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Sunday, January 31, 2010

Like that

A wood stove is to home heating as a tube amp is to a band's sound.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Reality Check



Trying to stage a new musical these days is like trying to start a cattle stampede with a quill pen.

Just saying, that's all.

-- Uke Jackson

Recollection

Back in the mid-1990s, after receiving some particularly upsetting rejection of a script or grant application or some such -- I honestly forget what provoked me -- I decided that my writing for the theater was over. I drove over to Scranton to see Jason Miller and raise a few glasses in honor of my defunct "career."

We went to Farley's. At the time, Jason was working on his one man Barrymore show and was actively encouraging me to create a one man show as Tennessee Williams. (I used to do a good TW impression.) Anyway, it took me a couple of drinks to get around to voicing my lament which began with a general displeasure at the way things were going for me, went into the immediate specifics, and ended with "So I'm quitting the theater."

Jason leaned in close and said very seriously, "You know, the theater won't care."

-- Uke Jackson

Thursday, January 28, 2010

THE RED ROBE by Brieux

THE RED ROBE by Eugene Brieux 1900
Translated by F.O. Reed

This four act play was interesting in its way, as an artifact from a not so distant past era. The entire first act could have been cut as far as I’m concerned. Lots of “getting to know you” that seems superfluous once the second act gets going. It’s a strange task I’ve set for myself in reading and blogging these 20 plays published nearly a century ago – criticizing plays based on the page rather than the stage (and, in the case of half the scripts, translations as well).

I can’t imagine that this piece would get staged today. Too many characters who are mere foils. Declamations of motive and intent are frequently used to advance the plot. There is drama, certainly. And I admire the playwright’s longing for justice. It’s interesting that water pollution is an issue, albeit in a passing way. Then again, the play was written nearly 2 decades after “An Enemy of the People”.

In a nutshell, an innocent Basque farmer is accused of murder. His life is ruined but he is finally acquitted when the prosecuting attorney throws away his career and reveals his doubts to the jury. Unfortunately, this all happens offstage, entr'acte, so to speak. (I suspected the guy was guilty.)


Wikipedia refers to Brieux
as a didactic playwright. I couldn’t agree more. The action and speech at the final curtain are blatant in this regard. As a whole, the play lacks subtlety.

The absence of Shaw and Ibsen from this volume becomes more and more disconcerting.

Plays read so far from "Chief Contemporary Dramtists" (Cambridge, Mass 1915):

"The Rising of the Moon"
by Lady Gregory

"Lady Windemere's Fan" by Oscar Wilde

"The Hourglass" by William Butler Yeats

"Riders to the Sea"
J. M. Synge

"The Scarecrow -- a tragedy of the ludicrous"
by Percy Mackaye.

"The Witching Hour"
by Augustus Thomas

"The Weavers"
by Gerhart Hauptmann

"The Vale of Content"
by Hermann Sudermann

"The Red Robe"
by Eugene Brieux

-- Uke Jackson

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

NECESSARY THEATRE by Peter Hall

So, last night instead of reading another play in the book – I’m way ahead of schedule for reading them all by St Valentine’s Day – I decided to read a book Scott mentioned recently: Necessary Theatre by Peter Hall.

I’ve been a big fan of Sir Peter’s work since he ran the National in London. During the 1980s my day job was associate publisher and exec vp for an art (coffee table) book publisher in NYC. I was young and it was a really great job in many ways. We did several co-publishing deals with the Victoria and Albert Museum and other institutions in London, and maintained a sweet apartment on Gunter Grove. So, I got to see lots of Brit productions and Hall’s work at the National was superior. I also read his diaries when they came out.

Then, as happens sometimes, he fell off my radar. What a delightful way to re-discover him this little pamphlet is. Reading it sent me off to dreamland.

Necessary Theatre” makes the case for subsidy as the means and avenue for the establishment of a theatre culture that is company-based. Now, Hall is in the UK, where they already spend a billion $ a year on the arts.

It would be frustrating for an American playwright (or actor or director) to consider this scenario if it were anywhere within reach. However, with the US government about to freeze domestic spending for the foreseeable future, so we can continue to bomb rocks and seize oil fields abroad and carry out a failed prohibition policy at home, the idea of an entire round of huge subsidies to underwrite the establishment a new theatre culture is too far-fetched to raise any ire or angst. We spend a tenth of what Britain does on the arts, and are five times the size.

So, it was off to dreamland. I won a 9 figure lottery prize. After taxes and setting up reasonable-size trusts for my wife and two children, I had $30 or $40 million left. I bought the Cherry Lane Theater. I hired a company of actors who were willing to work at other tasks within the theater when they weren’t on stage.

Everybody got paid a living wage. I mounted 4 of my shows in rep right off the bat – two musicals on the main stage and two straight plays in the black box. I lived above the theater. Tickets were $10 in the black box and the musicals were $15. In the summer we all went to the mountains. In the winter, the troupe was independent enough of me that I could spend a couple months writing in south Florida.

Eventually all the money was gone but it didn’t matter. It was all about the ride.

Monday, January 25, 2010

TWO PLAYS

THE WEAVERS by Gerhart Hauptmann 1892
Translated by Mary Morison

“The Weavers” may be the first (only?) play in which an entire community is the protagonist. There is no main character. There are forty named characters PLUS enough supernumeraries to effect crowd scenes. I wanted to throw my hands up at one point, wondering how else this play could have been written and yet knowing it would likely be DOA if written today.

The piece is a history play. At the time it was written, the uprising of Silesian weavers was only 50 years past. While reading, it’s clear that Hauptmann sympathized with the oppressed weavers. However, the end left me wondering how he viewed violent uprising as a path to liberation. In the final scene, a disabled elderly weaver is shot dead while watching the uprising from a window, leaving his blind wife calling out to him. There’s certainly some ambivalence in that ending. It was a compelling read.

Hauptmann won the Nobel Prize in 1912. He was an avowed pacifist during the first world war.

THE VALE OF CONTENT by Hermann Sudermann 1895
Translated by William Ellery Leonard

I found this play to be a complete snore. It’s sentimental and has very little to say. I could not have cared less about the bourgeois characters and their stultified passions. Ugh!

Sudermann was a German dramatist who died in 1928. He was very successful commercially, and his plays served as the basis for a number of German films. He was a nationalist, and apparently quite popular during the Nazi years.

Plays read so far from "Chief Contemporary Dramtists" (Cambridge, Mass 1915):

"The Rising of the Moon"
by Lady Gregory

"Lady Windemere's Fan"
by Oscar Wilde

"The Hourglass"
by William Butler Yeats

"Riders to the Sea" J. M. Synge

"The Scarecrow -- a tragedy of the ludicrous" by Percy Mackaye.

"The Witching Hour"
by Augustus Thomas

"The Weavers" by Gerhart Hauptmann

"The Vale of Content" by Hermann Sudermann

-- Uke Jackson

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Witching Hour by Augustus Thomas 1908

On page 329 of the book, professional gambler and protagonist of “The Witching Hour” Jack Brookfield says: “Wouldn’t it be a pretty finish if you took my hand and I could walk you up to the camera and say: I told you so --!”

The how of the prescience of this allusion by the playwright Augustus Thomas immediately became clear once I read the Wikipedia entry. Before reading the Big W, I was flipping back and forth between the copyright and page 329, trying to figure out how this writer foresaw talkies a couple decades ahead of their existence.

Gus Thomas was at the center of showbiz in his day. His plays were popular hits. He also replaced Dion Boucicault as the adapter of foreign plays for theatrical presentation at Madison Square Garden. The concept of sound recordings and nickelodeons in combination must have been floating around in his world. He heard the idea from someone in conversation; he imagined it one afternoon while lying on his divan – makes no difference. He put it into one of his scripts as an idea for the hoi polloi to mull over. The hoi polloi mulling something over and making it real then becomes part of the plot of "The Witching Hour".

(Interestingly enough, Gus Thomas wrote for the movies 12 years later, albeit when they were still silent.)

Well-developed telepathic skills in a gambler remain unrealized until a Supreme Court justice comes a calling hoping to purchase a Corot that Jack owns, and that he just happens to consider a good luck piece. (A reference to the Corot forgeries that flooded America at that time -- knowing the pictures actual provenance or not. Interesting that Jack acquired his Corot from Knoedler.) After the judge leaves, Jack’s niece’s fiancée kills someone while flailing in fear at a cat’s eye stick pin. That’s just the first act.

(And I got in a reference to death by flailing, which I forgot to mention in yesterday’s post about “The Scarecrow”. You would have to know both plays to know how different the situations are in the two dramas.)

The drama that ensues is more about ESP and will power than it is about the first act curtain death and the death sentence the young perp is facing – though the “proof” that mind power exists is played out against these melodramatic circumstances. It’s an interesting trick getting the audience (in this case me as a reader) to slowly accept the “reality” of these mind powers; at which point Thomas raises the stakes by raising the issue of responsibility for what occurs as the result of exerting the powers, even unknowingly.

I’m not going to argue whether mind connections exist or visualization leads to realization. However, if they actually existed in some individuals to the degree that “The Witching Hour” suggests, casinos would all have some kind of brain scanners at the door.

Based on this play, I’d say that Gus Thomas did what he did quite well and I can see why he was popular in his day. He is dissed for this in the Wikipedia entry: “According to the Oxford Companion to the Theatre, his plays are "on the whole, not profound, and provided entertainment of a kind acceptable to his audiences."

Just reading this play was quite an interesting diversion. The playwright put something in it for everyone and he followed through on all the various threads. Good stuff for a winter evening near the stove.

Plays read so far from "Chief Contemporary Dramtists" (Cambridge, Mass 1915):

"The Rising of the Moon" by Lady Gregory

"Lady Windemere's Fan"
by Oscar Wilde

"The Hourglass"
by William Butler Yeats

"Riders to the Sea" J. M. Synge

"The Scarecrow -- a tragedy of the ludicrous" by Percy Mackaye.

"The Witching Hour"
by Augustus Thomas

-- Uke Jackson

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Scarecrow

" The Scarecrow -- a tragedy of the ludicrous" by Percy Mackaye.

Thanks to Wikipedia, I discovered that Percy Mackaye, who I had never heard of before this book, is considered the first poet of the Atomic Era. I wish someone would stage this play and let me know. It's truly brilliant theatre, at least on the page, with an early modern ironic lift of the eyebrow and wink at the audience, while taking you along a roller coaster ride of witchcraft and rural intrigue. I love this play!

He's now on my "must read further" list.

It's the story of a scarecrow brought to life by a witch and the devil, in New England. There's a magic mirror, stagey appearances and disappearances, a musical trick that I'm sure Mackaye never heard realized to the extent that it could be now. There are crows and ballads and love lost and found, and death and redemption. I'm not sure what Mackaye did to fall out of favor. (Maybe he didn't. Maybe I totally missed this guy and everyone else is hip to him.) Anyway, the playwright who wrote this was at the height of his power.

Granted, I used the scarecrow motif in my River Tales series. And I am a sucker for any and pretty much all scarecrow stories, almost to the degree that bear stories fascinate me. But this play is really special in the scarecrow genre.

Plays read so far from "Chief Contemporary Dramtists" (Cambridge, Mass 1915):

"The Rising of the Moon"
by Lady Gregory

"Lady Windemere's Fan"
by Oscar Wilde

"The Hourglass"
by William Butler Yeats

"Riders to the Sea"
J. M. Synge

" The Scarecrow -- a tragedy of the ludicrous"
by Percy Mackaye.

-- Uke Jackson

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Synge "Riders to the Sea"

I saw the Druid Theater's Synge cycle 4 years ago. John Millington Synge is interesting in that he is considered a major playwright by many, based on his writing only six plays. "Riders to the Sea" is bleak. It doesn't really hold together for me. I found the internal mechanism of time broken in the play when I saw it, and again when I read it today.

Here's my problem with it: Bartley rides off on the red mare. Bartley is killed when thrown from the horse into the sea. Within a couple minutes Bartley's body is brought to his mother's house. It's one thing to ask audiences to suspend disbelief. It's quite another to ask audiences to suspend the reality of time, especially in so brief a piece as this one act is. That all this happens on the same day Bartley's brother's clothing, stripped from his (Michael -- who never appears in the play) sea-ravaged body.

Anyway, the play doesn't work for me.

Plays read so far from "Chief Contemporary Dramtists" (Cambridge, Mass 1915):

"The Rising of the Moon" by Lady Gregory

"Lady Windemere's Fan"
by Oscar Wilde

"The Hourglass"
by William Butler Yeats

"Riders to the Sea"
J. M. Synge

-- Uke Jackson

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

BROKEN RELATIONSHIP

You don’t have to read “Outrageous Fortune” to know that the relationship is broken between America’s theaters and America’s playwrights, if you're a playwright. But to understand how this situation came to be we have to step outside of the theater swirl. The fact is, America’s relationship with writers is broken. And, as a result, America's relationship with ideas is broken.

Two factors brought this about. I’m not going to offer judgment on the situation so much as point out what seems obvious to me. The offensive against writers was conducted on two fronts. The first was Hollywood, where the denigration of writers is a given in the movie world. Writers are hacks who have their pathetic efforts saved by The Director and The Actor.

The second place the offensive against writers took place was on university campuses. There the idea the Dead White Male Writers are the problem with our culture was promulgated by the MLA and others. In an effort to expand the horizon of students to include voices not from the perceived ruling elite, it became accepted wisdom that writers who had been held up for years as exemplary practitioners of the craft of writing were politically incorrect and irrelevant in a just world.

These ideas spread beyond the rarefied confines of Hollywood studios and the universities to the “culture” at large. Writers are obsolete. Everyone who owns a computer and starts a blog is a writer. Citizen journalists are better than those of the MSM. Writers are a bunch of losers who want to get paid. How dare they? Anybody can write.

The result of this concerted effort to knock writers off of any and all pedestals is that original ideas are no longer important. A car chase will keep you entertained and engrossed much more than a discussion between Wally Shawn and Andre Gregory, and there are serious dollar numbers to back that up. And, dollars, since the Reagan years, are all that count in American society.

How do we make writers important again? Make ideas important again.

That is a lot easier said than done.

-- Uke Jackson

Monday, January 18, 2010

POISONED BY MY OWN HAND

So, my birthday party at Elaine’s did not make the NY Social Diary, but while these photos were shot I was sitting in the back corner at the table under the George Plimpton bust you see floating over Elaine’s head in some of the pictures. Mysterious Blond Woman (also her initials?) was there, along with Spats, my buddy Mike, and Dr Robert who gave me the cigar I blogged about yesterday, and who announced to the table that he was lining up the funds to produce “Café Lysistrata” (which he loved and has given me some great notes on since the readings -- he came to both).


This morning I read Terry Teachout’s blog about having too much to do and not enough down time to regenerate the creative process. I took his musings very much to heart.


And among all the birthday good wishes on Face Book I found this link to a Pete Townshend video of him playing the ukulele and singing "Blue Red and Grey" which I recalled spinning on my radio show:


The song seemed so perfect to my mood -- even Pete's caustic aside. Had I but known.


Today was such a beautiful sunny warm (for PA in January) day that I decided to smoke the cigar outside. Then Dr Robert called and I got some info on the provenance (Cuban seed grown in Nicaragua, labeled the way it is to tweak Castro’s nose or something like that – Dr Robert being an obsessive Cuba watcher.) Anyway, I got so excited by the beautiful day, the Teachout dispensation from doing anything, and the premium cigar – I usually smoke Parodi cheroots about once every 3 or 4 months -- that I decided to go ahead and smoke. So I did.


I sat outside my music room in the little courtyard. My daughter, off from school for MLK Day, took some snaps which at some point she will upload or email to me or something and I will post them. About halfway through the cigar I went back inside and grabbed the book to pick a play for today. “The Second Mrs Tanqueray” looked longer than I wanted to tackle. So, I perused the TOC and chose William Butler Yeats’ “The Hourglass” as the title appropriate seemed to the whole birthday gestalt I had going.


I started reading this mercifully brief, perplexing screed on the nature of the desire for Redemption at the end of one’s life. While reading, when the angel appeared in the door, I literally thought I was going to be ill, and for a moment I thought it might be the writing. Then it hit me: I hadn’t eaten anything but a slice of toast and coffee 5 hours before. I was suffering a mild case of tobacco poisoning.


Only it didn’t feel so mild. I went to bed for 4 hours, eventually ate some apple slices, and gradually recovered. I finished the Yeats play, almost had a relapse, then forced myself to eat some dinner and to write this.


As might be expected in a play by a poet, the language of “The Hourglass” was very rich and aphoristic


Plays read so far from "Chief Contemporary Dramtists" (Cambridge, Mass 1915):


"The Rising of the Moon" by Lady Gregory

"Lady Windemere's Fan" by Oscar Wilde

"The Hourglass" by William Butler Yeats

-- Uke Jackson

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Today "Lady W's Fan"

Today is my actual birthday. I read "Lady Windemere's Fan" which is the first play in the book. And, as I've neither read nor seen this play, it was a pleasant way to pass the late morning, amidst all the calls and occasional peeks at email and Face Book well wishers. It was a pleasant surprise to discover that the play is set on Lady W's birthday.

It contains one of Wilde's most famous aphorisms: "A cynic know the price of everything and the value of nothing."

Later or tomorrow I must blog about my other highlight gift -- a pre-Castro Habana cigar that is stamped "counterfeit" on the band. I'm letting it hydrate for a couple more days before smoking it. I want to get some photos, too. In some circles, playwrights and cigars still go together.

Plays read so far from "Chief Contemporary Dramtists" (Cambridge, Mass 1915):

"The Rising of the Moon" by Lady Gregory
"Lady Windemere's Fan" by Oscar Wilde

Saturday, January 16, 2010

20 plays by Valentine's Day

That same tall mysterious blonde who provokes questions and comments was at Elaine's for my birthday celebration. She's worked with Sondheim, and with Ellen Stewart and she's a revolutionary artist in her own right. She's as elegant as ever. I haven't seen her in years. Her presence added a certain awareness of how cool things can be.

Spats was there with the present of a book of 20 plays titled "Chief Contemporary Dramatists" published in Cambridge, Mass in 1915. This evening I read the one by Lady Gregory titled "The Rising of the Moon". It's a short one act. In it a revolutionary and a police sergeant are face to face. The cop doesn't know he's talking to the fugitive he is stationed there to capture. By presenting the cop with a revolutionary look at things as they might have been, the fugitive convinces the cop to forgo promotion and a cash reward and let him escape.

Lady Gregory was part of the Irish nationalist cultural movement in Dublin literary circles. She was a founding member of the Abbey Theater. The play's an interesting bit of literary history. According to Wikipedia, Lady Gregory's motto was the Aristotelian:  "To think like a wise man, but to express oneself like the common people." I can see the author of this play appreciating that idea, if not quite achieving the ideal. It's hard to say for sure relying on the page exclusive of the stage.



Anyway, I'd only heard of Lady Gregory in passing reference to Yeats. Now I can say I've read one of her plays. It actually had me thinking about all the rewards (bribes) doled out in Afghanistan and how the bad guys are still on the loose. The reward is a big thing with this cop. He needs the dough but he let's it go. Anyway, I'm glad I read it. Talk about obscure -- reading Lady Gregory in the days of Lady Gaga. 



Here's my challenge to myself -- read all the plays in this book by Valentine's Day, and blog about them.




Friday, January 15, 2010

Happy 60th

Well, I should know better. I'm totally post my 60th birthday party at Elaine's. But it's been bugging me since it hit me on my drive into Manhattan this evening.

The article in the NY Times was not stupid. It was probably good for the sales of the book. It keeps the dialogue going.

I haven't even read the book. Trying too hard to fit in.

My buddy Spats White warned me about falling into the mind set I just fell into. Spats also brought me a cool old book of best plays in 1911.

Peace out.

Edited

I've not read "Outrageous Fortune" but have followed the "theatrosphere" coverage.  This is an article  in the NY Times today.

Blogs started the discussion: Isaac, Matt, 99 seats, Scott and others.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Passing Strange

Speaking of diversity and new plays, "Passing Strange" was released on Netflix this week. I loved it as a show -- saw it at Joe's Pub, (part of it) at the Obies, and the Belasco (where I also second acted it). It survived the transition to film quite well.

The music, by Stew and Heidi Rodewald, is still good. The performances are all out energy, and fun. Daniel Breaker is excellent and Stew is as much of a trip as ever. It's not live but Spike Lee served the material well when capturing it.

SPEAK LOW (When You Speak Love)

While the rest of the "theatrosphere", led by Isaac Butler, dissect "Outrageous Fortune" (the gloom and doom tome from TDF about the state of new play production in American theatre) I'm reading SPEAK LOW (When You Speak Love) The Letters of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya since I got a small commission to write the dialogue for a cabaret/burlesque show based on Weill and Weimar.

Last night I finally got a guitar, after two years without (I was on a ukulele "fast"). It's a Regal resonator and it suits me perfectly. I've been screwing around on a fiddle for the last few nights, wondering if I could ever get a decent sound out of it, with the bow.  (Stravinsky once said that a violin without a bow is simply a ukulele.)  Anyway, JJ DeLuxe showed up with a bunch of instruments he picked up to assuage his acquisition obsession. The Regal git was one of them. I played it for a few minutes and knew it was my new baby. JJ was glad to unload one of the instruments.

So, instead of driving myself and everyone around me nuts by trying to learn the fiddle, I'm getting my guitar chops back.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Rewriting and polishing

I spent today going over the latest draft of "Byron in Hell". I righted a few things, inserted the descriptiojn of an SFX that I saw in my mind and that Kevin Lee Allen kindly explained was likely do-able by combining different elements of stagecraft and design.

Tonight, it's band practice until 10 pm. Then I have a late night session with Chaz, my all things technical genius, putting together elements of presentations for "Cafe Lysistrata" and "River Tales".

Tomorrow I get up and do something fairly similar.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Secret Warhol Rituals


It was 1995 and I directed this production. Could not get a reviewer there for the life of me. I felt like someone's country cousin once we opened. However, the process was great. I was allowed to take the entire cast into Andy's art and curio filled house on Lexington Ave overnight as part of the preparation. The only theater org to send a rep was one of the publishers, and they dismissed the play as "too downtown". Oh well. Maybe it should be a musical? Hmmm.

Laura Fay Lewis lent me her photos for these scans. That's her in all these pix. That's me in the center of the cast photo, with the mustache. I was forced to step into the role 5 days before we opened when a well-known acting teacher developed stomach problems -- no guts.

Actually he was sexually harassing the ingenue, and as director of the show, it fell to me to warn him off. He quit when I spoke to him about it. Turned out he had two sexual harassment lawsuits against him at the time from his acting students.

Everyone wore a Campbell Soup Can hat during the performances.

Friday, January 8, 2010




Rainbow Geffner in a playwright-made prototype of the Universal Hat, after the reading of Cafe Lysistrata.
(photo by Mike Anton)

Thursday, January 7, 2010

A Music Day

Today turned into a music day. Usually, in February, I put in 6 - 8 hour days playing all month long, working on technique, writing and/or learning new tunes -- taking it up a level. Maybe it was the break in the cold snap that made today like I had to play. Without even thinking about it, right after my toast and coffee, I went into my music studio and started playing tunes out of my Dixieland banjo fake book.

Next thing I knew it was 1 pm and I had a quick bite, started playing some more. It was like a hunger to keep going. JJ Deluxe showed up at about 2:30 with a couple new instruments he wanted me to look at. Then we took a ride out to the local luthier's shop. JJ was picking up a Gibson tenor guitar he'd had set up with new tuners.

I brought along my Gibson tenor uke to get an estimate on fixing a back crack I've been meaning to have repaired for about 4 years. It was a lot less than I expected, and he said he could have it back to me by mid-week next week. (I'll believe that when I see it.) Anyway, I left it, after we hung out for an hour while I tried out guitars. On the way back I came up with a cool hook for a new lyric.

I got home, dashed off a cover letter and raced to the post office to send off a script and CD to Ken Davenport's office. Then I took the wife and daughter to my favorite biker/hillbilly bar for dinner at a table next to their woodstove. My neighbor called just as I sat down to write this, asking if I want to go to a jam at the Deerhead Inn. I asked if he could wait 20 minutes and it's up.

Peace out.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A Good Day

So, today the dean of theatrical blogging blogged about me. Thanks, Scott!

I also finished a 5,000 word short story about a playwright who is losing her mind. It needs some polishing, and to have been written 30 years ago when there were a lot more places to get such things published.

That's an okay day. At times it even felt like a great day.

Peace out.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

A link a day

Okay. So, this evening when I was planniong to write a new blog post I got caught up in a discussion with Scott Walters on Dennis Baker's blog, over a comment I made on Dec 31.

You can read it here.

Or not.

Monday, January 4, 2010

THE JOE PAPP BOOK

“FREE for ALL – Joe Papp, The Public, and the Greatest Theater Story Ever Told” by Kenneth Turan & Joseph Papp

First off, let me say you save almost 15 bucks from the cover price buying this book at Amazon (and free shipping to boot). No kickbacks or anything, just stating the facts.

The NY Times covered the history of this book. I don’t know how much Kenneth Turan “rewrote” (read “edited”) it since Joe said it would never be published; probably quite a bit to get Gail Merrifield Papp’s permission to finally go ahead. Whatever he did, I’m grateful that this book exists. It was my escape from Christmas morning onward, and that’s the least of it.

The book is an oral history and the best of that genre I’ve ever read. It might not be a page turner for everyone but it certainly was for me. Perhaps that’s due to my knowing several of the cast of characters to varying degrees. Perhaps it’s due to the admiration for Joe Papp that I had – even though he never produced one of my plays. (He did send a handsome check for the production when I was doing “Monster Time”.) Most likely it’s because this book chronicles the end of an era. It’s about Joe Papp, and he was an era unto himself. The Papp era was the last time an institutional theater in America was run by a dyed in the wool democratic socialist. It was also the last time institutional theater in America concerned itself with genuine change, for everyone – change that wasn’t grounded in pie in the sky, brain deadening, positive thinking or Washington politics.

It was amazing to me to read this book and realize how far astray “the theater” has gone since Joe Papp was around. If you don’t agree with that statement, please explain how an MBA is the “artistic director” of the Roundabout – a greed machine with only occasional bursts of art that happen in spite of safe choices made to keep their subscribers and moneyed patrons happy, feathers unruffled. Joe Papp was all about ruffling feathers.

Upon reflection provoked by reading this unforgettable book, I’ve come to the conclusion that Papp’s greatest gift to New York was the free Shakespeare in the park; and his gift to the world was his discovery of some of the finest of our actors. Make no mistake, Papp also gave rise to some important playwrights. When it came to new plays, as this book reveals, he was all about the process – as he defined it. However, I wonder if some of the playwrights who came out of this process would have gone anywhere – would have been recognized as playwrights at all – if they hadn’t connected with Joe on a visceral level.

But maybe that’s sour grapes on my part. One thing is certain, though: the Public, under Papp, was a vital place where the art of theater was preeminent. Money was a necessary evil. Imagine a producer today, let alone the greatest producer of the time, saying “I don’t want anyone to ever be able to say I did this for money.”

The historic context of Joe Papp is covered in this oral history to a good degree. However, his last years were the Reagan-Bush era. Money became society’s sole yardstick. America became a sick place weakened by greed and Wall Street and corporate fancy pants executives being held up by the NY Times and the rest of the MSM as exemplars of human behavior – while they ground the country down in search of ever greater profits and stock prices.

For a few, too-short hours over the holidaze, I was able to recall a better time. It was a time when theater was about art, and change, and challenge, as much as it was about entertainment. It was a time before universities across this country chose to cheat families of tens of thousands of dollars by promising young people a “theater education” that would give them a “career” – the great Ponzi scheme of stoking unrealistic dreams, taking tuition money without so much as an audition. It was a time before institutional theaters thought to pay their administrators well while extracting a pound of flesh from playwrights, by way of a demand for everlasting percentages of earnings. It was a time when American theater was exciting and vibrant and seething with ideas. It was a time when a truly great impresario lived and breathed for the theater. It was the time of Joe Papp.

Read this book!