Saturday, January 10, 2009

Theatre to the People

I've been thinking a lot about theatre and communal spaces lately. The most impressive play I've ever been involved with (I was an audience member, but to say all I did was "see" the play doesn't begin to encompass the experience) was We Players' production of Macbeth, which took place at the breathtaking Fort Point in San Francisco. While this isn't exactly a communal space, I am astounded at how effectively the shared experience created a bond amongst the audience members (again, I use the term loosely) and developed a sense of community without ever having us speak to one another.

That was really a long-winded way of saying that I am increasingly fascinated by performances that use alternative spaces. In particular, I am interested in the power of theatre to transform communal spaces. I know the biggest problem that theatre companies large and small face is how to fill the seats...but what if rather than (or in addition to) pumping money into luring people into the theatre, we brought the theater to the people?

I think that rather than waiting for audiences to go out of their way to come to a defined theatrical space, it would be interesting to bring theatre into already defined communal spaces and, in doing so, transform them. Improv Everywhere already does an incredible job at this, creating mind-boggling experiences for unsuspecting viewers. What I am interested in doing, rather than having a huge number of people involved in large-scale spectacles, is literally bringing short scenes into spaces with an already defined audience. Each scene would be written specifically for its context and audience...thus some would be funny, some would be tragic, some poetic, some just plain weird, and others all of these things at the same time. In a coffee shop, for example, maybe it would be a play about two hipsters hitting on each other with increasingly obscure musical references. In the BART maybe it would be a scene about awkwardly making eye contact with someone you know-but-only-tangentially (Do you go up to them? Do you sit next to them? Do you take your iPod ear buds out to talk to them? Do you keep your book open or closed if they sit next to you?). On the street maybe it would be a monologue from a homeless person, and so on and so forth.

If I wanted I could use a narrator to establish the scene's "theatricality." If I felt the message that I wanted to convey would best be told through a series of poems, or no words at all, I could do that.

I obviously have many details to work out, but I am definitely excited about the possibilities!

Friday, December 26, 2008

Theatre and Money...or lack thereof...

In a comment to my last post, Ben brought up an interesting phenomenon in big-budget (er, Broadway) theatre: the infiltration of Hollywood onto the stage (for the article that sparked his comment, see
To me, this begs another, more personal (or philosophical? political?), problem: to what extent should theatre be a money-making venture? To what extent should art be a money-making venture? I find myself, at the beginning of my career, unsure of where I stand on this issue. Theatre, particularly good theatre, takes time...and a lot of it. I need a certain amount of money to survive, and of course, if I had my say, I wouldn't have to do anything but create theatre. Ideally, then, I would make a living wage doing nothing but creating art.

But this begs another question...what type of theatre do I want to be making? The people who created Shrek: The Musical are clearly trying to capitalize on the money-making success of Hollywood (albeit, from what I've heard, unsuccessfully). And who can blame them? Theatre, as a money-making venture, fails. It is very expensive and time-intensive to create, the product is by its very nature uneven (even within the same production the product is inconstant), and even if a play does succeed, in many instances those successes do not begin to cover the costs. Even in an ideal scenario (hit show, sold-out houses), the Berkeley Rep, one of the most successful theatre companies in the country, only raises half of its expenditures through ticket sales. The rest comes from donors and grants.
On the one hand, I love creating theatre and would obviously love to see audience grow and a culture develop around the attendance and support of theatre. But in an economic climate where people can hardly feed their families, can I really begrudge families who avoid the high ticket prices and often sub-par content that is often found within theatre walls? Particularly as the economy continues to tank, how does one expect to make money creating an intangible product? Furthermore, what does it mean for the state of theatre if it requires heavy government subsidies just to stay afloat? Now I more than most will defend the necessity of art to a thriving society, but I'm just not sure where I stand on the intersection of money, the state, and the arts.

I get the feeling that this discussion is more related to political philosophy than I would like to admit. As usual, I have no answers, but I do find interesting the question of where intangible products fit into our capitalistic society, particularly intangible products that exist to challenge, rather than support, the prevailing order--to question rather than comfort.

What are your thoughts on the issue(s)?

Sunday, November 23, 2008

A post with many links

It's been a while since I've updated this blog. I've been quite busy, working full-time and taking two classes at the Berkeley Rep School of Theatre (one of the perks to working at a large-ish theatre company is that I get to take free theatre classes). I'm taking an acting class, which is pretty straightforward, and a playwriting class, which I'm using to develop a full-length play about a Greek tyrant who inherited the throne from his father, sought to bring equality to a socially polarized city, and ended up going mad, murdering his wife and committing a mass murder of the brightest and wealthiest citizens of Corinth.

That's just what happened in "real life" (if such a thing can be gleaned from the pages of Herodotus). In my play, a conspiracy develops against him, his daughter is raped, and his wife is framed. It should be great fun. I've already admitted to myself that I won't be finishing a draft of the play before the class is over (it, uhh...ends on Tuesday), but I'm hoping to have a solid portion of the first draft completed by then.

In other news, I've been seeing lots of plays. Highlights include: a TOTALLY BADASS site-specific production of Macbeth at Fort Point in San Francisco (this play deserves a, MANY posts unto itself. I've been putting off writing about it because it was just so freaking incredible words won't do it justice.); Mary Zimmerman's latest lovechild, The Arabian Nights (also deserving of a post); a lovely play called Blessed Unrest by Gary Graves (my playwriting teacher) based on Paul Hawkins' novel of the same title; and much more.

In other other news, I landed an internship at Crowded Fire Theatre Company, which should start sometime in early 2009. We're going to tailor the internship to their needs and my interests, so if all goes well, it should include Assistant Directing, researching, marketing, etc.

So yeah. That's what's up with me. What's up with you?

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Science Fiction Theatre (no, I'm not talking about the tv show with the robot where they watch cheesy movies and comment on them)

I don't have a ton of experience with the science fiction genre, although I can certainly enjoy science fiction/futuristic books and movies as long as they have strong plots and well-developed characters. I've read the obligatory novels (1984, Brave New World, etc.) and enjoyed them, but not dabbled in much else. For me, however, the most exciting trend in theatre these days is the science fiction play. Something about the blend of strong, atmospheric, (often) surreal stories with social commentary and (if done right) compelling and nuanced characters seems to flourish in the format of the stage. Of all of the plays I've seen in the Bay Area in the past year, easily two of the most provocative ones (in form and content) have taken place in a future, post-(and mid)-apocalyptic world.

The first, Monster in the Dark (by local group FoolsFury), creates a world that focuses on three means through which we understand our lives: government, religion, and consumerism, and crafts a society subsumed by these three forces. As we watch archetypal characters (teacher, dictator, artist, prostitute, wanderer, salesman, religious zealot, atheist, housewife) encounter increasingly disturbing events (the first act begins with an unnamed man's suicide, and the second begins with an apocalyptic tidal wave), we become more and more aware of how our society attempts to gain a sense of comfort and "control" over the inscrutable future through similar constructs. The play had a near-perfect first act, full of strong visual imagery and interesting characters. It concluded in one of the most visually stunning stage pictures that I have ever seen--there was a huge opaque scrim-like sheet of plastic (almost like a giant opaque shower curtain) hanging from the ceiling stage right, with a "dictator-type" person standing behind it and a strong low diffused backlight that cast a huge, expressionistic shadow on the plastic. In front of the plastic, there was a group of people looking towards the dictator (whose voice boomed over the sound system), fervently clapping rocks together in approval of his message. I feel the second act of the play was far less successful than the first, hindered in part by static staging (it took place primarily on a platform with wheels attached to it (to indicate a boat or piece of driftwood). Aside from this, the primary problem with the second act was that the characters were reduced to mouthpieces for the ideas that they had (quite clearly) symbolized up until that point. Without dramatic action in the second act, tension was sustained by lengthy arguments between the Zealot and the Atheist, which amounted to little more than "God exists, he must" and "No he doesn't, you idiot!" (the dialogue may have been dressed up a little). However, Monster in the Dark had more than enough brilliant moments to counter those that didn't really grab me, and was the first play in the Bay Area that really got me excited about the potential of professional theatre to say something meaningful about our current society without sacrificing plot or experimentation, and without being overly didactic.

My second (more recent) encounter with science fiction theatre was Crowded Fire's production of Liz Duffy Adams' new play, The Listener. The Listener takes place on a ruined Earth, inhospitable to all but the few who inhabit "Junk City" (literally--a city made of trash)--these survivors make up a small, rigid caste society. The most respected position in the society (at least, that we are introduced to) is that of the Listener, who stays in her house all day, periodically broadcasting a message ("The Listener here can you hear me come in can you hear me can you hear me the Listener speaking can you hear me come in") and listening for a response. At the bottom of the society are the Finders, who root through trash, searching for new, or "unnamed" objects; above them, the Jimmies, who put the "found" objects to use in various ways; and above those in terms of power and authority is the Namer, who (as his title might imply) names things before sending them on to the Jimmies to be put to use. The static lives of these inhabitants are suddenly thrown off-balance by the arrival of John, a naive-but-well-intentioned citizen of "Nearth" (New Earth; The Moon) come down to earth to "rescue" those left behind (who have absolutely no desire to be rescued). John is immediately treated as inhuman and understood as a threat to the established order of things. The Listener unfolds as a surprisingly nuanced exploration of colonialism, the human need for a scapegoat, loneliness, sexual politics, hope, belief (and the development of creation myths/a societal narrative) and the constancy and inevitability of change.

I am excited to see how science fiction theatre and futuristic plays will continue to bend, challenge, and exploit the theatrical form. Ironically, just as I am developing a growing interest in the science fiction play, I am writing a history play based on the antics of a violent Greek Dictator--but more on that later :).

And now for something completely ridiculous...

This just in: Jesus Christ was not a frog

Really, Pope? Of all the blasphemous things in this world, you choose to attack an ugly frog sculpture? Not hunger, war, sweatshops even? It's not even a sexy crucified frog. At least slap a bikini on the thing! Maybe put a sex toy in its hand instead of an egg? We can do better than this!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008


Lest we forget this is actually supposed to be a blog about theatre (whoops!), I want to talk a little bit about a production which, most likely, none of you have seen or ever will see.  That production is Figaro, a collaboration of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre and the Theatre de la Jeune Lune (based in Minneapolis).  Aside from the achingly beautiful singing, the most notable part of this production is its use of live-action film to complement the stage action.  The focal point of the stage is the large white screen at the back of it, upon which is projected live-action video taken of the actors from various angles on the stage.  

I've seen film used in theatre before, but it's never been live footage of the action already happening onstage, and I've never seen it so effectively and artfully handled.  Extreme close-ups of actors during monologues creates a surprisingly personal atmosphere in which every detail, even the smallest twitch of the eye, shares meaning and emotion with the audience without obscuring the unique intensity of the theatrical experience.  The use of film also grants the director (Dominique Serrand) the ability to convey meaning through an unprecedented (at least in theatre) degree of detail.  

The most thorough example of this is Serrand's focus on hand imagery throughout--an expansion and re-envisioning of the expression "to have one's hand in marriage," no doubt--to indicate power (or loss thereof), ambition, love, lust, passion, violence, and (very occasionally) tenderness.  Such imagery would have been impossible without film, and with it, the phrase (which occurs late in the second act) "taking one's hand in marriage" takes on entirely new meaning, as does the tone of the play itself.  The filmic hand imagery lets Serrand take a story that focuses on the ridiculous sexual exploits of the rich and famous in pre-revolutionary France, and focus our attention on the political implications of the play (in a pivotal moment, the powerful, lusty, and wasteful Count balls his fist as he faces the camera, evoking images of Hitler asserting his power before a crowd of German patriots) as well as the unsettling nature of the sexual norms and displays of violent masculinity in the original opera.

Figaro left me with a strong desire to see (and explore) the potential of film (particularly live-action film) and theatre to act together, to create and refine tension, and to capture (and at times compete for) the focus of an audience.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Olafur Eliasson and LINK! (maybe)

I just discovered this interview with Olafur Eliasson, which I thought I'd share.  I had the pleasure of "experiencing" (for lack of a better term) Eliasson's art a few months ago at the SF MOMA.  He creates some awesome interactive art, and seems particularly interested in transforming public spaces in unexpected ways and in fusing technology with nature in spectacular exhibits both in and out of museums.  

I like that Eliasson takes art to the streets, yet does so on such a large scale that his works make an unmistakable impression on the viewer.  Though Eliasson worries about his spectacles becoming "tourist attractions," what I find most interesting about his work is that it is simultaneously accessible and provocative.  And it isn't provocative in the "look at me, I'm flipping off hundreds of years of art theory and take that I learned how to draw a face like the masters but I'm going to paint a canvas white and you'll hang it in your modern art museum" way (which, don't get me wrong, completely has its place)...Eliasson creates visceral experiences grand enough to foster some serious dialogue but not without depth.  And I think that's super cool.    

But really, I just want Olafur to follow me around and build giant waterfalls around me.
ps. did the link work????  did it did it???