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Why Theatre?

October 26, 2010
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I don’t know, really.

It’s fleeting,  it’s barely attended, it’s hard to pull off. It takes  a lot of work, and no one pays you for it. It has a hopeless business model. We theatre-makers of the blogosphere are so pathetically drawn to this most pure and least relevant of art-forms. We divine ways to make it work as any other, regular day-to-day non-profit or business, but as Geoffrey Tennant says of the steady-as-she-goes New Burbage festival, “There’s not enough fear here. Actors should be frightened for their lives. That’s when they do their best work.” Most of us have day jobs, and if pressed to pump out season after season of quality theatre product, might become weary with the burden as audiences demand nothing but Shakespeare and Mamma Mia!

But still, theatre. It’s a drug. Yes, I can watch my stories on TV (and I do!), but into the camera and through the screen you lose some ridiculous quality we can only call immediacy. Can’t bottle up that stuff. It might enchant a normal person for an evening, and they go home raving, but in the morning the spell is broken and it’s back to Netflix and Farmville. We purveyors of the drug are so blinkered in its face that we can’t understand why it is so ignored, so ridiculed, so left for dead. We sense that we’re in the wrong country, and the wrong time; oh! we think, to be in the day of Shakespeare, when the Queen and peasants both regarded those staged tales of love and war with equal attention! We sense that perhaps a time will come again when the working man will stop in for a pint and a play, and stumble his way home again. But to be trapped between ages! What cursed fate!

But still, theatre. We love you, and yet we don’t know why. We have tried to reshape you into some more tangible, more saleable, more acceptable object and any gains are illusory. We can’t contain you, nor the magic you engender. We should not be surprised. We are as the lover on Keats’ Grecian Urn:

Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal—yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

The Abolition of Moon: Part II

May 29, 2010
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Biking home from Central Square in the middle of the night, I stop at a 7-11 in Allston, in the middle of nowhere. There’s a couple speaking carelessly, and a woman with her kid in the back seat, some college kids drop in for a slushee. I sit there in my bike helmet, eating a cherry pie, thinking superior thoughts, enamored with my observations.

The moon is not so different. It is full tonight, and periodically, at stop lights or on lazy stretches I look up at it, and am reminded of its own constant observations.  For the moment you belong to the universe, really, and thus I am no better or no worse than these 7-11 attendees, as well as the needy cases in remote islands. To this spatial piece of rock, the human is a strange bird, and little can be expected of it.

I make my way home, and everything is possible, and everything is improbable. The world is an alien place, and I pray to God to hang on. Meanwhile it seems to easy to disrupt, to dislodge, to manipulate in my own way. In the end, though, my bike wheels turn at a constant speed. Stop lights switch off and on, and I merely pedal to keep apace.

Biking like a douche

May 18, 2010

Let’s face it: bikers are assholes.

I mean... c'mon.

Now, I’m a biker, albeit a newbie. I just rode a “metric century” on Sunday (62 miles), thank you very much. I looked like a Lance Armstrong wannabe in my shiny shirt, padded shorts and giant helmet. I ate ridiculous goo that I squeezed from a tiny pouch. I swerved to avoid numerous potholes, and I thanked cars who allowed me to turn at stop signs. And when I’m not preparing for week-long treks on my swish racing bike, I’m hopping on my dinky mountain bike and commuting to Cambridge.

When I go to bike shops it’s hard to miss the signs of “biker pride”: logo stickers, flimsy little hats, unnecessary mustaches. But it’s also hard to avoid a sense of “car hate”: plastered slogans such as “live free or drive”, “one less car”, etc. Which is fine, I suppose. A recklessly driven car is the biker’s worst enemy.

However, the feeling of victimization that accompanies this enmity leads bikers to ride like jerks. Bikers tend to believe they can do no wrong. If a school bus is stopped, they will turn right in front of it (illegal). If a car is turning right they will pass it on its right (stupid).  How many times have you seen a biker actually stop at a stop sign? Almost every time I am sitting on my bike at a stop light, a biker approaching from behind whizzes right by me and blows through the light without slowing down. Of course, if a driver with the right of way stops suddenly and honks, he usually gets the finger. These are not the exception. These are the rule.

So it’s a little hard to swallow the self-righteousness of the whole biker world. I love riding, encourage the incorporation of bike lines on every major road, and pray every day that just a few more people will peek at their side-view mirror.  But it’s hard to ask for legitimacy when we’re criss-crossing traffic, ramming through pedestrians in walk-ways, and acting in general like a menace to society.

Why I am indifferent to 3D (and maybe you should be too)

May 3, 2010

Not to follow Roger Ebert’s lead yet again, but his article in Newsweek about why Hollywood shouldn’t go all-in on 3D is gaining a lot of attention, for the wrong reasons. It’s not a “screed against 3d” in principle. He specifically says that 3D should be an option, but should not be forced upon every screenwriter and director. But I think his nostalgia for a time when Hollywood actually made good movies blind him to the realities of the business.

Mr. Ebert’s major complaint seems to be that the sudden lurch towards 3D is driven by money in the form of surcharges for “premium” services. As if Hollywood has never had this in mind before. In fact, he points out the cases when Hollywood has responded to threats by incorporating new technologies. He even lists it as a reason #9 NOT to support 3D: “Whenever Hollywood has felt threatened, it has turned to technology: sound, color, widescreen, cinerama, 3-D, stereophonic sound, and now, 3-D again”. Yeah,  some of those worked, like…. almost all of them, for example.

As in his post on video-games (which I commented on below ), Mr. Ebert’s best point is lost in the shuffle. He says,

When you look at a 2-D movie, it’s already in 3-D as far as your mind is concerned…. Our minds use the principle of perspective to provide the third dimension. Adding one artificially can make the illusion less convincing.

Hollywood has always chased the real over the imaginary in its representation. A long time ago, theatre-artist Richard Foreman put together a piece entitled, “Film is Evil; Radio is Good”.  I was eleven at the time, so I didn’t see it, but I gather the piece discussed the difference between a  film-maker forcing an image on the viewer with visual cues vs. a radio-artist aiding your imagination using aural cues. In my experience, for example, listening to a baseball game is a much more creative experience than watching one, simply because I am called on to picture David Ortiz whiffing on a 91-mph fastball down the middle rather than having it shown to me. Watching is great, but leaves little to the imagination.

But the movie industry is not in the business of lighting up your imagination that way. Sure, it takes you to fictional places, but as far as they’re concerned when it comes to the depiction, the realer the better. Movie-going audiences wan to hand the reins over for a few hours. Radio-going audiences, on the other hand, want something to listen to while they wash their car.

So, there’s no use in trying to stop 3D. The technical problems are legitimate, especially if people get headaches, but those will be corrected.  And just because Ebert “cannot imagine a serious drama… in 3D” doesn’t mean that somebody else can’t. Trust me, someone will. And not James Cameron. Moreover, couldn’t this be a possible boon to storytelling, rather than a crutch for the “younger Hollywood [that] is losing the instinctive feeling for story and quality”? TV is better than movies at this point. It’s time to move on.

TwitterProv

April 30, 2010

Indeed, it’s exactly what it sounds like. Just saw the show at tonight, part of “Geek Week” at ImprovBoston.

My fiancee suggested that “TwitterProv” is not actually geeky enough, certainly not so much as “Red Alert”, the following bit taking place on the deck of the Starship Enterprise.  I agree. If anything, the show made it clear that twitter is potentially a great tool for improv, as it mixes audience participation and performer control remarkably well.

The way it worked was this: before the show started, a house-manager guy (yes, he was in a Star Trek uniform) reminded us that we could leave our smartphones on (silent mode). Indeed, he wanted us to send suggestions to @twtrprov now and during the show. Audience members got their beers, tweeted shout-outs (“To the girl in the red hair, you didn’t do your laundry!”) and monitored the live-ish twitter feed on the projection screen. The star trek dude came back out, announced the group and the show started.

The improv itself was not fundamentally different than a standard short-form show. The main difference is that while the players waited on the side, they split their attention between the action on stage and the projected twitter feed. The actors scrolled the page to pick a tweet, then started with that idea when it was time to edit a scene. The most twitter-direct moments came when a conversation was in full swing, and one of the players would look to screen and repeat a tweet word-for-word.

This was nice because it was so seamless. Normally audience participation is more intermittent. Of course, standard improv actors ask for a suggestion at the top of the show, but that quickly gets woven into a new scene and the groupmind moves on. For most of the show the audience is like any other audience, sitting and watching. In the case of twitterprov, the audience participation was streaming but silent. The actors could pick and choose, but since the audience could see the screen as well, there was a bigger payoff for the player who incorporated tweets we had all been staring at.

It’s promising, let me say that. These improvisers were certainly experienced, and knew how to pick and choose but still play the audience. But it’s got a lot of potential. I wouldn’t be surprised if troupes started to try it across the country. Kudos to Ben Scurria, Michelle McNulty, and the rest of the TwitterProv gang.

The Office vs. 30 Rock

April 23, 2010

Ah yes, a debate for the ages. After I burned out my brain yesterday at the lab, I sprawled out on the couch and turned on the tube. I was very pleased to find fresh episodes of 30 Rock and The Office. Of course, I was flipping back and forth to the Red Sox game, which they were losing pitifully.

Taste the synergy

I flipped a lot more during 30 Rock. The show is getting pretty stale. It feels exactly as it did when it started, except now the jokes are less frequent and pack less punch. Sure, about once an episode I laugh out loud. But the blurgh is off the rose. Dana Stevens & co. at Slate’s Culture Gabfest were discussing how amazing Tina Fey is (precipitated by her recent hosting of SNL), but their praise didn’t sit right with me. If she’s really in charge of 30 Rock, she has done nothing to correct the long-exposed weaknesses of the show.

First, Jenna. Why does she have such a central role? The character is no more than a caricature, and Jane Krakowski has a handful of line readings that she cycles through. She would be fine as a bit player, a la Frank, but as of now she is way too prominent. As my buddy John suggested, Pete would be a much better investment of screen time.

Second, the show-within-the-show(“TGS”). Where is it? What are they working on all day? Sure, the writers sit around a table, but are they coming up with skits? They might as well be checking their ledgers. We see the sound stage, but almost never in the context of the actual show. Fey misses a great opportunity to seamlessly raise the stakes by applying the pressures of actual live TV production. Instead, the characters seem aimless, chasing their flights of fancy, many of which are just too hard to believe matter all that much.

Wait, but isn’t that true of The Office? The characters “work” at a paper company, but they rarely do so on screen. Michael Scott’s main goal as boss seems to avoid actual work. Jim and Pam pass the time by playing pranks on Dwight. How does that raise the stakes? I would argue that it supplies the rules of existence, and therefore defines the stakes. Michael’s awful office-wide meetings are all the more dreadful because the employees have no choice but to participate. “The things I do for a paycheck” hangs over the head of every character except Michael. The show occasionally loses its focus on the “work” element; it gets too zany or plot driven, momentarily losing its brilliance, and becoming a lot more like 30 Rock.

The Office has done a much better job of evolving over time. They develop new characters just as rich and funny as the originals. Of course, Ed Helms is a godsend as Andy, but over time Erin (Ellie Kemper), for example,  has been sculpted from a nameless secretary to a clearly drawn naive sweetheart (with a cool edge, as we saw last night). And for all the media’s focus on the “funny female” in the last few years, very little attention was given to the actresses on The Office. All I gotta say is: Jenna Fischer, you rock.

The Abolition of Moon: Part I

April 20, 2010

“To give up on [deep space exploration] now, it to give up something very moving…. The very goal of getting to the moon forced a kind of clarification about technology and forced these efforts which actually led to very practical technological developments.” – David Plotz, Slate’s Political Gabfest, April 16, 2010

In the U.S., we’re having a crisis in confidence about progress. We’re not convinced anymore that technology is the way to go. Of course, we love our gadgets, our cell phones, DVRs, cars that park themselves and teaching robotic mouths. But at the same time, we’re not sure that it’s all good for us. We worry about the dangers of new medicines, but when we get sick of course we take them. We’re not sure about genetic engineering, but we buy the cheapest corn possible. We want to learn more about the universe, but we wonder if black holes will swallow us into the alps. This is a problem, and a big one.

Of course, on a geo-political level, if we lose heart in progress, other countries will outpace us and we’ll take a smaller role on the world stage. But on more individual level, we’ll be collectively more depressed if we have nothing to look forward to. Societies need goals. They can be religious, materialistic, technological or political. It’s why wars are fought, and why leaders like FDR and Reagan are admired (admittedly, by different camps). These leaders gave the American people a clear picture of a something to shoot for. And whether you agreed with them or not, that kind of mental clarity is a relief for anyone, on either side of the issue. One understands their place in the world, and the lines are drawn clearly. When the lines seem fuzzy, and the goals are mixed or presented poorly, such as in the Iraq war, there is a lot of confusion and no one feels at ease.

To be Continued…