28 March 2015

Perspectives on Science

[I’m no scientist.  I even stopped being any good at it in school when we hit physics in my junior year.  But it’s always fascinated me—especially when it comes to things like new discoveries and using the techniques of the arts and humanities to teach or communicate science.  People who ignore or even disparage science are another interest of mine—I don’t get how even moderately educated people can take that attitude.  So the two recent articles below, one from the Washington Post and the other from the New York Times, caught my attention.  So I downloaded them saved them for use on ROT, and now’s a good opportunity to share them with the blog’s readers.] 

by Joel Achenbach

[The article below first appeared in the “Outlook” section of the  Washington Post of 15 February 2015.]

The Post’s Joel Achenbach says the evidence often conflicts with our experience

There’s a scene in Stanley Kubrick’s comic masterpiece “Dr. Strangelove” in which Jack D. Ripper, an American general who’s gone rogue and ordered a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, unspools his paranoid worldview — and the explanation for why he drinks “only distilled water, or rainwater, and only pure grain alcohol” — to Lionel Mandrake, a dizzy-with-anxiety group captain in the Royal Air Force.

Ripper: “Have you ever heard of a thing called fluoridation? Fluoridation of water?”

Mandrake: “Ah, yes, I have heard of that, Jack. Yes, yes.”

Ripper: “Well, do you know what it is?”

Mandrake: “No. No, I don’t know what it is, no.”

Ripper: “Do you realize that fluoridation is the most monstrously conceived and dangerous communist plot we have ever had to face?”

The movie came out in 1964, by which time the health benefits of fluoridation had been thoroughly established and anti-fluoridation conspiracy theories could be the stuff of comedy. Yet half a century later, fluoridation continues to incite fear and paranoia. In 2013, citizens in Portland, Ore., one of only a few major American cities that don’t fluoridate, blocked a plan by local officials to do so. Opponents didn’t like the idea of the government adding “chemicals” to their water. They claimed that fluoride could be harmful to human health.

Actually fluoride is a natural mineral that, in the weak concentrations used in public drinking-water systems, hardens tooth enamel and prevents tooth decay — a cheap and safe way to improve dental health for everyone, rich or poor, conscientious brushers or not. That’s the scientific and medical consensus.

To which some people in Portland, echoing anti-fluoridation activists around the world, reply: We don’t believe you.

We live in an age when all manner of scientific knowledge — from the safety of fluoride and vaccines to the reality of climate change — faces organized and often furious opposition. Empowered by their own sources of information and their own interpretations of research, doubters have declared war on the consensus of experts. There are so many of these controversies these days, you’d think a diabolical agency had put something in the water to make people argumentative.

Science doubt has become a pop-culture meme. In the recent movie “Interstellar,” set in a futuristic, downtrodden America where NASA has been forced into hiding, school textbooks say the Apollo moon landings were faked.

In a sense this is not surprising. Our lives are permeated by science and technology as never before. For many of us this new world is wondrous, comfortable and rich in rewards — but also more complicated and sometimes unnerving. We now face risks we can’t easily analyze.

We’re asked to accept, for example, that it’s safe to eat food containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) because, the experts point out, there’s no evidence that it isn’t and no reason to believe that altering genes precisely in a lab is more dangerous than altering them wholesale through traditional breeding. But to some people, the very idea of transferring genes between species conjures up mad scientists running amok — and so, two centuries after Mary Shelley wrote “Frankenstein,” they talk about Frankenfood.

The world crackles with real and imaginary hazards, and distinguishing the former from the latter isn’t easy. Should we be afraid that the Ebola virus, which is spread only by direct contact with bodily fluids, will mutate into an airborne super-plague? The scientific consensus says that’s extremely unlikely: No virus has ever been observed to completely change its mode of transmission in humans, and there’s zero evidence that the latest strain of Ebola is any different. But Google “airborne Ebola” and you’ll enter a dystopia where this virus has almost supernatural powers, including the power to kill us all.

In this bewildering world we have to decide what to believe and how to act on that. In principle, that’s what science is for. “Science is not a body of facts,” says geophysicist Marcia McNutt, who once headed the U.S. Geological Survey and is now editor of Science, the prestigious journal. “Science is a method for deciding whether what we choose to believe has a basis in the laws of nature or not.”

The scientific method leads us to truths that are less than self-evident, often mind-blowing and sometimes hard to swallow. In the early 17th century, when Galileo claimed that the Earth spins on its axis and orbits the sun, he wasn’t just rejecting church doctrine. He was asking people to believe something that defied common sense — because it sure looks like the sun’s going around the Earth, and you can’t feel the Earth spinning. Galileo was put on trial and forced to recant. Two centuries later, Charles Darwin escaped that fate. But his idea that all life on Earth evolved from a primordial ancestor and that we humans are distant cousins of apes, whales and even deep-sea mollusks is still a big ask for a lot of people.

Even when we intellectually accept these precepts of science, we subconsciously cling to our intuitions — what researchers call our naive beliefs. A study by Andrew Shtulman of Occidental College showed that even students with an advanced science education had a hitch in their mental gait when asked to affirm or deny that humans are descended from sea animals and that the Earth goes around the sun. Both truths are counterintuitive. The students, even those who correctly marked “true,” were slower to answer those questions than questions about whether humans are descended from tree-dwelling creatures (also true but easier to grasp) and whether the moon goes around the Earth (also true but intuitive).

Shtulman’s research indicates that as we become scientifically literate, we repress our naive beliefs but never eliminate them entirely. They nest in our brains, chirping at us as we try to make sense of the world.

Most of us do that by relying on personal experience and anecdotes, on stories rather than statistics. We might get a prostate-specific antigen test, even though it’s no longer generally recommended, because it caught a close friend’s cancer — and we pay less attention to statistical evidence, painstakingly compiled through multiple studies, showing that the test rarely saves lives but triggers many unnecessary surgeries. Or we hear about a cluster of cancer cases in a town with a hazardous-waste dump, and we assume that pollution caused the cancers. Of course, just because two things happened together doesn’t mean one caused the other, and just because events are clustered doesn’t mean they’re not random. Yet we have trouble digesting randomness; our brains crave pattern and meaning.

Even for scientists, the scientific method is a hard discipline. They, too, are vulnerable to confirmation bias — the tendency to look for and see only evidence that confirms what they already believe. But unlike the rest of us, they submit their ideas to formal peer review before publishing them. Once the results are published, if they’re important enough, other scientists will try to reproduce them — and, being congenitally skeptical and competitive, will be very happy to announce that they don’t hold up. Scientific results are always provisional, susceptible to being overturned by some future experiment or observation. Scientists rarely proclaim an absolute truth or an absolute certainty. Uncertainty is inevitable at the frontiers of knowledge.

That provisional quality of science is another thing a lot of people have trouble with. To some climate-change skeptics, for example, the fact that a few scientists in the 1970s were worried (quite reasonably, it seemed at the time) about the possibility of a coming ice age is enough to discredit what is now the consensus of the world’s scientists: The planet’s surface temperature has risen by about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit in the past 130 years, and human actions, including the burning of fossil fuels, are extremely likely to have been the dominant cause since the mid-20th century.

It’s clear that organizations funded in part by the fossil-fuel industry have deliberately tried to undermine the public’s understanding of the scientific consensus by promoting a few skeptics. The news media gives abundant attention to such mavericks, naysayers, professional controversialists and table thumpers. The media would also have you believe that science is full of shocking discoveries made by lone geniuses. Not so. The (boring) truth is that science usually advances incrementally, through the steady accretion of data and insights gathered by many people over many years. So it has with the consensus on climate change. That’s not about to go poof with the next thermometer reading.

But industry PR, however misleading, isn’t enough to explain why so many people reject the scientific consensus on global warming.

The “science communication problem,” as it’s blandly called by the scientists who study it, has yielded abundant new research into how people decide what to believe — and why they so often don’t accept the expert consensus. It’s not that they can’t grasp it, according to Dan Kahan of Yale University. In one study he asked 1,540 Americans, a representative sample, to rate the threat of climate change on a scale of zero to 10. Then he correlated that with the subjects’ science literacy. He found that higher literacy was associated with stronger views — at both ends of the spectrum. Science literacy promoted polarization on climate, not consensus. According to Kahan, that’s because people tend to use scientific knowledge to reinforce their worldviews.

Americans fall into two basic camps, Kahan says. Those with a more “egalitarian” and “communitarian” mind-set are generally suspicious of industry and apt to think it’s up to something dangerous that calls for government regulation; they’re likely to see the risks of climate change. In contrast, people with a “hierarchical” and “individualistic” mind-set respect leaders of industry and don’t like government interfering in their affairs; they’re apt to reject warnings about climate change, because they know what accepting them could lead to — some kind of tax or regulation to limit emissions.

In the United States, climate change has become a litmus test that identifies you as belonging to one or the other of these two antagonistic tribes. When we argue about it, Kahan says, we’re actually arguing about who we are, what our crowd is. We’re thinking: People like us believe this. People like that do not believe this.

Science appeals to our rational brain, but our beliefs are motivated largely by emotion, and the biggest motivation is remaining tight with our peers. “We’re all in high school. We’ve never left high school,” says Marcia McNutt. “People still have a need to fit in, and that need to fit in is so strong that local values and local opinions are always trumping science. And they will continue to trump science, especially when there is no clear downside to ignoring science.”

Meanwhile the Internet makes it easier than ever for science doubters to find their own information and experts. Gone are the days when a small number of powerful institutions — elite universities, encyclopedias and major news organizations — served as gatekeepers of scientific information. The Internet has democratized it, which is a good thing. But along with cable TV, the Web has also made it possible to live in a “filter bubble” that lets in only the information with which you already agree.

How to penetrate the bubble? How to convert science skeptics? Throwing more facts at them doesn’t help. Liz Neeley, who helps train scientists to be better communicators at an organization called Compass, says people need to hear from believers they can trust, who share their fundamental values. She has personal experience with this. Her father is a climate-change skeptic and gets most of his information on the issue from conservative media. In exasperation she finally confronted him: “Do you believe them or me?” She told him she believes the scientists who research climate change and knows many of them personally. “If you think I’m wrong,” she said, “then you’re telling me that you don’t trust me.” Her father’s stance on the issue softened. But it wasn’t the facts that did it.

If you’re a rationalist, there’s something a little dispiriting about all this. In Kahan’s descriptions of how we decide what to believe, what we decide sometimes sounds almost incidental. Those of us in the science-communication business are as tribal as anyone else, he told me. We believe in scientific ideas not because we have truly evaluated all the evidence but because we feel an affinity for the scientific community. When I mentioned to Kahan that I fully accept evolution, he said: “Believing in evolution is just a description about you. It’s not an account of how you reason.”

Maybe — except that evolution is real. Biology is incomprehensible without it. There aren’t really two sides to all these issues. Climate change is happening. Vaccines save lives. Being right does matter — and the science tribe has a long track record of getting things right in the end. Modern society is built on things it got right.

Doubting science also has consequences, as seen in recent weeks with the measles outbreak that began in California. The people who believe that vaccines cause autism — often well educated and affluent, by the way — are undermining “herd immunity” to such diseases as whooping cough and measles. The anti-vaccine movement has been going strong since a prestigious British medical journal, the Lancet, published a study in 1998 linking a common vaccine to autism. The journal later retracted the study, which was thoroughly discredited. But the notion of a vaccine-autism connection has been endorsed by celebrities and reinforced through the usual Internet filters. (Anti-vaccine activist and actress Jenny McCarthy famously said on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” “The University of Google is where I got my degree from.”)

In the climate debate, the consequences of doubt are likely to be global and enduring. Climate-change skeptics in the United States have achieved their fundamental goal of halting legislative action to combat global warming. They haven’t had to win the debate on the merits; they’ve merely had to fog the room enough to keep laws governing greenhouse gas emissions from being enacted.

Some environmental activists want scientists to emerge from their ivory towers and get more involved in the policy battles. Any scientist going that route needs to do so carefully, says Liz Neeley. “That line between science communication and advocacy is very hard to step back from,” she says. In the debate over climate change, the central allegation of the skeptics is that the science saying it’s real and a serious threat is politically tinged, driven by environmental activism and not hard data. That’s not true, and it slanders honest scientists. But the claim becomes more likely to be seen as plausible if scientists go beyond their professional expertise and begin advocating specific policies.

It’s their very detachment, what you might call the cold-bloodedness of science, that makes science the killer app. It’s the way science tells us the truth rather than what we’d like the truth to be. Scientists can be as dogmatic as anyone else — but their dogma is always wilting in the hot glare of new research. In science it’s not a sin to change your mind when the evidence demands it. For some people, the tribe is more important than the truth; for the best scientists, the truth is more important than the tribe.

[Joel Achenbach is a science reporter at the Washington Post. A version of this essay appears on the cover of National Geographic’s March 2015 issue.]

*  *  *  *
by Kenneth Chang

[This report was originally published in “Science Times” of the New York Times on 3 March 2015.]

STONY BROOK, N.Y. — Martha Furie stormed into the room and huffily sat down in a chair.

“Well, you know, I’ve been working really hard, studying Lyme disease,” she said, her voice tinged with disdain, to the woman sitting in the next chair. “It’s been a long process. It’s hard to talk about it.”

The other woman, Bernadette Holdener, was somewhat befuddled. ”How does it make you feel?” she asked.

“Lyme disease?” Dr. Furie sneered. “It can have all sorts of bad things.”

The two were participating in an improvisational acting exercise a couple of Fridays ago [20 February]. But they are not aspiring actresses or comedians. Dr. Furie is a professor of pathology at Stony Brook University [State University of New York at Stony Brook], Dr. Holdener a professor of biochemistry and cell biology.

“Anyone have any inkling what is going on?” asked one of the instructors for the session — Alan Alda, the actor who played Hawkeye in the television series “M*A*S*H” more than three decades ago.

The exercise, called “Who am I?,” challenges one of the participants — Dr. Furie, in this case — to convey an unstated relationship with another, and everyone else must try to deduce the relationship. “She sounded very angry,” Dr. Holdener said.

People guessed variously that Dr. Furie was a Lyme researcher who had contracted the disease, that she just been denied tenure and was venting to the head of her department, that she was expressing passive-aggressive anger toward her spouse.

“You’re so close,” Mr. Alda said.

Dr. Furie explained that Dr. Holdener “was my long-lost sister who stole my husband away.” The other participants laughed at the convoluted, unlikely setup.

Mr. Alda said that Dr. Furie, focusing on her role as a wronged sister, intently observed her audience — Dr. Holdener — and the effect of her words. “What I find interesting about this is you’re suddenly talking about your work in a way you’ve never talked about it before,” Mr. Alda said.

The idea of teaching improv to scientists came from Mr. Alda, now a visiting professor. The objective is not to make them funny, but to help them talk about science to people who are not scientists. The exercises encourage them to pay attention to the audience’s reaction and adjust. “Not jokes, not cleverness,” Mr. Alda said. “It’s the contact with the other person.”

Mr. Alda has long held a deep interest in science. In the 1990s, he collaborated on “QED,” a play about the physicist Richard Feynman, with Mr. Alda playing Dr. Feynman.

He also hosted 11 seasons of the PBS program “Scientific American Frontiers.” In interviews with hundreds of scientists, he found that he could draw out engaging explanations. ”I didn’t go in with a list of questions,” Mr. Alda said during a public lecture at Stony Brook the night before the workshop. “I just listened to what they had to say and asked them questions that would help me understand what their work was.”

But he recalled one scientist who would switch from conversing with Mr. Alda to lecturing to the camera. “And immediately, the tone of her voice changed,” Mr. Alda said. “Her vocabulary changed. I couldn’t understand what she was saying.”

Mr. Alda started suggesting to university presidents that they teach scientists how to present their research to the public.

No one expressed interest until 2007, when Mr. Alda visited Stony Brook and met Shirley Strum Kenny, then the university’s president. “I thought, here’s my chance, I’ll go into my pitch,” Mr. Alda said. “I said, ‘What do you think? Do you think both could be taught at the same time so you can graduate accomplished scientists who are also accomplished communicators?’ And she was interested.”

The next year, he tested his improv idea at the University of Southern California on 20 graduate engineering students. The students first talked briefly about their work. “It was O.K.,” Mr. Alda said.

Then came three hours of improvisational acting exercises. At the end, the students talked about their work again. “The difference was striking,” Mr. Alda said. “They came to life, and I thought, ‘This is going to work.’ ”

Stony Brook established the Center for Communicating Science in 2009 as part of its journalism school. In addition to classes, the center started the Flame Challenge, a contest seeking compelling explanations of seemingly simple phenomena. The first year, the question was “What is a flame?” Mr. Alda asked his teacher this when he was 11, and the answer — “oxidation” — was his first experience with confusing scientific jargon. This year, the question is “What is sleep?” The winners will be named at the World Science Festival in New York in May.

In 2013, the Stony Brook program was officially named the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science.

Howard Schneider, the dean of the journalism school, said science departments were initially skeptical, with many thinking improv would be a distraction.

That has changed. Two graduate programs now require students to take the center’s classes. All medical school students receive 10 hours of training.

“This is a big cultural shift,” Mr. Schneider said. In addition, four organizations — Dartmouth College, the University of Vermont, the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Jersey and the American Chemical Society — have become affiliates of the center. Other universities, inspired by Stony Brook, are considering setting up similar programs.

The ability to describe science effectively could prove key to winning research financing in the future. Last year, Stony Brook ran a competition among its younger scientists for a $200,000 prize. The four finalists, who were coached at the Alan Alda Center, pitched to a panel of distinguished scientists. The winner was Laurie T. Krug, a professor of molecular genetics and microbiology, who proposed studying herpes viruses associated with cancer and using nanoparticles to deliver molecules that act as scissors to cut up viral DNA.

The recent workshop was for about 40 members of the Stony Brook faculty. For the improv sessions, the group with Mr. Alda threw around imaginary balls of varying weights, mirrored one another’s movements, tried to explain a smartphone to a time traveler from the past, and talked of cherished photographs while holding up a blank white folder. In the afternoon, they broke into smaller groups to talk about how to distill and describe their own research.

Dr. Furie, who directs the graduate program in genetics, said she had started the day unsure the center’s offerings were a good use of time for her graduate students.

“Now, I’m convinced,” she said. And she got to play the role of the wronged sister.

“That was crazy,” Dr. Furie said. “I’m actually not a person who puts myself out there. I can’t believe I did that.”

[Kenneth Chang is a science reporter for the New York Times, covering chemistry, geology, solid state physics, nanotechnology, Pluto, plague and other scientific miscellany. He attended the science writing program at University of California at Santa Cruz. He worked at The Los Angeles Times, the Greenwich Time in Connecticut, The Newark Star-Ledger and ABCNEWS.com prior to joining the Times in 2000.]

23 March 2015

Dinner Theater

Saturday evening, 28 February, I rode over to New Jersey to see a performance of Once Upon a Mystery, a play by my friend Kirk Woodward which he directed for the Theater League of Clifton’s Annual Dinner Theater production.  Two years ago, Kirk invited me to come out for that year’s TLC event, Murder Me Always by Lee Mueller, in which Kirk and his son, Craig, were appearing.  Kirk says it was after that 2013 experience that he decided to try his hand at writing “a play specifically for dinner theater,” with all its demands and limitations, and Once Upon a Mystery was the result.  (Murder mystery dinner theater is a popular sub-classification of dinner theater.  This uniquely American entertainment form, which my American Heritage Dictionary defines as a “restaurant that presents a play during or after dinner,” is sometimes also called “dinner and a show”; that show isn’t necessarily a play, but may be some other form of entertainment such as a cabaret act, a comedy routine, or a revue.)

Both plays were staged at Mario’s Restaurant in Clifton, which isn’t, strictly speaking, a dinner theater.  (The Theater League of Clifton presents regular community theater productions, such as Marc Camoletti’s French farce Boeing Boeing and the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific, in other venues in its area during the year.  Their dinner theater show is a special event.)  The performances are staged in the restaurant’s large back room with the dining tables and patrons positioned around the periphery of the rectangular space and the performance area in the center—though some of the action takes place among the tables.  There’s a single entrance to the space, little room for set or props, and no stage lighting to speak of. 

When the phenomenon of dinner theater was at its height in the 1970s, there were hundreds of dedicated dinner theater houses around the country.  According to Tod Booth, owner of the Alhambra Dinner Theatre in Jacksonville, Florida, there were as many as 174 dinner theaters in the country which were signatories to Actors’ Equity contracts; there were probably scores more that operated outside the union’s jurisdiction.  The attraction in this period of prosperity and popularity was the prospect of seeing a celebrity in a starring role.  The likes of Rat Pack comic Joey Bishop; film stars like Mickey Rooney, Van Johnson, Myrna Loy, and Cesar Romero; or TV stars such as Julie Kavner, “Rhoda’s sister” on that late-’70s series (and the voice of Marge Simpson today), and Esther Rolle of the ’70s sit-com Good Times appeared in revivals of old-standard comedies and musicals.  There are even rumors that Robert de Niro did a dinner-theater show (and was fired from it in mid-run!).  Actors Burt Reynolds and Earl Holliman both owned dinner theaters (respectively the Burt Reynolds Dinner Theater in Jupiter, Florida, 1979-97, and the Fiesta Dinner Playhouse in San Antonio, Texas, 1977-87).  Dinner theaters essentially replaced summer stock, which by the 1960s had all but disappeared except in vacation spots like Cape Cod and the Poconos, as venues for young actors and waning stars, as well as light entertainment sources for theatergoers—with the added benefit that the dinner theaters were available year round. 

Actors’ Equity councilor Jay Barney, who wrote a regular column on dinner theater in Back Stage, the actors’ trade weekly, joked that the origins of dinner theater go back to when “the Romans washed down their lavish spreads with wine while watching the Lions vs. the Christians and the elimination contests of the Gladiators.”  Other wags have pointed out that patrons of Shakespeare’s Globe ate while the plays unfolded and that food was hawked during performances at the Hôtel de Bourgogne.  The first dinner theaters in the modern United States, however, served the meal in one room and presented the performance in another. Those are now known as theatre restaurants, and by the late 1960s, the houses were specially designed spaces that served as both a dining area, where the auditorium is in a conventional playhouse, and a raised stage at the far end, usually either a proscenium or thrust configuration, just like an ordinary theater.  (A few dinner theaters were built on the arena or theater-in-the-round model.) 

In 1946, Tony DeSantis, a former trumpet-player in Chicago turned club-owner, opened the Martinique Restaurant in Evergreen Park, Illinois—about 15 miles outside Chicago.  In 1949, he began producing plays in a tent next to the restaurant to attract diners.  The Martinique was so successful that DeSantis decided to build his first theater, the Drury Lane Evergreen Park, in 1958, the first of six dinner theaters he started and a Chicago-area entertainment attraction for 45 years before it closed in 2003. 

The first formal dinner theater was Barksdale Theatre at the historic, but derelict, Hanover Tavern in a suburb of Richmond, Virginia, founded in 1953.  After David and Nancy Kilgore and four other displaced New York actors established the theater in the tavern’s basement (the six operators, their children, and assorted pets lived upstairs), they opened rooms on the first and second floors where they served a buffet dinner before the show for groups of theatergoers; soon the buffet was made available to all the Barksdale’s patrons.  The Barksdale is still running, though in 2012 it merged with Theatre IV to become the Virginia Repertory Theatre.  It no longer serves dinner with the show, however.

In 1959, Bill Pullinsi, a Catholic University theater student in Washington, D.C., launched a new entertainment concept at the Presidential Arms Hotel during summer vacation, perceiving that the old theater cliché about “dinner and a show” would succeed if he put them together literally.  Pullinsi called his venture the Candlelight Theatre Restaurant and he served dinner and presented a show in the same room.  The idea caught on and was successful, but Pullinsi couldn’t turn it into a year-round operation because the Presidential Arms, located on G Street, N.W., in downtown Washington, not far from Lafayette Park and the White House, did heavy convention business the rest of the year.  So Pullinsi, a Chicago native, went back to the Windy City and in 1961 opened the Candlelight Dinner Playhouse in nearby Summit.  Eventually, the young impresario built a 560-seat home for his new dinner theater.  The Candlelight closed in 1997 after 36 years of operation.

In 1960, a half hour from Manhattan, the Meadowbrook Theatre Restaurant opened in Cedar Grove, New Jersey.  The second dinner theater in the U.S., it originally operated as Frank Dailey’s Meadowbrook, opened in 1923 as a dance hall featuring big bands. Gary and Helga McHugh came up with the idea for a dinner theater and rented the dance hall as a union theater, under contract with both the theater unions and the restaurant staff guilds.  (There is some dispute over whether the Candlelight or the Meadowbrook was really the first dinner theater; the Meadowbrook’s own history asserts that it was founded in 1959, not 1960.)  The theater and dining space was an arena house and after the performance, the stage was removed to allow the patrons to use the dance floor, accompanied by a live band.  The Meadowbrook only lasted 13 years, in part because of its over-700-seat dining capacity and the competition of nearby Broadway.  Actors’ Equity Association, the professional stage actors’ union, also ruled in 1973 that dinner theaters had to follow the procedures that governed Broadway houses, including pay scales, pension and welfare payments, rehearsal limitations, and other contractual restrictions.  Tax issues (which had caused an earlier closure) and a recession were contributing factors to the Meadowbrook’s final demise.

Following these innovators, theaters with names like the Barn (an eventual chain that started in 1961 in Virginia), Alhambra in Florida, Chanhassen (another eventual chain in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area), and Carousel in Ohio flourished across the country (and even spread north into Canada).  Dinner theaters went on to thrive in the 1960s and ’70s, becoming popular family entertainment forums and great date-night venues.  The term itself seems to have been coined in about 1960, in fact, and became common in the middle of the decade.  Generally, the offerings were either former Broadway musicals (and occasionally Off-Broadway musicals, if they were prominent enough like The Fantasticks or Little Shop of Horrors)—sometimes fresh off the boards in New York City—comedies, or, in a sub-genre as I noted, whodunits in the mold of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, Middle of the Night by Paddy Chayefsky, or Emlyn Williams’s Night Must Fall.  Intense dramas and classical tragedies don’t make for conducive fare for dinner-theater patrons looking for a light entertainment of an evening—though a few houses like the Hayloft Dinner Theatre in Manassas, Virginia, or the Windmill Dinner Theatre chain, headquartered in Dallas, took a chance on The Lion in Winter or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  (The review-writer for the Houston Post described his impression of the Virginia Woolf starring Mercedes McCambridge: “Not bad coupling, but . . . it is a play you have to listen to.  Tinkling glasses, intractable chatter, scurrying cocktail waitresses and a stomach full of beef and bourbon don’t make for good listening.  That sole experiment in serious theatre closed early and we were back to sweater girls and matterless farces . . . .”) 

In the murder-mystery houses, as well as some of the other themed shows (Tony and Tina’s Wedding and its many spin-offs were also popular fare at many dinner theaters), the spectators were encouraged to participate in planned ways, much the way they were even in the Broadway presentation of Rupert Holmes’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood

Although Mario’s of Clifton served the meal before the performance and between acts of the play (two intermissions), and playwright Woodward wrote Once Upon a Mystery purposely to accommodate this structure (Mueller’s Murder Me Always in 2013 was adapted slightly by director Geoffrey Waumans to allow for the dinner intermissions), dinner theaters commonly serve the meal before the show, perhaps permitting coffee and dessert or drinks from the bar to remain on the tables during the performance.  (In many non-union houses, the actors are required to double as servers during the meal.  Equity rules make that prohibitively difficult—though not expressly disallowed.)  Equity prohibits service during the show to avoid clinking plates and patrons who pay more attention to their food than to the performance.  As we’ve learned, the Meadowbrook Theatre Restaurant in New Jersey used the theater space for a dance floor after the performance, but that was rare. 

Obviously, the theaters ranged in size, not to mention quality.  Some were as small as 134 seats (Chanhassen Downstairs, Chanhassen, Minnesota—20 miles southwest of Minneapolis) or as large as 900 (Plantation Dinner Theater, St. Louis).  The union-contracted theaters, while they had to pay higher costs for the stage talent they employed, could cast from the pool of experienced, professional actors (as well as stage managers, directors, and other theater personnel), while the often smaller theaters that used non-Equity performers, usually drawn from the local area, were more akin to community theaters.  The food varied in quality, too, but the selling point was always that the cost of dinner and a show at a dinner theater was far less than for tickets to a performance at a conventional theater plus a comparable meal at a separate restaurant—and it was predictable: patrons knew the final cost, minus tips and extra drinks, when they booked the evening.  (And, of course, there was no chance of being late for curtain.) 

In 1978, at the height of dinner theater’s popularity, Jay Barney wrote that theater tickets would cost between $20 and $50 on Broadway or at a good rep company outside New York City; dinner at a nice restaurant would add another $20 to $50; and parking or a taxi would run $5 to $10, for a total of between $45 to $110.  At a dinner theater, with its free parking, the whole tab would come to $10.95 for weeknights or $12.95 for Friday or Saturday evenings, all inclusive.  As one theater writer put it: “To first-class entertainment add first-class food, mix well, then add impeccable management for a well-seasoned dinner theatre.  A garnish of substantial funding enhances the dish.”  Prices have risen since those days, of course.  A Broadway musical costs north of $150 a seat—and much more in some cases—and Off-Broadway tickets go for $65-75, which is the same for major rep companies across the country.  The TLC dinner and a show last month cost me $40—still a bargain, but not the under-15 bucks Barney wrote about 37 years ago.  But the bargain, of course, is in the mind of the patrons.  For $12.95 or $40, if they feel they’re getting a good deal, what the business folk call “perceived value,” then they’ll be satisfied and come back—and give the theater good word-of-mouth.

In some dinner theaters, the play was incidental to the meal, an evening’s entertainment to accompany a nice dinner.  In others, the play might be a major production of Broadway quality with stars or name actors, and the dinner was less important—or in some instances, even optional.  The most successful dinner theaters, of course, served an excellent meal (sometimes thematically keyed to the play on stage—say, an Italian menu for a production of Most Happy Fella—but not necessarily) followed by a top-flight play and performance.  (In point of fact, I never heard of a dinner theater that became renowned for the quality of its cuisine.)  “A dinner theatre needs a good but limited menu,” one dinner theater-owner  says, “and a staff that’s trained to produce food and serve it on time.”  The food must be easy to serve, eat, and clear away, unlike the less-limited selections of a conventional restaurant.  Another theater-owner draws this comparison: “The efficiency of banquets plus the quality of restaurants.”  In any case, it’s a three-ball juggling act for, as the Alhambra’s Booth put it, “You've got to run a theater, run a restaurant and run a bar.”  Like restaurateurs, dinner theater owners and managers have to be cognizant of the ambiance, the quality of the food, and the efficiency and courtesy of the service; like producers, they have to oversee the selection of the play, the quality of the actors and directors, and the excellence of the final production.

Of course, as with any enterprise, things don’t always run smoothly.  A Canadian theater journalist observed that “even with the best of everything at hand, ministering to this mostly happy marriage of mind and palate does have its headaches.”  Ernie Schier, the late reviewer for the Philadelphia Bulletin and director of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center, quipped: “Dinner theatre is one of the few places I know where it is possible to strike out twice in the same evening.  I have often suspected that the chef was also the producer or, on another night, that the producer the chef.”  There are lots of important considerations that go into starting and running a dinner theater, combining the mines in the field of theater with those in the restaurant business—neither of them easy endeavors at which to succeed.  When the first dinner theaters in the country were opening, only a few could afford to build a dedicated facility for their venue like the Candlelight’s Bill Pullinsi.  (He was lucky: his first site in Summit, Illinois, was on property owned by his grandfather.)  One 1978 report cited a cost of $2 million (equivalent to over $7 million today) to build a dinner theater from scratch.  Most dinner theaters were converted from some other use, among them department or chain stores, night clubs, catering halls, a laundry, and a bowling alley.

In many other cases, the impresarios had to choose between converting a restaurant into a theater or an existing theater into a restaurant.  In the opinion of one dinner theater-owner, the latter works better.  Simply adding the performance of a play to a meal to turn a restaurant into a dinner theater can work sometimes, but, “They’re just former restaurants with entertainment,” but as another owner noted: “The most successful dinner theatres are theatres that also serve dinner.”  Among the advantages such entrepreneurs found were that former theaters and entertainment venues (such as night clubs and cabarets) have a stage or performance space—though some can be quite small; high ceilings (for lighting and even flying scenery); no pillars to block views, make seating awkward, or impede smooth staging; a box office; dressing rooms; a cloakroom; and washrooms that aren’t “back stage” or within earshot of the performance area.  To these considerations, the would-be dinner theater producer must add ample parking, since many dinner theaters are in suburbs but want to draw patrons from the city, and ease of access—say near a major road or highway, and even reliable public transportation. 

One matter that’s unique really to dinner theaters, as different from either conventional theaters or restaurants, is the size of the seating or dining area.  One dinner theater manager asserted, “With 200 or more seats, you can’t carry more than a three-hander [play] but with 400 capacity, you can do full theatrical productions.”  As we’ve seen in the case of the Meadowbrook, a very large capacity, like 500 to 700 seats, can cause problems keeping the theater filled.  (It snowballs, too: a larger clientele means a larger kitchen and a larger restaurant staff, all of which add costs to the overhead.)  While a 250-seat dinner theatre can sell out three times over on a Saturday night, it can’t capitalize on this popularity—you can’t really sell a seat three times for one performance—so the theater may not break even.  A 400-seat capacity, conversely, permits a greater choice of productions and a better repertoire means larger audiences. 

The performance schedule is also something that dinner theater producers have to keep in mind differently from rep company directors.  Many theaters that draw spectators from a wide area try to make allowances for travel with early curtains and precise curtain times, but dinner theaters, so often located in suburbs, have to be even more cognizant of their commuting audiences.  (To keep the first act starting on time, the dinner service has to be precisely orchestrated as well: too much time taken to serve and clear a meal means a delay in the start of the show.)  But while conventional theater companies can present matinees even during the week (traditionally on Wednesdays), it’s hard for a dinner theater to do that.  A full performance of even a 90-minute play with a meal is too long for a lunchtime show.  Weekend matinees are possible, of course, but the dinner theater managers would have to determine if the local audience will sufficiently fill the theater on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon to warrant paying the restaurant staff for the extra work (not to mention paying for the extra utilities to keep the dinner theater open in the middle of the day).

At its highpoint, the dinner theater arena was a big business, particularly in the field of live entertainment. In 1974, the theater trade paper Show Business reported that “more actors work in Equity dinner theatres . . . than work on Broadway!”  And that was only the union houses.  In the same year, the Christian Science Monitor stated, “Dinner theaters—America’s fastest-growing show-business movement—outdrew fabled Broadway itself last season and now claim to be the biggest employer of professional actors.”   The paper went on to specify: “In 1973 [over half a million patrons] paid more than $60 million for the combination of a meal and stage performance.  By comparison, Broadway grossed $42.2 million” in that same period.  By 1978, Jay Barney reported, dinner theaters played to 26,000 patrons a night, grossing about $55 to $60 million a year.  Between 500 and 625 Equity actors worked every week of the year in dinner theaters, as opposed to 350 a week in the middle of the summer to 800 at the height of season on Broadway.  League of Resident Theatres (LORT) companies employed about 550 to 690 union actors for from several months to several years as a rule.

For the actors themselves, the work was appealing from the perspective of craft and art as well.  In stock companies, where actors traditionally got their on-the-job training and experience, a cast rehearsed for six or seven days, performed for a week or two, and moved on to the next gig.  In resident stock, actors begin rehearsing the next show during the day while performing the previous one at night.  It was an arduous routine and more wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am than professionally satisfying.  In dinner theaters, which often became the replacement for the disappearing stock theaters, actors never got less than a week’s rehearsal and usually 10 days’.  Then they played the show for a minimum of five weeks, sometimes as many as six or seven.  If the theater was part of a chain, they’d perform the same part for perhaps 10, 15, or 20 weeks along the circuit, getting the chance to develop their roles, try out new business, and expand their techniques.  Of the performance procedure, though, one experienced dinner theater actor described the difference with a conventional show where the curtain normally rises at 8 and the audience arrives around 7:45:

However, at a dinner theater, the dynamics are so different because the audiences [sic] has been there for about two hours since they go through a buffet and have drinks around 6:00 p.m. . . .  By the time the curtain goes up, they’ve eaten a big meal and maybe had a beer, and now, all of a sudden, you’ve got to keep them interested in the show and entertained—that’s a real challenge.

But the dinner-theater boom came to an end in the mid-1980s.  Many of the theaters closed and the remaining houses could no longer afford or attract celebrities, even faded ones, to star in their productions.  (Some of the dinner theaters that operated during the high point continued to produce dinner shows but started hiring non-Equity actors and stage managers to reduce costs and left the National Dinner Theatre Association, thus reducing its membership count.)  Competition from increased repertory-theater development, especially in cities like Boston, Minneapolis, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, Atlanta, Houston, and Washington, D.C., reduced the audience for dinner theaters, and non-theater entertainment like casino gambling, which proliferated around the country, drew more potential patrons away.  What the L.A. Times called “spin-off genres” replaced dinner theaters as the entertainment of choice: audience-participation murder mysteries, plot-less cabarets coexisting with cold-cut buffets, medieval knights on horseback jousting in an arena setting.  Theater in general began to lose its audience, which was aging and turning to other forms of entertainment. 

Add to these factors bad business practices, generally rising costs—Equity organized dinner theaters in 1973 and began enforcing contractual obligations with its first negotiated agreement in 1975—and a poor economy (there were recessions in the U.S. in 1981-82 and 1990-91); dinner theaters, a non-essential expense for most potential customers, were set back.  Possibly the most deleterious business practice was star-chasing.  Even as theater profits fell back and royalty demands rose, theaters continued to hire name actors for lead roles.  As demand increased, so did the stars’ asking prices until even low-level celebrities were commanding huge salaries, essentially taking funds away from other needs of the theaters.  To pay the stars, many theaters decreased the quality of the food they served and reduced their staffs, even lowered the pay for the other members of the casts (especially if they were non-union actors).  As Jay Barney saw it, the dinner theater producer thus “often ends up being merely a pipeline to convey money from the customers to the star—with not enough left over for the upkeep, staff, food, promotion, and utilities.” 

Furthermore, Broadway began producing fewer shows suitable for regional theaters.  Elaborate spectaculars like Les Miz, Miss Saigon, Phantom of the Opera, and even The Lion King are expensive and hard to duplicate on regional stages, and the subject matter of other shows, like The Life, a 1990 (Off-Broadway; 1997 Broadway) musical about hookers on 42nd Street, is less wholesome and unappealing to family audiences.  Even popular Broadway musicals like La Cage aux Folles or Victor / Victoria could make some conservative spectators uncomfortable and shows intended to reach a younger audience also faced problems with the dinner-theater crowd: Rent, for instance, a rock-oriented play (based on La Bohème) about young people in New York’s East Village, didn’t do well outside New York City.  Additionally, even as real stars, even waning ones, were becoming harder to find and more costly to contract, the dinner-theater arena was becoming more and more dependent on star names, so they were hit with a double-whammy: reliant on a commodity they could no longer supply.

Choosing appropriate scripts was hard for dinner theater producers.  While a good resident company, even a nascent and small one, can push audiences into new experiences—and some theater pros think it should challenge its audiences—dinner theaters may have to toe a line of acceptability and appeal to the existing audience.  Reviewer Barbara Mackay of the Denver Post in the ‘70s described that audience as “a special group of people who don’t go to ‘straight’ theatres, people who don’t particularly care what they get in terms of drama.  They go because they know they will get a dependable evening package: plenty of food and drink and light music before, during and after the show.”  Said Robert D. Zehr, a dinner theater manager: “We basically are a commercial operation that provides quality theater, but theater people want to buy.  That’s why we have a problem of having to do what’s available.” 

Regional theaters have become increasingly important as testing grounds for new plays and new writers; several rep theaters even specialize in new works and even those that don’t try to offer plays soon after they début in New York City or other première venues.  Dinner theaters, whose goal is making profit, not advancing art, can’t do that easily.  “There’s not much risk taking even with established serious plays, so there would naturally be less in the tryout sense,” wrote Barney. (This doesn’t mean that there’s no new-play presentation in dinner theaters.  A few have tried it and several have succeeded notably.  Playwrights like Nick Hall and Edward Clinton had plays like Accommodations and The Lady Who Cried Fox, respectively, début at dinner theaters where they did very well both for the writers and for the theaters.)  Rep companies are mostly non-profit operations and get subsidies from city, county, state, and federal agencies or corporations to support new-play development; dinner theaters are private, for-profit businesses and don’t get grants and tax-deductible donations.  That’s why they must rely on the tried-and-true popular shows they can sell easily to entertainment-seeking audiences. 

The butt of jokes about actors whose careers were on the wane, dinner theater became stigmatized and audiences got tired of theatrical pabulum in the form of old chestnuts like The Last of the Red Hot Lovers, Arsenic and Old Lace, and 6 Rms Riv Vu (not to mention such shudder-inducers as Natalie Needs a Nightie and Girl in the Freudian Slip).  According to Booth, “A lot of that was crap” and theater historian Ken Bloom quipped, “Most dinner theater has been theater at its lowest-common denominator.  At the small places, it could be bad ham on stage meets bad ham at the buffet table.”  By 1999, NDTA, founded in 1978, had only 9 members.  (Another trade association, the American Dinner Theatre Institute, was founded in 1972 to represent theaters affiliated with unions, most notably AEA, opposite whom ADTI was the designated contract negotiator.  NDTA originally started as the representative for non-union theaters.)

The press wasn’t always very accommodating to dinner theaters, either.  Though many papers covered dinner-theater productions the same way they did national tours and rep company shows, a few, like the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, made it a policy not to review dinner theaters on a regular basis.  “Dinner theatre is less capital-T Theatre than television with flesh and blood . . .,” said William Albright, theater reviewer for the Houston Post in the 1970s.  That’s a comparison several theater journalists made at the time.  Bill Doll of Cleveland’s Plain Dealer even cited a dinner theater producer who made the link: “David Fulford [of the Carousel Dinner Theatre in Ravenna, Ohio], a man who knows his business, once asked that we not review his shows because it isn’t theatre in the traditional sense.  He has said that his audience is a TV audience looking for a change of channels.” 
After 2000, however, there seemed to be a resurgence in the field, with a number of new dinner theaters opening around the country.  In reaction to the criticism many theaters began offering new Broadway shows, even some challenging fare, and in answer to the change in available talent, they started casting up-and-coming actors who were talented and attractive but still unknown.  NDTA membership increased to 32 by 2006.  It’s still miniscule in comparison with, say, LORT theaters, the association of regional rep companies in the U.S., but the concept isn’t dead yet. 

18 March 2015

'Big Love'

It’d been a long time, since last December, since I’d been to the Signature Theatre to see a show.  But Diana, my frequent theater companion, and I met at the Pershing Square Signature Center on Theatre Row on Friday evening, 6 March, to see the revival of Charles Mee’s Big Love, part of Signature’s Legacy season.  (Mee was STC’s playwright-in-residence for the 2007-08 season.)

I’m not a follower of Mee’s work.  In fact, not counting a fragment that was part of the anti-war collage Collateral Damage: The Private Life of the New World Order (Meditations on the Wars) at La MaMa in 1991, I’ve only seen one other Mee play, a 1996 revival of Trojan Women: A Love Story produced by the site-specific troupe En Garde Arts.  (Staged in and around the disused East River Park Amphitheatre, that production had also been directed by Tina Landau, who has directed Big Love for STC.)  Now, I don’t feel as ill-disposed to Mee’s playwriting as Ben Brantley seems to, from the impression I get from his review of Big Love in the New York Times.  He said that Mee’s “plays often suggest a collagist who’s gone crazy with the scissors,” strongly intimating that he isn’t a fan. 

Written originally for the Humana Festival at the Actors Theatre of Louisville in 2000, Big Love has been produced many times by many companies across the country.  Mee based the play on one of the oldest existing Greek tragedies, Aeschylus’ The Suppliant Woman (it has several English titles), written in about 492 BCE as the first part of a tragic trilogy; the second and third plays (The Egyptians and The Daughters of Danaus or The Danaides) and a satyr play (Amymone) are lost.  The plots of Aeschylus’ tragedy and Mee’s tragicomedy are parallel (except for location and time), so I won’t recap the Greek version; it’s too easy to look up.  STC’s Big Love, which started previews on 5 February and opened on 23 February, was presented in the Irene Diamond Stage, STC’s 294-seat proscenium house.  The show, which closed on 15 March, ran about 95 minutes without an intermission. 

Big Love, which has nothing to do with Mormonism, polygamy, or the late cable TV series, tells the story of 50 sisters, represented on stage by just three, who’ve been contracted to marry their 50 cousins against their wishes.  They’ve fled their Grecian homeland on their wedding day and come to Italy to ask for asylum at the seaside villa of Piero (Christopher Innvar), the “connected” son (one of 13—large families are a staple of Big Love) of Bella (Lynn Cohen) and uncle of Giuliano (Preston Sadleir).  Sister Thyona (Stacey Sargeant) is adamant from the outset to reject on feminist principle any agreement resulting in marriage; Olympia (Libby Winters), who rather likes men in general, is easily manipulated by one or another of her sisters.  Sister number three, Lydia (Rebecca Naomi Jones), the most reasonable of the siblings, seems actually to have fallen in love with her designated husband-to-be, Nikos (Bobby Steggert).  At first Piero waffles about granting his protection to the women, but agrees in the end.  Until, that is, the 50 cousins arrive by helicopter, garbed in full combat flight gear like so many air-cav rangers, represented by Constantine (Ryan-James Hatanaka), the most macho and aggressive of the fiancés who believes “Life is rape”; Oed (that’s “Ed,” as in . . . well, Oedipus, I guess; Emmanuel Brown); and Nikos—who all just happen to be the prospective grooms of (can you guess?)—the three runaway brides.  Piero reverses his decision on asylum and decides to negotiate with the Greek-born, American-raised cousins, but Thyona belligerently refuses any accommodation, while Olympia ping-pongs back and forth and Lydia finds she has true feelings for Nikos as he does for her.  Thyona, who declares that “the male is a biological accident” and that “Boy babies should be flushed down the toilet at birth,” wrings a bloody pact from her sisters, and the play ends in a gory and violent melee, the outcome of which I won’t relate.  (Fight choreography in Big Love is credited to the father-and-son fight directors Rick Sordelet and Christian Kelly-Sordelet.)

(By the way, it’s easy to discover the play’s ending because Mee posts his scripts for free on his website, the (re)making project, http://www.charlesmee.org.  The writer invites people “to take the plays from this website and use them freely as a resource for your own work,” though he now charges a royalty for any producer who uses the scripts “essentially or substantially as I have composed them.”  He’s the only playwright to make all his work freely available on the Internet.) 

Charles L. Mee, Jr., 76, was born in Evanston, Illinois.  He contracted polio at 14, the impact of which he recounts in his 1999 memoir, A Nearly Normal Life (Little, Brown).  (The playwright asserts that his plays are exceedingly physical because “it’s a vicarious life.”  He loves athleticism, but he can’t perform it so “I get to just write it down and other people do it for me.”)  He graduated from Harvard in 1960 and moved to New York City where he became part of the Greenwich Village theater scene that gave birth of Off-Off-Broadway.  (I posted an article on this bit of theater history on 12 and 15 December 2011.)  From 1962 to 1964, his plays were presented at such theaters as Ellen Stewart’s La MaMa E.T.C., Caffé Cino, Ralph Cook’s Theatre Genesis, and Richard Foreman’s Ontological-Hysteric Theater.  In 1965, to support himself, his wife, and baby daughter (Mee now has five children and a granddaughter), he left playwriting and began writing books on history, starting with Lorenzo De’Medici and the Renaissance, published in 1969. 

Also in the ’60s, Mee became a political activist, campaigning against the war in Vietnam.  In the 1970s, he co-founded the National Committee on the Presidency, calling for Pres. Richard Nixon’s impeachment.  (Nixon, of course, became the only president to resign his office in 1974, just ahead of a vote to impeach in Congress.)  His work in this area of politics led Mee to write several important books on political history, most prominently 1975’s Meeting at Potsdam (about the 1945 summit conference at the end of World War II with Pres. Franklin Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet Communist Party General Secretary Joseph Stalin), which was adapted by David Susskind for film and television.  Mee’s last published book on history was the 1993 Playing God: Seven Fateful Moments When Great Men Met to Change the World

Even as he continued to write history books and work as an editor (Horizon: A Magazine of the Arts for American Heritage; Tulane Drama Review, now simply TDR; and at Rebus, Inc., a consumer health publisher), in 1985, Mee returned to playwriting with the libretto for Martha Clarke’s dance drama Vienna: Lusthaus.  (He revised the show’s book in 2002 and it was revived as Vienna: Lusthaus (Revisited); Mee and Clarke collaborated again in 2004 on Belle Époque.  I saw a staging of Vienna; Lusthaus in 2002 and I reported on another Clarke production, Chéri, on 20 December 2013.) 

In 1991, Mee collaborated with director Anne Bogart and En Garde Arts, the  site-specific performance company, on Another Person is a Foreign Country, the first of many joint productions.  In 1992,  Robert Woodruff directed Mee’s Orestes  at the University of California, San Diego, and Anne Bogart staged it at the Saratoga International Theatre Institute (SITI) in upstate New York.  (It was later revived that summer by Tina Landau and En Garde Arts as Orestes 2.0 on an abandoned pier on the Hudson River.)  This was the first of 10 plays for which Mee used classical Greek texts as “scaffolding” onto which he would hang his original elements and then “throw the scaffolding away and call whatever remained the script.” 

In other works, in addition to Greek tragedies, Mee used Shakespeare, Molière, Anton Chekhov, Bertolt Brecht, René Magritte paintings, Bollywood musicals, and his own writing as sources.  In his memoir, the dramatist lays out his dramaturgical principle with respect to his borrowed material: “smash it to ruins, and then, atop its ruined structure of plot and character, write a new play, with all-new language, characters of today speaking like people of today . . . .  Plays filled with song, dance, movement, beauty, heartache. . . .”  In some recent plays, the playwright explores the culture and history of 20th-century America through the perspective of visual artists such as painter and graphic artist Robert Rauschenberg in bobrauschenbergamerica (2001), sculptor and assemblage-maker Joseph Cornell in Hotel Cassiopeia (2006), installation artist Jason Rhoades and painter-illustrator Norman Rockwell in Under Construction (2009), and Scottish sculptor James Castle in soot and spit (the musical) (2013).

In addition to having been the Signature playwright-in-residence in 2007-08, Mee, who now has written 51 plays, is the only resident playwright of Anne Bogart’s SITI Company.  In 2005, the American Academy of Arts and Letters awarded the playwright its Gold Medal for lifetime achievement in drama; he’s also won two OBIE Awards (Vienna: Lusthaus, 1986, and Big Love, 2002), the PEN/Laura Pels Foundation Award for Drama (2000), and the Richard B. Fisher Award given by the Brooklyn Academy of Music.  He currently teaches playwriting at the Columbia University School of the Arts. 

In his program notes to Trojan Women, Mee wrote: “This piece was developed . . . the way Max Ernst made his Fatagaga pieces at the end of World War I: incorporating shards of our contemporary world, to lie, as in a bed of ruins, within the frame of the classical world.”  Ernst, a Dadaist and Surrealist, made photo collages in the 1920s with his collaborator Hans Arp in which they used pictures from multifarious sources, sharing the creation so that no one artist’s personal imprint was detectable.  Then Ernst photographed the assemblage to erase the evidence of the cut-and-paste, further denaturing the final art work.  (Fatagaga, a nonsense word that Ernst and Arp invented for the name of these works, is an acronym of “fabrication de tableaux garantis gazométriques”—manufacture of pictures guaranteed to be gasometric.)  Mee, who bluntly states on his website, “There is no such thing as an original play,” aims at a similar effect, creating theater collages by sampling texts from many sources, principally here the classic Greek tragedies, and then reworking them so that the seams are no longer detectable.  (For Big Love, Mee lists a slew of other sources and inspirations: Klaus Theweleit, a German sociologist and writer; American author and motivational speaker Leo Buscaglia; American child and adult psychiatrist Gerald G. Jampolsky; Valerie Solanus, an American radical feminist writer; Maureen Stanton, an American nonfiction writer; English novelist Lisa St. Aubin de Teran; Sei Shonagon, a 10th-century Japanese author and court lady; American writer Eleanor Clark; Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, an American journalist, essayist and memoirist; and Polish-born American author Kate Simon, among others.) 

“What Ernst did, in effect,” explained Mee, “is what I’m saying I’d like to do: he took scissors and he cut texts out of daily newspapers and catalogues of other things, and then he rearranged them on a page and glued them down and did a little drawing and painting around them to make them into his view of something.  So, in effect, he took the unedited material of the real world and rendered it as hallucination.  And that’s what I think I’m doing all the time.  I think Max Ernst is my dramaturg.”  (Making his texts available for further adaptation is a continuation of this practice: just as Mee assembled his plays from many outside sources, others should be free to use his plays to create more collages.)  “All this,” wrote one critic of Mee’s work, “is geared towards replicating Mee's sense that his plays are written to and from the culture at large.” 

The playwright not only uses various texts to assemble his scripts, but “a combination of music and movement and text,” what he refers to as “all the elements of American musical comedy but in a different way”—an affinity he shares with Tina Landau, a frequent collaborator.  Furthermore, his structure is . . . well, non-Aristotelian.  Mee explains:

In a work of art that occurs in time, like a novel or a play, you usually need a plot line so people don’t wonder what’s going on and where they are.  But with a lot of things, like choreography and music, there isn’t a story line.  Big Love has a plot line, but it also uses these other, unconscious techniques of coherence: morning, afternoon, night, gloom, awfulness, dawn, or no dawn.  Or chaos and confusion, sweetness, disaster.  There are all of these ways of structuring things that I find wonderful, and more like the complicated lives that we actually live.

Mee turned to Aeschylus’ ancient tragedy for Big Love, he says, in celebration of the millennium: “I’ll go back and take one of the oldest plays in the world, and see if it still speaks to us today,” he decided in 2000.  What he determined (true to his flower-child youth, it seems to me) is that if the Aeschylus trilogy that had survived as the model for human conduct was The Danaids instead of The Oresteia, the Western world would be devoted not to a cycle of justice and revenge but to “forgiveness and compassion and social love.  And that way we can arrive at peace, and a livable society.”  The title, he explains, comes from the notion that in order to survive the bloody turmoil depicted in the end of the play (in both Aeschylus’ and Mee’s telling), it takes “huge forgiveness”:  “There has to be big love.”

Clearly, a spectator’s or a reader’s response to a Charles Mee play is dependent on an affinity for his kind of collagist dramaturgy.  It seems that Brantley of the Times doesn’t care for it, or at least not in Mee’s hands.  I, on the other hand, don’t have a fundamental problem with well-constructed collages or even pastiches.  But the result has to have something worthwhile to say.  (Remember, you long-time ROTters, my criteria for good theater: it has to be theatrical—and a well-done collage meets that requirement—and it must have something to say above merely telling a story.)  Well, that’s where Big Love falls short for me.  (I’ll have a word or two to say about the theatricality as well, but we’ll let that slide for now.)  It’s a cliché—or several clichés strung together—and it’s not at all revealing or terribly interesting.  Love, of course, is Mee’s topic here, but he doesn’t add anything to that well-plumbed rumination, the preoccupation of poets, playwrights, songwriters, sculptors, and painters since civilization began.  He does cover all the permutations (especially if you throw in plain ol’ sex, which Mee does): boy-girl, boy-boy (Giuliano is gay: he collects Kens and Barbies), girl-girl, old-young, mother-son (ahem, maternal, not incest), casual, romantic, physical, experimental/fetishist, lost/nostalgic—you name it, Mee gets it in.  

The characters fit all the stereotypes, too.  Among the three principal would-be couples, there’s the true romantic (Lydia), her boy-next-door male counterpart (Nikos), the woman-without-a-man-is-like-a-fish-without-a-bicycle militant feminist (Thyona), the girly-girl fembot (Olympia), the hyper-macho hunk (Constantine), and the studly jock who’s struggling a bit with what it means to be a man (Oed).  The point Mee makes is, simply, Love Conquers All (even murder, but we won’t go there).  He also pretty much says Love Means Never Having To Say You’re Sorry (and just to be sure we get that, the theme from Love Story, “Where Do I Begin?,” is prominently played in the background).  I’ve said this before in other contexts, but this play strikes me as a case of the writer having a plot-and-structure concept first and then devising a theme as an excuse to use it.  Mee doesn’t have much to say about his chosen topic that we need to hear (again)—and if you’re familiar with The Suppliant Women, even the plot provides no surprises.

So what’s the use of presenting Big Love?  Well, if you like theatrical high-jinks, it’s all on Landau’s staging.  I don’t know what the production at ATL, directed by Les Waters, was like, of course, or any of the intervening revivals, but the STC production was loaded with theatrical gimmickry.  If you like that kind of theater pyrotechnics, you’d love Big Love.  I don’t know how much of the production spectacle was Mee’s concept and how much was Landau’s input, but the show was a smorgasbord  of effects and staging gags, from projections and videos to sound FX to background music and songs (mostly of the vintage pop variety) to WWF wrestling moves (lots and lots) and football training routines.  All in all, it was quite a workout—but, like the platitudes about love that serve as Mee’s theme, the production’s theatricality seemed essentially pointless—a lot of flash to fill the time and stage but to little purpose. 

Some of that flash was even spectacular, as in the entrance of the three fiancés: to the sounds of a hovering helicopter, the men, dressed in flight suits and helmets, rappelled down thick ropes from door-like openings high up the back wall.  (The wall was a photo rendering of a blue sky with soft, wispy clouds floating in it and a rippling turquoise sea below.  The openings turned it into a Magritte-like vision.  I didn’t say the theatrics weren’t clever.)  They even stripped off their flight suits, like Sean Connery taking off his wetsuit in Dr. No, to reveal tuxedos beneath.  The (almost antiseptically spare) sets at STC were designed by Brett J. Banakis, with lighting by Scott Zielinski, sound by Kevin O’Donnell, and projections by Austin Switser, all of whom, along with costume designer Anita Yavich, did magnificent jobs making an essentially shallow vessel seem full of life and moment.  O’Donnell, in particular, livened up the performance with his orchestration of the music designated by Mee, which included Pachelbel’s Canon, Handel’s Largo, Ocean Suite by Steven Halpern, and “Machine” from William Bolcom’s Fifth Symphony, among other selections.  (The production also included performances by cast members of Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me,” sung by the three sisters; Michael Jackson’s “Bad”; and Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours,” all staged by Landau as presentational “concert” turns with hand-held mikes and Motown-like footwork.)

The performances, as usual at Signature, were excellent.  Everyone devised strong, individuated characters even from Mee’s shallow script.  Especially fine were Jones’s Lydia, who took a role that could easily be wishy-washy and made her a strong, independent, and even valiant woman; Sadleir, whose Giuliano is more complex and delightful than the slightly fem gayboy probably ought to have been (he did a terrific little silent bit in a wedding gown while other, more intense issues were unfolding center stage); and Cohen as the apparently tradition Italian mama from a past generation, who, if she’s a little clichéd, still took control and put an end to the turmoil.  Sergeant and Winters, as Thyona and Olympia, were fine but couldn’t rise above their characters’ single notes.  (They also seemed to have been cast for their looks as much as their acting talent.  Sergeant has the build of not only an athlete, but an MMA fighter and her hair and make-up enhanced her facial resemblance to one of those really fierce masks you see in African art museums.  Winters has the slightly puffy physique of a baby-doll woman—not unlike the one played by Carroll Baker in the Tennessee Williams film of that title, as a matter of fact—and the long, blond hair of a popular high school girl.)  Sergeant was required to play at one, high level of intensity, always at top force and volume.  Winters, whose Olympia goes whichever way the wind is blowing (even unto a little lesbian dalliance with Eleanor, the married American houseguest played by Ellen Harvey who lives by the principle that What Happens In Italy, Stays In Italy), is the sister whose first concern after arriving at Piero’s villa is that there aren’t enough “products”— “Soaps, you know, and creams”—available for their use. 

As for Landau’s direction, aside from the spectacle she sewed into the performance text, it didn’t so much enhance Mee’s script as trick it out.  She cast the play well, of course, but I can’t point to any well-considered guidance she seemed to have provided her actors that helped make Mee’s points or developed his ideas beyond the bromides they were at the outset.  She didn’t do anything wrong, mind you; she just did for the staging what Mee did for the dramaturgy: put up a lot of what we used to call “eyewash” in the army—showy touches (visual aids, charts, hand-outs) we’d add into a briefing to make it seem more substantial than it really was but which were essentially meaningless.

As for the published press notices, I’ve already mentioned how Brantley seems to feel about this playwright’s work.  The Timesman continued that Mee “has been praised and dissed for riffing wild on venerable works . . . with what usually registers more as hellbent madness than discernible method.”  In fact, Brantley, with whom I’ve often had differences, fairly summed up what I’ve been saying:

Granted, he talks a lofty game.  About his RKO-musical-style version of “The Trojan Women,” on which he collaborated with Ms. Landau in 1996, he explained he was “incorporating shards of our contemporary world to lie, as in a bed of ruins, within the frame of the classical world.”  I guess you could say that’s what he’s doing with “Big Love,” too.  But to what end?

The Times reviewer also observed that Mee’s points about love are “well-recycled opinions” which the characters expound on “at tedious length.”  In the end, though he allowed that “there’s sure a lot to look at,” he concluded that “for all this hyperkineticism, ‘Big Love’ fails to generate any genuine friction.” 

In the New York Post, Elisabeth Vincentelli, despite Mee’s return to ancient Greece for his plot, stated that “the story’s impact isn’t lessened—far from it.”  Indeed, Vincentelli added that because Landau “does a good job channeling the play’s anarchic energy,” the review-writer found that “the Greek-tragedy stuff actually feels less dated than some of the pop references.”  The Daily News’s Joe Dziemianowicz affirmed that “the star of the show is Landau’s imaginative staging” despite the “very good and game for anything” cast.  The Newsman concluded, “In the end the message that ‘love trumps all’ is pretty straightforward stuff—sort of like finding a toaster in a Tiffany box.  But it’s fun watching the wrapping, ribbons and bows get torn off.” 

“Under the direction of Mee’s longtime collaborator, Tina Landau, all eleven fine actors communicate vividly,” wrote the reviewer for the New Yorker in its capsule notice in “Goings On About Town.”  Calling the play “epic in scope and open of heart” in Time Out New York, Adam Feldman reported, “There are striking monologues in verse” in the “postmodern approach” that permits Mee “frequent jokey anachronisms, musical interludes and opportunities for spectacle” (some of which “seem trite “).  Feldman complained, “Yet although these elements come across clearly in Tina Landau’s busy revival, they don’t quite come together,” citing that the “rush of flat activity gets tiring, and Mee’s philosophizing can seem shapeless.”  The man from TONY concluded (much as I did): “The production is admirable, but I wasn’t fully taken.”

In the cyber press, Elyse Sommer of CurtainUp called Big Love a “kooky spin on” Aeschylus’ tragedy which is “being given an enchanting production” at Signature.  “[W]ith musical interludes and eye popping stage business,” Sommer reported, Landau turned the Greek tragedy “into an exhilarating paean to love,” which the director and her design team accomplish with “great flair.”  On TheaterMania, David Gordon christened Landau’s “explosive” staging of Big Love “Fearless” because, he asserted, it “isn't afraid of anything.”  Of the playwright’s classical source material, Gordon stated, “In Mee's hands, it's scary how relevant it is,” in spite of the fact that it “is more of a collage than a play.”  It’s a “a well-run circus that is seemingly spinning violently out of control,” Gordon wrote, in “Landau’s unapologetically chaotic vision.”  Even as the production includes “frenzied physicality that extends into the auditorium,” the cyber reviewer found that “Landau skillfully guides her first-rate company through this crazy world.” 

On New York Theater, Jonathan Mandell called the STC production of Big Love an “astonishing revival” that “surrounds us with a soothing and soaring beauty” and “is, in turns, playful, funny, sexy, chaotic, bloody, and shocking.”  New York Arts Review’s Greg Bauer complained that Mee’s “attempts to mix myth, music, and modern entertainment with poor results” meant that “the incoherent stretches of the play, though well-staged, are sunk by the few moments of lucid dramaturgy.”  Bauer concluded, “The Signature Theatre threw an impressive array of technical theatre craft at this production . . . .  However, all efforts are thwarted by the author’s shortcomings at telling a simple tale.  The result is that Big Love remains a thesis, but offers no logic or satisfaction at its final curtain.”  In contrast, pronouncing the production and play “Excellent.  Most excellent” on New York Theatre Guide, Tulis McCall noted that “Charles Mee lives on a planet very near the one that Bill Irwin calls home” and observed that at the end of Big Love, “we are left to screw our heads and hearts back into place” because Mee “switches your head and heart positions.”  McCall concluded that “the best part is that you never QUITE get them back in place the way they were before.”  On Theatre Pizzazz!, Carol Rocamora described STC’s presentation of “Mee’s playful version” of The Suppliant Women as “a dazzling production” given “wildly expressionistic, exuberant” staging by Landau.  Rocamora’s conclusion was that “Mee’s lavish treatment of this eternal topic remains unapologetic and enduring, owing to its originality, vitality, and heart.” 

I have no gripe against collage, pastiche, or bricolage, as I said, but I object to theater that has little or nothing to say and expends a lot of energy to say it.  Mee’s chosen style of dramaturgy is fine with me—if he can manage to make a worthwhile point with it.  As far as I’m concerned, Big Love isn’t in that category.  If you like flash, then Big Love might engage you. 

[For reasons I can’t explain, a number of my usual sources of published reviews apparently didn’t run notices of STC’s Big LoveVariety, which normally covers Signature shows, may have decided, after reviewing several regional productions over the years, not to review another revival of the 15-year-old play—even though this was the New York première.  The same rationale shouldn’t apply, however, to New York magazine, Long Island’s Newsday, and the Village Voice, which habitually cover productions at major New York rep companies like Signature.  Also absent from my search was Entertainment Weekly, as well as Broadway World and Talkin’ Broadway, websites that have seemed to cover nearly everything that appears in New York City theaters.

[One further note: Last Monday, 16 March, was the sixth anniversary of the establishment of Rick On Theater.  I hope that readers have enjoyed posts like this play report and the other articlessome serious, some whimsical—that I've selected for the blog.  I also want to express my great appreciation to the various contributors to ROT, both those whom I've invited to write for it and those who contributed unwittingly.  I expect to be editing and writing for ROT for several more years at least, and I trust I'll get better at it.  Any interest readers have shown is hugely appreciated and very gratifying.  Thank you very much.  ~Rick]