Tuesday, October 27, 2009

On the Town: In Rehearsal


Click on the link for an audio slide show of Paper Mill's On the Town rehearsals. When I tried to upload from blip.tv to my blog, the picture was huge. Since I'm not entirely sure if I can fix that retroactively on the blip site, I've just copied and pasted the link here. Enjoy!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

A Brave New World: Criticism in the Age of Twitter

Last week I went to an arts criticism discussion at Stony Brook University. It was formally titled: Elevating the Discourse: Artists, Critics and Audiences, A Roundtable Discussion on the State of Criticism in the Age of Twitter. (Oof, what a mouthful!) My brilliant former professor/chief theater critic for Newsday, Linda Winer, invited me to attend – she was on the panel. (NOTE: I think I might have been the only journalist in an audience full of dramaturgs. Makes sense, I suppose, as the discussion was sponsored by the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas.)

So, one of the first questions asked was something on the order of, “How can we elevate the discourse when talking about the theater?” I'll confess, I’m not sure exactly what that means, but a lengthy discussion ensued – much of which aimed to answer the more focused, if not entirely realized, inquiry: “Are critics writing for the artists or the audience?”

When I was younger (a naïve late teen), I would always complain to my parents that criticism wasn’t in touch with its audience – it was writing for someone that knew too much. I vowed to create a criticism that maintained a regard for my subjects, but was written with my readers in mind. As I get more entrenched in the theater community, however, I fear I’m losing touch with that “audience” I once felt so indebted to. I sigh when friends ask me if they should take their parents to see Jersey Boys when their in town. Typical, I think – safe commercial choice. (Perhaps another question that should have been asked at this panel – but wasn’t – might have been: How do we get serial commercial theatergoers to make the jump to Off-Broadway and beyond?) The honest truth is that I’ve never even seen Jersey Boys, and I have a particular distaste for the jukebox musical. Yet, I turn my nose up because Jersey Boys isn’t the best “artistic” option out there. We seem to live in a society where “artistic” is just another word for highbrow, and “entertaining” is the damning synonym for lowbrow. Something “brazenly artistic” generally garners a good review, and something “sordidly entertaining” usually means a pan is in order. But why does it have to be this way? Something artistic may be a total bore, just as something entertaining can provide for a memorable, enjoyable even, night in the theater. And what’s more, can’t something be artistic and entertaining at the same time?

I’ve decided that it’s largely a matter of taste. I see at least one show a week, so I’ve cultivated a palate sensitive to nuances in performances, direction, and narration. Regrettably, many people are fooled into thinking that critics are laymen that know nothing about the theatrical craft. But the fact is, we’ve probably seen more theater than most. It is our life’s work, after all.

But the hypothetical Jones family that schleps into Times Square to see two Broadway shows a year doesn’t share that same luxury. Going to the theater is a treat for them, and they’re probably going to stick with something "safe." (Here, word of mouth from friends probably holds more sway than anything the critic has to say.) The trick then is: How do I get them trust in my informed opinion? Can you mix experts and amateurs?

I’ve spent a long time thinking about the state of criticism today, and I’ve come up with three roles that critics can play. They are as follows:

1) Scoreboard keeper – This is the worst type of critic that I can imagine. Sadly, though, as we continue to whittle down our reviews to stars and thumbs, keeping score is becoming our reality. As the scoreboard keeper, I’m asked to objectify a subjective art form, and my creative license is completely stripped away. But I didn’t sign up to take a multiple choice exam where I’m instructed to fill in my scantron for the categories of acting, playwriting, and directing. Art is rarely extraordinary, but infrequently atrocious. How do I “bubble in” the middle ground without becoming redundant? Bottom line: I lose. You lose. And 2.5 stars becomes the norm.

2) Personal shopper – So let’s assume I get paid to write 300-400 word reviews for a publication of my choosing. (What an awesome alternate universe, right?!) Now say I write multiple reviews a week. In my limited space, I can’t say much, but as an avid reader of my engaging and witty blurbs, you get to know me – Laura Hedli: theater critic. You get to know what types of theater I enjoy, if I prefer to laugh or cry, if I like this actress or another. After a while, you know where your preferences line up with mine. I can recommend things about certain shows, but you take them in stride – you’ve got your own style after all. Still, I’m a consumer reporter. You want to know if you should pay your good, hard-earned dough to go to this-or-that particular show. You may want a brief explanation of why it suits you. But essentially, the question remains, “Does it fit?”

3) Matchmaker – Okay, so perhaps I’ve got to think longer on this term, but bear with me here. In an ideal world, my reviews would make you want to go to the theater. Maybe you want to see what I see, or perhaps you want to disagree. Either way. I would exist in order to foster a love between my reader and the art form that I hold most dear to my heart. Every time I take my seat, no matter the venue, I feel that I am home. I realize this is a bold statement, and I don’t make it lightly. It’s a privilege to be able to go to the theater once or twice a week, but I can think of few better ways spend my time. You, the reader, may not enjoy the same luxury, but I can bring the theater alive to you through my writing. If my critiques foster an organic connection between reader and theater, then I have done my job. I have opened the door to another voice, a broader discourse. I have perpetuated the dialogue – and by association, the art form.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

On New York Musical Theatre Festival: Installment 1

On Friday I spoke on the phone with Colin Hanlon, who’s starring as Charlie in New York Musical Theatre Festival’s Whatever Man. The show is about an uncommitted, directionless 30-something who, upon suggestion from his girlfriend, begins attending group therapy sessions. The catch is that his fellow support group members are all disturbed Superheros, and Charlie is thrown into the business of saving lives and salvaging relationships.

Whatever Man is one of 30 full productions in this year’s festival, which runs through Oct. 18. As it turns out, I actually saw Hanlon perform one summer ago in an anniversary performance of I Love You Because at the Cherry Lane Theatre. We’re also both O’Neill alums. The following are excerpts from our interview:

Stage Synapses (SS): While you’ve performed in other festivals, this is your first time doing NYMF. What's that like?
Colin Hanlon: NYMF is interesting because there’s been a lot of positives and negatives. [Whatever Man], you know, it’s really not ready to have a full production. We were making changes up until the last day, and they were changes that needed to happen. Somehow, if it was possible with the Union and NYMF, I wish that we could be on book doing this. It shouldn’t be about the actors, or reviews, or awards. Ultimately, it’s about the writers.

Besides that, though, it’s been really good. I love my cast; I think everyone is really talented. The festival brings artists together, and that’s what it should be about. People shouldn’t be in it to make money because no one makes money in the theater.

SS:I’ve read that you like to originate characters. What was it like creating the role of Charlie in such a short amount of time?
Colin Hanlon: I put more energy into this piece that I’ve put into some full productions. You want to try to make it as good as possible. I just completed the Fringe, and I had never gone to Fringe before either. And I just thought, Do I want to do another one? Am I ready?

Ultimately, though, it’s been good. I think my character has come a long way since we started. Hilary [our director] and Ben [the writer] have been really open to ideas that I’ve had, and I prefer to be doing what I’m doing now. I’ve been offered ensemble parts in Broadway shows—I did Rent for a couple of years—but I need to go get roles and originate a character.

I’ve been very lucky because I’ve always been brought in for new projects. I may not have made as great of a financial living as some of my friends who’ve been doing the same Broadway role for years. But it’s hard to replace someone because the audience is always going to compare you to whoever that last person was.

SS: So, how’d you land the NYMF gig?
Colin Hanlon: They just asked me to do it. I don’t know who in the creative team knew who I was. I know the casting director pretty well - I think it’s probably got something to do with that. I’ve been pretty lucky – I haven’t had to audition for a lot of these festival things for some time now. I’ve come out pretty unscathed both critically and artistically.

SS: How’s the schedule been? Are you happy with your showtimes?
Colin Hanlon: The schedule’s been really weird, but it hasn’t been so bad. We have a show on Sunday and then not another one till Thursday—they can’t rehearse us in between, though. I just hope we remember everything for our last show.

SS: What publications have come to review your festival shows?
Colin Hanlon: Well, I was shocked when I did the Fringe. I have a Google alert on my name – it’s the only narcissistic thing that I do. One day it came up and it said, Colin Hanlon: New York Times Fringe review. And I was like, "Oh My God!" I was on the cover of the Arts Section of the New York Times.

With regards to this show, our composer, lyricist and book writer, Ben Strouse, is the son of Charles Strouse, who wrote Annie and Bye Bye Birdie. Ben’s a very different writer than his dad. I really hope that the critics judge him on his own merits and not for what his Dad has done.

SS: So, I read in your bio that you spent two summers at the O’Neill. I loved it there. What were your experiences like?
Colin Hanlon: I did the musical theater conference, and then I did the cabaret conference. But we actually did a musical within the cabaret conference, which was Amanda Green’s new project with Tom Kitt.

It really is summer camp for theater professionals. My first time there was three years ago, and I didn’t go this past summer. In 2006 I performed in Triangle by Curtis Moore and Tom Mizer. That was probably one of the best musicals I’ve done in a while. It was directed by Bobby Longbottom, who’s currently directing the Broadway revival of Bye Bye Birdie.

This year I was supposed to do Picnic at Hanging Rock. The director, Joe Calarco, is a good friend of mine. But I was already doing tick, tick ... boom! [in Westport, CT]. I guess, when it rains it pours.

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: When I saw Picnic at the O’Neill, I found it to be hauntingly beautiful. Click here to listen to some of the songs by composer/lyricist Daniel Zaitchik.]

Whatever Man features music, lyrics and book by Benjamin Strouse, and is directed by Hillary Adams. The next show is tonight, Oct. 4 @ 8 PM. The final performance will be on Thursday, Oct. 8 @ 1 PM.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Headlines ...

So, the blog is back—resurrected after an all-too-long hiatus, and for that I apologize. At the beginning of September, I celebrated my birthday in Disney World and then started classes at Columbia the day after I got back. It was a tough transition, for sure—traipsing around the Magic Kingdom with a tiara in hand, to sitting in my History of Journalism course at 9 AM. Oy.

Since then I’ve just been trying to get my bearing. Here are a few headlines about shows I’ve seen, or ones I’m interested in seeing as soon as I get a free moment.

Nemo vs. Mermaid

What vacation wouldn’t be complete without a musical or two? I still need to get my fill of shows, relaxing or not. So, while in Disney, we saw Finding Nemo: The Musical at the Animal Kingdom. All I’ve got to say is that whoever designed the Nemo set did a much better job at creating a visually appealing underwater paradise than the Broadway crew that brought you the iridescently fabulous scenic design in The Little Mermaid. That plastic playground of a set looked as though the local Michael’s might have made a killing off its sale of glitter to the Mermaid creative team. The interesting thing to consider here, though, is that both shows are represented by the mouse. Curious indeed.

Let Me Down Easy

Time to plug a health-related play! No really, I’m quite excited to see Anna Deavere Smith’s one-woman show about our healthcare system. Here’s an interactive website launched by Second Stage Theatre on behalf of Let Me Down Easy. Happy posting!

Opening Night: A Boy and His Soul

A Boy and His Soul opened Thursday night at the Vineyard Theatre. Earlier this week I had the privilege of speaking with Colman Domingo, the writer and performer of this one-man show. His experience of growing up on soul music in Philadelphia inspired Domingo to pen A Boy and His Soul. And as he was grappling with his parents’ ailing health and the burden of selling his childhood home, writing was a way to cope. The show now features music from Aretha, Marvin, and Earth Wind and Fire, as an energetic Domingo plays 11 different characters. I won’t say anymore, but you can read my full story next month in the Philadelphia Inquirer. (It’s my first byline in a major daily!)

Talk-Backs during Oleanna Previews

I got a press release the other day about a “Take A Side: The Oleanna Talk-Back Series,” which will occur after each preview of the Mamet revival. (Previews begin Sept. 29 and run through Oct. 10.) Oleanna concerns the power struggle between a college student and her professor, and will star Julia Stiles and Bill Pullman. I’m not quite sure why I’m excited to see this show … maybe it’s my proximity to the college experience. Or perhaps it’s because I saw two Mamet plays last season (Speed the Plow and American Buffalo), liked one but loathed the other, and now I’m curious to see where I’ll land here. Regardless, the panel for the talk back series will include notable public figures in entertainment, media, law, education and politics. Here’s a list of a few that have been confirmed:
- David Dinkins, former New York City mayor
- Dennis Walcott, NYC Deputy Mayor of Education and Community Development
- Lis Wiehl, FOX news Channel legal analyst
- Mary Schmidt Campbell, Dean of the Tisch School of the Arts
- Kathleen M. McKenna, Legal Partner of Proskauer Rose LLP

Either Judith Kaye, JD (Juris Doctor from Harvard and President of Judith Kaye Training & Consulting) or Cynthia Tornquist (President of Tornquist Productions LLC and former CNN correspondent) will moderate the series.

My guess is that you’ll be able to go on the website and see who’ll be on the panel each night. There’s no news there yet, though.

Bye Bye Birdie: Stamos and Middle School

This one’s just for fun, but I may be going to see Bye Bye Birdie tomorrow because my Mom wants to see John Stamos live, onstage. If my family ends up going, I will be sure to let you know what’s what. The show opens on Oct. 15, so in good taste, I’ll hold my full review until then. In middle school we did Birdie, and I played various ensemble roles: a screaming teen, a Happy Face girl, etc. I remember everyone having a crush on the boy (at the time he was 13!) who played Albert, and as a braces clad 11-year-old I proudly sang “Kids” in a Limited Too bathrobe. Oh, the awkward years …

PHOTO: Colman Domingo in A Boy and His Soul / courtesy of Carol Rosegg

One last thing I’d like to say. A friend of mine from high school, easily the smartest guy I’ve ever known, passed away last weekend after falling from a third floor fire escape in Boston. It’s a phenomenal loss for both those that knew him and the medical community. Babur Khalique was in his third year of the MD/PhD program at Boston University; and I swear to you, this boy had more glial cells than the average bear. (Einstein's brain was rumored to have had more glial cells—or cells which support neurons and aid in communication and integration—than a normal brain.)

Everyday I remember the good times that we shared, how he was always there to listen and laugh. He always wanted me to read Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, but I never found the time. It was only after I had heard the news of his death that I finally got my hands on a copy.

So Babur, wherever you are, I hope you know that I’m reading your favorite play … and that I miss you.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Goodman Getting Back in the Game After Rooms Closes Prematurely

Yesterday afternoon I caught up with a friend of mine, composer and writer Paul Scott Goodman. We met to share stories about our time at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, but we got on few tangents.

I first met Goodman following my internship with New York Musical Theatre Festival when I did a story about his show Alive in the World. Alive in the World is a post 9/11 look at the city, and the show played as a benefit concert for a few nights at the Zipper Factory. (The sad news here is that the Zipper closed earlier this year. The house was made up of scrapped car seats, and you could literally buckle yourself in if you so desired. Such a unique venue now shuttered - it's a shame, really.)

This past spring I did another piece on Rooms, Goodman’s two-person musical that played at New World Stages. Its run ended in May, and a cynical (“yet hopeful”) Goodman feels that producers may have pulled the plug prematurely. The coming-of-age romance about two kids from Scotland, he says, needed the summer to really build an audience. Hey, if Toxic Avenger managed to cultivate its following in these lazy, hazy days, why not Rooms? I am quick to remind him, though, that one of Bon Jovi’s founding members is attached to the former. (Smells like another Spidey scheme to me.)

What’s more, Goodman’s still sore about the New York Times giving him the runaround. The paper sent a third string critic to the press preview, and then the review came out three days after the show’s opening and was stuck on P.6. Meanwhile, Rooms had garnered great press during its out of town tryout in Washington D.C. and was nominated for five Helen Hayes Awards. Goodman believes that the New York incarnation really could have benefited from an Isherwood byline.

I play devil’s advocate by arguing that the power of a Times critic just isn’t what it used to be. And he later agrees, saying that there’s just too many “wankers” writing anything they want all over their self-indulgent blogs. (Dum, da, dum, dum …)

So, Goodman’s got good reason to be grouchy because his first Off-Broadway venture didn’t recoup its initial investment. But he’s incredulous that a royalty’s paycheck from a 60-second TV slot was more in his pocket than the chunk of change he made off Rooms. (This is yet another staggering example that no one goes into this business to make money.) Royal Pains used his song “Waiting”—the only recorded track from Alive in the World—and just like that, Goodman’s music was on the small screen.

But Goodman prefers live audiences, and he was pleased to have a following up at the O’Neill. His Easterhouse was a part of the National Cabaret and Performance Conference last month. And earlier in June, Goodman had been an artist in residence. While he doesn’t seem to think the place is as magical as I do, he agrees that it’s a summer camp for theater professionals and appreciates the tranquility the O’Neill has to offer. After living in the city for the past 25 years, a sandy beach and a patch of grass look mighty fine every now and again.

I walk with Goodman on his way to the synagogue as he discusses his daughter starting the University of Michigan and plans for a restaging of his show, Bright Lights, Big City. He tells me if he were a wealthy man, he would start a foundation that would pay certain individuals not to go into musical theater.

Smiling impishly, he says that it’s the only award people wouldn’t be itching to receive.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

We're All in This Together ... Newsroom, or Not.

Gawker features a little blurb that brings more bad news for young print journalists. A survey issued by the Associated Press Managing Editors said that layoffs and buyouts in the newspaper industry were particularly common for the 18-35 age group. That’s me! (*Sad face.*)

It doesn’t help that J-School keeps sending me reminders to read this article in the Village Voice. Even if you elect not to peruse its content, the headline says it all: “You Just Graduated From Journalism School. What Were You Thinking?” And that’s supposed to assure me that I made the smart choice in choosing Columbia?

We all know that the industry is transitioning, but what to exactly? No one knows. Living in the murky unknown, we seem almost immobilized by the possibility of change. What’s more, no one has come up with a viable business model for online media. (Hint: Advertising is not the answer.)

I can’t speak on behalf of other journalists, but for me, one of the most frightening things about the switch to digital media is the dissolution of the newsroom. As far as theater criticism is concerned, long gone are the days you see critics running down aisles during curtain call, hopping into a cab to rush back to the office, and pumping out copy in under two hours. (For a wonderful account, however, read the opening of Frank Rich’s “Exit the Critic.”) Now, we have the luxury of time, but also that of space. We can sleep on our thoughts about a show and then point and click our review to print. In many cases, we serve as our own copy editors.

Most of my reviews for Columbia Spectator were written somewhere between the hours of 1 and 4 AM as I was lounging on throw pillows and gulping down vitamin water. The following morning, I would make some quick edits before attaching the document in an e-mail and sending it off to our alias.

It’s no secret then that working from home takes an incredible amount of self discipline and there’s no shortage of distractions. (Before I sat down to write this post, I took a spin around town and caught up on an episode of Mad Men. Two hours of solid procrastination right there.) But with a deadline we eventually move past the fear of starting on an assignment. What we actually lose when working remotely is that essential element of human interaction.

We’re a social species, so I do believe that we’re doing ourselves a disservice by getting our daily fill of conversation on gchat instead of at the water cooler. But the internet is all-encompassing, allowing us to ignore those tips from time management disciplinarians. And let’s be real here, who actually sets aside specific slots in their day to respond to e-mails?

But new research shows that perhaps we should be more wary. A recent study found that the average worker’s IQ dropped by 10 points if she was constantly plugged into her laptop and other electronic devices that go beep in the night. I was also particularly fascinated by one scientist’s comment about how the brain responds to digital stimuli. John Ratey, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard, says that the brain elicits “a dopamine squirt” every time we use a device like our BlackBerry or iPhone. (Dopamine is a neurotransmitter similar to adrenaline that facilitates cognition, attention, and learning among other things.) If this dopamine release phenomenon is true, then at some level we have a neurological addiction to these gadgets—an acquired ADD, Ratey claims.

While this scientific evidence explores what’s happening in our brains when we use these devices, it doesn’t make any specific conjectures about how our office environments affect our frequency of use. But to a certain degree, by working at home, all we’ve got are these mediums through which to communicate. We miss out on that requisite office socializing, and direct face-to-face contact is eliminated. Plus, feng shui tells me it’s bad when your desk becomes your bed.

One day I do hope to get paid to work in the company of other journalists. Newsroom, or not. Call me a cockeyed optimist, but maybe what this industry really needs is a dose of camaraderie. We may not know what direction we’re heading, but we’re all in the same boat. I’d just like to know who I’m with.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

On FringeNYC - installment 3

A review of The Event, but first a story ...

Two summers ago I interned at New York Musical Theatre Festival. My job description was nebulous, and sometimes I got the chance to work for our executive director and founder, Kris Stewart. But because interns are at the low end of the totem pole, here and there, he’d ask me to execute small, seemingly innocuous tasks—run down to Subway to pick up his lunch and a diet coke, or walk his blind, seriously-separation-anxiety-prone pooch. If I looked in the least bit not-thrilled by any of this, he’d wink at me and say, “You’re a legend, Laura Hedli, and don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise.” Might I add that he has an Australian accent.

And thus began my fascination with festival directors and how they work their magic to get people to do things they might otherwise never willingly submit to. But more than that, they have a knack for making people believe in the power of live theater.

I am reminded of my experiences at New York Musical Theatre Festival when I sit down at The Event, notebook in hand, on Wednesday night. So, you’ll have to excuse me if I find all the gloom and doom curious given its playwright.

Founding artistic director of the Fringe, John Clancy, wrote the 63 minute script, and with his words he works a different sort of magic. In the witching hour where the house is dark save for a plainly lit stage and a single man in a standard suit, he casts a spell of disenchantment. A play is nothing more than a string of rehearsed lines, the faint glow of the footlights can be achieved with the press of a button, and the entire experience is expendable to us and to its creators when the curtain falls.

But that doesn’t mean it’s any less engaging. In being so intricately connected to his craft—having played both administrative and creative roles—Clancy recognizes the strengths and limitations of this art form and draws analogies to real life. The Event tells us that we’re living a “high stakes game of charades” where we’re “good actors in a very bad play.” If our ancestors are retired actors watching our performance, they’re neither amused nor applauding.

The Event’s backstage account is by no means glowing with glitter and showgirls. Instead, a single actor, Matt Oberg—who is responsible for plowing through the challenging just-over-an-hour monologue—says that we’re sitting here due to “chance and advertising.” He invites anyone who wants to leave to do so. And for anyone who feels compelled to use this time to sleep, he sings a rendition of “Rock-a-bye-Baby.”

The words that follow achieve a sort of lulling effect, and I only start to squirm in my seat when Oberg pretends to forget his lines. It’s part of the play, of course, but still produces the effect of watching a nerdy boy wring his clammy hands, feet pacing back and forth as he tries to get through public speaking class unnoticed and unscathed. The only other moment when I emerge from my hunched position are to watch the man in front of me who is actually sleeping, head back, mouth gaping open ready to catch those flies. He’s sitting in the second row. Bold move. He doesn’t snore, but does that head bobbing thing on the words “exhausting” and “connection.” Innnnteresting.

Though, near minute 35, The Event does seem to lose some of its spark. Clancy ditches the sarcasm and theater-insider speak, and instead resorts to telling us what we know. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still impeccably well written. But as the sweat drips from Oberg’s face as he discusses the nature of a cliché or how we have a need for speed, he seems to be wasting his breath on stating the obvious.

The Event works best when it’s self-referential. Clancy lives theater, and when he writes about what he knows the results range from incisive humor to heartbreaking realities. He gives us a backstage look, but seems to suggest that there really isn’t very much there to see. It’s like one giant wink to the audience that says theater is transient, and don’t you ever forget it.

The Event plays tonight at 11 PM at the Players Theatre. The final performance will be on Fri 28 @ 6 PM. The Players Theatre is located at 115 MacDougal St.

The Event is written and directed by John Clancy and stars Matt Oberg. Tickets are $15. Please visit http://www.clancyproductions.com/ for more information.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

On FringeNYC - installment 2

As a neuroscientist, a journalist, as someone who refuses to keep a daily planner but still remembers what you wore the last time we got together, losing my memory would seem a fate worse than death.

But writer of The Crow Mill, Andrew Unterberg was struck by how his grandmother grappled with dementia. Watching Alzheimer’s disease strip her of recent memories (like what she had for breakfast) and then transport her to a time long gone (a cruise she’d taken in the 1950s), “I began to think about, well, what could be worse,” he says. And so, from this thought exercise an idea was born.

For Unterberg, this is his second time around at FringeNYC. In 2006 he co-wrote the festival’s Overall Excellence Award Winner The Infliction of Cruelty with Sean McManus, but “I couldn’t imagine having written this one with someone else,” he says.

Here, Unterberg examines opposites: forgetting and remembering, nature versus nurture. Like his grandmother, the character of Mia is someone who suffers from Alzheimer’s, while her son Nathan, a brilliant geneticist, is desperately trying to remember what happened during his childhood. Abuse and subsequent repression has left the first twelve years of his life a question mark.

“There is an element of racing against time,” says Unterberg. Add to the mix, Anna—Nathan’s wife and psychologist who tries to play therapist to her guarded husband—and the conflict seems almost inherent.

“It was definitely challenging to take these characters who are coming from such different places; but at the same time, it was really exciting because there’s so much great tension that comes about by these personality clashes,” says Unterberg. “It also provides an avenue in which you have these different perspectives all converging together and all trying to find a common ground. And that’s so much of life.”

Growing up in a family who specializes in treating phobias and vanity, depression and anxiety, in The Crow Mill Unterberg doesn’t shy away from probing sensitive issues. During one scene, Nathan and Anna fight over the limits of genetically engineering children. Sure, we all want them to be disease free, but if you could, would you elect for yours to have brown hair, blue eyes and a penchant for soccer? Just how much is too much?

“The goal is that we keep this play going so that these questions will continue to be asked,” says Unterberg. “For me, that’s what’s most important with the work.”

With his days occupied clocking in long hours as a lawyer for a Manhattan financial firm, Unterberg spent his nights and weekends reading genetics papers, consulting with his father (a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst), and getting his hands on as many plays as he could. The result eighteen months later is a script peppered with a discussion of the Watson-Crick model, but also one that includes poetry by cummings and Longfellow.

“I surprised myself at times in terms of where I was letting the work take me, which is something I had not expected when I first started writing the pages,” he says.

Without another voice to keep his tangents in check, though, Unterberg acknowledges that he had to do a lot of trimming and rewriting. But all and all, he says that the experience has been easier than his last. His wife found him his director, Eli Gonda, and Unterberg brought on casting director Cindi Rush to streamline auditions. He’s happy with his show times and his location, the new Cherry Pit theater.

“It’s air conditioned,” he remarks, “which is huge in the summer.”

Certainly, it also doesn’t hurt that all 90 seats will be filled this evening, as the opening night performance of The Crow Mill is sold out.


The Crow Mill opens tonight at the Cherry Pit at 9:30 PM. Subsequent performance times are as follows: Fri 21 @ 4:15 PM, Tue 25 @ 2:30 PM, Wed 26 @ 12:45 PM; Sat 29 @ 7:45 PM. The Cherry Pit is located at 155 Bank St (btw West and Washington Streets).

The Crow Mill is directed by Eli Gonda and stars Geraldine Librandi (Mia), Quentin Mare (Nathan), and Margot White (Anna). Tickets are $15. Please visit http://www.thecrowmill.com/ for more information.

Friday, August 14, 2009

On FringeNYC - installment 1

The last time I attended a media junket, they sat me next to the New York Times. (Gulp.) So, this time, I show up in business casual with my laptop and ipod recorder ready to go.

The blogger sitting next to me is wearing a worn T-shirt and shorts. He doesn’t even have a pen handy.

Welcome to the press conference for the New York International Fringe Festival (FringeNYC). It’s my first Fringe, and it becomes quite clear to me that things are much more “chill” down here. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re any less legit.

Featuring 201 shows from Aug. 14 to 30, FringeNYC is the largest theater festival in North America. And despite a sparse attendance at the press conference, Producing Artistic Director, Elena K. Holy assures that advance sales are up 48 percent.

Holy serves as the cruise director for this preview of the “New York’s Best Staycation”—as the Fringe is marketing itself these days. With each ticket at the chump-change price of $15, the Fringe is trying to attract New Yorkers who may not have the dough to escape to the Hamptons, or even Hershey, in this recession summer.

The sampling of performances shown to us insiders at the Minetta Lane Theatre ranges from campy (Devil Boys From Beyond) to tongue-in-cheek (The Event – my personal favorite). We witness Japanese sword fighting set to drums and flutes (Scattered Lives), and see variations on Looney Tune characters brought to life by puppeteers (Powerhouse).

With so much to see and so little time (16 days), FringeNYC offers package deals, the most intriguing of which is the Lunatic Pass. For $500, you get the golden ticket to everything Fringe. (Of course, there’s still that $500 out of your pocket, so perhaps Wonka references make for a faulty analogy here.) I ask Holy just how many of these Lunatic Passes they sell each season, and she says around 12 or 15.

“A number of people may see one or two shows a year, and then they may see 20 in 16 days” says Holy. The price is right, she explains, and the Fringe selects work that draws in the younger crowds.

In fact, I was amazed at a statistic on their website that says that 60 percent of audience members in 2007 were 18-35 years of age. Given that no one seems under 70 in most Sunday matinees at Broadway and prominent off-Broadway houses, this number is astounding. Holy takes it even one step further:

“We can’t afford to do super fancy research, but anecdotal evidence shows that not only have a lot of them [18-35-year-old Fringe-goers] never been to an off-off-Broadway show, but a lot of them have never seen live theater.”

This is hard to believe at the press conference, where I am surrounded by folks that may or may not have ties to one show or another; perhaps they’re friends of a certain actor or actress. It’s unclear. One woman sitting two rows in front of me is armed with a digital camcorder and pans to me as I watch the performances.

I hope she caught my good side.
Coming up in FringeNYC coverage:

- Comments from the people behind Scattered Lives, Far Out, and Powerhouse.
- An interview with Andrew Unterberg, writer of The Crow Mill.

For now, check this out. From Graveyard Shift. Anyone who’s ever had to give up their lunch break to watch office safety videos ought to appreciate.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Sanctuary ... Magical Thinking at St. John the Divine

A close friend of mine, who recently relocated (at least for the time being) to Switzerland, just sent me a message. Among other things, she wanted to remind me to get my ticket for the one-night benefit performance of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. She tells me it’s her favorite show, having nagged me to get tickets to this particular staging at St. John the Divine for the past six months.

The play, Didion’s first, is based on her memoir by the same title, which was written as an account of her grief and mourning. Didion lost her husband in 2003, and later (after the memoir was completed) her daughter in 2005. Having starred in the Broadway production (2007) and the London incarnation (2008), the famous Vanessa Redgrave will reprise her role in this one-woman play. But after the tragic death of her own daughter Natasha Richardson, I imagine that this performance will be different from the others. In fact, Lisa Schubert, Vice President of Cathedral Events, Marketing & Communications goes as far as to say that it will be a “historic evening.”

Because I happen to have moved just blocks away from the largest cathedral in the world, I decided to do some investigating this afternoon. (Did I mention that I’m starting Journalism School exactly one month from today?) So, after speaking to three staffers at the cathedral, the game of telephone eventually ended with Schubert.

I start by asking her why an Episcopalian church would chose to do this show, and she tells me that it was Redgrave in fact that chose the cathedral. Last fall she approached reps with her idea to do a staging of The Year of Magical Thinking. As for Didion, I learn that her husband and daughter are both buried in the columbarium at St. John. Everything seems compounded.

“The cathedral has always been a major place to talk about the big issues of our time,” says Schubert, citing poverty, civil rights, and environmental issues among others. “It’s tried to provide a voice for those critical humanitarian concerns.” As Redgrave is a Goodwill Ambassador of UNICEF, a portion of the proceeds from the performance will go to providing aid to the children in Gaza and Southern Israel.

With all these major players involved—UNICEF, Redgrave, and Didion—you’d think you could easily google (or bing) your way to this information. And you can, though, coverage is sparse and Schubert says there’s been no formal press release. For the time being, they’re relying heavily on word of mouth.

Conceding that they’re a little old-fashioned at the cathedral, Schubert says she does hope to continue seeing St. John in the blogs. Lucky for her, I plan to be there on Oct. 4 to report at the Feast of St. Francis, otherwise known as the blessing of the animals. After all, when else can you see turtles, llamas, and puppies together again on the Upper West Side?

For now, though, I’ve got my copy of Didion’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” sitting just two inches away, my ticket reserved on will call.

Thanks for nagging me, Andrea. ;)
(The Year of Magical Thinking will be directed by David Hare. The performance is a one-night only benefit scheduled to take place on Monday, Oct. 26. You can purchase tickets online via the link on the church’s website.)

Thursday, August 6, 2009

"Popular, you're gonna be popular ..."

So, I’ve returned from my little hiatus. For the past few weeks, I was attending rehearsals leading up to my performance in Annie Get Your Gun as staged by our director/producer, Mary Meo. Less than two years ago, Meo started Clinton Area Stage Troupe (CAST)—a non-profit that serves the theatrical needs of Clintonians as well as community members from surrounding towns in Hunterdon County, NJ. It was a noble task, indeed, but one that I’m sure nobody would argue was particularly easy. After staging two plays—The Miracle Worker (spring 2008) and The Importance of Being Earnest (spring 2009)—Meo decided to try her hand at tackling a large-scale musical production. The result was Annie Get Your Gun, which opened after just five weeks of rehearsal time. Today, I am proud to report that with only two shows we sold 813 tickets. At that number, we outperformed Meo’s lofty goal of 800. Bottom line: community theater is alive and well in Clinton, NJ!

I joined CAST because my best friend pleaded with me to do a show with her, but also, because I thought having the experience of being an actress—however small the role (I was an ensemble member)—would inform my writing about the theater. And so it did …

With music and lyrics by Irving Berlin, and such recognizable tuners including “There’s No Business Like Show Business” and “Anything You Can Do,” Annie Get Your Gun got me thinking about the popularity of music from musicals. Just where are the Gershwins of today, and what are they writing? Why are we no longer hearing showtunes on the radio?

In December 2006, Spring Awakening composer Duncan Sheik touched upon this notion of popular music and the theater during our interview. “Initially it was the same world,” he said. “Musicals provided the popular music of the day.” And while times have changed, “every once in a while you have a musical like Hair or Rent or Tommy and now, I suppose, Spring Awakening that bridges the gap.”

Yet, Spring Awakening has since departed from Broadway’s Eugene O’Neill Theatre. And while members of the cast have gone on to achieve greater commercial acclaim, its music can’t be heard on Z100 or XM’s “The Pulse”. Sheik may have won the Tony for best score, but I wouldn’t compare ‘The Bitch of Living’ to his Billboard mega-hit “Barely Breathing.” (To be fair, here, Sheik told me that he tried quite hard to stay out of the pop limelight. His success with “Breathing” came as a not-so-wholly-pleasant surprise to a man who takes pride in his more alternative musical tastes.)

Spring Awakening may have been quote-unquote edgy—a critics pick that attracted a considerable following among young theater patrons—but statistics show that we may not necessarily be able attribute its lack of mainstream success to its dark subject matter. I should note, here, that Steven Sater wrote the angsty lyrics and libretto for the musical.

A recent article by Benedict Carey in the Health section of the New York Times explored whether our nation’s mood is reflected in song. He writes that with the advent of music genres including metal, punk and hip-hop, there was an increasing tendency for lyrics to feature more gloom and doom after the 1960s. (The article reports that 2003 was the nadir for “depressing” lyrics. Hmm?)

But, a ha!, we’re getting warmer ... We may be feeling bluer these days, but I think lyrics—no matter happy or sad and swearing aside—have a quite a lot to do with the marketability of a song. Perhaps taboo subject matter is, in fact, a contributing factor for why punk and metal bands (even Spring Awakening for that matter) have a more difficult time attaining mass appeal. As for Broadway, though, I think its problem typically lies in the specificity of its lyrics. (Dark subject matter is ancillary.) True, showtunes may have a catchy beat that you can dance to, but just how many of these only make sense within the context of the script?

Let’s look at some of last season’s Broadway musical offerings, shall we …

Next to Normal is one of the most talked about new musicals of the season, but it concerns a bipolar matriarch and characters sing about electroshock therapy. Writer of the Shrek lyrics, David Lindsay-Abaire decided to ditch Smash Mouth’s “I’m a Believer” for expository lyrics that helped to build both character and plot surrounding our beloved green ogre. And the little engine that could, Title of Show, featured tuners that contained so much industry jargon that if you weren’t in the know you were probably left on the outs. Alas, Rock of Ages—a musical of the jukebox variety staring American Idol’s Constantine Margolis and featuring popular 80s tunes—seems like the sure-fire winner in this group. How can you go wrong with Journey and a song about “a smalltown girl living in her lonely world?”

But I would be remiss if I failed to mention that “Electricity,” from this year's Tony winner for best new musical, Billy Elliot, has been played extensively on Sirius XM radio—and not just on the Broadway channel. Elton John wrote the music, and let’s face it, names carry weight in this world. That said, the song is different from some of the others I’ve noted. Lee Hall’s lyrics are simple and universal; he uses simile to tap into our ever-elusive limbic systems. Performed as the 11 o’clock number, “Electricity” occurs after the judges at Billy’s Royal Ballet School audition ask him what it feels like when he’s dancing. Here’s an excerpt from his response:

“It’s a bit like being angry / a bit like being scared / confused and all mixed up and mad as hell. / It’s like when you’ve been crying / when you’re empty and you’re full / I don’t know what it is, it’s hard to tell.”

Perhaps ... but hey! I’ve been there! Haven’t you? We’re no longer in a smelly swamp or revisiting notorious flops on the Great White Way. Instead, we’re somewhere we know. It’s familiar. And isn’t that what popularity is all about?

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

a critic fellow's long night's journey into day ...

I'm coming up on the last 5 days of National Critics Institute (NCI), and as per usual, I'll be writing on deadline this morning. (Always minute-to-minute.) I'm working on a profile of the O'Neill's company manager, Marla Shaffer, and this'll be one of my first forays into exploring the operations end of things.

Just trying to enjoy the time I've got left in this magical place ... more to come.