Monthly Archives: April 2004

you are the one

Recently remembered and been delighted by one of my favorite peformative party games. It’s called “you are the one.” The game requires one to three players, and must take place in some kind of crowded party type atmosphere. Basically, Player A gives Player B an instruction: “You are the one who…” and Player B then begins to behave in that fashion. They trade back and forth. I have very strong memories of watching two friends play this during college. Favorites:

“You are the one who got a boob job, but doesn’t want anyone to know.”

“You are the one who thinks the room is bugged.”

–then, “You are the one who bugged the room.”

You perform these instructions without other people knowing what you’re doing–increased points for using these states of being to affect your interactions with said people.

Liz and I were strongly considering putting out our pamphlet of Parlour Games for Goode Children. Others include “Marry/Fuck/Cliff,” “Awkward Dinner Party”, and of course, the all-time great, “Why Did You Pee In My Car?”

Still writing, haltingly. Demons get their knowledge of bars from movies about bars. Added a few Very Noisy Interludes. Now chewing conceptually on the Blackout Ballet. Will explain all later, if you care to know.

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currently

Writing, writing, writing away at this play, asking myself questions like, “how do demons learn to communicate on earth, do they have radio, or simply guide-books by Lonely Planet? or do they speak in minimalist Gertrude Stein-style prose?” and “how is the third act going to be the radical shift it needs to be? What do I mean?” as well as realizing, sharply, painfully, that I can’t write like Christopher Marlowe.

While also dealing with space problems for doing the show itself, a bit disheartening considering that it’s going up in a little over a month come hell or high water.

Ah, the wild and wacky world of poor theater! Get your red hots here! Come and get ’em!

a joke

So these scientists are doing experiments to see how dogs are like their owners.

They take an architect’s dog, put him in a room with a bunch of bones. Dog paws the bones into a model of the Eiffel Tower. The scientists go, “mmm, interesting,” take note of it.

Then they take a mathematician’s dog, put him in the same room with a bunch of bones. Dog pushes the bones around into the formula E=mc2. “Mmm, interesting,” and they take a note of it.

Then they bring in actor’s dog.

He fucks the other two dogs, eats the bones and then says, “um, can I leave early today?”

bad = bad

Harold Clurman famously said that he doesn’t believe in complaining about bad theater. We need more bad theater–“Bad theater is the fertilizer from which good theater grows.”

A nice idea, but oh boy, do I disagree. Theater remains too much of a mysterious and dispensable art form in this country. The same audience members who comfortably critique film and music and television, even when they do not themselves make or study said forms, will still hesitate over expressing an opinion of a play. Generally, I hear audience members blame themselves: “oh, I’m not a theater person.” “maybe I didn’t get it.”

[theater = artistic, difficult]

Walk down Broadway at 10:00pm, right after the plays get out—you hear thousands of people furiously justifying the $90 they just spent on something that had failed to move, dazzle, amaze or upset them; two hours which didn’t provoke thought or feeling or, well, anything. “I liked that one speech at the end” “Oh, that one actor was pretty good” “Yeah…well, I didn’t understand it.” People don’t know what they should expect or what they deserve—so their standards aren’t very high.

[bad = good]

Hey, were you riveted, taken, manipulated, respected, rocked out for two hours? No? Then it wasn’t a good play—end of story. A play either works or it doesn’t, and I don’t care how many times you’ve been: you could easily have never seen a good play. Barely-adequate plays are rare, enough so that I have become relieved, shocked and delighted by the bare minimum.

[Bare minimum = overpraised]

When the vast majority of theater sucks, people learn to expect very little from theater. They stop going. They go only as a cultural checkmark, as a duty. Or they go without much in the way of expectations. Theater producers become frightened into safe choices, unchallenging programming. They will plug celebrities desperately into a play: the excitement of the live experience can only be accessed by actually seeing A REAL LIVE CELEBRITY UP CLOSE. The lack of demand for exciting work encourages theater artists to become, well, lazy hacks. It leads to pre-professional programs where the priorities are: 1. get students hired, even if they become hack-moes, 2. encourage students to aspire to celebrity above art. 3. um, see 1 and 2.

[good = whatever can get paid for]

The point being this past week.

1. Last Wednesday I watched a free dress rehearsal performance of 700 Sundays, a new solo show by Billy Crystal. Mr. Crystal is a charming, talented performer, with lots of neat stories from his childhood and a still-flexible physical and vocal instrument. He’s funny. His childhood stories warmed and eased us. The material is utterly inoffensive. The audience is predisposed to being charmed and delighted because he’s Billy Crystal. If he wasn’t Billy Crystal, we would have absolutely no reason to care about anything he’s saying. With this show, the Playhouse panders to a comfortable, upper-class Jewish subscription audience who are happy to feel like they’ve been invited into a celebrity’s living room.

[Billy Crystal, hell, any celebrity = great! meaningful!]

2. Embarrassingly bad theater this weekend, produced by an unashamed, unflinching institution. Me? I would have flinched. Most painful was watching how the audience (mostly members of said institution) have literally been trained to not demand more, critique more, push each other. When standards aren’t upheld by the people training so-called “pre-professionals”, we have a problem.

[Anything we put out = good, even when it’s not]

Bad theater always feels like another nail in the coffin of the entire American theater. Because every play seen and transmitted instructs potential new audiences of the possibilities of the form itself—it either helps guarantee or damn the survival of the theater. The bad theater I saw this weekend will not, I don’t think, convince anyone to come back. Bad = Bad

daniel boone: the man and the legend, I

(This took longer than promised, because I’ve been trying to figure out how to put a few disconnected stories into one seamless narrative. Ain’t gonna happen, instead, bits and pieces.)

The best meet and greet I ever witnessed happened after Daniel Boone. It’s an almost obligatory part of the Outdoor Drama experience, an event in itself: actors in full costume, engaging with the audience, kissing hands and shaking babies, signing autographs and taking photos. You can always count on a meet n’ greet–unless such meeting conflicts completely with the dramatic impact of the play (like “The Lost Colony,” for instance, which ends with the Roanoke pilgrims, bundled in rags, walking off into the darkness, into their disappearance, thus, into history. Or, say, any of the Passion Plays–I mean, Jesus can’t very well shake hands of good believing folks after having Ascended).

So, after Boone, I see one of the actors, who played a Shawnee Indian in the show, descended on by a pack of hungrily pubescent Girl Scouts who had come, en masse to see the play. These girls, downright vibrating with primordial adolescent energy, the nervous trembling of juices starting to flow where none ever had before, could barely contain themselves over this young man with his bare chest, loin cloth and leggings, not to mention his (historically inaccurate) mohawk.

They kept him talking to them for a solid half hour, during which they asked him, with the boldness of uncontrollable hormones, what he wore under his loin cloth. How old is the youngest guy in the play? Seventeen, he answered, and you could almost see their thoughts: “That’s not too much older than me! ).” They got his autograph. His patience, his politeness, was simply splendid.

out of the blue

Received the following email yesterday:

Hi Maya! A couple of years back you were writing a story on outdoor dramas. You saw our show in Harrodsburg Ky. “The Legend of Daniel Boone”. You stayed for the party afterwards. I never got to read your story/article. Was hoping you could tell me where to find a copy? Hope you had fun while you were here. Come see us again soon.

How can I explain that no, I never wrote that article, but my desire to write about it has landed me in previously unimaginable circumstances?

In the summer of 2001, I spent three months driving around the US, documenting forms of American theater not usually written about by our current cultural apparatus*: passion plays, outdoor dramas, community pageants, Native American “ceremonials” held as tourist entertainments. I was going to write an article about my travels for Theater Magazine –even used their letterhead to get me free tickets to the plays. Unfortunately, I both underestimated the amount of material I would gather (I ended up with 67 HOURS of production and interview footage), and overestimated my abilities to process said material (24 plays over 10 weeks, having talked to hundreds of people) into a thoughtful and concise 30 pages within a month after finishing the trip.

The only reason I applied to graduate school was because I thought it might be a good place to support me while writing about my trip. Jury’s still out on that one, but way more on that later.

But tomorrow, I promise: Daniel Boone: The Man and the Legend

*By which I mean the academy and The New York Times theater section.

"this one’s for the ladies!

“One leg to the north / One to the south / What I can’t do with my dick / I’ll do with my mouth!” And then he pounded a drink.

The lead-off comic had finally been saved from the stage. About 10 minutes earlier, he threatened not to finish his set without a Jaegerblaster shot. He was bombing by that point, and even though his comedy soon devolved into some rather ugly racial hostility with front row hecklers, it took that long for anyone to buy him a drink. People cared that little. Finally the bar took mercy on him (and us) and sent up a couple of shots.

His second toast: “Here’s to looking like movie stars, living like rock stars, and fucking like porn stars.”

I’m currently developing a theater piece that explores San Diego through its club/social scene, and last night we went on a field trip, doing research in Pacific Beach (or “P.B.” as it’s known by the locals). The line of breasty chicks for P.B. Bar & Grill (THE place to be on Tuesdays) was too long to even be endured (“dude, everyone smokes pot in San Diego. I smoke–I live in Ocean Beach–this one time…”), so we headed next door for Comedy Night at Moondoggie’s.

Margaret, my former student with whom I am collaborating, inspired the hell out of me with her dazzling generosity as an audience member. She laughed, even when the jokes weren’t funny (and they weren’t). She nodded and responded and remained thoroughly committed to the comics–without even the bland neutrality I retreat to when confronted with bad performance.

So much to write about from last week–still figuring out how to say it in bite-sized chunks.

why ten red hen?

This blog won’t consist completely, or even mostly, of performance reviews. It’s a space to consider the pressing questions dogging live theater/performance in 21st Century America.

Theater suffers–as many arts do–from the problem of artists fighting over fewer and fewer crumbs: increasingly limited jobs, limited private funding, limited grants, limited physical resources, limited space, limited awards, limited prestige and publication inches, limited mind share from a limited number of audience members. The limits under consideration can be both quantitative and qualitative. The current theatrical apparatus is the opposite of a growth industry.

I’m not interested in fighting over the five crumbs currently in circulation. I want to bake new bread. Like the Little Red Hen. Unfortunately, the story of the Little Red Hen has been co-opted by capitalist consumer society as a conservative parable about the redistribution of wealth. Hence, the call for multiple Red Hen, finding kernels of wheat, planting them, hoeing, watering, harvesting, grinding flour and baking new bread together in this millennium.

radical church, part two

I actually came to SF for the weekend to see The Medea Project’s California Stories: A Time…A Place. (In addition to getting my regular Yay Area / Gurantz Family fix). As to be expected, the bad-ass Rhodessa Jones directed her articulate ensemble ably. Ms. Jones knows from the “It” required for theater-making: as with other similarly indefinable qualities, like comic timing, “It” cannot be bought or taught, though it does get better with practice.

And she’s been at this awhile. The Medea Project has been creating theater with incarcerated women for the past 15 years. California Stories, a sort of retrospective, covers a lot of old/new material, with a crazy-diverse cast of women. Ms. Jones, in the program notes, made some pretty hard-core claims for the questions the play would supposedly ask, like: given the inequities of this system, do we reform ourselves, or is insurrection our only option? And what would that look like?

The overall experience of the piece, however, was still church, a two-hour catharsis session for the women in the audience. This is not invalid–I believe everyone needs a place to worship/find “God”, and neither organized religion nor capitalism cuts it for a lot of us.

But lately I’ve swung all the way Brecht on the performance pendulum: he believed that catharsis theater, no matter the content, is an ultimately reactionary form: it allows the audience to remain complacent spectators in a mimetic emotional experience. Truly effective political theater, what Brecht called EPIC theater, makes the normal strange by placing the everyday experience in its sociopolitical context. We become distanced from our lives to look at our lives in the world. This forces us to regard our most commonplace assumptions anew, encouraging action and change.

California Stories didn’t do that. An example: at one point, we watched video of an earlier production, in which an inmate described a horrific rape. The ensemble then emerged onstage to do “The Kicking Dance,” for which they lined up in high heels, and at the command “fire!” rushed downstage and kicked the air as if they were beating up the rapist. Ms. Jones sat in the audience with a microphone, shouting things like, “kick his ass!” and “this is for Darcelle!” and “you might kill me, but you’re going to remember me.”

What made me cry, because I did cry, was not the empowering, therapeutic catharsis of watching women “take vengeance” on Darcelle’s rapist. Watching it made poignant the fact that women can only “fight back” like that onstage against an imaginary foe. It made me angry and terribly sad. I felt my own helplessness against the countless daily violence done to women–the powerlessness of every woman in that room against those violences. This was not Ms. Jones’ intention, I don’t think.

**Special shout out to Lisa Biggs, who performed beautiful original solo work.