Sunday, March 30, 2008

Simplicity and complexity

"I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity."

- Oliver Wendell Holmes

I've been thinking about this quote lately in many different contexts.

One context is theater. Isn't this what directors and actors try to do? Or, at least, some do? I think those who spend a lot of time analyzing a play and truly trying to understand every word in it are able to present a simple and elegant story that is the result of their journey through complexity.

However, those that choose simplicity by ignoring the complexity of the text they work with end up delivering a result that is often less than satisfying and fails to move the audience.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Religious Theater

Growing up, I was very active in my teen group at church. However, since I wasn't all that interested in sports outside of the occasional recreation or going to the occasional game and didn't have a great singing voice, I had to find other ways to participate. Primarily, it was through Bible quizzing and drama.

However, the non-musical dramas in church were often highly disappointing, especially those written for teenagers. Rarely was there a character created that I could believe in. The monologues were hollow and the dialog was too often tritely moralistic. People I knew didn't talk this way--not even the devoutly religious people that I knew. There also seemed to be a fear of including conflict, and without conflict, you can't really have good drama.

I came to associate Christian drama with the mediocre at best and tedious most commonly. It lacked in authenticity while being heavy in jingoism.

This is something that bothered me for a long time. There used to be great drama with Christian themes--great drama that took advantage of all the power of theater. However, sometime during the 80s, it seemed that drama was sanitized to remove anything remotely dangerous. In fact, what happened to drama is something that also happened to Christian literature--another area where there are numerous examples of truly great work. It became bland and sanitized. Worse, some of what passes for Christian literature today is truly atrocious when it comes to good writing.

At some point, it seemed that if it was labeled Christian, then it automatically got stamped with a "good" mark. This led to mediocrity. I'd even argue this passed over into our politics. If someone calls himself a born-again Christian, then he must be "good," and no further critical thinking need be applied.

It's a trend that does disservice to God. Whatever happened to Orville Chambers clarion call to produce our utmost for His highest? Whatever happened to the idea that if you were doing work for God, it ought to be the very best possible? That He deserved only excellence, not simply a lackadaisical semi-effort shorn of careful thought and intellectual struggle?

What has inspired this line of thought?

The fact that during Easter week I saw two plays that buck the trend. They were two religious plays that were outstanding. Granted, you aren't likely to see either of them performed in a church, but both dealt with religious issues in a respectful, honest, and artistic manner.

The first was Thunder at Dawn done in Riverwalk's Black Box at the Creole Gallery. It was a highly powerful show that I wish I could have seen more than once.

In it, three soldiers meet at the Rusty Nail after getting off execution duty. While they are dressed modern, carry guns, and refer to current events, it is soon obvious that they were at the crucifixion of Christ.

It's an intense story with the youngest soldier, a boot who has just recently touched down in the desert, broken up because he believes they have just executed a holy man. Joe Quick did an excellent job of convincingly portraying a boy in despair and fear. He believes that Christ will return after three days and will want revenge upon the soldiers who killed him.

Ben Holzhausen plays the cynical sergeant to whom this was simply another execution of another terrorist insurgent. He's hardened by combat and believes only in army discipline.

Rick Dethlefsen as the senior officer provided a richly textured performance in which he pretends to treat this execution like any other while taking a journey that eventually reveals his character's vulnerabilities and fears.

Together, the three portray a pretty stark reality--not one that is designed to comfort the audience. There is strong language, drinking, and banter about prostitution. The soldiers aren't sanitized. They're real. This makes for a story that is powerful, beautiful, and ultimately challenging. There is a lot to think about when you leave the theater. There are questions presented without answers being given. The answers are what the audience must search for, and in searching, possibly find something of far greater meaning than if it were packaged in pretty paper with a bow.

The other show I saw over the weekend was Performance Network's Doubt, another intensely religious show that breaks the modern mold and hearkens back to a faith that is intellectually honest. It's a play in which there are no easy answers and nothing is given to the audience. Rather, the answers must be sought after and questioned.

However, more on that one later. While I was writing this, I received a call from Don Calamia (see photo, left) at Pride Source. He and I are going to begin discussing the three versions of Doubt: BoarsHead, Detroit Rep, and Performance Network, this coming Tuesday in this space and at his blog, Confessions of a Cranky Critic.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Hate Mail

Here's some good news in the theater world: Williamston is extending its run of Hate Mail.

They were originally scheduled to close this weekend, but are instead running through April 13. The press release quotes Executive Director John Lepard saying, "Due to rave reviews from both critics and audiences, we decided it just wasn't time to close this show. We're thrilled to be able to give the public ten more opportunities to see this wonderful cast and to give this talented cast and crew a few more weeks of work."

It isn't often that theater groups extend their runs--at least not in mid-Michigan, so I find it pretty exciting that they're able to do so.

Certainly the show is worthy of being extended. It's a hilarious show with a pair of highly talented actors.

Congratulations to Williamston and everyone involved in the show!

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Triple Doubt

I'm sure it is a playwright's dream to write a script so tight, so perfect, that every company--regardless of its means or abilities--that undertakes it is able to produce a show that perfectly reflects the playwright's intent. I would have stated that such a thing is impossible, but my confidence in that assertion is wavering this year.

Fitting, I suppose, that the cause for that wavering is Patrick Shanley's Doubt, performed this year in Michigan by BoarsHead, Detroit Repertory Theater, and Performance Network.

Early this season, Don Calamia and I agreed that we would personally see all three shows--a decision that came out of a discussion on whether so many viewings of the same show can exhaust an audience and whether they shouldn't be more spread out. Our plan has been to commit what would be at least a venial sin in a review--comparing the three shows.

This past weekend, while in the Detroit area to celebrate the Easter weekend, I saw Doubt at Performance Network, the final of the three downstate/mid-state organizations that were performing the show this season.

Note to self: When you go to Performance Network again (which you should--it was a beautiful space), leave extra time to find parking. Lots of extra time. And wear comfortable shoes.

So watch this space soon for more on those three shows. Don and I have to work out exactly how we're going to handle this. Once we do, you'll see more here.

I'll say this much, though: I was impressed with all three shows and never felt the slightest bit of fatigue at having to see the same show again. It's easy to see why this is a popular script and all three groups did justice to it.

Monday, March 24, 2008


As I've written about before, a critic's credentials come in what they write every time they publish. No matter how extensive the writer's qualifications are, they are meaningless when weighed against the judgment of what is written.

It's one of the reasons that it frustrates me to such a great degree when I make errors in either my reviews or my column. It hurts my credibility--as it should. Lately, I've had a rash of errors, some minor, some not so minor.

While I could make excuses for each of the errors, the reasons are really irrelevant. As a professional, it is my job to recognize when there is a barrier to accuracy and to do something about it. So for the next few weeks, my column won't appear in the Lansing State Journal. I'm going to try to catch up with some of my other work, get some rest, and try to get ahead on interviews for columns when I return.

At that time, it is my hope that the time off will have provided me with what I need to return to work with a sharp eye that can catch these errors before they appear in print.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008


I've managed to catch myself a nasty little bug, so postings on Midsummer, Hate Mail, and other topics will have to wait a few more days.

In the mean time, here's a quote I enjoyed today:

"Work is the true elixir of life. The busiest man is the happiest man. Excellence in any art or profession is attained only by hard and persistent work. Never believe that you are perfect. When a man imagines, even after years of striving, that he has attained perfection, his decline begins."

--Sir Theodore Martin

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Waverly is dreaming

Notice the new poll at the top of the right-hand column? It's a new Google feature that I'm going to try to use every week or so.

The current poll's subject is about high school drama because that's been a major topic around our household lately. Richard is directing A Midsummer Night's Dream at Waverly High School. It opens this evening.

There are several times when I've started to write about it, but I'm not really part of the process and I do want my husband to be able to both vent and crow without worrying about whether it will show up in print.

From the outside, it's been somewhat fascinating to watch the process. It's also made me realize how much I miss teaching drama and specifically the kids that I taught.

Originally they were going to have a longer rehearsal process but Easter, a choir trip, and basketball tournaments got in the way. Now, the day of opening, they're wishing they had a few more weeks to get comfortable in their lines. Of course, they're very busy high school students so it is possible that if they had another week, they wouldn't have learned their lines until this week.

It's also been exciting to see these students take on the challenge of Shakespeare given that they don't have drama classes offered at Waverly currently. They do read Shakespeare in their English classes, so they are familiar with the language and the stories. Most of the cast has also performed in other plays. A lot of the work, though, has had to take place in rehearsals.

Last night, Richard was at Waverly until after midnight working on the set while I worked at making gifts for his cast (which, alas, won't be done for tonight's opening). They're having one final rehearsal this afternoon before performing this evening.

I'm looking forward to it. My son's Cub Scout pack will be there--they'll be seated in the balcony where we can all sit together. If you're interested in coming out, they'll perform tonight, tomorrow, and Saturday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are only $5.

Other offerings this weekend:
  • Thunder at Dawn at the Creole Gallery, put on as part of Riverwalk's Black Box series
  • Hate Mail at Williamston
  • Flowers for Algernon at Lansing Civic Players
  • Blue Room at MSU Arena Theater
  • Our Love is Here to Stay at Ruhala Performing Arts Center

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Rabbit Hole

Before I went to Denver, I had the chance to see Peppermint Creek's Rabbit Hole.

It was a very touching, very moving story, one that constantly had me asking myself what I would do (God forbid) in their shoes. It also sparked some interesting discussions. A friend of mine complained that the play had no point. It was an interesting actor study, but didn't have a point.

A co-worker of mine who saw it talked about how it didn't really have a resolution, though he felt that made sense given the nature of the work and its dealing with grief.

Does a play have to have a point or a moral? I think a play needs to be about something and in the best cases, it inspires people to think. Rabbit Hole qualifies in both cases. It helps to provide a vocabulary to talk about the difficult subject of grief. It doesn't offer a script about what to say to someone who is grieving, but rather warns against grasping at trite phrases that will have little meaning to those who are hurting. In that sense, I think it serves a valuable purpose.

It also encourages us to connect with our own mortality and fragility without being maudlin or sentimental.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Gossip vs. news

So, now that I've berated CNN for its over-emphasis on gossip, it's time for me to come back to Lansing and theater. However, the CNN rant provides a rather nice introduction for my next topic, something I've been thinking on for awhile.

I've been concerned that my column had grown a little too stale. That it was almost a press release service promoting only the news that people wanted to hear. There is a value to that, but a journalist is supposed to do more than just say what people want to hear. If I believe the arts are important--and I do--then I have a responsibility to take them seriously and to write about what is necessary, not just provide an expanded calendar service.

So what should I do differently? Well, I'm still working on that. I'm hoping that the features I've been writing will be a step in the right direction, but I don't pretend to believe that it is an arrival.

What is it that would help support meaningful dialog about the arts in Lansing?

I know what I want to stay away from: gossip.

Gossip is a too easy answer. It may be fun and might even boost readership, but too often it is more harmful than helpful. I like a good gossip session as much as the next person, but I'm not one to put it into anything so permanent as print (or in this case, electronic type).

Sometimes, though, the gossip does point to an underlying issue. For example, awhile ago (and I refuse to say whether it was two years, two months, two weeks, or two days ago, as I really am trying to avoid the gossip element) there was a disagreement among stakeholders in a local group. The disagreement led to fisticuffs.

While the details of that might make for salacious reading, what I find to be of more lasting importance is the issue that led to the fight. It's one that deserves addressing and talking about the pros and cons in a serious fashion.

I'm fairly certain, though, that if I tried to write about it (the issue, not the fight) in my column, most people would want to say little other than the official PR line so as not to make their organization look bad. I understand this, but would like to find a way that we can promote authentic conversations about tough issues. Should the discussions belong only in the back rooms of the organizations? Or would bringing the discussions out to the community create more investment in the ideas and needs of the individual organizations? Would it help people to better understand some of the more subtle (and not so subtle) challenges that organizations face?

Would it matter to people more than what the director of the next show has to say about an individual production?

These aren't rhetorical questions. I have many different answers--some conflicting--but no good hold on what the right answers are.

Cable NEWS Network?

Not having a television means that I don't keep up with the latest changes made to television programming. The last time I'd watched any CNN was nearly a year ago. So the changes in style left me feeling shocked and somewhat outraged last week.

What happened to the news?

I was watching the day after a series of major primaries had been held, so there was no shortage of news that could have been covered. However, there was no real reporting. Everything was superficial and 85 percent of the content had to do with celebrities.

I don't think I would have even minded the celebrity coverage quite so much if the coverage had focused on what those celebrities do. But they weren't talking about their music, their acting, or their athletic abilities. Instead, it appeared the only news value these artists had were in the nastiness of their divorces, their legal troubles, and the way they mistreat their children. None of that has the slightest bit of newsworthiness or value.

CNN may have their reasons, but I'm still disgusted by it. News isn't just about telling people about what they want to hear. It's purpose is to tell people what they need to hear. Can you imagine a doctor taking a poll and then providing only those prescriptions and diagnoses that are most popular and in greatest demand by their patients?

Media is given great constitutional protection not so that it can gossip about its entertainers, but so that it can protect the country by being a watchdog, a reporter, and a contributor to the social and political conversation.

I happen to believe that people crave meaningful conversation. There was a time when the media was a part of that conversation. What I saw last week on CNN had absolutely no relevance to my life or any sort of conversation I would want to have.

Will the reminiscence of the 00's be "I remember when CNN showed news" the way the one of the 90s was "I remember when MTV showed music videos"?

Monday, March 10, 2008

Disturbances at the Theater

While I was in Denver last week, I met a woman whom I decided needed to go to more live theater. She had the bad habit of holding conversations during presentations when other people were speaking. I wondered whether that came from watching too much television and not being aware that the other people in the room could hear her.

However, this past Sunday, I was reminded that her behavior could be found just as commonly at live performances.

My first inclination is to cut people a little bit of slack because it was the day after Daylight Savings Time and many people probably hadn't set all their clocks back yet. At any rate, I'm willing to pretend that was why so many people came in late to the Lansing Civic Players' performance of Flowers for Algernon. And lest I be accused of being a pot, I have to confess that I scooted in just as the lights were going out and the actors were first taking the stage.

About an hour into the show, the doors in the back of the theater opened and an older couple entered. The usher helped them to two seats at the end of an aisle. While the man complained about how dark it was, the woman wandered back and forth in the aisle, muttering something I tried to ignore in order to focus on what was taking place on the stage.

When I realized that she was ignoring the whispers of the usher and about to head further down the aisle where I was sitting, I raised my arm to the level of her arm (so she wouldn't trip over my feet) and whispered to her that I was there and said, "Here's a seat." She then moved into my arm before turning back around. She tried to leave the aisle, saying, "I can't sit here."

The usher again tried to get them to sit down and she pointed at me and in a loud voice said, "She pushed me!"

Feeling a little horrified and terribly embarrassed about the amount of noise, I again whispered, "No, I'm trying to help you find the seat. Here," and I lowered the seat for her.

This time she again turned to the usher and said (again in a loud voice), "She doesn't want me to sit next to her." The usher reassured her that it wasn't the case while I again whispered, "No, I'm trying to help. I'd like you to sit here." To myself, I thought, "and shut up." However, that stayed as internal monologue as I was raised to be more polite than that.

She turned to me and snapped, "I can't understand what you're saying."

At this point, I chose not to respond, hoping that the talking would stop and we could get back to watching the show.

At intermission, the couple left. When my friend Cheryl tried to explain to her that it was only intermission, she huffed, "I was misled!"

In all, it was terribly embarrassing--which is of little import compared to what it must have done for the actors on stage who had to perform over such a disturbance.

Back home

After a weeklong trip to Denver, I'm back home and will soon resume blogging. My typing is still pretty slow, but I'm getting better at it.

More soon.