Monday, November 19, 2007

Catching up

The symposium was fantastic--at least, I really enjoyed it and the audience seemed engaged as well. I'd love to do things like that more often.

In fact, there's chance that I might be doing something like that on a larger scale. I'm in the early stages of planning a reunion for the NEA critics. After talking with the director of the USC program on Saturday, it's a reunion we'll probably open up to all of the years and to the Institutes for dance and music critics as well. We're looking at doing it mid-April, which means I need to get a proposal off to the NEA as quickly as possible.

It's something that could be pretty exciting for the community. We'd be bringing in critics from all around the country and taking them to visit local theater organizations and see three to four performances. We will probably also invite the instructors from the Institutes, which means inviting critics from some of the country's largest newspapers.

However, more on that as it gets closer.

I've enjoyed many of the productions that I've gone to for the past few weeks and regret that I've been so swamped with work that I've had little time to write about them.

Amy's Wish at Starlight Dinner Theater was very sweet. Linda Granger really has found a niche that works. Her shows are well-attended not because they are edgy and modern, but because she knows her target audience and concentrates on delivery solid shows that her audience wants to see.

I sometimes think the groups that are the most successful are the ones that have the greatest respect for their audiences and deliver what those audiences want to see--whether it is the newest shows, musicals, old favorites, a mix, or what have you. There really is room in the theatrical market for all of those and all of them have something different to say.

Arts or Crafts was a fascinating show that gives its audience a lot to talk about afterward. It's a show you almost want to see more than once because it's hard to remember all the vignettes the first time through. It's a show that evolved quite a bit from the script that I originally read. I'm hoping that after I catch up on work (how did I end up with three book projects all at the same time?) I can pull out the script and write more about this fascinating show. The technical aspects were also superb and highly creative.

La Cerentola was a very different opera from the two that I saw last year. I almost think I prefer having the surtitles, at least until my ear becomes trained to hear the words when they are sung in operatic style. A friend that I took with me made an interesting observation. He said that in theater, everything is compressed. The playwright, ideally, tries to pack maximum meaning into each word. In opera, time is expanded and things which normally take only a few seconds to say are expanded into minutes with the music.

Little Shop of Horrors was done by Waverly High School. It was a fun show and far more entertaining than their "On the Town" was last year. There are some wonderfully talented singers in that school. They also looked to be having a great deal of fun.

I am My Own Wife was outstanding. The acting was superb and the technical part of the shows were of a quality that easily matched any professional production. It was beautifully staged and performed.

More later--or if I don't get back, have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

When I get back, I plan to write about the Detroit Reparatory's Doubt.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Arts or Crafts Critics Symposium

I'm pretty geeked about tonight. Nervous, but geeked.

After tonight's performance of the world premiere of Arts or Crafts, there's going to be a critic's symposium. Last I heard, there was going to be four City Pulse critics and me.

I've not been to one of the Theatre Department's symposiums, so I don't know how long they last or how open-ended they are in terms of questions. I do think the topic is a fascinating one and I think the discussion could get quite lively and potentially intense. I'm guessing that the five of us will have very different answers and approaches to many of the questions that could be raised. It's one of the joys of talking to fellow critics: reveling in the diversity of opinions. It's one of the things that stands out for me about the NEA Fellowship--how 25 of us were able to talk about theater and criticism non-stop for 10 days.

Because I've been feeling woefully unprepared for this, I've been going back over my notes from the fellowship. I'm glad I took a lot of notes, because I'm really enjoying some of these tidbits again:

From one of the artists at The Theatre at Boston Court:

We’re sometimes more grateful for mixed reviews. We read you. We may know you better than yourself. We’ve analyzed your writing and we know which of you are soft touches who like everything and which of you have agendas and axes to grind. We want to engage in a meaningful dialogue.

From Dan Gioia, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts:

Theater is an ecosystem and public critics are the middlemen of culture. They create the commentary around culture. If you bring real art to people, you open a doorway. The art does the work. Art makes people meet and create a common ground. We’re so divided. Let’s create a conversation around things that are positive.

From Ben Cameron, Program Director, Arts at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation

Things have changed. We have to get rid of the hierarchy in theater. It used to be that if you were the biggest budget theater, you won. Now it is an ecosystem. Everyone needs each other. The non-profit can’t survive without the commercial which can’t survive without the community theaters. 90 percent of theaters operate with $1 million or less; 70% with less than $500,000.

Reviews should be a form of engagement rather than judgment. It should be a conversation between people. Critics must love the art form and know their values.

Dominic Papatola,Chief Theater Critic of the St. Paul Pioneer Press and President of the American Theater Critics Association

Art critics have to be as good as any other writer, teacher, and philosopher. Art is organic, it’s part of life. Write reviews that engage, entertain, and provoke your readers. Once they find you in your paper, don’t make it harder for them by the way you write. The first sentence has got to make them read. Put the good stuff at the top.

Be journalists. You can’t just engage theater in the auditorium. You have to connect it to the world. What is happening in business, politics, neighborhoods, pop culture. Find stories that connect theater to the community.

The devils of writing are:
  1. Loving the sound of your own voice.
  2. Ivy towerism.
  3. Lack of agility to hop on something that’s a story.
  4. Lack of engagement; lack of participation.
  5. Not writing to your length. If you can't, give the editor optional cuts.

Michael Phillips,former theater critic of the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribute, currently a film critic

Be specific. The phrase “colorful costumes” is meaningless. It’s not good enough to say “dull” or “boring.” We can do better than that. Find better ways to express your itchiness. That’s just the beginning.

Be specific and be brave.

Honor and explore without making readers guess what you feel. Don’t deliver the verdict in the first paragraph. Leak and make them guess where you’re going so they’ll stay with you.

Screw completist thinking. You don’t have to cover all bases in the same way. You don’t have to talk about every actor and every technical aspect.

Use the outside world. Live in the world of the theater and the wider world. Theater is our calling. We belong on the other side of the fence, but there is no border patrol. We’re double agents.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

We interrupt this program...

Lots to talk about in the theater world (is that ever not true?), but I've been swamped with work.

So, let me interrupt with a short commercial. In addition to reviewing theater, I review a lot of books for sites such as and Book Help Web (I'm the publisher of the latter). Book Help Web is one of the sponsors of an online book fair called "Love of Reading" which is a ton of fun.

One of the events there is an hourly giveaway of books. There is a wonderful selection. Of the books they're giving away, I can personally recommend:
So if you're waiting for me to weigh in on the shows I saw this weekend (I Am My Own Wife and Fantastical Friends) or to talk about this week's Arts or Crafts symposium, dally at Love of Reading until I can catch up and post again.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Weekend events, Nov. 8-11

I'll be spending most of this weekend at the MSU Arena theater watching Fantastical Friends, a new production by the MSU Family/Community Theatre. It's an organization started by Bill Gordon. Actually, he started it last year with Lansing Civic Players and they put on such shows as Orphan Train and others.

That was a mating that didn't last. The official version is that LCP wished to go in a different direction and all the rest is gossip.

The show that they're doing is one in which the Book Mistress takes a young boy who doesn't like to read on a tour of several great literary classics. Embedded in the performance of the play are glimpses of Little Women, Alice in Wonderland, Sherlock Holmes, Huckleberry Finn, Jane Eyre, Great Expectations, Dracula, and The Monkey's Paw.

My son is performing in it and I'm looking forward to seeing him play a rather fun role. I enjoy watching a show repeatedly and seeing how the actors grow over the course of it. I am, however, going to have to miss at least one of his performances because next weekend is already packed full and two of the shows that open this weekend don't have Sunday performances next weekend.

Other shows opening this weekend include:
  • Peppermint Creek's "I Am My Own Wife"
  • Starlight Dinner Theatre's "Amy's Wish"
And while I'm still trying to figure out how to get to the Detroit Rep's Doubt, it may have to be Thanksgiving weekend. Next week will be:
  • MSU's Arts and Crafts on Thursday
  • Amy's Wish on Friday
  • Rossini's Cinderella an opera at MSU on Saturday
  • Waverly's Little Shop of Horrors on Sunday

Monday, November 5, 2007


I'm not sure if this is starting to be a trend, but Richard and I actually got to see another show together--this time at Lansing Community College.

They're performing a modern version of Oscar Wilde's Salome and what a performance it was. I hardly would have recognized it as a Wilde, so intense was Director Lela Ivey's vision of the show, a vision that was very different from Wilde's. She had a story to tell and everything about this production was committed to that story.

Abby Murphy as Salome was amazing. At one point, my mouth was literally gaping at her agility and I more than once smiled at her vocal range in which even her whispers were as clear as her shouts. I didn't always agree with the character choices that were made, but they were consistent with the show's overall theme. Perhaps that is what was most impressive about Murphy's performance--her absolute commitment to the role and the choices made by the director. I never doubted that Murhpy had an intimate understanding of her character and of the story that they were trying to tell.

Salome is a highly demanding role and perhaps one of the most thankless ones in the play. While other characters were able to indulge in fun bits and business, the part of Salome is constantly intense and constantly out of step with the mood and obsessions of the other characters. She is in her own world even while the rest of her world is aggressively going in a different direction. She cannot see past her own desires and has a streak of cruelty that underlies her manipulation of all those around her.

Murphy gave us a narcissistic Salome who could switch from alluring to demanding to pouty to triumphant in breathtaking seconds. It was a stellar performance that she can and should be proud of.

Dana Brazil as Herodias, Salome's mother, was instantly identifiable as a professional. The role is a fun part and Brazil played it to its fullest. Every movement, every word was deliberate, contributing to the story without ever crossing the line into self-indulgence (something some of the less experienced performers were guilty of).

Brian DeVries was equally at home on the stage, creating a jealous and superstitious Herod frustratingly buffeted by forces and desires that he couldn't control. His impotence gave him an appeal and his longing for Salome was achingly powerful. He and Brazil were a perfect team, moving about the stage almost as if they were counterweights, creating stage pictures that added to the tensions of their relationship.

Director Ivey and her three main actors also did a fantastic job of building the tension. There were moments of levity early on with Herod and various party guests contributed to that atmosphere while being strange enough to keep anyone from getting comfortable. Brazil and deVries worked on several emotional levels so that the conflict built without playing out too soon.

The final bloody scene was intense and exhilarating in its horror.

I would not call Salome a perfect production despite the incredible performances from the leads. There were some disjointed moments and flaws that reminded the audience that this was a student production with a wide range of ability and talent amongst its actors.

Murphy, de Vries, Brazil, and Marianne Chan were all perfectly at home with the heightened language, making it believable and natural. Some of the other actors did not have the same comfort level and failed to excise the starchness from their delivery.

In the opening scenes there was a disco dance piece that looked poorly rehearsed. If the disjointedness and inability to move together was a choice--a choice that could have been valid given the story and its themes--it wasn't an obvious enough choice. Instead, it simply looked accidental. Perhaps that's something that will be more precise during their second weekend.

After the recorded curtain speech, the director chose to play a full song (I believe by The Cure, but don't quote me on that). Yes, the song may have been meant to prepare the audience for the themes of the show, but it was ineffective. Most of the audience, once they realized the play wasn't starting, resumed talking to one another until the lights went out again. It's difficult to keep an audience's attention with a pre-recorded song when it has come for a live performance. At least, it was in this instance.

Nicolas Gamboa as Jokanaan (more popularly known as John the Baptist) had good physicality and movement, but that was about it. His vocal work was poor, especially when contrasted with Murphy's flexibility. Gamboa declaimed rather than spoke. He was neither believable nor desirable. He was especially difficult to understand when his voice was projected as prophecies through the sound system.

I'm still of mixed mind about Ben Green's set. It was certainly wonderfully constructed and imposing. What it meant and how it fit in with the story was slightly more obscure and I'm still deciding whether it was a set for a set's sake or whether it did contribute to the story.

Those criticisms aside, it's still a show I would recommend seeing for the fortissimo performances of Murphy, Brazil, and deVries.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Doubt review

Three entries in one day?

This is a short one.

I've posted my review of BoarsHead's Doubt at


Tonight I'm going to see Icarus Falling's Valparaiso. I have to confess that I felt more than a little guilt about not seeing it on their opening weekend. What kind of a wife tells her husband that she's too busy seeing other plays to come see his opening weekend? Thankfully, he understands and wasn't at all bothered by it, especially since he knew that I was already struggling to figure out which play I was going to have to miss.

I am looking forward to seeing Valparaiso for a number of reasons--first and foremost being that I love to watch my husband perform. OK, I love to watch him period, but I'll spare you more mushy talk this week, I indulged in enough of that with the Camelot blogging.

Richard is playing the role of Teddy, a talk show host who doesn't come out until the second half. Ever since he heard Icarus Falling was reviving the show (they first performed it during their second season in 2002), Teddy was the role he was interested in. The City Pulse reviewer said that he and Amy Winchell as Delfina had the two juiciest roles as they got to not only chew the scenery, but to spit it back out at an audience that begged for more.

Second, I'm interested in seeing them perform in their new space. It's not a space that has ever done theater before. I'm curious to see how a space designed for musicians is able to adapt to the needs of the theater. From the outside it may seem like the needs are similar, but they really do have very different demands. A band has very little need for multiple exits and entrances, something crucial for most theater productions.

I was also surprised to see that not only did they not get into the space until the day before they opened, but neither were they able to have their brush-up there. I've heard many groups complain that they get only a week in the space--a week that is barely enough time for the actors to make the necessary adjustments in where they move and how their voice bounces off the walls of the space. Nor does it give much time for setting up lights or any of the tech necessary to pull off the necessary theatrical magic.

Did they succeed in doing so despite the lack of time in the space? I don't know. From all accounts it was a bit rocky, but they managed. I'll find out tonight, though whether I'll blog about it or not, I don't know.

I do hope that they'll get bigger audiences than the dozen they got on Saturday night. The show is quirky, but it's a good one--one that gives you lots to think about and discuss after the show. For those of you who go, I would throw out this suggestion. Think about the second half of the play: Does it occur in reality? If it doesn't, where is it taking place? Why do the repetitions occur that are there?

That's a discussion I'd love to have once the show is over and there is no longer a concern about spoiling it for anyone.

Getting Traffic

In a meeting earlier this week, there was a discussion on how to drive traffic to your blog. The advice was to be topical and to take a stance--especially if it could be a slightly controversial stance.

While the discussion wasn't referring to this blog, I did think about that philosophy in the context of this blog. I also realized that I became immediately uncomfortable about the idea. It would be easy to do and probably would increase traffic. There are all sorts of juicy bits of gossip flying around the theater community and many of them would be a lot of fun to write about.

So why, for the most part, don't I?

I suppose for two reasons. One, I have always made it my policy to not write anything on the Internet/Web that I wouldn't also say if I were face-to-face with my audience (and on the Web, I don't get to choose who my audience is). If I can't say what I have to say politely and with at least some degree of kindness, then I need to question whether I'm hiding behind the anonymity of the printed word in a cowardly fashion.

Two, I have enough of a journalistic training to remember that there is more than one side to any story. Bloggers are not bound by the strictures of journalism (which is why there is still overall a far greater credibility to what appears in the newspaper than what appears on blogs--but that's another discussion and one in which I fall firmly in the middle rather than on either side), but I do not easily shed those strictures. I still find myself applying the tests of libel to what I write here. I ask myself whether I could feel comfortable proving what I have to say if I'm offering more than an opinion. I also feel uncomfortable blogging about anything that isn't said to me "on the record" even though that's rarely a test applied to the world of blogging. I still want my sources to be able to trust me when I talk to them for my column, so I don't want to break that trust here--which means not repeating casual conversations or those bits of gossip that I pick up as I chat with people in the community.

So, yes, that does make this blog more dull than it might otherwise be. But I hope that it also gives it a certain amount of credibility and trustworthiness. Of course, I've been known to fool myself before. :)

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Standing Ovations

I admit it, I'm stingy when it comes to standing ovations.

I see a lot of theater. I see a lot of good theater. Rarely, though will I give something a standing ovation. This is something that often makes me uncomfortable because I'll remain sitting even when everyone around me is standing and I do sometimes worry that it sends the wrong signal--that the signal it sends is that I think the show is bad.

However, I'll usually swallow the uncomfortable feeling and remain in my seat because I want the standing ovation to mean something. I want it to mean that I thought the show was near perfect, that it moved me in such a way that I'll remember it for a long time to come.

I applaud enthusiastically for a show that is good. I try to be attentive and an audience member who helps create an environment for a good show--to give be a part of that difficult-to-describe energy that comes from having an audience who is paying attention to and reacting to a show.
But I won't stand just because the show was good.

Part of this is because I want to have something that I can do for those shows that do go above and beyond. I want to be able to show that extra level of appreciation for truly superior productions.

It's a topic I thought about during Camelot this past week. My husband and I were amongst the few people still in our seats (at least that we could see) when Lou Diamond Phillips took his bow. Richard said he might have stood if they'd left in Fie on Goodness, but I don't think I would have. But I did have to question why, when my face was wet with tears evoked by the emotionally strong ending, that I kept my seat.

The answer is that there were too many uneven moments in the production. I could see the actors and technicians moving around back stage, which tells me that not enough consideration was given to the sight lines at the far sides. I thought Matt Bogart's performance as Lancelot was lukewarm and lacking in any sort of sympathy. While Phillips and Rachel de Benedet provided subtle layers to their characters and showed incredible charisma, Lancelot had none.

It was a good show--the dancing was fun, the voices were mostly strong, the costumes outstanding, and the two lead actors were excellent. However, it isn't a show that five years from now I'll still be talking about the way I'll still talk about BoarsHead's Wit or Michigan Shakespeare Festival's Merchant of Venice.

So if you see me sitting during a standing ovation at your show, please don't jump to the conclusion that I didn't like it or thought it was poorly done. And if you see me stand, know that I thought the show ranks among the best theater I've seen.