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by John Del Signore
Don’t you hate it when someone’s cell phone goes off in the middle of a performance? And they actually answer it? Or they’re sitting right next to you texting away, fingers flying, cell phone screen glowing? Wouldn’t you love to just grab it from their hand and hurl it away, across the auditorium?
Last night, someone did.
We can’t count the number of times we’ve wanted to enact vengeance on some inconsiderate audience member whose cell phone goes off during a performance. But, like most people, we just bottle that fury up deep down inside and take it out on the break room vending machine later. Not Kevin Williamson. Last night the National Review writer was in attendance at the marvelous new musical Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 when one theatergoer’s incessant cell phone use finally drove him over the edge… into vigilantism.
The stellar production—a swinging cabaret-type musical adaptation loosely adapted from Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace—takes place inside a luxuriant carnival tent nestled next to the Standard High Line. The audience is closely clustered at small tables throughout the room, and while there is food and beverage service before the show and during intermission, the performance itself takes place with zero table service interruptions, and the atmosphere is as quiet and attentive as any other conventional stage play. At least it’s supposed to be.
Although each table is explicitly told that photography and cell phone use is strictly prohibited during the performance, the people seated around Williamson were, he says, unbearable. “They were carrying on a steady conversation throughout entire show,” Williamson, who also writes a theater column for New Criterion, tells us. “They had been quite loud and obnoxious the entire time. There were two groups, one to the left and one to the right who were being loud and disruptive.”
During intermission, Williamson’s date complained to the theater’s management, but he says he didn’t personally witness the theater managers admonish the disruptive audience members. And once the performance resumed, the woman sitting to Williamson’s right on his bench would not, he says, stop using her cell phone. “It looked like she was Googling or something,” Williamson tells us. “So I leaned over and told her it was distracting and told her to put it away. She responded, ‘So don’t look.’ ”
Blood boiling, Williamson says he then asked her, sarcastically, “whether there had been a special exemption for her about not using her phone during the play. She told me to mind my own business, and so I took the phone out of her hands. I meant to throw it out the side door, but it hit some curtains instead. I guess my aim’s not as good as it should be.” Asked if the phone was damaged, Williamson says, “It had to be; I threw it a pretty good distance.”
According to Williamson, the woman then slapped him in the face and, after failing to find her phone, stormed out. Soon the show’s security director asked to “have a word” with Williamson, and they stepped out into the lobby. “I told him I would be happy to leave,” Williamson recalls. “They tried to keep me there. He said the lady was talking about filing charges. So I waited around for a bit, but it seemed to be taking a while. He did try to physically keep me in, and was standing in the door blocking me, telling me I couldn’t leave. I inquired as to whether he was a police officer and I was under arrest, and since I wasn’t, I left.”
A publicist for the production did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But if the cell phone user decides to press charges, Williamson says he’s willing to face her in court. “I doubt that will happen, but if it does, that’ll be fun. If I have to spend a night in jail, I’ll spend a night in jail. I don’t want to suggest I’m Henry David Thoreau protesting the Mexican-American War, but I’ll do a day in jail if I have to.”
Kevin Williamson, you are indeed our Thoreau. And if you need help raising bail money, we’ll totally start a Kickstarter for you, just like Emerson did.
John Del Signore writes for The Gothamist
by Colin Dabkowski
Saunders conjured 10 imaginary readers, and assumed for the sake of argument that three or four of them were already hooked on his work. Two of them, he reasoned, were lost causes that would never come around to it.
But, he continued, “If there’s something in my work that’s making numbers five, six and seven turn off to it, I’d like to figure out what that is. I can’t change who I am and what I do, but maybe there’s a way to reach those good and dedicated readers that the first few books might not have appealed to. I’d like to make a basket big enough that it included them.”
Saunders, a thoughtful and gifted fiction writer, has yet to be disabused of his populist notions about literature. Thankfully for literature.
His idea – that an artist is never finished building an audience, never through striving to extend his reach to include a slightly bigger swath of humanity with each new effort – ought to be a lesson for every curator, artistic director or film festival programmer. For those struggling to strike a balance between publicly supplied revenue and artistic quality, Saunders’ words are a reminder to send out more invitations.
Saunders’ thought experiment isn’t good blanket advice for artists, who should be free to create work without even thinking about an audience if they so desire. But it’s great advice for those of us charged with building pathways to that art or uncovering its meaning.
Saunders’ idea – to try harder – sounds remarkably simple, and it is. But its repetition is necessary in a cultural landscape densely populated by those who hold the opposing view. Take, for instance, a blurb in a recent issue of the New Yorker by dance critic Joan Acocella of a Philadelphia Art Museum exhibition about Marcel Duchamp and his American followers.
“Duchamp’s nude descended a staircase a hundred years ago. [John] Cage sat down and didn’t play ‘4’33’ sixty years ago. [Merce] Cunningham stuck his foot into [Jasper] John’s ‘Numbers’ fifty years ago,” she wrote, ticking off some of the landmark moments in modernist art, music and dance of the 20th century. “Most of the public is never going to like such things. Most of the public doesn’t like modernism. Let it be.”
The idea of giving up, of allowing the audience for Duchamp or any other living or dead artist to remain a tiny, circumscribed elite is antithetical not only to the goal of public museums and of criticism, but to the work of many of those artists. And yet it persists, born of a notion of artistic elitism rooted in a distant era.
The mention of concerted audience-building is met with cynicism or viewed wrongly as a de facto assault on artistic quality.
But we can never merely “let it be.” We must, as Saunders’ so wisely suggested, cast an ever-wider net.
Colin Dabkowski writes for the Buffalo News
by Rachel Fain
Los Angeles is peppered with small theater companies performing in intimate spaces. They are tiny nonprofits, operating on a shoestring and dependent on dedicated volunteers. Many are nomadic, renting space as they need it. These Los Angeles theater companies are, perhaps, the true pioneers of the pop-up movement now popular with restaurants and retail shops.
Others have found permanent homes, shoehorned into storefronts and carved out of warehouses or similar not-quite-traditional spaces. A few have shiny, new theaters built by the largesse of a few generous and stalwart donors.
None of these companies is rich. They operate under the 99-Seat Plan agreement withActors’ Equity, the theater actors’ union. This limits their costs, but also caps the audience at 99 per performance. It can be very difficult to pay a crew, let alone turn a profit, when your income is so limited. And many of these 99-Seat Plan theaters have even fewer than 99 seats, making filling those seats for every performance very important. The people who run the box offices of these intimate theaters have jobs that look very different from their counterparts at larger venues.
The Fountain Theatre has occupied its home, on Fountain Avenue near Normandie, since 1990. James Bennett has managed the box office for about three years, while finishing a degree in communications. He inherited the position from a high school friend who held the job before him. He is one of four full-time employees at the Fountain—plus two part-timers.
The fact that the Fountain employs a part-time parking attendant speaks to its focus on “superlative service,” Bennett says. As the only box office staffer, Bennett knows his patrons “by name, by voice, by face.” He takes great pride in not only being able to recognize them in person or on the phone, but also knowing where they like to sit—yes, unlike most intimate houses, this theater has assigned seating. He alone processes all ticket orders from the phone and online, assigns seats, and prints out the tickets each day. It may be apocryphal, but the story goes that the theater started assigning seats after two patrons got into a fistfight over front row center—and the theater has only six seats in front row center.
Assigning seats clears up problems in the theater, but creates other challenges. “Sometimes people have specific needs that overlap with other people that have the same specific needs,” says Bennett, “and I am of the opinion that nobody is more important than anybody else, ever, so sometimes I have to give someone something that they don’t exactly know they want, yet.”
Bennett finds the front row too close anyway, and when his mother or girlfriend comes to the theater, he puts her in C20 or A25. He also recommends a couple of specific pairs of seats in the third row, because they face an aisle and have ample legroom. He tries to seat his tallest subscribers in these locations. “The Fountain is an intimate theater and we try to convey that experience through all levels of service,” Bennett explains.
Rachel Fain writes for LA Stage Times
by Ben Brantley
Something rare and wonderful happened at the opening night of the Encores! concert production of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” at City Center last week. At the end of the show, when the performers took their bows, the audience remained seated.
Let me hasten to add there was no doubt that this audience had mightily enjoyed what it had just seen. We had all beat our hands raw with clapping through a succession of showstoppers, including a tap sequence that would have made you swear the ghosts of the Nicholas Brothers had possessed its performers; an athletic series of variations on the Charleston; and a knockout rendition of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” that immortal anthem to non-liquid assets.
That number was performed by Megan Hilty, who as the gold-digging Lorelei Lee gave an original, audacious comic performance that, for the moment, wiped out memories of Carol Channing and Marilyn Monroe, her indelible predecessors in the role. It felt like one of those fabled performances (much cherished by theatergoers) that in a single, golden night thrust its leading lady into the firmament of musical stage stardom.
And at the final curtain, we stayed in our seats.
We whooped, we roared, we wolf-whistled. Our applause might well have sent tremors all the way to Battery Park. But no one, as far as I could tell, was standing up. “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” had been accorded the five-star tribute of a sitting ovation.
I would like to make the case, officially and urgently, for the return of the sitting ovation. Because we really have reached the point where a standing ovation doesn’t mean a thing. Pretty much every show you attend on Broadway these days ends with people jumping to their feet and beating their flippers together like captive sea lions whose zookeeper has arrived with a bucket of fish. This is true even for doomed stinkers that find the casts taking their curtain calls with the pale, hopeless mien of patients who have just received a terminal diagnosis.
The s.o. (if I may so refer to a phenomenon that no longer warrants the respect of its full name) has become a reflexive social gesture, like shaking hands with the host at the end of a party.
Or, to put in cruder and more extreme terms, it’s like having sex with someone on the first date, whether you like the person or not, because you think it’s expected of you.
The reasons for the ubiquity of the promiscuous s.o. have been widely pondered by cultural pundits. One theory has it that it’s because habitual theatergoers have become a relative rarity. Many of the people who attend big Broadway shows are tourists whose itinerary includes, along with visits to the Statue of Liberty and the Hard Rock Café, a performance of “Wicked” or “Jersey Boys.”
For such audience members, standing up to applaud at the end has become of the Official Broadway Experience. And of course, if you’ve spent several hundred dollars for that pair of orchestra seats, an s.o. seems to help confirm that the money wasn’t wasted.
I also have a suspicion that for some people, standing up immediately at the end of the show is simply a physical relief after an hour or more of immobility. Besides, the sooner you’re on your feet, the greater your odds are for beating the crowd to the exits. And, oh yes, let’s not discount the domino effect of an s.o.: Once the person in front of you is standing, you too must stand if you want to see what’s on stage.
In London, where theater remains a larger and more natural part of the general cultural conversation, the s.o. is less epidemic. True, I have felt its sweaty presence at some of the bigger West End musicals (often imported from Broadway, so perhaps they arrived carrying the virus). But I can’t remember the last time I witnessed an s.o. at the National Theater, where the level of professional quality is consistently and rewardingly high.
Admittedly, there are some shows that deserve an s.o., which I don’t necessarily mean as a compliment. “Newsies the Musical,” in which the characters keep dancing and cartwheeling and jumping all over the place, seems so pathetically eager for an s.o. that to deny it one would be like forbidding an adorable puppy its chew toy. Similarly, Liza Minnelli – whenever and wherever she appears – must receive an s.o. It’s part of the unwritten but unbreakable contract between her and her audience (as it was with her mother, Judy Garland).
And then there are – or once were, the old ones tell us — the meaningful s.o.’s. These were not instantaneous or knee-jerk. Legend has it that on the opening night of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” the audience was so moved by what it had witnessed that it sat in sat in shocked silence, collecting itself and drying its tears, before the applause broke out.
I think that people seeing Mike Nichols’s current revival of that play may well be similarly moved by the tragedy of Willy Loman, its title character. But at the performance I attended, they were on their feet in a mega-second, as if electrodes had been applied to their legs.
So I can’t tell you how heartened I was, at the end of a packed spring theater season, to be part of that seated ovation at “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” I should point out that among audiences for musicals, those who attend the Encores! productions are probably the most sophisticated and discriminating in town. Many of them know the history, in detail, of the show they’re seeing and the resumes of those appearing in it.
But can’t we all, please, strive to be a little more like them? I’m not asking for the wholesale abolition of the s.o. That would be a sadly quixotic demand. I’m just asking you, my comrades in urban theatergoing, to think before you stand, if you must stand at all. And to remember, in an age in which the s.o. is as common in a Broadway theater as an endless line for the ladies room at intermission, that staying seated has become the exceptional tribute.
What’s your diagnosis for s.o. fever? Do you have any prescriptions for curtailing it? Or do you feel it even needs to be addressed?
Ben Brantley writes for The New York Times
by Lauren Gunderson
It appears that in many major theaters across the country, men’s roles out number women’s by half. One out of every three roles go to women. (An informal survey of 10 theatrical seasons from across the country that I did put women in only 35% of the total roles). This means that men’s stories out number women’s by the same amount.
Those of us noticing this could be considered big old whiners if it weren’t for some solid business-y sounding facts:
In any other market the majority of consumers would significantly define the product or experience. Why not theater?
I will disclaim right away that this is not about women playwrights, though plays by women represent less than 20% of the works on and off-Broadway and in regional theaters (and also in the UK, as The Guardian illuminates). I consider August: Osage County and In The Red And Brown Water plays about women though men wrote both.
This is about modern theater telling its predominantly female audiences that the human experience deserving of dramatic imagination is still the male one. In TV, this might be a top-down insistence. In politics or business we see it all the time. But in theater?
Sean Daniels, Artist-At-Large/Director of Artistic Engagement at Geva Theater, says:
“In addition to it being inconceivable in 2012 to not program any female playwrights (or really any year past 1913), it’s also just bad business. Just from a business model, look at Menopause: The Musical. Though we may take it to task for not hitting all of Aristotle’s Six Elements, it’s a show that looked at who the main people buying tickets were, and allowed them to see themselves on stage — thus making millions and not only preaching and loving the choir, but getting tons of new patrons into the theater.”
But what would it be like if this were more common? What if American theater equally reflected and projected its own audience (at least 60% women) and their audience’s wallets (which are in their purses) in their season choices?
Theaters might make more money. A friend and artistic leader at a major regional theater remarked on the marked success of Molly Smith Metzler’s plays Elemeno Pea, a play about sisters. Or what about Tracy Letts runaway hit August: Osage County (a play with incredible parts for women including three sisters), or Lynn Nottage’s Ruined, or Margaret Edson’s Wit, or John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt or Steve Yockey’s Bellwether (with seven parts for women)?
We wouldn’t lose our classics. Shakespeare’s plays are notoriously under-femmed, but not all of them are. Give me Much Ado About Nothing or Twelfth Night or wacky Midsummer. Or re-imagine the Bard for us. I saw a truly fresh and powerful production of Julius Caesar at Oregon Shakespeare Festival last year in which Caesar was unapologetically played by a woman (it might have been the best show I saw all year, including my own). I didn’t think “Oh look at that woman playing a man’s part.” I thought, “Oh my god she’s channeling Benazir Bhutto.”
Ibsen also gave us stunning women’s stories. So did Shaw, Chekov, Williams, Miller. And don’t forget the female playwrights of those same eras. Complex parts for more than one token women are there for the planning.
We might inspire new classics. I’m not telling playwrights what to write.Wait. Hell yes I am. And I’m hoping they get commissions to do so. Please write those complex and shocking and profound parts for our great female actors. Lead roles, supporting roles, lots of roles. Imagine writing for Stockard Channing or Viola Davis or Amy Morton or Meryl Streep. How about putting all of them in the same play. Oh my god, I just died a little thinking about it.
However, the now famous study by social scientist Emily Glassberg Sands about gender bias in theater says that though female playwrights write more roles for women, they are aware that plays with female protagonists aren’t as likely to be produced as plays with male protagonists. “One way women have compensated for writing female stories is to write fewer [female] roles, which make their plays accessible to more theaters,” the study finds.
So American theater might need a theatrical version of the The Bechdel Test for movies which names the following three criteria: (1) it has to have at least two women in it, who (2) who talk to each other, about (3) something besides a man.
There are bright spots however. Chloe Bronzan and Robert Parsons of Symmetry Theater in San Francisco have already put into practice their own version of the Bechdel Test. They built their company around the precepts: “We will never produce a play with more male than female characters,” they said, “We will never have more male than female union actors on our stage and we will produce plays that tell stories which include full, fleshed out and complex women that serve as propellants to the human story being told.”
We won’t lose our audiences, but we might just gain new ones. Another Artistic Director colleague noted that if theater companies counted Menopause: The Musical as part of their actual season (as opposed to the touring or rental production it usually is) it would be the best-selling show in their histories. Why? Women go to the theater and they bring their friends if they have shows that reflect their experiences. A dear friend connected with August: Osage County‘s fierce females so much that she flew from Atlanta to New York three times just to see it as many times on Broadway.
As Hanna Rosen has pointed out in her articles and lectures — there is a definitive rise in women as breadwinners and moneymakers in this country. I live in the Bay Area and am delightfully surrounded by brilliant women running major intuitions, businesses, and government orgs. Smart institutions will notice this and deliver. Women are already your majority, and women share experiences with other women, so it shouldn’t be hard to bring new women into the theater patronizing community.
Sean Daniels again:
“I think there’s a hidden thinking in here that men won’t watch women centric plays, but women will watch men centric plays — which really just sells everyone in that equation short. There are men watching The Hunger Games, but eventually there won’t be ladies watching dude filled plays and seasons.”
We might help the world. Women are always underrepresented in positions of money, power, and personal safety. This comes, as most inherent biases do, from a lack of understanding and empathy. If we see more stories of women on stages across the country and the world we can change that.
Maybe what we really dream of is the day when plays by and about women would stop being “women’s plays” and start being — oh, y’know — really successful, moneymaking, audience-supported, universal, true, bold, smart plays. Everyone wants those plays, no matter what your gender.
Theater audiences want the designers of theatrical seasons to pay attention to the women onstage. Count them (as Valerie Week is doing in The Bay). The women in your audiences will.
Joy Meads of Center Theater Group in LA says:
“It’s frustrating that we have to have this conversation in 2012. But I’ve experienced this in my conversations about plays with colleagues across the country. Colleagues dismissing a play because its female protagonist was ‘unlikable.’ Producers should recognize that ‘we just choose the best plays’ is no longer an adequate defense: no one believes that there’s a shadowy cabal of avowed misogynists determined to keep women offstage. We need to be brave and rigorous in examining the shadowy, unconscious ways gender bias influences our decision making.”
Theater should be in the complex and necessary business of illuminating the human condition, of inspiring empathy and community, of provoking understanding, of entertaining and surprising and exposing and making beautiful the complete world of our time.
You know what helps that?
Telling everyone’s stories.
Lauren Gunderson is an award-winning playwright, screenwriter, and short story author living in The Bay Area. She received her MFA in Dramatic Writing at NYU Tisch, her BA from Emory University, is an NYU a Reynolds Fellow in Social Entrepreneurship. Her work has received national praise and awards. She writes for The Huffington Post.