29 November 2009

The Berlin Wall

Earlier this month, on Monday, 9 November, the world acknowledged the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The celebration was grand in the city of Berlin itself, with dignitaries from Germany and many other nations, including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, gathering at the Brandenburg Gate, which for 28 years stood on the eastern side of the barrier. Ironically, the landmark was built in the late 1780s as a sign of peace. The Wall, known by Germans on both sides as Die Mauer, was the most potent and visible symbol of the division of the aligned nations into a communist East and a capitalist West. It was for nearly three decades the metaphor for the Cold War. Its fall, which wasn’t so much a “fall” as the willful demolition by energized Berliners who tore the structure down with sledgehammers and their bare hands, started on the night of 9 November 1989 and signaled the fall of European communism and the Soviet bloc of eastern and central European governments. The Soviet Union itself, of course, ceased to exist two years later.

As some readers will know from earlier posts, I spent 2½ years in West Berlin as an army intelligence officer, assigned to Berlin Station of the 66th Military Intelligence Group. The Wall was more than a symbol for us, of course. It was both a physical barrier and the tangible demarcation between the territory of the U.S. and our allies and our adversaries in the Soviet bloc. It was, in many ways, a daily--and very real--reminder of what my comrades-in-arms and I were doing there in the first place.

Early in the morning of Sunday, 13 August 1961, the German Democratic Republic threw up a temporary barrier of barbed wire and trenches along the boundary between the Soviet Sector of the still-occupied city and the three Western sectors and around the border with the GDR. The East Germans officially called it the Anti-Fascist Protection Wall. The GDR also tore up much of the pavement of streets that crossed into the Western sectors to impede transit. From 18 August on, the GDR constructed a permanent wall of concrete blocks, topped with barbed wire. The Wall took about a year to construct--though it was always under alteration and sections were rebuilt and sometimes shifted from time to time. The Wall did not always conform exactly to the border dividing the eastern section from the west; the GDR built the Wall within its territory and sometimes construction, roads, or the Spree River meant that the Wall was many yards east of the actual border. Die Mauer, however, was a constant presence in the city and in the minds of Berliners for 28 years. It was grey concrete and cinderblock--an ugly scar across the middle of the city. Along the eastern side, the land was mostly barren; the East Germans kept the buildings that stood along the Wall’s path unoccupied and bricked them up, creating an unsightly, uninviting eyesore of decrepit ghost structures across the center of the city. The government of the Federal Republic, however, made special deals for anyone who’d move into apartments overlooking the Wall on their side in the hope that they could keep that area from looking so much like a blasted heath. (My parents, who visited Berlin when JFK made his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in 1963, 22 months after the erection of the Wall, reported that it was a Potemkin city--a façade of reality with no life behind it. By the time I lived there, almost a decade later, West Berlin was a thriving city with a culture and life of its own again.) I’d been gone from Berlin for 15 years when the Wall came down, but the date of its erection was a significant one in my life.

I arrived in Berlin on Thursday, 29 July 1971, just before the tenth anniversary of the Wall’s construction, and was immediately added to Berlin Station’s contingent of observers for the massive demonstrations that were planned for the commemoration. One of the tasks the Station had was “demo coverage”--watching political demonstrations to note who was there and what anyone said or did. I know that this sounds totalitarian, and I suppose in the abstract it is. But we only observed--we didn’t disrupt any demonstration, hassle any participants, bug anyone’s office or home in connection with a demonstration, or in any way try to prevent a demonstration. First of all, Berlin was the spy center of Europe, so keeping an eye out at such large political gatherings was no more than watchfulness, and, second, the city attracted large numbers of young anarchists and militant activists who were performing terrorist acts all over Germany. Many people know about the Red Army Faction/Baader-Meinhof Gang but there were other, smaller cells, too, such as SPK (Sozialistisches Patientenkollektiv – Socialist Patients’ Collective) and the Movement 2 June (see Michael “Bommi” Baumann’s Terror or Love? [Grove Press, 1979]). These folks had a habit of blowing things up and kidnapping people. (See my columns on “Berlin Station,” 19 and 22 July.) And people like Red Rudi Dutschke, the radical student leader, were active in Berlin. Prudence dictated that we keep an eye on them, especially when something as charged as the Wall was the subject of an action.

The 10th-anniversary demos of Friday, 13 August 1971--there were two, one leftist-oriented demonstrating in favor of the Wall and one rightist, opposing it--were both aimed at the same spot: the saddest place in Cold War Berlin--the Peter Fechter Memorial.

Fechter was an 18-year-old bricklayer in East Berlin who made an escape attempt with a friend and co-worker, Helmut Kulbeik, on Friday, 17 August 1962, one of the first after the Wall was erected the year before. Fechter and Kulbeik hid in one of the abandoned buildings next to the Wall on the eastern side and watched the Vopos. At about 2:15 in the afternoon, when the pair thought there was a gap in the coverage, they made a run for it, scaling the fence that formed the eastern side of the death strip on the eastern side of the Wall. They made it over the fence and through the death strip, and Kulbeik made it over the 6½-foot Wall into West Berlin, but Fechter was shot in the hip as he scaled the Wall and fell back into the no-man’s land. Observers in the West, including journalists and some U.S. military, were prevented from helping Fechter by the Vopos who threatened to shoot anyone entering the strip. No one from the East went to Fechter’s aid, though he screamed in pain for help for an hour as he bled to death. When he died, the Vopos did enter the no-man’s land to recover his body.

A memorial plaque was mounted in front of the Wall on the Western side at the spot where Fechter fell and died. Both demos, numbering several thousand each--maybe even tens of thousands--were headed for that same spot. Everyone knew that if they got there together, there’d be a street battle between the leftists and the rightists, and no one wanted that. (We observers, following along with one or the other march, also knew that we didn’t want to get caught either between the two groups of protestors or between the protestors and the police. We had a special code word to shout at the police line as we ran toward them for protection--we were not armed, of course--so they’d let us through their ranks and not shoot us in mistake for attacking protestors.)

This was the most astonishing example of competence, resolve, and steadfastness I have ever witnessed. When signs of violence broke out--some stones thrown, some sticks that had been holding up protest signs snapped off and swung--the police moved in to clear the streets. They had been lining the streets--just standing still along the curb, clad in riot gear with tall plexiglas shields, and the biggest German shepherds I have ever seen--until the violence started. Now they just moved in slowly, walking with their shields in front of them, forming a moving wall. They simply herded the protestors from both sides down the streets and into the subway entrances. The message was clear: You can stay in the subway station or you can get on a train and come up somewhere else, but you’re not coming back up here. Not one billy club was swung, not one weapon was drawn (much less fired), not one cop shouted an epithet or insult (some of the protestors did, though--but the cops didn’t overreact). They just calmly and professionally--and evenhandedly--cleared the streets and restored order before things got out of hand. Bang, it was over. No riot, no serious injuries, no nothin’. The protestors got to march, carry their signs, make their statement--and they would have been able to make their speeches or whatever if they hadn’t turned potentially violent--and the police kept order without any excess. Now, the Berlin police had infantry training--the German army was not permitted to operate in Berlin, so the cops were paramilitary stand-ins if necessary--but I was still impressed with the way they handled this situation. Think of it: a generation earlier, the predecessors of these guys were the ones who roughed up and killed civilians in the streets. But these cops were in better control of themselves and their turf than any U.S. force (or the National Guard--Kent State had been just 15 months earlier) at the time.

Living in Cold War Berlin was crazy-making in many ways, as you might guess. We were on an island 110 miles inside East Germany, encircled by a double wall. (Outside the Wall, the city was surrounded by the Soviet 40th Tank Army. Not a brigade or even a corps--an army. That’s a total of about 300,000 Red Army soldiers plus whatever East German units were out there, and any additional Warsaw Pact troops that happened to be in the region.) You couldn’t go very far in the city--and West Berlin alone was 2½ million people at the time--without literally running into the Wall. It made you claustrophobic.

The city of Berlin is a slightly peculiar entity in itself. It’s a very old city--something like 750 years now, I think--and, like New York, it grew out and swallowed up other towns which became boroughs of the city. Unlike New York, with its discrete five boroughs, Berlin had some two dozen (reduced in recent years to about a dozen), and some of the official boroughs had neighborhoods that seemed more like separate boroughs. When someone asked a Berliner where she lived, she’d usually start with the borough or neighborhood: Tempelhof (where the airport, recently closed, was), Kreuzberg (where many immigrants, especially Turkish Gastarbeiter, lived), Zehlendorf (where the U.S. HQ was), Spandau (where the infamous prison that held Rudolf Hess was), and so on. The Wall split Berlin in two parts, each with its own boroughs; the Soviet Sector was approximately one-third of the old city (about a million people) and the Allied Sectors about two-thirds. (The reason that the three Western Allies shared two-thirds instead of the obvious three-quarters of the city--the same had been true of Germany as a whole--was that the Soviets rejected an equal share in the Occupation for France, so the U.S. and Britain agreed that a French zone would be ceded from their areas.)

One odd thing about the Wall (and old Berlin, too) that has no real counterpart in New York is that, though the Wall did surround the Western sectors of the divided city, the city also had little satellites. All of Berlin wasn’t contiguous: there were little communities that were legally and politically part of the city, but which aren’t attached. Like little islands--maybe that’s where the parallel to New York lies. Think of land-locked versions of Governor’s Island, Roosevelt Island, and North and South Brother Islands. Each of these little orphan communities of the Western sectors was also surrounded by a wall, since they were still Allied territory in the midst of the GDR. (Eastern satellites didn’t need this, of course.) Some of these enclaves--they’re not towns, but neighborhoods--were connected to West Berlin by walled corridors so residents could get back and forth and the enclaves could be serviced by Berlin police and firefighters. I don’t know how many of these little islets there were, but it was at least half a dozen or ten, I’d guess.

I wasn’t allowed to go to East Berlin because of my security clearances, so I never crossed the Wall. I drove up to it many times while I lived in Berlin, but I never saw the other side. (When I was in high school, I went on a trip to eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. It didn’t include Berlin, but I had visited several Soviet-dominated cities before I lived in West Berlin.) Actually, crossing the Wall wasn’t all that hard--if you weren’t trying to escape the East and if you weren’t a Berliner. (Residents of the city of Berlin were prohibited from traveling to East Berlin, though they could go to other Eastern Bloc countries. West Germans were not restricted from visiting East Berlin, and some Berliners kept ID cards identifying them as residents of Frankfurt or Munich or some other city in the Federal Republic.) In fact, GI’s were not only allowed to travel east, but they were encouraged to do so, especially in uniform, to keep the border open and maintain free access as prescribed by the occupation agreement. In uniform, GI’s and their British and French counterparts could ride the subways and busses for free, and the subways, which predated the Wall, crossed under it. Berlin has two subway systems: the U-Bahn was controlled by the West and the S-Bahn, more like the PATH, was controlled by the East. (I wasn’t allowed even to enter an S-Bahn station because it was considered GDR territory.) Both systems went to and fro under the Wall, and those without restrictions, both Germans and foreigners, passed back and forth every day. Tourists, shoppers, and others could also walk or drive through the various transit points above ground.

The famous Checkpoint Charlie was the official crossing point for military or diplomatic personnel; Checkpoint Bravo was the crossing point from West Berlin into East Germany and the access to the highway to West Germany. (The crossing point at the western end of the road was Checkpoint Alpha, at Helmstedt in the Federal Republic.) Every month or so, there’d be a firing incident at the Wall or Checkpoint Charlie, and when that happened, MI personnel mobilized to investigate. People were still trying to escape from the East even as late as the ‘70s and another Peter Fechter incident was always on our minds. During the time I was in Berlin, however, none of these incidents ever turned out to be anything involving security or intelligence; they were always either someone deliberately trying to cause a disturbance, a matter handled by the Berlin police, or an overanxious Vopo or Soviet guard with a hair trigger. Nonetheless, the Wall was part of what we dealt with and thought about every day in the Berlin of the 1970s. One way or another, it loomed over everything we did on and off duty.

I was also part of a bleak joke among the GI’s of Berlin Brigade and the units like mine which were attached to it. BB had alerts just like every other unit in the U.S. Army all over the world. Since intel personnel wore civvies to work, we kept uniforms at the Station to change into, so we all reported to the locker room when we got the call. Each unit has an assignment for the outbreak of hostilities, and we are all supposed to go about preparing for that mission in an alert. The infantry and armor units would all gear up and go to the points they are expected to defend, the MP’s got into their positions to guard the compounds and other sites and to control the streets, and so on. Our mission was to round up potential enemy agents who had been previously identified, secure sensitive personnel and get them on ‘copters out of the city, and assist with the security of VIP’s and U.S. facilities. Obviously, in an alert, there’s not much of that we could actually do--I can just see us running around Berlin, pretending to arrest suspected commie agents. That would go over big. So we ended up sitting around our locker room, after putting on our fatigues and making jokes until the alert had ended. The recurring theme of those jokes was what would probably happen if an actual war did break out in Central Europe. As I’ve mentioned, Berlin was inside East Germany, surrounded by a Soviet tank army . . . and the Wall. The Soviets, not being stupid, probably wouldn’t fight for Berlin--why waste the men and time? We decided what they’d do is simply roll some tanks up to Checkpoints Bravo and Charlie, hang a sign on the gates that read “Berlin POW Camp,” and move on to the real war on the border and beyond. That would be the end of our participation aside from some Warsaw Ghetto-type uprising or a sort of hyper-Great Escape. No one would even have to build a stockade. We lived inside one!

25 November 2009

'The Legend of Sleepy Hollow': Children's Theater in America

On Halloween afternoon (i.e., 31 October), I took the NJT train over to Madison, New Jersey, to see a performance of a children’s musical adaptation of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Washington Irving’s classic story of things that go bump in the night. (Actually, the story’s about things that don’t really go bump, but we’ll get to that later perhaps.) The adaptation is by my friend Kirk Woodward, whom I’ve mentioned several times now on ROT; it’s a further adaptation of Kirk’s non-musical version of the story, performed in Bloomfield four years ago.

Now, I bring this all up not because I’m inclined to write a critique of the performance or the script‑‑I couldn’t really do that even if I wanted to because I’d feel constrained by my long acquaintance with Kirk. (I’ll do a little précis of the production, just to establish the matrix for a discussion.) But I do want to comment on the play from the perspective of children’s theater and its importance and value to the art and business of theater and to popular culture in the United States. As I’m sure everyone who’s read ROT knows by now, I support theater for children as a concept and as a significant part of the world of theater.

Let me fill in some of the particulars of this production, just for the record and all. First, Kirk wrote both the straight version of the Irving story and the musical rendition for Troupe of Vagabonds, the family-theater wing of 12 Miles West, a long-time repertory company in Essex County and now Morris County, New Jersey. Kirk’s been associated with 12 Miles West for some time, pretty much since he moved to Upper Montclair and then Montclair. (12 Miles West occupied a converted movie theater in Bloomfield, just outside Montclair, for many years; they moved to the Playwrights Theatre in Madison three seasons ago. I won’t shill for the company, but I’ll post their web address for those who want to look into them: www.12MilesWest.org. Kirk’s plays are listed on http://spiceplays.com.) The company has produced several of Kirk’s scripts over that time, including his “autobiographical” (but not really) one-person show, Kirk Woodward Tonight. In 2005, when Lenny Bart, artistic director of 12MW, proposed staging an adaptation of Sleepy Hollow, Kirk offered to write the script. (12MW had produced an earlier adaptation by another writer.) He decided to avoid any of the previous adaptations of the story, including (or perhaps especially) the 1958 Disney animation and the more recent Tim Burton version of 1999, and go back to the short story itself. As Kirk told me, the lack of dialogue in Irving’s text allows an adapter freedom to tailor the stage version to his own ideas. To Kirk’s mind, Sleepy Hollow is Irving’s lesson in rationality and level-headedness. Don’t let yourself get caught up in the fear of things that aren’t real, Kirk says Irving’s telling us. (There are some contemporary political debates where that particular lesson would be a good one to have learned. I’m just sayin’.)

For some reason I no longer remember, I didn’t get out to the Center Theatre on Bloomfield Avenue to see the non-musical version of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, though I believe it had a successful run. In any case, when he was planning the 2009-10 season for 12MW and Troupe of Vagabonds, Bart told Kirk to start thinking of adding songs to the script. The revised, musicalized Legend of Sleepy Hollow, which Kirk says follows the earlier text closely, opened at the company’s new home (since 2007) on Saturday afternoon, 24 October 2009, and played that weekend and the next (which, propitiously, was Halloween weekend). Kirk’s Sleepy Hollow, the musical, is about a 45-minute show; each character/player has a song, and Ichabod Crane’s song is reprised several times, adjusted to suit the moment and forming a sort of connective theme. The other roles are the Narrator, Irving’s alter ego, Diedrich Knickerbocker; Katrina van Tassel, Ichabod’s inamorata; and Brom “Bones” (his real name’s Brom van Brunt, but he gets incensed if someone calls him that), the bully who torments Ichabod and is the teacher’s rival for Katrina’s attentions. Kirk’s conceit is that the Narrator is a storyteller, spinning yarns about the part of New York around the towns of Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown. He pulls props and bits of costume out of the venerable old trunk familiar to set-ups like this and, like Thornton Wilder’s Stage Manager in Our Town, takes on all the incidental characters of the story, from the rich farmer Baltus van Tassel (Katrina’s father) to the little girl who is one of Ichabod’s pupils. It’s a very serviceable structure, a little story theater and a little traditional play.

Very serviceable as well was the set designed by James Sullivan (who also did the lighting, which included several marvelous gobos--spider webs, a couple of jack-o-lanterns), which allowed the Playwrights Theatre’s small playing area to stand in for the roadside near Sleepy Hollow, the dark and scary forest that lay between the village and Ichabod’s house, the van Tassel mansion, and other locations. The floor was painted with a number of different “coverings” to distinguish the scene settings a little--a wood-plank floor on stage right, the road in the center, a cobbled footpath next to that, and the forest’s leaf-strewn floor on stage left. The woods themselves were represented by a stand of trees bearing a few leaves in the colors of fall. The rest of the scenery was suggested by a series of nice black-and-white projections, drawn by Shawna Williams, on a screen at the rear of the stage showing a deeper forest, the windows in the elegant van Tassel home, or Ichabod’s classroom desk. In the climactic scene, the projection depicted the image of the horseman on a rearing steed, his pumpkin head held in the crook of his arm. It worked perfectly well, allowed the actors to move from moment to moment without impediment, kept the stage floor open and uncluttered, and let the story flow without distracting interruptions, adding just enough clever Realism to keep even the youngest viewer from having to wonder what was going on or where the characters all were supposed to be.

I haven’t seen Kirk’s script, but I presume that some director could find ways of loading the show with tech. Aside from not being necessary, I don’t believe that’s what Kirk would want. The script--really all of Kirk’s kids’ plays—is story- and character-focused. It’s about telling a story and letting the actors carry the burden, not the set, the tech, or the “production values.” The costumes (designed by Bunny Mateosian), for instance, help set the period (late 18th/early 19th century) and character without being elaborate, showy, or encumbering. Katrina wears gowns and dresses that show she’s rich and fashion-conscious and macho Brom wears a military coat, breeches, and English dress boots. But none of this draws attention away from the acting and the storytelling. The cast was delightful in these roles: David C. Neal as Knickerbocker, the Narrator; Dylan Manigian as Ichabod; Brittany Wirths as Katrina; and Matt McCarthy as Brom. (Amelia Henry, the stage manager, made sporadic appearances as a maid, mobcap and all, to deliver the occasional prop.) They’re all experienced TOVies (as some apparently call themselves) as well as practiced actors in adult fare. I was most impressed with how well they seemed to understand how to work with children--keeping them in focus while not pandering to them or dumbing down to the level of a Saturday-morning cartoon figure. (This will be part of my main point, when I get to it.) Oh, they’re not the greatest singers on a stage but they put the songs over pleasingly. (Kirk’s songs, especially the lyrics, are great fun to hear; I suspect they’re fun to perform, too. I’ve never asked one of the actors, but I get that impression.) What I’d say is that it seemed more to me as if the characters were singing--you know, Ichabod or Katrina--not the actors. I suspect that’s just my reading, not the director’s intent, but there it is . . . .
Speaking of the director, Arnold Buchiane handled the whole production nicely (with one cavil, as I’ll note in a moment), from the staging to the characterizations. I’m sure there was some collaboration with the actors, and I think that Buchiane has worked in children’s theater before, though his program bio names only adult dramas (and not a lot of light fare in the list), but one way or another he developed an approach that captured both Kirk’s style and the attention of a young audience. (Oh, okay, the adults, too. They have to watch the plays also. A guy behind me was having the time of his life for all I could tell from his frequent guffaws. But, as I’ll argue shortly, theater for children is all about the kids.) When it came to staging not just the plot but Irving’s and Kirk’s point, Buchiane made a pretty fundamental mistake. (Kirk now says he’s going to add a stage direction at the pertinent moment to help prevent another director or actor from going this way.)

In the scene after the headless horseman has attacked Ichabod on the road and Ichabod has disappeared in fright, Brom and Katrina come upon the scene of the encounter and discover “evidence” of what occurred there. Now, Irving makes plain that Brom’s pulled this gag on Ichabod and there’s no actual headless horseman, so the character should play the discovery scene with a wink and a nod, letting us all know that he doesn’t believe what he and Katrina are concluding. (In Irving’s story, Brom lets on “that he knew more . . . than he chose to tell” by looking “exceedingly knowing” when the story’s told and laughs at mentions of the pumpkin.) But McCarthy played the scene as if Brom believed what the legend says about the horseman. Kirk, who didn’t attend all the rehearsals and wasn’t in the theater when this decision was embedded in the production, said he spoke to Buchiane when he saw the result, but either the director or the actor wouldn’t change the performance. What happens, it seems to me (and Kirk confirmed that he has the same fear), is that young viewers who haven’t read the original story yet may go away from the play thinking that Irving promoted the belief in the horseman and spooky supernatural events. But, Kirk insists, Irving was very clear that he didn’t believe in that, that he stood firmly on the side of reason and sense and wrote the story to debunk such superstitions and irrational beliefs. We’re all supposed to know that Brom played a cruel joke on Ichabod, who, because he’d convinced himself that the supernatural is real, believed Brom’s masquerade and fled for no good reason. That lesson’s lost if Brom plays the discovery scene for real instead of as a trick. As Kirk lamented, Buchiane’s approach takes the thematic center out of the play.

Now, this slip-up brings me to one of the points I want to make. I have often declared that for me, good theater must be theatrical and do more than just tell a story. The first criterion simply means that I want theater to use the special attributes of the live stage to accomplish its ends, not try to emulate film, TV, or rock concerts. Children’s theater, for the most part, is innately theatrical--sometimes because the troupe is doing the right thing for the wrong reason. Especially novice children’s directors have the idea that because young audiences need to be kept engaged continuously--if you lose the attention of an audience of kids, you can rarely get it back--they try to throw the kitchen sink at them every moment, filling the stage with frenetic activity like . . . well, Saturday-morning cartoons. That’s never really necessary--kids aren’t stupid, just theatrically naïve. Keeping kids engaged isn’t as hard as some people think, and it’s a matter of intellectual and emotional involvement as much as visual, qualities a good children’s script has anyway. (That’s not so easy as it sounds because there are some awful children’s plays out there.)

TOV’s Sleepy Hollow had no problems in the theatricality area. The set with its suggested locales, the rear projections and gobos, the multifarious role of the Narrator all make for a theatrical environment. The script, of course. provides a considerable measure of theatricality, especially the mix of presentational and representational delivery--not to mention the fact that the characters keep breaking into song, not what you’d call street behavior--and the acting style, which might be described as a sort of Innocent Realism, was demonstrably theatrical.

So theatricality is fairly easily accomplished in this arena. What about that other criterion, to do more than just tell a story? Well, that’s not so restrictive, either. Telling a story, first of all, is fine, as long as you want to accomplish something by telling it to me. Good, basic theater is storytelling first. But why are you telling the story? Do you want to teach me something? Okay. Do you want to persuade me? Okay. Do you want to reveal something about life, the world, my town, my neighbors? Okay, too. But what if all you want to do is make me laugh? Man, that’s okay, too--in spades. Entertainment isn’t a shameful goal, though some humorless, over-earnest theater intellectuals may want to make us think so; in fact, it’s noble. Especially if you succeed. So, if you want to give me a great time by telling me a story, you qualify. As long as all you want to do isn’t tell me the story just so I’ll know the story. So neither of my criteria is terribly onerous. (But you’d be surprised how many plays and performances I see that don’t measure up.)

Okay, in the second criterion, Buchiane screwed up in this production. He subverted the reason Kirk decided Irving told the story of Ichabod Crane and the town of Sleepy Hollow. Irving (and Kirk) had a purpose in telling the story--they wanted us to see that believing in unreal things is silly and can lead to terrible consequences (ummm, Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, anyone?)--but Buchiane sabotaged the play so that all that was left was the story (well, the outline of the story--the director kind of messed up the narrative, too) and a confused, twisted point. I don’t believe, as some do, that all theater has to teach and that goes for children’s theater, too. But there does have to be a coherent point and the Irving-Woodward idea of debunking superstition is a valid one indeed. It’s not just a good lesson, but it holds the play and story together. The throughline, which ought to be cohesive--even the Harry Potter movies have an internal logic that remains fairly consistent--is part of what children’s theater needs to keep the audience engaged. Adults can handle a certain degree of discontinuity, but children are less likely to be able to make leaps of logic in plot or theme which are the threads that bind the performance together. Even silly plays--and there’s nothing wrong with that--need an internal continuity. Sleepy Hollow provided this--until the director undermined it.

Let me turn to Kirk’s script and the craft manifested in his adaptation. I’ve talked about the theatricality embedded in the script and the cohesive thread, both of which can be either lacking in some children’s plays or so badly composed that they are reduced to frenzy and a thematic sledgehammer. Obviously, just following the guidelines isn’t sufficient for creating a good children’s play; the writer needs talent and an understanding of and respect for the audience for whom he’s writing. I wouldn’t use Sleepy Hollow as a model if I didn’t think Kirk had these qualities--the first of which writers must be born with but the latter, if they’re conscientious, they can develop. Part of the respect of which I speak is the ability to talk to young audiences without insulting them. Good children’s playwrights learn to put themselves in the mindset of a 5-year-old, or a 10-year-old, or a 12-year-old and determine how to say what they want to convey in the kids’ own language. (This is where that understanding comes in!) You can say all kinds of things, silly or profound, to kids if you know how to say it, and good children’s playwrights know (or learn) how to do this. The others just dumb everything down, shout a lot, and run around the stage like clowns in a circus.

Of course, the next thing is to find something worth saying in the play. Children may be uninformed--there’s lots they just don’t know about yet--but they’re not stupid. In fact, their minds are like little sponges: they soak up knowledge and they love to learn. They don’t have to know they’re learning, of course, and a theater isn’t a classroom, but the children’s play ought to have a little something to say. It needn’t be profound, but having an enticing idea to impart helps the play cohere and draws the audience along as the writer lays out the theme. A good children’s play doesn’t have to make its point conspicuous: Kirk’s Sleepy Hollow, for instance, presents Ichabod as an unshakable believer in the supernatural, though he’s often made to admit he’s never seen a ghost or a goblin. Brom frequently teases him about believing in things he can’t see, but no one ever says, ‘If you believe in invisible forces, you could get yourself hurt.’ There are no lines that spell it out; nonetheless, it’s a big part of what makes the play work.

Too many children’s plays don’t really have a point, which makes them weak theater in general and usually pretty silly children’s theater. No wonder they’re often filled with frenetic activity and noise in production--there’s no beef. Of course, children like to be entertained, even if you’re going to try to teach them something, but I don’t think they need to be bombarded with sound and fury. Kids have minds; they can be engaged with intellectual stimulation just as well as visual excitation. They also have well-developed emotions and playwrights can engage them through those as well. The best children’s plays I’ve seen, and the ones that seem to have the most success with their young audiences, are much like good adult drama directed at a kid’s mind. (That “understanding” again.) Farces have lots and lots of activity in them, but not every play’s a farce. If that’s true for adults, why isn’t it true for children, too? Kirk’s Sleepy Hollow didn’t have a lot of running and shouting; even Ichabod’s encounter with the horseman was largely suggested by lighting and sound (theatricality!)--and that was only one scene anyway.

Okay, let’s say we have a good supply of excellent children’s plays, and let’s say there are good companies out there like Troupe of Vagabonds to produce them. Why should that be important? Well, it’s important for two reasons: for the theater and for our society.

Ask any producer or rep company artistic director and each will tell you the same story: audiences are shrinking. Actually, they’re getting older and shrinking. It’s hard as hell to get new subscribers and ticket-buyers as the older, traditional theater-goers die off. The best companies in the country, from the Arena to the Guthrie to the Alley to ACT, have been losing subscribers since before the current economic downturn began. Young people aren’t lining up behind the aging old-timers. The same phenomenon’s evident on Broadway and other commercial theater centers around the country--audiences are getting increasingly grayer.

So where will the new audiences come from? They don’t just sublime--solidify from the ether somehow. They have to be built. Children’s theater trains future audiences. First it introduces children to the idea of theater--live performance as different from TV and movies (and, now, computers and the ‘Net). It shows children that live theater is fun and exciting. Then it teaches them what to expect at a theater performance, how to receive it, how to take it in. Finally, it teaches them the culture of live theater, that is, how to behave in the audience, how to react, how to interact with the live performers. Children’s theater develops the audiences for the adult theater. Of course, the children’s plays the young spectators see have to be good enough to make them want to keep going so they move along the continuum to young adult theater and finally adult drama, but that’s how it has to work. We have to teach children that theater is a worthwhile art for them to consume or they won’t go when they grow up.

For the other repercussion, the advantage to society, you have to accept that art, and theater in particular, is a cultural element worth preserving and advancing. There are plenty of arguments for this contention, but I won’t go into them here. Let’s just start from the position that art and theater are worth supporting; if you don’t buy that, you can stop reading now. (What are you doing on this site anyway, then?) We have seen that in the recent past there are forces of repression that have attacked the arts and the freedom of expression and thought that go along with a vibrant arts tradition. Art that offends the guardians of the establishment is starved or repressed as we’ve seen in totalitarian states of both the right and the left. Now, we have a First Amendment to enshrine our rights to free speech, but we know that that’s not always adequate protection without people willing to speak out against the forces of repression. Furthermore, in times of economic difficulty, as we see now and have seen in recent decades (consider the 1970s and ‘80s), financial support for the arts recedes and arts programs are eliminated or trimmed. Again, it takes advocates to fight the cuts.

What I contend is that when children are introduced to the arts, both in their communities and in school, they grow up with the idea that art is part of their society, that it’s not just an add-on, a pastime for the few, but part of their own lives. They learn to appreciate art’s benefits and values by experiencing it in their earliest years. I’ve written about my feeling concerning arts education and school arts programs, but children’s theaters and children’s plays are among the most potent ways of teaching kids to love this art, inclining them, I’d hope, to support it when they grow up. If they learn to love theater as children, it stands to reason they’ll keep on loving it as grown-ups. People defend what they love against assaults on economic or political grounds. Just as the audiences for theater have to come from somewhere, the supporters of theater as a cultural asset also have to begin somewhere. We have to nurture this appreciation and supporting theater for youngsters--good theater for youngsters, theater worthy of real devotion--to keep the theater alive in perpetuity. You know the line from Milk: “My name is Harvey Milk and I’m here to recruit you!”? Well, that’s what we have to do--recruit the next generation of theater-lovers to occupy the seats and stand up the next time someone declares a “culture war.” Good children’s theater is the best way.

[There is a good list of requirements for quality children’s plays in the “Introduction” to Theatre for Young Audiences: 20 Great Plays for Children by Coleman A. Jennings (Macmillan, 2005). I don’t agree with all the criteria, but I do with most of them and certainly with the major ones.]

21 November 2009

Shenandoah Shakespeare

[Below is my (lightly re-edited) 6½-year-old report on my visit to the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia. At that time, the company was still known as Shenandoah Shakespeare; it has since been renamed the American Shakespeare Center. In all other important respects, however, the company is much the same now as it was in 2003 (except that the actors now include Equity members). I’m posting this report from my archives to supplement my recent column on the Blackfriars theater itself.]

My mother and I took a long weekend trip down to Shenandoah Shakespeare in Staunton, Virginia, to check out their new theater, a replica of the Blackfriars of Elizabethan London. We got away from Washington before noon on Friday, 2 May 2003, and the drive was easy and pleasant. It was a nice, spring day, and we took in the scenery along the way--nostalgic of the days when I used to drive that same route (more or less--there are some new highways I didn't have) back and forth to Lexington, where I went to college. They don't speak of the "rolling hills of Virginia" for nothing! (In the spring and summer, when it's all green; the fall, when the colors are all out; and the winter, on the few days when it's all snow-covered, this countryside looks like a gigantic picture postcard. I was delighted--and a little surprised--to see that it had not been changed by massive development--there are still farms and pastures all along the route.) We drove into Staunton about three o'clock and drove around a bit to get the lay of the town, then drove into the historic center and walked a bit. We found the Blackfriars Playhouse at the other end of the historic district (which is only about four blocks long and two or three wide).

We did two shows on Saturday: a matinee of Taming of the Shrew and the evening show was Coriolanus. We had a big lunch so we could have a light snack between the shows as the mat let out at 5 and the evening curtain was 7:30. First, let me say that the theater is exactly what it's reported to be as far as I can tell. I looks like a very faithful replica of the 17th-century Blackfriars. The exterior is only vaguely Elizabethan, of course, and the lobby is modern, but once inside the auditorium, everything is wood, mostly unpainted. The seats are all benches like in the original Blackfriars, except for a few "Lords' Chairs" on the sides. (I took those for us--I hate benches! Though they rent seat-backs that can be installed on the benches--and cushions. The latter is also like the London Blackfriars.) I'm not up on the specifics of the Blackfriars architecture, so I don't know how accurate all the details are. I don't even know if there's a real record of the architecture of the Blackfriars--there wasn't of the Globe until the original foundations were discovered as recently as the '80s. However, the appearance is convincing, even if the details are fudged. (I'm sure the backstage is less accurate. There's a tour of the theater, but we didn't allow the time to do it.) In any case, it's worth the experience for the theater alone. It was obviously carefully done and lovingly created at some expense.

Aside from the building's construction--which must have cost a great deal, I'd imagine--I was thinking while I was there they save money on their productions and staffing budget by not needing a lighting or set designer since there's no lighting and no sets. They do have costumes, however simple--and I don't know that all of their shows are this basic--so they need a designer and costumer. The unit costumes do have to be built, though they may serve for more than one production over the seasons. The Coriolanus costumes might work for Julius Caesar, too, for instance, or Titus Andronicus, and Shrew's could do for Romeo and Juliet or Two Gentlemen also. But I don't know if they do that or not.

Now the shows. First off, the company is young. I don't think anyone's over 25 or 26 (though a few look a little older--I suspect they just look that way). And they're non-union, though most have theater training from school--BFA's and MFA's--and some experience. Several have been with the Shenandoah Shakespeare several times before. Mother pronounced them "unprofessional" at first, but I think she's misinterpreting what they're doing. Their audiences are mostly kids--high school and college--and some adults who aren't theatergoers or Shakespeare buffs. It's my feeling that the company does vanilla productions--no new interpretations, no political or cultural overlays--in as straightforward a manner and style as they can. The actors all speak very clearly, without any peculiar or idiosyncratic line readings or shadings. The costumes are all based on unit designs--black pull-over shirts, black trousers bloused into boots for Coriolanus, for instance--with easily-identifiable supplements like black berets for the soldiers, tunics of various styles for the Senators, Tribunes, Generals, and so on, and different colors to identify the Romans (blue) and the Volscians (tan and green). I think all this indicates that the style is one of directorial choice, not lack of talent, imagination, or training. The cast executes this style quite well, and some are even excellent in their roles. (There are only about 12 members of the company, so they double and triple.) I thought the actor playing Prospero in Tempest, James Konicek, was very good in the part, for instance.

The company does other things that are part of their philosophy. They perform under the house lights, which is one of their acknowledged tenets. ("Shenandoah Shakespeare--We do it with the lights on!" is their slogan. They make a big deal of this--it's on T-shirts, bumper stickers, and key chains they sell--and they recite it, with all the double-entendre they can muster, at the start of every performance during the little skit they do.) They don't cut the texts much, if at all. (They did the Christopher Sly prologue to Shrew, for instance.) And since the King's Men used men and boys to play women, Shenandoah Shakespeare uses men to play women . . . and women to play men. They do a little session at the start of each performance, singing original songs appropriate to the show--comic romps for Shrew and somber ballads for Coriolanus--and then end with a little skit designed to explain the Elizabethan staging techniques they use and the adjustments they make. (Of the three shows we saw, one such bit was a little lecture, but the other two were a game show with an audience member as the contestant and an improvised scene based on a premise supplied by the audience--a kung-fu scene between a new husband and his mother-in-law in this instance.) It's all done with great energy and enthusiasm, and clearly directed at a naïve audience. The company also plays to the audience a lot, and there are stools on stage where spectators are encouraged to sit during the show. The actors also use the house for some action, though I don't believe there's any evidence that Elizabethans did that. It's all designed to bring the audience into the performance and the experience, and it seems to work pretty well.

Other staging techniques align with what we know to be Elizabethan, or what we've guessed they did then. There's no set other than the architecture of the theater. There aren't even many props, and those are mostly hand-props. Obviously, there's no lighting design. Scenes will start as the previous one is ending--or at least as the actors are exiting. They do have an intermission, but there are no other gaps in the performance. (All three shows were about 2½ hours long, with the break coming at about one hour into it.) The costumes were neither period nor modern, but a sort of blend. If they use Elizabethan dress for anything, it wasn't in these three plays. I suspect they keep this simple for their audience, too. In The Tempest, they even used some contemporary clothing for the spirits conjured by Prospero. They did use masks, which I'm not sure was an Elizabethan technique. (In fact, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t.) Ariel was masked rather effectively, I thought: at one point, he raises his mask to reveal . . . another mask! In the end, when Prospero frees him, he takes off his mask to reveal his actual face. He also exits like a man, rather than the dance-like movements he'd used before.

The company did best with The Tempest, the Sunday matinee, and least well with Coriolanus. They did a very creditable job on Shrew, especially in the low comedy bits and slapstick. I attribute this in part to the fact that Coriolanus isn't one of Shakespeare's best plays to start with, and it's just not as well known or as accessible to us today. I saw it at the New York Shakespeare Festival when they were doing the marathon back in the '80s and even though I wrote about it in a journal, I don't remember much about the production. It's not a memorable play: there's no great poetry in it, no good lines, and no really stand-out characters. (It's even a little confusing, especially at the beginning.)

The draw-back for Shrew was mostly the youth and inexperience of the actors. The guy playing Petrucchio, Michael Ernest Moore, was good, but he's just not ready to play a romantic lead yet. He's just too tentative. On the other hand, Moore did a wonderful Ariel the next day.

The company are all obviously multi-talented. They all sing at least a little; they're acrobats, or at least tumblers, and do some juggling. Several play instruments, and obviously some write music since the songs they do before the shows, simulating the Elizabethan entertainments, were all original pieces. (The music in Tempest was also written by company members.) The Petrucchio-Ariel has obviously had some dance training, probably jazz, and there was a well-done mime scene in The Tempest as the ship hits the storm and the sailors heave on ropes and roll with the high seas. They can obviously also handle a little improvisation, though I don't know how much of that little scene before the opening is really pre-planned to fit any scenario the audience comes up with. (Then again, the Commedia troupes did that, too, so it's not so dishonest if they did pre-plan the scene.)

All in all, the Shenandoah Shakespeare is a very nice, energetic troupe that's at least as good as a good graduate school company or a showcase cast in New York City. They do three plays a season--but a "season" is winter, spring, summer, or fall: they change bills four times a year. They used to do four plays a season, but they do only three now. They also tour, which was their only outlet before they built Blackfriars, hitting schools and other venues around the state. They're sort of like a junior Acting Company, touring for part of the year, then returning to Staunton. Their audience seems to be both local and regional--they get folks from as far away as D.C. and Richmond as well as the surrounding counties bordering Augusta. The theater has a style that doesn't show off any clever or innovative techniques, but that's a choice for their audience I believe. If they educate the audience in the coming seasons, they may move on to more challenging interpretations. I don't think they're wrong for now.

On Sunday, we checked out of the motel and came into town. We went to the Woodrow Wilson Birthplace, but they don't permit independent wandering and there wasn't enough time to do the tour, so we didn't do more than look around the outside. Then we went to have brunch before the 2:30 matinee of Tempest. As I suggested, this was the best of the three performances--not that the others were bad, of course. And, if you think about it, the same dozen actors do the three plays--three Shakespeares to boot--in rotating repertory, a different one each performance, including two on matinee days. (Shenandoah Shakespeare also do some non-Shakespeares, including other Elizabethans/Jacobeans and Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, but not this season.) We saw three different plays in a day-and-a-half. That's not easy, and they did a very competent job.

[As you will have noted, some of the things at which I guessed turned out to be right and others wrong. I hadn’t done any reading about the Shenandoah Shakespeare/American Shakespeare Center when I wrote this report; I’ve learned some facts subsequently which I’ve incorporated in the Blackfriars Playhouse column.]

18 November 2009

Blackfriars Playhouse in Virginia

My mother and I took a long weekend trip down to the Shenandoah Shakespeare in Staunton, Virginia, in May 2003 to check out their new theater, a replica of the Blackfriars of Jacobean London. Opened on Friday, 21 September 2001, the Blackfriars Playhouse is the only reconstruction of an indoor Renaissance theater in the world. Named for the theater Shakespeare’s King’s Men used in the winter months when the uncovered Globe was unsuitable, Shenandoah Shakespeare’s Blackfriars Playhouse was painstakingly designed and constructed according to the best research available, though there are no known visual representations or construction records of any of the hall theaters popular in the 17th century.

The original Blackfriars Theatres (there were two) were named for the disused Dominican monastery on whose grounds the playhouses were built. The property had become a crown possession after Henry VIII seized church holdings at the beginning of the English reformation. The first Blackfriars Theatre, called a “private” theater, was constructed in 1576 and housed mostly children’s troupes until 1585 when it was shut down. In 1596, James Burbage, impresario of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (and father of Richard Burbage who would become Shakespeare’s favorite actor), purchased another building on the property and converted it into a theater. The second Blackfriars remained host to boys’ companies, then much in vogue among the Elizabethan glitterati, until 1608, when the fashion had shifted, and James Burbage, who still owned the theater, took control of the Blackfriars for his troupe, now known as the King’s Men. There were seven shareholders in the King’s Men at the time, including Richard Burbage and William Shakespeare. After renovations, the King's Men started performing in Blackfriars in 1609, occupying it for the seven cold months of the year and moving to the open-air Globe, a “public” theater, during the summer. Records indicate that Blackfriars, though much smaller than the Globe, earned a little more than twice the income the more-famous outdoor theater did. Blackfriars closed in 1642 when Cromwell and the Roundhead parliament closed all the theaters and, having fallen into disrepair, was demolished on 6 August 1655. (The rest of the former monastery was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666. The property now forms part of the Blackfriars district of central London.)

Little is certain about the appearance, either outside or inside, of the private theaters of the 16th and 17th centuries. There are scattered references but no actual records, drawings, or detailed descriptions. Modern renderings of the indoor or hall theaters are based largely on speculation and interpolation. (In contrast, though the original Globe was largely unknown until part of the foundations was uncovered in October 1989, the public, or outdoor, theaters were documented more thoroughly. The many “reproductions” of the Globe before 1989, however, were principally based on combinations of the Theatre and the Swan.) Some things were know, however, or at least commonly accepted, about the design of the hall theaters, enough to devise an approximation of their appearance, some of which beliefs were used in the design of the Staunton Blackfriars Playhouse. For instance, English Renaissance theaters were modeled on period banquet halls where theatrical performances were given. There are also plans for hall theaters, such as one by the great Tudor architect and stage designer Inigo Jones, that were never built. Finally, some assumptions can be made about the configuration of the private theaters from an analysis of Shakespeare’s stage directions.

Let me back up a bit now and summarize the history of the company that built the new Blackfriars Playhouse. In 1988, Dr. Ralph A. Cohen, an English professor and Shakespearean scholar at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and his former student and principal “classroom actor” James Warren (who had just graduated) formed Shenandoah Shakespeare Express (known as SSE), a touring troupe whose mission was to stage the plays of Shakespeare and his Elizabethan contemporaries without all the modern accouterments that had been added over the centuries. As Cohen asserts, “It seemed that the more elaborate the setting, the more the [audience’s] interest dropped.” His research revealed, for instance, that the custom of turning down the house lights was only as old as the middle of the 19th century (with the advent of gaslight) and that other modern theatrical conventions, such as “period” costumes and detailed sets, were not part of the Renaissance theater experience. (We have limited knowledge about what English Renaissance theater performances were actually like.) That first season, SSE toured the Old Dominion with Richard III; the next year, the troupe took Taming of the Shrew to Delaware, Pennsylvania, Vermont, New Hampshire, and New York. In 1992, SSE performed in the Elizabethan theater at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., and traveled to London and Edinburgh’s Finge Fesitval. So it went until 1999 when the company moved permanently to Staunton, Virginia, and renamed itself Shenandoah Shakespeare (known as S2). That same year, S2 began plans for building its own home theater, a replica of Shakespeare’s Blackfriars, and following that, a Globe reproduction. The concept was modeled on Ashland’s famous and successful Oregon Shakespeare Festival whose draw Staunton hopes to emulate to make the city "a Shakespeare destination." (The company has many programs in addition to its productions, some in collaboration with Mary Baldwin College.) In 2001, as reported, S2 completed the first part of its plan and opened the Blackfriars Playhouse with Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night's Dream and a season including Hamlet, Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, and Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist. In 2005, S2 became the American Shakespeare Center. The resident company of about a dozen members produces four full “seasons” a year, in the summer, fall, winter, and spring, comprised of three to five plays in rep; the company simultaneously sends two touring troupes around the state, the country, and the world.

The little city of Staunton (population about 24,000), the seat of Augusta County, is itself a historic spot. In the heart of the Shenandoah Valley, it’s the home of Mary Baldwin College and the birthplace of Woodrow Wilson, our 28th president. (His home is now the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library.) Founded in 1747, the historic downtown district is architecturally restricted so that it maintains a largely mid-19th- to early 20th-century look and has been used as a location for several period films. (I will add here that Staunton’s also the original home of Augusta Academy, the institution established in 1749 that eventually became Washington and Lee University, my alma mater.) Staunton (which is pronounced ‘STAN-tun,’ despite its spelling) lies just off I-81 and is a drive of about three hours southwest of Washington or two hours northwest of Richmond. It’s about 375 miles southwest of New York City.

The Blackfriars Playhouse is located at 10 South Market Street, in the historic district (which is only about four blocks long and two or three wide), a half block off East Beverly Street, the town’s main drag. It sits on a small lot next to the renovated Stonewall Jackson Hotel, which first opened in 1924. The 14,500 square-foot playhouse took 13 months to complete at a cost of $3.7 million. (Estimates are that ASC’s Globe recreation will cost $20-30 million when it’s built on a nearby site.) The city of Staunton put up $2 million of the price tag. We know that Tom McLaughlin’s blueprint for the Staunton Blackfriars, which he based principally on the 1616 Inigo Jones plans for an unrealized theater, isn’t actually the historical London Blackfriars. Since there’s no actual record of that theater still extant, McLaughlin took his inspiration from Tudor rooms such as Middle Temple Hall, the Hall at Gray’s Inn, and Westminster Hall. The architect did research at the Folger Shakespeare Library, which contains the largest collection of print Shakespeareana in the world, where he consulted legal and archeological records; he also conferred with experts on Elizabethan theatrical design and construction. (For the outer building, McLaughlin saw MIT’s Baker Dormitory and Sever Hall at Harvard as models.) Even if the details are fudged, however, the overall appearance is convincing.

The playhouse is exactly what it's reported to be as far as I could tell. I looks like a very faithful approximation of a 17th-century hall theater though the exterior is only vaguely Tudor. Architect Tom McLaughlin says the building has an “astylistic and vernacular exterior that fits into the historical and architectural context of Staunton.” ArchitectureWeek asserts that it “pretends to be neither as old as the other buildings in Staunton nor jarringly modern,” which is an accurate characterization. The timbered front alludes to Tudor structures (with a touch of the Alpine chalets of both Switzerland and Colorado--the Washington Post compares it to “a fire station in Telluride”). The building “echoes older buildings” in town without replicating them. The peaked-roof exterior gives off “dark earthy tones” of red-brown brick with dark gray mortar. There is a rounded, windowed corner at the south end of the façade that houses the lobby staircase inside.

Through the double doors of the entrance, under a sort of marquee--reminiscent of the gables of the old inns that predated the public theaters--with tall windows on either side and a long window above, is the modern lobby, mostly undecorated (at least when I was there six years ago). The Washington Post describes the space as “austere and forgettable” so that “walking into the theater itself is the moment of drama.” The lobby, indeed, acts as a sort of portal between the 21st century and the 17th century of the playhouse auditorium and stage. "If Shakespeare walked into the lobby of this theater, he'd freak out," says a member of the company. "Inside, Shakespeare would recognize it immediately."

Patrons enter the auditorium either from the ground-floor lobby or by climbing the stairs in the left corner to the upper lobby and the gallery. Inside, the walls are timbered white plaster and the construction is mostly unpainted and undecorated blond wood with a high-gloss finish. The seating accommodates 300 spectators plus standing room for 20 more. (This is in contrast to the 500-1000 spectators of the original Blackfriars, which wasn’t restricted by fire laws and occupancy regulations. ASC artistic director Jim Warren also observes that Shakespeare’s 17th-century patrons “had skinnier butts.”) The auditorium is 66 feet by 54 feet, lit by electric chandeliers and sconces in the galleries, all crafted from hand-forged iron and designed to resemble the candle-lit counterparts of the 17th century. (There are no windows in the auditorium, though in Renaissance halls there usually were. Since performances were traditionally in daylight, the windows would have provided additional natural illumination, but the Staunton Blackfriars occupies the entire building site and city codes don’t permit windows on shared property lines.)

The auditorium is all post-and-beam construction, almost entirely hand-turned from Virginia white oak by local artisans. The Shenandoah Valley has been producing master woodworkers for centuries and the carpenters “considered the interior to be of the quality of fine furniture,” according to architect McLaughlin, a Richmond resident. “This started out as a job,” explained one of the craftsmen, “but it got to be more than just what we do for living.” Almost echoing McLaughlin’s thought, he added, “This was special.” The private Renaissance theaters were generally painted, gilded, and faux-marbled and were probably further decorated with hangings, but the Staunton Shakespeareans were loath to cover up the natural look of the carving. It's all obviously carefully created and lovingly done.

The three-foot-high thrust stage is 22 feet deep and 30 feet across. At the rear of the platform is the traditional Elizabethan tiring house. (The tiring house façade has been painted faux-marbre since my visit.) The upstage discovery space is flanked by two doors for entrances and exits. Above the curtained opening is a gallery of 8 feet by 30 feet with staircases descending to the stage on both sides. The floor of the platform is equipped with a trapdoor, as befits the Elizabethan reproduction; however, the trap has a motorized lift to hoist the spooky characters and ghosts into view. (The backstage area is also less period-accurate. There are dressing rooms, a green room, a kitchen and eating area, a wardrobe room, sewing tables, and other modern theater accommodations, not to mention elevators for handicap access and heating, cooling, and electrical equipment.) Except for occasional stage properties, no more than a throne, a tomb, or a table, the stage is unadorned for performances; the architectural backdrop of the theater is the only set. Hand props and costumes, which at ASC may be vaguely modern, vagely Renaissance, or sometimes a mix of both with carefully selected “period” elements added, are the only other assistance the actors use to supplement the playwright’s words.

From the start in 1988, the company used "original staging practices,” techniques that align with what we know to be Elizabethan, or what we've guessed they did then. "We've invented a lot of tricks in the theater in the last 400 years," says ASC executive director Cohen. "We want to uncover some of the magic that tends to get masked by all those tricks." This includes “natural” lighting (that is, no spotlights or other modern stage instruments); the lights never go out in the Blackfriars Playhouse. ("Shenandoah Shakespeare--We do it with the lights on!" is their slogan.) The audience and the actors can see one another all the time, and the spectators can see and hear each other. The audience is seated on three sides of the thrust stage, and there are even "Gallants' Stools" on stage for those who wish to approximate that Jacobean experience. The actors often interact with the spectators, eschewing any pretense of a “fourth” wall. Spectators who decide to occupy the Gallants’ Stools on stage are even required to agree to serve as extras. The seating, on benches (though there are cushions and seat backs for rent), is at floor level and in a balcony a storey above. (There are actually two levels of galleries, but the lower one is only a step or two above the auditorium floor.) There are a few “Lord’s Chairs” available for those of us too uncomfortable to sit on the benches.

Casting practices include doubling (and even tripling) so that most actors perform several roles. (Plays are performed in rep so actors play roles in most of the productions of a season.) Unlike the Elizabethan and Jacobean practice, the company casts women, but is committed to gender-switching. Just as the King’s Men cast men and boys as women in Shakespeare’s plays, ASC casts women in men’s roles as well. Music, often composed by company members, is an integral part of ASC productions: all performances are prefaced by music and most include musical interludes or intervals, all of it done live and unamplified. They do have an intermission (filled with skits and entertainments--of a decidedly un-Elizabethan timbre--if spectators wish to stay in their seats), but there are no other gaps in the performance; a scene starts as the previous one is ending--or at least as the actors are exiting. Plays are generally performed within Shakespeare’s mandated "Two hours' traffic of our stage." These fundamental practices impelled the construction of the Blackfriars Playhouse.

[I’ve decided it would be interesting to post my report on the visit I made to Staunton in 2003 to see the Shenandoah Shakespeare, as it was then known, in their new Blackfriars home. Look for that column from my archives in a few days on ROT.]

14 November 2009

'The Art of Writing Reviews' by Kirk Woodward, Part 4

[This is Part 4, the final installment, of my commentary on Kirk Woodward’s book, The Art of Writing Reviews (http://www.lulu.com/content/paperback-book/the-art-of-writing-reviews/6785272).]

After treating the matter of reviewers closing productions with poor notices, Kirk raises the question of reviewers who know people connected to the production and fear their notices might hurt their friends and acquaintances. It’s hard, perhaps, for reviewers not to become engaged in the social whirl of the arts they cover. That’s probably more true in smaller markets than in large ones like New York or L.A., but there’s a danger here, too. I remember reading an article about New York Times chief reviewer Ben Brantley, who I thought had taken a pretty extreme action to avoid that--he literally absents himself entirely from the New York social scene. According to the report, he lived outside the city (though he may have moved in since then) and apparently doesn’t socialize with anyone connected to theater. (I thought this was extreme not because Brantley avoids the social aspects of the biz—that may be difficult but wise—but because, not living in the city he covers, he loses perspective on the atmosphere—political, communal, economic, cultural—that surrounds and informs the art about which he writes.)

The Times doesn’t permit its theater reviewers to participate in any awards program (editors and other journalists may, and I don’t know if reviewers in other arts are similarly enjoined) because the editors don’t want their reviewers even to appear to have conflicts of interest. A few years ago, Critics Quarterly (the newsletter of ATCA, which Kirk would insist ought to be called Reviewers Quarterly . . . or, maybe, Reviewers Review) did a series of articles, plus letters from members, concerning reviewers who got involved in other aspects of theater such as playwriting or acting. Some members felt this was a good way to learn more about the business, by seeing it from the inside while it was working. Others were vociferous in their opinions that this placed the reviewers in danger of becoming too personally acquainted with the artists they would be called on to criticize. I no longer was trying to act when I was writing reviews, but I still knew actors, directors, designers, and stage managers who were working in New York and there were theater companies run by friends and former colleagues producing plays I might have to review. The situation only arose once or twice, and I raised the potential conflict with my editor, but I was surprised when he said he didn’t really care. (I think the real situation was that he didn’t have that many writers on whom he could call and he couldn’t replace me.) It was very hard to be objective and I had to question myself very carefully when it came to writing about the people I knew, even slightly.

Interestingly, there’s an organization in New York City that was established essentially to address this situation. The Players, on Gramercy Park, was founded by actor Edwin Booth (in his last home, where his room is still preserved as he left it) to allow actors to meet the important citizens of the city on a social basis. He thought that members of his profession ought to know the people who supported the theater and the city’s movers and shakers in all fields, politics, finance, merchandising, letters, and so on, should know the theater artists who were so important to New York’s culture. (Theater was, at the time, the popular entertainment, much as movies and TV are today.) That is, all the professions except one. No reviewers could be members of The Players. Booth didn’t think it would be wise to put actors in the same room with the writers who from time to time may have said uncomplimentary things about them. Now, the all-male membership has been integrated in recent years, but the prohibition against reviewers still holds. (By the way, the organization is called The Players, not the Players Club.)

When he writes about reporting on the play’s plot, Kirk proposes, “We can ask, what happens to the characters? Do they grow, change, move from point A to point N?” This is very close to the question dramaturgs learn to ask when analyzing a script for their artistic directors: Who does the play happen to? It’s a way of determining which character is the focal one (which may not be the same as the lead role or the literary protagonist). It’s an interesting question to ask, even for a reviewer.

When it comes to the perspective of the spectator, Kirk reminds us that “not everyone in the theater sees—or hears—the same show.” It’s a fact of live performances that no two people see the same show and no two performances are the same. No matter where you sit in a movie theater, you see essentially the same movie as everyone else (barring sitting behind a pillar or a very tall person). But with a live performance, especially theater or ballet, there’s an element of Heraclitus’ tenet: “One cannot step twice into the same river, for the water into which you first stepped has flowed on.” The corollary is that no two people can step into the same river because the water where one stepped is not the same as the water where the other did. (Besides, no two people’s experience of that river will be the same, either. That’s true of movies and television, too, of course.) The trade-off is that in live theater, I can choose where I want to look. In film and TV, the camera, under the director’s control, does that for me.

Kirk asserts that theater pros feel “that opening nights are the worst performances” of a play’s run. Openings are still the traditional night for reviewers and the press, despite the scheduling of “critics’ previews.” (No matter when the reviewer sees the show, the notice traditionally appears the day after opening.) I was never a first-nighter, so I had the luxury of seeing the performances after the play opened and settled down, and even now, I generally avoid opening nights. To be frank, openings are more social events than artistic ones and the company’s emotions are high and tight. Friends and family are in the house; agents and managers come to see their clients; the producers, backers, and investors and their invited guests are there for the festivities; non-reviewing press—editors, feature writers, cultural reporters—are covering the “news” event. Everyone backstage is on edge, you can bet. (When I first started to perform, I couldn’t eat before a performance. When I got more used to the experience, that was no longer so—except on opening nights.)

In addition to the emotional tension, there are the various production issues that affect the performance. It’s a truism in theater that no planned rehearsal period is long enough. You always need another week. In many shows, the first time everyone has gone through the entire play with full tech and costumes the way it’s supposed to be seen by the audience is the final dress rehearsal. On opening night, there will be acting and directing problems from both nerves and from not being quite ready yet. In new plays, it’s not unusual for new lines and even new scenes to be inserted within days of opening; new songs can be added to musicals. Because of the labor-intensivity of the rehearsal period plus the union regulations, technical adjustments are often brought in at the last minute: costumes don’t fit quite right yet, set pieces haven’t been tested, lights aren’t focused right. (I once actually went on stage with a set still wet with last-minute, improvised “paint”: pea soup!) No, opening night is not a typical performance. It’s more like the first time a cook makes a new recipe—it’s not really ready for primetime.

Still, I remember an occurrence that remains one of the strangest of which I have ever heard in theater. In 1997, The Scarlet Pimpernel opened at the Minskoff Theatre on 9 November. It received mediocre reviews or worse. New producers stepped in and bought out the old investors, closed the show on 1 October 1998 for retooling, and reopened it on 4 November. Talk about not being ready on opening night!

In debating whether reviews are “art,” Kirk paraphrases Will and Ariel Durant’s definition of art: “significance expressed with feeling through form.” (The quote is from Writing Reviews, not the Durants.) I’d like to add another, very similar definition from Susanne Langer, another philosopher: “Art is the creation of forms symbolic of human feeling.” As you can see, it’s nearly the same language. Let me add here another of Langer’s statements that I have found revealing—because it’s a comment about “beauty” in a context we should consider when viewing many new kinds of art. (This harks back to the remarks Kirk and I made about standards and new art not resembling the old.) Langer writes: “Beauty is not identical with the normal, and certainly not with charm and sense appeal, though all such properties may go to the making of it.”

Beauty, I think Langer’s saying, ain’t always pretty. She also defines beauty as “expressive form,” by which she maintains that it affects its audience in some way. “Beautiful works may contain elements that, taken in isolation, are hideous,” she writes. This interpretation of beauty, which may owe something to Heraclitus’ view that there is beauty in a random collection of unrelated elements, can be seen as an application of Aristotle’s explanation that we get pleasure in drama even from seeing things we’d regard with disgust if encountered in reality because we learn from them, and learning gives us pleasure. Furthermore, Langer admonishes us that we may not recognize as good a work of art that puts us off until “we have grasped its expressiveness.” One friend of Vincent van Gogh’s, for instance, admitted that at first the painter’s art “was so totally different from what I had imagined it would be . . . so rough and unkempt, so harsh and unfinished, that . . . I was unable to think it good or beautiful.” It’s noteworthy that Marshall McLuhan calls “good taste,” often substituted for “beauty” in the judgment of traditionalists, “the first refuge of the noncreative . . . , the anesthetic of the public . . . , the most obvious resource of the insecure.” Richard Kostelanetz, whom I quoted earlier, also submits that “a truly original, truly awakening piece of art will not, at first, be accepted as beautiful.”

In his discussion of “good art” and “great art,” Kirk remarks, “I could write a play that conforms to all Aristotle’s principles and has no value at all—indeed, many have.” First, let me reiterate here, in the words of Susanne Langer, what I said about poor art earlier: “There may be poor art, which is not corrupt, but fails to express what [the artist] knew in too brief an intuition. . . . . The result is a poor and helpless product, sincere enough, but confused and frustrated by recalcitrance of the medium or sheer lack of technical freedom.” Langer takes a harsher line with “bad art,” but making poor art is not a criminal act. Now, I’ll draw a literary parallel between what Kirk wrote about writing a mediocre play that follows all the rules and an old play to which I once introduced Kirk, Plots and Playwrights by Edward Massey.

The plot concerns Caspar Gay, a successful Broadway playwright wandering Greenwich Village looking for “an inspiration” for his next play. He meets young short-story writer Joseph Hastings in front of a boarding house. Gay explains his desperation, and Hastings suggests that there’s a play on every floor of the house and the two writers challenge one another. Hastings composes small dramas based on the intimate, but revealing, stories of the residents of each floor of the house, one scene for each apartment. Gay’s output, on the other hand, is complex and predictable, a contrived melodrama about all the house’s residents in improbable relationships. Hastings reacts in disbelief to Gay’s creation, and the famous playwright responds, “But it will run a year on Broadway.” “My God,” cries the enlightened novelist, “it has.” And that’s what can happen when you merely follow all the rules!

I do want to take small exception to one thing Kirk writes. Actually, I want to expand it a bit. The author notes, correctly, that “some works are simply better than others.” I’d add, “. . . for some people.” As Kirk continues, “Our criteria and judgments about art will always be subjective,” so each of us will see and feel things no one else will, and vice versa. Hence, art I think is great may seem mediocre or even awful to you and art you love may leave me cold. (Furthermore, taste, like the truth, changes over time. But let’s not get into that.) I’ll admit here that I don’t much like Harold Pinter’s plays. I’ll acknowledge that he was probably a genius, but his plays always just confuse me and leave me frustrated. I don’t enjoy those feelings. Obviously, though, mine’s a minority opinion since he won a Nobel in lit in 2005. As my father liked to say, De gustibus non disputandum est: There’s no accounting for taste.

When it comes to defining who’s an artist, Kirk quotes some lines from 8th-century Chinese poet Li Po. Allow me to add another voice, William Shakespeare:

The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And, as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

Further, Kirk adds that someone who writes, plays, or sings isn’t automatically an artist: an artist needs “to create something that changes the way people feel, hear, and think.” Living Theatre co-founder Julian Beck declared, “An actor who brings back from his adventures a moment of communicable penetration is a hero, the light of our lives.” It is perhaps noteworthy that the people who make commercials don’t call the performers who appear on the screen “artists”: they are simply “the talent.” I guess even the producers of TV commercials don’t figure it takes an artist to sell toilet paper or cars.

When Writing Reviews gets to contemplating how a reviewer actually goes about composing the review, Kirk addresses the question of whether or not to take notes while viewing the performance. (The question is less pertinent for non-performing arts, such as book or art reviewing, for obvious reasons.) His conclusion comes down on both sides of the question: “Take notes when you have to.” I’ve tried both ways, and a third in the middle (taking notes without looking at the pad!), and I end up in Kirk’s corner on this. You have to pay attention to what you’re watching and any distraction lessens your attentiveness. On the other hand, there are details that you recognize as potentially telling, like, say, a line of dialogue or a particularly revealing movement or gesture, and you know you can’t remember them for long without writing it down. Sometimes I’ve been able to keep the thing in mind long enough to jot it down in the lobby at intermission or right after the performance, which kind of splits the difference, but there’s no definitive answer for everyone; some people’s memories are just better than others' and some bits of performance are more memorable than others. You have to go with what works for you under the circumstances.

By the way, in an earlier paragraph, Kirk advises that “it is difficult for anyone . . . to take in an entire show at one sitting.” This is especially so if you’re taking notes while you’re watching. The trade-off is that if you don’t take the notes, you might not remember later what you did manage to “take in.” Going back, as some of the pros Kirk invokes suggest, is a good way to solve this dilemma, but that’s time consuming and, if you’re footing the bill for the extra tix, expensive. It also can get in the way of meeting deadlines. (TV reviewers have a much easier job here: they are usually provided with recordings of the program, several episodes if it’s a series, and can both pause the video to make a note and go back and re-watch parts or all of the show.)

I want to comment on something Kirk wrote near the end of Writing Reviews because I've always remembered it ever since I heard it. (I don't always follow the advice very well, but I do remember it!) In the "Reviewing your review" section, Kirk tells the reader to ask, "Can you say things more directly, cut out useless words, eliminate the unnecessary?" (That’s writing advice, of course, not just review-writing advice.) A teacher of mine used to say, "Kill your babies," meaning be willing to cut the things you like the most when they aren't really helping. Be ruthless, she meant. I often wish I could do that—but I have too much "ruth" I guess. But I hear her say that whenever I edit my work—especially when I come to something I know I should cut . . . but don’t want to.

Finally, one of the last observations of Writing Reviews is the statement that though we may “see a lot of bad art” over our lifetimes, “we’ll also experience things that enrich and possibly change our lives . . . .” Intentionally or otherwise, Kirk’s speaking of all kinds of art, not just theater or the performing arts. I could make a short list of the works of art, performances, texts, and visual art, that have moved me or showed me something so that I’ve never forgotten it or the experience. But I want to close out these comments by quoting an artist who made this point very clearly in his own way. I’ve written about the Inuit artist Pudlo Pudlat before (ROT, 28 September), and I quoted this then: “If an artist draws a subject over and over again in different ways, then he will learn something. The same with someone who looks at drawings—if that person keeps looking at many drawings, then he will learn something from them too.” A wise, wise man.

11 November 2009

'The Art of Writing Reviews' by Kirk Woodward, Part 3

[This is Part 3 of my commentary on Kirk Woodward’s book, The Art of Writing Reviews (http://www.lulu.com/content/paperback-book/the-art-of-writing-reviews/6785272). There will be four parts in all.]

On a less heated topic than reviewers' personal prejudices, Kirk notes that it’s almost impossible for a spectator to tell who’s responsible for what in a production. That’s true in general--though you can make a pretty good stab at who designed the sets and costumes. Because the program usually tells us. To be serious, though, a wise reviewer will know that the director probably had a great deal to say about the production design--and in some cases, so will the producer. Earlier I mentioned the formation of the American Directors Institute to try to help explain the work of stage directors to the public and even other theater professionals because so few people outside the rehearsals really know what the director does. I was only half joking when I said you could easily tell who designed the sets and so on, but the same is true of the acting. The actors are ultimately responsible for what they do on stage, but they worked with the director (and sometimes even the playwright) while they were developing the work that we end up seeing in performance. Theater is called a “collaborative art.” Nothing happens on the stage during the performance of a play, not even those monodramas I mentioned earlier, that hasn’t been shaped by many hands. I wonder how many people realize, for instance, that the character’s costume can have a tremendous effect on the actor’s work, both physically and psychologically. So can the set design and construction. Lines have been changed because of an actor (especially in TV); whole songs have been added or cut because of an actor’s work. Acting decisions can change because lines have been changed earlier or later in the script. We discuss a play as if the actors made all their own choices in a vacuum, that the designers all worked alone in their studios, and that the director . . . well, who knows what the director did. But it’s not true--it never was and it never will be. That’s precisely why no two productions of the same play are ever the same. (No two performances of the same production are the same, either, but that’s a different phenomenon.) That’s what makes theater such an exciting art form--at least for me. (It’s also why I used to love rehearsing. Performing was a reward, but rehearsing was where all the creativity happened and everyone you worked with was part of it. It was exhilarating.)

Aaron Frankel, the acting teacher whom I’ve mentioned a few times (because he had all these neat little aphorisms that have stuck with me) used to quote Martha Graham: "Don't come on stage to give; come on stage to take!" It sounds selfish and egotistical, but what I understand it to mean, for an actor, is that you take in what the other actors are sending you, you let it inform your performance, and you respond to it. Then the other actors respond to what you send out in turn. The most difficult actors with whom I worked were the ones who came to the theater with their performances all canned and ready. They were all closed off. I couldn’t change their performance no matter what I did on stage with them--they just barreled through with their plan. I’d have no choice but to do the same thing, and then we no longer had a live play but a kind of live-action video game. If we did it well, maybe no one in the audience would notice, but it wasn’t any fun to do.

Even if, as Kirk points out, you see two performances of a production with the same director and different actors, you can’t be sure whose contribution you’re witnessing. Sensitive directors will reconceive a character based on the contributions of an actor and rework the part even as the overall production concept remains essentially the same. Sometimes, the kit-and-kaboodle gets shifted because of the presence of new actors. If you read the re-reviews of continuing shows written when there’s been a cast change, you can sometimes see that old shows can learn new tricks. When Eileen Atkins replaced Cherry Jones as Sister Aloysius in Doubt, reviewers noted how different the play had become as a result of the new approach to the role. No one said that Atkins’s interpretation was better than Jones’s, but the difference was marked. It’s not really part of the same point, but now and then those changes can improve the production. Not too long ago, when the revival of Annie Get Your Gun was running on Broadway, Bernadette Peters (whom I saw do the role pre-Broadway in Washington a few months earlier) actually didn’t get such good notices. (Truth be told, she was a tad old for the part.) But when Reba McEntire replaced Peters, reviewers felt that McEntire suited the part better and the show was better for the change.

Writing Reviews also addresses the issue of “inside information.” Kirk warns that reviewers who put forth that they know things we outsiders don’t are often wrong, to begin with, and even if they’re not, the inside dope doesn’t really have anything to do with the experience at hand, namely the performance. In one example, Kirk writes, “Reviewers often claim to know why an artist did something, when even the artist may have no idea,” and he relates a story about John Lennon playing bass on a Paul McCartney song. Lennon played badly and one reviewer claimed it had been sabotage even though, as Kirk notes, Lennon was “simply a lousy bass player.” This all reminds me of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, whose plot centers on research a scholar is doing about Lord Byron. Using the family archives at a country house where Byron had stayed in 1809, the researcher puts together the evidence about what Byron was doing at the house and interprets it to determine a plausible scenario. But Arcadia is divided into two interwoven narratives, the other one being the same house in 1809 and we get to see what actually went on then. It turns out, despite the parallels between the facts in 1809 and the ones revealed in “the present day,” that the researcher has interpreted the evidence completely wrong.

One of Stoppard’s favorite themes is How do we know what we think we know? It is the central theme of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and part of the point of Jumpers and even Travesties. His characters almost always get the facts right but the conclusions wrong. One of his most fun arguments in Jumpers, in a speech about the existence of God that I used to use for auditions, goes this way:

Cantor’s proof that there is no greatest number ensures that there is no smallest fraction. There is no beginning. But it was precisely this notion of infinite series which in the sixth century BC led the Greek philosopher Zeno to conclude that since an arrow shot towards a target first had to cover half the distance, and then half the remainder, and then half the remainder after that, and so on ad infinitum, the result was, . . . that though an arrow is always approaching its target, it never quite gets there, and Saint Sebastian died of fright. Furthermore, by a similar argument he showed that before reaching the half-way point, the arrow had to reach the quarter-mark, and before that the eighth, and before that the sixteenth, and so on, with the result, remembering Cantor’s proof, that the arrow could not move at all!

An ideal example of perfect logic leading to an impossible conclusion. As reviewers and consumers of reviews, we need to be skeptical of such reasoning and the information on which it’s founded.

As a sort of addendum to this discussion, Kirk makes the point that his admonition about inside information also holds true for determining that “a work of art is a direct reflection of the artist’s life . . . .” Almost all artists use elements of their biography to inform their work, though that doesn’t make every artist’s work “autobiographical.” Some is, to one degree or another: Arthur Miller’s After the Fall is clearly a reflection of his marriage to Marilyn Monroe--though it isn’t an account of that marriage; most of Horton Foote’s characters are based on his family and neighbors from the Texas town where he grew up, but the plays don’t tell the history of his family. Kirk invoked Tennessee Williams as an example, and though Williams used aspects of his life in almost all his writing, especially early in his career, his plays aren’t autobiographies. (Knowing something about Williams’s life can help some in understanding some things about the plays, but enjoying them doesn’t depend on being a Williams expert.) At the end of that discussion, Kirk cautions us not to treat Williams’s plays “as chapters in Williams’ memoirs.” Of course, he’s absolutely correct. The plays (and poems and short stories) are self-contained works of art, no more accounts of the playwright’s life than The Lord of the Rings was an account of Tolkien’s life. But I want to add one remark, only slightly relevant (and perhaps not even that): Williams’s actual Memoirs, his published autobiography, is largely regarded as heavily fictionalized. Williams told so many tales about his background, starting with his name (actually Tom) and the year of his birth (actually 1911, not 1914 as he put out for many years), that I suspect he began to forget what was a yarn and what was true. My point? Not only can’t Williams’s fiction be taken as fact, but even his fact can’t be taken as fact! (I’m just sayin’.)

Kirk also addresses the issue of reviewers asserting that they can somehow glean how other people (including the artists themselves as well as other viewers) feel and what they think. Just recently, for example, in his review of the Brighton Beach Memoirs revival, Ben Brantley committed this fault when he said of one actor that “her performance is so subdued and inward-looking that when [she] finally erupts, you don’t believe it” (I added the italics). How does Brantley know what I will believe if and when I see the play? How does he know what anyone else, even his fellow spectators that night, believes? He can’t. He can only know what he himself believes. He has no business speaking for anyone else!

I took this problem up on ROT as well. What I proposed is that reviewers write in first person so that they are less tempted to make universal statements and maintain the perception that they are writing about themselves and their own impressions. (Brantley could have written, “. . . I don’t believe it.”) The problem is, of course, that editors and publishers seldom allow writers like reviewers to write in first person. Opinion columnists, and I maintain that that’s really what reviewers are, are perfectly free to write that way, but reviewers rarely are. It’s harder to do when you can’t use the grammatical first person, but the alternative approach has to be to make sure the “first-personness” of the review is rhetorically clear. (In which case, Brantley could have written, “. . . it’s hard to believe.”)

In a section about clever remarks, put-downs, and personal insults in reviews, Kirk invokes a famous reviewer “who most consistently writes in terms of insults”; he doesn’t name the writer, but most of us probably know who he is, and since ROT isn’t as vulnerable to retribution, legal or otherwise, I will name him: John Simon. I had a bit of a contretemps in print with Simon back in 1989, precipitated by his review of The Winter’s Tale at the New York Shakespeare Festival. I won’t repeat Simon’s revolting remarks about the actress Alfre Woodard, who played Paulina in the production, but I will characterize them as racist and mean, referring to her hair (which was a wig) and her vocal performance. Simon invoked the vilest racial images to make his points. (Simon also said some very insulting things about Mandy Patinkin, who played Leontes opposite Christopher Reeve’s Polixenes, making reference to some scurrilous Nazi caricatures of Jews.) Almost the entire theater community rose up in protest, with several columnists writing rebukes and well-known theater figures like Colleen Dewhurst, Eli Wallach, and Anne Jackson writing letters. I also wrote a long letter to all the press outlets in New York; it was published in a substantial excerpt in the New York Post (12 April) and in its entirety in the New York Native (22 May), where I published my reviews at the time. I wrote: “Invoking negative racial and ethnic stereotypes to make small points about coiffure or vocal technique . . . is completely outrageous in this supposedly enlightened time. Cruelty of this kind, regardless of the point Mr. Simon may have been trying to make, is inexcusable in our society.”

Simon’s review came out on 3 April. I had also written a review of the play which appeared on the same date but since the Native was a weekly, my deadline was long before I ever saw Simon’s notice. I had liked the production. On 19 June, however, my review of another NYSF production, Cymbeline (part of NYSF’s then-ongoing marathon of all Shakespeare’s plays over about a decade), came out in the Native and unbeknownst to me, the editors had put a banner headline on the front page of the edition saying, “Hey, John Simon: We Loved Cymbeline.” Simon had obviously panned Cymbeline (12 June)--it was a controversial production under the direction of JoAnne Akalaitis--but the banner was clearly more directed at my difference of opinion with Simon over Winter’s Tale. In any case, New York didn’t run my letter and I never heard from Simon in any way. I’m sure I was beneath his notice. (That’s all right. He’s beneath my contempt. One of his earlier reviews soon after I moved to New York City--I forget now which one--so incensed me that I cancelled my subscription to New York and have never gone back to it.)

By the way, in a later section on “The newspaper’s mistakes,” Kirk points out that “reviewers often are not responsible for headlines” and other accompaniments to their columns. That’s true not only of reviewers but almost all journalistic writers; there are editors whose job it is to oversee the composition of headlines and such. (Most of my reviews did appear under headlines of my own devising, however.) I not only had no hand in writing that banner about Cymbeline that baited John Simon, but I didn’t even know about it until the issue came out. Since my deadline was often 10 days before the issue date, I’d written my copy before Simon’s negative review of Cymbeline hit the stands. (As I said, I no longer subscribed to New York magazine and didn’t seek out Simon’s reviews anyway; I wouldn’t have known about his response to the play until someone told me about it.)

Following this discussion in Writing Reviews, Kirk also raises the issue of “color-blind casting,” another problem John Simon has. I raised an objection to his shortsightedness and benighted attitude in the same letter, but a few years later, in 1991, the magazine The World & I, published by the Washington Times (owned by the Moonies), ran an article, “Nontraditional Casting” by David H. Ehrlich, which took the same viewpoint as Simon--that roles should only be cast with actors of the same race specified for the character. (If no race is specified, the role is presumed to have been written for a white actor.) I wrote another long letter to the editor of The World & I, and though they never published it, the author of the article called me. I didn’t want to get into a debate with him, so I just suggested that his editors run my letter and we could have our conversation in print. What the arch-conservative publication didn’t print included this statement:

[W]hat Mr. Ehrlich’s essay, reduced to its most basic terms, really says is that African-American actors (and Hispanic, Asian, disabled and women actors, by extension) are fine, as long as they keep to their places. Let them do August Wilson and Spike Lee, and the occasional Othello (but not Iago); however, they had better stay away from White Plays. If that sounds like saying black people are OK as long as they do not move next door to me and marry my sister, you get full marks.

(The comment above about Othello and Iago was in reference to a production of the Shakespeare tragedy by the Folger Theatre Group, the forerunner of the Shakespeare Theatre Company, which cast Avery Brooks as the Moor and André Braugher as his ancient. Ehrlich had trouble with this pairing.)

In a related section, Kirk inveighs against reviewers who have an obsession with something and “drag it into review after review.” Kirk’s talking about general idées fixes, like Clive Barnes’s reputed preference for anything British, but sometimes they’re more transitory. As I wrote recently in an August posting on ROT:

I remember back in ’98 when Footloose opened on Broadway, Ben Brantley panned the show and ever thereafter, at every opportunity he had in subsequent columns, Brantley ran the play down in the most derogatory terms he could get away with. He seemed obsessed with this play and the low opinion he had of it.

I don’t know what was going through Brantley’s mind at the time, of course, but I kept thinking that he was actually trying to close the show. Despite Brantley’s efforts, however, Footloose (which I didn’t like much myself, though it never offended me) ran for a year-and-a-half and 709 performances. It was nominated for four Tonys and didn’t win any of them, so maybe Brantley could take some pride in that dubious accomplishment.

And speaking about closing shows because of reviews, in a section called “Worrying about effect,” Kirk addresses the matter of how reviewers cope with the sense that they may be influencing people’s futures. I just want to point out that this very question was the subject of my essay "The Power of the Reviewer," which I mentioned above. My conclusion, by the way, was that the power of reviews to close productions was largely an untested assumption and that there were many viable strategies that producers could use to combat mediocre press. (I related one earlier: the hoax David Merrick pulled--he liked to put things over on the press--that may have helped extend the run of the poorly-reviewed Subways Are for Sleeping. But there are more legitimate tactics as well.) And Kirk is right when he reports that some reviewers “deny that they have any economic effect at all.” In a 1969 survey (the last time I looked, there weren’t any newer ones), only two-thirds of reviewers (of all arts, not just theater), said they had an economic impact. On the other hand, another survey found that 60% of spectators questioned said that reviews were of minimal importance to their choices. A 1977 study by More magazine (now defunct) attempted to find a correlation between the quality of the reviews and the length of a play’s run. The results weren’t conclusive, but they found, “When the critics expressed a strong negative [i.e., a pan] or positive [a rave] opinion about a play, there was a marked correlation with the length of run.” (I had some reservations about this study, which I expressed in the essay.)

[Come back in a few days for Part 4 of my commentary on Writing Reviews. There’s still more to say.]