldn't write plays.

To find the piece, go to his blog, scroll down under April 18th entries to the one entitled TT: Eternally Obsolete.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Greek Scholars -- Start Salivating!

Looks like we may soon have some "new" ancient Greek plays to digest, including work by Sophocles and Euripides.

Read about it here.

Makes me wish I were still in academia: these kinds of discoveries don't come around too often.

Cleanliness is Next to Censorship

An extremely informative and provocative article in today's Washington Post, dealing with the issue of "film sanitizers." These are folks who edit commercially released DVDs to remove the "objectionable" parts, things like nudity, sex (or the more amorphuous "sexual suggestiveness"), bad language, and the occasional SpongeBob character dancing in fishnet stockings (not kidding). Then they re-sell the DVD. They claim to avoid blatant copyright infringement under the fair use doctrine, and because they buy the original DVD, then create an altered version, selling the end consumer both. In other words, the studio doesn't lose money on the deal.

Film directors see it as a violation of their artistic rights, while film studios are working hard not to say anything at all.

It would be easy to say, "Oh, those right-wing prudes are at it again." Except... watch out for knee-jerk reactions. I understand the market for this. As the article notes, it started with "Titanic." The whole article made me remember my brother buying his young daughter the DVD as soon as it came out, then having to sit there to make sure she was distracted during the parts he didn't feel she was ready to see. He definitely would have spent an extra $7 to have an edited version. And the studios are already altering these films for airlines and broadcast TV, so nobody's pure here.

Just because I understand the market for this, though, doesn't make it right. There are clearly changes that alter a piece so greatly that they violate the artist's vision, fundamentally alter a work's "meaning," and should be seen as censorship, not fair use. The example in the article:

"Robert Rosen, dean of UCLA's film, theater and television school, points to a sanitized version of 'The Hurricane,' about African American boxer Rubin Carter, that eliminated racial epithets uttered by police officials investigating Carter. That, according to Rosen, undercut two of the movie's central themes, racism and police corruption."

I'm fascinated by this ever-colliding intersection of dramatic art, law, and politics.

If these are deemed legal, imagine the possibilites. You could buy the DVD and re-edit it at your will, then profit from the re-sale.

Think of the movies you'd like to get your hands on! While the current sanitizers are removing Schindler's extra-marital affairs, perhaps others could be adding some nude scenes to certain Disney flicks to make them more marketable to adults. Is adding something different than deleting?

Thursday, April 07, 2005

The Whole of Humana

Charles Isherwood has this excellent summation in the NY Times on the six full-lengths produced at this year's Humana Festival in Louisville:

"Accusations that the American theater has gently accepted its cultural irrelevance and withdrawn into an aesthetic neverland were once again belied by the raised voices on the stages of the Actors Theater of Louisville, the host of this efficiently run, always convivial festival.... But if the playwrights showing new works at the festival earned marks in the category of social significance, their grades in other, more artistically relevant subjects were middling at best. Admiration for their desire to inspire audience interest in tangled social and political issues mingled with disappointment at their inability to channel these concerns into potent theatrical forms."

There's definitely a critical consensus on this year's crop. Michael Phillips in The Chicago Tribune calls for wholesale change for the Festival.

"The festival, a venerable and well-known showcase for new work, needs reorganization, a fresh angle, a renewed reason for being in a theatrical world very different from the one in which it began.... Oddly, the 2005 slate was among the most politically despairing in recent years. Why odd? Because the despair came to such weak theatrical ends. Surely the excesses of the current administration deserve a better counterpunch."

The only piece with a real potential commercial future seems to be Carlyle Brown's "Pure Confidence," but it didn't inspire great affection.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

New King of L.A.: A Monarch Massages the Media

In recent posts, I've brought up the term watershed (in relation to August Wilson's completion of his 10-play cycle) and discussed theatre in L.A.

Well, there couldn't be a clearer watershed moment for L.A. theatre than now. Gordon Davidson, father of theatre in Los Angeles, has retired, and Michael Ritchie, formerly of the Williamstown Theatre Festival, has replaced him.

Davidson is a hard act to follow, and that cliche phrase seems like such an under-statement it's made me giggle. Davidson was -- is -- a decent director, but not an inspiring one. But he is -- well, I guess, was -- a great producer, someone who built multiple institutions and fostered many careers and projects (including a small one called "Angels in America"). I've said it before, many times, and I'll say it again -- our regional theatres are in the midst of a leadership transition, and nothing defines this as well as what's happening at L.A.'s Center Theatre Group, which controls 3 theatres, the large Ahmanson, the mid-size Mark Taper Forum, and the small (and new) Kirk Douglas Theatre.

Indeed, if there's an existing monarch in American regional theatrics, this position is it. Ritchie has been crowned the King of L.A. Theatre.

Gil Cates at the Geffen is cringing at that comment -- he's so connected (he produces the Oscars) he cringes even at things he doesn't hear. Cates has managed to build a second regional theatre in the city, and kudos to him for doing so. L.A. has proved plenty big enough to support it, and he too is trying to start a second stage. Still, I can't think of a city where so much theatrical power is concentrated in a single person's hands.

Ritchie has been busy this past week meeting with the media. He's got big interview/features in both the L.A. Times ( a subscription site) and the N.Y. Times. He's discussing his first selections for new seasons. You can see the picks for the Ahmanson here and the Taper here.

For the Taper, he's starting with Mamet's newest, "Romance." (For the very mixed reviews of this, check out the divergent opinions of Michael Feingold and Ben Brantley.) At the Ahmanson, he's doing a huge revival of the 1935 epic "Dead End" by Sidney Kingsley. OK, I'm intrigued. Bold choice, and yet, since Ritchie produced it before at Williamstown with the same director, it's also a safe choice, in the sense that he knows what he's getting. In fact, it's been used to launch a new artistic directorship before, when said helmer, Nicholas Martin, used it as the beginning of his tenure at Boston's Huntington. (See Boston Phoenix critic Carolyn Clay's glowing review here.)

Ritchie seems a man not afraid to follow as well as lead. When something works, he's gonna do it again. It's worth remembering that he's dealt with a big legacy before too. Williamstown was Nikos Psacharopolous's baby, built from scratch. Although there were other leaders in between Nikos's death and Ritchie's arrival, he was the first who managed to turn the corner into a new era for the theatre.

Ritchie's got a hard job -- it's not easy being King. Potential lines of criticism for his season selections are really obvious for anyone who knows Los Angeles: these lists are pretty white-bread. Only a new Culture Clash play -- they're a terrific Latino theatre comedy troupe -- represents the diversity of the city. I agree with Ritchie that art comes before politics -- he's blatantly apolitical -- but I assure you he'll be getting an earful about the unrepresented, including from his own staff. That said, he hasn't yet scheduled the Kirk Douglas season.

The dance of a new artistic director and a new audience is a fascinating, and under-explored, one. This one is even more fascinating than most.

Humana Rundown

Hedy Weiss in the Chicago Sun-Times has this rundown of the new full-lengths at the Humana Festival.

Doesn't sound like there was a whole lot to get excited about. The biggest rave Weiss gives is for Carlyle Brown's African-American horse-racing tale, "Pure Confidence." The compliment: it could be a movie.

The Return of Harold Pinter!

I swear: when I wrote this entry on Harold Pinter's "retirement" from playwriting, I hadn't seen this "clarification:"

“It was not a declaration of policy or intent, it was just a very practical matter. I haven’t written a play for six years, and I think it’s unlikely that I’ll write another one. My writing, such as it is, is going into other things, mainly poetry . . . I’m still a writer, and who knows? But I think I’ve come to the end of my play-writing life. One never knows, but I have written 29 damn plays, long and short, and I think that’s probably about it.”

One never knows. Pinter, after all, is a man known for long pauses.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005



wa·ter·shed ( P ) Pronunciation Key (wôtr-shd, wtr-)n.
1. A ridge of high land dividing two areas that are drained by different river systems. Also called water parting.
2. The region draining into a river, river system, or other body of water.
3. A critical point that marks a division or a change of course; a turning point: “a watershed in modern American history, a time that... forever changed American social attitudes” (Robert Reinhold).
[Probably translation of German Wasserscheide : Wasser, water + Scheide, divide, parting.]

We can all pout over the difficulties August Wilson's "Gem of the Ocean" had getting to Broadway, where it had a run that certainly wasn't commercially successful. Cryin' shame! But it shouldn't stop us from recognizing that a watershed moment in mainstream American drama is upon us.

On April 22nd, Wilson's play "Radio Golf" will premiere at the Yale Repertory Theatre. It completes his 10-play cycle of works set in each decade of the 20th Century.

I remember seeing "Fences" on Broadway in the 80s, and I attended Yale School of Drama at a time when Wilson was a fairly regular presence. I was skeptical then of his plan to write the cycle. I thought he should allow himself to respond more directly to the moment, that he shouldn't lock himself into something that could tie up his artistic impulses for so long.

I was an idiot.

August Wilson had a vision, and he's on the verge of completing it. The fact that his plays have often struggled commercially, primarily due to the changing economics of Broadway, only makes his clarity of purpose more inspiring. He never wavered in the slightest; he has been the truest model of a playwright-as-artist we've seen. He has earned his place as one of the mainstream 20th century greats: Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, August Wilson, and I would add Edward Albee. You don't have to like everything they do -- by all means, don't -- but you can't question their prominence and their influence.

It's time to reflect on this achievement, and I'm sure major mainstream media will do so, if not all at once. The Boston Globe has a long, biographical feature on Wilson, including an astonishing fact that The Huntington in Boston had never produced the work of an African-American playwright until "Joe Turner." It will take time to absorb his cycle, now that it's complete. I'm looking forward to putting all the play texts in front of me, and going through them not in the order they were written, but starting with the earliest-set, "Gem," and continuing through to "Radio Golf," set in the 90s. I'm sure I'll have a very different impression of them than I have individually.

We're at a watershed moment in American theatre. Recognize it. Enjoy it.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Taking the Bait -- A Playwright Digresses

OK, OK, I'll bite. During my weeks of respite from blogging, I missed the announcement on the BBC -- reported here and here -- that Harold Pinter no longer plans to write plays.

Isaac Butler has scolded me for it, and written some very smart things about Pinter in the meantime.

George Hunka has joined him in taking the lack of press response to said announcement as scandalous under-coverage, one more example of the neglect of the theatrical arts and the myopia of theatre critics.

Mac Rogers wrote a Pinter-esque scene as a tribute. Nicely done, by the way, although a pinch more clarity in the power struggle (especially in a workplace setting) in addition to the scatology would really give it that classic Pinter punch. Still, a particularly nice tribute to a writer whose first play was supposed to be a parody of Beckett but was so good it stood on its own.

So, here I am, taking the bait. A few scattered thoughts, mostly about over-reaction.

Calm down, gentlemen. He didn't die. All he said was, "I've stopped writing plays. I've written 29 plays. My energies are going in different directions. I'm certainly writing a lot of poetry, and I'm using a lot of energy, more specifically about political states of affairs, which I think are very, very worrying as things stand."

Remember, George, when you said you were going to stop blogging? How long did that last?

By the way, I agree with both you that Pinter is one of the great playwrights of the 20th century, but my first reaction to hearing this news was, didn't he already stop writing plays? When was the last time Pinter really, really inspired you with a work? Sure, I'll read or see anything he writes, but it wasn't as if he was in his playwriting prime. Maybe a rest from the form will do him good; maybe he'll return with a fresh look at the theatrical medium. Maybe the entire world will be better off because of this. Relax.

And people do retire, you know. I only wish more playwrights had the money to do so, could hang up their hats and turn in their pens and live off a well-earned 401(K) for their labors if their royalties for book, stage and film don't suffice. As far as I'm concerned, they don't even need to write poems -- Pinter's plan. Here's a fantasy: Pinter takes up golf and returns with a play about it, called "The Putter," involving some use of a 9-iron so unmentionable that the PGA lobbies to ban the play in America, whereupon it sets new records for Broadway and ushers in a new era of serious playwriting.

Don't be so despairing. I say he's just digressing.

Is there theatre in L.A.?

Can't resist linking to this article from the L.A. Weekly, wherein playwright Luis Alfaro promotes the potential for theatre in Los Angeles.

First, some personal news: three years after leaving Los Angeles for Philadelphia, my partner and I are returning to the West Coast now that he is graduating from law school.

Mixed feelings abound about leaving Philly, a perfectly pleasant place to live, but one that in terms of its theatre offers, well... Let's just say it's an hour and a half from NYC, and therefore has a hard time generating any really exciting events. I haven't visited many of the theatres here, and I don't doubt they do noble work, but this just ain't a theatre town.

Los Angeles, believe it or not, is far more vibrant. But, wow, is it a strange town for theatre. The reasons are obvious. L.A. is the home of the film and television industry, the highly-related cousin of drama and the omnipresent uber-elephant in the room at all L.A. theatrical productions. If theatre in L.A. could ever really find a comfort level with its cousin, the family could flourish.

There's an enormous amount of theatre in Los Angeles -- I've been told, with no desire to research the truth, that more productions actually open in L.A. than in NYC. I believe it, but that's comparing apples and oranges. The "shows" that open in L.A. are often not done for the sake of theatre. They're showcases, usually for actors, who desperately need opportunities to court agents, casting directors and the rest of the film-TV crowd who can provide entree into the real money. It doesn't matter that these shows suck -- they're really auditions for commercials!

That said, there's a remarkable amount of serious theatre in the city at all levels of accomplishment. After all, there's no dearth of people seriously committed to acting, directing, design, etc. Plenty of them do theatre to keep their skills sharp between film and TV gigs, or just 'cause they really love it (see: Jason Alexander).

Let's face it: theatre in L.A. is first and foremost a feeder to the "big leagues." New plays are seen as potential fodder for HBO and Showtime movies (HBO sponsors lots of readings, and even full-fledged stage productions), if not independent films (a lesser animal, unsure of distribution).

More celebrities do theatre than you'd think. Actors who come off sit-coms or hour-long dramas will do plays in order to make casting directors -- and heck, directors -- see them in a different light. I've seen Tori Spelling do comedy, and Nora Dunn do tragedy. You won't get that in NY! Maybe in London, these days, but not NY.

Still, if a show isn't coming from or headed to NY, it's seen as a nice exercise but not a real step in a career, even if it's performed at one of the major regional theatres, the Taper or the Geffen.

There's lots more to talk about regarding L.A. theatre. For example, the article mentions the L.A. Theatre Center, which is filled with fantastic small theatres, and is falling apart.

But Luis Alfaro -- the nicest guy you'd ever want to meet, by the way -- is right in his optimism about L.A. theatre.

There's certainly no other town like it.