The Nudity Continues

April 30, 2007

More nudity here on the blog today. Readers contributed some very nice and thoughtful comments on this topic, the general gist of which was that nudity on stage is cool as long as its justified. However, the criteria theatergoers use to determine what’s justified is as varied as the theatre itself. Check out their comments and you’ll see what I mean.

In the meantime, here are a few words on the subject from someone who has appeared on stage in the buff. Actor Adam Rihacek flaunted his birthday suit in playwright Stan Richardson’s short play, “Patience (Or Taking It),” which was part of Blue Coyote Theater Group’s Standards of Decency Project, and he generously offered these thoughts on the experience:

First we got the text in our body. Then we took the clothes off. [Director] Gary [Shrader] and Stan were very supportive of [actor] Alexis [Suarez’s] and my decision of “when it was right”.

As for nerves or uneasiness, I only get nervous if I’m making another actor feel uncomfortable on stage. In a couple of the early nude rehearsals this happened (not by any one’s fault, just by circumstance) and it really broke my spirit. I felt terrible.

On nudity in the theatre: It should be a non-issue. People know what they are getting into. Warnings are put up for everything (smoking, adult content, strobe lights, etc.). It is, after all, just a body. We all have one.

Adam also told me, as a counterpoint to his closing thoughts above, about a student production of Doug Wright’s Quills in which he played the Marquis De Sade during his final year of college at Wright State University. It was the first and only other time he had appeared nude on stage, and apparently it caused quite a controversy on campus. The production was almost shut down because of it. You can read more about this here and here. My thanks to Adam for the links.


Writing About An Elusive Art – Part 2

April 26, 2007

As promised, here is the second part of my discussion with Isaac Butler about reviewing directors. Part 1 generated some very interesting responses, especially from my colleague Matt Johnston, which I will respond to soon. For now, however, let me share with you more of what Isaac has to say: 

Q: When you read a review of something you’ve directed, what do you want to get out of it?

A: Well, I should say that I think the proper way to think about reviews is as marketing tools first, and as records of experience second. I’ll take these in order. In the first sense, all you want to look for is what sentences can I pull to put in an e-mail that’ll make people want to come see the play. These are called pull-quotes, as I’m sure most of your readers know. I don’t care if people are ruthless about this.. This is the dance we’re dancing, the game we’re playing. Aritists and reviewers are using each other, it’s an exchange, so of course we should try to get as much out of our end of the exchange as possible, right?

Also, keeping focused on the marketing end helps keep you sane because a review is, ultimately, simply the record of one person’s experience of the play. That’s all it is. And in that case, you want to look at it and figure out what you can learn from it. With volume of smoke, I solicited a lot of opinion, good and bad, about the show. So when your review came out (largely positive about the directing, mixed-to-negative about the script), it was one voice added to a mosiac of impressions about the play, many of which agreed with yours, and many of which didn’t. And then learning as much as possible from this larger tapestry– if I may use so cheesetastic a word– become the goal.

What we absolutely cannot look to reviews for is any kind of validation or measure of success. Those you have to find and define on your own. I know from In Public that if you look to reviews for it, it’ll drive you batty (and make you insufferable!). When we were doing In Public, it got really good reviews and positive audience feedback. And when the Times review didn’t come for days and days, I went a little crazy. Once it finally wasn’t going to run I was able to look back at what I was doing and go oh, I was looking here for validation. How mad! And it was mad. Also, our constiuency as artists needs to be the audience, not reviewers, not artistic directors of major institutions whom we want to get jobs from, but the audience right there in front of us.

Q: Are there any general things about your work that you hope the reviewer picks up on?

A: I hope my work changes enough project to project that there wouldn’t be a consistent thing beyond what’s going to go into my answer to your next question…

Q: How would like to see reviewers write about directing?

A: In an ideal world, reviewers would’ve read the script before they came and saw the play. I think that way they could see how much of what’s going on is based on choices (not all of which are made by the director, mind you). I would like reviewers to see and report on the choices made vis-a-vis bringing the script to life on the stage. Because, as I wrote on the blog, doing a “transparent” kind of job on a play is itself a choice. As is doing something more “high concept”. Was that choice appropriate for the play you’re watching? Reading In Public, for example, I think you’d expect a production that was more naturalistic than where that show ended up. And you know we disregarded a few stage directions, and created moments were more abstract etc. George was there for all of it, it’s not like we were purposefully going against his thoughts on the play. But I feel for those people who saw the more naturalistic workshop, or had only read the play, seeing our production of it was a bit of a different experience.

So what can we do that we don’t live in that ideal world? I don’t know. Directing as a discipline hasn’t been around very long. It’s still fairly ad hoc and oddly undefined in a lot of ways. So reviewing it is tough. But I think if reviewers thought of themselves as critiquing the production instead of just the script, we’d be in a better place. Even if that meant the directing still wasn’t talked about, but there was more focus on the acting and design.

Also… just to be clear: it’s not that I want the focus that’s going to writers to be going to directors (or more specificaly, me). In traditional text-based theater, the text is really super important, and I appreciate that. I just think it’s in an extreme place right now that puts undue pressure on the script for the choices of the collaborators making the play. I think it’s helped contribute to an environment in which people are very scared to do plays that are unknown commodities.

As you can see, there’s a lot of good fodder here for thought and debate. I have a few responses of my own, but I’m going to let them percolate a little bit longer before serving them up. Check back with me in a day or so.

In the meantime, however, I want to thank Isaac for sharing for his thoughts and ideas with me (and for using the belly-laugh-inducing word, “cheesetastic” – Isaac, you may use that one on my blog any time you like).

Your turn to weigh in, dear reader. Let me hear some more of your responses.

Writing About An Elusive Art – Part 1

April 25, 2007

One topic that keeps coming up over here at HQ is how to write about a director’s contribution to a given show in a review. My colleagues and I continue to scratch our heads over this one. Writing about the art of directing can be one of the hardest and most elusive things about theatre reviewing. Even those of us who have directed struggle with it. Personally, I know what goes into directing a show, but it differs from person to person and from show to show. How I do it won’t be the same as how someone else does it. And one’s level of involvement with certain elements can sometimes vary from one project to the next, as well as one’s level of personal and emotional investment. As a reviewer, there’s really no way of knowing who came up with that piece of blocking, or whose decision it was to make the set do that cool little thing, without actually being in the rehearsal room. I can only draw conclusions based on what’s on stage. By that time, it should all theoretically be flowing into one seamless whole.

So, I decided to look at this issue from a different point of view: what do directors want to get out of a review? Constructive artistic criticism? Good blurb copy? Both? Neither? I thought I’d get a director’s take on it, and asked Isaac Butler for his two cents.  Isaac is a gifted and inventive director who has helmed such projects as Clay McLeod Chapman’s volume of smoke, and In Private/In Public by George Hunka. Isaac also writes a passionate and thought-provoking blog of his own called Parabasis (which can be found on the ol’ blogroll).

Isaac was good enough to answer a couple of questions about this, but prefaced them with some preliminary thoughts that called for a blog entry of their own. Here’s what he had to say:


These are surprisingly tough questions, given how basic they are. Part of the problem is that the director’s contribution/role in the whole thing is in general almost completely disregarded, not out of malice or anything. Generally, I think it comes from a lack of understanding. Andre Bishop once told the Lincoln Center Director’s Lab something that I quote on my blog a lot, namely, Look, a lot of people don’t understand what you do. They think if the actors spoke quickly and articulated well and the set changes were pretty that a play was well-directed. When I was at Playwrights Horizons, we’d see reviews of plays that had been remounted, that had been panned in their original production, and the reviewers would talk about how great the rewrites were. The script hadn’t changed. The director had. (That’s obviously paraphrasing.)

Unfortuantely in reviews now, I think we’re moving even further in the same direction. Now we’re not just disregarding directors, we’re disregarding basically everything other than the script. So a review’s entire focus (unless the play has a real star turn in it) is on the script. The reviewer critiques the script as if he or she were reading it. And then what you get is a series of one-offs that look like the following (Tell me if this looks familiar or not, maybe you’ve even written them yourself!):

The cast is uniformly excellent/good.

The actors try valiantly to save Martin Crumblebottom’s script. The stand-out in this effort is Melissa Fakelastname.

Briskly directed by…

The set, by XYZ draws on ABC to evoke TYL.

And on and on and on. These one sentence mentions, where the rest reads like a book report.

This is a problem. I think even our dear, beleaguered writers would like the focus to be more on the production as a whole. Acting, writing, design, directing, they all affect each other.

Interesting stuff. And, yes, such one-offs as he mentions do look familiar. However, whether or not I have ever indulged in the use of any, only the review archive knows for sure.

I’ll have more with Isaac tomorrow. But, don’t let that stop you from adding your two cents on this subject right now.

In Memoriam: Lynn Michaels & Kitty Carlisle Hart

April 23, 2007

I’m a little late getting around to this, but I’d like to take a moment to mark the passing last week of two great ladies of the theatre: Lynn Michaels and Kitty Carlisle Hart. I didn’t know much about either of them before last week, but it turns out there was plenty to know.

Michaels was a key figure in the original indie theater movement back in the 1950s. Her debut as a producer was Bertolt Brecht’s The Private Life of the Master Race, adapted by Eric Bentley, which went on to receive of the very first OBIE Awards from the Village Voice. From there, she opened and ran the St. Marks Playhouse, which presented such works as The Blacks by Jean Genet, Deep are the Roots, and Leroi Jones’ The Slave/The Toilet. And, starting in 1969, the venue become the home of the then newly-formed Negro Ensemble Company for nine seasons.

Today, Michaels may be most famously remembered for converting an old hat factory into what is now the Ohio Theatre. She was also the founder and artistic director of the Open Space Theatre Experiment, which presented festivals of new work, including James Lapine’s Photograph.

Artistically speaking, Kitty Carlise Hart couldn’t be further away from Michaels, but her devotion to the theatre was just as fervent.

She was a performer whose career spanned every medium. She starred opposite the Marx Brothers in their classic 1935 film, A Night at the Opera. From 1956 to 1967, she was a celebrity panelist on the popular television game show, To Tell the Truth, with other such luminaries of the day as Johnny Carson, Polly Bergen, and Don Ameche.  Her Broadway debut came in 1933, in the operetta, Champagne Sec; her final Broadway appearance came some 50 years later, in the 1983 revival of the Rodgers & Hart musical, On Your Toes. In between, she appeared in several other Broadway productions including the musical White Horse Inn, Agnes DeMille’s production of Benjamin Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia, and Anniversary Waltz, a play directed by Hart’s husband, the legendary writer-director-producer, Moss Hart. She even made her operatic debut at the Metropolitan Opera House, in a 1967 production of Die Fledermaus.

Hart was also a diligent arts philanthropist who served on the New York State Council on the Arts from 1971 to 1996, including 20 years as its chairwoman. Her advocacy for bettering women’s role in society led to her appointment as chairwoman of the Statewide Conference of Women. Later, she served as a special consultant on women’s opportunities to New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller.

In 1988, Hart testified in Albany to a legislative committee investigating complaints that NYSCA had funded gay-oriented projects. Her response? “We fund art. We don’t fund anyone’s point of view.”

In one obituary of Hart’s, I came across a quote that seems to suit both her and Michaels. It came from a 60 Minutes interview with Marie Brenner, author of Great Dames: What I Learned From Older Women, in which she offered her explanation of the term “great dame”: “A great dame is a soldier in high heels…They lived through the depression. They lived through the war. They were tough, intelligent and brassy women.”

‘Nuff said, eh?

Words Of Wisdom

April 23, 2007

As he already detailed in his blog,  Martin and I attended an event at the Italian Cultural Institute last week kicking off the upcoming publication of NYTE’s newest book, Unpredictable Plays, an anthology of 28 plays by the Italian playwright, Mario Fratti. It was a lovely event at which Mario spoke passionately about his love for the theatre and the necessity of nurturing and encouraging new playwrights. He is the kind of person I call “a lifer”: someone who is devoted to both the art of theatre, and its continued growth and health. He said many inspirational and insightful things that night, two of which I’d like to share here.

On the art and craft of playwriting, Mario told the audience, “Playwriting is one-third autobiography, one-third history, and one-third imagination.” Personally, I feel that many of the plays that have moved and challenged me the most all contain these three qualities in abundance.

In addition to being a playwright, Mario is also a theatre critic himself, covering the New York theatre scene for several European newspapers. When asked why he did it, he answered, “We all go to the theatre with great hope in seeing a masterpiece every time.”  I won’t presume to speak for any of my other reviewer colleagues, but, for me, I know Mario’s words perfectly sum up the reasons why I do it, too.

nytheatre mike au naturel (almost)

April 18, 2007

Some more thoughts about nudity on stage with a firsthand story of my own.

Several months ago, a friend of mine asked me to audition for a show she was producing. The role she had in mind for me required the full monty. At first I was surprised, then flattered, then intrigued. I didn’t know if I had the guts to do it, but was fascinated by the potential challenge. I imagine that wearing one’s birthday suit in front of a theatre full of people requires some serious concentration and composure. Not to mention how the audience’s reaction to such an event colors one’s performance from night to night. And then there’s the whole vulnerability factor. In a word: eek.

It turned out to be a moot point, however, because I ended up not auditioning: a scheduling conflict I knew I had during the show’s run prevented me from accepting my friend’s invitation.

Here’s the thing, though: before declining the invite, I told several friends about this opportunity, and they all said the same thing: “Yeah, Mike, that’s great. I hope you get it. But, if you do, I’m not coming to the show.” It seems they were uncomfortable with the thought of seeing their platonic buddy au naturel in person.

To which I thought to myself: what’s the point of doing a show you know no one will come see?

So, here’s my question: how do you feel about the idea of seeing people you know on stage in the buff? With the increase of onstage nudity here in Gotham, I suspect it’s a growing concern for some, while for others I imagine it’s no big deal. Let’s talk about it, shall we?

In Memoriam: Roscoe Lee Browne

April 15, 2007

Today I’d like to take a moment to note the passing earlier this week of veteran character actor Roscoe Lee Browne. He died of cancer in Los Angeles on April 11 after a long and distinguished career. If you think you don’t know him, I say that you do. As is often the case with character actors of his stature, people didn’t recognize his name as often as they recognized his face.

Not to mention his voice. His was a rich, mellifluous voice that could be both authoratative and soothing. Once you heard it, you never forgot it.

What’s he got to do with indie theater, you may ask? A lot. Like many of today’s indie theater artists, Browne toiled away at a number of survival jobs – including college professor, and wine company salesman – before turning to acting in 1956. He hit New York just in time for the original indie theater movement of the 1950s and 1960s, appearing in the original New York productions of The Blacks, Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright, and The Ballad of the Sad Café, as well as the New York Shakespeare Festival (known today as The Public Theater) productions of Julius Caesar, King Lear, and Troilus and Cressida. He appeared in Danton’s Death for the Repertory Theatre of Lincoln Center (now known simply as Lincoln Center Theater), and even hoofed it up with Tommy Tune and Twiggy in the Broadway musical, My One and Only.

Browne’s final New York stage appearance came in 1992, in the original Broadway production of Two Trains Running by August Wilson. My mom was fortunate enough to see his performance, and it has stayed with her to this very day.

Like most people of my generation, I was introduced to Browne through his voluminous film and television work. There were the guest spots on numerous television shows: All in the Family, Maude, Soap, Benson, and an Emmy Award-winning guest spot on The Cosby Show. He also worked with Alfred Hitchcock on Topaz, and narrated both Babe movies.

I will always remember Browne most of all for his supporting turn in the 1972 film, The Cowboys, in which he played opposite none other than John Wayne. As Jedediah Nightlinger, the wise, disciplined cook who helps supervise a cattle drive full of inexperienced young school boys, Browne proved to be one of The Duke’s sturdiest and best sidekicks. We won’t see his like again.