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 na├»ve 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.