Friday, July 30, 2010

Legit Lit III

According to Playbill, Derek Jacobi is set to star in an upcoming production of King Lear at London’s Donmar Warehouse, before touring the U.K. This, of course, would be quite something to witness. In fact, the production is due to be broadcast in more than 22 countries thanks to the National Theatre’s NT Live project, which broadcasts live productions to various cinemas around the world.

However, of additional interest was something I noted at the end of the press release. In the words of the esteemed Donmar Warehouse, they say of the play, “One of the greatest works in western literature, King Lear explores the very nature of human existence: love and duty, power and loss, good and evil."

Now you wouldn't argue with that, would you?

Thursday, July 29, 2010

I Think She's Gonna Pull Through...

There is a lot of concern in the theatre community (on both sides of the Atlantic) on the impact these recession ravaged years may have on the immediate future of the arts. This is very understandable. Here in the U.S. the concern is more generalized in terms of people simply tightening their belts and cutting back on discretionary spending – meaning fewer tickets sold and companies of all sizes facing a drop in operating income, or even the chop. With less operating income, conventional wisdom has it that more and more theatres will turn to the safe, proven hits that are more likely to guarantee return on investment, and consequently drop new writing like a bad smell. To some degree I have already seen signs of this happening. But, as lamentable as it is, during tough times everyone has to go into survival mode, so you can’t blame the non-profits for doing what they need to do to stay afloat.

In the U.K. things are a little different. Much theatre is state subsidized, and the new “coalition” government (a combination of Conservatives and whored Liberals) is taking an axe to public spending in a way that makes Lizzie Borden look like Laura Ingalls. The scale of the cuts they are proposing (and now implementing) are truly abhorrent, and quite possibly counterproductive to a fragile yet delicately resurgent economy. But to a theatre community that relies substantially on state funding, they are being seen as a guillotine to the neck of new, exiting and original talent that is fostered and propagated under such conditions. In fact, in The Guardian, Lee Hall (writer of “Billy Elliot” and the Broadway bound “The Pitman Painters”) writes a very powerful and passionate article on the devastating consequences such cuts would engender. (A wonderful line that I have to quote from it, in speaking of the coalition government, is this one: “Do not be fooled – they are much more dangerous because they don't know what they don't know.”).

Only time will tell, of course, whether such predictions of calamity will come to pass. I myself, though, do not believe that the sky is about to fall. As ugly and regrettable as the whole situation that got us here is, the fact remains that theatre has, and always will have, a card up its sleeve that will ensure its survival: its fundamental nature. Theatre can be produced anywhere at any time with next to no resources other than a group of willing individuals offering up their time and talent to tell a story. It doesn’t even need a stage – only the concept of one. Theatre is all about the audience buying into the world being presented to them by the practitioners of it. They know it’s not “real.” They know the blood is fake. They know the wood-paneled walls are painted board. But they buy into it willingly, because they accept that that is the nature of theatre. It isn’t film or television, where reality is painfully (and expensively) recreated to achieve believability. In those industries, lack of funding is a death knell. Theatre, though, whenever it needs to, can go right back to basics and still work its magic. The experience is unique, and that is why it has survived - marginalized though it may be – the onslaught of film, television, and anything else that’s been thrown at it.

I wouldn’t expect those who have made their careers under the umbrella of government subsidized funding (we are, after all, merely talking about subsistence funding, rather than an actual living wage) to share my optimism. For them it is a lifeline that’s being withdrawn. But for the state of theatre in general, I see no atom bomb. We've lived through difficult economic times before, just as we’ve lived under previous arts-unfriendly governments. Plays will always be written, and entrepreneurial, driven people will always find ways, means, and venues to put them on. They may not make any money from it, but that was never the goal in the first place.

Was it?

(Would be nice, though)

P.S: Lyn Gardner in The Guardian yesterday wrote a very interesting piece about audiences, which I thought was perfect in light of my little paean the day before.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

To Whom We Serve

I have to confess, I do get a little tired when reading discussions on the current state of theatre, theatre funding, funding cuts, commercial versus non-profit, etc., etc., and repeatedly seeing a word bandied about like some old rag doll with its stuffing hanging out…the word in question being “audience.” For many, it seems, that word has come to describe some homogenous blob of humanity that has one face and operates completely in tandem. “The audience” wouldn’t be there for a show like that, it’s too edgy. “The audience” is tired of endless revivals and jukebox musicals. We’d like to program more new writing in our season, but “our audience” doesn’t like taking risks.

I find this all very strange, not to mention patronizing, whichever side of the fence it’s coming from. Audiences come in all shapes and sizes, with only one single trait common to all: an appreciation of the performing arts. Yes, there are those that prefer their theatre experience to veer to the lighter side; shows that have hummable tunes, humor that won’t scare the horses, or are populated with hit songs from a bygone era. Then there are those that like the excitement of seeing something new, something just now being discovered; something that might challenge them, perhaps intellectually, morally, or in its form or structure. And there are those that fall somewhere in between or straddle the divide.

Many audience members (a great number of whom certainly couldn’t be considered wealthy) are willing to throw down a ridiculous amount of money to see shows like “Wicked” or “Mama Mia!” Others (some quite moneyed) will hike to a hole-in-the-wall space in a different part of town, sitting in conditions that are often cramped and uncomfortable, all to experience something new, with no guarantee of satisfaction.

Sometimes, I believe, people in the industry get so bogged down in the business of what they’re doing that they forget who they’re actually doing it for. Economics, logistics, and demographics bury them so deeply in their own money-crunching logic that they lose sight of the human element. As Bob Dylan said, “You gotta serve somebody.” If you’re in the theatre business, you serve the “audience.” You don’t underestimate their intelligence; neither do you pander to them. You just respect them. I am the audience. You are the audience.

In the words of Noel Coward: “To an audience---shock them, amuse them, entertain them but never bore them.”


P.S: If anyone’s interested, Paul got both of his two final predictions right in the final (somewhat to my chagrin). I bow down (yes, to an octopus).

Saturday, July 10, 2010

In Praise of Paul

I had promised myself at the beginning of the World Cup that I would refrain from mentioning it here - even though I become completely and hopelessly obsessed with this greatest of all sporting events every four years - since it has nothing to do with theatre or writing (notwithstanding the theatrical antics of players who claim to have been fouled in the most brutal way, writhing in agony on the pitch for several minutes, before getting up and running around again once they realize their performance failed to convince the ref).

And I have done very well at keeping that promise…until now. Until, that is, I learned of Paul. If you haven’t heard of Paul by now, then you must not have been following the news very closely. Paul is an octopus. A psychic octopus who has proven to have extraordinary powers of prediction when it comes to international football matches. Paul lives in Germany (at the Sea Life Centre in Oberhausen to be precise), and achieved a degree of fame in that country when he successfully predicted the outcome of four out of six of Germany’s matches in the Euro 2008 tournament. Not such a big deal in itself, you might say. But then came the 2010 World Cup, where Paul has accurately predicted every one of Germany’s games, from the group stages to the knockout rounds, and has now shot to international stardom. His predictions are now televised live on many channels in many countries, and his celebrity status is off the charts. He has made two more predictions for this weekend – today’s playoff game between Germany and Uruguay, and the final tomorrow between Spain and Holland – but whether or not his final two divinations prove correct (and I’m actually hoping they’re not), he will have already become an indisputable star and forever remembered for his fascinating contributions to this historic event.

Paul, like me, was born in the South West of England (in the same seaside town that I spent all of my childhood holidays at). Paul, also like me, now calls another country home. And Paul, again like me, has an all-consuming interest in international football tournaments. It’s quite uncanny how much we have in common now that I think about it. True, he has more limbs than I do and can remain underwater for much longer periods, but on balance I think we’re more alike than dissimilar. Professionally, though, I have to go by “Andrew Biss”, whereas he, like Cher and Madonna, etc., can simply go by “Paul”.

So, Paul, thank you. Life is much more interesting with you in it. And I promise I will honor you by including you in one of my plays in the near future. Oh, and sorry for all the grilled octopus I’ve eaten in my life…I’m different now.

P.S: A big thank you to my German friend, Inga, who first brought Paul to my attention (shortly before he became an AP Newswire sensation!)

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Oh Dear!

Perhaps serving as a sort of counterpoint to The Guardian’s recent blog on whether or not plays should be considered literature, they currently have a blog discussing the topic of “Why can't novelists make it work in the theatre?” The article itself is not up to much, in my opinion, being far too generalized and dismissive in its argument; but the responses it has generated make for some interesting and very insightful reading if you happen to be so inclined. You can read it here.