Friday, June 26, 2009

Some stirred-up 'gossip' from midtown to Jersey

Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.

This summer I'm living with one of my childhood best friends, whose older brother - let's call him G - was in Spring Awakening up until its closing this year. He was understudy and swing which means he played just about every single male part in the show at one point or another WHICH means he had to learn just about every single male part in the show and be prepared to perform them at one point or another. Honestly it kinda blows my mind. For all you actors, imagine the hold you've got to have on your ONE character in a show ... now imagine having that same kind of hold on like SIX different characters AND just turning them on/off and switching focus at will. Seems pretty daunting. Maybe that's just me (over-obsessing, mildly perfectionist, OCD ... etc.), but I don't know how I could manage to do it and I think swings/understudies are intensely under-appreciated on Broadway.

But I digress slightly.

Last August, Hunter Parrish (of 'Weeds' fame) was cast as Melchior on Broadway. Now, I have to admit, I never got to see the show so I never got the opportunity to compare Melchiors. But everyone I've heard from seems to agree that his performance fell, well, sort of flat - to be fair, he's been acting on TV for so long, it must have been a fair challenge to switch from that small-focus sort of performance to a level that can fill the Eugene O'Neill Theatre.

BUT THIS IS MY POINT. Why cast a TV actor in a leading role on Broadway, in a show that's pretty fahking big these days? (Comparatively speaking, whatever, you can disagree if you want but I think it's a pretty big theatre milestone, but that's another post.) Is it just the economy? Did they really need that celebrity boost? Because it's a pretty small boost too at that, if you ask me; 'Weeds' is not what it once was. But I can't really think of any other reason for them to cast someone whose stage presence did really just not cut it the way it should.

Let me be clear, I'm not here to judge the kid. You've either got it or you don't; you're either right for a part or you're not. And my disclaimer, because I've read some of the reviews and I know Parrish was pretty well-liked, is that the less favorable reviews have come from insiders who were actually working with him, and who weren't crazy about doing so. And in the midst of all this was G, who had played Melchior plenty of times, was obviously comfortable in the role, and, from what I've heard, was GOOD in it. Like, REALLY good.

But OK. So maybe a lot of this is just conjecture on my part. It's possible the producers weren't even considering putting G in the role - but maybe they were. I don't know these things for sure. And maybe Parrish really was a decent Melchior, for the audiences anyway. (His rabid fans on IMDB certainly seemed to love him, but frankly, I don't really trust them.) (One of them told a story about meeting him outside after the show, telling him she loved him, and promptly sobbing on his shoulder. I mean, COME ON.) Like I said, I never got to see it, so I don't know. But to me it just seems that if you've got two actors up for a part, possibly-to-roughly equally well-matched, and you've got a TV star (admittedly D-list) versus regular guy, straight outta MoCo, who's done the time ... well, obviously I'm not in the business nor am I a businessperson, but I'd give it to the up-and-comer before the 'Weeds' supporting actor. Besides, Parrish was offered the role of Link Larkin at the same time anyway, so really, everybody would have won.

I just feel sometimes like Broadway is too much of a Business. It's that catch-22, Broadway and its environs can be your fastest and sharpest ticket into the biz ... but is it really the biz I want to be a part of?

I'll get back to you.

p.s. I wonder if anyone will possibly get the very veiled pun in my title? You'd have to know my life really well.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Obama's Influence on Theater

Here are two interesting articles for you:
Obama goes to Broadway
Critics' reactions to the gesture

If you hadn't heard, President Barack Obama fulfilled another campaign promise by taking Michelle to see a Broadway show. Honestly, when I first heard about this promise, I thought he meant one of the big Disney-esque musicals filled with glitz and glam. It never even crossed my mind that they would see August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone.

First of all, August Wilson was a genius and one of the leading examples of American Lit in an increasingly shallow pool of authors to draw from. You probably already know my recently discovered love for this man. Author of the Century Cycle (a series of ten plays about African American culture and identity in the 20th Century), he is the *only* playwright to complete a cycle of plays that long and ambitious. Not even Eugene O'Neill finished his attempted cycle. Wilson is also the first African American to have a Broadway theater named after him. On top of all that, this particular production is ground-breaking because it's directed by the white Bartlett Sher (of recent South Pacific fame and artistic director of the Intiman Playhouse in Seattle). Wilson insisted on having black directors for his plays, as he layed out in the aptly named "I Want a Black Director."

So what does this have to do with Obama?

He's not just President -- he's a power celebrity. People are in love with him. And just like any other celebrity, people want to do what he does, hear what he hears, see what he sees. If you doubt this, I dare you to browse through iTunes' celebrity playlists without clicking on one person. America's obsession with Broadway musicals will have to make room for other plays now -- plays you could anthologize and say "this is American."

The pop culture knowledge of what "American theater" is expanded a little bit thanks to Obama.
Sure, some critics are complaining that he's only enforced the ideas of regional theater and that he should've gone to see a show in DC. But that's not the point. For America, Broadway is still the be-all, end-all of theater. But now our President acknowledged that there's more to it than Sondheim. This is a step in the right direction. The Obamas' date both evidences our shortcomings as a Broadway-obsessed theater culture and works against that condition. It's a symbol.

And maybe we're making too much out of this date. But hey, until Obama appoints someone to fill the anticipated cabinet-level position on the Arts, this is all we have to talk about in the theater community. No official announcements on creation of the position yet, but there has been talk. After all, the U.S. is one of the few 'major' countries in the world without a high-ranking government minister of the Arts. We can only hope that this date (which shows Obama's knowledge of and love for the Arts) is a prelude to more national support for the theater.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Our Mission

"We are living through an extraordinary era in British theatre. The stage and the gallery are edging closer to each other."
~ Lyn Gardner, in her review of Punchdrunk's Tunnel 228

This millennium is teetering on the verge of something. We are not quite a global society, and neither are we quite ready to take the plunge. The Digital Age is upon us and as artists, we are still trying to reconcile ourselves with that. What does theater have to offer modern America? Are we doomed to supply only glittering Broadway lights and community troupes that offer up uninspired interpretations of classics? How can theater survive in a competition with film? How can performance art survive up against theater? How can any of them survive the internet?

We are indeed living through an extraordinary era of theater. Not just because, as Lyn Gardner observes, the performer and spectator are moving closer together. This is an extraordinary era because we practice a schizophrenic art. We don't know what we have to offer today's America, we keep chugging along doing the same thing theater has always done.

As practitioners, we can't disregard the questions about what theater is. But it's time to ask new questions. Why does America need performative art? What can the art do for America? How are society and performance intertwined? In what ways is the art changing already that we haven't noticed? How can we incite change in the art? What other forms are performative and ought to be explored? What questions can we not even fathom to ask yet?

This community is not here to 'prove' any thesis about theatrical events. We are here to ask questions, cross-pollinate with each other, and share inspiring moments from the theater we practice and see. This is a blog for explorers.