Saturday, May 30, 2009

Oy gevalt!

Can we just acknowledge how incredibly consistent Republicans are? To the point of inadvertent comedy, even? This is the party that lobbied for years to destroy the National Endowment for the Arts (and which is probably just biding its time before bringing that up again), and now its noisome reps see fit to criticize the Obamas for … guess what? Supporting the arts.

Specifically, in this case, for going to the theater. Barack and Michelle go to Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, the masterpiece of one of America’s most celebrated playwrights and chroniclers of the African-American experience, and apparently that’s a slap in the face to everybody who’s out of work.

Lordy. This from the people whose erstwhile darling boy spent more time on vacation (by far) than any previous president.

All right. End of jeremiad. Thank you, Gordon Romei, for alerting me to this new divertissement. The comedy continues…

Thursday, May 28, 2009

C'est vrai!

Love and all good things to the mentally ambidextrous Jordan Seavey for this photo, which kind of sort of made my day today.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Thank you, Stanley Kauffmann

Looking back, I can’t believe my good luck with writing mentors. Years ago, when I landed in the dramaturgy program at the Yale School of Drama, I participated in a three-year hazing known as Criticism Workshop. Every week of the program, we convened to discuss the critical writing of one hapless student. Her or his work would be dissected and deconstructed mercilessly. For some, the experience was so brutal that they eventually quit writing, either because the process had wrung all the fun out of critical thinking for them or just because they became convinced they weren’t that good. For the battle-scarred survivors, however, we came away divested of a lot of bad habits and with a renewed sense of what we could accomplish with writing.

But I was saying. Over the course of the workshops, my professors included Stanley Kauffmann, Richard Gilman and Gordon Rogoff – can you imagine that? Holding onto my arrogance about my presumed talents was impossible while under the scrutiny of these titans.

Alas, Dick Gilman is no longer with us. But Gordon’s going strong, and STANLEY – Stanley is celebrating 50 years of service to The New Republic. (Click here for a video in which Stanley credits the mafia with getting into criticism.)

Roger Ebert has said of Stanley:

My shining hero remains Stanley Kauffmann of The New Republic, as incisive and penetrating as ever at 92. I don't give him points for his age, which anyone can attain simply by living long enough, but for his criticism. Study any review and try to find a wrong or unnecessary word.

Not only is Stanley Kauffmann a consummate writer, he’s also a tireless one. We can all only hope that our critical faculties and our zeal for contemporary culture are so vigorous at age 92.

A shout out to my colleague Jan Breslauer for alerting me to Stanley’s anniversary. And an eternal debt of thanks for Mr. Kauffmann himself, whose literary trial by fire and whose insights into theater and film made better writers and thinkers of countless theater folk.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Northwest novelists are awesome

Why not admit it. While I’ll always love script-reading (how can I not, with new works by Naomi Iizuka, Lynn Nottage and Will Eno coming down the pike), it’s been grand to have the leisure, of late, to read, well….other things. Can you blame me? I figured out that my reading for PCS alone averaged out to more than one script a day.

So sue me if lately I’ve given myself up to an orgy of prose works by Pacific Northwest authors, including re-reading Palahniuk, Spanbauer and Kesey.

Among the books new to me is Debra Gwartney’s outstanding memoir, Live Through This, which chronicles the harrowing account of her family’s near-dissolution, following a distressing divorce and the a transplant from the Southwest to the Pacific Northwest.

Ms. Gwartney has four daughters, and the two elder ones, while still in their early teens, drifted into a rebellious homeless. Just think of that; what would you do if your children forsook the comforts of home for a life on the streets? Consider all that could entail. And shudder.

If I didn’t know from the start that the book had a happy ending (albeit a qualified one), I don’t think I could have continued reading. Of course, the author’s lucid, unflinching prose helped. She is self-deprecating without being self-flagellating; her writing has a confidential tone, as though she’s speaking to a friend she knows is strong enough to hear her out without coddling her or criticizing her. And even though the author posits her story in her own clear voice, you still feel that this could be your own family history, if not for the slightest adjustments of circumstances.

Now a different kind of confession – my own. I bought Molly Gloss’s latest novel, The Hearts of Horses, nearly a year ago. In spite of the author’s well-deserved reputation for fine writing, I kept putting off reading this particular book. Partly it was the title, and partly it was the jacket blurb, which mentions a young lady winning the respect of a rural community through her devotion to horses.

Let’s just say I doubted I fit the novel’s intended demographic.

I’m glad I got over myself, because I feel enriched and fortunate that I got to know the community this story delineates. This is the sort of novel where you turn the last page with a poignant regret, being unwilling to give up your kinships with the vivid citizens of this Eastern Oregon outpost. Some of these people are remarkable, but most of them are ordinary; it’s the author’s keen eye for the telling detail that gradually renders them into people you feel you’ve met.

Probably you’ve heard of the best-selling novel The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Seattle writer Garth Stein, which is a dog’s story told by…..the dog himself. Yes. You recoil, I know. But actually a number of notable novelists have penned stories with dogs as their narrators – Virginia Woolf, for one (Freshwater), and of course Jack London (The Call of the Wild, White Fang). But still, let’s acknowledge it, the first-person dog yarn is an unpromising premise, replete with potential for twee sentiment.

Stein, however, mostly gets away with this because in his novel, Enzo the dog is the most fully fleshed-out character of the story. Whereas I expected a canine to serve as a mere foil for the humans of the story, Enzo surprised me by being the character I cared about most. Probably this is because while events happen to the people in his life (and happen to them aplenty), Enzo is the one who processes those events, ultimately becoming a more complex individual (yes, individual) than anyone else in the book.

For reasons I can’t go into without blunting the story’s impact, it turns out this dog’s life is about more than his humans’ problems, and also about more than racing and rain. Or that’s how I read into it, anyway. As humans, we’re natural born anthropomorphists; we can’t help but project our own feelings onto other beings, from the actual (e.g., our pets) to the fabulous (constellations, deities, vampires). Perhaps this is especially true of dogs, whose brief life spans show us ourselves in miniature; we can’t help but invest them with our own foibles – and aspirations.

In breve: resist this story as best you can, but you’re likely to fall under its spell just as I did.

By the way, I published somewhat different versions of these reviews on Buzzaroonie, a book review site I’ve been enjoying. Check it out if you’re a fellow bibliomaniac.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Portlandia’s wild weekends

Bad Blogger, badbadblogger, badbadbrain, as The Ramones used to sing. I’ve been neglecting all my blogglings, and I’m probably about to keep doing that, because my sainted mother and her equally sainted sister are about to arrive. For a week. So forgive me my neglect. It is benign.

As for my excuse prior to my guests’ advent…let’s just say that against all expectations, (given this economy), SuperScript is actually attracting clients! I know, who knew!

So how about I just quickly list a few blogworthy happenings before I return to my deadline-driven projects? Let’s see…

Friday the 8th, Fabuloso opened at Third Rail Rep – a fabulous night indeed, with an all-celeb audience that included Sharonlee McClean, Ross McKeen (was Robin there too, sitting in the money seats?), Rose Riordan, Marty Hughley, Craig Wright, Ebbe Roe Smith, Barry Johnson, Michael Weaver and many more. But what of the play, you ax? The title says it all. A great night of wild theater.

That same evening, Tracy Letts’ new adaptation of The Three Sisters opened over at Artists Rep; CoHo Productions opened The Uneasy Chair, directed by the ultra-urbane Shelly Lipkin; Into the Woods opened at Lakewood, featuring the always awesome Isaac Lamb; and over at Miracle Theatre, an early Luis Valdez play, The Shrunken Head of Pancho Villa, debuted as well! Add those to the ambitious and audacious plays already running, including Gary Winter’s Cooler at defunkt and Freakshow (an early Carson Kreitzer play) at Theatre Vertigo, and you got yourself an embarrassment of riches.

The following afternoon, I got to preside over a Playwrights’ Roundtable that included the aforementioned Craig Wright and Ebbe Roe Smith as well as the author of Fabuloso, John Kolvenbach. Fortunately for me, Barry Johnson has covered the occasion so well that I don’t have to (c/o the link above), so let’s jump to this week, which was partly devoted to Sojourn.

How’s this for differnt, as Tom Spanbauer would say: Portland State University hosted a conference this week entitled Understanding Sustainability: Perspectives from the Humanities. Which hired Sojourn to create an event called “Re-Casting Expertise: A Game of Public Inquiry.” In essence, we asked two experts to start off four different conversations, each prompted by a question related to the Conference. E.g.: “What do we want to sustain and why?” As a facilitator, my job was to encourage people who wanted to get in on the conversation to replace one of the experts and continue talking. Listeners could also disrupt the conversation by tossing in a question card or an “opposing view” card.

The big question mark for us as facilitators was: will people play along, or will they sit there like docile parochial school students? No problems! Conferencees were engaged and razor sharp and dauntless about leaping into the fray. The event turned out to be a rollicking time, as was working the incredibly giving Sojourners.

And now, you ax? & tu?

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Rocco to head the NEA?

Good news for theater, potentially: President Obama just tapped larger-than-life Broadway producer Rocco Landesman to head the NEA. It’s an audacious choice, one that still has to be confirmed by Congress, but I hope the nomination prevails. Rocco is no diplomat, but he’d blow the dust of a moribund organization that has contented itself in recent years with a policy equivalent of art appreciation.

Considering that RL is a major mover in an industry not always known for its artistic integrity, I’m impressed that he’s often made news by running counter to what you’d expect of a producer. My favorite controversy of recent years in his caustic observation that non-profit theaters have imperiled their missions by drifting into for-profit practices. Hello! THANK YOU!

Of course if the nomination sticks, Mr. Landesman will champion all the arts, not just theater. But in a nation where the anti-theatrical prejudice exists as powerfully as if this were ancient Rome, it can’t hurt to have someone at the helm who believes in the power of live theater to inspire and educate and transform. Oh, yes, and to entertain.

Quip of the day, regarding the nomination, comes from Tony Kushner: “It’s potentially the best news the arts community in the United States has had since the birth of Walt Whitman.”

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Why adopting a playwright is important

Not long ago, playwright Fin Kennedy brought a cool new scheme to my attention: the Adopt a Playwright Award, in which contributors can pool their resources to make sure at least one unsung new voice gets produced every year.

What I love about this concept is that it completely bypasses the galumphing machinery of the play selection process that is more standard – you know, the one in which a play is test-marketed as though it were a new brand of snack food.

Fin elaborated on the strengths of the program yesterday on the Guardian’s TheatreBlog – thank you, Mme. Kollodi, for leading me to this.

Read all about it, and let’s talk about what it would take to launch this here.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Something wickedly funny this way comes

Every time a Third Rail Rep opens a show in Portland, it’s an eagerly anticipated event. And this Friday the company opens its final show of the season: Fabuloso, by John Kolvenbach. I’m grateful to the Rep for introducing John to the community; he’s still something of a secret in the Pacific Northwest, and it’s high time that changed.

But wait, there’s more. On Saturday, May 9 at 5pm in the World Trade Center's theater, Third Rail gathers a gaggle of prominent playwrights whose work it has produced: John Kolvenbach himself, of course; Portland writer Ebbe Roe Smith, whose play Number Three got its world premiere at the Rep; and Craig Wright (Recent Tragic Events, The Pavilion, Grace), whose Third Rail commission premieres next season.

And oh yes, guess who’s moderating. ME, that’s who. Together we’ll spend an hour or so looking into these writers’ processes, exploring what compels them to write for the stage, and where they think theater is headed. Bring your own questions, too – I’d love to see a good turnout from Portland’s burgeoning playwriting scene in particular. As company member John Steinkamp put it, “With this group's combined experience in American theater, television and film, there will be lots to hear and much to debate afterward.”

The occasion is FREE, of course, but as long as you’re there, plan on grabbing a ticket for the play that evening. You’ll be glad you did. It’s exactly the kind of thing that gives live theater a good name.

Saturday, May 2, 2009


The great, great theater thinker and practitioner, social activist, and humanitarian Augusto Boal has died. I feel like a great light has gone out of the world. But I also know his legacy will live and continue to affect people profoundly the world over.

The History of Semiotics, Part 4